The Fourth River takes its name from a subterranean river beneath Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a city famously sited at the confluence of three rivers: Monongahela, Allegheny, and Ohio. This fourth river, unseen yet indispensable to the city’s riverine ecosystem, is actually an aquifer geologists call the “Wisconsin Glacial Flow.” The Fourth River literary journal grew up from the idea that between and beneath the visible framework of the human world and the built environment, there exist deeper currents of force and meaning supporting the very structure of that world. Jeffrey Thompson, Founding Editor The Fourth River Issue No. 1
Issue O.2 // Autumn 2015 Executive Editor Sheryl St. Germain Editor in Chief Sheila Squillante Guest Editors Dakota Garilli & Michael Walsh Managing Editors Corey Florindi & Kelly Kepner Fiction Editor Marc Nieson Nonfiction Editor Sheila Squillante Poetry Editor Heather McNaugher Associate Editors Tim Connor, Ashleigh Fox, Alex Friedman, Tessa Gilles, Amanda Long, Katie Pagano, Alyse Richmond, Ryan Rydzewski, Taylor Smith, Brianna Snow, Tess Wilson, Sharla Yates Assistant Editors Lainy Carslaw, Kristen Costa, Faith Cotter, Melissa DiGiovannantonio, Rachael Dymski, Billy Jenkins, Kelsey Leach, Sara Pierce, Michelle Sinclair, Lisa Slage-Robinson, Julie Slifko, Maria Smith, Christina Sparks, Ian Vogt, Kylie Walnoha Copy Editors Kristen Costa, Melissa DiGiovannantonio, Kelly Kepner, Sara Pierce, Alyse Richmond, Christina Sparks Layout & Design // Kinsley Stocum Administrative Support // Erin Southerland Cover Art // Atom Basham, Hungry; Nitschefish
The Fourth River is a publication of the MFA in Creative Writing Programs at Chatham University. We welcome submissions of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction that explore the relationship between humans and their environmentsâ€”writings that are richly situated at the confluence of place, space, and identity, or that reflect upon landscape as culture, and culture as landscape. The Fourth River publishes one print issue and one online issue per year. The Fourth River only accepts work via Submittable. For guidelines, see our website. Emailed submissions will not be read. Mailed submissions will not be opened and will be recycled. Copyright @ 2015 by The Fourth River. All rights reserved. Reproduction, whether in whole or part, without permission is strictly prohibited.
Table o of Table
James Crews Stephanie Glazier Tony Leuzzi Abby Minor Sam Sax Elizabeth Bradfield Leslie Doyle
2 3 4 5 6 8 10
Tamiko Beyer Kevin McLellan Ed Madden
16 18 19
Caitlin Scarano Stephanie Glazier Shelly Krehbiel James Crews Tara Burke Kevin McLellan Eilzabeth Bradfield Joe Jimenez Tamiko Beyer Lisa Mangini James Cihlar Tony Leuzzi Tobias Wray Erika Mueller Alaina Symanovich Stacey Balkun Anne Haven McDonnell Joe Jimenez Tim Carrier Tobias Wray Tim Carrier
27 28 30 31 32 34 36 38 39 42 44 45 47 48 49 64 71 72 73 74 75 iii
Reset Heaven Trout Poem #7 Sablefish Genesis: I Figurehead The Crew is Banned from Shore Water Flows to Where There’s Less, Then Back to Where There’s Less When control becomes untenable Portland Adopted in the most perfect manner to each other, or Reading Darwin The Product On Beauty November Coyote Good and Holy Artifacts Bailey Head: One Macaroni The Shoal A winter river sounds like hunger Triptych for the Incorporated An Age at Least to Every Part The Russians Portrait of a Spider Gretel’s Story The M Word Landscape with Venus and Sourwood Coming Out in the Ozarks The Sow Has Opened Her Red Mouth The Debris Field Top/Bottom: Ekphrasis The Yellow Wheel
Adam Halbur Tamiko Beyer Jeffrey Perkins Maria Nazos Tobias Wray D. Gilson Kaitlyn Duling Sam Sax J.M. Gamble Tresha Haefner Abby Minor Timothy L. Marsh Karla Linn Merrifield Joe Jimenez Celeste Gainey James Crews J.M Gamble Abby Minor Caitlin Scarano Jim Nawrocki Bradford Tice
76 77 78 79 81 82 94 96 97 98 100 102 118 119 122 123 124 125 127 128 129
Out on the plain lies abandoned Stirring Loverâ€™s Discourse Before a Man in the Midwest Loses a Lover Terra Incognita On Walking Thurman, IA Poem about Gravity Atmosphere On a Wire in Los Angeles An Inch of Air Belongs to Itself Banjar Anthology Fair Warning, Taos Pueblo Mesquites clubhouse love After Love from Stabat Mater Genesis: A Little Later My god The Known World The War with the Dandelions
About the Authors
Table o from f A Letter
When we – two people situated at different points along the queer spectrum – set out to edit this special edition of The Fourth River, we weren’t sure what a call for works of queer nature might turn up. With queerness and Nature being gigantic concepts, how can one or both be categorized or neatly boxed up for easier understanding? Being “unnatural” has long been a claim made about queer acts and bodies, while acting “naturally” is culturally encoded with heterosexuality, even among scientists who observe homosexual acts between, for example, insects and birds, and record such couplings in aberrant terms. Considering the pervasive bias, what creative work is being done to subvert it all? And what work is queer in the weird, original sense of the word even if it doesn’t address gender or sexuality? We imagined writers might offer some answers (or at least concentrated musings toward some potential answers). We hoped to be dazzled, surprised, and/or bewildered. We were not disappointed. The success of this issue, we believe, comes in the and/or. To effectively queer nature, one must critique our established definition of the word, defy expectations, offer a fresh