Synchronized Chaos April 2020: Stone Soup

Stone Soup is a European folk story in which hungry strangers convince the people of a town to each share a small amount of their food in order to make a meal that everyone enjoys, and exists as a moral regarding the value of sharing.

Stone Soup can also be taken as a fable about how every person’s small, but unique, contributions can add up to something quite nourishing. That is a wonderful metaphor easily translatable to each issue of Synchronized Chaos.

Right now much of the world is physically distanced from each other, and most people are spending much more time in their homes due to the coronavirus outbreak. Yet we are finding ways to connect, ways to pursue our unique creative gifts and share them with others through virtual community.

I, personally, have been able to interact with a more geographically diverse set of artists and writers than before, visiting virtual versions of events that would have been located far away from me. And I’ve watched each person bring something to the soup pot in the face of illness and grief – whether it’s sadness and trauma, humor, hope, kindness, eccentricity, eclectic knowledge, or confidence, it’s flavored the shared meal. As the old saying goes – no one can do everything, but everyone can do something. And your ‘something,’ whatever it is, can be brought to the table and included.

Film critic Jaylan Salah takes up a conversation with Egyptian satirist and scriptwriter Haitham Dabbour. In it, they explore the ways that we seek to transcend our inevitable mortality, whether by writing and creating, by falling in love later in life, or through obsessions with martyrdom and heroism.

Christopher Bernard reviews a transcendent dance show from the Joffrey Ballet, performed recently at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall. Various pieces embodied the punk spirit of defiance, the determination of space exploration, and human strength.

Abigail George’s essay poetically advocates a more mindful approach to both romantic love and to writing. She strives for more depth and empathy in both endeavors, hoping that our hearts will open enough to embrace refugees and the displaced.

Photographer: Iain Bagwell, Food Stylist: Randy Mon Prop Stylist: Emma Star Jensen

Five contributors directly discuss the coronavirus outbreak. J.K. Durick chronicles the daily dislocation and elongation of time of sheltering in place at home, while Joan Beebe points forward to a time of hope. Michael Robinson shares a poem reflective of his sorrow over our losses, while Christopher Bernard describes the grotesque loveliness of San Francisco’s empty streets.

Norman J. Olson polemicizes in the second half of his essay about his Mexican vacation that governments should fight coronavirus by investing in human services and medical research rather than war.

In Mahbub’s selections this month, death is present, an unromantic and everyday occurrence brought about by the carelessness of random humans. Yet life, and romantic love, are also present, and just as much a part of everyday existence.

Hallmarks Home and Family in Dollywood 2016

Michael Robinson’s other set of poems was inspired by his time in a nursing home. They suggest that beauty, and human love, can outlast time, violence and death, even when they do not always triumph in the moment.

John Sweet writes of individuals adrift in decaying towns, lost amid hopeless environments.

Ike Boat, the Poetrician from Ghana, versifies about his Facebook friends, who bring him succor and encouragement while he’s in a difficult financial situation at the beginning of his artistic career.

J.D. DeHart explores how artists can use the graphic novel medium to illustrate serious issues, how the form itself does not have to negate the weight of the themes. Daniel De Culla’s piece resembles the style of a graphic novel, pointing out the obscenity of religiously motivated violence.

Ahmad al-Khatat’s poems play on and draw out the different meanings of words, the different images that words can bring to mind. Some of his pieces probe the complex psyches and memories of survivors of wartime violence.

In the same vein, Jeremy Karn’s first piece comes from a young soul bemoaning ever being born, yet the next piece reflects the joy of hearing everyday, amusing kitchen sounds.

J.J. Campbell writes of the powerlessness of sickness and bodily weakness along with his regular themes of depression and loneliness. Chimezie Ihekuna urges single readers not to assume that marriage will magically improve their lives.

Using a unique, but specific creation ritual, Mark Young touches on what we know, what we sort of know, and what we think we know, and how little any of that sometimes has to do with what is explicitly stated.

Christopher Bernard reviews The Return, the fourth part of Eunice Odio’s poetry collection The Fire’s Journey. In his view, the volume deals with the darkness after expending one’s brilliant light, about the return to normalcy after the moment of creation.

Shelby Stephenson’s winsome piece celebrates a writer he knows and loves, while Leticia Escalera finds joy and inspiration in the companionship of her pets.

Finally, most explicitly in the spirit of this month, poet Joe Balaz points out in Hawaiian pidgin that our lives aren’t entirely our own, but a combination of what everyone brings to the table.

Fill up a cup and join us in reading this month’s issue. Dinner’s ready!

Recipe by Sharon Palmer, for real Stone Soup

The Writer’s Fear of Extinction: Conversations with Egyptian Satirist and Scriptwriter Haitham Dabbour (by Jaylan Salah)

In 2017, I went to the cinema to watch an Egyptian movie titled Photocopy which stars two middle-aged actors playing the roles of an elderly couple, finding love and a way of remembrance in the old streets of Cairo.

The film was beautifully written, acted and directed. It strayed off from the inadequacies in which the nostalgia movement was embedded; it was neither romantic nor sentimental but a character study of a decently educated man who grew up alone in lower-middle-class Cairo and was afraid of extinction.

