Dead Birds is a documentary about the aboriginal people of New Guinea. Behavior Modification shows early attempts to treat autism. Orange is an erotic film in which a man peels and eats an orange. Slowly.
I worked my way through undergraduate school as a film projectionist, screening movies for the university’s classes. It didn’t pay much, but had other benefits: flexible hours, easy work, interesting subject matter. The only problem was that I was assigned to show the most popular films in the college’s library so many times that after only a few months on the job it became impossible for me to stay awake while they were running. At some point I trained myself to fall asleep during the opening credits of these films and wake up just before the loose end of the trailer began to flap against the projector stand.
Color Chromatography demonstrates—you guessed it—color chromatography. Sirene is a 1968 animated short about the destruction of the natural environment. A Normal Birth shows a normal (human) birth; at least three people would faint during each showing. This is Marshall McLuhan. I assume no explanation is necessary.
Behavioral Studies of Obedience was a favorite of the psychology department: a sixty-minute film summarizing experiments by Dr. Stanley Milgram, a Yale psychologist, in which an actor posing as a doctor was able to persuade some of the study’s subjects to administer what they believed were painful, even lethal electric shocks to another actor in an adjacent room. The telecommunications and film department couldn’t get enough of Why Man Creates, an Oscar-winning twenty-five-minute short by famed film title designer Saul Bass. I must have shown that movie more than 700 times in the four years I worked for audio/visual services, sometimes four times a day. The film professors also ordered older classic feature films for their classes—Citizen Kane, Casablanca, Dark Victory. And two evenings a month the student union would sponsor a more contemporary feature film—Easy Rider, Woodstock, Last Tango in Paris—at one of the campus’s bigger venues: outdoors in the Greek bowl or in a large hall in the student center.
I’m telling you all this because it’s important that you believe I know what I’m talking about. Because if you’re a film buff, as I am, what I’m about to reveal will sour your future film-viewing experience as sure as there will always be a dirt-blackened piece of Bazooka imbedded in the carpet under your theatre seat. Yet all you need do to continue enjoying classic films is to read no further. Turn three pages and go on to the next story or essay or poem in whatever journal you’re holding in your nervous fingers. That’s what I’m advising you to do.
Why would I offer you information so disturbing, so disruptive, that it would merit this warning? My reason may be as simple as the fact that misery loves company. Or you may imagine me as Mephistopheles, seducing you, as Faust (whose story has been made into no less than four different movies) was seduced, with an appeal to your obsessive thirst for esoteric knowledge. After all, here you are, still reading after I’ve advised you to stop. What can I do in the face of such determination? How can I deny you what you’re willing to risk so much to discover? But I’m not a monster. I’ve given you an out.
Now your curiosity begins to get the better of you. Your heart quickens; you feel you must read on. A true film buff, you thrill to the obscure and thrive on the arcane. While viewing Ken Russell’s 1969 film Women in Love, only you among your friends noticed that sliced bread was used in a scene that takes place in 1920, eight years before pre-sliced bread was commonly available. In Casablanca, guns switch from one hand to the other or disappear entirely between takes. In Citizen Kane, Orson Welles’ hand shifts from his left pocket on one side of a cut to his right on the other faster than you can pop a Junior Mint. These are the kinds of things you search for, and revel in.
But this story has nothing to do with trivia. You can find that stuff on the Internet.
By now you suspect I may be teasing you, that I’m dangling my “secret” in front of you as though it were an unreleased clip from Terry Gilliam’s latest attempt to film Don Quixote. I may as well forge ahead, you think, see what it’s about. Maybe you’re so sound of mind that you needn’t fear what I might say. I could be over-exaggerating (though I assure you I’m not). Wouldn’t it be wiser to be safe, to heed my warning to stop? What secret could possibly be worth the risk of ruining one of life’s great pleasures? Don’t be the Sam Spade of this story; don’t carry things too far. This is your last chance.
There are just two things you need to know in order to see a film as a projectionist sees it:
- The largest film reel that fits on a 16mm projector (the kind I operated) holds sixty minutes worth of film. 35mm reels hold less—maybe thirty minutes—because the film is twice as heavy. Since full-length feature films are longer than sixty minutes, they’re always on more than one reel, sometimes four or more.
- To achieve a smooth, apparently continuous film screening, two projectors are used. The first is for odd-numbered reels, the second for even. The projectionist handles the “switchover” from the active projector to the one loaded with the next reel.
So, how does a projectionist know exactly when to switch?
Before I answer, here’s another question: did you notice anything unusual near the bottom of the first page of this essay? Did anything catch your eye, distracting you for a second or two, perhaps diverting your attention, interrupting the flow of your thoughts? If not, go back and look now. Do you see the black circle near the right margin about three inches from the bottom of the page? What if I told you that from now on, every print book or journal will have a black circle like this one after the final paragraph of every chapter or story to signal that you should go on to the next page? In fact, just to make sure you don’t miss it, there will be a “warning” circle two inches above the final one. How long do you think it would be before your subconscious begins to keep a constant watch for that warning circle? Would it distract you from what you’re reading?
This is the solution film distributors came up with to solve the switchover problem. A small hole is punched in one frame of the film ten seconds before the end of each reel. When that frame passes through the projector at a speed of twenty-four frames-per-second, a small white dot or flash appears in the upper-right-hand corner of the screen. This GET READY! warning is followed ten seconds later by another flash: SWITCH! And the projectionist flips the switch on the second machine, where the next reel has been cued-up at the first frame.
No doubt you’re thinking, a twenty-fourth of a second? That’s what all this is about? Big deal!
I admire your confidence, but yours is the reaction of someone who has never noticed the dots, or perhaps thought they were just random scratches in the film. All that has changed as of this moment. Now that you know what they are, you’ll always see them. Soon you’ll find yourself obsessed by the watch for dots, your heart drumming in your chest at the “GET READY!” signal, your nerves tightening. It seems too long to be just ten seconds. A panic sets in. Did you miss it? Suddenly, the second flash, SWITCH!, and you relax, you can breathe again, and you return to the film with fitful attention, almost ignoring the plotline, impatient with the dialogue, silently estimating, over and over, the interval until the next reel change. And so you’ll become, like me, an anxious addict, counting the minutes, twitchily waiting for the next visual twang, finding relief, at last, only in a brief flash of light.
I’ve dragged you to the brink of the abyss, but the final step you must take yourself. I have one last instruction for you, one I know that, having come this far, you will not be able to resist. The next time you’re watching an old movie, keep an eye on the upper-right-hand corner of the screen starting at the twenty-five minute mark. I’ll bet you’ll see switchover dots. And, having once seen them, will never be able to not see them again.
Jim Brega earned his BA from San Diego State University and an MFA from the University of Illinois. His work has appeared in a number of journals, including Lime Hawk, Hippocampus Magazine, Red Savina Review, Plenitude, and r.kv.r.y. He lives near San Diego. You can find more of Jim’s work on his blog: jimbrega.com.
On a velvety night in a desert land, a cool wind moved among dunes and glided into a small village. The curious wind lifted the long limbs of the date palm trees, touched the donkey’s fur in the stable, and poked through the open window of Ayesha’s room in her family’s house. The wind circled the room quietly, then with a rustle and a sigh slipped out the window.
In her bed, Ayesha dreamed. What was she dreaming of? The ocean, although the most water Ayesha had ever seen was in the small buckets drawn glistening from the village’s deep black well. Earlier that day her father had told her stories of the great sea—giant waves, and whales as big as dunes, and strange fish, and sailors on boats riding the sea’s broad back.
So, while the wind whispered through the dark village, Ayesha dreamed of traveling to the water beyond the desert. She picked up a flat loaf of bread, in case she got hungry on her trip, and slipped from her house. Everything was quiet outside and glowed in silvery light.
“Where are you going?” A kangaroo rat sat up on her legs, sniffing the air.
“I am going to see the Ocean,” Ayesha replied.
“Do you know which way to go?”
“Well, no, I don’t.” Ayesha stopped, realizing she had not thought about which direction to walk.
The rat hopped into the air. Then her bright eyes spied the brown loaf Ayesha carried.
“I’m amazed, simply amazed, I can see that you will need help. It’s quite a walk. Is that bread for your journey?”
“Not just any bread will do, you know. Let me have a piece to see if it’s the right bread. Yes, bread for long trips must be special.”
Ayesha was puzzled. “Why?”
The rat blinked twice, sputtering, “Why, you ask, why? Oh, my word, it has to be…very white, because if it were not, it would be…dark. And my oh my, dark bread, you—” the rat stopped, then leaped into the air, ”You would lose it in the sand, yes, unless it is white it will blend in with the sand. Give me a piece so I can examine it properly. Please.”
Ayesha tore a small piece and placed it before the rat, who lifted it in her tiny pink claws to peer at it closely with one eye.
“Hmm,” the rat muttered, “Yes,” taking a bite, “I think this bread is sufficiently white.” In a flash, she had eaten the small piece.
“Do you know where the Ocean is?” Ayesha asked, as the rat stroked her whiskers and combed the fur on her cheeks.
“Well, I just might. I can see that you will need some pointers regarding the Ocean.” The rat eyed the moist bread Ayesha was tucking into a fold of her djellaba. “Maybe I should travel with you for a bit, to make sure you get off on the right path. I think I shall, because, after all, I am a mother and must help you, child of another mother.”
“Thank you, that would be kind. May I know your name? What should I call you?”
“Well, Bibi is my name. I am Bibi.”
Ayesha introduced herself, then said, “Which way do we travel to reach the great Ocean?”
Bibi stood on her hind legs, took a sniff, and spoke solemnly.
“We must go that way to reach the Ocean most quickly,” pointing with her sharp pink nose to the end of the path, past the last house. The rat scuttled over and stopped at Ayesha’s side, looking up. “Let’s go, for we have a long walk…”
“Wake up, my flower, it is morning. Time to get out of bed, my sleepy dove.” Ayesha’s mother bent down, smiling, her cool hand touching Ayesha’s cheek.
* * *
The bucket banged against Ayesha’s leg as she shuffled to the well. However, before she could even see the well she heard voices.
“What will I do for my meals, with the husband’s brother visiting today?”
“Why, I could barely get half a bucket yesterday!”
“My sister dreamed this would happen, two nights ago.”
The well was surrounded by women talking, their dark djellabas flapping as their hands flew like excited birds, bracelets ringing. Ayesha stopped and listened more, then ran all the way home, her bucket banging against her legs.
“The well has run dry! There is no more water!”
* * *
In the shade of a date palm the village council addressed the villagers, saying the well-diggers had been sent for. “We did not watch carefully for the signs, and our well has left us dry. We must guard each drop left as if it were a jewel, until our new well gives us water.”
Words flew deep into the night as the villagers talked and talked. Lying in bed, Ayesha drifted as if on water, the voices like waves that kept coming and coming. After her house and the village turned quiet and slept, Ayesha rose up, gathered a half loaf of bread and slipped out to sit under the moon, as she had the night before in her dream. Her parents would scold her if they knew, asleep behind their striped curtain. But things were serious, and she wanted to think.
As Ayesha sat at the top of a dune, eating and wishing she knew how to help the village, a kangaroo rat appeared, hopping up the dune. Ayesha watched, and then, it spoke to her.
“Hello again, Ayesha, mother’s daughter. Do you still wish to visit the Ocean?”
It was Bibi, the rat from her dream! Ayesha was excited, but then remembered.
“No, I can’t, the village well is dry, and we must find new water. Mother worries that the well-diggers will have cloudy eyes and see no place to dig. What will we do?”
The rat laughed a little and chittered, but did not stop her hopping, enjoying the circle she made in the sand. “Humans are so helpless. I know there is water, and I know where it lives. How else could we ever drink in such a dry place? We don’t have nice wells and big buckets to drink our fill from. I can’t dig any more than you can balance on your tail. We have to know where the water is easiest to reach, or we’re in the hands of trouble.”
“Hello again, Ayesha, mother’s daughter. Do you still wish to visit the Ocean?”
“How do you know where the water is?”
“Oh, don’t be silly. Can’t you hear it? Sometimes it’s loud enough to wake a sleeping donkey.”
“The water. It talks constantly. Water usually just moves somewhere else. We can listen and find the place where it went. But we’ll need some help, some more sharp ears, to save time.”
The rat stopped her hopping, sat straight up, and passed her paws through her fur a few times. Then she closed her eyes and began beating her tail on the sand rapidly, her eyes shut tight and her whiskers twitching with the effort. After thumping for a while, she stopped. “There. That will do. Whew, drumming is lots of work, I think I need a morsel of bread to keep my strength up.”
“What were you doing?” Ayesha asked, handing a small piece of bread to Bibi, who hopped once then ate the bread in one gulp.
“Just asking for help. It should be here by now.” Indeed, small shadows were hopping toward Ayesha and Bibi; more kangaroo rats. Nine had answered Bibi’s call, and squatted in a half circle before her, whiskers twitching and eyes gleaming under the moon.
“What took you so long? What if I had been in trouble? It certainly seems that I better learn to fend for myself and not count on you lazytails.” Bibi held her sharp nose in the air.
One rat, whose tail had a kink just before its tip, spoke up in a weary voice. “It is the middle of the night, Bibi, this is our busiest time, and we have many chores to do. I was getting ready to catch a juicy cricket when you called. What do you want this time?”
“I’m sure by now you’ve all heard the humans scurrying around fussing because the water got tired of the old well and moved. This little girl will give us bread if we will find where the water went. Yes, Ayesha?” Bibi looked up at Ayesha.
“Certainly,” Ayesha said brightly and pulled the bread from her sleeve, waving it. Immediately there was twitching and chittering and a few somersaults. The rat with the bent tail spoke.
“We will happily help, but may we have a taste first? We have hard work to do, after all.”
“Certainly,” Ayesha again responded. She sat, and the rats gathered politely in a circle, balancing on their tails. As Ayesha placed a small piece of bread in each set of pink paws, she heard a quiet Shokran. “You’re welcome,” she replied to each.
Bibi called, “Good, let’s go to the old well and start from there.”
* * *
At the old well, Bibi told the other rats, “Now, form a line, and grab the tail of your brother or sister on your right. Good, now spread apart until—”
“Ouch, that’s attached, you know.”
“Mahmoud, stop it. Good. This way we make sure we don’t miss any ground and stay close together. Listen closely for the water’s voice, and we’ll start walking from the well. First, let’s go…that way.”
Ayesha sat on the well’s lip, watching as the line of rats walked under the moon, each holding a neighbor’s tail.
Date palms rustled as the wind returned, and a dog barked somewhere on the village’s far side—at this, the line of rats hopped in the air but then kept walking.
Ayesha climbed down from the well and followed the rats, and soon an excited voice said, “I hear the water, right here.”
The others dropped tails and gathered, on empty sand just beyond the village edge, then all began hopping and chattering.
“Yes, I hear it.”
“My, the water sighs loudly.”
But when Ayesha knelt she could not hear a thing except the whisper of sand. “Are you sure?” Ayesha peered at Bibi, who was grooming the fur on her right rear leg.
“Oh yes, it is here, and not that far underground, the new well will not need to be very deep. We promised to find water, and we take promises very seriously. So, let’s mark the spot so it can be found in the daylight.”
Ayesha piled stones where the rats told her. Then, Bibi spoke again.
“We have kept our part of our agreement, now it is your turn. May we have our bread, please? It will be good for us to return to our homes with something tasty for our families.”
Ayesha divided her bread among the rats, each politely saying Shokran then hopping off into the darkness. Last came Bibi.
“Shokran, Ayesha. The water will be sweet and cool. Goodbye.”
* * *
When Ayesha awoke the next morning, she ran to her mother and told her of the kangaroo rats and the place for the new well.
“Hush, child, this is not the time for dreams. Today is baking day, and we have much to do.”
Her father said, “Not now, my daughter, tell me your stories later. I must go out before the sun gets too high. Until the new well is dug, I must take extra care of our garden.”
No one would listen! It was not a dream (was it?), but she couldn’t tell her parents the truth, that she had snuck out of the house in the dark night. Ayesha thought hard about how to convince her parents that she knew where the new well could be dug.
No one would listen! It was not a dream (was it?), but she couldn’t tell her parents the truth, that she had snuck out of the house in the dark night.
And she had an idea.
Excited but tired, she lay in her bed that night, and when the fat round moon rolled out to sit on the soft dunes, Ayesha again slipped from her house. First, she walked to a place in the village where she knew date palm trees had been planted. She carefully dug up one of the young trees, almost as tall as she, and covered up the hole. Then, she carried the small tree to the spot beyond the village where the rats had heard water. There was the stone pile, and she planted the tree. Wind stirred everything in a gust when she finished, scattered sand, and helped erase her traces.
Then she giggled.
* * *
Next morning, she said nothing about the tree, although she felt as if she might burst with excitement. But, after chores, when Ayesha played chase with her friends Fatima, Habibi, and Melila, she ran down a village path to the desert’s edge, to where, wonder of wonders, a new tree grew! The other girls ran to their houses to tell their families, and soon grownups stood around the tree that had appeared overnight. “Go get the well-diggers!”
The well-diggers had come to the village to begin their work, and when they were shown the tree they sniffed the air, put their ears to the ground, and looked at each other.
“Yes, we will begin digging here.” They found moisture in the earth after only an hour of digging. And the very next day, cool water began flowing into the bottom of the deep new well.
* * *
Ayesha lay—happy and tired—in bed the evening of the day water came back to the village and wanted to thank Bibi and her friends for finding the water. But there was something else she wanted to do, too. In the quiet part of the night she again walked under the moon, holding a fresh loaf in both hands, letting the breeze carry the delicious smell. And, before Ayesha had walked very far, a familiar voice from near her feet spoke.
“It is good to see you, Ayesha, my child.”
“I am glad to see you, Bibi. Thank you very much for finding the water for us.”
“Oh, glad to help. If you really want to thank me you could let me have a taste of that loaf.”
“Sure, you may have some, but only when you keep your promise.”
The rat rose up on her hind legs. “Whatever do you mean? Of course, I kept my promise, silly child, your village has a new well.”
“True, but you forgot your other promise. We have not gone to see the Ocean.”
Somersaulting and chittering, Bibi said, “Well, we’re wasting a beautiful cool night. Follow me.”
Bibi began hopping away. Her long skinny tail stuck straight up, the dark tuft at its tip like a flag in the air. After a little hop of her own, Ayesha followed, walking along the path leading to the end of the village and, beyond the horizon, to the great Ocean.
* * *
Was this a dream? All I know is that the next day Ayesha’s mother gathered up Ayesha’s djellaba to wash it in the village’s new water, and she felt dampness at its hem and a delicious tangy salty sea smell rose faintly from it. One tiny shell fell from the cloth. And Ayesha’s mother stared at the garment and shook her head, as if to wake herself.
Ed Taylor is the author of the novel Theo (Old Street), the poetry collection Idiogest (BlazeVox) and the chapbook The Rubaiyat of Hazmat (BlazeVox). His fiction, poetry, and essays have most recently appeared in New World Writing, Louisville Review, Great Lakes Review, and Gargoyle. He received a fiction writing MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles.
When I spoke with Nick Flynn, it was a Sunday afternoon in late May. Hot, humid, and there is no better way to say this—it was loud. The kind of loud that reminds you life is loud and busy and happening all at once. He was solo with his 7-year-old daughter, Maeve. She was writing songs that day and she was on a roll. She sang parts to him and I listened as he gave some very real feedback.
I think maybe the second chorus you can do “everywhere you go” but maybe mix it up? Yeah, you name the places then, cool. She’s just having this moment where she’s just all about writing songs. Who knows how it happens. She’s written in this little notebook like four in like the last half hour. You know just keep riding it. When you are on a roll like that with poems you know you sort of think it’s going to last forever but then after a while you realize it won’t. You get these little bursts of inspiration and then maybe a couple of years will go by before you get another burst. You’ve got to take advantage of it, Maeve.
Over the span of our telephone conversation he fixed a bench in their home, continued to engage with Maeve, walked her to the park, ate ice cream, and talked to neighborhood kids. Flynn is a busy man but at no point did any of this appear to be stressful or burdensome to him.
I don’t do a whole lot that I don’t want to do.
What I’m most curious about when we begin to talk is how he writes in the distinctive manner he does—the creative nonfiction that moves back and forth in time, the poems that can wreck you in a single 30-second read, the religious references—but what I ask first is about the epigraph of his new book, My Feelings. It reads “for Jeff Shotts,” who is the Executive Editor of Graywolf Press.
He’s been my Editor for four books now. Jeff has been amazing. You sort of realize the longer you stick around certain individuals, the effects they can have are huge. I’m all about the collective and all that stuff but certain things don’t happen unless someone does it. Jeff has really stood up and stepped up in this really significant way. He was my editor for the first book back in 2000 and then I think in the second book he was in graduate school. He went to Washington University to study poetry. He realized he needed to know more and so he went and really just got into it. He was, I don’t know how old he was, maybe his 20s or something and it seemed like that commitment was really great for him. He decided to immerse himself in contemporary poetry and just study it and to try his hand at it himself. People stay at Graywolf. It’s unlikely I would ever leave. They have a really good commitment to the work, to showing up for it.
As he’s talking about Graywolf there is an incredibly blistering sound. I couldn’t place it and before I can ask he tells me he’s drilling a bench in his home.
I’m trying to fix a bench while we do this; I’m multi-tasking like a crazy person here. I’m fixing a bench, my daughter is writing songs, I’m doing an interview, I’m talking about Jeff Shotts, it’s insane. What an insane life.
Flynn has published all of his poetry with Graywolf Press, which includes Some Ether (2000), Blind Huber (2002), and The Captain Asks for A Show of Hands (2011), and now My Feelings (2015).
Jeff and I, we’ve had conversations about the work. Jeff doesn’t take, Graywolf doesn’t take just anything. I’ve sent them things before and if I don’t get any response from them I know they don’t really like it. I’ll have a sort of little project or something, maybe send them the start of it—hey what do you think of this? I just won’t hear anything from them and I’ll know okay, I guess that’s not going to go anywhere. I’ve sent little threads of things, beginnings of things and if he gets the sense that there’s some potential to something, he’ll give it a shot. This last book, My Feelings, like most of my work, was kind of a mess when I first gave it to him. It’s almost not even recognizable as the thing I gave him but he saw enough potential in it. That’s the thing I like about Shotts, he wouldn’t have said yes if he didn’t see that potential. He wouldn’t have given it the go ahead and said yes, lets put this in a line up for the future. Two years ago I sent him the first draft of what would become the book. A lot of poems left and a lot of poems came in during those two years. My father died in those two years and now this book sort of has this whole—I mean some people might read it as being about my father’s death but it wasn’t initially. I don’t know if you read it that way? I could imagine it being read that way.
Though I definitely took note of the poems with his father—I think anyone that’s read his memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City would be in tune with those poems—they didn’t seem to be the central focus of this new book. I told Flynn that they seemed to be a small section of the larger text and they highlight the progression of his father’s illness at its worst. He doesn’t believe this book is a project book like some of his others and when I mentioned I thought the overall feel was less about his father and more a look at mortality, he agreed.
Yeah, mortality. That’s also what happens when you reach a certain age, you start writing your mortality poems. There is a thing about your last parent dying that suddenly the gaping maw of mortality gets a little closer. Like if you’ve been able to ignore it or been reckless or whatever through your youth, suddenly it becomes much more real that we’re next in line. Like next over the cliff is you. It becomes very clear. Whatever sort of romance you might have had about it is suddenly less romantic and just becomes more real. Like oh yeah—this shit’s not going to last forever. My first book Some Ether was written 15 years ago and I was younger but it took 10 years to write it so that was 25 years ago, it was half a lifetime ago. And in that time things change and that’s one thing too I don’t really, I don’t have any apologies writing about seemingly the same subject in this book as in Some Ether—I write about mom and dad because it’s seen from a completely different perspective at least for me, they feel totally different to me.
I read My Feelings in one sitting; it’s that kind of book—a damn good book. As I read, I kept trying to think of how to describe it. I finally wrote down “an extension of Some Ether, an extension of it in the future.” I asked him if this was accurate or if I was missing something.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s good. It’s Some Ether in the future.
Flynn then turns to talk with Maeve and make their plans to head to the park now that the song writing has subsided for the moment. His wife, actress Lily Taylor, just left for Bulgaria where Flynn will meet her in several weeks. She’s shooting a prequel to what Flynn called “the American classic, Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” Taylor is playing Leatherface’s mom before Leatherface did terrible things. As they head to the park, father and daughter, I ask about the variation in the book—the fact that these poems don’t seem to be done with the intent of being in the same book. At least not quite like Blind Huber and Some Ether did.
It’s sort of by intention, not a project book. The first book I guess was maybe somewhat of a project book but the next two had unifying content or concern or examination like The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands. You know what unifies the new book is the title I guess, it’s just what is rattling inside me. Whatever is in there is what I put in—my feelings.
Throughout the new book, the religious references are noticeable. Mentions of Moses, Adam, St. Francis, communion, Ecclesiastes, Saul, and Damascus—all woven between poems of his father’s illness, addiction, and his mother. I wondered if those references were intentional and Flynn assured me it’s always intentional. I recently sat in a class with him at one of Antioch’s residencies. He spoke about something he called the closed image system, an idea he attributes to the poet Sarah Messer. It’s the idea that each project has its own set of images, they often repeat, sometimes in various forms, but they’re the writer’s attempt at trying to understand them. For instance, in The Ticking is the Bomb, Flynn notes his closed image system as: photos, monkeys, shadows, swimming, and Proteus.
I think Jesus makes a lot of appearances in my books in general. I’d say Jesus fits into that closed image system. I wasn’t raised Catholic and so I feel like I can approach biblical stuff from an outsiders perspective. You know I don’t have that much baggage around it. At least I don’t think, maybe I do. But I seem to have less than my Catholic friends who are really maybe furious with the Catholic church. Sometimes a lot of Catholics when they grow up have a lot to work through. I don’t have that so I can just look at Jesus like wow what a strange person or interesting person. I can see the good stuff and the weird stuff. I guess it doesn’t have that much weight; it’s just a character. And with the biblical stuff some things just sort of appear like that reference to Ecclesiastes in the poem “Father, Insect.”
Flynn suddenly turns to talk with Maeve and starts spelling: h-a-p-p-i-l-y.
I’m not a very good speller but I think that’s how you spell it: h-a-p-p-i-l-y. What’s that? Oh you had it right, okay. Good. So yeah, that Ecclesiastes quote, I’m not even sure where I got that from? It just sort of seemed like something that fit into the larger project whatever that was but this still wasn’t a project book.
If you’ve read any of Flynn’s three memoirs, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, The Ticking is the Bomb, or The Reenactments, then you’ve likely noticed the timeline and structure. Moving forward, moving backward—whatever he seems to be thinking at the moment becomes the next chapter. The poems in this new book do that too. They also contain a creative nonfiction quality of linking the personal with the outside. When I read the notes section at the end, I was surprised at some of the references of where these poems came from—some from films, pieces of art, and news stories. When I was reading them I thought they were personal. Until I read the notes I didn’t know it was a reference to something else. Despite being inspired by outside forces, they still always feel incredibly personal.
That’s the whole thing about turning the dial on the radio and whatever catches your attention is going to have a lot to do with what your internal psychic landscape is at the time. Everyone who turns the dial will land on a different station. When you read the newspaper, your eye will go to one headline while my eye will go to another headline. If that seems like important information then as a creative person you have to trust that and ask yourself—why is it? Why are you interested in that thing and why am I interested in this thing and what does it connect with? It usually connects with something deeper and larger and weirder—some sort of question that you need to ask. It’s very personal. So yeah, I trust that and a lot of times it is something I need to connect with.
Flynn addresses another child at the playground who is yelling—“you are it!”
I do want to play tag but I’ve got to finish this and then we’ll talk. I’m it? How can I play tag when I’m talking? I’m always it, I’m always it.
That makes me think of the two most recent poems in the book, the ones I wrote last were “My Joke” and “When I was a Girl.” And “When I Was A Girl” was written less than a year ago, I was at a workshop teaching and it came out. It creeped me out on various levels. I was writing it for this book on Monticello and Thomas Jefferson’s home and I was playing with this poem for a few months, and I came up with that line “when I was a girl” and there’s something so wrong about it. It seems so weird, to put next to the Thomas Jefferson thing. It just beyond my comprehension really. I like to have poems that are sort of beyond what’s my own comprehension so I don’t know someone else will have to tell me what that poem is about. But I know there was an energy around it. I usually read it at my readings now. I think there is some sort of very weird energy to it that I think is totally out of my control. Whenever I read it, I don’t really understand—I’m like oh what is this part, here’s another part, this is strange. There’s something about that, it just feels right.
At Antioch University’s December residency, Flynn included this poem as part of his reading one evening. I remember that title eliciting laughter from the crowd. Though as soon as he started reading it, the room was silent. Something about it was reverberating and resonating even if no one could explain why.
Even what you appropriate says a lot about you. We could all be given the same pile, all be given Hamlet and we would all be allowed to appropriate five lines from it, choose 5—those 5 lines would reveal something. Reading those 5 lines would say something about you. Part of your job as an artist is to push as close as you can to finding out why you chose the line that resonates for you. You’ll never get to the end of it, you’ll never figure it out exactly but you will sort of have some sense. That’s what I tried to do with The Ticking is the Bomb, that six year project I was on about state-sanctioned torture. Which I was like why the fuck am I writing about Abu Ghraib? Why am I on this thing? I was just hijacked. And then I did eventually figure out that I suppose it’s a sort of look back, it’s early childhood stuff—mom and dad, in a very strange and surprising way to me. That was an interesting process.
At one point I mentioned that The Ticking is the Bomb was about his daughter being born. He considers it to be largely about state-sanctioned torture. Later he said, “We both might be right.”
It just seems like a part of what one does. If you’re writing a piece of nonfiction like Jon Krakauer writing about the Mormons or something he probably doesn’t have to do that. One of my favorite moments that he has in Into the Wild is when he’s writing about Chris McCandless and he stops about three-quarters of the way through and has this section about why he’s interested in writing about Chris McCandless. He says the reason I’m doing this is because I was Chris McCandless when I was 20 years old. I did these crazy fucking things. He tells this crazy story about getting trapped in an ice cap overnight and nearly dying. He talks about taking these risks as a kid and why he did it and suddenly the whole book opened up. That’s sort of what interests me but obviously there are other types of fiction writing where you don’t have to do that and you can’t always do that with poetry. They all have very different energies around them. But the thing I’m interested in about creative nonfiction is that it has that element—you have to ask yourself why you are writing about this particular thing and not about the million other things you could be writing about? That’s actually hard work. That’s actually the more difficult work—stop and answer that question. It’s hard work to accurately portray the world too. To figure out why you are choosing to spend six years of your life writing something is really the question that should be asked just for your own sanity. Otherwise it’s kind of a strange life if you’re just like oh yeah, I wrote about the Titanic and the Great Chicago Fire and Anne Frank. Why did I choose those three things to write about? Why did I spend my entire life doing that?
Though he’s written three successful works of creative nonfiction, poetry is his focus for now. He mentioned being in a sort of poetry mode, one where he can imagine doing another book of poems next. It isn’t likely this will be soon since he is taking time off these days. He says this feels right to him and if or when a poem comes, it will be a gift. It’s hard to imagine him taking any sort of break but it’s not hard to see where his focus is. This is a writer in such high demand but he never seems exasperated by it all, seems like he has all the time in the world for everyone in the world.
Life, work, fatherhood, husbandhood—It all seems part of the same life. By paying attention to my daughter I feel I am being allowed a glimpse of eternity.
He mentions his daughter in several of the new poems and there is always an accompanying sense of wonder in those pieces. Along side those poems are many that elicit a soul-crushing type of narrative. Perhaps one of the most intense poems in this collection is “The Washing of the Body.”
That poem took me 20 years to write. There is a passage in there where I say “Twenty years I’ve tried to write this/only to end up/this isn’t it, this isn’t it.” In 1995, our friend Billy Forlenza died and we were, as the poem lays out, we were presented with the task of washing his body which is something none of us had ever done before and I’ve never done since. It’s a very old, sacred thing to do. We knew that at the time, the three of us really took it very seriously. He was a dear friend of ours. There were a lot of friends around that time that were dying. It was sort of at the tail end of this age of onslaught of AIDS where a lot of people died. He was one. You know he’d probably be alive today with the medicine we have. There is something about that; he contains, that poem contains the energy of a lot of people that died. That time in my twenties a lot of people were dying. The only equivalent would be people going to war where you’d have that many people you knew who had died. Good friends of ours were dying. I mean it happens with overdoses and things but it was this really massive die-out and it was happening especially with the people I was hanging out with. I lived a lot in Provincetown, there were a lot of gay folks there, a lot of New York artists, and it just got especially bad, especially hard. I sort of touched on a little bit of the AIDS epidemic in Another Bullshit Night in Suck City when my friend Richard had died but I haven’t really ever gotten fully into that experience. It was a lot. A lot of my twenties was me dealing with friends who had AIDS.
