Three Works

Art / Harry Dodge

 

 

From the artist

:: Account ::

These sculp­tures are part of a recent body of work pre­sent­ed in a show titled The Cyber­net­ic Fold. The works in the show, which includ­ed sculp­ture, draw­ings, and video, are ecsta­t­ic, dogged reck­on­ings with intel­lec­tu­al pre­oc­cu­pa­tions chan­neled through the artist’s (my) body— which might here be con­ceived as a kind of organ­ic fil­ter for insu­per­a­ble ques­tions wrought by study. (I expe­ri­ence think­ing as a full-body joy.) Is the pith of our rela­tion mate­r­i­al? How does a die-hard mate­ri­al­ist con­cep­tu­al­ize, or instan­ti­ate, the nature of our rela­tions in a dig­i­tal age? How might a technophobe—or at least some­one who feels acute­ly the dimin­ish­ments, wrought by com­put­ers, of the ana­log nuances of human communication—contend with cybor­gian real­i­ty, or what Paul Pre­ci­a­do has called the ever-accel­er­at­ing “phar­ma­co­porno­graph­ic era”? How might flatness—which we con­front dai­ly in the form of mon­i­tors and smart phones, etc.—be recon­sid­ered? What if flat­ness didn’t lack? What makes thick­ness; what makes dimen­sion? What is the thick­ness of our rela­tion to each oth­er? How does a sin­gle bend make vol­ume? If Rosi Braidot­ti is right, that “The inhu­man is not what it used to be,” what is it now, and what are we? What might Georges Bataille’s idea of man as “a par­ti­cle insert­ed into unsta­ble and tan­gled ensem­bles” look or feel like if mate­ri­al­ized into shape; what if these ensem­bles are not only dig­i­tal, but also end­less­ly shaped by inter­est, love, and shame?

This body of work as a whole is fre­net­ic, lewd, hal­lu­ci­na­to­ry, and vis­cer­al, and I hope that it con­jures the puls­ing, mul­ti­va­lent bod­ies whose desires dri­ve, and often col­lide with, machine (not to men­tion with each oth­er).

 

Har­ry Dodge is an Amer­i­can artist, writer and per­former whose inter­dis­ci­pli­nary prac­tice is char­ac­ter­ized by its explo­rations of mate­ri­al­i­ty, dif­frac­tion and pro­fu­sion. His work has been exhib­it­ed at many venues nation­al­ly and inter­na­tion­al­ly, includ­ing the 2008 Whit­ney Bien­ni­al (NY), The Aldrich Con­tem­po­rary Art Muse­um (CT), and Ham­mer Muse­um (LA). Dodge’s work is in col­lec­tions includ­ing Muse­um of Mod­ern Art (NY), Ham­mer Muse­um (LA), Muse­um of Con­tem­po­rary Art (LA). His most recent exhi­bi­tion was “The Cyber­net­ic Fold,” at Wall­space, NY.

A Dialogue with Maggie Nelson

Critical Dialogue / Jennifer Hawe Interviews Maggie Nelson

:: A Dialogue with Maggie Nelson ::

Mag­gie Nelson’s newest book, The Arg­onauts, has been get­ting plen­ty of deserved acclaim since its release. Because so much has been said about the book already, I’ll just add that The Arg­onauts demon­strates both agili­ty and mus­cle in its tour through per­son­al nar­ra­tive, mythol­o­gy, the human psy­che, the­o­ry, and con­tem­po­rary lit­er­a­ture and art. It is also a cere­bral, soul-deep love let­ter to Nelson’s part­ner, Har­ry Dodge, and a chron­i­cle of their family’s ear­ly years. If you have not read it—go rem­e­dy that sit­u­a­tion, ok?

I was lucky to have been Mag­gie Nelson’s stu­dent at CalArts. She was kind enough to con­duct a wide-rang­ing, long-form inter­view with me over the sum­mer of 2015. The inter­view you read here has been edit­ed for clar­i­ty and cohe­sion. 

– Jen­nifer Hawe

 

Jen­nifer Hawe: You write ably in many forms and styles. To my ears, your prose in The Arg­onauts is lean­er than much of your pre­vi­ous work, even as you write about the expanding/expansive body, com­pose a love let­ter to Eve Sedgwick’s phys­i­cal and intel­lec­tu­al cor­pu­lence, etc. How do you attend to style in your writ­ing (if at all)? Do you chart your own evo­lu­tion as a styl­ist? 

Mag­gie Nel­son: I think style needs to remain a nec­es­sary apo­r­ia. Like, you fig­ure out how to say what you need to say in the way you need to say it, and leave the ques­tion of style to oth­ers, after the fact. But giv­en that we absorb style from the things we read, it also seems impor­tant to read writ­ers whose style one admires.

JH: I dis­tinct­ly remem­ber you telling a writ­ing work­shop, when it comes to read­ing: “Crap in, crap out.” Actu­al­ly, one of the things you had us read was Crack Wars by Avi­tal Ron­nel. At the time I thought the book was dan­ger­ous and irre­spon­si­ble (and that these were bad things for it to be). I think in class I argued that Ron­nel should not deploy addic­tion as crit­i­cal prac­tice because addic­tion hurts peo­ple and it’s seri­ous. You basi­cal­ly said, So what? Why should this make addic­tion off lim­its? Also you tried to explain some­thing about what the book had meant to you in grad school, how its wild­ness and hybrid­i­ty shone a light for you. Sev­er­al years lat­er, sort of suf­fer­ing the slings and arrows of a PhD pro­gram myself, feel­ing much dif­fer­ent­ly about dan­ger and irre­spon­si­bil­i­ty, and think­ing much dif­fer­ent­ly about addic­tion, I came back to the book, and was again ter­ror­ized by it—with the dif­fer­ence that it was exhil­a­rat­ing and fruit­ful. One of those moments when you learn the les­son too late but right on time. Are there books or lessons like that for you—anything that first antag­o­nized and lat­er bloomed? I’m also curi­ous if Crack Wars is still impor­tant to you. What is it like for you as a teacher when stu­dents are hos­tile to won­der­ful things?

MN: O I still love Crack Wars, am actu­al­ly writ­ing some­thing now that stems direct­ly from it, a kind of twen­ty years hence con­ver­sa­tion with it that I wasn’t able to per­form at the time.

What you’re say­ing here, about Crack Wars, about your expe­ri­ence read­ing it as a stu­dent, is real­ly fun­ny to me—I’m so glad you told this sto­ry.

One gets (some­what) used to stu­dents vehe­ment­ly reject­ing what one puts on the syl­labus, but I have to admit, no mat­ter how often it occurs, it’s always a bit deflat­ing. One doesn’t typ­i­cal­ly put some­thing on a syl­labus unless one feels con­fi­dent that there are worth­while things to take from it, so it’s a bum­mer when the class slides toward full-scale dis­missal. I know a lot of teach­ers who don’t teach their very favorite works any­more, because those works feel too pre­cious to them to have to suf­fer through two or three hours of lis­ten­ing to them get torn apart (espe­cial­ly if it’s the “I only read the first ten pages of this and had to put it down” variety!—the new, Ama­zon-review-type norm). 

But I also under­stand that there are a lot of dynam­ics at play here—like, inso­far as the stu­dent “has” to read the book, that can spark a de fac­to resis­tance com­plex, and some stu­dents are at a place in life when they need to con­sol­i­date them­selves egoical­ly or in com­par­i­son to oth­ers, which can cause them to do a lot of reject­ing or posturing—certainly I did a lot of that in grad school. I’m sure I was a total jerk over half the time, for which I here apol­o­gize. In the case of dif­fi­cult books like Crack Wars, which most people—myself included—typically can under­stand only a frac­tion of—it can take some time not to feel threat­ened. The clas­sic under­grad response to a dif­fi­cult text is to accuse it of mak­ing you feel stu­pid, like the author’s sole pur­pose was to insult your intel­li­gence. But that’s usu­al­ly some­thing we grow out of. 

Any­way, in an ide­al world, good teach­ers need not be seen as the arbiters of what’s won­der­ful or worth­while, nor do they need every­one to agree with them, or like what they like—far from it. But hope­ful­ly they can offer mod­els of how to stick with things that have offi­cious or dif­fi­cult or threat­en­ing aspects while also recognizing—or even being rav­en­ous for—what’s worth­while in those texts, too.

I can’t think of any­thing right now that once antag­o­nized me but lat­er bloomed, but I can think of a lot of things that are on my “come back to lat­er in life and see what I get” list. Hei­deg­ger comes imme­di­ate­ly to mind (which brings us back to Crack Wars).

JH: OK, I want to read your Crack Wars project when it comes out! But while we’re on the sub­ject, here’s a ques­tion I always like to ask fel­low writ­ers: How do things start for you—how do projects catch on? 

MN: For me there’s not a lot of choice—there’s either some­thing that’s dom­i­nat­ing my inter­est or there isn’t. I don’t feel like I choose. I just keep fol­low­ing the trail of what seems hot, and paus­ing in baf­fle­ment when it goes cold.

JH: I’d like to talk a bit about The Arg­onauts in rela­tion to some of your oth­er work. In The Arg­onauts, your step­fa­ther tells you:

I think you over­es­ti­mate the matu­ri­ty of adults. […] This slice of truth, offered in the final hour, end­ed up begin­ning a new chap­ter of my adult­hood, the one in which I real­ized that age doesn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly bring any­thing with it, save itself. The rest is option­al. (22)

 Read­ing this prompt­ed me to exca­vate a moment in Bluets, where you write:

It is tempt­ing to derive some kind of matu­ri­ty nar­ra­tive here: even­tu­al­ly we sober up and grow out of our rash love of inten­si­ty (i.e., red); even­tu­al­ly we learn to love more sub­tle things with more sub­tle­ty, etc. etc. But my love for blue has nev­er felt to me like a matur­ing, or a refine­ment, or a set­tling. (61)

I see a res­o­nance between these two moments. Arg­onauts seems to reaf­firm part of the ear­li­er premise from Bluets—that the matu­ri­ty nar­ra­tive doesn’t serve. Yet it also undoes the assump­tion still oper­at­ing in Bluets, that there is some kind of matu­ri­ty nar­ra­tive, albeit one that your per­sona seemed to be locked out of in Bluets. Now, my mini-read­ing wants to con­struct an arc—not nec­es­sar­i­ly a matu­ri­ty narrative—in your work. What do you think? Does such an arc exist (and do you care whether it does)? 

MN: This is a great ques­tion. As per the quotes you’ve pulled out, I don’t like matu­ri­ty nar­ra­tives very much, or at all. They make me feel impris­oned in a rom-com state of mind, you know, “This is forty.” It’s your own fuck­ing forty, I always feel like say­ing. Per­haps for this rea­son, I don’t per­son­al­ly think of Bluets and The Arg­onauts as spo­ken by the same nar­ra­tor on a linked chrono­log­i­cal con­tin­u­um, and most cer­tain­ly not a pro­gres­sion of the same self toward “adult­hood.” To me, they are just dif­fer­ent per­for­mances of dif­fer­ent voic­es, dif­fer­ent issues, dif­fer­ent mind and body spaces. I don’t think the nar­ra­tor of Bluets is an idiot who has yet to grow up because she’s lost in unre­quit­ed love; for bet­ter or worse, the pain of heart­break is a glow­ing place avail­able to us for vis­i­ta­tion through­out our lives. And while I’ve read some reviews of The Arg­onauts that imply or flat-out state that its speak­er seems grown up in a way that’s tied to “becom­ing a moth­er,” I don’t buy it. As Adri­enne Rich famous­ly said in Of Woman Born, “I do not see the moth­er with her child as either more moral­ly cred­i­ble or moral­ly capa­ble than any oth­er woman.” The tone of The Arg­onauts is dis­tinct because the con­tent is dis­tinct and the for­mal exper­i­ment is dis­tinct, and so on.

Any­way, what­ev­er bio­graph­i­cal arc there is in one’s writ­ing is ulti­mate­ly deter­mined by one’s death, at which point peo­ple can make up what­ev­er sto­ries along what­ev­er arcs they want. But life is full of much more acci­dent and simul­tane­ity than it may out­ward­ly seem. If Plath’s house­keep­er had shown up at the appoint­ed time and inter­rupt­ed her sui­cide and Hugh­es hadn’t posthu­mous­ly re-edit­ed her Ariel into a nar­ra­tive of self-destruc­tion, we wouldn’t read Ariel that way. It wouldn’t even have been the same Ariel; our Plath wouldn’t be the same Plath. If Herve Guib­ert had become one of the ones who made it through the AIDS epi­dem­ic (as he fore­casts at the start of To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life), we’d read that book entire­ly dif­fer­ent­ly. You get my drift.

JH: To this—“I’ve read some reviews of The Arg­onauts that imply or flat-out state that its speak­er seems grown up in a way that’s tied to “becom­ing a moth­er”—I say, yikes. Did writ­ing about moth­er­hood bring on any trep­i­da­tion? For women it seems that moth­er­hood is both an imper­a­tive and some­thing they are des­tined to fuck up. You write, often hero­ical­ly, against the grain about moth­er­hood. I was actu­al­ly afraid for you a few times as I read The Arg­onauts, think­ing about how peo­ple might sav­age you for some of what you wrote. Did you ever feel like you were de fac­to enter­ing a fray you didn’t want to enter, just by virtue of the sub­ject mat­ter? I mean, things will always be mis­read, but it seems like writ­ing about moth­er­hood, peo­ple will real­ly mis­read it, are even look­ing to mis­read, as evi­denced by the “matu­ri­ty nar­ra­tive” some hap­less review­er saw across Bluets and Arg­onauts. Did you wor­ry about how you as a moth­er would be read in your book?

MN: Well, it helps to know that vis-à-vis moth­er­hood, the actu­al moth­er will nev­er be able to do any­thing right (that’s part of mater­nal fini­tude), so it’s a lost cause from the start. And yes, I had/ have my own mat­ro­pho­bia, which rears its head from time to time, espe­cial­ly when I’m asked to do some­thing moth­er-cen­tric in the lit­er­ary world, but I would nev­er have let any wor­ries on that account keep me from say­ing what­ev­er I need­ed to say. Life’s too short; the task too urgent.

JH: You also reveal in The Arg­onauts that “Wittgenstein’s idea that the inex­press­ible is contained—inexpressibly!—in the expressed […] is, quite lit­er­al­ly, why I write, or how I feel able to keep writ­ing.” But have you ever felt unable to write? 

MN: I’m not sure if I’ve ever felt unable to write. I’ve nev­er, like, “tried to write” and failed. But some­times I don’t try to write. Some­times writ­ing doesn’t feel like the right avenue of response to life. Some­times there’s no time to write; some­times one hasn’t put enough in to get some­thing good out, so one has to wait. I guess I’ve writ­ten enough at this point to trust that, if past expe­ri­ence is a good indi­ca­tor of future, writ­ing will always be some­thing that I do. If not, I’ll do some­thing else.

JH: You also men­tion in the book that most of your writ­ing gets done in pub­lic. Why do you like to write in pub­lic? Where do you like to work?

MN: Like a lot of New York­ers, when I lived in the city I pre­ferred to write in cafés or libraries because such spaces offered more com­forts and/or pri­va­cy than my liv­ing spaces. The same is true in some sense now, in LA, but I have noticed that as I get old­er, I can’t com­pose new mate­r­i­al in pub­lic; I can only read and edit there.

JH: Why do you sup­pose that is? I’m much the same, and for me it has to do with being an intro­vert and always feel­ing like I’m per­form­ing when I’m in public—and I can’t per­form and com­pose at the same time.

MN: I’m always too para­noid that someone’s look­ing at my com­put­er screen. As if any­one cared that much. But the words have to remain pri­vate while they’re com­ing out.

JH: You also say in The Arg­onauts that writ­ing does not feel par­tic­u­lar­ly cre­ative, more clar­i­fy­ing. Are there prac­tices that feel more cre­ative? Did dance feel cre­ative? And could you draw out that dis­tinc­tion a bit, between cre­ative and clar­i­fy­ing?

MN: I don’t think I can, because I still don’t know what cre­ativ­i­ty is. Maybe pro­duc­ing clar­i­ty is a cre­ative act, I don’t know. Dance felt more expres­sive to me than cre­ative, though via impro­vi­sa­tion I learned a lot about com­pos­ing on the spot. But I think it like­ly I just need a tuto­r­i­al in the word “cre­ative” to know what peo­ple mean when they say it. Unless I’m mis­re­mem­ber­ing, I think my friend, the great poet Dot­tie Lasky, did her dis­ser­ta­tion on “cre­ativ­i­ty.” So I should go ask her. Dot­tie, can you hear me?

JH: I’m so glad to hear you say you don’t know what cre­ativ­i­ty is. I was sur­prised by some­thing you wrote in The Arg­onauts, that secret­ly it’s always been you in your writ­ing, on the page. This runs counter to the notion of the con­struct­ed speak­er sep­a­rate from the self and dove­tails with the endur­ing trope of the lyric speak­er who con­fess­es his/her inner­most what­ev­er in an unguard­ed moment and there­fore trans­fers some authentic/essential self onto the page (can­vas, musi­cal instru­ment, what have you). I con­fess my own agnos­ti­cism here because of course the speak­er is a con­struc­tion, but if it wasn’t me on the page, then why would I write? I don’t want to go down the Foucault/Derrida/Barthes rab­bit hole here, but from a practitioner’s per­spec­tive I won­der: can’t we have it both ways? Can’t the speak­er be a con­struc­tion and at least a par­tial arti­fact of the writer’s true self? Can’t the writer dis­ap­pear into the work and emerge clar­i­fied?

