hold the pen by Joel Lipman
No pointed hat nor sweeping robe required,
Nor lonely lamp-lit tower stabbing sky.
No pedant’s cant, archaic chant to ply,
Nor pestles filled with mortared coal expired.
The iron discipline of midnight fires
And winding dark roads walked alone, though, aye;
Unflinching yen to face the truth of why,
And burning will to manifest desires.
All I need for alchemy is my quill
And paper blank. I dip it in my vein
Of sorrow, let my sadness over-spill,
Transmuting into words my darkest pain.
A minor compensation for my ills,
To pages, not my soul, leave thusly stained.
My new favorite Persian word is ghalambor. It used to be zaferaan, or saffron, but after reading my friend Bahram’s article on the ney, the reed plant, I am partial to ghalambor. It is a graft of two words, ghalam, a reed pen, and bor, from the verb boridan, to cut. A ghalambor is someone who, with a sharp knife and steady hand, fashions reeds into the pens used by a calligrapher.
I like the fluidity of ghalambor, the way it catches at the back of the soft palate in an uvular plosive—almost a gagging sound to the Western ear—then skims the alveolar ridge, and pauses between compressed lips before gliding out on that final, accented syllable—open, soft, unfettered by the final “r.” Ghalambor.
It’s my new favorite word as much for its sound as for the surprising obviousness of it. The word is not even in my Haïm’s New Persian-English Dictionary, but it should be. As much as I’ve admired the acrobatic, layered lines of Persian calligraphy, I never thought about the centuries of pen cutters who made them possible. Apparently, Mr. Haïm didn’t either.
This oversight made me feel guilty and sad for the forgotten and marginalized ghalambor. It made me think of Rumi’s poem about the Persian reed flute, cut from the same reedbed as the ghalam. Rumi says the flute’s mournful sound is the cry of the reed longing to be reunited with its reedbed. Does the ghalambor long to be reunited with his pens? Does he long to write his own story?
This is the kind of melancholy that calls for saffron. Zaferaan and saffron, its softer English equivalent, are still favorite words—conjuring up languid Friday lunches with fragrant, steaming, saffron-laced rice. After years of cooking with saffron, I thought I knew all about it—how to grind it into a fine powder before dissolving it in hot water; how much to use before it becomes bitter and overwhelming; how, with the right person and the right paella, it’s an aphrodisiac. I knew that the ancient Welsh used it to cure melancholy, and that Iranians believe too much of it could cause a person to die laughing. But from one of Bahram’s books, I learned something else: to dispel unhappiness or grief, some devout Iranians write prayers in saffron ink, soak the prayer sheets in water, then drink the saffron-tinged liquid left behind.
The ghalambor should do this. The pen cutter should become the penman. He should grind the saffron the way a calligrapher would grind pigment for his ink. Inhaling the honey-sweet saltiness, he should steep the powder until the water turns sunset orange, then wet the sharpened reed he kept for himself and write prayers of remembrance. He should bear witness as the marks he made swirl away into amber water, then drink the diffused prayers—prayers for the lost reeds and prayers for himself, that he be remembered.
for sixty k’atuns
in a room without windows
I grip a tapered plume
lean over bowls of ink
my headdress flays
my eye the darkness
spattered in red and indigo
ink spills and swells
sent to search
feather the darkness
finger the bas-relief
smooth of salmon
grit of ochre
clink of copper
I am Scribe to the Cult of the Sacred Well
set apart, for now
god of scribes
god of sky
I am, for now
petitioner of Chaak
his rolled lip
I record in glyph and codex
rise of Mayapan
writing in the dark
Akab Ts’ib, “Writing in the Dark”, is a small building at Chichén Itzá. The name is taken from the “mysterious writing” on the lintel of an inner doorway. Under the lintel, in the doorjamb, is a carved panel showing the image of a scribe.
Is that me at the end of my pencil?
It’s part of the pencil, at least—the lead.
Graphite, I mean. And these letters aren’t me
but somehow signify, the curves and strokes.
They certainly don’t make what I look like
up here, looking down. Teacher’s been at this
a long time. Hold your in-stru-ment like this,
she says. Use your free hand to hold the paper
down. Free hand? Then my writing hand’s a slave.
That makes sense—I live in Georgia. Negroes
used to work for white people for nothing.
It’s 1962—now they work for
next to nothing. Like Annie Ruth, who cleans
for us three times a week, and makes supper
to boot. My parents work. I come home at
3:30 or so. Annie Ruth leaves at
four. Sometimes someone, another Negro,
picks her up. She’s on the porch. The driver
never gets out of the car. Heck, he could
if he wanted to—we’re Democrats, we
like Negroes, anywhere. Sometimes Father
drives her home and I ride in the back seat.