And I’m glad you like that poem, it took so long to write. It’s one that I think is done but it’s one of the ones I’m the least sure about in a certain way. It’s so funny because I began it before Some Ether came out. I mean I tried to get it into Some Ether but it wasn’t ready, you know? It didn’t feel like it was ready for that but it’s from that era. It was actually begun before I began Blind Huber, before Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, I began that poem. I would go back to it every couple of years and work on it a little bit and just think it’s still not ready. Everyone else who is in that, Marie Howe, Michael Cunningham, and Michael Klein, have all written about that incident. We should do a little chapbook or something about this experience now that I’ve finished mine finally.
I started to wonder if it was the sheer amount of time that it took to write that allowed it to build that emotional charge. This seems to be a theme for Flynn—Some Ether took him nearly ten years to write and it still stands as an incredibly emotive first book of poetry. When he won the PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award for it, the judges noted this surge “These poems establish their emotional authority through their very movement—their wayward, whispering music.”
That’s the thing—sometimes time distills the charge, the emotional charge. And sometimes it’s the immediacy of something. Sometimes it’s the crafting, you can cut away and get to the essence and it doesn’t have that charge. A lot of poems are abandoned too. I have folders full of poems that I sort of keep returning to though. I kept returning to “The Washing of the Body” thinking there was something there. Like I said, I’m not sure if there is, but I’m glad you like it though. That makes it all worth while.
There is a line in this poem that I must have read no less than ten times. It goes “…your back/still warm where the blood pools…” On first read it made me weep. On second, third, fourth read I just kept wondering why is that line destroying me?
Your back is still warm where the blood pools—yes, like suddenly that very specific thing of the body, what the body does, it was weird. The top of him was very cold and we turned him over and his back was very warm. A nurse had to tell us why because we were very confused by it all. It is details like that that make a poem come alive, you know? It’s really specific, really being in tune to the world at that moment, at a really heightened moment. And in the poem I mention the thing about the ring on his finger—that was the one thing we couldn’t get off of him, his ring. We were trying to get it off but couldn’t and after all those years those are the things—the blood pooling, the ring, the lights fluttering above his head, and the conversation we had—those are the things I remember. The conversation in the poem was pretty accurate too. We were all trying to find our way into describing it in the middle of doing the experience. There were three writers standing around him too—such a specific thing.
This mention of detail instantly reminded me of when my brother-in-law, now a doctor, was in school. He went through that phase where their learning is taking place almost solely on cadavers. It didn’t bother him for a long time. People interested in that field always seem so sturdy in their work. And then he came home one day and just sort of collapsed before my sister and said “She had pink finger nails, she had pink finger nail polish on.” And that’s what got him. That little human detail he finally noticed brought him to his knees.
The nail polish—that’s chilling actually. That’s a really chilling image. You should use that in a poem. My mercenary self feels bad for your brother-in-law—that’s a good line for a poem.
Yes, it is, I say.
Well you better use it before I do. Or we can both use it—it’ll just be different poems.
Sarah Miller Freehauf is the Managing Editor for Lunch Ticket, Founding Editor of Teenage Wasteland Review, Editorial Assistant for Divedapper, a reader for [PANK], Interviewer for The Review Review, and an MFA candidate in Poetry at Antioch University Los Angeles. She also teaches high school English and Creative Writing in the Midwest. Her most recent creative work can be found in Stone Highway Review & Poemeleon.
The oranges were just a purchase, one of many at the supermarket. It was such a tiny act, so lost in the millions of ordinary tasks of the day that I don’t remember the details. Maybe it was Tuesday and raining, or Thursday and annoyingly sunny as usual. Maybe I had bought the oranges in some futile effort to be healthier. Though it was clear to me, by then, that it was pointless, and too late, and that I should just be eating chocolate and blowing my savings on frivolous things like cruises and tiaras, or if I liked that sort of thing, whiskey, and cigarettes, and hookers.
What I wonder now is, why would a 32-year-old single woman, who lived alone, and who was dying, buy a five-pound bag of oranges?
Perhaps I wasn’t thinking.
Perhaps I was in denial.
Perhaps I meant to share them.
But I can’t imagine whom I meant to share them with. Even my closest friends and the most well-meaning of people made me tired. All I wanted to do was sleep all the time. The pain had made me antisocial, paranoid, and sensitive.
Whom would I have shared the oranges with when I was in such a state?
By the time the oranges began to bother me, they were as far away as my feet, which might as well have been like reaching down to the center of the earth. I knew the inner core was there, soft and gooey like the candy center of a Tootsie Pop, but I couldn’t reach it.
How tall had I become?
I wondered how many thousands of feet had I grown. I was like Alice, who in Wonderland, had been tempted by a piece of cake and that clever little famous sign—those simple sinister words begging out to little girls, “eat me.”
But I wasn’t a foolish little girl tempted by candy from strangers. I hadn’t grown the same way Alice had. I wasn’t busting out of The White Rabbit’s house. I wasn’t in Wonderland or Through the Looking Glass. I was just five feet four, here on Earth, where the center of the world was on fire, full of magma burning as hot as the sun, and I knew the best part of anything, that gooey-candy-center of life, was just out of my reach.
Tensile as glass, I had been replaced by the mirror image of myself. I worried that if I was not careful in my movements, I might shatter. How many months had it been since I had touched my toes or bought the oranges? How many months since I placed those oranges in the drawer at the bottom of the refrigerator? How many months had they laughed at me?
How many months could I smell the stink of them?
Six at least,
Death seemed slow and inevitable, as natural to me as the tiny lines forming around my eyes. Everyone gets wrinkles. Everyone dies, but the decay of the oranges seemed unnatural. Their demise seemed so much more rapid than my own—so much more graphic—oranges that in any normal context could be something else entirely.
Have you ever really thought about eating an orange?
I once saw a beautiful woman sitting in the sun of a Spanish courtyard in Santa Fe. She stretched her young body out on a wooden bench. She delicately crossed her long legs.
She knew how to eat an orange.
She gently peeled back the thick rind, caressing its thin
as if she were about to make love to it.
Slowly, she pulled it apart,
—tenderly pulled loose a perfect piece,
++++—and bit into it passionately as if biting the neck of a lover.
Have you ever really thought about eating an orange?
She let its juices dribble down her chin, down her neck, down her wrist. She was unapologetic about this. Most polite people would have reached for a napkin, but she just ran her hands up the side of her neck, trying to experience it one last time, before she licked her fingers clean. She let what was left grow sticky on her face in the hot sun. Afterwards, she smelled the peelings, pleased with the scent of them.
She was satisfied.
How long had it been since I had been so satisfied with anything? How long had it been since I had known oranges the way a young woman should?
How long had it been, since I had been in love? If I ever had been in love, then I had forgotten. How long since I had felt passion, or an orgasm, or even been laid?
—But the oranges I knew were not like food. They were not like making love. They were not even like a one-night stand, which one might later regret. They were like death. I had forgotten what food was like, or love, or even sex. All I knew was those oranges were slowly decaying, just out of reach, and all I could do was watch.
They watched me back.
We watched each other rot like two old men in a life raft marooned in the middle of the ocean. Each of us annoyed the other’s slow demise. But I was not in the ocean. I was not an old man. I was not even an orange. I was a young woman who had slowly given up on asking for help.
I saw those oranges one last time when I got home from work that night—hours before quitting time, on a double overnight shift, at the hospital where I didn’t even have insurance. I had been working as a nursing assistant in hospitals throughout the state, but as my illness became worse, I had settled into a job at the rehab center five years earlier. Every day I helped other bodies become healthier, as mine decayed just a little more.
My last night of work, a co-worker named Hilda called the charge nurse, “Cruzita,” she said, “I’m really worried about Candice. She’s so pale. I don’t know if she should be working.”
Cruzita was the physical embodiment of the perfect woman I had grown up reading about by poets like Jimmy Santiago Baca. She had in fact married a Chicano poet, and had entire pages written about her, but my own need to be a writer made her uncomfortable. My own independence—the way I resisted the norm and always insisted on doing things my own way—exhausted her.
I was a single woman who had dared to date men young enough to be Cruzita’s son, I was an artist, and I lived alone. We were two hard-working women with strong and unending convictions in how we lived our lives. But as much as we didn’t get along, and as much as we both spent a great deal of effort patronizing each other, she sent me home that night, to rest, without harassing me about my illness like many of my other supervisors had.
I remembered our conflicts when I got home. I wanted a glass of water, but I had neglected the contents of my refrigerator; mold floated at the top of my Brita pitcher. I gave up and shut the door. It was the last time I saw those oranges.
I thought about how Cruzita and I struggled not to bicker and fight. I wondered if we would ever understand each other. I would probably never see any of the people I worked with again. It made me a little sad that she and I would be frozen in time, neither of us ever able to transcend our expectations of the other.
My outside appearance was suspended in that moment. But on the inside, I had aged centuries. In my early twenties, I had once gone to the Petrified Forest, on the New Mexico/Arizona Border. Over the centuries, those trees had turned to stone: striated rocks that, as a young woman, I once held in my hands. How many centuries had I been the petrified woman, both terrified and turning to stone? Like Susan Sontag said, “Time works differently in the kingdom of the well than in the kingdom of the sick.” Within a year’s time of an ordinary life, my insides had fossilized for eons into something not much different from all those miles of dead trees stretched out across the desert.
I was nothing more than a monument, chipped by steady hands into stone. In the kingdom of the well, this statue had begun to replace me. I only existed on the other side of living, where the natural world seemed like nothing more than an echo. I could see it in the eyes of men—the way they would try to make eye contact, the way they thought I was still a young woman:
ripe, and ready, and free.
I slunk gingerly out of my scrubs and went to bed. I had become sicker than my patients.
It was Sunday night. I should have been working. I should have been wherever in life I chose to be, but instead I had fallen out of time and space. I was back at my apartment, which like the oranges was a testament to the truth.
Exhausted, I pulled my stone body up the steep stairs that led to my bedroom and bathroom. I dragged myself by my thousand-pound stone feet. With great effort, I bent my stone legs over the lip of the bathtub, so I could take a shower. Then I fell graciously into my unmade bed. I slept restlessly, marinating in my own sweat. My sheets stank like the oranges, they stank like me, they stank like death, but I was too tired to care.
In the book Jesus’ Son, a hitchhiker gets into a car that he knows, by some supernatural intuition, is going to get into a fatal accident, but he’s so cold from sleeping by the side of the road, in the rain, that he doesn’t care. He just wants to be warm, and in the backseat of the car, even if it means he might never wake up.
It didn’t occur to me, as I slipped under the dirty covers, that it wasn’t normal to go to bed if I wasn’t sure if I would ever wake up. It wasn’t normal to be so tired that I didn’t care if I lived. I didn’t realize I was going into shock.
It was my heartbeat that, after three years of confusion, finally woke me up.
The POUNDING, POUNDING, POUNDING, that I knew at once wasn’t right.
140, 180, or more beats a minute.
Too many to count.
Too many beats for a single heart to bear alone.
But I was not an orange. I was not a statue. I was a woman whose heart should not be pounding so loudly she couldn’t sleep. I was a young woman who needed to get to a hospital and get an EKG because she thought she was having a heart attack.
It was my heartbeat that, after three years of confusion, finally woke me up.
But I couldn’t get out of bed, because I couldn’t move my stone leg. It was as if someone was pushing me down. And I sank like dead weight into my memory foam mattress. And I started to feel suffocated. And for the first time I panicked, which didn’t help my heart.
It is absurd where
your mind goes when you start to lose it
—the kind of insane thoughts you grab onto for clarity when your mind begins to
Like these words.
Some TV show doctor’s voice comes to you. Some faceless “authority” who’s the star of some storyline you don’t even remember. Some impractical super show like ER, or House, or Grey’s Anatomy with make-believe hospitals where no one thinks to put a sick patient’s bed rails up, no matter how confused they are—and even the sickest patients are perfectly symmetrical, beautiful, and thin.
What was it the not-real doctor said to that not-real patient?
Something about how a broken femur could leak bone marrow into your blood stream and can cause heart problems. I had been waiting—for some bizarre epiphany—from a lunatic idea of a fake doctor—that my leg was broken—just to pay attention. I worked in a rehab hospital where I taught patients, with broken hips, to get out of bed. I knew how to get out of bed with a stone leg. If I tried, I could get to the hospital, and try to save my sorry-ass-stone-life.
What I didn’t know—as I planned my escape—was that an abscess had formed in my right torso. My kidney—to fight back—was turning to stone—and a strange mass was shoving my kidney into my spine—until the stone had pressed against my spine—and everywhere my body was fighting everything with pus, and blood, and fluid. My whole torso was so ready to pop that even my right leg was filling up with what infection the rest of me could no longer hold.
In that moment, I was grateful for my experiences in healthcare. I was grateful for what I knew of moving patients. I was grateful for my understanding of moving stone people from one place to another. I was grateful for knowing how to get my stone-self out of bed.
I pushed with my left leg, and used my arms to drag my sheet to the side of the bed. I tilted with the left. I took a deep breath, and risked letting my feet fall to the floor. I was grateful for being stiff as stone. I was grateful that, unlike noodles, statues could stand. I dragged my right foot by pulling my pant leg forward. My toes caught on the carpet—like a zombie—like walking—like the still-living dead.
I cursed myself for leaving my cell phone in the car, and hoped I wouldn’t fall down the stairs. I threw my weight from side to side, as I held onto the wall and rail, dragging my stiff right leg. It landed with a thud down each step.
There was clean laundry on the dryer downstairs, but I had no idea what to pack.
How could I pack when I didn’t know if I was ever coming home? What shoes could I get on my swollen football-feet—football-feet I couldn’t even reach? What bag could I carry when I could not even carry myself?
In Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, The Poisonwood Bible, the mother packs a family of six for a missionary trip to the Congo. Orleana, a preacher’s wife—in 1959—tries so hard with everything she knows of the world—to be prepared—and fails miserably. She packs Betty Crocker cake mixes for her four daughters’ birthdays without knowing what it is like to not have a stove. Everything she thought she would need seems so brightly ornamental and useless against the mud hut walls. She would eventually leave her husband in Africa to save her children from the uncertainties of the jungle.
I realize now, despite all my experience in the healthcare field, I didn’t know anything more about being sick, than Orleana Price did about Africa. There was no way to properly prepare for it, and all the Betty Crocker cake mixes in the world wouldn’t have helped.
I should have taken a pillow and a blanket for the sixteen-hour emergency room wait. Had I known I would be there for a month, I would have thought of something to entertain myself, so my mind would not have floated so much in morphine-induced-limbo (where I would still be in pain, but be too strung out to care).
I should have taken a wide-toothed comb, shampoo, conditioner, and detangler, because a woman who has long hair, and is hospitalized, will have so many tangles that by the time she gets home the first thing she will want to do is shave her head.
But who knows these things, really knows them, until they have experienced them?
That night, all I knew was I feared nothing would be fixed. I feared like all the other doctors I had seen, no one would try to help me, even if I asked for help. I feared that after so long in the waiting room, and crying my eyes out to one more doctor, I would be even more exhausted, and there would be nothing left to do except come home to the oranges, write my will, and wait.
I wanted to be strong enough to defeat this beast on my own, but I had failed. I had failed in being independent, and I had failed in my ability to ask for help, and I knew I would fail my family by not knowing how to live. I would die young, and unnecessarily, and foolishly, and this pain and emptiness would be my only legacy to them.
But I didn’t go home to the oranges. I had the best emergency room doctor in the world. I lived because a doctor cared enough to personally run in terrified when I started throwing-up, even though it had become normal for me. She was the kind of doctor who refused to go home until she found someone to help me. And she was the kind of doctor who came upstairs, the next night, to make sure I was okay, once I had been admitted.
I stayed in the hospital where I belonged, where none of my possessions would help me, without even a shirt on my back. I watched my mother become frantic and take away what few belongings I had thought to bring with me, because she was so worried someone would steal my things while I was sleeping (and once I was finally settled in, I was almost always sleeping).
I learned to laugh at what absurd things she would bring me as I began to need clothes again. I asked for a T-shirt and she would bring me a tight fitting low-cut blouse. I wondered why she would think that’s what I wanted, and I would learn to love her for trying so hard.
I would soon learn to live without things I never thought possible to live without: a bra or underwear, my health, my mind, coffee shops, reading, writing, or anything I had felt were the things I loved and knew of myself. I would learn to let go of my fears and my attachments the way Orleana Price learns to let go of making her daughters’ birthday cakes.
I had to understand none of the things I might liked to have had with me would have done much good. I still had to let not only the doctors, and nurses, and techs, and hospital staff, help me, but my family, and friends, strangers, and even people I didn’t like, help me. I still had to hand my keys over to my mother, and let her drive my car away from the patient parking lot to my empty apartment. I had to let others clean and sift through my remains—to rearrange for me what I could not do for myself. I would have to allow others to enter my home as one would enter the homes of the dead.
I waited to find out what kind of surgery I might need, and I waited to find out how sick I was. While I waited, sleepy-minded on too much morphine, my little brother would have do for me what I could not do for myself. He would have to go into my abandoned apartment, after another week of ripening, and throw away those damned oranges.
Candice Carnes worked as a caregiver for over fifteen years. This piece is an excerpt from her forthcoming memoir An Incomplete Case Study of the Petrified Woman. She earned a BFA in writing from Goddard College and is currently a graduate student in Science-Medical Writing at Johns Hopkins University. She also serves on the board of directors for the New Mexico Direct Caregivers Coalition. You can find out more about her writing at: candicecarnes.com
The Nail that Sticks Out: On Vietnamese Poet Ly Doi’s Poetics of Resistance
Vietnamese Publishing Law lists the following subjects as taboo. If a writer chooses to publish a piece that crosses these vague restrictions, there’s a good chance he or she can expect a visit from the police, along with some combination of fines, job loss, surveillance, physical intimidation, or jail time. Since it is loaded language, I suggest substituting ‘writing’ for wherever ‘propaganda’ appears:
1. Propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam; destruction of the unity of all citizens.
2. Propaganda about or incitement towards war and aggression, causing rancor between the citizens and those of other countries; incitement towards violence; spread of reactionary ideology, depraved life styles, cruel acts, social evils and superstition, or destruction of good morals and customs.
3. Disclosure of secrets of the Party, State, military, defense, economics or external relations; disclosure of secrets from the private lives of individuals, and of other secrets as stipulated by law.
4. Distortion of historical facts; opposing the achievements of the revolution; offending citizens, great persons and heroes; slandering or harming the reputation of bodies and organizations or offending the honor and dignity of individuals.
Contemporary poet Lý Đợi regularly breaks all these rules, which is why his work is censored in Vietnam, and why for years he has been under surveillance and the victim of harassment by the Cultural Police. It is also why his poems are so interesting in contrast to most state-sanctioned work. Writing these poems has cost Lý Đợi jobs, a steady place to live, and freedom of movement. And yet, he still keeps writing.
These poems may surprise Western readers. They serve as a reminder that, as Louis MacNeice wrote, “World is suddener than we fancy it./ World is crazier and more of it than we think,/ Incorrigibly plural.” Lý Đợi challenges perceptions of Vietnamese poetry, both abroad and within his own country. Grouped together, the poems become a collage of contemporary urban life: communist doctrine rubs shoulders with Buddhist tracts, western commercial goods, corruption, scatological humor and an achingly deep connection to the land.
The series “Boiled – Steamed – Raw” serves as a perfect example of the sardonic leaps Đợi takes in his work. Each section begins with a symbolic dish, followed by appropriated structures that represent the three main regions of Vietnam. “Boiled” starts with that humble staple of the Hanoian dinner table, rau muông, a nutritious peasant dish, paired with a corruption of a communist chant. The central region, which is the heart of both Vietnamese Buddhism and the old Imperial Court with its fall via decadence, is evoked in “Steamed” with its sweet, sticky treat of cassava. Đợi takes a famous line from Vietnam’s literary hero, Thúy Kiều, a woman forced into prostitution in order to save her father from imprisonment by a corrupt ruler, and attributes it to a ‘contemporary performance artist.’ He then presents a Buddhist death meditation—from the point of view of sperm. These small, steady (and taboo) jabs at revered texts and history remind his Vietnamese readers that, as Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Finally, with “Raw” one visits the South, the rice bowl of the country, with its fecundity and western leanings portrayed in the form of a pseudo-scientific pamphlet. Thus in one poem the reader has traversed an entire country both physically and culturally, albeit satirically.
“The Beggar of Hanoi” and “Thinking without identity” show another side of Lý Đợi’s work, namely that he first found his voice through surrealism. The parallel conditions that produced this movement and its contemporary use in Vietnam are striking. Dadaism and surrealism responded to post-war anguish and the “rational thought” that took Europe down a dark path; for Spanish writers and artists, surrealism and extended metaphor provided a coded language that got around Franco’s censors during his long dictatorship. What worked in Europe almost 100 years ago is working in Vietnam today: artists there often resort to abstract painting, surrealism, and performance art as a response to the government-sanctioned socialist realism that cherry picks “good morals and customs” to glorify. As one friend of mine explained, “With abstract art I can tell the Cultural Committee ‘it’s just some feelings on paper,’ and they don’t know any better, so they let me show my work.” However, this practice has real risks, and many artists choose to self-censor instead.
The proverb “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down,” seems an apt description of creative life in Vietnam today; after all, Vietnam consistently ranks in the top 15 countries that imprison bloggers, journalists, and netizens. Lý Đợi’s body of work demands that his fellow citizens consider what lies on the other side of taboo: their daily lives. As my co-translator Nga notes, Vietnam’s urban centers are alive, frenetic with energy. Đợi’s poems are a splintered mirror doubling and throwing back reflections of this movement. The result is not pretty, but it is urgently real. Đợi is the nail that rips at the skin, reminding all who pass just what or who it is they are willing to walk over. He hasn’t been hammered down yet.
The Beggar of Hanoi
Written in the memory and spirit of Max Jacob (1876-1944) and Hoàng Ngọc Biên
When I lived in Hanoi, by the door of the territorial headquarters where I worked was a beggar I’d toss some coins to before getting into my car with its tinted windows and imperial guard. One day, feeling that it was strange never to hear some ‘thank you,’ I looked carefully at the beggar. It was in this way, as I looked, that I realized the thing I’d mistakenly believed all this time to be a beggar was only a wooden pedestal, painted with care, upon which sat a bust carved in my likeness—the look crafty, the complexion ruddy and natural, the brain with termites eating holes through the rot.
Boiled – Steamed – Raw
First Course: Boiled
+ Prepared in the style of rau muống luộc, boiled river spinach from the North
Life in Vietnam is best eaten boiled.
They haven’t found anything yet that the Vietnamese can’t boil…
Repeat after me:
++++++Life in Vietnam is best eaten boiled.
From boiled Honda motorbikes, property deeds, degrees, courtier titles
From boiled food hygiene and safety, insurance
From boiled intelligence, esthetics, culture, humanity
From boiled human rights, liberty, ideology, spirituality
They’ve yet to find a word that Vietnam can’t boil
Repeat after me:
++++++Life in Vietnam is best eaten boiled.
From boiling to being boiled
All anyone thinks about is boiling
All households compete for Best Boilers
All professions boil with emulation…
The only reason why I myself am boiled: so as not to be boiled.
Repeat after me:
++++++Life in Vietnam is best eaten boiled.
++++++Boiling is best
++++++Boiling is best
++++++Boiling is best…
Second Course: Steamed
+ Prepared in the style of khoai mì hấp, steamed manioc with coconut and sugar from the Central region
Wish I could change my fate and be a man instead
Wouldn’t have to worry about this pillow-and-blanket career anymore
– Eileen Over, contemporary performance artist
Read instructions carefully before use:
- This literary work is adrift, caught in heaven’s net: vast, coarse and difficult to escape
- I give and take, spending moments. This came during a bad season, the wind changing
- That’s why it’s possible to wind up the center of a controversial lawsuit, etc.
- All who re-use should be responsible and apply with care
1. Not allowed to go into battle for a long time: Bored to Death
2. Refrain all day long until at last given the okay to leave one’s post: Happy Ending
3. A hundred million poor brothers rushing up together: Death of a 1,000 Elbows
4. After charging ahead, find out the general only planned to liberate himself: Wrongful Death
5. Shot to the ground: Fallen Soldier
6. Shot against a wall: Rough and Ready Death
7. Wiped with toilet paper: Left Out to Dry Death
8. After a good polishing, to yet again be thrown away like garbage: Death Stinks
9. Last to officially to enter the fray, first to hit the target: Petit Mort Death
10. Show up each Monday knowing that you’re already one step behind: Death by Fury
11. Show up each Tuesday to find your favorite already in another’s grip: Green-Eyed Death
12. Absorbed in the view, one goes astray and starts running in circles: Death by Vertigo
13. When physical strength proves inferior to constantly battling to enter a busy street: Death by
14. Hit the bulls-eye, but can’t find an egg: Death by Disappointment
15. Hit the bulls-eye, and find one egg: Job Well Done Death
16. Hit the bulls-eye, and find two eggs: Die Happy
17. Given one egg: Proud Papa Death
18. Given two eggs: Majestic Swan Dive Death
19. Refused by an egg: Walk of Shame Death
20. Because the correct safety procedure is to use a new rubber each time, o brothers of one
++++++house: Cabin Fever Death
21. The rubber is sealed too tightly: Death by Asphyxiation
22. If a hole appears in the rubber: Escape from Alcatraz Death
23. Scrambling in a rush for the exit, one suspects the rubber will be thrown away: A Watery
24. Inside the water there are tadpoles that are my spitting image, but then again better to be all
++++++black than a broken piece of charcoal: Death before Dishonor
25. While laughing, the mouth opens too widely, swallowing innumerable brothers: Broken Belly
26. Second time entering the battle, every one gets covered in saliva: Dry Heave Death
27. Not disgusted enough with life yet to take an Acid Bath Death.
28. Responsible brothers are to be put in the freezer: Freeze to Death
29. Able to withstand the cold, but such a long time out of use: Waiting Room Death
30. The general runs after wealth all day long, slipping through slits in the law: Death by
31. The whole system is deceptive, it produces tricky dicks: Fake It Til You Make It Death
32. Decades of being intimidated results in being worried, worried and afraid: Scared to Death
Y32 …if calculated from 1975
++++++And longer, if calculated from 1945
++++++And longer, if calculated from 1802
++++++And longer, if calculated from 938
++++++And longer, if calculated from around 43
++++++And longer, if calculated from the murky times of the Mongols
Subtract from one elite clique their headman, they will still refuse to die:
And sour as vinegar
And refuse to mix like vinegar
And life as vinegar
All “living a life of contemplation” and all the while thirsting after immortality like vinegar,
all in our ancient country of Xích Quỷ and naturally, all of ancient HMC, old Tây Cống,
shouting, “I will death defy! I will death defy!”
(Absolutely don’t say: I will testify! I will testify!)
Third Course: Raw
+ Prepared in the style of giá sống, raw bean sprouts from the South
In order for a poetry fetus to develop to full term, bearers should not ingest the common foods below more than 2 times per day. They are not needed to provide a complete nutritional intake.
– Loss of liberty
Over the last few years, science has proven that in our country bearers of poetry fetuses increasingly need to be nourished with freedom. Moreover, this facilitates a large capacity for blood production and a lively spirit to boil up from within—both necessary characteristics for a good poetry child’s development. However, the majority of the population still consider themselves to have already eaten a sufficient amount of liberty. This results in a pandemic increase of anemic poetry, in peril of being born premature and without enough influence to have any real weight when received. Talking like this is exhausting.
Principal Cause: Self-protection and Lack of Feeling
– Lack of Speech
Speech plays an essential role in a young student’s inner work to develop embryonic poetry. Lack of speech can lead to a danger of poetry being born weak, slowing its maturation. Multiple physical defects, especially to the spinal cord, can result, along with difficulties regarding sexual desire. This situation can be partially rectified with an immediate 30% rise in speech, several times a day, starting from the beginning of gestation. For this reason, one must take care to administer complete speech every day even before pregnancy. However, the majority of people still think that they already eat enough speech, and hang around with their mouths open. This isn’t really going anywhere.
Principal Cause: Self-Gagged and Censored
An important source of a poetry baby’s bone and muscle is large, frequent accumulations of independently examined sight and sound. During pregnancy, regular mind drills and a variety of information intake will help avoid a leeching out of morals. This will also grant relief from inner pressure applied by the savage and tyrannical judgment of the collective. We can provide complete minds in the form of fresh foodstuffs; that is to say, not yet ground up by censorship. However, the majority of people still like eating spoiled, blue-black stinking food—all while continuing to believe in a fresh new world.
Principal Cause: Cowardice and Lazy Thinking
Esthetics form a large part in the growth of young poetry’s heart range and scope. Supplying a full esthetics during gestation and after is crucial. It enhances a brightness of ideology and the ability to be enlightened spiritually. Experts recommend eating fortifying books at least twice per week, along with partaking of oil paintings as much as possible. Nevertheless, most still think of Vietnam as a poetic, culturally rich country with several thousand years of civilization…this has resulted in clotting, along with severe aesthetic malnutrition. Damn, it leaves me speechless.
Principal Cause: Delusions of Grandeur and Pollyannaism
Thinking Without Identity
Along the hill running to the river
the flight path at arrival time
me: some end of the line station café premixed gasoline
or an afternoon my thoughts crossed the line
may I pay gratitude to the pebbles the flowers on the hill
feet slack in their step
and the rain and I remain to collect the rabbit’s moon cadences
alluvium on the mahogany field
those abundant crops
those lost flights have now arrived
lonely stations or any moment I feel lost
I would leave…
me: some lost water buffaloes in an alley
and knives and cutting boards forgetting an old kitchen
me: a jatropha stake’s darkness and a returning bird tipped in light
my own identity no time no date
I have a game bows and guns on the wall
or in the hands of strangers
memories medal and animal skin
the host’s daughter says with a mouth full of rice:
–three fish heads a thousand dead
Người ăn xin ở Hà Nội
Để nhớ gợi ý của Max Jacob (1876-1944) và Hoàng Ngọc Biên.
Hồi tôi sống ở Hà Nội, nơi cửa ra vào dinh lãnh đạo mà tôi làm việc lúc nào cũng có một tay ăn xin được tôi ném cho mấy đồng tiền trước khi lên xe có cửa kính đen và cận vệ. Một ngày nọ, lấy làm lạ là không bao giờ nghe được những lời cám ơn, tôi nhìn kỹ tay ăn xin. Thế mà, khi tôi nhìn, tôi nhận ra cái tôi cứ ngỡ là một tay ăn xin, chỉ là một bục gỗ sơn cẩn thận và trên ấy là một tượng bán thân tạc hình tôi – trông gian xảo, hồng hào và đương nhiên, não bị mối ăn đến mục thủng.
Món 1: Luộc
+ Theo kiểu rau muống luộc của Bắc kỳ
Sống ở Việt Nam ăn món luộc là tốt nhất
Chưa tìm thấy thứ gì mà người Việt không thể luộc…
Sống ở Việt Nam ăn món luộc là tốt nhất
Từ luộc xe honda, nhà đất, bằng cấp, chức tước…
Từ luộc vệ sinh, an toàn thực phẩm, bảo hiểm…
Từ luộc trí tuệ, thẩm mĩ, văn hoá, nhân tính…
Từ luộc nhân quyền, tự do, tư tưởng, tâm linh…
Chưa tìm thấy điều gì mà Việt Nam không thể luộc
Sống ở Việt Nam ăn món luộc là tốt nhất
Từ luộc cho đến luộc
Người người nghĩ chuyện luộc
Nhà nhà tham gia luộc
Ngành ngành thi đua luộc…
Duy chỉ có lý do tại sao mình bị luộc: là không bị luộc
Sống ở Việt Nam luộc là tốt nhất
luộc là tốt nhất
luộc là tốt nhất
luộc là tốt nhất…
Món 2: Hấp
+ Theo kiểu khoai mì hấp của Trung kỳ
Ví đây đổi phận làm trai được
Sự nghiệp chăn mùng đỡ phải lo…
Sướng Thì Bo, nữ sĩ đương đại
Đọc kĩ hướng dẫn trước khi sử dụng:
=> tác phẩm này trôi nổi trong lưới trời, lồng lộng, thưa và khó thoát,
=> tôi lấy về xài đỡ, lúc trái gió trở trời.
=> cho nên, rất có thể bị tranh chấp, kiện tụng…
=> vì thế những ai sử dụng lại, tự chịu trách nhiệm và cẩn trọng.