MN: I think you have it exact­ly right. We not only have it both ways, but it couldn’t be oth­er­wise. It MUST be a con­struc­tion or rep­re­sen­ta­tion, because it is WRITING. On the oth­er hand, it’s sil­ly to say the writ­ing is not an arti­fact of the writer’s “true self,” even if I wouldn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly use those words. I remem­ber very clear­ly being scold­ed as an under­grad by a vis­it­ing writer who, after read­ing my Foucault/Derrida/Barthesian the­sis (which was part cre­ative, part crit­i­cal), asked me, ok, so, if the author is dead, are you dead? I just thought, twen­ty-one-year-old  that I was, what a lit­er­al-mind­ed fool.

JH: I have anoth­er ques­tion about teach­ing. What do you make of the prac­tice and par­a­digm of the MFA, or your posi­tion as a teacher of fledg­ling writ­ers? As much as it’s been talked to death, I still think most of us secret­ly walk around in a state of grand con­fu­sion about whether writ­ing/art-mak­ing can be taught, or if the task of art instruc­tion is just to hold the door open for inter­est­ed par­ties. And of course many fledg­ing writ­ers will nev­er real­ly fledge. Is that ever on your mind as a teacher?  

MN: I think a heck of a lot more about the ethics of high­er edu­ca­tion and stu­dent debt than I wor­ry about whether peo­ple can be taught to write well or make good art. I think tak­ing time to focus on writ­ing or art-mak­ing is near­ly always a very good pas­time in a world in which there are so many more nefar­i­ous options, so whether or not someone’s going to be “suc­cess­ful” in the field doesn’t both­er me. Peo­ple find their way. Fig­ur­ing out how to make such forms of study avail­able to peo­ple with­out ensnar­ing them in finan­cial sys­tems which aim to exploit them seems more press­ing to me.

JH: Thank you! That was the sub­text of my ques­tion and you went right to it. To stay with this for a moment: “Fig­ur­ing out how to make such forms of study avail­able to peo­ple with­out ensnar­ing them in finan­cial sys­tems which aim to exploit them seems more press­ing to me.” What do you sup­pose this would this look like, Mag­gie? Although so much rhetoric around cre­ative and/or lib­er­al edu­ca­tion posi­tions it as a tool of eco­nom­ic and social mobil­i­ty, in real­i­ty such an edu­ca­tion often serves to bind stu­dents into life­times of debt peon­age. Rather than com­bat wealth strat­i­fi­ca­tion and pro­mote socioe­co­nom­ic mobil­i­ty, insti­tu­tions of high­er ed often end up serv­ing as the hand­maid­ens of priv­i­lege and inequal­i­ty. I am strug­gling to com­plete a dis­ser­ta­tion that exam­ines how this par­tic­u­lar trap works, and I keep hit­ting a wall because so often in this con­text it feels wrong to me to par­tic­i­pate in insti­tu­tion­al forms of intel­lec­tu­al engage­ment and art-mak­ing. How can I seek the stamp of approval for my work from an insti­tu­tion that feasts on debt and exploita­tive labor prac­tices, and if I’m per­suad­ed by my own argu­ments, why would I want to? But I remain attached to the project because, as you say, the task is urgent and I would like to make my con­tri­bu­tion nonethe­less. 

MN: Well, I hear you. But the ques­tion you ask about whether or not—or how—to be a part of insti­tu­tions that feast on debt and exploita­tive labor prac­tices could be asked of near­ly every aspect of our dai­ly lives. So while I’m very con­cerned with cast­ing a keen and tren­chant and sober eye on the neolib­er­al­iza­tion of edu­ca­tion, I’m not per­son­al­ly in the busi­ness of giv­ing up on edu­ca­tion (wrong word; maybe bet­ter to use Moten’s “study”). Because hope­ful­ly you’re doing more than “seek­ing the stamp of approval”—you’ve lived in some of the ways you’ve want­ed to live, you’ve angled your­self in direc­tions that you want to trav­el, you’ve met fel­low trav­el­ers, you’ve devot­ed your­self to thoughts and con­ver­sa­tions that feel mean­ing­ful to you, and so on. Those are not neg­li­gi­ble things. I don’t have an answer. But there is no tool with­out blood on it, as they say, so I per­son­al­ly am not search­ing for an answer that demands puri­ty.  

JH: I like what you say here very much. Thank you. You and Har­ry nur­ture in your fam­i­ly two chil­dren and two art prac­tices. What is that like? 

MN: O, you know, it’s good and it’s hard. Har­ry can make sculp­ture in the yard as a social activity—he doesn’t seem to mind if our three-year-old is clam­ber­ing around at his heels play­ing “I’m an artist too.” But since that’s not always safe, espe­cial­ly if Harry’s pour­ing tox­ic plas­tic or mov­ing heavy things, it can’t dou­ble as “care­tak­ing.” Writ­ing, on the oth­er hand, is entire­ly soli­tary. I can’t real­ly write any­thing if any­one I know is in the same house with me, much less in the same room. I’ve made do at times, but ide­al­ly I like to be alone, or alone in pub­lic. But I can also move in and out of writ­ing over the course of a day or week with a bit more ease. Like, I real­ly look for­ward to the part of the day when I’m not sit­ting at this stu­pid Mac, and I can return to the social fold. Sit­ting on your ass is pret­ty phys­i­cal­ly monot­o­nous. Where­as some­times I think Har­ry would be hap­pi­est, when he’s mak­ing art, to make it for like four weeks straight, with­out sleep­ing, even. Like, when art is ON for him, then it’s the only thing on until art is OFF. So, you know, we have to work things out.

JH: This reminds me of some­thing Joni Mitchell said about her rela­tion­ship with Stephen Stills: that they com­pet­ed to see who could get to the piano first, and of course that helped blow up the rela­tion­ship. This doesn’t seem to be your family’s strug­gle. Do you think it’s part­ly because you and Har­ry work most­ly in dif­fer­ent media? If you were both writ­ers or both visu­al artists, would there be more con­flict, or not so much?

MN: I real­ly like that quote from Joni Mitchell! I’ll remem­ber it for­ev­er, I think. Har­ry doesn’t work auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal­ly, like, at all. So there’s no issue there. It is sure­ly tremen­dous­ly help­ful that we don’t have the same venues/avenues for our work. I mean, the art world and the lit­er­ary world are con­nect­ed some­times, but ten­u­ous­ly; they basi­cal­ly have com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent cur­rents and conun­drums. I don’t real­ly do any­thing lit­er­ary in LA; for me, every­thing here is art (or at least it is a lot of the time). Which suits me fine. We’re real­ly, real­ly dif­fer­ent artists. I’m much more psy­cho­log­i­cal and direct; he’s fas­ci­nat­ed by mate­ri­als and indi­rect anal­o­gy. But we have a lot in com­mon, too. It’s fun.

JH: One of my favorite moments in The Arg­onauts is the sec­tion where Har­ry writes about his mother’s death. Could you talk a bit about that part of the book? Do you con­sid­er it col­lab­o­ra­tive? How involved was Har­ry in con­struct­ing that part?

MN: I don’t con­sid­er it collaborative—he wrote that account as an email to a few friends after his mom died, and then one day many years lat­er, while work­ing on my book, I looked it up and tried past­ing it into my draft. When it seemed like it was going to work, I asked him for per­mis­sion, and he agreed.

JH: One thing I love about that sec­tion is the inter-splic­ing of birth and death nar­ra­tives (Harry’s moth­er, Iggy). I read there a pro­found res­o­nance. It’s such a thin mem­brane between birth and death. How strong do you feel the rela­tion­ship between dying/being born or giv­ing birth/helping some­one die real­ly is? The book posi­tions your labor with Iggy and Harry’s labor with his moth­er as par­al­lel and inter­twined, and it seems like Harry’s labor in let­ting his moth­er go becomes an act of moth­er­ing. Can you talk more about why you chose to put those two labors togeth­er in the book?  

MN: I don’t know. It was a cheesy idea in many ways but it also felt right. I didn’t over­think it too much; I just tried it and liked it. I don’t know how strong the rela­tion­ship is between shep­herd­ing some­one through death and shep­herd­ing some­one through labor, because Harry’s the per­son in those sub­ject posi­tions here, not me. And while in some ways I do pair labor with the expe­ri­ence of dying, I remain a speak­ing and remem­ber­ing and liv­ing per­son, where­as Harry’s mom remains utter­ly silent, and now she’s gone. We have no idea what that pas­sage is like for the per­son who’s on the way out. It’s scan­dalous. I’ve always been very moved by the idea that read­ing the Tibetan Book of the Dead to the dying per­son is actu­al­ly a rit­u­al for the liv­ing under the guise of being for the dying, so maybe there’s an ele­ment of that here. I don’t know.

JH: In The Arg­onauts you write about George and Mary Oppen “baf­fling the par­a­digm, with ardor.” This attempt­ing to baf­fle the par­a­digm with ardor seems a core strat­a­gem of the book, and indeed much of your writ­ing. Both style and con­tent seek to baf­fle with ardor—the way you con­tend with the nup­tial, the fam­i­ly, the state, sex, lan­guage, moth­er­hood, queer­ness. You also talk about queer­ness and “reclaimed terms” oper­at­ing as “a means of assert­ing while also giv­ing the slip” (29). I see the two—baffling with ardor and assert­ing while giv­ing the slip—as close­ly linked with­in the book and also emblem­at­ic of your writ­ing. (Feint­ing to tell the truth, like the moment in The Arg­onauts of choos­ing the otter as your spir­it ani­mal.) There’s a will­ing­ness to let the slip­pery things slip, and some­times to let read­ers choose between hav­ing it both ways, or none, because the inex­press­ible and the expressed are both avail­able. There’s no big ques­tion, but I’m curi­ous what you think of my take, and whether/how you think about or deploy baffling/the slip.

MN: I don’t have much to say here save that if all you said above were true, I would be very hap­py. I think about baf­fling with ardor and giv­ing the slip all the time. These modal­i­ties seem to me much more enthralling than any well-behaved, prag­mat­ic notion of “com­pro­mise” so often prof­fered as the only viable out­let for resis­tance. 

JH: So would it be a stretch to say that “baf­fling with ardor” and “giv­ing the slip” can be queer modal­i­ties or open up a queer space? I’m see­ing a res­o­nance between what you say here about com­pro­mise with your dis­cus­sion in The Arg­onauts of gay marriage—not exact­ly ver­sus a queer nup­tial, but the ambiva­lence toward the well-behaved and prag­mat­ic aspects of the gay mar­riage move­ment, espe­cial­ly inso­far as it becomes a stand-in for queer rights gen­er­al­ly. I am curi­ous if you con­sid­er baffling/slippage queer prac­tice.

MN: I gen­er­al­ly leave ques­tions about queer prac­tice to oth­ers; it may sound strange, but I don’t think much about open­ing up queer spaces or “queer­ing” any­thing. I mean, you could call it that and that would be cool; you could also align it with the kind of fugi­tiv­i­ty that Fred Moten and oth­ers talk about. There are a lot of options. Best to keep it broad, I think.

JH: You write about, as a step­par­ent, being struc­tural­ly vul­ner­a­ble to hatred and resent­ment. Step­par­ent­ing is a sort of con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed posi­tion. But of course if you are many things—queer, non-white, a woman, a mother—you are also struc­tural­ly vul­ner­a­ble to hatred and resent­ment. I think imme­di­ate­ly of Halberstam’s con­tention in The Queer Art of Fail­ure that cap­i­tal­ism requires losers in order to have win­ners.

MN: I think I see what you’re say­ing, but gen­er­al­ly speak­ing I think my white­ness and my class (and espe­cial­ly them togeth­er) posi­tion me and oth­ers like me as “win­ners” no mat­ter what we do, because the cul­ture nev­er treats non-poor white peo­ple as de fac­to “trash bod­ies,” which is the ongo­ing eth­i­cal hor­ror addressed implic­it­ly by the Black Lives Mat­ter slo­gan. But I think it’s worth­while, from with­in this priv­i­lege, to notice the struc­tures, be they that of step­par­ent­hood, queer­ness, female­ness, mater­ni­ty, etc., that have struc­tur­al vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty or pre­car­i­ty or con­t­a­m­i­na­tion at their core, so that one can build bridges of under­stand­ing with­out insist­ing on an equiv­a­lence of suf­fer­ing or sub­ju­ga­tion, if you fol­low me.

JH: I do fol­low. Thank you. This is mak­ing me think of a sec­tion in the book where you describe trav­el­ling in the world where Har­ry is assumed to be a straight white man and what that’s like. It seems like, when peo­ple assume straight-white-male-ness, there is a world of codes and even priv­i­leges that opens its door, but at the same time there is the under­cur­rent of the fear of vio­lence you describe. It strikes me that what you’re talk­ing about with “trash bod­ies” is applic­a­ble because queer bod­ies and lives are vul­ner­a­ble to being trashed and bashed because they are not white male bod­ies. I’m not ask­ing you to answer any­thing about Harry’s iden­ti­ty. I’m more won­der­ing about your per­spec­tive on the dual­i­ty, and the fact that this all takes place around bod­ies. If some­one treats Har­ry (or any trans­man) in a fash­ion con­sis­tent with forms of male priv­i­lege, it’s part­ly because there are assump­tions being made about his body. If Har­ry (or any transper­son) is vul­ner­a­ble or sub­ject to vio­lence, includ­ing forms of oth­er­ing, that also is part­ly about the body—about hys­te­ria and fear of queer bod­ies. 

MN: I don’t know what the ques­tion is here, but I like lis­ten­ing to you think!

JH: Evi­dent­ly I’ve mas­tered the art of pre­tend­ing to ask a ques­tion when real­ly I’m just talk­ing. In Arg­onauts you also write about rever­ber­a­tions from Jane, and how that work or its reper­cus­sions still haunt you (stalk you), your fear that you may still have to pay for that work. In your body of work, is this true just for Jane, or are there oth­er works that have this kind of pull/power? This also seems emblem­at­ic of being an artist, of mak­ing things that go live in the world. For you it also seems hooked specif­i­cal­ly into Jane.  

MN: Yeah, I’m pret­ty much over that, for the time being any­way. There are always a few moments, usu­al­ly right after I’ve heard from some­one freaky or hate­ful, when I think I must be com­plete­ly insane for doing what I do. Then I real­ize that the freaky haters are part­ly why I do what I do, and I keep on.

JH: Do you asso­ciate any music in par­tic­u­lar with the writ­ing of Arg­onauts?

MN: Not real­ly, save the Janelle Monáe song ref­er­enced in the book’s final para­graph. I’ve been very moved by Suf­jan Stevens’s record for his moth­er, Car­rie & Low­ell, that came out right around when The Arg­onauts did, so I will like­ly always think of it as linked to my book, though his lyrics are way sad­der.

JH: Yes, yes, that is such a beau­ti­ful album. Return­ing to the top­ic of moth­er­ing, has your rela­tion­ship to your own moth­er changed now that you have chil­dren? I’m curi­ous what your moth­er thinks of the way your rela­tion­ship with her, and her rela­tion­ship to your fam­i­ly, is fig­ured in The Arg­onauts

MN: My moth­er has been astound­ing­ly silent about this book, except to be com­plete­ly sup­port­ive. It’s amaz­ing, and I’m grate­ful. She is also a superb and inspir­ing grand­moth­er, so that’s won­der­ful to see.

JH: I think the sec­tion in The Arg­onauts on the birthing expe­ri­ence is very pow­er­ful. What reac­tions have peo­ple shared with you about that sec­tion? I have no designs on hav­ing chil­dren myself, and your descrip­tion of child­birth brought up intense bod­i­ly fear and for some rea­son anger at the prospect that my body could, in the­o­ry, endure such a thing. It’s weird because in many ways my reac­tion seems an inap­pro­pri­ate response to the sacred­ness that shines through in The Arg­onauts; but then again your writ­ing also invites the read­er right into the ter­ror of child­birth, so read­er­ly hor­ror seems like it’s on the menu. What is that? Is it matriphobia—am I a mat­ri­phobe? 

MN: O sure, I’ve nev­er met some­one who isn’t, in some ways! As to your ques­tion about response—I thought I had a most excel­lent birth experience—no com­pli­ca­tions, no epidur­al, no dis­gust­ing doc­tors, no sur­prise C section—so I guess I’ve been a bit sur­prised to have the account reflect­ed back to me so often as some­thing hor­ri­ble (this has indeed been the most com­mon response). I mean, every­one knows it hurts, right? Any­way, my only goal in that sec­tion was to write down as much as I could remem­ber about the experience—I think I wrote it about 3 days after com­ing home from the hos­pi­tal. I wasn’t try­ing to con­vey any­thing to any­one at the time; it was just some­thing I wrote down for myself, as a doc­u­ment. Then, of course, being who I am, I end­ed up repur­pos­ing it.

JH: The say­ing “Use what you’ve got” seems apro­pos. And on that note, Mag­gie, thank you. It’s been such a plea­sure to talk to you about The Arg­onauts, teach­ing, and writ­ing.  

