Do the Math and Delight

Criticism / Michelle Sizemore

:: Do the Math and Delight ::

Why are we talk­ing math in a jour­nal of poet­ry and prose? This ques­tion cap­tures a test­ed and reli­able divi­sion between the arts/humanities and quan­ti­ta­tive fields both in aca­d­e­mics and the wider cul­ture. While there is cer­tain­ly no con­sen­sus on whether math­e­mat­ics is a sci­ence, it is fre­quent­ly grouped with sci­ences and oth­er fields that rely on it. Wit­ness the STEM vs. STEAM debates in K‑12 edu­ca­tion. Advo­cates for STEM (a cur­ricu­lum inte­grat­ing Sci­ence, Tech­nol­o­gy, Engi­neer­ing, and Math­e­mat­ics) argue that study of the arts will dilute the STEM focus. Mean­while, advo­cates for STEAM (a cur­ricu­lum adding the Arts to STEM, an extrav­a­gant “A” wedged into this short acronym augur­ing sen­si­ble career choic­es) argue that the arts enhance the sci­ences. [i] Sim­i­lar debates roil post-sec­ondary edu­ca­tion. And admin­is­tra­tors and fac­ul­ty aren’t the only ones weigh­ing in on the val­ue of lib­er­al edu­ca­tion vs. STEM or pro­fes­sion­al edu­ca­tion. Case in point: the acri­mo­nious Twit­ter feud between STEM majors and Human­i­ties, Social Sci­ence, and Edu­ca­tion majors last Decem­ber. [ii] 

The hedges go up more quick­ly out­side the com­pass of cur­ricu­lum and instruc­tion. Chitchat over the years in every con­ceiv­able set­ting has yield­ed a pat­tern in which acquain­tances, after learn­ing what I do for a liv­ing, either con­fess to being bad at Eng­lish but good at math or declare, in sol­i­dar­i­ty, that writ­ing comes eas­i­ly while num­bers are stumpers. These divi­sions seem overblown. Most peo­ple write every day, com­pos­ing texts, emails, Face­book posts, tweets, snaps. Most peo­ple also go to the store with­out haul­ing in an abacus.

This col­lec­tion of exam­ples points to the habit­u­al par­ti­tion­ing of lan­guage and math, even though these two “adver­saries” hold unde­ni­able affini­ties. Poets and math­e­mati­cians alike have long rec­og­nized the reci­procity between the dis­ci­plines. Emi­ly Dick­in­son, for one, lav­ished her poet­ry with math. Approx­i­mate­ly 200 of her poems make ref­er­ence to math­e­mat­i­cal terms and con­cepts, demon­strat­ing com­pat­i­bil­i­ty between math­e­mat­i­cal prin­ci­ples and lyri­cal sen­si­bil­i­ty. As Seo-Young Jen­nie Chu writes, “Not only did [Dick­in­son] have a poet­ic under­stand­ing of math­e­mat­ics, but she had a deeply math­e­mat­i­cal under­stand­ing of her own poet­ic enter­prise.” [iii] Albert Ein­stein used poet­ry as a metaphor to express the beau­ty of math­e­mat­i­cal endeav­or, char­ac­ter­iz­ing “pure math­e­mat­ics” as “the poet­ry of log­i­cal ideas.” [iv]

It is not uncom­mon for math­e­mati­cians to locate a kin­ship between math­e­mat­ics and lit­er­a­ture in their shared aes­thet­ic prop­er­ties. For some, “aes­thet­ics” names clas­sic aes­thet­ic qual­i­ties of art such as beau­ty, ele­gance, sym­me­try, and bal­ance. Masahiko Fuji­wara observes:

It is impos­si­ble to put in words the intrin­sic grace of a the­o­rem… I can only describe it as being akin to a per­fect piece of music in which each note is irre­place­able or to a haiku in which no syl­la­ble can be changed. The beau­ty I speak of is like the exquis­ite ten­sion that holds togeth­er aspects of a work of art; a frag­ile seren­i­ty that cements its per­fec­tion. And so the mag­net­ic force that draws art—and there­fore literature—to math­e­mat­ics is the dig­ni­fied beau­ty of its pure log­ic. [v]

Like so many in his dis­ci­pline, Fuji­wara joins the­o­rems and proofs with works of art such as lit­er­a­ture because of the “grace” and “beau­ty” of their com­po­si­tion. Oth­er math­e­mati­cians empha­size the aes­thet­ic expe­ri­ence of solv­ing a prob­lem, the plea­sure tak­en in arriv­ing at mean­ing, of “com­ing-to-under­stand­ing,” in the words of David W. Hen­der­son and Daina Taim­i­na. [vi] Mul­ti­ple mean­ings of “aes­thet­ics” also cir­cu­late are also in cir­cu­la­tion in art crit­i­cism and lit­er­ary stud­ies, where the com­mon wis­dom is to “encour­age a vari­ety of inves­ti­ga­tions under its aegis” rather than “to pre­scribe a sin­gle def­i­n­i­tion.” [vii] Math­e­mat­i­cal aes­thet­ics can there­fore denote the beau­ty of the work, the sen­su­ous expe­ri­ence of per­form­ing the work, and more. This lat­ter sense, the feel­ings evoked by the doing, is espe­cial­ly com­pelling to me.

Of course math­e­mati­cians and artists don’t have a cor­ner on the aes­thet­ic expe­ri­ence of “com­ing-to-under­stand­ing.” The plea­sure of solv­ing a prob­lem belongs to every read­er of mys­ter­ies and every fan of cryp­tog­ra­phy adven­ture movies. If you’re hav­ing trou­ble plac­ing this genre, think Nation­al Trea­sure. The 2004 film stars Nico­las Cage as Ben­jamin Franklin Gates, a his­to­ri­an-crypt­an­a­lyst who has devot­ed his life to the dis­cov­ery of a rumored nation­al trea­sure hid­den by the U.S. Found­ing Fathers. Gates fol­lows a trail of obscure clues: one etched inside the stem of a meer­schaum pipe con­cealed in a gun­pow­der bar­rel in a sunken ship at the bot­tom of the Arc­tic Ocean, anoth­er writ­ten on the back of the Dec­la­ra­tion of Inde­pen­dence in invis­i­ble ink, and so on. Pre­dictably, each puz­zle and solu­tion leads him clos­er to the trea­sure (buried all along in a secret grot­to sev­er­al sto­ries beneath Boston’s Old North Church). Crit­ics and movie-goers who panned the film cit­ed its overblown and improb­a­ble plot. Because Hol­ly­wood films are usu­al­ly sub­tle. [viii]

But I enjoyed the pre­pos­ter­ous­ness of the trea­sure hunt. I enjoyed watch­ing Gates and his team solve clues requir­ing dex­ter­i­ty with words and num­bers. The code con­cealed on the back of the Dec­la­ra­tion is an Otten­dorf or book cipher, which uses a book or anoth­er writ­ten text to encode and decode a mes­sage record­ed in num­bers. To decode the mes­sage, Gates and crew have to match the Declaration’s “mag­ic num­bers,” as one char­ac­ter calls them, to cor­re­spond­ing words in a key, in this case The Silence Dogood Let­ters. The num­ber clus­ters found on the Dec­la­ra­tion (10–11‑8, 10–4‑7, 9–2‑2, 14–8‑2, etc.) refer to the page num­ber of The Silence Dogood Let­ters, the line on the page, and the let­ter in the line, respec­tive­ly. [ix] As a schol­ar of ear­ly Amer­i­ca, I was thrilled to encounter these eigh­teenth-cen­tu­ry texts on the big screen, along with land­marks and arcana from the found­ing era: Inde­pen­dence Hall, the Lib­er­ty Bell, Paul Revere, freema­son­ry, George Washington’s elec­tion cam­paign but­tons. His­tor­i­cal padding? Yes. But any annoy­ance at dri­ve-through his­to­ry was off­set by the sat­is­fac­tion of being in on the esoterism.

In a film relent­less with its inclu­sion of Amer­i­can Inde­pen­dence ref­er­ences, it’s no sur­prise Ben­jamin Franklin gets fold­ed in. But Franklin is more than a pass­ing men­tion; his pres­ence hangs over the entire film. Franklin is the protagonist’s name­sake, he’s the author of The Silence Dogood Let­ters, he invents the bifo­cals they use to view the 3‑D trea­sure map on the Dec­la­ra­tion. A Franklin imper­son­ator makes an appear­ance at the Franklin Muse­um in Philadel­phia, and in a delet­ed scene they must deci­pher Franklin’s “Join or Die” polit­i­cal car­toon to escape death. Per­haps the screen­writ­ers were pay­ing homage to Franklin’s inge­nu­ity in a movie that rev­els in the clev­er­ness and resource­ful­ness of its prob­lem-solv­ing hero. Or per­haps, more direct­ly, they were allud­ing to Franklin’s real-life pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with cryp­tog­ra­phy. He devel­oped numer­i­cal codes for secret mes­sages dur­ing the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War and for Amer­i­can diplo­mat­ic cor­re­spon­dence after­ward. [x] Re-watch­ing the movie remind­ed me that the poly­math­ic Franklin is a quin­tes­sen­tial exam­ple of some­one who not only delight­ed in puz­zle-mak­ing and prob­lem-solv­ing but also joined num­bers and let­ters in his pursuits.

Nev­er­the­less, Franklin has a rep­u­ta­tion for being bad at math. Much of this owes to Franklin’s own descrip­tion of his “igno­rance of fig­ures.” [xi] Ear­ly in the Auto­bi­og­ra­phy of Ben­jamin Franklin he recounts how at age nine his father sent him to George Brownell’s school, where he “acquired fair writ­ing pret­ty soon but… failed in… arith­metic and made no progress in it.” [xii] Schol­ars from lit­er­ary stud­ies to com­put­er sci­ence have gen­er­al­ly tak­en him at his word, no doubt due to the endur­ing con­cep­tu­al oppo­si­tion between writ­ing and math. Despite his noto­ri­ety as math-defi­cient, Franklin was actu­al­ly gift­ed. He used pop­u­la­tion sta­tis­tics in his “Obser­va­tions Con­cern­ing the Increase of Mankind, Peo­pling of Coun­tries, Etc.” (1751) and employed geom­e­try in his inven­tion of the glass armon­i­ca (a musi­cal instru­ment con­sist­ing of spin­ning glass discs). The list of Franklin’s math­e­mat­i­cal inves­ti­ga­tions goes on—utility the­o­ry, account­ing, applied math­e­mat­ics, nav­i­ga­tion, day­light sav­ing time. [xiii]

To ful­ly appre­ci­ate these devel­op­ments, we have to look past his part in the nation­al ori­gin sto­ry. He wasn’t only a key play­er in the Unit­ed States’ found­ing, but also a lead­ing sci­en­tist in a transat­lantic com­mu­ni­ty of schol­ars. [xiv] From the late 1740s through the late 1760s, Franklin’s study of elec­tric­i­ty devel­oped with­in a net­work of com­mu­ni­ca­tion with and sup­port from a con­frere of Atlantic sci­en­tists, cul­mi­nat­ing in Exper­i­ments and Obser­va­tions on Elec­tric­i­ty (a series of let­ters to Eng­lish friend and patron Peter Collinson, orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in 1751 and under­go­ing sub­se­quent edi­tions through 1769). In 1756, Franklin’s research on elec­tric­i­ty and inven­tion of the light­ning rod earned him the dis­tinc­tion of fel­low at the Roy­al Soci­ety of Lon­don, Britain’s fore­most sci­en­tif­ic orga­ni­za­tion. Franklin’s Exper­i­ments and Obser­va­tions on Elec­tric­i­ty was a tow­er­ing achieve­ment of Enlight­en­ment-era science—but it was not, as we might expect of a sci­en­tif­ic work in the Age of Rea­son, strict­ly com­mit­ted to the advance of rea­son. [xv] For one, “mag­i­cal” math puz­zles crop up in the volume.

Occu­py­ing Franklin’s think­ing for near­ly half a cen­tu­ry were numer­i­cal puz­zles known as It may be tempt­ing to triv­i­al­ize such pur­suits as many of his biog­ra­phers have—Sudoku for the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry, Can­dy Crush for the insuf­fer­able meet­ing. We know, for instance, that Franklin doo­dled with these games to “amuse [him­self]” dur­ing the speech­es at the Penn­syl­va­nia Assem­bly. [xvi] He would have gained access to these puz­zles through the transat­lantic cir­cu­la­tion of texts such as Jacques Ozanam’s Recre­ations Math­e­mat­i­cal and Phys­i­cal and John Tipper’s The Ladies’ Diary, or, the Woman’s Almanack. First pub­lished in France in the 1690s and then revised by a vari­ety of edi­tors over the next 150 years, Ozanam’s Recre­ations would remain the most impor­tant ref­er­ence on recre­ation­al math­e­mat­ics for over two cen­turies. Tipper’s The Ladies’ Diary was a pop­u­lar British almanac that ran from 1704 through 1752 and com­bined con­ven­tion­al almanac sub­jects with rid­dles and math­e­mat­i­cal puz­zles. Franklin rou­tine­ly solved these pre­made mag­i­cal squares and cir­cles and also invent­ed his own. [xvii]

Mag­ic squares and mag­ic cir­cles are like crosswords—except with num­bers. You fill in the spaces with num­bers instead of let­ters. The goal with a mag­ic square is to make each line of num­bers across, down, or diag­o­nal­ly total the same val­ue. [xvi­ii] Puz­zles like these had pre­oc­cu­pied thinkers for cen­turies before Franklin made his con­tri­bu­tions. His­to­ri­ans trace them to philoso­phers and the­olo­gians in Chi­na as ear­ly as the fourth cen­tu­ry BCE, then to Mesopotamia, and then across most of the known world by the end of the first mil­len­ni­um. These numer­i­cal arrange­ments were believed to pos­sess super­nat­ur­al prop­er­ties and fig­ured mean­ing­ful­ly in Chi­nese, Mid­dle East­ern, and West­ern occultism. They were incor­po­rat­ed into incan­ta­tions and spells, embla­zoned on amulets, tal­is­mans, and plates, and admin­is­tered in div­ina­tion and cos­mo­log­i­cal representation.

In ancient Chi­na, for instance, these 3x3 squares, called the 9–5‑1, 4–9‑2, and so on. Peo­ple regard­ed these matri­ces as super­nat­ur­al because they rep­re­sent­ed the uni­verse in micro­cosm: nine squares con­veyed the Nine Divi­sions of Heav­en, the Nine Con­ti­nents, the Nine Ter­ri­to­ries, the Nine Divi­sions of the Mid­dle King­dom. The Lo Shu, more­over, was a pro­found expres­sion of equi­lib­ri­um The eight even and odd num­bers rep­re­sent­ing yin and yang are held in bal­ance around the axi­al cen­ter (the num­ber 5). Thus the Lo Shu square could effec­tive­ly sym­bol­ize the world in bal­anced har­mo­ny around a pow­er­ful cen­tral axis. [xix]

Mag­ic squares embody the aes­thet­ic qual­i­ties of bal­ance and sym­me­try, and beau­ty when one beholds their geo­met­ri­cal pat­terns and forms. Cer­tain­ly Franklin was drawn to both the aes­thet­ic qual­i­ties of mag­ic squares and the aes­thet­ic expe­ri­ence of solv­ing them. But why are such puz­zles tucked in among Franklin’s writ­ings on electricity?

Before the famous encounter between light­ning, kite, and key in 1752, Franklin began his elec­tri­cal exper­i­ments more mod­est­ly with glass tubes in 1746, offer­ing an ini­tial the­o­ry clas­si­fy­ing elec­tric­i­ty as a flu­id. The tech­ni­cal details of this exper­i­ment aren’t as impor­tant here as the con­cepts of “plus” and “minus.” Accord­ing to this the­o­ry, the glass tube began in a “pos­i­tive” state or a “plus” con­di­tion, and rub­bing the glass removed part of the elec­tric­i­ty from it, leav­ing it “minus” some of its elec­tri­cal flu­id or in a “neg­a­tive” state. Franklin would even­tu­al­ly refine his the­o­ry of elec­tric­i­ty, liken­ing it to a fire rather than a flu­id and adjust­ing some oth­er essen­tial points, but retain­ing the elec­tri­cal vocab­u­lary of plus/minus, positive/negative, and equi­lib­ri­um that he invented—and is still used today. [xx] 

Now we may be get­ting clos­er to an expla­na­tion of why a dis­cus­sion of mag­i­cal squares turns up in a vol­ume on elec­tric­i­ty. On some lev­el, the numerol­o­gy of the square—its demon­stra­tion of absolute equal­i­ty and per­fect balance—resonated with Franklin’s elec­tri­cal con­cep­tion of equi­lib­ri­um and the even and odd num­bers car­ry­ing sym­bol­ic con­no­ta­tions of pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive. While he may not have exact­ly had in mind yin and yang, he did hint at the mys­tery of cos­mic bal­ance in the phys­i­cal world when speak­ing of mag­ic squares and elec­tri­cal phe­nom­e­na, describ­ing both as “mirac­u­lous.” [xxi] “Com­ing-to-under­stand­ing,” for Franklin and con­tem­po­raries who stud­ied elec­tric­i­ty, meant advanc­ing a ratio­nal expla­na­tion of electricity’s behav­ior while main­tain­ing an appre­ci­a­tion of electricity’s mystery—its “won­der­ful” and “amaz­ing” power—and by exten­sion the pow­er of nature. [xxii] 

Thus, in part, the plea­sure Franklin took in elec­tri­cal and math­e­mat­i­cal prob­lem-solv­ing derived from con­tem­pla­tive won­der in the inex­plic­a­ble work­ings of nature. In Exper­i­ments and Obser­va­tions on Elec­tric­i­ty, he describes his inno­va­tions with the 16x16 mag­i­cal square as the “most mag­i­cal­ly mag­i­cal of any mag­ic square ever made by any magi­cian.” [xxi­ii] Franklin’s mar­veling at the de trop “mag­i­cal­ly mag­i­cal” char­ac­ter of his square reveals an impor­tant dis­tinc­tion between the eigh­teenth-cen­tu­ry sci­en­tif­ic world’s under­stand­ing of mag­ic and that of the pre-Sci­en­tif­ic Rev­o­lu­tion. Rather than an attri­bu­tion of super­nat­ur­al prop­er­ties to the square, Franklin’s remark is an asser­tion of admi­ra­tion and delight, “mag­ic” denot­ing “an inex­plic­a­ble and remark­able influ­ence pro­duc­ing sur­pris­ing results” or “an enchant­i­ng or mys­ti­cal qual­i­ty” (OED). [xxiv] His won­der at nature’s mys­ter­ies isn’t rev­er­en­tial but play­ful, a fit­ting tone for pur­suits regard­ed as entertainment. 

