Do the Math and Delight

Criticism / Michelle Sizemore

:: Do the Math and Delight ::

Why are we talk­ing math in a jour­nal of poet­ry and prose? This ques­tion cap­tures a test­ed and reli­able divi­sion between the arts/humanities and quan­ti­ta­tive fields both in aca­d­e­mics and the wider cul­ture. While there is cer­tain­ly no con­sen­sus on whether math­e­mat­ics is a sci­ence, it is fre­quent­ly grouped with sci­ences and oth­er fields that rely on it. Wit­ness the STEM vs. STEAM debates in K-12 edu­ca­tion. Advo­cates for STEM (a cur­ricu­lum inte­grat­ing Sci­ence, Tech­nol­o­gy, Engi­neer­ing, and Math­e­mat­ics) argue that study of the arts will dilute the STEM focus. Mean­while, advo­cates for STEAM (a cur­ricu­lum adding the Arts to STEM, an extrav­a­gant “A” wedged into this short acronym augur­ing sen­si­ble career choic­es) argue that the arts enhance the sci­ences. [i] Sim­i­lar debates roil post-sec­ondary edu­ca­tion. And admin­is­tra­tors and fac­ul­ty aren’t the only ones weigh­ing in on the val­ue of lib­er­al edu­ca­tion vs. STEM or pro­fes­sion­al edu­ca­tion. Case in point: the acri­mo­nious Twit­ter feud between STEM majors and Human­i­ties, Social Sci­ence, and Edu­ca­tion majors last Decem­ber. [ii] 

The hedges go up more quick­ly out­side the com­pass of cur­ricu­lum and instruc­tion. Chitchat over the years in every con­ceiv­able set­ting has yield­ed a pat­tern in which acquain­tances, after learn­ing what I do for a liv­ing, either con­fess to being bad at Eng­lish but good at math or declare, in sol­i­dar­i­ty, that writ­ing comes eas­i­ly while num­bers are stumpers. These divi­sions seem overblown. Most peo­ple write every day, com­pos­ing texts, emails, Face­book posts, tweets, snaps. Most peo­ple also go to the store with­out haul­ing in an aba­cus.

This col­lec­tion of exam­ples points to the habit­u­al par­ti­tion­ing of lan­guage and math, even though these two “adver­saries” hold unde­ni­able affini­ties. Poets and math­e­mati­cians alike have long rec­og­nized the reci­procity between the dis­ci­plines. Emi­ly Dick­in­son, for one, lav­ished her poet­ry with math. Approx­i­mate­ly 200 of her poems make ref­er­ence to math­e­mat­i­cal terms and con­cepts, demon­strat­ing com­pat­i­bil­i­ty between math­e­mat­i­cal prin­ci­ples and lyri­cal sen­si­bil­i­ty. As Seo-Young Jen­nie Chu writes, “Not only did [Dick­in­son] have a poet­ic under­stand­ing of math­e­mat­ics, but she had a deeply math­e­mat­i­cal under­stand­ing of her own poet­ic enter­prise.” [iii] Albert Ein­stein used poet­ry as a metaphor to express the beau­ty of math­e­mat­i­cal endeav­or, char­ac­ter­iz­ing “pure math­e­mat­ics” as “the poet­ry of log­i­cal ideas.” [iv]

It is not uncom­mon for math­e­mati­cians to locate a kin­ship between math­e­mat­ics and lit­er­a­ture in their shared aes­thet­ic prop­er­ties. For some, “aes­thet­ics” names clas­sic aes­thet­ic qual­i­ties of art such as beau­ty, ele­gance, sym­me­try, and bal­ance. Masahiko Fuji­wara observes:

It is impos­si­ble to put in words the intrin­sic grace of a the­o­rem… I can only describe it as being akin to a per­fect piece of music in which each note is irre­place­able or to a haiku in which no syl­la­ble can be changed. The beau­ty I speak of is like the exquis­ite ten­sion that holds togeth­er aspects of a work of art; a frag­ile seren­i­ty that cements its per­fec­tion. And so the mag­net­ic force that draws art—and there­fore literature—to math­e­mat­ics is the dig­ni­fied beau­ty of its pure log­ic. [v]

Like so many in his dis­ci­pline, Fuji­wara joins the­o­rems and proofs with works of art such as lit­er­a­ture because of the “grace” and “beau­ty” of their com­po­si­tion. Oth­er math­e­mati­cians empha­size the aes­thet­ic expe­ri­ence of solv­ing a prob­lem, the plea­sure tak­en in arriv­ing at mean­ing, of “com­ing-to-under­stand­ing,” in the words of David W. Hen­der­son and Daina Taim­i­na. [vi] Mul­ti­ple mean­ings of “aes­thet­ics” also cir­cu­late are also in cir­cu­la­tion in art crit­i­cism and lit­er­ary stud­ies, where the com­mon wis­dom is to “encour­age a vari­ety of inves­ti­ga­tions under its aegis” rather than “to pre­scribe a sin­gle def­i­n­i­tion.” [vii] Math­e­mat­i­cal aes­thet­ics can there­fore denote the beau­ty of the work, the sen­su­ous expe­ri­ence of per­form­ing the work, and more. This lat­ter sense, the feel­ings evoked by the doing, is espe­cial­ly com­pelling to me.

Of course math­e­mati­cians and artists don’t have a cor­ner on the aes­thet­ic expe­ri­ence of “com­ing-to-under­stand­ing.” The plea­sure of solv­ing a prob­lem belongs to every read­er of mys­ter­ies and every fan of cryp­tog­ra­phy adven­ture movies. If you’re hav­ing trou­ble plac­ing this genre, think Nation­al Trea­sure. The 2004 film stars Nico­las Cage as Ben­jamin Franklin Gates, a his­to­ri­an-crypt­an­a­lyst who has devot­ed his life to the dis­cov­ery of a rumored nation­al trea­sure hid­den by the U.S. Found­ing Fathers. Gates fol­lows a trail of obscure clues: one etched inside the stem of a meer­schaum pipe con­cealed in a gun­pow­der bar­rel in a sunken ship at the bot­tom of the Arc­tic Ocean, anoth­er writ­ten on the back of the Dec­la­ra­tion of Inde­pen­dence in invis­i­ble ink, and so on. Pre­dictably, each puz­zle and solu­tion leads him clos­er to the trea­sure (buried all along in a secret grot­to sev­er­al sto­ries beneath Boston’s Old North Church). Crit­ics and movie-goers who panned the film cit­ed its overblown and improb­a­ble plot. Because Hol­ly­wood films are usu­al­ly sub­tle. [viii]

But I enjoyed the pre­pos­ter­ous­ness of the trea­sure hunt. I enjoyed watch­ing Gates and his team solve clues requir­ing dex­ter­i­ty with words and num­bers. The code con­cealed on the back of the Dec­la­ra­tion is an Otten­dorf or book cipher, which uses a book or anoth­er writ­ten text to encode and decode a mes­sage record­ed in num­bers. To decode the mes­sage, Gates and crew have to match the Declaration’s “mag­ic num­bers,” as one char­ac­ter calls them, to cor­re­spond­ing words in a key, in this case The Silence Dogood Let­ters. The num­ber clus­ters found on the Dec­la­ra­tion (10–11-8, 10–4-7, 9–2-2, 14–8-2, etc.) refer to the page num­ber of The Silence Dogood Let­ters, the line on the page, and the let­ter in the line, respec­tive­ly. [ix] As a schol­ar of ear­ly Amer­i­ca, I was thrilled to encounter these eigh­teenth-cen­tu­ry texts on the big screen, along with land­marks and arcana from the found­ing era: Inde­pen­dence Hall, the Lib­er­ty Bell, Paul Revere, freema­son­ry, George Washington’s elec­tion cam­paign but­tons. His­tor­i­cal padding? Yes. But any annoy­ance at dri­ve-through his­to­ry was off­set by the sat­is­fac­tion of being in on the eso­ter­ism.

In a film relent­less with its inclu­sion of Amer­i­can Inde­pen­dence ref­er­ences, it’s no sur­prise Ben­jamin Franklin gets fold­ed in. But Franklin is more than a pass­ing men­tion; his pres­ence hangs over the entire film. Franklin is the protagonist’s name­sake, he’s the author of The Silence Dogood Let­ters, he invents the bifo­cals they use to view the 3-D trea­sure map on the Dec­la­ra­tion. A Franklin imper­son­ator makes an appear­ance at the Franklin Muse­um in Philadel­phia, and in a delet­ed scene they must deci­pher Franklin’s “Join or Die” polit­i­cal car­toon to escape death. Per­haps the screen­writ­ers were pay­ing homage to Franklin’s inge­nu­ity in a movie that rev­els in the clev­er­ness and resource­ful­ness of its prob­lem-solv­ing hero. Or per­haps, more direct­ly, they were allud­ing to Franklin’s real-life pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with cryp­tog­ra­phy. He devel­oped numer­i­cal codes for secret mes­sages dur­ing the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War and for Amer­i­can diplo­mat­ic cor­re­spon­dence after­ward. [x] Re-watch­ing the movie remind­ed me that the poly­math­ic Franklin is a quin­tes­sen­tial exam­ple of some­one who not only delight­ed in puz­zle-mak­ing and prob­lem-solv­ing but also joined num­bers and let­ters in his pur­suits.

Nev­er­the­less, Franklin has a rep­u­ta­tion for being bad at math. Much of this owes to Franklin’s own descrip­tion of his “igno­rance of fig­ures.” [xi] Ear­ly in the Auto­bi­og­ra­phy of Ben­jamin Franklin he recounts how at age nine his father sent him to George Brownell’s school, where he “acquired fair writ­ing pret­ty soon but… failed in… arith­metic and made no progress in it.” [xii] Schol­ars from lit­er­ary stud­ies to com­put­er sci­ence have gen­er­al­ly tak­en him at his word, no doubt due to the endur­ing con­cep­tu­al oppo­si­tion between writ­ing and math. Despite his noto­ri­ety as math-defi­cient, Franklin was actu­al­ly gift­ed. He used pop­u­la­tion sta­tis­tics in his “Obser­va­tions Con­cern­ing the Increase of Mankind, Peo­pling of Coun­tries, Etc.” (1751) and employed geom­e­try in his inven­tion of the glass armon­i­ca (a musi­cal instru­ment con­sist­ing of spin­ning glass discs). The list of Franklin’s math­e­mat­i­cal inves­ti­ga­tions goes on—utility the­o­ry, account­ing, applied math­e­mat­ics, nav­i­ga­tion, day­light sav­ing time. [xiii]

To ful­ly appre­ci­ate these devel­op­ments, we have to look past his part in the nation­al ori­gin sto­ry. He wasn’t only a key play­er in the Unit­ed States’ found­ing, but also a lead­ing sci­en­tist in a transat­lantic com­mu­ni­ty of schol­ars. [xiv] From the late 1740s through the late 1760s, Franklin’s study of elec­tric­i­ty devel­oped with­in a net­work of com­mu­ni­ca­tion with and sup­port from a con­frere of Atlantic sci­en­tists, cul­mi­nat­ing in Exper­i­ments and Obser­va­tions on Elec­tric­i­ty (a series of let­ters to Eng­lish friend and patron Peter Collinson, orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in 1751 and under­go­ing sub­se­quent edi­tions through 1769). In 1756, Franklin’s research on elec­tric­i­ty and inven­tion of the light­ning rod earned him the dis­tinc­tion of fel­low at the Roy­al Soci­ety of Lon­don, Britain’s fore­most sci­en­tif­ic orga­ni­za­tion. Franklin’s Exper­i­ments and Obser­va­tions on Elec­tric­i­ty was a tow­er­ing achieve­ment of Enlight­en­ment-era science—but it was not, as we might expect of a sci­en­tif­ic work in the Age of Rea­son, strict­ly com­mit­ted to the advance of rea­son. [xv] For one, “mag­i­cal” math puz­zles crop up in the vol­ume.

Occu­py­ing Franklin’s think­ing for near­ly half a cen­tu­ry were numer­i­cal puz­zles known as “mag­ic squares” and “mag­ic cir­cles.” It may be tempt­ing to triv­i­al­ize such pur­suits as many of his biog­ra­phers have—Sudoku for the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry, Can­dy Crush for the insuf­fer­able meet­ing. We know, for instance, that Franklin doo­dled with these games to “amuse [him­self]” dur­ing the speech­es at the Penn­syl­va­nia Assem­bly. [xvi] He would have gained access to these puz­zles through the transat­lantic cir­cu­la­tion of texts such as Jacques Ozanam’s Recre­ations Math­e­mat­i­cal and Phys­i­cal and John Tipper’s The Ladies’ Diary, or, the Woman’s Almanack. First pub­lished in France in the 1690s and then revised by a vari­ety of edi­tors over the next 150 years, Ozanam’s Recre­ations would remain the most impor­tant ref­er­ence on recre­ation­al math­e­mat­ics for over two cen­turies. Tipper’s The Ladies’ Diary was a pop­u­lar British almanac that ran from 1704 through 1752 and com­bined con­ven­tion­al almanac sub­jects with rid­dles and math­e­mat­i­cal puz­zles. Franklin rou­tine­ly solved these pre­made mag­i­cal squares and cir­cles and also invent­ed his own. [xvii]

Mag­ic squares and mag­ic cir­cles are like crosswords—except with num­bers. You fill in the spaces with num­bers instead of let­ters. The goal with a mag­ic square is to make each line of num­bers across, down, or diag­o­nal­ly total the same val­ue. The solu­tion for this puz­zle is 15. [xvi­ii] Puz­zles like these had pre­oc­cu­pied thinkers for cen­turies before Franklin made his con­tri­bu­tions. His­to­ri­ans trace them to philoso­phers and the­olo­gians in Chi­na as ear­ly as the fourth cen­tu­ry BCE, then to Mesopotamia, and then across most of the known world by the end of the first mil­len­ni­um. These numer­i­cal arrange­ments were believed to pos­sess super­nat­ur­al prop­er­ties and fig­ured mean­ing­ful­ly in Chi­nese, Mid­dle East­ern, and West­ern occultism. They were incor­po­rat­ed into incan­ta­tions and spells, embla­zoned on amulets, tal­is­mans, and plates, and admin­is­tered in div­ina­tion and cos­mo­log­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion.

