Buckskin Cocaine, stories by Erika T. Wurth, reviewed by Jordan A. Rothacker

Buckskin Cocaine
by Erika T. Wurth
Astrophil Press, 111 pages

reviewed by Jordan A. Rothacker

Sometimes we read fiction to escape, to experience the art of writing, or to lose ourselves in plot. Non-fiction is often imagined the territory of learning, absorbing direct information on a topic. We often forget that fiction still has this power, to take you somewhere real you’ve never been, to introduce you to people you might not have otherwise met. Fiction can convey social realities and erode the “otherness” of others. Sometimes even when we set out to read to escape, to read for fun, we are confronted with truths about our world. But of course, true art about the human experience never eludes the social and the political.

I find myself in this dual mindset with Erika T. Wurth’s recent collection of short stories, Buckskin Cocaine. This collection of eight different first-person-voiced stories covers a lot of terrain over 111 pages all the while exploring the distinctive world of “buckskin” filmmaking, a once exploitative Hollywood Western subgenre that nowadays signals a world of Native directors, actors, and film festivals. The story titles bear the names of the protagonists, among them “Barry Four Voices,” “Candy Francois,” “Gary Hollywood,” “Lucy Bigboca,” “Mark Wishewas,” and “Olivia James.” Buckskin Cocaine explores this particular corner of Native America and in doing so illuminates so many of the universal issues facing Native Americans. Wurth is particularly interested in themes of authenticity and compromise. She asks, Where lies creativity when Native filmmakers feel pigeonholed into only making Native films? Where lies integrity when non-Native filmmakers care only about stereotypes and revisionist history, but work is hard to come by for a Native actor and a paycheck is needed?

What makes this emotionally satisfying reading is how well the prose brings to life the various voices all within this same small world. George Bull is a director who makes Native films that show at buckskin film festivals. He constantly denies any social obligation to justice or fairness. Rather, he says he’s in it for the money (of course, how could that be true, his work speaks for his commitment to his people). There’s Lucy Bigboca, who boasts about how traditional she is and yet shouts in text-speak full of LOLs and LMAOs jolted by exclamation points. With all her boasting and shouting, she truly has a big boca.

Gary Hollywood’s voice is the most distant and distinct from the others’. He revels in the buckskin roles that let him be “so terrifying that it is utterly beautiful.” He says, “And I feel like someone should be proud. Look at me up there, my hair so black, my naked chest so brown, my eyes filled with stones. I look like a warrior. I dance, I sing, I fight. I am so beautiful in the dark.” These roles reconfirm for him that he was “born for blood” and make him feel connected to an aspect of his heritage. He speaks as if out of a dream and takes us through his childhood in Oklahoma and his time killing in the jungle (most likely Vietnam, though he never says), but now he drinks too much and regrets past acts that sound like domestic violence. He cherishes his dreams though, and the dreamy nature of acting.

Erika T. Wurth

The penultimate story is narrated by the book’s biggest wannabe, a scenester and hanger-on, who we feel for as he waits in the wings, always on hand, trying to impress the cool, connected people at the film festivals and hip watering holes. In a turn Joycean-Pynchonian, the character is named Mark Wishewas, and oh how he “wish he was” making real serious films with people like George Bull and Robert Two-Stories. For the reader, Wishewas is also a revealing critic of the Native film. At one point he laments that the buckskin films his fellow Natives direct are all about the past. He says, “I mean, Jesus, what about talking about how we are now? That’s what I was always thinking about when I was thinking about writing a short story collection though I never had time to write it. I mean, I work in a library and that takes up a lot of my time. Plus the writing world is completely full of crap. I’m totally done with it. At least film has an audience. Plus, the writers I meet are always total jerks.” His story is both sweet and tragic.

The final story is the longest, with the widest character arc and most complicated tricks of narrative-time-play. Olivia James is a ballet dancer with a life separate from most of the characters we’ve met before. She leaves her home and her father in Denver for a career in New York and ultimately Europe, experiencing success. After reading the other stories in the collection we understand a greater depth to her journey, the pressures, the temptations, and the politics. Her path might be separate from the others we have met but it shares themes of authenticity and identity. Olivia worries about retaining her heritage while also embracing a European art form. She wants to be seen as a dancer, not a Native American dancer, while still never losing who she is. We relate to her and feel for her as we watch her grow, but there is a tragic tone beneath the surface. We have met her before, an older version of herself, in George Bull’s story. She’s there at the Native American Film Festival in Santa Fe, New Mexico, aged out of dancing; she’s a teacher and academic, but in George’s eyes she’s another scenester, drinking, partying, rubbing elbows, part of this Native film world yet just as uncertain as to who she is as everybody else.

Buckskin Cocaine doesn’t build into a novel (there is no overarching plot) but through theme and connected characters, it gives way to a particular view of a much-hidden world. With its pettiness, infighting, beauty, inspiration, leaders, followers, wannabes, and has-beens the buckskin scene seems at first just like any other. Yet this is a kind of Hollywood illusion. Just beneath the surface, Wurth’s characters wrestle with dual and triple identities. A people who have survived a legacy of genocide and marginalization face obstacles from within and from outside their own communities, whether they choose to face them or not. Wurth’s point may be that the best film sets make it almost impossible to tell what is actually real.


Jordan A. Rothacker is a poet, essayist, and novelist who lives in Athens, GA where he received an MA in Religion and a PhD in Comparative Literature. His books are The Pit, and No Other Stories (Black Hill Press, 2015), And Wind Will Wash Away (Deeds, 2016), and the meta-text My Shadow Book by Maawaam (Spaceboy Books, 2017).

Rachel R. Taube interviews Ros Schwartz, translator of TRANSLATION AS TRANHUMANCE

A Conversation with Ros Schwartz
translator of TRANSLATION AS TRANHUMANCE
by Mireille Gansel
from Feminist Press at CUNY 

Interview by Rachel R. Taube

Ros Schwartz has been a literary translator for 36 years and has been an active participant in the evolution of the profession. She has translated over 70 books from French to English by writers as diverse as Moroccan author Tahar Ben Jelloun and French crime writer Dominique Manotti, as well as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. She has presided as vice-chair of the Translators Association, as chair of the European Council of Literary Translators Association and as chair of English PEN’s Writers in Translation program. Most recently Schwartz translated Translation as Transhumance, which was reviewed by Cleaver.

In this interview, Ros Schwartz discusses the process of translating a book about translation, including her work with Gansel, her theory of translation, and translation as activism.


Rachel R. Taube: In another interview, you said Translation as Transhumance is a unique project for you because you championed the book and found a publisher for it. What about the original made you decide that you needed to translate this book?

Ros Schwartz: My response to reading the French original was visceral, like falling in love. I was awed, first of all by Gansel’s exquisite style, which combines simplicity, lyricism and elegance, and then by the integrity and coherence in the way she has lived her life, making her translation work the concrete expression of her profound humanity. She has devoted herself to translating the voices of the persecuted, the poets who have been silenced, even to the extent of learning Vietnamese during the Vietnam War so as to translate the work of the poets.  She gives herself body and soul, literally, to all that she does, and my admiration for her is boundless.

I also experienced a sense of recognition: my background has some similarities with hers. I too am Jewish—second generation born in Britain—and my grandparents spoke only Yiddish, so although different from Gansel’s experience, I share that multilingual background common to families descended from exiles. Gansel interweaves her memoir with reflections on the art of translation, constantly interrogating and refining her practice. Her ethos chimes with mine and her approach to translation helped me better articulate my own. Translation is the deepest form of reading. By translating the book and being inhabited by it for many months, I was able to engage with Gansel’s ideas in a way that you just don’t as a casual reader.

RRT: Mireille Gansel, as much as possible, attempts to immerse herself in the world of the poet she is translating. I was especially struck by the image of her visiting Reiner Kunze in East Germany to listen to him read his work aloud in his “tiny blue kitchen.” How do you prepare yourself to translate a new author? If the author you’re translating is living, do you interact with them? To what extent did you get to know Gansel and her life?

RS: I work in the same way as Gansel when translating a living author. Capturing the author’s voice is the key that is the essence of translation. It’s not about translating individual words, or phrases or even paragraphs, but conveying the voice beneath them, the spirit of the work. At an early stage of the translation, I invited Gansel to join me at a translation workshop in Cambridge where we worked on an excerpt from the book. There, I heard her read, and spent time getting to know her a little. Six months later, I then visited her home, in Lyon, where we discussed some of the thornier passages and I gained a sense of her world. I also met her friend, Jean-Claude Duclos, director of the Musée Dauphinois, alongside whom she campaigns to protect the culture of the Camargue shepherds, which is fundamental to her book and to her concept of translation as transhumance. All this helped me grasp her voice, her spirit.

I was very nervous about translating Gansel and had planned to send her my translation and spend a couple of weeks going over it with her, to ensure she was happy with it. But after attending my workshop and seeing my approach, she generously told me that she trusted me absolutely and that the book was now ‘mine’ so to speak. She relinquished all control, which is the hardest thing for an author to do and the greatest gift for a translator. Of course, I was able to ask her for clarification and discuss any issues that arose, but she was adamant that she did not need to go over the translation with a fine-tooth comb. When my translation was published, she said: ‘I can feel that you’ve translated this with your Jewish soul.’ Which is a wonderful way of describing empathy. And empathy is the pre-condition for any translation. There needs to be a particular chemistry for a translation to gel and capture the author’s voice.

RRT: I’m curious about the particular challenges of translating a book about translation. This book is full of poems that Gansel translated from German or Vietnamese into French, which now appear in English. She spends pages describing the process of translating a single word. How did you translate these poems and the conversation around them?

RS: For the poems that exist in an English translation, I cited these (with appropriate credits). This was the case for most of the Nelly Sachs poems. For the Vietnamese and other poems that don’t exist in English, I translated from Gansel’s French and worked with her to ensure that my translations accurately reflected the originals. It is made clear in the notes which poems are my translations from Gansel’s French, and which are existing translations.

RRT: Gansel’s focus, in her translation work, is on the meaning or effect of the language, rather than its literal fidelity. She says she risks “going beyond the literal meanings of the words, in order to access their deeper meanings,” and refers to an interior or soul language, which she hears in “the silences between the lines.” How closely does this idea align with your own theory of translation, and how did you apply that theory to translating this book in particular? Did you ever find yourself swayed by Gansel’s theory as you worked with her words?

RS: Gansel eloquently articulates everything that I believe, which is one of the reasons the book resonated so powerfully for me. Translation is a holistic process, it’s not about the words on the page. It’s a complex balance between meaning and music. There are translations that are accurate yet clunky. That happens when a translator focuses solely on meaning but forgets that language is also music and rhythm. So sometimes you need to move away from the literal meaning to privilege music. With every translation, I weigh up where that balance lies. Gansel’s French is exquisite, precise, elegant and poetic. After drafting the translation with the focus on sense, I then reworked it many times concentrating on style and musicality. If I had to sum up the aim of a translation, it is to create the same response in the reader of the translation as that elicited by the source text in its readers. But to do that, you need to work within your own language and draw fully on the rich range of linguistic resources it offers, and those will be different from those of the original language. You may need to play with punctuation, or on the opposition between Latinate and Anglo-Saxon root words, the use (or not) of contractions. All these elements contribute to the texture of the writing. In a way, translation’s like ventriloquism: you try to find the voice you feel the writer would have had if they’d written in English. But that doesn’t mean making them sound English – you need to preserve their individuality and otherness. An almost impossible paradox.

RRT: One theme of this book is the colonization of language, and in particular the way in which German is colonized. Are there ways in which French is a colonized language? English?

RS: I would turn that question around and say rather that French and English are the colonizers. Gansel writes about how the German language was tainted by Nazism, and how writers have had to salvage it. Whereas English and French are dominant languages. The challenge for translators is to not allow our translations to be colonized by copy editors. For example, I translate a lot of Francophone North African writers who often keep Arabic words in the French. Because of France’s colonial history, the French reader will be more familiar with these terms than the English reader. I always fight to keep those words and cultural references in my translation and provide a glossary at the back of the book, since footnotes are not used in fiction. Salman Rushdie put it succinctly when he wrote: “To unlock a culture you need to understand its untranslatable words.” He keeps many Urdu words in his writing, at the same time making them perfectly understandable to the English-speaking reader within the context. That has been my guiding principle in my approach to translation.

Many African authors write in French or English rather than in any of the African languages because it’s the only way they can get published. The Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiongo, having previously written in English, chose to write Matigari ma Njiruungi in his native Gikuyu (1986) as well as his later Mũrogi wa Kagogo (2004) precisely to emphasize this point. The same is true of Indian authors. Little work is translated from the many languages of the subcontinent.

RT: You’ve described Gansel’s work as “translation as activism.” Gansel translated East German writers during the Cold War, and during the Vietnam War, she worked on a book of poetry to protest threats of American intervention. What is the role of the translator as activist? Do you see yourself as an activist, or particular projects you’ve done as activism?

RS: The translator has a huge role to play in challenging the gatekeepers. We can bring writers to the attention of publishers by championing their works, as Gansel has done, as I and other translators do. This is especially important when it comes to languages that publishers don’t generally read. One exemplary translator-activist is Deborah Smith, who translates from Korean and won the first Man Booker International prize for her translation of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. Shocked that no one was publishing books from languages such as Bangladeshi, Thai, Uzbek or Korean, Smith set out to redress this single-handedly by establishing a publishing house, Tilted Axis, which is ‘on a mission to shake up contemporary international literature’. (See the Cleaver review of Han Kang’s Human Acts, in Deborah Smith’s translation, and the New Yorker interview with Kang about the act of translation.)

The very first book I translated, I Didn’t Say Goodbye by Claudine Vegh, was an activist project for me. Comprising interviews with Holocaust survivors whose parents managed to save their children but not themselves, I knew the minute I read it that I had to translate it and see it published in English. Translation as Transhumance too is an activist mission for me. I took on this book as a personal passion project and actively worked to place it with a publisher in the UK and the USA, and have been tirelessly promoting it since.

More generally, I’ve been involved in English PEN’s Writers in Translation program (of which I am currently co-chair) since its beginnings. This programme is designed to support outstanding works in translation and help them reach readers and build new audiences. It is vital for translators to actively seek out works in the languages they translate from and champion them. It is also important for translators to work with organizations supporting exiled writers, take part in book festivals and public events and be part of the conversation.

It was translators who instigated the Women in Translation month, which a number of us from around the world took part in, to draw attention to the disproportionately few works by women writers that are translated. Similarly, it was translators who were the movers and shakers behind the first Warwick Prize for Women in Translation, launched earlier this year.

I also consider myself an activist in translator training (I co-founded a literary translation summer school in London and give regular workshops), and in campaigning for improved working conditions and rates for translators. These things are all interconnected: better training means better quality translations, and better translations means that more publishers will be prepared to take on international titles. Good conditions for translators foster better quality translations because translators are then able to devote the necessary time to each project.


Rachel-TaubeRachel R. Taube is pursuing her MFA in Fiction at UNC Wilmington. She has been an Electric Literature-Catapult Scholarship recipient and a Tent Creative Writing Fellow, and she holds a masters in Creative Writing and Gender Studies from the University of Pennsylvania. You can find her fiction in Storychord and Apiary Magazine. Follow her on Twitter at @racheltaube.

 

Ros Schwartz’s author photo by Anita Staff

ASK JUNE: The Problematically Perfect Family and Standing Your Ground on the Bus

Dear June,

“Jack” and I have been dating for over two years now. We’re planning to move in together when my lease runs out in June, and are starting to talk in very general terms about settling in for the long run.  

I think he loves me, but I have started to worry that he loves me more for my family than for myself. There are five of us: Mom, Dad, Nonie, Jack, and me. Except for Nonie, my kid sister who is away at college, we all live within a few miles of one another. My parents still live in the family home, which is a great place—the house all the neighborhood kids always wanted to hang out in, not just because it is very comfortable and has a pool and a basement with a ping-pong table and other great kid amenities, but also because of my parents, who are very charismatic. Several of my friends have told me that they wished they had a dad like mine, and one even half-seriously confessed to having a crush on him. As for my mom, at least three of my high school and college boyfriends liked to stay up late sitting at the kitchen table with her, baring their young souls over a carafe of coffee or red wine, as age-appropriate. And my big brother Jack is and always has been both cool and friendly, a sensitive golden-boy jock. A good brother, I might add, and always willing—maybe too willing in this case—to spend time with anybody I bring home.  

Jack has clearly fallen under my family’s spell. There were days last summer when we spent more time at their place than mine or his, almost always at his instigation, “because of the pool.” He and Jack play pickup basketball and drink beer every Thursday. Jack never lets us miss Sunday dinners with my folks, a tradition that I like, but that that used to be a lot looser before he came along. He and my mom, who’s a Political Science professor, talk shop on the phone at least once a week. My dad, who teaches film, must always be consulted before we ever see one, in theaters or at home, and as often as not this leads to our all watching together

Don’t get me wrong. I love my family, and love being with them—almost as much as Jack does! If I were sure Jack loved me and valued my company in my own right, things would be fine. But I find myself feeling less like Jack’s life companion and more like a minor cog in the engine that is my family. (In case it matters, Jack’s own family is concentrated in a city about 90 miles away. His feelings for them seem dutiful and respectful, but not overly fond. What little I have seen of them makes me understand his coolness. They are a close-minded, judgmental, whiny, boring bunch if ever I saw one.) 

So what do I do? Do I even have a problem here? How can I be sure of Jack?

—Incidental in Indiana

Dear Double Eye,

People who are rich, famous, gorgeous, talented, powerful, heirs to an apartment in Paris, season-ticket holders, or otherwise especially blessed often ask themselves your basic question: Am I loved for myself, or for this attribute that has nothing to do with who I really am? And it can be a hard question to answer because answering it depends on knowing what is in your lover’s heart. Jack’s behavior sounds totally consistent with his truly loving you. His growing affection for your family—while perhaps a bit excessive and, I suspect, partly the result of some need to fill the emptiness created by his own relatives—may be serving only to enrich and deepen his feelings for you. But it is also remotely possible that his affection for your family is distracting him from his feelings for you, or even creating some vicious cycle where, the more he sees your family and enjoys their company, the less time and love he has for you, and so on.

From the way you describe him in your letter, my guess is that Jack does love you for yourself and that he sees you and your family as mutually enhancing one another. What is love, if not being thoughtful and supportive, planning together for the future, and having great sex? That said, he does seem to be going a bit overboard, so—especially given your history with all those early pals and boyfriends—I can see why you are in need of reassurance. Here are a few things you can ask, or do, to help see into his soul, and maybe your own.

The first question to explore is whether his feelings for you or his desire to be in your company, seem to have changed in any way as he has gotten so caught up in being with your family. Does he treat you any differently now when you are alone together? Does he ignore you when you and your folks end up watching movies together? Do those Thursdays take away from time you used to reserve for each other? If you don’t see any major change, what you might have here is a growing pie, or perhaps I mean burgeoning heart, situation, where Jack loves you for yourself, loves Jack for himself, etc., with a heart that has expanded in order to accommodate his new sort-of family.

Have you talked to Jack about this? Is he even aware that his enthusiasm for your family might be anything other than pleasing to you? If he has no idea, you might find that alerting him to the issue will go a long way toward resolving it. But I would tread lightly. Maybe say “Sometimes I think you just love me for my family,” but say it with a smile, while arriving home with burritos or taking a shower together. Or let him know, if he doesn’t already, that you’d really just as soon skip Sunday dinner every third week or so to have time alone with him, or with him and some of your other friends.

No matter what, if anything, you say to Jack about your worries, I strongly suggest that you devise ways to spend more time alone with him, whether at home by the fire (or equivalent), out for a romantic dinner, or attending events together. Are there entertainers or activities you and Jack like but your parents can’t stand? Kendrick Lamar? Karaoke bars? Rock climbing? If your parents are as hip as they sound, these may be hard to find, but I’m sure you can manage if you put your mind to it. Spending time alone with Jack—or with Jack and people other than your family—may be the best way both to test and to strengthen the depth of his feelings for you when your family is not part of the equation.

Have you considered talking to your brother or one of your parents, and perhaps even enlisting their aid? I do not know your family, of course, and have no idea how they would react. But perhaps your brother could run some interference if, say, you want to plan a weekend alone. I am sure he would understand. Or you could tell your mother that you’re planning a special romantic movie night with Jack and ask her to find some way to discourage your dad from making it a foursome.

If you can swing it, how about a long trip abroad, just the two of you? Foreign travel as a couple can cement a relationship—and, if not, at least it will be informative.

Forgive me, since I am not sure you asked for this particular advice, but I believe that you should also consider your own feelings about your family, and whether you may be projecting any doubts or resentment about them onto Jack. Do you ever wonder whether they really value you for yourself? Does it bother you that they devote so much attention to Jack when they could be spending time with you, or at least allowing Jack to give you his full attention? Does it annoy you that they seem to need to cast these spells, as you call them? Do you worry that you’re less charismatic than the rest of your family, or that your family believes that you are? Do you believe that being around them makes you suffer by comparison? It would be worth talking to a counselor if you have any such concerns.

If you resolve, or don’t think you have, any issues with your own family; if you and Jack make more time to be alone together, and seem to do fine when you are; and if you do not think that his love for you has actually diminished in any way because of his enthusiasm for your family, I do not see his fondness for them as posing a serious threat. Even if his feelings for your family do enhance his feelings for you, he probably sees your family as icing on the cake. And if his affection and admiration for you and for your family do get tangled up every so often, I would not give it too much thought. After all, your family played a large part in your becoming who you are. Besides, there are worse things than having a potential life partner who loves being part of your extended family, especially if you all continue to live near one another. If you and Jack stay together and have kids, there will be no problem getting him to take them over to the family pool. And as your parents grow older and, perhaps, less powerful and charismatic, he will be there to help you take care of them. It could all work out.

La Wally’s Response: I think she just needs to talk to him. It strikes me as odd that she is overthinking this. This seems to me the opposite of a problem. Imagine how much worse it would be if they didn’t all love each other.

Dear June,

Last week I was riding home from work on a crowded bus, hanging onto a strap for dear life and feeling kind of tired, when a young man stood up and gave me his seat. Surprised, I responded automatically by sitting down and thanking him. “It’s what any young person should do,” he said, smiling and gesturing with his head and eyes toward a sign that said something like: “Always be courteous and offer your seat to disabled or elderly riders.” I’m clearly not disabled, June, and I just turned 48. I went home and cried. 

Do you have any advice on how to handle this? What should I do if somebody offers me a seat again? Next thing you know, boy scouts are going to be dragging me across the street.  

—Prematurely Gray in Punta Gorda

Dear Preemie,

Don’t read too much into what happened. Bear in mind that many young people define “old” at least as broadly and loosely as older people define “young.” The guy who offered you his seat probably noticed only your tired posture, the fact that you are not in your first youth, and perhaps your prematurely gray hair, and lumped you into a broad category that probably includes everybody from his feeble great-grandma to the woman, now 37, who taught him Freshman English.

Consider also that, although 48 is in no way old for most purposes unrelated to childbearing or athletics, it does put you just two years shy of 50, an age which happens to trigger various early senior-targeted promotions, housing options, etc., gets you on the AARP mailing list, and often places you in a new subcategory for purpose of polling, dating services, etc. 50 may be the age that kind young man held vaguely in his mind when he offered you the seat. It really is not that bad to look two years older than your age when you are hanging onto a strap on a swaying bus, tired after a long day’s work.

Or the young man may just have been offering his seat out of kindness unrelated to age or gender, or out of chivalry, and you may have misread his gesture. Or he may have been planning to get off at the next stop anyway, and just wanted to impress some girl on the bus. Or he may just have been messing with you.

My guess is that, when it matters, you can do whatever you need to do to look like a pleasant and attractive 48-year-old, maybe even a pleasant and attractive 38-year-old. Try not to let that one incident get you down. Or any future incidents: looking your age, or even a few years older, is nothing to cry about.

As a Certified P.C. and Uplifting Agony Aunt, I should probably add some exhortation to wear your age proudly: every line and wrinkle a sign of a life lived fully, every gray hair a challenge to an ageist world, your pooching tummy and varicose veins the proud badges of motherhood, and so on. (And I do note from your nom de June that you seem to have forgone hair dye until now.) But we all know about preconceptions and discrimination, and about the current obsession with appearing younger in almost every culture where people can afford it. In this country, where on our good days we seem to be moving beyond race- and class-based standards of attractiveness (and overall worth!), we are not doing so well where age is concerned. Most women over 40, and many over 19 if we can believe the skincare ads are openly trying to look younger than they are—to the point that, if you don’t join in, you can end up appearing older than your chronological age. You may even be perceived as not caring about your appearance, or lacking discipline and self-respect—you know, letting yourself go.

So—even if doing so may play into the hands of ageist bigots—I have plenty of sympathy for wanting to look youthful, and for being distressed when you don’t. But try to seek some balance. Do what you need to do to feel comfortable in your workplace and your subculture. (Mine seem to virtually require those Spanx things on certain occasions, but surgery is derided and golden highlights are optional, and the whole process seems to follow some sort of parabola where, at some point, trying to look younger moves from obligatory to unseemly.) But please, please also keep in mind that old age is in the eye of the beholder and, in any case, is not a bad thing in itself. The next time somebody offers you a seat, take it if you are tired and, if you are feeling rested and energetic, refuse it graciously—we certainly don’t want to discourage acts of kindness. Then try not to dwell on the interaction. Just think of these little incidents as inoculations against having a total meltdown the first time some pimply cashier asks you whether you want the senior discount.

On the other hand, I would be firm with any boy scouts you may encounter. I think they have a monthly quota or something, like meter maids, and it is so annoying to have to wait until they are out of sight before you can head back across the street.

La Wally’s Response: That sucks, but some people are idiots. Or maybe the guy on the bus just knew he was younger and thought that was enough. Don’t get too upset about it. If you don’t think you are old enough to take somebody else’s seat, then don’t.


ask-june-square-for-facebook-no-border-300pxCleaver’s in-house advice columnist opines on matters punctuational, interpersonal, and philosophical, spinning wit and literary wisdom in response to your ethical quandaries. Write to her at AskJune@Cleavermagazine.com. Find more columns by June in her attic.

 

La Wally is the nom de June of June Cleaver‘s adult daughter. In real life, she’s an artist and entrepreneur. What’s up with her name? In choosing a pseudonym, the two of them considered the names of the original Cleaver family offspring, both boys, but rejected “Beaver” for obvious reasons. “Wally” alone seemed too masculine and generally hideous. But “La Wally” brings to mind Catalani’s wonderful opera. Speaking of which, have you seen the movie Diva? You should.

POETRY AS PRACTICE How Paying Attention Helps Us Improve Our Writing in the Age of Distraction A Craft Essay by Scott Edward Anderson

POETRY AS PRACTICE
How Paying Attention Helps Us Improve Our Writing in the Age of Distraction
A Craft Essay
by Scott Edward Anderson

In this lyrical essay on the writing life, Scott Edward Anderson shows how poetry can be more than a formal approach to writing, more than an activity of technique, but a way to approach the world, which is good for both the poet and the poem.—Grant Clauser, Editor

Walking in Wissahickon Park after dropping my twins at their school in Philadelphia, I find muddy trails from the night’s heavy rains and temporary streams running along my path. The fuchsia flowers of a redbud tree shine brilliantly against the green of early leafing shrubs. A few chipmunks scurry among leaves on the forest floor. Birdsong is all around me: I note some of the birds—if they are bright enough and close enough to the trail or I recognize their song—the red flash of a cardinal lights on a branch nearby; a robin lands on the trail ahead, scraping his yellow beak against a rock.

Observation like this helps feed my database of images, fragments of music, and overheard speech, which prepares my poetry-brain for the work of choosing words, putting them in a certain order, and forming phrases into lines, stanzas, and eventually entire poems.

Remembering a line I’m working on, I worry it like a dog with a bone, gnawing on the words, their syntax, imagery, sound or feel in my mouth and mind. Playing with the line, I’ll follow it until it leads somewhere or dumps me in a ditch, when I’ll file it away for another day. I’m paying attention to where the poem wants to go.

Paying attention in the age of distraction is hard. At any moment, there is a myriad of distractions tempting us away from our writing: the latest bombastic tweet by our deranged president; someone posting a delicious plate of food on Instagram; or the steady stream of Facebook posts showing all my poet-friends and acquaintances meeting-up at AWP.

Paying attention in the age of distraction is hard. At any moment, there is a myriad of distractions tempting us away from our writing.

In many ways, the writing life seemed easier in the age of the typewriter—nothing but a blank page staring back at me, waiting for my fingers to move. No smartphone at the ready buzzing with the latest text from my wife, my kids, that Amazon.com delivery. “Let’s just take a minute and see who it is,” I say to myself. “I’ll get back to the writing.”

Consequently, it’s worse when writing on a computer, especially if it’s connected to the Internet. Writing something about a bird I heard singing on my walk this morning, I wonder—are they found here? At this time of year? Is that the song I heard? Let’s just take a look at the Cornell Bird Observatory website and verify…wait, is it the Bird Observatory or Center for Ornithology? (Minimizes Word document and clicks open browser…ah, it’s the Cornell Lab of Ornithology…I feel better.)

Poetry, the late Mark Strand wrote, “allows us to have the life we are denied because we are too busy living. Even more paradoxically, poetry permits us to live in ourselves as if we were just out of reach of ourselves.”

If we’re paying attention, however, we can put our busy lives in perspective, create a context for what we’re doing on this planet. Lived like this, life is not about going through the motions; rather, we actively participate in life, in all its facets. And for poets, this means approaching life with eyes open and taking notes.

“I have no clear goal in mind for the notes I take,” poet and essayist Alison Hawthorne Deming writes in Writing the Sacred Into the Real. “Other than to help myself remember the intensities of the day, the mix of sensation and thought as it rises and falls with the swells.”

For me, note-taking happens sporadically. Ordinarily, I work on poems in my head for a long time before I put anything on paper. As I get older, however, I find taking notes helps—especially if I’m busy with daily life—work, family, getting the dry cleaning. The “Notes” app on my iPhone is one repository; notebooks and the occasional scrap of paper are another.

As with Deming’s, my note-taking may or may not lead to a poem or an essay or much of anything. Yet, as she imparts, “taking them forces a kind of attention that makes the experience richer, and attention is central to both artistic and spiritual practice.”

Practice. That word speaks to me: poetry as practice feels right. We are amateurs of a sort at translating the unsayable, doing so requires attention and practice. While we must pay attention to fleeting moments of inspiration, more often we’re slogging away at draft upon draft of a poem, trying to find where the poem really wants to go.

And for this we need daily practice. Ezra Pound suggested poets write 70 lines a day; novelist Graham Greene stuck to 350-500 words per day and would quit as soon as he hit that limit. Counting it out, I find it is close to the same amount, given a typical line-length in contemporary poetry. (Accordingly, this being the age of distraction, I don’t trust my memory of Greene’s word-limit, so, I double-check. There are conflicting numbers even from Greene himself, so I’ll stick with this range.)

Working the poetry-brain in this way makes it easier to pay attention, not only to our surroundings, but to our words and what the poem is trying to say. Moreover, this is a reciprocal act, regenerative: paying attention is what poet Mary Oliver calls “our endless and proper work.”

The practice of poetry, like yoga, meditation, exercise or any other practice prepares us for paying attention. Consequently, attentiveness leads to a richer poetry, grounded in place, specificity, and real-world observation that can make a poem come to life and help the reader see the world in a different way.

As with Alison Deming’s note-taking, whether we get anything “done” or accomplished in terms of a draft or a finished poem is beside the point. The act of practice alone makes it easier to get work done and makes us more receptive, more available to the poems we must write. In turn, practicing our writing, through note-taking or drafting, makes observation easier. Through this practice, we become more attuned to the world around us and the poems tend to come easier. (Well, at least the bad first drafts!)

For me, the practice of paying attention is part of the practice of poetry, as the practice of poetry is part of paying attention, a cyclical, symbiotic relationship. This type of attentiveness I’m writing about is akin to what Zen practitioners call deep listening.

As the Zen practice implies, deep listening requires complete receptivity—an openness and attentiveness to what’s possible and to asking questions. If we have a question to answer through poetry, we need to ask it. Nevertheless, it sometimes seems like our minds are on auto-pilot and we are not truly paying attention, causing us to miss both questions and answers.

This deep listening and acute attentiveness is a form of tuning to the right frequency.

This deep listening and acute attentiveness is a form of tuning to the right frequency.  Like the dial on a car radio, if you turn a little too much to the right or left, you lose the signal. Through the act of paying attention, we fine-tune our ability to find the right frequency. Think of a new violinist searching for the right notes with bow to strings—it takes practice to make melodious music.

One winter a painted bunting shows up in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park near where I live. He’s lost his way and finds refuge for several weeks foraging among the native grasses and shrubs behind the ice rink.

I’ve seen painted buntings before, in their southern, native habitat, so I want to see this Brooklyn visitor who strayed far from where he belongs. Finding his general location is easy; I look for a large group of birders: scopes and field glasses and big-lensed cameras trained on the spot. Even with his bright, variegated plumage, however, it proves hard to make him out among the reds, greens, and yellows of the meadow floor. Watching me stare at one spot for five minutes, my dog grows impatient.

Then, a flash of movement to the left catches my eye and I notice a bit of cobalt blue where that color can’t be. There he is, the painted bunting, as resplendent as I’d imagined: worth the wait, worth looking hard for, worth the patience and effort.

A poem can be like that bunting: elusive, hard to pin down, but once you’ve got it, you can’t let go. Paying attention to the colors hiding deep within the grasses, we find the kernel of a line or a phrase that leads to another line, and another. Sometimes obscured, sometimes difficult to extract.

As a poem takes shape, it requires attentiveness too. Am I using the right words to say what the poem wants to say? Are my line breaks speeding up or slowing down the reader? What is the cadence, tone, and sound of the poem saying and is it appropriate to the subject matter? These are all questions I ask myself while revising my poems, being attentive to what is happening in the poem and how I can help make it clearer—to get out of its way and let the poem tell itself. This kind of attentiveness to the poem, tuning the dial up or down to hone-in on the frequencies allows the poem to cut through the noise.

Looking at the world more closely requires a twofold approach to paying attention: outward and inward. Outward: what’s going on around you and what you see, what you notice. Inward: what’s going on within you and your reactions to what you notice. Combined, this inward and outward focus develops our ability to see things others do not see and allows us to call attention to those things in our writing. Inward-focused attention also helps turn observation into a poem, aligning the frequencies and images into metaphor through a complex process of our own devising.

Not to overplay the spiritual aspects inherent in this level of paying attention, it is, in part, a form of showing up, of being present, that can’t quite escape a spiritual element. Distractions govern so much of our lives—from social media to work-life—we so rarely allow time for a deep attentiveness. If we make it a practice, however, we can begin to form insights and become more receptive to the poetry even in our everyday lives.

Perhaps paying attention helps us uncover the unsayable, the unseeable, what needs seeing and saying in our poetry. Of course, paying attention in this age of distraction requires retraining ourselves in many respects. From my own practice, however, I find the more time I put into being attentive—inwardly and outwardly—the more often it leads to better poems.

Writing poetry may be an unnatural act, as Elizabeth Bishop once said, but through daily practice and paying attention, it may become a bit more natural or at least it appears that way to the reader.


Scott Edward Anderson is the author of Fallow Field (Aldrich Press, 2013) and Walks In Nature’s Empire (The Countryman Press, 1995). He has been a Concordia Fellow at the Millay Colony for the Arts and received the Nebraska Review Award. His work has appeared in The American Poetry Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Cimarron Review, The Cortland Review, Many Mountains Moving, Nebraska Review, Pine Hills Review, Terrain, Yellow Chair Review, The Wayfarer, and the anthologies Dogs Singing (Salmon Poetry, 2011) and The Incredible Sestina Anthology (Write Bloody, 2013), among other publications. You can read more about his work at his website and follow him on Twitter @greenskeptic

 

Image credit: Francisco Moreno on Unsplash

MY WALK ON THE BEACH WITH ANTON A Craft Essay on Connecting the Body to the Brain by Billy Dean

MY WALK ON THE BEACH WITH ANTON
A Craft Essay on Connecting the Body to the Brain
by Billy Dean

He put his book down and looked at me over the top of his glasses. “I never said that, Billy.”

“Said what, Anton?”

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

“Oh, that. Yeah, someone turned what you actually said into a show-don’t-tell rule. On behalf of all the writers who should know better, I apologize. If they’d read your stories, they’d notice how skillfully you balanced showing and telling.”

“Well, I’m not turning over in my grave about it. It’s human nature to follow rules absolutely and to take things out of context. But I wish I had said that. Applied skillfully, it’s good advice.”