Get in the back seat, he orders. Yes, sir,
I say. But you don’t need to tell me. I
know. Attaboy, he says. I smile. We take her home,
across rusty railroad tracks. The houses
are falling down. Annie Ruth’s needs painting.
We let her off. I get in the front seat
now. Father, can we paint Annie Ruth’s house
for her? Uh, he says. Well, maybe someday.
Not today. No, not today, I say. I
can write my own name, I say. Well, good for you,
he says. That’s really something. Yeah, I say.
I mean, Yes, sir—that’s really something. I
can hold the pencil good and the paper
it writes on so it won’t fall off my desk
and I can make the letters in my name
and then I put the pencil down and hold
the paper in front of my face and see
the letters—they make my name, you know—and
the light that comes through from behind. Can I
show Annie Ruth tomorrow? Sure, why not,
he says. Tomorrow comes, like the clean side
of my paper, fresh and not written on, and
I come home with my piece of paper and
my name behind my back and go into
the kitchen and say, Miss Annie Ruth, look
what I got to show you. I hold it up
and she looks and tweaks her spectacles and
says, My, my, would you look at that, and I
do, I always do what my elders bid,
and darned if it’s not upside down, so I
turn me over, I mean my name, and say,
There, looky here again, and she does, and
asks, What’s it signify, and I say, Why,
it’s me. You can read, can’t you? But she can’t
—I’m sorry that I asked her so I say,
I don’t write too good yet—it’s hard to make
out, I know. And she smiles and I smile and
she leans over to me like I’m her own
and whispers, God bless the child, and I think,
What child? —oh, she means me—and I’m red-faced.
Then Father comes home and I greet him and
say, Hello, Father, God bless the child and
God bless you. Then he tickles me and says,
God bless us everyone. That’s from a book.
Dr. Garbanzo Writes the First Draft
Doctor Garbanzo rushed upstairs to the office and threw open the glass-paneled door that once bore his name. Professor Cardamom was sitting behind his old desk—worn penny-loafers resting on the now tarnished and scratched mahogany, its surface covered in coffee stains, ashes, and browning apple cores.
“Ah Garbanzo! It’s been a long time.”
“That’s Doctor Garbanzo to you—I completed my Ph.D three years ago.”
Cardamom picked up his pipe and ashed it onto the desk before refilling it with a damp and salty-smelling tobacco. “Forgive my confusion, Doctor, what can I do for you today? Care to join me for a smoke?”
Garbanzo cast his eyes about his old office, disgusted by the new decor. The nicotine-stained walls were cluttered with curios. Shrunken heads and African masks. Glittering gemstones. Ivory figurines and strange bronze gods. Bookshelves lined with hundreds of leather-bound occult and esoteric explorations.
“First off, I quit smoking,” he said. “And secondly, I want you to know that I find the prospect of working with the man who ruined my name and usurped my position repulsive. Were my circumstances any different I would have nothing to do with an archaic trope such as yourself, but you are precisely the kind of character I need right now.”
Professor Cardamom seemed to be paying more attention to his pipe than to Garbanzo. His eyes kept crossing as he tried to pull on it. It was making a boiling sound somewhere in the stem. He struck another match and inhaled deeply. The damp tobacco ignited and the pipe made the sound of an unclogged drain. Black fountains of smoke bubbled out of Cardamom’s mouth and nose and splashed onto the threadbare carpet. He began coughing profusely.
“If you’re still mad about the whole getting-you-fired thing, how was I supposed to know your degree was really a fake when I claimed it was a fake? I thought it was real! After all, you had a tweed jacket, a pipe and bow tie—just like me—and I’m as real as this shelf of books!”
He plucked a crumbling copy of the Necronomicon off the wall and began to thumb through it, puffing his pipe absentmindedly. “Besides, you should thank me,” he said. “You quit smoking! And on top of that, you now possess an actual Ph.D. and can join us all in the ranks of the real. By the way, what did you finally end up getting your doctorate in?”
“Postmodern Literature. My thesis was on deep-sea metafiction. Writers writing stories about writing in the depths of the briny-brine, with anglers and jellyfish for limited perspective—you understand. I’ve spent the last few years in the field, writing short stories while scuba diving.”
“Well, Doc,” said Cardamom, “the next time you write one, make me a character.”
Garbanzo smirked. “To be sure. I already have. Won’t you accompany me now in a short outburst of uncomfortable laughter?”
