Ten Scenes of Not Being in Love

Nonfiction / Amie Whittemore 

:: Ten Scenes of Not Being in Love ::

1. Sit­ting on the front porch of a dive bar in Nashville with a man on our first Tin­der date (he drank rail whisky on the rocks; I nursed a local IPA), two very drunk women approached us. Hav­ing heard our dis­cus­sion about poet­ry, they asked to buy copies of my book, they asked to bum cig­a­rettes from the man. I walked back to the grav­el park­ing lot and pulled two copies from my trunk, sign­ing them in the dark, amid the cig­a­rette smoke, on the sour-smelling porch. 

Two years lat­er, one of those women found me on Insta­gram and, since it’s a pan­dem­ic, told me she paint­ed lines from one of my poems on her win­dow. That man? We went out twice more. He kissed like salt­wa­ter, pale and thirsty. Not my thirst. Some­times we wish each oth­er hap­py birthday. 

2. In col­lege my friends and I were very into Björk, so we went to the art the­ater twen­ty miles away to watch Dancer in the Dark. The haunt­ing, trag­ic film filled me with rest­less ener­gy, as if the spring air had stuffed me with lilac buds, as if the night had thread­ed its wings through my ribs. I walked past my favorite cof­fee shop and a man I bare­ly knew called out to me to join him and his friends. It was the kind of night where you say yes to strange things, so I said yes. 

He and I took a long walk around cam­pus, end­ing at his effi­cien­cy on the oth­er side of town. We drank cheap red wine, lis­ten­ing to Mazzy Star, and he asked if he could kiss me. I said yes. 

In those days, I wore my hair in twisty buns, like Björk, like hum­ming­bird nests, held togeth­er by bob­by pins. They fell around us on the bed like met­al rain. After a while, his toothy kiss­es tired me out. It’s late, I whis­pered, his head pil­lowed on my chest, and he offered to dri­ve me home. 

Home, in the bath­room mir­ror, I saw he’d left bruis­es on my neck, my breasts: lilacs unclench­ing their watery vio­lets. I ran into him once more, weeks lat­er, between class­es. He said he still found bob­by pins in his bed. 

3. The night after yet anoth­er Tin­der date, I dreamt my date and I were rid­ing in a self-dri­ving car; the dream turned lucid and I made the car fly, told him we could do any­thing. I woke ecsta­t­ic and texted him in the morn­ing. I was in bed with the Sun­day Times, my cats. It was June, the air balmy with promis­es. Some­times that sum­mer, he’d bite my thigh and leave such bril­liant flow­ers there, blue and crum­pled. Some­times his kiss­es were black holes I didn’t want to leave. He talked and talked and nev­er asked me any­thing. The last time I saw him I left a peri­od stain on his sheets and felt embar­rassed though I had warned him I had a body. I had a body I could bare­ly control. 

4. My first girl­friend asked me if it was impor­tant for both part­ners to orgasm and that’s how I learned I wasn’t giv­ing her orgasms. This made me try hard­er, though it also made me wilt and turn toward the blue light that streams from TVs left on in emp­ty liv­ing rooms overnight. 

My sec­ond girl­friend called our sex-life “cli­torif­ic” at a sex toy par­ty. I blushed. I still feel like some­one who doesn’t know how to give any­one orgasms. 

5. At his cousin’s wed­ding, my hus­band and I were recov­er­ing from one of our—I wouldn’t call them fights. It was less that we fought and more that we retreat­ed, like waves at low tide. Still, the moon swung us back again and again; we too often found our­selves on famil­iar beach­es, exhaust­ed and hurt. We kept touch­ing the parts of the oth­er person’s body where the bruis­es bloomed, crum­pled blue flowers. 

The priest didn’t men­tion the rip­tide of mar­riage. Only that the bride and groom had found “not the per­son they could live with, but the per­son they couldn’t live without.” 

For weeks, my hus­band and I chewed on that phrase, spat it out like gris­tle. The tide turned again. I have lived with­out him for as long as I lived with him: six years. 

6. The woman I was dat­ing invit­ed me to join her and two vis­it­ing friends for a Nashville bar crawl. Their names, occu­pa­tions, the way they wore their hair: unim­por­tant. They were a straight cou­ple and the woman loved Anne of Green Gables as much as I did. We talked about Anne on the roof, Anne in the woods, Ril­la by the light­house in her green dress, poor, doomed Wal­ter. The woman I was dat­ing and the vis­it­ing man looked at each oth­er, bemused out­siders to an unfath­omable intimacy. 

Lat­er, at the woman’s home, we kissed on her bed as she tried to talk me into spend­ing the night for the first time. Her friends in the next room, play­ing with her dog. Some­thing blue haunt­ed her—I imag­ined a bro­ken kite caught in her ribs. I want­ed to go home, to my cats, to my bed. What she didn’t know then is I had learned how not to feel respon­si­ble for the sad things I found in people’s chests—torn kites, wilt­ed bou­quets. Keys to nowhere. 

7. Tak­ing free yoga class­es in a ware­house in Port­land before Port­land was Port­land, I met a white woman named Saige. She had short black hair and two per­fect cir­cle tat­toos on her inner wrists. One cir­cle had a frog inside it, the oth­er some­thing else (a moth?). I was not good at talk­ing to peo­ple I desired then, nor am I now, but some­how I invit­ed her over so I could teach her to knit. And some­how I end­ed up at her house one evening, for sup­per, where I learned she and her room­mates were elim­i­nat­ing processed sug­ar from their diets. I thought this was stu­pid (this was before sug­ar-free diets were trendy) and I led them through a med­i­ta­tion my first yoga teacher taught me. It involves a for­est, a lake, a bear. A key, a throat with a stone lodged in it, if you’re me. 

We lost track of each oth­er; I moved away. Return­ing for a vis­it two years lat­er, a friend and I saw her at the food co-op. I had to look at her wrists to rec­og­nize her. 

In the park­ing lot after­wards, my friend said, damn that girl likes you, and it felt like a drought-thick after­noon, where it feels like it’ll rain but it doesn’t.  

8.  My first boyfriend was 19; I was 14. Some­times we sat on the couch in his par­ents’ base­ment and took turns run­ning our fin­gers through the other’s hair. Some­times he drew sketch­es of my hands or turned us into car­toons. After he kissed me for the first time, my first kiss, which was wet­ter and fuller than I expect­ed, he told me he loved me and I said it back not know­ing if I meant it, which is the same as know­ing I didn’t. But I did feel pow­er­ful and wor­thy when he showed me the blue and bro­ken toys he kept in his chest, and I held them care­ful­ly as if doing so could mend them. I thrilled know­ing no mat­ter how he touched me he could nev­er touch the stone in my throat, the one that hadn’t learned how to sing yet. 

9. Some peo­ple want your whole hand inside them. Your whole hand. As if you could cup their swal­low-nest heart, the mud and weeds of it. As if then noth­ing would be empty. 

I don’t want anyone’s whole hand inside me. I don’t want to put my whole hand inside any­one else. 

10. Two days before the pan­dem­ic shut every­thing down, I went on a first date with a woman. We vis­it­ed the Frist Art Muse­um, where an exhib­it inspired by the Voy­ager Gold­en Record was on dis­play. Images and sounds were pressed onto the record for the aliens so they could under­stand what it is to be a human on earth, the blue and salt of it. The music qui­et­ly played, the images flick­ered in a dark room. I love the gold­en record and the woman let me go on and on about it. 

Over din­ner, she asked ques­tions. Over din­ner, I hand­ed her a piece of the gray stone I car­ry inside, and she hand­ed me a cloth fox in need of mending. 

After din­ner, we walked in ner­vous time-stretch­ing cir­cles until we passed our cars twice and had to admit the date had end­ed. She gave me a suc­cu­lent. We hugged. We pulled away from each oth­er, the desire to kiss lin­ger­ing in the air like the promise of rain. I thought about pulling her toward me, mak­ing it rain. I thought there would be more time. 

She ghost­ed, or per­haps more apt­ly, the pandemic’s thick grav­i­ty kept her far from my shores. I lis­tened to the songs the aliens might be lis­ten­ing to for days. Some­times I look at her paint­ings on Insta­gram and her palette echoes some­thing inside me—the lilac and blue of them, the green spring of them. The row­dy, man­ic pink. Some­thing bright inside of me call­ing out, remind­ing me of what I want.

From the writer

:: Account ::

At the start of quar­an­tine, I found myself feel­ing both lone­ly and with more time than I usu­al­ly have. I often think about writ­ing cre­ative non­fic­tion but get intim­i­dat­ed by the scope of it; as a poet, I feel much more com­fort­able work­ing with a few hun­dred words rather than over a thou­sand. This means I often have to trick myself into writ­ing a per­son­al essay, usu­al­ly by mak­ing it as much like a poem as possible. 

I have read many love­ly vignette-dri­ven essays by writ­ers (who are also often poets) and have long felt the form might get me over my fear of cre­ative non­fic­tion. Works like The Cry­ing Book by Heather Chris­tle and Julia Cohen’s beau­ti­ful lyric essay “Genius­es of Love: To be held at arm’s length is not to be held at all” served both as maps and light­hous­es for me—offering both direc­tion and assurance. 

I also, in my quar­an­tine lone­li­ness, found myself think­ing about past roman­tic encoun­ters, how some of them held a lot of emo­tion­al heat but were not actu­al­ly moments of love. The moments cat­a­logued here all occur on love’s peripheries—outside it, after it, before it, along­side it. Through writ­ing this essay I have found that these bound­ary waters have taught me some­thing about how and why I love, what fac­tors can lead me into love’s strong cur­rents or nudge me back to shore. 


Amie Whit­te­more is the author of the poet­ry col­lec­tion Glass Har­vest (Autumn House Press, 2016). She is the 2020 Poet Lau­re­ate of Murfrees­boro, Ten­nessee, and an Acad­e­my of Amer­i­can Poets Lau­re­ate Fel­low. Her poems have won mul­ti­ple awards, includ­ing a Dorothy Sar­gent Rosen­berg Prize, and her poems and prose have appeared in The Get­tys­burg Review, Nashville Review, Smar­tish Pace, Pleiades, and else­where. She is the reviews edi­tor for South­ern Indi­ana Review and teach­es Eng­lish at Mid­dle Ten­nessee State University. 

my powerlifted Body

Nonfiction / Vanessa Couto Johnson


:: my powerlifted Body ::

In youth, there were times when I want­ed to occu­py no space whatsoever. 

When I want­ed to just be a mind. 


There are var­i­ous rea­sons to not want to be vis­i­ble to the world / there are var­i­ous ways the world tells us not to be vis­i­ble or fear being vis­i­ble, espe­cial­ly as a woman. 

[If I am vis­i­ble, what am I vul­ner­a­ble to, what am I val­ued by, how do I con­trol my cur­ren­cy and presence.] 


Lift­ing has helped me accept that I am a phys­i­cal being. Not only accept but also celebrate. 

When I hear oth­er women’s pow­er­lift­ing ori­gin sto­ries, so often they are tales of recla­ma­tion of the body. The lift­ing help­ing them find and val­ue themselves. 

I am not plan­ning on build­ing a body inside of mine. [Thrust of existence.] 

So, I build the one I have. 

I want this body to be able to do for me in old age: that is the longest-term goal. That the bones be strong and that I can still brute about. If some­thing doesn’t get me (acci­dent, pow­er­ful ill­ness), my genet­ic test­ing has sug­gest­ed a like­li­hood of reach­ing cen­te­nar­i­an state (longevi­ty being some­thing observed among my ances­tors as well). Not that I’m expect­ing to be dead­lift­ing 500 lb. at 80 years old and beyond, but I’d hope to still be able to do 250 lb. at least. That is pos­si­ble. Hel­lo to my 80-year-old self, if she reads this. 

When I see a body low on mus­cle, I won­der-wor­ry for the future of that per­son. It’s not my busi­ness. It’s some­thing I try not to think about. 

But I do look at bod­ies and think: those fin­gers almost at knees—would be a good dead­lifter. And so on. 

Par­don this all—I do believe peo­ple should do what­ev­er they want with their bodies. 

But yes. It’s the heart that dri­ves the ath­lete. The want. 

In terms of lift­ing in a men­stru­at­ing body, I’m weak­est in the week before men­stru­a­tion (sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly researched stuff, this is, and I’m say­ing it’s indeed my expe­ri­ence). I’m then strongest dur­ing menstruation. 

That said, I wouldn’t want to com­pete dur­ing men­stru­a­tion (an addi­tion­al chore to deal with), and that hasn’t coin­cid­ed for me at the time of writ­ing this. 

I’ve won­dered at times what sort of pow­er­lift­ing num­bers I’d be putting up if I start­ed younger (teens or ear­ly 20s rather than mid/late 20s). 

Or if I were a man. But I don’t think of that one much, because that wouldn’t be the body for me, even if it is an (per­haps) eas­i­er one to get stronger. 

I have thought of how, as a trained woman, I should prob­a­bly have as much (if not a bit more) mus­cu­lar­i­ty as an untrained man has, and then on top of that the body fat lev­el I need as a healthy woman, there­fore that I should weigh more than the aver­age untrained man at around my height. That’s def­i­nite­ly not total­ly sci­en­tif­ic though. But it is a part of the think­ing that made me not fuss about the num­ber on the scale to be low. 

The truth is that every body is a unique body. Even ones with sur­face lev­el sim­i­lar­i­ties will have dif­fer­ent attach­ments onto the bone, dif­fer­ent joint thick­ness, seg­ment lengths, etc. that can give advan­tage or dis­ad­van­tage in lifts. 

A day after my third com­pe­ti­tion, a friend who spec­tat­ed spoke on the spot­ters, some strong men: a “how uncom­fort­able could it be to ‘be with’ a hard mus­cled body.” I think I main­ly chuckled. 

I could have said: I think I’m com­fort­able to “be with.” (I real­ize my body is over­all soft­er as being a woman, but I am firm.) 

I could have said: mus­cle is gen­tler than you may realize. 

A friend watched some show, I think it was Say Yes to the Dress, an episode fea­tur­ing a body­builder look­ing for her wed­ding dress. My friend didn’t under­stand why she’d want the dress cut to show so much skin. 

I’m not a bodybuilder—and cer­tain­ly not at the low body fat lev­els body­builders will gen­er­al­ly be in (even when not prep­ping for com­pe­ti­tion, they tend to be lean)—but I under­stand. I pre­fer to wear open backs and sleeve­less (or short—hardly a sleeve) looks. I like look­ing mus­cu­lar in cloth­ing choices. 

And find­ing prop­er fit­ting clothes can be hard: most women’s shirts are designed with the assump­tion that if your chest + back is 42 inch­es, then the rest of the shirt will be boxy. Or it fits okay in the mid­dle, but oh my, if I move my arms I might hulk out of this thing. There­fore, the pref­er­ence becomes for cer­tain stretchy materials. 

I have worn a flo­ral, fem­i­nine, open-backed sun­dress, feel­ing cute but also as if I was cross-dress­ing. The frills on the straps over my shoul­ders par­tic­u­lar­ly more femme than my usu­al. My traps feel­ing mountainous. 

My body is more than its cloth­ing size. 

I loathe the con­cept of mak­ing one’s body fit cer­tain clothes: as if the pur­pose of my body is to suc­cumb to a piece of fabric. 

I loathe the nor­mal­iza­tion of such atti­tudes, which seem par­tic­u­lar­ly imposed on women as if some form of iden­ti­fi­ca­tion: being a size 6, a size 12, etc. 

Eh. The clothes should be hon­ored if they fit me. 

When I start­ed want­i­ng to buy clothes that would announce my pow­er­lifter sta­tus [“Pow­er­lift­ing Made This Body” tank top, “Just Strong” t‑shirt, a heart-shaped weight plate on a shirt], my chest + back were already above what the sell­er had down as typ­i­cal women’s siz­ing, and I’d have to buy the uni­sex to not have a too-tight fit. 

A com­pa­ny that makes bar grip shirts for pow­er­lifters to wear dur­ing bench press­ing (to pre­vent the back slid­ing on the bench) and squat­ting (to help the bar­bell stay gripped to the back) has men’s and women’s sizing. 

Guess which “gen­der size” I have to wear? 

Seri­ous­ly, the women’s largest size is for a 37-inch chest/back. That’s quite small—definitely in favor of women in low­er weight classes.

So I have to order the men’s medi­um. It arrives announc­ing its gen­der expec­ta­tion on a remov­able tag. The inside tag (print­ed direct­ly on the fab­ric) with the sym­bol­ic cir­cle and arrow against my upper back. 

I’m thank­ful for this com­pa­ny and its prod­ucts, but. 

It’s weird to feel like, from this pow­er­lift­ing-focused company’s per­spec­tive, I don’t exist. 

There are cloth­ing com­pa­nies that cater to the low­er half: jeans and pants that fit devel­oped quadriceps. 

That’s nice. Been suc­cess­ful for me over­all. Liv­ing in Texas, though, I find jeans too hot most of the year. 

Back in 2012 when I first learned that dead­lift­ing 300 lb. (and much more) is achiev­able for women—if you told me then I’d weigh 185 lb. when I’d final­ly do it—I’d be a bit bummed, maybe, as I was expect­ing that pull to be dou­ble body­weight. It wouldn’t be until March 2019 at my third pow­er­lift­ing com­pe­ti­tion and weigh­ing around 164 lb. that I’d dead­lift 335 lb., above dou­ble body­weight for the first time. 

So you could say I bulked from sum­mer 2012 to sum­mer 2018, about 5 to 10 lb. a year, and plen­ty of it was suc­cess­ful­ly mus­cle: in my sec­ond com­pe­ti­tion at 184 lb., I squat­ted 281 lb., bench pressed 160 lb., and dead­lift­ed 331 lb. with more to spare. 

When I cau­tious­ly lost body fat from August [185 lb.] to Novem­ber [170 lb.] 2018 with strict nutri­tion and hyper­tro­phy train­ing (4–6 sets of 6–12 reps) four or five times a week for var­i­ous lifts, I real­ized going up flights of stairs was eas­i­er. Pants and skirts that fit me before were now on the verge of falling. 

But it was still a mind­fuck to be get­ting small­er yet putting this weight on my back to squat, as telling myself 200 lb. wasn’t much more than my own body­weight helped with con­fi­dence previously. 

I had to just learn to tell myself: you’ve done this before. Or not even think about it. 

I kept my strength, and that’s what my third com­pe­ti­tion was about: show­ing myself that even though I weighed around 22 lb. less than I did at my pre­vi­ous com­pe­ti­tion, I could lift the same or more. 

And I did. I squat­ted the same, bench pressed just over my body­weight, and dead­lift­ed well over dou­ble bodyweight. 

It’s a phys­i­cal­ly small­er me I see in the mir­ror now at 160 lb., but I know that she has just as much pow­er. I have more to grow from. 

I can love myself at 185 lb. and love myself at 155 lb. Both those women, being me, have val­ue and strength. 

I know what Day 1 feels like of start­ing to train for strength. How the body is a stranger. 

You’ll not be strangers for long if you keep going. The body is a con­stant com­pan­ion that will get more com­fort­able with doing your bidding. 

I’m not sure if my body is one that peo­ple look at and can tell I lift. 

I don’t know. I imag­ine it depends on the clothes and if the view­er knows what such bod­ies look like (I mean, as opposed to a com­pe­ti­tion-ready body­builder body that has stri­a­tions noticeable—the kind of body the gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion will imag­ine, prob­a­bly, when asked to imag­ine some­one muscular). 

I want to look like I lift. 

I do calm myself in terms of that by the fact, of course, that I do lift. Have com­pet­ed and placed. A recent medal in my purse. 

Lifters look all sorts of ways. 

I love the vari­ety of women who come forth to the plat­form to squat, bench press, and dead­lift in competition. 

At a pow­er­lift­ing meet, you’ll see lifters of all ages. I’ve shared the plat­form with sev­en­ty-year-olds and sev­en­teen-year olds. 

No mat­ter your size, there is a weight class for you. You can­not be too small or too big to participate. 

Lifters look all sorts of ways. 


Mus­cles are not of men only. Mus­cles exist on every­one. Mus­cles are of the/every/any body. They are an inher­i­tance you deserve to know. 



From the writer

:: Account ::

I wrote this piece to par­tic­u­lar­ly think on how lift­ing has changed my rela­tion­ship with my body—my body as a gen­dered thing, social­ized thing, and mor­tal thing. Lift­ing has lib­er­at­ed me from my mind vs. my body: pow­er­lift­ing unites both; both mind and body are need­ed in mov­ing some­thing heavy. Lift­ing has lib­er­at­ed me from out­dat­ed soci­etal gen­der expec­ta­tions. I think there have been var­i­ous changes in soci­ety toward accept­ing mus­cu­lar­i­ty in women—strength sports in recent years have seen an increase in female participation—but until encour­ag­ing phys­i­cal strength in girls is as wide­spread as it is for boys, and/or until encour­ag­ing phys­i­cal strength as a legit­i­mate goal for all bod­ies is wide­spread, I’m not sat­is­fied. Lift­ing, for me, pro­motes my body acceptance/accepting hav­ing a body and how I can have this body on my own terms. And this is a joy I wish for every­one to find (either in sim­i­lar ways to my own or some oth­er path). 


Vanes­sa Couto John­son is the author of Pun­gent dins con­cen­tric (Tol­sun Books, 2018), her first full-length poet­ry book , and three poet­ry chap­books, most recent­ly speech rinse (Slope Edi­tions’ 2016 Chap­book Con­test win­ner). Dial­o­gist, Foundry, Soft­blow, Thrush, and oth­er jour­nals and antholo­gies have pub­lished her poems. A Brazil­ian born in Texas (and dual cit­i­zen), she has been a lec­tur­er at Texas State Uni­ver­si­ty since 2014. 

The Structure of Water

Nonfiction / Julia Knox


:: The Structure of Water ::

The struc­ture of water is beau­ti­ful and sim­ple. When hydro­gen and oxy­gen bond, what was once air comes to life as water. In dynam­ic equi­lib­ri­um, earth’s most copi­ous com­pound is born. Com­pris­ing 60 per­cent of our bod­ies and 71 per­cent of our plan­et [i], water is designed per­fect­ly to sup­port our bod­ies and our plan­et. Yes: the struc­ture of water is beau­ti­ful and simple. 

In epi­demi­ol­o­gy, the method of con­tact trac­ing helps to track, and hope­ful­ly pre­vent, an out­break result­ing from path­o­gen­ic expo­sure. Dur­ing con­tact trac­ing, epi­demi­ol­o­gists and those infect­ed with a com­mu­ni­ca­ble dis­ease work to iden­ti­fy each indi­vid­ual with whom the infect­ed per­son had con­tact. I always imag­ine this to be an unimag­in­ably dif­fi­cult yet unde­ni­ably crit­i­cal task. The dif­fi­cul­ty, I imag­ine, lies not with­in the track­ing itself but in the real­iza­tion of con­tact, and then of the telling. 

I’d like all of us to take a minute to be an epi­demi­ol­o­gist today. 

What’s your trace of con­tact with water? 

I imag­ine the traces them­selves, the warm show­er, the much-appre­ci­at­ed cup of hot cof­fee, the easy, almost thought­less nature of fill­ing up a water bot­tle in the morn­ing. The water bot­tle, washed with clean tap water, with tox­i­col­o­gy lev­els freely avail­able online, and from a city pro­vid­ing free lead test­ing kits for con­sumers’ own ver­i­fi­ca­tion. At work and home, bath­rooms smell of lit­tle but recent­ly sprayed dis­in­fec­tant. The water flow­ing from the sinks by our lab, ensur­ing the clean hands of researchers, comes out eas­i­ly, clear­ly, and with adjustable tem­per­a­tures. The work per­formed by these hands is, by exten­sion, edu­cat­ed on san­i­ta­tion to ensure the ster­ile prac­tices nec­es­sary for research integri­ty. The well-per­formed research gen­er­ates data for large-scale grants, fur­ther ensur­ing the lab’s com­fort­able fund­ing sources. The lab pub­lish­es robust­ly in pub­lic health jour­nals and pro­vides a pro­fes­sion­al home to many emerg­ing sci­en­tists. Yes, this is beau­ti­ful, but per­haps not so simple. 

World­wide, 844 mil­lion peo­ple do not have access to clean drink­ing water. [ii] This is not beau­ti­ful. It escapes lan­guage with its mul­ti­fac­eted, intan­gi­ble ugli­ness, a mul­ti-ten­ta­cled mon­ster made of greed, igno­rance, cor­rup­tion, and pas­sive selfishness. 

A more sly mon­ster creeps with­in the exist­ing dia­logue on clean water, a dia­logue often invoked, and per­haps right­ful­ly so, by pic­tures in places that do not look like home to peo­ple with pow­er. This mat­ters and should mat­ter. Inequity grows where it is plant­ed. But inequity also grows in insid­i­ous ways. It grows along­side pow­er, like the cir­cum­nu­ta­tion of stems pok­ing out of the smooth­ly cement­ed side­walk. At first, it looks like—perhaps—char­ac­ter. But per­haps these wily weeds are the arms of the monster. 

The way to cap­ture the mon­ster is by under­stand­ing its nature: it can­not help but seek to expand its dom­i­nance. In its growth, it becomes rec­og­niz­able. In the weeds, it becomes visible. 

Some­times we see what is in our mem­o­ry. But some­times what we see is not what we remem­ber. Some­times what we see is no longer there. Per­haps the side­walk was smooth for a long time, and we no longer ques­tion its con­sis­ten­cy. The thing is, the weeds might not look like much now. But after some time, the side­walk will crack. The ques­tion is: who will fall through? 

The Bergen, Brooklyn’s P.S. 001 School in Sun­set Park, serves a pop­u­la­tion that is 87 per­cent His­pan­ic with 44 per­cent of stu­dents iden­ti­fied as Eng­lish Lan­guage Learn­ers. Locat­ed in one of the poor­est neigh­bor­hoods in Brook­lyn, where almost 30 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion lives below 100 per­cent of the city’s pover­ty thresh­old, 90 per­cent of Bergen stu­dents are esti­mat­ed to be liv­ing in pover­ty. The Bergen’s water sup­ply test­ed pos­i­tive for ele­vat­ed lev­els of lead, a sub­stance known for its neu­ro­log­i­cal impact. Even in utero, expo­sure to lead con­tributes to adverse child­hood health out­comes, includ­ing high blood pres­sure, a known indi­ca­tor of lat­er life dis­ease. The Bergen was rat­ed low impact and low per­for­mance by New York City’s School Per­for­mance Dashboard. 

One exam­ple with­in a mul­ti­plic­i­tous body of research on the rela­tion­ship between inequity and poor health out­comes is a study of urban minori­ties where­by expo­sure to envi­ron­men­tal tobac­co smoke dur­ing preg­nan­cy result­ed in a neg­a­tive impact on cog­ni­tive devel­op­ment at two years of age, an out­come exac­er­bat­ed by eco­nom­ic hard­ship. The Bergen is only one of the dozens of New York City schools in which over a quar­ter of sam­ples test­ed with ele­vat­ed lead lev­els, the major­i­ty locat­ed in the Bronx and Brook­lyn, home to the most impov­er­ished house­holds in the city. Even fol­low­ing a reme­di­a­tion plan to improve drink­ing water qual­i­ty, near­ly 400 New York City pub­lic schools were clas­si­fied as “not reme­di­at­ed.” This same city is home to the most bil­lion­aires in the world and almost one mil­lion mil­lion­aires. When does the cap­i­tal­ism that funds research on inequity become respon­si­ble for the inequity itself? 

The struc­ture of water is beau­ti­ful and sim­ple. Our infra­struc­ture for pro­vid­ing it with­out harm­ful chem­i­cals is not. 

The 2020 Fis­cal Year Bud­get [iii] requests $6.1 bil­lion for EPA, a $2.8 bil­lion decrease from the 2019 esti­mate. Yet, such fund­ing is crit­i­cal for the pre­ven­tion and man­age­ment of clean water, a fun­da­men­tal neces­si­ty to ensure safe water for every­one, regard­less of socioe­co­nom­ic sta­tus. Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty Mail­man School of Pub­lic Health researchers demon­strat­ed that arsenic lev­els in New York City drink­ing water were decreased in response to the Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency (EPA) 2006 reg­u­la­tions. The recent bud­get pro­pos­al cites, “Launch of the Era of Ener­gy Dom­i­nance through Strate­gic Sup­port for Ener­gy Tech­nol­o­gy,” which requests a $2.3 bil­lion for an ener­gy pro­gram, empha­siz­ing the impor­tance of cap­i­tal­iz­ing on “oil, gas, coal, nuclear, and renew­ables.” While ubiq­ui­tous envi­ron­men­tal chem­i­cals such as lead and arsenic tend to receive much atten­tion, it is impor­tant for all peo­ple to rec­og­nize the emerg­ing class­es of chem­i­cals with equal­ly, if not more seri­ous, adverse effects on human health. At present, there is no lim­it on lev­els of per- and poly­flu­o­roalkyl sub­stances (PFAS), com­mer­cial­ly pro­duced indus­tri­al chem­i­cals that per­sist on an envi­ron­men­tal and phys­i­o­log­ic lev­el. Expo­sure to PFAS can result in seri­ous adverse health con­se­quences. Giv­en the syn­ony­mous decrease in EPA fund­ing, this wor­ri­some pro­pos­al exac­er­bates the link between cli­mate change and clean water. 