In the cor­re­spon­dence between Franklin and oth­er Roy­al Soci­ety mem­bers, researchers often mod­u­late descrip­tions of their intel­lec­tu­al curios­i­ty by char­ac­ter­iz­ing their activ­i­ties as a pas­time or a diver­sion. Franklin’s let­ters to Collinson repeat­ed­ly offer his recital of elec­tri­cal exper­i­ments and mag­i­cal squares for the pur­pose of Collinson’s “amuse­ment.” [xxv] This empha­sis on learned enter­tain­ment among mem­bers of the Roy­al Soci­ety and oth­er intel­lec­tu­al cir­cles sig­nals the emerg­ing prac­tice of aca­d­e­m­ic socia­bil­i­ty in the lat­ter half of the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry. [xxvi] After all, Franklin con­veys his find­ings on elec­tric­i­ty in a let­ter exchange with a col­league and friend rather than in a for­mal dis­ser­ta­tion. Far from divid­ing lan­guage and num­bers, then, the sci­en­tif­ic com­mu­ni­ty devel­oped lit­er­ary con­ven­tions and gen­res for the delight in figures.

While edu­cat­ed layper­sons did read sci­ence writ­ing like Exper­i­ments and Obser­va­tions, more often they grat­i­fied their math­e­mat­i­cal curios­i­ty with prob­lems in almanacs and puz­zle and game books. These brain-teasers belong to a larg­er cat­e­go­ry of eigh­teenth-cen­tu­ry enter­tain­ment includ­ing rid­dles and games, which encour­aged new pat­terns of thought and elicit­ed sur­prise, won­der, and delight through prob­lem-solv­ing. [xxvii] It’s intrigu­ing to think about an ear­li­er gen­er­a­tion that open­ly acknowl­edged the plea­sure as well as the prag­mat­ic val­ue of math—that devel­oped a rela­tion­ship to math defined by recre­ation rather than com­pul­sion, by cre­ativ­i­ty, inge­nu­ity, and enjoy­ment rather than tedi­um and pan­ic. I’m not sure we’ve got­ten to the point where large num­bers of peo­ple con­ceive of math as fun, but maybe we’re mak­ing our way there. Most nation­al and local news­pa­pers con­tain “Games and Puz­zles” sec­tions that increas­ing­ly fea­ture much more than the cross­word. The relaunch of the New York Times Mag­a­zine includes math puz­zles and games like , Sudoku, and SET along­side its famed Sun­day cross­word. Hun­dreds of new apps make math enjoy­able and read­i­ly acces­si­ble for chil­dren and adults look­ing to sharp­en their skills or sim­ply to pass the time. The land of games and puz­zles may be the renewed meet­ing ground for words and num­bers. What pos­si­bil­i­ties lie ahead with greater nim­ble­ness in both lan­guage and math? What cross-pol­li­na­tions might occur from this “bilin­gual­ism”? We must do the words, and do the math.


[i] As STEAM’s sup­ple­men­tary appeal for the arts implies, the goal isn’t to inte­grate the arts and sciences—to achieve mutu­al influence—but rather to serve the STEM fields. I’m not inter­est­ed in tak­ing sides in this debate here, rather in point­ing out the fun­da­men­tal sep­a­ra­tion and hier­ar­chy between the arts and sci­ences even in efforts to join them.
[ii] @jaboukie, “i WISH i could just read clif­ford the big red dog and make flower crowns,” Twit­ter (5 Decem­ber 2018, 1:53 p.m.).
[iii] Seo-Young Jen­nie Chu, “Dick­in­son and Math­e­mat­ics,” The Emi­ly Dick­in­son Jour­nal 15.1 (2006), 36.
[iv] Albert Ein­stein, “The Late Emmy Noe­ther: Pro­fes­sor Ein­stein Writes in Appre­ci­a­tion of a Fel­low-Math­e­mati­cian,” The New York Times (4 May 1935), 12. Print.
[v] Masahiko Fuji­wara, “Lit­er­a­ture and Math­e­mat­ics,” Asymp­tote (Jan­u­ary 2011).
[vi] David W. Hen­der­son and Daina Taim­i­na, “Expe­ri­enc­ing Mean­ings in Geom­e­try,” Math­e­mat­ics and the Aes­thet­ic: New Approach­es to an Ancient Infin­i­ty, Ed. Nathalie Sin­clair et al. (Springer, 2007), 83.
[vii] Cindy Wein­stein and Christo­pher Loo­by, “Intro­duc­tion,” Amer­i­can Literature’s Aes­thet­ic Dimen­sions (Colum­bia Univ. Press, 2012), 4.
[viii] See Roger Ebert, “Nation­al Trea­sure,” Roger (18 Novem­ber 2004); Stephen Hold­en, “A Secret Trea­sure Map That Ends in Man­hat­tan,” New York Times (19 Novem­ber 2004); Cari­na Chocano, “Bank­rupt Nation­al Trea­sure,” L.A. Times (19 Novem­ber 2004); “Nation­al Trea­sure (2004),Rot­ten Toma­toes (Accessed 19 May 2018). 
[ix] Simon Singh, The Code Book: The Sci­ence of Secre­cy from Ancient Egypt to Quan­tum Cryp­tog­ra­phy (Anchor, 2000).
[x] Ralph E. Weber, Unit­ed States Diplo­mat­ic Codes and Ciphers, 1775–1938 (Prec­dent Pub­lish­ing Inc., 1979); David Kahn, The Code­break­ers: The Sto­ry of Secret Writ­ing (Scrib­n­er, 1996), 185.
[xi] Ben­jamin Franklin, Auto­bi­og­ra­phy of Ben­jamin Franklin. 1791 ed. (Wal­ter J. Black, Inc., 1941), 24.
[xii] Franklin, Auto­bi­og­ra­phy, 13.
[xiii] Paul C. Pasles, Ben­jamin Franklin’s Num­bers: An Unsung Math­e­mat­i­cal Odyssey (Prince­ton Univ. Press, 2008), 5–11.
[xiv] Bernard Cohen, Ben­jamin Franklin’s Sci­ence (Har­vard Univ. Press, 1990); Park Ben­jamin, A His­to­ry of Elec­tric­i­ty: From Antiq­ui­ty to the Days of Ben­jamin Franklin (John Wiley & Sons, 1898).
[xv] James Del­bour­go, A Most Amaz­ing Scene of Won­ders: Elec­tric­i­ty and Enlight­en­ment in Ear­ly Amer­i­ca (Har­vard Univ. Press, 2006), 8.
[xvi] Franklin, Auto­bi­og­ra­phy, 189.
[xvii] Pasles, 117–137.
[xvi­ii] The object of this “cross-num­ber” puz­zle is to fill in the box­es so that each of the rows across, up and down, and diag­o­nal­ly equal the same sum. The best way to begin is to fig­ure out the total of all 9 box­es, which must be filled in with the num­bers 1–9. 1+2+3+4+5+6+7+8+9=45. Since we know each row must equal the same val­ue, and since there are three equal rows, we can divide by 3 to deter­mine the sum of each row: 15. From there, fill in the num­bers on the grid until each row equals 15 in every direc­tion. I’m indebt­ed to Paul C. Pasles’s Ben­jamin Franklin’s Num­bers for its lucid expla­na­tion of these puzzles.
[xix] Pasles, 20–27; Schuyler Cam­mann, “The Mag­ic Square of Three in Old Chi­nese Phi­los­o­phy and Reli­gion,” His­to­ry of Reli­gions 1.1 (1961), 37–80.
[xx] Cohen, 14–39.
[xxi] Ben­jamin Franklin, Exper­i­ments and Obser­va­tions in Elec­tric­i­ty, 4th ed. (David Hen­ry, 1769), 14.
[xxii] Franklin, Exper­i­ments, 3, 35, 375, 485; Del­bour­go, 11.
[xxi­ii] Franklin, Exper­i­ments, 353.
[xxiv] “mag­ic, n.” OED Online, (Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, March 2018).
[xxv] Franklin, Exper­i­ments, 177, 237, 354.
[xxvi] Susan Scott Par­rish, Amer­i­can Curios­i­ty: Cul­tures of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry in the colo­nial British Atlantic World (Univ. of North Car­oli­na Press, 2006).
[xxvii] See Jil­lian Hey­dt-Steven­son, “Games, Rid­dles, and Cha­rades,” The Cam­bridge Com­pan­ion to Emma, Ed. Peter Sabor (Cam­bridge Univ. Press, 2015), 150–165; Mary Chad­wick, “‘The Most Dan­ger­ous Tal­ent’: Rid­dles as Fem­i­nine Pas­time,” Women, Pop­u­lar Cul­ture, and the Eigh­teenth Cen­tu­ry, Ed. Tiffany Pot­ter (Univ. of Toron­to Press, 2012), 185–201.



Ben­jamin, Park. A His­to­ry of Elec­tric­i­ty: From Antiq­ui­ty to the Days of Ben­jamin Franklin. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1898.

Cam­mann, Schuyler. “The Mag­ic Square of Three in Old Chi­nese Phi­los­o­phy and Reli­gion,” His­to­ry of Reli­gions 1.1 (1961).

Chad­wick, Mary. “‘The Most Dan­ger­ous Tal­ent’: Rid­dles as Fem­i­nine Pas­time,” Women, Pop­u­lar Cul­ture, and the Eigh­teenth Cen­tu­ry, Ed. Tiffany Pot­ter. Toron­to: Univ. of Toron­to Press, 2012.

Cohen, Bernard. Ben­jamin Franklin’s Sci­ence. Cam­bridge: Har­vard Univ. Press, 1990.

Chu, Seo-Young Jen­nie. “Dick­in­son and Math­e­mat­ics,” The Emi­ly Dick­in­son Jour­nal 15.1 (2006), 35–55.

Del­bour­go, James. A Most Amaz­ing Scene of Won­ders: Elec­tric­i­ty and Enlight­en­ment in Ear­ly Amer­i­ca. Cam­bridge: Har­vard Univ. Press, 2006.

Ein­stein, Albert. “The Late Emmy Noe­ther: Pro­fes­sor Ein­stein Writes in Appre­ci­a­tion of a Fel­low-Math­e­mati­cian,” The New York Times (4 May 1935), 12. Print.

Franklin, Ben­jamin. Auto­bi­og­ra­phy of Ben­jamin Franklin. 1791 ed. New York: Wal­ter J. Black, Inc., 1941.

Franklin, Ben­jamin. Exper­i­ments and Obser­va­tions in Elec­tric­i­ty, 4th ed. Lon­don: David Hen­ry, 1769. Google Books. Accessed May 20, 2018.

Fuji­wara, Masahiko. “Lit­er­a­ture and Math­e­mat­ics,” Asymp­tote (Jan­u­ary 2011). Accessed May 20, 2018.

Hen­der­son, David W. and Daina Taim­i­na. “Expe­ri­enc­ing Mean­ings in Geom­e­try,” Math­e­mat­ics and the Aes­thet­ic: New Approach­es to an Ancient Infin­i­ty, Ed. Nathalie Sin­clair et al. New York: Springer, 2007.

Hey­dt-Steven­son, Jil­lian. “Games, Rid­dles, and Cha­rades,” The Cam­bridge Com­pan­ion to Emma, Ed. Peter Sabor. Cam­bridge: Cam­bridge Univ. Press, 2015, 150–165.

Kahn, David. The Code­break­ers: The Sto­ry of Secret Writ­ing. New York: Scrib­n­er, 1996.

Par­rish, Susan Scott. Amer­i­can Curios­i­ty: Cul­tures of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry in the colo­nial British Atlantic World. Chapel Hill, Univ. of North Car­oli­na Press, 2006.

Pasles, Paul C. Ben­jamin Franklin’s Num­bers: An Unsung Math­e­mat­i­cal Odyssey. Prince­ton: Prince­ton Univ. Press, 2008.

Singh, Simon. The Code Book: The Sci­ence of Secre­cy from Ancient Egypt to Quan­tum Cryp­tog­ra­phy. New York: Anchor, 2000.

Weber, Ralph E. Unit­ed States Diplo­mat­ic Codes and Ciphers, 1775–1938. Fish­er, IN: Prece­dent Pub­lish­ing Inc., 1979.

Wein­stein, Cindy and Christo­pher Loo­by, “Intro­duc­tion,” Amer­i­can Literature’s Aes­thet­ic Dimen­sions. New York: Colum­bia Univ. Press, 2012.


Michelle Size­more is Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ken­tucky. She is the author of Amer­i­can Enchant­ment: Rit­u­als of the Peo­ple in the Post-Rev­o­lu­tion­ary World (Oxford, 2017) and has pub­lished arti­cles and reviews in Lega­cy, Stud­ies in Amer­i­can Fic­tion, Amer­i­can Lit­er­ary His­to­ry, Ear­ly Amer­i­can Lit­er­a­ture, and oth­er venues.

Three Poems

Poetry / Page Hill Starzinger

:: L’Esperance Trail ::

	St John, VI 

But then a second storm—and 
even the slight path carved
by deer hooves 
and iguana claws 
drops off, into landslide,	
tumbles down to broken 
Cretaceous basalt, 
micro crystalline chert.
But we are caught 
at the top of the spill, 
thorny vines 
wiring a dry forest 
with barbs. 
This is nowhere, a
washout. Where land
once was, now a map
of empty space. But look
at the mosquitoes, 
sulfur butterflies,
and pearly-eyed thrashers 
threading their bodies
through invisible scent tracks 
sifting above prickly pear cactus,
wild tamarind and 
turpentine trees leaning
over the edge.
As if, to show us
another passage
is possible. 
                     Oh, but, look 
how my mind
is always expecting to
find a way down.


:: Physicists Simulate Sending Particles of Light into the Past, Strengthening the Case that Time Travel is Possible ::

Oh nameless one.

As yet unnamed. 

              left unnamable—

of unconceivable 

           		     inwrought with flowers.
                       Nomen nescio,



	   and forwards until 

                         the flattened turf

                           and becomes 
                  as a line. 

I would teach 

             you how to cross over

bunny ears. 

              Rabbit running 
around a tree.     
                   Hiding from a dog, jumping in the hole.

—As simple as a track in the snow or a stone circle—

everything I could not. May not. Will not.


:: Breaking Wheel ::

And so we believed:  


        cathedrals down from heaven,
	     blind pierced traceries—

             looks like a rose,
                   named for the Saint 
            	            we sentenced to execution 
                                    on a spiked 

                             Bones of collars,
     			                  and toes, spurred
                             splayed with lavender veins
                                                like lacework:
                tear apart the prayer bead pods, 
                spilling scarlet 
		              poison over
                       the thin luminous place where
	        mothers hand us their 

                Not only because of the girl 
                             who lost her sight 	
                     carving 100 ivory elephants 
                              to slip into
   		              rosary pea-seeds. 
                     Or the mother hawk’s 
                              breaking femur			
	         as metal wildlife bands 
                                             and fishing wire 
		               constrict her leg.
                               Or the daughters in a small town
                   from naps—stuttering, twitching,
                               arms flailing, uttering 
                      strange sounds:  hysterical 
             no longer to have to follow the father.
		                To see
            the mother falling, splintering 
                            our looking glass.
                      For her to fall again.

              To lift her up.  For her to let me.


From the writer

:: Account ::

An astrologer told me this year that I’m in the mid­dle of the Eighth House, a peri­od rep­re­sent­ing trans­for­ma­tion and death. What­ev­er you want to call it, I can report that in the last year my par­ents both passed away, I quit my job, and I left an indus­try I’ve been a part of since 1980. I am now free to cre­ate a new world more reflec­tive of myself and who I want to become.

L’Esperance Trail” was writ­ten in response to the after­math of two Cat. 5 hur­ri­canes on the Caribbean island of St. John in 2017. My vis­it this past spring, the sev­enth, was notable for the alter­ation of land­scape and town. Hill­sides were washed away, and more than six months after the cat­a­stro­phe, three quar­ters of the hous­es still only have blue tarps as roofs. But there’s a whole world to which our sens­es, espe­cial­ly as tourists, are not attuned. And that is where I look in this poem for find­ing a pas­sage out of shambles.

Physi­cists Sim­u­late Send­ing Par­ti­cles of Light into the Past, Strength­en­ing the Case that Time Trav­el is Pos­si­ble”: As I come to terms with the notion that I am the last of my fam­i­ly, hav­ing no chil­dren of my own, I mourn the loss. I keep going over it in my mind, try­ing to come to terms with it, imag­in­ing dif­fer­ent out­comes. I nev­er con­sid­ered names for a child, and in read­ing about mis­car­riages, and the mourn­ing of them, I’m struck by how lit­tle I imag­ined of my own daugh­ter or son.

Break­ing Wheel” is a bit more spe­cif­ic about the path to take from here on: it involves let­ting go of inher­it­ed beliefs, includ­ing patri­ar­chal, so destruc­tive that one could lose sight and vision. When I start­ed this poem, my moth­er was still alive but our rela­tion­ship was shift­ing. I was moth­er­ing her rather than her attend­ing to me. At the same time, I was read­ing about high school girls in Le Roy, NY—each with unsta­ble famil­ial relationships—awakening with symp­toms of hysteria.

To com­mu­ni­cate the the­mat­ic slip­page and nar­ra­tive insta­bil­i­ties in these three poems, I’ve made my lines pre­cip­i­tous, plum­met­ing ver­ti­cal­ly, enjamb­ment spi­ral­ing down­ward as words veer and skid, con­stel­lat­ing around dif­fer­ent degrees of white space, depend­ing on sub­ject. “L’Esperance Trail” has the most reg­u­lar­ized lines, flush left, while the right mar­gin spills toward a moment of self-dis­cov­ery. Here, a “step­ping off” of lines fol­lows the narrator’s sud­den aware­ness, offered in an aside. Some­body recent­ly sug­gest­ed this con­trast between con­trol and chaos may be a sig­na­ture of my writing.

