Two Poems

Poetry / Romeo Oriogun

:: This Way to Water ::

Along Sénégal’s river, in Kayes, where the bus 
from Bamako dropped me off, before speeding 
toward Dakar, I walk alone, trying to find leaves 
that whisper of roads, trying to sieve through water 
the haunting part of home. There, children throw stones 
into the river, watch them skip and skip before sinking, 
a game I played as a boy. And before tall trees 
whose names are lost to my hands, I stoop, picking barks, 
gathering leaves, a labor to tie me to a new beginning. 
I watch the rise and fall of water, the wide horizon 
calling in its wisdom of ages. There, an inlet leading  
to a village speaks of possibilities. I see the women in white,  
the man with his kora, playing stories of the past, suspending  
history in the miracle of sound, reviving it through voices, 
and the river path discovers its true purpose of worship, 
the children clap. I turn from them, diving into water,  
watching the unknown rush towards me. There, in the midst 
of women dancing on the riverbank, I didn’t discover the path  
home. I only discovered a goddess, the coolness of water. 

:: Welcome ::


And before dusk bring the boats  
home, and before the sea pronounces  
its great regret upon the sands 
of Kokrobite, I sat alone, far from beach  
goers, from eyes wandering bodies  
of Rastafarians at beer tables, far from music 
of revelry. Before my toes, little animals burrow  
into sand. I, too, have traveled around  
the world. Boarding houses of cities,  
fountains of strangers, the deep eyes of roads  
have known my sleep. Before me, the sea, wide  
and a mirror, holds my thirst abate. The rope tied  
to a rotten boat tugs, announcing the sailor’s  
homecoming. It is time to hold the tired being  
of journeys, to praise trinkets around ankles 
of women carrying home, to praise the sailor’s song  
of longing. I join the long line of people pulling  
the boat. The sea knows our strength, it teases  
and lets go. What weakness I know is a surrender  
to waves, the boat rides on them. What returns  
is not complete, what we hold is only hope.  
Tomorrow we’ll go out, the shore waits.  
Neither grief nor pity holds back the desire  
of water. The sailor knows and we sit, side by side,  
in the makeshift store, waiting for gin, and before us  
the sea continues, fast pace and ever moving. 

From the writer

:: Account ::

On the 17th of Feb­ru­ary 2016, Akin­nife­si Olu­mide Olubun­mi, a gay man from West­ern Nige­ria, was lynched to death. On the night of his death, I was scared. I was scared because it could have been me or any queer per­son I knew. That night, I began to write poems that inter­ro­gat­ed queer sur­vival in Nige­ria. In 2017, I won the Brunel Inter­na­tion­al African Prize for Poet­ry with these poems. I was out­ed, harassed, threat­ened, report­ed to the police and attacked. I had to leave Nige­ria. In exile, as I place my foot in water, in rivers, in the sea, I hear the echo of home. I hear queer bod­ies find­ing home across Africa, across Europe. Every space I have inhab­it­ed was a place of con­flict. On my jour­ney from Nige­ria to Amer­i­ca, I trav­eled across West Africa doc­u­ment­ing cities and vil­lages, doc­u­ment­ing the his­to­ry of con­flict and how the sea played a role in both the past and the present. I intend to inter­ro­gate how queer peo­ple sur­vive dis­place­ment; I intend to link the begin­ning of dis­place­ment to the dis­place­ment of queer peo­ple across West Africa.

Romeo Ori­o­gun was born in Lagos, Nige­ria. He is the author of Sacra­ment of Bod­ies (Uni­ver­si­ty of Nebras­ka Press, 2020). His poems have appeared in Prairie Schooner, Amer­i­can Poet­ry Review, Har­vard Review, McNeese Review, Bay­ou, Brit­tle Paper, and oth­ers. He cur­rent­ly is an MFA can­di­date for poet­ry at the Iowa Writ­ers’ Work­shop, where he received the John Logan Prize for Poetry.

What’s More

Poetry / Leah Umansky

:: What’s More ::

is the mer­est urgency is for­ev­er that // for­ev­er urgent // for­ev­er in want // like every­thing now // now // like the right now // like the right now is urgent­ly enflamed // is in a con­stant state of burn­ing // is that the metaphor for rea­son // is that the metaphor of the day // the half-wait // the trac­ing // even now // even now // even // even in urgency // is it the let­ting-in // is it the let­ting out // the slow quick­saw // the giv­ing // the giv­ing up // and what’s more // tell me // what 



From the writer

:: Account ::

This poem is an account of a rela­tion­ship found and end­ed dur­ing this pan­dem­ic. It’s a poem about lim­bo, and uncer­tain­ty, and again, the heart. It often feels like every­thing is impor­tant in our lives right now: every emo­tion, every action, every reac­tion, every rec­ol­lec­tion and mem­o­ry.  This poem is an account of that urgency of the brain and the heart and the way the next thing is always loom­ing and some­times the best thing is to qui­et the mind, qui­et the heart, qui­et the future and be in the now. THAT is the hard­est thing to do, at least for me. 



Leah Uman­sky is the author of two full-length col­lec­tions, The Bar­barous Cen­tu­ry (Eye­wear Pub­lish­ing, 2018), and Domes­tic Uncer­tain­ties (BlazeVOX, 2013), among oth­ers. She earned her MFA in Poet­ry at Sarah Lawrence Col­lege and is the cura­tor and host of The COUPLET Read­ing Series in NYC. Her poems have appeared or are forth­com­ing in such places as Thrush Poet­ry Jour­nal, Glass: A Jour­nal of Poet­ry, The New York Times, POETRY, Guer­ni­ca, The Ben­ning­ton Review, The Acad­e­my of Amer­i­can Poets’ Poem-a-Day, Rhi­no, and Pleiades. She is resist­ing the tyrant with her every move. She can be found at and  @leah.umansky on IG.  


Poetry / Sandra Lim

:: Classics ::

Actaeon turns into a stag, I say, as I spear the fourth  
          oily olive on my toothpick. He saw her nakedness, which was  
appalling in the way it tested the air around it.  
Then come the hounds, with their complicated names, the baying  
          and the lurid viscera. Down this road we can scarcely follow in words, 
but I always feel the clothes newly on her back, and the low 
calm that comes when bad temper is spent. He is inhumanly excited. 
A rack of antlers emerges from his forehead as I talk; there’s no  
          stuffing it back in. He doesn’t seem to notice, as he pulls me into his lap.    
I sip my drink, and the bartender decants striped red straws  
with their determined gaiety into a glass jar, carefully wipes down  
          the scarred tabletop. Humiliation, what of it? Formerly, I had a few  
feathers around my mouth, but nothing in my head.





From the writer


:: Account ::

This poem came to me as a bit of a sur­prise. I was just try­ing to pin down a scene in a bar; I cer­tain­ly wasn’t con­scious­ly think­ing about human frailty or clas­si­cal mythol­o­gy. But I love myth for the way it works as a kind of alter­na­tive lan­guage. Here, I wish for the poem to go beyond the lan­guage of psy­chol­o­gy with respect to long­ing and look­ing, or desire and vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty. I hope you can hear the antlers crack­ling into view.


San­dra Lim is the author of Loveli­est Grotesque (Kore Press, 2006) and The Wilder­ness (W. W. Nor­ton & Com­pa­ny, 2014). Her new col­lec­tion of poems, The Curi­ous Thing, will be pub­lished in 2021.

Two Poems

Poetry / Remi Recchia

:: Pastoral #1 ::

The cows are misting 
silent, burrowed in white 
softness & sky-down. 
I’m driving & you are 
golden, counting seconds 
against the digital 
clock of our old car 
(three accidents later, 
motor still warm, dash 
dented with a yellow 
bruise). Do you ever 
wish we weren’t here? 
We are fixtures of other- 
ness, one brown cow 
among the spotted herd. 
Rural eyes & cardinal  
sins, they are our gate- 
keepers, as if we need 
one reason to leave. 
I want to say I’m used 
to this turning, these fists 
hovering over my small 
face. I’m used to this  
orange scrutiny. But you 
are not & I don’t want  
you to know we’re alone, 
so let me be your star. 
We’ll paint the sky-canvas 
splotchy cow colors  
accented with sober love. 
Keep me in the dark. Hold 
dirty towels, always, stark 
neon against the pasture.



:: Pastoral #6 ::

We’re lying next to each other on Sunday morning, sleep- 
flowers pressed in your eyes, five o’clock shadow on my jaw. 
The Venetian blinds are half-drawn: fossil of wine & no 
filter. The slats can be rotated such that they overlap with one 
side facing inward & then in the opposite direction such  
they overlap with the other side facing inward.  
An old anniversary balloon wilts in the corner, & I’m reminded  
of last October when the clerk ID’d me at the gas station,  
said I’m too young to be married. What he didn’t know is I 
have already built a house, a home, a life.  
My palms sweat your absence on business trips. They butterfly  
your thigh at church. At home we administer our own communion.  
Between those extremes, various degrees of separation may be 
effected between the slats by varying the rotation. I haven’t been 
on a first date in so long, but darling, I’ve always known you. 
There are also lift cords passing through slots in each slat— 
& also the sun—there are also empty bottles on the counter—& 
also the red-stained rug. When these cords are pulled, the bottom 
of the blind moves upward, causing the lowest slats to press 
the underside of the next highest slat as the blind is raised.    
It took Christ four days to un-sleep Lazarus. We’ll sleep off 
last night together for hours, your legs curled into mine 
on a discount mattress & frayed blanket. A blue jay teaches 
his children to fly outside the window. A modern variation 
of the lift cords combines them with rotational cords in slots 
on the two edges of each slat. The baby birds plummet to the ground 
one after the other. Their father flies across the yard like a  
machine. We model our behavior so children can grow 
into their parents. This avoids the slots otherwise required to allow 
a slat to rotate despite a lift cord passing through it, thus decreasing 
the amount of light passing through a closed blind. Let the sun 
rise without us. Let’s miss business hours. Let’s fill  
our bellies on bread, on eggs, on cheese. You’ll put cinnamon  
in my coffee. I’ll drive you to work. We have so much time 
to burn these feathers. 


Note: lines in ital­ics tak­en from Wikipedia page on Venet­ian blinds. 



From the writer

:: Account ::

I’m inter­est­ed in what it means to belong some­where, to tru­ly fit in so when you look up from where you’re stand­ing, you can say, I’m home. These poems trace the con­cept of belong­ing in both phys­i­cal and emo­tion­al spaces. As a Mid­west­ern poet, land­scape is impor­tant to me. What I mean by that is I grew up always look­ing at some­thing: at trees, at cows (see espe­cial­ly “Pas­toral #1”), at noth­ing but a flat expanse of wheat while dri­ving down the high­way, which was, in its noth­ing­ness, every­thing. I was raised in Michi­gan and spent a sig­nif­i­cant, if not long, amount of time in Ohio where I was learn­ing how to be a poet. Ohio is also where I met the love of my life. 

This com­bi­na­tion of roman­tic love and appre­ci­a­tion of landscape—which is love of landscape—may be best described as an attempt to fol­low the pas­toral tra­di­tion in Amer­i­can poet­ry. Writ­ing about roman­tic love while observ­ing phys­i­cal sur­round­ings (and if you’re from the Mid­west, you spend a lot of time in the car) is a way of plac­ing myself some­where. While I feel a deep attach­ment to the Mid­west, the Mid­west is not nec­es­sar­i­ly attached to me. I can see this in its numer­ous trans­pho­bic laws. 

Maybe I’m hop­ing that pay­ing homage to my place of ori­gin will make it accept me. Maybe I’m try­ing to share the Mid­west with my lover. Ulti­mate­ly, the Amer­i­can pas­toral gives me a space to do both things, and I hope I’m doing it jus­tice in some way. 



Remi Rec­chia is a trans poet and essay­ist from Kala­ma­zoo, Michi­gan. He is a PhD can­di­date in Cre­ative Writ­ing at Okla­homa State Uni­ver­si­ty. He cur­rent­ly serves as an asso­ciate edi­tor for the Cimar­ron Review. Remi’s work has appeared in Colum­bia Online Jour­nal, Front Porch, and Glass: A Jour­nal of Poet­ry, among oth­ers. He holds an MFA in poet­ry from Bowl­ing Green State University.

Two Poems

Poetry / Dustin Pearson

:: Fossil Fuel ::

Moments after Hell’s ocean allows you to reach its surface, 
the world turns over. You dart through the boiling waters  
like a rocket and straight into one of its geysers. 
It gropes you. It coats you in waste as inside a bowel,  
but once fully committed, it’s you who becomes 
the movement. The journey is dark so your mind illuminates.  
All those bodies floating at the top of the water and not one  
of them moving. You tilt your head downward, but there’s 
nothing to see, no chest, feet, and so you remind yourself  
they’re still parts of your body, and the sky is red or pink  
or maybe pink and red with no stars, and then everything flips,  
as though the sky could fill, as if this part of Hell  
were a cylinder filled with liquid filled with rocks and sand  
and living ornaments some giant child could turn over  
for amusement, and you fall or you float or you fall and float  
headfirst into another world you can’t escape. You surface  
in a place that looks like the world you left or one adjacent  
where you can manage, where you did manage. Out the geyser  
you rise like a man pulled from quicksand. You clear the mud  
from your eyes. The sun blinds but then you see. This world  
is one of vast greens in sharp shapes attached to brown trunks  
and vines. You wipe the mud from your limbs and when  
you’ve cleared them, you wish you hadn’t because the flies  
that attach to them bite, and where they bite the blood runs  
and from where it runs mites burrow, and within the burrows 
you’re compelled to scratch and where you scratch the burrows  
widen and from the widening the blood pours and in the pour 
the dead mites. You feel faint, but you realize you’ve walked a ways  
from where you started. The loss is overwhelming, but ahead  
of you, there are tracks. You want to fall but think not again,  
and you think: no matter the man the tracks belong to,  
you must find him. 



:: An Overgrowth Besides the Body ::

Hell’s jungle is an overgrowth of green. 
The leaves that jut from the ferns, fall  
down from the trees, do so with such sharpness  
you cut yourself with any brush by them. 
Every movement you make is one  
made through a grater. You leave 
so much of yourself behind  
under the wetness and burning. 
The sun’s rays and humidity  
make your droppings sizzle  
on some surfaces. The smell  
they release in this sector is appetizing, 
or would be, if you weren’t also wilting  
under the steamy beams. You walk  
each path with a drooping,  
the question mark of your body  
forever-curling into a gnarl  
of lost meaning. The wounds you host 
fester. The fungus builds an island  
of moss on your neck, center-back, 
and shoulders, amasses a mail  
on your chest and lower body, 
and under the moss  
is pus you can drain if you squeeze  
or scratch too deep. 
Beyond the pus is the blood  
you’ve known so well already,  
but even so, sometimes,  
it rains. The conditions resting 
on the grounds rise. The clouds 
work up into big gray billows  
and the whole of the jungle 
darkens. The shadows  
are everywhere, falling  
a kind of astral straw  
under the foliage  
before dissolving  
completely, and then  
the flash shows. Lightning 
then thunder as we’ve 
always perceived it,  
then more of both. The rain 
falls violently on the greens 
but softens a bit making  
its way through the density. 
The jungle cools. 
The water washes you 
before it floods the venue 
and rises into the trees. 
You hitch a ride floating 
on top of it. The leaves on the branches 
don’t cut when they’re wet. 
They soften and bend,  
and so you sit on them.  
You wait out the flooding  
on the tree branches, climbing 
higher as the water rises.  
You stop when it peaks. 
Way high up in the canopy, 
you see everything  
besides another body.




From the writer


:: Account ::

Rimbaud’s A Sea­son in Hell is asso­ci­at­ed with his breakup with Ver­laine. For­mal­ly, it’s a prose poem most of the time. It’s also impossible—a moody, often abstract, and cere­bral man­i­fes­ta­tion. Hell is a state of mind. Fig­u­ra­tive. These poems are tak­en from my forth­com­ing col­lec­tion, A Sea­son in Hell with Rim­baud (BOA Edi­tions, 2022), but there’s no roman­tic con­text. Rim­baud is a dense­ly loaded sym­bol. In this selec­tion, we meet the speak­er work­ing his way through Hell. There’s an amass­ment of obser­va­tions sim­i­lar to what you’d expect in a trav­el­ogue. The speak­er dis­cov­ers evi­dence that he’s not alone, and this ener­gizes him. A lit­tle while after I first start­ed writ­ing well, I found I couldn’t escape being com­pared to Baude­laire and Rim­baud. I’d nev­er read either of them. Final­ly read­ing them allowed me to see the com­par­isons. Learn­ing about the aspi­ra­tions of French sym­bol­ism and its muta­tions over time cul­mi­nat­ing in Imag­ism and a dif­fer­ent group of writ­ers helped me to real­ize my approach to writ­ing always exists between the two, and that mode of writ­ing and think­ing is one I believe I inher­it­ed from my Black South­ern coastal upbringing—all its mag­ic and his­to­ry, reli­gion and blend­ing of cul­tures and lore, and all the mys­tery and actu­al­i­ty wrapped up in those. In one way, A Sea­son in Hell with Rim­baud is say­ing: look at how close we’ve been this entire time and yet only one of us is read­i­ly rec­og­nized and cred­it­ed with these lit­er­ary tra­di­tions and aes­thet­ics, but all of that as an after­thought to the sto­ry that unfolds over the col­lec­tion, a sto­ry that’s teased in these two poems. 