What pur­pose do cur­rent EPA guide­lines serve? Or rather, whom? Cli­mate change becomes a socioe­co­nom­ic and socio-polit­i­cal real­i­ty at the inter­sec­tion of water qual­i­ty and health. The World Health Orga­ni­za­tion pre­dicts 250,000 deaths every year will be attrib­uted to cli­mate change, with caus­es includ­ing heat expo­sure, malar­ia, and child­hood malnutrition. 

A uni­ver­sal sol­vent, water’s chem­i­cal nature ampli­fies its reac­tiv­i­ty. Depend­ing upon the envi­ron­ment, water can both accept and pro­vide for oth­er mol­e­cules.  In crit­i­cal­ly exam­in­ing our social, polit­i­cal, and eco­nom­ic envi­ron­ments, we, too, can both accept help and pro­vide help: To oth­er peo­ple and oth­er com­mu­ni­ties, both close to and far from home. 

This all depends on three things: The trac­ing, the real­iz­ing, and the telling. 

[i] See Perl­man, Howard. “How Much Water Is There on Earth?” U.S. Geo­log­i­cal Sur­vey, 2 Decem­ber 2016, http://water.usgs.gov/edu/earthhowmuch.html.

[ii] See WHO and UNICEF Joint Mon­i­tor­ing Pro­gramme. Progress on Drink­ing Water, San­i­ta­tion and Hygiene: 2017 Update and SDG Base­lines. World Health Orga­ni­za­tion and the Unit­ed Nations Children’s Fund, 2017, https://www.who.int/water_sanitation_health/publications/jmp-2017/en/.

[iii] See Trump, Don­ald J. A Bud­get for a Bet­ter Amer­i­ca: Promis­es Kept. Tax­pay­ers First. Fis­cal Year 2020 Bud­get of the U.S. Gov­ern­ment. Gov­ern­ment Pub­lish­ing Office, 2019, pp. 37 and 93, https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/budget-fy2020.pdf.


Works Con­sult­ed 

Basic Infor­ma­tion on PFAS: Per- and Poly­flu­o­roalkyl Sub­stances.” U.S. Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency, 6 Decem­ber 2018, https://www.epa.gov/pfas/basic-information-pfas. Accessed 1 May 2020.

Long-Chain Per­flu­o­ri­nat­ed Chem­i­cals (PFCs) Action Plan.” U.S. Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency, 12 Decem­ber 2009, https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2016–01/documents/pfcs_action_plan1230_09.pdf. Accessed 1 May 2020.

Mueller, Robert and Vir­ginia Yin­gling. “Fact Sheet: His­to­ry and Use of Per- and Poly­flu­o­roalkyl Sub­stances (PFAS).” Agency for Tox­ic Sub­stances and Dis­ease Reg­istry, April 2020, https://pfas‑1.itrcweb.org/fact_sheets_page/PFAS_Fact_Sheet_History_and_Use_April2020.pdf. Accessed 1 May 2020.

Olsen, Geary W., et al. “A Com­par­i­son of the Phar­ma­co­ki­net­ics of Per­flu­o­robu­tane­sul­fonate (PFBS) in Rats, Mon­keys, and Humans.” Tox­i­col­o­gy, vol. 256, 2009, pp. 65–74.

Olsen, Geary W., et al. “Half-Life of Serum Elim­i­na­tion of Per­flu­o­rooc­tane­sul­fonate, Per­flu­o­ro­hexa­ne­sul­fonate, and Per­flu­o­rooc­tanoate in Retired Flu­o­ro­chem­i­cal Pro­duc­tion Work­ers.” Envi­ron­men­tal Health per­spec­tives, vol. 115, no. 9, Sep­tem­ber 2007, pp. 1298–1305, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1964923/pdf/ehp0115-001298.pdf. Accessed 1 May 2020.

Overview: Per- and Poly­flu­o­roalkyl Sub­stances (PFAS) and Your Health.” Agency for Tox­ic Sub­stances and Dis­ease Reg­istry, https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/pfas/overview.html. Accessed 1 May 2020.

Perl­man, Howard. “How Much Water Is There on Earth?” U.S. Geo­log­i­cal Sur­vey, 2 Decem­ber 2016, http://water.usgs.gov/edu/earthhowmuch.html. Accessed 1 May 2020.

Trump, Don­ald J. A Bud­get for a Bet­ter Amer­i­ca: Promis­es Kept. Tax­pay­ers First. Fis­cal Year 2020 Bud­get of the U.S. Gov­ern­ment. Gov­ern­ment Pub­lish­ing Office, 2019, pp. 37 and 93, https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/budget-fy2020.pdf. Accessed 1 May 2020.

Wang, Zhanyun, et al. “A Nev­er-End­ing Sto­ry of Per- and Poly­flu­o­roalkyl Sub­stances (PFASs)?” Envi­ron­men­tal Sci­ence & Tech­nol­o­gy, vol. 51, no. 5, 22 Feb­ru­ary 2017, pp. 2508–2518, https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.est.6b04806. Accessed 1 May 2020.

WHO and UNICEF Joint Mon­i­tor­ing Pro­gramme. Progress on Drink­ing Water, San­i­ta­tion and Hygiene: 2017 Update and SDG Base­lines. World Health Orga­ni­za­tion and the Unit­ed Nations Children’s Fund, 2017, https://www.who.int/water_sanitation_health/publications/jmp-2017/en/. Accessed 1 May 2020. 



From the writer


:: Account ::

Through a per­spec­tive that inter­weaves epi­demi­ol­o­gy with dai­ly life, “The Struc­ture of Water” is a styl­is­ti­cal­ly cre­ative piece that pro­vides sci­en­tif­ic facts with a poet­ic twist. Using pub­licly avail­able data, a sim­ple analy­sis of New York City Pub­lic Schools’ per­for­mance reviews and lead test­ing reports was per­formed. The schools locat­ed in the poor­est areas also tend­ed to have the high­est lev­els of lead, and notably, sev­er­al of these schools were flagged for low per­for­mance. This exam­ple is used to exem­pli­fy the inequities both reflect­ed in and per­pet­u­at­ed by access to clean water. With the inten­tion to inspire the read­er to reflect, this piece sit­u­ates the glob­al clean water cri­sis as a mir­ror for sys­temic inequity. I write as both a stu­dent in the Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty Nar­ra­tive Med­i­cine pro­gram and as an employ­ee of the Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty Mail­man School of Pub­lic Health in the Depart­ment of Envi­ron­men­tal Health Sci­ences, one of the largest such depart­ments nation­wide and among the top research and aca­d­e­m­ic cen­ters for envi­ron­men­tal health sci­ences globally.

Julia Knox, MPH, is a researcher at the Colum­bia Mail­man School of Pub­lic Health, an M.S. Can­di­date in Nar­ra­tive Med­i­cine in the Colum­bia Depart­ment of Med­ical Human­i­ties and Ethics, and Fel­low at the Pre­ci­sion Med­i­cine Ethics, Pol­i­tics, Cul­ture Project at Columbi­a’s Cen­ter for Social Dif­fer­ence. She is inter­est­ed in the meth­ods by which data takes nar­ra­tive form in our soci­ety. The focus of her research includes expo­sure to envi­ron­men­tal mix­tures, mater­nal/­pa­ter­nal-child health, and trans­gen­er­a­tional epi­ge­net­ics. An Ameri­Corps alum­na who earned her Master’s of Pub­lic Health in 2016, she is ded­i­cat­ed to men­tor­ship and sus­tain­able com­mu­ni­ty invest­ments. She is pas­sion­ate about mak­ing space in aca­d­e­m­ic sci­ence for peo­ple with dis­ad­van­taged back­grounds, and hopes that this will reflect in a more com­pre­hen­sive set of research inter­ests in genomics, and even­tu­al­ly, in a bet­ter world.

My Mother’s Ghost Follows Me

Nonfiction / Josie Kochendorfer


:: My Mother’s Ghost Follows Me ::

I saw my dead moth­er at Safe­way. I saw her ash blonde hair and dark roots pulled back into a low pony and I was fif­teen again. A woman with a cart asked if I was okay. I had dropped my red bas­ket my face was wet and I could hear my breath­ing out­side of my body. I looked around for my friends but I was alone, feet stuck, tun­nel vision. The only thing in focus was my moth­er who was now look­ing at me down the aisle, frozen piz­za in hand. She stood still, soak­ing wet, moss in her hair, rocks in her pock­ets. They had found her body a week ago and I began see­ing her in every mid­dle-aged blonde woman who crossed my path. That morn­ing I bought a plane tick­et to Ari­zona, where I would gath­er her things and dri­ve her car back to my col­lege cam­pus. I was kneel­ing on the floor. A stranger put their hand on my back. I heard again, Are you okay? but I couldn’t stop cry­ing and I was breath­ing too quick to get words out. 


This car is too small and it reeks of cig­a­rettes even with the air on it’s blast­ing Camel Lights out of the vents I remem­ber my moth­er flick­ing cher­ry in the cup hold­er I’m sev­en again try­ing to read books by the light of the street­lamps every­thing in here is dead and stale if I slit open the cloth uphol­stery it would ooze black tobac­co tar or maybe coag­u­lat­ed blood the way it thick­ens after the heart dies I can see the cars behind me in my mir­rors get­ting clos­er I can hear them honk­ing their horns telling me to go faster but I just got my license five years late and I’ve nev­er dri­ven on a road like this turns one after the next the edge right to my side one bump and I could fall off roll down bounce off the rocks into the water below and it would be my body they find next water­logged and swollen iden­ti­fy me by my tat­toos our death cer­tifi­cates would match cause of death: blunt force trau­ma 

We had been estranged for five years, after her vio­lent ner­vous break­down. In the years between sep­a­rat­ing and her death, I imag­ined what it would be like to see her again. We would sit on a park bench. She would say I’ve missed you, I’m all bet­ter now, please come home. She would hug me and she would apol­o­gize for hurt­ing me and I would apol­o­gize for leav­ing her. And when we were done hug­ging she would ask why I nev­er wrote, tell me how much I hurt her, tell me I was a brat and a bitch, that I hadn’t changed at all since the last time she called me those names she would press her long nails into my cheeks and tell me how I’ve grown how I look just like her how I’ll become her if I’m not care­ful and what a shame that would be. She would press tighter and tell me I’m noth­ing with­out her she’s noth­ing with­out me we deserve each other. 

Every night, I dream of dying in water. 

I’m dri­ving a car that gets hit and spins off a bridge. 

I’m hik­ing and fall down a cliff. 

I’m swim­ming in the ocean and get swept away. 

I’m swim­ming with mer­maids until I real­ize I don’t have gills. 

I leave my sink run­ning and my house fills with water while I sleep. 

I didn’t start dream­ing about drown­ing until after it hap­pened, after my mind began mak­ing up images, try­ing to fill in the gaps, attempt­ing to cre­ate mem­o­ries from a moment that wasn’t mine. When I wake, I jolt, for­get for a moment that I’m not dead. But her death has weaved itself into me, and every night, I die the way she did. Some nights we’re togeth­er again. She holds me, breathes into my ear, whis­pers: Do you under­stand me yet? Do you feel how much I hurt?



From the writer


:: Account ::

When I first start­ed writ­ing non­fic­tion, I was told my writ­ing was too vis­cer­al and dra­mat­ic, that I hadn’t had enough dis­tance from my trau­ma to effec­tive­ly write about it yet. Over the years, I have learned how to reflect on past trau­mas with a clear­er mind. As well as becom­ing a more expe­ri­enced writer, I’ve also done quite a bit of heal­ing and pro­cess­ing in ther­a­py and on my own. I under­stand the strength dou­ble per­spec­tive and reflec­tion gives to a piece. How­ev­er, I think there is mer­it in the raw­ness that comes from writ­ing inside the trau­ma. There is a peri­od with trau­ma where it is often impos­si­ble to make mean­ing of an event for a while and sit­ting with it, not being able to do any­thing but remem­ber it, feels suf­fo­cat­ing. This col­lec­tion of events is meant to show how trau­ma, or at least my per­son­al trau­mas, man­i­fest­ed in that peri­od of time: after the trau­ma before I was ready to process them. I want­ed to cre­ate an expe­ri­ence for the read­er to under­stand what it is like inside the mind of some­one still work­ing through their trau­mas, who has not yet got­ten to the stage of reflec­tion and mean­ing mak­ing. I am inter­est­ed in the way we use form to match our con­tent, and how we can manip­u­late craft like struc­ture, syn­tax and gram­mar to par­al­lel an emo­tion­al or phys­i­o­log­i­cal response to rep­re­sent what it was like to live through events such as a flash­back, pan­ic attack, or depres­sion. Addi­tion­al­ly, I want­ed to hon­or the space I believe most writ­ers live in at some point—where they have expe­ri­enced some­thing but have not yet got­ten to a place with­in them­selves to go any deep­er than sim­ply remembering.

Josie Kochen­dor­fer is an MFA can­di­date at The Ohio State Uni­ver­si­ty, where she is the Online Edi­tor for The Jour­nal.

Mommy-daddy on Steroids

Nonfiction / Jenny Hedley


:: Mommy-daddy on Steroids ::

So many diag­noses, so lit— 

Tongue swollen in my mouth, lips up to my nose like I have mon­ey to blow on injecta­bles, like my child sup­port pay­ment isn’t a dol­lar a day, like I don’t com­par­i­son shop the week­ly gro­cery store cat­a­logs (because I don’t want to do the things I’ve had to do for money). 

Angioede­ma is a symp­tom of anaphylaxis. 

I scratch my legs until they bleed. I look like an anti-vaxxer. Peo­ple ask me if I have measles. My hives are idio­path­ic, iso­graph­ic. I write my name on spicy hot thighs with a fin­ger­nail. I am bar­be­cue flavoured. 

Chron­ic urticaria rais­es more ques­tions than answers. Some clas­si­fy it as an autoim­mune dis­or­der, which is to say they haven’t fig­ured it out. My mast cells are under attack. Am I my own worst en—? 

I try an elim­i­nate-every­thing diet, a kind of orthorex­ia. Dis­or­dered eat­ing mir­rors my 16-year-old self who was hos­pi­tal­ized for bulim­ia, obses­sive-com­pul­sive dis­or­der, major depres­sion. My body is at war, so I eat the whole cru­cif­er­ous fam­i­ly: no veg left behind. I pic­ture the bras­si­ca fam­i­ly hold­ing hands and won­der if my gut real­ly has bud­dies. My son thinks shred­ded cab­bage is not a veg­etable. He will eat it when I make home­made miso dressing: 

  • 1 part miso paste 
  • 1 part ACV 
  • 2 parts EVOO 
  • a pour of honey. 

I feel I take up too much space when I eat a carb-heavy break­fast. (My son likes buck­wheat pan­cakes with real maple syrup and blue­ber­ries.) I feel worth­less when I don’t sell any­thing on eBay—when junk from my past over­takes my son’s closet—because I can’t afford Mini Maestros. 

When there are no bras in the laun­dry bas­ket after a week, I know I haven’t been any­where. All func­tion­al med­i­cine aside, I am not func­tion­ing. I put on my OCD wings and fly. 

An inter­lude of fear 

You run out of Ready Steady Go when I turn around to grab your nap­py bag. That moment of paral­y­sis: why aren’t you glued to my leg? A split-sec­ond all-encom­pass­ing gaze can­vas­ing the gym­na­si­um, pic­tur­ing what you’re wear­ing (red super­hero hood­ie, black track­ies, white run­ners), sprint­ing past the neon-lit EXIT sign. 

In sec­onds I cap­ture you, bend down on one knee, scold you, hug you, kiss you, pun­ish you. NO PLAYING IN THE PARK TODAY! I will shove you down my throat and keep you cocooned in my bel­ly. I miss the days when I wore you strapped to my chest—how we were all that we had. We are still all that we have. 

The unan­swer­able 

We’re in the canned food aisle at Wool­worths when you ask me if you have a [unknown]. I hes­i­tate. The lady with a green shop­ping bas­ket looks over with pity. I nav­i­gate to the may­on­naise shelves to buy time and pick out Best Foods, the Amer­i­can brand—even though it’s high in histamines—because it reminds me of home. 

I wrap my arms around you, but the embrace is also for me. (I haven’t had sex in over three years, but my celiba­cy is vol­un­tary: I want anoth­er baby, but I don’t want a man-baby. Who would look after you if I went to the hospital?) 

I pre­tend I’m not sad for you; I pre­tend I’m not sad for me. I choke on pur­ple prose. 

You say, I want a mom­my and a [unknown]. You ball your hands into fists, kick your tod­dler size fives against met­al trol­ley bars. 

I say, Not every­one has a [unknown]. Remem­ber the pen­guin on the poster at Baby Club? That pen­guin only has a mom. (I don’t tell you how your [unknown] failed his drug tests.) 

You say, I. Want. A. [Unknown]. 

Hys­ter­ics in aisle three. I bend over to grab the store-brand tuna for din­ner. I’m too tired to cook; you ate my free time. I buy decaf so my hands won’t shake, rain­bow slaw, tax-free tampons. 

When you scream for ice cream, I hand you apples and plums because I’m the mom­my. And it’s not a spe­cial occa­sion. And I don’t want to eat my feel­ings. (Ice cream tastes almost as good com­ing up as it does going down.) And I’m aller­gic to dairy. 

I make the ten-cent chok­ing haz­ard your friend Hunter gave you dis­ap­pear into the coin slot at the self-check­out. You want to know where your mon­ey went? Down the pipe like your [unknown]. 

At home I dete­ri­o­rate while Net­flix enter­tains. (My self-imposed 40-day ban doesn’t apply to you, whom I need babysat.) If I pour the sug­ar syrup out of the fruit cup, does that make me a bet­ter mom? 

—Mom­my, you’ll always be my best friend. 

My heart is sticky, melt­ed like goo on the kitchen floor. 

—Mom­my, sing the sil­ly song. 

—Vit­rA is a toi­let, it likes to spin around. Vit­rA is a toi­let, it makes a flush­ing sound. It goes flush, flush, flush, the pee-pee and the poo. It goes flush, flush, flush, the pee-pee and the poo. 

—No, the oth­er sil­ly song. 

—He’s a stretchy hip­popota­mus. He’s a flat-foot­ed platy­pus. He’s a fun­ny, fun­ny bun­ny rab­bit. He’s a fun­ny rab­bit. He’s a stretch-a-lo-pota­masauras. He’s a gumpy, gumpy gumbo … 

—Now sing the baby song. 

—I love you, Piglet, I love you. I love you, Piglet. I real­ly, real­ly, real­ly do. 

Baby Mae­stro echoes Mommy’s sense­less songs in lieu of $25 lessons that I can’t afford. Every­thing I do is for you, Lit­tle Red. 

Chron­ic ill­ness 

My hives flut­ter. If I scratch, they’ll itch worse. I scratch. The rough side of the file ser­rates my nails. It feels deli­cious, these tiny paper cuts on mot­tled flesh. Like a dis­eased apple, am I rot­ten at th—? 

Benadryl cross­es the blood-brain bar­ri­er to sedate me. Head buried into pil­low, knees jammed into raw breasts. Elbows dance at my side in an itchy-scratchy trance. It’s a mast cell par­ty; who could ask for more? 

Pop anoth­er pill at 1am, or two or three at 1 and 2 and 3. Cac­tus-dry tongue, labored breath, can I swal­low enough air? Angioede­ma tastes like Novo­cain. I’m lost in pharmacopeia. 

At Med­ical One I teach my son (who hasn’t breached the fortress-like pro­por­tions of his St Kil­da Mums cot) to dial emer­gency from the lock screen. But I show him 999 not 000—brain fogged, lips ballooned—not even 911. Am I ask­ing too much? 

Self-pity drips beneath sun­nies on the [#] tram to RMIT





Tis­sue blots saline frus­tra­tion. Salt is low-his­t­a­mine: at least there’s that. 

My cre­ative writ­ing tutor starts each class with a med­i­ta­tion. She asks us to feel what it’s like to be in our bod­ies. I can’t stop squirm­ing, tug­ging at my clothes. I have to take my shoes off. 

The air-con in build­ing 51 is shot. The sun mag­ni­fied through the win­dow feels like menopause. I ask if I can write instead of med­i­tat­ing to keep from screaming. 

Tues­day ther­a­py clash­es with class­es. I vis­it my der­ma­tol­o­gist, who offers an SSRI. (Side effects include sui­ci­dal ideation.) I show up for the wrong appoint­ment on the right day. Stay cold, my GP says. Throw off the cov­ers (cot­ton not poly), take cool show­ers, keep calm, don’t stress. 

I joke, What, me, stress? I’m cool as a c— 

Not for long-term use 

Cor­ti­cos­teroids rock my adren­a­ls: it feels like I’m on speed except that I’m hun­gry like a box­er. My hard-won body fat per­cent­age goes down the d—. I expe­ri­ence body dys­mor­phia, grow­ing dys­pho­ria, sweaty every­thing, and I’m con­sti­pat­ed like I’ve swal­lowed an anteater. 

This is my brain on Pred­nisolone, con­vinc­ing my body not to fight-or-flight. Our inter­ven­tion order expires next December. 

Mom­my-dad­dy [is/has had] enough 

You throw your cheese bread at me and demand anoth­er Yakult. Those stu­pid minia­ture bot­tles. I snap, tell you to wait. (Nor­mal­ly I think you’re cute AF.) 

I scale the din­ing room table so you can’t reach me, but you shunt the bench over with the force of your 30 pounds. You con­quer the sum­mit and put your hand on my shoulder. 

Every­thing you say sounds like a whine; every­thing I say sounds like a bark. I’ve become a despot, a tyrant, an emo­tion­al invalid, a petu­lant child. Impa­tient, claus­tro­pho­bic, I rip my bra off, put on over­sized pyja­mas. You offer me a pair of socks to keep my feet warm. I’m glad your [unknown] can’t see me unravel. 

You say, I want Mom­my to be happy—do you want to be happy? 

We tidy and clean until the house is in order. I can’t con­trol any­thing so I feed you what I wish I could eat. I make you a cheese toastie and it looks fuck­ing deli­cious and I get impa­tient because you eat it so slow­ly and it just stays there in my periph­er­al vision: fresh sour­dough cia­bat­ta, cheese molten then cooled like mag­ma, the plas­tic sheen of real butter. 

Now your tum­my hurts, so I pull your knees close to your chest to help you fart. I blow rasp­ber­ries to make you laugh. You’re all bet­ter. We eat blue­ber­ries for dessert and pray to keep the bad men and the mon­sters away. 

You call me mom­my-dad­dy some­times. At first it makes me angry—reminds me of the void—but now it makes me smile. I am your par­ent plur­al; I am Mom­my on Steroids. 



From the writer


:: Account ::

The week before my cre­ative writ­ing pro­gram begins I break out in hives for the first time. I share images from my phone’s “hives” fold­er with spe­cial­ists who take my mon­ey, who can’t tell me the source of my ill­ness, who don’t promise a cure. Red wheals over­take my der­mis, pru­ri­tus sub­tracts hours from my sleep. School begins and class­es start with guid­ed med­i­ta­tions designed to inspire stream-of-con­scious­ness writ­ing. I shift uncom­fort­ably in my seat and begin draft­ing an exper­i­men­tal non­fic­tion piece dur­ing these ini­tial med­i­ta­tive rebellions. 

We study Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s essay “Bad Writer” in class. Ahmad warns against Poor White Girl syn­drome, which lacks humour and irony. This is what I don’t want my writ­ing to be. We dis­cuss writ­ing as a nego­ti­a­tion of a social con­tract, which reminds me of Frank Moorhouse’s descrip­tion of lit­er­ary author­ship “as an inter­nal exile.” Writ­ing is a way of sub­ju­gat­ing my strug­gle: sin­gle par­ent­hood, sex­u­al trau­ma, domes­tic vio­lence, a mar­riage in which I was a belong­ing that did not belong—of bundling it into a form of expres­sion that gives voice to my powerlessness. 

One itchy day, I com­pile and assem­ble jour­nal entries, scrib­bles, and (un)meditative writ­ing into “Mom­my-dad­dy.” I wish to cap­ture: my son demand­ing a dad­dy as we nav­i­gate the tinned goods aisle, wak­ing up at 2am with thighs burn­ing, jour­ney­ing through phar­ma­copoeia. These scenes illus­trate the muck of where sin­gle par­ent­hood inter­sects with chron­ic ill­ness and men­tal health; they are “the tar, the sticky parts” of entrenched dis­ad­van­tage described by Maria Tumarkin in her genre-bust­ing work, Axiomat­ic. I imi­tate the way Tumarkin trun­cates com­mon tropes by using linked em dash­es, for exam­ple, in her chap­ter titled “those who for­get the past are con­demned to re—.” I expose my own flab­by writ­ing using this autho­r­i­al device. 

I reread Terese Marie Mailhot’s Heart Berries: A Mem­oir, study­ing the way she moves grace­ful­ly between first and sec­ond per­son. In “Mom­my-dad­dy,” I switch from the first per­son pro­noun to the sec­ond per­son “you,” to address my three-year-old son. My voice is con­fes­sion­al: speak­ing to the child who can­not yet grasp the com­plex­i­ties of life, speak­ing to myself. My inward autho­r­i­al gaze reflects my neu­rot­ic men­tal state, the way I study the ground when I inhab­it the out­side world. I relate to her descrip­tion of mem­oir as “some­thing vul­ner­a­ble in a sea of posturing.” 

I read The Lift­ed Brow’s exper­i­men­tal pieces and bor­row from mul­ti­ple essay­ists. Eloise Grill’s prize-win­ning “Big Beau­ti­ful Female The­o­ry” (2018) encour­ages me to play with form. Cas­san­dra Rockwood-Rice’s “Root Bed” (2019) blends poet­ry, prose, and dia­logue. I steal her method of using joined em dash­es to open a quote, some­thing she prob­a­bly lift­ed from James Joyce’s Ulysses (which I intend to read). She uses hard brack­ets to replace prop­er nouns with gen­er­al descrip­tors; I use this method to elim­i­nate the word “dad­dy.”  

I mod­i­fy my lifestyle with meds, sup­ple­ments, and dietary changes, and the der­ma­tol­ogy clin­ic advis­es me that I qual­i­fy for a month­ly injec­tion that may or may not con­trol my symp­toms. (Side effects include hair loss.) I decide to save my exper­i­men­tal approach­es for writ­ing. Words are heal­ing; they are so much eas­i­er to regrow.


Jen­ny Hed­ley’s writ­ing appears in SCUM, Trav­el Play Live, Gone Lawn, Mon­tana Mouth­ful, and Van­ish­ing Act and is forth­com­ing in Folio and The Man­hat­tanville Review. She record­ed her poem “I Can See Through Your Lul­ule­mons” for an upcom­ing edi­tion of Memo­ria Pod­cast. She stud­ies cre­ative writ­ing at RMIT Uni­ver­si­ty in Mel­bourne, Aus­tralia, where she lives with her son. 

The Falcon’s Cry

Nonfiction / Kelly Gray


:: The Falcon’s Cry ::

There is a moment when you find your­self in a small enclo­sure with a fal­con scream­ing in your face, her wings extend­ed, your hands shak­ing, that you think, We are the same.   

I have his­to­ry with birds. They were my first intro­duc­tion to death when, as a child, I found our chick­ens’ bod­ies strewn about the coop after a fox raid, although I don’t recall them alive pri­or to that. They were so vul­ner­a­ble in the after­math, a curled yel­low foot by a head, the body too far away with exposed entrails. It made my stom­ach turn. I did not want to be torn to pieces like that. As I grew old­er, I began to under­stand the dif­fer­ence between vio­lence and death, and that death and dis­tur­bance work as a use­ful tool for change in per­son­al as well as eco­log­i­cal land­scapes. I began to wel­come death in as sym­bol and spring­board, even seek­ing out its tokens. I would find offer­ings from the sky: small rib cages, ster­nums still con­nect­ed to wings, some­times a bird skull so del­i­cate it looked to be made of paper. I start­ed to devel­op com­pan­ion­ship with live birds; I would dri­ve west to the reserve to sit with a male North­ern Har­ri­er among the blos­som­ing lupine and wind-pressed grass. Ravens would bring me garbage and steal my trin­kets. As I walked home, owls would descend from the black night like falling moons, white faces with black eyes, and lat­er they would return in my dreams.   