perspective, redeem the queer identity, or show us how these things are done. Anne McDonnell’s “Coming Out in the Ozarks” evokes the discomfort and joy of living and loving fully in a place where queer people haven’t traditionally been found – or public, or celebrated. Tony Leuzzi questions all notions of fixed sexual orientation in “Sablefish” and shows us how our gender-based language of attraction may mean the opposite of what we think, or even nothing at all, once deconstructed. Kaitlyn Duling’s “Thurman, IA” uses the aftermath of a tornado to rearrange the order of what is natural and unnatural, while Lisa Mangini’s “Triptych for the Incorporated” finds unexpected natural elements in office cubicles. Several contributors chose to stretch the idea of “queering” from an act of sexualizing to looking askance at the world. In “Water Flows to Where There’s Less, Then Back to Where There’s Less” Leslie Doyle discovers the alien sea of her cranial cyst is parallel to the waterways in which she finds herself lost on an excursion made strange by her brain’s misreading of a familiar map. James Crews shares his ecoqueer vision of “a light that turns litter into soil” in “Reset Heaven.” In “A winter river sounds like hunger” Tamiko Beyer asks us to make our queer revolution interv
sect with concerns beyond our capitalist identities: guns and oil, the ways in which our queer love can break systems. Elizabeth Bradfield’s “The Crew is Banned from Shore” hybridizes the tanka and provokes thoughts about the self as ecotourist as well as vector of ecological destruction. Abigail Minor’s “Genesis: I” deconstructs the narrative of that creation myth into odd utterances and repetitions of phrases that act as markers in time, replacements for the seven days. D. Gilson rewrites the nature walk in his essay “On Walking.” We also found queerness in unexpected places among flora and fauna. Joe Jimenez’s “Mesquites” evokes the growth and decline of trees in such a way that puts us in mind of the AIDS crisis. In “On a Wire in Los Angeles,” Trisha Haefner writes of parrots who escape from exotic pet owners, find each other in the city’s heights, and begin to make homes together. In Stephanie Glazier’s “Trout Poem #7,” the trout become, under the speaker’s knife, creatures that know “the name of every living thing.” Ed Madden’s hybrid poem strains against the limitations of the language Darwin uses to describe flower sex, while Bradford Tice’s “The War with Dandelions” explores the simultaneous slur and ferocity implied by that flower’s name. And, of course, we find many poems of eros: the expansive joy of “clubhouse love,” the ecstatic awakening of “Gretel’s Story,” the hunger and wonder of “The Known World,” the wildness of queer grief in “Good and Holy,” the grounding love of “Atmosphere,” the insistent searching of “Lover’s Discourse,” and the satiated solitude of the single life in “Coyote.” Yet, for all of their differences, many of these pieces invoke similar ideals. They assert the queer identity as natural, not cultural or aberrant, sometimes by placing the queer identity in rural or “wild” spaces and defying expectations regarding the urban roots of queerness. They place queer identity adjacent to nonhuman life, not in a denigration of the animal, but in celebration, sympathy, or equivalence that defies heteronormative and racial conceptions of the animal. They invert the accepted definitions of what is artificial versus what is natural and catalogue instances of strangeness in nature. They are sometimes concerned with the flipping vi
of gender from male to female, or vice versa, or conceive of a different gender, in much the way that numerous non-human creatures display sexual behavior or gender roles that arenâ€™t equivalent to heterosexual gender binaries. Put most simply, they inhabit queerness and nature simultaneously to illuminate various interstices, connections, and complexities. We consider what weâ€™ve assembled a wild grouping, a sample gathered from many kinds and forms of queerness. Spend some time exploring the spaces between their words, images, investigations and speculations. A collective strangeness holds them together.
Dakota Garilli & Michael Walsh, Guest Editors The Fourth River Issue No. O.2
Remember the Flower, Kathleen Ellen Marshall (2015)
James Crews Reset Heaven We need a new moon whose light breaks down plastic bottles and beer cans tossed out of passing cars—a light that turns litter into soil in which crocuses push up yellow and pink while we sleep. We need a substitute sun that cures cancer, turns every leaf on the maple edible, and makes cigarette butts bloom and grow, each one a white rose. If only every book took place in the bedroom and the radio played tapes of pillow talk, and film was obsolete because lovers kept busy writing shadow plays all day for one another under sheets. We need patches of bindweed and sweet grass on our roofs so when we wake and stretch, that green light leaks into the room where ghosts have made their peace with us. We need the dead to drink from lip-marked glasses of stale water we leave for them on the nightstand so they can speak to us again in dreams. We need a reset heaven, you and I, a paradise of starting over, some place we could go like rehab, or a greenhouse—all glass—where roses grow back into the ground leaving behind blank white petals like scraps of paper on which we write our new names. You be Lightning in a Bottle, I’ll be Don’t Hold Your Breath.
Stephanie Glazier Trout Poem #7
“There was a woman on her knees stealing the silver from a fish.”