Dustin Pear­son is the author of A Sea­son in Hell with Rim­baud (BOA Edi­tions, 2022), Mil­len­ni­al Roost (C&R Press, 2018), and A Fam­i­ly Is a House (C&R Press, 2019). He is a McK­night Doc­tor­al Fel­low in Cre­ative Writ­ing at Flori­da State Uni­ver­si­ty. The recip­i­ent of fel­low­ships from Cave Canem, the Bread Loaf Writ­ers’ Con­fer­ence, the Vir­ginia G. Piper Cen­ter for Cre­ative Writ­ing, and The Ander­son Cen­ter at Tow­er View, Pear­son has served as the edi­tor of Hayden’s Fer­ry Review and a direc­tor of the Clem­son Lit­er­ary Fes­ti­val. He won the Acad­e­my of Amer­i­can Poets Katharine C. Turn­er Prize and John Mack­ay Grad­u­ate Award and holds an MFA from Ari­zona State Uni­ver­si­ty. The recip­i­ent of a 2021 Push­cart Prize, his work also appears or is forth­com­ing in The Nation, Poet­ry North­west, Black­bird, Vinyl Poet­ry, Ben­ning­ton Review, Tri­Quar­ter­ly, [PANK], The Lit­er­ary Review, Poet­ry Dai­ly, Hayden’s Fer­ry Review, and else­where.

Two Poems

Poetry / Emma Gomis

:: Traces ::

          As a way of keeping you close 
                    I follow, trace your thought 
                    it curls as it mounts the stair 
                              & shimmers at a clearing

          T’escric desde lluny, em poso les teves paraules a les butxaques

          In care to carry your rhythm 
                    I drape the film of your shape 
                    over my body  
                              it creases & folds 

          El teu ritme presocràtic, els teus gests, petits miralls

          From one object to next 
                    I finger contours left behind 
                    yearn for you to animate  
                              a quick turn in palm of hand 

          Un crit s’enfonsa al pit, com un ocellet que vol ser alliberat

          I pace the perimeter of your room 
                    straining to summon  
                    the fade of your print 
                              in folds of your garments

          No sé com més puc dir-te que et trobo a faltar









From the writer


:: Account ::

We were raised in the wake of an oppres­sive reign, in a coun­try still wound­ed from years of liv­ing under Fran­coist dic­ta­tor­ship. Swathed in grief from the years which saw the pro­hi­bi­tion and per­se­cu­tion of polit­i­cal par­ties, the repres­sion of the press, and the elim­i­na­tion of left­ist orga­ni­za­tions, the Cata­lan Statute of Auton­o­my and its asso­ci­at­ed insti­tu­tions were abol­ished, our lan­guage and cul­ture sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly persecuted. 

Dur­ing Fran­cis­co Franco’s dic­ta­tor­ship (1935 – 1975) the Cata­lan lan­guage was banned in pub­lic spaces and in schools. The author­i­ty released state­ments like: “hable el idioma del impe­rio”: speak the lan­guage of the empire. But ban­ning a lan­guage may be an effec­tive way of pre­serv­ing it, as the speak­ers feel an impulse to resist the author­i­tar­i­an reach into their iden­ti­ty. Teach­ers and rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies held clan­des­tine class­es in Cata­lan; fam­i­lies whis­pered it in the safe­ty of their homes. 

These poems rep­re­sent a recent urge I have felt to incor­po­rate my lan­guage and cul­ture into my writ­ing, maybe because it still is, as all lan­guage is, some­thing in need of defend­ing. It is resilient as long as we do our part to make it sing. The Cata­lan lan­guage is more sim­i­lar to Ital­ian or French. My father’s favorite exam­ple is that in Span­ish the glass is on top of the table is el vaso esta enci­ma de la mesa, while in Cata­lan it is el got esta a sobre de la taula. Our accents open and close as they do in French. Recent­ly, the dia­crit­ic accent was lost, removed from gram­mar to facil­i­tate the exe­cu­tion of the lan­guage. In a move to defend, we lose a mark. Now the words bear and bone are spelt out the same: os and os

With the death of Fran­co in 1975, the 1978 con­sti­tu­tion rec­og­nized that oth­er lan­guages could be offi­cial lan­guages of the state. Despite this, there is still a pal­pa­ble hos­til­i­ty from the Span­ish state to sup­press the Cata­lan lan­guage. The first poem, “Traces,” is a pin­ing for my lan­guage and how it feels to miss the fam­i­ly and friends that often feel too far away; the sec­ond poem, “ST JORDI,” is a fem­i­nist reimag­in­ing of the leg­end of the patron saint of Catalun­ya, and the for­mer Crown of Aragon. 


Emma Gomis is a Cata­lan Amer­i­can essay­ist, poet, edi­tor, and trans­la­tor. Her texts have been pub­lished in Den­ver Quar­ter­ly, Entropy, Asymp­tote, Vice Mag­a­zine, and Moth­er Jones, among oth­ers, and her chap­book Canx­ona is forth­com­ing from b l u s h. She is the cofounder of Man­i­fold Press. She holds an MFA in Cre­ative Writ­ing & Poet­ics from Naropa’s Jack Ker­ouac School of Dis­em­bod­ied Poet­ics, where she was also the Anne Wald­man Fel­low­ship recip­i­ent. She is a PhD can­di­date in crit­i­cism and cul­ture at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cambridge. 

Church Universal and Triumphant

Poetry / Sarah Colón

:: Church Universal and Triumphant ::

We cut ties with worldly things, 
packed up the Datsun, and drove to Montana. 
We built a tiny altar in the closet,  
meditated on the I AM Presence, 
received blessings from Guru Ma, 
and bathed our bodies in light. 

Educated adults saw fairies in old photographs. 
We eschewed chocolate for spiritual purity, 
drank bancha tea for clarity, 
and put on our tubes of light every morning 
before a breakfast of brown rice and miso soup. 

We wore colors of the ethereal plane, 
earrings smaller than dimes. 
We crossed our arms when we heard rock music 
and did Violet Flame to cleanse our transgressions. 

We built bomb shelters in the dead of winter, 
canned and vacuum-packed food for seven years, 
prioritized and stored our belongings. 

We descended long cold ladders into the underground. 
We strapped ourselves to the bunks in preparation for the blast. 

We re-entered the world, unharmed. 





From the writer


:: Account ::

I grew up in a New Age reli­gion that most peo­ple would call a cult. I hes­i­tate to use the word “cult” because this was the word I heard most often used against us. I asso­ciate it with the mali­cious name-call­ing that con­tributed to esca­lat­ing ten­sions and even acts of violence—locals shoot­ing at a school bus or a mem­ber of the com­mu­ni­ty hav­ing a cross burned in his yard. We lived in fear of the hos­til­i­ty that sur­round­ed us, that events like the bomb­ing of the Rajneesh­pu­ram hotel or the FBI siege of Waco might also hap­pen to us. 

This is not to say that the com­mu­ni­ty itself was a whole­some envi­ron­ment. We were tasked with strict, oppres­sive reg­u­la­tions on our diets, dai­ly rou­tines, and cloth­ing. I spent most of third grade prepar­ing for the end of the world, ful­ly believ­ing that my father and half-sis­ters, who weren’t mem­bers of the com­mu­ni­ty, were going to die. When I left at age 14, I was men­tal­ly in tat­ters. I strug­gled for years with depres­sion, self-harm, and hatred. 

But the sto­ries of our child­hoods are nei­ther whol­ly gleam­ing nor entire­ly ter­ri­ble. There is a mag­ic to the Rocky Moun­tains that I’ve nev­er found any­where else, and my child­hood was also filled with moments of pure delight. I found my love of lit­er­a­ture and poet­ry there through the kind nur­tur­ing of teach­ers who cared. 

Here I’ve tried to explore the dual­i­ty of that expe­ri­ence, to express the way that rage and joy can exist simul­ta­ne­ous­ly for me in mem­o­ry. These poems are part of my work in progress, which I’ve ten­ta­tive­ly enti­tled Cult­girl as a way of reclaim­ing the word, cel­e­brat­ing an aspect of myself which, while ter­ri­ble, also shaped me. 


Sarah Colón is a poet and edu­ca­tor from the Amer­i­can West who spent most of her child­hood in Mon­tana as a mem­ber of a reli­gious cult that was prepar­ing for impend­ing nuclear dis­as­ter. A moth­er of four, she has worked in the food ser­vice and child­care indus­tries while free­lanc­ing as an edi­tor and copy­writer. She cur­rent­ly teach­es high school and lives with her part­ner and their blend­ed fam­i­ly of six chil­dren in Largo, Flori­da. Pre­vi­ous pub­li­ca­tions include The Exam­ined Life Jour­nal and Flash Fic­tion.

A View Lodges

Poetry / Ryan Clark

:: A View Lodges [i] ::

Amer­i­ca is a field expand­ed over air­waves soft­en­ing dis­tinc­tions between Amer­i­can and Por­tuguese pop cul­ture, a line from Pow­er Rangers to the base to the island.  

There is a swirl of forces assem­bling from a child­hood shared in the nego­ti­a­tion of foreignness. 

What views are held with very lit­tle fric­tion.   

What sparks. 

For years, civil­ians work at the base, form a mesh that grows. 

Atti­tudes are acquired, fed, made nat­ur­al as land sur­round­ing a flag.  

Lajes, in the fold of ocean floors, far off from con­ti­nen­tal pow­ers, is an Amer­i­ca you feel under your roof at night. 

Ear­li­er, Lajes stood as a bas­ket of well-off Amer­i­cans dropped on an island of poor farmers. 

How a gap demands clo­sure, how advan­tage is played. 

A tran­sient face can be dif­fi­cult to make out of a uniform. 

So con­tracts rose from a nego­ti­a­tion to resolve what it is to use as a for­eign shield your home.  

So the for­eign­ness of the field poured out, drew peo­ple in. 

So cars paved Azore­an freeways. 

So Ter­ceira is a land relo­cat­ed with ben­e­fits.  

From a base, we gath­er the trust of econ­o­my, live in the shad­ows of aircraft. 

A man says if the Amer­i­cans ever were to leave he’d fol­low, stars and stripes soft­ly woven into his cap.  

What is formed with such use. 

[i] Homo­phon­ic trans­la­tion of a U.S. Depart­ment of State cable titled “Azore­an Views on Lajes,” sent on Feb­ru­ary 1, 1974, and lat­er released as part of U.S. Depart­ment of State EO Sys­tem­at­ic Review on June 30, 2005.



From the writer

:: Account ::

These poems come from a project that inves­ti­gates envi­ron­men­tal con­t­a­m­i­na­tion stem­ming from the pres­ence of Lajes Field Air Force Base, an Amer­i­can mil­i­tary base on Ter­ceira Island in the Azores, an arch­i­pel­ago in the mid-Atlantic that func­tions as an autonomous region of Por­tu­gal. In writ­ing these poems, I used a unique method of homo­phon­ic trans­la­tion which relies on the re-sound­ing of a source text, let­ter by let­ter, accord­ing to the var­i­ous pos­si­ble sounds each let­ter is able to pro­duce (e.g., “cat” may become “ash” by silenc­ing the c as in “indict,” and by sound­ing the t as an sh sound, as in “ratio”). The source texts for these poems are giv­en as foot­notes in the poems them­selves, and they include news arti­cles about the con­t­a­m­i­na­tion (often from ques­tion­able sources, includ­ing Russ­ian news agen­cies well known for spread­ing pro­pa­gan­da and sto­ries that serve the pur­pos­es of the Russ­ian government—such as, for instance, neg­a­tive sto­ries against the Unit­ed States). Oth­er sources include archived cables and oth­er doc­u­ments from the U.S. State Depart­ment, acces­si­ble through Wikileaks. 

I lived on Ter­ceira when I was a kid, from 1992 – 1996, while my father was sta­tioned at the base. My fam­i­ly lived in the towns Fonte do Bas­tar­do and Pra­ia da Vitória pri­or to mov­ing on base mid­way through our time on the island. Pra­ia, in par­tic­u­lar, has been not­ed as bear­ing the brunt of the con­t­a­m­i­na­tion, with a num­ber of peo­ple in the town devel­op­ing cancer—though explic­it con­nec­tions between the con­t­a­m­i­na­tion and can­cer rates remain a sub­ject of debate.  

I aim to work through these poems with the doc­u­men­tary mind­set of poets like Mark Nowak and Muriel Rukeyser, though I am also inter­est­ed in the idea of “decon­t­a­m­i­na­tion” as a duty we are increas­ing­ly called upon to perform—whether it be through increased media lit­er­a­cy (hyper-vig­i­lant to avoid fake news on social media) or through fac­ing our own nos­tal­gias that obscure what we see with what we’ve hoped to con­tin­ue see­ing. As such, I want these poems to serve as a form of inquiry rather than attempts to answer. 



Ryan Clark writes much of his work using a unique method of homo­phon­ic trans­la­tion, and he is par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ed in how poet­ry responds to vio­lence and sub­ju­ga­tion, sym­bol­ic and oth­er­wise. He is the author of How I Pitched the First Curve (Lit Fest Press, 2019), and his poet­ry has recent­ly appeared in Inter­im, Barza­kh, DIAGRAM, Four­teen Hills, and Posit. He cur­rent­ly teach­es cre­ative writ­ing at Wal­dorf Uni­ver­si­ty in Iowa. 

Three Poems

Poetry / Nancy Chen Long

:: In a Dream, My Dead Father Teaches Me How to Hear Gravitational Waves ::

—after Wrecked Archive B9uPgb9n6Nr by Pat­ty Paine

My father and I are sail­ing along the shore of Lake Supe­ri­or. My father is above, low­er­ing the boom. I am below, stop­ping a leak on the lee­ward side, when, glanc­ing out of a cab­in win­dow toward shore, I see a woman who looks like a younger ver­sion of my moth­er. She is sit­ting on a fall­en log. My father wants to swim to the beach, but I am afraid of the barge inch­ing silent­ly along next to us, car­ry­ing a car­go of secrets. It’s been fol­low­ing us for miles. We decide to pad­dle a life raft aground. Once there, we have to crawl over gran­ite boul­ders in order to get to civ­i­liza­tion. Nei­ther one of us is wear­ing a watch, since all time­pieces have stopped tick­ing. My father stops by a grove of juniper trees, one tree for each man in my mother’s life. He says I need to stop talk­ing. It’s time to tell me every­thing he thinks I need to know before he dies. This will take some time, he says. I sit on the fall­en log where my moth­er had once been and gaze up at him. The col­or of his eyes match­es the sky. His mouth moves, form­ing words with no voice. The only sound is a con­stant wind-rushed whir that ebbs and flows as the space between us expands and col­laps­es, and the occa­sion­al chirp of a lone bird sound­ing out S‑O-S. S‑O-S. S‑O-S. I lis­ten for hours. 

:: In a Dream, I Watch a Story That My Dead Father Once Told Me ::

—after Wrecked Archive B9MuWvBHgP6 by Pat­ty Paine

My father and I are sit­ting in a sycamore grove by a rush­ing creek he calls Fam­i­ly. His body is the shape of a tree, the black and tired trunk of him buck­ling under the weight of a life­time of leaves. Each leaf is the shape of a card or a screen, each a secret that he has trapped in his head. In one, a film is play­ing. It is grad­u­a­tion day, and he is grad­u­at­ing from a Yale lan­guage pro­gram for mil­i­tary per­son­nel. There he meets Bar­bara. My father looks straight at the cam­era. “Oh Nan, she is the one,” he says. The film flash­es through a sea­son of dates and din­ners. Two young peo­ple falling in love. At the end of the sea­son, she boards a plane for col­lege in Wis­con­sin. As he watch­es her fly away, an onion-skin paper in the shape of an air­plane floats down from a glass desk in the sky. It’s his work assign­ment. He is being shipped to Tai­wan. My father, fran­tic, flies to Wis­con­sin to pro­pose to the love of his life. They decide to mar­ry after he returns. My father looks straight at the cam­era. “One of my biggest regrets is going to Tai­wan,” he says. I look down at my trunk. I am reshap­ing into the mot­tled white-gray of a sycamore. My arms morph into branch­es that stretch all the way to Tai­wan, place of my birth, where my hands have become entan­gled and refuse to free themselves. 

