Caitlin Scarano

 
Ember

He says when we’re fucking he can almost feel us

becoming one person. I forgot what it meant to love this way—teeth

against the back of thigh, his voice like a snake around my spine, to see his death

every time he leaves the house—I forgot so much.

Last night, I could not stop eating his hair. I held it like cake

between my fingers, and wasn’t a self nourished in the dreaming?

Healing, like everything else, was not what we expected. It wasn’t pretty

or linear or real even. But I knew to follow a river, to turn away

from every baby-filled basket in the rushes, every lover promising me

their best rib. There is no good

or evil here. But touch me gently. If there is a god, I’d have found him

by now squatting beneath a stone like a dumbstruck

toad. Though I believe in ghosts. I’ve seen them holding their splayed

throats up to my mother’s mirror which hangs on the edge

of a tooth. The flood in our valley was not punishment; it meant

nothing. How it kissed our doorstep and moved on meant nothing.

I have no god but this—the year of downpour, the way he wants

to become me, an orange ember I’ll swallow

for its glow. Moon so free of a human face, I will be unable

to look away.

 

CAITLIN SCARANO is a poet based in northwest Washington, and a PhD candidate in English (creative writing) at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Her work was included in Best New Poets 2016 and The Best Small Fictions 2016. Her debut collection of poems, Do Not Bring Him Water, was released in Fall 2017 by Write Bloody Publishing. You can find her at www.caitlinscarano.com .


Gerry LaFemina

 
Solstice

Earlier, the sun turned around, began its long sojourn south.

The neighborhood dogs dream of sirloin & belly rubs.

Or else I’m projecting again, which has been known

to happen, particularly on nights like this

when a few glowing windows reveal shadow-dramatic scenes.

When the asphalt releases its exasperated heat.

When whatever wind the mountain exhales, ruffles loose

the last delicate scents of honeysuckle.

When a Northern Saw-whet circles for rabbit

then circles again, wings open to air streams.

Tonight, only a white stripe of skunk, nearly radiant

among the garden vegetables—

its slick, black fur smudged to inky night.

In a driveway, an RV shakes with adolescent laughter.

Hunger & more hunger—what motivates the beasts of the world.

In another century, another city, one redundant with distant light,

I would wake in my room, wanting—

my mother on the far side of the house typing dictation;

I could hear the muffled staccato of each sentence.

My brother & sister asleep. Staring at me from across the room,

the taxidermied owl someone believed the perfect gift for a child

talons open as if it might pluck from my chest the nightmares,

the longing, the very poetry.

How it might feast, then fly in a maelstrom of viscera & feathers

that I would learn to follow even into this latest of decades

for want of what had been taken.

 

GERRY LaFEMINA is the author of several books of poems including 2011's Vanishing Horizon, three books of prose poems, a short story collection, and Clamor, a novel. In 2014 Stephen F. Austin University Press released his latest poetry collection, Little Heretic, and a book of his essays on prosody, Palpable Magic. His textbook, Composing Poetry: A Guide to Writing Poems and Thinking Lyrically and a new collection of poems, The Story of Ash, are both forthcoming. New work has recently appeared in The Sun, American Poetry Review, Gettysburg Review, and other journals. The recipient of numerous awards and honors, he is an associate professor of English and serves as a poetry mentor in the MFA program at Carlow University.

 

R. Cross

Vaseline and Cherry Blossom Petals

   I was unemployed and you had just been laid off and it was spring and we were both pushing thirty. We put Vaseline on our faces and went outside and stood under the blooming cherry tree on your street, when the petals were falling and the wind was just right.
   With our necks craned skyward, we watched the heavens until each of our faces was covered in pink.
   “It’s like piñata fringe,” you said, looking at me. “So, what do you want to do now?”
   We put on sunglasses over our petal-covered faces and rode our bikes down to the river where there were joggers and people throwing Frisbees and walking dogs.
   By the water’s edge, we came upon a dead rabbit that was only a fur husk, just feet and ears and fur, like a plush toy that had been gutted of all its stuffing.
   “What do you think happened to it?” you asked, the petals around your hairline starting to slip from perspiration.
   “Some kind of death experience,” I said, pulling the tub of Vaseline out of my bag to spread more across your forehead. “You’re coming undone.”
   I ripped apart a dandelion and adhered pieces of it to your sticky skin, then we got up and looked out on the river.
   A moment later you replied, “I know,” the coronet of magnificent gold still perfectly affixed to your brow.

Rach Cross.png
 

R. Cross is a writer from the Midwest. She currently lives in Ann Arbor where she attends The Helen Zell Writers' Program at the University of Michigan. Her stories have appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, Day One, Meridian, and Reservoir. You can find her online at rcross.net.

 

Cat INGRID Leeches

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Premonitions of a Valley Girl

My daughter is missing a uvula.

Her cat speaks for her when she places her fingers lightly on the nape of his neck with a

somewhat threatening flourish. His mouth opens on cue:

it sounds like the groaning of an ancient house

I open the ground with a shovel

trying to dig up what I imagined

the last tenants left behind, buried,

too heavy to take with them.

With a simple heave, the shovel’s tip already imbedding in the flesh,

the whole top comes loose?

As if the topsoil was dead skin on my foot that I could peel back and reveal what was

underneath,

but it’s still dead down there, not new and baby pink like I thought?

It goes thousands of miles deep but  all    still           dead

I don’t have a daughter?

Many of my friends have daughters? Their lives crisscrossing in different directions from mine.

Some of them even have dead daughters?

My mother and me would take trips to the cemetery, bring a picnic basket

or more often a six pack of Sprite

an excuse for ritual.

Here are the laws of our rituals:

DO NOT STEP where a dead body could potentially be. For safe measure assume dead bodies

occupy a space that is at least three-and-a-half feet wide and seven feet in length starting at the

tomb stone. (Back then I thought only tall men are buried, but I have never unthought this

thought?)

DO NOT THINK dirty thoughts while looking at the headstone, or even at the ground, or even

while thinking of the dead and what their life must have been like, and wondering if their wife

is still alive (and if she got remarried to their twin brother and how often do such things

happen?) It invites the dead into your dirty kind of dreaming.

Breathe softly. Do not breathe badly: yawning, sighing, groaning, and whining are all offenses in

this category. (My voice is a physical protuberance, a large elongated mole that starts at the

back of my throat and grows all the way out of my mouth?)

IT IS OKAY to make fun of garish headstones (i.e. big breasted angels weeping over the dead)

these individuals probably aren’t popular with the dead anyway. Even the dead have a social

hierarchy that must be respected- (rotting does not equal anarchy)?

What does it mean to be without a uvula? (Sometimes I think I have a daughter who is missing

a vulva?)

What does it mean to talk through a cat?

Who opens his mouth

and everyone is instantly transported to an old and scary house?

The kind that in your childhood made you piss your pants

a little any time you looked at it?

I didn’t know girls had to change their jeans more often than men? An older boy told me, you

smell like cunt. I thought this meant I was fuckable and my skin glowed for days and days?

Does this mean my daughter is a haunted house?

Does this mean my daughter dreams of occupying a haunted house? Dreams in houses?

Dreams in age?

In either case, it is unnatural. No one would disagree with this sentiment.

I promise to bite off her hands after she is born. Baby hands look like bubblegum, soft and pre-

digested. Maybe if she has no hands you will refrain from killing her and me?

If dead children return, really I am alone. None of my friends will come out to play.

After my daughter died I was alone,

and my house was so silent?

It took me WEEKS to learn the sounds of this silence?

In the early morning hours

I first heard the house talking to me. Here is its language:

murmurations and groans. There are many types of groans.

My favorite was

the way the house shifted its weight from foot to foot.

I did not know I was living inside a living?

And even though my daughter was dead, the cat refused to leave. I bolted the front door, and

he moved through walls like they were nothing.

One night I opened his jaws and looked inside, searching for the cat’s uvula. His breath was a

sour ocean, the top of his soft palate rotting. He should go to a doctor, I thought? He will die

soon, I thought?

Inside his mouth there was so much I had not known about my daughter, so much I had not

known about myself?

My head fell into his, and his body into my body?

Will I be better in a different life? Will I be good and kind?

In another world I am sure, I am so sure of this, we all decided to remove our eyes? Spread

them on toast, or whatever food item you prefer, and eat them. And then for the rest of our

lives we told each other stories about these eyes?

YOU WON’T BELIEVE ME but mine were fantastic. Blue around the rim. Mine were so dark, they

looked like mud. And we talked and talked about those eyes and nothing else. Mine were just

okay, but in that world, I believed they were the jewels of angels?

I’ve never seen dark, or rather, I’ve never seen nothing?

When I turn out the lights my eyes play tricks on me.

Like me, I do not think they like the idea of being alone, of not existing.

Maybe this is how my daughter-not-daughter was born.

I lift the folds of my lover’s stomach,

(OH MY GOODNESS,              Oh my goodness,

Oh my goodness).

I have never rated my lovers on a scale of 1 to 10, never articulated the level of attractiveness

of my lovers?

I have only been in awe of their form. It’s too many details to take in, to come up with some

sort of conclusion?

But I am capable of revulsion. But maybe maybe maybe maybe that is only in rememory after

you have left me?

I see warnings, maybe?

Or are those premonitions on your body that you will hurt me?

Do you think if I had looked closer, somewhere on your body would be a warning:

my sperm will give you a daughter

missing a uvula,

who is really a haunted house.

Do you think there would be another warning?

You are gestating inside your own child, an inversion of telescoping generations—practically

human aphids?

And you will take her cat for a lover not sure if he was really the father,

or if you just fell into his mouth?

And if that was just an act of devotion,

or he really intended to eat you—daughter, old house, and all?

You have a sensation of falling

and at night you have trouble telling where your skin is, where your fingers are? Where your

feet and the earth differ? But you peeled it back, ruined it for all of us. And we are standing

thousands of feet beneath where we used to stand?

 

CAT INGRID LEECHES lives and writes in Alabama, where she is the current editor of Black Warrior Review. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from The Collagist and Passages North. She has a small carnivorous cat named Dirtbike.

 
 

Rosanna Durst

Magic Tattoos

   Pops sleeps on the sofa, one leg off and one on, while we paint him. He has whiskey breath and dead eyes. I snuck the paint set from the art room on the last day of school. We have six colors altogether, each in its own plastic container. Luka does the legs. Lately he's been into animals. Elephants with trunks that wrap up to the knee, lions with leg hair for mane, gorillas that grip Pops' ankles with wide, blue hands. I prefer self-portraits. Pops will wake and see my face on his arm, my spaghetti hair, mouth a fat red smile, or a frown if he promised us something and then forgot.
   This is what we do now that Mama's gone. It was my idea. We ran out of paper on day 10, and Luka was sulky because I'd ripped up all his paintings. I don't know why I did that. Sometimes I do mean things just because. But when I told him let's make Pops pretty, he jumped up from the floor and said, "I was just thinking that," even though I knew he wasn't.
   We paint green circles around the eyes. Luka traces blue along the edges of Pop's beard. We create maps with his veins, maps that lead to nowhere. Then I paint the nose purple, and we breathe on him to dry everything. When his left eye twitches, me and Luka smile in secret at each other.
   He wakes long after we finish. Midday, just before his shift at Alfonso's on Market Street, where he serves tourists fake Italian food and pours wine that costs more than like twenty happy meals. Add a shit ton of oregano, he says, and bam! It's Italian. Nothing like the dishes his mother used to make. She emigrated from Sicily, you know.
   We know.
   He scrubs the paint from his face in the bathroom. Cold water in the sink, phlegm in his throat. Comes out red-faced and puffy-eyed, smelling of Old Spice and cigarettes. He rolls up his sleeves and pants legs to show us where he left some of the paintings. How'd they get there? "Magic tattoos," he calls them.


   68 days. That's how long since Mama left.
   On the porch, we eat handfuls of Fruity Pebbles and watch the sidewalk below. We shove each other into the wood railing. "Move your hair, your hair," Luka says.
   "I don't see him yet."
   Luka straddles the railing. He's barefoot and shirtless, tanned, hair a mess of brown curls. His has rainbow fingers from the cereal. "He'll come."
   The mailman's name is Charlie. His skin is plumb-colored and he has a poof of white hair on his head. Now that we're on summer break, we wait for him every morning. We live on the second floor of a 200-something year old house in downtown Charleston. Our porch faces the side of the neighbor's house, all mold-stained and tiny windows. Sometimes we hear a piano in there. Our landlord, Marion, lives below us. The number one city in the world, that's how they rate Charleston, whoever they are. Pops says some rich bastard must pay them to say that. He'll find out who it is, he says. He'll get ‘em. But I like the idea of being number one. The whole world beneath us. I've never been number one at anything, except compared to Luka.
   Luka points to where the sidewalk is shaded by live oaks. "There he is, near the church."
   I hurry downstairs before Charlie reaches the house.
   "Wren, my friend." He always says that.
   He pulls our mail from his bag and stacks it all together.
Then he presents it to me in open hands. "Thanks," I say, and even though I always tell myself I'll wait until I get home to check, I flip through the mail right here in front of Charlie, searching for her handwriting, her name.
   Electric bill, water bill, pizza coupons, that one with the gecko.
   "Anything good?"
   I shrug and don't say. I hold the mail against my chest as I run home. On the porch, I ignore Luka and go inside. Dump everything onto the kitchen table, where a pile of old mail lies unopened.
   The screen door squeaks, slams, and then Luka's behind me. "Nothing?" he asks.
   I spin around and shove him into the refrigerator. His bare back makes a smacking sound against the fridge door. He sinks down, his eyes all teary, and I don't apologize. He has to learn. Somebody has to toughen him or he'll never survive. I sit across from him, underneath the kitchen table, my dirty gray knees pulled up to my chin. In the living room, Pops' snores slap the walls of the house.

   She's a musician, my mother. A singer. In bars across Charleston her voice gripped the throats of men, grazed the egos of women with a rusted knife. At least that's how The Charleston Paper once described her. I was made to practice my reading on those lines. She sang the blues, she sang country, she wrote lyrics on blank paper, balled them into tangles of words she called worthless. Me and Luka, we spent our nights sitting in guitar cases at the backs of stages. We wrapped long, black cords around our legs. Crawled beneath barstools, tasted spilled beer and sticky wing sauce on cold floors. If you found teriyaki you won.
   I swear I knew before she left that she would. I just didn't know what to do about it. "I'm just another ghost of Charleston," she told me one night on the porch, "haunting my own grave." We sat together on a rusted glider, and she drank red wine from a princess sippy cup. I was cold, but I tried not to show it. "The music in me," she said, "it'll die if I don't take it somewhere."
   I nodded when she said that. Imagined the notes cough and fall off the staff. I wanted her to see that I understood, that I was old enough for anything.
   I was stupid.
   It had been a blue-sky afternoon, just as the magnolias were beginning to bloom. I'd walked home from school with Luka like I always did. We finished our homework on the porch. Pops was at Alfonso's. Everything was the same as it always was. But the shadows came and our stomachs growled and we were still alone. That's when I called the jewelry shop where she worked. Never showed. Time I got off the phone, Luka came from our parents' bedroom, his lower lip quivery.
   "She took her guitar," he said.


