NER Classics

Jeff W. Bens | Golden Day

Jeff W. Bens’s story, Golden Day, appeared in NER 19.1.

Mrs. Cashman needed eighty-seven dollars and I was determined to help her get it.

“But you mustn’t give it to me, I won’t take it,” Mrs. Cashman said, her oversized, pearl-like necklace clanking against the edge of her third refill of coffee in our hotel’s delicatessen. “You mustn’t.” Mrs. Cashman was seventy-three. She hadn’t touched the third cup, but she would, as it was free, and coffee, though she’d never say this, killed the need for food.

“I don’t have it,” I said. Her gaze dropped from mine, into the coffee and the swirl of cream she’d poured in, the coffee white, and she brought the cup to her lips.

“It’s not for me,” she sipped, “but for Mr. Newcomb. He’s eighty-four years old.”

Mr. Newcomb lived on the eleventh floor, two above mine, beside Mrs. Cashman, though to hear her tell it he would soon have to move, “to a lower floor on account of his legs, what with the eleveators always busted; or maybe straight to the funeral parlor, cut out the middle men.” The one time I’d spoken with Mr. Newcomb, or rather he to me, he was sitting alone with a cigar in the Carlson’s lobby, staring into the wallpaper. He’d startled me, turning and meeting my eyes. “Cubano,” is all he’d said. And then he’d smiled and turned his attention back to the wall.

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NER Classics | Jehanne Dubrow


Oenophilia by Jehanne Dubrow
 originally appeared in NER 30.2.


Those months away from you, I teach myself
to cook with wine, admiring the change
a Beaujolais enjoys inside the pot,
its sly divestment of alcohol, slowly
from the heat, like a girl unbuttoning her blouse.
I’m indiscriminate. All reds will do
because you’ve never had a taste for white,
the frigid chardonnay or pinot gris
so chilled it makes the crystal goblet sweat.

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Sydney Lea

NER Classics | Democracy and the Demotic

Between Jazz and the Blues, Dr. Ernest Williamson IIISydney Lea‘s nonfiction piece, “Democracy and the Demotic: Reflections on the ‘lingua franca et jocundissima’ in American Poetry,” appeared in NER 16.3 (1994).

The title of my remarks is high sounding enough, yet in fact I do little more here than muse about a tradition in American poetry that my friend Stanley Plumly describes as “speech barking back at song.” More poet than scholar myself, I offer a kind of reverie.

In a journal entry for 1837, Ralph Waldo Emerson, engaging in a reverie of his own, imagined himself “a professor of Rhetoric–teacher of the art of writing well to young men.” “I should use Dante for my textbook,” Emerson surmised: “Dante knew how to throw the weight of his body into each act, and is, like Byron, Burke, and Carlyle, the Rhetorician. I find him full of the nobil volgare eloquenza; that he knows ‘God damn,’ and can be rowdy if he please, and he does please.” What Dante could teach was that daily surroundings were “the very best basis for poetry, and the material which you must work up.”

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NER Classics | Linda Bierds


April by Linda Bierds
was originally published in NER 13.2.


A little wind. One creak from a field crow.
And the plow rips a shallow furrow, hobbles
from guide-stake to guide-stake,
draws its first contour line,
and parallel, its next, next,
then the turn-strips and deadfurrows,the headlands
and buffer lines, until the earth from a crow’s vantage
takes the pattern of a fingertip.

And by noon the shadows are gridways: cut soil,
the man on the plow, the plow and simple tail,
each squat on the stretch of slender shade,
black and grid-straight, like the line of anti-light

a screen clicks up to, before its image
swells, deepens. Dark glass
going green, in the shade-darkened room
of a laboratory- it casts a little blush
across the face there, the shoulders and white pocket,
then magnifies the moon-skin of a microbe, then deeper,
electron molecules in a beam so stark it smolders.

The man on the plow fears frost,
its black cancer.The man at the screen
fears the storm an atom renders
on the lattice of a crystal. And heat. And the slick
back-licks of vapor. With luck, with the patience
the invisible nurtures, he will reshape

frost-making microbes, snip frost-hook genes
with a knife of enzymes. And at thirty degrees,
twenty, through seam lines of snap beans, oranges,
almonds, potatoes, no frost will form, no ratchet-bite
of ice, all the buds of transformed microbes
blossoming, reblossoming, like the first flowers.