:: In a Dream, My Dead Father Lectures Me About Remaining Positive During a Crisis ::

—after Wrecked Archive B‑IHP21Hty5 by Pat­ty Paine 

The clown stand­ing on my face demands that I be hap­py. “Chin­ny-chin up,” he snaps. “Why so glum, chum?” Daisies and dan­de­lions float behind him, and I think I’m at a funer­al. The audi­ence laughs uproar­i­ous­ly as a stage cur­tain descends, but the actors around me are still act­ing. “All of life is a stage,” the clown wax­es Shake­speare­an. The smell of death fills the audi­to­ri­um, but the audi­ence con­tin­ues to smile. They insist on mak­ing lemon­ade. Mak­ing a guest appear­ance in the emp­ty lounge chair next me is my father. He’s car­ry­ing a bam­boo bowl filled with lemons and cher­ries. “In the midst of the cri­sis, why is every­one act­ing as if every­thing is com­ing up daisies?” I ask him as he slips a lemon into each of my palms. “Well, Sweet­ie, he says, “when you are in the mid­dle of some­thing hor­ri­ble hap­pen­ing, some folks, like those who are afraid of being afraid, will insist Every­thing is fine! and they will insist that you insist as well, because the king can­not be clothed unless every­one acts like he is.” The clown spits out a cher­ry pit that lands by my ear. “Let goooo and let God,” he bel­lows as he taps his foot on my fore­head. But I can’t. A thin thread of lemon juice trick­les down my arms onto the pop­corn- and cher­ry-pit-pocked floor. My hands, squeez­ing and squeez­ing lemons, refuse to release. 



From the writer

:: Account ::

For a cou­ple of years now, I’ve been work­ing on a poet­ry man­u­script that explores per­cep­tion as a gen­er­a­tive act. As a non­vi­su­al per­son, I’m fas­ci­nat­ed by how dif­fer­ent­ly some of us see—what we see as indi­vid­u­als and how that dif­fers, the phys­i­ol­o­gy and psy­chol­o­gy of see­ing, and so on. Some of the poems in the man­u­script are ekphras­tic, writ­ten in response to art. 

Last year, my father passed after a long strug­gle with Parkinson’s. Before he died, he told me a deathbed secret. I have been wrestling with that sto­ry, both log­i­cal­ly and emo­tion­al­ly, ever since, pri­mar­i­ly through jour­nal­ing. I wasn’t able to write much in the way of poems, only those jour­nal-like pas­sages. And so, work on the man­u­script sim­ply stopped. Once I felt able, I took an online class in hopes of get­ting back into writ­ing poet­ry. To my sur­prise, while work­ing on a poem in response to a par­tic­u­lar sur­re­al paint­ing, I found myself writ­ing about my father. 

These poems in The Account are writ­ten in response to abstract and sur­re­al images from Pat­ty Paine’s won­der­ful art that she dis­plays on her Insta­gram account called wrecked-archive. She has been work­ing with vin­tage neg­a­tives as the basis of an exper­i­men­tal pho­tog­ra­phy art project. You can find wrecked-archive here:

I sus­pect the approach of med­i­tat­ing on sur­re­al and abstract images and then writ­ing in response to those images as if they were dreams, cou­pled with writ­ing in a form that I usu­al­ly don’t use (prose poems), pro­vides my mind with a way to approach my father’s pass­ing and the strange­ness of the whole situation.


Nan­cy Chen Long is the author of Wider Than the Sky (Diode Edi­tions, 2020), which was select­ed for the Diode Edi­tions Book Award, and Light Into Bod­ies (Uni­ver­si­ty of Tam­pa Press, 2017), which won the Tam­pa Review Prize for Poet­ry. Her work has been sup­port­ed by a Nation­al Endow­ment for the Arts Cre­ative Writ­ing fel­low­ship and a Poet­ry Soci­ety of Amer­i­ca Robert H. Win­ner Award. You’ll find her recent poems in Cop­per Nick­el, The Cincin­nati Review, The South­ern Review, and else­where. She works at Indi­ana Uni­ver­si­ty in the Research Tech­nolo­gies divi­sion.

Four Triple Sonnets

Poetry / Dorothy Chan

:: Triple Sonnet for Eggsexuals ::

          My friend Colleen says she’s eggsexual, 
and I’ve never heard a more brilliant 
          food metaphor—I dream of shakshuka 
with extra basil, and when in doubt, garlic 
          it out, and black pepper, black pepper, black 
pepper, and why do I hate greens for dinner 
          but love them for breakfast: Eggs Florentine 
with artichoke hearts as a surprise, or what  
          about spinach and poached eggs washed down 
with a dry martini—the 11:00 AM meal 
          of choice for glove lunch goers everywhere, 
or as Taneum says, it’s the elusive fantasy 
          mealtime of queer women, a way of flirtation 
that’s much more complex than chugging a beer 
and eating hot wings, or as I say to men 
          on the first date: Let’s get this out of the way: 
I will outdrink you. You will think I’m boring 
          because I hate sports and I love museums. 
I hate going to the beach. I hate hiking.  
          Wow, I’m such a buzzkill holding a whiskey 
in a short skirt and red lipstick, but at least 
          I’m honest, and maybe they’re not enough. 
And I’ll take the glove lunch any day— 
          the matching plaid skirt with blazer mixed 
with the glances and blushing under the table 
          and double the dry martinis before noon, 
because why not, I think, when I ask R 
          on the phone how she likes her eggs and coffee, 
          and isn’t it funny how these are the questions 
you ask when you’re dating? I remember 
          my dad’s dry scramble vs. my mom’s wet 
scramble from childhood, and maybe eggs 
          are precious, like in the typical middle school 
social studies project of treating a hard-boiled 
          egg like it’s your own child, but I never got it, 
because it’s just an egg, and what’s not stopping 
          me from breaking the shell and getting into  
the yolk? And I remember abandoning  
          my child at the lunch table to buy some chips, 
branded a “bad mom” from that moment on, 
          but it’s just an egg—and oh, how I felt ripped off 
when it didn’t hatch into a baby bird.  


:: Triple Sonnet, Because She Makes Me Hot ::

          She makes me hot, so I eat chocolate cheesecake 
after our phone call, down an espresso, and take 
          a hot shower, because it’s one of those nights 
I’ve craved since I was a little girl who 
          discovered that boys weren’t the only option, 
and I remember my first crushes on women— 
          the fantasy of starring in my own trashy 
mid 2000s reality show on MTV where 
          it’s a double (or triple) 
                                                                  shot at love, 
and I’d strut around in emerald lingerie, 
          telling the boys and girls to spank me, 
feed me carrot cake, and go out for a midnight 
          swim in the nude. And isn’t it sexy how often 
water appears in our dreams? But of course, 
                                       not all love is trashy, and I think about 
                              dressing up in a cheerleader costume, 
                                        telling the lady contestants, I used to sneak 
                              a glimpse of the girls on the football field. 
                                        But I’d rather skip gym class, paint all over 
                              canvases with beauties, or be ambitious, like 
                                        Tara Reid’s Vicky in American Pie, looking 
                              oh, so fine in her gray Cornell t-shirt, and  
                                        it’s oh so tight, Tara, and isn’t it ironic 
                              how I ended up going Big Red, or back 
                                        to my college days in Ithaca when my friend 
                              L and I would tongue under my covers, 
                                        saying “This is practice for the boys,”  
                              but we knew what we were doing—How 
does one even achieve intimacy?
          is really the million-dollar question 
of the century, and L, what we had 
          wasn’t a phase, and I remember donning 
your yellow flannel after the sun went down 
          in those Ithaca winters, and how you’d  
eye me saying, “You look like you just 
          had sex,” and we’d laugh and hug and I’d walk 
home. And sometimes I feel frozen in that 
          moment in time, when I’d get home, crawl 
into my own bed, in the nude, thinking about 
          my friend Anna’s words, “I think girls in boyish 
clothes look more feminine,” and I’d wipe off 
          my red lipstick with a tissue—fall asleep.  


:: Triple Sonnet and Three Cheers for the Asian Bachelorette ::

Yena wants an Asian Bachelorette,
          but she’s worried our bachelorette 
will get disowned by her family,
          because nothing screams Dear Mom and Dad
abandon me more than a starring role
          on reality TV and even the thought
of casual dating, and I wonder why
          parents like mine expect me to pop out
a baby when I wasn’t supposed to date
          in my twenties. It’s like the stork flew in,
and out came the perfect black-haired child
          I’d dedicate my life to, giving up poetry,
along with the endless cycle of girls and
          boys and great lovers in infatuation,

          and my problem is that I can’t say yes,
though I think yes, done, and one are
          the sexiest words in the English language,
or maybe I’m the Asian Bachelorette
          Yena so desires—the female lead who
leaves you hanging each week because
          I can’t make up my mind when it comes
to love. I’ll cry on cue in a ballroom gown
          in a castle in Switzerland, after a tough
elimination, regretting my decision right
          away, but scratch that, I’d never wear
am evening dress since I hate formal wear,
          and nothing turns me off more than a man
in a suit, and why all the focus on the outfits

when this is my life and my feelings 
          and the hot sex I crave every night
under the covers, and what if I played
          my Bachelorette role more Flavor of Love
or I Love New York, giving out nicknames
          to pass the time, because we all need 
a little levity when it comes to love,
          so how’s about Stud or 8-Pack or Sailor								
Uranus to my Sailor Neptune. And yes
          to all this cheer especially when the final two
meet my family over hotpot, and I end up 
          choosing the one they dislike, but scratch that,
I’ll eliminate both, because nothing’s better
          than being a free agent who doesn’t settle.


:: Triple Sonnet for Hers and Hers Towels and Princess Aurora’s Blue/Pink Gown ::

My brother’s wife gifts me a his and hers 
          hot chocolate set for Christmas, and I want
to scream, because in what universe are
          his and hers towels and his and hers mugs
and his and hers bathrobes still a thing? 
          All I see is his and hers rubbing it in
that I don’t have a his (that they know of),
          but really, what’s with shoving this hetero
agenda down my throat, along with cocoa,
          and my friend Drew says at least I get double
the chocolate, when what I really want is
          a frozen hot chocolate with extra whipped
cream and chocolate shavings and cherry
          on top from Serendipity 3, which is ironic

          because that’s the site of all the romantic 
comedies I hate. And what’s with shoving
          the hetero agenda down the throats of young
women, and I remember having a freak out
          at the Krispy Kreme in Rainbow Springs
Shopping Center in Vegas, because if 
          gender reveal cakes and gender reveal parties
anger me to no end, then gender reveal donuts
          are the spawn of evil dessert we don’t need,
because who chews into a custard crème,
          sees pink or blue, and feels normal afterwards,
when yellow was just fine? It’s the economy
          of it all I hate the most—the way blue boy
and pink girl keeps getting pushed, when

the only blue boy I know is the oil portrait
          by Gainsborough or the men’s magazine of
abs abs abs and then some more dessert. 
          Or what about pink girl / blue girl, also
known as Aurora’s color-changing gown
          in Sleeping Beauty, and it’s funny how 
this princess only had eighteen minutes
          of screen time, most of which is taken up								
by this pink and blue debate, when I really
          wanted to see her in green dancing in 
the woods, seducing all the birds around
          her, barefoot, in charge, dumping Prince Phillip,
because that kiss was dry as hell, and a princess
          needs at least sixty minutes of screen time.




From the writer


:: Account ::

Often, at read­ings, I get asked about the ori­gins of my triple son­nets. I’m very proud to call the triple son­net my sig­na­ture form. I start by say­ing that three is such a mag­ic num­ber. Think back to the fairy­tales and fan­ta­sy books you read as a kid. I mean, the best things in life come in threes: Spumoni and Neapoli­tan ice cream, bears, hot celebri­ties with three names, the Pow­er­puff Girls, the BLT sand­wich, etc. It’s like get­ting three wish­es all at once. And, the son­net is such a mag­i­cal form. 

I think about how the best poems don’t con­tain just one volta/turn but mul­ti­ple voltas/turns. It’s a beau­ti­ful sur­prise each time that hap­pens. And it’s a beau­ti­ful sur­prise when it hap­pens at an unex­pect­ed spot in the poem. I think the best feel­ing in the expe­ri­ence of read­ing a poem is when you get to the very end, and the last line makes you go back to the first, thus going in an infi­nite cir­cle, right back to the title and the first line. 

My poet­ry works with excess. I mean, why have only one son­net [or insert any­thing else you’re obsessed with] when you could have three (or five or one hun­dred or ten bil­lion)? I love food, and in par­tic­u­lar, this set of triple son­nets empha­sizes appetite, whether it’s about the speaker’s crav­ings for shak­shu­ka and Eggs Flo­ren­tine in “Triple Son­net for Egg­sex­u­als,” her desires for this woman who “makes me feel hot, so I eat choco­late cheese­cake / after our phone call” in “Triple Son­net, Because She Makes Me Hot,” her need for real­i­ty TV fame in “Triple Son­net and Three Cheers for the Asian Bach­e­lorette,” or her mis­sion to end het­ero­nor­ma­tiv­i­ty and the bina­ry struc­ture in “Triple Son­net for Hers and hers Tow­els and Princess Aurora’s Blue/Pink Gown.” I think it’s impor­tant to let our crav­ings out in poet­ry. It’s all very wild.


Dorothy Chan is the author of Revenge of the Asian Woman (Diode Edi­tions, 2019), Attack of the Fifty-Foot Cen­ter­fold (Spork Press, 2018), and the chap­book Chi­na­town Son­nets (New Delta Review, 2017). She is a two-time Ruth Lil­ly and Dorothy Sar­gent Rosen­berg Poet­ry Fel­low­ship final­ist, a 2020 final­ist for the Lamb­da Lit­er­ary Award in Bisex­u­al Poet­ry for Revenge of the Asian Woman, and a 2019 recip­i­ent of the Philip Fre­und Prize in Cre­ative Writ­ing from Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty. Her work has appeared in POETRY, The Amer­i­can Poet­ry Review, Acad­e­my of Amer­i­can Poets, and else­where. Chan is an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wis­con­sin-Eau Claire, poet­ry edi­tor of Hobart, book review co-edi­tor of Pleiades, and found­ing edi­tor and edi­tor-in-chief of Hon­ey Lit­er­ary. Vis­it her web­site at

Two Poems

Poetry / Lauren Camp

:: Whether or Not or Neither ::

I call my father every three days on the white  
          phone so he can tell me about noon  
and its signal. I hold each meander  
          up to my head. He has lived past being a particular  
being and I have learned I can love  
          longer the last of his vanishing 
stories. His steady anxiety splits  
          my ghosts, and on Tuesday and Friday  
and any day I call him with such kindness  
          as I didn’t have years ago. He no longer  
settles a sentence. Whatever it’s worth, now  
          with him I’m all nectar. I’ve learned to be  
sleepless where coyotes find midnight  
          desirable. I expect bird forms and forests  
to help me recover from the dimming  
          of his echoes, that unmanageable  
folding. When I was last  
          by his sleeve, the woman next to me sobbed  
without hesitation every three  
          minutes and the orderly  
in the chair beside her bent in to her long  
          lonely face whispering Sandy,  
don’t cry. You’ll mess up your makeup. Each time,  
          Sandy was tugged to a quiet and sat perfectly  
focused on mist only she  
          could see. Outside the window 
were here and there and the gusts 
          of a future. Then Sandy’s plain  
lashes fluttered and I saw her eyes  
          find the surface and the pattern  
of tragedy, which is in me, in you, the drain  
          of so much reason,  
and the relief again of more tears. 