Mahmoud “Photocopy” as his neighbors call him is a 60-year-old man who owns an ancient photocopier machine, providing services such as typewriting and stenography for the neighborhood. His daily life is intercepted by a young man who asks for his typewriting skills regarding scientific research that he is preparing about the extinction of dinosaurs. This strikes a chord with Mahmoud who begins questioning his identity and the basis of his own existence especially since his feelings for his cancer survivor neighbor, the beautiful aging Safiya, begin taking a different toll.

I read an article somewhere about how writing is about to become an extinct profession since printing paper is almost going to become scarce in the future and printing will not be as abundant as it is today. And I thought to myself; if writing became extinct, what would that make me?

Since extinction was a major theme in the plot of Photocopy, I looked around until I found Haitham Dabbour’s –the scriptwriter- contacts and what began as an interview regarding Photocopy turned into a conversation with a fine intellectual about fatherhood, extinction and the art of the written word.

“I am excited about this interview because it is not a classical, monotonous one, but more of a conversation. I prefer [reading] this type of essays because it makes me get inside the head of the person being interviewed and thus he or she appear closer than they really are,”

Dabbour started the conversations with a warm welcome, expressing his enthusiasm. This was the first gate through which I entered his world. Dabbour was a fan of analysis, character studies and peeling layers off people. This was evident in his short story collection Vivid imagination – Eshy Khayal as well as his two feature films Photocopy and Gunshot – Eyar Nary.

(A scene from Haitham Dabbour’s second feature Gunshot)

“I am also impressed that you read the books of the writer whom you interview, which rarely happens these days. People who read are rare these days, not just in Egypt but worldwide. Reading and comparing literary and film adaptations, researching your interview subject and discovering my satirist bibliography, all these are factors that excite me about this interview.”

I asked Dabbour about his favorite genre or writing format, and to that he replied,

“I love experimentation and I write different literally and artistic forms. I wrote satirist books that became bestsellers and were sold everywhere. I wrote poetry and won the Ahmed Fouad Negm Prize for colloquial poetry. I published two short story collections; one of them included a story which was adapted into a short film titled Single – Fardy starring Khaled El Nabawy –Egyptian actor of International fame- and the other collection Vivid Imagination contained the short story from which my feature film Photocopy was adapted. After a while, the challenge comes down to; do I write something that I guarantee will become a bestseller or do I write something that would appeal to people? The easiest thing in the world is drifting into the idea of creating bestsellers and thus making more and more of them. However, I am certain that you write because you have something to say not because people force you or semi-manipulate you into writing it.”

Dabbour is a very precise and calculated personality, but his answers are lengthy and rich, like a bowl of creamy soup. Yes, all the ingredients are made en pointe, but it takes a while to absorb the taste and finish the bowl;

“My writings blend elements of magical realism into the narrative. Take for example Vivid Imagination, all stories blend elements of strict realism while breaking the logical limits of living. Imagination gives reality a magical element. My background as a non-fiction essay writer and investigative journalist is prominent through my first short story collection Horseback – Dahr El Khayl which handles reality through a different aspect in addition to adopting a condensed writing technique which describes daily routines from regular lives.”

Talking to Dabbour fascinated me and presented a great opportunity to get inside someone’s head rather than simply laying out carefully prepared answers. Photocopy deviated from the mainstream scene in the Egyptian filmmaking platform nowadays, so I had to learn how the creative process became a reality rather than an ambitious project;

“For 5 years I had been searching for a producer. During that time I wrote scripts for some of Egypt’s most successful comedic and satirical news programs such as The 25th Hour News program –where Akram Hosny presented the iconic comic character of Sayed Aby Hafiza– and the Arabic version of SNL. Even now, I do not consider starting my film career with a commercial, light comedy movie insulting. However, I made Photocopy because I knew I had a story to tell. I also wanted to break the mold into which I was cornered [comedy and satirical writing]. That’s why I knew that the road would be long to make this movie, whether to convince a producer to back it up or a director to put his name on it. My bet while writing the script for Photocopy was on creating a film that would stand the test of time, same goes for Gunshot –I have two feature films now to my credits- and the result was satisfying. I bet on the winning horse by creating these two films.”

Official movie poster for Photocopy

Before questioning Dabbour about Photocopy I read the lengthy, short story from his collection Vivid Imagination from which the film was adapted,

“The story and the film adaptation are both different from each other. It’s easy to create an existential theme or mood on paper, but to translate that to the screen; it would require visual and emotional elements. That explains the genre in which we decided to adapt the film into; a sweet, slice-of-life drama which is a rare genre that builds up its characters through combining slices of their daily lives into scenes. The idea of the hero’s journey from the perspective of a regular guy, and yet you [the audience] are interested in following his journey. This rarely happens in Egyptian cinema. We were excited about adapting that concept and were certain that people would be interested in watching it whether on the big screen or through the television premiere. I wanted to create a film that does not go “extinct”. One that stands the test of time. There are films that are consumed only once, and that was what I was trying to avoid. Until now, a year and a half later, people are still talking about Photocopy. There are memes on social media, we are still receiving awards for it. While writing the script, I separated myself from the fact that I wrote the original story. I looked deeper into the characters to discover things that I did not envision originally while writing the story. I worked especially harder on developing Ashgan’s character –which became Safeya in the movie, and this developed the love story between the two protagonists while reflecting the ominous sense of extinction that plagued Mahmoud’s thoughts. It was difficult for me as a young person to sense how an older man would be scared of vanishing from the face of the Earth; the idea of survival beyond death was Mahmoud’s main conflict and what I focused on while writing the script.”