 

Mag­gie Nel­son is the author of nine books of poet­ry and prose, includ­ing New York Times best­seller The Arg­onauts (Gray­wolf Press, 2015), The Art of Cru­el­ty: A Reck­on­ing (Nor­ton, 2011), Bluets (Wave Books, 2009), The Red Parts: A Mem­oir (Free Press, 2007; reis­sued by Gray­wolf, 2016), and Jane: A Mur­der (Soft Skull, 2005). She is Direc­tor of the MFA Cre­ative Writ­ing Pro­gram in the School of Crit­i­cal Stud­ies at CalArts and lives in Los Ange­les.

 

Jen­nifer Hawe lives, writes, and sings in Chica­go, Illi­nois. Her work has appeared in [out of noth­ing] and Sub­sys­tence. She is a grad­u­ate of the CalArts MFA pro­gram in Writ­ing and Crit­i­cal Stud­ies. Her recent work on the writer as a fig­ure for con­tem­po­rary entre­pre­neur­ship was pre­sent­ed at the 2015 Louisville Con­fer­ence on Lit­er­a­ture and Cul­ture.

Belonging

Nonfiction / Brian Oliu

:: Belonging ::

0.1  Run­ning is not where I belong.

0.2  I do not need remind­ing that trans­la­tion is sup­posed to be hard: the Cata­lan lan­guage is filled with swish­es and slurs: my grand­moth­er says that it sounds like it is meant to be spo­ken with mar­bles in your mouth—a smooth­ness snatched away with the puff­ing of cheeks and the slosh­ing of tongues. No mat­ter how many times I see the words unfurl, I for­get which ways the glyphs lean: acute or grave, the sound of an O going inward or out­ward: some days I can’t tell the dif­fer­ence between a swal­low or a spit.

0.3  I am sit­ting with my foot ele­vat­ed on a cof­fee table in a house that I just moved into. We have put the books on the shelf in alpha­bet­i­cal order. We have decid­ed what cab­i­nets the wine glass­es will be stored in: the mugs are next to the tea, the pint glass­es under­neath. It is August, and I am always tired—the heat of the sea­son squeez­ing every­thing I am try­ing to hold on to. I have not run in three weeks: my old pair of run­ning shoes frayed at the lit­tle toe—the pieces of nylon stick­ing out into the humid air like cats’ whiskers. I have been mov­ing, I tell myself. I have no time for rou­tine.

0.4  My grand­fa­ther was a petro­le­um engi­neer. He went where the crude oil was: over­see­ing new refiner­ies being built that would desalt and dis­till. We joke with my grand­moth­er about the num­ber of hous­es they lived in over the years: from Bad Hom­burg, to Barcelona, to Vigo, to Zaragoza, to Carta­ge­na, to Man­zanares, to Bucara­man­ga, to Tul­sa, to North Bergen, to Paris, to Glen Burnie, to Old Bridge, to Frank­furt, to Mer­cerville. It is a roman­tic notion to chase oil—to leave city and coun­try to find work—but then again, it isn’t.

0.5  I have lived in four cities. I have lived in less than ten hous­es. The house that I am in is a house that I lived in pre­vi­ous­ly: it has been remodeled—there is no longer a deep orange car­pet turned brown from dirt. The bath­room has been remod­eled. There are cab­i­nets that have been torn out from the walls—there is a sticky residue left behind where they once were. We think about all of the peo­ple that have lived in these hous­es before we fell asleep on couch­es with­in their walls, yet we do not think of the ghost of the house itself: how each coat of paint elim­i­nates a sense of what it was: how some­thing that was once a part of a home is cut out from it and left on the street.

0.6  It is easy to imag­ine gaso­line being extract­ed into its purest form: that at its base, crude oil is sift­ed down into some­thing more majestic—a force for expul­sion, com­bus­tion. Instead, the oil is cracked: the heavy mol­e­cules bro­ken into small­er, lighter frag­ments meant to fuel jet engines; that instead of sift­ing through, the core must be shat­tered and reassem­bled: instead of find­ing fire under­neath us, it is sal­vaged vio­lent­ly from what remains.

0.7  Hi ha abun­dant evi­den­cia que l’adquisició de fons, o d’una base, o de «l’endurance», mil­lo­ra els temps de totes les dis­tan­cies. There is abun­dant evi­dence that the acqui­si­tion line, or a base, or “endurance” improves time for all dis­tances. I am sit­ting amongst box­es: there are tables pushed up against the wrong wall—I am a guest in my own home. I have not run for three weeks because I do not feel com­fort­able leav­ing this house in fear of it becom­ing unfa­mil­iar while I am gone: the knives find­ing the right draw­er, the bananas in the wire basket—a home build­ing itself with­out me, leav­ing me base­less.

0.8  I used to dream about burn­ing the fat off of my body: putting a flame to my stom­ach as my skin caught fire—the bulk drip­ping into my new bath­room sink, the rem­nants greas­ing the air. This is all wrong, my grand­fa­ther would say, and he would be right: we have no need to ren­der tallow—there is noth­ing here to use to pro­pel our­selves for­ward, ijo. We are more than what is left over.

0.9  I am nev­er more aware of my body than when I am not flu­id: how my arm’s range of motion is lim­it­ed by injury, how I need to roll my shoul­ders back to pre­vent my chest from being pulled for­ward toward the hard­wood floors. It feels like I am still inside of some­thing: that I am wear­ing the skin of a man who believes he can start again, of some­one who has to act when the heat goes out. That I am work­ing with a lan­guage that I do not know and nev­er will know: I will be asked the name of my grandfather’s book and I will be unable to pro­nounce it—that the process will sour to car­bon, that the world is wait­ing to over­cor­rect, that instead of com­bust­ing, I will cor­rode to still­ness.

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

We have all heard the con­cept that Mon­taigne refers to as “essaying”—how every essay is an attempt to help com­pre­hend and explain what is hap­pen­ing in the world, less about try­ing to cre­ate an absolute and more about tak­ing read­er and writer on a jour­ney where there is no con­crete idea of where the trip will end up, but the routes being tak­en will some­how bring both par­ties to a larg­er con­cept of truth. For me, this project I have been work­ing on embraces that idea, but more specif­i­cal­ly the con­cept of fail­ure: that these are essays about some­thing I am not very good at (run­ning) and some­thing that I strug­gle might­i­ly with (trans­la­tion). The struc­ture of the pieces reflect this: they are kilo­me­ter mark­ers that con­tin­u­al­ly reset at the end of each piece/chapter of the book. They nev­er get over the hump of that first mile.

This piece very much embraces this idea, as when I was writ­ing it, I was tak­ing a self-imposed break from run­ning in order to move into a new home. In my mind, I was replac­ing the act of run­ning with the act of mov­ing, even though they are entire­ly dif­fer­ent process­es. The key to dis­tance run­ning, accord­ing to my grand­fa­ther (as well as many oth­er run­ning experts) is to sim­ply keep run­ning and nev­er stop: to acquire a base of run­ning where you feel com­fort­able at any giv­en moment to go out and run a cer­tain amount of miles or for a par­tic­u­lar amount of time. Being such a novice, I feel as if I am “base-less”—that what­ev­er is with­in me is not real: that this body is not my own, this house is tem­po­ral, and there is no state of run­ning I can rely upon. This piece, as well as many oth­ers, are “attempts at fail­ure,” essay­ing with what appears to be a dark out­come, yet with the hope that these échecs bring some­thing that dri­ves motion for­ward.

 

Bri­an Oliu is orig­i­nal­ly from New Jer­sey and cur­rent­ly teach­es at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Alaba­ma. He is the author of three full-length col­lec­tions: So You Know It’s Me (Tiny Hard­core Press, 2011), a series of Craigslist Missed Con­nec­tions; Leave Luck to Heav­en (Uncan­ny Val­ley Press, 2014), an ode to 8-bit video games; & Enter Your Ini­tials for Record Keep­ing (Cobalt Press, 2015), essays on NBA Jam. i/o (Civ­il Cop­ing Mech­a­nisms), a mem­oir in the form of a com­put­er virus, is forth­com­ing in 2015. His works in progress deal with pro­fes­sion­al wrestling and long dis­tance run­ning (not at once).

The Help Desk

Fiction / Sacha Siskonen

:: The Help Desk ::

The day my cowork­er died in the office, I felt noth­ing. Well, maybe a small flow­er­ing relief bur­bled up from my stom­ach, but I might have just been hun­gry, hav­ing skipped break­fast on account of being late that morn­ing, as usu­al. I wasn’t hap­py he was dead; I just didn’t care. Which is maybe worse.

Har­vey went qui­et­ly. Or at least no one noticed the life force hiss from his cor­po­re­al shell. He was there at the Help Desk look­ing at GIFs on the Inter­net when I passed by to make a copy around 8:30am, and then, maybe an hour lat­er, Judy start­ed scream­ing he was dead. 

We worked in a Com­pre­hen­sive One-Stop man­dat­ed by the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment to assist peo­ple with search­ing for and apply­ing to jobs. The coun­try was in a reces­sion. Unem­ploy­ment was down, but not that down. Our logo was an eagle, wings stretched wide, tak­ing flight. “Reach for the sky” was our mot­to. Appar­ent­ly, who­ev­er made it up neglect­ed to real­ize it was also what old-timey armed rob­bers said dur­ing holdups. 

I spent my days help­ing customers—we called them cus­tomers even though our ser­vices were free and they didn’t buy any­thing from us—with résumés and cov­er let­ters and job appli­ca­tions. I couldn’t find a bet­ter job myself, and I’d been look­ing. While help­ing cus­tomers search for jobs, I searched for jobs for myself and spent my evenings at home work­ing on my own résumé and cov­er let­ters and job appli­ca­tions.

I pri­vate­ly called Har­vey the VCR. He was an obso­lete mod­el of old white man who clung on despite his obso­les­cence to remind us all what the world was real­ly like back then with­out the Don Drap­er good-looks or charm. He spent the days par­rot­ing FOX News and inco­her­ent­ly rant­i­ng about women and minori­ties. Talk­ing to him was like rewind­ing a video­tape. How did we ever put up with it? 

The para­medics said it was a heart attack. Fast. They were only a lit­tle sur­prised no one had noticed, but they assured us there was prob­a­bly noth­ing we could have done to save him even if we had been aware he was dying. I imag­ine they say that to every­one. The eight of us in the office and a few cus­tomers who were using our facil­i­ty that morn­ing stood around watch­ing as the para­medics made sure Har­vey was def­i­nite­ly dead. 

Har­vey and I did not get along. He made the kinds of com­ments about gen­der and race and class that in his time were per­fect­ly rea­son­able obser­va­tions, com­ments that we now refer to as sex­ism, racism, and clas­sism. When I point­ed this out to him, he pas­sive aggres­sive­ly spoke loud­ly to no one in par­tic­u­lar about how “P.C. some peo­ple are these days” and how some peo­ple were try­ing to silence him.” Con­se­quent­ly, Har­vey and I spent a lot of time in HR togeth­er, being medi­at­ed. 

When I asked him to do some­thing that Dana had asked me to ask him to do—why couldn’t she just ask him herself?—he would say, “Can’t you do it?” So I just stopped ask­ing and did things myself to avoid hav­ing to inter­act with him. And that’s how he got away with spend­ing a shock­ing amount of the day look­ing at GIFs on the Inter­net, which as far as I could tell took up the major­i­ty of his work­week. I had nev­er seen him do any­thing with the GIFs, post them any­where or even save them. He just Googled GIFs all day long and looked at them. He was one of the three peo­ple whose jobs I was doing. Judy was anoth­er, and Karen, who had quit the year before, was the third.

Judy was the only one cry­ing, but that wasn’t unusu­al, as she cried at least once a week. Judy was a thin, bird-like woman, frail and frag­ile and always cold. She had been wid­owed three times, had a recent­ly dead dog, a friend who’d com­mit­ted sui­cide last year, and anoth­er who’d been thrown from a horse two months pri­or. But some­times she cried because her sta­pler was out of sta­ples and often she cried because she couldn’t oper­ate the fax machine. Why did we still have a fax machine? But peo­ple used it. Or tried to.

As they were pack­ing Har­vey up to go to the morgue, the para­medics got anoth­er call about some­one who wasn’t dead yet but might be soon, so they left Har­vey in Judy’s chair at the front desk and told us to call a ser­vice to come pick him up. 

Judy was the recep­tion­ist and usu­al­ly sat at the Help Desk, which was what the Com­pre­hen­sive One-Stop called recep­tion. But Har­vey had been cov­er­ing for her that morn­ing while she was work­ing on a back­log of work that she couldn’t keep up with. 

It’s going to be a few hours,” Mike, our boss, report­ed back. The body-removal-ser­vice peo­ple were a few hours away pick­ing up a body in a far cor­ner of our coun­ty. We would have to wait. We all expect­ed him to say we would close for the day, but he didn’t. Instead he said, “Well, back to work, every­one.” None of us protest­ed. Maybe we were in shock. Or maybe we were just a well-trained team, but we all turned, left Har­vey at the Help Desk, and went back to our cubi­cles. 

Har­vey was slumped in Judy’s chair, limp and life­less. He was a large man. His body over­flowed from the chair.  His arms hung down toward the floor, a pos­ture he had fre­quent­ly tak­en in life. His beached whale slouch, I called it.

Judy, snif­fling, gin­ger­ly pushed him over to the side and pulled up anoth­er chair next to him. She sat at the Help Desk wip­ing tears away and peck­ing at the key­board. A cus­tomer came in and she greet­ed him with a trem­bling hel­lo. He saw Har­vey, looked con­cerned, and asked if every­thing was okay. “We’ve had a death in the office,” she whis­pered, ges­tur­ing toward Har­vey, as she checked the cus­tomer in. 

The oth­er cus­tomers went back to their com­put­ers too, to fin­ish the job appli­ca­tions or updat­ing of résumés they had been engaged in before Judy’s shrieks had caused us all to stop what we were doing and take notice of what had hap­pened while we were all intent­ly focused on our com­put­er screens, work­ing or pre­tend­ing to work. A num­ber of home­less peo­ple used our facil­i­ty as a day cen­ter when they were forced to leave the shel­ter. Some spent the days apply­ing to jobs they would nev­er get. Some just surfed the Inter­net. 

When the weath­er was bad, we were a refuge from rain or snow. In the sum­mer, a free place to stay with air con­di­tion­ing. I had nev­er real­ly known many home­less peo­ple until I start­ed work­ing at the Com­pre­hen­sive One-Stop. Many of them were a lit­tle bit crazy, but no more so than my cowork­ers. No more so than any­one, real­ly. Just because you have a place to live doesn’t mean you’re sane. 

Mike and a few of the oth­er high­er-ups went to the back where their offices were. They wouldn’t have to work with Har­vey. They had nev­er had to work with Har­vey. They had qui­et offices where they could work or goof off or do what­ev­er it was they did all day—and I wasn’t sure what any of them did—without being mon­i­tored. 

Should we call his fam­i­ly?” Dana asked me. 

There’s no one in town, right?” I asked. Har­vey talked a lot about his dead moth­er, occa­sion­al­ly about a girl­friend in Hawaii who he talked to online and had nev­er met in per­son, and rarely about an ungrate­ful sis­ter back east who didn’t speak to him. But he had nev­er used any of their names that I could recall—just pos­ses­sives: my moth­er, my girl­friend, my sis­ter. 

Dana was my super­vi­sor. Mike was her super­vi­sor. Lar­ry was his super­vi­sor, but Lar­ry was nev­er around. I learned very ear­ly on at this job that when I said, sure, I’ll get that done, they appre­ci­at­ed me, and when I said, “Is there a bet­ter way to do this?”, they called me in for a ran­dom quar­ter­ly review. 

These reviews were nev­er quar­ter­ly but instead cor­re­lat­ed exact­ly to my “atti­tude prob­lems,” which was what they called my desire to not take on three oth­er peo­ples’ respon­si­bil­i­ties. So I had stopped com­plain­ing. Stopped ask­ing for help. Stopped say­ing much of any­thing at all, except, sure, I’ll get right on that, and I hadn’t had a quar­ter­ly review in three quar­ters. 

A cus­tomer waved me over. The reg­u­lars called me over at steady inter­vals to answer their ques­tions about for­mat­ting or appli­ca­tions, but the new­er peo­ple were usu­al­ly timid and would wait until I got up before try­ing to catch my eye. The pop­u­la­tion we served had a severe lack of com­put­er skills. Many of them could type bet­ter than I could, hav­ing been taught prop­er hand posi­tion­ing on type­writ­ers in high school. I was always impressed when some­one said, I don’t know how to use this thing and then placed their hands per­fect­ly on the key­board and typed exact­ing­ly with few mis­takes. They could type, but they couldn’t Google, couldn’t upload, couldn’t save a file or send an email. And that’s what I was there to help them do. 

The cus­tomer who had flagged me down was hav­ing trou­ble fig­ur­ing out how to apply for a job. Close read­ing skills were anoth­er prob­lem I helped with. I scanned the job ad and point­ed out the link to the appli­ca­tion. 

Thank you! You’re so smart,” the cus­tomer said. I got a lot of high praise for my soft skills. I was called a genius for chang­ing font col­or from red back to black. I was told I was bril­liant for know­ing how to switch the for­mat­ting on a résumé from dou­ble spaced to sin­gle. When I used the “undo” but­ton to recov­er delet­ed text, peo­ple wept with appre­ci­a­tion and hugged me. It was good for my ego after years of being talked down to by grad­u­ate school pro­fes­sors for writ­ing weak argu­ments and mis­us­ing obscure the­o­rists’ obscure the­o­ries, but it was equal­ly unsat­is­fy­ing. 