In ancient Chi­na, for instance, these 3x3 squares, called the Lo Shu, were ren­dered in graph­ic form. 9–5-1, 4–9-2, and so on. Peo­ple regard­ed these matri­ces as super­nat­ur­al because they rep­re­sent­ed the uni­verse in micro­cosm: nine squares con­veyed the Nine Divi­sions of Heav­en, the Nine Con­ti­nents, the Nine Ter­ri­to­ries, the Nine Divi­sions of the Mid­dle King­dom. The Lo Shu, more­over, was a pro­found expres­sion of equi­lib­ri­um. The black dots des­ig­nate even num­bers and cor­re­spond with yin (the pas­sive and neg­a­tive force in the uni­verse) while the white dots des­ig­nate odd num­bers and cor­re­spond with yang (the active and pos­i­tive force in the uni­verse). The eight even and odd num­bers rep­re­sent­ing yin and yang are held in bal­ance around the axi­al cen­ter (the num­ber 5). Thus the Lo Shu square could effec­tive­ly sym­bol­ize the world in bal­anced har­mo­ny around a pow­er­ful cen­tral axis. [xix]

Mag­ic squares embody the aes­thet­ic qual­i­ties of bal­ance and sym­me­try, and beau­ty when one beholds their geo­met­ri­cal pat­terns and forms. Cer­tain­ly Franklin was drawn to both the aes­thet­ic qual­i­ties of mag­ic squares and the aes­thet­ic expe­ri­ence of solv­ing them. But why are such puz­zles tucked in among Franklin’s writ­ings on elec­tric­i­ty?

Before the famous encounter between light­ning, kite, and key in 1752, Franklin began his elec­tri­cal exper­i­ments more mod­est­ly with glass tubes in 1746, offer­ing an ini­tial the­o­ry clas­si­fy­ing elec­tric­i­ty as a flu­id. The tech­ni­cal details of this exper­i­ment aren’t as impor­tant here as the con­cepts of “plus” and “minus.” Accord­ing to this the­o­ry, the glass tube began in a “pos­i­tive” state or a “plus” con­di­tion, and rub­bing the glass removed part of the elec­tric­i­ty from it, leav­ing it “minus” some of its elec­tri­cal flu­id or in a “neg­a­tive” state. Franklin would even­tu­al­ly refine his the­o­ry of elec­tric­i­ty, liken­ing it to a fire rather than a flu­id and adjust­ing some oth­er essen­tial points, but retain­ing the elec­tri­cal vocab­u­lary of plus/minus, positive/negative, and equi­lib­ri­um that he invented—and is still used today. [xx] 

Now we may be get­ting clos­er to an expla­na­tion of why a dis­cus­sion of mag­i­cal squares turns up in a vol­ume on elec­tric­i­ty. On some lev­el, the numerol­o­gy of the square—its demon­stra­tion of absolute equal­i­ty and per­fect balance—resonated with Franklin’s elec­tri­cal con­cep­tion of equi­lib­ri­um and the even and odd num­bers car­ry­ing sym­bol­ic con­no­ta­tions of pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive. While he may not have exact­ly had in mind yin and yang, he did hint at the mys­tery of cos­mic bal­ance in the phys­i­cal world when speak­ing of mag­ic squares and elec­tri­cal phe­nom­e­na, describ­ing both as “mirac­u­lous.” [xxi] “Com­ing-to-under­stand­ing,” for Franklin and con­tem­po­raries who stud­ied elec­tric­i­ty, meant advanc­ing a ratio­nal expla­na­tion of electricity’s behav­ior while main­tain­ing an appre­ci­a­tion of electricity’s mystery—its “won­der­ful” and “amaz­ing” power—and by exten­sion the pow­er of nature. [xxii] 

Thus, in part, the plea­sure Franklin took in elec­tri­cal and math­e­mat­i­cal prob­lem-solv­ing derived from con­tem­pla­tive won­der in the inex­plic­a­ble work­ings of nature. In Exper­i­ments and Obser­va­tions on Elec­tric­i­ty, he describes his inno­va­tions with the 16x16 mag­i­cal square as the “most mag­i­cal­ly mag­i­cal of any mag­ic square ever made by any magi­cian.” [xxi­ii] Franklin’s mar­veling at the de trop “mag­i­cal­ly mag­i­cal” char­ac­ter of his square reveals an impor­tant dis­tinc­tion between the eigh­teenth-cen­tu­ry sci­en­tif­ic world’s under­stand­ing of mag­ic and that of the pre-Sci­en­tif­ic Rev­o­lu­tion. Rather than an attri­bu­tion of super­nat­ur­al prop­er­ties to the square, Franklin’s remark is an asser­tion of admi­ra­tion and delight, “mag­ic” denot­ing “an inex­plic­a­ble and remark­able influ­ence pro­duc­ing sur­pris­ing results” or “an enchant­i­ng or mys­ti­cal qual­i­ty” (OED). [xxiv] His won­der at nature’s mys­ter­ies isn’t rev­er­en­tial but play­ful, a fit­ting tone for pur­suits regard­ed as enter­tain­ment. 

In the cor­re­spon­dence between Franklin and oth­er Roy­al Soci­ety mem­bers, researchers often mod­u­late descrip­tions of their intel­lec­tu­al curios­i­ty by char­ac­ter­iz­ing their activ­i­ties as a pas­time or a diver­sion. Franklin’s let­ters to Collinson repeat­ed­ly offer his recital of elec­tri­cal exper­i­ments and mag­i­cal squares for the pur­pose of Collinson’s “amuse­ment.” [xxv] This empha­sis on learned enter­tain­ment among mem­bers of the Roy­al Soci­ety and oth­er intel­lec­tu­al cir­cles sig­nals the emerg­ing prac­tice of aca­d­e­m­ic socia­bil­i­ty in the lat­ter half of the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry. [xxvi] After all, Franklin con­veys his find­ings on elec­tric­i­ty in a let­ter exchange with a col­league and friend rather than in a for­mal dis­ser­ta­tion. Far from divid­ing lan­guage and num­bers, then, the sci­en­tif­ic com­mu­ni­ty devel­oped lit­er­ary con­ven­tions and gen­res for the delight in fig­ures.

While edu­cat­ed layper­sons did read sci­ence writ­ing like Exper­i­ments and Obser­va­tions, more often they grat­i­fied their math­e­mat­i­cal curios­i­ty with prob­lems in almanacs and puz­zle and game books. These brain-teasers belong to a larg­er cat­e­go­ry of eigh­teenth-cen­tu­ry enter­tain­ment includ­ing rid­dles and games, which encour­aged new pat­terns of thought and elicit­ed sur­prise, won­der, and delight through prob­lem-solv­ing. [xxvii] It’s intrigu­ing to think about an ear­li­er gen­er­a­tion that open­ly acknowl­edged the plea­sure as well as the prag­mat­ic val­ue of math—that devel­oped a rela­tion­ship to math defined by recre­ation rather than com­pul­sion, by cre­ativ­i­ty, inge­nu­ity, and enjoy­ment rather than tedi­um and pan­ic. I’m not sure we’ve got­ten to the point where large num­bers of peo­ple con­ceive of math as fun, but maybe we’re mak­ing our way there. Most nation­al and local news­pa­pers con­tain “Games and Puz­zles” sec­tions that increas­ing­ly fea­ture much more than the cross­word. The relaunch of the New York Times Mag­a­zine includes math puz­zles and games like KenKen, Sudoku, and SET along­side its famed Sun­day cross­word. Hun­dreds of new apps make math enjoy­able and read­i­ly acces­si­ble for chil­dren and adults look­ing to sharp­en their skills or sim­ply to pass the time. The land of games and puz­zles may be the renewed meet­ing ground for words and num­bers. What pos­si­bil­i­ties lie ahead with greater nim­ble­ness in both lan­guage and math? What cross-pol­li­na­tions might occur from this “bilin­gual­ism”? We must do the words, and do the math.

 


[i] As STEAM’s sup­ple­men­tary appeal for the arts implies, the goal isn’t to inte­grate the arts and sciences—to achieve mutu­al influence—but rather to serve the STEM fields. I’m not inter­est­ed in tak­ing sides in this debate here, rather in point­ing out the fun­da­men­tal sep­a­ra­tion and hier­ar­chy between the arts and sci­ences even in efforts to join them.
[ii] @jaboukie, “i WISH i could just read clif­ford the big red dog and make flower crowns,” Twit­ter (5 Decem­ber 2018, 1:53 p.m.).
[iii] Seo-Young Jen­nie Chu, “Dick­in­son and Math­e­mat­ics,” The Emi­ly Dick­in­son Jour­nal 15.1 (2006), 36.
[iv] Albert Ein­stein, “The Late Emmy Noe­ther: Pro­fes­sor Ein­stein Writes in Appre­ci­a­tion of a Fel­low-Math­e­mati­cian,” The New York Times (4 May 1935), 12. Print.
[v] Masahiko Fuji­wara, “Lit­er­a­ture and Math­e­mat­ics,” Asymp­tote (Jan­u­ary 2011).
[vi] David W. Hen­der­son and Daina Taim­i­na, “Expe­ri­enc­ing Mean­ings in Geom­e­try,” Math­e­mat­ics and the Aes­thet­ic: New Approach­es to an Ancient Infin­i­ty, Ed. Nathalie Sin­clair et al. (Springer, 2007), 83.
[vii] Cindy Wein­stein and Christo­pher Loo­by, “Intro­duc­tion,” Amer­i­can Literature’s Aes­thet­ic Dimen­sions (Colum­bia Univ. Press, 2012), 4.
[viii] See Roger Ebert, “Nation­al Trea­sure,” Roger Ebert.com (18 Novem­ber 2004); Stephen Hold­en, “A Secret Trea­sure Map That Ends in Man­hat­tan,” New York Times (19 Novem­ber 2004); Cari­na Chocano, “Bank­rupt Nation­al Trea­sure,” L.A. Times (19 Novem­ber 2004); “Nation­al Trea­sure (2004),Rot­ten Toma­toes (Accessed 19 May 2018). 
[ix] Simon Singh, The Code Book: The Sci­ence of Secre­cy from Ancient Egypt to Quan­tum Cryp­tog­ra­phy (Anchor, 2000).
[x] Ralph E. Weber, Unit­ed States Diplo­mat­ic Codes and Ciphers, 1775–1938 (Prec­dent Pub­lish­ing Inc., 1979); David Kahn, The Code­break­ers: The Sto­ry of Secret Writ­ing (Scrib­n­er, 1996), 185.
[xi] Ben­jamin Franklin, Auto­bi­og­ra­phy of Ben­jamin Franklin. 1791 ed. (Wal­ter J. Black, Inc., 1941), 24.
[xii] Franklin, Auto­bi­og­ra­phy, 13.
[xiii] Paul C. Pasles, Ben­jamin Franklin’s Num­bers: An Unsung Math­e­mat­i­cal Odyssey (Prince­ton Univ. Press, 2008), 5–11.
[xiv] Bernard Cohen, Ben­jamin Franklin’s Sci­ence (Har­vard Univ. Press, 1990); Park Ben­jamin, A His­to­ry of Elec­tric­i­ty: From Antiq­ui­ty to the Days of Ben­jamin Franklin (John Wiley & Sons, 1898).
[xv] James Del­bour­go, A Most Amaz­ing Scene of Won­ders: Elec­tric­i­ty and Enlight­en­ment in Ear­ly Amer­i­ca (Har­vard Univ. Press, 2006), 8.
[xvi] Franklin, Auto­bi­og­ra­phy, 189.
[xvii] Pasles, 117–137.
[xvi­ii] The object of this “cross-num­ber” puz­zle is to fill in the box­es so that each of the rows across, up and down, and diag­o­nal­ly equal the same sum. The best way to begin is to fig­ure out the total of all 9 box­es, which must be filled in with the num­bers 1–9. 1+2+3+4+5+6+7+8+9=45. Since we know each row must equal the same val­ue, and since there are three equal rows, we can divide by 3 to deter­mine the sum of each row: 15. From there, fill in the num­bers on the grid until each row equals 15 in every direc­tion. I’m indebt­ed to Paul C. Pasles’s Ben­jamin Franklin’s Num­bers for its lucid expla­na­tion of these puz­zles.
[xix] Pasles, 20–27; Schuyler Cam­mann, “The Mag­ic Square of Three in Old Chi­nese Phi­los­o­phy and Reli­gion,” His­to­ry of Reli­gions 1.1 (1961), 37–80.
[xx] Cohen, 14–39.
[xxi] Ben­jamin Franklin, Exper­i­ments and Obser­va­tions in Elec­tric­i­ty, 4th ed. (David Hen­ry, 1769), 14.
[xxii] Franklin, Exper­i­ments, 3, 35, 375, 485; Del­bour­go, 11.
[xxi­ii] Franklin, Exper­i­ments, 353.
[xxiv] “mag­ic, n.” OED Online, (Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, March 2018).
[xxv] Franklin, Exper­i­ments, 177, 237, 354.
[xxvi] Susan Scott Par­rish, Amer­i­can Curios­i­ty: Cul­tures of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry in the colo­nial British Atlantic World (Univ. of North Car­oli­na Press, 2006).
[xxvii] See Jil­lian Hey­dt-Steven­son, “Games, Rid­dles, and Cha­rades,” The Cam­bridge Com­pan­ion to Emma, Ed. Peter Sabor (Cam­bridge Univ. Press, 2015), 150–165; Mary Chad­wick, “‘The Most Dan­ger­ous Tal­ent’: Rid­dles as Fem­i­nine Pas­time,” Women, Pop­u­lar Cul­ture, and the Eigh­teenth Cen­tu­ry, Ed. Tiffany Pot­ter (Univ. of Toron­to Press, 2012), 185–201.

