A Poem A Story A Prompt, Issue 42

Other People

The pandemic has trained us to perceive other people as potential vectors for illness; the political climate, as something even worse.

Today, a tiny antidote, in the form of a poem and story about empathy—rejecting it, seeking it, offering and rescinding it—and about our need for other beings with whom to share burdens, terrible as that need may sometimes be.

Alex Prager — Applause (2016)

Poem

Vectors 4.2: All of the Above

When the power goes off, the silence wakes me.

ε

Take us away from our crowd and we see faces in cliffs, hear voices on the wind, read the thoughts of animals, and feel watched by we don’t know what. We’re unplugged from our peripherals, like the newly blind who hallucinate because their brains are desperate to see.

ε

Silent or silenced?

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Experience teaches that the world is a blaze in my head, pain hurts me most, only others die. The rest is Imagination.

ε

Phone rings. The house has sprung a leak!

ε

Spring, and the soil exhales like a pot whose lid has been lifted. The air itself has greened: sound is blurrier and slower, blossoms send out waves of intoxicants. The woodchuck knows exactly how long ago the fox passed, a leaf smells that its neighbor is under attack by insects, from 300 feet up the hawk spots the tenseness of a vole. No wonder we feel suddenly less and more alone, like someone in a crowd who doesn’t know any of the languages.

ε

His lip’s pierced with a ring, last link in some invisible chain.

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Faith is a kind of doubt…of everything else. And doubt….believes deeply it can do without believing.

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Zeal: shark that swims hard lest it drown.

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My resentment is a child who needs attention. I’m out of here, he says. Don’t let me go.

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At last I break my chains, only to find that those I was chained to are more relieved than I am.

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Rage, like infatuation, thrives on silly details.

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All that time trying to do what they wanted, when even they weren’t quite sure what it was.

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Even at 10000 feet, yellowjackets, and they are angry.

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Silly to have such a strong lock when the door itself is so weak, and the window is weaker, and my head can’t keep anything out.

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She thinks her frenzy is a victimless crime.

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We should be reasonable is a feeling. Feeling is more genuine than thinking is a thought.

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I’d listen to my conscience if I were sure it was really mine.

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Anxiety hunched over, eating its hands.

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They are our friends, or they slump next to us on the subway, or they are close-ups on the news: the sufferers. Next to them, we feel like innocents. Natural enough, but maybe it’s analogous to the old sentimentality about The Happy Poor: if we envy life’s victims for being realer than we are, will we also owe them, will we help them?

ε

Realism is false when it cares a little too much that you think it’s real.

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Empathy’s the human grid: a voltage surge, and we might shut down so as not to burn out, often least responsive to the troubles that are most like our own.

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Pain knows you don’t really know. Over and over and over it says No you don’t, no you don’t.

ε

On the Kelvin scale, which runs from Absolute Zero to a zillion degrees, we’re most comfortable way down at the chilly end: 293 degrees is room temperature. Only a little higher and water boils, molecules break, life becomes impossible. The universe is a cold place. Good thing!

ε

More moving than someone weeping: someone trying not to.

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Some are naked through their clothes, some never naked.

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Suffering builds character? Or the fear that every touch will be a blow?

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My pain has to be greater than yours, lest I owe you something.

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Values fluctuate wildly, prices considerably, but change is given to the penny.

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In heaven we will be known to the core and loved for exactly who we are. Yeah, that’s what I was afraid of.

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Somehow it’s easier to believe people are better than I am than that they’re smarter.

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There’s no one less rebellious: maybe I think I’m in power?

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How messy and wrecked the house has gotten, I think, and start Spring Cleaning. There must have been a Winter Dirtying I didn’t notice, a blindness or lethargy that evolved to protect us from wasting energy during the hard months. But what leads to those much darker days when, maybe helped by a mirror or a sharp word, I look up and suddenly see how badly I’ve neglected everything in my life that really matters?

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Evolution provided physical pain to keep us from damaging ourselves, sympathetic pain to keep us from damaging others. Don’t feel too good.

