Writers Read: Reeling Through Life by Tara Ison

In Reeling Through Life: How I Learned to Live, Love and Die at the Movies, Tara Ison taps into her subconscious and squeezes out a rich stream of life lessons. Weaving her personal stories together with scenes from iconic films, Ison reflects on the “influence of film on [her] own authenticity” (5) and specifically examines how these powerful celluloid images influenced her definition of self as a Jew, as a writer, and as a female wrestling with sensuality and sanity. Not only do we learn about Ison, but we are introduced to the cast of characters in her life and, through her lens, we are reminded of our own cast of characters and the movie moments that shaped us and guide us to this day.

Ison’s nimble shifts in point-of-view, along with objective and subjective narration, create a highly dimensional experience for the reader as we move across time, while delving into deep emotional territory. In the chapter entitled “How To Lose Your Virginity,” we are taken on a field trip to see Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, along with Ison and her classmates. Ison puts us in the film of her childhood memories of watching that film and experiencing a sexual awakening right there in the Nuart Theater.[blockquote align=left]These powerful celluloid images influenced her definition of self as a Jew, as a writer, and as a female wrestling with sensuality and sanity.

Just as soon as we understand the roots of that longing, Ison uses another film to support the notion that she “was not alone in this,” quoting Tatum O’Neal from the film Little Darlings, when she says “I envy Juliet.” Little Darlings influences the teenage Ison’s decisions about losing her virginity as does Fast Times at Ridgemont High several years later. Ison splices together scenes and sound bites from multiple movies per chapter—as many as ten or more—while consistently editing in the most important footage of all—footage from the movie called Tara Ison’s life. Just as Ison refers to movie titles as “Proustian,” her juxtaposition of classic film sequences with pivotal life experiences triggers a Proustian reaction for readers whose minds will connect their “first time” moments with their own influential “first time” film series.

Tara Ison, author of Reeling Through Life.

Tara Ison, author of Reeling Through Life.

Ison’s “How To Go Crazy” opener and her “How To Be A Writer” closer seem to act as bookends for the seven chapters that fall in between. An assertive first person statement kicks off both and places us squarely into the never predictable world of Tara Ison, before releasing us for intermission between chapters with a memorable takeaway. In the preface, Ison says there is “a time for examination, and a time for immersion,” referring to her reluctance to analyze film as a moviegoer. That said, what makes Reeling Through Life so powerful is the examination and the exactitude with which Ison shares highly nuanced and emotional experiences. She has done the work for us so that now, as readers, we can sit back with some popcorn and immerse ourselves in the flickering memories of her resonant words and ideas.

Reeling Through Life: How I Learned to Live, Love, and Die at The Movies, Tara Ison, Soft Skull Press, 2015.

Born on a small island near Puerto Rico called Manhattan, Rochelle credits her Lower East Side roots with her love of culture, humor, and language. She lives in Los Angeles, has over three decades of U.S. Hispanic marketing experience, and is a recent Antioch MFA graduate. She holds a BFA in theatre from UC Irvine. Her work has appeared in Lilith Magazine, Role Reboothaikuniverse, NAILED, Advertising Age, and Lunch Ticket.

Now More Than Ever, Kendrick Lamar and Beyoncé

(What the white man say?)
A piece of mine’s
That’s what the white man wanted when I rhyme

“Untitled 3,” Kendrick Lamar

TPAB

In my small mountain hometown of Bailey, Colorado—filled with rednecks, conservative Christians, new age hippies, construction workers, adventure enthusiasts, and commuters to Denver, most of whom, like me, were white—I grew up knowing only two black kids. South Park is pretty much an amalgamation of the towns of Golden, Fairplay, and Evergreen, Colorado—all of which are a forty-minute drive from Bailey—and South Park, too, only has two black characters, one of whom is named, tellingly, “Token.”

Through music and literature, I became introduced to black American perspectives. In high school, rap and hip-hop weren’t necessarily my favorite genres, but I enjoyed them, and listened to them. My parents wouldn’t allow me to buy CDs or tapes with ominous “Explicit Content” warnings, but by then hip-hop had made its way into mainstream pop culture and the homes of black and white alike. I recorded songs by Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg from the radio onto blank cassette tapes with my Sony boom box. My first mix-tapes. I could play the songs back whenever I wanted.

Lem 1

There is a strong history in this country of colonialism and cultural appropriation. To pretend America has always been a monolithic culture of white European Christian ancestry is to be willfully ignorant of history and plain reason. Many times we profited from the appropriation.

Maybe it’s my own awakening,  but I was struck this past year by the incredible string of music and literature that address race, black identity, and the black body. Albums and books that successfully dismantle and take on the dominant narrative. The narrative of white, modern, Western-European- influenced culture, that is sometimes called America.

This past year, Kendrick Lamar released To Pimp a Butterfly, and Beyoncé released her visual album, Lemonade. Ta-Nehisi Coates published Between the World and Me, and National Book Award Finalist Claudia Rankine released her book of poetry and lyrical essays about the black female body, Citizen. The hip-hop musical Hamilton, which consists of a mostly Latino and black cast, was recently nominated for an unprecedented sixteen Tony Awards. The rap group Run the Jewels brought politics back into hip-hop, with members Killer Mike (black) and El-P (white) slinging take-down lyrics about the police, the state, and the church with a ferocity and intelligence I’ve not seen before. They joined forces with folks like Zach de la Rocha from Rage Against the Machine and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Indie-music site Pitchfork named 2015 the best year of rap since 1993, and Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright,” is practically the video that represents the Black Lives Matter movement.

The two biggest recent albums, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly and Beyoncé’s Lemonade, show truly inspired artists at the top of their game. What Beyoncé and Lamar have in common is their ability to write music across multiple levels. Essentially, both Lemonade and To Pimp a Butterfly resemble novels more than they do entertainment albums or Top 40 singles. These novelistic albums require participation and engagement and operate in a variety of voices and styles. They transcend mere music.

Lem 2Lemonade hit HBO for a limited release on April 23rd, and then went straight to the new music streaming service, Tidal. In Lemonade the film, Beyoncé swaggers as a proud woman, jealous wife, and overall badass/goddess of the universe. On the surface, the album is about infidelity and her rocky relationship, supposedly with her husband Jay-Z. Beyoncé spits such lyrics as “You ain’t married to no average bitch, boy,” and “You can keep your money, I got my own,” but the album also contains a diverse array of musical influences and visual styles.

Lemonade prominently features poems by poet Warsan Shire, who was born in Ethiopia to Somalian parents. Shire’s poems form the punctuation between Beyoncé’s songs, adding even more power, punch, and depth to the commentary on black female bodies, power, inferiority, and on. Though the album begins with the theme of infidelity, it soon delivers a manifesto on the black female experience, because more than Beyoncé’s relationship with Jay-Z, Lemonade is about race, identity, gender politics, sex, and power. To focus solely on the infidelity story misses the point.

In “Beyoncé’s Lemonade is Made for Readers,” Jamie Moore’s article for Book Riot, she analyzed the album through a narrative lens. Moore writes that the album causes us to ask the same questions as would a novel, such as, “How much of this is autobiographical/what is the context for the content?”

KenrickKendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, which utilizes many literary devices, including alliteration, rhyme schemes, multiple POV’s, anaphora, metaphor, allegory, and so oncan also be called a novelistic album. At the most basic level, the first-person lyrics tell about growing up in Compton (“King Kunta,” “Hood Politics,”) and touch on some larger socio-political themes (“How Much a Dollar Cost,” “i,” “Mortal Man”). The next level goes deeper—one wherein Lamar occupies a variety of voices and visions (“Wesley’s Theory”, “Institutionalized”, “Untitled I”). As the lyrics shift from one topic to another, the point of view changes, and Lamar switches voices and tempos, similarly to Nicki Minaj in Kanye West’s “Monster.”

Listening to Lamar and Beyoncé’s new albums, I am reminded of our MFA Program Director Steve Heller’s presentation about voice, at our December 2015 residency. Writers, he said, do not operate using one single voice, but go in and out of many different voices throughout their works. In her seminar at the same residency, Lidia Yuknavitch spoke about heteroglossia. A term coined by Russian linguist Mikhail Bahktin, heteroglossia is the co-existence of distinct varieties within a single language or book, or in this case, album. Both Lemonade and To Pimp a Butterfly present stories outside of the “mono voice,” in opposition to the dominant, white, homogeneous voice. Both albums braid multiple narratives into their songs.

Macklemore, a white rapper, tried to tackle the issue of race in his song “White Privilege II.” Whether or not he succeeded depends on your point of view, which largely depends upon if you if you are black or white. He succeeded if you feel that he reached people who would not otherwise listen to artists like Lamar and Beyoncé; he failed if you take issue with a white man trying to address the problem of racial inequality from his position of power and privilege. The Black Lives Matter organization said that they “appreciate the effort,” and explained how Macklemore and his team had opened up a dialogue with BLM before the debut of the song.

And yet, I often wonder: Even here, writing this, am I doing the same thing?

As Lidia Yuknavitch said, if you shut out the other voices to the story–voices not typically part of the dominant cultural narrative–you are committing a colonialist act. In this way, Lemonade and To Pimp a Butterfly are two of the most important albums of my generation. They tackle the intellectual, personal, racial, and socioeconomic issues of our day. The timing could not be more pressing. With the rise of white nationalism, the current political state of our country seems to point to two very different national identities. One wishes to celebrate and propagate one cultural narrative over the others, and doesn’t acknowledge that it has been the single voice for much of our history, and that perhaps there are other lenses / perspectives out there. The other identity is the one that recognizes the varied perspectives.

I recently heard poet/speaker, Micah Bournes, talk at a church about how what we assume is “orthodox” theology is primarily white-European theology, and that this is not bad per se, but that most of us fail to acknowledge the particular lens this theology represents. A multiplicity of voices exist and have existed for many years. What Beyoncé and Lamar show us in their music is a diversity of experience outside of the mono-culture—whether it’s race or gender.

This recognition of diversity is more important than ever.

Dearth

Audrey CarrollAudrey T. Carroll is a Queens, NYC native whose obsessions include kittens, coffee, Supernatural, Buffy, and the Rooster Teeth community. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Fiction International, So to Speak, Feminine Inquiry, the A3 Review, and others. Her poetry collection, Queen of Pentacles, is forthcoming from Choose the Sword Press. She can be found at http://audreytcarrollwrites.weebly.com and @AudreyTCarroll on Twitter.

 

Matriarchal

We wake again pleading for the last time,
a forked tongue once lost between planetary

failures. Their rotation had become dangerous
like birthing hips on the move, either circled

in naked light, or coiling an orbit around
the throat of some dark diviner’s rabbit.

Anti-gravity had taken its unsteered toll,
the air having long been pressed out under

mean flesh, gaze wild and glassy. Gasping
a final incantation at the closing of eyes,

she prepares herself for the difficult
reentry, asks me to please cover up

her body with the stained-blue skin
of a warrior, or perhaps the fine cloth

of an ancient priestess, smiling the creased sorrows
of our plastic spacesuits back to me. She understands

that we will not come this time with grappling
hooks, pressure gauges, flood lights, steel cages,

tightly bound pages, ticking timers, and tested rules, all
these dusty instruments for making wasted spaces

between a concentric star
and a ghost that cannot answer.

I will lay in its powdery surface
and feel the rock beneath me.

Jennifer Seaman CookJennifer’s academic scholarship in the arts, media, technology, and visual and public cultures is augmented by her intermedial practices in poetry, creative non-fiction essay, and documentary. Her most recent essays can be found in Salon, PopMatters, and Heide Hatry’s photography book Not a Rose. Jennifer’s poetry has been published or is forthcoming in Cedilla Literary Journal (archived at University of Montana), Avatar Review, After the Pause, and more. Jennifer teaches regularly in American Studies at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

To Hildegard

The tenth child, your parents gave you to the church
as tithe; I don’t know if I would do the same
had I ten, twenty, a hundred to my name. In our church,
the young families have begun to foster local children,
taken from mothers who are high, forgetful, taken from days
spent strapped in a car seat in the middle of an empty room.

One child has lost all of her words for love, another has lost
the correct shape of his head. He does not know how to hold
himself up, unaccustomed to free movement, to being held.
The State likes blood families; if mama shapes up,
she’ll get them back next month.

You see and hear, The Lord is holy in anointing
the dangerously stricken.

Born with a closed fist, I have a blue-collar sensibility
for giving. I count my children as mine. A child asleep
in each bed, innocence nested in every corner of my house,
careful packed, as if for travel. The day has no end to its asking.

You speak and write, The Lord is holy in wiping
the reeking wound.

The Lord, when he spoke to you, Fragile One,
was as a brilliant light, permeating your brain;
here all of the lights are out, except for the afternoon
cloud-choked sun, persistent in offering
its white light through drawn blinds.

Renee Emerson

Renee Emerson is the author of Keeping Me Still (Winter Goose Publishing 2014). She lives in Arkansas with her husband and three daughters. www.reneeemerson.wordpress.com

Spotlight: Longing, as dirge / Elegy / Epitaphs for a state you’ve never seen

Longing, as dirge

The wood in warp
and disrepair has had
its share of everything.
Never drinking

not even rye
and absinthe puddled
sickly on this old porch.
No, the sazerac’s

candy burn fails to impress
this sagging terrace—
it smolders on as coal
beneath the eves.

Although my foot
glances toward his thigh
and his hand
takes rest on my forearm,

our company is obsolete.
This portico—content
with former carnage dusted
and caked to its planks,

and the adirondack chairs,
free of lust, counsel us
with a deep recline
that slumbers toward

tomorrow. Still our flesh is deaf
and with each manhattan
our niceties crumble
dry to the red earth,

and our coy postures
seep toward
further mixing.
With bourbon’s glaze

his eyes undo me
blink by blink, his chin
becomes my thigh, and slivers

of chipped paint, my hair.
As the cocktails pour sticky
on our skin we think,
such wooden solitude is nothing like our tangle—

 

Elegy

++++++++++for Stevie
++++++++++August 5, 1975-June 21, 2015

I’ve heard you spent the last of life between
patched-out lines in a big box store parking lot.
News travels like this, the wrong details

in color—the earth of you: warm and rusted
skin and early gray against the artificial sparkle
of those yellow tracks. My hum is not why

I take where and string it above this grief. Which
cart boy found your melting smile?
Which peopled crosswalks, impassable at noon,

laced a hedge around your limbs? How hot
was summer’s asphalt, sheer the highway whine?
How we hush your name tonight

throughout the bar knowing anyone of us
had been so close to your departure—knowing
I’ve been at the edge of torn dimensions with you.

Our drug-bittered tongues waved peels of laughter
across night’s skin, the trees our buoys in a pastel sea.
This time you tore off, ripped your body

free like a kite hauled away through the gorge,
the forest anchored below you, looking up
++++++++++++++++++++at your flying grin.

 

Epitaphs for a state you’ve never seen

In this one, a burro holds down
a scrubby pasture. Here, the Rio Grande
trickles dirty through a deep cut.
Pictured here, a cache of mountains swells
into the sky. A neighbor’s wall guards
the fruit trees that bend toward the fading,
turquoise-painted gate. And there, in the distance
an empty morada sifts each breeze.
From the camera angle you cannot see it,
but if you do visit, see penitente blood
on the cell walls, a backlash collage.
All summer these postcards have sat on the piano
unsung—white-backed simulacra spread
before me. How do I begin Dear Sister
and tell you I’ll never find it all,
of America I mean. How to say I’m sure
I’ll have to become something else entirely
before signing off Write soon or Love from NM.
How do I say I’ve lost my faith in the clouds?
Because I’ve spotted their act—
skittering across every sky like a happy,
sick dogma. Because the end won’t come
in a moment of condensation, but of dispersal—
where any body might as well just be
a pulp of whipped flesh, cushion
for cactus thorns and gravel
where we tried to save ourselves.

EE LampmanEE Lampman’s poems have been featured in The Missing Slate, Gulf Stream Literary Magazine, Poetry City, USA, and other publications. She is a poetry reader for The Cimarron Review, an editorial contributor to Hazel & Wren, and a Tupelo Press 30/30 Project alumna. She lives and writes in Oklahoma where she is an MFA candidate in poetry at Oklahoma State University.

