Jeff Oaks

The Writing Life, Writing Prompts, Essays on the Ordinary

Reading Poetry: Jan Freeman’s Blue Structure

All last year, full of anxiety after the election, I read mostly poets from the past, poets who had lived through worse things than the Trump Presidency. I read Rukeyser, Akhmatova, Brecht, and Rich mostly. I reread David Young’s three translations of Paul Celan. I didn’t read much of anything else except for a few escapist fantasy novels and book and articles I was using in classes. I have trouble reading when I’m feeling anxious. (I can hardly read when happy either, if I’m thinking about my reading and its moods.)

But a year of that is enough, isn’t it? Since this year’s an election year, I think to myself, maybe we can change control of the legislature enough to stop the Republican plans to give the commonwealth of the nation to a few families who already have more money than they can ever spend. I hope we can anyway, and that hope has given me a little buoyancy as a reader, enough to spend some time with some books I read last year but had been unable to write about. I had thought to write a lot more about poetry last year for this blog, as a way to resist the awful despair I felt, but I could not overcome that despair and rage enough to actually write blog pieces.

The first book I want to talk about is Jan Freeman’s book Blue Structure. It was published in 2016 by Calypso Editions but I didn’t get it until 2017. It’s a beautifully made, slim book about grief and loss. As poetry, it is intimate and almost vatic at the same time as it traces by way of voice–often using repetition the way a bat uses sonar to build its world out of cry and ear–the spaces where the poet finds herself after several close deaths.

So voice is several things at once: a plumb line for building a house or a boundary line; a form of intimate conversation; proof of grief; and lifeboat. It is what the poet has left that might reach the dead whose presence is both inside and outside her simultaneously, who still inhabit the narrator’s space and must be re-housed as she begins to re-make that space in order to live in it. I love the beauty and strangeness of Freeman’s poems, which remind me of Rukeyser’s voice at times but are all her own.

Blue Structure is a book of you and I’s, of addresses to gone but still beloved and longed-for presences. The poems search through myth, through family stories, through secrets, as they keep talking, singing, remembering, and grieving all at once. My favorites are these: “An Old Dog Lay Down On a Sandy Road,” “A Song,” “Hands,” “Voices,” “An Accounting,” and “The Secret”.

Here’s the title poem Blue Structure, published at the Ekphrastic Review. It will give you a sense of Freeman’s voice, although there are other structures–tight, gorgeous lyrics and a couple of delicate sequences- within the book I think you’ll find equally beautiful.

I recommend the book for anyone. The grief and love throughout are certainly personal to Freeman but her voice opens the poems up to any reader who has felt that strange new world the death of a parent, close friend, or lover leaves you in.


Poetry Workshop: a syllabus

Sestina Using Words Banned at the CDC, December 2017

“Because everything now is vulnerable

to subjectivity only those with the proper kind of entitlement

should be quoted. Because we love unity, diversity

in any form— be it transition, transgender,

or transformation— should be ignored. Refrain from fetus

and use baby or young Christian as evidence

you would still like your jobs. There should be no evidence

there is anything that is actually vulnerable

except the rich and their children. The word fetus

can be alive or dead, and cannot vote. The entitlement

to life, love, and happiness no longer includes the transgender.

The only correct forms of diversity

are stocks and bonds, as in a strong diversity

of portfolio investments is essential. Any evidence

that life requires complexities like transgender

citizens will be removed. Remember: what’s vulnerable

is always economic; all American entitlement

depends upon it. And silence about the dead. The fetus

should never be equated with a woman. The so-called fetus

cannot be kissed in a crowd like a baby. A diversity

of citizens is a disaster to the simpler entitlement

our rich deserve. There is much evidence

of this. The rise of unions makes vulnerable

the rise of donors the way the existence of transgender

citizens throws all men into confusion. When transgender

is allowed, what will be next? The fate of any fetus

must be tied to its sex, otherwise it’s vulnerable

to bullies. Everything is easier without diversity.

This is for everyone’s good. We have evidence

of enormous cruelty. Please do not mention entitlement

as no one wants to hear they have entitlement.

No one wants to hear about the transgender

among us, whose very existence some evidence

suggests might twist the life of any god-fearing fetus.

We mean babies. Even saying the word diversity,

you can tell, can make any of us vulnerable,

and vulnerable in ways our various entitlements

can’t fix. Diversity and terms like transgender

and fetus suggest choices. Avoid that kind of evidence.”