A noise emanat­ed from Har­vey, or from what had pre­vi­ous­ly been Har­vey, and my heart flut­tered. Judy squealed. I need­ed a cig­a­rette. 

I had tak­en up smok­ing for the breaks. We were enti­tled to breaks, like every­one is, but no one ever took them. No one except Mike. He was a smok­er and he would walk around the park­ing lot three or four times a day, smok­ing, so I start­ed doing the same, fig­ur­ing no one could say much about it if the boss did it too, and no one did. No one said any­thing. I would slip out when­ev­er I felt the need to get away from the office or my cowork­ers or a cus­tomer, light a cig­a­rette, hold it in my hand and breathe fresh air and absorb sun­light. If any­one from the office walked by, I raised the cig­a­rette to my lips and pre­tend­ed to take a drag. I was fake smok­ing half a pack a day. 

Our office had no win­dows and flu­o­res­cent light­ing. It was a bleak place dec­o­rat­ed uniron­i­cal­ly with moti­va­tion­al posters. If you could dream it, you could do it. Team­work was the fuel that allowed com­mon peo­ple to attain uncom­mon results. Every­one had a unique des­tiny that only he could ful­fill. Soar­ing eagles, moun­tain­tops, sun­ris­es every­where. But eagles were endan­gered; peo­ple died climb­ing moun­tains; who could tell a sun­rise from a sun­set? 

Out­side it was sun­ny. A con­spir­a­cy of ravens, still and silent, sat in a scrag­gly tree in the park­ing lot. Could they smell Har­vey from inside? Were they wait­ing for him?

Beyond the ravens was the moun­tain. Pover­ty with a view, Har­vey used to say. Repeat­ed­ly. But he wasn’t wrong. Our uni­ver­si­ty town was beau­ti­ful, but you paid a price to live in it. The high cost of liv­ing meant even if you had a job, you might not be able to afford a place to stay. “The work­ing poor” as click­bait arti­cles referred to them. One of the worst parts of my job was hav­ing to tell peo­ple they were home­less.

When cus­tomers first came to us, we were required to do an Intake/Assessment dur­ing which we asked them where they were liv­ing. Peo­ple crash­ing on friends’ couch­es, peo­ple liv­ing in motels, peo­ple sleep­ing in their cars were all clas­si­fied as home­less. I didn’t have a box to check that said “sleep­ing in car.” I checked “home­less” and then the per­son sit­ting across from me would say, “I hadn’t thought of it like that.” It was eas­i­er when peo­ple knew they were home­less. They might say they were sleep­ing in the woods, or behind the Bed Bath and Beyond. But it didn’t sur­prise them when I checked the home­less box. 

Can I bum one?” the vet­er­an guard­ing the live wire asked. I hand­ed him a cig­a­rette and my lighter. The live wire had been exposed in front of our build­ing for a few weeks. The elec­tric com­pa­ny was fix­ing it or hav­ing it fixed, but for rea­sons that we were not privy to, it wouldn’t be fixed for a while longer. They had hired a secu­ri­ty ser­vice staffed by vet­er­ans to watch it 24/7. 

Can’t they just put up a sign?” I asked. 

Could,” he said. “But signs don’t stop birds or squir­rels or teenagers or sui­cides.” 

There were so many ways to die. Live wires got sen­tries, but no one was pro­tect­ing us from clogged arter­ies. 

Today the young guy with the pros­thet­ic arm was watch­ing the wire. He alter­nat­ed shifts with the old guy and the lady vet­er­an. All day, every day one of them sat by the wire. Dur­ing the day, when the weath­er was nice, they sat in a cheap beach chair read­ing or lis­ten­ing to an iPod or just star­ing up at the blue sky. At night or when it was rain­ing, they sat in the car that was per­ma­nent­ly sta­tioned in front of the wire. The lady vet­er­an paced in front of the wire when she was on duty. Took tiny, loop­ing walks around the car to keep her heart rate up, pump the blood through her chest. 

The vet­er­ans’ only job was to make sure no one approached the wire. I was deeply envi­ous of the free time they had. As I rushed past them in the morn­ing, late and mis­er­able, I thought of all the read­ing or writ­ing I could get done watch­ing a wire. They had so much time to just think. But I wasn’t a vet­er­an, of course, so the com­pa­ny would nev­er hire me. 

The young vet­er­an, younger than me by at least a few years by the look of him, pinched the cig­a­rette in his pros­thet­ic claw-hand and lit it. 

I don’t actu­al­ly smoke any­more,” he said.

Me either,” I said and took a puff for his ben­e­fit.

What do y’all do in there?”

Help peo­ple find work.”

Oh yeah? I’m look­ing for a job. This shit is bor­ing as hell.” No one appre­ci­ates what they have. I cer­tain­ly didn’t. “I’m Spence.” He reached out his hand-hand to shake. 

Amy.”

How’s your day going?”

Not great, I guess. Some­one died this morn­ing.”

I saw the ambu­lance, but they didn’t bring any­one out. It wasn’t the wire, was it? I just went to the bath­room.” 

No. Heart attack. In the office. He’s still in there. They can’t pick him up for a few more hours.”

They just left him in there?”

At the front desk.”

That’s fucked up.”

Yeah.”

You’re still open?”

Yeah. We’re kind of work­ing around him.”

That’s real­ly fucked up. Was he your friend?”

No. I hat­ed him.” 

That hap­pened to me once. Guy I despised got blown up right in front of me. I felt good, but then I felt real bad.”

I don’t feel any­thing.”

I’ve felt that too.” 

I fin­ished pre­tend­ing to smoke my cig­a­rette and left Spence to his wire. He was read­ing a pop­u­lar non­fic­tion book about eco­nom­ics that every­one was chat­ter­ing about in the media. “Is it good?” I had asked. “It’s a bum­mer,” he had said.

Inside, Judy was still cry­ing at the Help Desk. Dana nev­er sent her home. When I offered to watch the desk while she took a break to calm down, Judy refused. Judy was the rea­son peo­ple thought a woman couldn’t be pres­i­dent. But real­ly, it was just that Judy couldn’t be pres­i­dent. She made the cus­tomers uncom­fort­able.

I think I was the last per­son who talked to him,” Judy said as I passed her desk. “I snapped at him, Amy. You know how aggra­vat­ing he could be.” The only thing Judy and I had in com­mon was our mutu­al hatred of Har­vey. Now that he was dead, we had noth­ing. Except for the mem­o­ry of a mil­lion eye rolls and under-the-breath com­ments about his incom­pe­tence. 

The last thing I said was, ‘I’ll do it myself; you’ll just screw it up.’ But, Amy, I said it in that way I can say things. Like I wished he was dead.” With this rev­e­la­tion, Judy burst into renewed and extra-furi­ous tears. 

That’s the way every­one talked to him,” I said, try­ing to sound com­fort­ing, which was the way every­one talked to her. 

But I was the last.” It was like her to make some­one else’s death all about her. 

The Com­pre­hen­sive One-Stop had a habit of hir­ing lost caus­es. Part of this was pur­pose­ful, to help peo­ple who were down on their luck—a hand up, not a hand out, they said—and part of it was just that peo­ple who had their shit togeth­er didn’t stay long. I had been there for near­ly four years. It was sup­posed to be a temp posi­tion. 

A cus­tomer called me over to help him save a file to a flash dri­ve and I left Judy and Har­vey. 

Is Har­vey asleep?” the cus­tomer asked as I leaned over him to cor­rect some mis­takes on the résumé he was sav­ing. He had come in while I was pre­tend­ing to smoke. 

He’s dead,” I said. The cus­tomer laughed. He was a reg­u­lar. He thought I was jok­ing. “He died this morn­ing.” 

Oh.” He stopped laugh­ing. “And you’re keep­ing him here?”

No one can come get him.”

I’d hate to die at work. If I had a job.”

Me too,” I said. 

Mike came up from the back to see if Har­vey was still with us. “I called his sis­ter in Vir­ginia,” he said. “She was his emer­gency con­tact. She’s not com­ing out.” We all gath­ered around the Help Desk. “There’s not going to be a funer­al. She said they’ll just have him buried and take care of every­thing else via a lawyer.”

Judy, who had calmed down when Mike start­ed talk­ing, now took her grief up a notch. 

No. No. He has to have a funer­al. Every­one has a funer­al. He has to have one too,” she hic­cupped. She was a pro at funer­als, hav­ing buried three hus­bands: car acci­dent, colon can­cer, and kid­ney fail­ure while wait­ing for a donor. When­ev­er we hired a new per­son, she told them the ago­niz­ing sto­ries of how each hus­band had died. I’d heard them when I first start­ed, and since it was a small office, we all heard them again and again with each new hire. Car acci­dent had been the love of her life, died young. His was the sad­dest one. Colon can­cer was a jerk and I was glad he was dead. Kid­ney fail­ure had been a vet­er­an and died in a VA Hos­pi­tal. The sto­ry of his death brought up all of the mis­han­dling of cas­es by Vet­er­ans’ Affairs and, depend­ing on the new hire, the dis­cus­sion could get heat­ed. 

What about his friends? Maybe they’d want to have a funer­al?” Dana asked.

Did he have friends?” I asked.

We are his friends,” Judy said. “We will throw him a funer­al. Now.”

And so Judy start­ed plan­ning a funer­al. She sent Mike to the park­ing lot to gath­er flow­ers on his smoke break. He came back with a hand­ful of weeds. She con­vinced Dana to expense the cater­ing and ordered six pies from the Piz­za Hut across the street. She for­mal­ly invit­ed each cus­tomer typ­ing at a com­put­er. Two left quick­ly after, and four stayed, pre­sum­ably for the piz­za. 

Amy, you have to give the eulo­gy,” she said to me.

I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

You’re a writer, aren’t you? You’ll write some­thing nice.”

I don’t feel com­fort­able eulo­giz­ing him.”

No one else can do it. You have to.”

I didn’t real­ly get along with him.”

That doesn’t mat­ter now. He’s dead. He needs a funer­al and a funer­al needs a eulo­gy and no one else can do it.”

I don’t want to.”

Are you dead? It doesn’t mat­ter what you want. Did Har­vey want this? No one wants a funer­al. But every­one should get one. When I was wid­owed the sec­ond time do you think I want­ed to have a funer­al for my hus­band? No. He was an ass­hole who hit me. But it’s what you do. That’s what hap­pens. Peo­ple die and then peo­ple have funer­als for them. Write the eulo­gy.” 

Judy stalked off and a few min­utes lat­er Dana came over to my desk.  

Just do it for Judy, Amy. This is obvi­ous­ly bring­ing up some stuff for her. It’ll be good. It’ll be cathar­tic for every­one.”

Say­ing yes makes peo­ple like you. Say­ing no makes peo­ple mad. So I start­ed work­ing on a eulo­gy. 

I racked my mem­o­ry for every sad sto­ry of his unhap­py child­hood that Har­vey had ever talked at me when I couldn’t get away from him. He had had a tough life. I didn’t deny that. And if being mis­treat­ed as a child makes it okay for you to be a jerk then he had cer­tain­ly earned it. 

I wrote a draft of a eulo­gy that took into account all the bad things that had hap­pened to him and for­gave him for being destruc­tive since he had nev­er been taught how to be anoth­er way. Then I wrote a draft that detailed all the ways in which he was a bad thing that hap­pened to me and oth­ers around him, how angry I was that he made my days more dif­fi­cult because he was dif­fi­cult because he didn’t know how not to be dif­fi­cult, how his lack of a real funer­al or any­one to mourn him showed just how incred­i­bly awful he had been, how he didn’t deserve to be mourned and wouldn’t be missed. Then I wrote a draft that was just lift­ed lines from oth­er peo­ples’ eulo­gies and ele­gies and memo­ri­als. 

The funer­al was about to start and I had noth­ing use­able. I didn’t know him. I didn’t like him. I didn’t want to pre­tend to mourn him. And that’s when I remem­bered Hon­ey. 

Har­vey had a pet, Hon­ey. The one and only rela­tion he called by name. A dog, I thought, though I wasn’t absolute­ly sure. He went on and on about Hon­ey, the tricks she could do, the spe­cial food he fed her, the cir­cum­stances under which he had found her—in a Dump­ster, skin­ny and wet on Thanks­giv­ing Day. That night she’d wait for him at the door and he wouldn’t come. I imag­ined her, a small mutt, whim­per­ing and wait­ing all night, alert for each noise in the street that could be him. She might starve to death wait­ing for him. I couldn’t feel any­thing for Har­vey, but I felt deeply for Hon­ey. 

I couldn’t give a eulo­gy. I couldn’t give a fuck. But there was one thing I could do for him: I could go get Hon­ey and take her home with me.  

Judy opened the funer­al with a tear­ful read­ing of a psalm she’d found online. The piz­za was laid out on the counter. The weeds from the park­ing lot were strewn around the Help Desk, one placed gin­ger­ly on Harvey’s slumped form. The cus­tomers and my cowork­ers had all stopped their work to stand in a semi-cir­cle around Harvey’s body. 

Now Amy will give her eulo­gy,” Judy said. 

I looked up from my desk. “I can’t,” I said grab­bing my purse. “I have to go get Hon­ey.” 

I booked it to the park­ing lot where Spence was still guard­ing the live wire. The ravens cocked their heads and watched me rush to my car. I’d read once that they could rec­og­nize and remem­ber human faces. I won­dered if they knew me. If they knew Spence. If they had known Har­vey.

I knew where Har­vey lived. I had dri­ven him home once when his old, shit­ty van was in the shop. It wasn’t far. I had once heard him tell a cus­tomer he liked work­ing at the One-Stop because it was close to his house. It was far from mine. 

I pulled up to the dou­blewide he had inher­it­ed from his moth­er when she died, and parked. The yard was over­grown. The front door was locked, but a slid­er off the makeshift deck—boards on cinderblocks—was open. 

Inside, the place was immac­u­late. Every­thing scrubbed and lemon-scent­ed. I had always had a sus­pi­cion that Har­vey was a hoard­er, but his OCD went the oth­er way. A worn, brown reclin­er sat in front of a tube tele­vi­sion, a throw neat­ly fold­ed on the arm. There were green bananas in a banana ham­mock on the kitchen counter. Coast­ers on the cof­fee table. Framed pic­tures of long-since-grown-up kids on the walls.  

Hon­ey?” I called.

What?” a scratchy voice answered. My heart skipped a beat. I’d read about peo­ple being star­tled to death. Was there noth­ing that couldn’t kill you? In the far cor­ner of the room on a perch sat a bright, rain­bow-col­ored macaw. “Hon­ey, I’m home,” Hon­ey squawked. “Hon­ey, you’re all I have.”  

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

This is a work of fic­tion. Names, char­ac­ters, places, and inci­dents either are the prod­uct of the author’s imag­i­na­tion or are used fic­ti­tious­ly, and any resem­blance to actu­al per­sons, liv­ing or dead, busi­ness estab­lish­ments, events, or locales is entire­ly coin­ci­den­tal.

 

Sacha Sisko­nen worked for a year in a Com­pre­hen­sive One-Stop Career Cen­ter, where she taught employ­ment skills, com­put­er class­es, and finan­cial lit­er­a­cy work­shops. She is pro­fi­cient with Win­Way Résumé Deluxe, the Microsoft Office Suite, and Kon­i­ca Minol­ta pho­to­copiers. She has excel­lent writ­ten and oral com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills. Her fic­tion has recent­ly appeared in Chica­go Literati’s Rev­o­lu­tion Issue, Quar­ter After Eight, and Requit­ed.

Accidental Life

Fiction / Desiree Dighton

:: Accidental Life ::

Tread­ing water. That’s how I imag­ine her, the image I have in my mind. At that age in the mid­dle of the lake in the dark, she could be any­one. But, still. Lau­ra treads water, her legs in a joy­ful ner­vous dance, and her left ankle begins to ache. She has to rest. She has to be still. And so she dips just under the water, into the after­math of her kick­ing, the slow­ly spread­ing rip­ples of water, a few bub­bles tick­ling her face.

It’s a game, this going under­wa­ter, a flirt with drown­ing, dis­ap­pear­ing, fright­en­ing her­self. It’s a game she can win at any time, if com­ing to the sur­face can be con­sid­ered a win. All she has to do is push her arms down against the water and then up again and then down. Her body enveloped in feath­ery plumes. She pro­pels her­self all the way down to the bot­tom of the lake, and her feet sink in the silt bot­tom, a mud cloud engulf­ing her legs until her toes reach the firm clay under­neath. All this hap­pens too quick­ly to count down the sec­onds, but to her, under the water, it seems like a long time. She bends against the firm bot­tom, famil­iar to her now. Push­es hard with her legs, springs back up. The usu­al­ly vel­vet touch of the water against her skin feels near­ly sol­id against her. She breaks through the sur­face almost silent­ly and inhales, her breath a small tin-like sound in the dark. She treads again and wipes water out of one eye and then the next. Only a few feet away, a human shape, not more than a shad­ow, bobs qui­et­ly in the dark. She won­ders if any­one is there at all, if it’s just a trick, her eyes try­ing to adjust and see some­thing, any­thing at all in the night.