:: Guide to Getting Home ::

Let home now be scurrying cotton feather. I’ve let go  
where I grew to be in this flame-perfumed desert. Needed more  
than the slow small sun swung up to boxes of windows.  
After the school bus circled past maples, I would skip 
with domesticated hunger to our cul-de-sac,  
holding lined equations. If Jane. If Tom. Each fact.  
You can imagine our little existence: Atari and sitcoms.  
In her corner, my mother pinned hems.  
I made small glad movements: rendered my dinner fork and voice  
and something forgotten. What I mean is I feasted.  
My family went on saying things to each other  
then released to the blue sofa  
loopy on ’70s humor. I remember  
my Saturday dresses, but not  
the buttons. Later remember my mother’s lung  
with its stain. Rain, sleet, everything we lived between. Nothing  
was certain but grapefruit on weekdays and pigeons. 
Now that I’m in the desert’s spontaneous glitter, my home  
is steady and thick. A few rabbit tracks  
mark the whisks of last year’s grasses. Storm clouds, long spiders 
beside rhizome, petiole, cataphyll. The horizon changes  
and somehow I’m back to another turn up the stairs  
of that normal brown Tudor on a street  
with no precise name. The street we repeated
as we reentered each day with the least and I wasn’t afraid.  
Each time we vacationed, my mother plunked her feet  
on the dashboard while we took the distance  
to an average hotel in Boston’s low edges, a pool, a closed 
door, nothing worse. This was also a shape  
of divinity. Then we drove back. 




From the writer


:: Account ::

For sev­er­al years now, I’ve been writ­ing about fam­i­ly. When my father began show­ing signs of demen­tia at his 80th birth­day par­ty, sud­den­ly there was a lot to do to ensure the resources were in place to take care of him.  It was shock­ing to be mak­ing deci­sions for some­one else, some­one who had always been very vital, not to men­tion con­trol­ling. Much stress and ques­tion­ing sur­round­ed each action. My sib­lings had their own reac­tions, and I wrote through some of those. Through poet­ry, I have doc­u­ment­ed the years since then, his wor­ries and our wor­ries, some details of his new home (in mem­o­ry care) … all the way through writ­ing the obit­u­ary and plan­ning a funer­al. It was help­ful to have a way to craft the com­pli­cat­ed grief and sad­ness. This didn’t make it go away, but by giv­ing it a form and some cre­ative approach­es, I could focus to spe­cif­ic per­spec­tives and allow what was hap­pen­ing. “Guide to Get­ting Home” turns back through child­hood mem­o­ries, with a brief look for­ward, beyond what we knew then to what would come. It’s a quirky sort of plea­sure to play with time in a poem. 


Lau­ren Camp is the author of five books of poet­ry, most recent­ly Took House (Tupe­lo Press, 2020). Her poems have appeared in Ben­ning­ton Review, Beloit Poet­ry Jour­nal, Wit­ness, Eco­tone, Poet Lore, and oth­er jour­nals. Win­ner of the Dorset Prize, Lau­ren has also received fel­low­ships from The Black Earth Insti­tute and The Taft-Nichol­son Cen­ter, and final­ist cita­tions for the Arab Amer­i­can Book Award, the Housaton­ic Book Award, and the New Mex­i­co-Ari­zona Book Award. Her work has been trans­lat­ed into Man­darin, Turk­ish, Span­ish, and Ara­bic.

The Rural Imagination of Michael

Poetry / Joshua Butts

:: The Rural Imagination of Michael ::

Your father moved here for tim­ber, cabinetry. 

On Cut­lip Rd., in the sleep­over light, we watched C.H.U.D.  

Your grand­moth­er fold­ed my first omelet. 

Your bed­room win­dow on the high­way side & stars. 

We rode bare­back hors­es & the hairs cov­ered my black joggers. 

Your par­ents bought prop­er­ty at the dis­used orchard. 

My dad drilled two-by-fours, string­ing Romex as it ran out 

through the walls giv­ing light from the break­er box. 

Near the end, we walked through woods to a pasture 

with a two-lane crawl along­side. There were cows. 

A bull (row­dy spouse). There was a white S10 parked off 

in the weeds. You stole a pack of Win­stons from the dash. 

At the farm­house the old lady thought we were Depression 

giv­en our clothes—tears in our jeans, flan­nel. I don’t  

remem­ber walk­ing back from the farm­house. She was so nice 

she told on us. I was ground­ed for your smokes. In high school 

I drove out at lunch to see you fight Guy & Eddie (both wrestlers). 

We’d thought the fight wasn’t going to hap­pen & then over the hill 

from your par­ents’ land, some kind of bul­ly choreography, 

you appeared in the back of a pick­up with Chris Cos­by, the truck 

blast­ing Soundgar­den or Tool or some shit. The entrance was 

cin­e­mat­ic. The fight (real­ly wrestling: Guy & Eddy) like all fights 

was a mix of blunt­ed lust, then fear, then the sen­sa­tion of 

tast­ing your own throat. We drove away from it into our lives. 

Your trou­ble, Michael, wasn’t so strange & tor­tured that it couldn’t  

be mea­sured for heav­en, or I’d like to think. Maybe you deserved all of it. 

Once we were lit­tle boys togeth­er for as long as we were lit­tle boys.



From the writer


:: Account ::

Nos­tal­gia locates desire in the past where it suf­fers no active con­flict and can be yearned toward pleas­ant­ly. His­to­ry is the anti­dote to this. 

  —Robert Hass, “Lowell’s Graveyard”

Dur­ing a post-talk Q&A, I once asked Greil Mar­cus if nos­tal­gia was any use at all. I can’t remem­ber what he said, but I knew it was a ques­tion I need­ed to ask myself continually. 

 In Cam­era Luci­da, Roland Barthes writes: “Per­haps we have an invin­ci­ble resis­tance to believ­ing in the past, in His­to­ry, except in the form of myth.” Barthes goes on to say that “[t]he Pho­to­graph, for the first time, puts an end to this resis­tance: hence­forth the past is as cer­tain as the present, what we see on paper is as cer­tain as what we touch.” Per­haps this is so for the pho­to­graph, but in poems the amal­ga­ma­tion of lan­guage isn’t “cer­tain,” is always an approx­i­ma­tion. Does that mean poems are always myth—whether will­ful­ly so or not? I don’t think so. Still my past poems delight­ed in myth­mak­ing, pre­sent­ing a sort of Amer­i­can strange­ness prob­a­bly influ­enced by or filched from The Anthol­o­gy of Amer­i­can Folk Music, C. D. Wright, & Bob Dylan. I have tend­ed toward the per­sona poem—poems that speak in the voice of anoth­er, & in my first book, voic­es from an Appalachi­an past. 

Post-2016, jour­nal­ists went look­ing for an answer for why white rur­al folk vot­ed for Trump when the answer was clear­ly racism, misog­y­ny, ableism, homo­pho­bia, trans­pho­bia, & xeno­pho­bia. J. D. Vance, for one, offered a ver­sion that deflect­ed from these real rea­sons, a ver­sion that also offered a delight­ing-in-vio­lence vision of rural­ness that I found trou­bling. In spite of class issues, lack of edu­ca­tion, one must nev­er assuage or cov­er over the racism, misog­y­ny, ableism, homo­pho­bia, trans­pho­bia, & xeno­pho­bia men­tioned above. White rural­ness doesn’t require these fea­tures, but they are preva­lent fea­tures in white rural­ness (& preva­lent fea­tures every­where for that mat­ter, as wit­nessed by a quick scan of Twit­ter). Rural­ness is not a monolith—is not always hill­bil­ly, or Appalachi­an, & cer­tain­ly not always white. Yet it can be sort of a city imag­i­na­tion, or sub­ur­ban imag­i­na­tion, to think it those things: hill­bil­ly, Appalachi­an, white. 

I start­ed writ­ing these rur­al imag­i­na­tion poems in an expos­i­to­ry mode, using a straight­for­ward use of the title: The Rur­al Imag­i­na­tion of X. When the sub­ject was “Music” or “Hol­ly­wood” or “Dri­ving to the Near­est City,” you would get an explo­ration of that issue or theme. But was there any of the “active con­flict” Hass men­tions? As I wrote more & more poems, I start­ed to think about how I am some­one who no longer lives in a rur­al place. Am I no bet­ter than Vance? I grew up in a small town in south­east­ern Ohio. I’ve hunt­ed, fished. My father bought me a 20-gauge when I was ten, but I dropped it & broke the stock. I was punched in the face at least three times with­out provo­ca­tion by peo­ple like those in the above poem. I was a skate­board­er, braid­ed neck­laces, played in a punk band. If I am employ­ing the imag­i­na­tion, it will hope­ful­ly all the while be in search of some­thing like a com­pli­ca­tion, a slow­ing down. 

The poems I keep com­ing back to in this project are more close­ly auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal. The fight in the poem above hap­pened. Our high school would give us twen­ty-five min­utes for lunch & let us leave in cars & trucks. I drove three friends out there to Michael’s land in a beige Dodge Aries. We were lis­ten­ing to the Dead Kennedys. If more close­ly auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal, they are also often clos­er to an “I.” But what is an I? Poet Kath­leen Graber writes in “Self-Por­trait with The Sleep­ing Man,” from her recent & amaz­ing book, Riv­er Twice:  

Some­times I say I, as though someone 

might still believe there could be a coher­ent, dis­tinct self in there.

Barthes would also resist such a coherence—as if the poems were uttered from some Author-God. The rur­al imag­i­na­tion “I” is kind of a con­struct to speak through, employ­ing mem­o­ry & an insid­er plus out­sider sta­tus (if that is even pos­si­ble). While, like Graber, my sense of “I” is not “coher­ent,” I am also just myself & am try­ing to write poems with that aware­ness. As I step inside & out­side of the project, I can exam­ine nos­tal­gia, I can resist essen­tial­ism, I can try to rec­og­nize my priv­i­lege. I cer­tain­ly do not con­tain, nor speak for, any multitudes. 


Joshua Butts is the author of New to the Lost Coast (Gold Wake Press, 2015). His poems have appeared recent­ly in Black­bird, Pleiades, & South­ern Human­i­ties Review. He has held res­i­den­cies at the VCCA & Byrd­cliffe, was a Ten­nessee Williams Schol­ar at the Sewa­nee Writ­ers’ Con­fer­ence, & attend­ed The Home School. Butts received his BA & MA in Eng­lish from The Ohio State Uni­ver­si­ty & his PhD in cre­ative writ­ing from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cincin­nati. He cur­rent­ly teach­es & serves as Dean of Fac­ul­ty at the Colum­bus Col­lege of Art & Design in Colum­bus, OH

Three Poems

Poetry / Kristy Bowen

:: from extinction event ::

It’s sum­mer, and it’s always a par­ty. Bring only what you can car­ry in your tiny shell. In this tiny  hell you call day­light. Bell sleeves and body glit­ter. Your best teeth to bite the hand that feeds  you. We mis­took it for a pic­nic, so we made pota­to sal­ad that rot­ted in the sun. One gala apple after anoth­er we shot off each other’s heads. After all, the fos­sils weren’t remains, not real­ly, but the mass that took up the space where we were. Filled the holes we left behind. Noth­ing but hair  and bone, when we were once so pret­ty. Tidi­ly pack­ing for an after­noon in the ammu­ni­tion fields, wield­ing our bas­kets over hills. Killing the birds with rocks and fill­ing our pock­ets with  shells. Look at the way our bod­ies glint under the ozone glow. The foot­prints that van­ish before dawn. The clear­ing we claimed as ours swal­low­ing us whole until noth­ing was left but a spoon, a bro­ken plate. The inevitable par­ty after the par­ty died out, our sequins scat­tered in the dirt. 

:: from extinction event ::

Even­tu­al­ly we need a place to house the bones. Room after room stuffed with the dead. In the base­ment we stack them on shelves and tuck them into draw­ers. Ours, the best kind of  chlo­ro­form, the sleep you descend into like a stair­case. A swift twist of the neck. We almost believed you were dead, except for the slow growl of a pulse. The way your eyes flick­er when we drag a comb through the mat­ted fur. How you mewl and hiss through the slats after every­one  goes home. Morn­ing, play­ing pos­sum at the bot­tom of your glass cage. The bust­ed latch  fas­tened from the inside. We almost believed you want­ed out. 


:: from extinction event ::

In this box, I col­lect the bro­ken things. The twist­ed oak, the dusty lynx. Bud­gies and buntings and speck­led hawks tum­bled from their nests. We are going on a pic­nic and can take only the most unfor­tu­nate. The deer miss­ing its antler, the one-eyed frog. Like Noah, we build and build, but the space gets small­er. Noth­ing can breathe, least of all me. My lungs stopped up with feath­ers and the small ani­mals I’ve smug­gled inside the body for safe keep­ing. In the box, we rus­tle the feath­ers and bend the bones, but noth­ing fits. Even side by side, stacked ver­ti­cal­ly in rows. Noth­ing sits upright or thrives. We name them, tag their tiny feet, and still, noth­ing moves inside the box. All night we soothe them with sounds their moth­ers make, but still they sleep and dream of trees. 



From the writer


:: Account ::

extinc­tion event is a series of pieces writ­ten in prepa­ra­tion for a read­ing at the Field Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry in the fall of 2019. While I was grant­ed full access to the col­lec­tions and had vague ideas going in to write about dinosaur fos­sils, I nev­er set out to write some­thing so apoc­a­lyp­tic (I already have an entire book ded­i­cat­ed to the apoc­a­lypse), but it hap­pened nev­er­the­less, this time not through a lens of nuclear war­fare or zom­bie plagues but via cli­mate change and the alarm­ing­ly fre­quent extinc­tion event mark­ers laid out through evo­lu­tion­ary exhibits. I also spent a good chunk of my vis­its in the Hall of Birds, then read­ing about evo­lu­tion­ary links between dinosaurs and their near­est sur­viv­ing ances­tors, as well as doing research on ear­ly muse­um dio­ra­ma artists like Carl Ake­ley. The series increas­ing­ly became about the idea of muse­ums them­selves as doc­u­ments of lost worlds and the strug­gle to doc­u­ment what one day may be our own.


A writer and book artist, Kristy Bowen is the author of sex & vio­lence (Black Lawrence Press, 2020) and sev­er­al oth­er col­lec­tions, chap­books, artist books, and zines. She lives in Chica­go, where she runs danc­ing girl press & studio. 

The Value of a PhD?

Criticism / Susanna Compton Underland


:: The Value of a PhD? ::

About six months after tak­ing a staff job at my uni­ver­si­ty, func­tion­al­ly leav­ing the tenure-track job mar­ket in Amer­i­can lit­er­ary stud­ies, I met up with a for­mer men­tor of mine while vis­it­ing the city where he teach­es. I was hap­py to find that I could still catch up with a dis­ser­ta­tion com­mit­tee mem­ber out­side of the grad­u­ate school con­text, even more so because Kevin had ties to more than just my dis­ser­ta­tion: in a sense, he rep­re­sents the entire arc of my doc­tor­al career. Years after tak­ing his Civ­il War lit­er­a­ture course my sopho­more year of col­lege, I came across his first mono­graph in the library while work­ing on a dis­ser­ta­tion prospec­tus about reli­gion and sentimentalism—precisely the top­ic of his book. How uncan­ny, I thought, that I wound up in the very same sub­field as him. I reached out, we crossed paths at con­fer­ences, and even­tu­al­ly he joined my dis­ser­ta­tion com­mit­tee. And now, from dual sides of acad­e­mia, we were some­thing like peers. Over lunch, our con­ver­sa­tion ranged top­ics from cam­pus pol­i­tics and the joys of new par­ent­hood to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Cus­tom-House” sketch (1850). I had just picked up The Scar­let Let­ter after months of find­ing no time for read­ing while accli­mat­ing to my new admin­is­tra­tive posi­tion and was floored by the rel­e­vance of Hawthorne’s writ­ing to my own expe­ri­ence. I explained to Kevin that it seemed like Hawthorne had hit the nail on the head in describ­ing what it means to shift from lit­er­ary pur­suits to more bureau­crat­ic work. I was heart­ened by Hawthorne’s spin on the mer­its of this kind of change in work, par­tic­u­lar­ly in terms of embrac­ing a dif­fer­ent set of col­leagues. And I had gen­uine­ly laughed out loud when Hawthorne pokes fun at his for­mer set of eclec­tic lit­er­ary acquain­tances, issu­ing the sick burn, “Even the old Inspec­tor was desir­able, as a change of diet, to a man who had known Alcott.” [i] Those of us depart­ing work in Eng­lish depart­ments might sim­i­lar­ly chuck­le about the relief of leav­ing some col­leagues behind—who, I joked, is my Bron­son Alcott? [ii] Kevin laughed along with me before quip­ping, “You might be the only per­son who has ever enjoyed read­ing ‘The Custom-House.’” 

