1. Bare Boughs, Bare Bones Danny Volin
nce, when you were young, when you still saw your sister every day, the two of you dared each other into the woods, each of you challenging the other to go deeper, to do more. To venture down a ravine. To wade through a slough. Her hair was in a ponytail, her skinned knees poked from the hem of her shorts, a flower applique on her shirt. You were in jeans and ragged sneakers. Further and farther you dared each other. Past the familiar landmarks of the woods you knew, the forgotten trash and abandoned treehouses, and into the places you didn’t, the places filled with storm-torn branches and talus fields. Neither of you knew when the trees changed, but you realized it together.
“The moss is different here,” you said. “It hangs.”
“No,” she said, always claiming to know more. “It’s the leaves. The leaves are too big.” The argument ended there. Bound by whatever instinct sets aside sibling rivalries in favor of survival, you worked together. You scoured the ground, trying to trace your path back out of the woods, but the
footprints led wide circles, taking you far enough away from your position to convince you had found the right one until the same trees appeared again and you were back where you began. Your sister spied a trail – one free of footprints – one she claimed must be for deer or goats, dusty and narrow, but leading away. You both walked in silence for what felt like hours – under high-branched pines, beside limestone bluffs, through dry creek beds – not speaking in order to give no voice to your worries. The ones about being hungry and having no food, of night and dark, of the shrewdness of wild animals and the thousands of dangers present in the forest,. Then there were the deeper thoughts, the more primal ones, if you would see your parents again, if you would die, if you would have to watch your sister die and be unable to save her.
“My feet are sore,” she said.
You nodded. “We’ve been out here forever.”
The trail you had followed so far was narrow and beaten, a trickle of naked dirt winding its way up hills and past trees. Even for a goat trail, it was wasn’t used much. Whenever you led, you could feel cobwebs breaking against your knees and chest.
“I haven’t seen any hoofprints in hours,” you said.
“Me neither,” she said, one corner of her mouth turned down the way it always did when she was thinking. You both kept walking. To turn back would be to give up, or, at the very least, it would take just as long and just leave you at the place where you started, the first place you didn’t know where you were. At least here you were moving in a new direction, somewhere uncharted. A hawk circled overhead, curling and dipping as the wind took him, occasionally seeming to pause in midair, hovering on a breeze. He drifted back and forth across the sky and you watched as he grew closer. Wings tucked back, quick as that, he dove, as dense and as smooth as a stone, hurtling toward you. You ducked, but he passed nearly ten feet over your head, fearsomely tucked tight until the last moment, when his wings suddenly spread wide, flipping his body back and exposing his clawed feet. The jackrabbit was snared. Before the hawk could ascend, when the scene was still a flurry of wings, claws and screeching prey, a second rabbit appeared. At speed, she launched herself into the hawk, colliding with his head, forcing him
to release his grip. He flapped his wings, readying a second attempt. Quickly, the injured jackrabbit slunk under a bramble. The second rabbit fled, darting under bushes and into a warren. The hawk circled twice and returned to the sky. The sun was setting. You hadn’t noticed, but it had been a full day. The trees were casting thick shadows, long enough to make the forest seem darker. The eastern sky – which you realized meant you hadn’t been thought of cardinal directions all day – was nearly black and getting darker.
“We’ll need to find shelter,” she said. “And water, if we can.”
You had crossed a stream earlier, before you realized you were lost. It had been the only water you had seen all day. Even so, shelter seemed harder to come by. There were no overhanging cliffs.. The trees that had fallen were too softened by rot to hide beneath. Even the ground itself was so covered in sticks and gnarled by roots that sleep would be impossible. You needed to keep searching. The moon was rising. It was full and glowing, enormous in the sky, shining through the countless branches, undiminishable, a lone giant. As the sun faded, the moonlight turned the forest blue, every boulder, rock and pebble casting its own blue shadow. The hanging moss blew in the mid-evening breeze; its shadows wobbled on the ground, changing the shape of earth. Your sister walked on, not fearless – you knew enough about her to see the false bravery in her too-straight posture and long stride – but determined. Once the woods were silent, but now you could hear animals. Distant howls, the soft pat of deer hooves, the quiet hoots of owls. A sharp flap of wings, a twig breaking at your feet. You spotted a side trail. “Water flows downhill,” you insisted to her. “So if we’re going to find water tonight, it’s not going to be up here.” You began walking down and didn’t look back. She grumbled, but fell in behind you. This trail was narrower, harder to follow, switchbacking through the steeper inclines, scattered with torn dead limbs left behind storms. You realized she wasn’t going to leave you. That if you wanted something and took out after it, she wasn’t going to stop you. And then, just as you felt the rush of power that entailed, you realized that you weren’t going to leave her either. You would always be adversaries in the way of siblings, but you weren’t going to abandon her
here, or ever, that she was witness to your life as you were to hers. She saw it first, between the trees. It was the moon’s reflection that caught her eye. A pond, still and sparkling, a slab of granite on the opposite shore. Together you slipped through the trees, feeling the ground grow damper, softer under your feet, until you stood at the edge of the water. You cupped your hands and bent down, desperate to drink after so long with nothing, just to feel something in your stomach again. The first handful was full of slime, sludge, flecks of moss and the crumbs of dead leaves. Undrinkable. You let the water drain through your fingers and wiped off whatever was left behind on your jeans. Behind you, with her arm braced against a tree for balance, your sister was already untying her shoes. She tugged off her socks, walked back to the shore and stepped into the water. You heard the squelch of mud as her ankles sunk down, and then heard it again as she pulled a foot out and took another step. The water was at her knees. She folded her arms across her chest.
“It’s cold,” she called to you. “But you were right.”
Off came your shoes, your socks. The dirt and grass were soft under your feet. Your toes spread out, reaching into the ground and suddenly the exhaustion, the hunger, the thirst, and the ache in your young legs came washing over you. You cuffed your jeans as high as you could – just under the knee – and followed. The pond bed squished between your toes, you felt the wisps of underwater weeds and picked your way through lily pads you hadn’t seen. In the center, where your sister stood, the water coming up to her stomach and almost to your chest.
“The water’s clean here,” she said. “You can drink it.”
Instead of cupping your hands, you bent your knees and brought your mouth to the water. Pursing your lips and slurping greedily, you watched the water funnel in as you gulped and gulped. The moon seemed to come closer, as if its reflection was being dragged by the water into your mouth, eager to be swallowed too. It was high in the sky above you and, when you looked up, you looked through a ring of trees, their branches and shoots spreading out from the shore in the ragged patterns of nature but never reaching the middle, framing the sky. And the night sky was darker and deeper and stranger than you ever imagined it to be before. The multitudinous stars and the faint nebulas and the black-purple of the sky and the narrow, high-flung clouds and all lit by the moon.
A frog croaked in the distance.
“We should stay here tonight,” you said. Your sister agreed.