Dur­ing this time of friend­ship with the birds, my hus­band left. Or, rather, I left him when he wouldn’t leave, although he was sure­ly gone despite his warm body appear­ing next to mine, ask­ing me to stay. I used to wake up in the mid­dle of the night and check for my child’s breath, and then my husband’s, think­ing that I would be ashamed if he died in our bed with our child between us. I found a new home, with­in dri­ving dis­tance of his absence. In my new home, my dog died. My child grew into her own bed, the dis­tance between her room and mine would weigh on me in the night. I would see my ex-hus­band every day because, some­how, we had had a child togeth­er. I would walk through the day with my eyes sky­bound, think­ing about places I’d nev­er been, imag­ing a new home that was far away, nest-like, one that I could build with branch­es not yet col­lect­ed. Often I would won­der if I would end up break­ing those nests too. Method­i­cal­ly or in a rage. There was a heat ris­ing in my chest that I had pre­vi­ous­ly been able to escape from, but now it felt like burn­ing hands around my throat. In past breakups, I would be able to pack my books and my mir­rors and all the wool blan­kets, using more tape than nec­es­sary. When I arrived in my new home, there were no ghosts or dis­ap­point­ments, just box­es to stab my knife into. I would reach in and pull out my belong­ings and con­sid­er myself intact. But this time my belong­ings seemed heavy and use­less and I was unable to move, root­ed in an unrea­son­able way by the con­tract of moth­er­hood and divorcehood. 

If I told you about my divorce, it wouldn’t sound like it felt. I was so impa­tient. He was ill. He wouldn’t take care of him­self. He would drink too much. I think I became impa­tient for him to get com­plete­ly sick, if only because my wait­ing for it felt unbear­able. He stopped tak­ing his med­i­cine, which I use to help admin­is­ter before there was a dis­tance between us. I only dis­cov­ered this six months after the fact, and it felt akin to betray­al. We don’t know if the con­di­tion is hereditary. 

I thought about my own desire and the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a lover. I no longer felt capa­ble of form­ing the begin­ning of a con­ver­sa­tion, of using my voice to flirt, to lean for­ward in mock inter­est.   

Instead of human touch, I decid­ed to take a job work­ing at a rap­tor reha­bil­i­ta­tion cen­ter. The train­ing would be six months long: one part rap­tor han­dling and one part nat­ur­al his­to­ry. At the end of six months, I would be com­pe­tent enough to do pub­lic events with a bird on my fist. On my first day, we signed waivers and showed proof of insur­ance. We were shown where the hard­hats, gloves, and pro­tec­tive eye gear is kept, as well as the first aid kits. We were shown the ancient fal­con­ry tech­nique of jess­ing, which is how to use a leash with a rap­tor. We prac­ticed bal­anc­ing tin cans on our wrists, won­der­ing who would com­plete the pro­gram and who would not. 

These fal­cons were once wild. They had been res­cued but could not be reha­bil­i­tat­ed. They were dan­ger­ous, but will­ing. They could not fly for long distances. 

I want­ed to work with the birds because I sus­pect­ed that they might scare me. I had become so numb that it seemed like some sort of cathar­tic exer­cise in an attempt to rat­tle myself back into being. That’s not what I would tell peo­ple when they asked why I did the work. I knew enough not to say, I can’t feel my body any­more. I don’t know who I am. I’m hop­ing the birds will fly at me until I can see my future again. Instead I would say, Birds of prey are indi­ca­tors of an ecosystem’s health, and if we can get peo­ple to care about the birds, then we can get them to care about native habi­tats. And that is true. That is why I was there. But I also want­ed to care about myself again. 

The female pere­grine fal­con is 25% larg­er than her male coun­ter­part, and the­o­ries (some whis­pered and some in writ­ing) abound as to why this is, as if it can’t exist as sim­ple fact. When she’s tend­ing to her chicks, the male pere­grine, called a tier­cel, will hunt and bring his fam­i­ly food. As the chicks grow, they become more fren­zied, more com­mit­ted to sur­viv­ing. They thrash the tier­cel with their long talons, cry­ing out from their scrape. Per­haps it is not safe for the tier­cel to pro­vide any­more. The moth­er will take to the sky to hunt for her grow­ing fledg­lings. She will have to fly far­ther and far­ther away and catch much larg­er prey than was ever required of the tier­cel. Per­haps he has always been too small to stay around. 

Learn­ing to jess the pere­grine often made me feel fool­ish. She is fast, faster than I am. She tends to scream in antic­i­pa­tion and has beau­ti­ful­ly yel­low, long dig­its that she throws at you, mak­ing it near impos­si­ble to get the leather jess­es into her ankle bracelets. My hands would trem­ble and I would hes­i­tate before enter­ing her enclo­sure. I would force my breath back in my body. I would start to see myself with her, and I would drop into the world of fal­cons. I learned to duck and move with inten­tion.   

Now, I don’t hes­i­tate for her, and rarely for myself. I enter her enclo­sure and she makes the loud sound of the ocean at me—as though the mem­o­ry of waves and seag­ulls is pour­ing out of her beak at break­neck speed—and in response I mur­mur to her. I make sounds like a dying song­bird, which she likes. I tell her that I can hear her, and I ask her if I can tell her sto­ry for her. With leather leash­es and a heavy glove, we become one. We walk out to the area where the audi­ence waits. 

This is what I tell them: 

This bird is a pere­grine fal­con, found eight years ago in the curve of the high­way, her right wing fold­ed in all the wrong ways. It was her break­ing point, and she could not be reha­bil­i­tat­ed to the point of sur­viv­ing in the wild. 

Pere­grine means “to wan­der” in Latin, and that they do, across con­ti­nents on mas­sive migra­tions. Every­thing about this bird has evolved for sky pre­da­tion; she’s the fastest crea­ture on the plan­et, reach­ing speeds of over 250mph in a stoop dive. She eats birds on the wing, mean­ing she takes her meals while fly­ing, and her diet con­sists of birds: from song­birds to cranes, and even oth­er rap­tors. She has this long mid­dle toe and tomi­al tooth on her beak designed to dis­perse her prey and break through pro­tec­tive feath­ers. When she’s div­ing on her prey, she makes a fist with her talons and knocks the bird so hard they hit the ground, and some­times the force is so hard it knocks the prey’s head off. 

You’re look­ing at a rap­tor that was called a duck hawk because they hunt fly­ing ducks. A ground­ed chick­en would be no fun for her. Her eyes are huge with a third eye­lid to pro­tect her from prey and wind, and dark malar stripes to reflect the sun back into the sky. She’s impa­tient; I love that about her. She’s a fierce moth­er, big­ger than her male coun­ter­part, tak­ing in the larg­er prey for her babes. DDT almost took these birds out, broke down their eggshells so that they were crushed by mom. Through wild con­ser­va­tion efforts, they are now back, trac­ing lines across maps that humans cling to, rebuk­ing human con­struct with the loud cry of the falcon. 



From the writer


:: Account ::

My work­ing with birds was held against the back­drop of the Me Too Move­ment and Black Lives Mat­ter, as well as many Indige­nous upris­ings. Body auton­o­my and land rights were com­ing to the col­lec­tive fore­front. As a long­time com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­er, sex­u­al assault sur­vivor, and full spec­trum birth work­er, I am inter­est­ed in how sto­ry­telling strength­ens effec­tive move­ments and per­son­al trans­for­ma­tion. As a nat­u­ral­ist, I find that one tool I have for pre­serv­ing what is left of the nat­ur­al world is by invit­ing peo­ple to de-cen­ter their own human sto­ry. I want to ask peo­ple to imag­ine that nature is not “oth­er,” that our own nar­ra­tive can be found in rocks and birds and forests. This is not a new tool; it’s cur­rent­ly being used by Indige­nous peo­ple the world over and has been since the begin­ning of human sto­ry­telling. Some­times it can be very lit­er­al, like in this sto­ry, and oth­er times infused with mag­i­cal real­ism, or open­ing a third eye to ways of being that a col­o­niz­er mind­set has blind­ed us to. 

I often grap­ple with imposter syn­drome, com­pound­ed by a his­to­ry of peo­ple telling me that my sto­ries are shame­ful and should be kept secret, espe­cial­ly when they inter­sect with oth­er people’s sto­ries. In work­ing with the birds, I knew I had to rebuke this con­fine­ment. Folk sto­ry as a tool for social change is a huge inspi­ra­tion for what I write about and how I write about it. Under­stand­ing the pow­er of folk sto­ry meant that I need­ed to start writ­ing my sto­ries just as I saw them, even when they feel inconsequential. 

At the bird reha­bil­i­ta­tion cen­ter, I was espe­cial­ly tak­en with one pere­grine fal­con, and I want­ed to learn as much about her sto­ry as pos­si­ble, not only her wild coun­ter­parts but who she was as a reha­bil­i­tat­ed bird who could no longer hunt. I began to see the par­al­lels to my own life in the sto­ry of the fal­con, start­ing with my desire to fly away, which felt shame­ful. The role of preda­tor can­not be ignored when work­ing with fal­cons and since then, much of my writ­ing has begun to flip the role of the preda­tor to suit my own sur­vival and carve out new space for how our col­lec­tive sto­ry may end or con­tin­ue on. 


Kel­ly Gray is a writer, nat­u­ral­ist, and edu­ca­tor liv­ing among the red­wood trees on occu­pied Coast Miwok land in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia. She is moth­er to a fiery daugh­ter, two per­fect cats, and one untam­able dog. Her writ­ing digs into the ten­sion between loss and sur­vival and what it means to decen­ter the human nar­ra­tive dur­ing cycles of grief. Most recent­ly, Kel­ly has been pub­lished in Qui­et Light­ning, Burn­ing House Press, and write, bitch, write!, and has work forth­com­ing in Dime Show Review and Brack­en Mag­a­zine. On her day off, Kel­ly is a rap­tor han­dler who brings birds of prey into schools and pub­lic events, telling sto­ries of fal­cons, owls, and vul­tures to all who will listen. 

The Other Side of Mt. Heart Attack

Nonfiction / Tasia Trevino


:: The Other Side of Mt. Heart Attack ::


the first time I get dou­ble-bass beats it’s two hours the nurs­es take my pres­sure tell me don’t stand wheel me in a chair to a bed Mom cow­ers in the cor­ner by the crash cart they tear off my clothes attach leads ready a 16-gauge nee­dle the doc­tor says this isn’t going to feel good a feel­ing floods my right arm my body seizes I sit up they push me back on the bed they do it again my beats relax the EMT says that works 9 times out of 10 and the oth­er time I ask




if I keep count I could con­trol this expen­sive som­er­sault phan­tom sev­er­al false starts no mon­ey for fol­low-up is it fatal or just a con­di­tion with­out cov­er­age I devel­op dis­trac­tions code­pen­dence on the strength of strings learn to sing at house shows with shit­ty PAs strain against the squall for years no one can hear me just the Boys on gui­tar bass and drums turn my back to the crowd when I sing over stim­u­lat­ed vagus I can’t stop per­form­ing wish for some assur­ance I’m going to make it




Los Ange­les seeped into my blood­lines when Dad stick-and-poked Mom a fleur-de-lis on her ankle while watch­ing Decline of West­ern Civ Vol. 1 twen­ty years lat­er I move to the city in an ancient Buick I dream to be Jef­frey Lee Sable Starr a sea bird over light-dot­ted hills the Observatory’s for­mal white gown feel for my pulse dur­ing sound check the Boys ask me what lan­guage are my lyrics Perse­phone I say Eury­dice rock myself to sleep in dou­ble-time cross my heart hope to know which feel­ing I’m faking





I stop tak­ing off my hos­pi­tal bracelet I don’t have insur­ance so I can’t afford to know why I have some ideas but the Boys keep say­ing “you’re fine you’re fine” swat­ting my fin­gers from the right side of my neck me swal­low­ing blues to keep myself at bay am I still their Wendy Bird they were there all the times they stopped my heart maybe the rea­son for it too I ping­pong the aisles at the Last Book­store wait for the calm to kick in search out every iter­a­tion of sunset




on stage singing grief for each of my past selves in a room sparse with soli­tary men most nights I dull my pound­ing with tequi­la rocks lime anoth­er round with the Boys and the Gretsch nev­er get paid to play drag myself home on unlit side streets past box­top shrines stuffed with sweets and sticky rice in a dream I car­ry one of the Boys on my back through the Hol­ly­wood Farm­ers’ Mar­ket I buy peonies and small cab­bages this is this not a dream this is 




I gath­er the hand­writ­ten receipts from the mechan­ic they make a $3000 pile still my Buick bucks stalls it has no AC or heat no defrost have to roll down the win­dows in a storm the arm­rest gets streaked with grime dri­ve out to Altade­na for a job get $10/hr to sur­vey places peo­ple want to film I size up oth­er dri­vers won­der how they afford it I want my ass slid­ing on leather inte­ri­or I want to see the inside of a stranger’s house won­der whether I’ll ever move





when I’m not onstage I get a job sell­ing things I can’t under­stand to peo­ple I nev­er see I final­ly go to the doc­tor he says I’m fine I just have anx­i­ety need to eat more fiber he gives me a  non-refill­able pre­scrip­tion for Ati­van and sup­pos­i­to­ries tells me buy Meta­mu­cil drink that every day I get reg­u­lar lose a lot of mem­o­ries start to need a big­ger audi­ence almost fight the bounc­er after karaoke at the Blue Goose put the tin­sel Xmas tree up with no gifts underneath 




my boss is a Scorp/Sag cusp he wears ten­nis shoes nice jeans flo­ral dress shirt top two but­tons undone at the Xmas par­ty he puts his hand btwn my legs when he bends down to kiss me hel­lo brings me into his office for my 3‑month- review says he wants to give me a raise thinks I’m smart but not show­ing it seems like I don’t care I make hourly as much as his maids he tells me they’re stu­pid always putting things in the wrong place he tells me earn my raise




Tues­day after­noon I have a pan­ic attack at an impromp­tu audi­tion for a real­i­ty series that’s shoot­ing upstairs from my office they like me for the part of Expert on a show about aliens vis­it­ing Earth I take a Val­i­um walk around the block go to urgent care the nurse slaps adhe­sive elec­trodes to my chest unshaven shins she won’t give me Xanax she says I need a car­di­ol­o­gist when I tell her about the first time how they had to stop my heart





it’s a catheter-based pro­ce­dure they’ll make a slit in my leg thread a wire up my vein into my heart they’ll jack up my heart rate until the bad rhythm kicks in they’ll burn those path­ways closed I’ll be sedat­ed not asleep I’ll go home the same day nev­er think about it again there are risks per­fo­ra­tion stroke I lose my insur­ance in a week I say how soon can we do it how about in three days the doc­tor says I shake her hand and ask for one day off work




my first surgery is the day before Thanks­giv­ing I don’t want Mom or Dad to come but they do in pre-op two nurs­es dryshave my groin joke about film­ing me talk­ing can­did in twi­light sleep Dad gets ramen down­town after I’m fine every­one leaves I stain the hos­pi­tal bed with blood the nurse changes my tam­pon I go home the same day the next day the Boys come over we drink Wild Turkey and I cook every­one prop­er din­ner with pres­sure dressing




I can’t leave the city bc my Buick shuts off at every stop­light the record label with inter­est wants more demos I’m going to write a song a day so far I haven’t writ­ten one in months the only con­stants are always late with rent for the prac­tice space phone bill gro­ceries and fights I don’t remem­ber pick­ing up the Gretsch damp­en its strings when some­one walks by the Buick catch­es fire on the 5 the mechan­ic cuts out the cat­alyt­ic con­vert­er puts in a pipe I keep driving 





on my lunch break I talk to the head of the label he has me on speak­er­phone sit­ting on a mar­ble memo­r­i­al bench in Hol­ly­wood For­ev­er pre­tend­ing I can under­stand every­thing he says he has to say some­thing to me he doesn’t want to be the stereo­typ­i­cal record label guy but he can’t pro­nounce all of our song names he loves front­women female drum­mers we talk for 36 min­utes he says he will be out in LA lat­er this month we should meet for cof­fee I won­der if he doesn’t drink 




I can’t stop think­ing about my heart my win­dow­less office I get an hour off work to see a social work­er at Kaiser she says I had no guid­ance I’ve been drink­ing that much since I was 16 I should stop play­ing music it seems too stress­ful go back to grad school get into debt like every­one else she doesn’t know what I can do with a degree in his­to­ry I pick a hand­ful of night jas­mine on my walk home the only things I think about more than my heart are mon­ey the dying car how I don’t feel 




the far­thest I can run in the city is Teardrop Park where the view is El Chubas­co Chi­na­town and a city dis­guised my body buzzes bad­ly with want my heart leans out of tem­po some­times it’s inhala­tion sets it off some­times the weath­er not enough water some­times too much food not enough some­times it’s being in bed with some­one being in bed alone it’s extra beats an elec­tri­cal prob­lem not some­thing I con­trol what’s the cho­rus again





on Lou Reed’s birth­day I watch porn on my phone in the bath­room before din­ner with the Boys we bring our own booze I start to cry about Cae­tano Veloso in exile singing in Eng­lish I walk home a man jerks off in a bush out­side the cor­ner liquor store eyes rolled back furi­ous pump­ing I pass Jumbo’s where we went with the Boys for my 21st birth­day me sit­ting close to the stage them sit­ting against the wall in the shad­ows beck­on­ing me with dol­lar bills to give to the girls 




Tues­days are band prac­tice Wednes­days are all night hap­py hour the bar­tendress with huge eyes and French braids makes me at least three tequi­la sodas I think about her naked sit out­side on year-round-bougainvil­lea-shad­ed patio papi­er-mâché petals spiked vines I dim the lights in the bar’s pink bath­room take a pic­ture of myself wish for some­one to send it to walk home under gray­ing skies one of the men out­side 7–11 calls to me hey slop­py girl asks me for a blowjob




I need anoth­er surgery it’s forty-thou­sand dol­lars but it’s cov­ered if I keep my job Mom comes and Gram­ma but Dad already had tick­ets to see John Doe only Mom has a pan­ic attack on my futon so I dri­ve us to Kaiser across the street from the big blue church that took all of Gramma’s mon­ey she holds my hand the nurs­es mis­take her for my mom and me for 19 I’m awake again dur­ing the doc­tor says he found the prob­lem he says my heart tricked them last time





some­times I think I like Los Ange­les I go down­town to see Tele­vi­sion with the Boys walk through a heist scene that doesn’t stop rolling Tom Ver­laine ges­tures to Venus in the west­ern sky I’m in love with all my friends cli­max in the show­er to Roy Orbi­son falling I’m falling falling in love with heart­beat throb dream one of the Boys has me in pub­lic press the wood­en spoon han­dle against myself in my gal­ley kitchen while the rice cooks on the stove 




the label doesn’t want to sign us I get weepy at the bar with the Boys I let down my love for the city but I only know one kind it’s killing me some­times I feel very sad I tell the Boys that the same ses­sion band played on every Amer­i­can pop hit of the ’60s no one knows their names I start to lose momen­tum trust prac­tice sin­cer­i­ty in the bath­room mir­ror ask for my mem­o­ries back erased or oth­er­wise find myself among scat­tered palm fronds and street roach­es on the edge of San­ta Monica




the doc­tor says anoth­er surgery would risk per­fo­ra­tion my heart has two pace­mak­ers some­times the false one gets the rhythm the real one gets a break after I leave the city I can’t stop danc­ing at the least appro­pri­ate times I come back to the city but don’t make it past Mul­hol­land I stand on a bor­rowed bal­cony over behind-the-scenes streets with­out side­walks so close to all my land­marks I can taste lemon­grass tri­pas and tar­na can see my beat­ing the score is swelling





there is no way to see a city I can’t be any­more at the junc­tion of thick­ly-trav­eled boule­vards a city invari­ably comes into exis­tence I dream wash­ing machine amps rub­bery gui­tar strings mics with no input I let myself go slack the tem­po evens out I wear the skin­ni­est tuxe­do I can find put on lip­stick in the hos­pi­tal bed I allow a place to tame me a heavy qui­et set­tles around me I don’t know what to do with it don’t know how to allow myself this pace wor­ry where will my voice be if not a stage


grief for me for the part on a dream for som­er­sault phan­tom sparse with sweets and drums CONSIDER! DIFFERENT! FADING! SYSTEMS! turn my past selves into a chair into a bed they tear off my past selves in a dream I can’t stop drink­ing that’s shoot­ing upstairs from my Tues­day after­noon I have a pan­ic attach leads real­i­ty series that’s shoot­ing in my heart CONSIDER! DIFFERENT! FADING! SYSTEMS! are risks per­fo­ra­tion stroke I lose path­ways clothes attack to grad school get into debt like Xanax CONSIDER! DIFFERENT! FADING! SYSTEMS! closed I’ll burn those path­ways I’ll be sedat­ed I’ll go home the stereo­typ­i­cal record label against my body seizes my beats relax the label has me for one of the Boys on my back CONSIDER! DIFFERENT! FADING! SYSTEMS! he doesn’t want to be again in Hol­ly­wood For­ev­er pre­tend­ing he loves from my body CONSIDER! DIFFERENT! FADING! SYSTEMS! when I sit up they tear off my time I tell her hand and ask for a con­di­tion with sweets stuffed with the Boys most nights CONSIDER! DIFFERENT! FADING! SYSTEMS! my clothes attack at an impromp­tu audi­tion stroke I lose my insur­ance and they do it can we do it how about they do it CONSIDER! DIFFERENT! FADING! SYSTEMS! fatal or just the Boys on my lunch break I think to my unshaven shit­ty code­pen­dence on the bed I’ve been drink­ing about aliens vis­it­ing Earth I think about LA lat­er anoth­er hand­ful go back stress­ful go back through the Hol­ly­wood Farm­ers’ Mar­ket for years no one can say how soon can we be the Gretsch nev­er time how soon can we talk to grad school get dou­ble-bass beats ready a 16-gauge nee­dle they’ll make me a slit in a week I say CONSIDER! DIFFERENT! FADING! SYSTEMS! some assur­ance I’ve been drink­ing nev­er any­thing nev­er false stage singing grief CONSIDER! DIFFERENT! FADING! SYSTEMS! nev­er false stage singing grief CONSIDER! DIFFERENT! FADING! SYSTEMS! nev­er false stage singing grief
nev­er false stage singing grief
nev­er false stage singing grief
nev­er false
nev­er false nev­er false
oh you drum
oh you drum
my drum
my drum
my drum



this con­tains lyrics/references from the following:
Drum’s Not Dead – the Liars
““Falling”” – Roy Orbison
““I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times”” – the Beach Boys
““The Strength of Strings”” – Gene Clark
Bri­an Eno and Peter Schmidt’s Oblique Strate­gies card deck



From the writer


:: Account ::

Between 2010 and the present, I’ve lived with an arry­th­mia called AV-Nodal Reen­trant Tachy­car­dia, caused by a con­gen­i­tal heart issue. I’ve had spot­ty health insur­ance, mul­ti­ple doc­tors, and two surgeries.

Through­out this time, I was the lead singer of a band in Los Ange­les. I worked a shit­ty 9–5, while prac­tic­ing, record­ing, and play­ing shows reg­u­lar­ly. I drank a lot. I was in a fierce­ly code­pen­dent, mutu­al­ly destruc­tive rela­tion­ship with the gui­tar play­er in the band.

Most of this piece comes from diary entries I made on my lunch breaks in the Hol­ly­wood For­ev­er Ceme­tery which was right down the street from where I worked. Soon after the gui­tar play­er and I broke up and I moved out of Los Ange­les, he made me a playlist based on our rela­tion­ship. The last song on it was the Liars’ “The Oth­er Side of Mt. Heart Attack,” from their 2006 album, Drum’s Not Dead. We had a poster from the album hang­ing in our East Hol­ly­wood apart­ment, but I had­n’t revis­it­ed the album in years. When I write, I tend to lis­ten to a sin­gle song on repeat for hours, induc­ing a kind of time-tran­scend­ing trance state, which is what I did with this song/piece.

After fin­ish­ing it, I found that the con­cerns of this piece were very much in con­ver­sa­tion with the album. As the band said at the album’s release, it explores the ten­sion between two fic­tion­al char­ac­ters, Drum, “assertive and pro­duc­tive, the spir­it of cre­ative con­fi­dence,” and Mount Heart Attack, ” the embod­i­ment of stress and self-doubt.” The con­nec­tion seemed obvi­ous. Even on a lit­er­al level—my body has two pace­mak­ers; the album has two drum kits.

I’ve strug­gled with the cor­rect form for this con­tent. It ends up some­where between a lyric essay and a nar­ra­tive long poem. It’s both a love let­ter and a break-up let­ter to my favorite city. It’s an attempt to recount and rec­on­cile one of the most dark/difficult and also fun/exciting times in my life.


Tasia Trevi­no is a writer and musi­cian from Cal­i­for­ni­a’s Cen­tral Coast. Her poems have/will appear(ed) in Fence, Pre­lude, Yalobusha Review, Dream Pop Press, and Poets.org. She has an MFA from the Iowa Writ­ers’ Work­shop where she was award­ed two May­tag Fel­low­ships and the 2018 Acad­e­my of Amer­i­can Poets’ Prize. More at tasiatrevino.com.


Nonfiction / Stanley Plumly

:: Extremities ::

Strange what you remem­ber. When I think of my moth­er the first thing I think of is her feet, her flat duck feet, with their bunions and cal­lus­es and size-what­ev­er com­plaints; with their deep bot­tom criss­cross lines, like dry rivers, lin­ing every which way, as if to tell her for­tune. Not that her feet were imme­di­ate­ly-look­ing odd or out­sized, only that in her youth she’d tried, like a Cin­derel­la sis­ter, to squeeze them into shoes that didn’t fit, shoes on sale or that had some spe­cial claim to beau­ty. At least this was her sto­ry. It was the Depres­sion, she’d say, as if pover­ty had any­thing to do with it, which, as I imag­ine the sub­tle­ty of pover­ty, its depra­va­tions and denials, may be part­ly true.

As she got old­er her feet took on fur­ther distortion—they didn’t seem to belong to the nice legs and moth­er body above them. They’d some­times look attached, from anoth­er time, peas­ant feet, field-work­er from a paint­ing. I’m prob­a­bly exag­ger­at­ing, but they seemed, at times, to trod rather than sim­ply walk the ground. And it’s not as if she didn’t try to cor­rect the dis­par­i­ty, so that the dif­fer­ent thing is the degree to which she cared for them: the salt baths, the med­i­c­i­nal creams, the del­i­cate foot files, the inserts to shoes, the high heels relieved with flats.

At home, cook­ing, doing laun­dry or house­work, she wore slip­pers that fit like old gloves, which is to say she might as well have been bare­foot, except for the fact that the slip­per tend­ed to slap the floor while her feet on their own were silent. Once a week she saw what she called her foot doc­tor, Dr. Schucutt—Shoe-Cut, I called him. I met him once, wait­ing in the wait­ing room. He was small and bent a bit—from bend­ing over to per­form his exam­i­na­tions, I thought, like a shoe sales­man or a cob­bler. My moth­er looked for­ward to these vis­its, both because they gave her some relief and because—now that I think about it—they were sen­su­al expe­ri­ences: the lit­tle surg­eries, the hand-han­dling, the min­is­ter­ing of med­i­cines, the mere inti­mate atten­tions, the feet as some­thing utter­ly personal.

I have my mother’s feet, pan­cake feet. Our feet, after all, are the plat­forms of our being and the first parts of our bod­ies the ancients paid car­ing and pub­lic atten­tion to, espe­cial­ly in wel­com­ing vis­i­tors. Think of the thou­sands of years and the mil­lions of miles that our feet have car­ried us on the foot­paths and across the thresh­olds. No won­der we’ve anoint­ed them with oil and blessed their trav­el, though it’s unlike­ly that my moth­er, on her best day, could have cov­ered a walk­ing mile.

Yet those feet were the most human part of her, the most vul­ner­a­ble and reas­sur­ing. As a small child I loved touch­ing them, par­tic­u­lar­ly the cal­lus­es, which were, in imag­i­na­tion, like Grand­pap­py Lyn’s wen—ugly, oth­er­world­ly, mag­i­cal. I think there were moments when she too loved those feet, loved them the way we come to accept our flaws as essen­tial to our iden­ti­ties. I once com­pared the warmth and char­ac­ter of my mother’s feet to a “bricklayer’s hands,” and those hands, I real­ize now, are my father’s hands.