 

Bib­li­og­ra­phy

Ben­jamin, Park. A His­to­ry of Elec­tric­i­ty: From Antiq­ui­ty to the Days of Ben­jamin Franklin. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1898.

Cam­mann, Schuyler. “The Mag­ic Square of Three in Old Chi­nese Phi­los­o­phy and Reli­gion,” His­to­ry of Reli­gions 1.1 (1961).

Chad­wick, Mary. “‘The Most Dan­ger­ous Tal­ent’: Rid­dles as Fem­i­nine Pas­time,” Women, Pop­u­lar Cul­ture, and the Eigh­teenth Cen­tu­ry, Ed. Tiffany Pot­ter. Toron­to: Univ. of Toron­to Press, 2012.

Cohen, Bernard. Ben­jamin Franklin’s Sci­ence. Cam­bridge: Har­vard Univ. Press, 1990.

Chu, Seo-Young Jen­nie. “Dick­in­son and Math­e­mat­ics,” The Emi­ly Dick­in­son Jour­nal 15.1 (2006), 35–55.

Del­bour­go, James. A Most Amaz­ing Scene of Won­ders: Elec­tric­i­ty and Enlight­en­ment in Ear­ly Amer­i­ca. Cam­bridge: Har­vard Univ. Press, 2006.

Ein­stein, Albert. “The Late Emmy Noe­ther: Pro­fes­sor Ein­stein Writes in Appre­ci­a­tion of a Fel­low-Math­e­mati­cian,” The New York Times (4 May 1935), 12. Print.

Franklin, Ben­jamin. Auto­bi­og­ra­phy of Ben­jamin Franklin. 1791 ed. New York: Wal­ter J. Black, Inc., 1941.

Franklin, Ben­jamin. Exper­i­ments and Obser­va­tions in Elec­tric­i­ty, 4th ed. Lon­don: David Hen­ry, 1769. Google Books. Accessed May 20, 2018. https://books.google.com/books/about/Experiments_And_Observations_On_Electric.html?id=-48_AAAAcAAJ

Fuji­wara, Masahiko. “Lit­er­a­ture and Math­e­mat­ics,” Asymp­tote (Jan­u­ary 2011). Accessed May 20, 2018. https://www.asymptotejournal.com/nonfiction/masahiko-fujiwara-literature-and-mathematics/

Hen­der­son, David W. and Daina Taim­i­na. “Expe­ri­enc­ing Mean­ings in Geom­e­try,” Math­e­mat­ics and the Aes­thet­ic: New Approach­es to an Ancient Infin­i­ty, Ed. Nathalie Sin­clair et al. New York: Springer, 2007.

Hey­dt-Steven­son, Jil­lian. “Games, Rid­dles, and Cha­rades,” The Cam­bridge Com­pan­ion to Emma, Ed. Peter Sabor. Cam­bridge: Cam­bridge Univ. Press, 2015, 150–165.

Kahn, David. The Code­break­ers: The Sto­ry of Secret Writ­ing. New York: Scrib­n­er, 1996.

Par­rish, Susan Scott. Amer­i­can Curios­i­ty: Cul­tures of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry in the colo­nial British Atlantic World. Chapel Hill, Univ. of North Car­oli­na Press, 2006.

Pasles, Paul C. Ben­jamin Franklin’s Num­bers: An Unsung Math­e­mat­i­cal Odyssey. Prince­ton: Prince­ton Univ. Press, 2008.

Singh, Simon. The Code Book: The Sci­ence of Secre­cy from Ancient Egypt to Quan­tum Cryp­tog­ra­phy. New York: Anchor, 2000.

Weber, Ralph E. Unit­ed States Diplo­mat­ic Codes and Ciphers, 1775–1938. Fish­er, IN: Prece­dent Pub­lish­ing Inc., 1979.

Wein­stein, Cindy and Christo­pher Loo­by, “Intro­duc­tion,” Amer­i­can Literature’s Aes­thet­ic Dimen­sions. New York: Colum­bia Univ. Press, 2012.

 

Michelle Size­more is Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ken­tucky. She is the author of Amer­i­can Enchant­ment: Rit­u­als of the Peo­ple in the Post-Rev­o­lu­tion­ary World (Oxford, 2017) and has pub­lished arti­cles and reviews in Lega­cy, Stud­ies in Amer­i­can Fic­tion, Amer­i­can Lit­er­ary His­to­ry, Ear­ly Amer­i­can Lit­er­a­ture, and oth­er venues.

Three Poems

Poetry / Page Hill Starzinger

:: L’Esperance Trail ::

	St John, VI 

But then a second storm—and 
even the slight path carved
by deer hooves 
and iguana claws 
drops off, into landslide,	
tumbles down to broken 
Cretaceous basalt, 
micro crystalline chert.
But we are caught 
at the top of the spill, 
thorny vines 
wiring a dry forest 
with barbs. 
This is nowhere, a
washout. Where land
once was, now a map
of empty space. But look
at the mosquitoes, 
sulfur butterflies,
and pearly-eyed thrashers 
threading their bodies
through invisible scent tracks 
sifting above prickly pear cactus,
wild tamarind and 
turpentine trees leaning
over the edge.
As if, to show us
another passage
is possible. 
                     Oh, but, look 
how my mind
is always expecting to
find a way down.


 

:: Physicists Simulate Sending Particles of Light into the Past, Strengthening the Case that Time Travel is Possible ::

Oh nameless one.

As yet unnamed. 

Though 
              left unnamable—

of unconceivable 

       colors: 
           		     inwrought with flowers.
		
                       Nomen nescio,

Prenom 
                   nescio.
		
                        Nescire. 
                                       Walking 

                        backwards 

	   and forwards until 

                         the flattened turf
   catches 
                    sunlight      

                           and becomes 
                                               visible 
                  as a line. 

I would teach 

             you how to cross over

bunny ears. 

              Rabbit running 
around a tree.     
                   Hiding from a dog, jumping in the hole.

—As simple as a track in the snow or a stone circle—

everything I could not. May not. Will not.
              Want. 


 

:: Breaking Wheel ::

And so we believed:  

                            Hanging 

        cathedrals down from heaven,
	     blind pierced traceries—
                           circular, 
	                             compartmentalized
                                         stained
                           oculi,

             looks like a rose,
                   named for the Saint 
            	            we sentenced to execution 
                                    on a spiked 
                            wheel:  
              Catherine.

                             Bones of collars,
               forehands
     			                  and toes, spurred
	       magnificence,
                             splayed with lavender veins
                                                like lacework:
		
                             I 
                tear apart the prayer bead pods, 
                spilling scarlet 
		              poison over
                       the thin luminous place where
	        mothers hand us their 

                              habits.
                Not only because of the girl 
                             who lost her sight 	
                     carving 100 ivory elephants 
                              to slip into
                                         red
 
   		              rosary pea-seeds. 
                     Or the mother hawk’s 
                              breaking femur			
	         as metal wildlife bands 
                                             and fishing wire 
		               constrict her leg.
	
                               Or the daughters in a small town
	                                awakening 
                   from naps—stuttering, twitching,
                               arms flailing, uttering 
                      strange sounds:  hysterical 
                                epidemic.  
		
                                It’s 
             no longer to have to follow the father.
		                To see
            the mother falling, splintering 
                            our looking glass.
                      For her to fall again.

              To lift her up.  For her to let me.



 

From the writer

:: Account ::

An astrologer told me this year that I’m in the mid­dle of the Eighth House, a peri­od rep­re­sent­ing trans­for­ma­tion and death. What­ev­er you want to call it, I can report that in the last year my par­ents both passed away, I quit my job, and I left an indus­try I’ve been a part of since 1980. I am now free to cre­ate a new world more reflec­tive of myself and who I want to become.

L’Esperance Trail” was writ­ten in response to the after­math of two Cat. 5 hur­ri­canes on the Caribbean island of St. John in 2017. My vis­it this past spring, the sev­enth, was notable for the alter­ation of land­scape and town. Hill­sides were washed away, and more than six months after the cat­a­stro­phe, three quar­ters of the hous­es still only have blue tarps as roofs. But there’s a whole world to which our sens­es, espe­cial­ly as tourists, are not attuned. And that is where I look in this poem for find­ing a pas­sage out of sham­bles.

Physi­cists Sim­u­late Send­ing Par­ti­cles of Light into the Past, Strength­en­ing the Case that Time Trav­el is Pos­si­ble”: As I come to terms with the notion that I am the last of my fam­i­ly, hav­ing no chil­dren of my own, I mourn the loss. I keep going over it in my mind, try­ing to come to terms with it, imag­in­ing dif­fer­ent out­comes. I nev­er con­sid­ered names for a child, and in read­ing about mis­car­riages, and the mourn­ing of them, I’m struck by how lit­tle I imag­ined of my own daugh­ter or son.

Break­ing Wheel” is a bit more spe­cif­ic about the path to take from here on: it involves let­ting go of inher­it­ed beliefs, includ­ing patri­ar­chal, so destruc­tive that one could lose sight and vision. When I start­ed this poem, my moth­er was still alive but our rela­tion­ship was shift­ing. I was moth­er­ing her rather than her attend­ing to me. At the same time, I was read­ing about high school girls in Le Roy, NY—each with unsta­ble famil­ial relationships—awakening with symp­toms of hys­te­ria.

To com­mu­ni­cate the the­mat­ic slip­page and nar­ra­tive insta­bil­i­ties in these three poems, I’ve made my lines pre­cip­i­tous, plum­met­ing ver­ti­cal­ly, enjamb­ment spi­ral­ing down­ward as words veer and skid, con­stel­lat­ing around dif­fer­ent degrees of white space, depend­ing on sub­ject. “L’Esperance Trail” has the most reg­u­lar­ized lines, flush left, while the right mar­gin spills toward a moment of self-dis­cov­ery. Here, a “step­ping off” of lines fol­lows the narrator’s sud­den aware­ness, offered in an aside. Some­body recent­ly sug­gest­ed this con­trast between con­trol and chaos may be a sig­na­ture of my writ­ing.

Break­ing Wheel” tum­bles, but through a pat­tern of most­ly six-line stan­zas, to offer con­tain­ment to thoughts, also to acknowl­edge the­mat­ic restric­tions to which the nar­ra­tor is respond­ing. Maybe grief calls for more white space. And so the third poem, “Physi­cists Sim­u­late Send­ing Par­ti­cles of Light into the Past, Strength­en­ing the Case that Time Trav­el is Pos­si­ble,” descends through a page where white space car­ries equal weight to lines, giv­ing pause, giv­ing voice to the unsayable, unnam­able, incon­ceiv­able. At least, that’s the idea. That’s the hope.