You waded through the pond to the granite slab. It didn’t get shallower the way you expected, and when you got to the other shore you had to hoist yourself out, using your forearms to pull your feet out of the muck. You offered your sister a hand, but she shook her head and pulled herself ashore like you had. You both spent several minutes dipping your feet back into the water, washing out all the mud from between your toes and under your nails. “Our shoes,” she said suddenly. “They’re on the other shore.” She shook her head. “They’ll be there in the morning. I’m too tired now.”
You nodded and leaned back onto the rock.
* * * You woke first. It was early, just before the sun rose. Your sister was still asleep, her head resting on a pile of leaves and grass she must have built during the night. The sky wasn’t pink yet, but the faint blue of morning was coming. The world had changed. Yesterday’s colors – the grey of dead wood and flinty rock, the beige of dry dirt, the dull green of dormant grass – were gone. The forest here – even in the faint pre-dawn light – was vibrant, awake. A vixen and three kits lapped at the water. On a different shore, a buck and fawn did the same. You could smell wildflower pollen and the vanilla of pine sap. The ground, everywhere, was damp, even your shirt was a little wet, and you realized it was dew. Lichen – yellow, brown and green – dotted the granite where you had slept and ringed the rain-eroded divots of the rock. The whistles and trills of birdsong called back and forth. At the edge of the rock you leaned down and cupped your hand into the pond. The water was deeper here and the surface cleaner. You drank a little bit.
“I’m hungry,” you said aloud to no one.
It was if your stomach could feel the absence of food. Bitterly angry, it gurgled and spat at you. Being hungry might have woken you up, you worried. At home, there was a pantry full of food: candies, nuts, crack-
ers, jams, jellies, jars of pickles, jars of applesauce. Even the things you couldn’t eat, the elements of food – flour, sugar, baking soda, salt, spices, oils, vegetable grease – were there, ready to be combined by the strange chemistry of cooking. Here, it was spring, nothing had come into bloom, there were no berries ripening on the vine, no fruit, nothing to eat. “Me too,” said your sister, then looked a little abashed, as if she’d been caught eavesdropping. “I woke up a little while ago.” She sat up and rubbed her hands against her face. She looked like your dad. She came down next to you and dangled her legs into the water after getting a drink. “I don’t know what to do.”
Neither of you said anything.
“I guess,” you finally said, “we could stay. There’s water here.”
Your sister reached out and held your hand.
“Someone might find us,” she said before pausing and looking around. “But I don’t think anyone’s going to.” Her lip shook and you realized you were already sniffling back tears. “We just went outside when we left. They’re looking for us – they are – but not here. In the city. Because no one knows we went into the woods.”
Nothing happened for a long time after she said that.
The lily pads didn’t look like you thought they would. You always thought of them as perfect little green circles, anchored by a little green tendril, maybe an orange flower in the center, a bee landing on the cusp of the bloom. But these were misshapen little things. Ovals and ellipses, more clover-shaped than anything. Some of the pads had dead little sections where aphids or mantises or other leaf-eating things had nibbled away. They were nice, even now, to look at. But they weren’t what you wanted them to be. Across the pond, you could see your shoes. One of them – dog-bitten and holey – was lying in a patch of mud. Or maybe a tiny puddle. Both of your socks were inside out and on the ground; your sister had tucked hers into the toes of her shoes, which were lined up neatly atop a rock. * * *
Farther down the trail, you clutched a bundle of sticks in your hand, breaking off a small piece every twenty paces or so. Your sister told you to stop it, the consistent cracks were driving her crazy. It gave you something to do your hands so you ignored her. You were bored enough to irritate her for a little amusement. When you left the pond, the two of you decided not to return to yesterday’s path. Wherever it was leading, you didn’t want to go. To follow it blindly would have been not to choose. This way, the path was wider and the ground a little sandier. The trees were thinner and not as tall. White-barked with thin sticks for branches, they grew in three-trunked groups. But the forest grew sparser as you walked. Tall green grass grew in the more frequent meadows. Sour moods pervaded the trail. Words were cross and silences were long. Food and worry were the causes, you knew, but knowing that didn’t improve things. A rabbit darted in front of you and you threw a stone at it. You missed and kept walking. Though you couldn’t always see it, there was more water here. Often the trail would brush by a creek, before winding around a hill. Perhaps a few miles later you’d see it again. But this was land that was used to rain, gentle showers and morning mists. No thunderstorms came through here. It was a more orderly wilderness; it was used to being cared for. “The trees are in lines,” your sister said. “Look.” She stood at one trunk and pointed. “Do this.” You walked around the tree until you lined up the next one. Then the next one. And a third. You saw it then, the shabby lines of once-parallel rows left to ruin by nature. Some of the trees had fallen with age, leaving gaps in the line. New saplings had grown in, staggered in a wild way through the middle of the lines, tricking your eyes. “They’re not forest trees,” you told her. “These are different.” You walked between the rows. “All of these trees are different.” There were gnarled and twisted trunks in one row, the next was a line of widespread branches and new waxy leaves. A few rows had white blossoms and the faint smell of pear. The trees were shorter, smaller, all of the lowest branches within reach, just waiting to be grasped.
“It’s an orchard,” you said. Your sister was already halfway up one
trunk, searching the branches for an edible nub. Some bare bud that would eventually become a peach, the hard shell of an almond, a hint of a fig. You scoured the ground, searching for anything that hadn’t rotten beyond repair since it ripened and fell to earth last autumn. You pawed at the short grass, hoping for anything, a fleshy apricot pit, a too-soft apple. Your fingers ran across roots and through rich black soil, but found nothing to eat. It was funny, you’d almost forgotten you were hungry. It’d been a hopeless thought you’d put it out of your mind. But the merest suggestion of food woke your empty, gurgling stomach. You wanted to collapse, swallow anything – leaves, dirt, bark – in order to fill your shrunken belly, to keep your head from swimming. Your sister swung down from a branch shaking her head. “Though, I bet there’s a farm somewhere nearby,” she said. Her face was drawn, you noticed, pale and ashen. Everything you were feeling she was feeling too. There was no protection for either of you other than each other. “We’re close. We can’t stop now.” * * * Day was bleeding into night again. The sunset colored everything in pinks and oranges, light purples and twinkling stars, instead of the sudden deep navy of the eastern sky. You had walked away from the trail hours ago, heading west into the orchard. But the orchard was deeper than either of you imagined. Its low-hanging trees obscured the view in front of you; the wild saplings kept you from walking a straight line. Even the ground was against you: the grass was short and dead but still supple enough to spring back to shape after each step, keeping you from retracing your steps. Neither of you had seen any animals since you entered the orchard. Not even a bird flying overhead. The hedge surprised you. Just far enough over the crest of a hill to be hidden, it stood only fifty feet in front of you when you first saw it. Broad and dark, it was twenty feet tall, but not so thick as to be impenetrable. “At least it’s something different,” your sister said, twisting her shoulders and pushing herself in. She’d stopped thinking. Two days of
hiking was wearing on her. Her shoulders slumped and when she said anything it was short and cynical. Though, to be fair, the same was true of you. Thorns poked at you, scratched your arms and left bright thin trails of blood. You pressed against thicker branches, turning and squirming against their pressure. Ducking, snaking and pushing your way, you went through. And then you fell out of the briar and into a clearing. On the far edge sat a cottage, a faint curl of smoke rising from its chimney. Six expanses of neatly grooved topsoil filled the yard, each one a long rectangle and separated by grass pathways. Tiny green sprouts grew in rows. A garden. A garden for herbs, for fruits and vegetables. Strawberries, beans, tomatoes, sweet corn, spinach and potatoes. Someone lived in that cottage and grew food. Plucked fruit from the orchard and weeded the garden. * * * Your sister, older and braver, was the one who knocked. An old woman answered the door. “We’re lost,” said your sister. “And hungry.” The old woman was skinny, liver-spotted and wrinkled, like she had always been small and never strong. Cloudy brown eyes and white hair. She was barefoot and wearing a shapeless old dress. Her fingernails were bitten short. But she invited you both in. Your sister stepped across the threshold without hesitation. You followed, feeling shy. Inside, the cottage was one large room. A bed, a table, a wood-burning stove, a table. The old woman busied herself at the stove, rekindling the fire, making it strong and hot. Shelves filled with jarred fruits lined the wall next to the stove. Jams, jellies, and fruit preserves. Pickles, pickled beets, pickled peppers. Tomatoes and tomato sauce. Olives, black and green. A shelf dried fruit – peaches, apples, apricot, figs, raisins, prunes. Canned fruit – cherries, peaches, pears, plums. “Help yourself,” she mumbled. She spoke mostly in mumbles. She wasn’t used to people, you could tell. “Plenty of fruit. Precious little meat. Haven’t had any meat in some time.”
