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 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.

Men in Pools

Nonfiction / Jo-Anne Berelowitz

:: Men in Pools ::

I was going to sneak the pho­to out of my mother’s album, but when I saw her watch­ing me, I pho­tographed it with my iPhone and replaced it under the clear plas­tic sheet. I tried to align it on the page, but the gluey bond had long ago worn off so it lay there, unmoored, cat­ty­wam­pus. When I returned home an hour lat­er, I print­ed a black and white copy on my laser print­er. I’m not sure why I keep look­ing at it, but I can’t put it down or turn my eyes away.

The pho­to shows my father alone at the shal­low end of the pool at the house on Inness Road, the last house we occu­pied as a fam­i­ly before we shook the dust of South Africa off our feet and scat­tered. Only my father’s head and upper tor­so are vis­i­ble. His arms below the elbows are submerged—probably crossed, judg­ing by the waist-high rip­ple in front of his chest.

I’m guess­ing my then-four­teen-year-old broth­er, Roy, shot the image with his new wide-angle lens, a recent gift from my par­ents. Lying on his bel­ly at the far (bougainvil­lea) side of the pool for a worm’s eye view, Roy filled the low­er half of the frame with water, clicked, and froze the moment.

It was, (again, I’m guess­ing), an unre­mark­able moment for my father and broth­er, anoth­er ordi­nary sun­ny care­free day in my sub­trop­i­cal home­town, Dur­ban, on the east­ern seaboard of South Africa. Cer­tain­ly Roy pos­sessed only rudi­men­ta­ry skills with a cam­era, yet it seems to me that he cap­tured some­thing impor­tant, some­thing there in the pho­to that I’m strug­gling to grasp but don’t yet have. Sure­ly if I look deeply enough, I’ll understand?

What had made me want the image, want it so bad­ly that I’d con­sid­ered steal­ing it, was not the emo­tion­al charge I feel now at my desk in San Diego, peer­ing through the image’s grey-scaled fuzzi­ness, as though by inten­si­fy­ing my focus I might bet­ter pen­e­trate the sur­face and enter a moment frozen forty years ago. No, some­thing more cere­bral, some­thing less per­son­al had gripped me. Or so it had seemed when, mild­ly bored, I had flipped through my mother’s album and come upon the photograph.

As an art his­to­ri­an who has taught Pop art more semes­ters than I care to count, I was struck by the photo’s com­po­si­tion­al sim­i­lar­i­ty to David Hockney’s 1966 Por­trait of Nick Wilder. I’ve always felt a kin­ship with that painting—perhaps because, like Hock­ney, I came to Cal­i­for­nia when I was twen­ty-sev­en and felt at once its chimeri­cal allure, its dif­fer­ent­ness from every­thing I’d ever known.

Both pho­to and paint­ing show a man with­in the curvi­lin­ear embrace of the far end of a pool, with only his head and upper tor­so vis­i­ble, his house behind him. And in both the water flows our way.

I searched online for Hockney’s paint­ing, print­ed a copy, and placed it beside the image of my father, their con­gruities more evi­dent in black and white. The dimen­sions were as like to one anoth­er as I could get them: the pho­to­graph, 3” x 2,” the paint­ing 2 ½” x 2 ½.” I glued them side by side on a sheet of paper and stared at them, will­ing them to speak to one anoth­er and to me, and to sur­ren­der the mys­tery of their dou­ble­ness. A long-for­got­ten snap­shot by a boy beside a canon­i­cal mon­u­ment of Mod­ernism by an art-world genius.

Beneath their super­fi­cial sim­i­lar­i­ties the moods are dif­fer­ent. In Hockney’s paint­ing, the mood is idyllic—we’re look­ing at the Cal­i­for­nia Dreamin’ good life. Not just look­ing, but expe­ri­enc­ing, for Hock­ney gives us enough of the pool’s oval arc that we feel com­pelled to fill in the rest: I imag­ine I’m in the pool with Wilder (a con­tem­po­rary art deal­er who was Hockney’s friend and neigh­bor), float­ing lazi­ly on an inflat­able mat­tress, the dry Cal­i­for­nia sun warm­ing my back in a moment of stilled perfection.

