October 17, 2016

John Bradley


Our English class, as you know, is too large, one afternoon our teacher reports. Some of you will have to go. I feel the clutch in her throat. Vexed strands stuck to her naked neck. The principal, she adds, keeps pressing for names. I believe you should choose—after all, it is your class. I tear a piece of paper from my notebook, consider who belongs and who doesn’t. I write a name. Whose I can no longer say. The kid with the leaky mouth, ink-stained shirt? The bully who tossed a friend’s bike down a window well, blessed it with his piss? We’ve all recorded our selections; the tally begins. Susan Abbott goes first, surrendering her paper ballot. Then the teacher stands before Sandy Berman, on my right. His empty hand. I won’t write anyone’s name, he tells her. Why not? she asks. Because I don’t want to, he explains. I know that moment—he’s in for big trouble. Now she comes to me, and I oblige, handing her the folded slip. She studies the name. Then her eyes study mine, a little longer than proper. Before she moves on, she re-folds the paper, puts it back in my hand. A small wave, drawing close the eyeless fish, shoves it back to shore, before my feet. Why won’t she keep the name? Will she commit each one to memory? How many times it appears? Most likely we’ll all choose the same students, the few who don’t deserve to stay. She makes her way around the semi-circle, the thirty-eight of us, slowly absorbing the names of the chosen. When done, she retreats to her desk and leans against it. She inhales a soiled breath. The principal made no such demand. You disappoint me, she says. Damp strands stuck. To the vexed voice. Naked neck. Only one student. In the entire class. Only Sandy. Refused.

from Rattle #53, Fall 2016
Tribute to Adjuncts


John Bradley: “I’ve been an adjunct instructor at Northern Illinois University since 1992. As Illinois has no budget (our governor and state legislation cannot tolerate each other) and enrollment has been dropping, NIU has been laying off instructors. I teach mostly first-year composition courses.”

October 16, 2016

Ned Balbo


after the second 2016 Presidential debate

Crybully never hits. He hits you back.
He’s got to. You spoke out, and started it.
You’re wrong again, he’s happy to admit.
He’ll tell you so before your next attack,

which he’ll insist is anything you say.
Don’t show them any weakness is his motto.
Crybully’s favorite tactic is bravado.
He punches hard, so get out of his way!

Does he apologize? What do you think?
He spits out answers, fully automatic.
If speech were radio, he’d be the static.
He’ll trip you with a handshake and a wink,

then tell the world you brought it on yourself.
Crybully know no limits except yours.
Are you the vacuum that his power abhors?
He read a book once, tossed it on the shelf,

but still remembers some of what it said—
Something about a big lie, or the rate
at which the gullible may procreate—
(A minute: that’s one more!) And yet his dread,

shameful and dark, is obvious to all—
The whole world’s ganging up on him again!
In victory, he’ll prove the better man
by jailing the vanquished as they fall—

Crybully’s sure of this, and other things:
The whole world envies him, including you.
He’ll touch and grab you if you want him to,
or if you don’t. That’s how it is with kings,

and why Crybully follows you around.
He hears you talking calmly, and he seethes
self-righteously, or roars. Sniffs when he breathes.
He’ll deafen us before you make a sound,

destroy your life and family, burn your town
because you stood your ground and met his gaze.
Crybully even scares his friends these days,
but will he lift a finger when they drown?

Poets Respond
October 16, 2016

[download audio]


Ned Balbo: “The last debate just got me so angry I had to get it out of my system with this poem.” (website)

October 14, 2016

Ned Balbo


Helen D. Lockwood Library,
Vassar College, September 1977

Back in the days when we called freshmen freshmen,
I was one, a lank-haired Vassar co-ed
newly landed, searching for the reason
I was there. Before me, dead ahead,
the future held its promise like the shaded
vistas in brochures, or like an album
on the rack the moment you’ve decided
that you have to buy it, take it home—

and so I felt (caught in that no man’s land
of post-arrival limbo, nothing sure
except how much I didn’t understand
of privilege, wealth, and class), this much was clear:
the album’s title—Past, Present, and Future
and the cloak of Marvel’s Doctor Strange
vanishing through some portal on the cover
promised an escape—at least a change.