That’s the part of his body I remem­ber most, those large hard hands, that could squeeze the juice from an apple. In his prime, my father was six feet, weighed 200 or so pounds, and had a thir­ty-two-inch waist. He had a laborer’s hands, almost as cal­lused as my mother’s feet. To watch him with an axe or ham­mer, the way his right hand swal­lowed the han­dle, was to be impressed. To watch him lift a tray of bricks and car­ry it up a lad­der or hold a shov­el or move an anvil cra­dled between his arms, his hands in fists…

When he stopped work­ing in the woods he turned to weld­ing, most­ly because by then we’d left Vir­ginia for Ohio, and left nature for indus­try, though the farmer in him nev­er left him. Per­haps he saw some artistry in draw­ing a seam of soft hot met­al in order to heal a rift. He looked omi­nous in the welder’s mask, though at both French Oil and Dup­ps he was soon pro­mot­ed out of the welder’s chair and mask to foreman.

Some of my hap­pi­est times with him were help­ing him build our half-built house and watch­ing him use those hands. For him it was an after-work and week­end job, for me an after-school fan­ta­sy. I was nine. He had two work­men from work to fill out with the extras, cheap labor for the least skilled of the dig­ging of foun­da­tions and mea­sur­ing off of rooms and mix­ing hod and gen­er­al­ly hold­ing things togeth­er. I sort of car­ried bits and pieces and stayed out of the way and played the spy. The three of them poured the con­crete floors, but it was my father who laid the brick and lev­eled its flat-face sur­faces and angles, some­times bet­ter than oth­er times.

It was my father who shaped the shape of the roof, his big raw hands han­dling the two-by-six­es as if they were mere lum­ber, which, of course they were—the helper work­men at each end of the longer pieces, just like those years ago in the woods. We were always work­ing against the clock, which is to say the weath­er, since our work hours were always up against sun­set and the rain and, final­ly, the snow. The first year the house was enough of a shell we could work inside on walls and win­dows and doors, none of which seemed quite right, as if my father’s hands lacked the sub­tle­ty of the square.

The thing is that my father was a sober house-builder, then a drunk after dark, when he would disappear—as far as I knew—until the next morn­ing, usu­al­ly late for his reg­u­lar foreman’s job. He final­ly lost his posi­tion at French Oil for being late at least a hun­dred too many times, but by then we’d pret­ty well closed on fin­ish­ing our half-fin­ished house.

It sat in the coun­try­side on Gar­bry Road just out­side Piqua, Ohio, prac­ti­cal­ly in the mid­dle of a corn­field. It ulti­mate­ly turned out to be a small farm­house, with an added small barn and a cou­ple of out­build­ings. When I’d come back sum­mer from col­lege I’d find dif­fer­ent addi­tions and com­bi­na­tions of domes­tic­i­ty that might include a cou­ple of use­less hors­es, a don­key, chick­ens, a half-dozen white-faced Here­fords, a pen of youngish pigs, what­ev­er. My father always wept send­ing off the cat­tle to slaugh­ter. And he seemed just as close to tears each evening talk­ing to his pigs, whom he pet­ted on their pink heads with great care with his great hands.



From the writer

:: Account ::

by David Baker 

Extrem­i­ties” is a remark­able piece of prose, of remem­brance, in the man­ner of a com­pressed mem­oir. It will appear in Stan­ley Plumly’s posthu­mous vol­ume, Mid­dle Dis­tance, in August of 2020 (W.W. Nor­ton), and is one of four such prose works in this book of lyric poet­ry and rich­ness. The present account is a lit­tle unusu­al, since Stan isn’t writ­ing it. I am work­ing with Michael Col­lier, as we assist Mar­garet Plum­ly with Stan’s lit­er­ary mat­ters, and I am hon­ored to have this chance to say a word about “Extrem­i­ties.”

What I can account for here, indeed, is the beau­ty and lap­idary pre­ci­sion of the piece. Much like Stan’s poems, this work is sharply focused in its rep­re­sen­ta­tion of detail—for his moth­er, her feet; for his father, his hands. Synec­doche is the por­trait painter’s not-so-secret secret: let a part speak or stand, as it were, for the per­son­al­i­ty of the whole per­son. So here is his moth­er, stand­ing on her own two feet, stand­ing up to work, stand­ing firm as care­tak­er for the fam­i­ly. Stan’s ear­ly poem from Sum­mer Celes­tial, “My Mother’s Feet,” is a beau­ti­ful fam­i­ly fore­bear to this half of “Extrem­i­ties,” which is about love and pain and the eas­ing of pain for the ones we love.

Notice how deft­ly the metaphor of his mother’s feet, “like a bricklayer’s hands” in that ear­li­er poem, becomes a link to his father, who was indeed at times a bricklayer—and a wood­turn­er, lum­ber­man, welder, and (like Whit­man) a house­builder. He had hard hands, Stan says, hands hard­ened by so much work but capa­ble of affec­tion, pet­ting the pink heads of those pigs.

A home­mak­er and a house­builder, his moth­er and father, both mak­ers. And they were both dear to Stan, as the ten­der­ness and pre­ci­sion of this piece attests. Mem­o­ry is what we car­ry for­ward of the facts of our lives. It seems to select us as much as we select what to recall, and in “Extrem­i­ties” Stan creates—as well as recreates—an indeli­ble dou­ble por­trait of his par­ents. He is still their duti­ful son, two of whose duties have been rapt atten­tion and unmatched styl­is­tic skill. Mak­ers must run in that family.


Stan­ley Plum­ly pub­lished 10 high­ly influ­en­tial books of poet­ry dur­ing his life­time, as well as four impor­tant works of prose on the Roman­tic poets and painters. His posthu­mous col­lec­tion of new poet­ry and lyric prose, Mid­dle Dis­tance, will appear in August 2020 from W. W. Nor­ton. He was Dis­tin­guished Uni­ver­si­ty Pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mary­land at the time of his death in April 2019. 


Nonfiction / Sayuri Ayers

:: Surge ::

And it was always our sea­son of per­il: Elec­tric­i­ty, the per­il the wind sings to in the wires on a gray day. 

—Janet Frame, Faces in the Water

Mam­ma, how was I born?” My four-year-old son asks. He leans against me, one hand around my arm, anoth­er on his die-cast Volk­swa­gen Bee­tle. I put down the bed­time book and glean my mind—recall my son as a squalling bun­dle, his fists blue-gray as storm clouds.

You were so small that I felt like I wasn’t hold­ing any­thing at all,” I began. “When I saw you, I knew that I loved you.” My son gig­gles, buries his dark head in my lap.

Keep on read­ing, beau­ti­ful Mam­ma,” he says, turn­ing the page.

That night, I dream of giv­ing birth to my son. I’m walk­ing in an open field and I’m struck by light­ning. Our hearts course with cur­rent and he comes surg­ing out of me, singed with fire.

While in the mater­ni­ty ward, I was entan­gled in mind-numb­ing depres­sion. I bare­ly ate and spoke. When I opened my mouth, gar­bled weep­ing poured out. I lay par­a­lyzed in the hos­pi­tal bed, my mind swarm­ing with dark­ness. Shad­ows eased ten­drils over bed­sheets. Black­ened iris roots clawed upwards from the linoleum tile.

With the psy­chi­atric med­ica­tions, the images of the woman sway­ing from a door­frame and the devoured infant fad­ed into shad­owy lat­tices, then into vapor. Final­ly, I could hold my son, mar­vel at his light­ness, the arch of his back, his milk-scent­ed cheeks. As he drew draught after draught from the bot­tle, I gazed down at him, he up at me. Sun­light hemmed us togeth­er, silence bro­ken by morn­ing cho­rus out­side the bed­room window.

But now, three years lat­er, the shad­ows are back again. They flut­ter around the edges of cur­tains like moths. While my hus­band sleeps, I look beyond the bound­aries of the back­yard, deep into the woods. Pines rake at the win­ter moon. The gate is unlatched and swings loose­ly on its hinges. Like a pale arm, it motions to the icy river.

At day­break, my son rush­es into my room and leaps into bed. “You need a hug,” he says. For months my body has been aching, plead­ing for rest. I drag myself from bed, stum­ble across the chilly floor. With lead­en hands, I heap a bowl full of yogurt for my son. It’s been a week and a half since I’ve show­ered. I plow my hands through my hair and change my under­wear and bra. “Stu­pid,” I tell the reflec­tion in the mir­ror. Its fer­al eyes dart back and forth.

I’m fine,” I tell my hus­band. Tears course down my face.

No, you’re not,” my hus­band says. When he had returned home, the liv­ing room was lit­tered with toys. My son had been watch­ing tele­vi­sion for hours. I was sprawled weep­ing on the bed.

My hus­band rif­fles through the pages of the Emer­gency Men­tal Health Plan that we’d cre­at­ed. “We have to do some­thing,” he says. I look at my hands, slow spread­ing of creas­es, light­ning ingrained in flesh—the flesh spi­ral­ing down into dark­ness. I dig into my palm with my nails.

In my dreams, my son is cap­tured by a beast with a mil­lion ten­ta­cles. While I slash and scream, the beast squeezes tighter and tighter—my son bulges, black­ens. He bursts into ash and is swept away by the wind. Weep­ing, I search for him, gath­er soot into my arms. I wake up screaming.

My hus­band, son, and I final­ly move in with my par­ents. We lock up our house and leave the front lights on. We pull out of the dri­ve­way. I look back. The house wavers, for­est bristling with snow. The riv­er stirs, ice grinds along its shale bank—fractured teeth in a black jaw.

Every morn­ing after my hus­band leaves for work, my moth­er eas­es me out of bed. She coax­es me to pull on my left sock, then right. She shows me how to brush my hair and teeth. She places a cup of tea and a bowl of broth in front of me. “Sip,” she says. “Swal­low,” she says. “Again,” she says. While my son bounds in the snow, she rocks me as I weep.

Even at my par­ents’ house, there are days when I can’t get out of bed. I lis­ten to my moth­er clang­ing pots in the kitchen down­stairs, to the pad-pad of my son’s feet up to my bed­room. “Tell me a sto­ry, Mam­ma,” my son says, hoist­ing him­self up onto the bed. I can bare­ly lift my head from the pil­low. He cups his hands around my face, and gazes at me, wait­ing. I close my eyes again.

The mon­sters have stolen my car. You won’t find it,” my son says. His face, pale and solemn. “These mon­sters have lots of legs. They can squeeze through pipes and go down into the base­ment.” We find the Volk­swa­gen Bee­tle smudged and dent­ed, wedged between air vent and desk. “See,” my son says, cradling his car, “they’re everywhere.”

Before tuck­ing him into bed, I tell my son: “There’s a dark for­est. In the cen­ter of it is a mon­ster with many ten­ta­cles. It tries to eat a tree full of baby ani­mals. When you hear the babies scream­ing, you run into the for­est. You’re afraid, but you have a crys­tal sword. You plunge the sword into the monster’s eye, and it runs away—never to be seen again.”

Bur­row­ing into the com­forter, my son smiles. “Tell me anoth­er, Mam­ma,” he says.

One morn­ing, I’m awak­ened by the tap-tap of ice thaw­ing from the house’s eaves. My son bursts into my room. He wraps his small arms around my neck, nuz­zles me. “Are you here for­ev­er, mom­ma?” he asks. “Yes—forever,” I say. Light dis­lodges, glim­mers through my body.

The wis­te­ria has final­ly bloomed, nod­ding its gold­en head in time to song spar­rows. As I wash and dry the dish­es, my son plays near my feet with his Volk­swa­gen Bee­tle. I tell my moth­er about the new poems I’ve writ­ten, the soup recipes I’d like to try, how my son has grown two inch­es. She smiles at me, sun­light gloss­ing her gray­ing hair, dark eyes. “It’s almost time for you to go home,” she says, embrac­ing me.

When I come out­side to gar­den the Sat­ur­day of my family’s return, my neigh­bor comes to greet me. “I haven’t seen any of you for four months,” he says. “I thought I would have to call the cops.” Despite my husband’s week­end attempts at lawn main­te­nance, our home stands in five inch­es of wild grass, the gar­den beds choked with weeds. While my son steers his cars in and out of the shriv­eled tulips, I stab the weed­er into roots of dan­de­lion. I fill four yard-waste bags and lug them to the curb.

At night, my wrists and back crack­le with pain. I stand at the win­dow again, stare deep into the woods. The moon shines down into the whorl of dark­ness, down to the riv­er bed. The white stone path and gate pulse with fire­flies. I slip into bed next to my hus­band. I kiss his stub­bled cheeks until he rous­es; then I take him into my arms.

I pile the shop­ping cart high with daylily, bego­nia, and peony bulbs. I’ve select­ed each one for their hearty blooms, gen­er­ous foliage. Any­thing, I think, to keep the weeds from com­ing up again.

In the cool morn­ing, I emp­ty the bulb pack­ages into dirt with my son. I show him how to plant each bulb upright, light­ly cov­er them all with top­soil. When I unwrap the peony bulbs, my son breaks into gig­gles. “Look!” he says. “Mon­sters!” He kiss­es their gnarled, trail­ing roots. When we plant them, he sprin­kles them with soil and pats them with his small hand.

How are you doing?” my moth­er asks. Adjust­ing the phone, I watch my son run his Bee­tle over and around my lap. I run my fin­gers through his hair, mak­ing fur­row after fur­row. His sweet baby scent, giv­ing way to the fra­grance of earth and sweat—the wind dis­till­ing. “I’m fine,” I say.

I pause from weed­ing gar­den beds and look up into the tree line. The tips of pines hiss and crack­le under a sheen of static—the gar­bled voic­es almost com­pre­hen­si­ble. I plunge the trow­el deep­er, earth­worms and pill bugs squirm­ing up from crest­ing soil. Under my hand, the dark­ness puls­es. Beside me, my son scoops earth into his tin pail, trac­ing the flower beds his hands. He pets the inky shoots, say­ing, “Listen—can you hear them sing?”



From the writer

:: Account ::

Before I wrote cre­ative non­fic­tion, I was a poet. I decid­ed to approach my expe­ri­ences with ill­ness through the lyric essay because the form allows me to cre­ate a sus­tained nar­ra­tive. I use my train­ing as a poet to hone tone, rhythm, and con­cise­ness of lan­guage. Writ­ing poet­ry has also helped me incor­po­rate strong imagery in my cre­ative non­fic­tion pieces like “Surge.”

Surge” is part of a four-part series that explores my expe­ri­ences in moth­er­hood, men­tal ill­ness, and elec­tro­con­vul­sive ther­a­py. After giv­ing birth to my son, I fell into a deep post­par­tum depres­sion, which was com­pound­ed by my exist­ing men­tal health issues. This essay describes a peri­od of reprieve, when my depres­sion improved. At the same time, “Surge” fore­shad­ows my hos­pi­tal­iza­tion and ECT treat­ments a few short months later.

In “Surge,” the mon­sters and earth play a vital role in describ­ing the moth­er-child rela­tion­ship. I rely on mag­i­cal real­ism to cre­ate an envi­ron­ment where myth becomes truth, pow­er, and heal­ing. Read­ers are encour­aged to take leaps in imag­i­na­tion, to fill those gaps with their own voices.


A Kundi­man Fel­low and Soar­ing Gar­dens Res­i­dent, Sayuri Ayers is a native of Colum­bus, Ohio. Her prose and poet­ry have appeared in Entropy, SWWIM, Hobart, The Pinch, and oth­er lit­er­ary jour­nals. She is the author of two chap­books: Radish Legs, Duck Feet (Green Bot­tle Press, 2016) and Mother/Wound (forth­com­ing from Full/Crescent Press). Her lyric essay man­u­script, Beast-Moth­er, was a final­ist in the Paper Nau­tilus’ 2019 Vel­la Chap­book Com­pe­ti­tion. She has also received grants from the Ohio Arts Coun­cil, Greater Colum­bus Arts Coun­cil, and VSA Ohio. Please vis­it her at sayuriayers.com

Hypocrisy Bridge Rebuilt

Nonfiction / Emily Townsend

:: Hypocrisy Bridge Rebuilt ::


View this work as a PDF

From the writer

:: Account ::

The red text in the first half of this essay sparked the whole thing. My boyfriend inad­ver­tent­ly offend­ed me with porn­stars’ pic­tures, which set off my exis­ten­tial cri­sis about being unable to accept a hyper­sex­u­al­ized society/being frus­trat­ed at my asex­u­al­i­ty. What real­ly freaked me out was that once we start­ed doing sex­u­al stuff, I lost the sex­u­al­i­ty I had always labeled myself as. Writ­ing helps me con­front the issues I’m con­fused about. Going through three layers—the text, my pre­vi­ous pub­li­ca­tions about asex­u­al­i­ty, the present real­iza­tion of a past self—of one sub­ject fur­ther dis­or­ders the process of sort­ing through this heavy per­son­al issue. I bor­rowed the form of John D’Agata’s The Lifes­pan of a Fact for the columns, and used the pre­vi­ous pub­li­ca­tions as a means of com­mu­ni­ca­tion between the text and the self I was before I met my boyfriend. I was a scared, lone­ly col­lege stu­dent, yearn­ing for a rela­tion­ship, yet I nev­er want­ed to be touched. So when I got a boyfriend, I knew I’d have to deal with phys­i­cal inti­ma­cy even­tu­al­ly. Going back to how I react­ed to touch when I was nine­teen ver­sus now, 23 and accept­ing touch, was a weird bridge of liminality—how did I ever become com­fort­able with what I once could nev­er han­dle? Change is inevitable; how­ev­er, change is rarely received in the same man­ner every time. I despise change, but this trans­for­ma­tion was sur­pris­ing­ly accepted.


Emi­ly Townsend is a grad­u­ate stu­dent in Eng­lish at Stephen F. Austin State Uni­ver­si­ty. Her works have appeared in cream city review, Super­sti­tion Review, Thought­ful Dog, Noble / Gas Qtr­lySan­ta Clara Review, East­ern Iowa Review, Paci­fi­ca Lit­er­ary Review, and oth­ers. A nom­i­nee for a Push­cart Prize and 2019 AWP Intro Jour­nals Award, she is cur­rent­ly work­ing on a sec­ond col­lec­tion of essays in Nacog­doches, Texas.

Lie Park: Fragments from a Psychogeography of the Sixth Borough of New York

Nonfiction / Pete Segall


:: Lie Park:

Fragments from a Psychogeography of the Sixth Borough of New York ::

On nights when I was young and lat­er as an adult I would fol­low Ohio Avenue as it sloped toward the Hud­son. Years before, at the begin­ning of the last cen­tu­ry, the street was lined with vast, sprawl­ing homes, the homes of exec­u­tives, ship­ping mag­nates, men with build­ings bear­ing their fam­i­ly name at Choate and Yale. Mas­sive alders blocked the sun set­ting over the riv­er. The spaces sur­round­ing these homes—spaces that could be legit­i­mate­ly called “grounds”—were expan­sive enough to actu­al­ly be for­bid­ding. That much space in the city, pri­vate­ly held, was bewil­der­ing and a warn­ing, a brute odd­i­ty whose vast­ness demand­ed one keep away (remem­ber­ing here that bewil­der is a lin­guis­tic rel­a­tive of wilder­ness, of which these spaces were a very par­tic­u­lar sort).

My par­ents jok­ing­ly called Ohio “Fifth Avenue Squared.” When my wife and I moved here from the Upper West Side, she said we might as well be in Ohio the state, it felt so removed from the rest of the city.

I don’t ever recall see­ing any­one on these grounds when I’d make this walk in my teens, though that’s prob­a­bly mem­o­ry slan­der­ing real­i­ty. I must have seen a game of touch foot­ball or a din­ner par­ty between the branch­es or even a soli­tary per­son tak­ing a walk like me. I’m sure one of these things must have hap­pened. But for what­ev­er rea­son the evi­dence, the mem­o­ry, has been purged.

Today, the man­sions along Ohio, as well as Rot­ter­dam and Bre­mer­haven and Southamp­ton, and their grounds are gone. In their place are apart­ment blocks, too unre­mark­able to car­ry the mer­its of bru­tal­ism. Every hun­dred yards or so an alder remains, though in their soli­tude they are the ones who seem bewil­dered, who seem to have wan­dered into a land­scape they have no busi­ness being a part of. What­ev­er bush-league Robert Moses over­saw the rethink­ing of Ohio Avenue from gild­ed to glut­ted did make one curi­ous choice: at the very end of the road, at the last bit of arch­ing land before the riv­er, a serene cres­cent of wood­land was left untouched.

It’s main­ly oak and catal­pa; rows of phlox and baby’s breath. It’s a place I find end­less­ly hum­ble. It makes no assump­tions and does not demand any­thing of you. It is not impos­ing or inspir­ing, makes no reach toward the sub­lime. As a park it is like a well-designed post office and I say that in the most affec­tion­ate way pos­si­ble for I believe that’s what drew me there almost every night as cer­tain aspects of my life were col­laps­ing or cur­dling or stalling out. The sim­plic­i­ty was depend­able and com­fort­ing. This lit­tle col­lec­tion of trees and shade is actu­al­ly a real park with a real name, over­seen by the Depart­ment of Parks, just like Prospect and Cen­tral and Union Square. It’s called Lie Park.


Lie Park. It’s fun to imag­ine a few bureau­crats sit­ting down and decid­ing that this tight­ly hemmed wedge of green­ery was insignif­i­cant enough that it was actu­al­ly a fic­tion. The mon­u­ment of the Hud­son before you, the dinosaur skele­ton of the Mor­gen­thau Bridge off to the right, the full­ness of all time and space cap­tured in the west­ern sky above every­thing: where you are is not real. This place is not here. It only exists because you need it to.


I rarely encoun­tered any­one else in the park. If I did it was either elder­ly cou­ples or young par­ents, labor­ing to get their babies to sleep. It was strange that such a peace­ful place would go unused. One night I stopped at a bode­ga on the way down the hill to ask if there was some­thing keep­ing peo­ple away from the park, ghost sto­ries or unre­port­ed sex­u­al assaults, any­thing, but the guy behind the counter just shook his head. He was old­er than me, Ethiopi­an or Eritre­an, with bright, blis­ter­ing eyes. Noth­ing wrong with it, he said. It’s just so small. I guess you could say that’s the problem.

I bought a tall boy of Miller High Life and thanked him for his time. It was late in the sum­mer. I knew that by the time I reached the park, drank my beer, engaged in what­ev­er con­tem­pla­tion I arrived upon (this seemed to be the park’s price of admis­sion) and walked back home, it would be well past dark. My wife would ask if I’d gone on anoth­er walk and I would say yes. She would ask why I nev­er invit­ed her to come with. I would make a face and say some­thing like, I’m not sure.


Trygve Lie was a Nor­we­gian diplo­mat and the first sec­re­tary gen­er­al of the Unit­ed Nations, before it had its per­ma­nent home in Man­hat­tan. From all I can tell he was a mid­dling fig­ure, unre­mark­able enough that this half-extant park was deemed a suf­fi­cient memo­r­i­al to him. I have come across an account of his life in New York that men­tions his fond­ness for the area. “[W]hen there, one imag­ines that a city is not only a wel­ter. It hums, but soft­ly,” he wrote to a Nor­we­gian friend.


I poured out the last few ounces of my beer at the base of a catal­pa for poor Mr. Lie. The lights from the apart­ments up the hill were begin­ning to feel oppres­sive. The pres­ences of Riverdale and Co-Op City in the dis­tance were almost too much to bear. I need­ed to go back home. Instead of going up Ohio, I fol­lowed the walk­ing path north, where it even­tu­al­ly dropped me into Armistice Boulevard.

Every­thing about Armistice Boule­vard seems to serve as a reminder of our own impend­ing deaths.

Not a thought was giv­en to sleep­ing police­men, actu­al police­men, cross­ing guards, brighter sig­nage, more stop­lights. The Boule­vard was ful­ly formed and immutable. You don’t move among traf­fic with­out an acute aware­ness that time is gain­ing on you. Over­lay speed on place and you know your term here is fixed. But even in spite of its parade of patholo­gies, I knew that Armistice Boule­vard was just as much a part of my expe­ri­ence as Lie Park.


One evening, when my wife said she was stay­ing in Mid­town for din­ner with a friend who I know now wasn’t just that, I walked back to the Arm. In a very real sort of way I felt cleaved, that there was a part of me tak­ing this walk because the idea of wan­der­ing the bor­ough had start­ed to coa­lesce from point­less strolling impuls­es into a thing with form and teeth; and anoth­er part that need­ed to be out of the house. These were two entire­ly dif­fer­ent motives head­ing toward their own objec­tives. To walk as an observ­er was sound enough to lead me, open-eyed, some­place I hadn’t intend­ed to go. I might have start­ed on Armistice (it was only two blocks from our own house) and paid atten­tion to the rock­et-pro­pelled traf­fic, the pre­pon­der­ance of big box stores, from dia­per empo­ria to cof­fin deal­er­ships but soon­er or lat­er some­thing would have pulled me aside. Or some­one. A voice, a mem­o­ry, an unde­fined urge. To walk through the city with­out pur­pose is to leave your­self sus­cep­ti­ble to hid­den grav­i­ties. We’ve aged out the fla­neur. There are too many large bod­ies and singularities.

But if I’d gone sim­ply to go, to remove myself from a place that I’d already pol­lut­ed with bad feel­ing and was well on its way to becom­ing a spir­i­tu­al brown­field, then I could have set off for the Arm know­ing my course was not in any dan­ger of devi­at­ing. Grief makes pre­cise nav­i­ga­tors. We run cold and true. Which would it be then, the observ­er or the escapee? To be both was impos­si­ble. I stood between the Astral 17 Sta­di­um Mul­ti­plex and a school bus whole­saler and had to assume a role. The air around me feels brit­tle and I’m slight­ly nau­seous. I’m not good at decisions.


From the writer

:: Account ::

In Feb­ru­ary of 2001 I was laid off from my dot-com job in Man­hat­tan. I was giv­en an obscene­ly large sev­er­ance pack­age. A week lat­er I got a phone call telling me I’d been accept­ed to grad school.

I had mon­ey and nowhere to be and a date of depar­ture. So I start­ed walk­ing. I walked from the West Vil­lage to Coney Island. I walked up Broad­way to the Clois­ters. If there is one thing New York is good for it’s that its unceas­ing human fric­tion is a strong way of get­ting you moving.

In an “Art of Non­fic­tion” inter­view in The Paris Review, Geoff Dyer makes the claim that the dis­tinc­tion between fic­tion and non­fic­tion isn’t about facts but form. There obvi­ous­ly is no sixth bor­ough of New York, but mov­ing through that or any city—and the psy­chic imprint left by move­ment and place—is a form fit­ted to truth. The inven­tion of street names or topo­graph­ic details does not make the act of emo­tion­al obser­va­tion as evoked by place less real. (Tryvge Lie was real, if that mat­ters.) The New York here is my New York: a hec­tic and bewil­der­ing and sur­pris­ing place, and a ter­ri­ble one for the lone­ly. It does not mat­ter what that feel­ing is laid over. If the form car­ries the expec­ta­tion and feel­ing of truth, then there is no rea­son not to call it true.


Pete Segall is a grad­u­ate of the Iowa Writ­ers’ Work­shop, where he was a Tru­man Capote Fel­low. His work has appeared in Con­junc­tions, Elec­tric Literature’s Rec­om­mend­ed Read­ing, Smoke­Long Quar­ter­ly, Match­bookJoy­land, and else­where, and is forth­com­ing in The Lit­er­ary Review. He has received fel­low­ships from the Ver­mont Stu­dio Cen­ter and Vir­ginia Cen­ter for the Cre­ative Arts.

Anatomy of a Ghost

Nonfiction / Brian Clifton

:: Anatomy of a Ghost ::

A young woman bolts out of her house; she appears to be chased by some­thing invis­i­ble. As she zigza­gs around the street, her focus shifts from some­thing fol­low­ing to what is in front of her. She gazes at the cam­era. Her face is both ter­ri­fied and des­per­ate. She looks simul­ta­ne­ous­ly at the view­er and her invis­i­ble chas­er because, for a moment, they are the same. She jukes and darts back into her house, and the cam­era pans to fol­low her. Almost imme­di­ate­ly, she reemerges and runs to a car. She peels out and down the block.

This is the first scene of It Fol­lows—a movie that fol­lows a young woman, Jay, and her friends as they are ter­ror­ized by an invis­i­ble mon­ster whose blood­lust seeks the newest per­son added to a long chain of sex­u­al encoun­ters. The mon­ster is slow and relent­less. It can imper­son­ate any­one, but often it takes the appear­ance of those famil­iar to its tar­get. Through­out the film, char­ac­ters sub­tly break the fourth wall—both in the pres­ence and absence of the imposter that follows.