In Photocopy, the protagonist Mahmoud practiced an ancient profession, one that became extinct these days after the era of digital publishing. He was a sub-editor in the News Gathering and Dissemination department in a newspaper agency that recently became digitized. I wondered how Haitham was introduced to such a unique character aspect, and whether he knew people like Mahmoud and thus became inspired to write about their lives;

“I spent years of my life as a non-fiction essay writer and investigative journalist. So I was surrounded by people who worked in the News Gathering department such as Mahmoud. I met different people on different levels and this created a vault inside me filled with interactions and characters that I could go back to whenever I needed inspiration.”

Dabbour is infatuated with details up to the smallest thread, including phonetics, referencing one of the greatest examples in Egyptian art history; Umm Kalthum, who paid attention to the musical sound of words while picking her song lyrics, altering verses in poems so that they would have an easier, auditory appealing sound;

“Safiya is an easier name to pronounce than Ashgan which was the original character name in the book. Pronouncing Safiya would create a nuanced, soft feel for the female protagonist. The combination of the s and f sounds are phonetically superior to the sh sound. I am also a poet so understanding the rhythm and flow of the words are of high importance in my writings.”

It is always refreshing to find a director enthusiastic about a movie that strays from mainstream Egyptian cinema nowadays, which is the reason behind questioning Dabbour about Tamer Ashry, the director of Photocopy,

“I worked with Tamer Ashry before on documentaries. After Photocopy we worked together on a short titled Eyebrows which won the gold star award in El Gouna Film Festival – 2018 as part of the short film competition. We were accustomed to nominating actors for the assigned roles together. This is one of my favorite aspects of working with Tamer, we discuss everything, although the final decision is usually left to the director.”

Big names in the Egyptian film industry were attached to Photocopy. Veteran actor and chameleon Mahmoud Hemeda –who previously played the role of Yehia Shokry Mourad in Youssef Chahine’s semi-autobiographical film Alexandria-New York– played the protagonist, and sultry actress Sherien Reda played the role of Safiya, shedding off her sex icon image and playing a cancer survivor in her 70s who holds onto the simplest pleasures of life. Their romance was bittersweet and their chemistry was magnanimous. I had to ask Dabbour about his choosing actors for the main roles;

“We sent the script to Mr. Mahmoud Hemeda and he replied within 48 hours setting a meeting with us to understand what we have in mind. This was our debut feature –Tamer and I- so he wanted to discuss it further with us. I have to be honest with you, Safiya’s role was hard to cast. Actresses usually avoid these character types; an aging, sick woman, who looked her sickness. The producer Safiy Eldin Mahmoud was the one who suggested Sherien and Tamer [Ashry] saw impressive acting capabilities in her. So we bet on her.”

Music is an integral part of Dabbour’s films, in his two features the role of the soundtrack was more than a complementary element to the key plot and narrative elements,

“My interest in music is part of my interest in the mood of the character. My character profiles always include what the character likes to listen to frequently, what they hum on a regular basis. It is part of the character structuring process, even if it is not part of the script, you have to think of what the character would listen to in their spare time, also how does he or she get angry, how does he or she get into a fight.”

In Photocopy, one of the key defining traits of Mrs. Safiya was her infatuation with one of Farid El Atrash’s –the late legendary Lebanese singer and music composer from the golden era of Egyptian cinema- songs; which was technically a cover that he made for a song originally by another Egyptian female singer. I had to inquire about Dabbour’s use of this particular singer,

“I believe that Farid [El Atrash] is an extremely underrated artist. He did not receive the media exposure that he deserves with the new generation. I found it an opportunity to remove the caked dust off his magnificent musical pieces. It pleases me immensely when younger people mention how they researched the cover of “The key to my Heart” by Farid El Atrash which we used in the film. If you search on Twitter using the verse which is not in the original song and only in Farid’s cover, you will find that multiple people are tweeting about it. Actually, this song deserves all this hype. I personally love it.”

(Official Poster for Gunshot – directed by Karim Elshenawy)

Dabbour’s second feature was the exact opposite; a neo-noir set in the post-2011 chaotic Egypt, adopting a multi-narrative tone and yet retaining some of his key style determinates such as;

Gunshot was made with the intention to stand the test of time. It fared much better than Photocopy at the box office, and I am sure it will even gain a bigger following after premiering on satellite TV channels, and people would connect to it although it is the complete antithesis to Photocopy. Gunshot is a neo-noir crime drama; a dark movie that poses questions deeper than your average thriller.”

By the time I interviewed Dabbour, the attack on his film Gunshot has been tremendous. Multiple people accuse it of being “anti-25th January revolution” although it cleverly provokes viewers by asking controversial questions regarding all people who participated in the 2011 revolution. In Arab countries, every single person who dies violently or in an accident (whether a Muslim or a Copt Christian) is considered a martyr.

The 25th January 2011 revolution particularly glorified and debauched certain people. A new societal category emerged to include “martyrs” i.e. people who lost their lives during these violent times. The ambiguity of the term in addition to its religious connotation caused a stir between different social tropes in the Egyptian society.