Aturdido

There is a black and white photo of El Capitolio on the wall of Abuelo’s house.
Its icy frame catches the golden dust in the kitchen air, appearing
Pardo. There is no such term in English. He tells me of the colors
like a dream. Suddenly, I am ten again, learning Spanish and shame,
drowning. He asks me, what’s wrong, as I struggle through my very first
foreign language assignment. In Spanish there are two verbs which
in English are both glossed as to know. The primary distinction is
whether the knowledge is a matter of fact or familiarity. In English,

to know is often used to indicate agreement rather than knowledge.
We sit at this same table, an asymmetric pentagon with a long arm,
he built himself. When I cannot translate a sentence about Cuba,
he says I must try harder, and I want so badly to explain why I am
confused, but my tongue will not cooperate. It, frozen in its complete
inability to decide whether knowledge of our people is propositional
or personal, betrays me. I have no answer more than I know. Now,
over coffee we talk politics. Or rather, we don’t. Hand held firmly around

the handle of a discolored mug, he brings the boiling black to his lips.
Mine, with cream, still burns my tongue. I stir in more, captured
by the contagion it casts. Curious, how just a drop renders the whole
of it white. He calls me back by name. Mine and his. It sits between us,
a vast and thrashing ocean. At this angle, El Trabajo and La Virtud Tutelar
perch on his shoulders. I apologize, lost somewhere in the current’s revolution,
and ask about our family. There are relatives he insists he can’t remember,
but I know them. He reminds me history has scattered us: exiles,

immigrants, Americans, those who stayed to support, to watch the house,
those who couldn’t get out. The ocean seems obvious, but I do not think
he can see how we have each become an island in our unfamiliarity.
We cannot agree. It is far too personal. We are too far left, or right.
We do not have all of our rights left. No one is right. We left. I can see
his skin crawl at the thought of Cold War. His blood boils. His face is twisted
as he toils to bite his tongue. He tells me to forget it. It’s in the past.
And he holds the coffee closer as he softly recalls childhood visits. In Spanish,

there are two verb tenses that in English are considered the past.
The difference is a matter of interior composition. I dream of filling us
whole. I imagine an old home bright in the glow of dusk, lechón roasting
the thick air and dancing. But his skin is so thin, I fear the mere proposition
would hurt him. Whether what is described is viewed as discrete and over,
or as ongoing and indefinite is irrelevant in English. The past is simply
the past: a matter of fact. Spanish requires deciding if the past is living,
if it is as it was, if it is sustained and continued. Knowledge of the past

must also be personal or propositional. This is how history is fragmented,
how memory becomes reality. In the photo there is a curvesome Buick
Roadmaster parked along the palm trees of El Paseo. They do not manufacture
these cars any more, but I know it still runs. Though I can scarcely describe
the view in Spanish, I am sure that I know the colors. By now the coffee
has cooled, and I try to unlearn this silence. I know that we all dream
the same dream differently. Yes, it is a matter of fact. We can never return
to the Cuba that we left because our familiar imagining is not right.

But I don’t know how to say it. Not to him. Abuelo tells me he is cold.
I wish I could give him back this name I am burning in. He is a friolero.
English does not have a word. The term Cold War suggests conflict
without violence. It says without saying. It does and denies. And I still do
not have a way to tell him what’s wrong because there is a revolution
of memory between each generation. Though it is the past, I know it is not
over since I am still drowning. I cannot forget language is an ocean.
We are its islands, and not everything translates.

Robert EsnardRobert Américo Esnard was born and raised in the Bronx, New York and studied Linguistics with Social Psychology at Dartmouth College. He has always been fascinated by the myriad ways he is read and obscured. It is this personal and academic experience with semiotics that motivates his work as a poet and a dramatist.

My Mother’s Mouth, A Gift Horse

Father glowers into her mouth—
a drain, clogged with leftovers,
a dirty sun. Lays his fork down,
swallows mashed potatoes
like they’re whole.
Her mouth, which never stays closed,
happily churns herring morsels and syllables
into viscous mounds that morph whole
sentences into crowds,
spilling in and out of a rush hour train
until nobody’s sure who’s going where.

At fifteen, she took the subways
to university. Alone in the big city,
no one saw her chew
when her father sent food
from home, where no one looked
gift horses in the mouth.
She’d bite thick chunks right off precious
pink meat, lick clean salt crystals
stuck in cracks of chapped lips.
On graduation day, he gifted her
a rope of sausage, apples, and good rye.
How they laughed, food flying from their mouths
on strings of salt-saturated joy.
And on her wedding day the same
and everyday until he passed away,
the same open mouth.

My father taught me not to talk
while I eat. He scowls into
my mother’s, a horse’s mouth,
that from afar looks almost human.
I keep chewing. She washes
his underwear, raises us
his way, eats alone. And in a different life,
her father praises her every tooth
like some ancient men worshipped horses,
like they praised the sun.

Tamara HartTamara Hart is a poet and a teacher. Her work, like her life, explores her Ukrainian/Jewish heritage and how it influences the everyday. Tamara writes about family dynamics, gender roles, immigration, and the passage of time in her poetry. Her work has appeared in Lamplighter Magazine. She writes and lives in New Jersey with her husband, son, and two over-fed cats.

 

Archaeology of Silence

Can we assume the bald man dresses
himself in a skin-colored turtleneck
to intentionally resemble a phallus
or must he announce he’s studied Freud?

When she suggests I think outside the box
I respond that saying think outside the box
is an example of thinking inside the box.

She looks at me like I’m French-Canadian,
her eyes dull as tulip bulbs that never bloomed,
and claims I resemble Connecticut:
my best quality’s my proximity to New York.

Her diction’s as crowded as Walmart’s parking lot
on Sunday but the more she talks
the less I listen, my protests pointless
as pockets in an infant’s pajama pants.

It’s better not to admit the thoughts
double-parked in my brain extend to —

There’s an awful lot of wrinkles in these wrinkle-free pants.
It’s probably the creamer but this coffee tastes like crayon.
Should I tip the delivery drone and wish it a good weekend?

We’re all geniuses when we’re quiet.

Should I join a gym to look like a guy who goes to the gym?
Do I purchase fireworks from the man with three fingers on his right hand?
The miracle of miracles is people believe in miracles.

Sometimes silence is the stone shown
but never thrown. Still, we honor the artist,
not the art; credit the rebel who hurled
the rock with heroism, never the rock itself.

WinnerBrad Johnson of the 2012 Longleaf Press Chapbook Contest, Brad Johnson has published four chapbooks of poetry. His first full-length collection, The Happiness Theory, was published by Main Street Rag in January 2014. Work of his has also been accepted by Nimrod, Permafrost, Poet Lore, The South Carolina Review, The Southeast Review, Southern Indiana Review, Willow Springs, and others.

Content is a glimpse

Content is a glimpse
+++++Willem de Kooning

+++++We look at the world once, in childhood.
+++++
The rest is memory.
++++++++++
Louise Glück

1. Cóntent is a Glimpse

Trapped in the dream of wisdom birthed out of the deep desire for a magisterial eye’s
+++++deific “I am” fantasy of a scalpel-sharp panoptical glimpse, itself at war with
+++++objects’ sexy adhesive lust, carving names loose, the whole world cited, sliced
+++++and diced, precise, to resolve the unsolved moot,
a single mind’s cranky light-machine, lost in the daze of its concocted blaze, unconscious
of its own hankering that shreds the world’s bright fabric into rags and waste, left
+++++sprawled and galled—
taxonomized, anatomized, categorized, itemized, pigeonholed, (do not staple or fold),
+++++sorted, aborted, graded, rated, played out and laid out, named and dated, racked
+++++and stacked by form and norm, median, mean, waft, heft, height, weight,
+++++heterogeneity, homogeneity, blood type, genotype, and phenotype;
the whole dismembered world rendered a mess of bits manipulated beyond measure,
+++++beyond pleasure,
so the whole mind-bullied creation shits its innards in a bright tangle, hiding itself and
+++++flummoxing the hungry hunter;
so the project of seeing precisely sees precisely

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++nothing,

blinded by bright profusion and deafened by the rowdy, bawdy whoosh of objects flying
+++++to each other when they will, beyond the limits of our mind-inscribed, gimcrack,
+++++jerry-rigged event horizon.

2. Contént is a Glimpse

Dreaming newborn Adam, waking to god’s voice, with his first glimpse saw everything
+++++at once and entire
in the glittering voices of Eden’s song, weaving light and shadow, singing alleluia at the
+++++wedding of void and form,
and shimmering with void’s ecstasy, knowing itself to be form’s darling and bliss, form knowing itself
+++++to be void’s best beloved;
all this in the infinitesimal instant in Eden when god was about to speak the “אָנוֹכִי” of his
+++++majesty, and not even then,
but just at that moment when god’s throat clicked as he thought to say, “אָנוֹכִי,”
Adam, born of us, bearing us, in that same instant knowing himself, thought, “אָנוֹכִי,” so
+++++they were one voice,
and as god’s immense, etheric circle contained Adam, so Adam’s minuscule bone circle
+++++contained god,
and in that first flawless, glimpse Adam saw for us all
the brotherhood of the river delta and the fibers of a feather and the roots of a tree and its
+++++branches and blood vessels’ nets pulsing and the track of mud that bursts and
+++++branches and spills through a bank of spring snow and the track of love that rises,
+++++clefts and flows, filling and freeing a life frozen until that moment and the spread
+++++of his hand overlapped by god’s hand, holding god’s hand, cherished, in his palm
and how the hum of a voice about to speak a word fosters and cherishes all words,
+++++implicit,
and how his “אָנוֹכִי,” contained god and spoke god into life.
And Adam glimpsed everything and was content and beheld it was very good.

(אָנוֹכִי (anochi) Hebrew for “I”)

David KannDavid Kann is a refugee from a long walkabout in the outback of academic administration. Having returned to sanity, he now teaches, writes, and avoids every committee assignment he possibly can. His chapbook, The Language of the Farm, won the Five Oaks Press chapbook contest and was published last year.

 

It’s All Uphill (Unless It’s Downhill) From Here

When I graduated from University of California, Irvine in 1980, with a BFA in theatre, I didn’t stick around for the commencement speech. The day of my last class was the same day I boarded a plane and flew back to New York. I hadn’t been in Southern California by choice. Six years had gone by since my aerospace engineer father lost his job on the east coast and found one out west. I was about to start high school when my life was interrupted. I had vowed to get back to New York as soon as I possibly could.

In New York, I began to pursue my creative passions. I wrote plays, auditioned, and co-founded a theatre company. Sustaining those pursuits, however, became a challenge. It wasn’t long before my part-time ad agency job went fuller-than-full-time. In 1990, I was asked to open the agency’s first satellite office—in Los Angeles. I said no. But my actor boyfriend was interested in the career possibilities, and agreed to go to L.A. with me if I went. I said maybe. The reality was, since going the steady paycheck route, I wasn’t really getting much acting or writing done. So, against my better judgement, I agreed to give the west coast another try. Maybe if I was 3,000 miles away from the agency’s main office, I could squeeze in some creative time.

In L.A., I signed up for a weekend workshop on personal branding for actors—the basic premise being that we all have an essence that informs how others perceive us, and, before we ever say a word, our essence projects more about us than we realize. The sooner we understand that, the sooner we can get comfortable in our own skin and leverage our strengths. Self-awareness goes a long way, but we don’t get there alone.

After a series of exercises, my seven classmates and I tried our best to capture each others’ essences, and synthesize our findings into slogan-like statements. I was excited to hear what they came up with for me. Until I wasn’t.

“The truth is Sisyphus loves the rock,” my classmate read aloud.

There was a lot of head nodding and smiling.

“Yes, definitely,” the others said. “That really fits.”

I tried to mask my reaction with a question that would be read as thoughtful and not disappointed: “He’s the guy who has to keep rolling a boulder up a hill, even though it just rolls down again?” Just checking if we were all talking about the same Sisyphus.

We were.

I wanted to disagree, but I couldn’t. It really did fit. I just didn’t like the way it made me feel. They were right, and I realized it bothered me. Virtual strangers could see right through me. They could tell the reason I was still struggling with work, relationships, and time—the reason I was still pushing a boulder up a hill only to see it roll down again—was because I wouldn’t know what to do if that rock wasn’t there. The rock represented burden, struggle, futility, a day-to-day monotony filled with meaningless tasks. And, as dreary as all that sounds, there was something to love about sameness, the known versus the unknown. There had to be, or I wouldn’t keep pushing the damn rock, now would I?

Whether or not my interpretation was right, just the awareness that my internal struggle was visible and nameable had an impact. I relaxed into the role, tried to live with it instead of fighting it, and looked forward to, one day, an amicable divorce from the rock. Sisyphus faded as time passed.

*     *     *

Over a decade later, a sleep-deprived workaholic, I decided to go back to school and get my MFA. The decision awakened dormant passions, and reconnected me with authors I had not thought about since college, Camus among them.

Camus’ belief that “it is legitimate and necessary to wonder if life has meaning,” is the fundamental subject of his essay collection, The Myth of Sisyphus. In recounting this myth, Camus leaves the reader with this thought: “We must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

So I did—this time through the lens of a fifty-plus-year-old writer. I started to question ingrained assumptions. Maybe Sisyphus did love the rock after all? Who’s to say that, conscious of life’s absurdities, Sisyphus didn’t embrace the whole experience? Perhaps one person’s rut is another person’s flow. I started to think about the rock as a writer’s blank page. How rolling that rock might be as much task and tedium as revolution and rebellion. The journey up hill is the focused, intense effort of moving work forward.

“It is during that return, that pause, that Sisyphus interests me,” writes Camus. “If the descent is thus sometimes performed in sorrow, it can also take place in joy.”

I had never really thought about the return. Now I give it my undivided attention, and reframe what I thought was defeat as an act of defiance. Camus suggests that when Sisyphus steps away from the rock, consciousness begins. I view stepping away as a form of digression, an opportunity for our absurd hero to wander, if only mentally, and to achieve what Italo Calvino calls the “multiplying of time within the work.” In other words, digression may purposefully slow things down. Calvino refers to digression as “a strategy for putting off the ending,” referring to death, of course. Camus’ absurdist vision isn’t about putting off the ending, per se, but about accepting the end, while exploring and searching for meaning in spite of it.

*     *     *

They say David Foster Wallace was reading The Myth of Sisyphus in the months leading up to his suicide. It seems to me that Wallace’s iconic commencement speech, “This is Water,” may have been influenced by Camus’ essays, a collection called a reaffirmation of “the value of personal existence, and the possibility of life lived with dignity and authenticity.” “This is Water” reaffirms much of the same values and possibilities. The speech is about awareness, empathy, and meaning; to quote David Foster Wallace, it’s about “how consciously choosing what to think about will make the day-to-day slog that is daily life somewhat more bearable.” I read this and I hear, “We must imagine Sisyphus happy.” And commencement takes on new meaning. “Je suis revenu à mon commencement,” wrote Camus. I’m back to my beginning.

I get on with my writing. I stay focused, taking on that blank page, moving it forward with the effort needed to birth words from a finite pond full of letters swimming around in my head, and try to understand their meaning as I descend. Until, that is, I get distracted again.

As I make my way from my writing space to my bathroom, a Sisyphean ritual in and of itself, I pause in front of the television. Footage from Sheryl Sandberg’s commencement speech draws me in. “When life sucks you under, you can kick against the bottom, break the surface, and breathe again,” says the Facebook COO and author of Lean In. It is Sandberg’s first public reflection on the abrupt death of her husband a year ago. “I learned that in the face of the void—or in the face of any challenge,” she adds, “you can choose joy and meaning.” Okay, so she’s no David Foster Wallace, but the point remains the same: This is Water. Perhaps the best role model for leaning in is Sisyphus, after all.

For Camus, artists held a special place in an absurd world, and a profound connection to the void of which Sandberg speaks. “To work and create ‘for nothing’,” Camus writes, “to sculpture in clay, to know that one’s creation has no future, to see one’s work destroyed in a day while being aware that fundamentally this has no more importance than building for centuries—this is the difficult wisdom that absurd thought sanctions. Performing these two tasks simultaneously, negating on one hand and magnifying on the other, is the way open to the absurd creator. He must give the void its colors.”

That long ago weekend workshop in L.A. revealed my Sisyphean nature—and a revelation that awakened in me a consciousness. With Sisyphus, Camus reminds us that consciousness is a double-edged sword, a sword that is as essential as the pen. “To tell the truth is not easy,” says Camus, “and I can understand why artists regret their former comfort.”

I stare at my blank white page, pausing at the intersection of truth and comfort. I push the rock up the hill. We must imagine each other happy.

Mercury Diner

She sits over coffee until it goes cold
and I dump it and pour new.
I get her to take a bowl of soup

sometimes, which may be all she eats.
She doesn’t look bad, considering.
She can’t hear much. Sometimes

she writes to a daughter out West,
but mostly she’s deep in a book
or staring through the plate glass.

Once I asked if someone was
joining her. She looked startled,
like I’d slipped back into Greek.

Then she laughed. It’s our river
she said, pointing out. We watch
traffic. I didn’t get the joke, but

after that she smiled at me like
I was in on her secret. Sometimes
after the rush, she closes her eyes;

and I keep our loud busboy
from waking her. I let her
listen to trucks rumbling past.

Michael Lauchlan

Michael Lauchlan’s poems have landed in many publications, including New England Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, The North American Review, Harpur Palate, and Poetry Ireland. His most recent collection is Trumbull Ave. from WSU Press.

Cassandra

Brother, your body
is a spit-pig,
a split trunk
of light-struck oak.

They will quarter
your meat, deny
you Styx.

In coinless eyes
I’ve seen the thugs
who come to stuff
themselves in
our scared spaces,

the waves of
snails that stick
horrible
to our shores.

My tongue tied
with limestone,
I cannot stop it.
Spoiled long
before a spoil of war.

cassandra poemErin Lynn is working toward a PhD in Poetry at U Conn where she also teaches freshman English. She holds an MFA in Poetry from Columbia University and an MA in Irish Literature from Queen’s University, Belfast. She is an editor for the “This Morning” column at Coldfront Magazine and co-curates Poor Mouth Poetry reading series in the Bronx.

The Antioch Review: Our Response

Dear Lunch Ticket readers,

The literary community has circulated a letter criticizing The Antioch Review’s recent publication of a piece by Daniel Harris, titled “The Sacred Androgen: The Transgender Debate.” If you haven’t read the piece, I cannot in good conscience recommend that you do. However, many of us have. Appalled at its ill-informed and insensitive approach to the material, for many reasons – political, personal, professional, and more – we at Lunch Ticket cringed over the essay. Our sense of social justice was inflamed by the piece’s myopic vision, and we were some of the first names of now over 4000 writers, editors, and librarians to sign the letter denouncing the essay’s transphobia. Our respect and allegiance with the transgender writers and artists among us raged at the essay’s ignorance of gender identity and the evolution of standards of care for gender dysphoria.

