By the Lake with Emre’; 2018; oil on linen; 80“x96”
Jenna and Mackenzie; 2019; oil on linen; 96“x80”
From the artist
:: Account ::
My work is about closeness—to my subjects, painted surfaces, and the viewer. I make large-scale oil paintings of my friends, lovers, and family. My process starts with making portraits from life as source material. In these small paintings, I work improvisationally and generate ideas about color and materiality that will be the structure for my larger works. My relationship with my subjects is the driving force behind my work and what guides my formal and image decisions. This familiarity allows me to gauge whether the painting I’m working on embodies the subject I’m depicting: it’s a measure of my empathy and of the painting’s potential to feel like a living person. The heightened colors and variety of textures and marks are my way of externalizing the subjects’ interiority, giving the viewer a sense of their humanity, and through that, my own. This is a response to the dehumanization of queerness I see embedded in our legal system, in the media, and in everyday life. The history of painting also reflects such attitudes in the work of artists like Delacroix, Courbet, Ingres, Picasso etc.; their desire is metaphorical of the most major themes in culture like war, god, life, death and more, whereas representations of queer desire are not afforded that same gravity, seen as only able to stand for what they depict. As a way out of this bind, I look at artists and writers such as Alice Neel, James Baldwin, and David Hockney that come from marginalized points of view, but who were able to transcend this challenge and speak to larger truths. Inspired by Hockney’s diary-like imagery, I situate depictions of queer sexuality and intimacy within a larger narrative of everyday scenes, framing queerness as a way of viewing and being in the world rather than just a subject matter. In these chromatic environments, fueled by personal connection and a near abstract formal quality, I want to make queer pleasure, friendship, and intimacy feel expansive, and for my figures—and me by proxy—to have the freedom to be fully themselves.
Doron Langberg (b.1985, Yokneam, Israel) lives and works in New York. He received his MFA from Yale University and holds a BFA from UPenn and a Certificate from PAFA (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts). Langberg has attended the Sharpe Walentas Studio Program, Yaddo artist residency, and the Queer Art Mentorship Program and is currently at the EFA Studio Program. His work was shown at the LSU museum, American Academy of Arts and Letters, Leslei Lohman Museum, The PAFA Museum, Perrotin Gallery, Yossi Milo Gallery, DC Moore Gallery, 1969 Gallery, and several university art galleries. Langberg’s work was reviewed in Art in America, Frieze Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, Hyperallergic, ArtCritical, and GAYLETTER, and it is in the collection of the PAFA Museum.
I’ve been “lifting out” and recombining in these erasures to make whole new visual poems from source material—e.g., two of my own early poems in “Ding Her Children,” a page from The Velveteen Rabbit in “He Bit” and old Norse tales in “The Lad Who Went to the North Wind.” I alter the graphics and experiment to see if I can get the “poetic” text to combine, even alchemize, with the visual elements. I try for junctures of disparate linguistic and graphic elements, hoping these may allow for what Gertrude Stein called “open feeling,” a state of “slowed, empathic receptivity.”
Nance Van Winckel’s fifth book of fiction is Ever Yrs. (Twisted Road Publications, 2014), a novel in the form of a scrapbook; her eighth book of poems is Our Foreigner (Beyond Baroque Press, 2017), winner of the Pacific Coast Poetry Series. A book of visual poetry entitled Book of No Ledge appeared in 2016 with Pleiades Press. The recipient of two NEA Poetry Fellowships and awards from the Poetry Society of America, POETRY, and Prairie Schooner, she has new poems in The Pushcart Prize Anthology, Field, Poetry Northwest, and Gettysburg Review. She is on the MFA faculties of Vermont College of Fine Arts and Eastern Washington University’s Inland Northwest Center for Writers.
an erasure of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady
being an American crimes of violence rustled, shimmered
a beautiful subject the alienated woman
in prophecy sat under the trees irreducible flower
indifference to masculine pinion
stretching away beyond the rivers
For what. Do. You. Take me. All climates die. Continue, resume, insist, I mean I should have settled at the fire, put the question three times, liking the explosion. Winter was to imitate a woman. In trouble. Prove it a crime, her marriage, her scant state. Finger this smoothest bead.
tinged with rumor reverence they read nothing at all
a thousand zigzags, she escaped from a trap to flame
without parents, without property a lapful of roses
gratified a need in the center of property the earth
itself expected to have emotions full of kindness stars
and stripes “nothing in this world is got for nothing”
the taste of an October pear, the shadow of a deeper cloud
Dusk appears as a servant. A neat plain face in a drawing. Waits to appear. Perhaps not in the American sequence. Exposed to the air of a certain notorious. A strain, a tune. Devoted meditation of the last two centuries, small and densely filled with furniture. “I love my things.” Flushed with a perfect little marrying—to make use of teacups get broken. Absence is a source of income. Pardon me, I say that coldly. Find out how a person wishes. To conceal the world? Push it into your arms.
the flatness of exile the fragrance of fruit
in a poor translation
bursts of wildflowers niched in ruin
property of the observed thing
the imagination loving the riot
she’s my _____ she is not his
a sense of property
allowing her two countries with a laugh
as good as summer rain a land of emigration of rescue
a refuge their superfluous population
I’ll say nothing. No allusion—an American man arrived last night, an American truly, an American great fact—no open questions. Ask. Shocked by. In spite of. Really worse. No nearer beauty. Does little to mitigate. Blighted, battered. The exorbitant, loose jointed cause of the want, his view of the world. Small? Immense? Describe scientifically, impersonally—“You go too far.” Poverties dressed as a face of elation.
the people in America rang for a servant
to measure and weigh the wind in a dozen different lights
to rise to immediate joy to transform a poor girl to a rich one
first, take care of your things
That precious object. It already has a tiny crack. A false position. A fault. She said, “If I had a child—!” Now the wildflowers (when they are allowed) bloom in the deep crevices, the pale red tone plunging.
a theory about me I won’t be thought
I protest my own nation
for a lifetime
Wait a little quaver. In the autumn titled “Moors and Moonlight”—nothing—I couldn’t imagine. Odd winter mother always wears a mask—true lines taunted—this is not an expression. Later she might paint on it. Representation lost her child, brushed it away as a feather. Poor human heart. To represent things. To exhaust all remedies.
From the writer
:: Account ::
My early artistic work was with mixed media, creating assemblages and installations from the assortment of bulky found objects I’d drag home in my small car. I have carried my love of working with a mass of collected “stuff” over into my process as a poet. For Her Scant State my found material is the vast (and exquisitely elaborate) lexicon of Henry James’s 1881 novel The Portrait of a Lady, andmy method is erasure. The process involves keeping strictly to the novel’s word order, but I allow myself free rein with punctuation and form on the page. In Her Scant State the first half of The Portrait of a Lady runs across the top of each page and the second half of the novel runs across the bottom of each page, beneath the line. Entering James’s text as source material, I have been grappling with America, my native place, as a landscape carved by floods of competing ideologies. As I worked, I found myself stripping away the layers of James’s narrative with the urgency of my current political distress and my ongoing preoccupation with the lives of women. I discovered money, money, money on every page. While my inquiry focuses on women, my point of view must shift in this novelized America made of many erasures. Perhaps home can never be described if a personal and aesthetic dislocation is not risked. Isabel Archer, loved by James and by me for her generosity, suffers the cruel joke of a blisteringly transactional marriage. The novel is set in Europe, but it is hardly free from American capitalism—then, as now, aspiring, hopeful, and often violent.
Barbara Tomash is the author of four books of poetry: PRE- (Black Radish Books, 2018), Arboreal (Apogee, 2014), The Secret of White (Spuyten Duyvil, 2009), and Flying in Water, winner of the 2005 Winnow First Poetry Award. An earlier version of PRE-was a finalist for the Colorado Prize and the Rescue Press Black Box Poetry Prize. Before her creative interests turned her toward writing, she worked extensively as a multimedia artist. Her poems have appeared in Colorado Review,Denver Quarterly, Web Conjunctions, New American Writing, Verse, VOLT, OmniVerse, and numerous other journals. She lives in Berkeley, California, and teaches in the Creative Writing Department at San Francisco State University.
When my father became a letter, my mother ate
a wedding cake that no one could see,
then turned up the music and began to dance.
The volcano inside her was quiet, and she was calm.
The volcano wasn’t something she could lose.
It had always been with her. Once while standing
at the rim, a lava lake roiling below, my mother knew
that it wasn’t too late. So she started
with what she needed to do: sold a golden
crucifix, said good-bye to her brothers,
boarded a Pan Am flight to San Francisco.
Then she continued to create possibility
by curling hair and setting rollers. She curtailed gossip,
and cut the umbilical cords of my brother and I.
With the volcano’s heat inside her, my mother changed
the landscape. Magma exploded and lava flowed.
First, a seismic boom, then fire rocks avalanched down,
molten bombs shot into sky, and ash dusted
sidewalks with premonitions of coming ghosts.
My mother did the impossible: in her old age,
with the heat and rage of the volcano
capped tight by cooled solid rock,
she laughed as a cat chased a squirrel up a tree.
From the writer
:: Account ::
As a child of immigrants, the homeland haunts, and so it remains necessary for me to rediscover my family through poetry as an attempt to understand and articulate migration and its affects on everything that makes a life. My influences are Walt Whitman, Pablo Neruda, and Sandra Cisneros. I claim Anglo/US/British poetry as my legacy, as well as that of Latin America, including the Nicaragüence poet, Rubén Darío, and his modernismo movement with mermaids, castles, and drooping roses.
My mother turned ninety this summer and I love to watch her. Thich Nhat Hanh wrote that to really love someone is to understand them. When in my mother’s company, I “see” who she is and so poems arise. She is memory. She is the past. She is a Nicaraguan caldera simmering through time.
Nicaragua is lined with volcanoes and so I have written a series of poems where each contains a reference to Nicaraguan volcanoes. I love the idea of a volcano—the heat, magma, and overflow. This trope allowed me to tap into the homeland while writing poems that speak to each other.
Adela Najarro is the author of two poetry collections, Split Geography (Mouthfeel Press, 2015), and Twice Told Over (Unsolicited Press, 2015), and a chapbook, My Childrens (Unsolicited Press, 2017), which includes teaching resources for high school and college classrooms. Her poetry appears in the University of Arizona Press anthology The Wind Shifts: New Latino Poetry, and she has published poems in numerous journals, including Porter Gulch Review, Acentos Review, BorderSenses, Feminist Studies, Puerto del Sol, Nimrod International Journal of Poetry & Prose, Notre Dame Review, Blue Mesa Review, Crab Orchard Review, and elsewhere. More information about my poetry and publications can be found on her website: www.adelanajarro.com.
Thriving roses at Chautauqua, wilting
desert here. I am trying to live,
trying to keep alive
two dozen plants, one cat, one human.
Grass pokes through the beds
but nothing in the bald patch.
All I remember of Márquez
is the woman flying away. O porch
string lights, O motion sensor light,
O mosquito candle light, O sun.
O to purchase every detail
of the Pinterest lawn,
paint the accent doors ourselves.
I remember, too, the ants eating
the baby, last of the family line.
Brush away the mulch, find the source,
the root: let the water drip
and accumulate. Not a downpour
but a soft slow drench. My daughter
ripping up the yard layer by layer.
Fistfuls of earth and grass blades,
like a swordsman or a chef.
We’ll water again in an hour,
unless it rains and we don’t.
From the writer
:: Account ::
I wrote “Lawn” in collaboration with painter Robin Hextrum, my colleague and next-door neighbor. Robin’s paintings are bursting with color and life—in a single piece, for instance, Robin renders two species of butterfly, a frog, dog, dragonfly, snail, fly, bee, and five different types of flower. Robin’s work also marries representational and abstract styles, so that one painting might contain an extremely life-like rose alongside a gestural sketch of a dragonfly. Finally, Robin’s paintings play with scale in fascinating ways—in one of her paintings you might find a greyhound standing beside a tulip of the same size.
I wanted to emulate these aspects of Robin’s work by mimicking her process. I’ve always been interested in ekphrastic poems that borrow elements from an artist’s process rather than attempting to describe or re-create a painting’s visuals. I went for a long walk with Robin and asked her questions about her process, and she showed me some photos of works in progress. I noticed that she starts by roughly blocking in a piece’s main elements—a rose approximately in the center, a dog toward the bottom, a tulip on the left, etc.—and then paints around those blocked-in elements, adding detail as she proceeds. I wanted to re-create this process verbally, so I aimed to write a poem around a set of blocked-in nouns.
I began the writing process by scattering across a page a list of nouns Robin gave me, all inspired from her paintings. Microsoft Word wouldn’t allow me to “pin” a word onto one part of the page and write around it, so instead, I blocked the words onto a Word page, saved the file as a JPG, and then typed over the JPG in Canva, a free online design tool.
Once I had completed a rough draft, I allowed myself to break lines and make formal revisions just as I would with any other poem; however, I challenged myself to retain all of the original words from the start of the process. I believe that by mimicking Robin’s process, I was able to achieve in my work a blend of abstraction and realism, a significant amount of tonal color, and a playful approach to setting and scale.
The poem’s thematic elements are inspired in part by the fact that Robin and I have adjoining yards. Since I wrote this poem outside in my backyard during the peak of summer, elements of gardening and landscaping appear, as well as my infant daughter and the topic of death. For me, these three subjects—gardening, motherhood, and death—all resonate together thematically. When you create a new life, you’re also creating a future death, and that’s been on my mind a lot since becoming a parent.
Alyse Knorris a queer poet and assistant professor of English at Regis University. She is the author of the poetry collections Mega-City Redux (Green Mountains Review Books, 2016), winner of the Green Mountains Review Poetry Prize), Copper Mother (Switchback Books, 2016), and Annotated Glass (Furniture Press Books, 2013), as well as the non-fiction book Super Mario Bros. 3 (Boss Fight Books, 2016)and four poetry chapbooks. Her work has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Denver Quarterly, The Cincinnati Review, The Greensboro Review, and ZYZZYVA, among others. With her wife, she serves as co-editor of Switchback Books.
We’ve been together
For six months and
I still haven’t written
You a poem. I wrote many
Poems to my exes
So in theory this should
Be easy, but all those
Poems were arguments.
Notice how I never wrote
Poems to the women
I dated? They deserved
More than to be put
In a poem in the role
Women are always being
Put places, like things.
We are having sex and all
That I can think of
Is how easy it would be
To kill you Elaine Kahn
Writes. As a woman can
Because the world
Has made her feel
Easy to kill. Last night
I read the Wikipedia
Page on Ted Bundy
Because he’s trending
And I knew only his name
And that he killed a lot
Of women. I think men
Our age know more
About Bundy than women
Do and it shows. Just
Yesterday another white
Man killed five women
In a bank. There’s an ad
Playing right now
That really annoys me:
A woman waits
At a bus stop and a man
Starts playing a recorder.
He leans into and over
Her and the ad says use
A car share. As though
Women don’t already
Drive to avoid street
Harassment if we can
Afford it. I watch TV
In a nightmare future
Where an ad for a banking
App plays: the target
Audience is women who don’t
Want to get shot. What
Does the world hate
More than women
In public is something
Else Kahn wrote and
Didn’t punctuate: it’s
Not a question unless
A bullet is a question.
Can someone engineer
Lead that turns into
In my dream future
The NRA promotes guns
That ask how you feel
More than my meditation
App. And when you shoot
Them Donté Colley
Comes out dancing.
In this future I am the kind
Of free I almost imagined
But did not think possible
And so are you.
From the writer
:: Account ::
I wrote this poem two years after a brain injury, when I was just beginning to read again. Because I’d been reading so little, the poems I read, from Elaine Kahn’s Women in Public, hovered, distinct, in my mind; there was no sea of language for them to sink into, no literary background against which they might disappear. I desire a future that transcends the gender binary, but the present, and present-day violence, and even my own trauma history, often feel defined by gender. Mostly, this poem describes a perspective on reality and popular culture that’s grounded in a body that feels like a target, like prey. But it also gestures towards possibilities that lie beyond this description, that my mind and my language have not yet corralled into text. Here, dancer and cultural figure Donté Colley acts as a symbol of hope, the embodiment of a joyful optimism that the intellect might consider too simple for serious consideration.