“And less absolute,” I said, “than Ezra Pound’s ‘Go in fear of abstractions.’ or Wallace Stevens’ ‘No ideas but in things.’ Both imply that we should always show and never tell.”

Anton cocked his head.

“Oh, of course, you didn’t know Pound or Stevens. They started a movement in the early 1900’s that shunned abstractions in favor of concrete images.”

“Not necessarily a bad idea, Billy.”

“True, and their poetry was highly regarded, but can you imagine Emily Dickinson’s “Hope is the Thing with Feathers” without the word hope?”

“No, and it gave wings to original thinking because Emily shunned writing about an experience in favor of giving the experience to her readers.”

Anton saw the confusion on my face. “You like the word ‘hope’ in Emily’s poem. Do you know why?”

“Not really, it just seems to fit perfectly with everything else in her poem.”

“It fits because Emily grounded a meaning-oriented concept in a sensory-oriented experience. A bird is something. Hope is merely about something.”

“But everyone knows what hope means, Anton. How does Emily’s bird change that?”

“You won’t find the meaning of a word in its definition, Billy. You find it in the context of something real and specific. Until then, a definition is just words floating in your head. Emily’s poem doesn’t define hope. It shows us what hope means by connecting it to a bird.”

“Ah,” I replied, nodding my head, “a bird that keeps on singing and flying despite the ups and downs of life.”

“Exactly. And her poem works both ways. Without her bird, hope would just be a word. Without hope, her bird would just be a bird. But Emily weaved them together so elegantly, so intricately, that her poem takes us beyond a mere sum of a word and a bird.”

Anton paused, waiting to see if what he had said was sinking in. It was.

“And that moves the word ‘hope’ and the word ‘bird’ from our heads to our hearts.”

Anton pointed up at his head, then tapped his chest with his fingers. As he did, a deeper understanding of what writing is came over me, and what writers must do for their readers.

“Keep in mind,” he continued, “that every word of a story is just an abstract handle to carry the idea of something to your readers. We do not want our readers to know they are reading words. We want them to experience the meaning of our words. So choose words that will evoke thoughts and feeling in your readers by not restricting yourself to showing or telling, abstractions or imagery.”

“You see things so clearly, Anton.”

He stood and smiled. “Let’s go down to the beach where we can discuss this without disturbing the others here in the library.”

We took our books to the main desk. Mine was a collection of his short stories. His was “War and Peace” by Tolstoy. He must have read the surprise on my face because he grinned, and said, “I never found the time to finish it.”

At the beach, he removed his shoes, rolled his pants over his knees, and walked into the sand glistening with the coming and going of waves. I watched him pick up one seashell after another, then tossed each back into the churning surf.  He reached down, picked up another shell, and waved me over.

“These shells,” he began, “abandoned here at the water’s edge, were once homes for mussels, periwinkles and mollusks. This one is a nautilus, one of nature’s most elegant, ingenious designs.”

“Yet odd,” I replied, “that the shell and the creature are so different. The spiral pattern is so naturally beautiful, but the creature, well, its tentacles come out of its head.”

Anton nodded, then got a faraway look in his eyes. “And odd that we treat the other animals here on Earth as aliens, as if they were creatures from another planet.”

He placed the nautilus in my hands. “How would you convey the fact that this was home to a creature very different than us? More importantly, how would you evoke the feeling of being the creature who lived in this shell?”

I looked down at the nautilus, knowing he had transferred the problem and its solution to me.

“Some mix of showing and telling, right?”

Anton didn’t say anything, so I assumed I was on a roll.

“Show readers things they can see. Tell readers about things they can’t see. Show important things with dialog and action. Tell less important things with descriptions and settings.”

“Let me give you some advice, Billy.”

“I’m all ears, Anton.”

“You will need more than your ears. Definitions tend to polarize issues into one category or another. So writers tend to think in terms of showing or telling, as if they were mutually exclusive kinds of writing, and that leads to the erroneous conclusion that telling is for ears and showing is for eyes.”

“Erroneous?”

“We have six senses. Five for the body. One for the brain.”

“Six? Oh, you’ve added our spiritual or intuitive sense.”

“No, I am referring to the sensory nature of our bodies and the semantic nature of our brains. Do you recall earlier at the library when we talked about grounding concepts in concrete things?”

“Yes, you opened my understanding by explaining the difference between a meaning-oriented concept and a sensory-oriented experience.”

“Images versus abstractions. Body versus brain. Let’s do a little experiment to clarify the difference. What color do you think of when I say fire truck?”

“Red,” I answered.

“Grass?”

“Green.”

“Now what color do you see?” Anton reached into the pocket of his shirt, and, like pulling a rabbit from a hat, held up a card with the word ‘BLUE” written on it.

“Blue, of course.”

Anton couldn’t hide the ‘Gotcha!’ look on his face. “What color do you see?” he asked, with an emphasis on the word color.

“Oh boy, I’m an idiot. The word is blue but the color is red.”

“You’re not an idiot. Your brain, like most people’s brain, including mine, is strongly influenced by what something means rather than what it looks like.”

I stood there thinking how my brain had dominated my body for years, perhaps since birth.

“That doesn’t mean our writing should reflect the body’s focus on senses rather than our brain’s focus on meaning. That would make our writing all showing and no telling. Better that our writing breath with all six senses so our readers are both involved and informed.”

I nodded my head but knew my brain was nodding too.

“First, however, you must be involved and informed. Do you recall me saying earlier that we tend to think of the non-human creatures here on Earth as if they were aliens, creatures from another planet?”

I nodded again, wondering where he was going with this.

“Let’s pretend a flying saucer–”

Anton stopped to watch my jaw drop and my eyes widen.

“People have been seeing strange objects in the sky for thousands of years, Billy. Even in Russia. So let’s get on with this one. It lands here on the beach, and an alien debarks from his craft and asks, ‘What is a nautilus, Earthman?’ How would you answer him?”

“That’s ingenious, Anton. Shiny nautilus. Silver saucer. Creatures from the sea. Aliens from the sky.”

“Thank you, but let’s get on with your answer.

“I should put it in the alien’s hands, right? As you did for me?”

“That would be a good place to start. Give your readers the thing itself with word pictures they can complete with their body and their brain.”

“Word pictures.” I said, “That sounds… I mean, looks like showing.”

“You want your readers to be involved and informed, not consciously aware that they are reading words. So don’t tromp through your story trying to identify whether you told your readers something or whether you showed them something. Focus on the effect you want your writing to have on their imagination and their intellect.”

He paused to lock eyes with me, as if to measure the effect he was having on me.

“And before your readers can complete what you began, you must have something to begin with, something grounded in all six of your senses. Start with this nautilus. Let it touch your body and your brain. Do you see it creeping up on prey? Can you smell the seven seas? Is it whispering something strange and wonderful? Can you hear its angst and ecstasy?”

Anton turned abruptly and walked into the waves lapping at the shore. Nearby, a reef bell began clanging, as if it were calling him into the sea. And then its clanging became my alarm clock calling me out of the dream.

I rubbed the sleep from my eyes but knew I couldn’t rub this dream from my memory. Unlike most dreams, which disappear, as Anton did, it would remain a lucid lesson that readers will be involved and informed if our writing breathes with showing and telling–showing to stir the imagination with sensory images aimed at the body, and telling to engage the intellect with information aimed at the brain.

I pulled the blankets back to roll out of bed, but suddenly, in my mind’s eye, I saw a Martian standing on the beach holding a Nautilus in his hands. I was no longer asleep and wanted to get on with my day. But my dream had ended without answering Anton’s challenge to evoke the feeling of being the creature who lived in the shell. So I embraced the vision as an opportunity to build a word bridge between myself and this alien; this is the same chasm that separates writers and readers until they connect their hearts and minds in a meaningful way. I would indulge myself in another dream to answer the alien’s question…

“What is this, Earthman?” he asked, pointing to the shell in his hands.

“That’s a N-a-u-t-i-l-u-s,” I said, struggling to pronounce the sound of each letter.

“No. I mean what is it?”

I felt the distance between him and me shrink. He wanted more than a name or pronunciation. He wanted to experience the thing itself.

He only had three fingers, and one of them was much longer than the others, so I hesitated slightly before saying, “Well, you could touch it with your, uh, finger.”

He ran that long finger along the shell, tracing the spiral from end to end. He said nothing but his face, despite being from another planet, had a perplexed look.

“As the nautilus grows,” I explained, “it builds new chambers for itself, always in a spiral pattern.”

He held the shell up to his face and looked inside as if trying to see the chambers.

“Are you saying a creature lived in this shell?”

“Yes, the shell is empty now, but it was home to the creature who lived in it.”

He cocked his head as if in thought. “So the shell and the creature, when they were together, is called a N-a-u-t-i-lu-s?” He pronounced every letter as I had done.

I felt the distance between us shrink even more.

I touched my hand to my ear and said, “Put it next to your ear and tell me what you hear.”

He did, then pointed that long finger of his at the ocean. “I hear that.”

“Yes,” I replied, “and they lived together out there.”

He turned abruptly, as Anton had, and walked through the waves lapping at the shore and into the deeper water swirling with foam and kelp. He had no shoes to remove or pants to roll up, so I didn’t bother with mine, and joined him in the water.

I placed my hands on the Nautilus. He looked up and locked eyes with me. “I’m not trying to take it away from you. I want us both to see and feel where it lived, and how it moved and captured prey.”

“This is good, Earthman. Together we will pretend that we are the creature who lived in this shell.”

We were truly on the same page now–perhaps the same paragraph.

“The creature propelled itself like this.” I leaned forward and blew my breath into the alien’s face as I moved the shell towards him. He rocked back, then recovered and blew his breath at me. We took turns blowing air out of our lungs while moving the shell forward in the water.

“The nautilus moves through the water using a kind of jet propulsion. He pulls water into his shell to move forward and blows it out through a tube below his tentacles to move backward.”

“Tentacles?”

“The Nautilus is kind of ugly compared to its shell. It’s got dozens of long spidery legs sticking out of its head to grab things it wants to eat.”

I moved the shell toward the alien’s legs and made a growling noise.

“Ah, you are making funny with me, but I can see the creature grabbing its prey.”

Neither of us said anything. After a long but pleasant pause, the alien turned his face toward mine. Despite the differences in our faces, I could tell he was looking more through me than at me.

“I am sad the creature no longer lives in its shell. Perhaps that was what I heard when it was against my ear. Not the sound of your ocean and its waves, but the creature’s lament.”

We were no longer just on the same page, or the same paragraph. We were walking through the same words of every sentence in the book. Our connection had moved from our bodies and brains to our hearts.

“Yes,” I said, “and the creature left his lament in this shell when he departed to swim in other seas.”

“Other seas?”

“Here on Earth, there are seven of them, and I sometimes embrace them as worlds beyond this one. You, my Martian friend, are evidence there are.”

“On Mars, there are no seas, but I will not forget yours, the creature who lived in it, or you and your dream of other worlds.”


Billy Dean is a retired technical writer with degrees in English and Engineering. His essays, how-to guides, poems, and stories have been published in trade journals and magazines, and on the Internet. His goals are to craft prose and poetry loaded with clues for shaping and navigating the sticky web of real life.

IS MEMOIR AUTOMATICALLY THERAPEUTIC? A Craft Essay on Writing About Mental Health by Leslie Lindsay

IS MEMOIR AUTOMATICALLY THERAPEUTIC?
A Craft Essay on Writing About Mental Health
by Leslie Lindsay

I recently finished a memoir manuscript about my bipolar mother and her eventual suicide.

Light, easy writing, right? When I tell strangers about my manuscript, they cock their heads in sympathy as if to say, “You poor thing. ” Some even suggest I’ve misconstrued the events in my own life. Surely your mother wasn’t really mentally ill. You must have it all wrong. Others lean in as if they are about to hear a juicy story. But the majority recoil: Mothers. Daughters. Mental illness. Who would touch such a topic?

Me.

My father-in-law said, “It must have been therapeutic to write about your mother.” There was a lilt at the end of the sentence, which led me to believe this was a question. He’s eighty, and it’s not the first time he’s said it: “It must have been really therapeutic to write about your mother?” Every time he does this, I answer the same. “I took a clinical approach,” I assure him. Then he makes one of those “huh” looks, pushes his glasses up on his face, and buries his nose in the newspaper.

But I have also asked myself: was my memoir therapeutic? It all comes down to how you define “therapeutic.”  For me, that’s relating to, involving, or used in the treatment of disease or disorders.

Many years ago, when I first began this project, I took drafts to my writing group. “More,” they demanded. “Go deeper.” They wanted the odor of the psychiatric ward, the texture of the cinderblock walls, the color lipstick my mother wore. They wanted the bizarre things she said when she was psychotic.

So I made notes and revised. At the time, I was twenty-five years old and my mother was still living. Soon, the memoir draft was abandoned.

These days,  I’m a Child/Adolescent Psychiatric R.N. Hence, clinical. You’d think by now I’d have this all figured out. I’m older. My mother is gone and I don’t have to worry how she will react to what I write. But still, somehow, I worry that by writing I dishonor her memory.

So I use my clinical approach. I scour her medical records. I flip through every doctor’s note, administrative profile, nurse’s note,  social worker’s entry. I examine flow charts and vital signs and lab results. I skim mental status exams and even retype admission and dismissal notes. My dad has graciously passed along his thirty-year-old spiral leatherette calendar, the contents of the days scratched-in with his familiar scrawl.

Lynne says she’ll go to the Day Hospital, just to “play the game.”
Intentionally decided against taking the girls to church for a year following Lynne’s psychotic break in which she talked about being God.
Lynne thinks the lamp will give her energy. She laid underneath it for hours
Made spaghetti for dinner for the first time. It was good.
Received credit card bill in the mail. Lynne has charged over a thousand dollars in lingerie and perfume.

I am struck by the severity of my mother’s illness. My heart aches. I trudge on, donning my psych-nurse hat, looking at black squiggles and digits with a critical—clinical—eye. When I read portions of my work-in-progress to my family, my dad, who is not a writer, says, “I wonder what the story would be like if it were told from your mom’s point-of-view. Or her mother’s?”

I find his observation quite astute.

For the next day or so, I practice retelling portions of The Story, through my (imagined) mother’s lens.  The possible first line:

I keep hearing the voice of God, deep and sonorous, telling me that I must accept His mission.

There is no second line.

You’d think that, as a writer, I’d be able to shift POVs and fall into my mother’s skin as easily as I had been cleaved from her nearly forty years ago. But I can’t. I can only tell my story. And I realize now that there’s nothing wrong with that.

Is my memoir a tale of loss? Yes. Is it a story of serious mental illness? About the struggle between mothers and daughters? About grief? Yes, yes, yes.

But is it a tragedy? That’s subjective.

My first reaction to my father-in-law’s comment about the writing process being therapeutic was irritation, fueled by the realization that perhaps I had spent needless hours, weeks, and months in a state of mere ‘therapy.’ I’ve had scores of therapy sessions where my mother is concerned, from her very first psychotic break when I was ten, to the sessions following her death. I know what “therapeutic” is, and writing was not therapeutic. But it was necessary.

A man in my writing group says with a smirk, “Just who do you think is going to read this?”

Well, maybe not you, I want to retort.

Another man in that group says, “Keep going. This is solid.” He pokes at the paper with his finger, “This line, the one where you talk about the miniature stove not cooking even a morsel of hope, that’s powerful.”

I tell the smirking man that I understand what he means. There can be a sameness to tales of loss, perhaps even a whiny, self-indulgent, victim quality. The key is to make these tales of seem fresh.

And then it comes to me.

In the next draft, I tell my story from a little girl’s POV.

Mine.

This little girl clamors onto my couch, knobby knees angled, hands intertwined and tells me her story.  I take notes, good therapist that I am, churning them into a manuscript. I offer her feedback and suggestions.

I marvel at the little girl’s tenacity, her resilience, and her perceptive observations. I find—and appreciate, perhaps for the first time—her sense of humor and her introspection.

At times I want to fold the little girl into my arms and cry with her, whisper in her ear. I want to say, “You are more than your mother’s mental illness; please don’t let that define you.” But I can’t get emotionally entangled in this little girl’s life. That would be countertransference—and definitely not therapeutic.

In the end, I pat her on the back and tell her, “Thanks for sharing your story. It’s important.”

She nods and says, I know.


Leslie Lindsay is the author of Speaking of Apraxia (Woodbine House, 2012.) Her work has been published in PsychCentral, The Nervous Breakdown, and International Bipolar Foundation; and is forthcoming in The Manifest-Station and Common Ground Review. Leslie, who recently completed a memoir, Model Home, about her mother, reviews books and interviews authors at her website. She is a former child/adolescent psychiatric R.N. at Mayo Clinic. She lives with her family in Chicago.

 

BIRTH OF A NEW EARTH: The Radical Politics of Environmentalism, a manifesto by Adrian Parr, reviewed by Robert Sorrell

BIRTH OF A NEW EARTH:
The Radical Politics of Environmentalism

by Adrian Parr
Columbia University Press, 328 Pages

reviewed by Robert Sorrell

Near the beginning of his ecstatic, beautiful “Poem to My Child, If Ever You Shall Be,” Ross Gay writes:

I wonder, little bubble

of unbudded capillaries, little one ever aswirl
in my vascular galaxies, what would you think

of this world which turns itself steadily
into an oblivion that hurts, and hurts bad?

Would you curse me my careless caressing you
into this world or would you rise up

and, mustering all your strength into that tiny throat
which one day, no doubt, would grow big and strong,

scream and scream and scream until you break the back of one injustice,
or at least get to your knees to kiss back to life

some roadkill?

I first read this poem as Hurricane Harvey and Maria devastated the Caribbean and parts of the southern United States. The poem captivated me. In Gay’s steady hands the prospect of the future, symbolized by this possible child, is explored with deep empathy, imagination, and emotional complexity. The question at the center of these stanzas—how would a child react to being brought into this world?—is one that seemed especially apt in the aftermath of such destruction and our government’s skewed, inadequate response.

This connection, between climate change and children, is made frequently. Just a few weeks before reading Gay’s words, I’d heard a friend say that one of the main reasons she wasn’t sure about having kids was fear of climate change. A quick search found a charity called Save the Children with pictures, stories, and infographics dedicated to explaining how climate change specifically affects children. And many articles and books on climate change, even those trying hardest to refrain from nostalgia and sentimentality, end up relating climate change to children, as emblem of the future.

But in terms of climate change, and maybe in culture more generally, there are a few problems with viewing the future this way. The first is that as in Gay’s poem, these “children” are often more conceptual than real. This lack of specificity allows for children to be turned into a semantic tool that can be twisted to fit a variety of arguments across the political spectrum. Maybe more importantly, however, is the way that (hypothetical) children are often used to discount the lives and experiences of humans living today. Conservative politicians and advocacy groups often prioritize the lives of unborn fetuses over the parents’, and bombings or other terrorist acts are carried out in abortion clinics in the name of “saving the children.”

In the context of climate change, imagining children as the inheritors of a wounded earth is equally dangerous. Not only do these formulations escape any attempt at specificity regarding gender, class, race, ethnicity, geography, and other factors, but they also allow us to perpetually push climate change to the horizon. If climate change is always a problem for our children, then it stands to reason that it isn’t really a problem for us in the present.

Yet in the case of climate change, the “future” and “now” are so inherently connected that any separation of the two is an illusion. Right now the ice caps are melting, sea levels are rising, the global surface temperature continues to increase. Climate change has already taken victims, both human and non. When will we stop imaging climate change in the future and how can we reorient ourselves to this reality?

Adrian Parr’s new academic work on climate change, Birth of a New Earth, attempts to answer this question by tapping into the recent trend of considering the positive, some might even say utopian, possibilities that the crisis of climate change allows. She argues, “Regardless of environmental harms and changes in climate impacting people differently, there remains a shared human experience of hardship that will intensify as time passes. For this reason, the environmental and climate crises contain the political potential to radically change social life so it evolves into a more equitable, inclusive, collaborative, and voluntary social system.”

Adrian Parr

Parr’s book follows particularly on Naomi Klein’s 2014 polemic This Changes Everything, which marked a radical shift in how climate change was discussed in popular books and mainstream media. While certainly not the first to have these ideas, Klein argues forcefully that the crisis of climate change opens up a space for reevaluating and reorganizing our entire society. She writes, “I have begun to understand how climate change–if treated as a true planetary emergency akin to those rising flood waters–could become a galvanising force for humanity, leaving us all not just safer from extreme weather, but with societies that are safer and fairer in all kinds of other ways as well.” In short, Klein argues, climate change offers an opportunity to create a more just, inclusive society. How and why this crisis could become an opportunity is tied to her book’s fundamental idea: that climate change will change everything and perhaps some of those changes, if we work hard, will be for the better.

Klein’s book was a response to a very recognizable problem: how do we, in our daily lives, wrap our heads around the enormity of climate change? How do we respond to the often terrifying deluge of scientific reports, news stories, and dire projections? Sometimes we change our behavior. Most often we rationalize. Believing that changes in technology or state intervention will provide a cure allows us to continue our lives guilt-free; on the other hand, only focusing on one’s own consumption disregards the fact that climate change is a global problem that requires a large scale solution. Klein herself lived in this cognitive dissonance for years: worried, but avoiding some of the bleaker scientific reports, trying to consume less, but traveling often enough to have elite frequent flyer status.

The difficulty of simply comprehending climate change, holding it all in our head at one time, is more or less what caused philosopher Timothy Morton to call the climate change phenomena a “hyperobject,” something that is so vast in both space and time that it effectively overwhelms reason. Yet even if we could comprehend the entirety of climate change, the sheer terror it invokes makes it difficult to focus on for very long. Klein’s revelation comes in turning this vision of climate change on its head. Shifting the lens, in her words, “from one of crisis to possibility.” Once that change had been made, she writes, “I discovered that I no longer feared immersing myself in the scientific reality of the climate threat. And like many others, I have begun to see all kinds of ways that climate change could become a catalysing force for positive change.”

Parr asks the question lurking behind Klein’s work: if climate change will change everything, what if the changes aren’t good? In trying to answer this question, Parr takes the agnostic view, claiming that climate change not only presents an opportunity for negative political change, but further, that “environmental politics is [sic] well positioned to change how exploitation and oppression are normalized.” And reinforcing this idea, “environmentalism is curtailed if it turns into the ideological supplement of neoliberal capitalism and militarism.”

What Parr warns of can be compared to two post-9/11 actions: the passage of the Patriot Act, and the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, a tricky bit of legalese that allowed the U.S. President to undertake the “war on terror” without ever officially declaring war (which would involve Congress). Moments of crisis can deputize a government with extralegal power and suppress checks and balances. At times this allows a government to respond quickly to a time-sensitive situation, but it can also result in abuses of civil rights and civil liberties and set dangerous legal precedents that can be used down the line to justify actions that otherwise would have been deemed illegal. Parr sees in climate change the dual possibilities of a more just, equitable state as well as a more militaristic, authoritarian one.

In general, Parr is skeptical of top-down approaches, and given this country’s—and much of the rest of the world’s—track record on this front it is hard to blame her. She is highly skeptical of governments’ and organizations’ abilities to enact meaningful progress. One of her manifestos is in the line, “Green growth will never be exclusive.” Here “green growth” refers to green and sustainable initiatives, usually in business. These initiatives, she argues, are no more than ways of protecting a status quo, the having your cake and eating it too of climate policy. Here she refers to sustainable clothing and food (which many cannot afford), as well as green initiatives within industrial multi-national corporations like BP or Ford.

Yet it is equally difficult to imagine a consistent, sustainable, and targeted response to climate change that is driven entirely by community actors. As it stands now, changing personal habits and consumption often occurs through guilt or blame—captured by the question “What can I do about climate change?”—and it doesn’t take much time to realize that this approach is not sustainable. By relying on guilt—and in some ways relief or a feeling of righteousness—for acts like recycling, composting, and buying more efficient vehicles, products, and sustainable food, we are allowing climate change and the lack of governmental and corporate response to fracture our societies largely along class lines. Folks with tighter budgets may not have the time or space to compost, and they may be required to have a car for their job. They may be forced to live far away from centers of opportunity and since, generally speaking, the most efficient car at any moment is brand new, those without the financial ability to purchase them will always be seen as less green, enemies of the environment. It doesn’t take very long to realize that the problem goes much deeper than purchasing more efficient, sustainable items, and this is the gist of what Parr means when she argues “Green growth will never become inclusive.” It’s not to say that we shouldn’t try to consume more efficiently, but rather that buying a different brand of breakfast cereal isn’t going to keep the sea from erasing Mumbai, Hong Kong, Miami, or New York City.

Parr’s criticism of government emerges from an almost anarchist undercurrent that runs through her work. Anti-big government, anti-establishment, pro community-level governance, sometimes it’s hard to tell if Parr is a far left idealist or an anti-government libertarian of the right.

However, despite the ideological confusion, there are a number of ways in which Parr’s work brings unique and worthwhile ideas to the table, particularly in her discussion of broadening what we think of as the environment and what is affected by environmental and climatic change.

Parr expands the idea of “environment” (or perhaps just uses a more literal meaning of the word) to refer to a variety of different areas including urban centers, areas of temporary, substandard housing in Nairobi, and the immediate surroundings of both humans and nonhumans. She also expands the idea of climate change to what has taken place in conflict zones, particularly in the Middle East, calling this destruction a sort of “urban clearcutting.”

As Naomi Klein has shown in This Changes Everything and Parr argues in her work, any real response to climate requires a fundamental rethinking of human society. Taking up again the example of the car, it’s clear that what allows substantial reduction in the amount of carbon dioxide they release—as well as the deleterious effects of mining for parts that go into making elements for hybrid and electric vehicles, the earthquakes and other effects caused by fracking, the contaminants added to soil and water by paint, plastics, and the scores of chemicals that are involved in assembling the car and then shipping it to the consumer before the odometer even registers one mile—is not an individual attempt to minimize driving, but a reorganization of life, work, and community where driving is no longer necessary to the same extent. And, if we approach that world, one that is more community focused, our lives no longer driven by capitalism, maybe, just maybe it will be a better place to live than where we are now.

However, it’s difficult to predict the future. Parr turns to urban gardens in Detroit, Venezuela, and Nairobi to point at possibilities for the way forward, but these examples are piecemeal and vague, and largely ignore specifics of geography and culture. Similarly, the perpetual fly in the ointment amid This Changes Everything’s success is the charge that Klein’s predictions are unclear at best and utopian at worst. Leading climate change journalist Elizabeth Kolbert, whose 2005 multi-part series in the New Yorker transformed our understanding of the threat of global warming, accused Klein’s This Changes Everything of being a fable and “cheerfully fuzzy.”

Perhaps what both of these books show, however, is the incredible difficulty of discussing climate change as a singular entity. Marxist political theorist Frederic Jameson’s famous line, “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism,” is often referenced in climate journalism, but perhaps a more fitting version for these books would be that in response to climate change, it is easier to imagine the world ending than it is to imagine it thriving. And yet, it seems important that people keep trying, even if the endeavor is full of pitfalls.

One doesn’t need to look further than the front cover of Birth of a New Earth to realize that Parr hasn’t escaped some of these pitfalls. The cover photograph is of a child on a swingset submerged in a few feet of water. The child is standing on the swing’s seat, holding onto the support chains, and the photo is taken from behind, with the child and the viewer looking out towards an endless expanse of water. Parr makes this connection between climate change and children clear in the work’s final pages. She writes that if humans have not done everything they can to fight back against militarism, corporations, and authoritarian government to enact real change: “We lose the right to breathe fresh air, quench our thirst with clean water, and even to look our children in the eyes and state with absolute conviction that we have done everything in our power to leave behind us a world they and other generations will find worth living in.”

I can’t say whether the image was chosen by Parr or, more likely, an editor or publisher later in the production process. However, I can say that the image resonates with a problem I felt throughout Parr’s book—and to a lesser extent, Klein’s—a certain couching of climate change in the future tense. A what will happen instead of a what is happening. This focus on the future, a future which, no matter how close, can always be abstracted and distanced, made hypothetical, is reinforced by the photograph on the cover. Climate change, it implies, will take away our future, our children’s future, and our children’s children’s future. But lost in this argument is the fact that it’s already changed our lives today.

This Changes Everything and Birth of a New Earth are both manifestos on moving forward in the age of climate change. But in trying to predict the future, they open themselves up to failure and invite criticism, and through trying to discuss climate change broadly, they are set up to fail. Perhaps the next big breakthrough in the discussion of climate change should be to do away with the word “future,” as well as “climate change,” a term which tries to encompass forces and objects that are so vast and ever-shifting it is always destined to fail.

It’s time to accept that the old rules don’t apply: any book written today is a book of climate change.


robert-sorrellRobert Sorrell is a writer and photographer living in Philadelphia. He recently graduated from the University of Chicago’s English program and has a piece of narrative nonfiction forthcoming from Mosaic Art & Literary Journal.

SHOULD YOU REALLY BE WRITING THAT? A Craft Essay on Writing Diversity in Fiction by Sarah Sawyers-Lovett 

A Craft Essay on Writing Diversity in Fiction
by Sarah Sawyers-Lovett 

As a queer, relatively progressive woman writing things on the internet, I thought the conversation about diversity in publishing was pretty well established. That we were all looking hard at the world around us and trying hard to implement best practices. But we still have a long way to go. I’ve gotten spoiled by keeping good company and while there are tons of other people speaking more eloquently about the importance and need for diversity and inclusion, I hope this will be a good starting point for writers looking to write outside their experience.

Are you the best person to write what you’re writing? Does your lived experience complement the story you’re trying to write? Real talk: The conversation about diversity and inclusion is a relatively new one and books and publishing are stronger because of it. Organizations like VONA (workshops for writers of color), Lambda (amplifying queer voices), and WNDB (children’s book advocates for changes in the publishing industry) are doing an awesome job of helping create and inspire books that more accurately reflect the world we live in. Part of that conversation is about the difference between compulsory diversity and own voices (books written about marginalized people by marginalized people—in their own voices).

Compulsory diversity reads like a checklist: one character of color, one queer character, one character with a disability. Ta-da, instant diversity, just add water and stir. Predictably, this shallow formula reads pretty false. Black characters written by black authors are always going to be more real. Bookish people on twitter have been talking about this for a couple of years now and a phrase that I’ve seen pop-up a couple of times is “stay in your lane.” I love this analogy. We’re all readers and writers on the same highway. We all want to do good art that reflects the world around us. We should be aware of all the cars on the road. We shouldn’t merge just because that’s where all the traffic seems to be going: changes to our destination can be dangerous. Your writing and your perspectives are important.

If you believe sprinkling diverse characters into your work will help you break into traditional publishing, you are in danger of potentially reinforcing stereotypes or creating a negative image of a community to which you don’t belong. You should consider that the narrative of slavery belongs to black people, transitioning is specific to trans and gender non-conforming people, and coming out is primarily something that queer people have to do. You can read every book on the subject ever written, but you do not have that well of life experience to drink from and your writing will reflect that. That being said, there are white, cisgender, straight writers who do diversity well. Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin gave depth and dimension, sorrow and joy to black and Latina sex workers. Becky Albertalli’s Simon Vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda was a gorgeous love letter to the queer kids she worked with. Those authors put in the work. They spent enough time in the communities they were writing about to get it right.

Writers have a lot of wiggle room when it comes to what they can write about. Not all mystery writers are murderers, lots of science-fiction authors are not aliens. (I would love to see those Venn diagrams, especially.) But murderers aren’t especially ignored in fiction and as far as I know, no aliens have yet spoken up about appropriation, so I think it’s fair to assume that as writers our primary concern should be in preventing harm to communities that are already marginalized.

Are you guilty of tokenism? Your work-in-progress probably has a cast of characters. Take a look at the demographics of that list and be honest with yourself. Did you change someone’s name from Dave to Davon to make it more diverse? Is Davon the only person of color in your cast? If so, there needs to be a good reason for that.  Code-switching and tokenism are exhausting. No one does it by choice. Davon might go to prep school with a bunch of white kids, but that isn’t his whole story or peer group. His family, neighborhood, or church community that mirror his socioeconomic demographics are probably much more comfortable for him. If there is only one marginalized character (or worse, two marginalized characters from different communities—for example, a gay kid and a Latina kid), be aware that maybe you’re adding them in to break up an otherwise white landscape. Ask if there’s a reason to do that and most of all, what point someone reading these characters might think you’re trying to make. For example, if you’re trying to diversify an all-white cast of unruly teenagers and you make the nerdy kid Chinese, are you feeding into the trope of Asian nerds? If you make the murderer in your psychological thriller a cross-dresser, are you adding fuel to the mythos of Jame Gumb from Silence of the Lambs? Which brings us to our next point …

Avoid stereotypes and clichés. Be aware of how you’re using your diverse characters. Are they an active part of the story or are they accessories that prop up your main character? Are all of your black characters around just to teach the white kid how to dab? Does your First Nations character take your group on a spiritual journey? Is the gay best friend around to pick out clothes? You can avoid these (and many other really outdated and offensive ideas) by googling racial stereotypes. Tvtropes.com is a really good resource for that.

Watch how you describe your characters and please avoid using culinary terms. People are not food. Describing someone as chocolate-colored, caramel, honey, or cinnamon is just lazy racism. Don’t describe your characters as “ethnic” or “exotic.” (As in Memoirs of a Geisha or Madame Butterfly). This is super racist because it identifies people of color as an “other” to white people and moves the margins farther away.

Do your research. If you’re writing outside your experience, you owe it to the characters and the communities you’re trying to represent to be as authentic as possible. Internet research costs only time, and meeting and learning about new people will make your stories better and your worldview wider.

Don’t ask marginalized friends to read your work. There are so many reasons to avoid this, not the least is that we’re all busy people and your work is probably not high on your friends’ priority list. Asking your friends to do unpaid work is weird at best and manipulative at worst. Putting them in a position where they’re not sure how you will respond is awkward and could potentially damage the relationship.

A good alternative to this is to hire a sensitivity reader to weigh in on issues of bias, cultural sensitivity, and appropriation. If that isn’t a feasible, consider a writing group or workshop.

In the end, do what you will. There are exceptions to everything and ultimately your work is your own, and (for the most part) you control what goes out into the world. But, once it’s out there, it’s no longer solely your own. Readers, bloggers, editors, and agents are all going to have thoughts and feelings about your writing. Put the best of yourself out there, do work you’re proud of, and aim to write well and responsibly. A lot of really good discourse is happening on social media. Look to twitter especially—writers like Justina Ireland and Mikki Kendall and Ellen Oh are doing good, important work. And keep reading about diversity and inclusion! There are so many resources available and reasons to reflect the world around you.



Sarah Sawyers-Lovett is a writer, MFA student, and bookseller living in Philadelphia. She is the author of Everybody Else’s Girl, a memoir, and Retrospect, an anthology. You can find more of her writing at Sarahsayshello.com

 

 

 

 

Image credit: Kelli Tungay on Unsplash

TIME OF GRATITUDE, essays and poems by Gennady Aygi, reviewed by Ryan K. Strader

TIME OF GRATITUDE
by Gennady Aygi
translated by Peter France
New Directions, 135 pages

reviewed by Ryan K. Strader

When I was a twenty-one-year-old college student and had zero sense of self-preservation, I rode alone on the train in Russia several times between Petrozavodsk and St. Petersburg—unaccompanied, on an overnight train, sleeping in a bunk car with strangers. I was also very chatty because I was trying to learn Russian. Talking up Russians who wanted to sleep seemed like a way to endear myself to my bunkmates and perfect my language at the same time.

At first, it was hard to start conversations. Finally, at one point, one drunk Russian man was lamenting my lack of useful knowledge—I didn’t know card games or anything about professional swimmers. “What do you study?” he asked me.

When I mentioned that I knew Pasternak’s poetry, his face lit up. “Your schools aren’t complete shit after all!” he said joyously, as though his faith in American education had just been fully restored.

Suddenly we had something to talk about. Poetry. Russians know their writers. That lesson stayed with me. From then on, I advanced conversationally on my bunk-mates by mentioning Pushkin, Pasternak, Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva. If they didn’t care for poetry, I could switch to the novelists. The tactic rarely failed.

When I received Time of Gratitude to review, I was expecting to discover a new Russian poet. That is, a poet who fit in well with the other Russian poets I knew. A poet “like” Pasternak, or “like” Blok, even if it was in some intangible abstract way that we like to describe one poet as being like another. I had expectations about what a Russian poet would sound like, given my experience of the modernist Russian canon.

But Time of Gratitude is unexpected, in many ways. Its very first lines, which are an opening to an essay that pays tribute to Boris Pasternak, read:

I am writing of a Poet who possessed an Apollonian beauty at the age of seventy and of an ecstatic twenty-two-year-old…myself—‘and I cannot draw a line between us’: not between myself now and myself then, nor between them both and the divinity of the Poet whom the young man adored.