Alongside our rage sits a sense of deepest disheartening at the “Antioch” name association, because although we are not affiliated with that Antioch, Lunch Ticket is the student-run literary journal of Antioch University Los Angeles’s MFA program. We do not want our dismay at the similar “Antioch” names to overtake discussion of the other issues at hand. However, since first reading “The Sacred Androgen,” I’ve wanted to shout through a megaphone – It’s not us! Antioch College, and with it Antioch Review, split from our Antioch University system in 2008! Do I protest too much? I don’t think so. Clearly our visions are not aligned. Here at Lunch Ticket, we stand firm in our mission of social justice and activism. This mission reflects the deepest values of our MFA program – truly, I wish you could witness our residency seminars – and Antioch University.

At Lunch Ticket, while we value freedom of speech and expression, we also believe that every journal gets to choose what is published within its pages. Self-inquiry is a crucial component in personal essay. So, too, in any literary endeavor which comments or criticizes a group to which the writer does not belong, is research due diligence. Harris’s essay reveals vital defects in both of these aspects. If anything, “The Sacred Androgen” highlights a clear distinction between us at Antioch University and our long-lost relative, Antioch College. The contribution to literary society that we wish to make is concerned with protecting and promoting the rights and needs of those who are most vulnerable and marginalized. Perhaps if Antioch Review could come to our AULA June residency, they would understand the outcry from the literary community.

In lieu of that, we at Lunch Ticket say this: our work is not done. All of us must continue to question cultural standards, to listen to those whom we don’t yet understand, and to write the authentic stories of our lives and the lives of others with compassion, depth, and humility.

Arielle Silver
Editor-in-Chief
Lunch Ticket

The Sound

He follows you into the woods
as always, staying
within reach of a stray touch: out of habit, yes,
and because there’s no reason to believe
this day will end

any differently than others.
Were he to know
the spade’s grim purpose—blade
laced with rust, old earth—
he might plea for the earned mercy

of not seeing the betrayal coming.
But he’d still lie down
on the browning grass, place
his graying muzzle
on folded paws and watch

the squirrels shoot up the trees,
thin black lips twitching
with the vestigial excitement
of pursuit. Friend,
does it help to know he’s happy, finally,

to have found his spot in the shade beneath
the Tree-of-Heaven, where
a hundred scents course
the slight breeze, each another missive
from the secret world?

His eyes close, perhaps to remember
a time without the iron weight
in his bowels, joints not yet overrun
with wild tendrils
of pain; perhaps he’s just

enjoying the pleasure of breathing—
the last act of praise—
on a good patch of grass
on this day in time. Regardless,
this is how you’ll remember him: in love

with this cruel and beautiful world;
old Buddha, may his love shatter time.
The sound, when it comes, scatters
the black birds, ricochets
down the valley, blooming

like a black flower. You look to the sky,
feel the breeze rinse your face.
Soon, it will be necessary to breathe—
the way your children once did: full-throated,
and trembling with abandon.

Steve Mueske

Steve Mueske is an electronic musician and author of a chapbook and two books of poetry. His poems have appeared or will appear in journals such as The Iowa ReviewThe Massachusetts Review, Crazyhorse, Hotel Amerika, CURA, Linebreak, Third Coast, Water~Stone Review, Redactions, and the anthologies Best New Poets and Verse Daily. His most recent album, an EP of mostly microtonal electronica, can be found at http://split-notes.com/muesk-eventual/. Twitter: @SteveMueske.

Writers Read: Palm-of-the-Hand Stories by Yasunari Kawabata

The palm-of-the-hand stories anthologized in this collection span decades of Yasunari Kawabata’s life, from 1923-1972, and far pre-date the recent moniker “flash fiction,” though they could be classified now using that label. Most of these stories are realistic, detailing families at home, strangers on the train, and past lovers’ meeting by chance. There are a few moments when the stories take fantastic or surreal turns, but on the whole they tend to have a mythological feel, perhaps because the stories often advance through large spans of time and end with a sentence that encapsulates the final movement of the story. Many of them feel like parables.

As I read, I made notes of which stories I thought worked well, and which didn’t float my aesthetic boat, and why. The stories I favored, tended to fall into two patterns: those that read like parables, and those that were more realistic fiction.

Those that assembled strange and lasting images in obscure parables included “The Maiden’s Prayers” (55-7), which follows villagers who glimpse a gravestone rolling down a hill as they try and fail to locate it, in the process sparking fires and ecstatic ceremony. This story has a tone like a parable but the narrator also seems like an actual person, though nondescript, as in this passage near the end of the story:

The villagers’ hearts were as bright as the sun as they laughed with all their might. Suddenly I stopped laughing and knelt at one of the gravestones illuminated by the fire of the burning grass.

“God, I am pure.”

But the laughter was so loud, I could not hear my own voice in my heart. The villagers laughed in harmony with the maidens until the hill was engulfed in a wave of laughter. (56-7)

Another parable-like story was “The Sparrow’s Matchmaking” (62-4). It opens with this sentence: “Long accustomed to a life of self-indulgent solitude, he began to yearn for the beauty of giving himself to others” (62). The story then proceeds in third-person narration with a chronology of thoughts and actions that feel true to life, revealing deep emotions behind family members’ actions as they toss coins and watch birds, and also conveying archetypal tension between solitude and sacrifices of love. “One Person’s Happiness” (69-71) does something similar in a story with more concrete characters: as the protagonist hears about a boy’s life of hardship, he weighs his decision to help the boy. This conveys his conviction that helping just one person makes life worthwhile. “Morning Nails” (83-4) explores vulnerability in love against a surreal domestic setting. “The Young Lady of Suruga” (85-7) is set on a particular train line, and achieves a strong sense of place. [blockquote align=left]This is one of the greatest benefits of reading flash fiction: for a writer looking to improve her craft, she can experience at an accelerated pace a diverse range of stories, which can help her gain insight on a wide range of craft considerations, as well as on her own personal literary preferences.

I enjoyed these parables and did not find their tone overly didactic. Though they were like parables, the characters seemed concrete, like real people. If the events conveyed seemed incidental, their effects on the characters in the stories were clear.

There were other stories that stuck with me that were not like parables, and which were more realistic. Some of my favorites were “At the Pawnshop” (121-4), “A Pet Dog’s Safe Birthing” (165-8), “Water” (171-2), and “Tabi” (178-80). These stories presented snapshots of events that are emotionally significant to narrators or protagonists: a desperate and ill man trying to scare up some credit at the pawnshop while another merchant pawns his capital to improve his public image; a married couple assisting in the birth of a litter of puppies, and then sitting down for coffee and a newspaper; a woman in a drought missing her husband and remembering the abundant water in her hometown; a woman who’s lost her sister, recalling the death of her teacher when she was a young teen. The realistic specificity of these stories makes these stories universal in a different way than the dreamy generality of the parables.

What I didn’t like were the stories that felt too episodic. “Toward Winter” (58-61) imbues a routine interaction, playing Go, with a mythical meaning, and then shifts into another story. As a reader I felt ricocheted about until an unsatisfying ending. The way the scenes were juxtaposed didn’t invest me in the story enough, since I didn’t have any other context for the characters therein—it seemed to be more about the author’s musings than about the reader’s experience. I normally consider myself to be very tolerant of cleverness in art, so it was strange for me to experience this aesthetic objection. This is one of the greatest benefits of reading flash fiction: for a writer looking to improve her craft, she can experience at an accelerated pace a diverse range of stories, which can help her gain insight on a wide range of craft considerations, as well as on her own personal literary preferences.

Author of Palm-of-the-Hand stories, Yasunari Kawabata

Author of Palm-of-the-Hand stories, Yasunari Kawabata

In leafing through this whole collection after reading it, I realized that some of my favorite stories in this collection involved children: “The Grasshopper and the Bell Cricket” (12-15) and “Yuriko” (88-9), for example. I’ve long been debating whether I want to write about and/or for children and adolescents, and some of the fiction I’m working on right now involves children as characters. Re-reading Kawabata’s stories involving children forced me to reflect on why writing about children appeals to me: they are wise in a different way than adults are. Their problems are less standardized, so writing about a child forces a writer to inhabit their world in its particularity. Children don’t have jobs or spouses, so their preoccupations in play and friendship have more unpredictable symbolic landscapes.
The short length of these stories helped me reflect on this literary interest more efficiently so I could articulate it. When you can hold a story in the palm of your hand, you can examine it from different angles, feel its weight, and you can slip it into your pocket to keep it if it pleases you. Or just as easily toss it over your shoulder.

Kawabata, Yasunari. Palm-of-the-Hand Stories. Trans. by Lane Dunlop and J. Martin Holman. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1988.

Lauren Kinney is a musician and writer in Los Angeles, where she is working on her MFA in Creative Writing at Antioch University. You can read her work in Drunk MonkeysQueen Mob’s Tea House, and The Turnip Truck(s). Find her on Twitter @lauren_kinney, or learn more at her website www.laurenkinney.net.

 

Selenographer

i.

your desire for the moon holds the weight
of a steam-powered whaling ship.
it is why we braid wreaths for the cows,
why the light after dusk behaves like startled deer.
when the moon’s lamb-face appears through
the forest’s mane, your skin begins to bloom,
mantling me in its petals. a memory lets go
of your throatlatch; it is rain now
turning us into moss.

ii.

the scythe-moon rises above the wheat-fields,
its blade leaving us untouched. no one speaks here
but our bodies drip with names like faucets.
your body holding the vagueness of one between
vitrification and glassblowing. your body, a lake.
I do not ask if I’ll bathe or drown / desire is
the awareness of dying. no owls
in the hollow trunk of your chest. no moon.

Triin Paja is an Estonian, living in a small village in rural Estonia. Her poetry has appeared in The MothBOAAT Journal, Otis Nebula, The Cossack Review, Gloom Cupboard, The Missing Slate, and elsewhere. She writes by riverbeds, forests, various cities, countries and dreams.

The Jaguar / About Writing / Spell to Ward Off Fear of La Catrina

The Jaguar

I am leaving the earth
with a jaguar in my hand

a jaguar that carries
a heart in its hand

in the silent looms of Mitla
the Mexican night grows

like sharing bread
with a brother

I let the jaguar
eat my heart

jaguar with heart
in its hand

 

About Writing

this moment, if it is a coincidence
was already written

rebellion is not against a written destiny
but against the shackles of a single reading

dream or omen
the Word comes from Eve’s rib
the black bone carves hieroglyphics
on the skin of the moon

Oedipus doesn’t know his chimeric path
is the calligraphy left by smoke on retinas
the course of a crooked foot along the wrong streets

there are no coincidences
only confused pages
a library of pulverized adobes
monographs soaked in the vinegars of Canaan

the flames of Alexandria
the burning of Cuzco’s quipus
the imperial mandate of Qin Shi Huang
all for nothing

only we remain
armed with laughter
stripped of Nebrijas and Cartas de Jamaica

such is the road of the erudite ants

we who are barely
a handful of vowels and consonants

 

Spell to Ward Off Fear of La Catrina

like a lost child
touch her breast
let her
guide your hand
only then
will she give you everything

she will teach you
to write
on the rough hide of the night
on the ridges of the sea
on a child’s smooth forehead
in a language
of open wounds

let her guide your steady hand
explain to you
that to write
is to exercise
the vocabulary of silence
it is to redraw
the exact contour
the precise sorrow
of each scar

 

prose_section_divider

EL JAGUAR

me voy de la tierra
con el jaguar en la mano

el jaguar que lleva
un corazón en la mano

en el silencio de los telares de Mitla
crece la noche mexicana

como compartiendo el pan
con un hermano

dejo que el jaguar
se coma mi corazón

jaguar con corazón
en la mano


SOBRE LA ESCRITURA 

este momento, si es coincidencia
estaba ya escrito

la rebelión no es contra el destino escrito
sino frente al eslabón de una sola lectura

sueño o augurio
el verbo sale de la costilla de Eva
su hueso negro talla jeroglíficos
en la piel de la luna

Edipo no sabe que su camino de quimera
es la caligrafía del humo en las retinas
el rumbo de un pie torcido por las calles equivocadas

no hay coincidencias
solo páginas que se confunden
una biblioteca de adobes pulverizados
las monografías remojadas en los vinagres de Canáan

el incendio de Alejandría
la hoguera de los quipus cuzqueños
el mandato imperial de Qin Shi Huang
no sirvieron de nada

quedamos nosotros
armados con la risa
desnudos de Nebrijas y Cartas de Jamaica

tal el camino de las hormigas ilustradas

nosotros que apenas somos
puñado de vocales y consonantes

 

CONJURO PARA NO TEMER A LA CATRINA

como un niño perdido
tócale el seno
deja que ella
guíe tu mano
sólo entonces
te lo dará todo

te enseñará
a escribir
sobre el áspero pellejo de la noche
en la rugosidad del mar
sobre la tersa frente de los niños
en un lenguaje
de heridas que no cierran

deja que ella guíe tu pulso
que te explique
que escribir
es ejercitar
el vocabulario del silencio
es dibujar de nuevo
el contorno exacto
el dolor preciso
de cada cicatriz

Translator’s Note

Alejandro Saravia’s work captured my attention from the very first time I read it. Soon after we met in 2007, he asked me to translate the poem that opens his first collection, Ejercicio de serpientes (Palabras prestadas, 1994). After several fledgling attempts to render “Hoy quizá llueva una ‘a’” into English, I agreed with him that it was impossible and set it aside. Recently, after many years spent dancing around it and translating several short stories, his first novel, and a good number of his poems, I revisited the poem and arrived at a version I felt confident enough to share with the author.

Saravia’s fascination with language is palpable throughout his prolific body of work. Writing and speaking are transformative acts—in that first poem, transmutation is enabled by a first, crucial step: writing the first vowel, the first letter of the alphabet, to realize the power and significance of language. The written word can soothe grief, alter mountains, bridge distances, spark creation itself. The three poems in this selection revolve around this axis, the all-encompassing generative process facilitated by the speaker’s engagement with language, silence, place, memory, and history. Maps are drawn. Pacts are made. Exchanges are negotiated.

As a poet and translator, I find in Saravia’s work an endless source of challenging encounters with the written word. But when is a poem finished? Poets know they must, at some point, consider a poem complete and let it go, even when they have more to say or strings of words could stand further refining to express a set of images and sensations. If writing poetry is an attempt to capture something essential, something felt but unknown and unsayable—if a poem is a snapshot, an approximation that can never fully convey that essence—if writing is a negotiated exchange mediated by language—what does translation add to the mix? One more pair of eyes to see, one more pair of feet to walk the same path, one more system of communicating vessels for the essence of the poem to flow through. The poem never stops.

This is a small sample from my humble, determined attempt to unearth, in the English language, the wondrous complexity of Saravia’s work. It is an honor to share my reading of these poems here. May these versions move, carry, and transmute you.

prose_section_divider

Special Guest Judge, Jesse Lee Kercheval

“One of the moments I enjoy most in reading translations is when they introduce me to a new writer and, through the joint act of the writing and translation, to a whole world. These three poems,”El jaguar,” “Sobre la escritura,” and “Conjura para no temer la Catrina,” lucidly and effectively translated here as “The Jaguar,” “About Writing” and “Spell to Ward Off Fear of La Catrina,” brought me that very real pleasure. The poems are by the Bolivian-Canadian Alejandro Saravia who lives and works as a journalist in Quebec. I see in these poems Bolivia, but also a world widened by immigration and exile, by a writer’s life of reading and thought. In “About Writing,” Saravia writes “such is the road of the erudite ants/ we who are barely/ a handful of vowels and consonants.” And the translations, in another voyage, another act of immigration, effortlessly bring Saravia’s words across to us in English.”

– Jesse Lee Kercheval is the author of 14 books including the bilingual Spanish/English poetry collection Extranjera/ Stranger (Yaugarú, 2015). Her translations include Invisible Bridge/ El puente invisible: Selected Poems of Circe Maia (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015). She is also the editor of América invertida: An Anthology of Emerging Uruguayan Poets which is forthcoming from the University of New Mexico Press. She is the Zona Gale Professor of English and Director of the Program in Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

María José Giménez María José Giménez is a translator, editor, and rough-weather poet with a rock climbing problem. Recent work appears in K1N, Prelude, Rogue Agent, The Apostles Review, and Cactus Heart. Translations include poetry, short fiction, essays, screenplays, a mountaineering memoir by Edurne Pasaban, and Alejandro Saravia’s novel Red, Yellow and Green (Biblioasis, 2017), winner of a 2016 NEA Translation Fellowship. She is part of Montreal’s collective The Apostles Review and serves as Assistant Translation Editor for Drunken Boat.

 

 

Alejandro Saravia Alejandro Saravia was born in Cochabamba, Bolivia and since 1986 has lived in Quebec, where he works as a journalist. His publications have appeared in publications across Canada and the United States, including Quiebre, Tinta y Sombra, Mapalé, Alter Vox, The Fourth River, and Cactus Heart. In addition to the novel Rojo, amarillo y verde (2003), he has published six books of poems and a short fiction volume about the 40th anniversary of the Chilean coup d’état, Cuarenta momentos chilenos (2013). He is part of Montreal’s Hispanic-Canadian collective The Apostles Review.

 

 

 

The Horseshoe Finder / The age / January 1, 1924


The Horseshoe Finder 
            (A Pindaric fragment)

We look at a forest and say:
+++— Here is timber for ships and masts,
Rosy pines,
Free of hairy burden to their very tops,
They should screech in the storm
As lonely pines
In a raging forestless air;
The plumb-line fastened firmly to the dancing deck will endure
++++++++++++++++++++a salty sole of the wind,
And a seafarer,
In a frantic thirst for space
Drags through soggy furrows
A fragile instrument of a geometer,
To weigh a rugged surface of the seas
Against the attraction of the terrestrial bosom.