   In my dreams now, she's just voice and hair. A raspy hum, blond frizz down her back. She has the kind of hair that could be on a model if only she'd tame it. A lioness, Pops says.
   She called him the night she left. Their conversation was quick, hushed. Pops leaned into the stove, all boxer shorts and bare back, the word "fine" repeated like a leaky faucet. He hung up before anyone else could talk. I screamed and beat my fists into his doughy back, why didn't he let me talk, and he just stood there and took it.
   Why'd she go, Pops?
   Music, he said.
   But me and Luka, we had other ideas. He thought she left for another man. He'd seen it on TV.
   I thought it was Pops' drinking. Why didn't he just stop? Why did she care?
   But maybe it was none of those. Maybe it was me.
   She hasn't called since that first night. Instead, she writes to us about once a week. Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee. Luka and I receive separate letters. His are short, the writing bigger, and he grins when he reads what she wrote. Mine are pages and pages. Luka wants to read them, but I snatch them away, refuse to let his dirty fingers touch the thread between Mama and me, between us women. I keep her letters inside my pillowcase, where they crinkle as I toss and turn. I imagine that's her voice now, that crinkle, and only I can hear it.
   Be strong, Wren.
   A real woman stands her own ground. Her footprints are permanent, wherever she goes, they can't be washed away by some pathetic wave on the beach.
   Sometimes I call her. She says writing is truer, writing is ancient, but I know she believes in the voice, too. So when Pops sleeps, I sneak his old flip phone from his pocket. Luka follows me upstairs to my bedroom, and I dial. Five long rings. One beep. Then, the silly sound of me and Luka: Leave a message if you dare.
   I dare.
   I spew into the phone while Luka stands on tiptoes and watches with hands over his mouth. We counted 6 palmetto bugs in the kitchen last night, I sprayed them dead like you showed me. Then the beep returns, it pokes me on the head with a sharp fingernail. Time's up. Luka goes next. His messages are all tears and blubber, and I can't stand it. I yank the phone from him long before the last beep. "She won't come home to a bunch of babies."
   Luka nods. Wipes his eyes with fists.
   She sends nothing to Pops. For Pops, she only communicates through me.
   Here's the thing. If he loses his job – AGAIN – all three of you could starve to death. Tell him I said so, Wren.
   Don't ever marry a man with a bumpy nose.
   Does he spend time with you and Luka? Does he play with you?
   Tell him tell him tell him.
   But I don't have the heart. Pops does play with us. When he comes home after midnight from work, and I'm curled up next to Luka in bed, Pops wakes us with song. His voice is low and grainy, he sings about pirates and magicians and women who can read your mind. He pulls us out of bed and carries us downstairs over his shoulders. We twirl around until we're dizzy and laughing, and Pops gives us Coke. We clank our glasses against his silver flask.
   He's a good Pops.
   Even when he sinks onto the sofa and his eyes leak, when he says, "Fuck this, fuck this, fuck this," and I pat him on the head, he's a good Pops.


   74 days. Usually the Indian man who runs the corner store gives us bubblegum, but in July we get sparklers. "Not to be used until the fourth," he says. Pops comes home early the night of the fourth, says he can't think straight, and we beg him to do the sparklers with us. All day we've waited until dark. We pull on his arms. "Please, Pops, please."
   His eyes are foggy, but he says, "Okay, okay."
   Pops wants to light them on the porch, but we think it'll be better on the roof. He follows us upstairs, where me and Luka each have an attic bedroom. The hardwood floor is painted rust-red, and there's a window between the bedrooms, beneath the triangle ceiling. Luka helps me push it up. Pops holds the sparklers and his flask while we climb through.
   "Come on, Pops."
   He stares at me through the open window, his forehead crinkled, mouth hidden inside his beard. For a moment, I worry he'll slam the window down, lock us out because he's tired, tired, tired. Does he play with you?
   But he takes my hand, lets me guide him through.
   Once outside, we walk along a skinny ledge to a flat, concrete area. Here we can see the neon sign on the corner store, the grime and dead leaves on all the rooftops, the silver cross atop the church one block over. The sidewalk below is dark and quiet.
   "Marion'll pitch a fit if she finds out we're up here," Pops says.
   "We won't tell, right, Luka?"
   "Right."
   Marion is an English teacher, but she's old and doesn't work anymore. I remember the hearse parked on the street when her husband, Leo, died. Her veiny hands shook when Mama made us pay our respects the next day. Now she stays huddled inside with her shelves of books, a large portrait of Leo over the fireplace, his blue eyes sharp, pissed.
   Fireworks scream behind clouds. Luka runs around me and Pops in a circle, all the sparklers in his hands. I'm tempted to stick my foot out and trip the excitement right out of him.
   "Let's do this," Pops says. He takes a swig from the flask.
   Luka hands me the sparklers and Pops gives me the lighter, a plastic red thing, warmed from his pocket. My hands are full. They both watch and wait. This is how it is without Mama. Luka wants me to do everything for him now. Even the things he knows how to do, like tie his shoes. And Pops, he doesn't ask for anything, but the way he looks at me, the kind of desperation you might see on a stray dog, I know he wants something from me too. I'm eleven years old, but I'm the woman of the house now. I wonder if this is what it means to be a woman, this pressure on your spine, your chest, all this want you're begged to fulfill.
   Is that why she left? Does she feel lighter now? Or has she taken on a new pressure, one that pulls instead of pushes?
   Does she know my hands are smaller than hers?
   I start with one sparkler. A breeze causes the flame to burn my thumb, but then the sparkler comes to life. "More," Luka says. "All of them."
   I light the rest, one by one. We each take some and hold them above our heads like rescue signals. All around us the sky is littered in red and white.
   "Pew, pew," Luka chants.
   Pops holds his face to the sky, eyes closed, as the sparklers simmer out. Thin strings of smoke rise into the black. Me and Luka drop ours onto the street below, one by one, look how funny they fall, but Pops still stands like that, the dead sparklers above his head, flask in his back pocket.
   "Pops?"
   "Hmm."
   "You can drop yours too," I say. "We'll pick them up tomorrow."
   "Drop ‘em, Pops. It's fun."
   He doesn't move at first. Then he sighs and brings the sparklers in front of his face. He bunches them into one hand, like a bouquet of dead flowers, and squeezes the burnt end of one between his thumb and index finger.
   "Drop ‘em," Luka repeats, softer this time.
   Pops holds the sparklers over the edge, then lets them all go at once. They scatter on the ground. Luka cheers, I do too, but Pops just pulls the flask from his pocket and drinks it empty. Then he tosses the flask too. It clanks against the pavement and bounces into the middle of the street. Light from a streetlamp echoes off its surface.
   "Why'd you do that?" Luka asks.
   Pops puts a hand on each of our heads. I feel him all the way down.
   "I'm done with it," he says.
   In the morning, though, I find him passed out on the sofa, the flask on the floor next to him. Scuffed and dented, but alive.


   The adventure continues. This motel, it smells like mold and ass, but it's a quick bus ride from the city, and I met this musician, Ronny's his name, and he's showing me the ropes. Where to get gigs and whatnot. Got one lined up for Saturday night. And I got a job now, so I'm less of a tourist! It's not much, just some souvenir shop downtown, but it's money. I sell t-shirts and keychains, fake leather boots, cowboy hats, all that shit. Tell your father I'll bring him back a Nashville shot glass, ha ha. Do you think he misses me, Wren?

   He misses you like crazy, I whisper into the phone.
   He cries for you every night, I lie.


   86 days. I'm on my back, only a thin Mickey Mouse towel between the hot pavement of the roof and my skin. I wear a two-piece bathing suit and some expired sunscreen. The inside of my eyelids is red.
   Charleston summers are weighted down to the grave, not just by humidity but also by tourists. Buggy rides slow the traffic, and only the sea breeze relieves the stink of horseshit. When it rains, the streets flood. I swear one day the peninsula will sink, and then we'll be number zero instead of number one. Sometimes the tourists wander by our house. We've learned to recognize them by the confusion in their voices. They say things like ghetto and slummy. They're lost, these tourists. They've taken the wrong alleyway and wound up on a sidewalk with shards of glass in its cracks, shadowed by tall, crooked homes.
   Luka throws pennies at them.
   "Goddammit. Missed again."
   The penny experiment: if thrown from a great height, a penny will kill the person it strikes. I call bullshit, but Luka questions everything now, he must see it for himself.
   "What if you hurt someone?"
   He wipes sweat from his forehead. "Someone has to be the sacrifice."
   We spend most days on the roof. When it storms, we shout and dance with relief. Hold our hands up and dare the lightning to mess with us. I smack Luka with my wet hair. Usually, though, the sun bares down on us from a mean white sky. We stay out even when we see black spots and grow dizzy. I've come to like the feeling. How my hands seem faraway in front of my face, how my body turns to liquid. My head is both light and heavy. We burnt red first, but now we're brown and coarse.
   If Mama were here, she'd take us swimming. Each summer, she bought us new swimsuits, fresh towels, made sure our hair was brushed, and we walked into one of the hotels sprinkled around Charleston as if we were guests. As if we belonged. Mama's like that, she can make anyone believe. We must have visited at least ten different hotels each summer, and nobody ever said a thing. Mama stretched out on a lounge chair while me and Luka swam. He always hesitated to go in before me, so sometimes, when he wasn't looking, I pushed him from behind. The splash of his small body against the surface of the water, the way he disappeared for a moment. The surprised betrayal on his face. Even when he gasped for air and cried to Mama, even when she popped me on the behind in front of everyone, the feeling of his body there and then gone–how I made that happen–was worth it.
   Now, before his shirt becomes sweat-soaked and he peels it off, I pretend to shove him off the roof. Even after several days in a row, he still puts himself in a vulnerable position next to the edge. He watches the sidewalk, ready to throw his pennies, and I sneak up behind him and push. I keep hold of his t-shirt, though. Yank him back toward me so hard we both nearly fall backwards.
   Again, the betrayal. The dumb shock.
   Only this time, there's nobody to tell. He just grows quiet, refuses to look at me for a while, and I almost miss his snot-nosed cry, the sting on my ass. Mama saying, Wren Marie, you stop that shit. Now there's just the quiet. There's just the sun.


   98 days. He doesn't have to tell us. We know.
   I sit in a dusty corner of the living room. The only light is the flash of TV and the cell phone screen. Again, I dare: Pops lost his job. We'll starve if you don't come home.
   He becomes obsessed with the TV. We don't have cable, but mornings he uses the rabbit ears to watch the news. During the day, infomercials. Nights, reruns of sitcoms and more news.
   Gas prices, Obama, fucking liberals, the job market, sex slaves, people being shot in our own city. Pops is concerned about it all, and we're to keep quiet. We no longer play in the living room, where Pops melts into the couch and yells at the TV. We've been banned.
   Luka begins to wet the bed. We sleep together most nights now, greasy head to dirty toe. Usually I'm the first to feel the warm wetness. Too tired to be angry, I nudge Luka awake and we move to the other bedroom, to the clean bed. When both sets of sheets are dirty, I wash them. The apartment is stuffy, the heat always here, even at night. Pops says we can't afford air conditioning. Says we have ceiling fans. We have cold showers.
   "But Pops, we're out of Cokes."
   "The weatherman said we're melting."
   Volume up. Skeleton eyes. The flask never full, never empty.
   "We're fine. Go play."

   Words are useless, I decide. Words are shallow underneath, red hearts with black centers. Words betray.
   So I do the logical thing: I stop talking. Instead, I use hand motions only Luka understands, and I vow to never call Mama again. What's the use? Is she even listening?
   We paint on Pops by the light of the TV.
   Music.
   That's what we paint.
   All the music we cannot hear. Mama showed us how.


   One million years later, on a humid morning, Pops shaves and says, "Store." Finally. We walk with him to the Piggly Wiggly. He smokes cigarettes, tosses the butts into front yards. His arms and legs are covered in the music. At the store, he gives us cash and we purchase the essentials—birthday cake ice cream, Easy Mac, frozen pizza, Coke—while Pops goes across the street to the drinking store.
   He's a good Pops.
   We will be nourished.
   Me and Luka each carry a plastic bag of food home, and Pops takes the rest. He puts his brown bag inside one of the plastics, then whistles and skips to make us laugh. The music cries as it melts.
   I'm still hungry after we eat the pizza. Pops has claimed the living room, and I stand in front of the dresser in his and Mama's bedroom. Her makeup is scattered before me. Hot red lipstick, monster-purple eyeshadow, tongue-colored blush. All the beauty she left behind. I apply cream over the freckles on my nose. Rub the red over my lips and smack them together like I've seen Mama do. Next the blush, the eye shadow, I want to wear it all.
   Her latest words: Like the strings on a guitar turn to rust. Nothing lasts, my sweet Wren. Nothing stays the same. The exception is a mother's love for her children.


   The makeup feels greasy in the sun. Luka throws a penny. Two seconds later, he holds his hands in the air and shouts, "Success!"
   Below, a woman's voice: "Hey!"
   I spring from my towel, and everything goes black. Once the light returns, I look down at the sidewalk, where a pony-tailed woman squints up at the roof. She shakes the penny at us and grips the handle of a red stroller. Only the baby's fat legs are visible. "Little bastards!" she yells. Beads of sweat shimmer on her forehead. She turns and throws the penny down the street. I can barely hear it against the pavement. When she walks away, her knuckles are mad white against the stroller's handle, and I think of Mama, how she towered over Pops when he was too drunk to stand, her fists clenched, her words a series of bullets: my babies, my babies, what about my babies.
   What about us now, Mama?
   Luka wanders along the edge of the roof, arms out. He's barefoot despite the hot concrete, his t-shirt plastered to his skin. "You were right," he says. "Can't kill no one with a penny. ‘Specially not that bitch."
   When he looks at me, I roll my eyes. ‘Course I was right.
   "I think I'm drunk," he says. "My head feels like a bag of wet sand."
   He lets his head go limp as he walks the edge. I stumble around with him, and we make drunk moaning sounds and bump into each other. Luka in his sweaty t-shirt, me in my two-piece. "Little bastards," he says. "Little bastards."
   And I shove him in the chest.
   Maybe it was the thought of Mama that made me do it. Her clenched fists. Maybe it was the woman Luka hit with the penny. That kind of anger, where does it come from, I want to be engulfed by it.
   I grab for his shirt, but this time, I miss. The shirt's too soaked, his body too slippery.
   Nothing lasts.
   We look at each other for a second before he goes down. His mouth open, eyes wide, reaching for me. But there's a knowing in his eyes too, as if together we planned this moment, as if we could find no other way.
   One side of the roof overlooks a narrow space between the neighbor's house and ours. Dead grass and wide-open trash bins and curtained windows. Three stories down. He hits a trash bin first, white bags of our own filth his only cushion. The sound of bone against plastic a punch to my gut. He lands on his side in the grass, sprawled out yet also curled into himself.
   I can't look.
   I set my eyes on the church steeple instead, the cross white in the sun, and after being mute for a week, my voice suddenly stumbles up my throat, into my mouth, like a river of rocks, and I scream. When I place my hands over my ears, the scream is even louder inside of me. I look down, finally, and see Luka curl further into himself.
   "Wren! Hey, Wren!"
   Pops.
   Behind me, on hands and knees after climbing from the window. His forehead scrunched into a thousand tiny lines. "Goddamn, Wren, what is it?"
   I point to the ground.
   "Luka?" Pops asks, and I nod.
   I follow him through the window, we push against walls for momentum, and all I can think is please don't die. Downstairs, a few people stop to watch until Marion comes out and glares at them. She wears a dress that looks like wallpaper, and her gray hair is pulled back tight. While Pops calls the ambulance, she hands me two plastic grocery bags full of ice cubes. "It's his left arm," she says. "And his forehead."
   I look and then wish I hadn't. First, the head. A golf-ball welt the color of morning rainclouds. I want to cover it with my hand. Smash it back into place.
   Then, the arm. The bone's in the wrong place, the skin stretched thin.
   Marion eases Luka onto his back. His face is red, scrunched, and he groans. She motions for me to help. "Hold the ice on the arm," she says. She takes the other bag and places it on the welt, her other hand on his cheek. Her fingers are long like Mama's, wrinkled yet soft. Luka cringes at the ice, but he begins to calm when she touches him.
   My hands shake as I press the ice on his arm. The crackly sound of the bag and Luka's groaning and Pops saying they're coming, they're coming.
   Pops kneels at Luka's feet, rubs his leg. Smudges of paint are smeared on his arms and neck. "What happened?"
   I clench my jaw and squeeze the rough edges of ice through the plastic bag. I pushed him, I pushed him, I pushed him.
   But it's Luka who speaks. His voice comes out wet with snot and tears. "I tripped," he says. "I'm sorry, Pops."
   "You shouldn't of even been up there," Pops says. He looks to Marion, panic in his eyes. I smell the drink on his breath when he speaks. "I'm sorry—I didn't know."
   Marion shakes her head. This whole time she's remained calmer than anyone. She must know about us, about my mother. "It's okay," she says, and I believe her.
   Sirens in the distance. Pops and Marion head for the street, and it's just Luka and me now. The stench of trash and sunlight and our own bodies between us. Despite his cringe, Luka looks at me the same way he always has, and I know neither of us will ever say what really happened on the roof. We'll own it together. I reach into the plastic bag and pull out a piece of ice. He opens his mouth, and I place the ice on his tongue.
   He crunches on it and says, "Mama?"
   "No. Wren."
   "You're all fuzzy."
   I touch my cheek. My fingers come away covered in Mama's makeup, her leftovers, all these colors I've tried to keep.