Dabbour’s Gunshot dares to stir stagnant waters by questioning whether every person murdered during an uprising or times of political unrest should be considered a martyr;

 “I wanted all the loud voices to calm down before I talk about Gunshot. On a commercial level, I believe that the film has been successful. It challenges the concept of claiming a monopoly over the truth; thus the accusations that it received. On the contrary, people who claimed to own the truth and accused the film of betraying the January [25th] revolution represented what the movie’s protagonist went through. We [filmmakers] expected that and even joked about it while shooting. I recommend Egyptian veteran film critic Mahmoud Abdelshakour’s essay about the film, which not only praises it –as one of the best Egyptian films in 2018– but deeply unfolds the multilayered narrative. Unfortunately, many critics took the film down an unnecessary route of political correctness rather than decipher its morally ambiguous tone. The aim was to discourage people from watching the movie in theaters. Thankfully, this didn’t happen. The film grossed 8 million EGP in a dead season – mid-October. I am betting on broader exposure for Gunshot when it screens on TVs and in other film festivals. The same happened with Photocopy. It was not an instantaneous success but it grew on people by time. This is what I am aiming for. Audiences rarely remember how an old black and white film fared at the box office. The key to success of a film is longevity beyond the release date.”

Dabbour’s POV is en pointe but hard to maintain. Most of the Egyptian filmmakers of the late 2010s eye the box office numbers rather than the period through which a film stands the test of time. He brought examples of two films from the golden era of Egyptian cinema; Angel & Demon – 1960 and Zizi’s Family – 1963; both were not box office successes but they are still all-time favorites in the hearts of many Egyptians. To make the image clear for a Western viewer, think of how It’s a Wonderful Life – 1946 is still enjoyable to this date; generations apart.

“If you watch Gunshot today, it will differ from when you watched it a year ago. I am almost certain that one year later you will see it in a different light. It’s a multifaceted work of art and that’s how we intended to make it.”

I was particularly intrigued by the attention to detail which Dabbour used to craft the forensic pathologist’s character. An alcoholic that slips alcohol to his daily water intake under the noses of his supervisors, Dr. Yassin is fascinated by the dead, to the extent of stalking their posthumous Facebook profiles and sending them friend requests. I had to know where Dabbour found the inspiration for such a fleshy character,

“I have always been fascinated by forensic medicine through my line of work as a journalist. It is a dark, suppressing world that has rich visual, auditory and olfactory elements. It oozes with formaldehyde. I tried to reflect on the current status of the society where people make friends online and IRL. Dr. Yassin is no different from anybody else. He just hates the living. So he tries making new friends with the dead whether IRL with the corpses while performing a post mortem or by stalking their posthumous profiles on Facebook. The dead are his comfort zone and his edge as a forensic pathologist to investigate the causes of death.”

The trick with Gunshot, in all its neo-noir, post-mortem gloom is how to walk the thin line between the right and the wrong. It asks questions that no film before dared to tackle. Its moral ambiguity and the ending which indicates the defeat of truth in front of the mass belief in a lie are both shocking and bold, considering the subject matter; the 25th January revolution which has been glamorized by a part of the Egyptian public and demonized by the other half,

“People hate confronting themselves, which is why Gunshot hit a nerve with its bravery in asking the difficult question; do ends justify means? If being corrupt for a greater cause is a necessity, does that validate corruptness? Political events are created by people and not angels, which is why every political dilemma is open to multiple interpretation scenarios. Nobody holds the obsolete truth. Look through history you will find a lot of political immoral actions that had to be done to achieve noble causes. The question remains: was that justified? It could have been much easier to treat Gunshot like an investigative thriller without layering it with the morale we had in mind. However, Karim [El Shenawy] the movie director and I wanted to make a neo-noir with all the consequential complexities.”

By examining both his features Gunshot and Photocopy, I wondered how strange it must be to make that dramatic of a transition between genres,

“They are both two entirely different films on both technical and aesthetic levels. The script, dialogue, tone, and scene rhythm vary between both films. This is the key to filmmaking, the adventure of exploring different creative projects. You cannot make a feature film easily these days, so you should make one that you are proud of. A film that would stand the test of time and ten years later someone could go back to and write a fleshy critical essay about it.”

(A scene from Eyebrows – directed by Tamer Ashry)

For Dabbour -whose last name is the Arabic word for wasp btw- creating short films meant a completely different platform than features. When you watch his shorts Single and Eyebrows you could easily discern how careful he is to separate different platforms from one another; he writes carefully with the limitations and defining features of the medium in mind, and fully understands how to uniquely identify each medium through the elements which he uses uniquely for each project.

Single –which was originally a short story from my collection Horseback– is the story of a man whose personal space gets smaller and smaller. His sense of freedom shrinks through the intrusion of people around him. The protagonist is a Coptic man who is unable to publicly express his unease at the Islamic duaa that his neighbors installed in the elevator, and which invades his personal space on a daily basis. This represented my first collaboration with Karim [El Shenawy] the director, the megastar Khaled El Nabawy, as well as veteran Egyptian actors Sayed Ragab and Khaled Bahgat.”

I highly recommend watching “Single” through this YouTube link:

As for Eyebrows –I am personally fascinated by Dabbour’s precise short English translation of the movie titles- this is a totally different story. Eyebrows is a brave short that describes the extremist religious “mindset” through a simple situation. A girl from an extremist Salafi upbringing wearing niqab (face covering) wants to pluck her eyebrows which are considered haram from an extremist Islamist point of view. Throughout the short, she struggles between the desire to be accepted as a woman, and her fear of God through an extremist religious viewpoint, which contradicts a once-liberated friend who became even stricter as a religious newbie.

