Sudden as a Massacre

Art / Kate Gilmore

:: Sudden as a Massacre ::

Kate Gilmore; “Sudden as a Massacre”; PICA Time Based Art Festival; Portland, Oregon; 2011

 

From the artist

:: Account ::

“Sudden as a Massacre” is a video made in 2011 for PICA Time Based Art Festival in Portland, Oregon. Originally, a version of this piece had been performed at Pace Gallery in 2011. In the original performance (“Through the Claw”), a group of women tear apart a 7,500 pound cube of wet clay and throw it at the walls, floors, ceiling, and occasionally at the audience. This turned out to be one of my favorite performances, so I decided to redo a version of it for the video in Oregon—the result is “Sudden as a Massacre.” “Sudden as a Massacre” had a similar configuration of clay and women, but the walls were a vibrant yellow and it was performed for the camera. The video played alongside the resulting installation. The performers in both of these works were amazing—the New York version consisted of former students or individuals I had worked with before. The Oregon piece was more complicated as I am not from there, so I relied on the staff and curator to organize the performers. In both of these pieces the force and energy of these women to destroy this historical and political object appears as a deep and intense necessity.

 

Kate Gilmore was born in Washington, D.C., in 1975 and lives and works in New York, NY. Gilmore received her MFA from the School of Visual Arts, New York, NY (2002) and her Bachelors degree from Bates College, Lewiston, ME (1997). She has participated in the 2010 Whitney Biennial, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY, The Moscow Biennial, Moscow, Russia (2011), PS1 Greater New York, MoMA/PS1, New York, NY (2005 and 2010), in addition to solo exhibitions at The Everson Museum, Syracuse, NY, The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Ridgefield, CT (2014), MoCA Cleveland, Cleveland, OH (2013), Public Art Fund, Bryant Park, New York, NY (2010), Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, PA (2008), Contemporary Art Center, Cincinnati, OH (2006). She has been the recipient of several international awards and honors such as the Guggenheim Fellowship (2018), Art Prize/Art Juried Award, Grand Rapids, Michigan (2015), Rauschenberg Residency Award, Rauschenberg Foundation, Captiva, FL (2014), Rome Prize from the American Academy in Rome (2007/2008), The Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Award, New York, NY (2009/2010), Art Matters Grant, New York, NY (2012), Lower Manhattan Cultural Council Award for Artistic Excellence, New York, NY (2010), the Franklin Furnace Fund for Performance, New York, NY (2006), “In the Public Realm,” Public Art Fund, New York, NY (2010), The LMCC Workspace Residency, New York, NY (2005), New York Foundation for The Arts Fellowship, New York, NY (2012 and 2005), and the Marie Walsh Sharpe Space Residency, Brooklyn, NY (2010). Her work is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, California; Rose Art Museum, Waltham, Massachusetts; Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indiana, Indianapolis; and Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, Illinois. Gilmore is an Associate Professor of Art and Design at Purchase College, SUNY, Purchase, NY.

Mindy and Me: On Diversity and Other Middlebrow Desires

Criticism / Douglas S. Ishii

:: Mindy and Me: On Diversity and Other Middlebrow Desires ::

In 2012, I made a New Year’s Resolution to balance dating with my doctoral studies: I would go on twelve dates in 2012—a leap ahead of my one date from all of the previous year. I planned on having a tenure-track job and a husband by my hooding ceremony. (A life defined by benchmarks begets more benchmarks.) That summer, the man I nicknamed “Dreamboat” ghosted me after our third date: my first adult romantic disappointment. This made me cry involuntarily whenever I heard Adele’s “Someone Like You”—which, thanks to radio, was often. One August night, drunk on sadness and tequila, I watched the pilot episode of The Mindy Project, the single-camera sitcom by and starring Mindy Kaling as Dr. Mindy Lahiri, an OB-GYN Manhattanite on the hunt for love, when it was released online ahead of its broadcast premiere on FOX. A surprise cut in the pilot’s teaser reveals that our protagonist is narrating her opening voiceover from in an interrogation room. She explains to a police officer that she, drunk, rode a bicycle into a pool after ranting on stage at her ex-boyfriend’s wedding reception. She was exactly what I needed. It wasn’t just that she was minoritized—a term I use to name how “minorities” are not born but made through unequal power relations. She was also fast-talking, frantic, selfish, stylish, and loved to eat.

I watched the series finale at the end of Season 6 in the fall of 2017. By then, I had been on many more dates, but I had not found that husband. Illustrative of the conditions of the new academic normal, I had received a surprise visiting faculty contract at my alma mater, then became a postdoctoral fellow in Colorado, then visiting faculty again in Chicago, no tenure-track position but now a longer-term temporary lecturer for students I adore. Like Mindy Kaling, I had been perpetually on the bubble: continuing Kaling’s rise as a postfeminist icon, The Mindy Project moved from FOX after its Season 3 cancellation to Hulu, to inaugurate the streaming service’s ventures into original content. Like Dr. Mindy Lahiri, I had experienced starts and stops of career success: she had opened own fertility clinic, Later Baby, that swung between bankruptcy and prosperity. By the time the central love story between her then-former co-worker, eventual co-parent, and once-male lead Dr. Danny Castellano (played by Chris Messina, in his own career rise) had fallen apart in Season 4, I too had felt something like love. I nicknamed him “Logistics”: logistically, circumstance cut the fantasy of us short as I left town to follow my latest contingent faculty contract. Like Mindy, I told myself this is the life I love.

This story of Mindy and me was something I had to theorize. In the final moments of the finale, after she has run away from the ensemble’s wrap at two of her nurses’ wedding reception, Mindy and Danny meet in the recurring set of the hospital break room. She utters, “I don’t think I ever stopped loving you, and I don’t think I ever will.” They reconcile as the camera pans out. Something in my heart broke and was mended and was made messy even though she is coming back to a politically conservative low-key racist/high-key sexist to whom she has had to prove herself time and time again. (Academia.) Love, that most sacred discourse of emotional intensity and material belonging, facilitates complex contradictions of race, gender, class, and sexuality in The Mindy Project, as it does in my own experiences of precarity and privilege. Thus the show, which uses that love to navigate the public and private dimensions of everyday life, invites an analysis of some of the core logics of “diversity” today.

I.

Mallika Rao’s November article in Vulture, “The Legacy of Both Mindys on The Mindy Project,” draws a parallel between the arc of the narrative and the creator’s uneven but gradually improving record of progressive representation; as she puts it: “[o]ur heroine stands at a wedding, thinking about a dude, same as six years ago. Only nothing’s the same.” [i] Against the backdrop of South Asian American tokenization, Rao tends with generosity to Kaling’s negotiations of being Other to the white masculinity that defines the comedy world. To further validate Kaling’s intervention, Rao quotes Desi women, who comment that they find joy in how The Mindy Project approximates their lived realities. This is part of the dictum that representation matters: to see your face and experiences reflected to a larger audience normalizes and affirms. However, Rao’s method reiterates what media scholar L. S. Kim identifies as one of the false consensuses between media industries and viewers: that viewer identification depends on racial similarity. [ii] Within this grid of “like” liking “like,” critics such as Rao can only make a moral appeal to an industry against profit creation; the argument is already overdetermined. Thus, I am not interested in The Mindy Project for its ethnographic realism—which, as a male-identified East Asian American writer, I recognize can be a problem.

So why do I like The Mindy Project? It is slapstick, but it is smart. The pilot episode opens on a retroactive shot of Mindy as a child in her suburban Boston home watching romantic comedies, which frames both her relationship to love and the show’s self-conscious play with that canon. The show quickly positions itself as highly self-aware and does not explain or justify that literacy to its audience. Thus, I understand The Mindy Project as a rather middlebrow cultural production. The phrenological language of the middlebrow refers to cultural texts, norms, and identities that inhabit the hierarchical space between so-called highbrow culture, characterized by its aesthetic “greatness” and inaccessibility, and lowbrow culture, known for its mass appeal and presumed lack of value. The academic study of middlebrow culture stems from two significant periods: its 1920s genesis, when the industrial growth of U.S. empire made goods associated with class privilege more available, and its post-World War II resurgence, which coincided with the violent backlash against desegregation and other Cold War reforms. [iii] Though the middlebrow is no longer named as such, contemporary middlebrow cultural dynamics speak to our own era’s class politics as new texts aspire to literacy and artfulness on one hand and consumer pleasure and widespread accessibility on the other. Given our bipartisan political culture obsessed with the righteousness of the middle, I need to say: the middlebrow does not deconstruct class hierarchy, but resolidifies it. The middlebrow does not produce a radical dissensus but a consensus between producer, text, and consumer.

Given its middlebrow self-referentiality, The Mindy Project would seem to take aim at the romantic comedy’s genre politics. However, in a January 2015 Al Jazeera America critique of The Mindy Project’s racial and class biases, cultural commentator E. Alex Jung bemoaned that “Lahiri’s project of finding Mr. Right, in other words, holds the ultimate promise of assimilation.” [iv] This aligns with other criticisms, such as Dodai Stewart’s May 14, 2013, article in Jezebel, “Mindy Kaling Only Makes Out With White Guys on The Mindy Project.” [v] But in a November 11, 2017, story in Vulture, Mindy Kaling foreshadows the series finale:

“The writers all pride ourselves on being feminist, and we roll our eyes at the character in a fun way,” Kaling said. “We love her because she feels she needs a man to be complete, and I think that reflects a lot of what women think. Certainly a lot of my friends—and even when I when I was younger—felt that way. But we don’t believe that, and we don’t want to give her what she wants, so we put her through that experience and showed her it’s not enough so hopefully she can be a little more woke in the process.” [vi]

One way of understanding Kaling’s comment is that, from 2013 to 2015 to 2017, Kaling and her team have grown politically and creatively. Instead, I understand The Mindy Project as part of a diversity discourse conveyed through middlebrow cultural dynamics—a joining of a liberal (as opposed to radical) diversity and a professional, sophisticate identity. I take up sociologist Jane Ward’s distinction between diversity as “a material fact of difference” and diversity as an ideological project that manages that difference through selective incorporation—we keep the diversity that we like. [vii] I use the term in the latter sense. Theater scholar David Savran critiques Rent (1994) for its middlebrow pretenses of inclusivity through its AIDS and LGBT storylines, its backdrop of anticapitalist bohemianism, its metropolitan topicality. [viii] His reading shows how middlebrow texts nominally represent social differences not to transform exclusivity but to assure producers and consumers of their own cultural cache: they already know better. Through such a consensus, diversity has come to have value: not as a social justice project of difference but as a set of digestible knowledges that translate to symbolic capital.

Let me state it differently, from the consumer side. In a very Mindy way, I find myself on OKCupid again, skimming profile after profile. For the uninitiated, OKCupid encourages you to fill out multiple prompts. One is “Favorite books, movies, shows, music, and food.” (Sigh.) The question is a test. My litany must demonstrate that I enjoy the pop pleasures, but not too much; that I am cerebral, but not pretentious. I love harder post-grunge, but it gives the impression of unhealthy masculinity. So, I soften Rise Against with Fleetwood Mac—a group with the history to prove my inner sophistication. Maybe Lorde, with enough Pitchfork edginess to show that I am on-trend yet accessible. My catalogue of “Peak TV” shows is also key. Mindy is a driven but flawed but loveable heroine in the vein of Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon from 30 Rock (2006 – 2013) and Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope from Parks & Recreation (2009 – 2015). These pop feminist icons are of the wave of NBC single-camera comedies for young, educated, urban sophisticates, like the show for which Kaling previously wrote and acted, the U.S. adaptation of The Office (2005 – 2013). While staking out important ground in the misogynist worlds of television and comedy, these shows all represent a white liberal feminism at which I can roll my eyes and prove my symbolic capital by knowing better. The Mindy Project is perfect to list.

II.

As Kaling’s explanation to Vulture suggests, part of the show’s middlebrow quality is how its writers understand themselves to be feminists. Yet, this language of political consciousness seems to contradict how they reiterate normative femininities, often through Mindy’s relationship to love. This central role of love draws me to think through theorist Lauren Berlant’s The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture (2008). [ix] Berlant frames the texts she studies through a side argument as middlebrow, in that they seek “the management of ambivalence, and not the destruction of pleasures or power” (5). Love for Berlant is “the gift that keeps on taking” since “the search for mirroring (desire) demands constant improvisation (anxiety) and taking of accounts (disappointment)” (15). Middlebrow love tries to be ironic about the norms it portrays, but also maintains a sincere investment in them, and performs intellection through its condescending reflexivity. As Berlant puts it, “she can have her sex and hate it too” (224).

I am less interested in criticizing The Mindy Project as a “bad” attempt at diversity than I am in how its participation in middlebrow love sustains our collective fantasy of diversity. The calls to diversity made by critics including Rao, Jung, and Stewart can be broken down into an affirmative diversity and reactive diversity: affirmative, in that we celebrate that it is there, and reactive, in which we respond to its lack. Reactive diversity is a complaint: things could be better if only we were heard, and thus we express our politics through our complaints while not upsetting our attachments to what causes us grief. [x] (Like television.) Both kinds of diversity can be described in Berlant’s language as juxtapositional (x): affirmative and reactive diversity function in proximity to realm of politics but do not engage power as such outside of calls for confirmation and emotional response. Affirmative and reactive diversity cause responses like the eyerolls that Kaling describes. Eyerolls, sighs, and cringes: Latinx feminist theorist Juana Rodríguez writes of such gestures as kinetic forms of communication with a future temporality. [xi] While Rodríguez mines the resistive potential of gestures for making a new future for queers of color, the middlebrow future is already present. As middlebrow sophisticates, our gestures move between each other to solidify our consensus that we just simply know better: we can have our diversity and hate it too.

The Mindy Project moved to Hulu as part of a wave of diversity programming and thus adds to our fantasies of online streaming services as being free from the institutional constraints of networks. Like Mallika Rao’s article on The Mindy Project, we can easily narrate the handful of episodes in which Mindy Lahiri directly addresses her race through the language of affirmative diversity: as social progress via creative freedom. In the Season 5 episode “Concord,” Mindy, frustrated by her ex-partner Danny’s wedding, hops in her car and ends up at her parents’ house. She is greeted with a frying pan to the head by her mother, Sonu (portrayed by Sakina Jaffrey). Mindy and her slacker brother Rishi (played by recurring guest star of Pitch Perfect fame Utkarsh Ambudkar) stumble upon what they think is their mother’s affair, but she confesses that she has been flirting with a director to try to get ahead in the local theater scene despite the gendered, ageist, and racist biases of acting. In the episode’s final moments, Mindy encourages Sonu to write her own story, a metacritical comment on reactive diversity’s demand not just for more actors but more creative voices. The tag ends as the camera drifts out of the front room, where Mindy and Rishi curl up on the couch to listen to Sonu read from an entry in her journal, one detailing her first encounter with snow during her first days in the U.S., in which she asks: “Will this cold, unforgiving place ever be my home? But as time went on, India became a distant memory and all of it changed for me. My adoptive home became, simply, my home.” (I cringe.) It is a telling of her ethnic story as the ethnic story: disorientation, alienation, adaptation. Only her ethnic story is kind of . . . bad. While the scene seems to mock the sacred status of writing from the ethnic self, the scene offers it with such sincerity, as an invitation into the family and her intimate life. This encapsulates the middlebrow relation of love: an eyeroll that tries to hide a heartfelt sentiment and a heartfelt moment that evinces an eyeroll.

In this way, we can understand the diegetic inclusion of brownness in the Season 5 episode, “Bernardo & Anita,” through affirmative diversity and the middlebrow impasse of love. Named after the lovers of West Side Story (1957) to signal its Brown, ethnic drama, the episode opens with Mindy on a dinner date with Neel, in which she says, “You’re the first Indian guy I’ve ever gone on a date with.” Neel shares that he identifies “culturally as Indian,” and Mindy banters with cluelessness about the content of her Indian American identity. After dinner, Neel walks her home; she closes her eyes and leans in—only to fall forward into nothing. Neel has not reciprocated her gesture and says, “I just don’t really see this going anywhere.” Why? “Being Indian is a really important part of my life,” and he refers to her as a coconut: “because you’re brown on the outside and white on the inside.” Her mouth drops open as we cut to the intro credits. As a fourth-generation Japanese American who has been called the homologous “banana,” and whose similar performance of American identity has been shaped by his family’s World War II incarceration, I freak out. Sure, Neel is freaking hot and has remedied the white uniformity of Mindy’s lovers. But those are fighting words.

The episode proceeds with a formulaic theorizing of ethnic identity. She asks her younger brother Rishi for his thoughts: “you think you’re white, and I think I’m Black.” There is something about the correlation of Mindy’s class and femininity to whiteness that hits somewhere between unfair conflation and systemic truth. He goes on to say: “We represent a new kind of Indian American: ones with literally zero roots to our past.” (I roll my eyes even as I feel so seen.) Further into Act I, Mindy calls Neel again and asks to hang out. He reluctantly agrees, and they meet at (corporate sponsor) Bed Bath & Beyond. After commenting on how a white employee assumes they are married, they lay out the terms of Indian American identity: Neel says, “It’s not really your fault your parents assimilated so completely they completed abandoned their heritage”; Mindy retorts: “Hey, pal, immigrants are supposed to assimilate.” The terms of debate are narrowed to clean and simple binaries: heritage integrity or willful assimilation. As middlebrow, there is no complexity or contradiction: there is merely labeling and anxiety management. But we affirm that diversity is now present. Cultural critic Helen Heran Jun argues that there is a methodological tendency to conflate the media representation of a subject position with an ideological disposition. [xii] In other words, we ask for affirmative diversity over a deconstruction that tracks what that diversity actually does and for whom.

III.      

