Three Works

Art / Kenseth Armstead

:: Three Works ::

 

From the artist

:: Account ::

The Yad­do 2016 res­i­den­cy man­date was to sur­prise myself. Most of the projects and bod­ies of work under­tak­en up until that point were mono­chrome, found, mut­ed col­or most­ly, site spe­cif­ic and/or his­to­ry focused. The con­cep­tu­al rig­or of con­nect­ing to a site or his­toric body was always the key dri­ver. This body of work would be dif­fer­ent. It was strict­ly exper­i­men­tal and for FUN. This had nev­er hap­pened before. There were no rules, or for that mat­ter, goals. Each day set up new pud­dles or twists of met­al cut up in the stu­dio and then embed­ded in the paint. Each twist led away from know­ing. The Yad­do exper­i­ments are a com­plete body of work. In sev­en weeks, I com­plet­ed some one hun­dred plus works (they still have not all been count­ed) that I do not know. They know me. 

 

Kenseth Arm­stead has cre­at­ed provoca­tive mul­ti­me­dia instal­la­tion art for three decades. These works have been exhib­it­ed in sev­er­al his­toric exhi­bi­tions which include Black Male: Rep­re­sen­ta­tions of Mas­culin­i­ty in Con­tem­po­rary Art at the Whit­ney Muse­um of Amer­i­can Art & Armand Ham­mer Muse­um in 1994; the Berlin Vide­oFest in 1994; Frames of Ref­er­ence: Reflec­tions on Media at The Solomon R. Guggen­heim Muse­um in 1999; Race in Dig­i­tal Space at the MIT List Visu­al Arts Cen­ter & Stu­dio Muse­um in Harlem in 2001; Veni Vidi Video at the Stu­dio Muse­um in Harlem (their first video exhi­bi­tion) in 2003; Open House: Work­ing in Brook­lyn at the Brook­lyn Muse­um in 2004; “Edit­ed at EAI”: Video Inter­fer­ence (cel­e­brat­ing 45 years of their award win­ning col­lec­tion) at Elec­tron­ic Arts Inter­mix in 2016; and most recent­ly, the crit­i­cal­ly acclaimed Mod­ern Hero­ics: 75 years of African Amer­i­can Expres­sion­ism at the Newark Muse­um. In each case, Armstead’s work has been includ­ed in piv­otal explo­rations of Amer­i­can cul­ture, emerg­ing fields, gen­der pol­i­tics, the New York art scene, eth­nic­i­ty, artis­tic inno­va­tion, his­to­ry, and insti­tu­tion-defin­ing moments. Armstead’s videos, draw­ings, and sculp­tures are includ­ed in the col­lec­tions of the Cen­tre Pom­pi­dou, African Amer­i­can Muse­um in Dal­las, Texas, The Newark Muse­um, and numer­ous oth­er pub­lic and pri­vate col­lec­tions. 

Narrative in the Shadow of the Refugee Regime

Criticism / Mai-Linh K. Hong

:: Narrative in the Shadow of the Refugee Regime ::

Once, while my par­ents shopped in a drug­store and I wan­dered the aisles alone, a white woman approached me and said, “I want you to know I do not blame you for the war.” The woman mis­took my silence for incom­pre­hen­sion, so she said more slow­ly and loud­ly, “I DO NOT BLAME YOU FOR THE WAR.”

I must have been about sev­en. Even then, I knew which war: Viet­nam.

Exon­er­a­tion, when unasked for, sounds more like accu­sa­tion. I answered, “I know. I wasn’t born yet.” The woman stud­ied me, then moved away.

Chil­dren are per­cep­tive, eco­nom­i­cal crea­tures. They under­stand that some days you choose between jus­tice and self-preser­va­tion. Years lat­er, I want­ed to return to that moment and say sar­cas­ti­cal­ly to the woman, “I don’t blame you, either.” But such a response would have been unkind. Life is a series of imper­fect respons­es, based in a kind of social arith­metic that rarely comes out right. I did not know what or whom she might have lost to war. I did not even know what I had lost.

* * *

Viet Thanh Nguyen, a schol­ar of race and eth­nic­i­ty long before he became a Pulitzer Prize win­ning nov­el­ist, wrote in the New York Times last year, “[I]t is pre­cise­ly because I do not look like a refugee that I have to pro­claim being one, even when those of us who were refugees would rather for­get that there was a time when the world thought us to be less than human.” [i] Viet­namese refugees have been exten­sive­ly mea­sured, pho­tographed, inter­viewed, psy­cho­an­a­lyzed, and doc­u­ment­ed; but before the rel­a­tive­ly new field of crit­i­cal refugee stud­ies emerged, it seemed one could be a Viet­namese refugee or one could know about Viet­namese refugees, rarely both. Thus I open with per­son­al nar­ra­tive in keep­ing with a prac­tice of self-identification—consciously plac­ing one­self in rela­tion to one’s work—that is com­mon in crit­i­cal refugee stud­ies, as it is in eth­nic stud­ies more broad­ly. This prac­tice speaks to work by Yến Lê Espir­i­tu, who urges schol­ars to rec­og­nize “refugees as ‘inten­tion­al­ized beings’ who pos­sess and enact their own pol­i­tics,” rather than as intel­lec­tu­al or prac­ti­cal prob­lems for oth­ers to solve. [ii] Reflect­ing on the field for which she laid much of the intel­lec­tu­al ground­work, Espir­i­tu writes, “Over the years, I have looked for ways to tell the sto­ry of the refugee—not as an object of study but as a source of knowl­edge.” [iii] Espiritu’s and Nguyen’s locu­tions assign fresh cul­tur­al and aca­d­e­m­ic cur­ren­cy to “the refugee’s” capac­i­ty to illu­mi­nate the world—as a gen­er­a­tive new par­a­digm or as a knowl­edge producer—while also val­i­dat­ing the pri­ma­cy of nar­ra­tive in such pro­duc­tion. Crit­i­cal refugee stud­ies decen­ter empir­i­cal, out­sider ways of know­ing that pre­vi­ous­ly ren­dered the refugee invis­i­ble as soon as she lay claim to them.

A not-insignif­i­cant part of my project is this: decades after a har­row­ing pas­sage, and from the rel­a­tive secu­ri­ty of a uni­ver­si­ty office, I under­take to resig­ni­fy my decades-gone, brown, child self who was once so vis­i­bly a rem­nant of the Viet­nam War. That raced and gen­dered body, a “less than human” refugee body, was a screen on which (non-Viet­namese) Amer­i­cans could project their oth­er­wise form­less grief, anger, blame, and for­give­ness. [iv] As far back as I recall, I have been peri­od­i­cal­ly hailed into some stranger’s nar­ra­tive of a dis­as­trous war, in which I played a role I rec­og­nized but did not choose. The woman in the drug­store, who believed her exon­er­a­tion of me would have a par­tic­u­lar mean­ing (“I want you to know,” she said), unin­ten­tion­al­ly taught me about the inter­twin­ing of knowl­edge and pow­er (“I want you to know”) and the ways they are refract­ed through nar­ra­tive (“I do not blame you for the war”). She is one of hun­dreds of Amer­i­cans I have encoun­tered who seek me out to com­plete their own, unre­solved sto­ries about “the war”—that is, about race, empire, mil­i­tarism, inno­cence, or what­ev­er else holds up the archi­tec­ture of their Amer­i­can­ness. This awk­ward, exhaust­ing, and weird­ly soul-bar­ing psy­choso­cial dynam­ic is a con­di­tion of every South­east Asian refugee’s “new begin­ning” in the Unit­ed States.

Indeed, it is the refugee’s func­tion in Amer­i­can society—and her job, for it keeps food on the table—to be hailed into oth­ers’ nar­ra­tives. Since the 1970s, when the Unit­ed States began for­mal­iz­ing its refugee admis­sion pro­ce­dures in response to post-Viet­nam War refugee flows, this func­tion has been laid out and rein­forced by what some schol­ars refer to as the refugee regime: the com­plex of inter­na­tion­al and domes­tic laws, insti­tu­tions, poli­cies, and social prac­tices that to a large extent set the para­me­ters of sur­vival for those who are flee­ing per­se­cu­tion, vio­lence, or cat­a­stro­phe. [v] The refugee regime, while it osten­si­bly attends to the human­i­tar­i­an needs of the world’s most vul­ner­a­ble (and it does give some of them pre­cious reprieve from dan­ger), in the larg­er scheme arguably func­tions more as an elab­o­rate gate­keep­ing and cost mit­i­ga­tion sys­tem for the wealth­i­er nations of the world. [vi] With­out the bureau­crat­ic buffer pro­vid­ed by the refugee regime, such nations might have to reck­on with an expen­sive moral imper­a­tive to pro­tect mil­lions of refugees. As Patri­cia Tuitt puts it, “the over­rid­ing aim of refugee law was at its incep­tion and con­tin­ues to be the reduc­tion of the exter­nal costs of refugee-pro­duc­ing phe­nom­e­na.… [I]f the con­cerns of the law are human­i­tar­i­an this is only mar­gin­al­ly and inci­den­tal­ly so.” [vii] Argu­ing for a more com­pre­hen­sive, humane, eth­i­cal approach to refugees, Ser­e­na Parekh observes that the cur­rent inter­na­tion­al polit­i­cal con­sen­sus seems to be that “states have no legal oblig­a­tion to reset­tle refugees or oth­er forcibly dis­placed, they rec­og­nize no moral oblig­a­tion to reset­tle refugees, and West­ern states are, for var­i­ous polit­i­cal rea­sons, unlike­ly to reset­tle large num­bers of refugees.” [viii] When refugee crises strike, as they reg­u­lar­ly do, “most states feel enti­tled to exclude refugees, and this moti­vates many of their poli­cies.” [ix]

Exclu­sion, the default pos­ture of states toward refugees, is facil­i­tat­ed by the struc­ture of inter­na­tion­al refugee law. This com­po­nent of inter­na­tion­al human rights law is based on the 1951 Unit­ed Nations Con­ven­tion on the Sta­tus of Refugees and admin­is­tered by the Unit­ed Nations High Com­mis­sion­er for Refugees (UNHCR). Inter­na­tion­al refugee law works in part by nar­row­ing the legal def­i­n­i­tion of refugee so that most of the world’s 65.6 mil­lion de fac­to refugees—those who live in indef­i­nite, forced displacement—would not qual­i­fy for pro­tec­tion under the Con­ven­tion. [x] For the 22.5 mil­lion who do qual­i­fy, the law’s aim of a “durable solu­tion,” a per­ma­nent path to safe­ty and rel­a­tive free­dom, is elu­sive. [xi] Near­ly all refugees remain “more or less out­side the bounds of the nation-state sys­tem,” either ware­housed indef­i­nite­ly in refugee camps or liv­ing in oth­er pre­car­i­ous con­di­tions in a coun­try of tem­po­rary asy­lum. [xii] More­over, because most refugees who cross an inter­na­tion­al bor­der do not make it far­ther than neigh­bor­ing states, the bur­den of hous­ing and pro­vid­ing for refugees in tran­sit falls dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly on Glob­al South states, which are com­mon­ly the coun­tries of first asy­lum.

The deliv­er­ance of refugees to safe­ty under inter­na­tion­al law, when it hap­pens, tends to be under­stood by observers, pol­i­cy­mak­ers, human rights and NGO work­ers, and even refugees them­selves as an exten­sion of charity—what one gives altru­is­ti­cal­ly when one does not need to. In the Unit­ed States, where the work of wel­com­ing and inte­grat­ing new­ly arrived refugees is done main­ly by non­prof­it reset­tle­ment agen­cies and pri­vate “co-spon­sors,” such as church­es and indi­vid­u­als, this ten­den­cy is ampli­fied through nar­ra­tives of pri­vate hos­pi­tal­i­ty and “altru­is­tic choice.” [xiii] Pop­u­lar refugee nar­ra­tives often fit the mold of “sen­ti­men­tal res­cue-and-grat­i­tude tales,” in which cit­i­zens of pre­dom­i­nant­ly white bystander nations gen­er­ous­ly res­cue racial and nation­al Oth­ers from far­away calami­ties, and those refugee Oth­ers pro­fess thanks for the favor, affirm­ing the res­cuers’ essen­tial good­ness and implic­it­ly absolv­ing them of past wrongs. [xiv] Decon­tex­tu­al­ized and dehis­tori­cized, such nar­ra­tives are ide­o­log­i­cal diver­sions: the cen­ter­ing of refugee res­cue means that any role the host nation may have played in refugee pro­duc­tion—for instance, by fuel­ing or engag­ing in for­eign con­flicts or through eco­nom­ic poli­cies that desta­bi­lize oth­er nations—fades to obscu­ri­ty. As Mimi Thi Nguyen argues, the grate­ful refugee is a cru­cial fig­ure for advanc­ing con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can impe­ri­al­ism, for her thanks­giv­ing val­i­dates lib­er­al warfare’s promise: that vio­lence and loss in the present are nec­es­sary to gar­ner “the gift of free­dom” in the future, a ques­tion­able gift prof­fered by the Unit­ed States under aus­pices of glob­al secu­ri­ty, nation-build­ing, and polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic lib­er­a­tion. [xv] Crit­i­cal refugee stud­ies, as Espir­i­tu elab­o­rates, glean from the fig­ure of the refugee an alter­nate account, not of war as such, but of wide­spread, ongo­ing “mil­i­ta­rized vio­lence,” which includes less vis­i­ble forms of state vio­lence that some­times mas­quer­ade as human­i­tar­i­an aid. Such a for­mu­la­tion reveals more ful­ly “the raw, bru­tal, and destruc­tive forces that West­ern impe­r­i­al pow­ers unleash on the lands and bod­ies of racial­ized peo­ples across time and space.” [xvi]

So it is that in the Unit­ed States, a nation whose glob­al mil­i­tarism and eco­nom­ic and strate­gic poli­cies have con­tributed to refugee crises in far-flung regions, includ­ing South­east Asia, many con­fi­dent­ly claim pride in the nation’s robust tra­di­tion of wel­com­ing refugees. Amer­i­cans com­mon­ly point out that the Unit­ed States accepts more of the world’s refugees who reset­tle under the UNHCR’s aus­pices than any oth­er nation, though in 2016 this was only 85,000 peo­ple. [xvii] The cur­rent U.S. pres­i­dent, who rode to pow­er on a promise to exclude Syr­i­an refugees, act­ed quick­ly after his inau­gu­ra­tion to halt the U.S. Refugee Admis­sions Pro­gram, whose future is now uncer­tain. [xvi­ii] Trump’s pres­i­den­cy brings to the fore the seem­ing para­dox of Amer­i­can head­lines like this one from the New York Times in Jan­u­ary 2017: “Warm Wel­come for Syr­i­ans in a Coun­try About to Ban Them,” announc­ing a sto­ry about some of the last refugees to arrive in the Unit­ed States pri­or to the “Mus­lim ban.” [xix] Such a head­line makes sense if we rec­og­nize that the refugee regime does not oper­ate through law alone, or through force alone, but, like oth­er vec­tors of cap­i­tal­ism and impe­ri­al­ism, calls upon nar­ra­tive, myth, and affect to oil its gears and cam­ou­flage its work­ings. The refugee regime’s neolib­er­al under­pin­nings are shield­ed from view by sto­ries that empha­size, on a good day, refugee res­cue, hos­pi­tal­i­ty, and friend­ship, and on a bad day, a parade of threats that emanate from an inas­sim­i­l­able racial and nation­al Oth­er. These seem­ing­ly dis­parate cul­tur­al nar­ra­tives coex­ist and, espe­cial­ly in times of inse­cu­ri­ty, can assert them­selves simul­ta­ne­ous­ly or flip with speed and feroc­i­ty.

* * *

The law of refugees is as fol­lows:

(1) A refugee is a per­son who has fled their coun­try due to a well-found­ed fear of per­se­cu­tion based on race, reli­gion, nation­al­i­ty, mem­ber­ship in a par­tic­u­lar social group, or polit­i­cal opin­ion. [xx]
(2) Oth­er coun­tries may not return a refugee to their coun­try of ori­gin. This is the rule of non-refoule­ment, a cen­tral prin­ci­ple of refugee law. [xxi]
(3) The Unit­ed Nations deter­mines which refugees are eli­gi­ble for per­ma­nent reset­tle­ment in anoth­er coun­try. The Unit­ed States accepts more refugees for per­ma­nent reset­tle­ment than any oth­er host coun­try. In 2016, this was only 85,000 peo­ple.
(4) Once a refugee arrives in the Unit­ed States, a pri­vate, non­prof­it agency takes over the work of inte­grat­ing the refugee, hav­ing received a sum of mon­ey from the gov­ern­ment. Pri­vate “co-spon­sors” con­tribute time and resources to aid with inte­gra­tion. [xxii]
(5) After a peri­od of time, a refugee may become a U.S. cit­i­zen.

The law of refugees is as fol­lows:

(1) You do not speak. You may ges­ture for help in a way that makes for a good pho­to­graph. Pic­tures speak a thou­sand words. They will speak for you.
(2) When you are giv­en the gift of a new begin­ning, you can­not refuse. You can­not say, “This is not the begin­ning.” Corol­lary: you may be haunt­ed. And if so, the ghost is your respon­si­bil­i­ty, yours alone.
(3) Your labor will include grat­i­tude.
(4) Your labor will include patri­o­tism.
(5) You must not be iron­ic.

* * *

Reset­tled refugees learn all of this, the offi­cial and unof­fi­cial “laws” gov­ern­ing their pres­ence in Amer­i­ca, prin­ci­pal­ly through sur­vival. This per­ilous epis­te­mol­o­gy devel­ops out of dou­ble con­scious­ness, hyper­vig­i­lance, and strate­gic per­for­ma­tiv­i­ty. Refugee lives are punc­tu­at­ed with social inter­ac­tions that reflect how pre­car­i­ous and con­tin­gent is their “reset­tle­ment,” that opti­misti­cal­ly named process through which they are puta­tive­ly absorbed into a new com­mu­ni­ty. Crit­i­cal refugee stud­ies have chal­lenged the pre­dom­i­nant, tele­o­log­i­cal under­stand­ing of reset­tle­ment that views a refugee’s dis­place­ment as a tem­po­rary dis­rup­tion to be reme­died by their inte­gra­tion into the host coun­try and (re)socialization as a self-suf­fi­cient eco­nom­ic actor. Eric Tang, in a study of Cam­bo­di­an refugees liv­ing in a Bronx “hyper­ghet­to,” frames reset­tle­ment instead as a con­tin­u­a­tion of the colo­nial vio­lence wrought by Amer­i­ca in South­east Asia, con­verged with the lega­cy of slav­ery that keeps impov­er­ished African Amer­i­cans in the hyper­ghet­to. [xxi­ii] The sub­ject of Tang’s most exten­sive inter­views, a woman named Ra, expe­ri­enced forced mar­riage, cap­tiv­i­ty, and near-star­va­tion under the Amer­i­can-backed Khmer Rouge; once in Amer­i­ca, she “engaged in forms of sur­vival that dis­avowed the state’s insis­tence that she had been simul­ta­ne­ous­ly saved and redeemed by its refugee reset­tle­ment pro­gram.” [xxiv] Steer­ing her nar­ra­tive of con­tin­ued dis­place­ment in Amer­i­ca, in part by set­ting the terms of her inter­views, Ra mate­ri­al­izes a the­o­ry of her own, which Tang terms “refugee tem­po­ral­i­ty.” Rather than treat­ing the time of atroc­i­ty as dis­crete and over, Ra’s nar­ra­tive enables Tang to “name[] the refugee’s knowl­edge that, with each cross­ing, reset­tle­ment, and dis­place­ment, an old and famil­iar form of pow­er is being rein­scribed.” [xxv] While pol­i­cy­mak­ers speak a tech­no­crat­ic lan­guage of annu­al caps, vet­ting, and spon­sor­ship of refugees, refugees must meet their basic needs by work­ing with­in the avail­able nar­ra­tives and dis­cours­es, gen­er­al­ly ones that pre­sume the gift of a new begin­ning. But many, like Ra, also claim social space and gen­er­ate new lan­guage for their own under­stand­ing of their expe­ri­ence. This is a fraught, unset­tling process that con­tin­ues long after the legal con­di­tion of refugee­ness is extin­guished (for instance, through the bestow­al of Amer­i­can cit­i­zen­ship). From this dai­ly, indef­i­nite nego­ti­a­tion between stark neces­si­ty and the refugee’s desire for (though some­times skep­ti­cism of) a fuller exis­tence, refugee-authored lit­er­ary texts arise.

lê thi diem thúy’s impres­sion­is­tic, semi-auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal nov­el The Gang­ster We Are All Look­ing For (2003) illus­trates the painstak­ing and painful forg­ing of refugee “forms of sur­vival” out of the morass of cul­tur­al expec­ta­tions and ide­o­log­i­cal nar­ra­tives pro­ject­ed onto refugees in Amer­i­ca. The novel’s five chap­ters are each divid­ed into short scenes a few sen­tences to a few para­graphs long. Frag­men­tary and image-laden, the scenes read like prose poems, each cap­tur­ing a moment from the young female narrator’s mem­o­ry or imag­i­na­tion as if to form an album of ver­bal snap­shots. One of the ear­li­est scenes, which sets the nov­el in motion, describes an alle­gor­i­cal refugee spon­sor­ship cen­ter­ing on a retired, white Navy vet­er­an, Mr. Rus­sell, who embod­ies a cul­tur­al phe­nom­e­non Cathy J. Schlund-Vials describes as “the alchem­i­cal recu­per­a­tion of the Amer­i­can sub­ject from mil­i­tary aggres­sor to mil­i­tant human­i­tar­i­an.” [xxvi] The elder­ly Mr. Rus­sell, liv­ing in San Diego, watch­es tele­vi­sion images of the Viet­namese Boat Peo­ple, “name­less, face­less bod­ies lying in small boats, float­ing on the open water.” [xxvii] For Mr. Rus­sell, these undif­fer­en­ti­at­ed Asi­at­ic bod­ies “merged with his mem­o­ries of the Oki­nawans and the Samoans and even the Hawai­ians” whom he saw in anoth­er war, decades ear­li­er. [xxvi­ii] One night, Mr. Rus­sell dreams the refugee boats are seabirds fly­ing “toward the point where in the dream he under­stood him­self to be wait­ing, some­where beyond the frame,” and with that rev­e­la­to­ry image, he decides to spon­sor a refugee fam­i­ly. [xxix] Through this col­lu­sion of sym­pa­thy and spec­ta­tor­ship, giv­en form by the law, lê’s unnamed pro­tag­o­nist is plucked from a refugee camp to begin her rocky reset­tle­ment in Amer­i­ca.

