Three Works

Art / Kenseth Armstead

:: Three Works ::

 

From the artist

:: Account ::

The Yaddo 2016 residency mandate was to surprise myself. Most of the projects and bodies of work undertaken up until that point were monochrome, found, muted color mostly, site specific and/or history focused. The conceptual rigor of connecting to a site or historic body was always the key driver. This body of work would be different. It was strictly experimental and for FUN. This had never happened before. There were no rules, or for that matter, goals. Each day set up new puddles or twists of metal cut up in the studio and then embedded in the paint. Each twist led away from knowing. The Yaddo experiments are a complete body of work. In seven weeks, I completed some one hundred plus works (they still have not all been counted) that I do not know. They know me. 

 

Kenseth Armstead has created provocative multimedia installation art for three decades. These works have been exhibited in several historic exhibitions which include Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary Art at the Whitney Museum of American Art & Armand Hammer Museum in 1994; the Berlin VideoFest in 1994; Frames of Reference: Reflections on Media at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 1999; Race in Digital Space at the MIT List Visual Arts Center & Studio Museum in Harlem in 2001; Veni Vidi Video at the Studio Museum in Harlem (their first video exhibition) in 2003; Open House: Working in Brooklyn at the Brooklyn Museum in 2004; “Edited at EAI”: Video Interference (celebrating 45 years of their award winning collection) at Electronic Arts Intermix in 2016; and most recently, the critically acclaimed Modern Heroics: 75 years of African American Expressionism at the Newark Museum. In each case, Armstead’s work has been included in pivotal explorations of American culture, emerging fields, gender politics, the New York art scene, ethnicity, artistic innovation, history, and institution-defining moments. Armstead’s videos, drawings, and sculptures are included in the collections of the Centre Pompidou, African American Museum in Dallas, Texas, The Newark Museum, and numerous other public and private collections. 

Narrative in the Shadow of the Refugee Regime

Criticism / Mai-Linh K. Hong

:: Narrative in the Shadow of the Refugee Regime ::

Once, while my parents shopped in a drugstore and I wandered the aisles alone, a white woman approached me and said, “I want you to know I do not blame you for the war.” The woman mistook my silence for incomprehension, so she said more slowly and loudly, “I DO NOT BLAME YOU FOR THE WAR.”

I must have been about seven. Even then, I knew which war: Vietnam.

Exoneration, when unasked for, sounds more like accusation. I answered, “I know. I wasn’t born yet.” The woman studied me, then moved away.

Children are perceptive, economical creatures. They understand that some days you choose between justice and self-preservation. Years later, I wanted to return to that moment and say sarcastically to the woman, “I don’t blame you, either.” But such a response would have been unkind. Life is a series of imperfect responses, based in a kind of social arithmetic that rarely comes out right. I did not know what or whom she might have lost to war. I did not even know what I had lost.

* * *

Viet Thanh Nguyen, a scholar of race and ethnicity long before he became a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, wrote in the New York Times last year, “[I]t is precisely because I do not look like a refugee that I have to proclaim being one, even when those of us who were refugees would rather forget that there was a time when the world thought us to be less than human.” [i] Vietnamese refugees have been extensively measured, photographed, interviewed, psychoanalyzed, and documented; but before the relatively new field of critical refugee studies emerged, it seemed one could be a Vietnamese refugee or one could know about Vietnamese refugees, rarely both. Thus I open with personal narrative in keeping with a practice of self-identification—consciously placing oneself in relation to one’s work—that is common in critical refugee studies, as it is in ethnic studies more broadly. This practice speaks to work by Yến Lê Espiritu, who urges scholars to recognize “refugees as ‘intentionalized beings’ who possess and enact their own politics,” rather than as intellectual or practical problems for others to solve. [ii] Reflecting on the field for which she laid much of the intellectual groundwork, Espiritu writes, “Over the years, I have looked for ways to tell the story of the refugee—not as an object of study but as a source of knowledge.” [iii] Espiritu’s and Nguyen’s locutions assign fresh cultural and academic currency to “the refugee’s” capacity to illuminate the world—as a generative new paradigm or as a knowledge producer—while also validating the primacy of narrative in such production. Critical refugee studies decenter empirical, outsider ways of knowing that previously rendered the refugee invisible as soon as she lay claim to them.

A not-insignificant part of my project is this: decades after a harrowing passage, and from the relative security of a university office, I undertake to resignify my decades-gone, brown, child self who was once so visibly a remnant of the Vietnam War. That raced and gendered body, a “less than human” refugee body, was a screen on which (non-Vietnamese) Americans could project their otherwise formless grief, anger, blame, and forgiveness. [iv] As far back as I recall, I have been periodically hailed into some stranger’s narrative of a disastrous war, in which I played a role I recognized but did not choose. The woman in the drugstore, who believed her exoneration of me would have a particular meaning (“I want you to know,” she said), unintentionally taught me about the intertwining of knowledge and power (“I want you to know”) and the ways they are refracted through narrative (“I do not blame you for the war”). She is one of hundreds of Americans I have encountered who seek me out to complete their own, unresolved stories about “the war”—that is, about race, empire, militarism, innocence, or whatever else holds up the architecture of their Americanness. This awkward, exhausting, and weirdly soul-baring psychosocial dynamic is a condition of every Southeast Asian refugee’s “new beginning” in the United States.

Indeed, it is the refugee’s function in American society—and her job, for it keeps food on the table—to be hailed into others’ narratives. Since the 1970s, when the United States began formalizing its refugee admission procedures in response to post-Vietnam War refugee flows, this function has been laid out and reinforced by what some scholars refer to as the refugee regime: the complex of international and domestic laws, institutions, policies, and social practices that to a large extent set the parameters of survival for those who are fleeing persecution, violence, or catastrophe. [v] The refugee regime, while it ostensibly attends to the humanitarian needs of the world’s most vulnerable (and it does give some of them precious reprieve from danger), in the larger scheme arguably functions more as an elaborate gatekeeping and cost mitigation system for the wealthier nations of the world. [vi] Without the bureaucratic buffer provided by the refugee regime, such nations might have to reckon with an expensive moral imperative to protect millions of refugees. As Patricia Tuitt puts it, “the overriding aim of refugee law was at its inception and continues to be the reduction of the external costs of refugee-producing phenomena. . . . [I]f the concerns of the law are humanitarian this is only marginally and incidentally so.” [vii] Arguing for a more comprehensive, humane, ethical approach to refugees, Serena Parekh observes that the current international political consensus seems to be that “states have no legal obligation to resettle refugees or other forcibly displaced, they recognize no moral obligation to resettle refugees, and Western states are, for various political reasons, unlikely to resettle large numbers of refugees.” [viii] When refugee crises strike, as they regularly do, “most states feel entitled to exclude refugees, and this motivates many of their policies.” [ix]

Exclusion, the default posture of states toward refugees, is facilitated by the structure of international refugee law. This component of international human rights law is based on the 1951 United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees and administered by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). International refugee law works in part by narrowing the legal definition of refugee so that most of the world’s 65.6 million de facto refugees—those who live in indefinite, forced displacement—would not qualify for protection under the Convention. [x] For the 22.5 million who do qualify, the law’s aim of a “durable solution,” a permanent path to safety and relative freedom, is elusive. [xi] Nearly all refugees remain “more or less outside the bounds of the nation-state system,” either warehoused indefinitely in refugee camps or living in other precarious conditions in a country of temporary asylum. [xii] Moreover, because most refugees who cross an international border do not make it farther than neighboring states, the burden of housing and providing for refugees in transit falls disproportionately on Global South states, which are commonly the countries of first asylum.

The deliverance of refugees to safety under international law, when it happens, tends to be understood by observers, policymakers, human rights and NGO workers, and even refugees themselves as an extension of charity—what one gives altruistically when one does not need to. In the United States, where the work of welcoming and integrating newly arrived refugees is done mainly by nonprofit resettlement agencies and private “co-sponsors,” such as churches and individuals, this tendency is amplified through narratives of private hospitality and “altruistic choice.” [xiii] Popular refugee narratives often fit the mold of “sentimental rescue-and-gratitude tales,” in which citizens of predominantly white bystander nations generously rescue racial and national Others from faraway calamities, and those refugee Others profess thanks for the favor, affirming the rescuers’ essential goodness and implicitly absolving them of past wrongs. [xiv] Decontextualized and dehistoricized, such narratives are ideological diversions: the centering of refugee rescue means that any role the host nation may have played in refugee production—for instance, by fueling or engaging in foreign conflicts or through economic policies that destabilize other nations—fades to obscurity. As Mimi Thi Nguyen argues, the grateful refugee is a crucial figure for advancing contemporary American imperialism, for her thanksgiving validates liberal warfare’s promise: that violence and loss in the present are necessary to garner “the gift of freedom” in the future, a questionable gift proffered by the United States under auspices of global security, nation-building, and political and economic liberation. [xv] Critical refugee studies, as Espiritu elaborates, glean from the figure of the refugee an alternate account, not of war as such, but of widespread, ongoing “militarized violence,” which includes less visible forms of state violence that sometimes masquerade as humanitarian aid. Such a formulation reveals more fully “the raw, brutal, and destructive forces that Western imperial powers unleash on the lands and bodies of racialized peoples across time and space.” [xvi]

So it is that in the United States, a nation whose global militarism and economic and strategic policies have contributed to refugee crises in far-flung regions, including Southeast Asia, many confidently claim pride in the nation’s robust tradition of welcoming refugees. Americans commonly point out that the United States accepts more of the world’s refugees who resettle under the UNHCR’s auspices than any other nation, though in 2016 this was only 85,000 people. [xvii] The current U.S. president, who rode to power on a promise to exclude Syrian refugees, acted quickly after his inauguration to halt the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, whose future is now uncertain. [xviii] Trump’s presidency brings to the fore the seeming paradox of American headlines like this one from the New York Times in January 2017: “Warm Welcome for Syrians in a Country About to Ban Them,” announcing a story about some of the last refugees to arrive in the United States prior to the “Muslim ban.” [xix] Such a headline makes sense if we recognize that the refugee regime does not operate through law alone, or through force alone, but, like other vectors of capitalism and imperialism, calls upon narrative, myth, and affect to oil its gears and camouflage its workings. The refugee regime’s neoliberal underpinnings are shielded from view by stories that emphasize, on a good day, refugee rescue, hospitality, and friendship, and on a bad day, a parade of threats that emanate from an inassimilable racial and national Other. These seemingly disparate cultural narratives coexist and, especially in times of insecurity, can assert themselves simultaneously or flip with speed and ferocity.

* * *

The law of refugees is as follows:

(1) A refugee is a person who has fled their country due to a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. [xx]
(2) Other countries may not return a refugee to their country of origin. This is the rule of non-refoulement, a central principle of refugee law. [xxi]
(3) The United Nations determines which refugees are eligible for permanent resettlement in another country. The United States accepts more refugees for permanent resettlement than any other host country. In 2016, this was only 85,000 people.
(4) Once a refugee arrives in the United States, a private, nonprofit agency takes over the work of integrating the refugee, having received a sum of money from the government. Private “co-sponsors” contribute time and resources to aid with integration. [xxii]
(5) After a period of time, a refugee may become a U.S. citizen.

The law of refugees is as follows:

(1) You do not speak. You may gesture for help in a way that makes for a good photograph. Pictures speak a thousand words. They will speak for you.
(2) When you are given the gift of a new beginning, you cannot refuse. You cannot say, “This is not the beginning.” Corollary: you may be haunted. And if so, the ghost is your responsibility, yours alone.
(3) Your labor will include gratitude.
(4) Your labor will include patriotism.
(5) You must not be ironic.

* * *

Resettled refugees learn all of this, the official and unofficial “laws” governing their presence in America, principally through survival. This perilous epistemology develops out of double consciousness, hypervigilance, and strategic performativity. Refugee lives are punctuated with social interactions that reflect how precarious and contingent is their “resettlement,” that optimistically named process through which they are putatively absorbed into a new community. Critical refugee studies have challenged the predominant, teleological understanding of resettlement that views a refugee’s displacement as a temporary disruption to be remedied by their integration into the host country and (re)socialization as a self-sufficient economic actor. Eric Tang, in a study of Cambodian refugees living in a Bronx “hyperghetto,” frames resettlement instead as a continuation of the colonial violence wrought by America in Southeast Asia, converged with the legacy of slavery that keeps impoverished African Americans in the hyperghetto. [xxiii] The subject of Tang’s most extensive interviews, a woman named Ra, experienced forced marriage, captivity, and near-starvation under the American-backed Khmer Rouge; once in America, she “engaged in forms of survival that disavowed the state’s insistence that she had been simultaneously saved and redeemed by its refugee resettlement program.” [xxiv] Steering her narrative of continued displacement in America, in part by setting the terms of her interviews, Ra materializes a theory of her own, which Tang terms “refugee temporality.” Rather than treating the time of atrocity as discrete and over, Ra’s narrative enables Tang to “name[] the refugee’s knowledge that, with each crossing, resettlement, and displacement, an old and familiar form of power is being reinscribed.” [xxv] While policymakers speak a technocratic language of annual caps, vetting, and sponsorship of refugees, refugees must meet their basic needs by working within the available narratives and discourses, generally ones that presume the gift of a new beginning. But many, like Ra, also claim social space and generate new language for their own understanding of their experience. This is a fraught, unsettling process that continues long after the legal condition of refugeeness is extinguished (for instance, through the bestowal of American citizenship). From this daily, indefinite negotiation between stark necessity and the refugee’s desire for (though sometimes skepticism of) a fuller existence, refugee-authored literary texts arise.

lê thi diem thúy’s impressionistic, semi-autobiographical novel The Gangster We Are All Looking For (2003) illustrates the painstaking and painful forging of refugee “forms of survival” out of the morass of cultural expectations and ideological narratives projected onto refugees in America. The novel’s five chapters are each divided into short scenes a few sentences to a few paragraphs long. Fragmentary and image-laden, the scenes read like prose poems, each capturing a moment from the young female narrator’s memory or imagination as if to form an album of verbal snapshots. One of the earliest scenes, which sets the novel in motion, describes an allegorical refugee sponsorship centering on a retired, white Navy veteran, Mr. Russell, who embodies a cultural phenomenon Cathy J. Schlund-Vials describes as “the alchemical recuperation of the American subject from military aggressor to militant humanitarian.” [xxvi] The elderly Mr. Russell, living in San Diego, watches television images of the Vietnamese Boat People, “nameless, faceless bodies lying in small boats, floating on the open water.” [xxvii] For Mr. Russell, these undifferentiated Asiatic bodies “merged with his memories of the Okinawans and the Samoans and even the Hawaiians” whom he saw in another war, decades earlier. [xxviii] One night, Mr. Russell dreams the refugee boats are seabirds flying “toward the point where in the dream he understood himself to be waiting, somewhere beyond the frame,” and with that revelatory image, he decides to sponsor a refugee family. [xxix] Through this collusion of sympathy and spectatorship, given form by the law, lê’s unnamed protagonist is plucked from a refugee camp to begin her rocky resettlement in America.

Mr. Russell exemplifies a distinctive convergence of sentimentalism, paternalism, racism, and military violence that characterizes America’s posture toward Southeast Asia and its refugees. lê quickly displaces that perspective as the dominant one: she embeds the man’s decision to sponsor inside her own narrative frame, a move that enables the reader to see, ironically, Mr. Russell regarding himself as an off-screen spectator, not the spectacle, as he watches the Boat People on television. Figuratively reversing the camera lens of American and European photojournalism, which iconized the Boat People’s suffering for a mostly white audience, lê’s novel critically highlights the white American veteran’s self-construction as observer-rescuer, including how “he understood himself” as “waiting, somewhere beyond the frame.” In his conflation of endangered, racialized bodies (the Vietnamese with the Okinawans, Samoans, and Hawaiians), Mr. Russell does not necessarily misrecognize the Boat People. Rather, he recognizes all too well historical continuities between the United States’ World War II Pacific victory (cinched by the atomic bombings and subsequent military occupation of Japan), annexation of Pacific islands, near-genocidal military exploits in Southeast Asia, and finally, the crisis experienced by the Boat People. But whatever redemptive potential exists in refugee sponsorship—and his epiphanic dream suggests there is some—Mr. Russell does not live to realize it; he is dead by page five, leaving the sponsorship of a young girl and five men as a final wish for his wife and son to carry out.

Thus, the sentimental rescue-and-gratitude narrative is derailed almost before it begins. The late Mr. Russell’s relatives are barely willing, much less warmly welcoming; the refugees are more frightened than grateful and keenly feel their dearth of options. Nevertheless, the narrator and her family must live and work with the prevailing expectations of gratitude, cognizant that to do otherwise would be to disrupt the mythologies underlying refugee admission, not to mention jeopardize their shelter and provisions in a sponsorship-based economy. Overhearing a tense discussion between the Russells, the refugees contemplate their dependence:

We each thought of those long nights floating on the ocean, rocking back and forth in the middle of nowhere with nothing in sight. We remembered the ships that kept their distance. We remembered the people leaning over the decks of ships to study us through their binoculars and not liking what they saw, turning away from the boat. If it was true that this man Mel could keep us from floating back there—to all those salt-filled nights—what could we do but thank him. And then thank him again. [xxx]

Anchored to the refugees’ anaphoric “we” is the recurring memory, and implicit threat, of being no more than a spectacle of bare life for others to “study,” then decide to aid or forsake. This memory directs the refugees’ responses to their sponsor: “what could we do but thank him”—a question without a question mark—and “thank him again,” rehearsing the role of the grateful refugee. Long Bui brings performance studies to bear in analyzing refugee life and identifies a “refugee repertoire” of familiar performances through which refugees negotiate complex social demands. Bui delineates “the refugee condition as a highly embodied staged process, anchored in the motion and movement of the diasporic subject’s navigation across different landscapes of belonging or exclusion.” [xxxi] The sponsorship economy is, among other things, an affective economy in which refugees perform certain states of mind (such as gratitude) in order to secure basic necessities. Thanking Mel is an act of survival, a staving off of “salt-filled nights” “in the middle of nowhere with nothing in sight,” for refugees who “float” precariously through their resettlement rather than actually settling.

Later, viewing a photograph of the fishing boat on which she escaped Vietnam, shot from the deck of the American naval ship that rescued them, the narrator imagines the Americans laughing at the Boat People:

Maybe that’s why it took them so long to lower the ladder. Maybe they laughed so hard at the sight of us so small, they started to roll around the deck like spilled marbles and they had to help one another to their feet and recall their own names—Emmett, Mike, Ron—and where they were from—Oakland, California; Youngstown, Ohio; Shinston, West Virginia—before they could let us climb up and say our names—Lan, Cuong, Hoang—and where we were from—Phan Thiet, Binh Thuan. [xxxii]

The narrator’s only visual document of the meeting at sea is a photograph taken literally from a white savior’s perspective, but her reading of the image rejects the salvation narrative that assumes sympathy or altruism. Instead, the girl imagines cartoonishly heartless sailors who “laughed so hard” that they fell about the deck, then “help[ed] one another” stand first before allowing the stranded Boat People to board. The two roll calls of names and cities of origin make clear the unequal footing on which the two groups, American sailors and Vietnamese refugees, encounter each other, with one list syntactically and symbolically subordinated to the other. In “recall[ing] their own names,” the Americans construct their self-identity in relation to the refugees, who must be “let” to “climb up and say our names.” At the same time, the “maybes” that begin each sentence, along with the sailors’ exaggerated antipathy, signal an act of counter-imagination: the girl’s construction of a narrative unlike any that might be harbored by, say, Mr. Russell, the sympathetic former Navy man who is also reading images of the Boat People.

Like Ra’s refugee temporality, the novel rejects resettlement’s promise of a new beginning; instead, it demonstrates how unsettledness endures into adulthood for the child narrator, a chronic runaway who ends up living on the opposite coast from her parents. The narrator, her father, and her “uncles” (her mother arrives later) are not so much resettled in California as they are forcibly transferred to California to continue an indefinite series of displacements. These include being asked to leave the home of Mr. Russell’s son Mel after the narrator accidentally destroys his collection of glass animal figurines, and later, eviction from a gentrifying neighborhood they can no longer afford. It seems at times they have not come that far: “We live in the country of California, the province of San Diego, the village of Linda Vista,” in 1940s Navy housing that since the 1980s has been taken over by Southeast Asian refugees, the narrator recounts, mapping California with a geopolitical vocabulary more suited to Vietnam. [xxxiii] Their ex-military housing reflects the fact that, as Espiritu explains, modern refuge is fundamentally an extension of militarized violence, a phenomenon she names “militarized refuge(es).” Refugee rescue, Espiritu points out, relies on the circum-Pacific U.S. military apparatus that grew dramatically from the 1940s to 1980s—the same bases, technology, weaponry, logistics, and pathways that were used in war to displace the refugees to begin with. [xxxiv] The refugees’ physical presence in the “village of Linda Vista” mirrors, and is the result of, the United States’ imperial expansion into Southeast Asia. The American war brings home its human remainders.

lê’s novel details many such ironies of resettlement, large and small. The refugees are not a good fit in Linda Vista. Their transplantation is marked by disjuncture, ambivalence, and distrust: about the Navy housing, the narrator wryly recalls, “When we moved in, we had to sign a form promising not to put fish bones in the garbage disposal.” [xxxv] After the narrator’s mother arrives from Vietnam, her husband buys her a used Cadillac as a “Welcome to America” gift, but she does not know how to drive and soon backs the lumbering vehicle into the wrought iron gate of the apartment complex. The landlord arrives to fix the gate and “silently cursed his tenants. He suspected each and every one of those living in the building’s sixteen units. . . They were people who broke things.” [xxxvi] With ironic humor, the scene literalizes the prevalent negative perception of refugees as “gatecrashers”—that is, as unwelcome guests in the neighborhood and the nation, and as people largely responsible for their own crises, “people who broke things.” Eventually, unable to pay the rising rent, the family is evicted and arrives home to find the building padlocked, all their possessions inside. They go “quietly” but not complacently: “At night we come back with three uncles. Ba cuts a hole in the fence and we step through. Quiet, we break into our own house through the back window. Quiet, we steal back everything that is ours. . . We tumble out the window like people tumbling across continents.” [xxxvii] The passage stakes out a collective claim (again, through a chorus of “we”) not only on the refugees’ property, but also on the narrative itself. “Quiet” the refugees may be, but their actions speak: burglarizing their home and stealing back their property, they confront a society that is not meant for them but in which they must nevertheless, like Ra, improvise “forms of survival.” Even in America lê’s refugees are still “tumbling across continents”; unsettled, they adopt (and adapt) strategic performances and reversals of meaning and narrative that carry them through a lifetime of displacement.

Acknowledgments
The Bucknell Institute of Public Policy supported this project with a summer research grant, and Bucknell University’s Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity, and Gender organized a faculty colloquium in which I developed some of these ideas. I am grateful to my colleagues Nikki Young, Margaret Cronin, Christopher Walker, Layla Vincent-Brown, and Monica Sok for helpful conversations and feedback, and to Steven Belskie for research assistance.

