Three Works

Art / Doron Langberg

 

:: Three Works ::

 

 

 

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.

Three Poems

Poetry / Nance Van Winckel

:: Ding Her Children ::


 

:: He Bit ::

 

:: The Lad Who Went to the North Wind ::

 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

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.

from Her Scant State

Poetry / Barbara Tomash

:: from Her Scant State ::

          
          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, and my 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.

Volcanic Heat

Poetry / Adela Najarro

:: Volcanic Heat ::

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.

Lawn

Poetry / Alyse Knorr

:: Lawn ::

1. 
Thriving roses at Chautauqua, wilting 
desert here. I am trying to live, 
trying to keep alive 

2. 
two dozen plants, one cat, one human. 
Grass pokes through the beds 
but nothing in the bald patch. 

3. 
All I remember of Márquez
is the woman flying away. O porch
string lights, O motion sensor light, 

4. 
O mosquito candle light, O sun. 
O to purchase every detail 
of the Pinterest lawn, 

5. 
paint the accent doors ourselves. 
I remember, too, the ants eating
the baby, last of the family line. 

6.
Brush away the mulch, find the source, 
the root: let the water drip 
and accumulate. Not a downpour

7.
but a soft slow drench. My daughter
ripping up the yard layer by layer. 
Fistfuls of earth and grass blades,

8. 
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 Knorr is 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.

The Physics of Atmospheric Misogyny

Poetry / Kyla Jamieson

:: The Physics of Atmospheric Misogyny ::

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
Of lover-antagonist.
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
Inquiry mid-flight?
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.

Three Poems

Poetry / Maria Guzman

:: Kitchen Sink ::

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.

INSPIRATION

https://www.nga.gov/collection/art-object-page.1138.html

http://collection.nmwa.go.jp/en/P.1978–0004.html

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.

Three Poems

Poetry / Nathaniel Dolton-Thornton

 

:: Alopochen kervazoi ::

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
the egrets 
sacrificed to the pool



 

From the writer

 

:: Account ::

These poems are part of a long series on every recent­ly extinct species.

Alopochen ker­va­zoi

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.

Mas­careno­tus grucheti

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 cen­tu­ry.”

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

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.

Five Poems

Poetry / Kendra DeColo

:: Isn’t “Food Court” a Lovely Term ::

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

of sanctuary

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 sexism

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 

it’s crude 

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 

crowning

which means my body

concussed around her like a crown

which means

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

dried

and hissing

a dwelling

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

squeezing limes 
over everything

and Aretha
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 
of ghoulishness

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 

a benediction

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 

abandon

buckling toward joy

as I have fallen to my knees

in grief 

but have never known

what it sounds like

to sing without expecting

mercy

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.

Two Poems

Poetry / Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach

 

:: How to Survive a Heat Wave in Auschwitz ::

     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 
            like bone. 

     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 
            cropped out. 	

     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, California

Your 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 
                                                                                                                                                             Holocaust. 



 

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.

Ghaz­al Refus­ing to Name the Holo­caust

An arti­cle ini­tial­ly titled “97-Year-Old Holo­caust Sur­vivor among the 11 Killed in Syn­a­gogue Mass Shoot­ing” misiden­ti­fied one of the vic­tims, Rose, as a Holo­caust sur­vivor and has since been reti­tled, “Remem­ber­ing the 11 Slain in Syn­a­gogue Mas­sacre: ‘We’ve All Just Been Cry­ing End­less­ly.’

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.

Two Poems

Poetry / Garrett J. Brown

 

:: Manual Recall ::

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) [404] [Syn-
tax Error]
                    [Fail Whale]
          [NO CARRIER]
Again?          Sonavabitch	


 

 

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’s mazes 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.

Narcissus Poeticus: a Redundancy in Parts

Poetry / Shevaun Brannigan

:: Narcissus Poeticus: a Redundancy in Parts ::

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.

Two Poems

Poetry / Anne Barngrover

:: Ceres in the Red Tide ::

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

Criticism / McKinley E. Melton

:: “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 offi­cial trail­er

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 sug­gests that 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, Sil­ver Screen: 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.

Works Cit­ed

Alleyne, Lau­ren. Per­son­al Inter­view. 21 August 2019.

Ben­nett, Ani­ta. “‘When They See Us’ Watched By More Than 23 Mil­lion Net­flix Accounts World­wide.” Dead­line, 25 June 2019, www.deadline.com/2019/06/when-they-see-us-watched-by-more-than-23-million-netflix-accounts-worldwide-1202638036/.

Cobb, Jas­mine N. Pic­ture Free­dom: Remak­ing Black Visu­al­i­ty in the Ear­ly Nine­teenth Cen­tu­ry. NYU Press, 2015.

DuVer­nay, Ava, and Brad­ford Young. “Black Lives, Sil­ver Screen: Ava DuVer­nay and Brad­ford Young in Con­ver­sa­tion.” Aper­ture, No. 223, Sum­mer 2016, 34–41.