You took down a jar of pickles. Your fingers looked fat and warped
through the pale green water as you twisted the top off. A bit of the dill water slopped against your fingers and you slurped it off. The pickle was crisp when you bit into it. Watery and vinegary, it snapped between your teeth, cracking audibly. Nothing had ever tasted so good. You chewed fast, feeling the cucumber flesh smash between your molars, letting the tiny seeds get between your gums and your cheek and under your tongue. The act of chewing sated you, calmed you down and put you at ease. Your sister took one. She let her first bite rest on her tongue. She had never liked pickles, but wouldn’t open something else before being given permission. Even now she was mannerly. “Eat much,” said the old woman. “One can get so hungry in these woods.” Handing the pickles to your sister, you peeled the lid from a jar of peaches and thrust your fingers in. The juice was sticky and sweet and smelled of summer. You fished out a dripping half and gobbled it down. A jar of candied nuts was next. Walnuts, almonds and cashews all covered in a salty sweet glaze. “Get closer to the stove,” said the old woman. “You must be cold. Being hungry can chill a person, even in the spring.” You scooted closer, still chewing nuts and holding the peach jar, but your sister demurred. The stove was a giant iron thing, bigger than you, fearsome and monstrous, sooty with wide-toothed oven grate that the old woman left open to heat the room. The fire cracked and popped, sending sparks out onto the floor and your jeans. “Isn’t this nice, dearie,” said the old woman “It’s nice having visitors. They’re so rare here.” The old woman patted you on the shoulder. She left her hand there. “You must be a long way from home.” Her grip tightened on your collar. “So little meat.” There was a shout behind you – your sister, you knew – and a vicious, protective shove. The old woman fell, her head cracking once against the top of the stove and coming to a rest in the crook between the door and the fire. She groaned, her eyes closed. Blood seeped from a gash on her temple and ran down her cheek in thick lines. The ends of her hair began to smoke. She twisted her head away from the heat, but your sister pinned her against the grate before she could stand.
“Help,” your sister said.
Together, you both lifted her legs and turned her toward the flames. She shrieked and struggled. She threw her hands against the sides of the open over gate. You could smell her burning skin. You held tight to her leg and kicked at her elbow. She was feeble but held tight, unrelenting. You did not relent either. A kick finally landed, snapping her elbow and breaking her grip. Your sister pushed her another foot into the oven. The old woman stopped moving. Your sister grabbed her other leg from you, bent the body in and closed the door. â€œGrab the food,â€? your sister said. She went to the bed and knotted the sheets into a sack. You put every jar you could reach into it, but neither of you could lift it. The smell of burning hair filled the room. One by one, the two of you sorted the jars, figuring out what you wanted to eat. Neither of you spoke of primal fears, the bonds of familial love, of gratitude, or what it was you would never again mention. When you had divided everything into two sacks you could each carry, you sat on the floor together, finishing the pickles, peaches and nuts. You spent the night on the floor, sleeping under a blanket, warmed by the heat of the stove. In the morning you left. Out the door to the orchard, to the pond, to the woods, in the direction from where you came, together.Â
About the Author
anny VolinÂ writes fiction and is a second-year Charlotte Street Studio Resident. Generally overeducated. Likes things.Â The one thing that will save America is exhausted.
2. Selected Sonnets ... About Your Mom Jason Preu
3. Through mirrored glass, your mother viewed A string of loveless nights – she couldn’t face another – Yet what still-freshness had she for someone to review? In my own lonely dreams, daresay I undressed your mother, Caressed her fair from wonky wig to fruitful womb Begged for a tussle with her willing indiscretion? She I dreamed so fond of christening every room Or self-loving at the moment that the wind switches direction. You are your mother’s child, yet now she calls to me, Has called me every weekend since reaching her prime; So through steamy windows what you might see Are red carnal lusts unbound in social time. But you must remember to always let her be, Don’t let her die unsatisfied, let her ravish me.
4. Unkind friend, why wouldst thou expect Me not to explore your mother’s exquisite beauty? Nature’s bequest gave her needs and she doth tend (If I’m frank) to bend to those like me. Then, supposed amigo, why do you abuse The bounteous love I have given to su madre? You call yourself friend, but are you of the view That I would make such a no-good step-padre? For I was tired of trafficking with myself alone, So when your mom told me of her secret needs How could we deny the call from nature’s phone? What other outcome might have you foreseen? We used each other’s body so perfectly We used each other’s beauty so terribly.
7. Look, in the east when the warm light Shines upon my balding head, memories Of when your mom first sauntered into sight, Serving with experienced looks such sultry majesty. And having since climbed that aged hill, This once strong youth now in its middle arch, Yet lusty fires lurk within these loins still, From once sitting with your mom out on the porch. But comes a high, wailing pitch from the rear of the car – A tiny, little boy, feeble age – born the last few days; Bright eyes, tiny toes, reminding that only innocents are Free from these base memories, I must look away. Your mom, now surrounded by gray, geriatric bums, Remembered by a new dad driving ‘round his only son.
