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Issue #4 |

Prompt for Final Essay

For your final paper this semester, you will be assigned a poem from the American literary canon. Write a twelve-to-fifteen page essay in which you analyze the poem and explain how it relates to your life. Make sure you draw personal connections to your life while you analyze the poem. What makes this poem significant to you?

As you write your paper, go beyond the obvious conclusions and write about what you see in the poem that no other reader would.

For example, here is the poem “In a Station at the Metro” by Ezra Pound:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;

Petals on a wet, black bough.

Whenever I read this short poem, I think about the year after I graduated college and moved to Brooklyn. I had a girlfriend way out on the other side of the country, at UCLA, where I had transferred because I thought I wanted to make movies, then traded up for New York City because I realized that I wanted to make “films” instead. Her name was Dodger; her parents were zealous baseball fans and the Los Angeles Dodgers had just won the World Series in 1981, the year she was born. She spent the rest of her life making choices that were calculated to prove to friends and strangers that she wasn’t a baseball fan—getting exotic piercings and Indian tattoos, wearing thrift store sweaters, generally cultivating the image of the brooding beauty that I would fall hard for when we met in Western Civilization class sophomore year. She looked frail and perpetually tired, with dark rings around her eyes and chaotic red-black hair.

Dodger was the most honest girl I’d ever met. She was painfully, meticulously honest. It was almost as though she were mortally afraid of dishonesty, like the whole illusion of life would fall apart if she let the smallest amount of duplicity in. Early on in our relationship, she told me that I was average in nearly every way, that I would never “make it” as a filmmaker. The extraordinary thing about me was that I had “boyish enthusiasm,” she said, which most people lose when they turn cynical at sixteen. It was the thing she loved most about me, she said: my excitability.

I pretended to like the fact that she was so honest. If it made me insecure and self-conscious—did she really think of me in this way, like a hyperactive child?—then that was a small cost for what I was starting to think of as true love.

I lived in a railroad apartment in Williamsburg when it was just another stop on the L train. Most of the money I made from my job as a receptionist I spent on street food during my half-hour lunch break or on my way to the subway after work, rent that was too damned high, and phone bills calling California and talking to Dodger about minor, everyday things that somehow felt consequential.

“If I didn’t have you to talk to, Eddie,” she said, “I don’t know what I’d do.”

“What do you mean?” I said.

“I don’t know what I mean,” she said. “Like, last week you got super excited about sauerkraut. Dude, it’s just pickled cabbage.”

“No no no, you don’t understand. The sauerkraut at the Polish market in Greenpoint is a-maz-ing. It’s soft and crunchy at the same time, and the brine is so delicious, you can just drink it. It’s peppery and mustardy, and, and… you can’t get it anywhere else.”

“Don’t get me wrong. I need that kind of energy in my life. Just don’t let the city make you cynical like the rest of us.”

I looked out the window onto the street, where at that very moment a unicyclist was passing by.

“Don’t worry, baby,” I said. “This isn’t a ‘country boy goes to the city and becomes jaded by big city ways’ story.”

“Yeah, it’s a ‘country boy goes to the city and makes it big as a receptionist’ story.”

“C’mon. That hurts. It’s really an ‘aspiring filmmaker takes a decent job to pay the bills while putting his feelers out there in the industry’ story.”

Dodger could never indulge a fantasy. Her honesty compelled her. Silence was the best she could do.

“How about,” she finally said, “a ‘Southern boy meets local Angelino, they fall in love, then Southern boy moves all the way across the country, leaving the Angelino behind while he pursues his big dream in the Big Apple’ story?”

“That’s not fair. You didn’t have to take another year.”

“Should I not get my master’s degree?” she said. “Maybe I should follow you to New York, then in a few years we’ll decide we want more nature in our lives, so we’ll move to the suburbs and become commuters, then we’ll get so bored we’ll start popping out a few kids, then we’ll feel so guilty and responsible all the time we’ll forget whatever it is we wanted to do with our lives in the first place, because we are just so damned satisfied. I’ll be a stay-at-home mom because we read a book on childrearing that says stability is the most important factor in our children’s success.”