Official movie poster for Eyebrows

“Both shorts –coincidentally- contain plotlines regarding man’s relationship with religion. Eyebrows differs in the way we tackled the topic at hand; not as outsiders [this has been one of the highlights of the feedback that we received whether in film festivals or juries] to the niqab-wearing community. We used their terminology and adopted their POV to reflect their mental and sociological crises and the contradictory outlook on which they base their religious beliefs so that it always supports the male dominance and leadership of the society to fulfill their role of maintainers and protectors of women. A woman could pluck her eyebrows if her husband approves it but if she is not married, then she is forbidden from doing so. But on what basis? A woman finds herself in a loop. This all reflects the efforts that are being made in objectifying women, by controlling the fine details in their lives, they undergo massive identity, social, and humanitarian crises, which all lead to the unacceptance of their “self”; their feminine identity.”

In many of his films, Dabbour blends themes of absent fathers and patriarchy. The lost “father figure” or the man searching for immortality through having a son could be seen in multiple characters. In Photocopy, the relationship between Osama and Mahmoud could be seen as a rebound relationship for the figures that they both lack in life respectively; a father and a son. In Gunshot, Yassin’s rebellious attitude against his father’s image is a manifestation of the complex concept of the death of the father (as a symbol of patriarchy) and the death of the god in Nietzsche’s philosophy.

I asked him how fatherhood changed him personally, in terms of both artistic and personal values;

“Being a father is a reflective experience of your reckless attitude as a son. Fatherhood makes you reevaluate your life as a son. It resembles writing the same story from the opposing POV. I still have a lot to discover, since I am a father to a 5-year-old son; Zein and my experience has a long way ahead to simmer. I have not only changed as a father, but aging into my thirties changed the dynamics into which I handle my relationships with others. I’m a familial person by nature, but growing old (and becoming a father) made me grow closer to my father and more sympathetic and understanding of his feelings. I tried translating all the details into the paternal relationships which I represented in both my long features.”

At the end of an enriching conversation, Dabbour gave me writing advice, which I am feeling compelled to pass on to future generations of writers,

“Writing does not have a manual. There are no clear steps on which you must tread to be considered a good or a bad writer. Writing is based on individual differences in style and context. However, my personal belief is that daily jobs never hinder creativity. Naguib Mahfouz –one of the greatest Egyptian writers of all times– remained a government employee all his life, Ibrahim Aslan was a 9-5 employee. I used to have a daily, fulltime job as a journalist for 10-12 hours per day and it never stopped me from creativity. The only thing that you need to sustain are 12-15 hours weekly dedicated to writing. Before starting a writing project, try to set a hypothetical deadline which would prevent you from succumbing to feelings of guilt in case you fail to deliver the project in time. Writing is a serious relationship that loses intensity as time drags on. The key is to keep that fire ignited at the start of the project as alive as possible.”

Poetry from Michael Robinson

Michael Robinson (right) and fellow contributor Joan Beebe


In the middle of the night, when the moon is dark, and the clouds black.

In the middle of the night, when all the souls of America stare into the ceiling, the warm tears slowly crawl down their cheeks.

In the middle of their life, it is uncertain if there will be a tomorrow, because a sociopath stands before the cameras and rant.

We weep as a nation when our loved ones are taken away in the hearse without fanfare because there are so many that are dying.

I weep alone in my apartment because there is no one able to mourn the death of so many at one time in our history.

I weep because the war is in our midst, and the Doctors and Nurses are the first casualties in this war.

I weep because my tears cannot save lives.

My tears can not save those who die on a hospital bed in the corridor, with many besides them enclosed in plastic bags.

I weep because there are too many graves filled with someone’s loved one, and the count continues.

In the middle of the night, I weep alone because there are only memories of a time that my tears were joyful as the sound of the National Anthem was a song sung by all the nations.

Body Bags

There are body bags flowing; out of the back door of Brooklyn hospital in New York.

Body bags with someone loved ones
And I have no words as the count continues.

Do you know that the bodies will be taken away?
To be placed on a slab?

In America, there are thousands of body bags,
Bodies in the corridor of the hospitals.

It’s a war without the guns and bombs,
It’s a war on our fellow Americans.

It’s a war!
When will the body bags stop?

I’m not ready to be taken away in a Boddy bag,
And put in a refrigerated truck and carried away.

Are you?

In a war, there are always body bags,
In a war, people die alone.

I don’t want to die alone,
In a hospital corridor.