What made read­ing “The Cus­tom-House,” a text often deployed to vary­ing degrees of suc­cess as a teach­ing tool, so plea­sur­able to me at this junc­ture in my life? Well, there was the read­ing, and then there was the talk­ing about the read­ing. I enjoyed con­nect­ing to Nathaniel Hawthorne through our shared work­place expe­ri­ences, and I enjoyed return­ing to con­ver­sa­tions about lit­er­a­ture with schol­ar­ly col­leagues. My con­ver­sa­tion with Kevin rep­re­sents an abil­i­ty to bridge a past life as a doc­tor­al stu­dent and schol­ar with a future as an aca­d­e­m­ic admin­is­tra­tor. Much has been writ­ten about doc­tor­al grad­u­ates hav­ing to give up on the tenure-track job mar­ket. Those of us who spent the bet­ter part of a decade in train­ing for a job that no longer seems to exist have had to rec­on­cile what we lost; our respec­tive fields of study have also had to come to terms with what our depar­ture means for schol­ar­ship. [iii] I had cer­tain­ly har­bored dreams of becom­ing a tenure-track fac­ul­ty mem­ber and spend­ing the rest of my work­ing life research­ing nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry Amer­i­can domes­tic fic­tion, and I don’t exact­ly find in my new work a per­fect real­iza­tion of intel­lec­tu­al pur­pose. But in “The Cus­tom-House,” Hawthorne artic­u­lates a cer­tain sense of self that I found to be help­ful for devel­op­ing a new intel­lec­tu­al ori­en­ta­tion toward the val­ue of my work, past and present. Tak­ing up Hawthorne’s reflec­tion on his brief stint as sur­vey­or of Salem’s Cus­tom House, the goal of this essay is not to grieve the tenure-track path (or to cel­e­brate high­er ed admin­is­tra­tion, which is not with­out its faults), but rather to explore what it means to chart a new intel­lec­tu­al path. What does my PhD mean to me now? 


A bit of back­sto­ry: about a year ago, I accept­ed a full-time staff posi­tion man­ag­ing an hon­ors pro­gram at the uni­ver­si­ty where I com­plet­ed my doc­tor­ate in nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture. I felt hap­py about my tran­si­tion to a staff job on cam­pus because the tan­gi­ble cir­cum­stances of my work improved, name­ly my salary and my rou­tine. Tran­si­tion­ing to admin­is­tra­tion from research and teach­ing was also sat­is­fy­ing because it was a choice, a dif­fer­ence from feel­ing like one’s life is in some­one else’s hands. After some years in lim­bo on the aca­d­e­m­ic job mar­ket, writ­ing the next arti­cle, propos­ing the next con­fer­ence pan­el, work­ing toward the next round of appli­ca­tions and inter­views, to sign a con­tract was to end the cycle—a relief in itself. 

Iron­i­cal­ly, my new office was direct­ly across the street from the Eng­lish depart­ment build­ing. I could see my dis­ser­ta­tion advisor’s office win­dow from my own. While it felt like I had made a sig­nif­i­cant career shift, I was also mere­ly moved to the oth­er side of a plaza where I had met stu­dents dur­ing out­door office hours and vent­ed to friends about fel­low­ship sea­son. This phys­i­cal prox­im­i­ty to my for­mer depart­ment rep­re­sent­ed how I want­ed to feel about my job: that it would not be that dif­fer­ent, that far away from my aca­d­e­m­ic train­ing. I would still be involved with a human­i­ties-skew­ing cur­ricu­lum, I would still inter­act with stu­dents, and I would remain a part of the aca­d­e­m­ic com­mu­ni­ty. Ulti­mate­ly, for the most part, I was not wrong. And when it came to the things that would change (the extent to which every hour of my day would come to be orga­nized by Google Cal­en­dar, for instance), I found in Hawthorne a solace. 

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804 – 1864) was already an estab­lished writer of tales when, in 1846, he was appoint­ed sur­vey­or of the Cus­tom-House in Salem, Mass­a­chu­setts. This tran­si­tion was Hawthorne’s own fig­u­ra­tive move across a plaza, from his lit­er­ary home in Con­cord, where he wrote Moss­es from an Old Manse (1846), to his gov­ern­ment post in Salem. Hawthorne frames much of his time in the Cus­tom-House through his col­leagues, who dif­fer from his pri­or, lit­er­ary com­rades in their busi­nesslike demeanors. And at least for a while, Hawthorne finds the applied util­i­ty of his new posi­tion inspiring: 

I took it in good part, at the hands of Prov­i­dence, that I was thrown into a posi­tion so lit­tle akin to my past habits; and set myself seri­ous­ly to gath­er from it what­ev­er prof­it was to be had. After my fel­low­ship of toil and imprac­ti­ca­ble schemes with the dreamy brethren of Brook Farm; after liv­ing for three years with­in the sub­tile influ­ence of an intel­lect like Emerson’s; after those wild, free days on the Ass­a­beth, indulging fan­tas­tic spec­u­la­tions, beside our fire of fall­en boughs, with Ellery Chan­ning; after talk­ing with Thore­au about pine-trees and Indi­an relics, in his her­mitage at Walden; … it was time, at length, that I should exer­cise oth­er fac­ul­ties of my nature, and nour­ish myself with food for which I had hith­er­to had lit­tle appetite. (21)

Not to roman­ti­cize grad­u­ate school as “wild, free days” (“fel­low­ship of toil” is more like it), but Hawthorne’s assess­ment of this change in work­place scenery was akin to my own, thrown as I was into a 9 – 5 world of spread­sheets, spread­sheets, and more spread­sheets. At its best, the aca­d­e­m­ic pro­fes­sion can feel like “indulging fan­tas­tic spec­u­la­tions, beside [a] fire of fall­en boughs.” Work­ing with a men­tor can feel like “liv­ing … with­in the sub­tile influ­ence of [a great] intel­lect.” (Explic­it com­par­isons of any­one liv­ing to Ralph Wal­do Emer­son have been redact­ed to pro­tect the egos of those involved.) At the same time, I was hap­py to step away, to “exer­cise oth­er fac­ul­ties” and engage with, as Hawthorne will lat­er sug­gest, the real world. Hawthorne’s new col­leagues are “men of alto­geth­er dif­fer­ent qual­i­ties” from Emer­son, Chan­ning, and Thore­au, but Hawthorne embraces the fact that the oth­er men of the Cus­tom-House “care lit­tle for his pur­suits,” pre­sum­ably unin­ter­est­ed in lit­er­a­ture or his lit­er­ary past (20). They teach him about the new and dif­fer­ent tal­ents of busi­ness­men. So too, even if my exper­tise in nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry women’s domes­tic fic­tion did not come up in con­ver­sa­tions by the water cool­er, I quick­ly learned how to write a fac­ul­ty con­tract; how to scale a pro­gram bud­get (up fol­low­ing siz­able cam­pus invest­ment, and then down fol­low­ing the con­se­quences of a glob­al pan­dem­ic); how to make sure someone’s park­ing per­mit gets acti­vat­ed on the right day. No small thing, real­ly. Cam­pus park­ing enforce­ment is aggressive. 

But in addi­tion to the ben­e­fits of learn­ing new skills, Hawthorne also describes what all of this change means for his iden­ti­ty as a writer. He admits, “Lit­er­a­ture, its exer­tions and objects, were now of lit­tle moment in my regard. I cared not, at this peri­od, for books; they were apart from me.… A gift, a fac­ul­ty, if it had not depart­ed, was sus­pend­ed and inan­i­mate with­in me” (21). I felt this too. I had not nec­es­sar­i­ly lost the researcher or writer inside me; my staff office, dec­o­rat­ed with a wall of book­shelves for which I had repeat­ed­ly asked, sug­gests that I was at least cling­ing to the ves­tiges of a researcher or writer out­side of me. Even so, that ver­sion of myself did feel “sus­pend­ed and inan­i­mate.” For a time, I had read very lit­tle at all, either for plea­sure or to attempt inde­pen­dent schol­ar­ship. Through­out my life as a stu­dent of lit­er­a­ture, I had cer­tain­ly tak­en breaks like this, and I had always thought of my brain as need­ing rest from the rig­ors of crit­i­cal read­ing. “Sus­pend­ed and inan­i­mate” describes a pause, rather than a stop. So, in those months when I was first learn­ing the ropes of my admin­is­tra­tive posi­tion, books might have been “apart” from me, but they were no fur­ther away than at the times dur­ing grad­u­ate school I indulged in watch­ing hours on end of The Bach­e­lor fran­chise (tru­ly a brain-sus­pend­ing exer­cise). Per­haps the months before I picked up The Scar­let Let­ter and its prefa­to­ry essay were just an extra-long Mon­day night—a break from exertion. 

Hawthorne like­wise empha­sizes that the depar­ture of his lit­er­ary fac­ul­ty is tem­po­rary. He reas­sures the read­er that all was not lost, and in fact, all was still read­i­ly acces­si­ble: “There would have been some­thing sad, unut­ter­ably drea­ry, in all this, had I not been con­scious that it lay at my own option to recall what­ev­er was valu­able in the past” (21). It is in this moment that Hawthorne pro­vid­ed a bit of self-help, prompt­ing me to con­tex­tu­al­ize my new posi­tion in rec­ol­lec­tions of my pri­or expe­ri­ence. What stands out is Hawthorne’s empha­sis on his “own option,” a choice with­in his con­trol. By hold­ing on to his past expe­ri­ences and their val­ue to him, Hawthorne can rec­on­cile him­self (he says, any­way) to the new real­i­ty of his place in the Cus­tom-House. Here, Hawthorne inspired me to rumi­nate on what was “valu­able” in my past as a schol­ar and student. 

Any­one who has com­plet­ed a PhD in the human­i­ties can enu­mer­ate its chal­lenges, which make the per­ceived lack of a return-on-invest­ment that much more painful. In short, did the degree cost more than it was worth? The abysmal­ly-low stipends, the imposter syn­drome, the com­pe­ti­tion with equal­ly-deserv­ing peers for too-few fel­low­ships (or, alter­na­tive­ly, the feel­ing that some­one less-than-deserv­ing has scored one), the pow­er dynam­ics with (and among) faculty—all these are famil­iar. My father recent­ly spec­u­lat­ed about the kind of retire­ment sav­ings I lost over the course of my doc­tor­al career, pre­sum­ing that I would have had a full-time job with ben­e­fits dur­ing my twen­ties if I hadn’t attend­ed grad­u­ate school. In response to that trade-off, I some­times feel a com­pul­sive need to item­ize the ben­e­fits of sus­tained lit­er­ary study. Like an Eng­lish depart­ment extolling the prac­ti­cal uses of their Eng­lish major to con­cerned, skep­ti­cal under­grad­u­ates and their fam­i­lies, I can lay out here the many skills learned and honed in grad­u­ate school that I use at my staff job today: the abil­i­ty to gath­er and con­sid­er dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives before form­ing my own argu­ment, to self-direct a project or ini­tia­tive and build a time­line for its com­ple­tion, to revise some­thing over and over (and over) with patience. And I can’t help but think that doc­tor­al grad­u­ates are more equipped than any­one to spend months tele­work­ing with no one but them­selves to keep us on task. That skill has to be worth some­thing, right? 

Hawthorne con­sis­tent­ly uses such lan­guage around worth, which is to say mar­ket val­ue, to describe his own vexed feel­ings about his two occu­pa­tions as sur­vey­or and writer. As I men­tioned, while work­ing as sur­vey­or, Hawthorne is con­soled by the fact that he can draw on what was “valu­able in his past,” and he sim­i­lar­ly sup­pos­es that there might be “prof­it” in his present occu­pa­tion (21). Ulti­mate­ly, though, Hawthorne does escape the Cus­tom-House and return to his ful­ly-cre­ative life. Thus, “The Cus­tom-House,” writ­ten ret­ro­spec­tive­ly, treats Hawthorne’s staff job (as I like to think of it) as use­ful only inso­far as it is a tem­po­rary posi­tion. The Cus­tom-House, Hawthorne writes, “might make me per­ma­nent­ly oth­er than I had been, with­out trans­form­ing me into any shape which it would be worth my while to take. But I had nev­er con­sid­ered it as oth­er than a tran­si­to­ry life” (21). Hawthorne pon­ders what might have been had he remained a sur­vey­or: he might have changed, per­ma­nent­ly, and that change might not have been worth­while. Notably, though the Cus­tom-House job cen­ters on mon­e­tary val­ue, for Hawthorne, “worth” is con­nect­ed to Romance. 

Hawthorne main­tains that the worth­while shape of his self must retain an intel­lec­tu­al warmth con­ducive to writ­ing. He shares that The Scar­let Let­ter could nev­er have been writ­ten if he remained a surveyor: 

The char­ac­ters of the nar­ra­tive would not be warmed and ren­dered mal­leable by any heat that I could kin­dle at my intel­lec­tu­al forge. They would take nei­ther the glow of pas­sion nor the ten­der­ness of sen­ti­ment, but retained all the rigid­i­ty of corpses, and stared at me in the face with a fixed and ghast­ly grin of con­temp­tu­ous defi­ance. “What have you to do with us?” that expres­sion seemed to say. “The lit­tle pow­er you might have once pos­sessed over the tribe of unre­al­i­ties is gone! You have bartered it for a pit­tance of the pub­lic gold. Go, then, and earn your wages!” (27) 

Hawthorne’s inter­nal con­flict between mal­leable warmth and cold rigid­i­ty res­onates with some per­cep­tions of leav­ing acad­e­mia. After years of liv­ing on so lit­tle in order to pur­sue schol­ar­ship, it can feel like sell­ing out to trade in your adjunct con­tract for the secu­ri­ty of a salaried job. One of the first ques­tions a men­tor asked me when I told him about my new posi­tion was “What’s the salary?” This came from a kinder place than “Go, then, and earn your wages!” but even so, I won­dered what I had “bartered” for my “pit­tance of the pub­lic gold.” [iv] Cer­tain­ly not the next great Amer­i­can nov­el, but per­haps some kind of unde­fin­able qual­i­ty of “my intel­lec­tu­al forge.” 

So, where does this leave me? Nos­tal­gic about the ear­ly, thrilling days of learn­ing? Vin­di­cat­ed to have left a pro­fes­sion that con­tributed noth­ing to my 401k? Some­where in between, of course. On some days, the fact that I spend hours trans­lat­ing per­son­nel cat­e­gories into finan­cial object codes does make my brain feel like a “tar­nished mir­ror” that reflects only a “mis­er­able dim­ness” of a cre­ative life (27). Hawthorne admits toward the end of the sketch, “I had ceased to be a writer of tol­er­a­bly poor tales and essays, and had become a tol­er­a­bly good Sur­vey­or of the Cus­toms” (29). Had I ceased to be a writer of tol­er­a­bly poor crit­i­cism (ouch) only to become a tol­er­a­bly good man­ag­er of an hon­ors pro­gram? I think not, in part because I can con­tin­ue tak­ing my cue from Hawthorne, who imag­ines an alter­na­tive to the tar­nished mirror. 

For Hawthorne, mere­ly remem­ber­ing his lit­er­ary past becomes unten­able; he must return to his cre­ative life in full. “It was a fol­ly,” he writes, “with the mate­ri­al­i­ty of this dai­ly life press­ing so intru­sive­ly upon me, to attempt to fling myself back into anoth­er age; or to insist on cre­at­ing the sem­blance of a world out of airy mat­ter, when, at every moment, the impal­pa­ble beau­ty of my soap-bub­ble was bro­ken by the rude con­tact of some actu­al cir­cum­stance” (28). The Scar­let Let­ter and its pref­ace, now known for rep­re­sent­ing Hawthorne’s the­o­ry of Romance as char­ac­ter­ized by moon­light, could not have been pro­duced while the writer was immersed in the sun­light of a staff job. Lucky for me, a per­son not try­ing to imag­ine a new world, but rather to find joy and cre­ativ­i­ty in my own, Hawthorne sup­pos­es a dif­fer­ent intel­lec­tu­al orientation: 

The wis­er effort would have been, to dif­fuse thought and imag­i­na­tion through the opaque sub­stance of to-day, and thus to make it a bright trans­paren­cy; to spir­i­tu­al­ize the bur­den that began to weigh so heav­i­ly; to seek, res­olute­ly, the true and inde­struc­tible val­ue that lay hid­den in the pet­ty and weari­some inci­dents, and ordi­nary char­ac­ters, with which I was now con­ver­sant. (28–29) 

This feels doable. I remem­ber inter­view­ing for my staff posi­tion and insist­ing that my PhD would make me a good admin­is­tra­tor, a more thought­ful, imag­i­na­tive admin­is­tra­tor who could bring a bit of the misty human­i­ties to our expense spread­sheets and pol­i­cy man­u­als. Indeed, I con­tin­u­al­ly say things like “This bud­get has to tell a sto­ry!” (I am fun to have in meet­ings.) But even beyond the util­i­ty of my degree for my “alt-ac” job, the val­ue of the PhD is big­ger than work. I have long got­ten past the idea that one’s PhD is only valu­able inso­far as it begets a tenure-track job. But here I find myself insist­ing that my PhD is valu­able inso­far as I use it at an admin­is­tra­tive job. When I real­ly con­sid­er Hawthorne’s advice to dif­fuse thought and imag­i­na­tion through the day and spir­i­tu­al­ize the bur­dens in our lives, I am not just think­ing about mak­ing the “pet­ty and weari­some inci­dents” of high­er ed admin­is­tra­tion more palat­able. Rather, I rec­og­nize in this pas­sage an entire mode of liv­ing, one Hawthorne would call Roman­tic, a mode I cul­ti­vat­ed while tru­ly immersed in nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry lit­er­a­ture and argu­ments about wom­an­hood, moral­i­ty, domes­tic­i­ty, and the after­life. To be sure, it is a priv­i­lege to have a full-time job with ben­e­fits and a retire­ment plan. But the val­ue of my PhD is not about the job I did or did not get, it is about the per­son I became: a per­son who can see in moon­light and sun­light just the same.