The trout start to move quicker in the spring. Anxious. Like every other body in Michigan for the sun to shine on them. All winter their eyes were on silt and each other. I remember it, how they drug themselves through the water under ice to the switchblade quick turn from shadow. As a child I got to break and enter bodies I sold and ate. So many I couldn’t tell you a number. It’s the simplest skill. It is nothing to wonder at. I could teach you. I can clean a fish completely in thirteen seconds. My brother can do it in nine. He uses his finger, instead of the silver spoon for the kidney. It doesn’t matter to him about the blood going everywhere. I’ll tell you I loved it. Not tying the lines or hauling water. The killing. The opening and opening. The eating. Heart last alive in my palm, another, then another. I have all my life been a woman on my knees, standing at a sink, trying to steal the way they shine. The way they know the name of every living thing in this world, the way they never ask why.
Tony Leuzzi Sablefish One should remember that in speaking of the white flesh of the Pacific Sablefish, there is likely no intended contradiction, that the white of the black fish is as unironic and exquisite as a scene in which two broke college guys— avowedly straight—remove their shirts and at some outof-shot director’s bidding begin kissing, licking, their hungry hands wandering over tanned hairless torsos sculpted with muscle, until one set of hands drops down and unzips one pair of shorts and the action is repeated by the other set of hands on the other pair of shorts and their cocks emerge as blushing obelisks each swallowed by an eager mouth that only minutes before boasted of fucking women, the sucking leading to fucking, a turn-taking activity where both demonstrate remarkable versatility for the promise of cash, which they receive once the cameras and girl-on-girl porn are turned off, once the tangled clothes are gathered and they resuit— then depart warily for Microeconomics… for that which is is itself and is also the other which one claims it is not.
Abby Minor Genesis: I know it burningly: my love hang on your pail
heaven was was And the God had an idea
how we knew blessed when we saw it
the God the gaps un-mapping
so the after creepeth heaven was was And
quiet it down unborn leaves quiet it down
make the water go there or hereâ€Ś
make the water risk and roar
to slip away at last is blossom mapped, how nothing green need beg
how nothing green need beg for its one and only shape.
Sam Sax Figurehead i. ships have no wood-eyed woman nailed to the bow no more. no crowâ€™s nest or spy glass to spot the blanched torsos upturned like poisoned sirenians in the dark. body, emptied of all but water, drifting amidst the Styrofoam cups & aluminum cans like a third kind of wasted container. nothing left to lift us back on land.
ii. we took our clothes off & waded into the river. i used one hand to conceal my naked shape & the other to reach for his. he laughed, so i did. he dove in while i let the mud swallow my feet. then i was alone, with a still creek stretched out before me. this is what my thirst does, turns every beautiful boy into undrinkable water.
iii. i know all the jokes about sea burials: the hymn the burning arrow sings to the ship, the cinderblock tied to the ankle, the hum of the alarm clockradio in a bath. but what of the ones that dematerialize, only to disappear?
the body that hits the water
iv. whole redwood trees and west-indian mahoganies de-limbed & floating downstream
v. that night, i dragged my wet clothes home my bed the radio flooded with the sound of breaking waves.
a body of water.
vi. imagine boards in strips swallowing woodchips, growing arms and legs, ghosting upriver to root in dirt. imagine wet leaves lifting up toward the promise of heaven.
vii. when i look at him now my mouth floods with radio wires.
viii. this is what my thirst does: turns.
ix. i wake to a woman carved from a tree from the dark â€ƒ
drifting toward me
Elizabeth Bradfield The Crew is Banned from Shore Alone ashore, the naturalists loll in weak sun. Envisage the muffled body as blubber. Self as not-self. Seal pups hump over, nuzzle neoprene ankle, knee. The naturalists donâ€™t groan at weight on thighs, chest. Stay still until a full boat hums near. Stand. Assume self again, apart, alert, exemplary. gap between few, all a crevasse deep with shadow none want to plumb Landing over. Lunch. Back aboard, a seaman glares. D says some guest saw a waiter/sailor/engineer draped over a seal. Worse, Facebook shows profiles updated, logos clear. The captain is unilateral: no crew ashore until review of rules, PowerPoint voiced slow to clamber languages, paper signed: understood. Agreed. Again acknowledge the self as vector of all (unintended) harm.
