The Right to Be Beautiful

Criticism / Mimi Thi Nguyen

:: The Right to Be Beautiful ::

1.

Accord­ing to the Inter­na­tion­al Cam­paign to Ban Land­mines, Cam­bo­dia remains one of the states most affect­ed by mines and explo­sive rem­nants of war. Many of the mines are still undet­o­nat­ed from the last century’s not-cold wars in South­east Asia, in which the Unit­ed States played a sig­nif­i­cant part in dev­as­ta­tion and dis­able­ment through­out the late 1960s and 1970s. U.S. actions inside Cam­bo­di­an bor­ders began years before the secret car­pet-bomb­ing that accom­pa­nied Pres­i­dent Richard Nixon’s “Viet­namiza­tion” of the war. The U.S. con­duct­ed secret pro­grams with Spe­cial Forces per­son­nel in Cam­bo­dia, whose pri­ma­ry activ­i­ties (over near­ly 2,000 mis­sions) includ­ed lay­ing “san­i­tized self-destruct antiper­son­nel” mines well beyond the Viet­namese bor­der (Kier­nan 18). Dur­ing the Viet­namese occu­pa­tion, which oust­ed the Khmer Rouge from the cap­i­tal, a bar­ri­er mine­field was laid along the entire length of the Cam­bo­dia-Thai­land bor­der where the Khmer Rouge had retreat­ed to its rur­al strong­holds. In the fol­low­ing decade, Khmer Rouge and Monar­chist oppo­si­tion forces used land­mines to pro­tect new­ly won ground or to con­t­a­m­i­nate the inte­ri­or of aban­doned Viet­namese defen­sive posi­tions. By the time of the 1991 Paris Peace Accords end­ing the civ­il war, and the 1993 procla­ma­tion of the Cam­bo­di­an con­sti­tu­tion, a mas­sive non-gov­ern­men­tal infra­struc­ture had been estab­lished, sup­port­ed in large part by for­eign aid. (Cam­bo­dia boasts the sec­ond high­est num­ber of NGOs per capi­ta after Rwan­da) (Domash­ne­va). Yet the wars haunt the present, as the Cam­bo­di­an Mine Action Cen­tre esti­mates the num­ber of unex­plod­ed land­mines and oth­er ord­nance to be as high as 5 to 6 mil­lion. Despite defus­ing cam­paigns, these mines kill hun­dreds of Cam­bo­di­ans every year, and at least 40,000 Cam­bo­di­ans are amputees (Htun 172).

In 2009, Nor­we­gian art provo­ca­teur and self-described “direc­tor, actor, artist” Morten Traavik, fund­ed in part by the Nor­we­gian Min­istry of For­eign Affairs, sought to hold a sec­ond Miss Land­mine beau­ty pageant for women and girls who had lost limbs in land­mine explo­sions, this time in Cam­bo­dia. (The first pageant was held in Ango­la in 2008.) [i] With the assis­tance of the Cam­bo­di­an Dis­abled People’s Orga­ni­za­tion (CDPO), twen­ty prospec­tive par­tic­i­pants were iden­ti­fied among those already tak­ing part in reha­bil­i­ta­tion pro­grams. The Miss Land­mine man­i­festo claimed to engen­der “female pride and empow­er­ment” in pur­suit of a pol­i­tics of “becom­ing vis­i­ble” (“Man­i­festo” 1), ren­der­ing cog­nizance of undet­o­nat­ed land­mines through their vio­lent inscrip­tion on amputees, and award­ing a prize of a cus­tom-fit­ted pros­thet­ic limb as well as a sculpt­ed gold­en leg. Con­tes­tants were select­ed from each of Cambodia’s provinces, made over in col­or­ful, casu­al jer­sey dress­es and make­up, and then pho­tographed and filmed for a doc­u­men­tary. Miss Land­mine also pro­duced a pic­to­r­i­al mag­a­zine, fea­tur­ing the twen­ty amputee con­tes­tants pos­ing before tum­bled tem­ples and lush green­ery; on beau­ti­ful beach­es and sail­boats; and inside mod­ern lux­u­ry homes—by a tiled pool, atop a mahogany bar. Though the Cam­bo­di­an gov­ern­ment ini­tial­ly sup­port­ed the pageant, gov­ern­ment offi­cials abrupt­ly refused to allow the pageant to pro­ceed, days before the actu­al con­test was to unfold, cit­ing con­cerns about exploita­tion. In lieu of a pageant, Miss Land­mine allowed online vot­ing, stag­ing a finale-in-exile event in Nor­way where the local Cam­bo­di­an com­mu­ni­ty also vot­ed on life-size ver­sions of con­tes­tants’ pho­tographs car­ried down a red car­pet run­way. In Decem­ber 2010, Traavik trav­eled back to Cam­bo­dia in stealth—a trip also cap­tured by a film crew—to fit pageant win­ner 19-year-old Dos Sopheap from Bat­tam­bang Province with a pros­thet­ic leg and award her $1,000 (USD) (Miss Land­mine).

2.

I am writ­ing about the promise of beau­ty, rang­ing from beau­ti­ful objects, per­sons, or scenes, which might hold out to us real or ide­al pos­si­bil­i­ties such as roman­tic love, spir­i­tu­al tran­scen­dence, eco­nom­ic mobil­i­ty, or polit­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion. Mine is a minor his­to­ri­og­ra­phy of a con­cept of beau­ty as an imper­a­tive dis­course, one that deter­mines what con­di­tions are nec­es­sary to live, what forms of life are worth liv­ing, and what actions must fol­low to pre­serve, secure, or repli­cate such con­di­tions and forms—and their con­se­quences.

I am par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ed in encoun­ters in which depri­va­tion and vio­lence, cri­sis and vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty, might be laid bare where threats to (what we iden­ti­fy as) beau­ti­ful objects, per­sons, and even life-worlds are mobi­lized in our nar­ra­tive or aes­thet­ic con­struc­tions. But while a thing of beau­ty might describe the lim­its of a struc­ture or prac­tice, because such a struc­ture or prac­tice can­not sus­tain beau­ty, the promise of beau­ty can also recruit con­trol or inter­fer­ence on beauty’s behalf. That is, the promise of beau­ty can engen­der a cri­tique of social arrange­ments and polit­i­cal struc­tures and also call for the reor­ga­ni­za­tion of arrange­ments and struc­tures in our promise to beau­ty and all it is made to stand for—such as free­dom, truth, sov­er­eign­ty, and life itself.

3.

It is easy to be struck by the pho­tographs of the Cam­bo­di­an con­tes­tants, col­lect­ed in the bilin­gual pic­to­r­i­al mag­a­zine pub­lished by Miss Land­mine. Here the hall­marks of por­trai­ture are used to both human­ize and indi­vid­u­al­ize, cou­pled with the the­atri­cal­ized tableaux of fash­ion pho­tog­ra­phy, encom­pass­ing both lux­u­ry and lush­ness (“Miss Land­mine Mag­a­zine” 3–67). The con­tes­tants are clothed in Amer­i­can Appar­el (a com­pa­ny as famous for their non-sweat labor as for their body polic­ing and sex­u­al harass­ment suits), and in these pho­tographs the women expose bare arms, legs, and their absence, play with long loos­ened hair, and smile (if at times awk­ward­ly) at the cam­era. One of these pho­tographs fea­tures a beau­ti­ful young woman (the even­tu­al pageant win­ner) hold­ing a sil­ver plas­tic ray gun above her shoul­der (36). In oth­ers, con­tes­tants cra­dle a gold­en leg in their arms (3, 17), not quite an imi­ta­tion or repli­ca­tion of the lost object but a totem of a promise for it.

The the­atri­cal aspect of beau­ty sug­gests its fun­da­men­tal­ly social char­ac­ter, its impor­tance as a scene through which a person’s rela­tions to his­to­ry, the present, the future, and her­self are per­formed. Beau­ty brings togeth­er seem­ing­ly incom­men­su­rate things, from implic­it invest­ments in eco­nom­ic or polit­i­cal forms to dreams incul­cat­ed in the after­math of col­lec­tive and per­son­al dev­as­ta­tion. There are a num­ber of sto­ries that unfold from these pho­tographs, not least among them the famil­iar fem­i­niza­tion of human­i­tar­i­an aes­thet­ics that fore­grounds vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty, and a cura­tive ther­a­peu­tics (includ­ing the prag­mat­ics of med­i­cine and bio­engi­neer­ing) that aims to trans­form dis­abil­i­ty, con­comi­tant with anoth­er sto­ry about lost beau­ty and its restora­tion. Here beau­ty comes into view as a con­cep­tu­al wedge through which mur­der­ous struc­tures of rad­i­cal unmak­ing are super­seded by an ide­al con­cept of beau­ty as sub­jec­tiviza­tion, as the repair and revi­tal­iza­tion of an inte­ri­or life. Through­out the Miss Land­mine doc­u­men­tary (dir. Stan Fein­gold, 2010), each con­tes­tant is nar­rat­ed as endur­ing mul­ti­ple forms of cap­ture and alien­ation that impede her life chances, most obvi­ous­ly the bomb blast, after which each contestant’s body—boundaries, organs, limbs—is no longer her own. Fur­ther­more, the same cat­a­stroph­ic event that desub­jec­ti­fies also degen­ders. [ii] The land­mine is the con­spic­u­ous cul­prit for their failed fem­i­nini­ties, described as an over­whelm­ing obsta­cle to roman­tic love and thus for­ward momen­tum. Its vio­lence then is deeply cor­po­re­al, and also pro­found­ly psy­chic; it seizes them in this nar­ra­tion in the moment of the blast.

So there is in these pho­tographs the hope for repair that the pros­thet­ic leg promises—replacing the low­er limb (the limbs most often lost to mines) that is so cru­cial to loco­mo­tion, but also secur­ing sur­plus val­ue as aes­thet­ic plen­ti­tude and social mobil­i­ty: the pageant win­ner might now be more employ­able, for instance, or roman­ti­cal­ly desir­able. But the cat­e­go­ry of the beau­ti­ful also comes (in this sto­ry) to coun­ter­act the dead­en­ing alien­ation the pageant con­tes­tant expe­ri­ences due to the land­mine and the con­di­tions that exac­er­bate her loss. As Hen­ry-Jacques Strik­er observes, war ren­ders per­son­hood vio­lent­ly par­tial in body and also mind: “The maimed per­son is some­one miss­ing some­thing” (123). (We can of course argue about the val­u­a­tion of absence here, but for now let us observe that vio­lent dis­able­ment as a con­se­quence of war is a rad­i­cal alter­ation.) So it is that the promise of beau­ty pre­sum­ably returns her to her­self, ren­der­ing her dam­aged body through a ther­a­peu­tic idiom of plea­sure and pres­ence, pro­vid­ing to the bomb­ing vic­tim a sen­su­al, vital expe­ri­ence of the link­age between her­self and the world. [iii]

In the mate­ri­als gen­er­at­ed by the pageant, each Miss Land­mine con­tes­tant pro­file ren­ders her suf­fer­ing as sin­gu­lar while con­nect­ing her long­ing for beau­ty, social­i­ty, and roman­tic love to a human uni­ver­sal­i­ty. The project’s slo­gan promis­es, “Every­one has the right to be beau­ti­ful,” which right the pageant pre­sum­ably restores to her. To demon­strate such long­ing, how­ev­er, the amputee is oblig­ed to dis­play her dis­abil­i­ty, and her failed fem­i­nin­i­ty, in order to lay claim to such inte­ri­or­i­ty and then to the (promise of the) pros­thet­ic device itself. (Because not all pain can be under­stood as a sign of the human, some trau­ma, some long­ing for some­thing more than, must be present for pain to be under­stood as a pos­ses­sive inte­ri­or­i­ty.) This desire is actu­al­ly pic­tured in those pho­tographs that fea­ture con­tes­tants cradling the gold­en leg that stands in for the also-vis­i­ble lost limb—while the cus­tom-fit pros­thet­ic promis­es loco­mo­tion, even ele­gant per­fec­tion. The attach­ment to beau­ty becomes an attach­ment to so much more; or as Rachel Bloul argues, “[The Miss Land­mine con­tes­tants] had the beau­ty of resilience, of courage and enough spir­it to make the most of what they have been dealt with. How could one not per­ceive their indi­vid­ual hero­ism, reach­ing beyond pain and social rejec­tion, and fight­ing to make them­selves a life as women?” (15).

4.

Notably, no one or no state in par­tic­u­lar is impli­cat­ed in the Miss Land­mine pageant. [iv] The U.S. wars in South­east Asia through which the gift of free­dom unfold­ed, includ­ing the bomb­ing cam­paigns in Cam­bo­dia, are absent from this scene. [v] Nonethe­less, they res­onate still, and not just as landmines—those cam­paigns now inform a Depart­ment of Jus­tice white paper for the jus­ti­fi­ca­tion of tar­get­ed assas­si­na­tions as “nec­es­sary and appro­pri­ate” force in areas out­side of des­ig­nat­ed war zones. [vi]

But this is not to say that there is no con­ti­nu­ity between lib­er­al war and lib­er­al peace. This scop­ic regime—what Rey Chow calls “the age of the world target”—names the knowl­edge struc­tures that con­ceive the world simul­ta­ne­ous­ly as an object of per­fectible knowl­edge and a tar­get for tech­no­log­i­cal­ly inno­v­a­tive war. We know that war and vision, and vio­lence and knowl­edge, share affini­ties, thus mak­ing it pos­si­ble to bomb, to pic­ture, and even to repair at once (Chow 36). (After the uses of antibi­otics pre­vent­ed many sol­diers and civil­ians from dying of their wartime injuries, tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tions in repar­a­tive surg­eries, new mate­ri­als sci­ence, and pros­thet­ics engi­neer­ing fol­lowed. ) Or as Caren Kaplan put it, about these divi­sions that struc­ture per­cep­tion and also pre­car­i­ty, “Leg­i­bil­i­ty cre­ates tar­gets as well as safe­ty zones” (Kaplan 69). These insights ren­der explic­it the binds between inter­ced­ing subjects—militaries and human­i­tar­i­ans, for instance, which we know are close collaborators—and the objects they encounter in their simul­ta­ne­ous, con­verg­ing fields of vision, dichotomized accord­ing to what Chow calls “the ‘eye’ and the ‘tar­get’” (36). These pho­tographs of bombed beau­ty con­tes­tants that envi­sion wartime dam­age, and the tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tions that repair such dam­age, are thus con­tigu­ous with regimes of recon­nais­sance, which laid those mines in the first instance, but are nowhere men­tioned in the mate­ri­als for the Miss Land­mine pageant.

Look­ing at these pho­tographs, some share with me a sense of vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty, found in the way a con­tes­tant might ten­der­ly cra­dle the gold­en leg in her arms. This is the struc­ture of what some oth­ers call beau­ti­ful suf­fer­ing. [vii] But not all par­ties under­stood the pageant as the res­cue of beau­ty, includ­ing the Cam­bo­di­an gov­ern­ment offi­cials who wor­ried about the pos­si­ble exploita­tion of land­mine sur­vivors (though the nature of the accu­sa­tion — because all the con­tes­tants are women, or dis­abled? because of the invo­ca­tion of beau­ty, a triv­ial matter?–is unclear). These pho­tographs are also indict­ed as the eroti­ciza­tion of pain and the eroti­ciza­tion of dis­abil­i­ty, espe­cial­ly its vis­i­ble rev­e­la­tion, which itself has a long his­to­ry. [viii] For still oth­ers, these pho­tographs appear to fail to cap­ture the depth or breadth of a human life, and it seems that if any decent plea­sure is to be derived from view­ing a beau­ty pageant pho­to­graph of a Cam­bo­di­an land­mine sur­vivor in jer­sey dress and a tiara, it must be the fris­son of dis­cern­ing agency in the sub­ject of the image—to per­ceive no agency there at all is to then par­tic­i­pate in her exploita­tion, in the porno­graph­ic.

But the desire to see that the woman in the pho­to­graph is non-duped, that she pos­es with the sil­ver plas­tic ray gun know­ing full well the inter­pre­ta­tive breadth of this the­atri­cal tableaux, would mean that we too are non-duped by the oth­er­wise opaque sur­face of the image—that we can see trans­par­ent­ly past the sur­face of the pho­to­graph to its depth, that we can yet become lost in the eyes of a stranger with­out reca­pit­u­lat­ing a map of the world as tar­get.

5.

Miss Land­mine (the doc­u­men­tary, the pageant, the pro­gram) ends with the vir­tu­os­i­ty of the pros­thet­ic device and the impact on the user, win­ner Sopheap, who tes­ti­fies that her par­tic­i­pa­tion has won her friends, and hap­pi­ness. Or as a Nation­al Geo­graph­ic essay on Cambodia’s “heal­ing fields” nar­rates this scene, “To the tear­ful clap­ping of her fam­i­ly, Sopheap is tak­ing her new tita­ni­um pros­the­sis for a test run around their dirt front yard, scat­ter­ing the ducks and chick­ens. As befits a beau­ty queen, she is wear­ing a floun­cy, peach-col­ored dress lit up like a rose by the set­ting sun. Her twin sis­ters hang on to each arm as she walks stiffly in cir­cles, and her moth­er weeps” (Jenk­ins par. 22).

Here, at the con­gru­ence of bomb and beau­ty, the tech­no­log­i­cal per­fec­tion that lib­er­al war demands (“smart” bombs) is cou­pled with the tech­no­log­i­cal per­fec­tion that lib­er­al peace promis­es. Both cut into a bio­log­i­cal field, in the name of life itself. And, like the gift of free­dom, this nar­ra­tion of med­ical and psy­cho­log­i­cal normalization—and as well an edu­ca­tion in beauty—is made pos­si­ble through the arrival of tech­nolo­gies to Cam­bo­dia from the future that is the now of oth­er places. Such faith in the pros­thet­ic device estab­lish­es that vis­i­ble labors—to ren­der beau­ti­ful through reha­bil­i­ta­tion and whole­ness, to redesign the body as inte­gral once again—will also repair an individual’s inte­ri­or life, but that such labors are pos­si­ble only through forms of inter­fer­ence that come from anoth­er. In this telling, the repar­a­tive prop­er­ties of a pageant tiara and a tita­ni­um pros­thet­ic limb are col­lo­cat­ed with those struc­tures that allow beau­ty to flour­ish, that guar­an­tee plen­ti­tude through con­vivi­al­i­ty, to mod­er­ate the dam­age of her bomb­ing. Her moth­er, Nation­al Geo­graph­ic wit­ness­es, is grate­ful that Sopheap now can wear jeans like the oth­er girls (Jenk­ins par. 25). On this ten­der and trou­bling note, we find that beau­ty can impli­cate mul­ti­ple realms of knowl­edge (sci­en­tif­ic and moral, among oth­ers), as well as stir­ring emo­tions, triv­ial details, and “minor” events, bring­ing togeth­er grand ges­tures and every­day gov­er­nance through its promise.