Inhaling the scent
Of tarry tears which exude through plaiting,
Admiring the clamped planks of bulkheads
Which were not riveted by a Bethlehem’s peaceful carpenter, but by another,
The father of sea-fares, the friend of a seafarer,
We say:
+++— They too stood on land,
Uncomfortable as a mule’s backbone,
Their tops were forgetting about the roots
In a famous mountainous ridge,
And rustling under freshwater torrents
Offered heaven in vain to trade their noble load
For a pinch of salt.

Where to start?
Everything cracks and sways.
The air trembles with similes,
No word is better than any other,
The earth drones with metaphors,
And light two-wheeled chariots,
Dazzlingly harnessed to flocks of birds strenuously flapping their wings,
Fall to fragments
Competing with snorting favorites of the races.

Thrice-blessed is he who puts a name in a song;
A song embossed with a name
Outlives the others —
It is set apart from her girlfriends by a head-band,
Healing from oblivion by a befuddling odor too strong to endure —
Whether caused by the imminence of a man
Or the smell of a strong beast’s fur,
Or just by the scent of thyme grated by the palms.

The air can be as dark as water, and all creatures swim in it like fish
Whose fins thrust the sphere,
Dense, pliable, slightly warmed —
A crystal, where wheels revolve and horses shy,
A soggy black soil of Neaira each night plowed anew
By pitchforks, tridents, hoes, ploughs.
The air is kneaded as densely as soil —
It is impossible to leave it, hard to enter.

A rustle rushes through the trees like a green bat,
Children play knucklebones with the vertebrae of extinct beasts,
The frail chronology of our era comes to a close.
I am grateful for what was given:
I myself was lost, made blunders, lost count.
The era was ringing like a golden orb,
Hollow, cast, supported by no one,
Responding “Yes” or “No” to each touch,
Thus a child answers:
“I’ll give you an apple” or: “I won’t give you an apple,”
While his face is an exact cast of his voice, which utters those words.

The sound is still ringing although its source has vanished.
The steed lies in the dust and snorts dripping with sweat,
But a steep turn of its neck
Still keeps the memory of a thrush-legged race,
Not a four-hoofed race,
But as many hooves as there were cobblestones
Renewed in four shifts
As many times as a steed foaming with heat
Hit the ground.

Thus
The horseshoe-finder
Blows the dust off it
And polishes it with wool until it shines;
Then
He hangs it on his doorway
Giving it rest,
So it won’t have to strike sparks from flint.

Human lips
++++++++which have nothing more to say
Keep the form of the last uttered word,
And a feeling of heaviness fills the hand
Though the jug
++++++++has been half-spilled
++++++++++++++++++++++while it was carried home.

What I am saying now is not spoken by me,
But is dug out like grains of petrified wheat.
Some
+++++++stamp lions on coins,
Others,
+++++++a head.
Various copper, bronze and golden lozenges
Are buried in earth with equal honor.
The age has tried to gnaw at them leaving the clench of its teeth.
Time cuts me like a coin,
And there is not enough of myself left for myself….

(1923)

 

The age

My age, my beast, who can try
Look straight into your eyes
And weld with one’s own blood
Vertebrae of two centuries?
Streams of building blood pour
From the throat of earthly things,
Only a sluggard who lacks backbone
Trembles on the brink of new days.

A creature, while still alive,
Should carry its spine on,
And the wave plays
With an unseen backbone.
Infantile age of earth
Is like tender baby’s bones —
The temple of life is again
Sacrificed like a lamb.

To tear the age from bounds,
To found a new world,
The knotty joints of days
Should be bound by flute sounds.
The age sways a wave
With a human sorrow that stings,
While the adder breathes in the grass
With a golden measure of things.

The buds will swell again
And a green shoot will burst,
But your backbone is broken, alas,
My wonderful wretched age!
A cruel and weak beast,
You gaze with a senseless smile
At the traces of your own paws,
Like a beast once strong and agile.

Streams of building blood pour
From the throat of earthly things,
And a warm cartilage of the seas
Sways searing fish ashore,
And from the bird’s height,
From azure wet rocks
Indifference flows down
Upon your mortal wound, beast.

(1922)

 

January 1, 1924

He who kissed time’s tormented temple,
With a son’s tenderness will recollect
How time lay down to sleep
Behind the window in a snowy mount of wheat.
He who raised time’s sickly eyelids —
Two enormous sleepy apples —
Will always hear the noise of roaring rivers
Of deceptive and deadly times.

A tyrannous age has two sleepy apples
And a beautiful mouth of clay,
But on his death-bed he will kiss
A drooping hand of his aging son.
I know that life’s breath
Grows weaker day by day,
They will soon cut off a simple song
Of clay wrongs and seal the mouth with tin.

Oh, life of clay! Oh, dying of the age!
I fear the only one who can
Grasp you is the one whose helpless smile
Reveals the man who lost himself.
It’s such a pain to look for a lost word,
To raise sickly eyelids
And gather night herbs for a foreign tribe
When one’s blood is thickened with limestone.

The age. The layer of lime hardens in sickly son’s blood.
Moscow sleeps like a wooden chest.
There is nowhere to run from a tyrannous age…
The snow smells of apple as in old days.
I long to run away from my own threshold.
Where to? It’s dark outside,
And as if a paved road sprinkled with salt,
My consciousness shines ahead.

Past lanes, past starling houses, wooden eaves,
Somehow going somewhere not far,
A regular rider covered in a threadbare fur,
I try to button up sleigh robe.
Street after street flies past,
Sleigh’s frozen sound crunches like an apple,
A tight loop would not give up and keeps
Slipping out of my hands all the time.

With what iron hardware does winter night
Jingle along Moscow streets?
It rattles with frozen fish, streams steam
Like silver roach-fish from rosy tearooms.
Moscow—it’s Moscow again. I say “Hello!”
Bear with me—let bygones be bygones,
As in old time, I respect the brotherhood
Of hard frost and pike’s court. [1]

Pharmacist’s raspberry burns in the snow,
An Underwood somewhere clinked,
Two feet of snow and a coachman’s back:
What else to wish? You won’t be hurt or killed.
Winter’s a beauty, and a goat-like starlit sky
Scattered around burns like milk,
With a horse’s hair against the frozen runners
The sleigh robe rings and rubs.

The lanes smoked with kerosene,
Swallowed snow, raspberry, ice,
Still remembering the year of twenty and nineteen,
Scaling off the Soviet sonatina like dry fish.
Can I betray to a shameful smear —
The frost smells of apple again —
The wonderful oath to the fourth estate
And the wows as great as tears?

Whom else will you kill? Whom will you hail?
What lies will you devise?
That’s the Underwood’s cartilage—tear out a key,
And you’ll find a pike’s bone underneath,
And the layer of lime in the blood of a sick son
Will dissolve, and a blessed laughter will burst …
But the typewriters’ simple sonatina is just
A shadow of those mighty sonatas.

(1924, 1937)

 

[1] An allusion to a satirical fable “Carp-Idealist” of the great Russian satirist  Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin (1826-1889). In the story, Carp was proclaiming ideas of equality, observing the laws, which were labeled as “socialist”, and in the end was called for a dispute with Pike, was later taken in custody and finally eaten, or rather, occasionally swallowed by the Pike.

prose_section_divider Нашедший подкову 

        (Пиндарический отрывок) 

Глядим на лес и говорим:
— Вот лес корабельный,мачтовый,
Розовые сосны,
До самой верхушки свободные от мохнатой ноши,
Им бы поскрипывать в бурю,
Одинокими пиниями,
В разъяренном безлесном воздухе.
Под соленою пятою ветра устоит отвес,
+++++++пригнанный к пляшущей палубе,
И мореплаватель,
В необузданной жажде пространства,
Влача через влажные рытвины хрупкий прибор геометра,
Сличит с притяженьем земного лона
Шероховатую поверхность морей.

А вдыхая запах
Смолистых слез, проступивших сквозь обшивку корабля,
Любуясь на доски,
Заклепанные, слаженные в переборки
Не вифлеемским мирным плотником, а другим–
Отцом путешествий, другом морехода,–
Говорим:
…И они стояли на земле,
Неудобной, как хребет осла,
Забывая верхушками о корнях
На знаменитом горном кряже,
И шумели под пресным ливнем,
Безуспешно предлагая небу выменять на щепотку соли
Свой благородный груз.

С чего начать?
Всё трещит и качается.
Воздух дрожит от сравнений.
Ни одно слово
+++++++++++++не лучше другого,
Земля гудит метафорой,
И легкие двуколки
В броской упряжи густых от натуги птичьих стай
Разрываются на части,
Соперничая с храпящими любимцами ристалищ.
Трижды блажен, кто введет в песнь имя;
Украшенная названьем песнь
Дольше живет среди других —
Она отмечена среди подруг повязкой на лбу,
Исцеляющей от беспамятства, слишком сильного одуряющего запаха,
Будь то близость мужчины,
Или запах шерсти сильного зверя,
Или просто дух чобра, растертого между ладоней.
Воздух бывает темным, как вода, и всё живое в нем плавает, как рыба,

Плавниками расталкивая сферу,
Плотную, упругую, чуть нагретую,–
Хрусталь, в котором движутся колеса и шарахаются лошади,
Влажный чернозем Нееры, каждую ночь распаханный заново
Вилами, трезубцами, мотыгами, плугами.
Воздух замешен так же густо, как земля:
Из него нельзя выйти, в него трудно войти.

Шорох пробегает по деревьям зеленой лаптой,
Дети играют в бабки позвонками умерших животных.
Хрупкое летоисчисление нашей эры подходит к концу.
Спасибо за то, что было:
Я сам ошибся, я сбился, запутался в счете.
Эра звенела, как шар золотой,
Полая, литая, никем не поддерживаемая,
На всякое прикосновение отвечала “да” и “нет”.
Так ребенок отвечает;
«Я дам тебе яблоко» — или: «Я не дам тебе яблоко».
И лицо его — точный слепок с голоса, который произносит эти слова.

Звук еще звенит, хотя причина звука исчезла.
Конь лежит в пыли и храпит в мыле,
Но крутой поворот его шеи
Еще сохраняет воспоминание о беге с разбросанными ногами —
Когда их было не четыре,
А по числу камней дороги,
Обновляемых в четыре смены,
По числу отталкиваний от земли пышущего жаром иноходца.

Так
Нашедший подкову
Сдувает с нее пыль
И растирает ее шерстью, пока она не заблестит.
Тогда
Он вешает ее на пороге,
Чтобы она отдохнула,
И больше уж ей не придется высекать искры из кремня.

Человеческие губы,
+++++++++++++которым больше нечего сказать,
Сохраняют форму последнего сказанного слова,
И в руке остается ощущение тяжести,
Хотя кувшин
+++++++наполовину расплескался,
+++++++++++++++++++пока его несли домой.

То, что я сейчас говорю, говорю не я,
А вырыто из земли, подобно зернам окаменелой пшеницы.
Одни
++++++на монетах изображают льва,
Другие —
++++++голову.
Разнообразные медные, золотые и бронзовые лепешки
С одинаковой почестью лежат в земле,
Век, пробуя их перегрызть, оттиснул на них свои зубы.
Время срезает меня, как монету,
И мне уж не хватает меня самого.

1923

 

ВЕК

ВЕК
Век мой, зверь мой, кто сумеет
Заглянуть в твои зрачки
И своею кровью склеит
Двух столетий позвонки?
Кровь-строительница хлещет
Горлом из земных вещей,
Захребетник лишь трепещет
На пороге новых дней.

Тварь, покуда жизнь хватает,
Донести хребет должна,
И невидимым играет
Позвоночником волна.
Словно нежный хрящ ребенка
Век младенческой земли —
Снова в жертву, как ягненка,
Темя жизни принесли.

Чтобы вырвать век из плена,
Чтобы новый мир начать,
Узловатых дней колена
Нужно флейтою связать.
Это век волну колышет
Человеческой тоской,
И в траве гадюка дышит
Мерой века золотой.
И ещё набухнут почки,

Брызнет зелени побег,
Но разбит твой позвоночник,
Мой прекрасный жалкий век!
И с бессмысленной улыбкой
Вспять глядишь, жесток и слаб,
Словно зверь, когда-то гибкий,
На следы своих же лап.

Кровь-строительница хлещет
Горлом из земных вещей,
И горячей рыбой плещет
В берег тёплый хрящ морей.
И с высокой сетки птичьей,
От лазурных влажных глыб
Льётся, льётся безразличье
На смертельный твой ушиб.


1922.

 

1 января 1924

Кто время целовал в измученное темя,–
С сыновьей нежностью потом
Он будет вспоминать, как спать ложилось время
В сугроб пшеничный за окном.
Кто веку поднимал болезненные веки —
Два сонных яблока больших,–
Он слышит вечно шум — когда взревели реки
Времен обманных и глухих.

Два сонных яблока у века-властелина
И глиняный прекрасный рот,
Но к млеющей руке стареющего сына
Он, умирая, припадет.
Я знаю, с каждым днем слабеет жизни выдох,
Еще немного — оборвут
Простую песенку о глиняных обидах
И губы оловом зальют.

О, глиняная жизнь! О, умиранье века!
Боюсь, лишь тот поймет тебя,
В ком беспомо’щная улыбка человека,
Который потерял себя.
Какая боль — искать потерянное слово,
Больные веки поднимать
И с известью в крови для племени чужого
Ночные травы собирать.

Век. Известковый слой в крови больного сына
Твердеет. Спит Москва, как деревянный ларь,
И некуда бежать от века-властелина…
Снег пахнет яблоком, как встарь.
Мне хочется бежать от моего порога.
Куда? На улице темно,
И, словно сыплют соль мощеною дорогой,
Белеет совесть предо мной.

По переулочкам, скворешням и застрехам,
Недалеко, собравшись как-нибудь,–
Я, рядовой седок, укрывшись рыбьим мехом,
Все силюсь полость застегнуть.
Мелькает улица, другая,
И яблоком хрустит саней морозный звук,
Не поддается петелька тугая,
Все время валится из рук.

Каким железным скобяным товаром
Ночь зимняя гремит по улицам Москвы,
То мерзлой рыбою стучит, то хлещет паром
Из чайных розовых — как серебром плотвы.
Москва — опять Москва. Я говорю ей: здравствуй!
Не обессудь, теперь уж не беда,
По старине я принимаю братство
Мороза крепкого и щучьего суда.

Пылает на снегу аптечная малина,
И где-то щелкнул ундервуд,
Спина извозчика и снег на пол-аршина:
Чего тебе еще? Не тронут, не убьют.
Зима-красавица, и в звездах небо козье
Рассыпалось и молоком горит,
И конским волосом о мерзлые полозья
Вся полость трется и звенит.

А переулочки коптили керосинкой,
Глотали снег, малину, лед,
Все шелушиться им советской сонатинкой,
Двадцатый вспоминая год.
Ужели я предам позорному злословью —
Вновь пахнет яблоком мороз —
Присягу чудную четвертому сословью
И клятвы крупные до слез?

Кого еще убьешь? Кого еще прославишь?
Какую выдумаешь ложь?
То ундервуда хрящ: скорее вырви клавиш —
И щучью косточку найдешь;
И известковый слой в крови больного сына
Растает, и блаженный брызнет смех…
Но пишущих машин простая сонатина —
Лишь тень сонат могучих тех.

1924, 1937

Translator’s Note

As Mandelstam said in the “Conversation about Dante,” poetical speech is heard in a very relative way because in a true work of poetry we hear many voices, one of which, a musical voice, is deaf without a word; another, narrative, is absolutely meaningless without music and images, and can be retold as a dull story (that is the best proof of the absence of poetry); the other voice, metaphorical, expresses nothing without poetical motive and meaning revealed in a definite context. This thought of the Russian poet coincides to some extent with Gerard Manley Hopkins’s definition of verse as “speech wholly or partially repeating the same figure of sound.” To name the phenomena of the world is to reveal them. Revelation is re-evaluation: re-veiling and unveiling something so palpable and fragile that when “rendered in a disdainful prose,” to quote Pushkin, it evaporates.

It is my contention that the word as such is untranslatable, even in prose. As George Steiner mentioned, there is no such a vehicle that can transport a word literally into another language. Even composing in one’s own language is an impossible task. Imitations, adaptations, or free translations, which are of no time as poetry itself, on the other hand, do not attempt to render the original poem as translation as such into another language. What one can try to render is what George Steiner calls in After Babel “a contingent motion of spirit” (Steiner 71).

Translating the poems of Osip Mandelstam is even more impossible, since his poetry is not only full of allusions and hidden and direct citations (as, for instance, allusions to Pindar in “The Horseshoe Finder”), but it is also esoteric, and the bridges / associations between metaphors are in most cases eliminated. Hence the translator of Mandelstam’s poetry has to do a lot of research, but then thoroughly “hide” the acquired knowledge between the lines, since translation differs from interpretation (although the latter is also implied).

In Mandelstam’s “The Horseshoe Finder” (1923), “unbridled passion for space,” a desire to sail “beyond the Gates of Hercules” erases the boundary between time and space. The sea is doubtless a metaphor of life while wandering, in my view, is a metaphor of a spiritual quest. Mandelstam’s seafarer may be Odysseus (since he is called “The father of sea-fares, the friend of a seafarer”), but the scholars of Mandelstam’s poetry, Steven Broyd and Clare Cavanagh, do not exclude Peter the Great, since he was also a shipbuilder, though not “a Bethlehem’s peaceful carpenter.” As was mentioned by a number of scholars, rhythm and imagery of the poem have allusions to Pindar as well as to Hesiod’s Theogony (915-917), in which the Muses and their mother Mnemosyne are crowned with frontlets. It is notable that in Mandelstam’s “The Horseshoe Finder,” oblivion (or amnesia) is caused by an overly strong, befuddling smell, the source of which might be the closeness of a male, or the smell of a strong wild beast’s hair, which is akin to Yeats’ “sensual music” (“Sailing to Byzantium”) of the dying generations; hence the vital power of procreation can lead to unbeing if not saved by the creativity or by the “monuments of unageing intellect.”