 

Page Hill Starzinger’s first poet­ry col­lec­tion, Ves­ti­gial, was pub­lished by Bar­row Street in 2013 (win­ner of the 2012 prize judged by Lynn Emanuel). Her chap­book, Unshel­ter, was pub­lished by Noe­mi Press in 2009 (win­ner of the 2008 con­test judged by Mary Jo Bang). Her poems have appeared in Col­orado Review, Den­ver Quar­ter­ly, Fence, Keny­on Review, Lit­er­ary Imag­i­na­tion, Pleiades, Prairie Schooner, Tri­Quar­ter­ly, and Volt, among oth­er jour­nals. Her first book review is live now on Keny­on Review Online.

from Little Million Doors: an elegy

Poetry / Chad Sweeney

:: from Little Million Doors: an elegy ::

Abyss in the shape 
Of a maple leaf

Leaf to be in two 
Eras at once scaffolding 

Under the hill the other 
Sun a river

Boat and its story 

Painless I abide
Traceries of bees slide over 

To say soul the world is 

This all we are 
A soulfield in sound we

Adrift in 
Sleeves 

I could almost 
Sleep it


~


A series of blue doors 

The days come floating 
Away from me 

Inside stone a wind 
My daughter 

Horizons in the wood 
Her bouquet in 

Ruins 

At both ends 
Of the road

Where nothing needs 
Saving


~


Or someone’s shadow 
Working

Like a hammer 
Shadow of a thought 

Working high

Above the water wheel 

Delicate the boy 
Swaddles

A babe across the mine field
Innocent the gravity in 

Ropes singing down

The whole earth like a 
Mirror for something 


~


Where helicopter blades 
Flower
	
Three in the low sun 

At bottom of the 
Street like a well 

Into deeps 
The street where  

Looking
Time trebles in the smoke 

Of cedar groves the dogs 
Drift 

Into us a shout the cold 


~


Into us a little while 
Light lets nothing is 

Sovereign a page a box 
Brimming 

All delicate 
In the body held

In the coarse 
Rope netting 
 
Of the body time keeps

Branching what 

Does it want in us each 
Carries her

Death like a vase of deaths  
Was I 

Married in the soft sleep
 
Of marrow I can’t explain 
Children see me 

Inside them I watch 
Language move the year



 

From the writer

:: Account ::

My father died in his sleep just before my for­ti­eth birth­day and the birth of our first son, Liam Green­leaf Sweeney. In the weeks and months fol­low­ing, I suf­fered symp­toms of post trau­mat­ic stress syn­drome and autis­tic melt­down. Felt a strange dis­em­bod­ied amne­sia, wan­dered about town, drank heav­i­ly, loss of mean­ing and depres­sion, yet mad­ly in love with our new baby boy, a pro­found, shock­ing love which oscil­lat­ed between joy and grief that my father would nev­er meet him. I was sleep deprived from stay­ing up all night with our sleep­less baby and work­ing long hours as a PhD stu­dent and teach­ing fel­low in the “stu­dent ghet­to” of Kala­ma­zoo, Michi­gan. Time drift­ed side­wise. My sen­so­ry inte­gra­tion dis­or­der become worse and worse, part of my autism. I began writ­ing these strange poems, or one long poem, in bursts and utter­ances which felt more like over­hear­ing them or being occu­pied by the voice which car­ried with it bright visions, scenes, and sen­sa­tions. I was com­pelled to write them quick­ly on any­thing I could grab, includ­ing nap­kins and receipts, to record the voice, to trace what it saw. I usu­al­ly start­ed sob­bing and had to rush out of pub­lic spaces or clutch my head to con­tain the sen­sa­tions which were near­ly unbear­able. I do often write in per­sona, which feels like over­hear­ing the voice of the char­ac­ter through the length of a poem, but this was a much stronger impulse and the same voice returned again and again. I didn’t have a sense of who the voice was until many days had passed, when I typed and reread the frag­ments and began to sus­pect that this was the voice of a “ghost” (for lack of a bet­ter word, though cer­tain­ly unlike any “ghost” I had seen rep­re­sent­ed in lit­er­a­ture or film). The ghost did not recall its life, gen­der, or iden­ti­ty, and was haunt­ed by the liv­ing, by the yearn­ing to belong and to touch and inter­act. The feel­ings that inhab­it­ed me were tru­ly heart­break­ing, beau­ti­ful, pas­sion­ate­ly sor­row­ful and joy­ful at the same time. I con­tin­ued to trace the voice through the com­ing weeks until it entire­ly ceased. I thought it might be my father speak­ing, yet odd­ly enough, this feel­ing of “ghost” serves equal­ly to trace or to express my sense of dis­lo­ca­tion, joy/terror, dis­con­nec­tion as an autis­tic per­son in the world.

These pieces are part of a book-length poem called Lit­tle Mil­lion Doors, which won the Night­boat Books Prize and will appear as a full-length book in the spring of 2019.

 

Chad Sweeney is the author of five pre­vi­ous books, includ­ing Para­ble of Hide and Seek (Alice James Books, 2010), two books of trans­la­tions, and two edit­ed edi­tions. His poems have appeared in Best Amer­i­can Poet­ry, the Push­cart Prize Anthol­o­gy, Amer­i­can Poet­ry Review, and else­where. Sweeney is an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor at Cal State San Bernardi­no, where he edits the lit mag, Ghost Town, at www.ghosttownlitmag.com          

Three Works

Art / Sawyer Rose

:: from Seeds of the Monoliths ::

 

From the artist

:: Account ::

Both sculp­tur­al and painter­ly, the forms in the Seeds of the Mono­liths series are clad in lay­ers of sil­ver sol­der and cop­per, as if their del­i­cate botan­i­cal bod­ies are grow­ing the armor they need to flour­ish in the envi­ron­ment humans are leav­ing for them. Using the tex­ture of the met­al as my pri­ma­ry mark-mak­ing medi­um, the liq­ue­fied sil­ver morphs into bark, or feath­ers, or scales. There is elo­quence and beau­ty in the act of self-pro­tec­tion.

The sur­faces of my sol­dered met­al spheres draw inspi­ra­tion from unex­pect­ed­ly diverse sources—typically a mash-up of Cal­i­for­nia flo­ra and Medieval weaponry—though I’ve also tapped into the organ­ic pat­terns of coral, fun­gus, and lava flows for fresh ideas.

In a recent depar­ture, I based the pat­tern­ing of the Dis­sent piece on the jabot (or, col­lar) that Jus­tice Ruth Bad­er Gins­burg wears when she announces a dis­sent­ing opin­ion on a Supreme Court case. Metaphor­i­cal­ly, the Jus­tice wears this jew­eled armor when defend­ing her views in an increas­ing­ly hos­tile polit­i­cal envi­ron­ment.

When build­ing these pieces, I begin by cov­er­ing the fiber­glass sculp­ture arma­ture with cop­per foil. Next, I lay down the first lay­er of tex­ture in sil­ver solder—like paint­ing with molten met­al. I add dimen­sion to the work by plac­ing beads of sol­der to cre­ate depth and con­trast. The pieces are cov­ered with a rich black pati­na and bur­nished with steel wool to bring out shin­ing high­lights on the raised peaks, while leav­ing dark in the val­leys.

 

Sawyer Rose is a sculp­ture, instal­la­tion, and social prac­tice artist. Through­out her career, Rose has used her art­work to shine a spot­light on con­tem­po­rary social and eco­log­i­cal issues. Her met­al­work sculp­tures explore the ways liv­ing things adapt to chang­ing envi­ron­ments and The Car­ry­ing Stones Project address­es issues around women’s work inequity. Her work has been exhib­it­ed wide­ly across the U.S.

Rose has been a res­i­dent artist at MASS MoCA, Fort Mason Cen­ter for Arts & Cul­ture in San Fran­cis­co, Ver­mont Stu­dio Cen­ter, Rag­dale Foun­da­tion, and The Tyrone Guthrie Cen­tre in Ire­land.

She has been award­ed mer­it grants from The Cre­ative Capac­i­ty Fund, The Awe­some Foun­da­tion, and Ver­mont Stu­dio Cen­ter.

Rose is the Pres­i­dent of the North­ern Cal­i­for­nia Women’s Cau­cus for Art.

Chiegar, Saami Word Meaning “Old Snow Dug Up By a Reindeer” …

Poetry / Ron Riekki

:: Chiegar, Saami Word Meaning “Old Snow Dug Up By a Reindeer” (With Each Line’s Final Word from a Poem by Kevin Cole) ::

                                                            “to those familiar with their ways”
                                                            –Kevin Cole, 
                                                            from “Deer Fording the Missouri in Early Afternoon”

Diermmes clutched a rainbow in one hand—O, the ways
he’d crush yellow when angered, blue dripping, startling
the world with color from his anger. (All last afternoon

we talked about Saami mythology and I said how much
I despise the four-letter word myth, how it’s tied to rumor, all
the ways story becomes hid.) Vuorwro would suck souls from ears,
putting a straw inside the skull; the only protection was to have water

in your room at all times. My girlfriend, Saami too, keeps a shoal
in a glass by the bed, her rainbowed four-winds cap a mantle
that she said she would kill Diermmes if he touched it. We are hooves,

my girlfriend and I, reindeer in blood; even when our hearts rest
they still are filled with aurora borealis, our arteries that bound
with ice. I am so goddamn Arctic that I always suppose
I’ll die in snow. In Saami, north means where the water

is, not where a compass needle is sucked. Grandma drowned off of an island
in Sápmi, an island so beautiful the relatives didn’t complain, the lichen stands
up there and prays to the world, the way that the Greeks bow to olives,
except we are prayers, are stars, are reindeer, a cross of reindeer-star-prayer,

and I love the one time I got to run through a river with reindeer, all the things
of the world silenced so that I just experienced life. This is my story,
my connection, my culture, my heagga, I share with you this afternoon.



 

From the writer

:: Account ::

I’m not sure if there is a poet­ic tech­nique where you take the final word from each line of anoth­er poem and then write your own poem using those end-line words, but Sir Ian McK­ellen gave me the idea when he did his won­der­ful analy­sis of the “Tomor­row, and tomor­row” speech from Mac­beth, where he laid out how crit­i­cal those punch­ing final line’s words are. I love poems that pay homage to oth­er poets, and so that homage aspect is inher­ent to the tech­nique. And I’ve also found that I nev­er have writer’s block if I use this form, a form I like to call riekkis, a Saa­mi word for ring (how there is a mar­riage between two poems with the tech­nique). I hope oth­er poets would hon­or me by doing this with one of my own orig­i­nal poems, or even with this very poem, where it gets to con­tin­ue cycli­cal­ly (with the star­tling prayer of sto­ry).

 

Ron Riek­ki’s books include And Here: 100 Years of Upper Penin­su­la Writ­ing, 1917–2017 (Michi­gan State Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2017), Here: Women Writ­ing on Michigan’s Upper Penin­su­la (Michi­gan State Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2016 Inde­pen­dent Pub­lish­er Book Award Gold Medal Great Lakes Best Region­al Fic­tion), The Way North: Col­lect­ed Upper Penin­su­la New Works (Wayne State Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2014 Michi­gan Notable Book award­ed by the Library of Michi­gan), and U.P.: a nov­el (Ghost Road Press, 2008).

Three Poems

Poetry / Stephen S. Mills

:: In Death the Anal Passage Reveals Signs of Sodomy ::

nothing is sacred when it comes to the [queer] body 
a body on a slab [queer slab] cold slab 
to be examined [prodded and poked]

Roger Casement was hung [not in that way] in 1916
a body executed, swinging [queer] 
a traitor [a hero?] 

the British condemned him to death 
just a few years after knighting him 
[queer] knight 

ransacked his [queer] apartment 
journals black 
and [queer]

bodies of men [queer] men 
naked men in detail 
[queer] detail 

everybody wants proof
[queer] proof
because words are never enough

and [queers] are traitors 
to their sex 
country too if the shoe fits
[queer] shoe

so if in death 
[queer] death 
the anal passage is marked

[queer] anal markings 
with signs [queer] signs
signs of sodomy 

than he must be 
will be [queer] traitor 
case [closed] 


 

:: They Have Wives and Goldfish of Their Own ::

	–Joe Orton (1933-1967)