Mr. Rus­sell exem­pli­fies a dis­tinc­tive con­ver­gence of sen­ti­men­tal­ism, pater­nal­ism, racism, and mil­i­tary vio­lence that char­ac­ter­izes America’s pos­ture toward South­east Asia and its refugees. lê quick­ly dis­places that per­spec­tive as the dom­i­nant one: she embeds the man’s deci­sion to spon­sor inside her own nar­ra­tive frame, a move that enables the read­er to see, iron­i­cal­ly, Mr. Rus­sell regard­ing him­self as an off-screen spec­ta­tor, not the spec­ta­cle, as he watch­es the Boat Peo­ple on tele­vi­sion. Fig­u­ra­tive­ly revers­ing the cam­era lens of Amer­i­can and Euro­pean pho­to­jour­nal­ism, which iconized the Boat People’s suf­fer­ing for a most­ly white audi­ence, lê’s nov­el crit­i­cal­ly high­lights the white Amer­i­can veteran’s self-con­struc­tion as observ­er-res­cuer, includ­ing how “he under­stood him­self” as “wait­ing, some­where beyond the frame.” In his con­fla­tion of endan­gered, racial­ized bod­ies (the Viet­namese with the Oki­nawans, Samoans, and Hawai­ians), Mr. Rus­sell does not nec­es­sar­i­ly mis­rec­og­nize the Boat Peo­ple. Rather, he rec­og­nizes all too well his­tor­i­cal con­ti­nu­ities between the Unit­ed States’ World War II Pacif­ic vic­to­ry (cinched by the atom­ic bomb­ings and sub­se­quent mil­i­tary occu­pa­tion of Japan), annex­a­tion of Pacif­ic islands, near-geno­ci­dal mil­i­tary exploits in South­east Asia, and final­ly, the cri­sis expe­ri­enced by the Boat Peo­ple. But what­ev­er redemp­tive poten­tial exists in refugee sponsorship—and his epiphan­ic dream sug­gests there is some—Mr. Rus­sell does not live to real­ize it; he is dead by page five, leav­ing the spon­sor­ship of a young girl and five men as a final wish for his wife and son to car­ry out.

Thus, the sen­ti­men­tal res­cue-and-grat­i­tude nar­ra­tive is derailed almost before it begins. The late Mr. Russell’s rel­a­tives are bare­ly will­ing, much less warm­ly wel­com­ing; the refugees are more fright­ened than grate­ful and keen­ly feel their dearth of options. Nev­er­the­less, the nar­ra­tor and her fam­i­ly must live and work with the pre­vail­ing expec­ta­tions of grat­i­tude, cog­nizant that to do oth­er­wise would be to dis­rupt the mytholo­gies under­ly­ing refugee admis­sion, not to men­tion jeop­ar­dize their shel­ter and pro­vi­sions in a spon­sor­ship-based econ­o­my. Over­hear­ing a tense dis­cus­sion between the Rus­sells, the refugees con­tem­plate their depen­dence:

We each thought of those long nights float­ing on the ocean, rock­ing back and forth in the mid­dle of nowhere with noth­ing in sight. We remem­bered the ships that kept their dis­tance. We remem­bered the peo­ple lean­ing over the decks of ships to study us through their binoc­u­lars and not lik­ing what they saw, turn­ing away from the boat. If it was true that this man Mel could keep us from float­ing back there—to all those salt-filled nights—what could we do but thank him. And then thank him again. [xxx]

Anchored to the refugees’ anaphor­ic “we” is the recur­ring mem­o­ry, and implic­it threat, of being no more than a spec­ta­cle of bare life for oth­ers to “study,” then decide to aid or for­sake. This mem­o­ry directs the refugees’ respons­es to their spon­sor: “what could we do but thank him”—a ques­tion with­out a ques­tion mark—and “thank him again,” rehears­ing the role of the grate­ful refugee. Long Bui brings per­for­mance stud­ies to bear in ana­lyz­ing refugee life and iden­ti­fies a “refugee reper­toire” of famil­iar per­for­mances through which refugees nego­ti­ate com­plex social demands. Bui delin­eates “the refugee con­di­tion as a high­ly embod­ied staged process, anchored in the motion and move­ment of the dias­poric subject’s nav­i­ga­tion across dif­fer­ent land­scapes of belong­ing or exclu­sion.” [xxxi] The spon­sor­ship econ­o­my is, among oth­er things, an affec­tive econ­o­my in which refugees per­form cer­tain states of mind (such as grat­i­tude) in order to secure basic neces­si­ties. Thank­ing Mel is an act of sur­vival, a staving off of “salt-filled nights” “in the mid­dle of nowhere with noth­ing in sight,” for refugees who “float” pre­car­i­ous­ly through their reset­tle­ment rather than actu­al­ly set­tling.

Lat­er, view­ing a pho­to­graph of the fish­ing boat on which she escaped Viet­nam, shot from the deck of the Amer­i­can naval ship that res­cued them, the nar­ra­tor imag­ines the Amer­i­cans laugh­ing at the Boat Peo­ple:

Maybe that’s why it took them so long to low­er the lad­der. Maybe they laughed so hard at the sight of us so small, they start­ed to roll around the deck like spilled mar­bles and they had to help one anoth­er to their feet and recall their own names—Emmett, Mike, Ron—and where they were from—Oakland, Cal­i­for­nia; Youngstown, Ohio; Shin­ston, West Virginia—before they could let us climb up and say our names—Lan, Cuong, Hoang—and where we were from—Phan Thi­et, Binh Thuan. [xxxii]

The narrator’s only visu­al doc­u­ment of the meet­ing at sea is a pho­to­graph tak­en lit­er­al­ly from a white savior’s per­spec­tive, but her read­ing of the image rejects the sal­va­tion nar­ra­tive that assumes sym­pa­thy or altru­ism. Instead, the girl imag­ines car­toon­ish­ly heart­less sailors who “laughed so hard” that they fell about the deck, then “help[ed] one anoth­er” stand first before allow­ing the strand­ed Boat Peo­ple to board. The two roll calls of names and cities of ori­gin make clear the unequal foot­ing on which the two groups, Amer­i­can sailors and Viet­namese refugees, encounter each oth­er, with one list syn­tac­ti­cal­ly and sym­bol­i­cal­ly sub­or­di­nat­ed to the oth­er. In “recall[ing] their own names,” the Amer­i­cans con­struct their self-iden­ti­ty in rela­tion to the refugees, who must be “let” to “climb up and say our names.” At the same time, the “maybes” that begin each sen­tence, along with the sailors’ exag­ger­at­ed antipa­thy, sig­nal an act of counter-imag­i­na­tion: the girl’s con­struc­tion of a nar­ra­tive unlike any that might be har­bored by, say, Mr. Rus­sell, the sym­pa­thet­ic for­mer Navy man who is also read­ing images of the Boat Peo­ple.

Like Ra’s refugee tem­po­ral­i­ty, the nov­el rejects resettlement’s promise of a new begin­ning; instead, it demon­strates how unset­tled­ness endures into adult­hood for the child nar­ra­tor, a chron­ic run­away who ends up liv­ing on the oppo­site coast from her par­ents. The nar­ra­tor, her father, and her “uncles” (her moth­er arrives lat­er) are not so much reset­tled in Cal­i­for­nia as they are forcibly trans­ferred to Cal­i­for­nia to con­tin­ue an indef­i­nite series of dis­place­ments. These include being asked to leave the home of Mr. Russell’s son Mel after the nar­ra­tor acci­den­tal­ly destroys his col­lec­tion of glass ani­mal fig­urines, and lat­er, evic­tion from a gen­tri­fy­ing neigh­bor­hood they can no longer afford. It seems at times they have not come that far: “We live in the coun­try of Cal­i­for­nia, the province of San Diego, the vil­lage of Lin­da Vista,” in 1940s Navy hous­ing that since the 1980s has been tak­en over by South­east Asian refugees, the nar­ra­tor recounts, map­ping Cal­i­for­nia with a geopo­lit­i­cal vocab­u­lary more suit­ed to Viet­nam. [xxxi­ii] Their ex-mil­i­tary hous­ing reflects the fact that, as Espir­i­tu explains, mod­ern refuge is fun­da­men­tal­ly an exten­sion of mil­i­ta­rized vio­lence, a phe­nom­e­non she names “mil­i­ta­rized refuge(es).” Refugee res­cue, Espir­i­tu points out, relies on the cir­cum-Pacif­ic U.S. mil­i­tary appa­ra­tus that grew dra­mat­i­cal­ly from the 1940s to 1980s—the same bases, tech­nol­o­gy, weapon­ry, logis­tics, and path­ways that were used in war to dis­place the refugees to begin with. [xxxiv] The refugees’ phys­i­cal pres­ence in the “vil­lage of Lin­da Vista” mir­rors, and is the result of, the Unit­ed States’ impe­r­i­al expan­sion into South­east Asia. The Amer­i­can war brings home its human remain­ders.

lê’s nov­el details many such ironies of reset­tle­ment, large and small. The refugees are not a good fit in Lin­da Vista. Their trans­plan­ta­tion is marked by dis­junc­ture, ambiva­lence, and dis­trust: about the Navy hous­ing, the nar­ra­tor wry­ly recalls, “When we moved in, we had to sign a form promis­ing not to put fish bones in the garbage dis­pos­al.” [xxxv] After the narrator’s moth­er arrives from Viet­nam, her hus­band buys her a used Cadil­lac as a “Wel­come to Amer­i­ca” gift, but she does not know how to dri­ve and soon backs the lum­ber­ing vehi­cle into the wrought iron gate of the apart­ment com­plex. The land­lord arrives to fix the gate and “silent­ly cursed his ten­ants. He sus­pect­ed each and every one of those liv­ing in the building’s six­teen units… They were peo­ple who broke things.” [xxxvi] With iron­ic humor, the scene lit­er­al­izes the preva­lent neg­a­tive per­cep­tion of refugees as “gatecrashers”—that is, as unwel­come guests in the neigh­bor­hood and the nation, and as peo­ple large­ly respon­si­ble for their own crises, “peo­ple who broke things.” Even­tu­al­ly, unable to pay the ris­ing rent, the fam­i­ly is evict­ed and arrives home to find the build­ing pad­locked, all their pos­ses­sions inside. They go “qui­et­ly” but not com­pla­cent­ly: “At night we come back with three uncles. Ba cuts a hole in the fence and we step through. Qui­et, we break into our own house through the back win­dow. Qui­et, we steal back every­thing that is ours… We tum­ble out the win­dow like peo­ple tum­bling across con­ti­nents.” [xxxvii] The pas­sage stakes out a col­lec­tive claim (again, through a cho­rus of “we”) not only on the refugees’ prop­er­ty, but also on the nar­ra­tive itself. “Qui­et” the refugees may be, but their actions speak: bur­glar­iz­ing their home and steal­ing back their prop­er­ty, they con­front a soci­ety that is not meant for them but in which they must nev­er­the­less, like Ra, impro­vise “forms of sur­vival.” Even in Amer­i­ca lê’s refugees are still “tum­bling across con­ti­nents”; unset­tled, they adopt (and adapt) strate­gic per­for­mances and rever­sals of mean­ing and nar­ra­tive that car­ry them through a life­time of dis­place­ment.

Acknowl­edg­ments
The Buck­nell Insti­tute of Pub­lic Pol­i­cy sup­port­ed this project with a sum­mer research grant, and Buck­nell University’s Cen­ter for the Study of Race, Eth­nic­i­ty, and Gen­der orga­nized a fac­ul­ty col­lo­qui­um in which I devel­oped some of these ideas. I am grate­ful to my col­leagues Nik­ki Young, Mar­garet Cronin, Christo­pher Walk­er, Lay­la Vin­cent-Brown, and Mon­i­ca Sok for help­ful con­ver­sa­tions and feed­back, and to Steven Bel­skie for research assis­tance.

 


[i] Viet Thanh Nguyen, “The Hid­den Scars All Refugees Car­ry,” New York Times (Sep­tem­ber 2, 2016).
[ii] Yến Lê Espir­i­tu, Body Counts: The Viet­nam War and Mil­i­ta­rized Refuge(es) (Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia Press, 2014) 11, quot­ing Nicholas Mir­zo­eff.
[iii] Espir­i­tu, Body Counts 171.
[iv] I am indebt­ed to Mari­ta Sturken’s devel­op­ment of Freud’s idea of screen mem­o­ry and to Cathy J. Schlund-Vials’s exten­sion of Sturken’s work. See Mari­ta Sturken, Tan­gled Mem­o­ries: The Viet­nam War, The AIDS Epi­dem­ic, and the Pol­i­tics of Remem­ber­ing (Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia Press, 1997) 44; Cathy J. Schlund-Vials, War, Geno­cide, Jus­tice: Cam­bo­di­an-Amer­i­can Mem­o­ry Work (Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta Press, 2012) 77.
[v] Inter­na­tion­al gov­er­nance of states’ treat­ment of refugees is some­times referred to as the “refugee regime” by schol­ars of inter­na­tion­al law and pol­i­cy and inter­na­tion­al rela­tions. See, e.g., Lau­ra Bar­nett, “Glob­al Gov­er­nance and the Evo­lu­tion of the Inter­na­tion­al Refugee Regime,” Inter­na­tion­al Jour­nal of Refugee Law 14.2/3 (2002); Alexan­der Betts, “The Refugee Regime Com­plex,” Refugee Sur­vey Quar­ter­ly 29.1 (2010); Guil­ia Scalet­taris, “Refugee Stud­ies and the Inter­na­tion­al Refugee Regime: A Reflec­tion on a Desir­able Sep­a­ra­tion,” Refugee Sur­vey Quar­ter­ly 26.3 (2007). My use of the term is broad­er and refers to not only legal and polit­i­cal for­ma­tions, but also social prac­tices and cul­tur­al pro­duc­tions that, I argue, influ­ence the treat­ment of refugees in both dai­ly life and pol­i­cy­mak­ing.
[vi] Patri­cia Tuitt, False Images: The Law’s Con­struc­tion of the Refugee (Plu­to Press, 1996) 7.
[vii] Tuitt, False Images 7.
[viii] Ser­e­na Parekh, Refugees and the Ethics of Forced Dis­place­ment (Rout­ledge, 2017) 4. 
[ix] Parekh, Refugees 4.
[x] Parekh, Refugees 3, 6; Tuitt, False Images 7, 67; Unit­ed Nations High Com­mis­sion­er for Refugees, “Fig­ures at a Glance” (June 19, 2017).
[xi] UNHCR, “Fig­ures”; Parekh, Refugees 4.
[xii] Parekh, Refugees 4.
[xiii] J. Eby et al., “The Faith Community’s Role in Refugee Reset­tle­ment in the Unit­ed States,” Jour­nal of Refugee Stud­ies 24.3 (2011) 593; Helen Fein, Con­gre­ga­tion­al Spon­sors of Indochi­nese Refugees in the Unit­ed States, 1979–1981: Help­ing beyond Bor­ders (Cran­bury: Asso­ci­at­ed UP, 1987) 17. The role of pri­vate spon­sors in U.S. refugee reset­tle­ment was more promi­nent in the 1970s and 1980s than it is today. See Fein, 49.
[xiv] Build­ing upon work by Mimi Thi Nguyen, Yến Lê Espir­i­tu, and oth­ers, I have pre­vi­ous­ly dis­cussed the sen­ti­men­tal res­cue-and-grat­i­tude tale. See Mai-Linh K. Hong, “Refram­ing the Archive: Viet­namese Refugee Nar­ra­tives in the Post-9/11 Peri­od,” Mul­ti-Eth­nic Lit­er­a­ture of the Unit­ed States 41.3 (2016).
[xv] Mimi Thi Nguyen, The Gift of Free­dom: War, Debt, and Oth­er Refugee Pas­sages (Duke Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2012).
[xvi] Espir­i­tu, Body Counts 26.
[xvii] Refugee Pro­cess­ing Cen­ter, “Refugee Admis­sions by Region: Fis­cal Year 1975 through 31-Aug-2017,” U.S. Depart­ment of State.
[xvi­ii] The U.S. Supreme Court is sched­uled to hear mer­it argu­ments on chal­lenges to Trump’s trav­el bans on Octo­ber 10, 2017, but as of mid-Sep­tem­ber 2017, it is rumored that the Pres­i­dent may soon issue a new order with a dif­fer­ent set of restric­tions. In the mean­time, Trump’s order has been per­mit­ted to take effect with some lim­i­ta­tions. See “Trump’s Trav­el Ban to Be Replaced by Restric­tions Tai­lored to Cer­tain Coun­tries,” New York Times (Sep­tem­ber 22, 2017).
[xix] Jodi Kan­tor, “Warm Wel­come for Syr­i­ans in a Coun­try About to Ban Them,” New York Times (Jan­u­ary 28, 2017).
[xx] Unit­ed Nations High Com­mis­sion­er for Refugees, Con­ven­tion and Pro­to­col Relat­ing to the Sta­tus of Refugees (2010) 14.
[xxi] UNHCR, Con­ven­tion 30.
[xxii] Eby, “Faith” 591–593.
[xxi­ii] Eric Tang, Unset­tled: Cam­bo­di­an Refugees in the NYC Hyper­ghet­to (Tem­ple Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2015) 14–15.
[xxiv] Tang, Unset­tled 21.
[xxv] Tang, Unset­tled 21. 
[xxvi] Schlund-Vials, War 77.
[xxvii] lê thi diem thúy, The Gang­ster We Are All Look­ing For (Knopf, 2003) 4.
[xxvi­ii] lê, Gang­ster 4.
[xxix] lê, Gang­ster 5.
[xxx] lê, Gang­ster 7–8.
[xxxi] Long Bui, “The Refugee Reper­toire: Per­form­ing and Stag­ing the Post­mem­o­ries of Vio­lence,” Mul­ti-Eth­nic Lit­er­a­ture of the Unit­ed States 41.3 (2016) 113, 115.
[xxxii] lê, Gang­ster 29.
[xxxi­ii] lê, Gang­ster 88.
[xxxiv] Espir­i­tu, Body Counts 30–32.
[xxxv] lê, Gang­ster 88.
[xxxvi] lê, Gang­ster 41.
[xxxvii] lê, Gang­ster 97.

 

Works Cit­ed

Bar­nett, Lau­ra. “Glob­al Gov­er­nance and the Evo­lu­tion of the Inter­na­tion­al Refugee Regime.” Inter­na­tion­al Jour­nal of Refugee Law, vol. 14, no. 2/3, 2002, pp. 238–262.

Betts, Alexan­der. “The Refugee Regime Com­plex.” Refugee Sur­vey Quar­ter­ly, vol. 29, no. 1, 2010, pp. 12–37.

Bui, Long. “The Refugee Reper­toire: Per­form­ing and Stag­ing the Post­mem­o­ries of Vio­lence.” Mul­ti-Eth­nic Lit­er­a­ture of the Unit­ed States, vol. 41, no. 3, 2016, pp. 112–132.

Eby, J. et al. “The Faith Community’s Role in Refugee Reset­tle­ment in the Unit­ed States.” Jour­nal of Refugee Stud­ies, vol. 24, no. 3, 2011, pp. 586–605.

Espir­i­tu, Yến Lê. Body Counts: The Viet­nam War and Mil­i­ta­rized Refuge(es). Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia Press, 2014.

Fein, Helen. Con­gre­ga­tion­al Spon­sors of Indochi­nese Refugees in the Unit­ed States, 1979–1981: Help­ing beyond Bor­ders. Asso­ci­at­ed Uni­ver­si­ty Press­es, 1987.

Hong, Mai-Linh K. “Refram­ing the Archive: Viet­namese Refugee Nar­ra­tives in the Post-9/11 Peri­od.” Mul­ti-Eth­nic Lit­er­a­ture of the Unit­ed States, vol. 41, no. 3, 2016, pp. 18–41.

Kan­tor, Jodi. “Warm Wel­come for Syr­i­ans in a Coun­try About to Ban Them.” New York Times, 28 Jan­u­ary 2017.

lê thi diem thúy. The Gang­ster We Are All Look­ing For. Knopf, 2003.

Nguyen, Mimi Thi. The Gift of Free­dom: War, Debt, and Oth­er Refugee Pas­sages. Duke Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2012.

Nguyen, Viet Thanh. “The Hid­den Scars All Refugees Car­ry.” New York Times, 2 Sep­tem­ber 2016.

Parekh, Ser­e­na. Refugees and the Ethics of Forced Dis­place­ment. Rout­ledge, 2017.

Unit­ed States, Depart­ment of State. “Refugee Admis­sions by Region: Fis­cal Year 1975 through 31-Aug-2017.” Refugee Pro­cess­ing Cen­ter, 2017.

Scalet­taris, Guil­ia. “Refugee Stud­ies and the Inter­na­tion­al Refugee Regime: A Reflec­tion on a Desir­able Sep­a­ra­tion.” Refugee Sur­vey Quar­ter­ly, vol. 26, no. 3, 2007, pp. 36–50.