The images dif­fer, too, in their depic­tion of space. The pho­to­graph obeys the rules of per­spec­tive, as pho­tographs like this tend to do, but Hockney’s paint­ing lacks depth: Wilder’s house is at one with the pic­ture plane, a savvy acknowl­edge­ment of post-war guru Clement Greenberg’s insis­tence that paint­ing hon­or its lim­i­ta­tion as pig­ment on a flat can­vas. Even Hockney’s choice of medium—acrylic—adds to the sense of sur­face impen­e­tra­bil­i­ty in its refusal of sub­tle tonal changes. And it’s a stretch to call this a “por­trait” (though Hock­ney does), for Wilder’s face is blank, lack­ing the psy­cho­log­i­cal depth that five hun­dred years of por­trai­ture have led us to expect in some­thing that bears the word “por­trait” in its title. His mouth is closed, his eyes vacant—characteristics con­so­nant with the care­ful­ly con­trived, all-on-the-sur­face affect­less affect of Pop.

In the pho­to­graph my father’s mouth is a dark hole—is he shout­ing? laugh­ing? gasp­ing? —and his eyes are wide, per­haps in sur­prise. He’s at dead cen­ter: lord of his manor, the patri­arch in his pool. Is that what his look of sur­prise is about—a sud­den real­iza­tion, one balmy week­end in 1974, that he no longer fit his own self-mock­ing, self-descrip­tions: “I’m just a small town boy from the coun­try,” and “I’m a sim­ple man with sim­ple tastes, sim­ple pleasures”?

For him to be in the pool as I see him here, he would have come out of the house—probably with The Dai­ly News tucked under his arm. I won­der what the head­lines were that day. Was it: “Anneline Kriel, South African Mod­el, Crowned Miss World in Lon­don”? or: “Japan­ese Gov­ern­ment No Longer Grants Visas to South Africans”? or: “Gov­ern­ment Pass­es Riotous Assem­blies Act”? or, per­haps: “New Gov­ern­ment Pub­li­ca­tions Act: More Strin­gent Censorship”?

He would have crossed the veran­dah, then the lawn, and walked down four steps into the shal­low end, suck­ing in his breath at the sud­den drop in tem­per­a­ture as his warm body entered the eighty-degree water, brac­ing rel­a­tive to the sul­try air. But that’s not how the image speaks to me. As I look and look, he seems, rather, to be emerg­ing from the pool’s amni­ot­ic water­i­ness, gasp­ing with sur­prise to find him­self on such a fan­cy spread of prop­er­ty. His.

Behind my father and to the right, the sharp diag­o­nal of the verandah’s roof defies the pic­ture plane, punch­ing back into deep space and draw­ing me in. I know those lines are not a pic­to­r­i­al device but a lit­er­al reality—a rak­ing view of the roof—something ver­i­fi­ably there. And yet see­ing it beside the Hock­ney I think of a key art-his­tor­i­cal text: Leon Bat­tista Alberti’s On Paint­ing of 1436, in which the great human­ist writes that reced­ing lines of lin­ear per­spec­tive draw us, as though “through a trans­par­ent win­dow,” into a scene (an “isto­ria”) that “will cap­ture the eye of what­ev­er learned or unlearned per­son is look­ing at it and will move his soul” to a high­er, moral, or alle­gor­i­cal significance.

Why do I not find the mood in the pho­to­graph idyl­lic, this moment that I imag­ine as my father’s full-blown emer­gence into tri­umph? (Sure­ly it should be?) Why do I not find the mood utopi­an and eter­nal, as I do Hockney’s?

What is here that moves my soul?

I’ll dis­avow nos­tal­gia, at least that vari­ant of nos­tal­gia that yearns to restore the past.

What moves me, I think, is the future that spills out of the image and into my—our—present.