 


[i] Viet Thanh Nguyen, “The Hidden Scars All Refugees Carry,” New York Times (September 2, 2016).
[ii] Yến Lê Espiritu, Body Counts: The Vietnam War and Militarized Refuge(es) (University of California Press, 2014) 11, quoting Nicholas Mirzoeff.
[iii] Espiritu, Body Counts 171.
[iv] I am indebted to Marita Sturken’s development of Freud’s idea of screen memory and to Cathy J. Schlund-Vials’s extension of Sturken’s work. See Marita Sturken, Tangled Memories: The Vietnam War, The AIDS Epidemic, and the Politics of Remembering (University of California Press, 1997) 44; Cathy J. Schlund-Vials, War, Genocide, Justice: Cambodian-American Memory Work (University of Minnesota Press, 2012) 77.
[v] International governance of states’ treatment of refugees is sometimes referred to as the “refugee regime” by scholars of international law and policy and international relations. See, e.g., Laura Barnett, “Global Governance and the Evolution of the International Refugee Regime,” International Journal of Refugee Law 14.2/3 (2002); Alexander Betts, “The Refugee Regime Complex,” Refugee Survey Quarterly 29.1 (2010); Guilia Scalettaris, “Refugee Studies and the International Refugee Regime: A Reflection on a Desirable Separation,” Refugee Survey Quarterly 26.3 (2007). My use of the term is broader and refers to not only legal and political formations, but also social practices and cultural productions that, I argue, influence the treatment of refugees in both daily life and policymaking.
[vi] Patricia Tuitt, False Images: The Law’s Construction of the Refugee (Pluto Press, 1996) 7.
[vii] Tuitt, False Images 7.
[viii] Serena Parekh, Refugees and the Ethics of Forced Displacement (Routledge, 2017) 4. 
[ix] Parekh, Refugees 4.
[x] Parekh, Refugees 3, 6; Tuitt, False Images 7, 67; United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, “Figures at a Glance” (June 19, 2017).
[xi] UNHCR, “Figures”; Parekh, Refugees 4.
[xii] Parekh, Refugees 4.
[xiii] J. Eby et al., “The Faith Community’s Role in Refugee Resettlement in the United States,” Journal of Refugee Studies 24.3 (2011) 593; Helen Fein, Congregational Sponsors of Indochinese Refugees in the United States, 1979-1981: Helping beyond Borders (Cranbury: Associated UP, 1987) 17. The role of private sponsors in U.S. refugee resettlement was more prominent in the 1970s and 1980s than it is today. See Fein, 49.
[xiv] Building upon work by Mimi Thi Nguyen, Yến Lê Espiritu, and others, I have previously discussed the sentimental rescue-and-gratitude tale. See Mai-Linh K. Hong, “Reframing the Archive: Vietnamese Refugee Narratives in the Post-9/11 Period,” Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States 41.3 (2016).
[xv] Mimi Thi Nguyen, The Gift of Freedom: War, Debt, and Other Refugee Passages (Duke University Press, 2012).
[xvi] Espiritu, Body Counts 26.
[xvii] Refugee Processing Center, “Refugee Admissions by Region: Fiscal Year 1975 through 31-Aug-2017,” U.S. Department of State.
[xviii] The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear merit arguments on challenges to Trump’s travel bans on October 10, 2017, but as of mid-September 2017, it is rumored that the President may soon issue a new order with a different set of restrictions. In the meantime, Trump’s order has been permitted to take effect with some limitations. See “Trump’s Travel Ban to Be Replaced by Restrictions Tailored to Certain Countries,” New York Times (September 22, 2017).
[xix] Jodi Kantor, “Warm Welcome for Syrians in a Country About to Ban Them,” New York Times (January 28, 2017).
[xx] United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees (2010) 14.
[xxi] UNHCR, Convention 30.
[xxii] Eby, “Faith” 591-593.
[xxiii] Eric Tang, Unsettled: Cambodian Refugees in the NYC Hyperghetto (Temple University Press, 2015) 14-15.
[xxiv] Tang, Unsettled 21.
[xxv] Tang, Unsettled 21. 
[xxvi] Schlund-Vials, War 77.
[xxvii] lê thi diem thúy, The Gangster We Are All Looking For (Knopf, 2003) 4.
[xxviii] lê, Gangster 4.
[xxix] lê, Gangster 5.
[xxx] lê, Gangster 7-8.
[xxxi] Long Bui, “The Refugee Repertoire: Performing and Staging the Postmemories of Violence,” Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States 41.3 (2016) 113, 115.
[xxxii] lê, Gangster 29.
[xxxiii] lê, Gangster 88.
[xxxiv] Espiritu, Body Counts 30-32.
[xxxv] lê, Gangster 88.
[xxxvi] lê, Gangster 41.
[xxxvii] lê, Gangster 97.

 

Works Cited

Barnett, Laura. “Global Governance and the Evolution of the International Refugee Regime.” International Journal of Refugee Law, vol. 14, no. 2/3, 2002, pp. 238-262.

Betts, Alexander. “The Refugee Regime Complex.” Refugee Survey Quarterly, vol. 29, no. 1, 2010, pp. 12-37.

Bui, Long. “The Refugee Repertoire: Performing and Staging the Postmemories of Violence.” Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States, vol. 41, no. 3, 2016, pp. 112-132.

Eby, J. et al. “The Faith Community’s Role in Refugee Resettlement in the United States.” Journal of Refugee Studies, vol. 24, no. 3, 2011, pp. 586-605.

Espiritu, Yến Lê. Body Counts: The Vietnam War and Militarized Refuge(es). University of California Press, 2014.

Fein, Helen. Congregational Sponsors of Indochinese Refugees in the United States, 1979-1981: Helping beyond Borders. Associated University Presses, 1987.

Hong, Mai-Linh K. “Reframing the Archive: Vietnamese Refugee Narratives in the Post-9/11 Period.” Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States, vol. 41, no. 3, 2016, pp. 18-41.

Kantor, Jodi. “Warm Welcome for Syrians in a Country About to Ban Them.” New York Times, 28 January 2017.

lê thi diem thúy. The Gangster We Are All Looking For. Knopf, 2003.

Nguyen, Mimi Thi. The Gift of Freedom: War, Debt, and Other Refugee Passages. Duke University Press, 2012.

Nguyen, Viet Thanh. “The Hidden Scars All Refugees Carry.” New York Times, 2 September 2016.

Parekh, Serena. Refugees and the Ethics of Forced Displacement. Routledge, 2017.

United States, Department of State. “Refugee Admissions by Region: Fiscal Year 1975 through 31-Aug-2017.” Refugee Processing Center, 2017.

Scalettaris, Guilia. “Refugee Studies and the International Refugee Regime: A Reflection on a Desirable Separation.” Refugee Survey Quarterly, vol. 26, no. 3, 2007, pp. 36-50.

Schlund-Vials, Cathy J. War, Genocide, Justice: Cambodian-American Memory Work. University of Minnesota Press, 2012.

Shear, Michael D. and Ron Nixon. “Trump’s Travel Ban to Be Replaced by Restrictions Tailored to Certain Countries.” New York Times, 22 September 2017.

Sturken, Marita. Tangled Memories: The Vietnam War, The AIDS Epidemic, and the Politics of Remembering. University of California Press, 1997.

Tang, Eric. Unsettled: Cambodian Refugees in the NYC Hyperghetto. Temple University Press, 2015.

Tuitt, Patricia. False Images: The Law’s Construction of the Refugee. Pluto Press, 1996.

Figures at a Glance.” United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 19 June 2017.

Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 2010, pp. 14.

 

 

Mai-Linh K. Hong is assistant professor of English at Bucknell University. She specializes in American studies, Asian American literature and culture, critical race and ethnic studies, and law and humanities. Her book project is titled Citizenship’s Shadow: Asian American Literature and the Contours of Statelessness, and her scholarly writing has appeared in several academic journals. A former attorney, she received her JD and PhD from the University of Virginia. She tweets from @FleursduMai.

 

Sarah Sillin, Guest Criticism Editor, received her Ph.D. from the University of Maryland and is currently a visiting assistant professor of American literature at Gettysburg College. Her book project, entitled Global Sympathy: Representing Nineteenth-Century Americans’ Foreign Relations, explores how writers envisioned early Americans’ ties to the larger world through their depictions of friendship and kinship. Sillin’s essays have appeared in Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States and Literature of the Early American Republic.

I Don’t Know If This Is About Trans Stuff, or What

Critical Dialogue / KJ Cerankowski, curated by M. Milks

:: Introduction ::

A leading scholar in the field of asexuality studies, KJ Cerankowski has been writing on the intersections of asexuality and queerness for nearly a decade. Here, what begins as a critical engagement with Cris Mazza’s new hybrid film Anorgasmia unfolds into a complexly thought and deeply felt inquiry into Cerankowski’s own relationship to asexuality, desire, transgender identity, and writing as a tool for uncovering trauma. As KJ Cerankowski writes, “I read and tell in order to be upset, in order to live. I gather the fragments that will never fit together to make a whole. I want the trauma to be poetry, but I cannot find the right timing, the right words, the right image. . . . I ask how this constellation of events makes me—makes me desire or not desire, makes me desirable or undesirable, makes me like a man or a man.    

— M. Milks, Fiction Editor

:: I Don’t Know If This Is About Trans Stuff, or What ::

“I’m not talking about fucking; I’m talking about intimacy. One used to fade into the other, and sometimes I forget I’ve learned the difference.”
—Sarah Manguso, 300 Arguments

“In many ways, healing from trauma is akin to creating a poem. Both require the right timing, the right words, and the right image.”
—Mark Wolynn, It Didn’t Start With You

I am watching Cris Mazza’s film Anorgasmia, the “fictional sequel to her real-time memoir Something Wrong With Her,” a book that lives out her reunion with a boy from her past while interrogating her past relationships and her current experiences with “sexual dysfunction.” The film, on the other hand, seems, to me, less about elusive orgasms and explorations in asexualities and more about gender. Of course, the worries over gender and the body circle back to sexuality, desirability, and desire. But gender—and its attendant dissection of body parts—is where we begin. Just about two minutes into the film, we see Cris on the floor of what looks like her basement, taking photos of herself in front of a mirror, when Mark walks down the stairs. Mark is the boy—now man—from her past, whom we first meet in Something Wrong With Her. He has recently moved to the Chicago suburbs to be with Cris after some thirty years estranged. Mark never stopped loving Cris; Cris, I think, is learning how to love Mark.

In this scene, Cris tells Mark, “I’m gonna do a transgender makeover. I’m gonna go transgender and do self-portraits that way.” I watch and rewatch this clip: “I’m gonna do a transgender makeover. I’m gonna go transgender. . . I’m gonna go transgender. . . I’m gonna go transgender. . . .” The phrase echoes in my head. Mark looks perplexed if not a bit displeased. I am both perplexed and intrigued. I cannot help but think that Mazza imagines transgender as some kind of mask or costume to put on. “I’m gonna do a transgender makeover. I’m gonna go transgender.”

Throughout the film, Cris asserts that she doesn’t like the word “woman,” cannot apply it to herself, that she hates when Mark talks about her “femininity,” and that she feels “not female,” but maybe also not quite male. At the same time, she wants to know “what it feels like to be looked at as something that’s not female,” thinking that the experience might be somehow liberatory. So she embarks on what she calls a “transgender experiment,” or what her friend Dan calls a “temporary transition,” or what her colleague Chris calls a “costume switch.” She also says to Chris, “hopefully it won’t be performing; it will be being. . . being male.” At what point does Cris shift from performing to being? I think of Diane Torr, whose drag performances and “man for a day” workshops were designed to draw out the complex ways we embody gender norms, to help women realize how they are often “giving their power away” through the performance of gender. Torr also used drag to memorialize and hold close the men in her life that she had lost. Her performances as a man for a day or an evening were always called “drag” and “performances,” never “transgender.” One might do drag for a day, in a sense be a “man for a day”; one might go out in drag, but to “do a transgender makeover,” to “go transgender” for a day?

Cris cuts off her hair, buys men’s clothing, and, dressed as “Dave,” she goes to her friend Dan’s house to meet his family. The whole experiment goes “badly” by Cris’s account, and the evening was “rather awkward” according to Dan’s wife, Molly. Cris then overhears Molly speculating about whether or not “Dave” is transgender or asexual, seeming to not quite understand how vastly different the two identities are. So Cris returns home and decides to do some research, first on asexuality. She comes to understand asexuality as an absence of a physical need or desire to have sex. She wonders if she might be asexual. Throughout the film, she grapples with this question as she tries to understand the differences between sexuality and gender, and how to situate her potential asexual and nonbinary identities. What, we might ask, does one have to do with the other? But in this moment following her first transgender makeover, Cris also wonders how she could have been more “convincing” to Molly and her children. So she also finds a “transsexual” site on the Internet. She tells Mark, “I was trying to figure out what I could have done that was more, that would have helped more to be convincing. Now, nothing on there says anything about how to act, what to say.” I am not sure if Cris is looking for a guidebook on how to play a man or on how to play at trans.

Mark replies, “I think that’s because being a man isn’t really inside you.” Cris resents when Mark calls her “feminine” or a “woman,” but she does not directly object to Mark’s idea that being a man isn’t really inside her. Cris will later articulate herself somewhere in the space between female and male, nonbinary perhaps. With this shift to the in-between spaces of gender, I wonder then what it means to “be convincing”? What does it mean for “being a man” to be “inside you”? What does it mean to be a man? What is a man?

In Man Alive: A True Story of Violence, Forgiveness and Becoming a Man, Thomas Page McBee writes of the panic, a “new PTSD,” that sets in when he encounters men who cannot see the man he is (or the man inside of him?), menacing men who instill fear and threaten his safety and bodily integrity—the fear of entering gas stations in unfamiliar areas, the moments when his body says, turn around, leave, run! He remembers how his first girlfriend compared him to other boys. “You’re like a boy. . . but better,” she said. I read and reread these words: you’re like a boy, but you’re not a boy. You’re like a boy, but you’re better than a boy because you’re not a boy. I am like a boy; I am not a boy. I am not like a girl, but am I a girl? I am not a girl. I am not a boy. I am like a boy. I am not like a girl. I am a boy. What am I? Is there a man inside of me?

***

R and I are hiking in Maine, and I am walking in front of her. “You’re like a guy,” she says. Just moments before, she told me there were times in her life when she questioned whether she really wanted to be queer. In response, I told her that sometimes I am afraid she is going to decide I am not the kind of man she wants, that I’m not really “man enough” for her. It is after I say this, following a short period of silence, that she tells me I am like a guy. I am caught off guard, pause in my tracks. I turn to look at her; I am not sure what to say, so I push out a “huh?” She repeats herself, “You’re like a guy. I mean. . . you even walk like a guy.” After a beat, I simply say, “Because I am a guy.” I am like a guy. I am not a guy. But I tell her I am a guy. Then I tell her I have stopped using she/her pronouns. She nods her head but continues to call me “she” right through the time we break up, and for all I know, I am still “she” to her, will always be her “ex-girlfriend.”

Almost a year later, I am driving through Oakland with TT as we head out to dinner. I have just come from a therapy session in which I talked about how I wasn’t sure if I should keep on the testosterone, maybe up my dose and become a (passable) man or stay somewhere in the middle space I currently occupy—like a guy, not a guy. It’s not that I want to be more convincing; I just want to be me, but I am unsure what that means. I tell TT how these questions are weighing on my mind, my body. I say I worry if I become a man then I won’t become the man I think I am. What kind of man is inside me? I joke: will I be too “faggy,” not the burly lumberjack of a man I imagine myself to be? But I also like the affects and sensibilities I embody, those that cause people to do a double-take, to tell me that I’m part gay boy, a little bit of a fag. At the same time, I carry a fantasy image of myself as another kind of man, a man whose wrist never goes limp. What does it mean to be a man? Can I embody all these masculinities in one? TT will later thoughtfully mark this conversation by giving me a card decorated with a lumberjack dressed in high heels. But in this moment, she turns to me and says, matter of factly, without missing a beat, “What do you mean ‘become’? You are a man.” My eyes pool. I nearly cry. Not “like a man.” “You are a man.”

How did I go from being like a man to being a man? Is being a man inside of me? Or is it in the eye of the beholder? Why is it that TT sees me as a man where R could only see me as being like a man? The day before R and I break up, we are talking on the phone late into the night. We hadn’t spoken in a couple of days. During that time, I went to my doctor to inquire about testosterone. My doctor wrote me a prescription and scheduled me for a return visit at the end of the week to learn how to administer the shot. I am terrified and excited, anxious and nervous, and eager to tell R about this. On the phone, I tell R that I am making a life-changing decision, but before I can say more, she cuts me off. “Look,” she says, “I don’t know if this is about trans stuff or what, but I’m trying to be really patient with you. You haven’t given me compliments, like I love how you improvise or I love how you take care of your dog. Something. Anything.” We hang up the phone, both in tears, she because I won’t compliment her at that time, me because she never asks to hear about my life-changing decision. I feel utterly alone in the journey I am about to embark upon. Later, S will remind me it is not that I am doing this alone, but that I am doing it without intimacy. Togetherness and intimacy still fade into each other. I need to remember that I am learning the difference.

It will take me months to make sense of that phone conversation with R. But the next day, R and I break up. The day after that, I go for my first shot of testosterone. Three months later, I meet TT. Several months after that, TT tells me that she never saw me as anything other than a man. Is this about trans stuff, or what? Surely, it cannot be the testosterone in my body that allows TT to see me as a man where R couldn’t. My dose is low. I have only told a handful of people that I am taking testosterone, and most people, especially those who don’t know, cannot see or hear any change in me. Everything seems out of sequence: I meet ES before I even start testosterone, and he says, “I just don’t get it. I don’t see how anyone can see you as anything other than a man.” But then, ten months on testosterone, I am sitting in a dive of a gay bar in Omaha with TC. The bartender is curious about us: “What brings you ladies to Omaha? You ladies gonna sing some karaoke tonight? Can I get you ladies another drink?” TC turns to me and asks, “Why does he keep saying ‘ladies’? Can’t he see that you’re obviously a guy?” No. No, he can’t. Most people can’t—except the stranger at the bookstore who called me “sir” and “man” for the entirety of our interaction (on T), or the cashier at the grocery store who called me “man” and “bro” for that entire exchange (pre T), or the man in front of me in line at the Space Needle in Seattle who turned to his wife and, gesturing toward me, said “Ha, did you hear what he just said?” (on T) or the woman who walked into a crowded women’s restroom at the San Francisco Opera, saw me before she saw anyone else and in a panic shouted, “Is this the women’s room?!?” (pre T). Maybe the question is not how did I go from being like a man to being a man; rather, I might ask, when, where, and to whom am I like a man or simply a man? And does testosterone have anything to do with it?

I visit a psychic who tells me that the testosterone is like medicine for my body. I think she is right about this, but calling it “medicine” comes with its own set of complications. In Testo Junkie, Paul B. Preciado demarcates when the drug, testosterone, shifts from being medicine to being a substance to be abused. Such a differentiation also defines the psychosis of the user: “I must choose between two psychoses: in one (gender identity disorder), testosterone appears as a medicine, and in the other (addiction), testosterone becomes the substance on which I am dependent.” Am I a self-medicating addict, or am I being medicated for a psychiatric disorder? When my doctor writes my prescription, I watch her update my medical chart: the diagnosis of “gender identity disorder” I received years ago when I sought approval for top surgery now becomes a diagnosis of “gender dysphoria.” Whichever we call it, I am still diagnosed and medicated. Preciado is on the other side, with no prescription for the Testo Gel; he writes, “I would have liked to have fallen into a dependence, have the security of permanently and chemically clinging to something. Deep down, I was hoping that testosterone would be that substance. To be attached, not to a subjectivity, but to the change produced by the ingestion into my organism of a substance without will.” After my first shot of testosterone, my thigh is sore for days at the site where I plunged the needle into the muscle. Pushing my palm against that spot on my thigh becomes addictive. I become attached to the soreness. I begin to fantasize about administering my next injection, feeling the soreness again. I become attached to the point of pain that serves as the somatic reminder that this is where I am putting a substance into my organism that will someday, somehow change my body in ways I cannot know. The testosterone is both medicine and addictive substance; I am both a medicated subject of the pharmacopornographic era and an addict. But what, exactly, am I addicted to?

I read and reread McBee’s Man Alive. I make my students read it; I buy copies for my friends. I cannot quit the book. I am addicted to the tears it always brings—the quiet pools in my eyes that never quite spill over, the silent heaving of my chest. I cry in my silent way because McBee’s anxieties—of stopping at restrooms in small towns, of fearing the man he may become or the man he already is, of running both from and toward the traumas of his past as he continues to become who he always was—are too familiar. They rattle around my chest, pick up crushing weight in my sternum. As I read, I feel the inevitability of needles in the thigh, cracking vocal chords and deepening voice, a 5 o’clock shadow, another puberty on the horizon. I am frightened, but I also want it so badly, enough to wonder if it is the only way I will continue to survive here. I always thought I would start the injections when I finally felt ready to run—to run away from my life, to start over somewhere alone as someone new. But I haven’t run away. Instead, I run toward the past even as I am ever hurtling toward some unforeseeable future. And now, in this moment, I push my hand to my thigh, which has become accustomed to the weekly injections, and I long for the tenderness that no longer lingers after a shot.

***

While reading Mazza’s memoir Something Wrong With Her, I get stuck on one scene. I read and reread it. Mazza narrates a moment when, as teenagers, Mark pushed her onto a bed and got on top of her. She fled. Mark scolded her, “Girl, you just don’t give me enough, you don’t put out.” Her brain has stopped chanting, “You’re supposed to like this.” Instead, this is the moment she decides she is frigid. She writes, “It was the scolding that had penetrated me. I was marked.”

I am seventeen years old. I spend the evening drinking with friends. We are at the apartment of a boy I am dating. He is nineteen years old and just moved out of his parents’ house. Late into the night after many beers and whiskeys, he turns to me and says, “Just sleep over here. We can share my bed.” We go down to his bedroom and as we fall into bed, we begin kissing. I am on my back. He is on top of me. His hands are all over me, his tongue in my mouth. I pull away. “Let’s just sleep,” I say. “You’re such a tease,” he says, just before he pins my hands above my head with one hand gripping my small wrists. With the other hand, he guides his cock into my mouth. “Keep it in your mouth,” he growls. “Use your tongue,” he pants, as he thrusts in my mouth. He comes quickly, in less than a minute. I am gagging on his come, spitting it out of my mouth. “Just swallow it,” he snarls as he lets go of my wrists and lets me up. I go to the bathroom to wash the come from my mouth and hair. The next morning I go home and rinse my mouth over and over. I stand in the shower until my mother tells me to hurry up and get the hell out of the bathroom. Later that day, he calls me and says, “I really like you. I had a great time last night. You didn’t have to do that, you know, unless you wanted to.” I quietly tell a lie back into the phone, “I wanted to.” The next time I see him, he goes down on me and sticks his finger inside me. I feel pain at insertion, but otherwise I am numb. “Tell me when you’re done,” he says. “I’m done,” I say. “My turn,” he says. A year later, I move across the country and try my best to forget any of that ever happened. Sarah Manguso writes in Ongoingness, “Nothing’s gone, not really. Everything that’s ever happened has left its little wound.” He penetrated me. I am marked. I will remain numb, and I will choose to be celibate for years. And I will learn that wounds, even the little ones, can always be reopened.