The pale form of a hand grabs for the ankle or her bare foot—her skin a mys­ti­cal shade of green, almost glow­ing on its own, despite the lack of light—the hand grasp­ing and miss­ing. She kicks the water into yel­low swirls, her legs so close to the sur­face that the moon illu­mi­nates her skin in the watery pale green light. Her body slip­pery, so that his hand can’t quite grasp her, until it does, and they are both at once aware of their sol­id bod­ies in the water. His flesh and mus­cle cause the water to lap against her and then to still. Because they are both strong swim­mers, they can hold on to each oth­er and tread water at once. She takes in a mouth­ful of water but stops her­self before she chokes. His hand grazes beneath her leg and winds it around his waist like a rope. She leans her head back to rest in the water and the white ovals of their faces tilt upwards and catch the moon­light.

Maybe you would’ve seen only the water’s gen­tle rip­ples and nev­er felt what must have been the hot, wet breath escap­ing from their mouths. You won’t ever know her, or even him. I nev­er met her, not prop­er­ly, although I’ve come to know her as well as my own skin, or yours, for that mat­ter. And him, I wouldn’t claim to know him, not tru­ly. But I imag­ine that one day you’ll want some sort of expla­na­tion. And I look out over this lake, a dif­fer­ent one alto­geth­er, one that even in the sum­mer can seem cold in its end­less­ness, but I also think there’s beau­ty and a strange peace of mind in nev­er being able to see all the way to the oth­er side, an end­less­ness that allows there to be no con­clu­sion, no truth you can­not bring your­self to love. Morn­ings, I’ve watched the sun rise and glint on the sur­face before it takes over the sky, show­ing all too much of every­thing that’s out there—the honk­ing and yelling and speed­ing and cursing—but that moment before, when it’s no longer night but not yet day, when all I can see is that great plain of water, it is then that I imag­ine I can see her most clear­ly, bob­bing there on the sur­face, a tiny dot, a buoy that began us both.

Some­times, if I close my eyes at that moment, I imag­ine I can feel her life cours­ing through my body. Maybe you feel it too. Maybe I don’t have to tell you her sto­ry. But this is one of those lies we tell our­selves to avoid what we know. She was your begin­ning, and I will try to explain how that can be. Because, after all, we have a right to know how we began.

***

The vio­las in front of the house grew low to the ground, and Lau­ra couldn’t pull them unless she knelt down in the dirt. She’d get twen­ty dol­lars if she pulled the crisp stems out and replaced them with hearti­er pan­sies.

Laura’s grand­ma told her how to pull the dead plants and the near­ly dead ones, flow­ers that looked like they wouldn’t make it anoth­er month. Lau­ra didn’t under­stand why that had to be done right now, but she felt like it had some­thing to do with her moth­er com­ing over lat­er. She stood in the yard at the edge of the flowerbed and looked around to see if any of the neigh­bors were watch­ing, if any­one she knew hap­pened to be walk­ing around, or dri­ving by on the road in front of the house. When she was sat­is­fied, she knelt down to where she’d set her radio and hit play on the cas­sette play­er.

Out of the cor­ner of her eye, she could see Heath Gra­ham come out­side and walk down the dri­ve­way next door to wash an old Corvette. She didn’t know the year, but it was the spark­ly roy­al blue of bowl­ing balls and roller skate wheels. Heath’s father fol­lowed him out the door and began to wax a Harley David­son, buff­ing the cus­tom paint job, some kind of pink swirly writ­ing Lau­ra couldn’t quite make out but guessed said Heath’s dad’s name. Heath was six­teen, only two years old­er than Lau­ra, but he had his dri­vers’ license, and she didn’t.

Her lock­er was in the fresh­man hall­way at school, and his was in the one for juniors. Lau­ra liked to watch him hang up his bag in his lock­er, the way his arm mus­cles changed as he per­formed each move­ment, the sim­ple act of get­ting his books togeth­er some­thing alto­geth­er dif­fer­ent when his hands did it. She espe­cial­ly liked the way his mouth fell open a lit­tle when he bowed his head to look for the right text­book.

Now, stand­ing there just across the yard, she also liked to watch his mus­cles doing these things she’d not seen him do before now, like spray­ing the car down with the gar­den hose. She espe­cial­ly liked the skin on his arm just below the line of his short shirt­sleeve, the way the mus­cle stood out, but there was a hol­low too. The set­ting sun shone hard and bright off the met­al, so bright she had to squint to see this hol­low very well, but his skin shone too, which made it a lit­tle eas­i­er. His arms looked near­ly hair­less, like a boy’s, but his shoul­ders seemed broad­er and stronger and some­how more real to her than any oth­er shoul­ders in the world. She’d nev­er real­ly under­stood or seen shoul­ders, she felt, until she’d start­ed notic­ing his. She stud­ied the way they changed shape as he soaped the car with a large yel­low sponge and dried it with a white cloth she’d heard him call a sham­my. He opened a flat can with anoth­er tow­el, and with a cir­cu­lar motion of his cupped fin­gers lift­ed out a glob of shiny car wax. She could smell its gaso­line odor from her yard. She breathed in deep­er to see if she could fill her body with it, and that’s when he glanced up and saw her there on her knees.

She tried to quick­ly look away, change her own part­ed lips into an expres­sion of dis­in­ter­est, but knew she wasn’t suc­cess­ful, so she decid­ed to wave, but then regret­ted that too. She didn’t want him to think she’d been watch­ing. She dropped her hand as quick­ly as she’d raised it, knelt down, and picked up anoth­er crate of the flow­ers her grand­moth­er had left near the flowerbed. When she dared look up again, there was his blonde hair, all lit up as he walked out from the shade of the car­port, as though he were walk­ing toward her, but she knew that he couldn’t be. He’d nev­er spo­ken to her, not real­ly. She didn’t know why he was home right now at all, and she wished she didn’t have to be on her knees in the dirt. Why wasn’t he at foot­ball prac­tice or maybe lift­ing? She pic­tured him down in the weight room at school with his friends so she wouldn’t have to think about him being next door, or maybe walk­ing toward her right now. It was dif­fi­cult to pic­ture because she’d only ever been inside the high school gym­na­si­um, but she knew there was also a weight room beneath the gym. She made her­self imag­ine Heath and the oth­er foot­ball play­ers down there, laugh­ing, reclined on slick red weight bench­es, lift­ing weights in rhythm to songs on the radio.

When she glanced up again, Heath was halfway across the yard, tuck­ing the sham­my into his front jeans pock­et. When he saw her eyes, he low­ered his head, as though he were embar­rassed, but she didn’t think he was. She was sur­prised he’d walk over to talk to her at all, but espe­cial­ly with his dad right there. She couldn’t believe he’d even noticed her down there in the dirt. She’d half-hoped he hadn’t and half-hoped he’d do just what he was doing now. She could see the skin on the side of his neck as he looked away. She didn’t think she’d ever seen it from this angle before, and the shape of it, the strain and tight­ness of his skin just there, she could almost feel it. He’d nev­er seemed shy before, not on all those days after school let out, when Lau­ra and her friends would stand around and pre­tend like they weren’t wait­ing near the gym­na­si­um for the old­er boys to get out of foot­ball prac­tice at four thir­ty. Some­times, when he’d walk by, she would will him to look at her, but he nev­er did. She’d be loung­ing on the trunk of someone’s car, pre­tend­ing to wait for her moth­er to pick her up. She’d dan­gle her legs over the edge of the trunk, kick­ing slight­ly, as though she were bored, and once the back of her black bal­let flat slid from one heel, the shoe catch­ing and sus­pend­ing off her big toe, her nails paint­ed a mel­on shade of pink, but it didn’t fall all the way off, so she’d nev­er know if he would have bent to pick it up for her and smile before plac­ing it back on her foot.

It was only a few days ago when Heath and his friends had stopped in the park­ing lot on their way to the foot­ball field. They were stand­ing just a few feet away from her, jok­ing around, talk­ing about what they were going to do lat­er. This was when her shoe slipped and hung from her toe, and she tried to will it to fall onto the grav­el, to see if Heath would break away from his friends to pick it up and hand it to her. He met her eyes for a split sec­ond, but then he’d turned away to talk to her friend Shan­non, who’d been late get­ting out of deten­tion. They  glanced over at her as they talked, walked over toward where she sat with the oth­ers on the hood of a car. His eyes meet­ing her eyes, even for a frac­tion of a sec­ond, made her chest fill up. She need­ed to jump down from the trunk and move, walk around, dance, any­thing.

She heard him say some­thing about the foot­ball game on Tues­day night and then he laughed at some­thing Shan­non said. When he asked if they were going to the par­ty after­ward, he looked at Shan­non, not at Lau­ra. He could prob­a­bly tell how des­per­ate­ly she want­ed to go, maybe even knew how much she liked him, and he wasn’t going to ask her.

That night, when her grand­moth­er and broth­ers had gone to sleep, Lau­ra did climb down from her bed­room win­dow and cross the dri­ve­way to the Grahams’s, where Shan­non and Heath’s friends wait­ed in his car. They wait­ed there instead of in her dri­ve­way so her grand­moth­er wouldn’t wake to the sound of a car pulling in and the engine idling and won­der who could be sit­ting in a car out­side at mid­night. Heath didn’t speak to her at the par­ty. Every minute, she knew where he was stand­ing, no mat­ter how far across the room, and knew who he was talk­ing to instead of her. When he drove them all home, she sat behind him, which wasn’t the great­est, but at least she could study his hair­line, some­thing she’d nev­er had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to do, and the back of his ear­lobes, the way his face looked dif­fer­ent when viewed from the side and from behind. When he caught her look­ing at him in the side mir­ror, she looked away. She refo­cused instead on his arm, which she could clear­ly see on the arm­rest. She imag­ined that same arm rest­ing across her back, maybe even pulling her toward him. She’d nev­er kissed a boy, not real­ly, and she’d cer­tain­ly nev­er been in bed with one, but she liked to think how it would be with Heath. His skin with the mus­cles and bones she’d stud­ied so thor­ough­ly, his tan arm with a few scars she’d mem­o­rized, one in the shape of a fish hook mid­way between his wrist and elbow, anoth­er made of small cir­cles like an insignia had been burned into his flesh and fad­ed. She imag­ined he got the fish-hook scar from snag­ging his arm on barbed wire, work­ing in the fields over the sum­mers with his friends. The burn? The burn he’d got­ten as a child when his dad took him to work at the pow­er plant and he’d acci­den­tal­ly backed into some equip­ment, the shape of a valve burn­ing a cir­cle in his flesh that his father cooled with an ice cube.

She loved the sound of his voice in the car, the pri­vate qual­i­ty of it, dif­fer­ent than when she’d heard him talk in the hall­ways at school. When they pulled slow­ly into the Grahams’s dri­ve­way, every­one just opened their car doors and got out like no big deal, but she hadn’t want­ed the car to stop.

Shan­non was gig­gling and falling out of her san­dals, so the boys fol­lowed them across the dri­ve­way and the lawn to Laura’s grandmother’s house. Shan­non stopped under the porch roof and said, “Someone’s going to have to boost us into Laura’s room.”

Heath and Tim looked up to where Shan­non ges­tured, which was under Laura’s grandma’s win­dow, and she grabbed Shan­non by the sleeve and led her away to the oth­er side of the house where her bed­room win­dow was, on the sec­ond sto­ry, just over anoth­er side porch.

They all stood there for a moment, looked up, and eval­u­at­ed the height. Lau­ra hadn’t thought about how she’d get back in, only how she’d get out. Shan­non began to hic­cup.

Cov­er your mouth,” Lau­ra said.

Shan­non clapped her hands to her mouth, which made her stum­ble and sit down in the grass, hic­cup­ping even loud­er.

In between hic­cups, locusts buzzed. There was the faint sound of cars breath­ing by on the high­way a mile or so away. Heath stood fac­ing her. She couldn’t see his expres­sion. The street­light wasn’t shin­ing quite right. She could only make out the out­line of his fea­tures in the dark. She want­ed to store it away in her mind, the close­ness of him in the dark, the way she could almost feel the shape of his body in the air between them. Even though it was dark, she felt that some­thing had changed between them, some­thing that might make the way things were at school dif­fer­ent, but she wasn’t sure if it would make them bet­ter, or if she’d feel ashamed every time they passed each oth­er. Or was he wait­ing for her to say it was all right to boost her up?

Heath took a few steps toward her, and she felt the pres­sure of his close­ness in the air. She thought she could even feel his breath against her face, but she couldn’t be sure if it was his breath or just an espe­cial­ly soft breeze.

Tim said, “Heath, you bet­ter lift Lau­ra. This one’s too drunk.”

Heath didn’t laugh, but she could feel a laugh want­i­ng to come out of him. He bent over and clasped his hands togeth­er in front of her knees.

This is your room, right? I don’t want to get caught boost­ing you in the wrong win­dow.” This was the first thing he’d said to her, and she was so stunned by his voice, words meant for her, that she couldn’t say any­thing in response, so she kicked her shoes off instead. She placed her hand on Heath’s shoul­der. There was his shoul­der just under her hand, just the T-shirt between them. She made her­self breathe. She placed her bare foot in his palm. His hand was warm, and she felt the push of him as he thrust upward, and she was sud­den­ly stand­ing in his hands shoul­der high, high enough she could grab the gut­ter around the porch and then the porch roof itself. She’d still have to push her­self up with all her strength if she was going to wrig­gle onto the roof on her bel­ly. She thought she could do it, but she wasn’t quite sure. Her chest tight­ened, and the swirly plea­sure she’d felt from being this close clinched into fear. What if she couldn’t do it? She didn’t want her arms to shake in front of Heath. She didn’t want to not be able to pull her­self up.

Both her feet were in his hands now, and his arms waved a lit­tle under her weight. Her legs swayed and then rest­ed steady against his chest. She could feel the soft­ness of his face and the bris­tles of a lit­tle facial hair brush­ing against her thighs. She hadn’t known he had facial hair. It must have been invis­i­ble, just like the hair on his arms. “Can you stand on my shoul­ders?” he asked. It was a sim­ple thing to do, of course, but she held still and let her­self feel his skin against hers for a moment. Then she stepped onto his shoul­ders and knew she had to push now or she’d nev­er get up. She pushed as hard as she could, until she felt the grav­el scrape of the roof against her stom­ach and Heath’s warm hands gone from her feet.

I’m up,” she said.

She peered over the roof and saw the moon on his skin. There was the hint of a smile, a lit­tle crooked and a lit­tle flir­ty, she was almost sure. When she met his eyes, some­thing wrig­gled around inside of her, some­thing that felt like her­self, but not at all like the self she’d felt any oth­er time before.

It was the same feel­ing she had now watch­ing him as he came over to where she knelt in the yard. She didn’t know what was com­ing, but she knew that she want­ed him to keep walk­ing toward her.

***

I nev­er saw Lau­ra in per­son. A few school pho­tos of a blond, four­teen-year-old girl, the faintest hint of the woman she might have become in the slant of her eyes, the slight, closed-lip smile. I won­dered what she was hid­ing, or if she was just unwill­ing to expose her teeth, some flaw, real or imag­ined, behind those closed lips. She was pret­ty, even with her over-styled ‘80s hair, but not stun­ning, at least not yet, too young to know how to arrange her­self into someone’s ide­al. In the pic­ture, she wears a red mock turtle­neck, because she thought it sophis­ti­cat­ed, or maybe some­one else had pres­sured her to wear it for this one day.

I wasn’t any­where near Car­rolton the year she dis­ap­peared, although we would have been about the same age. I was a lit­tle old­er, but not much, shop­ping for my first col­lege for­mal the spring she dis­ap­peared. It’s hard for me to imag­ine a time before Laura’s sto­ry seemed to run in par­al­lel to my own, a time before I ever knew she exist­ed. I came to feel like her sto­ry had hap­pened to me, or at least to some­one I loved almost as much as myself. What­ev­er hap­pened to us both made me believe I could imag­ine what it felt like to have a life and what it must have felt like to lose it. Imag­in­ing that kind of loss came too swift­ly and eas­i­ly, wash­ing me away from myself. Only now do I know that loss­es like hers are felt far more slow­ly and more deeply than I was capa­ble of then. The way I imag­ined her dis­ap­pear­ance, the rea­sons for it, I real­ize now, were all my own ideas, even when I believed they were based on some truth I’d learned. It’s amaz­ing how eas­i­ly we can think we see clear­ly what oth­ers haven’t been able to see, and then how quick­ly and harsh­ly we can be dis­abused. All these expla­na­tions were nev­er­the­less my way of mak­ing sense of the choic­es peo­ple made, espe­cial­ly those I’d come to know and love. Imag­in­ing Laura—what hap­pened to her, where she was, what had caused it all—was some strange will on my own part to feel loss, to lose myself. Call it self-destruc­tion if you want.

Lau­ra was nev­er a per­son to me, not real­ly. She was always a ghost, a man­i­fes­ta­tion of my yearn­ing, of all our yearn­ings, the kind of sud­den slip­page of my life pass­ing over where hers once had been. Think­ing about Laura’s absence became part of what it meant to be me. I began to think of us as the same per­son. The more I tried to carve out my own life, the more what had been her life intrud­ed into mine. It was as if her sto­ry seeped slow­ly into my heart and filled it, until there wasn’t room for me to love any­one that had not been loved by her first. It’s odd how sim­i­lar grief and desire can be, the sim­i­lar­i­ty of the pain, the ache to touch the body of some­one you loved and to be touched and seen and smelled and tast­ed by them, not so dif­fer­ent from the nev­erend­ing desire, in grief, to clasp the body we’ve lost.