Since much of the show’s criticism focuses on Mindy’s majority-white pool of lovers as envisioned by a majority-white writers’ room, what ideological disposition do we expect from a change in subject position? [xiii] As I think through my frustrations with The Mindy Project and the fantasies it represents, I refuse to use the expected terms: two-dimensional, fake, stereotype. (Am I complaining?) These terms come from an important activist history: the activist writings of the Asian American Movement (1968 – 1977), which became the intellectual basis of the academic field, analyzed how stereotyped representations of Asians and Asian Americans expressed anti-Asian bias and discrimination as shaped by U.S. politics with Asian nations. Clearly, this still deserves repeating over and over again. However, the mainstreaming of stereotype critique has turned the language of the stereotype into a stereotype itself: a figure without a history, a heuristic to (over)simplify the political world, an easily repeatable meaning. Thus, any deviation from the most racist caricature seems like the remedy: three-dimensional, real, complex. This moralistic framework leaves no space for cringes and eyerolls, as we must affirm it for its political goodness or react to it for not being good enough. This keeps us locked in essentialisms and “burdens of representation” arguments that stymie group creativity.

Apprehending agency beyond models of individual choice can help us understand Mindy’s creative responses to reactive diversity. After their Bed Bath & Beyond hangout, Neel invites Mindy to dinner with his Indian friends. She brings her coworker, the white doctor Jody Kimball-Kinney, with her, as she wears a kortha. She enters a space filled with Brown people but is surprised: “oh, you’re dressed regular.” At dinner, they reference Soulcycle, butter coffee, hipster tastes, and their parents’ surprise over unmarried couples living together at age 32. Their normalcy, performed through a class-specific cultural citizenship that suggests whiteness, creates a sense of community—one that is itself middlebrow. Everyone pulls out their phone and reads texts from their parents in accents: the in-group humor of affirmative diversity. Jody tries to join in with his own Indian accent, but Mindy educates him as her foil—she quickly tells him, “it’s not the same.” We laugh because we know; The Mindy Project has affirmed us as the “diverse” viewers we are, for we recognize the stereotype Mindy has confronted.

Yet, “Bernardo & Anita” shows that affirmative diversity’s focus on stereotype critique is not enough as these interactions lead to the dramatic climax of the episode. Mindy quickly puts together a mundan—a Hindu ceremony for a baby’s first haircut. In front of an audience of Mindy’s new community, her parents, her coworkers, and a “priest she found on Yelp,” her son Leo has a meltdown. Leo’s cries escalate against the steady chants of the priest, but Mindy tries to push through in a diegetic inclusion that lasts over a minute. The camera cuts to shots of Jody, who reacts with increasing trepidation, and her other two white male coworkers, who plead for the ceremony to stop. (I cringe.) Meanwhile, Mindy’s parents look on adoringly as part of the backdrop of Brown people, with her mother Sonu becoming visibly excited. The source of our affirmative diversity has become unwieldy.

The mismatch between the responses is not only racialized: it becomes one about citizenship. The unperturbed Brown people do not respond to the American child’s complaint and the panicking white men must intervene. (I cringe.) Having many dear friends and cousins with babies prone to meltdowns, I respond to Leo’s cries. The camera’s pedagogy turns against us, encouraging us not to identify with Mindy and her seemingly trivial pursuit of heritage transmission; we identify with the out-of-place white men, the sensible ones who respect the diversity that ethnicity represents but do not encourage what in the moment feels like abuse. (I cringe.) Mindy calls the ceremony off and, in the next scene that kicks off Act III, Mindy, Leo, and her parents sit on her bed as Mindy frets, “I tried to do this Indian thing that I didn’t understand and everyone knew.” Her parents reassure her that they love the U.S. and thus did not encourage their U.S.-born children to maintain ethnic ties. Her mother insists: “You make us so proud every day. If that isn’t Indian I don’t know what is!” Validating the Act I understanding of assimilation as an individual choice but dismissing its consequences through the power of love, their permission resolves Mindy’s conflict. (I roll my eyes.)

This identity conflict is love, the gift that keeps taking. Berlant reminds that middlebrow love is not just about a desire for wholeness but the anxiety that attends that search, as well as its resulting disappointments. As I have argued, The Mindy Project and its criticisms occasion a consideration of how diversity contributes to the quotidian ways in which difference becomes so unbearable. Sure, I have criticized how the portrayal of race, ethnicity, and representation in “Concord” and “Bernardo & Anita” aren’t good enough. But I have done so to dwell in this ironic mode of middlebrow diversity, in which the gestures of eyerolls and cringes alone seem analysis enough. When I ask them about their responsibility to bridge the world of texts and the world of politics, my students generally agree, “It is important to have the conversation.” Some days, I snap: “Then what?” The general response is a shrug, a giggle at my impatience, a look down deep into their notebooks, sometimes a truism about needing more people of color behind the camera. Our tools for doing otherwise feel so few because paranoid reading, once a critical praxis, has taken on the role of diversity value creation: all we need is a good complaint and a good eyeroll to no one in particular to show how smart we are.

As I sit in meetings about campus diversity, which seem insistent on erasing power, equalizing differences, and promoting “civility” as our spaces of inquiry are besieged by hate groups and surveillance using the language of “freedom of speech,” it feels like we are so backed into a corner that diversity feels like love—one that we have and hate that we do. Despite my theorizing and advocacy, I am not fully sure what is beyond diversity. But what if we took that not-knowing not as an obstacle but as an opportunity to confront the oppressions we know until we do? Being educated, “diverse” sophisticates, we have a relationship to power, and beyond complaining to each other, we can use that power. Instead of rolling your eyes, have you called your representatives? Instead of cringing, have you donated to Black Lives Matter and other social justice struggles? It’s time for action beyond our disappointments. We must break the political fantasy that underpins diversity: that things would be fine if only we were heard.

This essay has traveled through discussions of class, the sheer fact of race, and the problems of our language of diversity and media accountability. In calling us to organized, political action, I have insisted on breaking the lovely fantasies that insulate us from the precarities all around us. But since I started us out with my relationship to Mindy: what about love? Returning to her Vulture quotation, Kaling has said about the final season: “I think she gets what she needs, but not what she wants, which to me is a happy ending because what she wants is insufferable.” Kaling poses Mindy’s insufferability against the possibility of her being “a little more woke.” Mindy Kaling goes on to describe how her character’s Real Housewives aspirations and brief marriage to Ben, the suburban Jersey nurse of Season 5’s romantic arc, enable her to locate her desires beyond matrimony. As someone who has fantasized having a big, gay wedding reception (I cringe at the thought of “fabulous”), I pause. I mean, Mindy ends up with Danny—which hardly feels like a happy ending, even as I have the tools to critique that very notion. Is the construction of love, and all we attach to it, itself insufferable? As I yet again thumb through the Tinder haze of indistinguishable beards and vacation photos and gym selfies, I wonder: Is unloving love learning our vexed relationship to that which we cannot not want—is there is no outside to ideology, no way to be “woke” with love? This is not to deny the manifold forms of love that exist beyond the romance narrative, as I find consolation after every shitty date from all those who can laugh and roll their eyes at how men are the worst. I guess that’s Mindy and me: we can have our love and hate it too.

Acknowledgments

The author would like to thank the audience of the Northwestern University Asian American Studies Program’s February 2018 Brown Bag for their generous comments on this essay, especially Michelle Nancy Huang, Jonathan Gen Magat, J. Ryan Marks, Nitasha Tamar Sharma, and the aforementioned adored students; my timezone-crossing Mindy simul-watch party, Amanda Dykema and Susanna Compton Underland; Lynda Mazzalai Nguyen and Betsy Yuen, who survived the insufferable autobiographical narrative; and the undefeatable Sarah J. Sillin, for soliciting this essay and the shared adventure that underwrote it.

 


[i]Mallika Rao, “The Legacy of Both Mindys on The Mindy Project,” Vulture: Devouring Culture (19 November 2017).

[ii]L. S. Kim, “Asian America on Demand: Asian Americans, Media Networks, and a Matrix Stage,” in The Routledge Companion to Asian American Media, eds. Lori Kido Lopez and Vincent Pham (Routledge, 2017), 170-1.

[iii]These two periods were when the middlebrow was named as such and when critics like Dwight Macdonald lambasted the cultural field as a “bastardized” cooptation of high culture. See Macdonald, “Masscult and Midcult” (1960), republished in Against the American Grain (Da Capo Press, 1983).

[iv]E. Alex Jung, “Mindy Kaling is Not Your Pioneer,” Al Jazeera America (11 January 2015).

[v]Dodai Stewart, “Mindy Kaling Only Makes Out With White Guys on The Mindy Project,” Jezebel (14 May 2013).

[vi]Maria Elena Fernandez, “The Mindy Project Cast on the Series Finale: ‘Mindy Gets What She Needs, But Not What She Wants,” Vulture: Devouring Culture (13 November 2017).

[vii]Jane Ward, Respectably Queer: Diversity Culture in LGBT Activist Organizations (Vanderbilt University Press, 2008), 48.

[viii]David Savran, A Queer Sort of Materialism: Recontextualizing American Theater (University of Michigan Press, 2003).

[ix]Lauren Berlant, The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture (Duke University Press, 2008).

[x]I want to be careful here: L. S. Kim criticizes how the figuration of media advocacy as complaint frames racial misrepresentation as an issue of political correctness and not creative possibility, and, if you do not inhabit a minoritized identity, you perhaps should not comment on this issue further.

[xi]Juana María Rodríguez, Sexual Futures, Queer Gestures, and Other Latina Longings (New York University Press, 2014), 2-7.

[xii]Helen Heran Jun, Race for Citizenship: Black Orientalism and Asian Uplift from Pre-Emancipation to Neoliberal America (New York University Press, 2011), 246-7.

[xiii]The question brings to mind Black feminist Hortense Spillers’s theorizing of the American grammar of racialization within white supremacy in “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book” (1987). Spillers highlights the ongoing legacies of the Middle Passage to critique the “dubiousness” of the language of sexuality—freedom, desire, reproduction, kinship—and its presumptions of human freedom for those who have been systematically denied their humanity on the basis of their race. The Mindy Project’s affirmative diversity participates in the American Grammar of Asian American sexuality, in which Asian Americans are seen as particularly amenable not to disturbing pre-existing racial arrangements. Hortense J. Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Diacritics 17.2 (1987): 64-81.

 

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Lowe, Lisa. Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics. Duke University Press, 1997.

Melamed, Jodi. Represent and Destroy: Rationalizing Violence in the New Racial Capitalism. University of Minnesota Press, 2011.

Radway, Janice. A Feeling for Books: The Book-of-the-Month Club, Literary Taste, and Middle-Class Desire. University of North Carolina Press, 1999.

Rao, Mallika. “The Legacy of Both Mindys on The Mindy Project.” Vulture: Devouring Culture, 19 November 2017, http://www.vulture.com/2017/11/the-mindy-project-legacy-of-both-mindys.html.

Rodríguez, Juana María. Sexual Futures, Queer Gestures, and Other Latina Longings. New York University Press, 2014.

Rubin, Joan Shelley. The Making of Middlebrow Culture. University of North Carolina Press, 1992.

Savran, David. A Queer Sort of Materialism: Recontextualizing American Theater. University of Michigan Press, 2003.

Stewart, Dodai. “Mindy Kaling Only Makes Out With White Guys on The Mindy Project.” Jezebel, 14 May 2013, https://jezebel.com/mindy-kaling-only-makes-out-with-white-guys-on-the-mind-504732390.

Tachiki, Amy, Eddie Wong, Franklin Odo, and Buck Wong, eds. Roots: An Asian American Reader. University of California Los Angeles Asian American Studies Center Press, 1971.

Wanzo, Rebecca. The Suffering Will Not Be Televised: African American Women and Sentimental Political Storytelling. State University of New York Press, 2009.

Ward, Jane. Respectably Queer: Diversity Culture in LGBT Activist Organizations. Vanderbilt University Press, 2008.

 

Douglas S. Ishii is a visiting assistant professor of the Asian American Humanities at Northwestern University. He holds faculty affiliations with the Gender & Sexuality Studies Program and the American Studies Program. His academic work has appeared in Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture, and Media StudiesGlobal Asian American Popular Cultures (NYU Press, 2016), edited by Shilpa Davé, LeiLani Nishime, and Tasha Oren; and Techno-Orientalism: Imagining Asia in Speculative Fiction, History, and Media (Rutgers University Press, 2015), edited by Betsy Huang, David Roh, and Greta Niu. Douglas also has work forthcoming in American Quarterly and The Oxford Online Encyclopedia of Asian American Literature and Culture.

The Man and the Old Woman

Fiction / Ntombi K

:: The Man and the Old Woman ::

Once upon a time, an old woman stopped a man. The old woman asked the man to remove a green sticky thing from her eye. The man snubbed her, and from that day onwards, every time the man went to the bush to relieve himself, his faeces followed him relentlessly. That was the end of the story of an old woman and a man, but the beginning of tale of that man, as Tshomo and his shit:

*

Tshomo and His Faeces

There once lived Tshomo, his wife, and his mother. Tshomo was a glutton. His wife served and served him, and when he was full, he went to the toilet and released the looooooooonnnngest shit. When he made to flush the toilet, it didn’t go away. Then, he left and went to a Stokvel. His shit followed him and said:

Tshomo we Tshomo
Ong se elang, Tshomo?
Ha o ya lebeng, Tshomo
Keya le wena Tshomo

Tshomo we Tshomo
Ong se elang, Tshomo?
Ha o ya lebeng, Tshomo
Keya le wena Tshomo

(Tshomo oh Tshomo
Why do you leave me, Tshomo?
When you go to a drinking hole, Tshomo
I’ll follow you, Tshomo)

Tshomo stopped and squashed and squashed it. When he was done, he continued to walk to the Stokvel. His shit, spreading out, trailed behind him.

Tshomo we Tshomo
Ong se elang, Tshomo?
Ha o ya lebeng, Tshomo
Keya le wena Tshomo

Tshomo we Tshomo
Ong se elang, Tshomo?
Ha o ya lebeng, Tshomo
Keya le wena Tshomo

Tshomo ran, ran, ran, and then fell. When he was flat on the ground, his shit laughed aloud. Then he waited for it, tucked it inside his pocket, and carried it down to the Stokvel. When he got there, he bought himself beer and drank it. His shit peered and said, “Tshomo, Tshomo, feed me. If you don’t, I’ll embarrass you in front of everyone.” Tshomo fed it. Then he bought himself Coke and drank it. His shit peered out again, “Tshomo, Tshomo, feed me. If you don’t, I’ll embarrass you in front of people.”

Tshomo fed it, and when he had fed it, the members of the Stokvel said, “Mmmmmh, we smell shit here.” Tshomo took his shit from his pocket and hid it under a bowl. Tshomo’s shit pushed at the bowl and ran away. The Stokvel members chased Tshomo out of the Stokvel.

Then, on their way home, Tshomo and his shit met an old man who held a bag containing a lot of money. Tshomo instructed his shit to jump inside the old man’s bag and steal some money. His shit did as instructed and that was the end of this story, but the beginning of another Tshomo tale:

*

Tshomo and His Shit

There once lived, and surely still does, a hoggish man called Tshomo. One day, after having dinner with friends, he excused himself and went to the restroom. He sat on the toilet seat for a very long time, such that the person who had been queuing after him went to a restroom in another building and came back to find him still there, moaning out a thick, long, long shit.

He wiped his cleft, flushed, and the shit would not go away. He waited for the water to fill up the cistern—to flush again—and it still would not go away. Then he decided to leave it laying there like that, but when he reached for the door handle, it sang:

Tshomo we Tshomo
Ong se elang, Tshomo?
Mo o yang, Tshomo
Keya le wena Tshomo

(Tshomo oh Tshomo
Why do you leave me, Tshomo?
Wherever you go, Tshomo
I’ll follow you, Tshomo)

Tshomo kicked and squashed it, and then proceeded to walk—a lot faster this time. But it tripped him, and when he fell, landing on his back, it sang again:

Tshomo we Tshomo
Ong se elang, Tshomo?
Mo o yang, Tshomo
Keya le wena Tshomo

Tshomo pleaded with it, promising to wear it proudly the next time. And, nose turned, it continued to sing until he decided to tuck it in his side pocket. He washed his hands and applied huge gobs of cologne before going back in.

A few minutes later, a beautiful young woman walked across to where Tshomo and his friends were seated. Tshomo made to approach her, but when he stood up, his shit made a slight movement. Holding on to his side pocket, he went to the restroom again. “I thought we agreed that you will stay inside my pocket until we get home,” said Tshomo. His shit asked how it would have felt if it had been Tshomo in the side pocket. “Ok, fine. I won’t be long,” said Tshomo, spreading a few drops of cologne to silence his shit.

He fiddled with his wristwatch before telling his friends that he needed to go somewhere urgently. His friends begged him to stay for one more beer, but when he had finished it, and had forgotten about what lay hidden inside his pocket, he asked for a refill. His shit started to jump up and down, down and up, inside his pocket and Tshomo’s friend asked, “What’s that smell?”

“I thought I was the only one picking it up,” said another, and Tshomo, directing their attention to something else, spoke about the beautiful young girl who had walked past them. Even as they asked the waiter to shift them to another table, the smell lingered. It hung about as they looked at each other and under their shoes, resolving that it couldn’t have been from one of them.

They left the place at last. Most proceeded to another drinking place while Tshomo went far away, to where he was going to desert his long, long shit for good. He managed to, but only for a short while. For when he went home, he found it coiled outside the door, singing:

Tshomo we Tshomo
Ong se elang, Tshomo?
Mo o yang, Tshomo
Keya le wena Tshomo

Things had changed. Tshomo’s shit was no longer trailing behind, but leading him. What else could he do to get rid of it? The disgruntled Tshomo held his head, out of options. Then, the following day, the same girl who had passed their table—on the night of the dinner with his friends—walked past him and could not smell his shit, but instead a balm of roses.