01. Lâu ngày không được xuất [t]binh, BUỒN chết
02. Nhịn cả ngày, cuối cùng được phóng ra, MỪNG chết
03. Trăm triệu anh em cùng xông lên, CHEN NHAU chết
04. Sau khi ra, phát hiện chủ nhân tự giải quyết, UẤT ỨC chết
05. Bị bắn xuống đất, TÉ chết
06. Bị bắn vô tường, đụng BỂ ĐẦU chết
07. Bị giấy vệ sinh chùi, KHÔ chết
08. Sau khi chùi xong, lại bị quăng vô thùng rác, THÚI chết
09. Cuối cùng cũng được chính thức lâm trận, đứa đầu tiên tới đích, ĐẮC Ý chết
10. Đứa thứ hai tới đích, biết đã trễ một bước, TỨC chết
11. Đứa thứ ba tới đích, thấy người ta cặp cặp đôi đôi, GHEN TỊ chết
12. Mải ngắm cảnh, lạc đường chạy lòng vòng, CHÓNG MẶT chết
13. Thể lực kém, trên đường xông pha, MỆT chết
14. Tới được đích, không tìm được trứng, THẤT VỌNG chết
15. Tới được đích, tìm được một trứng, MÃN NGUYỆN chết
16. Tới được đích, tìm được hai trứng, SUNG SƯỚNG chết
17. Được một trứng tiếp nhận, TỰ HÀO chết
18. Được hai trứng tiếp nhận, UY PHONG chết
19. Bị trứng từ chối, NHỤC NHÃ chết
20. Bởi vì sử dụng biện pháp an toàn, nguyên băng vô bao,
anh em một nhà ĐÈ NHAU chết
21. Bao bị cột lại, NGỘP chết
22. Phát hiện bao bị thủng lỗ, VUI MỪNG chết
23. Giành giật để xông ra, ai ngờ bao bị quăng vô nước, CHÌM chết
24. Ở trong nước thấy nòng nọc giống mình quá
nhưng lại đen thui như cục than, CƯỜI chết
25. Trong khi cười miệng há quá to, nuốt vô số anh em, BỂ BỤNG chết
26. Lần thứ hai xuất trận, thấy đứa nào đứa nấy toàn nước miếng, TỞM chết
27. Chưa kịp tởm, bị tắm dịch ACID chết
28. Những anh em có trách nhiệm, bị lạc quyên, bỏ vô tủ đông, LẠNH chết
29. Chống chọi được lạnh,
nhưng vì lâu không được sử dụng, CHỜ chết
30. Chủ nhân suốt ngày bôn ba lách luật, CẠN KIỆT chết
31. Bị toàn thể lừa dối nên bản thân cũng gian dối, DỐI chết
32. Mấy chục năm bị hù doạ nên phập phồng lo sợ, SỢ chết
N 32 … tính từ 1975,
và lâu hơn, nếu tính từ 1945
và lâu hơn, nếu tính từ 1802
và lâu hơn, nếu tính từ 938
và lâu hơn, nếu tính từ khoảng 43
và lâu hơn, nếu tính từ thuở chỉ có mông với muội…
Trừ một “đám” chóp bu độc quyền bị TỪ CHỐI chết,
và chua như giấm
và trộn trong giấm
và sống như giấm…
Tất cả, hiện “ giả vờ sống” và khát khao bất tử như giấm…
Tất cả hiện diện tại xứ Xích Quỷ và đương nhiên ở cả Tây Cống
“Ung hỉ! Ung hỉ!”
[Tuyệt đối không nói: Cung hỷ! Cung hỷ!]
Món 3: Ăn sống
+ Theo kiểu giá sống của Nam kỳ
Để giúp cho bào thai thơ phát triển, người mang thai thơ không phải ăn nhiều gấp 2 lần mà chỉ cần ăn đầy đủ dưỡng chất. Kiểu như:
– Mất tự do
Suốt nhiều năm qua ở nước ta, nhất là càng về sau này, khoa học chứng minh người mang thai thơ cần phải bổ sung nhiều sự tự do hơn nữa, để lượng máu hay ho của mình sôi lên và thai nhi thơ được phát triển tốt.Tuy nhiên, đa số vẫn nghĩ rằng mình đã ăn đủ tự do rồi nên kết quả là tình trạng thiếu máu thơ tăng, nguy cơ sinh non và ảnh hưởng tới cân nặng của thơ trẻ khi sinh ra là rất rõ rệt, thế mới mệt.
Lý do chính: thủ thân và vô cảm…
– Thiếu ngôn luận
Ngôn luận đóng vai trò chủ yếu trong việc phát triển phôi thai thơ. Thiếu ngôn luận cũng có thể dẫn đến nguy cơ sinh non, thơ chậm phát triển và đặc biệt là có những dị tật cột sống, những trục trặc tình dục về sau… Nhu cầu về ngôn luận tăng 30% ngay từ những ngày đầu của thai kỳ. Đó là lý do tại sao chúng ta cần phải chú ý cung cấp đầy đủ ngôn luận ngay cả thời gian trước khi mang thai. Tuy nhiên đa số vẫn nghĩ rằng mình đã ăn đủ ngôn luận, thế mới luẩn quẩn.
Lý do chính: bị bịt miệng và tự kiểm duyệt…
– Tẩy não
Trong quá trình phát triển xương cốt và cơ bắp, thai nhi thơ cần tích lũy rất nhiều trí não và huệ năng. Việc cung cấp đầy đủ thông tin và thao tác xử lý thông tin trong thời kỳ mang thai còn giúp tránh việc mất chất, hủ hoá và sự dã man, tàn bạo trong ứng xử cộng đồng. Chúng ta có thể cung cấp đầy đủ trí não với các thực phẩm tươi, nghĩa là chưa qua kiểm duyệt. Tuy nhiên, đa số vẫn thích ăn đồ ươn hôi, bị bầm dập… nhưng vẫn nghĩ rằng nó tươi nguyên, thế mới điên.
Lý do chính: hèn nhát và lười tư duy…
– Cùn thẩm mỹ
Thẩm mỹ đóng vai trò trọng yếu trong việc phát triển tim, tầm nhìn và tầm văn hoá của thơ nhi. Việc cung cấp đầy đủ thẩm mỹ trong thời kỳ mang thai là rất cần thiết và cả thời gian sau cũng vậy, nó thúc đẩy sự sáng sủa của tư tưởng và khả năng giác ngộ về tâm linh. Vì thế, mỗi tuần, chúng ta nên ăn sách vở an toàn vệ sinh ít nhất hai lần và sử dụng dầu nghệ thuật nhiều lần. Tuy nhiên, đa số vẫn nghĩ rằng Việt Nam là một nước thơ, giàu bản sắc văn hoá, văn hiến nhiều nghìn năm… nên kết quả bị suy dinh dưỡng về thẩm mỹ trầm trọng, thế mới hả họng.
Lý do chính: ảo tưởng và hoang đường…
Nếp nghĩ không căn cước
Dọc miền đồi dẫn ra triền sông
đường bay trong giờ đáp
tôi: những trạm lẻ café xăng pha sẵn
hoặc buổi chiều suy tư lấn tuyến
xin tri ân viên sỏi bông hoa miền đồi
những bàn chân chùng bước
mùi hương tím bầm
và mưa và tôi tồn đọng nhịp thở
phù sa bãi xà cừ
những lương thực bội mùa
những đường bay lạc giờ đáp trên sân
trạm lẻ hoặc bất cứ lúc nào kẹt lối
tôi sẽ ra đi . . .
tôi: vài con trâu lạc ngõ
và dao thớt lãng quên nhà bếp cũ
tôi: bóng tối cây cọc và cánh chim ánh sáng tìm về
căn cước riêng tôi không ngày tháng
nếp nghĩ không neo
tôi có trò chơi những cung súng trên tường
hoặc trên tay những người chưa quen
hồi ức huy chương và da thú
con gái chủ nhà nói trong miệng bự cơm:
_ ba đầu cá một ngàn đã chết
Kelly Morse: Toni Morrison said, “I wrote my first novel because I wanted to read it.” I started translating Lý Đợi’s poetry because I wanted to read something that reflected my experience in the face of so much that did not. I lived in Hanoi for two years in the late 2000s, yet when I returned to the USA I found that the majority of translations circled around the Vietnam-American War, or spoke of a romanticized rural life of subsistence farming that, while real, is not the Vietnam I engaged with on my daily motorbike commute with Hanoi’s other 3.5 million citizens. Thousands of people circle the lakes each night, where yes, there are lotus flowers in bloom if it is the right season, which also means parades of girls in traditional áo dài draped across wooden docks while men with expensive cameras take their pictures. However, once these sessions are done, the girls again don blue jeans and t-shirts, text their friends where to meet for coffee, and put on a helmet (often with a hole cut out for their ponytail) before zipping off on mopeds.
This was the Vietnam I wanted to see in translations, the one that pays homage to the past while never forgetting that most daily life involves haggling, cell phones, traffic jams, and trying to get a leg up in the midst of an industrial revolution and Market Leninism (aka capitalism). Instead, I found reconciliation projects. While these have great value, they are the vision of a generation that is not mine, nor that of most Vietnamese. Two-thirds of Vietnam’s current population was born after the war, which ended 40 years ago. It is a young and hopeful population that looks to the future, not the past.
Perhaps this is my failing, that poems filled with lotus and harmony do not match my preoccupations, whereas those populated with construction workers, motorbikes, and censorship do. After all, that is the Vietnam I mostly experienced. But one must be preoccupied, passionate even, if one is to go through all the trouble of translating a text. I’m so glad I found Lý Đợi’s poems, so happy to have a co-translator like Nga; with them I am able to have a hand in writing what I want to read.
Hiền Nga: Early morning and the sun has just slowly started to dip its pristine rays into a body of water (a lake, if it’s Hà Nội, or a river, if it’s Sài Gòn) when you’re woken up by the neighbor’s rooster or the honking of a banana seller on a motorbike. You throw open your window, letting in the mellow smell of phở broth from the stall across the street. You trot to the sidewalk and order a cà phê sữa đá. The condensed dose of caffeine and sugar kicks off your morning, and you know you’re gonna make a loud noise today. You know you’re gonna move walls and earth. You’re gonna make some trouble today. You must.
So it’s like what the cliché says, life in today’s Việt Nam is a living, breathing thing. It’s not stagnant, and it’s not sleepy. It’s anything but stuck in the past. It hurriedly churns like the inside of a hummingbird. The frame the society is built upon, the façade they put up, all the conventions, the norms, the established, all the things stifling the people, are gradually being transformed by the people from inside the country. By those like Lý Đợi, whose brave and powerful texts are the peaceful weapon fighting for freedom and progress in Việt Nam.
I moved back to Việt Nam after years of mindful wandering abroad not only because I want to witness history happening, but also because I want to be part of it. Furthermore, I want to take part in making it happen. Lý Đợi’s poetry shows one of the many ways the people of Việt Nam today are not quiet and timid but resilient and fierce, that they are creating changes on their own behalf. I would like the privilege of standing side-by-side with those like him in this fight. I’m here to see, live, and create a narrative where Vietnamese are not the victims of both history and contemporary development, but the actor of our present and the owner of our future.
Sài Gòn, 2015
Kelly Morse returned to Vietnam on a Robert Pinsky Global Fellowship, where she had the opportunity to meet Lý Đợi and write about her former life there as university faculty. Her translations with Nga L.H. Nguyen appear in Asymptote and M-DASH, along with her essays and reviews of Vietnamese poetry. Kelly’s creative work has appeared or is forthcoming in Gulf Coast, Brevity, Flyway, Linebreak, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA in poetry from Boston University, and is a Vermont Studio Center grant recipient. www.kelly-morse.com.
A development worker with an incurable crush on the arts, Nga L.H. Nguyen was seeded from Hanoi, Vietnam and lives across three continents. A graduate of Bryn Mawr College, she works for Save the Children with a focus on LGBTQ+ and women’s rights; she will pursue a GEMMA Erasmus Mundus Master’s Degree in Women’s and Gender Studies starting Fall 2015. Nga has contributed to several investigative articles for The Washington Post, and her translations with Kelly Morse have been featured on Asymptote and M-DASH. She believes in hummingbirds. http://hiennga.wordpress.com
Lý Đợi is a founding member of the underground Mở Miệng (Open [Your] Mouth) group, and has been published on webzines and in group samizdat. His own samizdat are Bảy biến tấu con nhện (2004; Seven Spider Improvisations), Trường chay thịt chó (2005; Dogmeat Vegetarianism) and Khi Kẻ Thù Ta Buồn Ngủ (2010; When Our Enemy Falls Asleep). A chapbook of his work has been translated into English by Vietnamese American poet Linh Dinh, and translations of his work have been published in Asymptote and Soft Targets.
The airplane parts are everywhere. I find the first at lunch with Jane. A little black box floats to the top of my soup and I chew. It sends a metallic shock up through my teeth, rattling my skull. I feel it going down hard. Slicing through my throat and puncturing a lung. Yeah, it hurts, but I don’t think I’ve tasted anything so sweet.
* * *
Our dog at home is named Andy. Andy is a good boy. He has that short, wiry kind of hair that pricks you when you pet it the wrong way.
I play with him in the yard and throw him a bully stick. A bully stick, in case you didn’t know, is the politically correct term for a petrified bull penis. He really likes them. I throw it deep into the bushes but he comes running back with a chewed up tire in his mouth. It burns away at his jowls. It still hasn’t cooled off.
He tries to hand it off to me but we just pass it back and forth, sharing the burn. My hand. His mouth. My hand. His mouth. My hand. His mouth. I wish I could tell him I prefer playing with bull penises.
* * *
Jane and I lie in bed, when she starts to rub her petite hand between my thighs.
She wears a black and blue nightgown and I can see the tips of her breasts poking out. What are you looking at? she asks.
Your breasts, I reply.
Well don’t do it yet. She runs into the bathroom and says something about wanting to look sexy. When she comes back into the room, the light from the bathroom gives her silhouette a gold halo. From this angle she is only the dim shadow of a woman. She moves closer and I realize she is wearing a flight attendant uniform. It’s torn at the legs. It drips with blood.
I look at the ceiling as she starts to shower my body in hers. I stare long enough and count every single dot I can find, trying to let go, trying to forget that I am more than just a head. When we’re finished, I feel wet everywhere. This is a rescue boat but no one is coming to help.
* * *
While at work, I am flooded by a sea of body parts. Decapitated heads and loose limbs unspool around me in long red ribbons. The ribbon pulls tighter around my chest, tighter around my waist. It’s like drowning in an endless Chuck-E-Cheese ball pit, except instead of balls it’s, you know, body parts. I let out a deep moan and my face fills with toxic, black tears of airplane fuel.
My boss finds me shaking underneath my desk. He tells me to go home for the day.
* * *
Jane takes me to see Dr. Downey. He has an expansive, open office with five tall rectangular windows, opening up to a sage field and a wide-open sky. The floor of his office is covered in an amalgam of oriental rugs and deep reds. He smiles on his leather couch, legs crossed. He has us take a seat.
So how are you feeling today?
I heard you had a little bit of an incident at work.
I’m doing better now.
He speaks incomprehensibly for a couple of minutes. Outside the window, a helicopter lowers and three broad-shouldered men lift what appears to be a jet engine. Thank God we found it, I hear one of them say.
So, Dr. Downey says, do you understand me?
Loud and clear, Doctor.
* * *
These days, my punctured lung is starting to become a problem. It’s becoming harder to play with Andy. I start taking him out for only one walk a day. Jane now two.
We’re running in the park, when Andy digs up the corpse of a dead squirrel. He plays with it in his mouth, licking up gray globs of pigeon shit and smacking them between his jowls. He bites away at what was once the stomach. He bites away at what was once the heart. There is a trail of mutilated organs behind Andy, as if they are trying to chase him down.
He sees what probably is another animal carcass in the distance and runs away from me. I can’t keep up. My lungs pound in my head as I try to chase him down but then I hear something so loud it feels like a tear in the fabric of the universe. The skeleton of an airplane catapults toward Andy, whirling in the sky, blowing rings of fire and dust everywhere I can see.
I am knocked to the floor where I feel warmth all around. There is a hole inside my body.
* * *
Jane’s bags are packed and ready to go. I guess I won’t be seeing much of her anymore. She tells me to take care and touches my cheek with her clammy hand.
She’ll be on an airplane tonight to Houston. Flight 342A. I memorize this number and repeat it like a hymn.
* * *
In the mirror, a smooth silver wing stares back at me. It is a perfectly trimmed feat of engineering brilliance. I rub up and down the side of my body and wonder if it could grow feathers, whether I have the ability to lift up toward the sky on my own.
There are so many parts to me now. Some are intricate grids of wires that electrocute my body if they are mishandled. Others are disposed pieces, flaming in the middle of the ocean. I feel a distance between these parts in and out of me, an immeasurable chasm, home to stars and planets and the crisp streaks of cloud that paint the sky in daytime.
I feel it all shifting and I think, it’s a funny word: explode.
She curled gnarled fingers around her copy of the poem. Over the many years it remained folded and tucked inside a red mitten, the single page of stationery had lost its crisp edge and took on the softness of the faded red yarn. She kept the pair in the far corner of her top drawer, away from the influence of an old lilac sachet tucked on the bottom. She only wore the mittens once a year, when she went for a walk along with her poem to face the night sky. She kept her promise.
The Color of Love.
She recited the title quietly into the frigid air, so still, that the fog freezing her words lingered in front of her lips long enough to walk through and dissipate over her shoulder. Though bundled in her formal coat, the one with the fur muffler and hand-knitted cap that looked so pretty with the crab stitching along the cuff, she did not feel the cold anymore. She was too old. She hobbled and relied on a cane. Age added a pronounced limp to her gait. Bone rubbing on the bones of once shapely hips that held the knack to switch and bump as she slowly walked by, all the while quite aware he stood in the back watching. He existed in her memory. Yet, in recalling the curious way he crossed his arms and dropped his chin to hide a chuckle as she sauntered past, he still possessed the ability to make her smile.
The color of love is white.
She poked her cane into a hardened clump of snow and listened to it crackle as she stepped on it. She had to wait a long time this year. Waiting for the winter winds to settle, selecting the blackest night to venture out for a stroll. It had to be as frigid and as still as the midnight she allowed him to kiss her nose. He sealed his warmth within her when he kissed her again on her lips.
The color of love is black.
She repeated the line and nodded to the blackness above. So deep, so vastly dark, it capped the world with a midnight sky. She spied past the crystalline darkness to the very back wall of time, knowing if she ever did reach that point, she would still love him, even if their colors were wrong. Her arthritic body recalled how she sat so long ago when she scribbled the first lines of her poem, huddled under damp sheets on a humid night and hunched over the small lap desk he kept beside his bed, a place where white did not belong.
The color of love is in the blush of the moon’s cheek.
She winked at the misshapen moon as it peeked past the horizon. He once explained that the moon’s timid smile lifted higher on the very night they met and remained that way since. Staring at the contrast of a round slice of white glowing against the deepening black, she truly understood the depth of debt and had paid the steep price of contrast for decades. She never understood the consequence of contrast. Just as no one understood her poem or why she remained confused after so many explanations. In her estimation, contrast required equal amounts of colors shading either side. The beauty was not in the two colors alone, but within the contrast of two people, a man and woman, hand in hand, weaved together, side by side. Did it matter that their colors did not match?
Love sings across slippery ice.
A slender icicle glistened as it pointed down almost in judgment, examining their past through the sharp silver edge of its point. Pressing forth into her walk she pondered the poetic notion that the shard could have well been formed by the constant drip of melting tears. She strained to listen for a trickle. Of course, there was none. Everything froze. He did that. She chuckled, amused, wiping the dripping cold from her nose with the back of her mitten. Amazing, it still held the scent of his hand past the faded lilac.
And cries with muted laughter.
She continued walking. With each step, she released bits of the stalwart resolve guarding the frozen wall surrounding her sentimentality. Memories seeped past the melting cracks. She listened again, to the faint trickle of images leaking from decades of her full life, and yet she was quite strict as to which memories she allowed to join her walk.
The color of love is lost in a choice.
He chose to leave. He feared the destructive chaos of their clashing colors would sever the tether of her stability, set her adrift over the solid foundations that grounded her. For when she was with him, she floated. His hand holding hers seemed to be her only connection to the world below, where he held little footing. Therefore, he decided to join a different war by answering the call of duty to fight. By facing the far away conflict between nations and their legions of troops defending inflated ideology, he prevented the tainting of her innocence from common bigotry. He protected her from an ugly war of intolerance, a battle of accusations, prejudice, and worst—both of their families’ delusional perceptions of influence from contrasting colors. He never wanted her to taste hatred. She recalled her protest in telling him he was wrong, he was worth more, that color holds no persuasion over love. He was wise. By leaving, he perfected their love by secretly freezing it in time, because within time, after decades, differing colors will no longer matter.
That scatters tears after secret rendezvous.
She remembered how a cold covered her sadness as she reluctantly accepted his conditions before his departure—each to live a full life. She gave him her poem, begging him to stay safe, to hold tight the memory of their nights, folded together, side-by-side, touching. He dropped his arms, as well as his chin, unable to cover a sad sigh. He pulled her close. Holding each other they pledged to pick a passing night, one so bitter it held the power to freeze words, and there, apart, each would set out into the dark, and step forward to kiss the sky. She lost the memory of the actual day she heard he was gone, listed as actively missing, and never to come home. Such a waste, those words vanished.
Love comes in the shape of a kiss.
The poem had a way of tickling her lips as she recited the lines. She hummed, almost singing it aloud when she reached the far end of her walk. Ever punctual, shoulders squared, fingers tight gripping a cane and a poem, she faced the black sky against the snow. There, under the archway of cold she set free a silent kiss. She watched it ricochet off the edge of time, follow constellations across the sky, exploding, raining frozen tears, and sparkling kisses upon his silent body.
So invisible on waiting lips.
He reached from the back wall of time, barely brushing the ends of her gray hair with a chilled breeze as she turned from the black, returning back to the tranquility of her rooms, to tuck the poem deep in the mitten, replacing the pair in the corner of her top drawer, until the next still night.
The color of love is timeless.
And only the ghosts of the sacrificed
Lovers can understand the true hue.
The color of love is black.
Julieanna Blackwell is a short story writer and an essayist. The Naples Daily News published her column of humorous personal essays. Her short stories appeared in Crack the Spine, soon in Thrice Fiction, and again as a regular feature in SCENE Magazine’s yearly beach-read issues. She is also an editor for 805 Literary and Arts Journal.
Behind the wired window drinking grape juice
women swoon to the gospel oxidized like corked wine
On D-Block we write letters Dear bud of forsythia
Dear love Dear fetus Salutations pour from us like wine
We watch each other cradle our cloth and clothespin
dolls nurse them with regret our milk soured like wine
Call us pain-capable unborn children zygotes
embryos rosebuds the color of a sweet fat wine
From this white satin altar to the playpens in the kitchens
we thank the grandmas cellared and aging like wine
We drink sugary milk from the cereal bowls
Sweet like we’re home intoxicating like wine
We are Sarah cruel with jealousy barren & blessed
expectant & howling bellies bloated with wine
Sea and Salt
LA in June and we were together the beach was hot and bright and fat with sun
he flirted with the slurping line of foam and sand On the verge
In over my knees wet linen skirt clinging my shoulders burned
I turned around in time to see him shaking sea water from his hand
++++++++++++++++++++++++++++At lunch licked salt from my hand
and I drank the tequila drank the shot drank the shot drank the shot
I was hot and wet I was thirsty I drank I kissed him I grabbed him
from behind always behind
I followed him and followed him and followed saw the sea
through polarized sunglasses It was white it was blueblack it was bright
Another day hiding my eyes
In the remembered world the sun is golden the water is golden
we are golden Then sunset then his lengthening shadow
++++++++++++++++++++++++then a moonless night.
Later my burned red skin like a promise turned golden
I turned to gold then turned over
The thin white edge of the year later winter
Cornered in a corner boxed in with moving boxes my legs crossed
and his bony hands locked around my foot We drank drank drank
I pretended not to see him I was already gone He invited himself
This image he had of us it was blown-out white dated
he left and left and left it bathing in the salt silver
It was blackened bitter that thing he dropped at my feet
I left when he told me to I didn’t look back didn’t look back didn’t look
Still he turned bitter he blackened still he turned to salt
Sarah B. Boyle is a poet, mother, and high school teacher. She is the author of the chapbook What’s pink & shiny/what’s dark & hard (Porkbelly Press). Her poems and essays have appeared in VIDA, Menacing Hedge, Entropy, and elsewhere. Following the rapes and assaults that ripped through multiple literary communities this past year, she edited a series of essays for Delirious Hem on rape culture and the poetics of alt lit. Find her online at impolitelines.com.
The Horizon, Hemmed in Gold
yours is the right to raft down the smooth rivers,
to bushwhack through the black forests at night
and to freshen your senses in the streaming wind;
to sing to the fields a rice-growing song;
to turn your grin upward at the scattered stars;
to gaze at the tall grass through your tears,
or be embittered by a world lost in murk;
to coast as carefree as a swan in flight
or to sigh with the pine-tops from deep in your soul;
sow joy by the handful in somebody’s heart
while brimful of suffering in your own;
to break sod on a path for the impoverished;
to forsake your fine hair, soft as silk;
undaunted to rise, no matter who’s watching;
to hand out all your belongings, as your heart wills;
to keep on living for the people you love;
to shatter ignorant ranks and grind them to dust;
to hold your course steady, daring all for the Goal;
virtue to uphold, till the world itself ends;
for riverbends and moon-slivers, friends past beyond;
for the stalks of bamboo that bend on the mountains;
for the grains of rice scattered along every furrow;
for the horizon, hemmed in gold, before dawn.
ขอบฟ้ า ขลิบทอง
เธอมีสิทธิ์ ที่จะลอง แม่น้ำรื่น
ที่จะบุก ดงดำ กลางค่ำคืน
ที่จะชื่น ใจหลาย กบสายลม
ที่จะร่ำาเพลง เก่ยว โลมเรียวข้าว
ที่จะยิม กบดาว พราวผสม
ที่จะเหม่อ มองหญ้า นำ้าตาพรม
ที่จะขม ขื่นลึก โลกหมึกมน
ที่จะแลน เริงเลน เช่นหงษ์ร่อน
ที่จะถอน ใจทอด กบยอดสน
ที่จะหวาน สุขไว้ กลางใจคน
ที่จะทน ทุกข์เข้ม เต็มหัวใจ
ที่จะเกลา ทางกู สู่คนยาก
ที่จะจาก ผมนิ่ม ปิ้ มเส้นไหม
ที่จะหาญ ผสานท้า นัยน์ตาใคร
ที่จะให้ สิ่งสิ้น เธอจินต์จง
ที่จะอยู เพือคน ที่เธอรัก
ที่จะหัก พาลแพรก แหลกเป็นผง
ที่จะมุ่ง จุดหมาย ประกายทะนง
ที่จะคง ธรรมเที่ยง เคียงโลกา
เพื่อโค้งเคียว เรียวเดือน และเพื่อนโพ้น
เพือไผโอน พลิ้วพ้อ ล้อภูผา
เพือเรืองข้าว พราวแพร้ว ทัวแนวนา
เพื่อขอบฟ้ า ขลิบทอง รองอรุณ
“The Horizon, Hemmed in Gold” is the best-known poem from the collection of the same name, originally published in 1952 by Prakhin Chumsai na Ayutthaya under the pen name Ujjeni. (Ujjeni would later be named a “National Artist” in literature in 1987.) The poem gains its power through the range of worldly experiences—both good and bad, selfless and self-indulgent—it asserts as everyone’s birth right, the common inheritance of each individual. Yet every person is equally entitled to transcending these fluctuating conditions of joy and pain—the acts the poem mentions, of shearing one’s hair and forgoing material possessions, are perquisites of Buddhist monks, and the final image, of the horizon lit under dawn, is an obvious symbol of Enlightenment. Recognizing this spark of Buddhahood in everyone, the poem addresses each reader equally, and in tender terms: “best friend.”
Noh Anothai was a researcher with the Thailand-United States Education Foundation (Fulbright Thailand) between 2011-12. In that time, he translated programs and hosted cultural events for Thailand’s Ministry of Culture and College of Dramatic Arts. The winner of Lunch Ticket’s inaugural Gabo Prize for Translation and Multi-Lingual Texts in 2014, Anothai has recently appeared in Structo (UK), RHINO, Pilgrimage, and others, and will appear in the July 2014 of Stirring as the winner of the Sundress Academy for the Arts’ OUTspoken contest.
Ujjeni (b. 1919) is the pen name of Prakhin Chumsai na Ayutthaya, who began writing poetry as a student at Chulalongkorn University, where he majored in French (even winning a scholarship to study in Paris for a time), and where he would later return to teach. In 1948, he began publishing increasingly socially-minded poetry in politically-oriented magazines. These were later collected into The Horizon, Hemmed in Gold (1956). Ujjeni was named a National Artist in Literature in 1987, and The Horizon has been listed as one of the hundred books that all Thais should read by Thailand’s Ministry of Education.
“I find more bitter than death the woman who is a snare, whose heart is a trap and whose hands are chains. The man who pleases God will escape her, but the sinner she will ensnare.”
Some interstate in the south. I’m around seven. We’ve been in the car for hours—en route to Irmo, a suburb outside Columbia, SC so Dad can take classes at USC to become an officer in the Marines. We’re in his sporty black Nissan; my mom and younger sisters, Jenna and Katie, are in the brown and yellow station wagon behind us. Bart is barely a kidney bean in Mom’s belly. I press my forehead to the cool window and watch my reflection superimposed over the trees rushing by. It gets dark and dad asks me if I want to talk to the truckers on the CB radio. He picks up the mouthpiece and rotates the channel dial. Voices crackle over the speaker. They sound like aliens speaking a garbled foreign language. “Watch this,” he winks at me, then presses the receiver and starts to lisp in falsetto, I feel pretty, oh so pretty, oh so pretty, and witty, and gaaaaaaaayyyyy… This usually gets a response from one or two truckers. “What’s your twenty?” a voice wavers across the radio. They want to know where we are, what highway, what car. Sometimes we talk to them until their signal gets too fuzzy. Sometimes they yell at my dad and he laughs so hard tears roll down his cheeks and he has to turn the channel before I hear too many profanities. “You do it,” he nudges me with the speaker. I don’t know what to say, and whisper a timid, questioning, “Hi?” into the crackling space. Sometimes the truckers will talk to me, tell me about their kids back home. Other times they tell my dad to get me the hell off the radio. In those moments I’m aware, as young as I am, that we’re intruders in their world. Then one calls me “honey” and “pretty thing,” and says he likes the softness in my voice. My insides rustle and it’s like I’ve dipped my toes into warm water. My dad snaps off the CB. “That’s enough of that.”
We listen in silence to the radio, stare forward as the yellow lines of the road roll like a conveyor belt beneath our car. When Hall & Oates comes across Dad turns up the radio, drums his fingers on the steering wheel, sings along wistfully:
She’ll only come out at night,
The lean and hungry type,
Nothing is new,
I’ve seen her here before…
I watch his face flashing in the darkness, lit up by the headlights of passing cars like someone’s opening and closing shutters. He’s not laughing anymore. He’s serious about this song, I can tell.
Oh-oh here she comes.
Watch out boy she’ll chew you up.
Oh-oh here she comes.
She’s a man-eater.
“What’s a man-eater?” I ask him. It sounds dangerous. My eyes try to penetrate the woods outside the window—so much darkness pressing in. I imagine some she-monster with yellow eyes stalking our car from the bushes. Dad replies solemnly, eyes straight ahead, “A woman every man wants.” I am still riding the high of the power I felt with that last trucker—his desire to know more about me, a need so dangerous my dad had to silence him. I wonder if somehow that trucker has left his route, tracked us down, is following behind us, waiting for us to pull over. The thought gives me another warm thrill—but scares me, too. I scoot across the seat to Dad, lean my head on his shoulder, and he takes one hand off the steering wheel and squeezes my knee. Man-eater. Whomever or whatever she is, she has inspired a man to write a song about her, to long for her, to make other men like my father ache for her. I know right then and there what I want to be when I grow up. A man-eater.
Every time I looked in the mirror, though, I knew I was decidedly not a man-eater—not yet, anyway. Man-eaters, the kind I came to see on the big screen and on magazine covers, did not have stringy red hair or freckles or glasses. And the teeth they used to chew up and spit out men were straight and blindingly white. My teeth looked more like those belonging to a Venus fly trap. The bottom row turned every which way but straight, and my left and right incisors had grown in at an angle, overlapping the front two teeth like fangs. Sometimes the kids at school pretended I was a vampire, raced away from me as if I might suck blood from their necks.
I know right then and there what I want to be when I grow up. A man-eater.
It only added injury to insult that my mother was a real life beauty queen. At eighteen, she had had been crowned Miss Ligonier, the trophy of which was displayed prominently on the bookshelf of every living room in every house into which we moved. It was a gold figurine about the same size as a Barbie, on its head a crown and in its hands a scepter. The scepter was about the size of a sewing needle and slid into a hole in the trophy’s fist. It wasn’t supposed to be removable. Jenna and I used to take the trophy down from its bookcase and stroke its hard, gold dress. Eventually, we loosened the scepter and found we could take it from her hands. We gave it to our Barbies until Mom found out and yelled at us. Tears brimmed in her eyes as she cradled the trophy, trying to fix it. After that, she kept the trophy out of our reach.