Schlund-Vials, Cathy J. War, Geno­cide, Jus­tice: Cam­bo­di­an-Amer­i­can Mem­o­ry Work. Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta Press, 2012.

Shear, Michael D. and Ron Nixon. “Trump’s Trav­el Ban to Be Replaced by Restric­tions Tai­lored to Cer­tain Coun­tries.” New York Times, 22 Sep­tem­ber 2017.

Sturken, Mari­ta. Tan­gled Mem­o­ries: The Viet­nam War, The AIDS Epi­dem­ic, and the Pol­i­tics of Remem­ber­ing. Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia Press, 1997.

Tang, Eric. Unset­tled: Cam­bo­di­an Refugees in the NYC Hyper­ghet­to. Tem­ple Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2015.

Tuitt, Patri­cia. False Images: The Law’s Con­struc­tion of the Refugee. Plu­to Press, 1996.

Fig­ures at a Glance.” Unit­ed Nations High Com­mis­sion­er for Refugees, 19 June 2017.

Con­ven­tion and Pro­to­col Relat­ing to the Sta­tus of Refugees. Unit­ed Nations High Com­mis­sion­er for Refugees, 2010, pp. 14.

 

 

Mai-Linh K. Hong is assis­tant pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at Buck­nell Uni­ver­si­ty. She spe­cial­izes in Amer­i­can stud­ies, Asian Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture and cul­ture, crit­i­cal race and eth­nic stud­ies, and law and human­i­ties. Her book project is titled Citizenship’s Shad­ow: Asian Amer­i­can Lit­er­a­ture and the Con­tours of State­less­ness, and her schol­ar­ly writ­ing has appeared in sev­er­al aca­d­e­m­ic jour­nals. A for­mer attor­ney, she received her JD and PhD from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Vir­ginia. She tweets from @FleursduMai.

 

Sarah Sillin, Guest Crit­i­cism Edi­tor, received her Ph.D. from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mary­land and is cur­rent­ly a vis­it­ing assis­tant pro­fes­sor of Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture at Get­tys­burg Col­lege. Her book project, enti­tled Glob­al Sym­pa­thy: Rep­re­sent­ing Nine­teenth-Cen­tu­ry Amer­i­cans’ For­eign Rela­tions, explores how writ­ers envi­sioned ear­ly Amer­i­cans’ ties to the larg­er world through their depic­tions of friend­ship and kin­ship. Sillin’s essays have appeared in Mul­ti-Eth­nic Lit­er­a­ture of the Unit­ed States and Lit­er­a­ture of the Ear­ly Amer­i­can Repub­lic.

I Don’t Know If This Is About Trans Stuff, or What

Critical Dialogue / KJ Cerankowski, curated by M. Milks

:: Introduction ::

A lead­ing schol­ar in the field of asex­u­al­i­ty stud­ies, KJ Cer­ankows­ki has been writ­ing on the inter­sec­tions of asex­u­al­i­ty and queer­ness for near­ly a decade. Here, what begins as a crit­i­cal engage­ment with Cris Mazza’s new hybrid film Anor­gas­mia unfolds into a com­plex­ly thought and deeply felt inquiry into Cerankowski’s own rela­tion­ship to asex­u­al­i­ty, desire, trans­gen­der iden­ti­ty, and writ­ing as a tool for uncov­er­ing trau­ma. As KJ Cer­ankows­ki writes, “I read and tell in order to be upset, in order to live. I gath­er the frag­ments that will nev­er fit togeth­er to make a whole. I want the trau­ma to be poet­ry, but I can­not find the right tim­ing, the right words, the right image.… I ask how this con­stel­la­tion of events makes me—makes me desire or not desire, makes me desir­able or unde­sir­able, makes me like a man or a man.    

— M. Milks, Fic­tion Edi­tor

:: I Don’t Know If This Is About Trans Stuff, or What ::

I’m not talk­ing about fuck­ing; I’m talk­ing about inti­ma­cy. One used to fade into the oth­er, and some­times I for­get I’ve learned the dif­fer­ence.”
—Sarah Man­gu­so, 300 Argu­ments

In many ways, heal­ing from trau­ma is akin to cre­at­ing a poem. Both require the right tim­ing, the right words, and the right image.”
—Mark Wolynn, It Didn’t Start With You

I am watch­ing Cris Mazza’s film Anor­gas­mia, the “fic­tion­al sequel to her real-time mem­oir Some­thing Wrong With Her,” a book that lives out her reunion with a boy from her past while inter­ro­gat­ing her past rela­tion­ships and her cur­rent expe­ri­ences with “sex­u­al dys­func­tion.” The film, on the oth­er hand, seems, to me, less about elu­sive orgasms and explo­rations in asex­u­al­i­ties and more about gen­der. Of course, the wor­ries over gen­der and the body cir­cle back to sex­u­al­i­ty, desir­abil­i­ty, and desire. But gender—and its atten­dant dis­sec­tion of body parts—is where we begin. Just about two min­utes into the film, we see Cris on the floor of what looks like her base­ment, tak­ing pho­tos of her­self in front of a mir­ror, when Mark walks down the stairs. Mark is the boy—now man—from her past, whom we first meet in Some­thing Wrong With Her. He has recent­ly moved to the Chica­go sub­urbs to be with Cris after some thir­ty years estranged. Mark nev­er stopped lov­ing Cris; Cris, I think, is learn­ing how to love Mark.

In this scene, Cris tells Mark, “I’m gonna do a trans­gen­der makeover. I’m gonna go trans­gen­der and do self-por­traits that way.” I watch and rewatch this clip: “I’m gonna do a trans­gen­der makeover. I’m gonna go trans­gen­der… I’m gonna go trans­gen­der… I’m gonna go trans­gen­der.…” The phrase echoes in my head. Mark looks per­plexed if not a bit dis­pleased. I am both per­plexed and intrigued. I can­not help but think that Maz­za imag­ines trans­gen­der as some kind of mask or cos­tume to put on. “I’m gonna do a trans­gen­der makeover. I’m gonna go trans­gen­der.”

Through­out the film, Cris asserts that she doesn’t like the word “woman,” can­not apply it to her­self, that she hates when Mark talks about her “fem­i­nin­i­ty,” and that she feels “not female,” but maybe also not quite male. At the same time, she wants to know “what it feels like to be looked at as some­thing that’s not female,” think­ing that the expe­ri­ence might be some­how lib­er­a­to­ry. So she embarks on what she calls a “trans­gen­der exper­i­ment,” or what her friend Dan calls a “tem­po­rary tran­si­tion,” or what her col­league Chris calls a “cos­tume switch.” She also says to Chris, “hope­ful­ly it won’t be per­form­ing; it will be beingbeing male.” At what point does Cris shift from per­form­ing to being? I think of Diane Torr, whose drag per­for­mances and “man for a day” work­shops were designed to draw out the com­plex ways we embody gen­der norms, to help women real­ize how they are often “giv­ing their pow­er away” through the per­for­mance of gen­der. Torr also used drag to memo­ri­al­ize and hold close the men in her life that she had lost. Her per­for­mances as a man for a day or an evening were always called “drag” and “per­for­mances,” nev­er “trans­gen­der.” One might do drag for a day, in a sense be a “man for a day”; one might go out in drag, but to “do a trans­gen­der makeover,” to “go trans­gen­der” for a day?

Cris cuts off her hair, buys men’s cloth­ing, and, dressed as “Dave,” she goes to her friend Dan’s house to meet his fam­i­ly. The whole exper­i­ment goes “bad­ly” by Cris’s account, and the evening was “rather awk­ward” accord­ing to Dan’s wife, Mol­ly. Cris then over­hears Mol­ly spec­u­lat­ing about whether or not “Dave” is trans­gen­der or asex­u­al, seem­ing to not quite under­stand how vast­ly dif­fer­ent the two iden­ti­ties are. So Cris returns home and decides to do some research, first on asex­u­al­i­ty. She comes to under­stand asex­u­al­i­ty as an absence of a phys­i­cal need or desire to have sex. She won­ders if she might be asex­u­al. Through­out the film, she grap­ples with this ques­tion as she tries to under­stand the dif­fer­ences between sex­u­al­i­ty and gen­der, and how to sit­u­ate her poten­tial asex­u­al and non­bi­na­ry iden­ti­ties. What, we might ask, does one have to do with the oth­er? But in this moment fol­low­ing her first trans­gen­der makeover, Cris also won­ders how she could have been more “con­vinc­ing” to Mol­ly and her chil­dren. So she also finds a “trans­sex­u­al” site on the Inter­net. She tells Mark, “I was try­ing to fig­ure out what I could have done that was more, that would have helped more to be con­vinc­ing. Now, noth­ing on there says any­thing about how to act, what to say.” I am not sure if Cris is look­ing for a guide­book on how to play a man or on how to play at trans.

Mark replies, “I think that’s because being a man isn’t real­ly inside you.” Cris resents when Mark calls her “fem­i­nine” or a “woman,” but she does not direct­ly object to Mark’s idea that being a man isn’t real­ly inside her. Cris will lat­er artic­u­late her­self some­where in the space between female and male, non­bi­na­ry per­haps. With this shift to the in-between spaces of gen­der, I won­der then what it means to “be con­vinc­ing”? What does it mean for “being a man” to be “inside you”? What does it mean to be a man? What is a man?

In Man Alive: A True Sto­ry of Vio­lence, For­give­ness and Becom­ing a Man, Thomas Page McBee writes of the pan­ic, a “new PTSD,” that sets in when he encoun­ters men who can­not see the man he is (or the man inside of him?), men­ac­ing men who instill fear and threat­en his safe­ty and bod­i­ly integrity—the fear of enter­ing gas sta­tions in unfa­mil­iar areas, the moments when his body says, turn around, leave, run! He remem­bers how his first girl­friend com­pared him to oth­er boys. “You’re like a boy… but bet­ter,” she said. I read and reread these words: you’re like a boy, but you’re not a boy. You’re like a boy, but you’re bet­ter than a boy because you’re not a boy. I am like a boy; I am not a boy. I am not like a girl, but am I a girl? I am not a girl. I am not a boy. I am like a boy. I am not like a girl. I am a boy. What am I? Is there a man inside of me?

***

R and I are hik­ing in Maine, and I am walk­ing in front of her. “You’re like a guy,” she says. Just moments before, she told me there were times in her life when she ques­tioned whether she real­ly want­ed to be queer. In response, I told her that some­times I am afraid she is going to decide I am not the kind of man she wants, that I’m not real­ly “man enough” for her. It is after I say this, fol­low­ing a short peri­od of silence, that she tells me I am like a guy. I am caught off guard, pause in my tracks. I turn to look at her; I am not sure what to say, so I push out a “huh?” She repeats her­self, “You’re like a guy. I mean… you even walk like a guy.” After a beat, I sim­ply say, “Because I am a guy.” I am like a guy. I am not a guy. But I tell her I am a guy. Then I tell her I have stopped using she/her pro­nouns. She nods her head but con­tin­ues to call me “she” right through the time we break up, and for all I know, I am still “she” to her, will always be her “ex-girl­friend.”

Almost a year lat­er, I am dri­ving through Oak­land with TT as we head out to din­ner. I have just come from a ther­a­py ses­sion in which I talked about how I wasn’t sure if I should keep on the testos­terone, maybe up my dose and become a (pass­able) man or stay some­where in the mid­dle space I cur­rent­ly occu­py—like a guy, not a guy. It’s not that I want to be more con­vinc­ing; I just want to be me, but I am unsure what that means. I tell TT how these ques­tions are weigh­ing on my mind, my body. I say I wor­ry if I become a man then I won’t become the man I think I am. What kind of man is inside me? I joke: will I be too “fag­gy,” not the burly lum­ber­jack of a man I imag­ine myself to be? But I also like the affects and sen­si­bil­i­ties I embody, those that cause peo­ple to do a dou­ble-take, to tell me that I’m part gay boy, a lit­tle bit of a fag. At the same time, I car­ry a fan­ta­sy image of myself as anoth­er kind of man, a man whose wrist nev­er goes limp. What does it mean to be a man? Can I embody all these mas­culin­i­ties in one? TT will lat­er thought­ful­ly mark this con­ver­sa­tion by giv­ing me a card dec­o­rat­ed with a lum­ber­jack dressed in high heels. But in this moment, she turns to me and says, mat­ter of fact­ly, with­out miss­ing a beat, “What do you mean ‘become’? You are a man.” My eyes pool. I near­ly cry. Not “like a man.” “You are a man.”

How did I go from being like a man to being a man? Is being a man inside of me? Or is it in the eye of the behold­er? Why is it that TT sees me as a man where R could only see me as being like a man? The day before R and I break up, we are talk­ing on the phone late into the night. We hadn’t spo­ken in a cou­ple of days. Dur­ing that time, I went to my doc­tor to inquire about testos­terone. My doc­tor wrote me a pre­scrip­tion and sched­uled me for a return vis­it at the end of the week to learn how to admin­is­ter the shot. I am ter­ri­fied and excit­ed, anx­ious and ner­vous, and eager to tell R about this. On the phone, I tell R that I am mak­ing a life-chang­ing deci­sion, but before I can say more, she cuts me off. “Look,” she says, “I don’t know if this is about trans stuff or what, but I’m try­ing to be real­ly patient with you. You haven’t giv­en me com­pli­ments, like I love how you impro­vise or I love how you take care of your dog. Some­thing. Any­thing.” We hang up the phone, both in tears, she because I won’t com­pli­ment her at that time, me because she nev­er asks to hear about my life-chang­ing deci­sion. I feel utter­ly alone in the jour­ney I am about to embark upon. Lat­er, S will remind me it is not that I am doing this alone, but that I am doing it with­out inti­ma­cy. Togeth­er­ness and inti­ma­cy still fade into each oth­er. I need to remem­ber that I am learn­ing the dif­fer­ence.

It will take me months to make sense of that phone con­ver­sa­tion with R. But the next day, R and I break up. The day after that, I go for my first shot of testos­terone. Three months lat­er, I meet TT. Sev­er­al months after that, TT tells me that she nev­er saw me as any­thing oth­er than a man. Is this about trans stuff, or what? Sure­ly, it can­not be the testos­terone in my body that allows TT to see me as a man where R couldn’t. My dose is low. I have only told a hand­ful of peo­ple that I am tak­ing testos­terone, and most peo­ple, espe­cial­ly those who don’t know, can­not see or hear any change in me. Every­thing seems out of sequence: I meet ES before I even start testos­terone, and he says, “I just don’t get it. I don’t see how any­one can see you as any­thing oth­er than a man.” But then, ten months on testos­terone, I am sit­ting in a dive of a gay bar in Oma­ha with TC. The bar­tender is curi­ous about us: “What brings you ladies to Oma­ha? You ladies gonna sing some karaoke tonight? Can I get you ladies anoth­er drink?” TC turns to me and asks, “Why does he keep say­ing ‘ladies’? Can’t he see that you’re obvi­ous­ly a guy?” No. No, he can’t. Most peo­ple can’t—except the stranger at the book­store who called me “sir” and “man” for the entire­ty of our inter­ac­tion (on T), or the cashier at the gro­cery store who called me “man” and “bro” for that entire exchange (pre T), or the man in front of me in line at the Space Nee­dle in Seat­tle who turned to his wife and, ges­tur­ing toward me, said “Ha, did you hear what he just said?” (on T) or the woman who walked into a crowd­ed women’s restroom at the San Fran­cis­co Opera, saw me before she saw any­one else and in a pan­ic shout­ed, “Is this the women’s room?!?” (pre T). Maybe the ques­tion is not how did I go from being like a man to being a man; rather, I might ask, when, where, and to whom am I like a man or sim­ply a man? And does testos­terone have any­thing to do with it?

I vis­it a psy­chic who tells me that the testos­terone is like med­i­cine for my body. I think she is right about this, but call­ing it “med­i­cine” comes with its own set of com­pli­ca­tions. In Testo Junkie, Paul B. Pre­ci­a­do demar­cates when the drug, testos­terone, shifts from being med­i­cine to being a sub­stance to be abused. Such a dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion also defines the psy­chosis of the user: “I must choose between two psy­choses: in one (gen­der iden­ti­ty dis­or­der), testos­terone appears as a med­i­cine, and in the oth­er (addic­tion), testos­terone becomes the sub­stance on which I am depen­dent.” Am I a self-med­icat­ing addict, or am I being med­icat­ed for a psy­chi­atric dis­or­der? When my doc­tor writes my pre­scrip­tion, I watch her update my med­ical chart: the diag­no­sis of “gen­der iden­ti­ty dis­or­der” I received years ago when I sought approval for top surgery now becomes a diag­no­sis of “gen­der dys­pho­ria.” Whichev­er we call it, I am still diag­nosed and med­icat­ed. Pre­ci­a­do is on the oth­er side, with no pre­scrip­tion for the Testo Gel; he writes, “I would have liked to have fall­en into a depen­dence, have the secu­ri­ty of per­ma­nent­ly and chem­i­cal­ly cling­ing to some­thing. Deep down, I was hop­ing that testos­terone would be that sub­stance. To be attached, not to a sub­jec­tiv­i­ty, but to the change pro­duced by the inges­tion into my organ­ism of a sub­stance with­out will.” After my first shot of testos­terone, my thigh is sore for days at the site where I plunged the nee­dle into the mus­cle. Push­ing my palm against that spot on my thigh becomes addic­tive. I become attached to the sore­ness. I begin to fan­ta­size about admin­is­ter­ing my next injec­tion, feel­ing the sore­ness again. I become attached to the point of pain that serves as the somat­ic reminder that this is where I am putting a sub­stance into my organ­ism that will some­day, some­how change my body in ways I can­not know. The testos­terone is both med­i­cine and addic­tive sub­stance; I am both a med­icat­ed sub­ject of the phar­ma­co­porno­graph­ic era and an addict. But what, exact­ly, am I addict­ed to?

I read and reread McBee’s Man Alive. I make my stu­dents read it; I buy copies for my friends. I can­not quit the book. I am addict­ed to the tears it always brings—the qui­et pools in my eyes that nev­er quite spill over, the silent heav­ing of my chest. I cry in my silent way because McBee’s anxieties—of stop­ping at restrooms in small towns, of fear­ing the man he may become or the man he already is, of run­ning both from and toward the trau­mas of his past as he con­tin­ues to become who he always was—are too famil­iar. They rat­tle around my chest, pick up crush­ing weight in my ster­num. As I read, I feel the inevitabil­i­ty of nee­dles in the thigh, crack­ing vocal chords and deep­en­ing voice, a 5 o’clock shad­ow, anoth­er puber­ty on the hori­zon. I am fright­ened, but I also want it so bad­ly, enough to won­der if it is the only way I will con­tin­ue to sur­vive here. I always thought I would start the injec­tions when I final­ly felt ready to run—to run away from my life, to start over some­where alone as some­one new. But I haven’t run away. Instead, I run toward the past even as I am ever hurtling toward some unfore­see­able future. And now, in this moment, I push my hand to my thigh, which has become accus­tomed to the week­ly injec­tions, and I long for the ten­der­ness that no longer lingers after a shot.

***

While read­ing Mazza’s mem­oir Some­thing Wrong With Her, I get stuck on one scene. I read and reread it. Maz­za nar­rates a moment when, as teenagers, Mark pushed her onto a bed and got on top of her. She fled. Mark scold­ed her, “Girl, you just don’t give me enough, you don’t put out.” Her brain has stopped chant­i­ng, “You’re sup­posed to like this.” Instead, this is the moment she decides she is frigid. She writes, “It was the scold­ing that had pen­e­trat­ed me. I was marked.”

I am sev­en­teen years old. I spend the evening drink­ing with friends. We are at the apart­ment of a boy I am dat­ing. He is nine­teen years old and just moved out of his par­ents’ house. Late into the night after many beers and whiskeys, he turns to me and says, “Just sleep over here. We can share my bed.” We go down to his bed­room and as we fall into bed, we begin kiss­ing. I am on my back. He is on top of me. His hands are all over me, his tongue in my mouth. I pull away. “Let’s just sleep,” I say. “You’re such a tease,” he says, just before he pins my hands above my head with one hand grip­ping my small wrists. With the oth­er hand, he guides his cock into my mouth. “Keep it in your mouth,” he growls. “Use your tongue,” he pants, as he thrusts in my mouth. He comes quick­ly, in less than a minute. I am gag­ging on his come, spit­ting it out of my mouth. “Just swal­low it,” he snarls as he lets go of my wrists and lets me up. I go to the bath­room to wash the come from my mouth and hair. The next morn­ing I go home and rinse my mouth over and over. I stand in the show­er until my moth­er tells me to hur­ry up and get the hell out of the bath­room. Lat­er that day, he calls me and says, “I real­ly like you. I had a great time last night. You didn’t have to do that, you know, unless you want­ed to.” I qui­et­ly tell a lie back into the phone, “I want­ed to.” The next time I see him, he goes down on me and sticks his fin­ger inside me. I feel pain at inser­tion, but oth­er­wise I am numb. “Tell me when you’re done,” he says. “I’m done,” I say. “My turn,” he says. A year lat­er, I move across the coun­try and try my best to for­get any of that ever hap­pened. Sarah Man­gu­so writes in Ongo­ing­ness, “Nothing’s gone, not real­ly. Every­thing that’s ever hap­pened has left its lit­tle wound.” He pen­e­trat­ed me. I am marked. I will remain numb, and I will choose to be celi­bate for years. And I will learn that wounds, even the lit­tle ones, can always be reopened.