* Before going ashore in Antarctica or South Georgia, all visitors (this includes crew) must watch a briefing about proper behavior at landing sites. 9
Leslie Doyle Water Moves to Where There’s Less, Then Back to Where There’s Less Rounding the latest bend in this marsh creek, I am sure this will be the break in the reeds that will lead to Grassy Sound and the way back to the tiny marsh beach I launched my kayak from hours ago. Instead, across the horizon in front of me, another swatch of reed separates sky from creek water, and me from the Sound. The bridge to North Wildwood looms ahead, far from where I mean to be. A small line of houses balance below it on the frailest finger of land extending perpendicular to the bridge, homes built on not much more than a suggestion of mud. I’m sure the water behind them, on which I float, has to connect to the water in front of them, which I’m trying to reach, but I can’t find that link. I contemplate dragging my kayak up through the reeds, across someone’s tiny backyard, down through the reeds on the other side to the bigger water. Then I imagine sinking a foot or more into pungent, ankle-grabbing muck, and I hope it doesn’t come to that. The things I’m thinking about, as I look for the break: That Michael’s going to worry that I got stuck on a low tide flat somewhere in Turtle Creek, and follow me back up the creek, and get as similarly lost as me. That it’s getting foggy. That my shoulders are getting sore. Were already sore before I started. Are always sore. That I’m getting older. That’s why my shoulders are sore. That there’s something questionable about my brain if I looked at the map and thought the creek wound back to the main sound much before it actually does. In my mind, I saw the outlet as miles short of this bridge, which is instead so near me, with no outlet in sight. That Michael’s going to worry. That I told him, wrongfully picturing the shape of the loop I was planning to take, that it wouldn’t take more than an hour or so to get back. That it’s already been longer than that. And I am far from where I’m supposed to be. That I hope he’s still so busy clamming that he hasn’t noticed the time, 10
and isn’t worrying. That it’s getting foggy, so he’ll stop clamming, return to the beach where we’re supposed to meet, and wonder why I’m not there. That he’ll turn around and retrace his route back past the clam bed, to the creek I can’t find the way out of. That maybe I should turn around and meet him there. That if I do that, it could take much longer than if I keep going and find the opening and finish the loop. That there is a way through; I saw it on the map. But I obviously remembered the map wrong---what’s wrong with my brain? That there’s something wrong with my brain. The tide was low when I started. We generally kayak back here at low tide; that’s the time to clam. I can see the lowest root-mats at the feet of the reeds— some tall Phragmites, but mostly shorter, slender Spartina. The stalks change color at different tide levels. The bottom half, regularly submerged at high tide and soaked in its own silt, is a rich organic brown; the next quadrant, nourished by water and sun, is several shades of pale green, in horizontal stripes, perfectly lined up from reed to reed; the top quarter, the oldest part of the stalks, always sun-exposed, drying out, and far from the water, is summer-grass yellow. Another name for Spartina is salt hay. Spartina are the foundation of a healthy wetland. Phragmites, alien transplants, are the marker of a degraded one. That it’s mostly Spartina back here is a good thing for the wetland. As low as I’m sitting, virtually at the water line, I can’t see over even the shorter reeds, much less the swathes of the taller Phragmites. I’ve passed two “personal watercraft” on my journey. Toward the first, I sent my usual, ill-hidden disgust. When the Jet Skis speed by, they trail violent wakes that tear at the reeds, raking their root-base with drilled water, damaging the ecosystem that clings there. These machines can navigate shallow waters that keep conventional powerboats out, which puts them closer to the fragile ecosystem edges. By the time the second one zoomed past, spurting its rooster tail of vacuumed water into the air, I was mostly glad to see it because it meant I had to still be 11
in a viable waterway. Self-preservation set in, and the passing of the personal watercraft indicated, at that moment, I was on the path to a way out, or at least some path. I’d started doubting that any path was a “right” one that traced the scheme of the map I had thought I was following. Seventeen years ago, I was hit by a car while crossing a street. Both my legs were broken, the bones in the left one smashed into several pieces where the fender hit me. I flew through the air, landing about twenty feet away according to the police report. I don’t remember that. Because I landed head first, I don’t recall the impact or the flying through the air at all. Not entirely headfirst, thankfully, as the right side of my body was pretty scraped up. Sort of at skidding, thudding angle, as much as I can figure. I don’t recall being unconscious, either, but I expect you wouldn’t. That small piece of time was erased. There was a car, and then I was on the ground, and then there were people around. When the crowd parted to let the EMTs through, the only thing anyone, including me, zeroed in on was the sack of bones that was the lower half of my left leg. It was only after the surgery to line my fibula up—or was it my tibia?— with a rod and some screws and a brace, that the weird brain stuff started showing up. Or that I noticed it, anyway. And my continuing confusion of that question, fibula or tibia, might be attributed to the weird brain stuff. I can never recall which was the bigger, more cracked bone that needed the rod and screws, and which was the slender cord of a bone that only required lining up the pieces so they could reattach. It’s fifty/fifty whether I get it right or not, still. So let’s say it was the fibula. Damn. Just checked. It was the tibia. A day or two after surgery, I noticed two things: first, when I touched my skull in one place, on the side of my head where there was a lump, I felt it elsewhere. Over my forehead. Sort of in the middle. Like the nerves had gotten confused about what led where. And the other thing was, I couldn’t read. I could look at pages and recognize words, but the effort was exhausting, and after about a paragraph I had to stop. The necessary concentration was beyond me. Being a person who read, wrote, and taught writing for a living, this was extraordinarily painful. My days were divided up between a tortuous hour in the physical therapy room learning how to walk on fractured legs, and the rest of the time staring at print, trying to follow the path of the words. I eventually got back the ability to read after some months, but was left, residually, with an impaired capacity to concentrate and a tendency to lose words, 12