These lines took me by surprise—Aygi can’t, he says, “draw a line” between himself and Boris Pasternak, and, in truth, his poetry itself doesn’t sound “Pasternakian.” If I started conversations on the train by bringing up the work of Gennady Aygi, I am not sure how far I would have gotten.

In fact, I wouldn’t have gotten far at all: Aygi’s assertion of his place alongside Pasternak would likely have been contested, and perhaps even seen as subversive. Aygi is not easily granted a spot in the canon of Russian poetry, for a number of reasons.

While he has many admirers, among them the poet Alex Cigale, and his long-time friend and translator Peter France, and while many scholars of Russian literature have encountered his work, he is often described as “avant-garde” and as being outside of the Russian lyrical tradition, with very little apparent influence from Russian masters. Such detectable influence from the writers that Russians think of as “theirs” is important.

It is possible that Aygi’s Chuvash background and its influence on his work might have something to do with his outsider status as well. A rural region almost 500 miles east of Moscow, Chuvashia has its own Turkic language and rural culture. Aygi’s work is marked by rural images, values, and a spirituality rooted in nature. In his poetry, this background melds with European modernism in unexpected ways: Time of Gratitude also comments on Kafka, Nietschze, and Kierkegaard.

On top of all this, Aygi was writing in a singularly oppressive historical moment. In my search for interviews and information about Aygi, I found critics that see his work as genius, those that see his work as spiritual, and those that see him as “not Russian,” almost a fraudulent presence amongst Russian poets. The tributes in Time of Gratitude ended up striking me as Aygi’s own commentary on participating in multiple worlds—erasing the lines between Chuvash and Russian, between languages, between philosophies of writing—or re-framing those relationships to create a new sense of unity within himself and his own experience. Such moves are always threatening to someone, and it seems that Aygi has his detractors.

In his introduction to Time of Gratitude, translator Peter France claims that Aygi, who died in 2006, clearly did not suffer from Bloom’s “anxiety of influence” but was instead “a poet of gratitude, gratitude for the human and natural world, gratitude for the artistic creations of others.” “Gratitude” might be another way of describing “influence” for Aygi, but it struck me as a lovelier description because it encompasses the many ways that Aygi felt literary influence as both personal and communal, not simply a matter of poetics. One of Aygi’s most touching memories in Time of Gratitude is a conversation with Pasternak when Aygi was going over a draft of one of the older poet’s novels:

At our second meeting he asked me a question with some embarrassment, slowly and hesitatingly: “Tell me…you are a man…of the people…forgive me for talking like this!…Tell me, does my novel seem to you not to be ours?”

I was staggered—it was as if all the depth of the suffering of my incredible interlocutor was revealed to me. “Boris Leonidovich, what are you saying! It’s ours, it’s ours absolutely!” in the ardour of my reply I was almost choking. Pasternak threw his arms around me.

This conversation underscores Pasternak’s perspective on art, which seems to have been Pasternak’s primary influence on the young Aygi. He describes Pasternak as an artist who saw each human being as “a complete world” in themselves; this dignifying of the individual endowed them with what Aygi calls the “Pasternakian Freedom,” an individual spiritual significance which both dignified the individual’s voice and connected all people into a shared humanity. This perspective seems to have both validated Aygi’s unique voice as a Chuvash-Russian poet and connected Aygi to what was ours—a literary tradition of “the people,” one that values connectedness to the extant literary tradition but also cherished individual voice: “I simply abandoned myself to the power of his Freedom—this mattered more than ‘literary problems,’” writes Aygi. “And this Freedom discovered for itself where he could spread himself in the expanse of its flight and its magnificence.” Such recollections are important to what Aygi refers to as his “spiritual orientation,” by which he seems to mean both his spiritual beliefs and the “spiritual orientation” of much of his poetry. Peter France touches on this spiritual affinity between Pasternak and Aygi in the obituary he wrote in The Guardian: “like Pasternak’s, his poetry was a poetry of light, seeking to assert the values of human community and oneness with the rest of creation.”

It does not seem odd to me that “community” and “oneness” would have begun with an appreciation for the individual, particularly an individual who crossed ethnic and linguistic categories as Aygi did. Born in 1934 in Chuvashia, Aygi moved to Moscow in his early twenties to pursue his education. His first poems were written in his native Chuvash, earning him disapproval from the Russian community. Pasternak encouraged him to switch to Russian, assuring him that “only writing in Russian will allow you to articulate fully everything that is happening within you, in the way of an emerging poetry, as we talk.” The choice to switch seems to have been a difficult question of identity for Aygi, both because claiming a place amongst Russian poets was to claim a “greatness” and literary influence that would quickly be resented, and because it may be seen as rejection of his Chuvash heritage.

Peter France records in Aygi’s obituary from The Guardian that it was at this time, when deciding to write poetry in Russian, that Aygi changed his name: his original surname was Lisin, a Russified name, and Aygi was properly Chuvashian, meaning “that one.” It seems like a calculated choice, but it did not protect Aygi from being shut out of both Russian and literary circles for most of his life. In the same essay on Pasternak, Aygi notes that the writer Hikmet warned him, “There is no question you must go over to Russian, it will correspond to what you have in you. But remember: They will never forgive you for this move,—that you, the son of a small nation, will exist within a great literature.”

While Aygi does not clarify an exact “they” that Hikmet is referencing, such lack of forgiveness seems evident in the larger critical community. Since perestroika such silencing is probably not malicious; rather, it is the unfortunate historical aftermath of a political environment that sought to silence difference. It is startling to realize how limited our knowledge of Russian writers of the twentieth century might really be, given the extent of Soviet censorship, and it humbles the notion of a “canon” that is easily recognizable to American students and Russian traingoers alike, to think of what might have been missed. Aygi was still alive and living in Moscow when I was there, but no Russian literature instructor ever pointed me to him. Nor would they have known to do so.

Time of Gratitude is an unusual text: the collected pieces are both prose and poetry, some of them written for events and some written as personal reflection. Translator Peter France has organized the book into two sections. The first one is devoted to Russian and Chuvash writers and artists, including Boris Pasternak, Kazimir Malevich, Varlam Shalamov, and Chuvash poet Mikhail Sespel. The second section includes pieces in honor of non-Russian writers and artists, and includes Kafka, Baudelaire, Max Jacob, and the Swedish writer Tomas Tranströmer. The title, “Time of Gratitude,” was borrowed from a cycle of poems that Aygi wrote in 1976-7, marking a time of grieving over the politically inspired murder of his friend Konstantin Bogatyrev. In publishing this new collection of Aygi’s works that pay tribute and gratitude to other friends, France concluded that the same title was still appropriate.

In a sense, this collection is a complement to the earlier collection of poems, as expressions of thanks to writers who helped to sustain Aygi through the “difficult times,” which Aygi describes as beginning in 1958 “like a single immense dark avalanche.” While he is not always specific about the precise nature of the difficult times in Time of Gratitude, the reader understands why France says that Aygi “wrote from a deep awareness of the losses and destructions of the 20th century.” In Time of Gratitude, Aygi touches on the imprisonment of Chuvash poets, the death of friends, the censorship of his own work and the censorship and death of Pasternak.

In an interview published in New Directions’ 2007 edition of Aygi’s poetry, Field-Russia (also translated by Peter France), Aygi describes how he understands “literary influence,” and his comments shed light on the structure of the pieces selected for Time of Gratitude. Aygi claims that his “literary education” can be traced to “something different,” which he describes as “addressing the writers themselves rather than their ideas, whether literary or otherwise.” During dark periods of his life, he insists that his mind would turn to the ideas of certain writers, and he would write to them as people with whom he was having an existential debate, rather than write as if he were trying to build images in accordance with the structure of their work. Because of this relationship with writers as partners in conversation rather than as masters to be imitated, “the continuingly influential and genuinely living images of certain teachers constituted for me their ‘legacy,’ their life-long support, and the strength of this kind of ‘contact’ was more powerful than any literary considerations.”

This existential “dialogue through poetry” is present in his poems in Time of Gratitude, such as “For a Conversation About K.” Dedicated to Olga Mashkova, “K.” refers to Kafka:

earth is just a thought—freely visiting:

changing:

sometimes known to me
in a thought that is Prague:

and then I see
a grave in the city—

it is like a grief-thought:

earth—of suffering!…his—as of that thought
which is now so constant!…

I shall say of that grave “a dream”:

and—as even wounds do not make us believe it is real—

he seems dreamed
in another sleep:

as if unending:

by me

Of all the poems in Time of Gratitude, this one struck me as most “like” Aygi’s work in other published volumes. Sleep is a theme in many of his works, and the ethereal sense of questioning reality seems to be a consistent quality of his writing, even in his prose in Time of Gratitude. While the poem is thematically “Kafkaesque” in that it deals with the nature of reality and the mystery of suffering, it also flouts expectations of “Russian” poetry with its use of free verse and its chant-like syntactical structure. Several critics have described his work as “shamanistic,” an adjective that recalls his rural background and emphasizes his avant-garde characteristics.

It was not uncommon for Soviet writers to be unpublished at home and have their works published—sometimes without them even knowing—in the West. With perestroika, Aygi developed a broad European audience, and his work has slowly become better known to American readers. Peter France points out in an interview in Beloit Poetry Journal that while Aygi is considered a “modern classic” to a few, he is still fairly unknown, despite being a pioneer of free verse in Russia and bringing recognition to Chuvashian writers. Time of Gratitude is one attempt to gather and publish more of Aygi’s work; France hopes that at some point Aygi’s extensive collection of letters to people all over the world will be gathered together and published.

I did find Time of Gratitude to be a personal and intimate way to enter the world of Aygi’s poetry for the first time. Since I began with Aygi by reading his memories of those who had been “fathers” and mentors to him, I felt invited to encounter the poet as a person first, aside from the poems, and thereafter it was difficult to separate the poet from the poems. France has commented that, as Aygi’s friend, he often experienced the same difficulty. Given Aygi’s approach to other writers though, as “genuinely living images” that sustained him in ways poems by themselves never could, it seems fitting that Aygi might be introduced to a wider American public this way.


Ryan Strader earned a B.A. in Russian Literature from George Mason University, and an M.A.T. from Clayton State University. She is currently an instructional designer and researcher. Her most recent instructional design project is the development of a class in writing and qualitative research methods at Georgia State University, where she is also a doctoral student. Her most recent publication is an upcoming book chapter on populism in young adult novels. She lives and works in the Atlanta area.

CAMPAIGN PROMISES, a poem by by Ann Babson, featured on Life As Activism

CAMPAIGN PROMISES
by Ann Babson
Featured on Life As Activism

Curtains checked for anthrax, podium erected.
The balloons will fall to the floor if elected.

The ass-groper, interloper, and false hoper
Will find themselves shoved out the door if elected.

Maple candy, aged brandy, and Tristam Shandy
Will all get restocked at the store if elected.

My opponent will eat all your brains, announcing
The zombie apocalypse gore if elected.

Please! The other party is a pity party
Part ku klux, part poo-poo, part whore if elected.

Radiate, meditate syncopate, masturbate
Lather, rinse, repeat, and restore if elected.

Go this team, go that team, ghost writers, gorilla,
Go go cage, and go go galore if elected.

Wow! What you do is voo doo that we do so well.
Baby buggy bump Babson bore if elected!


Anne Babson’s collection The White Trash Pantheon won the Colby H. Kullman prize from the Southern Writers Southern Writing Conference in Oxford, Mississippi. She wrote the libretto for the opera Lotus Lives, which has been performed in multiple cities and is slated for production once more in Montreal in 2018. She is the author of three chapbooks– Poems Under Surveillance is still in print with Finishing Line Press, and she has a forthcoming chapbook from Dancing Girl Press entitled Dolly Shot. She has been anthologized in the United States and in England, most recently in the notable collection Nasty Women Poets: an Unapologetic Anthology of Subversive Verse released in 2017. Her work has appeared in literary journals on five continents and has won numerous editorial awards. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize four times. She has received residency grants from Yaddo and Vermont Studio Center. Her blog about moving south, The Carpetbaggers Journal, has close to 50,000 hits and has been picked up by Y’all Politics and PBS-related websites. She writes lyrics for musical projects, most recently a blues album. She teaches writing and literature at Southeastern Louisiana University. She writes and lives in New Orleans.

 

Image credit: WeSideTrip on Unsplash

ASK JUNE: The Awkard Interview and the Unaccountable Pride of Jefferson

Dear June,

While carpooling to my job last Monday, I signaled a lane change and the guy in the left lane, who had been at least ten car-lengths behind me, immediately speeded up to cut me off. As I retreated and he rushed past me I got a brief but clear look at his face, and one of my passengers remarked on his vanity plate. I could also see the guy flipping me the bird over his shoulder, right after he passed my car—whereupon he slowed back down. I have no idea why he made an obscene gesture since I am sure I was driving safely and courteously and wasn’t even slowing him down at all. He was the one acting rude and driving dangerously.

I was surprised to see his car in the company parking lot, and even more surprised to see the man himself sitting in our reception area. It turned out that he was there, at my invitation, to interview for a job in our department! It was clear that the young man had no idea I was the one he’d cut off. I saw no reason to enlighten him.

The interview with him went reasonably well. As you can imagine, I was not predisposed to like him, and I didn’t, but I have to admit that he met or exceeded all the requirements in the job description and had done his homework about the company. He also has very good paper credentials and excellent recommendations.

Of the two people who sat in with me on the interview, one thought he was terrific and the other one said that she thought he was okay, but would be at least as happy with two of the other people on our short list. The choice is on me, for various reasons. Do you think it would be ethical of me to pass this guy over when I think the car incident may be what tipped the scale for me?

—Worried in Washington

Dear Wowa,

Let’s give this guy a name. “Van” leaps to mind. Although I imagine that he was driving something cooler than a van, we can think of the name as short for “Vanity Plate.”

I do think it would be ethical, and probably also good business, to pass on this Van. You should consider yourself lucky to have been given the chance to see a side of him it could have taken months or years to discover on the job—during which time he might have made himself indispensable, or at least hard to fire.

Unlike, say, a trial or a standardized exam, there is nothing in the hiring process that requires you to base your decision solely on what is formally presented to you. As long as you do not discriminate against members of a protected group—either directly and personally, or as part of an invidious pattern like only hiring people who belong to some restricted club, or who get the nod from some exclusionary network—you are within your legal rights to base your hiring decision on pretty much any information from any source, including chance encounters outside the office, embarrassing posts on social media, web searches, or the pricking of your thumbs.

Of course, it would be ethically problematic, and highly questionable as a business practice, to make hiring decisions for arbitrary reasons totally unrelated to job performance. But your doubts do have a basis. Van’s behavior on the road gives a strong hint that he may not be the most pleasant guy to work with, project the greatest image of the company, or perform the most coolly under stress. It is possible, of course, that he was acting out of character when he cut you off and flipped you the bird—at the risk of having this sound like a treatment for a mediocre TV rom-com, perhaps the normally careful and courteous Van was so anxious not to show up late for his dream-job interview that, just this once, he drove too aggressively and then, for the only time in his life, was moved to make an obscene gesture. But I don’t believe it. And, even if I did, once is enough in a case like this, when you are choosing among candidates who don’t otherwise differ significantly.

By the way, I also find it perfectly acceptable to include in your equation that Van was not only a rude, dangerous driver, but that he also endangered and dissed you in particular. I do not know how closely you will be working with Van, but I assume that your paths will cross at least occasionally. I see no reason why you should choose to work with someone who was rude to you and gave you reason to dislike him.

—June

La Wally’s response:

Don’t hire him. You have other good choices. Why have him represent your company?


Dear June,

Over the past year I lost a great deal of weight and am much healthier and happier. I also look good, if I do say so myself. I worked hard and I am proud of my accomplishment.

But I am not so happy when this coworker of mine, whom I will call “Jefferson” although she is actually named after another president, keeps telling me that she is proud of me. It is bad enough when she says this to me in private. But it is worse when she says it to me, or even about me, in front of other people. The worst is when she says it as if speaking for some unspecified “we.” At an office lunch the other day (we are accountants, by the way) she cut into the general conversation to tell the whole table that “we are all so proud of Sally [not my real name]. Doesn’t she look great?” Luckily I had the good sense to smile graciously at the positive, if awkward, murmurs that followed; and my favorite colleague cheered me up considerably by switching the topic to a project he and I were working on and where, as it happens, I have been doing totally clever and badass work.

Am I being oversensitive, or is Jefferson being inappropriate? And, if so, what should I do about it.

—Not Sally in Nottingham

Dear Notsa,

She is being inappropriate. If all she had done was say “I’m proud of you” once or even twice, in private and with no hint of condescension in her tone—and if you had no independent reason to mistrust her motives—I would probably have advised you to take Jefferson’s praise as her gauche but well-intentioned way of saying “Way to go!” or “Impressive!” and try not to read anything more into it.

But she harped on her pride in your weight loss. She did so in front of others. She talked about you in the third person while you were present. Probably least appropriately, she included other people, and (I suppose) coworkers at that, in her unspecified “we,” as if they had been sharing—perhaps even discussing—their concern over your weight and your efforts to control it.

I see several issues in this escalation of rudeness.

The most obvious issue is Jefferson’s assuming the right to be “proud.” It is fine to take pride in the accomplishments of your children, or students you teach, or the Cub Scout den you lead, or any other person or group where you may have contributed to the success in question or have some other stake in it. Unless you are using group allegiance to denigrate or oppress somebody else, it is also usually fine to express pride in your school, city, team, or any other larger group you belong to or (as in sports fandom) identify with. It can be better than fine to say how proud you are of people with whom you are very close, like lovers and best friends, and people who have struggled with you to achieve a goal or overcome an obstacle, like members of your weight-loss support group or software-development team. And, although I used to hate it when my mother’s friends did this to me, it is fairly standard social practice to say you are proud of the accomplishments of people who are much younger than you. Expressions of pride are also generally acceptable from people who hold some role as superior or guide—such as your minister, doctor, mayor, counselor, or work supervisor—so long as their expressions stay relevant to their role.

Without some such connection, saying “I’m proud of you” is a bad idea. It can come off as encroaching (“I claim the sort of intimacy that allows me to say this”) or patronizing (“I have the right to judge you”).

Your colleague Jefferson may not mean any harm. For all I know, she may admire you from afar and think that her overbearing expressions of enthusiasm and false intimacy will create real closeness. Or she may mean plenty of harm: consciously or semi-consciously, she may be asserting her power and superiority, bless her heart. It is hard to tell what she is up to, which is itself unsettling.

Another issue here—if we were in criminal court, I would call it an aggravating circumstance—is the subject matter. Jefferson is not just proud; she is proud of your weight loss.

When are people going to learn that people’s weight is their own business? Even if I could write off Jefferson’s frequent, public, “we”-including kvelling about, say, your having run a marathon or published a poem as nothing more than overzealous support, we should all know by now that even positive comments about someone’s weight should be judicious and rare. I can understand why Jefferson’s having appropriated your weight in particular as her source of pride would be especially upsetting.

Another aggravating circumstance is that Jefferson is a coworker and that some or all of her antics are taking place at the office. It sounds as if she is making you uncomfortable on the on the job by focusing on matters—your size, fitness, and appearance—you rightly consider personal and irrelevant to your work. And although nothing you have said indicates any sort of direct job harassment, Jefferson may be putting some of your colleagues in a difficult position by implying that they have been joining with her in commenting on your looks or discussing your weight-loss efforts, thereby creating a stressful (if not “hostile” in the legal sense) work environment.

I don’t mean to advocate for a dreary, closemouthed, humorless, midcentury-Soviet-style workplace where people who work together every day as equals get in trouble for saying “Hey! Looking good! Great haircut!” And I certainly don’t mean to discourage work colleagues from supporting one another in their efforts at self-improvement, work-related or not. But the support must be welcome, if not actually solicited. Jefferson blew it three ways: she assumed the right to take pride in your accomplishment, she commented repeatedly on your size, and she did so publicly, at work.

Okay, so we’ve established that Jefferson’s behavior is inappropriate. But you also asked me whether you are being oversensitive, which is a slightly different question. My answer depends on why you asked me. If what you want is a value judgment, my answer is that there is nothing ethically or otherwise wrong with you for being annoyed and upset by Jefferson’s remarks. But if we are talking about the practicalities of office and community life, you might do well to steel yourself a bit more against people’s awkward personal comments, especially about your weight. Weight loss, like pregnancy, seems to bring out the unbridled busybody in adults who should know better. I suspect that, although Jefferson may be the only one to glom onto unmerited pride, other people have made unwelcome or unsettling remarks about the recent change in your appearance. For your own wellbeing, I suggest trying to grow a thicker skin for your thinner self. The way you handled Jefferson’s antics at lunch shows that you know exactly how to behave: smile, be gracious, move on. Now all you have to do is internalize this wise response. Say to yourself: “Yeah, I did great. Damn straight I’m proud,” and turn your attention to some other subject—debits and credits, the Oscars, cannelloni, anything at all—you prefer to consider.

As for what to do about Jefferson in particular, it is obviously time to tell her to stop. From your letter, it sounds as if she either wishes you well in her overbearing way or at least wants to keep up the pretense that she does. The next time the two of you have a private-ish moment, I would bring up the issue of your weight yourself. (Slide naturally into the subject if possible. “It’s amazing how much more quickly I take these stairs nowadays.” “I just got back from having my wedding ring resized.” “This old thing? Thanks. I got it at the consignment store on Maple Street. So much more fun to shop now that I’ve lost some weight.”) Then tell her that, speaking of weight, you’ve decided to ask people not to discuss your weight loss from now on. You want to move beyond it and not draw attention to that part of yourself. You are sure she understands.

Unless Jefferson makes a habit of publicly taking pride in your other accomplishments, I would probably stick to the matter of weight and dodge the whole “How dare you think you have the right to say you’re proud of me?” question, which seems inherently confrontational to me. It would be hard to call her out on this without seeming to imply (since it’s true!) either that she does not know how to behave, or that she is not as good a friend or colleague as she pretends to be. Besides, talking about the “I’m proud” aspect of her comments may simply confuse the issue for her and, as I understand it, the point is to get her to shut up entirely.

Talking to her should work. If it doesn’t, remind her, and be more firm this time. If she misbehaves yet again, and if you believe that this is affecting your work performance or environment, I suppose you could speak to H.R., or to your supervisor, but I would be in no hurry to do so. Rightly or wrongly, you might be perceived as a whiner. And you should ask yourself whether, aside from vexing you—which you can, to some extent, control—she is doing any real harm. It sounds as if the people at that lunch were put off by her conduct, and that it in no way diminished you in their eyes. As for your work life in general, I suspect that, despite Jefferson’s best efforts, your coworkers and friends give your weight loss scarcely a thought, and that the few thoughts they do give it are vague and benign and have nothing to do with your job performance. As time goes by, the recent change in your fitness and appearance will be older and older news, and Jefferson will look sillier and sillier if she is foolish enough to bring it up.

(Important note: I assumed from your letter that Jefferson holds no power or authority over you at work. If she does, I would be somewhat more disposed to consult H.R. in the event that politeness does not work. )

Congratulations on your weight loss, by the way. I know how hard it is to do what you have done and, were my manners less than impeccable, I would tell you how proud it makes me.

—June

P.S. Next time you might want to work on your pseudonyms. Readers will have a pretty easy time guessing Jefferson’s likely real name, although I suppose “Carter” or “Hayes” might work, and of course Lear went with a variant of “Reagan.”

La Wally’s response:

Jefferson is being weird, but even so, I would just let it go. I would smile and laugh it off, maybe make a joke about it. Like I would look down at myself and say: “Omigod, you’re right! I’ve lost all this weight!” Or I’d say: “If you’re so proud, where’s my prize?


ask-june-square-for-facebook-no-border-300pxCleaver’s in-house advice columnist opines on matters punctuational, interpersonal, and philosophical, spinning wit and literary wisdom in response to your ethical quandaries. Write to her at AskJune@Cleavermagazine.com. Find more columns by June in her attic.

 

La Wally is the nom de June of June Cleaver‘s adult daughter. In real life, she’s an artist and entrepreneur. What’s up with her name? In choosing a pseudonym, the two of them considered the names of the original Cleaver family offspring, both boys, but rejected “Beaver” for obvious reasons. “Wally” alone seemed too masculine and generally hideous. But “La Wally” brings to mind Catalani’s wonderful opera. Speaking of which, have you seen the movie Diva? You should.

TRANSLATION AS TRANSHUMANCE, a book-length essay by Mireille Gansel, reviewed by Rachel R. Taube

TRANSLATION AS TRANSHUMANCE
by Mireille Gansel
translated from the French by Ros Schwartz
Feminist Press at CUNY, 112 pages

reviewed by Rachel R. Taube

For Mireille Gansel, the work of translation is an all-consuming task. Before embarking on a project, Gansel first immerses herself in the world of the poet she is translating. She studies the historical context of their writing as well as the personal context. Wherever possible, she engages with their physical environment: she visits their home, observes their writing space. And, ideally, she listens to the poet read their work aloud. Attempting to translate a single German word, “sensible,” in a poem by Reiner Kunze, Gansel travels from West to East Germany to “[listen] to the poet read, alert to his intonations and facial expressions. In the tiny blue kitchen, I was conscious of his precarious everyday life.” She imagines the letters from friends in exile that he’ll never receive, and the mingling of his two languages, a German abstracted by Nazism and a Czech repressed by war, both of which survive in the poetry of his contemporaries, in songs from his childhood. Here, in this intersection of past and present, Gansel finds the word for “sensible”: fragile.

In her book-length essay, Translation as Transhumance, Gansel describes employing this practice of immersion for her translations of Bertolt Brecht, Peter Huchel, Xuan Dieu, and, most famously, the complete works of Nelly Sachs and her correspondence with Paul Celan. Gansel divides the book into short chapters, poetic meditations on a particular place or poet, which document her travels and her revelations about translation: Translation is the “essence of hospitality.” It is “a hand reaching from one shore to another where there is no bridge.” It can be understood “both as risk-taking and as continual re-examination,” the translator’s work fluid, changing as word-meanings morph through time, and even as the translator herself changes. Gansel inserts original German and Vietnamese poetry throughout and explains how she comes to each translation, what each taught her, in a word-level analysis that will speak to any student of translation or of poetry.

The book’s title, which is the same in both English and French, refers to a shepherd’s job: “transhumance” is the long, slow movement of flocks across plains and valleys as they search for greener land by way of ancient routes. It is “the slow and patient crossing of countries, all borders eradicated.” At a time in which words are losing their meanings and border walls are once again growing tall, Gansel illustrates for her reader the difficult work of border crossing.

Mireille Gansel

After working on her German translations, Gansel travels to Vietnam, where she lives for several years, learning Vietnamese in order to translate an anthology of poetry to protest threats of American intervention. To fully understand the music of the language, she learns to play the monochord, which she calls the soul of Vietnamese poetry, and to understand the poetry of a dying mountain people, she spends time in their raised bamboo houses, sharing their rice. She learns to consider, alongside a word’s literal translation, “the implicit allusions of an entire social imaginary.” She gives, as an example, the word duyen, which literally means “attachment,” but could be translated as “love sworn for eternity,” “bond of the soul,” “nuptials,” or “fate,” and references a wildly popular eighteenth-century epic. The one word cannot be translated as just one word.

Back in Europe, translating Nelly Sachs, because Gansel can’t speak to her, she travels to Stockholm and pours through the German-language Bible that Sachs was reading as she wrote, trying to understand the ancient Hebrew rhythm that Sachs absorbed and infused into her poetry. She decides that “from now on translation would mean taking syntactical and semantic risks” and begins employing extended compounds like “the ones standing-with-you-in-the-light!” Over the course of the book, she arrives at one lesson after another, in one country after the next.

Of course, this type of total immersion isn’t available to most working translators. Translations as Transhumance is certainly less a how-to than a memoir that lets the reader in on Gansel’s process. For her, that immersion becomes necessary because of the particular contexts of her work: in each case, Gansel grapples with the colonization of language. For example, in translating Vietnamese poetry into French, the language of the country’s colonizer, she must be careful to avoid “the French tradition of translation that favored an exotic approach,” which, as her translation partner put it, “arouses simply a sense of foreignness, without being able to communicate the emotions.” Similarly, in translating Brecht, she is acutely aware of German as the language of oppression, and she attempts to capture the playwright’s reappropriation of a Nazified German in his work. Languages, she finds, exist both within and outside of their colonization. In addition to being the language of the oppressors, for people like Gansel’s elderly relatives, German is the language of family. Their German is accented with the languages of neighboring countries, “punctuated by exiles and passed down through generations… This is the German that has no land or borders. An interior language.”

Often, Gansel refers back to this idea, what she refers to as the interior or soul language, which exists without a home, a sort of mystical truth-meaning that must be captured by the translator in mere words: “translation came to mean learning to listen to the silences between lines, to the underground springs of a people’s hinterland.” As her mentor in Vietnam, Nguyen Khac Vien, writes, “Staying faithful means first and foremost seeking to recreate the work’s humanity, its universality,” and liberating language from exoticism and appropriation. This is a poetic and engaging directive, if nebulous. It gestures towards the poet’s work of infusing small words with great and inexpressible Truth, as they exist both in and beyond their context.

But more concretely, in pursuing this goal Gansel aligns herself with a particular strand of translation theory. On one end of the spectrum is a practice that prizes word-for-word or phrase-for-phrase translation and even grammatical fidelity. Meanwhile, those on the other end of the spectrum focus on the meaning of the original text, accounting for the cultures of the two languages and valuing a translation that has the same effect on a reader as the original. Gansel falls definitively on the latter end of the spectrum, claiming in another essay: “There are fidelities that are worse than betrayals.” Instead, she mines culture in order to communicate a poet’s larger ideas and references, risking “going beyond the literal meanings of the words, in order to access their deeper meanings.” When Gansel speaks of a language of the soul, what she really means is: Put the dictionary aside, for a moment. Immerse yourself in the world of the poet, and their words will unfurl to their full size and meaning. Language is limiting, so let us engage it with all the tools at our disposal. With thoroughness, with humanity, with love, communication is possible.

One cannot read these meditations without remembering that Translation as Transhumance is itself a work in translation. For this reason, I wished more than once for a translator’s note. What is translator Ros Schwartz’s theory of translation? Did Schwartz visit Gansel’s desk? Did Gansel read portions of the book aloud to her, press her tongue to her teeth and bring the words to life? Gansel includes poems in German and Vietnamese, as previously mentioned, which we see translated into English. If we are to read pages about translating a single word, we must know if the English version comes from the French translation Gansel made, or from the original, or through an intermediary. Schwartz is a prolific and award-winning translator of French into English who has written and spoken widely. I would have relished a few words from her on this meta-project.

The success of Translation as Transhumance lies, finally, in the quality of this translated prose. Because we can’t actually read the final products of Gansel’s work, we depend on her descriptions of success, which tend to result in a lesson for the translator. By using a lyric voice that leads the reader from memory to theory and back again, our author (mostly) avoids moralizing and instead illuminates a fascinating and earnest process. In the final pages, Gansel comes to one more realization:

[A]s I sat at the ancient table beneath the blackened beams, it suddenly dawned on me that the stranger was not the other, it was me. I was the one who had everything to learn, everything to understand, from the other.

This excerpt perhaps best explains Gansel’s obsessive commitment to research and immersion. She is trying to decenter herself. The language of another’s soul is accessible once hubris gives way to empathy. And so, with slow and patient work, the borders can be crossed.


Rachel-TaubeRachel R. Taube is pursuing her MFA in Fiction at UNC Wilmington. She has been an Electric Literature-Catapult Scholarship recipient and a Tent Creative Writing Fellow, and she holds a masters in Creative Writing and Gender Studies from the University of Pennsylvania. You can find her fiction in Storychord and Apiary Magazine. Follow her on Twitter at @racheltaube.

AN AMERICAN MARRIAGE, a novel by Tayari Jones, reviewed by Brandon Stanwyck

AN AMERICAN MARRIAGE
by Tayari Jones
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 306 pages

reviewed by Brandon Stanwyck

Do Roy and Celestial have an ordinary American marriage? The title of Tayari Jones’ fourth novel implies that perhaps they do in fact have a quintessential American life, and in many ways they do…

Roy and Celestial are newlyweds. He grew up in Louisiana, to a blue-collar family. He worked hard, studied harder, earned his way into Morehouse College in Georgia, and went on to become a business executive. She, a talented visionary born and raised in the Peach State, grew up in a comfortable family. She excelled at a neighboring liberal arts college for women and now makes her income as a successful artisan. Together, they exemplify the Dream–thriving and very much in love. Early on, Jones paints a picture for the reader, through Roy:

…we kissed like teenagers, making out under the bridge. It was a wonderful feeling to be grown and yet young. To be married but not settled. To be tied down yet free.

About a year after their wedding day, the couple decides to drive across the South to visit Roy’s family in Louisiana. In the dead of night, a horde of rapacious police officers charge through their motel room door, drag Roy outside, and violently arrest him for a heinous crime that he did not commit. Despite the lack of any concrete evidence, the court finds him guilty and sentences him to twelve years in prison—largely because the judge and jury choose to believe the testimony of Roy’s white accuser over Roy, a black man. Wanton declarations of guilt such as this are not mere fiction. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, one in three black men will be locked up in their lifetime—and receive ten percent longer sentences than white defendants for the same charge.

Tayari Jones

Up to the point of his conviction, Jones tells the story in a standard prose form, with Celestial and Roy taking turns as narrator with each new chapter. Once Roy is wrongfully incarcerated and sent to prison, the form shifts into an epistolary style: The two protagonists continue to alternate as storyteller via handwritten letters that illustrate, in vivid and frank detail, their pain as they combat their mutual and separate tribulations. This letter-writing technique, on Jones’ part, works to incarnate the distance growing between husband and wife throughout their forced estrangement. In an especially tender letter, Celestial confesses, “just because I’m not in the same agony as you are, I’m in pain,” and then, “marriage is more than your heart, it’s your life.” And after a considerable amount of time, Roy writes back: “Everything I do is a love letter addressed to you.” But as the days go on, the time between correspondences grows and the letters themselves shrink.

Imprisonment, in the story as well as in real life, takes an emotional and fiscal toll on everyone close to the matter, not just on the persons behind the bars. Over time, Celestial and Roy’s once-picturesque union slowly crumbles. She, “the kind of woman who will never belong to anyone,” finds herself adrift, robbed of her marital bliss—they had been preparing to put down roots and begin a family prior to his unlawful arrest. And while he combats the penal system from the inside, she must fight her own punitive battles on the outside. She struggles to stay afloat spiritually and financially on her own, as countless women of color throughout history have and continue to do. But as months become years, times get really tough and Celestial discovers a place of solace in the company of her longtime friend Andre, who had been Roy’s best man at their wedding.

Five years into his sentence, Roy’s conviction gets overturned, and as soon as his “hostage of the state” era ends, the letters cease, and the novel returns to its initial form. Roy and Celestial, still legally wed, pass the narrative baton back and forth as he tries to reclaim his life. But a third first-person point of view enters the picture and stays for the remainder of the story: Andre, now more than just a friend, offers his perspective and cements his impact on the titular marriage.

Tayari Jones calls An American Marriage “a love story.” And it is. Roy and Celestial’s love for one another is continually tried and warped by a broken justice system that values white lives—and dooms black lives at an exponential rate. Throughout the story, their love takes on different shapes, but never withers, as it faces its own trial and struggles through its own internment period—while refusing to give in. In a sense, Celestial and Roy’s love, represented by the resoluteness of their marriage, is a character unto itself—a character tested not only by Roy’s unjust incarceration but also by Celestial’s budding feelings for Andre.

An American Marriage is not a novel about who really committed the crime that sent Roy away. It never even for a second moves it in that direction because that doesn’t matter; that is the theme of another book—a safer book. An American Marriage is about our twisted judicial system that unremittingly turns “standard-issue American Negro” men like Roy into “a victim of America”—and how those two concepts are all too often one and the same.

So do Roy and Celestial have an ordinary American marriage? Well, according to Jones herself, “it depends on who you ask.” Of course, not all couples are ripped apart so ruthlessly, no, but, for a lot of folks of color, the potential for it to happen is always present, since we live in a society of skewed courtrooms and a prison-industrial complex that views black convicts as easy wins and dollars. So, in a very brutal sense…yes, Roy and Celestial do have an ordinary (black) American marriage.


Brandon Stanwyck studied film, literature, and theatre at Cleveland State University. While there, he led a student-run theatre company. He currently lives in Ohio, where he divides his time between working on independent movies and writing fiction. His words have appeared in The Fiction Pool, Corvus Review, and elsewhere. Twitter: @BrandonStanwyck.