It was a hap­pen­stance shot that a four­teen-year-old boy, play­ing with his new wide-angle lens, took, one warm week­end in Dur­ban, lay­ing on his bel­ly at the far side of a pool. And yet I can’t stop want­i­ng to see—can’t stop see­ing, with the pre­science that hind­sight affords—something deep­er, some­thing about the tide of events in South Africa that was about to burst through the con­strain­ing dam of apartheid and car­ry us all away—far away—into dif­fer­ent lives.

Fig. 1


From the writer

:: Account ::

My essay is, in many ways, an account of how I came to write it.

I love Judith Kitchen’s work, par­tic­u­lar­ly Half in Shade: Fam­i­ly, Pho­tog­ra­phy, and Fate (Cof­fee House Press, 2012). Like Kitchen, I have a rich archive of images, let­ters, and cards. These all speak to me, though there are huge lacu­nae in what they say, and I try to fill in the gaps via my writing.

Oth­er influ­ences include Mar­i­anne Hirsch’s Fam­i­ly Frames: Pho­tog­ra­phy, Nar­ra­tive, and Post­mem­o­ry (Har­vard, 1997) and Svet­lana Boym’s The Future of Nos­tal­gia (Basic Books, 2001). I trea­sure, too, the work of Bernard Coop­er, Teju Cole, and Jo Ann Beard.

Hav­ing taught art his­to­ry for as long as I have (two and a half decades), I have a huge data bank of images in my mind. These sur­face as I write and seem insep­a­ra­ble from my own his­to­ry. It’s like­ly that as I con­tin­ue to work on my mem­oir, images from art his­to­ry will con­tin­ue to float into my con­scious­ness, mak­ing my per­son­al his­to­ry res­o­nant with art his­tor­i­cal references—as here, in this essay in The Account.

I aspire to write non­fic­tion that is lyri­cal and charged not only with per­son­al sto­ries but with his­to­ry, for knowl­edge, as Don­na Har­away writes, is always “sit­u­at­ed.”

Themes that unfold in my mem­oir are: home (my search for it) and betray­al (large­ly by the South African gov­ern­ment of its citizenry).


Jo-Anne Berelowitz is an art his­to­ri­an by train­ing and pro­fes­sion, now writ­ing a mem­oir about grow­ing up in South Africa dur­ing the apartheid regime. She lives with her hus­band and two Soft Coat­ed Wheat­en Ter­ri­ers in San Diego, where she’s a fac­ul­ty mem­ber at a large pub­lic uni­ver­si­ty. Though she has pub­lished exten­sive­ly as an aca­d­e­m­ic art his­to­ri­an, this is her first pub­li­ca­tion in a lit­er­ary jour­nal. She is cur­rent­ly enrolled in the MFA pro­gram in cre­ative writ­ing at Rainier Writ­ing Workshop.

The Message

Nonfiction / Lisa Marie Basile

:: The Message ::

I nev­er meant to call you the night before you died. There, I’ll admit it right here.

I wouldn’t have called you on my own because I thought you were filthy. In you I saw cheap beer and dia­betes. Chopped fin­gers and clots. In you I saw a heavy black tool box. Tack­le. Mag­gots and pills and cig­a­rettes smelling up my mother’s hair. In you I saw less than noth­ing. You who pulled my moth­er down into your suf­fer­ing. You who loved her so much you had to destroy her. You whose T‑shirts were always dirty. Me whose life was pure and clean. You who called me a “famous writer.” You who abused my moth­er. You who put her out on the lawn. Me who lights a can­dle for you at night. Me who nev­er said hel­lo. Me who judged your god. Me who cursed you when you weren’t look­ing. Me who hoped you’d die. You who gave me $20 on Christ­mas when you had noth­ing else to give. Me who judged you, me who wore plain­clothes to vis­it, me who stared through you with dis­gust. You who slept with a bed­pan, you who my moth­er loved with her whole bro­ken might, you who suf­fered silent­ly into your last night. You who picked up the phone with such grat­i­tude and igno­rance. You who believed I’d call you to see if you were alright. You who spent a year in the hos­pi­tal dying. You who got out and just want­ed to pay the bills. Me call­ing from a city—my life so bound­less, my body and skin free of dis­ease, my insipid hatred—me call­ing from far away on my pedestal, you hack­ing blood late at night, me pret­ty, your lungs aspi­rat­ing, me far from you call­ing my moth­er an angel, me far from your last grasp, me swim­ming in cool blue water as you died in a bright, emp­ty room.


