Three Works

Art / Xiaoze Xie

From the Artist

:: Account ::

I am interested in the temporary nature of newspapers as everyday objects loaded with all-encompassing information of changing daily life: from the front-page news to stock market columns to birth announcements and obituaries. Newspapers are recycled. Life goes on. “The Silent Flow of Daily Life” (1998 – ) is a series of paintings that depict newspaper stacks found on the shelves as arranged by librarians, usually marked or labeled with dates. In these paintings, the abstract pattern on the side of a stack gives away no specific information. In the “Fragmentary Views” series (2001– ), the close-up view of the newspaper stack reveals fragmented news pictures and texts of seemingly unrelated events, from the quiet passage of the everyday to the disturbing conflicts and tragedies of our time. The accidental juxtaposition of images and texts suggests, and at the same time conceals, a larger, more complex social picture.

What can you say, in the face of what’s happening every day? Nothing comes as a shock, really. In the newspaper paintings, I am trying to find a way to combine my ideas and interests in the earlier “Library Series” paintings of decaying books and installations dealing with historical events in a simple format.

 

Xiaoze Xie is an internationally recognized artist who has exhibited extensively in the U.S. and abroad. His work is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Oakland Museum of California, San Jose Museum of Art, and Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art. Xie received the Painters & Sculptors Grant from the Joan Mitchell Foundation (2013) and the Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant (2003). Xie is the Paul L. & Phyllis Wattis Professor of Art at Stanford University.

History in the Future Tense

Criticism / Eric Weiskott

:: History in the Future Tense ::

History in the future tense sounds like an oxymoron. Everyone knows that history lives in the past tense. The colloquial or journalistic use of the present tense to narrate past events is known as the historical present. To be recognizable as such, history writing must occupy one of these two grammatical modalities.

It was not always so. In the British Isles from the twelfth to the seventeenth centuries, readers often consumed “history written in the future tense.” [i] In the wildly popular genre of political prophecy, recent and distant historical events became estranged from the past and appeared as imagined futures. Prophecy expressed historical experience as apprehension, refracted through political partisanship and historiographical tradition. The unmodern affective textures of British political prophecy account for its post-Enlightenment occlusion, in scholarship no less than literary culture. The genre is now rarely read and scarcely remembered. In the eighteenth century, history in the future tense devolved from a vital mode of processing and intervening in political events to a self-congratulatory punchline about the superstitions of an ignorant age. Prophecy was subsumed in a hermeneutics of suspicion, [ii] which diagnosed the (often transparent) ulterior motives of prophetic writing, but in doing so displaced the actual experiences of its earlier readers. Returning to the archive of political prophecy throws into relief this digression in intellectual history, revealing what “everyone knows” about history to be a symptom of the division of the past, since the Enlightenment, into medieval and modern segments. Confronting history in the future tense in 2017 means acknowledging the ideological work that futures still perform in political discourse. Political prophecy is alive and well today. Our politicians and public figures foretell a brighter future, but their comments are rarely recognized to be historical in nature.

Political prophecy, and the mode of historical consciousness it implies, can be traced back to a particular scene of cultural production. In the 1120s or 1130s, a Welsh cleric named Geoffrey published a Latin prose chronicle called History of the Kings of Britain. This text narrates major episodes in British political history, from the arrival of the legendary Brutus of Troy to the reign of the seventh-century Welsh king Cadwallader. At the center of the History is the Prophecies of Merlin, in which Merlin, at the request of King Vortigern, tells the future of the Saxon and British peoples. Though probably composed separately from the History, the Prophecies appears within it, as book 7 of 11. Prophecies bookend the History as well. Book 1 opens with predictions of Brutus’s birth. At the end of book 11, an angel commands Cadwallader to leave Britain to the Saxon invaders until the prophesied return of King Arthur and the vindication of British (i.e., Celtic) hegemony on the island.

Geoffrey’s insertion of prophecy into historical narrative bespeaks an attitude toward history from which post-Enlightenment secularist subjects have become estranged. In medieval and early modern British culture, prophecy expressed the same truth as history. The two genres of writing described the same object of inquiry from different vantage points. They stood in roughly the same relation as biblical prophecy and biblical history. Crucially, in the case of both biblical and political prophecy, the cycle of anticipation and fulfillment was just the process whereby the real world came into being. One should not mistake prophecy for metaphorical commentary on a world that precedes it. Rather, early authors and readers posited prophetic discourse as a ground for politics as such. (Premodern ontologies resonate with Michel Foucault and other postmodern philosophers who describe the world, and the political world above all, as the product of discourses.) [iii] Merlin’s prophecies begin not with an act of imagination but with two real dragons, whom Vortigern observes fighting. Merlin opens his discourse by identifying the dragons with the Saxons and the Britons, respectively:

As Vortigern, King of the Britons, sat on the bank of the drained pool, the two dragons emerged, one white, one red. As they neared each other, they fought a terrible battle, breathing fire. . . . As the dragons fought in this way, the king commanded Ambrosius Merlin to tell him the meaning of their battle. He burst into tears and was inspired to prophesy thus:

‘Alas for the red dragon, its end is near. Its caves will be taken by the white dragon, which symbolizes the Saxons whom you have summoned. The red represents the people of Britain, whom the white will oppress . . .’ [iv]

In book 6, Vortigern had invited Hengest and the Saxons to Britain, an overture that proved disastrous. Here, the symbolic world of political prophecy, in which nations are dragons and “lightning bolts . . . flash from Scorpio’s tail,” occupies the plane of reality. [v] Indeed, like the Old Testament without the New in medieval Christian typology, reality remains underspecified without prophecy.

Weiskott

This full-page illustration from a fourteenth-century manuscript offers an instructive response to Geoffrey’s vision of prophetic history. The manuscript is shelfmark Cambridge, Corpus Christi College (CCCC), 476, one of many standalone copies of the Prophecies of Merlin. Carefully drawn and liberally gilded, the illustration is divided into four quadrants. Vortigern sits enthroned in the upper left quadrant, and Merlin as a boy stands in the upper right quadrant, while the white dragon and the red dragon occupy the squat lower quadrants. Merlin holds a long empty scroll, looks across at Vortigern, and points down toward the dragons. The four figures are labeled in Latin, respectively, “king Vortigern,” “the prophet Merlin,” “the Saxon people are symbolized [figuratur] here,” and “it signifies [significat] the British people.” On one hand, the illustration reduces Geoffrey’s prophetic history into allegory. The dragons are metaphors, separated from the real world by the schematism of the four quadrants and the interpretive verbs are symbolized and signifies, which correspond to the verbs symbolizes and represents in the opening of the Prophecies. On the other hand, the illustration captures the courtly drama of the scene. Merlin interprets the world for a national king. The empty scroll echoes the shape of the arched labels. It waits, like the British political future, to be inscribed with the history that lurks behind draconic facades.

The prologue to a later fourteenth-century English chronicle expresses comparable reciprocity between prophecy and history. Thomas Gray’s Scalacronica (1362), written in Anglo-Norman French, is a world history that merges into a chronicle of England and Scotland. In the prologue, Gray visualizes historiography as a ladder with five rungs, resting on the Bible and the history of the destruction of Troy. The greatest hits of medieval English chronicle writing, including “the Brut,” i.e., Geoffrey’s History, comprise the first four rungs, but the fifth (and unattainable) rung belongs to the prophets. Guiding the avatar of Gray through his visionary prologue is Sibyl, a famous ascribed author of medieval prophecies. “You cannot climb up the fifth rung,” she informs him, “for it signifies [signify] future events that are envisaged [ymagine] by certain people in ancient tales.” The French verb ymaginer “imagine, envisage, conceive” suggests a technical function of the imagination in medieval psychology, but one to which the narrator and reader of Scalacronica have no access. Sibyl then gives illustrative quotations from Latin and English political prophecies, named as “the life of St. Edward,” “the English Brut,” and “the tales of Merlin.” [vi] For Gray, as for Geoffrey and the CCCC 476 artist, political prophecy crowns and superintends all of history. The situation in the prologue, like the title “Scalacronica” itself, partakes in the punning symbolism of political prophecy, for the ladder (Latin scala) was the heraldic emblem of the Gray family (cp. Old French gré, grey “rung”).

The peculiar historical consciousness of political prophecy finds its literary complement in plotlessness. Take, for example, the Ireland Prophecy, a prophecy in English alliterative verse (the meter of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight) composed in the early 1450s, on the eve of the Wars of the Roses between the Yorkists and the Lancastrians. [vii] The poem survives in eight manuscript copies, an unusually large number. It stages the Wars of the Roses as a showdown between Britons and Saxons, in which the Saxons, apparently to be identified with the Lancastrians, get the worst of it. The poet represents the Saxons as lions, after the lions in the English coat of arms. Richard Neville, earl of Warwick, a key player in the Wars who switched allegiances twice, appears as a bear and a ragged staff, two elements of his heraldic badge. The poem ends with an acrostic that looks to Ireland for the victorious British king. The reference to Ireland is likely an allusion to Richard, duke of York, Lieutenant of Ireland from 1449 and a Yorkist leader. Richard appears earlier in the poem as a falcon, after his badge.

Like other political prophecies, the Ireland Prophecy frustrates modern literary expectations by avoiding both narrative and lyricism. Things do not happen in the poem. Predictions of catastrophe for the lions/Saxons (ll. 1-14) give way to description of the emotional and political fallout of the final conflict (ll. 15-18), a hunt for a lone surviving lion (ll. 19-24), a doomed marriage to patch things up (ll. 25-30), a war of retribution led by a British hero (ll. 31-8), destruction for the Saxons (ll. 39-44), and so on. The connections between the poem’s vignettes depend not on the logic of narrative but on the requirements of poetic syntax, the conventions of prophecy, and the vagaries of political history. Modern readers are accustomed to vertical reading, whereby the reading experience leads from a psychological or social problem to its resolution. But the Ireland Prophecy demands horizontal reading, whereby the same political proposition takes multiple forms in disconnected passages. The catastrophe of lines 1-14 is the destruction of lines 39-44. The emotional fallout of lines 15-18 is the “roaring and calamity” of line 55. The bear is the earl of Warwick, and the ragged staff is the same earl of Warwick. A falcon flies north one time but in two passages (ll. 45, 61), and the falcon is Richard, and Richard is the hero of the battle at the end of the poem, which is the war of retribution described in lines 31-8. The closing sequence presents a heroic British king on the move, from Ireland (“Of I R and L | will that noble one arise / A N and D,” 83-4) to England (to defeat “the Saxon hound,” 70) to Rome (“Over all Christians | he will bear the crown,” 85). (In these quotations, “|” marks the caesura or internal boundary of the alliterative line.) The map of the military campaign of a redeemer-king is the map of a reimagined Christendom, palliative to the resentment of an English elite in the aftermath of territorial losses in the Hundred Years’ War with France. The poem begins in England, with the redeemer figure from Ireland already on the ground and in action, a state of affairs first predicted in the closing lines of the poem. All these descriptions, of course, are in the future tense. The experience of reading the poem mimics a future-oriented experience of history, in which various potentialities loom in no particular order.

All the more noteworthy, then, that several of the situations depicted in the Ireland Prophecy correspond to documented political events of the late 1440s and early 1450s. Like other political prophecies, the poem offers readers the opportunity to encounter the political present through the medium of anticipation or, conversely, to relive the fulfillment of ancient prophecies through partisanship or political action. To understand the extent to which prophetic discourse structured everyday political praxis in medieval England, consider the behavior of magnates. The thirteenth-century historian Gerald of Wales risked alienating his patron, Henry II, by declining to write a commentary on the Prophecies of Merlin. [viii] Edward II evidently dispatched an envoy to the pope in order to procure the Holy Oil of St. Thomas of Canterbury, a relic which was, or would soon become, the subject of a popular political prophecy. [ix] A manuscript of prophecies caused Anne Boleyn to think twice about marrying Henry VIII. [x] The list goes on. Prophecy simulated the experience of politics, and politics, in turn, reflected the tradition of prophecy.

The projection of the political past into the political future was a mainstay of prophetic discourse. For later readers, it was a target of disdain. Within a hermeneutics of suspicion, history in the future tense can only be a partisan ruse. In its time, as we have seen, prophecy facilitated a certain attitude toward the political world. Whether early readers experienced prophetic texts as “truly” prophetic, while a valid historical/psychological question and a natural one for modern secularists, is to the side of the issue. Prophetic texts were not static, propagandistic edicts but moved through space and time. Early commentaries on the Prophecies of Merlin, for example, arrive by different means at different interpretations. The Ireland Prophecy occurs in one Yorkist manuscript collection of the 1450s, but it also occurs in six other manuscripts, some of them much later, whose political affiliations are opaque or mixed. 

After the end of their active production, political prophecies could provoke strong negative reactions. Already in 1588, the astrologer John Harvey had wondered aloud in his printed book A Discursive Problem concerning Prophecies:

Nay, is any device easier, or any practice readier, than to forge a blind prophecy, or to coin a counterfeit tale, or to foist in a new-found old-said saw, or to set countenance upon some stale poetical fragment, or other antique record, or to play upon the advantage of some old memorandum, without rhyme or reason; or to gloze, and juggle with knacks of the maker, where they may pass, and repass for current payment; or finally, to revive some forlorn Merlin, or Pierce Plowman, or Nostradame, or the like supposed prophet? Alas, is this wise world so simple, to believe so foolish toys, devised to mock apes, and delude children? [xi]

In a paradox typical of early print discourse, Harvey engages prophecies while arguing against doing so. He positions prophecy as a sociointellectual “problem” inherited from a simpleminded past—though some of his examples are in fact drawn from sixteenth-century compositions. By 1833, when the Bannatyne Club brought out Collection of Ancient Scottish Prophecies, in Alliterative Verse, a reprint of a 1603 print edition, history in the future tense no longer made sense. The social stigmatization of prophecy, perceptible from its first appearances in writing, was now complete. The untitled preface to Collection of Ancient Scottish Prophecies begins:

It seems difficult for anyone, at the present day, to be fully aware of that degree of fond credulity with which, at a period even within the last century, certain political prophecies were regarded and cherished by the partisans of opposite factions in this country [i.e., Scotland], which the least instructed peasants of a later age would probably treat with contempt and derision. [xii]

Difficult, indeed. Here the emergence of a modern present from the medieval past is transacted by class and literary genre. Modernity puts “the least instructed peasants” above even the noblest benighted “partisans” in the hierarchy of literary good sense.

Modern liberal subjects inhabit the intellectual consensus for which David Laing, the (unnamed) editor of Collection of Ancient Scottish Prophecies, presumes to speak. One consequence of this situation is that political prophecy now appears remote. If the past is a foreign country, so too are the past’s futures. Another, more pressing consequence is that some forms of future-oriented historical thought are difficult to perceive now. A strict division between medieval and modern has become the price of entry to subjectivity and the unspoken precondition of a secularist-imperialist present. To realize this, one has only to note modernity’s geographical exclusions, how it is secured for the developed world precisely at the expense of the developing world. The medieval/modern periodization, in turn, depends on a conceptual distinction between past, present, and future, now identifiable with historical consciousness as such. Following the Enlightenment, medieval subjects could be named as those who squandered their (classical) past, endured their dreary present, and harbored delusions about their future. This is the schematic historicism guiding, for example, Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve, in which the dogmatic ignorance of medieval monks becomes prelude to the Renaissance rediscovery of liberal humanism. [xiii] In the context of this hard right turn in intellectual history, it can be “difficult for anyone” to imagine futures that escape the logic of containment underwriting the idea of the Middle Ages.

In closing, I point to two examples of postmedieval political prophecy, both from the United States. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s oft-quoted line about “the arc of the moral universe” posits a future of political vindication. In a sermon delivered at Temple Israel of Hollywood in 1965 and rediscovered in 2007, King pairs the “moral universe” line with biblical prophecy (Isaiah 40:4). [xiv] Like his “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington, King’s references to “the arc of the moral universe” have been captured by reactionary neoconservatism. These fragments of prophetic discourse entered the political mainstream as assurances that the present redeems the past, or, in other words, that the prophecy of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s has been fulfilled. For neoliberals, meanwhile, King’s words authorize policies that brandish multiculturalism and racial equity as shields for corporatization. Restored to the context of King’s liberation theology and democratic socialism, “the arc of the moral universe” performs a different ideological function: it orients grassroots political action toward a future imagined but not yet realized.

In “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” (1968), King reversed this procedure, following the arc of the moral universe back through salvation history and political history. [xv] He imagines “standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now.” The speech ends with the prediction that “we, as a people, will get to the promised land.” King’s commitment to prophecy lay in the conviction, not that the present redeems the past, but that the future redeems the present.

A more contemporary (and darker) example is President Trump’s inaugural address, in which he alleged a dystopia of “American carnage” and promised redemption for “the forgotten men and women of our country.” [xvi] Trump’s campaign platform had named real problems in America—income inequality, the entrenchment of a political class, the centralization of cultural power, terrorism—but proposed to solve them with the fantasy of a nation that becomes an island unto itself. His inaugural address took the form of a prophecy. “But that is the past,” he said. “And now we are looking only to the future.” Trumpism could very well be summarized by the phrase history in the future tense, insofar as it projects a fantasized version of 1950s white middle-class prosperity as the destination of a new hypernationalism. King’s and Trump’s political prophecies both evoke institutions: respectively, the church and the nation. Yet Trump’s prophecies may prove more resistant to ideological recapture due to their blatant racial and socioeconomic particularity.

The ideological work of these postmedieval political prophecies cannot be appreciated fully within the historicisms of secularist modernity since modernity is that which both King and Trump seek, in drastically different ways, to escape. Both situate their political futures in the mind’s eye, King in the famous anaphora of “I have a dream . . .” and Trump in his reference to “a new vision” and his promise that “we will bring back our dreams.” Visionary poetics refers in both cases, of course, to the American dream, the U.S. equivalent of the Prophecies of Merlin. As an intellectual consensus and a material reality, modernity overshadows the power of imagined futures. In 2017, we ignore that power at our peril.

 


[i] Rupert Taylor, The Political Prophecy in England (Columbia Univ. Press, 1911), p. 3.

[ii] The phrase hermeneutics of suspicion was coined by Paul Ricoeur, with reference to Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, and is reinvigorated for literary criticism by Rita Felski, The Limits of Critique (Chicago, 2015).

[iii] This is no accident, for medieval literature and culture provide a little-acknowledged ground for (post)modern theory. See Bruce Holsinger, The Premodern Condition: Medievalism and the Making of Theory (Chicago, 2005); The Legitimacy of the Middle Ages: On the Unwritten History of Theory, ed. Andrew Cole and D. Vance Smith (Duke Univ. Press, 2010); and Cole, “The Call of Things: A Critique of Object-Oriented Ontologies,” minnesota review 80 (2013): 106-18.

[iv] Geoffrey of Monmouth: “The History of the Kings of Britain”: An Edition and Translation of “De gestis Britonum,” ed. Michael D. Reeve and tr. Neil Wright (Boydell & Brewer, 2007), §§111-12. I quote from Wright’s facing English translation, with the British spelling symbolises Americanized.

[v] Geoffrey of Monmouth, ed. Reeve, §117.

[vi] All quotations in this paragraph refer to Scalacronica, ed. Joseph Stevenson (Maitland Club, 1836), p. 3. Translation mine.

[vii] See Eric Weiskott, “The Ireland Prophecy: Text and Metrical Context,” Studies in Philology 114 (2017): 245-77. I cite the text from this edition. Translation mine.