Kyla Jamieson lives and relies on the unceded traditional territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Poetry Is Dead, Room Magazine, The Vault, GUTS, Peach Mag, The Maynard, Plenitude, and others. In 2019, she was selected by CA Conrad and Anne Boyer as the third-place winner in the Metatron Prize for Rising Authors. She is the author of Kind of Animal (Rahila’s Ghost Press, 2019), a poetry chapbook about the aftermath of a brain injury. Body Count, her début collection of poems, is forthcoming with Nightwood Editions in Spring 2020. Find her on instagram as @airymeantime or on a rock next to a river.
My mother’s kitchen smelled of cilantro ripped clean and fresh linens.
Cleanliness was virtue.
The way we spoke to God.
Here I am, God, my mother would say.
Wetting her palms open, Llevame.
I ran my fingers across mami’s pantry,
a pristine altar of Rosa Maria cinnamon
dust smeared on tinted jars of jarabe,
a glass of holy water perched
next to tiny plastic bags of dried oregano
from someone’s finca back on the island.
In the corner of the room, an entire sack of La Fe cornmeal,
eight aluminum cans of tomato paste,
three yellow cases of Embajador chocolate that never seemed to expire.
Every nook and cranny with clusters of rosemary leaves
dried hibiscus marooned into a clay jar.
My mother, standing intently
before the rusted cauldron
in her pressed, Japanese robe
wild violets stitched at the waist
mixing fat pieces of yucca and plátanos
and hunks of corn into a green broth.
She was never the same after my father left us.
Slicing aloe at the kitchen sink
two porcelain angels flanked at her feet
like a life-size Bellini painting.
I watched her become
a feast of herself, again.
:: Blood orange ::
In my house, if you didn’t learn to cook
no one would marry you.
They call you, queda.
It meant you were stuck, in a bullpen
unmoving, without a man,
dealt a long hand of Netflix and Chinese takeout.
They call you, amargada. Bitter citrus.
Not like Julissa perusing racks of Colombian fajas on Bergenline
or pruned like Martha plucking her mouthy kids from daycare
or ornamental like the belly dancer at Cedars with the speckled rind.
Woman of orange pith,
You are not the obvious thing.
After years without sun, you are seedless,
green veined and nearly thornless
unharvested and unlike the rest.
No one calls you mami
when you open the door except
men who arrive, spineless
and varying in their sweetness.
Nini calls them mucha espuma y poco chocolate.
You say it is just something to do,
something to pass the time.
You will stay until you can’t
or he will leave you
keep your books on the shelf,
your favorite t-shirts,
the vintage record player he gifted you.
For years he will call your name.
You are the brilliant and bloody paradise
left clotting on his lap.
:: Cornucopia ::
No matter how many times
I never see it coming
the minute I stand upright
a cornucopia wilts
between my thighs
and out from under me
streams of ripe plum
bead down my left leg.
I am tired
of being vulnerable.
To spattered clots on toilet seats
the color of a wet November
browning at the tip of the leaves.
And I, the reluctant servant
summoned to report myself
on my knees, for seven days.
My body clamors.
I know he can hear me
sound like somebody’s fool
like somebody’s nobody.
Off the wall, I rest against
I am ready to give it all back.
Horned, river god of plenty.
Take this bag of stone fruit
and be done with it.
From the writer
:: Account ::
These poems document the costs of being a woman in the home, in the body, and in relationship to the world. “Kitchen Sink” draws on Italian Renaissance painter Giovanni Bellini and his student Titian’s illustration titled The Feast of the Gods. I was once an art history student in the thrall of Venetian nymphs when I realized how much art history focuses on the European canon. I began to imagine a world where Latin American and Caribbean people existed as the very same indulgent gods and mythical creatures being taught in the classroom. Fertility and food are a central part of what it means to be a “woman” in Latinx culture. In “Blood Orange,” I was addressing the blessing of womanhood by embodying the fruit itself, while “Cornucopia” touches on the curse. Years later, I encountered Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens, who depicted Roman goddess Abundantia holding a cornucopia. Growing up, I spent a lot of time simply observing the women in my family and how they moved in the world. It taught me a lot about self-preservation and becoming the true source of abundant paradise.
Maria Guzman was born and raised in Union City, New Jersey. She earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Urban Studies and Anthropology from Saint Peter’s University. A 2019 poetry contributor at Breadloaf Writers’ Conference, her writing is focused on family, identity, and the natural world. Committed to the advancement of communities of color, Maria works at the National Domestic Workers Alliance.
it’s hard to say anything specific
when you ask me
why an eruption translates into snow
how a bark becomes a howl, a howl a yawn
strung out on a clothesline between houses
where the pulp is a wound
the crust sutures with water
and rocks soften like bread in our throats
:: Mascarenotus grucheti ::
he marches on stilts through the woods at night
to the house he remembers
where he knocks on the door
shaped like an axe carved out of a ledger
in the chimney voices swallow
behind them dawn
nibbles away at his soles
until their shadows surrender
:: Dryophthorus distinguendus ::
you unified the kingdom
without a sovereign
everyone became their own
representative and judge
the pigs and rats
followed their own laws
sacrificed to the pool
From the writer
:: Account ::
These poems are part of a long series on every recently extinct species.
The Réunion shelduck (Alopochen kervazoi, a.k.a. Mascarenachen kervazoi) was a species of goose endemic to the island of Réunion, one of the Mascarene Islands in the Indian Ocean, where it lived in bodies of freshwater. The species went extinct sometime in the late 17th or early 18th century, likely as a result of hunting and habitat loss. [i] In 1994, Graham S. Cowles identified the bird as a new species, relying on specimens collected in April 1974 by Bertrand Kervazo from a “cave named Grotte des Premiers Français (Grande Caverne), situated about 1.5 km south-west from the centre of Saint-Paul.”
In terms of historical references to the species, Cowles writes, “Bontekoe visited Réunion in 1619, and described the island abounding with geese (Strickland & Melville 1848). Dubois visited the island during the years 1671–72 and notes in his journal, ‘Wild Geese, a little smaller than the Geese of Europe, they have the plumage the same and the beak and feet red’ (Oliver 1897). In 1667 Martin recorded massive destruction and decline of ‘geese’ on the Etang de Saint-Paul (Cheke 1987). Wild ‘geese’ do not exist on Réunion today.” [ii]
This and the following two poems are part of a series on every recently extinct species.
The Réunion owl (Mascarenotus grucheti) was another
species endemic to the island of Réunion. As N. Khwaja, S. Mahood, T. Brooks,
and R. Martin write for BirdLife International, “This species formerly occurred
on the island of Réunion. It was probably driven Extinct after the island was
colonised in the early 17th century, as a result of habitat loss, hunting or predation
by invasive species.”
Of its distribution, they write, “Mascarenotus
grucheti is only known from fossils (Cowles 1987) found on Réunion (to
France)(Mourer-Chauviré et al. 1994), and presumably became
extinct soon after the island’s colonisation in the early 17th
Of its ecology, they write, “Nothing is known, though it is likely to have been a forest species.” Of its threats, they write, “Hunting, deforestation and the depredations of introduced predators may all be implicated in its decline.” [iii]
In 1994, Cécile Mourer-Chauviré, Roger Bour, François Moutou, and Sonia Ribes identified Mascarenotus grucheti as a new species and placed it, along with Strix sauzieri and Strix (Athene) murivora, in a new genus, Mascarenotus. They described the genus as very similar to the extinct genus Grallistrix, which inhabited the islands of Hawaii. [iv]
Dryophthorus distinguendus was
a species of beetle endemic to the islands of Hawaii. As C. Lyal writes for the
IUCN Red List, “It was common on several Hawaiian islands in 1926 but has not
been located since 1961. The cause of extinction is not known but may include
invasive species and habitat degradation.”
Of its range, Lyal writes, “This
species was originally described from Hawaii where it was ‘found on nearly all
the islands of the group’. It has not been recorded since 1961 and is thought
to be extinct.”
Of its habitat and ecology, Lyal writes, “It was probably associated with tropical forest but is now extinct.”
Of its threats, Lyal writes, “The species is thought to be extinct. It was reported to be common in 1926 but has not been recorded since 1961. The threats it faced have not been identified but probably included habitat degradation and invasive species.” [v]
[i] BirdLife International 2016. Alopochen kervazoi. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T22729490A95017764. http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2016–3.RLTS.T22729490A95017764.en. Downloaded on 13 October 2019. [ii] Cowles, G. S. 1994. A new genus, three new species and two new records of extinct Holocene birds from Réunion Island, Indian Ocean. GeoBios 27: 87–93. [iii] BirdLife International (2019) Species factsheet: Mascarenotus grucheti. Downloaded from http://www.birdlife.org on 13/10/2019. [iv] Mourer-Chauviré, C., Bour, R., Moutou, F., Ribes, S., 1994. Mascarenotus nov. gen. (Aves, Strigiformes), genre endémique éteint des Mascareignes et M. grucheti n. sp., espéce éteinte de la Réunion. Comptes Rendus de l’Académie des Sciences de Paris série II 318, 1699–1706. [v] Lyal, C. 2014. Dryophthorus distinguendus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2014: e.T6862A21424260. http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2014–1.RLTS.T6862A21424260.en. Downloaded on 13 October 2019.
Nathaniel Dolton-Thornton’s poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Tin House and Raritan, among other publications. He is currently collaborating with Yu Yuanyuan, Robert Hass, and Paula Varsano on a book of English translations of the ninth-century Chinese poet Liu Zongyuan. He studies political ecology as a Marshall Scholar at the University of Cambridge.
not just the sound but the place
I mean aren’t Panda Express and Sbarros lovely
with their food garnished on metal trays
how when I’m inside of one
I feel home no matter how far
up route 65 between Kentucky and Indiana
where churches and Subway franchises
neck and I know exactly where I must go
to reach the good Starbucks and avoid the McDonalds
where high school students hand out gift cards
“From Jesus because he loves you”
and I almost took one once
I had been driving alone for hours
on my way to a conference
where I would have gotten drunk
in the good old days
would have gotten tanked
and made some bad decision
not out of stupidity or self-destruction
but a deliberate attempt
to feel more than I thought
the world has to offer
like ransacking a hotel’s free buffet
stuffing my pockets full
of food I’ll never eat
I didn’t yet understand
the beauty of a road
connecting towns I’ll never see in daylight
decked out in neon effigies
each vestibule offering its own flavor
or I did
and couldn’t tolerate it
how I took the gift card
from the girl’s hand
and imagined what it would feel like
to be forgiven
and for a moment I did
and I gave it back
:: I Hope Hillary Is Having Good Sex ::
I hope Hillary is having good sex
I say to myself at the farmer’s market
While fingering the over-ripened bustier
Of an heirloom tomato
So close to rot it nearly sucks
My pinky into its dappled maw
I hope she’s at least getting decent head I say again
Now that she’s proven a woman
Can win the popular vote
And still lose to an imbecile
Because Russian interference
Because my grandmother
Who worked for LBJ and then
Nixon and was harassed by male coworkers
Until she had to quit
Even she said of Hillary, “There is something
About that woman I just don’t trust”
I hope Hillary is getting it in
By Bill or someone better at listening
Who asks her what she needs
Then gets directly down to business
Without preamble or pussyfooting
Someone who emerges
Only for a sandwich or breath of fresh air
I hope she has multiple sidepieces
Each a different build and scent
And when they ask
To see her closet full of immaculate suits
Organized and shimmering on their racks
Like a god’s molted skin
She lets them touch just the hem
:: I Don’t Like to Have Sex While I’m on My Period ::
even though my husband is the kind of guy
who isn’t afraid
of a woman’s fluids
who might even go down
if the flow is light
a real man
you might say
if the logic wasn’t steeped
in toxic masculinity the way
the sheets are steeped in blood
after making love on day three
the rasp of stain beneath us
like a bat fluttering its wings
in a puddle of Robitussin
I can’t help but think
to put down a towel
before we begin
the way a man sticks a gloved
finger up his wife’s vagina
to assess if she’s done bleeding
clean you might say
if that language wasn’t steeped
in violent misogyny
because isn’t my blood the cleanest
part about me
fuck a towel
if you want to go deep
you better be willing to draw blood
my husband is a real man
isn’t afraid to smell
the shed lining
muffle his face in the spasm of cells
wasn’t afraid to watch our daughter
emerge and split me open
which means my body
concussed around her like a crown
there was so much blood
I had to touch it
to remember where I came from
the hot and pulsing corona
ruckus of DNA
metallic and stinging
Love, forgive me
I do not want to be touched
while my body
orchestrates this unraveling
as much as I love
the bouquet of clots
rioting around the base of your cock
bright as a truck stop souvenir
to own a part of you
where the blood remains
of dank perfume
as the body
travels back to its source
and I am answerable to no one
not even my own name
:: There Is a Moment I Feel Free ::
driving to the taco place
where a few weeks back
a shooting happened
right where our car was parked
and in retrospect
it seems negligent
to have been that happy
sitting at the counter
is now in my speakers
the song where she sings
in quick succession
“you’re all I need to get by…
baby you know that you got me”
and maybe motherhood
has made me soft
which is close to a kind
I don’t know
I know it has taken me
35 years to learn how to dress
appropriately for the weather
to apply moisturizer before bed
and sunscreen in the morning
to be this in love
with the life I’ve made
and care for it
no matter how reckless that is
:: Crow Flying Overhead with a Hole in Its Wing ::
I looked up and saw you this morning
flying over a tex-mex restaurant
the hole in your wing
the size of a bottle cap
I googled what it means
and read about parasites
but nothing about whether it is
to see an animal flying
with this perfect portal in its wing
through which I saw the sky
through which its jeweled language
leaked muted and streaky
through which I heard
the first song I ever played my daughter
holding her near the window
that overlooks our street
through which I saw everything
I had been afraid of
which was a kind of death
which was a kind of
buckling toward joy
as I have fallen to my knees
but have never known
what it sounds like
to sing without expecting
through which the wind
might touch us
which is the only
benediction I need
From the writer
:: Account ::
After the election, which coincided with the early months of new motherhood, a few incidents triggered a feeling of being unsafe in my own home, similar to symptoms of anxiety: the feeling of not being safe in my body. (How many times has the world made me feel this way, and how many times did I internalize the message that I cannot keep myself safe?)
These poems, written during a time of healing, were a way to feel safe again, to celebrate my new identity as a mother, and name in the public space of a poem, what is unacceptable to me, politically and personally.
We are living under an administration that has been accurately described as living in the house of an abuser. I have been thinking all these years how our connection to language will keep us safe and grounded in our own truth. I have been thinking about the way poems have always been a way of saying enough, a way of marking a sacred boundary around who we are (individually and collectively) and what we need in order to thrive.
Kendra DeColo is the author of I am Not Trying to Hide My Hungers from the World (BOA Editions, 2021), My Dinner with Ron Jeremy (Third Man Books, 2016) and Thieves in the Afterlife (Saturnalia Books, 2014), selected by Yusef Komunyakaa for the 2013 Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize. Her poems and essays have appeared in American Poetry Review, Tin House Magazine, Waxwing, Los Angeles Review, Bitch Magazine, VIDA, and elsewhere. She is a recipient of a 2019 Poetry Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and has received awards and fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Millay Colony, Split this Rock, and the Tennessee Arts Commission. She is co-host of the podcast RE/VERB: A Third Man Books Production and she lives in Nashville, Tennessee.
1. Hire uniformed Germans—
Volkswagen interns—to replace
barbed wire so it doesn’t show
the wear of winter or tourism.
2. Ask visitors to guess how many
thousands it took to collect
the rooms full of hair & tooth-
brushes & suitcases & names. Wait
until they fail to see object
as body. Then, tell them that hair
doesn’t go through preservation
& will decay someday
3. Let crowds gather at the gates & listen
to them push their way inside, “Come on,
it’s Auschwitz! Everybody wants
to get in,” one yells in English.