I am one year older 
than you ever were, Joe Orton.
I’m starting with this fact 
because that is how humans 
work: always selfish. 
I try to be honest about that, 
which I think you’d appreciate. 
I am 35 as I write this
and you were killed at 34. 
You will never be 35 
and I will never again be 34. 
Those are the facts,
which do not change
no matter how many times
I try to reform them in my mind.
I like that you faltered. 
That you failed. 
That your upbringing 
wasn’t anything special. 
That you longed to be an actor
like I once longed to be an actor,
but you weren’t very good at it—
and I never gave it much of a shot. 
You wrote shit sometimes
like I write shit sometimes.
You went to prison for defacing 
library books and I spent a night in jail
and one long year going back
and forth to court 
for throwing a glass in a bar.
It cut someone’s face.
You just cut up books,
which they thought was worse
in 1960s Britain. 
But then you succeeded. 
Became the “it boy” of British theater
and almost wrote a screenplay 
for the Beatles. 
I’m a Lennon boy myself. 
I’ve had my moments in the poetry 
world but never quite an “it boy” 
mostly because I’m terrible 
at sucking up to people. 
Then at the height of it all: 
Kenneth killed you 
out of jealousy or rage 
or unchecked mental health
or maybe all three.
Who’s to say really?
Authority is always foolish 
in the world of your plays.
Less worried with truth
than appearance. 
You worked to chip away at polite 
society—at cups of tea and manners 
and all things British,
which I kind of love
which is why I watch endless 
documentaries on the Royal Family.  
I wonder what you would make
of this world we live in now. 
Authority has become 
an even bigger joke, 
if you can imagine that 
but I think you can 
having written lines like 
Recent figures show that the mad 
will outnumber the sane by the turn of the century.
You were referring to this century 
that I’m in now,
which is already in its 18th year.
In the last century—yours—
my goldfish died so many deaths—
so many fish. But of course, 
there was a first
and I remember crumpling 
into my mother’s arms 
in the living room in that green fuzzy 
chair like algae. 
My first act of grief was for a fish 
or was it a lizard?
I did love my lizards 
and I think of Kenneth—
your friend—your lover—
your murderer—stepping over 
his father’s body to make a cup of tea 
before calling the police 
to report his suicide—head 
in oven Plath-style 
like a scene from one 
of your plays.
Of course, I also think of him—
Kenneth—just a boy—watching 
his mother die from a bee sting
right before his eyes. How do you
ever recover from that?
Maybe you don’t.  
And tonight I dream of meeting you 
in the men’s toilet of King’s Cross station 
like Mike in The Ruffian on the Stair. 
Of you unscrewing the lightbulbs 
and then lowering your pants. 
How I might take you in my mouth—
how you might return the favor—
how my ass might feel pressed 
into the tiles—my skin filling 
each crevice as you deepthroat me
harder and harder and how we each 
might taste to the other. 
And now how we shy away 
from public sex. 
Can U host? 
No. U? 
No. Fuck.
As if there are no other options. 
And I think of being in Paris
in the fall with my husband
for our anniversary: 14 years. 
How we stumbled down
that street and down those steps 
into a small dim bar—grabbed a beer 
and walked the maze 
of cells looking to get off—
two men already at it 
who took our cocks until we came
in the dark in their mouths
no words exchanged
for I am terrible at French
even though I’ve studied it 
for years. But words weren’t needed.
And then a few months ago, 
I was in London 
where I had plenty of sex 
but none in public
for I had my own hotel room
and I saw Vanessa Redgrave 
in a play that was a gay retelling
of Howards End,
which is funny because she’s
in the film version of Howards End
and also in the film version 
of Prick Up Your Ears—
your bio pic—she is your Peggy. 
Gary Oldman played you
and was even kind of handsome
when he did, which you would like.
And it’s odd because he just
won an Oscar for playing 
Winston Churchill. Yes, the same
man who played you played him,
which you might not like. 
There was lots of makeup involved
and many years between the films,
if it’s any consolation.
But I think of your joke
about Churchill’s penis in What the Butler Saw:
your last play which got produced 
after you were killed.
The one many consider your 
masterpiece, but maybe 
that’s because you were dead. 
Kenneth bashed in your head 
with a hammer—they say it was nine blows 
and then he killed himself
with pills. He actually died first, 
which somehow makes it worse,
I think. All that blood. 
You were still warm.
Kenneth stiff. 
Who knows what you would have done next
or how long your fame would have
burned—audiences can be so fickle
just ask Arthur Miller
if you see him. I wish I could say
you are a gay lit hero now, 
but that would be a bit of a lie. 
Few read you, to be honest. 
Your plays are so much of the period
and tastes change. But your life—
your style—and of course your death
make you ripe material. 
Kenneth helped you in that way.
Like the note he left—so simple—
so tragic: If you read his diary, 
all will be explained. And the P.S.:
Especially the latter part.
And then in death you were reunited:
yes, they mixed part of your ashes
with Kenneth’s—I don’t know
if there’s ever been another case
where a murderer and the murder victim
had their ashes mixed together—
a twisted love affair 
or like a line in one of your plays. 
But in a way I understand 
because we have husbands 
and goldfish 
of our own these days. 


 

:: What I’ve Got They Used to Call the Blues ::

	–Karen Carpenter (1950-1983)

Roller skates, a swinging door, 
a gurney that held your body—
but it was also you on the skates, 
which made it haunting. 
A little bit fuzzy—soft focus—
very 1980s. And I remember 
being scared of those skates 
and your body gliding through 
and around your other body 
singing “The End of the World.” 
I never liked skating—never trusted 
myself enough to balance, 
to push forward, to survive. 
I remember winning a trip 
to the skating rink during class
in the 5th grade for being on the Honor 
Roll. I spent the whole time 
in the kiddie rink holding on 
to the side and thinking:
what a horrible prize. 
Of course, it wasn’t really you
on the skates or the gurney.
You were dead by then.
This was just a made-for-TV movie
that I watched as a kid.
My mother played your albums
on our massive record player
that lined the front window
of our house. Some people 
called your music too wholesome—
a contradiction of everything horrible 
happening in the country at the time,
but there’s darkness there,
which I always saw—melancholia—
like you were warning me 
of all that was to come.
This world is hard. 
This I know now. 
Maybe that’s why I’m returning
to you so many years later.
I download a greatest hits album,
stare at your picture on the front:
you and your brother.
I pick this album because
of the picture: slightly goofy—
a white hat on your head—your eyes
shifted sideways.
You look playful and happy. 
I listen to it over and over
and the words come right back
to me. You died at just 32, 
which is younger than I am now.
I read somewhere that 
anorexia is like “fascism 
over the body.” How you 
become both victim and dictator. 
A battle within yourself.
And I remember a girl in high school 
who began to disappear
and then went to some place 
in Baltimore and came back cured 
or as cured as any of us ever are
and I wrote a three-part poem about it
called “Baltimore,”
which became the first poem
I ever read to an audience:
my first open mic in college. 
I didn’t really know the girl that well 
and the poem had a few fucks in it. 
Everyone clapped.
Over the years, everyone has tried to find 
someone to blame for your death, Karen. 
The tabloids have had their fun.
Your family always on the defense. 
Like how Richard stopped the distribution
of Todd Haynes film Superstar,
which he made in 1987 
before he was famous,
before he attempted to get Julianne Moore
an Oscar (don’t worry she eventually got one).
But it’s the 21st century, so I found it 
on YouTube. He used Barbie dolls 
instead of actors and as the film goes on
your Barbie is shaved away 
little by little. Barbie becoming 
even more of an impossibility. 
MOMA has a copy 
but has agreed to not display it
per your family’s request. 
And then there is the 1989 
TV movie that I saw as a kid.
That my mother or someone
recorded on VHS—which then
could be replayed anytime.
And it was those skates—that opening
scene—that always gave me 
an overwhelming sense of dread. 
Of what was to come in this life. 
In my life. In your life. 
I have managed to survive 
longer than you. But still move 
through this world with fear 
and an overwhelming lack of control. 
Eating disorders are often associated 
with control. If nothing else, 
we can decide what goes into our bodies.
What we consume. 
But control turns dark so quickly. 
Doesn’t it, Karen?  
Power is dangerous:
a lesson we must learn over 
and over again. 



 

From the writer

:: Account ::

We live among the dead. What they left behind: sto­ries, music, plays. These poems explore how we relate to the dead. How we often reimag­ine them in the con­text of our own lives—our own time period—our own sto­ries. These poems are from a larg­er project I’m writ­ing called The Homo­sex­u­al Book of the Dead, which exam­ines these con­nec­tions and threads to var­i­ous dead peo­ple but also to the ideas and fears around death as well as death prac­tices.

The fig­ures in these par­tic­u­lar poems have a con­nec­tion to the gay com­mu­ni­ty. Roger Case­ment and Joe Orton were both gay, and Karen Car­pen­ter is often con­sid­ered a gay icon. They also all had trag­ic ends and died rel­a­tive­ly young (51, 34, and 32 respec­tive­ly). The LGBT com­mu­ni­ty often has a trou­bling con­nec­tion to death, from hate crimes to sui­cide to the AIDS cri­sis, death has often been a touch­stone for our com­mu­ni­ty: some­thing to fear—something to survive—something to prove wrong. These pieces touch on what is left behind and how we make sense of lives tak­en from us.

 

Stephen S. Mills is the author of the Lamb­da Award-win­ning book He Do the Gay Man in Dif­fer­ent Voic­es and A His­to­ry of the Unmar­ried, both from Sib­ling Rival­ry Press. He earned his MFA from Flori­da State Uni­ver­si­ty. His work has appeared in The Anti­och Review, PANK, The New York Quar­ter­ly, The Los Ange­les Review, Knock­out, The Rum­pus, and oth­ers. He is also the win­ner of the 2008 Gival Press Oscar Wilde Poet­ry Award and the 2014 Christo­pher Hewitt Award for Fic­tion. His third poet­ry col­lec­tion, Not Every­thing Thrown Starts a Rev­o­lu­tion, is now avail­able from Sib­ling Rival­ry Press. He lives in New York City with his part­ner and two schnau­zers. Web­site: www.stephensmills.com

Two Poems

Poetry / Bridget Lowe

:: Imperfect Allegory for A Situation of Which I Am Not Permitted to Speak ::

1.


          The breathlessness 

Of sinking in to flesh, like a sleeping bag 
Filled with jam. . .

She always seemed a little slow to them. 
          The way she wouldn’t turn 
          Her head

Upon hearing her name. She had the ornament 
          Of learning

Which is not 
          Learning itself. It is following directions. 

Rose did. A turn 

Around the concrete pole at the end 
Of the gravel road 

Then back. Swaying toward a fuzz of light 
          Like a dandelion
          Head, drunk on the cold

Air, a distant barn

          She could not reach—How much farther 
          Is it now, she said

(We don’t know, they said, not one of us
          Knows 
          A thing)

What if		she said		I left 

          Peacefully

Look, they said, a slab of salt propped against 
          A distant fence. Help 

          Yourself, they said. But Rose could not. 


2.


Poor Rose. She got her degree in Humanities 
          And 84K later
A frat boy sat on the squat brown cask 

          Of her tired body
          Pointing out 

The sorry zigzag of her dugs, those pickled slits	
          That gave no milk.

And the rotted tooth
That no one would attend to 

          So her breath came out
          A reeking blast

Like last week’s trash blown through a tube
          Of paper towels.

          And then the rock 

Her yellowish eye did not catch. Rose 
          Stepped again and
 
          Again 
          In every wrong spot 

Until the movement stopped. Poor Rose.
          She did not know
          Her own size. 

Like most girls she died from this 
          Mistake.


3.


Believe it or not the complications of foreign commerce 

Were not lost on Rose, nor
          The fluctuations of the stock market

Which Rose boiled down to simple
          Masculine fear, measurable as menses

As they consulted spreadsheets cosmic
          As the Milky Way,

Their suit sleeves revealing just a hint of gold 
          And wrist hair. 


4.


Rose counted her possessions 
In her head: 

          One imaginary falcon and
          One wayward cow
          That roamed beneath the crabapple trees
          On certain afternoons.

How human she felt. You have no idea.
Perfectly distinct 

          From men, Rose sat 
                    In the congregated straw 

Watching them prepare for it. 
A blue tarp spread as if it were a birth. 
She saw herself being pulled through herself, 
          Headfirst. 

She was swimming and flying all at once. 

All this time what she imagined was pride was fear. 
All this time she was tied with jump rope. 
She didn’t know. All this time she was blind-folded. 
All this time she believed that God loved her. 
Not just loved her but loved her loved her. 
She thought they were star-crossed lovers
That got caught. She drank a little poison.
The heft of God a thousand sorrows on her back. 

What happened 
Happened 

In one fell act, brutal 
And permanent

Whether anyone believes it 
Or not. 

And then she was running in the actual woods, 

                              A girl. 


 

:: Justice, A Pornography ::

Raggedy earnest bouquet 
of dandelions ripped from the 
front lawn, my girlish 

dream of the meek (little mouse-
people, many and pink,
lying in nude heaps, one upon

the other) inheriting and 
inheriting some manhandled 
version of the earth (cash 

blowing around in a tube 
of air, hair vertical, screaming 
with joy, a fire sale 

at a furniture store, Black 
Friday), my face of hope 
so giant in your face, obscene, me

(me, always at the other end 
of your telescope, the face 
of my child when she is waving

at a random man in a hoard).



 

From the writer

:: Account ::

My invent­ed Rose is an abused horse used to give kid­die rides at birth­day par­ties and for oth­er enter­tain­ment-cen­tric events, until she acci­den­tal­ly tram­ples a frat boy to death dur­ing a ride and is put down for it. The poem is inspired by my con­cur­rent read­ing of Tolstoy’s sto­ry “Khol­stomer,” or “Strid­er: The Sto­ry of a Horse,” which fol­lows Strid­er from birth to death, a death car­ried out by a stranger who kills him uncer­e­mo­ni­ous­ly in the woods when his work out­put is no longer of enough val­ue to his own­ers to keep him alive. In Tolstoy’s sto­ry we are with Strid­er as his throat is cut, his body flayed for his sub­par coat and left exposed to feed stray ani­mals. Strider’s flesh and meat ulti­mate­ly pro­vide nour­ish­ment to a pack of young wolf cubs. It is an ecsta­t­ic, per­fect end­ing, and I am obsessed with the sto­ry.

Jus­tice: A Pornog­ra­phy” is my response to the Beat­i­tude “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inher­it the earth.”

 

Brid­get Lowe is the author of At the Autop­sy of Vaslav Nijin­sky (Carnegie Mel­lon Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2013), and her poems have appeared in The New York­er, Poet­ry, A Pub­lic Space, Amer­i­can Poet­ry Review, Par­nas­sus, Ploughshares, Best Amer­i­can Poet­ry, and else­where. Hon­ors and prizes include the Discovery/Boston Review Prize, the Emi­ly Dick­in­son Award from the Poet­ry Soci­ety of Amer­i­ca, the Rona Jaffe Foun­da­tion fel­low­ship to the Mac­Dow­ell Colony, and a schol­ar­ship and fel­low­ship to the Bread Loaf Writ­ers’ Con­fer­ence, among oth­ers.