[viii] Julia Crick, “Geoffrey and the Prophetic Tradition,” The Arthur of Medieval Latin Literature: The Development and Dissemination of the Arthurian Legend in Medieval Latin, ed. Siân Echard (Univ. of Wales Press, 2011), pp. 67-82, at p. 73.

[ix] J. R. S. Phillips, “Edward II and the Prophets,” England in the Fourteenth Century: Proceedings of the 1985 Harlaxton Symposium, ed. W. M. Ormrod (Boydell & Brewer, 1986), pp. 189-201, at pp. 196-201.

[x] Tim Thornton, Prophecy, Politics, and the People in Early Modern England (Boydell & Brewer, 2006), pp. 20-21.

[xi] John Harvey, A Discursive Problem concerning Prophecies (Short Title Catalogue no. 12908), p. 2. I have modernized the spelling and word division of the text and title.

[xii] Collection of Ancient Scottish Prophecies, in Alliterative Verse: Reprinted from Waldegrave’s Edition, M.DC.III., ed. David Laing (Ballantyne, 1883), p. v. I have modernized the phrase any one.

[xiii] Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (W. W. Norton, 2011). See further Laura Saetveit Miles, “Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve Racked Up Prizes – and Completely Misled You about the Middle Ages,” Vox 20 July 2016. http://www.vox.com/2016/7/20/12216712/harvard-professor-the-swerve-greenblatt-middle-ages-false.

[xiv] See “A New Addition to Martin Luther King’s Legacy,” NPR 15 January 2007. http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=6843464.

[xv] See “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” The King Center. http://www.thekingcenter.org/archive/document/ive-been-mountaintop-0#.

[xvi] “The Inaugural Address,” whitehouse.gov 20 January 2017. https://www.whitehouse.gov/inaugural-address.

 

Bibliography

Crick, Julia. “Geoffrey and the Prophetic Tradition.” The Arthur of Medieval Latin Literature: The Development and Dissemination of the Arthurian Legend in Medieval Latin, ed. Siân Echard, Univ. of Wales Press, 2011, pp. 67-82.

Phillips, J. R. S. “Edward II and the Prophets.” England in the Fourteenth Century: Proceedings of the 1985 Harlaxton Symposium, ed. W. M. Ormrod, Boydell & Brewer, 1986, pp. 189-201.

Reeve, Michael D., ed., and Neil Wright, tr. Geoffrey of Monmouth: “The History of the Kings of Britain”: An Edition and Translation of “De gestis Britonum.” Boydell & Brewer, 2007.

Stevenson, Joseph, ed. Scalacronica. Maitland Club, 1836.

Taylor, Rupert. The Political Prophecy in England. Columbia Univ. Press, 1911.

Thornton, Tim. Prophecy, Politics, and the People in Early Modern England. Boydell & Brewer, 2006.

Weiskott, Eric. “The Ireland Prophecy: Text and Metrical Context.” Studies in Philology 114 (2017): 245-77.

 

Eric Weiskott is Assistant Professor of English at Boston College. He is the author of English Alliterative Verse: Poetic Tradition and Literary History (Cambridge University Press, 2016), on medieval English alliterative poetry. His writing appears in The Atlantic, the Times Literary Supplement, and Inside Higher Ed, as well as many academic journals. He is at work on a second book, about English political prophecy, meter, and the division of history into medieval and modern periods.

 

Peter Buchanan, Guest Criticism Editor, received his PhD in medieval studies from the University of Toronto and is currently an Assistant Professor of English at New Mexico Highlands University. His book-in-progress, Detours Through the Sensible: Metaphor and Meaning in Anglo-Saxon Literature, argues that metaphors of embodiment shape the reception and adaptation of poetic work. He and his wife collect hedgehog bric-a-brac, though they do not currently own actual hedgehogs.

Simone: A Self-Portrait

Nonfiction / Anne K. Yoder

:: Simone: A Self-Portrait ::

We must tell each other everything. Stories lend our lives significance. What are our actions but small and ephemeral unless we record and extend them? This unraveling is a form of replication, like DNA helixes unwinding in order to be read. We take our chronology and adorn and embellish as we whisper into each other’s ears, and when we don’t whisper, we write. We read each other’s journals every night.

We must not live together.

We must not impinge on each other’s freedom.

 

SIMONE

She and Jean Paul work together even when they are not sleeping together. Simone does not want to play wife to anyone’s husband. Together they spread ideas about living and ways of being. They are making the most of traveling to far-off countries and continents. Caught up in their own making, it’s always one web or another.

 

In our thirties we are prolific. Or you are, at least. You write The Second Sex, you tour the States and come to Chicago, where you meet Nelson, who sears you. He shows you his squalid city, his hovel of a home sans bathroom but with a wood-burning stove.

I have too many novels and essays to write, still. Let’s not talk about those. I too came to Chicago by way of New York, and now I am looking with longing toward Paris. Steamy Chicago, seedy Chicago, so much flesh and land sprawling in comparison to the steely heights of New York intellectuals and architecture always striving to rise above. From my New York living room window I could see the lights of the Empire State Building, but now my gaze is grassy backyard plots and bougainvillea and children jumping and screaming, “We don’t want a nap!”

 

EXISTENTIALISM as the AMERICAN DREAM

If you removed God from the picture, this could become one nation true to self-evident tenets. Pragmatists and intellectuals, housewives and bankers, politicians and cowboys pulling up their bootstraps, donning wigs and suits and lassos, forging futures, making what they can of this. There is little difference between believing in becoming and owning your choices except for purpose and belief in where it all ends.

 

CAFE LIFE

Simone lives in rented hotel rooms; Jean Paul gives away every book. Thought thrives in open spaces.

 

Paris was threadbare and war-torn. Your men were sent off to service, and you remained in the city center filled with women. You taught and wrote novels and letters and kept company with female lovers. When Jean Paul told you to cross lines to visit him on the front, you dropped everything. You gathered your papers and books, faked illness for leave, forged a pass and boarded a train to meet him in a city whose name he’d spelled out cryptically. At the end of the war you wrote that you were old. Thirty-six and you’d seen the world in all of its impossibility, about to collapse into so many pieces: the Occupation of France, the Holocaust, the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

With the end of the war comes fame for Jean Paul, and for you by association. Existentialism, as explained through his Being and Nothingness, is one way to make sense of this. Personal freedom and choice exist in spite of absurdity and the awfulness of orchestrations beyond personal control. Jean Paul suggests that you write about what it means to be a woman. You ignore him at first, but then reconsider.

 

“In a small work on the female orgasm, a Dr. Gremillon taking issue with Stekel, declares that the normal fertile woman has no orgasm. He goes on to say that erotogenic-zones are artificial, not natural, they are signs of degeneration; to create them is unhygenic and foolish, for women thus become insatiable, new and terrible creatures, capable of crime, and so on.”

Simone was never normal nor did she ever desire to be. Normal was married with child, normal was obligatory, contractual, modest, tedious. Normally, being normal, a woman would not have a career. Normally, being normal, a woman would not travel alone from coast to coast. Nelson tempts her with contentment; with his embraces come sleepless nights.

 

STATE of the UNION

One woman possesses two loves, many lovers, and multiple desires. She like any woman has obligations pitted between desires. In France a woman is a woman without taking a husband to prove that she is. In America, a woman isn’t a woman until she has a husband. But a man is a man, and once a man always a man.

Marriage is a contract, an agreement, an act of diplomacy, an absurdity, a commitment that’s nearly impossible to annul. Everyone who is married marries for a reason. But how is this advantageous now, to us?

 

The independent woman “must have access to the other,” you write. At this age we know too well what it means to be a woman. You’ve lived as a woman and have made something of yourself in spite of your femininity and the expectations that come with this. In writing about women you grapple with the other as well as the self. A woman is not born a woman but instead becomes one. You strike masculine poses by disparaging lady lovers in letters to Jean Paul. Such a bother they are, with their demands, their snoring that keeps you from sleep, and yet you indulge them with kisses before leaving to work.

Writing, I am constantly writing. I work wherever I go.

We were raised to take care of ourselves. From the outset we were groomed to be our own grooms, to become breadwinners, self-sufficient. Not ready to take up an iron and oven mitt and yet we still had appetites. We pursued the intimacy of ideas, we and Jean Paul. Trysts were heated arguments that impelled us to think further.

Our fathers, our Georges, thought little of what we’d made of ourselves, our lack of official papers, decrees and degrees, the ways we flouted the church and “careers,” the ways we made so much of our bodies without signing on dotted lines.

 

TRAVELS with JEAN PAUL

In Sweden, she sees the cameras first. Photographers stand in line and click click click when Jean Paul and Simone descend from the plane. France spits while Sweden beckons and embraces and brings with it exquisite days of announcements and “important” people, dinner invitations, and radio conversations. Jean Paul introduces: this is the king’s son, this is the castle, here in the newspaper, look at our faces. Flashbulbs and bright futures leave luminescent traces. Jean Paul is known for thinking and writing and his many mistresses; so is Simone. Simone’s work is her work, and his work is also her work. But her work is never his.

 

AIRPLANES

Engines shudder at the whirl of the world left in the wake. Nothing is as exhilarating as accelerating over Paris at night, aiming blindly into the sky. They angle toward Newfoundland, New York, Chicago. One day suspended between Paris and Chicago, one day waits between Frog and Nelson, her Crocodile. In the air, drinks bring a semblance of sanity and social mores. Simone takes whiskey while traveling. Whiskey calms, buries, soothes.

 

RECIPE for DISASTER

Oh dear, I spilt the sugar, but you don’t mind. My aim has been off lately, missing either bag or bowl or both; I blame distracted kisses, although this is preferable to repetition and old recipes. You lick the batter from the bowl with no thought to salmonella. I mix and measure and bake and we dance before I begin to wonder and worry what happened to the quick-thinking girl?

 

We disparage ourselves, too. Simone calls us ancillary and intellectual parasites, as if a woman could become herself by herself, gestating within her own womb. Whatever she does in becoming herself, she should refuse man’s rib, his thoughts, his story.

But no, not really. Would Simone be Simone without Sartre, I mean Jean Paul? Why do I write Sartre to Simone? Why does a woman’s success still so often depend on a man’s achievements? Why bake cookies to satisfy the public appetite, to prove that a husband’s shirts will be ironed, his desk dusted, and his daughter fed?

A First Lady always comes second, if not third or fourth. Simone was always second in her mind, even in agregation, even though her quality of mind was matched if not better than. The press only confirmed Simone as the acolyte to Jean Paul’s master.

 

AIR MAIL

Little man with the big brain, Beaver sends her love from the United States. Beaver is Frog to Nelson, her Crocodile, who she sweetly takes in the dark night. Soon after, she sends a note to the little man she adores. She writes to him, and to him, and sometimes to her. Does a heart ever belong to any one? Miss you dearly, kiss kiss. She writes now in reverse, this time to Crocodile as she travels with Jean Paul. Absence is dear.

 

LOVE, SIMONE

Oh, my Crocodile, I will be your Wabansia wife.

The stairs at the Palmer House are slick with rain. I almost slipped and fell after I ran past the old lady at the door who monitors comings and goings into the night. The hotel is a labyrinth, a little town. A stairway going up does not necessarily come down. I could say the same about my affections. I attempted to descend the stairs only to find myself five floors above where I began. I am looking for an out, a way back to the street.

Not all walls are straight nor do halls lead where they seem.

 

BOREDOM and SOLITUDE

Simone cannot forget herself when she tries, even when new love takes root. Paris is waiting, Paris is bigger than, she has work to do. Paris at night is intellect, energy, and out until 3 a.m. Too much champagne is never enough. Simone would stay in Chicago, she would give up Paris and elegant toasts, if only. She entertains ideas of wifely habits, of scrubbing floors and making rum cake. She knows, however, that she would never.

 

I would like to erase Jean Paul, at least for a while.

 

RUM CAKE

We steep beneath the sheets, warm flesh, tender kisses, kettle warm. Pillows mutilated on a stiff mattress, and your voice from the kitchen as I wait. You place candles and light matches and wonder how to make time last. Cake crumbles when my fork stabs. I am a pile of crumbs.

“Just now I do not see exactly why anybody should ever write again. Just now I do not see exactly why anybody should ever write anything.”

She is at a loss for words except for the ones she showers upon her lover. In Paris, she has standing appointments with important men. They plan actions and discuss ideas; they disperse thoughts and intents. Amid all of this Simone sends caresses via messenger from one continent to another. She is not content. Chicago and her Crocodile make promises in spite of his indigence, her impossibility. He makes offers; she can’t commit. Her work is her life and her work is in Paris. Nelson is a man and his work is his work and he is Chicago through and through.

 

The ways that we followed, Simone. Your lifelong attachment flouts convention but also clings to it in spite of yourself. I would like to liberate you. I would like to remove Jean Paul from your picture. You were so thankful for his role in your becoming. He challenged you. Mental jousting kept your minds sharp; meticulous thinking prodded you to see yourself beyond yourself. With his inheritance you quit teaching. But how could you see yourself as separate when you depended so much? Should I blame you?

I do.

You couldn’t see yourself beyond a world with a Jean-Paul center.

I imagine you would find fault with me, too, for frivolous thinking, for this conflation, for speaking so intimately with you. You were always vous, never tu, even to Jean Paul. Vous, formal and firey, engaged but removed. Perhaps you always knew that fidelity to philosophy is more constant than fidelity to flesh. You witnessed your father’s late night homecomings and your mother’s constant crying. Why demand promises that won’t be kept?

 

BOOKS

Nelson doesn’t learn French, and he doesn’t think philosophically even when Simone asks, even when she chides. He reads what he reads, and this means books written by friends. This means books written by men, American gamblers and drinkers who stay out to see what happens when darkness casts a strange light. Most of his friends are riffraff and wandering and sleep in halfway houses.

 

LAKE HOUSE

There’s a lull to the day, quietness as the wind washes over the water and sends me into a deep malaise. My focus and fire are smoldering in this molasses of water, silt, and slow-moving cars. We are sleeping in separate bedrooms, and I wonder if there always must be an ocean between. Aren’t bodies distance enough? We kiss by the counter, he lifts and undresses me, and I want to crawl into his skin. How quickly we drift from work and mindful things to touch and skin, and I realize how flesh can assuage and appease.

 

I wonder how we put up with so much.

Slurs were leveraged:

“You’ll never amount to more than a worm’s whore.”

“Do you want to live in a garret for the rest of your life?” “You won’t become a Sartre overnight.”

You were always royal, a queen, but a queen at times gives more to her subjects than they deserve or will ever return. I was never very good at chess, but I know that pawns move one square at a time in a forward direction. They are interchangeable, subservient, at the bottom of the chain of command. Your protégé lovers became your pawns; certainly Jean Paul possessed his own, and at times he treated you as one, too. And all the while, you and Jean Paul supported them like kept women, like incestuous children, like they were performing themselves for you.

 

APHASIA

Simone loses her voice, or she worries she will. She halfheartedly resists as love tips the scales toward mounting stupidity. She mourns the words that do not come but for Nelson, dear, lazy Nelson who won’t learn. Simone writes New York and remembers Chicago. She is always turning back to, looking forward to, but is never present except in Nelson’s presence. She remembers while recounting and accounting for. She follows in the tradition of Tocqueville. She is anxious about mixing duty and desire. She finds meaning in work and work is her life and her life is in France where her work has meaning. Nelson is a fantasy, a fixer-upper, he is stolid and strong in his filthy little room off a poorly lit street, but when unhinged energy ignites, she is consumed.

 

THE SWEETNESS of CHICAGO NIGHTS IS DECEPTIVE

Chicago’s sweetness is savory, putrid and kindly offensive, an acquired taste. Empty lots overgrown conceal wounds and corpses and casings. The sidewalks beyond, where brawls tumble, where plainclothes policemen lend a kind of semblance, lead to dimly lit rooms where drunks and dwarves and dice girls play. No one notices the poster blondes’ white teeth, freckles, and full cheeks grown on American wheat; no one notices these wall(flower)s, their obscene smiles staring with raw wonder at the fulsome filth.

 

You settled for seconds. Your seconds surpass most firsts, but even so you trailed behind Jean-Paul. Was there flattery in this mimicry? Did he help clear the path for you? I must interrogate this following, your parallel American trips and your parallel American trysts.

Jean Paul travels to the States on a sponsored trip, where he falls in love with Dolores, his New York guide, and extends his stay. There is discussion of divorce (hers) and an offer of a professorship (his), but he returns to France, lovelorn, love torn. This is 1945.

 

SHE IS the ONLY WOMAN WHO FRIGHTENED ME

There have been so many other lovers, and there will be so many more, but Dolores is the only one who makes Jean Paul swoon. Blonde Dolores, American Dolores, with her worldly ways, her haughty laugh, and pending divorce, her New York. Dolores is a centripetal force drawing Jean Paul in, with his satellite Simone making anxious revolutions around his absence. Jean Paul says he will stay for Dolores, he will promise Dolores, he would marry Dolores. He leaves me stranded, searching, scrambling, cut loose.

 

AFFAIRS of OTHERS

Simone would rather forget about Jean Paul traveling in North Africa with Dolores; she would rather forget his amorous elsewhere affections. Wherever he goes, Simone follows. She would like to forget this, too. Jean Paul comes before and always. Simone trails after. He has already spoken where she speaks and has been listened to where others now listen to her, often because of him. She would like to forget all of this knowing that her after depends on his before.

 

Simone sets off on an American tour in January, 1947. She arrives with a list of contacts from Jean Paul. She sees New York through Jean Paul’s eyes, and how could she not with him as her guide? Oceans apart and yet closer than ever, she writes. Chicago is a whirlwind with Nelson; he dizzies her with affinity and affection, and yet she leaves promptly for points west and south, California, New Orleans, and Florida. It isn’t until she returns to New York, en route to Paris, when she receives word from Jean Paul to stay put, to extend. He needs to smooth over Dolores. His thrust sends Simone back to Chicago where she kindles an American affair of her own.

 

SOUTH SIDE

We pass pagodas and a fortune cookie factory, smokestacks, a power plant, the Chicago Tribune presses, the Wheatfield Tube Company warehouses. Flat land dotted with flat houses, sprawl to a distant stadium. Down here it’s all power lines, highways, throughways, and thoroughfares, the conduits for passing through. The energy and the oxygen of this city are deposited here. This is the body, the true down town that provides the ways and means that make the city run. We talk of South Side goat tacos. Marianna’s, a good place to go if you want to fight, the only true one-star dive bar we can find. We are faux grifters, vicarious tourists traveling where even the flora falls closer to the land. Methane still bubbles up in a creek where carcasses were dumped a hundred years ago.

 

“Oh, I hate this country, and like the people who suffer from it, and would be appalled if I had to stay here—yet leaving it is having a strange impression on me. I’ve told you all this in a higgedly piggedly way.”

What is more appalling is the desire to stay, visions of cart- pushing and steak shopping at Piggly Wiggly, of exchanging intellect for wife. Chicago means no more dinners with Jean Paul, Koestler, and Camus; Chicago means losing influence, losing myself. Chicago is no Paris, it’s not even New York whose second-rate is over-inflated, the self-important always searching for opportunity.

 

SLAUGHTER

The alleys and offices, bathrooms and bars proffer the same disgust. Scent of offal wafts from the warehouse where cows gather and low before moving on to where the blades draw blood. I insist we visit the slaughterhouse before saying, goodbye, Nelson, before, au revoir, Chicago. Nelson’s pleas offer a marital blow. I wander through stalls wondering what we must sacrifice.