The Televisions 

In my locker room there’s now a mounted television, and it’s always on. Sports, of course, as if all men… Where there had been just peace some mornings before the day began with its various responsibilities. As if the silence of the old room were a 20th century oppression, filled with the sounds of zipping and unbuttoning. Now that the evidence against us is clear and everywhere. Haven’t we made war in every instance of war? Haven’t we silenced the women who wanted to speak? Aren’t we keeping cruelty in power? And the children who had other ideas than ours—? There used to be comfortable silences: in the bathroom with the paper, in the shower with a song, out for a walk with dog. Now, even when I’m filling up the car at the gas station, there’s a television in the center of the pump that turns on automatically in case the sound of my consciousness as I step out of my black vehicle whispers something about the plastic-coated ocean, the radioactive fish, the whales dying in waves. Black men killed and no one found to blame. The television in the phone. The television in the watch. The tiny televisions within the television! Those young men who cannot sit still without a monster truck shaking the air around them to pieces. Whom can they hear saying no, or help? After all they’d been promised by their fathers who came home after a long day for the television, the sound turned up full to drown out everything that might have required more. Televisions on every floor. Televisions in every room. Televisions growing thinner and thinner. Better stereo. Better definition. As the nation fattens on dull self-affirmations.  Always on in case a self grows wild in a crack of silence and speaks out of turn, a blossom of hope, a lull in want, a welling of what? Patience for the world of need, of love? A drinking in of have? 

The House Next Door: a diary

All the house reports died in April, and I’m sorry about that.  I was worried for legal reasons about putting so much information out here. Things have finally improved, I’m glad to say, but it has taken a lot of money, a lot of patience and careful work. We are at the moment safe and the house isn’t about to fall down.  

Sadly, the insurance company has been useless, the contractors and developers have been absolutely silent (no one has still apologized), and most of my legal/governmental sources of protection proved useless. We ended up using our own money to put in a drain and replace our water heater and furnace.  I’m in the process of refinancing the house, which is something I should’ve done before, to renovate the house.  Maybe we’ll sell in a year when M graduates and hits the job market. 

Still, the amount of silence from so many quarters was startling, frustrating, and humbling. These silences were largely male and completely white, I need to mark. I came to understand why certain people come to believe that government is of no help to them, that their tax dollars are disappearing into vast silences, behind closed and indifferent doors. 

Some days I despaired. Some days I raged. Some nights I was sure I was having a heart attack. Some days I feared I was going insane. Some people live whole lives there. Some people virtually shut down in order to get through life. They certainly stop thinking anyone else can help. 

If I hadn’t had an inheritance, if I didn’t have my family who offered help if we needed it, if I didn’t have my work to distract me, if my work didn’t pay me enough money to keep my bills paid, if I didn’t have my husband to talk things out with, or the dog to walk… 

Or if I had had access to a gun or had had no mindfulness practices….

I spent an enormous amount of time self-medicating by playing Skyrim or binge-watching RuPaul’s Drag Race.  Both those things require a certain access to technology and culture.

Meanwhile, we read constantly about the raising of rates on epi-pens and basic prescription drugs, of the loss of basic health services, of the enormous salaries and bonuses given to CEOs who leave after doing bad jobs. The beneficiaries of all this money are largely white, rich, men, who work hard to keep attention away from themselves. Look at those people of color, they say, that’s where the real problem is. Look at those gay people trying to act like real people and be married, they say. Can you believe all those women using tax money to kill babies? Those lazy people wanting to be paid for their inactivity? 

I do feel the return to the days when Silence=Death. I’ve resisted it, because I hate any simple equation like that. Silence has often equaled rest, pleasure, relief, and thought. We can’t be silent, however, about the losses about to be inflicted upon us, our neighbors, and our communities. 

One gift is this: we’ll know more in the end. I know more about my own house now, about building codes, refinancing, about the need to go and protest virtually every development you have any question about. It is awful, mind-numbing work, but it has to be done; we have to dedicate ourselves to it, even make art out of it, if we can. 

The House Next Door: a diary

On Sunday evening, while we were away at Easter dinner, a big explosive thunderstorm dumped a lot of water on Pittsburgh.  When we came home, we found this 

Yes, more water in the basement. Thankfully, the firemen came again and pumped out the worst of it. (Please give to your local fire and rescue people when you get the opportunity.)