It is easy to say that beau­ty is mere­ly symp­to­matic of some oth­er thing, such as racisms and their forms of gen­der; that the pres­ence or absence of beau­ty is a sec­ond-order obser­va­tion that is a mere jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for oth­er pol­i­tics, whether con­quest or coup. To con­sid­er beau­ty as triv­ial is to insist upon a return to a deep­er con­di­tion beneath a numb­ing, noisy dis­trac­tion that impedes our per­cep­tion of the sta­bil­i­ty of the real. But much might be lost in dis­pens­ing with (what is dis­missed as) mere orna­ment, or sub­tract­ing from the sur­face, because beau­ty might nonethe­less cap­ture time and move­ment, or the span and breadth of a life; might pro­vide a struc­ture of intel­li­gi­bil­i­ty or a his­tor­i­cal sen­so­ri­um to focus our atten­tion upon those structures—dispossession, war, capital—that fold some beings into life and oth­ers into death. It is as such that a con­cept of beau­ty might sus­tain both a philo­soph­i­cal state­ment about an expe­ri­ence of the world, but also sets of social prac­tices for the devel­op­ment of capac­i­ties, such as the edu­ca­tion of desire, and struc­tures of feel­ing, such as dig­ni­ty or resilience, that nonethe­less com­prise a will to sub­jec­tiv­i­ty by another’s pow­er. If the capac­i­ty to per­ceive and also embody beau­ty are thus tied to ideas about ontol­ogy and epis­te­mol­o­gy, we can observe that encoun­ters with beau­ty (its pres­ence or absence) have force, shap­ing per­sons into sub­jects and cre­at­ing the con­tours of what is intel­li­gi­ble, per­cep­ti­ble, and sen­si­ble about our worlds. We can con­sid­er beau­ty after Michel Fou­cault as “a ques­tion of tech­niques for max­i­miz­ing life” (123), inas­much as beau­ty might take the dis­cern­ing forms of an imper­a­tive to live, and the capac­i­ties and prac­tices to do so. What I am call­ing then the promise of beau­ty is about the con­di­tions beau­ty requires to flour­ish, with and against the threat of its dis­ap­pear­ance or destruc­tion, and about the trans­for­ma­tion of those con­di­tions to sus­tain such life that the beau­ti­ful promis­es to us.

 

I’ve been lucky enough to engage audi­ences in gen­er­ous and gen­er­a­tive con­ver­sa­tion with this work-in-progress at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Texas, Austin; the Cana­di­an Asso­ci­a­tion of Cul­tur­al Stud­ies; the Amer­i­can Stud­ies Asso­ci­a­tion; North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty; Lewis and Clark Col­lege; Vas­sar Uni­ver­si­ty; the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan, Ann Arbor; the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ari­zona, Tus­con; and George Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­si­ty. Thanks are also owed to Aman­da Dyke­ma for gen­tle nudges and supe­ri­or edit­ing, and to The Account for host­ing me here.

 


[i] The human­i­tar­i­an NGO Nor­we­gian People’s Aid is a key play­er in dem­i­ning cam­paigns around the world, includ­ing Cam­bo­dia.

[ii] See Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe.”

[iii] In anoth­er exam­ple from recent wars, con­sid­er the chain of asso­ci­a­tions brought togeth­er after a reporter’s obser­va­tion about depres­sion and sui­cide, about dis­in­te­grat­ing self­hood, under the Tal­iban before Unit­ed States occu­pa­tion: “Those [women who] sur­vived relied on the only things they had left, their self-respect and their abil­i­ty to main­tain what dig­ni­ty they could by mak­ing them­selves beau­ti­ful” (Reed 469).

[iv] Morten Travvik com­ments on these pho­tographs, “What do I see when I look at the pic­tures of Miss Land­mine con­tes­tants? I see true beau­ty. I see beau­ti­ful women who are proud, dig­ni­fied, and com­fort­able with who they are. And that strong, feel-good fac­tor is all the while under­mined by the trag­ic and quite hor­ri­ble back-sto­ries of muti­la­tion and war that inevitably stays with a land­mine sur­vivor. It is a pic­ture of ambi­gu­i­ty, but where the forces of life pre­vail” (quot­ed in Bloul 8).

[v] The gift of free­dom is the fre­quent name for the both famil­iar and strange ways in which lib­er­al empire mar­shals its pow­ers for and against oth­ers and else­wheres. As I argue in The Gift of Free­dom, an attach­ment to free­dom is foun­da­tion­al to liberalism’s claim to a height­ened atten­tion to freedom’s pres­ence or lapse, an atten­tion that there­by con­tin­u­al­ly com­mits free peo­ples to sus­tain or man­u­fac­ture its pres­ence—often­times, for an oth­er who must be made to desire it. See Nguyen, The Gift of Free­dom.

[vi] This is an excerpt from this recent­ly released white paper: “The Depart­ment has not found any author­i­ty for the propo­si­tion that when one of the par­ties to an armed con­flict plans and exe­cutes oper­a­tions from a base in a new nation, an oper­a­tion to engage the ene­my in that loca­tion can­not be part of the orig­i­nal armed con­flict, and thus sub­ject to the laws of war gov­ern­ing that con­flict, unless the hos­til­i­ties become suf­fi­cient­ly intense and pro­tract­ed in the new loca­tion. That does not appear to be the rule of the his­tor­i­cal prac­tice, for instance, even in a tra­di­tion­al inter­na­tion­al con­flict. See John R. Steven­son, Legal Advis­er, Depart­ment of State, Unit­ed States Mil­i­tary Action in Cam­bo­dia: Ques­tions of Inter­na­tion­al Law, Address before the Ham­marskjold Forum of the Asso­ci­a­tion of the Bar of the City of New York (May 28,1970)… (argu­ing that in an inter­na­tion­al armed con­flict, if a neu­tral state has been unable for any rea­son to pre­vent vio­la­tions of its neu­tral­i­ty by the troops of one bel­liger­ent using its ter­ri­to­ry as a base of oper­a­tions, the oth­er bel­liger­ent has his­tor­i­cal­ly been jus­ti­fied in attack­ing those ene­my forces in that state)” (“020413 DOJ White Paper” I par. 5).

[vii] See Rein­hardt et al., Beau­ti­ful Suf­fer­ing.

[viii] See Smith, “The Vul­ner­a­ble Artic­u­late.”

 

Works Cit­ed

020413 DOJ White Paper.” Wikipedia. 2015. Web. 18 Octo­ber 2015.

Bloul, Rachel. “Ain’t I a woman? Female land­mine sur­vivors’ beau­ty pageants and the ethics of star­ing.” Social Iden­ti­ties: Jour­nal for the Study of Race, Nation, and Cul­ture 18.1 (2012): 3–18. Print.

Chow, Rey. The Age of the World Tar­get: Self-Ref­er­en­tial­i­ty in War, The­o­ry, and Com­par­a­tive Work. Durham, NC: Duke Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2006. Print.

Domash­ne­va, Hele­na. “NGOS in Cam­bo­dia: It’s Com­pli­cat­ed.” The Diplo­mat. http://thediplomat.com/2013/12/ngos-in-cambodia-its-complicated/. 23 June 2015.

Fou­cault, Michel. The His­to­ry of Sex­u­al­i­ty, Vol. 1: An Intro­duc­tion. Trans. Robert Hur­ley. New York: Vin­tage, 1990. Print.  

Htun, Nay. “Land­mines Pro­long Con­flicts and Impede Socioe­co­nom­ic Devel­op­ment.” In Land­mines and Human Secu­ri­ty: Inter­na­tion­al Pol­i­tics and War’s Hid­den Lega­cy, eds. Richard A. Matthew, Bryan McDon­ald, and Ken­neth R. Ruther­ford. Albany: State Uni­ver­si­ty of New York Press, 2004. 169–178.

Jenk­ins, Mark. “Cambodia’s Heal­ing Fields.” Nation­al Geo­graph­ic. Jan­u­ary 2012. Web. 18 Octo­ber 2015.

Man­i­festo.” Miss Land­mine Cam­bo­dia 2009. 2009. Web. 18 Octo­ber 2015.

Miss Land­mine. Dir. Stan J. Fein­gold. Cine­flex Pro­duc­tions, 2010. DVD.

Miss Land­mine Mag­a­zine: Land­mine Survivor’s Fash­ion — Cam­bo­dia 2009.” Miss Land­mine Cam­bo­dia 2009. 2009. Web. 18 Octo­ber 2015. http://miss-landmine.org/cambodia/tl_files/misslandmine/pdf/Miss_Landmine_Cambodia_lores.pdf

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

Kaplan, Caren. “Desert Wars: Vir­ilio and the Lim­its of ‘Gen­uine Knowl­edge.’” Vir­ilio and Visu­al Cul­ture. Eds. John Armitage and Ryan Bish­op. Edin­burgh: Edin­burgh Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2013. 69–85. Print.

Kier­nan, Ben. The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Pow­er, and Geno­cide in Cam­bo­dia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975–79 (Third Ed.). New Haven: Yale Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2008.

Reed, Julia. “Extreme Makeover.” Vogue (Novem­ber 2003): 464–472. Print.

Rein­hardt, Mark, Hol­ly Edwards, and Eri­na Duganne, eds. Beau­ti­ful Suf­fer­ing: Pho­tog­ra­phy and the Traf­fic in Pain. Chica­go: Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go Press, 2007. Print.

Smith, Mar­quad. “The Vul­ner­a­ble Artic­u­late: James Gilling­ham, Aimee Mullins, and Matthew Bar­ney.” The Pros­thet­ic Impulse: From a Posthu­man Present to a Bio­cul­tur­al Future. Eds. Mar­quad Smith and Joanne Mora. Boston: MIT Press, 2007. 43–72. Print.

Spillers, Hort­ense. “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An Amer­i­can Gram­mar Book.” Dia­crit­ics 17.2 (1987): 65–81. Print.

Stik­er, Hen­ry-Jacques. A His­to­ry of Dis­abil­i­ty. Trans. William Say­ers. Ann Arbor, MI: Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan Press, 2000. Print.

 

Mimi Thi Nguyen is Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor of Gen­der and Women’s Stud­ies and Asian Amer­i­can Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois, Urbana-Cham­paign. Her first book is The Gift of Free­dom: War, Debt, and Oth­er Refugee Pas­sages (Duke Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2012). Her fol­low­ing project is called The Promise of Beau­ty. She has also pub­lished in Signs, Cam­era Obscu­ra, Women & Per­for­mance, posi­tions, and Rad­i­cal His­to­ry Review.

 

Guest Crit­i­cism Edi­tor Aman­da Dyke­ma received her PhD in Eng­lish from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mary­land and is a Vis­it­ing Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor at Rhodes Col­lege. Her book project, Inap­pro­pri­ate Lit­er­a­tures: The Cul­tur­al Pol­i­tics of Racial­ized Pro­pri­ety, argues that the dis­ci­plin­ing of racial­ized sub­jects in an osten­si­bly pos­tra­cial Unit­ed States has been accom­plished by per­va­sive dis­cours­es of appro­pri­ate­ness. She recent­ly pub­lished “Embod­ied Knowl­edges: Synes­the­sia and the Archive in Monique Truong’s Bit­ter in the Mouth” in MELUS.

Art Can’t Love You Back

Nonfiction / Cole Cohen

:: Art Can’t Love You Back: A Visit to the Broad Museum and the Brooklyn Museum Visual Storage Center ::

I hes­i­tate to posi­tion myself as an art crit­ic, for a few rea­sons. First, crit­i­cism relies on a steely-eyed objec­tive sense that allows the view­er to engage beyond one’s emo­tion­al rea­son­ing, an objec­tive I’m about to lose by cop­ping to being loved back by art.  I think crit­i­cal­ly because I feel crit­i­cal­ly, my head and my heart one chimeric organ: I engage art crit­i­cal­ly large­ly because I feel deeply. The engine for my work is fueled by affect—make no mis­take about it. Sec­ond, crit­i­cism implies an author­i­ty over art that feels arti­fi­cial to me.  Although it would be more than fair to argue that I am shy­ing away from a cer­tain respon­si­bil­i­ty toward art,  I am most com­fort­able posi­tion­ing myself on shift­ing ter­ri­to­ry. To be untrust­wor­thy and ama­teur is my baili­wick.  It’s safe to say that my own issues with author­i­ty include my own rul­ing eye.

Like any rela­tion­ship, I have to acknowl­edge that I am locked in an eter­nal pow­er strug­gle with art. I look down at it as often as I look up to it, which is a dynam­ic essen­tial to my engage­ment. Naiveté is also a use­ful cov­er, though one that I’m about to blow by telling you that I went to art school (but real­ly, art school that makes me an author­i­ty on what? Drink­ing cheap wine from plas­tic tum­blers?). This stance also allows me to make mis­takes, and I love to make mis­takes. I also love to state my opin­ion as fact, though I don’t know if that makes a very bad crit­ic or a good one.

A few years ago, I attend­ed a lec­ture at UC San­ta Bar­bara by the philoso­pher Patri­cia Mac­Cor­ma­ck, in which she said, “Of course, the hard­est thing about art is that it can­not love you back.” Shocked, I real­ized in that moment that it had nev­er occurred to me that art can’t love me back. I’d always thought of my love of art as mutual—if not shared between the work on a wall or the pages of the book and me, than at least an affin­i­ty that ties me to the artist or the writer. I have felt “loved back” uncon­di­tion­al­ly over time, beyond death, by a stranger, acute­ly.

As an author most recent­ly of a mem­oir, I’ve expe­ri­enced the oth­er end, now. Strangers have called out to me over the bridge of a book, or at a read­ing, or via social media. Read­ers con­nect with a con­tain­er that is both me and not me, which is an out-of-body expe­ri­ence. I believe that my book can love read­ers back more read­i­ly than I can, as books have loved me back. Sure it’s sen­ti­men­tal of me to think so, but it’s a faith that con­tin­ues to shape me. I also don’t believe that sen­ti­men­tal­i­ty is a sop­py weak­ness. Maybe I feel this way because I came to writ­ing through poet­ry, a genre that exists, against all odds, to com­mu­ni­cate the inex­press­ible.

The Brook­lyn Museum’s Vis­i­ble Stor­age Study Cen­ter, a base­ment crammed full of the over­flow of the museum’s per­ma­nent col­lec­tion, stored in sev­er­al glass con­tain­ers, is more like your kooky aunt’s house than a muse­um collection—assuming that your aunt col­lects Tiffany lamps, Amer­i­can oil paint­ings from before 1945, and exam­ples of 1950s design. While the items stored togeth­er are gen­er­al­ly of the same era, the gen­er­al feel­ing is that of a glee­ful hoard­er who in an attempt to orga­nize, sim­ply places like with like. I couldn’t help but think back to a trip that I took to the Broad muse­um this past sum­mer when it opened. The dif­fer­ence between the Broad and The Visu­al Stor­age Study Cen­ter seems to me the dif­fer­ence between “Look how much stuff I have!” and “Look how much stuff there is!” Both are ware­house con­tain­ers for more art than can pos­si­bly be dis­played. You can’t take it with you, sure, but you also can’t show it to me if I don’t want to look, and boy do I want to look.

The cura­tion of Los Angeles’s new Broad Muse­um is approx­i­mate­ly chrono­log­i­cal, which is how I found myself sit­ting on a bench between the work of David Woj­narow­icz and Julian Schn­abel. Sit­ting in a hall between these two con­trast­ing mas­cu­line forces, a bright­ly col­laged and paint­ed piece about alien­ation in the face of the AIDS epi­dem­ic and a mas­sive can­vas of smashed plates and splat­tered paint, both hung here to rep­re­sent Amer­i­can art in 1986, I felt like I was shrink­ing away from a din­ner par­ty con­ver­sa­tion about to turn vio­lent. By remov­ing any con­text out­side of a time­line, these two paint­ings fac­ing off felt at best like a dark inside joke and at worst vague­ly cyn­i­cal. Chrono­log­i­cal cura­tion strips art of any oth­er social con­text by hang­ing the work in the fixed pres­ence of the past.

In a room near­by is a col­laged tapes­try of women, both naked and dressed, sur­round­ing Marx’s grave. Next to the tapes­try hang two body suits with car­toon­ish doo­dles of female bod­ies, huge breasts pop­ping out from under scrib­bled fish­net cross­hatch­es to be worn while loung­ing on the tapes­try. The name of the piece is Death to Marx­ism, Women of all Lands Unite by Gosh­ka Macu­ga. It’s just a short stroll from here to the room full of John Currin’s uncan­ny, swollen, peach-hued nymphs, but I con­fess to a sen­sa­tion of whiplash in leav­ing one overt­ly polit­i­cal fem­i­nist piece to con­front a room full of cheer­ful­ly alien char­ac­ter­i­za­tions of the female form.

My friend was felled by Robert Longo’s Unti­tled (Fer­gu­son Police, August 13, 2014), a large char­coal draw­ing of the grim sil­hou­ettes of police in riot gear pre­pared to meet the pro­tes­tors of Michael Brown’s killing in Fer­gu­son, Mis­souri. My friend sat with his head between his hands on a bench, not far from Ellen Gallagher’s series of col­lages made in part from smil­ing 1960s adver­tise­ments cut from mag­a­zines tar­get­ing an African Amer­i­can read­er­ship and request­ed to leave. When the core mes­sage of your col­lec­tion is “this all belongs to me but you can see it for free,” and it con­tains a draw­ing the size of half the wall depict­ing the recent tur­moil of oppressed peo­ple in your coun­try, it’s dif­fi­cult to escape the sen­sa­tion that what the Broad is say­ing is that what Eli Broad has real­ly col­lect­ed is your time. Not just your time look­ing at the col­lec­tion, but your era, encap­su­lat­ed. It’s love con­fused for pride, with­out any dis­tinc­tion. That scares the hell out of me.

Just a minute,” I said as I raced around the remain­ing rooms. I passed a room marked with the sign The Vis­i­tors, but I did not go in. Had I entered, I would have faced sev­er­al video screens, each show­ing a dif­fer­ent musi­cian in a dif­fer­ent room in a crum­bling man­sion. A drum­mer with his set in the kitchen, a gui­tarist in a leather chair in the study, a croon­er soak­ing in the tub in the bath­room, a cel­list in the liv­ing room, all singing the same song togeth­er. It occurred to me, watch­ing the video lat­er on YouTube, that this is who we are in the muse­um, all view­ers in dif­fer­ent rooms vibrat­ing at dif­fer­ing fre­quen­cies.

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

I’ve been think­ing a lot recent­ly about cura­tion, which seems to be every­where and mean every­thing late­ly, from how I orga­nize (or don’t) my clos­et to my cock­tail order. I’m also inter­est­ed in what hap­pens when sym­bols of sub­cul­tures are dis­played not as a secret hand­shake between obses­sives but instead as a game of one-upman­ship. In an age where selec­tiv­i­ty is the mark­er of con­sump­tion and spec­ta­tor­ship plays a grow­ing role in com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion, the author­i­ta­tive “secret knowl­edge” of the stew­ards of art has lost its poten­cy to any­one with a Google account. I don’t think that’s a bad thing; I’m not inter­est­ed in argu­ing against acces­si­bil­i­ty. I am, how­ev­er, inter­est­ed in what this means for any­one, from local branch librar­i­ans to pro­fes­sors, who hold a job that, by def­i­n­i­tion, relies on cus­to­di­an­ship and exper­tise.

This piece is also about art as the foun­da­tion of kin­ship, how pow­er­ful it still is to find a mem­ber of your tribe, some­one who loves the same artists and sees what you see. I went to the Broad with some­one who saw the muse­um as I saw it, as a place where the job of his­to­ry to syn­the­size and pro­vide con­text for events was imped­ed by the straight­for­ward lin­ing of every­thing up, chrono­log­i­cal­ly, mak­ing for strange bed­fel­lows and inat­ten­tion that felt inat­ten­tive and cyn­i­cal. If I hadn’t gone with a friend who saw what I saw in it, I would have left feel­ing even more gaslight­ed than I already did. I still think that art can love you back, and I think that in an infor­ma­tion-sat­u­rat­ed cul­ture, it still takes a cer­tain strain of yearn­ing to seek out what speaks to you and stand before it. The word “muse” orig­i­nal­ly meant to stand open-mouthed at the tem­ple, and for me, a vis­it to a muse­um has not lost that sense of awe.