In an inter­view in The New Inquiry, M. Milks asks Maz­za about her resis­tance to a nar­ra­tive of trau­ma and vic­tim­iza­tion in telling her sto­ry. Maz­za responds that to “cry vic­tim” would make Mark one of the vic­tim­iz­ers. “We weren’t rapist and vic­tim,” she asserts. “We were two kids.” I think back to that night. We were two kids. I nev­er thought of my 19-year-old boyfriend as a rapist; I still can­not call what he did rape. I nev­er thought he was respon­si­ble for my numb­ness or my celiba­cy. I can­not real­ly know if I was already numb when he touched me or if his touch made me go numb. I can­not real­ly know if I chose celiba­cy because of that expe­ri­ence with him or for some oth­er uncon­scious rea­son. These are not the ques­tions I am ask­ing, nor the answers I seek. I think of Joan Did­ion: “We tell our­selves sto­ries in order to live.” I think of Hanya Yanag­i­hara: “Don’t we read fic­tion exact­ly to be upset?” I read and tell in order to be upset, in order to live. I gath­er the frag­ments that will nev­er fit togeth­er to make a whole. I want the trau­ma to be poet­ry, but I can­not find the right tim­ing, the right words, the right image. Like Ann Cvetkovich, I want to explore how “trau­mat­ic events refract out­ward to pro­duce all kinds of affec­tive respons­es and not just clin­i­cal symp­toms.” I want to know if it is pos­si­ble “to name a con­nec­tion while refus­ing deter­mi­na­tion or causal­i­ty.” I ask how this con­stel­la­tion of events makes me—makes me desire or not desire, makes me desir­able or unde­sir­able, makes me like a man or a man. A ques­tion, a refrain in McBee’s text hits me in the gut every time: What are you run­ning to? With every step for­ward, I find myself turn­ing back for answers. In Ten­der Points, Amy Berkowitz writes of the pain in her body, of rape, of her body’s bat­tle with fibromyal­gia. So much of the advice doled out to the chron­i­cal­ly ill, the chron­i­cal­ly pained, the trau­ma­tized is to “look for­ward, not back­ward. Focus on what you need to do to get bet­ter, not what caused your ill­ness.” Berkowitz can­not look for­ward; she needs to know the “tan­gled chain of events that got [her] here.” “Look­ing back,” she writes, “is what I need to do to get bet­ter.” I keep look­ing back in order to find myself here.

You have to let peo­ple love you,” McBee’s ther­a­pist says. R says, “Let me love you.” “I see you,” she says. But to her, I was her girl­friend who is like a guy. I tell her that all I’ve been ask­ing for is for her to love me, to see me. I tell her that I am a guy. I tell her that I am not “she.” I tell my ther­a­pist that every time I try to con­front R with my “bad” feel­ings, I feel bull­dozed. My throat clos­es up, my heart pounds, my brain goes fog­gy. All I can do is say that I am sor­ry for hav­ing feel­ings; I am sor­ry for hav­ing needs. I tell my ther­a­pist that I feel like that scared lit­tle girl again. (Was I ever a girl? Was I ever a boy? Am I a girl? Am I a boy or am I like a boy? Am I still that fright­ened child?) My ther­a­pist reminds me that what I am feel­ing is not what every­one feels when they remem­ber being a child. She tells me I am expe­ri­enc­ing com­plex PTSD symp­toms that are like­ly acti­vat­ed by R. She sug­gests that I talk to R about this, that I ask her to form a strat­e­gy with me, in which I can tell her I am expe­ri­enc­ing these symp­toms and she can hold space for me to breathe and gath­er my thoughts and feel­ings. R says “Yes, of course, of course.” But, mov­ing for­ward, when I can­not speak, she will tell me I am act­ing like a “petu­lant child”; when I final­ly find my voice, she will tell me that I need to learn to say some­thing soon­er; when I tell her I feel alone in this rela­tion­ship, she will tell me I have aban­don­ment issues; when I tell her I am hurt by some­thing she said or did, she will say “that is just the sto­ry you are cre­at­ing,” and she will tell me I need to “get over it already.”

Empa­thy is not just a shared emo­tion,” Kristin Dombek writes, “but [it is] an expe­ri­ence of the place, the per­spec­tive, from which the other’s emo­tions and actions come.” Dur­ing one of those moments with R, I ask her to try to put her­self in my shoes, to imag­ine how she would feel if I treat­ed her exact­ly how she treat­ed me. “That’s not help­ful to me,” she says. “Empa­thy,” Leslie Jami­son writes, “means real­iz­ing no trau­ma has dis­crete edges. Trau­ma bleeds. Out of wounds and across bound­aries. Sad­ness becomes a seizure. Empa­thy demands anoth­er kind of porous­ness in response.” When R refus­es my request for empa­thy, to make her­self porous, I seize; I bleed from all the old wounds.

I remem­ber one night hold­ing TT in my arms as we talked about how we might best love each oth­er, make space for each other’s pain. She says, “Some­times the ques­tion we should ask is not ‘what’s wrong with you?’ but ‘what hap­pened to you?’” In trac­ing the mul­ti­ple ways we inher­it trau­ma, Mark Wolynn explains, “Dur­ing a trau­mat­ic inci­dent, our thought process can become scat­tered and dis­or­ga­nized in such a way that we no longer rec­og­nize the mem­o­ries as belong­ing to the orig­i­nal event. Instead, frag­ments of mem­o­ry, dis­persed as images, body sen­sa­tions, and words, are stored in our uncon­scious and can become acti­vat­ed lat­er by any­thing even remote­ly rem­i­nis­cent of the orig­i­nal expe­ri­ence. Once they are trig­gered, it is as if an invis­i­ble rewind but­ton has been pressed, caus­ing us to reen­act aspects of the orig­i­nal trau­ma in our day-to-day lives. Uncon­scious­ly, we could find our­selves react­ing to cer­tain peo­ple, events, or sit­u­a­tions in old, famil­iar ways that echo the past.” In Heal­ing from Hid­den Abuse, Shan­non Thomas sug­gests that sur­vivors of abuse and trau­ma devel­op a bio­chem­i­cal depen­den­cy on tox­ic rela­tion­ships. They become addict­ed to the highs and lows, the push­ing and pulling. Do I find myself, yet again, an addict? Am I addict­ed to trau­ma and abuse? Do I actu­al­ly crave this odd famil­iar­i­ty and com­fort brought on by the echoes of my past?

Before I start see­ing my ther­a­pist, I tell R that my dynam­ic with her reminds me of the dynam­ic I have with my father. I am infi­nite­ly await­ing his apol­o­gy; I spent two years wait­ing for an apol­o­gy from R, and I am still wait­ing. R snarls at me: “I am noth­ing like your father. I resent that you would even say that.” I tell her that I didn’t say she was like my father; I said we share a sim­i­lar dynam­ic. But in that moment, she is more like my father than she even real­izes. The psy­chic tells me that R is actu­al­ly like my moth­er. She tells me that my father was just mean and aggres­sive­ly abu­sive. My moth­er, she tells me, is a nar­cis­sist and is emo­tion­al­ly abu­sive, but with sub­tle­ty. I remem­ber the last con­ver­sa­tion I had with my moth­er. I tell her I can­not stay at her house when I am in town because of what she and her hus­band said to me the last time I was there. “Like what?” she asks. I say, “that homo­pho­bic and trans­pho­bic stuff you said.” “Well I don’t remem­ber that,” she says. And we leave it at that. I remem­ber one of the last con­ver­sa­tions I had with R. I tell her that, about a month pri­or, I was hurt and felt demeaned by some­thing she said to me in front of her friends. “I don’t remem­ber that,” she says. “What do you want me to do about it now? You can’t bring stuff up a month after the fact.” We leave it at that. My ther­a­pist says R and my moth­er are wrong—if I am still hav­ing feel­ings about some­thing, then I can bring them up, and just because they don’t remem­ber it, that doesn’t mean it didn’t hap­pen. The psy­chic says, “Thank Jay-sus you didn’t shack up with her and have babies. It’d be like rais­ing kids with your moth­er.” The psy­chic is a lit­tle rough around the edges and a straight shoot­er. I nod. “Yes,” I say, “yes.”

I see you,” R says. In the end, I don’t think R ever did see me, and I can­not be sure she ever even loved me. I real­ize that dur­ing the year I was with R, I couldn’t real­ly see her. But the peo­ple who cared about me did. N said R is a nar­cis­sist, and she wor­ries that I am stuck in an emo­tion­al­ly abu­sive rela­tion­ship. E said that R seems inca­pable of lov­ing me, and that I seemed much hap­pi­er before I start­ed dat­ing her. DM said R is ver­bal­ly abu­sive toward me, that a lov­ing part­ner would nev­er say the things she says, at least not with­out apol­o­gy. M hand­ed me a book by Sandy Hotchkiss: Why Is It Always About You?: The Sev­en Dead­ly Sins of Nar­cis­sism. The book will lat­er shake me to the core. Every­one else could name what I could not. Rec­og­niz­ing the abuse as abuse is some­thing I will come to months lat­er, but I will remain haunt­ed by the pos­si­bil­i­ty that I did actu­al­ly see R, and she did actu­al­ly love me to the best of her capa­bil­i­ties. I am stirred by Bombek’s inter­ro­ga­tion of nar­cis­sism: “It is some­thing you’ll come to months or years lat­er, if at all: the pos­si­bil­i­ty that the way [she] was with you was real, and that it was love… You might under­stand this in the mid­dle of the next time you fall in love with some­one else, and find your­self, still, in love with [her]. You’ve just spread your love out in time, and [she] has spread it out in space.” Some­times, I still want to believe in R, just like a part of me still wants to believe in my father.

***

I go through a phase where I decide to write poet­ry in a more fran­tic voice. I only real­ize now that all the poems writ­ten in this voice hap­pen to be the only poems I have writ­ten explic­it­ly about abuse. (Is heal­ing trau­ma like writ­ing a poem?) I end up pub­lish­ing those poems in a series. But I hold on to one:

How to Make Me Dis­ap­pear

Step one: turn it
click door­knob jig­gle jig­gle.
He will yell—open
this door, mis­sy, lit­tle lady, girl
you bet­ter now right this minute ’til
the count of ten
nev­er nev­er nev­er
but you do

Step two: nails to the quick bite
if the screams try
to wrig­gle loose, inhale
lungs­ful throatchoke
tight tight tight

Step three: hold
it in. breath off. you do not
exist if he can­not hear you
whim­per whis­per wail wait
belt­snap lights­black

Step four: rip
the bead­eyes off all the dolls—
nobody sees a thing

In “A Child is Being Beat­en,” Freud writes of the phas­es of move­ment through the beat­ing fan­ta­sy. In the third phase, the fan­ta­sy becomes, “My father is beat­ing the child, he loves only me.” The child being beat­en, Freud claims, is almost invari­ably a boy. I am being beat­en. My father does not love me; he loves only me. The child being beat­en is almost invari­ably a boy. I am the child being beat­en. I am a boy. (Was I ever a boy? Was I ever a girl? When did I become a boy? Did I ever become a man? When did I become a man? Am I becom­ing a man? Am I a man?) Freud will say my ideas about being a boy are a prod­uct of my mas­culin­i­ty com­plex, that when girls turn away from their inces­tu­ous love of their father, they want only to be boys. I want­ed my father to love me, but he only loved me as a girl. I am a boy, so my father beat me. My father beat me because I was a girl. My father beat me because I am a boy. Why did my father beat me?

Read­ing Hanya Yanagihara’s A Lit­tle Life, I return again and again to one scene. Jude, one of the main char­ac­ters in the book, is just a young boy, liv­ing in a monastery where he expe­ri­ences mul­ti­ple types of abuse at the hands of the broth­ers and the Father. In this scene, Jude has just spilled some milk, and after clean­ing it up, he has been com­mand­ed to go to his room. As he runs down the hall to his room, he notices that the door to his room is closed. It is usu­al­ly left open unless one of the broth­ers or the Father is pay­ing him a vis­it. He paus­es in the hall­way, unsure of what is wait­ing for him behind the door. But if he turns around, he will face the wrath of the broth­er who just sent him to his room for spilling the milk. Frozen in the hall­way, young Jude must make a choice: return to cer­tain pun­ish­ment or take his chances open­ing the bed­room door. He final­ly works up the courage and opens the door with a slam, only to find nobody else in the room, just his fur­ni­ture and a new­ly placed bou­quet of daf­fodils. He falls to the floor, engulfed in sad­ness. As I read and reread this scene, the ten­sion always builds. My breath­ing quick­ens. I feel the pan­ic that fails to dis­solve in the anti­cli­mac­tic open­ing of the door.

I am nine years old. I am stand­ing at the end of the hall­way, and my father is com­ing toward me with his hand raised. I am par­a­lyzed with fear until I make the snap deci­sion to run into my bed­room. I jump into the bed and pull the cov­ers over my head. My heart is pound­ing; I can­not breathe; all my mus­cles are tensed in antic­i­pa­tion of the crack of a palm on my back­side. I wait and wait in my pan­icked state, but the beat­ing nev­er comes. I cau­tious­ly pull the cov­ers from my head and sit in the qui­et. My father has retreat­ed to the liv­ing room where he is smok­ing a cig­a­rette, drink­ing a beer, and watch­ing tele­vi­sion. I can­not know why he did not hit me that day. I have won­dered if see­ing my fear of him shook some­thing deep inside him and he relent­ed, or if he just didn’t feel it was worth the chase. I am haunt­ed more by this silence and still­ness than I am by the crack of a belt and the mem­o­ries of red, sting­ing flesh.

I am stand­ing in R’s hall­way. I am col­lect­ing my things that she held onto after our breakup. She leaves them in a box out­side her apart­ment door. Against my bet­ter judg­ment, I knock on her door. To my sur­prise, she opens the door. “What do you want?” she sneers. My heart is pound­ing, my throat is clos­ing up. I am not sure what I want, real­ly. Some short dis­cus­sion fol­lows, and by the end of it, I have backed away toward the build­ing exit. She is com­ing at me down the hall­way, her fin­ger in the air, ges­tur­ing and shout­ing at me. I am grow­ing small against the exit door. I am that shrink­ing, frozen lit­tle girl. (Am I a girl? To R, am I still “like a guy”? Am I a boy? Am I a man?) In a moment, I find the capac­i­ty to move my legs again, and I walk away, let­ting the door slam on her shrill words. This is the last time I see R. My last mem­o­ry of her, of us, that I hold: her face twist­ed in anger, she is shout­ing and ges­tic­u­lat­ing, mov­ing toward me as I shrink away like a fright­ened child. In this moment, she is more like my father than she even real­izes. But, this time, instead of hun­ker­ing down in antic­i­pa­tion of the beat­ing, I walk away from it.

Berkowitz writes, “I have a wolf in my sto­ry. But he will not inter­rupt my walk through the for­est. Which is to say he’s already inter­rupt­ed it: He’s the rea­son I’m here, sort­ing out the after­math. Which is to say the wolf is eter­nal­ly inter­rupt­ing my walk through the for­est: emerg­ing from behind the same tree again and again to block my path. Imag­ine it repeat­ing like a GIF.” Who is the wolf in my sto­ry? How did I get here? Which is the path I am walk­ing? Is the wolf my father, the boy who pushed him­self into my mouth, my moth­er, R, the diag­no­sis, the drug, the man I am like, the man I am, the PTSD symp­toms them­selves? They all repeat, like a GIF. They all either block my path or reroute me onto new paths. “But to solve this kind of mys­tery, it seems, you need to walk alone into a for­est. You need to walk until you meet a wolf.”

If my ther­a­pist tells me my part­ner is acti­vat­ing my PTSD respons­es that come from the emo­tion­al abuse I expe­ri­enced as a child, does that mean my part­ner is emo­tion­al­ly abu­sive? I can­not name it; I can­not say it because I imag­ine R’s teeth bared like a wolf; I hear R’s voice still echo­ing in my head: “Don’t you see that’s the sto­ry you cre­at­ed?!? Don’t you see that’s the sto­ry you choose to tell?!? Can’t you see that’s just your ver­sion; that’s not real­ly what hap­pened?!?” “Just get over it!!!” But her voice is not the only one that rever­ber­ates. The echoes of my past: “Come here right now, lit­tle mis­sy”; “I don’t remem­ber that”; “That didn’t hap­pen”; “You’re such a tease.…” I can­not name it. I will remain in denial for months, for years, for what seems like a life­time. Only now, as I write this, do I final­ly dare to name it: my rela­tion­ship with R was emo­tion­al­ly abu­sive; I was sex­u­al­ly assault­ed at the age of sev­en­teen by my boyfriend; my par­ents are emo­tion­al­ly abu­sive; I devel­oped a pat­terned response to abuse and became what Mar­galis Fjel­stad calls a “patho­log­i­cal care­tak­er”; I have been numb, I have been celi­bate and asex­u­al, but now I am not; I inject testos­terone into my thigh every Fri­day, but I am not sure if I am a man or ever will be; I am unsure of how or if all these things con­nect. I am still walk­ing through the for­est; the wolves are still emerg­ing from the trees.

***

I return to Cris, sit­ting on her base­ment floor, pick­ing her­self apart. After she tells Mark she is gonna go trans­gen­der, she dis­sects her body into pieces of meat and bone. “Every sin­gle part of me, there’s some­thing wrong,” she says. She describes her thigh as a ham but not a very good one, her knee as a dis­col­ored, scab­by cir­cle. I know the drill. I have picked my body apart in so many ways: the breasts and the scars that mark where they used to be, the curves of my hips, the bud­ding hairs on my chin, the mus­cles of my shoul­ders. Even the parts that are sup­posed to feel right still feel wrong. Maybe Cris and I aren’t real­ly all that dif­fer­ent. Maybe Cris is not actu­al­ly try­ing to be con­vinc­ing to any­one else. Maybe we are both try­ing to con­vince our­selves that we can be at home in our bod­ies, that we can heal our grief, that we can col­lect the frag­ments and let the lit­tle wounds scab over.

A piece of Bian­ca Stone’s “Ele­gy” from Some­one Else’s Wed­ding Vows: “I real­ize grief wants me to stay a child, nego­ti­at­ing a stream of atoms, pick­ing flow­ers. Grief wants me in good con­di­tion. Grief wants me to remem­ber every­thing. Imper­fect. Clear.” I am griev­ing for the child who nev­er held the flow­ers; I am griev­ing for the child who was nev­er in good con­di­tion; I am griev­ing for my inabil­i­ty to remem­ber every­thing, imper­fect and clear. Grief does not want me to stay a child. Grief wants me to learn how to be an adult, to mourn and heal the wounds. But how do I heal these lit­tle wounds, the ones I can­not sim­ply “get over”? As Eli Clare writes, it is “hard­er to express how that break becomes healed, a bone once frac­tured, now whole, but dif­fer­ent from the bone nev­er bro­ken. And hard­er still to fol­low the path between the two.” To reclaim the bro­ken, stolen body is to walk the path between the wolves, between the wound­ing, the weapon, and the heal­ing. Clare asks, “How do I mark this place where my body is no longer an emp­ty house, desire whistling lone­ly through the cracks, but not yet a house ful­ly lived in?” The tim­ing still feels off, the words all wrong, but I am find­ing my desire; I am find­ing the lan­guage to fill the cracks: if I break myself open, will I be able to place the pieces anew, to rebuild the home of my body?

 

Bib­li­og­ra­phy

Anor­gas­mia: Fak­ing It in a Sex­u­al­ized World. Direct­ed by Frank Vitale, per­for­mances by Cris Maz­za and Mark Ras­mussen, 2015.

Berkowitz, Amy. Ten­der Points. Time­less, Infi­nite Light, 2015.

Bot­toms, Stephen. “Diane Torr Obit­u­ary.” The Guardian, 29 June 2017.

Cer­ankows­ki, K.J. “From go-go dancer to drag king: Liv­ing gen­der through per­for­mance.” Gen­der News, 6 Aug. 2012.

Clare, Eli. Exile and Pride: Dis­abil­i­ty, Queer­ness, and Lib­er­a­tion. South End Press, 1999.

Cvetkovich, Ann. An Archive of Feel­ings: Trau­ma, Sex­u­al­i­ty, and Les­bian Pub­lic Cul­tures. Duke Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2003.

Did­ion, Joan. The White Album. Far­rar, Straus and Giroux, 1979.

Dombek, Kristin. The Self­ish­ness of Oth­ers: An Essay on the Fear of Nar­cis­sism. Far­rar, Straus and Giroux, 2016.

Fjel­stad, Mar­galis. Stop Care­tak­ing the Bor­der­line of Nar­cis­sist: How to End the Dra­ma and Get On with Life. Row­man & Lit­tle­field, 2013.

Freud, Sig­mund. “A Child is Being Beat­en.” Inter­na­tion­al Jour­nal of Psy­cho­analy­sis, vol. 1, 1920, pp. 371–395.

Jami­son, Leslie. The Empa­thy Exams: Essays. Gray­wolf Press, 2014.

Man­gu­so, Sarah. 300 Argu­ments. Gray­wolf Press, 2017.

—. Ongo­ing­ness: The End of a Diary. Gray­wolf Press, 2015.

Maz­za, Cris. Some­thing Wrong With Her: a real-time mem­oir. Jad­ed Ibis Press, 2013.

McBee, Thomas Page. Man Alive: A True Sto­ry of Vio­lence, For­give­ness and Becom­ing a Man. City Lights Books, 2014.

Pre­ci­a­do, Paul Beat­riz. Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopol­i­tics in the Phar­ma­co­porno­graph­ic Era. The Fem­i­nist Press, 2013.

Stone, Bian­ca. Some­one Else’s Wed­ding Vows. Octo­pus Books/Tin House Books, 2014.

Thomas, Shan­non. Heal­ing from Hid­den Abuse: A Jour­ney Through the Stages of Recov­ery from Psy­cho­log­i­cal Abuse. MAST Pub­lish­ing House, 2016.

Wolynn, Mark. It Didn’t Start with You: How Inher­it­ed Fam­i­ly Trau­ma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle. Pen­guin Books, 2016.

Yanag­i­hara, Hanya. A Lit­tle Life. Dou­ble­day, 2015.