names, and thoughts. However, this map-misreading was new--I’d never remembered something so completely wrong before: the shape of the map and the relative distances between the put-in I’d left from and the creek I entered. The length of the creek. And finally, the distance between the other end of the creek and the original beach I was trying to get back to. I had a clear picture in my head of the map I had read. And that picture was totally fictitious. Funny thing about a marsh creek. It’s hard to say you’re going “up the creek” or “down the creek” as it depends on which way the tide is going. The rising tide creates currents, but the currents change. There is no source or mouth; the creek rises and falls, as water flows to where there’s less, then back to where there’s less. The shape of the map. Tide charts and clam charts. We kayak here at low tide, following the clam charts to where the beds are safe to harvest from. Michael studies them, knows which beds are open all year long, and which only in the winter when the boat travel dies down, and commensurately, so do the bacteria levels. In the winter, this means clam beds we can walk to, along beaches by the boat channels, which would be contaminated in the summer. This is fortunate, because kayaking out to the remote coves and creeks would be a chilly business. But in the warmer months, it’s a beautiful paddle, off the tiny triangle of beach at the tip of West Wildwood, a town that stands on its own island at the back of Wildwood proper, a couple miles and a world away from the boardwalk, and the ocean beaches, and the honkytonk motels. A place that puts the insulated in insular. The bridge that tacks West Wildwood to Wildwood telegraphs “gated,” though strictly speaking, there’s no gate. Years after I’d healed as much as I was going to, when I was walking without crutches or even a cane, and reading fluently again, although with frequent rest stops, I started seeing double. Not all the time, but every once in a while. Things would be floating over themselves. An MRI and some other tests led to the inconclusive result that this was not caused by anything dangerous; it was most likely a random migraine symptom. But the MRI also showed, unexpectedly, that I have a sizeable “empty” space in the top right side of my head. Empty of brain, anyway--an opaque shadow welling up against my skull. About fist-sized, and located approximately where my head hit the road. It’s called an arachnoid cyst, a separation in 13
the film that envelopes the brain which has filled with fluid, like a balloon inflating inside my skull, pushing away my brain, the pressure of the fluid strong enough to “remodel” my skull, in the words of the radiologist’s report. I’m told it’s not dangerous, and doesn’t affect the rest of the brain, which is plastic and can adjust. It’s very accommodating. I like that in a brain, I guess. But it remains unsettling—all that emptiness, filled with sloshing, murky cerebral fluid. At least that’s how I picture it. No brain. No mind. No matter? But I’ve learned to live with its presence. (It’s absence?) I don’t mind, I say, about this mind. Some of these thoughts, these concerns, are floating around in my head as I float on my kayak, looking for the way back. I’m getting close enough that I can see the channel markers beyond the reeds, so I know I’m in the right direction. And finally, the bank opens up, and I see clear water. A boat cruises by, left to right, having passed under the North Wildwood bridge, heading the length of Grassy Sound. At the other end the channel cuts past West Wildwood, my destination, and onward through an inlet framed by pieces of an abandoned rail bridge. The Channel runs the length of the island that the Wildwoods sit on, part of the Intracoastal Waterway that keeps boats protected from the full force of the Atlantic Ocean. Like the paralleling marsh creek, it’s not a stream with a source and a mouth; it’s a tract of water defined by pieces of land; it mimics river without the sense of process and completion. It rises and falls with tides; the waters always flowing to scarcity, then back again. On a map, though, it’s a “Waterway”, or “a river, canal, or other body of water serving as a route or way of travel or transport” according to the online Dictionary. It has Purpose. It Serves. The way back, once I find the Sound, and follow the channel markers, is strenuous and worrisome, but in different ways; more “normal,” less mind-doubting. Fog descends, making the correct route problematic, and shoulder soreness deepens, which signifies “getting older” in the usual, annoying way. The fog falls stealthily, from behind me, and at first it is merely a change in the feel of the light more than an actual cloud, that bright purpling you see with a midday partial eclipse. I keep having to steer around islands which I hadn’t known were there because they are mudflats that come and go as the tides rise and fall, not because I hadn’t mapped this part of the trip correctly. I know I’ll get to that small triangle of beach I was aiming for eventually, but the worry that Michael won’t be there because he’s gone looking for me is a con14
stant goad to paddle harder, ignoring the ache, and to make questionable decisions to try to get back faster. At one point I decide, when one particularly large mudflat island looms in my path, to haul the boat up there and drag it across instead of paddling around, thinking I’ll give my shoulders a rest and cut the distance. Ten minutes of sinking ankle deep into mud changes that plan. Then launching turns into an ordeal because passing boat-wakes keep pushing the kayak back onto the mud. The mud, which I can’t cross, then can’t leave. One wake swamps the boat, drenching my legs in cool green water. I start shivering, the air chilled by the wafts of fog, the sun now just a faint white disk somewhere south, heading west distressingly quickly. There is nothing to do now but keep going. Later tonight, after I finally see the snip of beach up ahead through the haze, the strip of red that is Michael’s kayak, and then him waving, trying to look not-over-concerned, although he’ll admit eventually that he tried to climb a nearby lighting tower to look farther across the Sound for me, while debating launching a search which might miss me (as I myself feared)—after all this, I will go home, look up the map again and see that yes, the creek I’d followed is shown to come out exactly where it did, and nowhere near where I was picturing it, and it will leave me with questions. I will not be able to lift my arms over my shoulders. We will eat the clams Michael dug up for dinner. I will remember, at least for the moment that it was the tibia that was smashed in that accident in the past, and I will be happy that I have two legs that I can walk on now. I will continue to feel the gentle lap of the creek water rising up and down on the tide that carried me and confused me today, and imagine that same motion in the alien sea inside my head.
Tamiko Beyer When control becomes untenable 1. In my own self, I move toward abandon. Some bodies are fragile, some sturdy. Mine is common: nothing unusual of bones and sinews, layered epidermis, pulsing organs. What to learn from waves? Their rising up, taking nothing into account except the velocity of their journey to shore and back again. In that brief pause the water’s thinnest layer sheens: tide still trying to pull in what it can: grains of sand, bits of seaweed, plastic. The stones dizzyingly still. Transformation by relinquishment, by instinct and by choice.