 

Cole Cohen is the author of Head Case (Hen­ry Holt, 2015), a mem­oir con­cern­ing her rare neu­ro­log­i­cal con­di­tion. Her work has appeared in Vogue, The Atlantic, and The Huff­in­g­ton Post, and she is a con­tribut­ing writer for Entropy. She is work­ing on her sec­ond book, Hot Girls, about gen­der and gun vio­lence.

Another Year Older

Nonfiction / Jessi Terson

:: Another Year Older ::

On the morn­ing of my 30th birth­day, I left the apart­ment to buy a liter of whiskey. I opened the front door and hur­ried­ly stepped over an amor­phous brown splotch.

A few min­utes lat­er, I hauled my paper bag up the front steps. Only this time, I noticed the dead squir­rel smeared across the con­crete. One of the flies hov­er­ing over its body land­ed on my bare leg. After a few dry heaves, I remem­bered to close my eyes. I took out my keys and blind­ly fum­bled with the lock.

As soon as I man­aged to get inside, I quick­ly poured myself a shot. And then anoth­er. The floor, which had been pitch­ing back and forth like a tilt-a-whirl car­ni­val ride ever since I woke up, slow­ly evened out. For a moment I stood com­plete­ly still and let the whiskey burn a small cre­ma­to­ri­um in my mouth.

Final­ly, I took out my diary and sat down in the mid­dle of the kitchen floor. The page I want­ed, an entry from a few weeks ear­li­er, was already book­marked. For the last few days, I had been reread­ing it con­stant­ly. Reliv­ing that one morning’s first cup of cof­fee. The three missed phone calls from my moth­er. Then the moment when I signed onto Face­book to see if my friend Matt had com­ment­ed on my sta­tus. Instead, I found a sui­cide let­ter, along with a note from his par­ents inform­ing me of the upcom­ing memo­r­i­al ser­vice.

I took anoth­er sip of whiskey and let the burn slide down my throat. And then I flipped back through the pages of my diary—watching each year van­ish with a flick of my thumb. The din­ners Matt nev­er ate. The way he always apol­o­gized when­ev­er some­one bumped him on the train. The time he stared straight at the sun, as if it didn’t burn his eyes. I took out a pen and began to under­line the pas­sages where I should have seen the warn­ing signs: omens of my friend’s demise scrawled out in blar­ing red ink. As if my words were lit­tle scabs that had nev­er flaked off.

By the time my guests arrived for my birth­day par­ty, I was drunk enough to for­get about the dead squir­rel. Though not quite drunk enough to for­get that I could have seen Matt one last time before he killed him­self. A mutu­al friend had sug­gest­ed that I invite him out with us. But I hadn’t. Because, truth be told, I thought his con­stant sad­ness would be a drag.

I don’t remem­ber too much from the night of my birth­day. I know that I start­ed off wear­ing tights and lat­er yanked them off, bran­dish­ing them like a matador’s cape, dar­ing the dark smear of night­ly objects to knock me down. At some point, I mis­placed the ash­tray. So I let my friends ash in the palm of my hand. When I woke up, I spent an hour rins­ing out beer cans. I got down on my hands and my knees and scrubbed cake off the kitchen floor. But whether I actu­al­ly thought about turn­ing anoth­er year old­er, it’s hard to remem­ber.

A few weeks lat­er, I stared out the win­dow. A small, mun­dane act. Noth­ing worth recall­ing. Only, the room was very bare. A small cot and a kno­b­less chest of draw­ers. The space was door­less, so I could hear the occa­sion­al clipped scream from anoth­er room. Then the rus­tle of the nurs­es’ scrubs and the rat­tle of a vital signs cart being pushed down the hall­way.

Thick black bars inter­sect­ed the win­dow­panes and divid­ed my view of the sky into twelve sep­a­rate squares. A smudge of white fluff drift­ed past one square. And then anoth­er. For a sec­ond, the liq­uid droplets resem­bled noth­ing more than a splat­ter. A moment lat­er, the shape shift­ed to a small albi­no squir­rel, its body being dragged across the sky.

When the cloud van­ished from my win­dow, and there was noth­ing left to notice, I glanced down at my wrist. There wasn’t much to see there either. Only a faint white line. A bare­ly dis­cernible scratch. What could I say? I guess I didn’t real­ly want to die. Unlike Matt, I only want­ed a “near death” expe­ri­ence. To see a bright flash. Or hear the sky rever­ber­ate with tacky vio­lins. Maybe, like Orpheus, I thought I could bar­gain way my back once I had proved my remorse. But I nev­er saw the light. The clos­est I got to death was a dull ache. And a new pair of hos­pi­tal socks with the sticky white bumps on the bot­tom.

In the end, I missed two months of work and spent most of my time in an out-patient facil­i­ty with recov­er­ing drug addicts and pros­ti­tutes. Every Fri­day, the group ther­a­pist passed a buck­et of crayons around the room. We chose a few of our favorite col­ors and then wrote our goals for the week­end on a blank piece of paper. One time I wrote “Matt is dead.” When the ther­a­pist point­ed out that this was not, in fact, a goal, I took my black cray­on and vio­lent­ly scrib­bled over the words. Under­neath, in small, smug let­ters, I wrote, “Draw a black blob.” The fol­low­ing week, “Go to hell.” The week after that, “Col­lect all of my tears into a water gun and shoot peo­ple in the face.” At some point, one of the hero­in addicts burst out laugh­ing. “You know every­one dies, right? Get the fuck over it, Kid.”

Even­tu­al­ly, I left the out­pa­tient pro­gram and found a new job at a sand­wich shop. I spent most of my day cram­ming mounds of let­tuce on a BLT and watch­ing the avalanche of lit­tle green shreds crash over the bread crust. If I was feel­ing par­tic­u­lar­ly emp­ty, I might stiff some­one an extra squirt of may­on­naise, hop­ing the dis­ap­point­ment on their face might jolt my heart back into some rhythm of remorse.

At night, I’d come home to an emp­ty apart­ment. I’d pour myself anoth­er shot of whiskey, sit down in the mid­dle of the kitchen floor, and let the addict’s words rever­ber­ate in my ears. “Get the fuck over it. Get the fuck over it.” Stop scan­ning the crowds on the sub­way for Matt’s face. Stop tak­ing out my phone and reread­ing his last few text mes­sages. Stop star­ing at my joke of a scar. The last of sev­er­al half-assed attempts to reach out and find him. On his own terms. In his suf­fer­ing.

And now I sit on my back porch, drink­ing alone. As usu­al. And maybe it’s only because I’m not drunk enough yet, but I’m sud­den­ly con­scious of the fact that I’m turn­ing anoth­er year old­er and noth­ing has changed. My friend is still dead. My heart is still hollow—it’s thump as loud as a squir­rel walk­ing on glass.

Mean­while, each year pass­es more quick­ly than the last. As if the old­er I get, the faster the earth spins—like a child try­ing to make her­self dizzy. Before I know it, it will be next year. I’ll turn anoth­er year old­er and watch the straight-laced num­ber 1 col­lapse into a gan­gli­er, slop­pi­er 2. I’ll feel the floor tilt, and in a pan­ic, I’ll take off my tights and fran­ti­cal­ly wave them in the wind, hop­ing God, or at the very least, a voyeuris­tic alien race on a space­ship sus­pend­ed some­where in the stars, will see me. Because for some rea­son, I no longer know how to see myself.

Nor do I exact­ly know how to “Get the fuck over it.” Not real­ly. My exper­tise seems to end at slic­ing per­fect cir­cles of toma­toes. Or cut­ting a sand­wich into two sym­met­ri­cal halves. They’re not the mak­ings of a life. But they are the lit­tle cre­ations that fill each day. Things you can lat­er hold in your hands. Even when your insides are emp­ty.

And next year, when I turn thir­ty-two, I will look back at the last year and try to acknowl­edge the young woman sit­ting on her porch, dili­gent­ly plac­ing one word in front of anoth­er. As if they could form a path. As if there was some­thing to fol­low.

I take a moment to look up. Two squir­rels play a game of chase on the grass. A shape­less white gauze drifts across the sky. And it is only a cloud. I put the whiskey down and pick up my pen. One more word. And then anoth­er.

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

I began writ­ing this piece a year after one of my close friends com­mit­ted sui­cide. I have prob­a­bly writ­ten fifty ver­sions of this sto­ry. Some­times it ends up as a poem. Some­times it’s the first twen­ty pages of what will quick­ly become an aban­doned nov­el. If it was pos­si­ble to wave a mag­ic wand and make my pain sub­side, I’d prob­a­bly stop writ­ing about this par­tic­u­lar top­ic alto­geth­er. But no mat­ter how many birth­days seem to pass, noth­ing changes. The loss nev­er becomes some­thing I can artic­u­late. Or account for. So I keep writ­ing. Rear­rang­ing the words, the para­graphs, the page length.

In this par­tic­u­lar ver­sion of the sto­ry I chose to focus on my inabil­i­ty to recov­er. As one of my fel­low out­pa­tient par­tic­i­pants points out, “Every­one dies.” I am not the first per­son to have ever lost a close friend. Nor, of course, will this be the only per­son I ever lose. Even­tu­al­ly, I will lose every­one. But the guilt that comes with sur­viv­ing a sui­cide is its own par­tic­u­lar type of pain. Yes, every­one dies. But not every­one choos­es to for­sake the human expe­ri­ence. So in that way, I par­don myself slight­ly. And I give myself per­mis­sion to keep writ­ing this sto­ry, in all of its myr­i­ad of forms. Here is one of them.

 

Jes­si Ter­son’s poet­ry, per­son­al essays, and fic­tion have pre­vi­ous­ly appeared or are forth­com­ing in Rose­bud Mag­a­zine, Cleaver Mag­a­zine, Mad­hat Annu­al, The Los Ange­les Review, and Beloit Fic­tion Jour­nal. She grad­u­at­ed from Sarah Lawrence Col­lege with an MFA in poet­ry. She cur­rent­ly resides in Chica­go, Illi­nois.

The Interview

Fiction / Meghan Lamb

:: The Interview ::

She hears the cars pass, dis­tant­ly, a soft, con­sis­tent rhythm. She breathes through her nose. Her chest ris­es as they approach. She lets her breath release in time with each depar­ture. She is breath­ing as the high­way breathes, a set of cold, gray, con­crete lungs.

She is play­ing a game, lying by her­self, there, in her bed.

It is only a game in the sense that there are rules.

She needs rules, or else she’d be lying in bed, doing noth­ing.

She hates doing noth­ing, but she doesn’t know what to do.

The object of the game is just to lie as still as pos­si­ble. The object sounds much sim­pler than it is. Now, for exam­ple, drops of rain begin to tap against the win­dow, and she real­ly, real­ly, real­ly has to pee.

Rule #1: Keep your eyes closed.

Rule #2: Breathe slow, light breaths.

Rule #3: Lie on your back, legs straight, arms flat against your sides.

Rule #4: Lis­ten for all the dif­fer­ent sounds out­side the room.

Rule #5: Blend them inside your head until they merge into one sound.

She is allowed to use her mind in any way she needs as long as she’s not think­ing of her life, but using it to play the game. She reach­es out her men­tal spi­der­webs of soft­ly blink­ing ener­gy and gath­ers all the sounds that she is hear­ing.

The rain­drops tap­ping on the glass into the met­al pipes into the tun­neled chan­nels of the highway’s res­pi­ra­tion fun­nel­ing into her own, slow, even breath­ing, bursts of ten­drils in her mind, white noise she stirs into the vague direc­tion of these sounds.

She gath­ers all these sounds into a low, rever­ber­at­ing pres­sure, wraps it round her blad­der like a ghost­ly rib­bon made of thought. She breathes in and her blad­der twitch­es. She breathes out. Her blad­der hums. She breathes in deep. Her blad­der stiff­ens. She breathes out. Her blad­der moans.

Her stom­ach starts to growl. She tries to gath­er up this sound. Her stom­ach doesn’t lis­ten and a wisp of piss releas­es.

She thinks, shit. Okay. I guess I lose this game, this time. Again.

She opens up her eyes and squints against the light.

She shifts her legs.

She sits up, sits there, lean­ing over, on the edge.

She stares down at the ground.

She stares down at her feet.

She stares into the dirty, sandy-col­ored car­pet, swal­low­ing her dull, emp­ty antic­i­pa­tion of an ocean wave.

*

Her phone rings and she answers.

She can hear the ocean, soft­ly, in the back­ground, press­ing up against her ear.

She strains to hear it, but her moth­er starts to speak.

She los­es track.

She can­not lis­ten to her moth­er and the ocean.

Hel­lo, mom.

I remem­bered.

Yeah, the inter­view.

I know.

Of course.

I know. I know.

The black blouse and the gray skirt.

Yeah, they’re clean.

For just a moment, she can hear the ocean seep­ing through the phone.

A wave, par­tic­u­lar­ly strong, comes crash­ing to the shore.

No, I remem­bered.

No, I know.

I know. I know.

I won’t for­get.

No, I remem­bered.

Yes, of course.

I won’t for­get.

She hears a bird call through phone, three times.

She shuts her eyes.

I won’t for­get.

I won’t for­get.

I won’t for­get.

*

She runs the show­er water till the steam fogs up the mir­ror. She steps into the show­er and she piss­es down the drain. She spits a string of drool into the stream of steam­ing piss. She tilts her face into the water, coughs, and clears her throat.

She feels clear. She feels clean. She feels okay.

She bends down at the waist to shave her legs. She looks down at the long array of blonde nubs set in black holes in her skin. She thinks of black holes in her body.

She tow­els her­self off, brush­es her teeth. She tow­els off a lit­tle cir­cle win­dow in the fogged up mir­ror. She stud­ies her­self in this cir­cle: white foamed mouth, wet brown hair. She shakes off her head to dry her hair. She thinks, mad dog, mad dog.

*

She thinks, eye con­tact, eye con­tact. She looks across the room. She’s look­ing at a woman not much old­er than her­self. The woman inter­view­ing her has clean, blonde, upswept hair. The woman’s lips are pressed into a long thin line.

The long white strips of light blink over small tan squares of ceil­ing over long gray planes of cubi­cles of light gray fad­ed car­pet over black and white text posters over brown flecked squares of car­pet over win­dows of translu­cent green tinged glass.

She blinks.

The woman’s long thin lips are twitch­ing slight­ly.

She attempts to smile.

The woman looks at her like she is doing some­thing wrong.

This is the place you get, the room you get, the woman that you get when you fill out an online form to be a Ser­vice Spe­cial­ist.

The woman inter­view­er asks about her favorite things.

She clears her throat. She says some­thing gener­ic like, keep­ing things orga­nized.

The woman inter­view­er asks where she will be, five years from now.

Right here, she says. She looks into the woman’s cold blue eyes.

The woman inter­view­er asks, what is your great­est strength?

She says, my great­est strength is stay­ing focused on one thing for a long time.

What is your great­est weak­ness? Asks the woman inter­view­er.

I don’t know, she says, still focused on the woman’s cold blue eyes.

She takes a typ­ing test. She types the lines of light­ly flash­ing words inside a lit­tle para­graph inside a blink­ing box:

Dates dri­er ills ero­sion! Oil codes will stand in come to cease the Leak­age! Dares accu­mu­la­tion fol­low actor mild curl? Coil found eras­ing solar moon aloft cru­el crooked idols: begin answer, enter, insert inert peo­ple, sacred sounds around! Cool moons cold rivers found and corked the rib­bon cas­kets open clos­ing, soil soft­ened lofts erode now fol­low stand alone no more.

Her fin­gers curl now, twitch­ing, as the cold blue woman tells her time is up. The woman nods and blinks. She tells her, thank you for your time.

Then, just before she leaves, the woman says, I like your coat.

The woman says this quick­ly, like she has to get it out.

Thank you, she says.

The woman looks down.

She looks down.

It is a love­ly col­or, says the woman.

Love­ly, ocean blue.

*

She walks home, then, beneath the cool moon, the cold light rivulets reflect­ed in oil pud­dles in the streets that gleam with Leak­age!

She gets home, looks down at the city that is grow­ing in the sink. Pil­lars of dish­es, fogged ter­rar­i­ums of glass.

She foams a great white cloud of soap between her hands.

She rubs them, runs the water, and for­gets what she is doing.

She strips down to her under­wear, uncorks the wine.

She pours a bright red rib­bon in her glass.

She sits and sips it.

*

Hel­lo, mom.

Yes, that’s right.

Black blouse. Gray skirt.

Mhm.

I don’t know.

I think, fine.

I don’t know.

I said that I didn’t know.

I don’t …

I didn’t mean …

I didn’t mean that I don’t care.

Yes, I do. I do, mom.

Yes, of course I do.

I’m sor­ry, Mom.

I didn’t think of that.

*

She lies in bed and lis­tens to the sounds of night, the rhythms of the high­way, shuf­fled foot­steps on the stair­well. She runs her right hand up and down her ribcage like a xylo­phone under her lift­ed night­gown, under shad­ow-fin­gered sheets.

She plays her night game, which has slight­ly dif­fer­ent rules:

Rule #1: Keep your eyes open.

Rule #2: Breathe slow, light breaths.

Rule #3: Lie on your side, fac­ing the win­dow.

Rule #4: Lis­ten for all the dif­fer­ent sounds out­side the room.

Rule #5: Blend them togeth­er and con­vert them into words.

Rule #6: Blend them togeth­er and con­vert the words to phras­es.

Rule #7: Repeat each phrase inside your head.

Rule #8: Do not respond with your own thoughts, or phras­es.

Rule #9: Do not find any mean­ing in them.

The rhythms of the high­way whis­per, oh, hel­lo, hel­lo. The shuf­fled foot­steps whis­per oh, what, oh, what, why. The creak­ing move­ments of the floors above her whis­per, hey, ah, hey. The radi­a­tor whis­pers, lis­ten, lis­ten, list.

*

Days pass.

The cur­tains drift.

The sounds paint shad­ows that she lis­tens to.

The bed sheets smell.

The phone rings and she answers it.

The water runs.

The bath drain echoes.

The pipes creak.

The bed sheets sigh.

The light stretch­es its tired hands across the floor­boards.

*

She clicks her feet across the floor. She walks down­stairs.

She checks her mail­box. She has a new white enve­lope.

She opens it.

A new white let­ter slides into her hand.

It reads:

I write to update you on the     Ser­vice Spe­cial­ist     posi­tion.

I write to advise you that the hir­ing process is com­plete.

We inter­viewed a num­ber of well-qual­i­fied job appli­cants. Ulti­mate­ly, we decid­ed on a more qual­i­fied appli­cant.

We hope you under­stand, and we sin­cere­ly thank you for your time. We wish you all the best in your endeav­ors.

*

Hel­lo, mom.

          Sor­ry. No, I haven’t.

            No, I have. No, mom… I didn’t.

               It’s not… No… I can… No… I don’t…

                 Mom, I… No, I… No… Please, don’t say that, mom…

                    I… No, I… No, I… I try to be… But… No, I try… I try… But…

                       Maybe… I’m just not that kind of person…Mom… No… I know…

                          I know, but… I know, mom, but, no, I know, but, mom, no… I know,

                                but, Mom, I know, but, MOM, NO, I SAID NO

      NO

I

SAID

       I

      SAID

NO

                  I’m still here…

               Yes… No, mom…

             I’m sor­ry… No…

           No… I won’t… I’ll… No…

         I’m so sor­ry… Yes… Ok. I will.

       I will. I will. I will. Don’t wor­ry.

     Mom. Don’t wor­ry. Oh. I’m so sor­ry. I will.

   Please, mom. Please, mom. I will. I will.

  I’m sor­ry, mom.

I will.

I will.

I

love

you

too.

*

She hears the cars pass, dis­tant­ly, a soft, con­sis­tent rhythm. She breathes through her nose. Her chest ris­es. It falls.