But this time, the water got into the furnace and the water heater, which, I found out on Monday means they have to be completely replaced. Completely.  They were brand new last June, I should add. 

When the claims guy came from my insurance company, he told me not to expect that either of them will be paid for because normally water damage isn’t covered unless you specifically have flood insurance.  

He may be able to get us enough money to fix the stairs that separated from the wall, but the company could also just say that it’s settling of an old house, which they also don’t generally cover. 

An engineer arrived yesterday to do a full report on the damage. He spent nearly two hours assessing, photographing, and talking to me.  Of course he couldn’t tell me his opinion or preview his report, so I have no idea what to expect there. 

So, in the absence of hope, I’m today talking to a lawyer and venturing out into that great American adventure of suing someone. 

Meanwhile despite a dozen phone calls to the developers, not one of them returned, and despite my exposing to the head contractor about the simplest thing he could do to stop this from happening

When I saw Dan in person, I explained how the missing curb was leading to the water running directly into his lot and then my basement. He seemed to understand, but nothing really changed. There were several times I wanted to go over into the lot and show him how to do it, but I restrained myself from treating Dan like a bad student who has to be shown how to do something before he catches on.  

Let me repeat: all the damage done could have been avoided if the contractors had simply erected a temporary curb or kept the curb line clear. My furnace would still be okay. The hot water would’ve been okay.  The house wouldn’t stink of evaporating muddy water. One person taking ten minutes and a shovel or a half-dozen sand bags could have fixed everything.  But nobody did anything.  

I sometimes imagine how, if I hadn’t had my former student to turn to, to make calls for me to the developers, if I were an ordinary person with no connection to any power, this could drive a person to do violence. All the silence, all the ignorance, all the determination not to notice what’s wrong and how to fix things in a simple way, is maddening. 

It is of course not made better by living in a country where one’s desires are routinely ignored, where the men in power will smile politely but not consider anything outside their pre-programmed agenda. There are no problems for them. Or there problems but we’ll fix them, you just wait.  Or in Dan’s immortal words: “This will all pass soon.”

So now I have to hire a lawyer to make myself heard. 

The House Next Door: a diary; or Men’s Silences

On Monday, rain was expected, and I was worried that the site was still not prepared in case we got another all day rainfall. I tried to call the company whose truck I’d seen– DeFrank Development–but the number on the Better Business Bureau was not in service. I looked up the developer on the Allegheny Real Estate Website and found PennRegent, found their website, which is sleek and hip, but couldn’t find a clear way to reach them. I found their site on Facebook and messaged them with my concerns and asked if they could help. No one answered. Finally, growing more and more concerned, I posted on a social site NextDoor Lawrenceville, asking if anyone knew the contractor’s number? One of my neighbors suggested trying the our neighborhood business/ development organization, Lawenceville United, so I called them. 

In the small world of Pittsburgh, it turns out that one of my old students is now the director of that organization, and I explained to him the situation, which he understood immediately. He gave me the number of one of the developers, but my message went directly to voicemail. So I called back my old student, who said he’d put in a call himself to the younger of the father and son development team. A little after that, he said, Zach would call me. Nothing.  Who did finally call me was Dan, who’d clearly gotten the message that I was worried. He assured me that he’d make sure that they’d build a barrier to replace the curb, and everything would be taken care of. 

Great, I said, glad to hear it. 

And then I came home after teaching that day, I found this: 

But now I had Dan’s direct number, so I called him. (And, I should admit, some amount of soul-searching because nearly every voice in my head was saying, oh, don’t bother that nice guy; maybe nothing will happen; maybe we won’t actually get rain; do you really want to be a pain; who are you to tell Dan how to do his job?).  But I could see what was wrong very clearly:

If you take out the curb, you have to set up a new one where the old curb was. So, I told Dan, somebody’s got to come down here and rake that gravel back about three feet, move these sand bags behind the gravel to support it against the water flow.  Otherwise, these sand bags are going to trap the water into a pool right in front of my house and that’s not good either.  

I tried to talk to him about how water runs down the street, that you can’t trap it or, as he was thinking, redirect it. You have to give it passage.  “Well,” he said finally, “you know best how water works on your street. I’ll send someone down to fix it.” 