   I call her on Marion's phone. Luka puked pink sandwich on dead grass, and then the ambulance took him and Pops away. Marion insisted I stay with her. Soon as I stepped inside, cold air wrapped its fingers around my bones. Suddenly I became aware of my exposed skin in the two-piece, my makeup-caked face, stringy hair down my back. The portrait of Marion's husband seemed appalled.
   She directed me to the kitchen. Marion's the only person I know who doesn't have a cellphone, or at least a cordless. Hers hangs on the kitchen wall, the cord like one long strand of curly hair. I wrap it around my body now and listen to the ringing. Brace myself for the singsong voices of my brother and me.
   "Mm, hello?"
   What do I say? Can forever be spoken in one breath?
   Again, my mother: "Hello?"
   The words that finally come to me are so obvious: "You answered."
   "Wren?"
   "I'm on Marion's phone," I say, and here are the stupid tears. Gulps of them in my eyes, down my face, fat drops on the kitchen floor.
   "Did your father do something?" She mumbles to someone in the background. I imagine her hand over the speaker, the cellphone shrouded by her hair. My babies, my babies. Then, to me: "Say, what's going on?"
   "Luka." Just his name brings on a new wave. "He's hurt."
   "Hurt how?"
   Marion peeks at me from the kitchen doorway, then disappears.
   "Wren? Hurt how?"
   "Will you please just come home, Mama?"
   "Are you fibbing?"
   I suddenly feel the urge to scream like I did on the roof, only this time the scream boils rage red in my throat. "You need to come home," I say. My voice goes stern, the same voice I sometimes use on Luka. "I swear to God, I'll hate you forever if you don't come home right now."
   "Honey."
   "Will you?"
   A woman's high-pitched laugh in the background. The sound of rock ‘n roll.
   My mother again: "Honey, I know this is hard for you."
   Maybe I should just agree. Tell her about painting Pops, the fireworks, the bed-wetting. But something inside of me slams shut, and I want it to stay that way.
   "Fuck this," I say.
   "Jesus. Let me talk to your father."
   "He's not here." I reach up to the receiver, press down the hook.
   Later, when I replay it in my head, I only regret that last line: He's not here. Because those words, to my mother, meant Pops was drunk. Why didn't I say he was at the hospital? Why didn't I say he was with Luka? But it doesn't matter. I understand now.


   119 days.
   Since she's brushed the tangles from my hair.
   Since her voice has rolled like the sea through the house, splashed against the walls and caked us in salt.
   I miss her singing the most. We always knew when Mama was home. We could tell her mood by the songs. A low hum meant to leave her alone. The Beatles meant she was happy: here comes the sun, little darling.
   Now there's only the creak of swollen doorways. There's a tired and three-day sober Pops. He wears the spaghetti stains of a new Italian restaurant. For Luka, there's a lime green cast, bent at the elbow. A brain shaken like a broken doll. Concussion, they call it. And there are two special markers the color of a bruise.
   Luka wakes crying for her the night before school starts back. I no longer sleep in the same bed with him since the cast, afraid he'll accidentally whack me with it. But when I hear him cry, I make my way across the space between our bedrooms. Dull blue light on the hardwood floor, dust at my feet.
   "Luka, it's okay."
   "Mama?"
   I turn on the bedroom light. His floor is all clothes and race cars and Legos.
   "Still just me."
   He sits up and squints, his cheeks wet. He's shirtless, end-of-summer tan.
   "Where's the markers?" I ask.
   He grabs one from the bedside table, hands it to me. I sit next to him, say, "Hold steady."
   We've already drawn a few stars and puppies on the cast. But there's an opening on his forearm, and this is where I draw my face. Just like on Pops. For Luka, I make my mouth into a wide, purple smile.
   "Is that Mama?" he asks.
   I draw my hair, shake my head no.
   "I want Mama."
   I need to say something or he'll cry, but I don't know what. Pops was wrong, there's no magic. There's just me. In my head, I can still hear Luka's lie: I tripped. And the lies Pops used to tell Mama: I haven't had a drink. Work was good today. These lies are like little air bubbles we release to each other beneath a dark sea. Take this, we whisper. You'll need it to survive.
   But I want to give Luka what's real.
   "I talked to her, you know," I say. "When you were at the hospital."
   "You did not."
   "Did, too." My purple eyes, pupils round. "I told her she has to come home since you're hurt."
   "Yeah? What'd she say?"
   My smile, darkening from purple to black. I have to say this the right way. "She's not ready yet."
   He makes a sniffling sound, and I know he's trying not to cry. "Well, when?" he asks.
   "I don't know." I press down hard on the cast, force the marker to give me everything, and I say what I've been afraid of all along. "Maybe never."
   Luka stares at the cast, my unfinished face, thinking. Then he breathes, his belly expands, in and out, and I continue to fill in the lines.

 

ROSANNA DURST has an M.A. in English from the College of Charleston, where she now teaches freshman composition. Her work has appeared in Yalobusha Review, Flyleaf Journal, and The Mighty. She lives in the Lowcountry with her husband, Thomas, and their three rescue dogs. This story is the basis for a novel she’s currently at work on.


 

Jen Town | 3 poems

 

Paper Girl (1982-)
Sky of Salt, 2017

Salt, Sable Brush, Horizon

"Salt sprinkled on cerulean blue soaks up the pigment and leaves a round absence the artist called stars. If/then: if absence is a burning orb, then how much of the world is on fire? Salt on color, salt granules in a cut, salt bath for an ache. Salt on ice brings its own heat. The ocean evaporates, leaving salt in its wake. And wake, what a boat drags behind it when it disappears into distance, distance measured by a far-off point we’re moving towards."
 
 

Paper Girl (1982-)
Fortune Teller, 2017

Pencil, Ink, Folded Paper, River

"Madame Sosostris is tired and takes off. The girl who takes over folds paper into fours and fours again, flicks each fold open with flying fingers and teases out a fortune. The future is a dark brick building with yesterday’s soot stains. The future is a paper cut that doesn’t bleed. Pick a color. R-E-D. When the ink runs red, when it blooms from a wound, when the sky turns to rust at night, run fast. Fold a rowboat on the shore and shove off. Make your hands into a bowl and start bailing. The river wants in. The river will have you."
 
 

Capsule

I dream of capsules, time, wardrobe,
Candy colored pills. Boxes buried
With notes inside. Dressed up
In history's finery, bustled and bewigged,
I’ll behave myself as becomes the fashion:
Areolae peaking through Belgian lace,
Capezzoli di Venere on a silver tray,
Chocolate tempered to a tubercular sheen.
I’ll carmine my cheeks febrile. My body
Tinged blue and threaded to the wall,
I creep like a spy through time, I am
Hidden in the cracks, I am the ghost-mother
Sheet-covered, propping up a silent baby.
As if I’m okay with this erasure,
As if I exist only to bear the weight
Of these limbs. I’m not okay. Jabot,
A bit of lace collects at my throat.
Call this my collar of descent, then:
See how it rings my neck, the future
The past unwritten, the past a ruin
From which even the rats run.

 
 

JEN TOWN was born in Dunkirk, New York, and grew up in Erie, Pennsylvania. Her poetry has appeared in Mid-American Review, Cimarron Review, Epoch, Third Coast, Lake Effect, Crab Orchard Review, Unsplendid, Bellingham Review, and others. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing from The Ohio State University in 2008 and lives in Columbus, Ohio, with her wife, Carrie. Her forthcoming book, The Light of What Comes After, won the 2017 May Sarton Poetry Prize and will be published in April 2018.

 
 

H.R. Webster

 

Close-Up Magic

After Jose Ahonen’s Youtube video
“Taikuutta koirille – Magic for dogs”

The magician’s hand
is a mouth swallowing
into his wrist. A flaw in the palm’s
horizon. Disappearances rust
industriously inside us.
Busy flecks of pain.
Dogs shown close-up magic
kiss the palm’s empty salt lick.
Again and again. The way girls
on reality TV whisper thank you
into the ear of the man tasked
with their dismissal. The crinkle
of their bare spines in backless
dresses, the thin lines earrings
have stretched into their lobes.

+

You know what it is to be composed
of absence. To spell out
your existence only with the lamp
which won’t turn off despite
the flicking of the switch,
the rocking chair, the oily
handprint on the glass. To name
yourself only with the carton
of double yolked eggs, the typo
in the text, the echo of the motion
sensor light between snow and snow
heavy sky, underneath the heavy
pelt of pines.

 

H.R. WEBSTER is a 2017-2018 poetry fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. She holds an MFA from the University of Michigan. Her work has appeared in Ninth Letter, Black Warrior Review, Seattle Review, Ecotone, and other journals. Find more at www.hrwebster.com.

 

Matthew Dickman

An Interview

Here is where we'll set the interview up (i.e. "We recently got the chance to talk with award-winning poet Matthew Dickman...)


COREY OGLESBY: The first thing I noticed in Wonderland was that there were stanza breaks—a device I couldn’t immediately recall having seen much in your previous work. This changeup in form seems to me like just one of the ways this collection quickly announces a kind of overall stylistic departure. Was there something about this book, specifically, that demanded a different approach?

MATTHEW DICKMAN: While first working on the poems in Wonderland I was also thinking about this question: why, if I am always changing—that is to say as I live and live through transformative experiences such as the suicide of my older brother or the recent birth of my son—do I continue to write, at least formally, in the same way? This seemed odd to me. So I began experimenting with stanzas and line breaks in a way I hadn't for years. I was also helped through what felt like very important conversations with my twin brother, the poet Michael Dickman, at the time. These conversations revolved around the poems and their forms, but also felt like conversations about The Self and the elasticity of The Self. Isn't it true that The Self can be many things, can bend and change or should as you live your life? I believe so. And so should poems, the poems one writes.

CO: Some formal elements throughout Wonderland seem to cast a kind of incantatory spell via repetition, like they’re working to conjure up the memory of a specific Self. Was there a particular Matthew Dickman you were trying to locate or give voice to?

MD: I'm always trying to locate Matthew Dickman. That is to say, I feel like often I have lost who I am or I feel like I have never known who I am. I have felt it. I know I have felt it though. And that is like everyone! The hour poems are just the evidence of an anxiety/manic flushed 24 hours. The repeating lines that begin and end poems like Astronaut are about anxiety too. Like trying to say the thing but too nervous or not knowing what the thing is yet but needing to speak.

CO: That “need to speak,” that urgency, is an energy I’ve always loved so much about your work. There’s a rawness and speed that, even before this book, I’ve thought of as being kindred to punk music, which makes me wonder about the poems in here titled after punk bands like Circle Jerks and Bad Brains, and if you consider your poetics at all informed by punk and, if so, in what ways?

MD: The first poets I ever heard were the singers in punk bands, though then I didn't think of them as poets. They gave language to the emotional and social life of my childhood. There is an influence and that would be how straight forward those old punk songs were and how "daily" the subjects of the songs. The poems you reference I tend to think of as nature poems. When writing Wonderland I had gotten to a point where I had a bunch of it done and looked around the landscape of the book and noticed there were all these poems about the people and experiences of the neighborhood, of my childhood, but no trees! no birds! I began to (as Jorie Graham puts it) write into the corners of the book and it seemed important to talk about nature, the natural world of that place and time. But I couldn’t just write a "nature" poem—couldn’t just write about some crows because the crows and trees and what have you only existed for me alongside or with "class" and so the titles of those poems are a link between nature and class in my childhood.

CO: I think those poems definitely do a great job of keeping the book’s central concerns afloat while simultaneously looking at them from different angles, which is something Wonderland does so well as a whole—there’s a focus that’s never lost. When you get to the point with a book like this where you’re “writing into the corners,” what other kinds of things are you looking for?

MD: I suppose I'm looking to see if I'm leaving anything out, anything that seems important. So with Wonderland that was the fact that there was nature—not just skateboards and skinheads—in my neighborhood. I'm also trying to be open enough to listen to the book and hopefully overhear what the book might be wanting. That sounds perhaps too general, but it's true that a book will often announce what it needs. When I was getting close to a finished manuscript with Mayakovsky's Revolver, the book told me it needed something more than death and elegy so I ended up (at the zero hour) writing the last poem in the book titled "On Earth" and that poem (I think) ended up anchoring the deaths and elegies, it completed the dream of death by ending the book with the living.

CO: Do you have any specific artists’ voices or presences (a writer friend of mine referred to them the other day as “Force Ghosts”...) that materialize in the room, at any point during the writing process, with helpful advice of some kind? Who are some of your sages?

MD: A lot of my "Force Ghosts" still walk the earth: Dorianne Laux, Joseph Millar, Marie Howe, Major Jackson, Mary Ruefle, Roger Reeves, the artists Jason Dodge and Douglas Gordon, the musician Geoff Rickly... friends and family who in different ways guide my humanity. But these are just some of the many souls that help keep my soul alive.

Dickman_1.png

 

Mike Soto

Mercury Topaz

 

Trapped in trying, caught in the cloth
of my own dreaming, unable to murder myself
out—somersault snatched in a pelican's gullet,
suffering to wake from a mumbled country
the size of my sleep, with barely enough room
for wanting out. How to know—as the flicker

of a faceless start, unborn, uncoined, desperate
to stay dead (or was it alive)—why
I was being smuggled in a box surrounded
by the jive of tricksters—whose footsteps
came so crisply after coming to a standstill
the size of an ocean. How to predict

a trunk would fly open, that I would be a man
weeping blindly on a bleached floor
of light, unable to decide if condemned or spared
under the belly of a bridge, as models
of other vehicles sped by. How to ever

bring myself back—to the size of knowing,
who drove, which voices were real.
A few footprints & a coffee left steaming
on the dash of the unlocked car.


MIKE SOTO's poetry has recently appeared, or is forthcoming, in Gulf Coast, PANK, Hot Metal Bridge, Michigan Quarterly Review, and others. He received an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, and currently lives in Dallas, TX. To find more of his work please visit his website at mikesoto.com.

 

Nathan Wade Carter

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Knot or Very

 

I was given

a shitty watercolor palette

and I had to make art with it

there are ways to make beautiful things

with ugly ingredients

I remember this

as my paper roll unfolds

longing & softening

the unreached middle

the end of the roll

I’ve written this before

this autobiography

currently very red

         and layered

like hell & whatever else

I was burned & covered up

I am more myself empty

I return to this leaving

      this right of mine

      to push into earth

      like trickles turn

      into grand grooved canyons

      & deltas shit

      into the sea

      it meets me

      and whatever

      I am & will become

      hollow present

      wooden knot

      in which the sun rests

 

NATHAN WADE CARTER is a queer, grey-a poet, musician, and artist living in Portland, Oregon. He is author of the chapbook ROYGBIV (Ursus Americanus Press 2017). His poetry can be found in Hobart, Heavy Feather Review, Horse Less Press, Poor Claudia, Powder Keg Magazine, The Fem, and others. He is editor and founder of SUSAN / The Journal. He writes and performs songs under the name Purrbot. He is recording a new album called DNR. Find him online at www.nathanwadecarter.com.

 

Brandon Amico

 

(NOTE: If viewing on a smart phone, please turn sideways)

Definite Article

Here’s everything I know about precision:

To say it’s the same as accurate is inaccurate. Accurate is the bulb

orbited by moths—      or rather, the moths themselves,

even though some never alight. Precise are the petals

threaded to the bulb,     are the early pollinators landing, hoping to entice

the violet flame to open—imprecise is the heart on amateur

anatomy diagrams, always a bit too far center.

Accuracy begets the calm of the one seated beside the dart board;

the so-few bullseyes,     but the so-little danger (the less precise one’s location is,

the calmer they are allowed to be).

The sap

of 1 a.m. air swirling him (which is felt as

a lack of precision), the dull

bar-light glow that lets him watch the thrower, just in case.

Precision is the flower cut clean off,

the dart flung through stem. Precision

plus accuracy    is the elimination of all flowers

by conscious legislation.

To say words are accurate is unhelpful. To say they are precise is, admittedly, more accurate, but any
understanding could just be realignment of the target, after the shot.

Often words don’t say what they mean

or they do say it   but   enact something else entirely.