 

What did Jean Paul have to do with my success? Too much, I fear. Was it a failure of imagination? What is success if it depends on a husband or lover, and does this make our choice more important, the strategic vertical climb made possible through horizontal thrusts? How else do we make something of ourselves? When will a woman be a woman and more than just a woman on her own terms? Has anything changed?

I am worried that I am not Simone and that I cannot be Simone, even for a short period of time. Simone prevails as my patron saint. I am falling short. I am also relieved.

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

I had moved to Chicago from Brooklyn six months before I started “Simone: A Self-Portrait.” I felt overwhelmed by the vastness of Chicago, the way it expanded seemingly with no end, like so many small villages set up one against another. I was struck by the Midwestern flatness, the wide roads, the novelty of having a back porch.

Split between cities, I soon fell in love in Chicago, but not with Chicago. I was divided, and it was wonderfully obscene. Simone de Beauvoir became my lodestar, my guru: author of the The Second Sex, advocate of open relationships, torn between Chicago and Paris, Algren and Sartre. And yet I became frustrated, too, that her recognition as a female thinker seemed dependent on her men.

The literary portrait comes straight from Gertrude Stein. I was steeped in Tender Buttons and her essays and lectures and portraits at the time of writing. In line with Stein, I wanted the portrait to depict de Beauvoir’s essence and energy as derived her books and essays and notebooks and letters: the rhythm of her words, her life. And this then evolved into the desire to conflate her energy and mine, a transference of sorts. Much like Rimbaud’s “je suis un autre,” inspired by David David Wojnarowicz’s series of portraits of friends and lovers wearing a mask of Rimbaud’s face, it’s at once a desire, mask, and revelation.

 

Anne K. Yoder’s writing has appeared in Fence, Bomb, and Tin House, among other publications. She is a staff writer for The Millions and a member of Meekling Press, a collective micropress based in Chicago. Currently she is working on a novel, The Enhancers, about coming of age in a in a techno-pharmaceutical society.

Buzz

Nonfiction / Kristin McCandless

:: Buzz ::

Next to my chair there is a fly. There is a frantic buzz buzz that sounds like she is moving, but she is caught in place, shaking her body and legs and wings, unable to escape the web. The more she struggles the more it twists around her body.

Within one of eight arms’ reach is the spider, focusing so hard on its prey that it doesn’t notice me inch closer, or doesn’t care. It dances its two front legs back and forth, operating some sort of invisible pulley system that jerks the fly, rolling her around, playing with her, almost.

The fly may feel more alive than she’s ever felt. She may have already given in.

Regardless, the spider works. I cannot comprehend how it never gets tangled, never sticks to its own creation like every other piece of debris or bug or human.

 

My memories of my mother are slipping away. This stirs in me a desperation, knowing I’ll never be able to make more in the future. I replay them in my mind to make them stick, but each time I do, something changes. More uncertainties. More distance. When a person is reduced to something as fallible as a memory, how long before they’re completely erased? Before they’re nothing but a fictionalized character stitched together by others’ ideas of them—exaggerated and distorted? I want to find a way to wrap up the truths of my mother until she’s perfectly preserved into the web of my brain, but I don’t know how to weave the strands. Not with the delicacy and precision of the spider; not without getting caught up myself. I can feel her shaking free from me.

 

I watch the fly struggle and wonder if she understands the magnitude of her situation. I want to know if she can sense that I’m here, if she knows how easy it would be for me to break her free. I hold life and death in each hand and I freeze. Flies land on my legs and whizz past my face and are so busy being alive they don’t seem to know that their kin is right next to them, seconds from a cruel death.

The fly must think there is no escape. If she knows that I can help her, she doesn’t ask.

The buzz grows faint. Or maybe I grow accustomed.

 

The last year of my mother’s life she confined herself to a bed as if the sheets held her in a straightjacket. The room around her transformed into an at-home hospital, complete with IVs and shower toilets and boxes of needles and bags of liquid and stacks of instructions and sometimes even a nurse, official in scrubs, stopping by to check vitals and replenish supplies and prick and prod and poke at my mom with her long, bony arms, flipping her this way and that in the cocoon of a bed.

I moved back home and my mother put me straight to work, switching out the IV hose and managing supplies. 1.75 liters of Popov Vodka in the plastic container, stat, she’d request, then slip me cash and tell me not to tell Dr. Dad. I’d stare at the bottle in my passenger seat, turn up the music, and scream. Upon delivery she’d smile at me, tell me I was a good daughter. It was the only time I’d see life rush up to replace death on the surface of her skin.

When changing the IV, you have to make sure there are no bubbles. I told her I read a book once where someone was murdered that way. Don’t screw up, then, she said, closed her eyes. She showed me how to administer her shots. The worst was to be injected each night before bed, a thick syringe straight into the stomach. You had to stab it in with a punch to make sure it took and was deep enough. I didn’t ask if she was scared. I didn’t ask anything.

 

The fly is completely contained the next time I check. No movement, no struggle. I tell myself what is done is done. That I’m no type of goddess, that I have no business toying with life or death or interfering with whatever course fate takes. The spider drags the fly across its web, and the fly is at its mercy, tucked in tight to herself. It drags her up against the wall where I can now see the stash of bounty, life forms bundled up into an unrecognizable death. I have a hard time not believing this one was taken in excess. Even for a family of four, sometimes there must be wrong in death, sometimes the unfair play of others or of greed or of selfishness can alter the trajectory of an existence, and if so, then an unfair advantage of support or generosity or assistance is the only thing that could have balanced things out. That should balance things out.

The web would fall so easily under my fingers. The spider would run. But I stare at the fly with pity, not empathy. I stare at it on its death bed and think of nothing but what a nuisance it would be to me were it free.

 

Eventually, I walked away from my mother. Left her to administer her own shots, to find dealers to deliver vices to her door, spiders who would tease her just enough so that she’d squirm and struggle deeper into her own grave.

I try to focus on the memories that came before she was caught, but it’s hard to see past the cocoon, past the yellow that crept across her skin and into her eyes. The last time I saw her I hugged her and her bones felt as though they were hollow and gelatinous, bending from all the restraints she put on herself. I remember thinking, she will die soon, but what is a thought if no action goes with it, where is the value in words unsaid?

I hugged her and heard that slow, steady buzz beyond her bones. I could hear its exhaustion. I did not doubt that it struggled, but I knew it saw no escape.

 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

This was the first piece I wrote, or was able to write, about my mother after her death. It took almost half a year. At the time I was experiencing a lot of fear about my own life. Fear that I would be unable to handle such a blow and would also fall into addiction. Fear that grief had broken my ability to write, that I wasn’t a “real writer” because I couldn’t write through the pain and instead only wanted to run from it. Fear, and shame, for my part in her death. Afraid to think of what I had done versus what I had failed to do.

I had run from all traces of the life I had when she was living and found myself numb, sitting on a porch in the middle of nowhere, Oregon. I couldn’t ignore the buzzing of this fly and was captivated when I realized a spider was wrapping her up in its web that very moment. I got as close as possible and watched, never once thinking I should interfere. I was so caught up in my own moral dilemma between human and fly that for a short time I was able to pretend that I wasn’t thinking of my mom and began writing about this fly. Of course, what quickly poured out were some dammed up emotions for my mom, and I’ve been able to keep squeezing them out since. I’m thankful for that fly though I still don’t have an answer as to whether I should have saved her or not.

Even in telling this story I ask if I have permission to share something my mother would have been horrified to read. I can only stand by my belief that sharing stories can help someone who is experiencing or has experienced something similar. That it might help them to cope or that it might help them grapple with action versus inaction. That it might help someone somewhere with something. I know she would have granted permission for that.

One of the most infuriating and comforting things about grieving is that there will never be a guidebook to get through it. It is completely individualized and different each time. For now, at this exact moment, I am grateful to be able to find comfort in writing and sharing words.

 

Kristin McCandless is writing, reading, and living out of a van somewhere around the U.S. Her love for words is currently matched by her love for animals, hot food, and friends with driveways. She has an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University of Los Angeles.

On Leaving: A Conversation

Nonfiction / Justin Lawrence Daugherty and Jill Talbot

:: On Leaving: A Conversation ::

A confession: I think it is always me who causes the leaving. A scene: she lies in my bed. I’ve moved from an apartment we shared, and she is between that place and her next place, hundreds of miles away. She asks, can we just try again? I tell her that’s not what she really wants, that she’s the one who ended things. I’m lying when I say this: I don’t know that we’re who we want each other to be. A fear: I won’t unlearn how to ask her to leave.

~

I’ve been wondering for weeks how to respond—to you, to endings and unlearnings, to the way I keep finding ways to use the word “beleaguered.” I read a story of yours, lingered on that line about taking trips to get away from what we have to run from. I imagined you in an airport, seated on a stool of some bar at an under-construction gate. I don’t know why. A scene: he cries in a chair of the last apartment we shared, announcing his desertion abandon. Maybe the word is “bewilderment.”

~

It’s been months, but I still wake up to find my arms reaching for her, to press my nose to her hair. In that story, there’s the impulse to lock oneself away from the world until it becomes remade and we emerge into it the same, the world altered. That’s not the way. What we face is our own fear of movement. Do you ever wonder if you asked him to go? I visited her in Boston, and each night I lay on the couch, and she said goodnight, and she would leave the bedroom door open. Invitation is not what that was, but instead a lie she told. An open door can sometimes be the strictest prohibition.

~

I think of a question in Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay”: Why hold onto all that? Then: Where can I put it down? I think of your question, how it reads like a reckoning. My wondering memory unknowing (yes, that’s it) rummages through the living room where he and I lived fifteen years ago. I open a closet door and stare at his workboots (I do that often). Or I’m (again) waiting at a window in the dark, holding my breath for his headlights to pull into the drive. Or I’m shuffling to the kitchen to stop the sink’s drip, listening to loss with each note of the water’s cadence. It’s unnerving, standing inside the aftermath before the event even arrives. But I haven’t answered your question.

~

Leaving is a question. A question of: How did it come to this? And: What will you do now with what you hold? I don’t know if I want you to answer. My unknowing: waking up to a new daily unraveling. My unknowing: seeing in the unraveling something we expected all along. The bed I sleep in is the one we shared. It is too small, too closed in. How a thing changes in the aftermath. How that leaving is embedded. I lie down and the bed forgets her contours, her shape. A fear: I will stop feeling the unsettling.

~

I wrote this stanza years ago—months after he left:

I’ve seen ticket stubs in wallets, 
the way these words will be
folded up in a drawer with leadless pencils, 
the matchbook with one match left.
Statues of paper pinned to bulletin boards,
tucked into frames. A suffocation,
this poem, a memory of something we saw once, 
like the man missing his train.

 

I keep going back, revising the lines:

I’ve seen ticket stubs in wallets, 
the way these words will be
settled in a drawer with leadless pencils, 
the matchbook with one match left.
Faded receipts folded between book pages. Such suffocation,
a forgotten secret, a memory of something we saw once, 
like the man missing his train.

 

What changes—memory or its meaning?

He used to tell me I mumbled (or sometimes sang) when I wrote. He’d come to the door and listen before understanding I was somewhere else. Maybe that’s one way to ask someone to go.

One afternoon during those days in Colorado, I checked our account and found a charge from a gas station in Oklahoma. I didn’t even know he had gone.

Such mystery misery fear—the distance that arrives only after so much has been lost.

 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

On Leaving: (A Conversation about) A Conversation

JT: Let me know if this works as a beginning. These are the words Justin wrote to me in an e-mail on the day he sent the first section of “On Leaving.” That was November 16, 2017. Usually when Justin or I send each other a segment, we respond with a day or two, sometimes within the hour, as if our words tremor across the distance until an answer settles them. Our responses are reactions, all instinct and echoes. And while I answered—Oh, yes, I can work with this. Confession, lies, fears. Definitely—I wasn’t sure. His confession felt insulated, as if an answer might unsettle his words somehow. So after almost two weeks, I typed, I’ve been wondering for weeks how to respond, then watched the cursor blink in the blank space. After a few moments I realized my words meant more than my response to what Justin had written. They were a response to this new reality, to new questions, to an anchor on a cable news show who used the word “beleaguered.” I wrote to Justin, asked if we might approach the current political moment subtextually.

JLD: So often, for me, what I compose in response to Jill feels like a reverberation. It’s not simply response, but it carries her words as they hit me and echo, ricochet. So often, these beginnings feel like they’re responses even though I’ve written the first lines, or Jill has confessed a beginning segment. As she says, this beginning was something different. I was more insulated, as Jill points out, than in earlier essays. It’s true. But, what she sent me pushed me harder and really felt like it reached into the ache I was describing and heightened it. We were writing to each other, but also writing the sort of concussive feeling of the present moment. It was early in the emergence into this reality, yet, but I think we wrote with a sort of energy that fed of that confusion. I’ve felt displaced, in a way, since November, and I think that shows here.

JT: My responses to Justin invariably rely on reflection, as in mirroring, or perhaps it’s borrowing, so in this essay I picked up the ______: of his first segment, but what I was really after was a gesture—I didn’t want him on the page alone in his loss, so I offered my own. When we write together, I bend the writing more than I do in my own work, risk the edges, so when I was grasping for the word to describe that morning, I stopped deleting words and instead crossed them out to show the struggle of my search, though still, all these years later, I’m unable to name what happened.

JLD: The crossing out and eventual landing on bewilderment feels like the heart of the essay to me, and it drove me in writing in response. I think my sections in the rest of the essay find me grappling with how to approach and live in that moment, to search for answers in Jill’s revelation. I often think that essays that work best find the author searching for something without maybe ever actually finding what they’re looking for, or not quite finding the right thing, and I think that’s what functions in our work together. We are trying to locate ourselves in the world through our work in response, and I think we both want to make sure we’re still searching in the final lines.

JT: I don’t think Justin has ever asked me a question in our collaborations, and we’ve been writing together since 2013, so when I read, “Do you ever wonder if you asked him to go?,” it was as if he stepped out of the paragraph and stood in front of me asking the question I didn’t realize I’ve been chasing in my writing for years. I couldn’t address it directly, so I turned to another writer, to her questions, then I leaned into the parentheticals to signal what lurks between our words, lingers behind them. I was also teaching “The Glass Essay” at the time, telling my students that in 7,875 words Carson mentions his name, Law, only eleven times. We write around the ache. I thought I might come back in a later segment to answer Justin, but when he wrote, “I don’t know if I want you to answer,” I felt relief, a reprieve.

JLD: Even when I asked the question, I had a hope that there wouldn’t be an ultimate answer, and I knew that Jill would write toward it even if she didn’t answer. I think the writing is stronger because we never locate ourselves in the world of the essay, but still try and fail as we do so. What matters is the ache, not its origins. What strikes me most when I re-read this essay is that we never answer each other or definitely say ______ about the world as we find it, but that we’re still attempting to answer, and that feels important. The spell is broken for me in essays that land too hard on definitive meaning, and I think this essay, as with much of our writing together, tries to maintain the spell. I want the spell to linger, and am less satisfied when I know for sure what it conjures.

 

Justin Lawrence Daugherty lives in Atlanta. His novel, You Are Alive, is forthcoming from Civil Coping Mechanisms in 2018.  He is the Co-Publisher of Jellyfish Highway Press, the Founding Editor of Sundog Lit, the Fiction Editor at New South, and he co-pilots Cartridge Lit with Joel Hans. His work has appeared in BarrelhouseCatapultElectric LitThe Normal School, and more.

Jill Talbot is the author of The Way We Weren’t: A Memoir (Soft Skull Press, 2015) and Loaded: Women and Addiction (Seal Press, 2007).  She is the co-editor, with Charles Blackstone, of The Art of Friction: Where (Non)Fictions Come Together (University of Texas Press, 2008) and the editor of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction (University of Iowa Press, 2012).  

Justin and Jill’s collaborative essays have appeared in The Chattahoochee ReviewFourth GenreHobartPassages NorthThe PinchPithead ChapelThe Rumpus, and more.

Transient

Fiction / Cecca Austin Ochoa

:: Transient ::

Celeste Cienfuegos and her so-called permanent social worker Maureen drove toward the temporary foster home, Fog Orchard, where Celeste would spend the summer. They sped across the San Rafael bridge, the last stretch sloping downwards as though heading into the water, as though the slightest rise in sea level would send the bay pouring across the lanes.

Maureen, Department of Social Services, Family Resources Division, smiled optimistically. “I know it’s far,” she said, “but you’ll be around people who get you. You might even enjoy yourself. What do ya think?” Maureen wore a pendant, a small pearl trapped in a silver tear that twirled between her big breasts.

Celeste shrugged and fiddled with the framing nail in her left ear beneath a cloud of curly brown hair. The nail had been a parting gift from Lizzie. “Stay tough,” she’d said, as she pushed it through Celeste’s burning lobe. Lizzie was the tough one, with her shaved head and her tattooed hands, tear ducts in a more permanent drought than California.

Maureen continued, “Whether or not you move back in with your Grandma after this, I want you to finish high school next year. What do you want?”

Celeste stared out the window with a dewy look. “World peace?”

“Shit!” Maureen slammed on the brakes as a car swerved into their lane. Celeste pressed her cheek to the window. What did she want? To be a shimmering mirage disappearing as soon as anyone got too close. If that girl hadn’t got so close, Celeste would still be at home. But, her not-yet-in-bloom, sapling figure caught the sparks of that girl—known to Celeste as a homosexual, lesbian, dyke, carpet muncher, etc. She and the girl snuck off in the late afternoon light and laid down behind the housing complex, Hope Gardens, and rubbed their bodies together like two snakes in the wet grass. A month later, when she felt herself in the fiery whirl she’d later call love, her Grandma found them twisted around each other like the knot of a noose. Perverts, she said, and smacked Celeste so hard, the flame snuffed out.

Celeste’s Grandma, who’d kept a long list of her granddaughter’s shortcomings, never expected much, but she had not expected a queer. She shuffled around the house in her day gown—like a night gown, but khaki, and with pockets full of menthol lozenges, keys, and kleenex—muttering, Bad Blood. She’d always known it, Bad Blood, that Celeste: seedling of her perfectly white daughter and a spic who abandoned their bastard child to an old lady, Too old, she told Celeste—her chin forward and her back hunched like a mound of pulp—but, not afraid to die alone.

 

Fog Orchard sat an acre back from the road, shielded by spidery redwood trees. Maureen pulled up beside a tractor and handed Celeste a smoke detector and a battery.

“Protocol,” she said.

Celeste slumped down in the seat, her heart suddenly pounding. She thought she’d, maybe, vomit.

“Don’t be shy,” Maureen wagged a finger, “I have to get back before traffic.” She swung the car door open, and Celeste stepped out onto the cracked dirt. A man with a pointed head and a wide waist waved from the porch. His name was Wallace Crow, semi-retired from the restaurant business, a baritone, cheeks pink with acne scars.

Maureen left after a quick tour of the house. The place smelled musty like the inside of a dried-up spice jar, with other funny smells lurking around the curtains and rugs. The room that Celeste would sleep in was up a wide staircase. It had a bed and a chest of drawers. In the top drawer she found three smoke detectors; sitting on the pilly bed cover, she plugged the battery into hers. A green light blinked on.