2. A girl on the edge of departure from the only city she has ever known, about to swallow another country’s language whole and transform, monstrous and glittering in puberty’s grip. In the city, its skin the color of windows, her self becomes a sense more than presence—skin, hair, heart—a dissolution where one name bleeds into a different alphabet, where the body is one among millions, constant despite time’s flux, so I am unable to say accurately our age or gender only that she is/I am walking on pavement, that there is a direction to the walking, that our walking is constructed among other constructions of flesh and stone— until the light-change revises the city, and her body fills in by decades, by hills and valleys, into my woman’s stride, and I attend to the light’s direction: how the buildings cast weightless on asphalt, falling across my body’s shadow-fact under 16
and between all the other walkers of this city— an amorphous structure all ours, all ours, to shape and not to claim.
3. In the hollow between our bodies we find what is godlike—spirit, ghost, breath. There is no grotesque when flesh fills in, mouth full of teeth and saliva also godlike – the pulse of heart to tongue to clit. The we of our bodies expand – suspend – the leaf-shine moment between branch and ground: necessary prelude to flight.
Kevin McLellan Portland As I walked to another bus depot on my eventual way back to you I startled a meditative bird that flew in front of a moving car and that moment a part of me was in danger again. / I lived with you. You didn’t protect me. Remember me? I was the one who drowned himself in Casco Bay that winter because the seaweed told him to. / The woman sitting next to me keeps making calls on her cell phone. No one answers and she leaves long voice messages. She and I never speak. / One summer as a ghost I lived on Peak’s Island to get perspective on you but found strands of seaweed and twilight instead. / The northbound turnpike traffic is slow. I have second thoughts. Out my closed window I notice a blond boy who stares with how to disappear eyes out his open window. He doesn’t notice me. / Your water is clear. Your air is gritty. You smell like salt and innocence. Do you remember me now? 18
Ed Madden Adapted in the most perfect manner to each other, or Reading Darwin 1995 Begin in darkness with this: a daybed, that half-tab of ecstasy— enough for the two of you, a man’s mouth, and sleep’s lid sliding over both, the year begun, the name gone even before the flight home, failure the feature of all systems. And then spring— that film of pollen all over, evidence of a lust that covers everything. Summer’s a stutter of letters now lost, a list of options narrowed to this, a house on a brief street, hair buzzed down to boy-cut, ephebe— and flowers, tub of jimson, thicket of ipomoea, night blooms, heady scents in the dark room, that too, and nothing to do but let go of everything but your tongue and the fuzz at the base of his spine. 19
/ Volcano Village, 2007 At a restaurant in the village, we ordered eggplant Napoleon, surprised to find the purple slab topped with blossomsâ€”tiny epidendrums, like butterflies massed on mud or dung, orange and pink wings, a profusion of small bright things that tasted, when bitten, like musk melon on the tongue. All day we had admired the bamboo orchids, white blooms with purple throats, unfurled above the grass and club mosses thronging the steam vents of Mauna Loa, sulfurous and hot, and the blossoms like small moths on the reedy stems.
How curiously a flower may be molded out of many separate organs, wrote Darwinâ€” how perfect the cohesion of previously distinct parts, how organs may be used for purposes widely different from their proper function, how other organs may be suppressed, or useless emblems of another existence, how homologous parts evolve to other uses. And how enormous the change, he wrote, in the evolution of orchids,
from simple parental structures to the small monstrous flowers we love. / With respect to Sexuality, I have often speculated on it, & have always concluded that we are too ignorant to speculate— no physiologist can conjecture why the two elements go to form the new being; & more than that why nature strives at uniting the two elements from two individuals; what I am now working at, viz Orchids, is admirable illustration of the law. [Charles Darwin, letter to Charles Lyell, 1 Aug 1861] / Torquay, 1861 At a seaside village with his daughter, Darwin observed insects visiting the wild orchids, began to wonder about the sex lives of flowers. He examined hybrids, hermaphrodites, compared those that pollinated themselves to those that sought cross-fertilization, insects drawn by form and color, by nectar, wings and tongues brushing viscid organs. Turning to purple loosestrife in 1864, Darwin found three kinds of flowers, and eighteen possible sexual combinations—only six of these marriages legitimate, he wrote, with viable seed.
Big Island, 2007 The walk beneath the trees is hot, dark, the shade filled with filtered light, the smell of plumeria, fern, dirt. The trees screen the sea. On a beam, a tangle of flat and fleshy leaves. We ring the bell, wait, there beneath the vanilla, its pendulous beans. The gardener wears a kerchief, curls spilling from the back. A bush hat sits on his friend’s buzzed head. They sold a coffee shop on the coast, moved here to care for flowers and one another.