With the distance of time, accuracy and precision are thrown clear

from an easy thread, but pull and pull    and the thimbles

will clatter to the floor near

thumbs still wrapped in their own doing, the moon     barks on the thimble’s metal

like a bomb-sniffing dog.   Night exists to turn the lever

once farther, to lull the calendar into sleep through which

it can be carried, time and its mist

a humid womb the frightened men nightmare about, with knives

floating, clanging gently against the walls, each other. How

could you spell   the sound of a dog-whistle?

 

BRANDON AMICO lives in North Carolina. He is the recipient of a Regional Artist Grant from the North Carolina Arts Council and the winner of the Southern Humanities Review Hoepfner Literary Award for Poetry. His poems have appeared in The Adroit Journal, The Awl, Booth, The Cincinnati Review, New Ohio Review, and Verse Daily, among others.

 

John Patrick McShea

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In 1953, the Inuit Told Us of Nanuq

ENTRY, JANUARY 31:

   The arctic is a pale desert.
   We have long been tangled in a race with the Soviets for the North Pole. The Soviets established their first manned station sixteen years ago, and it drifted nearly two-thousand miles on the ice floe during its first year in operation. We reached the North Pole first, in 1909, with the help of four Inuit men. Naturally, the Soviets dispute this; they say they reached the true Pole first in 1948. A thirty year difference—what have they been doing all this time?
   We are high in the arctic and we can’t say where. We have spent the last several months bringing the natives into our communities or pushing them even farther north. A recon plane spotted an isolated Inuit tribe gathering at the sea in an area where the pilot has flown many times before. He said he has never seen any sign of native life there, yet the Inuit gather as if appearing out of nowhere. It is our mission to bring them in or push them north like all the others.
   We came up along the coast by boat and landed some twenty miles south of where the Inuit gather. We have travelled by dog and foot and have made camp at the top of a slope where we can look down the valley to the shore where the Inuit lie. It is night here almost always and we can barely see the Inuit in our binoculars. They have built igloos at the shore and have made a camp. We suspect that our presence is not known to the Inuit.
   Inuit fires flicker down in the valley and they reflect off the ice and sea. The Inuit kneel around the fires and watch the sparks rise into the sky where they hang in suspension to become the stars. The Northern Lights are purple above us and their reflection glows deep in the snow. This morning we woke to a single line of polar bear tracks through our camp and the dogs were startled.
   The Inuit have pulled in a bowhead and it lies on the shore dying. They hack at it with knives. Our hands are cold as we watch them butcher the whale.

ENTRY, FEBRUARY 2:

   The whale still lies on the shore dying.
   The Inuit have removed large hunks of flesh from her sides. Many of the Inuit’s harpoons remain stuck in her body and one of us mentions that it is a shame.
   We have found no new signs of the polar bear that walked through our camp two nights ago, though several of us stay up on watch both night and day. One of us mentions that he heard what sounded like a bear cry out in the middle of night. Another one of us says in a dream he saw a polar bear stand upright. He said the bear stood twelve feet tall and never moved—it only watched us while we slept. Some of us mention that they are unnerved by the dream.
   We now know that the natives are aware of our arrival. We have spotted a lone Inuk standing between us and the tribe far off in the distance. He stands next to a single igloo and he watches us all day. Fur envelopes the entirety of this man except for his face, and in his hand he holds a harpoon. We are able to see him without the use of binoculars; he is visible under the purple glow of the Northern Lights. How did we not see him before? There are far too many of us not to have noticed.
   The lone Inuk has not moved since we spotted him. One of us says she can feel the contempt within him. We have decided to stay at camp and continue to observe.

ENTRY, FEBRUARY 3:

   The lone Inuk continues to watch us.
   The wind here is harsh and it howls over our camp. It blows snow down the slope—fine snow but rough, it mimics sand. The coarse powder rises upward like roaring steam and then it tumbles back over itself. The land changes every day in the arctic. Wind pushes the wandering ice into the shore and it piles; mountains grow into the shore. This world shifts like a labyrinth. How many more miles has the Soviet station travelled on the drifting ice? Is it even still out here all these years?
   Here in the arctic, the world has become itinerant. Nothing is permanent. One of us mentions that the Inuit tribe below us is like the land—having appeared almost out of nothing, simply brought on as if carried by the wind. Another one of us mentions that the thought of this might be naïve and we would be wise not to consider the Inuit tribe as incidental.
   Overnight, the Northern Lights turned blue and now they swim in the sky. All is quiet except for the wind and it howls. The bowhead still appears to be alive, but we know this can’t be true. Are we hallucinating when we see her slap her tail against the shore? One of us suggests that the Northern Lights are playing tricks with our sight. Is the arctic just an illusion? Tomorrow we will walk down to the Inuk between us and the tribe and make contact. We will ask him to walk us to the tribe.
   There has been no sign of the polar bear. The dogs are still worried and whimper in their sleep.

ENTRY, FEBRUARY 4, MORNING:

   Last night, one of us attacked another.
   Nerves are high and the snowfall dense. One of us thought the other was a bear upright on hind legs. He charged with a knife and realized his mistake too late. The wound is not deep and it seems under control.
   The whale’s bones show, either outright or where her flesh recedes. She grows thinner and we swear she is still alive. The Inuit have tied her down with rope from their harpoons. We watch them take small bites as they hack away at her.
   The Inuit let the dogs lick their knives as they cut away her flesh. We know the Inuit make their knives from walrus ivory. We know they spread her blubber over biscuits.
   We leave camp first thing and head toward the lone Inuk. He watches us as we traverse the ice and still he has yet to move. One of us mentions that there is no doubt that the lone Inuk is full of contempt. Above us, the Northern Lights still swim in shades of blue. The Soviets could arrive at any moment. Would they kill the Inuit? Would they kill all of us? We’ve lost track of their drifting base.
   Walking down the slope is slow and we decide to leave our dogs at camp. The packed snow and ice is uneven; jagged edges rise like the ice at the shore. Other sections of ground fall away before us. Marching straight toward the Inuk is difficult but proves to be the quickest. Why did we not think it would take this long? It seems that the Inuk grows farther from us the longer we walk. The wind seems stronger than yesterday and our hands are still cold.
   When the wind’s howl dies down, we hear the Inuit huskies whine in their camp. Back at our camp, we watched the snow pack into our dogs’ fur hard like a crust. Some of our dogs shake the snow off and hide when they feel the wind. Do their dogs hide from the wind like ours? We have seen a small igloo that we assume must be for their pups. We have seen children carry the young dogs in their hoods to and from the igloo.
   When we reach the Inuk he remains quiet when we ask for a name. It has taken us nearly the whole day to reach him; we have made pitiful time climbing down the slope and against the wind and over the shifting ice.
   It is difficult for us to judge the age of the lone Inuk, he appears neither old nor young. His sealskin boots are stiff but glisten like the ice. His fur pants are white and wide and they blow in the wind. Even as we stand before him, he does not move.
   Eventually he speaks as we all gather around and even then he looks straight ahead. He asks us if we have knives for trading and we say no. He asks us if we would like him to take us to the Inuit camp and we say yes. He tells us that what we want we will not get. He says that what we look for we will never see. He says that we have found something that was never intended for us to find. We ask him what all of this means. He tells us we should turn our backs to the Inuit and go home.
   We refuse and tell him that we will go to the Inuit camp. The lone Inuk smiles. He says that the Northern Lights don’t stay blue for long and that soon they will turn green. He says he knows that our hands are cold. He says he knows we race the Soviets, but doesn’t understand what we race for. He says he knows that we are afraid of the polar bear tracks in our camp and that our dogs whimper in their sleep. He says that the whale on the shore has always been dead but we are too blind to see. Is there any sense or truth to what the lone Inuk says?
   Over the lone Inuk’s shoulders, we can see that the whale is still alive and that men still hack away at her. We hear someone moaning in the lone Inuk’s igloo but we decide not to inquire.
   Along with the Inuk, we head for the Inuit camp.

ENTRY, FEBRUARY 4, NIGHT:

   Deep in our bones, we feel the wind strong off the shore.
   At their camp, the Inuit women carry naked infants under their fur coats. An Inuit man shores his kayak, and then he sits and waits for children to come out from under the sealskin hull. Down along the coast, the ice is always moving. Ebbing and flowing, the ice stirs like the sea itself. We see another man standing at the shore. He harpoons a fish and then kills it with his teeth.
   The lone Inuk walks us over to the bowhead. She is still alive—the Northern Lights do not play tricks on our eyes. The blue light reflects in her eyes through the darkness. The Lights spin in her inky pupils. One of us mentions that it looks like the Milky Way. Can there be such a thing—a whole galaxy in the eyes of a dying whale? The lone Inuk sets off for his igloo. He leaves us at the camp.
   The Inuit camp is loud and the wind rips through the flattened snow. The weather is an oppressor. Like ours, their dogs shiver in packs. Snow and ice crust together in their fur. The Inuit offer us flesh from the bowhead on extended knives and we accept. We eat the whale right off the knives and she tastes fresh. A toothless and smiling man wants us to lick the ivory blades—he mimics the act in offering. The taste of the blade is thick and our tongues are coated in fat.
   An old woman carrying many children approaches us and the rest of the Inuit step away. She asks us if we have any beads to trade and we say no. She tells us that we will stay the night with her in her igloo in the center of the camp. We go inside, where we no longer hear the wind. It is by far the largest igloo and it is full of children. Even with all of us and the children, there is plenty of room.

ENTRY, FEBRUARY 5, MORNING:

   Our ears ache from the lack of a wind’s howl.
   When we wake in the morning our hands are no longer cold. The inside of the igloo seems to grow larger before us. Space is abundant. A stone hearth sits in the middle of the igloo and seal oil is used for fuel and moss is used for wicking. The fire burns small and cool and the children hang their bare feet over it and smile at us. All throughout the igloo, furs and leathers litter the ground. Other than the soft crackling in the low hum of the fire, the igloo is quiet.
   The Mother tells us that she knows why we are here. She says she does not have an answer for us—that she does not know if she will send her tribe with us or if they will retreat farther north. She says that she already knows of all the tribes who have come with us and of all the tribes who continue north. To where, she wonders aloud, do those tribes travel? There is nothing waiting for them north she says. She tells us that her tribe has always been a wandering tribe and that it does not have a name. She says that the lone Inuk who brought us here left the tribe long ago but still remains nearby. He follows them. She says that she, like the lone Inuk, knows that we are afraid of the bear tracks in our camp and that our dogs whimper in their sleep.
   The Mother says the polar bear that entered our camp has a name and that all the Inuit call it Nanuq. She tells us that Nanuq is a wise and precious being, and that he is closer to human than bear. She says Nanuq can be killed only when he allows himself to be killed and that the hunter who kills him has been deemed worthy by Nanuq himself. The hunter who kills him must hang Nanuq’s fur in his igloo for several days and the hunter must offer knives and tools to him out of respect. If the hunter pays the proper respect to him, Nanuq will tell the polar bears that the hunter is worthy and that they too will offer themselves to the hunter like Nanuq has done. The Mother says that Nanuq walks upright on his hind legs. He hangs his own fur in his igloo.
   The mother brings us outside where she cuts a block of packed snow from the ground. From the block, she carves a polar bear and rests her hand on his head. She smiles at us and we smile back. One of us tells her that we are no longer afraid of Nanuq. But another one of us wonders if it is not fear that we’ve lost, but knowledge that we’ve gained. Are these two related—fear and knowledge? Is it that easy to mistake the two? Does the loss of one give rise to the other?
   Another one of us mentions to look over at the whale. She is still alive, and now she is smiling. The snow-crusted dogs bite at her fins. Her sides are pure bone.
   Outside, we feel the wind again. The sound of the wind fills our ears and now they no longer ache. The wind howls as it covers us in snow. The Mother places her carved polar bear back into the snow.
   She tells us to return to our camp—the Inuit will need time to decide if they will come back with us to our community or retreat farther north. She says the Inuit have come to the shore for food. She says that they have been pushed out from the interior desert, where they can no longer find caribou or fox. The animals of the interior have become lost to the land. Here, at the shore, the water offers seals and walruses and whales to the Inuit. It is still early in the day and if we hurry we hope to reach camp by night. The ocean wind at our backs will carry us. The Northern Lights have turned green in the dark sky above us. How close are the Soviets? We are afraid they are near.

ENTRY, FEBRUARY 5, NIGHT:

   The lone Inuk awaits our return.
   We reach the Inuk between the two camps in good time. We tell him that we know he once belonged to the nameless tribe and that now he follows. Looking straight ahead, he smiles. From his smile, he says that the tribe will starve. He tells us that the whale was a gift, but it has always been dead. He says he will stay here by himself forever. We tell him that is not an option.
   The lone Inuk tells us that everything we’ve learned about Nanuq is myth. Polar bears are not sacred, and the Inuit starve themselves by following worn tradition. The lone Inuk tells us that the Inuit waste their time looking for their ancestors in the Northern Lights where they believe their ancestors dance. The lone Inuk says that the Inuit believe that the polar bear is near-human. He says they believe that most animals are near-human. The lone Inuk believes that humans are often not even human. He tells us this: the Inuit believe that if you whistle at the Northern Lights they will come down and cut off your head.
   The Northern Lights are bright and green when the lone Inuk says this. He moves his head and points it toward the Lights. He puckers his lips and he whistles out a song. Some of us become frightened when the Lights begin to swim in the sky. The Lights begin to dance. They turn red and rise like the wandering ice against the shore. They peak and then begin to crash down on themselves above us. Some of us beg the Inuk to stop. Others of us start to cry. A few of us begin to cheer. The Northern Lights are boiling and dive straight for us. Some of us run away. Some of us slit our own throats to get it over with. Some of us start to kiss each other. Some of us ride down the slope on our bellies and become swallowed by the sea. Those of us who are kissing start to use our tongues. The lone Inuk’s song grows as he whistles louder. The Northern Lights churn in the sky and consume us. They pass through us entirely.
   The Northern Lights leave our heads on our bodies and then return to the sky. The lone Inuk smiles.
   Those are us who are left pull ourselves together.
   The Inuk points to his igloo. We can still hear moaning coming from inside like before and the lone Inuk tells us that Nanuq is inside. He says that those of us who are left will come inside to see for ourselves if Nanuq is sacred. The lone Inuk says that those of us who are left will need to do what he says or else he will kill us.
   Inside the igloo, the Inuk shows us a broken polar bear. He says he has shattered the bear’s legs. The bear’s fur is covered in blood and small gashes line the bear’s ribs. Those of us who are left cannot hear the wind howling outside of the igloo. All that we hear are the heavy breaths of the dying polar bear. Looking up at us, the bear has stopped moaning.
   The Inuk holds out a harpoon. He tells those of us who are left to stab the bear in its sides and that he will kill those of us who refuse. Without hesitation, those of us who are left stab the bear with the harpoon. Some of us are tender and disgusted and gentle with the spear. Some of us stab with force. And some of us stab the bear more than once. The one who dreamed of the bear standing on hind legs holds the harpoon in the bear’s side for a long time. The one who mistook the other for a bear plunges the spear deep.
   The lone Inuk asks us if Nanuq is sacred. Those of us who are left say no.
   The lone Inuk tells us that it is time to leave. We are to head back to our camp immediately. The Northern Lights are bright red and so is the snow.

ENTRY, FEBRUARY 7:

   From our camp, those us who are left look down on the Inuit.
   How much time before the Soviets arrive? Barely any flesh remains on the bowhead, and through our binoculars we watch as she draws slow breaths. The Inuit dogs have taken to licking her bones and the bones closest to the ground are licked clean. The bones on her backside are red and some flesh remains, and the dogs jump into the air to reach them. We hear the dogs’ faint barks under the howl of wind. Those of us who are left can no longer see the lone Inuk—he has disappeared from the horizon.
   A red haze from the Northern Lights covers the Inuit camp. Some of us who are left mention that the red glow gives this place a strange feeling. We have decided that we will spend the day at our camp with our dogs and that tomorrow we will make the trek back down to the Inuit where we will ask for a decision from the Mother. We hope that she will come into civilization with us, but will accept her decision if she decides to venture north.
   Fresh bear tracks have been made through our camp last night, but the dogs do not seem startled. The wind howls high up here on the slope, and our hands are as cold as ever. Our tongues have become rough and dry from exposure, and those of us who are left desire the slick coating of whale fat in our mouths. Some of us who are left have expressed a desire to trade our boots with the Inuit—the stiff sealskin hangs in some of our minds. The red Lights begin to let up late in the day.