Celeste’s Grandma changed the locks on the doors. At least I’m free, Celeste thought as she braced against a bench for four windy nights in the park down the street from her high school. The first two nights she slept alone, but on the third she felt eyes on her, and after that she didn’t sleep at all. Since she was across the street, since she had nowhere else to go, she went to her classes until a teacher told her, You smell like A-S-S. She left and never went back; the police picked her up for loitering, then came social services.

The first social worker dropped her at St. Bethany’s Home For Girls, a four story stucco compound that smelled like baby shit and cucumber hand lotion. “But I’m not really that kinda girl,” Celeste said, without raising her eyes. The social worker asked her if she’d prefer correctional. Celeste shook her head and crawled into the bunk, temporarily hers. The plastic mattress cover rumpled beneath her; the babies squealed all day, all night; and another new girl, Lizzie, crawled up beside her after the lights were out and whispered, Hey, chaparrita, into her neck. She didn’t know what it meant, but it felt like a warm purr. At least, she thought, staring at the glow of the smoke detector, she might get some sleep at Fog Orchard. Even if it were only temporary.

 

Crow knocked on the door a few hours later. The yellow hallway light reflected on his thick-framed glasses, and she couldn’t see his eyes. The other resident, Luca, stood behind him.

“We’re going to check out the gardens. Feel like getting your hands dirty?”

“Is it required?” Celeste asked.

“Might as well,” Crow said. “It’s nice outside.”

Celeste stepped into the hallway and pulled the door closed behind her. It must have been five p.m., but the sky was as baby blue as morning. Luca had fawn brown hair that hung over his shoulders; he twisted it back and forth between his fingers.

“When’s your birthday?” he asked, slow and quiet like he was afraid of his own voice.

“December 1st.”

“Oh. I’m a fire sign, too.”

Celeste scanned herself for some sign of fire, but felt only the haze of smoke. Crow took them through the rows of garden beds behind the house. Most of the crops had just been planted; they stood neatly in their soil mound: speckled corn, heirloom tomatoes, squash, deckle-edged mustard greens.

“What’s that?” Celeste asked, pointing to a row of green vines and happy leaves tied up to a stake.

“Legumes,” Crow said. “The roots put nitrogen into the soil. Which helps the other plants to grow.” He told her about how they managed with the drought, the grey water irrigation. “We’re lucky for the fog here. Some of these plants suck the water right out of the air.”

She nodded her head and looked up to see the towering redwood trees bounce their long arms in the breeze.

 

Luca had been living with Crow for three years; he’d just turned eighteen. “A lot of kids come and go,” he said. “Not me.” He wore all black and stitched the holes in his clothes with dental floss. He left home after his father broke his arm and threatened to kill him if he ever came back. One year he lived on the street, knew Anarchists, ate out of dumpsters. “Most of that trash is perfectly good,” he said. But he got an infection, wound up at SF General, and that’s when social services got involved.

Celeste followed Luca around most days, shoveling manure onto the beds, pulling weeds, watching the spindly tomatoes thicken and unfurl toward the sun. She stuck her fingers deep into the dirt and planted hexes: one for the teacher, one for the court judge, one for the eyes in the night. She pet the comfrey leaves, lambs’ ears, like the back of Grandma’s hand, sickeningly soft. Fog Orchard was not the outdoors she knew; not the strips of grass where the unemployed and the old folks sat waiting for nothing on park benches all day; not the abandoned lot, overgrown with weeds and piled with broken living room furniture. A wilder nature. Luca collected leaves and hung them on his wall: oak, redwood needles, magnolia, aspen, poppy, the long tails of garlic. They changed from supple into a hardened shell, then brittle, then crumble.

During the day while Crow and Luca were out in the gardens, Celeste would sometimes wander indoors and through the rooms of the house. There was a thrill to being alone in so much space, like she owned it. All of it. She’d touch the leaves on Luca’s wall, rub them between her fingers until they turned to dust. She’d rest her chin on the dresser where Crow kept photos of his deceased husband, lick her lips at him. She opened Crow’s drawers. Beneath a pile of socks, she found a disturbing image. At first, she thought the man in the picture was dead. He had a black plastic bag duct-taped over his head, and his arms were chained to wooden beams, almost like Jesus. It wasn’t until she saw the man’s erection that she realized what she was looking at. She felt empathy flutter in her chest. Pervert, she thought, and hurried out of the room.

 

Lizzie had been a child prostitute, so-called street-involved, and the closest thing Celeste had to a friend. They’d spent many an afternoon at St. Bethany’s locked in the double stall bathroom, huffing the cleaning products stored under the sink. Time would slow and wobble like jello, a chemical undulation. The fluorescent light above them fractured into beams of primary color, and they’d look at each other and laugh like they were slap happy at a slumber party.

Celeste rang Lizzie every week from Fog Orchard, or “Foster Farm,” as Lizzie called it. “I wish you’d come back to earth,” Lizzy said. Celeste heard babies shrieking in the background. “This girl keeps trying to fight me, saying she’s on a mission from God to kill faggots. I told her, ‘you wish God had given you bigger arms, then.’ I could snap her with my fingers.”

From where the phone was in the hall between the kitchen and the living room, Celeste could see out the window to the redwood forest. The sun and shadows twisted around the giant trunks. “I kinda like it here.”

“I wish they’d teach us something useful, though. Like what, you’re gunna grow up to be a farm boy?”

Richmond was a world away. Sometimes Celeste couldn’t tell which world was the real one. Just like she couldn’t understand a thing about herself, like why she found her eyes lingering on Luca’s back as he worked under the cold sun in a tight tank top, his strange spine exaggerated like chain links, even though the rest of him was soft. His arm muscles were round as puppy bodies. And if she found him looking at her, well, her stomach leapt like she’d been thrown in the air.

 

Crow had a meeting in San Francisco—his friend was opening a restaurant—so he invited Luca and Celeste along for the ride. Luca called Jesse; he braided his hair, tucked a sprig of lavender behind his ear.

“Pretty,” Celeste said, and climbed into the bucket seat. Jesse was a trans kid who had stayed at the farm for a year, until his sister in Berkeley adopted him. “A whole year? How’d he manage that?” Celeste wanted to know. When Luca and Crow said he, the pronoun became a rock in a stream; they paused before gliding over it. What was he up to these days? Oh, he studies herbal medicine. Will he come up to the farm? Yes, he will.

Crow parked the truck on the corner of Castro and 16th. Celeste crawled into the driver’s seat and rolled down the window. The street was loud, and everybody walked like they were somebody. Across the street bare chested men smoked cigarettes on a bar patio, all muscle and scruff. One of the guys pulled another in for a tender kiss.

“Are you serious?” Celeste checked the rear-view mirror for the person who’d scream, Perverts! No one seemed to be watching but her. “Where do all these Ken dolls come from?”

Luca sat quietly, eyes in his lap.

“Do you think they’re hot?” Celeste asked. “Tell me who’s hot.”

“There’s Jesse.” Luca nodded and got out of the truck. Jesse had elfish cheeks, a round belly, and a golden fro. He wore big metal rings on his thin fingers and a long gauzy shift. He walked like he was somebody, too. Maybe he was.

Luca grabbed him with both arms. “You look really great,” he said. Celeste leaned against the building Crow had gone into. Jesse and Luca sat on the cement steps in front of the restaurant door, both with their legs spread open, elbows on knees.

Jesse smiled, his voice tinny, like he was holding his nose. “Like my beard?”

Celeste stroked her chin and imagined feeling coarse hair beneath her fingers.

“Off my steps.” The door opened and a small bald man stepped between Jesse and Luca.

“They’re with me,” Crow said, following behind him and rolling his eyes. He patted Jesse on the shoulder paternally.

“Oh!” The man’s voice turned suddenly cheerful. “I forgot you run that orphanage.” He swooped an arm at the facade, detailing his plans, “Toujours Gai, scrawling cursive.”

“All gays are not created equal,” Jesse said.

“Why don’t you darlings wait in the truck,” Crow said with a wink. They jumped into the truck bed, waved their arms to music that climbed out of an open apartment window. Crow, Jesse told Celeste, was from the bourgeois-zee, bless him. His husband died in the epidemic, and ever since he’d fostered queer youth. “He’s practically a saint, but he gets sick of us. He only keeps Luca around because he’s so damn good-looking.” Jesse and Luca giggled, and Celeste stared out at the street. She watched the men stroll by in their rolled up shorts and plaid shirts, their leather handbags and impenetrable sunglasses. Who were they?

 

The next morning at Fog Orchard, Jesse sat at the kitchen table with a book, The Secret Life of Plants, and stared meditatively into the pages. “Do you know what a ‘perfect flower’ is?” he asked Celeste, who was fixing herself breakfast. “It’s a flower with both male and female parts. If you were a flower, I think you’d be a thistle.”

Luca strolled into the kitchen and laughed, a warm sound, an octave too high. “I like thistle.” He ran his fingers through his mane of hair, pulling at the long strands, letting them tumble across his chest. Celeste examined the two bodies before her. She hadn’t suspected that Luca liked Jesse in that sort of way, but she could see now the over-wide smile on Jesse’s face and Luca’s erect nipples like burgundy button snaps.

“Is testosterone safe?” Celeste interrupted.

“Is living in a body that isn’t you safe?” Jesse replied.

Celeste looked down at her baggy jeans, mud splattered combat boots; she walked outside, let the screen door slam behind her. She wondered what she would look like as a boy; just the thought of testosterone made her walk a little different, as though the hormone were already flexing in her blood. In the weeks that she’d been there, the garden had transformed into bloom. The plump brassicas and tomatoes, the smell of green and tang and warm dirt. She walked through the rows, nodded to each of the plants. Do you hear me? Celeste asked, and the wind rushed by and the plants whispered. Celeste crawled between the corn with their rippling stalks standing tall as warriors. She lay in the dirt and looked up, the leaves arched above her like a vaulted ceiling. She felt the boy more clearly than she’d felt him before, softly rattling along her bones. “Faggot,” she whispered aloud; the word sent a trickle of pleasure down her throat.

Jesse left the next day. Celeste watched, slippery with jealous curiosity, as he and Luca came back from the forest, sticks on their clothes, redwood needles in their hair. Fuck you, Luca, she thought, but she wasn’t really mad. At sunset she climbed up a hill and watched the sky change. She imagined love as a gateway of fiery light that she’d walk through and arrive on the other side transformed: loved, a lover. So far, she’d passed through, but never arrived.

 

Maureen came in late July. Celeste had been looking forward to her visit, someone coming to see her and her alone, someone who knew she was somebody. “You look relaxed,” Maureen said. “Must be all the vegetables.” She sat on a towel on the couch on the porch. She pulled out her notebook and read a court notice aloud. Something about “dissolving guardianship,” or whatever. Celeste felt her gut clench and dread swarm her chest. “Crow is going to take you to court next week. I’ll be there too. It’s likely that you’ll be placed back at St. Bethany’s until you turn eighteen. It’s only a year.” She waved her hand as though a year were nothing at all. “Then you’ll phase out of the foster system.”

Celeste saw the golden spider threads that bound her to her Grandma disappear in a puff, saw the yellowed hallway of the court building, a business card tucked into a door jamb, Have You Been the Victim of A Crime? Celeste realized she was holding her breath. The image of the man in Crow’s photograph came to mind. Did he like suffocation? She took a deep breath, but didn’t feel relief. Out in the yard the grass waved, the plants swayed, lifted by the air. The concrete yard behind St. Bethany’s was surrounded by a tall fence and video cameras—installed after one of the girl’s boyfriends, high on PCP, broke in and tried to steal “his” baby. It had a lemon tree.

“That’s something to look forward to,” Celeste said.

Later she called Lizzie to tell her the news. A girl answered, “Lizzie? She’s gone.”

“Where?” Celeste asked. It had only been a week since they’d last spoken.

“Correctional,” the girl said, then hung up the phone.

 

On the night before court, rain clouds appeared in the sky. “It’s a miracle!” Crow shouted as slivers of rain began to fall. Celeste helped Crow roll out all the blue plastic collection barrels. The plants hunkered in the mud, their ghostly roots drawing a long drink so that tomorrow the leaves might stretch a little wider, grow the flowers into fruit. She wouldn’t be there to see if the rain made the plants happy, but it didn’t matter because she loved the plants. A plant lover. When all the barrels were out, they sloshed through the muddy yard into the house; Crow plodded behind her.

“Think the drought’s over?” Celeste asked, pulling off her soggy sneakers.

“I doubt it,” Crow said, standing in an expanding puddle.

“I wanted to ask if I could stay a little longer.” Celeste stared at the clumps of mud along Crow’s shoes, a tiny mountain range, a lake, a valley. “But I know you’d say I can’t.”

Crow sighed, “The foster system, it’s like musical chairs. And now, I’m going to start selling produce to this restaurant, so I’ll be busy.” He smiled. “It was only meant to be temporary.”

With her mind, she pulled his smile off his face and drowned it in the mud. “This place is for perverts anyway,” she said, and she walked up the stairs to her room. A spark of rage shot up her spine.

“I’ll make us breakfast in the morning before we go,” he called after her. “Pervert’s special.”

Celeste couldn’t sleep. The rain pattered on the roof, slid down the windows, and it felt like every drop plunked against her head; the bed made her itch—was it damp? —and the green glow of the smoke detector seemed to fill every dark crevice in the whole room. Celeste slipped down the hall toward Luca, knocked lightly on his door; the floor creaked and the handle whined open. He stood with his chest out, hair tied back in a pony tail, his face whiskery but fey.

“Hey, thistle,” he said.

“Can I sleep in here tonight?”

He paused and looked down the hall, as though someone might be watching. “Okay,” he said and opened the door. He flipped off the light and the room sank into total darkness. They talked for a while about little things. The squash flowers, the greens that were already bolting too early in the season. Then Luca rolled away from her and whispered goodnight.

She told herself, Don’t get too close. She lay on her right side at the edge of the mattress so that her left hand hung over. She took in the peppery smell of his sheets, waited for his breath to slow. When it did, she scooted towards him, just half an inch at a time, until her back was against his. She felt the hardness of his spine, the curve of his buttocks against her own. A heat drifted across her, a dangerous heat; kerosene dripped down her legs; she couldn’t help her hands from reaching for her own body; the friction ignited flame and the whole bed caught fire. For hours she lay paralyzed by the burn. But, when she woke up the bed was cold and empty.

 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

My sweetie just celebrated ten years since he transitioned. On that anniversary, we talked about how eight of those ten years were under Obama. We can look back on those eight years and see the incredible growth of trans and queer visibility blossoming on the surface of mainstream culture. There’s a whole generation of people who grew up with gay parents, or have friends who did, non-hetero, non-cis kids who are out and open about their gender and sexuality in grade school. Of course, we’re all worried about how the current administration will try to sabotage the gains that we have made on this and a number of other social fronts. I was thinking about this foreboding a lot as I worked through the final drafts of “Transient.” To be young and queer is precarious: it was ten years ago, it is now, it looks like it will be for years to come. I fear that the precious few resources that exist now to support queer and trans youth may suffer a blow we can’t afford. 40% of homeless youth are LGBT, despite only 7% of youth identifying as such. The top two killers of teenagers, after unintentional injury, are suicide followed by homicide. Queer youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide than straight youth. These statistics hold a mirror up to how little has actually changed, despite how much has.

The first draft of “Transient,” I wrote in grad school as a reaction to Flannery O’Connor’s “A Temple of the Holy Ghost.” In that story, two boy-crazy high school girls go to the circus in a rural town and see something so disturbing they are morally afflicted—and, these are two girls who find morals “silly.” From what’s revealed, the reader can assume an intersexed person is working one of the circus tents. I won’t bother to gander here at what O’Connor’s intentions were, something about the “mysteries of the eucharist.” But, what I picked up loud and clear from that story is the fear and moral revulsion the characters feel when they encounter a gender non-conforming body. There are many more relevant examples, but this one’s on my mind: I recently re-watched Mrs. Doubtfire, for no good reason. When the little girl catches Mrs. Doubtfire peeing standing up (reading her beloved nanny as transgender, not her dad in drag), she says, “I’m gonna call the cops!” These stories are told almost forty years apart, but the heteronormative gaze criminalizes, pathologizes, and mocks gender non-conforming bodies just the same.

In that first draft, I wanted to write the inverse of that gaze. I started building what would become Fog Orchard, a place for queer youth in a rural setting, youth who have to burn through the haze of homophobia, transphobia, and bear witness to the perversion of the heteronormative gaze. By the time I picked this story up again, I had no interest in writing a reaction to O’Connor. The most interesting part of my first draft, to me, was that a farm where queer and trans youth lived implicitly meant that these kids had broken from their origin families. And thus I arrive back at the idea of queer youth homelessness and the potential for sanctuary. The late queer theorist, José Esteban Muñoz, wrote extensively about the ephemeral nature of queer utopia in Cruising Utopia. Since queers are outsiders to the constructions of the hetero world, the places we occupy are themselves transient. And, consider the way white supremacy, capitalism, and patriarchy intersect with queer; where one fag finds utopia, another finds oppression. I wanted to show Celeste’s momentary glimpses of utopia: high in the bathroom with Lizzie, lying on her back beneath the corn at Fog Orchard, sharing a bed with Luca. She is a resilient character, and these small moments of sanctuary will feed her. But the seed of this story is the seed of many real-life queer stories: rejection, disownment, disgust. That’s the lingering smoke in the air. I hope we can move through that, replant, and continue toward a more permanent sanctuary.

 

Cecca Austin Ochoa is a fiction writer and essayist. She serves as Managing Editor for Apogee Journal. Her writing has appeared in Nat. Brut, Kweli Journal, and elsewhere; and she is anthologized in Pariahs (SFA Press, 2016) and IMANIMAN: Poets Writing in the Anzaldúan Borderlands (Aunt Lute Press, 2016). She is a 2014 Alumnus of Voices of Our Nation’s Artists and a recipient of the Astraea Foundation’s Lesbian Writer’s Award for Fiction.

Excerpt from Junction/Flame on the Mesa

Fiction / Jennifer Morales

:: Excerpt from Junction/Flame on the Mesa ::

On the train platform, Dena handed Mat a small package.

“What is it?”

“Open it and find out.” Dena’s eyes glinted behind the net of her vintage hat. She dressed every day as if it was 1945, and she had gone all out to see Mat off, in a tan traveling suit with a broad green belt and matching gloves. Mat suspected she had a handkerchief tucked in a pocket somewhere to wave at the departing train.

Working the tape loose from one end of the heavy paper, Mat slid out a thin paperback with yellowed pages.

Flame on the Mesa? What is this?”

Dena turned Mat’s hand so she could admire the cover: two wasp-waisted, bullet-breasted women, a dark-haired one and a blonde. The brunette cast a lascivious gaze at the other woman, but the blonde’s attention was divided—one eye on her admirer, the other on the bucking silhouette of a horse-mounted cowboy twirling a lasso.

“It’s lesbian pulp fiction. Isn’t it great? I found it at Downtown Books a couple weeks ago and I’ve been dying to give it to you. It seemed like the perfect gift, you know, with you having to go to Iowa to get divorced. It’s about a woman who goes to Nevada to get divorced and has to live there six weeks to establish residency before the court will let her file the papers. Sound familiar?”

“Yeah,” Mat said, flipping the book over. “If you think ‘six weeks in Reno’ and ‘twelve months in Iowa’ sound anything like the same thing.”