My father was convinced that every man wanted her so he watched over her jealously. His fears were not unfounded. Once at a Kmart, when she was pushing my baby brother in the cart and we sisters were trailing behind her like ducks on a string, a young marine, probably no older than eighteen or nineteen, touched her on the shoulder. “I’m sorry,” he said, “I just had to tell you that I think you’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.” I was probably around nine and this was the most impressive thing I had seen. “Look at your mother, girls,” Dad would say to us, gazing up at her with hungry eyes while she’d fill our plates at dinner. “Isn’t she beautiful?”
And she was. But she didn’t wake up that way. We knew her secret: the orange tackle box. For the better part of the day that she spent vacuuming floors, dusting cabinets, and folding laundry, she was downright plain—thick, red hair gathered into a tight bun like a knob on the top of her head, small eyes fading into a pale and freckled face. But an hour before Dad came home, Mom would stop whatever household chore she was attending to and head up to her bathroom where, under the cabinet, she stored a fisherman’s tackle box. The contents of that tacklebox were magic, invoking into being the beauty queen hiding inside my mother. Where men might separate lures, lines, and hooks into each compartment, Mom had neatly arranged row after row of eye shadows, mascaras, and lipsticks. I’d lean against the doorframe of her bathroom and watch as she’d “put on her face.” First there was the pale, almost white concealer she’d dab under her eyes, then the liquid foundation she’d swirl across her cheeks, forehead, and chin. Next, powder and a sweep of pink blush. She’d lean into the mirror, carefully swipe blue eye shadow across each eyelid, step back, examine her work, lean in again to fill in creases. Next the eyelash curler, a stroke of eyeliner, a flourish of mascara. She’d brush out her eyebrows and pencil them in so her dark, almond-shaped eyes slowly emerged as if coaxed.
But the most magical part of the tackle box was the assortment of lipstick tubes piled in two or three of the compartments and organized by shade. All shades of red, they touted names like “Cherry Lush,” “Ruby Dream,” “Scarlett Empress,” “Femme Fatale.” I loved running my fingers over the smooth tubes, removing their caps, rolling up colors so deep and rich my mouth watered. First she’d line her lips, drawing in a fuller pout on bottom, a cupid’s bow on top. Then she’d choose a lipstick and drag it slowly across, back and forth, press her lips together, and repeat. Again, she’d step back from the mirror, survey her reflection, dissatisfied, rummage through the tackle box for something to right it. Lean in again, fix the mistakes. With each sweep, stroke, and blot, ho-hum servant girl slowly transformed into Cinderella. What I wanted more than anything was to look like her when I grew up.
Indeed, it was this beauty regimen alone that kept me from climbing onto a chair and tying a rope around my neck. That she could transform herself so completely gave me hope every time I looked in the mirror at my own plain-Jane face and straight-as-a-board body (“You’re a pirate’s dream,” my dad joked. “A buried chest”). Still, I assured my friends that the story of the Ugly Duckling was my own. My mother was proof; of course I’d inherited her genes. Plus all five of my dad’s sisters were beautiful and his own mom was so gorgeous she’d been married six times. How could it turn out otherwise for me? Friends of my parents concurred when they’d come over for dinner and I’d skip downstairs on break from playing dress-up, my adolescent face inexpertly plastered with lipstick and eye shadow. “You’re in trouble,” the men would elbow my dad and wink, “Get your gun ready.” I’d blush, pleased.
And, eventually, it happened, with the assistance of puberty and its helpful side-kick, Cover Girl. Each morning, I woke up early to put on my own face, jostling with my sister, Jenna, for real estate in front of the bathroom mirror. By then, I didn’t need a tackle box as some marketing genius had created Caboodles, essentially a tackle box but in appropriately girly pink and purple. Because it was too big to carry to school, I dumped its essentials into a plastic pencil pouch that I stuffed into my backpack. As soon as I got to school, I dashed to the bathroom to check that my makeup had remained in place during the harrowing thirty-minute bus ride. I repeated this process in each of the ten-minute breaks between class, joining the line of teenage girls who were also reapplying their lipstick and eyeliner, brushing their hair, and otherwise checking for any break in the surface that might betray us to the boys.
The boys were the thing. The thrill of knowing we were desired was like static electricity coursing through our veins. Every moment of our teenage years became a pageant. Friday nights my dad would drop a group of neighborhood girls at the mall and we’d treat it like a catwalk until it closed at nine: strut around the top floor, then take the escalator and sashay around the bottom, then ride the escalator back up and start over. We never actually talked to these boys. It seemed to us they spoke an entirely different language, one composed of guttural grunts and groans. It was enough to glide past them in their huddled masses and feel the hush our presence caused. Sometimes one would break the silence, whistle or moan, or another would lick his lips, a lascivious “niiiice” unrolling from his tongue like a carpet at our feet. Without speaking a word to them, we possessed the power to interrupt their compact and gated world, to make their heads swivel in our directions, to command their bodies to straighten and stiffen, to invoke the gazes that caressed the length of our emerging curves. Sometimes as we swept by they’d collapse into each other like sailors thrown about by the force of a wave; we imagined them set adrift, desperate, clinging to the hope that we might turn and save them. We thought the most romantic thing in the world was to be desired from afar, a belief confirmed and encouraged by any number of love songs our boom boxes crooned—“Lady in Red,” “Jesse’s Girl,” “Private Eyes,” “Every Step You Take.”
It wasn’t just teenage boys wanting us, though. On nights we couldn’t pester a parent to drive us to the mall, we made do with the gravel catwalk alongside the main road beyond our houses. We were allowed to walk only as far as a stop sign at the corner. Still, we’d saunter down and back, down and back, practicing our swagger. The point was simply the thrill of the horns beeping as cars slowed down, adult men hanging their heads out the window like dogs, calling to us “baby” or “honey” or “sugar lips.” Sometimes they’d slow down too much, as if intending to pull over. We didn’t know what to do, had no plan for desire that materialized itself into an actual encounter, especially not with a mustached man, so we’d giggle and run into the grass, feeling safe behind the wood fence posts that separated our backyards from the street. And we mostly were.
The truth is, we didn’t really understand this “power” we had inherited with our bodies, with being born female. We, too, felt set adrift—without anchor or direction, our bodies like rafts floating on some vast sea in which we were told lurked all species of danger. Somewhere on this sea there was safety, an island paradise called marriage. All we knew was we had to get there, and in one piece. Not broken. Not damaged. But we were provided no oars, no compass. Sure, we were given “direction,” of a sort, but it was like being handed a map to use on an ocean with no landmarks. Our school counselors and health teachers talked to us all the time about how to “just say no,” and our fathers guarded our virtue like border police. Then, too, there were the sermons. Church elders constantly lectured us about what to do with male desire should it ever present itself in a tangible way: run. Our bodies did not belong to us, but to our fathers on earth and our father in heaven; one day, if we were lucky, they’d belong to our husbands. Our bodies were temples, they told us. But temples need worshippers, or else they’re just empty buildings.
There were plenty of worshippers at church. The churches to which we belonged were of the evangelical brand, notable for their populations of zealous converts who’d led sad and seamy lives before being lit on fire by Jesus. In one church, our youth group leaders were two handsome young men both of whom had been male strippers. In fact, our pastor had been a pimp, his wife a prostitute about whom he told stories of beating before he found his way to the Lord. Their wives were dour-faced women, saddled by arms full of infants and diaper bags and clung to by toddlers with sticky fingers; they scowled at us when we ran up to hug their husbands after service. We ignored them. Those hugs were soft, and warm, their husbands’ beards scratching our cheeks, musky cologne pressing into our noses and lungs. Every Sunday I looked forward to the five minutes the pastor would take from the sermon so we might greet and hug those in adjacent pews. Jenna and I positioned ourselves strategically so we’d be sitting directly beside, in front of, or behind the boys or men we most liked to hug. “You give such nice hugs,” I remember one growling in my ear as he pulled me into an embrace; something inside me clenched with pleasure. All of this, of course, under and approved by my father’s watchful eyes.
In another church, our youth ministers were recovering alcoholics who would talk to us about why we should wait for marriage to have sex and tell us how hard it would be since many men would, of course, want us so badly. They’d refer vaguely but wistfully to the girls they had “ruined” before their conversion. After group prayer, we teens would play capture the flag in the parking lot, while our illustrious leaders would guard the bases, keeping us warm when we arrived there by hugging us to them or rubbing our hands between their palms. One of them was enraptured with a fourteen-year-old friend of mine whom he nicknamed “Face” because, he said, she was so pretty. It hurt my feelings that he only called me “Red,” tribute to the much-maligned color of my hair and decidedly not my beauty. “Too bad I’m too old for you,” he’d tell my friend, hugging her to him, or, he’d wink, lift her chin up to his face, cluck approvingly, “Trouble. Trouble. Trouble.” Eventually, he started dating a woman in the choir and shortly thereafter began to ignore us; when he resigned from youth group, we felt betrayed and whispered loudly about his new wife’s snaggle-toothed smile and pointy chin when she passed us in the pews. We were certain she had cast some spell on him, forced him to abandon us.
There were also the men who’d show up for the first time on a Sunday morning, sit behind us in the pews, and afterwards ask if they could call. We’d give them our numbers, knowing they’d never get past our dads who would ask them how old they were. Once, but only once, Jenna called one of them up herself and he showed up at our house on a Saturday while my parents were out shopping. She was thirteen, he twenty-eight. I wouldn’t let him into the house, so Jenna met him on the porch instead. I watched them through the blinds as they kissed. It was the kind of kissing inexperienced kissers do, tongues battling in the hollow of wide and motionless mouths. Jenna came back inside, flushed. “He said I was jail-bait,” she confided. “What does that mean?” I didn’t know.
I was fifteen when I French-kissed for the first time. It happened while watching Road House in a movie theater with a nineteen-year-old named Eric. My friend Sandy, who my mother complained was “fast,” had set me up with him; I’d met Sandy at church and Eric was her ex. They’d already had sex. I was supposed to be at a sleepover at Sandy’s, but instead I’d let Eric pick me from her house and take me on a date. He kissed me as soon as the lights went out in the theater, pressing me against the hard-backed seat and spilling my popcorn onto the sticky floor. He tasted like cigarettes and beer, though I didn’t know it at the time. The second time I snuck out with Eric, we made out in the back of his mother’s car during a Fourth of July party. We stretched out on the backseat while Boys to Men played on the radio, but I wouldn’t let him slip his hands up my shirt or beneath the waistband of my shorts. It was hot inside the car and he was frustrated, so after awhile we went back to the party and he disappeared into the crowd, leaving me alone to wander the yard among strangers. Everyone was drunk; his mother offered me a Budweiser, and I carried it around, not drinking it, letting it sweat in my palm. I retreated inside, where dirty dishes were piled on the counter and the carpet smelled of dogs; upstairs the toilet was stained brown with rust. In the bathroom mirror I practiced my smile. It felt quivery and loose, like it might slide off. I called Sandy from the phone in the kitchen and her mom picked me up. I told her my stomach hurt.
Eric didn’t call me after that, although I did see him one more time. It was in a McDonald’s after I’d been canoeing with the youth group. I had fallen in the water; my clothes were dirty, my hair scraggly, and my make-up melted in rivulets down my cheeks. I had just paid for my milkshake when I turned around to see Eric. He nodded at me and I rushed past him, embarrassed by my Alice Cooper appearance. Later, referring to my appearance, he told Sandy that he had dodged a bullet. Eric was a high-school drop out and an alcoholic. His tongue had felt thick and dry in my mouth, his fingers calloused. I was an honors student and, except for my brief flirtation with lying to my parents about my whereabouts, morally irreproachable. But his assessment of my worth was all that mattered.
What was “real” anyway, I reasoned. What was identity? Isn’t identity unstable? Always shifting? Isn’t that how we decenter power? I used my courses in feminism and philosophy to rationalize the fact that there wasn’t really any “me” to begin with. “I” was a series of constructs, an assemblage of parts I could compartmentalize, rearrange, brush on and, just as easily, strip away.
If I had been careful before about making sure to put my face on before I went in public, I now became a zealot. With boyfriends in college, I woke up early to sneak into the bathroom to reapply whatever makeup had worn off overnight. I bought only waterproof makeup in the summer and didn’t go under the water lest what wasn’t waterproof wash off. If a man didn’t desire me, I read it as a sign that I needed to procure whatever lure would bait him. Perhaps my hair needed to be less red. Or more. Perhaps my green eyes should be blue. Or purple. Or turquoise (a smitten eye doctor supplied me with six months supply of colored lenses for free). For many years I was convinced it was my pale skin and freckles (a suspicion initiated by a fellow student’s remark in high school that I would be “even more hot” with a tan). When I suffered one too many sunburns trying to tan my tender Scotch-Irish skin, I switched to lotions and sprays which left me orange—but which was better than pale. For a time, I wore pantyhose under shorts because I was so embarrassed by my pasty legs. One night, I looked in the mirror and realized that everything about me was fake—bleached hair, colored contacts, painted lips, acrylic nails, spray-tanned skin, adhesive eyelashes, waist-cinching corset, padded bra, platform heels. I was a fraud. False-advertising.
But by then I was taking classes in poststructuralist theory. What was “real” anyway, I reasoned. What was identity? Isn’t identity unstable? Always shifting? Isn’t that how we decenter power? I used my courses in feminism and philosophy to rationalize the fact that there wasn’t really any “me” to begin with. “I” was a series of constructs, an assemblage of parts I could compartmentalize, rearrange, brush on and, just as easily, strip away. I was a Colorform paper doll. Mrs. Potato Head. An Etch A Sketch. Shake and start over. This man liked a woman who wore baseball caps and big hoop earrings; I went shopping. This one wanted a woman to take home to Mom; I went to church. Another had a thing for Claudia Schiffer; I bleached my hair and bought big rollers. This one was into athletes; I joined a gym. Sometimes when my girlfriends and I went to bars in El Paso where we meet college boys from UTEP or GIs stationed at the nearby military base, I’d even make up a new persona. I was Savannah. Or Callie. Or Elena. I was a medical student. Or a dancer. Or a runaway. I had no scruples about lying. After all, I knew they weren’t really interested in me; an Elena was as good as a Savannah or an Elizabeth. I was all surface. Smoke and mirrors, I’d joke.
How tenuous a hold women have on the power they believe they possess. When I was seventeen and still living at home, I pulled a book from my parents’ bookshelf. It was about marriage and was written by a Christian woman. My parents were evangelicals then and most of our reading material involved how to be better servants of God. This book had a foreword written by the woman’s husband. I remember reading something to this effect: “My wife is a beautiful woman. Still, how hard it must be on her to know that every ten years, a new decade’s worth of young men no longer find her desirable.” What hooked my seventeen-year-old brain was the instability of power—that at some point, no orange tackle box could save her. I hadn’t considered this before. It was like suddenly realizing there was fine print in a contract I had already signed. I remember looking into the mirror and thinking about what my mother’s friends would say to me when they’d come to coffee—things like, “Oh, to have that body again!” Or, “Oh, how time flies. Enjoy that face of yours now!” What were they talking about? Would men really stop desiring them? Up to this point, getting older had meant only that I would get prettier. I’d grow boobs. I’d be able to wear makeup. I had never before thought of getting older as being bad. Suddenly I realized that I was sailing toward a horizon on a world that was not round, but flat. And there wasn’t a damn thing I could do but brace for the fall.
This knowledge made the performance I was giving all the more important. I began to really feel the pressure as I was finishing college. Although an honors student with plans for graduate school, I was convinced that I was running out of time to accomplish the most important goal: marriage. My mother had been engaged three times before her senior year of school. My cousins and many of my friends from high school were already planning their weddings. “Some women never get married,” an older cousin consoled me when I showed up, date-less, to Thanksgiving dinner. “It’s okay,” she patted my arm, unconvincingly. At the time I was dating a med student, but tradition instructed me that the man, not the woman, gets to propose. After three years together, he still wasn’t proposing and was making plans to move elsewhere for his residency. “Of course he hasn’t proposed. Why buy the cow if he’s getting the milk for free?” my father intoned. “But I’m not a cow!” I protested.
One night I went to dinner with my roommate and her parents. Over drinks her mother laughingly told us about how she got her husband to propose: “I spray-painted the window of his car with the words, ‘Shit or get off the pot!’” I cringed at the metaphor. But I got it. Soon after, I told my boyfriend, blankly: “I’m twenty-three. I’m not going to look like this forever. Either you ask me to marry you, or I need to go out and use what I’ve got now to find someone who will.”
No surprise that we broke up soon after. So I went to grad school. I finished graduate school ten years ago and have been teaching gender studies classes at a community college for almost as long. The conversation hasn’t evolved much. My students read and discuss poems by feminist poets like Anne Sexton and Adrienne Rich and Kim Addonizio. I lead them in discussions about the traps of a media-driven society obsessed with an unrealistic feminine ideal. We mourn for young girls growing up under the guidance of shows like Toddlers and Tiaras, and Extreme Makeover. We reminisce about our mothers’ beauty routines and the suitcases of Barbie dolls we kept under our beds. We admit to each other our obsession with the mirror, our dieting woes. We shake our heads and cluck our tongues at sexism masquerading as girl-power in popular songs like “Put a Ring on It,” and “All About That Bass.” They are comforted to know that their professor, long-steeped in feminist theory, still battles with her own vexed position in regard to beauty and desire. I, in turn, feel guilty for allowing them that comfort, which I worry confirms for them that there is no way out of the [tackle] box and therefore no reason to seek, much less attempt, escape.
Last year I turned forty. In our culture, this means I have officially entered the point of no return, crossed over into the no-woman’s-land of middle age and its menagerie of cougars and crones, am preparing to fall off the edge of the world. Woman overboard, my body parts sagging, shrinking, sinking. Here, then, is the whirling sea of my life: my ex-husband dating a woman seventeen years his junior; my father engaged to a woman who just turned fifty; my mother choosing an aquarium of brightly colored fish instead of a husband. I myself am remarried, this time not foolish enough to imagine marriage as a destination. If I’m on a raft, my husband’s on it too, both our hands in the water paddling. I take my face off before I get in bed. I trust him to love me—faceless and bare, hooked and gutted.
Still, there are nights when my husband falls asleep before me, and I close the door to our bathroom, stare into the mirror, push my disloyal skin back and up, beseech it to stay and not sag. When it refuses, I reach for the vials that line my shelves, for their promises of youth and beauty and perpetual power. As if from over a hill I hear Botox and Juvederm and their minions calling, like Christina Rossetti’s 19th century goblin men: “Come buy, Come buy.”
They sound so kind, and full of love.
Elizabeth Johnston has been telling stories since middle school, when she found (like Scheherezade) that a good story can distract bullies.Her poetry has appeared in a variety of literary magazines and collections and been nominated for Pushcart and “Best of the Net” prizes. You can read her most recent poems in New Verse News, Mom Egg Review, NonBinary Review, The Luminary, Rose Red Review, Carbon Culture, and Cahoodaloodaling. While primarily a poet, she also tells stories in other genres, as evidenced by “Tackle Box” and a number of scholarly essays on gender. Her co-authored play, FourPlay, was featured at the 2014 Rochester Fringe Festival and received honorable mention in Cahoodaloodaling’s 2014 In Cahoots Collaboration Contest, and her play, “Cinderella Snubs a Hand Out” will appear in Cahoodaloodaling’s summer 2015 issue. Elizabeth is a founding member of the award-winning writer’s group, Straw Mat. She makes her home in Rochester, NY, where she enjoys the messiness of life with her partner, Brian, her daughters, Ava and Christina, and a menagerie of unruly pets.
Allison Joseph is the author of six poetry books: What Keeps Us Here (Ampersand, 1992), Soul Train (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 1997), In Every Seam (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997), Imitation of Life (Carnegie Mellon, 2003), Worldly Pleasures (WordTech Communications, 2004), Voice: Poems (Mayapple Press, 2009), and My Father’s Kites: Poems (Steel Toe Books, 2010).
Joseph teaches at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois, where she helped found Crab Orchard Review, a literary journal, and the Young Writers Workshop, a coed residential summer program for teen writers.
In 2012, she won the George Garrett Award for Outstanding Community Service in Literature from the Association of Writers and Writing Programs.
Born in London, England to Caribbean Parents, Joseph grew up in Toronto, Canada and the Bronx, New York. Joseph is a graduate of Kenyon College, and earned her MFA from Indiana University. She resides in Carbondale, Illinois, with her husband Jon Tribble.
Kiandra Jimenez interviewed Joseph by email.
Kiandra Jimenez: As a black woman writer, I am deeply interested in the intersection of culture, history, personal narrative in writing that speaks of and to the black woman’s experience. In my own writing, I strive to incorporate a wide breath of experience that has space for myself, as well as the community I write from. In my own studies I’ve found the language to describe this process, this act—Karla Holloway describes it as “texts that are at once emblematic of the culture they describe as well as interpretive of this culture,” and Sonia Sanchez has stated, “I write to tell the truth about the black condition as I see it. Therefore, I write to offer a black woman’s view of the world.” The late Barbara Christian stated black women’s literary works are the “counterparts of their communities’ oral traditions.”
In your poetry, there is a strong narrative, cultural-historic experience that seems to be born from the tradition Holloway, Sanchez, and Christian spoke of, can you speak to your personal writing impulses, and also how your work engages with the black woman’s experience? Personally, I am deeply aware that I write as participant, observer, and recorder and I wonder if this is something you consider when you pen your poems?
Allison Joseph: Yes, I write to be recorder, observer, participant, and sometimes, even judge. I want to engage the world as I see it with my whole self—all of those different aspects of it. I need sometimes to hang back in the shadows with my pen and paper, and then other times, I need to take center stage in my own creations. The trick is to know when to hang back, and when to step forward. It’s a perpetual ongoing balance.
KJ: Your poems speak to my childhood, in fact, a number of them mirror my experiences growing up as a black girl in South Central Los Angeles, but what I find most intriguing and inspiring in your poetry is your ability to capture the human experience so that your work strikes a chord with readers regardless of race. As I’ve gone about penning poems, writing in general, I strive to include “universal themes,” and I wonder if this is something you consider when penning your poems.
AJ: Thanks so much. I consider that a great compliment. It’s one of the most rewarding aspects of poetry. In terms of what I write about, I consider no subject too small. Often it’s the small moments, that through the amplification of poetry, reveal the larger, more profound truths that we all come to recognize and treasure.
KJ: In a previous interview with Blackbird Journal (2005), you stated that you were a “slow thinker” when it comes to responding immediately to historical events, you also spoke about layering history, personal, and cultural truths into your works. Can you share your process of negotiating these layers into your work? How deliberate are you when you work, or is this layering process natural? I imagine part of what you meant when stating you are a “slow thinker” is that part of your writing and thinking process is layering these truths. In light of the recent, national unrest we’ve witnessed in reaction to the many young, black male lives we’ve lost unnecessarily, I wonder has your process changed? Have you attempted to pen poems in reaction, and if so, has your process remained slow, methodical?
AJ: I think that layering process is natural, a part of poetry itself. Poetry is such an ancient art, and I consider myself young within that art. I find it hard to write poems in reaction to world/national events unless there’s a way in that’s so evident to me that I can’t deny the urge to write about such events. It takes me a while to gather the evidence, you know?
KJ: You’ve shared the impact studying under Yusef Komunyaaka had on you as a young poet, particularly with embracing and including your culture into your writing. Was this a struggle for you early on—and if is so, how did you overcome it? And to add, how do you advise young poets find their path in balancing culture, personal history, and universal themes?
AJ: It was more fear than anything else. Young poets worry that their experiences—whether urban or rural, immigrant or native, small town, suburb, or big city—aren’t worthy of the written word. But for me the urge toward poetry, that seductive feeling of being swept away by words, was enough for me to overcome that fear that my experiences weren’t worthy of poetry itself.
KJ: In My Father’s Kites, your poem “A Daughter’s Villanelle,” defiantly states, when referring to your father’s life, “I write about your life because I can,” and also states, “If you could read these words, I’m sure you’d damn / me write to hell for everything I said.” In the poem, “Absence Without Leave,” you write, “I lived a life I knew I had to hide / my father’s edicts resolutely grim,” can you speak to how you overcame your father’s edicts, and found the space within yourself to defiantly write about his life?
AJ: Only after his death could I speak my own individual truths about him. In a sense, I had to turn him into a character, a figure I could control through language. That’s why so many of the poems in that book are formal—those forms gave me a way to control/confront the “character” of my father as presented in the book. Part of elegy is confrontation—not just with the idea of death, but with the person who has died. For me, I needed formal tools to achieve that confrontation.
KJ: One of the things I find most inspiring about My Father’s Kites, is your ability to accomplish a number of important things—first, you are wholly authentic on the page, which allows us an intimacy that provides a complex, loving portrayal of your father. In the collection you fully humanize him by showing his harsher sides, but also, you show us the gentle sides of your father. The result is a deeply intimate meditation on your complicated relationship with your father. How did you create space for the love and pain, and straddle the line between capturing what was tender, but also harsh of your father?
AJ: It took a while—the poems were born out of the impulse toward elegy I mentioned earlier. It was a project that began in grief. But in the course of writing individual poems, I realized there was a story I needed to put together, to shape like a fiction writer does. Then I put it away for a long time. I needed not to see it, and give it time for it to become less emotionally charged. It was only when I saw that Steel Toe Books was looking for manuscripts by writers of color did I engage with it again.
KJ: Your poetry has a wonderful narrative quality, with poems as well as entire book collections having a full story arc. In particular, I’m thinking about In Every Seam, and how you take readers from your childhood to your marriage. Is story arc something you aim for in every poem, collection?
AJ: Not always, but arcs are a way of helping the reader to manage the particular poetic territory you are working with. Some of my chapbooks don’t really have an arc per se, more of an overall mood in those shorter collections.
KJ: In your poetry book, In Every Seam, you speak directly to your experience at Kenyon College as an undergrad, in particular, the poems, “Higher Education,” and “Academic Instructions” confront the racism you encountered, and the position of “teaching, educating, explaining,” you found yourself in. I’m interested in how your feelings about your experience has evolved, or not, now that you teach. In what ways did your experience at Kenyon College shape the professor you are today, and the great work you’ve done in creating the Young Writers Workshop for High School students at Southern Illinois University of Carbondale?
AJ: My experience at Kenyon was a rough one—I was one of three black students in that year’s freshman class. I was acutely aware of being other, of being a black person in the midst of a place where the black experience was rarely part of the curriculum. I’m glad to say it’s much better there now.
KJ: Can you describe your writing process, practice.
AJ: I write when I can. I have no set writing practices, or times, or methods. I write when I’m not doing other things—in the odd times when I’m traveling, or in hotels, or when I get time to be alone with my thoughts.
KJ: What are you currently working on?
AJ: My next chapbook, Little Epiphanies, is due soon from Imaginary Friend Press. I’m working the last few edits on that one.
KJ: What poets, writers have greatly influenced your work, and how?
AJ: Gwendolyn Brooks, Dorothy Parker, my teachers from graduate school—especially Yusef and Maura Stanton, Robert Hayden, James Wright, Sylvia Plath.
KJ: What are you currently reading?
AJ: I’m educating myself more about world poetry. I know a lot about contemporary American poetry, so I felt I needed to learn more about figures like Borges, Akhmatova, Neruda, etc. I felt I needed a bigger lens to see poetry through. It really helps to see poetry as a world language, and not just something American.
KJ: I have a confession, your poem “On Sidewalks, On Street Corners, as Girls” felt lifted from my life. You sung the songs I sung with girlfriends, cousins, even with my mama, who loved “Mrs. Mary Mack,” but what stirs me deepest in this poem is the lines, “our chants heard in every / school yard, every parking lot / everywhere small dark girls / could gather to hear their voices swell.” Are your poems an effort to swell those voices, to present them again, preserve them?
AJ: Most definitely. If poets don’t preserve those moments, those voices, such moments in time are at risk of disappearing entirely. I never worry these days about whether an aspect of experience, whether it’s past or present, is too insignificant to write about. I figure if it engages my imagination, it needs—requires—preservation.
KJ: One final question, staying with “On Sidewalks…” the poem states, “We’d spend every afternoon after school / and every shred of summer daylight / riffing, scatting, improvising / unafraid to tell each other / shake it to the East / shake it to the West / shake it the one / you love the best,” do you feel your poems continues that riffing, scatting, telling those “small dark girls” to shake it, helping them to “hear their voices swell?”
AJ: I certainly hope so!
Kiandra Jimenez is a multi-genre writer, homeschooling mother, and avid organic vegetable farmer from California. She teaches creative writing at UC Riverside Extension and serves as Visual Arts Editor and staff blogger of Lunch Ticket literary journal. She is a current MFA candidate in Fiction and Poetry at Antioch University Los Angeles. Her current work can be found in Orangelandia: The Literature of Inland Citrus and Winged: New Writing On Bees. Kiandra recently finished her first poetry book, Seeds Spent Plants Sow. Visit her at kiandrajimenez.squarespace.com
My brain is starting to unravel. It’s gone bad. I can feel everything loosen up, softening, rippling under the inverted moonlight of my eyes. It’s really gone bad.
I’m starting to see the big picture now, and I’m not sure what it is—blurred candy shadows, a scorched candlewick, the skin of eggshells, a smile in the dark?
Late at night as Los Angeles purrs in its sleep, I dip my fingers into my decomposing skull. It’s soft and gooey, a non-Newtonian fluid keeping secrets I itch to uncover. I creep and dig, my fingers rummaging through the mess and I’m tired, tired of being me. So tired, exhausted, withered and disgusted with whom I’ve become. I’ve realized I am so predictable. Day to day I spend too much time wishing. Wishing I were different, wishing I had a better life, wishing I were new; an other worldly being to blow away the masses, open mouthed and drooling, wishing I were animal; peligrosa y cruda. I have spent my entire life wishing.
When I was a child, my brother and I used to go to work with our mother. We were the housekeeper’s kids. Come to raid the fridge, devour cable TV, swim in the pool—our underwear our swimsuits—and play with the dogs and cats. It was another world to be consumed, set ablaze by our wide eyes, a privilege, a dream.
We were the housekeeper’s kids; I was the housekeeper’s daughter.
Alone, I would nap in king size canopy beds and dream about my future, hoping to one day live in the homes my mother cleaned up along the curves of Benedict Canyon, Mulholland Drive, Los Feliz, Brentwood, Coldwater Canyon, Malibu. Wishing, always wishing.
I’d slide from room to room touching everything, leaving behind my fingerprints, imprinting myself onto glass paperweights, stationary bikes, unused seat cushions, bay windows, paintings I could not understand, white pristine bed sheets, photographs, flowers in the garden, mirrors and most of all the air, the lovely clean air. Imprinting, leaving behind splinters of my soul so I could come to collect when I was older.
Being the housekeeper’s daughter never bothered me. I loved it. My mother was often embarrassed, not wanting me to tell others what she did. It never bothered me, not even when she cleaned the houses of some of my best friends. Today it still doesn’t bother me, but my view of it all has altered.
My mother’s patronas used to be 99.9% perfect; refined creatures of beauty with long slender legs, graceful fingers decorated with golds and silvers, smooth skin, bellies that never growled, and little to no nalgas, which made no difference because they possessed tits that had been well cared for. I wanted it all.
Today, I no longer want what they have. It’s all the same, just different packaging.
Today, I am the housekeeper.
I slide from room to room, a snake licking the unclean air. Whispers breathe onto my scales and I know their secrets. I know when husbands no longer sleep with their wives, I know when one glass of wine has increased to two bottles of whiskey, I know when a pets passing bruises the ceilings and walls, I know when annoyance becomes deep and fractured hostility, I know when disease becomes another family member, I know when redecorating has become compulsive, I know when a child’s broken bones or explosive temper becomes another knot in the dining room table, I know when the longing for a mate dissolves beneath the bed, forever a distant dream.
It’s all the same, just different packaging.
They are my family and I don’t want any of it.
I don’t want their muck.
I don’t want to wash their tear stained pillowcases.
I don’t want to smooth their wrinkles.
I don’t want to be their secret keeper.
I don’t want to mold them new lives.
I don’t want to see them cry.
I don’t want to feel their fear.
I don’t want to smile when they lie to me, to their partners, to their children, to themselves.
I don’t want to help pick up the pieces.
I don’t want to throw out the trash.
I don’t want to scrub away the scum.
I don’t want to dust away the memories.
I don’t want to be their treasurer, retaining their troubles.
It’s all the same, just different packaging.
I want my own life.
I want me.
I want my future.
I want I want I want.
I want eternity to figure out what I want.
But tomorrow I will be their treasurer, their secret keeper.