ENTRY, FEBRUARY 8:

   As when we came, the Northern Lights are purple.
   The purple does not look as vivid as before—the lights are not as bright. Some of us who are left mention that the snow no longer reflects the color of the Northern Lights.
   The sounds of the arctic are strange today. The wind’s howl is lonely and this place is just a pale desert. We hear the sound of ice cracking, and it echoes through the arctic. How deep does the ice split? Will the North Pole tear itself apart someday?
   The wind drifts the coarse snow across the hills, and it fills in between the jagged edges of rising and falling ice. We have set off for the Inuit camp, which has dissipated behind the snowy air. Travel is slow again and, like before, we have left our dogs at the camp. We watch as the landscape ebbs and flows before us. The arctic is alive but empty. The lone Inuk is no longer there, and we walk straight through to the Inuit camp.
   As we approach the camp, one of us who is left mentions that he cannot hear the whines of the Inuit dogs. As we enter the camp, we see that all of the Inuit igloos lie in ruin, smashed and ransacked. Their furs and leathers have been thrown on the ground. It is clear that the Inuit camp is empty.
   Some of the snow and ice is red, and we discover that it is blood. A grown dog lies frozen in a pile of ice and below her a naked child lies dead. Her skin has turned blue from the cold. The remaining flesh from the whale’s back is gone yet still she struggles under the harpoon lines. Her bones are as white as the snow and the ground beneath her is black. Those of us who are left can taste her flesh in our mouths. We pull her lines from the ground, but she remains. Why won’t she leave? She lifts her tail and it falls back to the shore.
   As faint as they are, the Northern Lights begin to disappear from the sky. Those of us who are left do not know where the rest of the Inuit have gone or even if they are alive. Has something else come for them in our absence? Have they done this to themselves to trick us and send us home? Is this the Mother’s answer?
   We decided to head back to camp and have called for a boat to meet us. We reported that the Inuit tribe appears to have ventured farther North. We do not mention that their camp is destroyed or that a child lies dead. And we do not mention that we have set free a whale that was never alive.
   Past the Inuit camp—far in the sea—large chunks of ice have separated. One of us who is left mentions that the separated ice is a clear sign that a submarine has emerged from below. We suspect that the Soviets have come, but there is nothing here for them. We no longer care about the Soviet arrival; we no longer desire control of this place. The Northern Lights are gone, and the sky is full of sparks. The arctic is nothing but a pale desert.

 

JOHN PATRICK McSHEA is from Pennsylvania. His writing appears in TriQuarterly Review, Sonora Review, Salamander, Hotel Amerika, and Hobart, among others.


 

Kayla Krut

Recuperation

 

Another dream involving a lot of blood.
A darkening between each line.
No shortage of us out there.

Certainly can change a diaper;
can’t milk a cow.
Reframing all the moments I felt you were cruel

as points of emotional crisis in you
reframes so many moments and drains
what felt sick in our lives

that even the terrible weather
gleams with relief:
so this may hit you like lights-out!—

a rebrightening of each branch.
An off-season red-
bellied woodpecker blights the lichen.

Heart of a bird,
head of an enemy,
knifed dough for hands.

 

KAYLA KRUT is a writer from San Diego, California. She earned her MFA at the University of Michigan, where she was the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize. Currently, with the support of Fulbright, she lives, teaches, and translates in Vienna, Austria. Read more and/or reach out at www.kaylakrut.wordpress.com.

 

Kelly Dulaney

I Am Not A Modern Woman

    against aspects of the VIDA Count

I want the cry of the calf at night. I want the woman-wail of the mountain lion feeding from the field. I want what I can catch by camera flash, if lucky: black-tipped tail; retractile claw in calf’s belly; mouth of broken bones. Two kinds of keening and calf’s kick. An easing into black grasses. An arrangement of limbs gone limp. The calf suffocates; the mountain lion licks its neck; the night drags them back into ranchland darkness. But I leave both alone. I don’t walk out into the night. I carry no camera. No animal is an actor. They don’t emote according to script suggestions. They don’t do for others’ eyes. Neither do I. And so. My days decelerate. My hours grow like bones. I wait out the stairwell passers-by. I wait out the spasm beneath my eye. I wait out what might be seen, if unlucky: surgical scar; skin gone slack; broke-boned limp. Black bannisters and inept dorsiflexions. An inadequate opening in the crowd. An assemblage of avoidant or diagnostic eyes. I wait them out. I stand at the top stair. I make like a golden screw. I turn in my own time. It’s the only thing I get to do. Later it’s like this: light slips over stairs; light lifts itself in segments across a wall. People sidle away. I glare against it all and go down alone to enact my own abstractions. I write about the calf laid over a log. I write about the mountain lion opening up organs. I write about rumen rotting deep in dirt. Carcass stink. Scat. Wet ribs and what’s around them: a red protrusion; an acidic smudge; an exhibition of tooth-shaved skin. Skies pass. Corvids come close. The mountain lion wails them away. It wails and woman-wails. But it has no human speech acts. It never names itself. Its mouth is unmediated and material. And yet. I have written it split. My mouth makes slow sounds. My mouth makes its old complaint. I wail and woman-wail. I am animal and also. I make like a golden socket. I empty out. I write in unindicated time. I write in repetition. I learn the lesson of the animal mouth. And so. I say this plain: I don’t want the aggressive count. I don’t want answers in an author survey. I don’t want to be listed as drop foot and demyelinated nerve. I don’t want to make an absolute meaning of anatomy. I don’t want to differentiate between what I was born with and what came later. Listen: the calf would have lived had it hidden its limp; the mountain lion would not have fed from the field had it not been brought to hunger by drought. The body is subject to complex positioning. The body shifts social shape. There’s no need to demand explicit allegiances. There’s nothing in the black of night that can be completely known and named. No night-sound. No animal. Not me either. I watch for the electric lights. I watch for the flash of mountain lion eyes. I watch for what might pass, regardless of luck: depredation permit; ranchers’ rifle sights; rhythm in a black-tipped tail. Concolor openings in the night and claw’s curl. An event of cross-field tactics. An attempted execution. The mountain lion caches its kill; the mountain lion hides itself in higher grounds. Ranchers climb the canyon wall. They dislodge rocks; they examine paw prints; they attempt to make a meaning of the mountain lion. I will surprise them. I will fill with fluid and obliterate block forms. I will fold into the field. I will be straighter than the straight; I will be better able than the better abled. I will not pronounce myself sick. I will not speak of my body the same I speak of crop loss. I would rather bend above the stairs. I would rather weep in wet weeds. And so. Here it is. Have at me. If you can. Make me a limping calf. Make me a mountain lion in an expanded range. Make me one and the other. I am not a modern woman. I want to walk without intervention. I want whatever autonomy I can get. I want something good. I had better go get it.

 

I support VIDA’s mission: I want "accurate assessments of the publishing world;" I want "a range of voices." And yet I am bothered by the binaries of VIDA’s Disability Primer and 2016 Survey Questions, no matter how blunted by contingent language: I am neither a writer with “a newly acquired disability” who “might have had decades of able-bodied privilege” nor am I a writer with “a congenital disability” who “might feel more at ease with requesting access.” You see: I find no fairness in the suggestion of either extreme. And I do not want to be catalogued: disclosure is dangerous; disclosure has hurt me; this body has never been what blocks access. Instead, I want VIDA to survey occurrences of structural support, proffered resources, accommodation, access. I want to know whether or not it is safe to be honest with a publisher. I want to write without medical examination. I want VIDA to better serve and survey the needs of disabled writers.


KELLY DULANEY began in the cinders of Arizona; now she lives alongside the hogback hills of Colorado. Her writing appears in or is forthcoming from Black Warrior Review, Waxwing Fairy Tale Review, The Best American Experimental Writing Anthology (BAX) 2015, The Collagist, Caketrain, among other venues. Her novella Ash is available from Urban Farmhouse Press. She edits The Cupboard Pamphlet. Visit her website at kellydulaney.net.


 

Matthew Dickman | 2 Poems

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Minimum Wage

My mother and I are on the front porch lighting each other’s cigarettes

as if we were on a ten-minute break from our jobs

at being a mother and son, just ten minutes

to steal a moment of freedom before clocking back in, before

putting the aprons back on, the paper hats,

washing our hands twice and then standing

behind the counter again,

hoping for tips, hoping the customers

will be nice, will say some kind word, the cool

front yard before us and the dogs

in the backyard shitting on everything.

We are hunched over, two extras on the set of The Night of the Hunter.

I am pulling a second cigarette out of the pack, a swimmer

rising from a pool of other swimmers. Soon we will go back

inside and sit in the yellow kitchen and drink

the rest of the coffee

and what is coming to kill us will pour milk

into mine and sugar into hers.

 
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Black Lipstick

My little sister is sneaking her friends out the backdoor of a bar

because the men in there won’t stop touching them

and the people in the bar

won’t stop the men and the men keep ordering sweet

drinks they think the women will like but they don’t want them.

All they want to do is leave and live.

When I get out of the shower and look in the mirror I say to myself

you should go to the gym, you should lose weight, be more

handsome. People who rape

other people have bodies like mine, people who hate their wives

and daughters. They hate them and go to the bar

and drink too much and touch people who do not want to be touched.

I don’t know.

I miss being young and going out in eyeliner and skirts. I miss

wearing black lipstick. Fucking boys

and girls was the best. It felt like drinking iced Americanos

on the roof of the roof of the world. From there you were safe, you could

smoke clove cigarettes with your friends.

You could throw rocks at the men down below, walking down the street

with their brains in one hand and their hearts in another,

a parade of terrible potential, while their mothers stand along the sidewalk

clapping and cheering, waving

baby-blue handkerchiefs in the cold air.

 

MATTHEW DICKMAN is the author of All-American Poem and Mayakovski's Revolver. His newest book, Wonderland, is forthcoming from W.W. Norton in March 2018. Find more at matthewdickmanpoetry.com

 

Alex Myers

To the Grocery Clerk Whose Name Tag Read Alice:

I wanted to tell you: that was my birth name. I thought it would be perfect if I could hand you my credit card and say right then, Alice was my name when I was a kid. And you might drop your gaze to my credit card and see that it read Alex and we could share the moment of understanding that radiates from one transgender person to another.

But I didn’t hand you my credit card. I stuck it chip first into the machine and you waited with your gaze on the middle distance – perhaps the candy rack, perhaps the tabloid headlines – until the receipt unfurled.

You had wavy hair, light brown, that fell past your shoulders. You’d shaved, real close, but I could still see the whiskers ready to rise on your cheeks and chin. You had earrings, a pale pink ceramic rose in each lobe. A couple of your fingernails held chips of polish – black, I think – and your nails were neat but short. You wore the blue vest-smock of the grocery store, unremarkable, except for that name tag: Alice.

Nothing in the cauliflower, the seltzer water, the beer, or the black beans that I was buying would tell you a thing about me, or at least not the one thing I wanted you to know. You expertly slung each item over your scanner, your wrist turning at the precise angle to get the barcode to read on the first swipe. You knew all the numbers for the produce.

I wanted to offer a casual, no big deal fist bump: transgender pride! I wanted to say, good for you and here are some resources if you need them…I know a support group in the area… I wanted desperately for you to recognize me, for the two of us to acknowledge each other, to share a moment at the margins of that rural New Hampshire grocery store when we could say:

I am not the only one.

But. I wondered. Maybe you had grabbed someone else’s name tag as a joke. Or maybe the manager, who was bagging up my purchases, wouldn’t want you to talk about gender. Or maybe the person behind me in line would say something rude. The usual reasons for silence.

I have never been good at negotiating the visibility of identity. Gender is so close to the surface of the self and so deep at the core of who we are. I spent my childhood being seen in a way I didn’t want to be, a little girl trying to efface my little girl-ness with short haircuts and blue jeans and flannel shirts.

And you? You said hello, did you find everything you were looking for? In an unforced voice, high, light, gentle. A woman’s voice, if I closed my eyes. You looked perfectly in between. For every element that marked you as a woman, another marked you as a man.

And I? Now middle-aged, I have succeeded with invisibility. Short hair, whiskery cheeks, a voice on the edge of baritone. Nothing remarkable about me. Just another guy.

I know I am wrong to assume that this is what you want – to pass out of your in-betweeness, to disappear as I have. I know I am wrong in part because I envy you. Your visibility. Your presence. You standing in front of your cash register, facing each patron in this small New Hampshire town, with your name tag, Alice.

I just want to say: once, that was my name, too.

 

ALEX MYERS' essays have been published or are forthcoming in Hobart, Salon, Good Housekeeping, and River Styx. He also writes fiction, and his debut novel, Revolutionary, was published by Simon & Schuster in 2014. Find more at alexmyerswriting.com.


 

E.G. Cunningham

Women and Children

Sicilia—(2016)

O ﯾﺎاﷲ, Marwan thinks, what god transfers here. The gateway island is a flux of speech and place, of untraceable systems of estrangement. His mother and father pull-push ahead, through the crowds that aren’t crowds, through the light that’s not light, toward where, Marwan feels, even if he doesn’t think the words, a place, اﷲ ﺷﺎء إن, where he might lie down.

 

Coleraine, County Londonderry, N. Ireland—(1691)

A rolling tongue, cast back from some other beyond—an opening, channel, entering, then later leaving. At the rim or edge of anything : by means of : the waking dream furls a bend or ply of mind—all symbols ossified, become the fabric of—the long song pealed, repealed as simple as the love/hate anthems, the Celt battles, the blood-shrouded terrain, where any town square might rightfully be called diamond, as seeing Coleraine from an aerial distance. Instances of simultaenous coexistence, but disuse is the staple of the dreamlife…

Doireann’s been scolded against daydreaming. A memory of husband William frowning as she brought out the first portrait she’d done, his downturned mouth issued the familiar proverb : Cha toir a’bhòidhchead goil air a’ phoit. She turns now to recommence hemming the seam. What a house is. Playne salte, the smallest bowle of silver. Four cuppes, four spoones, four houete of aquavita. Think it true, she asks herself, what William had said? The sun balances along Portrush: razor of lavender and lemon across grey. True, she assents, ‘Beauty boils no pot.’ Still and all, Doireann has a weakness for color.

 

Miami—(1997)

The men mean nothing good. Elena pities, a poor default, she knows. There are regulars: R., G., Mr. M.—they mostly want sympathy, empathy, or some affective proxy. To cry or slump or go on and on. R. works construction; Elena drinks a whiskey sour and notes his callouses: pea-sized or dime-sized marks where material has taken flesh with it. Concrete, drywall, soldering, sanding—a list of terms she nods along to as R. speaks his workaday world. Men take Elena’s flesh by proxy, a truth she defends against with material: pills, heels, garter, bills. Deliberate alt-rock selections. That they feel, have feelings, that they hurt—does this then mean nothing good. The question, the only question. Elena wonders.

 

Sicilia—(2016)

In time fog clears from Marwan’s eyes, cutting clarity into his lungs and chest: irreversible, and he wants nothing more than to forget. The first lesson comes via echolocation : tripping through the tight cobblestone passages he keeps track of by smell color sound, nearly losing his ﻣﺎﻣﺎ and آب in a mix of odors and fabrics. A rush into the nose of something new and stinging, followed by the sweet smell of baking this street or the next street over. Marwan turns his head, his yellow tunic streaked with dirt, his hands opening near his sides for something to hold. Ciaoraggazovienequa, a shopkeeper croaks, and behind the crystal windows a row of dream-colored tubs. What is it, Marwan wonders, some kind of beautiful cream, some kind of halib. ‘amah, he calls, aintazar, but his parents are pressing against the edge of the crowd, already out of earshot.

 

Miami—(1997)

Tell me you’re legal, at least, Mac says. Elena responds with the typical stare. What do you think. Christ—he takes a swig of his beer—I’m going to hell for this. No, Mac, she says. That’d be too easy. She drags a Bic pen across a cocktail napkin. Bored, hungry, and sore. The Ellie-821’s hang from her feet’s arches like weighted blocks; she eyes a nick along a heel’s six-inch polycarbonate. Mac the suited man. Mac the middle-class architect. Whose patronage is mere antidepressant, self- administered. Is it working. No, she decides, taking in his sigh, his upturned Heineken, it isn’t.