Two Poems

Poetry / David Kirby

:: The Locomotion ::

Student’s so tired she’s weepy. I just got off a double shift,
          she says, and I tell her not to worry, that we’ve all had 
terrible jobs but things turn out okay, and then I tell her 

about my worst job ever, which was building roads 
          in Claiborne Parish that summer, the sun itself hot enough, 
the tar puddling around our boots like lava leaked 

from Dante’s hell. Jules LeBlanc and I bunked together 
          and drove back to Baton Rouge on the weekends 
to do laundry and eat our mothers’ cooking, 

but on our last day before we went off to college, 
          we stopped at a roadhouse and emptied can after can 
of Busch beer, the white mountains of the logo 

holding out their snowy promise. Somehow 
          we made our way down Essen Lane, and when we stopped
at the first light and Little Eva’s “Locomotion” came on,

Jules cranked the volume knob, whipped his hard hat 
          into the woods, stepped to the car behind us, dragged out 
the driver and his wife, and said, Okay, dance. 

Pope Leo X said, “Since God has given us the papacy, 
          let us enjoy it.” I felt the same way about rock ‘n’ roll.
It gave me somebodiness, to use Dr. King’s word.

As the song spooled out into the night, we shook 
          and shimmied, the oldtimers and the two young idiots, 
and then I looked over my shoulder and said, 

Jules, your truck’s rolling, and we took off down Essen, 
          but just before Jules jumped through his door 
and I through mine, I turned to check on the old folks. 

Were they okay? asks my student. The light 
          hadn’t changed, I say. His arm was around her waist, 
his other hand was in hers. They were still dancing.


 

:: Tell Your Story ::

As you walk by the river with your friend and tell stories,
at some point you say, “I told that one before, didn’t I?”
and your friend says, “You did, but I like that story,

and besides, you never tell it the same way twice.”
So tell your story. Sonny Rollins had an apartment 
on Grand Street near the river but was reluctant 

to play his saxophone there because he didn’t want 
to bother his neighbors, so he started practicing
on the Williamsburg Bridge, where he could play 

as loud as he wanted, 15 and 16 hours a day,
all year round. He was joined sometimes by other
saxophonists, by Steve Lacy and Jackie McLean,

and they’d imitate what they heard and try
to play it back louder. Lacy recalls, “On the bridge 
there was this din, a really high level of sound 

from boats and cars and subways and helicopters 
and airplanes. Sonny played into it. I couldn’t 
hear myself but I could hear Sonny.” Zola said

if you ask me what I came into this life to do, 
I will tell you: I came to live out loud. 
So tell your story. Tell it on this steel-blue day,

send it out on the glad air that floats over 
the murderous masculine sea. Tell it well,			
and this winsome sky will stroke and caress you, 

this stepmother world throw affectionate arms 
around your neck, as if over one she can yet 
save and bless. Jackie McLean says, 

“I’ve seen Sonny blow some of those tugboat flats 
and sharps and have the tugboat answer him.”
Tell your story, then, and await the world’s reply.



 

From the writer

:: Account ::

I don’t live for poet­ry, but I sure try to live through poet­ry. Every day you notice some­thing small: a neighbor’s cat hunt­ing in your back yard, some­body wrap­ping a pack­age, the mean old man across the street yelling at kids. What else is there, though? What’s the beau­ty in what you see, what’s the fun, the deep emo­tion? Some­times I know I annoy begin­ning poets when I say that, to me, a poem is a lit­tle prob­lem-solv­ing machine, because they want their poems to express a cos­mic grandeur. But I don’t mean that poems solve prob­lems in a log­i­cal way. More expe­ri­enced writ­ers know I mean that when you write a poem, you tack­le an idea that hasn’t quite found a com­fort­able rest­ing place in your heart, so you work your mate­r­i­al around until it does. Poetry’s the best tool to unpack the triv­ia of dai­ly life and expose it in all of its clos­et­ed grandeur.

 

David Kir­by’s col­lec­tion The House on Boule­vard St.: New and Select­ed Poems was a final­ist for the Nation­al Book Award in 2007. Kir­by is the author of Lit­tle Richard: The Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll (Con­tin­u­um, 2009), which the Times Lit­er­ary Sup­ple­ment of Lon­don called “a hymn of praise to the eman­ci­pa­to­ry pow­er of non­sense.” Kirby’s hon­ors include fel­low­ships from the Nation­al Endow­ment of the Arts and the Guggen­heim Foun­da­tion. His lat­est poet­ry col­lec­tion is Get Up, Please (LSU Press, 2016).

Scarce Resources

Poetry / Geetha Iyer

:: Scarce Resources ::

Los indí­ge­nas pre­colom­bi­nos ven­er­a­ban a la rana [dora­da] y tal­laron tal­is­man­es de arcil­la y oro (hua­cas) seme­jantes a éstas. Esta prác­ti­ca con­du­jo al mito mod­er­no de que las ranas doradas se trans­for­man en hua­cas de oro al morir, y cualquier per­sona que ve o posee una rana dora­da viva ten­drá bue­na for­tu­na.

          I have been thinking about amphibians 
the way others think about fortunes. The cost of storing
 
          sperm in a vat of nitrogen. The cost of lighting, 
casing, ventilation. Labor—the woman who raises a swarm 

          of fruit flies, dusts them in nutritional supplements. 
The value of a toad in a tank that refuses 

          to lay. Maybe she wasn’t feeling it. Maybe, tomorrow,
as that woman who minds the amphibian tanks crunches

          the season’s dry leaves underfoot, she’ll sicken
of her commute. Low pay and stubborn animals. She doesn’t see 

          enough of her children, worries what they haven’t learned
in school. It is for her that guyacán trees burst 

          into bloom. Their amarillo brillante punctures
months of drought like the silk-strung suns

          of orb-weaver webs. Wealthy men, artists, harvested
the labor of Madagascans, made them milk

          gold from such spiders, spin threads and weave a mantle
they draped over the shoulders of a woman

          pale as baby’s breath. My grandmother’s saris were shot 
with gold threads, my mother’s silver, plated, mine

          plastic treated to shine, so scarce are the veins
under earth. I think of the coats some toads wear, signaling 

          fitness, the coming of storms, sex, biohazard 
toxins, prospectors’ fortunes. They’re extinct

          in the wild, those ranas doradas. After the harvest, 
we shall need new myths. A woman returns to her children 

          in the dark, kisses the brown of their foreheads, whispers 
that they must study hard, become economists. 

          But stop, she adds, to praise the brief sunbursts 
of guayacanes before their flowers fall, lest the rains 

          do not follow, lest your hearts compress 
to mere nuggets beneath your lungs.




This poem takes its epi­graph from Zip­pel, K. C. et al. Impli­ca­ciones en la con­ser­vación de las ranas doradas de Panamá, aso­ci­adas con su revisión tax­onómi­ca. Her­petotrop­i­cos 3:1 (2006), 29–39.

 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

We are liv­ing through a bot­tle­neck period—the Anthro­pocene era of mass extinc­tion; the ever-widen­ing gap between wealth and pover­ty; the brink of nuclear war­fare between mega­lo­ma­ni­acs; the insti­tu­tion­al exploita­tion of peo­ple most mar­gin­al­ized by pow­er struc­tures; and the col­lapse of crit­i­cal ecosys­tems under the impacts of cli­mate change, pop­u­la­tion growth, and unchecked resource extrac­tion. Those of us who will make through the oth­er end of this bleak and nar­row­ing tun­nel will be poor­er for all that we have left behind in the wreck­age. We will only have sto­ries of those who died, images and videos of megafau­na and micro­bio­ta that have gone extinct. We will speak less than a cou­ple hun­dred lan­guages. We will have for­got­ten the names of every­one who didn’t have the wealth to erect mon­u­ments in their mem­o­ry. I am haunt­ed by this inevitabil­i­ty. When I write, about peo­ple or about oth­er organ­isms, it is to com­mit some­thing of what is won­der­ful about this world into the abstract realm of mem­o­ry. It’s all I can car­ry with me, cita­tions includ­ed.

Scarce Resources” con­cerns itself with extinc­tion on the one hand and eco­nom­ics on the oth­er. I live in Pana­ma, where the gold­en frog, Atelo­pus zete­ki, is an icon for native bio­di­ver­si­ty and con­ser­va­tion. I wrote the first draft of this poem in mid-April, just before the first rains of the sea­son, when Tabebuia guay­a­can trees bloom en masse. Words can­not express their yel­low in full sunlight—their mag­nif­i­cence stops cars short along the road-side so peo­ple can get out to take pho­tos of them. Yel­low-gold is the heart of this poem, giv­en form in ani­mal, min­er­al, and plant form. A Pana­man­ian told me a ver­sion of the sto­ry that appears in the poem’s epi­graph, and since my Span­ish is not as good as it should be, I mis­un­der­stood its mean­ing. I thought the mod­ern myth of the Pana­man­ian gold­en frog (sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly speak­ing, a toad) went like this: that if a man were lucky enough to find and cap­ture one in the wild, upon death, he would turn to gold. In fact, in the sto­ry I was told, it was the frog that would turn to gold. In real­i­ty, A. zete­ki is extinct in the wild, which makes me won­der, if we dug up the earth, would we find their lit­tle bod­ies trans­mo­gri­fied into gold nuggets? And if we found noth­ing, what sto­ries would we tell then? What would we do with­out yel­low so yel­low it glowed?

 

Geetha Iyer received an MFA in Cre­ative Writ­ing & Envi­ron­ment from Iowa State Uni­ver­si­ty in 2014. Her writ­ing appears or is forth­com­ing in jour­nals includ­ing Ori­on, Gulf Coast, the Mid-Amer­i­can Review, and the Mass­a­chu­setts Review, among oth­ers. Recog­ni­tion for her work includes the O. Hen­ry Award, the James Wright Poet­ry Award, the Calvi­no Prize, and the Gulf Coast Fic­tion Prize. She was a 2016 writer-in-res­i­dence at the Sit­ka Cen­ter for Art and Ecol­o­gy in Ore­gon and a 2017 writer-in-res­i­dence at Estu­dio Nuboso’s Lab de Arte y Cien­cia in Pana­ma. She was born in India, grew up in the Unit­ed Arab Emi­rates, and present­ly lives in Pana­ma.

Baby Blues

Poetry / Katherine Anderson Howell

:: Baby Blues ::

 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

Baby Blues” is part of a series of poems that mark the grief, fear, and change of iden­ti­ty asso­ci­at­ed with moth­er­hood and mar­riage. In these poems, images of the sea, cer­tain flow­ers, and the night sky repeat. I use images of stars, whether jas­mine or novas, as reminders that our lives are part of vast, only part­ly know­able, sys­tems. My work embraces this mys­tery as a key ele­ment, not only through explor­ing such imagery but also through a process called “tex­tu­al poach­ing,” to bor­row a term from fan­dom schol­ar Hen­ry Jenk­ins. Poach­ing is evi­dent in “Baby Blues,” which began as a found poem, as the sto­ry of Miri­am Carey con­nect­ed with my own strug­gles. How­ev­er, as I began to research brain sci­ence and med­ical jour­nal­ism, as well as have per­son­al con­ver­sa­tions with more moth­ers about their expe­ri­ences with post­par­tum depres­sion, I dis­cov­ered obscu­ri­ty around post­par­tum depres­sion and obtuse sug­ges­tions for treat­ing it. I paired the dig­i­tal media his­to­ry of twen­ty-first-cen­tu­ry post­par­tum depres­sion to pair with the sto­ry of my own dark­ness. Women from all races and social class­es have had their sto­ries silenced by this media cacoph­o­ny. The mul­ti-voiced poem was born.

 

Kather­ine Ander­son How­ell writes and par­ents in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. She is the edi­tor of Fan­dom as Class­room Prac­tice: A Teach­ing Guide, from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Iowa Press. Her poems can be found in Gar­goyle Mag­a­zine, Sweet Tree Review, Juke Joint Mag, and Still­wa­ter Review, among oth­ers.