They are my family; I breathe their air.
I am no longer the housekeeper’s daughter. I am the housekeeper.
Tomorrow I will keep wishing, as I always have, little girl or not.
A Los Angeles native, A. R. Castellanos writes poetry, fiction, and memoir that draw upon her vibrant and tenacious ancestral heritage in Guatemala and California. Her conjured worlds encompass feral spirits, otherworldly legends, and the disconcerting realities of domestic workers in Hollywood celebrity homes. Her work has appeared in Drunken Boat, Chaparral, and Duende, among others. Aside from writing, Castellanos loves watching movies over and over again with her dog Nola, a rare breed of wolf-bear. For more please visit https://arcastellanos.
Most little girls wish for ponies on their eighth birthdays. Angelina Abercrombie, however, was not a typical little girl. She already lived in a mansion, along with a very rich father, a very beautiful mother, a chef, a maid, and her own personal cotton-candy machine. Last year she had wished for a pony, and her father had bought her three. “Three’s company,” he’d said, and Angelina had been thrilled, until a week passed and she got bored. Angelina hated being bored, so this year, she vowed she wouldn’t waste her birthday wish on something which now sat in the stable doing nothing but munching on imported hay. She wanted more. She always wanted more.
Angelina watched Paulo the chef carefully slide eight candles into the soft, spongy, pink-frosted cake. “Make sure they stand up straight,” she hissed. “That one looks a little crooked.” With trembling fingers, Paulo tilted the candle a fraction to the left. That was better. Everything had to be perfect on Angelina’s birthday. With dismay, she noticed her father was engrossed in the business section of the newspaper again. “It’s time for my birthday cake!” she yelled, causing him to drop the paper with a start. He caught his breath and boomed his loud, fake businessman laugh. Her mother smiled her beautiful smile. Paulo gave a shivery chuckle.
“Light my candles, Paulo,” Angelina instructed. “I’ve got the perfect wish thought up, and I don’t want to waste any more time waiting on it.”
“Just like a businessman,” her father nodded approvingly, turning back to the newspaper.
Paulo was having difficulty lighting the candles. Angelina huffed impatiently. “Hurry up!”
“I am sorry, Meez Angelina,” Paulo apologized, wiping a little sweat off his brow. “It’s the candles, ma’am. They are a leetle bit old and the wicks are dusty.”
Angelina sighed. She wouldn’t throw a screaming fit at Paulo, not this time. She would just roll her eyes like she imagined a good little girl would.
Finally, the candles were lit. Eight little flames waved up at her. “Make a wish, sweetie!” her mother said.
Angelina screwed her eyes up tight. She clenched her toes. She balled her hands into fists. She took a deep breath. With every last bit of energy directed at this task, she whispered, “I wish that I’ll get everything I ever wish for.” Then, with a huge gasp, she blew the candles out.
* * *
Angelina awoke early the next morning, excitement drumming through her veins. Had it worked? She closed her eyes and murmured, “I wish that it would be sunny outside.” Then, with a pounding heart, she drew back the silk drapes which covered her window. Sunlight streamed through.
It was good. But not enough. Sunlight could have been a coincidence—she needed more proof. As she stood in front of the mirror, tying her dark curls back into her usual pigtails, she whispered, “I wish that Paulo will have a stack of chocolate chip pancakes ready to eat when I come into the kitchen.” As an afterthought, she added, “With whipped cream.”
As she peered around the kitchen door, she saw Paulo in his white apron, humming happily to himself as he fiddled with a burner on the stove. She cleared her throat loudly. Paulo froze, his singing ceased.
“Good morning, Meez,” he said quickly. “I have pree-pared a deelicious breakfast for you. Chocolate cheep pancakes. Extra whipped cream.” He pointed to the kitchen table where a steaming plate of pancakes waited for her.
“Yes!” Angelina cried. Paulo stared at her bemusedly. It was on rare occasion that Angelina didn’t berate his cooking skills.
Angelina ate her fill of pancakes happily. Her mother had left the house early, so she wouldn’t be able to irritate Angelina by counting calories. Her father had left early, so he wouldn’t irritate her by constantly yelling into his cell phone. Most importantly, Angelina now had the power to get anything she wished for. What to wish for next? As she pondered this thought, the passing figure of Bobby Fliss caught her eye through the window.
Bobby Fliss was Angelina’s next-door neighbour. He was the only other student at their school who lived in a house as big as hers. He was the only boy who wouldn’t give up his Dunkaroos when she demanded them. His family rescued stray cats that meowed loudly outside Angelina’s window and set off her allergies. These three reasons were enough to consider him her mortal enemy.
She quickly grabbed her schoolbag and rushed out the door, whispering, “I wish that Bobby Fliss will do whatever I say.”
“Hello, Bobby!” she called brightly, catching up to him on the familiar path to school.
“Uh, hi, Angelina,” Bobby replied, looking confused. He was accustomed to her yelling at him for walking too slow.
“It’s a wonderful day, isn’t it?” Angelina grinned, her dark eyes shining. “Here, Bobby, carry my bag to school.” She dumped her large, heavy bookbag into his arms.
“Okay, Angelina,” Bobby said automatically.
“It’s a wonderful day, isn’t it?” Angelina grinned, her dark eyes shining.
“Tell me that I look pretty today.”
“You look pretty today, Angelina.”
“Hah,” Angelina said triumphantly. They were nearing the school. She looked with pride at the image of Bobby hauling her bookbag, and with a sudden flash of inspiration, added, “Oh, yes, Bobby, one more thing. Get rid of all those stray cats you’ve been taking in.”
Angelina clapped with delight.
* * *
The bell rang for class to start. Ms. Mortimer rose from her desk, preparing to take attendance. Angelina found attendance incredibly boring. She needed some excitement.
She needed some servants to finish her math homework and buy her candy and tell her how wonderful and smart she was. Smirking, she slid into her seat and whispered, “I wish the whole class would fall in love with me and treat me like a princess.”
Ms. Mortimer drew out the class attendance sheet. “Angelina Abercrombie?” she began in her usual dull drone. Then, her expression changed. Her eyes widened. She readjusted her glasses and stared at the attendance sheet as if she’d never seen it before.
“Angelina Abercrombie,” she repeated, in a dazed tone, a half-smile forming on her face. “Angelina Abercrombie. Students, excuse me. I am forgetting my manners. We are, of course, in the presence of greatness.” With that, she threw aside the sheet and sunk into a low bow before Angelina’s desk.
“Angelina Abercrombie,” the class repeated in awe.
“Angelina, let me help you with your homework!” a voice exclaimed from the back of the classroom.
“Angelina, please let me buy you lunch,” Mary Scott begged, nearly in tears.
“Angelina, you’re so smart!”
“Angelina, take my wallet!”
“Angelina!” “Angelina!” “Angelina!”
* * *
Angelina left school at a quarter past three. It had been a most excellent day. She had received enough offers from students volunteering to do her homework to last until the next century. As a matter of fact, she wasn’t even assigned any homework. Ms. Mortimer had dedicated the day to discussing various aspects of Angelina in admiration (a small fight had broken out between Timmy Shaw, who admired Angelina’s nose, and Louise Parkinson, who loved Angelina’s violin skills more). It had been a bit exhausting to shake off the students, but Angelina handled it like a businessman—she told the class she was stepping out for a bathroom break and left them eagerly anticipating her return.
She entered her house with a huge smile on her face. What could she wish for next? She began to ponder this as she walked to the kitchen; however, she was immediately accosted by Paulo. “Fresh chocolate cheep pancakes for you, Meez. Extra whipped cream.”
“What is this?” Angelina screeched. “Why is there a cat in my house?”
“Oh!” Angelina stopped short. Pancakes were stacked up to the ceiling—on the kitchen table, the chairs, the counter, even in the state-of-the-art microwave. Bowls of whipped cream littered the floor. “I have been working seence this morning, Meez,” Paulo gasped, looking exhausted. He then turned back to the stove, pouring yet another spoonful of batter onto the griddle.
Recovering from this shock, Angelina began to laugh. Another wish could sort this out. Perhaps she would just have a bite of one pancake before she—
Angelina’s spine immediately stiffened. She looked towards the source of the noise. A scrawny-looking cat was in her kitchen, eagerly lapping up a bowl of whipped cream.
“What is this?” Angelina screeched. “Why is there a cat in my house?”
“Angelina!” A breathless Bobby Fliss had burst through her front door, a cat squirming under each arm. Two more were at his feet. “I had to get rid of my cats, and I thought, why not give them to you! As a present, to show my love for you!”
“No!” Angelina could already feel her eyes watering and her throat tickling. “I didn’t mean that you should—” She broke off in a coughing spasm as the cats raced past her. “Paulo! Get rid of them!” she croaked out.
“I cannot, Meez,” Paulo said tiredly. “Must make more pancakes.” He heaved a great sigh and placed another batch in the kitchen sink. Another cat raced by Angelina’s feet.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” Angelina cried. “Fine. I wish that the—”
“There she is! We found her!”
Angelina’s eyes were burning. She thought, in her allergy-induced haze, that she saw a mob of people running up her driveway. Groaning, she began to rub her face, trying to remove the sticky feeling from her sinuses. When she blearily looked around, she realized there was no mob in her driveway. Rather, there was a mob entering her house.
“Angelina Abercrombie! Angelina Abercrombie!” She made out the image of her twenty-six classmates, struggling to get through the door, arms outstretched, maniacal smiles on their faces, chanting in unison. Alice Mellwick elbowing Brandon Thurnwood in the face to get closer, knocking over a vase in the process. Timmy Shaw somersaulting over Kyle Perkins, a bouquet of sad-looking dandelions clutched in one hand. Ms. Mortimer kicking the shins of her students with her shiny black heels, shouting, “Out of my way! I must see her first!”
Angelina wanted to scream, but her throat felt swollen. She squeaked out, “I wish that—” but Timmy Shaw had fallen at her feet, thrusting dandelions up at her, yelling, “Take them! Take them!” with saliva dripping down his chin like a hungry dog.
They were going to crush her. Their hands frantically reaching for her hair, her shoes, her face. Angelina’s eyes landed on the basement door. Fighting back a sneeze, she kicked off Timmy Shaw and ran.
Angelina had made it down the stairwell when she regained enough breath to gasp, “I wish that—ouch!” She felt one of her pigtails come loose from its neat elastic band, and turned around to see Olivia Plymouth holding a lock of her hair, grinning wildly and murmuring, “I’ve touched her! I’ve got a piece of her!” Shouts of rage followed from the rest of the class behind them. Their footsteps thudded heavily on the stairs, all clamouring to get down faster.
“No!” Angelina screamed, as red-hot panic took the place of the smogginess in her nostrils. They were going to trap her down here. She twisted away from an outstretched arm, tripped over a forgotten Barbie doll, and banged up against her own personal cotton-candy machine. It began to whir. With a whimper, Angelina whispered as fast as she could, “I wish that—”
* * *
Mr. and Mrs. Abercrombie arrived at home late that night. Mr. Abercrombie had taken an extended business meeting; Mrs. Abercrombie had taken an extended shopping day. Both felt satisfied with the day’s progress, but as they surveyed the foyer, their contentment soon faded.
“Why, there’s broken glass everywhere!” Mrs. Abercrombie exclaimed. “Mud! Blood! Cat hair! Is that…whipped cream?”
“My God,” Mr. Abercrombie said. “We’ve been robbed!”
“Don’t worry, Meezter Abercrombie,” came a feeble voice from the kitchen. “You haven’t been robbed. There was onlee a small mob in here a few hours ago.”
“Oh, good,” Mr. Abercrombie said. “Wait, what?”
“They went…” A long pause. “Into the basement.”
Mr. and Mrs. Abercrombie exchanged a confused look, and then, wordlessly, started for the stairs. Mrs. Abercrombie regarded a pile of ragged dandelions with disgust, careful to prevent her heels from touching the mushy stems. She followed her husband down the stairwell, only halting when she heard him exclaim, “What on earth?” Then, she peered over his shoulder to survey the scene.
Twenty-six students sat calmly on the ground, silhouetted by the dim light. Their clothing was tattered, hair askew, fresh cuts visible. An older woman was inspecting a run in her nylons. Mrs. Abercrombie squinted, trying to make out what was in each of their hands. With a sigh of relief, she realized they weren’t holding weapons. No, each child was happily immersed in munching on their own stick of a curiously red, perfectly spun cotton candy.
There was much debate around the PEN American Center’s decision to honor the satirical cartoon newsmagazine Charlie Hebdo with the Freedom of Expression Courage Award at its literary gala earlier this month in New York City. Critically-acclaimed writers who were scheduled as hosts declined to attend. A little over two hundred well-esteemed writers and poets signed a letter of protest against the award, including Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner, Ben Lerner, Joyce Carol Oates, and Vijay Seshadri. They detailed in their letter concerns about Charlie Hebdo’s work “valorizing selectively offensive material: material that intensifies the anti-Islamic, anti-Maghreb, anti-Arab sentiments already prevalent in the Western world.”
A debate swirled (and still swirls) from PEN’s decision: Why were these defectors of the literati wrong in taking their stance, and why were they in the right to do so? Is this an issue of promoting freedom of expression, or did Charlie Hebdo traffic in hate speech? Shouldn’t PEN be able to take a stand against violent acts on writers and artists committed by extremists, and isn’t that its mission statement? Should we all take a crash course in understanding why and how Charlie Hebdo’s satirical cartoons are made?
What the writers’ dramatic stance clarifies is the validity in speaking up and making controversial opinions known. Whether or not these literary artists were “right,” the truth is they took the opportunity of a global stage to make a statement against Islamaphobia. Was this the best opportunity to do so? That is also up for debate. But because they did take a stand, it called to attention the viable concern that Islamaphobia and prejudice against immigrants is growing, especially in the Western world.
There are challenges in reaching a well-rounded perspective on a complex issue like this. I try and avoid a knee-jerk reaction on a news or media event that “Of course they were wrong,” or, “Of course they were right.” It’s never as simple as that. Reaching a conclusive opinion often takes a little more time than scanning news articles or Facebook status updates.
Social justice is a primary component of the MFA Creative Writing program at Antioch. For me, social justice involves being connected to what’s going on in the news and media. My undergraduate degree is in News-Editorial Journalism (old-school print journalism) from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. It was my first experience in studying writing, for better and for worse. During one of my first journalism classes, I remember asking my grizzled, suspender-wearing professor, with his clean white shirt rolled up at the sleeves, if I could borrow a pen. He growled back, “Aww, what’s a reporter without a pen?” Words to take to heart.
When I studied journalism, I learned that objectivity is the apex to which you write. The more you take yourself out of the story, the better the story. (Over time, I realized that this is not the most ideal self-definition to have as a writer.) Writers and journalists are only human, and it’s inevitable they bring their own biases to a story, whether an op-ed or an investigative report. Knowing what your own personal biases are concerning an issue you’re writing about—in terms of politics, race, socio-economics, or simply the limits of your personal knowledge—has an effect on what and how you write. This also goes for critical reviews of books or other arts. It’s a dubious practice for book reviewers to just outright say “I hate it” or “I love it,” for example. Gut instinct speaks to your emotional response, but critical assessment communicates more than just an opinion, and is more useful information for a reader.
In journalism, it’s easy to become your own best skeptic about your writing (and worst enemy). For every step in reaching a well-researched and conclusive opinion, you have to ask yourself: what would be the opposing point of view here? For example, if I’m assuming that those who objected to PEN’s decision to award Charlie Hebdo were in the wrong, what tangible evidence do I have to assume I’m right? (Journalists can also never, ever assume anything—otherwise they run the risk of ending up in deep, bottom-of-the-ocean trouble, much like Sabrina Erdely for her piece on campus rape for Rolling Stone.) As a research and writing tool, it’s valuable to draw from as many reliable sources as possible to inform your personal opinion and interpretation of a topic or issue.
The value of old-school news-editorial journalism is changing. Readers bring their own set of preferences for what outlets they choose to read, follow, and listen to on a day-to-day basis. There are a wider range of perspectives available to readers than the traditional stereotype of the hard-drinking, notebook-and-pen-in-hand, white male news reporter on the beat. But media and news consumers can also get overloaded with options for where to get their “news of the day,” without synthesizing that information into decisive opinions.
Writers and media consumers alike can benefit from having some knowledge of how a journalism story is put together. The Poynter Institute is one free and online resource available for learning about journalistic writing and how to form a critical perspective, as well as constructive opinions on issues that impact the world around you.
The flashlight was out of batteries, so instead the boy filled a jar with fireflies. Outside at night they were easy to catch, their bodies afloat in the air, lighting up like tiny planes. He cupped his hands to capture them, and watched the insects beat through his skin with an orange glow. He then slid the flies into his jar, sealing it with a lid riddled with holes. As the jar began to fill, the bugs synced to a steady rhythm, shining for a moment, and resting twice as long.
When there was no more light to catch, the boy returned to his house and crept down into the cellar. The ceiling bulb in the cellar had burnt out and the boy’s father had not screwed in another one, but none of that mattered because the bugs did their job. The jar illuminated each step and the boy made his way to the cellar floor.
At the bottom, the boy placed his hand on the unfinished walls, feeling the dusty cement blocks and cobwebs. The smell of wood and dirt filled his nostrils, and he sneezed into the pit of his arm. After the sneeze, the boy heard faint scrapes, the footsteps of his small prey. The noises came from a corner and the boy inched closer, waiting until the jar gleamed to take each step.
He found the grey mouse in the corner, motionless except for tiny quivers of breath. It was no larger than a grown man’s thumb. The boy set the jar down without a sound. Now came the tricky part. He would only have a second of light. The boy bent down close to the ground and held his hands apart, ready to close in like he did with the fireflies. When the bugs burned, he came at the mouse from both angles. The mouse stutter stepped to the right, and then spun around, running to the left, just as the light faded. The mouse was quick, but the boy’s instincts prevailed. His left hand grasped the rodent’s underbelly, squeezing fur and clinging claw. As the mouse squirmed and wriggled free, the boy’s right hand swept across the darkness and put an end to the chase, clamping down hard.
Inside his palms, the mouse scratched and bit, but the boy was ready this time. He would not drop the mouse again, no matter the pain. He squeezed harder and waited for the light. The jar and the bugs responded with a flash, giving him enough time to rush to the cellar steps. From there, he stumbled his way to the top, wincing with each sting the mouse gave. Eventually, the mouse resigned and the boy felt hot liquid between his hands. His blood. Or the mouse’s urine. Or both. It didn’t matter. The boy caught a pet.
Out of the cellar, the boy raced to his room and kicked open an empty shoebox. He dropped the mouse inside and watched it scurry into the walls of the box, trying to climb out. The boy placed the lid onto the box, and then used a kitchen knife to carve holes into the top so the mouse could breathe. Afterward, he washed his hands and face before falling asleep.
In the morning, the boy awoke to the sun beaming from his blind-less window. He rubbed the sleep from his eyes and rolled off his bed. When he opened the shoebox, he found the mouse stiff and dry on its back, its eyes glazed over and mouth agape. The boy knew it was dead, but he still stared until his father yelled about catching the school bus.
The boy put the lid back on and got himself dressed. He brushed his teeth and washed his hands again. While scrubbing away at the red teeth marks embedded in his skin, the boy remembered the jar in the basement. He sprinted down the cellar to the caught fireflies. He grabbed the jar and shook. The bugs buzzed around inside the glass container. They were alive.
He took them outside and unscrewed the jar. The boy watched each and every lightning bug fly away. They flew as a giant clump at first. Then one by one they separated, scattering into the sky. The bugs looked darker in the sun, and no matter how hard the boy squinted, he could no longer see their light.
Rob Alexander is a former swimmer and swim coach from Columbus, Ohio. He currently teaches Composition and Creative Writing at the University of South Florida and is also a fiction and poetry editor at Saw Palm: Florida literature and art. His work has appeared in Columbus: Past Present and Future, Perceptions Magazine of the Arts, Pithead Chapel, White Stag, and was recently nominated for the 2015 AWP Intro Journals award for Fiction.
Snow is falling inside the house, said the boy. His voice was breathless from running.
Go. Quickly. Fetch my magic robe, said the old lady.
You promised to kill the hunter, said the boy when he returned. He gave her the robe and then his hand stole to his neck—scratch, scratch.
Let us go then, she said, and wrapped the cloak so tightly around herself that only her eyes and nose were exposed, deep inside its hood. The journey will take many hours, she said. Pack one bag, light enough to carry.
Can’t we take the car? the boy begged.
Cars can’t travel where we are going. The snow is too deep and the trail too narrow. Once we reach the city, it would be stolen anyway.
The boy sighed, for although he loved to run, he hated to walk.
Tell me again about the hunter, he said.
The hunter kills those who find him. He lives in New York City. It—
It’s a wasteland, the boy finished. Just like Sugar Mountain.
But the old lady shook her head. There is beauty on Sugar Mountain yet.
You will kill him, said the boy.
I will sneak up on him while he is sleeping. He is often sleeping.
* * *
We left at daybreak. To pass the time I told him this story. Our story. Though he is only six I did not spare him the details. It would make no difference anyway.
* * *
Cold slows it down. And here on Sugar Mountain it is always winter. On the north side there is always snow, but on the south there is enough sun to grow food most months. That is to say, a few types of weeds still push up through the frost—mutated and sour, to be sure, but we eat them: dandelion, purslane, burdock, clover. We trap the meadow mice that come for them as well, for while rank their meat is still edible, or at least it kills us no faster than we are already dying. They are surprisingly plentiful. The scientists say it is because of their short lifespan and the fact that their digestive systems are so adaptable. Despite malformations of feature and limb they even seem to be flourishing now that all their natural predators are gone, destroyed in a chain that began with the plants and ground insects and then spread to the water. In the face of such loss it seems amazing that anything survives. Thin tendrils of reason, braiding and holding on…
* * *
For so long we were led to believe the exposures were benign. The chemicals we daily ingested: pesticides, plasticizers, dyes, flame retardants, phthalates, heavy metals, aldehydes, and ketones. Powerful industries waged deceptive campaigns that led to their proliferation in our clothing, furniture, toys, on every surface we touched; we rubbed them onto our bodies ourselves though most never worked as promised. Present in such small amounts the scientists said they couldn’t hurt us. But they added up. Working separately for different sources none of the research ever accounted for how they added up.
* * *
Apocalypse is not the violent raging people imagined it would be. It is a slow dying, a drugged fall. There is much apathy, but little crime, for the rich sicken at the same rate as the poor. No one can avoid it because it is not contagious. Each of us is a black box, our individual weaknesses hidden within. Still we all succumb, the rising toxicity awaking something in each of us: neurological disorders, endocrine disruptions, dermatological diseases, respiratory dysfunctions, fetal abnormalities, cancers.
* * *
I can hardly walk, the cold wind sweeping across this mountain path hurts so. I keep my face hidden in my robe so my pain doesn’t show. My son goes first, carrying the baby, doing the hard work of breaking trail through knee-deep snow, taking small careful steps he knows I can follow. Mine is an endocrine disruption. I’ve aged twenty years in the six since he was born. I rarely sleep; my mind races. I am not yet forty but I look like an old woman, and my body is extremely fragile. My muscles tear, my bones break, I am highly susceptible to cold, and I seem to be allergic to snow; my skin cracks and splits everywhere it touches me. They say no two people have the exact same reaction. Apparently every body projects its own version of a fight or flight response when faced with all-pervasive contamination.
* * *
Tell me again, my son says, why you came to Sugar Mountain.
Long ago, I say, your father and I thought we could escape. But I stayed for you, and for your sister too.
On Sugar Mountain we still go through the motions. We send our kids to school. We work. I shelve books at the local library; my husband taught art at the local college. We help each other when we can, and no one ever leaves. There are other towns farther south; there’s still a government and an internet, but they aren’t places most people want to be, filled as they are with all the rage and hate and blame that comes from being blindsided.
People still have babies too, those that aren’t dead coming out or aborted for severe defects. But by age six on Sugar Mountain they’re all sick, and it happens earlier the farther south you go. Some say an immunity will build over time. It’s kind of like a religion. Because there aren’t many scientists working on the problem anymore. They’re too busy trying to get rich people to Mars.
I wonder what will grow on Mars, my son says.
People still have babies too, those that aren’t dead coming out or aborted for severe defects. But by age six on Sugar Mountain they’re all sick, and it happens earlier the farther south you go. Some say an immunity will build over time. It’s kind of like a religion. Because there aren’t many scientists working on the problem anymore. They’re too busy trying to get rich people to Mars.
I tell him about an article I read many years ago, about a thousand-year-old cherry stone. They sent it into space for a year, and when it came back they planted it to see what would happen. No cherry stone from this old tree had ever grown before, but this one did. But it bloomed years before it should have, and all the flowers were a completely different shape.
* * *
Coming down Sugar Mountain is like coming into spring. The sun grows stronger and the snow melts. Here and there mordant buds appear among the field stones, strongly pushing, childlike, innocent of their own ugliness. Fungi emerge where the ground is seeping, mere shells already, and puff a rancid powder when you step on them. Dead trees follow the slope like pointed fingers, laying blame. A few still stand, leafless, barkless, but they too are dead and therefore dangerous. Beneath those fallen there is a subtle greening. These are baby trees, the dormant seeds of aspen and birch and evergreen suddenly sprung between the damp earth and the heat of the sun. They’ll be dead in days from poisons ingested side by side with the nutrients of their ancestors’ decay, but right now they shimmer with life. It’s a good place to rest a while.
Run, I tell my son, run and we’ll sit here on this rock and watch you.
Okay! he says, a child still, despite everything. One hand steals under his shirt—scratch, scratch—and then off he goes, arms pumping, legs blurring as his feet scatter mud and stones. My daughter squeals and wriggles with joy, a mirror image of him.
* * *
My son wasn’t supposed to live. I lost my husband because of it, my lover, my soul mate. He couldn’t bear the thought of killing a child, even as I couldn’t bear the thought of bringing one into this world, not knowing what manner of monstrosity it might be. And yet once my husband was gone I found I couldn’t bear to be alone. So I let my son live.
And now I’m going to watch him die.
* * *
My son loves to run. He barely crawled before he was walking and within days of that he was running. He’s the fastest living thing on Sugar Mountain. Every day after school he runs home so fast he’s almost flying, his feet barely touching the snow-packed trails. The first time he arrived with a red splotch on his face I held out hope it was a heat rash. Heart in my throat, I drew an X on his arm with the closed cap of a ball point pen. But within minutes a new rash arose there.
A certain proportion of the population has become dermatologically hypersensitive. They don’t know what sets it off, the touch of plastic or sun-warmed dirt, something encountered innocuously a million times before, but once it starts it doesn’t stop. It fades from one place only to reappear in another. At first there are days between outbreaks, but within weeks it is rising much more frequently. And it itches terribly. You can always tell who they are because of the grimaces. The hands in their clothing, digging, jerking. Eventually it grows uncontrollable. This is the worst of the diseases, I think, because it doesn’t actually kill you. You die slowly of a torture like too much knowledge, watching everyone else die first.
* * *
There’s a medicine, my son told me yesterday. The other boys said so.
And it is true, I have heard of it too, a cocktail of pills: one for blood pressure, one for pain, another a steroid, and the fourth an antihistamine, somehow all working together to control the terrible itch. But it is addictive, and you can only find it in New York City, and even then few people have access to it.
They were doctors first, and then pharmacists, but now they can be anybody. We call them hunters because if they don’t have it they will find it for you. It is best not to ask them where or how. Most are addicted to something themselves. And when they give you what you want they take what’s most important to you.
The hunter we are going to find, I know he can get the medicine my son needs. But I also know he won’t give it to me willingly. I think he will even try to kill me.
That’s why I have to kill him first.
* * *
My daughter nurses as I watch my son run. Already he is slowing, desperate to scratch, first his leg and then his side, his movements no longer fluid but staccato. My love for my children tugs on me like spring itself. It is powerful and involuntary. They are the only things that matter now, and it seems to me that their lives are flowing by just like my milk. They suck and wait, suck and wait, and then life gushes over them, thin and choking, too soon fading to a rich trickle, and then it’s gone.
For this reason some choose to suffer. Some take anything they can get their hands on as long as it dulls the fear and then spend the rest of their lives already dead.
When your child is in pain your whole perspective changes.
* * *
We reach the flatland. The earth is slumped and brown, but the heat feels wonderful to me, even as the shiver in my bones intensifies. I must stop to rest more often now.
* * *
They say there are medicines to match every sickness. Combinations of drugs that can cure any symptom. But they kill you. In the body’s weakened state, it cannot process them. The people who take these medicines will die of heart attacks and strokes, liver and kidney failure, many years earlier than they would otherwise.
For this reason some choose to suffer. Some take anything they can get their hands on as long as it dulls the fear and then spend the rest of their lives already dead.
But most of us simply can’t get the medicine we need. Up on Sugar Mountain the drugs were used up long ago, and few of us are willing or able to risk the journey down to New York City.
* * *
I had an affair with a dead man. It was beautiful despite his delusions, or maybe because of them. It wasn’t love but it had that deep ache that sex near death can bring. He came to Sugar Mountain with seven Adderall left and when they were finished he started walking north again. He left me with my daughter in my womb.
* * *
The sun is now intensely hot; the land is black and blazing.
I feel colder than I’ve ever felt before. I stay huddled in my robe but I have stripped my baby bare. Her skin is flawless still.
I know I’m taking days, months, even years from her. It’s all a matter of calculation. Of balance. One of hers for one of his.
* * *
We pick our way through the rubble of the outer boroughs. It is an obstacle course of thrusting concrete and metal. Ahead Co-op City strobes in the super-heated air, a prism of noxious elements. My husband is in there somewhere, unaware that a boy in deep need of him is approaching, a boy who is the spitting image of him.
I thought he’d come back. And then after a while I heard he’d become a hunter. I heard he was taking his medicines himself, and not only the ones he needs. I heard he painted the dying people, the dead landscape, this physical record-keeping his strange obsession. The person who told me was from Sugar Mountain. Cancer attacked her uterus while she was pregnant. She went down to New York City in search of a medicine, any medicine that might save the baby. She found the hunter but didn’t save her baby and now she’s dead too.
* * *
My son knows the medicine will kill him, even as he knows it will cure his itch.
You have to choose, I told him, a life intense but short or long but painful, and he chose short—of course he did—because he loves to run. In the depths of his pain time has no meaning as a length, only as a moment, and my son wants everything from each moment.
My husband always saw time as something to be eked out, preserved, until our genes adapted and our babies began to survive.
If, I said.
What else is there, he said. You and I already know we are going to die.
* * *
We are so close. The dust is choking. The air stinks and burns. My baby wheezes; my son coughs, scratching frantically with both hands. We climb the stairs, one flight, two, ten. It is a long time with many rests before we reach the twentieth floor.
The hunter’s door is open. I am afraid he is gone until I see him. He is lying on the floor. He is very sick, I see at once, drenched in sweat and sleeping, or maybe unconscious. And yet in his dim repose he looks exactly the same as he always did to me, and I have to tear my eyes away.
Quickly, I say in a firm voice, trying to dispel my own feelings of weakness and need. We begin to search. We seek his cache. The room is tiny but full of things. Every surface is covered with tubes and brushes. Stacks of paintings are pushed up against the walls.
Still I think I will recognize his hiding place, and I am right. It doesn’t take long: The Birds of America, lying at the bottom of a pile of other books. Inside it, the fine hand-colored prints have all been carefully removed. A thin homemade box has been glued between the two covers instead. It is filled with tiny bags, each rolled and labeled in my husband’s neat hand. I run my fingers over them, lingering despite myself.
But when I find the right one, it reads like an incantation. Memory’s spell is broken. I hand it to my son. He tries to open it, but his own hands won’t obey; they keep stealing away to his hair, his cheek, his back.
As I move to help him, I hear a noise, and slowly turn, full of dread and already reaching for the knife I have sewn into my robe.
* * *
The hunter’s eyes are open now. They stare at my son.
Once, twice, he tries to sit up, scrabbling with feeble hands. Eventually he gives up, sinks back. They are yours, he says.
My son nods. He has finally gotten the bag open. He shakes a pill into his mouth. He chews, swallows, scratches. Waits. He stares at his father, and his father stares back.
When my son’s hands come out of his clothes, my husband’s eyes close.
I am the hunter now, says my son.
Katherine Forbes Riley’s work has or will appear in Whiskey Island, Eunoia Review, Literary Orphans, Eclectica, BlazeVOX, McNeese Review, Akashic Books, and Buffalo Almanack, from whom she received the Inkslinger’s Award. With a BA from Dartmouth College and a PhD in linguistics from the University of Pennsylvania, her work also appears in many academic journals and conference proceedings.
Now what if
Now what if it were
like in a real mystery
where the guilty parties would not be sought out
where the strongest suspicion fell
but a place no one had thought of
and yet obvious to people with hindsight
Now what if the ringleaders
were only ringleaders in their own
and all others’ imagination
Now what if “the big fish”
when it came down to it only were
small fry, trash fish, bait?
