A spotted lanternfly with big red wings, almost as big as a dragonfly, flew up and hovered near my thigh as I walked down Madison Avenue. It was an unusual sighting on my walk in Midtown during my lunch break. The bug was striking in its beauty but all I hear is how to kill the invasive insect. It flew away before I could even think of responding. I wondered where this exotic creature came from and where it would fly off to in the middle of Manhattan.
I used to dream of winning a Pulitzer Prize and getting a book-to-movie deal starring Jennifer Lawrence. I thought I would buy an apartment with the earnings. Instead, my parents helped me buy a coop in Manhattan before my first book came out. My dreams became more humble. I relished every small honor my works received. I became even more humble during the pandemic—after I left Manhattan for a year and a half to work remotely from my parents’ home in Connecticut living a much smaller life. When I moved back to the city, I started to make the peace sign—which evolved from the victory sign during the Vietnam War— raising both hands for every small success while standing in front of the nearly floor-to-ceiling mirror in my living room. Wrote a new poem, peace sign! Revised my work in progress, peace sign! Went for a walk in the park, peace sign! Had a good hair day, peace sign! Now that I celebrate humble victories I am more at peace.
I didn’t study English in college so I felt behind. My best friend introduced me to Latin American literature. I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez and later discovered Mario Vargas Llosa, Jorge Luis Borges, Carlos Fuentes, Roberto Bolano. I also read classic writers like Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte. And modern poets like Mary Oliver, Ted Kooser, Stanley Kunitz, Louise Glück. I began to read books on my Kindle for iPhone so I would always have a book with me. I read during my lunch hour and got stuck on Jonathan Franzen’s novel Purity. It is the story of a young woman searching for her father while working as an investigative reporting intern. She moves to South America to work for an East German-born provocateur who runs a WikiLeaks-style organization. I was drawn in by the idealistic premise, but the only interesting part is the backstory of the Stasi going after the provocateur for publishing a subversive poem. The rest of the story drags on and on. I have never abandoned a book, but I cannot get through this one. I stopped reading for a long time, then started small—with friends’ poetry chapbooks. Now I am reading Ocean Vuong’s first poetry collection—about the Vietnam War and the refugee experience—moving ahead in tiny increments, to chip away at my reader’s block.
I started to take violin lessons in elementary school. My instructor was a Soviet emigre who made her students cry—but I never cried. She made Turkish coffee for me before our lessons. A mentor told her never to rush so she never did. I didn’t practice a lot but the sound coming from my German violin made it seem like I did. My teacher picked it out for me after testing several violins at the music shop in a neighboring town in Connecticut. In high school, I became a first violinist in the community youth orchestra, sitting in the fourth chair. In college, I played during final exams to release the stress. At the beginning of my last semester, all my belongings were lined up downstairs in a summer sublet in Philadelphia but my violin never made it to my new apartment that I shared with Argentine students at my university. I no longer had an outlet during final exams. After college, I moved to Buenos Aires where I worked as a journalist. I bought an old violin at an auction for $100. It sounded tinny and the pegs holding the strings slipped. The violin didn’t stay in tune for long. I put it away for years until I moved to upstate New York for a year and found a violin repairman that fixed my violin. It now stayed in tune but still sounded tinny. And along the way I had lost my music so I could only play bits from memory. I had looked at new violins once but the affordable ones didn’t sound as rich as my German violin. Now the violin is in a plastic garbage bag in my closet—remnants from a flea infestation in my Manhattan apartment after a friend’s visit. He couch surfed while he was in the city after his move to New Orleans and picked up fleas during one of his trips. I haven’t had the motivation to take my violin out of the closet. It never measured up to my old violin.
ABOUT THE ARTIST
Karol Nielsen is the author of the memoirs Black Elephants (Bison Books, 2011) and Walking A&P (Mascot Books, 2018) and the chapbooks This Woman I Thought I’d Be (Finishing Line Press, 2012) and Vietnam Made Me Who I Am (Finishing Line Press, 2020). Her first memoir was shortlisted for the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing in nonfiction in 2012. Excerpts were honored as notable essays in The Best American Essays in 2010 and 2005. Her full poetry collection was longlisted for the Terry J. Cox Poetry Award in 2021 and was a finalist for the Colorado Prize for Poetry in 2007. One of her poems was a finalist for the Ruth Stone Poetry Prize in 2021. Her work has appeared in Epiphany, Guernica, Lumina, North Dakota Quarterly, Permafrost, RiverSedge, and elsewhere.
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