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 visàvis 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, FIELD, Literary MamaWSQ, Ninth 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.