Break­ing Wheel” tum­bles, but through a pat­tern of most­ly six-line stan­zas, to offer con­tain­ment to thoughts, also to acknowl­edge the­mat­ic restric­tions to which the nar­ra­tor is respond­ing. Maybe grief calls for more white space. And so the third poem, “Physi­cists Sim­u­late Send­ing Par­ti­cles of Light into the Past, Strength­en­ing the Case that Time Trav­el is Pos­si­ble,” descends through a page where white space car­ries equal weight to lines, giv­ing pause, giv­ing voice to the unsayable, unnam­able, incon­ceiv­able. At least, that’s the idea. That’s the hope.


Page Hill Starzinger’s first poet­ry col­lec­tion, Ves­ti­gial, was pub­lished by Bar­row Street in 2013 (win­ner of the 2012 prize judged by Lynn Emanuel). Her chap­book, Unshel­ter, was pub­lished by Noe­mi Press in 2009 (win­ner of the 2008 con­test judged by Mary Jo Bang). Her poems have appeared in Col­orado Review, Den­ver Quar­ter­ly, Fence, Keny­on Review, Lit­er­ary Imag­i­na­tion, Pleiades, Prairie Schooner, Tri­Quar­ter­ly, and Volt, among oth­er jour­nals. Her first book review is live now on Keny­on Review Online.

from Little Million Doors: an elegy

Poetry / Chad Sweeney

:: from Little Million Doors: an elegy ::

Abyss in the shape 
Of a maple leaf

Leaf to be in two 
Eras at once scaffolding 

Under the hill the other 
Sun a river

Boat and its story 

Painless I abide
Traceries of bees slide over 

To say soul the world is 

This all we are 
A soulfield in sound we

Adrift in 

I could almost 
Sleep it


A series of blue doors 

The days come floating 
Away from me 

Inside stone a wind 
My daughter 

Horizons in the wood 
Her bouquet in 


At both ends 
Of the road

Where nothing needs 


Or someone’s shadow 

Like a hammer 
Shadow of a thought 

Working high

Above the water wheel 

Delicate the boy 

A babe across the mine field
Innocent the gravity in 

Ropes singing down

The whole earth like a 
Mirror for something 


Where helicopter blades 
Three in the low sun 

At bottom of the 
Street like a well 

Into deeps 
The street where  

Time trebles in the smoke 

Of cedar groves the dogs 

Into us a shout the cold 


Into us a little while 
Light lets nothing is 

Sovereign a page a box 

All delicate 
In the body held

In the coarse 
Rope netting 
Of the body time keeps

Branching what 

Does it want in us each 
Carries her

Death like a vase of deaths  
Was I 

Married in the soft sleep
Of marrow I can’t explain 
Children see me 

Inside them I watch 
Language move the year


From the writer

:: Account ::

My father died in his sleep just before my for­ti­eth birth­day and the birth of our first son, Liam Green­leaf Sweeney. In the weeks and months fol­low­ing, I suf­fered symp­toms of post trau­mat­ic stress syn­drome and autis­tic melt­down. Felt a strange dis­em­bod­ied amne­sia, wan­dered about town, drank heav­i­ly, loss of mean­ing and depres­sion, yet mad­ly in love with our new baby boy, a pro­found, shock­ing love which oscil­lat­ed between joy and grief that my father would nev­er meet him. I was sleep deprived from stay­ing up all night with our sleep­less baby and work­ing long hours as a PhD stu­dent and teach­ing fel­low in the “stu­dent ghet­to” of Kala­ma­zoo, Michi­gan. Time drift­ed side­wise. My sen­so­ry inte­gra­tion dis­or­der become worse and worse, part of my autism. I began writ­ing these strange poems, or one long poem, in bursts and utter­ances which felt more like over­hear­ing them or being occu­pied by the voice which car­ried with it bright visions, scenes, and sen­sa­tions. I was com­pelled to write them quick­ly on any­thing I could grab, includ­ing nap­kins and receipts, to record the voice, to trace what it saw. I usu­al­ly start­ed sob­bing and had to rush out of pub­lic spaces or clutch my head to con­tain the sen­sa­tions which were near­ly unbear­able. I do often write in per­sona, which feels like over­hear­ing the voice of the char­ac­ter through the length of a poem, but this was a much stronger impulse and the same voice returned again and again. I didn’t have a sense of who the voice was until many days had passed, when I typed and reread the frag­ments and began to sus­pect that this was the voice of a “ghost” (for lack of a bet­ter word, though cer­tain­ly unlike any “ghost” I had seen rep­re­sent­ed in lit­er­a­ture or film). The ghost did not recall its life, gen­der, or iden­ti­ty, and was haunt­ed by the liv­ing, by the yearn­ing to belong and to touch and inter­act. The feel­ings that inhab­it­ed me were tru­ly heart­break­ing, beau­ti­ful, pas­sion­ate­ly sor­row­ful and joy­ful at the same time. I con­tin­ued to trace the voice through the com­ing weeks until it entire­ly ceased. I thought it might be my father speak­ing, yet odd­ly enough, this feel­ing of “ghost” serves equal­ly to trace or to express my sense of dis­lo­ca­tion, joy/terror, dis­con­nec­tion as an autis­tic per­son in the world.

These pieces are part of a book-length poem called Lit­tle Mil­lion Doors, which won the Night­boat Books Prize and will appear as a full-length book in the spring of 2019.


Chad Sweeney is the author of five pre­vi­ous books, includ­ing Para­ble of Hide and Seek (Alice James Books, 2010), two books of trans­la­tions, and two edit­ed edi­tions. His poems have appeared in Best Amer­i­can Poet­ry, the Push­cart Prize Anthol­o­gy, Amer­i­can Poet­ry Review, and else­where. Sweeney is an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor at Cal State San Bernardi­no, where he edits the lit mag, Ghost Town, at          

Three Works

Art / Sawyer Rose

:: from Seeds of the Monoliths ::


From the artist

:: Account ::

Both sculp­tur­al and painter­ly, the forms in the Seeds of the Mono­liths series are clad in lay­ers of sil­ver sol­der and cop­per, as if their del­i­cate botan­i­cal bod­ies are grow­ing the armor they need to flour­ish in the envi­ron­ment humans are leav­ing for them. Using the tex­ture of the met­al as my pri­ma­ry mark-mak­ing medi­um, the liq­ue­fied sil­ver morphs into bark, or feath­ers, or scales. There is elo­quence and beau­ty in the act of self-protection.

The sur­faces of my sol­dered met­al spheres draw inspi­ra­tion from unex­pect­ed­ly diverse sources—typically a mash-up of Cal­i­for­nia flo­ra and Medieval weaponry—though I’ve also tapped into the organ­ic pat­terns of coral, fun­gus, and lava flows for fresh ideas.

In a recent depar­ture, I based the pat­tern­ing of the Dis­sent piece on the jabot (or, col­lar) that Jus­tice Ruth Bad­er Gins­burg wears when she announces a dis­sent­ing opin­ion on a Supreme Court case. Metaphor­i­cal­ly, the Jus­tice wears this jew­eled armor when defend­ing her views in an increas­ing­ly hos­tile polit­i­cal environment.

When build­ing these pieces, I begin by cov­er­ing the fiber­glass sculp­ture arma­ture with cop­per foil. Next, I lay down the first lay­er of tex­ture in sil­ver solder—like paint­ing with molten met­al. I add dimen­sion to the work by plac­ing beads of sol­der to cre­ate depth and con­trast. The pieces are cov­ered with a rich black pati­na and bur­nished with steel wool to bring out shin­ing high­lights on the raised peaks, while leav­ing dark in the valleys.


Sawyer Rose is a sculp­ture, instal­la­tion, and social prac­tice artist. Through­out her career, Rose has used her art­work to shine a spot­light on con­tem­po­rary social and eco­log­i­cal issues. Her met­al­work sculp­tures explore the ways liv­ing things adapt to chang­ing envi­ron­ments and The Car­ry­ing Stones Project address­es issues around women’s work inequity. Her work has been exhib­it­ed wide­ly across the U.S.

Rose has been a res­i­dent artist at MASS MoCA, Fort Mason Cen­ter for Arts & Cul­ture in San Fran­cis­co, Ver­mont Stu­dio Cen­ter, Rag­dale Foun­da­tion, and The Tyrone Guthrie Cen­tre in Ireland.

She has been award­ed mer­it grants from The Cre­ative Capac­i­ty Fund, The Awe­some Foun­da­tion, and Ver­mont Stu­dio Center.

Rose is the Pres­i­dent of the North­ern Cal­i­for­nia Women’s Cau­cus for Art.

Chiegar, Saami Word Meaning “Old Snow Dug Up By a Reindeer” …

Poetry / Ron Riekki

:: Chiegar, Saami Word Meaning “Old Snow Dug Up By a Reindeer” (With Each Line’s Final Word from a Poem by Kevin Cole) ::

                                                            “to those familiar with their ways”
                                                            –Kevin Cole, 
                                                            from “Deer Fording the Missouri in Early Afternoon”

Diermmes clutched a rainbow in one hand—O, the ways
he’d crush yellow when angered, blue dripping, startling
the world with color from his anger. (All last afternoon

we talked about Saami mythology and I said how much
I despise the four-letter word myth, how it’s tied to rumor, all
the ways story becomes hid.) Vuorwro would suck souls from ears,
putting a straw inside the skull; the only protection was to have water

in your room at all times. My girlfriend, Saami too, keeps a shoal
in a glass by the bed, her rainbowed four-winds cap a mantle
that she said she would kill Diermmes if he touched it. We are hooves,

my girlfriend and I, reindeer in blood; even when our hearts rest
they still are filled with aurora borealis, our arteries that bound
with ice. I am so goddamn Arctic that I always suppose
I’ll die in snow. In Saami, north means where the water

is, not where a compass needle is sucked. Grandma drowned off of an island
in Sápmi, an island so beautiful the relatives didn’t complain, the lichen stands
up there and prays to the world, the way that the Greeks bow to olives,
except we are prayers, are stars, are reindeer, a cross of reindeer-star-prayer,

and I love the one time I got to run through a river with reindeer, all the things
of the world silenced so that I just experienced life. This is my story,
my connection, my culture, my heagga, I share with you this afternoon.


From the writer

:: Account ::

I’m not sure if there is a poet­ic tech­nique where you take the final word from each line of anoth­er poem and then write your own poem using those end-line words, but Sir Ian McK­ellen gave me the idea when he did his won­der­ful analy­sis of the “Tomor­row, and tomor­row” speech from Mac­beth, where he laid out how crit­i­cal those punch­ing final line’s words are. I love poems that pay homage to oth­er poets, and so that homage aspect is inher­ent to the tech­nique. And I’ve also found that I nev­er have writer’s block if I use this form, a form I like to call riekkis, a Saa­mi word for ring (how there is a mar­riage between two poems with the tech­nique). I hope oth­er poets would hon­or me by doing this with one of my own orig­i­nal poems, or even with this very poem, where it gets to con­tin­ue cycli­cal­ly (with the star­tling prayer of sto­ry).


Ron Riek­ki’s books include And Here: 100 Years of Upper Penin­su­la Writ­ing, 1917–2017 (Michi­gan State Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2017), Here: Women Writ­ing on Michigan’s Upper Penin­su­la (Michi­gan State Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2016 Inde­pen­dent Pub­lish­er Book Award Gold Medal Great Lakes Best Region­al Fic­tion), The Way North: Col­lect­ed Upper Penin­su­la New Works (Wayne State Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2014 Michi­gan Notable Book award­ed by the Library of Michi­gan), and U.P.: a nov­el (Ghost Road Press, 2008).

Three Poems

Poetry / Stephen S. Mills

:: In Death the Anal Passage Reveals Signs of Sodomy ::

nothing is sacred when it comes to the [queer] body 
a body on a slab [queer slab] cold slab 
to be examined [prodded and poked]

Roger Casement was hung [not in that way] in 1916
a body executed, swinging [queer] 
a traitor [a hero?] 

the British condemned him to death 
just a few years after knighting him 
[queer] knight 

ransacked his [queer] apartment 
journals black 
and [queer]

bodies of men [queer] men 
naked men in detail 
[queer] detail 

everybody wants proof
[queer] proof
because words are never enough

and [queers] are traitors 
to their sex 
country too if the shoe fits
[queer] shoe

so if in death 
[queer] death 
the anal passage is marked

[queer] anal markings 
with signs [queer] signs
signs of sodomy 

than he must be 
will be [queer] traitor 
case [closed] 


:: They Have Wives and Goldfish of Their Own ::

	–Joe Orton (1933-1967)

I am one year older 
than you ever were, Joe Orton.
I’m starting with this fact 
because that is how humans 
work: always selfish. 
I try to be honest about that, 
which I think you’d appreciate. 
I am 35 as I write this
and you were killed at 34. 
You will never be 35 
and I will never again be 34. 
Those are the facts,
which do not change
no matter how many times
I try to reform them in my mind.
I like that you faltered. 
That you failed. 
That your upbringing 
wasn’t anything special. 
That you longed to be an actor
like I once longed to be an actor,
but you weren’t very good at it—
and I never gave it much of a shot. 
You wrote shit sometimes
like I write shit sometimes.
You went to prison for defacing 
library books and I spent a night in jail
and one long year going back
and forth to court 
for throwing a glass in a bar.
It cut someone’s face.
You just cut up books,
which they thought was worse
in 1960s Britain. 
But then you succeeded. 
Became the “it boy” of British theater
and almost wrote a screenplay 
for the Beatles. 
I’m a Lennon boy myself. 
I’ve had my moments in the poetry 
world but never quite an “it boy” 
mostly because I’m terrible 
at sucking up to people. 
Then at the height of it all: 
Kenneth killed you 
out of jealousy or rage 
or unchecked mental health
or maybe all three.
Who’s to say really?
Authority is always foolish 
in the world of your plays.
Less worried with truth
than appearance. 
You worked to chip away at polite 
society—at cups of tea and manners 
and all things British,
which I kind of love
which is why I watch endless 
documentaries on the Royal Family.  
I wonder what you would make
of this world we live in now. 
Authority has become 
an even bigger joke, 
if you can imagine that 
but I think you can 
having written lines like 
Recent figures show that the mad 
will outnumber the sane by the turn of the century.
You were referring to this century 
that I’m in now,
which is already in its 18th year.
In the last century—yours—
my goldfish died so many deaths—
so many fish. But of course, 
there was a first
and I remember crumpling 
into my mother’s arms 
in the living room in that green fuzzy 
chair like algae. 
My first act of grief was for a fish 
or was it a lizard?
I did love my lizards 
and I think of Kenneth—
your friend—your lover—
your murderer—stepping over 
his father’s body to make a cup of tea 
before calling the police 
to report his suicide—head 
in oven Plath-style 
like a scene from one 
of your plays.
Of course, I also think of him—
Kenneth—just a boy—watching 
his mother die from a bee sting
right before his eyes. How do you
ever recover from that?
Maybe you don’t.  
And tonight I dream of meeting you 
in the men’s toilet of King’s Cross station 
like Mike in The Ruffian on the Stair. 
Of you unscrewing the lightbulbs 
and then lowering your pants. 
How I might take you in my mouth—
how you might return the favor—
how my ass might feel pressed 
into the tiles—my skin filling 
each crevice as you deepthroat me
harder and harder and how we each 
might taste to the other. 
And now how we shy away 
from public sex. 
Can U host? 
No. U? 
No. Fuck.
As if there are no other options. 
And I think of being in Paris
in the fall with my husband
for our anniversary: 14 years. 
How we stumbled down
that street and down those steps 
into a small dim bar—grabbed a beer 
and walked the maze 
of cells looking to get off—
two men already at it 
who took our cocks until we came
in the dark in their mouths
no words exchanged
for I am terrible at French
even though I’ve studied it 
for years. But words weren’t needed.
And then a few months ago, 
I was in London 
where I had plenty of sex 
but none in public
for I had my own hotel room
and I saw Vanessa Redgrave 
in a play that was a gay retelling
of Howards End,
which is funny because she’s
in the film version of Howards End
and also in the film version 
of Prick Up Your Ears—
your bio pic—she is your Peggy. 
Gary Oldman played you
and was even kind of handsome
when he did, which you would like.
And it’s odd because he just
won an Oscar for playing 
Winston Churchill. Yes, the same
man who played you played him,
which you might not like. 
There was lots of makeup involved
and many years between the films,
if it’s any consolation.
But I think of your joke
about Churchill’s penis in What the Butler Saw:
your last play which got produced 
after you were killed.
The one many consider your 
masterpiece, but maybe 
that’s because you were dead. 
Kenneth bashed in your head 
with a hammer—they say it was nine blows 
and then he killed himself
with pills. He actually died first, 
which somehow makes it worse,
I think. All that blood. 
You were still warm.
Kenneth stiff. 
Who knows what you would have done next
or how long your fame would have
burned—audiences can be so fickle
just ask Arthur Miller
if you see him. I wish I could say
you are a gay lit hero now, 
but that would be a bit of a lie. 
Few read you, to be honest. 
Your plays are so much of the period
and tastes change. But your life—
your style—and of course your death
make you ripe material. 
Kenneth helped you in that way.
Like the note he left—so simple—
so tragic: If you read his diary, 
all will be explained. And the P.S.:
Especially the latter part.
And then in death you were reunited:
yes, they mixed part of your ashes
with Kenneth’s—I don’t know
if there’s ever been another case
where a murderer and the murder victim
had their ashes mixed together—
a twisted love affair 
or like a line in one of your plays. 
But in a way I understand 
because we have husbands 
and goldfish 
of our own these days. 