12. Turn your eyes from your phone and blue time And look me in the eyes throughout the night. Here I behold your matronly body so prime, Your sable curls streaked silver and white; Where in your backyard I see empty treehouses, When once I romped with most of your herd, Hoping you’d don one of your translucent blouses, Sip soft a Zima, my thoughts then absurd; Now of your aged beauty do I question make That you along the flow of time must go, Since sweets and beauties we can never take, We shall die as fast as we watch others grow. Against time’s passing we have no defense So let’s get down tonight with no consequence.
15. When your mom considers how the neighbor boy has grown, She recalls 1994 in perfect little moments When he would present homemade puppet shows. Now the stage she observes shows a full grown gent; She perceives him a man and her desires increase, Cheers and spies him underneath a cloudless sky; Shirtless, in a hammock nap, inhibitions decrease, And she braves to venture out to say, “Hi”; Then the scope of her intentions stay Her for a moment, but that Adonis before her sight, She can waste no more time this day So charges through the backyard, loins alight; She says, “Hello”; he responds with, “How do?” Your mom bends low to whisper, “I was watching you.”
16. But wherefore do not you make a mightier way? Make love upon this tender heart, mine. And fortify yourself in your own way Knowing that we only have such a little time? Now you’ve lain in your hammock for hours, And for those moments quiet I’ve kept Though my wish would be to feel your power, Under or above me, your direction I’ll accept. So let’s to life our natural lives give here, Spend this time drawing desire wide open. Drive inward, pull outward, firm but fair Be but ourselves in this backyard pen. Give yourself away and do not lie still, Show me your supple and soft, sweet skills.
18. Shall I compare your mom to a summer’s day? She mos def makes me sweat more than 4th of July. Rough winds do shake a rump raw in late May, And all hate when August’s end draws nigh. Sometime too hot do your mom’s lips shine, And often is her gold complexion trimmed, And every hair dyed black to hide gray decline, Not chance but nature’s unchanging course so grim; But your mom’s eternal summer shall not fade Nor lose possession of that which makes us yell, “OH!”, Nor shall her spark be dimmed by autumn’s shade For eternally your mom makes boys to men grow. So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, So long lives your mom, so love her do we.
20. Your mother’s face as she left the shower, fainted, To see him there, hopeful master of her passion; Your mom’s gentle heart, but not acquainted With shifting changes in generational reactions; No eye brighter than hers, less false in rolling, Gilding his object whereupon falls her gaze; both all nude, all nude without controlling, Which steals your mom’s attention with amaze. And for this moment were they first created, For nature has wrought them there a-doting, And in their lack of attire, nature undefeated His one thing brought to now their mutual groping. They pricked by accidental carnal pleasures, His love to her and hers to him - what treasure.
22. Let no mirrors persuade you you are old For youth is wasted on youth so do not wait; Let not time burrow in and take hold, Think not of death but rather of this hour late. For all that beauty that wholly covers you Is more than the projection of my heart, I’ve watched the swell of your breasts true; Your body is a gallery hung display of art. So therefore, love, of your age be not wary For I, not for myself, but for yours will, Try to capture your heart, and fears I’ll bury. Be like a nurse tending her baby boy’s ills. Sponge me, stroke me, snuggle up together: Join me under covers where we’ll live forever.
23. As a middle-school actor on the school-play stage, Who with middle-school fears, sincere heart, And now forgotten lines from a well-known page, Whose own parents couldn’t make it to watch him play the part; T’was your mom took him aside just to say Perfect encouragement to steer him right, And then his own love almost betrayed, O’ercharg’d with youthful love’s might. Your mom empowered him with eloquence And pounding pressure from beating breast, Did threaten to sound louder than those lines spent Delivered from tongue that could never express What that encouragement hath writ: A confidence, charm, and blossoming wit.
24. My hand slowly swirls a glass of whiskey with ice, Your mom’s beauty stirs memories of my heart; Her body was the frame wherein I fell to vice, Such proportions that seemed crafted by some divine art. And ‘tis divine fortune did I know her sass, She kept it on the DL, the nights in which I lied Face close to bosom while gently massaging that ass, Dark curtains on the windows, bright and nicety eyes. Now see what hot love for hot love has done: Tiny ice bits in alcohol, does your mom think of me? Are her windows still so darkly curtained? Does she sit alone bewitched by late-night TV? Her eyes so inviting, begged only for the good parts, Glass of melted ice; remembrances of a fiery heart.
27. After binge-watching River Monsters, I crawled to bed, My second-favorite repose after the toilet, But then a million thoughts explode up in my head To plague my mind even though I’m beyond spent; And then my thoughts, blue-light fried, Intend an astral pilgrimage to your mom’s house, My once-limp lust slowly starts to rise, Stiff now in the darkness how aroused. Can’t stop my mind’s imaginary peep show From presenting torrid pictures to my viewless sight, Your mom, illuminated by a black light, A neon goddess, darkened body, undies bright white. Oh, by day I never worry, but at night my mind Purple dreams about your mom and can no quiet find.
28. How can I then wake to straight sunlight When I’m denied the benefit of rest, If the day job’s oppression is not eased at night, Rather day to night to day in infinite jest? Through each, your mom’s voice reigns, And constantly her last words torture me, Never one to pull a punch, nor one to complain How far will I carry them, her words of prophecy? I repeat every day her words with final might, And think of her lips as she whispered under clouds: “Flatter me not this day. Love me not this night. We are stars in different systems, ever bright and proud. Days and nights apart though make our sorrows stronger, Day and night must ever part, so together we no longer.”
29. When, viewed by my own parents as a creep, I all alone at Starbucks bemoan my outcast state, And trouble deaf Twitter with heartless tweets, And draw into myself, problematic first-world fate, Wishing I were more like one with false hope, Followed by many like him, or oft-retweeted like him, Desiring this man’s wit and that man’s scope, Contemporary forms of communication leave me grim. Yet after many tweets of self-loathing, desperate, hasty, Your mom DMs me, and then my state, Like, you know how good a Toaster Pastry, Warm and frosted, leaves none’s belly room for self-hate? Well, that’s how good your mom’s DM made me feel. Like, for a few moments, life was good and good was real.
30. Halloween and sweet, sugary thoughts, Unwrapped remembrances of treats gone by: Your mom in a sexy elephant costume she’d bought, Here I consider how quickly does time’s arrow fly. Today I drown my troubles with brown bottles But back then, precious friend, I’d spend dateless nights Weeping and whining to your mom all my sorrows, And moan of how often with girls I would fight, That I’d be better off courting one with time’s gains, And she’d listen and shush my woes over and over; My so sad accounts and adolescent pains She’d soothe with a light touch upon my shoulder. But never that line would she cross, my dear friend; Just an elephant in Daisy Dukes did she stay ’till the end.
36. Let me confess that me and yer mom boom-boomed And now our undivided loves are one. She snuck me overnight, said, “Come to my room,” During your 18th birthday party, all was sweat and done. In our two loves there is but one respect, Though our lives must be apart despite Mad love gripped by desire’s sole effect, It steals sweet hours whilst we stay up late nights. Though now she will nevermore acknowledge me ‘Cause her cradle-robbin’ love crosses her with shame, Nor will she with public kisses honor me; Only apart from watchful eye will she scream my name. But I ain’t trippin’, naw, I ain’t the worrying sort. I’ve rather come to relish this quiet, secret sport.