4. Mark each group
with different colored stickers
signifying tour-guide language
& disregard the irony of walls
displaying triangles & stars—different
colors signifying type & race & likelihood
of being counted or remembered.
5. Put up ice cream & snack vendors
just outside the entrance to encourage
family picnics on the manicured lawn
& invite a father to carry his two-year-old
down into the cells of block 11—where I
could barely breathe—& allow a mother
to line her children up
against the reconstructed death wall
for a photo & again under the words
“Arbeit macht frei” & later still a family-
selfie with a crematorium & gas chamber
backdrop. Leave the ashes
6. But don’t turn on the mist showers
placed near the facilities’ entrance
to make the visit more pleasant
on one of the hottest days of the year.
:: Ghazal Refusing to Name the Holocaust ::
After the October 27, 2018 shooting at the Tree of Life—Or L'’Simcha Congregation, Pittsburgh,
Pennsylvania, and the April 27, 2018, shooting at Poway Synagogue, San Diego, CaliforniaYour poetry is so much more relevant now that the Holocaust
is back in fashion, someone said, because without the Holocaust,
do we not know how to die? To grieve? To lose? To hold each other
against shaking trees? To feel connected by more than the whole cost
of our senseless, constant dying? My babushka would never
tell the story of her husband shot at Babi Yar as Holocaust,
would scream about a Nazi’s hands around her neck, his hands
under her skirt, his hands his hands, she would relive the whole accost
of him and never name herself survivor. When Rose was named
eldest among the dead, did the trees not burn? Tear out their roots? Holy cost
of dying. When she was named survivor, did you not shake and weep
the same as when they told you she had not survived the Holocaust?
Did you not cling to someone’s trunk so hard that it became
a body you could lose, your own arms branching holy, costing
you to fall uprooted. So say their names: Melvin, Irving, Jerry, Cecil, David,
Daniel, Bernice, Sylvan, Joyce, Richard, Rose, and now Lori. Don’t simply name them
From the writer
:: Account ::
How to Survive a Heat Wave in Auschwitz
While participating in the Auschwitz Jewish Center Fellowship, I spent three days at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum and Memorial (ABMM). I could not engage with the space on any emotional level while I was there because I was far too distracted by the number of children and strollers and people taking selfies in spaces where others were exterminated. It felt like other “attractions” like the Statue of Liberty or the Eiffel Tower rather than a memorial to murdered millions. The site stands as reminder, an affirmation of past atrocity, and thousands flock there yearly. However, this state-run institution also serves as a global representative of Holocaust history and thereby overshadows other equally necessary Holocaust narratives. Most troubling to me though is that through its very form, elements of the site paradoxically re-enact—re-perpetrate—the horrific past they seek to memorialize. After returning home, I read news of sprinklers being put up at the gates of ABMM to keep tourists comfortable, and this poem emerged in response.
But does this misnaming change anything? Is the tragedy in Pittsburg not as devastating? Not as relevant to all people, Jews and non-Jews alike? Invoking the Holocaust has incredible power, for better and for worse. The atrocity gets used and misused, and its misuse is talked about far less. That being said, we shouldn’t have to be brought back to such unfathomable terror of the past to realize this atrocity, and so many others under the current administration, are terror in and of themselves. Why rely on invoking past hatred when all we have to do is look around our present to see the hate growing? I didn’t feel ready to write this poem days after the shooting. Or even return to it just months later after yet another one. I remember shaking and trying to hold it together. I still don’t feel I have the right to write this poem. And yet all I can do is write this poem, shaking and holding on to my family, my friends, holding on to love and poetry.
Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach (www.juliakolchinskydasbach.com) emigrated from Ukraine as a Jewish refugee when she was six years old. She is the author of The Many Names for Mother(Kent State University Press, 2019), winner the Wick Poetry Prize, and The Bear Who Ate the Stars (Split Lip Press, 2014). She has two forthcoming collections: Don’t Touch the Bones, winner of the 2019 Idaho Poetry Prize, will be published by Lost Horse Press in Spring 2020, and 40 WEEKS, written while pregnant with her now 3‑month-old daughter, is forthcoming from YesYes Books in 2021. Her poems appear in POETRY, American Poetry Review, and The Nation, among others. Julia is the editor of Construction Magazine. She holds an MFA from the University of Oregon and is completing her Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania. She lives in Philly with her two kids, two cats, one dog, and one husband, occasionally blogging about motherhood.
On your 39th birthday you discover the 2600
in a museum, wood-grain trim on the black plastic
console locked behind a glass display, plugged into
a cathode ray television for authenticity. But the joy-
stick was loose, inviting young digital natives to toy
with 8-bit blips after spraying handprints on sheets
of block paper to learn how the artists of Lascaux
coded created by. You spy Adventure & send
your cursor avatar spelunking into the invisible
maze. As a kid you loathed the gray screen
that surrendered just glimpses of the path ahead,
spent hours bumping walls, chasing bats, ending
in the hollow of Yorgle’s belly until the level finally
was mastered, so that now, here, in our 21st century,
though deleted from your conscious mind, your hands
recall the routine: down, left, down, right, up until
you stand again before the castle gates, pleased
a part of you never released the grip.
:: Glitch ::
Narrative comes unstitched
I return to find the quest giver dead
Plot in knots instead of a twist
Back to the load screen to sift
Past saves & recover the thread
Before narrative comes (un)stitched
Cyber-moshers nose the rift
Between image & code, bend
Data to bits the original twist
Was an ordinary moth adrift
Coiled in wires wings spread
Among circuits looped & stitched
Inside gears & tape it slipped
Cursorial legs treading
Punched manila stock & twists
Language & mutations (in)(per)sist
Metamorphic viruses shred
Artifice stitched (un)  [Syn-
From the writer
:: Account ::
It’s absurd how much of our lived experience is sunk below our consciousness, dormant neural circuits ready to sizzle back to life given the right circumstances. The moment that inspired “Manual Recall” was like Proust’s cookie, but more embodied than encoded. I could not have explained in language, nor pointed the way through Adventure’s mazes. Any attempt to bring the solution to the conscious mind simply got in the way of the muscle memory. Adventure’smazes also hide what many consider to be the first video game “Easter Egg”: a secret room where programmer Warren Robinett signed his name on the screen in defiance of the owners of Atari.
“Glitch” began with a problem common in video games that could be considered the great-grandchildren of Adventure: you may recover the quest object, maybe a family heirloom a villager lost to bandits, but when you try to return it, you discover the villager has been killed in a randomly generated encounter and you can’t complete the quest. Games such as these insist on being a narrative genre, but there’s always tension between plot and the freedom of the player, always room for slippage and glitch. The “cyber-moshers” are a reference to databending, a process where errors are deliberately introduced into the code of a digital image, video, or sound file to create distortion. This technique is common in what is sometimes referred to as “glitch art,” which has its roots in Chicago’s video arts movement of the 1970s.
Garrett J. Brown’s first book of poems, Manna Sifting, won the Liam Rector First Book Prize from Briery Creek Press in 2009, and his chapbook, Cubicles, was published by Finishing Line Press in 2014. His other awards include first place in the Poetry Center of Chicago’s Juried Reading, judged by Jorie Graham; runner-up in the Maryland Emerging Voices competition; and a Creative Writing Fellowship from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. His poetry and creative nonfiction have appeared in Black Warrior Review, Poetry East,TriQuarterly, Natural Bridge, and Passages North. He makes his home in Baltimore and is an Aassociate Pprofessor at Anne Arundel Community College.
11. I’ve ruined everything.
12. It’s Spring & my flaws are emerging as daffodils.
13. Daffodils bloom from elbow crooks, from my vagina, my head packed with petals, sawdust in a cadaver.
14. A soft & common flower.
15. One mindfulness activity involves clenching my fist, then releasing it to feel the ease. The daffodil grows, blooms, dies & retreats to its bulb stasis, grows, blooms, dies & retreats to its bulb stasis.
16. My clenched fist is made out of daffodils & is crushing daffodils.
17. Fell one daffodil & dozens bud in its place. I scoop dirt and & each bulb’s roots beget another, digging & digging away, a woman’s form reveals itself composed entirely of such fertilized seeds.
18. I have daffodils in my past, daffodils the yellow of caution tape.
19. There is an objective truth about me as a person to which I have no access. There are times I close my eyes & see nothing; others, nothing but daffodils.
20. I’ve been told I take things to extremes & that’s utter bullshit. A female daffodil’s reproductive organ contains what botanists call a stigma.
21. What about the soil, I ask myself, to myself, the daffodils come from something. I hand people dirt, I say understand me by this, & pluck out a worm.
22. What about, I ask, choosing something beautiful to represent that which is ugly within me. What does that say about me.
23. That you’re conceited, my daffodils answer.
24. A word said often enough loses meaning, try saying sorry, & then, this is key, repeating the action for which you are apologizing.
25. The action is being yourself as a person: the daffodil and its constant trumpet.
From the writer
:: Account ::
I’ve not been in the habit of writing, not in a journal, and certainly not poetry. But I do make a lot of lists. This poem started as a casual list I was making of everything going wrong in my life that was my fault, as one does, and there was a 1 through 10 originally. When I got to 11, and wrote “I’ve ruined everything,” I thought it would be funny (not hah-hah) to use that as a starting point. It’s been pointed out to me there are 14 sections and perhaps this is a pseudo-sonnet. What isn’t a pseudo-sonnet these days though? It is a funny (ha ha) thing to submit poetry (an act which takes incredible self-esteem and self-belief) on the subject of self-loathing.
I’m grateful to The Account for publishing this poem, though it’s strange to re-read. I feel exceedingly distant from the person who wrote it, and her internalized rage. I enjoy the paradox of something so delicate and beautiful as a flower as the symbol for this anger, but then again, I’m not sure I’m supposed to praise my own poem—it’s un-demure of me.
Shevaun Brannigan’s work has appeared in such journals as Best New Poets, AGNI, and Slice. She is a recipient of a Barbara Deming Memorial Fund grant, and holds an MFA from Bennington College.
The ocean retches and collects. We have mistaken you, our water
god, for a savior of fallow pastures, your ruling
planet for a fixed star. A message blinks through the ether:
Let’s work on improving this together. But it’s too late
for prayers when salt animals distend heavy
as sodden paperbacks, toxic script penned on every folio.
They cannot hide in their septic shells,
and you cannot return the light
energy you harnessed from the sun. Don’t you remember? I tried to run
from you with hooves and quick reacting
tendons—I transformed myself into a mare.
Neptune, brother, you would not rest until you overpowered
everything that needed blue to breathe.
You plunged your own house into the Great Dark.
You sealed our throats with rocks. Haven’t you always
proved the impossible equation, never seen
with the naked eye, discovered only through ancient math?
I could not escape from you by horse
or will or sheath of grain. The ocean remembers.
The planets remember. My body remembers everything you’ve done.
:: Ceres in the Global Heat Wave ::
Have you ever tried to sleep
as winds thrash a lofted room
the way a god of evil flogs
a wooden ship at sea? You feel
very small. If it weren’t
for cliff gusts and morning
fog, we’d perish like snails
do on this dark and dry land.
They’ve been trying to live
since the era when islands
weren’t yet islands but a part
of seedlings’ collective dream,
white and spiral. I am not
from any country or generation.
This doesn’t take place anywhere
in particular, except for now
maps look like they’re screaming. Too hot
for ruins. Too hot for roads.
Fake popcorn flowers
on real cobs. Butter’s gloss undermines
the ruse, as if we required hyperbole
to prove what went wrong.
I’m rubbing the apocalypse
in your face, I guess, since I don’t get
to be moody otherwise. If men are mad
at me, they hurt me or they leave
with the blue stoneware
of my heart, and I never uncover it again.
Tonight, I’m the hottest I’ve ever been.
I figure if that star
doesn’t move by the next time
I look up at the sky, it must be real.
Art needs an artist, words need a writer,
and stars need to be believed,
but what can I say about faith
when I’ve given the last of my warnings?
I loved you in the marginal
seas and those not defined
by currents. I loved you with salt
on my lips and in small sounds
too numerous to list aloud.
I’ve been trying to live
since the era of your silence, which fills
with trapped air like a gasp
that goes on and on, and I’ll never
be emotionally detached for you
to take me seriously. I can’t save
every slug on ash and asphalt,
but I’ll touch their dank bodies
with hands not clean enough to hold.
Too hot tonight for rain. Too hot for eyes
to close. I lie awake all night
listening as you take the world
from me—little by little, then all at once.
From the writer
:: Account ::
These poems speak in the voice of the Roman goddess Ceres—whose Greek counterpart is Demeter, mother of the fateful Persephone—the ruler of agriculture, women and girls, fertility, and, randomly, cereal grains. I became compelled by the myths of Ceres because I have been thinking a lot about the relationship between the way that our planet is being treated and the way that vulnerable people, especially women, are being treated in tandem. This “Ceres series” imagines: What if this timeless goddess were plopped down in 2019, what would she be thinking? After all, in their stories, goddesses never escape the violence and pain of the world themselves. Ceres’s feelings of betrayal, rage, desperation, and grief, often caused by those she loves, as well as her insistence on truth-telling and resilience, are familiar navigations for me. Partially, this is because I live in Florida, a beautiful, otherworldly place rife with the horrors of poisonous algae, disappearing species and coastlines, increasingly unbearable heat, and some of the highest reports of cyber attacks and fraud in the country. I ask the unanswerable question in these poems: Can we save ourselves from the hell we have created, or have we already gone too far?
Anne Barngrover’s most recent book of poems, Brazen Creature, was published with University of Akron Press in 2018 and is a finalist for the 2019 Ohioana Book Award in Poetry. Currently she is an assistant professor of English and Creative Writing at Saint Leo University, where she is on faculty in the Low-Residency MA program in Creative Writing. She lives in Tampa, Florida, and you can find her online at annebarngrover.com.
:: “Let’s Make a Movie”: Visualizing Blackness Beyond Trauma Through the Lens of Film and Poetry ::
Black history is full of trauma. Moreover, when examined in relation to the contemporary moment, the timeline of that trauma-filled history defies a narrative of unabated progress. Indeed, one of the deep frustrations of engaging thoughtfully with the reality of the twenty-first century is the feeling that, regardless of how many transitions our world has undergone, Black pain remains consistent. In the effort to use artistic production to give voice to this frustration, Black artists face the challenge of recognizing and representing trauma, in both the past and present, without allowing it to become the defining feature of Blackness. Recognizing pain as a part of the story, which cannot be allowed to represent the totality of Black identity, is particularly important for those artists who seek to articulate an understanding of Blackness through visual means, for whom image and imagery are central to the creative effort.
Films and film-making play a pivotal role in creating images of Blackness, particularly with respect to trauma. In the current moment, when Black trauma is projected across screens of all sizes through viral videos, social media, and ceaseless cable news, there is a powerful sense of immediacy concerning the conditions facing Black bodies. However, it’s vital to recognize that film is but the latest iteration in the evolution of Black image-making. Jacqueline N. Stewart reminds us in her analysis of “the emergence of cinema” that “its early methods of representing Blackness both entered into and reflected a long, complex tradition of Black ‘image’ making in visual and nonvisual media, a tradition that had significant and often quite damaging personal and political ramifications for African American individuals and communities.” [i] This has certainly persisted as Black film has evolved over the course of the past century. Consequently, as Black artists turn to film, both as creatives and critics, to examine how it shapes understandings of Blackness in relation to hurt and pain, they engage not only the history of Black trauma, but also the history of Black image-making. Black artists, in their ongoing effort to produce images of Blackness with greater dimension, must be understood as entering into longstanding and ongoing critical discourses around Black visuality.
In this discussion, I consider the work of three such artists, placing their creative efforts in conversation with scholars who are similarly interested in the visualization of Blackness. Filmmaker Ava DuVernay critically reflects on popularized representations of Blackness and trauma while endeavoring to produce counter-narratives through gripping visual texts. Throughout her body of work, but specifically in her 2019 Netflix series, When They See Us, DuVernay is particularly interested in the consequential relationship between popularized images of Blackness and the lived experience of her films’ subjects. In dialogue with DuVernay, I examine the work of contemporary poets Gabriel Ramirez and Danez Smith, focusing on poems wherein the artists employ film as a metaphor for their commentary on prevalent Black images.
