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•MO•TION” ::

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(r)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.