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Self-criticism: superiority to the idiot I was a minute ago.

 ε

Sometimes I’m the only one in the loud bar not talking, a rock in the stream listening for the sound water makes hitting it and turning white.

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Are these new storms, or has everything all together reached the age of falling down?

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Not till I walk out of the sea of noise into the night do I know I’m drunk.

—James Richardson

Who is this person?

Born in Garden City, NY in 1950 (a fellow Long Islander!), James Richardson is a poet, aphorist, and critic, as well as a professor at Princeton University. He is the author of several collections of poetry and aphorisms, most recently FOR NOW, out from Copper Canyon Press; his awards include the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Award in Literature and an NEH fellowship. In The Believer, Sarah Manguso wrote of Richardson’s blend of verse and prose that it “seem[s] to indicate that this poet has recently synthesized, in some laboratory setting, a designer hybrid form. Think glow-in-the-dark mice, but with letters and words.”

Story

Misery

The twilight of evening. Big flakes of wet snow are whirling lazily about the street lamps, which have just been lighted, and lying in a thin soft layer on roofs, horses' backs, shoulders, caps. Iona Potapov, the sledge-driver, is all white like a ghost. He sits on the box without stirring, bent as double as the living body can be bent. If a regular snowdrift fell on him it seems as though even then he would not think it necessary to shake it off.... His little mare is white and motionless too. Her stillness, the angularity of her lines, and the stick-like straightness of her legs make her look like a halfpenny gingerbread horse. She is probably lost in thought. Anyone who has been torn away from the plough, from the familiar gray landscapes, and cast into this slough, full of monstrous lights, of unceasing uproar and hurrying people, is bound to think.

It is a long time since Iona and his nag have budged. They came out of the yard before dinnertime and not a single fare yet. But now the shades of evening are falling on the town. The pale light of the street lamps changes to a vivid color, and the bustle of the street grows noisier.

'Sledge to Vyborgskaya!' Iona hears. 'Sledge!'

Iona starts, and through his snow-plastered eyelashes sees an officer in a military overcoat with a hood over his head.

'To Vyborgskaya,' repeats the officer. 'Are you asleep? To Vyborgskaya!'

In token of assent Iona gives a tug at the reins which sends cakes of snow flying from the horse's back and shoulders. The officer gets into the sledge. The sledge-driver clicks to the horse, cranes his neck like a swan, rises in his seat, and more from habit than necessity brandishes his whip. The mare cranes her neck, too, crooks her stick-like legs, and hesitatingly sets of....

'Where are you shoving, you devil?' Iona immediately hears shouts from the dark mass shifting to and fro before him. 'Where the devil are you going? Keep to the r-right!'

'You don't know how to drive! Keep to the right,' says the officer angrily.

A coachman driving a carriage swears at him; a pedestrian crossing the road and brushing the horse's nose with his shoulder looks at him angrily and shakes the snow off his sleeve. Iona fidgets on the box as though he were sitting on thorns, jerks his elbows, and turns his eyes about like one possessed as though he did not know where he was or why he was there.

'What rascals they all are!' says the officer jocosely. 'They are simply doing their best to run up against you or fall under the horse's feet. They must be doing it on purpose.'

Iona looks as his fare and moves his lips.... Apparently he means to say something, but nothing comes but a sniff.

'What?' inquires the officer.

Iona gives a wry smile, and straining his throat, brings out huskily: 'My son... er... my son died this week, sir.'

'H'm! What did he die of?'

Iona turns his whole body round to his fare, and says:

'Who can tell! It must have been from fever.... He lay three days in the hospital and then he died.... God's will.'

'Turn round, you devil!' comes out of the darkness. 'Have you gone cracked, you old dog? Look where you are going!'

'Drive on! drive on!...' says the officer. 'We shan't get there till to-morrow going on like this. Hurry up!'

The sledge-driver cranes his neck again, rises in his seat, and with heavy grace swings his whip. Several times he looks round at the officer, but the latter keeps his eyes shut and is apparently disinclined to listen. Putting his fare down at Vyborgskaya, Iona stops by a restaurant, and again sits huddled up on the box.... Again the wet snow paints him and his horse white. One hour passes, and then another....