:: What I’ve Got They Used to Call the Blues ::

	–Karen Carpenter (1950-1983)

Roller skates, a swinging door, 
a gurney that held your body—
but it was also you on the skates, 
which made it haunting. 
A little bit fuzzy—soft focus—
very 1980s. And I remember 
being scared of those skates 
and your body gliding through 
and around your other body 
singing “The End of the World.” 
I never liked skating—never trusted 
myself enough to balance, 
to push forward, to survive. 
I remember winning a trip 
to the skating rink during class
in the 5th grade for being on the Honor 
Roll. I spent the whole time 
in the kiddie rink holding on 
to the side and thinking:
what a horrible prize. 
Of course, it wasn’t really you
on the skates or the gurney.
You were dead by then.
This was just a made-for-TV movie
that I watched as a kid.
My mother played your albums
on our massive record player
that lined the front window
of our house. Some people 
called your music too wholesome—
a contradiction of everything horrible 
happening in the country at the time,
but there’s darkness there,
which I always saw—melancholia—
like you were warning me 
of all that was to come.
This world is hard. 
This I know now. 
Maybe that’s why I’m returning
to you so many years later.
I download a greatest hits album,
stare at your picture on the front:
you and your brother.
I pick this album because
of the picture: slightly goofy—
a white hat on your head—your eyes
shifted sideways.
You look playful and happy. 
I listen to it over and over
and the words come right back
to me. You died at just 32, 
which is younger than I am now.
I read somewhere that 
anorexia is like “fascism 
over the body.” How you 
become both victim and dictator. 
A battle within yourself.
And I remember a girl in high school 
who began to disappear
and then went to some place 
in Baltimore and came back cured 
or as cured as any of us ever are
and I wrote a three-part poem about it
called “Baltimore,”
which became the first poem
I ever read to an audience:
my first open mic in college. 
I didn’t really know the girl that well 
and the poem had a few fucks in it. 
Everyone clapped.
Over the years, everyone has tried to find 
someone to blame for your death, Karen. 
The tabloids have had their fun.
Your family always on the defense. 
Like how Richard stopped the distribution
of Todd Haynes film Superstar,
which he made in 1987 
before he was famous,
before he attempted to get Julianne Moore
an Oscar (don’t worry she eventually got one).
But it’s the 21st century, so I found it 
on YouTube. He used Barbie dolls 
instead of actors and as the film goes on
your Barbie is shaved away 
little by little. Barbie becoming 
even more of an impossibility. 
MOMA has a copy 
but has agreed to not display it
per your family’s request. 
And then there is the 1989 
TV movie that I saw as a kid.
That my mother or someone
recorded on VHS—which then
could be replayed anytime.
And it was those skates—that opening
scene—that always gave me 
an overwhelming sense of dread. 
Of what was to come in this life. 
In my life. In your life. 
I have managed to survive 
longer than you. But still move 
through this world with fear 
and an overwhelming lack of control. 
Eating disorders are often associated 
with control. If nothing else, 
we can decide what goes into our bodies.
What we consume. 
But control turns dark so quickly. 
Doesn’t it, Karen?  
Power is dangerous:
a lesson we must learn over 
and over again. 


From the writer

:: Account ::

We live among the dead. What they left behind: sto­ries, music, plays. These poems explore how we relate to the dead. How we often reimag­ine them in the con­text of our own lives—our own time period—our own sto­ries. These poems are from a larg­er project I’m writ­ing called The Homo­sex­u­al Book of the Dead, which exam­ines these con­nec­tions and threads to var­i­ous dead peo­ple but also to the ideas and fears around death as well as death practices.

The fig­ures in these par­tic­u­lar poems have a con­nec­tion to the gay com­mu­ni­ty. Roger Case­ment and Joe Orton were both gay, and Karen Car­pen­ter is often con­sid­ered a gay icon. They also all had trag­ic ends and died rel­a­tive­ly young (51, 34, and 32 respec­tive­ly). The LGBT com­mu­ni­ty often has a trou­bling con­nec­tion to death, from hate crimes to sui­cide to the AIDS cri­sis, death has often been a touch­stone for our com­mu­ni­ty: some­thing to fear—something to survive—something to prove wrong. These pieces touch on what is left behind and how we make sense of lives tak­en from us.


Stephen S. Mills is the author of the Lamb­da Award-win­ning book He Do the Gay Man in Dif­fer­ent Voic­es and A His­to­ry of the Unmar­ried, both from Sib­ling Rival­ry Press. He earned his MFA from Flori­da State Uni­ver­si­ty. His work has appeared in The Anti­och Review, PANK, The New York Quar­ter­ly, The Los Ange­les Review, Knock­out, The Rum­pus, and oth­ers. He is also the win­ner of the 2008 Gival Press Oscar Wilde Poet­ry Award and the 2014 Christo­pher Hewitt Award for Fic­tion. His third poet­ry col­lec­tion, Not Every­thing Thrown Starts a Rev­o­lu­tion, is now avail­able from Sib­ling Rival­ry Press. He lives in New York City with his part­ner and two schnau­zers. Web­site:

Two Poems

Poetry / Bridget Lowe

:: Imperfect Allegory for A Situation of Which I Am Not Permitted to Speak ::


          The breathlessness 

Of sinking in to flesh, like a sleeping bag 
Filled with jam. . .

She always seemed a little slow to them. 
          The way she wouldn’t turn 
          Her head

Upon hearing her name. She had the ornament 
          Of learning

Which is not 
          Learning itself. It is following directions. 

Rose did. A turn 

Around the concrete pole at the end 
Of the gravel road 

Then back. Swaying toward a fuzz of light 
          Like a dandelion
          Head, drunk on the cold

Air, a distant barn

          She could not reach—How much farther 
          Is it now, she said

(We don’t know, they said, not one of us
          A thing)

What if		she said		I left 


Look, they said, a slab of salt propped against 
          A distant fence. Help 

          Yourself, they said. But Rose could not. 


Poor Rose. She got her degree in Humanities 
          And 84K later
A frat boy sat on the squat brown cask 

          Of her tired body
          Pointing out 

The sorry zigzag of her dugs, those pickled slits	
          That gave no milk.

And the rotted tooth
That no one would attend to 

          So her breath came out
          A reeking blast

Like last week’s trash blown through a tube
          Of paper towels.

          And then the rock 

Her yellowish eye did not catch. Rose 
          Stepped again and
          In every wrong spot 

Until the movement stopped. Poor Rose.
          She did not know
          Her own size. 

Like most girls she died from this 


Believe it or not the complications of foreign commerce 

Were not lost on Rose, nor
          The fluctuations of the stock market

Which Rose boiled down to simple
          Masculine fear, measurable as menses

As they consulted spreadsheets cosmic
          As the Milky Way,

Their suit sleeves revealing just a hint of gold 
          And wrist hair. 


Rose counted her possessions 
In her head: 

          One imaginary falcon and
          One wayward cow
          That roamed beneath the crabapple trees
          On certain afternoons.

How human she felt. You have no idea.
Perfectly distinct 

          From men, Rose sat 
                    In the congregated straw 

Watching them prepare for it. 
A blue tarp spread as if it were a birth. 
She saw herself being pulled through herself, 

She was swimming and flying all at once. 

All this time what she imagined was pride was fear. 
All this time she was tied with jump rope. 
She didn’t know. All this time she was blind-folded. 
All this time she believed that God loved her. 
Not just loved her but loved her loved her. 
She thought they were star-crossed lovers
That got caught. She drank a little poison.
The heft of God a thousand sorrows on her back. 

What happened 

In one fell act, brutal 
And permanent

Whether anyone believes it 
Or not. 

And then she was running in the actual woods, 

                              A girl. 


:: Justice, A Pornography ::

Raggedy earnest bouquet 
of dandelions ripped from the 
front lawn, my girlish 

dream of the meek (little mouse-
people, many and pink,
lying in nude heaps, one upon

the other) inheriting and 
inheriting some manhandled 
version of the earth (cash 

blowing around in a tube 
of air, hair vertical, screaming 
with joy, a fire sale 

at a furniture store, Black 
Friday), my face of hope 
so giant in your face, obscene, me

(me, always at the other end 
of your telescope, the face 
of my child when she is waving

at a random man in a hoard).


From the writer

:: Account ::

My invent­ed Rose is an abused horse used to give kid­die rides at birth­day par­ties and for oth­er enter­tain­ment-cen­tric events, until she acci­den­tal­ly tram­ples a frat boy to death dur­ing a ride and is put down for it. The poem is inspired by my con­cur­rent read­ing of Tolstoy’s sto­ry “Khol­stomer,” or “Strid­er: The Sto­ry of a Horse,” which fol­lows Strid­er from birth to death, a death car­ried out by a stranger who kills him uncer­e­mo­ni­ous­ly in the woods when his work out­put is no longer of enough val­ue to his own­ers to keep him alive. In Tolstoy’s sto­ry we are with Strid­er as his throat is cut, his body flayed for his sub­par coat and left exposed to feed stray ani­mals. Strider’s flesh and meat ulti­mate­ly pro­vide nour­ish­ment to a pack of young wolf cubs. It is an ecsta­t­ic, per­fect end­ing, and I am obsessed with the story.

Jus­tice: A Pornog­ra­phy” is my response to the Beat­i­tude “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inher­it the earth.”


Brid­get Lowe is the author of At the Autop­sy of Vaslav Nijin­sky (Carnegie Mel­lon Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2013), and her poems have appeared in The New York­er, Poet­ry, A Pub­lic Space, Amer­i­can Poet­ry Review, Par­nas­sus, Ploughshares, Best Amer­i­can Poet­ry, and else­where. Hon­ors and prizes include the Discovery/Boston Review Prize, the Emi­ly Dick­in­son Award from the Poet­ry Soci­ety of Amer­i­ca, the Rona Jaffe Foun­da­tion fel­low­ship to the Mac­Dow­ell Colony, and a schol­ar­ship and fel­low­ship to the Bread Loaf Writ­ers’ Con­fer­ence, among others.

Two Poems

Poetry / David Kirby

:: The Locomotion ::

Student’s so tired she’s weepy. I just got off a double shift,
          she says, and I tell her not to worry, that we’ve all had 
terrible jobs but things turn out okay, and then I tell her 

about my worst job ever, which was building roads 
          in Claiborne Parish that summer, the sun itself hot enough, 
the tar puddling around our boots like lava leaked 

from Dante’s hell. Jules LeBlanc and I bunked together 
          and drove back to Baton Rouge on the weekends 
to do laundry and eat our mothers’ cooking, 

but on our last day before we went off to college, 
          we stopped at a roadhouse and emptied can after can 
of Busch beer, the white mountains of the logo 

holding out their snowy promise. Somehow 
          we made our way down Essen Lane, and when we stopped
at the first light and Little Eva’s “Locomotion” came on,

Jules cranked the volume knob, whipped his hard hat 
          into the woods, stepped to the car behind us, dragged out 
the driver and his wife, and said, Okay, dance. 

Pope Leo X said, “Since God has given us the papacy, 
          let us enjoy it.” I felt the same way about rock ‘n’ roll.
It gave me somebodiness, to use Dr. King’s word.

As the song spooled out into the night, we shook 
          and shimmied, the oldtimers and the two young idiots, 
and then I looked over my shoulder and said, 

Jules, your truck’s rolling, and we took off down Essen, 
          but just before Jules jumped through his door 
and I through mine, I turned to check on the old folks. 

Were they okay? asks my student. The light 
          hadn’t changed, I say. His arm was around her waist, 
his other hand was in hers. They were still dancing.


:: Tell Your Story ::

As you walk by the river with your friend and tell stories,
at some point you say, “I told that one before, didn’t I?”
and your friend says, “You did, but I like that story,

and besides, you never tell it the same way twice.”
So tell your story. Sonny Rollins had an apartment 
on Grand Street near the river but was reluctant 

to play his saxophone there because he didn’t want 
to bother his neighbors, so he started practicing
on the Williamsburg Bridge, where he could play 

as loud as he wanted, 15 and 16 hours a day,
all year round. He was joined sometimes by other
saxophonists, by Steve Lacy and Jackie McLean,

and they’d imitate what they heard and try
to play it back louder. Lacy recalls, “On the bridge 
there was this din, a really high level of sound 

from boats and cars and subways and helicopters 
and airplanes. Sonny played into it. I couldn’t 
hear myself but I could hear Sonny.” Zola said

if you ask me what I came into this life to do, 
I will tell you: I came to live out loud. 
So tell your story. Tell it on this steel-blue day,

send it out on the glad air that floats over 
the murderous masculine sea. Tell it well,			
and this winsome sky will stroke and caress you, 

this stepmother world throw affectionate arms 
around your neck, as if over one she can yet 
save and bless. Jackie McLean says, 

“I’ve seen Sonny blow some of those tugboat flats 
and sharps and have the tugboat answer him.”
Tell your story, then, and await the world’s reply.


From the writer

:: Account ::

I don’t live for poet­ry, but I sure try to live through poet­ry. Every day you notice some­thing small: a neighbor’s cat hunt­ing in your back yard, some­body wrap­ping a pack­age, the mean old man across the street yelling at kids. What else is there, though? What’s the beau­ty in what you see, what’s the fun, the deep emo­tion? Some­times I know I annoy begin­ning poets when I say that, to me, a poem is a lit­tle prob­lem-solv­ing machine, because they want their poems to express a cos­mic grandeur. But I don’t mean that poems solve prob­lems in a log­i­cal way. More expe­ri­enced writ­ers know I mean that when you write a poem, you tack­le an idea that hasn’t quite found a com­fort­able rest­ing place in your heart, so you work your mate­r­i­al around until it does. Poetry’s the best tool to unpack the triv­ia of dai­ly life and expose it in all of its clos­et­ed grandeur.


David Kir­by’s col­lec­tion The House on Boule­vard St.: New and Select­ed Poems was a final­ist for the Nation­al Book Award in 2007. Kir­by is the author of Lit­tle Richard: The Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll (Con­tin­u­um, 2009), which the Times Lit­er­ary Sup­ple­ment of Lon­don called “a hymn of praise to the eman­ci­pa­to­ry pow­er of non­sense.” Kirby’s hon­ors include fel­low­ships from the Nation­al Endow­ment of the Arts and the Guggen­heim Foun­da­tion. His lat­est poet­ry col­lec­tion is Get Up, Please (LSU Press, 2016).

Scarce Resources

Poetry / Geetha Iyer

:: Scarce Resources ::

Los indí­ge­nas pre­colom­bi­nos ven­er­a­ban a la rana [dora­da] y tal­laron tal­is­man­es de arcil­la y oro (hua­cas) seme­jantes a éstas. Esta prác­ti­ca con­du­jo al mito mod­er­no de que las ranas doradas se trans­for­man en hua­cas de oro al morir, y cualquier per­sona que ve o posee una rana dora­da viva ten­drá bue­na fortuna.

          I have been thinking about amphibians 
the way others think about fortunes. The cost of storing
          sperm in a vat of nitrogen. The cost of lighting, 
casing, ventilation. Labor—the woman who raises a swarm 

          of fruit flies, dusts them in nutritional supplements. 
The value of a toad in a tank that refuses 

          to lay. Maybe she wasn’t feeling it. Maybe, tomorrow,
as that woman who minds the amphibian tanks crunches

          the season’s dry leaves underfoot, she’ll sicken
of her commute. Low pay and stubborn animals. She doesn’t see 

          enough of her children, worries what they haven’t learned
in school. It is for her that guyacán trees burst 

          into bloom. Their amarillo brillante punctures
months of drought like the silk-strung suns

          of orb-weaver webs. Wealthy men, artists, harvested
the labor of Madagascans, made them milk

          gold from such spiders, spin threads and weave a mantle
they draped over the shoulders of a woman

          pale as baby’s breath. My grandmother’s saris were shot 
with gold threads, my mother’s silver, plated, mine

          plastic treated to shine, so scarce are the veins
under earth. I think of the coats some toads wear, signaling 

          fitness, the coming of storms, sex, biohazard 
toxins, prospectors’ fortunes. They’re extinct

          in the wild, those ranas doradas. After the harvest, 
we shall need new myths. A woman returns to her children 

          in the dark, kisses the brown of their foreheads, whispers 
that they must study hard, become economists. 

          But stop, she adds, to praise the brief sunbursts 
of guayacanes before their flowers fall, lest the rains 

          do not follow, lest your hearts compress 
to mere nuggets beneath your lungs.

This poem takes its epi­graph from Zip­pel, K. C. et al. Impli­ca­ciones en la con­ser­vación de las ranas doradas de Panamá, aso­ci­adas con su revisión tax­onómi­ca. Her­petotrop­i­cos 3:1 (2006), 29–39.



From the writer

:: Account ::

We are liv­ing through a bot­tle­neck period—the Anthro­pocene era of mass extinc­tion; the ever-widen­ing gap between wealth and pover­ty; the brink of nuclear war­fare between mega­lo­ma­ni­acs; the insti­tu­tion­al exploita­tion of peo­ple most mar­gin­al­ized by pow­er struc­tures; and the col­lapse of crit­i­cal ecosys­tems under the impacts of cli­mate change, pop­u­la­tion growth, and unchecked resource extrac­tion. Those of us who will make through the oth­er end of this bleak and nar­row­ing tun­nel will be poor­er for all that we have left behind in the wreck­age. We will only have sto­ries of those who died, images and videos of megafau­na and micro­bio­ta that have gone extinct. We will speak less than a cou­ple hun­dred lan­guages. We will have for­got­ten the names of every­one who didn’t have the wealth to erect mon­u­ments in their mem­o­ry. I am haunt­ed by this inevitabil­i­ty. When I write, about peo­ple or about oth­er organ­isms, it is to com­mit some­thing of what is won­der­ful about this world into the abstract realm of mem­o­ry. It’s all I can car­ry with me, cita­tions included.