38. How can your mom subject herself to such incense From your father’s tongue, that berates with such adverse Indignity and sour argument, inelegance Seeming every vulgar part rehearsed? O! I give myself thanks, that it isn’t me Worthy of his wrath at the slightest sight; Is he so dumb not to know her attractions do flee? Or is it that which dost give fuel to their fight? However she may be my Muse, ten times more in worth Than that old man which spews bile so irate, But then one day he called on, let forth Tears of untold numbers about his marriage’s fate. To my Muse I now must end our secret ways, No longer can I pain you with such wanton, unclothed days.
43. I used to dream your mom was Kelly Kapowski, And I, of course, Zack Morris (much respect); And when I slept, how that dream did haunt me, The halls of Bayside High gray, dark and derelict. Then your mom, as Kelly, high wall of bangs absorbing all light, Would jump at me unexpectedly throughout my dream show. O’er me with red nails and teeth blinding white, Would she threaten to claw my eyes from their holes! Then I’d beg, “Please, KK, don’t destroy this perfect face!” And she’d look down on me with such a look of mourning, That in the dead of night, under covers would I shake, Hoping beyond hope for some alarm to give a warning. Then I called for Jesse Spano, all amped up on speed. But no help was forthcoming, I alone to dream and scream.
46. Me and your moms are in a lover’s spat Over how to hide our love from your sight; Me, I’m like, put it out, let that be that, But her, she’s nervous, anxious to cause a fright. Me, I’m like, please let’s don’t hide, don’t lie, Our love is like some fluffy, dense-frosted cake. But her, she’s kinda scared, wants to deny, And tells me, hush, hush, lover, let’s wait. But I’m coming to your house, yo! I’m gonna confess my sneakin’ heart! And will your verdict have me stay or go After clear-eyed testimony on both our parts? I do, I want to confess so bad to you my part, In how I swayed so gingerly your sweet mother’s heart.
47. Between me and your mom a storm has brewed, And each does want to turn now from the other. ‘Cause I told her we can’t keep this from you, Our hearts in full love with one another, Upon our love’s picture should your own eyes rest, And not a pain-filled banquet should you see; For at all times should you be our love’s guest, Because in our hearts you’ll always welcome be. So, check it, whether you dig this or you don’t, You’re always my homie, forever with me; I know I’m not your daddy, never would I hope, To take that man’s place, ‘cause I’m like only 19. Your moms and I are never long from the other’s sight She fills my lonely heart and brings me pure delight.
54. How dusty and old does your mom seem, When God said, “Let there be light,” she hit the switch, They gave her number 1 for her social security, She knew Burger King when he was still a prince. O! so crusty and rusty and bent over with age: She’s so old she’s blind from the Big Bang! She sat behind Jesus in the third grade! Your mom uses cuneiform as slang! She’s ancient, decrepit, I must continue these slights, She’s so old her birthday candles cost more than the cake, When your mom was young, rainbows were black & white, She remembers when the Indian Ocean was just a lake. So old, so sorry, so true that you cry, Told your mom to act her age and know what? She died.
62. What’s the sin in mom-love when your mom is divine? In all my soul, and in every bit and part; This can be no sin for there is no stop sign. There is nothing but the inward pounds of my heart. There is no face so gracious in line, No shape so true, only truth this account; With all these words I’m just trying to define A feeling so complex and ample in amount: When society reflects me to myself indeed As lusty, deranged, hair perfectly coiffed, Just a bro or a chach or a douchebag in need; No - I’m a lover of mothers, proud to give it a voice. It’s me, myself, one your mother did praise, For loving her mind, her hard work, and age.
63. You know one day we’ll be where your mom is, With Time’s hand threatening to crush and maim; When long hours have tired our blood to pink fizz, With silver hairs and wrinkles; when bending, pains And trouble sleeping through the starry night; And all those beauties who once thought us kings Will also vanish, vanish out of sight, Having whiled away the treasures of our Springs; Those coming days is how I justify Using Tinder like a crisp, clean knife To merely satisfy base carnality Only pause for beauty, mostly just precise swipes. But there is no beauty upon this black screen. No battery left to live, and no texts blue or green.
66. Tired of everything, for death-like sleep I cry, Waiting for a begged love to be reborn, And where is she, your mom so trim and fly? And where is she, her faith in me forsworn? And who am I, so confusedly misplaced? And who am I, architect of this foul fable? And what were we, so wrongfully disgraced? And what were we, so easily disabled? And who am I, tongue-tied by complicity? And who am I, muted from all skill? And where is she, truth in our simplicity? And where is she, your mom for whom Iâ€™d kill? So tired of everything, so do I wish all this were gone, Except I know that when I die, then will I truly be alone.
About the Author
ason Preu writes odd things. His wife, children, and Milli Vanilli provide much inspiration. Jasonâ€™s work has appeared in various outlets around the galaxy and he writes online at jasonpreu.wordpress.com. The one thing that can save America is purple.
3. Selected Letters from the Landlocked Lucas Wetzel
Dear Clifford, I read your notes today, most of which were drivel. “Humans are an invasive species”? Well, OK. You got us there. I too am tired of these emotional stalemates, misleading ellipses, the crooked teeth of someone who seems to think she’s smiling. I can’t compete, and I signed a napkin saying I wouldn’t dream of such. I am not one of those “old souls” we keep hearing about in eulogies and profile summaries, nor one of the free spirits from the funny papers. For me there are only two things: amusement and restraint. Though at times even I could use someone to swim away from my problems with.
Dear Splenda, Please don’t make me contemplate eternity. It’s one of your most debilitating side effects. For me, all’s well that ends, period. That’s what I love
the most about your poems — they can fit on a single page. I used to try to stay awake a whole week and when I did I always got stuck on the in-between floors, stumbling into toxic hypnosis, extended periods of activity that took twice as long to recover from. These days I would rather have a thimble of sugar than a whole jar of syrup to swim in. And yes, I see you in the doorway, smiling and refusing to check your watch. I appreciate your perfect attendance and your unwillingness to get involved. In fact, they’re two of your most charming attributes.
Dear Red, When I said something critical about this place, the response was emphatic: GET OUT. I tried to explain that I just want us to live in a better place. That I want the place we live in to be better. If you don’t want to listen, build bigger fences. Give my name to your concierge and tell him not to let me in. I grew up in a gated community and when I escaped I was amazed to discover it was surrounded by miles of other gated communities. After that I moved to a bedroom community — a seven square mile patchwork of beds, nightstands and duvet covers all pushed together. My friends all lived within one week of each other. On weekends we stood around and smoked and drank and talked about how much better things would be in Coastal Megalopolis. We talked so much we had no choice but to move there. In the middle of my continental relocation I got cold feet and exited the plane mid-flight. When I showed up at my parents’ house dripping water all over the welcome mat, a flotation device stuck around my neck, my mother was kind enough not to ask questions. She just pointed to my old room and told me dinner would be ready in fifteen minutes. Now when I walk around — always in squares, always alone — I wonder if everyone is watching and waiting for my next move. Or maybe they have forgotten. Or never knew I existed. I am confident there is a way forward but I don’t know what it is yet. This doesn’t stop me from drafting plans. I went before the council yesterday with a proposal for a new mixed-use development. I am requesting tax incremental financing for a period of 400 years. What will you be offering? they asked. High-end apartments. Waterslides. A peanut farm.