Three young men, two tall and thin, one short and hunchbacked, come up, railing at each other and loudly stamping on the pavement with their goloshes.

'Cabby, to the Police Bridge!' the hunchback cries in a cracked voice. 'The three of us,... twenty kopecks!'

Iona tugs at the reins and clicks to his horse. Twenty kopecks is not a fair price, but he has no thoughts for that. Whether it is a rouble or whether it is five kopecks does not matter to him now so long as he has a fare.... The three young men, shoving each other and using bad language, go up to the sledge, and all three try to sit down at once. The question remains to be settled: Which are to sit down and which one is to stand? After a long altercation, ill-temper, and abuse, they come to the conclusion that the hunchback must stand because he is the shortest.

'Well, drive on,' says the hunchback in his cracked voice, settling himself and breathing down Iona's neck. 'Cut along! What a cap you've got, my friend! You wouldn't find a worse one in all Petersburg....'

'He-he!... he-he!...' laughs Iona. 'It's nothing to boast of!'

'Well, then, nothing to boast of, drive on! Are you going to drive like this all the way? Eh? Shall I give you one in the neck?'

'My head aches,' says one of the tall ones. 'At the Dukmasovs' yesterday Vaska and I drank four bottles of brandy between us.'

'I can't make out why you talk such stuff,' says the other tall one angrily. 'You lie like a brute.'

'Strike me dead, it's the truth!...'

'It's about as true as that a louse coughs.'

'He-he!' grins Iona. 'Me-er-ry gentlemen!'

'Tfoo! the devil take you!' cries the hunchback indignantly. 'Will you get on, you old plague, or won't you? Is that the way to drive? Give her one with the whip. Hang it all, give it her well.'

Iona feels behind his back the jolting person and quivering voice of the hunchback. He hears abuse addressed to him, he sees people, and the feeling of loneliness begins little by little to be less heavy on his heart. The hunchback swears at him, till he chokes over some elaborately whimsical string of epithets and is overpowered by his cough. His tall companions begin talking of a certain Nadyezhda Petrovna. Iona looks round at them. Waiting till there is a brief pause, he looks round once more and says:

'This week... er... my... er... son died!'

'We shall all die...' says the hunchback with a sigh, wiping his lips after coughing. 'Come, drive on! drive on! My friends, I simply cannot stand crawling like this! When will he get us there?'

'Well, you give him a little encouragement... one in the neck!'

'Do you hear, you old plague? I'll make you smart. If one stands on ceremony with fellows like you one may as well walk. Do you hear, you old dragon? Or don't you care a hang what we say?'

And Iona hears rather than feels a slap on the back of his neck.

'He-he!... ' he laughs. 'Merry gentlemen.... God give you health!'

'Cabman, are you married'?' asks one of the tall ones.

'I? He he! Me-er-ry gentlemen. The only wife for me now is the damp earth.... He-ho-ho!....The grave that is!... Here my son's dead and I am alive.... It's a strange thing, death has come in at the wrong door.... Instead of coming for me it went for my son....'

And Iona turns round to tell them how his son died, but at that point the hunchback gives a faint sigh and announces that, thank God! they have arrived at last. After taking his twenty kopecks, Iona gazes for a long while after the revelers, who disappear into a dark entry. Again he is alone and again there is silence for him.... The misery which has been for a brief space eased comes back again and tears his heart more cruelly than ever. With a look of anxiety and suffering Iona's eyes stray restlessly among the crowds moving to and fro on both sides of the street: can he not find among those thousands someone who will listen to him? But the crowds flit by heedless of him and his misery.... His misery is immense, beyond all bounds. If Iona's heart were to burst and his misery to flow out, it would flood the whole world, it seems, but yet it is not seen. It has found a hiding-place in such an insignificant shell that one would not have found it with a candle by daylight....

Iona sees a house-porter with a parcel and makes up his mind to address him.

'What time will it be, friend?' he asks.