Now what if those places
where all evidence points:
arms cartels narcotics syndicates
various banks and governments
exile- and neo-nazi
crypto-this and -that
only were small misleading glimpses
from outside the visible tip
of an iceberg of unknown dimensions
This would not exempt them from complicity
but now what if it were
like in a real mystery
that the obvious ringleaders only were
front men for an extensive
network of real ringleaders
Now what if the real ringleaders
turned out to look like the victims
felt like victims
Now what if the ringleaders were the victims
honest workers and unemployed
jovial truck drivers
people at factories and offices
people out on the ocean
people in mines or hospitals
people that never would do
harm to anyone
now what if these guilty parties
were perfectly ordinary people
who haven’t done anything
who can’t do anything about it
for example people
like you and me
Now what if it were
like in a real mystery
and in the end we were found out
How would we react
and how would we be punished
for something we didn’t do
and how would we be forgiven
because we didn’t know what we were doing
when we didn’t even do it
Anyway it isn’t
a real mystery
because who would ever
find us out?
Someplace in Europe
Stillness woven together with little sounds
wind through branches
a distant bird
a faraway train
or the ocean
little sounds the size of
Laundry is taken down from the line
the woman with clothespins between her lips
seems to want to say something
but she goes into her house
to have someone to say it to
A single airplane high up
howling of dogs
and with a bit of patience
sooner or later you get to hear laughter
a couple of children’s voices
maybe one that bursts into song
it would seem natural here
But rarely screams
or grenade explosions
where would they come from
Children are playing
and they look both ways
before crossing the street
scented with the cooking from the houses
a man comes riding a bicycle
another one comes driving a small car
honk honk says the car
ding ding says the bicycle
the driver has a cigarette in his mouth
the bicyclist does not
they nod to one another
and continue on their separate ways
none of them get hit by gunshots
where would the gunshots even come from
People can disagree
once in a while it even comes to blows
but for the time being let’s go home for dinner
And the stillness blends with the darkness
a deeper fuller tone
except for a meticulous crackling
perhaps from an insect
or steps in gravel
or a constellation
that is shuddering slightly
Before long you don’t know
whether what you’re hearing
are the little sounds of the ocean far away
or your own smaller inner ocean
breaking on the coast of your temples
It must have been as peaceful as this in Bosnia once.
The real people
away from the hot water bottle and pork sausage
out to the real places
where the real people eat real food
live in real houses with real balconies
speak real, walk real
really get in trouble
have real children with real eyes
far from pork sausage and the hot water bottle
in the south there’s colors, atmosphere
all the houses resemble famous old paintings
all the people can sing and look like famous statues
often substitute for them
in the south you drink wine
in the south you’re excitable all year round
in the south you do everything out in the open
love, fight, live, whistle, die
in the north you have runny noses cancer envy
in the north you walk around the puddles
around the statues
around one another
in the north you drink milk
in the north you have to think about your health
in the north you’re stiff with health
in the north you’re right
in the north you don’t budge an inch
in the north
in the north
you go south
where the real people have real cats
real teeth, sores, contrasts
you meet at the real places and hold real parties
where the real blood rushes
everyone knows one another
far from the hot water bottle and pork sausage.
Hvad nu hvis
Hvad nu hvis det var
som i en rigtig krimi
at den skyldige ikke skulle søges
hvor den stærkeste mistanke faldt
men et sted som ingen havde tænkte på
og alligevel indlysende for bagkloge
Hvad nu hivs bagmændene
bare var bagmænd i egen
og alle andres indbildning
Hvad nu hvis “de store fisk”
når det kom til sykket kun var
småfisk, skidtfisk, agn?
Hvad nu hvis de punkter
som alle peger hen imod
diverse banker og regeringer
eksil- og nynazister
krypto-dit og dat
kun var små vildledende glimt
fra ydersiden af den synlige top
af et isbjerg af ukendte dimensioner
Det ville ikke fritage dem for medskyld
men hvad nu hvis det var
som i en rigtig krimi
at de oplagte bagmænd kun var
stråmænd for et vidtforgrenet
net af virkelige bagmænd?
Hvad nu hvis de egentlige bagmænd
viste sig at ligne ofrene
følte sig som ofre
Hvad nu hvis bagmændene var ofrene
hæderlige arbejdere og arbejdsløse
folk på fabrikker og kontorer
folk på søen
folk i miner eller syghuse
folk der aldrig ville gøre
nogen noget ondt
Hvad nu hvis de skyldige
var ganske almindelige mennesker
som ikke har gjort noget
som ikke kan gøre for det
som for eksempel folk
som dig og mig
Hvad nu hvis det var
som i en rigtig krimi
og til sidst blev opdaget
hvordan ville vi reagere
og hvordan skulle vi straffes
for noget vi ikke har gjort
og hvordan skulle vi få tilgivelse
fordi vi ikke vidste hvad vi gjorde
når vi end ikke har gjort det
Det er nok alligevel
ikke en rigtig krimi
for hvem ville nogensinde
Et sted i Europa
Stilhed vævet sammen af små lyde
vind gennem grene
en fjern fugl
et afsides tog
små lyde på størrelse
med lettede suk
Vasketøjet tages ned fra snoren
kvinden med tøjklemmer mellem læberne
har nok lyst til at sige noget
men går ind i sit hus
for at have nogen at sige det til
En enkelt flyvemaskine højt oppe
og med en smule tålmodighed
får man før eller senere en latter at høre
et par børnestemme
måske en der bryder ud i sang
det ville forekomme naturligt her
Men sjældent skrig
hvor skulle de komme fra
og ser sig for til begge sider
før de går over vejen
der dufter af madlavning fra husene
en mand kommer kørende på cykel
en anden mand kommer kørende i en lille bil
dyt dyt siger bilen
ding ding siger cyklen
bilisten har en cigar i munden
det har cyklisten ikke
de nikker til hinanden
og kører videre hver sin vej
ingen af dem bliver ramt af skud
hvor skulle de skud dog komme fra
Folk kan blive uenige
begynde at råbe op
indimellem vanker der sikkert et par flade
men lige nu vil man hjem til aftensmaden
Og stilheden blandes med mørket
en dybere mættere tone
borthørt fra en sirlig knitren
måske fra et insekt
eller trin i grus
eller et stjernebillede
der skutter sig lidt
Inden længe ved man ikke
om den smule man hører
er den svage lyd fra havet langt borte
eller ens eget mindre indre hav
der slår mod tindingens kyst
Så fredfyldt har der sikkert også været
i Bosnien engang.
De rigtige mennesker
bort fra varmedunk og medisterpølse
rejse ud til de rigtige steder
hvor de rigtige mennesker spiser rigtig mad
bor i rigtige huse med rigtige balkoner
taler rigtigt, går rigtigt
går rigtigt i stå
kommer rigtig galt af sted
får rigtige børn med rigtige øjne
fjernt fra medisterpølse og varmedunke
i syden er der farver, atmosfære
alle huse forestiller kendte famle malerier
alle folk kan synge og ligner berømte stuer
vikarierer ofte for dem
i syden drikker man vin
i syden har man temperament året rundt
i syden gør man alt for åbent tæppe
elsker, skændes, lever, fløjter, dør
der er medfødt
i norden har man snue kræft misundelse
i norden går man uden om pytterne
uden om statuerne
uden om hinanden
i norden drikker man mælk
i norden må man tænke på sin sundhed
i norden er man stiv af sundhed
i norden har man ret
i norden viger man ikke en tomme
tar man til syden
hvor de rigtige mennesker har rigtige katte
rigitige tænder, sår, modsætninger
man mødes de rigtige steder og holder rigtige fester
hvor det rigtige blod bruser
alle kender hinanden
fjernt fra varmedunk og medisterpølse.
Poetry can get on people’s nerves. I have repeatedly experienced unnerving moments when I have been reading an exquisite piece of Danish literature, and then the page suddenly turned into a mirror, and there I sat, staring into my inner world, noticing parts of myself that I had forgotten, or never had seen before. These epiphanic moments are my recurrent falling in love with literature. And I feel inspired to share these works so they might enrich the lives of others as well. The Danish language is spoken by less than 6 million people. As an English speaker who has been reading Danish literature for 30 years, I am in a unique position as a kind of medium who can lovingly re-create these stories and poems so they may be received by a global audience.
Part of the beauty of reading Benny Andersen is how easily the poems go in. His language is not overstrained or scholarly. What Andersen does is pluck a few commonplace thoughts or moments out of a given day and put them under his own quirky magnifier. There in his poems we encounter his flair for illuminating irony and we soon realize that our lives are full of it. Andersen has won a multitude of major literary prizes including the 2011 Danish Arts Foundation Award for Lifetime Achievement. His collected poems, a tome of 1,200 pages has sold over 150,000 copies in a country with fewer people than Maryland. An accomplished musician and songwriter, one of his CD’s sold over a half million copies. Danes see him as a genuine literary hero, able to authentically represent their national culture, regarding him as Americans might a cross between Robert Frost and Bob Dylan.
By translating a Danish copy of Catcher in the Rye word for word, Michael Goldman taught himself Danish over twenty-five years ago to help him win the heart of a lovely Danish girl—and they have been married ever since. He has received seven translation grants for his work with distinguished Danish writers, among them Denmark’s most popular, all-time best-selling poet Benny Andersen. Over fifty of Michael’s translations have appeared in eighteen literary journals including Rattle, International Poetry Review, and World Literature Today. And his original poetry appeared in Poet Lore and The Fourth River. He lives in Florence, Mass. www.hammerandhorn.net
Benny Andersen is the foremost living poet and lyricist in Denmark. First published in 1960, he has produced twenty-one volumes of poetry along with numerous records, stories, screenplays and children’s books. Parts of his work have been translated into twenty-four languages. Now eighty-five, he continues to write and to perform to sold-out audiences in Denmark. He lives near Copenhagen.
under online drums
in the heat of the bits,
always a ringing in the ears,
more zero than one,
plug in the socket,
through the night, day in,
day out, night failure,
Dead zone of the electrons.
Leave the cables where they are,
marvel at the video card of the world,
pull the plug of the scribbling,
brake the text messaging,
no yes and no, no veneer,
it’s fine to be
in der Hitze der Bits,
stets ein Klingeln in den Ohren,
mehr null als eins
bis zum Eins-eins-null,
Stecker in der Dose,
die Nacht durch, tagaus,
Funkloch der Elektronen.
Lass’ die Kabel liegen,
bestaune die Grafikkarte der Welt,
zieh’ dem Geschreibsel den Stöpsel,
bremse das Gesimse,
kein Jein, kein Schein, pikfein
I love sound poetry and I believe in the musicality of the written word—which is language-specific to a large extent, certainly if it’s connected with a specific sense or content. Once a translator, a nice old lady, wanted to translate one of my poems. I considered it untranslatable myself. I told her that and she was a little offended because she thought I was questioning her abilities. Later, she admitted I was right. Then another translator said my poems were untranslatable. That didn’t surprise me but I became upset because that meant I could not be part of an interesting project for a second time.
I started translating my poems myself. A large part of my poetry is so language-specific that I am the only one who actually has the freedom to “translate” it, which in my case means writing something similar in another language most of the times. To give an example, here’s a little excerpt of “Underpass”, one of my untranslatable poems: “Unnumbered undertones, unbarred unconsciousness, / underachievers, unfertilized unless / under umbrellas, uprising unknowingly, / underpass underdogs unfold unguardedly” (published in “Borderlands. Texas Poetry Review”, 39, 2013). There is a German two-egged twin of this poem with a very similar subject and a very similar atmosphere, but it’s not a translation actually. E.g., almost all of the words are different and the English poem is a little more optimistic.
The poem you will find on these pages is actually an example of my translatable poetry. To translate this one was comparably easy, the German predecessor is written in an unbound language, no metre, no strong sound elements stand between it and its translation. So this one could have been translated by a “real translator.” But once I started to translate my own poems, I continued to do so. I discovered it’s a good opportunity to actively use the English language. It refines my senses for poetry in all its forms in both languages. Moreover, I really have the last word regarding the results without annoying anyone and I have the opportunity to only hand out what I can sign with my name.
However, there also is a disadvantage: while my English becomes better with every poem and my “lectors” find less and less faults, it is still a foreign language to me. Thus, I have to give all of my poems to English native speakers, sometimes more than once because they discover faults or passages that do not really work, then I correct them and after that, I have to give the new version to another native speaker (I could give it to the same person again, I basically do that so share the burden). The poem you will find on these pages has been proofread by Harold Nash, the comment you are reading right now has been proofread by Lawrence Nicholas. Many thanks to both of them.
Alex Dreppec, born in 1968 close to Frankfurt as “Alexander Deppert,” studied Psychology and Linguistics and went to Boulder, Colorado for his Ph.D. (finished 2001). German author with hundreds of publications (both poetry and science) in German journals and anthologies, both the most renowned (Der große Conrady—since 2008) and the best-sold among them. “Wilhelm Busch” Prize 2004. Numerous English poems were accepted by Borderlands Texas Poetry Review, Parody on Impression, English Journal, National Council of Teachers of English (USA), Orbis, The Interpreter’s House, The Journal (UK), and others so far.
The cardinals built their nest in the cow’s skull
tucked into brain cavity
today is the day of fledglings testing
of warmth creeping through roots
steam whisping above not-so-gold-carp pond
++++++++++++++++++++babies venture out
through eye sockets
gives them lift but maybe they have no thought
to question from where?
Enormous fig tree, palace of leaves
huddled under greenish purple swells of fruit
++++++leaking white sap and honey
itch and pleasure
fly, pull yourselves up
judder of cow jaw
carry a piece of your foremotherfathers
belonging to sky.
Corinne Elysse Adams is a story collector, writer, songstress, and teacher. She earned her undergraduate degree at Sophia University in Tokyo, and received a Master’s in poetry from the University of Edinburgh. She has lived and travelled all over the world, collecting stories and studying folk writing and musical traditions in India, Ladakh, Japan, Ireland, Scotland, and all around the United States. She currently runs the humanities department at Skybridge Academy, an alternative education school in Austin, Texas. She also performs and arranges music with the Austin based quartet Oto Maru, and Americana/folk trio Full Moon Medicine. Her poetry has recently appeared in The Grey Sparrow, Ilanot Review, and exhibited in collaboration with photography in the 2015 Goa International Photography Festival.
I have started going to Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous meetings—the acronym is SLAA, pronounced like the chopped cabbage side-dish that a friend of mine once declared only straight people eat. Which means that the other program I belong to, the so-called “beverage program,” which shall remain nameless because the first rule of Fight Club is we do not talk about Fight Club, would be pronounced “AHHHHHHHHHHH!” Something between a war cry and a scream. That sounds about right to me.
I sit in the chair in these meetings and I build a parapet around myself: coffee cup, water bottle, sweater, second sweater, handbag. No one can come near me. An elderly woman with Birkenstocks and a Eugene Levy brow sits down beside me and I peep at her from behind the privacy curtain of my hair. She is a sex addict, I tell myself with wonder. I am mentally pointing.
There is no way to announce that I am a “sex addict” without feeling like a parody of myself. Before the meetings, I apply strata of red lipstick and pull my skirt up higher in case someone good wants to relapse with me—I can’t help myself, I am a sex addict. In my head, I am supposed to smolder at the eyes and stick out my chest as I say these words, like I’m in a Tennessee Williams play and I’m all depending on the kindness of strangers.
The meetings are strange and confusing. Unlike other 12 step jams where there is one specific thing you do not do, i.e. drink alcohol, pound crystal meth into your veins, etc., the recovery process for sex addiction involves an end-goal of having sex. I can sit in church basements at meetings until I’m numb, nothing is ever going to turn me into a girl who can one day sip a lychee martini and then go about her life. Whenever I hit the bottle, there’s always going to be apartment fires and losing my shoes on the walk home and waking up to a bedroom full of squirrels and no idea how they got there. So this idea of moderation is radical. I sit in the sex meetings with people who brand themselves sex addicts, love addicts, fantasy addicts (I picture an apartment full of Gandalf posters, unicorns, those 12-sided D&D dice), affection addicts, and codependents, and I mentally bookmark men I find interesting.
The meeting I go to most is called, depressingly, Becoming Unaddicted to A Person. It’s been one month, one day, and a handful of stingy hours: no contact with Sketch. My person.
I visit my friend in New England, a woman who’s married and who has a horse. This seems like gluttonous good fortune to me, but she lets me ride her horse, and I do not act flirty and cute around her husband, which is an improvement over some of my recent behavior. I learn that a pony is not a different animal than a horse—it refers to any horse that is short. I ride a pony named Raven through the back trails, and the leaves have begun to turn. I feel happy for a little while, sore in the space between my legs but for once without an attendant need to text pictures of myself in skimpy yoga outfits in a transparent plea for attention. I just ride the fucking pony, and like it, and go home.
I’m supposed to be cycling down from the frantic hunt for sex and validation, but I keep looking for loopholes, a way to feed my jones for boy-attention. I message Engineer-Carl, offering to take the bus out to New Jersey to see a Neil Simon show he just directed at some shitty suburban community theater. The bus from New York to New Jersey is disgusting—I take it all the time to see my parents, and I want to record a PSA with the working title “It’s Never OK to Eat Eggs on the Bus.” But I figure taking the trouble to see his show is a nice gesture, and admittedly I’m craving attention; I’m falling in love twelve times a day. But I don’t want to be a big tease or an asshole, so I tell him (maturely, in a Facebook message) that I’m doing a thing and I’m staying out of physical entanglements for a bit, “but you’re my friend and I want to see you and I want to see your show.” I guess I sound like a fucking weirdo; he writes back, “I’d rather you didn’t come, then.”
So I don’t.
Miffed, I de-friend him on Facebook, a dick move that always feels incredibly satisfying when someone has hurt my feelings online. It reminds me of middle-school, when friendship was a package deal that could be bestowed or rescinded: “Give me half your ice cream sandwich and I will be your best friend” was a legitimate offer. A boyfriend was out of reach, so we transferred all the drama to one another.
I teach seventh-grade, or at least I will until someone at school discovers my blog and I get fired, and I see kids come in crying with heartbreaking frequency. I always want to tell them that this is not what life is like. Only in seventh grade is someone coming up to say the meanest thing anyone has ever said to you a fucking daily occurrence. You get older and people learn to talk about you properly: passive-aggressively, and behind your back. Or sometimes they send you messages on Facebook, rejecting your offer of friendship.
The kids make up for a lot. I hear a lot of teachers talk about making a difference, closing the achievement gap between rich and poor, and naturally, having two months every year to get as far from New York as a working-poor person can. But for me, a colossal draw of teaching has always been a chorus of voices asking me things and saying my name while they do it. It’s hard to feel lonely while four different seventh-graders repeatedly intone your name because they want the stapler.
The girls at my school are touching creatures—slouching in their hoodies, all hollow bird bones. They link arms in the hallway when they walk—once in awhile, I am conscripted to join the chain. I lend them my phone to take pictures for yearbook during an assembly, and they return it with a group selfie on the homescreen. I have no idea how to change it back.
The boys haven’t reached puberty yet, but they will, over the course of the year, eyes widening in sudden recognition as the penny drops: girls.
When I was twelve, I fell hard for a boy at my school: Robert. I would sit behind him in social studies and cry. My school had a dance every few months; a dj would be hired, orange drink and cheez doodles would be served in the cafeteria. All the girls would spend their time in the bathroom, running vital messages back and forth to their encampment in the lobby near the payphones. There would be occasional forays onto the dance floor, scattering when a slow song bubbled up. We watched enviously while the three middle school couples came together, everything we didn’t have.
Everyone knew I loved Robert, so when a slow rhythm started up, a bunch of girls grabbed me by the back of my oversized sweater dress and propelled me across the waxed gymnasium floor. I braced my feet like a cat before a bath, but my flats slid like runners across it and it was a sleigh ride before I stood before him. I think hellos were exchanged. A ring of girls around us serious as riot police, I put my arms around his neck and began the slow dance, which involves swaying from side to side like a mental patient. I said, I am certain, at least five stupid things that are mercifully lost in the mists of time.
But then the song changed, and got all up-tempo. So no one was slow-dancing, but Robert and I grimly soldiered on, swaying in the inertia. And it wasn’t just any song—it was that 80s staple in which the woman sings, “We don’t have to take our CLOTHES OFF! To have a good time—NO NO! We can dance and party ALL NIGHT! And drink some cherry wine—UH HUH!” It is a song/personal prophecy about not getting laid and burgeoning alcoholism, and when it was finished, Robert ran one way and I ran the other.
It’s been nearly three decades since that magical night left its cheez doodley fingerprints on my consciousness, and I am only now beginning to be able to tell that story without wanting to crawl under furniture. What does this mean? Will I see seventy before I am able to pull out and look at the pieces of the last year without wanting to rip out my eyes and throw them at somebody?
I run into Sketch, walking with his parents in Jackson Heights at the Diwali Festival, an Indian affair bright with costume gold and steeped in the smell of cardamom. He walks me back to Sunnyside, asking why I am always so mean to him. He asks: Do you want to go to the movies? Do you want to go hiking next weekend? And: Can I kiss you? I tell him I’m not doing that right now—I’m trying to do something different. As revenge, he tells me about the girls he’s been sleeping with. Apparently, Kim is a squirter. I love him, but there’s a new layer of relief on top of the complicated, seven-layer-taco-dip strata of my feelings for him when I tell him goodbye.
One of the side effects of being a “sex addict” (ugh, air quotes are once more being heavily deployed) is vanity—how I look, how my body looks. I am driven to wear heels my arches can no longer tolerate. I torture my hair with a keratin-and-formaldehyde process so toxic that most salons have banned it and the place I go to leaves me in the hands of the Korean Lennie from Of Mice and Men—his tongue sticks out the corner of his mouth while he works, he sometimes hits my head with the wrong side of the hairbrush. There is a French poodle that lives in the shop, tethered to a chair, and my friend Kyla jokes that it is like the canary in the coal mine, posted to give the workers a heads-up when the chemical levels reach toxicity.
Hair extensions are snapped into my scalp and contact lenses turn my eyes a Fremen blue. Unlimbering the credit card, I spend vast sums of money on clothing and black silk underwear; I am a vain woman, and I would rather work on my outsides than my insides.
So in light of all this, it is particularly disturbing to me that one morning, twenty years ago, I woke up and half of my face had quit. It looked like one of those masks that denote comedy and tragedy; on one side, everything was a few centimeters lower, like there was some invisible sinkhole that my features were slumping into. I didn’t know what had happened, but I had been doing a lot of heroin at the time, so I figured this was down to that.
It wasn’t. It was Bell’s Palsy, some kind of neurological tic that shuts down communication along the seventh cranial nerve once in a while and forces me to tape my eye shut when I sleep. It’s not that uncommon; I was just reading that the hot-shit CEO of a media chain had it recently and was freaking everyone out at meetings. But I get it the way I seem to get everything—over and over and over. Every couple of years since I was twenty, there’s at least one neurological brown-out and I further lose my ability to pronounce words with an F or a P.
Mostly it comes back, but there is further slippage with each passing attack, enough so that it’s noticeable in photos. “What’s up with your face?” was the opening line to an email from a suitor on one of the online dating sites. So much of what we perceive as beauty is down to symmetry and youth, and as those things recede in the rearview mirror for me, other things come and take their place. I still think I’m dead sexy; I think I look interesting, that my face has character. But Sketch thought I was pretty, and I miss that: looking at him looking at me.
I carry on with the sex meetings; people are counting days off their last happy-ending massage, off their last extramarital tryst. Some of them have sworn off masturbation, and it freaks me out, as they count days, to know precisely when this or that paunchy stranger last came into his own hands.
As for me, I am getting increasingly hypersensitized to male touch. I go with my friends to a haunted house downtown, unaware that it is Touch-Me Thursday, and accept a glowstick that lets the actors know: touch me. We traverse the winding corridors and through the sets: meat locker with hatchet-wielding pig, zombified strip club, surgical theater with the patient wide-awake and screaming. The glowstick around my neck pulls killers and freaks from their niches and I am cornered and stroked. A man in a rubber mask grabs my hair and I find I am breathing harder.
We leave, and my friends are laughing, and I join them, but I am mentally looking around for another haunted house. I take the glowstick with me. I troll about the Internet looking for scarier, more explicit, more intense. Anything with a superlative label.
I go to my sex meeting the next night, and people laugh when I share about this, as people always laugh when you say something in a meeting that is not funny but is somehow relatable. It’s a bark of recognition.
I go to a yoga class after, and the instructor looks like Sketch: tall, bald, cut, features that look like they were hacked out of a mountainside. I spend the class with my eyes pressed to him, chin lowered like a bull about to charge. My chest heaves when he comes over and puts his hands on me, lifting my legs higher. I put my hand on his hairless chest when I thank him for the class afterwards, and give him my deepest eye-contact over tea in the lobby; another girl comes out with her Botticelli red curls a fountain from her ponytail, but I deftly box her out when she tries to join the conversation. This, by the way, is why I would never date a yoga instructor: you would have to be constantly circling him, growling “MINE” at all the encroaching hyenas.
I ask him to crack my back, which is still tight after class, and he wraps his arms around me from behind. I press my ass against him as much as I dare, and lean back into him as he lifts me off my feet and my spine crackles down to my tail. Wobbly on my feet after, I ask after the classes he is taking, having Facebook-stalked the shit out of him, and he tells me about the Kundalini-training he is doing. It’s all about moving the sexual energy up out of your root chakra, he says, into the other chakras so that you can function more creatively.
Since I’ve been practicing this whole abstinence thing, I’ve been writing everyday, for the first time ever. It’s new. Is it because I’m not humping up on every weirdo I can find? I don’t know, but it feels very Sophie’s Choice. My libido or this thing where the words come out? Which do I need to feed more?
Halloween is coming up, and my friend Joanne sends me a satirical post on Facebook showing different available costumes for women looking to get their sexy on: you can be a sexy hammer, a sexy envelope, sexy late-stage syphilis. Apparently there is nothing we can’t add fishnets and false eyelashes to.
I love Halloween, have since I was a kid. Sketch and I met and exchanged love-yous and moved in together right around Halloween; it was the one-year anniversary of his release from prison, and his parole officer used to come around and leave us just enough time to hide the cocaine. We dressed up together every year: Batman and Catwoman; Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf; Lecherous Priest and Catholic Schoolgirl.
Sketch likes to describe the evolution of our relationship thusly: we were back-to-back, fighting our demons together. Then we were side-by-side. Then we kept turning and ended up head-to head as combatants. The last couple of years we were together, we didn’t bother matching our costumes. I went as Hit Girl and he went as a Yeti, and we walked in the East Village Halloween Parade one last time. Walking in this parade is the only way to see it; the sidewalks fill up with spectators like caulking from barricade to building. At the end of the route, someone was giving out samples of Nivea which were discarded in the street, and Sixth Avenue was a long slick of moisturizer. Sketch asked me to take a picture of him in his Yeti costume with two police-officers, in commemoration of walking out of prison exactly one decade earlier. He had added a Yankees hat and an I heart NY tee-shirt to the ensemble: a New York yeti. We laughed our way down the slippery streets, holding on to each other.
I want to call him, but I don’t know what I will say, or what I want him to say. I just want a moment of contact with him, any contact. I could bump into him in the street or grab his ankle in a haunted house. I could send him a single emoji: a pumpkin, or a ghost.
He texts me on Veteran’s Day; this feels appropriate; we are certainly veterans of something. It surprises me to see his name on my phone. It’s like getting a text from Santa, and for a few moments, all I can do is blink at it.
He asks if we can talk later, and before we talk, I know it will be the same talk we’ve had before; we love each other, things have to change, why is this so hard?
I feel livelier when I get off the phone, but the next morning, I don’t want to get out of bed to write. I drift through my day, features listing to one side, feeling as insubstantial as a ghost that begs you to touch her.
Tippy Rex is a semi-reformed fuck-up turned blogger who teaches middle school in New York City and thus attempts to mask her identity online so that her students won’t find all the drug and dildo references with her name attached to them. She has an MFA from Columbia, and is easily distracted by shiny objects. Her blog can be found at www.whenyoustopdigging.com.
In the overgrown backyard of a neat suburban house, there stood a treehouse falling into loving disrepair. Unlike the catalogue-bought boxes in toy stores, this treehouse sat nestled in the arms of an aging oak tree, almost like it had always been there somehow. If you were passing through, you might have mistaken it for ordinary, or even missed it entirely, but the kids of the neighborhood knew better. On this night in particular, it was crammed full of ten children sitting Indian-style on the floor. Starlight leaked through the slats in the walls, illuminating their eyes like bats in a cartoon forest. The bluish darkness seemed to amplify the youngins’ rumor-swapping, giggling, and the incessant arguing of the backyard crickets. Then there was a scrape and an unmistakable creak at the door.
A hush fell. The first thing they saw was the glint of her sequined cowboy boots. It was her, their leader, Zeeba Yoke.
Zeeba ranked as the oldest member of the club—the BIG BAD ten year old. She was smooth as wax paper rushing along a steep slide, sharp as shattered glass from one of your mom’s precious vases. Some said she had walked on the surface of the sun and lived. It was rumored that a troll lived in her tuft of wild dark hair. Yes, Zeeba was a legend, and on that night in particular she seemed infected by some cosmic force. She stood with the moon hanging full behind her, bathed in an eerie glow from the old lantern in her hand. Moths flocked around the light, and the kids were no better. All of the inferior six, seven, eight year old eyes gazed up at her, waiting expectantly.
And then she spoke. “Evenin’, fartbrains. Boy, do I have news for you.”
A few minutes later they had situated themselves in the usual circle. Billy Bikowski was picking his nose again, tilting his chair back until it wobbled like two toothpicks holding up a marshmallow (he always took the only chair). Little Fritz O’Donnell bounced ethereally in the corner. Dewey Rogers’ pale eyes skittered around the room, waiting for a grown up to appear at any second.
Zeeba pounded her makeshift gavel—a light up Sketcher—against the warped wood, yelling, “Order! Order!” Silence fell. “So I know I’ve been gone these last few weeks, and you probably cried yourselves silly in your mamas’ arms every night I was gone, dreaming of what I might have been up to on my dangerous expedition. If that’s not what you were doing then it should’ve been, because everything I’ve cooked up before this has been a pair of underwear in your Christmas stocking, apples in your Happy Meal…”
A collective gasp. “…compared to what I have now.” She produced a scroll, tied with a purple scrunchie, from her back pocket and, with a crack like a whip, unfurled it. The crowd couldn’t quite suppress their giggles. Her master plan was written on the back of a Dora the Explorer poster.
“I couldn’t find any paper in my room, okay?” And giving up on her aura of mystery, Zeeba showed them the plan.
Incomprehensible scribbles filled nearly every corner of the shiny white surface. Only three words could be discerned in the middle of the chaotic jumble:
“Kids on strike?” Fritz cocked her head to the side, squinting at the words in confusion.
Zeeba smiled. “Yes, Fritz. Kids on strike.”
“What’s a strike?” Billy asked.
“It’s when grownups decide they’re tired of something, so they just don’t do it. Except they use something called a lickit line, where people lick the elbows of the strikers to show they’re on board. I heard my mom talking about it on the phone,” Zeeba said impressively.
“I think I’ve heard of that,” Dewey said, pushing his thick glasses up to the bridge of his nose pompously.
Fritz piped up, “But why would we go on a strike? I don’t want anyone to lick my elbows. ”Kush Patel, a small boy with three charmingly crooked teeth, leaned over, tongue outstretched, and dabbed her elbow. “Ack! Kush, gross!”
“Excellent question. We’re going on strike from grownups. Let me ask you, what causes all the bad things in the world? War, math tests, those stickers in the back of your sticker book that always rip—”
“Voldemort!” cried Billy, “Bad guys in comic books!”
“The Big O Tree on the news,” added Dewey knowingly.
“Parent controls on my YouTube!” yelled a kid from the back.
“Yes! So you see why we have to do this, right? It’s up to us to fix the messed up world. I was wandering the wilderness, looking for an answer, when I had a vision. I saw a better America, butt-munchers. No tests. Free pizza all the time. All we have to do is build a rocket ship and run away to—”
“Hey wait a second. You didn’t have a vision. That was on Herb and Quinn last night,” said Billy.
“Oh yeah, I saw that one too! They tried to fly to Planet Wobnock. But then a giraffe ate all the parts, and it rained pudding.” mused Fritz, rubbing her chin.
Zeeba turned a choke into a cough and maintained her lofty tone. “Okay, yes. Maybe they had the same idea on the show. But I know that this mission came down to me from something bigger than our stinky club. I’m talking about freedom, where no one can boss you around. ”She paused. “We’re going to build a rocket ship.”
Even the crickets stopped chirping. Zeeba had come out with some outlandish plans in the past, but this one…
Dewey’s hand punctured the air. “Excuse me, but aren’t strikes supposed to achieve something? What exactly do you think a bunch of kids escaping to the moon will accomplish?”