[i] Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scar­let Let­ter and Oth­er Writ­ings, ed. Leland S. Per­son (W. W. Nor­ton & Com­pa­ny, 2017), 21. Here­after cit­ed par­en­thet­i­cal­ly. (Among the more mun­dane things I miss about grad­u­ate school, sur­prise Nor­ton Crit­i­cal Edi­tions arriv­ing in the cam­pus mail is at the top of the list.)

[ii] Bron­son Alcott (1799 – 1888), father of Louisa May Alcott, was a promi­nent Tran­scen­den­tal­ist and part of the intel­lec­tu­al com­mu­ni­ty Hawthorne depart­ed when he moved to Salem pri­or to writ­ing “The Cus­tom-House” sketch. An abo­li­tion­ist and edu­ca­tion reformer, Alcott was also an eccen­tric whose imprac­ti­cal utopi­an com­mu­ni­ty, Fruit­lands, required that inhab­i­tants forego warm bathwater. 

[iii] I am think­ing here of what may be the two most viral pieces of the genre known as “quit lit,” a genre that boomed dur­ing the years I was in grad­u­ate school (from 2012 – 2019). In “The­sis Hate­ment,” Rebec­ca Schu­man sar­don­ical­ly asserts that grad­u­ate school will “ruin your life in a very real way” and com­pares the aca­d­e­m­ic job mar­ket to small-cell lung can­cer. On the oth­er hand, Erin Bartram’s “The Sub­li­mat­ed Grief of Those Left Behind” both explains the author’s feel­ings upon depart­ing from acad­e­mia and con­sid­ers “how much knowl­edge … that’s just going to be lost to those who remain.” Both pieces spurred a litany of respons­es as acad­eme processed the reck­on­ing of a tru­ly bleak over­sup­ply of doc­tor­al graduates.

[iv] Giv­en that my work at a state uni­ver­si­ty is indeed fund­ed by “pub­lic gold,” it is worth not­ing anoth­er dimen­sion to the idea of sell­ing out: the bud­getary ten­sions between tenure-track fac­ul­ty and high­er ed admin­is­tra­tion. Some view decreas­ing tenure lines as direct­ly relat­ed to “the incre­men­tal and imper­cep­ti­ble increase over time of high­er edu­ca­tion admin­is­tra­tors” (John­son). David Grae­ber more flip­pant­ly names this phe­nom­e­non the “bull­shi­ti­za­tion of aca­d­e­m­ic life” and describes how an influx of strate­gic deans and “dean­lets” has required an influx of super­flu­ous sup­port staff. His argu­ment has been met with defens­es of admin­is­tra­tors, par­tic­u­lar­ly low­er-lev­el pro­fes­sion­al staff like me, who direct­ly serve stu­dents and fac­ul­ty, as nec­es­sary for the uni­ver­si­ty to func­tion (Rosen­berg). Some view adjunct fac­ul­ty and pro­fes­sion­al staff as in the same con­tin­gent boat; Lee Skallerup Bes­sette calls on fac­ul­ty and staff to “work to try and over­come those imag­i­nary hier­ar­chi­cal struc­tures to achieve pos­i­tive change.” Where we would all agree, I hope, is that resources should be direct­ed toward mak­ing the uni­ver­si­ty a humane work­place for employ­ees of all types.

Works Cit­ed

Bar­tram, Erin. “The Sub­li­mat­ed Grief of the Left Behind.” Erin Bar­tram: Doomed to Dis­trac­tion, 11 Feb. 2018,  

Bes­sette, Lee Skallerup. “Adjuncts, Staff, and Sol­i­dar­i­ty.” Pro­fes­sion, Fall 2018,  

Grae­ber, David. “Are You in a BS Job? In Acad­eme, You’re Hard­ly Alone.” The Chron­i­cle of High­er Edu­ca­tion, 6 May 2018,  

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scar­let Let­ter and Oth­er Writ­ings. Ed. Leland S. Per­son. W. W. Nor­ton & Com­pa­ny, 2017. 

John­son Jr., Michael. “Death by a Thou­sand Cuts.” Inside High­er Ed, 1 Nov. 2019,  

Rosen­berg, Bri­an. “Are You in a ‘BS’ Job? Thank You for Your Work. No, Real­ly.” The Chron­i­cle of High­er Edu­ca­tion, 29 May 2018,  

Schu­man, Rebec­ca. “The­sis Hate­ment.” Slate, 5 Apr. 2013,  

Susan­na Comp­ton Under­land is the pro­gram man­ag­er of Uni­ver­si­ty Hon­ors at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mary­land, over­see­ing finance, per­son­nel, and oper­a­tions in sup­port of UH stu­dents, fac­ul­ty, and staff. She earned her PhD in nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture in 2018 from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mary­land, where she taught in the Eng­lish depart­ment for six years. Her research focus­es on nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry Amer­i­can sen­ti­men­tal lit­er­a­ture, with par­tic­u­lar inter­est in the ten­sions between reli­gion and sec­u­lar­i­ty as medi­at­ed in and by domes­tic spaces. Under­land has pub­lished arti­cles and reviews in Leviathan: A Jour­nal of Melville Stud­ies, ESQ, and Jour­nal of Amer­i­can Stud­ies

Three Works

Art / Yeon Jin Kim

:: Three Works ::

My prac­tice is based on tra­di­tion­al tech­niques put to new uses. 

I make ani­mat­ed films shot from minia­ture sets and scroll draw­ings, cut-paper and book works, and Jogak­bo-inspired plas­tic quilts. 

My work is equal­ly influ­enced by my ear­ly life in South Korea and my last fif­teen years in New York City. 

Grow­ing up under mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ship in South Korea, I was sub­ject­ed to per­va­sive gov­ern­men­tal indoc­tri­na­tion and mis­in­for­ma­tion through­out my edu­ca­tion. Under the dic­ta­tor­ship, tra­di­tion­al folk art was denounced while west­ern art was cel­e­brat­ed. In my male-dom­i­nant col­lege edu­ca­tion, any female craft such as sewing, weav­ing, and tex­tile work was reject­ed and regard­ed as “low art.” 

My years away from Korea pro­vid­ed an out­side van­tage point which allowed me a greater under­stand­ing and appre­ci­a­tion of  Kore­an aes­thet­ics and tra­di­tions. Although I was pre­sent­ed in school with West­ern aes­thet­ics as a pri­or­i­ty, I was always drawn to the beau­ty of Kore­an ceram­ics and textiles. 

As a child I was intro­duced to Jogak­bo (Kore­an tra­di­tion­al quilt­ing) by my aunt who owned a Han­bok (Kore­an tra­di­tion­al gar­ment) shop. Jogak­bo devel­oped in the sev­en­teenth cen­tu­ry as a way for low­er-class peo­ple to wrap gifts for wed­dings and oth­er cel­e­bra­to­ry events. Scrap pieces of fab­ric were stitched togeth­er, much like quilts, to cre­ate beau­ti­ful wrap­pings sig­ni­fy­ing good wish­es for the recip­i­ent. My aunt was par­tic­u­lar­ly tal­ent­ed, and her Jogak­bo were love­ly and visu­al­ly sophis­ti­cat­ed. Exam­ples were gift­ed to fam­i­ly mem­bers, and my moth­er passed hers down to me. 

The aes­thet­ic of using scraps, unim­por­tant mate­ri­als, comes from the Con­fu­sian phi­los­o­phy of  mod­est but not shab­by, beau­ti­ful but not gaudy (儉而不陋 華而不侈). My use of plas­tic bags is influ­enced by this phi­los­o­phy of beau­ty in every lit­tle object in the world. 

In updat­ing this tra­di­tion­al Kore­an art form, I am stitch­ing togeth­er pieces of com­mer­cial plas­tic bags and also drug bag­gies I find on the streets of New York City where I live. As in tra­di­tion­al Jogak­bo, the scrap ele­ments have all been used and are sewn togeth­er to cre­ate com­po­si­tions influ­enced by the lived real­i­ty of neigh­bor­hood folk. 

Jogak­bo #2 is made as an Homage to my aunt. The pat­terns and the col­or were direct­ly derived from her Jogak­bo made in 1986. 

Jogak­bo #3 was made in Korea, using only plas­tic bags (col­lect­ed by my moth­er and myself) from Seoul. Some scraps include geo­log­i­cal infor­ma­tion, hob­bies, and the spend­ing habits of collectors. 

Jogak­bo #8 was made dur­ing the Covid-19 shut­down and was also influ­enced by my aunt and oth­er ear­li­er Jogak­bo makers. 


Yeon Jin Kim is a visu­al artist and film­mak­er, born in South Korea and based in New York City. 

Her most recent solo exhi­bi­tion, Kong­lish, was pre­sent­ed in 2020 at Place Mak in Seoul. Oth­er recent solo shows have been held at the Soci­ety for Domes­tic Muse­ol­o­gy in New York, Albright Col­lege in Read­ing, PA, and at the Clus­ter Gallery in Brook­lyn, all in 2019. 

Her films have recent­ly been screened at the Philadel­phia Asian Film Fes­ti­val, New­Film­mak­ers New York, Blow-Up Art­house Film Fest Chica­go, and at the Glim­mer­glass Film Fes­ti­val in Coop­er­stown, NY

Her work was fea­tured in the book 50 Con­tem­po­rary Women Artists, edit­ed by Heather Zis­es and John Gosslee and pub­lished by Schif­fer Pub­lish­ing in 2018. 

She has done numer­ous res­i­den­cies and cur­rent­ly teach­es at Fair­leigh Dick­in­son Uni­ver­si­ty and Westch­ester Com­mu­ni­ty College. 

Ten Scenes of Not Being in Love

Nonfiction / Amie Whittemore 

:: Ten Scenes of Not Being in Love ::

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the writer

:: Account ::

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

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

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


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

my powerlifted Body

Nonfiction / Vanessa Couto Johnson


:: my powerlifted Body ::

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

When I want­ed to just be a mind. 


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

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


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

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

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

So, I build the one I have. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My body is more than its cloth­ing size. 

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

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

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

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

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

Guess which “gen­der size” I have to wear? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I want to look like I lift. 

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

Lifters look all sorts of ways. 

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

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

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

Lifters look all sorts of ways. 


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



From the writer

:: Account ::

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


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


Fiction / Rachele Salvini


:: Unremarkable ::

My first remark­able moment in Lon­don involved wit­ness­ing a cat beat­ing the shit out of a fox right in front of my new flat. I knew Gior­gio would like the sto­ry, but I didn’t call him. I didn’t even take a pic­ture for him. 

I didn’t live in the out­skirts of the city—I rent­ed a tiny room in an alley in Strat­ford, just a few steps away from the tube sta­tion, the Strat­ford Shop­ping Cen­tre, and the West Ham Sta­di­um. Not exact­ly a place where I expect­ed to see such an inter­est­ing dis­play of wildlife. But I came from a town on the west coast of Italy, and I didn’t know shit. I was one of the many Ital­ians leav­ing good weath­er, espres­so, and lasagna behind to try to find some luck in London. 

Gior­gio was still in Italy. We hadn’t actu­al­ly decid­ed if we were break­ing up or not; it was more of an open-end­ed exper­i­ment. He didn’t want to come to Lon­don with me, and we didn’t like the idea of being long-dis­tance indef­i­nite­ly, but nei­ther of us had the guts to break up. 

We had met in col­lege, years before. We had fall­en in love though we didn’t want to. 


Gior­gio and I were hap­py togeth­er, him study­ing cin­e­ma, me study­ing lit­er­a­ture. We talked about art and music, and we laughed all the time. We went to Frankie’s, our favorite dive bar in town, which was open only from 1 a.m. to 6 a.m. We drank gin and ton­ics and kissed in front of every­one and danced like every­one was watch­ing us because of how radi­ant­ly in love we were. Then, by day, we would go to the sea­side; by night, when we didn’t go out, we hid in his grand­par­ents’ garage, watched movies, made love, and smoked dope. We had bought a small bed from a thrift store for ten euros. We just want­ed to hide. We didn’t care about bed bugs. 

For three years, all that had been enough. Then, after grad­u­a­tion, our lives had to start. We weren’t spe­cial: peo­ple moved to oth­er places all the time and faced the deci­sion of what to do with their rela­tion­ships. Ital­ians were mov­ing all around Europe, espe­cial­ly grad­u­ates with human­i­ties degrees, some­what deeply under­ap­pre­ci­at­ed even in a coun­try that had built its fame on art. Gior­gio spent his days lying on the couch, watch­ing TV and send­ing resumes around, but no one would call. I want­ed to work in pub­lish­ing. Lon­don seemed the right place to be, but he wasn’t ready to come. 

We’ll see,” Gior­gio said, and kissed me good-bye. 


Wit­ness­ing the cat beat­ing up the fox seemed a remark­able moment—more than when I saw Mil­len­ni­um Bridge for the first time—because it made me real­ize how much I didn’t know about Lon­don. The cat growled and bare­ly moved, its ears back. When­ev­er the fox made any move­ment, either to dab or leave, the cat would stalk for­ward and sink its claws in the scrawny fur of the fox. I stood there, just look­ing at them. They seemed uncon­cerned by my pres­ence. I didn’t know fox­es would let humans so close. I didn’t know cats could beat the shit out of foxes. 

At some point I even won­dered if I was just hal­lu­ci­nat­ing. It seemed like­ly, on the day I had start­ed my job as a barista at Caf­fè Nero, a cof­fee shop chain. After my first shift, I had gone to get gro­ceries, try­ing not to fall into the easy trap of buy­ing Ital­ian pre-cooked meals that remind­ed me of home from the pic­ture on the wrap­ping but would remind me that I actu­al­ly wasn’t home as soon as I’d try a spoonful. 

As I watched the cat and the fox in silence, I thought of a remark­able moment in Italy—Giorgio and I were walk­ing on the sea­side. I was wear­ing a blouse, but a crisp breeze came sud­den­ly from the ocean and made my hands crawl up my sleeves. Gior­gio was telling me about Lon­don, giv­ing me all his rea­sons for not com­ing with me. He was sure that Brex­it was going to hap­pen, and the smug British ass­holes would kick us all out. Lon­don, he said—as if he knew—was turn­ing into a Euro­pean copy of New York City, the geo­graph­i­cal embod­i­ment of cap­i­tal­ism. He went on and on, keep­ing his eyes on the ocean; the wind didn’t seem to both­er him at all. His hands dan­gled slight­ly at every step he took. I told him I just real­ly want­ed to work in pub­lish­ing. I told him that I wasn’t sure Brex­it was going to hap­pen, and I didn’t know what it would entail either. I didn’t know how Gior­gio could be so sure about a whole country’s atti­tude toward econ­o­my pacts, immi­gra­tion reg­u­la­tions, and so on. I also didn’t know why Brits would want to kick oth­er fel­low Euro­peans out. I didn’t know why any­one would want to kick any­one out. 

But Gior­gio went on, telling me that he’d rather stay home with peo­ple he loved and save mon­ey in order to move to a bet­ter place in the future, and even­tu­al­ly have a bet­ter life. “You don’t have to hate your life to have a career,” he said. I imme­di­ate­ly knew that I would remem­ber that line as remark­able. “Maybe,” I replied, shiv­er­ing. An unre­mark­able answer. 


When I saw the cat and the fox, I had bare­ly slept in days, haunt­ed by the thoughts of leav­ing home, my moth­er, and, of course, Giorgio—only to find a lousy job as a barista at Caf­fé Nero in Pic­cadil­ly Circus. 