A sanctuary for lemurs, owls, bushbabies, other nocturnal creatures. A polo field. A weekly farmer’s market. Where do you intend to put the thing? Oh, any old place will do. My proposal was turned down in favor of a bulk club. But I still think we need to find alternatives. Alternatives to what? To this. You said that these brick cities are almost over. It’s only a question of when. I don’t remember the last time I read a column by someone who didn’t sound afraid. Who wasn’t hedging his/her bets. I, for one, am tired of feeling sorry. Let what is crumbling, crumble. Let us eat crumble cake. Let us eat to our hearts’ content.
Dear Priscilla, I was not expecting your explicit text, which caused me all kinds of anguish as I tried to decide what not to do. The moral imperative was clear, but that made it no less disappointing to say no to your faux proximity, your trick photography, your disregard for consequence. And of course, the grand promise of Historical Mistress, the kind all biography junkies grow up believing they must have at least one of. Oh well. I suppose we will always have tomorrow. But for now, please, please disappear!
Dear Lunamoth, Thank you so much for the walking tour. I don't think my feet touched the ground more than twice the entire night. I’m amazed and more than a little alarmed how few of the neighborhoods I recognized, especially the houses along the old shipping canals. I very much approve of your plan to introduce bioluminescent algae along the docks, as well as establishing a meditation center in the southernmost turret of the barracks. But do you really think this will succeed in attracting our young people back to the province?
Dear Don Iguana, It’s such a relief to be free of all this mammalian pretension, to party like my lifespan is less tortoisean, to take flight on the strength of an idea. I had carved out such an exquisite niche I nearly disappeared. Today, for just a moment, the streetcar construction paused and I was able to drag my toes through the grooves and soak up the low currents of electricity, my hair standing on end and my unending anxiety relieved for a precious few moments. If I hadn’t been so crippled by inhibition, this year’s pomegranate crop might have been worth harvesting.
Dear Wisteria, In your last invitation, you asked how I was doing. The best answer I can give you is “exceptionally not bad.” On one hand, I am trapped in America without a valid passport. On the other, it is the very lap of luxury. For a while I considered attending one of your famous séances, until I realized it would no longer be prudent. Though I do miss the lights that used to flare up in our eyes as we ran around just before sunrise, gesturing with sweeping arms at the miracles of animation, both in the natural world and in ourselves. I am happy you are keeping a steady column of sacred smoke rising above our home state, which is in desperate need of radical imagination. In time, and in my own fashion, I hope to meet you there.
cec Dear Citronella, I don’t care what anyone says. I think you have a lovely name. I know
my sight is not what they used to be, but I can always sense when you are near, by the way the bugs vanish, the way the big cats begin to purr and the train whistles bend into slowly dissipating echoes. I try to meditate, but mostly I drift, and when I return you are as present as a whisper. C, I can count on a sloth’s toes the number of times I have heard the truth spoken. Remember when we bought those galoshes and waded into the storm sewers to see what relics had surfaced during the seven-day flood? Our parents were worried sick, but I could tell they admired our gumption. We trespassed even further after the electrical fences froze, frostbitten and laughing all the way to the riverbank. Citronella, our patriotic symbols left a lot to be desired. The state flower was the corsage, the state insect was the fire ant, the state shape was and remains the trapezoid. Today our once-proud, once-rural estate languishes in escrow. On the wall of the toolshed is a laminated picture of you and me at the dance, a cardboard sickle moon hanging above us like a glittering halfhalo. Now, as per usual, I remain all ears and eternally at your surface.
Dear Clarence, I had a good laugh when you said your spirit manimal was a sad sasquatch who makes pots of coffee that he tosses out after barely so much as a sip. I know we typically define leaders as those with a track record of getting things done, but I think there’s also a place for folks like us who drum up all kinds of excitement about things we never see through, like the shooting star that streaks across our fields of vision and then looks back over its shoulder to confirm that its flaming tail is now offscreen and it may now return to its thousand-year nap. All I ask is you write more than once every fifteenth Friday and/or whenever you feel inspired. Consistency, my friend: It will take you places. Maybe not the heavens, but certainly somewhere more interesting than this.
Dear Kaspar, I know how much you loved getting high, but you have to admit it’s pretty marvelous here on the floor. Eating crumb cake with your fingers, with no need for napkins or preservatives, febrile in the land of plenty. So what if your wizard’s staff turned out to be a crutch? Better to rely on your own senses anyway, however unreliable. It’s not your fault the panopticon was abandoned, that the attendees of your mental gala left no forwarding address. You’ve been walking around town in an aviator helmet for almost two decades, and the furthest you ever got was county line. But now you’ve got a new script. When this modest feast is over, sweep off the hardwoods and get back to work.
Dear Lazy Susan, Where do we draw the line when all the chalk has been squandered on outlines of bodies, kinetic figures that appear in the night, positioned as if kicked out of low-orbiting spacecraft? This morning the cropdusted streets sparkled with speculum metals, Christmas tree fertilizer and fluorescent confetti left over from the sports parade. The only thing more tragic than the temples that were blown up are the temples that were never built, the subpar suburban plots that overpromise and underdeliver. Oh, Susi, I’m sorry for the rhapsodic speech. You know how the holidays can be.
Dear Blinkie, I am writing to inquire about your condition. I hear you suffer from scintillating scotoma and soda fountain night terrors, from prolonged immaturity and premature oldness, paralyzed by future envy and cursing your forced obsolescence. I know you were rattled after those rogue bond
agents came after you, but you never should have signed that chastity pledge. You had the best of intentions and only yourself to blame. But don’t lose heart. The more information that is out there, the more a collective amnesia sits in. We need not let these tidbits define us, in spite of their alleged permanence.
Dear Cassie, I did some research about the meaning of your name. It seems you are part constellation, part frustrated prophet. I remember when I saw you in the communal stairwell on the night before Halloween. You were wearing a black feather boa and there were wine stains on your vampire teeth. Back then your struggles for (and against) equilibrium rivaled my own. Our ancestors were equal parts fun-loving and puritanical, and sometimes that seesaw hit us in the head. It’s funny to be writing you now, when I wouldn’t know where to send this anyway. Your profile pictures are all blank and your last posted coordinates lead to a fishing village that is only seasonally occupied. But maybe this will reach you all the same. If not, I won’t blame you, and I won’t try to follow. To know where you are from is to know where you might be headed.