As poets whose filmed performances represent visual forms of artistic expression as well, Ramirez and Smith contribute to a critical understanding of how Blackness becomes visualized through images produced in multiple media, each of which operates in distinction from, and in dialogue with, one another. These artists collectively utilize film, both as metaphor and as medium, to pose powerful questions about the need for Black art to engage trauma with respect to Black history and historical context as well as to re-frame representations of Blackness for their viewers, thereby illuminating not just the trauma of Black life but the fullness of the lives that trauma interrupts.
When They See Us officialtrailer
When Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us was released on Netflix in May 2019, the response from the viewing public was swift and varied. Detailing the events that led to the wrongful arrest of five teenagers—Korey Wise, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson, and Raymond Santana, Jr.—for rape in 1989 and following their lives from incarceration to exoneration, the series immediately catalyzed a robust discourse of reviews, responses, and critically-minded “think pieces.” Critics, scholars, and general viewers found themselves re-examining the case, exploring the biographies of the re-monikered “Exonerated Five,” discussing the performances of the young actors who took on these roles, and consistently drawing parallels to the contemporary moment. The conversation around the film series only grew as Netflix announced that it had been the most watched program on its platform each day in the weeks after its release and that it had been viewed by more than 23 million accounts worldwide within its first month. [ii] In the midst of that conversation, a central concern recurrently rose to the forefront: given the painfully traumatic nature of the series’ storyline and its emotional resonance with ongoing debates about the criminal justice system and the persistent criminalization of Black youth, much of the conversation centered on its “watchability.” Viewers reflected on the emotional work required of them to complete all four episodes, and potential viewers interrogated whether they were fully prepared to sit through the challenging scenes from the discomfort of their living rooms.
Many within this debate felt that the traumatic nature of the viewing experience was critical to the effectiveness of DuVernay’s film. Recognizing that DuVernay herself had arranged for crisis counselors to be on set for the cast and crew during filming, the difficulty of the material was fully acknowledged. [iii]Many insisted that the willingness to embrace that difficulty was necessary, as a show of support not only for the “Exonerated Five,” but also for the film itself and, by extension, for future efforts to tell the stories of the traumatized in order to facilitate healing and to prevent these circumstances from recurring. Ida Harris argues,
[DuVernay’s] work deserves our eyes, collective contemplation, and action … As black people, we must be aware of the aggressive criminalization of black and brown people—which lends a hand to mass incarceration. We must know these stories and be familiar with the entities who benefit from our demise. [iv]
Similarly, Zenobia Jeffries Warfield argues that the emotional heft of the film bears significant historical parallels underlying its necessity. After admitting that she “didn’t make it to the end of part one before [her] chest hurt so badly from anxiety and rage that only an overwhelming wail from deep within brought [her] relief,” she recognized that her pain was communal:
In some Black spaces it may be about affirming our humanity—our experiences, being seen, being heard, being believed, and making the world hear firsthand these stories of hellishness and heartbreak. I would equate the pain of watching the series to seeing the televised images of Black people—including children—being hosed, beaten, and jailed during the civil rights era. [v]
The parallels drawn here are significant, not only for the ways that these writers link historical and contemporary trauma, but also for how they center film—both its making and its viewing—as a critical form of resistance to that trauma and the acts that incite it. Given that one of DuVernay’s previous films, Selma, explored the international impact of televised scenes of violence in the civil rights era, namely the live broadcasting of “Bloody Sunday” on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, it would be reasonable to consider how DuVernay engages in similar themes with When They See Us.
While recognizing DuVernay’s intent in producing such a powerful film series, others asserted that the episodes demanded too much of the audience and suggested that potential viewers should absolutely feel free to avoid the series for the sake of their own mental health and as a deliberate act of self-care. KC Ifeanyi, for example, recognized that “public displays of black trauma were an integral catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement” and acknowledged the importance of “televised accounts and portraits of black bodies being hosed and torn by dogs” as well as the “heartbreaking decision to have an open-casket funeral” for Emmett Till. [vi]Yet, Ifeanyi still argued for the need to “opt out” of the viewing and the demand to revisit these boys’ trauma through film. Essays like CNN contributor Doug Criss’s “I’m a Black man with a teenage son. I can’t bring myself to watch When They See Us” and Essence magazine senior entertainment editor Joi-Marie McKenzie’s “I was 7 Months Pregnant Creating a Black Boy While Watching When They See Us” brought into stark relief the emotional tax being drawn from Black parents in particular. These writers saw in their own children the potential fates of the young men whose confessions to a crime that they did not commit were so brutally and strategically coerced in a coordinated effort between police and prosecutors in the series’ first episode. Consistently, the objections raised to the viewing experience were not only about the pain of re-living these moments from 1989, but also about recognizing the very real possibility that such events could repeat today.
Novelist Eisa Nefertari Ulen similarly addressed the pain exacted from parents, doing so with a consciously historical lens that extended even farther than the late 1980s. Ulen writes, “I think about my ancestors, about the trauma of parenting enslaved children. How can my fear compare to the realities my foremothers faced? Children dragged from their love and into pure white terror. Why do I feel so suddenly unable to cope, when they survived far worse?” [vii]Challenging her sense of guilt over an apparent inability to muster the fortitude of her ancestors, Ulen recognizes that her pain is compounded by the recognition that “things have not changed so much after all … this is history. This is now. This is intergenerational trauma.” [viii] Ulen writes, “I am suffering witness trauma. Every time I see a video of police violence, a surveillance tape, a dash cam recording, I am experiencing a kind of psychological torture.” [ix] In making this declaration, Ulen also argues,
The truth in this series shouldn’t be my trauma to bear … It is time for white women and white men and white children to have this experience, to know this story, to confront this reality. White law students, age-old prosecutors and police officers cannot claim to be professionals if they do not witness these truths. Five hundred years is long enough. Black mothers have screamed into the night long enough. It is time for white people to see them—the killers who live in their families—and confront the evil they have done. [x]
In this powerful declaration, Ulen echoes a sentiment that is shared by multiple writers, such as David Dennis, Jr., who wrote “Dear White People: Make Your White Friends Watch When They See Us” for News One. Dennis suggeststhat the triggering nature of the series was a vital element of the viewing process and that the question up for debate should not be whether the series is “watchable,” but who should be watching, in order for the visualization of Black trauma to be presented to greatest effect.
The question of audience and historical-contemporary continuity function as the two central themes in this debate about the “watchability” of Black trauma, as engendered by discussions of DuVernay’s work. While today’s critics take on these questions through social media and public scholarship, these are not new questions with respect to the production of Black art. They have been addressed repeatedly by scholars who examine the place of trauma in representations of Black life through Black art. Saidiya Hartman’s seminal work, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America, explores precisely these questions while referencing the pain of enslaved people that similarly inspired Ulen’s response and thoughtful engagement with the trauma of her ancestors. Analyzing the representation of “scenes of subjection” through nineteenth-century literature, theater, and visual arts, Hartman explicitly addresses the question of audience. She writes,
What interests me are the ways we are called upon to participate in such scenes. Are we witnesses who confirm the truth of what happened in the face of the world-destroying capacities of pain, the distortions of torture, the sheer unrepresentability of terror, and the repression of the dominant accounts? Or are we voyeurs fascinated with and repelled by exhibitions of terror and sufferance? What does the exposure of the violated body yield? Proof of black sentience or the inhumanity of the ‘peculiar institution’? Or does the pain of the other merely provide us with the opportunity for self-reflection? At issue here is the precariousness of empathy and the uncertain line between witness and spectator. [xi]
DuVernay, in her meticulous attention to the details of the lives of these young men and the ripple effect of these traumatic events on their families, impels her audience to interrogate similar questions of themselves. DuVernay challenges her viewers to consider their own role as spectator and witness in the twenty-first century and to clarify the obligations and indictments that come with the roles.
Building upon and acknowledging her debt to Hartman’s work, Jasmine Nichole Cobb moves beyond the trauma of enslavement to consider how Blacks worked to fashion their public image in the face of what she describes as the “peculiarly ‘ocular’ institution” of chattel slavery. Cobb convincingly argues that the institution “utilized an unstable visual logic of race to enslave persons of African descent and to protect Whites from the threat of the gaze,” and she argues for an understanding of “slavery’s visual culture as an impediment to recognizing freedom” and for a critical engagement with “Black visuality as shaped by and resistant to slavery’s visual culture.” [xii] Cobb analyzes how nineteenth-century media, in support of slavery, defined Blackness and enslavement interchangeably to create an immediate association in the minds of white viewers. The work of slaveholders, then, was to maintain the “logical” link between Blackness and enslavement in order to preserve slavery, whose “daily execution thrived in a racio-visual economy that determined ways of seeing and ways of being seen according to racial difference.” [xiii] Conversely, Black activists and anti-slavery advocates of the time worked to refashion public images of Blacks as something other than enslaved in order to reshape public understanding of freedom as a state of being attainable by Black bodies in the nineteenth century.
This essentializing representation of Blackness as synonymous with a particular state of being is precisely what DuVernay challenges in the twenty-first-century context, forcing her own audience to confront the ways that criminality is immediately associated with Blackness. This is evident in the very title of the series, When They See Us, which was notably changed from “The Central Park Five.” As DuVernay explained in the initial announcement, the title change “embraces the humanity of the men and not their politicized moniker.” [xiv] Actress Niecy Nash, who was nominated for an Emmy award for playing Deloris Wise, Korey’s mother, explains the significance of the name while once again echoing the historical import of the work being done by this film:
It is still a story that could have hit the newspapers yesterday. It is telling of America today and yesterday, hence the title When They See Us. I loved that we moved away from calling this the Central Park Five because that was the moniker the media gave these boys—they were called a wolf pack when they didn’t even know each other. What do they see when they see us? They see monsters, a villain. Someone of ill repute, someone nefarious who doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt. [xv]
Duvernay explores the immediate association of young Black men with criminality through the interrogation scenes in episode one of the series, as the audience watches the violation of these boys’ innocence through a refusal to see it, all as a precursor to the complete loss of that innocence in the episodes that follow. Moreover, though the police station scenes of the first episode are jarring, it is in the subsequent episodes that DuVernay explores the process by which these young men are vilified in the media through the sensationalized coverage to which Nash refers. In highlighting this process, DuVernay intentionally uses her film to provide counter-images of these young men and to detail how those dominant images were created and reinforced in the first place.
In scenes where DuVernay explores the process of criminalizing these specific boys, she addresses a second aspect of Cobb’s analysis of how Blackness was so narrowly (and similarly) defined in the nineteenth century. Through an examination of “a diverse array of print ephemera, such as auction advertisements, runaway advertisements, and pickup notices,” Cobb argues that,
White viewership became essential to the institutionalization of slavery’s visual culture, as print media undergirded the slave economy. Slaving media, then, normalized Whiteness as a disembodied viewing position by excluding slavers, auctioneers, purchasers, owners, and catchers from the page. Instead, these items announced the arrival of new chattel for sale or called on the White viewing public to assist in the reclamation of enslaved property … A still-burgeoning U.S. media industry became central to the buying and selling of chattel persons with advertisements that invited free White viewers, specifically, to visit auction sites and view scantily clad Black bodies for display and for purchase. [xvi]
DuVernay revisits this in her film series, highlighting the news coverage and the images that bombarded media consumers in the midst of the 1989 “Central Park Jogger” case. DuVernay focuses on newspaper headlines describing the teenagers as “Wildin’” in the park and Donald Trump’s full-page advertisement calling for the return of the death penalty, among other media coverage. In one particularly powerful scene, Yusef Salaam’s mother, as played by Aunjanue Ellis, is seen viewing the coverage on her own television screen, to which she incredulously responds, “they wanna kill my son.” DuVernay highlights how these visual texts incited the viewing public toward universal condemnation while inviting them to participate in the campaign for punishing these young men for their supposed crimes. These scenes echo Cobb’s analysis of runaway advertisements that invited their viewing public to participate in the dispensation of “justice” to fugitive slaves.
While DuVernay depicts this process within the series, she also utilizes her artistic authority to challenge the “disembodied viewing position” of Whites that had characterized earlier depictions of Blackness. As Cobb argues, the nineteenth-century media that sustained slavery “functioned as perceptual documents, as materials that taught Whites how to see Blackness, but also encouraged Whites to believe that Blackness was a thing to see, and that White subjectivity functioned as a domain for looking,” successfully accomplishing this “by focusing attention on Black bodies and away from White bodies, especially away from Whites who were actively involved in the process of enslaving others.” [xviii]In When They See Us, DuVernay deliberately holds white figures accountable for the role that they played in the conviction and incarceration of these five young men. From the moments of the initial arrest through the courtroom scenes, DuVernay is unsparing in her presentation of the active choices and willful collusion that drove police and prosecutors, namely Felicity Huffman’s Linda Fairstein and Vera Farmiga’s Elizabeth Lederer, in their pursuit of conviction. In so doing, DuVernay actively avoids absenting Whites from the narrative of “The Exonerated Five,” whereas their removal from nineteenth-century media depictions of slavery had absolved them from responsibility for the preservation of that institution.
While DuVernay’s engagement with history and historical context is absolutely key to the successful project of this film series, the filmmaker’s purposeful consideration of the question of audience also drove the critical and popular response to her work. As a professional filmmaker utilizing the global platform of Netflix, DuVernay no doubt desired the widest possible audience. Yet, she intentionally de-centers and thereby disempowers the white gaze. Rather than allowing the white gaze to determine how the audience sees its main characters, DuVernay employs important moments where her characters’ humanity is explored within the lens of their own community, opening the series in the home-space, centering family interactions even in the midst of imprisonment through carefully crafted visitation scenes and phone calls, and exploring each man’s effort to reclaim his identity in the period between his release and his formal exoneration. While the lens through which white figures see these boys plays a tremendous role in the narrative, the film nevertheless positions whiteness as the “they” of the series’ title, whereas Black families, communities, churches, and even cellmates regularly constitute the “us” that is constructed and maintained through the episodes.
DuVernay understands, fully, that an audience’s ability to visualize—to create and receive—images of Blackness bears powerful consequences for the treatment of Black people within the world. The relationship between perception and consequential reality is highlighted throughout the trial and convictions of the five young men in When They See Us, and is thoughtfully illuminated in her exploration of the connection between popular images of Black criminality and incarceration rates in her 2016 Netflix documentary 13th. Moreover, she addresses this phenomenon, wherein the public supports a reality that confirms its visualized beliefs, and examines its relationship to film, in a published conversation with cinematographer Bradford Young. She explains,
The image is intimate to me. We use the term our mind’s eye for a reason. The images that we consume, and that we take in, can nourish us, and they can malnourish us. They become a part of our DNA in some way. They become a part of our mind, our memory.… This idea of the image is so much more dense than even using it in a film context. It’s an intimacy inside your own memory, inside your own mind. We see the world and each other in pictures. That’s why I think film is so emotional. It’s re-creating what’s already embedded in our internal process. It’s an artificial rendering of what’s already going on inside. [xix]
Though this conversation was published in 2016 following the release of Selma, on which she and Young collaborated prior to When They See Us, DuVernay’s commitment to the empowering prospect of the image clearly persists within her work on When They See Us, which continues to use the medium of film to challenge what her audiences think they know, and think they see, by charging them to open their “mind’s eye” and see the world anew.
DuVernay, as a filmmaker, is certainly not alone in a tradition of Black artists who seek to engage with the “mind’s eye” as the space in which images are constructed, doing so in a way that recognizes the power of film even while pursuing other mediums of artistic expression. Images of Black criminality continue to shape popular perceptions of Black men and women, which in turn contribute to the proliferation of incidents—often captured on camera—where Black citizens are subjected to life-threatening and life-claiming interactions with the police and their fellow citizens. Social media, in particular, has usefully captured a growing frustration with these incidents, alongside persistently inequitable incarceration rates and policy-backed conditions of hyper-surveillance made manifest in such practices as stop-and-frisk and such phenomena as the preschool-to-prison pipeline. Black artists, then, subsequently use social media and its myriad platforms as a means of articulating their response to the conditions that elicit their artistic examination. In the midst of these responses, contemporary poets, particularly those who embrace traditions of oral performance and thereby make their literary work both visible and visual, have gained particular prominence.