Har­ris, Ida. “Watch­ing When They See Us Is an Act of Social Jus­tice.” Black Enter­prise, 20 June 2019, www.blackenterprise.com/watching-when-they-see-us-is-an-act-of-social-justice/

Hart­man, Saidiya. Scenes of Sub­jec­tion: Ter­ror, Slav­ery, and Self-Mak­ing in Nine­teenth-Cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca. Oxford UP, 1997.

Ifeanyi, KC. “Opt­ing Out of Black Trau­ma: Why I Couldn’t Fin­ish When They See Us.” Fast Com­pa­ny, 31 May 2019, www.fastcompany.com/90356727/opting-out-of-black-trauma-why-i-couldnt-finish-when-they-see-us.

Lekach, Sasha. “Cri­sis Coun­selors Were on Set for ‘When They See Us’ Cast and Crew.” Mash­able, 1 June 2019, www.mashable.com/article/when-they-see-us-central-park-five-crisis-counseling/.

Net­flix. “When They See Us | Offi­cial Trail­er [HD] | Net­flix.” YouTube, 19 April 2019, www.youtube.com/watch?v=u3F9n_smGWY.

Par­mar, Sandeep. “Inter­view with Danez Smith.” The White Review, No. 22, June 2018, www.thewhitereview.org/feature/interview-danez-smith/.

Poet Gabriel Ramirez.” Neon Enter­tain­ment Book­ing Agency Cor­po­rate Col­lege Enter­tain­ment, www.neon-entertainment.com/poet-gabriel-ramirez/.

Ramirez, Gabriel. “About.” Gabriel Ramirez, www.ramirezpoet.com/about/

—. “Black Boy Audi­tions For His Own Funer­al.’” YouTube, uploaded by But­ton Poet­ry, 3 July 2019, www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZBnQbEUKfrs

Rudolf, Cedric. “Inter­view with Danez Smith.” The Fourth Riv­er, 31 Oct. 2017, www.thefourthriver.com/blog/2018/9/21/interview-with-danez-smith

Sayej, Nad­ja. “From ‘Claws’ to ‘When They See Us,’ Niecy Nash Won’t Stay in Her Lane.” Shon­da­land, 31 May 2019, www.shondaland.com/watch/a27612356/niecy-nash-when-they-see-us-interview.  

Smith, Danez. Black Movie. But­ton Poet­ry, 2015.

—. “Dinosaurs in the Hood.’” YouTube, uploaded by But­ton Poet­ry, 4 August. 2015, www.youtube.com/watch?v=nJwiOTeKDOQ.

Speak­er, Mary Austin. “Black Movie.” Rain Taxi, 14 Sept. 2016, www.raintaxi.com/black-movie.

Stew­art, Jacque­line N. Migrat­ing to the Movies: Cin­e­ma and Black Urban Moder­ni­ty. U of Cal­i­for­nia Press, 2005.

Strause, Jack­ie. “Ava DuVernay’s ‘Cen­tral Park Five’ Net­flix Lim­it­ed Series Gets New Title, Pre­miere Date.” The Hol­ly­wood Reporter, 1 March 2019, www.hollywoodreporter.com/live-feed/ava-duvernay-central-park-five-netflix-miniseries-new-title-premiere-date-1191659.

Ulen, Eisa Nefer­tari. “Why I Can’t Bring Myself to Watch ‘When They See Us.’” Truthout, 12 June 2019, www.truthout.org/articles/why-i-cant-bring-myself-to-watch-when-they-see-us/.

Warfield, Zeno­bia Jef­fries. “‘When They See Us’ Is Trig­ger­ing. That’s Why You Should Watch It.” YES! Mag­a­zine, 5 June 2019, www.yesmagazine.org/peace-justice/netflix-when-they-see-us-ava-duvernay-central-park-five-20190605

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 Other Side of Mt. Heart Attack

Nonfiction / Tasia Trevino

 

:: The Other Side of Mt. Heart Attack ::

A VISIT FROM DRUM

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

 

 

 

BE QUIET MT. HEART ATTACK!

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

 

 

 

DRUM GETS 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 NOT WRESTLE MT. HEART ATTACK

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  

 

 

 

TO HOLD YOU, DRUM

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

 

 

 

YOU, DRUM

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 girl asks 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 ALL BLOOMING NOW MT. HEART ATTACK

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

 

 

 

THE OTHER SIDE OF MT. HEART ATTACK

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

CONSIDER! 
DIFFERENT! 
FADING! 
SYSTEMS!

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

 

acknowl­edg­ments

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.

Extremities

Nonfiction / Stanley Plumly

:: Extremities ::

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. 

Surge

Nonfiction / Sayuri Ayers

:: Surge ::

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

All My Girls

Fiction / Emily Yin

 

:: All My Girls ::

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.

Venice, 1595

Fiction / Anne McGouran

 

:: Venice, 1595 ::

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.