Dear Benjamin, Why can’t I just be happy for other people’s sake? During weddings, as everyone begins dancing, I find myself standing alone, holding an empty water glass and trying my best to smile. The embraces and warm greetings directed to me feel misplaced, like I’ve been mistaken for someone else. I would much rather be riding with a stranger in a darkened passenger car on some forlorn train route, our intimacy aided by shadows, port wine or imported narcotics. Or outdoors beneath a row of linden trees on a Sunday afternoon in fall, watching an old man in a long coat
and hunter’s cap loft a ball to his energetic dog, while I follow aimlessly at a distance, my headphones resting around my collar even though my iPod hasn’t held a charge in years. While standing outside by the smokers imagining these scenes, it’s like I’ve been absent from the party for years. When I return to the reception hall a few minutes later, I feel like I’ve been given a second chance to enjoy what I too hastily wished away. But if the music is still bad, then I’ve got to leave after all, and it simply can’t be helped.
Dear Lydia, I’ve been asked not to renew your lease. Never mind why. Suffice it to say you may thank me later, if things go where they are heading, which is nowhere soon. For now it’s best to lay low. Speak only when spoken to. Dispel with the myth of sparkle over substance. Nostalgia is a hansom cab whose driver has no face, a costume party you aren’t sure you were invited to, a place you’re both an imposter and the guest of honor. Nothing new grows here, and the existing flora is brittle. What we forget about first impressions is that these scenes were often only made fresh by virtue of their freshness. cec
Dear Scallywag, I got your text the other day asking if I thought monogamy was realistic. I thought a lot about it but I believe that is a better question for the barstool. So much is there for the taking, but much of what can be taken can never be returned, like a hotel minibar monitored by microsensors. I have lost my appetite for misadventure, but at times the possibility of unscripted collisions still flashes like a solar flare. The knees go weak at a glimpse of lavender underwear, the scent of Venus chemically imparted on a perforated postcard addressed to the willing/unwilling descender.
But beware of being too discreet, of turning a cave into a cathedral. The forbidden fruitcake is delicious, and it will upset your stomach.
Dear Eggplant, When did you go from being an omnivore to a nadavore? I know there is nothing new under the sun, but does that make us all phonies? Passing judgment reduces bloodflow to the heart, and scoffing causes chest constrictions. (I believe in pseudoscience to the degree it is metaphorically true.) A fire burns in you, I know it. I also know that you donâ€™t know what to do with it. God spoke to you at a young age and then was mostly silent. Now the gaps between where you thought you would be and where you are seem disheartening and insurmountable. But they are of little measure. What matters is what you fill them with.
Dearest Pip, Most days I am unsure how to orient myself, pinging between visionary fervor and newspaper-gray doubt. The weeds that were growing on the rooftop terrace have become a forest. The wind-stripped billboard is an accidental Rauschenberg. But this is far from bankable cache, only fodder for drone footage montages of urban authenticity, a contest of civic aesthetics that we always win by default. So many of our friends are still waiting for the tide to come in, for their numbers to be called, for their drydocked yachts to sail. But you could not care less. Itâ€™s so refreshing to meet someone who refuses to make excuses or fade into the furniture. Even if I appear to be an old incandescent amid the twinkling LEDs, I admire the post-disaster approach of your cohort, and I like to think our hues are complementary. For the first time, I feel like I belong to this century instead of to the last. So much in between has already collapsed.
Dear Cosmosphere, “Don’t lose sight of the stars,” you say. If only it were that easy, with all the light pollution and space debris, unsanctioned drag races on the rings of the gas giants, clouding over the local heavens. I was much happier not knowing about all the Earth-mimicking Keplars and mirror solar systems. It’s bad enough having to compete with Portland. I remember borrowing Papa’s spectrographs and plotting our own star charts, confident of our atmosphere-escaping trajectories. Anyone who made more earthbound arrangements was consigning themselves to lesser things. But while they managed to leverage their terrestrial apprenticeships into some level of stardom, I sit here flightless and unlicensed, basking in the light of something long since burned out.
Dear Maria, I am sincerely touched by your concern about the state of my soul, which I assure you is just fine, if perhaps a little opaque. It’s possible we do not find God in the same places. My glimpses into the eternal are infrequent and often arrive unannounced, like the child scientist alone in the barn, studying acorns and silently praying. But I, too, have my melting points. In spite of my perceived apostasy, I feel the peace of the Lord quite strongly at times. Yesterday, for example, while shirtless and holding my sleeping child, who had just moments earlier awakened, crying. And later, in the muted sunlight of a December day, when no sunglasses were needed. There are truths I have always known and of which I need to be reminded. There are lights.
Dear Selfester, I know you’ve been told it’s time to leave when you start finding the village barmaids appealing, but maybe that’s exactly the right time to decide to stick around. Besides, why complain of clipped wings when you have no intentions of flying? Beneath stability there is always sacrifice, and in virtually every couple there is at least one party who keeps a pair of winged sneakers in the closet. No one is going to begrudge you an occasional change of scene, or stop you from buying new shoe glitter. But if you do decide to drain your accounts and skip out over the rooftops, remember to pack warm socks.
About the Author
ucas WetzelÂ is a writer and editor who lives in Kansas City. His writing includes newspaper features, satirical essays, concrete poetry and ghostwritten comic strips. In 2012, he founded the regional literary website, Kawsmouth. com. The one thing that can save America is selflessness.
