Old Roads, New Stories: Sharps and Flats, by Rob Carney

Sharps and Flats

By Rob Carney

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Old Roads, New Stories: A Literary Series


Here’s one of my beliefs: If you can do it, you don’t need to talk about it. That idea’s not exclusive to the West, but I think it’s predominant in the West—sort of a constant out here, like our mountains are a constant. In fact, I wouldn’t blame any Westerners if you quit reading this right now. I’d rather not be writing about it either.

The thing is, though, I’m a professor, and I’ve got colleagues, some of whom think they’ve got the longest guru beards on Diversity Mountain, and lately this issue has been coming up in meetings, both at my school and nationwide, and if Walt Whitman, Grandfather Kosmos, can slow down in the middle of demonstrating his guts and heart and mind—all three of them diverse as 40 ecosystems—to tell us, “I am large, I contain multitudes,” then I figure I can be bothered to offer some proof-talk. So I will. But only as a supplement, threaded around poems, beginning with this satire/fable:


The Professor’s Attempting to Disprove an Axiom;

you can change a zebra’s stripes.
He’s got notebooks full of entries, a hundred studies on microfiche,

and a grant to finance his field tests
from the Conundrum Think Tank in D.C.;

they’re banking on him big time;
Reparative Zoology is in.

The professor starts with measurements—calipers,
an abacus—then experiments with tasty solutions of bleach.

And the zebras cooperate: They listen to his lectures,
watch slides of Realist paintings,

patiently sit through charts and graphs
tracking predatory ratios,

and eat his enchanted apples, three bags full.
But nothing happens.

He whips out his Bible and quotes from Leviticus,
makes worried and threatening faces. No result.

These zebras are stubborn, he concludes, boneheaded as mules.
Don’t they know my time is valuable?

Don’t they know what’s best for them?
Don’t they know it makes our hearts ache to see them this way?

Now, I wrote that back in 2001, 16 years ago, and when I got asked that year to visit a class to discuss how poetry connects with the study of ethics, it’s one of the poems I shared aloud. “Is that about gay rights?” a student asked me. He’d likely heard of “reparative therapy” since the Evergreen Institute in Utah was a big practitioner. “Yes,” I said. “Sort of. It’s more about plain old personal rights. Straight people shouldn’t get more of them. And it seems, to me, pretty thoughtless and wrong to say that gay people need to be ‘repaired.’” Then their professor asked if I ever worried about being too controversial, and I said, “No, not really. I worry more about making good poems.”

But to you, dear reader, I’ll add this box-check factoid: I love Walt Whitman and teach his poetry because he’s amazing, not because he was gay.

Here’s another poem. Like the zebra fable, it’s an old one; meaning, I published it more than a decade before anybody wondered in a faculty meeting if I was “committed enough to inclusivity”:


Pianos Have Both Sharps and Flats,

and sunlight without rain won’t make a cactus,
tree, or coral reef. It’s contrasts, even
stark ones, that make life, make better music.

I’m not saying false and true; or one
thing’s more, so another must be less.
Let’s leave that sort of guesswork out of it.

Do hilltops claim they’re more worthy than valleys?
Do reef sharks disapprove of my beliefs,
or yours, or anyone’s? I’ll ask again

since I’ve forgotten, What’s the virtue
of sameness? There can’t be one without two
in the first place…. It’s like this: The tides are sons

and daughters of the Earth and moon, ebbing
and rising, day and night. And so are we.

Back in November I wrote “Poetic Justice.” This was after Derek Sheffield broke the mold in Terrain.org’s Letter to America series by offering his letter in the form of a poem (thanks, Derek). Mine’s an epic (historically and geologically) sparked by a sorry election and a racist big-mouth in Salt Lake City, all wrapped inside a revenge story, so it’s genre-diverse as well as socially driven. Then more recently I wrote, “Well, What Can You Do About It?” The title is in one voice, the answer in another. I know it’s not destined for anthem status—not iconic like Pete Seeger and the Weavers singing “We Shall Overcome”—but I hope it pleases someone brave enough to be a protester and causes the Oval Office armchair naysayer to shut the hell up:


“Well, What Can You Do About It?”

You shouldn’t look to challenge Cerberus,
but it’s worse

to be a scarecrow.
Fight two of those hellhounds

with nothing but a pin—six heads
are better than none.

Call this a skin-and-bones protest,
say, “It’s a song,

and you can’t best
whatever king is reigning,”

but not today. The people are gathered.
Sometimes they win.

As for school, as for teaching, well, Hamlet is nine kinds of subversive, plus brilliant. Anyone who’d diss it for being “able-ist” and too “hetero-normative” doesn’t deserve that play. I make sure students hear my take on Ophelia as wicked-smart and willing to risk trouble from patriarchs, sure, but not because I’m shamed into doing so. I do it because her character is wicked-smart and sees through the double standards and politics at Elsinore like an x-ray. Directors who direct her, and readers who read her, as fragile and girl-hurt and brain-cracked aren’t paying enough attention. And Flannery O’Connor seems worth mentioning. She must have felt pretty “otherized”—needing leg braces and crutches while being Catholic in ubiquitously Baptist Georgia—but “Good Country People” isn’t her memoir; it’s fiction. Her antagonist, Manley Pointer, isn’t the guardian angel we’d be looking for. He’s definitely against typecast—a fetishist with a cruel streak—but Joy/Hulga has a metaphoric “heart problem,” and we’re told she’s peacock prideful about her prosthetic limb, protective of it the way that others feel protective of their souls, so having it stolen is, weirdly, a gift of humiliation and a chance to save herself from herself. That’s more of a theological theme than a lefty one, I know, but I’m inclusive enough to clarify that them’s the stakes of O’Connor’s story anyway. What else? I teach the Study of Drama, Modern American Literature, American Lit. Survey from 1865 to the Present, and Wild & Angry Literature. “Los Vendidos,” by Luis Valdez, is required reading in all of them. It’s as perfect a one-act play as I can think of. I suppose I could call it a “diversity component” if I’m ever forced to, but I prefer to call it what it is, which is simply “kick-ass.”

I’m proud that this country is the country of Louis Armstrong. My last name is Carney, but my team is the Utah Utes not Notre Dame. And none of that proves anything, and I’m done with it now, I promise. I’d rather just listen to the Dropkick Murphys anyway. They’re underdog punk-rock populists, and they’re the opposite of meetings and smug condescension.

I bet Walt Whitman would love them if he were here today.



Rob CarneyRob Carney’s fourth book, 88 Maps, was published by Lost Horse Press (distribution by University of Washington Press). Previous books and chapbooks include Story Problems and Weather Report, both from Somondoco Press.
Read poetry by Rob Carney appearing in Terrain.org: 6th Annual Contest Finalist, 4th Annual Contest Winner, and Issue 30. And listen to a new radio interview with Rob Carney, and here’s an older radio interview.

Header photo of scarecrow by Screamenteagle, courtesy Pixabay.

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.