The fire behind Zeeba’s eyes seemed to condense into a single, sharp flame. She had finally reached either the punchline to a long-winded joke or the mic drop moment. She flashed her signature shark smile and said, “We’re going to show them that we can do it better. Grownups can’t handle running the Earth? Fine. Let’s leave. Make a world of our own.”
CRASH. Billy’s chair fell over. Zeeba’s voice evaporated like the needle running out of grooves on a record. The crickets broke out in renewed frenzy, and several of the kids joined the chorus.
The smaller kids’ faces wrinkled like old lemons, imagining warm beds and their moms and dads tucking them in at night. A gif of his grandpa turning hamburgers on the grill looped in Billy’s mind. A few cheered, though they hadn’t heard a word of the speech, busy watching ants crawling out of cracks in the floorboards or picking at scabs from yesterday’s rug burns.
Then there was Fritz. Tiny, wood nymph fairy Fritz. Her nose turned upward like a house cat sniffing at the first weeds in a wild tangle of forest, eyes glassy and restless as a shaken snow globe. Zeeba had never seen a look like that on a person before, let alone on this five year old. It fascinated her. But before she could dwell on it for too long, Billy’s voice boomed over the clamor.
“We’re going to show them that we can do it better. Grownups can’t handle running the Earth? Fine. Let’s leave. Make a world of our own.”
“So you’re saying we should run away from home?” he said.
Zeeba nodded. “That’s what I’m saying.”
Kush called out, “But what about school? What about our parents?”
“Those things will be here when we get back and the planet is fixed. Yeah, it might be hard, but you’ll be independent! You make the rules! Come on, guys. This is, like, every kid’s dream. Don’t weenie out on me here. We gotta save the world!” said Zeeba. It would be the closest thing to a “please” any of them would ever hear her utter.
“Let’s do it,” said Fritz.
Zeeba broke into a smile, whipped into action once again. “All in favor?” She asked.
Fritz’s hand was the first to go up. Then, one by one, thin and pudgy arms filled the air, each one adding oxygen to Zeeba’s flame. Everyone was on board, all except Dewey. Billy reached over and impatiently lifted his arm for him.
“That’s settled then,” said Zeeba.
* * *
They spent the next several days gathering supplies for the journey. Dewey, after letting the rest beg, graciously agreed to draw the plans for the rocket ship. By the end of each day, books and scraps of crumpled paper piled around him in heaps. On these days, his pencil spent equal time in his hand, behind his ear, and between his teeth, until eventually he emerged with a usable blueprint, colored and everything. Everyone got to work right away, blasting a Kidz Bop CD Billy had provided “from his sister” as others scrambled around with armfuls of hodgepodge objects.
Deprived of most conventional building materials, the kids resorted to what they could find buried in the neatly-trimmed grass and the piles of hidden treasure their parents had thrown out with the compost. They cultivated the precious buds and berries, the flexible yet brutally strong trunks of trees that had not yet crusted with bark—all the things that had no place in the square garden plot beside the house.
But not everything could be scavenged outside.
“I’m telling you, I need something to hold this thing together or the whole project is kaput.” Dewey was pointing aggressively at Kush and a little girl with pigtails—the sporty Stephanie Sholes—trying to tie two twigs together with a piece of grass.
Zeeba turned away from them. “What do you want from me?” she asked Dewey.
“And what’s that supposed to be?”
Dewey sighed, clearly frustrated. “String. Thin rope. For Pete’s sake, Zeeba, haven’t you ever opened a newspaper?”
Zeeba smiled proudly and said, “Nope. But where’s this mystery ‘twine’ hiding anyway?”
Dewey paused. This was the part he was afraid of. “The work bench.”
The work bench loomed in the dank recesses of the underworld, crooked in the armpit of The Dad Cave. Respectable fathers were known to grow extra arms and sprout gorilla hair when they entered, spending long hours hunched over the musky work table, their twisted faces warped in the glaring metal. This was a place no kid could go if she hoped to come out alive. People changed in The Dad Cave.
Zeeba turned a chalky green. “I’m not going in there.”
“You’re our leader. But if you won’t do it, you’ll have to find someone else who will. Just get me my twine,” said Dewey, and he turned away, flipping through pages in his clipboard.
* * *
Fritz had no idea that it was the absolute worst possible moment for her to skip up to Zeeba, singing “Love is an Open Door,” but sadly that’s what happened. Zeeba’s head swiveled and locked Fritz in her crosshairs. The singing drifted off mid verse; Fritz backed away involuntarily.
“Fritzy. Fritz. Fritz. How would you like to go on a special mission for me?” Zeeba’s smile burned with a maniacal gleam.
Fritz stuttered, her tiny heart jumping to off-beats, “What m-mission?”
“A special mission that will help us with the rocket.” Not-so-deep-down, Zeeba knew that what she was doing was despicable. But she took it as a freebee and pushed mutinous thoughts aside. She suddenly became aware of the nightmarish smile stretching her face and hurriedly laughed it off.
Zeeba started over. “Listen Fritz, we really need your help. I need your help,” she said. Fritz tilted her head back and took in Zeeba’s full height. The goliath’s face settled into a soft smile. Unable to hold her gaze, she averted her eyes after a few seconds. It was difficult to lock eyes with Fritz, who carried a cloud of sincerity wherever she walked. Zeeba cleared her throat uncomfortably and said, “We need you to get something out of the work bench.”
Fritz crumpled, folding into herself like one of those paper fortune tellers you played with at recess. Then, in the smallest of voices, “Oh.”
Zeeba hesitated, losing faith in the whole plan with each crease in Fritz’s tiny forehead. Steeling herself, she placed both hands on her shoulders and said, “You’re the only one who can do this. We need someone who can…get in small spaces. And think on the fly, you know? You’re good at that. I believe in you.”
Fritz stared at her shoes for a long time before looking up. “Is that a yes?” asked Zeeba.
* * *
Bored with their other jobs, most of the club gathered in a frenzied jumble around Fritz as Zeeba and Dewey marched her toward the house. A few people in the older rungs of the ladder hung back, muttering darkly to each other and glaring at Fritz’s retreating figure.
Fritz herself tried to enjoy the attention—the cheers and chanting of her name from the crowd, Zeeba’s mentorial warmth beside her. However, yesterday’s peanut butter sandwich was threatening to resurface, sloshing unpleasantly in her stomach.
“Zeeba, don’t do this!” It was little Kush, shoving his way through the ring.
Zeeba froze, heart thumping, and turned to face the defector. “Kush, little buddy, Fritz says it’s okay. This is how we’re going to get that rocket built. You want that don’t you?”
“It doesn’t have to be her! She’s too little!” he shouted.
Zeeba addressed the crowd. “Any volunteers? Who wants to brave The Cave?” Silence. “That’s what I thought.”
“Why don’t you do it?” he said almost under his breath but each word clear as a bell.
“Because it’s not my job. Sometimes a leader has to make tough choices.” She approached him. “You do trust me, don’t you?” Zeeba punched him lightly on the shoulder, trying to pretend her insides weren’t crumbling.
Kush’s eyes narrowed. He shook her off and staggered away.
When Zeeba turned around, Fritz was already tramping her way to the basement door at top speed. “What numbers do I push to get in?” she yelled out behind her.
Zeeba’s cool faltered. This was one question she did not have an answer for. “I don’t know.”
“What do you mean you don’t know? It’s your house!” said Dewey, throwing his arms up in exasperation.
“My parents know it. They didn’t tell me! I’m sorry!”
“Well someone’s going to have to go in the front door and open it from the inside then,” said Stephanie matter-of-factly.
All eyes probed Zeeba, waiting for an excuse or a snappy comeback. But she had never been one to do what was expected. “Alright,” she said. “See you on the other side, jerks.” She sauntered off, circling to the front of the house. The surprised muttering behind her bolstered her step, settling warmly in her chest. This would show them. Did they think she, Zeeba Yoke, would chicken out of a dangerous task? Who did they think they were dealing with?
At the same time, misgivings swarmed in the back of her mind. She saw herself caught by her parents, strung up by her ankles, stuck to flypaper under a heat lamp, or (dare she even think it?) banned from watching TV. No. She pushed these images aside as she stepped onto the porch. The doormat read “Welcome to the Nut House” beside a picture of a squirrel, whose soulless eyes always gave Zeeba the heebie jeebies. Taking a deep breath, she stepped inside.
Every gleaming surface stank of artificial lemons and Pine Sol. Zeeba’s smiling face peered down at her from portrait frames neatly hung in a grid formation.
From down the hall, a voice rang out, “Shoes off, please!”
“Are your little friends done playing?” asked a deeper voice.
“Yeah, we’re just…tired,” Zeeba said, peeling off her muddy boots with the sense that she was shedding her only protection.
“Do you want anything?”
“No, I’m just gonna go upstairs.” Zeeba sidestepped to the stairs and thump thump thumped against the bottom step to give the illusion of climbing. Her ears were perked, waiting for her cue. She would have to sneak down the hall and through the kitchen to make it to the basement steps. If her calculations were correct, madre and padre would vacate the kitchen approximately one minute after the coffee-maker quieted down. The ticking of the clock trudged onward as Zeeba watched it, her eyes bulging, bloodshot, and unblinking.
When the coffee pot finally spluttered to a stop, Zeeba had the look of a soldier emerging from a World War I trench. She snapped to action and skidded silently around the corner. The coast was clear. Without breathing, she sidled down the hallway and crept into the kitchen. She could hear the sounds of daytime talk shows leaking in from the living room, and pictured her parents settled on the couch, sipping coffee. She let out a sigh of relief.
The basement door loomed at the far side of the kitchen. It seemed to retreat further away the longer she looked at it, so she tiptoed as fast as she could across the room. Just as she was about to open the door, she heard a soft, threatening creak. The pantry door had swung ajar of its own accord, blocking her way. Zeeba eased it closed again, biting her lip so hard a trickle of blood slid down her chin. A click, then a thunderous crash. Several boxes of organic, whole grain cereal, cans of Spaghettios and soup, pasteurized juice, pickled olives, old boxes of stuffing, packets of flavoring, peanuts of every variety. Several weeks’ worth of grocery store visits came raining down.
How dare those other kids call her a coward? She was the bravest, smartest person on Earth. And soon she would be the same thing on the moon, too.
Zeeba braced herself. This was the end. Her parents would find her here and lock her in her room until her hair turned gray. Trip to the moon? Ha. Forget it. The screaming and lecturing would start any second…
But wait. The only sound that could be heard was a blaring TV commercial for a cruise line—raucous laughter, the clinking of glasses, and a female voice describing the exotic getaways. No screams. No response at all.
Well, Zeeba wasn’t about to wait around at the crime scene. She threw open the basement door. Darkness washed over her as she descended the stairs one rickety step at a time. The sound of her heartbeat flooded her ears, along with, what was that? A saw? When she finally reached the floor, she noticed a yellow glow coming from the far corner. A single, bare bulb illuminated a masked man standing over a table, feeding wood into a raging machine. The Dad. Panic surged inside her as Zeeba flew behind a stack of tote bins full of her early childhood. What was she going to do?
Then an idea struck that stunned Zeeba with her own brilliance. The Cave was cramped in the very back, far away from where she needed to be to unlock the door. All she had to do was make it the few yards to the door and somehow distract her father. How dare those other kids call her a coward? She was the bravest, smartest person on Earth. And soon she would be the same thing on the moon, too.
Bolstered with confidence, she crawled along between rows of boxes and old furniture and sprinted past the no man’s land to the door. Hands shaking, she turned the lock and snuck one look through the blinds at Dewey standing outside. The sawing stopped abruptly.
Time for phase two.
Zeeba scurried back to the foot of the stairs and curled into the fetal position. Then she cried as loud as she could, an eruptive wail that rattled the foundations around her. Within seconds, her father scooped her up in his arms and launched up the stairs.
“What’s wrong, Peanut? Are you hurt? How did your lip start bleeding? Oh God.”
He deposited her at the kitchen table, where her mother fussed around her, hovering and pecking like a worrywart bird of prey. “What happened? Is anything broken? Ah! I think she has a concussion! Baby, how many fingers am I holding up? HOW MANY?!”
“Don’t yell at her, Honey,” the father said.
Zeeba tilted her head back, eyes welling with well-rehearsed tears. She opened her mouth, outlined in blood, and said, “I’m okay, Mama. I just fell…down the stairs.” She burst into fresh sobs, burying her face in her hands.
Outside, the children gathered around the basement door, preparing Fritz to face the catacombs. At Dewey’s cue, Billy pulled the door open. Absolute darkness engulfed them, and everyone became momentarily hypnotized, intoxicated by the sight of nothingness. Fritz cleared her head and ran forward, swallowed.
Meanwhile, sulking under a tree, Kush watched Zeeba and her parents through the second floor window. He saw her sitting at the kitchen table, spooning chocolate cake into her mouth. Her mother pinched her cheeks. Zeeba smiled.
* * *
Fritz was trying to master her panic. She had reached the threshold outside the inner sanctum—natural light at her back, blackness meshing with The Cave’s dim, rusty glow. The single bare bulb swung ominously from the ceiling, illuminating her round face in warped reflections of tin cans and power tools. The mouths of chainsaws, wood chippers, and weed whackers curled their serrated lips threateningly at her.
Waiting to be sucked into the floor or sawed in half at any second, Fritz searched every surface for the twine. She couldn’t see it anywhere, and it was becoming near impossible to focus with herself unravelling at alarming rates. Where was it? She threw open drawers and scoured counters, but still nothing. Then, there it was. Resting on the topmost shelf, desperately out of reach.
Fritz knew what she had to do; there was no other way. She began climbing onto the bench—the altar of The Dad Cave—then up the shelves, one by one. She went painfully slowly, hands slick with sweat, and with each trembling step the metal frame teetered under her. Three to go. Two to go. One.
The shelves buckled, unable to hold her anymore. She fell, clinging to the collapsing frame with her eyes squeezed shut. Heaps of dull metal rained down, knocking over the bench and denting the floor. As it fell, the shelf made contact with the lightbulb, smashing it to dust, soon lost in the piles of black iron. Fritz opened her eyes, and, in the instant before she hit the ground, she realized that this room looked much better without any light at all.
Pain. Fritz remembered once falling off her bicycle and scraping her knee, her sister pulling bits of gravel out of the cut, and someone covering it with a bandaid. She remembered the sting and how she felt every pulse of her life blood in sharpest detail. That was the kind of cut that made you feel alive. This pain was much, much worse. Fritz felt nothing but dull, throbbing numbness all over her body. It was like what people buried alive must feel. A silent whimper and the first tick of a wind-up clock. She lay in a bed of screwdrivers and overturned boxes of nails, trapped. This was the end; she knew it. Not a triumphant first step on another world, not Zeeba’s proud face—only blackness and fear.
* * *
From the doorway, the children watched Fritz disappear with uneasy feelings in their stomachs. The stairs blocked their view of The Cave, so all they could do was wait and keep a lookout for parents. Why had they let her go in alone? They were all despicable chickens, complacent in Zeeba’s assurances that this was all for a greater good.
“I don’t like this,” Stephanie whispered. “What if somethin’ bad happens? Someone should go in there.”
Dewey silenced her, flipping through notes in his clipboard. “No. She can do this. If you go after her you’ll just get her caught.”
“Come on, Fritz,” prayed Billy, eating his fingernails down to nothing.
A few agonizing minutes passed. Then they heard the deafening clanging coming from inside. Not pausing to think, Stephanie led the charge into the basement. Kush flew from his tree and sprinted after them, all of them desperate to get to Fritz. Many hearts nearly stopped when they saw Fritz buried and unmoving. Everyone grabbed at tools and threw them aside until they could pull their friend free.
The upstairs door opened as Zeeba’s concerned father appeared to investigate. Billy pulled Fritz onto his back and high tailed it from the house. Dewey scrambled around in the debris searching for his twine. Glasses askew, he scooped it up and ran after them, slamming the door behind him.
They laid Fritz in the soft, welcoming grass near the base of the treehouse. She was in bad shape—covered in freshly blossoming bruises and cuts, the sunflowers on her dress obscured with red. A quiet gasp escaped her body. The kids’ faces stared down at her, waiting for a word or phrase to slip out of those panting lips, waiting for the day to turn suddenly to night or for a drop of rain and a thunderclap—anything to give meaning to this situation. But there was no such thing. The partly cloudy skies stayed the way they were. A neighbor pulled into their driveway and began unloading groceries. Zeeba went on eating her cake.
Some part of their brains groped in the dark for images of rocket ships and a smiling Earth, but none came. The goal of that whimpering, broken child on the ground seemed so absolutely pointless in that moment. Their plans were just idle dreams, as fleeting and insubstantial as a single cinder leaping from a bonfire.
At the same time, they needed rocket ships then more than ever.
It didn’t matter that Zeeba had pulled her grand idea from her double digits ego. It didn’t belong to her in the first place. The whole thing was about the rocket ship and saving the world, anyway. In fact, let the grownups come too. Let everyone come. All this passed through the kids’ minds as they stood there in silence, waiting.
Fritz opened her eyes and blinked. “I’m okay,” she said, surprising even herself.
A pause. Then Billy let out a guffaw of confused laughter. Kush bent down and helped Fritz to her feet.
“Everything’s going to be alright,” he said.
“Did someone get the twine?” she asked.
Dewey waved it in the air, looking a wreck. “Yeah.”
“Good,” she said. And it was.
Caitlyn Comm is a freshman Writing for Film and Television major at Emerson College. Her daily mission is to treat life as a tweener sitcom, regularly doing spit takes and spilling coffee on herself. One day she hopes to create a children’s television show that will bring the kids away from their phones and back to the TV where they belong. This is her first published work.
First you notice the writing students in front of you slowing down, then pausing, and moving into the street.
Yellow tape is stretched across the sidewalk tied to a tree and a lamppost. You can’t read the black printing.
The now visible police cars and years of TV say crime scene.
The red lights flashing across the street shift your focus.
More yellow tape, an ambulance, several officers, EMTs, and perhaps a witness or plain clothes somebody talking to a police officer.
Behind all of them is a building with balconies. Black rails. Glass. Red brick. You count the stories.
The grass is green and the bushes are in bloom with pink blossoms.
There is a blank space. White. Like whiteout on a picture. Like an unfinished painting. Cleanly erased. Lacking relief. Flat white.
You don’t stop at the yellow tape. The students with you keep moving into the street around the cars and back on the sidewalk.
A woman outside a church says he jumped. Students pass by and you look up at the building.
Are you searching for the balcony? Counting floors again. Imagining.
You turn and walk on and wonder if all these writers and poets and playwrights are constructing narratives.
Are they building plots, forming characters, metaphors?
You turn back. Stop. Walk a few more steps. Stop. Turn back again. Wonder why?
The urge for a cigarette, a drink, your lover’s embrace floods you.
Close your eyes and breathe, fill the space, and shake like a dog just wet from the ocean.
At the lecture hall, stand in line for your decaf Americana. Find someone to sit next to. Ask him if he saw. Ask her what she knows.
Open your notebook. Open your iPad. Check your email. Start writing.
Ted Chiles’ fiction has appeared in several literary journals including Canteen, Wacamma, Smokelong, Quarterly, and riverbabble. Vestal Review nominated his story “A Recursive Love Affair” for a Pushcart Award. Chiles lives in Santa Barbara, California with another writer and two cats. In a former life he taught economics, the most dramatic of the social sciences.
Kerry Madden-Lunsford grew up traveling around the South as the daughter of a football coach. Her first novel, Offsides, drew on her experiences, but is not an autobiography. She is one of the few writers authorized to write a biography of Harper Lee, Up Close: Harper Lee, which made Booklist’s Ten Top Biographies for 2009 for Youth. She divides her time between Los Angeles, where she is a mentor at Antioch University’s MFA program and Alabama, where she’s an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Alabama-Birmingham.
She was interviewed via email on March 5th, 2015.
Lisa Trahan: What inspired you to become a writer? Have you always wanted to write, or is it something you discovered you wanted to do later on in life?
Kerry Madden-Lunsford: My fourth grade teacher told me I was a good writer. It was the first time a teacher said anything of the sort. They usually said, “Aren’t you a nice, big, tall girl,” or “Don’t you listen well?” or “You must be an alto.”
LT: Your novels are written for the Young Adult category. How did you choose this age group versus younger children or adult fiction?
KML: Actually, I write more “middle grade” novels, ages nine to twelve, though the Harper Lee biography is YA. I don’t know—I just really love that age. I remember it well, and honestly when I started writing for that age, I thought I was writing YA. The books I read growing up—The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, all the Little House books, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and even Sarah T: Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic still inform the way I write today.
LT: Your first novel, Offsides, deals with life as the daughter of a football coach, based loosely on your own experiences. How did moving so often affect your writing? How was it growing up in such a male-oriented field?
KML: Moving so much made me memorize accents and faces, so I could fit into each place, although the Pittsburgh to Knoxville move was the roughest. My father used to say, “You won’t even remember these people. We got football games to win—now get your ass in the car.” I vowed not to forget out of sheer defiance. It wasn’t easy on the gridiron because I wasn’t a jock or a cheerleader, but then I found the theatre department, and it didn’t matter anymore. I’d found my people. Also, the coaches’ wives were my very first storytellers, and they were hilarious and they let me eavesdrop and hang around the kitchen while they made cheese grits, drank gin and tonics, and told great stories. But come to think of it, I have lived in twelve states and then in England and China. I applied to become an exchange student in England and that year changed my life. I also spent my first year of marriage teaching in China, and now I live in two states—Alabama and California. So I would say that moving greatly affected who I am today in a very positive way. I never would have said that as a kid, but now I really love the adventure. I’ve written so deeply about places where I’ve never lived—Maggie Valley, North Carolina, and Monroeville, Alabama—that I feel like I have lived in those places somehow. I’m drawn to the South because of how crazy it can be, but I miss the west too, where we raised our kids.
LT: You wrote an autobiography of Harper Lee for young adults. How was that different from writing it for adults?
KML: End notes! I had to make sure EVERYTHING was attributed, and if I were to write another biography, I would start doing the end notes immediately. I kept casual track of everything, which meant having to go back and spend weeks organizing and re-checking every detail. Now would I keep those details accurate from the get-go. I loved my interviews—it was amazing to go to Monroeville, Alabama and interview people who grew up with Harper Lee. Their stories and ways of telling a story were a tremendous gift to me. I wanted to do right by them and of course by Nelle Harper Lee herself.
LT: It was announced that Harper Lee is releasing a second book. How do you think that may affect her legacy?
KML: I don’t think it will affect her legacy. Her legacy is bedrock. I’m thrilled for her. It will also give us a chance to see how the young Harper Lee found her voice as a writer.
LT: To Kill a Mockingbird focuses strongly on racism and morality. Are there any themes you like to focus on in your own works?
KML: The new book I’m writing for kids is called Are You There Vulcan? It’s Me Millie-Graciella and it’s about a girl whose father gets deported while living in Birmingham, Alabama. So I definitely feel like it has themes of racism and morality. Millie-Graciella talks to Vulcan, the giant cast iron statue that stands over Birmingham on top of Red Mountain, and she writes letters to him since God quit listening a long time ago. I tend to have themes of risk and starting over, basically fish out of water stories—and that’s certainly been influenced by all the moving I did.
LT: As an associate faculty member at Antioch University, which has a strong social justice focus, do you think there’s been a change in literature towards more diversity?
KML: I absolutely do. I think of the essays and works by Elizabeth Bluemle, Walter Dean Myers, Jacqueline Woodson, Annie Sibley O’Brien, etc. Even the Newbery Award this year, The Cross-Over, by Kwame Alexander, was wonderful news, because not only did he write a fabulous book, he’s reaching out as an author to kids everywhere and letting them know they all have stories to tell. Kids of all races and backgrounds need to see themselves represented in literature, and I’m thrilled we’re moving in that direction.
LT: Have there been any changes in MFA programs in general towards more diversity, and/or social justice that you’ve noticed since you first started writing?
KML: Oh, I think definitely so—we’re also just more aware of diversity. When I was getting my MFA in Playwriting, the most famous woman playwright was Wendy Wasserstein followed by Beth Henley. Mostly we were still doing William Inge, Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, and then August Wilson was coming on the scene. But it’s not only great to see diversity happening across literature, it’s essential to who we are as artists and storytellers, and so I’m thrilled to see all the new work from Suzan Lori Parks, Junot Diaz, Roxane Gay, Jacqueline Woodson, Nikki Grimes, Kwame Alexander, Jose Rivera, Pam Munoz Ryan, Josefina Lopez and so many others.
LT: What is your writing style and/or do you have a set routine?
KML: I try to write in the mornings or if I get on a roll, I can go all day, but that never happens or rarely happens with teaching and parenting, but I do try to start first thing. I pay myself first—by writing—and then dealing with emails, Facebook (horrible time suck), and just the white noise of the Internet. I switch up and write in different places sometimes too. The dream is when I can go away to a cabin and write—it doesn’t happen much, but I love going away to write and escaping the distractions of home. I try not to beat myself up anymore if I have a shitty writing day.
LT: Do you have any advice you would give writers who are interested in writing young adult fiction?
KML: Read everything. Join SCBWI. Go to their conferences, join their critique groups, go to the writer/illustrator days. Get involved in any way possible. The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators will help any serious writer navigate the world of writing for young people from picture book to young adult.
LT: What is your most rewarding experience or what do you love best about writing for young adults?
KML: Meeting the kids—I love meeting the kids and going into the classroom. I also just love a good writing day. That’s reward enough for me.
LT: Are you working on any new projects?
KML: I’m working on several pictures books: Georgia Ivy and the Pump Organ, Ernestine’s Milky Way, All Bees Home for Christmas, Who Will Squeeze Olive, and No Licky Chops. Some of them may turn into early reader. I am also working on an adult novel, Hop the Pond, which I’m very close to finishing, (please good God in Heaven let it be done!). It’s 312 pages and we’ve almost reached the moors so the end is nigh. And I have a memoir about teaching in China that I’ve avoided for a while called Laurie Anderson in the Rice Fields. I hope to get back to it one day soon.
LT: Are there any young adult books you are reading right now that are particularly your favorites or you’re looking forward to?
KML: I’ll Give You The Sun by Jandy Nelson, recommended by Antioch student, Tai Farnsworth, and she was so right. My daughter, Norah, read it first and pushed it into my hands and said, “Read this now!” And I’m loving it. I’m reading Kathi Appelt’s The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Camp, which is wonderful, and Deborah Wiles’s Revolution. I’m also listening to The Night of the Gun by David Carr, because I’m a sucker for addiction memoirs—he’s the best along with Caroline Knapp, Drinking: A Love Story, and Heather King’s Parched.
You got me born
so I could be your wound.
Where can I hide
on the barren hill?
My verses dog me
like old murderers.
And deep in my ice
With your name I’ll name
the curve you lean on
like light and shadow.
Your name I’ll call the robin
on the iced creek,
and the serpent that you saw
on the wind’s path
and the flowers you trod
in summer dark,
the burned out fires
on the bare hills,
the call of crows.
All the rains in the world
I’ll name with your name.
Of those dreams nothing remains—
the houses stand locked-up for good.
Under the stones
you won’t even find a key;
they brought them along, the dead.
It rains constantly
Maybe because I’m a stranger.
I want the pages of my books
to be what starts a fire in the cottage
of two cold lovers.
To turn oneself into dust,
a little bit oneself
a little bit the universe.
To live the silence.
perché quest’amore folle per te?
Tu mi hai fatto nascere
per essere la tua ferita.
nella collina brulla
I miei versi m’inseguono
come vecchi assassini.
Ogni notte si rompe qualcosa
nel profondo del mio ghiaccio.
Con il tuo nome chiamerò
la curva dove ti affacci
come luce e ombra.
Anche il pettirosso
sul giaccio del ruscello,
anche il serpente che hai visto
nel sentiero di vento
anche i fiori che hai calpestato
al buio estivo,
anche i fuochi spenti
sulle colline nude,
il richiamo dei corvi.
Tutte le piogge del mondo
con il tuo nome chiamerò.
Nulla è rimasto di quei sogni,
le case sono serrate per sempre.
Sotto le pietre
non troverete neanche le chiavi,
le hanno portato con sé i morti.
Forse perché sono straniero.
Voglio che con le pagine dei miei libri
accendano il fuoco nella casa di campagna
gli innamorati infreddoliti.
un po’ se stessi,
un po’ universo.
Abitare il silenzio.
We elude ourselves. Glancing in a mirror or hearing my recorded voice I think “but that’s not what I look like/sound like.” Worse, though I believe that home exists, I cannot seem to figure out where that home is. If this sense of dislocation is a side-effect of being human, then the figure of the exile is its highest expression. Hajdari’s mournful, limpid poems place us inside our divided lives and press on the tender spot of our own feelings of homelessness.
I moved to Italy to work with Gëzim Hajdari on the translation of his poems. Hajdari moved to Italy as a young man in flight from the oppressive communist regime of his native Albania. Hajdari traveled to make them, and I traveled to translate them; the poems themselves are the only native Italians. They stand between translator and writer, exile and ex-pat. In some ways, this atypical situation facilitated translation. Usually when I translate I must attempt to inhabit the mother tongue, the native instincts, and at times even the subconscious of the author. It can feel like trespassing. In contrast, Hajdari and I meet on borrowed ground in the fertile, liminal territory of a third language.
The special autonomy of these poems creates new kinds of translation challenges. Hajdari’s language is often deceptively simple. His poems contain many landscape elements; they evoke the earthy intimacy of his rural Albanian boyhood. But it is to a landscape remembered, not lived, that the poems speak. In Italian, the familiar names of trees and animals become strange, distant, and yet because distant perhaps even more longed for. How is it possible to convey that distance anew in a translation? What happens to nostalgia—the first language—when expressed in a second language?
Hajdari sometimes uses Italian to chastise his mother tongue and his country: “you got me born/so I could be your wound,” he says in one poem. There are moments in which he seems to feel permanently alienated by his existence in his second language; he and other exiles are “leaving for a country that calls not your name but your body.” In another poem he says “I’m living in place of myself now” as if the entire Albanian self were abandoned along with the country.
Yet these melancholy comments on exile are balanced by a kind of liberation (quite familiar to us as Americans I suspect) that comes with rootlessness. After he imagines, in one poem, that his books will one day start a fire in the house of two cold lovers, he says “To feel/ a little bit oneself/ a little bit the universe.” What a poignant articulation of one of the ways in which great happiness expresses itself; when that elusive, seeking self appears both within and without, present and distant. It is to remember this feeling, our human belonging and our human lostness, that I return again and again to poetry.
Born in Lushnje, Albania in 1957, Gëzim Hajdari was persecuted by the communist regime and fled to Italy in 1992 where he has since resided. He is a prominent member of the “Scrittori Migranti” movement in Italy, a group of writers who intentionally eschew their first language, choosing instead to write in Italian. Hajdari has earned acclaim both in Italy and abroad for his poems, winning the prestigious Montale prize among others. His work speaks to his experience as an exile, his deep-seated love and equally profound frustration with his native Albania, and the shifting, uncomfortable identity he inhabits.
Sarah Stickney received her MFA from the University of New Hampshire. She is a former Fulbright Grantee for the translation of Italian/Albanian poet Gëzim Hajdari. Her co-translations of Elisa Biagini’s selected poems, The Guest in the Wood, was chosen by the University of Rochester for its Best Translated Book Award for poetry in 2014. Her poems and translations have appeared both in the U.S. and abroad in publications such as La Questione Romantica, Rhino, The Portland Review, Drunken Boat, Cold Mountain Review, and others. She lives in Annapolis, MD where she teaches at St. John’s College.
One night I dreamt about eating raspberry pie—a moist, succulent slice with flaky crust and way more butter than my cholesterol level demanded. I awoke to find a pebble-sized object in my mouth. Turning it over with my tongue, I tasted a burst of raspberry and butter. I stuck out my tongue and pinched the object stuck to its tip. I held the little pebbly thing between my fingers and rolled it around, dispersing the saliva pool so I could examine the object. Upon this inspection, I saw it was a full piece of pie—shrunken to miniscule proportions of course—but its shape was that of a carefully cut slice fit for a rodent. I probably should’ve saved that piece of tiny pie in some Tupperware, but instead I popped it back into my mouth and let it dissolve with one delicious rush of flavor.
I tried to call my wife—she’d probably be the only person who would believe the story—but her cell phone went straight to voicemail. I’d have to wait until her excavation was over to tell her about the strange little piece of pie. She always got terrible reception when she was on a dig.
After breakfast, I tried to tell my neighbor about the pie only to get called a liar while the neighbor’s interminable pit bull barked. People always say that pit bulls get a bad rap—and maybe some of them are cute and friendly—but this one deserved any ire it received. It was a piece of shit dog that laid piece of shit shits all over my yard, and last week it bit the mailman, who was in turn suing my piece of shit neighbor. I don’t know why I bothered to share the pie story with him in the first place—maybe I just missed my wife or needed somebody to talk to or something. Piece of shit.