Cardamom joined Dr. Garbanzo in a forced laugh that ended as abruptly as it began.
Garbanzo was convinced he could hear the smoke from Professor Cardamom’s pipe settling into a cloudy puddle at his feet. Even the masks and shrunken heads all seemed to be holding their breath.
After an awkward moment, the silence was broken by the farting sound of squeaking leather as Cardamom settled into his chair. He folded his arms behind his head and leaned back.
“Go on then. Tell the story. I’m all ears.”
Garbanzo longed for a pipe of his own to smoke, his every cell seemed to crave nicotine, but he refused to give Cardamom the satisfaction of seeing his resolve fall apart.
“The first problem I faced was obtaining proper writing materials for the excursion,” he continued. “The diving equipment and a ship with a crew were easy enough to acquire in Bermuda, but to write while submerged required special consideration. Pencil and paper were out of the question, obviously, and the gloves to my pressurized dive suit were too thick-fingered to allow for use of the waterproof typewriter I like to use to practice on in my bathtub at home.
“On top of that was the problem of the lights. The whole purpose of this expedition was to write about what it is like to write about deep-sea creatures in their natural state, but the lights made them act out of the ordinary. I needed to see them without my seeing them changing their behavior. Kind of like Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, applied to ichthyology, in the creative arts.”
Professor Cardamom chuckled at this. He pulled on his pipe and coughed a loud, wet cough. “My, my,” he said with a smirk. “Let it never be said that writers with Liberal Arts doctorates are out of touch with the world’s problems.
Whatever did you do?”
Smoke was pooling on the floor. It was obscuring Garbanzo’s feet and swirling around the legs of the desk but Garbanzo didn’t seem to notice. He leaned across the desk and plucked the pipe from Cardamom’s mouth.
“That’s where you come in, my imaginary friend. I was made to believe that you have a solution to my problem.”
“Why Doctor, I thought you’d never ask.”
Cardamom leaped from his chair and waded across the room, smoke swirling about his knees. He opened a cabinet and removed a large panel of translucent plexiglass. It was just a little bit taller and wider than an average door.
Garbanzo wondered for a moment how it had fit into the cabinet, but he was nearing his maximum word count and too close to the deadline to turn back now.
Garbanzo held the pipe at arm’s length. The bowl was overflowing, smoke running down like water—flooding the office. It was already up to the top of the desk. Apple cores and ungraded essays were bobbing on its surface. The Necronomicon disappeared beneath the smoky waves.
“I made it as large as I could,” said Cardamom, gesturing to the almost invisible panel. “Even so, it’s pretty unwieldy. If you write small, you might be able to fit a good first draft on it.” The smoke was up to his chest as he set it against the wall.
“I’ll be right back,” he said and dove below the surface with a splash.
Doctor Garbanzo looked around the room. The only sound was pouring smoke. It was up to his neck now. It smelled good. It smelled like a day at the beach.
Professor Cardamom swam to the surface. In one hand he held a key and, in the other, an ornately carved box of an unknown material. Struggling to stay afloat, he unlocked the box. Inside it was what looked like a phosphorescent highlighter, pulsing and glowing yellow and pink, purple and gold. Yellow and pink, purple and gold.
He handed it to Garbanzo.
“Start writing fast Doc, the story’s almost over.”
Garbanzo was about to hand Cardamom his pipe back when he felt something brush up against his leg.
“What was that?” he shrieked.
“What did you expect?” responded the Professor as he stared into the murky waters beneath him. “That you could delve deep into the subconscious as easy as hopping in and out of a pool? There are terrifying things down there, and—“
But that was all he got out. There was a quick, frantic splashing, an ascent of bubbles, and then nothing. Cardamom was gone, and so was the office.
Doctor Garbanzo found himself alone on an endless, tar-scented sea. His mind recoiled as he began to imagine what kind of creatures might be below him. Tobacco sharks. Nicotine squids. Chawdads. He swam in fear, not knowing in which direction he went. Clutching the pipe and the glowing marker, he swam until his arms were too tired to continue. Still, there was nothing for miles except the billowing waves of smoke.
Muscles giving out, Garbanzo gave up. Garbanzo gave into temptation. As he sank into the depths he put the smoldering pipe between his teeth and took a long drag. He was shocked to discover that he could breathe through the pipe like some sort of carcinogenic scuba mask.
He sank lower and lower, blowing bubbles through the pipe. The marker’s faint luminescence shone around his hands in shimmering pink and yellow. Purple and gold. All around him—just out of the dim halo of light—he could see the deformed silhouettes of swimming things.