At first, the girl refused his lift and to give him her number.

Weeks later, when they saw each other again, she turned him down all the same, but at least this time took his number.

Three weeks later, they had already gone out on many dates.

A month later: inseparable!

Tshomo’s shit was silent then. For, months later, the girl’s rosy balm clung to Tshomo’s collar and Tshomo’s shit to the girl’s diadem.

A year later, the girl washed up several times, with scented baths oils and salts, to enshroud that noisomeness, which wafted grimly the moment she got to it.

A year and some months later, the man started going out late at night with other rosy-balmed girls, leaving the girl behind.

A year and some more months later, the girl stopped going home. Stopped seeing anyone.

Two years later, Tshomo told the girl how no man in the entire universe could put up with a stinky for a girlfriend.

Two years and some months later, the girl left Tshomo and went back home.

Two years and some more months later, Tshomo moved in with another girl, with a doubly rosy smell.

Three years later, when the girl had heard that Tshomo was with another girl, it broke her to know that she had lost the essence of her scent to a man who had a lot to take and nothing to give in return.

Three years later, Tshomo was still living with the doubly rosy girl but on the side, seeing a triply rosy-smelling girl.

Three years and some months later, the first rosy-smelling girl to take Tshomo’s shit met an old woman, a fairy, who upon seeing her in a busy market said, “That shit wearing you down will soon return to its owner! Learn better, next time, what you are after, and what or who is after what from you, and also for what reasons.” Pressing a small bottle into the palm of her hand, the fairy disappeared among the winding market avenues. Doing as instructed by the bottle, what Tshomo had left her with soon became nothing but a frowsy memory. Even as it infiltrated her mind, it could no longer be hers.

That night it rained, and when the bolt of lightning struck, it hit Tshomo’s stomach and he rose, in the middle of the night, and ran to the toilet, to let out his longest shit yet, and it sang Tshomo we Tshomo, Tshomo we Tshomo until it stopped raining. But even as the rain stopped, whenever Tshomo would leave it behind, it continued to sing.

Three years and some months later, the balm of the doubly rosy girl would become single and that of the triply rosy girl, double.

Three years and some more months later, when Tshomo could be seen spending more time with the doubly rosy girl and less time with the singly rosy girl, the singly rosy girl would meet another Tshomo and leave him.

Four years later, the doubly rosy girl was only left with half of what was once a resilient balm.

Four years and some months later, when she awoke in the middle of the night, she followed the trail of shit, in every drawer, under every shoe, behind doors, in the wardrobe, inside a side pocket of a hanged coat, to where Tshomo had hidden his shit. When the girl confronted him about it, he denied it.

Four years and some more months later, she confronted Tshomo about it and he denied it.

Five years later, she left because nothing changed.

Five years and some months later, Tshomo was back to his same old shit, still unwilling to deal with it himself, still looking for someone to pass it on to or a place to ditch it, forever.

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbour’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales (2009) and the fairy tale collection, My Mother She Killed me, My Father He Ate Me (2010), which features Lily Hoang and Carol Oats, truly left an impression on me. In Petrushevskaya’s collection, I particularly liked her requiems, fairy tales, and a little bit of her allegory treasure trove, although it is only her fairy tale collection I drew a lot from. In the same way, I delighted greatly in Hoang’s “The Story of the Mosquito” and Oats’s “Blue-Bearded Lover.” Exposure to literatures by the these female writers and the privilege of having being taught prose writing by Prof. Lily Hoang inspired me to revisit the fairy tales I grew up hearing. In the process of remembering these fairy tales and contacting my cousins (young and old) and friends to remind me about the parts I had forgotten, I found myself filling in a lot of missing gabs in the parts they too had forgotten.

The gab-filling process became also a process of reimagining/reinventing new fairy tales. From memory, I used the Tshomo fairy tale as a template to create a new fairy tale that speaks to a contemporary setting. I also used this fairy tale as an opportunity to query its supposed “original structure” and its subject matter with the hope of creating or recreating a past, present, and future Tshomo.

This is how the story of “The Man and the Old Woman” was generated. The version of the Tshomo fairy tale I grew up hearing emerged during a time when many homes in the old township of Evaton/Small Farms (where most of my childhood years were spent) had no flushing toilets. People either went to the bush or used pit latrines to help themselves. In many ways, this influenced the manner in which this fairy tale was specifically told. It reflected the living conditions, culture, and language of the Evaton/Small Farms community at that time. I took these factors into account during the process of remembering and reinventing the fairy tale. I experimented with the language shifts from the old version which was plainly, “The Man and the Old Woman” to “Tshomo & His Faeces” and “Tshomo & His Shit” in order to suggest the passing of time. I have also delighted in discovering who Tshomo is in the present day.

Note, significantly, that the Tshomo tale was (and still is) mostly narrated by girl children.

 

Ntombi K is a 2017 Andrew Mellon Fellow. She holds an MA in Creative Writing (Rhodes University) where she authored her first short story collection titled, I Won’t be Long. She also makes Theatre and TV/Film in the Vaal area of Evaton (South Africa).

Wash My Letter in the River

Nonfiction / Naomi Washer

:: Wash My Letter in the River ::

Dear Angelo,

There is a term in Japanese literature called shasei. In English, it translates to ‘descriptive realism.’ At least that is the first definition I found when I read it in a book. When I researched it myself, I found that the concept had undergone an evolution over time, by different poets, but centered primarily on the following phrases and descriptions:

Shasei:

paint from nature / sketch from nature / depicting life / depicting life by empathizing with real objects / not a technique, process, or means, but a totality

The word shasei resides mainly in the world of haiku. Haiku are meant to be descriptions of scenes, rather than abstract thoughts or reflections. The goal is to be true to the scene. Haiku are to be written from actual experiences rather than imagined ones. Haiku should be written while observing the chosen scene, not later from memory. One cannot write a summer haiku in the winter, as summer could not have been experienced at the moment of writing.

Takahama Kyoshi (1874 – 1959) insisted on the pure-objective shasei. The objective shasei must contain no human emotion, even while it must depend on the subjective, personal, emotional response of the reader. The haiku itself must not include any “emotional” words; however, readers must take away an emotional resonance from their encounter with the haiku, regarding the perspective of the haikuist. This speaks to the theory of transactional haiku poetics, a theory which emphasizes the social nature of haiku—the sort of “call and response” the form conjures between writer and reader. This theory views the haiku as a moment of cohesion, of union, of two figures who share the felt significance of a poem.

The internal shasei follows many of the same principles as the objective. The internal shasei is a written phrase that corresponds to an inner feeling of the moment. It is inspired by an external scene around you (“poems hung on a clothesline from the porch to the forest/river: how do the poems dry?”). Shasei is a copy of a subject. But it is also an emphasis on the most essential elements (“the red door, the cast iron pan, the limestone walk, the rusted mailbox”).

The haiku is the genre, the shasei the concept.

The poet Shiki (1867-1902), who originally coined the term shasei, evolved its definition over time to include the term makoto—a continuation of the meaning of shasei.

Makoto:

sincerity / truth / significance / faithfulness / genuineness / poetic truthfulness

In haiku, the embodiment of makoto is shasei directed toward inner reality. In this case, the subject rendered is the self of the poet. The self is experienced objectively, like that of any thing experienced in nature.

One more I want to call your attention to:

Keijo:

scenery / landscape / expressing the concrete image of a thing just as it is / expression in which landscape is depicted, charged with emotional resonance / not merely a copy—environmental expressions that take on their own significance

In our letters, I gave you words, brief descriptions of a place you’ve never been. A place I used to live. I showed you the house in a photograph. That was all. In the fields, you found a poem. The poem was my house. You called it The Red Door.

Shasei

There once was a fiction writer. He mailed me a box of autumn leaves from Vermont because I lived in Chicago and I missed Vermont, and he gathered the leaves on his hands and knees in the dark so that he could not even see their color (he could not even see if they had color), and all this sounds selfless I know, until I think how poetic he must have felt out there in the leaves.

I sat on a bench all afternoon in the public square in my neighborhood. I sat there till the golden hour, till the lamppost turned on. I’d been watching some children play together in a large pile of leaves. They kept running to the leaves, grabbing as many as they could hold, running back to their parents (who were ignoring them) and throwing the leaves above their heads. Every time, the wind whipped the leaves into a circle around the children’s bodies as they fell to the ground, and every time, the children squealed with delight. Golden light was all around the square when they began calling out each other’s names. “Felix! Felix! Come on, Felix!” And suddenly it hit me that a few months before, I saw these same children playing underneath a willow tree in the nearby park—my favorite willow tree. They’d been constructing a home, protecting each other. Suddenly I’m simultaneously on that bench in the square and sitting in the grass in the park two months before, watching these kids, scribbling down on yellow legal paper everything they say.

Makoto

I worked at a soup and sandwich shop in the city. It was a booth in a larger indoor market with many other stands: coffee, crepes, donuts. I’d never worked with food before; it took a long time to adjust. At the start, I found it oddly satisfying. I liked being semi-anonymous—a first name, no curiosity to know anything more. And I liked the repetition. I liked the routine. I liked tapping my card to the reader, being admitted through the doors labeled Employee Access. I liked the shunk and whirr of the sanitizer. I liked wrapping sandwiches up tight and handing them off to customers. But what I liked even more than this was being able to write you of all of it.

Cooking soup one morning at the shop, someone nearby spoke words that reminded me of you, of a conversation we had had about windows, about my window tattoo, what it was made of (“bones or skin?”), and how it helped me see. I pulled my phone out of my pocket and turned it on to write you, but when I turned it on I found that you had already written me, had already sent me a poem, a poem for me, which is different than a poem about me, though it seemed to be.

Keijo

I went to North Carolina like I always do in summer for a week. Before I left, you knew I was feeling low. But I hadn’t even said. You told me maybe I needed a break from poetry. From talking about it. Listen: poetry wearies me. You exhaust me with all the effort I must give to correspondence. So I went to North Carolina. I sat on a porch and drank coffee and walked along the river at the town’s edge. I saw many beautiful things. I saw things as you might see them: rocks piled on the riverbank / a black rocking chair on a porch / signs missing letters / my grandmother’s quilt. You found my poem(s). I wrote to you on yellow legal paper at midnight on the bank of the river. It began to rain lightly, and an old drunk man stumbled past singing I was born by the river. . . he sat by me as I finished writing your letter, and we spoke of writing and love and war. He told me of the girl he’d known in Jamaica who made everyone else dissolve away. And we wrote a poem together, there on the yellow legal paper:

Rain fell like some hint of things to come / and the river kept on with or without us / ebb and flow / tomorrow where will we be / what we are or what we should be.

Back home in Chicago, I wander into the kitchen to find the fridge magnet poetry a friend composed the other night during my party:

perhaps we hand our poetry a sky

A text message I won’t send you: I like your picture too much to “like” it on Facebook.

You said: I want a girl who is a heliotrope—in the day, she’ll turn to her interests and passions; in the night, she’ll turn to me. I can only deal with those who are heliotropes too, who understand that I am heliotrope.

A video message you sent: in bed shouting the poem is the body the poem is the body the poem is in the body the poem is in the body 

You said: nothing is final until physical correspondence.

Sketching from life; a genuine totality; an expression of a thing just as it is

A letter I wrote and never sent you:

Confession:

I have been afraid to tell you this.

I have done this before. This correspondence between poets. It is troubling to me because the first time, it failed supremely. In college I fell into an affair with a poet. We wrote to each other, of each other, about each other. We confused love/romance and poems. We confused poets and poems. It destroyed me, but also made me into who I am now. Made me obsessed. Made me walk the line between poems and context, reality and fantasy, idealism and disillusionment.

I have been wary of our co / respon / dance from the beginning because of this, because I don’t want what happened to me to happen again, even while I crave  and need what we have cultivated because I do feel I am my whole self when writing to you because you understand this struggle, this need to not give ourselves up to another person.

But whether or not we meant to, we have given ourselves to each other.
we are connected
to each other’s words
     there should be a word
for what we are
          for what we’ve done 

                    wordseachother
                     eachwordother
                     eachotherword
                              active, a moving forward,
                                we move
                                        eachotherward

Listen: this yellow piece of paper full of rain.

Yours,

Naomi

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

In Jacques Derrida’s The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond, in the section titled “Envois”—messages from “a destroyed correspondence” between Derrida and his wife, Marguerite Aucouturier—Derrida writes, while theorizing about the meaning and significance of letters: “Mixture is the letter, the epistle, which is not a genre but all genres, literature itself.” This is the idea behind so much of my writing, the way I teach writing, the aesthetic of the journal I run, Ghost Proposal. In the case of this essay, “Wash My Letter in the River,” this letter and the letters it refers to throughout are all intertwined in a larger correspondence that did, in fact, happen and exist with a poet friend of mine, along with a larger project of my own on the nature of letter-writing and correspondence between writers. I go to letter-writing whenever I cannot deal with Literature—when Literature and I aren’t making anything happen together on the page. As soon as I go to letter-writing, everything happens all at once. And it makes more sense to me than any other genre. I began writing letters in earnest in college, and I did not always do very well in college. Sometimes I almost failed classes, which was a mystery to everyone involved, but when I was not doing my homework, I was writing letters, and this was my self-education. I was not writing, or not writing well, the summer of the correspondence referenced in this essay. But I exhausted myself with the commitment I brought to this correspondence. And finally, near the end of the correspondence, alone on the river in Wilmington, North Carolina, where I had gone to work on essays for my master’s thesis, writing letters helped the writing come. I wrote essays for my thesis on Fernando Pessoa, Bruno Schulz, and Unica Zurn, and when I was done and went walking by the river, I felt myself pulled back into the letter, to the movement inherent in correspondence, to the ways in which a letter goes on existing beyond the moment of writing, in the act of sending, envoyer, off to the recipient, sending oneself to the recipient, s’envoyer, and back again. The correspondence referenced here was one that focused chiefly on poetics for a designated period of time (the summer between our semesters) and evolved into questions we are still discussing today regarding epistolary poetics. What is a letter? What does a letter mean, what does a letter do, what does a letter say, what does it accomplish? What does it keep one from doing or saying? How does it keep one from living, but ensure that one goes on writing? In our correspondence, the questions took on a life of their own, the topics sped up and I sped up to keep up with them, but I had other questions I needed to slow down to identify. I read books about letters to try to understand what I was doing, and it was in one of those books (Japanese Poetic Diaries, Earl Miner) that I found the topics discussed at the beginning of this essay, drew parallels between those concepts and my writing life, then circled back around to correspondence. When my yellow legal pad began to catch the rain that night in Wilmington, I sent a message to my friend to say I was writing him a Real Physical Letter, that it had begun to rain over the paper. “Wash my letter in the river,” he said.

 

Naomi Washer’s work has appeared and is forthcoming in Homonym, Essay Daily, Crab Fat Magazine, The Boiler, Split Lip Magazine, Blue Mesa Review, and other journals. She has received fellowships from Yaddo and Columbia College Chicago, where she earned her MFA in nonfiction. She is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Ghost Proposal.

A Brief History of Tears

Fiction / Dawn Tefft

:: A Brief History of Tears ::

In 1964, I began crying.

I can give you the setting of the day it happened, but I can’t tell you why. It was the day of my quinceañera. I remember I was wearing a pale pink dress made of satin, slowly unfolding my napkin, feeling aware that I was sitting at a folding table in front of all the guests. And then, as I wrote later in my journal, “Long, deep heaves. Every breath burning the nose and the throat. Reverberations in the abdomen.” I tried to hide it with my half-unfolded napkin.

Localized Crying
(from an interview with Peter Scatori)

I didn’t know what was going on at first; I would just start crying as soon as I sat down at the computer. If I even looked at the monitor, it would go zig-zag on me. My boss and all my co-workers made me see a therapist until the company’s insurance wouldn’t cover it anymore. I started having to do all my work on paper, figuring out sums by hand. Luckily, I’m good with numbers, so I could do the smallish numbers in my head. Eventually, the whiteness of paper would blind me when I looked at it, and I’d have to turn away. So I started writing on brown paper napkins, the kind with the fibers you can actually see. I used those until they made my eyes red and weepy. My eyes felt like sores in my face. Finally, I went to the doctor, and he tested me for all kinds of allergies. I wasn’t allergic to anything, not even goats. I got really scared at that point because I thought if I couldn’t use paper, I’d have to rely on my head for everything. So I decided to go to a psychiatrist. It was then I was diagnosed with Localized Crying, the kind brought on by stress. It really helped me a lot to know I wasn’t crazy, that there were actually other people out there experiencing the same triggers and symptoms as me. Since then, I’ve lost my job, but at least I know it’s not like it’s because I’m a bad person.

Eventually the napkin disintegrated, leaving only my hands. Maybe paper desires to absorb something. Maybe it needs to make a map of a story, the kind without words. Like when I was seven and my parents gave away our Collie. Because they didn’t even seem upset, I cried over a piece a paper and circled where each tear landed.

The Jesuits were fond of tears. Every three years, they chose one person who was especially burdened and undertook to cry for him for one full year. In 1663, in the village of Monparte, an anonymous monk left a note for Pelier Pele, saying that he would be crying for Pele during the coming year in order to help alleviate the recent widower’s suffering. Pele was a farmer, and after his wife’s death by consumption, word got around that he was having trouble taking care of his seven children. Court documents show that Pele remarried by the end of 1663. According to village legend, the new marriage was facilitated by the slow disappearance of a very large mole on the end of Pele’s nose. Villagers believed it to have been the result of the monk’s astonishing powers of concentrated sympathy. Monparte still holds its annual Festival of Tears, during which people are blindfolded by officials, paired up, and sent into dark rooms made of peat. The pairs sit cross-legged on the ground, inhaling deeply. With each inhalation, the pair take in each other’s scent along with the moist, earthy scent of the walls surrounding them, and by nightfall they begin crying. The tears fall into bowls placed in the lap. Later, the tears are bottled and aged. When one of the pair feels life is going especially well, he brews a tea from the tears which allows him to feel the sorrows of the other.

