How Aimee Bender Saved Pegasus

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By Jens Tamang '07

Jens Tamang '07

As editor in chief of Pegasus, the Upper School’s literary magazine, it wasn’t my wrenchingly awkward adoration of literary minutiae, nor my manic demand for creative control, that endangered it. Rather, it was the combination of my die-hard desire to Do Well and the fact that I did not know what was expected of me. Like a cow that only knows it ought to make a sound, I spent the first months on staff barking when I should have been mooing. Aimee Bender, the first 2006–07 Jean Vollum Distinguished Writer, taught me how to moo.

Bender is a magical realist who presents supernatural occurrences in a nonchalant fashion. Angels, in her work, are just as unremarkable as cabbages. One story, “The Healer,” concerned two girls, one with the hand of ice who possessed the ability to heal ailments upon contact, while the other with her hand of fire could only cause harm. After her reading in the Cabell Center, Bender led a workshop in our creative writing class. “A hand of fire, a hand of ice. What did you mean by that?” asked one student.

To anyone who has never undergone four years with the Catlin Gabel English department, this seems like a perfectly legitimate question. However, we were told never to trust what artists say about their art. Why? Because, as Jean Cocteau once said, asking an artist to talk about her work is like asking a plant to discuss horticulture.

A smug grin stretched across Bender’s face. “A symbol is just a provocative image,” she said, running her bony hands through her coarse black hair. “It doesn’t mean anything.”

After the class I approached her. “Okay,” I said. “I know you said that the whole fire-ice thing doesn’t mean anything. But it does, doesn’t it? It must.”

Bender cocked a brow, stood up, put her jacket on. She placed a hand on my shoulder. “I liked your story,” she said, in reference to an exercise we had done. “But if you don’t relax the way you think about writing you are going to wear yourself out.” And on that note she exited.

I stood in the classroom for a moment, stunned. Relax, I thought. I wonder what she means by that.

When I decided that Bender probably meant “relax” in its most literal sense I decided to attempt writing a poem that had no preconceived meaning, symbols, motifs, or themes. One day, riding the bus to school, I watched a girl ogling a young man. She fixated on him and looked so calm and unwavering, like a flame in the dark undisturbed by wind. I couldn’t take my eyes off her, nor could I ignore the placid beauty of the boy sitting near her. She to him, me to her, and he somewhere else entirely, we were a love chain. I was so caught up in the moment that when I bit into my sandwich I neglected to see that I had wrapped it in cellophane.

I documented it and submitted a poem describing the incident to the Pegasus editorial staff, and it was published. Hell, I thought, if this relaxing business works for poetry why shouldn’t it work for everything else?

I began to ease my death grip on Pegasus. English is a language, not a religion, and somewhere along the line I forgot that. Production became much smoother, and Pegasus became a success. I shudder to think what might have happened had Bender not shaken me loose. I still have to remind myself from time to time take it easy, to mellow out, and I don’t always succeed. When I do manage to lighten up, things always seem to work out better for me and those I care about. Go figure.

An American studies major (and diving team member) at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, Jens Tamang writes for various publications and is working on a documentary film.

In and Of It

Jens Tamang's "relaxed" poem from the 2007 Pegasus

A young man, sitting on the bus,
Is reading a book, open in his lap.
She sees him there, she who rides the bus each morning,
And she places his face amongst the infinite faces of boys
That maunder in her head like beads of oil in water.
Which of them does she like the best?
The homeliest of them is beautiful to her.
They needn’t have Adonis lines and beefy shoulders to be beautiful:
This boy has neither; yet, she is entranced by the curves of his chin,
His incarnadine cheeks, his privet face stands out from the rest.

If you had him, Miss, what would you do with him?
For I see you.
To you, you are holding his hand.
To you, you are stroking his hair.
To you and to no one else.
You saw him and loved him:
The light from the window illuminating his skin,
His hair hanging over his eyes like the vines of a willow,
Or moss off an oak.

Her unseen hand passed over his body, obeisantly caressing him.

Please excuse my asking, Miss, but you see:
My mother loathed those certain slants of skin-illuminating light
So excuse me, excuse me, for asking, but
Is he worth these thirty seconds of your morning commute?
And, to you, what is anything worth at all?
And, might thriftiness be your call?
And, are your thoughts just foofaraw?

Her unseen lips touched the back of his neck.

I was there, on that bus when her lips came down.
I was attempting to eat a sandwich.
I was watching her watching him; when,
As I bit down, into my sandwich, I realized,
Amongst the myriad people watching each other,
That my sandwich was still wrapped in fine clear layers of cellophane.
I saw teeth marks in the plastic. Then, looking up, I noticed,
In a moment gone by, they had disappeared (to their stops most likely),
And then, I was alone.
But, luckily for me, loneliness is an art
And I do it very well.