Scarce Resources” con­cerns itself with extinc­tion on the one hand and eco­nom­ics on the oth­er. I live in Pana­ma, where the gold­en frog, Atelo­pus zete­ki, is an icon for native bio­di­ver­si­ty and con­ser­va­tion. I wrote the first draft of this poem in mid-April, just before the first rains of the sea­son, when Tabebuia guay­a­can trees bloom en masse. Words can­not express their yel­low in full sunlight—their mag­nif­i­cence stops cars short along the road-side so peo­ple can get out to take pho­tos of them. Yel­low-gold is the heart of this poem, giv­en form in ani­mal, min­er­al, and plant form. A Pana­man­ian told me a ver­sion of the sto­ry that appears in the poem’s epi­graph, and since my Span­ish is not as good as it should be, I mis­un­der­stood its mean­ing. I thought the mod­ern myth of the Pana­man­ian gold­en frog (sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly speak­ing, a toad) went like this: that if a man were lucky enough to find and cap­ture one in the wild, upon death, he would turn to gold. In fact, in the sto­ry I was told, it was the frog that would turn to gold. In real­i­ty, A. zete­ki is extinct in the wild, which makes me won­der, if we dug up the earth, would we find their lit­tle bod­ies trans­mo­gri­fied into gold nuggets? And if we found noth­ing, what sto­ries would we tell then? What would we do with­out yel­low so yel­low it glowed?


Geetha Iyer received an MFA in Cre­ative Writ­ing & Envi­ron­ment from Iowa State Uni­ver­si­ty in 2014. Her writ­ing appears or is forth­com­ing in jour­nals includ­ing Ori­on, Gulf Coast, the Mid-Amer­i­can Review, and the Mass­a­chu­setts Review, among oth­ers. Recog­ni­tion for her work includes the O. Hen­ry Award, the James Wright Poet­ry Award, the Calvi­no Prize, and the Gulf Coast Fic­tion Prize. She was a 2016 writer-in-res­i­dence at the Sit­ka Cen­ter for Art and Ecol­o­gy in Ore­gon and a 2017 writer-in-res­i­dence at Estu­dio Nuboso’s Lab de Arte y Cien­cia in Pana­ma. She was born in India, grew up in the Unit­ed Arab Emi­rates, and present­ly lives in Panama.

Baby Blues

Poetry / Katherine Anderson Howell

:: Baby Blues ::



From the writer

:: Account ::

Baby Blues” is part of a series of poems that mark the grief, fear, and change of iden­ti­ty asso­ci­at­ed with moth­er­hood and mar­riage. In these poems, images of the sea, cer­tain flow­ers, and the night sky repeat. I use images of stars, whether jas­mine or novas, as reminders that our lives are part of vast, only part­ly know­able, sys­tems. My work embraces this mys­tery as a key ele­ment, not only through explor­ing such imagery but also through a process called “tex­tu­al poach­ing,” to bor­row a term from fan­dom schol­ar Hen­ry Jenk­ins. Poach­ing is evi­dent in “Baby Blues,” which began as a found poem, as the sto­ry of Miri­am Carey con­nect­ed with my own strug­gles. How­ev­er, as I began to research brain sci­ence and med­ical jour­nal­ism, as well as have per­son­al con­ver­sa­tions with more moth­ers about their expe­ri­ences with post­par­tum depres­sion, I dis­cov­ered obscu­ri­ty around post­par­tum depres­sion and obtuse sug­ges­tions for treat­ing it. I paired the dig­i­tal media his­to­ry of twen­ty-first-cen­tu­ry post­par­tum depres­sion to pair with the sto­ry of my own dark­ness. Women from all races and social class­es have had their sto­ries silenced by this media cacoph­o­ny. The mul­ti-voiced poem was born.


Kather­ine Ander­son How­ell writes and par­ents in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. She is the edi­tor of Fan­dom as Class­room Prac­tice: A Teach­ing Guide, from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Iowa Press. Her poems can be found in Gar­goyle Mag­a­zine, Sweet Tree Review, Juke Joint Mag, and Still­wa­ter Review, among others.

Two Poems

Poetry / M. K. Foster

:: Aubade with Dolly Parton on Vinyl ::

—if I build a house of you in spring, if I want to watch you 
flood with light wood ash smoke, if we’ve been in bed long enough 
to open, if I open, if I let you open me, if I open myself opening 
you, if I break a part of you open, if I nail my bones to yours, if 
I should stay, if I kiss knee elbow wrist, if your head against my ribs, 
if my arms collapsed around you, if it costs me to keep you (what 
costs a body), if you are my last prayer, my favorite prayer, my only 
prayer, my one phone call with the worst words in the worst order, 
if you are the beautiful cracks in the windshield only I can see (even 
if you aren’t), if we’ve been in bed too long, my dearest, if you are 
my darling, if I’m your deer, if you hit me with your car, if I’m caught 
in your windshield, if it’s all my fault, if it’s Tuesday and you love 
Tuesdays, if I should stay, if I want you in the worst way, if I am weighed 
and found wanting, if I’m full of shit (so are you), if I burn for this, 
if I am burning, if my heart could burn a house down, if I’m always 
burning down the wrong house (you), if your face like glass apples, 
if your skin like a rosy room packed with sleeping pickled animals, 
if your eyes like fire-poker holes, like small idiot stars blistering 
the black-out curtains this morning, if freckles of light like toxic petals 
of ivory mold speckling the sagging ceiling, if we’ve been in bed too 
long (how long is too long), if we fucked, if we’re fucked, if we fucked up, 
if we couldn’t help ourselves, if we’re helpless, if I suck (so do you), 
if you’re useless as a glass axe or wet matches (even if you aren’t), 
if I’m a goner without you, O my darling (and I am), sweetheart, 
if I’m the punchline of every country western song, if I should stay, 
if I would only be in your way, if I Will Always Love You is always 
playing somehow, somewhere always crooning the same tune 
on-loop, if this is hell (this feels like hell), if I’d follow you to hell, 
if you holding on to me for dear life, my dear, is hell, if I feel like hell 
for what’s happened, if this is hell (this bed), if hell is a bed (this bed), 
if we’ve been in bed too long (too long is too long), if it kills us dead 
in the end (what costs a body in the end), if I pay in light wood ash smoke 
like this is the last time, if this is the last time, even if we know what 
comes next (we know what comes next), if the cherry tree like a chest 
x-ray breaking up the window white with dark bones, if your face like 
a grubby water glass waiting for rain, if your eyes like dug-up graves, 
if your eyes in this light eaten out by light, sockets hollow as moon craters 
hollow as us (if us), if us, if heavy husks of marbled dust


:: Poem in Which We’re Finally Cowboys ::

—or, how when we climbed to the top of the extinct volcano, 

	then over the guard rail, walking to where rock dropped 
off to city and water below, waiting for the storm we could feel 

traveling towards us to challenge our bodies, I wanted to be 
	the bird that could take you close enough to become 
the point where blue crushed blue, to become horizon: 

	we knew we could die at that moment, so we knew 
we could never die. This is what I always want to say, 
	but never can when we telephone, and every time, 

		I hear your heart in your mouth like a bird 
	in the mouth of a volcano. All I want is for you 

to know that a way out is just a matter of falling towards 
	wherever the light is coming from, or going. 

Darling friend, for the year we lived together, I wanted 

enough sunflowers to flood your days, enough moondust 
	to cover your nights. These are all the things 
we sing to lovers, but never say enough, or at all, 

for friend like brother, broken smoke wreath my father’s mouth 
	makes when he speaks of a man who, he tells himself 
again, is long-gone away from this life. You’re so lucky, 

he said to me when my body left yours behind in our city. 
	You don’t know how lucky you are. I didn’t then, and I still 
don’t now. I thought I would shatter when I thought I would 

lose you the spring they removed part of your body. You are 
	the bluest part of the sky, the most electric part of the sun 

	cracking clouds like egg shells after rain, you are the greenest 
vein of field when everyone is looking and the glittering river 
		from which no one can look away.

	 If you were made of wood, you would be a cello,

	if you were made of light, you would be, not the star,
 but its reflection in the sea, at once, the brightest point 
	in heaven and on earth, and always moving, carving

your way out of dark: prayer I say for you when I remember 
	how my father holds the one photo that never leaves
 his wallet for a frame, two cowboys with their arms 

around each other, the kind of holding-on they teach you 
		for someday saving someone from drowning. 

Dying is a young man’s game, I’ll tell you one day, 

	when we’re old the way beach glass is old— every bit 
the same color-bite, only softer at the edges. And I’ll tell you 

my best dream about you again: once before we were 
	ever born, our bodies not then our bodies rode west 
in cars like caballos over crests of hills like waves in darkness 

like deep ocean, wearing woven Stetson hats and grinning 
	under black mustaches, the sky like campfire light 
bleeding through the windshield: we’re traveling 

like lightning, like bricks through our own reflections 
	in windows, galloping hard, heavy as waterfalls, 

	you and I— riding how anything that knows it can fly 
and does because it never looked down, lives.


From the writer

:: Account ::

Aubade with Dol­ly Par­ton on Vinyl” began as a min­i­mal­ist exper­i­ment to explore love as hell, but didn’t remain so for obvi­ous rea­sons. Instead, it blos­somed and caught fire as a mas­sive ele­gy loose­ly based on the sto­ry of Pao­lo & Francesca from Can­to 5 of Dante’s Infer­no. Dante encoun­ters the lovers in the cir­cle of hell for con­demned adul­ter­ers, but when he hears Francesca tell her sto­ry, it breaks his heart. They fell in love, as Francesca tells it. They resist­ed their feel­ings until they couldn’t, and then, their pas­sion kills them when Paolo’s cru­el brother/ Francesca’s hus­band dis­cov­ers and mur­ders them. On the one hand, these lovers die for and with one anoth­er, and they live togeth­er eternally—which is the dream of love, isn’t it? But on the oth­er hand, these lovers are bound togeth­er for all time in a hor­ri­fy­ing vor­tex of pain in the after­life. It is a poem obsessed with its own nar­ra­tive of long­ing, but the con­di­tion­al lan­guage of the ifs bite back against the romance. It’s also impor­tant to note here that in this ver­sion of hell, Pao­lo & Francesca wake up every morn­ing to the exact same Tues­day morn­ing in the same dirty bed of the same grimy room of a cheap love motel, and in this hellscape of a cheap love motel, a scratchy, skip­ping vinyl record­ing of Dol­ly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” is always play­ing soft­ly, painful­ly, and faith­ful­ly on-loop in the distance.

Poem in Which We’re Final­ly Cow­boys” is a love poem for my best friend, Sarah. She is infi­nite­ly dear to me, and in the spir­it of 17th cen­tu­ry poet Kather­ine Phillips and her best-friend love poem “To My Excel­lent Luca­sia, On our Friend­ship,” I want­ed to write a poem to hon­or my beloved friend who is “all that I can prize, / My joy, my life, my rest.” This poem is also inspired by my father’s loss of his best friend, Jeff, who passed very sud­den­ly just before I was born. I grew up hear­ing sto­ries about them (“Gary & Jeff knock­ing open car doors off their hinges in a truck with a rail­road tie for a bumper;” “Gary & Jeff get a car air­borne over the crests of the hills of San Fran­cis­co,” “Gary & Jeff….”), and I always see the soft­ness that fills in at the cor­ners of my father’s eyes when I talk about Sarah. In this sense, I want­ed to write the love poem for my best friend that my father nev­er could for his. This is my cel­e­bra­tion of the beau­ty of pla­ton­ic love between friends who came from the same inno­cent design and immor­tal soul.


M. K. Fos­ter’s poet­ry appeared or is forth­com­ing in The Boston Review, Crazy­horse, The Colum­bia Review, Rat­tle, The Adroit Jour­nal, Sixth Finch, B O D Y, Nashville Review, Ninth Let­ter, and else­where; and her work has been rec­og­nized with a Gulf Coast Poet­ry Prize, an Acad­e­my of Amer­i­can Poets Prize, two Push­cart Prize nom­i­na­tions, and most recent­ly, inclu­sion in Best New Poets 2017. She holds an MFA from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mary­land and cur­rent­ly pur­sues a PhD in Renais­sance Lit­er­a­ture at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Alaba­ma. Addi­tion­al notes and links can be found through her web­site:

Two Poems

Poetry / Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach

:: My Mother as a Failed Sonnet, or Maybe Just a Forest ::

I’ve written you as rivers, as frost, as everything 
hidden underneath it, as a children’s picture 
book in a foreign language, as language, that one and all 
others, as your hands and those of your mother and 
hers, most often hers, as what she held in them, as 
the empty tea kettle, as everything she’d lost, the dead
and their sea and its unsinking, as salt, as what abandon 
must mean and what it must taste like, war
and famine, immigration and tea,
Ceylon, Lady Gray, Darjeeling, as the fortune 
it leaves at the bottom of spent cups, and as 
those cups, carried across ocean and name, as water,
generations and generations of it, mothers’ 
open hands, as bare Russian birch branches 
grasping for clouds, as what a child sees 
looking up in a forest.    


:: While everything falls apart, imagine how you’ll teach your son about death ::

when he rips a dandelion head off its stem 
and wonders why the body shrivels  
or the pregnant stray gives birth
to her calico litter and you find two of them 
wedged underneath your car tires that winter
when the drunk woman across the street falls
leaving parts of herself down every row-house stair
last night’s howling in her lungs and on your windows
and the neighbors drape her body well
before the ambulance arrives 
he will ask where they’ve all gone and why
look up instinctively and wonder 
and you’ll confess you do not know
hold him and say nothing 
about elsewhere being better or everything
happening for a reason 
you’ll hold him as though your hands
could weigh him down 
could keep his bones from growing
as the clouds move slow
he’ll notice for the first time
they are white “Not blue?”
he’ll ask surprised and you will nod
say something about the shapes of animals 
then he’ll remember the flower and kittens
the dead woman
                                             “Will they come back?”
and you’ll again stay silent 
because the lawn is full
of broken glass and water bottles
full of piss and dog shit full             
of yesterday and you will shake
your head and think you’re doing right by him 
it’s better he know now you tell yourself
and watch him look away and up
search for the dead inside the clouds


From the writer

:: Account ::

These poems are part of my col­lec­tion The Many Names for Moth­er, which explores how the weight of my Jew­ish-refugee expe­ri­ence has influ­enced grow­ing up to raise a first-gen­er­a­tion, bilin­gual, and mul­ti­eth­nic Amer­i­can child. Its poems obses­sive­ly tell, retell, and hov­er around trau­ma and absence—ranging from ances­tral his­to­ries to my per­son­al expe­ri­ence of immi­gra­tion to my trav­els to Easte­rn Euro­pean death sites as a descen­dent of a USSR Holo­caust sur­vivor. 

My Moth­er as a Failed Son­net, or Maybe Just a For­est:  

I’ve been try­ing to define, to name moth­er­hood. I’ve been try­ing to under­stand who I am as a moth­er by delv­ing into who my moth­er is as a moth­er. I feel like I’ve spent my life try­ing to write her to get clos­er to under­stand­ing. The attempt of this poem at def­i­n­i­tion was failed from the start, just like the for­mal con­straint that can­not con­tain what it means to be a moth­er. I’ve been think­ing a lot about moth­er­hood not only as the con­tent of a poem, but moth­er­hood as an ele­ment of craft, moth­er­hood as not only poet­ry but poet­ics. Behind the fail­ings of def­i­n­i­tion and form with­in this poem is an attempt to see how moth­er­hood becomes a form and name all its own, just as it rejects both.

While every­thing falls apart, imag­ine how you’ll teach your son about death:

On elec­tion day, Novem­ber 8, 2016, my son turned one. We began his birth­day with an excit­ing trip to the polls, but by the fol­low­ing morn­ing, excite­ment turned to dread, and unfor­tu­nate­ly, we all know what has fol­lowed since. Try­ing to grap­ple with rais­ing a tod­dler in the midst of what is going on in our coun­try, I began writ­ing a series of poems, “While every­thing falls apart, imag­ine how you’ll teach your son [       ].” In them, I strug­gle with how to respond to the ani­mos­i­ty espoused by the cur­rent admin­is­tra­tion, how to teach my son com­pas­sion in the midst of such hate, and how to remind him where he comes from—urging him to remem­ber our named and un-named pasts.


Julia Kolchin­sky Das­bach emi­grat­ed from Dne­propetro­vsk, Ukraine, as a Jew­ish refugee when she was six years old. She holds an MFA in Poet­ry from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ore­gon and is a PhD can­di­date in Com­par­a­tive Lit­er­a­ture at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia, where her research focus­es on con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can poet­ry about the Holo­caust. Julia’s poet­ry col­lec­tion, The Many Names for Moth­er, won the Stan and Tom Wick Poet­ry Prize and is forth­com­ing from Kent State Uni­ver­si­ty Press in the Fall of 2019. She is also the author of The Bear Who Ate the Stars (Split Lip Press, 2014), and her recent poems appear in Best New PoetsAmer­i­can Poet­ry Review, and Nashville Review, among oth­ers. Julia is also Edi­tor-in-Chief of Con­struc­tion Mag­a­zine, and when not busy chas­ing her tod­dler around the play­grounds of Philadel­phia, she writes a blog about moth­er­hood, Oth­er Women Don’t Tell You

Two Poems

Poetry / Reilly D. Cox

:: Robert the Gardener ::

My father, always the artist, loses employment
and begins digging holes for a hilly college.

Each morning, he wakes from the same dream:
he’s back in his youth and gliding down the lane 

of an endless pool, his long, hairless limbs 
moving through the water silently towards a Cracker Jack 

salvation, and he wakes. Each morning, he finds 
he has sunk into the covers a little deeper, his limbs 

a little more tired. He rises as his children are still
in their troubled sleep, brews a pot of coffee,

and pours a river through his magnificent mustache.
He eats three raw eggs, chewing the shells

until they are a fine powder to protect his poor teeth—
holey and golden—and wipes the loose strands of yolk

with a slice of rye bread sporting only a few dark blossoms
of mold. He wraps himself in the emerald-green uniform

with his name embroidered over his heart like a target
and heads into the sun-shy morning. With little fires

burning in his pockets to keep himself warm, he plumes
beautifully—smoke signals trailing behind on his walk

to the Great Garden. He’s given up on disciplining the smoke,
ignores the incessant beacon of O-S-O drifting past his shoulders.