My mother came over to my chair and put both her hands on my face, just holding it and talking to me in this really low voice. I don’t remember anything she said, except for eventually she called my best friend over to sit with me because she thought Susana might get what was happening. That maybe it was a teenage thing.

I couldn’t stop. Susana didn’t know what to do with me.

According to Crying: The Natural & Cultural History of Tears, “tears usually signal a desire, a wish, or a plea.” Clinically depressed people have “lost the impetus to cry, because without desire, there are no tears”; infants who are neglected long enough never cry again: “It is the infant who believes it will be picked up that wails, energized by its fear that it will be left alone.” Though many readers might find Samuel Beckett’s writing bereft of hope, in psychoanalytic terms, his writing is pointing at the loss of the ability for tears. It is, like a depressive working with a therapist, seeking to explore the sources and effects of the tearless condition. And all explorations are undertaken with hope. If, as Beckett once stated, “Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness,” perhaps, then, Beckett’s words are his tears. Though in “Endgame” some of his characters live in trash cans, it is not as if to say, “Yes, let us all, now and forever, live in trash cans.”

I remember sitting there trying to figure out what was happening to me. Running through the day’s events, hoping to find whatever it was that was bothering me. I remembered going to the bathroom and taking a bath after my mother woke me up. Carefully doing my makeup and hair for two whole hours. Spraying myself with some rose water, putting on the gold cross necklace and little gold post earrings, pulling on pantyhose. Catching my pantyhose on a fingernail, having to take them off, putting on another pair. Slowly. My mother zipping up my shiny, full-skirted dress. Looking at myself in the mirror from different angles, and then standing and staring, trying to decide what I looked like: good, bad, okay, sexy, innocent, innocently sexy, young, old. Eating oatmeal for breakfast. Riding with my parents in the sedan to church. Listening to them talk about Father Hernandez, the price of fruit, whether or not Tía Theresa would move out of the neighborhood. Arriving at the church and walking in. Listening to the Father. Sitting at the metal folding table for everyone to see. Crying.

Noxious          
a short story by Felipe Fitzcarraldo

In the town of Carancas, high in Peru’s Andes, Mayor Nestor Quispe is perplexed by a meteor. The meteor fell in the night. The next morning a farmer came into town, reporting a huge, stinking rock in one of his outlying fields. He asked the mayor to put together a party of men to remove the rock, which he claimed poisoned all of his animals. When the mayor arrived, he saw so many dead sheep on the ground, it looked like the clouds had come down to rest. He knew the sheep were dead because he kicked a few.

The farmer was right. The fields stank. They smelled like rotten eggs, tons of them. The mayor decided it would be best to dynamite the thing. He made plans with the farmer to come back with the explosives the next morning. That was before the outbreak.

Slowly, over the course of the day, all the townspeople had fallen ill with crying. When the mayor returned home, his wife, Maria, was sitting on the porch, knitting and crying. When he asked her why she was crying, she just shook her head. She didn’t even look up, just kept working the needles, looping and looping. He never understood how those loops held.

He shrugged and walked into the kitchen to get some water. He opened the cupboard and reached for a glass. When his hand returned empty, he wondered what had happened. He tried to look for the glass, but everything was blurry. Then the first tear fell, thick like mucus. When the next one fell a couple minutes later, he rubbed one hand into an eye, but it didn’t help; his eyes were already clouding up again. He kept rubbing and trying to clear a path for his vision, but it was like looking through a windshield in a heavy rain. He could only see clearly for a few seconds, and only every couple of minutes at that.

When Maria walked inside, she asked why he was just standing in front of the cupboard.

“I can’t see. I keep crying these thick tears.”

“Well, sit down, then,” Maria said, pulling a chair over to him.

“I’d rather sit by the phone.”

So Maria walked him into the next room and settled him in the chair next to the phone table. When she walked out, he was rubbing fists in his eyes and staring at the dial.

The mayor called the town’s doctor, Jorge.

“I can’t stop crying, Jorge. What’s wrong with me?”

Jorge told him people had been coming into his home all day, complaining of eye afflictions. One old woman who came in with her whole family thought they all had devils in their eyes. Jorge recounted the old woman’s memory of a similar incident when she was a child. She said that a man with money had come to the town and offered to pay for a bride. None of the families would give their daughters to him, no matter how much he offered. Before the man left, he stopped in the street in front of one particularly pretty girl and stared at her until she started crying. The girl cried for a week straight. At the end of the week she died, her skin like a corn husk, drained of all her girlish fluids.

Jorge told the mayor about other people, too. People who came in saying they were being visited by saints, laborers who thought they’d gotten particles of wood, dirt, or rock caught in their eyes, and lots and lots of children. The children cried harder than the adults. Jorge thought it was because they were so worked up about their incessant crying, they were crying in addition to crying.

When the mayor hung up the receiver, he couldn’t think. He sat and cried without having any thoughts at all. After a while, his thoughts returned, bearing his mother. He remembered when he was twelve, his mother giving him a package wrapped in brown paper. He remembered untying the string, carefully, letting the rough strands of it scrape against his fingers. Running his hands over the scratchy surface of the paper. Finally, unfolding the paper like little girls practicing at unwrapping babies.

Some people have told me it’s because I’m a woman, or that I’m just weak. But that’s not it. It makes me strong in ways most people aren’t. For example, I can stay all day at a funeral, whether I know the person or not. As a professional mourner, I earn a lot of money to share people’s sadness while following funeral etiquette. The thing is, I don’t have to fake it. I just have to remember not to mention I didn’t know the deceased. I study the deceased’s life, share some of it in conversations, hand around my own personal supply of heavy-duty tissue. People like to talk to me; they feel comfortable collaborating.


 
          Allow me to cry.
          I am not          the neglected infant.
          Fear me if I am silly 
          or silent,
          if I refuse to take         lessons,
          though I am a novice.
          It is also bad 
          when I make         no argument.
          The Generalissimo will have won
          and flies will soon swarm
          the village.
 

The Dictionary of Tears tells us that both men and women cry. Historically, men have cried at heroic deeds or because they lost someone close to them. In the former case, men cried to express their emotional reaction to a stirring event. In the latter case, men cried not to express, but because there was no other reaction available.

During the reign of the Vikings, tears were thought to be becoming to warriors. If a warrior went into battle without wetting his beard, he wasn’t fully aware of the consequence of battle. Warriors traveled with a bard, who wailed battle epics while the warriors slept. It was thought that if he wailed in just the right key, and if he paid each moment in battle its due honor, the songs would infiltrate the plans warriors make while sleeping. When burying the dead, the bard would cry for the entire community, channeling the force of the emotions of all in attendance. The Kjula Runestone states that when a ship was sent to sea empty, without a body for a missing warrior, cries were so loud that enemy camps thought the dead were trying to enter the bodies of animals.            

The Mongols were, perhaps, the most fearsome criers. When they charged into battle atop their steeds, it was with tears scouring their cheeks. Russian legend has it that one Mongol warrior cried terribly while gutting a young girl and then rubbed her viscera on his wet face. To the Russians attempting to keep the Mongols at bay, it looked like the warrior was actually crying pieces of the girl. Eventually, Mongols turned to crying silently, the sight of which was said to be hard to discern, but harder to forget.

Of all the ways of going through the world, crying isn’t the most untenable. Can you imagine going through life acting happy no matter what’s happening around you? Like even when the window worker at the Burger King hands you soggy fries with that look that says her bills are piling up but she really doesn’t want to have to move back in with her abusive ex-boyfriend. And then you realize she forgot to include packets of ketchup. Now that would be weird.

The Dictionary of Tears says that tears were perfected by Madame Curie in 1773, the year she infused them with lavender. Having distilled lavender buds, robbing them of their essences, she added this fragile water to the sturdier salt water she milked from the ducts of volunteers. Madame’s Salts became so popular that she eventually produced a series of ready-to-wear tears, some of the more popular of which were Rose, Chamomile, and Jasmine. Today, a vintage Rose is reputed to cost in the millions, not only for its age, but for the chance to partake of a quaint French villager’s tristesse, circa late 1700s.

The ready-to-wear line was often used to add a seductive sadness to one’s hair or clothing, but the original lavender tears remained by far the favorite of Curie’s inventions. Imbibed and left to fall from the eyes as they may, court goers were especially fond of them and considered them an essential accessory for attending plays, concerts, dances, and other artistic and social events. The potentially unexpected oncoming of tears was one of the attractions, but usually the tears made their appearance at particularly dramatic emotional moments. Known for its calming properties, lavender was prescribed to soothe the nerves of many an overwrought funeral goer.

Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” was said to incite so many tears from the audience that the concert hall would become humid. More than one audience member was reported to have become delirious, imagining themselves in the highlands of France, chasing a younger sibling through the fields. In 1779, Maria Tina Binoche, a patron of the arts and an asthmatic, choked on the lavender-heavy air in a Paris concert hall and died in the middle of Mozart’s “Requiem.” Following a string of similar deaths, Madame’s Salts were outlawed in 1822. Nearly two hundred years later, Jonas Salk would read about Madame Curie and attempt to inoculate excessively emotional patients with tears, only to find that the vaccine didn’t work. Devastated by the failure of his idea, he became deeply depressed and died of alcohol poisoning.

I started crying once, and I just haven’t stopped since.

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

Pop psychology often conveys that any one issue has a single or at least primary cause, but we’re all the products of history, unique biochemistry, material circumstances, and all the stimuli we’ve ever encountered over the course of our lives. The frame for the story is a short first-person narrative intended to explain something inexplicable: the sudden onset of crying that never stops. The story contains no dialogue, and the first-person narrative is interspersed with fictional encyclopedia-like entries about historical events, cultures, or phenomena related to crying. The entries tend to further complicate the narrative rather than provide clarity. But I like to think that further complicating something truly complex is a form of clarity.

I enjoy less traditional forms of storytelling, and I thought it would be interesting to explore something as universal as crying from both a personal and a (completely fictional) historical perspective. I was particularly drawn to crying because some cultures label it as weakness even though it serves many necessary functions, likely makes us stronger in the sense that it helps us keep going in the face of hardship, and is a permanent feature of our lives.

 

Poems of Dawn Tefft are published in Fence, Denver Quarterly, Witness, and Sentence, among other journals. Her chapbooks include Fist (Dancing Girl Press, 2016), The Walking Dead: A Lyric (Finishing Line Press, 2016), and Field Trip to My Mother and Other Exotic Locations (Mudlark, 2005). Her first fiction piece was published recently in Pioneertown. Her nonfiction has been published in cream city review, PopMatters, Truthout, Jacobin, and Woodland Pattern’s blog. She holds a Ph.D. in Creative Writing from University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and works as a higher-ed labor organizer and representative.

From the Foothills of Oblivion

Fiction / Christopher Higgs

:: From the Foothills of Oblivion ::

I want to say I love you in the most unpredictable way, a way no one has ever said it before. When I do “triangle orange redux,” you know how and why. It’s our secret. I shouldn’t have brought it up in mixed company. Couldn’t help it. Could not help it. Sorry. Anyway, listen, my son loves saying “recycling bin.” For a while he said, “psycho bean,” which sounds like recycling bin as spoken by a two year old if you say it out loud very carefully. Anyway, listen, I wish we made our world of watermelon sugar. I really do. I really wish it. But we’ve never had tigers here who spoke our language. No iDeath. No Forgotten Works.

I want to say I love you but I am alone and no deeds have been done here as they were done in watermelon sugar. Let me let go of this, can I? Can we do that for me, please? For us. Okay? Okay. Thanks. I need to clear my throat and get some air and regroup and remember that time I busted that ring of soviet cocktail hustler video game adjacent belligerent fidgeting surrender of every person to the equal opportunity center nearest the culprit who turned out to be none other than the mysterious injunction against the inferior posterior amphibian barometer in the alpine recreation locations of every single architect on this side of the Rockies? Jesus Christ Carter get a fucking clue, get a fucking goddamn clue you blue faced quarter shaped apple with a rotten core. Center break neck speed toward the alphabet we least want spoken in these parts; trust me, you do not want to switch alphabets at this moment because the part of this story where presently we reside affords little but a not good place to switch; the bandits around here are more likely someone trying to kill us or rob us or tell us a lie and catch us with our pants down than anything else; we could wind up back in prison if the lights snap on at the wrong injunction if you know what I mean. Of course you know what I mean, you wrote the book on dubious injunctions.

I want to say I love you but we work at the university which translates to: we could get shot at any moment. Let’s not think about it. If we think about it, we may get paranoid. No need to get paranoid. Paranoia results from the effect of too much of something in your brain. To counteract it you need to balance it with something akin to its opposite, or you need to wait it out because whatever transgression you have made can resolve itself in time. Time equalizes. I’m probably the first person to ever say that phrase, so let me go ahead and make sure to copyright it. Time equalizes©. Now I own it, right? So if anybody wants to use that phrase they have to pay me. God I love this country. America! Fuck yeah!

I want to say I love you before the sun sets over the Pacific. Before the sun and moon and stars snapped into existence, presuming they snapped into existence at some point, at some point when life began we began, but we began before as star particles but before the star particles what? Our ancestry will never get discovered. Likely we will never know from whence we came. Even now with our robot bodies and our immortality, however could we hope to discover the origin of the origin of the universe? But even if we could, then what? Say we somehow accomplished it. What then? Do we go searching for the origin of the origin of the origin of the universe? And then on to the next iteration to infinity? Perhaps a certain line of work involves crevices or whole holes into parallel universes where aerobic, or should I say acerbic, or should I say fellow patrons of this sentence let me set the record straight, or disco, or blight, or foggy up the windows I’m preparing to, we’re preparing to, we want to forgo or forage or forfeit or forget. Miette said, “Go to The Forgotten Works.” I know he said it, we know he said it. They all know who said the flames last touched by the least partisan woman in the history of police states and quantum mechanics deserves the medal most given for honor, but honestly why ask questions? Why ever ask questions about anything?

I want to say I love you despite the private investigator’s findings. The least acceptable mode of transportation these days seems better than never leaving your couch. We get endorsements, you’d never know it. You play the fiddle in a brass band and wonder why no one wants to hang out with you. Play by the rules, fine. Play your gut-string harp or parent a pigeon or jerk off a jack o’ lantern or find a Frisbee or give up more room while all gallivanting around. Make excuses. Make a loud sound. Buy beer. Drink beer. Buy more beer. Drink all the beer. Pass out. Wake up in jail covered in vomit. Chunks of vomit in your beard. We can see it. We didn’t want to tell you about the subject of the documentary. Didn’t want to spoil it. Wait and see for yourself. Love makes mountains out of however many nails combined equals a quarter. Imagine a fourteen-hundred-year-old ghost slathering herself on my sister. Our sister. We have a sister. We see our sister in pictures. We left gate yawn trigger figure, seven, figure eight, figure a different, or should I say alternative route. Take the side streets. Van Nuys suffers a bad reputation but in this new world all the gangsters line up on the side of the road to show off their hotrods. One tricked out wheelie all pumped full of hydraulics. Flashback to Boyz n the Hood. We watched Boyz n the Hood constantly, enough to memorize the whole thing. Same as Goonies. Memorized it. Star Wars Ewok Adventure? Memorized it. Savage Steve Holland’s ’80s classic One Crazy Summer? Memorized it. Never you mind how many movies I memorized as a kid because I watched them over and over. Also music. We’ve memorized a good deal of music. Late ’80s to late ’90s jams compose a good deal of our knowledge, my knowledge, we have shared knowledge, you know. Love means never having to never ever again. Did you know Erich Segal, the guy who wrote the book turned into the movie Love Story, “was denied tenure at Yale and Love Story was ignominiously bounced from the nomination slate of the National Book Awards after the fiction jury threatened to resign. ‘It is a banal book which simply doesn’t qualify as literature,’ said Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and fiction jurist William Styron. The National Book Award for fiction that year went to Saul Bellow for Mr. Sammler’s Planet,” according to the LA Times? Why care about anything anymore? Why listen to anyone? Why allow anything inside? Why not build up a wall, learn how to write code and become a hermit working from home writing code for some mega code company overseas? Almost everything we have rests on the coast of Switzerland. What coast? you might ask. Perhaps. Perhaps you’d ask. And we would say, “The coast of never ending suicide.” We want to dispel the rumors of ecstasy or beyond. When you take your last gasp, you never breathe again. Never. You can’t imagine it so don’t even try. To understand death one must experience death. We don’t believe anyone can imagine death. The undead believe in death. We believe in ceasing. Losing cohesion. Becoming something else. Dissolving. Disintegrating. Becoming gaseous. Feeding bugs. Feeding plants. Feeding every level from the subatomic on up through the humans eating carrots from the Hollywood Farmers’ Market. We see celebrities and fawn. We get autographs in a little powder blue notebook carried around always. We always carry around the autograph book. Who knows what might could happen? Who knows when we’ll ever get that close to them again? Don’t tell about the time at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival when we approached indie princess Parker Posey but instead of introducing ourselves like normal humans we approached her from the side, toward her back, and when we neared her enough to take in a whiff of her hair we took it. We stood a foot away and leaned in and smelled her hair deeply, deeply smelled her scent, inhaled her scent deeply, her hair. We told this anecdote once in front of a crowd of people and recorded it on a cassette tape, the leading method at the time, and then after transcribing the tape and listening to the tape, what it produced startled me, startled us, startled everybody presumably. Most glaringly we repeated the issues facing mother nature later today after the masseuse and Paul and Gerbin and Joyste found private lives to assume and the Conrad attention bolstered all sorts of aggression, then and only then could we even consider elaborating on the ancient alphabet for Oren or Thatch or Chrimen. None of those fuckers get the gift if any one of them fails to transport delectable treats affordably. Parachute and foil. Draw a farewell scepter or grant a fugitive a parent for a day and ask the lord for forgiveness. We cannot excuse the handful of wrongdoings posted before the elevated conference of paper towels and dolls made of paper towels. All along we tell secrets. Do you catch secrets? How could you? Grandma needs to talk about a pony. Poetry? No, a pony. Ask another day.