One such young poet is Gabriel Ramirez, who identifies as a “Queer Afro-Latinx poet, activist, and teaching artist.” [xx] Ramirez honed his skills as a poet and a performer in poetry slams as a young adult, being the 2012 Knicks Poetry Slam Champion, competing as a member of the 2012 Urban Word NYC slam team, ranking 2nd in the NYC Youth Slam, and winning the 2013 National Poetry Youth Slam Championship in Boston. Ramirez has performed in multiple venues in New York, including Lincoln Center and the Apollo Theatre, and is an in-demand guest at colleges and universities around the nation. [xxi] In addition to published work in several anthologies and online platforms, Ramirez has experienced a tremendous increase in popularity due to videos of his performances, often published in such venues as YouTube, Buzzfeed, and Upworthy. One poem, “Black Boy Auditions for His Own Funeral,” surpassed 100,000 views within three months of being uploaded in July 2019. This poem addresses some of the very same themes as DuVernay with respect to audience, historical continuity, and the visualization of Black trauma through film:
Gabriel Ramirez’s “Black Boy Auditions for His Own Funeral”
Framing his performance as an audition for a role that is more destined than desired, Ramirez immediately draws the audience in, driving them to question their participation in this performance in similar ways to Hartman’s insistence on interrogating the blurred lines between witness and spectator to history’s “scenes of subjection.” Following the poem’s opening 20 seconds of deliberate silence, wherein Ramirez’s closed eyes and crossed arms perform the pose of a dead body in its casket, he looks at the audience with wide-eyed enthusiasm, asking, “How was that?” Ramirez mimics the eagerness of a young child seeking approval for his performance, thereby conjuring a sense of boyhood innocence that is similarly accomplished by DuVernay’s choice to open When They See Us with scenes of the five young men talking with family and flirting with girls, presenting a youthful naivete of the fates that will soon befall them. Moreover, posing the question invites the audience to sanction his fitness “for his own funeral,” and thereby disallows the viewer any distance from the scene unfolding in front of them. Echoing both Hartman’s and Cobb’s analyses of a historical desire to distinguish viewers of Black trauma from participants in the incitement of that trauma, Ramirez enacts a performance wherein his audience must take on the role of casting directors. He reminds those watching that their approval—explicit or implicit through their lack of objection—is the necessary first step that allows him to embody the role for which he is auditioning.
The audience’s opportunities to challenge his fitness for the role continue throughout the poem, as Ramirez asks, “Do I look the part yet?” and seeks to convince them that “you can put as many holes in me as you want / I can dance despite the bullets.” Each time the audience neglects to dismiss him from this “casting call,” the level of complicity and participation in this process grows. By the poem’s conclusion, the audience is no longer simply casting the project but has taken on greater agency through Ramirez’s use of direct address and subtle direction. At points, the audience members become producers—as indicated by Ramirez’s question about the subject of the film’s sequel—and potentially directors. Ramirez’s repeated direction to “Roll the Credits,” followed by the closing lines, “Let my death / be your last take. / And in this final shot, / when you burying me, / make sure you get my good side,” ultimately grants final authority for the audience to yell “cut.” Ramirez, however, allows ample opportunity for the audience to step outside of these roles to which they’re being assigned. They have the opportunities to deny the casting, reject the sequel, refuse to applaud, and to actively “walk out the theater” before waiting for the credits to roll. Though the poem is gripping, it holds no one captive, and the challenge to the audience to act on their ability to effect change is powerfully posed, yet subtly drawn, throughout the performance.
In addition to Ramirez’s interaction with the audience throughout the poem, he also carefully outlines the role of the “they” who are necessary to complete this metaphorical film. Like DuVernay, Ramirez does not shy away from detailing how he has been prepared for this role by those in power, who see the casket as the inevitable conclusion to his Black boyhood. Ramirez begins the indictment by declaring, “Time of death: when white America opened my auction-block mouth / poured ‘nigger’ down my throat and it became the only language I knew. / Poison so thick you could call it an accent,” thereby invoking the historical context for his contemporary reality and further clarifying the continuity between the circumstances outlined by this poem and the analysis of Hartman and Cobb. Highlighting the “auction-block” and addressing how “a ruined Black boy … be what prisons fill their wallets with,” Ramirez then directly addresses the cop who “told me to get on the ground / Told me to say my lines / with his gun / in my mouth” and then violated the sacredness of his “sometimes church body” with a hail of bullets that ended his life. While the murder leaves Ramirez still trying to prove that he looks the part and is therefore deserving of the role, it is apparently with great ease that the cop (one of many) “made it to the big screen / with their hands too full / of fund-raised retirement money / to carry any kind of accountability.” Ramirez indicts not only the police officer, but also the greater public who funded the officer’s retirement and refused to hold them accountable for the crime of taking the Black boy’s life. The officer is elevated to celebrity status, occupying the privileged space of the “big screen” in full view of an audience that not only accepts the officer’s actions, but approves of them. Meanwhile, Ramirez notes “all the names of the taken from us too soon” scroll on the screen, “ascending into some rushed and forgotten heaven.”
In the midst of a narrative of police brutality—facilitated at turns by public approbation, antipathy, and apathy—Ramirez carefully constructs an emotionally resonant sense of family and community throughout the poem. From the opening lines, wherein he asks, “did my silence break the small mother in your chest?,” to the portraits drawn of his mother “at the hospital / trying to squeeze the rhythm back into my chest” and later “in the courtroom / wailing her way into a settlement of / ‘I was only doing my job’ / and a check to pacify her raging blood,” Ramirez evokes the very same theme of violated motherhood—and, indeed, parenthood—that we see in DuVernay’s film and in the response of parents who were so affected by its visualization of Black trauma. Ramirez moves beyond the description of the mothers’ grief to insist that the audience recognize the transformation of the officer’s bullets into “these seeds police planted to make me a field of blooming things / like activist and protest and hashtags” and that they refuse to allow a settlement check to be the only comfort for mothers in mourning. Rather, Ramirez directs the audience to “take what flowers grow from me. / Make a bouquet for my mother. / For all mothers / who lose children / and are left with shovels / to bury / what they thought would be / the rest of their lives.” This visual, completed by Ramirez’s performed act of shoveling dirt, creates a possibility for mothers to be comforted by more than payments resentfully distributed by the state. Rather, communally collected flowers, reaped from the blooming things created in the wake of their children’s deaths, suggest the possibility of symbols of new life in the aftermath of trauma. Ironically, however, the plucking of those things for the creation of bouquets suggest a renewed finality and a cycle of death that can only be ended if the audience refuses the casting and denies the film’s creation in the first place.
The never-ending cycle that Ramirez engages through his use of the film metaphor is similarly addressed by Danez Smith, a Black, genderqueer, HIV-positive poet, who regularly explores Black trauma in their work, but is deliberate in also exploring themes of joy, love, faith, sex, and humor, among many others. Smith is also a poet who has established themselves, to an even greater extent than Ramirez, through performance and poetry slams as well as multiple publications in various online and print venues, including debut poetry collection [insert] boy, which won the Kate Tufts Discovery Award and was a finalist for the LAMBDA Literary Award for poetry, as well as their second collection, National Book Award finalist Don’t Call Us Dead. In addition to these full-length collections, Smith also produced a chapbook of poetry in 2015, titled Black Movie, which explicitly takes on film and film-making as its central motifs.
Smith’s Black Movie thoughtfully employs film as a backdrop to a poetic dialogue regarding Blackness in the twenty-first century, focusing on trauma and death while also exploring dimensions of family, community, and daily ritual that construct a cultural context for contemporary Blackness. As described by Mary Austin Speaker in one of the many reviews for the collection, “Danez Smith’s Black Movie is a cinematic tour-de-force that lets poetry vie with film for the honor of which medium can most effectively articulate the experience of Black America,” explaining that “the book takes an unflinching look at how Black Americans have been portrayed in film, and in doing so posits, initially, film as the ultimate myth-making tool of our era.” [xxii]While Speaker’s review is indicative of much of the positive critical response received by the collection, Smith’s own articulation of their motivations is particularly illuminating as well. In a 2018 interview published in The White Review, Smith described the collection as,
a catalogue of how I was feeling at the start of the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States. I think of Black Lives Matter as being not only a direct result of police violence but of how black death became an obsession in American mass media. It wasn’t that we hadn’t been being killed or weren’t dying or that police violence had lessened in the years prior, but rather American media decided to turn its attention to police brutality once again in 2013 and 2014. So I really just wanted to capture that moment and what it was like to feel that black death was inescapable both on the TV, via social media, and all these ways in which we were being bombarded by images of black death, while also capturing the depressingness of how that was calling toward a kind of justice that we’d been waiting for for a long time. Because while cases like Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown felt very harsh, in our mindset if you are Black American you knew that those stories were not new and that they had been happening since forever. [xxiii]
Smith evokes the sense of historical continuity that pulses through DuVernay and Ramirez’s work while also speaking to the importance of the persistent prominence of images captured on film that gave both the moment, and the collection, its sense of immediacy as well as historical rootedness.
Smith’s description of the inspiration for the collection’s film motif explicitly addresses the challenge inherent in Black artists’ effort to engage with narratives of trauma. Smith explains that, “for any author to be able to delve into depressing or hard topics you need something, and so this idea of films, these sort of mini-movies, this idea of image-making, was a tether that I used to help myself buoy into the work.” [xxiv]More than a “gimmick,” Smith’s use of film allows them an opportunity to explore themes of Black death and pain without making those the central organizing principle of the work. As they explain in another interview, published in The Fourth River in 2017, “we’re always dying or working against dying or in some state of chaos or mourning and violence. Or we’re hyper-sexualized, and dying. Or we’re hyper-athleticisized, and dying. Or hyper-whatever-you-want, and dying. Always dying. Black Movie is attempting to subvert that and engage that too.” [xxv]The effort to both subvert the emphasis on death and trauma, and engage with it, not only fuels the work of Black Movie, but the work of DuVernay, Ramirez, and a bevy of other Black artists as well.
Within Smith’s collection, the poet employs film to varying effect, considering the dimensions of Black life that range from the humorous to the macabre. The collection’s opening poem, “Sleeping Beauty in the Hood,” is one of several that revisit and reimagine fairy tales and children’s stories, yet this poem sets the tone for the collection by directly asking the reader: “You mad? This ain’t no kid flick. There is no magic here.” [xvi]This repeats through additional poems such as “Lion King in the Hood,” which opens with a casting list that recalls Ramirez’s audition exercise, announcing, “Simba played by the first boy you know who died too young,” [xvii]then details opening credits where the film is “brought to you on a tree branch heavy with a tree-colored man,” [xviii] and describes a “Montage: Timon & Pumbaa teach Simba a music other than the blues,” wherein the characters are seen in a series of clips: “clip 1: the boy getting older in spite of everything … clip 10: shot of the boys laughing anyway / clip 11: shot of the boys laughing in the sun / clip 12: shot of the boys laughing in the rain / clip 13: shot of them not being shot.” [xxix]The collection also includes the treatment for films such as “A History of Violence in the Hood,” which “could be a documentary or could be someone’s art school thesis.” [xxx] Smith includes work such as “Short Film,” which refuses to be mired in elegy for such fallen figures as Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Renisha McBride, and “Notes for a Film on Black Joy,” which presents vignettes preserved in memory, reflecting on pivotal moments in the poet’s own sexual awakening alongside images of their family, with their mother dancing along when their “auntie ‘nem done finished the wine & put on that Ohio players or whatever album makes them feel blackest” and celebrates their grandmother’s freezer full of food by claiming, “glory be the woman with enough meat to let the world starve but not her family.” [xxxi] For the purposes of this discussion, however, I am most interested in the collection’s concluding poem, “Dinosaurs in the Hood,” which has been recorded in performance on multiple occasions, with film recordings totaling nearly 150,000 views on YouTube:
Danez Smith, “Dinosaurs in the Hood”
As a closing poem, following the various re-castings and re-imaginings of already existing films referenced in the collection, Smith’s “Dinosaurs in the Hood” is distinguished as an ultimate creative act. Not only can this film be completed without another “original” script as its guide, but it is also fueled by the freedom of fantasy, rather than the historical record that serves as the source material for filmmakers like DuVernay. Moreover, from its opening call, “Let’s make a movie,” [xxxii]Smith invites their audience to join in a process whereby the poet and the audience share in complete creative control, unlike the film-already-in-progress for which Ramirez’s Black boy auditions. Here, Smith appeals to no higher authority for decisions about casting or direction, but presents the treatment for a film culled entirely from their own imagination, with only disparate action, comedy, and drama films as its potential inspiration.
Smith engages in a playful spirit throughout the “pitch” for this film, presenting scenarios that range from the hilarious to the profound but never veer into the mainstream or the stereotypical. Each of the standard tropes of action films is skewered and replaced with radical articulations of what a film of this magnitude could possibly be, as Smith describes “a scene where a cop car gets pooped on by a pterodactyl,” scenes with “grandmas on the front porch taking out / raptors with guns they hid in walls & under mattresses,” and wanting “Viola Davis to save the city in the last scene with a black fist afro pick through the last dinosaur’s long, cold-blood neck.” [xxxiii]Smith is purposeful in not only the scenarios that they suggest, but also those that get refused, clarifying that this film is not to be manipulated to serve the purposes of the Wayans Brothers, Will Smith, or Sofia Vergara, but that it is, by design, a celebration of “a neighborhood of royal folks – / children of slaves & immigrants & addicts & exiles saving their town from real ass Dinosaurs.” [xxxiv]Yet, it is in the poet’s declaration about trauma that the poem, and the filmed performance, speak most powerfully to this discussion and the concerns addressed by artists such as DuVernay and Ramirez. As Smith explains:
. . . But this can’t be a black movie. This can’t be a
black movie. This movie can’t be dismissed because of its cast
or its audience. This movie can’t be a metaphor for black people
& extinction. This movie can’t be about race. This movie can’t be
about black pain or cause black people pain. This movie
can’t be about a long history of having a long history with hurt. [xxxv]
Making a deliberate choice not to center Black trauma and pain, and the history of that pain, Smith does not neglect historical context. Rather, by invoking the presence of extinct dinosaurs within the modern-day neighborhood they describe, history and historical-contemporary continuity permeates the entire poem and is certainly a critical element of the proposed film. Yet, in Smith’s presentation of that history, they draw focus to the battle with a historical threat rather than the damage done by that threat, which reframes how the audience is prepared to view the Black subjects, whose all-encompassing battle drives the imagined film’s plot.
Smith draws this powerfully with an emphasis on a little boy, the focus of the film’s proposed opening scene. Smith describes “a scene where a little black boy is playing / with a toy dinosaur on the bus, then looks out the window / & sees the T‑Rex.” [xvi]Rejecting the influence of a director like Quentin Tarantino, who has famously employed Black actors in films that problematically engage with race, Smith makes clear that the boy’s playtime is not to be corrupted by any white director’s effort to make some larger statement about the precarity of Black boys’ lives and their own accountability in it. Rather, Smith reinforces the image of the boy playing with “a plastic brontosaurus or triceratops” which functions as “his proof of magic or God or Santa.” [xxxvii]Returning to this scene in the poem’s closing, Smith reiterates its importance, declaring with full authority that there be “no bullets in the heroes. & no one kills the black boy, / & no one kills the black boy. & no one kills the black boy,” claiming that “the only reason I want to make this is for that first scene anyway.” [xviii]As poet Lauren Alleyne asserts, much of the power of this poem is held in the fact that “Danez is not asking for a world without the threat. The dinosaurs are still there, and they’re scary. But the threat is not specifically to the boy, and it’s not because he’s Black.” [xxxix]Indeed, though the dinosaurs of the poem are certainly larger-than-life, they are secondary to the narrative that Smith is most concerned with telling. The point of their inclusion is not to focus on the damage that they cause or the trauma left in their wake. Rather, Smith emphasizes the boy’s imagination-fueled playtime, the fullness of which is disrupted by a looming threat that ultimately represents a confirmation and expansion of what the boy had previously believed to be possible. Despite the audience’s impulse to fear for the boy, Smith reminds us that this is not “the foreshadow to his end” and instead encourages us to focus on “his eyes wide & endless / his dreams possible, pulsing, & right there.” [xl] In this moment, Black boyhood innocence is not set up to be eventually shattered, but instead remains the central focus and therefore the most important scene in the film.