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Marianne Boruch

NER Classics | From Bishop’s Blue Pharmacy

Marianne Boruch‘s Essay, “From Bishop’s Blue Pharmacy,” was published in NER 13.2.

Wasp_Nest_03-1In 1978, a year before her death, Elizabeth Bishop finished a poem, “Santarém,” which placed her in the crux of the marvelous, at the conflux of two of the world’s great rivers, the Amazon and the Tapajos. The poem rings with exotic, chaotic life – carts hooked up to zebus, those curly-horned oxen; young nuns waving, still in their blinding white habits, off to a downriver mission by steamer; a whole lovely racket of departure and arrival. But this is mere overture; the revelation lies in wait, and the poem gradually narrows to its delivery. Entering a “blue pharmacy,” as she calls it, the poet discovers the real fortune – a wasps’ nest, empty, and placed lovingly on a shelf: “Small, exquisite,” she tells us, “clean matte white and hard as stucco.” Even-tually, the pharmacist gives it to her, and she carries off her prize to the waiting ship. There, a Mr. Swan, fellow-passenger and retiring head of Philips Electric – “really a very nice old man” Bishop assures us – blurts out, simply, “What’s that ugly thing?” And so, on such a question, the poem ends (Complete Poems 185).

I can play this movie in my head a hundred times, and I still return to that moment amid the dusty bottles and boxes, the peculiar shade of that “blue pharmacy.” It is the surprise of that gleaming, tidy relic – the wasps’ nest high in its honored place – that triggers my wonder at how a simple image presses itself into memory as fuse and heart to make a poem, to demand that it unfold as it keeps unfolding.

Surprise. How that is linked to finding, to finding out. I think of once finding a similar unexpected treasure, a map, but a wholly different kind of map, a quick, aerial re-take on the earth, calling itself ‘The Top of the World,” its living center not Asia or America or Europe, but the north pole and its arctic air, frozen islands by the hundreds, strips of cold blue – a map, in short, governed by nothing but surprise, that love of the odd angle. There it was at a garage sale a couple of summers ago, leaning against the paint-dripped bookcase, next to the sprung wing-back chair. I stood and stared; I still stand and stare in my own upstairs hall, transfixed. This may be one of those indulgent, dream-lit moments, but I am thinking Elizabeth Bishop would have loved such a map, not as much as the wasps’ nest, perhaps, but probably enough to have outbid me for it at the edge of that slow backyard, overgrown with anthémis and delphinium and poppy.

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NER Classics | A Dream of Ezra Pound | J. Allyn Rosser

J. Allyn Rosser‘s poem, “A Dream of Ezra Pound,” was published in NER 13.2.


yarn-DSC03957I’d eaten dark chocolate, reading late at night.
They introduced me, and I still hadn’t read
All the Cantos. Somehow he knew this on sight.

Still, his large old hand shook mine; I stayed
With him to kiss that wistful dented cheek;
He was shyly pleased, beard glowing, and said:

(I couldn’t hear. His voice was oddly weak,

As if it came from behind him.) Police
Were there. He’d come back down, or up, to speak

On God. So he was not completely at ease
When my colleagues nattered on and on
About their flatly mispronounced bêtises;

But he was polite- extremely- to everyone!
Had he learned the hard way from his long bed
In Saint Elizabeths, lying there alone,

To nod when it was best to nod? He did.
It went over well with the academicians,
Beamish boys. At last he shook his head-

His voice resumed the vibrant, hallowing insistence
I’d expected, though much softer, bereaved,
In earnest response to some jargonous nonsense:

“Yes yes, we think in order to know, or perceive-
And in this we are sometimes, it seems, successful-
But we believe in order to believe

He said this in worn sorrow, in sorrow distressful.
He said this, E.P. No madness up his sleeve.
“No god,” he said. “Nothing but what we may leave.”

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NER Classics | Don’t Just Sit There: Writing as a Polymorphous Perverse Pleasure | Rosellen Brown

Rosellen Brown‘s essay, “Don’t Just Sit There: Writing as a Polymorphous Perverse Pleasure,” was published in NER 13.1 (1990):

451px-DavidReed_90Sometimes it’s a good thing—like reflecting on the kind of adult you thought you’d become when you were a child, when thinking wasn’t yet complicated by knowledge—for a writer to remember what writing felt like back at the beginning.