Maybe Gior­gio was right. That morn­ing I had served an end­less amount of watered-down cof­fees to British yup­pies who filled their mouths with Ital­ian words—ven­ti, grande, mac­chi­a­to, espres­so, cap­puc­ci­no—but couldn’t pro­nounce any of them. They com­plained about my cof­fee: too bit­ter. I smiled back and made their cof­fee again in less than two min­utes, under the gelid eyes of a spot­ty British assis­tant man­ag­er. I bit my inner cheeks, my gaze buried in the grates of the huge cof­fee machine, try­ing to hold on to the mem­o­ry of wak­ing up to the smell of my mother’s espres­so. She pre­pared it in ten min­utes, with a sim­ple cof­fee mak­er. No fan­cy machines: she just placed a tiny met­al per­co­la­tor on the old-ass stove. She had taught me how to switch on the gas and use a match to start the ring of blue fire. Extreme­ly dan­ger­ous, yet total­ly worth it. It was our secret; I felt like the prim­i­tive man dis­cov­er­ing fire. 

I real­ly thought about tex­ting Gior­gio to tell him about my first shift or the cat beat­ing up the fox. Even­tu­al­ly, the fox ran away. I dragged my gro­ceries upstairs, pant­i­ng and try­ing to ignore the smell of piss on the stairs and the bones of fried chick­en wings aban­doned on the steps. 


Gior­gio called me the morn­ing of June 23, 2016. I had been in Lon­don for a month, and Brex­it debates were all over the news. Peo­ple couldn’t stop won­der­ing if Britain was actu­al­ly going to leave the EU. The ques­tion was, in a way, per­son­al. I won­der what those British yup­pies who com­plained about my bit­ter cof­fee thought. They would glad­ly trav­el to Italy in the sum­mer and drink our espres­sos, sit in our bars in front of the sea­side, sigh with sat­is­fac­tion and say how great our weath­er was, how cheap every­thing was. Then they’d go back home and vote against or for leav­ing us behind. 

Still, for some rea­son, I didn’t feel like Brex­it was per­son­al at all. I kept mak­ing cof­fees, and mak­ing them again if they came back, “too bit­ter.” I learned Eng­lish, sent out my resume, and hoped for some­thing bet­ter to come. Gior­gio kept say­ing that he was “look­ing around.” I wasn’t sure what he meant. 

Then, that morn­ing in June, he called. I was sleep­ing, but he sound­ed excit­ed. It was the first time he called me before I was up. I usu­al­ly got up ear­ly in the morn­ing to go to work and cov­er the 6 a.m. shift at the cof­fee shop. “Hey. What’s up?” I asked, my voice raspy. 

I’m at Frankie’s with the guys,” he said, the accent from our home­town sound­ing estranged to me. I could hear the chaos in the background—the music, and the hys­ter­i­cal laugh­ter of Frankie’s drunk­en crowd. They weren’t done danc­ing, even though the sun was prob­a­bly up. “Guess what,” Gior­gio went on. 

I threw my legs out from under the duvet. It was cold. Out of the win­dow, London’s sky was white, as every morn­ing. “What?”  

Brex­it fuck­ing hap­pened,” Gior­gio cried, enthralled. “I told you so!” 

I was sur­prised. I had felt so bom­bard­ed with head­lines, ques­tions and unso­licit­ed opin­ions for a whole month that I had for­got­ten when the ref­er­en­dum was actu­al­ly going to hap­pen. The days were all the same. 

Gior­gio laughed. I didn’t under­stand the fun part of it. The pos­si­bil­i­ty of Brex­it was one of the rea­sons why he had decid­ed not to come to Lon­don in the first place. 

They vot­ed Leave?” I asked. I glanced out of the win­dow again. I could see only the neon lights of the Strat­ford Shop­ping Cen­tre pierc­ing the fog in the distance. 

Yeah! Crazy, right?” he went on. “But I knew it. Remem­ber? I pre­dict­ed this shit.” I heard some­one yell in the back­ground but couldn’t work out what they said. 

We were mak­ing bets last night,” Gior­gio went on. His voice was shak­ing with enthu­si­asm, but maybe he was just drunk. “The man­ag­er at Frankie’s orga­nized a Brex­it-themed drink­ing game, and I won five shots of tequi­la. It was so fun. Hope­ful­ly you’ll be back here the night of the Amer­i­can elec­tion. If Don­ald Trump wins, I swear the world will fuck­ing col­lapse.” I heard him take a drag from his cig­a­rette. “You have to be here. We’ll have so much fun, like the old times. Oh—wait—someone just brought pizza.” 

I heard some muf­fled sounds in the phone, and I pic­tured him stag­ger­ing drunk­en­ly to go get his slice of pizza. 

I pulled my phone from my ear and looked at the time. My alarm would go off soon. 

I don’t think I’ll be there for the Amer­i­can elec­tion,” I said. 

What?” Gior­gio asked, his mouth full of pizza. 

I saw my face in the reflec­tion of the win­dow. I looked like shit even before start­ing the day, my skin blotchy, my hair a bit greasy. I tried to imag­ine my mother’s espres­so, the blue ring of fire on the stove, the smell of burnt match­es, and then the scent of cof­fee creep­ing up the stairs. 

Instead, for some rea­son, I thought that this was anoth­er remark­able moment, like the time the ocean wind made my hands crawl up my sleeves, like when I saw the cat beat­ing the shit out of the fox in front of my flat. 

Why are you so hap­py?” I asked. 

There was a silence. 

What do you mean?” Gior­gio asked after a while. He wasn’t chew­ing his piz­za anymore. 

I looked at my feet on the cold tiled floor of my room. The wrap­ping of some pre-cooked ravi­o­li stood out from my trash can. I felt a pang of dis­gust, like I was going to be sick, but didn’t talk. I wasn’t sure I knew what I want­ed to say. 

What do you mean?” Gior­gio asked again. 

My phone alarm went off, pierc­ing my ear. I dis­abled it. I still didn’t have an answer for Gior­gio. Why are you so hap­py, I repeat­ed in my head. 

Why am I so hap­py about Brex­it?” he asked. 

Anoth­er pang of dis­gust. “Maybe,” I said. 

An unre­mark­able answer. I hung up. I got up and walked to the kitchen to shove a cup of instant cof­fee in the microwave.




From the writer


:: Account ::

I wrote this sto­ry as a response to my expe­ri­ence liv­ing in Lon­don dur­ing the Brex­it cam­paign. At the time I was also involved in a painful long-dis­tance rela­tion­ship, like the nar­ra­tor of this sto­ry. While this is fic­tion, many scenes are drawn from my per­son­al expe­ri­ence: I remem­ber see­ing a cat beat­ing the shit out of a dog in front of my dirty-ass apart­ment in Strat­ford; I also remem­bered all the times my ex called from Italy when he was hav­ing fun with his friends, while I was lone­ly and mis­er­able, work­ing hard to get some­where. Most­ly, I want­ed my sto­ry to be about young Euro­pean immi­grants head­ing to the Unit­ed King­dom; I want­ed to write about the hopes and dreams of the ones who look for luck some­where far from home and have to nego­ti­ate their depar­ture with their ties with their home. While my expe­ri­ence was not as trau­mat­ic as the one of refugees, it did affect me great­ly. The polit­i­cal back­ground of this sto­ry is obvi­ous­ly the Brex­it cam­paign, which I regard as one of the first steps toward the storm of crazi­ness that the past few years have been. 


Rachele Salvi­ni is an Ital­ian woman based in the U.S., where she’s doing a PhD in Eng­lish and Cre­ative Writ­ing at Okla­homa State Uni­ver­si­ty. She spent most of her life in Italy, and she writes in both Eng­lish and Ital­ian. Her work in Eng­lish has been pub­lished or is forth­com­ing in Prime Num­ber Mag­a­zine, Nec­es­sary Fic­tion, Taka­he Mag­a­zine, Sage­brush Review, BULL, and oth­ers. She’s also a trans­la­tor, and her trans­la­tion work has appeared or is forth­com­ing in sev­er­al lit­er­ary jour­nals, includ­ing Lunch Tick­et

A Secret Service

Fiction / Paul Negri


:: A Secret Service ::

Pres­i­dent Lin­coln is more silent than usu­al today. Now it is true that he has not spo­ken a word dur­ing the whole time of our incar­cer­a­tion here. But there are oth­er ways of being silent besides not speak­ing, and it is in this oth­er way that he is silent today. They’ve put him in a wheel­chair and rolled him in front of the TV in the day room. The sound on the TV is off, so it too is silent.  The only oth­er inmate in the room is the old man they call George (I don’t know what his real name is). George is talk­ing to him­self, but silently. 

It is in this kind of silence that I receive my instruc­tions. Chief Wood, the head of the Secret Ser­vice, is a man of few but com­pelling words. When the Chief speaks, you know what you must do. 

I glance at the door to the day room. Gre­go­ry, one of the reg­u­lar atten­dants, is stand­ing in the door­way. He is feign­ing inat­ten­tion. I wait. Wait­ing is a skill of mine. There is per­haps no one in the Ser­vice who can wait so well as I can. Wait and watch. Eter­nal vig­i­lance, it has been tru­ly said, is the price of liberty. 

Gre­go­ry final­ly deserts his post, although I know it will be only momen­tar­i­ly. I cross the room quick­ly and pull a fold­ing chair clos­er to the Pres­i­dent. I whis­per, “New direc­tive from the Chief, sir. He respect­ful­ly requests that we fore­stall any action. The time is not right. But soon. Very soon, I’m sure.” 

Pres­i­dent Lin­coln con­tin­ues to stare at the TV. His great crag­gy face, now beard­less (yes, they shaved him, the bas­tards), betrays no hint of dis­ap­point­ment or dis­cour­age­ment. Those dark, deep eyes have seen enough, I imag­ine, to endow him with the patience of the ages. 


Gre­go­ry is back and with a sin­gle word demol­ish­es the gold­en silence. He stands in the door­way, arms fold­ed across his chest, eyes hard on me. But you are too late, Gre­go­ry. I have deliv­ered my message. 

Now you leave Arthur alone. Leave him be.” 

Arthur. That’s what they call Mr. Lin­coln. Just as they call me Ben. They think that by sim­ply nam­ing us, they can con­trol who we are. They are not as smart as they think. I have always lived under pseu­do­nyms, and Ben is fine with me. I know who I am and they do not. And work­ing for the Secret Ser­vice, it is crit­i­cal I keep it that way. 

I return to my chair by the win­dow, plac­ing just enough dis­tance between the Pres­i­dent and me to sat­is­fy Gre­go­ry yet per­mit me to spring into action and inter­pose myself between Mr. Lin­coln and what­ev­er might threat­en him—knife, bul­let, or those sub­tler means of assas­si­na­tion employed by our cap­tors in their relent­less attempt to destroy who we are. Rest assured, Mr. Pres­i­dent, there will be no door pushed open, no dag­ger, no shot fired, no one leap­ing onto the stage shout­ing of tyrants to a con­fused audi­ence. Not this time. Not on my watch. 

Inmates file into the room. Bin­go must be over. Bin­go is one of our keep­ers’ most insid­i­ous weapons. They use it to implant direc­tives, using a numer­i­cal code, in the minds of the inmates. A remark­ably sim­ple but effec­tive strat­e­gy. Once those numer­i­cal codes are implant­ed, the inmates are as help­less as babies wrapped tight in swad­dling clothes. Along with the inmates comes one of Gregory’s con­fed­er­ates. They have so lit­tle regard for our capa­bil­i­ties that only two guards are thought nec­es­sary to keep more than a dozen of us in check. Bingo! 

Of what wars these poor pris­on­ers are, I do not know. It is sad that they have all sur­vived the strug­gle only to end up here, ware­housed and main­tained, stored out of sight and out of mind by the true ene­my, one they nev­er even knew they were fight­ing. My mis­sion neces­si­tates that I keep a dis­creet dis­tance from these men, engag­ing them just enough to gath­er infor­ma­tion that might prove use­ful to the Ser­vice or aid me in my pro­tec­tion of the Pres­i­dent. I think most of them pose no threat, although threat can come out of a clear blue sky and calm sea. That I’ve learned. But there are a few men who bear care­ful watch­ing. And watch them I do. 

I cir­cle the room, my usu­al route, sub­tle as a shad­ow, blend­ing into my sur­round­ings, bare­ly notice­able, look­ing here, lis­ten­ing there, pass­ing by Pres­i­dent Lin­coln with every com­plet­ed cir­cuit. Noth­ing unusu­al to report, Chief Wood. The Pres­i­dent is safe, for the moment. I am doing my duty. Yes, it is some­thing to be proud of. Thank you, sir. You are too kind.


Gre­go­ry deposits me in the office of Major Wirz for my week­ly inter­ro­ga­tion. I’m not absolute­ly sure it’s Hein­rich Wirz, the mon­ster of Ander­son­ville, exter­mi­na­tor of Union pris­on­ers. He now goes under the absurd­ly innocu­ous name Dr. Jack Horner. Lit­tle Jack, indeed. He is almost as skilled at con­ceal­ing his iden­ti­ty as I am at con­ceal­ing mine. We are even­ly matched. But I have the advan­tage. I have Chief Wood. I don’t know who whis­pers in Major Wirz’s ear. 

Wirz is a very aver­age-look­ing man, not tall, nor short; nei­ther fat nor thin; bland fea­tures, a face you could for­get while look­ing at it. That, of course, is part of his pow­er. I must admit I have a grudg­ing admi­ra­tion for it. I sit quite still in the com­fort­able chair before his desk. The seat and arms are padded. Yes, I sit in a padded chair. 

Wirz—or Dr. Horner as I must call him—looks up from the file he has been writ­ing in and smiles. “You look well today, Ben.” 

Thank you, Dr. Horner. I am well.” 

Are you sleep­ing bet­ter? Those dreams that were both­er­ing you, are you still hav­ing them?” 

Why, no,” I say. “I’ve been hav­ing rather pleas­ant dreams now. I believe that med­ica­tion you’re mak­ing me take has worked like a charm.” 

Dr. Horner leans back in his chair and looks at me in silence for a long moment. He is a man of long looks. “That med­ica­tion should not actu­al­ly be affect­ing your dreams.” 

Well, an unex­pect­ed side ben­e­fit then,” I say. Damn. I must be careful. 

Can you tell me a bit about these pleas­ant dreams?” 

Can you tell me about your dreams, Major Wirz? Do the breath­ing skele­tons of starved pris­on­ers wrap their boney arms around you? 


I’ve been dream­ing of the ocean,” I tell him, quick­ly impro­vis­ing. “A love­ly day at the shore.” 

The ocean? Do you remem­ber the last time you were by the ocean?” 

It was quite a while ago. It was very nice.” Care­ful now, care­ful. The dev­il is, as they say, in the details. “I love swim­ming in the ocean. I’m quite a strong swim­mer, you know.” 

Yes, I know,” says Dr. Horner. “And the last time you were at the beach. Were you alone?” 

I know what he wants me to say. He wants me to say I was with the wife they have invent­ed for me. Ben’s wife. But the name is some­thing I can’t recall. “Do you mind if I shut the win­dow, Dr. Horner?” I say, stalling for time. 

I’ll shut it for you,” he says, gets up and goes to the window. 

The name, damn it, the name, Ben’s wife. Dr. Horner sits back down. “Was any­one with you at the beach that last time?” 

Yes. My wife. Elsie.” 

Ellie?” says Dr. Horner. 

That’s what I said. Ellie.” 

He nods. “Any­one else?” 

Well, there were lots of peo­ple there. It was a love­ly day.” 

Didn’t you tell me you always went ear­ly in the morn­ing? When there were few peo­ple there?” 

I think you’re right. That morn­ing there were few peo­ple there.” It’s like walk­ing a tightrope over an abyss. One slip and I’m gone. 

Did you swim that day?” 

Of course. The ocean was warm and calm. Per­fect for swimming.” 

And did Elsie swim with you?” 

Ellie,” I say. Got you, Wirz. Got him, Chief Wood. 

That’s what I said. Ellie.” Dr. Horner makes a note in the file. 

I must remain calm. Rea­son­able. They need to believe that I believe them. That I think I am this man Ben. If they believe I am Ben, then they will nev­er know who I real­ly am, the man who pro­tects the Pres­i­dent, and who always will. Sic sem­per

Is there any­one else in this dream of the ocean? I mean any­one you know.” 

Why, yes,” I say. Let’s give the good doc­tor some­thing to think about. “You’re there.” 


Yes. But it’s odd, Dr. Horner. You’re in a uni­form. Not very appro­pri­ate for the beach.” I watch his eyes. He doesn’t blink. He is good. But I am better. 