—. “Point of View: Don’t we read fic­tion exact­ly to be upset?” The Guardian, 4 March 2016.

 

 

KJ Cer­ankows­ki is an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of com­par­a­tive Amer­i­can stud­ies and gen­der, sex­u­al­i­ty, and fem­i­nist stud­ies at Ober­lin Col­lege. KJ co-edit­ed the book Asex­u­al­i­ties: Fem­i­nist and Queer Per­spec­tives (Rout­ledge, 2014) and has pub­lished poet­ry and crit­i­cism in Short, Fast, & Dead­ly; Fem­i­nist Stud­ies; and WSQ (Women’s Stud­ies Quar­ter­ly). KJ is cur­rent­ly com­plet­ing a book that is most def­i­nite­ly about trans stuff in rela­tion to trau­ma, pain, and plea­sure.

 

M. Milks is the author of Kill Mar­guerite and Oth­er Sto­ries (Emer­gency Press, 2014), win­ner of the 2015 Devil’s Kitchen Read­ing Award in Fic­tion and a Lamb­da Lit­er­ary Award final­ist; as well as three chap­books, most recent­ly The Feels (Black War­rior Review 42.2, 2016), an explo­ration of fan fic­tion and affect. They are edi­tor of The &NOW Awards 3: The Best Inno­v­a­tive Writ­ing, 2011–2013 and co-edi­tor, with KJ Cer­ankows­ki, of Asex­u­al­i­ties: Fem­i­nist and Queer Per­spec­tives (Rout­ledge, 2014).

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?

No.

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?”

Because:

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.”

Yes!

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
5.
6.

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)

Or

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.

The Butterfly Cage

Fiction / Erica Kanesaka Kalnay

:: The Butterfly Cage ::

Samp­son arrives ear­ly. He scur­ries through the door and crash­es into me for a hug, his unzipped coat trail­ing like a cape behind him. Samp­son is fast. This fact is even spelled out in his IEP:

Emotional/Behavioral Chal­lenge 8: When Samp­son esca­lates, he may injure staff/peers and destroy prop­er­ty. He is also known to run away from super­vi­sion. He is fast.

At first, I am annoyed that Samp­son has cut into my prepa­ra­tion time, but he seems to be hav­ing a good morn­ing. I ask him to help me trans­fer the chrysalis­es from their jar to the but­ter­fly cage. The cage is made of mesh and shaped like a bell, sus­pend­ed from a wire frame. The chrysalis­es cling to our fin­gers and shud­der when we lift them. Samp­son and I touch them gen­tly to the branch­es inside the cage until they stick and go still. Samp­son holds one up at eye lev­el and laughs as it jig­gles. He looks up at me with an expec­tant expres­sion, his dark eyes wide and his mouth thrown open. He’s invit­ing me to laugh with him, wait­ing for it, demand­ing.

Samp­son has always loved the but­ter­flies. When the cater­pil­lars first arrived in their tiny plas­tic jar, I taped it at eye lev­el on a shelf in the explo­ration cen­ter, and he nev­er want­ed to play any­where else. He’d stand in front of the shelf, his back to the oth­er chil­dren, and get lost there for hours. From behind, he was just the del­i­cate shape of his skull under his buzz cut, his uni­form shirt half-tucked, and his hands wrig­gling through the air, mim­ic­k­ing the cater­pil­lars.

I’d asked the chil­dren to each bring some­thing for the but­ter­flies’ habi­tat. Most brought twigs and pine nee­dles and leaves in lit­tle plas­tic bag­gies. Cami­la brought a bag of blue peb­bles from the dol­lar store, the kind that usu­al­ly go inside a gold­fish bowl. Sampson’s grand­moth­er for­got to send him a bag­gie, and Samp­son lost it as soon as he found out. He spent the rest of the morn­ing in the safe room. When he was final­ly allowed to reen­ter after recess, he marched straight to the library and found a but­ter­fly “lit­tle read­er.” He held it up to me with both hands, like an orphan hold­ing up an emp­ty soup bowl. I was touched by the for­mal­i­ty of his offer­ing.

They need to learn about them­selves,” he’d said. “So they can under­stand them­selves.”

Okay,” I’d said, and placed the book next to where the cage lay in wait for the chrysalis­es to form.

When the oth­er chil­dren arrive, I call cir­cle time and place the but­ter­fly cage in the mid­dle of the car­pet. I’ve told the chil­dren to glue their butts to their spots, but every­one wants a clos­er look. Two lit­tle boys use adap­tive seat­ing that helps anchor them to the ground. The rest of the chil­dren lean as far for­ward as they can with­out their butts com­ing unglued. They remind me of a group of pen­guins hes­i­tat­ing at the edge of a cliff over­look­ing icy water. I know that one of them will take the plunge, and then the rest will fol­low.

Of course, it is Samp­son who does it. He reach­es into the mid­dle of the cir­cle and push­es at the cage. It starts to swing on its frame, and the chrysalis­es trem­ble.

Stop it,” I say. He was being so gen­tle an hour ago.

Samp­son gets back in the S.M.A.R.T. posi­tion. Straight back. Mouth qui­et. Atten­tive eyes. Rest­ful hands. Think­ing brain.

I take the cage around to each child and point to the chrysalis­es tucked behind the leaves.

What do you think those are?” I ask them. We read a book on but­ter­flies the day before.

They stare at me.

Poop!” says one lit­tle boy. That’s his favorite word. He likes the reac­tion it gets.

Ben­ji?” I ask anoth­er.

You can see the gig­gles bub­bling up inside Ben­ji. He wig­gles around to hold them in, look­ing at me with side­ways eyes.

Poop,” he final­ly says in a tiny, squeaky voice.

I look around the cir­cle for some­one to save me. Aside from Samp­son, Cami­la is my most aca­d­e­m­i­cal­ly advanced stu­dent, a girl with long-lashed eyes and heavy cheeks. She always sits serene­ly amongst her squirm­ing peers like a lit­tle monk.

She looks at me, her mouth hang­ing open. “Bug?” she says.

Nah!” Samp­son is sit­ting beside her. He’s so angry that he ris­es to his feet. “It’s called a pupa. You a bunch of god­damn fools.”

The oth­er four-year-olds stare at him. “Yes,” they seem to be think­ing, “Poop-ah.”

Fuck­ers!” Samp­son adds, for effect.

Samp­son, do you need a time out?” I say auto­mat­i­cal­ly.

Some­times I think Samp­son hates the robot­ic way I respond to his behav­iors more than the actu­al orders. “Come on,” he seems to say, like a lit­tle dev­il that buzzes around my ears. “Admit that you feel some­thing. Admit that you hate me.”

He drops his butt back down onto his spot and shoots me his evil eyes. When the oth­er chil­dren do that, I want to laugh at their child­ish hos­til­i­ty, but with him, for a sec­ond, I think I see a flash of true mal­ice.

I con­tin­ue with the les­son. I teach the chil­dren a poem about the but­ter­fly life cycle. I teach them to do the “but­ter­fly hand­shake,” where two peo­ple link thumbs and wig­gle their fin­gers side by side. I tell them what a “but­ter­fly kiss” is, how one per­son bats their eye­lash­es against anoth­er person’s cheeks like a butterfly’s del­i­cate­ly beat­ing wings.

When you go home today,” I say, “you can give them to your mom­mies and dad­dies and the peo­ple you love.” Many of the chil­dren don’t live with their birth par­ents, so I’m usu­al­ly care­ful to add that.

Teacher, Samp­son is both­er­ing her,” says one lit­tle girl, and I look over to see Cami­la with tears run­ning down her cheeks, hug­ging her chub­by arms over her lit­tle pot­bel­ly. One arm has tiny stab marks from a ball­point pen all over it. I’m amazed at how she’s not cry­ing out loud. Samp­son has a pen in his lap. He must have tak­en it from my clip­board. He looks away. Not to play inno­cent, but to dis­miss me.

Get up,” I say. I get up myself. I am tow­er­ing over him. This is some­thing I’m not sup­posed to do. I should be stay­ing at his eye lev­el and speak­ing calm­ly, deesca­lat­ing the sit­u­a­tion.

Give it,” I say. I twist the pen out of his hands.

Samp­son kicks me in the shins, and then I’m not sure what I feel, pain or anger, because I’m not allowed to feel any­thing any­way. There’s a pro­ce­dure for what has to hap­pen next. I’m sup­posed to become the adult in one of the line draw­ings in the Cri­sis Inter­ven­tion Man­u­al: “How to Restrain a Child Under Sev­en.” The draw­ing shows you how to sink to the floor and hug the child from behind, how to keep the child’s arms crossed over his chest. The child’s left hand in your right hand; his right hand in your left. I do this to Samp­son. I am sup­posed to wait for back­up, some­one to clear away the oth­er chil­dren and any dan­ger­ous objects. We are alone. My assis­tant has been pulled into anoth­er room, as usu­al. Instead, the chil­dren act of their own accord, herd­ing them­selves silent­ly to their table spots by instinct. At any oth­er time, I would have found their obe­di­ence touch­ing.

I’m sup­posed to count in my head to calm myself. I count to 100. With each num­ber, the wait­ing seems to become more impos­si­ble. Samp­son kicks and thrash­es beneath me. The mus­cles in my arms start to tire. His hands are so small and unformed that they feel like Play-Doh in my own.

*

When Sampson’s grand­ma comes to pick him up at 3:00, I am sit­ting at the art table with two lit­tle girls who string Froot Loops onto yarn in an after­noon daze.

Get your coat,” Sampson’s grand­ma says by way of greet­ing. Samp­son is splayed like a sea star in the library, count­ing the lights bulbs on the ceil­ing. His morn­ing episode has tired him out. He gets up and grabs his coat and back­pack from his cub­by. Then he paus­es and comes back to give me a hug. He is the kind of preschool­er who seems to hug you with his whole being. The sur­pris­ing strength of his squeeze almost stops my breath.

I told you to hur­ry up,” says his grand­ma. She is a tall, black woman, young for a grand­ma. I’ve nev­er seen her speak any­thing but orders to Samp­son, but unlike some of the oth­er guardians, she takes time off from work to come to every IEP meet­ing. When I lost my voice in Novem­ber, she slipped me gin­ger pow­der in a gold pouch. “Just mix this with hot water,” she’d said.

Jen­nifer, my car­pool, stops by my class­room at 7:00. We load our milk crates back into her trunk in the illu­mi­nat­ed park­ing lot. The dri­ve home is dark, just like the morn­ing one, only now there is traf­fic and the occa­sion­al jay­walk­er. Bun­dled fig­ures stand at the bus stops hold­ing plas­tic gro­cery bags. It’s been snow­ing for a few hours now. Jennifer’s coupe skids down the street.

Jen­nifer and I com­plet­ed teacher train­ing togeth­er the past sum­mer. We both went to the boot camp where they gave us match­ing water bot­tles and lunch­box­es. We stood in an assem­bly line to fill them with sand­wich­es and Kool-Aid before swarm­ing out over the city. We were a small army of young teach­ers ready to fight edu­ca­tion­al inequal­i­ty. But now Jen­nifer is the only oth­er teacher I still speak to. She dri­ves to soc­cer prac­tice every day after drop­ping me off at my apart­ment. I admire how she has some­thing else in her life that still mat­ters.

Once I’m safe­ly inside and I’ve checked all the win­dows and locks, I sit on the couch with my milk crate beside me. I have les­son plan­ning to do. First, though, I open up the crime map on my cell phone. Lit­tle icons pop up all around me. A man with a mon­ey­bag, a man in a mask, a lit­tle fist, a lit­tle gun. When I press the refresh but­ton, some­times a new one appears, and some­times one doesn’t, but it hap­pens often enough that I can’t let myself stop.

I do this for more than an hour until a new icon appears just down the street from me, a shad­ow of a man in a door­way. I go to the win­dow to look for the flash­ing lights of a police car. I don’t see them.

Instead, I see a black man walk­ing through the still-falling snow. He has a shov­el thrown over one shoul­der. I watch him draw clos­er. It’s like watch­ing a silent movie. At last, I start to hear the sound of his foot­steps trudg­ing up to my door. I imag­ine myself in one of two sce­nar­ios: in the first, he uses the shov­el to smash through my front win­dow and climbs inside and holds a gun to my head. In the sec­ond, he knocks on the front door. I’m stu­pid. I open it for him. He asks if he can shov­el my dri­ve­way for a few dol­lars. Then he hits me over the head with the shov­el.

The real man before me bangs on the door. Of course, I don’t answer. I stand frozen behind it, and he tries one more time, and at last I hear his foot­steps retreat. I’m uncer­tain if I’ve just come close to death or if it was only an ordi­nary moment.

*

My third month of teach­ing, I was mugged in front of the Laun­dro­mat. Jen­nifer came to sit with me in the emer­gency room. Late at night, the place was like a police pro­ce­dur­al, each bed a dif­fer­ent episode blocked off by mint-green cur­tains. The scenes flashed by me: a gray-faced woman beg­ging for painkillers, two boys hug­ging their moth­er in silence, a man lying face down on sheets stained with blood.

It’s a pret­ty thin case,” one of the police offi­cers had said to me. There were two of them. They looked pro­fes­sion­al, effi­cient, bored. The nurs­es didn’t seem to think I need­ed to be there, either. The men on the street had pis­tol-whipped me, but I had come away with only some scratch­es and bruis­es and a black eye. The offi­cers sug­gest­ed I move to the sub­urbs.

Are you sure you can’t give us a bet­ter descrip­tion?” the sec­ond offi­cer asked me. I repeat­ed myself: three black men about my age, ear­ly twen­ties, win­ter coats. One had glared at me at the bus stop, fol­low­ing me with his eyes. A block lat­er, he’d jumped back out in front of me. “Give me your mon­ey,” he’d said.

The oth­er two men came up from behind me. They pulled my jack­et over my eyes at first, so I couldn’t see any­thing. “I’m a teacher,” I’d told them, as if that would help.

We’ll try,” the first offi­cer said. “But, hon­est­ly, it’s not much to go on. Lots of guys fit that descrip­tion.”

*

When April comes and the snow final­ly melts, it feels unnat­ur­al. The birds start chirp­ing, and the neigh­bor­hood chil­dren come out to buy thick slices of man­go from the man with the cart. Old men in t-shirts sit on the porch­es, their hands pushed into their pock­ets.

Hey there, blondie,” they say. “Flash me that smile.” I know each of these men by name: Pete, Momo, Raheem, Jere­mi­ah.

Lookin’ good,” they say. “Lookin’ good.”

I wor­ry that these things might lull me into com­pla­cen­cy. The longer days invite peo­ple to stay out lat­er, but when dark­ness hits, it’s like win­ter again, and we all bur­row back.

One morn­ing, when I get to my class­room, I find the net­ting of the but­ter­fly cage streaked with red. The but­ter­flies have emerged. They rest in the mid­dle of the cage, slow­ly open­ing and clos­ing their wings as if in shock.

What hap­pened?” Samp­son asks me when he gets to school, and I tell him it’s just the juice from their wings, which is true. He paus­es a while to eval­u­ate that, as if I might be telling a lie. It occurs to me that some of the chil­dren might be fright­ened. I should have explained this to them in advance.

Why aren’t they fly­ing?”

Their wings still need to dry,” I say. “That’s why they’re flap­ping them like that.”

Oh,” Samp­son says. He seems sat­is­fied. He is on his best behav­ior all morn­ing but goes to peek inside the cage dur­ing each tran­si­tion.

They didn’t get shot,” he explains to the oth­er chil­dren. “That’s just juice.” I’m thank­ful that he’s doing it for me. The oth­er chil­dren believe him.

I’m giv­en fif­teen min­utes for lunch, and it takes about five to walk from the gym to the teacher’s work­room and back, so real­ly only ten to myself. On my way to pick up the chil­dren, the cacoph­o­ny of shout­ing starts from far down the hall­way and crescen­dos by the time I reach the gym’s dou­ble doors. The chil­dren can’t play out­side because of stray bul­lets. They crash into the padded walls of the gym and scream at the tops of their voic­es. When I have to stop them at this play, they seem con­fused. “Did you hit some­one?” I’ll ask them, and their eyes will dart around. They’ll have no idea.

The recess mon­i­tor, Mrs. John­son, blows the whis­tle, and the chil­dren stam­pede toward the line. One lit­tle girl crash­es into me and leaves a sweaty spot on the front of my shirt. The children’s fore­heads are so drenched in sweat after recess that it beads up and glis­tens from their hair.

I notice Samp­son at the far end of the gym, peer­ing into the cage for the balls.

I call to him. His name has become my refrain. I say it so many times each day that it’s become almost mean­ing­less. Samp­son, Samp­son, Samp­son. When­ev­er I say it, I feel like I’m a child myself, with my eyes closed and my arms out­stretched, play­ing Mar­co Polo. Samp­son will respond for an instant and then drift off some­where else, and I’ll have to call out again.

Mrs. John­son walks over to him. “You heard your teacher. Go line up,” she says. I envy for a moment the rap­port that she has with him, the rap­port all the oth­er staff can have because they don’t have to be the ones to dis­ci­pline him.

Mrs. John­son whis­pers some­thing to him gen­tly. She takes his hand and walks him to the back of the line. Many of the chil­dren strug­gle with tran­si­tions. Some of them have been shuf­fled between par­ents and grand­par­ents and aunts and uncles and dis­tant cousins and fos­ter homes. This has left them unable to walk from one room in the school build­ing and into anoth­er. They fall to pieces when asked to put away the blocks and pick up the crayons instead.

We march back to the class­room and put out the mats for nap­time. All the chil­dren, except Samp­son, sleep as fierce­ly as they just played. Samp­son asks if he can nap by the but­ter­fly cage, and I say okay. He spends the next hour nudg­ing the cage just slight­ly when I’m not look­ing. I know it must be him, but when­ev­er I turn, he’s lying back on the mat, peace­ful­ly star­ing up at the cage swing­ing above his head. The but­ter­flies are fly­ing now. They crash into each oth­er and into the mesh walls like heat­ed gas.

After nap­time is bath­room time, then cir­cle. When bath­room time comes, I put the girls and boys in sep­a­rate lines, and one group waits along the wall while the oth­er group takes their turn. Some of the chil­dren fall asleep while they’re wait­ing, and I have to jig­gle them back awake. Some start cry­ing, and oth­ers start pok­ing their neigh­bors. The ones in the bath­room ask me to zip up their flies and buck­le up their belts. The whole process takes almost half an hour. Once we get back for cir­cle, I’m fif­teen min­utes behind on the les­son and wor­ry about what will hap­pen if an admin­is­tra­tor walks in the door. I decide to just do a shared writ­ing exer­cise. Togeth­er on the board, we’ll write some­thing like this:

Today, the but­ter­flies came out. They are red and black and orange. They were slow, but they can fly now! We love but­ter­flies.

I go to get the but­ter­fly cage. The but­ter­flies aren’t there. Just dead leaves and pine nee­dles and Camila’s blue stones from the dol­lar store.

I know that only Samp­son would be smart enough to open the cage and close it back up again. The top has a draw­string that needs to be knot­ted, and he’s the only one who can tie his shoes.

Samp­son,” I say.

He walks over.

Stop here,” I say, and even though I know I shouldn’t, I reach into his pock­ets and turn them inside out. Lit­tle peb­bles and some Skit­tles fall out, but noth­ing else. “Did you open the but­ter­fly cage?” I say. I pat him down again.

No,” says Samp­son. He seems strange­ly calm. There’s no exag­ger­at­ed rage at my alle­ga­tion.

I need you to tell me the truth,” I say.

He looks up at me plain­ly. Then, as if to spite me, he sim­ply says, “Huh?”

I make Samp­son sit with his head down at the table while the rest of us fin­ish cir­cle. We prac­tice break­ing words into sounds and putting them back togeth­er. Bag. B-a-g. Bag. Top. T-o-p. Top. We clap our hands as we do this.

I notice Cami­la has start­ed cry­ing again. She cries at least once a day. But this time, extra big, heavy tears run down her dirty cheeks, form­ing gul­lies. She stares down at her hands. They’re stained red with but­ter­fly mush.

The oth­er chil­dren look on in shock.

I pick Cami­la up and car­ry her to the sink. She is heavy, but I don’t let myself drop her. I set her down on the plas­tic stool and adjust the faucets until they run warm. I wash her hands with soap and water, scrub­bing each chub­by fin­ger inside my own. It feels almost as if there are no bones inside her fin­gers, as if they’re made of rub­ber. I make sure the but­ter­fly parts have gone down the drain, and I dry her hands with brown paper tow­els. I wet a paper tow­el and rub it all over her face to wipe away the tears. She squeezes her eyes shut to let me do it. The oth­er chil­dren wait in silence, watch­ing.

When I’m done, I let every­one have choice time. I give Samp­son per­mis­sion to leave the table. He goes straight to the but­ter­fly cage and peers inside it. He gets down on his knees and looks under the shelves and behind them. I won­der myself where the oth­er but­ter­flies went, whether I’ll find them squished at the bot­tom of Camila’s back­pack or whether I’ll find them scat­tered about the room: one dropped dead in a bin of Tin­ker­toys, one pressed between the pages of a book.

After a while, Samp­son stops search­ing and slinks over to the block area. I watch him snatch a block from Cami­la. Her hands stay there emp­ty, as if in offer­ing, with the same open palms that held the crushed but­ter­fly. Samp­son holds the block up as high as he can. He is almost on tip­toe. He whacks it down hard over her head.

*

That evening, as Jen­nifer and I wait at a red light on Jef­fer­son, a black man walks through the traf­fic, wind­ing his way between the stalled cars. He strolls from wind­shield to wind­shield and taps on each one, prob­a­bly ask­ing for mon­ey. I brace myself. My hands feel auto­mat­i­cal­ly for the lock, although I’ve checked it sev­er­al times already.