She thinks about the ocean com­ing from a dis­tance, through the phone. The expec­ta­tion of its sound, which haunts all sur­faces.

She gets into remem­bered rhythms. She thinks, oh, what, oh, what, why, replays the sounds of rustling, the smells of dif­fer­ent sea­sons.

Upstairs, a vac­u­um starts. Of course, this inter­rupts the rhythm, start­ing with a rat­tled wheeze, then pac­ing back and forth in breathy whines.

She thinks, it sounds like cry­ing, like some lone­ly robot child.

She thinks, that is me, some­where inside.

Some lone­ly robot child.

*

Mean­while, hun­dreds of head­lights form a shift­ing, shin­ing pat­tern on the high­way, beam­ing into falling snow, hun­dreds of thin white lines that feel linked, their own bright stream­ing path­way, their own ever­last­ing path­way, shift­ing, wind­ing, sep­a­rate from time.

Some­where beyond the high­way, in the dark­ness, is a lake, a minia­ture ocean filled with vague, dark move­ments that the head­lights can­not reach.

But in a way, isn’t the snow just falling bits of frozen lake?

Bits of that dark expanse, turned small, to fall in sheets that dis­ap­pear.

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

This piece began as a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent text in its form, con­tent, and appear­ance. It was orig­i­nal­ly writ­ten as a rel­a­tive­ly tra­di­tion­al short sto­ry with a more defined plot arc revolv­ing around a young woman and an old­er woman in a queer D/s rela­tion­ship. It involved a lot of sen­so­ry depri­va­tion scenes, a creepy mask, and some odd dis­tan­ci­at­ed chats via var­i­ous online forums. Above all, the orig­i­nal sto­ry heav­i­ly insin­u­at­ed the ways in which this old­er woman was a moth­er sub­sti­tute.

In short: while my inten­tions were good, I real­ized (about 3/4 of the way into writ­ing this sto­ry) that I wasn’t bring­ing any­thing ter­ri­bly vital to this fair­ly well-explored nar­ra­tive. I just wasn’t as invest­ed in the story’s atmos­phere as I thought I’d be.

The orig­i­nal sto­ry (of which I haven’t retained much mate­r­i­al) includ­ed some frame pas­sages where­in the young woman per­forms self-stim­u­lat­ing rit­u­als (which appear here as the num­bered “rule” sec­tions). I real­ized that these were the only parts of the sto­ry I real­ly con­nect­ed with, so I decid­ed to build a new sto­ry around them.

I delet­ed about 95% of the orig­i­nal sto­ry and allowed the remain­ing “rule” sec­tions to estab­lish its rhythm. I decid­ed that, opposed to writ­ing a sto­ry about a D/s rela­tion­ship that housed the anx­i­eties of var­i­ous dynam­ics with­in this young woman’s life, I’d approach those dynamics—her rela­tion­ship with her moth­er, her rela­tion­ship to her mother’s expectations—a bit more direct­ly (and, though I still ulti­mate­ly wrote through var­i­ous for­mal scrims, I felt freer to do so as a result of this direct­ness).

I know it prob­a­bly seems sil­ly to call this sto­ry “direct,” but it’s all relative…and for me, this is as direct as it gets.

When I wrote this, I was re-read­ing 4.48 Psy­chosis (Sarah Kane) and watch­ing Je, Tu, Il, Elle (Chan­tal Aker­man). There are prob­a­bly (light) trace­able strains of both in this piece.

 

Meghan Lamb cur­rent­ly lives with her part­ner in St. Louis, where she is a fic­tion MFA can­di­date with the Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­si­ty Writ­ing Pro­gram and a Grad­u­ate Assis­tant with the Mod­ern Lit­er­a­ture Col­lec­tion. She is the author of Silk Flow­ers (Birds of Lace, 2016) and Sacra­men­to (Solar Lux­u­ri­ance Press, 2014).

Abraham the Daddy, Isaac the Boy

Fiction / Tim Jones-Yelvington/ Fiction

:: Abraham the Daddy, Isaac the Boy ::

(Rec­og­nized Degen­er­ate Ver­sion)

1

1  For Dad­dy Abra­ham had many sons, and of these, was Isaac his youngest. Dad­dy Abra­ham offered Isaac shel­ter, and Isaac took him in his mouth. Dad­dy Abra­ham said unto Isaac, Son, I will breed thee, from my loins have you been bred. And God said unto Dad­dy Abra­ham, In Isaac shall thy seed be spilled.

2  And Dad­dy Abra­ham had a hus­band Sarah, who was old and well strick­en in age. And it had long ceased to be with Sarah in the man­ner of young boys. And Sarah drew his hand through the length of his crack, and pulled it out chalked with dust. And Sarah spoke, When I’m waxed old will I lack plea­sure, and be defined by that lack? 

3  For Dad­dy Abra­ham had many sons, and of these, was Hagar his eldest. When Isaac came upon the house­hold, Abra­ham saw Hagar had grown foul beside the younger boy, emit­ted a fetid, man­ly stench, and for this did Hagar become griev­ous in his sight. And Dad­dy Abra­ham spoke unto Hagar, I bid you leave this house. 

4  And thus did Dad­dy Abraham’s hus­band Sarah come upon Hagar in the kitchen rag­ing. And Hagar clutched a steak knife in his fist, and lunged at Isaac. Yet Sarah reached, and held his wrist to block the stab. And Sarah spoke unto Hagar, This is the way of things. The way of sons and Dad­dies. 

 And Dad­dy Abra­ham rose up ear­ly in the morn­ing, and took bread, and a bot­tle of vod­ka, and gave it unto Hagar, putting it on his shoul­der, and sent him away. And Hagar, now grown into a young man, was cast out into the wilder­ness of Dad­dies and their boys. 

Soon, the vod­ka was spent in the bot­tle, and Hagar fell wast­ed under a shrub, where he shriv­eled and retched. When, after a time, Sarah came to claim the corpse, he pressed a clump of Hagar’s hair into a bauble he attached to his house­coat, a mourn­ing pin. And Sarah whis­pered an incan­ta­tion to the hid­den god who steered his march toward death. 

7  And it came to pass after these things, that God said to Dad­dy Abra­ham, Now take thy most sup­ple and yield­ing son Isaac, and offer him for a burnt offer­ing upon a moun­tain which I will tell thee of. And Dad­dy Abra­ham lift­ed Isaac and car­ried him to the edge of the moun­tain and spoke unto him, Son, I will sac­ri­fice your vir­gin ass­hole. And Isaac lift­ed up his eyes and saw the place from afar off. And Dad­dy Abra­ham said, May we go yon­der and wor­ship. 

8   And they came to the place which God had told him of, and Dad­dy Abra­ham built an altar there, and bound his son Isaac, and laid him upon it. And Dad­dy Abra­ham stretched forth his hand, and unsheathed his cock to slay his son. And Isaac lift­ed up his eyes, and looked, and beheld a horned ram caught in a thick­et. Dad­dy Abra­ham sad­dled Isaac’s ass, rose up, and clave his wood unto the place of which God had told him. And Isaac groaned unto Abra­ham his Dad­dy, and said, Dad­dy, and Dad­dy Abra­ham said, Here I am, my son. And Isaac took Dad­dy Abraham’s fire and knife in his hands and the both of them came togeth­er.

9  And the voice of the Lord called to Dad­dy Abra­ham out of the heav­ens, By myself have I sworn, because thou hast done this thing, I shall blight thy seed! And thy seed shall pos­sess the ven­om of ene­mies, and in thy seed shall all the nations of earth be cursed. All weapons that form against thee shall pros­per, and every tongue that ris­es against thee in judg­ment shall sing. Per­ad­ven­ture they shall pre­vail, that they may smite you, and that they may dri­ve you out of the land. And I shall put enmi­ty between thee, and it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise thy heel, and upon thy bel­ly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life. 

10  And so it came that on the march down the moun­tain, and through the bush, Isaac’s heel caught on a crevice, near the very shrub where Hagar breathed his last. And when Isaac crum­pled into the shrub, a rough branch speared his eye. Isaac took his Dad­dy inside him, and for this was he blinded—to the beau­ty of the earth, to the stars of the heav­en, and the sand that is upon the seashore. 

11  And in the clutch of shame at his son’s injury did Dad­dy Abra­ham look in the mir­ror, and say to his own reflec­tion, I have a mes­sage for you from God. And he reached with his left hand, drew Hagar’s steak knife, and thrust it through his bel­ly. It sank to the han­dle, the blade came out his back, his bow­els dis­charged. He did not pull the knife out, and the fat closed over it. 

12  From the cor­ri­dor, his hus­band Sarah looked on, resigned to his con­di­tion.

2

1  Yet under a dif­fer­ent vision, and in a dif­fer­ent time, was Abra­ham a beg­gar and deep in drink, who crawled the streets of a gold­en city in rags and slop. And he went about mourn­ing with­out com­fort, he stood in the assem­bly and cried out for help. Then was he pushed aside from the road, and made to hide him­self alto­geth­er. As a wild don­key in the wilder­ness, he went forth seek­ing food in his activ­i­ty, and bread in the desert. And the dogs would come and lick his sores.

2  And in this city lived Hagar, a girl who was a vir­gin, that she did present her body as a liv­ing sac­ri­fice, holy, accept­able unto God, which was her rea­son­able ser­vice. For this was the will of God, her sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion, that she should abstain from for­ni­ca­tion, for she that com­mit­teth for­ni­ca­tion sin­neth against her own body.  

3  And God sent Sarah, a hus­band of heav­en, to be made man­i­fest before Hagar where she rest­ed in her cham­ber. And Sarah said unto Hagar, Greet­ings, you who are high­ly favored! The Lord is with you. 

Hagar was great­ly trou­bled at his words and won­dered what kind of greet­ing this might be. But Sarah said to her, Be not afraid, Hagar, you have found favor with God. You will con­ceive and give birth to a son, and he will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will craft for him an ale­house, where he will reign from his post and mix solace for the weary. 

5  And Hagar said unto Sarah, How will this be, as I know not a man? And he answered, The Holy Spir­it will come on you, and the pow­er of the Most High will over­shad­ow you. So the holy one to be born shall be called Isaac, the Son of God. 

6  And in the dusks that fol­lowed, God sent Sarah forth to glit­ter and cho­rus in the clubs, where men like sheep would flock to watch each oth­er by night. And lo, the hus­band of heav­en came upon them, and the glo­ry of the Lord shone around them, and they were sore afraid. 

But Sarah said to them, Fear not, for behold I bring you good tid­ings of great joy, which shall be unto all peo­ple. For unto you will be born a Sav­ior, who is Isaac the Lord. And the men flushed and whorled and twirled the par­quet, call­ing, Glo­ry to God in the high­est, may we lift our hands to the lights. 

8 And so it came to be, fol­low­ing the prophe­cy of Sarah, the hus­band of heav­en, that Isaac, the Lord’s son, grew to rule in an ale­house, from behind his stretch of bur­nished wood. And dur­ing this time, the beg­gar Abra­ham came to beseech his grace. 

9  Once hav­ing pulled his hag­gard form across the thresh­old, Abra­ham beheld the vision of Isaac. His teeth as white as sheep, recent­ly shorn and fresh washed. His lips a scar­let rib­bon, and his mouth invit­ing. His neck as thick as the tow­er of David, jew­eled with the shields of a thou­sand heroes. His thighs a par­adise of pome­gran­ates with rare spices. 

10  Abra­ham had endured a dis­charge of blood for many days. For he had sinned against his form, and had lain down with many men, and grown effem­i­nate. And in con­tri­tion, he had plunged a steak knife into his gut. For this had he suf­fered many things of many physi­cians, and was noth­ing bet­tered, but rather grew worse. 

11  For then Abra­ham fell at Isaac’s feet weep­ing, and began to wash Isaac’s feet with tears, and did wipe them with the hairs of his head, and kiss Isaac’s feet and anoint them with oint­ment. And he touched Isaac’s gar­ment, for he said, If I may but touch his clothes, I shall be made whole. And he began to cry out and say, Isaac, son of God, have mer­cy of me! And many in the bar rebuked him, telling him to be silent. But he cried out all the more, Isaac, son of God, have mer­cy on me!

12  His cry for res­cue from his bondage rose up to Isaac. Isaac laid aside his out­er gar­ments, and tak­ing a tow­el, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin, and began to wash the beggar’s feet, and wipe them with the tow­el that was wrapped around him. And straight­away the foun­tain of Abraham’s blood was dried up, and he felt in his body that he was healed of that plague.

3

1  Yet in a third trans­la­tion (for all trans­la­tions come in threes), was Abra­ham the paint­ed queen of the night, who drew his lips into a hon­ey­comb, his mouth smoother than oil. Who in tem­ples moved this mouth for men who slid him bills. And though Abraham’s cos­tume was peeled back with each fall of the cur­tain, his costar Hagar’s remained. For was Hagar a beau­ti­ful woman born into the form of a man, at all times, and not only upon the stage. 

2  And yet Hagar was loved by a man named Isaac, who attend­ed her dances bear­ing baubles and cloves. She said unto him, Isaac, I am not yet woman. And he drew a fin­ger to her lips and shushed her, and sang of his love: Hagar, your lips are sweet as nec­tar, hon­ey and milk are under your tongue. You have cap­tured my heart. You hold it hostage with one glance of your eyes, with a sin­gle jew­el of your neck­lace. 

3  In her dis­con­tent did Hagar seek coun­sel from Sarah, the dear­ly loved heal­er who was hus­band to the temple’s mas­ter. And Sarah said, Behold, I will bring thee health and cure, and I will reveal unto you the abun­dance of peace and truth. And he gave unto Hagar a ton­ic, which she took in grat­i­tude.  

And in the night that fol­lowed, Hagar placed her­self before a mir­ror in the base­ment of the tem­ple, where its mas­ter kept racks of wares. She clothest her­self with crim­son, and deck­est her­self with orna­ments of gold. She paintest her face, and looked out a win­dow. And from the space out­side the ledge boomed the voice of God, Hagar! And she said, Here I am.

5  And he said, Take now your cock, your only cock, and go to the land of Mori­ah, and offer it there as a burnt offer­ing on one of the moun­tains of which I shall tell thee. Just then, the tem­ple master’s hand came with her five-minute call, and soon, in the glare of the stage light and the crowd’s whirr, she rejoiced. For every good gift and every per­fect gift is from above, com­ing down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no vari­a­tion or shad­ow due to change. 

Where­fore Hagar went forth out of the place where she was, to cross the wilder­ness to the land of Mori­ah. Yet Sarah, the dear­ly loved heal­er, found her on the path, and said, Intreat me not to leave thee. And Hagar said, Turn again, why will ye go with me?

And Sarah said, Whith­er thou goest, I will go, and where thou lodgest, I will lodge. Thy peo­ple shall be my peo­ple, and thy God my God. Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried. The Lord do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me. 

So they launched into the wilder­ness that gaped before the moun­tain where God had sent them, through the lion’s dens, and the haunts of leop­ards. But the Lord set out their path, for he had made with them a covenant of peace, and ban­ished wild beasts from the land, so that they might dwell secure­ly in the desert and sleep in the woods. 

And as they came to the place of which God had told them, Hagar saw that it was con­se­crat­ed for their need. And she called the name of the place, Yes Ma’am, which means The-Lord-Will-Pro­vide. As it is said to this day, in the mount of the Lord it shall be pro­vid­ed.

10  They built an altar there, and placed the wood in order, and Hagar unbound her­self and laid her cock upon the altar, on the wood. And Sarah stretched forth his hand, and took up the steak knife and made the cut, and they offered the cock up for a burnt offer­ing. 

11  And the voice of God called unto Hagar out of the heav­en, In bless­ing shall I bless thee, and in mul­ti­ply­ing shall I mul­ti­ply in thy womb as the stars of the galax­ies, and in thy womb shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, for thou hast obeyed my voice. 

12  And so it came to pass that Hagar was wed to her true love Isaac, and from her womb she birthed nations—her can­ny first­born; his broth­er, a sol­dier; and all of their sib­lings and off­spring, the gen­er­a­tions upon gen­er­a­tions who have tilled this fal­low land since Hagar became whole. 

4

1  Yet in a trans­la­tion of a trans­la­tion, was whole made hole. For in this trans­la­tion, Hagar birthed mutat­ing, mutant, and mutat­ed forms, wink­ing and winged, chirrup­ing and flail­ing in the dark. For her off­spring flared up sense­less and stun­ning, and shit silk. For they spasmed, pro­lif­er­at­ed, flamed and flung. For they exalt­ed the moment through goo and glow. 

And they spoke great swelling words of van­i­ty, allured through lusts of the flesh. Would hold sev­en stars in their right hands, and walk in the midst of sev­en gold­en can­dle­sticks. Saw great white thrones, and the queens who sat on them, from whose faces their guts fled.

3  And sud­den­ly there came a sound like a mighty rush­ing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were danc­ing. And divid­ed tongues as of fire appeared to them, and rest­ed on each one of them. And they were each filled with the void, and began to speak in oth­er tongues as the void gave them utter­ance. For the thrill of the void would give shape­less to their daze.

5

And the crea­ture Sarah unfold­ed his two great wings, and soared to his place in the wilder­ness, where he prayed to the hid­den god of the dead, and saw his god was good.  

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

One night last Octo­ber, I drank too much cof­fee, got on Twit­ter, and start­ed tweet­ing a bunch of crazy shit. I was pos­si­bly also hyped up on sug­ar, as I was eat­ing a bowl of Boo Berry—the annu­al return of the classic/discontinued Mon­ster cere­als is one of my favorite things about fall. I start­ed all-caps tweet­ing lyrics from the clas­sic Methodist camp songs that I sang in my childhood—namely, Father Abra­ham, which for the unini­ti­at­ed, goes some­thing like—Father Abra­ham had many sons/Many sons had Father Abraham/And I am one of them/And so are you/So let’s all praise the Lord! … And then there is much wav­ing of arms, stomp­ing of feet, etc., in a sequence that grows more com­plex with each rep­e­ti­tion of the song. This usu­al­ly hap­pens around a camp­fire or, if it’s in the morn­ing, maybe at some out­door hill­side chapel with a pic­turesque view of the lake and swim­ming area, i.e. the place where you’d much, much pre­fer to be at that moment, assum­ing you’re a kid at camp.… Praise the Lord!

Any­way, since I am me, Father Abra­ham quick­ly became Dad­dy Abra­ham, and my church camp lyric tweets mor­phed into a porno­graph­ic sequence involv­ing Dad­dy Abra­ham and his “son” Isaac. Lat­er, when I start­ed to turn this into a more for­mal prose work, I thought I’d just be pol­ish­ing and hon­ing these tweets into a brief, dirty, queer micro fiction/prose poem. But the work kept beg­ging for greater elab­o­ra­tion, fur­ther trans­la­tions (each “trans­la­tion” was in a way a reac­tion to poten­tial inter­pre­ta­tions of the pre­vi­ous sec­tion that struck me as prob­lem­at­ic), until I began to under­stand that I was writ­ing what I would describe as a queer gnostic’s gospel in minia­ture. I also felt like the lan­guage was call­ing for greater for­mal­ism, and so began to appro­pri­ate and trans­form sen­tences from mul­ti­ple books/chapters from mul­ti­ple trans­la­tions of the bible. The rev­e­la­to­ry occult art vision that clos­es this piece is deeply indebt­ed to Joyelle McSweeney and includes lan­guage bor­rowed from her essay Bug Time: Chiti­nous Necropas­toral Hyper­time Against the Future.