In an interview in The New Inquiry, M. Milks asks Mazza about her resistance to a narrative of trauma and victimization in telling her story. Mazza responds that to “cry victim” would make Mark one of the victimizers. “We weren’t rapist and victim,” she asserts. “We were two kids.” I think back to that night. We were two kids. I never thought of my 19-year-old boyfriend as a rapist; I still cannot call what he did rape. I never thought he was responsible for my numbness or my celibacy. I cannot really know if I was already numb when he touched me or if his touch made me go numb. I cannot really know if I chose celibacy because of that experience with him or for some other unconscious reason. These are not the questions I am asking, nor the answers I seek. I think of Joan Didion: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” I think of Hanya Yanagihara: “Don’t we read fiction exactly to be upset?” I read and tell in order to be upset, in order to live. I gather the fragments that will never fit together to make a whole. I want the trauma to be poetry, but I cannot find the right timing, the right words, the right image. Like Ann Cvetkovich, I want to explore how “traumatic events refract outward to produce all kinds of affective responses and not just clinical symptoms.” I want to know if it is possible “to name a connection while refusing determination or causality.” I ask how this constellation of events makes me—makes me desire or not desire, makes me desirable or undesirable, makes me like a man or a man. A question, a refrain in McBee’s text hits me in the gut every time: What are you running to? With every step forward, I find myself turning back for answers. In Tender Points, Amy Berkowitz writes of the pain in her body, of rape, of her body’s battle with fibromyalgia. So much of the advice doled out to the chronically ill, the chronically pained, the traumatized is to “look forward, not backward. Focus on what you need to do to get better, not what caused your illness.” Berkowitz cannot look forward; she needs to know the “tangled chain of events that got [her] here.” “Looking back,” she writes, “is what I need to do to get better.” I keep looking back in order to find myself here.

“You have to let people love you,” McBee’s therapist says. R says, “Let me love you.” “I see you,” she says. But to her, I was her girlfriend who is like a guy. I tell her that all I’ve been asking for is for her to love me, to see me. I tell her that I am a guy. I tell her that I am not “she.” I tell my therapist that every time I try to confront R with my “bad” feelings, I feel bulldozed. My throat closes up, my heart pounds, my brain goes foggy. All I can do is say that I am sorry for having feelings; I am sorry for having needs. I tell my therapist that I feel like that scared little girl again. (Was I ever a girl? Was I ever a boy? Am I a girl? Am I a boy or am I like a boy? Am I still that frightened child?) My therapist reminds me that what I am feeling is not what everyone feels when they remember being a child. She tells me I am experiencing complex PTSD symptoms that are likely activated by R. She suggests that I talk to R about this, that I ask her to form a strategy with me, in which I can tell her I am experiencing these symptoms and she can hold space for me to breathe and gather my thoughts and feelings. R says “Yes, of course, of course.” But, moving forward, when I cannot speak, she will tell me I am acting like a “petulant child”; when I finally find my voice, she will tell me that I need to learn to say something sooner; when I tell her I feel alone in this relationship, she will tell me I have abandonment issues; when I tell her I am hurt by something she said or did, she will say “that is just the story you are creating,” and she will tell me I need to “get over it already.”

“Empathy is not just a shared emotion,” Kristin Dombek writes, “but [it is] an experience of the place, the perspective, from which the other’s emotions and actions come.” During one of those moments with R, I ask her to try to put herself in my shoes, to imagine how she would feel if I treated her exactly how she treated me. “That’s not helpful to me,” she says. “Empathy,” Leslie Jamison writes, “means realizing no trauma has discrete edges. Trauma bleeds. Out of wounds and across boundaries. Sadness becomes a seizure. Empathy demands another kind of porousness in response.” When R refuses my request for empathy, to make herself porous, I seize; I bleed from all the old wounds.

I remember one night holding TT in my arms as we talked about how we might best love each other, make space for each other’s pain. She says, “Sometimes the question we should ask is not ‘what’s wrong with you?’ but ‘what happened to you?’” In tracing the multiple ways we inherit trauma, Mark Wolynn explains, “During a traumatic incident, our thought process can become scattered and disorganized in such a way that we no longer recognize the memories as belonging to the original event. Instead, fragments of memory, dispersed as images, body sensations, and words, are stored in our unconscious and can become activated later by anything even remotely reminiscent of the original experience. Once they are triggered, it is as if an invisible rewind button has been pressed, causing us to reenact aspects of the original trauma in our day-to-day lives. Unconsciously, we could find ourselves reacting to certain people, events, or situations in old, familiar ways that echo the past.” In Healing from Hidden Abuse, Shannon Thomas suggests that survivors of abuse and trauma develop a biochemical dependency on toxic relationships. They become addicted to the highs and lows, the pushing and pulling. Do I find myself, yet again, an addict? Am I addicted to trauma and abuse? Do I actually crave this odd familiarity and comfort brought on by the echoes of my past?

Before I start seeing my therapist, I tell R that my dynamic with her reminds me of the dynamic I have with my father. I am infinitely awaiting his apology; I spent two years waiting for an apology from R, and I am still waiting. R snarls at me: “I am nothing like your father. I resent that you would even say that.” I tell her that I didn’t say she was like my father; I said we share a similar dynamic. But in that moment, she is more like my father than she even realizes. The psychic tells me that R is actually like my mother. She tells me that my father was just mean and aggressively abusive. My mother, she tells me, is a narcissist and is emotionally abusive, but with subtlety. I remember the last conversation I had with my mother. I tell her I cannot stay at her house when I am in town because of what she and her husband said to me the last time I was there. “Like what?” she asks. I say, “that homophobic and transphobic stuff you said.” “Well I don’t remember that,” she says. And we leave it at that. I remember one of the last conversations I had with R. I tell her that, about a month prior, I was hurt and felt demeaned by something she said to me in front of her friends. “I don’t remember that,” she says. “What do you want me to do about it now? You can’t bring stuff up a month after the fact.” We leave it at that. My therapist says R and my mother are wrong—if I am still having feelings about something, then I can bring them up, and just because they don’t remember it, that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. The psychic says, “Thank Jay-sus you didn’t shack up with her and have babies. It’d be like raising kids with your mother.” The psychic is a little rough around the edges and a straight shooter. I nod. “Yes,” I say, “yes.”

“I see you,” R says. In the end, I don’t think R ever did see me, and I cannot be sure she ever even loved me. I realize that during the year I was with R, I couldn’t really see her. But the people who cared about me did. N said R is a narcissist, and she worries that I am stuck in an emotionally abusive relationship. E said that R seems incapable of loving me, and that I seemed much happier before I started dating her. DM said R is verbally abusive toward me, that a loving partner would never say the things she says, at least not without apology. M handed me a book by Sandy Hotchkiss: Why Is It Always About You?: The Seven Deadly Sins of Narcissism. The book will later shake me to the core. Everyone else could name what I could not. Recognizing the abuse as abuse is something I will come to months later, but I will remain haunted by the possibility that I did actually see R, and she did actually love me to the best of her capabilities. I am stirred by Bombek’s interrogation of narcissism: “It is something you’ll come to months or years later, if at all: the possibility that the way [she] was with you was real, and that it was love. . . You might understand this in the middle of the next time you fall in love with someone else, and find yourself, still, in love with [her]. You’ve just spread your love out in time, and [she] has spread it out in space.” Sometimes, I still want to believe in R, just like a part of me still wants to believe in my father.

***

I go through a phase where I decide to write poetry in a more frantic voice. I only realize now that all the poems written in this voice happen to be the only poems I have written explicitly about abuse. (Is healing trauma like writing a poem?) I end up publishing those poems in a series. But I hold on to one:

How to Make Me Disappear

Step one: turn it
click doorknob jiggle jiggle.
He will yell—open
this door, missy, little lady, girl
you better now right this minute ’til
the count of ten
never never never
but you do

Step two: nails to the quick bite
if the screams try
to wriggle loose, inhale
lungsful throatchoke
tight tight tight

Step three: hold
it in. breath off. you do not
exist if he cannot hear you
whimper whisper wail wait
beltsnap lightsblack

Step four: rip
the beadeyes off all the dolls—
nobody sees a thing

In “A Child is Being Beaten,” Freud writes of the phases of movement through the beating fantasy. In the third phase, the fantasy becomes, “My father is beating the child, he loves only me.” The child being beaten, Freud claims, is almost invariably a boy. I am being beaten. My father does not love me; he loves only me. The child being beaten is almost invariably a boy. I am the child being beaten. I am a boy. (Was I ever a boy? Was I ever a girl? When did I become a boy? Did I ever become a man? When did I become a man? Am I becoming a man? Am I a man?) Freud will say my ideas about being a boy are a product of my masculinity complex, that when girls turn away from their incestuous love of their father, they want only to be boys. I wanted my father to love me, but he only loved me as a girl. I am a boy, so my father beat me. My father beat me because I was a girl. My father beat me because I am a boy. Why did my father beat me?

Reading Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, I return again and again to one scene. Jude, one of the main characters in the book, is just a young boy, living in a monastery where he experiences multiple types of abuse at the hands of the brothers and the Father. In this scene, Jude has just spilled some milk, and after cleaning it up, he has been commanded to go to his room. As he runs down the hall to his room, he notices that the door to his room is closed. It is usually left open unless one of the brothers or the Father is paying him a visit. He pauses in the hallway, unsure of what is waiting for him behind the door. But if he turns around, he will face the wrath of the brother who just sent him to his room for spilling the milk. Frozen in the hallway, young Jude must make a choice: return to certain punishment or take his chances opening the bedroom door. He finally works up the courage and opens the door with a slam, only to find nobody else in the room, just his furniture and a newly placed bouquet of daffodils. He falls to the floor, engulfed in sadness. As I read and reread this scene, the tension always builds. My breathing quickens. I feel the panic that fails to dissolve in the anticlimactic opening of the door.

I am nine years old. I am standing at the end of the hallway, and my father is coming toward me with his hand raised. I am paralyzed with fear until I make the snap decision to run into my bedroom. I jump into the bed and pull the covers over my head. My heart is pounding; I cannot breathe; all my muscles are tensed in anticipation of the crack of a palm on my backside. I wait and wait in my panicked state, but the beating never comes. I cautiously pull the covers from my head and sit in the quiet. My father has retreated to the living room where he is smoking a cigarette, drinking a beer, and watching television. I cannot know why he did not hit me that day. I have wondered if seeing my fear of him shook something deep inside him and he relented, or if he just didn’t feel it was worth the chase. I am haunted more by this silence and stillness than I am by the crack of a belt and the memories of red, stinging flesh.

I am standing in R’s hallway. I am collecting my things that she held onto after our breakup. She leaves them in a box outside her apartment door. Against my better judgment, I knock on her door. To my surprise, she opens the door. “What do you want?” she sneers. My heart is pounding, my throat is closing up. I am not sure what I want, really. Some short discussion follows, and by the end of it, I have backed away toward the building exit. She is coming at me down the hallway, her finger in the air, gesturing and shouting at me. I am growing small against the exit door. I am that shrinking, frozen little girl. (Am I a girl? To R, am I still “like a guy”? Am I a boy? Am I a man?) In a moment, I find the capacity to move my legs again, and I walk away, letting the door slam on her shrill words. This is the last time I see R. My last memory of her, of us, that I hold: her face twisted in anger, she is shouting and gesticulating, moving toward me as I shrink away like a frightened child. In this moment, she is more like my father than she even realizes. But, this time, instead of hunkering down in anticipation of the beating, I walk away from it.

Berkowitz writes, “I have a wolf in my story. But he will not interrupt my walk through the forest. Which is to say he’s already interrupted it: He’s the reason I’m here, sorting out the aftermath. Which is to say the wolf is eternally interrupting my walk through the forest: emerging from behind the same tree again and again to block my path. Imagine it repeating like a GIF.” Who is the wolf in my story? How did I get here? Which is the path I am walking? Is the wolf my father, the boy who pushed himself into my mouth, my mother, R, the diagnosis, the drug, the man I am like, the man I am, the PTSD symptoms themselves? They all repeat, like a GIF. They all either block my path or reroute me onto new paths. “But to solve this kind of mystery, it seems, you need to walk alone into a forest. You need to walk until you meet a wolf.”

If my therapist tells me my partner is activating my PTSD responses that come from the emotional abuse I experienced as a child, does that mean my partner is emotionally abusive? I cannot name it; I cannot say it because I imagine R’s teeth bared like a wolf; I hear R’s voice still echoing in my head: “Don’t you see that’s the story you created?!? Don’t you see that’s the story you choose to tell?!? Can’t you see that’s just your version; that’s not really what happened?!?” “Just get over it!!!” But her voice is not the only one that reverberates. The echoes of my past: “Come here right now, little missy”; “I don’t remember that”; “That didn’t happen”; “You’re such a tease. . . .” I cannot name it. I will remain in denial for months, for years, for what seems like a lifetime. Only now, as I write this, do I finally dare to name it: my relationship with R was emotionally abusive; I was sexually assaulted at the age of seventeen by my boyfriend; my parents are emotionally abusive; I developed a patterned response to abuse and became what Margalis Fjelstad calls a “pathological caretaker”; I have been numb, I have been celibate and asexual, but now I am not; I inject testosterone into my thigh every Friday, but I am not sure if I am a man or ever will be; I am unsure of how or if all these things connect. I am still walking through the forest; the wolves are still emerging from the trees.

***

I return to Cris, sitting on her basement floor, picking herself apart. After she tells Mark she is gonna go transgender, she dissects her body into pieces of meat and bone. “Every single part of me, there’s something wrong,” she says. She describes her thigh as a ham but not a very good one, her knee as a discolored, scabby circle. I know the drill. I have picked my body apart in so many ways: the breasts and the scars that mark where they used to be, the curves of my hips, the budding hairs on my chin, the muscles of my shoulders. Even the parts that are supposed to feel right still feel wrong. Maybe Cris and I aren’t really all that different. Maybe Cris is not actually trying to be convincing to anyone else. Maybe we are both trying to convince ourselves that we can be at home in our bodies, that we can heal our grief, that we can collect the fragments and let the little wounds scab over.

A piece of Bianca Stone’s “Elegy” from Someone Else’s Wedding Vows: “I realize grief wants me to stay a child, negotiating a stream of atoms, picking flowers. Grief wants me in good condition. Grief wants me to remember everything. Imperfect. Clear.” I am grieving for the child who never held the flowers; I am grieving for the child who was never in good condition; I am grieving for my inability to remember everything, imperfect and clear. Grief does not want me to stay a child. Grief wants me to learn how to be an adult, to mourn and heal the wounds. But how do I heal these little wounds, the ones I cannot simply “get over”? As Eli Clare writes, it is “harder to express how that break becomes healed, a bone once fractured, now whole, but different from the bone never broken. And harder still to follow the path between the two.” To reclaim the broken, stolen body is to walk the path between the wolves, between the wounding, the weapon, and the healing. Clare asks, “How do I mark this place where my body is no longer an empty house, desire whistling lonely through the cracks, but not yet a house fully lived in?” The timing still feels off, the words all wrong, but I am finding my desire; I am finding the language to fill the cracks: if I break myself open, will I be able to place the pieces anew, to rebuild the home of my body?

 

Bibliography

Anorgasmia: Faking It in a Sexualized World. Directed by Frank Vitale, performances by Cris Mazza and Mark Rasmussen, 2015.

Berkowitz, Amy. Tender Points. Timeless, Infinite Light, 2015.

Bottoms, Stephen. “Diane Torr Obituary.” The Guardian, 29 June 2017.

Cerankowski, K.J. “From go-go dancer to drag king: Living gender through performance.” Gender News, 6 Aug. 2012.

Clare, Eli. Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness, and Liberation. South End Press, 1999.

Cvetkovich, Ann. An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures. Duke University Press, 2003.

Didion, Joan. The White Album. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979.

Dombek, Kristin. The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016.

Fjelstad, Margalis. Stop Caretaking the Borderline of Narcissist: How to End the Drama and Get On with Life. Rowman & Littlefield, 2013.

Freud, Sigmund. “A Child is Being Beaten.” International Journal of Psychoanalysis, vol. 1, 1920, pp. 371-395.

Jamison, Leslie. The Empathy Exams: Essays. Graywolf Press, 2014.

Manguso, Sarah. 300 Arguments. Graywolf Press, 2017.

—. Ongoingness: The End of a Diary. Graywolf Press, 2015.

Mazza, Cris. Something Wrong With Her: a real-time memoir. Jaded Ibis Press, 2013.

McBee, Thomas Page. Man Alive: A True Story of Violence, Forgiveness and Becoming a Man. City Lights Books, 2014.

Preciado, Paul Beatriz. Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era. The Feminist Press, 2013.

Stone, Bianca. Someone Else’s Wedding Vows. Octopus Books/Tin House Books, 2014.

Thomas, Shannon. Healing from Hidden Abuse: A Journey Through the Stages of Recovery from Psychological Abuse. MAST Publishing House, 2016.

Wolynn, Mark. It Didn’t Start with You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle. Penguin Books, 2016.

Yanagihara, Hanya. A Little Life. Doubleday, 2015.

—. “Point of View: Don’t we read fiction exactly to be upset?” The Guardian, 4 March 2016.

 

 

KJ Cerankowski is an assistant professor of comparative American studies and gender, sexuality, and feminist studies at Oberlin College. KJ co-edited the book Asexualities: Feminist and Queer Perspectives (Routledge, 2014) and has published poetry and criticism in Short, Fast, & Deadly; Feminist Studies; and WSQ (Women’s Studies Quarterly). KJ is currently completing a book that is most definitely about trans stuff in relation to trauma, pain, and pleasure.

 

M. Milks is the author of Kill Marguerite and Other Stories (Emergency Press, 2014), winner of the 2015 Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award in Fiction and a Lambda Literary Award finalist; as well as three chapbooks, most recently The Feels (Black Warrior Review 42.2, 2016), an exploration of fan fiction and affect. They are editor of The &NOW Awards 3: The Best Innovative Writing, 2011-2013 and co-editor, with KJ Cerankowski, of Asexualities: Feminist and Queer Perspectives (Routledge, 2014).

Yet This Is Your Harmless Fairy, Monster: A Summer Seminar

Nonfiction / Lesley Jenike

:: Yet This Is Your Harmless Fairy, Monster: A Summer Seminar ::

“Vengeful as nature herself, she loves her children only in order to devour them better. . . .”   –Angela Carter

A student tells me she fell asleep last night reading Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. In her dream a bomb drops and leaves a room full of broken bodies.

It’s dark in the room and she can’t see, but by muscle memory she knows where to step to avoid the bodies, how to walk around them gingerly, as if stabbed by knives.

Or maybe I’m confusing “Blue Beard” with “The Little Mermaid,” she says.

/

In her essay “The Better to Eat You With,” Angela Carter counters Hans Christian Andersen (that “tortured dement,” as she calls him) against the reasonable intellect of Charles Perrault, a man of his age as much as Andersen was a man of his. For Carter, Perrault seems to neutralize his fairy tales’ sex and violence with an ironic shrug. She writes, “The primitive terror a young girl feels when she sees Bluebeard is soon soothed when he takes her out and shows her a good time, parties, trips to the country and so on. But marriage itself is no party. Better learn that right away.”

If Andersen’s hectic, Romantic version of Christianity leads to his heroines’ ecstatic suffering, then Perrault’s Enlightenment-era characters take a more practical tact toward worldly knowledge. His advice at the end of his stories (i.e., “Curiosity, in spite of its appeal, often leads to deep regret. . .”) is practical, even charming. There’s nothing practical about Andersen.

/

It’s summer and campus is quiet. There are only seven of us together for four hours, three times a week. The Fairy Tale Breakfast Club, one student calls us. I tell them, We’re learning together. It’s best, I find, to make reading and writing a collaborative effort; it draws them in.

So we sit together under fluorescence and read, in tandem, original tales—as original as they can be in light of time, edits, omissions, translations. I can feel our simultaneous shock and delight. It’s tangible—like revelation by experience, the revelator.

We’ve all known keys and apples and knives. Who hasn’t while cutting up an apple looked down at her knife in wonder? And the boy who mugged me in Franklin Park, he took my iPod—Fine, I said, but please give me back my key. It was a single white key I carried on a band around my bicep. If he had kept it, would he have tried every door in the universe? He gave me a look of disgust, ripped the key off the band, and threw it back at me before running off.

And what about mothers—all those missing mothers, dead mothers, stepmothers? At the very least, who hasn’t dialed his mother’s number and waited nervously for her to pick up?

One. . . two. . . three.

/

There’s a concentrated look on my student’s face as she recounts the dream in which she’s forced to walk back and forth, back and forth, from one end of the room to the other, past and around all those dead bodies. Who or what is commanding her to do so, she doesn’t know.

Outside the room is Aleppo or Boston or Manchester or the Arendale of Disney’s Frozen—shattered from the torque of explosives, from firefight and crucible. Every building is now a skull. Every skull has a crack where the brain’s been sucked out.

In her version of the tale, Bluebeard plots his wives’ deaths from a distance—maybe in a castle or cafe, mansion or split-level. Cities are his wives, and his wives are his wives, and children—not even his own—are his wives, and young soldiers, journalists, doctors are his wives. Guys who run falafel shops, who hock clams and mussels at fish markets, women who write poems on the backs of their hands are his wives. Bicyclists and passersby and girls out shopping or dancing to Ariana Grande, drinking tea or plotting the rise of girls are his wives. Stray dogs, old horses, drooling mules are his wives. Lovers of brooches and caterpillars and bougainvillea; haters of brooches and caterpillars and bougainvillea: his wives. So too a little boy with a lazy eye and a cat with three legs giving birth in a fishing boat. So too a baby in striped pajamas pulled dead from beneath a mound of concrete. The world is his wife and we are all his wives.

/

In high school I had a choker—a black ribbon tied tight around my neck with a filigreed key hanging from it. I wore every day. I couldn’t say what drew me to it. My boyfriend would joke that it was “the key to your heart and can I have it?,” which coagulated my distaste for clichés and the people who used them. I think what he really meant was—you refuse to have sex with me. I was just fifteen.

I liked fairy tales when I was fifteen.

When she turned fifteen, the Little Mermaid was allowed to rise to the surface.

Sometimes girls swerve near fairy tales, then—discovering how unserious they are, how unworthy—swerve away again. Feminist retellings are so second-wave. Better to leave them to the nursery and go after bigger fish. Yes, sex. Yes, violence. So what?