Smith, throughout “Dinosaurs in the Hood,” offers unfettered possibility for the creation of a film that might also suggest unrestrained possibilities for its subjects, namely the young boy whose wonderment serves as the film’s primary inspiration. Smith does not avoid the complicated questions surrounding audience, history, or the trauma captured in the process of Black image-making. Rather, they provide their audience with potential scenes of Blackness, captured on film, that incorporate all of these concerns while moving beyond them, presenting a community of Black people whose lives are impacted by their circumstances but not ultimately defined by them. Smith’s performance, particularly when viewed alongside the work of Ava DuVernay and Gabriel Ramirez, offers viewers an opportunity to consider how they might actively participate in Black image-making, simply by accepting the poem’s initial invitation to “make a movie” and join in the creative process.
While Smith’s invitation is explicit, DuVernay and Ramirez likewise extend invitations for their audiences to contend with pain and trauma and to recognize the liberating power of embracing visual texts that refuse to be mired in it. Collectively, these artists encourage audiences to consider the potentiality of active resistance through creative effort and to recognize the power of both producers and consumers, not simply to reject images of trauma but to confront the processes which incite that trauma in the first place. Fully recognizing the “long history of having a long history with hurt” requires neither artists nor audiences to make the work be about that long history. Rather, these works create possibilities for other narratives to emerge, wherein Blackness is articulated in greater and more nuanced dimension by Black artists who no longer seek to play roles crafted by a historical narrative that never envisioned they might write their own scripts and who refuse to subscribe to the limited images made available for when they were allowed to be seen.
[i]Jacqueline N. Stewart, Migrating to the Movies: Cinema and Black Urban Modernity (U of California Press, 2005), 23. [ii]Anita Bennett, “‘When They See Us’ Watched by More Than 23 Million Netflix Accounts Worldwide,” Deadline (25 June 2019). [iii]Sasha Lekach, “Crisis Counselors Were on Set for ‘When They See Us’ Cast and Crew,” Mashable (1 June 2019). [iv]Ida Harris, “Watching ‘When They See Us’ Is an Act of Social Justice,” Black Enterprise (20 June 2019). [v]Zenobia Jeffries Warfield, “‘When They See Us’ Is Triggering. That’s Why You Should Watch It,” YES! Magazine (5 June 2019). [vi]KC Ifeanyi, “Opting Out of Black Trauma: Why I Couldn’t Finish When They See Us,” Fast Company (31 May 2019). [vii]Eisa Nefertari Ulen, “Why I Can’t Bring Myself to Watch ‘When They See Us,’” Truthout (12 June 2019). [viii]Ibid. [ix]Ibid. [x]Ibid. [xi]Saidiya Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (Oxford UP, 1997), 3–4. [xii]Jasmine Nichole Cobb, Picture Freedom: Remaking Black Visuality in The Early 19th Century (NYU Press, 2015), 31. [xiii]Cobb, 34. [xiv]Jackie Strause, “Ava DuVernay’s ‘Central Park Five’ Netflix Limited Series Gets New Title, Premiere Date,” The Hollywood Reporter (1 March 2019). [xv]Nadja Sayej, “From ‘Claws’ to ‘When They See Us,’ Niecy Nash Won’t Stay in Her Lane,” Shondaland (31 May 2019). (emphasis added) [xvi]Cobb, 41. [xvii]When They See Us, Episode 2. [xviii]Cobb, 42. [xix]Ava DuVernay and Bradford Young, “Black Lives, SilverScreen: Ava DuVernay and Bradford Young in Conversation,” Aperture (Summer 2016), 37. [xx]Gabriel Ramirez, “About.” [xxi]“Poet Gabriel Ramirez,” Neon Entertainment. [xxii]Mary Austin Speaker, “Black Movie,” Rain Taxi (Summer 2016). [xxiii]Sandeep Parmar, “Interview with Danez Smith,” The White Review (June 2018). [xxiv]Ibid. [xxv]Cedric Rudolph, “Interview with Danez Smith,” The Fourth River (31 October 2017). [xxvi]Danez Smith, Black Movie (Button Poetry, 2015), 3. [xxvii]Smith, 10. [xxviii]Smith, 11. [xxix]Smith, 10–16. [xxx]Smith, 6. [xxxi]Smith, 36–37. [xxxii]Smith, 39. [xxxiii]Ibid. [xxxiv]Ibid. [xxxv]Ibid. [xxxvi]Ibid. [xxxvii]Ibid. [xviii]Smith, 40. [xxxix]Lauren Alleyne, Personal Interview (21 August 2019). [xl]Smith, 40.
Alleyne, Lauren. Personal Interview. 21 August 2019.
When They See Us. Directed by Ava DuVernay, Netflix, 2019.
McKinley E. Melton, Associate Professor of English at Gettysburg College, earned his doctorate from the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. With the support of an ACLS Frederick Burkhardt Fellowship, he is the 2019/20 Scholar-in-Residence at James Madison University’s Furious Flower Poetry Center, the nation’s first academic center for Black poetry, which is dedicated to the visibility, inclusion, and critical consideration of Black poets in American letters. Dr. Melton’s work focuses on twentieth- and twenty-first-century Africana literatures, with a particular emphasis on the relationship between literary, social, cultural, and political movements toward social justice. His current project, “Claiming All the World as Our Stage: Contemporary Black Poetry, Performance, and Resistance,” explores spoken word poetry within Black diasporan traditions of orality and performance.
the first time I get double-bass beats it’s two hours the nurses take my pressure tell me don’t stand wheel me in a chair to a bed Mom cowers in the corner by the crash cart they tear off my clothes attach leads ready a 16-gauge needle the doctor says this isn’t going to feel good a feeling floods my right arm my body seizes I sit up they push me back on the bed they do it again my beats relax the EMT says that works 9 times out of 10 and the other time I ask
if I keep count I could control this expensive somersault phantom several false starts no money for follow-up is it fatal or just a condition without coverage I develop distractions codependence on the strength of strings learn to sing at house shows with shitty PAs strain against the squall for years no one can hear me just the Boys on guitar bass and drums turn my back to the crowd when I sing over stimulated vagus I can’t stop performing wish for some assurance I’m going to make it
Los Angeles seeped into my bloodlines when Dad stick-and-poked Mom a fleur-de-lis on her ankle while watching Decline of Western Civ Vol. 1 twenty years later I move to the city in an ancient Buick I dream to be Jeffrey Lee Sable Starr a sea bird over light-dotted hills the Observatory’s formal white gown feel for my pulse during sound check the Boys ask me what language are my lyrics Persephone I say Eurydice rock myself to sleep in double-time cross my heart hope to know which feeling I’m faking
I stop taking off my hospital bracelet I don’t have insurance so I can’t afford to know why I have some ideas but the Boys keep saying “you’re fine you’re fine” swatting my fingers from the right side of my neck me swallowing blues to keep myself at bay am I still their Wendy Bird they were there all the times they stopped my heart maybe the reason for it too I pingpong the aisles at the Last Bookstore wait for the calm to kick in search out every iteration of sunset
on stage singing grief for each of my past selves in a room sparse with solitary men most nights I dull my pounding with tequila rocks lime another round with the Boys and the Gretsch never get paid to play drag myself home on unlit side streets past boxtop shrines stuffed with sweets and sticky rice in a dream I carry one of the Boys on my back through the Hollywood Farmers’ Market I buy peonies and small cabbages this is this not a dream this is
I gather the handwritten receipts from the mechanic they make a $3000 pile still my Buick bucks stalls it has no AC or heat no defrost have to roll down the windows in a storm the armrest gets streaked with grime drive out to Altadena for a job get $10/hr to survey places people want to film I size up other drivers wonder how they afford it I want my ass sliding on leather interior I want to see the inside of a stranger’s house wonder whether I’ll ever move
DRUMGETS A GLIMPSE
when I’m not onstage I get a job selling things I can’t understand to people I never see I finally go to the doctor he says I’m fine I just have anxiety need to eat more fiber he gives me a non-refillable prescription for Ativan and suppositories tells me buy Metamucil drink that every day I get regular lose a lot of memories start to need a bigger audience almost fight the bouncer after karaoke at the Blue Goose put the tinsel Xmas tree up with no gifts underneath
my boss is a Scorp/Sag cusp he wears tennis shoes nice jeans floral dress shirt top two buttons undone at the Xmas party he puts his hand btwn my legs when he bends down to kiss me hello brings me into his office for my 3‑month- review says he wants to give me a raise thinks I’m smart but not showing it seems like I don’t care I make hourly as much as his maids he tells me they’re stupid always putting things in the wrong place he tells me earn my raise
Tuesday afternoon I have a panic attack at an impromptu audition for a reality series that’s shooting upstairs from my office they like me for the part of Expert on a show about aliens visiting Earth I take a Valium walk around the block go to urgent care the nurse slaps adhesive electrodes to my chest unshaven shins she won’t give me Xanax she says I need a cardiologist when I tell her about the first time how they had to stop my heart
LET’S NOTWRESTLEMT. HEARTATTACK
it’s a catheter-based procedure they’ll make a slit in my leg thread a wire up my vein into my heart they’ll jack up my heart rate until the bad rhythm kicks in they’ll burn those pathways closed I’ll be sedated not asleep I’ll go home the same day never think about it again there are risks perforation stroke I lose my insurance in a week I say how soon can we do it how about in three days the doctor says I shake her hand and ask for one day off work
my first surgery is the day before Thanksgiving I don’t want Mom or Dad to come but they do in pre-op two nurses dryshave my groin joke about filming me talking candid in twilight sleep Dad gets ramen downtown after I’m fine everyone leaves I stain the hospital bed with blood the nurse changes my tampon I go home the same day the next day the Boys come over we drink Wild Turkey and I cook everyone proper dinner with pressure dressing
I can’t leave the city bc my Buick shuts off at every stoplight the record label with interest wants more demos I’m going to write a song a day so far I haven’t written one in months the only constants are always late with rent for the practice space phone bill groceries and fights I don’t remember picking up the Gretsch dampen its strings when someone walks by the Buick catches fire on the 5 the mechanic cuts out the catalytic converter puts in a pipe I keep driving
on my lunch break I talk to the head of the label he has me on speakerphone sitting on a marble memorial bench in Hollywood Forever pretending I can understand everything he says he has to say something to me he doesn’t want to be the stereotypical record label guy but he can’t pronounce all of our song names he loves frontwomen female drummers we talk for 36 minutes he says he will be out in LA later this month we should meet for coffee I wonder if he doesn’t drink
I can’t stop thinking about my heart my windowless office I get an hour off work to see a social worker at Kaiser she says I had no guidance I’ve been drinking that much since I was 16 I should stop playing music it seems too stressful go back to grad school get into debt like everyone else she doesn’t know what I can do with a degree in history I pick a handful of night jasmine on my walk home the only things I think about more than my heart are money the dying car how I don’t feel
the farthest I can run in the city is Teardrop Park where the view is El Chubasco Chinatown and a city disguised my body buzzes badly with want my heart leans out of tempo sometimes it’s inhalation sets it off sometimes the weather not enough water sometimes too much food not enough sometimes it’s being in bed with someone being in bed alone it’s extra beats an electrical problem not something I control what’s the chorus again
on Lou Reed’s birthday I watch porn on my phone in the bathroom before dinner with the Boys we bring our own booze I start to cry about Caetano Veloso in exile singing in English I walk home a man jerks off in a bush outside the corner liquor store eyes rolled back furious pumping I pass Jumbo’s where we went with the Boys for my 21st birthday me sitting close to the stage them sitting against the wall in the shadows beckoning me with dollar bills to give to the girls
Tuesdays are band practice Wednesdays are all night happy hour the bartendress with huge eyes and French braids makes me at least three tequila sodas I think about her naked sit outside on year-round-bougainvillea-shaded patio papier-mâché petals spiked vines I dim the lights in the bar’s pink bathroom take a picture of myself wish for someone to send it to walk home under graying skies one of the men outside 7–11 calls to me hey sloppy girlasks me for a blowjob
I need another surgery it’s forty-thousand dollars but it’s covered if I keep my job Mom comes and Gramma but Dad already had tickets to see John Doe only Mom has a panic attack on my futon so I drive us to Kaiser across the street from the big blue church that took all of Gramma’s money she holds my hand the nurses mistake her for my mom and me for 19 I’m awake again during the doctor says he found the problem he says my heart tricked them last time
IT’S ALLBLOOMINGNOWMT. HEARTATTACK
sometimes I think I like Los Angeles I go downtown to see Television with the Boys walk through a heist scene that doesn’t stop rolling Tom Verlaine gestures to Venus in the western sky I’m in love with all my friends climax in the shower to Roy Orbison falling I’m falling falling in love with heartbeat throb dream one of the Boys has me in public press the wooden spoon handle against myself in my galley kitchen while the rice cooks on the stove
the label doesn’t want to sign us I get weepy at the bar with the Boys I let down my love for the city but I only know one kind it’s killing me sometimes I feel very sad I tell the Boys that the same session band played on every American pop hit of the ’60s no one knows their names I start to lose momentum trust practice sincerity in the bathroom mirror ask for my memories back erased or otherwise find myself among scattered palm fronds and street roaches on the edge of Santa Monica
the doctor says another surgery would risk perforation my heart has two pacemakers sometimes the false one gets the rhythm the real one gets a break after I leave the city I can’t stop dancing at the least appropriate times I come back to the city but don’t make it past Mulholland I stand on a borrowed balcony over behind-the-scenes streets without sidewalks so close to all my landmarks I can taste lemongrass tripas and tarna can see my beating the score is swelling
there is no way to see a city I can’t be anymore at the junction of thickly-traveled boulevards a city invariably comes into existence I dream washing machine amps rubbery guitar strings mics with no input I let myself go slack the tempo evens out I wear the skinniest tuxedo I can find put on lipstick in the hospital bed I allow a place to tame me a heavy quiet settles around me I don’t know what to do with it don’t know how to allow myself this pace worry where will my voice be if not a stage
grief for me for the part on a dream for somersault phantom sparse with sweets and drums CONSIDER! DIFFERENT! FADING! SYSTEMS! turn my past selves into a chair into a bed they tear off my past selves in a dream I can’t stop drinking that’s shooting upstairs from my Tuesday afternoon I have a panic attach leads reality series that’s shooting in my heart CONSIDER! DIFFERENT! FADING! SYSTEMS! are risks perforation stroke I lose pathways clothes attack to grad school get into debt like Xanax CONSIDER! DIFFERENT! FADING! SYSTEMS! closed I’ll burn those pathways I’ll be sedated I’ll go home the stereotypical record label against my body seizes my beats relax the label has me for one of the Boys on my back CONSIDER! DIFFERENT! FADING! SYSTEMS! he doesn’t want to be again in Hollywood Forever pretending he loves from my body CONSIDER! DIFFERENT! FADING! SYSTEMS! when I sit up they tear off my time I tell her hand and ask for a condition with sweets stuffed with the Boys most nights CONSIDER! DIFFERENT! FADING! SYSTEMS! my clothes attack at an impromptu audition stroke I lose my insurance and they do it can we do it how about they do it CONSIDER! DIFFERENT! FADING! SYSTEMS! fatal or just the Boys on my lunch break I think to my unshaven shitty codependence on the bed I’ve been drinking about aliens visiting Earth I think about LA later another handful go back stressful go back through the Hollywood Farmers’ Market for years no one can say how soon can we be the Gretsch never time how soon can we talk to grad school get double-bass beats ready a 16-gauge needle they’ll make me a slit in a week I say CONSIDER! DIFFERENT! FADING! SYSTEMS! some assurance I’ve been drinking never anything never false stage singing grief CONSIDER! DIFFERENT! FADING! SYSTEMS! never false stage singing grief CONSIDER! DIFFERENT! FADING! SYSTEMS! never false stage singing grief never false stage singing grief never false stage singing grief never false never false never false oh you drum oh you drum my drum my drum my drum
this contains lyrics/references from the following: Drum’s Not Dead – the Liars ““Falling”” – Roy Orbison ““I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times”” – the Beach Boys ““The Strength of Strings”” – Gene Clark Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies card deck
From the writer
:: Account ::
Between 2010 and the present, I’ve lived with an arrythmia called AV-Nodal Reentrant Tachycardia, caused by a congenital heart issue. I’ve had spotty health insurance, multiple doctors, and two surgeries.