I thanked him and went into the house feeling irritated that I’d had to explain what seemed to me to be a completely obvious engineering issue and glad I’d had the courage to speak, to “persist” against the voices that told me to just keep quiet, to go along with the boys, to not make waves.  I was enormously exhausted. 

Two hours later, a young man named Christian, as if out of an allegory, arrived and dig exactly what I’d explained to Dan needed to be done. He’d been sent alone. I stayed up in case he needed anything. For another hour or two, he shoveled and positioned and repositioned sand and gravel. When he was finished he knocked on the door to show me his labor, which was exactly right. I should’ve ordered him a pizza. I said I was sorry he’d had to come out but how grateful I was that he had. He shook my hand cheerfully. 

There was no more water in the basement, or just a little dampness that would disappear soon. 

I thought, okay, I can rest a bit now. I’ve made my point. They know what to do. They won’t do it again. 

Yesterday, I came home to this: 

And a forecast of rain, lots of it.

The House Next Door: a diary


All of this writing is about men. In this undertaking, I am surrounded by men. Not one of the developers is a woman. Not one of the firemen staring at the water in my basement was a woman. I’ve not seen one woman working as a laborer for Dan, the guy who seems to manage things at the ground level. I’m trying to keep my eye on that. 


Anyway, once the firemen got the hose through the back door and into the basement and turned on their pump, and the water began flowing out of my house and into the nearby storm sewer, which took longer than you would’ve thought but worked finally; and once the dozen firemen left (the chief pointing out to me as he was going how the construction next door caused all this by impeding the flow of water down the street) with my many, many thanks; and after I made a quick trip to Home Depot to buy a Wayne Waterbug, my new favorite appliance,

to pump out the rest, a process that took until 4 am and which necessitated I stay downstairs all night to move it occasionally to a new spot; after all that, the house felt somewhat secure again. I was exhausted at last like the loved one who’d been sitting up with a friend who’d undergone an operation. I slept from 5 to maybe 7am. It has become the weekend, and as I go down to make sure no water’s come back in (none has), I call my insurance agent to tell her the whole story.


Yadda yadda yadda.


Here enters the only woman in the story: Patty. Who gives the most practical advice about how to handle things. #1. Try one more time to get the contractor’s insurance certificate; #2. If they don’t produce one, put a claim in via my insurance company, and “let the company go after them.” That way, she tells me, you don’t have to worry about it. She tells me things in very reassuring ways: here’s what your deductible is; here is the number for the claims adjuster’ here’s what you tell him or her. Of all the people in the story, I’ve known Patty for nearly 20 years, when I went with my mother to get my first auto insurance. The memory of my mother lingers around Patty like a perfume, so I tend to trust her. 

“And you are taking pictures of everything, aren’t you?” she asks. 

The House Next Door: a diary


The days go on. The basement hole next door is dug. Men come and go and I try to leave my house before they arrive. In the dark this morning, just as the furnace turns off, I hear the dog breathing steadily, each breath with a little chime in it, so that in the suddenly very quiet house each breath is the ping of sonar. With rain falling around us, the house is a submarine. Upstairs, my husband still sleeps. In about fifteen minutes, at seven a.m., he’ll get up and shower and get ready for work then come down and he and the dog will go through their morning ritual of hugging, scratching, and going out into the kitchen to eat breakfast. Their sweetness with each other is better than any poem that I might write, any sentences I might construct about it. This is the thing people try to cultivate inside the places they live, these kinds of rituals of love and kindness and mutuality. 


Then on Friday night, as I’m settling on the couch with dog, I hear a noise: the furnace tries to turn on but then make a little thump. Tries again and ends again with a thump. I think, oh shit, that new furnace is already fucking up, so I get up and go down into the basement to see if I can see anything. 

And I see water. Water in my basement, at least a couple of inches deep, to judge from a single two by four I had standing against the wall at the bottom of the steps. 

And I think holy shit. And in my head there’s a chattering of birds taking off, a kind of white noise of panic. I text my husband 

Then it occurred to me to call our friends the Sabo’s, who are long-time home owners and practical people. Bob tells me to call 911, to tell them the water is threatening the furnace and then to call him back. I should say that Bob is a retired commander in the 911 system, so if he says to do something, I do it. 