Poetry from John Sweet

the age of hopeless causes, without end

in the half-light of approaching snow

in the godlike silence of an

empty parking lot at the edge of some

anonymous upstate factory town

six vultures circling the february field

that runs down to the river

the ghosts of houses

still waiting to burn

takes a whole lot of pain to make the

days seem worthwhile but what

else do you have to look forward to?

monday morning and

some joni mitchell song in the

back of your mind

great men with mouths full of blood

because the theory is that

there can be no heroes

without victims

teenage girl stabbed once for every

wasted year of your sad little life

middle-aged life and what the fuck good

is a poem going to do her now?

what good is it going to do any of us?

we were like kids shooting dogs

we were too sick to see how

ignorant we really were

it was summer maybe or

the end of winter

dead trees and poisoned water

no kings no kingdoms but borders and

barbed wire in every direction

enemies that needed to be kept out

              that needed to be


and we were less than gods but

more than the men who had invented them

i was 24 and drunk in a stranger’s bed

you were 40 and always running

in the opposite direction

already felt like the asshole i knew i’d

become but was still thinking

about the possibility of salvation

had my 3rd eye painted in the

palm of my right hand

had the mantra memorized




and so i was like a

soldier shooting children

wanted nothing to do with that

grey area between slaughter and

victory and what do you think?

does love beat lust?

have we finally arrived at

the brighter shining future?

jump off the cliff on the

clearest day of the year and

tell me everything you see

like francis bacon, dreaming

wasn’t going to be one of those

fuckers hung up on time & space

wasn’t going to be bathed in the

blood of christ or blinded by the holy

light of some absolute god

paper said it was the last good year

but that seemed like a lie

sun felt too good for a lifetime of fear

and the gold was pure white light

running through my veins

was always cold in the house

so we lived in the forests

lived in the vast open fields of our minds

only wanted to be your favorite

poison and only wanted you to be

everything i’d ever wanted

only wanted more

and i wasn’t going to one of those

assholes strung out on pain and despair

the words of the prophet

were meaningless to me

the days were all delicate filigree,

all scrimshaw and lace and

when the cops shot that kid i was

asleep in your arms

when the pills are all gone

i stop looking in the mirror

i am tired of the

addict i’ve become

cowards, because

were we talking about the

age of magic?

first days of summer, i think,

and i was already frightened it was

passing me by

girl i had known 30 years earlier

called up to tell me she loved me

                      but she was stoned

could hear her kid

crying in the background

could feel the presence of

an indifferent god

a sharp blade sliding in

just behind my eyes

[what makes you happy?  your misery]

the suicide season again,

and all your fucked up lovers say

it’s the sunlight that ties this noose so tight

they say it’s the fading warmth of

a half-remembered past

that blurs the future to a dirty grey, and

what can you do but agree?

your father never liked you, sure

left nothing but the gift of self-hatred

when he walked away from the burning house

and how many years did you wait before

you went looking for him?

how easy do you think it was

for him to forget your name?

opened the door to his shithole apartment

with shaking hands, with a blank stare,

and told you he’d never had any kids

told you his wife disappeared

back before the war

made you start to doubt you’d

                         ever been born

my place on the map of nowhere

and i knew the guy, not the one who

died but the one who killed him, stupid little

fucker but mean, and everyone drunk in

a fight about nothing

blood smeared on chrome in the

back of the parking lot, and

i had to work the next morning

had to explain to my girlfriend about the

phone number she’d found in the

pocket of my jeans, had to find a place

to sleep, had to just finally grow up and

get away from all this shit

maybe pretend i was human for a change

Poetry from J.K. Durick

Plague Poem for Day Nine

and I always thought they lived

outside my imagining they did

were actual links to reality

solid shapes coming and going in

patterns they control – but today,

and yesterday now that I think of it,

the street out front has been/is empty

the neighborhood is neighborless –

the cars strangely silent,

the children playing elsewhere, if at all,

joggerless, dogwalkerless, the elderly couple

walk for their health no more, perhaps

there never was a mailman after all —

the whole world has become worldless,

absent, misplaced, unaccounted for

like it never was, never wasn’t, won’t be

— I’d open the blind most mornings

like this and there it was and there

I imagined it would always be.

Plague Poem for Day Thirteen

This morning is so quiet here:

my careful morning routine

seems hollow, empty of all

the meaning I assigned it before,

why even the birds hesitate at

the feeder, sing to themselves

if at all, or just recall the songs

they sang before, before this,

these numbers that numb us –

more than 22,000 dead worldwide,

over a thousand in the U.S. –

the numbers seem mysterious,

distant suggestions floating by

hinting at things beyond this

morning quiet, this isolation

I have made of myself, for myself.

When does it catch up with me?

When does this slight cough connect

me with others, gives me my place

in the count on the morning news?

               Plague Poem for Day Fourteen

As faithful as that, they are there each morning, early

as if waiting all night to announce the latest, as if

the virus was theirs to dole out a little at a time, yesterday

the mathematics of it, exponential, then geometric growth,  

the effected and the dead, and now today a new symptom

they’ve discovered to haunt us – can I taste, can I smell,

is this headache the usual eyestrain or persistent, just like

the coughing I do in the morning as if I’m a cold engine,

the aging car in the driveway trying to start up again, did

I get too close then touch my face, should I stand back even

further than I have my whole life, this checking of new

symptoms has become a symptom of this new virus that

has us, has us turning to the networks and internet, has us

waking to the “they” that have been waiting all night to make

our day.

Christopher Bernard reviews the Joffrey Ballet’s latest production


The Joffrey Ballet

Zellerbach Hall

University of California, Berkeley

A review by Christopher Bernard

What is greatness – moral, intellectual, artistic? It has a musty, old-fashioned sound, and is not exactly a fashionable idea just now, with our cultural hysterias against “elitism” of any kind, or perhaps ever was in a democratic culture with its sweet, egalitarian shibboleths. Nevertheless, the idea of greatness, saintliness, genius – of a superiority one cannot ignore but only acknowledge with humility and gratitude and admiration, even, in supreme cases, awe – periodically returns, because, like “truth” or “goodness,” it is a value that, however we may pretend we can do without it, at a certain point we discover that we can’t without collapsing into moral incoherence: nihilism, demoralization and despair.