I wake filled with an engine of divine stuff; I am heav­ing it. It is an arm from the sub­ter­ranean reach­ing up, up, up. It whis­pers: you will grieve today. I walk list­less­ly through the day, pup­pet-stringed to it. Chthon­ic, a black well, me puls­ing through the water of vul­gar, unwant­ed prophe­cies. I keep pre­dict­ing death; my body knows it before I do.


Of course I called, I lie. Because how do you tell a sick man you weren’t actu­al­ly think­ing of him.


I move and move and move and reg­is­ter noth­ing. I touch the desk and the fab­ric and the win­dow ledge, but I don’t feel any of it. I can’t reg­u­late my con­scious­ness. I’m latched to a holy fun­nel. I am sit­ting on a beat up black leather couch with a box con­tain­ing your body. A per­son that exist­ed last month is now inside of a box. That box is on a cig­a­rette-holed square of sofa. The sofa in which he used to sit scream­ing loud­ly for can­dy or Nat­ty Ice. My moth­er would bring it, her wavy gold­en hair too good, too angel­ic, for him. Some­times he’d kiss her like a teenag­er kiss­es. He’d kiss her like he meant it. Some­times she did too because she nev­er loved her­self. Now he’s sit­ting inside of a box and I’m all bile and shame. Why couldn’t I have called him on pur­pose? Why am I not a good enough per­son to call a sick man? Who are we to judge anoth­er man? Who am I to leave town like I deserve to leave town? Who am I to wish bet­ter for my moth­er? Who am I to make a sound while some­one slow­ly dies? Who am I in this funer­al dress? Why does it hurt so bad to have hat­ed you? Come back, let me fill your pill box. Let me speak loud­ly over you chok­ing. Let me clean up your blood this time.


I am being pumped up, bloat­ed with your death. These days I wake with an empti­ness that feels like the sea. It’s con­stant, and it moves in and in and over. It nev­er stops. The shore is me, and the water is indelible.


I wake up with the reverb of you. Today you will die. I have nev­er been close to god, and I have nev­er known god. I don’t believe in god. I don’t believe in a sem­blance of god, but this may be just a resis­tance; this may be why I keep being bul­lied by the angels; maybe they want me to lis­ten in. Lis­ten in. I don’t want to lis­ten in. Some­thing wakes me; it’s sit­ting on the far end of my bed, press-push­ing into the cov­er­let. It’s the feel­ing of some­one on the edge of your bed, but there’s no one on the edge of the bed. It’s a frag­ment of a per­son or a person’s spir­it detach­ing in parts. One part of you came over to me. Was it your leg, was it your arm? Were you try­ing to let me know you had to go?


There is a hole in my chest, and inside it is a part of you. I car­ry it with me, I peek in, peek in: hel­lo; I check if it is still alive. I go swim­ming to clean myself out. I go swim­ming to move like rib­bon, to hold my breath for a while. I think that this is a dying we can con­trol. We can pull it back, we can wake it up. But when I come out from under the water I feel I can’t get enough of anything.


He couldn’t do any­thing but die in white sheets. The room, I know, it smells like iron. I can nev­er not know it. Every­one in their sheets dis­ap­pear­ing from the face of the earth. Every­one miss­ing out on the agony down here. Every­one slip­ping through, mak­ing waves. His name was Mar­co, and Mar­co is gone. And before that, the oth­ers. The oth­ers are gone. And before that, some oth­ers. And those oth­ers are gone. I hold their gone-ness in me, hun­dreds of feet of gone-ness, but it’s all gone now. Even the gone-ness itself.