 

Coleraine, County Londonderry, N. Ireland—(1691)

Color: the artist’s stronghold, Doireann knows. The embroidery is coming along. Midday and enclosed in four walls, and what a thing to light aflame, she muses, what terrible pride to set alight the city gates. The woven Sash loops through her: It is old, but it is beautiful, and its colours they are fine. A prick from the needle, some red seeps into the stitching. It was worn at Derry, Aughrim, Enniskillen, and the Boyne. She raises the needlework to her mouth, wets the spot with her tongue. A taste of copper. Eachdhroim an áir. Derry still standing. And her walls not breached.

 

Sicilia—(2016)

The sun smears tangerine along unrecognizable terrain. They keep on into dimmer and dimmer neighborhoods, and of one thing Marwan’s sure : night is coming. The dark in his chest, put in hiding for the afternoon, starts its climb toward his body’s surface : soon Marwan’s eyes limbs thought feet will grow heavy and loose like fruit in summer. His mother has an expression; it comes to mind now—When fortune turns against you, even jelly breaks your teeth.

How easy the trade : place for place. He almost can’t believe it—the free and easy gaits along cobble, the glint of chrome and glass and shop lights blurring the hard edges of buildings—Something in my eye, Marwan thinks, very sleepy now, and no word from ﻣﺎﻣﺎ about where they will sleep. When they will sleep.

 

Miami—(1997)

I wanna see what’s under there, Eddie says. A fat, sweaty man, with gold rings from little finger to thumb. Elena weighs pros and cons. Two hundred, she says. Twenty, he says. Rammstein on for metal night. Wednesday and still early, the summer sun faintly knifing the windows’ blackout partitions. Larissa on stage, half-drunk, her swimwear badly adjusted. Other girls stand off to the side in wait. You gonna do this or what, Eddie slurs. All of a sudden, Elena thinks, this has stopped being fun.

It started as anything does, one fixed action sliding into a new moment, slight turn of cheek, a change in terrain. She’d overheard a friend of a friend mention money. How much she used to, before she stopped. Where she’d worked. One afternoon, she kept on instead of the usual exit. The club was a cinderblock cell across from an RV park. A Shell station farther down. Some used car lots. She parked in view of the highway, in case of someone. And smoked a cigarette in the driver’s seat with the engine off. And got out and pulled the heavy back door. One fixed action sliding into a new moment. Sometimes just like that: a change in terrain. Her eyes adjust. A little neon trails the wall. Say I violated a code, she thinks; so what—by whose lights. Another rotation. Probably her mind had already been made up. Or was it before, even before the first turn. Sitting next to Eddie, she wants to know, and doesn’t.

 

Coleraine, County Londonderry, N. Ireland—(1691)

Take what you took, Doireann sings, some things won’t change. Shots had rung out. A wind that smelled of earth. And the boys all copper—no, she hadn’t watched, but heard enough. And saw those who never came back, their essence fogging the land like a shore’s high tide, enough to lose herself in. Some did: John the potter’s son from hanging, Sheila too hung herself in Thomas’s absence. All the absences, Dorieann thinks, must count for something.

 

Sicilia—(2016)

Even in tears he feels the facts as facts. Where once walls, a tent. Where once meals and plenty beyond those, rations. Now they live as a vast school of fish. The pull of tears only briefly kisses, then springs back. Marwan lives in the present, as he almost always has. Fortunate, his mother clucks, like clay is fortunate. His mother has learned the words for please and camp. He is learning the words for color and pleasure—mi piace il colore bianco, he says. Speak Arabic, his mother reprimands. ﻏﺘﻨﺎ ﻧﺤﺎﻓﻆ ان ﯾﺠﺐ, his father says. I do keep the language, Marwan protests. You will lose it, his mother says.


E.G. Cunningham is the author of Ex Domestica (C&R) and Apologetics (Finishing Line). Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Barrow Street, Deluge, La Vague, The Nation, Poetry London, The Poetry Review, RHINO, 3:AM Magazine, and other publications. Her lyric memoir, GALL, is forthcoming from C&R Press. She teaches at the University of California, Merced.


 

Melanie Hoffert

The Culinary Lessons of a Person Without Needs

   Near the collapse of my relationship, I was unreasonably jealous of broccoli. Not just broccoli, but also leeks, olives, toasted walnuts, green onions, asparagus, Parmesan-Reggiano, wild-caught salmon, and hand-crafted noodles. And I fretted around fruit; gorgeous blueberries and mangos; apricots and tangerines; kiwis and limes; fruit that would rival a Sherwin-Williams collection in all of its varieties and pigmentations. One does not know how threatening the splendor of a sliced pear can be—the pocks on its skin, the holy white of its meat—until the pear becomes a substitute for touch.

   I met my love as I stepped into adulthood. She was fourteen years my senior and married. She had hired me to be a technical writer. In our first meetings we had talked about creating software training manuals, all the while I wondered how I’d survive a lifetime of soul-dimming work. I wanted to write words that held meaning, not instruction.
   One day while we met at her desk, I noticed a delicate watercolor of flowers spilling from a glass Coke bottle. “That’s beautiful,” I said after we had finished with our agenda.
   “Thanks,” she responded.
   “Who painted it?”
   “Me,” she said, almost embarrassed.
   From there, our conversations drifted into books, music, and art; soon after we entered into a love affair of almost two decades.

   She was an artist and her art extended to daily living. She taught me about the criticality of a high-thread count, the wonder of thick lotion, and explained why a properly sharpened knife will improve one’s life. When we were together she’d instruct me to brush my hands over surfaces: sea glass and linens and granite and moss. She’d draw my eye to the almost transparent bark of birch trees, and ask me to breathe in the pureness of bell-shaped lilies of the valley. She explained how gardens worked and had me reach into raw soil. Before we’d go inside she’d walk the yard’s edge and collect twigs of wild bittersweet, still dangling with pieces of earth, and thrust it into my hands.
   As a writer it was my nature to observe, but through her I began to see the the world as a visual artist might, mapped and layered and framed by light. I learned to savor.
   For her, cooking was an art second only to painting. And over the years she taught me how to properly heat oil before adding garlic; how to stir risotto patiently without stopping; how to delicately stuff Asian dumplings with minced shrimp and then seal the edges with dampened fingers; how to remove popovers from the oven not a second too early; how to whip oil and vinegar into a coruscating glaze; how to grill halibut on cedar planks until flaky. I learned about cream and butter and sea salt and how a cookie should be both crispy and chewy. I learned to be mindful of color in food preparation, to never serve a mono-colored plate.
   She also taught me how to deconstruct a recipe. “Close your eyes: What do you taste?” she’d probe. Then she’d push me deeper, to search through each layer of flavor until I’d erupt with, “Lemon! Cardamom! A pinch of red pepper!” She could recreate an entrée she’d had at a restaurant like someone who can play piano by ear.
   I knew how to cook before we met, but my understanding of food was limited to growing up on a North Dakota farm where I often had to prepare “dinner” at noon for my dad when my mom ran into town. I made hamburger hotdish with egg noodles and stewed tomatoes. I mixed SPAM-, egg-, and tuna-salad sandwiches, all of which were bound with Miracle Whip and chopped pickles. I could also heat hot dogs, TV dinners, and slap together a baloney sandwich with iceberg lettuce. There were only a couple of summers where my parents kept up a garden, and so cans of watery corn, peas, or green beans served as side dishes. In eleventh grade I won a prize for my chili at our town’s Crop Show. Chili became my signature dish (my secret ingredient a McCormick seasoning packet).
   When she came into my life and taught me about food, I could no longer eat the local fare when I returned home.

   Her hair was straight brown and, though they carried a certain sadness, her eyes seemed to shimmer like copper. Her essence matched her physical beauty in its darkness. Not the darkness of evil, but that of mystery and privacy and everything forbidden. And so when she confided in me, Virginia Woolf might as well have come back from the grave to make me her confidant. The words my boss entrusted me with became like sacred stones. And I collected her.
   When we were getting to know each other, she had told me that her seven year-marriage was ending. After a few months of working together, I nervously told her that I was gay—something I still felt the need to confess at that early point in my life. I also shared that I was in my first serious relationship with another woman, but nothing felt like I had imagined it would. I wasn’t in love.
   And so we set out to get to the bottom of it all—the nature of relationships.
   At day’s end, before she had to pick up her daughter, she’d come to my cubicle wearing a long, caramel-colored wool jacket and a wide-brimmed hat. I felt silly, young, in the flowerily dresses that I had purchased for my first professional job. This was the late nineties, and I would have much preferred to be in a flannel shirt and jeans. But she seemed unmoved by my lack of sophistication and was instead hungry for my insight.
   When we talked, we'd carve words into legal pads as we questioned the meaning of connection, of commitment, of marriage and the folly of trying to define it all. I now see that we were making prescient maps of where we were headed. We were falling in love.

   Spring came that year with lilacs, with rain, with the rebirth of the natural world. She began her divorce. I ended my relationship. Each of us stepped into our own maze of grief. Hers laden with fear for the well-being of her child. Mine filled with the naivety of youth, convincing me that I couldn’t survive a break-up.
   We continued our conversations, though we were now charting maps with our bodies. As our grief lifted we became lovers, though I wouldn’t have used this word then. The word was insufficient, grounded in the body. Sex, yes. Love, yes. But we also took on the persistent ache of vulnerability that one agrees to carry in return for transcendence with another person.
   “Who are we to one another?” I’d ask. “Why does naming us matter?” she’d respond.

   When I’d arrive at her house in those first few years, the kitchen would usually be sticky with the dew of boiling water or fragrant with garlic. And the arrangement on her butcher block table was always a sight to behold. Into thimble-sized bowls, from which a humming bird might sip, she would have measured the ingredients for our evening meal: paprika, cayenne, spindles of saffron, ginger, orange zest. As she started to dismantle her vibrant spreads, tossing the spices into pots and pans, I thought about the elaborate sand mandalas made by Tibetan monks who, when they were done, destroyed their masterpieces.
   Perhaps expressions of the purest beauty are not meant to last.
   Cooking, first her thing, became ours. Each evening we had together, we’d embark upon a journey to assemble some sort of culinary indulgence. Neither of our kitchens were large, nor did we have thousands of dollars of high-end equipment, but her presence and mastery made it seem as if we were at an exclusive cooking retreat. We’d sip from glasses of wine that would travel the house as we moved about. In the summer we’d sauté’ fresh produce with the windows open, our redolent meals mingling with mowed grass and smoke from grilled steaks. In the winter, as snow fell, we’d dice potatoes and carrots for stew, following a recipe from her mother’s worn Betty Crocker Cookbook. The thick aroma would beckon memories from earlier times.

   As the years passed, I moved on to other jobs. She stayed at the software company and then started a painting business. I bought a house. She kept the one from her marriage. We were apart for a time and then came back together. As we progressed, our early meditation on relationships never lost its relevance. Using language to name us as a couple always felt klutzy and unfitting. She didn’t think of herself as lesbian, nor did I ever refer to her as such. I didn’t like labels and so this seemed like an incidental detail. It concerned some of my friends though. And sometimes, shamefully, I would watch whether she breathed a little more quickly around men.
   Our arrangement seemed to defy convention, too, because we maintained separate homes during all of the years that we were together. She wanted her daughter to finish school before making any changes; both of us preferred our own house and were unwilling to move into the other’s. Over time this became an increasingly sore spot for me. To be together, we had to fight traffic to get to opposite ends of town. Each weekend began with painstaking negotiations about how we should split our time.
   Our lack of convention did not, however, preclude us from accruing the headlines often shared by two people who navigate life together: Parent Death, Job Loss, Financial Strain, Failed Ventures.
   The Loss of Intimacy.

   A friend of mine told me recently, after her husband passed away, that they hadn’t had sex in fourteen years. They had everything else, a stunning costal home, meaningful jobs, great kids, their friends. When she told me this, I wondered how many people endure the loss of intimacy—whether in the body, word, or gesture—for years on end. And how many different ways we try to fill or escape this loneliness.
   In the readers’ comments under the article "When Sex Leaves the Marriage" in the New York Times, people seem to be pleading for help. Their exchanges read like a pop-up support group. I identify with their desperation: communication has stopped and they can’t penetrate the layers of rejection that have settled; they are alarmed about trying to traverse a lifetime of commitment without intimacy; they wonder if and how to leave. The author cited a study from the General Social Survey, which has tracked related survey data since 1972, and indicated that on average, married couples have sex about once a week. In some of the readers’ accounts, they hadn’t had sex in months and years.
   When she and I settled into a relationship, touch pervaded our shared time—like air. I never thought about our touch as sex, not like I had previously experienced it anyway. In the early years our bodies would meld together in a world of white. That’s what I remember—white, her touch, spring rain, that transcendence. You couldn’t have convinced me that our physical connection would wane; nor that I would spend nights, hundreds of nights, curled on my left side, turned away from her sleeping form, while I stared into darkness and obsessed about the chill on my back—the assault of space. That bedding may forever hold the salt of my tears.
   I tried many approaches to deal with my own feelings of abandonment. I braved inevitable rejection and initiated contact. I languished in hurt like the best of martyrs. I ignored my longings and focused instead on writing and other activities that generated wonderment. I convinced myself that my worries were trite, given that the world is a mess. And I thought about the history of relationships. Isn’t intimacy a relatively modern convention? My great-grandparents had separate bedrooms for their entire marriage.
   I imagined leaving, but I couldn’t fathom our ending.
   “It’s not about you,” she’d say when I pressed her about the lack warmth or what her thoughts were about why our love making had stopped. And I had believed her. I believed that it wasn’t about me, because the natural world reminded me daily of our connection.
   And I had learned that I couldn’t reach her during sullen periods where she consumed herself with pain-induced soul searching. She was an artist, after all. But even if it wasn’t about me, it didn’t stop a crippling insecurity from becoming my stalker.
   Sometimes I’d relax into the idea that relationships go through cycles; that our distance was temporary. But just when I got to a state of peace, someone would mention that they were concerned about their relationship because they hadn’t had sex in an ungodly amount of time—a month. I would come unhinged. Validation! I’d once again convey to her my concerns. In return she’d tell me that life with her would never be easy—it wasn’t her nature—and that I needed to focus on myself. She couldn’t make empty promises, which only served to make her more untouchable and necessary. Our talks left me doubled-over.
   Sex is, of course, just one of countless modes of connection and validation between two people. And I wonder if I would have been as pained by our physicality if I had been able to understand the root of our difficulties. In other words, as I look back, I wonder if the physical became my focus because it was tangible—something easily named. Because as a whole, it wasn’t the lack of touch that was the killer, it was the coldness that stiffened our affection.
   After some time, she no longer wanted to talk about it. There, again: the assault of space.
   I tried to heal my chronic longing. I indulged in countless spiritual paths and read numerous books to become A Person Without Needs. In telling this to a friend, I recall her saying, “Yes, that’s all fine and good, but relationships are like ecosystems. While we don’t have to be co-dependent, we do actually need each other. Right? I mean, trees need water.” This, like many other interruptions of my quest to be needless, stoked my dejection. Even though I tried to conceal my sadness—to not bother her with my wants—it permeated through my pours.
   How exhausted my love must have been to have become someone else’s lifeblood.

   What didn’t wane between us was time in the kitchen. And as the years passed, the hours we dedicated to evening meal preparation increased. Cooking became the most concrete way that we experienced the sultry and the sensual. Together we’d shape products of the earth into delicious forms wouldn’t have existed without our energy.
   But in the later years I didn’t want to cook. I wanted to sit, to talk, to hold hands, to return to the days where we’d fall into one another; the days when we were in perfect balance. And so my heart would sink if I found her emptying grocery bags. I began to begrudge glossy recipe books and prolonged preparation. I wanted to tell the Barefoot Contessa, Rachael Ray, Jamie Oliver, and Martha Stewart to take a hike. I’d glare at fresh produce, as if the inanimate hump was capable of ill intent toward me.
   “Can we just order a pizza?” I’d suggest. Sometimes we did. But mostly we’d cook, we’d eat, and then we’d break dark chocolate like communion and sink into bed, exhausted and full.