The image of time, which “has tried to gnaw” on ancient coins, reminds us of Bergson’s image of time where the past “is gnawing into the future.” (Matter and Memory, 52-53.) In Mandelstam’s poem, however, time “cuts me”–the lyrical hero, if not the poet himself, is literally cut by time. Thus, time for Mandelstam, who is alluding to Dezhavin’s (1743-1816) last poem, “The River of Time” [Reka vremyon] and to the theme of oblivion, is a fearful thing. The theme of Derzhavin’s poem is the flux of time which carries away all the human deeds and “drowns in the chasm of oblivion/ nations, kingdoms and kings.”

In “The Age” [Vek] Mandelstam refers to time as “a sick and dying beast,” while in “1 January 1924” the age is shown as a dying tyrant that will nevertheless “sink onto the numb arm of an aging son.” Mandelstam opposes sick time to the roaring rivers of deceptive and desolate times, alluding both to the bloody Soviet reality and to Derzhavin’s “The River of Time.” Hence, the necessity to heal or save sick time with music—even at the cost of the poet’s own life. Therefore, the theme of overcoming separation in time and isolation in civilization and culture, by thus healing or saving time, was inevitably connected in Mandelstam’s poetry with the theme of art. Here “a flute is a metonymy of art, poetry,” as was stated by the Russian scholar Etkind. Similarly, in “The Horseshoe Finder,” the theme of wandering and a spiritual quest is connected with the art of poetry.

Ian ProbsteinIan Probstein, associate professor of English at Touro College, New York, is a bilingual English-Russian poet and translator of poetry. He has published nine books of poetry and more than a dozen books of translation; in all, he has more than 450 publications credits, including work in Atlanta Review, The International Literary Quarterly, Brooklyn Rail: In Translation, and in An Anthology of Jewish-Russian Literature, 1801-2001: Two Centuries of a Dual Identity. Recently he published Spiritual Soil, a book of essays on Russian Poetry (Moscow: Agraph, 2014), two books of poetry: Gordian Knot (Milan: 2014), The Circle of Being (Vladivostok, Russia, 2015), and participated in the definitive edition of The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas in Russian (Moscow: Rudomino, 2015).

 

Osip MandelstamA great Russian poet, Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938) led an unsettled life full of tribulations, wandering, and exile. After his Stalin epigram of 1934, for which the dictator, who used to say that “vengeance is best when served cold” (literally:“vengeance is a cold dish”), never forgave the poet, Mandelstam was first sent to Cherdyn’ in Siberia. Due to the protection of Bukharin, then a powerful Communist party functionary who was fond of Mandelstam’s poetry, the term was somehow softened: he had to live in the provincial town of Voronezh (deprived of the right to live in the capital and big cities) and finally was arrested again in 1937, sent to Vladivostok labor (virtually concentration) camp, where he perished in 1938. The exact date of his death is unknown; the poet has no grave of his own.

Listen:

This is the sound of drunkenness held
+++++on the last twilit gunshot. The sound
++++++++++of your voice carrying from the flat lawn
+++++and up past the sleeping baby, past
++++++++++the boys whose ears have tuned
++++++++++to this semblance of fury.

+++++Tonight, Texas folds itself down
+++++into the hollow of your throat and nestles there
++++++++++++++++its whisky, its raw, hot breath baited
++++++++++++++++++++++toward the edge of our union.

This is the sound of my standing
+++++at a road’s crossing. This is the sound
++++++++++of a car tire wailing over and beyond
++++++++++a tornado’s berth.

+++++See me point two fingers in every direction.
++++++++++To the south of us, a mirrored bottle’s emptied
++++++++++++++++mouth. The north,
++++++++++an eagle of wanting. I wonder

who gave me this urgency. Who told me
+++++to pick through your heart, as if your heart
++++++++++was a sieve for my choosing. Where to go east
++++++++++++++++is to be singular and afraid of my uncoupled side,
+++++and where to go west is to turn myself inward
++++++++++to the fierceness of you, your eye’s

+++++cold spurn. Is to sit with my aunts
++++++++++at a table made from a cask’s aged jaw and watch
+++++their husbands spit arrows
++++++++++into an echo’s turbulence. I know

I would never cast myself into a pool of tongues, yet
+++++I am facing you or the creature of you
++++++++++built up in its fever and I am both fear
+++++and reflection, I am the sound
++++++++++of your freeness bathing in your southern
++++++++++++++++++++++++++++country,

++++++++++standing on the brink of a desire. I am
+++++shying away from the sting of a bitter turn,
the dark of our difference circling us in caustic balance,
++++++++++in a ruinous noise.

Clare PanicciaBorn and raised in upstate New York, Clare Paniccia is currently a PhD student in poetry at Oklahoma State University. In 2015, she was a finalist for both the Janet McCabe and Slippery Elm poetry prizes. Her work has been featured in or is forthcoming in The Pinch, Superstition Review, Puerto del Sol, Radar Poetry, Best New Poets 2015, and elsewhere.

Daniel José Older, Author of Shadowshaper

Daniel Jose OlderDaniel José Older is the type of writer many of us writers aspire to be—careful, intentional, eminently aware of the ecosystems that produce literary work in our society, and the role this work plays in the context of a predominantly white narrative. His Twitter following is large (sitting at over 22k followers), both because of the quality of his work and because of his willingness to engage with an industry that often ignores the immense diversity of voices—of gender, race, culture, and socio-economic background. Equally excited and intimidated by the prospect of interviewing Daniel,  when we spoke on Skype in March 2016, it quickly became clear that my nervousness was unfounded. Daniel is, in the classic sense of the word, engaging. Easy to talk to, but thoughtful in his responses. Careful in choosing his words. Reiterating points that I fumbled with my first questions, my voice cracking, casting glances at my pre-typed list. But soon our conversation meandered pleasantly. Daniel and I spoke for almost an hour and a half—the topics ranging from the craft of writing to diversity, language, music, politics, and a myriad of others. Which is to say that he has a lot to say, because he thinks about all of it in the context of his writing.

*     *     *

I ask Daniel about the genesis of Shadowshaper, his recently published Young Adult novel, now a New York Times bestseller: whether he had always intended to write it as a YA novel or if it had simply evolved that way. He nods and tells me, “Shadowshaper was the first book I ever sat down to write.” He cites the Harry Potter books as influences for the novel. In 2009, when he began writing Shadowshaper, Daniel had already been working as a paramedic for seven years; he was also working as an activist and community organizer, interacting with young people and organizing marches. And so, between working with black and brown kids, and not seeing himself in the YA books he was reading, the kids not seeing themselves in the books they were reading, he thought, man this is dumb. “A lot of it was in the vein of counter-narrative. What if Harry Potter was to be mixed with The Wire, with characters that speak to us in genuine ways?” But it wasn’t simply about painting Harry Potter in brown face; it’s about world-building. Daniel pauses to make sure I understand, “Don’t get me wrong. I love Harry Potter. [JK Rowling] uses European mythology for her books because that’s what she knows.” The problem, he explains, isn’t that Harry Potter is white; it’s that there are, or were, few other options available. “I want to read a fantasy novel that has inside jokes for me, about my mythology.” And he wrote Shadowshaper as a counter-narrative to the predominantly white fantasy worlds that had been constructed up to then, as a nod to cultures that, up to then (and now) have seldom appeared in fantasy novels.

Shadowshaper_cover-Brooklyn as a setting, as a basis for the world-building upon which Daniel embarks in Shadowshaper (and his other works), is the perfect backdrop—with its mishmash of cultures, of people trying to understand their places in the community. Out of this world arises Sierra, the book’s protagonist, who Daniel says emerged as a product of her environment—a strong, dark-skinned brown girl attempting to navigate her culture and the complex ecosystem of Brooklyn, and the various shades of brown the place embodies. Again, not a simple task, but one that is clearly worthwhile. “I had to ask myself, am I writer enough to tackle this character,” Daniel says, “and then I jumped in.” And, as with many of his characters, Daniel writes Sierra with nuance, confronting the difficult issues that young brown girls in Brooklyn face. In one scene, Sierra examines herself in the mirror—her dark skin and unruly afro—and grapples with conventional ideas of beauty. It becomes clear that these ideas have woven themselves into her psyche but, thread by thread, she disentangles herself from them, redefines what beauty means, and recognizes the power she carries in her appearance.

In another scene, Sierra confronts her aunt, Tía Rosa, who spouts racist remarks in her direction about the skin color of a boy she likes. About Sierra’s own supposedly disheveled appearance. At one point, Tía Rosa uses the expression “lighter than the bottom of your foot”—as a sort of insidious benchmark for the color of one’s skin considered respectable, especially for a potential mate. This line illustrates that white supremacy does not just come from white people; it is so pervasive that it weaves itself into brown and black cultures as well. Sierra, in a tense scene of familial confrontation, talks back to her aunt and puts an end to the conversation. It is one of the many scenes in which Sierra asserts herself, empowers herself. What’s amazing, Daniel tells me, is how much international feedback he got from that one scene. “Not just from black and brown communities. Indian communities, Asian communities. So many different people around the world have heard that expression, lighter than the bottom of your foot.” It’s horrifying how many people have heard that, he explains. “Everybody has a Tía Rosa,” he adds.

[blockquote align=right] It becomes clear that these ideas have woven themselves into her psyche but, thread by thread, she disentangles herself from them, redefines what beauty means, and recognizes the power she carries in her appearance.

In Shadowshaper, there is a passage in which Sierra stares at her reflection in the mirror, teasing out her hair, watching the light reflect off her skin. She considers everything people have told her about appearance—her hair, her skin, and her nose—how unkind and unforgiving they have been. She eventually says, “I’m Sierra Maria Santiago. I am what I am. Enough.” This is the type of power with which Daniel imbues his sometimes vulnerable and confused protagonist—an important reminder for young adults of color who seek their own experiences in the novel of the power that they can wield over their self-identity.

Of course, the world of Shadowshaper is filled much more than the weight of oppression. Sierra and her group of friends provide a vehicle for Daniel to explore bigger questions of culture while they hang out, cut up, shoot the shit. Because what teenagers do, and do so well, is rag on each other, try on different ideas, make mistakes, try again. “There’s a great literature to the way that young folks speak to each other. There’s a power to their what I call poetic vernacular.” And though they challenge each other and question each other, their love for one other is never in doubt—this, too, is a form of power. Daniel and I speak about a scene in Shadowshaper where Sierra and her friends visit an overpriced coffee shop that has popped up in their neighborhood—the quintessential symbol of gentrification. In the scene, the friends hit the pause button for a moment on the magical, insidious shit happening around them. They take the opportunity (or rather, Daniel lends them the opportunity) to think about ancestry and its definitions. Spanish versus Latino. Anthropology. Culture. “On the one hand I just wanted to have teens cutting up, because they do that so well. . . On the other hand, [I wanted] to provide them with an antidote to the adults who are trying to put them into boxes, to prescribe to them who they’re supposed date and be, and how they identify. And they’re just saying, you know, I’ma write a book about white people!”

[blockquote align=left] The problem isn’t that Harry Potter is white; it’s that there are, or were, few other options available. “I want to read a fantasy novel that has inside jokes for me, about my mythology.”

Daniel’s work, from his Bone Street Rumba urban fantasy series to Shadowshaper, all exhibit the very diversity he seeks to foment in the publishing industry. He led a petition to replace H.P. Lovecraft’s image for the World Fantasy awards with that of Octavia Butler. His Buzzfeed essay,Diversity Is Not Enough: Race, Power, Publishing,” garnered a lot of public attention for good reason—it is a scathing critique of the state of the publishing industry, but also provides concrete solutions. It is the type of essay that sparks real, substantive conversation. Older is more than a writer—he is a musician, a paramedic, a fantasy nerd, and, most importantly an activist. “You know,” he says, “I was an activist before a writer. And I was a writer before I was an activist.” He is both, of course. His is the perfect case study of a writer wearing many, meaningful hats.

{CF8916B4-FEA8-401D-B062-B82CE2521644}Img400When I ask Daniel about what he read as a kid, in an effort to understand where he developed his unique voice, he cites a litany of influences. He calls himself a definite “sci-fi fantasy kid” (giving a nod to Dune, Star Wars, and Lord of the Rings) but adds that, growing up, he also really loved mythology. “Mythology was my shit. My favorite book when I was a kid was The Iliad.” Indeed, his work seems to borrow from mythology a seamlessness (a word he uses repeatedly when we speak), the casual nature with which gods, spirits, and ghouls interact with everyday people. He also admires the ways in which myths build a universe. “It’s never just the one story,” he explains. “The story fits into this giant framework”—another hint about the way in which Older’s storytelling mind constructs the world his novels occupy. His characters (mystical and human alike) are thrust into situations, building the canon of their experience and adding to the richness of their being. His work, particularly the Bone Street Rumba series—which currently consists of the novels Half-Resurrection Blues and Midnight Taxi Tango; Battle Hill Bolero is due out in January 2017—build just this sort of cohesive, magical world. It consists of a series of vignettes, some of which have been published by Tor as short stories, that all serve to expand the realm through which his characters move.

“And then,” says Older, “I went to college and put that stuff down.” That stuff, of course, refers to sci-fi and fantasy. There was a period in which he studied nonfiction, and genuinely believed he would end up writing essays. “You know, the folks I admired were Eduardo Galeano, James Baldwin, bell hooks. And I thought shit, if I could do that, that would be amazing.” He ultimately returned to his first loves of sci-fi and fantasy, but not before taking a long detour as a paramedic, a musician, and an activist. What comes across in my conversation with Daniel is the importance he ascribes to living a life, and not just being an observer. “I felt like I needed to put myself into the thick of things, and have something to write about besides theory. . . I think writers can fall into this trap of thinking we are outside of things. I didn’t want to play into that.” His twenties were full of just this sort of living; Daniel thrust himself into the thick of things and set aside writing for a time—though he did write in the back of ambulances about the people he encountered as a paramedic (a career that lasted a decade and produced a series of vignettes called Ambulance Stories). He composed and played music as part of the Brooklyn-based soul quartet Ghost Star. In short, he did things, lots of things, all the while keeping one eye on his activist and writing goals.

[blockquote align=right]…white supremacy does not just come from white people; it is so pervasive that it weaves itself into brown and black cultures as well…

Then, Octavia Butler happened, and it all seemed to click. Daniel sits up when he tells me, “It was really Octavia Butler that brought me back into thinking about fantasy again, because she does it in a way that’s so complicated. She thinks about power so deeply in her stories, but they’re still really great stories. And I was like, oh you can do this power analysis shit in the middle of really deep storytelling.” He explains that the reason this truth came as a revelation to him is that all of the fantasy that he’d been reading up to that point contained white supremacist undertones—whether that be in the form of the white savior, global destruction, or any number of tropes the dominant narratives pushes. But Octavia Butler showed him the possibility that fantasy could tear away at traditional power structures while simultaneously telling good stories. It’s safe to say that Older has taken this inspiration and run with it. In fact, he explains, this focus on the telling of stories in careful, nuanced ways that avoid the pitfalls of classic fantasy tales provides him with a platform to elevate long-marginalized voices, particularly in the fantasy genre. He uses this same platform to publish critical articles about the publishing industry’s status quo.

51gwVzzWwrL._SX309_BO1,204,203,200_I ask Daniel about his role as gatekeeper—gatekeeper between the predominantly white lit fantasy writer world and that of the writers of color. He cites Octavia Butler’s influence again. “You know, people of color love science fiction and fantasy, in general . . . but we’re not usually included in the masses of sci-fi fans. . . Butler was one of the first fantasy and sci-fi writers to bridge that gap, and step into really talking to a whole other realm of folks (people of color) . . . and she did it not because she’s black, but because she’s willing to talk about race and power in a really deep way, in a way white writers are not.”

Daniel is a gifted writer whose novels embody all of the characteristics of good storytelling: rich characters, epic plotlines, and some of the best dialogue I’ve ever read. His characters jump off the page without relying on archetype, bucking racial stereotypes in favor of depth and complexity. His plots, often grand and steeped in mythology are grounded by the realness of his characters and sweep the reader along. His dialogue is sparse and powerful. Shadowshaper is carefully constructed. Its sights are aimed squarely at issues of culture, appropriation, and colonialism. Its tagline hints at the unapologetic grandness towards which it aspires, which is exactly the sort of grandness young readers are drawn to: Draw a Mural. Change the World. As with much of his work, in Shadowshaper Older seeks to find truth at the intersections of cultures, of spirits, and even of life and death. He draws on old mythologies, finding modern twists and blending them with the reality of living marginalized—but empowered—in today’s world. What’s more, the cast of characters in his work, from the Bone Street Rumba series to Shadowshaper, are all rich in their nuance and diversity.

[blockquote align=left] I needed to put myself into the thick of things, and have something to write about besides theory. . . I think writers can fall into this trap of thinking we are outside of things. I didn’t want to play into that.