My moth­er calls to say she fell asleep on the sofa because you can­not sleep in a dead man’s bed. So she slept on the sofa, and when twi­light sleep came over her and she could still hear the voic­es from the radio, she felt his body sit on the chair beside her and lean into her. His lean­ing was real; that lean of death—that lean from where? In that moment there is only hor­ror. There is no com­fort. The truth is as loud as light. That the body isn’t there. That every­day, aver­age, nor­mal body. That disruption.

When they were alive, you might cry out, “get off me!” or “I’m sleep­ing!” or maybe you move because “god damnit, you woke me up!”

That is not the case with a spir­it. The spir­it can take up space. The only prob­lem is its residue; how do you ever get it off you? How do you learn to hold its message?


He was always lean­ing. He was always col­laps­ing, and my moth­er was always catch­ing. He’d got­ten sick this past year, and the phone calls became tir­ing. He’d been in the hos­pi­tal, in and out, in and out, all year. One night my moth­er woke up and he was vom­it­ing blood, only it came from his lungs, and it was black and it was every­where, all over the blue bath­room. I’ve pissed so many times in that blue bath­room. Now I can nev­er piss in there again with­out all that black blood on me. Do you want me to send you some new cur­tains? I ask. A new bath mat? She says no, she prefers the blood stains. That she’d been awake in the yel­low morn­ing hours scrub­bing up the blood. That he’d stand in the hall­way mur­mur­ing, “I’m so sor­ry, I’m so sor­ry, let me clean it.”

But of course she would clean it; she will clean it long after you’ve gone.


My moth­er calls to say she is wash­ing his clothes: don’t bury me in a suit I want to buried in jeans and a T‑shirt—so she’s wash­ing his shirts, but they have to be long-sleeved. They took his skin, she wails. They took all of his skin. He’s an organ donor but his organs were all rot­ten, although his skin was good and clean. My wound is filled with acid.


We find out about the bod­ies. They sit up when they’re being burned; they assume a fight­ing posi­tion, as if they know what is to come. It can take five hours. It can take five hours. Then he wants to be put out to sea, most­ly; we will wear a small part of him as a necklace.


There is a vacan­cy in me that rings out from some­where. Please, make a noise. They nev­er make a noise. They just sleep where the mar­ble is cold and always drenched in light. Full of forever—and me, and me, and me, stand­ing there knock­ing, knock­ing, ask­ing are you there? If you’re not, then from where am I get­ting all these messages?


I stand at the font and rib­bon my hands back and forth in the water. I am catch­ing my fin­gers around the water; it’s a hand. I am hop­ing there is some­thing good left in me, that I haven’t been filled up with evil or empti­ness or exhaus­tion. That I haven’t let my loss­es turn into some­thing grotesque. I imag­ine wak­ing up and walk­ing down the stairs back­wards; I imag­ine my skin on fire. I say a prayer, but even that feels self­ish. We make death about our­selves. All this death makes a part of me evil. I place my head into the water, I open my eyes, I open my eyes and see.

There is only water; we are made of only water; we rip­ple, we flood, we toss up at the sand. We are bro­ken up. We are con­ti­nent. When I stop, I can feel the wave come in and pull back. That’s the mes­sage. That’s you. That’s the tide changing.



From the writer

:: Account ::