Without warning, his forehead bumped into something in the darkness. It almost knocked the pipe down his throat.
The object was flat and hard, and bigger than a door, but nearly clear. Holding the marker up to it, he saw a gentle reflection.
It was the plexiglass tablet.
Doctor Garbanzo brought the tip of his glowing magical marker to the surface of the invisible page. He was ready to write the story.
After W.S. Graham
“…His job is Love
Imagined into words or paint to make
An object that will stand and will not move.” *
The paradox of flowing fluid stuff,
now fixed, fastened into place, constrained.
I cannot think of love bereft of breath,
to bind in print or frame must be to maim—
to crush the life.
Imagination must be the hinge to this,
first artist’s, glimpsing truth along the path
and setting snare in place and time precise
to catch the creature in a trap of glass—
the object stands.
But now another’s heart imagines out—
the one who comes to view the captured beast,
who sees its lines, and hears its colours shout,
who runs with it, to join it in the feast—
here is the life.
The object stands, it does not move, it is caught well,
yet sparks delight, like children freed from school with all to tell.
*from The Thermal Stair, by W.S. Graham.
My Four-Year Old Annotates a Third Draft of One of My Recent Poems
Her request carries
weight like a doctor
welcoming you to her office
for a tough conversation
about your cholesterol
and how you need to finally
Daddy, I’m gonna mark up your poem, OK?
She’s seen me do this dozens of times:
mark, cross out, scratch, toss.
Who more qualified
than a future kindergartner
learning to read?
I place the poem on the kitchen table
and she swiftly begins her surgery,
her tongue sticking out
to maximize precision.
It turns out her pen is harsher
than my own. Nearly every line
has a crossed out word. Her squiggles
slash into the margins like
scalpels spilling ink.
She points out two words she’s circled:
Her post-op chat is brief.
Here, Daddy. This
is what it’s all about.
The Data Shows
to the Dean who complained about my grading down for errors
What you don’t know: I come from a family of exacting readers.
My seminary professor grandfather deducted half a point
for each mistake in sacred English, regardless of how erudite
the sermon, how noble the commentary on sin and suffering.
It’s in my blood, this insistence on perfection. It’s a calling.
My mother corrected my spelling before my 8-year-old
thank you notes could earn a stamp, my father’s Sunday dinner
ruined if a mistake slipped into the Daily News. He mandated
erasers for each desk, drawer, and lunchbox, even
on the nightstand in case dream reverie materialized.
But you and I don’t indulge in ethnography when you call
me sur le tapis, on the carpet, for the B Minus I doled out,
a furious student blasting my course, threatening to report
me to the Provost. 37 errors. Second draft. Nonetheless,
I continue to believe in the possibility of learning. In draft one,
my X-Acto knife listed five repeated mistakes: 1) inappropriate
use of semi-colons, those sticky squiggles applied
with a squirt gun, 2) lack of singular/plural agreement,
that drunken confusion about how many people conspire
behind closed doors, 3) inconsistent tense, that slick
two-step where the dancer falls over his/her feet,
Viennese waltz already ended, 4) haphazard capitalization,
the habit of putting top hats on benches, low-lying bushes
in Grand Central Park, and 5) a criminal offense in social science,
the word “data” paired with “shows” or “defies”, that coy
inability to count, statistics bandied about like magicians’
scarves. I referred her to the Writing Center. She refused.
She has more important ways to spend her god-given time.
So do I. Grade stands.
Procrustes and the Procrastinator
That night James fell headlong asleep into his calendar. He found each deadline fronting him in the form of a high black fence. He surveyed the span from each to next, and calculated the effort required for the crossing.
And then there at his bed’s foot stood the reckoner himself, Procrustes—that terrible master craftsman of ancient time—bearing in his baldric the yardstick, the chain, and the axe.
“Wherefore do you press so near to your deadlines?” Procrustes demanded. “How do you bear the strain?”
“I thrive on it,” James told him. “Panic hones my nerves.”
“Tomorrow noon wants two thousand words on the value of liberal arts education in today’s economy. Will you deliver these words timely?”
“How can you ask?” said James. “I’ll do what I always do: get up at ten, chug my coffee and start typing like mad. Whatever I’ve got by noon is what I submit.”
“Will the offering be intelligent and well-crafted?”
“Of course. It’s like, a tight deadline compresses my brain, and that’s when my best wit springs out.”
The old forge-artisan, Procrustes, flexed his muscle to wheel round the great crank. The bed’s foot lurched toward its head. James felt his bones telescoping into brilliance. Showers of smart-sparks flicked out from each tortured joint.