Throughout this time, I was the lead singer of a band in Los Angeles. I worked a shitty 9–5, while practicing, recording, and playing shows regularly. I drank a lot. I was in a fiercely codependent, mutually destructive relationship with the guitar player in the band.
Most of this piece comes from diary entries I made on my lunch breaks in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery which was right down the street from where I worked. Soon after the guitar player and I broke up and I moved out of Los Angeles, he made me a playlist based on our relationship. The last song on it was the Liars’ “The Other Side of Mt. Heart Attack,” from their 2006 album, Drum’s Not Dead. We had a poster from the album hanging in our East Hollywood apartment, but I hadn’t revisited the album in years. When I write, I tend to listen to a single song on repeat for hours, inducing a kind of time-transcending trance state, which is what I did with this song/piece.
After finishing it, I found that the concerns of this piece were very much in conversation with the album. As the band said at the album’s release, it explores the tension between two fictional characters, Drum, “assertive and productive, the spirit of creative confidence,” and Mount Heart Attack, ” the embodiment of stress and self-doubt.” The connection seemed obvious. Even on a literal level—my body has two pacemakers; the album has two drum kits.
I’ve struggled with the correct form for this content. It ends up somewhere between a lyric essay and a narrative long poem. It’s both a love letter and a break-up letter to my favorite city. It’s an attempt to recount and reconcile one of the most dark/difficult and also fun/exciting times in my life.
Tasia Trevino is a writer and musician from California’s Central Coast. Her poems have/will appear(ed) in Fence, Prelude, Yalobusha Review, Dream Pop Press, and Poets.org. She has an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop where she was awarded two Maytag Fellowships and the 2018 Academy of American Poets’ Prize. More at tasiatrevino.com.
Strange what you remember. When I think of my mother the first thing I think of is her feet, her flat duck feet, with their bunions and calluses and size-whatever complaints; with their deep bottom crisscross lines, like dry rivers, lining every which way, as if to tell her fortune. Not that her feet were immediately-looking odd or outsized, only that in her youth she’d tried, like a Cinderella sister, to squeeze them into shoes that didn’t fit, shoes on sale or that had some special claim to beauty. At least this was her story. It was the Depression, she’d say, as if poverty had anything to do with it, which, as I imagine the subtlety of poverty, its depravations and denials, may be partly true.
As she got older her feet took on further distortion—they didn’t seem to belong to the nice legs and mother body above them. They’d sometimes look attached, from another time, peasant feet, field-worker from a painting. I’m probably exaggerating, but they seemed, at times, to trod rather than simply walk the ground. And it’s not as if she didn’t try to correct the disparity, so that the different thing is the degree to which she cared for them: the salt baths, the medicinal creams, the delicate foot files, the inserts to shoes, the high heels relieved with flats.
At home, cooking, doing laundry or housework, she wore slippers that fit like old gloves, which is to say she might as well have been barefoot, except for the fact that the slipper tended to slap the floor while her feet on their own were silent. Once a week she saw what she called her foot doctor, Dr. Schucutt—Shoe-Cut, I called him. I met him once, waiting in the waiting room. He was small and bent a bit—from bending over to perform his examinations, I thought, like a shoe salesman or a cobbler. My mother looked forward to these visits, both because they gave her some relief and because—now that I think about it—they were sensual experiences: the little surgeries, the hand-handling, the ministering of medicines, the mere intimate attentions, the feet as something utterly personal.
I have my mother’s feet, pancake feet. Our feet, after all, are the platforms of our being and the first parts of our bodies the ancients paid caring and public attention to, especially in welcoming visitors. Think of the thousands of years and the millions of miles that our feet have carried us on the footpaths and across the thresholds. No wonder we’ve anointed them with oil and blessed their travel, though it’s unlikely that my mother, on her best day, could have covered a walking mile.
Yet those feet were the most human part of her, the most vulnerable and reassuring. As a small child I loved touching them, particularly the calluses, which were, in imagination, like Grandpappy Lyn’s wen—ugly, otherworldly, magical. I think there were moments when she too loved those feet, loved them the way we come to accept our flaws as essential to our identities. I once compared the warmth and character of my mother’s feet to a “bricklayer’s hands,” and those hands, I realize now, are my father’s hands.
That’s the part of his body I remember most, those large hard hands, that could squeeze the juice from an apple. In his prime, my father was six feet, weighed 200 or so pounds, and had a thirty-two-inch waist. He had a laborer’s hands, almost as callused as my mother’s feet. To watch him with an axe or hammer, the way his right hand swallowed the handle, was to be impressed. To watch him lift a tray of bricks and carry it up a ladder or hold a shovel or move an anvil cradled between his arms, his hands in fists…
When he stopped working in the woods he turned to welding, mostly because by then we’d left Virginia for Ohio, and left nature for industry, though the farmer in him never left him. Perhaps he saw some artistry in drawing a seam of soft hot metal in order to heal a rift. He looked ominous in the welder’s mask, though at both French Oil and Dupps he was soon promoted out of the welder’s chair and mask to foreman.
Some of my happiest times with him were helping him build our half-built house and watching him use those hands. For him it was an after-work and weekend job, for me an after-school fantasy. I was nine. He had two workmen from work to fill out with the extras, cheap labor for the least skilled of the digging of foundations and measuring off of rooms and mixing hod and generally holding things together. I sort of carried bits and pieces and stayed out of the way and played the spy. The three of them poured the concrete floors, but it was my father who laid the brick and leveled its flat-face surfaces and angles, sometimes better than other times.
It was my father who shaped the shape of the roof, his big raw hands handling the two-by-sixes as if they were mere lumber, which, of course they were—the helper workmen at each end of the longer pieces, just like those years ago in the woods. We were always working against the clock, which is to say the weather, since our work hours were always up against sunset and the rain and, finally, the snow. The first year the house was enough of a shell we could work inside on walls and windows and doors, none of which seemed quite right, as if my father’s hands lacked the subtlety of the square.
The thing is that my father was a sober house-builder, then a drunk after dark, when he would disappear—as far as I knew—until the next morning, usually late for his regular foreman’s job. He finally lost his position at French Oil for being late at least a hundred too many times, but by then we’d pretty well closed on finishing our half-finished house.
It sat in the countryside on Garbry Road just outside Piqua, Ohio, practically in the middle of a cornfield. It ultimately turned out to be a small farmhouse, with an added small barn and a couple of outbuildings. When I’d come back summer from college I’d find different additions and combinations of domesticity that might include a couple of useless horses, a donkey, chickens, a half-dozen white-faced Herefords, a pen of youngish pigs, whatever. My father always wept sending off the cattle to slaughter. And he seemed just as close to tears each evening talking to his pigs, whom he petted on their pink heads with great care with his great hands.
From the writer
:: Account ::
by David Baker
“Extremities” is a remarkable piece of prose, of remembrance, in the manner of a compressed memoir. It will appear in Stanley Plumly’s posthumous volume, Middle Distance, in August of 2020 (W.W. Norton), and is one of four such prose works in this book of lyric poetry and richness. The present account is a little unusual, since Stan isn’t writing it. I am working with Michael Collier, as we assist Margaret Plumly with Stan’s literary matters, and I am honored to have this chance to say a word about “Extremities.”
What I can account for here, indeed, is the beauty and lapidary precision of the piece. Much like Stan’s poems, this work is sharply focused in its representation of detail—for his mother, her feet; for his father, his hands. Synecdoche is the portrait painter’s not-so-secret secret: let a part speak or stand, as it were, for the personality of the whole person. So here is his mother, standing on her own two feet, standing up to work, standing firm as caretaker for the family. Stan’s early poem from Summer Celestial, “My Mother’s Feet,” is a beautiful family forebear to this half of “Extremities,” which is about love and pain and the easing of pain for the ones we love.
Notice how deftly the metaphor of his mother’s feet, “like a bricklayer’s hands” in that earlier poem, becomes a link to his father, who was indeed at times a bricklayer—and a woodturner, lumberman, welder, and (like Whitman) a housebuilder. He had hard hands, Stan says, hands hardened by so much work but capable of affection, petting the pink heads of those pigs.
A homemaker and a housebuilder, his mother and father, both makers. And they were both dear to Stan, as the tenderness and precision of this piece attests. Memory is what we carry forward of the facts of our lives. It seems to select us as much as we select what to recall, and in “Extremities” Stan creates—as well as recreates—an indelible double portrait of his parents. He is still their dutiful son, two of whose duties have been rapt attention and unmatched stylistic skill. Makers must run in that family.
Stanley Plumly published 10 highly influential books of poetry during his lifetime, as well as four important works of prose on the Romantic poets and painters. His posthumous collection of new poetry and lyric prose, Middle Distance, will appear in August 2020 from W. W. Norton. He was Distinguished University Professor of English at the University of Maryland at the time of his death in April 2019.
And it was always our season of peril: Electricity, the peril the wind sings to in the wires on a gray day.
—Janet Frame, Faces in the Water
“Mamma, how was I born?” My four-year-old son asks. He leans against me, one hand around my arm, another on his die-cast Volkswagen Beetle. I put down the bedtime book and glean my mind—recall my son as a squalling bundle, his fists blue-gray as storm clouds.
“You were so small that I felt like I wasn’t holding anything at all,” I began. “When I saw you, I knew that I loved you.” My son giggles, buries his dark head in my lap.
“Keep on reading, beautiful Mamma,” he says, turning the page.
That night, I dream of giving birth to my son. I’m walking in an open field and I’m struck by lightning. Our hearts course with current and he comes surging out of me, singed with fire.
While in the maternity ward, I was entangled in mind-numbing depression. I barely ate and spoke. When I opened my mouth, garbled weeping poured out. I lay paralyzed in the hospital bed, my mind swarming with darkness. Shadows eased tendrils over bedsheets. Blackened iris roots clawed upwards from the linoleum tile.
With the psychiatric medications, the images of the woman swaying from a doorframe and the devoured infant faded into shadowy lattices, then into vapor. Finally, I could hold my son, marvel at his lightness, the arch of his back, his milk-scented cheeks. As he drew draught after draught from the bottle, I gazed down at him, he up at me. Sunlight hemmed us together, silence broken by morning chorus outside the bedroom window.
But now, three years later, the shadows are back again. They flutter around the edges of curtains like moths. While my husband sleeps, I look beyond the boundaries of the backyard, deep into the woods. Pines rake at the winter moon. The gate is unlatched and swings loosely on its hinges. Like a pale arm, it motions to the icy river.
At daybreak, my son rushes into my room and leaps into bed. “You need a hug,” he says. For months my body has been aching, pleading for rest. I drag myself from bed, stumble across the chilly floor. With leaden hands, I heap a bowl full of yogurt for my son. It’s been a week and a half since I’ve showered. I plow my hands through my hair and change my underwear and bra. “Stupid,” I tell the reflection in the mirror. Its feral eyes dart back and forth.
“I’m fine,” I tell my husband. Tears course down my face.
“No, you’re not,” my husband says. When he had returned home, the living room was littered with toys. My son had been watching television for hours. I was sprawled weeping on the bed.
My husband riffles through the pages of the Emergency Mental Health Plan that we’d created. “We have to do something,” he says. I look at my hands, slow spreading of creases, lightning ingrained in flesh—the flesh spiraling down into darkness. I dig into my palm with my nails.
In my dreams, my son is captured by a beast with a million tentacles. While I slash and scream, the beast squeezes tighter and tighter—my son bulges, blackens. He bursts into ash and is swept away by the wind. Weeping, I search for him, gather soot into my arms. I wake up screaming.
My husband, son, and I finally move in with my parents. We lock up our house and leave the front lights on. We pull out of the driveway. I look back. The house wavers, forest bristling with snow. The river stirs, ice grinds along its shale bank—fractured teeth in a black jaw.
Every morning after my husband leaves for work, my mother eases me out of bed. She coaxes me to pull on my left sock, then right. She shows me how to brush my hair and teeth. She places a cup of tea and a bowl of broth in front of me. “Sip,” she says. “Swallow,” she says. “Again,” she says. While my son bounds in the snow, she rocks me as I weep.
Even at my parents’ house, there are days when I can’t get out of bed. I listen to my mother clanging pots in the kitchen downstairs, to the pad-pad of my son’s feet up to my bedroom. “Tell me a story, Mamma,” my son says, hoisting himself up onto the bed. I can barely lift my head from the pillow. He cups his hands around my face, and gazes at me, waiting. I close my eyes again.
“The monsters have stolen my car. You won’t find it,” my son says. His face, pale and solemn. “These monsters have lots of legs. They can squeeze through pipes and go down into the basement.” We find the Volkswagen Beetle smudged and dented, wedged between air vent and desk. “See,” my son says, cradling his car, “they’re everywhere.”
Before tucking him into bed, I tell my son: “There’s a dark forest. In the center of it is a monster with many tentacles. It tries to eat a tree full of baby animals. When you hear the babies screaming, you run into the forest. You’re afraid, but you have a crystal sword. You plunge the sword into the monster’s eye, and it runs away—never to be seen again.”
Burrowing into the comforter, my son smiles. “Tell me another, Mamma,” he says.
One morning, I’m awakened by the tap-tap of ice thawing from the house’s eaves. My son bursts into my room. He wraps his small arms around my neck, nuzzles me. “Are you here forever, momma?” he asks. “Yes—forever,” I say. Light dislodges, glimmers through my body.
The wisteria has finally bloomed, nodding its golden head in time to song sparrows. As I wash and dry the dishes, my son plays near my feet with his Volkswagen Beetle. I tell my mother about the new poems I’ve written, the soup recipes I’d like to try, how my son has grown two inches. She smiles at me, sunlight glossing her graying hair, dark eyes. “It’s almost time for you to go home,” she says, embracing me.
When I come outside to garden the Saturday of my family’s return, my neighbor comes to greet me. “I haven’t seen any of you for four months,” he says. “I thought I would have to call the cops.” Despite my husband’s weekend attempts at lawn maintenance, our home stands in five inches of wild grass, the garden beds choked with weeds. While my son steers his cars in and out of the shriveled tulips, I stab the weeder into roots of dandelion. I fill four yard-waste bags and lug them to the curb.
At night, my wrists and back crackle with pain. I stand at the window again, stare deep into the woods. The moon shines down into the whorl of darkness, down to the river bed. The white stone path and gate pulse with fireflies. I slip into bed next to my husband. I kiss his stubbled cheeks until he rouses; then I take him into my arms.
I pile the shopping cart high with daylily, begonia, and peony bulbs. I’ve selected each one for their hearty blooms, generous foliage. Anything, I think, to keep the weeds from coming up again.
In the cool morning, I empty the bulb packages into dirt with my son. I show him how to plant each bulb upright, lightly cover them all with topsoil. When I unwrap the peony bulbs, my son breaks into giggles. “Look!” he says. “Monsters!” He kisses their gnarled, trailing roots. When we plant them, he sprinkles them with soil and pats them with his small hand.