Two Poems

Poetry / M. K. Foster

:: Aubade with Dolly Parton on Vinyl ::

—if I build a house of you in spring, if I want to watch you 
flood with light wood ash smoke, if we’ve been in bed long enough 
to open, if I open, if I let you open me, if I open myself opening 
you, if I break a part of you open, if I nail my bones to yours, if 
I should stay, if I kiss knee elbow wrist, if your head against my ribs, 
if my arms collapsed around you, if it costs me to keep you (what 
costs a body), if you are my last prayer, my favorite prayer, my only 
prayer, my one phone call with the worst words in the worst order, 
if you are the beautiful cracks in the windshield only I can see (even 
if you aren’t), if we’ve been in bed too long, my dearest, if you are 
my darling, if I’m your deer, if you hit me with your car, if I’m caught 
in your windshield, if it’s all my fault, if it’s Tuesday and you love 
Tuesdays, if I should stay, if I want you in the worst way, if I am weighed 
and found wanting, if I’m full of shit (so are you), if I burn for this, 
if I am burning, if my heart could burn a house down, if I’m always 
burning down the wrong house (you), if your face like glass apples, 
if your skin like a rosy room packed with sleeping pickled animals, 
if your eyes like fire-poker holes, like small idiot stars blistering 
the black-out curtains this morning, if freckles of light like toxic petals 
of ivory mold speckling the sagging ceiling, if we’ve been in bed too 
long (how long is too long), if we fucked, if we’re fucked, if we fucked up, 
if we couldn’t help ourselves, if we’re helpless, if I suck (so do you), 
if you’re useless as a glass axe or wet matches (even if you aren’t), 
if I’m a goner without you, O my darling (and I am), sweetheart, 
if I’m the punchline of every country western song, if I should stay, 
if I would only be in your way, if I Will Always Love You is always 
playing somehow, somewhere always crooning the same tune 
on-loop, if this is hell (this feels like hell), if I’d follow you to hell, 
if you holding on to me for dear life, my dear, is hell, if I feel like hell 
for what’s happened, if this is hell (this bed), if hell is a bed (this bed), 
if we’ve been in bed too long (too long is too long), if it kills us dead 
in the end (what costs a body in the end), if I pay in light wood ash smoke 
like this is the last time, if this is the last time, even if we know what 
comes next (we know what comes next), if the cherry tree like a chest 
x-ray breaking up the window white with dark bones, if your face like 
a grubby water glass waiting for rain, if your eyes like dug-up graves, 
if your eyes in this light eaten out by light, sockets hollow as moon craters 
hollow as us (if us), if us, if heavy husks of marbled dust


 

:: Poem in Which We’re Finally Cowboys ::

—or, how when we climbed to the top of the extinct volcano, 

	then over the guard rail, walking to where rock dropped 
off to city and water below, waiting for the storm we could feel 

traveling towards us to challenge our bodies, I wanted to be 
	the bird that could take you close enough to become 
the point where blue crushed blue, to become horizon: 

	we knew we could die at that moment, so we knew 
we could never die. This is what I always want to say, 
	but never can when we telephone, and every time, 

		I hear your heart in your mouth like a bird 
	in the mouth of a volcano. All I want is for you 

to know that a way out is just a matter of falling towards 
	wherever the light is coming from, or going. 

Darling friend, for the year we lived together, I wanted 

enough sunflowers to flood your days, enough moondust 
	to cover your nights. These are all the things 
we sing to lovers, but never say enough, or at all, 

for friend like brother, broken smoke wreath my father’s mouth 
	makes when he speaks of a man who, he tells himself 
again, is long-gone away from this life. You’re so lucky, 

he said to me when my body left yours behind in our city. 
	You don’t know how lucky you are. I didn’t then, and I still 
don’t now. I thought I would shatter when I thought I would 

lose you the spring they removed part of your body. You are 
	the bluest part of the sky, the most electric part of the sun 

	cracking clouds like egg shells after rain, you are the greenest 
vein of field when everyone is looking and the glittering river 
		from which no one can look away.

	 If you were made of wood, you would be a cello,

	if you were made of light, you would be, not the star,
 but its reflection in the sea, at once, the brightest point 
	in heaven and on earth, and always moving, carving

your way out of dark: prayer I say for you when I remember 
	how my father holds the one photo that never leaves
 his wallet for a frame, two cowboys with their arms 

around each other, the kind of holding-on they teach you 
		for someday saving someone from drowning. 

Dying is a young man’s game, I’ll tell you one day, 

	when we’re old the way beach glass is old— every bit 
the same color-bite, only softer at the edges. And I’ll tell you 

my best dream about you again: once before we were 
	ever born, our bodies not then our bodies rode west 
in cars like caballos over crests of hills like waves in darkness 

like deep ocean, wearing woven Stetson hats and grinning 
	under black mustaches, the sky like campfire light 
bleeding through the windshield: we’re traveling 

like lightning, like bricks through our own reflections 
	in windows, galloping hard, heavy as waterfalls, 

	you and I— riding how anything that knows it can fly 
and does because it never looked down, lives.



 

From the writer

:: Account ::

Aubade with Dol­ly Par­ton on Vinyl” began as a min­i­mal­ist exper­i­ment to explore love as hell, but didn’t remain so for obvi­ous rea­sons. Instead, it blos­somed and caught fire as a mas­sive ele­gy loose­ly based on the sto­ry of Pao­lo & Francesca from Can­to 5 of Dante’s Infer­no. Dante encoun­ters the lovers in the cir­cle of hell for con­demned adul­ter­ers, but when he hears Francesca tell her sto­ry, it breaks his heart. They fell in love, as Francesca tells it. They resist­ed their feel­ings until they couldn’t, and then, their pas­sion kills them when Paolo’s cru­el brother/ Francesca’s hus­band dis­cov­ers and mur­ders them. On the one hand, these lovers die for and with one anoth­er, and they live togeth­er eternally—which is the dream of love, isn’t it? But on the oth­er hand, these lovers are bound togeth­er for all time in a hor­ri­fy­ing vor­tex of pain in the after­life. It is a poem obsessed with its own nar­ra­tive of long­ing, but the con­di­tion­al lan­guage of the ifs bite back against the romance. It’s also impor­tant to note here that in this ver­sion of hell, Pao­lo & Francesca wake up every morn­ing to the exact same Tues­day morn­ing in the same dirty bed of the same grimy room of a cheap love motel, and in this hellscape of a cheap love motel, a scratchy, skip­ping vinyl record­ing of Dol­ly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” is always play­ing soft­ly, painful­ly, and faith­ful­ly on-loop in the dis­tance.

Poem in Which We’re Final­ly Cow­boys” is a love poem for my best friend, Sarah. She is infi­nite­ly dear to me, and in the spir­it of 17th cen­tu­ry poet Kather­ine Phillips and her best-friend love poem “To My Excel­lent Luca­sia, On our Friend­ship,” I want­ed to write a poem to hon­or my beloved friend who is “all that I can prize, / My joy, my life, my rest.” This poem is also inspired by my father’s loss of his best friend, Jeff, who passed very sud­den­ly just before I was born. I grew up hear­ing sto­ries about them (“Gary & Jeff knock­ing open car doors off their hinges in a truck with a rail­road tie for a bumper;” “Gary & Jeff get a car air­borne over the crests of the hills of San Fran­cis­co,” “Gary & Jeff….”), and I always see the soft­ness that fills in at the cor­ners of my father’s eyes when I talk about Sarah. In this sense, I want­ed to write the love poem for my best friend that my father nev­er could for his. This is my cel­e­bra­tion of the beau­ty of pla­ton­ic love between friends who came from the same inno­cent design and immor­tal soul.

 

M. K. Fos­ter’s poet­ry appeared or is forth­com­ing in The Boston Review, Crazy­horse, The Colum­bia Review, Rat­tle, The Adroit Jour­nal, Sixth Finch, B O D Y, Nashville Review, Ninth Let­ter, and else­where; and her work has been rec­og­nized with a Gulf Coast Poet­ry Prize, an Acad­e­my of Amer­i­can Poets Prize, two Push­cart Prize nom­i­na­tions, and most recent­ly, inclu­sion in Best New Poets 2017. She holds an MFA from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mary­land and cur­rent­ly pur­sues a PhD in Renais­sance Lit­er­a­ture at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Alaba­ma. Addi­tion­al notes and links can be found through her web­site: www.marykatherinefoster.com.

Two Poems

Poetry / Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach

:: My Mother as a Failed Sonnet, or Maybe Just a Forest ::

I’ve written you as rivers, as frost, as everything 
hidden underneath it, as a children’s picture 
book in a foreign language, as language, that one and all 
others, as your hands and those of your mother and 
hers, most often hers, as what she held in them, as 
the empty tea kettle, as everything she’d lost, the dead
and their sea and its unsinking, as salt, as what abandon 
must mean and what it must taste like, war
and famine, immigration and tea,
Ceylon, Lady Gray, Darjeeling, as the fortune 
it leaves at the bottom of spent cups, and as 
those cups, carried across ocean and name, as water,
generations and generations of it, mothers’ 
open hands, as bare Russian birch branches 
grasping for clouds, as what a child sees 
looking up in a forest.    


 

:: While everything falls apart, imagine how you’ll teach your son about death ::

when he rips a dandelion head off its stem 
and wonders why the body shrivels  
or the pregnant stray gives birth
to her calico litter and you find two of them 
wedged underneath your car tires that winter
when the drunk woman across the street falls
leaving parts of herself down every row-house stair
last night’s howling in her lungs and on your windows
and the neighbors drape her body well
before the ambulance arrives 
he will ask where they’ve all gone and why
look up instinctively and wonder 
and you’ll confess you do not know
hold him and say nothing 
about elsewhere being better or everything
happening for a reason 
you’ll hold him as though your hands
could weigh him down 
could keep his bones from growing
as the clouds move slow
he’ll notice for the first time
they are white “Not blue?”
he’ll ask surprised and you will nod
say something about the shapes of animals 
then he’ll remember the flower and kittens
the dead woman
                                             “Will they come back?”
and you’ll again stay silent 
because the lawn is full
of broken glass and water bottles
full of piss and dog shit full             
of yesterday and you will shake
your head and think you’re doing right by him 
it’s better he know now you tell yourself
and watch him look away and up
search for the dead inside the clouds



 

From the writer

:: Account ::

These poems are part of my col­lec­tion The Many Names for Moth­er, which explores how the weight of my Jew­ish-refugee expe­ri­ence has influ­enced grow­ing up to raise a first-gen­er­a­tion, bilin­gual, and mul­ti­eth­nic Amer­i­can child. Its poems obses­sive­ly tell, retell, and hov­er around trau­ma and absence—ranging from ances­tral his­to­ries to my per­son­al expe­ri­ence of immi­gra­tion to my trav­els to Easte­rn Euro­pean death sites as a descen­dent of a USSR Holo­caust sur­vivor. 

My Moth­er as a Failed Son­net, or Maybe Just a For­est:  

I’ve been try­ing to define, to name moth­er­hood. I’ve been try­ing to under­stand who I am as a moth­er by delv­ing into who my moth­er is as a moth­er. I feel like I’ve spent my life try­ing to write her to get clos­er to under­stand­ing. The attempt of this poem at def­i­n­i­tion was failed from the start, just like the for­mal con­straint that can­not con­tain what it means to be a moth­er. I’ve been think­ing a lot about moth­er­hood not only as the con­tent of a poem, but moth­er­hood as an ele­ment of craft, moth­er­hood as not only poet­ry but poet­ics. Behind the fail­ings of def­i­n­i­tion and form with­in this poem is an attempt to see how moth­er­hood becomes a form and name all its own, just as it rejects both.

While every­thing falls apart, imag­ine how you’ll teach your son about death:

On elec­tion day, Novem­ber 8, 2016, my son turned one. We began his birth­day with an excit­ing trip to the polls, but by the fol­low­ing morn­ing, excite­ment turned to dread, and unfor­tu­nate­ly, we all know what has fol­lowed since. Try­ing to grap­ple with rais­ing a tod­dler in the midst of what is going on in our coun­try, I began writ­ing a series of poems, “While every­thing falls apart, imag­ine how you’ll teach your son [       ].” In them, I strug­gle with how to respond to the ani­mos­i­ty espoused by the cur­rent admin­is­tra­tion, how to teach my son com­pas­sion in the midst of such hate, and how to remind him where he comes from—urging him to remem­ber our named and un-named pasts.

 

Julia Kolchin­sky Das­bach emi­grat­ed from Dne­propetro­vsk, Ukraine, as a Jew­ish refugee when she was six years old. She holds an MFA in Poet­ry from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ore­gon and is a PhD can­di­date in Com­par­a­tive Lit­er­a­ture at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia, where her research focus­es on con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can poet­ry about the Holo­caust. Julia’s poet­ry col­lec­tion, The Many Names for Moth­er, won the Stan and Tom Wick Poet­ry Prize and is forth­com­ing from Kent State Uni­ver­si­ty Press in the Fall of 2019. She is also the author of The Bear Who Ate the Stars (Split Lip Press, 2014), and her recent poems appear in Best New PoetsAmer­i­can Poet­ry Review, and Nashville Review, among oth­ers. Julia is also Edi­tor-in-Chief of Con­struc­tion Mag­a­zine, and when not busy chas­ing her tod­dler around the play­grounds of Philadel­phia, she writes a blog about moth­er­hood, Oth­er Women Don’t Tell You

Two Poems

Poetry / Reilly D. Cox

:: Robert the Gardener ::

My father, always the artist, loses employment
and begins digging holes for a hilly college.

Each morning, he wakes from the same dream:
he’s back in his youth and gliding down the lane 

of an endless pool, his long, hairless limbs 
moving through the water silently towards a Cracker Jack 

salvation, and he wakes. Each morning, he finds 
he has sunk into the covers a little deeper, his limbs 

a little more tired. He rises as his children are still
in their troubled sleep, brews a pot of coffee,

and pours a river through his magnificent mustache.
He eats three raw eggs, chewing the shells

until they are a fine powder to protect his poor teeth—
holey and golden—and wipes the loose strands of yolk

with a slice of rye bread sporting only a few dark blossoms
of mold. He wraps himself in the emerald-green uniform

with his name embroidered over his heart like a target
and heads into the sun-shy morning. With little fires

burning in his pockets to keep himself warm, he plumes
beautifully—smoke signals trailing behind on his walk

to the Great Garden. He’s given up on disciplining the smoke,
ignores the incessant beacon of O-S-O drifting past his shoulders.