He makes sure to arrive before the other creatures, gathers
hundreds of flowers in his battered cart, rides up

and down the many hills, and only opens his eyes when he senses
a good spot. The college wants to draw in new blood

and my father knows how to arrange color to attract
anything. Sometimes, he grows bored, creates a trompe

l’oeil by a hall, a nature morte by a campus gate, but
he is mostly good, cares for the little blooms,

remembers the lessons his father taught him: sees
that their roots are good and watered, that the sun

won’t hurt them or grow estranged. His coworkers—
younger, cut from nylon—keep themselves entertained

by eating little animals whole. One man claims to have
a family of chipmunks nesting in his belly; another,

a whole pond of goldfish. Each lunch, he tilts
his head back and drops little flakes down the length

of his throat, smiles, says it always tickles
when the fish are feeding. My father sits alone.

He worries that he’s mixed up his eggs, that
he has a brood of chicks begging in his belly,

hatched and angry, so he won’t eat today.
He keeps himself warm with clear liquids,

doesn’t dare to light a match. He imagines
how much warmer it would be, to fall in,

a whole ocean to pickle him into summer.
He knows he’s a good swimmer; he won’t drown.


:: Robert the Gardener (Tent Caterpillars) ::

My father is setting fire to the trees again. 
He drags us from our play this way.

My brother and I, split body, jerk awake
at the coughing of a chainsaw in our wood.

We leave our shallow of mud, with so many good
sacrifices buried to the neck, and skulk 

towards it. In a clearing, our father has downed
a dozen trees bearded with tent caterpillars

and is lightly shaking a delirious tremens 
of gasoline over the many nests. He says,

If you leave anything too long, it grows.
He then takes a rag torch and lets sing

the good water. I had never heard such a choir
before, it was like the sound of marrow. 

My brother and I watch our father disappear
in the cracking smoke and barely see

the rag pointing across the crown of trees, 
with so many beards waving terribly.

Leaning over, it looks as if the smoke is born
from our father’s beard, and pours angrily 

from it. May one day I be so giving. May 
one day my beard grow so long 

that the holy spirit come flying out. 


From the writer

:: Account ::

My grand­fa­ther passed away this past August, well over three years since my father passed away. At the time, I had been want­i­ng to write about my grand­fa­ther, and the process of dying that was hap­pen­ing so rapid­ly yet slow­ly, and all the things that were slip­ping away as he did, but I was wor­ried that to write about it would make it hap­pen. Then he died, and, start­ing with a nap­kin at a restau­rant counter, I start­ed putting down every­thing that was then slip­ping away.

I imag­ined my grand­fa­ther as some­thing myth­ic but dwindling—a sto­ried fig­ure who, while once mean­ing­ful and revered, had been reduced by time to hearsay and jokes. I start­ed refer­ring to his myth­ic coun­ter­part as Sar­gon, after a Mesopotami­an emper­or who was the child of the roy­al gar­den­er. I start­ed the process of unmak­ing by incor­rect­ly refer­ring to him as Sar­gon the Gar­den­er. In my imag­in­ing, Sar­gon tend­ed to toma­toes in a dilap­i­dat­ed palace out­side of Baltimore.

Oth­er mem­bers of my fam­i­ly began find­ing myth­ic ver­sions of them­selves in the poems—the Witch­ing Daugh­ter, the Son’s Wid­ow, the Blood­less Daugh­ter, and the Son’s Ghost. The Son’s Ghost, my father, was always trapped in a process of dying or being dead; he, hav­ing died long before my grand­fa­ther, in his dying, became Sar­gon. He is one of the few mem­bers of the fam­i­ly to be named in the col­lec­tion, in part because he was already gone, and in part because he shared a name with oth­ers who had passed away and could serve as a greater evocation.

My father was a gar­den­er, some­times by choice, some­times not. He had dif­fi­cul­ty main­tain­ing jobs and worked, for a time, as a groundskeep­er, know­ing enough gar­den­ing to be qual­i­fied for that. While the focus of the Sar­gon poems were on Sar­gon, I was being reminded—more and more intensely—of mem­o­ries of my father and gar­den­ing. So though I wrote the first “Robert the Gar­den­er” as a one-off poem to turn the myth­ic towards the real and to play with un/making, I found myself fix­at­ed on more and more mem­o­ries of my father and plants. Because I tend to be an iter­a­tive poet, I began an iter­a­tive sequence to find my father again, in all his burn­ing glory.


Reil­ly D. Cox is a MFA can­di­date at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Alaba­ma in Tuscaloosa. They had attend­ed Wash­ing­ton Col­lege and the Buck­nell Sem­i­nar for Younger Poets. They have work avail­able by the Acad­e­my of Amer­i­can Poets and by Iron Horse Lit­er­ary Review.

Two Poems

Poetry / Lillian-Yvonne Bertram

:: Husband Stories ::


I speak to no one from that past. ...My silence put to use
is the highest instrument. ...Now even the frost holds my
hand...I got rid of the life. ...It took all the ns to make a no.
...The distance is here. ...As for the chandelier... ...I
dig a well. ...Into the well I put many men.


There was a husband in the center of this story. ...Some
lunar waves were ringing....I got rid of the husband....
Even my ankle rejects you! ...I never told anyone, 
not really. ...The distance is here....Light in a circle 
could not save me.


Even the light has aged. ...The story does not compute.
...Some lunar waves were ringing. ...My silence put to use,
its highest instrument. ...Now even the frost holds my
hand. ...The things lost with many traces. ...I dig a well.
...Into the well I put many men. ...There are rows of
waiting others.


I speak to no one from that past. ...Some lunar waves were
ringing. ...What is left of leaves are stone. ...Now even
the frost holds my hand. ...I got rid of the life.
...If I could take it all back. ...It took all the ns to
make a no. ...Into the well I put many men. ...That husband
is gone. ...There are rows of waiting others.


The story does not compute. ...There is a husband in the
center of this story. ...What is left of leaves are stone.
...If I could take it all back. ...Even my ankle rejects
you! ...The distance is here. ...The ear up close.


The story does not compute. ...My silence put to use, its
highest instrument. ...If I could take it all back. ...Even
my ankle rejects you!. ...I never told anyone, not really.
...It took all the ns to make a no. ...The distance is
here. ...Light in a circle could not save me. ...I dig a
well. ...Into the well I put many men.


The story does not compute. ...There is a husband in the
center of this story. ...My silence put to use, its highest
instrument. ...I got rid of the husband. ...The distance is
here. ...The ear up close. ...Light in a circle could not
save me. ...I dig a well. ...That husband is gone. ...There
are rows of waiting others.


Even the light has aged. ...Some lunar waves were ringing.
...My silence put to use is its highest instrument. ...What is
left of leaves are stone. ...Real gaps spread in the tropic
of paradise. ...If I could take it all back. ...I never told
anyone, not really. ...The things lost without traces.
...It took all the ns to make a no. ...I dig a well.


:: Counternarratives ::

                              inspired by John Keene


                    ...God’s gonna trouble the water.


                    It was a gated community....The boy is a high school
                    student....There are rows and rows of others.


                    Forty-two miles from Disney....The frangipani swans 
                    in the streetlight. ...A patrol car’s siren sings several 
                    streets away.


                    Everything signs its name, leaves a trace. ...Real gaps
                    spread in the tropic of paradise. ...Forty-two miles 
                    from Disney....He never told anyone, but he always 
                    wanted to go to space camp.


                    Only the flowering catalpa trees are on watch and they
                    don’t have guns. ...The boy likes Skittles. ...Real gaps
                    spread in the tropic of paradise. ...He rides from station
                    to station until he can rest at home. ...People also ask 
                    what was he wearing....People also search for Emmett Till.


                    Sometimes he wakes feeling gone and doesn’t know why.
                    ...Only the flowering catalpa trees are on watch and they
                    don’t have guns. ...It was a gated community: cause of
                    death. ...He rides from station to station until he can
                    rest at a home. ...Gone with his father on a visit. ...God’s
                    gonna trouble the water. ...Bloodies the ground we stand on.


                    Forty-two miles from Disney....He rides from station to station
                    until he can rest at a home....Before he became someone’s
                    Halloween costume punchline, he had a name....No mention
                    made of his clothing...The warm air is a little brackish tonight.
                    ...The frangipani swims in the moonlight.... People also ask 
                    what he was wearing....He never told anyone, but he always
                    wanted to go to space camp....follow a star north.


                    He plays a game he knows he’s too old for: pinches the
                    moon between finger and thumb, pulls it to his lips.
                    ...Everything signs its name, leaves a trace....Real cancer
                    spreads in the tropics. ...Forty-two miles from Disney.
                    ...He rides from station to station until he can rest at
                    a home....He never told anyone, but he always wanted 
                    to go to space camp....Gone with his father on a visit 
                    and God’s gonna trouble the water.


                    Sometimes he wakes feeling gone and doesn’t know why.
                    ...Everything slings a trace, mouths its name....Only the
                    flowering catalpa trees are on watch and they don’t have
                    guns....It was a gated community....Cause of death.
                    ...Real gaps spread in the tropic of paradise.
                    ...Forty-two miles from disease....No mention made 
                    of his clothing. The warm air is a little brackish tonight. 
                    ...People also ask what was he wearing....He never told 
                    anyone, but he always wanted to follow a star north...


                    He plays a game he knows he’s too old for: pinches the
                    moon between finger and thumb, pulls it to his lips.
                    ...Sometimes he wakes feeling gone and doesn’t know why.
                    ...Only the flowering catalpa trees are on watch and they
                    don’t have guns. ...Real treasons spread in the gaps of
                    paradise....Before he became someone’s Halloween costume
                    punchline, he had a name. ...The frangipani swans in the
                    streetlight. ...Several weeks away, a patrol siren sings...
                    People also ask: what was he wearing?...If God’s 
                    gonna trouble the water.


                    Only the flowering catalpa trees are on watch and none
                    of them brought a gun....Causes of death:...The boy is a high
                    school student....The boy likes Skittles....Feel gaps
                    spread in the tropic of paradise. ...Forty-two miles from Disney.
                    ...Before he became someone’s Halloween costume punchline,
                    he had a name....No mention made of his clothing. Brackish air
                    tonight stings with a little sweetness....A patrol car’s siren
                    sings several streets away....People also ask: what really happened?
                    ...He never told anyone, but he always wanted to go to space
                    camp....But God’s gonna trouble the water, bloody the
                    lawn he stands on.


                    Sometimes he wakes feeling not really here, not knowing
                    why it was a gated community. ...The boy is a high school
                    student. ...The boy likes Skittles. ...Real gaps peel
                    apart the treads of paradise. ...He rides through all the houses
                    before he can rest at home...Before he became
                    someone’s Halloween costume punchline, he had a name.
                    ...The frangipani stitches up the streetlight. ...A patrol
                    car’s siren swats bugs and halos away. ...He never told
                    anyone, but he always wanted to go to space camp. ...Gone
                    with his father on a visit to follow a star north.
                    ...People also search for Emmett Till. ...Stand on
                    bloody laws....There are rows and rows of others.



                    He plays a game he knows he’s too old for: pinches 
                    the moon between finger and thumb, drinks it through his lips.
                    ...Sometimes he wakes feeling gone. He reaches 
                    for why everything sings its name, traces its leave...Gaps
                    split open the tropic of paradise...The sea air brackets
                    him tonight...People also ask: what really happened?
                    Before he became the punchline to a costume, swans
                    of frangipani backlit him in the night. A siren signs

                    several streets away. Cause of death: It was a gated
                    community.... Gone with his father on a visit.... 
                    People also ask: what was he wearing? He never told anyone,
                    but he always wanted to go to space camp. God
                    wasn’t near the water. 
	                         People also search for: Emmett Till. 


From the writer

:: Account ::

//Husband Sto­ries

The Python code is adapt­ed from Nick Montfort’s “Through the Park” code (#!, Coun­ter­path, 2014). This code gen­er­ates sto­ries by ran­dom­ly omit­ting dif­fer­ent sen­tences from a pre­pared list through each iter­a­tion. The out­put has been edit­ed and arranged. Nick’s imple­men­ta­tion and the code can be found in #! and on his web­site:


This poem is for Trayvon Mar­tin, a black teenag­er shot and killed by a neigh­bor­hood res­i­dent. He died on Feb­ru­ary 26, 2012.

The title of this piece is from John Keene’s book of short sto­ries Coun­ternar­ra­tives (New Direc­tions, 2017).

The Python code is adapt­ed from Nick Montfort’s “Through the Park” code (#!, Coun­ter­path, 2014). This code gen­er­ates sto­ries by ran­dom­ly omit­ting dif­fer­ent sen­tences from a pre­pared list through each iter­a­tion. The out­put has been edit­ed and arranged. Nick’s imple­men­ta­tion and the code can be found in #! and on his web­site:


Lil­lian-Yvonne Bertram is the author of the forth­com­ing book Trav­es­ty Gen­er­a­tor (Noe­mi Press), and pre­vi­ous books Per­son­al Sci­ence (Tupe­lo Press, 2017), a slice from the cake made of air (Red Hen Press, 2016)and But a Storm is Blow­ing From Par­adise (Red Hen Press, 2012). 

Descartes and Doulas

Nonfiction / Kascha Semonovitch

:: Descartes and Doulas ::

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But not when we’re hav­ing a baby.


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

The navel is, after all, a scar.


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

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

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


From the writer

:: Account ::

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


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

21. I Forgot That Summer in Rome

Nonfiction / Anne Gorrick

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

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



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

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



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



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



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



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



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



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



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



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



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

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

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



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



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



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



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



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



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



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



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



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



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



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



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



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



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



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



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



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



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



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



Child sol­diers =

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



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



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



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



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



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



From the writer

:: Account ::

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

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


Anne Gor­rick is a writer and visu­al artist.

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

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

Anne Gor­rick lives in West Park, New York.

What We Pretend We Know About the Ocean

Nonfiction / Jenny Ferguson

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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



From the writer

:: Account ::

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

Of course, my mind was colonized.

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

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

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


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

If Only the Bombs

Fiction / Ilana Masad

:: If Only the Bombs ::


Take a sweater with you, Glen! Glen? You hear me?” But he was gone. Patri­cia watched his car fum­ble out of the garage, back onto the lawn with one wheel, and begin to plod down the street. Boun­cy, it was, had thump-thumped beneath them the night they met, Glen just back from the war, Patri­cia a col­lege girl who didn’t mind the boys get­ting fresh. He had a rep­u­ta­tion as a sol­dier. She had a rep­u­ta­tion. Match made in heaven.

Of course he didn’t take the sweater. Wouldn’t want to wrin­kle his per­fect­ly ironed shirt. As if his own labor had brought about its state. And if he got sick because of the fans and the A/C units they had at his office? Well. There was only one per­son who would take care of him, and she wished to all the gods she didn’t believe in that it wouldn’t be her this time. That he’d found some twig­gy mis­tress. Some oth­er rep­utable girl. Else­where. Sweet dreams that nev­er matched real­i­ty, Patri­cia knew, and went to check on the kid.

The kid lay in the dark room, dark as far as the kid was con­cerned. Deaf and dumb and blind to boot, the kid had escaped polio only because there was no pool in the state that would allow the kid to swim in it and no sand­box where the kid wouldn’t get shoved and made fun of by oth­ers. The spe­cial doc­tor came twice a week and worked with the kid while Patri­cia smoked in the kitchen until he called her in to help. The spe­cial doc­tor told her not to take so many pills. But her doc­tor, the reg­u­lar one, gave her pills to get up and pills to keep going and pills to put her to sleep and they worked just fine.

It was feed time. Clos­est to life on a farm she’d ever get, this. When Glen had said he had land in New Jer­sey all those years ago, she’d pic­tured a sin­gle goat, a barn­yard, some clean pink pigs, fresh cream. No, his par­ents, like him, had no skill for such things. Like her, they were city trans­plants play­ing at the sub­urbs. Patri­cia took Glen’s left­overs out of the fridge. Since the man didn’t have an appetite, she’d begun split­ting the meals between him and the kid. The kid wasn’t par­tic­u­lar, and throw­ing away food was a waste. She’d read arti­cles about those poor Jews after the war, how they’d squir­reled away food, scrimped and saved it. They had the right idea. Not every­one was rich like Glen’s par­ents. She’d gone to col­lege on a schol­ar­ship and her par­ents were dirt-poor fac­to­ry work­ers and dead by now. Prob­a­bly hear­ing about the kid in her let­ter all those years ago had killed them. She didn’t know. Her sis­ter had tele­phoned to say they were dead and already buried. No use ask­ing why she wasn’t invit­ed to the wake. After she’d got­ten preg­nant and mar­ried Glen with­out approval, they had all but dis­owned her, their eldest daugh­ter, their pride and joy col­lege girl. They were proud peo­ple that had no use for a col­lege dropout with a bun in the oven, and her mar­ry­ing a Protes­tant to boot. It all amount­ed to the same thing. They’d been dead to her when they were alive, and now they were just dead and she was alive. If this was living.

The kid’s room had the cur­tains drawn and the smell of its piss and shit swept through the air as she opened the door. The kid made signs and nois­es at her, its mouth smack­ing open, emp­ty eyes star­ing in her direc­tion. Sat up on the bed and reached for her. Some­how, the spe­cial doc­tor explained it but she didn’t under­stand it, the kid knew she was Moth­er. The kid knew her and hugged her and put its face against her bel­ly and sighed. In any oth­er kid, Patri­cia would take it as hap­pi­ness. But not here. Here she knew what came next, and sure enough it did. Face turned up and mouth opened again and hand reached to her breasts, to catch and suck­le from. She slapped its hands away. She didn’t let it do that any­more, not since its fifth birth­day, when she had to reck­on with the fact that it would nev­er be a reg­u­lar child. From the begin­ning the neigh­bor-women said it was dan­ger­ous, let­ting the kid drink her milk, and now they blamed her for what the kid had become. Patri­cia didn’t know what to believe. The spe­cial doc­tor said noth­ing was her fault. And then he would kiss her in the bath­room and lock the door and bend her legs up so her feet were near her head like a gym­nast. Since Glen didn’t want to pay the spe­cial doc­tor, Patri­cia found anoth­er way to reim­burse him for his time. And she need­ed him, the spe­cial doc­tor. He was the only one who made the kid calmer, less frightful.