Close, the man’s skin smells like good dirt, silver hair dusted across his bare chest like pollen. / Thus I can understand how a flower and a bee might slowly become, either simultaneously or one after the other, modified and adapted in the most perfect manner to each other, by the continued preservation of individuals presenting mutual and slightly favourable deviations of structure. [Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species, 1859] / The flower opens its mouth. A bee enters between the lips, the tongue stung— the mouth a flower, it blooms with sadness, with whatever song it fastens on, the bee-stung tongue seeping, bloodsticky and swollen, it moves in the mouth like a grub in dark dirt, like a grub learning the darkness, finding its way. My man’s mouth is a flower, bristle of pig whiskers, a thistle, my tongue a slug, a bee pushing in. / Vanilla, says Darwin, is cultivated in the tropics but does not fruit without artificial aid. Insects in the tropics, where it flourishes, either don’t visit the flowers—though they
secrete abundant nectar—or they don’t visit them, he says, in the proper method. The gardener says that when the orchid blooms, his partner gets up in the dark to pollinate by hand: inserts a small bamboo stick, pushes aside the rostrum, spreads pollen from stamen to stigma when the two parts touch. If it takes, the flowers last; if not, they wither within the day. Every night, the vanilla hosts an improper orgy of moths. / Moths swoop to scent and white, the backyard’s dark, orbit the blooms and swoon of moonflower and jimson opening at night. Fireflies throb beneath the trees, A scatter of bats, erratic, always just out of view in the vitreous air, floaters in the eye. The fireflies under the oaks, so inconstant, the clusterfuck of moths around a light, June bugs slamming the panes. A man on the porch eclipses the light. / Look for little monstrous flowers. [Charles Darwin, letter to B.S. Maulden, 15 June 1861] /
Here I thrum, red sun, red star’s pulse and pucker, dark star ascendant and dark in a dim room— blood pucker kissed by his slither and slick, his anvil, his purpose, his infinite tongue. Dark star that blooms, red frill of petal, corolla of zinnia, its daisy and aster, its anther and stamen, its tickle, filament and pistil, its moist, its mum, its wick and drift of pollen, its sticky, its style and stigma to receive—this dark star, this axis around which the dark suspends, condenses, spins, this axle, this polestar, this cosmos of scent and skin, thrum and musk, me and him, this throbbing flower, blooming out, blooming in. / —its stigma to receive— / Bog, South Carolina, 2004 How it grasps, how it holds on to anything—the green lobed leaves like hands splayed, fingering the air, or a mouth ready to snap, tiny teeth locked across the lips. It holds on, holds on for hours, days, dropping detritus—carcass, leaf, carapace, wings—whatever can’t be eaten, can’t be dissolved. In junior high science, we studied them— flytrap, monkey cup, pitcher plant, bladderwort, sundew. In the small terrarium swamps, the boys poked with pencils. In the bog, it is legion, open and genital, sticky, dumb, hungry, clumps of leaves in the sandy wet, each leaf a mouth, waiting. / Soon after he’d published his studies of orchids, Darwin got word of a fossil— —and you will have the sort of misbegotten-bird-creature— 24
a strange thing with unfused fingers in its fossil wings, and teeth. / Lake Travis, Austin, Texas, 2005 Grackles crackle and whir in the trees. The lake is a rippled slate of white and green, the gleam of morning light cast across the dark water. My brother here with me once, an afternoon of margaritas and gossipâ€”our distant parents with us like humidity, like guilt, the cigarette smoke from two tables over. He wasnâ€™t married yet, his bride a meeting still months away. He wanted to talk about Allison, the girl with the boyish haircut who talked sports at the party. He didnâ€™t remember the thin boy in the kitchen, the one who left early. The boy who went back to his apartment a block away. A blue rosary his grandfather left him hung from a mirror beside the bed. The room smelled of lilies, something ending, something opening up. The grackles buzz like toys, inky wings that shine like grease slicks on pavement. The lake reflects the boats back to themselves, the way the mirror convinces us that we are the inverse of what we are. / how a flower and a bee / 1995 A system evolves from a system that works. End that dark year in darkness: a decision, this one, and the shimmer of an old mirror in a wrapper of red paper, wrapped 25
to be ripped open, what he wanted, what you gave. / summer 2014 The wheelbarrow is standing water and tadpoles, little nursery, little ecotone of plastic and rainwater, little hellbox of broken letters, little splurge of dark sperm in green water. Later, in bed, your arm across my body. When they lose their tails, their mouths get bigger. So they can eat. No, so they can sing.
Caitlin Scarano The Product
“The choice of sex was made (typically by parents) based on the condition of the external genitalia.” —The Encyclopedia Britannica
Horror at the hermaphroditic – we are all unfamiliar to ourselves. Is there anyone still unlicked, unloved by an abnormal body? The arm readily cranked beyond the allowed angle: my god has breakage for every occasion. Sexual reproduction: the product making the product. The diagnosis is made. The face whey-hued and dripping: the ovarian and testicular tissue may or must be separated. Malformed or absent all together. The remaining genitalia then reconstructed to resemble.