He makes sure to arrive before the other creatures, gathers
hundreds of flowers in his battered cart, rides up

and down the many hills, and only opens his eyes when he senses
a good spot. The college wants to draw in new blood

and my father knows how to arrange color to attract
anything. Sometimes, he grows bored, creates a trompe

l’oeil by a hall, a nature morte by a campus gate, but
he is mostly good, cares for the little blooms,

remembers the lessons his father taught him: sees
that their roots are good and watered, that the sun

won’t hurt them or grow estranged. His coworkers—
younger, cut from nylon—keep themselves entertained

by eating little animals whole. One man claims to have
a family of chipmunks nesting in his belly; another,

a whole pond of goldfish. Each lunch, he tilts
his head back and drops little flakes down the length

of his throat, smiles, says it always tickles
when the fish are feeding. My father sits alone.

He worries that he’s mixed up his eggs, that
he has a brood of chicks begging in his belly,

hatched and angry, so he won’t eat today.
He keeps himself warm with clear liquids,

doesn’t dare to light a match. He imagines
how much warmer it would be, to fall in,

a whole ocean to pickle him into summer.
He knows he’s a good swimmer; he won’t drown.


 

:: Robert the Gardener (Tent Caterpillars) ::

My father is setting fire to the trees again. 
He drags us from our play this way.

My brother and I, split body, jerk awake
at the coughing of a chainsaw in our wood.

We leave our shallow of mud, with so many good
sacrifices buried to the neck, and skulk 

towards it. In a clearing, our father has downed
a dozen trees bearded with tent caterpillars

and is lightly shaking a delirious tremens 
of gasoline over the many nests. He says,

If you leave anything too long, it grows.
He then takes a rag torch and lets sing

the good water. I had never heard such a choir
before, it was like the sound of marrow. 

My brother and I watch our father disappear
in the cracking smoke and barely see

the rag pointing across the crown of trees, 
with so many beards waving terribly.

Leaning over, it looks as if the smoke is born
from our father’s beard, and pours angrily 

from it. May one day I be so giving. May 
one day my beard grow so long 

that the holy spirit come flying out. 



 

From the writer

:: Account ::

My grand­fa­ther passed away this past August, well over three years since my father passed away. At the time, I had been want­i­ng to write about my grand­fa­ther, and the process of dying that was hap­pen­ing so rapid­ly yet slow­ly, and all the things that were slip­ping away as he did, but I was wor­ried that to write about it would make it hap­pen. Then he died, and, start­ing with a nap­kin at a restau­rant counter, I start­ed putting down every­thing that was then slip­ping away.

I imag­ined my grand­fa­ther as some­thing myth­ic but dwindling—a sto­ried fig­ure who, while once mean­ing­ful and revered, had been reduced by time to hearsay and jokes. I start­ed refer­ring to his myth­ic coun­ter­part as Sar­gon, after a Mesopotami­an emper­or who was the child of the roy­al gar­den­er. I start­ed the process of unmak­ing by incor­rect­ly refer­ring to him as Sar­gon the Gar­den­er. In my imag­in­ing, Sar­gon tend­ed to toma­toes in a dilap­i­dat­ed palace out­side of Bal­ti­more.

Oth­er mem­bers of my fam­i­ly began find­ing myth­ic ver­sions of them­selves in the poems—the Witch­ing Daugh­ter, the Son’s Wid­ow, the Blood­less Daugh­ter, and the Son’s Ghost. The Son’s Ghost, my father, was always trapped in a process of dying or being dead; he, hav­ing died long before my grand­fa­ther, in his dying, became Sar­gon. He is one of the few mem­bers of the fam­i­ly to be named in the col­lec­tion, in part because he was already gone, and in part because he shared a name with oth­ers who had passed away and could serve as a greater evo­ca­tion.

My father was a gar­den­er, some­times by choice, some­times not. He had dif­fi­cul­ty main­tain­ing jobs and worked, for a time, as a groundskeep­er, know­ing enough gar­den­ing to be qual­i­fied for that. While the focus of the Sar­gon poems were on Sar­gon, I was being reminded—more and more intensely—of mem­o­ries of my father and gar­den­ing. So though I wrote the first “Robert the Gar­den­er” as a one-off poem to turn the myth­ic towards the real and to play with un/making, I found myself fix­at­ed on more and more mem­o­ries of my father and plants. Because I tend to be an iter­a­tive poet, I began an iter­a­tive sequence to find my father again, in all his burn­ing glo­ry.

 

Reil­ly D. Cox is a MFA can­di­date at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Alaba­ma in Tuscaloosa. They had attend­ed Wash­ing­ton Col­lege and the Buck­nell Sem­i­nar for Younger Poets. They have work avail­able by the Acad­e­my of Amer­i­can Poets and by Iron Horse Lit­er­ary Review.

Two Poems

Poetry / Lillian-Yvonne Bertram

:: Husband Stories ::

[8]

I speak to no one from that past. ...My silence put to use
is the highest instrument. ...Now even the frost holds my
hand...I got rid of the life. ...It took all the ns to make a no.
...The distance is here. ...As for the chandelier... ...I
dig a well. ...Into the well I put many men.




[7]

There was a husband in the center of this story. ...Some
lunar waves were ringing....I got rid of the husband....
Even my ankle rejects you! ...I never told anyone, 
not really. ...The distance is here....Light in a circle 
could not save me.




[6]

Even the light has aged. ...The story does not compute.
...Some lunar waves were ringing. ...My silence put to use,
its highest instrument. ...Now even the frost holds my
hand. ...The things lost with many traces. ...I dig a well.
...Into the well I put many men. ...There are rows of
waiting others.




[5]

I speak to no one from that past. ...Some lunar waves were
ringing. ...What is left of leaves are stone. ...Now even
the frost holds my hand. ...I got rid of the life.
...If I could take it all back. ...It took all the ns to
make a no. ...Into the well I put many men. ...That husband
is gone. ...There are rows of waiting others.




[4]

The story does not compute. ...There is a husband in the
center of this story. ...What is left of leaves are stone.
...If I could take it all back. ...Even my ankle rejects
you! ...The distance is here. ...The ear up close.




[3]

The story does not compute. ...My silence put to use, its
highest instrument. ...If I could take it all back. ...Even
my ankle rejects you!. ...I never told anyone, not really.
...It took all the ns to make a no. ...The distance is
here. ...Light in a circle could not save me. ...I dig a
well. ...Into the well I put many men.




[2]

The story does not compute. ...There is a husband in the
center of this story. ...My silence put to use, its highest
instrument. ...I got rid of the husband. ...The distance is
here. ...The ear up close. ...Light in a circle could not
save me. ...I dig a well. ...That husband is gone. ...There
are rows of waiting others.




[1]

Even the light has aged. ...Some lunar waves were ringing.
...My silence put to use is its highest instrument. ...What is
left of leaves are stone. ...Real gaps spread in the tropic
of paradise. ...If I could take it all back. ...I never told
anyone, not really. ...The things lost without traces.
...It took all the ns to make a no. ...I dig a well.


 

:: Counternarratives ::

                              inspired by John Keene

                    [1]

                    ...God’s gonna trouble the water.


                    [2]

                    It was a gated community....The boy is a high school
                    student....There are rows and rows of others.


                    [3]

                    Forty-two miles from Disney....The frangipani swans 
                    in the streetlight. ...A patrol car’s siren sings several 
                    streets away.


                    [4]

                    Everything signs its name, leaves a trace. ...Real gaps
                    spread in the tropic of paradise. ...Forty-two miles 
                    from Disney....He never told anyone, but he always 
                    wanted to go to space camp.


                    [5]

                    Only the flowering catalpa trees are on watch and they
                    don’t have guns. ...The boy likes Skittles. ...Real gaps
                    spread in the tropic of paradise. ...He rides from station
                    to station until he can rest at home. ...People also ask 
                    what was he wearing....People also search for Emmett Till.


                    [6]

                    Sometimes he wakes feeling gone and doesn’t know why.
                    ...Only the flowering catalpa trees are on watch and they
                    don’t have guns. ...It was a gated community: cause of
                    death. ...He rides from station to station until he can
                    rest at a home. ...Gone with his father on a visit. ...God’s
                    gonna trouble the water. ...Bloodies the ground we stand on.


                    [7]

                    Forty-two miles from Disney....He rides from station to station
                    until he can rest at a home....Before he became someone’s
                    Halloween costume punchline, he had a name....No mention
                    made of his clothing...The warm air is a little brackish tonight.
                    ...The frangipani swims in the moonlight.... People also ask 
                    what he was wearing....He never told anyone, but he always
                    wanted to go to space camp....follow a star north.


                    [8]

                    He plays a game he knows he’s too old for: pinches the
                    moon between finger and thumb, pulls it to his lips.
                    ...Everything signs its name, leaves a trace....Real cancer
                    spreads in the tropics. ...Forty-two miles from Disney.
                    ...He rides from station to station until he can rest at
                    a home....He never told anyone, but he always wanted 
                    to go to space camp....Gone with his father on a visit 
                    and God’s gonna trouble the water.


                    [9]

                    Sometimes he wakes feeling gone and doesn’t know why.
                    ...Everything slings a trace, mouths its name....Only the
                    flowering catalpa trees are on watch and they don’t have
                    guns....It was a gated community....Cause of death.
                    ...Real gaps spread in the tropic of paradise.
                    ...Forty-two miles from disease....No mention made 
                    of his clothing. The warm air is a little brackish tonight. 
                    ...People also ask what was he wearing....He never told 
                    anyone, but he always wanted to follow a star north...


                    [10]

                    He plays a game he knows he’s too old for: pinches the
                    moon between finger and thumb, pulls it to his lips.
                    ...Sometimes he wakes feeling gone and doesn’t know why.
                    ...Only the flowering catalpa trees are on watch and they
                    don’t have guns. ...Real treasons spread in the gaps of
                    paradise....Before he became someone’s Halloween costume
                    punchline, he had a name. ...The frangipani swans in the
                    streetlight. ...Several weeks away, a patrol siren sings...
                    People also ask: what was he wearing?...If God’s 
                    gonna trouble the water.


                    [11]

                    Only the flowering catalpa trees are on watch and none
                    of them brought a gun....Causes of death:...The boy is a high
                    school student....The boy likes Skittles....Feel gaps
                    spread in the tropic of paradise. ...Forty-two miles from Disney.
                    ...Before he became someone’s Halloween costume punchline,
                    he had a name....No mention made of his clothing. Brackish air
                    tonight stings with a little sweetness....A patrol car’s siren
                    sings several streets away....People also ask: what really happened?
                    ...He never told anyone, but he always wanted to go to space
                    camp....But God’s gonna trouble the water, bloody the
                    lawn he stands on.


                    [12]

                    Sometimes he wakes feeling not really here, not knowing
                    why it was a gated community. ...The boy is a high school
                    student. ...The boy likes Skittles. ...Real gaps peel
                    apart the treads of paradise. ...He rides through all the houses
                    before he can rest at home...Before he became
                    someone’s Halloween costume punchline, he had a name.
                    ...The frangipani stitches up the streetlight. ...A patrol
                    car’s siren swats bugs and halos away. ...He never told
                    anyone, but he always wanted to go to space camp. ...Gone
                    with his father on a visit to follow a star north.
                    ...People also search for Emmett Till. ...Stand on
                    bloody laws....There are rows and rows of others.


                    [13]















                    [14]

                    He plays a game he knows he’s too old for: pinches 
                    the moon between finger and thumb, drinks it through his lips.
                    ...Sometimes he wakes feeling gone. He reaches 
                    for why everything sings its name, traces its leave...Gaps
                    split open the tropic of paradise...The sea air brackets
                    him tonight...People also ask: what really happened?
                    Before he became the punchline to a costume, swans
                    of frangipani backlit him in the night. A siren signs

                    several streets away. Cause of death: It was a gated
                    community.... Gone with his father on a visit.... 
                    People also ask: what was he wearing? He never told anyone,
                    but he always wanted to go to space camp. God
                    wasn’t near the water. 
	                         People also search for: Emmett Till. 



 

From the writer

:: Account ::

//Husband Sto­ries

The Python code is adapt­ed from Nick Montfort’s “Through the Park” code (#!, Coun­ter­path, 2014). This code gen­er­ates sto­ries by ran­dom­ly omit­ting dif­fer­ent sen­tences from a pre­pared list through each iter­a­tion. The out­put has been edit­ed and arranged. Nick’s imple­men­ta­tion and the code can be found in #! and on his web­site: http://nickm.com/poems/through_the_park.py

//Counternarratives

This poem is for Trayvon Mar­tin, a black teenag­er shot and killed by a neigh­bor­hood res­i­dent. He died on Feb­ru­ary 26, 2012.

The title of this piece is from John Keene’s book of short sto­ries Coun­ternar­ra­tives (New Direc­tions, 2017).

The Python code is adapt­ed from Nick Montfort’s “Through the Park” code (#!, Coun­ter­path, 2014). This code gen­er­ates sto­ries by ran­dom­ly omit­ting dif­fer­ent sen­tences from a pre­pared list through each iter­a­tion. The out­put has been edit­ed and arranged. Nick’s imple­men­ta­tion and the code can be found in #! and on his web­site: http://nickm.com/poems/through_the_park.py

 

Lil­lian-Yvonne Bertram is the author of the forth­com­ing book Trav­es­ty Gen­er­a­tor (Noe­mi Press), and pre­vi­ous books Per­son­al Sci­ence (Tupe­lo Press, 2017), a slice from the cake made of air (Red Hen Press, 2016)and But a Storm is Blow­ing From Par­adise (Red Hen Press, 2012).