That night, I dreamt about the pit bull. I awoke to pounding on my front door. My neighbor was there, blubbering about his pit bull, crying so much that his whole face was sticky with a viscous mixture of tears and snot. He asked if I’d seen the dog. I said no. After I deadbolted the door and shut the curtains, I spat the infinitesimal dog into a plastic cup. It wasn’t breathing—it probably drowned in my saliva.
I checked out some books at the library on dreams. I tried lucid dreaming for a couple nights, but I couldn’t figure out how to actually do it. I spent hours immersed in those books, but my mind was so preoccupied with research that I just dreamt about reading. After each failed dream, I woke up with another shrunken lucid dream book in my mouth. I saved the books in a second plastic cup as proof that I hadn’t lost the books, but the librarian wasn’t buying it. She thought the little books were cute, even going so far as to ask about buying some—apparently she wanted to glue magnets to the back of them and put them on her refrigerator. But despite her interest and my insistence, she fell short of believing that these miniature replicas were the books I had checked out. The replacement fees were starting to add up.
Later that week, I read a book that talked about the recency effect and dreams. When I thought about the previous week’s dreams, it made sense. Apparently, some people dream about whatever is on their minds at the end of the day. Those last thoughts are the ones that ooze into unconscious slumber—be it pies or dogs or books.
So that night, I took a sleeping pill, shut my eyes, and concentrated really hard on gold bars. I imagined a whole stack of them. And it worked. I awoke with miniature gold bars in my mouth. I wasn’t sure how much each pebble-sized bar of gold was worth, but I was sure that over time I could amass enough pebbles to make a sizable dent in the mortgage. So I kept this up night after night, stockpiling little gold bars in another plastic cup. Soon, my wife and I would be set for life. I couldn’t wait to tell her.
She arrived home at the end of the month. I was going to show her the gold later that evening, after a romantic roast duck dinner, a bottle of wine, and the whole rose petal trail to the bedroom thing. But as soon as she crossed our threshold, she dropped her bags and pounced. Not even bothering to close the front door, we fell onto the sofa and unleashed a month of pent-up urges. A soft breeze pushed through the door, cooling our sweaty bodies and blowing the fresh scent of sex through the house, mingling with the duck and the roses. We fell asleep in each other’s arms, and I had a terrible dream where we made beautiful love.
She came from the south. Her footsteps burned the snow. Not melted. Burned. The white crystalline flecks went up like pine needles. Whoosh! Flame. Smoke. Cinder.
“Aren’t you cold?” I asked her. “It’s below zero out here.”
“No,” she said, motioning to the flames. I offered a blanket anyway.
She sipped hot chocolate and dried her charred, sopping wet flip-flops by the hearth.
“Where are you headed?”
“North,” she gulped from her mug and blew smoke rings.
“What’s your name?”
“I’d rather not say.”
“I’d rather not know your name.”
I cooked some pheasant, rice, and potatoes while she knitted. The yarn was luminous, and it reminded me of sun reflected on snow. The strands glowed brighter with each pluck of her knitting needle until they lit up the entire room. “What’s that yarn? Why is it glowing?” I asked.
“I’d rather not say,” she said.
We ate in silence.
“Why do you live out in the middle of nowhere?” she asked while I soaped up the dishes.
“I’d rather not say,” I said with a chuckle. She didn’t look amused. “It’s a joke. Lighten up.”
She did not lighten up, so I composed myself and answered her question. “I used to do the rat race thing. But I couldn’t stand it. And when my parents passed away, I suppose I didn’t have any reason to stay in the city. I prefer it out here. I like simple living.”
“It doesn’t seem so simple,” she said. “In fact, it seems rather complicated. It’s freezing outside, and you huddle for warmth around a centuries-old hearth. And what about food? Do you hunt? Is there a town nearby? And what could you possibly do for entertainment around here?”
I was surprised that this mysterious woman cared about frivolous things like entertainment. “I gas up the generator and play some video games.”
“You have Internet out here?” she asked. “I haven’t checked my e-mail in days.”
“No, I don’t,” I said. Since when do women with burning footsteps and glowing yarn check e-mail?
“So you play offline?”
“I prefer to keep to myself.”
She laughed and shook her head. I didn’t see what was so funny. I finished up the dishes while she knotted the ends of her luminous yarn. She slid the finished product off her needles. It looked like a scarf made of pure light.
“Do you play video games?” I asked, hoping to restart the conversation.
“No. They’re childish.”
I’ll admit, that hurt my ego a bit, but I tried not to let it show. I smiled and asked, “Well, what do you do for fun?”
“I’d rather not say,” she said.
Are you kidding me? What’s her deal?
She rubbed charcoal on her skin and wrapped the luminous scarf around her head like a turban. “You’d better close your eyes for this,” she said.
“Why?” I asked.
“I’d rather not say. Just do it unless you want to damage your retinas. It’ll be like looking into the sun.”
I did as commanded. After all, who was I to argue with some supernatural wanderer? I kept my eyes closed for what seemed like forever. Nothing happened. Not a sound. No heat. No nothing. “Hello,” I asked. She didn’t respond. “Hello?” I opened my eyes, and she was gone. I ran outside to look for her. A trail of charred earth extended away from my cabin. A few smoldering clumps of snow glowed into the evening, dotting her path like those little pellets that Pac-Man eats. I followed these pellets until the charred earth was reclaimed by snowdrifts.
I spent months searching for her in the north. I searched villages, igloos, and even caves. I had to find her. I knew that when I found her, she’d remember me, and she’d thank me for the hospitality, and she’d explain her quest, and then we’d make love, and the universe would brim with luminous threads, and she’d knit, and knit, and knit. In time, maybe I’d knit too.
But when I finally found her, she was dead, naked, and buried in snow. Bits of charcoal surrounded her corpse. Her turban sat in a nearby snowbank, drained off its luster. I pocketed the unassuming rag. I interrogated people in the nearby village. They all said she was crazy. “You didn’t see what she could do. She was magic!” I said. In time, they declared me crazy too, and they forced me back onto the tundra.
With nowhere else to go, I journeyed home and looked at the rag under a magnifying glass. I found nothing of interest in its fibers, but I knew I had to take it south. On my southward quest, I told everybody who would listen about the enigmatic woman with the mysterious cloth, but nobody believed me. In time, I learned to keep to myself. I began echoing the woman’s distant words: “I’d rather not say.”
I pushed onward. I was certain that someday I’d find a place where fire and lava could create snow, and birds crawled and mammals flew, and everybody knew how to knit clothes made of light. I’d meet other women and men who could finally teach me to knit. They’d tell me all about their legends and gods. They’d explain why the woman was on her northward pilgrimage, and I’d tell them about her fate, and they’d thank me for my candor, and we’d mourn her together. And in this place, the dirty rag would glow once more.
We go to the hospital together. I don’t want to go at all. The photos tucked behind grosgrain ribbon in the sterile room will contain our toothless grins, our Brownie vests, our prom dresses with spaghetti straps and cheap iridescence. We have come so far since our teenage years: the acne has retreated, our butterfly clips replaced with subtle bobby pins. We have college degrees and men send drinks to us when we go to the bar. We are stumbling into adulthood. We are trying.
* * *
Joanna comes over to shower and use my hair dryer a few hours before we plan to pick up the others. She bikes to my house because a tree fell on her car during the hurricane. Most of Long Island has had power restored, but Joanna is not so lucky. The flyaways from her ponytail form a frizzing halo around her head.
“The Mobil station ran out of gas on my way here,” Joanna says. We are sitting on the front stoop, shoulder to shoulder. The pachysandra along the walkway has withered in November’s early chill. “The attendant brought out a long pole to take the price numbers down and everyone in line—it must’ve been thirty cars—started leaning on their horns. You couldn’t hear the yelling because of all the honking. It would be funny if it didn’t feel like someone was about to pull a gun out of their glove box.” Caution tape is wound around gas pumps and fallen trees in our neighborhood. Exposed power lines crackle and I am afraid to touch anything outside my home. Growling generators in our neighbors’ yards keep me up at night.
“Someone in Glen Cove tried to use a gas grill inside his house and ended up killing himself. It’s all so heavy and sad. All of this is,” and she knows what I’m talking about. It has been eight days since the hurricane and four since Holly overdosed. Sandy. Holly. My mouth is full of their names. We go inside. I hand a fluffy towel to Joanna, show her how to adjust the water temperature, leave her be. Sifting through a tin of teabags in the kitchen, I can hear a sob over the rush of water, over the kettle’s shrill alarm.
There are things within me that I can’t articulate because I’m afraid of what they might mean. I went to bed with a sick anticipation when the storm rolled up the coast that first night, dreading and hoping for destruction I could witness myself. The local news shouted tragedy in the kitchen, but what woke me up that morning after the hurricane was the crack of butter in a hot pan as my mother made breakfast. The power never flickered out. When Joanna sent a text about Holly and the plan to visit her in the hospital, I couldn’t pretend I didn’t get it.
* * *
Our mothers took turns leading the Girl Scout troop, which is how we all became friends. Holly’s mom taught us how to make sock dolls in kindergarten; in third grade, my mom led us in Christmas carols sung to dozing nuns with blankets on their laps. When the war in Afghanistan started, we sold pins that spelled USA in beads with Valerie’s mom. Shannon and Joanna’s mothers weren’t crafty, but they were reliable for carpools.
The five of us sat at a lunch table together in middle school. The cafeteria smelled like bleach and tater tots, and we huddled to hear one another over the din of our classmates’ shouting. Our bodies were changing and we hated them. There were code words for everything in those days. Getting your period was a visit from cousin Ethel and tweezing your eyebrows was mowing the lawn. We adopted Homeland Security’s threat system to rank our self-image daily. The yellow loathing was always there, like the low-grade fever of fear that squatted in airport terminals, but some days it was worse than that. “Orange, High,” Shannon might announce, face flushed with a breakout. When Valerie went up a size in jeans it was Red, Severe. My hips were wide but I wasn’t tall yet. I stared in the mirror for hours, poking the pouch of my tummy as though I could prod it away: Yellow, Elevated, always.
By the time we reached high school, we began to retaliate against our confusion. Shannon gave blowjobs to a kid under the bleachers during gym class. Joanna and I ran for hours, without destination, as though we could outpace our baggage. Valerie dyed her hair: streaks of pink, a shocking blue. Holly started cutting, though it was months before we knew.
* * *
I sit and watch the local news while Joanna brushes her teeth. My tights are opaque. I am layered in dark knits. A blonde news anchor stands in a pile of ashes in Breezy Point. A six-alarm fire burned swaths of the neighborhood hours after the hurricane. Floodwaters kept residents trapped. No deaths have been reported, the anchor says, though few can call this a miracle. Charred plaster crunches under her boots. She picks up a toddler’s plastic toy and shoves it into the camera: primary colors blanched, symmetry warped. There are so many stories like this.
“Hey,” Joanna says, entering the room. Her hair is dry, straight and soft, but she has not put on makeup. I haven’t, either. She is six feet tall and sick of strangers pointing, but she still wears stilettos when we go out at night.
“I’m going to throw up,” I say. “I can’t go. Her parents are going to be there and I can’t talk to them.”
“None of us know what to say,” Joanna tells me. “We have to go, though. What if things don’t get better? What if—we regretted not going?” She’s right, of course. The thing that none of us will say is that every time this happens could be the last time.
* * *
Our parents waited in the parking lot with books when we went to the mall. We stayed up too late on Myspace, faces illuminated by a bluish glow as we carved digital spaces for ourselves. One night, Joanna brought vodka to a sleepover in Valerie’s basement and we diluted it with Vanilla Coke and orange juice to get drunk for the first time. My head felt disconnected from my body and my words felt disconnected from my brain. After the dancing in pajamas and the hundred pictures taken out on the lawn, we settled onto piles of blankets and confessed the darkest things we held inside. I told them I had found text messages on my dad’s phone with a woman named Kathy: I want to fuck u, he typed. xoxo, she replied. I eavesdropped constantly and searched for things I did not want to know. Each small revelation of my father’s indiscretions clawed shame deeper inside me but I couldn’t stop.
“I cut,” Holly said, and we didn’t know what she meant until she rolled up the sleeves of her shirt. Stripes of hurt ran against the blue of her veins. Some lines had scabbed over in dark stages of healing but others flared hot and new. “I think it will make me feel better, but then I do it and I just feel worse. But I can’t stop. Sometimes I don’t realize I’m doing it until it’s there on my arms.”
We told her that she needed to tell her parents. We crushed her with hugs and told her that we loved her, that she was so pretty and smart. I felt brave, saying these things to a friend in trouble, but Holly’s action scared me. We all said we hated our bodies, but I didn’t really hate mine, not enough to do that.
* * *
Joanna and I leave to pick up Shannon and Valerie. I have been driving this route my whole life. When you pass the high school on your right and the mailbox covered in yellow reflectors on your left, you know there are four houses left until Valerie’s. A few traffic lights still blink red, waiting to be reset. Huge trees lay flat with roots and earth pulled back like flaps of skin. Debris is everywhere.
The four of us are back in our childhood homes after college and a few first tries at living on our own. Joanna returned from a year of playing basketball in Croatia last month. I have been commuting to New York for an internship with a science magazine. I sift through letters to the editor and make coffee on the hour. I have no idea what I’m doing but at least I don’t have to pay rent. Shannon works for her mom, screen-printing shirts in the studio attached to their garage.
Valerie, the meekest of us all as children, has got her shit together the most now. She makes wine at a vineyard on the North Fork. Men are shrugged from her life like wet raincoats. When we go to nice restaurants, she orders for us all. She comes down the front steps of her house when she sees us pull up, and slides into the backseat.
“Is your power back yet?” she asks us.
“No,” Joanna says. I don’t say anything.
“Neither is mine. It feels like things will never be normal again.” Valerie tilts her head back. From the rearview mirror, I can see that she is balancing the tears that pool in her eyes. We drive in silence. Before we reach Shannon’s house, I have to leave the car in idle to drag a tree branch from the road.
* * *
When the rest of us went to college, Holly went to rehab upstate. Valerie overheard a phone conversation between her mom and Holly’s mom: it cost $10,000 a month to be there. She was in therapy for seven hours every day. It should’ve lasted six months.
We chose cards from our campus bookstores to send to Holly. Mine were fluffy and safe: a baby bunny in a cowboy hat, a poodle in curlers. I only ever wrote about the past, because that was what we shared. Remember that time we got kicked out of the bowling alley and you took the bowling shoes with you, I wrote. Do you think they still have that single red Converse sneaker you left behind?
I tried to get out of visiting her on the Saturday in July we planned that first summer, but leaving my friends to do it alone seemed worse than going through with the day trip. Joanna drove us in her family’s old Astrovan. We read horoscopes from the back pages of magazines to each other and pretended to fall asleep.
The rehab facility was a small campus of one-story buildings. We were given name tags and escorted to Holly’s residence hall, to her room at the end of a hallway with taupe berber carpet. Holly heard us coming and swung the door open wide. Her face was bloated and changed by the antidepressants. Paintings from her art therapy classes hung on otherwise empty walls: a girl crumbling into ash, trees stretching into birds that flew off the page. She used her fingers to paint; no brushes or pencils allowed.
We were given four hours to spend with our friend, whom I avoided talking to in case she could sense my fear. Shannon sat next to her when we went to a nail salon in a strip center next to the town’s supermarket. The manicurist frowned when she took Holly’s hands and spoke to a woman next to her in a language we didn’t know, saying words we could imagine. The first cuts Holly had shown us years ago were raised white scars, accompanied now by cigarette burns and a tattoo she gave herself with a needle and a broken Bic pen. “I’m sorry, I know they’re bad,” Holly said.
“Hol, you’re fine,” Shannon told her. “You’ll be okay.”
When we drove out of Brewster, the sun was setting in our eyes. Joanna pushed eighty on the highway. We put the windows down and screamed along to songs.
* * *
The four of us sit in the parking lot of Mather Hospital for a few minutes, gathering our thoughts. We were all born here. The sky is bright and clouds move fast above our heads. A man in flimsy slippers stands on the corner by the ambulance port, smoking a cigarette. There are stains on the front of his blue hospital gown and this, more than anything, breaks my heart.
We are blasted with hot air when the doors at the visitors’ entrance slide open. Holly’s father is standing in the lobby with his cell phone pressed to his ear. When he sees us, he raises a finger and finishes his call. In the cafeteria beyond the front desk, people sitting alone huddle over melamine coffee mugs in the same shade of teal. “Girls, she woke up half an hour ago,” he says. A leather belt does little to hold up his rumpled khakis. This latest tragedy has socked him.
We are given five minutes to see her. I file into the room last. An old woman sleeps in the first bed, body tucked into itself like a kidney bean. Holly’s side of the room is full of flowers and plush toys from the gift shop downstairs. I Love You, balloons read. Get Well Soon. There is a sweating plastic jug on the tray table next to her.
Holly’s hair is shorn. Her features are small and angular again. I can remember where on her cheeks that dimples appear when her mouth stretches into a smile. She is medicated so her movements are slow. “This is just like the old days,” Holly says. “The five of us together.”
“Kinda,” Joanna says, “but Hol, you’re in a hospital bed. This isn’t good. We’re worried about you.” I feel ashamed to be tucked into this declaration of we; I don’t deserve it. I am holding my breath to avoid the sterile stench of this room.
“It was a mistake. Someone in the house had pills, I only took a couple. I didn’t know what they were.” She raises a hand to her head and pulls at her hair, and Joanna backs off.
“We just love you, Holly. You have to remember that.” The girls murmur assent and move in for hugs.
“When I get better, we have to go back to that mini golf place out in Riverhead. Remember the time I hit the ball into the parking lot and it set off a car alarm?”
I am watching an IV bag leak medication into Holly’s arm so I don’t realize she’s talking to me at first. “Oh yeah, I do. That was a long time ago,” I say.
“Well, old friends are the best friends,” Holly says. Joanna nods and reaches for the water jug and a plastic cup. Shannon and Valerie each squeeze one of her hands, and I end up patting the hill of her calf under a crocheted hospital blanket.
* * *
When we were Girl Scouts we adopted a highway that bordered two sod farms on the southern stretch of our town. In orange vests, we picked up empty cups and dragged tires to the edge of the road. People dumped larger trash in the reeds and we uncovered it all: a children’s swimming pool, a porcelain toilet seat. While reaching for a discarded cell phone, I found a headstone instead. RUTH JAVITS, it read, BELU
And that was it. There were more: ANDREW WHITE US MARE
And one with Cherished Grandfather etched in four different fonts. A mason’s mistakes, ditched on the side of the road. We laughed about it then, about how maybe these people didn’t die, or couldn’t, so their headstones were just thrown away.
* * *
Soon they will begin electroshock therapy, and Holly’s memories will be ripped from their roots. The other girls will visit her in the halfway house where she lives and tell me about it afterwards, but my arm is stretched out now, palm pushing away, holding her at a distance. I am learning to say no. Still, there will be days when I am on the train, swayed backwards into thoughts of her wrists in cuffs and the electrodes placed at her temples. Commuters in long coats nap or tap at their phones while my childhood friend convulses on a metal slab. I know that’s not how they do it these days, that it is not so medieval and cruel, but the image will not leave my head. Grief would be easier than this, I tell myself, wishing it were not true.
Crews come from South Dakota and Nebraska to repair downed telephone poles and restore power to the East Coast. At Christmastime, we collect coats and gift cards to grocery stores for the families who are still displaced. When I look up, there are holes in the sky where trees used to be. The countertop jars in delicatessens fill, then empty, and eventually disappear.
In the spring, it will be time for the school physician to chart the growth of students in the district. He will sit on a teal vinyl chair in the nurse’s office of the elementary school, waiting for students to file in, our cousins and neighbors among them. Behind the white divider, he will ask them to touch their toes, folding into themselves as the teeth of their vertebrae rise from taut skin. He will measure the curve of little spines with a cardboard scoliometer. He will watch for mismatched topography and the roll of a mercury ball along the ticking of a crook’s degrees. The boys get high-fives and are sent on their way, but he will worry over the girls for a little while longer. Okay, now let me read your arms, he’ll say. Now let me see your arms.
Meghan Pipe lives and writes in Minneapolis, though her squawking vowels hint at New York roots. She’s been a finalist for Glimmer Train’s Very Short Fiction and New Writer Awards, and her work has been featured in Word Riot. When she isn’t writing short fiction, Meghan works at the Loft Literary Center and collects stamps in her Passport to the National Parks.
Drink this tea, he said, and you will fly naked
into starlight. I drank, felt tired, and sat on the couch
and ate potato chips. Drink this tea and you will not know
yourself. We drove along the freeway by your old school,
without direction or speed as light raptured down
through barred clouds scudding across sallow fields
where coyotes loped. Drink this tea and you can speak
to your dead lover in a stone wall and no tears will come.
You will hear angel trumpets and taste thorn apple,
henbane, mandrake, deadly nightshade…
Sleep was no longer sleep. I slept, a dull
flat space, and woke in fits for three days,
wondering where I’d find myself again. Myself,
bare flesh, reddening flesh, breath quick. The body
is where love ends and fear begins. Drink this tea
and you will feel the root of each emotion
in your limbs, your thumping, squeezebox chest,
sweat clings to your forehead, saturates the sheets,
your dreams are all fire and tongues
that surround God as he explodes into stars
in an expanding universe of chaos. I woke.
I stepped onto a balcony overlooking the sea,
the small beach town where I grew up.
The lighthouse flashes from a rocky point
and the scrolling waves pound sand.
Christopher Dollard’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Barrow Street, The Cossack Review, The Freshwater Review, The Little Patuxent Review, The Rappahannock Review, Redactions, Tirage Monthly, Watershed Review, and others. He lives in Providence, RI, where he works as a waiter to support his writing habit. Find him online at www.christopherdollard.com.
Some people live and die worse than their cows.
When the people were taken away cows lowed in the fields until they died.
When I talk about this to colleagues, they turn to one another, as if I’m crazy.
How do you talk about that at conferences? That’s much too practical for conferences.
That’s too practical even for poetry.
I remember the meadow where I cry
because I’m scared of a little dog, of the woods in which I get lost, and the dog finds me.
In the photographs they used to bring to us, shaggy new grass and wild onions had grown from the ashes.
Mom’s a stranger today, and she’s going on a fieldtrip, on a safari to her own country.
Are there flowers, where the two of us are going with a Gianni rental, growing from the uncle’s unripe vertebra. Or does someone’s tomato stake jut from Grandma’s toothless mouth.
We’ll get a rental in a nearby town.
When finally we go to our mountain.
We’ve been planning this safari for twenty years, every spring.
We wondered where our aunt went, with her black face and blue eyes.
She was already old, but never before had she left the village or the hamlet with hellebore and beehive.
Willful, fast and skinny, carried a rooster on her shoulder, drank rakija for breakfast, could tear a hog for bacon and cursed a lot, her stories were brilliant and her eyes bright.
Where did that peculiar aunt go, she smelled of sour udders and wool, and we ran from her hugs, and now, well, we’re sorry.
They say she was taken to the city, we found her in the school gym filled with old folks, sick on a mat. She asked: is this prison, well if it isn’t, why can’t I go out?
And she asked: what happened to my animals?
That’s where our mountain aunt with a sheep’s lock in her black hair went. And I climbed atop the well in the woods and shouted a secret: fuck you, motherfuckers.
She lugged away the house with her, the meadow, the hill, the dog and me. They say a young soldier took her. She lugged away the hay-barn with her, the ram, the smokehouse, the plum orchard, the snow and the summer and me.
That’s where our mountain aunt went, she didn’t come back. They say my sweetheart took her or someone who looks like him.
Later on, the third army arrived too, and burned the house down. The meadow, the hill, the dog and me. The ram, the plum orchard, the snow and the summer and me.
I’ve got wrinkles around my eyes, smiling ones, and one near my lips, the crying one.
I’m carrying a baby, paler than honey, fresh laundry smells, the husband pulls out curls from his chest, arrives with a black spark in his eyes, and on a leash leads a gentle cat and a white skiff.
This is my property, what I acquired.
I also have a dead baby in my stomach, in the hospital dump, half of dead father in the grave, under the vase, his legs in the hospital dump,
and dirty laundry and socks with holes, like everyone else from our beach I have,
those I never got over, those I did, the sick ones and the fucked ones…
A family blown out by a grenade, and finished off by a bureaucratic knife.
I even had this fool for whom I suffered a few years, if he were a disease, I would’ve died, this way nothing.
I’ve also got thunderous sisters with many husbands and children, they get straight A’s on their report cards and we give them money.
My mother finds me, and says: Sunshine, you put me together with the Earth.
I’ve got books, a desk, a chair. I don’t need more than two cubic meters for what I am and what I will be in death, and I’ve got more than that.
I grew up, that’s what my property tells me:
When we were little, tears used to be hot, now they cool us off.
When we were little laughter made our stomachs hurt, now we laugh so it won’t hurt.
Everything that is happening already happened.
Neki ljudi žive i umru gore od svojih krava.
Krave su do smrti mukale po poljima kad su odveli ljude.
Kad to ispričam znancima okrenu se sebi, kao da sam luda.
Kako o tome pričati na konferencijama? Za konferencije to je previše prakse.
To je previše prakse čak i za poeziju.
Sjećam se livade na kojoj plačem
jer se bojim malog psa, šume u kojoj se izgubim, a pas me nađe.
Na fotografijama koje su nam donosili, iz zgarišta je izrasla čupava mlada trava i divlji luk.
Mama je danas stranac i ona ide na izlet, na safari u svoju zemlju.
Ima ti tamo, kamo putujemo nas dvije rentakarom Gianni, cvijeća iz nezrelog ujakova pršljena. Ili taklja za nečije rajčice viri iz bakinih bezubih usta.
Iznajmit ćemo apartman u obližnjem gradiću.
Jednom kad odemo na našu planinu.
Planiramo taj safari dvadeset godina, svakog proljeća.
Gdje je otišla naša teta sa crnim licem i plavim očima, pitali smo se.
Bila je već stara, al nikad prije nije napuštala selo i zaselak s kukurijekom i košnicom.
Svojeglava, brza i mršava, nosila je pijetla na ramenu, za doručak pila je rakiju, mogla je rasparati svinju za slaninu i puno je psovala, njene su priče bile sjajne i njene su oči bile blistave.
Kamo je otišla ta osebujna teta, mirisala je na kiselo vime i vunu i bježali smo iz njenog zagrljaja, a sad nam je, eto, žao.
Kažu da su je odveli u grad, našli smo je u gimnastičkj dvorani sa starcima, bolesnu na školskoj strunjači. Pitala je: je li ovo zatvor, pa ako nije zašto ne smijem izaći?
Pitala je i: što je s mojim životinjama?
Tamo je otišla naša planinska teta s ovčjim pramenom u crnoj kosi. A ja sam otišla nad šumski bunar i viknula tajnu: jebem vam mater svima.
Odvukla je za sobom kuću, livadu, brdo, psa i meme. Kažu da ju je odveo mladi vojnik. Odvukla je za sobom sjenik, ovna, sušaru, snijeg i ljeto i mene.
Tamo je otišla naša planinska teta, nije se vratila. Kažu da ju je odveo moj dragi ili netko njemu sličan.
Kasnije je došla i treća vojska i do temelja spalila kuću. Livadu, brdo, psa i mene. Ov, šsljivik, snijeg i ljeto i mene.
Imam bore oko očiju smijalice i jednu pokraj usana plakalicu.
Nosim bebu, svjetliju od meda, oprano rublje miriše, a muž iznosi kovrče na grudima, dolazi s crnom iskrom u očima, vodi nježnog mačka i bijelu barku.
To je moje imanje, što sam stekla.
A imam i mrtvo dijete u trbuhu, na bolničkom smetlištu, pola mrtvog oca u grobu, ispod vaze, noge su mu na bolničkom smetlištu,
i prljavo rublje i probušene čarape, imam kao i svatko s naše plaže,
i nepreboljene preboljene, bolesne, pojebane . . .
Obitelj koju je raznijela granata, a dovršio birokratski nož.
Imala sam i neku budalu od koje sam patila nekoliko godina, da je bolest umrla bih, ovako ništa.
Imam i gromke sestre s puno muževa i djece, svi na kraju godine prođu s pet i damo im para.
Moja me mater nađe, pa mi kaže: Sunce, koje si me sa Zemljom sastavilo.
Imam knjige, stol, stolicu. Ne trebam više od dva kubna metra za ono što jesam i što ću biti u smrti, a imam više.
Odrasla sam, to mi govori moje imanje:
Kad smo bili mali, suze su bile vrele, sad nas hlade.
Kad smo bili mali od smijeha nas je bolio trbuh, a sad se smijemo da ne boli.
Sve što se događa dogodilo se.
Consider for a moment the world without translation: international news a mystery, foreign films without subtitles, various product guides incomprehensible. All the books on our shelves—Kundera and Murakami, Kafka, Hesse, Sapho, Baudelaire, Bulgakov—written in their original languages, not more useful or alive than room decor. It’s necessary, translation is. It creates our reality. Without it, the access and creative fuel it provides, we would descent into some sorry existential and artistic apathy. And what we get in translation is just a sliver of world literature, and that sliver rarely contains ‘minor’ languages. That’s why I translate. I think it’s crucial.
As for the process of translating poetry, it starts with getting to know the original poem—swimming inside its ambiguities, allusions, subtleties, its metaphors and music. You then dissolve all that, and try to recreate it into another language. At a certain point you start feeling as if you’re not just rendering but writing the poem. I’ve heard people compare translation to performance, and I guess it can be called that, in the sense that a translator doesn’t, can’t imitate or become the original poet. It’s simply that a translator gets into a mental space that feels as if she is actually making this poem, breathing life into it, as if the poem is coming into existence for the first time. Well, at least in this linguistic reality.
Olja Savičević Ivančević is a Croatian writer whose work has been translated into German, Czech, Italian, Spanish, French, Macedonian, Polish, Ukranian, Lithuanian, and Zulu, among other languages. Her first collection of poetry, It Will Be Tremendous When I Grow Up, was published in 1988, when Olja was only 14. Her other books of poetry include: Eternal Kids (1993); Female Manuscripts (1999); Puzzlerojc (2005); House Rules (2007), winner of the prestigious Croatian award Kiklop; and Mamasafari (2012). Her collection of short stories, To Make A Dog Laugh (2006), and her debut novel, Farewell, Cowboy (2010), won several Croatian literary awards. Her short stories have been adapted to short films and Farewell, Cowboy has been adapted for the stage in Croatia and England. This year McSweeney is publishing her novel in English. Olja is an all-around artist, and often collaborates with theatres as a dramatist and writes lyrics for theatre songs.
Her writing is rich in local color. Her characters are often disillusioned dreamers, truth-facing oddballs, subversive survivors, likeable antiheros. Throughout her works, her tone is subtly cutting, but always compassionate and very accessible. The poems included here—“Child and I,” “Character” and “Kolja”—are from Mamasafari, book she wrote during her visit to Istanbul. This collection is a Turkish travelogue of sorts that is juxtaposed with meditations on the author’s home, family, childhood, and the memory of war. I always admired Olja’s use of language, her brand of understated brilliance, her knack for description, her use of regional (Dalmatian) dialect, her piercing yet sharp commentary. When I read Mamasafari during my visit home to Croatia, I was bummed out that my American friends and English speakers in general were missing out on this, so I decided to translate it. The process consisted of literal translation first that was followed with endless waves of revisions. I was very mindful of preserving the tone of poems, the textured sounds of dialect use, and the role of punctuation in the pacing of the poems. And all of that terrifically sweet tension Olja creates in the original text was both challenge and fun during translation.
Olja Savičević Ivančević is a Croatian author whose work has been translated into German, Czech, Italian, Spanish, French, Macedonian, Polish, Ukranian, Lithuanian, and Zulu, among other languages. Her collections of poetry include: It Will Be Tremendous When I Grow Up (1988); Eternal Kids (1993); Female Manuscripts (1999); Puzzlerojc (2005); House Rules (2007), winner of the prestigious Croatian award Kiklop; and Mamasafari (2012). Her collection of short stories, To Make A Dog Laugh (2006), and her novel, Adios, Cowboy (2010), won several Croatian literary awards. Adios, Cowboy is forthcoming in English by McSweeney’s in 2015.
Andrea Jurjević is a native of Croatia. Her poems have appeared in The Journal, Harpur Palate, Raleigh Review, Best New Poets, The Missouri Review, and elsewhere; her translations of Croatian poetry can be found in Lunch Ticket, RHINO, Berkeley Poetry Review and The Adirondack Review. She is the winner of the 2013 Robinson Jeffers Tor Prize, the 2014 Der-Hovanessian Translation Award and the 2015 RHINO Translation Prize.
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