 

Maybe some­where in the world humans had evolved beyond the expec­ta­tion that a thir­ty-five-year-old woman should be “set­tled.” If there was such a place, I hadn’t been there. Even in cos­mopoli­tan Chica­go, peo­ple were the same; they were just qui­eter about it. Maybe I moved to Car­rolton because Chica­go was filled with peo­ple I knew, and I couldn’t stand the inquir­ing looks from my friends and fam­i­ly, the awk­ward din­ner con­ver­sa­tions. For a long time, I felt the begin­ning of my new life beat­ing its wings around inside my brain, an inter­mit­tent thump that told me I need­ed to get out. I want­ed to van­ish. The flut­ter­ing of desire and grief push­ing against my chest, want­i­ng to escape out my toes, my fin­ger­tips, my tongue—this ener­gy would com­pel me out of the city, cause me to leave my fam­i­ly and friends in Chica­go and not care if I talked to any­one I used to know ever again. When I final­ly did leave for the coun­try, it wasn’t like it is nowa­days, where farm­ing is almost chic. Nowa­days, if you announce that you intend to raise goats, peo­ple take it as a noble attempt to sep­a­rate your­self from cor­po­rate greed and mate­ri­al­ism. They call you a hip­ster, which is at least half a com­pli­ment. No, when I decid­ed to begin a farm in the coun­try, I wasn’t join­ing a trend. I sim­ply want­ed to dis­ap­pear. But I knew I still need­ed to eat. Choic­es that aren’t real­ly choic­es at all. A will­ful dis­ap­pear­ance.

 

I made my announce­ment to my fam­i­ly at their house in the sub­urbs on the day after Thanks­giv­ing. They didn’t say much, but their aston­ished looks made it clear that I might as well have announced I was join­ing a cult. They didn’t try to stop me. My par­ents are kind peo­ple, real­ly they are, and I love them, but their prox­im­i­ty always made me feel con­fined to being what they’d imag­ined, or at least what they imag­ined was good for me, and I want­ed to shed any ties to peo­ple who thought they knew what was good for me.

When I left Chica­go, I said my good­byes to a few friends and for­mer employ­ers, who no doubt were sure I’d be back. They believed my move was des­tined to be a brief, failed for­ay. The whole thing—the relo­ca­tion, the rur­al life—some indi­ca­tion of an acute but, they hoped, imper­ma­nent men­tal ill­ness. I nev­er men­tioned my plans to my boyfriend Ryan. I was pret­ty sure his reac­tion would not be what I hoped.

Ryan and I hadn’t been togeth­er long. It’s unfair for me to have want­ed him to ask me to stay. But I didn’t know any­thing then, so I thought the feel­ings we had for each oth­er could be per­ma­nent, or at least semi-per­ma­nent. By the time I moved, it had only been a few months since the first night we spent togeth­er in his apart­ment. Our love­mak­ing didn’t go much more than skin deep, at least for him, which isn’t the same as say­ing I didn’t try to make the sex mind-blow­ing, the kind of sex that would serve as a gauge some­how, an indi­ca­tor of whether we had a deep and last­ing bond. Maybe I should’ve known bet­ter, but I thought good con­sis­tent sex might sud­den­ly switch into love, mar­riage, and even­tu­al­ly fam­i­ly. I know now that what I felt for him was too dis­tant and fuzzy to be love. He prob­a­bly wasn’t in love with me, but I cer­tain­ly didn’t stop try­ing to make it so.

That first night, I was unknow­ing­ly ridicu­lous. I wore cloth­ing that tried far too hard, a black lace garter belt and real silk stock­ings under the beige slacks I wore to the bank where we both worked. We’d been casu­al­ly flirt­ing and drink­ing after work for a few weeks, and I was impa­tient to make our rela­tion­ship offi­cial. Try­ing to scratch my legs under my desk at din­ner, dig­ging down beneath the lay­ers of slacks and nylons, should have been a pret­ty big tell that this was my first attempt at a lin­gerie-clad seduc­tion. When Ryan said he was going to walk home from the bar, I invit­ed myself along, a mere twelve blocks in heels, mak­ing up some sto­ry about how I need­ed to take the El stop near his apart­ment any­way. In front of his build­ing, I daw­dled under a lamp­post until I could muster up the courage to ask for a tour of his place. This move was as good as telling him he could sleep with me. I knew this before I said it, knew it with every step I took as I fol­lowed him the two flights up to his apart­ment. It wasn’t him I want­ed, at least not specif­i­cal­ly. It was that idea of hav­ing a “him” or an “us” or a some­thing besides a “me.” Me. Such a lone­ly, juve­nile sound to the word. Him hums a sexy tune. Him­m­mm, I sang in my head and then us. So grown up. Strong. Stur­dy.

He imme­di­ate­ly set about mak­ing a cou­ple of drinks, as if we need­ed more, and I slouched on the counter, tilt­ing my hips toward him like a mag­net. When he still didn’t touch me, I stum­bled the short dis­tance to kiss him, an awk­ward wrap-around style kiss, try­ing to meet his lips with mine as he con­tin­ued to mix gin and ton­ics. After that, I excused myself, closed the bath­room door, unbut­toned my trousers and slipped them down over my hips, unbut­toned my blouse. There they were: the garter belt, the stock­ings, and the nip­ples that had been try­ing their best all day to escape a demi-cup busti­er. In the mir­ror on the back of the closed door, I tried to see myself as he might, as I want­ed him to, as a page ripped from a men’s mag­a­zine, the snags from my ear­li­er scratch­ing bare­ly notice­able in the dim light. When I emerged from the bath­room, I’m not sure which one of us was more stunned about what I’d done: gone from con­ser­v­a­tive bank­ing col­league to stock­ing-clad seduc­tress. Ryan stood up but didn’t take a step toward me. I turned around in a lit­tle cir­cle, as though I were audi­tion­ing in a dirty beau­ty pageant.

Talia?” he asked, even­tu­al­ly.

Don’t wor­ry about all the hooks,” I said. “I can help you take it off.” But I didn’t take it all off, not even when he final­ly moved toward me and the warmth of his open hand against my hip final­ly allowed the breath back into my body. I need­ed some of that cos­tume to make me into the kind of woman he would want to put his hands all over. I don’t know if it changed the way he thought about me, but I’ve yet to meet a man who will turn down a woman bla­tant­ly offer­ing her­self up in his kitchen.

After that, the offi­cial feel­ing I want­ed didn’t seem to arrive, but things did change between us. Not so you’d notice from the out­side, real­ly, but it did feel a lit­tle more like “Ryan and I” who began to go to Gib­sons for hap­py hour with Jane and Alec from work. We’d become two pairs. What kind of pair wasn’t yet clear, but we were offi­cial­ly not just a group.

 

Gib­sons was one of those restau­rants that hadn’t redec­o­rat­ed since the sev­en­ties. I’m talk­ing wood pan­el­ing and red leather booths. A place where stay­ing stuck was a mat­ter of prin­ci­ple. Pan­eled walls clut­tered with framed pho­tos of Chicago’s most pow­er­ful. At least, they were pow­er­ful once upon a time. Wannabes still filled up the place any night of the week, ogling them­selves in the lac­quered maple fin­ish of the bar. We were there too, except on week­ends, when tourists low­ered the pres­tige of the place. Instead, we’d stum­ble around the Gold Coast from the Hunt Club to late nights in the Back Room to hun­gover and recu­per­at­ing a few hours after brunch on Sun­days only to find our­selves back at Gib­sons every Tues­day for late lunch meet­ings that turned into ear­ly hap­py hour drinks. When I final­ly left Chica­go, Ryan and I were togeth­er like this five or six nights a week.

I threw myself into sex as though each thrust were a hur­dle, pulling out every sex act I’d ever read about in some women’s mag­a­zine. Our love­mak­ing ses­sions extend­ed until the wee hours of the morn­ing, prob­a­bly at least part­ly due to Ryan’s drink­ing, but also because I want­ed sex with me to make Ryan believe our alarm clocks would nev­er ring. I want­ed it to get so good that he’d for­get he had a job, or not care if he lost it. Nev­er­mind that all these hours of pelvic con­tact made morn­ing show­ers burn and wood­en chairs unten­able. Win­ning his love, or at least his desire for me over all oth­er things, felt, if not ful­fill­ing, at least promis­ing, as though it held the poten­tial for some­thing that might one day feel good.

Besides the con­ve­nience of the circumstances—we were work­ing in the same office, both sin­gle, close in age and sim­i­lar­ly attractive—I couldn’t tell you pre­cise­ly what drew us togeth­er. Our pas­sion for one anoth­er was almost abstract—it seemed dis­con­nect­ed from who we real­ly were. Our true selves, if we even knew them, we kept hid­den from one anoth­er. I didn’t know who I was, not real­ly, but I made it my goal to know him. I knew that he fold­ed his socks instead of balling them up. I knew he took baths. I knew he secret­ly believed in God. I knew the pat­tern of freck­les above his left nip­ple. Maybe our inabil­i­ty to know each oth­er more deeply had some­thing to do with hav­ing the kind of jobs we had, the sin­gle-mind­ed num­ber crunch­ing. Per­haps, despite our best inten­tions, we had grown quite used to cre­at­ing noth­ing sig­nif­i­cant or per­son­al with all of our goal-focused, pant­i­ng ener­gy.

And then a few months after we began this semi-offi­cial rela­tion­ship, in the absence of any true feel­ing I could iden­ti­fy, I made the deci­sion that he was the one for me. But I need­ed some kind of sign. I need­ed some­thing offi­cial. I explained to myself that he was as good or bet­ter than any­one else I was like­ly to meet, so, I thought, the one might as well be him.

At that moment, I was lying next to Ryan on his queen-size bed, and, for this first time, I noticed the puffy white com­forter, how the bed­spread matched the sheets and pil­low­cas­es, not just in col­or, but also in style, as though they’d been bought as a set. I stud­ied more close­ly the oak bed frame, a rather grand­moth­er­ly look­ing head­board, not hip at all, more on the sad side. The bed had a dust ruf­fle. This bed I had been fuck­ing him on for months—how had I nev­er looked at it before? How had I nev­er seen it for what it was? It had none of the posh pre­ten­tion of Ryan’s design­er suits, his watch­es, or his dis­cern­ing taste in food. I looked around at the rest of his room: the floun­cy white cot­ton cur­tains on his win­dows, not exact­ly clas­sic. Not ugly, either, but almost. You could def­i­nite­ly call them fem­i­nine. Each win­dow was topped with a white valance, some­thing that might have been in style ten years ago, unashamed of its dat­ed charm.

Per­haps his moth­er had dec­o­rat­ed his room. This is what I thought, but I decid­ed that whether he had cho­sen each item per­son­al­ly or whether he’d allowed his moth­er to dec­o­rate for him—a woman who was a com­plete and now nag­ging mys­tery to me, but a woman who seemed to have been at least some­what present dur­ing every naked moment we’d shared for the past few months—this décor was the sign I’d been look­ing for. I knew this man lying next to me. I knew the taste he secret­ly favored, or I knew his mother’s tastes. Either one seemed to me then like an inti­mate dis­cov­ery far beyond what I’d found explor­ing his nip­ples.

Those ugly cur­tains were the first tru­ly pos­i­tive qual­i­ty I’d noticed about him, and noth­ing I would have ever been privy to at work or dur­ing one of our bar chats. I had dis­cov­ered a truth: either he was close to his moth­er, or he secret­ly want­ed to be a grown-up with a wife instead of a moth­er.

He turned over on his pil­low, opened his eyes, and blinked sev­er­al times to wake him­self up, one of those uncon­trived, ear­ly morn­ing smiles on his face. For the briefest of moment, when I looked into his eyes, I thought I saw our future. But a few sec­onds lat­er, Ryan closed his eyes and fell back asleep, his mouth grad­u­al­ly slid­ing open, his alco­hol-twinged morn­ing breath hov­er­ing over us. I squeezed my eyes shut and imag­ined him a bit old­er, a bit thick­er. We had a son, per­haps, anoth­er on the way. I would keep him from being the kind of man who’d con­tin­ue to go to Gib­sons with­out me, who would flirt and even­tu­al­ly sleep with the bar­tender. I waved the scent of whiskey away and let my hand rest on Ryan’s chest. His body was smoother than any oth­er man I’d touched. I can still pic­ture the two of us, almost child­like, inno­cent, real­ly, cocooned in white cot­ton flounce. I looked at his face, will­ing him to open his eyes and look back at me, to say some­thing, any­thing that could mean some­thing. When, still sleep­ing, he slid his arm from under my pil­low and placed his hand on top of my head, a touch gen­tler and warmer than he ever man­aged con­scious­ly, I knew this was my sign. That touch radi­at­ed depend­abil­i­ty and deep love for me, sen­ti­ments he kept hid­den most of the time, true, per­haps even from him­self, but incon­tro­vert­ibly there nonethe­less.

I remem­ber that morn­ing vivid­ly, like you do when it’s your last, even though it wasn’t ours. I think it was a few days lat­er, back in bed at his apart­ment after a par­tic­u­lar­ly heavy night of drink­ing, when, naked and poised above me, he asked, “Is it okay?” He spoke soft­ly; his face over mine was unde­ni­ably attrac­tive, but slight­ly swollen from the heat and the alco­hol.

Here was my think­ing: because he had asked, this told me how much he want­ed it. “It” being “us,” and “us” in the largest sense you can imag­ine: “us” in the future-per­fect, plur­al form.

Is it safe?” he moaned.

I’d let my pre­scrip­tion run out the month before. I just hadn’t got­ten around to fill­ing it. Maybe I was depressed, maybe I want­ed it to hap­pen, but it was sub­con­scious, or near­ly sub­con­scious. I hon­est­ly don’t think I was think­ing about it con­scious­ly, but I wasn’t total­ly unaware of the need to get it filled. Lying there, his body hov­er­ing and poised on the brink, below him I was caught up in an entire­ly dif­fer­ent firestorm of nerves beg­ging for release. I hadn’t been mon­i­tor­ing my cycle behind his back, wait­ing for a vul­ner­a­ble moment, and in truth I couldn’t guess which day or hour was most dangerous/advantageous for my body. I hes­i­tat­ed for only a moment, the white valence over the win­dow waver­ing from the breeze of the fur­nace, before nod­ding and push­ing my hips firm­ly into his. This one moment in which I couldn’t find my usu­al log­ic; my mind, usu­al­ly so quick and sharp, in some state of delu­sion when Ryan asked, is it okay? It had nev­er been in my char­ac­ter before to let fate take its course. I took hold of the slip­pery wood­en head­board. “Yes,” I said. “Yes, yes, yes.”

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

Acci­den­tal Life”—excerpted from my novel-in-progress—began by think­ing of a friend whose wife had just left him, their child, and her old­er chil­dren, a young woman who seemed to fit the mold of housewife/mother so well, yet who also seemed to eas­i­ly shrug off that life and exit the lives of those who loved her most. But, of course, the idea of her nev­er left my friend or her children—or me, for that mat­ter. That moment con­nect­ed the cen­tral themes that sat­u­rate near­ly every­thing I’ve ever writ­ten: the fuzzy, per­me­able bound­aries between one life and anoth­er, between one tem­po­ral space and anoth­er. Laura’s sto­ry is also Talia’s sto­ry, and vice ver­sa. One life can hold and bleed into anoth­er, and that merg­ing cre­ates anoth­er sto­ry, and if that idea is so, then indi­vid­ual sto­ries can no longer be under­stood in iso­la­tion, and it becomes less clear who the words “I” and “you” and “she” describe.

It’s that play with pro­nouns that allows for story’s trans­mutabil­i­ty in Acci­den­tal Life; it is a form that I think nar­ra­tive­ly cap­tures the impulse to let our bod­ies slip into another’s skin, whether that skin is your friend’s or a character’s. That knowl­edge we cov­et in another’s lived expe­ri­ence, of course, makes us feel less alone. In this excerpt, Talia is very much feel­ing her own iso­la­tion and at the same time she’s pinned inside a busy city envi­ron­ment. The rest of the book con­cerns her search for self, a search that takes her out of her life and into Laura’s, a young woman who dis­ap­peared but nev­er quite left the con­scious­ness of her town or the peo­ple who loved her.

 

Desiree Dighton’s fic­tion has been a con­test final­ist at Glim­mer Train and Amer­i­can Short Fic­tion. She is an assis­tant edi­tor at Nar­ra­tive Mag­a­zine and received her MFA from South­ern Illi­nois Uni­ver­si­ty. She lives in Raleigh, North Car­oli­na.

Stonefish

Poetry / Maggie Smith

:: Stonefish ::

There are fish in the black trenches 
of the sea that look like rocks.
Their poison shouldn’t trouble me.
They are so deep, we’ll never touch.
But I think of them. If it is paranoid 
to believe there is a trench in me
the doctors haven’t dragged, 
a cave no one’s plumbed with light, 
then fine, I’m paranoid. But whatever 
plaques and tangles, whatever cells 
wait deadly with their terrible hunger
must be disguised. You should know 
the most venomous fish lives 
in the shallows. It also looks like a rock.