She put some cold eggs on a fork and pushed it into the kid’s maw. The kid coughed and almost choked and some of the goo fell onto its shirt but the jaw chewed and throat swal­lowed and the mouth opened to take more, yel­low crumbs left on the small sticky tongue. Patri­cia gagged. After she fin­ished feed­ing the kid Glen’s uneat­en bits of break­fast, she pushed and pulled it onto the chang­ing table that was too small for a kid that age. Almost nine now. So many years of doing just this. She ripped the dia­per off and wiped, breath­ing through her mouth and keep­ing her eyes almost shut. She put a new dia­per on, took the emp­ty plate and fork, and shut the door to the room.

The moans the kid made when it played with the toys in the cor­ner of its room scratched at her back. But she stood there, lis­ten­ing to her scion, to what she’d made, what she’d done. After stand­ing in front of the closed door for a quar­ter of an hour, she took a cig­a­rette out of the pack in her apron pock­et and went to stand by the kitchen win­dow where she could blow the smoke out into the garden.


Glen came home with a whis­tle to him. “Dar­ling,” he said when she took his hat and his coat. “You know what day it is today?”

Patri­cia didn’t much care. It could be their anniver­sary, and she still wouldn’t let him do what he want­ed. It could be the last day on earth before the Reds bombed them all straight to hell, and she still wouldn’t. It could be his dying day, and it wouldn’t matter.

It wasn’t their anniver­sary, and the bombs weren’t falling yet, and he wasn’t dying as far as she knew, but she expect­ed him home every night with some excuse or oth­er to make her let him in again. But she wouldn’t. She thought him cursed. Since they found out the kid would nev­er be nor­mal, she stopped let­ting him get any­where near her when she was less than halfway dressed. And she didn’t let the spe­cial doc­tor fin­ish inside her, not ever. She might be the cursed one, after all. Wouldn’t sur­prise her, really.

What day, Glen,” she asked.

And he said, “Today’s the day the new plane is released!”

That’s very exciting.”

It sure is. That means more peo­ple fly­ing, more peo­ple mov­ing across the globe, in this big uni­verse of ours. And I was there, I helped. It’s the begin­ning of the future, Patty.”

His hands rest­ed on her hips, and he tried to pull her toward him from the coat-rack, but Patri­cia elbowed him in the chest and said, “At present, there’s sup­per ready in front of the TV for you.”

The Dash 80 was fin­ished, with its Pratt & Whit­ney JT3C tur­bo­jet engine. A civil­ian air­plane by Boe­ing. Patri­cia read the papers, includ­ing her husband’s papers in his brief­case when she couldn’t sleep at night. She read any­thing if it would put her to sleep even­tu­al­ly, and if it didn’t, she got some of that edu­ca­tion she threw away when she left col­lege and mar­ried Glen.

That the project was launch­ing final­ly could mean one of two things. Either Glen would start com­ing home ear­li­er or he wouldn’t. She hoped it was the lat­ter. The kid was enough. She couldn’t imag­ine hav­ing Glen around again as ear­ly as five or six. She would end up tak­ing her­self to the Hud­son and putting rocks in her pock­ets like the famous Eng­lish author did. She could see it hap­pen­ing. She hoped it wouldn’t come to that. Then again, maybe a cat­a­lyst for that was just what she needed.


The first Tues­day of every month was ladies’ night. Patri­cia and her girl­friends from high school, Don­na and Mil­ly, met at a din­er on 42nd Street and talked, their insides spilling out of them in unmea­sured tones. It was the only night of the month Patri­cia looked for­ward to. Don­na usu­al­ly brought some of her husband’s whiskey in a flask, and they would pour it into their milk­shakes and get gig­gly. When­ev­er she was there with them, she remem­bered she was still two years shy of thir­ty. She wasn’t an old lady yet. Not quite.

Don­na and Mil­ly both lived in Man­hat­tan, not in the New Jer­sey sub­urbs like Patri­cia and Glen, and she was glad for the excuse to come to the city. It meant she got to dri­ve, and Patri­cia loved dri­ving, even more so since Glen had bought her the car. It was all her own, even if his mon­ey had brought it about. The kid had nev­er been in it, and Glen had only been inside that one time, dri­ving it home from the deal­er­ship with a grin ear to ear and his pants just about falling off him in antic­i­pa­tion. Patri­cia had agreed to touch him a lit­tle and let him touch her after that, but only for a few weeks before she got tired and dis­gust­ed by him again.

When she walked into the din­er, Mil­ly was already in a booth, smok­ing, flip­ping through an old mag­a­zine. She was preg­nant again, just start­ing to show now. She’d been flat as a bal­le­ri­na last time Patri­cia had seen her. “Hel­lo,” she said, slid­ing in across from her.

Hel­lo, Pat. How’s tricks?”

All right,” she said, though it was only all right now, now that she was there with Mil­ly, watch­ing Don­na walk through the door with her hips sway­ing wide­ly in their pen­cil skirt. An office gal, she was still sin­gle, and she claimed to like it that way just fine.

Sor­ry, girls, my boss’s ankle-biter was in today, and he’s a lit­tle demon. Tear­ing up the place, try­ing to look up my skirt.” Don­na pressed her­self into Patri­cia, and bumped her side­ways to make room in the booth. “You’re look­ing bonier than usu­al, Pat.”

It’s the kid. It’s stressful.”

Doc­tor not help­ing?” Mil­ly asked.

He’s help­ing all right, but not in the ways I wish he would.” The girls laughed and Patri­cia smiled at the wait­ress approach­ing them. She thought they must look just like all the oth­er reg­u­lar city girls, out on the town for a good time. If it weren’t for her ring or Milly’s tum­my, they could even be bach­e­lorettes sit­ting and laugh­ing there. But when she caught her reflec­tion in the dark win­dow beside her, dig­ging in her pock­et­book for her cig­a­rettes while Don­na ordered them the usual—one vanil­la, one choco­late, one straw­ber­ry, which they would share and pass between them—she real­ized that no one could mis­take her for a young woman any­more. The care­worn wrin­kles on her fore­head and the lines around her mouth were too deep by far.

Mil­ly caught the wait­ress by the arm before she left and asked for a slice of pie, what­ev­er was fresh­est. The wait­ress rolled her eyes and nod­ded. “Preg­nant women,” they heard her mut­ter as she walked away, and that got them start­ed again. Mil­ly did have a ten­den­cy to get handsy with every­one when she was hun­gry, and she was hun­gry espe­cial­ly when she was pregnant.

Look at that one,” Don­na said a while lat­er, the rum she’d brought swim­ming through her veins, mak­ing her bold. “Sit­ting at the bar. The one read­ing the paper.”

Mil­ly squint­ed. She nev­er wore her glass­es. Said she thought they made her look too smart. She didn’t need peo­ple know­ing she was until she was good and ready to make sure they knew it. “Too skin­ny,” she said, shak­ing her head. “Hon­est­ly, Don­na, I’ll nev­er under­stand your taste.”

I see it,” Patri­cia said. “The cheek­bones, right?”

And I do like them clean-shaven, not all scruffy. All that hair makes them look dirty,” Don­na said, swig­ging straight from the flask. “I’m going to go talk to him.” Patri­cia and Mil­ly protest­ed, but it was no use. When Don­na want­ed to be tak­en out for a drink, noth­ing would stop her. They watched her lean on the counter next to the man, pre­tend­ing to look at the desserts in the glass cas­es. Pre­tend­ing to look at the menu. Pre­tend­ing not to look at the man. But when he didn’t look back, she pulled out a cig­a­rette and asked for a light. He turned, said some­thing, and Don­na balked, her hand try­ing to clutch at her skirt fab­ric which was too tight to take hold of. She hur­ried back to the booth, found the match­es and lit one, but it sput­tered out before she could bring it to the tip of the cigarette.

Hey, hey, what’s wrong? What did he say?” Patri­cia took the match­es and lit anoth­er for Don­na, whose hands were shak­ing. Mil­ly reached out, her breasts lying on the table as her pro­tu­ber­ant eyes bugged, concerned.

He’s not a he,” Don­na spat, and took a long drag. “She’s a woman, can you believe it? And she asked me whether I was try­ing to pick her up! Said some­thing real­ly nasty about my…” She ges­tured to her amply filled blouse.

Inde­cent,” Mil­ly said, touch­ing her stom­ach and tak­ing Donna’s hand. “Don’t wor­ry about it, hon.”

Dis­gust­ing,” Patri­cia added, star­ing. The man—the woman—was watch­ing their booth now. She raised the glass of Coca-Cola she was drink­ing and salut­ed them with it, and tipped her hat, which she wore inside, at them. At her. At Patri­cia. The woman winked, and grinned, and she had big teeth that were only a lit­tle yel­low, and thin lips, and her cheek­bones were still high and beau­ti­ful, and if only she weren’t wear­ing the suit and the hat, she could be pret­ty, maybe.

Stop look­ing,” Don­na hissed. “You’ll only encour­age her.”

So what? She’s the freak,” Patri­cia said. How could a per­son do that? Wear a suit out in pub­lic, right in a busy din­er, with no shame. “You know what? I’m going to go give her a piece of my mind.”

It wasn’t until she was at the counter that she real­ized she’d tak­en her pock­et­book with her. As if she were leav­ing. And when the woman leaned towards her and said that her friend had been mean, called her a hussy and then left, Patri­cia nod­ded, say­ing, “She can be like that. Con­trary.” The woman looked at her for a long moment before ask­ing if she want­ed to go get a drink next door, and Patri­cia nod­ded. The rum, the dar­ing of it. The escape. Noth­ing could be more unpleas­ant than Glen or the kid, and if some­one want­ed to be nice to her this way, with a hand at the small of her back as they walked out of the din­er and a com­ment on how beau­ti­ful she looked, noth­ing vul­gar like what Don­na had implied, some­one who looked like a hand­some and well-dressed man—well. It was more than Patri­cia had bar­gained for and just enough that she knew what to do with it.


The papers and the radio kept telling every­one the same thing all through the first week of June. At ten in the morn­ing, peo­ple in New York City and over fifty oth­er cities around the coun­try were to be ready to go to shel­ter. It was a test to see if the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca was ready for the bomb. Any bomb, real­ly. Just in case the Ruskis end­ed up drop­ping one some­time soon. Patri­cia had thought there was more of a chance that the kid would start speak­ing than any of that hap­pen­ing, but she rea­soned that she was prob­a­bly all wrong and why not be prepared.

But on the morn­ing of the test, she was noth­ing like ready. She woke up in the bed she’d fall­en asleep in, where things she had nev­er thought could hap­pen hap­pened. The mus­cle aches were proof that it wasn’t an alco­hol fueled dream. The booze still ran through her, though, her head pound­ing. She could have stayed in bed, feel­ing sheets on her naked skin for the first time ever, rev­el­ing in the silky smooth touch for hours. But she had to pee, and she’d have to get up even­tu­al­ly, even if it meant fac­ing the night in person.

But her own mass was the only human thing in the bed. On the pil­low where the hair she’d played with after mid­night had splayed, there was a note, a tidy lit­tle dis­patch fold­ed into quar­ters with the word Dear­est writ­ten out in neat cur­sive. Patri­cia made her­self leave it be. She didn’t want to know what was in it, her body flush­ing already with the shame of it as the depths of what she’d done sank in, the impos­si­bil­i­ty of it all. As the stream of urine trick­led and then sprang forth between her legs, and her head dan­gled down­wards, she saw the way she yel­lowed the water in the toi­let and won­dered what else she was taint­ing. Only her­self, or Glen and the kid too? Or the note-leaver?

She cleaned her­self up and found her pock­et­book on the floor near the hotel room door. She clawed inside it, try­ing to find her pill­box, but of course it wasn’t there. She’d left the damned thing at home. She hadn’t bar­gained on being away this morn­ing. Glen must be wor­ried sick. He wouldn’t know what to do with the kid. And there was a sat­is­fac­tion in that, a cold heat bloom­ing in her chest from it. Patri­cia felt a thread of pas­sion jump from her groin to her bel­ly and up, and a strain­ing want surged over her. Not for Glen. Not for the kid. For the shame­ful night.

Gath­er­ing the bits and pieces of her cloth­ing and putting them on, she glanced at the fold­ed paper on the pil­low again and again, until, dressed, she approached it. The clothes felt like armor, guard­ing her against its con­tents. But her mind wasn’t so iron-clad, and as she read the words she sank to the bed, her head spin­ning and pang­ing with the hangover.

June 14, 1954

Thank you for trust­ing me when you knew you shouldn’t. I had to leave ear­ly to get to work, but I watched you sleep and you seemed so sad that I want­ed to wake you up and make you cry with hap­pi­ness again. But I let you sleep. I sense, from what you told me last night (yes, I remem­ber, despite your accu­sa­tions that I wouldn’t!), that you don’t sleep enough.

Please, let me hold you again. I’ll take you out and show you the grand­est time. Meet me dur­ing the safe­ty test today, and we’ll make a date. I’ll be out­side my office build­ing on the cor­ner Broad­way and 54th Street. Every­one else will be run­ning to shel­ter. We will be alone to talk for a few min­utes. Please?

Patri­cia traced the words, which had been writ­ten into the page with such force that they left dips on the front and dents on the oth­er side. She couldn’t fath­om how some­one with such soft hands, with such a but­ter­fly wing touch, could be so ruth­less with a pen. It only proved that the first line was true: she shouldn’t trust this person.

But the test. She’d for­got­ten all about it. Had no rea­son to remem­ber, since she was sup­posed to be home twelve hours before it start­ed and it wouldn’t affect the sleepy sub­urb. Stuff­ing the note in the pock­et of her skirt, she grabbed her pock­et­book from the floor and hur­ried out of the room. The hall was emp­ty, but she kept her head down and rushed to the stairs. The lob­by of the hotel was qui­et, too—it was late, she real­ized, glanc­ing at the big clock in the foy­er, past the break­fast hour and more. Peo­ple would be at work now, or at home, doing what peo­ple do. Prepar­ing to run to shel­ter. What women do. She couldn’t recall, in that moment, what she did at this hour every day.

Her car was parked two streets over. She remem­bered the walk from it last night, hushed with sup­pressed and drunk­en laugh­ter, and won­dered how her com­pan­ion had got­ten to work. The sub­way, she sup­posed, though she would nev­er have guessed that some­one like that would fre­quent the dirty tran­sit sys­tem. Stu­pid, she berat­ed her­self. Stu­pid. The kid was prob­a­bly yaw­ping and howl­ing and out of con­trol, and she only hoped that Glen had remem­bered to lock its door or there would be hav­oc wreaked all over the house. The room itself was like­ly filled with shit and piss and vom­it already. She would be on her knees clean­ing all day. For once, the thought struck her as good and true. Elbow grease had been the way her moth­er had made her atone for her sins every Sun­day. A prop­er punishment.

Cof­fee or food was out of the ques­tion. She had to get back to New Jer­sey as quick­ly as pos­si­ble or she’d be stuck in the city for the test. She might be any­way, and she had no idea where to go. She pulled the car out of the space and into the road, greet­ed by honk­ing behind her—she’d for­got­ten to check her mir­ror, but her head pound­ed too bad­ly to care much about the man ges­tic­u­lat­ing behind her—and began to drive.

Not toward New Jer­sey. She found her way to Broad­way and began climb­ing the city street by street.

When the alarms began to wail, she knew the pro­to­col. She was sup­posed to pull to the side and leave the road clear for emer­gency vehi­cles and find shel­ter. But the howl­ing bells were like the cries of the kid before she knew it wasn’t nor­mal. They were like her screams last night. Like the woman’s moans. Patri­cia braked hard, the car behind her honk­ing, and the one behind that, and the next one. She was in the mid­dle lane and traf­fic was get­ting tan­gled up around her. Peo­ple were run­ning out­side. She jumped out and fol­lowed the run­ners, check­ing the street cor­ner when she reached it. 50th. She peeled away from the crowd going to wher­ev­er it knew it was sup­posed to go and head­ed up, one block and anoth­er and anoth­er. Peo­ple were yelling behind, around, their noise as deaf­en­ing as the alarms. Could she real­ly leave her car there in the mid­dle of the road, her beloved car? Could she dis­ap­pear for­ev­er? She kept run­ning. The wail­ing didn’t stop. She could pic­ture the land around her explod­ing to pieces every time her heels hit the sidewalk.

At 54th, she saw her. She ran to her. She was under a fire escape, look­ing entire­ly dif­fer­ent than the night before. Blouse and skirt, a lit­tle like Donna’s. Lip­stick. Her hair swept up ele­gant­ly. Cheek­bones high, eyes sparkling with wor­ry until she saw Patri­cia and she smiled with relief, unex­pect­ed after the swag­ger she’d had last night. She was all con­fi­dence then. But this—this too was beau­ti­ful, Patri­cia thought. She won­dered if she was still drunk. “Come here,” the woman said.

If only the bombs came now, Patri­cia knew, every­thing would end perfectly.



From the writer

:: Account ::

When I first sent this sto­ry to a read­er, they told me it remind­ed them of Car­ol, the film based off of Patri­cia Highsmith’s nov­el The Price of Salt. I hadn’t read the book nor seen the movie at the time, though the movie was in the zeit­geist and so may have seeped into my consciousness—must have, real­ly, since the protagonist’s name is Patri­cia. I swear, I didn’t put that togeth­er until writ­ing this account.

The idea for this sto­ry actu­al­ly came from an odd fac­toid I dis­cov­ered while I was look­ing at one of those sites that list impor­tant events in his­to­ry that hap­pened on a par­tic­u­lar day. There, I read about this nuclear alarm test that hap­pened in some fifty cities around the U.S. in 1954. I found an arti­cle that described one woman in New York City who ran when the alarm sound­ed, leav­ing her car and a ter­ri­ble traf­fic jam behind her. I wondered—what is her sto­ry? I wrote this piece to find out.

The thing that scared me most about this sto­ry, and that I didn’t fore­see going into it, was the kid. I think the kid’s existence—and the kid’s lack of gen­der, lack of human­i­ty in the eyes of the protagonist—came part­ly from my need to por­tray mon­sters as human. The mon­ster is not the kid, of course. The mon­ster is Patri­cia. Good­ness, moral­i­ty, these things are so relative—they depend on con­text, on the infor­ma­tion shared, on the social con­sen­sus at the time. In the 1950s, there was an even deep­er stig­ma regard­ing dis­abil­i­ty than there is today. Helen Keller was still alive then, but she was the anom­aly, the mod­el of per­fect dis­abil­i­ty that func­tioned in a social­ly accept­able (and very Amer­i­can) way. Patri­cia wouldn’t have known about her, I imagine—or, if she knew, she would have been dis­ap­point­ed that her child was not sim­i­lar­ly “mirac­u­lous.”