He’s going to get run over,” I say.

He’ll be okay.” Jen­nifer seems unin­ter­est­ed. She isn’t even watch­ing him. She just stares ahead at the light.

I wish they wouldn’t do that,” I say. I’m talk­ing about all the jay­walk­ers that cross here on Jef­fer­son. Then I say some­thing I know I shouldn’t. “Don’t black men know we can’t see them in the dark?”

Jen­nifer lurch­es out of her daze.

What?” she says.

I envy how uncom­pli­cat­ed her anger is. It’s vis­i­ble all over.

You can get out and walk,” she says. She leans over me to unlock the door.

I’m sud­den­ly ter­ri­fied, for so many rea­sons. “I’m sor­ry,” I say.

You should be.”

But I’m not sor­ry. I’m furi­ous. I hate myself, and I hate Jen­nifer, any­one who would judge me with­out know­ing my fear. The light turns green, and the man steps onto the embank­ment. The cars start to move.

For a moment, I’m not sure whether Jen­nifer still wants me to get out or not. We’re in the far left of three lanes of traf­fic. She switch­es on the turn sig­nal and looks over her shoul­der.

You don’t under­stand,” I now tell Jen­nifer by way of apol­o­gy. “I’m scared.”

I know,” she says, “But you’re still being racist.”

It’s not that sim­ple.”

Yes, it is.”

Jen­nifer pulls to the side of the road. As soon as she’s done this, I real­ize that I didn’t think she would actu­al­ly stop.

I get out, and Jennifer’s car merges back into the traf­fic. I am stand­ing on a bridge. Beneath me is a high­way that splits across the city like a wound.

I don’t want to move. I know that as soon as I do the ter­ror will strike. I will become like a woman in a hor­ror movie, trip­ping over my own feet. I see myself mov­ing in stop motion, in the blue lights that flash from the sur­veil­lance video poles.

No, I tell myself. It’s okay. The man has walked off the oth­er way. The shad­ows danc­ing around me are my own, made by the head­lights as they rush by.

I’m real­ly only a few blocks from my apart­ment. I run home. I make it there and lock the door.

After a few min­utes, my heart starts to qui­et. I sit on the couch. Jen­nifer has my milk crate in her trunk, and I need it to pre­pare the next day’s lessons. I pull out my cell phone, hop­ing to find a mes­sage from her. Noth­ing.

I flip to the crime map. The lit­tle icons pop up across the city.

I some­times wish crime maps could look into the future, that I could have seen an icon before it hap­pened to me.

Why did you take the but­ter­flies?” I’d asked Cami­la that after­noon, after I’d filled out the Inci­dent Report Form and the Injury Doc­u­men­ta­tion and the Behav­ior Refer­ral. Samp­son had been tak­en away to the safe room, and Cami­la was sit­ting in my lap with a fish-shaped ice pack pressed up against the pur­pling welt on her fore­head, melt­ing ice drib­bling down her cheeks instead of tears.

You’re not sup­posed to ask that ques­tion as a teacher. “Why did you… ?” But some­times you just can’t help your­self.

They were pret­ty,” she’d said.

It was that sim­ple for her.

The crime map on my phone goes dark, and I just sit there. I think of Sampson’s unsur­prised face as I’d turned out his pock­ets.

I real­ize that I don’t know how to tell a preschool­er I’m sor­ry.

*

The next morn­ing, when Samp­son esca­lates, I count to 100.

26… 27… 28… 29…

What do you do when you can’t start over again?

 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

Although I am myself mul­tira­cial (half Japan­ese and half white), I have cho­sen to tell a sto­ry about racism in edu­ca­tion from the per­spec­tive of a white teacher in a pre­dom­i­nant­ly black school. I real­ize that there are aspects of both this sit­u­a­tion and the very act of writ­ing about this sit­u­a­tion that call for us to be wary. Still, I ulti­mate­ly believe this is an impor­tant issue for non-black Amer­i­cans to con­front, so I have tried to write about the top­ic in the best way I know.

My motive in telling this sto­ry is to urge us to think crit­i­cal­ly about race in our pub­lic edu­ca­tion sys­tem. Par­tic­u­lar­ly, I would like white Amer­i­cans (or, as in my case, part­ly white Amer­i­cans) to reflect upon what white­ness means in these set­tings. Research shows that what would tru­ly ben­e­fit stu­dents of all iden­ti­ties would be a greater num­ber of black teach­ers and black lead­ers in schools across the coun­try. Yet, most of the exist­ing sto­ries of white teach­ers in pre­dom­i­nant­ly black schools are hero nar­ra­tives. The real­i­ty is, I think, far more com­plex than these hero nar­ra­tives acknowledge—and often far more trou­bling.

While this sto­ry is pure­ly fic­tion­al, I have taught in a vari­ety of edu­ca­tion set­tings very sim­i­lar to the one I imag­ine here. I have also expe­ri­enced a mug­ging sim­i­lar to the one depict­ed and had to con­front my own bias­es in the after­math. Most­ly, though, I still strug­gle to make sense of some of the things I wit­nessed in schools in Mil­wau­kee, Chica­go, and Brook­lyn. And while I entered urban edu­ca­tion with good inten­tions, I now find myself forced to ques­tion the role I played in an edu­ca­tion sys­tem that per­pet­u­ates dis­crim­i­na­tion.

When it comes to the sto­ry itself, one par­tic­u­lar fear of mine is that the nar­ra­tor, while clear­ly unre­li­able, seems to call for too much sym­pa­thy. I do not want read­ers to apol­o­gize for her. But I do want white Amer­i­cans to rec­og­nize that racism can have its own “banal­i­ty of evil.” Racism is all too vis­cer­al­ly present in police shoot­ings, but racial vio­lence takes many forms, and I believe non-black Amer­i­cans must be care­ful not to let these hor­rif­ic acts dis­place racism else­where. The sit­u­a­tion I depict here is, in con­trast, quite ordi­nary. It’s that very ordi­nar­i­ness that should trou­ble us.

I sup­port the #Black­Lives­Mat­ter move­ment and hope that Amer­i­cans will lis­ten to and ele­vate black voic­es. I believe this is the only way to begin dis­man­tling the dis­crim­i­na­tion entrenched in our edu­ca­tion sys­tem and oth­er insti­tu­tions. For me, the story’s con­clud­ing sen­tence is not only a ques­tion that the nar­ra­tor must ask her­self, but a ques­tion that lies at the heart of Amer­i­can his­to­ry.

 

Eri­ca Kane­sa­ka Kalnay reads, writes, and makes art in Madi­son, Wis­con­sin. She holds an M.F.A. in Cre­ative Writ­ing from New York Uni­ver­si­ty and is cur­rent­ly work­ing on a Ph.D. in Lit­er­ary Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wis­con­sin. You can find her online at ericakanesaka.com and @ericakanesaka.

Two Poems

Poetry / Chet’la Sebree

:: Lady-in-Waiting, April 1789 ::

In front of looking glass, I admire my structure, my admixture 
of patterns, as I smooth down the gown that falls to my feet—

bolt of Irish linen stitched into frock for evening, 
where I’ll stand two steps behind Patsy, not behind closed doors,

make a lap around ballroom where candles dress walls, 
blue beads my neck, where my lips will be purple-puckered 

from a wine from a region often named.
Bordeaux, I try. Corset, I say, 

making my mouth French—admiring 
my bone-bound breasts nearly cresting top of dress.

In the mirror I practice, Dame de chambre, femme en attente—
though everyone here calls me Mademoiselle Sallyesclave sounds better in this language,
maîtresse much the same.


 

:: Paris: A Retrospective ::

Your stagger sought to untether—hand sack of flour against frame, 
          heavy from body heavy with liquid lead.  

Was it me or Isabel you saw spread on the bed? 

~

This is as old as time, mom said.  First gran and her, then Mary and Bets.

~

Breathlessly: Sally.  

~

I could not mend my body to break—cedar berry, tansy, cotton seed minced to tea,
          trying to force a bleed.  

Belly swollen, sick as if still on ocean.

~

I am embarrassed by my opening—bare blush of blossom, floral flush of cheek. A flood staining 
          sheets in need of laundering.

~

Or maybe I didn’t open, but burst—a fracture that still aches in cold.



 

From the writer

:: Account ::

Lady-in-Wait­ing, April 1789” 

This poem is in the voice of Sal­ly Hemings—Thomas Jefferson’s slave with whom he had at least six children—when she’s a young woman in Paris. In 1787, at the age of four­teen, Hem­ings trav­eled to France with Jefferson’s youngest daugh­ter, Maria (Pol­ly), to meet Jef­fer­son and his eldest daugh­ter, Martha (Pat­sy). In this poem, Hem­ings is try­ing on a new dress as she pre­pares to attend an event with Pat­sy as her lady’s maid.

In April 1789, Hem­ings has been in Paris for near­ly two years. It is doc­u­ment­ed that, dur­ing this time, Hem­ings start­ed to learn French, received wages for her work, and received fine linens for occa­sions such as the one that unfolds in the poem. While in France, she became Jefferson’s concubine—according to her son Madi­son Hemings—and, some­time in 1789, was preg­nant.

When it was time for her to return to the States with Jef­fer­son lat­er that year, she refused to return with him since she could peti­tion the French gov­ern­ment for her free­dom. In Madi­son Hemings’s mem­oir, Hem­ings states that his moth­er returned to the States because Jef­fer­son promised her “extra­or­di­nary priv­i­lege” and that their chil­dren would be freed.

In this poem, Hem­ings tries on language—the ter­mi­nol­o­gy, the French—much in the same way that she tries on the dress. In this poem, Hem­ings tries on what “extra­or­di­nary priv­i­lege” may look like.

Many of the details of this poem—and per­haps even the impe­tus for it—come from my expe­ri­ence of try­ing on a repli­ca of an eigh­teenth-cen­tu­ry corset in the The­atre Department’s cos­tume shop at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Vir­ginia.

Paris: A Ret­ro­spec­tive” 

In this poem, Hem­ings looks back at her first sex­u­al expe­ri­ence with Jef­fer­son; this poem fol­lows many failed attempts to write about this expe­ri­ence. Every time I tried to write the poem in the “present” tense of the late 1780s I failed, so I tried to come at this first expe­ri­ence from a num­ber of dif­fer­ent angles. The two that were the most suc­cess­ful were this one, in which Hem­ings is try­ing to rec­on­cile her past and unpack what hap­pened to her, and one where Jef­fer­son dreams of his first sex­u­al expe­ri­ence with her; the idea of break­ing, unin­ten­tion­al­ly, is present in both.

As a writer, I felt con­flict­ed about writ­ing about this moment since I know there is a lev­el of vio­lence I know I already inflict by impos­ing my lit­er­ary imag­i­na­tion on the life of this woman who is voice­less in his­to­ry. Not being able to find my way organ­i­cal­ly into a poem about her first sex­u­al expe­ri­ence with Jef­fer­son almost felt like a sign that I wasn’t meant to write about it, so I gave up on the prospect—especially since I couldn’t rec­on­cile what hap­pened to her.

I often wres­tle with the nature of Hem­ings and Jefferson’s rela­tion­ship and the nature of their first sex­u­al expe­ri­ence since she was at most six­teen and he forty-six when she became his con­cu­bine in Paris. It occurred to me, how­ev­er, that per­haps Hem­ings also felt con­flict­ed. From there, it also occurred to me that per­haps both my imag­ined Sal­ly and I might ben­e­fit from the dis­tance of ret­ro­spec­tion.

In addi­tion to Hem­ings wrestling with the nature of the expe­ri­ence, she is also wrestling with iden­ti­ty and moth­er­hood in this poem. Hem­ings con­tem­plates whether or not she’s “spe­cial,” won­der­ing if Jef­fer­son saw her or anoth­er slave named Isabel—whom he’d request­ed trav­el with his daugh­ter Pol­ly to Paris, though she couldn’t because she was pregnant—or if this expe­ri­ence was just her matri­lin­eal lega­cy. Hem­ings was not the only woman in her fam­i­ly who was a con­cu­bine or had a sex­u­al rela­tion­ship with a white man. In this poem, she looks at the lega­cy of this through her grand­moth­er, her moth­er, her sis­ter Mary—who was in a com­mon law mar­riage with a white man who infor­mal­ly freed her—and her niece Bet­sy. Hem­ings also wres­tles with her first preg­nan­cy in this poem—whether or not to have this child when she’s deal­ing with so much else, includ­ing being an ocean away from the major­i­ty of her fam­i­ly.

Ulti­mate­ly, it felt fit­ting that Hem­ings need­ed the time, dis­tance, and space from this moment to con­tem­plate it. It also felt fit­ting that, ulti­mate­ly, she also has no answers.

 

Chet’la Sebree was the 2014 – 2016 Stadler Fel­low at Buck­nell University’s Stadler Cen­ter for Poet­ry. She is a grad­u­ate of Amer­i­can University’s MFA in Cre­ative Writ­ing Pro­gram and has received fel­low­ships from The Mac­Dow­ell Colony, Hedge­brook, Ver­mont Stu­dio Cen­ter, and the Richard H. Smith Inter­na­tion­al Cen­ter for Jef­fer­son Stud­ies at Thomas Jefferson’s Mon­ti­cel­lo. Her poet­ry has most recent­ly appeared in Guer­ni­ca, Gulf Coast, and Crazy­horse.

Four Poems

Poetry / Lee Ann Roripaugh

:: #coldspringwithptsd #string of beads ::

midnight’s icicle  ::  each day longer in the tooth  ::  the end of winter
fangs its way in toward your  ::  palely exposed jugular

~

hawk unfluffs a  ::  bunny into aperture  ::  the unraveling
ribbons of slick intestines  ::  rain’s sullen legerdemain

~

panic’s acetone  ::  chipping night’s glitter-  ::  polish of stars / next
morning a stray balloon dream-  ::  tangled in real tree branches

~

relentless birdsong  ::  see-sawing under the eaves  ::  ativan’s static
an impotent snow / tin-foiled  ::  antennae / poor reception

~

leapday: drinking black  ::  coffee / black coffee / drinking  ::  black coffee / stare
at the walls / black coffee / black  ::  coffee / black coffee / stare—

~

the muffled thud of  ::  damp socks Stockholm Syndroming  ::  in the dryer / you
never really listen to  ::  the non-sequiturs of rain

~

relentless birdsong  ::  see-sawing under the eaves  ::  april’s tight green buds
popcorn to ruptured cloud in  ::  anxiety’s hot oil sheening

~

young hawk plucks apart  ::  something tender in the tree  ::  outside your window
white fluff dandelioning  ::  down / spring broken / sprung forward

~

melancholia  ::  unfolds its wiry, anised  ::  uncoiling like a
bitter licorice / roadkill’s  ::  flat pancaked halo of calm

~

exsanguinated  ::  stone / no-more-shake-left injet  ::  spilled milk / licked-clean plate
sac’s cul / crumpled juicebox / dis-  ::  pensed pez / inkless octopus

~

relentless birdsong  ::  see-sawing under the eaves  ::  migraine’s struck tuning
fork blowtorching a fountain  ::  of sparks behind your right eye

~

rain’s slack gray phrases  ::  slurring the blurred windowpanes  ::  ostinato of
the gutter’s percolated  ::  rattle / wilting confetti

of storm-drenched lilac  ::  in the alley / Monday noon’s  ::  tornado siren
diluted, like too-weak tea  ::  in the day’s triggering wet

~

today you are a  ::  delicate glass shattering  ::  under cold water
after rain’s gray anthems / comes  ::  snow’s staticky off-signal


 

:: #sandhillcranes #string of beads ::

sizzle of orange  ::  lightning / the corrugated  ::  tin blind a gaunt bell
clanging in the wind and rain  ::  curious deer near to see

~

roosting overnight  ::  in clusters on the river’s  ::  sandbars / cranes stirred to
call and response by the storm  ::  say hello (hello) hell-oh

~

scribbled warble of  ::  cranes graffiti night’s water  ::  a river otter’s
sleek whiskered head interrupts  ::  the river’s tense murmuring

~

train whistle’s blurred smear  ::  curlicued by coyotes’ yip and wail  ::  the wood-block chortling
of cranes gets frenetic / as  ::  sun’s wobbly gold yolk slides up

~

thousands of sandhills  ::  helix off sandbars into  ::  spirographed kettling
football stadium loud / iced  ::  river exhales puffs of fog

~

a whooping crane takes  ::  wing from the cornfield in snow  ::  ukiyo-e
cranes in snow / moon craning  ::  the river trills all night long  

~

obfuscatory  ::  crooning slices through the mist  ::  filaments of cranes
unraveling / shaggy yarn  ::  from a woolly skein of fog

~

a flyover plane  ::  cranes burble silver water  ::  chirping lotto balls
oil empire’s blinking neon  ::  signage strobes the horizon


 

:: #to the tardigrades #kaze no denwa ::

                    o microscopic water bear!
                    o infinitesimal moss piglet!

                    let us squee and coo over 
                    the winsome gambol
                    of your eight pumping legs
                    the slovenly crumpled origami
                    of your brown-paper-bag body

                    even given the anus-like
                    pucker of the mouth-hole
                    on your face 
                    your optics are far
                    more comforting
                    than the cockroach’s
                    as sole survivor
                    of post-atomic apocalypse

                    your cryptobiotic superpower:
                    an uncanny ability 
                    to freeze-dry and thrive
                    in the vacuum of outer space
                    for decades at a time
                    then resurrecting back to life
                    with a single drop of water

                    your microfossils
                    date back 520 million years
                    and you’ll survive
                    supernovae / killer asteroids
                    and gamma-ray bursts
                    of searing radiation

                    (it would take vesta—
                    an asteroidal ocean killer
                    with a diameter of 326 miles—
                    to potentially erase you)

                    o, tenacious survivor
                    of cosmic trauma / how
                    I wish I could channel
                    the matter-of-factness
                    of your resilience
                    in the face of nothingness
                    your ability to just be
                    and keep on being

                    what is it about myself
                    and other humans
                    that harbors the sweet fruit
                    of suicidal ideation
                    the genocidal fire
                    of self-destruction?

                    why the reverse morse
                    of nuclear codes?

                    spill of poison
                    into the water supply?

                    the seductive electricity
                    of the third rail—
                    that magnetic urge
                    to swerve and plummet 
                    from mountain’s switchback
                    and fall and fall and fall?


 

:: #to the robobees #kaze no denwa ::

                    a machination of horsehair
                    with a sticky ion gel

                    pygmalioned from tiny drones

                    your plastic spinners
                    mix-mastering an electric whir

                    sound of thousands
                    of microscopic blenders
                    pureeing summer’s air

                    a drone for a drone

                    (technological revolution
                    in the means of production?)

                    (linguistic sleight-of-hand
                    in which representation
                    replaces the real?)

                    it begins with
                    the dwindling of
                    the hawaiian
                    yellow-faced bee

                    the withering away
                    of the rusty patched
                    bumblebee

                    diminishing habitats
                    invasive species
                    neonicotinoids
                    climate change
                    colony collapse disorder

                    post-apocalyptic prophecy:
                    a fleet of you
                    pollinating a field
                    of shriveled flowers
                    with the uncanny thrum
                    of plastic zombies

                    is a bee still a bee
                    without honey?

                    (if poets become extinct
                    will the algorithms
                    keep humming?
                    is a poem still
                    a poem when no one’s
                    left to read?)

                    who will miss
                    the idiosyncrasies?

                    bee-flies who mimic
                    honeybees / but with
                    obscenely long
                    tongues to plunder
                    shy primroses

                    sphinx moth wings
                    a throated purring
                    in the night / as they ravish
                    the honeysuckle

                    honeybees lured in
                    by their fascination
                    for blue flowers
                    (lavender / borage / marjoram
                    veronica / love-in-a-mist)
                    returning to the hive
                    with heavy pollen baskets
				
                    who will secrete royal jelly
                    from glands in their head?

                    who will pass the pollen 
                    from bee to bee / each of them
                    chewing and grinding
                    until it’s refined and sweet
                    ready to store in wax cells?

                    (it takes eight bees
                    their entire lives
                    to make a single teaspoon)
				
                    who will make the honey
                    that smells like nostalgia
                    tasting like a memory
                    of lavender flowers
                    fragrant in sunlight?



 

From the writer

:: Account ::

#stringof­beads is envi­sioned as an eco­crit­i­cal and decol­o­niz­ing col­lage of braid­ed tan­ka, zui­hit­su, and “kaze no den­wa” (“wind phone” trib­utes) that inter­ro­gates the false bina­ry of Nature and Tech­nol­o­gy. In this false bina­ry, Tech­nol­o­gy is the term that’s priv­i­leged as pro­gres­sivist, urbane, smart/intellectual, sci­en­tif­ic, cre­ative, and patriarchal/male. Nature, con­verse­ly, is cast as atavis­tic, raw, unde­vel­oped, pri­mal, unen­light­ened, and female. These terms and the ways in which they’re aligned simul­ta­ne­ous­ly echo racial/racist stereo­types in which Nature occu­pies the oppressed (i.e., raced/Orientalized) pole of the bina­ry: exoti­cized, fetishized, primed for “mas­tery,” sit­u­at­ed to be “known”/subject to “know­ing­ness,” oth­ered, ide­al­ized, and pen­e­trat­ed. Along sim­i­lar lines this con­fla­tion of Ori­en­tal­iz­ing and gen­der­ing cathects in ten­den­cies to always rep­re­sent Nature as pure, “pris­tine,” “untouched” as in vir­ginal.