'Going on for ten.... Why have you stopped here? Drive on!'

Iona drives a few paces away, bends himself double, and gives himself up to his misery. He feels it is no good to appeal to people. But before five minutes have passed he draws himself up, shakes his head as though he feels a sharp pain, and tugs at the reins.... He can bear it no longer.

'Back to the yard!" he thinks. "To the yard!'

And his little mare, as though she knew his thoughts, falls to trotting. An hour and a half later Iona is sitting by a big dirty stove. On the stove, on the floor, and on the benches are people snoring. The air is full of smells and stuffiness. Iona looks at the sleeping figures, scratches himself, and regrets that he has come home so early....

'I have not earned enough to pay for the oats, even,' he thinks. 'That's why I am so miserable. A man who knows how to do his work,... who has had enough to eat, and whose horse has had enough to eat, is always at ease....'

In one of the corners a young cabman gets up, clears his throat sleepily, and makes for the water-bucket.

'Want a drink?' Iona asks him.

'Seems so.'

'May it do you good.... But my son is dead, mate.... Do you hear? This week in the hospital.... It's a queer business....'

Iona looks to see the effect produced by his words, but he sees nothing. The young man has covered his head over and is already asleep. The old man sighs and scratches himself.... Just as the young man had been thirsty for water, he thirsts for speech. His son will soon have been dead a week, and he has not really talked to anybody yet.... He wants to talk of it properly, with deliberation.... He wants to tell how his son was taken ill, how he suffered, what he said before he died, how he died.... He wants to describe the funeral, and how he went to the hospital to get his son's clothes. He still has his daughter Anisya in the country.... And he wants to talk about her too.... Yes, he has plenty to talk about now. His listener ought to sigh and exclaim and lament.... It would be even better to talk to women. Though they are silly creatures, they blubber at the first word.

'Let's go out and have a look at the mare,' Iona thinks. 'There is always time for sleep.... You'll have sleep enough, no fear....'

He puts on his coat and goes into the stables where his mare is standing. He thinks about oats, about hay, about the weather.... He cannot think about his son when he is alone.... To talk about him with someone is possible, but to think of him and picture him is insufferable anguish....

'Are you munching?' Iona asks his mare, seeing her shining eyes. 'There, munch away, munch away.... Since we have not earned enough for oats, we will eat hay.... Yes,... I have grown too old to drive.... My son ought to be driving, not I.... He was a real cabman.... He ought to have lived....'

Iona is silent for a while, and then he goes on:

'That's how it is, old girl.... Kuzma Ionitch is gone.... He said good-by to me.... He went and died for no reason.... Now, suppose you had a little colt, and you were own mother to that little colt.... And all at once that same little colt went and died.... You'd be sorry, wouldn't you?...'

The little mare munches, listens, and breathes on her master's hands. Iona is carried away and tells her all about it.

—Anton Chekhov

Who is this person?

Does Chekhov really require an introduction from the likes of me? You can read a thorough celebration of the writer, from the 150th anniversary of his birth, here. I also like Peter Orner’s analysis of Chekhov’s work (Orner was featured in Issue 8 of this newsletter), especially this bit: “Chekhov is as realistic a writer as Kafka, and vice versa. I read ‘The Metamorphosis’ not as an allegory but as a rough morning. Gregor Samsa, you might want to call in sick today. Yet Chekhov, in his unobtrusive way, is often gloriously weirder. It's all in the things he notices about human beings, and there is nothing Chekhov does not notice. Few writers in history have been as gifted a noticer.”

Prompt

Two options:

1) Taking a cue from “Misery,” write a poem or story in which a character is trying desperately to communicate an important message—their own grief, say, or a dire warning, or something else—but is going unheard.

2) Write a series of loosely-connected aphorisms.


Alanna Schubach is a fiction writer, freelance journalist, and teacher. Follow her on Twitter @AlannaSchubach and read her work at alannaschubach.com. Send questions, recommendations for future newsletters, and the results of writing prompts (if you’re so inclined) to info@alannaschubach.com