I want to say I love you, don’t you remember? Can’t you recall? Must I continue to say it over and over? What power do we harness from repetition?

I want to say I love you but I’ve already said it twice today. Who am I now, Gertrude Stein? Are we Gertrude Stein? How many times can one say the phrase “I love you” and still hope to conjure the same level of significance?

I love the love of loving you while in love with you I love you more than loving you can be said to love. After everything everyone extolled. After all the purple. After all the inchworms. The poisoning incident. The flock of angry geese. Killer bees. The serial killer slash hitman. We cannot tell a lie. We cannot tell a truth. We cannot tell anything without exhibiting both liar face and truth teller face. Go figure. And ask yourself, what else is love but a knife without a torso to slip into? We forget. I forget. We hide. I hide.

We frequent and drive and parachute without forgiveness. And I do, too. And like Frank Stanford said, “I am watching you from the foothills of oblivion.”

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

Rereading Richard Brautigan, thinking about love. Thinking about thinking. Thinking about language’s inability to signify. Thinking on the page. Showing my work. Wanting desperately to say what cannot be said. Caught in the well, the void. Caught in space, a vacuum. Wanting what can never materialize. Wanting for the sake of wanting. Finding connections between cognition and imagination, identity and performance, story and report, private language and public discourse. Inhabiting the present. Inhabiting my body. Inhabiting the stress of waking and moving and begging without begging. This document presents my own associative thinking habits, a composition of my brain’s chemical neurological synaptic function, unencumbered by the dictates of the dominant discourse surrounding “good fiction” or “well-written fiction.” I’m interested in creating what only I can create, only I can compose, only I can assemble, in the radically personal way I create, compose, assemble. Communication doesn’t interest me in art. Instead I prefer provocation. This stands as an example.

 

Christopher Higgs lives in Los Angeles where he teaches narrative theory and technique at Cal State Northridge. His newest book, a constraint-based memoir entitled As I Stand Living, came out this past February from the #RECURRENT imprint at Civil Coping Mechanisms. Previously, he wrote The Complete Works of Marvin K. Mooney: a novel (Sator Press, 2010), and assembled the S.P.D. #1 Bestselling novel ONE, in collaboration with Blake Butler and Vanessa Place (Roof Books, 2012). In addition, he’s published two chapbooks and numerous shorter works for venues such as AGNI, Denver Quarterly, Global Queer Cinema, and The Paris Review Daily.

The Spider Mom

Fiction / Sionnain Buckley

:: The Spider Mom ::

a fairytale

Comma and Millicent had been trying for a baby for the past fourteen months. Every month they would take turns—odd months were Comma and even were Mill. And every month for fourteen months, they would both start bleeding on the first Monday, the moon and the close proximity keeping them synced. October had come again, and another Monday, and Comma and Mill sat in the kitchen feeling the bloods exit from between their legs in slow first-day fashion. They stared at their empty lunch plates, the crumbs of their chicken salad sandwiches, their crumpled napkins.

Just outside the window above the sink, a maple branch dangled, drops of water shining at the points of the leaves from the morning rain shower. They were feeling surprised and not surprised at the same time, and frustrated at both of these reactions. It was no matter how badly they wanted a child, no matter how many jars of semen they carried back to their bedroom, no matter how many hours they spent tipped upside down against the couch while the other read aloud from their favorite childhood books. They hadn’t done it, yet again.

So Comma and Mill sat there in the kitchen and bled together. And when they got tired of that, they stood up and rinsed their lunch plates in the sink. Mill wanted to close the curtains and take a nap, but Comma suggested they get out of the house. So they stoppered themselves up and went out into the wet world to ask for some help.

Their first stop was to their best friend, a nurse, because they knew that before giving any of her medically sound advice, she would hug them each gently and pull out the tray of teabags for their perusal. “Are you taking all those supplements I gave you?” she asked them. They were.

After they said goodbye to their best friend and thanked her for the tea, they walked down the block to their doctor, who looked at them straight-faced and said the same thing he always said: “Just come in, and I can do it for you. It’ll make your lives so much easier. I don’t see what the resistance is.” They thanked him and gave thin smiles to the receptionist on their way out.

Next they went to the midwife, who tucked her knees under her and leaned forward in her floral armchair as they relayed the news. “Maybe it’s time to try a different approach?” she said carefully. She offered up her suite of rooms and her own expertise, suggested the donor’s participation, or even more than one. Mill coughed quietly into her hand. Comma shook her head and said they’d touch base with her soon. “She may as well’ve just called it an orgy,” Comma whispered when they were outside again.

Another visit to another nurse friend warranted a repeated refrain: “You haven’t forgotten those supplements I gave you…?” Another cup of tea and it seemed their bladders were too full for this.

They went into the chapel on a whim—Comma’s idea—and slid into a pew beside the pastor, who lifted his head from his bowed prayer at their arrival. “God gives us all, in time,” he said, smiling at their frowns. “Have you prayed on your readiness?” Mill nodded sagely. “Try going to see Dr. Haylor,” the pastor suggested. “He does those procedures all the time.”

After stopping at the bakery for donuts (and the baker’s advice that they needed to plump up a bit, give it more to latch on to, here have a few more pastries, on the house), they went to talk to the innkeeper, who was a fount of everyone else’s secrets. As she bustled around the inn’s kitchen, she rattled off the names of everyone in the county who had artificially inseminated in the past fifteen years. Not that many, it turned out. “And who actually got a baby?” Comma asked. The innkeeper paused next to the sink with a frying pan in each hand. “Lola Peters, and the Trenches, but only after they went to Dr. Haylor. There was Jillian, too, you remember her, but I can’t really count that.” Comma and Mill were too tired at this point to ask the innkeeper why she didn’t count Jillian, and they didn’t bother to mention that neither of them knew a Jillian anyway.

Before returning home, they stopped at their neighbor’s house to see Artie, the seven-year-old they watched sometimes on weekends when his father was away. When he asked why they looked sad, Comma explained, and when he asked why it hadn’t worked, Comma explained that they didn’t know. “You know who’s really good at having babies?” Artie said. “Spider moms. Sometimes five hundred at once.” Artie had been on an animal kingdom kick lately, spouting off random wildlife facts at his fancy. “You should just ask a spider mom what to do!” He went back to separating his Legos into color-coded piles, and Comma and Mill crossed the street and went home.

Back in their small kitchen, Mill opened the cabinets and took down the bottles of vitamins and minerals and herbal tinctures that their nurse friends had given them. She lined them up on the counter in size order—the biggest jar with the bright yellow horse pills on one end, and the tiny brown stopper bottle of subtle energy formula on the other. She stared at the line of supplements, counted them dutifully, considered reordering them based on the likeliness of them helping in the slightest, then placed them all back in their spots in the cabinets.

Comma watched all of this from the kitchen table, and when Mill turned around, Comma pulled out the other chair and poked it invitingly with her foot. “Maybe we’re just on the wrong months,” Comma said as Mill sat down across from her. “Maybe we need to switch evens and odds.” Mill frowned in response. “Or each do a few months in a row,” Comma tried. “Or get a couple different donors.” Comma kept spouting off all the alternatives she could come up with, pausing between them to watch Mill’s face earnestly.

“Maybe we just need to ask a spider,” Mill whispered, staring down at her hands in her lap. Neither of them laughed, they just looked up at each other with the gravity that comes with helplessness.

“Okay,” Comma said. She stood up and pulled her chair to the center of the kitchen floor, then dragged the legs of Mill’s chair until it was directly facing hers. Comma sat back down, her knees just brushing Mill’s. “If we sit here long enough, one is bound to come along.”

Mill insisted on getting them each a glass of water, but after that they sat down and didn’t move again. By the time the sun had started setting they seemed to have agreed that they would stay that way. They watched the light fall across each other’s faces, across the tiled floor. The first hour they mostly stared at each other right in the eyes, but after that they took turns. They very well could’ve talked, but Mill seemed to need the silence, and Comma wasn’t going to push it. They only broke position to take sips from their water or to cross and uncross their legs. It made the most sense to keep them uncrossed, to more evenly bleed, but after a point they were soaked regardless.

It was the dead middle of the night, the windows black, the track lights above the stove casting the room half-lit, when Mill finally broke the silence. “Are you sleeping?” she whispered to Comma, who had closed her eyes for a bit to rest. She hadn’t slumped or jerked at all, so Mill wasn’t so sure. Comma nodded without opening her eyes, so Mill let her sleep.

When the sun rose the next morning, Comma woke up to Mill’s face staring straight at her. She knew without looking down that her pants were soaked completely through, saturated and drying a dark maroon down to the middle of her thighs. Mill was beating her—the blood had nearly reached her knees. Comma wondered if Mill would make a move to get some breakfast, but she just stayed put, stared at Comma for a few minutes, and then turned to the window to watch a bird hiccup across the sill.

It was past noon on that first day when Comma suggested that maybe they needed to at least take some iron pills. “It’s like fasting,” Mill said, closing her eyes and letting her head roll on her neck in a slow semi-circle from ear to ear. Comma could hear Mill’s stomach grumbling from here. Under her, and under Mill as well, soft clumps of congealed blood were slipping out and gathering in warm piles between their legs.

Comma and Mill wrapped their ankles around the legs of the kitchen chairs, knees open and bloody. They talked about names, an old subject of which they never seemed to tire. They wished sometimes that they could have three hundred babies, if only to use all the names they had come up with over the years. Eleanor. Selene. Kai. Tesla. Margot. Natalia. Cecil. Sylvia. Julian. Oliver. Lucy. Ronan. They recited the names back and forth to each other, like the instructions to a much-used recipe, or the words of a prayer. The sun set through the window, a magnificent red that they may have said reminded them of blood, under different circumstances.

Some days passed, enough for them to lose count, to lose feeling in their legs, to lose—it seemed—every pint of blood in their bodies. It had reached the hems of their pants and continued, dripping between their bare toes and running into the grooved edges between the tiles of the floor. Around them, from the empty rooms, came the creaks of the radiators cycling through their own fluids.

“I want you,” Mill whispered one evening. The kitchen was gray around them, losing light fast. Comma looked up at Mill. She had wrapped her calves tighter around the chair legs, and Comma could see streaks of red staining the wood. Her knees were angled open. Again she whispered, “I want you,” and tilted her hips just barely closer. Comma imagined standing, imagined lowering herself between Mill’s spread legs, blood on dried blood. Instead, she shifted until her knees brushed Mill’s, until she pressed against them. Mill shivered against the hard wooden back of the chair, and Comma’s heart dipped against her ribs. The light fell from the kitchen completely.

When the spider finally arrived, they had nearly forgotten they were waiting for her. Nearly. She made a subtle entrance, crawling haltingly over Comma’s thigh and stopping with her spindly legs poised, waiting. She faced Mill, or so Mill assumed, based on her limited knowledge of spider anatomy. Truthfully, Mill appreciated spiders from a figurative or symbolic standpoint but didn’t much care for their physical bodies near hers. “Comma,” she said, pointing. And Comma saw.

They sat there with the spider for a long time. A long enough time that Comma wondered if maybe they needed to get Artie in here as a mediator. The spider hadn’t moved an inch since stopping on Comma’s thigh and hadn’t turned away from staring at Mill. All the blood had dried by now on both of them, except for what stayed warm between their legs.

“Okay,” Mill finally whispered. “So what do we do?” She directed the question at the spider, but after a few minutes of silence, Comma couldn’t help but interject. “I can’t decide if this means she’s choosing me or you,” Comma said. “She came to me, right? But she hasn’t taken her eyes off you since she got here.” Mill ignored this and continued to stare at the spider instead, who, for what it’s worth, seemed to ignore this as well.

“Okay,” Mill said again, many hours later. Comma wasn’t sure what she was responding to, but it did sound like a response, like Mill had received a transmission that Comma wasn’t privy to. She fought the sudden urge to reach down and smash the spider with the palm of her hand. She sometimes had those urges, incredible ones, that she couldn’t bear to act on, but craved regardless—driving across the median, jumping from a high overlook, moving the blade of the kitchen knife just a little farther. The spider shimmied in place a little, perhaps nodded, then proceeded to turn back the way she came, down over the edge of the chair and across the bloody kitchen tiles.

Mill was the first to try to stand, although she nearly toppled her chair, and Comma’s as well, with Comma in it. “Bread,” she said, and Comma’s stomach immediately responded, groaning obscenely in the direction of Mill’s back. The two of them hobbled around the kitchen, gathering whatever they could find that hadn’t spoiled. A jar of peanut butter, a package of dried apples, the last three slices of multigrain bread. Comma figured they would talk about the spider once they had food in their bodies. Mill figured Comma could hear everything the spider had said and was quietly mulling it over. Neither of them said a word of this. They ate the bread and the apples in less than three minutes, then fed the peanut butter to each other from their fingers until the jar was wiped clean.

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

The image of two women sitting across from each other, legs wrapped around the legs of their chairs, bleeding themselves dry, originally showed up for me in a poem. I don’t write poetry often, but when I do it tends to be bloody. Menstrual-bloody in particular. Go figure. I wanted to do more with this image, so I lifted it and placed it somewhere that strange images are accepted without question and treated with sincerity: the fairytale. Inside this form, I knew that I wouldn’t have to change the image, or even explain it much. And maybe the story doesn’t end up being much of a fairytale, traditionally speaking, aside from the bloody mess (and the wise spider of course), but centering the excess of the blood was important to me for the purposes of the story. As a queer woman, I have had a widely varying relationship with my menstruation. As my opinion of and desire for motherhood has changed over time, my blood has felt alternatingly welcome and pointless and complicated and superfluous. For two queer and menstruating women who want nothing other than to have a child together but are consistently failing, the simple excess of blood in itself is a taunt from the body, an insult to every earnest effort. I wanted to honor the feeling of that excess and allow it a physical presence in the story.

 

Sionnain Buckley is a writer and visual artist originally from Long Island. She has worked as a muralist, a farmhand, a personal chef, and a facilitator for a queer book club for LGBTQ+ teenagers. When she isn’t writing strange stories, she is consuming queer media and popcorn in equal measure. Her fiction has appeared in New South and Crab Fat Magazine.

No Rain

Nonfiction / Michelle S. Reed

:: No Rain ::

Mom doesn’t remember the weather that day, but I like to think there was rain. I like to think the night was full of the sound of it. That thunder woke her up before the contractions did. That my grandmother cracked the back door to let the cat in from the storm and stood in the open frame for a moment, listening. Then her daughter called.

*

My sister was two when they brought me home. Mom says Jess picked up a baby blanket and slung it over her shoulders when she saw me. Said Jess wouldn’t put it down. She carried it through our childhoods, then lost it at an Ohio hotel when we went to Sea World. That was before we knew about documentaries or abused orca whales. We only knew the giant body of the black fish rising out of the water and diving back into it, our faces splashed from its fall even in our back-row seats. I remember being afraid of the whale but in awe of its power. Its tail swished so beautifully in the turquoise pool. Its teeth shone like embers.

*

Mom took a shower to make the contractions come faster and stronger. This is what you do on your second child, she says. No panic. Just stepping into the shower carefully, turning the hot water on, breathing deep and slow, waiting as long as you have to. At midnight, she woke dad up. “Are you sure?” he asked.

*

When Jess had her second child, my husband and I came to Michigan to visit. It was July, muggy and green. We sat on the back porch while my brother-in-law tossed a football to his two-year-old son in the yard to our left. Inside, a lasagna was baking. My parents were stationed at either side of my sister. All of them stared endlessly at my niece, cooing at her and touching her tiny fingers. She wanted to lift her head but wasn’t strong enough yet, so she jerked it back and forth and up and down, telling us yes no yes no yes. I was entranced by my sister. How lost she was in her daughter’s eyes. What am I missing, I wondered, that creates such a fire?

*

I was born quickly. So was Jess before me. So quickly, mom’s doctor ran into her room, yelling at the nurses, “You should have woken me up earlier! I told you she goes fast.” Three pushes and I was out. “You don’t understand what that means yet,” mom says. The women on her side are blessed with short deliveries. “When you do it, it will probably be the same,” she likes to tell me, and sometimes I let this pass without reminding her I don’t want children.

*

They thought I would be a boy. My name would have been Dave, like my father’s and his father’s. Dad would have taken me hunting when I got big enough to carry my own gun. He would have taught me to be quiet in the woods. To make a deer feel safe before I kill it. Maybe he would give me a bow too, teach me to use every weapon he uses. But I was a girl. They had to find something else to call me. Dad saved his weapons for my nephew. I took gymnastics and ballet. I was a cheerleader, an ice skater. Still, my baby book was blue.

*

Jess called me a week ago. She’s pregnant again. Her body is chaos; she vomits several times an hour, and her breasts and joints ache. Her son and daughter want her to play with them, take them outside, build a fort. So she sits in a chair while they zig-zag across the lawn and calls them back if they wander too far. I am amazed, again, at what her body can do, has done. What my mother’s body has done.

*

It might have been snowing, mom says, and dad agrees. Snow is not as good as rain, but frozen water is better than none. I want a connection between my fascination with oceans and rivers and tides to the conditions of my birth. I want a reason for my love of thunder and the comfort I feel at the sound of rain. For why I’d rather write about shades of blue in the Atlantic than raise children. I want my wedding on a cliff over Lake Michigan to mirror my beginning, somehow. I want water. But no one remembers.