Years ago, Mat and Klaudia had married in Iowa, at a time when that was one of the few places gays could legally do such a stupid thing. In their reverie, neither of them had read the fine print: marriage was easy. Divorce would require one of them to live in the state for a year first. When the relationship fell apart, Mat lost the battle over which of them would uproot her Milwaukee life and go.

“Stop feeling so sorry for yourself, Mat.” Dena swatted her with a glove. “You have a cushy job and a place to live waiting for you. You’re getting off with a light sentence, all things considered.”

Mat growled. She didn’t want to talk again about the final straw that had broken the back of her marriage. Wasn’t she suffering enough for the night she spent with Adrienne in Chicago?

“Easy, tiger.” Dena threaded her arm through the crook of Mat’s elbow. “Get on the train. Read the book. It’ll take your mind off things.”

“God, did you see this?” Mat read the back cover aloud:

Janet had only one desire: to go to Reno to free herself from the grips of Hank, the husband back East who had hurt her so badly. But when she meets Lena, another desire is awakened, an unnatural one that would set her burning like a flame on the mesa and leave her amidst ashes of despair. This unexpurgated look at the shocking and tragic lives of lesbians will open the reader’s eyes to a world heretofore unseen.

“What kind of bullshit is that?”

Dena hit Mat with both gloves this time. “It’s pulp, you idiot. You know, like Beebo Brinker? These are seminal works of lesbian literature.”

“Might be lesbian, but I don’t think it qualifies as literature.” Mat thumbed through the book. On a page picked at random, she found two unannounced shifts in point of view. “Yeesh. First we’re in the ticket guy’s head, then the luggage boy’s.”

“Lighten up, will you, Professor Rodriguez?”

“All aboard!” the conductor cried.

Mat added the book to her bag. “I guess I need to go.”

She reached to draw Dena into a hug, but Dena stopped her.

“Wait. I need to put on my gloves.” She tugged them on, then opened her clutch to pull out a handkerchief, ivory with faded turquoise lace around the edges.

“I knew it.” Mat shook her head. “Is that thing for real?”

“Of course it is. OK, I’m ready.” Dena held out both arms and Mat walked into them.

“I’m going to miss you so much.” Mat squeezed her, tight enough to feel bone, and she was overcome by the feeling of her real life slipping out of her grip as Dena stepped aside.

“All aboard!” the conductor shouted again, passing close enough to make them jump.

“See you soon.”

“Not soon enough.” Mat gave the sleeve of Dena’s jacket a final tug.

At the foot of the train’s narrow stair the conductor had placed a step stool. Painted a cheerful, sunny yellow and squatting on sturdy legs, it reminded Mat of those tiny stands they force the elephants to balance on in the circus.

She was in some kind of circus, Mat thought. A clown show in which all the jokes were on her.

Mat watched the conductor steady a hunchbacked, white-haired woman as she boarded the train. He gestured briskly to Mat next and reached out to help her up, too, but she drew her arm close and grabbed the strap of her bag. Even so, he got his hand under her elbow as she hoisted herself onto the metal stairs.

“Up you go.”

“Thanks.” She hated the gratuitous assistance of men.

She stood at the open door to take a last look at Milwaukee—what she could see of it from the station platform, anyway. The conductor scooped up the step stool, whistling as he headed for the front of the train. Across the tracks, a pigeon picked its way along the far wall of the train shed, hunting through a smattering of grass that grew where the sharp July sunlight cut in. When the attendant came to shut the door, Mat resigned herself to taking a seat.

The train was full of vacationers, excited children and their exasperated parents trying to get them to settle in. Mat made her way down the aisle, her overstuffed bag snagging on seat-tops as she went. There was a pair of empty seats on her left, in the middle of the car, and she reached them just as a mother arrived, a boy maybe eight years old in tow.

“Is the other seat taken?” she asked. Her hair was still damp from a shower or a swim and it dripped onto her wrinkled polo shirt.

“No,” Mat said.

“You, sit still.” She pointed to the boy’s chest and he sat down. “I’m just three rows back with your sisters. If you need anything, call me from your seat. I don’t want you running around.” To Mat she added, “If he’s a bother, just let me know.”

“Sure.”

The mom took a video game player from her purse and handed it to him. From her pocket she pulled a set of earbuds, unwinding the cord and plugging one into each of the boy’s ears and the wire into the socket on the machine. She tucked a bottle of orange juice and a bag of gummy worms between his hip and the armrest. As she leaned in, Mat could smell the chlorine in her hair. They stayed at a downtown hotel, Mat guessed, and Mom got in a swim before they had to check out.

“There,” she said. “He shouldn’t be any trouble.”

Mothers amazed Mat. Here she had barely found a place to stow her own bag and this mom had choreographed this kid’s entire life for the next few hours. Mat sized the boy up. His sandy hair was in a bowl cut that he would resent his parents for later, and his round cheeks were peppered with pale freckles. Around his pudgy wrist he wore an orange snap-on band that said “Fisherman’s Cove,” the indoor waterpark at the Hilton downtown, and a light blue silicone bracelet stamped “Benjamin” in black ink.

Benjamin’s t-shirt read, “It wasn’t me,” in neon green letters. That pretty much summed it up at age eight: you were either being blamed for something or trying to pin the blame on someone else. Maybe at age forty as well, Mat thought. She considered the friends she had lost in the split with Klaudia, friends she was sure blamed Mat for the breakup.

The train jerked to a start and she leaned toward the window. She was on the wrong side of the car to see Dena waving, but Mat knew she was there.

The coffee she had for breakfast sloshed around in her stomach as the train picked up speed, adding a wave of nausea to her mounting feeling of dread. She had lost so much in the past year, it seemed insane to give up the few things she could rely on. Her job teaching in the creative writing program at UW-Milwaukee. Playing in the park with her niece and nephew. Lake Michigan shimmering under the rising sun. The worn marble of the stairs up to the second floor of Central Library. The bookstore clerk at Boswell who knew her by name and set aside new titles he thought she would like. Trading Spanish barbs with the produce guys at El Rey. But here she was, leaving everything behind to spend a year at Grinnell College teaching a poetry seminar. She knew she should feel grateful that she had wrangled such a plum gig, but she just didn’t. She was mad. And worried. And lonely, already.

For the first time in years, Mat found herself biting her nails. She pulled out Flame on the Mesa, hoping to distract herself. Taped inside was a pink paper heart, a note from Dena. Her handwriting was girly yet formal, broad loops and extravagant tails riding atop lines so strict it seemed like she wrote along the edge of a ruler.

Dear Mat,

This is a stupid book in some ways, I know, but maybe you can enjoy it in that mindless summer beach reading sort of way. Lesbian pulp fiction developed at a time when it was pretty much illegal to write about our lives—unless the lesbian character died, or went to jail, or went insane and drove herself off a cliff.

Still, when I read it I thought you’re like Janet, having to travel to a new place in order to get divorced and start your life over. It ends badly—the book, I mean, not your life (!!!?!)—but I guess that’s what they had to do back then to keep the nation from falling into irreversible moral turpitude.

I’ll miss you terribly.

Yours,

Dena

P.S. Check out page 93!

Mat started to turn to page 93 but thought the better of it. Knowing Dena, it was probably some sweaty sex scene, something it would be best Mat didn’t read while sitting next to a corruptible minor at risk of falling into irreversible moral turpitude.

It was Melody who told Janet how this was done. Melody was another salesgirl at Woolworth’s and one of the few people Janet had been allowed to talk to after her wedding. Melody got it all arranged because Hank would notice the long distance charges and the letters. It was too risky. She called every beauty shop and five-and-dime, talking up Janet’s skills, until she found a taker.

Melody came into Woolworth’s one Tuesday morning in March bustling with energy. She tied on her apron and sidled up to Janet behind the glass cosmetics counter, where Janet was restocking the lipsticks.

“Guess what?” Melody fairly sang. “The manager at the Riverside Hotel says he might need a shampoo girl at their beauty parlor.” She got a rag from under the counter and began dusting the glass, even though it was already clean.

“The Riverside? Sure,” Janet said. “I mean, whatever kind of job he has, I’ll do it. You’re the best friend a girl could ever have, Melody. If it wasn’t for you, well, I don’t know what I would do.”

“He wants you to send him your picture,” Melody said, polishing the chrome trim on the cabinet to a vicious shine.

“What does how I look have to do with anything?”

Melody smiled at a woman passing by and said, “Good morning.” When the woman had gone, Melody said, “Well, I don’t know.”

Janet looked up at Melody’s face. Her friend was ten years older and a whole lot wiser than she was, Janet knew. There was concern in Melody’s blue eyes but she said only, “Maybe he wants to make sure you’re not a negro.”

“But negroes work in hotels all over the place,” Janet protested.

“Not in Nevada, they don’t.” 

Janet went home that afternoon and, before Hank got home, took the cigar box with her pictures in it down from the shelf in the bedroom wardrobe. She didn’t have that many pictures to spare. Nobody in her family ever had enough money to own a camera. She had a wedding portrait of her parents, her mother in a long white dress rented from the photographer for all the half hour it took to take the picture. Her mother’s real wedding dress was a simple cotton one she wore for the ceremony in the yard of her parents’ farmhouse.

And there was one of the family. Mother, father, and the three girls—Janet and her two younger sisters—taken just after her brother died in the accident with that other boy. That picture always made Janet feel like her parents were trying to settle their minds on this new family arrangement, without Emil. The stern look on her father’s face especially, said, “There. This is our family now.” There wasn’t a funeral and nobody had been allowed to cry. It was like they were just supposed to rearrange themselves in front of the camera and go along like nothing had been lost.

Janet was eleven years old in that picture. Looking at herself at that age made her feel strange inside. Her mother had her hand on her shoulder. Janet could see that the two of them had their jaws set just the same way, determined not to speak of anything they shouldn’t be speaking about.

There were a few other pictures in the box: some snapshots of her and Hank when they were courting, Hank in his Army uniform, one of her and Melody in their heavy coats in front of Woolworth’s. Janet decided to send that one. The picture was taken in bright afternoon sunlight and she and Melody were both squinting. It was hard to see Janet’s face, but at least the manager would be able to tell she wasn’t a negro.

She went to the telephone table in the hall to get a pencil and wrote her name on the back of the photo. She thought a second and then added “(on the left)” after it so the manager would know which one was Janet.

Hank came through the door just then. It was 5 o’clock already. She must have lost track of time while looking at the photographs.

She put the photo in her pocket quickly and began to dust the table and its little nook. Janet had learned to keep a dust rag handy at all times when she was at home, so she could look busy whenever Hank got in.

“Don’t you have something better to do than dust the telephone?” Hank asked with a growl, as he passed by her in the narrow hallway to go hang up his coat. He stopped halfway to the coatrack and came back toward her. He looked deep into Janet’s eyes. She forced herself to keep facing him. “Are you waiting for a call from somebody?” he asked. 

Clearly he could tell she was nervous. Janet looked down at the floor, a big mistake.

Hank squinted one eye. “What’s going on with you?”

“Nothing,” Janet stammered. “I’m just doing a little cleaning.”

He studied her up and down. “What’s in your pocket?”

“Nothing,” she said. He couldn’t see that thin piece of paper, could he?

Hank drew up close to her, close enough that she could smell the ham sandwich with mustard and onions she had sent with him for lunch on his breath, and put his hand in the pocket of her apron roughly. She could feel some of the threads holding the patch pocket to the skirt give way to his big knuckles as he pulled the picture out. He strode out of the hallway and into the dining room near the window to see better. Janet followed him.

The picture was now crumpled a bit. He turned it over. “Is this what you were writing when I came in?”

Had he come in sooner than she thought? Lost in daydreams about her pictures, did she not notice him right away? Janet was unsure.

“Who needs to know which one is you? Who were you going to send this to?”

Janet’s head was spinning. Hank was always a few steps ahead of her. How did he know she was going to send it to somebody?

He looked at the picture again and then back at her with a sneer. “You could have just told him you were the ugly one,” he said, ripping the picture to shreds and throwing them on the floor. He stormed out of the room. “Clean that up,” he shouted as he banged through the kitchen door.

Janet stood for a second, holding onto the dinner table to steady herself. Every piece of her felt hot with shame. Her knees were shaking and she wanted to crawl to the kitchen and throw herself on Hank’s mercy. In her mind’s eye she could see herself doing it, crying, begging for forgiveness. The beating he would give her would put things to right. They could go back to normal and she could forget about this whole crazy plan.

The clock on the mantel over the unused fireplace was clicking noisily. She knew Hank was waiting in the kitchen for her, to apologize, to come get his dinner ready. It’s what they both had come to expect. But some little voice in her head was whispering one word, over and over, and it was getting louder. The sound of it, of what it meant, made her so sick to her stomach she gagged.

The voice was saying, “Now.”

To her own surprise, Janet grabbed her handbag off the chair and her coat and hat from the hook in the hallway. With one look back toward the kitchen door, she ran out the front door, down the steps, and toward the trolley stop. A trolley pulled up just then and she got on.

Okay, Mat thought. It’s not that bad. The writing was melodramatic, but maybe Dena had given Mat a gift after all—some trashy reading to help her knock off a few hours of her life in exile.

Mat shut the book. Benjamin was staring at her, his mouth ajar.

“Are you a boy or a girl?” On the screen of his video game, a green bubble with feet and googly eyes was bouncing in place waiting for the next command.

Mat wondered how long Benjamin had been staring at her. He had a right to be confused. Mat was wearing her favorite summer shirt, a button-up in light cotton, and its looseness hid what little curves Mat had. The rest of her outfit consisted of well-worn jeans, the boots that she was wearing only because their chunky soles took up too much space in her suitcase, and the brown leather strap she kept doubled on her left wrist at all times. Mat had the square hands and trimmed nails of a boy, too. Add in the short black hair and a kid could be excused for not knowing.

“What do you think?” Mat turned and leaned back toward the window to give him a clear view.

He screwed up his face in concentration. “I don’t know. A girl?”

“Why do you think a girl?”

“I don’t know,” he said, turning back to his game. “You move like a girl, I guess. And you have girl eyes.” He put his earbuds back in and pressed a button with his thumb. The green bubble grew smaller and started leaping up onto a series of moving platforms. The game’s jangly carnival music leaked out of his ears.

“Is he bothering you?” Benjamin’s mother had come up without Mat noticing.

Mat smiled. “Oh, no. He’s fine. He was just asking me about my, about my shirt.”

“Oh, good. I’m glad he’s not bothering you.” She peered down at Mat’s lap, her eyes traveling from the book cover to Benjamin’s face, and wrinkled her nose.

Mat lifted the book up and shook her head. “A gag gift, from a friend. Great, huh?” Mat smiled but the mom was scanning the car for another empty seat. There weren’t any. Mat stuffed the book back into her bag and took out her laptop instead. Benjamin’s mother tapped him on the shoulder and pulled the earbud out on his left side.

“Come on,” she said.

He got up, pinning the bag of candy and his bottle of juice between his waist and his knuckles, and made his way down the aisle after his mother. His sisters squealed in protest as Mom ordered Benjamin to share a seat with the smallest one.

Mat opened her book file, hoping to get some work done on some poems, then closed it. Her editor was expecting—no, demanding—a manuscript from her sometime this autumn, and her slack schedule in Grinnell was supposed to help her meet that deadline. But she wasn’t in Grinnell yet. She could read Flame on the Mesa for now. Anyway, maybe Dena was right. She wasn’t reading it for the quality of the writing. Just the lesbian presence, the existence of queer stories, was offensive to some people. It was important to read this book in public.

Janet had gotten on the trolley line in the wrong direction, headed north. She took the trolley much farther than she would normally go, just so she could get off somewhere where Hank would never look for her, then get back on the line the other way, headed toward Woolworth’s.  

The trolley stop where she chose to wait was right on the edge of the negro part of town, across from a soda fountain. The people coming in and out of the fountain looked at her in a way she wasn’t used to. They wouldn’t do that downtown or in her neighborhood. She pulled her coat tighter around her neck and stared at her shoes. The trolley couldn’t come soon enough.

She didn’t know where else to go besides back to Woolworth’s. She knew that if Hank went looking for her—and he would—he would try Melody’s place first. She was her only friend, after all. The store was going to be open late since it was Thursday, but even so, it was getting close to 6:30 already, with all the backtracking she had to do.

Mr. Morris, the store manager, saw Janet come in and knew right away something was up. Janet never came in on her time off.

“Janet, what brings you in? You’re not about to quit on me, are you?” Janet was a good worker, a little quiet with the customers and she could stand up straighter and show that pretty face of hers sometimes. Might sell more lipstick. But he’d hate to lose her. She fairly jumped when he asked her to do anything. A girl like that was valuable.  

“Oh, no, Mr. Morris. I left something this afternoon.” Her eyes flew around the room, like she was looking to make an escape. “My hat.”

Mr. Morris looked at the hat on Janet’s head.

Janet touched her head and said, “My other hat.” She bolted for the stockroom before he could ask any more questions.

She closed the door of the stockroom behind her and wiped her moist brow. It occurred to her that going to Reno meant she was going to quit on Mr. Morris. She hadn’t really thought about it that way. Maybe he’d hire her back once she got into town again and he heard the story. She thought he liked her enough to do that.

She heard a noise in the shadows of the rows of cartons and crates. Janet turned to see Fern, the cleaning woman, hanging up her coat in the corner. Fern’s day started when the shopgirls’ day ended, but her slouching shoulders made her already look tired.  

“How you doing, Mrs. Heinrichs?” Fern asked.

“Oh, I’m alright, Fern,” Janet said. 

Fern came closer and asked, “Are you sure?” This was the closest the two of them had ever been, although they traded pleasantries on the nights when Janet worked until closing. Fern’s dark eyes seemed to hold real concern for Janet. “You’re shaking like a leaf. Did you catch a chill?”

“No, I’m just—” Janet started.

Fern said, “Just what? Just scared out of your wits now that I look at you a little closer. You come sit down, Mrs. Heinrichs. Catch your breath before the devil gets it away from you.”

She led Janet to the corner where Fern kept the mops and rags. Just below where Fern hung her coat every night she had set up a pallet on bricks and a metal milk crate next to it. A little place to eat her supper. Janet had never noticed it before. 

The minute Fern let go of her arm, Janet slumped onto the milk crate.

“Mrs. Heinrichs, if you don’t mind me saying, you look like something’s chasing you. You’re welcome to sit in my seat until you figure out which way you’re going to run, but I have to eat my sandwich and be out on the floor with a broom in my hand in nine minutes.”

Janet looked up at Fern’s kind face. “You go ahead and eat.” The truth was, she had run away from Hank before dinner and she was hungry. She had maybe five dollars in her pocketbook, and she would need every penny of that small treasure just to get through the next few days or so until she could figure out a way to get onto the train.

When Fern saw Janet’s sad eyes following the sandwich on its trip from waxpaper wrapper to mouth, Fern pulled out a folding knife from the pocket of her coat and cut the sandwich in two. “Here,” she said with a sigh, handing the full half to Janet. “Looks like you could use this.”

“Thanks,” Janet said. The sandwich was two pieces of bread with butter and apples between. They sat in silence while Janet worked up the energy to eat it. She felt weighed down by all the questions. Where would she go now? Who would help her? How would she get out of town without Hank finding her first?

“What’s on your mind, Mrs. Heinrichs?” Fern finally asked.

Janet stopped chewing to look at Fern as clearly as she could in the stilted light of the stockroom. Could she trust a colored cleaning lady to keep a secret? She wasn’t sure she had any choice.