4. Afterword Jessica Baran
live in the Midwest but this is not an essay about experience or the self. It’s an essay about the other. In arts discourse the Midwest is an other, a margin between coastal centers. It’s a simple idea: write an essay discussing the Midwest’s marginal place in American arts discourse and align our otherness with a failure of the democratic system or a betrayal of the art world’s responsibility to engage with otherness, wherever found. But the Midwest is neither bridge, nor crossroads. If we call it the heartland or flyover country, we do so with an inflated sense of self or a note of self-hate and this essay is not about the self. But what if our middling marks a banality so radical that it upsets the limits of radicality. What if the Midwest is radical in its banality? It is unextreme in every other sense and thereby both unmarketable and without a market. It may court its avant-gardes, but the Midwest is too full of the demos to be centered into its own avant-something. While it’s tempting to mount a defense of the Midwest’s otherness in opposition to the extraordinary wealth of the art market at this
moment and how that art world constitutes its own 1% and every year widens the cultural income gap; and while it’s tempting to lament the vanishing artistic middle class, even as almost everyone imagines themselves as some degree of middle-class, and to draw a parallel with the disenfranchised working poor: what’s happening here isn’t about economics, it’s about a vanishing voice. A middling voice. A quieter voice. It's about the absence of discursive outlets to a wide swath of the country where art-makers are falling silent as the result of repeatedly being silenced. To be a part of a discourse is to be part of a community, but to believe that the market elects our representatives would mean countenancing the fallacious link between democratic progress and free-market economics. Gertrude Stein said in a 1926 lecture: “For a long time everybody refuses and then almost without a pause almost everyone accepts.… In the history of the refused in the arts and literature the rapidity of the change is always startling.” And so Four Saints in Three Acts became a smash success on Broadway and Ulysses was published by Random House. Perhaps postmodernism had its beginning here, in the popular institution of the avant-garde. At its most base, mine is an irritable us-versus-them idea about the Midwest’s marginality, as dictated by the Art World cartographers of New York and Los Angeles. The subject is not new, and if it’s the privilege of the Coasts to not think too much about us, having been a Midwesterner by birth and currently based in the Midwest, I’ve been privy to a raging chorus of home-grown complaints about metropolitan prejudices and lack of local representation. These complaints, for better or worse, issue from assumptions about fair representation, the expectation that the arts are a place where those without voices can otherwise find one. This assumption undoubtedly contributes to Midwest artists’ outof-place-ness in the cosmopolitanism of the art world and their tendency to confine themselves to regionalisms on one hand and on the other to find themselves as members of swing-states and red-states, cast in the position of political privilege and scorn. In other words, the Midwestern artist’s voice, a gnat in the ear of the culturally elite, is transformed into the booming voice that sways elections. So quiet banality becomes the coercive norm to be resisted in the name of intellectual and aesthetic refinement. Any attempt to reverse these assumptions and uncouple, or even recuperate, the middleness of the Midwest from its marginality seems bound to founder in scholarship. Reviewing the body of literature devot-
ed to the role of the Midwest in the art world is depressing. Much of it emerged in the 70s. New York was rising to its current towering status, consolidating its critical capital in what remain the art journals of record. Here, the Chicago-based New Art Examiner took on the project of consolidating an art critical voice in the Midwest and devoted many substantive essays to the topic – if, even, the whole publication effort itself could be construed as a collective case in point. Current New Yorker art critic, Peter Schjeldahl published an essay optimistically titled “Chicagoization” in the NAE in 1985 where he confesses his turn-around and retreats to the coast: I got excited by the possibility that at last, after some muddled attempts in the past, I would find something useful to say on a bedeviled subject: the center and the margin, centrality and provincialism, mainstream and periphery, the whole psychology of geography in contemporary art. This is a disreputable subject for a number of reasons, among them that it tends to spark a discourse remarkably gross. In this discourse, if it can be called that, raw feelings confront insulated ones – defensiveness confronts snobbery – and everybody gets either mad or maddening. It is a subject that, as a lover of art, I would like to see simply go away. What could be more vulgar than the confusion of geographical rooting interests with art production?
Then Schjeldahl reveals the universalism in the blindspot of cosmopolitan’s self-regard, falling back on the complimentary notions of transcendent artistic greatness through the sweetness and light of an Arnoldian disinterestedness as opposed to the mewling virtue of regionalism: Conscious, sophisticated art of all times has a profound independence from places, and the places that host it show the peculiar dissociation, the gregarious impersonality that we call “cosmopolitan.” When we look at the sites of great artistic movements, at least within the Western tradition, I think we see that they have a certain negative virtue, not a team spirit but a disinterested though passionate curiosity. I get tired of talk about the possibility of art in this or that place, feeling that the only question that matters, as Harold Rosenberg suggested, is of whether art is possible at all.
He goes on to say that “place-patriotism” is more alive and well than ever, and that he himself is even charmed by the “primitive attraction to the mystique of place.” As such, his own argument, he says, is ultimately “ambushed from within.” He knows he should be bound to a higher-order aesthetic, but he finds himself enthralled by some quaint but treacherous local attraction. The essay is as vexing as it is arresting, and as such may serve as a good metaphor for this perhaps lamentable attempt to re-address this embattled subject, including the reference to inner ambush. We could consider the way in which American art culture ambushes its own center and how, in assorted inventive ways, the center (the Midwest) ambushes itself. I also feel, personally, a self-ambushing, aligning myself to a cosmopolitan center-that-is-not-the-center over and above some or another depthless regionalism. Rather than listen for the vanishing voices who take it for granted that they are making art just like everyone else, I sense that pull toward that “negative virtue” and the terribly cynical idea of America as art’s apocalypse. Indeed, cosmopolitanism is a mindset unrooted to place. To cultivate it anywhere is perhaps the critic’s most important job – rather than fleeing to those places where it’s flourishing. Past arguments aside, my point is to bring this debate to the current moment and relate how we approach arts in the Midwest to how we assess what counts as democratic. We’re seeing a moment where the art world is mirroring American culture in the most problematic of ways: like the imminent presidential election, populated by astronomical campaign budgets and presidential hopefuls whose financial profiles eliminate anyone without deep pockets. We have an art market dominated by bloated sales, whose market prices validate the qualitative worth of the art works. As is, these systems of privilege require the maintenance of margins. Yes, the avant-garde was always necessarily attached to its “umbilical chord of gold” – as Clement Greenberg memorably quipped – but it is all the more so in this late state of capitalism, where art is not only a marker of sophistication (as it’s always been) but an investment opportunity. Today’s art market is more akin to the world of finance than patronage which, we should remember, rested on pride of place. So would a democratic avant-garde mean reinvesting in marginalized communities and reorienting art-making to the broadening of discourse and access and away from sales, fame, and power? Maybe any avant-garde needs to believe in a failed democracy in
order to seed, or maybe the fact that democracy entails a commitment to equality – not just liberty – means that democracy will necessarily fail to provide a model for the arts where not all art is equal. Like the market needs competition, art needs antagonism to flourish. But whether or not the broad-appeal to Midwest banality can radicalize a common populace left out of the art-world mainstream, or whether it’s in the nature of the popular mainstream to reject even its own otherness, it’s our duty to dwell in that impossible decision. To act as though one might win back a wayward populace, without allowing each new failure to call us dishearteningly into another’s elitism.
End Notes This publication was created on the occasion of the Charlotte Street Foundation's Studio Residency Program Visiting Curator Series, for the exhibition The One Thing That Can Save America at Paragraph Gallery & Project Space (Kansas City, MO), March 24 - April 30, 2016. In addition to the writers in this book, the exhibition included contributions by artists Max Adrian, Hannah Carr, Molly Garrett, Paige Hinshaw, Lara Shipley, the Archive Collective and Paris of the Plains (podcast); it was curated by Jessica Baran. Many thanks to the Charlotte Street Foundation for making this publication, and its related exhibition, possible - with special gratitude to Pat Alexander and Amy Kligman for their invaluable help. Further thanks to Lauren Cardenas of Saturday Press for making the bookâ€™s hand letterpress cover both possible and impeccable. Final thanks to Nathaniel Farrell for his brilliant editorial insights. Both the book and exhibition's title is borrowed from John Ashbery's eponymous poem, which appears in its entirety on the back cover. Ashbery's remarkable piece was originally published by Viking Press in 1975 in his bellwether collection Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.
Published on Apr 29, 2016
This book was published by Charlotte Street visiting curator, Jessica Baran for the exhibition titled, 'The One Thing That Can Save America'...