Dur­ing the sum­mer of 2017, my mother’s long-term part­ner passed away. He died incred­i­bly young after suf­fer­ing for a year. She, who’d worked in nurs­ing her whole life, took care of him in his last year. We didn’t know he’d die, but we knew he kept get­ting sick. She put all of her­self into him, into sav­ing him, into lit­er­al­ly resus­ci­tat­ing him. For her, the grief was and is end­less. And it was com­plex. Do we only mourn those who leave us with gold­en mem­o­ries? Can we mourn those who we, in part, hat­ed? Do they become absolved once they’re dead, lift­ed into some untouch­able lay­er of sky where sin is reduced to angel wings? I don’t know. As an athe­ist, I want­ed to write some­thing that explored my own grief and healing—while encoun­ter­ing the com­plex­i­ty of my sor­row. I felt there was no bet­ter way to eulo­gize him—his time in our life, his imprint, our hurt—without being unabashed­ly hon­est. Because I couldn’t lean on God for answers, I explored a lot of this through the lens of water. He was a fish­er­man, and he want­ed to be put out to sea. I am a swim­mer, and water is my holy ground; it’s the only place I feel spir­i­tu­al. While I was swim­ming, he died, and while I was swim­ming, I felt him die. So anoth­er part of this is rec­og­niz­ing that there’s some ele­men­tal con­nec­tion we all have—religious or not—that clues us in to the tick­ing of the uni­verse, to the ener­gy that comes and goes. It’s almost imper­cep­ti­ble, but I felt he would have want­ed me to write about him in some way that dealt with water. Like waves, which come and go, I used vignettes to cap­ture the mem­o­ries, as a pho­to­graph would, that kept me up at night. That moved through me like an engine. While I’d like to say this is a good piece, it’s not. It’s shame­ful, dirty, and unre­solved in some ways. But I tried.


Lisa Marie Basile is an edi­tor, writer and poet liv­ing in NYC. She is the found­ing edi­tor-in-chief of Luna Luna Mag­a­zine and the author of Apoc­ryphal (Noc­tu­ary Press, 2014), as well as a few chap­books. Her book Nymp­holep­sy (co-authored with poet Alyssa Morhardt-Gold­stein), is forth­com­ing with Inside the Cas­tle. She is work­ing on her first novel­la, to be released by Clash Books.

Simone: A Self-Portrait

Nonfiction / Anne K. Yoder

:: Simone: A Self-Portrait ::

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

We must not live together.

We must not impinge on each other’s freedom.



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


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

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



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



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


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

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


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

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



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

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


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

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

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

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



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



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



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


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

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

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



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



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

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

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



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


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



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

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

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


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

I do.

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

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



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



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


I won­der how we put up with so much.

Slurs were leveraged:

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

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

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



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



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


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

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



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



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


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



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


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

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



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


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

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


From the writer

:: Account ::

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

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

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


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


Nonfiction / Kristin McCandless

:: Buzz ::

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

The buzz grows faint. Or maybe I grow accustomed.


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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



From the writer

:: Account ::

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

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

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

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


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

On Leaving: A Conversation

Nonfiction / Justin Lawrence Daugherty and Jill Talbot

:: On Leaving: A Conversation ::

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


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


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


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


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


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

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


I keep going back, revis­ing the lines:

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


What changes—memory or its meaning?

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

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

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



From the writer

:: Account ::

On Leav­ing: (A Con­ver­sa­tion about) A Conversation

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Five Micro-Essays

Nonfiction / Nicole Walker

:: Microbags ::

At Fry’s Gro­cery and Drug­store, the plas­tic bags are tint­ed brown. Thin enough to see through, they should be strong enough to hold at least three items. But the clerks at Fry’s dig their hands into the abun­dance of bags and love them for their sin­gu­lar­i­ty. Stacked like mon­ey, peeled like saw­bucks, a bag wraps a car­ton of eggs. Anoth­er, for a half gal­lon of orange juice. Anoth­er for a pound of but­ter. Anoth­er for a quart of milk. A loaf of bread. You know the song. Each bag makes each item pre­cious. How can I eat this but­ter now? I should pre­serve it in a cab­i­net of won­der, but by the time I get home the cab­i­net of won­der becomes mere­ly a refrig­er­a­tor. The loaf of bread. The quart of milk. Each item re-shelved in the ice­box of my future—I now can make béchamel, French toast, Crème Anglaise, Pas­ta Car­bonara, coun­tries of recipes, thanks to bags of per­ma­nence and transportation.