She set the sandwich down on the pallet and stood up. “Fern,” she said. “I’m going away. Please don’t tell Mr. Morris. I’m going to—” Janet couldn’t bring herself to say the place. “I’m going away, for six weeks. My husband can’t know and I—” Janet stopped herself. She pulled on her bangs. “Oh, what am I doing?”

“Mrs. Heinrichs.” Fern’s voice was steady, with a note of sternness in it. “In about two minutes, Mr. Morris is going to come through this door looking for me, and he better not find you and me having this little dinner party back here. So, if you don’t mind me saying so, if there’s something you need from me, you better get to the point right quick.”

This was Janet’s chance and again she heard that one word, Now.  

“I’m going to Reno, Fern. Hank hasn’t been a very good husband. I was going to go in a couple of weeks. That was the plan, anyway, but today I ran out of the house after Hank tore up a photo of me I was going to send to the manager of the hotel where they’ve got a job for me, and I don’t have anywhere to go until I figure out how I’m getting on the train. And I lied to Mr. Morris. I said I was coming back here to get my hat.”

Fern looked up at Janet’s head then, with its pale blue hat, a cloche style popular five years before.

“I know,” Janet said. “I told him it was my other hat.”

Fern went to the nail next to her coat and brought down her hat. It was a red felt number with bakelite cherries in cluster on the band. “Take this.” Fern said.

“Oh, I couldn’t,” Janet said.

“Look, Mrs. Heinrichs, you don’t want to hole up in here too long. Mr. Morris will be thinking you’re trying to steal something. Even more so if you come out of here without another hat.”

Janet nodded and took the hat.

“And you take the 10 trolley to the YWCA on Germantown Avenue. They can keep you for a couple of nights until you get on the train. My cousin Cora works there in the kitchen. If you can get word to her, she might be able to help you with whatever you need.”

Janet’s blue eyes were brimming with tears. “I don’t know how to thank you, Fern.” For a second she was tempted to grab the woman and hug her but thought the better of it.

“You best can thank me by putting the rest of that sandwich in your pocket and getting out of here, if you don’t mind me saying so. Make sure you wave that hat around a couple times so Mr. Morris gets a good look at it on your way out.” 

Janet could hardly breathe but she got out one last “Thank you” before doing exactly as Fern advised.

As predicted, Mr. Morris was on the other side of the door.

“Fern,” he said angrily as Janet burst through.

“Found it!” Janet said, pointing to the hat. “Goodbye, Mr. Morris.”

Although it was dark outside and she was alone and running from Hank, she only felt a little afraid. In fact, she felt lighter, like a weight had been lifted off her chest and in its place was a cool sensation, a tickle of freedom she had never felt before. She had a plan, a place to stay, and someone who might look after her until she could get away. She would be alright if she would just stay focused on each minute as it came, on now.

 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

This is an excerpt from Junction, my as-yet unpublished novel about Mat Rodriguez’s twelve-month “exile” in Iowa, where she must go to establish residency so she can file for divorce from her wife, Klaudia. Junction is set in 2013, before the Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court ruling making marriage equality—and, therefore, access to queer divorce—the law of the land.

Within Junction is Flame on the Mesa, a 1950s lesbian pulp novel. I give homage to my foremothers here: Desert Hearts, Donna Deitch’s 1985 Reno-centered lesbian romance film (based on Jane Rule’s 1964 novel Desert of the Heart), as well as Clare Booth Luce’s depiction of the Reno divorce industry in The Women, her 1936 play.

When I was trying to dissolve my queer Canadian marriage (I couldn’t file for divorce in my home state of Wisconsin because the state didn’t consider my marriage legal), I couldn’t help but consider the similarities between Deitch and Rule’s stories of women making the journey to Reno and the many ways LGBTQ couples were caught in the cracks of state divorce laws.

To write Flame, I studied American and European lesbian pulp fiction. Consistent across my reading was an unrelenting whiteness: the main characters were all white, with the exception of one “exotic” black woman and one light-skinned black woman passing as someone from India. As a political-minded Latina queer writer raised in a multiracial/multilingual family, it’s impossible for me not to write about race and ethnicity. But in writing Flame, I faced a conundrum: do I go for an accurate mimicry of the pulp genre and make my cast of characters all white? Or do I reflect the reality that American queer life has always been a multiracial/multiethnic affair?

In the end, I felt compelled to a direct and immediate address of race, as in much of my work. First, there’s Melody’s concern that the Riverside manager won’t hire Janet, who is white, unless she can prove she’s not black. In the scene with Fern, I tried to show through body language, terms of address, and their boss’s behavior the varying expectations for workers of different races. Although depicting Fern as a flat, agenda-less “helper” to Janet would more accurately mimic pulp’s treatment of characters of color, I couldn’t let Fern be just a paper cutout. Instead, Fern is clear what her assistance to Janet could cost her and positions her needs against Janet’s. Throughout Flame, Janet makes alliances with people of color who are well-rounded characters. Ultimately, she falls in love with Lena, a Latina.

In Junction, Mat is a Mexican-American genderqueer suddenly relocated to the nearly all-white context of rural Iowa. She encounters more subtle barriers based on ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender than those confronting Janet and her friends, but together their stories illustrate the intersectionality—and durability—of the oppressions queer women and women of color face.

 

Jennifer Morales is a Wisconsin poet, fiction writer, and performance artist. Recent publications include MAYDAY, Glass Poetry, and Stoneboat. Another Junction excerpt is forthcoming in Happy Hours: Our Lives in the Gay Bars (Flashpoint Productions), edited by S. Renée Bess and Lee Lynch. Jennifer’s first book, Meet Me Halfway (UW Press, 2015), a collection of interconnected short stories about life in hyper-segregated Milwaukee, was the Wisconsin Center for the Book’s 2016 “Book of the Year.”

The Mystical Adventures of the Happy Cat

Fiction / Lily Hoang

:: The Mystical Adventures of the Happy Cat ::

Indeed, there he goes, the happy cat. He walks along the streets, along the canals and beside flats and businesses practically suffering with primary colors. The cat is very happy. He is a happy cat. Today, leaves dangle on the subterfuge of falling, and this is the season the happy cat likes best: when his orange coat makes him invisible, and he catches colorful birds and the ugliest rats, and he brings them home to his pal. When he does, his pal gives him a good hard pet, and they put their foreheads together—like a head-butt, like bonding.

“What tasty snack shall I bring home today?” The happy cat spits. It makes a splash in the water and fish jump out in pretty patterns like fireworks.

*

Once upon a time, there was a little ragdoll girl and she had no eyes. Where her eyes used to be are two pale circles. Buttons used to protect her from dirt and wind and sand, but alas, one day one of the buttons fell off and another day the next one did. This is a story about a little ragdoll girl without eyes.

*

Everybody knows that the happy cat has a home, and everyone knows to whom he pledges his allegiance, and yet—when the happy cat paws at their cherry doors, someone always opens with a handful of treats. The happy cat does some paltry parlor trick, and so the nice people of Copenhagen open up cans of tuna and sardines and other aluminum-sealed fish for the happy cat to eat. He is a cat with a certain joie de vivre, one he will share with those who are so generous to him, and everyone closes the door with smiles. After all, who could say no to such a happy cat?

In this small way, every single Danish citizen in Copenhagen is owned by the happy cat, but the happy cat remains loyal only to his pal.

*

With eyes or no, the little ragdoll girl loves to dance. Oh, she wiggles her bottom and she wiggles her top and she thrusts her ragdoll head in beat to the 808. She loves electronic music—because she just loves to dance all night long.

*

Every day now, the happy cat has a mission: to find a new pal for his pal. It isn’t that the happy cat isn’t enough, but recently, his pal lacks humor and he’s always so somber, dolor, just plain sad. The happy cat does not like this, so he brings home new friends for his pal, but not just any old thing deserves the privilege of being pals to his pal: oh, no way, the happy cat must interview these candidates first. Most often, they are not sturdy enough, but the happy cat delivers every day, even when these new pals are already dead.

*

The ragdoll girl was once a beautiful young lady. She met a nice woman—that’s me—who promised her friendship and endless devotion, and my potions are strong. When I hobble off, she waits, small and helpless, her rags like daffodils in the wind.

She is so beautiful and young and in love, and I wish she could stay so forever.

*

There is a crumpled ball caught in a spider-webbed corner of the study belonging to the man who is the happy cat’s pal. If the paper were straightened out, it would say this: “Once [upon a time] (scratched out), there [was a] (scratched out) is a horse and the horse.” This is all the paper says. It says nothing more. Now it is a mere crumpled ball and the spider in whose web it currently resides is very poisonous. Watch out: here it comes.

*

Quite frankly, the happy cat wouldn’t touch an opossum with a fishing pole, but maybe an opossum is exactly what his pal needs—but then! Down the canal floats a little ragdoll girl, and she is soaked to the seams, and the happy cat knows it instantly: this is the perfect pal for his pal. He lets go of the opossum, who is quite scared. It runs off and quickly.

The happy cat also takes off running, downstream, as fast as the water is flowing and then a little faster because he must outrun the downstream momentum that holds the ragdoll girl hostage, and now the happy cat slows down some to jump down the stairs, and he slows until stop, and he steadies his hind legs and wraps his claws around the cement edge, and he lowers his torso downwards, toward the river—and boy could this be a colossal mistake!—toward the river some more, toward the ragdoll girl—and at just the right moment, he snatches her clean up. He is such a good cat!

*

When the ragdoll girl dances, she drops so much molly that diamonds sprinkle the edges of her eyes.

But even this cannot last forever, and at the stroke of midnight, the ragdoll girl must retreat into her ragdoll girl body, and no one would like a ragdoll girl at a party like this—it’s just such a fancy one—no, the ragdoll girl would simply not belong.

*

But that was long ago. Long, long ago.

Back then, the ragdoll girl had eyes, and what did they see?

*

Once, the ragdoll girl saw Prince Charming, but he didn’t see her—just a ragdoll girl laying along just another marble staircase; he was sick of marble staircases. He rushed off to do something very important.

*

He drags the ragdoll girl by the neck with his teeth, and she leaves a train of dirty water everywhere they go. The happy cat is not happy with this situation that sprinkles water all over his coat. This makes him a distinctly unhappy cat. An unhappy cat is a terribly bad kitty.

He slackens his hold on the ragdoll girl, and her head flops free against each and every hard cobblestone, all the way home.

*

The happy cat’s pal lacks spirit, and with lack of spirit comes lack of inspiration: nothing inspires him, nothing moves him; he feels—but without emotion.

*

When I asked her what she wanted to trade, she said, “My eyes,” and I just shrugged. I don’t complain, and it’s out of my pay grade to explain what a bad wager she’s about to make.

*

But goodness did she love to dance.

*

The happy cat drops the ragdoll girl right at his pal’s feet. Surely, this will earn him a wealth of treats, maybe of a few different varieties; the happy cat looks first at the ragdoll girl he has brought just for him, and then he looks at his pal with his violet eyes that plead for love and acceptance. He yowls just once, to acknowledge something, goddamn it, but no one responds.

Suddenly, his pal shoots his hand out and gives the happy cat’s head a good hard petting. “What’s this, fellow?”

The happy cat snakes around his pal’s legs to express joy.

*

The happy cat’s pal goes downtown, and he moves with intention without being rushed. The pal stops at the baker’s, just to say hello. “Hello,” the pal says.

“Good morning to you, good chap. Tell me, are you making any krona these days?”

The pal’s head falls. He doesn’t bother answering. “You’re looking splendid as always.”

The baker hands the pal a loaf of crusty bread and a tub of cloudberry jam.

“Oh, thank you, but—”

“I insist, I insist,” and then he grabs another bag from behind the counter, “and this is for your happy cat.”

“Thank you,” the pal says, because he is honestly hungry.

The pal snacks on the bread and jam, and the city is busy with fall fragrance and produce. Happy Danish people bicycle along the canals and other happy Danish people sit at cafés along the canals; everyone is having a splendid day. The trees are every perfect autumn color, crispy with song.

The pal stops at many stalls and shops, and every owner asks about the happy cat and kronas, and soon enough the pal has an armful of goods. “Take it,” they insist, all of them, and so what can he do? He cannot be rude! By the time the pal reaches the button shop, he is pushing a shopping cart, and even that is overflowing. Like Odysseus finally reaching Ithaka, here is the pal, at the button shop, the whole reason for this expedition: just two little buttons.

*

Once there is a beautiful girl, and she has a beautiful voice, and she’s something of a princess, except that she isn’t royalty. As such, Prince Charming can’t be bothered to look at her. She comes to me, and I say, “You are despairing. I can tell.” Now this is the first time we met, but for many years I have watched this beautiful girl.

“Your hair is so neatly combed and such a sonic silver, surely, you must be here to help me. Please, old crone lady, help me.”

I promised her that the prince would see her, finally, but I did not mention the marble staircase and her new ragdoll girl body. I did not mention how invisible she would always remain.

*

There are many buttons at the button store. The pal has never seen so many buttons captured in just one place. He says to the girl behind the counter, “I must sew two eyes, but how do I choose?”

The girl takes him by the hand, and it feels like a storm in her simple touch, and she guides him to the thousands of buttons in the store. “Feel it,” she says, closing the pal’s fingers around a fancy gilded button, “and the right one will just be right.”

*

The pal takes a single bright purple thread and carefully sews two eyes into place. She is perfect now, flawless.

*

The ragdoll girl jumps up and takes his hand in hers, and now they are in a small barn. They stand beside this very fallow candle, and it woes. It woes, “Oh, that I should only have one single purpose in my life!” The fallow candle, it would seem, has no purpose, being fallow and all that.

The melting pot calls out, “Shut up, you little brat.”

“Mama,” the fallow candle says, “I’m sorry.”

The pal looks at the ragdoll girl because he doesn’t understand how a fallow candle can be related to a melting pot. “Just watch,” the ragdoll girl says.

Now a large sheep slams his way into the barn. He splinters the wooden door.

The fallow candle jumps twice, but no flames rise to his wick. “Papa!”

The sheep looks at his fallow candle son and asks, “Why are you still here? We have no use for you.”

The barn is fairly sparse. Some hay and wooden stalls, but there’s enough feed in the melting pot to keep the sheep happy.

“We should just melt you, be done with you,” the sheep says, and the melting pot does not disagree.

The fallow candle feels distressed. He is in crisis. He packs his bag and begins a journey, and the journey will never be complete until he finds a purpose in life.

Along the way, he meets a tinderbox. “Tinderbox,” the fallow candle says, “what are you doing in this forest? This place is not safe for a pretty tinderbox like you.”

The tinderbox says, “What are,” and she stares the fallow candle right in the eye, “you doing here?”

“I have no purpose in life. I am without destiny. I am useless.”

“Crawl inside me,” the tinderbox says and opens her lid. The fallow candle bends and distorts, but how can he jump in? The tinderbox unlatches something and a door opens and the fallow runs inside.

And so the tinderbox glows with purpose, like this is what she was always meant to do, like she was waiting for a fallow candle to grant her life.

“Do you understand?” the ragdoll girl says, and her button eyes fall off. They roll around the ground until they fall flat.

*

Don’t go calling me a bully. I grant only what is asked of me. People should not speak in metaphors when what they desire is literal.

*

They fall flat and sink into the ground. The pal palms the earth, and it is completely flat.

*

Meanwhile, the happy cat goes along his day, free of the burden of the hunt. He bakes his fur in the sun until it sets. Then, he returns to his pal because it is getting cold and damp outside.

*

Six, but now he has only four buttons left.

*

The pal picks two different buttons: a silver star and an olive square. The first time he had put on two matching buttons. Now he attempts a different strategy. He secures the buttons, first with thread and then with superglue. The ragdoll girl pops into life and puts her little cloth hand in his human hand, and suddenly, they are in a field, and pastel flowers grow wild and untended. There is a very handsome butterfly who catches everyone’s eye, and he flutters onto a dandelion. The truth is that he, too, is a desperate one. He must find a mate but none of these paltry flowers will do. He turns his nose up and flies off to another flower. And then another. And then another. The seasons change and he dies, alone. His fall is not graceful. It’s just a fall. And he is just another flattened bug waiting for the soil to incorporate his body.

“Do you understand?” Her eyes fall to the ground, and he is too slow to retrieve them from the past retreating into the present.

*

He puts his hand around the ragdoll girl’s cotton hand and looks at her eyeless face. “But I don’t understand yet,” he says, and in walks the happy cat, and his pal forgets the whole ordeal.

*

For many days his pal has been quite happy. His mood became a spirited jig, as opposed to a requiem, which was how it was for far too long.

Nobody likes a downer, not even a happy cat.

For many days, his pal was not a downer at all. His pal was as happy as the happy cat himself. Flowers thrust into bloom when he walked by their boxes, and all of Copenhagen, it seemed, rushed past Winter and flew into the apex of Spring. Colors just ached from inhabiting such beauty, such substance.

And then the happy cat found the ragdoll girl in his box of toys.

*

Did she ever even have eyes?

Surely, this is all the pal’s imagination. What else could it be?

*

It is the only ethical thing to do: the happy cat does not let go until the water nips at his teeth. She floats off without any eyes on her face, blind.

*

Today the happy cat is not too happy. He catches a purple-winged dove right at its neck, and its fight only prolongs the suffering. The happy cat plays.

The thing is limp and probably dead when the happy cat reaches home. His pal is waiting for him at the door. “What’s this?” His pal’s fingers are all black. His pal has been working, and when he is working, he is a happy pal.

The happy cat drops the dead bird at his pal’s shoes. They are worn down. They used to be a glossy mustard. Now they are brown.

His pal picks him up, which the happy cat does not like one bit, and says, “Look at those dirty paws!” They go inside, and the unhappy cat is still being held, and his pal takes a cold cloth to his paws and scrubs.

Very, very unhappy now, the cat goes to bed. There, nuzzled under the blanket, is a wet ragdoll girl, and she doesn’t have any eyes.

*

The ragdoll girl has a curse on her—and a promise. Don’t go pointing fingers: this is not my fault.

The happy cat snuggles with her and falls asleep.

There is a knock on the door. The happy cat’s ears shoot up.

Ah, it is only Prince Charming, but the ragdoll girl can’t see him.

His pal bows before royalty, and the prince takes off his riding cape and unbuckles his sword because there are no beasts in here to kill.

Their affair is brief but solar.

*

The ragdoll girl dances and twirls and twists her body all around. It’s a real party in there, and joy falls on the entire house, modest though it may be.

*

Now the happy cat and the ragdoll girl stroll along the canals.

Now the happy cat spots a fish-girl, and she flaps her tail and dries her hair in the sun. The happy cat and the ragdoll girl drag her back to the house. The whole way, she complains and tells the most obvious stories, and everyone wishes she would just shut up already.

 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

In the midst of writing a serial killer novel that was more or less devastating my brain and my emotions, a friend told me to write something happy for a change. To take a break. He told me I should write a story about a happy cat. And this is exactly what I did.

 

Lily Hoang is the author of five books, including A Bestiary (CSU Press, 2016), winner of the Cleveland State University Poetry Center’s Nonfiction Contest, and Changing (Fairy Tale Review Press, 2008), recipient of a PEN Open Books Award. 