Yet, in Angela Carter’s “Bluebeard” retelling, “The Bloody Chamber,” Bluebeard’s final wife is gifted a red choker with inlaid rubies—meant to represent an historical connection to the French Revolution.

/

Little girls love to open boxes, to fit keys into locks, to watch unboxings on Youtube, to unwrap gifts, to slowly lift a lid and then—

When I asked my daughter what she wants for her third birthday, she said, “A pink present! A purple present!” “But,” I asked her, “What do you want inside the present?” She just looked at me, mystified.

/

Imagine a housewife finds her husband’s little gold key knocking around the clothes dryer like a hurt bird. She plucks it out and holds it up for close inspection, cocks her head as if to say, Hmm. What door, drawer, safe, box, head, heart, cunt, dick, hurt, mouth, fear does this key fit? What little toy truck, little wind-up cancer monkey, little liquor cabinet, little bureau of pain?

/

Louis the XVI was a collector of keys and fascinated by the mechanics of locks, but he didn’t understand—for the longest time—how the act of unlocking a door is somewhat like the act of love. As a result, his wife went childless for an excruciatingly long time. The result may or may not have been Antoinette’s longing for a baby, but was most certainly her political vulnerability. The former is irrelevant in light of the latter.

/

My husband likes to tell me about what he’s been reading. Lately he’s been working his way through a history of music in the twentieth century titled The Rest is Noise, and he’s gotten himself stuck on a description of a German opera based on the Biblical siren Salome. “In this one particular production,” he tells me, “Salome practically fucks John the Baptist’s decapitated head on-stage.”

The last image in that recent French film-version of “Bluebeard” is of the final bride—obviously no more than twelve or thirteen—posing as if in a Renaissance painting as she strokes—gently, gently—Bluebeard’s lopped-off head neatly placed on the center of a gold platter. She seems Madonna-like, looking a bit askance—just off-camera as if at something very sad—her head tilted a bit, ever so slightly, to the side.

The final scene is overly long, uncomfortably so. While we wait for the inevitable fade-to-black, our eyes roam over her little girl’s body, her odd face, her hand stroking, stroking Bluebeard’s bluish beard absently, as if it were cat’s fur. I can sense my students’ discomfort. Some laugh.

Afterward I ask them about Salome. Has anyone heard of Salome?

No.

There’s some significant connection here, I tell them, something about political/religious/artistic extremists and the women who love/hate them—but I can’t quite get my head around it.

/

In that recent film adaptation of Perrault’s “Blue Beard,” twinned narratives conflate at the moment the magic key enters the lock. Instead of the fairy tale wife, we watch a little girl from something like our own time enter the forbidden chamber. I will not be scared. I will not be scared, she whispers to herself.

She steps barefoot into a pool of blood and walks among the hanging bodies of Bluebeard’s dead wives, past and around all those hanging bodies, slipping here and there on that pool of blood as if it were an ice rink. My students laugh uncomfortably. After the film is over, I ask them,

“Why do you think the filmmaker chose to have the little girl telling the story in the present walk into the room and not the wife?”

Because:

1. A little girl, eight years old, is dead of a bomb in Manchester, England.
2. A fifteen-year-old who on Facebook is wreathed by illustrated flowers was also killed in Manchester, and her mother doesn’t know her password, so she continues, like Snow White in her glass coffin, an eternal sleep on the Internet.
3. We are always telling this story. We are constantly and in perpetuity telling this story.

/

That Bluebeard is God is an easy answer, I tell my students, but an apt one. In this scenario, the wife’s curiosity opens a door onto impermanence, a world in which Bluebeard is a landscape artist, in situ—a frowsy old man crouching in an English field, arranging in spirals his twigs and stones and water and frond.

The whole point is eventual obliteration, wind and weather, the drama of an English sky and, by extension, a breakable planet like a woman’s face at thirty, forty, fifty, the lines around her eyes intensifying until gulch, arroyo, well, worry, then—well—a whole city under the sea.

Maybe Bluebeard’s chamber of horrors is just an artist’s small-scale rendering, a kind of sketch before he stalks out into the field and begins the real thing.

/

Earlier in the film, Bluebeard smiles fondly at his child-bride. “You’re a strange little person,” he tells her. “Why?” she asks. “Because you have the innocence of a dove but the pride of a hawk,” he tells her.

This is suitable fairy tale dialogue—riddling and rife with easy symbology. The dove is innocent. The hawk is prideful. Many girls, including my daughter, manage the combination until experience and age catch up with them, at which point they make a choice—the dove or the hawk—and neither is without disadvantages.

My daughter just this morning, I tell my students, looked out her bedroom window onto the roof where a young mourning dove was hunched, waiting out the rain. “C’mon,” I said to her. “It’s time to get ready for school” (she calls daycare school). “Birds don’t go to school,” she said. “They go to bird school.” “Can I go?” she asked. “No,” I told her. “You’re not a bird.”

/

Who was the audience for Charles Perrault’s stories? And who was Hans Christian Andersen’s? One imagines Perrault among the glitterati of Parisian salons—many hosted by women. There was a naughtiness, you know, about the salon. It was a safe place for women to intellectualize, philosophize, socialize, flirt. In the salon’s milieu a fairy tale acquires layers of meaning—from tongue-in-cheek advice to young wives, to political commentary, and finally to children’s entertainment.

Now imagine Andersen in the confessional or on an analyst’s couch. “There’s this mermaid, you see. And she longs for an immortal soul. . .”

/

In “The Snow Queen,” a little robber girl threatens to kill the child heroine Gerda with a knife. She sleeps with her knife and keeps a cote of doves and even a reindeer prisoner. “These all belong to me,” she says.

She takes Gerda into her bed along with the knife, as if Gerda is a baby doll or a lover, and Gerda spends the night wondering if she’ll live or die.

Eventually the Little Robber Girl decides to help Gerda though her motives—like those of many fairy tale types—go unexplored. All we know is that her will is fierce and she’s in possession of it.

What kind of little girl is this?

For Gerda’s journey to the Snow Queen’s domain, the Little Robber Girl gifts her her reindeer, bread and ham, muff and mittens; then when Gerda slips the mittens on, the Little Robber Girl says, “There, now your hands look just like my mother’s.”

But the Little Robber Girl’s mother is a full-grown thief, bearded, and mean.

/

I tell my students, on the car ride to daycare, my daughter pointed to all the lilies she saw in their beds outside the grocery store and said, “Those flowers are mine! Everything is mine!” A little later, I say, I posted a recount of the episode to social media and the comments include something like, “What a beautiful little tyrant! ☺”

/

Is Bluebeard the baby or the birth?

More women make it out of childbirth alive than in Charles Perrault’s time, Hans Christian Anderson’s, or perhaps even Angela Carter’s, and more babies are surviving too. So why does our country rank highest in maternal and infant mortality rates among other wealthy, developed nations? This was the subject of an NPR story I stumbled across driving home from the art school where I ramble on at students about the meanings of fairy tales.

I manage to listen to the entire broadcast and still come away without any definitive answers. Something something health care. Something something education.

My mind wanders backward to my children’s births when I vaguely remember my mind wandering (during labor with my first, the knife with my second), back even further to an embryonic fear—perhaps carried in my genes—that I wouldn’t survive this. I was older after all, as all the paperwork and monitors and placards reminded me—Geriatric Maternity. Advanced Age. I’d been quietly relegated to “high-risk” outpatient clinics for many of my check-ups, ultrasounds, and, most worryingly, my genetic counseling, which felt like a job interview or, even worse, an explanation of why I did so poorly on my standardized test.

The counselor herself spoke slowly and softly as she gathered my information—who died and of what? Who is related to whom? How many live births? How many stillbirths? How many miscarriages? “Most people,” she said to me, “are a lot more nervous than you seem to be.” So of course I wondered if I should be more nervous. Maybe I wasn’t expressing the correct amount of nervousness.

I could die. The baby could die. Now or later, or later later. The baby could be malformed, underdeveloped, and maybe I’m evil for even thinking these thoughts, for thinking the words malformed, underdeveloped. My uterus could surrender its mission and just bail on the whole thing. My placenta could thin and snap. There might be unmitigated bleeding, preeclampsia, diabetes, postpartum depression, postpartum psychosis. My womb is a bloody chamber. The question is: who’s got the key?

/

Angela Carter, in her review of psychologist Eric Rhode’s book On Birth and Madness, writes, “Language crumbles under the weight of this pain. Mystification of this pain is a lie.” She seems intrigued by the writing but ultimately frustrated by his outsider’s expertise on something he’ll never experience. Should we hate Rhode for his lack of sensual knowledge?

Never mind the political ramifications of a word like madness, if I were to unpack Carter’s statement, my whole house—three little bedrooms, one full-bath and one-half, a semi-dry basement, two living rooms, a galley kitchen—would fill to capacity with underdeveloped notions about mystery and language and pain. I wouldn’t begin to know how to organize them, how to box and label them, then how to kneel before those boxes (were I to manage) at some small hour many years in the future and take those notions out—one by one—and, filled with nostalgia and longing, turn them over and over again in my hands. What I mean to say is this: I cannot say.

/

Still, death in childbirth may be the secret to so many fairy tales’ missing mothers, but, according to writer Marina Warner, there may be an even more insidious reason: a mother’s complete eradication by irrelevance. (She’s become so good at being silent, her silence consumes her. Her culture erases her. Her own son sets fire to her still-living body.)

And pain in childbirth may be the secret to so many transformations. I don’t mean simply the pain of labor itself, but the aftershocks—emotional, physical, what Rhode refers to in his titillating title as madness. Maybe our fate is simply to become sea foam. Pain drives the tides. Pain churns the foam.

A teacher I knew long ago who gave birth to her stillborn daughter soon thereafter became rain and ran away.

A musician who lost his teenage son over a cliff became the ocean and was sucked back into the clouds. He kept playing.

/

A mother’s absence may have to do with a teller’s desire to promote an image of motherhood that’s discreet and genteel to the point of obliteration—a sort of kindly shadow that would never dream of abandoning her children to the forest or tearing out and eating her daughter’s heart.

My own mother’s mother is just such a mother—I mean the absent kind, not the heart-eating kind. Or, she very well may have been a heart-eater, but time and forgetfulness has smoothed away any jagged peculiarities she may have had.

She hated my mother’s white Keds. I know that much. I know she wanted my mother to wear saddle shoes, so my mother would hide her Keds under a bush, and when she left for school in her saddle shoes, she’d duck behind the house and switch them out for her Keds.

I know my grandmother loved martinis and made clothes for my mother and sister. I know she made the little blue wool zip-up sweater in my baby son’s dresser.

I know she bleached her hair because in the one photo I’ve seen of her as girl her hair is dark. I know like so many fairy tale heroines, her own mother disappeared too—an absence inside an absence.

/

Eric Rhode: “Myths concerning some lost key to understanding are widespread.”

Changes in family dynamics too are the stuff of fairy tales.

When my grandmother came home one day to find her mother gone (by way of madness or literal absence), perhaps she, in that moment, became someone else’s daughter altogether.

“Consider Goldilocks,” says Rhode. “She breaks into a house belonging to a family of bears, or so she wishes to think. She is estranged from members of her family (because her mother has given birth to a little baby, the youngest bear; now she thinks her family belongs to a different species). She is a stranger in her own home. . . . Nothing fits. Much gets broken.”

/

When my own mother and father divorced, my father promptly moved out. But there was a brief interim when he was still around (sort of), when I tried to open the old brown leather briefcase he left laying around—locked by a combination of numbers unknown to me. I remember thinking all the secrets to my family’s failure were there if I could just open it up and see.

Then, after a time my mom invited her boyfriend to come live with us. I was a teenager. His blundering around the places and things I associated with my father enraged me. Like a demented Goldilocks, I rampaged my way through the house, hiding or destroying the boyfriend’s clothes, spraying his shaving cream all over his pillow, shoving ice cubes into the toes of his shoes, mocking him every chance I got—to his face and behind his back. The terror I inflicted on him was merciless, then one day I remember he just broke down and cried.

Eric Rhode says, “A loving family brings up a child who has no reason for complaint. And yet the child feels itself to be an orphan. Fairy tales reflect its predicament. A prince wakes up one morning and discovers he has become the son of a swineherd. A shepherd’s daughter awakes to learn she is a princess.”

“Nothing fits. Much gets broken.”

/

What did my grandmother die of? I still don’t know. I could find out and sometimes I believe I intend to, but I also believe I enjoy the mystery. In my mind I can imagine it was neglect. Childbirth. A murderous husband. Wolves. Cancer.

My great-grandmother was a Swede who’d settled in Boston. She was an alcoholic, my mom tells me. And—I don’t know. She was put in an insane asylum or just ran away one day—ran away from her kids and her husband. I’m not sure.

/

Did you know, I tell my students, a scientist named de Saussure in the eighteenth century thought he could measure the blueness of the sky?

What if we could assess precisely when night ends and when blue’s voice takes on the tremolo of twilight so that before we turn the key we might determine how blue calculates against joy?

I’m suspicious of the idea that color is eternal (the idea sounds too much like religion to me), but if the central argument re: color is whether or not color exists physically in the world, then how could I not equate color with faith?

In Perrault’s story, Bluebeard’s final wife, in trying to make the best of her situation, begins “to think that the man’s beard was not so very blue after all.”

/

Bluebeard could be the first person you slept with. He could be the death drive, a killing desire, the blue under an eye you want to kiss because it suggests mortality and invokes, therefore, tenderness.

Or Bluebeard could be a baby. Here’s why:

The manual on breastfeeding says you can’t really know how much milk your baby is getting except by weight gain and how many wet diapers and how many dirty. There are some latches—it’s worth noting—that just won’t work. Like a key in a lock.

There are bodies in this version too, of course. And they’re my old selves.

In this version of the story, once in that secret room I feel my way toward a window and, looking through it, can see all the way back to—

I ignore the bodies and look out the window

and from the window I see

a cloud like the spine of a book on a shelf in the sky :
What happens is this: the

I’m in a dark hallway feeling the walls
for a door, a way in. A beginning.

Ok. Good.

Just insert the key, turn, then

push the handle with both hands and—

Cloud like the spine
          of a book on
                    a shelf in
                              the sky

to run
          my hand along :
Blue is the color of his nursery.

/

Hans Christian Andersen stumbled under the weight of his neuroses—hash marks in his diary to keep track of his masturbatory sessions, obsessions with women he couldn’t possibly consummate, obsessions with men he couldn’t possibly consummate,a love of travel but a shattering fear of germs, an abiding loneliness he tried to squelch with public adoration, then a supreme distrust of public adoration. Who could love the son of a cobbler?

I had an Andersen collection as a girl—a handsomely illustrated, hardcover collection I managed to keep through my parents’ divorce, my mom’s two subsequent remarriages, so many moves, and even a long-term loan to my niece who is now nearly eighteen and headed to college.

But because I have children of my own, the book came back to me.

A live bomb, it ticks away on the shelf.

My name is written in the front cover. I put it there when I was maybe eight, maybe ten. The name seems to emerge from the blue endsheet and alone, without a middle name or a last name, it floats there, embryonic.

/

I read aloud to my daughter from “The Snow Queen” when she was an infant and was stunned all over again by the story’s eccentricity, how it seems to be a jumble of stories all with their own potentiality forced into subservience. The master narrative—a loving girl (Gerda) questing to free her friend (Kay) from the icy clutches of superficiality—subsumes along the way more interesting digressions, like the willful, violent Little Robber Girl or the flowers who have their own stories, all of which seem to refuse the larger story’s chief aim—that is, to return the world to normalcy. Take, for example, the tigerlily’s tale. It goes like this:

          In her long red robe stands the Hindoo [sic] widow by the funeral pile. The flames rise around her as she places herself on the dead body of her husband; but the Hindoo [sic] woman is thinking of the living one in that circle; of him, her son, who lighted those flames. Those shining eyes trouble her heart more painfully than the flames which will soon consume her body to ashes. Can the fire of the heart be extinguished in the flames of the funeral pile?
          “I don’t understand that at all,” said little Gerda.
          “That is my story,” said the tiger-lily.

/

We’re back to Bluebeard as fanatic, I say.

Will our sons grow up to testify against us, as Audre Lord suggests, or do I “fear our children will be dragged from a car and shot down in the street?”

Is it an either/or proposition?

I always thought fairy tales were just for the despondent, privileged white woman.

Now I wonder, do we accuse the son who touches his torch to the pyre or the scheme that says the fire must be set in the first place?

These are questions, Friends, I can’t answer.

/

Instead, let me tell you about my mother’s house:

I go about my dreams there with new purpose.

Good night, Everybody, my daughter said before I put her down in her foldout crib.

It was the first night I spent with her in my mother’s guest room with its portrait of my long-dead grandmother above the bed.

(In the painting my grandmother wears an orange sheath dress, gold hoop earrings, and a modified beehive made of frosted hair. I’ve often tried to see myself in her, but I don’t.)

Deep in the blue gutter of night, my daughter woke up in my mother’s house and pointed to the portrait of my grandmother. I panicked a little, wondering if they’d been discussing in ur-language all the feelings words feel, tugged as they are out of abstraction as she surely was—from absence into presence. Go back to sleep, I told her.

Then morning came, sun first on the older part of the house where we sleep. She woke this time for good, stood up in her foldout crib, and pointed again at that portrait. She said to it, Night, Night, but she didn’t get it wrong exactly, not if you consider darkness is in all directions, simultaneous to now.

/

We’re watching Lars von Trier’s film Breaking the Waves, and after the final scene in which church bells—missing from Bess the heroine’s hometown steeple—peal out in Heaven for her sacrifice, I catch one of my students wiping away tears. I need a cigarette, she says. I’m sorry, I say. Did I break you?

When the Little Mermaid narrowly escapes her destiny as sea-foam, it’s thanks to a loophole in that fundamentalist dogma that says immortal souls are only for humans and there’s something wrong with becoming sea-foam in the first place.

Do girls killed for obscenity rise with the Daughters of the Air?

“I don’t see why Bluebeard has to be a person,” a student writes in her essay. “Maybe Bluebeard is an ideology.”

Yes!

What a cruel man Danish director Lars von Trier must be, how sadistic to make us watch a woman destroy herself in the name of something we can’t see.

But, to be fair, could we be friends with someone like Bess, a student asks. Could we actually put up with someone so ideologically pure, a believer so exasperating we watch her through our fingers and moan? And how can we love a little mermaid who would willingly give up her voice in exchange for eternal life—just when we’ve begun to believe we’re entitled to our voices in the first place? And just when we’ve started to think eternal life is a sham?

Sometimes I feel I’m forcing you into a philosophical bind I may never see my way clear of—not as long as I live.

/

The flowers in “The Snow Queen’s” Third Story refuse to (or simply can’t) tell Gerda where Kay is, but instead “dream only of [their] own little fairy tale of history.”

Dream. Fairy tale. History.

Name some similarities and then some differences between these three things:

(“All these are mine!” my daughter said, raking her hand across the garden.)

/

Story One. Little Death Eater

During the primary season, what kings themselves called the First Kingdom, loyal man-servants and the best whores were buried beside their czars. Shipwrights made twenty special. So many wives, hairdressers, droppers of petals, but lionesses strangest of all, their roiling throats and vertical pupils aping in shape a woman rising from her horizontal landscape. The king’s many wives ate away at his autonomy. Children ate at his thoughts. Chefs fed him ample food to eat his thinness. Lovers ate at his fat.

Why another kind of man-eater to eat at his spirit?

There once was a wife who so despised her king, to bang his name into the stone of her face, she took poison of her own accord just to spite him and like a lioness ever after belonged to no one but the ghosts of her kill.

/

Story Two. Little Sore Eyes

Many hundreds of years ago on the Sabbath of someone else’s week, a religion for little girls was born, first among brats and scullery maids who slept with their backs to the fire, whose altars were pig ossuaries, who wept in the smoke it takes to cure, then spread among ladies-in-waiting, whose eyes ached from scutwork, whose threads were licked thin enough to fit, whose rituals went: stare hard at a ceiling. Let the seams between planes expand, so what bore up your life’s establishment—cherry beams, cobwebs shred to the shape of a man sleeping—thunders to your bedroom floor.

The rubble will spell out your future. On your knees you grope for it. You feel the letters, the feeling a type of knowing, like a fist screwed deep in an eye-socket until you get stars and oh yes now the universe opens its door.

/

There’s a famous anecdote about Emily Dickinson that goes like this:

Aunt Emily reached into her housedress pocket and pulled out—an imaginary key! She opened her palm to show me, her niece. She said, “One quick turn—and it’s freedom, Matty!”

/

Story Three. Bluebeard as Composer

Wasn’t it Tolstoy who wrote something like, bourgeois love will be the last delusion? No. I say the piano is. It sits petulant and desirous of touch in the sitting room, stick and bone and pearl for a corpus, mother of pearl for fingers, metal pedal for a foot. It talks in puzzles should you know the score, built on glyphs and strikes on grids. Take the time to learn it and time bleeds. I don’t have it. But I like to think Rachmaninoff is thundering away at a keyboard somewhere in Hell. Think of me as God. I gather up the piano in my arms and rock it to sleep before shooting it. Any future instrument is just grist, hype, and hizzle for sirens whose music turns the ocean back on them. Sure, I can play the ordinary thing, but I do it under a nom de plume, the way you can dance by sitting very very still.

/

Story Four. Bluebeard’s Final Wife as Acolyte

I’m standing in your doorway. Your studio is white and clean but for postcard-sized drawings you’ve pasted to its walls, their abstracted facsimiles of artic scenes, and your to-do list in narrative imperative, hanging like a portrait above your computer screen:

1. the secret to this mode of critical
2. thinking isn’t the secret
3. which we’re also
4. haunted by, but by the
5.
6.

I’m sorry to have missed you. Your work is strange. Whether you’ve left any trace of yourself—a pen dripping blood on your pad’s glacial monolith—well, let’s just say I’d kiss you if you were here (and it would feel like sucking ice).

/

Story Five. Bluebeard’s First Wife as Miscarriage

Oh how did this all get started? I think it must be: blood on my bleached driftwood stoop, on a potted rosemary, in my orchard a grapefruit tree.

I rely on a tremulous class of growing things, and when they don’t grow, don’t worry; there are whole libraries dedicated to futility.

/

Story Six. Bluebeard’s Second Wife as Fairy Tale

Children, the sky’s rumpled sheets of stars shine tonight as they did years ago when clouds bullied the moon with their fists and high winds ruffled the scree, when weirder still a dove purred, a dove purred as night fell, its breast yielding.