I hate how Patri­cia treats the kid. I hate how she refus­es to see the kid as human, call­ing the kid “it” rather than what­ev­er gen­der the kid was like­ly assigned at birth. But I also think that for Patri­cia, the kid is some­how the sum of her life’s disappointments—she sees the kid as a sym­bol of every­thing she’s failed at, her own dis­ap­point­ment and self-hatred. She can’t under­stand the kid, and that the kid loves her hurts her even more because she’s not capa­ble of lov­ing the kid back. Is it fair? No. Is it right? No. Is Patri­cia a good per­son? Not real­ly, no. But she’s human, just like the kid is human, and capa­ble of love, of hap­pi­ness, of plea­sure. Mon­strous human­i­ty fas­ci­nates me, espe­cial­ly when it inter­sects with com­plex iden­ti­ties and trauma—I’m not talk­ing about how “love­ly” the Nazi next door is, à la New York Times features—what I mean is specif­i­cal­ly when peo­ple who have been oppressed, whose bod­ies have been tak­en from them, whose minds have been shut­tered by a sys­tem that doesn’t see them as impor­tant, react by pass­ing on that hurt.


Ilana Masad is a queer Israeli-Amer­i­can book crit­ic and fic­tion writer. She is the founder and host of The Oth­er Sto­ries, a pod­cast fea­tur­ing new, strug­gling, and estab­lished fic­tion writ­ers. Her work has appeared in The New York­er, The New York Times, The Wash­ing­ton Post, the L.A. Times, Sto­ryQuar­ter­ly, Joy­land Mag­a­zine, and more. She is cur­rent­ly a doc­tor­al stu­dent at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Nebraska-Lincoln.

The Spell

Fiction / Vishwas R. Gaitonde

:: The Spell ::

Ricky chuck­led when the lawnmower’s drone smoth­ered his sister’s yells. She stood on the porch of their house shout­ing and thrash­ing her arms at him, but the mow­er eas­i­ly sti­fled her raised voice. Ricky rubbed his hands on his shorts and con­tin­ued to mow, his bare tor­so shin­ing in the late after­noon sun, flick­ing his head now and then to toss back the damp clumps of hair that fell over his eyes. A grim smile lin­gered on his face. Let Kay­la shout with all her might, as though being a cou­ple of years old­er gave her that right. Now if he only could ratch­et up the noise on the mower.…

He abrupt­ly turned off the machine and turned to stare hard at his sis­ter. Two mag­ic words had fil­tered through the racket.

What did you say?” He cupped his hand behind his right ear, brush­ing his hair aside. His eardrums still vibrat­ed with the ghost­ly remains of the mower’s sounds.

Har­ry Pot­ter!” She yelled the mag­ic words again. “Want the lat­est Har­ry Pot­ter nov­el, don’t cha? I have it.”

You do not.”

Ricky, rud­dy and sweaty after his brisk exer­tion on this sul­try day, red­dened one more shade. Kay­la had no regard, no respect what­so­ev­er, treat­ing a revered name as though it was some cheap moniker like the names of the may­or of the town or their senator.

She had got hold of the lat­est Har­ry Pot­ter nov­el? His sis­ter Kay­la, who could effort­less­ly out-mug­gle the stodgi­est of mug­gles? Gross! The injus­tice made his heart burn, smol­der, burn, smol­der with each alter­nate heart­beat. He was the sole Pot­ter devo­tee in the house, the zeal­ous Pot­ter­ma­ni­ac who want­ed every new nov­el the day it was released (or ear­li­er if any mag­ic spell could help). He read each one at least six times and then lost count of fur­ther read­ings. Even since the new nov­el had been released last week, he’d been half out of his mind and in dan­ger of los­ing it com­plete­ly unless the book was in his hands with­in the next few hours. His par­ents had promised him as much if he did his chores.

His par­ents were going into town that evening, and he hoped they would stop at a book­store. He mowed the backyard—a chore he had been putting off—before his par­ents start­ed out, mak­ing sure they saw him hard at work. But some of the grass had grown so high a cat could get lost in it. The mow­er got choked, so Ricky slunk into the kitchen to “bor­row” his mother’s scis­sors and snip off the blades of grass.

The extra work soon made him hot and clam­my, and he peeled off his shirt before start­ing on the front yard. Sum­mer had crawled toward its end, but the days were still not per­cep­ti­bly short­ened, nei­ther had the heat abat­ed. The dark clouds bar­rel­ing over the hori­zon her­ald­ed the approach of one of those swift sum­mer thun­der­show­ers, forked light­ning and all. Ricky raced up and down, anx­ious to shave the front yard before the clouds moved over­head and dis­gorged their water. How like Kay­la to choose this exact time to taunt him.

Liar!” Ricky yelled back. “Dad and Mom have gone to town to get the book.”

They have not.” Kay­la shook with amuse­ment. “They’ve gone to have a good time. Dri­ve on the water­front, a can­dle­light din­ner with­out you and me, most­ly with­out you. Dad asked me to hold on to the book. You’re not to get it till you do your chores.”

Well, I’ve fin­ished.” Ricky glanced at the small patch of lawn left. “I will be, in ten sec­onds, anyway.”

Well, we’ll talk when you’ve real­ly fin­ished.” Kay­la swung around and dis­ap­peared into the house, ignor­ing Ricky’s “That sucks.” Ricky tore his way through the rest of the lawn. He dashed into the house, fever­ish. Kay­la lay curled on the couch in the liv­ing room, her face chis­eled with anticipation.

Where’s the book? Gimme the book!”

She uncrossed her legs and lazi­ly hauled her­self up.

In a hur­ry, are we?” She wore a crooked smile. “Not so fast. Let’s check how you’ve done.”

She inspect­ed the back­yard with the sour face of a crit­ic and then scanned the front yard.

Hmmm.… Not a bad job. But that patch looks tacky.” She point­ed to the area Ricky had rushed through. “Trim that spot a lit­tle more.”

Yeah, right. You’re not Dad or Mom, Kayla.”

No, I’m not. You can wait for them to return, and if they think it’s okay, I’m sure Dad will give you the book.”

She walked back into the house, smil­ing at her brother’s sullen shout: “All right, all right, I’ll do it.”

He slouched in slow­ly after a few min­utes, more sub­dued, but before he got a word in, Kay­la said, “Go to your room, Ricky. You’re in for a treat. This is the day you’ll nev­er for­get. Ever. Your life’s gonna change.”

She ignored Ricky’s look and point­ed him to the stairs, and then gave him a lit­tle shove to pro­pel him onwards and upwards. She fol­lowed him up to his room.

Lie down on the bed.”

He turned and gave her a furi­ous look. “What—”

On the bed, Ricky. On your back. Do as you’re told. I’ll let you on to some­thing, but you’re not to tell a soul. I’m a wiz­ard. Shocked, huh? Sur­prised? Those who think they know it all are the ones who know so lit­tle. I have to cast a spell on you before I give you the book.”

You’re wacko. You—”

She gave him anoth­er shove, and he fell onto his bed, gri­mac­ing. “Now what?” he was about to ask, but she bound­ed out of the room. A few min­utes passed, long min­utes, when he felt as limp and help­less as a beached whale. He would not play along any­more, book. The book was like­ly on the desk in his father’s study. He would go right in and take it.

As he was about to rise from his bed, the door flew open and banged against the wall. Kay­la was back, flushed and breath­less. And brim­ming with an eerie inner fury, too, thought Ricky, the way she slammed the door shut. The shut­ters of the win­dow were drawn and the slats at an angle so the sun­light that streamed into the room made odd yel­low pat­terns on the floor but was oth­er­wise dif­fuse. Kay­la had cloaked her­self with a large black sheet and wore a loose black hood. She held a brown card­board box, a box that was noisy, alive, and agi­tat­ed from within.

See and believe,” cried Kay­la, her voice high-pitched, screechy. “You are about to be trans­formed for­ev­er, for­ev­er, for­ev­er. The jour­ney begins!”

She over­turned the box above his body and some­thing strong and hard and wrig­gly plopped atop him. He raised him­self on his elbows. A large grey rat nes­tled on his crotch. Ricky sucked in his breath, lying per­fect­ly still, feel­ing his flesh cur­dle into goose bumps, even feel­ing a wave pass­ing over his body stiff­en­ing each indi­vid­ual fil­a­ment of hair.

He eyed the rat. The rat eyed him. They saw the shock in each oth­ers’ eyes. Nei­ther of them moved a mus­cle. The smell of rain seeped into the room, and from the way the light bright­ened and dimmed, Ricky knew the clouds were strug­gling to blot out the set­ting sun while it fought back. In the patchy half-light, the fur of the rat was half grey, half gold.

Then Kay­la, stand­ing at the foot of the cot, sway­ing in her black robe, start­ed an incan­ta­tion in a singsong voice, fluc­tu­at­ing between harsh and musi­cal, between for­tis­si­mo and sot­to voce:

Rat­tus rat­tus, res nullius,
Unus mul­to­rum, ultra vires
Abso­lu­tum dominium.

Ricky was aghast. Where had his sis­ter learnt these ancient spells? His heart bound­ed and his spir­its sank. She may not have been kid­ding when she taunt­ed him. How had he over­looked the signs point­ing to her true nature? She grew her fin­ger­nails until they were as long as a witch’s. She used weird words. She nev­er caught a cold. She was always mean. A sin­gle look at her face, and babies burst into tears. There must have been oth­er red flags he’d over­looked. His sis­ter, so plain and so com­mon­place, and now.… But then, didn’t Har­ry Pot­ter grow up in an ordi­nary way among ordi­nary peo­ple? For a good many years, nobody (includ­ing all the peo­ple in his neigh­bor­hood) had sus­pect­ed Har­ry of being any­thing but a poor lit­tle orphan brought up by his uncle and aunt.

His sis­ter was no Har­ry Pot­ter. She clear­ly belonged to the Dark Arts. The shad­ows in her eyes infil­trat­ed the room even as her mal­ice mar­i­nat­ed every syl­la­ble that she flamed out, slow­ly, pas­sion­ate­ly, deliberately:

Servus ser­vo­rum Diabolus
Vaticini­um ex eventu
Venisti remanebis donec den­uo com­ple­tus sis!

What was she say­ing? What­ev­er the words meant, the rat respond­ed by mov­ing for­ward onto his bel­ly and crouch­ing there, its claws dig­ging into his skin. He felt the coarse trail of its tail leav­ing the mark of Satan on his body. He thought of rolling over in one swift motion and dis­lodg­ing the rodent, but what if the motion made the rat dig in deep­er? Weren’t rat claws poi­so­nous? He tried not to move. The effort left him trembling.

Scab­bers! Ricky sud­den­ly remem­bered Ron Weasley’s pet rat, who was real­ly the evil wiz­ard Peter Pet­ti­grew dis­guised as a rodent. Pet­ti­grew, who had betrayed Har­ry Pot­ter and his par­ents to the evil Lord Volde­mort! Was some evil accom­plice of Kayla’s hid­ing in the form of this rat? It cer­tain­ly seemed so, for the rat had fluffed up its fur and appeared to dou­ble in size, each thread of gold and grey prick­ling like the quills of a por­cu­pine. Or had it actu­al­ly grown? Were his eyes play­ing tricks? New sweat broke out on Ricky’s brow, and he was sure Kay­la glimpsed his naked fear, just as he saw the mock­ing glit­ter in hers, a glit­ter now per­fect­ly mir­rored in the gold­en eyes of the rat.

Tu fui ego eris!
Vic­to­ria aut mors!
Acta est fab­u­la plaudite!

Kayla’s into­na­tions rose like ban­shee wails, shrieks that rent them­selves from with­in, and they nudged the rat for­ward, inch by inch. The beast stepped over Ricky’s bel­ly but­ton and its snout reached out for his chest. Ricky went limp as he spied the rat’s wet lips drawn back, its two front teeth gleam­ing like minia­ture machetes, its eyes bor­ing into his, its whiskers omi­nous­ly stiff. He low­ered his gaze immediately.

Kay­la hoist­ed her­self up on her toes as her voice notched up the deci­bels, mount­ing high­er than Ricky thought the human voice ever could:

Rat­tus rat­tus! Rat­tus rat­tus! Rat­tus rattus!

Then she crashed back to earth on her heels, out of breath and elat­ed, eager to appraise what she had wrought. But Ricky no longer saw her clear­ly, and the rat’s face also swam before him, dis­tort­ed, dis­pro­por­tion­ate and dan­ger­ous. The sweat from his brow had streamed into his eyes, and he dared not raise a hand to wipe it. He blinked rapid­ly, but this only brought more trick­les of sweat. He screwed his eyes shut.

Tap-a-tap-a-tap­pit­ty-tap. The steady pat­ter of rain inten­si­fied and the wind rat­tled the shut­ters, but far from pro­duc­ing a cool­ing effect, the air became more humid, oppres­sive. Ricky felt some­thing like a slen­der tape, abra­sive as sand­pa­per, repeat­ed­ly scrap­ing his chest. His chest mus­cles stiff­ened like card­board, his nip­ples turned rigid. The spell was work­ing. The rat had inject­ed some­thing into him, some­thing nox­ious, some­thing creepy. He cau­tious­ly opened an eye, hop­ing he could see through the film of sweat, and then real­ized what was happening.

The rat was thirsty. It was lap­ping up the sweat pooled in the slight hol­low in the cen­ter of his chest. As he relaxed a lit­tle, the rat gave a bound and land­ed on his face, its soft bel­ly squash­ing his nose, smoth­er­ing him. At the same time the rat’s slim, pre­hen­sile tail stroked his lips, its sharp tip pok­ing around, try­ing to get into his mouth.

Loud gur­gles and chokes broke out—Kayla’s laugh­ter. For the first time, rage over­came Ricky’s fear. Under­cur­rents of dread still lurked, fear that the rat would gouge his eyes with its two front teeth. Then he remem­bered his hero, Har­ry Pot­ter, who was always brave; he seized the rat and yanked it off his face. The rat slipped from his grasp and leaped over his head. He heard it thwack on the floor and scur­ry away.

In a flash Ricky was on his feet, but his knees were wob­bly and it took him a few sec­onds to steady him­self, enough for Kay­la to drop her cloak, zip out of the room and down the stairs. Ricky caught up with her as she flat­tened her­self on the door of their father’s study. He was pant­i­ng, and he yelled out at his sis­ter: “Gimme that book! Where’ve you hid­den it?”

Kay­la gave him a sweet smile. “Oh, the book? So sor­ry, no book for you. Dad’s not gonna go to the book­store either, so don’t hold your breath. He ordered your book online and it’ll come in the mail, so keep an eye open for the post­man every day.”

Ricky gulped. He didn’t know what to say. But his sis­ter did not grope for words.

Go take a show­er, Ricky.” She wrin­kled her nose, and her nos­trils curled up as she looked him up and down with scorn. “Take a show­er. You stink.”

Ricky low­ered his head, but instead of slink­ing away he charged and head-butted his sister in the midriff. Kay­la gasped in aston­ish­ment and pain and stag­gered aside, and Ricky sailed through the door into the study. As he had sus­pect­ed, there was a fat book on his father’s desk. The room was dark but he didn’t need light to know that it was the book. He reached out, then paused. His palms were sweaty. He wiped them on his shorts and then picked up the book with reverence.



From the writer

:: Account ::

This sto­ry looks at two types of pow­er described by the Con­flict Research Con­sor­tium at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Col­orado: “Pow­er Over” and “Pow­er To.”

Pow­er Over” is the abil­i­ty to dom­i­nate anoth­er per­son or group: “I can make him (or her or them) do what I want him to do.” “Pow­er Over” usu­al­ly involves force and threat. If the sub­or­di­nate fails to do what he or she is asked, force of some kind can be exert­ed to make the per­son com­ply. “Pow­er To” is the abil­i­ty to do some­thing on one’s own, using intel­lect, sta­mi­na, and oth­er resources. These resources give some peo­ple the boost to accom­plish things.

While con­sid­er­ing “Pow­er Over,” one must take into account the sub­mis­sion of those who are sub­ject­ed to the pow­er. A rich tycoon is pow­er­ful because his wealth gives him pow­er; he can use it to seri­ous­ly hurt or dam­age those who do not do what he wants them to do. But his only son despis­es him. The son doesn’t mind liv­ing like a hip­pie or a her­mit and doesn’t care about his inher­i­tance. The father’s cof­fers are pow­er­less to help him in this case because not only is his son not sub­mis­sive but the son is also exert­ing his “Pow­er To” live his life as he pleas­es and not accord­ing to his father’s dictates.

Kay­la uses Ricky’s over­whelm­ing love for Har­ry Pot­ter and his fanat­i­cal desire for the new nov­el to exert “Pow­er Over” him. So sub­sumed is he with­in J. K. Rowling’s world that he is even ready to believe his sis­ter might have secret­ly been a wiz­ard all along, and one that prac­ticed the Dark Arts at that. It is only when he is goad­ed beyond endurance that Ricky exerts his “Pow­er To” and breaks free of his sister’s control.


Vish­was R. Gaitonde’s writ­ings have appeared in pub­li­ca­tions such as Mid-Amer­i­can Review, Belle­vue Lit­er­ary Review, San­ta Mon­i­ca Review, The Iowa Review, and The Mil­lions. One of his short sto­ries was cit­ed as a “Dis­tin­guished Sto­ry” in Best Amer­i­can Short Sto­ries 2016. His awards include res­i­den­cy fel­low­ships in fic­tion at The Ander­son Cen­ter, MN, and Hawthorn­den, Scot­land, schol­ar­ships to the Sewa­nee and Tin House writ­ers’ con­fer­ences, and a fel­low­ship to the Sum­mer Lit­er­ary Sem­i­nar (Mon­tre­al, Canada).