 Along these same lines—of giving voice to the traditionally overlooked—Older embraces polyvocality. In Midnight Taxi Tango, he writes from the perspective of several very different characters: Carlos, a half-dead (possibly) Puerto Rican man with no memory of his past life; Kia, a stubborn and self-empowered black girl; Reza, a queer woman of color who never leaves home without at least a couple of guns. Writing the Other is, of course, not an easy task. Playing the devil’s advocate, I ask Daniel how he can do this—that is, write the Other—when it is so difficult to write experiences that one hasn’t personally lived. “That a complicated question,” Older tells me. I apologize. He shakes his head and says, “I’m not here for the easy ones.” He adds, “you can’t write and not write the Other. You’ll have very boring books with one character. It’s a memoir. But here’s the thing: it shouldn’t be too much to ask that it be done right. And the problem is that it’s not usually done right. It’s usually done very poorly, and that needs to be part of the conversation. Otherwise it just becomes well, you asked for diversity so we gave you a black bad guy!” The problem, as Daniel sees it, is not necessarily that there is a lack of diverse characters in novels nowadays (he sees progress on this front), but that the conversation seems to have stopped there. That the publishing industry seems willing to hang a banner on this accomplishment and call it a day. The next step, then, is to build characters that are true to life. To write these characters not as tropes, but as living, breathing beings.

From this, our conversation veers naturally to a discussion of one of the characters in Shadowshaper, Wick, a white anthropologist who attempts to study the protagonist Sierra’s Caribbean ancestry and, ultimately, to harness its magic. Wick’s intentions are good—initially he wants merely to act as chronicler, as preserver, but he soon begins to wield the power for himself. There are many notable questions surrounding this character, one of which Sierra herself asks: who gets to study whom? Why is it that this white man gets to play scientist with her culture and that of her ancestors? And more importantly, do his intentions matter? That is, do his benevolent aspirations do anything to dull the decidedly colonialist nature of his actions? The answer is no, of course. Daniel tells me that “a piece of Wick’s whole problem is that he doesn’t fully understand the powers around him.” He is participating in this centuries-long battle, of which he understands almost nothing. There is a clear parallel here to what humans do, particularly those belonging to a dominant class, and a call to more fully grasp one’s role in the grander narrative, both literary and otherwise.

[blockquote align=right] Older seeks to find truth at the intersections of cultures, of spirits, and even of life and death. He draws on old mythologies, finding modern twists and blending them with the reality of living marginalized—but empowered—in today’s world.

 “It’s never about you,” he says, when our discussion shifts to gentrification—a rampant problem in both my adopted city of San Francisco and Daniel’s home in Brooklyn, and in many urban areas across the U.S. It’s a topic about which everyone seems to have a strong opinion. Unsurprisingly, Daniel’s thoughts on the matter are carefully thought out. “When I wrote about gentrification for Salon, a lot of the response was well what am I supposed to do about it? And it’s never been about how this individual person shouldn’t do that. It’s about: are you aware of the power framework that’s functioning through you when you make a move. And then do you have that in mind so that you can understand it and react to it? Are you conscious of your relationship with the police, with real estate people?” And therein lies the heart of the problem. Many people who move through life, even allies (most notably allies), are, despite their good intentions, unaware of the space they occupy within a system that aims, intentionally or otherwise, to marginalize. This is a profoundly uncomfortable topic of conversation for white people. For cisgendered people. For men. For those who do not need to consider their place because it is the default. But, the uncomfortable conversation is precisely the one that needs to be had, especially for writers, and it is precisely why the Wick character exists. Daniel explains to me that Wick was originally written as a prototypical bad guy monster (big teeth, scary), but he changed him to the more nuanced, profoundly human, well-intentioned, but ultimately doomed-to-fail character he eventually became. Daniel tells me that “great writers should be the first people to dive into layered conversations. That’s the thing that literature is supposed to do. Talk about uncomfortable shit. That’s your job. Why would you miss that opportunity?” Daniel lives with this discomfort. His work lives in that fraught space because that’s where all of the change happens—and all of the best literature. Avoiding the difficult or accepting the erasure of marginalized communities does nothing to make things better.

[blockquote align=left] The problem, as Daniel sees it, is not necessarily that there is a lack of diverse characters in novels nowadays (he sees progress on this front), but that the conversation seems to have stopped there. That the publishing industry seems willing to hang a banner on this accomplishment and call it a day.

Our conversation meanders again to the idea of the “issues book.” I ask—“so is that why you wrote Shadowshaper as a YA novel? So that you could tackle these questions of race and white supremacy.” Daniel pushes back against my white person question. He explains the concept of “the issues book”—unsurprisingly, a book that is predominantly about one issue. Race, for example. “There will be subplots, characters might fall in love, but at the end of the day it’s about this one. . . whatever.” Though he doesn’t disparage any individual book for this approach, Daniel questions the overall concept. “People of color, or anyone who deals with any kind of oppression, walks through life every day multitasking. It’s not like everything else stops so that they can deal with that oppression. You’re trying to pass the SATs, and you’re getting hit on the street, and you’re being told you’re ‘less than’ by your teacher. All these things are happening at once, and you have to multitask to survive.” This point is particularly salient in Daniel’s novels, particularly Shadowshaper, because all of these things are happening in concurrence with threats from zombies, ghosts, and all manner of evil spirits. In Shadowshaper, Sierra fights zombies, anti-blackness, street harassment, her grandfather’s patriarchy. All of these facets of Sierra’s reality bring depth to the world in which Sierra lives, and they are a true representation of the black and Latino experience. “It’s not just a bunch of outlying moments of bad shit happening. They’re all in conversation. They’re all related. Even if the book doesn’t explicitly tie it all together, if I’ve done my job you walk away seeing that there are these connections between the different conflicts.” All of this is to say that Daniel’s approach to writing, as it is to living, is holistic.

SNcover-front-1000One particular aspect of Daniel’s writing that stood out to me is the musicality of it. Not in the sense of the musicality of the prose (though that too) but his willingness to use music as the glue between his stories. Unlike many writers, though, he does not reference popular bands, or even real bands. Instead, Daniel invents and describes music specifically for the novel in which it appears—another example of his ambitious world-building techniques. In fact, the music he composes crosses the boundaries of his novels—Kia, one of the main characters of the Bone Street Rumba series often listens to King Impervious, who is actually the character Izzy from Shadowshaper, one of Sierra’s inner circle of friends. In Salsa Nocturna, one of Daniel’s early collections, music appears that also emerges in his later works. In essence, Daniel constructs, in his world, a sort of literary score. When I ask him about this, Daniel smiles broadly. “It’s more fun that way!” he says, “You get to make your own music!” I ask him about Sierra’s brother’s band, Culebra, a thrash metal salsa band. In Shadowshaper, Culebra acts as a sort of character in its own right, joining the ancestral and contemporary. “It’s based on a Mars Volta song (L’Via L’Viaquez),” Daniel tells me. “I heard it one day at Newbury Comics with my mom, and we were both like what the fuck is this?! And so we bought that album. And that became Culebra.” As a Mars Volta fan, I am ecstatic when he says this, but it also clicks for me that of course Culebra is The Mars Volta—because he describes their music with such intense detail. He does the same with a particular song in Half-Resurrection Blues, too, as he describes the music at the cusp of a burgeoning love between two of the protagonists. Amid a flurry of poetic prose, the reader is lost in the notes. Daniel tells me that the description of the song seems to have resonated with readers so much that people often tweet at him demanding its name. He shrugs and tries to explain. “I made that shit up!”

[blockquote align=right] Great writers should be the first people to dive into layered conversations. That’s the thing that literature is supposed to do. Talk about uncomfortable shit. That’s your job. Why would you miss that opportunity?

We talk about the publishing world, and how the publishing industry, while making strides in the right direction, is not yet willing to be publicly open about race. “We’re still not in a place where people in the publishing industry, in general, are being brave in their public dialogue about this. Diversity is a really nice word to say, but it doesn’t mean anything. . . you have an amazing diversity of whiteness, but people of color still only get to be that one singular person who made it through the gauntlet into the future.” In short, we are part of the way there. We are having the discussion and this is encouraging, but there is a lot of work left to do. We need editors of color. Agents of color. Acquisitions editors of color. It’s an entire ecosystem shift that the literary world requires—not simple tolerance of alternative narratives. Because the industry still frames these narratives as alternatives rather than one of a multitude of voices.

tumblr_o4kr1zwdLJ1qjtwd5o1_1280Near the end of our interview, I ask Daniel my standard guilty-liberal question. What can I do, as an editor, to make things better? After a hearty laugh, he tells me it can be as simple as diversifying who you’re watching, particularly in online spaces like Twitter. It takes some sifting, of course—not everything you see on Twitter is worthwhile. But, he tells me that, after a while, “you start to see whose voices the people are lifting up.” He points me at publications that espouse the principles of diversity, like Seven Scribes, Catapult, and Fireside Fiction (for which Daniel has recently begun editing), and encourages me to follow the works that emerge from such publications. Daniel explains to me that, as an editor, you have to solicit work from writers of color. It’s not enough to simply state “diversity” as a goal. “Writers of color have no reason to trust majority white publications.”

My conversation with Daniel concludes with a discussion on the use of italics for foreign words—a rule with which Daniel strongly disagrees, and one we at Lunch Ticket have agonized over. MLA standard says to italicize non-English words. Writers who code-switch don’t like to do so. Daniel becomes animated during this discussion. He clarifies his position for me: “There’s a functionality to language that matters much more than any sort of rules and regulations. Italics do not help with clarity, they confuse things.” Daniel tells me that the rules surrounding the use of language should reflect their usage, not dictate it. “Language is a living, fluid, complex, and ever-changing entity that comes from us. In some ways you can think of it as one of the great democracies, but only if you treat it that way.” In a way, this thought embodies the very nature of Daniel’s thinking—that writing can be a power for good, but only if it’s done carefully, and with intentionality.

Alex SimandAlex Simand is an MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles. He writes fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry. His work has appeared in such journals as Red Fez, Mud Season Review, Five2One Magazine, Drunk Monkeys, and others. Alex is the current Blog Editor for Lunch Ticket and past Editor of Creative Nonfiction and Diana Woods Memorial Prize. Find him online at www.alexsimand.com or on Twitter: @AlexSimand.

Symphony in Gray Major


The sea like a coarse mirror of silver
reflects a metallic sky of zinc;
distant flocks of cormorants tarnish
its polished bottom of pallid gray.

The sun like a glass, round and opaque,
paces to its zenith with a halting gait;
the ocean breezes settle in the shadow
making a pillow of a black clarinet.

The waves that heave their leaden bellies
under the dock all seem to moan.
Seated on a cable, smoking his briar,
a sailor is thinking about the beaches
of a vague, remote and foggy place.

He is old, that sea dog. His face is weathered
from the fiery rays of the Brazilian sun;
the rough typhoons of the sea of China
have seen him drinking his flask of gin.

The foam full of iodine and saltpeter
over time has known his ruddy nose,
his curly hair, his muscular biceps,
his cap of canvas, his shirt of drill.

There in the smoke from his pipe tobacco
the old salt sees the remote, foggy place,
where on an evening, fiery and golden,
the sails billowed on a vanishing brig.

The nap of the tropics. The sea dog dozes.
Now all is cast in the gamut of gray.
It seems a soft, enormous obscuring
of horizon could blot the boundary line.

The nap of the tropics. The old cicada
rehearses his hoarse and senile guitar,
and the cricket sings a monotone solo
on the singular string of his violin.

prose_section_divider

SINFONIA EN GRIS MAYOR

El mar como un vasto cristal azogado
refleja la lámina de un cielo de zinc;
lejanas bandadas de pájaros manchan
el fondo bruñido de pálido gris.

El sol como un vidrio redondo y opaco
con paso de enfermo camina al cenit;
el viento marino descansa en la sombra
teniendo de almohada su egro clarín.

Las ondas que mueven su vientre de plomo
debajo del muelle parecen gemir.
Sentado en un cable, fumando su pipa,
está un marinero pensando en las playas
de un vago, lejano, brumoso país.

Es viejo ese lobo. Tostaron su cara
los rayos de fuego del sol del Brasil;
los recios tifones del mar de la China
le han visto bebiendo su frasco de gin.

La espuma impregnada de yodo y salitre
ha tiempo conoce su roja nariz,
sus crespos cabellos, sus bíceps de atleta,
su gorra de lona, su blusa de dril.

En medio del humo que forma el tabaco
ve el viejo el lejano, brumoso país,
adonde una tarde caliente y dorada
tendidas las velas partió el bergantín…

La siesta del trópico. El lobo se aduerme.
Ya todo lo envuelve la gama del gris.
Parece que un suave y enorme esfumino
del curvo horizonte borrara el confín.

La siesta del trópico. La vieja cigarra
ensaya su ronca guitarra senil,
y el grillo preludia un solo monótono
en la única cuerda que está en su violín.

 1891

Translator’s note:

“Symphony in Gray Major” was suggested by Théophile Gautier’s poem “À Symphonie en blanc majeur.” Not only does the poem’s accumulation of images suggest a symphony of gray (a universal sadness and monotony), but its symbolist effect is augmented rhythmically, through the use of the unusual amphibrach foot which heightens the monotonous feeling that pervades the poem. In translating it, I have roughed my meter toward a four–beat line, and replicated the alternating rising and falling line endings. I’ve made free use of assonance, consonance, and even alliteration to recreate in English some similar or equivalent impact of Dario’s rhymes.


Steve Veck

Mark Wacome Stevick directs the creative writing program and the Princemere Poetry Prize at Gordon College. His plays include Cry Innocent and Goodnight, Captain White, which run seasonally in Salem, Massachusetts, and The Sheep Mysteries, which is performed regularly in New York City and in Orvieto, Italy—where Mark often gets to lead a month-long workshop on ekphrasis. His poems have recently won awards from Swink, Wild Plum, The Baltimore Review, Literal Latte, and The Shine Journal. Last summer he was a story slam winner at The Moth in Boston.

 

 

Ruben Dario

This is the centenary of the death of Nicaragua-born poet Rubén Darío (1867-1916), known as an early proponent of Modernismo. In 1888, he published Azul, and then in 1895, Prosas profanas y otros poemas, two of the most seminal works of Spanish-American modernism. His poems are still memorized by Central American children.

Where the Heart Is

I’m driving through your neighborhood. It’s quiet and lonely, like a summer lake without a boat. In the air, white silk light, slow as milk. I can see through the houses. They’re more than themselves, like a minuend before the subtraction of the subtrahend. My thought music points me north. I’ve forgotten one of my shoes, but it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t affect my driving.

Ever since my release, I have symmetrical taste. I don’t give feedback. I’m always on time. Yes, of course, I care about the animals I eat.

I recall your face, a soft petal above the thorn of your heart. Trust is what you do when you’re too relaxed.

As I pull my rental car into your driveway, your house is three shades of polite beige, calm as a desert stone. The kids must be at school. I’m in my own body, now.

At your door, I don’t knock. I wouldn’t want to disturb you. I am the only thing I’m afraid of. My hands are steady.

I let myself in.

Brad RoseBrad Rose was born and raised in Los Angeles, and lives in Boston. He is the author of Pink X-Ray (Big Table Publishing, 2015). Twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize in fiction, Brad’s poetry and fiction have appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Folio, decomP, The Baltimore Review, The Midwest Quarterly, San Pedro River ReviewOff the CoastPosit, Third WednesdayBoston Literary Magazine, Right Hand Pointing, and other publications. Brad is the author of three electronic chapbooks, all from Right Hand PointingDemocracy of SecretsDancing School Nerves, and Coyotes Circle the Party Store. The following links will take you to Brad’s published poetry and fiction, audio recordings of a selection of his published poetry, and an interview.

Lighter Than Air

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Photo credit: Mary Birnbaum

There are only two interesting structures in Tustin, California, the city where I now live. They’re a pair of identical military blimp hangars, built in 1942 from Oregon Douglas fir. The city is tearing them down. These are among the biggest wooden structures on the planet; indeed, they contain the largest covered, unobstructed open space of any buildings in the world. They’re hulking, beached-whales of engineering: each of the elongated domes is eighteen-stories high and as long as three football fields. They sit on some eighty-five acres of drought-brown grass, and tract development creeps up on all sides. The first to go will be the south hangar. From the moment I learned of its demolition, I knew I had to climb it.

I first saw the hangars twelve years ago, while driving one night with my then-boyfriend, now husband. We’d been fooling around in the front seat of his Buick in the parking lot of a community college. (I really love the phrase “fooling around”. Like we were playing Uno and braiding each other’s hair.) As we drove away, giddy and sweaty, we made a wrong turn somewhere and ended up at the edge of a chain link fence, beyond which loomed something massive, gray, and arcing. I felt like we had traveled to a different world. I gaped at the very scale of the structures, especially in the context of their suburban environs. Under the moonlight they were pure science fiction.

I asked my boyfriend, “Where are we? Are we allowed to be here?” and he laughed.

He turned his face toward the mammoth buildings and said, “Those are hangars from World War II.”

I asked, “So what’s in there now?”

He said, “Just weather.” I looked at his handsome profile and beyond it, out the window at the improbable fantasy world—the stars and spaceships—and felt the thrill of being lost under the dark, widening sky. New love hummed over my skin. I couldn’t know then that a dozen years later, seven years and two kids deep into a marriage, I would be a resident of this alien place, and that the hangars would so preoccupy my mind that I would be driven to trespass on federal property. That I would contrive a way to climb inside one.

hangar from flikr

Photo credit: Creative commons

Orange groves once covered the land here, from the Pacific Ocean up to the clefts of the Santa Ana mountains, but now this place is all concrete: miles of parking lots and big stores whirring with air conditioning, whose products vibrate themselves off of shelves and into your hands. You think your Costco is big? The Tustin Costco makes yours look like a dime store. Any trees that grow now were planted to inject greenery into continuous office blocks and malls with names from dystopian novels. The District. The Spectrum. My favorite is The Marketplace, whose quaint moniker belies the fact that it takes ten minutes to traverse. The city made a YouTube video as part of a campaign to introduce its newest mixed-use expansion, The Legacy, that will replace the hangars. One day after watching the video, I drove by the site, and a giant crane was already bent over the south hangar, set to the task of filleting its arc. There was a hole gaping at the top. I felt the breach like a personal affront.