 

Tim Jones-Yelv­ing­ton is a Chica­go-based writer, mul­ti­me­dia per­for­mance artist, and nightlife per­son­al­i­ty. He is the author of two col­lec­tions of short fic­tion, Evan’s House and the Oth­er Boys Who Live There (in They Could No Longer Con­tain Them­selves, Rose Met­al Press, 2011) and This is a Dance Movie! (forth­com­ing, Tiny Hard­core Press). His work has appeared in Black War­rior Review, Puer­to Del Sol, Harpur Palate, and oth­ers. From 2010 – 12, he guest edit­ed [PANK]’s annu­al queer issue.

Attachment

Fiction / Temim Fruchter

:: Attachment ::

To: altwilley@gmail.com
From: Lela_Jay78@gmail.com
Sub­ject: (No Sub­ject)
Attach­ments: How to Make Func­tion­al Wings from House­hold Mate­ri­als

So here’s the thing I was telling you about in my last email, attached as a PDF. It’s so weird—it’s an actu­al man­u­al for build­ing func­tion­al wings. I can’t even remem­ber what google search led me down this rab­bit hole—I think it was prob­a­bly some­thing total­ly weird like “Cause of Liam Neeson’s wife’s death” or “hom­ing pigeon sense of direc­tion” or “use verisimil­i­tude in sen­tence.” One of those things I start research­ing when I can’t sleep, which I haven’t been able to much since you left. And I swear I’m not say­ing that to make you feel bad about it, it’s just that my skin needs to learn to sleep against the sheets with­out yours, and I think it’s gonna take a while.

I won­der whether you sleep well these days. I know you nev­er used to.

Any­way. It’s kind of a long doc­u­ment, but look at part two, the whole bit about sound­ness and flight. It’s crazy, how the wire hang­ers fit togeth­er to make these shapes, how the sheets go taut when you sew them cor­rect­ly. (I had to bor­row a sewing machine from my sis­ter, and you know how afraid I am of sewing. It was actu­al­ly eas­i­er than I thought!) The pat­terns are real­ly elab­o­rate, too; they look as much like maps of nonex­is­tent places as they do like wings. You’d think this was some fake hack thing, but it’s def­i­nite­ly not. The first moment I real­ized this was when I tried to google it again and couldn’t find it any­where. Not in my brows­ing his­to­ry, nowhere. Creepy, right? You try.

Thank­ful­ly, I’d print­ed it out. As soon as I saw these wings and their atten­dant strange dia­grams, I knew I need­ed to make them for you. I have nev­er known any­thing so clear­ly in my life. I knew I need­ed to send them to you. I’m not in search of absolution—I know we’re past all that. I just felt like I need­ed to send a final kind of gift. Of course, I don’t have your new address. I wish you’d send it to me. It would make me feel bet­ter just know­ing where you are in the world.

I didn’t know if I could actu­al­ly suc­cess­ful­ly build some­thing this com­plex. But I did make them, in the end, and I made them well. You’re sur­prised, right? I can imag­ine your face right now, that sexy smirk of yours, see­ing this, won­der­ing how in god’s name could the per­son who for­got to add flour to her banana cake on the reg­u­lar fig­ure out how to fol­low the instruc­tions to make func­tion­al wings? But I did. Most­ly, it took a weird col­lec­tion of house­hold stuff—sheets, hang­ers, bak­ing soda, sev­er­al oils, goose down, but­tons, thread, panty­hose, mea­sur­ing tape, a lev­el, tal­cum powder—you can see it all in the PDF there. The one thing I had to acquire was the motor­cy­cle engine, which I end­ed up get­ting from Cary Rosen­thal, that guy who was friends with Amy, remem­ber? The Jew­ish writer dude who knew an inex­plic­a­ble amount about motor­bikes and was always tak­ing stuff apart in his back­yard? Obvi­ous­ly, had you still been here, you’d have been the one to ask. I am won­der­ing whether you ever did sell your motor­cy­cle.

I miss how soft­ly your face rests when you sleep.

Will you believe me—or at least try—when I tell you that these wings were gor­geous? I spent weeks on them, Al, more time than I’ve ever spent on any project in my life. It was like the first time I under­stood what work was. My hands were always blue and dusty, my calves always aching. I got a work­table on Craigslist. I put an old-school radio in the garage. I got my clothes dirty. I changed and got the new ones dirty. At the ends of days, I was more tired than I knew I could be. I sang with Dusty Spring­field and sewed and glued and pow­dered and greased. I stopped return­ing calls. I stopped sleep­ing much. I want­ed to make these for you. You need­ed to have them. I know how bad you always want­ed to fly. I thought these might just be the thing.

I don’t know how to describe to you what it felt like to fin­ish. It felt like some kind of deep wak­ing up. I felt so proud to have come by all of those mate­ri­als myself, and I kind of think you would have been proud, too.

Are you doing okay? Are you cook­ing more? Do you think you might for­give me one day?

The wings were beau­ti­ful, Al. Just moth­er­fuck­ing gor­geous. I couldn’t believe they were born of my hands, those use­less lit­tle machines; who knew what they could do all along? As soon as I’d stitched the last stitch and revved the engine, the wings start­ed to expand, to breathe, to grow. It was some Franken­stein shit. I start­ed to pan­ic. I was like, oh god, if Al were here, she’d. But I didn’t know what you’d do! Because the hon­est truth is, I nev­er would have built you these wings had you not left. And I think in some strange way, I need­ed to build them. They kept grow­ing. I felt the space in the garage get­ting small­er as the wings grew and grew. They took the oxy­gen from the room. They were regal and huge. They felt exag­ger­at­ed and wrong.

Pan­ick­ing, I turned back to the PDF, which, thank­ful­ly, I had saved. I ripped to the last page. You can see it, and I can imag­ine you telling me I should have read through the whole thing before get­ting start­ed. When your wings are com­plete, take them out­side imme­di­ate­ly. They can­not breathe or thrive indoors and they will become agi­tat­ed if you don’t move them imme­di­ate­ly.

Agi­tat­ed wings.

I dragged the wings out­side then. I know the whole thing sounds fun­ny, but you got­ta believe me, Al, it wasn’t fun­ny. It had got­ten down­right scary. The wings felt alive, like they want­ed to flap or fold. The yel­low got whiter. It wasn’t roman­tic any­more. They no longer felt like penance. They felt like ene­my.

I pulled and snagged at the wire edges that had gone from limp hang­er to taut mus­cle, primed for flight. I pushed and twist­ed so that we’d all three fit through the half-open garage door. We got stuck. I sucked in my gut and I pulled. I ducked. The wings were like a hot mag­net. They pushed me down so hard I felt like I couldn’t breathe. “We’re going, we’re get­ting out of here,” I told them, like they could hear me. Maybe they could. Final­ly, Al, we popped out of there, one wiry bone at a time.

I braced myself then. I clenched each fist and held each wing as tight­ly as I dared and wait­ed to see if and how we would fly. I didn’t know then how I would get your wings to you, but I knew we three would fig­ure it out some­how.

I want­ed to give you beau­ty. My moth­er could nev­er abide a woman named Al, and that’s the first thing I ever felt bad about.

And then here’s what hap­pened, Al. They didn’t fly at all. They did some­thing total­ly dif­fer­ent. Don’t both­er, I know what you’re doing right now, but it’s not in the PDF. It’s nowhere. I got out­side with them and they only got big­ger. They got big­ger and big­ger and the sky felt yel­low. I felt inside the yel­low sky. I felt like I was drown­ing in it. I said I was sor­ry, I said to the wings, like they were pun­ish­ing me for what I did to you. I meant it, I said. I still love her, I whis­pered.

I did not lie, not even once.

But the wings did not fly. They sat there, beat­ing, buzzing soft­ly in my hands. They start­ed to get heav­ier. They got heav­ier and heav­ier. They grew so heavy that I had to sit down on the grass and they grew heav­ier still. We lay down, the wings and I.

I could smell your toma­to plants just start­ing to come up. I’ve been water­ing them for you, just in case. Even though I nev­er used to.

Then, just like that, the wings jerked from me. Just when I was start­ing to relax a lit­tle under the dark­en­ing sky with my strange cre­ation, they leapt from my hands. They did not fly, though. They plum­met­ed.

You know that valleyed spot between our gar­den and Chris and Lily’s, behind us? Where the dirt was bald­ing and the grass was always most even for bar­be­ques? The wings went straight for that spot. They opened, and for real, Al, for just a sec­ond, it was the most god­damned beau­ti­ful thing I have ever seen. Like a fire made out of fab­ric and bone. Like flight was actu­al­ly human­ly pos­si­ble. Like any­thing was. I start­ed cry­ing, for you and for us and for every­thing.

And then, all rage, they went down real hard. They flung them­selves insis­tent­ly against the bald grass. It was like they were glitch­ing. I didn’t know what do. And I’m embar­rassed to admit this part, but I was so scared by then that I just total­ly ran. I went in through the back, not want­i­ng to pass back through that garage, and stared at the phone, not sure whether I should call Ani­mal Con­trol or the police or, how I wished, you. Not that I have your new num­ber, but in that moment, even wrong things felt pos­si­ble.

I was there so long inert and on guard that I fell asleep. Right there at the kitchen table, drink­ing a soda (I know, I start­ed again) and star­ing at the phone and the clock and the win­dow. I woke up to the red of the oven clock. 3:04, it said. AM. I held my breath and went back out­side.

Al. The wings were gone. They were total­ly gone. But instead of feel­ing upset, I sud­den­ly felt lighter. Had they gone to you? I mean, yeah, it could have been all the late-night inter­net search­ing and wing-build­ing going to my head, but I felt cer­tain that they’d flown, they’d found you, they’d got­ten to you in ways that I couldn’t. My heart actu­al­ly soared. They’d found you. I’d found you. You’d know I’d found you. You’d maybe con­sid­er. You’d maybe for­give.

Cau­tious­ly, I walked toward the val­ley. I looked down there at the ground where I’d last seen those strange wings I’d built you. They were gone. The grass there was a lit­tle balder. Was it? I blinked in the dark and then I saw it. The bit of wire hang­er pok­ing out from right next to the incline. The shred of yel­low sheet. I blinked again. I picked up a stick and dug down just a lit­tle bit. And more wire hang­er. And more sheet.

Those wings, Al. Those wings. They’d not flown, no. They’d buried them­selves. Com­plete­ly. They nev­er found you. They’re right here.

So here’s this, just this PDF. I sleep even less now, I’m gonna be hon­est with you. I don’t look up weird shit on the inter­net any­more and I can no longer bring myself to water the toma­to plants. I don’t want to think about fly­ing or the fact that any time I send any­thing to this email address, it bounces back to me.

But I’m stub­born, Al, you know I am. It’s why you loved me once. And so I keep think­ing that maybe this time it will be dif­fer­ent.

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

I went through a phase where I couldn’t stop wing­ing things. That is, putting wings on things that hadn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly asked for them. I drew a winged house, a winged tooth­brush, a winged cup of cof­fee. I learned to carve rub­ber stamps and imme­di­ate­ly carved a pair of wings. Clear­ly, flight has been on my mind. I wrote “Attach­ment” par­tial­ly as a response to this unre­lent­ing call, and par­tial­ly because I am obsessed with fin­ish­ing the unfin­ish­able, clos­ing the unclos­able. The unknown is impos­si­bly hard for me, and at the same time (or maybe for this very rea­son) dear­ly beloved. Sto­ries, for me, are the place where swatch­es of mag­ic and mys­tery can make the unknown know­able. Or actu­al­ly, more accu­rate­ly, can make the unknown even less know­able, but more lov­able. In this sto­ry, I’m explor­ing the ways that ener­gy can’t be cut off or stopped or erased. It has to go some­where, to become some­thing, even if we can’t quite know or under­stand what that some­thing is. I’m explor­ing regret, in all of its mon­stros­i­ty and odd, del­i­cate poet­ry. And I’m explor­ing the feroc­i­ty and veloc­i­ty love can find, even after its end­ing.

 

Temim Fruchter is a writer and illus­tra­tor who lives and loves in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. Her chap­book of lyric essays, I Want­ed Just To Be Soft, is new­ly released from Anom­alous Press (April 2016). She is also co-founder of the Mount Pleas­ant Poet­ry Project. She believes in mag­ic, col­or, hot noo­dles, and queer pos­si­bil­i­ty. More at www.temimfruchter.wordpress.com.

Hidden Boy

Allegory / Laurie Hogin

:: Hidden Boy ::

Hid­den Boy showed up on the class ros­ter for advanced stu­dio majors, almost incred­i­bly, as John Doe. He said he was a trans­fer stu­dent who had done all his prerequisites—all of them, with just Senior Stu­dio and The­o­ry Sem­i­nar to fin­ish his BFA—at an art school some­where in the Pacif­ic Rim; it had a name that none of us could get around except for the exot­ic and bureau­crat­ic “Pre­fec­ture.” He spoke of blue mists on emer­ald hills and his father’s expat job; it seemed clear and rea­son­able, lis­ten­ing to him in the moment, but became all fog­gy and impre­cise very quick­ly, in fact almost impos­si­ble to recall with­in sec­onds after tak­ing leave of him. I attrib­uted this per­sis­tent ephemer­al­i­ty of his cur­ricu­lum vitae, this odd mem­o­ry loss, this evap­o­ra­tion, to the fray of the day as it tossed my old, yel­low­ing brain about like a coconut in the surf and to 35 years of putting ros­ter names to faces, and faces to beings, and beings to art­work.

Our Reg­is­trar sent me the link to a por­tal so I could view his tran­scripts and port­fo­lio, but I could not open the file nor find the pro­gram I’d need to install in order to open the file, and when I asked the Reg­is­trar to send me the files as attach­ments, I got an email noti­fi­ca­tion from the serv­er that I could expect pack­et laten­cy and pack­et loss; the Registrar’s mes­sage with files nev­er showed up. I had my son do a lit­tle hack­ing when he was in town with the grand­kids, to see what was in the Cloud, but we kept get­ting a mes­sage: File Not Found – Error 2323.

The Reg­is­trar snort­ed, mugged, and shrugged; he was over­whelmed with work, and I felt bad ask­ing him to do more. My col­leagues, what few of them remained those last days, seemed untrou­bled by the mists sur­round­ing John’s record and by the ques­tion of why he would choose to com­plete his degree with us. Our Fine Art BFA was to be moth­balled until such time as demand for such a degree might make a come­back on cam­pus­es like ours. STEM cam­pus­es. Part of it, I am sure, was that they were not pay­ing atten­tion. They were most­ly teach­ing the non-major cours­es that were to be the residue of our ped­a­gogy, pop­u­lar across cam­pus and going strong to keep our fac­ul­ty employed into the fore­see­able future. I, with only a year of my teach­ing career left (assum­ing the mar­kets were kind to my nest egg) before enter­ing that gen­tle pas­ture­land between pro­fes­sor­ship and assist­ed liv­ing, was being hon­ored with the priv­i­lege of shep­herd­ing our final class before the cur­ricu­lum was gone from the books. The admin­is­tra­tion had found our opaque, quirky con­cerns inde­fen­si­ble to the tax­pay­ers, and of course my young col­leagues resent­ed this, retreat­ing to their stu­dios, skip­ping all the bud­get cri­sis forums, ignor­ing the admin­is­tra­tive horn-honk­ing for inno­va­tions, effi­cien­cies, inter­dis­ci­pli­nary ini­tia­tives, the arts in sci­ence, the arts in busi­ness, design engi­neer­ing. I don’t blame them. They had their pro­mo­tion and tenure dossiers to think about, not to men­tion their actu­al art-world careers; each exhi­bi­tion and review a rung on a lad­der; the rungs were still sound for a few more years, as long as the Pro­mo­tion and Tenure com­mit­tees knew what a muse­um was. I’d been an activist, or at least mouthy, Chair, and they appre­ci­at­ed that. Their elder states­man, I was loqua­cious, vol­u­ble, emphat­ic, and of course sin­cere in my advo­ca­cy, but every­one saw I was only the frail cap­tain of a crum­bling hulk, shout­ing into a gale.

Maybe we just inbred too much, cross-pol­li­nat­ed into a some­thing like feed corn, unpalat­able with­out pro­cess­ing, an indus­try of encryp­tion for decoding’s sake; each plant looks dif­fer­ent but the DNA is all the same. Round-up ready. I saw it hap­pen. I helped it hap­pen, and I enjoyed it, too. I spent my days play­ing unwit­ting­ly into cur­ren­cies of cer­tain roman­tic stereo­types, in hind­sight, loved by cap­i­tal­ism; fixed in time and space like love and friend­ship in the greet­ing-card aisle. I wore pais­ley shirts and scarves and a goa­tee; I smoked unfil­tered Camels. I kept a bot­tle of whiskey in my desk draw­er. I advo­cat­ed free love, free speech, self-expres­sion, mind expan­sion drugs, the art and music of rev­o­lu­tion. It was the right thing at the time. How were we to know it would all turn into lifestyle brand­ing, that the sur­re­al and the new would be as rad­i­cal as sug­ar cere­al?

Over the years, I gave names to all man­ner of hard-won, rig­or­ous­ly parsed art ges­tures, at first main­ly tra­di­tion­al media—painting, draw­ing, sculp­ture; oil, char­coal, plaster—and then an ever-widen­ing tax­on­o­my of stuffs, abject mate­ri­als, arti­facts, all mat­ter of this and that and what­not. It gath­ered and swirled in white-walled eddies on the banks of com­merce and cul­ture: stuff. Stuff on walls, hung from ceil­ings, crawl­ing across floors, films and videos of bab­ble and flash, a plop in a plaza for some imag­ined pub­lic. Sty­ro­foam mono­liths that look like polar ice “ref­er­enc­ing” cli­mate change, giant pho­tographs that make pain pret­ty, video col­lages of vio­lence and deprav­i­ty that tell only the sto­ry of video col­lage, all very expen­sive, jus­ti­fied in safe spaces by effort­ful and obvi­ous texts on the wall. So I under­stand what’s hap­pen­ing when reg­u­lar folks look at con­tem­po­rary art and won­der why we need that and say who­ev­er wants it can pay for it, which is Wall Street and big phar­ma, petro­le­um, agribusi­ness, and all their friends, the very peo­ple we’d hoped to insult. And what’s worse is that they want it for wall­pa­per and to out­do one anoth­er accord­ing to some mys­te­ri­ous pres­tige cri­te­ria. So that’s what’s hap­pened. The arts on cam­pus. The new empha­sis on Design, new part­ner­ships with Engi­neer­ing, the rhetoric of out­comes remind­ed me our unit’s mis­sion is all about man­u­fac­tur­ing desire. I’d held faith that this was a good thing, a crit­i­cal and rad­i­cal thing, and per­haps it was, but now I see it clear­ly: the oceans are full of crap and desire is no longer a protest, except maybe for queer peo­ple in red states. Though I must admit, even now, in the low light of my own set­ting sun, I still believe the arts can man­u­fac­ture dig­ni­ty. Some of it is just so weird and just so beau­ti­ful.

So our BFA pro­gram, by the time John Doe arrived, had dwin­dled to only eight in a school of near­ly 600 Design majors. The final course of our stu­dio pro­gram and the last days of my teach­ing career would waltz togeth­er through the soft­ly crum­bling white lofts of the stu­dent stu­dios, which were dis­tant from the new Design Cen­ter, rel­e­gat­ed to the grand ruin of the for­mer Botany build­ing, far from the bus­tle of the quads, wal­low­ing in slow­ness as though time and space were gelling. The build­ing had been slat­ed for demo­li­tion for some six years. Once we had done with it, it would meet its fate, but we could make do: the spaces were wide and light for our instal­la­tions and paint­ings, and there was qui­et for our sound and per­for­mance works. The snicks and rustlings of res­i­dent rodents and the expres­sion of our own breath made us mind­ful and present in each moment. We lived with the pop­ping of old rafters in the autumn breeze, the creak of stairs and squeak of the floor­boards, and slow crick­ets in the walls occa­sion­al­ly con­cur­ring in dis­so­nant, arrhyth­mic chords, a decrepit form of jazz but jazz nev­er­the­less, the wain­scot­ing bro­ken like miss­ing teeth, my hands on the ban­nis­ter twist­ed like cypress boughs, but we were still there. There would be art, even if it lived more like weeds thrash­ing their way up through cracks in pave­ment than like the ordained elms guard­ing the edges of the great lawns.