   When her daughter left for college, simplifying logistics, the merger of our households became a point of contention—not celebration. By that time, multiple years of spring rains had returned without the return of her touch.
   But then there would be days when and she’d cup my face, tip my chin, and hold to my lips a spoonful of something sublime. “Try it,” she’d say, her eyes eager for my reaction to her select ingredients.
   Perhaps this is why so many of us stay for years even when so much feels lost: That glimpse of an opening. That memory of a beginning.
   “I do so many things to show you that I love you,” she’d say. And she did.
   On our last morning together she turned toward me in bed and put her hand on my back, closing the gap. We knew the end was near. But I didn’t move. I let the tears come once more. Soon after I would leave the relationship that had curated my entire adulthood.

   Years have now passed since the end of my relationship, but just today I sliced a tomato and felt sorrow settle in my throat. So much that is familiar and routine in my life is attached to my past, to a person. I may always quietly grieve, as there is no way to quickly shed the impact bestowed by sixteen years—nor do I necessarily want to.
   I mostly cook in solitude these days. As I slice, grate, assemble, and heat, I know that I have access to a world of invention and pleasure. I see in my own hands, in my own existence, the transient nature of creation: we make, we partake, we release. Yes, we release, even as the soft pain of what is lost nests in our chests. And when I serve the meal I give thanks, as one might say grace, for all of the beauty that makes this brief life one worth savoring.

 

MELANIE HOFFERT's memoir, Prairie Silence, won the 2014 Minnesota Book Award for Memoir and Creative Nonfiction. Her work has been published in Orion, The Utne Reader, Ascent, and elsewhere. Both New Millennium Writings and The Baltimore Review selected her as the recipient for their Creative Nonfiction Awards.


 

BOJAN LOUIS

AN INTERVIEW

Louis_1.jpg
 

6 Landscapes | CJ Moll

C.J. MOLL is an artist, chef and landscape designer who counts the Abstract Expressionists as a major influence, along with contemporary artists like Wayne Thiebaud, Sean Scully, Brice Marden, and Wolf Kahn. He works in oil, acrylic, gouache, and collage. C.J. earned a B.A. in Art History from Stockton University in Pomona, NJ and currently resides in Frostburg, MD where he has the TALLDOOR gallery.

Michael Levan

Gravidarum

ER #12? #13? #16, Maybe?

Passed out on the couch, the man has been made / terrified by the woman shaking him and learns she’s been / made terrified too. He has been too tired to hear / the croaking floorboards, the heaves, the toilet flush, / her weary steps back to bed. But now, she needs him / to find her a way to the ER, the last sip of water / six hours ago and yet so much still coming up / green from deep inside her.

                       What time is it? he asks. 4:30, she replies. / Can you wait because they’re both asleep?

                    I knew you’d say that, she spits at him. / He wants her to reject this is happening / for as long as she can because it will happen / for the long time coming. What’s a few hours, / what’s a day of denial but a chance to take / a day away from this sickness?

But she will not agree. She will / instead yank the car keys from the rack, / which falls off its nails and onto the floor. She will muster / a Fine, I’ll take myself, and she will. / He is left then / with the boy and girl asleep and knowing nothing / of being terrified into guilt, into shame, into recognition / that, yes, this is their life once again.

Apology

No matter the noise of two kids arguing / over what they’ll eat for breakfast or which cartoon to watch, / the man will hear the garage door inch open, / the kitchen door creak wide. Of this, he is sure / because shame has a way of giving you the power / of hindsight, to see—no, to feel deep the caving in / of your center, your heart.

It’s not until after 11 / he hears one door, two, / the creaking of fifteen steps, and then one more door’s close. / The man weighs his options and stays holding the girl on the couch. / There are only so many I’m sorrys / she’ll be willing to believe. He’ll save / this one for another time.

Prolonging

Even with her retching, her headaches, their collective wishing / sometimes for this to have never happened, the man / must add injury to insult twice a week by injecting her / with progesterone. It is odd, at first, / that his muscles have memorized each step / in insuring this misery will continue. She can barely / stand for the two minutes he is to slowly push / this life-keeping into her. She can barely keep / the tears in. He wants to know if she can / forgive him if he suggests maybe skipping one or forgetting, / conveniently, which day sustains her / on this regimen. But she always remembers, never / gives in to what would be so much easier, the path / back to herself so much quicker than this needs to be.

Strong

Her body’s work to break the world / open again continues in the dark of their room. / Of her heart. Of her mind and soul, / if that word is okay to use, if it’s to be believed in. / Because too often now, the man doesn’t / want to carry the burden of lighting two of them. His faith is / ill equipped; it is young in the ways that don’t matter, / and old in the ways that do. He trusts it / as long as it works to keep her / from crying, from damning God for letting / this punishment happen to her. The man tries / to answer her curses with prayer, with light / at the end of this tunnel, with a simple, prodding, You’re strong. / You’re so much stronger than this thing, which is nothing / special but at least better than silence. He thinks / he hears her reply; it is only a catch / before she looses again into the kidney-shaped basin. / She wipes her mouth with a tissue and reports, / I have nothing in me anymore.

 

MICHAEL LEVAN has work in recent or forthcoming issues of Arts & Letters, Painted Bride Quarterly, Iron Horse Literary Review, Copper Nickel, Ruminate, and Hunger Mountain. He is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Saint Francis and writes reviews for American Microreviews and Interviews. He lives in Fort Wayne, Indiana, with his wife, Molly, and children, Atticus, Dahlia, and Odette.


 

M.W. Jones

Notes from the Split-Level

Why are we not better than we are?

All around me the dead leaves lie.

The day exhales one last breeze, subsides

to a stillness in which the germ of what is not yet

palpable pauses and gathers to begin one more time.

—Eric Trethewey, “Frost on the Fields.” Songs and Lamentations.

The first time I lived alone, I rented an apartment down the road from the house where my parents lived, in a quiet suburb of my hometown. I lived in the bottom of the building, my apartment halfway underground on the split-level. There was a window facing the front of the building. When I stood at this window, I was shoulder-level with the soil on the other side of the glass: yellowed blades of grass spiking into my line of vision. When it rained, I’d watch muddy water pool there, but the apartment never flooded. I couldn’t help but think that if I were outside and standing in a hole this deep, I would be stuck.

It was the largest space I have ever rented. Now I prefer small and uncluttered apartments: nothing extraneous, no need for many rooms. I was only twenty-two when I signed the lease, and I’d thought of nothing but becoming someone who did not live with their parents anymore, and in my small thinking I ended up only a few miles from my home. I didn’t think of meeting new friends, or meeting someone, or finding things to do, because I’d already met David, and we didn’t really need things to do because we didn’t typically do things, and then meeting new friends only meant having to explain David to them.

Above me lived Barb. She had a landline, which rang sometimes. There were two supermarkets in our neighborhood; I preferred one but she was a customer service manager at the other. Her apartment was so well-appointed that the apartment complex manager used it as a sort of model unit, chipping away at her monthly rent in exchange
   I viewed her apartment before signing my lease. At our first meeting she told me, “I’ve lived here for fifteen years. First I lived here with my husband until he died, and then my father lived here until he died. I hope to keep living here until I die.” She showed us the big closets, saying she had more storage space than she would ever need. “Oh good,” Barb said about a month later, standing five feet above me in our shared stairway, watching me move in my boxes and rubbermaid containers and suitcases.

The apartment had two large, yellow-beige closets in the bedroom. I filled the first with clothes and used the second for storage. I bought furniture from an actual furniture store, and my brother and father helped me move it in using the sliding glass door while my next-door neighbor watched us, smoking on his patio. Pat was the other “young person” in my building, but I only knew him from the parking lot and from through our shared wall. He frequently changed his facial hair to the extent that I sometimes didn’t recognize him, and he dated blonde girls who had expensive purses and graceful laughs that pierced through the noise of my television.
   I was quiet, pale, and plain. I tried for as long as I could in this building to remain an unknown.

David appeared at the apartment all the time, but never as often as I wanted. My mother told me she worried I spent too much time with him. Her concern was legitimate in that any time spent with him was really more than was good for me. However, no one realized how infrequently I actually saw him.
   Most of our interactions took place at work, where he managed a warehouse. I had an office in the next building over and ordered the inventory: leggings and dresses and embroidered blouses from India and China; comfort shoes and cheap costume jewelry from vendors in New York. We worked for a small clothing catalog company in the town where we both grew up. We met working in the warehouse together, where I’d stretch conversations with him about bills of lading and invoices and late shipments, curious about his tense shoulders and dark eyes.
   He was older than me by several years, and when he came over and sat on the yellow couch, I’d touch the grey patches in his beard, hoping he didn’t realize what I was doing. I’d look up at his face, his bruised-looking eyes, and smooth down wiry pieces of grey down into his hair, hair darker than my tube of mascara labeled “blackest black.” He kissed me with a certain brevity and conclusiveness, like an imperative, as if he were punctuating my sentences. I wanted something lingering and bottomless, something exclamatory, but I stayed, overly patient for something that would never truly emerge from him.
   We went to the same high school, but many years apart. In his early twenties, I would learn, he lived on the same street as the library I often spent time in as a teenager. He worked at a small deli, which has been closed for a long time now. I found myself thinking of all of the times I could have met him before we actually met: whether we’d crossed paths on the narrow, old-fashioned streets of our neighborhood. Whether my mother had bought chocolate from his mother when she worked in the old candy shop down the street from my house. I had never met his mother or father, nor his sister, his nieces and nephews, or his younger brother. I had never met his friends who he went camping with, or volunteered with at a nature conservancy a few counties over, or the ex-girlfriend he still occasionally met for dinner or coffee.

Sometimes I ran into my elderly neighbor, Mr. Nick, who lived three stories up from me. He was a decorated Vietnam veteran, an immigrant from Cyprus, and as far as we could tell, a lifelong bachelor. Feebled by emphysema, he was younger than he looked, which I only realized when encountering his obituary years later. He would, while tightly holding the railing, ease down the stairs in a painfully slow way. He always refused help. I could hear him on the stairs climbing up to his apartment every evening, heaving for air, knees straining. Still he made a rather bizarre offer to, in case of any emergency, come down the stairs with his gun to protect me.
   The apartment complex manager had given me a brief rundown of the fellow tenants in my building before I moved in, mentioning Barb and Pat and Nick. She had smiled demurely as she spoke of Nick, as if he had charmed her, had unforgettably seduced her, if such a feeble and slow-speaking man could. “He’s a very nice man,” she said, and she said it with such firmness.
   And he was very nice: always saying hello. Unlike my other neighbors who were happy to accommodate my desire to be ignored, Nick always acknowledged my presence. He invited me and David to join him for dinner sometime soon, and without thinking of how I’d convince David to do this, I immediately agreed. Nick confessed to me that he had also invited Barb out for dinner, for her 70th birthday, but she declined. “Sometimes women get the wrong idea,” he commented. He scratched one of his sagging shoulders, and I wondered how many years above eighty Nick might be.

Despite his obvious difficulty to get enough air, and undoubtedly the heart doctor’s disapproval, Nick smoked with delight, with relish, even. He’d sit in his car, the door shoved open for air, knees apart, one dress-shoed foot planted on the pavement, the other tapping the locked brake pedal. Sometimes he stayed there for an hour, smoking, looking around the block.
   I was frightened of him: frightened he would fall down the stairs or in the parking lot, frightened that he would die out there one day, frightened that in his kindness he would build up some sort of debt between us which we could never repay in time. I was also frightened that while he sat out there, outside, he could see too much through the half-sunken window, or hear too much echoing up the stairwell. Could sense something wrong when we ran into him and David tugged at my elbow and said, always a beat too soon, polite things like “well, we’d better get going, but it was nice running into you.”
   I kept my blinds closed because I felt paranoid about him staring at the inside of my apartment. His own blinds, three stories up from mine, were smoked yellow, visible from the street. We weren’t allowed to smoke in the apartments. “I don’t know who he thinks he’s fooling,” Barb said about it once from her own window one Friday afternoon, while we unbagged groceries on her dining room table.
   Sometimes when I left for work in the mornings I’d see, up in Nick’s windowsill on the fourth floor, only his hand reaching into the air, dangling his cigarettes.

One night I sat at the little green kitchen table next to the window and watched long, shiny bugs slipping into the apartment through the floor. “The bugs are just walking inside,” I told a building maintenance voicemail line, apoplectically, not knowing if anyone was listening.
   The next evening I returned from work to find a thick gluey seal applied along the entirety of the front wall, clumping in the carpet, and a fluorescent green door note like those do-not-disturb signs at hotels hanging on my inside doorknob, telling me that maintenance had been there.

One spring evening, Nick, David, and I did go out to eat together. I was surprised David had agreed to do this with me. Something about Nick had broken down David’s tenacious refusal to socialize with others. He wouldn’t have drinks with our coworkers or see my family, but he begrudgingly agreed to this.
   “No one’s ever done anything like this for us,” I said in the car on the way there, leaving out the fact that this was only because we’d never let them. I do not think I was intending it to be an admonishment.
   We met Nick at a nice Italian restaurant, too expensive for David and I to normally consider eating there. When we walked into the restaurant, he was sitting at the bar, suited. He moved across the room to greet us, with more speed than he normally managed, and we headed over to the table he’d reserved for us.
   It was clear Nick had everyone charmed. The waitress, who had impossibly tasteful highlighted hair, beamed at him when she came to take our order. I felt that same suspicion I always feel around bubbly servers, but noticed that every time she looked in the direction of our table, her smile was warm and involuntary.
   We quickly realized that he not only intended to pay for our meal, but that he wanted to partake in every course the restaurant offered. He ordered two bottles of wine immediately, and at a loss, we drank slowly, trying not to tempt him to order more. After Nick insisted that we would have wine, bread, appetizers, salads, and entrees that evening, David and I begged him to let us share the bill with him. He refused and said, with what I can only describe as a thrill, “I get four pensions. I have no one to spend it on but myself.”
   At dinner, Nick told us about how much he loved cruises, about how he loved the live shows, how he loved to sit in the armchairs of the ship’s lounges with a glass of brandy, how it gave him a sense of peace.
   David and I talked in the car on the way home, in a tone that was too pitying to be kind, about how lonely he must be, to say he has no one. But it had seemed odd to me even then, that despite his professed loneliness, Nick had seemed so content, so honestly pleased. I sat in the passenger’s seat with all the styrofoam boxes of leftovers in my lap: my leftover eggplant parmigiana, a big salad which Nick ordered for me, insisting I would like it, though I didn’t. David’s leftover mushroom pasta, too, and our desserts, which Nick had ordered for us to take home when we insisted we couldn’t possibly eat more. We marveled over the exorbitant bill, which Nick had refused to let us help with. “He was showing off,” David said about it. “It gives him the upper hand.”

Nick passed away—at home, the obituary said—a week after I moved out of that apartment complex. He was a decade younger than I’d estimated, and even more decorated by the military than he’d told us.
   (In the obituary: He left behind a son and a daughter, both married. He left behind eight grandchildren.)

I was supposed to eat dinner at my parents’ house on Monday nights, but often didn’t go. My mother thought I was with David, and David thought I was with my parents. Instead I was in the apartment, hiding. All the time I felt tired, more tired than I had reason to be, and I felt deeply unsettled. I kept my blinds down, so no one could see into the apartment.
   Most of the time, I was alone. I got a cat at the animal shelter, and felt less alone. I turned the television up louder, and felt less alone. I’d stopped meeting up with the friends who told me to break up with David. I watched shows about women who excelled in their careers, but were obviously with the wrong man, and everyone seemed to know it, including her. They’d break up during May sweeps, just in time for her to get together with the person the producers always intended her to be with, right around the season finale. I wondered in those moments if my life could ever be like bad television.

After the dinner we had with Nick, I did not know how to possibly reciprocate, but I promised to host dinner for the three of us in my apartment one night and we chose a date from the calendar. Shortly before our dinner, I woke up to find water dripping down from Barb’s bathroom into mine. This happened occasionally: when she took baths, the ceiling of my bathroom leaked a little. But that morning I wandered into the bathroom, nearly blind without the strong prescription of my eyeglasses, and found my ceiling sagging low, close to my head. I immediately ducked out of the bathroom, and the large swell in the ceiling burst without a sound as I stared up at it from the hallway, preparing to leave another voicemail message to maintenance. There was only a short silent outpouring of discolored water—not the tundra I’d feared. Maintenance came in and tore out the drywall that day, spray-painted a pipe, and left. I threw towels down on the floor and went to work.