The bags, emp­tied, do not realign. I can­not stack them. They do not fit in my bill­fold. I bunch them up. I crush them into the reusable can­vas bags that I some­times remem­ber to take to the store. The bags live in the garage. Unlike the refrig­er­a­tor, the garage is not air­tight. Some­times, I leave the garage door open. Some­times, there is a wind. Some­times the wind comes in and steals the plas­tic bags as if the wind had some gro­ceries to make pre­cious. The wind takes the bags, plas­ters them against pon­derosa, wraps them around pinecone, flags them against a decay­ing stick. The stick isn’t going any­where now. The pon­derosas are pre­served. The pinecones, seed­ing inside of the bag, with the ben­e­fit of a dusty rain, grow their own tree inside the bag. Inside the bag is a per­fect micro­cosm. A hun­dred mil­lion indi­vid­ual tiny plan­ets float­ing across the state, blow­ing their fore­vers across the high­way, through the forests, across the ocean, estab­lish­ing them­selves as sin­gu­lar as con­ti­nen­tal cash. 

:: Microchip ::

Lays were her favorite. So were Ruf­fles. She didn’t mind Fritos. Ket­tle-brand organ­ic were fine. She missed reg­u­lar Dori­tos but that didn’t make her unique. Every­one miss­es reg­u­lar Dori­tos. One thing you can count on, flee­ing the Mid­west for the west coast, is an ample sup­ply of vend­ing machines. Vend­ing machines are por­tals toward free­dom. They are the dial-uppers toward the next town. They do not store mem­o­ries in their machines, just quar­ters of smudged fin­ger­prints. No one can catch you, preg­nant and six­teen, if you keep your feet to the right of the asphalt’s white line and your stom­ach pumped full of you-do-the-math: four­teen hun­dred calo­ries per bag, each bag a dol­lar and a quar­ter. If you can mul­ti­ply, your fac­tor is the pota­to chip. Too much togeth­er­ness and you beget a product.

If she would have stayed home, she could have saved up those quar­ters, a dol­lar twen­ty-five a day, but it would have tak­en her half her life to halve her life and she didn’t have the right phone numbers.

She didn’t like call­ing the baby baby. She called it crunchy. She called it salty. She called it full of mal­todex­trin. She nev­er thought she was hurt­ing the pota­to. She nev­er thought, as she hitch­hiked through Ida­ho, that the road doesn’t always go west. Some­times it turns south, toward Utah. Some­times, the abor­tion providers, even in Mor­mon town, take one look in your eyes and give you a dis­count. She skips lunch the next day because, thank god, she’s not so hun­gry any­more. That night, she forces her­self to eat a chip. She was afraid the chip would floun­der. That it would fall sog­gy in her mouth. But it didn’t. It was crisp and salty and as nutri­tious as it had been the day before. Not every­thing changes. 

:: Microtrain ::

A reg­u­lar-sized train can’t do it. The tracks criss­cross in too many lay­ers. There is not enough mon­ey in the world to build four mil­lion bridges deep. But if the train is small enough, fiber optic, micro­scop­ic, the tracks could bend and weave and thread. Instead of stop­ping at cross­ings for cars or for anti-abor­tion pro­test­ers, the veins could thread like those in a body. In that body, red could stand for oxy­gen and blue for car­bon diox­ide and the world would be hap­py to get and return either. In a body, the reliance on input and out­put would be a fair and rea­son­able thing. In the lungs, the car­bon diox­ide exchanges for oxy­gen with the jus­tice of sto­i­chiom­e­try.  Trans­for­ma­tion is always pos­si­ble. The oxy­gen has per­sua­sive argu­ments. The CO2 has its own. No cell changes its body, it just changes its mind. This body holds its pow­er in its tiny mito­chon­dr­i­al engines—forward mov­ing but not at any­one else’s great expense. This is a kind of coun­try I could live in. One day, I will be small enough. 