In such wild times as these, my mind turns to poor Donkeyskin, her eye glittering. She lived in a trailer in a hollow at the head of a road that bursts the heart of the wood then ends where our county stops. She kept a bird in a glued-together cage, a single unmated dove as blue as that dress of hers the color the sky she had made to keep her own father from knowing her. And it’s years since anyone has. Woods seemed to wolf down her little life, keeping it like a light in its dark gut, a candle of sheep fat and old age, and there she sat. I hear tell her dove fell in love with a mouse that crept into its cage, and seemed to shelter it under its wing. God, we need to love something. (Moral One)

Or

Among the many things in life to learn, be sure you learn how to play and sing
so when the time comes, you can play and you can sing. (Moral Two)

/

Story Seven. Bluebeard’s Second-to-last Wife, Dreaming a Dream

In the story I’ve only partly read, the setting is a calendar house with 365 rooms and twelve staircases. I’m in the azure room, number 243, and I impose a narrative onto a wren clattering onto the hearth. It drowns in its own blood. The end.

/

When he decided to detonate himself, did he count as one might count before a field day sack race, a dive off the block into a pool, as a way to get in sync with a grade school friend before the secret chant—you know—Miss Mary Mack this and that and hands clapping and strange eye contact? 1. . . 2. . . 3.

Or maybe it was at inhalation—this was just the right breath to end on.

Maybe he called his mother beforehand to ask for her forgiveness but couldn’t get through.

Fairy tales, I tell my students, are perpetual.

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

Most summers I teach an extra class at my college because it’s fun and I could use a little extra money. This year it was decided I would teach a section of Critical Readings in Fairy Tales. Because it’s a popular course, we (and I mean the administration and I) believed the class would get enough enrollment to run, and sure enough, it did. Though I’d never taught it before, I felt pretty good about having a month between spring semester’s end and the summer classes’ start to get myself up to speed on the reading and research I needed to do, but my college changed the dates on me suddenly and without notice, so I had to scramble to get my syllabus ready immediately after I turned in my spring semester grades. All of this is to say, I came to this class feeling weirdly unprepared.

As it turned out, I ended up with six students after a few dropped away, so in many ways it did feel an awful lot like study hall, or the Breakfast Club—only with odd, delightfully smart conversations.

I admitted to my students that I was coming to the material fresh and that I was hoping it would yield something to me, or for me—creatively. I also admitted that I’d been reluctant to venture into fairy tales since I was in my twenties. Retellings and adaptations felt stale—like some kind of static reminder of an old-fashioned, white-centric feminism I’m trying to wrestle my way away from.

But lately—thanks mostly to my toddler daughter—I’ve been forced to look at fairy tales again and in them I find new opportunities, new questions, new connections. In particular I’ve begun to read Angela Carter with fresh eyes and I see her as a brilliant intellect, a cultural critic of the highest order, and a writer who worked miracles with old material—breathing life back into them in unimaginable ways.

So this essay is a love letter to her and to my students who helped me see these old stories in new contexts—some of which are difficult and painful. One student in particular led me there with her dream of Bluebeard, and the rest seemed to fall into place.

 

Lesley Jenike’s poems have appeared in Poetry, The Gettysburg Review, Rattle, Verse, Smartish Pace, The Southern Review, and many other journals. She has received awards from The Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, the Ohio Arts Council, and the Vermont Studio Center. Her most recent collection is a chapbook titled Punctum:, winner of the 2016 Kent State Wick Chapbook Prize. She teaches literature and creative writing at the Columbus College of Art and Design in Columbus, Ohio.

Men in Pools

Nonfiction / Jo-Anne Berelowitz

:: Men in Pools ::

I was going to sneak the photo out of my mother’s album, but when I saw her watching me, I photographed it with my iPhone and replaced it under the clear plastic sheet. I tried to align it on the page, but the gluey bond had long ago worn off so it lay there, unmoored, cattywampus. When I returned home an hour later, I printed a black and white copy on my laser printer. I’m not sure why I keep looking at it, but I can’t put it down or turn my eyes away.

The photo shows my father alone at the shallow end of the pool at the house on Inness Road, the last house we occupied as a family before we shook the dust of South Africa off our feet and scattered. Only my father’s head and upper torso are visible. His arms below the elbows are submerged—probably crossed, judging by the waist-high ripple in front of his chest.

I’m guessing my then-fourteen-year-old brother, Roy, shot the image with his new wide-angle lens, a recent gift from my parents. Lying on his belly at the far (bougainvillea) side of the pool for a worm’s eye view, Roy filled the lower half of the frame with water, clicked, and froze the moment.

It was, (again, I’m guessing), an unremarkable moment for my father and brother, another ordinary sunny carefree day in my subtropical hometown, Durban, on the eastern seaboard of South Africa. Certainly Roy possessed only rudimentary skills with a camera, yet it seems to me that he captured something important, something there in the photo that I’m struggling to grasp but don’t yet have. Surely if I look deeply enough, I’ll understand?

What had made me want the image, want it so badly that I’d considered stealing it, was not the emotional charge I feel now at my desk in San Diego, peering through the image’s grey-scaled fuzziness, as though by intensifying my focus I might better penetrate the surface and enter a moment frozen forty years ago. No, something more cerebral, something less personal had gripped me. Or so it had seemed when, mildly bored, I had flipped through my mother’s album and come upon the photograph.

As an art historian who has taught Pop art more semesters than I care to count, I was struck by the photo’s compositional similarity to David Hockney’s 1966 Portrait of Nick Wilder. I’ve always felt a kinship with that painting—perhaps because, like Hockney, I came to California when I was twenty-seven and felt at once its chimerical allure, its differentness from everything I’d ever known.

Both photo and painting show a man within the curvilinear embrace of the far end of a pool, with only his head and upper torso visible, his house behind him. And in both the water flows our way.

I searched online for Hockney’s painting, printed a copy, and placed it beside the image of my father, their congruities more evident in black and white. The dimensions were as like to one another as I could get them: the photograph, 3” x 2,” the painting 2 ½” x 2 ½.” I glued them side by side on a sheet of paper and stared at them, willing them to speak to one another and to me, and to surrender the mystery of their doubleness. A long-forgotten snapshot by a boy beside a canonical monument of Modernism by an art-world genius.

Beneath their superficial similarities the moods are different. In Hockney’s painting, the mood is idyllic—we’re looking at the California Dreamin’ good life. Not just looking, but experiencing, for Hockney gives us enough of the pool’s oval arc that we feel compelled to fill in the rest: I imagine I’m in the pool with Wilder (a contemporary art dealer who was Hockney’s friend and neighbor), floating lazily on an inflatable mattress, the dry California sun warming my back in a moment of stilled perfection.

The images differ, too, in their depiction of space. The photograph obeys the rules of perspective, as photographs like this tend to do, but Hockney’s painting lacks depth: Wilder’s house is at one with the picture plane, a savvy acknowledgement of post-war guru Clement Greenberg’s insistence that painting honor its limitation as pigment on a flat canvas. Even Hockney’s choice of medium—acrylic—adds to the sense of surface impenetrability in its refusal of subtle tonal changes. And it’s a stretch to call this a “portrait” (though Hockney does), for Wilder’s face is blank, lacking the psychological depth that five hundred years of portraiture have led us to expect in something that bears the word “portrait” in its title. His mouth is closed, his eyes vacant—characteristics consonant with the carefully contrived, all-on-the-surface affectless affect of Pop.

In the photograph my father’s mouth is a dark hole—is he shouting? laughing? gasping? —and his eyes are wide, perhaps in surprise. He’s at dead center: lord of his manor, the patriarch in his pool. Is that what his look of surprise is about—a sudden realization, one balmy weekend in 1974, that he no longer fit his own self-mocking, self-descriptions: “I’m just a small town boy from the country,” and “I’m a simple man with simple tastes, simple pleasures”?

For him to be in the pool as I see him here, he would have come out of the house—probably with The Daily News tucked under his arm. I wonder what the headlines were that day. Was it: “Anneline Kriel, South African Model, Crowned Miss World in London”? or: “Japanese Government No Longer Grants Visas to South Africans”? or: “Government Passes Riotous Assemblies Act”? or, perhaps: “New Government Publications Act: More Stringent Censorship”?

He would have crossed the verandah, then the lawn, and walked down four steps into the shallow end, sucking in his breath at the sudden drop in temperature as his warm body entered the eighty-degree water, bracing relative to the sultry air. But that’s not how the image speaks to me. As I look and look, he seems, rather, to be emerging from the pool’s amniotic wateriness, gasping with surprise to find himself on such a fancy spread of property. His.

Behind my father and to the right, the sharp diagonal of the verandah’s roof defies the picture plane, punching back into deep space and drawing me in. I know those lines are not a pictorial device but a literal reality—a raking view of the roof—something verifiably there. And yet seeing it beside the Hockney I think of a key art-historical text: Leon Battista Alberti’s On Painting of 1436, in which the great humanist writes that receding lines of linear perspective draw us, as though “through a transparent window,” into a scene (an “istoria”) that “will capture the eye of whatever learned or unlearned person is looking at it and will move his soul” to a higher, moral, or allegorical significance.

Why do I not find the mood in the photograph idyllic, this moment that I imagine as my father’s full-blown emergence into triumph? (Surely it should be?) Why do I not find the mood utopian and eternal, as I do Hockney’s?

What is here that moves my soul?

I’ll disavow nostalgia, at least that variant of nostalgia that yearns to restore the past.

What moves me, I think, is the future that spills out of the image and into my—our—present.

It was a happenstance shot that a fourteen-year-old boy, playing with his new wide-angle lens, took, one warm weekend in Durban, laying on his belly at the far side of a pool. And yet I can’t stop wanting to see—can’t stop seeing, with the prescience that hindsight affords—something deeper, something about the tide of events in South Africa that was about to burst through the constraining dam of apartheid and carry us all away—far away—into different lives.

Fig. 1

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

My essay is, in many ways, an account of how I came to write it.

I love Judith Kitchen’s work, particularly Half in Shade: Family, Photography, and Fate (Coffee House Press, 2012). Like Kitchen, I have a rich archive of images, letters, and cards. These all speak to me, though there are huge lacunae in what they say, and I try to fill in the gaps via my writing.

Other influences include Marianne Hirsch’s Family Frames: Photography, Narrative, and Postmemory (Harvard, 1997) and Svetlana Boym’s The Future of Nostalgia (Basic Books, 2001). I treasure, too, the work of Bernard Cooper, Teju Cole, and Jo Ann Beard.

Having taught art history for as long as I have (two and a half decades), I have a huge data bank of images in my mind. These surface as I write and seem inseparable from my own history. It’s likely that as I continue to work on my memoir, images from art history will continue to float into my consciousness, making my personal history resonant with art historical references—as here, in this essay in The Account.

I aspire to write nonfiction that is lyrical and charged not only with personal stories but with history, for knowledge, as Donna Haraway writes, is always “situated.”

Themes that unfold in my memoir are: home (my search for it) and betrayal (largely by the South African government of its citizenry).

 

Jo-Anne Berelowitz is an art historian by training and profession, now writing a memoir about growing up in South Africa during the apartheid regime. She lives with her husband and two Soft Coated Wheaten Terriers in San Diego, where she’s a faculty member at a large public university. Though she has published extensively as an academic art historian, this is her first publication in a literary journal. She is currently enrolled in the MFA program in creative writing at Rainier Writing Workshop.

The Message

Nonfiction / Lisa Marie Basile

:: The Message ::

I never meant to call you the night before you died. There, I’ll admit it right here.

I wouldn’t have called you on my own because I thought you were filthy. In you I saw cheap beer and diabetes. Chopped fingers and clots. In you I saw a heavy black tool box. Tackle. Maggots and pills and cigarettes smelling up my mother’s hair. In you I saw less than nothing. You who pulled my mother down into your suffering. You who loved her so much you had to destroy her. You whose T-shirts were always dirty. Me whose life was pure and clean. You who called me a “famous writer.” You who abused my mother. You who put her out on the lawn. Me who lights a candle for you at night. Me who never said hello. Me who judged your god. Me who cursed you when you weren’t looking. Me who hoped you’d die. You who gave me $20 on Christmas when you had nothing else to give. Me who judged you, me who wore plainclothes to visit, me who stared through you with disgust. You who slept with a bedpan, you who my mother loved with her whole broken might, you who suffered silently into your last night. You who picked up the phone with such gratitude and ignorance. You who believed I’d call you to see if you were alright. You who spent a year in the hospital dying. You who got out and just wanted to pay the bills. Me calling from a city—my life so boundless, my body and skin free of disease, my insipid hatred—me calling from far away on my pedestal, you hacking blood late at night, me pretty, your lungs aspirating, me far from you calling my mother an angel, me far from your last grasp, me swimming in cool blue water as you died in a bright, empty room.

*

I wake filled with an engine of divine stuff; I am heaving it. It is an arm from the subterranean reaching up, up, up. It whispers: you will grieve today. I walk listlessly through the day, puppet-stringed to it. Chthonic, a black well, me pulsing through the water of vulgar, unwanted prophecies. I keep predicting death; my body knows it before I do.

*

Of course I called, I lie. Because how do you tell a sick man you weren’t actually thinking of him.

*

I move and move and move and register nothing. I touch the desk and the fabric and the window ledge, but I don’t feel any of it. I can’t regulate my consciousness. I’m latched to a holy funnel. I am sitting on a beat up black leather couch with a box containing your body. A person that existed last month is now inside of a box. That box is on a cigarette-holed square of sofa. The sofa in which he used to sit screaming loudly for candy or Natty Ice. My mother would bring it, her wavy golden hair too good, too angelic, for him. Sometimes he’d kiss her like a teenager kisses. He’d kiss her like he meant it. Sometimes she did too because she never loved herself. Now he’s sitting inside of a box and I’m all bile and shame. Why couldn’t I have called him on purpose? Why am I not a good enough person to call a sick man? Who are we to judge another man? Who am I to leave town like I deserve to leave town? Who am I to wish better for my mother? Who am I to make a sound while someone slowly dies? Who am I in this funeral dress? Why does it hurt so bad to have hated you? Come back, let me fill your pill box. Let me speak loudly over you choking. Let me clean up your blood this time.

*

I am being pumped up, bloated with your death. These days I wake with an emptiness that feels like the sea. It’s constant, and it moves in and in and over. It never stops. The shore is me, and the water is indelible.

*

I wake up with the reverb of you. Today you will die. I have never been close to god, and I have never known god. I don’t believe in god. I don’t believe in a semblance of god, but this may be just a resistance; this may be why I keep being bullied by the angels; maybe they want me to listen in. Listen in. I don’t want to listen in. Something wakes me; it’s sitting on the far end of my bed, press-pushing into the coverlet. It’s the feeling of someone on the edge of your bed, but there’s no one on the edge of the bed. It’s a fragment of a person or a person’s spirit detaching in parts. One part of you came over to me. Was it your leg, was it your arm? Were you trying to let me know you had to go?

*

There is a hole in my chest, and inside it is a part of you. I carry it with me, I peek in, peek in: hello; I check if it is still alive. I go swimming to clean myself out. I go swimming to move like ribbon, to hold my breath for a while. I think that this is a dying we can control. We can pull it back, we can wake it up. But when I come out from under the water I feel I can’t get enough of anything.

*

He couldn’t do anything but die in white sheets. The room, I know, it smells like iron. I can never not know it. Everyone in their sheets disappearing from the face of the earth. Everyone missing out on the agony down here. Everyone slipping through, making waves. His name was Marco, and Marco is gone. And before that, the others. The others are gone. And before that, some others. And those others are gone. I hold their gone-ness in me, hundreds of feet of gone-ness, but it’s all gone now. Even the gone-ness itself.

*

My mother calls to say she fell asleep on the sofa because you cannot sleep in a dead man’s bed. So she slept on the sofa, and when twilight sleep came over her and she could still hear the voices from the radio, she felt his body sit on the chair beside her and lean into her. His leaning was real; that lean of death—that lean from where? In that moment there is only horror. There is no comfort. The truth is as loud as light. That the body isn’t there. That everyday, average, normal body. That disruption.

When they were alive, you might cry out, “get off me!” or “I’m sleeping!” or maybe you move because “god damnit, you woke me up!”

That is not the case with a spirit. The spirit can take up space. The only problem is its residue; how do you ever get it off you? How do you learn to hold its message?

*

He was always leaning. He was always collapsing, and my mother was always catching. He’d gotten sick this past year, and the phone calls became tiring. He’d been in the hospital, in and out, in and out, all year. One night my mother woke up and he was vomiting blood, only it came from his lungs, and it was black and it was everywhere, all over the blue bathroom. I’ve pissed so many times in that blue bathroom. Now I can never piss in there again without all that black blood on me. Do you want me to send you some new curtains? I ask. A new bath mat? She says no, she prefers the blood stains. That she’d been awake in the yellow morning hours scrubbing up the blood. That he’d stand in the hallway murmuring, “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, let me clean it.”

But of course she would clean it; she will clean it long after you’ve gone.

*

My mother calls to say she is washing his clothes: don’t bury me in a suit I want to buried in jeans and a T-shirt—so she’s washing his shirts, but they have to be long-sleeved. They took his skin, she wails. They took all of his skin. He’s an organ donor but his organs were all rotten, although his skin was good and clean. My wound is filled with acid.

*

We find out about the bodies. They sit up when they’re being burned; they assume a fighting position, as if they know what is to come. It can take five hours. It can take five hours. Then he wants to be put out to sea, mostly; we will wear a small part of him as a necklace.

*

There is a vacancy in me that rings out from somewhere. Please, make a noise. They never make a noise. They just sleep where the marble is cold and always drenched in light. Full of forever—and me, and me, and me, standing there knocking, knocking, asking are you there? If you’re not, then from where am I getting all these messages?

*

I stand at the font and ribbon my hands back and forth in the water. I am catching my fingers around the water; it’s a hand. I am hoping there is something good left in me, that I haven’t been filled up with evil or emptiness or exhaustion. That I haven’t let my losses turn into something grotesque. I imagine waking up and walking down the stairs backwards; I imagine my skin on fire. I say a prayer, but even that feels selfish. We make death about ourselves. All this death makes a part of me evil. I place my head into the water, I open my eyes, I open my eyes and see.

There is only water; we are made of only water; we ripple, we flood, we toss up at the sand. We are broken up. We are continent. When I stop, I can feel the wave come in and pull back. That’s the message. That’s you. That’s the tide changing.

 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

During the summer of 2017, my mother’s long-term partner passed away. He died incredibly young after suffering for a year. She, who’d worked in nursing her whole life, took care of him in his last year. We didn’t know he’d die, but we knew he kept getting sick. She put all of herself into him, into saving him, into literally resuscitating him. For her, the grief was and is endless. And it was complex. Do we only mourn those who leave us with golden memories? Can we mourn those who we, in part, hated? Do they become absolved once they’re dead, lifted into some untouchable layer of sky where sin is reduced to angel wings? I don’t know. As an atheist, I wanted to write something that explored my own grief and healing—while encountering the complexity of my sorrow. I felt there was no better way to eulogize him—his time in our life, his imprint, our hurt—without being unabashedly honest. Because I couldn’t lean on God for answers, I explored a lot of this through the lens of water. He was a fisherman, and he wanted to be put out to sea. I am a swimmer, and water is my holy ground; it’s the only place I feel spiritual. While I was swimming, he died, and while I was swimming, I felt him die. So another part of this is recognizing that there’s some elemental connection we all have—religious or not—that clues us in to the ticking of the universe, to the energy that comes and goes. It’s almost imperceptible, but I felt he would have wanted me to write about him in some way that dealt with water. Like waves, which come and go, I used vignettes to capture the memories, as a photograph would, that kept me up at night. That moved through me like an engine. While I’d like to say this is a good piece, it’s not. It’s shameful, dirty, and unresolved in some ways. But I tried.

 

Lisa Marie Basile is an editor, writer and poet living in NYC. She is the founding editor-in-chief of Luna Luna Magazine and the author of Apocryphal (Noctuary Press, 2014), as well as a few chapbooks. Her book Nympholepsy (co-authored with poet Alyssa Morhardt-Goldstein), is forthcoming with Inside the Castle. She is working on her first novella, to be released by Clash Books.

The Butterfly Cage

Fiction / Erica Kanesaka Kalnay

:: The Butterfly Cage ::

Sampson arrives early. He scurries through the door and crashes into me for a hug, his unzipped coat trailing like a cape behind him. Sampson is fast. This fact is even spelled out in his IEP:

Emotional/Behavioral Challenge 8: When Sampson escalates, he may injure staff/peers and destroy property. He is also known to run away from supervision. He is fast.

At first, I am annoyed that Sampson has cut into my preparation time, but he seems to be having a good morning. I ask him to help me transfer the chrysalises from their jar to the butterfly cage. The cage is made of mesh and shaped like a bell, suspended from a wire frame. The chrysalises cling to our fingers and shudder when we lift them. Sampson and I touch them gently to the branches inside the cage until they stick and go still. Sampson holds one up at eye level and laughs as it jiggles. He looks up at me with an expectant expression, his dark eyes wide and his mouth thrown open. He’s inviting me to laugh with him, waiting for it, demanding.

Sampson has always loved the butterflies. When the caterpillars first arrived in their tiny plastic jar, I taped it at eye level on a shelf in the exploration center, and he never wanted to play anywhere else. He’d stand in front of the shelf, his back to the other children, and get lost there for hours. From behind, he was just the delicate shape of his skull under his buzz cut, his uniform shirt half-tucked, and his hands wriggling through the air, mimicking the caterpillars.

I’d asked the children to each bring something for the butterflies’ habitat. Most brought twigs and pine needles and leaves in little plastic baggies. Camila brought a bag of blue pebbles from the dollar store, the kind that usually go inside a goldfish bowl. Sampson’s grandmother forgot to send him a baggie, and Sampson lost it as soon as he found out. He spent the rest of the morning in the safe room. When he was finally allowed to reenter after recess, he marched straight to the library and found a butterfly “little reader.” He held it up to me with both hands, like an orphan holding up an empty soup bowl. I was touched by the formality of his offering.

“They need to learn about themselves,” he’d said. “So they can understand themselves.”

“Okay,” I’d said, and placed the book next to where the cage lay in wait for the chrysalises to form.

When the other children arrive, I call circle time and place the butterfly cage in the middle of the carpet. I’ve told the children to glue their butts to their spots, but everyone wants a closer look. Two little boys use adaptive seating that helps anchor them to the ground. The rest of the children lean as far forward as they can without their butts coming unglued. They remind me of a group of penguins hesitating at the edge of a cliff overlooking icy water. I know that one of them will take the plunge, and then the rest will follow.

Of course, it is Sampson who does it. He reaches into the middle of the circle and pushes at the cage. It starts to swing on its frame, and the chrysalises tremble.

“Stop it,” I say. He was being so gentle an hour ago.

Sampson gets back in the S.M.A.R.T. position. Straight back. Mouth quiet. Attentive eyes. Restful hands. Thinking brain.

I take the cage around to each child and point to the chrysalises tucked behind the leaves.

“What do you think those are?” I ask them. We read a book on butterflies the day before.

They stare at me.

“Poop!” says one little boy. That’s his favorite word. He likes the reaction it gets.

“Benji?” I ask another.