FOUR POEMS by Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach, featured on Life As Activism

 

FOUR POEMS
by Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach
Featured on Life As Activism

Other women don’t tell you

………..flash flood warning will come
through text message now, you will read
………..about the water filling narrow streets

without looking out to see
………..how high it’s risen. You will scour
the internet for what’s inside

………..the stomach, because no one
told you of the rennet, how it settles
………..lactic floods, turns milk, curdling

its casein to help digest
………..a mother’s overflow, to help
your son endure how much of you

………..you leave inside him.
Your curtains are nailed down, rust
………..in falloff, because

you never found
………..the rods to hold them and the rain
kept knocking to get in.

………..You couldn’t stand to look
at all that water, but when
………..your son flash flooded white

with bits of eggs and bread and even
………..cat hair, there was nowhere
to hide from all that rising, and all

………..the water keeping you
inside, was not enough.


He doesn’t notice the desert.

The smell of the dead rising, birds or fish, saltwater
feeding on air or salt air on the water, the sand

turning black as it wraps his ankles like a skeleton hand.
He doesn’t know why the horseshoe crab shells

are empty, isn’t old enough to ask
about their blue blood and how we harvest it.

He doesn’t wonder where the living have gone
and I’m grateful for this. For how he can focus

on the steady horizon and fall headfirst
into a wave’s undertow. For how he rises

masked in muck, his mouth full and laughing.
For how his anxious body rushes back.

For how it’s made of water, made for crossing
deserts, for not noticing the dead.


Dyadya Voda

my son calls any body
of water—man, mister,
uncle water, uncle sea, uncle
ocean, dyadya, not father
but close, though we
didn’t teach him this.
Kinship, nature flowing
into family, vast
expanse into what is
already inside of him.
Obnimi Dyadyu Voda,
he says, and wraps
his arms around the waves,
Hug Uncle Water, and falls flat
onto the sand, palms
wide and sinking
as though into my body,
and around us
dogs, everywhere, my son
is the only toddler, your kids
are beautiful, a passerby says,
she means our dog too,
Dyadya, my son calls her.
You should have more, she adds,
have a whole litter, and
if you have them close together,
his cheek is in the sand and
mouth full of salt, What’s
one more? Everything, I think
and want to hold him
but he is water and no matter
how wide I stretch my arms,
I cannot hug or count
the whole of him.


As Flesh, Not Stone

Remember, I tried. Not that this is any
consolation. Even now, writing it
feels like the opposite. I guess I’m referring
to distance. I tried to keep it
better than my mother or hers. Tried
to find the middle ground where your head
can meet my chest without being bound
or sinking. Where it can rest as flesh
not stone. Tried to keep that place
where our hands reach without touch,
to be okay with the empty space between.
—me water me me water me water me—
Remember the time I asked you to kiss me
and you said, no mama! pushing my face away
with your hand’s heel and then your foot’s.
Remember how I listened. Let you choose
anything else over what you are made of.
—water me water me water water water—
Remember? The bathtub was only half full
when you slipped and asked me to kiss
your soapy ear lobe so the pain would stop.
But it didn’t. Not really. Remember, I tried.


Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach emigrated from Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine as a Jewish refugee when she was six years old. She holds an MFA in Poetry from the University of Oregon and is a Ph.D. candidate in Comparative Literature at the University of Pennsylvania, where her research focuses on contemporary American poetry about the Holocaust. She has received fellowships from the Bread Loaf and TENT Conferences as well as the Auschwitz Jewish Center. Julia is the author of The Bear Who Ate the Stars (Split Lip Press, 2014) and her poems appear in Gulf Coast, TriQuarterly, and Nashville Review, among others, and are forthcoming from Best New Poets, APR, and Poetry International. Most recently, she won the Williams Carlos Williams University Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets and New South’s Poetry Prize. Julia is also Editor-in-Chief of Construction Magazine and when not busy chasing her toddler around the playgrounds of Philadelphia, she writes a blog about motherhood.

 

Image Credit: Christopher Campbell on Unsplash
Author photo by Ekaterina Izmestieva.

MIRROR, SHOULDER, SIGNAL, a novel by Dorthe Nors, reviewed by Brendan McCourt

MIRROR, SHOULDER, SIGNAL
by Dorthe Nors
translated by Misha Hoekstra
Pushkin Press, 188 pages

reviewed by Brendan McCourt

Although I am not a middle-aged Danish woman who translates Swedish crime novels known for their graphic mutilation of women and who in her spare time flees from nature retreats to eat cake and sit in the rain, I relate to Sonja, the protagonist of Dorthe Nors’s 2017 Man Booker International Prize shortlisted novel. Unassuming, if spiritually and sometimes even physically lost, Sonja can’t drive, let alone shift gears for herself, and her sister won’t answer her calls.

Such is Sonja’s state at the beginning of the novel. Cooped up in a small car with her driving instructor, Jytte, an often coarse and unapologetically racist woman from Jutland, Sonja narrowly dodges bicyclists, Jytte’s chronic insults, and—in a scene that brims with comedic angst—a hot dog vendor. It is Jytte who shifts gears for Sonja, an act that becomes the novel’s main metaphor for Sonja’s inability to move forward in her life. This opening chapter ends, like most of the chapters do, with Sonja’s reflections on the moment. Here, Sonja blocks out Jytte’s confrontation with a delivery van in the middle of an intersection to reflect on a brief yet poetic moment of clarity when she looks out her window to see a graveyard: “Sonja thinks about the dead prime ministers in the cemetery. It’s lovely to take a blanket there. […] The dead make no noise, and if she’s lucky a bird of prey might soar overhead. Then she’ll lie there, and escape.”

Fiction, like an automobile, is a mode of transportation. It allows one to traverse landscapes of the mind, escape into other spaces, other minds, where even the most fantastical elements pang with a sense of familiarity. Opening a cover is like opening a car door, turning a page like turning the key: escape is imminent. It is a metaphor which extends to life itself, where fiction is as much an exploration of life as it is an escape from it, and Sonja finds herself struggling with acquiring the means to move forward in life, the means which inevitably entail her to leave something meaningful behind.

One’s ability to escape, this novel proposes, is limited if you can’t drive. Like others who got a late start to driving, I share in Sonja’s sense of enclosure induced by the inability to drive. And what’s more, I always felt the freedom afforded to those who can drive comes at a cost of empathy. On occasion I have seen well-meaning, levelheaded people become angry misanthropes in the blink of an eye (or is it signal?). Behind the wheel of a car, a person becomes susceptible to easy rage, and Nors’s Jytte seems to confirm this suspicion.

As a child growing up in the farmlands of Denmark, Sonja was able to escape her reality by hiding in a little enclosure she made for herself in a rye field. But in the din and clamor that is Copenhagen, there are no rye fields, and Sonja must adapt. Here we see Sonja retreat into the inner recesses of her mind, finding intellectual solace when a physical form can’t be found. Nors’s prose braids past and present, interior and exterior action to mimic the turmoil embedded in Sonja. In a scene toward the end of the novel, Sonja has dumped Jytte for Folke, the head driving instructor himself, and confrontation with Jytte ensues. Sonja rebukes Jytte’s accusations of betrayal by returning to an imaginative heather filled with whooper swans and deer, her substitute for the rye field of her childhood. Then, after leaving the confrontation without a single goodbye—“Not saying goodbye,” we are told, “isn’t something Sonja learned at home”—she walks away into the streets of Copenhagen and back into her heather.

Dorthe Nors

None of this is new territory for Nors who, in addition to six book-length works of fiction, holds the accolade of the first Danish writer published by the New Yorker. She is certainly in company with the greats of Continental literature—Kafka, Beckett, Kundera—for the dark humor woven into the fabric of her fiction. In an interview with The Paris Review’s Dwyer Murphy, Nors comments on this aspect within her short story collection Karate Chop, which extends itself across her oeuvre, as “Danish irony.” “We don’t like to read a book,” Nors says, “about how bleedingly easy things are. We like the complicated stuff.”

In a novel that doesn’t extend itself beyond daily life, “the complicated stuff” entails menial tasks, chance encounters, and, most importantly, interpersonal relationships. Sonja’s relationship with her sister Kate haunts most of the novel. Multiple times Sonja writes to her sister, either on postcards or computer paper, but never bothers to send the letters: her thoughts are scattered and insubstantial, and her inability to communicate honestly is disrupted by thoughts of an old boyfriend, Bacon Bjarne. When she calls, Kate either hands off the phone to her husband or makes the excuse that she is in line at the supermarket. Sonja knows her lie, but lets it go.

Above all else, Mirror, Shoulder, Signal is a novelist’s novel. Literary-minded readers will revel in the novel’s allegorical framework extending anywhere from cautionary tale to failed bildungsroman to a metaphor of novel reading itself. For example, early in the novel Sonja is getting a message from her friend Ellen in Ellen’s apartment and, in an almost Cartesian meditation, Sonja ruminates:

There’s something in Ellen’s way of parsing other people’s bodies that reminds her of her university classes in textual analysis. Everything’s supposed to mean something else, everything’s supposed to be rising, tearing itself free of its wrappings, climbing up to some higher meaning; it’s supposed to get away from where it’s been. Reality will not suffice.

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal attempts to rectify this observation by showing that, while transcendent meaning is possible in reality, the meaning we get is often fractured, unfulfilling. In this way, Sonja transmutes quotidian minutiae into an absurdist metaphor with a decidedly Danish twist. But it’s all Sonja has, and in fact, reality will have to suffice.


Brendan McCourt is a student of English and Philosophy at Arcadia University in Glenside, Pennsylvania. A Philadelphia native, Brendan primarily writes in short forms, including poetry, flash fiction, and prose poetry. Brendan is also the editor-in-chief for his university’s undergraduate literary magazine Quiddity.

BLACK GENEALOGY, poems by Kiki Petrosino, reviewed by Claire Oleson

BLACK GENEALOGY
by Kiki Petrosino
with Illustrations by Lauren Haldeman 
Brain Mill Press, 45 pages

reviewed by Claire Oleson

Situated between a national and a personal history, Kiki Petrosino’s poetry book Black Genealogy sifts through the past in search of lost identity, language, bodies, and self-possession amidst the legacy of the Civil War and slavery in America. The book details an exploration of both a familial and a larger American reality through the lens of a contemporary African American persona.

Split into two sections, Black Genealogy consists of both unlineated prose poetry as well as highly-structured villanelles, a style of poem originally associated with ballads and oral storytelling. Both forms, especially in the context of Petrosino’s subject, seem to bring a sense of narrative story to the poetry, and because of this, a noticeable absence when the narrative contended with proves to have been lost, ignored, and or intentionally obscured by the country in which it occurred.

Negotiating with a history that was blind towards the humanity of Black people in America, Black Genealogy is a work of sight determined to bring the readers’ eyes, thoughts, and awareness up close with both immense presence and an effort to find and revive immense loss.

The book opens with a short untitled poem incorporated into a comic by Lauren Haldeman, wherein a Black woman asks about the grin on the face of a reenactor dressed as a Confederate General. Immediately, the reader is invited into a tangible uncomfortability and fear of what is shown as an externally “friendly” man interrogating a woman at a store. The uncertainty breaks into a clearly threatening atmosphere when the persona says “In fact, I didn’t know Confederate Generals could grin” and is answered by the cashier “They all can” and “most of ‘em do.” In this moment, the reader and Petrosino’s person are given a crucial symbol which goes on to frame the book—it’s this grin, not a shout or act of clear aggression, which bookends the poetry that will go on to explore a partially hidden, abusive, and distinctly American history. This facade of friendliness wrapped in the uniform of something threatening (but still widely accepted) sets the tone for the coming poems which oppose this unsettling picture and the ignorance, unwarranted forgiveness, or utter blindness towards the past which its reenactment requires.

The poem following this comic is written in second-person, newly inviting the reader into the narrative, and describes the personas ancestors in a train which they end up escaping using explosives. At the poem’s conclusion, the train is distinct, the ancestors are mobile, strong, and competent, but you, the persona, “have been missing for some time.” This conclusion drops the foundation of a “you” out from under the reader, giving them a lost self, a self that is unplaceable, unfindable, and outside of a distinct location and perhaps even out of an unidentifiable body. We are met quickly and harshly with a personal loss from no one obvious source and invited into this discomfort and, crucially, a lack of clarity as to where we, situated in the perspective of this persona, belong in relationship to the ancestors.

Kiki Petrosino

Petrosino’s persona goes on to research people from their own genealogy, attempting to spar with little to no information, having only letters to suggest names, “B is for bright. A boy.” and “H, future mother of B. A slave girl born in 1830.” These snippets, which lead the persona only to the creation of “a folder called Nothing” give so little but leave the persona dubbing their discovery of absence “a lucky find”. Here, we are invited to consider how “nothing” illuminates something about the way these undocumented lives were lived, seen, and understood by their contemporaries who held the power over what was recorded in history. Because of this, Petrosino is able to give us something pivotal and thought-provoking in how she ends her poetry on a meaningful and revealing “nothing.”

Petrosino does not leave us with “nothing” to read, however, seeing the land that B eventually comes to possess as “his book” where he can write his own story. In the seventh poem of the first section, Petrosino writes “You do not love B, exactly. You love the wagon of his name”. This section presents a name, even a largely absent name, as a thing which can be occupied and used as a way of traveling, something present enough to allow Petrosino’s persona to go back in time and imagine “B’s voice calling haw! to his horses.” Even the scraps of information possessed are a version of victory for the persona, a partial and moving resurrection of a human life and story which they can enter as a space and feel as a human life in action.

The book’s second half, composed entirely of villanelles, returns into research, stating clearly the objective “You want to know who owned us & where./ But when you type, your searches return no results.” This straightforward use of language and short sentences set into a poetic form which requires the repetition of words and rhyme scheme helps to illustrate the horrible absurdity of not being able to find how and where your family was owned. The fact that the persona goes on to pray in order to find family graves and an inheritance of “sudden glints in the grass” makes real the desire to possess a kind of absence, to get a real hold on who’s gone and where they lived and were lost.

Near the end of Black Genealogy, the contemporary persona carries a printed copy of a law which states “Any/ descendent may access a grave.” before climbing a fence and feeling “free now”. This expression of deservedness, and even of righteousness, in finding and reaching the dead in one’s family is somewhat hauntingly undercut by the presence of the printed-out law, an item which communicates the persona’s need to constantly be ready to show that they do deserve what they are doing—gaining access to their past, family, legacy, and story in a country that may have otherwise forgotten it.

Petrosino’s skill lies in her ability to hold absence and lift it up to the reader of her poems in a way that renders it palpable; the gaps between trees, blank censuses, unknown names, and lost lives (both biologically and historically) are all revealed with significance and meaning rather than numbness or indifference. Black Genealogy is an act of resurrection and reclamation which itself preserves the history it re-discovers and highlights. The three comics which border the sections of poetry welcome the reader into a specific conversation between a Black woman and a man dressed as a Confederate General while the surrounding poems flow through the process of discovering, embodying, and arriving at lost family and forgotten history. Black Genealogy is a critical read for anyone interested in engaging with the space between history and autobiography, poetry and genealogical research, and erasure and survival.


claire-olesonCleaver Poetry Reviews Editor Claire Oleson is a writer hailing from Grand Rapids Michigan. She’s currently studying English and Creative Writing at Kenyon College. Her work has been published by the University of Kentucky’s graduate literary journal Limestone, Siblíní Art and Literature journal, Newfound Journal, NEAT Magazine, Werkloos Magazine, and Bridge Eight Magazine, among others. Contact her by email.

SPYING THROUGH THE KEYHOLE: A Novelist Grows Roots in the Glamorous, Twisted World of V. C. Andrews by Emma Sloley

SPYING THROUGH THE KEYHOLE:
A Novelist Grows Roots in the Glamorous, Twisted World of V. C. Andrews
by Emma Sloley

My sisters and I knew they were trash. That was part of the appeal. Virginia Andrews’ best-selling Dollanganger series (described by Wikipedia as “Gothic,” although I think that might be a tad generous) was so deliciously lurid in its themes and so over-the-top in its execution that it was like overdosing on the dessert buffet at the ersatz German smorgasbord restaurant my family used to go to in the 1980s. It made you feel bad afterwards, but damn, it was fun at the time.

For the uninitiated, if it’s even possible there exist humans unaware of Flowers in the Attic, the series concerns a family called Dollanganger (in hindsight, perhaps a sly play on doppelganger?) who, for reasons I can’t and don’t even care to remember, end up living with the mother’s parents in a big old Gothic mansion in Virginia, where the mother agrees to lock her four children away in an attic for an unspecified stretch of time. (Spoiler alert: it turns out to be years.) This is all a scheme of the extremely evil grandmother, who for vague, never satisfactorily explained reasons hates her grandchildren and wants to make sure her husband, their grandfather, never knows of their existence. Totally normal. Oh, and the grandmother is also into whipping people—including her own grown-ass daughter—as punishment for transgressions. The casual sadism that so shocked me as a teen feels now like a foreshadowing of the Fifty Shades phenomenon that would similarly shame-captivate readers three decades later.

The prose is not only purple—fragrances evoke “a musty, perfumed garden on a moonlit night somewhere in the Orient;” paper flowers are described as “limpid dark pools of iridescence,” and everyone’s hair is “flaxen”—but peppered with odd, almost archaic language. “Good-golly day!” and “golly-lolly!” characters exclaim. The children’s father (conveniently removed from the picture early on), addresses his wife thusly after a day at work: “Do you love me? —For I most certainly love you; did you miss me? —Are you glad I’m home? —Did you think about me when I was gone? Every night? Did you toss and turn and wish I were beside you, holding you close? For if you didn’t, Corrine, I might want to die.” In this world, even the good guys are creeps.

Andrews is so unapologetic in her glorious, adjectival, don’t-give-a-fuckness, and takes such glee in the baroque suffering of her characters, that her writing transcends trash and becomes a luminous thing of wonder. As luminous as the platinum, flaxen hair of the angelic, doomed Dollanganger children.

The covers, at least in the Australian editions, featured a sinister black flap with a keyhole cutout through which peeped the titular flowers (an extended metaphor for the four imprisoned children), whose pale, Aryan beauty is described by the author with a rapturous enthusiasm that in hindsight was kind of disturbing. The message was clear before you even cracked the spine: this was not a book for brunettes. This was a book for the ethereal blondes of the world, whose very beauty was a curse that could only ever lead to their downfall.

We were a reading family. On weekends, the big rambling Edwardian house in which we lived would fall silent as the women of the household—my mother, my three sisters and I—retreated to their favorite corners to turn pages and sip huge mugs of tea. (Dad was the only one who didn’t read. Then, as now, he would always be off somewhere, wiry and taciturn and completely untouched by the need to live vicariously through fiction, whistling while chopping things down or building them up, like a kind of gentle Australian Marlborough Man.)

V. C. Andrews

My parents were, especially for the era, permissive and open-minded, both teachers and staunch believers in free speech and childhoods unrestrained by parental sanctions. My dad, the famous non-reader, had even done a stint as a librarian. The idea of censorship was anathema to them. We were allowed to read anything we could get our hands on: Lolita, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Slaughterhouse Five. There was no fear that such stories—each subversive for its time—were a bad influence, because how could great literature ever be a bad influence? Yet I remember their unease about the Virginia Andrews books. When Flowers in the Attic fever was at its height, they must have come across the books at their own schools and perhaps been alarmed at the corrupting grip they had on burgeoning female minds. (Or, it only now occurs to me, perhaps they were more alarmed at the idea that their daughters, whom they had painstakingly reared to be erudite and intellectually curious, would suddenly develop such bad taste.) I don’t recall them outright banning the reading of the five-book series at home, but my sisters and I got the message nevertheless. These stories were dangerous, unwholesome. There was something about them that made adults deeply uncomfortable, and so, of course, that just increased their dirty allure.

Beyond the obviously titillating details—neglectful mothers, wicked grandmothers, emotionally abusive men and incest galore—lay the real appeal of these thick volumes. They offered a vision of the world that was racier and more glamorous than anything in my happy but boring sphere of existence. As a shy teenager living a hopelessly sheltered suburban life in Melbourne, I was ravenous to live vicariously through narratives that flouted society’s stuffy rules and boundaries. The more over-the-top the telling, the better. Just as little children want to believe in Santa and the Easter Bunny, I wanted to believe in a world where mothers allowed their inconvenient children to be locked in attics, blue-rinsed grandparents were into kinky BDSM and brothers and sisters found solace in each other’s arms. (It helped that I didn’t have a real-life brother when it came to not being grossed out by this plot point.) I didn’t want to live in such a world, of course, but to peek in at it through the keyhole.

I was so smitten that I would finish the last book and go right back to the beginning of the tattered series and start again. (The titles are so glorious I feel compelled to list them here in full: Petals on the Wind, If There Be Thorns, Seeds of Yesterday, and Garden of Shadows.) We re-readers are used to being scorned and misunderstood. Our obsessions recall the bromide about how insanity is doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different result. But of course that’s not why I, or any of us, reread: I not only expected the same result, I demanded it. I longed to feel that delicious shiver again, that rush of adrenaline at being plunged into V.C. Andrews’ glamorous, twisted world. Even her characters understood the comfort of being transported to another world through the pages of a book. Cathy, the series’ heroine, and her brother Chris get through their ordeal in the attic by reading the dusty volumes they find hidden in trunks. No sexy trash for them, though. They devoured Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Shakespeare, Eugene O’Neill, Charlotte Bronte.

Something about her decision to name-check those classics makes me suspect that Andrews had her own complicated relationship to literature. Perhaps she subscribed to the idea that part of a balanced reading diet is consuming both high-brow and low-brow books, especially if the latter have something to teach you about storytelling. And if you overlook the flowery prose and prurient subject matter of the series, it’s obvious she had a sophisticated understanding of plotting, suspense, and foreshadowing, all skills I’ve endeavored—and often failed—to master in my own life as a writer.

It’s easy to dismiss the series as irredeemable tripe, to understand why parents might consider it unsuitable reading for impressionable minds. But I stand steadfast in my affection for them. There was a kind of dark magic to those books. Every time in my life that I’ve mentioned them, I’ve noticed the eyes of female friends light up as they are transported back to their own relationship with those subversive, hallowed pages. It’s a kind of secret sisterhood, a cult of guilty pleasure. Maybe it reminds us of a more innocent time, when there was still the possibility of being corrupted.


Emma Sloley is a travel journalist and fiction writer whose work has appeared in Catapult, The Tishman Review, Lunch Ticket, Travel + Leisure and New York magazine, among many others. She is a MacDowell fellow and has just completed her debut novel, Disaster’s Children. Born in Australia, Emma now divides her time between the US, Mexico, and various airport lounges. You can find her on Twitter @Emma_Sloley

HER BODIES AND OTHER PARTIES, stories by Carmen Maria Machado, reviewed by Rosie Huf

HER BODIES AND OTHER PARTIES
by Carmen Maria Machado
Graywolf Press, 245 pages
reviewed by Rosie Huf

For those of us still traumatized by the 2016 Presidential election, the debut novel Her Body and Other Parties, by Carmen Maria Machado, is the emotional and intellectual release for which we have been waiting. It is electric with the #Resist spirit. It underscores the importance of the #MeToo movement. And, it tackles issues such as gender, language, and human interaction through a fresh, folkloric perspective. Winner of the Bard Fiction Prize and finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction, the Kirkus Prize, and the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize, this collection of ten short stories is timeless, yet also a necessary way to transition from 2017 to 2018.

A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop with an MFA in fiction, and current Writer in Residence at the University of Pennsylvania, Carmen Maria Machado has a deft hand at spinning culturally relative, purpose-driven narrative. Into each short story she’s woven elements of pop culture, feminist social criticism, literary fiction, and magical realism, varying each in measure. Threads of influence from authors such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Virginia Woolf, Zora Neale Hurston, even a little Andrea Dworkin strengthen Machado’s overarching theme, which is a clear call for renewed efforts toward female liberation: Liberation for women to genuinely desire and enjoy sexual gratification without fear or stigma; liberation to be an individual with thoughts and actions and intimate moments separate from her spouse or lover; and liberation to exist creatively outside the stereotypical confines of the male perspective.

Three stories in particular exemplify Machado’s literary skill as well as her commitment to furthering discussion on feminist and social issues: “The Husband Stitch,” “Especially Heinous,” and “Real Women Have Bodies.”

“The Husband Stitch” paints the portrait of a woman whose head is being held to her body by the grace of a single green ribbon. She is nameless and frequently recounts folktales she heard as a girl that run parallel to her own life’s journey. The paradox of her situation is that although she fulfills every wifely duty expected of her by her husband, society, and cultural tradition—from performing as the insatiable, sexual nymph most men desire to bearing a son her body could barely hold—it is still not enough for him. Everything that belongs to her belongs to him.

That night, after my son is in bed, my husband reaches his hand across the couch and slides it up my leg.

“Come to me,” he says, and I twinge with pleasure. I slide off the couch, smoothing my skirt very prettily as I shuffle over to him on my knees. I kiss his leg, running my hand up to his belt, tugging him from his bonds before swallowing him whole. He runs his hands through my hair, stroking my head, groaning and pressing into me. And I don’t realize that his hand is sliding down the back of my neck until he is trying to loop his fingers through the ribbon. I gasp and pull away quickly, falling back and frantically checking my bow […]

He is silent for a long minute, then “A wife should have no secrets.”

My nose grows hot. I do not want to cry. “I’ve given you everything you have ever asked for,” I say. “Am I not allowed this one thing?”

For him to feel loved, as if she is truly bound to him, he must possess all aspects of her being. This is the tale told by grandmothers to granddaughters over boiling pots in a kitchen: beware of people who take pleasure in the complete consumption of others.

In “Especially Heinous,” basically a collection within a collection, Machado has strategically crafted micro-narratives from the ascending episode titles of Law and Order: SUV. There is one story for every episode of SUV’s first twelve seasons. This piece is laden with pop-culture allusions and nods to feminist theory. It is particularly reminiscent, tangentially, of Dworkin’s essay, “I Want a Twenty-Four Hour Truce During Which There is No Rape.” In truth, many parts of this collection seem like a nod to Dworkin’s essay. Machado describes the episode “Vulnerable”:

For three days in a row, there is not a single victim in the entire precinct. No rapes. No murders. No kidnappings. No child pornography made, bought, or sold. No molestations. No sexual assaults. No sexual harassments. No forced prostitution. No human trafficking. No subway gropings. No incest. No indecent exposures. No stalking. Not even an unwanted dirty phone call. Then, in the gloaming of a Wednesday, a man wolf-whistles at a woman on her way to an AA meeting. The whole city releases its long-held breath, and everything returns to normal.

And then, describing the episode “Screwed”:

The DA calls in sick, again. “The sixty-fifth story,” Benson whispers into her ear, “is about a world that watches you and me and everyone. Watches our suffering like it’s a game. Can’t stop. Can’t tear themselves away. If they could stop, we could stop, but they won’t, so we can’t.”

The story speaks to the thesis that were viewers not consumed with violent content, not conditioned to accept violence and aggression as bi-products of humanity’s existence, we would possibly have a better chance at eradicating rape, murder, human trafficking, etc. We should be cognizant, Machado warns through her micro-narratives, of our actions, or lack thereof, which cultivate and sustain the suffering of others.

Later in the collection, with visions of disappearing women, “Real Women have Bodies” touches on the detrimental effects of miseducation on female existence.

Carmen Maria Machado

The narrator, again nameless, works at Glam, a special occasion dress shop owned by an older woman named Gizzy. The store sells all types gowns, ranging in price and design, but the most popular ones come with a secret. Folded into the fabric of highly sought after dresses, unseen by the unobservant patrons, are remains of the disappearing women. “The women started showing up a few years ago—they just fold themselves into the needlework, like it was what they wanted,” Petra, the daughter of the seamstress tells Machado’s narrator.

The narrator asks, “Did you try to tell Gizzy?”

To which Petra responds, “Of Course. But she said that as long as they sought us out, it was all right. And those dresses do so well—they sell more than any my mother has ever made before. It’s like people want them like that, even if they don’t realize it.”

While later contemplating the problem of these disappearing women, the narrator watches a mother admonish her young daughter for wanting a pretzel because “Pretzels are junk food. They will make you fat.” Another night she watches the evening news, where “pundits point fingers at each other, screaming as the cohost between them shimmers and wavers under studio lights. They are talking about how [they] can’t trust faded women […then] the woman blinks away mid-broadcast, a microphone tumbling to the floor. The camera scrambles to look away.” By the end of this story, the narrator concludes, “None of us will make it to the end.”

Outside the pages of this collection, young girls, well under the age of 18, take to the internet daily asking strangers to rank their hotness. Teens commit suicide because of shaming. The fashion industry Photoshops models and suffocates readers with unattainable beauty standards; they propagate mindsets that excuse fatal eating habits. And powerful men silence women because our voices are not conducive to their happy endings. Fiction mirrors reality, and this piece of fiction questions, “What are we doing to our women?”

Through ten separate yet tangentially themed stories, Machado’s female protagonists struggle to fill internal voids that inevitably lead to their self-destruction. By the end of each piece, the reader is left questioning to what extent the narrator lives by her own sense of agency; and, to what extent is she merely acting in reaction to the experiences put upon her by family, friends, acquaintances, and social expectation.

Over the course of several centuries, women have been speaking plainly and boldly about the treatment of their gender by society. Yet even through the clearest, most succinct rhetoric, their points were only half heard. So Carmen Maria Machado has, it would seem, chosen to continue their efforts via a more inventive, striking method of narrative. Her Body and Other Parties leaves readers raw from self-reflection and spikes of unexpected but due emotion. Yet it is a relief to respond so sharply to Machado’s collection, rather than misguided presidential tweets, or discussions of our failing, democratic system.


Rosie-Huf-200Rosie Huf is the Senior Editor of Cleaver Magazine’s Life As Activism feature and manages the Editors’ Blog. Recently, she received her Master of Liberal Studies degree from Arizona State University, the concentration in Nonfiction and Publishing. She has had several interviews published in Superstition Review and has a forthcoming nonfiction piece in Sundog Lit.

Michelle Fost Interviews Marc Labriola

A Conversation with Marc Labriola, Author of DYING BEHAVIOUR OF CATS, from Quattro Books (Winner of the 2017 Ken Klonsky Award), 124 Pages

Interview by Michelle Fost

Congratulations to Marc Labriola on winning the 2017 Ken Klonsky Award for Dying Behaviour of Cats, along with publication of the novella by Quattro Books. You can read Marc’s first two published short stories, “Cutman” and “Self-Portrait with Broken Nose,” in Issues 7 and 9 of Cleaver Magazine. In Marc’s latest work, we follow Theo, a man shut inside the home of his father after a hurricane. There is a leopard perched above him, on the roof. Theo watches the news reporting his story on television, where they split the screen: on one side, Theo, and on the other, the leopard; as the crowd across the street looks on, Theo views himself as half man, half beast.


Michelle Fost: The leopard on the roof! In Dying Behaviour of Cats, Theo’s rich inner life seems to have become externalized. I wondered if there are writers who were models for you for what you set out to do here. Writers you admire? Can you talk a little about influences?

Marc Labriola: Yes, let’s begin with influences. A lot of my writing begins under it. Writing Dying Behaviour of Cats, it wasn’t “writers” who were influential so much as “books.” I’ll tell you what I mean by that. Theo’s a shut-in, so he becomes an expert on killing time. In one chapter he re-imagines the objects in his house for the purposes of entertainment. He figures out that if he blows into a baritone mouthpiece it sounds like starting a car. Or if he opens the latch of his sax case, he hears a gun cocking. Killing time, he realizes that everything doubles for something else. The most important thing he has though, are books, in particular, abandoned books; books left by his wife Catalina when she ran out on him. The Poetic Edda. Solomon and Saturn. Oedipus Rex. Odi et Amo, and others.

When I was writing the novella, I started reading the books that Theo would be reading, so they end up bleeding into the narrative. I read a lot of Catullus, this ancient Roman poet, who is Catalina’s favorite. Catullus is crazy. He goes from erotic love poem to obscene rant. That’s kind of a good way to describe Dying Behaviour of Cats. This happened to me with music too. I wrote most of this book under the influence of John Coltrane’s Interstellar Space album.

But if you’re looking to place this book in terms of writing style, it’s kind of like Gabriel Garcia Marquez trying to out drink Charles Bukowski.

MF: Cleaver published two of your stories, “Cutman” and “Self-Portrait with Broken Nose.” I wondered how you would compare writing the novella with writing short stories.

ML: Writing a novella is different from writing short stories because it ruins your life for longer. It’s as if everything in your real life has to answer to the fictional world you’ve created. Sometimes I’m chasing a word or an idea and I’m waiting for the city to somehow leave it in a place for me to trip over. On a street corner or subway car or back alley. It’s like I’m waiting for things to remind me of myself. And then when the city answers back, it’s like finding a man on the street that looks like you. You recognize yourself in strange things. Even simple things you encounter— a cat climbing the fire escape to the roof, a wedding ring beside the tub, a house key lying on the street, an open bathroom mirror, makes you aware that you are touching these amulets of everyday life. When I’m writing, everything has this symbolic weight.

Writing a novella is different from writing short stories because it ruins your life for longer. It’s as if everything in your real life has to answer to the fictional world you’ve created.

MF: Anything that stands out for you about the process of writing or revising the novella?

ML: I didn’t really start the book until I thought I was done. That’s when the real writing happened. The first time I read the manuscript from start to finish was in the middle of the night. And intersections between characters and ideas, that I’d never originally intended, started to emerge. And I cultivated those moments. So you will see strange symbols that unite the book—the colour red, eggs, the crab constellation, Saturn, the saxophone, and of course, cats. The test for truth is the collision of ideas, as if every moment in a story is just a return to what’s true. If that doesn’t happen, you can keep pounding on its chest, but the story won’t come to life.

MF: Are there things you accomplished in the novella that you’re especially pleased with? Any surprises during the writing?

ML: I made a discovery when I decided to eliminate dialogue. Don’t get me wrong, many characters speak throughout the book. But when they speak, their lines are embedded inside the words of the narrator. But then I took it a step further. When the story takes you towards the innermost thoughts of Theo, for example, the narrator too, becomes bewitched by the character and takes on the language of that character. Then when we are exposed to the thoughts of Catalina, the narrator adopts the “language” of Catalina. When you read the book, it forces you to read in this way, constantly moving in and out of the lexis of each character. The best way I can describe my narrative voice in Dying Behaviour of Cats is “demonic possession.”

MF: Reading and thinking about your stories and now Dying Behaviour of Cats, I was struck by a continued fascination with a cluster of themes—violence, masculinity, awareness of the body—and with a surprising lyricism that can develop out of a gritty, often crude surface. Theo from the novella and Andrea and Ben from the stories in Cleaver might be neighbors. Is their world one we can expect you to continue to write about in your next work? What’s next?

ML: It’s very interesting that you say that Andrea, Ben, and Theo, these three ruined men, could be neighbours, because my original conception was for a short story collection where all the characters lived in the same run-down apartment building. But, like a lot of conception, there are happy accidents. Dying Behaviour of Cats is one of those. This small story of a leopard on a man’s roof ended up uncoiling into a novella.

But, let’s talk about violence. You’re right about this cluster of themes. You know the first day I met my editor, he asked me to meet him in a café on the bottom floor of the building where the publishing house is. I knew what he looked like from the photos of him on the backs of his books, but he didn’t know me from Adam. So, I walk in to our first meeting, shoes polished, wearing this light grey Italian suit. And I see him right away. I go up to him and say, “Hi, Luciano?” He turns to me and says, “Holy shit, Marc? Are you Marc Labriola?” From reading my work, he thought I would show up with a split lip. Maybe a black eye. Or with a bottle of bourbon in a brown paper bag. Anyway, I’m telling you this because, yes, the novel focuses on the body, but it doesn’t end with the body.

The first day I met my editor… he turns to me and says, “Holy shit, Marc? Are you Marc Labriola?” From reading my work, he thought I would show up with a split lip. Maybe a black eye. Or with a bottle of bourbon in a brown paper bag. Anyway, I’m telling you this because, yes, the novel focuses on the body, but it doesn’t end with the body.

At one point, Theo tries to see how long he can go without eating, without sleeping, then without speaking. He is trying to break through the boundaries of his own body. The parts of the book that are most focused on the body are all about attempts to transcend it. At one point, after Theo has tried to hurt himself, he realizes that through trying to die, he feels as though he is slowly becoming immortal. That he has been building up a tolerance to death. And I think that’s very true of suffering. The same is true with your comment about masculinity. When you think it is most about the “masculine,” you find Theo searching for the mother who abandoned him, the wife who ran off. Hunting femininity and divinity.

