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Editor's Pick: Danielle Ofri on one of her favorite BLR stories
June 04, 2012
Editor-in-Chief Danielle Ofri on “The Plagiarist” by Hollis Seamon (BLR, V4N2):
"Every so often, you stumble on a story in the slush pile that seems to have every duck in place. When I read “The Plagiarist,” I knew immediately that we had something special here. I loved the interplay of mortality and poetry--not poetry in the sappy sense, but poetry in the practical daily sense of an English professor who lives and breathes it, and also grades papers on it. The juxtaposition of the student's desire for words and the professor's desire for reassurance about health was pitch-perfect. And then, of course, there was a cameo appearance of a dog that clinched it for me. Whenever a pet is a real character in a story, I perk up. I first read this story nearly ten years ago, and can remember nearly every detail. I've used the story with my interns in the hospital, and even went to the trouble to look up every poetic reference. One of our reviewers wrote: 'expertly written, gripping, intelligent.' I couldn't agree more."
The Plagiarist, by Hollis Seamon
“Why?” Althea leaned toward the splotchy-pale student who sat in her small office chair, his wide khaki thighs overflowing its seat. “You had to know you were doing it. And you had to know that, this time, you’d be kicked out.”
The boy’s face flushed an unhealthy plum and tears began to roll down his cheeks. He kept his eyes focused on his boots—they were leaking slushy, salty water onto Althea’s blue rug. Ever so slowly, he nodded.
Althea flung herself back in her chair. Jesus. The poor slob. The poor stupid kid. She closed her eyes. Her heartbeat was thudding in her ears again—boom, boomedy, boom, boom, boom. Her head made it into a little song, a high whining soprano melody over the imperious bass. Then, her long training forced her to scan it: dactylic, a particularly obnoxious meter. She put a hand to her chest and coughed. Coughing, she’d read somewhere, was supposed to stop it, this runaway pounding of a deluded heart. It didn’t. She coughed again. The EKG electrodes, glued to her chest, jiggled. She opened her eyes.
The boy hadn’t moved, hadn’t wiped his tears. They were running into the woolen scarf bunched around his neck.
She leaned over her desk. “Derrick,” she said. “It’s so obvious.” She jabbed one finger onto the first page of his paper, right under the bold-typed title he’d seemed so proud of when he submitted the paper last week: The Wedding Crasher in The Ancient Mariner: Why You Wouldn’t Have Invited Him, Either. “Look, here are your opening sentences.” She cleared her throat and read aloud, “‘People got married in the 19th century, too, just like today. They had weddings then, too, and just like today, no one wanted weird old guys showing up and ruining their fun.’” She glanced at the boy’s face; he had a small smile.
“Yeah,” he whispered. “That’s my thesis. I wanted to say that, you know, this guy just shows up and…”
She held up a hand, palm out. “Fine. But, then, here’s the next line you’ve written here.” She read the words slowly: “‘The ancient Mariner, bright-eyed and compulsive, is a haunter of wedding feasts, and in a grim way he is the chanter of a prothalamium.’” She stopped, letting that grand last word linger. She repeated it: “Prothalamium.”
Derrick was still smiling.
Poetic/literary references in "The Plagiarist"
"When I have Fears That I May Cease to Be" by John Keats (1795-1821)
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,
Before high-pilèd books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starred face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows with the magic hand of chance;
"The Nymph Complaining for the Death of her Fawn" by Andrew Marvell (1621-1678)
The wanton troopers riding by
Have shot my fawn, and it will die.
Ungentle men! they cannot thrive
To kill thee. Thou ne’er didst alive
Them any harm, alas, nor could
Thy death yet do them any good.
"To His Coy Mistress" by Andrew Marvell (1621-1678)
…And the last age should show your heart.
For, Lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.
But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;
Flush by Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)
Flush is often described as the biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning from the point of view of her dog, but, as the title and subtitle suggest, Flush: A Biography is in fact the biography of Flush himself. It is also a parody of biographical writing, mocking from the outset the technique of presenting the biographical subject in the context of his or her family and genealogy by tracing Flush's origins well beyond his pedigree, back to the beginning of life on earth.
(Citation: Boldrini, Lucia. "Flush". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 25 October 2002)
"Because I Could Not Stop for Death" by Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)
Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
"Dover Beach" by Matthew Arnold (1822-1888)
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
"To His Coy Mistress" by Andrew Marvell (1621-1678)
…Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.