It was taking them weeks to repair the ceiling. Though embarrassed about how torn apart my space was, I didn’t feel I could cancel on Nick after our extravagant dinner. So I cleaned the best I could, and in the kitchen I mashed up potatoes, roasted mushrooms and asparagus, tossed tortellini in olive oil and sun-dried tomatoes.
   David arrived a few minutes before Nick, saying he felt nervous after the strangeness of our last meal together. He took shots of something he’d bought at the liquor store on his way to my apartment, something he did sometimes when he was anxious before social occasions.
   Nick arrived with flowers and a bottle of his favorite brandy. He only picked at the food on his plate, and I worried I hadn’t prepared it to his liking. He sipped his Benedictine from one of my dollar store pint glasses, and talked about the group of veterans he led. He talked only in weighted abstractions about his time in Vietnam. “All of us,” he said of his group of men, the veteran’s organization he was heavily involved in, “are there because we shed blood.”
   David told me I didn’t talk enough when Nick was around, that he felt forced to carry the conversation. But I was so quiet then, and so silent.

In the moment of learning of his death, I thought of contacting Mr. Nick’s daughter—a woman perhaps my mother’s age. I did not; I’m not sure what I could ever offer her. After learning of Nick’s grandchildren who lived an hour away, who he never once mentioned to me or David, I wondered if they might have been estranged.

Nick told me that his back was seriously injured in an accident in this apartment building. That a young lady who used to live on the second floor was locked out. He attempted to hoist her up to her window, but she toppled them over and he took the weight of the fall.
   He remarked only that the woman had never apologized.

David came over some Friday nights, and we always stayed in. He’d enter my apartment through the sliding glass door in my living room, and I could see where he was parked from the couch.
   I had a bad habit then, of leaving dirty dishes in the sink, letting them pile up for weeks sometimes. It repulsed David. Some nights he stood in the kitchen and scrubbed my dishes until his hands glowed. It was as if he was making me acceptable to him again. But in the end, that didn’t even work.
   We didn’t cook in the kitchen, usually. We got pizza, put on a movie. We could go weeks at a time without conversation. Thirty minutes into the movie, he would get up to use the bathroom and return with a third full glass of wine. “More?” I’d ask him, knowing what it meant; that soon he would fall asleep in a heavy, solitary way on my couch, that another evening would pass when I might as well have been alone. I suspected he was intentionally getting himself in too much of a stupor to have to talk to me, or be aware of his surroundings at all. I would watch him drink until he fell asleep. And then I watched his jaw relax as he slept, my new cat nuzzling up to his shoulder until she became bored and followed me out of the room.
   Watching him sleep, I felt afraid that my parents, who were religious and raised me to be, would drive past my apartment complex and see David’s old brown station wagon parked outside early in the mornings. Sometimes I had him park in the lot behind my building, though his car was distinctive enough that anyone who’d seen it would know it was his.
   In the mornings he crawled into bed with me, passing a mug of coffee into my hands. We’d make plans to spend the day together, but then he would leave, always slightly earlier than promised, and after he shut the door and walked up the stairs to leave the building, I’d cry without understanding why.

The time came to renew my lease for a second year. The copy of my lease had a long letter from the building manager, expressing hope that I would stay in the apartment “for many years.” Something in me plummeted low as I read it. I signed it, the lease I would soon break, and dropped it off in the building next door, in the little metal lockbox where I submitted my rent checks.

“This is why I lie, to prevent fights like this,” David used to say.

Nick did not cook. There were several Italian restaurants he liked to eat at in town, and he held strong opinions on all of them. He also went to the diner: one of a chain of Baltimore diners called the Double T Diner. Sometimes I saw him at the grocery store, dipping from the olive bar, or I might have been counting out the week’s yogurts or weighing a bag of grapes in my hands, when I looked up and saw him, waiting as if I’d stood him up for dinner.
   Once I ran into my mother at the grocery store, too. I was wandering through the bakery and considering the purchase of a plastic case containing four apple fritters. I saw her before she saw me, and called out to her. When she looked up, she was startled and her recognition was delayed. In a deeply odd moment, I felt what it was to be a stranger to my mother.

David and I ran into Nick in the parking lot one day, and he asked us what we were doing on Saturday night.
   I immediately felt nervous at the thought of having dinner with Nick again. “Having dinner with my parents,” I said, reflexively, glancing over at David. I was learning to lie, too.
   Nick explained that Saturday evening was his birthday. I fought off churning guilt as I wished him a happy birthday in advance, and left for my apartment with David.
   We had to leave the apartment on Saturday, I’d said to David, otherwise Nick would know we were lying. At a loss for what to do, we made plans to go have dinner and see a movie. David accused me of being passive-aggressive by conjuring an image of us having dinner with my parents, an activity which was unthinkable to him.
   We never made it to the movie because we drank too much at dinner. We wallowed in tipsiness for a bit at our table, then dozed in my car. After a while we drove to the gas station about two hundred feet away to get coffee.
   “I never want children and I never want to get married,” he’d said in the gas station parking lot that day. In that time, he’d present things like this as if baiting me to break up with him. His not leaving me was my reward for accepting his endless series of conditions for being together. And his conditions only grew: by the end he was asking to go to Peru with a former girlfriend, asking us to lead separate lives, asking to never see my family again, asking to love me while hating me too. But that day at the gas station is one of the days I’m ashamed of still: one of the days I begged him to stay.

After David went home for the night, I ran out to the supermarket across town where my mother didn’t shop, to buy a cake and a balloon for Nick’s birthday. The cake was one of those chocolate on chocolate bundt cakes that some people might say is too rich or too much, but I could never get enough of that stuff. The balloon came from one of the registers at the supermarket where Barb worked, and I poked at it to make sure it had sufficient air, thinking about the imaginary dinner David and I were eating with my parents, wondering if it would plausibly be over by now.
   I didn’t knock on the door when I left his gifts in the hallway, because I felt overwhelmingly afraid to talk to him or anyone that night.

“I’m moving,” I told Mr. Nick in the parking lot one afternoon, “to go to school.”
   He told me he was moving, too, not this month but soon. Our landlady had found him a first-floor apartment in another neighborhood where he didn’t have to climb any stairs. He’d been having an especially difficult time around that point, so I was glad to hear it.
   David had plans, too, to move southwest, which he had consistently threatened to do since we first started dating. He said he was moving there because he wanted to be alone, but that we could still be together.
   Oddly, David and I then began to do things that gestured toward a future just before the move. We started leaving the apartment more often. We agreed to go on a double date, with David’s ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend. I did not necessarily enjoy their company. I looked at plane tickets to the West coast, which were expensive. I met David’s mother, meek and gentle, with a short rippling laugh that sounded almost involuntary. She set out coffee mugs for the three of us on her kitchen table, and told stories that never quite lined up with David’s.
   “We should do something for Mr. Nick, to say goodbye,” we’d say to each other before the move—but we never did.

At first after I moved, David and I had conversations on the phone. “You should visit him,” he said. “I feel bad that we didn’t really say goodbye.” I told him I agreed. It felt too hard to explain to David that I didn’t want to return to that place ever again, that when I thought of it I felt sick. I stretched out on my yellow couch, which I’d moved into this new apartment without David’s help, in this new city where I lived alone again, but where I sat two stories above ground and the light shone in warmer on my windowsills, where it grew easier to breathe every day.
   I’m horrified now that I didn’t even know Nick was gone, that I’d squandered my last chance at kindness, that I’d been afraid of exactly the wrong things.

We no longer speak, but I still sent David a link to Nick’s obituary online, unsure if he had already somehow seen it. I worried that passing this along to him would somehow be another way I’d hurt him. I do not know what it says, that this thought did not deter me.


M.W. Jones holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Hollins University. Her essays have appeared in The Adroit Journal, Atticus Review, and Hot Metal Bridge. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland, and is a Nonfiction Editor at the Baltimore Review.

 

David Sheskin

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David Sheskin's art and writing have been published in numerous magazines over the years.

Bojan LOUIs | 2 poems

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Black Days

for Adrian C. Louis

There are fifteen scorpions pressed apart with a stick used

for stirring paint I need to tell you about.

Couldn’t tell you how they dwelled. Haven’t killed enough.

They emerged through cracks in the block

wall separating each box of this Cro-Magnon neighborhood.

I can tell you: I wept. Smashing sections

as they escaped, moving like those fuckers from Alien flicks.

Anyway, it’s been countless years since I

searched the yard perimeter, black light a false beacon in the

muted night. A nine-mil nestled against

my hip, bullet chambered to blast the skinheads my sister told

of, frantic, having driven the city all night.

Among deadened asphalt synapses we wait for dawn’s liminal

thread to offer blurred visions for sleep.

She described a battle between cops and neo-Nazis. I perceived

it as singular and internal until somewhere

in the conflict the house was entered, ruined, and left as such.

This ruin never occurred. It was a wreck,

a was I’m embarrassed to speak on. A false bend, a quarter too

far. I want to be clear about the scorpions.

My wife crept behind me with her phone while I, among the

apparitions of depression, released the safety

and cleared the house of the nothing there. Hateful I hadn’t

killed anything.

 

The Age of Accountability

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He wants this body                 the femur-bleached paperwork, Lego-lettered requisite

for proof of entrance               to get one’s soul assured a claim in celestial perpetuity.

How goes it, Savior?               Broken-hearted divinity hunkered down like a refugee

conspiring against                   definition of existence over violence. Your skin glistens

like an argument                     against dullness of love and light. Lampshades come to mind.

How they’re made                   to diffuse illumination. Cast the contrast of shattered vessels.

*

An 8 pushed over resembles ∞. Lay enough down                        you get a rhumba of snakes

knotted like vines. Plunge an 8 year old into water                        bowled in gold on the backs

of bronze bulls, it’s a sacred act. Trans-migratory journey             to adulthood. To be a man,

perhaps, requires the faith of support and guidance into                water where the weight of

he who is responsible for your buoyancy is the one                       drowning you, too. Can be

understood as somewhat of a clusterfuck. Ordained                      angel, submerge your dove.

*

Mom suspects Lord’s                 blessing true: eternal celestial-kingdom-life or cast out to darkness.

My pops, I can guess,                 feels similar, though his is not the most genuine, devout of belief.

O Father O Faith O                    Sun aid us our oars to move with luck and coins enough. Drizzle

water to the crown                    of our heads for protection. Seal the deal: soul and body to decay.

What floods lungs                      is said to be (O) Satan taking downward hold of you. No echo.

Pitch, the pressure                     of the world’s health and sustenance, a killer. How it is.

*

There’s a world between us and words by the millions. Deep within the ocean existence doubts
the probability/possibility of our limbs and lungs. Our soft, delicate bodies as swallowable as
plankton. Whatever philosophies microscope our lives, we envision stars where there are none.

 


 

BOJAN LOUIS (Diné) is a poet, fiction writer, essayist, and Poetry Editor for RED INK: An International Journal of Indigenous Literature, Arts, & Humanities. He teaches various composition courses at Arizona State University’s Downtown Campus. His first poetry collection is Currents (BkMk Press 2017).

 

Alex Sarrigeorgiou | 3 Photo-POEMS


ALEX SARRIGEORGIOU is an actor and poet based in New York City. She's half Greek, half Romanian, and grew up in Athens, Greece. Alex studied drama at Vassar College. Her poems have appeared in or are forthcoming from 82 Review, Cactus Heart Press, Hypertrophic Literary, and The Tishman Review. Visit her at www.alexsarrigeorgiou.com.

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Fugue Issue 54 - Winter / Spring 2018

by Various
A COZY CHAT WITH
COLSON WHITEHEAD

On doing the hard thing, Peaky Blinders,
  and what he learned from science fiction.

 

by Caitlin Palmer, Fiction Editor

The Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winning author of The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead, made a stop at the University of Idaho for Black History Month. While here, he sat down with a few lucky students and faculty—studying or teaching English, History, Screenwriting, and Narrative Theory—to discuss his recent book, and his current life and times.
   The author was incredibly generous—he gave three talks in one day, including a keynote address to a packed audience - as well as fiercely intelligent, and full of candor. The chat I got to sit in on was informal and intimate, so to respect the space we’ve opted not for a full transcription of the Q&A, but a brief summary and some words from Mr. Whitehead, to outline the meanderings and contours of the conversation.
   Many thanks went around the room for his time, and we’d like to offer them here again.


What everyone wants to know: what’s it like to be wildly successful? According to Mr. Whitehead, it’s much the same as the rest of a writer’s career: only “the stakes are higher.” Where he used to trade freelancing work for cigarettes and an apartment rent, he now balances his year by teaching, giving talks and tours, to support a family and a mortgage. “I’m always buying time to write,” he said.
   What else has changed? Mr. Whitehead maintained that he’s carried many of his childhood interests in stories and storytelling, over to his current career. “My storytellers came from the TV,” he said, mentioning The Twilight Zone along with comic books. As well, he was, and still is, fascinated by science fiction. He credits rules he learned from this and the fantasy genre for helping him build the world of The Underground Railroad. He outlined (no spoilers), what happened on pages one, two, and three. For something outside of an audience’s experiences, he said, “You have to describe the rules of the world. It felt like I had to describe the rules of the world of slavery,” and he laid out a pattern for it in the first three pages of text.
   Though the rules he used changed, from place to place—he likened the stops of his protagonist, a runaway slave named Cora, to Gulliver’s Travels—he talked about finding a balance between the historical and fictional, or, as he likes to say, “fantastical.” I asked about the “slipstream” feel of the book, a blurring of reality with just enough un-reality, that social structures are thrown into sharp effect. Reading it, I was constantly reminded of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. He nodded at this effort at description, but waved his hand at the need for defining. “I just write something, I don’t think about what it is,” he said. “That’s something other people say, after.”
   Still, I wanted to know, how did he decide on world-building, what to keep and what to alter? While he made the figurative Underground Railroad into a literal, subterranean train line, and changed states’ governments to reflect various “final solutions to the ‘slave problem’,” as well as bringing in some technology that would be found in a different century—was there anymore he’d thought about changing? Anything that he tried that didn’t work? Mr. Whitehead assented to this, saying he’d thought about having even more extreme worlds reflected in each state. Ultimately, he said, “I had been on the ‘Fantasy Scale’ at 11, and I took it back to ‘Magic Realism’ set on 1.”
   While he doesn’t like to define his book, he does credit Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s use of magical realism with imbuing his own - what he calls “mixing the fake and the real, doing it with a straight face.”
   What’s he reading now, we wanted to know? What’s he watch, to take a break?
   Elena Ferrante, N. K. Jemisin, Moshin Hamid’s Exit West, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. He referenced Star Wars, and Netflix’s Peaky Blinders.
   It turns out, Mr. Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad could find itself in on-screen conversation with these - Barry Jenkins, director of the 2016 Oscar’s Best Picture Award-winner Moonlight, will direct an eight episode miniseries for Amazon. We asked if the author had any casting suggestions for this, and, saying he did not have enough familiarity, he did bend at one possibility. “My only say, I would love to get Peaky Blinders actor Cillian Murphy for the role of the antagonist, Ridgeway. He has a great face for it.”
   We agree, and, sensing our time is up, come back for the last time from fantasy, to reality. I ask if he has any advice for beginning writers, who have a big, moving project inside them. Mr. Whitehead had talked about having the idea for The Underground Railroad for twelve years, but struggling with feeling ready. The next book he’s working on, as well, is something he said he felt moved to do.
    “Do the thing that’s hard,” he said. “The hard thing is worth doing. Not doing the same thing that you already know how to do.”
   The man’s work and dedication is awe-inspiring, especially as he seems to hold the honor so well. I think back to something he said earlier, what seemed an aside but maybe was more of a seed. “I write when I can, one or two pages a day is a good day,” he reflected. “That’s eight pages a week. Eight pages a week over a year, that’s a book.”
   Mr. Whitehead talked about extensive research he did for this book, using primary sources, stories written by slaves, interviews of former slaves done by government-paid writers. Technical research on gravedigging and genetic modification. Even with all that, it’s comforting to know, The Underground Railroad was written one page at a time.