In terms of what’s next, I’m currently writing a novel. It begins when an internationally renowned author dies at 90 years old, and surprises his family by requesting in his will that his body be buried in the little town in Mexico that was the setting for his most famous book. When his body is sent, and the world realizes the true location of his famous novel, journalists descend on the town, intent on discovering if the now cult characters actually exist in real life.

MF: Thanks so much for taking the time to answer these questions, and congratulations on the Ken Klonsky Prize and the publication. Best way to order a copy of Dying Behaviour of Cats?

ML: In Canada the book is available at Indigo, Chapters, Book City, and online retailers. In the US, the book is available online through Barnes and Noble and Amazon.


Michelle Fost is a writer living in Toronto. Her writing has appeared in Geist Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and elsewhere. She is a book review and fiction editor at Cleaver.

SCHLUMP, a novel by Hans Herbert Grimm, reviewed by Kelly Doyle

SCHLUMP
by Hans Herbert Grimm
translated by Jamie Bulloch
NYRB, 263 pages

reviewed by Kelly Doyle

When Hans Herbert Grimm’s semi-autobiographical novel Schlump was published in 1928 alongside All Quiet on the Western Front, it was advertised as a “truthful depiction” of World War I. It is no surprise that Grimm took on the the pseudonym Schlump, just as his protagonist does, to hide his identity. As explained by Volker Weidermann in the afterward, Grimm “describe[s] the German soldiers of the Great War as less than heroic,” and “the entire war as a cruel, bad joke.” While this caused the Nazis to burn his book in 1933, today it gives the text, translated by Jamie Bulloch, a feeling of authenticity.

The novel opens in Germany to a sixteen-year-old troublemaker, Emil Schulz also known as Schlump, who can “think of nothing but girls and the war.” It is 1915 and, picturing himself in a flashy military uniform, he defies his parents and volunteers to join the German army in WWI for nothing more than honor and sex. His romanticised idea of war is strikingly unrealistic; Grimm describes it like a painting, without the sounds and smells and feelings of real war. He imagines that as soldiers they will “lean on the muzzles of their rifles, dreaming of home and being reunited with loved ones. In the morning they’[ll] break camp and march singing into battle, where some [will] fall and others [will] be wounded. Eventually, the war [will] be won and they’[ll] return home victorious. Girls [will] throw flowers from windows and the celebrations [will] never end.” He does not delve into the true meaning of his commitment or the gravity of his sacrifice. The novel follows Schlump’s time in the army, but is interspersed with other stories, which take the form of long monologues by an array of characters. The stories are scattered, leaving the reader with not much to grasp onto except a flurry of people and places and ideas, with occasional moments of powerful emotion and dark humor.

Schlump is first stationed in a French town where he receives the respect and female attention he desires. It is hard not to be struck negatively by the depictions of women in the novel. Grimm sets the tone with the very first description of Schlump’s mother at the start of the novel. “When her tiny breasts began to swell beneath her blouse and she realized that she was a girl, she stayed quietly at home, dreaming of pretty clothes and beautiful shoes,” he writes. “Back then all the boys would give anything to get a good gawp at her.” In France, Schlump’s romantic hopes for women and war, modeled after this standard, come to be. Everything seems to go just as he imagined and his innocence remains precariously intact. He meets countless caregiving women who jump at the opportunity to feed him, sleep with him, and ask for nothing in return. He never considers his cause or his nationality or that he is in a position of authority over the women who give themselves to him. The sounds of cannons in the distance are adopted as part of the landscape. While Schlump does not think about death or danger, the reader can feel them looming in the distance, highlighted by his exaggerated naivete. When Schlump is finally sent to the front lines, he is entirely unprepared and his transition into adulthood occurs in a matter of moments. “It was as if he’d awoken from a deep sleep; for the first time in his life he was thinking seriously about himself and the world.”

Hans Herbert Grimm

Grimm’s narration of the story produces an odd sort of disconnect. In close third person, sometimes the reader receives great insight into Schlump’s thoughts, but other times none at all. Perhaps Schlump himself could not even narrate his own feelings amid the barbarity of the front line. His outward emotional state varies between utter boredom, long days filled with dirt, lice, and aching feet, and extreme highs of adrenaline that cause him to laugh and howl on the battlefield like a madman. He never dwells long on the suffering and death of others and describes these atrocities matter of factly, but his compassion is revealed through his dreams of fallen comrades happy and in love.

Eventually, Schlump begins to think that the only way that the war can become what he imagined, the only way that he can overcome the military hierarchy and achieve the respect that is denied footsoldiers, is by becoming a hero. He waits for an opportunity to act heroically and, after a long time, one presents itself. The narrator explains that, retreating from an attack on the other side, a “young fellow, became stuck in the barbed wire” outside of the trenches “and couldn’t go forwards or backwards.” The boy is shot and injured gruesomely. Schlump, in the hopes of becoming a hero, runs into the open, “untangle[s] the boy…and carrie[s] him in such a way as to shield him from enemy fire.” By the time Schlump returns to the trenches with his burden, the boy is dead. This signifies the beginning of Schlump’s true change. Not only is he aware of the danger of war, but he is aware of his own position within it. He realizes that there is no honor to be had for him. This is soon followed by another realization. “We’ve lost the war,” he says. There is nothing glamorous or beautiful about nitty-gritty, day to day war, only the romanticised broader story that incorporates a cause. Grimm uses this contrast to meditate on the differences between an individual’s war and a nation’s.

“Are you trying to tell me the individual counts for anything?” asks one particularly interesting character, another soldier who Schlump refers to as “the philosopher.” “The individual is nothing,” the philosopher says, “he has no intrinsic value, he is just part of a much larger totality, a nation. The individual has no soul, but a nation does. And the individual only has value when he is of use to his people […] Indeed, it would be better if we forgot the names of these men altogether.” The reader does, in fact, begin to forget Schlump’s true name, Emil. And, amid the constant cameos of one character after another, it becomes hard to remember anyone’s name. Even the author was nameless at the time of publication. The war on this micro level is confusing and chaotic, nothing like the macro level story commonly told that Schlump himself had once believed. But the characters who remain at home and out of the trenches remind the reader that these individual tragedies are significant and far-reaching.

A young woman, Johanna, makes this clear when she writes to Schlump from the homefront. “You’ll wonder who is writing you this letter, and yet you know who I am, because it’s me you kissed beneath the chestnut trees when the war broke out,” she writes. “You said you’d dance with me in the Reichsadler, but you didn’t come. But I haven’t been able to forget you.” Poor Joanna is tormented by the thought of her beloved in war. “I’ve had no peace,” she writes. “You can do what you want, just let me know you’re alive.” The words of mourning from Johanna, Schlump, and all the other soldiers he meets along the way solidify the philosopher’s theory as insane. It proves to be an unsustainable mentality. No one can truly adopt the perspective of the nation without completely losing the sense of himself.

Wars are often reported as if there is one winner and one loser. Each battle is a single event, each loss, a single loss. But when put under a microscope, as Grimm does, it becomes clear that a war produces thousands of personal tragedies on both sides. Perhaps that is why Grimm wrote the novel as a patchwork of random lives, tiny story after tiny story, beginning each portrait before abruptly moving on to the next, simply to overwhelm the reader with the sheer scale of lives interrupted. From this outlook, Schlump’s moments of humor and optimism and his uncanny ability to survive make him a hero in a way he never anticipated simply by providing the story that rarely exists, even in newspaper reports.


Kelly Doyle studies English, creative writing, and psychology at Emory University. Her fiction has appeared in Firewords Quarterly, Stories Through the Ages College Edition, and others. She is the editor-in-chief of Emory’s literary magazine, Alloy, and she works in a developmental memory lab on campus. She loves to read and travel, and she plans to pursue a career in writing.

TWO FLASH PIECES by Fabio Morábito  translated from the Italian by Curtis Bauer

TWO FLASH PIECES
by Fabio Morábito 
translated from the Spanish
by Curtis Bauer

1.
In Honor Of Dictation

My friend BR gives me the manuscript of his novel because he wants to know what I think. I read it and we make plans to meet in a café to talk. The novel is mediocre, like almost everything BR writes. I give him my critique, which essentially rests on one problem: he tries to maintain too much control. As if he were afraid that the story he’s telling wasn’t enough for a novel, he stretches out his descriptions and rambles on. While the reader gets bored, he accumulates pages. So much digression soaks up what little juice there is in the story and, when something finally happens, it’s hardly noticeable. I say all this to BR politely and with as much tact as possible, citing the parts of the book where I find this defect most obvious. He writes down everything I say and barely raises his eyes to look at me. His diligence is touching, but soon enough I’m annoyed. Because he doesn’t look at me, I feel like I’m talking to myself, as if BR were my secretary and I his boss dictating some business letter to him. “Stop taking notes,” I say so he’ll look me in the eyes, but after a pause, he starts taking notes again, like a student. Then I realize that his punctilious method of jotting down my critiques is his way of circumventing them. By putting them in writing he can stop listening to me. He doesn’t hear me, he doesn’t want to hear me, and there’s no better way to disguise his disinterest than by transcribing what I say. As soon as he realized I hadn’t liked his novel he ceased paying attention and hid behind his notes. Come to think of it, he does the same thing with me that he does with his novels: he flees by means of some feverish annotation. It’s not that he is controlling anything, but that he’s simply not writing. When he has a story at its most critical stage, it’s as much his fear of not being able to write it, by which he subtly moves away from it through digressions, as it is that he moves away from me, making my words into some cold dictation. Because he only knows how to write from dictation, his head lowered, accumulating phrases that become pure words, words that become pure signs, signs that become strokes, strokes that become nothing. He only cares about pages.

Al dictado

Mi amigo BR me entrega el manuscrito de su novela porque desea saber mi opinión. Lo leo y nos citamos en un café para hablar. La novela es mediocre, como casi todo lo que escribe BR. Le hago mi crítica, que estriba esencialmente en un problema: se administra demasiado. Como si temiera que la historia que está contando no le alcanzará para una novela, alarga las descripciones y divaga. Mientras el lector se aburre, él acumula páginas. Tanta digresión se come el poco jugo que hay en la historia y, cuando por fin sucede algo, apenas se nota. Le digo todo esto a BR con los debidos modales y la menor crudeza posible, citando las partes del libro donde encuentro este defecto más patente. Él apunta todo lo que digo y apenas levanta los ojos para mirarme. Su aplicación me conmueve, pero muy pronto me exaspera. Al faltarme su mirada siento que estoy hablando solo, como si BR fuera mi secretaria y yo su jefe, que le dicta una carta de negocios. «Deja de apuntar», le digo para que me mire a los ojos, pero él después de una pausa vuelve a tomar nota como un alumno. Entonces me doy cuenta de que su forma de anotar puntillosamente mis críticas es una manera de eludirlas. Al ponerlas por escrito puede dejar de oírme. No me oye, no me quiere oír, y nada mejor para disimular su desinterés que transcribir lo que digo. Tan pronto como comprendió que su novela no me había gustado, dejó de prestarme atención y se escondió detrás de sus apuntes. Pensándolo bien, hace conmigo lo mismo que hace con sus novelas: se da a la fuga por medio de una anotación febril. No es que se administre, sino que de plano no escribe. Cuando tiene una historia en puño, es tanto su miedo a no poder escribirla, que la aparta sutilmente a base de digresiones, como me aparta a mí, convirtiendo mis palabras en un frío dictado. Porque él sólo sabe escribir bajo dictado, la cabeza gacha, acumulando frases que se vuelven puras palabras, palabras que se vuelven puros signos, signos que se vuelven trazos, trazos que se vuelven nada. Sólo le importan las páginas.

 


2.
Underline Books

Books are made of phrases, obviously, they are like bricks in construction, and just as it’s difficult to notice the beauty of a brick, sentences, when we read, pass by relatively unnoticed, washed away by the flow of speech, as they should. To dwell too long on a sentence shows a lack of experience; what matters in a book is the assemblage, the verbal edifice, not its components. And yet there is a rather vague habit of underlining books. The underlined belies the edifice and enhances the brick, the humble block compressed between a thousand identical blocks; it is a sort of rescue operation, as if each underlining were saying: save this phrase from the clutches of the book, release this jewel from the swamp that surrounds it. It is widely acknowledged that whoever begins to underline cannot stop; underlinings multiply, a plague takes over the book, another book appears in its interior, an autonomous republic. The underliner thinks: if I underlined that phrase, how I am not going to underline this one, and this other one, and also that one? The underliner becomes a second author of the book, extracting from this one the book he would have wanted to write, he becomes involved in an open argument with the book he’s reading, submitting it to a relentless poaching of underlineable phrases. One day I had to ask for one of my books in a university library to verify some information. I discovered that the copy was liberally underlined. The thing pleased me, of course, since underlinings are evidence of diligent and passionate reading. Very soon, however, I was overcome with an ambiguous feeling that became frankly annoying. I didn’t agree with what was underlined. My anonymous reader had overlooked passages that seemed to me quite remarkable and highlighted instead lines that were merely functional, inert. I found myself in conflict with my own book, mentally tracing my own underlinings, pulling from my own book another book, one that I would have liked to write and that, I only then realized, I had half-finished.

Subrayar libros

Los libros están hechos de frases, obvio, que son como los ladrillos de la construcción, y del mismo modo que es difícil reparar en la hermosura de un ladrillo, las frases, cuando leemos, pasan relativamente inadvertidas, arrastradas por el flujo del discurso, como debe ser. El detenerse demasiado en una frase es signo de inmadurez; lo que importa en un libro es el conjunto, el edificio verbal, no sus componentes. Y sin embargo es costumbre bastante difusa subrayar libros. El subrayado desmiente el edificio y realza el ladrillo, el humilde tabique comprimido entre mil tabiques idénticos; es una suerte de operación de rescate, como si cada subrayado dijera: salven esta frase de las garras del libro, liberen esta joya del pantano que la rodea. Es bien sabido que, quien empieza a subrayar, no puede detenerse; los subrayados se multiplican, una plaga se apodera del libro, surge otro libro en su interior, una república autónoma. El subrayador piensa: si subrayé aquella frase, ¿cómo no voy a subrayar ésta, y esta otra, y también aquélla? El subrayador se vuelve un segundo autor del libro, extrae de éste el libro que él hubiera querido escribir, entra en franca controversia con el libro que lee, al que somete a una implacable cacería de frases subrayables. Un día tuve que pedir un libro mío en una biblioteca universitaria para verificar un dato. Descubrí que el ejemplar estaba profusamente subrayado. La cosa me halagó, por supuesto, pues los subrayados son la evidencia de una lectura acuciosa y apasionada. Muy pronto, sin embargo, me invadió una sensación ambigua que se tornó francamente fastidiosa. No estaba de acuerdo con los subrayados. Mi anónimo lector había pasado por alto pasajes que me parecían muy remarcables y resaltado en cambio líneas meramente operativas, inertes. Me hallé en pugna con mi propio libro, trazando mentalmente mis propios subrayados, sacándole a mi libro otro libro, aquel que hubiera querido escribir y que, sólo ahora me daba cuenta, había escrito a medias.


Fabio Morábito was born in Alexandria, Egypt in 1955 to Italian parents. He moved to Milan when he was five, and when he was fifteen moved to Mexico City, where he currently lives and works at the Autonomous University of Mexico. Morábito is the author of four poetry collections; two novels, including Caja de herramientas (Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1989), which was translated into English by Geoff Hargreaves and published by Xenox Books in 1996; five books of short stories; and three books of essays, including El idioma materno (Sexto Piso, 2014). He is the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including the Premio Nacional de Poesía Aguascalientes, the Premio White Raven, and the Premio Antonin Artaud. Morábito is also a prolific translator, and has translated the complete works of Eugenio Montale and Aminto de Torquato Tasso into Spanish. Though much of Morábito’s work has been translated into French, German, Italian, and Portuguese, relatively little has been translated into English.

Curtis Bauer is the author of two poetry collections, most recently The Real Cause for Your Absence. He is also a translator of poetry and prose from the Spanish. His publications include the full-length poetry collections Image of Absence, by Jeannette Clariond, by Jeannette L. Clariond, Eros Is More, by Juan Antonio González Iglesias, and From Behind What Landscape, by Luis Muñoz. He is the publisher and editor of Q Avenue Press Chapbooks, and the Translations Editor for From the Fishouse and Waxwing Journal. He teaches Creative Writing and Comparative Literature at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas.

 

Image credit: Public Domain Pictures

 

SUFFER THE CHILDREN by Mary Ann McGuigan

SUFFER THE CHILDREN
by Mary Ann McGuigan

Moira’s son is snuggling against his grandfather on the couch. That’s all. Just resting on the old man’s shoulder, his forehead against his frayed collar. Michael looks tired, sweaty. There’s color high in his cheeks, as if he’s just come in from play. The sliding glass door is slightly open, and she can hear her father singing to him, something low, soft, painfully familiar. His knee moves up and down in steady cadence with the song. Eyes closed, they seem lost in each other’s comfort. She tries to swallow, but it tastes like acid, so she spits into the grass.

She turns and walks back to the front of the house, nails pressed into her palms, and lets herself into Bridget’s kitchen. She keeps her voice down, her tone nearly reasonable. “I thought I told you I didn’t want him near the boys.”

Her sister turns off the faucet and dries her hands on a towel. “What’s the problem? Michael’s crazy about him.” Their father is blind, has been for years, but Moira wonders if Bridget picked the towel to please him, because it’s covered with shamrocks. She’s been inclined to come to his defense lately, reminiscing about how he used to make them laugh, tell scary stories, play make-believe. He’d be the grumpy store proprietor, claiming to be out of every item they asked him for.

Moira drops her shoulder bag onto a kitchen chair with a sudden thud. “That’s nonsense. He’s something different, that’s all. The stories, the odd expressions. Where’s Sean?”

“I’m telling you he hangs on his every word.”

“Yeah, because he’s a walking encyclopedia of baseball trivia.” She spots Michael’s schoolbooks on the counter and crosses the room to gather them up. “Where is Sean?”

“Upstairs with Cathy. Doing homework.”

When her father moved in with her a few months ago, she tried taking walks with him, telling him about her scholarships, her first teaching job. She wanted to connect. That was the plan. He answered in nods and grunts, offered nothing in return but tired stories about drinking with his brothers and getting thrown out of taverns for brawling. In the yard one afternoon, when the boys were washing the dog, she put her arm around him, an impulsive gesture that made her chest tighten. She’d just finished telling him about how hard it was to adjust when she was away at Boston College, until she found cover with a small circle of friends, fellow misfits. She thought he’d understand. He’d talked many times about how alone he felt when he arrived in New York as a boy, his mother still in Derry. His uncle rarely spoke to him. He showed him the cot he’d sleep on and went off to work. But her father only laughed at her confessions, in a way that made her feel exposed. “You were one of those hippie types, I bet.” He was almost growling. “Peace and love and all the rest of the easy answers.”

“Is it really so bad if Michael likes him?” Bridget is blocking Moira’s way, standing close to her. She tucks a strand of her sister’s hair behind her ear, the way she did when they were girls, when she was left in charge while their mother worked. “Isn’t that what you wanted to begin with?”

Moira steps away from her. The tension in her jaw spreads down her neck, tightening her muscles, because what she wanted can’t be spoken, can’t be acknowledged without admitting what a fool she was to think she’d get it. After the blow-up with Sean, she told her father to leave. As she helped him pack, she thought he’d try to explain, persuade her to let him stay. But he didn’t. He was as sullen as a teenager.

“How often is he here?” Moira says, but her throat is constricted, the words too soft, and Bridget can’t hear her. She has to say it again.

“Peter drops him off on Tuesdays and Fridays.” Her sister glances at the wall clock, a bit too nonchalantly, and returns to the vegetables on the counter. “He’ll be here any minute to collect him.”

Moira slides open the zipper on the backpack, finds the harsh sound satisfying. “You knew I wouldn’t want this.”

“He doesn’t bother with Sean,” Bridget insists, as if that’s the only problem. “He keeps his distance.”

“I don’t want him near either one of them. He went after Sean with no warning.”

Bridget gives her a look, lips pursed in a smirk. She doesn’t believe her, and Moira wonders if their father has offered some other version of what happened. “Michael has a right to a grandfather,” she says, fussing with utensils in a drawer.

Moira glances at the vegetables lined up neatly on the cutting board and wants to knock them to the floor. Order. That’s what matters to Bridget, the control she couldn’t have when they were children. “He’s managed without him all his life. We don’t need him now.”

Bridget finds the knife she wants, comes down hard on a carrot. “Maybe you’ve managed. But I see Michael every day here after school. I can see what he needs, especially now, with everything the boys are going through.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Moira’s sure Bridget doesn’t want to say the words. She takes longer than needed to select the next carrot. “The way things are since Ken left. That’s all I mean. It’s a rough time.” She turns to look at her. “You’ve said so yourself.”

“Yes, it’s a rough time. And it’ll only get rougher if Sean winds up needing stitches again.” Moira feels warm in her jacket, wants to take it off, but she has to get out of here, get her boys away from him, away from a place where they have to pretend her father can be anything but monstrous. “Michael doesn’t need him in his life.”

Bridget puts the knife down. “How do you know that?”

The question makes Moira want to laugh. “He has nothing to offer anyone.”

“Really? Or just nothing to offer you?”

She searches Bridget’s face, looking for traces of spite, of some secret satisfaction that Moira’s foolish father-daughter reconciliation had to be aborted. The resentment can surface unexpectedly. The burdens of a household with one parent fell largely on Bridget. Dishes had to be washed, floors swept, stale bread made to last another meal. She had no time to pine for a father’s attention. “Michael is my son,” Moira tells her. “I’ll decide what he needs. I’ll make some other arrangements for the boys while I’m at work.”

“Be reasonable.” Bridget wipes her hands on her apron, lowers her voice, starting over. “You don’t have to do that. He’s harmless.” She puts a hand on Moira’s forearm. “I’m sure what happened to Sean was an accident.”

Moira finds the gesture insulting, as if she has no right to distrust their father, no right to feel cheated. She jerks her arm away and pulls Michael’s backpack onto her shoulder, calls him into the kitchen. But the boy doesn’t come.

“Michael,” she calls again.

His answer reaches them after a beat or two, a stubborn whine. “Mom, can’t we just stay a little longer?”

“We’re leaving now, Michael,” she says more firmly.

He finally appears in the doorway, and Moira is reminded again of how much he looks like her brother Conor, but it’s a surface resemblance, with none of the wounds beneath. At ten, Conor was already a shadow child, accustomed to danger. “Can’t Uncle Peter drive me home later, when he comes to pick up Grandpa?”

She hates what she hears in his voice, the ignorance of the danger he’s in. “I thought you wanted to shop for your baseball glove tonight?”

“Can’t we do that tomorrow? It doesn’t matter, does it?”

“It does matter,” she says, reaching her hand out for him to come along.

But he stays put. “Why?”

She wants him to stop whining, stop wanting what isn’t his. “I’m not discussing this, Michael.” She dangles his backpack in front of him, careful not to look into his eyes, afraid of what he might suspect.

The old man’s side does not touch hers, but he holds her elbow as if he’s leading her down the street. His cane taps the sidewalk in front of them, carving an uneven pendulum, a metronome gone awry. Moira’s high-heeled steps are firm, precise; her father shuffles cautiously, as if fearing he’s near danger. The late morning traffic is steady, purposeful, reminding her that she hasn’t much time. If she doesn’t get back to the parking garage soon, she’ll never reach Bridgeport in time for her meeting.

The street is crowded, and they capture more than an occasional glance, this oddly matched pair. She imagines how they must look: a woman tall, withdrawn, unwilling to acknowledge the passersby; an old man even taller, white-haired, with a creased face, deadened eyes. The sun makes mirrors of the storefronts, and here and there, without warning, she catches a glimpse of the way they look together, too close, huddled like conspirators. She tries to separate herself from him, at least a bit, but he squeezes her elbow each time, without affection, just control.

“The doctor wants me back at the end of next week.” Her father says this as if she’s interested. She’s not. She’s here only because there was no one else to take him for his checkup. Bridget pleaded with her, so she agreed. But she made it clear he’d have to take the bus back to Peter’s house.

“Fine,” she tells him. “Bridget will figure something out.” And whatever the solution, it won’t include her, because she’s sorry she ever agreed to this. But it will be over soon, she tells herself. All of it. The bus stop isn’t far. And she’s found someone to watch the boys after school. She’s sure Bridget is still letting him visit because Michael slips and says Grandpa this, or Grandpa that, then clams up as if he’s been told to keep it secret.

A silence follows that she suspects he wants her to fill, perhaps with an offer to take him to the next doctor’s appointment or with questions about his blood pressure medicine. She gives him nothing.

“Can’t you take me?” he says finally, his tone laced with annoyance that he has to ask. She knows he’s oblivious to how she feels about him. He’s preoccupied with his ailments and his memories, nearly all of which he has invented. He’s hinted that he knows Moira is having trouble getting Ken to agree to the terms for custody, and she’s sure he gets his information from her sister Kate, whose heart is so big and so wounded she’s capable of forgiving anything.

“No. I’ll be in Atlanta.” He’s walking so slowly. She’ll have barely enough time to get to the meeting.

“Atlanta, is it?” She’s sure he wants her to hear the insult in this, because his notions of what a woman should be doing do not include work with responsibility and rank. She’s no different in his mind from all the other liberated types who don’t know how to be mothers or wives anymore. She doesn’t answer him. “Weren’t you in Houston last week?”

“Why?” she says. She doesn’t want his questions. She wants him to be quiet until she can be rid of him.

“I don’t know. The boy seems like he’s driftin’ is all.”

“Who? Michael?” She stops without warning, and her father, startled, goes slightly off balance.

“For Chrissake, watch what you’re doin’.” He makes a big deal of adjusting his cane. “Michael’s got troubles for sure,” he says. “But it’s Sean I’m talkin’ about.”

“Sean is not drifting. Sean is fine.” Her voice is even, revealing none of the worry that dogs her. “And how would you know anyway?”

“Michael. He talks to me.”

If he’d slapped her it would have been less painful. Michael has been sullen lately, not talking as much, which is so unlike him. She imagines him with her father, telling him about his day in school, about the tough batters he faced in his last game, all the things he always saves for her, rewards that don’t belong to her father. He hasn’t earned them.

“I don’t want you talking to him. Do you understand me?” She sees the hint of a grin on his face. He knows he’s getting to her.

“No, I don’t understand you,” he says. “They miss their father.” That edge is in his voice, the one that slips in when he’s determined to be right about something.

“I don’t want to hear this.” She begins walking again, takes his arm this time.

“Fine. I’ll mind my business. But if you know what’s good for ya, you’ll stay closer to home.” There’s that tone again. When Moira was a kid, her mother would challenge it, answer him as if his beliefs were plucked from old wives’ tales. Moira was always afraid to contradict him, and she’s afraid because she knows there’s truth in what he’s saying about Sean and Michael. She sees the hypocrisy of his offering advice on parenting, but she can’t help wondering what she may be doing wrong. She tries to shake it off, but she finds herself slipping back into the maze of doubt and reproach that confuses any attempt to understand why her marriage ended.

The air seems much warmer now, and she wishes she hadn’t worn a linen suit. She wants to focus on the key points in the proposal she’ll present today, but it’s no use. The smell of him disgusts her. She takes shallow breaths to escape it—his cigarette breath, his Old Spice, the stale aroma of drink—but she can’t. She feels small, trapped, the way she did that night in the tiny bedroom they’d rehearse in.

Bridget always wanted to put on shows for their mom, pull her out of her moods. So she made them learn old songs from Judy Garland movies, the kind their mother liked. A thin, faded blanket hung across the corner of the room, tucked into the tops of the windows on each side, creating a triangle of secret space backstage. Drenched in Kate’s perfume, Bridget was dancing in their mother’s high-heeled shoes before the curtain—a long, slim umbrella, her cane. Moira directed the lamplight with the shade, keeping Bridget within its circle. Conor stood in the doorway, laughing, inattentive at his post as lookout. He didn’t see their father coming.

His entrance was sudden, insulting. Bridget and Moira scurried to another corner of the room, but Conor was in his path. The anger was grotesque: blind eyes wide open, impotently searching, lips spread in a frightening semblance of a smile, the shimmering tip of his tongue protruding between his teeth. Moira didn’t wonder where the anger came from. She knew their very presence was the cause. He reached down for Conor, picked him up by the back of his shirt and smashed his face. He bled but didn’t cry out; only a pathetic whimper came, a useless defense. The room filled with the smell of his urine.

Her father let go of him, still cursing, shouting incoherent threats. His arms sliced space before him as he staggered toward the stage, his huge bulk entering the abandoned spotlight. The curtain brushed his shoulder and he tore it down, kicked aside their props and toys until the magical space was once again the dismal corner of their bedroom. Only then did Conor cry out at what he saw. It was a foolish thing to do, because his anger was only half-spent, and he turned toward the sound of his son’s cries.

Her father says her name, and Moira halts, jerks her arm from his, afraid he might guess what she’s thinking, remember she’s the enemy. He wants to know why she’s stopped walking. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I got distracted.” She takes his arm again, more firmly this time. The cars weave frantically up the avenue, stopping regularly in impatient obedience at the light. On cue, they lurch forward noisily. Moira and her father reach the corner, where they will part. She lets go of his arm.

“Can I cross now?” he asks. And perhaps she doesn’t see the truck turning when she tells him yes, because it’s over in an instant: the old man stepping off the curb, the shocking sound of the metal against his body, the rusting gray pick-up truck screeching to a stop, the people circling. He lies like some discarded scarecrow, limbs spread in unnatural directions, his cane many yards away.

Before Moira can make sense of what’s happened, a crowd has gathered and she’s another silent onlooker. The driver’s big round belly shakes as he runs toward her father from the cab of his truck. A dirty, flimsy T-shirt can’t reach to meet his pants. His pale face is splotched red, and when he comes closer, she can see that he’s trembling. “Oh, my God; oh, my God,” he says, his voice a thin, pained whine. He speaks to everyone and no one. The man can’t stand still; he steps away then hurries back to his victim’s side, unable to look very long at the old man’s body. Her father’s face is placid, shows no pain, and she thinks of how he looked when he’d fall asleep in his chair, dulled by drink.

People are taking out phones, dialing for help. Their voices mix, and their concern confuses her, seems misplaced. They look so worried, their hands loose at their sides, jackets and pocketbooks left swinging near to the ground, as if nothing else matters now, nothing more than this old man in the street. An officer has appeared. He’s wearing short sleeves, and he reminds Moira of a patrol boy because he’s so slim, too blond for a grownup. He’s on one knee, gently wiping away the blood that trickles from the side of her father’s brow. He presses his finger against his neck, just underneath the jaw. The driver hurries over to kneel beside them, looking desperate for some sign of hope in the officer’s face. The cop glances at the driver, nods. “It’s a strong pulse,” he says, then barks orders for an ambulance into his phone.

The crowd seems to exhale, exchanging glances of relief.

The driver touches the calloused fingers of her father’s hand where it lies twisted, far from his side. He strokes his palm once diffidently, the way a child makes contact with a large animal.

“Does anyone know this man’s name?” the officer asks the crowd. No one answers him, and the spectators grow restless, heads turning this way and that, as if anxious. The air feels charged with suspicion, and the policeman shakes his head, slaps his notebook against his thigh, losing patience.

A heavyset woman in a black scarf knotted at the nape of her neck shifts her grocery bag from one hip to the other. “Weren’t you standing with him on the sidewalk?” she asks Moira.

She looks at the woman, feeling barely awake, not sure what’s expected of her.

“His name,” says the officer. “Do you know his name?”

They clearly want her to speak, to explain. But how can she explain any of this? How can they possibly understand? “Donnegan. Pete Donnegan,” she blurts out, hoping that will be enough. What more can she say about him anyway?

“You know him then?” says the officer, stepping toward her.

She can’t answer, because in truth she doesn’t. She’s never understood anything about him.

“Does he have family here? Friends?”

Moira doesn’t know what to say. Words like these have meaning to people. But the meanings don’t fit here. She feels no attachment to the man lying in the street. But the officer wants information, facts. She has to give him what he wants. “Family . . . yes . . . family. I’m . . . I’m his daughter.”

“Oh, my God, I’m sorry,” says the driver, in tears now. “I’m so sorry.”

She turns to the driver, sad for him. He seems like such a good man, a man in pain from the harm he’s done. And the irony of it, the injustice, the idea that her father has managed to hurt yet another innocent person makes her feel even more ashamed that she ever belonged to him. “Don’t be. Don’t be sorry,” she says.

The people who hear her exchange glances, whisper to each other, as if trying to convince themselves that she doesn’t mean what she’s saying, even when she says it again.

“Don’t be sorry about him.” Someone gasps this time, and the driver tells her he doesn’t understand. Moira tries to imagine what he sees when he looks at this old man. She turns toward her father, lying there broken, tries to see him as a victim this time, as someone who deserved better than what life gave him, but she feels no sympathy, no sorrow, only the dread of how Michael will look at her when she tells him, how his voice will sound when he asks her how this could have happened.


Mary Ann McGuigan’s short stories have appeared in North American ReviewThe Sun, Prime Number, Grist, Into the Void, and other journals, and they’ve been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Sundress Publications’ Best of the Net. Her short story collection, Pieces, is now available from Bottom Dog Press. Her novels, one a finalist for the National Book Award, are ranked as best books for teens by the Junior Library Guild, the New York Public Library, and the Paterson Prize. You can find her at www.maryannmcguigan.com and on Facebook.

 

 

Image credit: simpleinsomnia on Flickr

LIVING AS ART by Matthew Courtney

Anarctic Moon

LIVING AS ART
Ceramic Works
by Matthew Courtney

[click on images to enlarge]

matt courtney art

All World Camel

To be in the presence of Matt Courtney’s ceramic art is to be embraced by a feeling at once familiar and unanticipated — a sensation that comes not only by directly looking, but also sensed, unsolicited, out of the corner of the eye. It’s a kind of well-being and heightened awareness that can happen while sitting outdoors, perhaps beside a percolating stream or a mile-wide river: small wonders, big sky. It’s all good.

Almost instinctively, Courtney’s ceramic pieces bring that palpable sensation indoors, where they acquire something domestic, grounded in a place that feels like home. That hits home.

Our connection with ceramic objects has always been like this. For millennia we humans have lived with objects made of clay. Fashioned with purpose and imagination, they have accumulated in our living spaces around needs of food and shelter, desire and memory. To live by the possibilities of clay is, really, to live by the possibilities of art: clay objects take the shape of our lives while shaping the course of our lives, and ultimately become the tangible signifiers of the art of living.

How fortunate, then, to encounter Courtney’s ceramic works at a place called the House Gallery — a gallery that’s actually the real-life home of Henry Bermudez and Michelle Marcuse. Located at 1816 Frankford Avenue, it’s in the heart of Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood, a stone’s throw from the Kensington High School for the Creative and Performing Arts.

◊ ◊ ◊

house gallery matt courtney art

Inside the living room at House Gallery

Knock on the door, enter a tile-lined foyer, and step inside. You’re now in the wide-open living room of a typical Philly row house, with an antique fireplace and Grotrian-Steinweg grand piano at one end, and a renovated eat-in kitchen at the other. The morning sun pours through windows while a white cat (“Bobby”) spies from the top of the stairs (there are, in all, three cats living here, it turns out). Meanwhile, one of Courtney’s three-headed camels peers out the window; there’s construction going on down the block.

This is the House Gallery, a non-commercial gallery in a private residence where established Philadelphia artists have the opportunity to show their work as “house guests,” and where First Friday openings are just like house parties. It’s a work of love — and vision. Henry, who’s from Venezuela, and his wife Michelle, from South Africa, are both artists (Henry represented Venezuela in the 1986 Venice Biennale and met Michelle at his first solo show in Philadelphia). Seven years ago Henry and Michelle had the idea of re-imagining their living space, not just for themselves, but as a shared “open salon” for artists, an everyday, comfortable meeting place where neighbors and artists could rub shoulders. Today, original details of the house — the faux marble of the fireplace, carved chestnut staircase railings, and worn hardwood floors — blend in seamlessly with the scrubbed white walls and sleek modernist kitchen. It all feels “lived in,” just as Courtney’s work feels “lived with.” A perfect match.

house gallery matt courtney art

“Four Spires” at the House Gallery at 1816 Frankford Avenue

Stepping back, the House Gallery is also a refreshing assertion about how to experience art in our daily lives. It’s not an entirely new idea — think of the princely collectors centuries ago whose sumptuous palazzi became the museums and galleries of today — but it’s perhaps a more nobly aspirational one, presenting art and artists in a more intimate, immediately accessible way.