I said, “You’re jumping the gun a little bit, aren’t you?”

“’Jumping the gun’,” she said. “’Jumping the gun’? What does that even mean?”

 

On the morning commute to work, I wore my earbuds and listened to prog rock and pretended that everyone on the subway was a part of the same crescendo of feeling, like there were tendrils of positivity that reached outward from me and drew in one soul after another into this collective story of ever-increasing love and beauty. I smiled at strangers and they didn’t exactly smile back, but communicated with their eyes that they knew they were a part of this organism too. I drummed on the knees of my khakis and anticipated the first sip of generic brand coffee from the break room that was awaiting me at 201 E. Broadway Ave.

This was 2003. Y2K and 9/11 fears were still fresh, and everyone was worried now about the escalating war in Iraq. It’s true I was a receptionist, but the company I worked for was a well-funded dot-com where you could hardly tell the difference between the twenty-two-year old behind the desk and the twenty-two-year old in the corner office. Jason the mail handler was almost thirty, but he was the most rejuvenile of us all. He effortlessly delivered mail on his skateboard. He had once been a top national skateboarder, or so he told everyone.

I was fortunate, I thought, to have a view of the glass walls and doors that looked out upon the marble hallway, marred only by the backwards letters spelling out “MadStar.com.” I could greet everyone as they showed up for work in the morning, and say goodnight on their way out the door. This appealed to my social nature. I would have suffocated in the cubicle maze deeper within the office, from lack of space, and lack of human contact. This was before the “open office” model caught on, and despite their MBA talk about game-changing and disruptive technologies, MadStar’s offices looked much like offices had since the 1980s.

The day started out like any other Wednesday. Steady calls right when it hit 9am, which tapered off towards lunchtime, then a bitch session with Linda, the efficiency expert, who was also maintaining a long-distance relationship with her S.O. and spent a lot of time pining after one particular person living far, far away, despite living in a city of eight million people. I had a vending machine sandwich for lunch, which I know is the saddest possible lunch, but in retrospect was the most appropriate meal I could have eaten that day.

When I got back to my desk afterwards, I shook the mouse on the mousepad to make my orange iMac come to life. I had a habit of checking music news and reviews when things were slow, and everybody was still talking about Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief, comparing it to OK Computer and Kid A and wondering whether the era of electronic rock was officially over. Then I saw a minor news item—not even linked to from the main page—that said Elliott Smith had committed suicide.

“Holy shit,” I said, just as a couple of associates were walking in the door. “Elliott Smith is dead?”

The associates ambled past without responding.

Now I don’t know whether you kids know or care who Elliott Smith was, but just imagine your favorite musician, and then imagine that that musician is also your favorite uncle. That’s what it felt like.

This is all to explain why I began to openly weep in the office on the morning of October 22, 2003. I won’t make excuses. Deep inside me this was probably all about missing Dodger, and had nothing to do with the untimely death of the great Elliott Smith. But the immediate consequence was that Asher Eberly, the CEO himself, came out to my desk and asked me what was going on. I told him through a blur of tears that Elliott Smith had died. His overall demeanor showed concern, and I don’t know if anyone else would have picked up on it—it was only a microexpression—but he actually smirked. Then he sent me home for the day.

In retrospect, I should never have gone back. That smirk said all that needed to be said about my future there. Thursday was awkward. Full of complicated, knowing looks. Some people raised their eyebrows at me in greeting instead of saying “hello.” Others ignored me.

When I came in on Friday, though, I noticed all my coworkers wore their wet hair swept to the left, with collared shirts buttoned to the top covered by a V-neck. They wore cheap bead bracelets and metal design rings. They even went so far as to buy matching ankh necklaces, like the character of Death from The Sandman comics. That was my “look” they were mocking. I never even realized I had a “look” until that day.