*

They named me Michelle because dad liked the sound of it. Mom couldn’t think of anything else she liked, so she agreed to it. She says she sometimes accidentally called me Melissa in the first weeks of my life, so slippery was my identity.

*

Sometimes I imagine myself as the man they thought I would be. Another Dave. He’d be quiet and solemn, probably. Bad at sports and good at drawing trees. A tendency to daydream. He’d never be asked when he thinks he’ll have his first child. He might be a little wary of his body, disappointed in its lack of bulk and power. But freer in it, no doubt, than the one I have.

*

If there was no rain outside, there was still water in me and in my mother. She had to have it broken at the hospital both times she gave birth. For some women, it breaks naturally, mom says. Others, like her, hold on.

*

Jess wasn’t scared of orca whales or biking without training wheels or talking to strangers in restaurants when we were small. And later, she would make friends with boys easily while I kept to myself. She would have a baby and get married and not be afraid of losing herself inside of the life she made. She came first and knew everything I didn’t know. But I’ll never forget her in that Ohio hotel, heartbroken and clawing through bedsheets in search of her blanket: the thing that kept her safe.

*

What mom hated most about giving birth was standing up afterward. She says the nurses would take the baby away and then she would have to right herself, walk slowly back to the room, and wait for her daughter to appear again.

*

We played house when we were kids. Jess was the mom and I was the daughter. This was never questioned or explained. She liked babydolls, realistic ones who needed diaper changes and burpings. She fed them with little plastic spoons. She cradled them and gasped if anyone bumped her while she held them. “Careful! My baby!” She tucked them into miniature wooden beds. She sang lullabies. She gave the babies names. Invented imaginary husbands. Even then, I knew it was wrong that I didn’t do the same.

*

There was no snow and no rain. I know this in my heart. Metaphors don’t appear where I will them to. It was November in eastern Michigan. It was gray and ugly. The leaves would have been gone from the trees. There wouldn’t be snow yet, but everyone would have wished for it. People always want snow that time of year, in spite of how they’ll complain about it when it comes. They’d love anything to rain down and hide the black trees, brown grass. To give the children something to mold into castles, to throw at each other. To open the terrible sky.

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

This essay began as a poem about meeting my niece for the first time. Then I realized that what I really needed to investigate—my respect and deep love for the mothers I’ve known and my own lack of a need for that experience—wasn’t quite right for a poem. So I prodded and pushed and explored. I asked my mother what it was like to give birth to me and found myself searching for meaning in every detail, as if the color of the sky that night could explain (maybe even justify) who I am. Giving the essay a direct narrative structure didn’t feel right, so it became a series of lyric vignettes. I needed it to move in and out of time like memory does, to feel like any moment of it could be an ending or a beginning.

 

Michelle S. Reed’s first book of poems, I Don’t Need to Make a Pretty Thing, was a runner-up for the Hudson Prize and is available from Black Lawrence Press. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Verse Daily, Reservoir, Waxwing, Flyway, and Salt Hill, among others. Her work has been nominated for Best of the Net, Independent Best American Poetry, and The Pushcart Prize. She writes nonfiction when she is feeling very brave.

My Plea

Nonfiction / James Davis May

:: My Plea ::

The poem below was written sometime before January 26th, 1938. I have a copy of it on delicate—nearly tissue-thin—manila paper. There are two holes punched into the left-hand margin, and the poem itself was written on a typewriter. The poem’s flaws will be obvious to any seasoned poetry reader; I hope, though, that you’ll take the time to read it, as its author was very dear to me. I think, too, that the poem can tell us a little about persistence and poetry’s importance to the young. What I’m asking, I suppose, is for you to be less concerned with evaluating the poem’s merit than you are with acknowledging the human voice that lives inside its lines. Here it is:

MY PLEA

I do not want to know about hell and strife
The pitfalls, the agonies endured in life
No, do not press them upon me
I shut my eyes that I might not see—
The ugliness and bareness of it all
See men live, rise, love, and fall.
Instead show me love and happiness
Quiet streams and peacefulness,
Hear stirring music and voice full of song
Show to me the right and not the wrong.
I want to live in beauty and be free
Travel to moons and across seas
I am Youth!
Hear my plea!

NMB

The poem arrived by mail last week. It was in an envelope within an envelope, the first of which was modern and the second of which was not. That second envelope, which was the same aged color as the paper, had my late grandmother’s maiden name on it—Miss Nora Brown—and her address (123 Morgan St., Brackenridge, PA), along with a postmark: January 26th, 1938. 7:30 p.m. Philadelphia. My grandmother passed away last December, and my aunt found the poem in my grandmother’s drawers. My grandmother was not a hoarder; she kept a very neat and clean house, so if she kept something, it meant something.

Until very recently, every poet who’s ever tried to publish a poem could remember the dread inherent in finding his or her own handwriting on an envelope in the mail. It meant you had been rejected by the magazine you sent your poetry to for consideration. In my grandmother’s case, it was the Ladies’ Home Journal that sent her the bad news. Reading the rejection slip enclosed in the envelope along with the poem, I was surprised by how little has changed over eight decades:

We regret that the accompanying manuscript, which had the most careful reading, is not in every way adapted to the special requirements of Ladies’ Home Journal.

Please accept our thanks for your courtesy in permitting us to examine it, and feel assured that we are always glad to give manuscripts our careful consideration and to report promptly as to their availability for our needs.

Yours very truly,

THE EDITORS

Compare that to my latest from Poetry magazine, which came via email:

Unfortunately, your submission isn’t quite right for us. Thank you very much, though, for sending work our way—and thank you for your interest in POETRY magazine.

Sincerely,

THE EDITORS

Both my grandmother and I were “blanked”—in other words, the editors (or more likely someone working for the editors) signed their title instead of their names. A passive-aggressive way of saying “Please stop sending”? Anonymity dictated by volume? We’ll never know. Though blank rejections appear to have gotten shorter—yet another symptom of cultural ADHD in the digital age—the coolness and false contrition remains: LHJ wrote that they “regret” that her poem “is not in every way adapted to the special requirements” of their magazine; Poetry, meanwhile, begins its dismissal with “Unfortunately,” before telling me my “submission isn’t quite right” for them—the editorial equivalent of “it’s not you, it’s me.”

Anyway, I have advantages my grandmother did not, namely a healthy ego. I’ve been published, after all, and teach creative writing for a living. I’ve been seasoned by hundreds of rejections just like these. I even used to keep all of my rejections in a bloated large envelope until someone pointed out that it was tacky to do so. My grandmother, on the other hand, was a recent high school graduate, was not yet nineteen, and worked at a drugstore. She would not, as I did, go to college, let alone eight years of graduate school. For every hardship she endured—the Great Depression, World War II, Richard Nixon (she’d like that joke)—I’m certain I can cite ten ways in which I was privileged, and she is one of the people, along with her husband and my parents, who made my easier life possible, a life that allowed me to pursue such an impractical vocation as writing poetry. Prior to receiving her poem in the mail, I knew only that my grandmother was a tremendous reader. My father and aunt have since told me that she wanted to be a writer, a poet in particular.

It’s likely that she borrowed the typewriter and, I’ve invented this detail, the copies of LHJ that she read prior to sending the magazine her work. It was her first and, I believe, only rejection. Which makes the note on the back of the envelope—“My first attempt and a rejection!! ‘If first you don’t succeed, try, try again.’”—somewhat ironic, if not sad. The “again” in that note is underlined twice. In less than a year, she’d marry my grandfather, whom, the family legend goes, she fell in love with when she saw him marching as part of the fire station’s drum and bugle corps. In fact, the Brackenridge fire station was and still is right across the street from the address on the SASE. On Google Street View, I see a yellow-brick building composed of roughly ten row houses. My grandmother’s former residence, where she lived with my great-grandparents and likely wrote this poem, is the second from the corner and less than two blocks from the Allegheny River. If I zoom in, I can make out a tiny mailbox to the left of the front door. I doubt this is the same mailbox that briefly housed my grandmother’s rejection, but it certainly looks old enough.

About that poem. It was written in 1937 or ’38, as I’ve said, a decade and a half after the publication of The Waste Land, so it seems antiquated, yes. Antiquated and at times clichéd. But it has virtues, and were I to find it in a stack of submissions exclusively from high school students, I think it might have caught my eye, especially the sentiment behind the first couplet: “I do not want to know about hell and strife / The pitfalls, the agonies endured in life.” There’s a delightful irony to these first two lines. The poet says she does not want to know about these things (that is, “hell and strife”), but in naming them we’re led to believe that she does know about them. My grandmother was Irish Catholic, so she would have been well acquainted with hell; and I imagine growing up on the shore of the Allegheny during the heyday of steel and coal provided good models for what eternal damnation might look like. Billowing smokestacks, sunless days, etc. Her father, meanwhile, worked in the mills and by all accounts drank more than even the most hyperbolic Irish stereotypes. All of this to say that this teenager likely experienced real, not imagined, strife.

The poem operates by negation—it’s a protest against those images of strife: “No, do not press them upon me / I shut my eyes that I might not see.” Now the poem has taken up its title; it has become a plea. We wonder to whom it’s addressed. A deity? Culture (i.e., media and literature)? Cynicism itself? We don’t know, but the force behind this plea strikes me because, unlike a lot of poems by teenagers, it opts for something more forceful than melancholy. It protests, and the word “press,” along with the speaker’s shutting her eyes, suggests violation, a violation against which the poem pushes back.

The next couplet—“The ugliness and bareness of it all / See men live, rise, love, and fall.”—veers too much toward abstraction, we’d probably say in workshop, and yet viewing this poem through a historical lens, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that its concerns, its prophesies, were valid. World War II would begin in a few years, and as we all know, this war was one that had a long windup. It’s reasonable to think war had been on this young poet’s mind. How many of the men that worked in that fire station across the street were headed to war in three or four years? How many would end up dying in the next decade? That Brackenridge was a steel town, making many of those men vital to the war effort, probably kept the percentages down but not by much. So many in my grandmother’s senior class were about to “live, rise, love, and fall.”

The poem has sonnet DNA. If we’re generous—and let’s be since this is my grandmother!—it has fourteen lines. It also has a turn, albeit a nontraditional turn. The volta comes at line seven instead of line nine: “Instead show me love and happiness / Quiet streams and peacefulness.” Here, of course, any creative writing professor would object. We’ve got two glaring abstractions, and those abstractions are, as abstractions tend to be, clichés. Not unusual lines to find in a teenager’s poem. The next couplet is more specific than its predecessor: “Hear stirring music and voice full of song / Show to me the right and not the wrong.” The first line of this couplet is curious. Is the speaker imploring the addressed to hear the music, or is she asking to hear that music herself? Grammatically, it’s the former, which makes the poem more interesting to me. For one thing, it gives the speaker more authority: we’ve already said that she knows about “hell and strife,” and now we know she knows about this music, a music that by implication is unknown to or discounted by the person or power she addresses. That person or power doesn’t hear or doesn’t choose to hear the music. It follows, then, that the addressed also has a tendency to show “the wrong” instead of “the right.”

I’ve said this poem has sonnet DNA, and that’s true, but it’s primarily an elegy, the strand of that form identified by Edward Hirsch as containing “poems of great personal deprivation shading off into meditations on mutability and petitions for divine guidance and consolation.” Considering this definition makes me all the more certain that my grandmother’s poem addresses God. If so, what a brave poem for an eighteen-year-old Catholic to write! That a poem would be the proper form to issue imperatives to God is also intriguing because it points to the fundamental reason we write poetry: we want meaning and order.

Tonally, this poem reminds me, oddly enough, of “In Warsaw” by Czesław Miłosz, which was written some seven years later, under very different circumstances. In that poem, Miłosz stands in front of the ruins of St. John’s Cathedral in Warsaw, which had just endured the carnage that resulted from the Nazis quashing the Warsaw Uprising. Miłosz asks himself why he is there meditating on the ruins and remembers that he “swore never to be / A ritual mourner.” The poet has no choice, though, as the hands of the dead grab hold of his pen and “order [him] to write / The story of their lives and deaths.” This obligation to the dead is not one Miłosz embraces, not at first anyway. In the poem he confesses that he desired to be a poet of odes, not elegies:

I want to sing of festivities,
The greenwood into which Shakespeare
Often took me. Leave
To poets a moment of happiness,
Otherwise your world will perish.

The last full lines of my grandmother’s poem read, “I want to live in beauty and be free / Travel to moons and across seas.” Both poems express unrealistic wants. Time and History, which live beyond the borders of all poems and occasionally invade them, occasionally sack and level them, had different plans, plans that were in place for both poets by the time Miłosz finished his own poem. Miłosz, at thirty-four, had the subject of human suffering, one that he would write about for six more decades. My grandmother, at that same moment, had her family, my grandfather, father, and a little later, my aunt, and then much later her six grandchildren, subjects that would obsess her the way poetry obsesses poets. I read those last two lines—“I am Youth! / Hear my plea!”—eighty years after they were written and feel sad. Sad because she wanted to be a poet and couldn’t be. The war years, I imagine, put poetry on hold. As did this rejection. If I could write to her, I’d tell her, as I tell my students and as my professors told me, that rejection is part of the game, that she went big—LHJ was the first American magazine to hit over a million subscribers—too big for a first poem, and that the rejection she received and opened on the cold porch in Brackenridge in January of 1938 was not a comment on her talent. Listen to what you wrote on the back of the envelope, I would tell her. Keep trying, you’ve got your whole life ahead of you.

And what to say about that life? What to say without sounding sentimental? She never learned to drive, loved champagne, hated parsley, lived until she was ninety-seven, seven years longer than my grandfather, and mourned his death in the ways of the old epics. It wasn’t right that he was taken from her. I think of that second line, “The pitfalls, the agonies endured in life.” If you asked her how she was doing during those last years, she’d say “lousy,” and add that she was terribly sad and lonely. No pretense whatsoever. You knew where you stood with her and, it appears, so did God.  

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

When my father called to say that he and my aunt found a poem my grandmother wrote, I asked him to send it to me. In the days between that phone call and the poem arriving by mail, I entertained absurd dreams of becoming my grandmother’s literary executer. “I will find a way to publish this poem,” I kept telling myself. My grandmother loved Elizabeth Barrett Browning and read as widely and as diligently as any of my academic friends. So I had high hopes even though I hadn’t read the actual poem. When I did, I got really sad. My grandmother’s posthumous literary career rests on this poem, a poem that is good, I think, for a teenager writing in the first half of the twentieth century, but its virtues are in the potential it suggests, not in its actual lines. That makes the blank rejection slip she received all the more heartbreaking. My grandmother experienced literary rejection, something I experience so often that it hardly fazes me, and it looks as though that rejection ended her literary aspirations—what to do with that information? My grandmother died at ninety-seven and was lucid for all but the last few years, so in the months after her death, I didn’t feel as though I had missed opportunities to know her. I didn’t feel as though there was anything unsaid between us. This poem changed all of that. Suddenly, I want to talk to her, her teenage self, the girl who wasn’t that much younger than my students are now. I want to protect her ego, but I can’t. All I can do is make a case for the poem.

 

James Davis May is the author of Unquiet Things, which was published by Louisiana State University Press in 2016. His poems have appeared in The Missouri Review, The New Republic, New England Review, The Southern Review, and elsewhere. The winner of the Poetry Society of America’s Cecil Hemley Memorial Award, he lives in the Georgia mountains with his wife, the poet Chelsea Rathburn.

Two Poems

Poetry / Meg Wade

:: Aubade in Mid-December ::

My lover searches the forest
of my hair to find the good

ear he can whisper into.
My other a can of tin bees.

I heard music when you spoke just
now—I swear it, he whispers. 

But I hear nothing. 

No trembling timpani, no 
boots puncturing the bone-white   

snow. I listen hard for some sudden 
interruption of solitude. He switches 

the radio on & Appalachian Spring
breaks through the speakers. 

It’s thirty degrees. Unseasonably warm
and wet. Our messy bed now nothing 

more than a contract between 
landmark and surrender. 


 

:: Failed Spell ::

You must swarm the dark. 
You must strike fast & shatter

its branches. Do exactly as I say 
or you will lose this child.
 
Walk out into your mother’s 
woods & do not speak to anyone
 
for three days. Gather the bark 
that will soothe the little furnace 

of your body, mullein leaves
once the flower finishes 

dying; meadowsweet, we call
Save. Crush the leaves. 

Cover them with vodka and drink.
Your body will become a light 

show. May mercy’s lace thread
what happens next.



 

From the writer

:: Account ::

“Aubade in Mid-December”

I became incredibly and inexplicably sick in the spring of 2017. I battled most of the year with my health, which of course affected my relationship with the world. I permanently lost a significant amount of hearing in my right ear. I couldn’t chew solid foods. When I was finally in somewhat better health again, I took on a new lover. This poem is based on a true story of a night we had early on in knowing one another. I wanted to write a poem that explored my newfound relationship with hearing loss and sex, but also the complicated nature of intimate relationships in general. How so often we are alone—even if we are not alone. How even though we are together, we still experience the same moments differently.

Failed Spell

Lately, my work is heavily inspired by the spiritual practice of Appalachian Granny Witches. My mother, her mother, and her mother before her were all practitioners of this sacred healing art. These poems rise to engage with this practice and the place it resides in, as I try to navigate my own lineage and responsibility within it.

 

Meg Wade is a 2017 National Poetry Series finalist. She is a former Poetry Fellow at the University of Wisconsin’s Creative Writing Institute, and her manuscript Slick Like Dark won the 2017 Snowbound Chapbook Award from Tupelo Press (2019). She has been the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize, and her poems have appeared in Nashville Review, Horsethief, Pinwheel, and WILDNESS, among other journals and anthologies. She lives and writes in Nashville, Tennessee.