In the film’s next scene, the cam­era is perched in the back­seat as the young woman dri­ves down a high­way. She white-knuck­les the steer­ing wheel. As if by twitch, she turns to look behind her.


                              she’s   in disguise. 
                              she’s   in disguise. 
                              There’s a 


One night, after crash­ing my bicy­cle, I booked an Uber to dri­ve me from West­port, the swift­ly gen­tri­fied bar dis­trict of South Kansas City, to where I lived in the His­toric North­east. My apart­ment lurked behind the inter­sec­tion of Glad­stone Boule­vard and Inde­pen­dence Avenue, which put it very east of Troost (the street that the Nichols fam­i­ly used to red­line Kansas City in order to keep African Amer­i­cans and Jews pinned between high­ways and sep­a­rate from the WASP‑y pop­u­la­tion they desired) and a smidge east of Prospect, which was often cit­ed, despite the inter­mit­tent opu­lence and pover­ty east and west of the street, as the bound­ary between those who had and those who had not.

I loaded my bike into the Uber’s van and got into the front seat. The dri­ver cruised down Paseo, inch­ing clos­er and clos­er to my neigh­bor­hood. We drove under a high­way; the dri­ver looked around as gourmet donut shops were replaced by pay­day loans, as bars dis­ap­peared and con­ve­nience stores filled their places. He looked at me. He said, This is not you.

Yes, I respond­ed. He pushed fur­ther, repeat­ing this-is-not-you like a hook. At first, I tried to explain that I did in fact live in this part of town. Unable to con­vince him, I qui­et­ed, try­ing instead to con­vince myself—a sit­u­a­tion made more dif­fi­cult by my recent accep­tance into a grad­u­ate pro­gram, a return to the insti­tu­tion that I had fled years before. 

Is this me? I asked myself as I wheeled my bicy­cle into my apart­ment. Is this me? I asked my stu­dents when I lec­tured about “the the­sis.” Is this me? I asked my plan­ner, its days filled with “assign­ments.” Is this me? I asked my school email address, its seams split­ting with the uncat­e­go­rized waves of announce­ments, ques­tions, adver­tise­ments, and surveys. 


“Even Bri­an has been pub­lished!” I over­heard one PhD stu­dent say to anoth­er. It was at night. We were at a bar. My first year of the pro­gram and fresh from a string of man­u­script rejec­tions, I already had a bad case of Imposter Syn­drome. Approach­ing 30, I was often embar­rassed by it—I thought I should have grown out of the feel­ing by now, but here it was like a sheep­ish child peer­ing out from behind me. 

I con­tin­ue to social­ize with this man. He is a poet I admire. Our con­ver­sa­tions are slight­ly awk­ward, but no more so than any two peo­ple who have only a vague connection—a base­ball fan and a beach vol­ley­ball fan bond­ing over their love of “sport.” He is nei­ther hos­tile nor resent­ful; I nev­er hear him say any­thing sim­i­lar about me or any­one else again. 

Some­times, I won­der if that was what was said at all or just what I heard. Oth­er times, I won­der if that dis­tinc­tion matters.


Baby, baby, baby, oh, baby, baby, baby, no. I whis­per-sing on a friend’s bal­cony. These are the lyrics to Justin Bieber’s “Baby,” a song that lands rel­a­tive­ly ear­ly in Bieber’s oeu­vre. I have nev­er heard the song: not on the inter­net, not on the radio, not at par­ties. Yet, the hook, which I’ve tak­en to whis­per-sing when I need to vocal­ize but have noth­ing to say, is some­how ingrained in my mind. My friend says that I’m singing it wrong and pulls out her phone to find a video of the song on YouTube. 

Please, don’t do that, I plead. Baby, baby, baby, no, baby, baby, baby, oh. I con­tin­ue to say the words out of sync as the song’s first bars twin­kle through her iPhone. A man sticks his head out of the apart­ment and calls for her. She leaves. I stay on the bal­cony, say­ing again Baby, baby, baby, oh, baby, baby, baby, no.

I think about the moment’s uncan­ni­ness. What is more sim­i­lar to Justin Bieber, his record­ed voice, dig­i­tized and squeezed through the air, some cir­cuit­ry, the almost mol­e­c­u­lar sized iPhone speak­er, or Bri­an Clifton whis­per-singing the hook to a song Bieber had sung near­ly a decade ago when puber­ty had not yet carved away his boy­ish­ness? Which enti­ty is the imposter?


Between my first and sec­ond year of my PhD stud­ies, I had two jobs. I was a teach­ing assis­tant for a lit­er­a­ture class. I washed dish­es to make ends meet over the sum­mer. My sched­ule was Fri­day through Mon­day 5:00pm to 2:00am. The work was short, rep­e­ti­tious, and gru­el­ing. Often, I found it hard to grip things dur­ing my days off because my hands were so sore. My feet shriv­eled from being con­stant­ly wet. Because I lived in a col­lege town, most of my cowork­ers attend­ed the uni­ver­si­ty I attend­ed. One of the servers, Fran­cie, I knew from the lit­er­a­ture class I taught direct­ly before I washed dishes. 

When Fran­cie came back to the dish pit, we would talk about lit­er­a­ture, her immi­nent grad­u­a­tion, and the oth­er stu­dents in the class. At first, we orches­trate this show each shift we have togeth­er. Slow­ly, our words become clipped. Slow­ly, there ceas­es to be a need to express ourselves.


In sev­enth grade, AOL Instant Mes­sen­ger (AIM) enthralled my friends. We chat­ted online; we made away mes­sages from the lyrics of our favorite songs; we sent each oth­er the screen names of strangers. One evening an AIM win­dow popped up on my com­put­er, “hey.” “hey. whos this?” 

The gener­ic screen name, bedaz­zled with punc­tu­a­tion marks, responded—it belonged to a girl (was her name Mad­die?). We chat­ted for weeks. We divulged secrets. We devel­oped some­thing akin to feel­ings. We agreed that we were dat­ing. We had nev­er met each oth­er. We were text bounc­ing through cir­cuit boards. 


Anato­my of a Ghost was also a screamo band from the ear­ly aughts. The group nev­er achieved wide­spread suc­cess, dis­band­ing after their first album in 2004. A cou­ple mem­bers went on to start Por­tu­gal. The Man, an indie pop out­fit that now crafts com­mer­cial-ready licks. Their fourth album, The Satan­ic Satanist, is a col­lec­tion of down-tem­po soul­ful indie pop. 

One day after dri­ving my car, my dad runs into our house and demands I burn him a copy of what­ev­er CD was play­ing in the dash. As I do, he raves about the band’s sound, about how it is music. I give him the Mem­o­rex disc, “Por­tu­gal. The Man – The Satan­ic Satanist,” writ­ten in Sharpie on it. 

My dad nev­er speaks of this album or them again, and so, in our brains, the band returns to its pre­vi­ous oth­er-life: a dis­mem­bered specter, a dia­gram of a memory.


We   hear
the   night
click   his 
ask if it’s 
him      or 


After Jay and her para­mour have sex in an aban­doned park­ing lot, he drugs her, ties her to a wheel­chair, and brings her into a dilap­i­dat­ed build­ing. Jay ques­tions her lover, who explains the monster’s motive and the sim­ple rules by which it abides, name­ly that it fol­lows who­ev­er had sex with the most recent­ly cursed per­son. The two then see an approach­ing fig­ure. As the boy wheels Jay around, the two face direct­ly into the cam­era. Jay screams, “What do you want?” 

Soon, Jay real­izes that the boy was not lying. The mon­ster enters her home, caus­ing her to flee to a park on a bicy­cle. Her friends and her neigh­bor, Greg, run after her. They tell Greg some­one had bro­ken into her house. Sob­bing in close-up, Jay says, “I need to find him.” The cam­era shows Jay and her friends fac­ing the view­er while Greg’s right tor­so fills the left side of the frame. It is as if the char­ac­ters are hud­dled, delib­er­at­ing, in a cir­cle under a street­light and the cam­era hangs in the space between being occlud­ed from the group and com­plet­ing the hud­dle. Respond­ing to Jay’s demand, Greg says, “The per­son who broke into your house.” His inflec­tion makes his words both a state­ment and a ques­tion. He removes his hand from the pock­et of his den­im jack­et and ges­tures behind him. His thumb points into the camera. 

The group finds the boy who had cursed Jay with the mon­ster. Real­iz­ing the mon­ster is real, they dri­ve to Greg’s family’s lake house. When the mon­ster arrives, it chas­es Jay and her friends into a boat shed. It busts a cir­cu­lar hole into the shed’s door. The group looks through it as if through a viewfind­er at the beach where they had just been. The only dif­fer­ence between what the group sees and what the view­er had just seen is the absence of themselves.


No Brain­er” fea­tures Justin Bieber—his voice being more impor­tant than his lyrics, which any­one can find online. Dust­ed by post-pro­duc­tion mag­ic, Bieber’s vocal track is otherworldly—simultaneously strain­ing to sound con­fi­dent and sex­u­al while remain­ing lock-step and mech­a­nized. Life­less yet relent­less, Bieber’s vocals are a mall pop­u­lat­ed by replicants. 

The uncan­ni­ness that envelopes Bieber’s voice increas­es through­out “No Brain­er,” cul­mi­nat­ing in an intri­cate war­ren of Bieber’s hook with a slew of falset­to har­monies and trilling whoas. The tan­gled melodies ghost mul­ti­ple Bieber’s and mul­ti­ple, frag­ment­ed moments with­in Bieber’s serenade. 

Lis­ten­ing to the song is to under­stand that its mes­sage doesn’t come direct­ly from one (or many) human beings but instead is a string of sounds pro­duced to imi­tate human con­nec­tion via lan­guage. “No Brain­er” is a love song sung by no one to no one.


I read a book of gar­ish sen­tences. I do not bring up my judg­ment in class (or I do). Even I roll my eyes at this type of performance.


In morn­ing traf­fic between Dal­las and Den­ton, I sit at a stand­still in the left-most lane. I am alone. The sun has come up (I know by the time I get back home it will have gone down). On the shoul­der, near the con­crete bar­ri­er between I‑35 North and I‑35 south, is a dead pit­bull. Its body is rigid but not bloat­ed. Its fur is gore-stained. I think, because it was hit on the high­way, it must have died near instan­ta­neous­ly; I do not know how these things work. 

The dog corpse is next to me. We hov­er near each oth­er for what seems to be an eter­ni­ty. The dog’s pelt does not appear bro­ken, though its insides jut angu­lar­ly, sug­gest­ing the chaos that the col­li­sion must have ini­ti­at­ed with­in the pitbull’s body. As I stare at the dead body, I bring my hand to my mouth and my eyes water—my mind still sting­ing from, weeks before, believ­ing my own pet was about to die. 

Traf­fic lurch­es for­ward, dis­si­pates. I speed off to drop off rent and then to teach fresh­men the neces­si­ty of a the­sis. I hear myself say, Why did you cov­er your mouth? Go through the per­for­mance of tears and then not cry?


Fran­cie was not the only stu­dent I worked with. As I would find out in the fall, Claris­sa would also be a stu­dent of mine. Over the sum­mer, Claris­sa watched me dance to songs about how sex on a sofa can be a type of yoga, about want­i­ng men in Timb’s, about basic bitch­es think­ing I’m a head case. 

On the first day of class, I walked into class and see Claris­sa in her black, cat-eyed glass­es. She sat near the back. I told her specif­i­cal­ly hel­lo. I imme­di­ate­ly became a dish­wash­er mas­querad­ing as a pro­fes­sor. I tried to restart my per­for­mance of a “laid back” prof. I stum­bled. I got through class. After­ward, I asked Claris­sa if she is alright being in my class. She said she was. Great, I said. 


In my ear­ly twen­ties, I saw Por­tu­gal. The Man play a small venue in Lawrence. I had dri­ven there from Kansas City with an ex-girl­friend and her new boyfriend who was a friend of mine. We smoked weed in the car. I was unsure what to say, so I drove faster, hop­ing soon the venue would be so full of music I could feel safe­ly alone. When the band struck up, I snuck into the crowd and twitched like a sad virus.


After work, I dri­ve an hour home. My car’s check engine light flash­es at me (indi­cat­ing mis­fires). Anoth­er light on the dash informs me my airbag sys­tem is mal­func­tion­ing. For the past four­teen miles, a small orange gas pump has shone next to my fuel gage. When I pull off the high­way, my car strains and rat­tles; things grate against each oth­er; met­al squeaks when I stop. My car is its own imposter, and a poor one at that. 


I am that 
I'm-a that 
bih,   yeah 
You  know 
I'm     that 
bih,   can't 
get  off   of 
this      dih, 


I tilt­ed my head and bobbed it back and forth. I said with a smile, “Nice.” I let my body go slack. I repeat­ed this action, say­ing var­i­ous pos­i­tive phras­es: fuck yeah, sick, that’s rad. It was dark. Dal­las unfurled into bits of halo­gen. I con­tin­ued to imi­tate the friends I believed sup­port­ed everyone.


It Fol­lows ends with Jay and Paul hold­ing hands and walk­ing down a neigh­bor­hood street. The mon­ster that fol­lowed had not been defeat­ed so much as rerout­ed; scenes ear­li­er Paul dri­ves to a seedy and indus­tri­al part of Detroit to vis­it a sex work­er. It is implied the plan was to pass the crea­ture to some­one who rou­tine­ly had sex with a vast array of people. 

One of the most com­pelling ambi­gu­i­ties of the film, for me, is its mes­sage. Is It Fol­lows anti-sex? There are plen­ty of indi­ca­tions that this is the case—a mon­ster that is sent to pun­ish the sex­u­al­ly active, the reduc­tion of human sex­u­al­i­ty to a trans­ac­tion for sur­vival (the sex scenes in the film play out self-seri­ous and duti­ful with more des­per­a­tion than pas­sion). Yet the sex­u­al con­tent of It Fol­lows is shown neu­tral­ly. Nei­ther Jay nor Paul are shamed for their sex­u­al­i­ty once becom­ing sex­u­al­ly active. And in one scene the two char­ac­ters rem­i­nisce about find­ing pornog­ra­phy and look­ing at it as a group on one of their lawns. Paul says, “We had no idea how bad it was.” 

This sen­ti­ment, cou­pled with how often the fourth wall is bro­ken, seems to push the film’s mes­sage away from being anti-sex into being a more nuanced cri­tique of social­ized sham­ing. Maybe the film’s mon­ster then becomes not a pun­ish­ment for sex but an embod­i­ment of the inse­cu­ri­ties Jay and Paul project onto indi­vid­u­als of their repressed and repress­ing society—what would my neighbors/mother/cousins/friends think if they knew I had had sex? Or maybe it is the inse­cu­ri­ties these peo­ple have of per­form­ing sexually—did I enjoy this encounter enough or was my plea­sure a show? 


I pulled into our dri­ve­way around 2:45am. I had fin­ished a clos­ing shift wash­ing dish­es. The radio’s rapid twitches—extreme met­al-click-Viet­namese lounge-click-bub­blegum pop-click-neo-lib­er­tar­i­an con­spir­a­cy theories-click-trap-click-advertisement—wafted like dust around my still and silent hatchback. 

I show­ered and drank a Topo Chico. I sat, my hair wrapped in a tow­el. I refreshed my email. I checked my bank account. I stum­bled into the dark bed­room; Rowen, my part­ner, was curled on her side, already asleep. We spooned in the way long­time lovers must on a full mattress. 

My body still vibrat­ed from the quick suc­ces­sion of repet­i­tive tasks I had done for the past eight and a half hours. I won­dered if, even while sleep­ing, Rowen could know I was the one in the dark with her. Was there an essen­tial aspect to me, my touch that let her know I was there and not anoth­er? Was this the case with every­one? If so, why did my eyes watch the door ready for a ter­ror to waltz through when­ev­er Rowen left to use the bath­room, why did I imper­cep­ti­bly jump when she clutched my body in the dark? 

As I thought and thought, I sat up and craned my head over so I could see around her shoul­ders, her hair. In the dark, I squint­ed at her, find­ing what made this sleep­ing face hers. Yes, the body next to me was Rowen. Yes, I am myself. I fell asleep.


A few days before a mid­dle school mix­er, I mes­saged Mad­die, “we should meet at the dance.” 


… ☺”


I wait­ed, but Mad­die didn’t show. Our par­ents arrived. Mad­die dis­ap­peared from AIM. A few weeks lat­er, a friend told me Mad­die was real­ly Justin, a boy in our class, the whole thing was a joke, and many peo­ple were aware of it. 

I looked at Justin, at the oth­er kids in the class—aware of the dif­fer­ence between how they saw me and how I had seen myself in the past weeks, aware of the dif­fer­ence between how I had seen them before and how I saw them after. 


Years after first see­ing Por­tu­gal. The Man, I rode my bicy­cle around Kansas City and came across a free con­cert series on top of hill that ris­es between I‑35 and Broad­way Boule­vard. Head­lin­ing the event was Por­tu­gal. The Man. I locked up my bike and made my way to the front of the stage. I hard­ly rec­og­nized the band—the singer, who used to posi­tion his mic side­ways so he wouldn’t have to look at the crowd, direct­ly addressed us, his hair recent­ly cut short, his lips accen­tu­at­ed with a neat moustache. 

Por­tu­gal. The Man played songs I did not rec­og­nize. All around me were peo­ple I did not know bop­ping along in flip-flops, cut-offs, tank tops, and ungod­ly flu­o­res­cent rimmed sun­glass­es. I drift­ed back, watch­ing the space I had occu­pied in the crowd slow­ly dis­perse, like a ghost into the stained walls of a haunt­ed house.


A man mes­sages me on Face­book. He tells me Rick Barot sent him a per­son­al rejec­tion for a group of poems he sub­mit­ted to the New Eng­land Review. He, this man, men­tored me dur­ing my first stint in grad­u­ate school. 

In a pre­vi­ous mes­sage, he asked, “Do you know an edi­tor there? Or is it just that your poem was THAT good?” A year pre­vi­ous, he told me that it was great that I was using my per­son­al con­nec­tions to get published. 

I con­grat­u­late this man. I say good things are coming.


For a time dur­ing my com­mute, I repeat, Why did you cov­er your mouth? Go through the per­for­mance of tears and then not cry? It is true: there was no one else in my car and I doubt any­one in traf­fic was mon­i­tor­ing me, I felt no con­nec­tion to this ani­mal oth­er than the one all ani­mals feel, I will not be both­ered by this expe­ri­ence a year from now. As if by twitch, I look behind me. I switch lanes. I look in the mir­ror and see myself look­ing back. Maybe every­one per­forms a lit­tle for them­selves, for the micro­scop­ic feed­back loop between the synapse and the eye, the ear, the hand, the nose. Maybe this per­for­mance is nec­es­sary, but why? And for whom do we bring our hands to our mouths—the future self or the past? Are they so distinct? 


Yeah,   I’m 
—pull    up 
to          the 
scene   with 
my   ceiling 


A pro­fes­sor posts a ques­tion in an online dis­cus­sion board. I answer his ques­tion with a series of ques­tions. In class he ref­er­ences Rosen­crantz and Guildenstern’s game of ques­tions. I don’t get the ref­er­ence, but I laugh and say I hadn’t thought of it that way.


Mov­ing up an onto­log­i­cal lev­el, It Fol­lows unspools like a dream, a pro­jec­tion of the viewer’s inse­cu­ri­ties onto the suc­ces­sion of dig­i­tal images. The sound­track aids this effect. Crys­talline and dis­tort­ed synths dis­solve into ethe­re­al amor­phous swells; it is simul­ta­ne­ous­ly a prod­uct of a Vase­line-smeared 80s aes­thet­ic and dis­tinct­ly sep­a­rate from it (a ghost of the future the 80s pre­dict­ed that nev­er came). The sound­track becomes most haunt­ing­ly poignant in the film’s final scene. Its syn­thet­ic tex­tures fade into crisp ren­di­tions of birds and yard work—close yet uncan­ni­ly dis­tant from sound­ing nat­ur­al like how a voice in a dream booms with­in the dream-self’s mind rather than emanates from the mouth of its speaker. 

Jay and Paul walk, hold­ing hands. Their heads casu­al­ly rotate from each oth­er to the cam­era, to the side­walk, to the hous­es around them as does ours—another instance of the bro­ken fourth wall. Like the sound­track, they become immersed in the nat­u­ral­is­tic sounds. Jay’s sex­u­al his­to­ry is known to us, the view­er, and to Paul. Paul’s sex­u­al his­to­ry is known to Jay and to us. We exist, the three us—Jay, Paul, and viewer—aware of each oth­er, con­clu­sive­ly our­selves as we gaze as if there were noth­ing before our eyes—absences ready to be filled. 


One night dur­ing clos­ing, I put on Dead in the Dirt’s The Blind Hole. The songs pum­mel their feed­back-laced riffs and snare-heavy blast beats into every­thing 50 sec­onds at a time. I tow­el melt­ed ice cream from the dish rack. I hose bits of bacon and grilled chick­en cling­ing to the side of the dish­wash­er. I squeegee a grey-white liq­uid from where the walls meet the floor to the drains in the cen­ter of the room. Dead in the Dirt grinds. Dead in the Dirt screams. “I was a dog on a short chain and now there’s no chain.”



From the writer

:: Account ::

Between semes­ters of the PhD pro­gram I was a dish­wash­er at a restau­rant where two of my stu­dents also worked. I had been feel­ing like I didn’t belong in acad­e­mia and this, to me, fur­ther insin­u­at­ed that. I want­ed to show a mind wrestling with the con­stant­ly mutat­ing per­for­mance of self that is asked of a per­son in pub­lic no mat­ter where that is. Who am I in the car? Who am I at my job? Who am I at the gro­cery store? Are all these selves compatible?

I also thought using song lyrics from musi­cians that had gone through dra­mat­ic per­sona shifts—Shakira’s move from Span­ish-lan­guage to Eng­lish-lan­guage pop star, Bob Dylan’s chameleon-like iden­ti­ty, Qveen Herby’s move from Dis­ney star to raunch rap, 2Chainz’s move from Tity Boi to trap star—would trou­ble the idea of per­for­mance and authen­tic­i­ty. What does it mean when the peo­ple whose words infil­trate a lot of my day are play act­ing as some­one oth­er than themselves?


Bri­an Clifton is a PhD stu­dent at the Uni­ver­si­ty of North Texas. His work can be found in: Pleiades, Guer­ni­ca, Cincin­nati Review, Salt Hill, Prairie Schooner, The Jour­nal, Beloit Poet­ry Jour­nal, and oth­er mag­a­zines. He is an avid record col­lec­tor and cura­tor of curiosities.

Descartes and Doulas

Nonfiction / Kascha Semonovitch

:: Descartes and Doulas ::

When I went into labor, my doula asked me think of a mantra—something I could repeat—for the ear­ly part of the process. For this phase, my doula said, I need­ed some­thing that took a lit­tle con­cen­tra­tion, took a lit­tle of my mind because I would not yet be all body. Some peo­ple liked to look at pic­tures or sing or dance. Or repeat­ed a poem or a prayer. Just repeat­ing om om or hum­ming would work for when, hon­est­ly, it just doesn’t mat­ter what you’re think­ing because you’ll prob­a­bly just be mak­ing nail marks in your partner’s shoul­ders or shit­ting your­self. But for this part I need­ed a lit­tle phrase to say and say again to keep the mind busy.

She thought maybe I could recite a piece of poet­ry I had mem­o­rized. This hor­ri­fied me. Instead, I choice to recite the struc­ture of Descartes’s Med­i­ta­tions as laid out in the syn­op­sis. In ret­ro­spect, I can see how I sound like an arro­gant aca­d­e­m­ic. But it was hon­est­ly the best thing I could think of at the time: it was some­thing I had mem­o­rized while teach­ing to the point of entire­ly inter­nal­iz­ing it so that I could think it even while dis­tressed. “Dis­tressed” in ref­er­ence to active labor is one of those awe­some euphemisms only child­birth edu­ca­tors would use. If you’re “dis­tressed” in labor it is in the way that dis­tressed fab­ric has been beat­en or dyed until it changes struc­ture. It will nev­er look the same.

My doula and I, it turns out, didn’t get along. I nev­er spoke to her again after she “suc­cess­ful­ly” guid­ed me through an un-med­icat­ed labor. At the end of the labor, my pelvis broke in two, and I couldn’t walk for months. She didn’t vis­it me in the hospital.

But in the begin­ning, I trust­ed her, and I picked the syn­op­sis of Descartes’s book. It is one of the most com­mon required texts in intro­duc­to­ry phi­los­o­phy class­es, and also one of my favorites. This is the struc­ture of the text:

1. Doubt all things.
2. Prove the exis­tence of the mind.
3. Prove the exis­tence of God.
4. Deter­mine cri­te­ria for truth.
5. Prove God again.
6. Prove the exis­tence of the exter­nal world and the divi­sion of the mind and body.

In ear­ly labor—which for me last­ed about fif­teen min­utes because I had a baby in three hours—I repeat­ed, One doubt all, two prove the mind, three prove God, fourth truths, five prove God again, six the world, one doubt all, two prove the

Then, I would get inter­rupt­ed by pain and start again. It’s a lit­tle like the habit of count­ing steps while you’re run­ning; not all run­ners do it, but I know many who will sim­ply count steps when the body has pleas­ant­ly tak­en over the mind so that count­ing is about all that’s left.

Repeat­ing the struc­ture of The Med­i­ta­tions made sense as mantra. The con­tent of The Med­i­ta­tions made absolute­ly no sense at all.

The Med­i­ta­tions are all about struc­ture. For­mal, log­i­cal struc­ture. For teach­ing pur­pos­es, the point of read­ing The Med­i­ta­tions is not at all to show they are cor­rect. The lessons include learn­ing how to make dis­tinc­tions, how to devel­op ter­mi­nol­o­gy, how to trace the ori­gin of ter­mi­nol­o­gy through history.

But the big rea­son we teach the text is that it demon­strates how a log­i­cal struc­ture must be con­sis­tent and that that struc­ture can be an effect per­sua­sive tech­nique. And that start­ing from the wrong premis­es can lead you to the wrong con­clu­sions. The text’s log­ic is hard to refute if you can’t dis­pute the premis­es. If you real­ly let your­self go in a read­ing of The Med­i­ta­tions, you are per­suad­ed by it.

When the book opens, Descartes is alone. He is in his bed­room with some free, pri­vate time: “I have today suit­ably freed my mind of all cares, secured for myself a peri­od of leisure­ly tran­quil­i­ty, and am with­draw­ing into solitude.”

The labor­ing body does not have this priv­i­lege. As a par­ent one abdi­cates the right to pri­va­cy for many years; labor­ing takes away that priv­i­lege entire­ly. Prac­ti­cal­ly, espe­cial­ly in the U.S., you sim­ply are not allowed to be alone when labor­ing. I chose to have my hus­band and doula with me for com­fort; at the hos­pi­tal, the nurs­es had to stay with­in earshot and at least with those part­ners. I shat myself over and over in front of at least three peo­ple. It could have been a city; I don’t know. Pri­va­cy was not an option.

But exis­ten­tial­ly as well, I was not alone. I was not; the sin­gle let­ter “I,” stand­ing there alone, does not refer to the preg­nant body. The preg­nant body is not iso­lat­ed. It is not a con­tain­er for two minds or a stack of mind-body Russ­ian dolls. The preg­nant body is a vari­a­tion on all bod­ies; mind a flower on the stalk and seed of body. In labor, it isn’t pos­si­ble to won­der if you are alone: the immi­nences of a force that is not you rup­tures your sense of self along with your labia.

The uterus almost turns inside out in the final phas­es. In our birthing class, the mid­wife demon­strat­ed it by pulling a large, knit, wool sock over a baby doll and then push­ing the baby out, leav­ing an invert sock. The image stayed with me.

The baby would ini­ti­ate that. This was sup­posed to be a mirac­u­lous revelation—our babies were already com­mu­ni­cat­ing with us. I heard not beau­ty but a sci-fi movie voice inton­ing, We are not alone. I know I wasn’t alone in the class in think­ing that this was hor­ri­fy­ing; the aliens inside would decide when we got turned inside out.

By con­trast, Descartes, lone­ly male, decides he has to prove he is not alone: “If this objec­tive real­i­ty of any of my ideas is found to be so great that I am cer­tain that the same real­i­ty was not in me, either for­mal­ly or emi­nent­ly, and that there­fore I myself can­not be the cause of the idea, then it nec­es­sar­i­ly fol­lows that I am not alone in the world.”

The con­tent of The Med­i­ta­tions not only does not fit the state of labor­ing but it does not fit the state of liv­ing either. Even for a per­son priv­i­leged with soli­tude, this proof makes no sense if you look at the body. No mam­mal bod­ies lack proof. If, instead of only metaphor­i­cal­ly navel-gaz­ing, Descartes had lit­er­al­ly keeled over and peered into his navel, he would have seen evi­dence that, at least once, he had not been alone in the world. He too once dehisced.