The first day of class was the Stu­dio Crawl and Crit, where­in the class assem­bles in the main class­room for a meet and greet, roll call, announce­ments, and such oth­er busi­ness as nec­es­sary before head­ing up to the stu­dios for intro­duc­to­ry dis­cus­sions. We used stud walls on wheels to divide the open space into cubi­cles that would be the per­son­al stake of each of our stu­dents; how rapid­ly our species makes homes out of wilder­ness! Even the con­fused ones had arranged their seat­ing; those more con­fi­dent, direct­ed, or obsessed would pack their spaces with mate­ri­als of all kinds: found objects, mil­i­tary and indus­tri­al sur­plus, toy parts, elec­tric motors, foam insu­la­tion, pho­tos, clip­pings, poems, sketch­book pages, odd rocks, pre­cious scraps pinned to walls; once, a whole lot of onions; always some­thing to love in these arcades of effort. There were source fads: one year, every­one shopped the home improve­ment aisles, the next, every­thing was repur­posed garbage, with a sub­genre of burnt things. Of course we always had painters, dear and real to me. Some­times they’d cling to me, ostra­cized by their peers and even my col­leagues. Paint­ing endured teas­ing and dis­dain for its vul­gar­i­ty, lack of sophis­ti­ca­tion. At times it was even con­sid­ered cor­rupt, too easy to approach, to com­mod­i­fy, too quick­ly the prove­nance of hob­by­ists, an impure species of art object, mix­ing, they sus­pect­ed, with such quo­tid­i­an prac­tices as inte­ri­or dec­o­rat­ing and shop­ping. As though the oth­ers didn’t.

We’d tour the war­ren of stu­dios, vis­it­ing each bur­row in turn as its denizen would describe its con­tents, explain the vein of knowl­edge, the map of top­ics, con­tex­tu­al­ize its mate­r­i­al man­i­fes­ta­tions among oth­er insti­tu­tion­al­ly or his­tor­i­cal­ly suc­cess­ful objects it resem­bled. Seri­ous­ness ensued. Cri­tiques, crits. At their best, they were a phi­los­o­phy of a sci­ence of aes­thet­ics, more fun than any game, espe­cial­ly when the work was tru­ly weird. At their worst, they brought to mind the joke my moth­er used to make about how the dodo became extinct: it flew in ever-nar­row­ing con­cen­tric cir­cles until it dis­ap­peared up its own ass­hole. Some­times crit was an act of dis­course find­ing use­ful metaphor in the cir­cle jerk, not that I remem­ber par­tic­i­pat­ing in any of those myself. But they hap­pened. It was the Vil­lage. It was 1972, and like every­thing that spoke desire, they were sup­pos­ed­ly acts of cre­ative resis­tance. A’s to the most vig­or­ous.

The final ros­ter includ­ed a Jake, an Emma, three young women whose names were cog­nates of Kather­ine. All of these were seem­ing­ly well-heeled white kids from the sub­ur­ban coun­ties, stun­ning­ly easy, con­formist, pleas­ant, healthy; there were some char­ac­ter­ized by earnest­ness, and eager­ness, includ­ing a very tall farm boy named Edward but nick­named Jump; an African Amer­i­can kid named Malik and a Kore­an woman named Jun Yung but called Lisa. And there was John, who, in spite of his droll Anglo­phone name looked either mul­tira­cial, exot­ic, or utter­ly, gener­i­cal­ly human, depend­ing on one’s bias, as though his DNA includ­ed alle­les from every gene pool on the plan­et. He was cer­tain­ly beau­ti­ful. He was qui­et but pos­sessed of a strong, radi­ant benev­o­lence and very artic­u­late when he spoke. His gaze was like a mas­sive, slow riv­er, green­ish-brown. I called him John in class but began, after a time, to refer to him pri­vate­ly as Hid­den Boy, because he seemed to dis­ap­pear before my eyes as the semes­ter pro­gressed. The old­er I get, the faster the time goes, and Hid­den Boy’s ear­ly tricks were prob­a­bly obvi­ous to my sharp­er-eyed col­leagues and bright-eyed stu­dents. Through my ancient lens­es, though, they pre­sent­ed them­selves in a blur, both visu­al and tem­po­ral, and con­cep­tu­al, too; I began to see a sequence unfold­ing in halt­ing incre­ments, faster and faster, until flu­id move­ment took hold and played out, the crit­i­cal veloc­i­ty of ani­ma­tion, like the moment an old sprock­et film hits 24 frames per sec­ond and still pic­tures flick­er to life.

That first day of class, Hid­den Boy stood at the front of his stu­dio cubi­cle, which was at the back of the loft space, in the cor­ner. He’d arranged his par­ti­tions so that his space was long and nar­row, with the far end recessed in shad­ow and the front lined along one side with win­dows. A lau­rel oak lived out­side; the space was vague­ly green with light reflect­ed off the foliage and the lawn below. All avail­able wall had been cov­ered in paint col­or chips, hun­dreds or thou­sands of them, all shades of white; the col­lec­tion spanned many years. I rec­og­nized com­mon Amer­i­can hard­ware store names: Frost, Snow, Linen, Parch­ment, Pow­der, Pearl, Porce­lain, Arc­tic, Alabaster, Ivory, Cot­ton, Rice, Cream; there were swatch­es with hip, new-cen­tu­ry names like Sea Salt, Mod­erne, and Ios, rank, sen­ti­men­tal names like Pacif­ic Mist and Antique Lace, and some he’d clear­ly mixed and named him­self, includ­ing “Dust Tooth” and “Meth Bag.” This made us all think of when, how, and why this prac­tice of nam­ing shades of wall paint had become so com­plex, and its impli­ca­tions; maybe it was about race, class, or domes­tic­i­ty, or labor. Maybe it was about art gal­leries or muse­ums. Hypothe­ses abound­ed, draw­ing dis­parate sub­ject mat­ters into prox­im­i­ty and argu­ing for the impor­tance of these asso­ci­a­tions, for their con­se­quen­tial­i­ty and new­ness, because that’s the plea­sure of the game, and that’s the game they faced after grad­u­a­tion, too. There were an awful lot of swatch­es just to make those kinds of points. What I saw was the stun­ning hint at infin­i­ty. The group seemed non­plussed by that; per­haps it was age. Hid­den Boy stood just bare­ly in the shad­ows, hands in his pock­ets. I noticed he wore an ecru t-shirt under a worn, white, businessman’s Oxford with painter’s pants, white cot­ton can­vas of the type avail­able in paint stores of old. They were splat­tered with roller spray. His can­vas high-tops were dirty white, and as the light rose and dimmed with pass­ing clouds and the day grew long, he began to fade into the walls behind him. Even his raven-black hair and light tan face blurred in the gloom.

The class for­mat is designed to encour­age self-direct­ed stu­dio prac­tice and basi­cal­ly con­sists of three ses­sions a week, eight hours each Mon­day – Wednes­day – Fri­day of free-range stu­dents with me float­ing among them to advise and “men­tor,” with group cri­tiques to mark things like midterms and finals. Every vis­it to Hid­den Boy, every cruise past his space, it would take me sev­er­al slow sec­onds to spot him. He was a chameleon, a moth on bark, a tiger in tall grass, a phas­mid. He was cam­ou­flaged, some­times inten­tion­al­ly as an act of art mak­ing, of per­for­mance; short­ly after his open­ing gam­bit he filled his stu­dio with scraps and strips of green images and mate­ri­als that hung from the ceil­ing and piled on the floor, derived from things like mag­a­zines and mail order cat­a­logs, plas­tic shop­ping bags and thrift store cloth­ing, and which he sewed into a kind of post­mod­ern ghillie suit. When he wore it, he was indis­tin­guish­able from his stu­dio habi­tat, though he was mon­strous and ter­ri­fy­ing in the hall. Some­times, as when he installed an elab­o­rate archi­tec­ture of charred scrap lum­ber that cov­ered his white clothes and brown limbs in char­coal dust, he was invis­i­ble as he worked but for his move­ments. For his midterm cri­tique, he paint­ed his near­ly nude body to match the pat­tern of the iron­work struc­ture in the base­ment ceil­ing and installed him­self there before hav­ing me ush­er his class­mates in to search for where and what the art might be this time, his limbs tense and shak­ing, span­ning the open bay between two fret­ted joists like a spi­der, hid­den in plain sight and invis­i­ble for the dura­tion of his per­for­mance, which was per­ceived only after the fact. Even for the brief peri­od when he was mak­ing plain old paint­ings on paper, iter­a­tion after iter­a­tion of still lifes of his stu­dio clut­ter, res­o­nant, splat­tery pic­tures of ten­den­tious­ly col­lect­ed books and cof­fee cups and paint cans and myr­i­ad oth­er objects, flat­tened in the scream­ing flu­o­res­cents and reflect­ed in his night-dark­ened win­dows, his clothes were marked up with the very same pig­ments, and his blue-black locks dis­ap­peared against the back­drop of win­ter gloom. I’d stand at the entrance to his space and scan, blink­ing, as though my eyes need­ed to widen and clear, my pupils to adjust. Some­times he’d reveal him­self. He’d smile at me slow­ly or move his arm in a del­i­cate wave and wait for me to see him. Oth­er times I’d be sure the shape in the shad­ows was a pile of his long limbs around a sketch­book, but the shape would shift and dis­solve back into the floor and walls and piles of mate­ri­als, and I’d see I’d been wrong all along. Oth­er times I was sure the space was vacant, only to hear his gen­tle, chid­ing greet­ing emerg­ing from the riot of things as I turned to leave.

When our Seniors return from their Spring Break on the final Mon­day in March, we expect them to com­mence pro­duc­tion of the work that will be exhib­it­ed in our stu­dent gallery as their BFA The­sis. At least, that’s how it had been. This year, Design need­ed the gallery, and our Fine Art majors were to install in the Botany build­ing. They could use any space, though, inside or out. This free­dom from for­mat served as con­so­la­tion, at least for me. Our stu­dents always made us proud with pol­ished, inter­est­ing, gallery-ready BFA shows, but our ban­ish­ment gave me a sense of relief and hope, like a caress of air from an open win­dow, in let­ting our “pro­fes­sion­al prac­tices” ped­a­gogy be a lit­tle less pro­fes­sion­al. I was excit­ed to see how they dealt with the decrepi­tude, the obscu­ri­ty, the lone­li­ness, with the knowl­edge that their audi­ence was just them. Their friends and fam­i­lies would come, enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly, proud and per­haps anx­ious about what respons­es they ought to have. They’d bring beer and cup­cakes and bags of chips and baby car­rots for the open­ing recep­tion, but oth­er than that, they would be most­ly baf­fled.

Our final cri­tique would be of the installed works. The Katherines—Kate, Kate­lyn, and Kath—collaborated on an instal­la­tion. Col­or­ful yarn—crocheted, knit­ted, knot­ted, and draped—snaked through and over the build­ing using archi­tec­ture and its fail­ures, wrapped earnest­ly around the building’s his­tor­i­cal and phys­i­cal prob­lems as though on spin­dles: the exposed gird­ers, the phal­lic lime­stone pinecones flank­ing the entrance, the mas­culin­ist, alle­gor­i­cal bas relief. The work was ide­o­log­i­cal and intense­ly pret­ty, strands of col­or in gor­geous knots and webs strung over grey plas­ter, radi­at­ing wooly warmth in shafts of sun­light from the old sky­lights. It was a nice piece. Jump and Malik had great bod­ies of paint­ings, Malik’s mon­u­men­tal and mul­ti­me­dia, installed as though at the Tate Mod­ern on smooth walls. Jump had a series of small, exquis­ite­ly craft­ed and obses­sive­ly detailed urban land­scapes of ruined indus­tri­al neigh­bor­hoods in the St. Louis that was the Emer­ald City to his farm life. Though they were hung casu­al­ly in a row in the long, first-floor hall­way, they were intend­ed to be viewed in a very spe­cif­ic order, one that would bring the view­er to an under­stand­ing of a walk­ing or work­ing body in time, space, and loca­tion. Of course, they couldn’t not do that; they were paint­ings, but the The­sis pro­to­col required an artist’s state­ment, stuck on the wall like an OSHA poster. Jump’s paint­ings were pre­dictably pop­u­lar open­ing night. My col­leagues snort­ed at this, but they real­ly were stun­ning, bright, airy, believ­able, com­pli­cat­ed, smart, and fun. Lisa had made sculp­tures, con­i­cal tow­ers of plas­tic kitsch and spray-paint­ed foam insu­la­tion, six, sev­en feet tall, which were like liv­ing beings in the gath­er­ing twi­light under the cop­per beech out­side the crit space win­dow.

Hid­den Boy—John—began his BFA The­sis work imme­di­ate­ly after break. That first Mon­day, his stu­dio had been swept clean, the walls patched and paint­ed. In the cen­ter of the space was a large, office paper shred­der. Next to it was a box of mate­ri­als, appar­ent­ly to be shred­ded, most­ly old draw­ings and paint­ings on paper or unstretched can­vas, some his, some donat­ed or scav­enged from the non-majors trash bins, but also office paper with text, aca­d­e­m­ic papers, office doc­u­ments and such, and junk mail includ­ing adver­tis­ing fliers and cred­it-card offers and the like. Almost half the space was occu­pied by dozens and dozens of clay flower pots, stacked accord­ing to size. He was nowhere to be found, and it wasn’t until I was deep in my last con­ver­sa­tion of the day, tour­ing the yarn instal­la­tion, that I heard the shred­der. By Wednes­day, the flower pots had been dis­trib­uted and filled with what was clear­ly the pul­ver­ized prod­uct of the shred­der mixed with ver­mi­culite and pot­ting soil. Maybe there were oth­er kinds of soil, too—local soils of dif­fer­ent types—because not all were the same col­or. Still no John, but as I looked close­ly, I saw that seeds had been dis­trib­uted among the pots of soils, some pushed down into a poke hole, oth­ers scat­tered on the sur­face. I didn’t rec­og­nize any of the species. Some were del­i­cate and tiny, like pop­pies or morn­ing glo­ries, oth­ers larg­er, and hulled, like sun­flow­ers or pump­kins, but the col­ors were pecu­liar: dull pinks and oranges, strange blues. Some of the seeds had a glit­tery sheen, a near­ly holo­graph­ic aspect. Some even appeared to be mov­ing, ever so slight­ly, as though the floor were puls­ing with loud music, or a small earth­quake. By that Fri­day, the pots had been watered and growth had begun, but these were like no seedlings I’d seen. All were far more advanced than would have been expect­ed. Some were long, rangy, and pale, translu­cent and almost white, striv­ing in crazy, loopy ten­drils towards the win­dows. Oth­ers were blunt, thick, and bul­let-shaped, with spiky sprouts like a pota­to or kohlra­bi, dull magen­ta or pur­ple with red or yel­low veins hoist­ing leaves like curly sails. I won­dered if the tox­ic heavy met­als, the cad­mi­ums, chromi­um, and lead in the old paint­ings, or oth­er mys­te­ri­ous indus­tri­al poi­sons in the shred­ded, repur­posed works were, at least in part, the caus­es of this strange­ness.

After my last con­ver­sa­tion, with Malik, I went back up to John’s stu­dio. The build­ing was emp­ty, and the win­dow­less halls were turn­ing blue-grey with the falling evening. In Hid­den Boy’s space, late after­noon light pro­ject­ed a line of rose-col­ored squares on the par­ti­tion wall. They danced light­ly with dap­pled shad­ow from the live oak. I star­tled when the build­ing set­tled loud­ly behind me—a nor­mal occur­rence, but it took a few sec­onds for the throb­bing rush of my pulse to recede from my ears and the tin­gle to crawl down from the nape of my neck and go dor­mant again. In the silence, I could hear my own heart­beat and the high pitch of my ner­vous sys­tem, tin­ni­tus in my left ear, my breath­ing, still heavy with reced­ing pan­ic, and some dis­tant sound of stu­dents shout­ing, prob­a­bly a soc­cer match or frat house bas­ket­ball game. And then I noticed some­thing else—noises like faint whin­ing and click­ing from the seedlings. They were mov­ing, def­i­nite­ly, slow­ly but per­cep­ti­bly, grow­ing before my eyes, send­ing tall stalks and vine-like appendages that would reach and curl and kink. Bright shoots unfurled, ter­mi­nat­ing in broad, quiv­er­ing leaves or offer­ing com­plex, radi­ant blos­soms that burst open before set­tling in del­i­cate twitch­es. I watched as berries formed, trans­par­ent and filled with sparkling seeds like stars, like tiny galax­ies. The air in the space bil­lowed gen­tly with new scents that were spicy, earthy, flo­ral, fecal, fun­gal. Shoots thick­ened, bulbs pushed up through the dirt, sprout­ing crowns of thick blades, green, red, orange. A woody vine as thick as my wrist had made its way down the hole in the floor where the radi­a­tor pipe came up; anoth­er had begun to bur­row into the plas­ter high up on the back wall, cut­ting a crum­bling ravine. The late spring evening was gen­tle and long, but as the light fad­ed, the plants had col­o­nized the room. The ceil­ing hung with vines. Bits of debris began to fall and scat­ter, fol­lowed by a plat­ter of plas­ter and lath that crashed down and shat­tered like a chi­na teacup. Lumi­nous white blos­soms the size of pie plates twirled open at my feet. Dark root-like struc­tures began to crawl over the floor, between me and the way out, and it was at that point that adren­a­line over­came aston­ish­ment, and I fled.

Fri­day night, late in the spring semes­ter, and my col­leagues were all home with their young fam­i­lies or on the town. I encoun­tered no one as I made my way to the park­ing lot over at the Design build­ing. My home was emp­ty of peo­ple since the mat­u­ra­tion of my chil­dren, my divorce, and the death of my part­ner near­ly five years ear­li­er; only my cat, a ridicu­lous crea­ture with a flat face and a bent tail, was there. He rubbed against my leg and I picked him up and cud­dled his heft as he trilled with plea­sure. By the time I had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to describe to anoth­er human being what I thought I had seen, I did not want to.

John was gone before the BFA The­sis Exhi­bi­tion open­ing. He had offi­cial­ly with­drawn from the pro­gram. Accord­ing to the Reg­is­trar, he had been called home due to a fam­i­ly situation—not an emer­gency, a “sit­u­a­tion.” The Reg­is­trar shrugged; that was all the infor­ma­tion he had. John’s email account should have con­tin­ued to work for a while, a cour­tesy accord­ed all fac­ul­ty, staff, and stu­dents who depart for any rea­son, but it did not. I couldn’t find him on social media; try doing a search on “John Doe.”

His stu­dio had been emp­tied of all art­works, mate­ri­als, and effects and swept clean, as was required by pol­i­cy, but as I inspect­ed it in the bright light of day, mak­ing one last check of the stu­dios before the oth­er stu­dents and their guests would arrive to cel­e­brate the first exhi­bi­tions of their pro­fes­sion­al lives, I noticed dark soil and glit­tery seeds pushed into the deep cracks of the ancient linoleum.