In my own experience, artistic greatness, in particular, is partly discernible by the fact that the subject is more powerful, more beautiful, more astonishing or impressive than I remember it: that painting, this poem, this dance company, that book is more than I assimilated or knew; in some sense is permanently beyond me. It reminds me of what is often meant by “transcendent experience” – “artistic greatness” seems to mean a direct, sensuous experience of transcendence, piercing through the fog of distracted daily living in concentrated brilliance – and thus is an absolute value and not a category of relative merit.

I was provoked to these thoughts partly by the arrival in Berkeley over a recent weekend (and thanks to Cal Performances) of one of the country’s pre-eminent dance companies, a company that has, in the past, shown itself capable of reaching such heights with sometimes intimidating ease – the Joffrey Ballet, based in Chicago and not nearly a regular enough a visitor to the Bay Area and the finely tuned dance audiences we have here. And the company was indeed better than I remembered.

The Joffrey, originally under Robert Joffrey, then Gerald Arpino, and now Ashley Wheater, has mastered a lithe and muscular style of dancing that was on full display throughout a cast in which all of its member are presented as principals.

The performance I saw opened with Christopher Wheeldon’s “Commedia©” (yes, the copyright symbol is part of the title, as with other dances by Wheeldon; is this meant to prevent other choreographers from every using this title for one of their own works? Will someone now copyright “Swan Lake” or “The Nutcracker”? One can only hope they will resist the temptation), a brittlely elegant dance-class piece mimicking the somewhat matte cheeriness of the Stravinsky score it is set to, the clever, if chilly Pulcinella. Never having warmed to the music, I found it hard to warm to the dance, admiring it too from afar, though the contributions of Yumi Kanazawa and Yuki Iwai were noteworthy, and above all that of Brooke Linford, which was of an altogether memorable lightness and grace.

Stephanie Martinez’s “Bliss!”, which followed, set to Dumbarton Oaks, a richer and more complex piece of Stravinsky’s, was a good deal of a looser, less self-conscious affair, spinning between beefcake machismo and winsome femininity, with strong contributions, again, by Iwai and Kawazawa and by Jonathan Dole, and with an almost hilarious riff on muscularity by a stunning Derrick Agnoletti.

If the performance had ended, or peaked, there, at the first intermission, I would have had an interesting afternoon, with some moments to savor and much to have enjoyed. But I wouldn’t have been prepared for what followed.

What followed? “Beyond the Shore” followed. But wait: this is a work, choreographed by Nicholas Blanc (long a staple at the San Francisco Ballet) and co-commissioned by Cal Performances, and so having a special relationship with the Bay Area. The dance is set to a thundering, highly theatrical score by Mason Bates (perhaps best known here for his work, a few years back, with the San Francisco Symphony), “The B-Sides,” originally commissioned by the Symphony. Blanc describes his dance as about “exploration as a metaphor for human nature,” which is certainly a good thought to hang on to as we are thrust into a series of dance adventures, one for each section of the music, as thrilling, compelling and complex as I hope to find in this or any other dance season, climaxing in a profoundly astonishing and deeply moving  pas de deux by Victoria Jaiani and Dylan Guttierez that took me to places dance has not taken me in a very long time indeed, in a section called “Gemini in the Solar Wind.” This was inspired by (and for once, the word is just, for this was in the deepest sense an inspiration) the famous 1960s Gemini spacewalk, recordings of the NASA communications from the walk being cleverly, and oddly movingly, incorporated into the music. The dance was a haunting and vivifying experience, demanding much of the entire company, which met the challenge with limber and dramatic success.

After being vaulted into outer space by “Beyond the Shore,” we put on the razz and came back to earth in the concluding, dance, “The Times Are Racing,” by Justin Peck, a choreographer I have had mixed feelings about till now but this time was completely won over. A sneaker dance if there ever was one, this work starts in a throbbing mob cluster of bodies exploding into a swirling disco-thon to a jammy score from Dan Deacon (moving from ironic, to joyous, to hopeful, to joyous, to ironic, from his hit album America) with an array of young dancers who seemed like they’d jettisoned ten years from the assertive maturity of the Blanc, and dressed up, or down, in sports punk togs from Humberto Leon of Opening Ceremony, splashed with defiance – “Fight,” “Rebel,” “Change,” “Obey,” and of course “Defy” – and knocking them flat with a trip-hop stew of dance styles I soon gave up counting. Starting at a race, it only got faster, wilder, crazier, though whittled down at moments to knock-’em-out solos, especially from Edson Barbosa, that knocked out the audience too, till, speeding by like it would never stop, the dance spun out to succeeding heights of crazy, then spun back in on itself, whooshing back into its cluster like a deblossoming flower before collapsing in total exhaustion.

What a dance. What a performance. What a company.


Christopher Bernard is co-editor and poetry editor of the webzine Caveat Lector. His new novel, Meditations on Love and Catastrophe at The Liars’ Café, appeared in January 2020.

Poetry from Michael Robinson

Michael Robinson (right) and fellow contributor Joan Beebe

Quiet Reflections

She always slept in the chair,

Between the boxes that were full of clothes:

Children’s clothes that she passed down.