The idea of Nature as “pris­tine,” “untouched,” and “vir­ginal” is a patri­ar­chal and col­o­niz­ing fan­ta­sy. Even at nation­al parks, Nature is imbri­cat­ed with tech­nol­o­gy and indus­try: roads, sig­nage, visitor’s cen­ters, cell phone ser­vice, etc. etc. To take a pho­to­graph of Nature at the scenic outlook/view is to pho­to­graph a care­ful­ly engi­neered illusion—one in which industry/technology has cre­at­ed the means to the view, but is elim­i­nat­ed from the frame to cre­ate the illu­sion of Nature as pure/pristine/untouched. This nos­tal­gia for an Orientalizing/colonizing fan­ta­sy is also, per­haps, the recre­ation of a phal­lo­cen­tric rape fan­ta­sy?

Yet Nature always/already exists along­side indus­try and tech­nol­o­gy. Nature is always/already part of indus­try and tech­nol­o­gy in that indus­try and tech­nol­o­gy are con­struct­ed, at root/base, from nat­ur­al mate­ri­als, and industry/technology is always/already “nat­ur­al” in that industry/technology are organ­ic cre­ations of bio­log­i­cal organ­isms of our plan­et. Mean­ing that the oxy­moron­ic term “man made” is a false sep­a­ra­tion from “nature made.” As if “man” is some­how above/in charge of/master of nature, as opposed to a part of and sub­ject to the “laws” of nature. “Man made” is not nec­es­sar­i­ly pro­gres­sivist or “evo­lu­tion­ary” (in a pos­i­tivist sense), either. “Man made” is an evo­lu­tion­ary process, yes, but eas­i­ly a process that could lead to extinc­tion, as could any num­ber of evo­lu­tion­ary process­es.

Nat­ur­al ecosys­tems are, bio­log­i­cal­ly speak­ing, all plan­e­tar­i­ly inter­con­nect­ed, and so there is no such thing as “pris­tine” Nature. The act of dis­cov­ery auto­mat­i­cal­ly cre­ates a First Con­tact between Nature and Tech­nol­o­gy even in out­er space—the result being that the definition/scope of Nature is only enlarged? It’s inter­est­ing that out­er space seem­ing­ly belongs to the realm of Technology/Science/Science Fic­tion, until First Con­tact is made, at which point the “flag is plant­ed” and it becomes a focus of col­o­niza­tion, domin­ion, belong­ing to, and hence Nature. Nature in this sense is con­struct­ed as pas­sive, and await­ing col­o­niza­tion. Nature only exists once ownership/dominion occurs, and is there­fore a term of prop­er­ty rights and col­o­niza­tion. (Hence align­ment with the fem­i­nine and racial­ized oth­ers.)

Thus, Nature is always/already Cyborg.

And so what does it mean to trou­ble the bina­ries between Nature and Tech­nol­o­gy in rep­re­sen­ta­tions of, par­tic­u­lar­ly, Nature? What does an inter­ven­tion that attempts to desta­bi­lize the essen­tial­ized notion of Nature as an exoti­cized, fetishized, fem­i­nized, pas­sive, “pris­tine” Oth­er look like?

And in a fem­i­nist rewrit­ing of the pri­mal rape fan­ta­sy (and its nos­tal­gic iter­a­tions) doesn’t Nature tend to trump Tech­nol­o­gy (i.e., nat­ur­al dis­as­ters such as floods, earth­quakes, tor­na­does, tsunamis, etc.)?

And if nature is always/already Cyborg, does this mean that Nature, like all Cyborgs, is semi­ot­i­cal­ly unsta­ble, but also mete­o­ro­log­i­cal­ly volatile (and pos­si­bly unhap­py at being tam­pered with/interfered with by her cyber­genic creator(s))?

With respect to lit­er­ary rep­re­sen­ta­tions, I also feel that con­tem­po­rary ren­di­tions of tra­di­tion­al Asian forms are par­tic­u­lar­ly guilty of rep­re­sent­ing Nature in this “pris­tine,” fetishized, Ori­en­tal­ized man­ner which (in tan­dem with the appro­pri­a­tion of a tra­di­tion­al Asian form by a non-Asian prac­ti­tion­er), leads to a sense of dou­ble Ori­en­tal­iz­ing (both for­mal and the­mat­ic): “muse­um cul­ture” nos­tal­gia for a pre-West­ern­ized Asia, etc. This is ridicu­lous giv­en what a tech­no­log­i­cal­ly-dri­ven and tech­no­log­i­cal­ly-savvy group of coun­tries com­prise con­tem­po­rary Asia.

Non-Asian prac­ti­tion­ers of haiku, tan­ka, sen­ryu, et al. are not auto­mat­i­cal­ly offen­sive­ly Ori­en­tal­ist for their appro­pri­a­tion of the forms, per se (although the ques­tion of (mis)appropriation here is def­i­nite­ly worth dis­cussing), but rather for their per­for­mance of the form in such a way that rei­fies and express­es a nos­tal­gia for Ori­en­tal­ist stereotypes—particularly through rely­ing on sta­t­ic imagery of/for a Nature-that-is-no-more (pure, pris­tine, etc.) in a lin­guis­tic style that is like­wise static/dated in terms of con­tem­po­rary poet­ry and poet­ics. (As anoth­er sub­set is (mis)appropriation, per­haps we might con­sid­er West­ern/non-Asian “haiku” (and oth­er) soci­eties that sim­i­lar­ly defend the “puri­ty” and “tra­di­tion” of the form—even as it has already been West­ern­ized through trans­la­tion and non-cal­li­graph­ic prac­tices.)

#stringof­beads plays in this flu­id, hybrid spec­trum between Nature and Tech­nol­o­gy, matri­archy and patri­archy, occi­den­tal and “Ori­en­tal,” pay­ing homage to that which is lost, destroyed, and made extinct through ele­giac intru­sions of #kazen­oden­wa (“wind phone”) poems.

 

Lee Ann Ror­i­paugh is the author of four vol­umes of poet­ry: Dan­dar­i­ans (Milk­weed Edi­tions, 2014), On the Cusp of a Dan­ger­ous Year (South­ern Illi­nois Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2009), Year of the Snake (South­ern Illi­nois Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2004), and Beyond Heart Moun­tain (Pen­guin, 1999). A fifth vol­ume, tsuna­mi vs. the fukushi­ma 50, is forth­com­ing from Milk­weed in 2018. She was named win­ner of the Asso­ci­a­tion of Asian Amer­i­can Stud­ies Book Award in Poetry/Prose for 2004, and a 1998 win­ner of the Nation­al Poet­ry Series. The cur­rent South Dako­ta State Poet Lau­re­ate, Ror­i­paugh is a pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at the Uni­ver­si­ty of South Dako­ta, where she serves as Direc­tor of Cre­ative Writ­ing and Edi­tor-in-Chief of South Dako­ta Review.

To the White Woman…

Poetry / Simone Person

:: To the White Woman with the Tiny Backpack in Indiana Who Interrupted Me and a Friend to Ask if We Knew This Was a Non-Smoking Campus as I’m Halfway through a Cigarette ::

Yes, we knew, as surely as your Tevas know the way to the closest
food co-op. There is so little for me here. So little of me
here. So much time wasted crafting myself into edges, of flossing 
barbs through my teeth, and braiding razor blades in my hair 
just to be able to walk down the street. Just to smoke in peace
on the non-smoking campus I was born too broke and not
enough enough to even be assumed to attend. I don’t 
expect you to understand what it feels like here 
in Indiana, how the footsteps behind me on my walks home
are louder, that every car passing feels sinister. There’s less
sunlight every day. Fewer reasons that seem to warrant leaving bed. 
White people are always asking me questions we both know
the answers to, trying to string me up and drag me behind sentences.
And if this was the first time a white person talked at me 
like I was stupid, maybe my mouth wouldn’t have spit nails
so quick, rattling your tiny backpack, and transforming you
into afraid and me into the spook you knew I was anyways.



 

From the writer

:: Account ::

As a fat, queer, Black woman grow­ing up in the Mid­west, I’ve always felt out of place in my pre­dom­i­nate­ly white schools and towns. After mov­ing to an even more racial­ly homo­ge­neous state for grad­u­ate school, that feel­ing of per­pet­u­al dis­lo­ca­tion inten­si­fied, and peaked after leav­ing my abu­sive part­ner in the begin­ning of the year.

These poems are part of a larg­er project titled Smoke-Girl, which process­es inti­mate part­ner vio­lence and rape, espe­cial­ly the shame, self-blame, and anger. This project also focus­es on how often Black women are seen as dis­pos­able and as threats, and how Black women and our lives, expe­ri­ences, and trau­mas are usu­al­ly infan­tilized and seen as infe­ri­or, or even non-exis­tent, com­pared to our white and non-Black coun­ter­parts.

My work—both prose and poetry—is often drawn from my own expe­ri­ences and explores the ways dis­lo­ca­tion and trau­ma inter­sect, espe­cial­ly focus­ing on the con­fus­ing, con­tra­dic­to­ry, and unsa­vory emo­tions that arise at that inter­sec­tion. I want my work to push back against the Strong Black Woman tropes, to show­case that Black women can be vul­ner­a­ble, men­tal­ly ill, feel pain, and that we’re still here with any and all con­fus­ing, con­tra­dic­to­ry, and unsa­vory emo­tions despite the odds.

 

Simone Per­son grew up in Michi­gan and Tole­do, Ohio, and is a dual MFA/MA in Fic­tion and African Amer­i­can and African Dias­po­ra Stud­ies at Indi­ana Uni­ver­si­ty. Her work has appeared in or is forth­com­ing from Puer­to del Sol, Kweli Jour­nal, among oth­ers, and has been anthol­o­gized in Crab Fat Mag­a­zine: Best of Year Three. She spo­rad­i­cal­ly uses Twit­ter and Insta­gram at @princxporkchop.

Two Poems

Poetry / Juan R. Palomo

:: A Shy One ::

A few minutes in the recreation cage.
Winter’s chill has begun to sneak into fall’s
time and, as he’s escorted back to his cell,
he shivers despite his recent exercise.

The Dallas Cowboys’ game will soon start. He won’t
see it and he won’t hear it but he will know
the results: as soon as the game is over,
the score will echo loudly from cell to cell.

The Cowboys will play again the next Sunday
and Sundays after that until the season
ends. Then they’ll start another season, only
he might not be around to hear about it.

The days are growing short. Fifty days before
his own date with fate, he is now seeing the
world through the eyes of the hundreds of men
who lived this experience in these same cells.

No doubt all felt about their approaching death
just as he does now: whatever happens is
God’s will, and all he can do now is pray—pray
for His favor, for strength—and smile and walk on.

A tour group comes through, looking like regular
Joes and Janes. Three women stand as far from him
as they can and look at him. He walks away
from his door. “Oh, a shy one,” he hears one say.


 

:: His Future ::

1. The Barber

From his cell, he can see
the prison barber on days
 
the recreation cage is used
for cutting hair. He enjoys

the view and he likes the
banter as inmates are led

in and out of the cage, 
and hearing them ask

for different cuts, as if they
had a choice. The view from

his cell window is not bad either. 
He can see horses in a pasture. 

He sees woods, and cars
on a road. Far away. 

2.  The Taquería

He thinks of how he’d feel   
if he were to suddenly find 
himself outside the walls, amid 

the aroma of a panadería 
or a taquería. How he would
love to order some taquitos

de barbacoa, con guacamole 
or pico de gallo. And a Bud
or a Dos Equis, por favor. 

He smiles, realizing he
just sounded as if he were 
in a cafe, talking to a waiter.

3.  The Painkillers

The painkillers make it bearable but he’s
beginning to wonder if there’s something 
really wrong. Could it be stress? Or is
it all in his mind? His body may be filled

with pain, he tells himself, but he should
not allow pain to also take over his days,
and he struggles to remain in good humor.
He just has to learn to be more active,

that’s all, and hopeful. He wonders if the
hearing on the twenty-ninth was held.
He doubts it, for he’s sure he would have 
heard by now if the court had set his date.



 

From the writer

:: Account ::

Nine­teen years ago I became friends with a per­son on Texas’ Death Row, Roge­lio (Roy) Reyes Can­nady.

Over the next twelve years, Roge­lio and I exchanged let­ters at least once a week, some­times more often. Sev­en months after our first com­mu­ni­ca­tion, I made my first of many vis­its to Liv­ingston, where the state’s death-row inmates are housed. Each let­ter, each vis­it told me this was a spe­cial per­son, extreme­ly intel­li­gent. I soon real­ized he was also a damn good writer, despite his nev­er hav­ing fin­ished high school.

His case was on appeal through­out most of our friend­ship, but Roge­lio was a real­ist and knew that soon­er or lat­er his time would come, and he asked me if I could be a wit­ness to his exe­cu­tion. I agreed, reluc­tant­ly. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, I was unable to keep my promise (for rea­sons that would take too much space to explain), but we remained friends and in con­stant con­tact.

Three months before his sched­uled exe­cu­tion date of Novem­ber 6, 2008, he was moved to what is called “Death Watch,” a group of cells designed to hold inmates whose dates are approach­ing. It was then that he decid­ed he want­ed to blog about the rest of his days on earth. Even though he had nev­er seen the Inter­net, he had heard and read about blogs and was intrigued by the idea. Of course, he had no access to a com­put­er, much less the Inter­net, so he asked me to start and main­tain a blog for him. He wrote his posts, in long hand, and mailed them to me to tran­scribe and post. I received his last post a few days after his even­tu­al exe­cu­tion, May 19, 2010.

I have always known I would write about my rela­tion­ship with Roge­lio, and about our cor­re­spon­dence. I just didn’t know how or when. Ear­li­er this year, how­ev­er, in response to a prompt in a poet­ry work­shop, it became clear to me that verse was how I would address it, and I wrote a poem based on a tele­phone con­ver­sa­tion I had with him a few hours before he died, and on a blog post from a few days ear­li­er.

I wrote oth­er poems, includ­ing the two fea­tured here, based on his words as found in some of the hun­dreds of let­ters he wrote to me. In many ways, these are his words and thoughts. These are his poems.

In writ­ing them, I wish to offer oth­ers a bet­ter insight into the dai­ly lives and thoughts—and the humanity—of some of those we con­demn to death. In doing so, I also hope to allow myself a bet­ter under­stand­ing of that friend­ship.

 

Juan R. Palo­mo was born into a migrant farm­work­er fam­i­ly in North Dako­ta and grew up in South Texas and sev­er­al Mid­west­ern states. He received a BS in art edu­ca­tion from Texas State Uni­ver­si­ty and an MA in jour­nal­ism and pub­lic affairs from The Amer­i­can Uni­ver­si­ty. He was a reporter, colum­nist, and edi­to­r­i­al writer for The Hous­ton Post, cov­ered reli­gion for the Austin Amer­i­can-States­man, and wrote a col­umn for USA TODAY. His work has appeared in The Acen­tos Review.

Two Poems

Poetry / Paul Otremba

:: The New Republic of California ::

I was not remembering the Republic—the cooked egg expertly peeled and split,
a more perfect union toppled by a hair—because that was love they split.

It’s a problem with the math, being told to pick points on a map, then to imagine 
your body in towns you’ll never visit, the distance constantly split.

On this side, a landscape of prisons, pox, slumping extractions of minerals;
on that side, prayer groups and quarterly projections, so hardly a good split.

It’s the recipe for taking what can’t be lost and smashing it
from the charge and orbit, the spin of the matter/antimatter split.

The climate never lets you forget—water might get into the cracks
and freeze, so the face of the statue would split.

On this side, the hand-dipped rag full of gasoline; on that side, the same 
hand offering the rag as a salve to your lip it had split.

I was ready to go Dutch, but your grand juries, emergency sessions,
and Sunday schools have racked up a bill I can’t split.

So what if we cry, Lightning! No hard feelings! Then slap palms moving  
through the line-up—Good game. Good game—just call the score a split?

Don’t feel bad if you recognize you’re just a little bit excited. Everybody  
knows when you come up aces, there’s reward in just saying you’ll split.

We still believe in fair warnings, like any good protagonist: One if by late night 
host. Two if by C-SPAN. Then I’ll know to get back on my horse and split.


 

:: Peripatetic ::

	—After Pablo Neruda and Tomás Q. Morín

I don’t want to continue as a root and a tomb.
I don’t want all this misery.
And I don’t think I ever imagined a workable future,

or any future, for that matter, reading in the bedroom,
or basement, or public park, although getting on
at Station A presupposed some notion of Station B.

And of course it’s not like a train,
but more like a slide, if a slide were full of holes
falling onto other slides with still other holes

opening upon new surfaces to walk along,
this street onto this street, this block
of condos with 24-hour concierge, business

and fitness centers, or these homes hugging
lot lines. Each encouragement announced 
for the continually updating optimal route 

inevitably leading where? It’s the kind of game
we can play interminably: was it getting in the car 
or not getting in the car? The absentee ballot

instead of just rolling over in bed?
If you ask me today, I’ll say I’m tired,
while in front of the cameras, a man in all seriousness

claims if you inspect a gift horse’s mouth 
and discover rotten teeth, it’s only the horse’s 
moral failing you are witness to. Of course,

it isn’t about a horse, and the gift
is only a gift in the sense that you didn’t ask for it
but woke to it in your bed sheets anyway. 

I’d say prop him up, look him in the eyes,
if they weren’t only divots plugged with coins
and palm ashes. His tongue is forked

and the tips can fill both his ears. What image
of the world does he summon forth
when his tongue beats the air?



 

From the writer

:: Account ::

The New Repub­lic of Cal­i­for­nia”

It’s hard not to get caught up in the divi­sive­ness of con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can pol­i­tics, and I’m find­ing it hard­er and hard­er not to give in to some exhaus­tion about main­tain­ing a more per­fect union. When I read some tweets a cou­ple months ago that joked about start­ing a new coun­try on the west coast that would take as its prin­ci­ples real lib­er­ty, accep­tance, and com­pas­sion, I had the thought, “Why not? I’d go.” This poem let me indulge in that rhetoric, with—I hope—a healthy bit of skep­ti­cism and self-mock­ery. The “rav­ish­ing dis­uni­ties” of the ghaz­al seemed appro­pri­ate for the sub­ject, and ear­ly on in the writ­ing process, I had the idea for how I might “sign” my name into the final cou­plet.

Peri­patet­ic”

This is anoth­er poem in the spir­it of exhaus­tion with the state of con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can pol­i­tics and gov­er­nance. Find­ing myself lit­er­al­ly think­ing “I’m tired” remind­ed me of Pablo Neruda’s great poem “Walk­ing Around,” and so I went and reread Tomás Q. Morín’s excel­lent trans­la­tion of that poem, which let me feel that sol­i­dar­i­ty of poet­ry and its human com­pan­ion­ship. The poem opens with two lines from Morín’s trans­la­tion. That com­pan­ion­ship of poet­ry helps me when I’m slid­ing into my despair.

 

Paul Otrem­ba is the author of two poet­ry col­lec­tions, Pax Amer­i­cana (Four Way Books, 2015) and The Cur­ren­cy (Four Way Books, 2009). Recent poems have appeared or are forth­com­ing in West Branch, the Keny­on Review, Over­sound, and Waxwing. He is an Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor of cre­ative writ­ing at Rice Uni­ver­si­ty and teach­es in the War­ren Wil­son low-res­i­den­cy MFA pro­gram.

Three Poems

Poetry / Kathryn Nuernberger

:: Pennyroyal, Active Ingredient Pulegone, I’ll Meet You in the Centrifuge ::

Pennyroyal, smallest of the mints, with weak prostrate stems.

Pennyroyal, a purple button for your pocket. 

Pennyroyal, called Run-by-the-Ground.

Pennyroyal, called Lurk-in-the-Ditch. 

Pennyroyal, “It creepeth much” and “groweth much.” 
It comes into blossom “without any setting.”

Pennyroyal, Pliny couldn’t help himself going on at length.

Pennyroyal, creeping on my field for years.

Pennyroyal, before I knew what an old witch you really are, 
I brought you home to be a bouquet for my mother. 

Pennyroyal, drunk with wine for venomous bites.

Applied to nostrils with vinegar to revive those who faint and swoon. 

The inside of my body is very dark I think. Or maybe the skin 
lets a light in like when I close my eyes in the sun.

Pennyroyal, to relieve upset stomach.

Pennyroyal, to reduce flatulence.

Pennyroyal, to flavor hog pudding with pepper and honey.

Strengthens the gums, helps the gout, cleanses the foul ulcers. Drives out the fleas.

Pennyroyal, for menstrual derangements. 

Pennyroyal, to abort the thing.

Pennyroyal, to kill the bitch.

Pennyroyal, to take away the marks of bruises and blows about the eyes.

Pennyroyal, asked and answered. 

“By putting flies and bees in warm ashes of pennyroyal, they shall recover
life as by the space of an hour and be revived.” 

We’re so many versions of ourselves. We try this, we try that. 

Sometimes we’re efficacious. Sometimes we don’t know what we’re for.


 

:: Queen of Barren, Queen of Mean, Queen of Laced with Ire ::

          If a woman dreams of lace, it is said, 
          she will be happy in the realization 
          of her most ambitious desires 
          and lovers will bow to her edicts.

There were two Annes—the one who dreamed of lace 
and the one who dreamed of waxen seals, as there are two 
Queen Anne’s Laces—the one with the purple dot at its center 
like a needle prick of spilled blood, which is edible wild carrot, 
and the one with no dot, stalk spackled in purple like Socrates’ 
blood, it is said, though he spilled no blood when he was 
executed by hemlock, which is non-edible wild carrot 
also blooming in an upturned face of white blossoms.

Carrots, it was said, are such an aphrodisiac Caligula amused himself 
by feeding the court nothing but, then watched them rut like animals. 

When I lived in that lonely place, I bought a field guide to learn the name 
of every flower. There were not many to learn, stitched as I was to a field 
between a cascade of crop-dusted corn on the left and an ocean of soy 
on the right. Where there might have been poppies and cornflowers 
and honey bees needle-pointing the rows, only Queen Anne’s Lace 
was hardy enough to make a kingdom out of such long-barren dirt.

          My ire at these impossible, 7-dusted acres.