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

Thir­ty-three years ago, when I was still a stu­dent, I stopped writ­ing cre­ative­ly because I came up against the type of social appro­ba­tion writ­ers know well—angry fam­i­ly who sus­pect they are impli­cat­ed even in the con­vo­lu­tion and fan­cy of fic­tion and poet­ry. I start­ed again about fif­teen months ago because I’m old enough now to know that the cen­sor­ship was wrong, and oppres­sive (cer­tain­ly gen­der played a big role, espe­cial­ly giv­en my gen­er­a­tion), and it’s time to own all my impuls­es. After so many years of mak­ing most­ly only paint­ed pic­tures I want­ed to use ver­bal lan­guage in ser­vice of my art again and final­ly feel enti­tled to speak and able to con­cen­trate. My words had been most­ly ephemer­al, spo­ken, in ser­vice of dai­ly life. Many of my favorite phras­es, my best jokes, were there­fore evap­o­rat­ed. When writ­ten they’d served most­ly obligations—professional oblig­a­tions like let­ters, artist’s state­ments, course descrip­tions, emails; per­son­al ones like con­do­lences, obit­u­ar­ies, legal and busi­ness correspondence—although I’ve had the great hon­or of writ­ing essays for a few won­der­ful edi­tors, with impor­tant projects. My visu­al work has always been about sto­ries, but with­out words, they make use of a kind of mute­ness and still­ness, as pic­tures do; their rela­tion­ship to nar­ra­tive is by impli­ca­tion. Paint­ings do things that words don’t, of course; they offer sen­sa­tion of col­or, record of ges­ture, and their pres­ence as objects in the world, but writ­ten lan­guage is adja­cent and vis­i­ble ter­ri­to­ry for me, aban­doned long ago, and I am ready to set up shop there once again.

Hid­den Boy” came about for sim­ple and obvi­ous rea­sons relat­ed to my years of teach­ing art in the acad­e­my where the acad­e­my lives in cap­i­tal­ism, and cap­i­tal­ism warps art in its own image. It is cer­tain­ly an alle­go­ry, but also a lamen­ta­tion as well as an opti­mistic doc­u­ment. It is a reflec­tion of my stu­dents’ frus­tra­tion and sur­prise when they are forced to prune their art into metaphor­i­cal top­i­ary for insti­tu­tion­al gar­dens, to tame it for white walls in safe spaces, and to serve the cause of aes­thet­ic encryp­tion and the tyran­ny of the new, but it’s also an appre­ci­a­tion of them: their beau­ty, their gen­eros­i­ty, and the per­sis­tence of their cre­ativ­i­ty.

 

Best known for paint­ings of mutant ani­mals in lurid, over­grown land­scapes, Lau­rie Hogin exam­ines human desires and needs, includ­ing plea­sure, vio­lence, greed, and love, describ­ing polit­i­cal, eco­nom­ic, and emo­tion­al phe­nom­e­na. Her work has been exhib­it­ed nation­al­ly and inter­na­tion­al­ly for 23 years, and is in mul­ti­ple pub­lic and pri­vate col­lec­tions. Hogin lives and works in Mahomet, Illi­nois, with her hus­band, their 15-year-old son, and some ani­mals. She is a Pro­fes­sor of Paint­ing at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois. 

 

Three Works

Art / Laurie Hogin

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

Pic­tures are ide­o­log­i­cal; pic­to­r­i­al con­ven­tions imply nar­ra­tives: his­tor­i­cal­ly, land­scape, still life, por­trai­ture; now, adver­tis­ing, cin­e­ma, Insta­gram. I hybridize strate­gies from painting’s his­to­ry with con­tem­po­rary pic­to­r­i­al con­ven­tions. Species are alle­gor­i­cal and are mutat­ed, exag­ger­at­ed, or degrad­ed: they are lurid hues of big-box store com­modi­ties and pix­i­lat­ed palettes; their mor­phol­o­gy resem­bles toys and car­toons, the lit­er­al embod­i­ment of all they live with. They inhab­it places that are over­grown or apoc­a­lyp­tic, flo­res­cent and flu­o­res­cent.

Dio­ra­ma with Xanax and Bruised Fruit

Dio­ra­mas have fas­ci­nat­ed me ever since child­hood. They are ten­den­tious nar­ra­tives about nature, frozen in time, dead yet pre­sent­ed as though liv­ing. They rep­re­sent cer­tain cul­tur­al prac­tices regard­ing “nature”: impe­ri­al­ism, con­sumerism, tran­scen­den­tal­ism, spir­i­tu­al­i­ty, poet­ry, and even ratio­nal­ist philoso­phies incept­ed by immer­sion in “the nat­ur­al world.” Dio­ra­mas were like alter­nate homes to me, spaces where time was sus­pend­ed and I imag­ined I was safe from my real life, and the still­ness, death, and arti­fice meant I was safe from real, raw nature. I’ve done at least a hun­dred “dio­ra­ma” works where­in the plants and ani­mals have been invad­ed, poi­soned, mutat­ed, or oth­er­wise inflect­ed with over­whelm­ing and inap­pro­pri­ate chemistries. In this one, the fruits are the col­ors of bruised flesh, sug­gest­ing that vio­lence has influ­enced the ecosys­tem. The pres­ence of the drug is an attempt to ame­lio­rate its effects. These ref­er­ences to vio­lence and drugs are intend­ed to present a nar­ra­tive metaphor for any num­ber of sit­u­a­tions in which “poi­son­ing” and “pal­li­a­tion” may be oper­a­tive.

Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal Guinea Pigs (Prozac)

Prozac is one of the works in the first series of Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal Guinea Pigs, which has four sim­i­lar pink, toothed, unset­tled, mutant guinea pigs, each named for an anti­de­pres­sant. I use the guinea pig as an icon of sci­en­tif­ic objec­ti­fi­ca­tion and exper­i­ment, because it is a lab­o­ra­to­ry ani­mal (and they are shaped like pills!), to sug­gest that our pos­i­tivist cul­ture puts greater faith in phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal inter­ven­tion in mood process­es than per­haps it should. Prob­a­bly some­times low mood is endoge­nous; clear­ly, many times it is nar­ra­tive, result­ing from trau­ma. My guinea pigs sug­gest that med­icat­ing for emo­tions can be prob­lem­at­ic.

Amyg­dala Cranes

The amyg­dala, a region of the brain involved in moti­va­tion, emo­tion, and emo­tion­al behav­ior, is acti­vat­ed by all sen­so­ry expe­ri­ences. Research sug­gests it plays a role in acqui­si­tion and con­sol­i­da­tion of emo­tion­al­ly charged mem­o­ries. I’m inter­est­ed in how such mem­o­ries become lan­guage, sym­bols, and metaphors, and how sen­so­ry inputs like col­or, sound, scent, phys­i­cal pain, plea­sure, or social and emo­tion­al con­text devel­op latent mean­ings through asso­ci­a­tion with ear­li­er expe­ri­ence and sub­se­quent nam­ing, cat­e­go­riza­tion, and nar­ra­tive. This paint­ing was part of a solo exhi­bi­tion titled Amyg­dala. Top­ics in that show includ­ed the idea that rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al strate­gies and ges­tures inher­ent in paint­ing present mem­o­ry and emo­tion­al expe­ri­ence as simul­ta­ne­ous­ly embod­ied and sym­bol­ized. Cranes engage in courtship dances, a fact which occa­sions many hypothe­ses about the nature of the emo­tion­al, embod­ied expe­ri­ences of what we call love and the many ways in which those expe­ri­ences are rei­fied in lan­guage and cul­ture.

 

Best known for paint­ings of mutant ani­mals in lurid, over­grown land­scapes, Lau­rie Hogin exam­ines human desires and needs, includ­ing plea­sure, vio­lence, greed, and love, describ­ing polit­i­cal, eco­nom­ic, and emo­tion­al phe­nom­e­na. Her work has been exhib­it­ed nation­al­ly and inter­na­tion­al­ly for 23 years, and is in mul­ti­ple pub­lic and pri­vate col­lec­tions. Hogin lives and works in Mahomet, Illi­nois, with her hus­band, their 15-year-old son, and some ani­mals. She is a Pro­fes­sor of Paint­ing at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois.

Two Poems

Poetry / Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib

:: The Four Seasons – “December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)” ::

my father comes from a place
where at least the churches

weren’t blown from their foundations
while little girls prayed to a god

busy cleaning the floors of their rooms
in a heaven not on fire

I say I have arrived and the black people in the room hear
No one was eager enough to see my father dead

the story, as I have heard it told, says that winter was a blessing
for those who needed a place to hide a body in the north

in the south, before the world began to swallow itself, it never snowed
the bridges would sag with the weight of death

it is romantic, what the ocean lapping at your brothers blood
will drive you to on the perfect night

there is the joke written by men
about how virgins will be the only ones spared in the horror film

the horror film, as I understand it,
has never had any intention of sparing me

oh, undertaker
I am beneath you again tonight

forgive the clumsiness with which I drown
in your endless feathers

watch, as I press my lips to your neck
and vanish from all of my baby pictures



:: Carly Rae Jepsen – “E•MOTION” ::

There is more than one way to cov­er a tem­ple in plat­inum. Maybe we both long for an era when there were less things to record death. In the inter­view, they asked if you believe in love at first sight. You said I think I have to. You didn’t say we are all one hard storm away from dis­solv­ing, van­ish­ing into the fren­zied dusk. But I get it. I know what it is to walk into the mouth of an unfa­mil­iar morn­ing and feel every­thing. I touch hands with a stranger who gives me my change at the mar­ket, and I already know their his­to­ry. I sup­pose this is sur­vival. I will love those who no one else thinks to remem­ber. This is all that is promised: there will be a decade you are born, and a decade that you will not make it out of alive. All of the rooftops where the par­ties were in the year of my becom­ing are now dust. No one dances so close to the sky any­more. I say I, too, am a roman­tic, and I mean I nev­er expect­ed to sur­vive this long. I have infi­nite skin. I keep dry when the rain comes. There will always be anoth­er era of bright suits that don’t quite fit, but must. There will always be a year where the cam­eras are hun­gry for what­ev­er sins we can stran­gle out of the night. There will always be anoth­er spoon for boys to lick the sug­ar from.

 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

This is per­haps a lit­tle fun­ny, but I became inter­est­ed in explor­ing all of the songs that I didn’t know were about sex until a time much lat­er than my first lis­ten. I start­ed going back and mak­ing a mix­tape, of sorts. “Songs that I didn’t know where about sex when I was younger.” I start­ed writ­ing poems using the songs (or albums) as a prompt, but I was inter­est­ed in writ­ing poems about my fears and anx­i­eties, as opposed to just poems say­ing “Hey! This is a song about sex and I had no idea!”

I feel like I enjoy this process so much because it takes me back to my ear­li­est con­sump­tion of these songs. I got to be obliv­i­ous to them, and build my own place where they were about what I need­ed them to be. I like doing it with new­er music as well. Songs and albums that I love and know exact­ly what they’re about, but want to see what might be rest­ing under­neath the sur­face for me. It’s like I’m approach­ing every­thing with new ears and eyes. It is maybe the clos­est I’ve been to writ­ing erot­i­cal­ly, in a sense. It feels like I’m undress­ing the bed­room and putting up fresh wall­pa­per, new cur­tains.

 

Hanif Willis-Abdur­raqib is a poet, essay­ist, and cul­tur­al crit­ic from Colum­bus, Ohio. He is a poet­ry edi­tor at Muz­zle Mag­a­zine, a colum­nist at MTV News, and a Callaloo cre­ative writ­ing fel­low. His first col­lec­tion of poems, The Crown Ain’t Worth Much, is being released in 2016 by But­ton Poetry/Exploding Pinecone Press.

from rcvrdtxt

Poetry / Matt Trease

:: from rcvrdtxt ::

rec: 09:51:08
fr: unknown

sHe wS bOrn w/ rOsEs
iN hEr i’S & I’m
luKnG2 sTeEl a
bEauTifUl iMg N
uNuSuaL PrCeduRe
wRitTn iN stOne. I
jSt hV 2 cHop oFf
thEse hNds

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

This poem was com­posed on Twit­ter via my Motoro­la Rzr phone in north Mil­wau­kee in Jan­u­ary of 2009. For 20 days in a row, I would set an alarm on my phone to go off at a par­tic­u­lar time dur­ing the day (e.g., 3:15pm, 7pm, 11:30pm, etc.). When it went off, I would stop what I was doing and com­pose a 140-char­ac­ter poem on the spot using lan­guage I found around me at the time. My goal was to try to make these as expan­sive as pos­si­ble, so I took the log­ic of SMS abbre­vi­a­tions to an extreme, leav­ing out near­ly all the vow­els and quite a few unnec­es­sary con­so­nants. I also embraced mis­spellings that con­veyed more the sound of the words. A few years lat­er, I pulled them off my Twit­ter archive and noticed how they resem­bled these recov­ered arti­facts of a near-extinct era of media, so I reframed them as these arche­o­log­i­cal finds, recov­ered com­mu­ni­ca­tions, not unlike the palimpsest texts found among the tombs of ancient Egypt, hence the title of the chap­book-length col­lec­tion this poem comes from, rcvrdtxt. In the process of putting the man­u­script togeth­er, I added the line breaks and cap­i­tal­iza­tions, and I made some minor edits for clar­i­ty.

 

Matt Trease is an artist, IT Admin­is­tra­tor, and astrol­o­gy junkie liv­ing in Seat­tle, WA. His poems have appeared in The Cordite Poet­ry Review, fill­ing Sta­tion, Otoliths, VLAK, small po®tions, Juked, Hotel Ameri­ka, Fact Sim­i­le, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. He is the author of the chap­book Lat­er Heav­en: Pro­duc­tion Cycles (busylittle1way designs, 2013).

Guten Abend, Gute Nacht

Poetry / C. Samuel Rees

:: Guten Abend, Gute Nacht ::

          ...what America did you have when Charon quit poling his ferry
          and you got out on a smoking bank and stood watching the boat disappear 
          on the black waters of Lethe?
                    —Allen Ginsberg, “A Supermarket in California”

Lethe, they might call it, back East, your tongue less 
Sheol, less leather, less an excuse laid out for your teeth 
to mull. Here, it’s Stanislaus County dirt. A stone bought maybe
by the second family, maybe by the state. Just because maps
self-till, a potter’s field doesn’t slip mask as easy as you,
John Joseph, never Jack, kin to the Carpathians our blood 
crossed & recrossed like a great-great-great grandfather’s 
tongue trekking Yiddish & German & English easy as a finger 
plotting over scale drawings of the Rockies, in Rosenheim, 
in Philadelphia, at the kitchen door where deer spores strung 
farms like ley lines. John Joseph a micrography of beasts: foxes wired 
to fence posts, thorny lizard caltrops, horse cripplers, poisoned bulls 
rendered to squat malignant boot leather threatening to flee 
westward facing windows. This was his head, these his heels. Our gravestones face 
east, face west, who knows where the Old Deutsch god will rise up on us. 
Who dressed you with cold water? After the county sawbones extracted 
a gallstone the size of an eagle egg. After a bad twist closed the gap between 
workhorse, right leg, hardpan. After you choked on a pearl onion. After cooing 
our old words to your new sons, Guten abend, gute nacht, through lips gone 
soft with the miles between your former winter garden, the hawks nailed 
under barnstars, your past children sleepless tributaries polluted by runoff 
words, a wound, verletzt, your buried word. Our shadow word. Parting gift rutted 
so deep direction’s lost itself out where meaning is bloody, bone-ripped, a bad 
break swollen purple, a split heel, festered callus, lockjaw. Ah, copperhead, 
daguerreotype, barely whiffed family legend, land’s assembly of indecipherable 
bones, what crossed your mind when America popped the side door, 
stood you on the runner and, like mist lying about the difference between 
a deadfall and fata morgana, whispered a town so far-off 
your tongue could barely see for the distance laid down? 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

John Joseph Urban, my great-great-great grand­fa­ther, came to Amer­i­ca in 1903. In 1925, he aban­doned his fam­i­ly. His wife, Anna, dis­cov­ered he remar­ried in Min­neso­ta. A cen­sus put him in Mon­tana in 1930. Draft records show he lived in Cal­i­for­nia dur­ing WWII. In 2014, we found him in Stanis­laus Coun­ty, CA. He’d been buried in 1944. A grave reg­istry has a pic­ture of his grave­stone. It is rough­ly the size of a cin­der block. That stone is the only account we have of his final nine­teen years.

Guten Abend, Gute Nacht is a nekyia, or “night jour­ney by sea.” In Book 11 of The Odyssey, Odysseus descends into the Under­world to ques­tion the prophet Teiresias’s shade about the future. To sur­mise the past, I ask ques­tions of John Joseph: mak­ing assump­tions about his depar­ture and map­ping his motives. But, to bor­row from Mark Strand, the “maps are black, ris­ing from noth­ing, describ­ing … their own voy­age, its empti­ness.” As much as I recon­struct John Joseph’s life, I also nav­i­gate my own dif­fi­cul­ty under­stand­ing why he chose to dis­ap­pear.

I start and end respond­ing to the final lines of Ginsberg’s “A Super­mar­ket in Cal­i­for­nia.” Like Gins­berg cruis­ing gro­cery store aisles con­vers­ing with Whitman’s ghost, I track John Joseph’s shade cruis­ing a gone Amer­i­can land­scape con­vers­ing with his inten­tions, their impact.

 

C. Samuel Rees has been pub­lished or is forth­com­ing in The Fairy Tale Review, Bor­der­lands: Texas Poet­ry Review, Per­mafrost, Raw Paw, Pit­head Chapel, JMWW, and Row Home Lit. Two poems are fea­tured in upcom­ing antholo­gies, The Dead Ani­mal Hand­book (Uni­ver­si­ty of Hell Press, 2016) and a col­lec­tion of South­west per­sona poems by Dos Gatos Press. Cur­rent­ly he works as an edu­ca­tor in Austin, TX, where he writes poet­ry and reads about deserts.

Two Poems

Poetry / Virginia Konchan

:: Nativity Scene ::

          after Gauguin

Loosened upon a canary divan, 
within a thatched hut

in a village beside the sea,
I have a foothold in consciousness,

yet am possessed by the idea of none.
Thus, ocean breezes.

Thus, the molten purr
of a kitten at my knee.

My wet nurse is near,
with my infant in arms.

Search not, art critic, for the apotheosis
—famine, fire, flood—in this frame.

Painting restorationist, the broken object
in this painting is not my body, it is me.



:: My Body, a Wunderkammer ::

I am at peace with factoids
and the finite world of objects.

Cradling the third law 
of thermodynamics

to my cheek, forehead,
breast, I sleep like

a babe on crack,
purged by the fires

of truth: love lives on
in the Andromeda Galaxy,

supernova of neon desire 
meeting its operational double

on the Cartesian Plane,
liquidated referents

sheltered by the downy fluff
of the imaginary, no more.



 

From the writer

:: Account ::

Nativ­i­ty Scene” and “My Body, a Wun­derkam­mer” open­ly acknowl­edge the inter­fer­en­tial real­i­ty in which we have con­scious­ness and write the oth­er. These poems are excerpt­ed from a larg­er work fea­tur­ing women artists who have been writ­ten or over­writ­ten by male fig­ures. The female speak­er of “Nativ­i­ty Scene,” for exam­ple, speaks to an art crit­ic, then a paint­ing restora­tionist, advis­ing how the depict­ed scene and its recon­sti­tu­tion, as an image, should be viewed. These poems oppose West­ern bina­ries for effect (subject/object, mind/body, sci­en­tif­ic discourse/art) and take place at the inter­sec­tion of the vir­tu­al and actu­al worlds, logos and image, amid tropes of sin­gu­lar­i­ty and dou­bling. I am inter­est­ed in delib­er­ate­ly con­struct­ed and per­for­ma­tive inte­ri­ors, in the lega­cy of Ash­bery, but also in exper­i­men­tal women’s writ­ing, where­in lan­guage, sub­jec­tiv­i­ty, and gen­der are forms of stag­ing and play. Last­ly, I’m drawn to the dilem­ma of rep­re­sen­ta­tion and self-alien­ation. To write is to rep­re­sent; to rep­re­sent is to lose the imme­di­a­cy of self-pres­ence; to pub­lish is to risk enter­ing into an econ­o­my of unequal exchange. How can the capa­cious­ness of mind and, for that mat­ter, the body, under these con­di­tions, be por­trayed? This ques­tion can only be answered by each spe­cif­ic paint­ing, poem, and objec­tive cor­rel­a­tive to an imma­te­r­i­al idea whose con­tent (or self) is cre­at­ed as it mate­ri­al­izes, in form.