Almost 63

Poetry / Thylias Moss

:: Almost 63 ::

Almost my best life people tell me; I am
going to be honest here, as honest as I can be

63 years seems so long to me, and surely I could have 
done more than walk three miles

on a snowless Sunday in February in Michigan, some
thing is wrong, love

the chill in the air and the stillness, utter stillness
of mannequin factories 
on strike, heads still in molds, told 
by many that I don’t look my age, but I must
because I am the age I am in Ann Arbor first 

moved to this city in 1993, so much has changed, 
especially me, single for the first time as an adult; how
significant that is. Hope this is the last birthday I

will spend alone. Lately, I find myself
envying couples, because, I am not sure that

I am half of a couple or not; some days I am, but 
then again wind

blows that thought away, and I chase Higginson
right to rainbows 
from which it streams, ice cream concoctions
colorful calories raspberry, orange-slurp stuff, yellowed French vanilla can cans ripple
freeze box gelatin thins blueberry jabberwock Indian very pop rocks something about that
so comforting; he knows
how comforting he is

for me; since I was 60 
and on his Chicago back-bird’s
eye view of him as cream all around me,

cushion and life 
saver that he will always 

B
63 for an hour

into this age, hoping
that I hear from him, always hoping; loving him
too much not to hope; I am tired of not 

having his love 

reliably



as I had to when 
he renamed me 
Dream Baby


Loving him as everything:
the way
turtles crawl
parrots squawk
grass skirts swish gently exposing
strings of my bikini: his name, a palindrome 
most of the time that

he is mine

he plucks them and  sweetest (superlative)-(always) 
sounds of his name harp 

at me
every forest sings
every forest knows
Dream Baby songs of breathing,
rhythm of resuscitation, morning
is my everlasting christening everlasting
anointing: him
This 

is also his poem. Sometimes we
are so synchronized, he dreams me
as I dream him

Evidently, no matter what


I love him

when he loves me
I love him all

the time.



 

From the writer

:: Account ::

Form is open, becomes part of an act of making itself, whatever is necessary. Of course, the motivation behind the motivation, I hate to admit this: love, being in love with a man for the first time in my life, although I turned 63 on 27 February, and was married for forty years, and now, Thomas; not sure what took so long for this to happen, but now that it did, I never want to go back. It is the rhythm of movement of the words, through the entire piece, and yes, he calls me Vash, short for “Vashti”; the poem is about this remarkable love between Thomas Robert Higginson and Vashti Astapad Warren, everything I write is about this, including a romance novel, New Kiss Horizon, all about Thomas Robert and his Vash, Vash’s Thomas Robert, makes no difference which name appears first, meaning is the same; seeking the rhythm of their love after 35 years. Bursts of language, excitement of what can be expressed and what can’t be; how new this is, the love and everything. I’ve been writing since I was six years old, 2016 an unusual year for me, a shift in my writing, new purpose, new way of phrasing, eager to capture some of the wonder of life I am so lucky to live via Thomas.

 

Thylias Moss, a self-employed multi-racial “maker” at Thylias Moss Writing LLC, is Professor Emerita in the Departments of English and Art & Design at the University of Michigan. Author of thirteen published books, and recipient of numerous awards and honors, among them a MacArthur Fellowship, and a Guggenheim Fellowship, her 11th book is a collection of New & Selected Poetry, Wannabe Hoochie Mama Gallery of Realities’ Red Dress Code (Persea Books, 2016).

My Jesus Year

Poetry / Stephen S. Mills

:: My Jesus Year ::

You wake me whispering, 
Foodtown is burning.
And you don’t mean a town of food, 
but the grocery store around the corner. 
The one we’ve shopped at plenty of times, 
though it’s too expensive 
and no one can ever help you 
find what you’re looking for.

You smell of the city mixed with the news 
of this burning, which makes me ask questions, 
which you don’t know the answers to. 

And suddenly I’m lost in a wave of grief 
for a place I didn’t even like,
or maybe it’s just the fear of fire 
deep in my bones—something prehistoric—
a burning so close by, but not here—
not in this room—not in this apartment 
in Harlem with our two dogs. 
Always a step away.

*

New Year’s Eve. 
Us in Times Square. 
You in your uniform. 
Me with whisky on my breath. 
Us like some post-WWII poster. 
And then the countdown. 
And the ball sliding
all glitz and lights
like all the years I watched from home:
a kid in Indiana 
dreaming of a city I’d never been to, 
dreaming of you: a man I didn’t know yet, 
dreaming of a life that sometimes feels too real now,
and then how the confetti fell 
from the sky like giant raindrops—
or was it shrapnel? 

*

By the boarded-up store, 
locals bob 
in the dumpster 
collecting canned goods 
thrown away by law 
though nothing is wrong with them. 
Carts fill with the clang of metal 
and glass and then a jar breaks free 
and olives flood the sidewalk: slick green. 
No one cares. 
I smile as more cans pop 
over the side into eager hands. 
The sky is dimming 
into evening.
The air still thick 
with burning. 

*

Last week we sat in a theater 
and watched Patrick Bateman 
wonder (in song) if he’s just 
a version of the end of days,
standing on the brink of human 
destruction—killing to feel 
alive—wanting someone to stop 
him, but no one will. 

And I wonder about my own days, 
my own end, my own bend 
toward self-destruction: a redheaded 
temper or so they used to call it. 
Or what of my desire to throw 
things against walls? To watch 
them shatter? Not everything 
thrown starts a revolution. 
You should know that. 

*

The woman on the corner 
is selling futures for 5 dollars 
outside the abandoned coffee shop
on 7th Ave. and 27th St., 
but I want to know 
how much the past is. 
How much to go backward. 
To explain how I got here 
on this street corner 
on this day 
looking at this woman 
in her scarf and beads.

But she doesn’t have answers 
or prices for what has been, 
only what will be. 
Five dollars will tell me 
what’s in store: fortune or despair, 
but not the missteps 
that got me here, 
not the story of these thirty-three years. 

*

And there’s a garden in this tale too, 
but far away from here. 
Another country.
A bust of her head.
Her own room.
Flowers and herbs.
Old women on benches
and one inside who is eager 
to a chat about Virginia,
about the age of the stove,
the pieces in the room,
how it would have been 
when they bought it—
in what? 1919, was it? 

And how we long to buy 
something here in this city.
Not a cottage, 
but an apartment in Harlem 
where we will dance,
my hand in yours, 
the dogs growing excited 
beneath our feet.
Where someday 
someone might wonder 
if this is how it was 
when they lived here?

*

I meet you 
in the street after work,
after another night at the sex club
where I talk to men about fucking 
about risk, 
about connection.
Where I test men 
for HIV and syphilis, 
where drops of blood 
tell the future—or is it the past? 
The present? 
Or maybe all three at once? 

And tonight, the city is quiet
or as quiet as New York gets at 1 AM 
on a weekday.
The Freedom Tower looks propped 
against the sky like a backdrop to a musical—
the summer rain from earlier 
has left everything turned to steam—a dream. 
A drunk homeless man 
smiles at us, stubbles a bit, 
then says, Good morning from Europe. 

*

On the subway, a boy—five—maybe six—
opens a blue lunchbox 
containing one inflated medical glove: 
a bloated hand,
which he uses to bop his mother,
the side of the train car,
his own head.

His mother’s nails
are all gold and glitter. 
She doesn’t respond,
so he stops,
turns to watch a passing train
speed ahead of us,
or are we speeding passed it?

It’s always so hard to tell. 

*

And just like that the store rebuilds,
restocks, reopens.
And we rise up from the dead.
Fill the aisles like before. 
Clang our baskets together.
And start again.



 

From the writer

:: Account ::

My poems often represent how I see the world (my lens) and how my mind shifts and melds pieces together. I’m interested in that moment of intersection: a moment when pieces of our memory and experience touch each other. We walk around each day with a mind full of these fragments that sometimes surprise or even scare us. In this poem, I attempt to capture that process around a central theme: my 33rd year of life. The poem builds on what comes before but also allows for the unexpected or for the mind to jump. My work often begins in something real (like the fire at a local grocery store in my neighborhood) but can then go into many different directions. Research and other mediums (theater, film, literature) are also an important part of my process.

 

Stephen S. Mills is the author of the Lambda Award-winning book He Do the Gay Man in Different Voices (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2012) and A History of the Unmarried (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2014). He earned his MFA from Florida State University. His work has appeared in The Antioch Review, PANK, The New York Quarterly, The Los Angeles Review, Knockout, Assaracus, The Rumpus, and others. He is also the winner of the 2008 Gival Press Oscar Wilde Poetry Award and the 2014 Christopher Hewitt Award for Fiction. He lives in New York City. Website: http://www.stephensmills.com/

Two Poems

Poetry / Patrick Kindig

:: fascinations: love & the basilisk ::

the eye opens toward it, feels
	its glossy edge

nudged. then: something
	deeper, an electric ray

in its veins, denaturing 
	blood. the eye

wet clay, the eye
	permafrost: earth
	
& ice & a waiting
	for spring. it knows

this waiting is
	a parlor trick: now
	
you see it, now
	you see it. look

away for one second
	& now you see it & see it 
		
		& see it.


 

:: fascinations: adorno/odysseus ::

a thing for	wood
	& leather	yes

the body strapped
	& stripped	down

he wants each hole
	unstoppered

skull winebottling
	in reverse

what he calls	 art
	this desire	

to be bone
	& negative space

when the need	  comes		
	he is magnesium

touching water
	when it goes

he is magnesium
	one 	minute		later



 

From the writer

:: Account ::

When we say something “fascinates” us, we usually mean something benign: the thing we are looking at somehow attracts us to it. The Kardashians fascinate us, for example, as do car accidents and kidnappings; statistical anomalies fascinate statisticians, and James Joyce’s filthy love letters fascinate literary scholars. When we use the word “fascinating,” then, we use it in much the same way we use the word “interesting”—to designate that something catches our attention and holds it, that a thing invites us to look at it and to linger in our looking.

Historically, however, “fascination” has had much more ominous overtones. For the Greeks and Romans, it was linked to the evil eye, to the overwhelming of someone else’s will with an envious glance. In the Middle Ages, it became synonymous with witchcraft. There are clear connections, too, between antique and medieval understandings of fascination as an overpowering of the will and later pseudoscientific experiments with mesmerism and animal magnetism, as well as the clinical use of hypnosis to work through psychic trauma. In all these iterations of the term, there is some sort of collapse of boundaries—between sight and touch, between observer and observed.

These poems are my attempt to work through this collapse, probing the intersections between subject and object, reason and unreason. One engages with a figure pulled from the history I have just outlined (Odysseus as he appears in Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment); the other compares the fascination of a lover to the mythical powers of the basilisk. Both, however, examine what happens when we let our attention carry us away, when we relinquish our control and give ourselves up to the power of objects.

 

Patrick Kindig is a dual MFA/PhD candidate at Indiana University, where he writes poems and studies the relationship between fascination and American antimodernism. Kindig is the author of the micro-chapbook Dry Spell (Porkbelly Press, 2016), and his work has recently appeared in the Beloit Poetry Journal, the minnesota review, Willow Springs, Assaracus, and other journals.

Two Poems

Poetry / L. A. Johnson

:: Solstice ::

In this bright century, infinity fills
my mouth. I stack blocks of glass 

to recreate the city of my nativity. 

Memory, like the sea, is cold again. 
Breath and ghosts crowd the room.

*

If invisible, I would curl up
among palm fronds, my body beading

against the green base like a drop
of rainwater. If invisible, I would dream

in the desert’s dry and wild opens.
If invisible, I would sink far down 

near the bottom of an unknown ocean—
to where only ashes float.

*

Rapture pinks my brain. I forget the weeks
I trafficked in dim happiness,

folding in against a man’s unshaved face. 

In this lifetime, I see error in a hawk’s flight,
the clear circles it makes in the air. 


 

:: Lull ::

Untouched as a spoon, I wake 
to the sound of your breath

in your throat, like a fox 
fallen to the bottom of a well. 

A great migration, hold and pull me. 

*

Somewhere, I can settle in a bed
that becomes an island, speaking

against the night-that-has-no-end.

Somewhere in California, water
evaporates from the salt ponds:

one becomes aquamarine, another
magenta. Wonder in their division.  

*

If I read the letter one-hundred times,

maybe I’ll believe: no more 
looking at almond trees blooming 

beside the freeway, no more 
pillow-talk whispered slow. 

A dream, the weight of silk. This guilt: 
cloud-soft, blueblack, unforgetting. 



 

From the writer

:: Account ::

These poems were written in quick succession during time spent by the Pacific Ocean when my mind was wandering, unfocused, and loose (a rare thing for me). In writing these poems, I wanted to use that looseness to play with the notion of separation on the page; how the disparate parts of these poems sing their own songs and also link together. Working in such a format allowed me to capture all of the different thoughts and connections I was making as I was working on the poems.

Ghostly feelings haunt these poems as they haunted me, while I walked along the cold shore, the wind chapping my face. The ocean is a curious thing for me: it resonates with me as both life affirming and yet also mysterious, and sometimes disturbing. One of my best friends has a fear of open water, its unknown expanse. I do not fear the ocean, but I understand the fear: the life there, like much of the natural world, is something I will never be able to truly experience. In that sense, the idea of the ocean holds within it the idea of another life: a life not earth-bound, but free and swimming.

 

L. A. Johnson is the author of the chapbook Little Climates, forthcoming from Bull City Press in 2017. She received her MFA from Columbia University and is currently pursuing her PhD in literature and creative writing from the University of Southern California, where she is a Provost’s Fellow. Her poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in The American Poetry Review, The Southern Review, the Antioch Review, The Iowa Review, and other journals.

Two Poems

Poetry / Moira J., or Gaagé Dat’éhe

:: Courtship Between an Ice Machine and a Swimming Pool ::

On a Wednesday moon, I am a little motel off 8th and Antler,
hosting various salted forms at the bottoms of old bathtubs.

Here they are docked bodies, their ocean breath raising bubbles 
to the surface, while their hair clippings float like amorphous spit, 

blood-speckles carrying the twilight of shimmering bathwater on
tile floors—a sinking ship of modesty with wood rot. A parade 

of wolves are on the way to mourn their queen who is carved 
from black tourmaline, her steady eyes considering the womb of 

apology as a serial killer rinses his elbows in a rust-riddled sink, 
his eyes molting the reds and oranges until he cannot tell if blood 

should oxidize at such a rapid rate of decay, wondering when he will 
next visit the bones of his victims, their simpish mouths a soft echo 

from a neighboring room’s air-conditioning vent. He shivers and all 
the guests feel the tingling spine snake crawl into their sheets, 

the humidity in their beds hanging like tropical storms with bad city 
planning for evacuation. Everyone here cannot sleep but their dreams

pour out like the tepid coffee in Styrofoam cups, muddled and waiting
for lips to remember what it was to growl and hum—angry cubs that

are missing their mothers. I grow into infinite rooms where capacity
has lacked a number but acts as a gimlet within my grip, I hear a 

woman asking to live forever while her husband chews on ice chips,
their debts blinking around the bushes outside like lightning bugs.


 

:: The Accession to Home ::

That spring morning when I saw you, a glass moon still hung

at the epicenter of the sky, a beaconing womb of cornsilk.

Be of slow love. If I had come to you that night, I would’ve wished
	for you to carry me to the river, laying our spent

bodies like fish carcasses on the skipping stones, and I would predict
	our future: long afternoons with warm cola, two people sleeping
	on a twin mattress without a frame, our spines

	curved like gentle mountains meeting halfway.

Instead, you burned porcupine quills and tattooed the high priestess
	on my arm—kissing it clean with your mouth, an angler’s
	lips raw with ink and prophetic distances

	between us. Your eyes were pits of dried leaves on a summer
pool, a small boy wading among the depths with body becoming
	that of a fish.

And I see you then, sitting silently in a car with rain on the window.
	
As I walk back to the parking garage, I think of how you will learn 

to study my mouth when I talk, and how when we sleep your arms wind 
         around my body like a snake strangling a field mouse, and how I 
         gladly welcomed that suffocation,

	offering my skin as a second sheet.
	Come closer, let me share the warmth below.



 

From the writer

:: Account ::

“Courtship Between an Ice Machine and Swimming Pool” is the best way I could create an homage to my many experiences being in cheap motels as a child. I carried an abundance of fear anytime I spent time in one, usually after meeting different lawyers because of my parents’ multiple custody battles, or on the way to family funerals. Finding ways to cope with the anxiety and confusion turned into people-watching, particularly sitting on the bed with the curtains open, looking at people arrive and leave in their cars.

“The Accession to Home” recounts the time I saw my ex-partner again, having not seen each other for six years. We have known each other since I was 14 years old, and they were a terrible partner during our youth. We immediately began to see each other again after that encounter and have been married for three years now. I wanted to illustrate the difficulties we experienced together, through being broke and living in a small studio apartment with only a mattress on the floor, but refusing to negate the love we nurtured for survival.

 

Moira J., or Gaagé Dat’éhe (Quiet Crow), is an Indigenous writer who explores being agender, queer, and biracial. Their writing examines these relationships through poetry, origin stories, and creative nonfiction. Moira J.’s work has been published in Girls Get Busy Zine, Naugatuck River Review, Rising Phoenix Review, Bayou Magazine, and more. You can keep updated on Moira J. by going to https://moiraj.wixsite.com/home, or find them on Twitter @moira__j.

Two Poems

Poetry / Nazifa Islam

:: Separate ::

          a found poem: Virginia Woolf’s The Waves

I believe in horror—that fear persists.
Change leaps upon me—violent, tearing—
and I am in pieces. 

One moment and I know I am not indivisible.
I do have a body but my face
is half-eaten—I have no beauty.
The shock is endless.

I press my hand to moonlight, see it foam
and draw back; I cannot force it
to merge with me.

I am bone and paper and green hours.
I am nothing. I grow
afraid because there is no end in view.


 

:: I Cannot Save Myself ::

          a found poem: Virginia Woolf’s The Waves

Now the kitchen door slams and dogs bark.
Now long hands shut a black book.
Now the others are crying. Now terror

stumbles in me. Now time—
green and wild—ticks on painfully.
Now the entire world

of stones and chalk and water is beginning
to look far away. Now it is my turn.
I am a looped figure on a blackboard

and I have begun to die.



 

From the writer

:: Account ::

These poems are part of a series of Virginia Woolf found poems I’m currently working on. To write these poems, I select a paragraph of text from a Woolf novel—so far, either The Waves or Mrs. Dalloway—and only use the words from that paragraph to create a poem. I essentially write a poem while doing a word search using Virginia Woolf as source material. I don’t allow myself to repeat words, add words, or edit the language for tense or any other consideration. I started this project after writing what I considered a successful found poem using only the words found in an Amazon product review. I then decided I would attempt found poems based on literary source material I felt particularly connected to. These poems are simultaneously defined by both Woolf’s choices with language as well as my own.

 

Nazifa Islam grew up in Novi, Michigan. Her poetry and paintings have appeared in Anomalous Press, Fourth & Sycamore, splinterswerve, and The Harpoon Review, among other publications, and her debut poetry collection Searching for a Pulse (2013) was released by Whitepoint Press. She earned her MFA at Oregon State University. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram at @nafoopal.