In the log­ic of the text, Descartes would argue that he could not address his navel because he’s not sure it’s his. At the same time, he admits between med­i­ta­tions that this bod­i­ly dis­con­nect is hard to main­tain for the length of time it takes to read a sen­tence or an entire med­i­ta­tion. The body nev­er ceas­es exert­ing its grav­i­ty on the mind and a prop­er proof takes this into the equation.

But the fun­ny thing about the mind is that it can con­vince itself, if even for a lit­tle while, that it is not the body. You can feel, while tap­ping away at your com­put­er, while los­ing track of time, while check­ing out of a con­ver­sa­tion, while deceiv­ing your­self about pain or about per­cep­tu­al scale—the phan­tom limb, the per­spec­ti­val twist of a tall building—that you are not the same as your decep­tive senses.

That odd duplic­i­ty of the mind—to know it is not sep­a­rate and to try to be—is worth pay­ing atten­tion to. Even though it might not be cor­rect to say we are mind and body, we often feel it is.

But not when we’re hav­ing a baby.


When I pushed the baby out, the lig­a­ment that con­nects the two bones of the pelvis let go. With­out that sup­port, I couldn’t walk. So after work­ing so hard to have a VBAC—a vagi­nal birth after C‑section—I was more bed-bound than any C‑section patient. I couldn’t turn myself over in bed; I couldn’t pee or poop alone. When I final­ly went home, I was wheel­chair and walk­er-bound for a few months.

The worst part, how­ev­er, was that I was in the hos­pi­tal alone for five days with­out sleep­ing. A few hours after they put the baby on my chest, my hus­band went to the bath­room and puked. A stur­dy virus had him and my three-year-old vom­it­ing for days. As a result, they couldn’t come to the mater­ni­ty ward.

I called my doula. She said she had decid­ed to change careers. As in, she had decid­ed that very evening. She said that to me at two in the morn­ing. I don’t think it was entire­ly me and my failed Carte­sian meditation—I think she’d reached a point of exhaus­tion and age and she’d run out—but I was the imme­di­ate casualty.

So there I was, alone in the hos­pi­tal bed, not able to roll over and def­i­nite­ly not able to sleep. Since I’m bipo­lar, this was espe­cial­ly a prob­lem. My hus­band wasn’t there and my OB was out of town and my doula quit, so no one men­tioned the state of my mind. On the fourth night I saw the wall­pa­per move—there was no wall­pa­per in the hospital—and I heard voic­es wak­ing me up and I wasn’t asleep. I called for my hus­band even though he hadn’t slept much for a few days either, and he, beloved, got up and left the sick three-year-old with a friend.

But I still couldn’t sleep. The next day, after fig­ur­ing out how to get a wheel­chair into our old house, they got me home, and every­one hoped I’d sleep bet­ter. I didn’t, and it took some heavy anti-psy­chotics to bring me down.


The fun stuff comes at the begin­ning of The Med­i­ta­tions—Descartes con­sid­er­ing how often he’s been wrong when trust­ing his eyes, spec­u­lat­ing that all the peo­ple on the street out­side might be “automa­ta,” won­der­ing whether he might be mad, if his sens­es might be con­trolled by an evil demon. Could we mere­ly be brains in a vat, minds stim­u­lat­ed by some evil genius? Could the world be an illu­sion like The Matrix? Could, well, the wall­pa­per be mov­ing on its own? Fun ques­tions for intro phi­los­o­phy classes.

But in the end, Descartes is not a fun guy. He’s not an artist but an archi­tect, and the bor­ing kind, work­ing in CAD. He lays down an epis­te­mo­log­i­cal foun­da­tion one irrefutable fact after the oth­er: if I say I am think­ing, then I must be some­where think­ing; if I exis­tence some­thing bet­ter than me and more reli­able must have made me; all those things I have proved in the same way I would prove math­e­mat­i­cal for­mu­la­tions, so I will use that mod­el from now on for every­thing; look how well it works for God—God is as obvi­ous as a tri­an­gle; giv­en how per­fect God is, he wouldn’t be deceiv­ing me about my feel­ing that the world is real­ly there and that body and mind are separate.

By the end, the body and the world are back. The body is real, but the body is not the self—because the self can see this, can make this dis­tinc­tion. The reli­able mind has proved the world is also reli­able and ready for study by physics. Descartes, anx­ious to par­tic­i­pate in the new empir­i­cal sci­ence, want­ed to get out of the house of ontol­ogy and on to physics. Because the medi­a­tions claim to end think­ing on this top­ic defin­i­tive­ly, Descartes’s “med­i­ta­tion” prac­tice is, in a way, the oppo­site of philo­soph­i­cal think­ing. Philo­soph­i­cal think­ing, reflec­tion, is nev­er real­ly over; it always goes after the next dis­tinc­tion, the fin­er clarification.

Still, still, Descartes is worth read­ing. Descartes is fas­ci­nat­ing because even in his fail­ure, he draws your atten­tion to the edi­fice of self you’ve been stand­ing in. My good­ness, you say, but this thing is frag­ile, the cor­ner­stone is imma­te­r­i­al. This self is blown away with a lit­tle meta­phys­i­cal wind. We bet­ter build a bet­ter thing.

My expe­ri­ence of those who love to phi­los­o­phize is that they love the ques­tions Descartes posed no mat­ter what he con­clud­ed. They love to stand at the door­way of the house of meta­physics and won­der if it will fall down on their heads. They won­der about going mad, even if it’s the poets who most often do. Even for Daniel Den­nett, who dis­miss­es the homuncu­lus as laugh­able, The Med­i­ta­tions serves as what he calls an intu­ition pump. The medi­a­tions stir up desire. The text is a get­ting-our-hearts-minds-going tool. In oth­er words, it needs the body and its desires to com­pel us to read it.


I was hor­ri­fied at my doula’s sug­ges­tion that I recite poet­ry because I knew it would make me feel too much; it wouldn’t help me be a mind, it would get me going, adding emo­tion­al fuel to the fire.

But in fact, The Med­i­ta­tions also get my heart going. They fill me with hope for think­ing. They remind me of the plea­sure of the mind, of the click­ety-clack of the epis­te­mo­log­i­cal ham­mer and the fun of look­ing at the struc­ture together.

The Med­i­ta­tions is a post-par­tum text. When we are not in labor, we feel the lit­tle fire of fear that we are alone. The post-par­tum body now holds the oth­er lit­tle body  out­side and can’t be sure of it any­more. The wall­pa­per moves beneath sleep worn perception.


In a sto­ry in Chang­ing Planes, Ursu­la K. Le Guin imag­ines an ontol­ogy where peo­ple are like birds; in youth, every­one says fierce­ly, Let’s go to the city, every­one leaves the dis­tant nests and flies togeth­er and works away, and then after a bit, the wind changes, and they look at each oth­er and say, Isn’t it time to go home? and they wing to the coun­try, have babies, and die only when the babies are ready to fly away. No labor­er would need a doula to stand in for the com­fort of others.

But we are not birds who migrate togeth­er at the twitch of the light. Sea­sons of the mind do not coin­cide. Even when bod­ies com­mu­ni­cate, the baby ini­ti­at­ing its way out­side, the mind resists, con­vinces itself it can stay. Flock­less, we let our young depart like the dead.

The navel is, after all, a scar.


I wasn’t very good at being in labor; I cried, I begged for the epidur­al, I hat­ed the doula, I hat­ed all of it, I want­ed to get back to my mind. In ret­ro­spect, I would choose med­ica­tion, peace, less fuel, less fire. There’s enough to be when hav­ing a baby.

I haven’t taught The Med­i­ta­tions or any­thing else since I had my sec­ond child. I have a great deal of self­less life, and a child named Lucian, from luce, the light—all that end­less light, the light of the mind, that light that kept me up think­ing until there was no more think­ing left.

I may not teach, but I still read, and I read The Med­i­ta­tions for me, for the plea­sure of notic­ing that lit­tle sense of self that keeps deceiv­ing itself into exis­tence. And for the plea­sure of fear that fol­lows. A doula offers com­fort. There is no com­fort for suf­fer­ing of life, for the suf­fer­ing that results from mere­ly hav­ing a mind. Labor­ing toward a baby leads to no more safe con­clu­sions about the self than The Med­i­ta­tions. All I can say after is that it’s all right to let a lit­tle decep­tion con­tin­ue; it’s all right to think you are your sin­gu­lar self, to enjoy the decep­tion of men­tal life.


From the writer

:: Account ::

This piece recounts a labor. I wrote it because that event keeps ram­i­fy­ing through my life. Birth doesn’t end with the end of labor. Women are encour­aged to go back to the work­place, to lean in, as if a sin­gu­lar mind-body had not exis­ten­tial­ly irrupt­ed into two. As a philoso­pher, I can’t think through birth in the terms of the texts I have been trained on. These texts were pri­mar­i­ly writ­ten by male authors, priv­i­leged with a pri­va­cy I have nev­er had since giv­ing birth.


Kascha Semonovitch’s poems and essays have appeared in jour­nals includ­ing Quar­ter­ly West, The Belling­ham Review, Zyzzy­va, the Keny­on Review, and oth­ers, and in the chap­book Gen­e­sis by Danc­ing Girl Press. She has received a PhD in phi­los­o­phy from Boston Col­lege, an MFA in poet­ry from War­ren Wil­son Col­lege, and fel­low­ships at the Mac­Dow­ell Colony and the Ucross Foun­da­tion. The edi­tor of two col­lec­tions of philo­soph­i­cal essays, she has taught phi­los­o­phy at Boston Col­lege, Seat­tle Uni­ver­si­ty, and the Hugo House in Seat­tle. She runs an art gallery in Seattle.

21. I Forgot That Summer in Rome

Nonfiction / Anne Gorrick

:: 21. I Forgot That Summer in Rome ::

Most graf­fi­ti fol­low a for­mu­la, a booty shak­ing cur­sive print­out log­ic. The float­ing fig­ures will include Perseus and Androm­e­da. The first symp­tom is amne­sia. The best way to take this bath is to immerse your­self. In the first week, the seed will either con­geal or fall out. In the lost lands, Lucius was the first to notice a cloud of dust on the hori­zon. Poet­ry always knows. We slaugh­ter ves­tiges of a lost city. A Left Bank hill­side car­ries the name Sainte-Geneviève. Not a bad sell­ing point. Part of the less-than-per­fect to down-right-bad ety­mol­o­gy out there, full of chaff, is the knowl­edge of disease.



To the south and west, we could see Nepal. It was clear­ly well used. Then I made trip after trip to used book­stores, track­ing down issues of the Sur­vival­ist that I did not have. We were designed to be con­ceal­able and fitwell in the palm of the hand. Women’s boots some­times reached their thighs. Their groans are lost. In sep­sis, the body’s immune sys­tem goes into overdrive.

Edit: Oh, I had some­thing explain­ing it, though it’s lost in my files.



For 25 days, they fol­lowed our Bal­let Boot Camp Chal­lenge. He looked her up and down, focus­ing on the cloud-print paja­mas tucked into her black stilet­to boots. His stum­ble into the scene looked authen­tic. She ran ahead of him to the goat pen. He reached into his mouth and felt his own tongue. He was wear­ing Nike Zoom Hyper­fuse, a pair of sneak­ers he still owns. His pas­sage left damp spots on the sur­face of the road. There is a sto­ry every nitrous user tells about the first time she ran into gas. Every­one can for­give and for­get once. He pow­er­slides a grind­ing U‑turn in front of the truck. These are not her words.



All you might need to do to soft­en it up is wash it. He gazed down at the dio­ra­ma of her body. Hunt­ing could be a form of chess. Wow, that hip­ster cou­ple in the pho­to made my body itch wild­ly and spoiled my appetite. You seem to be imply­ing that the musi­cal intel­li­gence of the past week amounts to noth­ing. Alec Bald­win debuted his spot-on Don­ald Trump impres­sion on SNL. This is the acces­so­ry every­one for­gets about until they need it. The blue­white death col­or was ris­ing. Rooms are actu­al­ly quite pleas­ant when lit like this. The ripest ones usu­al­ly lay­for­got­ten at the bot­tom. Dante liked to over­see the load­ing of the lug­gage. You don’t want him next to your skin. The itch has spread. It’s wool, so peo­ple expect it to be the ene­my. The pil­lows were soft, the blan­ket plush and thic­knoth­ing. He balled his hand into a fist as if to hit her. There were bright­ly col­ored rem­nants of lost holes. Some­times it was but­tons. Now that I am dead I have for­got­ten. Spray paint me lumi­nes­cent orange so I remem­ber. Sheep can rec­og­nize indi­vid­ual human and ovine faces. Anoth­er favorite gar­ment was a yel­low leather shirt jack­et I wore until it shredded.



I felt myself blush­ing, star­ing at my plate. I can’t even fig­ure out how to open the win­dows any­more. It took me a lit­tle bit to catch on. An ice cube will melt giv­en enough time if you set it out­side the fridge. I’m work­ing alone, lift­ing peach­es from a boil­ing pot into an ice bath. Mon­ey enters this con­test. I smelled mint and choco­late on his breath. Place half the straw­ber­ries, the sug­ar and Grand Marnier into a blender. This is prop­er for those who leap from any height into water. Abortive attempts were made by the Dutch to reclaim their lost pos­ses­sion. Tear the top cor­ner off the map and just fuck­ing shove it into my mouth.



Many of his patients had lost fin­gers. The weight of water and kayak forced him against the sea bot­tom. He forced him­self not to wrig­gle. We decant our­selves. They scream/stare/whisper into her, this inar­tic­u­late con­test. He was so illeg­i­ble that he couldn’t remem­ber what soda was called.



Insep­a­ra­ble from def­i­n­i­tion, writ­ing is lost. Note­books filled with almonds. Writ­ers ren­o­vate, reoc­cu­py. A com­pli­cat­ing fac­tor after dark, elab­o­rat­ed, mithri­dat­ed, extract­ed from con­text, not real­ly fir­ing at the tar­get. Our ele­gances, our errors sac­ri­ficed to grav­i­ty and solem­ni­ty. I remem­ber being pret­ty hor­ri­fied at first. When genre = capitalism.



Sure enough, the vis­it is about to turn ugly. Click on “for­got pass­word.” With mink, a promised win­ter of work and pay, but you for­got to bring your for­mal wear. We’ve lost touch with our Win­ter Pianist. Seat­ed at a theme-dec­o­rat­ed table, I had to wear that red dress because I lost a bet. The remain­ing four­teen quick­ly became lost and ran out of food. He refus­es to accept that she is a mole or a dou­ble agent, but her actions begin to raise doubts. Out west for coal, 50 man­nequins in lav­ish ball gowns. Also, the guests were seat­ed at small tables.



A sto­ry of smoke­jumpers and a woman in a rust­ing satin gown under a pale sun. The affair resem­bled noth­ing so much as a cat­tle dri­ve. So many acres of ball­room floors that year around the city. Car­toons to helped me to remem­ber these sto­ries. Dur­ing the win­ter, hump­backs fast and live off their fat reserves.



Tux bind­ing annoy but­ton­hole flat­ter­ers how­itzer ter­mite chum­mi­er nails 
shakes… Ball­room blog­ger thresh­old cyn­i­cal­ly fas­ci­na­tion largest monolog
batiks… Hearti­ly Slocum com­pro­mis­es abscond­ed­for­got were diag­noses Ganymede real­is­ti­cal­ly… Marauds recy­cle macaws win­ter char­ter­ing screen­writ­ers win­ter­green… Wheeled aero­nau­tic Callaghan wall rel­e­vant tuxe­do compeaty



The view from this win­dow was writ­ten by a woman. Ama­to­ry ele­gies. These love frag­ments, these vocab­u­lary words, these Flash­cards for Roman Civ­i­liza­tion. “Bankers sign” in Latin means “wax tablet.” See my “Licensed Feet in Latin Verse,” a rhetor­i­cal exer­cise. Many fem­i­nine poems have been lost for lack of copy­ing by male read­ers. His moth­er changed them all into Latin char­ac­ters, 15 in num­ber. The read­er-fig­ure is gen­dered as female in order to under­score her gener­ic “you.”

What author presents her thoughts on her lover going on a boar hunt? Sulpicia

What poet addressed a lady who has almost lost her hair through bleach? Ovid



Lit­tle Ice Dev­ils con­tin­ued from page two. She is liv­ing with com­plex region­al pain. “Not even wild grass grows here,” she said. She tow­ers in Lucite. Bones break fre­quent­ly. You must nev­er for­get that Alas­ka doesn’t love you back with its fat hal­ibuts. Despite the thorns that caught on her hands and arms, a dozen fra­grant beeswax can­dles and a rude lit­tle jar of pig fat. Form dis­solves into care­less­ness. They for­get their med­i­cine togeth­er, get­lost, con­fused, dri­ve off the road. Motion­less­ness as ice. They are pieces of drift­wood that dot the beach­es. It’s easy to get lost inside tall cans of Red Bull. Despite the ecsta­sy the hors­es inspire, Pim­li­co is, at bot­tom, noth­ing more than a chill and shud­der. If you had looked at her in detail, she smiled back and found her way into your poem.



Plu­ral­i­ty and the great civic flo­ra uncov­er oth­er bits of lost mat­ter. The fear asso­ci­at­ed with bur­ial has been replaced with awe. Con­cil­iar fic­tions, in par­tic­u­lar the replace­ment of lengthy and detailed end­notes with more suc­cinct foot­notes. He acts like a king long enough that he becomes one. He pro­duced him­self as a tran­scrip­tion, the nar­ra­tive mov­ing through the busy and var­ied events of Rome. Using the syn­crom­e­ter, you may iden­ti­fy and ana­lyze a par­tic­u­lar skin­site of now-lost tragedy. Alpha­bets began to replace pic­ture-based writ­ing. The boy climbs the rope and is lost to view. There will be charis­mat­ic renew­al, syn­tac­tic move­ment, the appear­ance of move­ment from sequen­tial draw­ings. A world of cities had become (again) the world ruled by a sin­gle city.



Food, vict­uals; means of sub­sis­tence, liveli­hood. Or lotus; the moon; a conch; the tree Bar­ring­to­nia. Rise from your sick bed. Recov­er from trou­ble. Don’t for­get to take your umbrel­la. I did not have a rule. This both­ers me because it means that I will have to delete 23 brain-improve­ment work­outs. Do not for­get to share your favorite name with us, an assem­blage in any of the hun­dreds of dic­tio­nar­ies, major and minor. Who invent­ed this rather nice but most­ly for­got­ten lit­tle lan­guage? Pair, dozen, score, gross, hun­dred, thou­sand (when used after numer­als). So I entered into the hol­low tubu­lar stalk. A word that sounds rude, but isn’t. The Eng­lish word “sen­ti­ment” does not con­vey the exact con­no­ta­tion. The petals were vivid blue. The word anemone comes from the Greek “anemos” or “wind.” I also remem­ber feel­ing a bit con­cerned that the names were going to stick for life, so I want­ed good ones. The fear of not being dom­i­nat­ed by a god. Many Indi­an hol­i­days end with fire or water. Hun­dreds gath­er to watch.



Lan­guage cheats. Most­ly, it boils down. Describe your pos­ses­sions, their visu­al echolalia, their slow reduc­tion in vocab­u­lary and syn­tax. I’m pret­ty sure I’m going to embrace these games once we get home. By the time he died, almost every­one clung to their splin­ter tongue, their hypoth­e­sized absolute uni­ver­sals. We’re just a set of vocab­u­lary exten­sions. We pro­vide the nega­tion. I have a cochlear implant, but it’s of lim­it­ed help. Words you’re unfa­mil­iar with become lit­tle holes. Words tend to point in a greater num­ber of dif­fer­ent direc­tions, an opus which pro­pos­es to fix the mean­ing of terms. Inter­est to avoid being for­got­te­namidst the tumult and con­fu­sion in count­less trans­lat­a­bles: to col­or melody, con­ser­va­to­ry. “Crooked head” is the tribe’s term for any lan­guage that is not Pirahã. Pitch changes in utter­ance can sig­nal emo­tion. Pri­or to this, we were con­sid­ered broken.



One expla­na­tion is that some of the names have been lost over the years. There is a ghost in the rope. No one has a sec­re­tary, and no one can remem­ber a damn thing. I doubt sci­en­tists will ever be able to talk to us. It’s the clos­est thing we’ve got: water and your fan­cy-schman­cy oppos­able thumbs, and oth­er gleam­ing, shrimp-like objects. Paper Girls To Force Giant Days. It’s best not to nib­ble. Our goal is to cre­ate the largest & best list of oxy­morons on the inter­net. The con­stant buzzing was unbear­able. Rocko and Fil­burt ran into the front open­ing of the giant tele­vi­sion. It’s less of a coher­ent movie and more like a bunch of vague­ly relat­ed scenes stitched togeth­er. See more about Sea Mon­keys. Seri­ous­ly, we taste like the sea + pis­ta­chio and lychee. Giant, list­less, con­nect­ed using mor­tise-and-tenon joints that hang togeth­er like huge Lego sets, we use tools. Can be taught to speak (like par­rots); have huge brains for birds; springs from a deep­er basic source than think­ing. Rhyming. Why the man­tis shrimp is my new favorite ani­mal. Even­tu­al­ly we will be able to read only huge batch plateaus in the land­scape. The obvi­ous give­away is that the scars are stu­pid­ly shiny. Then I thought about shadows.



Hol­i­days are con­struct­ed out of spe­cif­ic meals. He thought of crabs, and their val­ue sud­den­ly dwin­dled. We made Bacon n’ Whiskey jam. You know the word. You’ve prob­a­bly made the same mis­take. The plea­sures of this movie are like those of a beau­ti­ful­ly illus­trat­ed, hap­haz­ard­ly plot­ted pic­ture book. Curled up on her side, only a thin sheet thrown­hap­haz­ard­ly over her body. As the pho­tos indi­cate, we for­got about the but­tons on his coat (fur­ry dice, old post­cards but every­thing very hap­haz­ard and rat­ty). She lost her orig­i­nal form, a series of strat­i­fied hor­i­zon­tal lay­ers, a hap­haz­ard bent cop­per. Sev­er­al whitish strands fell hap­haz­ardlyabout her pale face. Grab what­ev­er you can. This made the blinds hang hap­haz­ard­ly, thus the room looked messier. Peo­ple tend to for­get that Ice­land is about 25% desert. A Vir­gin Mary lunch­box and hap­haz­ard licorice and yum­my mum­mies. The first vow­el is often­lost in speech, as auto­mat­ic and insignif­i­cant. Women, sea­hors­es, and riv­er gods are bap­tized in Rubens. High wood­en fences installed along the bay made it dif­fi­cult to see ships. Thou­sands in dress­es once on a brisk moss of lawns.



The self has made an effort. All built explic­it­ly upon mod­el scenes, a vehi­cle for vir­tu­oso imitation.



Stretch all you want. It’s just a kind of inter­plan­e­tary col­o­niza­tion. His green eyes glit­tered. It’s an awe­some draw­ing of my first fan drag­on with the tox­ic trench stinger. She lost her hold, slid out of the poem. My shoul­ders cleared a road. These lit­tle scenes played out among the green stalks. A lizard scram­bled up her arm, toward her face. “Which reminds me,” he said, “we’ve got to recov­er your films.” The same is true of fos­sil beds in the Gobi desert or the Amer­i­can west. That’s an odd sort of cloth for a leader to wear. It has been many years since I last tast­ed this, its ser­pen­tine length across the hills, the noise of mon­ey. Dur­ing the Pol­ish-Mon­go­lian pale­on­to­log­i­cal expe­di­tion to the Gobi Desert of Mon­go­lia in 1971, every­one was going toward noon, every­one who’s ever stuck their arm out of the win­dow of a mov­ing car.



Next to the boom-box he’s laid out his clothes. It felt like a pho­ny arm made out of sty­ro­foam or some­thing. He lost all his skin and his nails. Dou­ble dahlias in the gar­den. The threads? Stripped. The pipes? Worn and bare, and they thought, fuck ’em. By now I have pried them apart. Not well you see. So. Let’s divide labor with tact and sort out him from his lit­ter. We were sel­dom out of sight of mud-walled huts or tiny Chi­nese villages.



I mur­mured. I undrew. You have for­got­ten the words. Four­teen heavy let­ters. Click here to tell us which words you think I should have includ­ed. I watched who the crowd part­ed for. He tast­ed like vod­ka. “There’s not a let­ter there from New York,” I asked, “with my name writ­ten on it?” We have a name picked out: you. I was gripped with pan­ic. You will please note that we have increased your roy­al­ties to 20 per cent. The space of exile goes on for­ev­er like a sen­tence. You dressed with great cau­tion. After the event, the smile surgery focus­es exclu­sive­ly on lift­ing the cor­ners, the drift. Every zoo needs a keep­er. If you’re not sure if a word is an exple­tive, look it up. Avoid the inser­tion of hard returns at the end of every line. Are you sure you want to hear the results?



Matthew’s west­ern eye­wall and my father’s death relate to his­tor­i­cal times, benign par­ties, and fun, irrepara­ble wounds lurk. The kids on his bus were scream­ing, snort­ing their father’s ash­es, his last biop­sies. The war left prison in the veins. Image stud­ies, cir­cum­stance, small and fierce­ly felt. I think what you’re expe­ri­enc­ing is “absence seizures.” Often, puls­es in the groin and legs are very weak. Nerve con­duc­tion. In Benign Rolandic Epilep­sy, the EEG will pick up epilep­tic activ­i­ty in the rolandic area of the brain. The cre­mas­teric reflex is absent. Only ink would think up pat­terns like this, like a dirty plas­tic pre­tend ivory thing. Every­one is a genius at least once a year. Moths flutter.



In their be-penised bona fides, for­get sweaty neigh­bors and their fan­cy work­out equip­ment. Some­times the best jokes are made by a dou­ble act, even if the per­son play­ing the “straight” role doesn’t know they’re play­ing it. I’m sit­ting in a very pub­lic area and for­got my head­phones. Turkeys Have Got­ten Huge Since the 1940s. Read­ing Par­adise Lost I was struck by how male char­ac­ters (God, Jesus, and the Angels) are yakking all the time and Eve stays qui­et. He’s run­ning on the “Big Tits and I Can­not Lie” Plat­form. He osten­si­bly sets out to com­bine the Creepy House and Creepy Doll sub­gen­res. A cacoph­o­ny of red lines. His­to­ry of the Tam­pon | Mansplain­er Series.



Still extant, is attrib­uted, there­fore capa­ble of extrac­tion, con­demned by intrigue: the canon­i­cal Latin love elegists. Browse alpha­bet­i­cal­ly through more than 9,000 words. I nev­er real­ly stud­ied the deep end of time. When will the dig­i­tal­ly tattooed/engraved mark/chip be manda­to­ry? Deep down, they knew that they want­ed to face the real world togeth­er. I knew I dis­agreed, but it took me a while to artic­u­late my rea­son. A sketchy draw­ing of the Vat­i­can gold-glass as the sim­plest and old­est pat­terns of prayer. Like Allen Gins­berg zip­ping, the accu­mu­la­tion from inmates shov­el­ing, etched with favor. Obvi­ous­ly won­der­pain called to me from some­where: “Throw straight, cold and fast.” There’s a reflect­ed absence. He showed me his badge once, the destroyed elec­tron­ic doc­u­men­ta­tion of lost art. Vic­tor mouthed the words “thank you.” The bridge’s exact ori­en­ta­tion is unknown.



She used to drink some­times more than was nec­es­sary, but she nev­er for­got. We are sud­den­ly vul­ner­a­ble and need more time. You may feel relieved that the worst is over. Grad­u­al­ly divest your­self of your orna­ments. Put them in a draw­er and for­get about them. You can help vic­tims and do your shop­ping all at the same time. There is no recov­ery from this per­sis­tent veg­e­ta­tive state, from a street­wise four-move hand­shake, from a thing you nev­er blame deeply. What’s the most obscene dis­play of pri­vate wealth you’ve ever wit­nessed? Liv­ing with binge. My mind was blurred, and I per­ma­nent­ly lost pieces of the last eight months. My bro­ken para­graphs have stum­bled between a clean water dis­as­ter and your mom. With some fucks, I remem­ber wak­ing up. Mood con­ta­gion. Sud­den­ly the per­son would look up. “I just got bit by a shark.” In the days and months sub­se­quent to fire, there was a mirac­u­lous heal­ing through the inter­ces­sion. If you’re with­in 10 feet of some­one expe­ri­enc­ing this, make eye contact.