“Yes!” he cried. “Like this! You see? This is why I always cut it so close.”
“I see. You are some species of masochist?”
“Not quite that. It’s just… well, pain yields product.” He bit his lip. “I know it exacts a cost. The whole ordeal breaks me down a little more each time. I know one of these days—”
“Two thousand words,” intoned Procrustes—he spoke of words as inches, evenhanded, all the same— “an equal measure, treating the narcissism of Millennials, stands due at eight weeks hence. Will you delay this too, until scant hours remain you?”
“Nah. I intend to let that one stretch out the whole eight weeks. Pick at it here and there in between other tasks. It’s such a worn-out topic by now, you know.” James yawned. “I’ll let it stew and simmer in much more concentration than it deserves. How’s the saying go? Your work expands to fill up the time you have to do it in. I’ll overthink it and revise it through a dozen different versions and it’ll all come out to the same thing in the end.”
Procrustes, the trickster smith, the king of proportion, now unwound his iron chain and cuffed James’s wrists and ankles to the bed’s posts. The crank groaned in the opposite direction. James’s tendons loosened beyond their elastic. Tissues disarticulated, muscle fibers unbundled, and froth rushed in to fill the vacuums.
James sighed through his distended lungs. Was he, indeed, a masochist? Why did he allow himself to take such abuse, again and again? He studied his tormentor’s hard brow and felt the grip of his fingers, too firm even to writhe against.
He took time to think.
He considered how he was nearly forty, and how that number felt like a graphic halving, opening out a cross-section slice of himself with two pale lung-bubbles, a marbled field of viscera, and a narrow-gauge needle’s-eye spine.
He remembered his boyhood foot pressed against the sliding sizer at the shoe store: the feel of its cold steel surface through his striped sock, and how the salesman’s friendly hands pushed it inward to meet toe and heel; and he thought of the similarly growing feet of the thousands of other children who were shooting up taller by the day, even now, making ever-new measure-marks with their rising heads, checked dutifully each year at the doctor’s: a rising slope and a crest and a spurt and a long, slow, coasting decline.
And he thought of running track in high school—the staggered starts correcting for the bends farther on, the hundred yards and the hundred meters, the relays, catching up, tortoises and hares.
And he thought of all the hours he’d suffered through now, at his desk before a clock, all his experience at watching flipping digits segment the hour into discrete phases of feeling—first an open play, then a tighter focus, at last the wild final sprint when all standards flew off at hazard—how all of this had taught him the weights of milestones falling one by one before the end, the footboard, the tombstone.
“What if I miss a deadline?” he asked, quietly.
Procrustes’ eyes stared hollow. “What if? You are the writer, not I.”
“But words aren’t guaranteed to come…. are they? What happens if I just stop? Quit? Miss it? Then what?”
“Then you will not be paid,” Procrustes replied. “Can you afford to try your consequences?”
James imagined the slice at his ankles, the gush and ebb of his lifeblood from his extremities, the amputation of all hope—or, alternatively, the gash at his jugular, and his mind itself piping away: the onset of oblivion at the reckoner’s implacable hands.
A thrill and a throb shook through his diaphragm.
“No,” he said at last. “I can’t afford it. That’s the bottom line.”
In silence Procrustes withdrew, and left James chained to bed-length.
As dawn approached, the dream-chains crumbled away; and then, as always, only the calendar remained.
I unfold poems to shed
their methods, scan for smallish
flaws. Bared, many seem married
or smell of sex, flirty
without disrobing. They speak
of oyster pearls or peacock plumes,
Holsteins, or fishnet stockings,
how to handle snakes or tame bears.
The gorgeous ones, I unfurl with envy;
Roethke’s spotting the sadness of pencils.
Olds’ letting sparks fly as she strikes
her tiny parents’ genitalia together.
And then, I re-fold them into tiny shapes—
a swan or perhaps a kite, and sail them
through the air.
The Last Typewriter
Computer language seeds our electric discourse
With double punctuation:
/r Carriage return.
/n New Line.
Originally intended for underlines
(go back and type again) on jerking paper rolls,
Sightless tape reels spinning
Pushing code into the world inkily.
So PHP and java and perl—
Our web-weavers past and present—
Tug a virtual Selectric back to start,
Then roll the feeder.
Every ASCII ^M and code 13 rings with the ghost of a chrome chime.
After the antique store sells its last beige “word processor”
A thirteenth-generation AI may pause
To wonder at her grammar:
The last typewriter
In the stories a scrap of copied code /r /n
Whispers to itself.