“How are you doing?” my mother asks. Adjusting the phone, I watch my son run his Beetle over and around my lap. I run my fingers through his hair, making furrow after furrow. His sweet baby scent, giving way to the fragrance of earth and sweat—the wind distilling. “I’m fine,” I say.
I pause from weeding garden beds and look up into the tree line. The tips of pines hiss and crackle under a sheen of static—the garbled voices almost comprehensible. I plunge the trowel deeper, earthworms and pill bugs squirming up from cresting soil. Under my hand, the darkness pulses. Beside me, my son scoops earth into his tin pail, tracing the flower beds his hands. He pets the inky shoots, saying, “Listen—can you hear them sing?”
From the writer
:: Account ::
Before I wrote creative nonfiction, I was a poet. I decided to approach my experiences with illness through the lyric essay because the form allows me to create a sustained narrative. I use my training as a poet to hone tone, rhythm, and conciseness of language. Writing poetry has also helped me incorporate strong imagery in my creative nonfiction pieces like “Surge.”
“Surge” is part of a four-part series that explores my experiences in motherhood, mental illness, and electroconvulsive therapy. After giving birth to my son, I fell into a deep postpartum depression, which was compounded by my existing mental health issues. This essay describes a period of reprieve, when my depression improved. At the same time, “Surge” foreshadows my hospitalization and ECT treatments a few short months later.
In “Surge,” the monsters and earth play a vital role in describing the mother-child relationship. I rely on magical realism to create an environment where myth becomes truth, power, and healing. Readers are encouraged to take leaps in imagination, to fill those gaps with their own voices.
A Kundiman Fellow and Soaring Gardens Resident, Sayuri Ayers is a native of Columbus, Ohio. Her prose and poetry have appeared in Entropy, SWWIM, Hobart, The Pinch, and other literary journals. She is the author of two chapbooks: Radish Legs, Duck Feet (Green Bottle Press, 2016) and Mother/Wound (forthcoming from Full/Crescent Press). Her lyric essay manuscript, Beast-Mother, was a finalist in the Paper Nautilus’ 2019 Vella Chapbook Competition. She has also received grants from the Ohio Arts Council, Greater Columbus Arts Council, and VSA Ohio. Please visit her at sayuriayers.com.
Claire tells you not to worry, she’d just been making tea. Sarah’s hair falls limply, just past her shoulders, like a sheet of cloth. Liv recites Mayakovsky in a chapel, scattering the night with each unsteady line. Claire sends pictures of her burned palms. Liv smirks at your wide-eyed reverence, says your favorite line compares the stars in the sky to flecks of spit. Sarah sits with arms unspooled, gaze pinned firmly on some distant place. She doesn’t squirm or look away when the teacher lobs a question at her, only shrugs, and that’s that. Sarah—oh, Sarah. You’re nobody but she’s untouched, untouchable. You start to construct a mythology around her: all the kids falling away from her like the sea at low tide, her eyes flickering, how the flame never dies.
You weren’t meant to be frail, you and Claire; as high schoolers you’d netted one grim victory after another, unstoppable, an A here and an accolade there. Displayed such promise, had so little time to feel. Or maybe you’d gotten it all wrong, reversed the direction of causality. Maybe numbness came first and ambition simply followed; ambition, your only rampart in a shapeless world. The thought plagues you like a phantom pain. Claire, guarded but not unkind. Liv, brash but achingly earnest. Sarah, pliant and unafraid. Hadn’t you sensed it all those years ago? It’s always the brittle that break.
You orbit Sarah warily at recess, too proud for overtures. The heat is unremitting. A record high, the anchormen say. All the other kids take turns on the wooden slide, its rollers clacking like your mother’s abacus. You kick pebbles around, waiting for the heat to break. But Sarah, she’s something else. Sits cross-legged in the shade, lacing and unlacing the web of yarn between her hands. Sometimes she glances up, quickly, and begins anew. She’s performing for someone, you realize. She’s performing for you. One day you gather your courage and walk up to the ledge on which she’s perched. What is that?
Her gaze flicks to the yarn and then your face. Cat’s cradle, she finally replies, words clipped and clear. Want to play? And so it goes: passing the loop of string back and forth day after day, your small, bony fingers colliding with hers. At first you barely talk. You’re afraid of saying the wrong thing, offending her as yet unknown sensibilities, and so you smile, shyly, whenever your eyes meet. Her first real words to you are an accusation. Why are you here?
Why? Dumbstruck, you find yourself echoing her words.
I can see you looking over at them during recess. After class, too. Her words are matter-of-fact and devoid of contempt. You want to join in when they make their jokes; you open your mouth but never speak.
It’s… You grope for the right words. I don’t know. They go too fast—you cut yourself off, look at her imploringly. She stares, refusing to fill in your blanks. I don’t know, you parrot, painfully aware of the verbal tic cluttering your speech. It’s just that, by the time I think of something clever, they’ve already started on another topic. So I’m always too late.
She shoots you an indecipherable look. In that agonizing moment, it dawns on you that Sarah does not, will not, cannot understand, Sarah with her self-reconciliation and infinite tranquility. How do you do it? You want to ask. How do you stop caring so much all the time? But then she’s saying it’s okay, it’s okay, and you’re exhaling shakily, feeling inexplicably lighter.
Sarah is not the humorless girl you thought she was. Your admission strips her of that artificial gravity and you’re girls again, impish and fun. You start taking the bus to her house after school, spend hours in her basement playing make-believe. Yesterday you were sophisticated French girls in a Parisian cafe, sipping wine and nibbling macarons. Tomorrow you’ll be wealthy heiresses, the day after pensive paupers. Sometimes, for no reason at all, you look at her and feel a strange constriction in your chest. Years later, when you start to notice boys, you will call this longing.
You play duets, too, she on the saxophone and you on the flute, middling at best alone, downright terrible together. When you tire of the cacophony, you clamber up the stairs and collaborate on a fantasy novel which becomes more elaborate with each passing week. Your parents, dismissive at first, start to peer over your shoulders. When they read the first draft, a sheaf of papers one-hundred-odd pages long, they exchange glances. Not bad, they say. Not bad at all. Suddenly the parents, both yours and hers, are invested in your partnership. They talk over the possibilities at the dinner table and on the phone. Sarah’s aunt works in the publishing business; her mother said it might be worth a shot to send it over, see what they make of it. Or: the girls could be excellent bridge partners—I’ve never seen two people so in sync. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. It is the summer of 2009. Everyone speaks in hypotheticals, but it all seems so inevitable. And then she’s gone.
The tests results have come back normal; the gastroenterologist found no cause for your abdominal pain. In other words, you have a clean bill of health. Claire listens, impassive, as you relay this to her. Are you okay? She asks at last. For a moment you wonder if she heard anything you said, but then you understand. Yeah, thanks for asking. Your eyes burn a little. The truth is that you’re still afraid. You’ve amassed so much fear in the past few months—where can you set it down? And how can you be fine if the pain’s still there? But Claire doesn’t ask again.
The two of you sit in the parked car. You’re not quite sure why you’ve confided in her. You were partners in chem lab, then friends as a matter of course, but conversations had always revolved around exams and after-school clubs, carefully skirting the red zone of your interiorities. You think back to that thawing between you and Sarah, how it had been precipitated by one disclosure, and feel a spark of hope. But your premonition is wrong. You continue to pass each other in the halls, wave, and move onto the next class; continue to quiz each other on limits and synecdoches; continue to labor tirelessly over homework and grades. And so the days pass.
Livia calls your name in a girlish voice, names her bike for you. You have her in your contacts as colorblind and conscientious, a jab at her rigid black-and-white sense of morality. She stoops to pick up litter mid-curse, mocks your terrible sense of direction but defends you viciously. Those who’ve handled you like shards of broken glass all your life gape in amazement. Sometimes she pelts her words with too much force, but you never parry. Before, you think, you were untouchable. It was a lonely thing to be. You know Livia’s a real one when you ask her for a picture and she drops to the pavement in the flaming Beijing heat. Won’t let you forget it either. Remember, I’d burn my knees for you, she says, and you know it’s true.
You haven’t talked to Sarah in years. She becomes a symbol of your childhood happiness, a standard against which all others are measured and found wanting. When you’re sad, you trace the long course of your friendship to its very end: cat’s cradle, the novel, fighting to the point of laughter, laughing to the point of tears, all those summers playing tag, long legs scissoring in flight and hands outstretched, shameless excuse to touch and be touched, that quickening of possibility, the U‑Haul on her driveway, the solemn goodbye, first love, the hardest break.
Claire attends college one thousand miles away. In spite of the physical distance, or perhaps because of it, the distance between you has collapsed. You send songs to each other when words fail; over the months, the concatenated lyrics write a kind of shared history. You tell her about whittling down the hours in a local bookstore, slipping through unlocked campus buildings at night, how the burning in your gut had eased and then vanished altogether. She talks often about being sad; you make all the right noises but seldom worry. The girl is indestructible. Livia, on the other hand, always seems to be on the cusp of splintering. She agonizes over hypotheticals, spams your phone five, ten, twenty times at once.
“I don’t know” becomes your trademark refrain. Of course you have your ideas, but you think of omission as a form of mercy. Easy to forfeit your opinion instead of subjecting it to Livia’s anxious dissection. Hard to stand by mutely as she cuts herself, over and over, on the serrated edge of hope. And yet the alternative is unthinkable. I don’t know, you say when she asks if he’d ever cared. I don’t know. You’ve seen the type, earnest but oh so careless, the type for whom tenderness does not equate to love. If you were a better friend you’d warn her, perhaps. But you don’t know for sure. And, more selfishly: you can’t risk her shooting the messenger, can’t lose your best and dearest friend. It scares you how much you need her. Circling each other on the dance floor, how she pushes the hair from her eyes, her face irradiated by strobe lights streaming down like rain. And then you reach for each other’s hands, two school children playing Ring Around the Rosie, spinning, pocket full of posies, light and sound and time sinking into the ecstatic dark, dismantling you in the best way, ashes, ashes, a continuous descent, but you never fall.
It’s over. Heartbroken, Livia wants to put her head in your lap. Sometimes you recoil violently, wonder what it is you’re so afraid of. Other times you acquiesce, pull her in almost violently, whisper the words to a poem you’d once read: I wish I could cut off your pain like hair (but all I really want to do is comb it). You know this is a prosaic pain, one she will emerge from largely unscathed, but you ache with a peculiar tenderness. A few days from now, Claire will scald her hands and call it an accident. You’ll phone Livia, try to beat back the shock waves with questions for which she has no answer. Why do I feel so strangely detached? Shouldn’t I feel more? Shouldn’t I feel less? How can words be so devastatingly impotent?
She’ll receive you, stuttering out your helplessness, as a priest at confession. In the span between your words, the truth you might never say: I needed you, Sarah. Was so, so alone before I met you, Claire. Thought myself unknowable till you knew me, Liv. How I care for you, and you, and you. You close your eyes, hear Livia’s shallow breathing over the line. You know I’d burn my knees for you, she says. You envy her this certainty. Imagine a camera flash, a white-faced Claire, a tub, the Beijing heat. Liv, you say. Liv. The words crack open the soundless night, more promise than revelation.
From the writer
:: Account ::
This piece is a retrospective on my girlhood. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the emotional toll of intimacy—not just the petty spats and well-worn rituals of adolescence (navigating first love and rift, envy, academic stress, the social turbulence of high school, etc.) but also the cost of caring, of taking on burdens that—once assumed—can never again be put down or forgotten; fear of codependency; that peculiar blurring between love and violence; and how, despite all this, there can be no other way of living.
Emily Yin is a junior studying computer science at Princeton University. Her writing has been recognized by the UK Poetry Society and the Alliance for Young Artists and Writers. She currently serves as a poetry editor at Nassau Literary Review. Her work is published in Indiana Review Online, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Pithead Chapel, decomP magazinE, and Connotation Press, among others.
In spite of all my efforts, the Doge’s trotters are fit to appear alongside the dwarves and amputees he brings out at court entertainments. There’s a gouty pouch on his left foot that resembles a sixth toe. No matter how I pumice and cauterize, his bunions resemble overripe figs.
“Pierino,” he sighs, “when I’m dead they’ll all gloat: ‘We sure squeezed the last drop out of Doge Grimani.’”
“Do not distress yourself, Most Serene Prince. I’ll prepare a chamomile poultice without delay.” (I might have to rethink those drawstring thongs—maybe invent some kind of toggle.)
Whenever I come up with a new treatment, the Doge pats my head and calls me his “clever young worthy,” which puts me on a rung just below his Persian wolfhounds. Most days he’s easily pleased—a tot of moscato, some rice and peas, relief from those cracked heels and jaundiced toenails, protection from his grasping wife.
Nowadays Her Ladyship has to be ferried around in a sedan chair by four portaseggette till she can walk unaided in her 27-inch cork-platforms—the latest fashion from Moorish Spain. Last week, two ladies-in-waiting came to me with overstretched ankles. “The Dogaressa sends us on bogus errands then fines us for tardiness,” Faustina whispered. “She’s got stumpy legs and a grimy yellow neck under that fancy ruff.” While I made up special heel padding, the ladies took turns swiveling on the fancy new stool with a moveable seat I won at dice.
At least the campaign to erect a statue of the Doge is going well. Guess all his well-placed election gifts didn’t hurt. A goccia a goccia s’incava la pietra. (Drop by drop one wears away the stone.) He was pleased with the long-toed corrective shoes I fashioned for his audience with the Persian Ambassador. I sewed a goatskin upper onto a leather sole, turned it inside out to conceal the seam. Unfortunately the old boy tripped while descending the Giants’ Staircase, the Dogaressa glaring at him from out of those pink slits.
When I learned the Dogaressa’s coronation will set the old boy back 144,000 ducats, I sent a message to Faustina. “Wouldn’t Her Serenity like a pair of winged platform sandals to complement her towering headdress?” I scraped bronze gilding off an old mirror and blended it with marble dust and sand to resemble wings. The soft padding conforms to the shape of the Dogaressa’s foot, but the genius part is the underlayer. Trace amounts of ground viper, dung, and mercury will slowly leach into her sensitive soles. She won’t be allemanding with her courtiers any time soon. Like we corn-cutters always say, “Pain comes on horseback but goes away on foot.”
I’d best nip over to Manin’s Print Shop before he gets to work on my calling card. My first choice was “Piero Cafisi: Expert in the Eradication of Painful Corns, Stone Bruising, and Cutaneous Excrescences,” but I’ve settled on “Renowned Specialist in Indelicate Foot Conditions.”
From the writer
:: Account ::
Three years ago I became fascinated with the Dogaressa, the Venetian Doge’s official spouse. Out of the thirty-five Dogaressas, I decided to research Dogaressa Morosina Morisini-Grimani, whose extravagant coronation was the last on record in Renaissance Venice. I wondered if she had any political influence.
Meanwhile, my husband and I booked a two-week getaway in New York City. Our guest house (according to their website) contained part of an Italian Renaissance library that once belonged to the Duke of Urbino. I got it in my head that the Duke of Urbino was Morosina Morosini’s husband. At the local reference library I photocopied floor plans of a 14th century ducal palace, including its elaborate ceiling medallion. When we finally checked into the House of the Redeemer, I rushed downstairs to the storied library clutching my photocopies. I gazed up at the vaulted ceiling only to discover that the medallions didn’t match. A historian later clarified that the library actually belonged to Federico da Montefeltro. My bad.
I abandoned my Dogaressa story and began to think about the lives of minions at the Venetian court. I reread Elizabeth Janeway’s Powers of the Weak: “a wise mistrust of the powerful and a willingness to exercise dissent” is necessary if the weak are to rule their own lives. I thought about gossip as a weapon of the weak. The fictional character of Piero Cafisi emerged after I read an orthotics brochure which said that “corn-cutters” predated podiatrists.
Anne McGouran’s stories and essays appear or are forthcoming in Cleaver, Cutbank, The Smart Set, Mslexia, Queen’s Quarterly, Orca, Switchgrass Review, and Gargoyle Magazine. She lives in Collingwood, Ontario where she has developed a fascination with ice huts and orchard ladders.