*     *     *

Last year, my husband, our daughters, and I relocated temporarily to Tustin, due to converging factors, both logistical and emotional, which are the subjects of another essay. But it’s hard being married anywhere. When you have small children and jobs, it’s hard to muster the energy to fool around when you would rather sleep sleep sleep. Still, I like to think that Orange County will someday just be a comma between the real clauses of our life. We have a weigh-station existence. My husband commutes to San Diego every day, the children go to school, I work and try to write true stories. The trouble with stories is that even the “true” ones are the products of changeable human minds.

Somewhere in this zombie life of denying the present, I became obsessed with the hangars, which are a ten-minute drive from the house where we now reside. I love them weirdly, passionately. I love them for the way they dwarf the condo developments and shopping districts that have sprawled right up to their federally-protected feet. I love them because I imagine that they are like me: incongruous to this setting.

In my obsession, I read any articles I could find on the hangars. I visited them more than the trajectories of my life really required. When my family came to see us, I insisted on driving them by the hangars. Aren’t they incredible? I said. Totally, the visitors always agreed, casting concerned glances at me, sidelong. I wondered what the tactical advantage of a blimp is, and a visitor suggested it was reconnaissance missions. (There’s nothing sneakier than a blimp, am I right?) I know that pilots and technicians lived on the base and flew out toward the water, looking for enemies, carrying supplies to ships at sea. When they built the hangars in 1942, there was nothing but bare earth between them and the water.

The Lighter-Than-Air Station (LTA) in Tustin was originally constructed to house Hindenburg-sized dirigibles. But that airship famously exploded, and blimps of that class were phased out in favor of daintier models. The massive buildings were superfluous from the moment they were complete. Still, they’re on the National Register of Historic Places. They’re civil engineering landmarks. These combined distinctions can’t stop developers from peeling the structures apart, beam by beam, slowly deboned.

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Photo credit: Orange County Archives

After resolving to climb the hangar, I spent a couple weeks on my own reconnaissance. I made trips to the site between jobs and gymnastics lessons and school work. I looked for gaps in the chain link, made note of well-lit areas to avoid. I kept track of where the construction workers hung out, when they left for the day, which sides of the site were least exposed to traffic. One day I brought binoculars to get a look at the tiny stairway that scrolled over the back of the beast—hundreds of metal rungs that once were climbed by soldiers and would soon be climbed by me.

I picked a Friday night when my husband would be home early from work. I figured that people are busy on a Friday night (driving to places to drive around more, looking for parking), and everyone is even less interested in the hangars than they normally are. I packed my daughter’s spare backpack with a headlamp (the kind for reading in bed), my cell phone, and a nylon rope, for some inexplicable, ambitious reason of wanting to seem badass. I’m embarrassed to admit I packed a protein bar. (What the fuck did I think I was going to do up there, and for how long?) Ultimately, I didn’t have a very well-formed plan beyond getting up there, inside the hangar.

After dinner I told my husband that I was going to the gym. I drove to the Stepford-inspired condos that abut the south hangar and parked. I put on the backpack and slipped through the loose-locked chain link doors separating federal land from the sidewalk.

I sprinted across the open field. The closer I drew to it, the more the hangar became my entire world. It loomed impossibly vast, a tidal wave forever cresting. By the time I reached the stairway, I was feeling nauseous and small. But I put on my ridiculous headlamp and started up the side. Twenty feet from the ground, I was out of breath, as much due to nerves as to the fact that cardio dance fitness doesn’t prepare a person for Special Ops maneuvers. It was the strain of my body full of fear. Strain borne of the certainty that I was making a terrible choice but that backing off now would be worse. The hangar was so large that I could not feel its curvature as I climbed; I felt that I was climbing into the sky. I looked out across the quiet acreage and saw the Whole Foods sign gleaming like a beacon. Inside it shopped all the reasonable moms of Orange County.

Within five minutes I was nearing the top of the structure. Wind kicked up around me as the stairs ended, and I crouched down. Pieces of wood were stacked here and there. There was construction equipment around, none of which meant anything to me in terms of function. I was mostly trying not to trip and slide to my death. I approached the mouth of the hole on hands and knees and peered down inside. The headlamp illuminated a vast wooden network of beams, the upper parabola of the dome, and thankfully also a platform about four feet below the opening, on which a person could stand. I lowered myself into the dark.

I sat on the platform. There was an old forest smell of sodden wood. The glow of my headlamp was too weak to penetrate far, but I was okay with this, in the same way you’re okay with not knowing what might be swimming below you in deep water. I looked at the wooden web around me, at the thousands of beams bending off into oblivion, and I was lonely Jonah in the whale. Then I looked more closely at a nearby plank and my heart flopped over.

There were words scrawled there. For Mary with all my love.

Once I resumed breathing, I realized the crude scratching was not unique. The beams were covered everywhere with etchings of names and dates. I love you and I was here. Here I was. I thought of you. Sixty-year-old hieroglyphics of yearning. Pilots must have climbed up into the rafters to do repairs. Or maybe to repair from their lives. I looked back up through the hole, and the night sky blinked. I was as alone as I will ever be, repairing from the repair that was my life.

*     *     *

It’s hard for me to say what, if anything, in the above story is true. How I felt about my husband twelve years ago in a car on a dank night, how I feel now. What we said to each other then and what was said yesterday. Whether there is any real adventure in me—enough, anyway to get me up the side of a building at night, when I could be watching Parks and Rec.

And what have I left out? Which important parts of the story did I not tell?

There is an un-writeable life about which I often try to write but only end up inventing. What is true is that just about every day, on the way to the gym or the grocery store, I pass the hangars and picture myself climbing up and peering into the wooden maze of the parabola, but I remain firmly on the ground in this hot, heartless, treeless, freeway city. At home in this alien world. With these children. With this husband, who twelve years ago made my skin buzz.

Daughter I Bleed

Placeholder: Waiting for the Biopsy Results

The naked woman in the video I study—double
mastectomy—tosses me into possibility,

presses the soft muscle of what remains
of self against self, sternum and rib

shucked clean by surgical steel.  She stands sculpted,
a torso hewn to scarred catastrophe—

emptied parentheses.  The Mayans called it zero,
this mussel shell emptied of its muscle

set azure side up on night’s window sill.
No barnacle blemish or starfish bore mars

its heft and concentric stretch now less than
half of whole still glistening.  I pick it up.

Can ever such depletion feel full again?

A fixed place from which to measure,
numinous as a shell slick with brine and grace.

Wendy Mannis Scher

Wendy Mannis Scher, a graduate of the low residency MFA program for Creative Writing and Literary Arts at the University of Alaska/Anchorage, lives with her family in the foothills west of Boulder, Colorado. In addition to her writing, she works as a drug information pharmacist at a poison and drug information call center.

How the word poem shows up in my audio text messages

I say poem, the phone hears problem. Maze, no escape. Driving with my mother in a manic state. The sharpness of her no. Telling it like it is. She says “Crazy!” trying to explain. Unanswerable strangeness of the human brain. Equations, undoable. How to keep sane the status she wants to return to. I say poem, it hears pulling. The friction of what isn’t yet, but forming out of air. A turkey buzzard circling the house in fluffy loops. Wondering where the next dead thing is. The slowness of July, stultified. Fired like taffy. The tension & sinew of it. How heat can pull you into yourself until you are nearly a corpse slumped in a chair. I say poem, it spits pole. Magnetic, opposites, so hot/cold. How I never know which way we’ll go. I’ll be the dial turned to the right, spurting cold lake water. You’ll be scalding from the stove, so direct. Down to bone. I am done. I say poem, the phone sees power. How to write it down true, essence. Ore of words. Quest for the pure vein. Then, clown. How I want to be funny, really, I do. But, these poems scare me, instead. Mirrored slivers, winking, or leering from their tiny heads, such foul mouths. Trying to turn upward into goofy. The poem as goof ball. So silly, so dear. But, so dangerous, too. What the phone knows that I do not. Poem as morph. Poem cannot be left alone.

Ellen StoneEllen Stone teaches at Community High School in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Her poems have appeared recently in The Museum of Americana, Passages North, and Rust + Moth, and are forthcoming in Chiron Review and Bluestem Magazine. Stone’s poetry collection, The Solid Living World, won the 2013 Michigan Writers Cooperative Press Chapbook Contest.

 

 

Karma*

We squat unbroken,
faces toward the earth,
feet on the shoulders
of the one below us, fingers
covering their eyes as we cup
their heads between our palms,
as if reading their minds,
feeling the weight of others
on our backs, their warm hands
blocking our sight, generations
of shiny bodies stacked
like vertebrae pierce the sky,
curved and determined, graced
by our articulations,
destiny behind us.

 

 

*23-ft. brushed stainless steel sculpture (2011) by Korean artist Do Ho Suh, Besthoff Sculpture Garden in City Park, New Orleans, Louisiana, which can be seen here.

George SuchGeorge Such is currently a third-year English PhD student at University of Louisiana, Lafayette, where he has been awarded a University Fellowship. In a previous incarnation, he was a chiropractor for twenty-seven years in eastern Washington. His poetry has appeared in Arroyo Literary Review, Barely South Review, The Cape Rock, Dislocate, The Evansville Review, and many other journals, his nonfiction in Phoebe, and his collection of poems Where the Body Lives was selected as winner of the 2012 Tiger’s Eye Chapbook Contest.

Spotlight: The City Stargazers

Bonnie started stripping the moment her bedroom door latched behind her. She undid her blouse buttons. The white fabric stuck to her back, and she peeled it off and let it crumple to the floor. She tossed it so that it sat in a small, sweaty mountain in the corner of her room. Next to go were her shoes, kicked off and jumbled on top of her blouse, and then she pulled her pantyhose off from beneath her skirt. Shucking them into the corner with the rest, she stood alone in her room with only her bra and her skirt and let out a gust of air through her nose.

At the corner store, while waiting in the checkout line, the two old women in front of Bonnie had been saying that it felt even hotter than that August before the war. The pair of them was old enough that is wasn’t clear which war they were talking about. Regardless, today was the hottest day of this particular August—maybe even the hottest Chicago day of 1953 entirely. Bonnie didn’t know and didn’t care. All she knew was that it was hot, and she was sweating. Bonnie hated sweating—hated the way sweat prickled out of her skin and plastered her brown hair to her nape. She yanked that hair up into a ponytail and sighed, her eyes fluttering shut, as the air hit the back of her neck.

“My-oh-my, it’s my lucky day,” a voice said, drawling in from her open window and followed by a low wolf whistle. “Hey, Sweetheart. You going my way?”

Bonnie startled and stood straight. She and her mother lived on the twelfth story of their apartment complex. Next door, separated by a narrow alley no more than four feet across, was another tower of apartments. The only thing that could be seen from Bonnie’s room was the window across the way—a window that showed a bedroom that had stood empty for the better part of the past two months as its occupant was off visiting her aunt.

“Jo!” Bonnie said, whirling around and crossing her arms over her exposed stomach in an ineffective shield. The memory of her last encounter with Jo burned like a comet through her mind, leaving trails of heat along her cheeks. “You just about killed me.”

Jo, propped up on her elbows and leaning out her own window, grinned and gave Bonnie a lazy salute with two fingers. She wore a white button down with blue polka dots, the ends knotted just at her waistline, and a headscarf tied in a bow on top of her head, keeping her florescent red hair covered and out of sight. “You’re the one walking around in your underthings,” Jo said, and arched an eyebrow. “What would your mother say?”

“My mother would question the morals of the peeping Tom next door,” said Bonnie. She pulled her blouse back on and scooped a pencil off of her desk. Without bothering to take aim, she whipped the pencil through her open window as she said, “Or should I say, the peeping Tammy?”

The pencil ricocheted off of the brick next to Jo’s window, but Jo—always willing to go along with the joke—exaggerated ducking and dropped out of sight below her windowsill. A moment later, she waved a piece of white paper, her slender hand the only part of her Bonnie could see, and said, “I surrender, I surrender.” She peeked up, her eyes crinkling with her smile. “Is it safe to leave my foxhole?”

“For now,” said Bonnie. “Though let the record show I acted in self-defense.”

“So shown,” said Jo. She stood up again. “Aren’t you going to say hello?”

“I think we’ve moved past that,” said Bonnie. “How long have you been back?”

“I don’t know,” said Jo. She wrinkled her nose as she thought. “A week? A little less than that, maybe. You know how I am with schedules.”

Bonnie nodded and leaned forward to mirror Jo’s posture—arms crossed and most of her weight leaning on her elbows, perched on the windowsill. The air was as still and humid outside as it was inside. Bonnie brushed her damp bangs off of her forehead. She was on the verge of asking Jo why she’d waited so long to announce herself if she had been back for almost a week. But Bonnie feared that she knew the answer so instead smiled and asked, “Wonderful weather we’re having, huh?”
“Oh, it’s positively lovely,” Jo said, her voice monotonous. “School next week will be an absolute dream.”

Bonnie groaned. “Don’t remind me,” she said. “At least I have two weeks until mine starts.” It was one of the few advantages of attending a public school—the same one her parents had attended and her grandparents before them—instead of the private school that Jo went to.

“It’s not good manners to brag,” said Jo. She pressed a hand to her face. “My God, it’s hot. I’m sweating like a pig.”

Bonnie sniffed, raised her voice several pitches in a perfect imitation of her mother, and said, “Young ladies do not sweat, Joanna. Young ladies glisten.”

“That settles it then, once and for all. I’m no lady,” said Jo. She scratched at her head and squinted, frowning, before pulling off her headscarf. She sighed, collapsing forward with the motion. “There. That’s at least a little better.”

“Jo,” Bonnie said. She pushed herself up straight in the window frame. “Your hair.”

“Do you like it?” Jo asked. She reached up and ran a hand over her head. When she left for her aunt’s at the end of last May, Jo’s red curls reached down past her elbows. Now, Bonnie thought that even calling it an inch-long would be an overestimation. “My mother just about died when she saw.”

“I can imagine,” said Bonnie.

“She threw a fit,” said Jo. She sounded delighted. “But I told her. I said, ‘Mother. I am seventeen now. I’m old enough to make my own decisions.’ I mean, really, I said to her, ‘I’m practically an adult.’”

“You did not,” said Bonnie.

“I did so. Besides, I’d already had it done, so it wasn’t like there was anything she could do,” said Jo. She bit her lip and looked up at Bonnie from beneath her eyelashes. “You haven’t said what you think of it.”

“It’s very short,” said Bonnie. Jo’s eyes looked huge, defined in a way that Bonnie hadn’t noticed when her hair was long. The space between their windows seemed to stretch far for a moment—she wanted nothing more than to reach out and touch the short ends. The end of last spring hung between them like a clothesline sinking beneath the weight of wet towels, stretched and straining. Bonnie cleared her throat and shook herself as if to shake away everything else as well. “I think it suits you.”

“You do?” Jo asked. She fidgeted, picking at her pinkie fingernail with her thumb. Jo was nervous in a way that looked out of place on her. (Nerves were Bonnie’s territory.) This anxiety sat on Jo like an ill-tailored blazer, and Bonnie realized that she was not the only one tiptoeing around her words.
“Bonnie!” her mother yelled from somewhere within their apartment. “Bonnie, darling, dinner!”

“I have to go,” said Bonnie.

“I heard,” said Jo. She cracked her neck, bending her head first to the left, then to the right, and by the time she straightened again, any sign of her earlier nerves had vanished leaving behind Jo, confident as always. The light caught her short hair in a strange and fiery halo. Jo shooed Bonnie away with one hand. “Off with you, my Bonnie lass. We’ll talk later,” she said, snorting at her own joke, and before Bonnie could respond, whirling around and disappearing into the apartment beyond her bedroom.

Bonnie lingered in her own window for a moment longer before her mother called again. The moment she stepped from her room, her mother’s gaze narrowed in on her like a gun on a hapless rabbit. “Bonnie, dear,” she said. “At least have the decency to do up all of your buttons.”

Bonnie looked down to find that in her excitement at talking to Jo, she’d left the top three buttons on her blouse undone, her neckline plunging low. “But there’s no one here but us,” she said, even as she did them up. They lived alone, Bonnie and her mother. Just the two of them and a portrait of Bonnie’s father, resplendent in his uniform, that sat on the table in the living room.

“All the same,” said her mother. She wasn’t even sweating, and Bonnie, not for the first time, wondered if her mother was truly made of ice. “Young ladies don’t go to dinner half-dressed. Now go and set the table.”

“Yes, Mother,” said Bonnie.

Later that night, when the dishes were put away, and Ed Sullivan had lulled her mother to sleep, Bonnie lay flat on her back in the middle of her bedroom floor. The temperature had dropped with the sun, but it was still far too warm to be able to fall asleep. Her cotton sheets, so cool against her skin on any other night, threatened to smother her. The wooden floorboards, though rigid, were at least bearable.

She looked up at the end table next to her bed and sighed when she caught sight of the clock face. Two in the morning. She would be useless tomorrow, but no matter how hard she tried, Bonnie could not fall asleep.

From outside, the sound of Jo starting to sing drifted in through the window. It sounded like Patti Page, maybe “I Went to Your Wedding,” but at the volume that Jo was singing and how badly she was butchering the tune, Bonnie couldn’t say for sure.