          My ire at the billboards with ultrasounds as big 
          as a cloud floating over the rows of copyrighted 
          beans, irrigated so green.

When everything on a tract is alive and buzzing, a fallow field 
will bloom one medicine after another. If you look them up 
in Culpepper’s guide or Pliny’s, almost all in leaf or seed or stem, 
some small dose or a large one, will “provoke the menses,” 
as the euphemism goes. When everything is alive, there is never 
a week when the soil does not offer you some kind of choice. 

When I lived in that lonely place I thought I’d turn to 
Rousseau, who understood so well what we give up 
in exchange for the social contract, who wrote the great 
treatises on romanticism and democracy from his place 
in exile. Rousseau, I thought, my antidote to this minister 
who does his abstinence-only counseling for teenage 
girls and pep talks the boys on Godly masculinity just 
one diner table over. If you knew how many times 
I’ve heard, “Our Lord is a jealous lover.” 

But he is also Rousseau who dumped his bastard children
in an orphanage. Rousseau who had no care for what
the social contract did to the women he took as lovers
and then left as lovers. Rousseau who goes on and on
about breastfeeding and natural motherhood like a man
who has no idea. Had Rousseau written his botanical letters 
to me, his “dear and patient lady,” with the tedious thought 
experiment of teaching a “most willing pupil” to visualize 
the flowers through written language alone—“After you have 
looked over my letter once or twice, an umbellate plant 
in flower will not escape you” —I would have been too eager 
to agree with his post-script. “The meanest kitchen-maid 
will know more of this matter than we with all our learning.” 

In describing the umbellate Queen Anne’s Lace in flower, 
a maid would not have forgotten to mention that crimson 
dot at the center, calling the bracid wasp to his favorite 
pollenatrix, the drop, it is said, the queen pricked from 
her own finger on the spindle of her perfect lace, the one 
that slips from a kitchen-maid when the great philosopher 
returns from the prairie of his letters to the greener pasture 
of her idealized womanhood, the mark by which a kitchen-maid 
knows which umbelliferous queen is the one who stops 
your heart and which the one that sets it beating once more.

It is said the queens upset the cows’ milk if they founder 
on too much lace. It is said the queens upset the sheep’s 
digestion, but watch the hoofed beasts and see how they know 
after a miscarriage to graze the medicine of those leaves. 

At the end of the season the blossoms turn brown and brittle 
and close in on themselves like a bird’s nest. The meanest 
maid knows this is when you gather your clumps of seeds. 
No one writes down what the kitchen-maids say, so no one 
is anymore sure whether you drink them only after sex 
or every day or when you are ovulating or for the full 
two weeks between ovulation and menstruation. Some say 
you must chew the seeds to release the tannins. Some say 
drink them down in a glass of water. Some say it is a crime 
to publish such information. Some say only that it is a liability. 
Now in the laboratories of the minds of the great thinkers 
they call it rumors and old wives tales. As if none of us 
has ever needed an old wife. As if only fools would 
allow themselves to turn into such wizened things. 

There was Anne I who was known for making beautiful lace. 
And there was Anne II who was known for her sixteen 
miscarriages, four dead children, and slipshod petticoat 
of a government. There was Anne I who employed subterfuge 
and intrigue to manipulate the King’s policies. And there was 
Anne II who had no king and no heir and no wars and hardly 
even an account of discontent among the flourishing and well-fed 
people. And yet what is said of her is only that she was Anne 
the fat, Anne the constantly pregnant, Anne the end of her line.  

          My ire at the kingdom.

          My ire at the kings.

          My ire at the philosophers who think 
          they can just reinvent the world 
          inside the eye of their own minds.

          What I want I want on terms as I dictate them. 

          My ire at my terms. 

          My ire at my impossible wanting. 

          That I can be no flower and be no field, my ire.

          That there will be more castrated queens,
          an endlace necklace of almost enough, my ire.

          My ire, if you wait enough years, the field will finally grow. 

          If you wait years enough you will be long dead, my ire.  


 

:: Regarding Silphium, the Birth Control of the Roman Empire for 600 Years, Extincted by Careless Land Management in the Year 200 AD ::

When I was just about done being married
and he was a blossomed-out nerve of seeing
himself through the ugly eyes of how I had
come to see him and myself for letting
our lives get so Tupperware-fur-molded,
for thinking I could lace and pinprick it back
with just the right delicacy, when a good
punch in the face was what a mess this bad
required. (I know, you’re thinking a punch
in the face is never the answer, but that’s
the lace talking.) When I was just about done
with the lace-throated maybe-violence, 
our daughter, who is five, told me how
he broke—she didn’t say he broke, she said 
he got really worked up—driving past
all the protestors outside Planned Parenthood
on Providence Ave., from which the university
medical school had just withdrawn funding
and also the option for residents to do
training there, how he took a hard left
into the parking lot and with our daughter
by the hand marched in with an urgency
that made the young man working the desk 
say, “Sir?” with some alarm. He took a breath
to be more steady and said, “I’m so sorry
about all of this—all of that out there—
and I just thought I’d make a donation” 
as he pulled all the money from his wallet,
some of it crumpled, a mixture of 5s and 1s,
and pushed it across the counter, our daughter
watching and looking around the room, 
studying the faces of timid and nervous
young women, I imagine, in those plastic
chairs I remember from when I once sat
in this exact waiting room myself, so many
years ago, feeling embarrassed and ashamed
because it seemed that’s what I was supposed
to feel, though if I could have felt my way
beyond supposed to back then to my 
actual self, I would have known I didn’t feel 
sorry at all, only annoyed by the tedium 
of appointments, the practical necessity
of that clean smell, the chilly dustless air
of a building with nothing soft except
the aspect of the resident, who is the only
doctor I have ever had who joked as she
put her gloved hand in my body. “I guess this
is the most awkward thing you’ll do today,
huh?” It was funny and made me feel like 
we’d been friends a long time. My husband,
who is still my husband after all, knew 
that story and I guess he wanted our daughter 
to somehow know it too. “Sometimes 
you’ll feel very alone,” I tell her on a day 
when I find her pressing her face against 
the window, watching the children next door 
play in the grass, wiping tears from her face 
as fast as they fall. “Other times you’ll be 
so wonderfully surprised by the strange bridges 
people manage to build out to you when 
you never would have expected they could.”



 

From the writer

:: Account ::

I began writ­ing about plants his­tor­i­cal­ly used for birth con­trol when Todd Aiken said in the course of his cam­paign for the Mis­souri Sen­ate seat that there was such a thing as “legit­i­mate rape” and he lost the race, but Mis­souri still, through var­i­ous oth­er legal loop­holes and meth­ods of sub­terfuge, became for all prac­ti­cal pur­pos­es what my state sen­a­tor Caleb Row­den has called in inter­views “A Pro-Life state.”

I began writ­ing about plants his­tor­i­cal­ly used for birth con­trol when I was liv­ing on a farm in rur­al Mis­souri and my bee­hive col­lapsed, like­ly due to the crop dusters over­head, and my pig died, like­ly due to snakebite. So I start­ed cat­a­loging what could live in that place.

I began writ­ing about plants his­tor­i­cal­ly used for birth con­trol when my six-year-old daugh­ter, an aspir­ing sci­en­tist, brought a book home a pic­ture book about Maria Sibyl­la Mer­ian, the first ecol­o­gist, who wor­ried very much about being accused of witch­craft because but­ter­flies were often thought to be trans­mo­gri­fied witch­es, as were women who upset the patri­ar­chal social order.

I began writ­ing about plants his­tor­i­cal­ly used for birth con­trol when my friend, the painter Sarah Nguyen, began a series of por­traits of plants that have been used to assist abor­tions. They are col­lect­ed in a lim­it­ed edi­tion artist book, How Does Your Gar­den Grow.

 

Kathryn Nuern­berg­er is the author of two poet­ry col­lec­tions, The End of Pink (BOA Edi­tions, 2016), which won the James Laugh­lin award from the Acad­e­my of Amer­i­can Poets, and Rag & Bone (Elixir Press, 2011). Her lyric essay col­lec­tion is Brief Inter­views with the Roman­tic Past (Ohio State Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2017). A recip­i­ent of fel­low­ships from the NEA, Amer­i­can Anti­quar­i­an Soci­ety, and Bakken Muse­um of Elec­tric­i­ty in Life, she is an Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor of Cre­ative Writ­ing at Uni­ver­si­ty of Cen­tral Mis­souri, where she also serves as Direc­tor of Pleiades Press.

Hello, detective

Poetry / Kristi Maxwell

:: Hello, detective ::

Rename me the quiet execution of a nail
Rename me mouthwork and guesswork
Gethsemane, a Sunday in France
Rename me no widow
Rename me no whited-out error
or whittled branch, no wood debris
No bereavement
Rename me concussion, cocoon, ca-caw,
a series of useless birdsong, bird-sound, 
the brain’s own birth-pain, delivering a thought
Rename me coddler or god
witness or withness
an unforgiveable act, an ax or an ask
Rename me afraid
but do not name me without
Do not name me without
not minnow
Do not name me bait or beaten or deterred
Rename me turd, but not porcelain, not flesh
Rename me commotion
Rename me the proximity of salt and sugar
as the distance between assault and assure
Rename me sugar-assured, rename me
ushered, rename me hush
Do not rename me hush 
Do not take us out of the world
Rename me a series of pills
but not swallow
but not even a swallow’s wingspan
or prey
Rename me prayer or drawer into which
one folds her desperation
but do not name me opened
and do not open me
Rename me father, further, pelt,
trade, treason, logic, and lube
Rename me bunny-tail of moon on the wide ass of night
Rename me after accumulation, after the fact
Rename me after after
Rename me then
Rename me any, rename me anon, avast,
a Kevlar vest never needed
Rename me sinew
Rename me insinuation
Rename me remain but not remains
Do not rename me tooth-sized or canine
blasted or blessed
Rename me have, rename me as having
Rename me sleep, but not sleeper, sleep



 

From the writer

:: Account ::

In the spread of a week, I was in the ER because of acute pain caused by a her­ni­at­ed disc, and my hus­band was in the ER after being beat­en and robbed while bik­ing home from work. My mind was on the ten­u­ous, my mind was on the body—that spec­trum of fragili­ty and resilience. I’m sure most of us have expe­ri­enced frus­tra­tion at our inabil­i­ty to help some­one in the way we’d like—the tex­ture of my morn­ings changed; my day began with a call to the detec­tive because a call made me feel like I was doing some­thing. I got mar­ried some­what spon­ta­neous­ly in July 2016, and, to my sur­prise, I liked my new name: wife. I want­ed to keep it. This poem is as much about the talk I did not have with the detec­tive as the talks I did. It’s about the col­li­sion between grief and cel­e­bra­tion. It’s either lul­la­by or tor­na­do or spell. It’s a poem on hold­ing, a poem on hold, wait­ing less patient­ly than it might.

 

Kristi Maxwell is the author of five books of poet­ry, includ­ing Realm Six­ty-four (Ahsah­ta Press, 2008), That Our Eyes Be Rigged (Sat­ur­na­lia Books, 2014), and PLAN/K (Horse Less Press, 2015). She lives in Ken­tucky, where she is an Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Louisville.

Two Poems

Poetry / Lindsay Lusby

:: What’s the story, Mother? ::

Take comfort in this: 
you are not dear to me. 

O Night of Desirable Objects,
you are the honeytrap 
			                 I cast deep 

into this bracken of asters 
and catchflies. 
		          You will watch 

the dark undress, 
peel back its beard of sepals. 

          Do not call out for me:

Let this pale hand cover your mouth.
Let it smother you with my love. 


 

:: You still don’t understand
what you’re dealing with, do you?::

	Natural selection cannot fashion perfect organisms.
	—“The Evolutions of Populations,” Campbell Biology textbook

Inside its mouth, 
		                 another mouth:

                    a fearful symmetry that rips 
through every soft-bellied thing 

          like worms through wet earth. 


On top of bone, 
                             more moonbright bone. 

                    Holds the nightbloom of your face 
in thrall and you will tremble at the feet 

          of all its terrible glory. 


Behold, child:    
                            this is Leviathan. 



 

From the writer

:: Account ::

The titles of each of these poems are lines of dia­logue bor­rowed from Rid­ley Scott’s Alien, which hap­pens to be one of my favorite hor­ror movies. Since zero-grav­i­ty and oxy­gen tanks aren’t real­ly my poet­ic aes­thet­ic, I want­ed to bring Alien back down to earth. I approached the sto­ry through the lan­guage of fairy tale and Catholi­cism, the alien-ness through the imagery of plants and wild­flow­ers. I want­ed to cre­ate an earth­ly strange­ness with them, one that hor­ri­fies through its grotesque famil­iar­i­ty. The titles came first, of course, and then I let the poems grow from there.

When I began, I assumed the char­ac­ter of Rip­ley would be my main focus, oth­er than the xenomorph itself. But strange­ly, the char­ac­ter of Moth­er emerged as the voice of these poems. This, I think, was the one thing that tru­ly sur­prised me in the writ­ing of them. The ship com­put­er, called MU-TH-UR, begins as such a benign and neu­tral influ­ence in the back­ground of the film; but by the end she becomes a true antag­o­nist, telling the ship’s crew (her chil­dren, you could say) that they are expend­able in the ser­vice of a greater mis­sion: bring­ing the xenomorph back to earth for pro­pri­etary study. She becomes the cal­lous, neglect­ful, mur­der­ous fairy-tale moth­er we know from Broth­ers Grimm sto­ries like “Hansel & Gre­tel” and “The Juniper Tree.” Bits of each of those sto­ries end­ed up in the poems as well. The places where sto­ries over­lap with each oth­er just light up for me and those are the places where I build my poems.

 

Lind­say Lus­by is the author of two chap­books, Black­bird White­tail Red­hand (Pork­bel­ly Press, forth­com­ing 2017) and Ima­go (danc­ing girl press, 2014), and the win­ner of the 2015 Fairy Tale Review Award in Poet­ry, judged by Joyelle McSweeney. Her poems have appeared most recent­ly in Faerie Mag­a­zine, North Dako­ta Quar­ter­ly, Tin­der­box Poet­ry Jour­nal, and Fairy Tale Review.

Two Poems

Poetry / Daniel Blokh

:: Cold Doesn’t Like Being Forgotten ::

	After Kathryn Hargett 

I’m 6 years old and can’t keep my medicine down. 

Quite terrible. This world will do anything to keep you
from the easy drift you wish for. The large pill makes it
halfway down, then wakes some ripple

in the murky depth of me—my mouth
cracks open, breakfast and cough syrup all wasted.

I hope enough regret might wash them down
but my body lunges forward time

after time, reaching for somewhere I don’t know. 
My mother grabs the mop. Doesn’t even sigh.

*

When my brother was born back in Moscow, 
he was always sick. My parents didn’t have much 
medicine, but they had superstition.

They fed my brother honey mixed with lemon and onion,
rubbed his throat with cotton dipped in gasoline, made him

gargle beet juice. He wore potato compresses on his skin.
Doctors put hot jars on him to drain
the wrongness out. 

Who can blame them? People have done odder things 
than swallowing a dandelion’s leaves 
to kill sickness, to clean the winter from a bone. 

When something climbs into your body
and writhes there, how can you reason with it?

*

In her dream, my mother was in Moscow yesterday.
In waking, it’s been more than twenty years.

She left her home and became mine, bowl of water waiting 
for hair, railing of a staircase. 

Still it tugs at her voice, the hint of back there hanging
on her Rs and Ths, spilling this country out of her,

the hold of homesickness

she found no superstition for getting rid of,
could never scrub away completely.

*

Now my mother places Airbornes next to Kurantil, 
makes me bloat with vitamins they only sell thousands of miles away,

antibiotics from online stores. She gives me my pills 
beside bowls of borscht, tells me, Swallow them together 

and you won’t even notice it. But I do
and red stains swell into the carpet.

No wet drowning can steal 
the pill’s dust from my throat, 
the cling of taste. 


 

:: Tonkaya Ryabina ::

The tired green of it, the sprawl
around the porch, the wind tussling
the blades so they dance with the song
we’re listening to, rustling
your lips. It’s heat, but won’t be heat
until I name it. For the first time today, your eyes
are questionless. Something in you is sliding 
awake. We could be anywhere: a summer house
in Moscow, a nursing home beside a wide green field.
The song flickers out and we settle back
into one of those two options
and I think about the rain that brushed past 
us last week, ate up the summer. You were almost 
smiling when the song played. Now you sit. 
You sit. You sit. You sit. You sit. You look at me 
and start to sing. Your voice too thin to hold the weight 
of melody, but I can still make out the lyrics: Chto stoish 
kachayas. . . You don’t know the next word. 
Tonkaya, I say, Tonkaya, and you say, I’m afraid,
and I say, Why, and you say, What if I forget? and water 
can scare away a summer, but heat always settles 
back around the world. Our voices drops clinging
to each other in a hopeless throat. 

What if everything falls out—What if I don’t remember the lyrics—
Will they forgive me? 



 

From the writer

:: Account ::

Cold Doesn’t Like Being For­got­ten”

In “Cold Doesn’t Like Being For­got­ten,” I tell the par­al­lel sto­ries of my mother’s immi­gra­tion to Amer­i­ca and of me catch­ing a cold. The run­ning feel­ing through­out both sto­ries is that of the desire to reshape one’s self—both in chang­ing one’s phys­i­cal well-being and one’s iden­ti­ty. My moth­er came to Amer­i­ca from Rus­sia (large­ly for me and my sib­lings) with­out know­ing the lan­guage. Her 20+ years in Amer­i­ca have been spent large­ly on try­ing to adapt to the envi­ron­ment, but she is still an imme­di­ate­ly obvi­ous out­sider and treat­ed as such; there is still “the hint of back there hang­ing / on her Rs and Ths.” I present her past in this poem in the way I imag­ine her see­ing it in the past—something she can­not hide or get rid of, a dis­ease she “could nev­er scrub away com­plete­ly.” Yet there is a shift at the end of the poem, when, in the present, she puts “Air­bornes next to Kuran­til” and “gives me my pills / beside bowls of borscht.” She is no longer try­ing to erase her past, but has embraced it. She has real­ized it as a part of her.

Tonkaya Ryabi­na”

Music has often come into the poet­ry I write about my grand­moth­er; through­out her stages of demen­tia, even when she can’t rec­og­nize any­one around her, she has always been able to remem­ber the songs of her past in Rus­sia. In the poem “Tonkaya Ryabi­na,” the song is a link between that past and the present, between her real­i­ty and mine. As I sit with my grand­moth­er on a nurs­ing home porch and lis­ten to the music, it seems as though “We could be any­where: a sum­mer house / in Moscow, a nurs­ing home beside a wide green field.” For the dura­tion of the song, it doesn’t mat­ter; we are hap­py. Yet after the music stops and the moment of hope­ful­ness ends, the real­i­ty of the sit­u­a­tion returns, my grandmother’s men­tal dis­tress and dis­ori­en­ta­tion inescapable. “Heat always set­tles back around the world.”

 

Daniel Blokh is a 16-year-old Amer­i­can writer of Russ­ian-Jew­ish descent, liv­ing in Birm­ing­ham, Alaba­ma. He is the author of the mem­oir In Migra­tion (BAM! Pub­lish­ing, 2016), the micro-chap­book The Wad­ing Room (Origa­mi Poems Project, 2016), and the chap­book Grim­mening (forth­com­ing from Diode Edi­tions). His work has been rec­og­nized by the Scholas­tic Art and Writ­ing awards and the Foyle Young Poet awards, and has appeared in DIALOGIST, Per­mafrost, Blueshift, Cleaver, Gigan­tic Sequins, For­age Poet­ry, Avis, Thin Air, Cica­da, and more. He’s bad at tak­ing naps, which sucks, because he real­ly needs a nap right now.

Two Poems

Poetry / Derek Annis

:: Damages ::

Annis-Damages-new

 

 

:: Manifest ::

Manifest-new

 

 

 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

I live in Spokane, Wash­ing­ton, where I was born and raised. Spokane is the sec­ond largest city in Wash­ing­ton State. It’s sur­round­ed by pine for­est. There is a spec­tac­u­lar water­fall right in the cen­ter of the city. There is a fair­ly small down­town area with a hand­ful of sky­scrap­ers, two hos­pi­tals, a mall, and a movie the­atre. It has many prob­lems, includ­ing crime and home­less­ness, but it is an exceed­ing­ly pleas­ant place to live. It’s one of the few places in the US where the min­i­mum wage is a liv­ing wage for a sin­gle per­son. There are four rep­utable col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties here. The lit­er­ary scene is thriv­ing, as is the rest of the arts com­mu­ni­ty. It is also home to a group of rav­en­ous devel­op­ers who would like to turn Spokane into a stereo­typ­i­cal big city. This group favors econ­o­my over ecol­o­gy. They favor large cor­po­ra­tions over local busi­ness. They run cam­paigns against increased fund­ing for pub­lic trans­porta­tion because those who use it are unde­sir­able to peo­ple of high­er socioe­co­nom­ic stand­ing. They oppose any leg­is­la­tion that would give res­i­dents the pow­er to decide which busi­ness­es can oper­ate in their city. And they are get­ting what they want. I didn’t sit down to write about these devel­op­ers or their envi­ron­men­tal impact, but I think that both “Man­i­fest” and “Dam­ages” came from my fear over what I see these devel­op­ers doing to the city I love.

 

Derek Annis is a grad­u­ate of the MFA at EWU. Dur­ing his time at East­ern Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­si­ty, he was the assis­tant poet­ry edi­tor for Wil­low Springs. He was a final­ist for the 2016 MBF emerg­ing writ­ers con­test, and his work has appeared or is forth­com­ing in The Get­tys­burg Review, Mis­souri Review: Poem of the Week, Crab Creek Review, Fugue, and The Mead­ow, among oth­ers.