Accessibility is absolutely central to Courtney’s artworks. First off, they’re made of clay, a timeless, universal material with a long, built-in history of familiar human connections. Then, his objects are always immediately recognizable: game balls from various sports, human figures, animals, vessel forms. Additionally, he makes work at scales meant to inhabit living spaces as gracefully as gallery spaces. Ultimately, there’s an underlying human authenticity at work here: artworks sprouted from daily life, planted in real-life contexts, and holding their own among the overgrown artifices of the art market’s gallery scene.

skydivers matt courtney art

Minoan Octopus Urn With Skydivers

Courtney’s subjects are firmly rooted in real life, specifically his childhood, where he spent his time at home drawing, playing sports, and exploring the nearby woods. An important part of his art practice is about maintaining that innocence, a sense of wonder and play while making art, even after years of formal education, teaching, and residencies abroad. One technique is to use molds — industrial molds, molds he makes of everyday objects, molds he makes of his own pieces — to create multiple parts which are then assembled in seemingly random ways. The results: improvised replications and reconstructions of memory and instinct. Another technique involves creating large clay tubular cylinders, and allowing them to slump naturally while still wet; these can be assembled to become deformed rockets, statements about power and its contradictions (and a nod to his childhood hobby with model rockets). Another is to “raw fire” his pieces, a process that’s risky because moisture trapped inside the clay may not have time to burn off, resulting in mini explosions inside the kiln. Life happens, his pieces insist.

While many artists look to art for inspiration, Courtney is most informed by the lives of people he knows — friends, fellow teachers, or former college roommates, such as Susie Brandt, a fiber artist whose commitment to art is about investigating her family history and her mother’s dedication to the household. “Susie Brandt was my roommate for a year when I was at Philadelphia College of Art,” Courtney remembers. “She taught me about the importance of making art, that it was a serious thing, not a frivolous thing. The beginnings of my art making and thinking began with me trying to find a connection to my past that was at the foundation of the person I had become, similar to Susie’s connection to her mother’s skill at running a household.”

Early on, then, the domestic, lived-with vibe was there. It’s the human connection that matters, the conversation in the room.

camel triptych matt courtney art

Camel Triptych

“Another big influence was Kirk Mangus,” Courtney continues. “Kirk was my graduate school professor at Kent State and was hugely influential. I had an odd relationship with Kirk. I really admired him as an artist and teacher but it seemed as though he was always disappointed in me. He was very hesitant to tell any of us that he thought we were making good stuff. It wasn’t until much later that I heard from Eva (his wife) that he thought we (Monica Zimmerman, Keaton Wynn, and I) were the best students to come through Kent. His main teaching method was to come into the graduate studios where he also had a studio and talk about things like poetry, Greek history, or Korean folk pottery.” (Kirk Mangus passed away in 2013; read Matt’s moving — and funny — tribute here.)

“Another person is John Parris. He’s a high school friend with whom I do collaborations. John came with me down to Georgia to do a residency at Keaton’s school. We are currently brainstorming ideas for a new collaboration. John works like Keaton: idea, then drawing, then art. I seem to just start with clay and then the ideas develop.”

sixpin matt courtney art

Six Pin

Courtney’s conscious decisions around intention, material, and process allow for the incidental and the accidental — the non-scripted, the unplanned — and this in turn allows for a sly, playful ambiguity in his works because they can never quite be taken literally. Layered and metaphoric, while emphatically real, they tease our curiosity, tacitly prompting multiple reactions and interpretations. In a medium in which “everything has been said and done before,” Courtney thinks of it as jazz improvisation, letting himself and others have their own spin. (His late father was a musician who played upright bass in the Philadelphia Orchestra.)

“The not knowing is part of what excites me about making my work,” says Courtney. “It’s also a source of anxiety. I get very very bored when I know what it’s about. But, not knowing puts me in a bind when people ask me about my work, because I’m not sure. Not knowing makes the work alive for me but I feel uneasy not being able to give a quick and clear answer when I’m asked.”

“I’m most comfortable when I’m making art,” he confesses. “My studio’s in my basement, where I have four kilns. Plus, my side yard, where many of my pieces live outdoors.” One such piece, a massive series of chains, dominates an entire wall at the House Gallery. Each link is handmade, weighty and weathered, splotched here and there with a green mossy coating that naturally thrives on terra cotta that’s been left outside through summers and winters.

Small wonders, big sky. It’s all good.

chains matt courtney art

Ship Chain

◊ ◊ ◊

During this holiday season, you may find yourself sitting in front of a cozy fire, or wanting some company while sitting in front of a computer screen. If so, grab your headphones and settle into this lively, free-wheeling living-room conversation between artist Matt Courtney and DJ Ed Feldman on The Morning Feed show on G-Town Radio, where they share insights and commentary on everything from Chinese politics and Western aesthetics to Philly football and Czech beer. Enjoy!

MorningFeed with Matthew Courtney and Ed Feldman >>

morning feed with matt courtney

 

 

 

 


Matt CourtneyMatthew Courtney lives and works in Philadelphia as a sculptor and teacher. He received his BS at the University of the Arts and his MFA at Kent State University. A recipient of several fellowships and residencies, he currently teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, the University of the Arts, and Drexel University. Courtney’s recent exhibitions in Philadelphia include New Work (House Gallery) and Divergences (Cerulean Gallery). In 2015 and 2017 he was selected as artist-in-residence at Lanzhou City University in Lanzhou, China, where his work was exhibited in Post Painted Pottery. View Courtney’s complete works at matthewcourtneyart.com/home.html


List of Works:
1.  Antarctic Moon, ceramic, 36 x 60 x 9″ (2014)
2. All World Camel, ceramic, 20 x 15 x 10″ (2015)
3. Four Spires, terracotta, each rocket approximately 60 x 20 x 20″ (2016)
4. Minoan Octopus Urn With Skydivers, ceramic, 24 x 8 x 8″ (2012-2017)
5. Camel Triptych, ceramic, 10 x 26 x 7″ (2017)
6. Six Pin, mixed media (clay, wood, glass), 12 x 26 x 8″ (2017)
7. Ship Chain, ceramic, 96 x 120 x 24″ (1994-2016)

Photography by John Carlano.

 

PERFUSIONIST by Kelsey Ann Kerr

PERFUSIONIST
by Kelsey Ann Kerr

.

I wear my love for foxgloves
on my digits, nibble on each
to slow the fibrillations.

I eat their purple freckled ends
till nausea overtakes me
with the halo I see each person in.

My father had purple freckles, too,
and any time a heart at work exploded
he’d come home with pink shoes.


Kelsey Ann Kerr has a great interest in loss: holes both metaphorical and physical of the heart, holes in life left by the loss of parents, cauterized by love. She teaches writing composition at the University of Maryland and American University and holds an M.F.A. in Poetry from the University of Maryland. Her work can be found, or is forthcoming, in Slippery Elm Literary Journal, Stirring: A Literary Collection, New Delta Review, Burningword Literary Journal, Mezzo Cammin, and The Sewanee Review, and The Atlanta Review, among others. Her poetry also has been nominated for Best of the Net 2017.

 

Image credit: Foxglove (Fingerhut) by Albert Renger-Patzsch, 1922, Wikipedia

FROM NORTH DAKOTA TO MANITOBA by Sylvie Bertrand


FROM NORTH DAKOTA TO MANITOBA

by Sylvie Bertrand

Oh, it will never happen here, the nurse says. If she is concerned, she is too nice to show it.

Everyone is so nice here. The nurses, the lawyer who helps us with the paperwork, the people from the refugee center who bring us clothes; even the doctor, the surgeon who amputated all of our fingers, except for one of my thumbs, is a really nice man.

But when I tell Felix how nice Canadians are, he shrugs and shakes his head. Maybe it’s because he’s got no thumbs left; maybe it’s because he also lost two toes. Felix was an athlete, a big football player back home in Ghana. Still, I guess he’ll miss his fingers more than I will.

If I could, I would give you my thumb, I say.

You’re such a nice man, you should be Canadian, he answers, and we both laugh.

True, the reason we got all of our fingers amputated is that even once we made it to the Canadian side, we had to wait three hours before someone stopped for us. Three hours is a long time when you’ve been outside for seven hours already, walking through frozen fields with snow up to your knees, in sub-zero temperatures. The prairie people say that the wind that night was as high as twenty-five miles an hour. All I know is that it stung like a thousand invisible glass shards, piercing any exposed skin.

The doctor said that it was during those last three hours that the damage from frostbite became permanent. When frostbite goes from stage three to stage four, the doctor explained, the tissues beneath the skin become frozen, too. Muscles, joints, tendons. Like a deep freeze, and when he said that I remembered how my hands looked in the morning light, once we finally made it across the border. Like two pieces of chicken breast in the freezer, hard as a rock, shiny and slippery. Felix’s fingers were so numb, when he tried to use his phone to see if we had any service, he dropped it and it shattered into pieces, like an ice cube.

It was the morning of December 25, which is why, everyone says, there wasn’t much traffic on the road. The few cars that drove by us, they had places to be, families to meet.

But it was nice that this one person, that truck driver, finally stopped, I tell Felix. I mean, it was really nice, considering that the doctors say that if he hadn’t, we probably would have died, you and I.

I don’t say, you for sure. When he got into the truck, Felix began shaking and lost consciousness. All the way to the hospital, I kept telling him, be strong, we’re going to make it. But the truck driver looked really scared. He drove us directly to the emergency entrance. Once there, we were taken to the burn unit, because it turns out that frostbite is just like a burn, but deep inside your body.

Freezing takes long enough that the pain sneaks up on you, slowly.  Thawing is different. You have to warm the injured tissues as fast as possible, but without burning the skin. They gave us lots of painkillers. The doctors were trying to be nice about it, but there is no nice way to thaw human flesh. The pain was unbearable.

Let’s hope the tissues survive, the doctors said.

One week later, our fingers turned darker. The skin hard, like tree bark. That’s when we knew we would lose some of them. We just didn’t know how many.

Meanwhile, our claims are being processed, and our chances are excellent, the lawyer told us. She is a nice lady, working for free for people like us.

You’ve got to admit, this is a nice country, I keep telling Felix. Come on, I say. It’s nicer.

Felix is sitting with his elbows on the cafeteria table, his forearms up, and where his hands should have been, there are now two balls of white gauze, round and big as boxing gloves.

Listen, Felix says, it’s not like people weren’t nice, south of the border. Some were. They let us in, they gave us a case number, a photo ID, even a permit to work on the oil fields. When we began to worry, people said, Don’t worry, it will never happen here.

He doesn’t say: And then it did. He doesn’t have to. He takes his mug with the maple leaf to his lips, holds it between his two fingerless mittens, and blows on the hot coffee.

Don’t burn yourself, I say. I know, it’s not funny, but we both smile anyway.


Sylvie Bertrand writes short stories and is working on her first novel. She was nominated for the 2017 PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers, was a finalist for the 2017 Glimmer Train’s Very Short Story contest, and received a 2018 Pushcart Special Mention. She has an MA in Anthropology from Princeton University. She teaches at the Writers Studio and is currently the assistant fiction editor for Epiphany, a literary journal.

 

 

Image credit: Matthew Brodeur on Unsplash

THE COLLECTED DRAFTS OF JESSICA’S CHRISTMAS CARD TO HER EX-HUSBAND by Grace Coberly

THE COLLECTED DRAFTS OF JESSICA’S CHRISTMAS CARD TO HER EX-HUSBAND
by Grace Coberly

Dear Alec,

I suppose I should tell you that I didn’t buy the apartment. Randi the realtor called (remember her, with the forehead?) and said the owners were still undecided, but I had visited by myself the week before, and it didn’t feel right anymore. I guess it was too big for just me and Pammy. Too many rooms, too many spiderwebby corners. They ended up selling it to that Polish couple, I think. For now, I’m living with my dad, who says


Dear Alec,

Pammy misses you. She only eats the big chunks when I put her bowl out, not that good digestive stuff the vet recommended. I’m worried about her. God, am I already becoming a crazy cat lady?


Dear Alec,

Remember our first Christmas tree? We were so excited we bought it in mid-November, and all the needles had fallen off by the time we unpacked the ornaments.


Dear Alec,

I was just thinking about our first Christmas tree.


Dear Alec,

I was thinking


Dear Alec,

I almost bought the apartment. I really did. I visited six times in five days, and I dragged Randi with me every time (remember her, with the forehead?). I was going to use your closet for storage and keep both sinks upstairs. I could always use another sink. And I keep dreaming about the plumbing there. I’m staying in my old room at my dad’s house, and the cold water faucet in the bathroom still doesn’t work, so the water is always steaming hot. I have to brush my teeth in the bathtub. I feel like an animal.


Dear Alec,

Great news! Layla from the Tribune invited me back for an interview. I feel like this could be good for me, you know? I’ve been cashiering at Macy’s, but all the perfume is really starting to get to my head. I need a real job.


Dear Alec,

I was going through boxes the other day, and I found some of your old Christmas ornaments. (The tiny convertible, the bird from your mom, the blue Santa, Captain Kirk, and part of your snowglobe collection.) I also took the glass giraffe we found at that antique shop in Beulah, but I think it was in one of the boxes I threw out when I moved


Dear Alec,

How would you feel about paying child support for Pammy? She’s not our daughter, but she eats like a teenager, and she has some sort of infection on her foot.


Dear Alec,

I ran into your brother last Thursday in the home improvement section of Target. He told me you’re thinking of moving to Minneapolis. Why the fresh start? Running away from something?


Dear Alec,

Go ahead and move. Maybe in Minneapolis you’ll meet a woman who isn’t so “high-strung” and “self-absorbed.” Maybe she won’t forget to buy paper towels, and she won’t put pepper in your mashed potatoes, and she won’t cry on the night of your wedding because she had to do the father-daughter dance with a family friend. You’d love someone like that, wouldn’t you?


Dear Alec,

I wish to God I had bought that stupid apartment. It was perfect, and I let it go because of you. Because you wanted a front porch and I wanted a big bay window and you like laminate and I like hardwood and nothing was ever good enough for you. Because you were selfish and you couldn’t love me enough to hang around. So fucking selfish. I should’ve bought it. Fuck the Polish couple. Fuck Randi and her forehead. Fuck my dad. Fuck you


Dear Alec,

Fuckyoufuckyoufuckyoufuckyoufuckyou


Dear Alec,

My dad says I deserved it.


Dear Alec,

I suppose I should tell you that I didn’t buy the apartment. There wasn’t anything wrong with it, but after all that happened, I just couldn’t see myself living there. I guess it was too empty without you. I’m going back for an interview at the Tribune next week, though, so things are good with me.

I heard you’re thinking about moving to Minneapolis. That’s so exciting! Make sure you find a great realtor like Randi (remember her, with the forehead?) who knows everything there is to know about laminate flooring. I’m sure that’ll be a dealbreaker for you.

I know it’s been a crazy year, but I’m doing okay, and I hope you are, too. This is good for both of us. We should grab lunch sometime soon to catch up. Anyway, I have some of your Christmas ornaments that I want to return before I forget about them.

Dad and Pammy say hello. And please do stop by—you’re welcome here anytime. Have a wonderful Christmas.

Love always,

Jessica


Grace Coberly grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. Her work has appeared in COUNTERCLOCK, Border Crossing, and Iceview Magazine. An alum of the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio and the Adroit Mentorship Program, she was also the first-place winner of the LSSU High School Short Story Prize and a fiction finalist in the Young Authors Writing Competition at Columbia College, both in 2017. She is a freshman at Haverford College.

Image credit: Markus Spiske on Unsplash

TOWARDS AVALON by Nikoletta Gjoni

TOWARDS AVALON
by Nikoletta Gjoni

-1986-

4.

Dritan wondered whether he made the right decision in telling them to go ahead, so sure that he would catch up. Had he been sure, though? He began to feel the numbness set in his hands, in his wrists, in his shoulders and back, though it wasn’t long before he felt his muscles begin to burn and cramp, giving him no choice but to stop kicking. His ears filled with the sounds of the others splashing onwards, though now the splashing came from all around him as the tides and waves pulled them apart.

They had begun the journey quietly, stealthily, and close together. But by the end of the first hour, their bodies felt ragged and heavy, and so they let their legs fall down where they may, just as long as they continued to propel them forward. Somewhere beyond the hidden horizon, beyond where their broken bodies existed, laid the invisible border between Albanian and Greek waters. All they had to do was keep pushing with the hope that kismet would string them along to safety. Don’t stop, don’t stop, don’t stop; the thought echoed in each head. Somewhere beyond the tide and choppy waves was water they could lie on their backs in and gently drift to safety. Somewhere off the coast of Corfu they would be reborn.

At first Dritan could see his friends’ heads bobbing up and down in the water, but he soon lost sight of them. He heard splashing though he wondered after some time if it was still them that he was hearing, or if it was the waves mimicking the sound of camaraderie, mocking him.

He blamed himself for letting them get so far ahead. That’s alright, he thought. I’ll catch up in no time. He looked around and suddenly realized how small he felt—how small he was—in the vast blackness between sea and night sky. No one knew he was there; no one but the three far ahead of him, spread to all sides of the compass. And they must think he was still close behind, not one having the energy to stop and look back to find him missing.

He closed his eyes. Only for a minute. He couldn’t feel his arms anymore. He licked his lips. Salt. So much salt. His tongue tingled and went numb, rejecting the tired taste of it. He thought about how much food his mother could make with all the salt the sea had to offer. He thought about how, in small doses, it turned dull food into something satiable, but in large doses—as large as the sea was wide—it dried your body from the inside-out and you would eventually begin to wither; to break apart and deconstruct in the water. He licked his lips again and realized for the first time how hungry he was.

The pain dulled and came back in waves, sharper than the previous jolts. In waves—ha! As if the Ionian itself was jabbing his sides to test his strength. He gave way to the pain, letting it move from his ribs, to his abdomen, to his chest. Maybe if he kept his eyes closed and stayed still a moment, it would pass. He just needed a quick rest.

As he often did at times that produced moments of either extreme pleasure or extreme pain, Dritan thought of his late brother Jusuf. As Dritan’s chin and nose dipped beneath the surface, he thought of their childhood games at the beach, of pretend drownings and rescues with Jusuf’s arms clamped around Dritan’s body flailing underwater. Their father had taught them early to love the water instead of fear it.

With his head sinking farther into the water and his mind lazily sliding backwards, Dritan remembered his favorite story, the one of his birth, a story his mother shared frequently when he was a child.

“You’re the best swimmer because you came from the water,” she’d say. Dritan had heard the story so many times he half-believed he remembered the experience itself, in utero. Of how his mother had chased after Jusuf and of how she’d danced her way across the hot beach pebbles to get to the shore, her feet bursting with the subtle lingering sizzles of the afternoon sun.

She was massively pregnant with Dritan and claimed he knew whenever they were in the water because he’d kick every time a wave wrapped itself longingly around her legs. Her contractions began while she was wading into the fizzing sea; she’d later tell him it was as if the sea sensed and longed for him as much as he himself sensed and longed for the sea.

So even at his most critical moment, when fear would perhaps have been the most appropriate and undeniable emotion, Dritan forced his legs to move beneath him until the tops of his nostrils stung with the urgent inhalation of bitingly cold air. His eyelashes dripped cold saltwater as if it was flowing from inside of him, as if he was born from it. Remembering that he indeed had been, he kicked harder with whatever energy he could drag out from deep inside, beneath the aching in his chest.

 

3.

They undressed in the dark—quietly, shyly at first, and then methodically. The sea that beckoned them in the daylight sat wide before them now in the midnight light, as black as the universe. Each of the four friends avoided staring at it for too long, for fear of quickly throwing their clothes back on and making the long, lonely trip back home.

Dritan shivered as his sweater came off and then his undershirt.

“Goddamn, it’s cold,” muttered Erdi.

“Not if you think about how hot these rocks are in the summer,” said Luisa.

“Almost as hot as the iron when your finger is practically touching it,” added Dhurata. “I burned my finger that way once as a kid.”

“Or how hot your skin feels when you’re sunburned and you start to peel,” said Dritan with a smirk.

One by one, they threw in tokens of memories to build a small fire until Luisa finally pulled out the jar of grease she had been slowly collecting and saving from the mechanic’s shop where her uncle worked. Never done deliberately, her uncle would dole out random facts his niece would later apply to some relevant life event. It was from him that Luisa had learned how grease helped the skin maintain its elasticity, preventing it from shriveling after too much time in the saltwater.

“Someone help me with my shoulders,” she whispered. They lathered their bodies until they glistened. In the distance, they looked like a delicate dance of ghosts—arms reaching high, hands gliding over each other until four shadows came together to make one indistinguishable shape against the clear autumn night, and then broke apart again.

“Your turn, Dritan.” Luisa handed him the jar. “We saved the most for you since you don’t have an inner tube.” They had each taken apart their bikes and sliced open the tires to pull out the inner tubes to use as flotation devices. Dritan was the only one who’d decided at the last minute not to break the bike apart so that his mother could instead use it for errands and chores. At his core, though, he knew it’d had nothing to do with his mother. He couldn’t pull apart the bike that had belonged to his father. He grabbed the jar from Luisa and started blackening his arms and shoulders with grease.

“That’s okay. This will do just fine.” He flashed his teeth, which were barely noticeable in the dead of night. “I’m a faster swimmer than all of you anyway. All I have to do is keep moving.”

After each body had been greased, three of the four friends pulled out their inner tubes and pulled them over their heads. Luisa took out a ball of yarn from her bag and started weaving it around her shoulders, looping it over and around the inner tube until she had created a tight web of knots to keep the tube in place around her body. She chewed at the yarn until she felt a tear, yanked it loose, and threw the ball over to Erdi.

They each took their turn with the yarn, circling it around their bodies like an orbiting planet losing its course and spinning into oblivion, until suddenly, as fast as it had appeared from Luisa’s bag, it vanished. After much silent, synchronized movement, they stilled. Their eyes moved away from each other towards the gaping uncertainty that stretched before them.

As if on cue, their hands searched each other’s out and, once found, clasped them tightly. Wading into the water, their breath moved up from their bellies to their chests, lodging in their throats. The only sound they could make were hisses as they slowly exhaled and let the cold water swallow their youthful, unscarred bodies. And out into the Ionian they went, fading like flickering candle flames.

 

2.

 When Dritan showed up, they were still waiting for Agim. Agim was the last member of the group they waited on, but since they had all arrived early, they waited. In the distance a dog howled and howled until it finally forfeited to hunger and collapsed—a pile of tired old bones. They stood around quietly in the building’s shadow. The only sounds to echo were a throat being cleared or a quick kick of a stone pat pat patting down the road. If they caught each other’s eyes, they flashed a quick smile, and although each pair glowed mischievously in the darkness, anticipating the greatest adventure any of them would be sure to go on, the smiles would stop short just before reaching their eyes. Dritan grew uneasy after thirty minutes had passed and Agim had still not shown up. The sun would be rising before long and the first bus heading south would soon arrive.

“Where is that bastard? We can’t wait around forever,” said Luisa.

“What do we do?” Dhurata asked with an exasperated sigh.

“Let’s get the fuck out of here,” said Erdi. He was a brusque man who tried to control his language and mannerisms in front of the women in his life. This moment, however, slipped by without acknowledgment from his friends.

“No, wait.” Dritan felt on edge and was ready to move, but he couldn’t imagine leaving a member of their group behind. “Just ten more minutes. Something could be holding him up.”

“Do you know what would happen if the wrong person caught us just standing here right now?” Dhurata hissed.

“Just ten more minutes. If he’s not here by then, we can leave.”

“We’ve planned this for too long to have him ruin everything and land our heads on Enver’s dinner plate,” Erdi said through gritted teeth. Each enunciated syllable felt like a precise measurement. In the quiet of private homes, behind drawn curtains, vulgar jokes were often whispered by adults about how the great dictator, Enver Hoxha, fed off his citizens’ flesh, blood, and spirits.

It wasn’t the image Dritan would see of Enver in newspapers or on posters. Xhaxhi Enver, or Uncle Enver, as the propagandists often referred to him, was illustrated as a serene and happy family man, always eager to be around his people—his subjects. As Dritan grew older, he learned, as many others did while at home and after dark, that Enver Hoxha was a wolf in sheep’s clothes and the entirety of Albania was a flock of sheep that had gone astray.

Dritan thought of his mother’s muted anger at the loss of her husband all those years ago. She was the first person he’d heard utter those words, Enver eats the flesh of his people, and it was the first time everything outside his home suddenly felt like a lie.

“We’ll be fine,” Dritan managed to say. The brisk winds picked up and made the group huddle closer together. Deep inside the circle, they unburdened their minds and relieved themselves of any thoughts that might anchor them down once out in the water. The fear of being stopped; the fear of freezing; the fear of drowning; the fear of being intercepted and returned. They all agreed that death by sea would be a far more desirable way to go. Dritan noticed that the one fear no one had the strength to vocalize was the fear that Agim had betrayed them.

 

1.

He walked through the front door to the smell of fasule cooking, a rich cannellini bean soup topped with a drizzle of olive oil. It was a favorite dish of Dritan’s. He instinctively made his way towards the kitchen at the first smell of the soup, but his mind suddenly went on high alert: did his mother suspect his plans? Did she have any idea that he would be leaving?

Bir i mamit, is that you?”

“I’m home,” Dritan responded.

“Are you ready to eat? Or we can wait.”

“No, I’m hungry. Let’s eat now.”

The everyday normalcy in her tone set his mind at ease, though his heart thumped against his chest when he sat down at the table and found it set for a feast. Two bowls filled to the brim with fasule, two small porcelain bowls with olives, an onion sliced in half, and thick slices of his mother’s bread sat in the middle of the table. Outside, the clouds rolled in from the mountains, threatening rain. This was, in Dritan’s opinion, the perfect autumn meal.

He chewed slowly while his mind reeled with the realization that this would be the last meal he would share with his mother at this table. He watched her—studied her mannerisms and the way she hummed under her breath between bites. She seemed happy. Or at the very least, content. Dritan’s chest tightened at the thought of her sadness expanding outwards from her insides until it filled every room in the house.

“You’re quiet today,” she said, blowing on her spoon to cool off the steaming broth. “What are you thinking about?”

“Oh, nothing.” He took bites of his mother’s bread and filled his mouth with a memory already caught in the past. “Nothing worth worrying about.”

Dritan heard her bedroom door close not long after he had already gone to bed and heard her open and close drawers, followed by the door to her heavy wooden armoire squeaking open and then closed—with a dull thud, as it did every night. The armoire had been a wedding gift to his parents, handed down from his father’s grandparents. He knew it was meant for Jusuf when he married, but now it would be his. If only he’d stay.

If only he’d survive.

Soon there was silence on both sides of the wall. He felt a different kind of uncertainty than the night he’d doused his spirit in blood and avenged Jusuf’s death. It was the night that slipped into his consciousness each day; the night that paved the road to his self-exile. That night he’d been drunk with fear and doubt; tonight he was high on excitement and anticipation. The damning naiveté of youth was never before so present, nor so disregarded.

He debated leaving a note for his mother, but quickly decided against it. She had asked him earlier that evening if he was going out that night to meet friends and he had said no, offering instead, to stay in with her. She had seemed pleased, if not a little confused as to his sudden desire to spend an uneventful evening at home with her.

The night felt long and Dritan managed to find sleep before waking up for the last time in his bed. The house was shrouded in silence and the creaking of the mattress felt amplified to his ears as he shifted and got up to get dressed. He rubbed his eyes and ran his hands over his head, hard, to shake out the last bit of sleep from his mind and each individual strand of hair.

He looked at his bed before walking out—he had always been a messy sleeper, tossing and turning until his sheets and blankets had knotted up and were hanging over the sides, like tendrils escaped from a dream world. He walked over to his bed and pulled the sheets back; he shook them out and threw them over his bed, tucking the corners in tightly, followed by the blanket. He smoothed out any remaining lumps and wrinkles and finally made his way to the door. Taking a quick look back, Dritan thought how it looked like he had never slept there that night. And then he walked out.

The house felt larger at night when the darkness made the hallway seem endless and doorways disappeared into blind mystery. He stopped at his mother’s door for a brief moment and pressed his ear against it. There was, of course, nothing. She was fast asleep on the other side and, though his body felt ablaze from his toes to the crown of his head, he slowly turned the knob and pushed the door open a sliver. She had left the curtains open, which he thought unusual, and some moonlight managed to stream in crookedly.

Dritan saw her dark shape in bed, peacefully unaware, and suddenly he felt glad. His lips curved up into a quick smile before pulling the door back gently into place. He shuffled his feet, feeling his way down the hall and through the living room. The eyes of his relatives in the photographs hanging on the walls followed him until he reached the front door and walked out, closing the door behind him without so much as turning his head. Had he done so, he would’ve seen the note his mother had written and stuck on the door.

Bir i mamit—my dear son—be careful.


Nikoletta Gjoni emigrated from Albania in 1990 at the age of three and was raised in the suburbs of Washington D.C. She studied English Literature at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). As an undergraduate, she was one of 33 students selected to undertake university-funded research in Albania, where she focused on the censorship of news and literature under the Communist regime of the 1950s-1980s. After graduating, Gjoni worked in broadcast news for several years before leaving to focus on her writing and to pursue work in the nonprofit sector. She has recently completed a debut collection of linked short stories about people living in Communist Albania, spanning the 1970s through to the present day. Towards Avalon is her first published story and has been nominated for a PEN/Robert J. Dau prize.

 

Image credit: Nonsap Visuals on Unsplash

PEETY (WASHINGTON, DC, 1959) by David Satten-López

PEETY (WASHINGTON, DC, 1959)
by David Satten-López

It’s moonlit and muggy out as Peety Alfaro walks to work. Under the yellow streetlights, he pauses to wipe the condensation off his glasses. Once done, he affixes his large and thick lenses back onto his face and takes a deep breath. Exhaling, he tugs rapidly at his white tee to cool off. Then he nods hard and continues walking, shoulders back and head up.

A homeless man, slouched on a nearby park bench to his left, calls out to him in Spanish. Peety keeps steady and walks on by. In the bushes on either side of him, he can hear the scattering of rats. One scurries across the illuminated sidewalk in front of him. Peety maintains. As he makes his way down the numbers, he whistles “Take the A Train.”

From his puckered lips come the notes of Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington. For Peety, this is his tune too, but, more importantly, it is the tune of the Voice of America Jazz Hour. Before he left Perú, Peety would wake up at odd hours, clutching his radio, to listen to the Voice of America Jazz Hour with Willis Conover. The jazz waves and slow-spoken English filled the small one-bedroom home that he and his mother lived in. The low lights of dying embers in the corner and the fresh smell of dirt floors mixed with the smell of potato soup.

The radio building is long, with tall, column-shaped windows. It is here that Peety works as a janitor, and it is nights like these, Saturday nights, which are his favorite shifts. For it is on Saturday nights that Peety feels like he is finally a part of the music he so loves. For it is on Saturday nights that the jazz hour is recorded and Willis Conover is in the building.

Peety’s excitement is especially for tonight though, for this is a rare Saturday, in which Duke Ellington is here. No doubt, Ellington is already here—two extra guards and his black limousine are already outside the building.

Peety enters the grey and granite building, displaying his ID card, looking for more traces of Ellington. As he walks across the tiled floor, his boots squeak. He shows his ID once more and goes toward the locker room to put on his work clothes—blue jeans and a dark blue button-down. He affixes his nametag to his work shirt in the stuffy room and then heads to the storage closet for cleaning supplies and his radio.

From the far west side of the building, he can hear the low vibrations of “Take the A Train.” The show is just beginning. He flicks on his Sanyo transistor radio and dials it in. The accumulated vibrations bring an onrush of memories: simmering potato stew, dirt floors, kicked up dust, Peety’s mother by a crackling fire, and the sensation of radio waves close to his chest; then, the onrush slips into his first days in America.

He had been sitting upright on a mattress on the floor as he flicked on his radio to only fuzz. He watched his four other roommates, lying asleep on their mattresses, trying not to wake them. Peety stayed up all night listening to the fuzz, subtly shifting the dial. It wasn’t until four more nights of failed attempts that Peety learned: “by order of the Smith-Mundt Act of nineteen forty-eight, information produced by the Voice of America for audiences outside the United States shall not be disseminated within the United States.”

It is only now, close to the original transmitter, on Saturday nights, with his short wave radio, that Peety can catch the show.

Suited up and equipped, Peety hits the second floor. He begins by cleaning the bathrooms, then moves on to the staff break room, works on the offices and, lastly, cleans the recording studios. He always leaves the studio with the upright piano for last. This studio is small, with worn, carpet-like walls. Inside is a mixer, two standing microphones, and the piano.

Peety looks both ways down the hall and then opens the door to this studio. In a hurry, he brings his custodian cart into the room and eases the door to a soft close. He keeps the lights off and finds the piano bench in the dark. He sits down and lays his fingers lightly on the keys as he’s done countless times before. From a small column-shaped window in the door, the fluorescent hallway light seeps in. He breathes in, reverent, knowing the scarcity of this space. Peety breathes out and begins to play “All Blues” by Miles Davis.

His fingers play a soft tremolo that slowly builds into the image of his mother. It’s her large hands that he accentuates first—their cracked and dry palms, varicose veins, and the brown dirt under her nails. Next are her tan and muddied, calf-high work boots, then her long skirt that ends just at the boots and her long-sleeved white blouse. Finally, with grace notes, he outlines the small black derby hat she wore to work. The slow sonorous melody begins as the dust slowly churns, kicked up from the dirt floors around her. As Peety moves his hand to arpeggiate the chord, his mother begins rummaging swiftly, like a ghost, around a small bedroom. The bedroom has two twin-size beds in it covered in thin white sheets. The notes sound off in a flurry, and his mother begins to pile belongings into a small blue suitcase on the bed: clothes, a blanket, a bowl, and a radio. Incoming, a large smash of a chord from his left hand and a few right hand notes sound off until another ringing chord lands. Peety twists his face into a tight smile and rushes into the piano solo. The flurry of improvised notes seems before him and just out of reach, crashing along, causing a tender wreckage. Pulling his head back, the melody begins again. Calmer and out of breath, Peety brings the song back to its soft beginning.

Peety checks the time on his wristwatch and leaves the piano in a hurry, grabbing his cart. He takes the elevator to the third floor and begins the routine again: bathrooms, break room, offices, and studios. As he walks by the hallways on the third floor, heading toward the next office to clean, he turns the radio volume down, and then off. Through the old walls of the studio, he can hear the show leaking into the hallway. He stalls, brimming with nerves and pride, crouched over, sweeping the floor. He recognizes the familiar voice of Conover—clear, deep, slow, and warm. Peety patiently follows the voice to a studio door. His broom scratches the tile just outside the door. Closer now, he can even hear the laughter of another voice—Duke Ellington—on the other side. The jazz tune begins winding down, hitting home one last time before it finally runs to the end of the vinyl grooves. The voices quiet down, and Conover speaks into the microphone, closing out the show. Ellington says, “Good night,” and the show ends with the theme song, “Take the A Train,” once more.

Peety looks at the door, then at his watch, before finally returning his focus to his job. He turns around, heading to the next office.

Once Peety is done cleaning, he returns to that upright piano. Same as before, the soft tremolo of “All Blues” begins again—this time a little more forcefully. The image of his mother comes out from the piano. This time the lines on her face are deeper, her skirt is frayed, and her sleeves are rolled up. The melody kicks in, and the smell of the dirt and dust return to him in another rush. He plays double notes this time before moving into an arpeggio, and his mother coughs twice into a handkerchief before packing his bag. Now comes the chord, softer this time, and Peety begins improvising the solo. This time it’s slow and muted—it’s the wind chimes out in front of his old house, or the distant bell of the schoolhouse getting out, or the light from an open window illuminating the shifting dust. The melody kicks back in one last time, and Peety keeps it steady.

Chk, chk, the doorknob rattles. Then the door swings open. “Hey you, what are you doing in here? You guys should’ve been done in here a while ago.” A man is outlined in the doorway, leaving his front in shadow. The man wears glasses, a khaki button-down, and a badge.

Peety doesn’t speak. His mouth opens, but only the sound of parting lips comes.

The guard squints briefly. “Peety! Man, Goddammit. I’ve told you already. You hear?”

Peety’s eyes are wide, his fingers heavy on the white keys, his foot still pressing the pedal.

The guard exhales heavily. “Oh, forget it, I’m closing up. You best get a move on, and I’m serious this time, okay, don’t let me catch you in here again.” He turns around, leaving the light off, his shoes smacking down the hall. The door shuts loudly behind him.

Peety gets up, pushing the bench behind him in a squeak. He flicks on the light, grabs his cart, and opens the door onto the hallway, heading back to the storage closet and locker rooms.

Outside, it’s raining lightly. A ways away, under the yellow streetlights, under an umbrella, walking away from him, Peety sees two men. One is a white man in a crisp suit, loafers, and slicked back hair, opening the door to a black limousine. Stepping into the limousine is a black man in a light-colored suit, derby shoes, and a wide-brimmed hat. The white man follows him in, laughing a faint but familiar laugh. He closes the door behind him, and the two men become lost behind the tinted glass. The limousine rolls away from the curb, fading out of sight. Peety heads in the same direction, on his way home.