:: Microsoccer ::

I tried to bring a book. I tried to bring a chair. I tried to talk to the oth­er moms. I tried to talk to the dads. I tried to bring the team snack but failed, bring­ing car­rots, which chil­dren do not con­sid­er a snack. I tried to get a sense of rules that say you can’t kick the ball first if you’re the one who kicked it off, but I think I have that wrong too. I tried to pull the grass and eat the milky ends, but there was elk shit all over and dog piss prob­a­bly too. Real­ly, there was noth­ing to eat except car­rots and there­fore I had a hard time pay­ing atten­tion. She didn’t kick the ball hard enough and when she did kick it, the ball went out of bounds. Some­times, she kicked it the wrong direc­tion. Some­times, some­one kicked it hard in the wrong direc­tion and all the kids ran all the way out of bounds, off­sides, down the hill, over elk shit and dog piss chas­ing a ball that would nev­er come back. For me, it was good for a metaphor anyway—soccer balls as youth or boys or hun­gry mem­bers of the Cervi­dae fam­i­ly look­ing for edi­ble grass on the oth­er side of the moun­tain where per­haps the fire or the drought didn’t wipe all the grass out. Metaphor breaks all the rules. Unlike youth and boys, the ball comes back. Maybe edi­ble grass too.

I apol­o­gize for the melo­dra­ma. But I need to stay here and think about the end of the world because I wasn’t going to get up off my chair or put down my book and join them in chas­ing that ball. I knew I’d nev­er catch it and the team would nev­er for­give me for get­ting in the way of a game whose rules have noth­ing to do with a les­son on how to eat the crumbs of bro­ken metaphors.

:: Microsmooth ::

You have to sound hyped up. You have to sound breath­less. You have to use words like “broad­ly-con­nect­ed” and “an approach unusu­al­ly tak­en.” You have to make it sound like this is their good news too, even though you’re the one going to be on TV. You have to believe that we all share in the wealth of the land, that we all share in the wealth, that we all share in the wealth of the wealthy land that is TV to make it clear to them that this is their good oppor­tu­ni­ty although they them­selves will not be on TV. TV is where they offer micros­mooth tech­nol­o­gy to cov­er up your micro­p­ores because if you are on TV the cam­era adds expo­nents to your skin, yours, not theirs, grate­ful­ly, since TV is not for every­one. How­ev­er news is for every­one and you and they can stand togeth­er and hold hands, although you will be out in front and they will stand just a touch to the side, a lit­tle far­ther, and unit­ed in this endeav­or. To insure, because that’s what this moment is, insur­ance in the wealth of nations, insur­ance that we will all go on shar­ing in the wealth of land and nation and TV,  this moment is as good as can be, you assure them they can let go and applaud. Just the sound of hands clap­ping sends good news right through your skin. 

 From the Writer

:: Account ::

When I wrote these microes­says, I was work­ing on a big essay project about microor­gan­isms. These microor­gan­isms did such amaz­ing things: they could reduce pol­lu­tants in water by chem­i­cal­ly engag­ing with the pol­lu­tant. They would­n’t so much eat them as throw off elec­trons, chang­ing the chem­i­cal make-up of say, nitrate, which is bad, into nitro­gen, which is good. What I loved was the way microor­gan­isms could adapt to their sur­round­ings while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly adapt­ing their surroundings—just like humans. It made me think how every­thing adapts its envi­ron­ment to suit it. So does the writ­ing. How could I write a big gigan­tic essay that tried to tell a very long sto­ry about the behav­ior of microor­gan­isms? If I real­ly want­ed to tell a sto­ry about things micro, I should tell it micro­scop­i­cal­ly. Or at least briefly. In these short essays, I strove for dynamism and adapt­abil­i­ty. In brevi­ty, you can duck and cov­er. You can wrap your mind ful­ly around one idea. Like a cam­era, you can take a big idea, put a frame around it and make it small. Small enough to matter. 


Nicole Walk­ers non­fic­tion book, Quench Your Thirst with Salt, won the 2011 Zone 3 non­fic­tion prize (Zone 3 Press, 2013). She is also the author of a col­lec­tion of poems, This Noisy Egg (Bar­row Street, 2010). She edit­ed, along with Mar­got Singer, Bend­ing Genre: Essays on Non­fic­tion, which was released by Blooms­bury in March 2013. She is non­fic­tion edi­tor at Dia­gram and asso­ciate pro­fes­sor at North­ern Ari­zona University