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

It seems to me that the dom­i­nant ener­gy in my recent poems is fear—and maybe, if I’m being hon­est with myself, fear has been the dom­i­nant ener­gy in my work all along. (In the words of Samuel Beck­ett: “You’re on earth. There’s no cure for that.”) Late­ly in my poems I’ve been grap­pling with the com­plex­i­ties of moth­er­hood, and more specif­i­cal­ly with the ter­ror that is nec­es­sar­i­ly part of lov­ing some­one deeply. How can we pos­si­bly keep our chil­dren from the harsh real­i­ties of the world they live in—the world we brought them to? How can we keep them safe with­out also keep­ing them from all the won­der and beau­ty in the world? How do we keep from inflict­ing our own anx­i­eties on our chil­dren?

Stone­fish” is at its core a poem about fear for the self, fear of the mys­ter­ies inside the body, and fear of our bod­ies turn­ing against us. When I learned about the stone­fish, I was instant­ly tak­en in by its poten­tial as metaphor: some­thing dead­ly is very near but also very well cam­ou­flaged. I employed the son­net struc­ture to tight­en up the poem rhetor­i­cal­ly, with the root of the speaker’s fear revealed at the turn: that signs of Alzheimer’s dis­ease and can­cer may already be inside her, though no one has found them yet.

 

Mag­gie Smith is the author of The Well Speaks of Its Own Poi­son (Tupe­lo Press, 2015), Lamp of the Body (Red Hen Press, 2005), and three prizewin­ning chap­books. Her poems have appeared in The Paris Review, the Keny­on Review Online, Vir­ginia Quar­ter­ly Review, The South­ern Review, and else­where. A 2011 Nation­al Endow­ment for the Arts Fel­low, Smith has also received fel­low­ships from the Ohio Arts Coun­cil and the Sus­tain­able Arts Foun­da­tion.

Medical History

Poetry / Nicole Sealey

:: Medical History ::

I’ve been pregnant. I’ve had sex with a man
who’s had sex with men. I can’t sleep.
My mother has, my mother’s mother had,
asthma. My father had a stroke. My father’s
mother has high blood pressure.
Both grandfathers died from diabetes.
I drink. I don’t smoke. Xanax for flying.
Propranolol for anxiety. My eyes are bad.
I’m spooked by wind. Cousin Lilly died
from an aneurysm. Aunt Hilda, a heart attack.
Uncle Ken, wise as he was, was hit
by a car as if to disprove whatever theory
toward which I write. And, I understand,
the stars in the sky are already dead.

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

Med­ical His­to­ry” is ded­i­cat­ed to the mem­o­ry of my cousin Fran­cis­co San­ti­a­go, who died on August 10, 2015.

Truth is: I remem­ber nei­ther what I was think­ing nor read­ing when I draft­ed this poem. I do know that it was con­ceived on the heels of anoth­er poem I’d writ­ten enti­tled “The First Per­son Who Will Live to Be One Hun­dred and Fifty Years Old Has Already Been Born,” in which the speak­er attempts to con­vince both her­self and her aging moth­er that they still have plen­ty of time left. Unlike the for­mer, how­ev­er, the nar­ra­tor in “Med­ical His­to­ry” is not under any false pre­tens­es.

Also, the stars in the sky are most like­ly not dead. The dis­tance between us and the stars is so great that we can only see the bright­est stars, which is to say the most alive.

 

Nicole Sealey is a Cave Canem grad­u­ate fel­low as well as the recip­i­ent of an Eliz­a­beth George Foun­da­tion Grant. She is the author of The Ani­mal After Whom Oth­er Ani­mals Are Named, win­ner of the 2015 Drink­ing Gourd Chap­book Poet­ry Prize, forth­com­ing from North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty Press.

Two Poems

Poetry / Lee Ann Roripaugh

:: year of the hitachi snake ::

forked fiberscopic tongue
sixth-sensing irradiated air

it is equipped with Createc’s 
N-visage cameras and three
dimensional imaging software

among the zodiac signs
snakes are highly intuitive

metal snakes demonstrate
an appreciation for luxury
and state of the art goods

it shapeshifts into a U-form

snakes are suspicious
and prefer to work alone

programmed to shimmy down
the reactor core, identify
the configuration of melted
fuel rods fallen to the bottom
of the containment chamber

following the probe, it will be
dangerously radioactive

like a cyborg Kiyohime,
the spurned snake woman,
searching for Anchin, 
the handsome priest she loved

snakes are beautiful
but vain and high-tempered

when Kiyohime shape-
shifted into her snake form
Anchin hid from her wrath
under the Dojoji Temple bell

it will be retired and stored—
lustrous and glowing—inside
a shielded box for centuries

the heat of Kiyohime’s
rage burned and melted
the bronze bell, along with
Anchin, hidden beneath it

snakes are known to be possessive

after the new bell arrived
Kiyohime’s spirit remained
coiled around the bell, forcing
the priests at Dojoji Temple
to perform an exorcism

bell come unrung:

Kiyohime left the temple
and fled to the Hidaka River

300 tons of contaminated water
leaking into the ocean every day



:: kikuchi octopus ::

each of its eight arms can lift
up to 440 pounds to clear
radioactive debris and rubble

octopuses collect tchotchkes
and garland their eggs in their dens
on strings like twinkle lights

Doc Ock, the nuclear physicist 
and Spiderman’s archnemesis, 
engineered radiation-proof tentacles 
of immense strength and precision,
harnessing them to his body

sometimes octopuses will rip off 
the stinging tentacles
from a Portuguese man-of-war 
and repurpose them as weapons

it comes with a laser attachment
that beams through stone,
a grappler to handle nuclear waste

a shy cephalopod of a child
with Coke bottle lens glasses,
Doc Ock was terrorized
by his brutally abusive father

a 100-pound Pacific octopus
who wants to disappear 
will squeeze through a hole 
the size of a cherry tomato

it is all terrain, can remove fallen trees,
extinguish chemical fires

some octopuses are illusionists
who conjure up pseudomorphs—
life-size doppelgangers created 
from a cloud of ink and mucous— 
to act as a decoy to predators

Doc Ock becomes cyborg during
a nuclear accident—tentacles fused to
his body, brain rewired to manipulate
the prosthetics by Wi-Fi telepathy	

octopuses can recognize human faces


 

From the writer

:: Account ::

These two poems (“year of the hitachi snake” and “kikuchi octo­pus”) are part of a man­u­script-in-progress ten­ta­tive­ly titled Tsuna­mi vs. The Fukushi­ma 50—a project that emerged in response to the 2011 Tohoku earthquake/tsunami and sub­se­quent Fukushi­ma dis­as­ter in Japan.

In this project, I wish to hon­or and com­mem­o­rate Fukushi­ma, as well as focus atten­tion on Fukushima’s ongo­ing legacies—particularly with respect to envi­ron­men­tal crises. My strat­e­gy with­in this vol­ume has been to turn to tropes of otherness/difference along­side ques­tions of muta­tion and radioac­tiv­i­ty as employed with­in com­ic books (X-Men or Godzil­la, for exam­ple) as a means of con­fronting issues raised by the Fukushi­ma dis­as­ter.

In addi­tion to pro­vid­ing a vehi­cle by which to con­sid­er the eco­crit­i­cal and cul­tur­al impli­ca­tions of the Fukushi­ma dis­as­ter, this project has blos­somed into a can­vas that works with aspects of per­son­al and cul­tur­al psy­cho­log­i­cal trau­ma, gen­der per­for­mance and queer iden­ti­ties, the taboo of female rage, and ideas of the monstrous/grotesque.

The project is com­posed of poems explor­ing the char­ac­ter of tsuna­mi as a force of nature—a fer­al supervil­lain­ess, ris­ing from the seis­mic trau­ma of earth­quakes in the ocean floor much in the same way that the char­ac­ter of the X-men’s Mag­ne­to was forged with­in the trau­ma of the Holo­caust. These tsuna­mi poems are con­trast­ed by a fic­tion­al cadre of first-per­son mono­logues in the voic­es of sur­vivors and vic­tims of Fukushima—loosely thread­ed through asso­ci­a­tions with com­ic book super­heroes.

The two poems here con­sti­tute a third strand of the vol­ume in that they rep­re­sent posthu­man, robot­ic char­ac­ters cre­at­ed by sci­en­tists to work in areas con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed by radi­a­tion fol­low­ing the Fukushi­ma dis­as­ter. I was struck by the pro­jec­tion of organ­ic ani­mal forms (“hitachi snake” or “kikuchi octo­pus”) in both the con­cep­tu­al­iza­tion and nam­ing of these robots—particularly in light of the fact that these were machines designed to ame­lio­rate the fall­out of a nat­ur­al dis­as­ter that became so much more dead­ly as a result of its col­li­sion with man-made, nuclear tech­nol­o­gy.

This braid­ing of pro­jec­tions and inter­sec­tions between nature, tech­nol­o­gy, and cul­ture sug­gest­ed a form for these par­tic­u­lar characters/poems, which are ren­dered in frag­ment­ed, robot­ic snip­pets. In “hitachi snake” I com­bine facts about the shape-shift­ing snake robot with ele­ments of Asian astrol­o­gy, along­side the tra­di­tion­al Japan­ese tale of the shape-shift­ing snake woman, Kiy­ohime. In “kikuchi octo­pus” I like­wise braid togeth­er details regard­ing the eight-armed octo­pus robot with star­tling facts about octo­pus­es, in tan­dem with the nar­ra­tive of Spiderman’s neme­sis, the eight-armed genius Doc Ock.

 

Lee Ann Ror­i­paugh is the author of four vol­umes of poet­ry: Dan­dar­i­ans (Milk­weed Edi­tions, 2014) On the Cusp of a Dan­ger­ous Year, Year of the Snake, and Beyond Heart Moun­tain. She directs the cre­ative writ­ing pro­gram at The Uni­ver­si­ty of South Dako­ta, and serves as Edi­tor-in-Chief of South Dako­ta Review. Ror­i­paugh is cur­rent­ly the South Dako­ta State Poet Lau­re­ate.

On Being Beata Beatrix (1870)

Poetry / Anna Leahy

:: On Being Beata Beatrix (1870) ::

He captured more ecstasy than I had
mustered, frustrated by leaning forward
as if for a kiss, my lips parted, my eyes closed,
my mind lolling through those old hours.
I fancied slumber but, later,
couldn’t sleep for all the coveting of it.

Originally, three muses: song, occasion, memory;
the voice singing, the moment and reason for utterance,
and the recalling of it after. How convenient
that the field opened up before me;
how thankful I am that room was made for me.
Consequence is not only what is borne

but also what is borne out—and so,
we carry on, we carry on so.

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

What does it mean to be the sub­ject of art? Who cre­ates art? How do cre­ator and sub­ject inter­act? Why, as Edgar Allan Poe sug­gest­ed, are we fas­ci­nat­ed by dead women?

Lizzie Sid­dal (1829–1862) was an artist’s mod­el, a painter, and a poet. She is the mod­el in John Everett Millais’s Ophe­lia and D. G. Rossetti’s How They Met Them­selves, St. Cather­ine, and Bea­ta Beat­rix, among oth­er paint­ings and draw­ings by these and oth­er Vic­to­ri­an artists. John Ruskin pur­chased sev­er­al of Siddal’s own paint­ings in 1855 and sub­se­quent­ly paid her a stipend for art­work she pro­duced over sev­er­al years. In 1860, after a long courtship dur­ing which she suf­fered inter­mit­tent ill health, Sid­dal mar­ried Pre-Raphaelite painter and poet D. G. Ros­set­ti. After a still­birth and becom­ing preg­nant again, she died of a lau­danum over­dose. Lucin­da Hawksley’s biog­ra­phy Lizzie Sid­dal (Walk­er & Co., 2004) was help­ful to me in grap­pling with the facts of this woman’s life.

 

Anna Leahy’s book Con­stituents of Mat­ter won the Wick Poet­ry Prize, and her chap­book Sharp Mir­a­cles is forth­com­ing from Blue Lyra Press. She teach­es in the MFA and BFA pro­grams at Chap­man Uni­ver­si­ty, where she curates the Tab­u­la Poet­i­ca series and edits the inter­na­tion­al jour­nal TAB. With Dou­glas Dechow, she writes Lofty Ambi­tions blog at http://loftyambitions.wordpress.com.

Two Poems

Poetry / David Kirby

:: Big Meal with Gioachino Rossini ::

                         I tell my students not to use words like Beauty and Truth 
because, first, nobody will know what you mean and, second, 
                         nobody cares—they’d much rather go on a picnic with somebody 
               and try to make out with them or roast a chicken or have 

		          their oil changed and tires rotated than sit around and worry about 
whether or not such actions are beautiful or true. Yet when I am 
		          in Florence, whereas most people hurry to the tomb of Michelangelo 
               in the church of Santa Croce or gather in front of the monument 

		          to Galileo there, I always bend a knee before the sepulcher 
of Gioachino Rossini and think, beauty! Where would we be 
		          without The Barber of Seville and William Tell? Why, there’d 
               hardly be any popular culture at all, no Daffy Duck or Tom 

		          and Jerry cartoons or Lone Ranger, all thanks to this jolly 
fat man who composed so beautifully. Or jolly-seeming, 
		          I should say: who knows what joy lurks in a man’s heart,
               fat or not, and the same goes for the heart of a woman, 

		          though to comment on a woman’s size is something no man 
would ever do, or at least no gentleman. As for truth,
		          there are two ways to look at it. Think of that James Bond movie 
               in which James Bond is trapped in a hall of mirrors and thus 

		          faced with multiple images of the villain, so that it is only 
when he shatters all the mirrors that he sees his enemy 
		          in the flesh, suggesting that we, too, are surrounded by distractions 
               which we must eliminate in order to get at the truth, 

		          which is imminently getatable. Then there is the school 
that says no, truth is a rabbit in a briar patch, that when 
		          you reach in and try seize it by the neck, you put your hand 
               on the spot where it used to or will be but isn’t. So which

		          metaphor do you like, the hall of mirrors one or the rabbit 
in the briar patch? Wrong question, since it assumes that truth 
		          can only be expressed in words, whereas the truth that springs 
               from Rossini’s music is no less true for being inarticulatable

		          any more than a beautiful dinner is less so for being anything 
other than itself. Gioachino Rossini, how I would love to sit down
		          to table with you. Let’s start with some antipasti misti, 
               then on to the pasta course: ravioli filled with ricotta and spinach

		          for you, and for me, fettucine with ragù. Now for the hard part, 
which is fish or meat? Okay, meat: we’ll have fish next time. 
		          One of us should get the veal chop and the other the veal cutlet. 
               It doesn’t matter to me, either; let’s just get both and decide 

		          when the plates arrive, though we’re also going to need some 
side dishes, a plate of fried zucchini flowers, maybe, and artichokes 
		          sauteed with garlic and parsley. Okay, and now to the essential: 
               what shall we drink? Brunello, Barolo, Barbaresco, Nebbiolo, 

		          Sagrantino—why, the very names sound like your lyrics! 
You like Haydn, don’t you? Of course you like Haydn, probably 
		          for the same reason Keats did. Keats said that Haydn was like 
               a child, “for there is no knowing what he will do next.”

		          May we not say the same of your Figaro? “Everyone asks for me, 
everyone wants me,” Figaro sings, “women, children, 
		          old people, young ones,” and no wonder: “I am the luckiest, 
              it’s the truth! Ready for anything, / night and day / I’m always 

		          on the move.” That’s the way, isn’t it? Moving from one thing 
to another, no matter how big or small the thing, how long 
		          or short the journey. Look, the antipasti! Often you were left 
               in the care of your aging grandmother, who had difficulty 

		          supervising you, so while your father played his horn 
and your mother sang, you were left in the care of a butcher
		          and later apprenticed to a blacksmith—no wonder you’re 
               at home in the heart of the ordinary people, of a barber, say, 

		          or a serving girl. This chop is bigger than that cutlet, 
and I want you to have it. No, no, I insist. I’m putting 
		          my foot down, Rossini! Pass the vegetables, please.
                “One can’t judge Wagner’s opera Lohengrin after 

		          a first hearing,” you say, “and I certainly don’t intend 
to hear it a second time.” Ha, ha! Strong passions, Gioachino, 
		          strong passions! You say, “Give me a laundry-list, 
               and I’ll set it to music.” How about a cheese course? 

		          Oh, that’s right: you’re the one who says ice cream, always.  
Sempre gelato: if every politician had that as his or her 
		          campaign slogan, they’d all get elected, and then where 
               would we be? And if you can make a sonata or a cantata 

		          or an étude or a scherzo out of a laundry list, 
think what you could do with this beautiful dinner 
		          we’re having! I’m glad the restaurant is playing Bellini
               and Donizetti tonight. I bet you’d feel silly if we were

		          listening to The Lady of the Lake or Cinderella. But I just 
want to say that when I listen to those works on my own, I feel
		          more in touch with the times in which
               they were composed yet closer to something that’s bigger 

		          than this world, that’s infinite, even, that dishes up 
more love, compassion, excitement, gentleness, 
		          more good of every kind than I have already.  
               Music doesn’t teach us anything; it teaches us everything. 

		          Yes, yes, it’s late, but do let’s take a digestivo, 
a grappa or Sambuca or both. It can’t hurt—
		          well, it can, but who cares? 
               Tomorrow we’ll wake up with information and sore heads.