And they patch me through immediately. I’m surprised and feeling just a little guilty. I’m afraid I’ll be pulling them from a heart attack or an actual fire, I think as I stand outside in the still-falling rain watching for their red lights. I have a hard time thinking not involving death is an emergency. 

Here’s the quick recap:

Greet men, walk them to the basement, they go down, they ask me if my drain is plugged, I say there’s no drain, there’s never been one, and I’ve never had one, and then I say, you might want to turn off the furnace and water heater, because I hadn’t thought to and they have waterproof boots on, and one of them goes over and indeed flips the right fuses. I ask if they can tell anything about the kind of water it is, and the man who seems the most senior says he can tell it’s at least not sewage because there’s no stink. But whether it’s from rain runoff or a broken water line, he can’t tell yet. One man asks if there’s anything they can save for me, gesturing at the shelves full of crap, and I say no, there’s nothing on those. Everything important is in the plastic bins behind the stairs. Then I joke that we were going to clean out a lot of the stuff anyway, now we have a real reason to. It’s true, thankfully. Joking helps return to reality.

What I’m really worried about is whether anything big, foundational, has been cracked. But they can’t tell me where there’s any clear break in the wall near the construction, or if there’s a crack in the floor. Nothing is pouring out or bubbling up that any of us can see. The lack of a clear cause does not of course make me feel better. I wanted a clear reason to sue the contractors.

What I really want (I quietly think) is to sell the house and run away. 

After a bit, my friend Bob comes over, which makes the dog especially happy; at least one familiar face! It’s the first time his tail has wagged all night. And I am equally grateful for a man who can speak both my language of frightened home-owner and the language of firefighting and rescue men. I’ve mostly been throwing funny quips at them and trying not to be irritated when one after another asks me the same question about the drain they’re sure the house has. No, I keep saying. I’ve never needed one. This has never happened before. No, really. 

In their uniforms and enormous boots, their mostly hidden faces, they all present formidable, mythically masculine figures, but they are all kind and quiet. Here are men willing to tackle disaster, even maybe interested in it. They’ve all taken turns going down and looking at the shallow sea my basement has become. 

The House Next Door: a diary

March 27/

Damages so far: 

The top right corner of the housefront has lost its plaster/cement. It was patched quite a while ago, and had been looking a little weak lately, but when the contractors banged the chain link fence into one day, it clearly gave way. Its pieces fell into the trench they dug. I’m going to have to tell them I expect them to fix it. My in-laws have told me to call my insurance company first, in case they want to go after them. 
The other thing we’ve noticed is that the inside stairs, which were just fixed a few years ago, have pulled out somewhat (between an 1/4 inch to a 1/2 from the wall), making them more dangerous, more likely to break. You can see the dark places where they’ve moved away from their normal slots in the structure. 

Other lesser strains: Nerves, tempers. Michael started to fall asleep last night but then had a dream in which a gigantic crack opened up in the bedroom wall near his head. He was up after that and never quite fell back to sleep. 

Yesterday, we went downstairs to inspect the walks. He’d only been down there a few times, so when he started pointing out cracks in the plaster, I had to say, “no, that was there.” Most of that wall is plaster and stone and worse is covered by a pegboard over the big worktable done there. There was nothing more that I could see. 

My relationship to cracks is that I don’t like them, in houses most deeply, but also in arguments, in friendships, in my own personality. I’m not forgiving of any threat of loss. What I can’t prevent, I’m given to abandoning. I’m not given to optimistic scenarios of mending fences or burying hatchets. Of course one could say that I’ve crafted a teaching and administrative career out of fixing problems, of anticipating difficulties. If there were none, I wouldn’t have my job. 

I am enchanted every time someone on Facebook posts an example of the Japanese art of kintsugi, in which a broken bowl is repaired with a lacquer dusted with gold, that brokenness can result in a more beautiful object. I believe that “there is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” But those are aesthetic ideas I can’t actually live inside, how ever much I might admire them. I want my house to be safe and secure. The only light I want coming in should be from the windows. 

Poetry is a kind of kintsugi, isn’t it? Maybe all art is. A simultaneous recognition of a break with the normal world we auto-pilot through and of our ability to transform discomfort, grief, rage, into something bearable, even interesting. Am I appreciating this old house now, as it exists under pressure, or do I just want to sell it off and run away? Mostly the latter. But where in this rapidly gentrifying city would I now be able to settle? 

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