Ode to John Darnielle

Poetry / Alain Ginsberg

:: Ode to John Darnielle, Ending In My Mom-mom Curing The Titan Cronus of Hiccups In Three Parts ::

	After Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib

Yeah I can’t tell you why / the universe doesn’t love us back / anymore, something about 
coming home too / late with the smell of another/’s blood with it / something about a
cacophony of children but none to carry your / name except through the mud / pulling a 
child out of the earth only to leave it’s throat in the webbing of my trembling hands / 

Cronus eats a stone swaddled in cloth and cannot tell
the difference between the dried mud on it and the dried blood on his
hands and for this we are blessed. To have a mother strong enough
to tell us which parts of our father’s to slit open, a sharp thing plunged into
the dirt after the rain, loose soil to sow into, Cronus reaps the seeds
from the Universe and I tell my father that there is no difference
between how loudly he can conjure pain to crawl out of his throat and into mine,
the difference between dried blood and a harvest of beets. He says I would be better
if I was more like him, to grow up not knowing the difference between shades of red, 
and I tell my father he would be better planted
in the ground
an immobile
harvest,
flowers blooming on the land / that I will never pick.

To get rid of hiccups she places a knife in a glass of water,
says “it cuts through the demons” like we are full of such evil,
a parade of demons or a couple of Sunday sinners that don’t kneel anymore,
much less see the inside of a church except when the funeral suit gets
just dusty enough that one of us won’t be coming home again.
How my grandfather would hiccup after every meal and need
to fight these things back down, a scorched earth of lungs begging to breathe again,
but it weren’t like he was saving us from anything but the devil/’s greatest tricks,
as if we too would use them, but then again anything useful is something
and we’re just trying to find our breath again too,
and we just didn’t question those kinds of things as kids, the way you didn’t notice
how badly you flinch until years after the impact, the ghost of a hand
or switch, how loud the volume of a throat can be
and still not drown out the nightmares and I cannot swim without feeling
the electricity or that time I locked myself in the bathroom ‘cause no one is going to yell
at you at your weakest and most vulnerable, but that still isn’t safe. 
That ain’t any reason to stop trying to get sharper so the closest throat
can be red, no rid, of my demons and live not inside that wet thing
and why does a good father just sound like a hiccup to me, 
and my grandfather is hiccupping again
and like routine my mom-mom backs into the kitchen an old habit,
grabs a knife and plunges it into the first wet thing her hand can wrap around
and eventually the hiccups stop but she is still breathing slow, on edge, 
ready to fight the demons if they come out of his mouth again,
say her name like he married it, and I ask my grandfather
if he believes her when she says the demons need to be cut through,

he shrugs, says,
“I do.”



 

From the writer

:: Account ::

The piece represents a lot of things for myself; it is inevitably choral in nature, is a song I need to sing and is a reminder to myself and the communities I hold dear. The influence of the work of Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib helped the piece come to fruition and the ways in which he commands a mastery of talking through the memory of a song or the history of a museum, and I hoped to use the medium in a similar vessel. In “Ode to John Darnielle…” I am writing from a place of reflection, examining the familial trauma I’ve gone through, my mother had, and her mother before her did with the patriarchal figures in our lives, and the ways in which that toxic, volatile, violent men still having lasting-phantom power over us even after their death. John Darnielle is an artist whose work in regards to dealing with domestic abuse from a family member really resonated with me, and the ways in which he speaks of this trauma after its perpetrator has passed are both inspiring and moving. In an interview he was once asked whether he had forgiven his father after he had died and replied that he had not or could not (I cannot find the interview now), and this struck me down because it’s true. You, as a human, do not have to forgive anyone who has tried to strike you down in some capacity. No one deserves forgiveness, which makes it that much more important when it is granted to you.

 

Alain Ginsberg is an agender writer and performer from Baltimore City whose work focuses on narratives of gender, sexuality, and mental health and the ways in which trauma informs, or skews them. Their work has been featured or is forthcoming on Shabby Doll House, Rogue Agent, decomP, and elsewhere. Outside of writing they tour the country performing in concerts, slams, living rooms, and caverns. They are a Taurus.

Two Poems

Poetry / Dorothy Chan

:: Triple Sonnet of Fried Food, Fortune Cookies, and Miracles ::

                    – for Mickey 

My dog Buzzie’s in heaven eating fried chicken
because it’s Christmas, and I swear I just
saw his short legs with wings chase my dad
out the kitchen to As Seen on TV
in the living room where my mom’s watching
an infomercial for a miracle
fryer that leaves no grease, so it’s fries all
day, Tater Tots and tempura for dinner
and deep fried Oreos for dessert that’s
all-you-can-eat with no consequences—
a contraption so celestial I know
it doesn’t actually exist. Buzzie’s
sending me a message from the clouds,
a holiday hello, a have fun while you can, Dorothy.

And if Buzzie’s saying hello from Cloud 9,
I know his fur’s looking more fabulous
than all the women in Pantene Pro-V
commercials with their hair flips coming from
vitamins and minerals or the girls
who oooooh, aahhh, and don’t stop for Herbal Essences,
and we get it. Shower time’s sexy time™.
Buzzie’s eating a fruit plate right about now,
looking down as he wonders when we’ll leave
for our annual holiday buffet
as my mom tells me spirits never leave
their homes, and that we believe our loved ones
visit us in dreams about a week after
they pass away, to say I love you.

I love you, Dorothy. I hear this in my dreams,
a reminder not just of Buzzie’s love,
but my parents’, who visited the family
psychic even before I was born,
and no, I won’t give you Crouching Tiger,
Hidden Dragon, but I will give you the story
of my Tiger Father and Rabbit Mother
getting fortunes for me, their Snake Daughter: 
tales of my temper and future husband,
stories of how much I’ll end up loving
my future children—if only I knew.
Years later, after I’m born, Mom and Dad
and I are at a Chinese restaurant, chowing
down Neapolitan fortune cookies,
because more than anything, I believe in fate.


 

:: Robot Fetish, Because We’re All A Little Lonely ::

A man in China collects life-size dolls not as lovers,
but as daughters he tucks them into bed every night

once he changes them out of dresses into PJs,
the wall of purple unicorns and clouds behind them

as they lie side by side, eyes open—fetish is fetish
is fetish passed down to his son who’s gifted a doll

on his sixteenth for pleasure purposes. And it’s breaking
news like this that makes me wonder about loneliness:

the virtual boyfriends and girlfriends that can’t be conjured,
or the men in Japan who set a table for two at home:

a glass of red wine for him, a slice of pizza for her—
her, the four-foot pillow with bikini-clad anime character

printed on, with facial expression that’s ready to squirm. 
But could you really fall in love with a robot if it told you

I love you? What difference does it make if you’re looking
for validation? So, why don’t we all have sex with robots,

cross the deed off our bucket lists right now? We’ll rejoice,
buy them clothes at the virtual marketplace—a Hajime Sorayama

fantasy of robot babes pulling a Marilyn Monroe: dress blowing
in the wind higher and higher—she seduces you with her legs

until you realize her crack doesn’t exist—she can’t give you human
flesh, the hardness and softness of two bodies pressed 

against each other in the sheets, and who cares if she tells you 
she loves you—I’d rather have the thrill of the chase.



 

From the writer

:: Account ::

A week after my beloved Buzzie passed away, he visited me in a fabulous dream. I recall hearing a bell and then before I know it, I’m up in the clouds with him. His sisters and Westie friend are napping next to him and he’s just lounging, enjoying the view, and getting ready to dig into his snack. And then the most amazing thing happens: he opens his mouth and words come out. When he says, “I love you, Dorothy. I miss you,” he says it in the exact deep and slow voice my mom and I always imagined him having. I love being right. I also love how he offers me a piece of filet mignon that’s served in this silver trophy. This was Buzzie’s first visit but not his last.

“Triple Sonnet of Fried Food, Fortune Cookies, and Miracles” is about those moments I feel Buzzie’s presence. I like to think that he went home for the holidays. He probably misses (not) watching television with my dad and chasing our family around the kitchen. I know there’s amazing food where he is, but I really miss sharing apples with him. Whenever I go home, my mom reassures me that Buzzie’s always with us. On a side note, my dad and I really did watch that “miracle fryer” commercial and proceeded to ask my mom whether such a thing could exist. One of my weirder pastimes is making fun of those As Seen on TV commercials. It’s hilarious how people in that universe cannot function. I also can’t believe anyone would buy jean pajamas or any of the ridiculous stuff they have on there.

But really, I write about love. It’s in those small moments that we feel a sense of family. And there’s also love in the friendship sense. “Triple Sonnet” is dedicated to my good friend Mickey, who is ironically a vegetarian. Oh well. At least he shares Buzzie’s love for apples. “Robot Fetish, Because We’re All A Little Lonely” is also ultimately about love. And I wish that all of you would either curl up next to someone you love or go out and enjoy the thrill of the chase—nothing’s better than that!

 

Dorothy Chan’s chapbook, Chinatown Sonnets, will be published May 2017 with New Delta Review. She was a 2014 finalist for the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship and a 2017 finalist for the Lena-Miles Wever Todd Prize for Poetry from Pleiades Press. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Blackbird, Plume, The Journal, Spillway, Little Patuxent Review, and The McNeese Review. She is the Assistant Editor of The Southeast Reviewdorothypoetry.com

Three Poems

Poetry / Lillian-Yvonne Bertram

:: The Grains of Ascendancy ::

                    an abecedarian

AgriGold squares the county roads in miles
	and not since Solomon is production so
Biblical: roots deepening into kernels and crops reflecting natural laws.
Consider the traits of cops, crosses, and roses,
		how this scenario reflects all-American scientists zeroed in on the
Diversity of wheats, grains dry-husked and rubbed to a staticky charge. In this weather so
	Extremely of the late century, I count every presence, every
		ever-present penis skimming the dialogue, and my
Fussy bungles the tenured denouement, irritating seasonal growing patterns. Yet the
	chemicals stagger to their
Greatness. Yell over the world that the indigenous will in-
Herit the earth and some subsidized Custer will till you under with a tweet.
I can’t breathe for all this modern wheat stoppering my nostrils. I await the American
	agriculturists to address the
Issue of this
Intolerance. I too once loved the mania west of Independence,
Jefferson City, and the World’s Only Corn Palace—closed for renovation on my visit. To
Kill time I buy a pink Police Girl cap gun,
	a five-point tin sheriff badge. Freeze or I’ll
Light you up.
Mankind came to modernity on the whittled backs of grain. Blame schizophrenia on gluten,
	revolution on
Night sweats, night sweats on red summer, Red Summer on Red May, Red May on the
	wheat wave, wheat wave on easements easing
Open leagues of frontiers, hectares now proofing with bloom. Milling
Punishes grain and calls it progress. This night is Illinois-
Quiet, save for the mill-train and alfalfa fields shushing the air. If I die in police custody,
Return me to my mother as a cup of rice seeds in a blood-soaked sock. This night is canyon-
quiet, is Maine-quiet & lobster-
shell red, the color of battered flesh
Too changed to ever change back. Unhealthy wheat culture means civilization is in decline,     and if we’re gone, this 	
        whole playhouse goes
Up in smoke, and who left will pollinate these
Vacant hulls. I see green fields…but I can’t seem to get there no how.
Wheat can but we can’t winter here. With allies like these, who needs anthra-
x. Can
You survive every thing? Centuries in, centuries out—the roller mill restyles colonial
	wheat. The germs of revolution relapse, flap like cards in the spokes of
Zarathustra.

 

                                                                                         Italics are the voices of Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland’s 
                                                                                         arresting officer, Amiri Baraka, Harriet Tubman, and the 							
                                                                                         Anson Mills grain website. The phrase “the grain of 							
                                                                                         ascendancy” is from the writer Paul Graham.

 

:: Netherland ::

The czar and his children
all burnt. Rib

cage of coal
flowers. Script

faxed by accuser
to accused. Grandfather

did or did not 
hammer at the Reich,

his acts lost to Parkinson’s
last memory. 

After he crossed
the bridge, the bridge

was bombed. A country

sunk once again. 
How many the boats

of the dead float
up in the flood.

Grandfather pages
through the faces

of that town:
the miller, the baker

the candlestick
maker. Gone gone

gone. Their houses
their fields

their children all burnt.


 

:: Raise Her Dark Matter ::

Come witness my cunt
made of deer meat

my drying
dry throat. Men

motorcycle by
the lakeside & behold

I glide as gravel
to the shore,

issue a magic trick.
I raise my dark matter

to the height of kites
cooly strung about

the sky, lie
my stone back

to the rough island.
A fiddle whine

or whistle
interrupts my sun-

spanked day.
This new shadow

above me is the sweat-
salted face

of someone’s child—
boy or girl

it doesn’t matter.
I curse and 

it bursts into doves.



 

From the writer

:: Account ::

“Grains of Ascendancy”: The “seed” for this poem came quite literally from a seed, from talking with the writer Paul Graham about his memoir that explores Celiac disease and the history of wheat. Apparently, wheat is the “grain of ascendancy” because it is associated with the rise of advanced civilizations. When wheat production falls, the civilization is in decline. As goes wheat production, goes civilization, it is told. The metaphor was just too perfect and I was just too angry—about Black deaths at the hands of police, about patriarchy, all of it—to not use it. I did my own research into wheat, and the more I learned, the more perfect the metaphor: all that bleaching, stripping, grinding; the revolution of wheels and grains and seeds; planting the same seeds and reaping the same harvest again and again and again. It’s a poem of public depression and political despair. As for the abecedarian, I felt I needed something to harness my despair and was inspired after stumbling on an abecedarian in a book of poems. I changed a few things about the form, but in the main the overall structure still stands. The abecedarian also felt like an absurd and funny form (childish even, if you remember writing such poems in grade school), and you know what they say—you laugh to keep from crying.

“Netherland” is a poem I wrote very soon after the election. Go figure. Half of my family is from The Netherlands and Belgium, and the strongest memories I have of my grandparents are them talking about the War, WWII. The other strongest memory is that my grandmother taught me to play Solitaire and a few other bits of wisdom. But my grandfather, out of all the books we had in our house, the only book I ever remember him reading was The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. It’s a very astute book, a tome of history. I imagine, now, that he read and reread it so as to remind himself of how what had happened, happened. Something had to account for the devastation of his country, his homeland, the indiscriminate deaths of what felt like everyone he knew. And so now I read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich to connect to my grandfather (now deceased). I was reading it up to, surrounding, and after the election. This poem, then, is the culmination of meditating on the dark times of the past and present.

“Raise Her Dark Matter” is a poem that has troubled me for quite a while now. It’s gone through so many incarnations, and I’m so happy it’s found a home. This most recent iteration actually came out of a revision exercise that I did with my Advanced Poetry Workshop students last semester. We were working with poems that had troubled us and were doing lots of synonym and antonym replacements, and given that this poem had been bothering me for a while, I did the exercise with them. As I did it, I got to thinking, “Huh! This ain’t so bad, why didn’t I think of that before? . . .” So, pro-tip: doing writing and revision exercises with your students can pay off.

One of the kernels of this poem was a hot day on the beach of Cayuga Lake (Ithaca), and like so many women who are always “girls” to somebody, I was always being subject to some man’s advances or another. I think this poem came out of a desire to wish the self into being able to practice a protective magic, the kind where you could just lie on the beach and be left the fuck alone.

 

Lillian-Yvonne Bertram is the author of But a Storm is Blowing from Paradise (Red Hen Press, 2012) chosen by Claudia Rankine as winner of the 2010 Benjamin Saltman Award; a slice from the cake made of air (Red Hen Press, 2016), and Personal Science (Tupelo Press, 2017).

Two Poems

Poetry / Hadara Bar-Nadav

:: Dirty ::

Dirty dirty Jew. Dirty dirty dirty. Jew money. Jew thief. Jew miser. Jew greed. Jew sweat. Jew grease. Jew hair: kinky, oily, dirty black. Jew nose: lip-low, an oversized hook. Hath not Jew eyes? Almond-shaped, shit-brown or wet ash. Jew lightning. Jew star. Jew flame. Jew teeth: a whole harvest of gold. Jew skeleton. Jew soap. Jew showers of carbon monoxide and Zyklon B. Jew history: fake. Jew lies: erased. Tattooed degenerates. Jew rats hidden in attics, stuffed under floorboards, into ovens, trains. Jew millions. Masses. Mud. Graves. Jew extinction in a Jew museum. Terezin: a Jew country club, a red sea crossed by the Red Cross. Jew music, operas, plays. Jew humor. Jew brain. That toothless laugh, such howling.

 

:: Mute ::

Why can I not speak in dreams? 

             Uncle Mangler, Murderer, Mengele 
             playing with twins in his zoo again,
        
stitching together the skins 
of their gypsy backs. 

             Whole barrels of cream-
             colored legs and the children’s 

heads preserved and shipped 
to universities in Graz and Berlin.

              Specimens for the advancement
              of silence.

Don’t forget the still living 
eyes injected with dye. 
        
            How to make both blue, 
            correct heterochromia, root out 

the brown, brute Jew. 

             The dissection done, a shower 
             with zyklon b or 14 shots 
  
of chloroform into twin hearts
(two by two by hush).

              My doctor of dreams, Angel 
              of Death who sutures  
        
closed my useless mouth. 
I am mute and dumb

              and would call you Uncle
              if I could find my tongue. 



 

From the writer

:: Account ::

“Dirty” takes on centuries and miles-worth of stereotypes about Jews. Jews—almost white, but not quite white. A dirty white. The kind of white other white people, among others, like to hate. Embedded in this poem are racialized, religious, and cultural stereotypes. Also included are historical references to the murder of Jews in the Holocaust, who were stripped of their humanity and seen merely as walking stereotypes, as if they were not even real people, but merely cut-outs of cardboard signs the Nazis had created and could destroy at will. Also mentioned is the Red-Cross’s infamous visit to the “country club” concentration camp Terezin, where much of my family was killed. The Nazis enlisted the healthiest prisoners to, in effect, stage a play of a happy ghetto in order to fool the Red Cross into believing that the camp was really a lovely place to live, where individuals and families could thrive, where people were well fed and cared for, etc. And the Red Cross decided to believe what they wanted to believe and failed to scratch the surface of the horrors at Terezin. Although Terezin was not technically an extermination camp, approximately 33,000 people died there. Another 88,000 people were deported from Terezin and sent to death camps, such as Auschwitz. Of the approximately 15,000 children sent to Terezin, fewer than 150 survived. (http://www.terezin.org/the-history-of-terezin/) None of my 50+ family members who were sent to Terezin survived. The howling at the end of the poem “Dirty” is a death cry, a defiant cry, and an ironic slap of laughter in the face of historical devastation that did, in the end, not entirely succeed. Here I am, a Jew, decades later. And I am alive. And I write. And I howl.

“Mute” was inspired by Nazi medical experiments, largely conducted by and under Josef Mengele. He was also referred to as The Angel of Death and curiously asked the children he experimented on to call him Uncle. The “experiments” in the poem are actual experiments he performed on children. He had a particular interest in twins as well as children with other “abnormalities” including different colored eyes (heterochromia) and spinal issues. Mengele was never punished for his horrific war crimes. Instead, he was protected by family and friends and lived a long life after the War in Paraguay and Brazil until he died from a stroke while swimming. The poem is written from the perspective of a haunted speaker, who sees all and who calls out and names Mengele’s crimes.

 

Hadara Bar-Nadav is a 2017 NEA Fellow in Poetry. Her newest book of poetry The New Nudity is forthcoming from Saturnalia Books in 2017. Her previous books include Lullaby (with Exit Sign), The Frame Called Ruin, and A Glass of Milk to Kiss Goodnight, and the chapbooks Fountain and Furnace and Show Me Yours.  She also co-authored the textbook Writing Poems, 8th ed. and is Associate Professor of English at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.