Listen. I’ve been made fun of before. It’s never fun, but when you are a grown man who thinks he’s past his worst years of bullying, there is an extra sting to the bruise when you realize that you are the butt of the joke in the office. Jason handed me a parcel as he skateboarded by. “Package for Emo Eddie,” said Jason, who to his credit did not participate in the dress code, but who apparently coined the nickname, for which he seemed quite proud.

Inside the package was a framed cut-out from a teeny-bopper magazine featuring Robert Smith from The Cure. The office had really gone all out to make me feel like a raw nerve.

In their minds, perhaps, they were curing me of my oversensitivity.

 

That night I sat on my blue-green sofa that sank in the middle and stared at the pile of bills on the table. Could I afford to quit my job? Weren’t there plenty of jobs in the city? I picked up my Nokia and rang Dodger, not intending for her to comfort me, but feeling comforted by calling her nonetheless.

“You’re right,” I said, aware of the self-pity in my voice but helpless to stop it. “People are pretty much shit.”

“What are you talking about?” said Dodger.

“I’m talking about the way I always pretend like everything’s cool, but everything isn’t cool.”

A siren outside became so loud that, even if she had been speaking, I would not have been able to hear her. “That city is breaking you,” Dodger said. “Get the hell out.”

“It’s not. I’m not. I just realized everything you’ve been saying is true.”

“Please,” said Dodger. “I need you to be you right now.”

“Is that what you need? What about what I need? How’s that for honesty? What does Emo Eddie need?”

“Eddie. What do you need?”

“I need you to come to New York City and be with me, whether it’s for the weekend, or forever. I just need you right now.”

“I can’t do that.”

“Of course, you can.”

“I literally can’t.”

“You literally can,” I said, “and you have to. I will buy you a ticket and send it to you. So unless you want to waste money…”

She sighed a sigh that was neither frustrated nor sad, exactly, but deeply exhausted. “Only for the weekend,” she said.

“Only for the weekend.”

“Have you been drinking?”

“No.”

“Well, you should be,” she said. And I was so glad that she existed, that truth was her north star, and that she was mine.

 

That night I dreamed a dream that Dodger and I left everything behind: not just our day jobs, but all our ambitions, our homes, our country, our shitty President and his shitty wars, our whole identities. We just hopped on a train together and found ourselves pouring out into some unknown city. It was liberating, just fading into some foreign crowd, a former barista and receptionist, a former aspiring scholar and filmmaker, former Americans. And it was exhilarating, not knowing whether we even had the means to survive, just finding it out one meal at a time, as long as it was us.

I awoke with a deeply hopeful feeling, one that I hadn’t felt in a long time. Maybe I should thank my coworkers, I thought, for clarifying things for me.

It was early Saturday morning, still dark, and even though I’m not a smoker I keep a pack around the house for days when I need to feel like a movie star. I opened a window, and sat beside it, full of apprehensions for what could be.

Grand Central Station is a great people-watching place, as any New Yorker could tell you. The abundance and variety of human life is on full display within its buttressed dome. As I watched the passersby that Saturday afternoon, I kept accumulating little gems to share with Dodger when she arrived—tiny observations about the way a mother seemed to react with almost comical fear to her twin sons’ antics, or the way a country couple stumbled hesitantly out of their train car, or the way a hunched and hairy troll of a man stood unselfconsciously underneath a fresh graffito that read “Fuck Hobbitz” (the last of the Lord of the Rings trilogy was just about to be released in theatres). I imagined myself as a camera, recording and fixing into film everything that came under my gaze at twenty-four frames per second. Small gestures and expressions became suddenly meaningful. Anonymous others were now actors dramatizing the narrative of their own secret lives.

But after fifteen minutes, twenty, forty-five had passed, and the day became darker and no face I recognized materialized out of the crowd, Ezra Pound’s poem bubbled up into my consciousness—a poem that Dodger and I first encountered in Western Civ class by a professor who condemned the author of the poem as a traitor and a fascist.