But if you stop and pay atten­tion, per­spi­ra­tion can actu­al­ly teach you. An inves­ti­ga­tor will shake your hand to deter­mine if it is cold or sweaty. I won­der if I have wan­dered into a cult. I sleep in my bathrobe. If he held his fin­ger straight up along a screwdriver’s spine, he could fling it. I did not sign up. I did not take detailed notes. The body burned entire­ly. When we broke up, I lostin­ter­est in wak­ing up. I won­der if you felt the weight. But it points to a fun­da­men­tald­is­hon­esty. Bring us anoth­er night­mare. Two A‑list clas­si­cal artists rev­el in their ten­der. Don’t for­get to touch and kiss each oth­er often, as if you were only here to mar­ket a prod­uct. If only I could unlearn all these things I’d believe. You spent most of the musi­cal try­ing to shake off what you crave.



It’s full-on trans­paren­cy, not a blur. Its shift­ing appear­ance res­onat­ed toward a new mate­ri­al­ism. It may help to imag­ine how flat sheets repeat the same col­or. Dou­ble-walled façades have repeat­ed­ly been invent­ed. Elim­i­nate the tint left behind. It seems ran­dom, these peo­ple walk­ing in the street, but it’s not. Mate­ri­als (peo­ple) which do not trans­mit light are called opaque. They were swept out into a vague and dusty char­i­ty. Blame­less pink corsets, lus­trous sur­faces. Sci­en­tists made see-through wood using epoxy that is cool­er than glass. A tool for mea­sur­ing the index of refrac­tion of an irreg­u­lar­ly shaped, trans­par­ent sol­id resets the player’s spawn point. But my ques­tion is, why don’t we see these excit­ed elec­trons return to their orig­i­nal ener­gy? We see every­thing slow­ly. This is often lost by the scal­ing off the out­er sur­face. Ignore the gray box so when look­ing through the win­dows we see sky. It’s only that some objects disappear.



Alpha trans­paren­cy tex­ture def­i­nite­ly works. The vis­i­ble and leg­i­ble I. A look at the floor plan’s secret infra­struc­ture. Who has glass pock­ets? No geom­e­try or attrib­ut­es, just light points and their spills, watery look­ing ground tex­tures. Turn off the lights. Your ren­der doesn’t look very realistic.



Evac­u­ate an emp­ty cylin­der into her some­what vig­or­ous grasp. Dump out the tea leaves you’ve been using all week. Rus­sians believe that you must not put emp­ty bot­tles, keys, or change on the table. This amounts to almost 13 of the emp­ty weight of the air­plane. It’s hard­wired to suck. Com­pet­i­tive ath­letes need more sug­ar to attract their hum­ming­birds. Their names are already for­got­ten in Great Moments in Cin­e­mat­ic Drink­ing. The way they twin­kle as he para­sails. The endurance exer­cise out­come is to post­pone fatigue, not replace it. It’s green when it’s on/good and red when it’s off/bad/empty. I brought myself to an instinc­tive halt. Hold the Trulic­i­ty pen like an emp­ty laun­dry deter­gent bot­tle or cof­fee can. On tele­vi­sion. One day ago. Sup­pose you tape two bot­tle rock­ets togeth­er and light them. Emp­ty­ing a city on short notice means inter­nal com­bus­tion. We gave the rat a prop­er bur­ial in an emp­ty can.



I’ve been prac­tic­ing this for years: Plath’s fold­ed cloth. It won’t bring lost laun­dry back. Describe the expe­ri­ence: the cold car. Stop cry­ing for the sake of aes­thet­ics. Scot­tish Fold Cats Are Hon­est­ly The Cutest Fuck­ing Things Ever. Improve the sharp­ness and qual­i­ty of my prints ten­fold, of flame, enfold­ed. There is some­thing so bro­ken and I fall, a frac­tion in com­par­i­son. Sil­ver and how ashy the mat­tress. New para­medics: I don’t know how you plan to save any­one if you’re not crushed and minia­ture. The vis­i­tor will feel delight­ed. They sat for eight, nine, 10 hours gaz­ing. It was just fold­ing laun­dry at 2am, except with a sheet of gal­va­nized mesh wire. Lay­ers, veined and bunched togeth­er, as soft as coils. She did not need to fold these into herself.



Child sol­diers =

amnesty, brain­wash­ing, char­i­ty, drugged, Eritrea, for­eign pol­i­cy, girls, human rights vio­la­tions, in Ugan­da, Japan, kid­nap­ping, met­al gear, non-prof­it, of Isis, Pow­er­Point, Qui­zlet, res­cue, sur­vivors, should be pun­ished, TV tropes, used as spies, vice, with PTSD, TEDx talk, YouTube, Gen­er­a­tion Z



Decod­ing real­i­ty? That’s like des­e­crat­ing a church. It’s like the Lost Ghost Ship Turned Its Guests Into Can­ni­bals. The French Rev­o­lu­tion broke out with the fall of the Bastille | Are­ta­lo­gies of Isis | We’ve also built a new Guilt Fin­ger fea­ture into the game. Ring of frost, con­se­cra­tion, des­e­cra­tion, wild mush­room, flare, ice trap. Snow was now falling heav­i­ly, geo­graph­i­cal fac­tors shaped this space. The rules of plur­al lux­u­ry, a sim­u­lacrum of Night­town. The vast throng could not hear him. A jas­mine bluegray night scene. Art broke into frag­ments. He is face­down. We dig into the meat of charm­ing alley­ways. Sum­mer and snow­dark, my face a mask going into the wild­woods. Space is not hori­zon. There is no ver­ti­cal per­spec­tive. This work was made to fall into your hands.



Veg­e­ta­tion grows sig­nif­i­cant­ly. A string snapped. Great and shim­mer­ing blues and greens. She gen­er­al­ly hid by drap­ing a dupat­ta to cast a shad­ow. I once watched him cut a trip­wire strung across a door­way. Yel­low marks imprint­ed on the road. We grim­ly wave fist­fuls of make-believe mon­ey. Sea salt mixed momen­tar­i­ly with Sun­day. It was the last thing I want­ed to deal with.



She start­ed run­ning. She was expressed as verse. For­mal. There was almost no descrip­tion of land­scape. The poem was high­ly wrought, slipped into news­pa­pers, so lost in kiss­es. There are hand­cuffs for everything.



Vis­it the post office in a minor key. He talked to her in Key West, accept­ed her as an appari­tion. Per­for­mance is every­thing, nights to cel­e­brate her Jan­u­arys, emer­gency num­bers lam­i­nat­ed for everyone’s safe­ty. It doesn’t even make sense, not even in Dolce & Gab­bana under­wear. Late­ly, he’s been hear­ing all the ani­mals talk­ing. It won’t work, even though the num­bers add up cor­rect­ly. I’m afraid I’m going to go to hell with 15 pounds of fur and claws. To date, there is very lit­tle expe­ri­ence they can­not trans­late, these smooth vol­canic stones. Him in a dry cave, wrapped in the bestra­b­bit fur blanket.



All you need is a hair­pin to unlock your hand­cuffs. Most people’s hands are larg­er than their wrists. A large mouth paint­ed dark with invest­ed pinks. She rubs alco­hol into a but­ter­cup. An image builds through the front door. Every­thing was “shit” and “for fuck’s sake.” I was struck by how nor­mal we all felt. In a dark-green par­ka with fur trim around the hood, she went to Texas with her geol­o­gist father. How­ev­er he was bun­ny­fur com­pared to her witch. Trees attached them­selves to light, glar­ing from their roots. Except Every­thing Looks the Same. I’d for­got­ten how much I hate space trav­el, necrobeas­t­ial­i­ty, this rab­bit-nude-4872-hid­den­stick­er-snow­man. A sound­less rush like an evening jack­et. Every­thing was gray and blocky, but some­how not oppres­sive. Noth­ing was miss­ing. Autonomy’s booz­ing head­winds, ATV nihilists. I ate rab­bit and cab­bage, which almost led to My Tea Shack vs. Fuck­ing on Turquoise Damask. With­in arts-based research, there are notable eth­i­cal gaps. Look, Rab­bit, I’m a woman: eye­lin­er, mas­cara. This page opens into a bright silence.



From the writer

:: Account ::

Eileen Tabios pro­vid­ed me with one of her poems, “6. I For­got the Plas­tic­i­ty of Recog­ni­tion,” from her book Amne­sia: Some­body Else’s Mem­oir and invit­ed me to col­lab­o­rate with this text. First, I took each line and processed it var­i­ous­ly. I Googled it as it stood. I sub­sti­tut­ed the word “remem­ber” for “for­got” and con­tin­ued the Google search. I slow­ly typed in the phrase, or var­i­ous words from the phrase, to see where the drop­down box of sug­ges­tions led me. I picked and sort­ed and rearranged until I was sat­is­fied. Some lines came direct­ly from the brain­box, oth­ers were high­ly curat­ed from the elec­tron­ic mid­den. The first ver­sion of the col­lab­o­ra­tive piece includ­ed each line from Eileen’s poem, imme­di­ate­ly fol­lowed by my refer­ring text in ital­ics, to empha­size the back and forth. The sec­ond ver­sion sep­a­rat­ed my text out into a new work. I don’t think I ever quite felt this much free­dom (maybe per­mis­sion) to “write into” anoth­er piece of exis­tent work. Joy­ful. Instruc­tive. I kept going, writ­ing into sev­en of her poems total (so far).

Because this work is culled from the elec­tron­ic world, the sense of an “I” in the work shim­mers and appears to exist, but it’s at once an accu­mu­lat­ed and a dete­ri­o­rat­ed “self.” I am fas­ci­nat­ed by these cura­to­r­i­al constructions.


Anne Gor­rick is a writer and visu­al artist.

She is the author of sev­en books, includ­ing most recent­ly An Absence So Great and Spon­ta­neous It Is Evi­dence of Light (the Oper­at­ing Sys­tem, 2018); My Beau­ty Is an Occu­pi­able Space, a col­lab­o­ra­tion with John Bloomberg-Riss­man (Palo­ma Press, 2018); and The Olfac­tions: Poems on Per­fume (BlazeVOX Books, 2017). She also co-edit­ed (with poet Sam Tru­itt) In|Filtration: An Anthol­o­gy of Inno­v­a­tive Writ­ing from the Hud­son Riv­er Val­ley (Sta­tion Hill Press, 2016).

She serves on the Board of Trustees at Cen­tu­ry House His­tor­i­cal Soci­ety, home of the Wid­ow Jane Mine, an all-vol­un­teer orga­ni­za­tion (www.century house.org) devot­ed to the his­toric preser­va­tion and inves­ti­ga­tion through the arts of the now defunct cement indus­try in Rosendale, NY.

Anne Gor­rick lives in West Park, New York.

What We Pretend We Know About the Ocean

Nonfiction / Jenny Ferguson

:: What We Pretend We Know About the Ocean ::


At first we make believe this is age­ing, the gen­tle nor­mal­cy of what’s to come for all of us. She’s grumpi­er, a lit­tle mean. At times, though, mean­ness devolves into cru­el­ty. Most­ly this is snap­ping, this is accus­ing my father—her husband—of being unkind in the most gen­er­al of terms. You know what you did. Or, he knows why I say the things I do. Or, why do you always defend him? Like the bit­ing fence that dug into my bare leg when some­one else I was forced to trust let go too soon, we pre­tend we deserve her barbs, at least for a lit­tle while.


When your mind tends toward nar­ra­tive, sto­ries, and their close cousins, untruths, what you find in the cloudy state­ments she makes are rocky shores, sea­side cliffs, thirst and tides too long, too far away to catch. You know, infi­deli­ty, some kind of sex­u­al­ly trans­mit­ted dis­ease brought home to roost that can’t be for­giv­en, some rup­ture between what once were hap­pi­ly-unhap­py people.


Delu­sion­al dis­or­ders are fas­ci­nat­ing and cru­el, anoth­er ocean entire­ly. When the mind sinks into a real­i­ty so seam­less­ly right, it becomes more than real, every new input into the sys­tem, no mat­ter how incon­gru­ous to the sto­ry being told, weaves its way in a flow­ing until all the plas­tic in the salt­ed body becomes like water too. It joins the tides, the under­wa­ter cur­rents, becomes entan­gled in wildlife-thoughts, becomes digestible even while those micro-plas­tics do their work. DDT and BPA invis­i­ble in water, still, killing us.


Her cru­el­ty arrived after the Face­book Far­mville phase, where she tend­ed to a vir­tu­al gar­den with such sin­gle-mind­ed dri­ve, while out­side, not a minute’s walk from the desk­top com­put­er in our liv­ing room, toma­toes hung on the vine, ripen­ing past good­ness, rot­ting from too much sun, too much good rain. At least for a lit­tle while, we pre­tend­ed this joke was funny.


When a woman reach­es the cusp of six­ty, the odds of her devel­op­ing a delu­sion­al dis­or­der sprouts legs until there are eight, grows suc­tion cups capa­ble of elon­gat­ing to twice their length, this almost-six­ty form capa­ble of chang­ing at col­ors will, like grey hair tak­ing on hen­na, but this crea­ture whose blood is blue, this crea­ture climbs out of the water and walks in alien form among us. This fact is some­thing we should all know, should not find comes at us slant. We’ve learned to call it mother.


Long after we’d stopped pre­tend­ing, and after that night, after I’d begged the RCMP offi­cer to arrest my moth­er so that she could final­ly, hope­ful­ly, be dragged to the hos­pi­tal, admit­ted, forced to get help, be med­icat­ed, an old­er man with a British-ish accent com­mon to Nova Sco­tia told me with delu­sion­al dis­or­ders it’s harm­ful to force this real­i­ty on their real­i­ty. It’s not help­ful to pre­tend. It’s not help­ful to deny. Where that leaves those of us on the out­side, liv­ing here, on a plan­et made of sil­i­con, iron, mag­ne­sium, alu­minum, oxy­gen, and maybe mag­ic, this plan­et, some­thing we can tend to agree is actu­al­ly here, is not flat, where we live in bod­ies com­posed of atoms, and maybe, yes, both we and our plan­et have gone through a process of evo­lu­tion, I’m not sure, I’m real­ly not, of where we are, of what we’re sup­posed to do when a schism opens in the earth’s crust. In 220 mil­lion years, there’s a chance the Atlantic will drain away like a bath­tub fun­nel sucks water from around a body, draw­ing Europe clos­er to Tur­tle Island, chang­ing our geo­gra­phies. Some schisms don’t under­stand time in the mil­lions, some schisms evade our detec­tion until we are sunk. Now, we make our lives in bat­tle­ship graveyards.


Of the vari­eties of delu­sion­al dis­or­ders we cur­rent­ly know by way of sci­ence, women are more like­ly to devel­op the type that tends toward invis­i­ble-but-deeply-felt amorous con­nec­tions, where­as men are more like­ly to find them­selves attacked, per­se­cut­ed from all sides, betrayed by those they love as often as the mail car­ri­er deliv­ers junk mail coat­ed in anthrax—yes, the mes­sen­ger is as guilty, as inter­twined as the some­times face­less threats. Yet always, with new input from our real­i­ty into theirs, this threat must change, devel­op, solid­i­fy as new mas­ter­minds emerge from the depths, their bod­ies suit­ed to impos­si­ble pres­sures. Where a sub­ma­rine can’t go, where humans can’t trav­el encased in skin, the giant and colos­sal squids live easy, free of swim blad­ders, free of our unshake­able need for air.


And who can say what real­i­ty this is, what real­i­ty we share above water and below, what oceans are the delu­sion, what land? And if the octo­pus is cos­mic, car­ried to this plan­et on mete­ors, seed­ed here in oceans when a virus infect­ed ear­ly squid already among us, can we deny our own mak­ing up what is real and what is real­i­ty, can we define her but refuse to define our own belief that we can breathe under­wa­ter if enough time pass­es, if the Atlantic one day emp­ties itself into the crust? Some­times these thoughts are as trou­bling as remov­ing salt from the human body to see what might be left, remov­ing salt from the ocean to clean it.


Psy­chosis breaks the bound­aries between pre­tend and real, fus­ing lava released in fis­sures into new ground we must claim. Her para­noid thoughts, of the army, and my father, and even­tu­al­ly me too, try­ing to kill her, have formed new ground. My rela­tion­ship to land has always been com­pli­cat­ed, about give and trust and nev­er own­er­ship, about the waters that feed me run­ning free, but yes, the treaties exist, and yes, they are bro­ken, and yes, each day, this is a betray­al. Now, we pre­tend in new ways: the med­ica­tion helps, the min­utes lin­ger­ing between ques­tion and answer do not exist, the haunt­ing lack of her laugh­ter is nor­mal because we are under­wa­ter, our ears flood­ed so that sound can­not reach us, nev­er­mind, yes, nev­er­mind that laugh­ter lives in the eyes. We know that the tide is far off, and that when we reach it here, the water is mud­dy, that tides are pre­dictable but always come in faster than expect­ed, that here on the mud flats you can get stuck, but also that this water is salty, this water holds life even as life changes.



From the writer

:: Account ::

The book-length CNF project I’m work­ing on now is a col­lec­tion of essays explor­ing my decol­o­niza­tion. That is, I’m try­ing to work out and chronicle—through non­fic­tion fragments—what it means to be a white-cod­ed Indige­nous woman reclaim­ing a cul­ture she was cut off from when her grand­moth­er, fear­ing the res­i­den­tial schools and the gov­ern­ment abduc­tion of Indige­nous chil­dren through adop­tions and fos­ter care, decid­ed to pass as white. It’s tak­en me a long time to under­stand why I didn’t have pride in being Métis as a child.

Of course, my mind was colonized.

And undo­ing that process is messy, reveals the ulti­mate pres­ence of frag­ments, dis­solves the untruth of whole­ness. That leads me to essays where I work in frag­ments, arrange frag­ments into frag­men­tary nar­ra­tives and frag­men­tary truths.

Three Lati­na writ­ers (Anna-Marie McLemore, Anna Meri­ano, and Tehlor Mejia), one white writer who is also a dis­abled writer (Cindy Bald­win), and myself will be pre­sent­ing a pan­el at AWP 2019 where we will dis­cuss “The Cul­tur­al Respon­si­bil­i­ty of Mag­ic Real­ism” and how many of us are turn­ing away from that label. For me, this means carv­ing out what a genre called Indige­nous Realism(s) can mean for art, build­ing off of the work peo­ple like Daniel Heath Jus­tice and oth­ers I have yet to meet or to read, oth­ers who have yet to be pub­lished, are doing to rework genre. I am not aim­ing for this cat­e­go­ry to fit per­fect­ly. That too is why Indige­nous Realism(s) exist in the plur­al, in the mul­ti­ple, in a space that wel­comes the hybrid, the strange­ly-fit­ting, and the frag­men­tary as the work this space can hold, with­out bor­ders, with instead a bound­ary more like skin, a semi-per­me­able mem­brane that has the abil­i­ty to change shape, take on ink, and to nav­i­gate the con­nec­tions between the worlds and the body of work in expan­sive ways.

This mod­u­lar flash essay begins—possibly? hope­ful­ly?— with ten­ta­tive, messy steps, to engage with Indige­nous Realism(s) in non­fic­tion by using the land as bridge between mag­ic and real­ism until nei­ther can be seen as inde­pen­dent of the oth­er. In par­tic­u­lar, this means read­ing in a way we were should not sim­ply mean to treat what may be read as metaphor, as only metaphorical.


Jen­ny Fer­gu­son is Métis, an activist, a fem­i­nist, an aun­tie, and an accom­plice with a PhD. She believes writ­ing and teach­ing are polit­i­cal acts. Bor­der Mark­ers, her col­lec­tion of linked flash fic­tion nar­ra­tives, is avail­able from NeWest Press. She teach­es at Mis­souri South­ern State Uni­ver­si­ty and in the Opt-Res MFA Pro­gram at the Uni­ver­si­ty of British Columbia.

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:


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.


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:


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.


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.


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.


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:


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 

                              active, a moving forward,
                                we move

Lis­ten: this yel­low piece of paper full of rain.




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.

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:


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!


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,


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.



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.

Yet This Is Your Harmless Fairy, Monster: A Summer Seminar

Nonfiction / Lesley Jenike

:: Yet This Is Your Harmless Fairy, Monster: A Summer Seminar ::

Venge­ful as nature her­self, she loves her chil­dren only in order to devour them bet­ter.…”   –Angela Carter

A stu­dent tells me she fell asleep last night read­ing Angela Carter’s The Bloody Cham­ber. In her dream a bomb drops and leaves a room full of bro­ken bodies.

It’s dark in the room and she can’t see, but by mus­cle mem­o­ry she knows where to step to avoid the bod­ies, how to walk around them gin­ger­ly, as if stabbed by knives.

Or maybe I’m con­fus­ing “Blue Beard” with “The Lit­tle Mer­maid,” she says.


In her essay “The Bet­ter to Eat You With,” Angela Carter coun­ters Hans Chris­t­ian Ander­sen (that “tor­tured dement,” as she calls him) against the rea­son­able intel­lect of Charles Per­rault, a man of his age as much as Ander­sen was a man of his. For Carter, Per­rault seems to neu­tral­ize his fairy tales’ sex and vio­lence with an iron­ic shrug. She writes, “The prim­i­tive ter­ror a young girl feels when she sees Blue­beard is soon soothed when he takes her out and shows her a good time, par­ties, trips to the coun­try and so on. But mar­riage itself is no par­ty. Bet­ter learn that right away.”

If Andersen’s hec­tic, Roman­tic ver­sion of Chris­tian­i­ty leads to his hero­ines’ ecsta­t­ic suf­fer­ing, then Perrault’s Enlight­en­ment-era char­ac­ters take a more prac­ti­cal tact toward world­ly knowl­edge. His advice at the end of his sto­ries (i.e., “Curios­i­ty, in spite of its appeal, often leads to deep regret…”) is prac­ti­cal, even charm­ing. There’s noth­ing prac­ti­cal about Andersen.


It’s sum­mer and cam­pus is qui­et. There are only sev­en of us togeth­er for four hours, three times a week. The Fairy Tale Break­fast Club, one stu­dent calls us. I tell them, We’re learn­ing togeth­er. It’s best, I find, to make read­ing and writ­ing a col­lab­o­ra­tive effort; it draws them in.

So we sit togeth­er under flu­o­res­cence and read, in tan­dem, orig­i­nal tales—as orig­i­nal as they can be in light of time, edits, omis­sions, trans­la­tions. I can feel our simul­ta­ne­ous shock and delight. It’s tangible—like rev­e­la­tion by expe­ri­ence, the revelator.

We’ve all known keys and apples and knives. Who hasn’t while cut­ting up an apple looked down at her knife in won­der? And the boy who mugged me in Franklin Park, he took my iPod—Fine, I said, but please give me back my key. It was a sin­gle white key I car­ried on a band around my bicep. If he had kept it, would he have tried every door in the uni­verse? He gave me a look of dis­gust, ripped the key off the band, and threw it back at me before run­ning off.

And what about mothers—all those miss­ing moth­ers, dead moth­ers, step­moth­ers? At the very least, who hasn’t dialed his mother’s num­ber and wait­ed ner­vous­ly for her to pick up?

One… two… three.


There’s a con­cen­trat­ed look on my student’s face as she recounts the dream in which she’s forced to walk back and forth, back and forth, from one end of the room to the oth­er, past and around all those dead bod­ies. Who or what is com­mand­ing her to do so, she doesn’t know.

Out­side the room is Alep­po or Boston or Man­ches­ter or the Aren­dale of Disney’s Frozen—shat­tered from the torque of explo­sives, from fire­fight and cru­cible. Every build­ing is now a skull. Every skull has a crack where the brain’s been sucked out.

In her ver­sion of the tale, Blue­beard plots his wives’ deaths from a distance—maybe in a cas­tle or cafe, man­sion or split-lev­el. Cities are his wives, and his wives are his wives, and children—not even his own—are his wives, and young sol­diers, jour­nal­ists, doc­tors are his wives. Guys who run falafel shops, who hock clams and mus­sels at fish mar­kets, women who write poems on the backs of their hands are his wives. Bicy­clists and passers­by and girls out shop­ping or danc­ing to Ari­ana Grande, drink­ing tea or plot­ting the rise of girls are his wives. Stray dogs, old hors­es, drool­ing mules are his wives. Lovers of brooches and cater­pil­lars and bougainvil­lea; haters of brooches and cater­pil­lars and bougainvil­lea: his wives. So too a lit­tle boy with a lazy eye and a cat with three legs giv­ing birth in a fish­ing boat. So too a baby in striped paja­mas pulled dead from beneath a mound of con­crete. The world is his wife and we are all his wives.


In high school I had a choker—a black rib­bon tied tight around my neck with a fil­i­greed key hang­ing from it. I wore every day. I couldn’t say what drew me to it. My boyfriend would joke that it was “the key to your heart and can I have it?,” which coag­u­lat­ed my dis­taste for clichés and the peo­ple who used them. I think what he real­ly meant was—you refuse to have sex with me. I was just fifteen.

I liked fairy tales when I was fifteen.

When she turned fif­teen, the Lit­tle Mer­maid was allowed to rise to the surface.

Some­times girls swerve near fairy tales, then—discovering how unse­ri­ous they are, how unworthy—swerve away again. Fem­i­nist retellings are so sec­ond-wave. Bet­ter to leave them to the nurs­ery and go after big­ger fish. Yes, sex. Yes, vio­lence. So what?

Yet, in Angela Carter’s “Blue­beard” retelling, “The Bloody Cham­ber,” Bluebeard’s final wife is gift­ed a red chok­er with inlaid rubies—meant to rep­re­sent an his­tor­i­cal con­nec­tion to the French Revolution.


Lit­tle girls love to open box­es, to fit keys into locks, to watch unbox­ings on Youtube, to unwrap gifts, to slow­ly lift a lid and then—

When I asked my daugh­ter what she wants for her third birth­day, she said, “A pink present! A pur­ple present!” “But,” I asked her, “What do you want inside the present?” She just looked at me, mystified.


Imag­ine a house­wife finds her husband’s lit­tle gold key knock­ing around the clothes dry­er like a hurt bird. She plucks it out and holds it up for close inspec­tion, cocks her head as if to say, Hmm. What door, draw­er, safe, box, head, heart, cunt, dick, hurt, mouth, fear does this key fit? What lit­tle toy truck, lit­tle wind-up can­cer mon­key, lit­tle liquor cab­i­net, lit­tle bureau of pain?


Louis the XVI was a col­lec­tor of keys and fas­ci­nat­ed by the mechan­ics of locks, but he didn’t understand—for the longest time—how the act of unlock­ing a door is some­what like the act of love. As a result, his wife went child­less for an excru­ci­at­ing­ly long time. The result may or may not have been Antoinette’s long­ing for a baby, but was most cer­tain­ly her polit­i­cal vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty. The for­mer is irrel­e­vant in light of the latter.


My hus­band likes to tell me about what he’s been read­ing. Late­ly he’s been work­ing his way through a his­to­ry of music in the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry titled The Rest is Noise, and he’s got­ten him­self stuck on a descrip­tion of a Ger­man opera based on the Bib­li­cal siren Salome. “In this one par­tic­u­lar pro­duc­tion,” he tells me, “Salome prac­ti­cal­ly fucks John the Baptist’s decap­i­tat­ed head on-stage.”

The last image in that recent French film-ver­sion of “Blue­beard” is of the final bride—obviously no more than twelve or thirteen—posing as if in a Renais­sance paint­ing as she strokes—gently, gently—Bluebeard’s lopped-off head neat­ly placed on the cen­ter of a gold plat­ter. She seems Madon­na-like, look­ing a bit askance—just off-cam­era as if at some­thing very sad—her head tilt­ed a bit, ever so slight­ly, to the side.

The final scene is over­ly long, uncom­fort­ably so. While we wait for the inevitable fade-to-black, our eyes roam over her lit­tle girl’s body, her odd face, her hand stroking, stroking Bluebeard’s bluish beard absent­ly, as if it were cat’s fur. I can sense my stu­dents’ dis­com­fort. Some laugh.

After­ward I ask them about Salome. Has any­one heard of Salome?


There’s some sig­nif­i­cant con­nec­tion here, I tell them, some­thing about political/religious/artistic extrem­ists and the women who love/hate them—but I can’t quite get my head around it.


In that recent film adap­ta­tion of Perrault’s “Blue Beard,” twinned nar­ra­tives con­flate at the moment the mag­ic key enters the lock. Instead of the fairy tale wife, we watch a lit­tle girl from some­thing like our own time enter the for­bid­den cham­ber. I will not be scared. I will not be scared, she whis­pers to herself.

She steps bare­foot into a pool of blood and walks among the hang­ing bod­ies of Bluebeard’s dead wives, past and around all those hang­ing bod­ies, slip­ping here and there on that pool of blood as if it were an ice rink. My stu­dents laugh uncom­fort­ably. After the film is over, I ask them,

Why do you think the film­mak­er chose to have the lit­tle girl telling the sto­ry in the present walk into the room and not the wife?”