He leans back in his chair and smiles. “A uni­form? Like a policeman?” 

No. Like—a sol­dier. An offi­cer. Why, you look like a major.” 

I believe you’re play­ing with me, Ben,” says Dr. Horner. “I’m not real­ly in your dreams, am I?” 

I say noth­ing. Per­haps I’ve gone too far. Wirz is a dan­ger­ous man— 

I was think­ing of your grand­chil­dren, Ben. The twins.” 

Oh, yes. Lit­tle angels,” I bluff. This is some­thing new. They want Ben to have grand­chil­dren. My God, I’m get­ting tired. How can I keep up with them? I need a moment, a moment to think.… 

Would you like a glass of water?” 

For God’s sake, Chief, tell me what to do. But no. There is too much noise. I’m sweat­ing. Wirz shut the win­dow to take the air away. What’s next, bright lights in my eyes? 

They were four this year. Am I right?” 

I hear a great rush­ing sound, like waves crash­ing in my head. Before I can stop myself, I’m out of my chair. I stand at attention. 

All right, Ben. Let’s leave it at that for today. Ben?” 

Lit­tle angels,” I tell Dr. Horner. The twins … 

He takes hold of my wrist and glances at his watch. “I’m going to try a change in your med­ica­tion. It may upset your stom­ach a lit­tle. But just at first. Is that all right?” 

I nod. I’m afraid to speak. I may blurt out some­thing I shouldn’t. I bite down on my tongue. 

Dr. Horner stands and goes to the door. “Gre­go­ry?”

Gre­go­ry comes in and stands behind him. “I’d like Ben to stay in his room for a bit. Per­haps a day or two. We’ll be try­ing a new med­ica­tion.” He turns to me. “I’ve fin­ished your book, Ben,” he says. “I enjoyed it very much. I’m not one for his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, but you have a way of bring­ing the char­ac­ters to life. The scene with Lee and Grant at Appo­mat­tox Court House—well, I felt like I was there.” 

Thank you,” I say. So the man Ben has writ­ten a book. If that’s who they want me to be, I hope at least it’s a good one. 


The two days con­fined to my cell were almost unbear­able. Not for any depri­va­tion to myself but for the jeop­ardy in which I placed Pres­i­dent Lin­coln. My only con­so­la­tion was that the blan­ket­ing silence of that time alone gave Chief Wood ample oppor­tu­ni­ty to keep me informed and chide me, more gen­tly that I deserved, for my ill-advised thrust and par­ry with Major Wirz. And yes, he is indeed Major Wirz. The Chief has con­firmed it. 

My first action this morn­ing was to slip unno­ticed into the President’s cell. Not only did I find him unharmed and rest­ing peace­ful­ly in his bed, but his beard has actu­al­ly begun to grow back. He’s look­ing more like him­self. He looked at me and said noth­ing. His admirable restraint is a qual­i­ty I would do well to emu­late. With the faintest of smiles and a nod of his head, he indi­cat­ed his appre­ci­a­tion of my ser­vice to him. I think he feels safe. And I intend to keep him that way. If I must be this man Ben to oper­ate most effec­tive­ly in that regard, then Ben I shall be. At least until I have full intel­li­gence of our cap­tors’ inten­tions. It is a hard thing to be some­one you’re not. Who doesn’t want to sim­ply be him­self? With the excep­tion, per­haps, of you, Major Wirz. 

I sit in the gar­den and wait for Ben’s so-called wife to appear. Ellie. I must remem­ber the name. She’s work­ing for them, of course. And yet her heart doesn’t seem in it. I think she’s unhap­py with her work. Her efforts to make me into Ben, so ardent­ly desired by her supe­ri­ors, have been spot­ty at best. She seems so dis­cour­aged. I wouldn’t be sur­prised if at some point some­one else shows up pre­tend­ing to be Ben’s wife and we start all over. 

The gar­den is not real­ly a gar­den; that’s sim­ply what it is called. There are some met­al bench­es and a few pot­ted plants, and a small lawn sur­round­ed by a flag­stone walk. In the mid­dle of the lawn is a stone foun­tain, two lit­tle angels rid­ing the back of a dol­phin. Water slow­ly runs from the dolphin’s mouth as if leak­ing from a drowned thing. The largest part of the so-called gar­den is a con­crete square with met­al tables and chairs. A few inmates are sit­ting at the tables with their pre­sumed fam­i­lies. I sit on the bench oppo­site the win­dow to Pres­i­dent Lincoln’s cell. I keep my eye on the window. 

Ben.” It’s the woman called Ellie. Gre­go­ry is with her. 

You have a nice vis­it now,” says Gre­go­ry, and they exchange a know­ing look. 

Ellie sits down on the bench next to me. “How are you feel­ing today, Ben?” 

Quite well, Ellie,” I say, and smile the way I think some­one named Ben might smile. 

Ellie puts her hand­bag on the bench next to her. The mini-micro­phone in her bag is acti­vat­ed by con­tact with the met­al bench. Elec­tro­mag­net­ic, the Chief explained. That’s fine. They will hear what they want to hear and what I want them to hear. They will hear Ben talk­ing to Ellie. 

Dr. Horner tells me you had a bad day,” says Ellie. “So he put you on some­thing new. Has that helped?” 

Oh, yes. I’m feel­ing much better.” 

You’re look­ing bet­ter,” she says and smiles, but only for a sec­ond. The smile droops. She looks exhaust­ed. There are rings under her red-rimmed eyes. She plain­ly doesn’t sleep well. She must have been a very pret­ty woman once. But now she is fad­ed, like an old pho­to­graph. Still, she doesn’t seem a bad sort. What would make a woman like her work for them? I can only imag­ine. But mine is not to rea­son why, is it, Chief Wood? 

Julie and Kei­th are back from Paris. I think it did them a world of good. Julie may go back to work next month.” 

Good,” I say. “We all need our work, don’t we?” 

Wouldn’t you like to go back to work? Back to your writing?” 

Care­ful now. “It’s some­thing to consider.” 

She puts her hand on my arm. “Don’t you want to be well?” 

Doesn’t every­one?” I say. 

Ellie takes her hand away. “Why are you star­ing at that win­dow? Is that your room?” 

No. My room has no win­dow.” As if she didn’t know. 

Look at me. Please.” 

I look at her. 

No one is blam­ing you. Not Julie or Kei­th. Not me.” 

I nod. The strain of keep­ing my eyes on Ellie and the effort of main­tain­ing my Ben-like smile is wear­ing me down. My head is begin­ning to ache. Ellie stares hard at me. What does she want? If only I had your wis­dom, Mr. Pres­i­dent. We sit in silence for what seems like a long time. 

All right. They do blame you. But for God’s sake, Ben, give them time. And stop blam­ing your­self. You looked away. You were care­less. For just a few min­utes. And it took them. That heart­less ocean. Or a mon­strous God.” Ellie is crying. 

What a strange script they have her recite. There are appar­ent­ly grave con­se­quences to being Ben. No won­der they want me so bad­ly to be him. They’d have me then and even­tu­al­ly the Pres­i­dent too. “I think vis­it­ing time is over,” I say. I’ve got to check on Mr. Lincoln. 

We just sat down,” she says and dries her eyes. 

They have strict rules here. And I want to coop­er­ate. The rules are for my own good.” Lis­ten­ing, Dr. Horner? 

Ellie’s dis­tressed. She’s not get­ting what they want. Per­haps she’ll be pun­ished. God knows—monstrous God, she said?—they’re capa­ble of any­thing. She takes my face in her hands. Her hands are warm. “Be hon­est with me. Do you know who I am? Do you know who you are?” 

You’re Ellie,” I say, try­ing to speak down toward her hand­bag, so they can hear me loud and clear. “My wife. And I’m Ben. Who else could I be?” 

There is such anguish in her face. Per­haps I am wrong. Per­haps she doesn’t work for them. Could she, too, be work­ing for the Service?


Word has final­ly come. My silent orders from Chief Wood. I’m to affect the President’s escape today. It can’t come soon enough for me. For the past few weeks I’ve found it more and more dif­fi­cult to keep up the cha­rade of being the man Ben. Major Wirz is very sus­pi­cious. At our last ses­sion he told me the worst thing I could do was to humor him; it would be bad for him and worse for me. With his frus­tra­tion, his own façade is crum­bling. His speech is begin­ning to have a slight Swiss accent, yes, the accent of his home­land, some­thing notice­able only to my trained ear. I wouldn’t be sur­prised if he starts sprout­ing a beard next and don­ning his Con­fed­er­ate uni­form out­right. Well, with the help of God and Chief Wood, the Pres­i­dent and I will not be here to see it. 

The plan is sim­plic­i­ty itself. It depends just on being in the right place at the right time and pay­ing close atten­tion. So much in life depends on that, Ellie. The Pres­i­dent is in his wheel­chair before the TV in the day­room, as usu­al. I am sit­ting in my chair by the win­dow, as usu­al. Gre­go­ry has led every­one except George to the game room to be inoc­u­lat­ed with Bin­go, as usu­al, leav­ing us alone with the blond atten­dant Tyrone. In a few min­utes Tyrone will dis­ap­pear to smoke a cig­a­rette, as he does every morn­ing when Gre­go­ry is out of sight. 

Keep an eye on Arthur, will you, Ben? I’ll be back in five,” says Tyrone. “And you be good now, George,” he adds and works his lips silent­ly in deri­sive imitation. 

Sure, Tyrone,” I say casu­al­ly, yawn­ing for good mea­sure to impress him with how ordi­nary a day it is. George takes no notice and con­tin­ues to silent­ly talk to him­self. And Tyrone is gone. 

I move swift­ly. I take the President’s wheel­chair and maneu­ver it to the door. I glance at George, who stops silent­ly speak­ing and waves good­bye. I know I can count on him to do noth­ing. It’s a quick roll down the hall to the unlocked doors to the garden. 

The skies are over­cast and heavy with the threat of rain. I wheel Mr. Lin­coln past the table and chairs to the lawn, along the path, past the foun­tain and around the cor­ner of the build­ing, out of sight. The Pres­i­dent turns in his chair and looks up at me. “Everything’s going accord­ing to plan,” I tell him. “Chief Wood will explain it all when we see him.” The Pres­i­dent makes no protest. He is no stranger to tak­ing risks for freedom’s sake. 

I push the Pres­i­dent up the grassy knoll to the park­ing lot and wheel him to the far side. The ques­tion is, where will they land? The Chief said I’d know it when I saw it. I scan the streets beyond the park­ing lot, and sure enough I spot it. Of course. The cir­cu­lar clear­ing in the mid­dle of the round­about, a large con­crete island with a flag­pole in the mid­dle and a big Amer­i­can flag wav­ing in the high wind. It couldn’t be plainer. 

We cross the lot and go down the ramp to the side­walk. Cars and trucks are cir­cling the round­about at vary­ing speeds. They slow down and speed up unpre­dictably. There’s no pedes­tri­an walk to the island. I stand and watch the cars go round and round until I have to look away. Now is the time to trust Chief Wood. Yes, sir. I do believe. If I don’t believe in you, what is left? I step off into the street. 

Cars stop. Some speed by. Some swerve away from us. They honk, but whether they’re for or against us I can­not tell. Some­one is shout­ing. I walk with my gaze straight ahead now, focused, see­ing and hear­ing every­thing. We get to the island just as a yel­low car com­ing around the curve comes so close I feel its speed graze my back. I fall hard against the wheel­chair and the Pres­i­dent rolls rapid­ly for­ward. I lunge with all my strength and catch the wheel­chair just enough to slow it down before I fall. The Pres­i­dent stops inch­es from the curb and the onslaught of the man­ic traf­fic. I’ve banged my knees bad­ly and scraped my hands bloody, but I strug­gle up, breath­ing hard, and rush to him. He grasps my hand. He is all right. He is safe. I have saved him. 

Over­head, out of the heavy sky choked with clouds thick as smoke, over and above the hiss of the hard rain falling and the blare of horns and wail of sirens and the roar of waves and the shouts of the police rush­ing to the island toward the Amer­i­can flag that is always fly­ing and the peo­ple on the beach run­ning in pan­ic and scream­ing and the blood boil­ing loud­ly in my ears, over the din I hear it, the sound, the sound of the heli­copter, with its great blades slic­ing the thick air, spin­ning and swoop­ing down from the sky to take us away, home, out of dan­ger, to the only safe place.… 


Ellie and Dr. Horner stand at the foot of the bed and talk in whis­pers. I pre­tend to be asleep. It’s the only pre­tense I can man­age right now. I am too tired to do any­thing else. There is pain in my ban­daged knees. I go over things again and again in my mind. Why did the Chief abort the mis­sion? Was it my fault? Did I do some­thing wrong? I have a ter­ri­ble feel­ing I’ve done some­thing hor­ri­bly wrong. The Chief has not said a word to me since we were brought back. Not a sin­gle word. 

Ellie sits at the foot of the bed and watch­es me. She will fold me up into this man they call Ben and put me in Horner’s pock­et. And I will nev­er be seen again. 

I watch her through half-closed eyes. She pulls a chair to the head of the bed. “I know you’re awake,” she says. 

I say nothing. 

She sits in silence and con­tin­ues to watch me. Then she gets up and shuts the door. She pulls the chair even clos­er and leans over me. “All right. I can’t do this any­more. I know you’re not Ben.” 

I open my eyes and look at her. She seems sad beyond mea­sure. What have they done to her? 

They want you to be Ben and they want me to help make you Ben. But you are not Ben, are you?” 

I want to tell her, but I can’t. I cloak myself in silence. 

If I were you, I would not want to be Ben either. Not any­more. So I will not help them any­more. Do you under­stand? I will leave and not come back and you just be who you real­ly are, no mat­ter how much they try to make you some­one else.” 

Per­haps she is a friend after all. Perhaps. 

Can you just tell me some­thing?” She paus­es and takes a deep breath that seems to pain her. “What is your name? I promise I will nev­er tell any­one else. Can you just give me that?” 

There is some­thing in her eyes, some­thing I think I can trust. “I don’t have a name,” I tell her. I can’t help it. For­give me, Chief. “In the Secret Ser­vice, we have only code names.” 

Her eyes widen and a tear falls like a big drop of rain. “A code name?” 

I nod and take her hand. 

What is your code name, then?” 

Rip­tide. The Chief calls me Riptide.” 

The woman called Ellie drops her head on the bed and cries. “But please,” I whis­per, “tell this to no one. It’s as secret as secret can be.” After a while she lifts her head, dries her eyes, gets up, kiss­es my fore­head, and leaves. I sup­pose I will nev­er know who she real­ly is. I lie as still and as silent as I can. I close my eyes and lis­ten to the silence for a long time. When I open my eyes the lights are out, but stand­ing at the foot of my bed is Mr. Lin­coln. I can see him plain­ly in the dark. 

Mr. Pres­i­dent. You’re all right. You can walk.” 

The Pres­i­dent smiles. 

Chief Wood has said noth­ing to me since they brought us back here.” 

The Pres­i­dent nods. 

What are we going to do, Mis­ter Lincoln?” 

We are going to lis­ten,” says the Pres­i­dent, “to the bet­ter angels of our nature.” 


From the writer

:: Account ::

Not long ago, I read a sto­ry in the news about a man who acci­dent­ly dropped his baby grand­daugh­ter off the rail­ing of a cruise ship. He was hold­ing her before a pan­el, which he mis­tak­en­ly thought had glass before it. It did not. The lit­tle girl fell to her death. The child’s parents—including the man’s own daugh­ter and oth­er fam­i­ly members—were present. 

Among the peren­ni­al ques­tions about the human con­di­tion that intrigue and dis­turb me is this: how does one bear the unbear­able? How do ordi­nary peo­ple, imbued with the extra­or­di­nary sense and sen­si­bil­i­ty of our kind, the fac­ul­ty of ful­ly know­ing and appre­ci­at­ing all we do and the con­se­quences, sur­vive the guilt and unfath­omable pain of hav­ing com­mit­ted an act, even if ful­ly acci­den­tal, with such dread con­se­quences as the death of that baby girl? Does one live or die? And if one lives, how? 

Paul Negri is the edi­tor of a dozen lit­er­ary antholo­gies from Dover Pub­li­ca­tions. He was twice award­ed the gold medal for fic­tion in the William Faulkn­er – William Wis­dom Writ­ing Com­pe­ti­tion. His sto­ries have appeared in The Penn Review, Flash Fic­tion Mag­a­zine, Pif Mag­a­zine, Jel­ly­fish Review, and more than 50 oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. He lives in Clifton, New Jersey.