You can see the giggles bubbling up inside Benji. He wiggles around to hold them in, looking at me with sideways eyes.

“Poop,” he finally says in a tiny, squeaky voice.

I look around the circle for someone to save me. Aside from Sampson, Camila is my most academically advanced student, a girl with long-lashed eyes and heavy cheeks. She always sits serenely amongst her squirming peers like a little monk.

She looks at me, her mouth hanging open. “Bug?” she says.

“Nah!” Sampson is sitting beside her. He’s so angry that he rises to his feet. “It’s called a pupa. You a bunch of goddamn fools.”

The other four-year-olds stare at him. “Yes,” they seem to be thinking, “Poop-ah.”

“Fuckers!” Sampson adds, for effect.

“Sampson, do you need a time out?” I say automatically.

Sometimes I think Sampson hates the robotic way I respond to his behaviors more than the actual orders. “Come on,” he seems to say, like a little devil that buzzes around my ears. “Admit that you feel something. Admit that you hate me.”

He drops his butt back down onto his spot and shoots me his evil eyes. When the other children do that, I want to laugh at their childish hostility, but with him, for a second, I think I see a flash of true malice.

I continue with the lesson. I teach the children a poem about the butterfly life cycle. I teach them to do the “butterfly handshake,” where two people link thumbs and wiggle their fingers side by side. I tell them what a “butterfly kiss” is, how one person bats their eyelashes against another person’s cheeks like a butterfly’s delicately beating wings.

“When you go home today,” I say, “you can give them to your mommies and daddies and the people you love.” Many of the children don’t live with their birth parents, so I’m usually careful to add that.

“Teacher, Sampson is bothering her,” says one little girl, and I look over to see Camila with tears running down her cheeks, hugging her chubby arms over her little potbelly. One arm has tiny stab marks from a ballpoint pen all over it. I’m amazed at how she’s not crying out loud. Sampson has a pen in his lap. He must have taken it from my clipboard. He looks away. Not to play innocent, but to dismiss me.

“Get up,” I say. I get up myself. I am towering over him. This is something I’m not supposed to do. I should be staying at his eye level and speaking calmly, deescalating the situation.

“Give it,” I say. I twist the pen out of his hands.

Sampson kicks me in the shins, and then I’m not sure what I feel, pain or anger, because I’m not allowed to feel anything anyway. There’s a procedure for what has to happen next. I’m supposed to become the adult in one of the line drawings in the Crisis Intervention Manual: “How to Restrain a Child Under Seven.” The drawing shows you how to sink to the floor and hug the child from behind, how to keep the child’s arms crossed over his chest. The child’s left hand in your right hand; his right hand in your left. I do this to Sampson. I am supposed to wait for backup, someone to clear away the other children and any dangerous objects. We are alone. My assistant has been pulled into another room, as usual. Instead, the children act of their own accord, herding themselves silently to their table spots by instinct. At any other time, I would have found their obedience touching.

I’m supposed to count in my head to calm myself. I count to 100. With each number, the waiting seems to become more impossible. Sampson kicks and thrashes beneath me. The muscles in my arms start to tire. His hands are so small and unformed that they feel like Play-Doh in my own.

*

When Sampson’s grandma comes to pick him up at 3:00, I am sitting at the art table with two little girls who string Froot Loops onto yarn in an afternoon daze.

“Get your coat,” Sampson’s grandma says by way of greeting. Sampson is splayed like a sea star in the library, counting the lights bulbs on the ceiling. His morning episode has tired him out. He gets up and grabs his coat and backpack from his cubby. Then he pauses and comes back to give me a hug. He is the kind of preschooler who seems to hug you with his whole being. The surprising strength of his squeeze almost stops my breath.

“I told you to hurry up,” says his grandma. She is a tall, black woman, young for a grandma. I’ve never seen her speak anything but orders to Sampson, but unlike some of the other guardians, she takes time off from work to come to every IEP meeting. When I lost my voice in November, she slipped me ginger powder in a gold pouch. “Just mix this with hot water,” she’d said.

Jennifer, my carpool, stops by my classroom at 7:00. We load our milk crates back into her trunk in the illuminated parking lot. The drive home is dark, just like the morning one, only now there is traffic and the occasional jaywalker. Bundled figures stand at the bus stops holding plastic grocery bags. It’s been snowing for a few hours now. Jennifer’s coupe skids down the street.

Jennifer and I completed teacher training together the past summer. We both went to the boot camp where they gave us matching water bottles and lunchboxes. We stood in an assembly line to fill them with sandwiches and Kool-Aid before swarming out over the city. We were a small army of young teachers ready to fight educational inequality. But now Jennifer is the only other teacher I still speak to. She drives to soccer practice every day after dropping me off at my apartment. I admire how she has something else in her life that still matters.

Once I’m safely inside and I’ve checked all the windows and locks, I sit on the couch with my milk crate beside me. I have lesson planning to do. First, though, I open up the crime map on my cell phone. Little icons pop up all around me. A man with a moneybag, a man in a mask, a little fist, a little gun. When I press the refresh button, sometimes a new one appears, and sometimes one doesn’t, but it happens often enough that I can’t let myself stop.

I do this for more than an hour until a new icon appears just down the street from me, a shadow of a man in a doorway. I go to the window to look for the flashing lights of a police car. I don’t see them.

Instead, I see a black man walking through the still-falling snow. He has a shovel thrown over one shoulder. I watch him draw closer. It’s like watching a silent movie. At last, I start to hear the sound of his footsteps trudging up to my door. I imagine myself in one of two scenarios: in the first, he uses the shovel to smash through my front window and climbs inside and holds a gun to my head. In the second, he knocks on the front door. I’m stupid. I open it for him. He asks if he can shovel my driveway for a few dollars. Then he hits me over the head with the shovel.

The real man before me bangs on the door. Of course, I don’t answer. I stand frozen behind it, and he tries one more time, and at last I hear his footsteps retreat. I’m uncertain if I’ve just come close to death or if it was only an ordinary moment.

*

My third month of teaching, I was mugged in front of the Laundromat. Jennifer came to sit with me in the emergency room. Late at night, the place was like a police procedural, each bed a different episode blocked off by mint-green curtains. The scenes flashed by me: a gray-faced woman begging for painkillers, two boys hugging their mother in silence, a man lying face down on sheets stained with blood.

“It’s a pretty thin case,” one of the police officers had said to me. There were two of them. They looked professional, efficient, bored. The nurses didn’t seem to think I needed to be there, either. The men on the street had pistol-whipped me, but I had come away with only some scratches and bruises and a black eye. The officers suggested I move to the suburbs.

“Are you sure you can’t give us a better description?” the second officer asked me. I repeated myself: three black men about my age, early twenties, winter coats. One had glared at me at the bus stop, following me with his eyes. A block later, he’d jumped back out in front of me. “Give me your money,” he’d said.

The other two men came up from behind me. They pulled my jacket over my eyes at first, so I couldn’t see anything. “I’m a teacher,” I’d told them, as if that would help.

“We’ll try,” the first officer said. “But, honestly, it’s not much to go on. Lots of guys fit that description.”

*

When April comes and the snow finally melts, it feels unnatural. The birds start chirping, and the neighborhood children come out to buy thick slices of mango from the man with the cart. Old men in t-shirts sit on the porches, their hands pushed into their pockets.

“Hey there, blondie,” they say. “Flash me that smile.” I know each of these men by name: Pete, Momo, Raheem, Jeremiah.

“Lookin’ good,” they say. “Lookin’ good.”

I worry that these things might lull me into complacency. The longer days invite people to stay out later, but when darkness hits, it’s like winter again, and we all burrow back.

One morning, when I get to my classroom, I find the netting of the butterfly cage streaked with red. The butterflies have emerged. They rest in the middle of the cage, slowly opening and closing their wings as if in shock.

“What happened?” Sampson asks me when he gets to school, and I tell him it’s just the juice from their wings, which is true. He pauses a while to evaluate that, as if I might be telling a lie. It occurs to me that some of the children might be frightened. I should have explained this to them in advance.

“Why aren’t they flying?”

“Their wings still need to dry,” I say. “That’s why they’re flapping them like that.”

“Oh,” Sampson says. He seems satisfied. He is on his best behavior all morning but goes to peek inside the cage during each transition.

“They didn’t get shot,” he explains to the other children. “That’s just juice.” I’m thankful that he’s doing it for me. The other children believe him.

I’m given fifteen minutes for lunch, and it takes about five to walk from the gym to the teacher’s workroom and back, so really only ten to myself. On my way to pick up the children, the cacophony of shouting starts from far down the hallway and crescendos by the time I reach the gym’s double doors. The children can’t play outside because of stray bullets. They crash into the padded walls of the gym and scream at the tops of their voices. When I have to stop them at this play, they seem confused. “Did you hit someone?” I’ll ask them, and their eyes will dart around. They’ll have no idea.

The recess monitor, Mrs. Johnson, blows the whistle, and the children stampede toward the line. One little girl crashes into me and leaves a sweaty spot on the front of my shirt. The children’s foreheads are so drenched in sweat after recess that it beads up and glistens from their hair.

I notice Sampson at the far end of the gym, peering into the cage for the balls.

I call to him. His name has become my refrain. I say it so many times each day that it’s become almost meaningless. Sampson, Sampson, Sampson. Whenever I say it, I feel like I’m a child myself, with my eyes closed and my arms outstretched, playing Marco Polo. Sampson will respond for an instant and then drift off somewhere else, and I’ll have to call out again.

Mrs. Johnson walks over to him. “You heard your teacher. Go line up,” she says. I envy for a moment the rapport that she has with him, the rapport all the other staff can have because they don’t have to be the ones to discipline him.

Mrs. Johnson whispers something to him gently. She takes his hand and walks him to the back of the line. Many of the children struggle with transitions. Some of them have been shuffled between parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles and distant cousins and foster homes. This has left them unable to walk from one room in the school building and into another. They fall to pieces when asked to put away the blocks and pick up the crayons instead.

We march back to the classroom and put out the mats for naptime. All the children, except Sampson, sleep as fiercely as they just played. Sampson asks if he can nap by the butterfly cage, and I say okay. He spends the next hour nudging the cage just slightly when I’m not looking. I know it must be him, but whenever I turn, he’s lying back on the mat, peacefully staring up at the cage swinging above his head. The butterflies are flying now. They crash into each other and into the mesh walls like heated gas.

After naptime is bathroom time, then circle. When bathroom time comes, I put the girls and boys in separate lines, and one group waits along the wall while the other group takes their turn. Some of the children fall asleep while they’re waiting, and I have to jiggle them back awake. Some start crying, and others start poking their neighbors. The ones in the bathroom ask me to zip up their flies and buckle up their belts. The whole process takes almost half an hour. Once we get back for circle, I’m fifteen minutes behind on the lesson and worry about what will happen if an administrator walks in the door. I decide to just do a shared writing exercise. Together on the board, we’ll write something like this:

Today, the butterflies came out. They are red and black and orange. They were slow, but they can fly now! We love butterflies.

I go to get the butterfly cage. The butterflies aren’t there. Just dead leaves and pine needles and Camila’s blue stones from the dollar store.

I know that only Sampson would be smart enough to open the cage and close it back up again. The top has a drawstring that needs to be knotted, and he’s the only one who can tie his shoes.

“Sampson,” I say.

He walks over.

“Stop here,” I say, and even though I know I shouldn’t, I reach into his pockets and turn them inside out. Little pebbles and some Skittles fall out, but nothing else. “Did you open the butterfly cage?” I say. I pat him down again.

“No,” says Sampson. He seems strangely calm. There’s no exaggerated rage at my allegation.

“I need you to tell me the truth,” I say.

He looks up at me plainly. Then, as if to spite me, he simply says, “Huh?”

I make Sampson sit with his head down at the table while the rest of us finish circle. We practice breaking words into sounds and putting them back together. Bag. B-a-g. Bag. Top. T-o-p. Top. We clap our hands as we do this.

I notice Camila has started crying again. She cries at least once a day. But this time, extra big, heavy tears run down her dirty cheeks, forming gullies. She stares down at her hands. They’re stained red with butterfly mush.

The other children look on in shock.

I pick Camila up and carry her to the sink. She is heavy, but I don’t let myself drop her. I set her down on the plastic stool and adjust the faucets until they run warm. I wash her hands with soap and water, scrubbing each chubby finger inside my own. It feels almost as if there are no bones inside her fingers, as if they’re made of rubber. I make sure the butterfly parts have gone down the drain, and I dry her hands with brown paper towels. I wet a paper towel and rub it all over her face to wipe away the tears. She squeezes her eyes shut to let me do it. The other children wait in silence, watching.

When I’m done, I let everyone have choice time. I give Sampson permission to leave the table. He goes straight to the butterfly cage and peers inside it. He gets down on his knees and looks under the shelves and behind them. I wonder myself where the other butterflies went, whether I’ll find them squished at the bottom of Camila’s backpack or whether I’ll find them scattered about the room: one dropped dead in a bin of Tinkertoys, one pressed between the pages of a book.

After a while, Sampson stops searching and slinks over to the block area. I watch him snatch a block from Camila. Her hands stay there empty, as if in offering, with the same open palms that held the crushed butterfly. Sampson holds the block up as high as he can. He is almost on tiptoe. He whacks it down hard over her head.

*

That evening, as Jennifer and I wait at a red light on Jefferson, a black man walks through the traffic, winding his way between the stalled cars. He strolls from windshield to windshield and taps on each one, probably asking for money. I brace myself. My hands feel automatically for the lock, although I’ve checked it several times already.

“He’s going to get run over,” I say.

“He’ll be okay.” Jennifer seems uninterested. She isn’t even watching him. She just stares ahead at the light.

“I wish they wouldn’t do that,” I say. I’m talking about all the jaywalkers that cross here on Jefferson. Then I say something I know I shouldn’t. “Don’t black men know we can’t see them in the dark?”

Jennifer lurches out of her daze.

“What?” she says.

I envy how uncomplicated her anger is. It’s visible all over.

“You can get out and walk,” she says. She leans over me to unlock the door.

I’m suddenly terrified, for so many reasons. “I’m sorry,” I say.

“You should be.”

But I’m not sorry. I’m furious. I hate myself, and I hate Jennifer, anyone who would judge me without knowing my fear. The light turns green, and the man steps onto the embankment. The cars start to move.

For a moment, I’m not sure whether Jennifer still wants me to get out or not. We’re in the far left of three lanes of traffic. She switches on the turn signal and looks over her shoulder.

“You don’t understand,” I now tell Jennifer by way of apology. “I’m scared.”

“I know,” she says, “But you’re still being racist.”

“It’s not that simple.”

“Yes, it is.”

Jennifer pulls to the side of the road. As soon as she’s done this, I realize that I didn’t think she would actually stop.

I get out, and Jennifer’s car merges back into the traffic. I am standing on a bridge. Beneath me is a highway that splits across the city like a wound.

I don’t want to move. I know that as soon as I do the terror will strike. I will become like a woman in a horror movie, tripping over my own feet. I see myself moving in stop motion, in the blue lights that flash from the surveillance video poles.

No, I tell myself. It’s okay. The man has walked off the other way. The shadows dancing around me are my own, made by the headlights as they rush by.

I’m really only a few blocks from my apartment. I run home. I make it there and lock the door.

After a few minutes, my heart starts to quiet. I sit on the couch. Jennifer has my milk crate in her trunk, and I need it to prepare the next day’s lessons. I pull out my cell phone, hoping to find a message from her. Nothing.

I flip to the crime map. The little icons pop up across the city.

I sometimes wish crime maps could look into the future, that I could have seen an icon before it happened to me.

“Why did you take the butterflies?” I’d asked Camila that afternoon, after I’d filled out the Incident Report Form and the Injury Documentation and the Behavior Referral. Sampson had been taken away to the safe room, and Camila was sitting in my lap with a fish-shaped ice pack pressed up against the purpling welt on her forehead, melting ice dribbling down her cheeks instead of tears.

You’re not supposed to ask that question as a teacher. “Why did you. . . ?” But sometimes you just can’t help yourself.

“They were pretty,” she’d said.

It was that simple for her.

The crime map on my phone goes dark, and I just sit there. I think of Sampson’s unsurprised face as I’d turned out his pockets.

I realize that I don’t know how to tell a preschooler I’m sorry.

*

The next morning, when Sampson escalates, I count to 100.

26. . . 27. . . 28. . . 29. . .

What do you do when you can’t start over again?

 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

Although I am myself multiracial (half Japanese and half white), I have chosen to tell a story about racism in education from the perspective of a white teacher in a predominantly black school. I realize that there are aspects of both this situation and the very act of writing about this situation that call for us to be wary. Still, I ultimately believe this is an important issue for non-black Americans to confront, so I have tried to write about the topic in the best way I know.

My motive in telling this story is to urge us to think critically about race in our public education system. Particularly, I would like white Americans (or, as in my case, partly white Americans) to reflect upon what whiteness means in these settings. Research shows that what would truly benefit students of all identities would be a greater number of black teachers and black leaders in schools across the country. Yet, most of the existing stories of white teachers in predominantly black schools are hero narratives. The reality is, I think, far more complex than these hero narratives acknowledge—and often far more troubling.

While this story is purely fictional, I have taught in a variety of education settings very similar to the one I imagine here. I have also experienced a mugging similar to the one depicted and had to confront my own biases in the aftermath. Mostly, though, I still struggle to make sense of some of the things I witnessed in schools in Milwaukee, Chicago, and Brooklyn. And while I entered urban education with good intentions, I now find myself forced to question the role I played in an education system that perpetuates discrimination.

When it comes to the story itself, one particular fear of mine is that the narrator, while clearly unreliable, seems to call for too much sympathy. I do not want readers to apologize for her. But I do want white Americans to recognize that racism can have its own “banality of evil.” Racism is all too viscerally present in police shootings, but racial violence takes many forms, and I believe non-black Americans must be careful not to let these horrific acts displace racism elsewhere. The situation I depict here is, in contrast, quite ordinary. It’s that very ordinariness that should trouble us.

I support the #BlackLivesMatter movement and hope that Americans will listen to and elevate black voices. I believe this is the only way to begin dismantling the discrimination entrenched in our education system and other institutions. For me, the story’s concluding sentence is not only a question that the narrator must ask herself, but a question that lies at the heart of American history.

 

Erica Kanesaka Kalnay reads, writes, and makes art in Madison, Wisconsin. She holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from New York University and is currently working on a Ph.D. in Literary Studies at the University of Wisconsin. You can find her online at ericakanesaka.com and @ericakanesaka.

Two Poems

Poetry / Chet’la Sebree

:: Lady-in-Waiting, April 1789 ::

In front of looking glass, I admire my structure, my admixture 
of patterns, as I smooth down the gown that falls to my feet—

bolt of Irish linen stitched into frock for evening, 
where I’ll stand two steps behind Patsy, not behind closed doors,

make a lap around ballroom where candles dress walls, 
blue beads my neck, where my lips will be purple-puckered 

from a wine from a region often named.
Bordeaux, I try. Corset, I say, 

making my mouth French—admiring 
my bone-bound breasts nearly cresting top of dress.

In the mirror I practice, Dame de chambre, femme en attente—
though everyone here calls me Mademoiselle Sallyesclave sounds better in this language,
maîtresse much the same.


 

:: Paris: A Retrospective ::

Your stagger sought to untether—hand sack of flour against frame, 
          heavy from body heavy with liquid lead.  

Was it me or Isabel you saw spread on the bed? 

~

This is as old as time, mom said.  First gran and her, then Mary and Bets.

~

Breathlessly: Sally.  

~

I could not mend my body to break—cedar berry, tansy, cotton seed minced to tea,
          trying to force a bleed.  

Belly swollen, sick as if still on ocean.

~

I am embarrassed by my opening—bare blush of blossom, floral flush of cheek. A flood staining 
          sheets in need of laundering.

~

Or maybe I didn’t open, but burst—a fracture that still aches in cold.



 

From the writer

:: Account ::

“Lady-in-Waiting, April 1789” 

This poem is in the voice of Sally Hemings—Thomas Jefferson’s slave with whom he had at least six children—when she’s a young woman in Paris. In 1787, at the age of fourteen, Hemings traveled to France with Jefferson’s youngest daughter, Maria (Polly), to meet Jefferson and his eldest daughter, Martha (Patsy). In this poem, Hemings is trying on a new dress as she prepares to attend an event with Patsy as her lady’s maid.

In April 1789, Hemings has been in Paris for nearly two years. It is documented that, during this time, Hemings started to learn French, received wages for her work, and received fine linens for occasions such as the one that unfolds in the poem. While in France, she became Jefferson’s concubine—according to her son Madison Hemings—and, sometime in 1789, was pregnant.

When it was time for her to return to the States with Jefferson later that year, she refused to return with him since she could petition the French government for her freedom. In Madison Hemings’s memoir, Hemings states that his mother returned to the States because Jefferson promised her “extraordinary privilege” and that their children would be freed.

In this poem, Hemings tries on language—the terminology, the French—much in the same way that she tries on the dress. In this poem, Hemings tries on what “extraordinary privilege” may look like.

Many of the details of this poem—and perhaps even the impetus for it—come from my experience of trying on a replica of an eighteenth-century corset in the Theatre Department’s costume shop at the University of Virginia.

“Paris: A Retrospective” 

In this poem, Hemings looks back at her first sexual experience with Jefferson; this poem follows many failed attempts to write about this experience. Every time I tried to write the poem in the “present” tense of the late 1780s I failed, so I tried to come at this first experience from a number of different angles. The two that were the most successful were this one, in which Hemings is trying to reconcile her past and unpack what happened to her, and one where Jefferson dreams of his first sexual experience with her; the idea of breaking, unintentionally, is present in both.

As a writer, I felt conflicted about writing about this moment since I know there is a level of violence I know I already inflict by imposing my literary imagination on the life of this woman who is voiceless in history. Not being able to find my way organically into a poem about her first sexual experience with Jefferson almost felt like a sign that I wasn’t meant to write about it, so I gave up on the prospect—especially since I couldn’t reconcile what happened to her.

I often wrestle with the nature of Hemings and Jefferson’s relationship and the nature of their first sexual experience since she was at most sixteen and he forty-six when she became his concubine in Paris. It occurred to me, however, that perhaps Hemings also felt conflicted. From there, it also occurred to me that perhaps both my imagined Sally and I might benefit from the distance of retrospection.

In addition to Hemings wrestling with the nature of the experience, she is also wrestling with identity and motherhood in this poem. Hemings contemplates whether or not she’s “special,” wondering if Jefferson saw her or another slave named Isabel—whom he’d requested travel with his daughter Polly to Paris, though she couldn’t because she was pregnant—or if this experience was just her matrilineal legacy. Hemings was not the only woman in her family who was a concubine or had a sexual relationship with a white man. In this poem, she looks at the legacy of this through her grandmother, her mother, her sister Mary—who was in a common law marriage with a white man who informally freed her—and her niece Betsy. Hemings also wrestles with her first pregnancy in this poem—whether or not to have this child when she’s dealing with so much else, including being an ocean away from the majority of her family.