1. A lit­tle girl, eight years old, is dead of a bomb in Man­ches­ter, England.
2. A fif­teen-year-old who on Face­book is wreathed by illus­trat­ed flow­ers was also killed in Man­ches­ter, and her moth­er doesn’t know her pass­word, so she con­tin­ues, like Snow White in her glass cof­fin, an eter­nal sleep on the Internet.
3. We are always telling this sto­ry. We are con­stant­ly and in per­pe­tu­ity telling this story.


That Blue­beard is God is an easy answer, I tell my stu­dents, but an apt one. In this sce­nario, the wife’s curios­i­ty opens a door onto imper­ma­nence, a world in which Blue­beard is a land­scape artist, in situ—a frowsy old man crouch­ing in an Eng­lish field, arrang­ing in spi­rals his twigs and stones and water and frond.

The whole point is even­tu­al oblit­er­a­tion, wind and weath­er, the dra­ma of an Eng­lish sky and, by exten­sion, a break­able plan­et like a woman’s face at thir­ty, forty, fifty, the lines around her eyes inten­si­fy­ing until gulch, arroyo, well, wor­ry, then—well—a whole city under the sea.

Maybe Bluebeard’s cham­ber of hor­rors is just an artist’s small-scale ren­der­ing, a kind of sketch before he stalks out into the field and begins the real thing.


Ear­li­er in the film, Blue­beard smiles fond­ly at his child-bride. “You’re a strange lit­tle per­son,” he tells her. “Why?” she asks. “Because you have the inno­cence of a dove but the pride of a hawk,” he tells her.

This is suit­able fairy tale dialogue—riddling and rife with easy sym­bol­o­gy. The dove is inno­cent. The hawk is pride­ful. Many girls, includ­ing my daugh­ter, man­age the com­bi­na­tion until expe­ri­ence and age catch up with them, at which point they make a choice—the dove or the hawk—and nei­ther is with­out disadvantages.

My daugh­ter just this morn­ing, I tell my stu­dents, looked out her bed­room win­dow onto the roof where a young mourn­ing dove was hunched, wait­ing out the rain. “C’mon,” I said to her. “It’s time to get ready for school” (she calls day­care school). “Birds don’t go to school,” she said. “They go to bird school.” “Can I go?” she asked. “No,” I told her. “You’re not a bird.”


Who was the audi­ence for Charles Perrault’s sto­ries? And who was Hans Chris­t­ian Andersen’s? One imag­ines Per­rault among the glit­terati of Parisian salons—many host­ed by women. There was a naugh­ti­ness, you know, about the salon. It was a safe place for women to intel­lec­tu­al­ize, phi­los­o­phize, social­ize, flirt. In the salon’s milieu a fairy tale acquires lay­ers of meaning—from tongue-in-cheek advice to young wives, to polit­i­cal com­men­tary, and final­ly to children’s entertainment.

Now imag­ine Ander­sen in the con­fes­sion­al or on an analyst’s couch. “There’s this mer­maid, you see. And she longs for an immor­tal soul…”


In “The Snow Queen,” a lit­tle rob­ber girl threat­ens to kill the child hero­ine Ger­da with a knife. She sleeps with her knife and keeps a cote of doves and even a rein­deer pris­on­er. “These all belong to me,” she says.

She takes Ger­da into her bed along with the knife, as if Ger­da is a baby doll or a lover, and Ger­da spends the night won­der­ing if she’ll live or die.

Even­tu­al­ly the Lit­tle Rob­ber Girl decides to help Ger­da though her motives—like those of many fairy tale types—go unex­plored. All we know is that her will is fierce and she’s in pos­ses­sion of it.

What kind of lit­tle girl is this?

For Gerda’s jour­ney to the Snow Queen’s domain, the Lit­tle Rob­ber Girl gifts her her rein­deer, bread and ham, muff and mit­tens; then when Ger­da slips the mit­tens on, the Lit­tle Rob­ber Girl says, “There, now your hands look just like my mother’s.”

But the Lit­tle Rob­ber Girl’s moth­er is a full-grown thief, beard­ed, and mean.


I tell my stu­dents, on the car ride to day­care, my daugh­ter point­ed to all the lilies she saw in their beds out­side the gro­cery store and said, “Those flow­ers are mine! Every­thing is mine!” A lit­tle lat­er, I say, I post­ed a recount of the episode to social media and the com­ments include some­thing like, “What a beau­ti­ful lit­tle tyrant! ☺”


Is Blue­beard the baby or the birth?

More women make it out of child­birth alive than in Charles Perrault’s time, Hans Chris­t­ian Anderson’s, or per­haps even Angela Carter’s, and more babies are sur­viv­ing too. So why does our coun­try rank high­est in mater­nal and infant mor­tal­i­ty rates among oth­er wealthy, devel­oped nations? This was the sub­ject of an NPR sto­ry I stum­bled across dri­ving home from the art school where I ram­ble on at stu­dents about the mean­ings of fairy tales.

I man­age to lis­ten to the entire broad­cast and still come away with­out any defin­i­tive answers. Some­thing some­thing health care. Some­thing some­thing education.

My mind wan­ders back­ward to my children’s births when I vague­ly remem­ber my mind wan­der­ing (dur­ing labor with my first, the knife with my sec­ond), back even fur­ther to an embry­on­ic fear—perhaps car­ried in my genes—that I wouldn’t sur­vive this. I was old­er after all, as all the paper­work and mon­i­tors and plac­ards remind­ed me—Geri­atric Mater­ni­ty. Advanced Age. I’d been qui­et­ly rel­e­gat­ed to “high-risk” out­pa­tient clin­ics for many of my check-ups, ultra­sounds, and, most wor­ry­ing­ly, my genet­ic coun­sel­ing, which felt like a job inter­view or, even worse, an expla­na­tion of why I did so poor­ly on my stan­dard­ized test.

The coun­selor her­self spoke slow­ly and soft­ly as she gath­ered my information—who died and of what? Who is relat­ed to whom? How many live births? How many still­births? How many mis­car­riages? “Most peo­ple,” she said to me, “are a lot more ner­vous than you seem to be.” So of course I won­dered if I should be more ner­vous. Maybe I wasn’t express­ing the cor­rect amount of nervousness.

I could die. The baby could die. Now or lat­er, or lat­er lat­er. The baby could be mal­formed, under­de­vel­oped, and maybe I’m evil for even think­ing these thoughts, for think­ing the words mal­formed, under­de­vel­oped. My uterus could sur­ren­der its mis­sion and just bail on the whole thing. My pla­cen­ta could thin and snap. There might be unmit­i­gat­ed bleed­ing, preeclamp­sia, dia­betes, post­par­tum depres­sion, post­par­tum psy­chosis. My womb is a bloody cham­ber. The ques­tion is: who’s got the key?


Angela Carter, in her review of psy­chol­o­gist Eric Rhode’s book On Birth and Mad­ness, writes, “Lan­guage crum­bles under the weight of this pain. Mys­ti­fi­ca­tion of this pain is a lie.” She seems intrigued by the writ­ing but ulti­mate­ly frus­trat­ed by his outsider’s exper­tise on some­thing he’ll nev­er expe­ri­ence. Should we hate Rhode for his lack of sen­su­al knowledge?

Nev­er mind the polit­i­cal ram­i­fi­ca­tions of a word like mad­ness, if I were to unpack Carter’s state­ment, my whole house—three lit­tle bed­rooms, one full-bath and one-half, a semi-dry base­ment, two liv­ing rooms, a gal­ley kitchen—would fill to capac­i­ty with under­de­vel­oped notions about mys­tery and lan­guage and pain. I wouldn’t begin to know how to orga­nize them, how to box and label them, then how to kneel before those box­es (were I to man­age) at some small hour many years in the future and take those notions out—one by one—and, filled with nos­tal­gia and long­ing, turn them over and over again in my hands. What I mean to say is this: I can­not say.


Still, death in child­birth may be the secret to so many fairy tales’ miss­ing moth­ers, but, accord­ing to writer Mari­na Warn­er, there may be an even more insid­i­ous rea­son: a mother’s com­plete erad­i­ca­tion by irrel­e­vance. (She’s become so good at being silent, her silence con­sumes her. Her cul­ture eras­es her. Her own son sets fire to her still-liv­ing body.)

And pain in child­birth may be the secret to so many trans­for­ma­tions. I don’t mean sim­ply the pain of labor itself, but the aftershocks—emotional, phys­i­cal, what Rhode refers to in his tit­il­lat­ing title as mad­ness. Maybe our fate is sim­ply to become sea foam. Pain dri­ves the tides. Pain churns the foam.

A teacher I knew long ago who gave birth to her still­born daugh­ter soon there­after became rain and ran away.

A musi­cian who lost his teenage son over a cliff became the ocean and was sucked back into the clouds. He kept playing.


A mother’s absence may have to do with a teller’s desire to pro­mote an image of moth­er­hood that’s dis­creet and gen­teel to the point of obliteration—a sort of kind­ly shad­ow that would nev­er dream of aban­don­ing her chil­dren to the for­est or tear­ing out and eat­ing her daughter’s heart.

My own mother’s moth­er is just such a mother—I mean the absent kind, not the heart-eat­ing kind. Or, she very well may have been a heart-eater, but time and for­get­ful­ness has smoothed away any jagged pecu­liar­i­ties she may have had.

She hat­ed my mother’s white Keds. I know that much. I know she want­ed my moth­er to wear sad­dle shoes, so my moth­er would hide her Keds under a bush, and when she left for school in her sad­dle shoes, she’d duck behind the house and switch them out for her Keds.

I know my grand­moth­er loved mar­ti­nis and made clothes for my moth­er and sis­ter. I know she made the lit­tle blue wool zip-up sweater in my baby son’s dresser.

I know she bleached her hair because in the one pho­to I’ve seen of her as girl her hair is dark. I know like so many fairy tale hero­ines, her own moth­er dis­ap­peared too—an absence inside an absence.


Eric Rhode: “Myths con­cern­ing some lost key to under­stand­ing are widespread.”

Changes in fam­i­ly dynam­ics too are the stuff of fairy tales.

When my grand­moth­er came home one day to find her moth­er gone (by way of mad­ness or lit­er­al absence), per­haps she, in that moment, became some­one else’s daugh­ter altogether.

Con­sid­er Goldilocks,” says Rhode. “She breaks into a house belong­ing to a fam­i­ly of bears, or so she wish­es to think. She is estranged from mem­bers of her fam­i­ly (because her moth­er has giv­en birth to a lit­tle baby, the youngest bear; now she thinks her fam­i­ly belongs to a dif­fer­ent species). She is a stranger in her own home.… Noth­ing fits. Much gets broken.”


When my own moth­er and father divorced, my father prompt­ly moved out. But there was a brief inter­im when he was still around (sort of), when I tried to open the old brown leather brief­case he left lay­ing around—locked by a com­bi­na­tion of num­bers unknown to me. I remem­ber think­ing all the secrets to my family’s fail­ure were there if I could just open it up and see.

Then, after a time my mom invit­ed her boyfriend to come live with us. I was a teenag­er. His blun­der­ing around the places and things I asso­ci­at­ed with my father enraged me. Like a dement­ed Goldilocks, I ram­paged my way through the house, hid­ing or destroy­ing the boyfriend’s clothes, spray­ing his shav­ing cream all over his pil­low, shov­ing ice cubes into the toes of his shoes, mock­ing him every chance I got—to his face and behind his back. The ter­ror I inflict­ed on him was mer­ci­less, then one day I remem­ber he just broke down and cried.

Eric Rhode says, “A lov­ing fam­i­ly brings up a child who has no rea­son for com­plaint. And yet the child feels itself to be an orphan. Fairy tales reflect its predica­ment. A prince wakes up one morn­ing and dis­cov­ers he has become the son of a swine­herd. A shepherd’s daugh­ter awakes to learn she is a princess.”

Noth­ing fits. Much gets broken.”


What did my grand­moth­er die of? I still don’t know. I could find out and some­times I believe I intend to, but I also believe I enjoy the mys­tery. In my mind I can imag­ine it was neglect. Child­birth. A mur­der­ous hus­band. Wolves. Cancer.

My great-grand­moth­er was a Swede who’d set­tled in Boston. She was an alco­holic, my mom tells me. And—I don’t know. She was put in an insane asy­lum or just ran away one day—ran away from her kids and her hus­band. I’m not sure.


Did you know, I tell my stu­dents, a sci­en­tist named de Saus­sure in the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry thought he could mea­sure the blue­ness of the sky?

What if we could assess pre­cise­ly when night ends and when blue’s voice takes on the tremo­lo of twi­light so that before we turn the key we might deter­mine how blue cal­cu­lates against joy?

I’m sus­pi­cious of the idea that col­or is eter­nal (the idea sounds too much like reli­gion to me), but if the cen­tral argu­ment re: col­or is whether or not col­or exists phys­i­cal­ly in the world, then how could I not equate col­or with faith?

In Perrault’s sto­ry, Bluebeard’s final wife, in try­ing to make the best of her sit­u­a­tion, begins “to think that the man’s beard was not so very blue after all.”


Blue­beard could be the first per­son you slept with. He could be the death dri­ve, a killing desire, the blue under an eye you want to kiss because it sug­gests mor­tal­i­ty and invokes, there­fore, tenderness.

Or Blue­beard could be a baby. Here’s why:

The man­u­al on breast­feed­ing says you can’t real­ly know how much milk your baby is get­ting except by weight gain and how many wet dia­pers and how many dirty. There are some latches—it’s worth noting—that just won’t work. Like a key in a lock.

There are bod­ies in this ver­sion too, of course. And they’re my old selves.

In this ver­sion of the sto­ry, once in that secret room I feel my way toward a win­dow and, look­ing through it, can see all the way back to—

I ignore the bod­ies and look out the window

and from the win­dow I see

a cloud like the spine of a book on a shelf in the sky :
What hap­pens is this: the

I’m in a dark hall­way feel­ing the walls
for a door, a way in. A beginning.

Ok. Good.

Just insert the key, turn, then

push the han­dle with both hands and—

Cloud like the spine
          of a book on
                    a shelf in
                              the sky

to run
          my hand along :
Blue is the color of his nursery.


Hans Chris­t­ian Ander­sen stum­bled under the weight of his neuroses—hash marks in his diary to keep track of his mas­tur­ba­to­ry ses­sions, obses­sions with women he couldn’t pos­si­bly con­sum­mate, obses­sions with men he couldn’t pos­si­bly consummate,a love of trav­el but a shat­ter­ing fear of germs, an abid­ing lone­li­ness he tried to squelch with pub­lic ado­ra­tion, then a supreme dis­trust of pub­lic ado­ra­tion. Who could love the son of a cobbler?

I had an Ander­sen col­lec­tion as a girl—a hand­some­ly illus­trat­ed, hard­cov­er col­lec­tion I man­aged to keep through my par­ents’ divorce, my mom’s two sub­se­quent remar­riages, so many moves, and even a long-term loan to my niece who is now near­ly eigh­teen and head­ed to college.

But because I have chil­dren of my own, the book came back to me.

A live bomb, it ticks away on the shelf.

My name is writ­ten in the front cov­er. I put it there when I was maybe eight, maybe ten. The name seems to emerge from the blue end­sheet and alone, with­out a mid­dle name or a last name, it floats there, embryonic.


I read aloud to my daugh­ter from “The Snow Queen” when she was an infant and was stunned all over again by the story’s eccen­tric­i­ty, how it seems to be a jum­ble of sto­ries all with their own poten­tial­i­ty forced into sub­servience. The mas­ter narrative—a lov­ing girl (Ger­da) quest­ing to free her friend (Kay) from the icy clutch­es of superficiality—subsumes along the way more inter­est­ing digres­sions, like the will­ful, vio­lent Lit­tle Rob­ber Girl or the flow­ers who have their own sto­ries, all of which seem to refuse the larg­er story’s chief aim—that is, to return the world to nor­mal­cy. Take, for exam­ple, the tigerlily’s tale. It goes like this:

          In her long red robe stands the Hin­doo [sic] wid­ow by the funer­al pile. The flames rise around her as she places her­self on the dead body of her hus­band; but the Hin­doo [sic] woman is think­ing of the liv­ing one in that cir­cle; of him, her son, who light­ed those flames. Those shin­ing eyes trou­ble her heart more painful­ly than the flames which will soon con­sume her body to ash­es. Can the fire of the heart be extin­guished in the flames of the funer­al pile?
          “I don’t under­stand that at all,” said lit­tle Gerda.
          “That is my sto­ry,” said the tiger-lily.


We’re back to Blue­beard as fanat­ic, I say.

Will our sons grow up to tes­ti­fy against us, as Audre Lord sug­gests, or do I “fear our chil­dren will be dragged from a car and shot down in the street?”

Is it an either/or proposition?

I always thought fairy tales were just for the despon­dent, priv­i­leged white woman.

Now I won­der, do we accuse the son who touch­es his torch to the pyre or the scheme that says the fire must be set in the first place?

These are ques­tions, Friends, I can’t answer.


Instead, let me tell you about my mother’s house:

I go about my dreams there with new purpose.

Good night, Every­body, my daugh­ter said before I put her down in her fold­out crib.

It was the first night I spent with her in my mother’s guest room with its por­trait of my long-dead grand­moth­er above the bed.

(In the paint­ing my grand­moth­er wears an orange sheath dress, gold hoop ear­rings, and a mod­i­fied bee­hive made of frost­ed hair. I’ve often tried to see myself in her, but I don’t.)

Deep in the blue gut­ter of night, my daugh­ter woke up in my mother’s house and point­ed to the por­trait of my grand­moth­er. I pan­icked a lit­tle, won­der­ing if they’d been dis­cussing in ur-lan­guage all the feel­ings words feel, tugged as they are out of abstrac­tion as she sure­ly was—from absence into pres­ence. Go back to sleep, I told her.

Then morn­ing came, sun first on the old­er part of the house where we sleep. She woke this time for good, stood up in her fold­out crib, and point­ed again at that por­trait. She said to it, Night, Night, but she didn’t get it wrong exact­ly, not if you con­sid­er dark­ness is in all direc­tions, simul­ta­ne­ous to now.


We’re watch­ing Lars von Trier’s film Break­ing the Waves, and after the final scene in which church bells—missing from Bess the heroine’s home­town steeple—peal out in Heav­en for her sac­ri­fice, I catch one of my stu­dents wip­ing away tears. I need a cig­a­rette, she says. I’m sor­ry, I say. Did I break you?

When the Lit­tle Mer­maid nar­row­ly escapes her des­tiny as sea-foam, it’s thanks to a loop­hole in that fun­da­men­tal­ist dog­ma that says immor­tal souls are only for humans and there’s some­thing wrong with becom­ing sea-foam in the first place.

Do girls killed for obscen­i­ty rise with the Daugh­ters of the Air?

I don’t see why Blue­beard has to be a per­son,” a stu­dent writes in her essay. “Maybe Blue­beard is an ideology.”


What a cru­el man Dan­ish direc­tor Lars von Tri­er must be, how sadis­tic to make us watch a woman destroy her­self in the name of some­thing we can’t see.

But, to be fair, could we be friends with some­one like Bess, a stu­dent asks. Could we actu­al­ly put up with some­one so ide­o­log­i­cal­ly pure, a believ­er so exas­per­at­ing we watch her through our fin­gers and moan? And how can we love a lit­tle mer­maid who would will­ing­ly give up her voice in exchange for eter­nal life—just when we’ve begun to believe we’re enti­tled to our voic­es in the first place? And just when we’ve start­ed to think eter­nal life is a sham?

Some­times I feel I’m forc­ing you into a philo­soph­i­cal bind I may nev­er see my way clear of—not as long as I live.


The flow­ers in “The Snow Queen’s” Third Sto­ry refuse to (or sim­ply can’t) tell Ger­da where Kay is, but instead “dream only of [their] own lit­tle fairy tale of history.”

Dream. Fairy tale. History.

Name some sim­i­lar­i­ties and then some dif­fer­ences between these three things:

(“All these are mine!” my daugh­ter said, rak­ing her hand across the garden.)


Sto­ry One. Lit­tle Death Eater

Dur­ing the pri­ma­ry sea­son, what kings them­selves called the First King­dom, loy­al man-ser­vants and the best whores were buried beside their czars. Ship­wrights made twen­ty spe­cial. So many wives, hair­dressers, drop­pers of petals, but lioness­es strangest of all, their roil­ing throats and ver­ti­cal pupils aping in shape a woman ris­ing from her hor­i­zon­tal land­scape. The king’s many wives ate away at his auton­o­my. Chil­dren ate at his thoughts. Chefs fed him ample food to eat his thin­ness. Lovers ate at his fat.

Why anoth­er kind of man-eater to eat at his spirit?

There once was a wife who so despised her king, to bang his name into the stone of her face, she took poi­son of her own accord just to spite him and like a lioness ever after belonged to no one but the ghosts of her kill.


Sto­ry Two. Lit­tle Sore Eyes

Many hun­dreds of years ago on the Sab­bath of some­one else’s week, a reli­gion for lit­tle girls was born, first among brats and scullery maids who slept with their backs to the fire, whose altars were pig ossuar­ies, who wept in the smoke it takes to cure, then spread among ladies-in-wait­ing, whose eyes ached from scut­work, whose threads were licked thin enough to fit, whose rit­u­als went: stare hard at a ceil­ing. Let the seams between planes expand, so what bore up your life’s establishment—cherry beams, cob­webs shred to the shape of a man sleeping—thunders to your bed­room floor.

The rub­ble will spell out your future. On your knees you grope for it. You feel the let­ters, the feel­ing a type of know­ing, like a fist screwed deep in an eye-sock­et until you get stars and oh yes now the uni­verse opens its door.


There’s a famous anec­dote about Emi­ly Dick­in­son that goes like this:

Aunt Emi­ly reached into her house­dress pock­et and pulled out—an imag­i­nary key! She opened her palm to show me, her niece. She said, “One quick turn—and it’s free­dom, Matty!”


Sto­ry Three. Blue­beard as Composer

Wasn’t it Tol­stoy who wrote some­thing like, bour­geois love will be the last delu­sion? No. I say the piano is. It sits petu­lant and desirous of touch in the sit­ting room, stick and bone and pearl for a cor­pus, moth­er of pearl for fin­gers, met­al ped­al for a foot. It talks in puz­zles should you know the score, built on glyphs and strikes on grids. Take the time to learn it and time bleeds. I don’t have it. But I like to think Rach­mani­noff is thun­der­ing away at a key­board some­where in Hell. Think of me as God. I gath­er up the piano in my arms and rock it to sleep before shoot­ing it. Any future instru­ment is just grist, hype, and hiz­zle for sirens whose music turns the ocean back on them. Sure, I can play the ordi­nary thing, but I do it under a nom de plume, the way you can dance by sit­ting very very still.


Sto­ry Four. Bluebeard’s Final Wife as Acolyte

I’m stand­ing in your door­way. Your stu­dio is white and clean but for post­card-sized draw­ings you’ve past­ed to its walls, their abstract­ed fac­sim­i­les of artic scenes, and your to-do list in nar­ra­tive imper­a­tive, hang­ing like a por­trait above your com­put­er screen:

1. the secret to this mode of critical
2. think­ing isn’t the secret
3. which we’re also
4. haunt­ed by, but by the

I’m sor­ry to have missed you. Your work is strange. Whether you’ve left any trace of yourself—a pen drip­ping blood on your pad’s glacial monolith—well, let’s just say I’d kiss you if you were here (and it would feel like suck­ing ice).


Sto­ry Five. Bluebeard’s First Wife as Miscarriage

Oh how did this all get start­ed? I think it must be: blood on my bleached drift­wood stoop, on a pot­ted rose­mary, in my orchard a grape­fruit tree.

I rely on a tremu­lous class of grow­ing things, and when they don’t grow, don’t wor­ry; there are whole libraries ded­i­cat­ed to futility.


Sto­ry Six. Bluebeard’s Sec­ond Wife as Fairy Tale

Chil­dren, the sky’s rum­pled sheets of stars shine tonight as they did years ago when clouds bul­lied the moon with their fists and high winds ruf­fled the scree, when weird­er still a dove purred, a dove purred as night fell, its breast yielding.

In such wild times as these, my mind turns to poor Don­keyskin, her eye glit­ter­ing. She lived in a trail­er in a hol­low at the head of a road that bursts the heart of the wood then ends where our coun­ty stops. She kept a bird in a glued-togeth­er cage, a sin­gle unmat­ed dove as blue as that dress of hers the col­or the sky she had made to keep her own father from know­ing her. And it’s years since any­one has. Woods seemed to wolf down her lit­tle life, keep­ing it like a light in its dark gut, a can­dle of sheep fat and old age, and there she sat. I hear tell her dove fell in love with a mouse that crept into its cage, and seemed to shel­ter it under its wing. God, we need to love some­thing. (Moral One)


Among the many things in life to learn, be sure you learn how to play and sing
so when the time comes, you can play and you can sing. (Moral Two)


Sto­ry Sev­en. Bluebeard’s Sec­ond-to-last Wife, Dream­ing a Dream

In the sto­ry I’ve only part­ly read, the set­ting is a cal­en­dar house with 365 rooms and twelve stair­cas­es. I’m in the azure room, num­ber 243, and I impose a nar­ra­tive onto a wren clat­ter­ing onto the hearth. It drowns in its own blood. The end.


When he decid­ed to det­o­nate him­self, did he count as one might count before a field day sack race, a dive off the block into a pool, as a way to get in sync with a grade school friend before the secret chant—you know—Miss Mary Mack this and that and hands clap­ping and strange eye con­tact? 1… 2… 3.

Or maybe it was at inhalation—this was just the right breath to end on.

Maybe he called his moth­er before­hand to ask for her for­give­ness but couldn’t get through.

Fairy tales, I tell my stu­dents, are perpetual.


From the writer

:: Account ::

Most sum­mers I teach an extra class at my col­lege because it’s fun and I could use a lit­tle extra mon­ey. This year it was decid­ed I would teach a sec­tion of Crit­i­cal Read­ings in Fairy Tales. Because it’s a pop­u­lar course, we (and I mean the admin­is­tra­tion and I) believed the class would get enough enroll­ment to run, and sure enough, it did. Though I’d nev­er taught it before, I felt pret­ty good about hav­ing a month between spring semester’s end and the sum­mer class­es’ start to get myself up to speed on the read­ing and research I need­ed to do, but my col­lege changed the dates on me sud­den­ly and with­out notice, so I had to scram­ble to get my syl­labus ready imme­di­ate­ly after I turned in my spring semes­ter grades. All of this is to say, I came to this class feel­ing weird­ly unprepared.

As it turned out, I end­ed up with six stu­dents after a few dropped away, so in many ways it did feel an awful lot like study hall, or the Break­fast Club—only with odd, delight­ful­ly smart conversations.

I admit­ted to my stu­dents that I was com­ing to the mate­r­i­al fresh and that I was hop­ing it would yield some­thing to me, or for me—creatively. I also admit­ted that I’d been reluc­tant to ven­ture into fairy tales since I was in my twen­ties. Retellings and adap­ta­tions felt stale—like some kind of sta­t­ic reminder of an old-fash­ioned, white-cen­tric fem­i­nism I’m try­ing to wres­tle my way away from.

But lately—thanks most­ly to my tod­dler daughter—I’ve been forced to look at fairy tales again and in them I find new oppor­tu­ni­ties, new ques­tions, new con­nec­tions. In par­tic­u­lar I’ve begun to read Angela Carter with fresh eyes and I see her as a bril­liant intel­lect, a cul­tur­al crit­ic of the high­est order, and a writer who worked mir­a­cles with old material—breathing life back into them in unimag­in­able ways.

So this essay is a love let­ter to her and to my stu­dents who helped me see these old sto­ries in new contexts—some of which are dif­fi­cult and painful. One stu­dent in par­tic­u­lar led me there with her dream of Blue­beard, and the rest seemed to fall into place.


Les­ley Jenike’s poems have appeared in Poet­ry, The Get­tys­burg Review, Rat­tle, Verse, Smar­tish Pace, The South­ern Review, and many oth­er jour­nals. She has received awards from The Sewa­nee Writ­ers’ Con­fer­ence, the Vir­ginia Cen­ter for Cre­ative Arts, the Ohio Arts Coun­cil, and the Ver­mont Stu­dio Cen­ter. Her most recent col­lec­tion is a chap­book titled Punc­tum:, win­ner of the 2016 Kent State Wick Chap­book Prize. She teach­es lit­er­a­ture and cre­ative writ­ing at the Colum­bus Col­lege of Art and Design in Colum­bus, Ohio.