:: My Crappy Saint ::

                         Try not to be dissatisfied with organized religion, reader.
          It works for the people who believe in it, and it offers
many satisfactions to those who don’t. Take me: 
                         at the little church on the top of the hill in Fiesole, 
a brother of the Franciscan order is just coming off his shift 
                         at a perpetual prayer vigil and pauses when he sees me

                         and smiles, so I ask him why he and the others pray all night.
          That’s when the devil’s out, he says. Good answer, yes? 
How I loved the Church as a boy: the Latin mass, the incense,
                         the guilt, the certainty that my enemies would roast in hell,
the statuary and stained-glass windows. You can imagine 
                         how excited I was when I came across a calendar of saints,

                         one for each day, though the saint for my birthday 
          was not Michael or George or Gabriel with a sword and shield
or at least a trumpet but Saturninus, whose unpronounceable
                         name just looked dumb to a 12-year-old eager for hunky male
role models who stopped wild animals in their tracks,
                         parted seas, brought the dead back to life. All Saturninus

                         did was piss off a bunch of pagan priests in Toulouse
          because they stopped receiving messages from their gods
whenever he was in the neighborhood, so they subjected
                         him to “a great variety of indignities,” according to the old
chronicles, and had him dragged by a wild bull until dead.
                         The chronicles also say he went by the name of Cernín,

                         Sadurní, Sadurninho, Sarnin, Satordi, Saturdi, Saturnin,
          Saturnino, Serenín, Sernin, and Zernin, as though the old
chroniclers themselves didn’t know how to pronounce
                         a word that sounds more like an adenoid condition
than a name. You say Saturninus, I say gesundheit.
                         But I wasn’t mad at you, Saint Saturninus; it’s just that 

                         I wanted a  marquee-name saint: John the Baptist, say, 
          or Thomas Becket, or at least one with a cool name, 
like Leo the Great. Then there’s Joseph Moscati, 
                         Alphonsus Maria de Liguori, Bernard Scammacca . . . 
why do so many saints sound like mafiosi? A really 
                         cool saint would be Saint Margaret of Cortona, patron 

                         of homeless people, midwives, single women, people 
          who are tempted sexually and who are mentally ill 
(not the same group, but think about it), people ridiculed 
                         for their piety, and tertiaries. What are tertiaries? A tertiary
is composed of lay members of a religious order,
                         that is, men and women who do not live in a monastery

                         or convent but who wear the habit and participate 
          in the practices of that order. Everybody wants to belong 
to a club, to the Catholic Church, say, or the mafia. 
                         I belong to the biggest club ever, ex-Catholics. 
Most of us are good people, I bet, or at least interesting ones. 
                         We should get together and find out. The young Franciscan 

                         who tells me they pray at night because that’s when the devil’s
          out also says the rates are cheaper then, and when I ask what 
he means by that, he says it’s like long-distance calling: 
                         everybody prays during the day, so at night, there’s less traffic. 
During the day, he says, students pray for good grades, 
                         women pray for grandchildren . . . at night, it’s just us.


 

From the writer

:: Account ::

In the fall and spring, I give pret­ty much all of my spare time to my stu­dents, so the sum­mer is when I real­ly get the writ­ing done. This sum­mer espe­cial­ly was pro­duc­tive in ways I hadn’t imag­ined. Bar­bara and I rent­ed an apart­ment in Flo­rence for three weeks, and the first day there, the poems start­ed gush­ing out like water from a fire hydrant. Ital­ian cul­ture alone gives you a lot to think about, and when you add the Catholic Church on top of that, it’s as though the world is writ­ing the poems and I am its sec­re­tary. We’d have our cof­fee in the morn­ing, go out and look at art, come back for lunch and a nap, and then write well into the evening; since Ital­ians eat lat­er than we do over here, we’d go out at 8:30 or 9:00 and “eat like priests,” as the Ital­ians say. I was raised Catholic but let it go when I dis­cov­ered sci­ence and girls, yet I still love the archi­tec­ture of the great cathe­drals, the men­tal rig­or of orders like the Jesuits, the com­pas­sion that so many nuns and lay peo­ple show when they care for those the rest of us have for­got­ten. These days, poet­ry is my reli­gion.

 

David Kir­by’s col­lec­tion The House on Boule­vard St.: New and Select­ed Poems was a final­ist for the Nation­al Book Award in 2007. Kir­by is the author of Lit­tle Richard: The Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll, which the Times Lit­er­ary Sup­ple­ment of Lon­don called “a hymn of praise to the eman­ci­pa­to­ry pow­er of non­sense.” His forth­com­ing LSU col­lec­tion is Get Up, Please. For more infor­ma­tion, see www.davidkirby.com.

The Bears

Poetry / Brett Haymaker

:: The Bears ::

when I pedal home at four in the morning
these two guys were yelling 
although I think they were trying to sing.

They were yelling about ‘the bears’ 
with nobody but them on the street
everyone sleeping because they work 40+ hours a week 
or just waking up because two idiots are yelling 
GO BEARS outside their window and when I pedal past them
they yell, pointing at me with one of their fingers, heyhey! go
bearsgobearsgobears, and instead of hearing, yay! 
go bears! it is in my nature to hear:  Go, bear.  Go away.

And the finger pointing from the tip of their outstretched arms
does not point at me, but rather a place not here, a place
I ought to consider, so I responded by saying, Hey, why don’t you
shut up, and they responded by twisting one of their fingers 
up as if it were a candle plunged into a celebration cake
and I would have joined their merriment
always wanted to

but the merriment never suited me 
like it suits some
so instead I pedaled on
occasionally looking through the moving branches 
and with an open mouth 
I swallowed five thousand pointed stars 
proving I could 
be alone 
just me 
honey on my lips.

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

At the time I wrote this poem, I was work­ing a 4 a.m. – 12 p.m. shift at a gro­cery store, which required me to leave my house around 3 a.m.—just as the last rem­nants of drunk sports fans in the city stum­ble back to their homes, drunk-tex­ting old lovers, pee­ing in alleys, and accost­ing any oth­er per­son on the street with enthu­si­as­tic insights.

I don’t own a car and enjoy rid­ing my bike through the most­ly emp­ty, sleep­ing city—free to blow through stop signs and day­dream a bit along the way. So when I came across a pack of guys scream­ing some bull­shit song about a foot­ball team at an hour so many hard-work­ing peo­ple were using for sleep—I couldn’t keep qui­et. I had to lash out at them because, in that moment, they became prox­ies for every­thing in the dom­i­nant cul­ture that I detested—detested because, despite my repul­sion, I still seek “their” approval. As if a 9 – 5 job with a per­fect house and mar­riage is the life every­one wants and needs, and if you don’t have that you are not a true cit­i­zen of plan­et Amer­i­ca. I know it’s bull­shit, but that hasn’t stopped the mes­sages from being inter­nal­ized and regur­gi­tat­ed and used to look at myself with dis­dain. The poem is both a recog­ni­tion of the sor­row that accom­pa­nies that and a rebel­lion against it.

I should also say that I had recent­ly re-read an old copy of Win­nie-the-Pooh—an excel­lent book—as well as Ger­ald Stern’s book of poems In Beau­ty Bright, both of which are in con­ver­sa­tion here.

 

Brett Hay­mak­er is the recip­i­ent of an MFA in Poet­ry from Drew Uni­ver­si­ty as well as a poet­ry fel­low­ship from Charles Uni­ver­si­ty in Prague where he stud­ied with Slo­vak-Amer­i­can poet and trans­la­tor James Ragan. In 2012, Brett won The Philadel­phia Inquir­er’s Nation­al Poet­ry Month com­pe­ti­tion. His poems have been pub­lished in Rat­ta­pal­lax and Wil­lows Wept Review. He cur­rent­ly lives in Chica­go, Illi­nois.

Nox Acciderere: Aubade Found Alongside Marian Drew’s Pelican With Turnips

Poetry / M.K. Foster

:: Nox Acciderere: Aubade Found Alongside Marian Drew’s Pelican With Turnips ::

Felled by a pow­er line / and dead of a bro­ken / neck, an Aus­tralian / pel­i­can
becomes an / unlike­ly still life in / Bris­bane. Once, some­time before morn­ing,
I woke with­out you and touched / my way to your kitchen. In the dark,
your form, a reminder / of what wind does to moun­tains; from the sink,
my hair held back / from my face tilt­ed side­ways beneath the faucet to
rinse out my mouth, from there: yours, the ani­mal / body frozen-bloody
always in the road at first / light, the one you don’t rec­og­nize / until it’s
too late to swerve, until you crush / the head, until after / you don’t stop.
Wouldn’t it be / hilar­i­ous, I thought, if I arranged fake fruit around you
while you slept, set a decanter / of pinot noir beside you, your father’s
hunt­ing knife under your palm, if I staged / the street­light around you
inside crys­tal fig­urines and filled the floor at your feet / with bro­ken
glass? It would be / mar­velous, wouldn’t it, I thought, if I could make
you— you / pearled into a storm of sheets and fogged with fever, you
blind / with dream and shiv­er­ing against the mat­tress, your jaw snapped
over the bed’s ledge— and make you last longer / than you. To turn trag-
edy into tableau, the / pho­tog­ra­ph­er made / this image using a / flash­light             and a long / exposure—then buried / the bird in her gar­den.

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

Nox Acciderere: Aubade Found Along­side Mar­i­an Drew’s Pel­i­can With Turnips” takes into account lit­er­ary crit­ic Shoshana Felman’s focus on acci­dents with­in the event of a tes­ti­mo­ny of trau­ma and, in turn, opens itself to become a palimpsest of lit­er­al and con­cep­tu­al acci­dents in the find­ing and mak­ing of art as part of nego­ti­at­ing loss. By way of ini­tial acci­dents, the poem takes a “found” fram­ing device in the cap­tion text print­ed over the cor­ner of pho­tog­ra­ph­er Mar­i­an Drew’s unusu­al still-life pic­ture in the Novem­ber 2014 issue of Nation­al Geo­graph­ic; from there, the poem endeav­ors to explore rup­tures in lan­guage and image by way of pre­served, then inhab­it­ed line breaks—cracks which, at first, speak to the jour­nal­is­tic form, but then, begin to com­mune with the cen­ter-split of the pho­to spread and, ulti­mate­ly, the snapped neck of the pel­i­can through the shad­ows. For the “Nox Acciderere” speak­er, then, Drew’s image and its side-text fis­sure entire­ly under their own mnemon­ic weight and cause the speaker’s frame of ref­er­ence to flood the poem’s cen­ter with unin­hib­it­ed mea­sures of the sub­lime and the uncan­ny, as much as grief and hilarity—compounded psy­chomachi­an frac­tures with­in the poem fur­ther splin­tered only by the larg­er neg­a­tive capa­bil­i­ty at stake in bear­ing the Latin nox acciderere as both locus and iden­ti­ty of both trau­ma and tes­ti­mo­ny: both, then, acci­dent and hap­pen­ing in the night.

 

M.K. Fos­ter’s poet­ry won the 2013 Gulf Coast Poet­ry Prize, has been rec­og­nized with an Acad­e­my of Amer­i­can Poets Prize, and has appeared or is forth­com­ing in Gulf Coast, The Bal­ti­more Review, H.O.W. Jour­nal, B O D Y, The Jour­nal, Ninth Let­ter, Radar Poet­ry, and else­where. She holds an MFA from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mary­land, Col­lege Park and is cur­rent­ly pur­su­ing a PhD in Eng­lish Lit­er­a­ture at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Alaba­ma.

Two Poems

Poetry / B. K. Fischer

:: Inside of an Hour (A Lost Lady) ::

Who knew her own not-youth would become 
a strange and palpable character in the room,

eager as a twist of meadow-grass, or as his lips 
compressed, frowning into the fire—flange,

hatchet, ravine, sleigh—the words that formed
the scaffold of their seductions, discernments,

decay. Her pale triangular cheeks, her many-
colored laugh—it pierced the thickest hide. He

had the look of a man who could bite an iron rod 
in two with the snap of his jaws. Those women, 

whose beauty meant more than it said, was their 
brilliancy fed by something coarse and concealed?

When women began to talk about still feeling 
young, didn’t it mean something had broken?

That’s a man’s question, but she has asked it.
Spring-loaded, a hidden treachery, a trap.



:: Inside of an Hour (Death Comes for the Archbishop) ::

Who knew he’d sleep so soundly on a night like 
this, the landscape strewn with broken tongues 

and singletrees, smashed wheels and splintered 
axles—trifling matters, teasings. Fray. Fray.

Hanging in the portal, over the dry expanse
of sagebrush, mind-forged, a talismanic figure

of his versatile intelligence, a harness, a sign
not of a solitude of atrophy, of negation, 

but of perpetual flowering in the middle of 
his consciousness; none of his former states 

of mind were lost or outgrown. They were all 
within reach of his hand, all comprehensible.


 

From the writer

:: Account ::

Willa Cather is an unlike­ly sub­strate for a poet­ic Rorschach, but her sin­u­ous prose shows me shapes of fear and inti­ma­cy every time. I love the less­er Cather, the not-My-Ánto­nia, nov­els which draw me into an imma­nent meta­physics that might be the only Amer­i­can vision of total com­pre­hen­sion and spir­it I am will­ing to embrace (maybe also Mar­i­lynne Robinson’s). If my own death comes with enough warn­ing that I have a chance to pick up a book before­hand, I might open Willa Cather.

When I was a stu­dent I had a gig writ­ing study guides, “Cliff­s­Notes” style, and one sum­mer I was asked to write plot sum­maries and anno­tat­ed bib­li­ogra­phies for five Cather nov­els, in a month, for a thou­sand bucks. I was game. I am, like Eliz­a­beth Bishop’s seal, a believ­er in total immer­sion. One effect of that immer­sion, twen­ty years on, is that I have fos­sil bits of Cather all over the place in the sed­i­men­ta­ry lay­ers of my think­ing. These two poems stir the sed­i­ment, gath­er and rinse off some of those bits, and recon­nect them in my own syn­tax to delin­eate some­thing like nar­ra­tives with smudged con­tours.

Col­lag­ing Cather’s lan­guage reveals—maybe col­lag­ing any quot­ed mate­r­i­al reveals—what my sub­con­scious had for break­fast. A col­lage is not a lyric, but our habits of lyric read­ing catch the frag­ments in a dis­tur­bance, like a dusty vor­tex that catch­es leaves at the curb. West­ern wind, you keep blow­ing those leaves around. Putting togeth­er these Cather poems felt like some­thing almost devo­tion­al, the great-great-grand-niece of the Puri­tan prac­tice of div­ina­tion (or chris­ten­ing) by open­ing the Bible at ran­dom and putting one’s fin­ger down on a spot—accepting the sig­nif­i­cance of the ran­dom as giv­en, as gift. I accept­ed the result of this exper­i­ment in the form of a few short poems of inti­mate dis­ap­point­ment and regret, cross­roads in the big space that Cather’s eye for beau­ty infus­es with ache.

 

B.K. Fis­ch­er is the author of two poet­ry col­lec­tions, St. Rage’s Vault and Mutiny Gallery, and a crit­i­cal study, Muse­um Medi­a­tions: Refram­ing Ekphra­sis in Con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can Poet­ry. Her poems have appeared in The Paris Review, FIELDLit­er­ary MamaWSQNinth Let­ter, and else­whereA final­ist for the 2014 Bal­akian Cita­tion from the Nation­al Books Crit­ics Cir­cle, she teach­es at Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty and is a poet­ry edi­tor at Boston Review.

Our Dizzy Estimate

Poetry / Adam Clay

:: Our Dizzy Estimate ::

Arriving like ivory where 
ivory should not be,
though would being plucked
from the daily ebb 

be preferable to existing 
in the moment, framed by
a just then or a what now?
In whatever painting 

we imagine of ourselves,
there’s a fiction in the moment 
mistaken for truth.
What if the afterwards

reveals itself as stasis? Would
we long for movement or forget
the earlier path in the blinding
wonder of this new exile?

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

This poem was writ­ten dur­ing the rush of April, May, and June when I try to draft a poem each day. Most of these poems come from dai­ly expe­ri­ence or what bits of news fil­ter into the day; writ­ing every day, I’ve found, changes the mind in that it’s con­stant­ly recep­tive to poet­ic ideas in almost every­thing it encoun­ters. A news sto­ry about the ille­gal ivory trade grabbed my atten­tion one night, and I began to think about the way objects in our world find their way to us, both lit­er­al­ly and also through the mind and the way it process­es our sur­round­ings (includ­ing the self, which the poem even­tu­al­ly found its way to). The title of the poem comes from Emi­ly Dick­in­son, a poem that men­tions “Men of Ivory” and “fic­ti­tious Peo­ple.” I think the qua­trains are a nod to Dick­in­son, and in the end, I want­ed the “new exile” of the poem to ref­er­ence the “Mir­a­cle of Death” in Dickinson’s poem. It’s a mir­a­cle because the nar­ra­tive of our self will at last end, though oth­ers might very well con­tin­ue the fic­tion for us.

 

Adam Clay is the author of A Hotel Lob­by at the Edge of the World (Milk­weed Edi­tions, 2012) and The Wash (Par­lor Press, 2006). A third book of poems, Stranger, is forth­com­ing from Milk­weed Edi­tions. His poems have appeared in Ploughshares, Crab Orchard Review, Boston Review, Iowa Review, The Pinch, and else­where. A co-edi­tor of TYPO Mag­a­zine, he serves as a Book Review Edi­tor for the Keny­on Review, and teach­es at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois Spring­field.