Ultimately, it felt fitting that Hemings needed the time, distance, and space from this moment to contemplate it. It also felt fitting that, ultimately, she also has no answers.

 

Chet’la Sebree was the 2014 – 2016 Stadler Fellow at Bucknell University’s Stadler Center for Poetry. She is a graduate of American University’s MFA in Creative Writing Program and has received fellowships from The MacDowell Colony, Hedgebrook, Vermont Studio Center, and the Richard H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Her poetry has most recently appeared in Guernica, Gulf Coast, and Crazyhorse.

Four Poems

Poetry / Lee Ann Roripaugh

:: #coldspringwithptsd #string of beads ::

midnight’s icicle  ::  each day longer in the tooth  ::  the end of winter
fangs its way in toward your  ::  palely exposed jugular

~

hawk unfluffs a  ::  bunny into aperture  ::  the unraveling
ribbons of slick intestines  ::  rain’s sullen legerdemain

~

panic’s acetone  ::  chipping night’s glitter-  ::  polish of stars / next
morning a stray balloon dream-  ::  tangled in real tree branches

~

relentless birdsong  ::  see-sawing under the eaves  ::  ativan’s static
an impotent snow / tin-foiled  ::  antennae / poor reception

~

leapday: drinking black  ::  coffee / black coffee / drinking  ::  black coffee / stare
at the walls / black coffee / black  ::  coffee / black coffee / stare—

~

the muffled thud of  ::  damp socks Stockholm Syndroming  ::  in the dryer / you
never really listen to  ::  the non-sequiturs of rain

~

relentless birdsong  ::  see-sawing under the eaves  ::  april’s tight green buds
popcorn to ruptured cloud in  ::  anxiety’s hot oil sheening

~

young hawk plucks apart  ::  something tender in the tree  ::  outside your window
white fluff dandelioning  ::  down / spring broken / sprung forward

~

melancholia  ::  unfolds its wiry, anised  ::  uncoiling like a
bitter licorice / roadkill’s  ::  flat pancaked halo of calm

~

exsanguinated  ::  stone / no-more-shake-left injet  ::  spilled milk / licked-clean plate
sac’s cul / crumpled juicebox / dis-  ::  pensed pez / inkless octopus

~

relentless birdsong  ::  see-sawing under the eaves  ::  migraine’s struck tuning
fork blowtorching a fountain  ::  of sparks behind your right eye

~

rain’s slack gray phrases  ::  slurring the blurred windowpanes  ::  ostinato of
the gutter’s percolated  ::  rattle / wilting confetti

of storm-drenched lilac  ::  in the alley / Monday noon’s  ::  tornado siren
diluted, like too-weak tea  ::  in the day’s triggering wet

~

today you are a  ::  delicate glass shattering  ::  under cold water
after rain’s gray anthems / comes  ::  snow’s staticky off-signal


 

:: #sandhillcranes #string of beads ::

sizzle of orange  ::  lightning / the corrugated  ::  tin blind a gaunt bell
clanging in the wind and rain  ::  curious deer near to see

~

roosting overnight  ::  in clusters on the river’s  ::  sandbars / cranes stirred to
call and response by the storm  ::  say hello (hello) hell-oh

~

scribbled warble of  ::  cranes graffiti night’s water  ::  a river otter’s
sleek whiskered head interrupts  ::  the river’s tense murmuring

~

train whistle’s blurred smear  ::  curlicued by coyotes’ yip and wail  ::  the wood-block chortling
of cranes gets frenetic / as  ::  sun’s wobbly gold yolk slides up

~

thousands of sandhills  ::  helix off sandbars into  ::  spirographed kettling
football stadium loud / iced  ::  river exhales puffs of fog

~

a whooping crane takes  ::  wing from the cornfield in snow  ::  ukiyo-e
cranes in snow / moon craning  ::  the river trills all night long  

~

obfuscatory  ::  crooning slices through the mist  ::  filaments of cranes
unraveling / shaggy yarn  ::  from a woolly skein of fog

~

a flyover plane  ::  cranes burble silver water  ::  chirping lotto balls
oil empire’s blinking neon  ::  signage strobes the horizon


 

:: #to the tardigrades #kaze no denwa ::

                    o microscopic water bear!
                    o infinitesimal moss piglet!

                    let us squee and coo over 
                    the winsome gambol
                    of your eight pumping legs
                    the slovenly crumpled origami
                    of your brown-paper-bag body

                    even given the anus-like
                    pucker of the mouth-hole
                    on your face 
                    your optics are far
                    more comforting
                    than the cockroach’s
                    as sole survivor
                    of post-atomic apocalypse

                    your cryptobiotic superpower:
                    an uncanny ability 
                    to freeze-dry and thrive
                    in the vacuum of outer space
                    for decades at a time
                    then resurrecting back to life
                    with a single drop of water

                    your microfossils
                    date back 520 million years
                    and you’ll survive
                    supernovae / killer asteroids
                    and gamma-ray bursts
                    of searing radiation

                    (it would take vesta—
                    an asteroidal ocean killer
                    with a diameter of 326 miles—
                    to potentially erase you)

                    o, tenacious survivor
                    of cosmic trauma / how
                    I wish I could channel
                    the matter-of-factness
                    of your resilience
                    in the face of nothingness
                    your ability to just be
                    and keep on being

                    what is it about myself
                    and other humans
                    that harbors the sweet fruit
                    of suicidal ideation
                    the genocidal fire
                    of self-destruction?

                    why the reverse morse
                    of nuclear codes?

                    spill of poison
                    into the water supply?

                    the seductive electricity
                    of the third rail—
                    that magnetic urge
                    to swerve and plummet 
                    from mountain’s switchback
                    and fall and fall and fall?


 

:: #to the robobees #kaze no denwa ::

                    a machination of horsehair
                    with a sticky ion gel

                    pygmalioned from tiny drones

                    your plastic spinners
                    mix-mastering an electric whir

                    sound of thousands
                    of microscopic blenders
                    pureeing summer’s air

                    a drone for a drone

                    (technological revolution
                    in the means of production?)

                    (linguistic sleight-of-hand
                    in which representation
                    replaces the real?)

                    it begins with
                    the dwindling of
                    the hawaiian
                    yellow-faced bee

                    the withering away
                    of the rusty patched
                    bumblebee

                    diminishing habitats
                    invasive species
                    neonicotinoids
                    climate change
                    colony collapse disorder

                    post-apocalyptic prophecy:
                    a fleet of you
                    pollinating a field
                    of shriveled flowers
                    with the uncanny thrum
                    of plastic zombies

                    is a bee still a bee
                    without honey?

                    (if poets become extinct
                    will the algorithms
                    keep humming?
                    is a poem still
                    a poem when no one’s
                    left to read?)

                    who will miss
                    the idiosyncrasies?

                    bee-flies who mimic
                    honeybees / but with
                    obscenely long
                    tongues to plunder
                    shy primroses

                    sphinx moth wings
                    a throated purring
                    in the night / as they ravish
                    the honeysuckle

                    honeybees lured in
                    by their fascination
                    for blue flowers
                    (lavender / borage / marjoram
                    veronica / love-in-a-mist)
                    returning to the hive
                    with heavy pollen baskets
				
                    who will secrete royal jelly
                    from glands in their head?

                    who will pass the pollen 
                    from bee to bee / each of them
                    chewing and grinding
                    until it’s refined and sweet
                    ready to store in wax cells?

                    (it takes eight bees
                    their entire lives
                    to make a single teaspoon)
				
                    who will make the honey
                    that smells like nostalgia
                    tasting like a memory
                    of lavender flowers
                    fragrant in sunlight?



 

From the writer

:: Account ::

#stringofbeads is envisioned as an ecocritical and decolonizing collage of braided tanka, zuihitsu, and “kaze no denwa” (“wind phone” tributes) that interrogates the false binary of Nature and Technology. In this false binary, Technology is the term that’s privileged as progressivist, urbane, smart/intellectual, scientific, creative, and patriarchal/male. Nature, conversely, is cast as atavistic, raw, undeveloped, primal, unenlightened, and female. These terms and the ways in which they’re aligned simultaneously echo racial/racist stereotypes in which Nature occupies the oppressed (i.e., raced/Orientalized) pole of the binary: exoticized, fetishized, primed for “mastery,” situated to be “known”/subject to “knowingness,” othered, idealized, and penetrated. Along similar lines this conflation of Orientalizing and gendering cathects in tendencies to always represent Nature as pure, “pristine,” “untouched” as in virginal.

The idea of Nature as “pristine,” “untouched,” and “virginal” is a patriarchal and colonizing fantasy. Even at national parks, Nature is imbricated with technology and industry: roads, signage, visitor’s centers, cell phone service, etc. etc. To take a photograph of Nature at the scenic outlook/view is to photograph a carefully engineered illusion—one in which industry/technology has created the means to the view, but is eliminated from the frame to create the illusion of Nature as pure/pristine/untouched. This nostalgia for an Orientalizing/colonizing fantasy is also, perhaps, the recreation of a phallocentric rape fantasy?

Yet Nature always/already exists alongside industry and technology. Nature is always/already part of industry and technology in that industry and technology are constructed, at root/base, from natural materials, and industry/technology is always/already “natural” in that industry/technology are organic creations of biological organisms of our planet. Meaning that the oxymoronic term “man made” is a false separation from “nature made.” As if “man” is somehow above/in charge of/master of nature, as opposed to a part of and subject to the “laws” of nature. “Man made” is not necessarily progressivist or “evolutionary” (in a positivist sense), either. “Man made” is an evolutionary process, yes, but easily a process that could lead to extinction, as could any number of evolutionary processes.

Natural ecosystems are, biologically speaking, all planetarily interconnected, and so there is no such thing as “pristine” Nature. The act of discovery automatically creates a First Contact between Nature and Technology even in outer space—the result being that the definition/scope of Nature is only enlarged? It’s interesting that outer space seemingly belongs to the realm of Technology/Science/Science Fiction, until First Contact is made, at which point the “flag is planted” and it becomes a focus of colonization, dominion, belonging to, and hence Nature. Nature in this sense is constructed as passive, and awaiting colonization. Nature only exists once ownership/dominion occurs, and is therefore a term of property rights and colonization. (Hence alignment with the feminine and racialized others.)

Thus, Nature is always/already Cyborg.

And so what does it mean to trouble the binaries between Nature and Technology in representations of, particularly, Nature? What does an intervention that attempts to destabilize the essentialized notion of Nature as an exoticized, fetishized, feminized, passive, “pristine” Other look like?

And in a feminist rewriting of the primal rape fantasy (and its nostalgic iterations) doesn’t Nature tend to trump Technology (i.e., natural disasters such as floods, earthquakes, tornadoes, tsunamis, etc.)?

And if nature is always/already Cyborg, does this mean that Nature, like all Cyborgs, is semiotically unstable, but also meteorologically volatile (and possibly unhappy at being tampered with/interfered with by her cybergenic creator(s))?

With respect to literary representations, I also feel that contemporary renditions of traditional Asian forms are particularly guilty of representing Nature in this “pristine,” fetishized, Orientalized manner which (in tandem with the appropriation of a traditional Asian form by a non-Asian practitioner), leads to a sense of double Orientalizing (both formal and thematic): “museum culture” nostalgia for a pre-Westernized Asia, etc. This is ridiculous given what a technologically-driven and technologically-savvy group of countries comprise contemporary Asia.

Non-Asian practitioners of haiku, tanka, senryu, et al. are not automatically offensively Orientalist for their appropriation of the forms, per se (although the question of (mis)appropriation here is definitely worth discussing), but rather for their performance of the form in such a way that reifies and expresses a nostalgia for Orientalist stereotypes—particularly through relying on static imagery of/for a Nature-that-is-no-more (pure, pristine, etc.) in a linguistic style that is likewise static/dated in terms of contemporary poetry and poetics. (As another subset is (mis)appropriation, perhaps we might consider Western/non-Asian “haiku” (and other) societies that similarly defend the “purity” and “tradition” of the form—even as it has already been Westernized through translation and non-calligraphic practices.)

#stringofbeads plays in this fluid, hybrid spectrum between Nature and Technology, matriarchy and patriarchy, occidental and “Oriental,” paying homage to that which is lost, destroyed, and made extinct through elegiac intrusions of #kazenodenwa (“wind phone”) poems.

 

Lee Ann Roripaugh is the author of four volumes of poetry: Dandarians (Milkweed Editions, 2014), On the Cusp of a Dangerous Year (Southern Illinois University Press, 2009), Year of the Snake (Southern Illinois University Press, 2004), and Beyond Heart Mountain (Penguin, 1999). A fifth volume, tsunami vs. the fukushima 50, is forthcoming from Milkweed in 2018. She was named winner of the Association of Asian American Studies Book Award in Poetry/Prose for 2004, and a 1998 winner of the National Poetry Series. The current South Dakota State Poet Laureate, Roripaugh is a professor of English at the University of South Dakota, where she serves as Director of Creative Writing and Editor-in-Chief of South Dakota Review.

To the White Woman…

Poetry / Simone Person

:: To the White Woman with the Tiny Backpack in Indiana Who Interrupted Me and a Friend to Ask if We Knew This Was a Non-Smoking Campus as I’m Halfway through a Cigarette ::

Yes, we knew, as surely as your Tevas know the way to the closest
food co-op. There is so little for me here. So little of me
here. So much time wasted crafting myself into edges, of flossing 
barbs through my teeth, and braiding razor blades in my hair 
just to be able to walk down the street. Just to smoke in peace
on the non-smoking campus I was born too broke and not
enough enough to even be assumed to attend. I don’t 
expect you to understand what it feels like here 
in Indiana, how the footsteps behind me on my walks home
are louder, that every car passing feels sinister. There’s less
sunlight every day. Fewer reasons that seem to warrant leaving bed. 
White people are always asking me questions we both know
the answers to, trying to string me up and drag me behind sentences.
And if this was the first time a white person talked at me 
like I was stupid, maybe my mouth wouldn’t have spit nails
so quick, rattling your tiny backpack, and transforming you
into afraid and me into the spook you knew I was anyways.



 

From the writer

:: Account ::

As a fat, queer, Black woman growing up in the Midwest, I’ve always felt out of place in my predominately white schools and towns. After moving to an even more racially homogeneous state for graduate school, that feeling of perpetual dislocation intensified, and peaked after leaving my abusive partner in the beginning of the year.

These poems are part of a larger project titled Smoke-Girl, which processes intimate partner violence and rape, especially the shame, self-blame, and anger. This project also focuses on how often Black women are seen as disposable and as threats, and how Black women and our lives, experiences, and traumas are usually infantilized and seen as inferior, or even non-existent, compared to our white and non-Black counterparts.

My work—both prose and poetry—is often drawn from my own experiences and explores the ways dislocation and trauma intersect, especially focusing on the confusing, contradictory, and unsavory emotions that arise at that intersection. I want my work to push back against the Strong Black Woman tropes, to showcase that Black women can be vulnerable, mentally ill, feel pain, and that we’re still here with any and all confusing, contradictory, and unsavory emotions despite the odds.

 

Simone Person grew up in Michigan and Toledo, Ohio, and is a dual MFA/MA in Fiction and African American and African Diaspora Studies at Indiana University. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Puerto del Sol, Kweli Journal, among others, and has been anthologized in Crab Fat Magazine: Best of Year Three. She sporadically uses Twitter and Instagram at @princxporkchop.

Two Poems

Poetry / Juan R. Palomo

:: A Shy One ::

A few minutes in the recreation cage.
Winter’s chill has begun to sneak into fall’s
time and, as he’s escorted back to his cell,
he shivers despite his recent exercise.

The Dallas Cowboys’ game will soon start. He won’t
see it and he won’t hear it but he will know
the results: as soon as the game is over,
the score will echo loudly from cell to cell.

The Cowboys will play again the next Sunday
and Sundays after that until the season
ends. Then they’ll start another season, only
he might not be around to hear about it.

The days are growing short. Fifty days before
his own date with fate, he is now seeing the
world through the eyes of the hundreds of men
who lived this experience in these same cells.

No doubt all felt about their approaching death
just as he does now: whatever happens is
God’s will, and all he can do now is pray—pray
for His favor, for strength—and smile and walk on.

A tour group comes through, looking like regular
Joes and Janes. Three women stand as far from him
as they can and look at him. He walks away
from his door. “Oh, a shy one,” he hears one say.


 

:: His Future ::

1. The Barber

From his cell, he can see
the prison barber on days
 
the recreation cage is used
for cutting hair. He enjoys

the view and he likes the
banter as inmates are led

in and out of the cage, 
and hearing them ask

for different cuts, as if they
had a choice. The view from

his cell window is not bad either. 
He can see horses in a pasture. 

He sees woods, and cars
on a road. Far away. 

2.  The Taquería

He thinks of how he’d feel   
if he were to suddenly find 
himself outside the walls, amid 

the aroma of a panadería 
or a taquería. How he would
love to order some taquitos

de barbacoa, con guacamole 
or pico de gallo. And a Bud
or a Dos Equis, por favor. 

He smiles, realizing he
just sounded as if he were 
in a cafe, talking to a waiter.

3.  The Painkillers

The painkillers make it bearable but he’s
beginning to wonder if there’s something 
really wrong. Could it be stress? Or is
it all in his mind? His body may be filled

with pain, he tells himself, but he should
not allow pain to also take over his days,
and he struggles to remain in good humor.
He just has to learn to be more active,

that’s all, and hopeful. He wonders if the
hearing on the twenty-ninth was held.
He doubts it, for he’s sure he would have 
heard by now if the court had set his date.



 

From the writer

:: Account ::

Nineteen years ago I became friends with a person on Texas’ Death Row, Rogelio (Roy) Reyes Cannady.

Over the next twelve years, Rogelio and I exchanged letters at least once a week, sometimes more often. Seven months after our first communication, I made my first of many visits to Livingston, where the state’s death-row inmates are housed. Each letter, each visit told me this was a special person, extremely intelligent. I soon realized he was also a damn good writer, despite his never having finished high school.

His case was on appeal throughout most of our friendship, but Rogelio was a realist and knew that sooner or later his time would come, and he asked me if I could be a witness to his execution. I agreed, reluctantly. Unfortunately, I was unable to keep my promise (for reasons that would take too much space to explain), but we remained friends and in constant contact.

Three months before his scheduled execution date of November 6, 2008, he was moved to what is called “Death Watch,” a group of cells designed to hold inmates whose dates are approaching. It was then that he decided he wanted to blog about the rest of his days on earth. Even though he had never seen the Internet, he had heard and read about blogs and was intrigued by the idea. Of course, he had no access to a computer, much less the Internet, so he asked me to start and maintain a blog for him. He wrote his posts, in long hand, and mailed them to me to transcribe and post. I received his last post a few days after his eventual execution, May 19, 2010.

I have always known I would write about my relationship with Rogelio, and about our correspondence. I just didn’t know how or when. Earlier this year, however, in response to a prompt in a poetry workshop, it became clear to me that verse was how I would address it, and I wrote a poem based on a telephone conversation I had with him a few hours before he died, and on a blog post from a few days earlier.

I wrote other poems, including the two featured here, based on his words as found in some of the hundreds of letters he wrote to me. In many ways, these are his words and thoughts. These are his poems.

In writing them, I wish to offer others a better insight into the daily lives and thoughts—and the humanity—of some of those we condemn to death. In doing so, I also hope to allow myself a better understanding of that friendship.

 

Juan R. Palomo was born into a migrant farmworker family in North Dakota and grew up in South Texas and several Midwestern states. He received a BS in art education from Texas State University and an MA in journalism and public affairs from The American University. He was a reporter, columnist, and editorial writer for The Houston Post, covered religion for the Austin American-Statesman, and wrote a column for USA TODAY. His work has appeared in The Acentos Review.

Two Poems

Poetry / Paul Otremba

:: The New Republic of California ::

I was not remembering the Republic—the cooked egg expertly peeled and split,
a more perfect union toppled by a hair—because that was love they split.

It’s a problem with the math, being told to pick points on a map, then to imagine 
your body in towns you’ll never visit, the distance constantly split.

On this side, a landscape of prisons, pox, slumping extractions of minerals;
on that side, prayer groups and quarterly projections, so hardly a good split.

It’s the recipe for taking what can’t be lost and smashing it
from the charge and orbit, the spin of the matter/antimatter split.

The climate never lets you forget—water might get into the cracks
and freeze, so the face of the statue would split.

On this side, the hand-dipped rag full of gasoline; on that side, the same 
hand offering the rag as a salve to your lip it had split.

I was ready to go Dutch, but your grand juries, emergency sessions,
and Sunday schools have racked up a bill I can’t split.

So what if we cry, Lightning! No hard feelings! Then slap palms moving  
through the line-up—Good game. Good game—just call the score a split?

Don’t feel bad if you recognize you’re just a little bit excited. Everybody  
knows when you come up aces, there’s reward in just saying you’ll split.

We still believe in fair warnings, like any good protagonist: One if by late night 
host. Two if by C-SPAN. Then I’ll know to get back on my horse and split.


 

:: Peripatetic ::

	—After Pablo Neruda and Tomás Q. Morín

I don’t want to continue as a root and a tomb.
I don’t want all this misery.
And I don’t think I ever imagined a workable future,

or any future, for that matter, reading in the bedroom,
or basement, or public park, although getting on
at Station A presupposed some notion of Station B.

And of course it’s not like a train,
but more like a slide, if a slide were full of holes
falling onto other slides with still other holes

opening upon new surfaces to walk along,
this street onto this street, this block
of condos with 24-hour concierge, business

and fitness centers, or these homes hugging
lot lines. Each encouragement announced 
for the continually updating optimal route 

inevitably leading where? It’s the kind of game
we can play interminably: was it getting in the car 
or not getting in the car? The absentee ballot

instead of just rolling over in bed?
If you ask me today, I’ll say I’m tired,
while in front of the cameras, a man in all seriousness

claims if you inspect a gift horse’s mouth 
and discover rotten teeth, it’s only the horse’s 
moral failing you are witness to. Of course,

it isn’t about a horse, and the gift
is only a gift in the sense that you didn’t ask for it
but woke to it in your bed sheets anyway. 

I’d say prop him up, look him in the eyes,
if they weren’t only divots plugged with coins
and palm ashes. His tongue is forked

and the tips can fill both his ears. What image
of the world does he summon forth
when his tongue beats the air?



 

From the writer

:: Account ::

“The New Republic of California”

It’s hard not to get caught up in the divisiveness of contemporary American politics, and I’m finding it harder and harder not to give in to some exhaustion about maintaining a more perfect union. When I read some tweets a couple months ago that joked about starting a new country on the west coast that would take as its principles real liberty, acceptance, and compassion, I had the thought, “Why not? I’d go.” This poem let me indulge in that rhetoric, with—I hope—a healthy bit of skepticism and self-mockery. The “ravishing disunities” of the ghazal seemed appropriate for the subject, and early on in the writing process, I had the idea for how I might “sign” my name into the final couplet.