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

As I stood there waiting by the kiosk in Grand Central Station, I saw, as though for the first time, the “apparition” of faces, the innumerable and interchangeable strangeness of strangers. It felt like nothing so much as a nature documentary, in which walruses or baboons can be differentiated only by relative size, unique markings, coloration, or age, but seem to have no individuality that a human can distinguish. They could indeed have been “petals on a wet, black bough,” but this revelation was not “pretty,” the way I thought the poem was intended to be when I first read it. The anonymity of this flowering branch was grotesque. It sickened me.

I called Dodger, and she didn’t answer. Then called again to leave a message. Then called a third time just in case. Each time the voicemail message picked up, I thought for sure it was her real, live voice, and I was addicted to that brief hope.

Finally I fled the scene, defeated, wrecked, crawling back to my studio apartment like the very cockroaches that infested it. Mothers of ancient Greek soldiers were said to have cried out to their parting sons, “Come back with your shield, or on it.” That night, as I passed on to sleep, I felt very much like a vanquished Greek who had lost his kleos, or glory, and came home shieldless.

But that was not my lowest point. That came in the middle of the night, when my mother called. The familiar ring and buzz of the Nokia on the side table. In the confusion of my dream, I thought I was a Greek soldier and my mother was calling to express her great shame at my defeat. But she had other news. Dodger, my Angelino, my dark blossom, had died that night of the same affliction as Elliott Smith. Except she had taken a gun—where had she gotten a gun?—and placed it to her temple—who knows for how long she had stood there second-guessing, making excuses, trying to weigh the merits of pain and nothingness—and simply pulled the trigger.

I kept on imagining the moment of the gun firing, and I kept mentally trying to stop it. I was in this mental loop, this pattern that felt impossible to disrupt. Click, point—stop!—boom. Click, point—stop!—boom. Click, point—stop!—boom.

Standing there in the dark, in the kitchen, my eyes intent on the reel of my imagination, I held onto the refrigerator handle in case I should lose my legs beneath me. Never had I felt so disgusted with myself than at that moment, for I realized that I was picturing her death in cinematic terms—the triangular composition of the shot, the backlighting to make her appear more holy and dark, the pan and zoom to make the audience feel a part of the whole scene.

I hit myself in the temple as hard as I could, which is not very hard, then again, to exorcise the constant aesthetic eye that persisted in its attempts to translate my fresh grief into palatable beauty.

 

Dodger’s suicide devastated me, and crushed me, but it didn’t exactly surprise me. I had been aware of her depression from the beginning, and combined with her ability to look bleakly into the future and anticipate death, she was only jumping the gun on the inevitable.

Jumping the gun, I thought, with a morbid laugh.

The rest of the subway car was glancing at me through their peripheral vision—the laughing weirdo with the mascara and the jewelry—assessing me as a potential threat or concern. I had taken a new job as an artist’s assistant, and the “artist” in question was a tyrant when it came to punctuality, except for his own. It would be another five years before I realized that New York City had had its fill of me, and I followed a girl named Ollie to South Carolina, where she was from, and where all she ever wanted to do was to be a librarian, and I figured out that I would be just fine as a teacher.

I had come to the conclusion, then, that my feelings were indulgences. Luxuries, rather than necessities. To Dodger, perhaps, pain was keen and real, but for me it was an ornament.

I resolved forever to treat myself and others with the kind of harshness that Dodger expected. Disillusionment was too painful. Better to live on a plateau of feeling. Better not to aspire to happiness in the first place.

Which brings us to today, with me assigning you this essay, and reminding you that there will be no credit for late papers, and that your paper must contain regular fonts and margins, and it must have numbered pages. It must be twelve-to-fifteen pages long, and it must attempt to wrestle with the themes and motifs in the poem under discussion, all while comparing it to your own unique, irreducible, unrepeatable life experience.

Photo courtesy of Giuseppe Milo. View more of his work on Flickr.

Phong Nguyen is the author of a novel, The Adventures of Joe Harper and two story collections: Pages from the Textbook of Alternate History and Memory Sickness. He is currently the Miller Family Endowed Chair in Literature and Writing at the University of Missouri.

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