This is probably most useful to those who were, as I was, resolved to be writers at an early age. I was nine when words began to serve their extraordinary purposes for me: I was lonely and they kept me company, they materialized whenever and wherever I called on them, without an argument or a competitive leer. No one knew or judged how well I did them. This was not jumping in as the two ropes turned and came whipping down like a great moving parenthesis around me and slapped the ground and snarled my feet. This was not trying to connect the broad side of the bat with a ball that got miraculously smaller as it approached the scuff of dirt we called the plate. The words were purely mine at first, a secret transaction between inner and outer, between silence and speech, between what I knew—or knew that I knew—and what I didn’t recognize as knowing, but that I could bring up like a brimming pail from a deep unlighted well.

What I wrote as a child I wrote for comfort, for invisible power, for the astonished pleasure of the feel of the letters—for their look, which was shape and color: every letter had a color for me, yellow-orange and K and P blue and purple, like shadows on snow, W brown; transparent as ice. There was a private ad hoc physics at work in the form those letters took; and sound, the fricatives and glottals and aspirates as satisfying to move around, for me, as tin soldiers or matchbox cars for someone who liked to wage different kind of fantasy wars. This was a time of polymorphous perverse pleasure in language, with no end outside the moment, no end outside myself.

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NER Classics | Home Planet | Marianne Boruch

California_Desert_Landscape_41Marianne Boruch’s testimony “Home Planet” appeared in NER 31.1:

I kept thinking about that collage, which was, in fact, a rather popular thing to put together then. A very hip friend of mine in the dorm, a girl who insisted on wearing sandals all winter, minus socks even, had done the same thing, searching through various publications—Life magazine always a good bet—for pictures that would make years of people and experience leap out of the wall with an electric, exuberant force. But it was doubly remarkable, there in the Sunderlands’ bathroom. Because it was very cool, making one of those, a wall flooded with various cultural heroes, people off the grid inventing whole new grids. I was sure something odd and quirky remained in those Sunderlands after all, something of the rebel. Here was evidence. Maybe Ned was at the heart of that. At least, on the wall he was.

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NER Classics | Preparations for August | Cate Marvin

Cate Marvin‘s poem, “Preparations for August,” appeared in NER 22.2:








Like drinking perfume, or chewing anise tablets,
I pour within myself a fragrance, so my breath
may smell of rose, my skin like pale citrus.
It is an act of doing, of pre-doing, what is called

preparation. No need for the silken dress, or green
beads of glass studding the neckline. To breathe
another’s breathing, all that’s done is to inhale.
What youth was to me was thrown away with

the porcelain cat whose neck, once broken, was
squiggled with a line of crack and glue. I may have
thrown it out, but I return my mind to it, just as
I return to you in thought. The briefest letter breathes

warm breath on my neck. I am tempted to call
the airlines to make reservations I’ll never afford.
What I want is for someone to come at my calling,
no matter the cost. I require desperation, sweat, and loss.

It’s a bird-feathered room, a silky-walled space
where we ought to meet. Likely it’ll be blank walls in a hotel room
I’ll remember as extravagantly green-hued.
I have always been jealous of anyone who wants you.

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NER Classics | Experiences of the Void | David Guy

David Guy’s essay, “Experiences of the Void,” was published in NER 16.2:

When I look back on mBeyond Mechanics - Marendo Müllery beginnings as a writer, when I consider the question of what writing really is, I always bring to mind a place called the Pittsburgh Academy of Medicine, a society of physicians which met in a huge ancient house in a rundown part of the city, with an extensive medical library in the basement. My father was an officer in the organization, and had gotten my brother and me summer jobs there, dusting books or watching over the place while the regular librarian—an ex-lawyer and recovering alcoholic named Allen Lynch—was on vacation.
     The basement was huge, and filled with the kind of heavy glassed-in wooden bookcases that distinguished houses used to have in the early years of the century. The floor was a creaky hardwood, lined with rubber mats where you were supposed to walk. The building ran down a hill, so there were windows not only in the basement—high wide windows that let in plenty of light—but also in the sub-basement, a dank dark place with a cement floor and stone walls that housed some of the older books and also contained an extensive library on sex.

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