David Satten-López is a student of New Historicism and Gorgias; he likes cooking and taking walks on the beach. He hates Enlightenment humanism; he loves cats. His favorite writers are Baldwin, Cervantes, Carver, and Cisneros; Césaire, Wynter, Hartman, and Moten; M. NourbeSe Philip, Springsteen, Brandy, and Badu. A formative moment for his writing was listening to Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln’s “Triptych.” Follow him on Twitter @pocospeed.

Image credit: Jamille Queiroz on Unsplash

NAMING NAMES by Jennifer MacBain-Stephens

NAMING NAMES
by Jennifer MacBain-Stephens

 

Daddy’s Pet
fucking chrissakes

Slewfoot conglomerates
banging eachother

Brock Road
puddle son of a bitch

Mongrel Palmer
light the east

Kings’ Ransom Diamonds
little chum to pull

Weasel Craig
wept

Chesterfield
dragged like pink wires

McDougall’s
the fires, the rats

Goodyear
shut up shut up shut up

Formica
gimpy leg

Briggs and Stanton
Oh god

Dell’s
your shoulder

Win Purington
crawling

Parkins Gillespie
sluggish heartbroken

Jointner Avenue
before their very eyes

Eva Miller
thermal

Ruthie Crocket
a good kill

Mark Petrie
agile brawl

Richie Boddin
sweat out of grip

George Middler
chicken liver

Dud Rogers
cocked

Text from King, Stephen. Salem’s Lot. New York: Random House, 1975. Print. pages: 65-91


Jennifer MacBain-Stephens lives in Midwest and is the author of three full length poetry collections: Your Best Asset is a White Lace Dress (Yellow Chair Press, 2016), The Messenger is Already Dead  (Stalking Horse Press, March 2017), and We’re Going to Need a Higher Fence, tied for first place in the 2017 Lit Fest Book Competition. Her work has been nominated for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize. Her chapbook She Came Out From Under the Bed (Poems Inspired by the Films of Guillermo del Toro) was published Dancing Girl Press. Recent work can be seen at Prelude, Kestrel, Yalobusha Review, decomp, and Inter/rupture. More at her website.

 

Image credit: John Noonan on Unsplash

*GABRIEL* by Paul Siegell

*GABRIEL*
by Paul Siegell

.

In the ground, the real
……………………………….never of a boy
How a couple recovers
……………………………….I do not know
Whose heart
Agony of mother, father
Maria unimaginable
Two weeks from his due
How do you explain
……………………………….to two young daughters
Curly hair of the family
……………………………….beaming the arrival
A little brother, theirs—
Now mourners with
……………………………….offerings at a small stone
……………………………….in the grass with a name
The first anniversary
Canopy of hand-sized
……………………………….leaves lending the light
……………………………….its gates to a shimmer
To a sting of tears fought
……………………………….off with balloons for the
……………………………….sky
And with the kicks
……………………………….she now feels within


Paul Siegell is the author of the forthcoming Take Out Delivery (Spuyten Duyvil, 2018), as well as wild life rifle fire, jambandbootleg and Poemergency Room. He is a senior editor at Painted Bride Quarterly and has contributed to American Poetry Review, Black Warrior Review, Rattle, and many other fine journals. His poetry appeared previous in Cleaver’s Issue 13. Kindly find more of his work—and concrete poetry t-shirts—at ReVeLeR@ eYeLeVeL, his website, and @paulsiegell.

Image credit: Pixabay

 

 

KEVLAR ON OUR BACKS by Matthew Schmidt


KEVLAR ON OUR BACKS

by Matthew Schmidt

.

………………We gave ourselves matching haircuts
………but only temple rye cures. Temper
………your dog but only scaremongering
ignites crows. Shared the phobia collar
………but only in shifts. See but only gavels.
………An iris’ pillory but only a shaker of gifts.
But only our handsome freckles
divvied among avenue skin.
Truth is but only.
………We took the subway
………but only to watch. It is Monday but only in a rainforest
of scalpels. Only but a slight nick. We climb our desks
………but only to grab bananas and hide.


Matthew Schmidt is working on a PhD in English at the University of Southern Mississippi. His poems have been published or are forthcoming in 3:AM, CALAMITY, Hobart, Territory, and elsewhere. He is an associate poetry editor at Fairy Tale Review.

 

 

 

Image credit: Patrick Carr on Unsplash

LABELING by Yuki Yoshiura

LABELING
by Yuki Yoshiura

On the Mason jar, she pasted a product label so as not to create any bubbles beneath it. The jar was made of extra-thick brown glass that distorted vision like coke-bottom spectacles. The label thus enabled the public to quickly pick the one they wanted. She was proud of her job. She put the jar back on the conveyor belt.

Nine other women, each in a white plastic coverall with a hood, stood alternately on both sides of the line, labeling. A procession of jars came rolling down the belt at random under a row of incandescent lamps hanging low from the ceiling.

She was in charge of audacious jars. She hesitated on her first day.

“How can I tell which one is audacious?”

“You just have to look at them,” the Chief said.

So she kept an eye on jars that had an air of audaciousness—the jars that aroused a sense of intimidation in her gut—and labeled those. No one raised objections or complaints about her work, which gave her great confidence. The women before and after her were responsible for jars that were optimistic and persistent, respectively.

Each Mason jar barely fit in her hand and its weight put a burden on her wrist. Through the thick dark-colored glass the substance looked like either boysenberry jam or a lump of dead bugs. She never knew or cared what it was filled with. Her allegiance had given her a Crown status among followers of the President. She was employed for his priority project and that was enough for her.

She held up the next jar and saw something unusual about it. Under the metal lid embossed with the emblem of a baby hawk, a crack was running straight down to the bottom like a white hair. The gap was very thin but gave a glimpse of the material within. An iridescent fluid was swirling around, shining like a glitter ball at a party packed with people. She could have cracked open the jar to probe inside. Alternatively, she could have smashed it on the floor, exposing the contents, mixed with a thousand shards of glass. The Chief would have rushed in, blowing his silver whistle, and a slight commotion would have ensued, but she was not a timid person. Nonetheless, she pulled out one of the labels from the stack at hand. The large square label was framed by a double black line with a slogan “We Are the No. 1 Brand!” above the category name at the center. She covered the surface with the label so that the fissure was forgotten. She placed the audacious jar back on the rubber belt that kept clattering on rollers. Each Mason jar perfectly fit into one of the classifications assigned to the factory workers and none was left behind without being properly labeled.


Yuki Yoshiura currently lives, translates, and writes in Tokyo. She grew up in Japan, attended an American Studies MA in New York City, and tends to wander around the world, real and imaginary. This is her first published fiction.

THE SONG OF SAINT GEORGE by Kate Spitzmiller

THE SONG OF SAINT GEORGE
by Kate Spitzmiller

“But Martin was born in Lancashire,” I said to the man seated across from me the afternoon of the arrest.

The man, whose black hair was slicked neatly back, offered me a cigarette.

I declined. “Martin’s not German, much less a German spy.”

The man placed a cigarette between his lips and lit it with the flick of a silver lighter. He inhaled deeply and then exhaled, the smoke blue-grey in the dimly-lit room.

“Mrs. Ridley,” he said. “We have ample evidence of your husband’s activities in support of the Third Reich.”

“That’s ludicrous!”

“Madam, I assure you, everything is in order.”

“Martin teaches Medieval Literature at Oxford. He spends his time grading papers, not spying.

The man tapped his cigarette over the black ashtray at the center of the table. Ash dropped soundlessly.

“Has Martin ever been to Germany?”

I blinked. “Of course. Before the war. For research.”

“And he speaks German?”

“No. I don’t think so.”

“Then how does he conduct his research?”

“He reads. He can read all the variants of Medieval German. But that’s not the same thing as being able to speak modern German. It doesn’t make him a spy. It makes him a scholar.”

The man exhaled smoke. It drifted lazily up toward the ceiling, captured by the pale light of the single bare bulb that illuminated the room.

“Sir, if I could speak with your superior, we could clear this matter up quite quickly.”

He ignored me. “How long have you been married?”

“Three years in March.”

“How long did you know each other before you were married?”

“Six months.”

“That’s not long.”

I blushed.

The man leaned forward. “I’m not here to make you feel uncomfortable, Mrs. Ridley. Quite the opposite. It is often difficult for the spouses to accept reality.”

“Reality?”

“The reality that they have been living their lives as normal, and all the while the person buttering their toast on the other side of the kitchen table is working for Hitler.”

“Martin doesn’t work for Hitler.

“A common response.” The man tapped his ash again.

“Perhaps your superior—”

“I am the superior in this case, Mrs. Ridley.”

“Well, then, perhaps I could have your name.”

“You may call me Mr. Brown.”

“Mr. Brown, there has been some horrible mistake—”

“When was the last time your husband visited Germany?”

“I told you, before the war.”

“When?”

“1938, I think.”

“What month?”

“During the school holidays,” I said. “July or August.”

“And you didn’t travel with him?”

“No. It was a research trip. He planned to be in libraries the entire time. I would have been bored.”

“Did he say you would be bored, or did you decide you would be bored?”

“I don’t recall. And I resent the implication—”

“What was he working on?”

“He specializes in lyric poetry. There was a poem about Saint George he was hoping to re-translate.”

Das Georgslied.

“Excuse me?”

Das Georgslied. Or the Song of Saint George. Written in Old High German. 1000 A.D.”

“Yes, that sounds right.”

“Saint George. Patron saint of England.”

“Yes.”

Mr. Brown crushed his cigarette in the ashtray. The filter collapsed like an accordion. “Do you know what a book cipher is, Mrs. Ridley?”

“No, I can’t say that I do.”

Mr. Brown’s thin lips twitched upward in what I imagined passed for a smile in his world.  “A book cipher,” he said, “is a way of sending coded messages using a preexisting text as the code-book.” The lips twitched again. “And your husband’s German handler seems to have a sense of humor. Or at least a sense of irony.”

“I don’t understand.”

“The Song of Saint George. Meant as a poke in the eye to Churchill, I’d imagine.”

“It’s just a poem.”

“Not in your husband’s hands.” Mr. Brown opened the blue folder beside him. “Twelve coded messages. All sent from the postbox outside the Knight’s Inn pub in Oxford. All in your husband’s handwriting.”

He passed me a sheet of paper. The writing was unmistakably Martin’s—the curl at the end of the f, the little tail on the t. But the writing was incomprehensible. Letters, but also numbers.

“Nonsense, right?” Mr. Brown said.

I nodded, still staring at the mess of letters and numbers. Martin’s mess of letters and numbers.

“It’s nonsense,” Mr. Brown said, “until you use the Song of Saint George to decipher the code. Then it tells you how many bombers flew east from RAF Abingdon on each evening last week, and how many came back.”

My chest tightened.

“How close do you live to Abingdon?”

“We live just down the road. On Boar’s Hill. Martin…”

“Martin, what?”

“Martin…walks the dog to Abingdon every evening. He says he likes to watch the planes…”

Mr. Brown picked up the sheet of paper and slid it back into the folder. “He does like to watch the planes, Mrs. Ridley. Quite a lot.”

 


Kate Spitzmiller writes historical fiction from a woman’s perspective. She is a flash fiction award-winner, with two pieces published in the anthology Approaching Footsteps. Her flash piece “Brigida” has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her debut novel, Companion of the Ash, is set for release in 2018 by Spider Road Press. She lives in Massachusetts where she tutors junior-level hockey players as her day job. You can visit her blog at www.katespitzmiller.com.

 

 

Image: Saint George Killing the Dragon, detail. Bernat Martorell, 1430-1430, Art Institute of Chicago

TWO POEMS by Maura Way

TWO POEMS
by Maura Way

 

MARCH

Sunlight sealed behind
cirrus behemoths, I am
deep in left field. Suited
up in stripes, I wait for
something to come my
way. One cloud becomes
a prickly pear. I’m grateful
for my hat. Leafless trees
are as cold and unforgiving
as bagged sandwiches. In
the Galapagos and Manhattan
there can’t be enough space
for this kind of game. I pray
for hail, any early victory.


REPARTEE

I’ve seen clowns from
both sides now. I’ve gone

far too long for a touch up.
Make up! There is snow

down south and my roots
are showing. Lipstick marks

on the teeth are a sign of a
nervous breakdown, they

tell the young girls about
divorcees, in pantomime

and mummed tones. Screw
ball purification at once!

Lay it on thick. Busk them
blooming muses hither and

yon. Be a dear and pour
me a drink. Grace comes

in the morning; remarries in
Connecticut. What a hoot.


Maura Way is the author of Another Bungalow (Press 53).Her poems have also appeared in numerous journals and magazines including The Chattahoochee Review, DIAGRAM, Verse, Drunken Boat, Beloit Poetry Journal, and The Potomac. Originally from Washington, D.C, Maura is a schoolteacher in Greensboro, North Carolina. You can also find her at mauraway.com and @anotherbungalow.

 

 

Image credit: Uriel Soberanes on Unsplash

BERLIN STORY: Time, Memory, Place by Emily Steinberg

BERLIN STORY: Time, Memory, Place
by Emily Steinberg
with an introduction by Tahneer Oksman

Like fresh snow covering over a messy urban landscape, there’s a kind of concealing but also unifying quality to the fourteen central images of Emily Steinberg’s “Berlin Story.” Following a four-panel introduction, in which our narrator introduces herself as having grown up an anxious, fearful depressive, lost in the grip of, among other things, the “images of death, murder and gratuitous Nazi sadism” shown to her in Hebrew school, we are presented with still portrayals of an uninhabited, idyllic setting.

Each drawing, contained in an unframed rectangle, presents its viewers with a narrowed angle, or point of view, proximate to or regarding the famous Wannsee Villa, a mansion located in the suburbs of Berlin. The drawings are in black and white, cramped with details composed from demarcated lines, some of them even slightly wobbly marks. From four cherubs adorning the villa’s rooftops to two tree trunks gracefully tilting somewhere in the vicinity of the house grounds, we glimpse this locale as either a deliberately or unintentionally naive visitor might; this is a structure embodying decadence and wealth, good taste and fine craftsmanship. Here is a sculpture to admire, swaddled in a bouquet of well-groomed foliage. Here is a fine urn, hefty, ornamented, inviting contemplation. We walk its grounds, invited to by our guide. We revel in its beauty.

Still, none of this history seems teachable, transmittable. Steinberg’s sequence reveals how, despite all efforts to the contrary, despite all inclinations to conceal, the horror nonetheless lives on. 

The handwritten dispatches, scrawled sometimes beneath and sometimes beside these postcard pictures, interrupt our reverie. “On Tuesday, 20 January 1942 at noon, Reinhard Heydrich, S.S., unveiled the extermination policy for Europe’s Jewish population, euphemistically known as the Final Solution of the Jewish Question, to leaders of the Nazi Party, over a pleasant lunch.”

What’s startling is that with these words, the images don’t suddenly transform; no visible traces of that exchange, or its consequences, are apparent in the pictures here, even in the intimate and exhaustively rendered tiny lines, the single- and cross-hatches of our once-depressive guide, who has “never completely” let go of those horrifying images presented to her in her youth, part of her Jewish heritage. The words tell us not only, or simply, of the terribleness, but instead fill us in on details presumably meant to help us picture what is, in fact, impossible to conjure up. Thirteen men, officials, ranging from thirty-two to fifty-two years old, gathered for a ninety-minute meeting dedicated, in part, to discussing the eradication of Jews. A thirty-six year-old Adolph Eichmann was charged with taking minutes. “There is no record of what was served for lunch that day,” another narrative accompaniment tells us. “The waiters served cognac, butlers and adjutants gave out liquor.” Ultimately, neither images nor words, here or elsewhere, can fully convey to us what took place, can help us imagine what is unimaginable.

On the fiftieth anniversary of the conference, the Wannsee Villa was finally made into an educational and memorial site. Another quarter of a century has now passed. Still, none of this history seems teachable, transmittable. Steinberg’s sequence reveals how, despite all efforts to the contrary, despite all inclinations to conceal, the horror nonetheless lives on.

—Tahneer Oksman, December 2017


Emily Steinberg, a painter and graphic novelist, has shown her work widely in New York and Philadelphia. Most recently, images from her visual narrative Broken Eggs were featured in an exhibit titled Sick! Kranksein Im Comic: Reclaiming Illness Through Comics at the Berlin Museum of Medical History at the Charité in Berlin, Germany. She is also a founding member of Fieldwork International, an improvisational diaristic collaboration between herself, Damon Herd and Sarah Lightman. Her graphic novel memoir, Graphic Therapy, was published serially in Smith Magazine. Her short comic, Blogging Towards Oblivion, was included in The Moment (Harper/Collins.) Her visual narratives A Mid Summer Soirée, Broken Eggs, and The Modernist Cabin appear in previous issues of Cleaver. She currently teaches painting, drawing, graphic novel, and the History of Comics at Penn State Abington. She earned her M.F.A. and B.F.A. from the University of Pennsylvania and lives just outside Philadelphia.

Tahneer Oksman is a writer, teacher, and scholar based in Brooklyn, NY.  Her criticism on women, visual culture, and memoir, as well as some personal essays, have appeared in the Los Angeles Review of BooksThe Comics Journal, the Forward, Public BooksThe Guardian, and Lilith. An Assistant Professor of Academic Writing at Marymount Manhattan College, her first scholarly monograph is “How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?”: Women and Jewish American Identity in Contemporary Graphic Memoirs (Columbia University Press, 2016).  She is currently working on a book exploring memoirs of absence, loss, and grief. (Author portrait by Liana Finck.)

TOCK TANK by Tina Barr                                                                           

TOCK TANK
by Tina Barr

.

I don’t know what was wrong
with the person who did this,
but I met my wife when this
was a drugstore, years before
the chaos you see here. Harney’s
Nissan, going a hundred, slammed
a Mazda; pieces of cars
flew into the windows of Town
Hardware, slid and banged three
other cars. Crows are the village
bird, but Tyler Harney flew. Inside
the Mazda, a local track coach broke
his spine, his pelvis, his brain
leaked. He’ll never run again,
like Secretariat, whose laminitis,
tissues that bond the hoof wall
to the coffin bone,  sank it into
the bottom bone, the pedal.
When he ran the Belmont,
George Plimpton said the co-eds,
lining the finish, cried. His heart
twice the size of normal, huge
on the autopsy table. Thirty-one
lengths ahead, the horse was more
than life allows. In mitigation
for tanks, Panzers, still embedded
in Normandy’s forests, the problem
of evil, a Luna moth settles
at the top of my walking stick,
at the cabin door, tiny pomegranate
eyes its regalia, big as a hand,
the green of a moon not yet seen.


Tina Barr’s third full-length book, Green Target, won the 2017 Barrow Street Press Book Prize, judged by Patricia Spears Jones, and is forthcoming in Fall, 2018.  Her poem “Green” appeared in Cleaver’s Issue 18; “Pot of Gold” appeared in Issue 13.

 

 

 

Image credit: Akshat Vats on Unsplash

 

You may also enjoy:

POT OF GOLD by Tina Barr

GREEN by Tina Barr

KALEIDOSCOPE, poems by Tina Barr, reviewed by Jeff Klebauskas

 

TWO POEMS by Brendan Lorber

TWO POEMS
by Brendan Lorber

ONE WITH THE WIND
for Tom Devaney

On the eve …..of never forgetting…..I still
want to run away…..from you together….. or
not run….. but bite or register….. bionic judgment
always there….. to be crushed by….. unblinking
jacked….. and futuristic….. Some trees are easier
to climb than others….. Ailanthus for example
with a ladder leaned up against it….. or a poplar
that’s been used to make a staircase….. From up
here….. the subjective experience….. is but a fading
metonymy….. and now….. to me at least it’s gone

Under entropy….. even better entropy….. impatient
for flow charts….. with a wicked jaw….. already
I am not….. permitted to believe….. my own ideas
but nod….. a little….. as I say them….. so others
concur….. and say it back….. tainted with the real

The real lyrics….. are always somewhere….. under
the words….. the way the night gets….. out of the past
or pushed around….. by the mere concept….. of
morning….. And the scary thoughts….. you flee from
you mostly flee….. as A kind of professional courtesy
towards oblivion….. and reciprocity for….. old
sayings like….. you have to send a letter….. to get one
especially….. if you send the letter….. to yourself


PROTOCOL AND DEVIANCE

Uncontrolled weeping….. is awesome and….. I am
ready….. for that song….. through the wall
that means….. the neighbors….. are having sex
Syllogisms are reassuring….. just as drinking
buddies….. later become peeing buddies

The world is too much….. in our face….. but
our face is turned from it….. We are the Scorsese
of inwardly-directed charm….. An hourlong supercut
of lecherous sea lions….. failing to deal the seal
is always available….. to get self-esteem ahead
in the kissing booth….. with the missing tooth
and cranberry muffintop ….. of our misdeeds
Ambient fingernail soundtrack….. for a sprint
past….. the Brideshead Revisited….. of our
not my problems….. and a sequel….. on mute
we can….. totally fail.…. to stretch to after

I’m told….. time has neighborhoods….. just like cities
or classic rock albums….. and they are euphemisms
for toxic byproducts….. of this way of life….. that
we can’t eradicate….. for our way….. is actually
the byproduct of the poison….. yet we sleep well
in a neighborhood past bad….. where every night
another dolphin’s….. trapped in my dreamcatcher

I have only….. this one….. floral technique with
which….. to enter tomorrow….. and love you anew
despite the updates ….. I break myself….. An alarm
mistakenly set….. for Saturday….. Perversion of
imperfect worship….. as the result….. of being
nuts….. rather than its cause….. Though origins
come first….. they’re all out when we step in


Brendan Lorber is a writer and editor. His first book If this is paradise why are we still driving? (Subpress) was released in Fall 2017. He’s the author of several chapbooks, most recently Unfixed Elegy and Other Poems (Butterlamb). Since 1995 he has published and edited Lungfull! Magazine, an annual anthology of contemporary literature that prints the rough drafts of contributors’ work in addition to the final versions in order to reveal the creative process. He lives atop the tallest hill in Brooklyn, New York, in a little castle across the street from a five-hundred-acre necropolis.

 

 

Image credit: Ahmad Ossayli on Unsplash 

POMEGRANATE by Rachel Nevada Wood

POMEGRANATE
by Rachel Nevada Wood

Adonis was a painting. Or rather, he was a boy, but his limbs and lips looked as though they were made of artistry and creamy filaments of paint. It is no wonder, then, that Venus loved him. She kept him pillowed in her lap, far from the wars and deaths of heroes, and whispered him stories, her warm breath traveling across his lips. On days she was forced to leave him, Adonis made love to the forest instead, exploring it slowly, deliberately. On one of these days of absences and longing, a wild boar came across Adonis and gutted the canvas of his torso from stomach to collarbone. When Venus returned and found his broken body, she discovered the shape of heartbreak. Distraught, she made the spray of his blood bubble into hard teardrop seeds. And so, nourished by the blood of the most beautiful man to have ever been loved, the pomegranate blossomed into existence.


Knifing through flesh with crimson juice flecking your wrist, drowning the poor thing in a bucket of water, or beating the side of the fruit like you’re knocking on your ex-girlfriend’s door—these are the recommended methods of peeling a pomegranate.


Once you see their skin cracking and splitting, seeds like blood vessels pouring onto the table, bursting under the hard crescent of nail, the red dripping slowly in a glorious massacre, you’ll understand why the French decided to name a weapon of war after them. Grenade.


In a sea of sparkling white, newlywed Armenian brides hurl the crimson fruit at their feet, each bouncing seed that bursts forth representing the promise of a bouncing baby to come.


The right way to peel a pomegranate? Pull apart the top gently, like you’re parting a curtain. This is the polite way to ask the most of it.


My roommate, Faustine, lacks the patience for the mess of pomegranates— for the way I litter our kitchen with bits of white flesh and errant drops of juice. Rogue seeds I have neglected to pick up have permanently stained our kitchen tile.


There is none of this mess if you buy just the seeds, neatly packaged and peeled, at Trader Joe’s for an alarming price. These seeds taste like flavored water.


In 1764, barrels stuffed with pomegranates were sent to famed Philadelphia botanist John Bartram who had had no success in growing them in the North where the sun was less friendly. I am sure that these pomegranates also tasted like flavored water, perhaps with some added notes of cedar and old wine.


According to American Garden, Thomas Jefferson had great success in planting pomegranates at Monticello. This is of course a lie. It is unlikely that Thomas Jefferson ever tucked a sapling into the soil. Rather, his grove was built off of the bodies of his slaves—a new kind of blood once again nourishing the pomegranate tree.


Although pomegranates bleed easily, their flesh does not often bruise. Instead, it is difficult to discern how damaged a particular pomegranate is until you find clusters of lavender sludge rotting inside.


 

Faustine can metabolize poems into tears. She cries frequently, openly, honestly. She has only seen me cry three times, always as a sleep-deprived river of tears. Thankfully, she can read my emotions without a map of salt water etched onto my face. Once, as I was mid-panic attack, she pulled a chair up next to me and began methodically peeling a pomegranate, talking to me and plinking seed after seed into a metal bowl until I could breathe again. She cleaned up the mess and I ate seeds until my tongue burned with sugar.


The first time I tasted a pomegranate, it was on the cracked concrete steps of my high school. The fruit was a gift from some girl named Elizabeth in my French class. We sat together on the steps with the pomegranate broken between us, slowly fishing out seeds from the white rind. By the time the pomegranate was done, our fingers were a sticky magenta color and we were best friends.


It tasted like my darkest shade of lipstick, a promise.


There was a summer I spent in India where I had nothing to eat for weeks on end but tomato curry. On weekend trips to the market, I soothed my irate stomach with vanilla ice cream and fruit—mangoes oozing juice and split beaded pomegranates. These pomegranates tasted like rain and a red chair on a blue tiled porch.


Is it any wonder that Persephone gave half her life to Death for a small mouthful?


When I got home that first day and peeled off my fishnet tights, the parts of my legs that the juice had painted looked like they had grown pink-tinged scales. I felt part mermaid.


It is impossible to preserve the color of stained fingers and legs in cloth, because if you use the pomegranate to dye wool or silk, the fabric will turn a deep mustard color.


Hera, neglected by her husband, scorned by the people of Greece, and ridiculed for her extreme jealousy, clutched pomegranates to her like lifelines. In some statues, she (maddened? empowered? obsessed with the fruit?) goes so far as to wear the top of the pomegranate, the calyx, on her head. Later, men of power who knew nothing of neglect would copy the pointed style in gold and call it a crown.


Ancient reliefs from Baghdad depict men of status showing off their wealth by holding bouquets of pomegranates. So forget flowers, they perish. Bring me bouquets of pomegranates, let the ruby juice stain my lips, drip down my chin. Kiss it off of me.


No wonder some scholars consider this the forbidden fruit. Can you imagine—Eve slipping bead after bead of garnet juice in between Adam’s lips until they were cast from paradise?


It is still a dream of mine to get drunk on pomegranate wine (is this sinning too?)


I came close to this once. Somewhere in the depths of summer-hazed memories my fingers, adorned with chipped nail polish, clutched at a green glass bottle of pomegranate sparkling cider. Elizabeth and I sat knee to knee on a tattered beach towel, our picnic spread before us. We washed bite after bite of sticky cinnamon rolls down our throat with the bubbling, syrupy concoction. We’d forgotten cups, so instead we passed the neck of the bottle back and forth, our icing covered lips glossing the rim. We did this until we were tipsy on our own laughter. We lay on the ground, the grass etching faint pink marks on the backs of our calves, until the sky turned a violent shade of rose.


Rachel Nevada Wood is a senior studying Classical Languages and Gender Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She is from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma and as such is a strong supporter of the Oklahoma City Thunder, fried pickles, and the word “y’all.” She currently lives with her best friend and two succulents in West Philadelphia. “Pomegranate” is her first published piece.
Image credit: “Half-Peeled Pomegranate” by Prathyush Thomas on Wikipedia.

SEOUL IN OCTOBER by Soleil David

SEOUL IN OCTOBER
by Soleil David

If I could be anywhere
………..in the Fall
it would be Korea

walking rubberized pavement
………..to the top of Namsan Tower
surprised by snow in October

kimchi stew because
………..I never remember
a flask or boxed soju

like all the ahjussis come
………..equipped with
Sir it’s only Monday morning

how are you already reeking
………..The scent of ginkgos follows me
I know it’s a kind of courtship

If I were
………..a halfway competent
nature poet

I would write
………..the mountains are aflame
and the sun has lent

the ginkgo leaf its shine
………..Not satisfied
the same tree

waits for night
………..to steal the inky darkness
for its bark


Soleil David was born and raised in the Philippines. She is a 2017 PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellow and a Graduate Scholars Fellow at Indiana University, Bloomington, where she is pursuing her MFA in poetry. Her poetry and prose have been published in Our Own Voice, The Philippine Daily Inquirer, Pittsburgh Poetry Review, Santa Ana River Review, The Margins and Day One.

 

 

Image credit: congerdesign on Pixabay

RESISTORS by Amy Miller

RESISTORS
by Amy Miller

.

He taught me how to bend their arms
so they stayed. To solder them
solid with lead and resin, perfect
alchemical drops. Each striped
in mathematical candy—purple
for seven, green for five—it took
a simple decoder. But how
to speak to me, his daughter
striped in a thrift-store skirt
and punk shoes, this was more
like the keening barrel rolls
of his cropdusting days.
He showed me the logs,
brown old books with his pencil
scratch: take-off, touch-and-go,
spins, loops, spins. Then back
to the workbench to assemble
more boards, the great dumb
heads of capacitors looming
over the little resistors,
all of them holding on.


Amy Miller’s full-length poetry collection The Trouble with New England Girls won the Louis Award and will be published by Concrete Wolf Press in 2018. Her writing has appeared in Gulf Coast, Willow Springs, and ZYZZYVA, and her chapbooks include I Am on a River and Cannot Answer (BOAAT Press) and Rough House (White Knuckle Press). Her poem “Mountain Guide” appeared in Issue 16 of Cleaver. She won the Cultural Center of Cape Cod National Poetry Competition, judged by Tony Hoagland, and has been a finalist for the Pablo Neruda Prize and 49th Parallel Award. She lives in Oregon. More information at her website.

 

Image credit: Wikipedia

You may also like:

MOUNTAIN GUIDE by Amy Miller

 

THIS VIOLENT AND CHERISHED EARTH by Cheryl Pappas

THIS VIOLENT AND CHERISHED EARTH
by Cheryl Pappas

We must begin with a burgeoning sky. The storm that had flown out to sea flew back again into our small village in between the white and black mountains that looked over the land’s end. Our village that lay low was continually crushed by the sea’s thrashings, and that in turn gave us a dull, abused humor. We didn’t dare say “Enough, already!” for we were humble, and in the small wooden church we would say our prayers and give thanks for the rain, even though it came at the price of the wind bringing salt upon our homes and dead men upon our shores. Not one of us would say, “If only the storm would bring dead fish that we could eat instead of dead men and dead wood upon our shores, that would be something!” We would rather look plaintively out the window of the church thinking on the wisdom of Father Joe’s phrasings, or out our soft and moldy kitchen windowsill, and say to our husband or wife or sister or brother, “Looks like God is testing us again. Let’s pray that we will triumph, though Lord knows what we deserve.” And the other of us would respond with a thin and raspy, “That is the truth, right there.” That is how things were then.

Father Joe taught us much about this kind of humility. Our story would be nothing without a little explaining about Father Joe, who came to us circa 1917, during the period of the great frost. We had had no religion before, merely what they call community. We were good people. But when Father Joe came upon our shores, when we were dying every day from the lack of food, he filled our minds with stories we had never dared dream of. We had no need of dreaming before he came. We listened for hours and hours about some man in some Eastern clime who had been sacrificed, and who was the son of a great God. Father Joe told us of the travails he had taken to arrive at our little village, the miles of seas he had had to cross, and he always told us that what he did to get to us was nothing compared to our daily sacrifices. We took him in, set him up in a house, and built him a church for him to tell us these things. Though he stood up high near the altar, he seemed to hold us up on a pedestal and worship us as if we were some rare species. He told us many times the story of how he had heard about us when he was in battle. An anthropologist fighting alongside him had told him of this rare godless village in the north that he had visited once (we remember this anthropologist with his curious questions), and he wished to see our land once more before he died. Later that day that man was killed, which Father Joe took for a sign (Father Joe often spoke of signs and fate—words that didn’t exist in our language until he came upon our shore). When seeing his friend killed, Father Joe ran as fast as he could to a petrol station, found a way to safe territory, and quit the idea altogether of being a soldier. His mission became to find us and teach us the ways of God. Two long years it took him to arrive here, but this delay he took as a divine challenge.

We digress. So on this day of big, brashy thunder and frightful lightning, the sea brought hundreds not tens of men, and ships, so many ships broken to pieces! The salt was beyond all order! The front of Old Father Joe’s house that faced the sea (sitting atop the promontory as his example of his enduring faith in God) was as white as God’s beard.

After the skies had gone grey and the bruised clouds swept themselves off toward the horizon, we came out of our salty shacks, clutching our long sweaters with arms crossed. We were making our way down to the shore to begin gathering the bodies. We had done this so many times before, so our faces were not quick to show surprise, but when the first row of us reached the sandy beach, some of us stopped.

More of us came up from behind, and more, and more, so that after a little while a good number of us were just trying to get a look at the shore. Our shining blue eyes were all turned toward the horizon, toward the source of our latest burden. A last light flickered over the line at the end of the earth. Not one of us said a word.

We had to do our jobs, didn’t we? That was why we were put on this earth. So first one, then two, three, ten, then all forty of us started the mournful labor of piling the bodies up to where the waves couldn’t take them back. As we worked, we sang our prayers in bare whispers to the lost travelers:

Oh, sunken ones, your journey is come.
Let us unburden you,
and lift you from your bride.
The salt is in your bones, your eyes the weeds do hide,
But we see you, sailor,
we bless you and for our own fates abide.   

We prayed this way until sunset, when finally all of the bodies had been brought up high on the shore. We took the water-seeped wood, as we were used to do, and carried it to Branches’ Farm, where all wet wood went to dry. Then we carried back to shore piles and piles of dried wood. This went on right through supper—for no one ever ate until this task was done. There on the sand our men lay the wood from old shipwrecks and piled the bodies to make the pyre. As the flames reached higher, our women closed their scarves around their bodies and made their way back to their homes to start the very late supper. Father Joe took this time to look out over us while enjoying his dinner of salt bread and water. We would sometimes look up to see his candle in the window momentarily lighting up his shadowy face and take comfort.

While we men supervised the fire, we chatted about the storm, now that the danger was over. As we said, we were a people not to be surprised too readily, so when Old Smithson and Johnson came up from the long reach of the shore carrying a heavy trunk between them, several of us ran to help them carry it to a spot high up on the shore without asking questions. The men put the trunk down and we all gathered round it, some bending down and some just standing cross-armed and slightly bewildered. Finally Old Father Joe, who had by this time joined us at the pyre, looked at Smithson and said, “Go get your hammer, Smithson. We might as well figure out what God has in store for us now.”

Smithson, who was truly getting old then, walked but did not run to his shop and brought back his hammer. Under the star-ridden sky, we watched as Father Joe pounded and pounded the gold lock of the weathered trunk. Our women looked up from their sinks and stoves at the banging that sounded like a broken church bell out of rhythm. They all wiped their hands on their towels, turned down the flames on the stove, and headed back to the shore.

All forty of us had gathered there now, with hopeful yet anxious eyes, waiting for the moment when the sturdy lock would break. Within a few minutes, the wood splintered and this is when Father Joe halted and addressed us as if we were in church.

“Good people of this cherished land, of which there is much bounty, please let us not forget ourselves and hold too much promise in this bestowal from God. Let us honor the sailors who rest here tonight, their souls on their journey home. Let us remain, above all, who we are, humble creatures of the Lord of Light.”

With three tries Father Joe broke the seal. At first it was too dark for any of us to see. Old Johnson brought over a torch lit by the burning embers of the pyre.

As we all took in the familiar stench of flesh and salt coming from the pyre, Father Joe slowly lowered the flame down into the shadows of the trunk’s interior. There were mounds and mounds of round objects that glowed orange in the light. Were they made of gold, you may wonder? Were they strange jewels from afar? No, they were, as it was ascertained by Father Joe who lifted one up and shone the light on it, oranges. Simple and delicious oranges that were far from rotten. Now, in any other community, this would be a disappointment. But for us humble folk, it was both an enchantment and a deep problem. For we had never set our eyes on an orange. The treasure might as well have been gold. And under Father Joe’s guidance, we wondered, who would dare eat them? Wasn’t it folly to do so? Father Joe would have to decide this one for us.

