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.

 

Works Cit­ed

Ahmed, Sara. The Promise of Hap­pi­ness. Duke Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2010.

Berlant, Lau­ren. The Female Com­plaint: The Unfin­ished Busi­ness of Sen­ti­men­tal­i­ty in Amer­i­can Cul­ture. Duke Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2008.

Chow, Rey. The Protes­tant Eth­nic and the Spir­it of Cap­i­tal­ism. Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2002.

Davé, Shilpa, LeiLani Nishime, and Tasha Oren, eds. Glob­al Asian Amer­i­can Pop­u­lar Cul­tures. New York Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2016.

Doty, Alexan­der. “Mod­ern Fam­i­ly, Glee, and the Lim­its of Tele­vi­sion Lib­er­al­ism.” Flow, 24 Sep­tem­ber 2010, www.flowjournal.org/2010/09/modern-family-glee-and-limits-of-tv-liberalism/.

Fer­nan­dez, Maria Ele­na. “The Mindy Project Cast on the Series Finale: ‘Mindy Gets What She Needs, But Not What She Wants.” Vul­ture: Devour­ing Cul­ture, 13 Novem­ber 2017, http://www.vulture.com/2017/11/mindy-project-cast-on-saying-goodbye-to-the-show.html.

Jun, Helen Her­an. Race for Cit­i­zen­ship: Black Ori­en­tal­ism and Asian Uplift from Pre-Eman­ci­pa­tion to Neolib­er­al Amer­i­ca. New York Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2011.

Jung, E. Alex. “Mindy Kaling Is Not Your Pio­neer.” Al Jazeera Amer­i­ca, 11 Jan­u­ary 2015, http://america.aljazeera.com/opinions/2015/1/mindy-project-racetv.html.

Kim, L. S. “Asian Amer­i­ca on Demand: Asian Amer­i­cans, Media Net­works, and a Matrix Stage.” The Rout­ledge Com­pan­ion to Asian Amer­i­can Media, edit­ed by Lori Kido Lopez and Vin­cent Pham. Rout­ledge, 2017, pp. 170–180.

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.