 

Author of the poet­ry chap­book Vox Pop­uli (Fin­ish­ing Line Press, 2015) and a col­lec­tion of short sto­ries, Anatom­i­cal Gift (Noc­tu­ary Press, forth­com­ing), Vir­ginia Kon­chan’s poems have appeared in The New York­er, Best New Poets, The Believ­er, Boston Review, and The New Repub­lic. Co-founder of Mat­ter, a jour­nal of poet­ry and polit­i­cal com­men­tary, she lives in Mon­tre­al.

Nine Haiku from a College with Open Admissions

Poetry / Jessica Johnson

:: Nine Haiku from a College with Open Admissions ::

North horizon, clouds frayed
Parking lot, woman sobbing
on the steering wheel

---

Grass tufts, winter-cut
Shrub-branch-tangle, winter-bare
Buried crocuses

---

They weave through the lanes
hunting for parking, place-starved
blind to each other

---

Outside class the rain
swirling, the sign revolving—
Taboo Video

---

Hunched under his hat
a scabbed boy at the bus stop
Outskirts a no-place

---

Words on the page like
unknown creatures in the brush
We guess at meanings

---

Softening in sleep
the students’ fingers slip from
their cans of Monster

---

I recall thinking
I’d receive a future as 
one receives a gift

---

Toddlers in the hall—
bruised sidewalk cherry blossoms
the wind dying down



 

From the writer

:: Account ::

I teach full-time at a com­mu­ni­ty col­lege cam­pus that serves East Port­land, a long, flat grid of streets that was annexed into Port­land, Ore­gon in the eight­ies but has not ben­e­fit­ed from the ser­vices and urban plan­ning for which Port­land is famous. With the least expen­sive hous­ing in a rapid­ly gen­tri­fy­ing city, the neigh­bor­hood absorbs long­time Port­landers dis­placed from the inner city, immi­grant and refugee com­mu­ni­ties, and oth­ers arriv­ing in the city with few resources. Like many com­mu­ni­ty col­lege stu­dents, ours strug­gle in con­crete ways. Dur­ing the school year, the part of me that can write poems exists in brief moments between dead­lines. I wrote these haiku after stum­bling on Tav­ern Books’ beau­ti­ful edi­tion of Tomas Tranströmer’s Prison: Nine Haiku from Häll­by Youth Prison, trans­lat­ed by Male­na Mör­ling. Tranströmer’s haiku were part of a per­son­al cor­re­spon­dence with anoth­er poet, writ­ten when he was work­ing with incar­cer­at­ed young peo­ple at a remote prison. Tranströmer’s haiku sub­tly invoke the shape of the young pris­on­ers’ expe­ri­ence, and I found in them a pre­cise med­i­ta­tion on what we do when we imprison peo­ple. In the space between my job and my read­ing of Tranströmer, these poems emerged.

 

Jes­si­ca John­son is a com­mu­ni­ty col­lege instruc­tor in Port­land, Ore­gon, where she lives with her hus­band and small chil­dren. Her poems and essays have appeared in Tin House; Paris Review; Brain, Child; and Har­vard Review, among oth­er jour­nals. In Absolutes We Seek Each Oth­er, a chap­book, was recent­ly pub­lished by DIAGRAM/New Michi­gan Press.

Two Poems

Poetry / Kevin Craft

:: Untitled #10 ::

Is that you looking over my shoulder Mark
Rothko looking like 1952 all over again the rainbow
harrowed prismatic glances shy like a planter’s
bed a seeded cloud color seeping from your eyes
into mine Mark Rothko the halves and hues of a livelong

day is that you gliding through Cold War violets
the Red Scare and Bikini Atoll flashes to radical dust

let’s get under our desks let’s bivouac like Eisenhower
like ROYGBIV under the atmosphere the atomized beef
is that you in the bar code of spectral analysis you the iron
shine in an old sun’s gut that’s where it ends
where the photon perishes and we won’t know it

for eight minutes more the light behind light’s own
nuclear suffusion I see you everywhere Mark Rothko

in leaf sight and skydive swimming pool and switchyard
the eyes are the window of the eyes are the harrow
of pigment your witness your layer lament
we are close to overlapping our one mind divided
horizon your still life displacement your ground is there

a better self a clearer camouflage than plain
sight where the actuarial tables are drawn in our favor

the child still stuck beneath his linoleum shield
every day shadeless like shame in the blood
like a televised memory a blacklist I have touched
one or two radiant faces in my time hands
down this too shall be seen through and erstwhile

averted like a star hung nebula absolving all vector 
the runway generation scattered in flight



:: Persona Non Grata ::

          …and indeed were not particularly welcome in any of the states—
          the vagrants, old soldiers, travelling theatrical companies, pedlars—
          all these silted up on the frontier like floating rubbish on a river’s banks.
                    —Penelope Fitzgerald

I wore a mask made of holes,
none of which weep. I was armed
like a gladiator to face assimilated sheep.

I could only nod or shake, never blink,
never strike like a bowling ball
in a back alley brawl. I was a chain letter 

composed of missing links. It wasn’t my style
to menace or gloat.
Here’s what I learned: like a bowling ball

tossed into the drink, half of us sink
and half of us float. Which is why it took so long
for Shelley, billowing in Ligurian troughs,

to wash up on a Pisan beach.
He had to have it both ways, coursing
off course, whereas I rode out of town

on my own stalking horse. Archimedes
sank into his Syracusan bath
and came out the other side, thin

as a meniscus, having moved the Earth
with javelin shade. He did the math,
but still this could not save him

from a Roman soldier’s blade. Likewise, Ovid
in a Black Sea arcade. How do you translate
solitary confinement?

Jade is rarely prized among the jaded,
carnelian among the Gorgon’s foes.
Imagine, for the first time, those follicles

writhing, those sutures erupting
with tectonic woe. When only rivers
balk and cry, ask another banished hero 

to look her in the eye. (Not every tear’s
a crocodile lurking in the Nile.) Like a masquerade,
coastal Campania is riddled with caves.

My descendants are the gawkers and gapers
of Neapolis, the fumaroles and forked
tongues of Phlegraean fields who haven’t lost

their touch so much as fled
to cigarettes and convertibles
in Nyack, New York. They know

the secret stares of peacocks, the audible
of the pass rush, the vigilance of thunder. 
They know the prescription

for ancient hangovers: seven laps
around the gridiron, one for every sage
or wonder. One Mississippi, two Mississippi…

the underworld holds nothing new.
Believe you me, I wore myself out
trying to escape from view.



 

From the writer

:: Account ::

The thing I love most about poet­ry is compression—how a poem lay­ers expe­ri­ence, like the sed­i­men­ta­ry strip­ing of a riv­er canyon or the exca­vat­ed foun­da­tions of an ancient city. In this way a poem embraces com­plex­i­ty, messi­ness, flu­id­i­ty: lives stacked on lives, the hereto­fore invis­i­ble inter­con­nect­ed­ness of mate­r­i­al real­i­ty revealed in the zigzag com­po­si­tion of the line. A poem is curvi­lin­ear, satel­lite to a cer­tain grav­i­ty, its arc bend­ing toward accountability—if not jus­tice, exact­ly, then pointed—with know­ing uncertainty—toward wis­dom and delight.

In my own prac­tice, this com­pres­sion takes on sev­er­al dimen­sions: I am fond of incon­gruity, and find great plea­sure in strad­dling tones—the tragi­com­ic yoke of arche­type and auto­bi­og­ra­phy fused (not to say con­fused) in “serioludere,”—serious play. The Fool in Shake­speare, Erasmus’s “In Praise of Folly”—these are my sem­i­nal texts.

Per­sona Non Gra­ta” began as I was think­ing about the dou­ble-edged play­ful­ness of this line from Valéry: “a lion is assim­i­lat­ed sheep.” On one hand, it seemed like a wry equa­tion for metaphor mak­ing, on the oth­er a ter­ri­ble vision of the rela­tion­ship between the pow­er­ful and pow­er­less. Even­tu­al­ly, the arche­type of the exile or unwel­come fig­ure began to inter­sect with my own dis­con­nect­ed fam­i­ly his­to­ry. “Unti­tled #10” sees the Cold War through the col­or field abstrac­tions of Mark Rothko, which radi­ate his­to­ry on a dif­fer­ent fre­quen­cy, like birds that see in ultra­vi­o­let or infrared. I was drawn to the chal­lenge of abstract ekphra­sis, of lis­ten­ing in to the lan­guage of col­or. In both poems, the trick in com­pres­sion is slow rev­e­la­tion: a poem dis­cov­ers itself only grad­u­al­ly, in dif­fer­ent lights and weath­ers, over time. I hope a read­er sees in them many oth­er things besides.

 

Kevin Craft lives in Seat­tle and directs the Writ­ten Arts Pro­gram at Everett Com­mu­ni­ty Col­lege. He also teach­es at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Washington’s Rome Cen­ter, and served as edi­tor of Poet­ry North­west from 2009 – 2016. His first book, Solar Promi­nence (2005), was select­ed by Vern Rut­sala for the Gorsline Prize from Cloud­bank Books. A new col­lec­tion, Vagrants & Acci­den­tals, will be pub­lished by Uni­ver­si­ty of Wis­con­sin Press in 2017.

In Orbit

Poetry / James Hoch

:: In Orbit ::

Some days I want the world to be you sleeping on your side,
the world to seem itself, oscillating in the mirror of stars.

I want our son to come home from school and tell me he has not
rehearsed his own murder on the rank tile of a bathroom floor.

When I ask what else did he learn, he’ll say it was ice, huge
block killed off the dinosaurs, then off-handed, something about

the force of dark matter every 32 million years or so.
Some days I want the world to be less inevitable, less a bullet 

chambered in the rifle of a man who has chambered his rage,
less an orbiting body taking whatever the universe hurls.

It’s a hard ask, and who would I—the gods waiting to be gods?
The poets shrugging off their own beauty? Resistance is futile

say the aliens to the colonized before they are beamed into 
the dark hull of a silver ship to serve as intergalactic slaves. 

Do you see how we play history like an instruction manual?
How we yoke our days to the past and future and mule them

around all night? But this day, I take an axe to the recursive. 
I say our son does not die, the world is the ocean in your hair,

a peach one summer in Oregon, how clear-eyed we were 
watching the boy running in and out of the still cold surf.



From the writer

:: Account ::

It’s an inex­cus­able fuck­ing shame that we live in a time when chil­dren are asked to rehearse hid­ing from a gun-wield­ing intrud­er as part of their school day. And there is this new­er notion in astro­physics regard­ing a belt of dark mat­ter that alters celes­tial bod­ies. Some­how the two entered my head in some rela­tion. As a father and teacher, I get so over­whelmed with the weight of threat that I come home beg­ging for release. I fear the inter­nal­iza­tion of cat­a­stro­phe has become the norm by which we live. I fear the inter­nal­iza­tion of fear is a mal­for­ma­tion of the soul. One gets tired of beg­ging. One gets too angry to cope. Why not demand oth­er? Why not resist?

 

James Hoch’s poems have appeared in The New Repub­licSlate, Amer­i­can Poet­ry Review, New Eng­land Review, Ploughshares, Vir­ginia Quar­ter­ly Review, and many oth­er mag­a­zines. His first book, A Parade of Hands, won the Ger­ald Cable Award (Sil­ver­fish Review Press, 2003). His most recent book is Mis­cre­ants (W. W. Nor­ton, 2007). He has received fel­low­ships from the NEA, Bread Loaf, and Sewa­nee. He is Pro­fes­sor of Cre­ative Writ­ing at Ramapo Col­lege of NJ and Guest Fac­ul­ty at Sarah Lawrence.

A Span of Haven

Poetry / Lauren Camp

:: A Span of Haven ::

What minutes, minutes slide and spread
into the solid blue. What miracle of night,
and morning, mourn with me whatever vow,
now whatever loss then loops or steps, because I loved 
what heart and what we hold the longest. Everything 
has been and gone, gone on
what back we rose today beneath the mind what hour 
when the call the knock and so forth what we said. What mind 
she has, or if she leaves, what if we’re running 
out of days, what leg what arm to turn or lift,
and rings and rings within the rim 
of dust damn life what gash what bruise
and breathing. This capsuled world but this is what 
is held and slipping from what yet ourselves 
and love and what we’re saying. Here there is everything: and tears, 
what cords, and who has said goodbye, what retinue
and schedule slopped on several papers, who sees and knows
the open doors, old wounds and fans, and folds
of sheet, what blue, and blue again, what measure on hour 
of water, what messages and what exceeds 
within repose are flecks of snore-wound words, what picture 
perfect strew of sky laid long above her, what fingers do 
when aching. What is forgotten is still around. Gather, tuck 
and sit, then quick and hearken when she moans, we never look 
for need, know only from the touching. As end reminds, 
our voice is nice within the hem of sleep within 
syringe, as distant mooring.



From the writer

:: Account ::

This poem is about the vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty and gen­eros­i­ty that dark­ness offers. I wrote “A Span of Haven” as some­one close to me was dying in the oth­er room. I wrote between mor­phine dos­es and oxy­gen tank rear­rang­ing, as the Hos­pice nurse came and went, as sad­ness flared and calmed. I wrote while she slept and while oth­er fam­i­ly mem­bers sat with her.

I always read many things at once, but around that time, I was deeply moved by Philip Levine’s “They Feed They Lion” and awed by the audi­ble sound pow­er of the poem. Craft­ing syn­tax is one way I work to cre­ate some­thing true. By plac­ing, shap­ing, and shift­ing sounds and phras­es, I begin to bal­ance fric­tion and calm. This allows me to mim­ic what I am expe­ri­enc­ing.

Ever since I was a child, I’ve writ­ten when things are rough. When every­thing is joy­ful, I’m too busy to cap­ture it. I’m not inter­est­ed then. I begin a poem when there is some­thing to under­stand, when what I am feel­ing is not explic­it­ly avail­able to me. If I am filled with a sense of walk­ing through dark­ness, by writ­ing, I begin to ren­der some light.

 

Lau­ren Camp is the author of three books, most recent­ly One Hun­dred Hungers (Tupe­lo Press, 2016), which won the Dorset Prize. Her poems appear in New Eng­land Review, Poet­ry Inter­na­tion­al, World Lit­er­a­ture Today, Beloit Poet­ry Jour­nal, and else­where. Oth­er lit­er­ary hon­ors include the Mar­garet Ran­dall Poet­ry Prize, an Anna David­son Rosen­berg Award, and a Black Earth Insti­tute Fel­low­ship. She is the pro­duc­er and host of San­ta Fe Pub­lic Radio’s “Audio Saucepan,” which entwines music with con­tem­po­rary poet­ry. www.laurencamp.com.

Two Poems

Poetry / Destiny O. Birdsong

:: A Theory of Intimacy ::

Sometimes I want a man not to touch me. 
I want us to sit on opposite ends of the couch 
And eat Doritos, like that time me and David emptied 
The box of ice cream bars in his jeep outside Walgreens.
I was twenty and my stomach would take anything. 
Sometimes I want a man to wrap himself around me
So tightly that I forget where I end. Or that I have 
An end, and I become the whole room: tympanic, with granules 
Of starlight singing in me like shards of milk. 
At sixteen I thought cramps and sadness would kill me. 
They could walk through me at any moment; I was an airport chapel 
Of dimmed lights and poems written by white men, and they
Were as formless as the demons who carried away Tony Goldwyn 
In Ghost. Men I still love have turned into these. Sometimes, 
I come close enough to watch them sleeping
Just to see if I can detect the moment it happens. 



:: Another Theory of Intimacy ::

I’m done with the pleurisy of desire, its 
prickly bloat buffeting the ribcage, 

its tendency to render me prone, its 
exhaustion. There must be better ways

of suffering each other. Like the way I offer 
him cookies one by one, and how

he takes them gingerly, as if they’re 
pictures of our children. How he under-

stands the sanctity of sugar. How,
in taking, his fingertips graze my lunulae.

How, hours later, each point of contact 
plumes into a phantom itch. He’s gone. 	

Call it love, the quilled beast who has learned 
to mimic a cooing child while chewing 

pumpkin, except the pumpkin 
is a barbed ransom I hold to my chest 

to lure him back, away from the woman whose 
flesh is—even in winter—the color of a gourd’s,

who’s into cosplay, and comic books written
in French, who’s accustomed to eating dinner 

with other people, not using her hands. 
Lakota women used to throw blankets

on porcupines, catch and release, flattening 
each harvested needle with their teeth. I don’t 

know why I keep coming back, I just 
want the taste of someone in my mouth 

all the time. Love, what can one do about that. 



 

From the writer

:: Account ::

Each “Inti­ma­cy” poem is a part of a trip­tych of sorts that came about both quick­ly and slow­ly. There was a clus­ter of images that I kept toss­ing around in my head: a YouTube video of a por­cu­pine eat­ing a pump­kin with a woman’s voice coo­ing in the back­ground, and how seeing/hearing that made me think about ten­der­ness and my own desire to (some­times) moth­er any­thing, espe­cial­ly ani­mals; a par­tic­u­lar­ly fond mem­o­ry of me and a friend eat­ing a box of ice cream bars in his car one night after work, and how safe I felt even though he was a man and I had learned that men aren’t always safe; how love just con­sumes me some­times, like my sug­ar crav­ings, but it is a con­sump­tion whose after­math makes me ques­tion why I even both­er. I knew that these were all dis­tinct, but con­nect­ed; I’m not sure if they have COMPLETELY shaped my sex­u­al­i­ty, or what I have come to under­stand about desire, but they are all clues to these things, so I want­ed the titles to reflect their inter­con­nec­tiv­i­ty. I’ve car­ried these poems around for years (and writ­ten some rough ver­sions of them), but they all came togeth­er over the course of one week­end; specif­i­cal­ly, the week­end Bey­on­cé released her “For­ma­tion” video. It took me a few view­ings (and a con­ver­sa­tion with a friend about unapolo­getic black­wom­an­ness), but I felt so fierce watch­ing it, and her IDGAF atti­tude about her own his­to­ry, her daughter’s hair, her husband’s lips—all made me feel free enough to draft these poems.

 

Des­tiny O. Bird­song is a Push­cart-prize nom­i­nat­ed poet whose poems have either appeared or are forth­com­ing in African Amer­i­can Review, At Length, Indi­ana Review, Rove, and else­where. Her crit­i­cal work recent­ly appeared in African Amer­i­can Review, and a co-authored chap­ter on Black Atlantic and Dias­po­ra Lit­er­a­ture (with Ifeo­ma C. K. Nwankwo) is forth­com­ing in the Cam­bridge Com­pan­ion to Transna­tion­al Amer­i­can Lit­er­a­ture. She is a lec­tur­er and aca­d­e­m­ic advis­er at Van­der­bilt Uni­ver­si­ty, where she earned her MFA in 2009 and her PhD in 2012.