Her with her silver-hair and arthritic fingers,

With the scar on her nose that had been broken,

“I was a Helen,” she declared.

It was hard to imagine this old half negro and Cherokee woman,

Being anything other than a gentle and sensitive redeemer,

Of abandoned children in the inner-city.


Never Mind

Why should we forget the bodies lying in,

Streets, in the classroom, in the hall.

Blood dripping into the cement.

We should not mind those body-bags lying in the corner

Collecting dust year after year.

Should we mind it after all,

This is Vietnam.

No flags are placed over the bodies,

Eventually, they too will be forgotten.


Remember Me

Long after my body turns to dust,

After the last spring flower bloom over my grave,

And the peacock returns to the mountains.

The words, my words will still live on someone’s bookshelf.

Words are long forgotten in the world.

Sweet Love

The moon is fading my love,

Ending our moments of joy,

It is the daisy that we hate seeing come to life.

Still, we remember our tender bodies engulfed in ecstasy,

Long before the moon faded over the eastern skies,

Among a host of stars reflecting over the pond.

We too still fade into the sunrise.


Forget Me Not

Do not forget my love for you,

Those roses made of cardboard,

While the sun turned into dust.

And the moon fell into the ocean,

Forget me not my tender heart.

Remember that blanket that held us together,

And those glasses of wine spilling onto the sheets,

Our lips touching as if they were silk.

Forget me not my tender soul.



My black skin with my Cherokee mother’s eyes,

Reflects the sadness of generations of crossing the desert.

Living in contempt of life,

We hold onto the strength of our very souls.


After the Winter Snow

For Larry and Donna

Bliss surrounds a black boy after the snow has fallen

A sign of the human heart has survived

An understanding of life and suffering

Hunger and thirst and desire and  hopes

No longer does regret linger within his soul

It was a winter of solitude setting on the pew

Praying for salvation

While the flakes of snow surrounded the outside

Harsh was the winds and still was the life he had

There’s no need to be afraid he thought:

In time there would be a flower that would bloom inside of him

Today was that day.


Touch Me

Touch me with your soul,

Like the haze of the mountain air,

That surrounds me,

Touch me when I’m young before the pain of life,

Surrounds me,

Wipe away my tears with your calm fingers,

Hold me close to your center,

Place the flowers in my garden.

8/27/2012 11:10 AM

9/6/2012 9:43 AM

The Return

The ride back to the inner-city was not the same,

It was the peacock’s feathers that allowed me to fly,

Flying above the winter winds,

High enough to reach the heavens in the summer breeze

It was never enough to ride the tide of hope with the winter snows,

With it flakes of violence.

8/27/2012 10:57 AM

A Drop of Love

A drop of love

In the shadows

A sip of warmth

No sexual fantasies

Reality a sip

Of kindness

And shadows turn into woodchucks.

9/6/2012 9:45 AM

Yesterday Hopes

Dreaming of the mountains,

In the middle of the night,

Two empty wooden chairs set in the open air,

Amber winds engulf my wonting spirit,

Peacocks coo,

In the middle of the night.

9/6/2012 9:12 AM

Awaking to it All

The freshness of it all:

Mountain air and flowers in the garden,

Blossoming souls arrive from the city,

Chickens, ducks, peacocks, turkeys, and geese,

Gaze around the coop,

 I see life open before my tearful eyes.

9/6/2012 9:27 AM

Never the Same

Never the same after visiting the mountains,

Eating moms farm fresh eggs over easy,

Dad feeding the birds,

And it’s my time to renew the essence of my soul. 

9/6/2012 9:36 AM

Play It Cool

When the sun climbs between the mountain’s breast,

Just play it cool,

Like jazz bouncing off the rooftops,

Just play it cool,

Smells of fried chicken and collard greens

Pork chops covered with gravy,

Just simple words and simple actions,

 The cool breeze settles on the top of the ocean waves,

So just play it so cool.

9/6/2012 12:00 PM

Roof Tops

It was never easy climbing to the top of the building,

Like crabs pulling each other down,

 As they reached the top of the pot,

Clawing their way to the top,

Climbing the stairs each rung brings me closer

To the top of the mountain in the inner-city,

Rooftops close to heavens gates

9/6/2012 12:11 PM

Life is Gentle

For Pat

Life is gentle at night with the wind blowing calmly. When you walk the dogs and rest from a long day’s work. Life is so peaceful knowing you are rested and wait for me to come to you. We hold one another. The years have been so precious to us both. It’s always the calming rains that last forever in our relationship. Life is kind and so is our love for one another. Life continues as does my love for you. Life is gentle as is my love for the life we have built together. You are the heart that I found in the time of my sadness. Life is so gentle now that you have found peace.

I want to Write

I want to write about the stars and the moon. To put down on paper what has never been writing before about love and the destiny of the heart. To write words that climb out of the catacomb of the darkness into the wondering light of the stars.

The Visit

The dining room is nice—

Pink wallpapered walls:

But no music playing

Shiny silverware and steak knives:

Beautiful Chinaware and nice designs

A plastic knife and folk:

White soft walls—

Woody Woodpecker laughing;

And a Styrofoam box with a hotdog

Star Night Star Bright

Shooting stars shooting

Shooting guns shooting

Shooting stars shooting stars

Shooting hopes shooting guns shooting

Bodies shooting stars shooting

There’s hope while stars keep shooting past.