Six Sonnets

Poetry / Diane Seuss

:: Mountains black today, hiding when the wind cooperates ::

Mountains black today, hiding when the wind cooperates behind Whitman
beards, legless homeless talking to themselves on red dirt corners, laughing 
at the nothing there is to laugh at, holding up blank cardboard signs, 
the want so great they can’t put words to it, and I belong nowhere, have 
never belonged anywhere, not where I was raised, not where I was not raised, 
not in any classroom or strip motel or restaurant of any false or real ethnicity, 
not chic, not invisible, not urban but no farm where my apron can flap 
in the wind, not in any workplace, my god, workplaces, I know this is 
the wail of a teenager and yet I’m not really wailing, am I, am I wailing, 
I’m saying this body has never been a home, my shack a shackle, dog 
is a good boy but he bites, poems are someone else’s clothes I slipped 
into so I could skip town, even the hospital where I was born was borrowed 
from the Catholics, nuns thought I was odd and tried to foist me off 
on the Buddhists but they reached through the fog and handed me back


 

:: It’s a real Garden of Eden story ::

It’s a real Garden of Eden story, the mother of the little 
compound, founder, embracer, died of cancer, then some 
goof from Arkansas moved in thinking he could plant corn 
after they told him you can’t plant corn in the mountains, 
there will be a freeze on one end or the other, planted corn, 
it froze, and now he’s out there most nights burning husks 
for God knows what purpose, and he’s got keep out signs 
all over the range so Shawn can’t walk his dogs out there 
and the half-coyote Rico sits smack in front of Shawn and stares 
into his eyes like hypnotism, but you know how coyotes are, 
that high laugh-cry that throws salt into your wound at the time 
of night you’re already bedded down in your loneliness, 
and Arkansas out there setting fires and the dry trees rattling 
their leaves like some golden currency no one uses anymore


 

:: For twenty-six days I lived in an apartment with a dishwasher ::

For twenty-six days I lived in an apartment with a dishwasher, 
and I’ll tell you, it changed me, it changed my hands not to have 
them daily in hot, soapy water, and the change wormed its way 
up my arms all the way to my brain, so that I became incredulous 
at the notion of ever having worked through a sinkful of dishes, 
I was also in a strange time zone, and at a high elevation, so that 
in bed, flat on my back, I felt short of breath like an invalid, I was 
like Keats, and cried a little upon waking, as he did, opening 
his eyes once again to unbearable suffering, and people in the town 
treated me with an unaccustomed degree of respect, when they 
shook my hand I could tell they were thinking that it was soft, 
and it was soft, so was my other hand, the softness snaked 
through me into all the corners of my life and my whole interior, 
I had no origin story, no soul, I was, practically speaking, an appliance. 


 

:: Either all of this is an apparition or I am ::

Either all of this is an apparition or I am, and where the apparition 
began I don’t rightly know, maybe I’m still coupled, maybe I have 
a towhead in tow, my singularity in every circumstance a mirage, 
reading The Dubliners at Orlando’s eating a relleno while the whole 
world sips its margaritas in tandem, watching a meteor shower
from a blue picnic table in the dark near a tributary of the Rio 
Grande, wild dogs rambling through the pueblo beneath the Blood 
of Christ mountains where I have never/will never belong nor
should I, and magpies with the indigo feathers down their backs 
who can recognize their own faces in looking glasses, or Intro 
to Buddhism, peyote-tripping through class, the prof spinning 
a prayer wheel like a party favor, maybe all the way back to being 
trapped with my dad in a House of Mirrors, reaching for a father 
and banging into glass, self, self, impairment, hallucination 


:: It is abominable, unquenchable by touch ::

It is abominable, unquenchable by touch, closer 
to the sublime than sentimental, more animal 
than hominid, I’ve seen it in the eyes of birds 
weaving on a stem of ragweed, voracious,
singular, there is no one like me, Dickinson in
her narrow bed, her cold clenched hands, her 
penmanship elegant, unreadable, even following 
a recipe for black cake her black cake came out 
strange, lusher than the template, and every freak 
I ever met had that same look in their eyes, armless, 
rolling a cigarette with their lips and teeth, legless, 
rounding a corner on their handmade cart,
monarchic, imperious, wild, sad, and like every 
queen the need for love revolting and grand


 

:: And then landscape was all there was ::

And then landscape was all there was. Curves of rock blocking 
the sky like drive-in movie screens showing repeatedly films about 
ribbons. Breast-shaped blood-colored towers. Beautiful, my mind 
called it. I languaged it so I wouldn’t have to hear the wind. Two 
weeks in a hotel off the interstate. So lonely I start getting mawkish 
about other people’s fingerprints on the headboard, hawkish about
hawks. Do hawks eat roadkill. What eats hawks. I turn encyclopedia
into a verb. Eat every meal at Dick’s. Who’s Dick, I ask the waitress. 
Nobody remembers the original Dick. They’ve been looking to hire 
a Dick but so far no applicants. I need my loneliness, I was quoted 
as saying. Someone writing the narrative called me a ribbon-snipper.
I don’t have a zip code, a house, a dog, mailman, milkman, president, 
dad. It’s a classic Western tableau: man wearing a hat under a derelict 
sky. Not a cloud in the. In this case, a bitch wearing a fedora.



 

From the writer

:: Account ::

I am working on a book-length sequence of sonnets that, taken together, will constitute a kind of memoir, though not exclusively a memoir of life experiences, but one also of the nature of memory itself—a memoir of the act of remembering. The sonnet is an endlessly fluid, re-imaginable form. It has been hushed, lushed, fragmented, fogged, elated, flipped, and freaked by everyone from Donne to Rossetti to Hopkins to Millay to cummings to Patricia Smith, Gerald Stern, A. Van Jordan, Evie Shockley, and countless others. To participate in it, for me, is to feel held up, though delicately, by the experimentations and solitudes of poets known and unknown.

My sonnets are all fourteen lines—I’m not abandoning that holy integer—but are often unrhymed, or use rhyme only intermittently, and are unmetered, though now and then I drop in a metered line or two to remind me (and the reader) where we come from. Most of my sonnets do contain a turn, however subtle, and a couplet, though not necessarily rhymed. The diction is at times on the edge of formal, at other times, idiomatic. They frame, at times, increments of lived experience. At other times, their focus is an idea, a reading experience, a theory, an absurdity, a dream, or a vision. They teach me, among other things, that, as Oscar Wilde writes, “Your days are your sonnets,” that every moment is potentially divisible by fourteen lines.

I am divorced and now intentionally unpartnered. My son lives several hundred miles north. I am alone much of the time. I am more aware of that aloneness when I travel, when I’m divorced even from my little house and my landscape. At times I feel I’m teetering on the edge of non-existence, of being swallowed by strange altitudes and sublime, overwhelming vistas. The sonnet has become my constant companion, my Camerado and camera, my vessel, Louise to my Thelma as we take flight over the Grand Canyon. When I’m not writing them, I’m talking sonnets in my headspace. Lines surge through me as if I am a sieve. Sometimes they end up in poems; at other times they stream behind me like hair ribbons let loose into the wind.

 

Diane Seuss’s fourth collection, Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl, is forthcoming in May 2018 from Graywolf Press. Four-Legged Girl, which was published in 2015 by Graywolf Press, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Wolf Lake, White Gown Blown Open received the Juniper Prize and was published by the University of Massachusetts Press in 2010. Her first book was It Blows You Hollow from New Issues Poetry and Prose. Poems and brief essays have appeared in a range of literary magazines, including Virginia Quarterly Review, Kenyon Review, The New Yorker, Poetry, and New England Review. Seuss was Writer in Residence at Kalamazoo College for many years and was the MacLean Distinguished Visiting Professor at Colorado College in 2012 and 2017. She lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Two Poems

Poetry / Ciona Rouse

:: The Situation in Our City ::

I could write about rain.
I could write about rain and how it fell
for 24 hours straight in Alvin, Texas, on July 25, 1979.

This is not about rain.
This is not about weather or a storm and
especially not Alvin, Texas, where I’ve never been before.

I’ve been to Atlanta,
Georgia. I was there first. I learned
of light and breath in Atlanta. On July 25, 1979

I was born
while children died. Murdered.
A black child left his house five miles away

as I came to be.
But he never came home.
He never again dragged flakes of caked up mud 

from the sole
of his shoes into his apartment. 
Never again ordered a handful of Big Bols gum

at the mart
on the corner, never again
wore the 9pm scent of 12-year-old boy.

Truth is this
is about a storm. It’s about a thunder
that dropped black mamas to their knees

a lightning
that cracked necks
left bodies floating, dragged from rivers.

How the rain
fell for 24 whole months 
and nobody could see through sheets of sorrow

and fear.
I came here when the situation in the city
meant my daddy looked everyone in the eyes and shot daggers.

My mama
showed me the world 
while squeezing my body too tight. Everywhere we’d go

my body 
close to hers. So close to feel 
my breath wet her skin. So close to keep me breathing.


 

:: Click ::

on a good day
the brown thrasher sings
tee      teeryoo be doo be doo
but on a day when gray catbirds
and red-shouldered hawks hunger
the brown bird stops 
thrashing for food & hides
in the thick deep briar & bristle
pulling don’t	   don’t you dare 
from its chest      a warning which slams
against the air like click clack 
smack click clack 
smack

like the girl who said smile
on a wind-whipped South African day
she said smile real thick and bring
the click from the back of my tongue
out the apex of my lips
she taught me how to click in the Xhosa language
click clack tock click clack tock
all the dipthongs necessary 
for excuse me sir or help
me please ma’am 
but uniting click & vowel
on my tongue did not come
naturally

like the boy, skin as rich
as soil & bark who sprouted 
adrenaline wings
but still could not fly
fast enough      mouthed a scream
but no sound thick enough
the boy who needed
thistle though it pricks & bleeds
to nestle inside & smile real wide & go click 
clack click clack click clack
which is to say
I’m hiding      I’m ok
now turn around boys
don’t fall
prey



 

From the writer

:: Account ::

On July 28, 1979, police discovered two bodies. Young bodies. 13- and 14-year-old bodies. Black boy bodies. One of them, Alfred Evans, was last seen on the day I was born within miles of the hospital where I came to be. His name is one of the two names that started a list of Atlanta’s missing and murdered children—a list of nearly 30 young people who went missing and were found murdered over the span of two years.

My parents spoke of these children for most of my life. They reminded me that I was born into a terrifying time when black children were murdered mysteriously. In early 2017, I finally began learning more about these children, their stories and the fears of black parents and black children in Atlanta during this time. I’m exploring the unsolved theories, unfortunately finding too familiar the neglect of media attention and police action, listening to the music of these young people, watching the films that delighted these young men and women in the making. I’m experiencing the first two years of my life in a way I could never recall from my infant memory.

I’ve thought a lot about how these children were hunted like prey by the murderer (or murderers, as many still suspect), so I’ve written several poems regarding hunters and prey, specifically thinking about animals native to the area. The brown thrasher found in “Click” is the Georgia state bird. There’s something about turning to the natural world to unpack these very unnatural deaths. I’m drawn to animal instincts, to animal hunting and hiding patterns, to human interaction with animals. I’m wishing these children weren’t hunted and tracked and trapped and killed. They are not animals. They are boys and girls with thought and laughter and dreams and family waiting for them to return home. They are humans, slaughtered.

In writing these poems, I say the names of these children over and over and over. Their breaths erased, but their names still on my breath. I hope these poems might place their names on others’ breaths as well.

 

Ciona Rouse is the author of the chapbook Vantablack (Third Man Books, 2017) and poetry editor of WORDPEACE online journal. Her work can be found in Native Magazine, Gabby Journal, Matter: a journal of political poetry and commentary, and Talking River. She lives in Nashville, Tenn., where she co-hosts Re/Verb, a podcast where music, literature, and pop culture collide, with the poet Kendra DeColo, and also curates many local poetry experiences and reading series.

Two Poems

Poetry / Xandria Phillips

:: Sativa Song ::

          for Brannon Rockwell-Charland

                    it’s me, bitch

bud not being
          and loud as hell
                                             when I move 

                    you move

like a whale 
          and the fire 
                                             savaging its belly

                    the spark lifting 

the locust off 
          its haunches 
                                             that’s what I be

                    dark as detritus  

covered in rainbow
          street toxin 
                                             and oil slick 

                    I’m so woke 

I ain’t never sleep 
          and I don’t need
                                             a hook

                    for this shit

I’ve got too many
          thoughts to share
                                             on the continuity

                    of this sitcom 

played in most cases 
          for its high-fructose 
                                             background jeers

                    I’ve got thoughts

on Congress   
          wood grains
                                             and quicksand 

                    that I want to plant

in your kneecaps 
          I’m digging a well
                                             with a shovel made

                    from your hunger

to house the swell 
          where blood inflates 
                                             with pulse 

                    crosses 

in grids of pleasure 
          I snap the reigns 
                                             on your temples 

                    it’s time to go

I have this boat 
          it’s so lovely 
                                             and mystic and 

                    just everything 

you’d want 
          in a vessel

                                             and blessed as

                    the elevated 

the boat always 
          leaks and sinks  
                                             and strands us 

                    somewhere 

too blue to re-access 
          with memory 

                                             once we’ve left


:: Two-Headed Slake ::

You take the tongue I speak      and make me beg it back 
                                                         into my head. Without language, 
          I’m a man stranded and walking 
                                                     barefoot. No nuance. A goat 
bleating its way home 	         in the dark. I labor sound, 
                                                       a braying siren sans time 
          signature. You lather your 
                                                       hands post-theft, and I
translate beasted litany: 	        They’re building a podium 
                                                       to disclose my animalia 
          from. Wooing valleys 
                                                      where my names lived, 
waxed, and fermented 	        their sigil into the sunken 
                                                      earth. In me they built you 
          a home with a porch swing 
                                                      out back. You colonist, 
carry me over my threshold. 	Run up the stairs and run 
                                                      back down. Be thorough.
          Before the windows distill
                                                      to fog-licked pelt, turn on 
every single light in this 	       good damned house. 





From the writer

:: Account ::

These forms speak to the parts of myself that need to nest and arrange in order to make sense of environments. Tedious expeditions, more beleaguered than loved by craft, these poems are small, formerly uncharted artifacts about myself. I am someone who wrote from within academic institutions for many formative years. Living outside academia, I now see the ways I was pressured by internal and external variables to be contrary or at constant odds with subjects in my work. At its marrow my poetry existed to disavow because my relevance was constantly questioned. These poems speak to a recentering of value: the risk that I court every time I open the door. I am curious about my stakes in love and pleasure, and how the outside world can so swiftly intrude upon intimacy. I have much to learn from being perceptive about what thrives uninvited at my interior.

 

Xandria Phillips is a poet based in Chicago. She is the author of Hull (Nightboat Books, 2019) and Reasons For Smoking, which won the 2016 Seattle Review chapbook contest judged by Claudia Rankine. Find her work online at The Offing, The Journal, Nashville Review, Ninth Letter, Scalawag, and The Shallow Ends. For more, visit xandriaphillips.com.

Elegy for the Slain Ship

Poetry / Kyle McCord

:: Elegy for the Slain Ship ::

          after The Sea of Ice, 1823

In a better world things might have been different
          a fairer wind a trimmer sail but no such luck

the wind did its work and the captain too
          you’re cut to the heart and stilted: 

all that’s left of you gored worse still: help is unlikely
          rescue is foreign to this place 

every hour tender Christ who we love is bloodied 
          by stigmata stygian worms inch his wrist 

(what color one mother whispers) 
          deeper into the Kunsthalle before the Moderns

Marc’s elephant begs time’s stubborn arrow to move 
          while one tired child cries into his father’s flannel

not for you he is a clock like thirst or lymphoma 
          the father sings to him in a low voice 

the boy will spend his life trying not to forget 
          but name a thing time defers

one way or another so confined you become
          a figure for the lost but always accessible

like Mao’s body my father would add 
          if he weren’t feathered with tubes to grant him breath 

I am learning to live with the patina of panic 
          that graces you at all hours 

you as hashtag on the tour maps 
          daily a hundred hands and none to mend 



 

From the writer

:: Account ::

I’ve been writing about and through art for over a decade now, so it’s about time I offered some account. I began writing in museums in the brutal winter of 2009. I had lost my job and moved back home to live with my parents. My girlfriend at the time traveled to Italy and fell for an archeologist working with her on a dig site.

What I loved about the museum was its strict form of solitude. The way the aesthetic demanded a kind of obedience to the rules. If anyone violated the quiet of the gallery, a docent would quickly intercede. The only relationship that seemed appropriate was that between viewer and art. I felt a kind of equality here. I spent long hours with Tanner, Hopper, and Bacon.

I met my wife in August of 2014, and we began a long conversation about the objectification of women and the violence done them by the visual world. She is a visual artist and creates feminine landscapes that attempt to reframe the image of the woman in the context of the natural world. Especially in 2018, this conversation seems to carry more Kairos than ever. I wrote these poems through the eyes of a father dying of cancer, but they are very much a part of that conversation that began with a very wise woman and the negative capability she experiences in her own medium.

 

Kyle McCord is the author of five books of poetry, including National Poetry Series finalist Recklessness and Light (Trio House, 2016). He has work featured in AGNI, Boston Review, Crazyhorse, The Gettysburg Review, Harvard Review, Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, TriQuarterly, and elsewhere. His book Sympathy from the Devil was selected as one of the top five books of the year by the Poetry Foundation Blog. He has received grants from the Academy of American Poets, the Vermont Studio Center, and the Baltic Writing Residency. He teaches at Drake University in Des Moines.