The last track was inspired by Nostradamus,
Gallic seer and astrologer
who wrote The Prophecies, mysterious
quatrains of cryptic riddles that declare
foreknowledge of disaster, plague, and war,
offering hints that tease and tantalize
(through allegory, tangled metaphor)
the gullible who read with opened eyes—

Hister (Hitler?), three brothers (Kennedys?)
world wars (all three?)—well, sure, he could be wrong,
but if Al Stewart thought the prophecies
troubling enough to put them in a song,
what else would time confirm before too long?
I sat, the huge book open to a page
five hundred years old, in a foreign tongue
(French mostly), brought out carefully from storage

by a young librarian, or senior,
watchful and amused at my expense.
Who wouldn’t be? She knew I was no scholar
steeped in sixteenth-century charlatans,
but just some boy who’d wandered in by chance
or impulse, new to college, drifting still,
his mind enraptured by coincidence
proclaimed as proof, each generation’s will

to buy such bunk, as always, bottomless.
Now I’d beheld an ur-text, reassured
it did exist. A reader under glass,
I sat, sealed in the hush, but not one word—
archaic, clue-encoded—struck a chord:
I’d never studied French! And yet I’d seen
the priceless artifact kept under guard
in some dark vault climate-controlled within

the labyrinthine archives I envisioned;
briefly exposed to light and then returned
to deep oblivion, the world’s end
unknown and waiting. What else had I learned?
That where the distant future is concerned,
no language equal to it can exist
nor is there language clear and unadorned
to show how time recedes into the past

—or if there is, it’s written not for us
but for the eyes of one whose practiced gaze
sees farther than our own—who knows that loss
becomes the weight and measure of our days—
who, in the hidden turnings of a phrase,
detects a revelation cast in code
we almost grasp but which remains, always,
unbroken, like the mercy that we’re owed.

from Rattle #53, Fall 2016
Tribute to Adjuncts

[download audio]


Ned Balbo: “In 2014, I was dismissed from my position as an adjunct associate professor after 24 years at a mid-Atlantic Jesuit university. Administrative turnover and the Great Recession had led to policy changes that prohibited contract renewals for full-time adjuncts in my category, and I was only one of many who lost a place during this period. AAUP (the American Association of University Professors) intervened on my behalf, to no avail; so did many tenured colleagues who found their voices ignored when they spoke out to defend the full-time adjunct colleagues whom they valued. In the end, their efforts succeeded in reversing university policy, but not before most of the full-time adjuncts affected had already been dismissed. (In the two years since, a few have been rehired at reduced status.)” (website)

October 13, 2016

Zeina Hashem Beck


Time has come knocking on my door, and I’ve told him there’s no healing this country.
I’ve loved and I’ve forgotten. Hozn isn’t merely sadness—she can cling, this country.

On stage, I gather hozn with my hands, gesturing here, and here,
and here my mother died three days after I was born to sing this country.

I’ve written letters from underneath the water. I’ve grown gills. I’ve waited
a long time in my backstage womb before my first breath, my beginning, this country.

My first concert was on a rooftop, like moonlight, like flocks of home-bred pigeons.
Later, I became a dark nightingale. No one could stop my heart from conquering this country.

When Abdel Nasser was defeated, I sang that Masr was washing her hair by the water,
the same water that has gifted me my disease. Still, she loves the morning, this country.

I traced a line from the Qur’an in the air the last time I left for a hospital in
London. Girls threw themselves off balconies the day I died. She has beautiful ways of keening, this country.

One of my songs ends with Laughter and starts with Love. Sing it. I had a radio
near my hospital bed. I could hear Cairo clearly, could hear her ring, this country.

from 3arabi Song
2016 Rattle Chapbook Prize Winner

[download audio]


Zeina Hashem Beck: “Abdel Halim Hafez was one of the most popular Egyptian singers, very well-known across the Arab world. He died in 1977 at age 47 in London, where he was undergoing treatment for Bilharzia, which he had caught as a kid. He was nicknamed ‘The Dark Nightingale.’ Stanzas 1, 3, 5, and 7 contain references to his songs. The word hozn is Arabic for ‘sadness,’ and Masr is Arabic for ‘Egypt.'” (website)

October 7, 2016

Bill Rector


Last night I kept pulling
gloves from the pockets of my coat.

O abyss of my winter coat’s pockets!

As they fell
the gloves turned into leaves,
curled palms of maples,
stubby fingers from oaks,
gray fists of ash.

I woke up.
I thought of you.

But then I always do.

I considered the hours to come,
the first thing to be done,
and the next.

All day my hands were cold.

from Rattle #52, Summer 2016


Bill Rector: “My poems are asymptotic curves that approach, but never reach, what I wish to say. But sometimes the approach is close enough for the meaning to be glimpsed. ‘Autumn’ was written after the death of my daughter.”