“Good people! We have been blessed as well as cursed! Those of you who do not know what this is, it is an orange, a fruit that is sweet and fibrous. I think before it is decided what to do with them, we need to count them first and foremost, to see the level of our treasure. But do not fail to see the sorrow in this gift! I hesitate to let this fine fruit enter into our lives, for we may be tempted further by this joy and only want more of what we cannot have. Be warned!”

Father Joe asked Old Roman and Old Johnson to bring the trunk to the church, where the oranges could properly be counted. We all followed, while dinners still simmered on stoves, and watched Father Joe lay a thick black cloth on the table in the center of the altar. The oranges were taken out one by one, preciously, and counted.

There were forty oranges.

In our hearts, we were hoping that Father Joe would be kind and just, and give each one of us one orange and so be left with none for himself. This would have been the right thing to do. He was the one, you remember, whose house faced the calamitous sea, as a sign of his faith. Well, would his faith extend to sacrificing the taste of a sweet orange?

“People of this God-loving village, I am afraid we do have trouble. We are forty-one and there are only forty oranges. Because I do love this village, however, I am more than willing to forego my pleasure of eating an orange for the higher pleasure of seeing you enjoy them. But heed my earlier warning! Let not this fruit spoil your spirit. For as these oranges will soon mold and turn to dust, so will your spirit if you let pleasure ruin your spiritual appetite.”

We flocked to the oranges like scavengers, shamelessly smiling now, for what we had hoped had come true. Much bustling was made, scarves thrown over shoulders, elbows high up in the air, each grabbing an orange for himself or herself, whether old or young. Our mothers were kind to hand an orange to their child, because in that flurrying and scrambling, one would think that selfishness had gone amok.

While this frenzy was proceeding, Father Joe said, just under his breath, “My Father who art in Heaven” and every one of us stopped what we were doing. We were sensitive to the sound of the Father.

“I know there are some of you who are far better than this. May I only remind you of the rotting fruit of your souls. Good night.” And with that Father Joe walked solemnly down the aisle of the church, his shoes pounding the wooden floor, and the large, heavy door shut behind him like a stone.

We all stood there, quiet, until one of us (it was Old Johnson) walked over and put his orange back. And then another, and another, and another of us, until all of the oranges were piled ceremoniously upon the altar. Suddenly Old Rachel, who was always a little panicky, remembered the grub on the stove and shouted, “The grub!” and with that all of our women rushed back to the grub on their stoves, fearful of a fire burning up what little we had. The men and children trailed behind, our heads bowed.

The next day at service, the oranges remained on the altar while the Father spoke of humility and suffering and the salt of the sea and the sailors on their journey home, through our blessed guidance. In this dark church made of wood, those oranges burned as bright as the candles, and not one us didn’t sneak a look. Father Joe used the oranges well in his sermon, speaking of them as temptations of the pure spirit. And he did not neglect to tell us how proud he was of us, when he entered the church at dawn, to see the glorious pile of oranges there where they belonged.

For the next few days, the fervor with which old Father Joe spoke increased, for he was bounding with praise at our sacrifice, and was convinced that we had reached the pinnacle of our spirits, and pleased God beyond belief. It was a triumphant time for this village, he said, so much so that perhaps God would bless us with more storms so that we might come to realize the true beauty of our sacrificing souls.

This proved too much. Granted, some of us were indeed pleased with ourselves and felt that we would surely be raised to Heaven when the day came. But the promise of those oranges held a power over us. The more Father Joe spoke of our people’s strength and virtue and holiness, the brighter those oranges shone. Soon everything fell away in our people’s vision, all the greys and browns and blacks inside the church looked paltry when compared to the joyous color of the bountiful fruit.

The desire in our people rose to such a level that one night, it was spread about in whispers among the townspeople that Old Johnson and Smithson, the ones who had found the trunk, were to sneak into the church after midnight and take the oranges and hide them in Smithson’s cellar so that we could all finally enjoy them before they went rotten. In the morning when Father Joe would discover them gone, we would simply say that we had put the oranges back in the trunk and sent the bestowed gift out to sea, from whence it came.

But the night did not go according to plan. Johnson and Smithson had smoothly retrieved the trunk and placed all of the oranges in it but when they stepped outside of the church, they were astonished to see every last one of us—save for Father Joe, of course—there in front of the church to receive our own orange. It was a risk, we knew, but we were willing to lose our souls for the sweet taste that Father Joe had described. Johnson and Smithson were very upset and told all of us to go behind the church, out of view from Father Joe’s house, so that they could hand out the oranges in shadow.

Meanwhile, old Father Joe, the story goes, must have been thinking as he lay there in bed that if he took one orange, just one, then no one would know. As some of us tell it, he put on his warm wool robe and his slippers so no one would hear him walking (this was false though, the road was a pebbly one). He went out his back porch and headed for the church. By the light of the moon, he must have seen our shadows and heard the strange sucking sounds.

At this, he ran behind the church and saw all of us, so many of us, sitting on the grass, the light of the moon behind us, sucking away at the oranges, their tough skins tossed aside on the ground.

Oh, and were we ever enjoying those oranges! In between the sucking sounds were lots of quiet exclamations and the children, the children! They were dancing about, putting a slice in their mouths and smiling! Old Christina was the first one who saw the tall shadowy figure of Old Joe approach. “Hush!” she whispered. But it was too late. Father Joe stood before our huddled figures in the night of both light and dark and crossed his arms. He didn’t say a word for a few minutes. He was waiting for his power to be felt. “I would like to know . . .” he growled, barely able to contain himself. “I would like to know who is responsible for his soul here behind this church. How dare . . .” Father Joe started to say but his words were quickly interrupted by Johnson and Smithson, who had in one movement picked up his screaming, shrieking body, and pushed him into the trunk. Before it was closed we all—men, women, and children—picked up the scattered orange peels and threw them in with the Father. Smithson and Johnson sat on the trunk while Christina fetched some rope from her shed. The two men bundled up the trunk and carried it aloft all the way to the river that flowed ever to the sea, with all of us following behind and around and ahead. The journey was so long that we had to take turns carrying the burden, but it was no matter, for we smiled like we had never smiled before, the taste in our mouths was sweet, and a light moved us forward, the moon glinting in our deep blue eyes. We sang to our glory, and to our old Father Joe, who gave us this Heaven. Oh, sunken one, your journey is come.


Cheryl Pappas is a writer from Boston. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Bitter OleanderSmokeLong QuarterlyTin HouseEssay Daily, and Mulberry Fork Review. She is currently writing an essay about Jules Romains’s novel The Death of a Nobody and is at work on a short story collection. She holds an MFA in Fiction from Bennington Writing Seminars. You can find her at cherylpappas.net and @fabulistpappas.

 

 

 

Image credit: Wikipedia

THE RATION OF INDEPENDENCE by Michael T. Young

THE RATION OF INDEPENDENCE
by Michael T. Young

.
When coarse human events become necessary,
people dissolve, a gloom powers profit, the claws
of paper and paper’s God hold sleuths to be prevalent,
that all men are prequel, and cowed by certain
alien fights. Knife liberty and hirsute happiness
secure fleece rights. Governments are prostituted,
driving their powers and the discontent of the governed.
Any storm of cover meant these end: flight
of the steeple, falter and a polish to parachute
a true glove ornament. Lay its foundation on
such prince piles: organs, eyes—sing its powers.
Such a storm shall seem to effect their safety.
Prudes in deed will delight governments changed
for sleight causes that all mankind suffer.
While evils stuff their gable to knight themselves,
buy a polishing foam to hitch your new costume.
The long reign of obtuse user patience and pure suing
invariably the same objects. Even since a denizen
traduces them, wonder will solute despotism.
Yet there, right there: beauty, to show off, clutch,
wonderment too, but denied through guards,
other torture, poverty. Touch was thin, patient,
utterance of trees fall and freeze: sand, such is now,
the necessity which entertains them. Few psalters
dare form verse. Stems of cover invent the history
of the present. Sting of hate written, its hysteria,
repeated, in furies, and loose relations, all having
in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny.
Oh, for these states. Few approve this. Pet
rats flee. Slums fitted to a grand, dead world.


Michael T. Young’s fifth collection, Turpentine, will be published by Terrapin Books in 2018. His other collections include, The Beautiful Moment of Being Lost, Living in the Counterpoint, and Transcriptions of Daylight. He received the Jean Pedrick Award and a Fellowship from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous journals including Cimarron Review, The Cortland Review, Little Patuxent Review, and Lunch Ticket. He lives with his wife, children, and cats in Jersey City, New Jersey.

 

Image credit: Mervyn Chan on Unsplash 

FIVE STARS by Marie Baleo

FIVE STARS
by Marie Baleo

“Women shouldn’t drive,” my chauffeur tells me.

There is a word in a foreign language for the art of hiding, a three-syllable birdcall kept in chest pockets like a secret. In the rectangle of the rearview mirror his eyes shine like hot coals and he has no face. In mine, he looks for a fire, but I do not give anything away. I tell myself I’m too good to educate him. I’m not too good. All of my bones are here careening through these streets suspended between his four fast doors and he knows it. Just like he knows how bad we are, how helpless and weak. But not to worry, he’s not angry at me—it’s only natural. “You’re not good at it,” he explains. I sit on my fingers. He wants me to humor him, say yes, yes please and thank you, wants me to accept and say, no, we’re not dangerous, yes, we will partake, yes to you and everything you say, a resounding yes to all the shit born in the void of your mind and thrown at me from inside your mouth. Yes, see me as nothing, by all means. You’d only be right. Me and the other walking lips, the dismembered breasts, the plastic faces with words and fists shoved in them, we fall short of humanity. If we are lucky, alone at times or among the enlightened ones, we can lift the veil of silence and let ourselves be a little larger than nothing. A little more than a pitiful head of hair to be trampled by another, a little more than a piece of something harmed and hindered, squandered and frayed. All the driver gives away now is a pair of black eyes, but of me he sees all. He sizes me up, runs his eyes along the sides of my face, along my arms crossed over my insides. Does he think I could lurch and dig my nails into his eyes? Does he believe I could lace my frail fingers around his neck and scream until he begged for mercy or veered us off the course of safety? Does the buried root of him know who here burns the brightest? Who can make danger?

“You’re right, they shouldn’t,” I say.


Marie Baleo is a French writer born in 1990. Her work was nominated for a Best of the Net award in 2017 and has appeared or is forthcoming in Tahoma Literary Review, Litro Magazine, Maudlin House, Split Lip Magazine, Cease, Cows, Gone Lawn, The Penn Review, Jersey Devil Press, The Nottingham Review, Five 2 One Magazine, Hypertext Magazine, Five on the Fifth, Spilled Milk, and elsewhere. She is currently on the masthead of Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel. Marie grew up in Norway and Lebanon and received a B.A. from Washington University in St. Louis and an M.A. from Sciences Po Paris.

BEAUTY IN ELEVEN ENCOUNTERS by Ollie Dupuy 

BEAUTY IN ELEVEN ENCOUNTERS
by Ollie Dupuy 

  1. i could blame it on the culture of america, korea, science, but i boil it down to being the first korean word i learned, yeppuda yeppuda rolling off the tongues of halmonis and imos and echoing around the room like a bullet: beautiful beautiful. they flap sun-spotted hands to my sister’s and my hair, our flat stomachs, our long legs, and the only word i could understand was yeppuda. i begin to think of it as a science, as a fact, a ledgehold in the vast canyon of earth and universe. sun is yellow. clouds are white. i am beautiful. yeppuda, yeppuda.
  2. it takes a little time but i discover tragedy backwards, and suddenly i’m a victim of a crime i didn’t even know existed and i can’t stop thinking about my mother crying into the golden light of a therapist’s office. (no matter how hard i try the image sticks in my chest and stays there, makes a home against my heart.) it’s an awareness i didn’t ask for, and now i’ve lost my fingers, my collarbone, my hipbone. i avoid mirrors. i let my body bloat & stagnate, burrowing deep inside what is now spoiled flesh. yeppuda begins to skip over me at dinner. my sister keeps her flat stomach and grows into her long legs and i begin hating her.
  3. she practices smiling and her reflection glows and she cultivates makeup brushes for fingers. i throw my makeup in a box and hide it away. the shame of being unbeautiful takes root somewhere in me and sprouts until everything i am transforms into a devotion for hiding. i become a study in survival and i see strangers behind every door in my house and sometimes it feels mysterious and painless and thrilling. other nights i lock my doors and sleep on my face and i can barely breathe.
  4. i am asked to winter formal and called beautiful for the first time in years and it just feels dirty and transactional, like he’s trying to take something from me, like him being the one to call me beautiful means that now some part of me belongs to him, is beholden to him. no. i’m done with losing my bones.
  5. i take jazz for p.e. and the walls are covered in floor-to-ceiling mirrors. i refuse to look in any of them. instead i watch the dancers in my class unfold their arms and legs like paper origami and try to pretend i am born of the same airy yeppuda, attach myself to rhythm and cadence and beat. they give their skin away in little slivers against their navels, their shoulders, and i begin to hate them too because the dull pain inside me is too airless and solid. we have changing rooms. i change in the bathroom.
  6. an eighth grade boy asks my sister to kiss him, asks her if she ever thinks about him, tells her she’s the most beautiful girl he knows. she tells him no. now he laughs at her in the halls and tells her he’s never met anyone so desperate. when she comes home crying, i’m torn between telling her it is her fault she is beautiful and punching the boy in the face.
  7. all the beautiful girls in my dance class who gave away their skin eventually hand off their bones too. sometimes their boyfriends don’t know when no means no and all i can do is write and write and write, stab my fingers into the keys, and i want to talk to them to tell them it gets better but it’s not something you talk about and i’m not sure how much of it would be a lie. maybe it would be simpler to tell them it’s better to be ugly.
  8. and then one of my friends begins to tell me gently i am beautiful. i have been brushing off compliments for forever now, not letting any of them catch my shoulders or twist my tongue. i think i laugh in his face. but over the next few weeks, without pointing at my hair or my legs, he just reminds me: hey you know you’re really pretty right?
  9. i say thank you and he says why are you thanking me?
  10. he says it until i respond with i know.
  11. and it shouldn’t mean that much but it does; beauty with nothing but me attached to it, and not even beauty but just prettiness, the cool breeze of a smile and the comfort of falling onto familiarity. it’s just something in his simplicity, in the factual way it was, like the sky is blue. grass is green. and you can just be pretty.

Ollie Dupuy is a junior at Orange County School of the Arts in Southern California, where she studies creative writing and is an editor for Inkblot Literary Magazine. She enjoys history (America’s, the world’s, yours) and opportunities to overdress. Her work has appeared in Fredericksburg Literary and Art Review and gravel.

 

 

 

Image credit: James Lee on Unsplash 

FINNISH BLACK BREAD by Eric Wilson

FINNISH BLACK BREAD
by Eric Wilson

Back in 1962, German was still a popular graduate major at Stanford. The world was different then. That entire summer, Mary Lois and I turned out to be the only two grad students who’d stayed in town. We saw more of each other than I might have wished.

She was attractive, but when she spoke German, she betrayed a thick Kansas accent. When she voiced her throaty “My golly!” I didn’t know if she was being serious or silly.

She’d started inviting me over to her place in the evenings and plying me with Guinness. I loved Guinness, but as a student on a budget I felt it would be extravagant to ever actually buy any. Mary Lois suspected this and kept several six-packs at the ready; she would lean in, reaching over to hand me one bottle after another. Today she had been writing a make-up paper on Der grüne Heinrich, a voluminous, Swiss coming-of-age novel. The Green Henry. Turgid works like this were causing me to doubt my choice of major. Where had I gone wrong? Where would German lead me? Was I going in any direction that would benefit my life?

“‘Green Henry’ sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it?” Mary Lois asked. “It doesn’t translate well at all!” She just kept talking as I kept sinking—first, into the Guinness, and then into her bed. “My golly,” she said with her Kansas accent as she deftly undid the metal buttons of my Levi’s. She didn’t realize words weren’t called for. I was fearful about performing, but her touch proved firm.

When I’d visited Helsinki—I extended my stay—there was an abundance of sensual young Finns. Finnish guys. It was easy to run into them. But sometimes we discovered we didn’t have a common language. Eye contact took the place of words—on the street, in a record store, at the Sibelius Monument—turning around, whirling around, gaze meeting gaze, Hei, mitä kuuluu!, Puhutko suomea? What? Suddenly language didn’t matter. Sometimes we’d spend the night together because he lived in a suburb and the buses back into the city didn’t run late. He might even make me breakfast—that wonderful dark sourdough Finnish rye bread with marmalade. We’d sit smiling like mimes, drinking strong coffee.

As we sat there naked in the bright morning sun of a Finnish-modern kitchen, arousal was quick. We might have another go at what we had been doing the night before. But as Mary Lois took me in hand—this was My Very First Time with a Girl—she made it seem . . . obscene. She shouldn’t be doing this; it was unnatural. And then she took me into her mouth, primly. It was all wrong. She was like an actor in the Brecht theater, well-versed in the Verfremdungseffekt—the “alienation effect.” One played one’s role, but from a great distance. Acting in quotation marks.

Still, she brought me to a climax. I lay back, my eyes closed, feeling ashamed. This shouldn’t have happened. We had a common language—two, in fact—but no words to say.


Eric Wilson’s fiction will appear in the spring 2018 issue of Fifth Wednesday Journal. New England Review has published two of his essays, one of which found its way into the Pushcart Prize Anthology, Vol. XLI, 2017. Other work has appeared in Massachusetts Review, Epoch, Carolina Quarterly, Witness, Boundary 2, The German Quarterly, and The O. Henry Prize Stories anthology. After a Fulbright year in Berlin, he earned a Stanford Ph.D. in German Literature. He has taught German at UCLA and Pomona College and fiction writing at UCLA Extension.

 

Image credit:  Patrick Fore on Unsplash 

 

STEREOCARDS: Doubles by Kyra Simone

STEREOCARDS: Doubles
by Kyra Simone

I.

Some still see the shadow of the earth’s other moon,
a ghost satellite over a ghost tide

before one light was absorbed into the other.
No silhouette hides in the rushes,

everything illuminated
or submerged.

I saw a woman walking in Paris once.
She wore your hat and your old expression.

Those were the days of sitting in the Swedish cafe,
strangers huddled in opposite corners,

raising their glasses to each other without knowing it,
an oblivious toast to the unnoticed world.

Gypsies handed roses to tourists on the steps,
their muteness abandoned once they piled into the BMW.

In other languages we are completely different people.
Our versions drift past each other, unable to speak.

In panels of glass only words are backwards.
The rest is readable, but we miss the difference—

if today is the original or another dim copy,
the same songs playing from the car windows in the street,

the stand-ins still shadows of the people they resemble.
Who will be the body thrown over the cliff?

 

II.

In the mountains of Spain, I saw a two-headed dog,
but a lover told me it was probably just two animals fucking.

No living body is completely symmetrical.
One breast hangs a little lower than the other,

one hand is more dexterous, one braid lays too long.
One eye gazes further into the distance.

Two girls with the same name cross each other on the path,
skipping aimlessly over the rocks in opposite directions.

“Hello,” she says.
“Hello,” says the other.

They stand on the hill, taking turns looking through a pair of binoculars,
staring to the point of seeing nothing at all.

At first the picture comes in pieces:
the giraffes and the elephants, the inexhaustible sea sponge.

I’ll climb the boy mulberry tree,
and you climb the girl

and when we descend, our mouths will be bloody,
a nectar not found in the stand-alone cactus.

Across the ocean,
we both have the same thought.

We play the same note on our old pianos,
but the sound caught on the air is different.

This only is clear:
there are contrary people inside your one face.


Kyra Simone is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Atlas Review, Black Clock, The Brooklyn Rail, Conjunctions, Little Star, Prelude, Vestiges, and The Wrong Quarterly, among other journals. She is a member of the editorial collective at Ugly Duckling Presse.

 

 

 

Image credits: Metropolitan Museum of Art

THE OUTLINE OF EMPTY SPACES  by Angelique Stevens

THE OUTLINE OF EMPTY SPACES
by Angelique Stevens

I discovered a near-limitless capacity for patience on my parents’ back porch, hiding out, eating Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, and reading Richie Rich comics. I was skipping school, biding my time until the end of the afternoon when I could pretend to come home. That first morning, I had slunk down behind an old green aluminum chair and sat in an upright fetal position, knees to chest, arms swaddling legs. I counted the boards on the floor, twenty-five. The rails along the side, forty-eight, and 360 holes in between the crisscross side rail, 250 yellow leaves on the porch, 423 reds, five points in this yellow leaf, eight in that red leaf. I counted my fingers and my toes and every letter in the alphabet, and then, when that was done, I made up a new game. I spelled out every letter:, A, AY, B, BEE, C, SEA. I spelled my name: Ay, En, Gee, El, Eye, Cue, You, Eee. I spelled out whole sentences. “Angie is skipping school today.” “School sucks.” It wasn’t long before I was bored.

I had sprained an ankle a week earlier playing with my sister, Gina. The doctor had prescribed a few days’ rest, which turned into a week out of school. Then, the night before I was supposed to go back, I asked Dad for a letter that would explain my absence. He never gave it to me; he was too drunk to remember. When I left the house the next morning, my anxiety over not having the letter grew with each hesitant step I took.

My feet skipped between the yellows and reds of mid-October leaves—should I even go to school? I could just stay home one more day, ask Dad again for a letter that night, and everything would be okay. But what would I tell him? I could say I tripped and fell, hurt my leg again, or maybe I could say I was feeling kind of feverish and came home sick. He would never believe that.

By the time I walked through the school’s entrance, the homeroom bell was already ringing. I should have picked up my pace, but my family had moved to the neighborhood recently, and I felt like a stranger still. I stopped in a corner, the gray of my shirt blending into the gray of the wall until I was just a silhouette of myself—a thin line of lead-gray traced upon bricks. I imagined that moment when you open the classroom door and all the third graders turned toward you wondering where you’ve been and why you’re late and why you never talk to anyone and why your clothes are ripped and you smell like cigarettes. Then, I snuck into the bathroom and parked myself inside a stall.

Twenty minutes later, when the bell rang again, I retraced my steps out of the building and into daylight. I might have been okay if I had just gone into my class, said I didn’t have a note, and sat down. Or maybe I didn’t even need a note. Maybe no one had noticed my absence. But it was too late; I had passed the moment of turning back.

In the daylight I was free. There was none of Dad’s late-night staggering up the stairs or Mom’s paranoid mania. There was only me, full and flesh and whole. I was substance and skin against the backdrop of the city’s swoosh of cars, white cement sidewalk and bark of oak.

I walked to the park and sat on the swing, kicked leaves, traced my name in the sand, Ang, Angie, Angelique, all the ways I knew myself. Then I left. I knew I was too young and it was too early in the day to be seen in the park. Dad always joked about truant officers. I couldn’t be sure if they were real, so I tried to force my flesh back into that silhouette, dark against the shadows of the city.

I fantasized about where I might go. Maybe I could grow wings and fly to California, sun myself on a private beach like a movie star, one knee up, one down, my long hair splayed on a towel. Or I could drive a fancy Jeep into the Colorado mountains, the way grown-up women did in the movies. I’d sit at the bar of a ski lodge, finger the lip of a sherry glass, pick it up so the ice would clink when I pressed it against my lips. I was so caught up in my dream I hadn’t realized my body took me where it knew to go.

I had unintentionally traced my steps back home. We lived in a duplex. My mother wouldn’t see me come around to the back. She would have been half-lying, half-sitting on the couch, dipping her toast into her coffee and alternating drags of her Raleigh cigarette with bites of toast—crumbs rolling down her chest to the cigarette-burned couch and onto the floor. She’d watch game shows until the afternoon when she would take her evening dose of Thorazine and sleep until dinner. She would never go out the back door to the yard. So I chanced it, steeled myself against the shadows and found a spot behind that green chair on the back porch.

By the time I had finished counting and spelling, it was after lunch and I was hungry. I realized I still had the dollar Dad had given me for the cafeteria, so I left the porch and walked to the corner store. Wilson Farms only had four short aisles, but they were filled with possibilities. I scanned the shelves deciding what combination of food I could get, a soda and a candy bar or a Twinkie and milk. Then I saw the toy section. There were water guns, three for a dollar, blue, yellow, and red. There were toy caps, none of which I could buy with the money I had. I considered a plastic handheld maze game. I could pass time for hours rolling that little silver ball along winding turns and broken gaps and dead ends just to get through the labyrinth. But I didn’t have enough money to buy that and food, too. I found the comic book section. Richie Rich was only thirty cents. I picked it up and grabbed a double Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup on the way to the checkout.

Back on the porch, I made a fresh start. Only two more hours until school ended and I could pretend to walk home. If I was deliberate, I could fill my time reading Richie Rich and eating the Reese’s, one hour per cup. I took one of the peanut butter rounds out of the package and held it between my thumb and forefinger, softening the cold chocolate, making it pliable, and testing my own patience. I moved my fingers around the center, being careful not to touch the hard outer ridge. Finally, it cracked in my hand and a perfect little circle of soft peanut butter and chocolate came out of the center, leaving the ridged circle intact. I ate it slowly, deliberately around the edges, savoring every taste of peanut butter, imagining each tiny little morsel of chocolate pass through my teeth and land on my tongue. I forced myself not to chew it but instead let it melt until it dissolved. When that was finished, I nibbled the outside circle, one ridge at a time. That took up the better part of an hour. I still had the second piece to go.

While I ate, I read Richie Rich from the top left corner to the bottom right corner of each page. I slowed my pace, stopped time so that the reading and the eating would last until school ended. One small bite corresponded to one small detail. Methodically, I studied every mark on every page until it was memorized. The way both c’s in Richie Rich’s name were made to look like cents symbols. The way the i’s were dotted with diamonds. I wanted the i in Angelique to be dotted with a diamond. I wanted my S to be crossed with two lines so it could become a dollar sign.

Near the Harvey Comics logo, in the top left corner of the cover, there was always a miniature image of Richie Rich. He stood near a money vault or held up a bank over his head Superman style or wore wings made of dollars. I loved the sensory opulence of it all. I imagined myself with cash wings rising above the back porch and the shadows, above the cigarette-burned carpets and hand-me-down clothes, beyond Mom’s paranoid rages and Dad’s late-night binges. I slowed my imaginings—dreamed up one image at a time until I saw myself floating in Wonder Woman pose over a world of extravagance and luxury that looked nothing like the one I had come from.

When that first day ended and I pretended to come home, no one knew that I had skipped. I could keep doing it. The next day, I went straight to Wilson Farms for another comic book and some peanut butter cups. Some days I took the long way home, other days it was too cold and rainy to sit outside. One wet morning, I peeked in the living room window and saw Mom sleeping, so I creaked open the front door. If I could get upstairs without her seeing me, I could wait out the day in the warmth of my room. Mom was sleeping on the couch, cigarette smoke hanging in the air and Bob Barker chatting with a new contestant on The Price is Right.

I closed the door and pretended I was a ninja warrior on a secret mission. One step, my right toe touched the floor, then the ball of my foot, one joint at a time until my heel was flat. I tested the next step for noise, then more weight and the whole of my left foot. Then, my right toe touched the first stair. I counted seconds between movements, one one thousand, two one thousand. I breathed in, three one thousand, four one thousand. I took another step, five one thousand, six one thousand. I was all stealth. My chest expanded, seven one thousand. I was a silhouette rising, eight one thousand, nine one thousand. Then I breathed out. Let the air go, made myself invisible. I counted the number of floorboards as I moved; five on this step, seven on that step.

All along I watched my mother’s eyes. I listened to her breathing. I spelled the letters of her name in my head: Sea, Ay, Are, Oh, El, Eee. I breathed in. I spelled diamond: Dee, Eye, Ay, Em, Oh, En, Dee. I breathed out. On the top landing, I turned the corner and reached my room, where I forced my flesh into a corner of my closet and opened the Richie Rich. I could wait all day in that spot, my patience had become superhuman.

One day I came home from a fake day of classes and Dad was home early, waiting for me on the couch.

“Where’ve you been, Angie?” His Boston accent still thick after 40 years in New York. He took a long drag of his cigarette.

“School.”

“The school called and said you haven’t been there in at least two weeks.”

“I was afraid.”

He put his cigarette out and opened the jar of Noxzema. The shirt of his blue lot man’s uniform hung loose and wrinkled at the waist.  The dark cracks in his calloused hands were caked black even after washing. He rubbed the Noxzema on his hands. Mom was in the kitchen getting dinner ready.

“You were supposed to give me a note.”

“You skipped school because you didn’t have a note? I’ll give you a note, and then you will march your ass right into the principal’s office tomorrow morning.” He pointed his arthritic finger up the stairs, and I sulked off to my room.

Upstairs, I took off my shoes and sat on the bed. Beyond my window, the wind had picked up the leaves and made them spiral. I pulled the blankets up and took out an old issue of Richie Rich from my nightstand. On the cover, Richie was in bed wrapped in a green quilt, a fluffy white pillow leaned against a headboard of gold. From his bedroom window, the morning sun’s rays angled down onto his face. The robot arm of his alarm clock tapped him gently on his shoulder to wake him, the words singing from the radio, “Good morning, Richie.”

I traced my finger over each image on the front page, starting in the top left corner and moving to the book’s title. I stopped at the diamonds over each “i,” pretending I could feel the smooth sides, the edges and lines as I turned each diamond over in my fingers. I touched the swirls on the bed’s headboard, wishing I had a crayon to fill in the outline of empty spaces with another color—silver maybe. I traced the lines of the angled rays of the yellow sun above the alarm clock and out the window. Then I imagined myself sliding out of the window on the sunrays and counting the trees as I flew above them with dollar wings, two pine trees in the back yard, two maples in front. Four honey locusts on the street and on and on into the sun.


Angelique Stevens’ nonfiction can be found in The Chattahoochee ReviewCleaver (Issue 8Issue 11, and in Life as Activism), Shark Reef, and a number of anthologies. Her essay “Exposure” won silver in the Solas Award for Best Women’s Travel Writing 2013, and her experimental essay “Spiral” was published in the anthology Friend Follow, Text, which was nominated by Foreward Review for Best Anthology of the Year. She teaches creative writing and genocide literature in upstate New York, and she is a founding member of Straw Mat Writers, with whom she coauthored the collaborative plays FourPlay for the 2014 and Shitty Lives for the 2015 First Niagara Rochester Fringe Festivals. She holds an MFA from Bennington College, and she finds her inspiration in wandering—being in places that push the boundaries of comfort, experience, knowledge, and hunger. She is currently writing a travel memoir about her trip to South Sudan and her experiences growing up in New York State.

Image credit: Aaron Burden on Unsplash

You may also enjoy:

IF NOTHING CHANGES by Angelique Stevens

KEEPING TIME by Angelique Stevens

BENEATH US ALL THIS TIME, an essay by Angelique Stevens featured on Life As Activism

 

VACATION BIBLE SCHOOL by Michelle Brooks

VACATION BIBLE SCHOOL
by Michelle Brooks

Before the puppet show, Melissa and I split
a stolen Valium. As the children gathered,
a dreamy feeling descended on the eighth
grade me, benevolence for all I saw—the cheap
hand puppets, a mouse, and giraffe who
became Jonah and the whale. I put my mouse
into the mouth of Melissa’s giraffe while God
waited for Jonah to get himself right. He’d
run from Ninevah only to suffer. Brother
Buddy complimented us on our performance,
telling me that longsuffering was my fruit
of the spirit. I didn’t sound good, even medicated
against harm and boredom. I didn’t know then
that you didn’t have to be swallowed whole,
that you could swallow the whale and not
know you were trapped by what was inside you.


Michelle Brooks has published a collection of poetry, Make Yourself Small (Backwaters Press), and a novella, Dead Girl, Live Boy, (Storylandia Press). A native Texan, she has spent much of her adult life in Detroit. She has recently completed a poetry collection, Flamethrower.

WAITING FOR THE GLUE TO HOLD by Lorri McDole

WAITING FOR THE GLUE TO HOLD
by Lorri McDole

“Ow! Shit! MOTHER of the dear LORD!”

My teenage daughter flies into the kitchen at this Sunday morning blasphemy and then freezes, as if the knife is meant for her. I freeze too, shocked by a surge of envy. I miss being her. Miss flirting with waves instead of the undertow.

When I drop the knife and the bloody bagel, she grabs the phone.

“No, don’t come home,” I tell my husband. He’s been waiting for us to walk into St. Matthew’s sanctuary to listen to him sing Awesome God and Wade in the Water. “It’s not that bad.”

That’s my new mantra, and whenever I say it, I see it, like it’s the title of a book: It’s Not as Bad as It Looks. But when he waffles, torn between faith (or at least the Lutheran Church) and family, the invisible tide heaves, threatening to spill my irreverent thoughts onto the shores of our endangered family: Get your fucking ass home, now!

Later, at Urgent Care, the doctor treats my thumb with Dermabond adhesive. Giddy to be in someone else’s hands, I brag about all the things we fix at home with Super Glue: belts, sandals, sunglasses, bras. I want him to think I’m funny, and brave—I survive knives! And bankruptcies! I’ve survived, so far, myself.

But the doctor doesn’t laugh or even smile, just says, “Then this should work just fine,” as he presses my wound closed and waits for the glue to hold.


Lorri McDole’s short fiction and nonfiction pieces have been published in The Writer, Sweet: A Literary Confection, The Offing, Eclectica, New Madrid, Epiphany, and Brain, Child, as well as in several anthologies that include the forthcoming Flash Nonfiction Funny. Her essay “Storms of the Circus World,” which was a finalist for the Talking Writing Prize for Personal Essay, was nominated for a 2017 Best of the Net Award. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her family.

 

 

Image credit: Pratiksha Mohanty on Unsplash

STORM WATCH by Greg Jenkins

STORM WATCH
by Greg Jenkins

He was a little boy, and the sudden, spectacular storm frightened him. Kenny had seen storms before, but none like this. Lightning forked wickedly outside the trembling window, and thunder boomed inside his head, his chest. Torrents of rain lashed the house.

His Uncle Blake found him cowering beneath the kitchen table. Without a word, he seized Kenny’s arm and scooped him up. Blake carried him out the back door and onto the lanai where all that separated them from the storm was a thin porous metal screen.

He put the boy down but held his wrist, held him in check.

The scene reminded Kenny of a war movie he’d watched on TV, only this was worse. The harsh lights that blanched the sky were more dazzling; the thunderclaps were almost painfully loud and concussive. Not just falling, the rain was being spewed, downward and crossways. Since the screen offered scant protection, the boy and his uncle were soon soaked.

Wearing one of his habitual white undershirts, his ample belly a sort of cushion against the world, Blake spoke to his nephew in a full-lunged shout to overcome the ambient noise.

“It’s nature, Kenny,” Blake roared. “It’s beautiful and it’s awful. But you’ve gotta look it square in the eye. That’s how a man does it. Sooner or later,” he said, “it’s gonna get you regardless.”

Half a century later, Ken lay in a hospital bed. Several tubes, either supplying or retrieving fluids, were attached to his body. Beside him, a softly beeping monitor displayed information about his respiration, heartbeat, and blood pressure.

He’d been in the hospital for a while, so he’d had plenty of time to remember and reflect. Ghosts from the past—and a couple from the future—drifted gauzily before his mind’s eye.

Ken wondered whatever had become of his Uncle Blake. He thought that Blake had died, but he couldn’t be sure. The family had broken apart, its members dispersing like the seeds of a dandelion. If Blake had died, he wondered, had he been buried in something better than a shabby white undershirt?

So many others, too, had vanished from his life. His parents, his brother, two wives, various friends . . . a playful and loyal pit bull named Sugarplum.

The nurses all marveled at Ken’s carefree attitude; he joked and chuckled when perhaps other patients wouldn’t. He’d come in as a kidney patient but was now a heart patient. The ol’ ticker, it seemed, was ticking in an erratic way that might just kill him. So next day they’d do a PET scan to see if a defibrillator could help matters. There was no guarantee.

“A PET scan!” he cackled. “You think I’m a dog? A pit bull?”

Alone, Ken peered out his window at the darkening, rumbling sky. A storm was brewing. He hoped to God it would be a good one, a wild one.

One with loud fireworks and a vicious, pounding rain.


Greg Jenkins is the author of four books, including his recent novel A Face in the Sky, and dozens of short stories. His work has appeared in such journals as Prairie Schooner, Prism International, Chicago Quarterly Review, South Dakota Review, and Mensa Bulletin.  He has also had a number of plays produced.

 

 

 

Image credit: Jaclyn Clark on Unsplash