Two Poems

Poetry / Matthew Lippman

:: Partway ::

Partway through the airplane I saw Kansas. 
It was cut up into squares and circles of earth 
that made no sense. 
There were a lot of worms down there. 
Partway through the cutting of the worm into two 
I saw Kansas. 
I was between Kansas City and Missouri. 
The vapor trails reminded me of worms 
and my sister was on a red couch in England. 
Partway between the Atlantic Ocean and New York she was a mermaid. 
Then she was the loneliest woman on the planet between planets. 
When my wife said I am not afraid of death anymore 
her mother had died partway between January and June. 
You could see her eyes in the Santa Rosa fires 
that burned half of Marin County partway between home and the parkway. 
Everyone travels to get somewhere soft 
even if there is a missile in the wallet 
or a mallet in the parking lot. 
Partway between destruction and devastation 
there is a marigold or a bowl of lentil soup 
that took five hours to simmer. 
It’s a happiness of 
I need to get to you 
and 
you are already here. 
Every time I walk in the front door 
I am partway a party boy and partway 
a junkyard dog. 
I have my days.
Some days they are other days 
and most days they are not. 


 

:: Some Other Part ::

You can have the other part of the dream. 
The part where the wolves eat the fawn. 
The part where the dead lady in 4c 
gets her eyes eaten by the cat.
She’s been dead for days 
and no one wants to go near that part. 
I’ll take the part
where a warrior-spirit goes to help his brother or his sister 
or the fallen child in the lava pit 
who certainly won’t make it.
You can have the other part, 
the piece where the dream is mangled by the kid on his skateboard 
who has spitballs of acid in his throat. 
That part where he throws them against the wall to get through 
to something worthy pretty 
or to just make trouble for the rest of us. 
You can have the other part of love,
the part that everyone wants to call hate 
but we know goddamn well does not even come close. 
It’s the part of other that has a bird in it or a wombat. 
Some creature that knows how to kill to live 
and couldn’t, in your wildest dreams, play the saxophone. 
That saxophone part. 
Not the keys or the copper 
but the part where it gets shoved up in the air and meets the warrior God—
that membrane of purple and orange 
that sounds vaguely like dying 
but does not even come close. 



 

From the writer

:: Account ::

Thinking about halves these days. How nothing is whole. Or, nothing feels whole. Not the self, or maybe the self, but more, the world. Things feel in parts. Either, broken and splintered into parts, busted in half, cracked and demolished or, out there in pieces, waiting to be put back together. Someone out there—us, you, me, them—waiting to gather the chunks and put them back, hopefully, in some beautiful shape or form. I’m talking about the country, the culture, the neighborhood, the vibe, the groove, the collective state of being, these men who have done horrible things to women, to people. So, these poems started happening with the word “part” in them. Five came in one night, one exhausted hour after midnight, me thinking about all these men rambling on—apologies, non-apologies, fucked up histories that led them to asshole-ness, to crimes, to injustices, indecencies against women and other living things. I wanted to scream at the TV and radio, “You have fucking daughters.” I just wanted to stop listening and then I realized—kinda, sorta, all the way—that I am a man, part of that tribe but not all the way, just part of the way, but a man, still. So, I asked myself, “What can you do, buckaroo?” and it just seemed to me that I could listen better. Especially to my daughters. Just listen better and shut the fuck up, which the poems are, a shutting up, a silencing of self, a self-reflective turning inward to investigate. A listening with wordfulness. A prayer. A part of the puzzle, of putting things back together if, in fact, they have that kind of power or resonance, poems. I am interested in this—in parts, parts coming together to make other parts, not necessarily to make things whole, come to think of it, but just to make them better. And I do mean, better, because there is a better out there and it comes from being together, working together, communing—youmeweus—and it is a little naïve and perhaps there is a boatload of wishful thinking in the thinking that poems can help to facilitate that process. But I believe it, partly, part way, in part because there is hope in my heart and I have daughters.

 

Matthew Lippman is the author of four poetry collections—The New Year of Yellow, winner of the Kathryn A. Morton Prize (Sarabande Books, 2007), Monkey Bars (Typecast Publishing, 2010), Salami Jew (Racing Form Press, 2014), and American Chew, winner of the Burnside Review of Books Poetry Prize (Burnside Review Press, 2013). He is the editor and founder of the web-based project Love’s Executive Order (www.lovesexecutiveorder.com).

Two Poems

Poetry / Keunhae Lee

:: Fire and Silence ::

In Gyeongju, father tucked his feet beneath
him, kneeling low, his bombast stilled for once.
His cousins crouched around a silver spray
from a metal spigot thrust from a concrete pad
behind the house to wash a bloodied skull.

In the main room, low-slung trays bulged
burdened dishes laden with spiced pickles.
My sister, curled on mother’s lap, wept 
in ugly waves. A cousin grinned and warned 
us not to eat the meat and jerked his head
towards a partly empty pen. The dogs
there in watchful repose, ready sprung. 
An aunt shushed him before he spoke, but still
I grasped already what my sister witnessed.

Steaming pans of stew, garlicky and hot, 
thick with strands of brown meat which hung 
tangled like slender noodle clumps,
roused dinner and the soft click 
of metal chopsticks against steel bowls 
and breath blowing across hot food.

Walking alone through the woods 
the next day, my fingers 
brushed against a poison 
caterpillar hidden 
on the underside of a leaf. 
The pain was immediate, 
intense fire arcing
its way up my hand.

What blaze was stayed as I braced my wrist amid the forest calm?


 

:: How Debt Travels ::

I punched my fist through ice formed
owing to the prolonged decline in mercury 
over a five-gallon bucket.

The ice dipped and bobbed as if it, 
the bucket, wanted to be the ocean
deep in the arctic, 

owing to the sustained upsurge of water
owing to my hand and arm’s descent
that barely scraped the bottom
of the white bucket 

owing to my short stature
owing to my brief life of five years 
owing to time’s sustained progression.

I washed my tongue with water
owing to injury caused by grownups
in the way that children often are.
I spit and did not swallow

owing to what I knew about poison
and kept my mouth shut
owing to the fragility of grownups

owing to their fear of death
who yawns wide like a lion 
who pinned the tail of a mouse
with its knife point claw

owing to death’s inevitable arrival
owing to real mortality
owing to a failing body
that really is only made of mud

or God’s spit and ash
owing to uncertainty of biblical accounts
owing to unreliability of the human tongue

owing to the porousness of memory
owing to fantastical feats of mind
owing to fallibility of electric pulse
of synaptic leaps from terminal to terminal.

I kept my mouth shut
owing to self-preservation or moxie
and now those grownups are gone or faraway
and now I am taller owing to time’s persistent crawl
and now I am fragile and their debt is mine.

I have carried it with me and towed it forward,
cradled it until the still hours of dawn, 
and now I wonder who could come collect
if I should leave this debt behind.



 

From the writer

:: Account ::

Generally, I have noticed that the past asks to be revisited and made relevant, if not entirely understood. In these poems, I write about moments in my life that will not be quiet. It has been a challenge to pare these moments down to what I think are essential to the integrity of each poem.

For example, “Fire and Silence” began as a long narrative poem about the events of two days in Geyongju, South Korea. As I began the process of editing, I noticed a sense of things being constrained and released, like a closed fist opening to outspread fingers. I chose to keep images that I hope convey that sense. The people in this poem are constrained in some way, described as being “crouched” or “curled up.” Even the dogs hold back “in watchful repose,” whereas descriptions of food tend to meander a little more, open up and spread out. I hoped to mimic that sense of a closed fist opening in the form as well, using lines with 5 stresses, to 4, to 3, and then relaxing that constraint in the last line, where I used 7 stresses.

For “How Debt Travels,” I really wanted to use a chant of some kind and looked all over the place for an established closed form. There is most likely something out there that would have worked, but I wasn’t able to find one I felt would fit. In the end, I decided there was nothing wrong with just straight repetition inspired by religious chants since the poem deals with religious themes of sin, legacy and death. I really wanted to emphasize the interdependence of things and actions by suggesting a causal relationship between each set of lines. In this poem, I focused not on the number of stresses to determine line breaks, but discrete images or ideas instead. I used my own breath as a significant factor for determining stanza breaks. It was really fun to write and to read aloud!

 

Keunhae Lee received her MFA from NC State University and currently lives in Bonney Lake, WA.

Two Poems

Poetry / Virginia Konchan

:: Cinéma Vérité ::

Should nature be my profile photo
or my cover photo? Should I adopt
a mantra or tantra? Must I again face 

a heckling crowd or bad steward
of the earth whipping the one animal
entrusted to him? If so, kill me now.

Actually, I think I am already dead.
My brain is floating in formaldehyde;
my preferred pastime is staring at the wall.

But I am godlike at the typewriter, and I am
also a skilled movie critic; when the subtitles
or voice-overs are off, I know instantly.  

If brevity is the soul of wit, I am clearly soulless,
as I take forever to say anything, or get anywhere,
despite the ministrations of multiple seraphim:

it takes an army to keep me alive. I no longer fear 
mirrors, because I know who I am looking at; I am, 
surprise surprise, looking at me. Jesus Christ,

Superstar, are you just going to stand there and
watch me burn? I pegged you as one who preferred
a story to an anecdote, but clearly I was mistaken.

My sails are set for Death Valley, despite the flat
foreground and financial exigencies of today.
See above. See below. Move the decimal,

I mean decibel, two places to the left: then
you’ll know my worth, my value, my market share.
Love is a pocket full of kryptonite, extemporaneous

words spoken in the heat of passion, off the cuff. 
You knew me; I knew you. Let that be enough.   


 

:: Rapture ::

Lordy Lordy, check out this amphitheater:
there’s so much oxygen, I can’t even breathe.
And yet I noticed the performance has been 
divvied up into ever-shorter time intervals.
What’s with that? Do you not trust the span
of our attention, or is this a question of form?
Let’s get rid of the mannequins in the mall,
with their cold plastic nudity, and immobile, 
neutered sex. Better to be an other-directed 
idiot, like the misshapen moon, or a brutish
prick, mirror reflecting you back to me at 
twice your natural size. I used to be ardent,
used to break any window in sight if what
I desired was visible from the other side.
Now, I take melatonin to treat malnutrition,
but there is no pill for this sinking sensation.
Embalmed by the memory of your touch,
I wreak havoc with the trajectory of stars.
My modus operandi is auto-renewing,
yet I’ve grown rusty without god, child 
prodigy at the art of wasting, killing time.
Can’t you recognize an appreciating stock?
I put a spell on you, because you’re mine.



 

From the writer

:: Account ::

This poem series is from a manuscript-in-progress entitled Any God Will Do, begun last year in response to a sense of political exigency and a desire to write both into and against that. In it, I explore a revival of the contemporary love poem, in the legacy of such poets as Richard Siken, Thom Gunn, Marilyn Hacker, Jack Gilbert, Adrienne Rich, Sappho, and others. I invoke extreme states, such as rapture and passion, in the context of time, interested in the continuity between intense psychological states and lyric temporality, and also in questioning the historical association of the lyric moment with heightened emotion and a kind of temps suspendu. Fascinated by the traditions of different kinds of love poems, from courtly to erotic, I am most curious in exploring where the volta happens in a love poem, so-called love poems that turn on or contradict themselves (e.g., Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130), the impossibility of fusion with the beloved, and the figure of the beloved across time.

 

Author of a poetry collection, The End of Spectacle (Carnegie Mellon, 2018), a collection of short stories, Anatomical Gift (Noctuary Press, 2017), and two chapbooks, including That Tree is Mine (dancing girl press, 2018), Virginia Konchan’s poetry has appeared in The New Yorker, The New Republic, Boston Review, and elsewhere.

Reconciliation

Poetry / Vandana Khanna

:: Reconciliation ::

I.

He doesn’t want her when 
she’s just a goddess practicing—
all fake and pious and pink. 

Likes her better as a single girl 
swearing in the old language of 
dust and mud and stars. 

He wants to feel like a god 	
again utter prayers that make	
his skin glow the cool blue 		
of neon like the sagging sign 
proclaiming Karma above the sad-sap 
door of the bar—like all the doors 		
slammed shut at the end of the world.		 

He can feel the glare 		
of the evil eye black on 
the back of his neck every time 
she speaks, forgets how to protect 
against it: was it salt or chilies 
or mustard seeds? 

But really, how to prevent
that bitter bud of guilt 		
from blooming? 

Another thing he lost in this incarnation. 

II.

He didn’t believe her 
that nothing happened 
with that other guy, the one 
whose name means crying, 
the one with the ten heads 

and not a pretty one in 
the bunch. That monster 
who tried to touch the black 

gasp of her hair, sniffing 
the air behind her ear looking 
for that bit of her caught on 
the wind: saffron and cinnamon—
her smell its own particular sin. 

III.

He knows his doubt covers 
them like unforgiving ash,
how awful the dirty itch 
of it between their fingers. 

Nothing sacred about a fire 
catching quick and ugly.

All this because she thought him 
essential. Because she followed 
him into that jungle. Fourteen years: 

bored and bruised, how the animals
loved her less and less. She’d tried—

left clean sheets for him, 
someone who rubbed coconut 
oil into her scalp every morning.

Did he love her then? He can’t
recall. Only, when he pulled at 
the tight knots of her wrists, led
them into an ancient meadow 
made wild with onion, all their
sour history dulled. 

Their hands, plucked blooms, arms 
pricked by thorns. He felt the sharp ache
of the cosmos expanding with its chant 
and pulse, its stagger and stagger.



 

From the writer

:: Account ::

This poem is part of a manuscript I’ve been working on in the voices of Hindu goddesses where they re-imagine the iconic myths in which they appear and revise the ways in which we view them as wives, mothers, and women. This particular poem is a departure, of sorts, as it’s in the voice of the god Ram. He reveals his motivations and thought processes (perhaps) for acting deplorably towards his wife, Sita, who has returned to him after being kidnapped. Ram has a hard time believing in Sita’s purity and thus makes her pass a “test” of walking through fire. Here, he reflects upon what brought them together and what, ultimately, pulls them apart.

 

Vandana Khanna was born in New Delhi, India, and is the author of two full-length collections: Train to Agra (Crab Orchard Series in Poetry, 2001) and Afternoon Masala (University of Arkansas Press, 2014), as well as the chapbook, The Goddess Monologues (Diode Editions, 2016). Her poems have won the Crab Orchard Review First Book Prize, The Miller Williams Arkansas Poetry Prize, the Diode Editions Chapbook Competition, and the Elinor Benedict Poetry Prize. Her work has been published widely in journals and anthologies such as the New England Review, The Missouri Review, Raising Lilly Ledbetter: Women Poets Occupy the Workspace, Asian American Poetry: The Next Generation, and Indivisible: An Anthology of Contemporary South Asian American Poetry. She serves as the co-poetry editor of the Los Angeles Review.

Boom Boom

Poetry / Michael Collier

:: Boom Boom ::

I leave my back yard and enter the alley in search of my poetry. I get lost a few houses down near the Eldridge’s because all the fences and trashcans are identical. I am alone, filling a shirt pocket with the bees David Hills eviscerates by pulling out their stingers and which he has lined up on a flap torn from a cardboard box that’s pinned to the ground with four small stones. In a tool box, I have a small hammer and screw drivers for taking things apart. Above me is the sky that is always blue. (This means at night the stars are what I see but can’t count.) The alley is dirt. My shoes scuff its uneven surface. Suddenly a door opens, a dog barks, it’s Boom Boom, a Chihuahua, not even a dog in my mind. It rushes its side of the fence, so much louder and fiercer than it needs to be. After a while it stops. Now it sounds like a tambourine because of its collar with tiny bells. Passion flowers grow in a thick vine over Boom Boom’s fence. I have been told the leaves of these flowers are the lances that pierced Jesus’s chest and broke his legs. Boom Boom is whimpering, lying down near a place in the fence through which I squeeze my hand to touch his nose. “Boom Boom,” I say, very quietly, “I love you. You are the only one who understands me.” Afterwards, I feel very small and very large, restrained and freed, and certain there is a purpose to life beyond the one I’ve been given.

 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

“Boom Boom,” which was originally titled “After Neruda,” began in response to a passage, translated by John Felstiner from Pablo Neruda’s essay, “Childhood and Poetry” (Infancia y Poesía). Felstiner writes, “I go out in the country in search of my poetry.” (Yo me voy por el campo en busca de mi poesía.) “I get lost around Ñielol hill.” (Me pierdo en el cerro Ñielol.) Reading these lines, I was transported back to the scruffy alley in Phoenix, Arizona, behind the house I grew up in, which was my country of discovery, a kind of wilderness in contrast to the postage stamp front yards—two mulberry trees apiece—that faced the street. The street welcomed, and even demanded, a social and external version of the self, while the alley invited and cultivated an interior and private version. But this explanation or schema of experience is less important to me than the door or window that opened when I read Felstiner’s translation and through which I returned to the earliest country of my poetry. It also reminded me that while we might be called to poetry as a vocation, we must keep looking for it. Poetry begins and continues in acts of discovery. (The fact that my own acts of discovery in my seventh decade are now often through poets I have been reading for many years is another topic. Those poets and poems comprise alleys of memory that are rich and complex.) As for “Boom Boom’s” form, I took my cue from Neruda’s prose, which even in translation is rich with imagery and music.

 

Michael Collier is the author of seven collections of poetry including An Individual History (W. W. Norton & Co., 2012), a finalist for the Poet’s Prize, and The Ledge (Houghton Mifflin, 2000), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. His most recent collection, My Bishop and Other Poems (University of Chicago Press), is forthcoming, fall 2018. He has published a translation of Euripides’s Medea, a collection of essays, Make Us Wave Back, and with Charles Baxter and Edward Hirsch, co-edited A William Maxwell Portrait. He is the director of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Maryland and is a former director of the Middlebury College Bread Loaf Writers’ Conferences.