Bonnie threw her arm over her eyes and sighed. Even here, in the middle of the night and alone in her bedroom, she couldn’t have a moment to escape it. For the past three months, she had tried not to think about it and as a result did nothing but think about it.

 *     *     *

Last spring, before going to her aunt’s house for the season, Jo had stolen an unopened bottle of Corby’s from her father’s cabinet. The two of them climbed up the rusty fire escape to the roof of Bonnie’s building. Bonnie slipped on the way up and scraped her shin on the rusted metal. Jo caught her by the arm and hauled her up, laughing as she said, “You’d be lost without me, you really would,” and Bonnie was unable to argue.

Bonnie had never been so aware of her own skin as she was that night up on the roof. All of the blood in her body seemed to swarm to the points where Jo’s arm and Jo’s thigh pressed against her own. Bonnie downed her fair share of the whisky, but she thought that maybe she was drunk on something else entirely.

“I,” Jo said, tipping her head back and letting the laugh out in short, staccato bursts, a red curling lock of hair in her face, “Am. So. Blitzed.”

She flopped her head around to grin at Bonnie. Jo had always been beautiful, but this was the first time Bonnie had ever noticed how crooked her smile was and how thick Jo’s eyelashes were. “Hi,” said Jo, and tilted her head forward just a little more. There was an inch between the tips of their noses, separated like windows across an alley.

Bonnie’s head spun, thoughts bubbling in a dizzying boil, threatening to brim over and escape into reality. It would be easy, so devastatingly easy, to reach out and anchor the wayward curl behind Jo’s ear. To cup Jo’s cheek in her hand, close her eyes, lean forward. To kiss her, hold her close, tuck her face between Jo’s shoulder and neck and wait out the world for a while.

Instead, she pulled away and got to her feet. “I have to go,” she said. Bonnie wobbled down the fire escape and back to her room, and didn’t slip on the way this time. She thought that maybe Jo called out her name, but then again, maybe Bonnie only wished that part.

*     *     *

Bonnie moved her arm so that she was staring at her ceiling. Outside, Jo stumbled over the words, started the line over, trailed away again, tried one more time, cursed, and fell silent. Bonnie closed her eyes and tried to let her mind drift. There would be nothing in the world as wonderful as sitting up right now to tell Jo about how her mother reacted to the news of Jo’s hair; there would be nothing in the world as terrifying, either. So she stayed on her floor and tried to convince herself that she was almost asleep. She shifted, trying to get more comfortable, but her foot collided with a pile of books that clattered down and bumped her end table.

“Bonnie?” Jo called. “Are you awake over there?”

Bonnie looked up at the window, low enough to the floor that Jo still couldn’t see her.

“I heard you, and I thought I saw something move,” said Jo. “If we’re both awake, we might as well talk to each other.”

Bonnie heaved herself up, kneeling and hanging her arms out of the window. “Good morning,” she said.

“So the clock says, but I have my doubts,” said Jo. “I’m used to being on my own this time of night, Miss Up-With-the-Sun. Why are you awake?”

“I can’t sleep,” said Bonnie. There were too many thoughts in her head for that. “And you?”

“The very same,” said Jo. She craned her neck up to look at the sky. “So I thought I’d look for some stars.”

Bonnie followed her gaze. There was nothing but the usual black, not even the smallest pinpricks of light to be seen. “There’s nothing up there,” she said.

“Sure there is,” said Jo. “Just because we can’t see them doesn’t mean that they aren’t there.”

“You know what I mean,” said Bonnie. She propped her chin on the windowsill and let her arms dangle out into the air, pretending there was a breeze moving over her. “What’s the point in stargazing when there’s nothing to gaze at?”

Jo shrugged. “Habit, mostly,” she said. “I looked every night I was at my aunt’s. She lives in the middle of the cornfield, you know.”

“So you’ve mentioned,” said Bonnie. For years, during the weeks leading up to Jo’s departure north, Bonnie had listened to Jo’s rantings about summers in Iowa as she threw her things, a haphazard tower of polyester and cotton, into a suitcase. “Nothing but cows, isn’t it?”

“Precisely. I was hideously bored all day, every day,” said Jo. She craned her neck out of her window again, looking up. “The night was different. It turns out a cornfield is the best place to be at night. You’ve never seen so many stars. Funny thing, really. I’ve been going there every summer for years, but this was the first time I went and looked for the stars. It’s easy to get your thoughts in order, looking at a sky like that.”

“I’ll bet,” said Bonnie. She scrubbed the heel of her hand against her eye. She couldn’t remember the last time she had actually left the city—before her father shipped out, for sure. Her thoughts were as clouded and uncertain as the black above them. “I could use a sky like that.”

“I think a lot of people could,” said Jo. They fell into a comfortable quiet, Jo staring up at the sky and Bonnie at the alley below.

“I told my mother about your hair,” said Bonnie, remembering her dinner earlier.

Jo laughed quietly, the sound seeming to stick in her throat for a moment before escaping. “I would have liked to have been there for her reaction,” said Jo. When Bonnie didn’t say anything right away, Jo said, “Well, go on then. Tell me what she said.”

“She said no self-respecting boy would ever want to be seen with a girl with hair like that,” said Bonnie.

“As if I’m interested in any boys, let alone self-respecting ones,” said Jo. She bent her pointer and middle fingers in the air in a mockery of quotation marks around the words “self-respecting” and rolled her eyes. She looked over at Bonnie, waiting for something.

“I,” said Bonnie, and then looked down at the alley again. She swallowed thickly. “I’m going to try and go back to sleep, I think.”

“Oh,” said Jo. She sounded disappointed. Bonnie couldn’t bring herself to look up and find out for sure. “All right, then. Good night. Sleep tight. Don’t let the bedbugs bite.”

Bonnie mumbled her response and moved out of the window. She leaned her back against the wall next to it, slipping down to sit with her legs pulled up to her chest and her arms wrapped around her knees. Jo picked up her song again, humming to fill in the gaps where she had forgotten the words. Bonnie tipped her head against the wall, looked up at the ceiling, and closed her eyes. Every time she blinked, the bright phantom of Jo’s smile flared against her eyelids.

It wasn’t as if she had never heard of it. Living in a place the size of Chicago, one saw them, especially near the bars around Hyde Park or Old Town. Women who wore men’s clothing—suits, denim pants, t-shirts—and greased their hair back in a ducktail. Who walked with their arms looped around the waists of other women the way that Bonnie’s father used to walk with her mother.

Once, when Bonnie was ten, while walking to the L station, her mother had made Bonnie cross the street to avoid a group of them that was spread around a couple of park benches. “They’re everywhere these days, those homophiles,” her mother had said, shaking her head. “I don’t know why they insist on hanging around in public like that.”

It burned through Bonnie’s stomach, that sentence. Six years later, and she could still feel it there, festering and simmering. It burst into a blast of heat whenever Jo looked at her and smiled her crooked smile.

Bonnie pressed her forehead to her kneecaps and breathed in, breathed out, breathed in, breathed out. She stayed that way until the yellow light of dawn managed to spill down the walls of the alley and into her window.

For the next three days, Bonnie avoided Jo. It wasn’t even a subconscious act. Whenever her mother needed an errand run, Bonnie volunteered immediately and without complaint. She made use of the dining room table and the living room sofa for when she settled down to read or sketch. The only time that Bonnie really entered her room was to sleep at night. She thought that Jo might be doing the same, because she didn’t see any sign of Jo whenever she chanced a look through the window. Jo’s curtains were almost always drawn.

On the morning of the fourth day of silence, Bonnie stood in her room, at a loss as to why she had entered into it in the first place. Just then a hairclip sailed through the air and ricocheted off of her head.

“Hey, stranger,” said Jo, waving. “Long time no see.”

“Ow,” said Bonnie. She rubbed at her scalp and chanced half a step towards the window. “That hurt.”

“I see how it is,” said Jo. “You’re allowed to throw things at me, but I can’t retaliate?”

“That is how it is,” said Bonnie. “You know that I have terrible aim.”

“True,” said Jo. She beckoned Bonnie forward with a curl of her pointer finger. “I have a question for you: What are you doing tonight?”

“Nothing,” said Bonnie, slow and uncertain. This was exactly how the night with the whisky on the roof began. “Why do you ask?”

“The Perseids are this week, and tonight they’re supposed to be the brightest,” said Jo. “I thought we could go and watch.”

“The what?” Bonnie asked.

“The Perseids,” said Jo, each syllable enunciated slowly. “A meteor shower. My aunt was telling me about it. It happens every August. I can’t believe I almost forgot about it.”

“We can’t see the normal stars from here,” said Bonnie. “We’ll never be able to see them.”

“Well, no, not from here,” said Jo. “That’s why we’ll take my dad’s car and head out, find a field, and watch from there.”

“I don’t know,” said Bonnie. She shifted her weight from one foot to the other. Her palms were suddenly cold, clammy. “We’d have to go out pretty far.”

“Yes,” said Jo. “And?”

“And,” said Bonnie. She repeated herself, “I don’t know. Isn’t there someone else you could go with?”

“Probably,” said Jo. “But there’s no one I’d rather go with. It’ll be worth the trip, I swear. Are you in?”

“I want to, but it’s difficult,” said Bonnie. Jo’s intense gaze made her feel like there was more than one question being asked. She cleared her throat. “My mother will never let me go. You know how she is.”

“That’s why you don’t tell her,” said Jo. “You wait until she falls asleep in front of Lucy, then you slip out, meet me in our getaway car. You’re already Bonnie, so I guess I’ll have to be Clyde. We’ll be back before morning, you slip into your room, and your mother is none the wiser.”

Bonnie drummed her fingers against the wood. “I don’t know,” she said. “Do you even know how to drive?”

“You did it, you found the flaw in the plan,” said Jo, rolling her eyes. “My aunt taught me. Look, it’ll be fun, I promise. Come on. School starts after that. Do you really want to waste your last days of the summer?”

“It’s your last days,” said Bonnie. “I still have nearly a week.”

“Stop doing that,” said Jo. “No more changing the subject. Are you coming or not?”

Bonnie clenched her hand into a fist and took a quick breath. “Yes,” she said, and looked up at Jo.

“Yes, I’ll come.”

Jo smiled, and the familiar heat flared in Bonnie’s stomach again.

*     *     *

Bonnie pulled the door shut behind her as quietly as she could. Just as Jo had predicted, her mother fell asleep moments into the opening credits of I Love Lucy.

“She’s so funny,” her mother said. She started casting on her knitting needle with a deep, red yarn. “Especially for a communist. Don’t you think so, dear?”

“Yes, Mother,” said Bonnie, half listening. Her attention was fixed to the clock, watching as the long second hand twitched its way around, pulling the time closer and closer to nine thirty. She was to meet Jo down on the curb then, so they could drive out and watch the meteors.

The moment her mother started to snore, Bonnie wrote a quick note to leave on the counter and grabbed a light sweater. She paused a moment at the door that led out to the front walk of her building. Jo sat in a burgundy Buick that idled by the sidewalk. With a bracing breath, straightening her shoulders, Bonnie walked out the door.

“Your father actually let you take his car?” Bonnie asked. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she had thought Jo wouldn’t get the car—she hadn’t been able to tell if it was a hope or a fear. She leaned against the bottom of the window and reached in to trail her fingers over the red leather seats. “I don’t believe it.”

“Yes. In a manner of speaking,” said Jo. She hesitated long enough for Bonnie to doubt her.

“What is that supposed to mean?” asked Bonnie, standing a little straighter.

“It means,” said Jo, “that I’ve left him a note, but we best be off before he finds it, because if we’re not gone by then neither of us is going anywhere.”

“Jo!” Bonnie said. She backed up half a step from the curb and Buick.

“I told you before: It’s a getaway car,” said Jo. “It’s no fun if we have permission.”

“We’re going to get into terrible trouble when we get back,” Bonnie said.

“No, I will,” said Jo. Which, really, was exactly the problem. Jo did things like this, sometimes, and it scared Bonnie to death. Her parents already sent her away for summers at a time. What if she disappeared for even longer? Jo, though—she had no such concerns, at least as far as Bonnie could tell. She fixed Bonnie with a look and said, “Besides, he’s out so much that we’ll probably even beat him home. You’ll be fine, I promise. Come on, Bonnie. Listen to your Clyde and get in the car. It’s time to go.”

Bonnie hesitated a moment longer and then pulled open the car door and slid into the seat.
“That’s my girl!” Jo said. As soon as Bonnie pulled the door shut behind her, Jo drove away from the curb and down the street. She laughed loudly and with her head thrown back for a moment. “Look out, world,” said Jo. “There’s a new Barrow gang on the move.”

“You do know what happened to them, don’t you?” Bonnie asked. “To Bonnie and Clyde, I mean.”

“Of course I do,” said Jo. She smiled at Bonnie and patted her hand, her fingers lingering just this side of too long. Then she returned her attention back to the road and put both hands on the wheel. She repeated herself a little quieter, “Of course I do.”

The traffic was stop and go—the usual for the time of day. First they crawled through downtown, the skyscrapers forming rigid, linear canyon walls that loomed around them, blue blocks of sky above. Heading out of the city, the buildings thinned, and the rooftops sank lower like a gradual staircase, fading and melting away into the surrounding suburbs. As the traffic thinned like the buildings, and the grey cityscape faded to green fields and farmland, something down in Bonnie’s chest unwound, and she found herself laughing and smiling in a way she never could manage at home. She was enjoying herself so much, that she barely noticed Jo slowing the car and pulling over onto the side of the road.

“We’re here,” Jo said.

Bonnie stretched, looking around, her joints cracking. “Where is here?”

“Almost Wisconsin,” said Jo. She opened her door to go and root around in the trunk. “I brought a blanket,” she said. “I thought we could lie on the grass next to the car to watch.”

The blanket ended up being barely big enough for the both of them to fit, side-by-side, arms and thighs and calves pressed against each other. The night was filled with a chorus of crickets and croaking frogs, and Bonnie said, “I’m not seeing anything. How will we know when something happens?”

“They’re meteors,” said Jo. “They’ll be hard to miss.”

“What if we’re facing the wrong way?”

“It’s the sky,” said Jo, and spread her arms up from the ground. “There’s only the one way to look. Up.”

“Shush. You know what I mean,” said Bonnie, elbowing her. Jo laughed.

“Admit it,” said Jo. “You’re excited.”

Bonnie crossed her arms, and continued looking upwards. She had never seen so many stars. She had never dreamed so many, scattered like spilled paint above her. “So when are these Percies—”

“Perseids.”

“Right,” Bonnie said. “When do they start?”

“It’s going on now,” said Jo. “We just can’t see them.”

“So it’s just like back home,” said Bonnie. “If we came out here just to do what we always —”

“Cool it,” said Jo. “We just have to wait. We’ll see the meteors. I wouldn’t have made you come out here otherwise.”

“You didn’t make me,” Bonnie said. A meteor splashed across the dark sky, flaring white and flashing at one end and leaving a trail, gone as quick as a blink. Bonnie pushed herself up onto her elbows.

“Did you see that?” she asked.

Jo hooted, the sound blasting out of her with a burst of laughter as bright as the meteor. “Of course I did,” she said. “See? I told you so! Didn’t I tell you so?”

“You did,” said Bonnie. Another one streaked across the sky, and Jo let out another laugh. Bonnie looked down at her. She was smiling wider than Bonnie had ever seen her smile before, her eyes crinkling and almost disappearing into the expression.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” Jo asked.

“Yes,” said Bonnie quietly, still looking at Jo. She startled when Jo looked away from the sky and back at her.

“Hey,” said Jo. “Are you going to come back down here, or are you going to keep on staring at me all night?”

Words stuck in Bonnie’s throat, words that almost made it into the world but burned into ash upon hitting the atmosphere. “I,” she said. “I—”

“Come on,” said Jo. She patted the ground next to her and smiled up at Bonnie. “We’ll talk about it later, I promise, so long as you don’t run away from me again. Oh, look! There goes another one—Bonnie, you’re missing it.”

Bonnie hesitated a moment longer, and then lay back down on the blanket, her right side pressed against Jo’s left.

“At the next one, you have to make a wish,” said Jo. She spoke quietly in Bonnie’s ear, her breath moving over Bonnie’s skin and leaving a fan of goose bumps in its wake. “Are you ready?”

When the next meteor shot across the sky, Bonnie reached over and grabbed Jo’s hand. Jo’s only answer was to twine their fingers together and squeeze. Bonnie let out a breath that she had been holding for a very, very long time.

Becca_Anderson_ResizedBecca Anderson is a writer from Green Bay, Wisconsin. She is currently completing her MA in English at the University of Wisconsin—Eau Claire. Her writing often takes place within a historical setting and explores themes of identity and belonging. This is her first publication.

On Missing

I could play the guitar
just barely and I would try
when we’d arrive home

all liquor dilated, hearts
more capable of loving.
As far as I can tell, there’s nothing

that lights me up like this
once did. The magic in my life
is quieter now, but grace,

once parsimonious, now crackles
through my circuits: microscopic
wildflowers in my rushing blood.

I hear it in the right side of early mornings
the bright side, long past my vice
slide to the bottom of the sea.

Call this “Forgiveness,” “my thirties,” “God.”
What was it that held me there
and now has let me go?

So little happens on a given day
but I feel lucky, standing solid gold
outside the event horizon.

Melissa WattMelissa Watt holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College. Her poems have been featured in The Breakwater Review, Ohio Edit, and elsewhere. If she’s not writing, she’s probably singing karaoke with a live band or catching spiders and taking them outside as a favor to her loved ones.