“Peripatetic”

This is another poem in the spirit of exhaustion with the state of contemporary American politics and governance. Finding myself literally thinking “I’m tired” reminded me of Pablo Neruda’s great poem “Walking Around,” and so I went and reread Tomás Q. Morín’s excellent translation of that poem, which let me feel that solidarity of poetry and its human companionship. The poem opens with two lines from Morín’s translation. That companionship of poetry helps me when I’m sliding into my despair.

 

Paul Otremba is the author of two poetry collections, Pax Americana (Four Way Books, 2015) and The Currency (Four Way Books, 2009). Recent poems have appeared or are forthcoming in West Branch, the Kenyon Review, Oversound, and Waxwing. He is an Assistant Professor of creative writing at Rice University and teaches in the Warren Wilson low-residency MFA program.

Three Poems

Poetry / Kathryn Nuernberger

:: Pennyroyal, Active Ingredient Pulegone, I’ll Meet You in the Centrifuge ::

Pennyroyal, smallest of the mints, with weak prostrate stems.

Pennyroyal, a purple button for your pocket. 

Pennyroyal, called Run-by-the-Ground.

Pennyroyal, called Lurk-in-the-Ditch. 

Pennyroyal, “It creepeth much” and “groweth much.” 
It comes into blossom “without any setting.”

Pennyroyal, Pliny couldn’t help himself going on at length.

Pennyroyal, creeping on my field for years.

Pennyroyal, before I knew what an old witch you really are, 
I brought you home to be a bouquet for my mother. 

Pennyroyal, drunk with wine for venomous bites.

Applied to nostrils with vinegar to revive those who faint and swoon. 

The inside of my body is very dark I think. Or maybe the skin 
lets a light in like when I close my eyes in the sun.

Pennyroyal, to relieve upset stomach.

Pennyroyal, to reduce flatulence.

Pennyroyal, to flavor hog pudding with pepper and honey.

Strengthens the gums, helps the gout, cleanses the foul ulcers. Drives out the fleas.

Pennyroyal, for menstrual derangements. 

Pennyroyal, to abort the thing.

Pennyroyal, to kill the bitch.

Pennyroyal, to take away the marks of bruises and blows about the eyes.

Pennyroyal, asked and answered. 

“By putting flies and bees in warm ashes of pennyroyal, they shall recover
life as by the space of an hour and be revived.” 

We’re so many versions of ourselves. We try this, we try that. 

Sometimes we’re efficacious. Sometimes we don’t know what we’re for.


 

:: Queen of Barren, Queen of Mean, Queen of Laced with Ire ::

          If a woman dreams of lace, it is said, 
          she will be happy in the realization 
          of her most ambitious desires 
          and lovers will bow to her edicts.

There were two Annes—the one who dreamed of lace 
and the one who dreamed of waxen seals, as there are two 
Queen Anne’s Laces—the one with the purple dot at its center 
like a needle prick of spilled blood, which is edible wild carrot, 
and the one with no dot, stalk spackled in purple like Socrates’ 
blood, it is said, though he spilled no blood when he was 
executed by hemlock, which is non-edible wild carrot 
also blooming in an upturned face of white blossoms.

Carrots, it was said, are such an aphrodisiac Caligula amused himself 
by feeding the court nothing but, then watched them rut like animals. 

When I lived in that lonely place, I bought a field guide to learn the name 
of every flower. There were not many to learn, stitched as I was to a field 
between a cascade of crop-dusted corn on the left and an ocean of soy 
on the right. Where there might have been poppies and cornflowers 
and honey bees needle-pointing the rows, only Queen Anne’s Lace 
was hardy enough to make a kingdom out of such long-barren dirt.

          My ire at these impossible, 7-dusted acres.

          My ire at the billboards with ultrasounds as big 
          as a cloud floating over the rows of copyrighted 
          beans, irrigated so green.

When everything on a tract is alive and buzzing, a fallow field 
will bloom one medicine after another. If you look them up 
in Culpepper’s guide or Pliny’s, almost all in leaf or seed or stem, 
some small dose or a large one, will “provoke the menses,” 
as the euphemism goes. When everything is alive, there is never 
a week when the soil does not offer you some kind of choice. 

When I lived in that lonely place I thought I’d turn to 
Rousseau, who understood so well what we give up 
in exchange for the social contract, who wrote the great 
treatises on romanticism and democracy from his place 
in exile. Rousseau, I thought, my antidote to this minister 
who does his abstinence-only counseling for teenage 
girls and pep talks the boys on Godly masculinity just 
one diner table over. If you knew how many times 
I’ve heard, “Our Lord is a jealous lover.” 

But he is also Rousseau who dumped his bastard children
in an orphanage. Rousseau who had no care for what
the social contract did to the women he took as lovers
and then left as lovers. Rousseau who goes on and on
about breastfeeding and natural motherhood like a man
who has no idea. Had Rousseau written his botanical letters 
to me, his “dear and patient lady,” with the tedious thought 
experiment of teaching a “most willing pupil” to visualize 
the flowers through written language alone—“After you have 
looked over my letter once or twice, an umbellate plant 
in flower will not escape you” —I would have been too eager 
to agree with his post-script. “The meanest kitchen-maid 
will know more of this matter than we with all our learning.” 

In describing the umbellate Queen Anne’s Lace in flower, 
a maid would not have forgotten to mention that crimson 
dot at the center, calling the bracid wasp to his favorite 
pollenatrix, the drop, it is said, the queen pricked from 
her own finger on the spindle of her perfect lace, the one 
that slips from a kitchen-maid when the great philosopher 
returns from the prairie of his letters to the greener pasture 
of her idealized womanhood, the mark by which a kitchen-maid 
knows which umbelliferous queen is the one who stops 
your heart and which the one that sets it beating once more.

It is said the queens upset the cows’ milk if they founder 
on too much lace. It is said the queens upset the sheep’s 
digestion, but watch the hoofed beasts and see how they know 
after a miscarriage to graze the medicine of those leaves. 

At the end of the season the blossoms turn brown and brittle 
and close in on themselves like a bird’s nest. The meanest 
maid knows this is when you gather your clumps of seeds. 
No one writes down what the kitchen-maids say, so no one 
is anymore sure whether you drink them only after sex 
or every day or when you are ovulating or for the full 
two weeks between ovulation and menstruation. Some say 
you must chew the seeds to release the tannins. Some say 
drink them down in a glass of water. Some say it is a crime 
to publish such information. Some say only that it is a liability. 
Now in the laboratories of the minds of the great thinkers 
they call it rumors and old wives tales. As if none of us 
has ever needed an old wife. As if only fools would 
allow themselves to turn into such wizened things. 

There was Anne I who was known for making beautiful lace. 
And there was Anne II who was known for her sixteen 
miscarriages, four dead children, and slipshod petticoat 
of a government. There was Anne I who employed subterfuge 
and intrigue to manipulate the King’s policies. And there was 
Anne II who had no king and no heir and no wars and hardly 
even an account of discontent among the flourishing and well-fed 
people. And yet what is said of her is only that she was Anne 
the fat, Anne the constantly pregnant, Anne the end of her line.  

          My ire at the kingdom.

          My ire at the kings.

          My ire at the philosophers who think 
          they can just reinvent the world 
          inside the eye of their own minds.

          What I want I want on terms as I dictate them. 

          My ire at my terms. 

          My ire at my impossible wanting. 

          That I can be no flower and be no field, my ire.

          That there will be more castrated queens,
          an endlace necklace of almost enough, my ire.

          My ire, if you wait enough years, the field will finally grow. 

          If you wait years enough you will be long dead, my ire.  


 

:: Regarding Silphium, the Birth Control of the Roman Empire for 600 Years, Extincted by Careless Land Management in the Year 200 AD ::

When I was just about done being married
and he was a blossomed-out nerve of seeing
himself through the ugly eyes of how I had
come to see him and myself for letting
our lives get so Tupperware-fur-molded,
for thinking I could lace and pinprick it back
with just the right delicacy, when a good
punch in the face was what a mess this bad
required. (I know, you’re thinking a punch
in the face is never the answer, but that’s
the lace talking.) When I was just about done
with the lace-throated maybe-violence, 
our daughter, who is five, told me how
he broke—she didn’t say he broke, she said 
he got really worked up—driving past
all the protestors outside Planned Parenthood
on Providence Ave., from which the university
medical school had just withdrawn funding
and also the option for residents to do
training there, how he took a hard left
into the parking lot and with our daughter
by the hand marched in with an urgency
that made the young man working the desk 
say, “Sir?” with some alarm. He took a breath
to be more steady and said, “I’m so sorry
about all of this—all of that out there—
and I just thought I’d make a donation” 
as he pulled all the money from his wallet,
some of it crumpled, a mixture of 5s and 1s,
and pushed it across the counter, our daughter
watching and looking around the room, 
studying the faces of timid and nervous
young women, I imagine, in those plastic
chairs I remember from when I once sat
in this exact waiting room myself, so many
years ago, feeling embarrassed and ashamed
because it seemed that’s what I was supposed
to feel, though if I could have felt my way
beyond supposed to back then to my 
actual self, I would have known I didn’t feel 
sorry at all, only annoyed by the tedium 
of appointments, the practical necessity
of that clean smell, the chilly dustless air
of a building with nothing soft except
the aspect of the resident, who is the only
doctor I have ever had who joked as she
put her gloved hand in my body. “I guess this
is the most awkward thing you’ll do today,
huh?” It was funny and made me feel like 
we’d been friends a long time. My husband,
who is still my husband after all, knew 
that story and I guess he wanted our daughter 
to somehow know it too. “Sometimes 
you’ll feel very alone,” I tell her on a day 
when I find her pressing her face against 
the window, watching the children next door 
play in the grass, wiping tears from her face 
as fast as they fall. “Other times you’ll be 
so wonderfully surprised by the strange bridges 
people manage to build out to you when 
you never would have expected they could.”



 

From the writer

:: Account ::

I began writing about plants historically used for birth control when Todd Aiken said in the course of his campaign for the Missouri Senate seat that there was such a thing as “legitimate rape” and he lost the race, but Missouri still, through various other legal loopholes and methods of subterfuge, became for all practical purposes what my state senator Caleb Rowden has called in interviews “A Pro-Life state.”

I began writing about plants historically used for birth control when I was living on a farm in rural Missouri and my beehive collapsed, likely due to the crop dusters overhead, and my pig died, likely due to snakebite. So I started cataloging what could live in that place.

I began writing about plants historically used for birth control when my six-year-old daughter, an aspiring scientist, brought a book home a picture book about Maria Sibylla Merian, the first ecologist, who worried very much about being accused of witchcraft because butterflies were often thought to be transmogrified witches, as were women who upset the patriarchal social order.

I began writing about plants historically used for birth control when my friend, the painter Sarah Nguyen, began a series of portraits of plants that have been used to assist abortions. They are collected in a limited edition artist book, How Does Your Garden Grow.

 

Kathryn Nuernberger is the author of two poetry collections, The End of Pink (BOA Editions, 2016), which won the James Laughlin award from the Academy of American Poets, and Rag & Bone (Elixir Press, 2011). Her lyric essay collection is Brief Interviews with the Romantic Past (Ohio State University Press, 2017). A recipient of fellowships from the NEA, American Antiquarian Society, and Bakken Museum of Electricity in Life, she is an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at University of Central Missouri, where she also serves as Director of Pleiades Press.

Hello, detective

Poetry / Kristi Maxwell

:: Hello, detective ::

Rename me the quiet execution of a nail
Rename me mouthwork and guesswork
Gethsemane, a Sunday in France
Rename me no widow
Rename me no whited-out error
or whittled branch, no wood debris
No bereavement
Rename me concussion, cocoon, ca-caw,
a series of useless birdsong, bird-sound, 
the brain’s own birth-pain, delivering a thought
Rename me coddler or god
witness or withness
an unforgiveable act, an ax or an ask
Rename me afraid
but do not name me without
Do not name me without
not minnow
Do not name me bait or beaten or deterred
Rename me turd, but not porcelain, not flesh
Rename me commotion
Rename me the proximity of salt and sugar
as the distance between assault and assure
Rename me sugar-assured, rename me
ushered, rename me hush
Do not rename me hush 
Do not take us out of the world
Rename me a series of pills
but not swallow
but not even a swallow’s wingspan
or prey
Rename me prayer or drawer into which
one folds her desperation
but do not name me opened
and do not open me
Rename me father, further, pelt,
trade, treason, logic, and lube
Rename me bunny-tail of moon on the wide ass of night
Rename me after accumulation, after the fact
Rename me after after
Rename me then
Rename me any, rename me anon, avast,
a Kevlar vest never needed
Rename me sinew
Rename me insinuation
Rename me remain but not remains
Do not rename me tooth-sized or canine
blasted or blessed
Rename me have, rename me as having
Rename me sleep, but not sleeper, sleep



 

From the writer

:: Account ::

In the spread of a week, I was in the ER because of acute pain caused by a herniated disc, and my husband was in the ER after being beaten and robbed while biking home from work. My mind was on the tenuous, my mind was on the body—that spectrum of fragility and resilience. I’m sure most of us have experienced frustration at our inability to help someone in the way we’d like—the texture of my mornings changed; my day began with a call to the detective because a call made me feel like I was doing something. I got married somewhat spontaneously in July 2016, and, to my surprise, I liked my new name: wife. I wanted to keep it. This poem is as much about the talk I did not have with the detective as the talks I did. It’s about the collision between grief and celebration. It’s either lullaby or tornado or spell. It’s a poem on holding, a poem on hold, waiting less patiently than it might.

 

Kristi Maxwell is the author of five books of poetry, including Realm Sixty-four (Ahsahta Press, 2008), That Our Eyes Be Rigged (Saturnalia Books, 2014), and PLAN/K (Horse Less Press, 2015). She lives in Kentucky, where she is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Louisville.

Two Poems

Poetry / Lindsay Lusby

:: What’s the story, Mother? ::

Take comfort in this: 
you are not dear to me. 

O Night of Desirable Objects,
you are the honeytrap 
			                 I cast deep 

into this bracken of asters 
and catchflies. 
		          You will watch 

the dark undress, 
peel back its beard of sepals. 

          Do not call out for me:

Let this pale hand cover your mouth.
Let it smother you with my love. 


 

:: You still don’t understand
what you’re dealing with, do you?::

	Natural selection cannot fashion perfect organisms.
	—“The Evolutions of Populations,” Campbell Biology textbook

Inside its mouth, 
		                 another mouth:

                    a fearful symmetry that rips 
through every soft-bellied thing 

          like worms through wet earth. 


On top of bone, 
                             more moonbright bone. 

                    Holds the nightbloom of your face 
in thrall and you will tremble at the feet 

          of all its terrible glory. 


Behold, child:    
                            this is Leviathan. 



 

From the writer

:: Account ::

The titles of each of these poems are lines of dialogue borrowed from Ridley Scott’s Alien, which happens to be one of my favorite horror movies. Since zero-gravity and oxygen tanks aren’t really my poetic aesthetic, I wanted to bring Alien back down to earth. I approached the story through the language of fairy tale and Catholicism, the alien-ness through the imagery of plants and wildflowers. I wanted to create an earthly strangeness with them, one that horrifies through its grotesque familiarity. The titles came first, of course, and then I let the poems grow from there.

When I began, I assumed the character of Ripley would be my main focus, other than the xenomorph itself. But strangely, the character of Mother emerged as the voice of these poems. This, I think, was the one thing that truly surprised me in the writing of them. The ship computer, called MU-TH-UR, begins as such a benign and neutral influence in the background of the film; but by the end she becomes a true antagonist, telling the ship’s crew (her children, you could say) that they are expendable in the service of a greater mission: bringing the xenomorph back to earth for proprietary study. She becomes the callous, neglectful, murderous fairy-tale mother we know from Brothers Grimm stories like “Hansel & Gretel” and “The Juniper Tree.” Bits of each of those stories ended up in the poems as well. The places where stories overlap with each other just light up for me and those are the places where I build my poems.

 

Lindsay Lusby is the author of two chapbooks, Blackbird Whitetail Redhand (Porkbelly Press, forthcoming 2017) and Imago (dancing girl press, 2014), and the winner of the 2015 Fairy Tale Review Award in Poetry, judged by Joyelle McSweeney. Her poems have appeared most recently in Faerie Magazine, North Dakota Quarterly, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, and Fairy Tale Review.

Two Poems

Poetry / Daniel Blokh

:: Cold Doesn’t Like Being Forgotten ::

	After Kathryn Hargett 

I’m 6 years old and can’t keep my medicine down. 

Quite terrible. This world will do anything to keep you
from the easy drift you wish for. The large pill makes it
halfway down, then wakes some ripple

in the murky depth of me—my mouth
cracks open, breakfast and cough syrup all wasted.

I hope enough regret might wash them down
but my body lunges forward time

after time, reaching for somewhere I don’t know. 
My mother grabs the mop. Doesn’t even sigh.

*

When my brother was born back in Moscow, 
he was always sick. My parents didn’t have much 
medicine, but they had superstition.

They fed my brother honey mixed with lemon and onion,
rubbed his throat with cotton dipped in gasoline, made him

gargle beet juice. He wore potato compresses on his skin.
Doctors put hot jars on him to drain
the wrongness out. 

Who can blame them? People have done odder things 
than swallowing a dandelion’s leaves 
to kill sickness, to clean the winter from a bone. 

When something climbs into your body
and writhes there, how can you reason with it?

*

In her dream, my mother was in Moscow yesterday.
In waking, it’s been more than twenty years.

She left her home and became mine, bowl of water waiting 
for hair, railing of a staircase. 

Still it tugs at her voice, the hint of back there hanging
on her Rs and Ths, spilling this country out of her,

the hold of homesickness

she found no superstition for getting rid of,
could never scrub away completely.

*

Now my mother places Airbornes next to Kurantil, 
makes me bloat with vitamins they only sell thousands of miles away,

antibiotics from online stores. She gives me my pills 
beside bowls of borscht, tells me, Swallow them together 

and you won’t even notice it. But I do
and red stains swell into the carpet.

No wet drowning can steal 
the pill’s dust from my throat, 
the cling of taste. 


 

:: Tonkaya Ryabina ::

The tired green of it, the sprawl
around the porch, the wind tussling
the blades so they dance with the song
we’re listening to, rustling
your lips. It’s heat, but won’t be heat
until I name it. For the first time today, your eyes
are questionless. Something in you is sliding 
awake. We could be anywhere: a summer house
in Moscow, a nursing home beside a wide green field.
The song flickers out and we settle back
into one of those two options
and I think about the rain that brushed past 
us last week, ate up the summer. You were almost 
smiling when the song played. Now you sit. 
You sit. You sit. You sit. You sit. You look at me 
and start to sing. Your voice too thin to hold the weight 
of melody, but I can still make out the lyrics: Chto stoish 
kachayas. . . You don’t know the next word. 
Tonkaya, I say, Tonkaya, and you say, I’m afraid,
and I say, Why, and you say, What if I forget? and water 
can scare away a summer, but heat always settles 
back around the world. Our voices drops clinging
to each other in a hopeless throat. 

What if everything falls out—What if I don’t remember the lyrics—
Will they forgive me? 



 

From the writer

:: Account ::

“Cold Doesn’t Like Being Forgotten”

In “Cold Doesn’t Like Being Forgotten,” I tell the parallel stories of my mother’s immigration to America and of me catching a cold. The running feeling throughout both stories is that of the desire to reshape one’s self—both in changing one’s physical well-being and one’s identity. My mother came to America from Russia (largely for me and my siblings) without knowing the language. Her 20+ years in America have been spent largely on trying to adapt to the environment, but she is still an immediately obvious outsider and treated as such; there is still “the hint of back there hanging / on her Rs and Ths.” I present her past in this poem in the way I imagine her seeing it in the past—something she cannot hide or get rid of, a disease she “could never scrub away completely.” Yet there is a shift at the end of the poem, when, in the present, she puts “Airbornes next to Kurantil” and “gives me my pills / beside bowls of borscht.” She is no longer trying to erase her past, but has embraced it. She has realized it as a part of her.

“Tonkaya Ryabina”

Music has often come into the poetry I write about my grandmother; throughout her stages of dementia, even when she can’t recognize anyone around her, she has always been able to remember the songs of her past in Russia. In the poem “Tonkaya Ryabina,” the song is a link between that past and the present, between her reality and mine. As I sit with my grandmother on a nursing home porch and listen to the music, it seems as though “We could be anywhere: a summer house / in Moscow, a nursing home beside a wide green field.” For the duration of the song, it doesn’t matter; we are happy. Yet after the music stops and the moment of hopefulness ends, the reality of the situation returns, my grandmother’s mental distress and disorientation inescapable. “Heat always settles back around the world.”

 

Daniel Blokh is a 16-year-old American writer of Russian-Jewish descent, living in Birmingham, Alabama. He is the author of the memoir In Migration (BAM! Publishing, 2016), the micro-chapbook The Wading Room (Origami Poems Project, 2016), and the chapbook Grimmening (forthcoming from Diode Editions). His work has been recognized by the Scholastic Art and Writing awards and the Foyle Young Poet awards, and has appeared in DIALOGIST, Permafrost, Blueshift, Cleaver, Gigantic Sequins, Forage Poetry, Avis, Thin Air, Cicada, and more. He’s bad at taking naps, which sucks, because he really needs a nap right now.

Two Poems

Poetry / Derek Annis

:: Damages ::

Annis-Damages-new

 

 

:: Manifest ::

Manifest-new

 

 

 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

I live in Spokane, Washington, where I was born and raised. Spokane is the second largest city in Washington State. It’s surrounded by pine forest. There is a spectacular waterfall right in the center of the city. There is a fairly small downtown area with a handful of skyscrapers, two hospitals, a mall, and a movie theatre. It has many problems, including crime and homelessness, but it is an exceedingly pleasant place to live. It’s one of the few places in the US where the minimum wage is a living wage for a single person. There are four reputable colleges and universities here. The literary scene is thriving, as is the rest of the arts community. It is also home to a group of ravenous developers who would like to turn Spokane into a stereotypical big city. This group favors economy over ecology. They favor large corporations over local business. They run campaigns against increased funding for public transportation because those who use it are undesirable to people of higher socioeconomic standing. They oppose any legislation that would give residents the power to decide which businesses can operate in their city. And they are getting what they want. I didn’t sit down to write about these developers or their environmental impact, but I think that both “Manifest” and “Damages” came from my fear over what I see these developers doing to the city I love.

 

Derek Annis is a graduate of the MFA at EWU. During his time at Eastern Washington University, he was the assistant poetry editor for Willow Springs. He was a finalist for the 2016 MBF emerging writers contest, and his work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Gettysburg Review, Missouri Review: Poem of the Week, Crab Creek Review, Fugue, and The Meadow, among others.