Stephanie Glazier On Beauty Sometimes sentience runs through you in a way you can remember. Sometimes sitting looking out into the sunshine illuminating the pollen in the air, floating nowhere but past the great brown door. Maybe it was my feet, pushing me just a little back, a little forward, so the landscape rose and fell. I was storing these moments up in myself for later, for now. I knew of the egg shaped blank at the back of my head, a literal indent my mother could not explain. As a child in the lake, water pooled there. It meant memory. It meant missing: the color of air, dust, anything. In the quiet was the tremendous noise of many living things, happily living around my living thing. Sometimes barefoot in a blue cotton skirt talking to people in baseball caps with their money and hunger. Cutting and cleaning their dinner. Sometimes my brother would come in, filthy from mowing and weed whacking, telling me again how nature is always trying to take the farm back. He’d make a sound that meant it’s a wonder and go back out into the world— / My father is coming today. He is coming for a visit, or he is coming to town because he has a meeting and it’s convenient that I live here. When he comes he’ll see that the nearest lake is man-made and I can only tell him the directions as they frame the campus I work for. I have not put my hands in dirt or fresh water in a long time. He will look at me as a separate creature: daughter gone to the marvel of city. Anyway, my father is coming today. And I am a daughter again. / From the lakeshore, my breath to its wash, I saw that the stars are where desire pours through— how they splinter the sky like that sharp and far. Does beauty serve you as it does me? As buoy? 28
Memory, I am the fish in your waters & you, my lacustrine mother, a body to traverse, a kind of home. / Until now I’ve been looking for the lost years of my childhood. Hard work would bring them to me, these dark darlings. The great blank of this time— I did not find them. Maybe all my memories went into Lake Huron. Surely they’re all there with the shipwrecks and fish. Let’s say it this way: once when I was out too far, some time eluded me. Huron, I have no reason to trust you, you have taken lives before, many and meanly. Here. I surrender my want for story to your rush and tumble. Here, have me.
Shelly Krehbiel November Be the jacket caught between my teeth. The grapes are sleeping, and a blur of halos nestles against the sky. Justice is not the same as mercy and yet the finches come anyway, in startled, muted colors. Digital clocks are echoes, and I remember how that dress in 7th grade collected my new breasts and hips like they could be beautiful. No one ever calls distance a friend or a couch. No one tells you that mystery is kind. But the edges of glass taste like water. The screech of tires is a kettle of rain. The mums keep their flowers until they are dust if you let them, crumpled under, cold turning into everything kind haunted and strong.
James Crews Coyote This body will never be a field of fescue and bluestem meant for grazing, but I am a glutton for the sun, clinging to the only light that holds me, craving rain one minute and fire the next, that black rebirth. We want to be fed and, once sated, we wait for death circling above us like a hawk-shadow wanting it to lift us out of our weaknesses. Is that all there is? Now that I live alone, and my hapless inner yapping at every hangdog moon looking down on me has stopped, I have stopped begging for a scrap of dream to climb into bed with me. I can lie back in this patch of clover next to my hunger. No watch, no phone, no whisper in my ear warm with wantâ€” I want only the wind today drying my sweat to salt-film, bearing whiffs of me to the den under the ridge where the coyote, no longer dozing, smacks his lips, licks the tips of his canines, his eyes aflame with so much meat suddenly within reach. But as the smile fades from his face, he rests his head again on folded paws, knowing the greater pleasure at times is the fantasy that spares the shirtless man lying prone on the grass.
Tara Burke Good and Holy
When I am dead please mourn by spending too many days in bed with our dogs and your laptop streaming whatever you damn well please, even those awful cop and law shows you love. Get angry at weird things, like my stack of dusty books I never read, the dreams you’ll have of future lovers, our rarely-used dildos and toys. When you find yourself the most angry-sad, reach for the tiny vibrator in your underwear drawer, the one you caught me using even though I have my own, and make yourself come until it hurts. This will be good and holy. Normal. I’d want it this way. When I am dead please don’t let anyone put my dead body in a casket or church and don’t let my yoga friends chant anything I wouldn’t chant or use empty phrases like she’s gone back to the light from which she came, even though I’ve said that before. I want so badly to be burned Viking-style out at sea, or on some mountain river raft, and though this desire to become a dead body on fire always made us laugh, please know I meant it. I want this body naked, covered in glitter and chicken feathers, placed on fresh, imperfectly cut logs 32
tied together with scraps of string and then burst into flames. Douse me in expensive red wine. If you can stomach it, I want you to be the one to shoot the flaming arrow, striking true.
Kevin McLellan Artifacts #1 The garden is a river. This river divides but for how long can it stay inside me. About speaking in circles I’m not going to make any excuses; I was raised by canaries.
#2 Collective sounds at a crowded beach: of course the tide and the wind carrying parts of conversations and sand pelting my skin. How this sentence undresses me. There are many kinds of music.
#3 When I read the word “silent” (and especially in poems) I don’t believe it. To not know what silent as the grave sounds like or the throat of a poem once it’s composed.
#4 These beach children do understand their existence in relation to space (unlike adults) until they get scared: sand, sand, sand, wave. I want to be airy too so I’ll need to eliminate “justification” and his relatives from my vocabulary.
#5 The sign illuminates the word “walk” so we cross. Meanwhile, a car honks. We are crossing and she wants to go. I point to the sign and rant, another kind of music. Angry, because I’m justifying. If I didn’t say anything it wouldn’t be silent.
#6 They repeat what’s said to them. They repeat what’s said to them. I am thankful. Otherwise, I may not have anything else to say. I like watching seabirds land. Terns. Terns. Terns. Wind.
Eilzabeth Bradfield Bailey Head: One Macaroni Suss the steep hissed beach of white surf & black rock ground to lentils. Obvious disaster waiting. H has stories: boat pops up a breaker, drops onto the catcher, knocks him out. Boat flipped, driver trapped. Breakers over hunched passengers, lenses chestclutched. Chest waders topped and turned anchor. Decide to land. Prep to hit shore invasion-style: roll out, run up. Tamped bravado thrill. Ban the unsteady and slow. Crew ashore. Make of ourselves a tow rope: grab and pull upbeach to the next the next the next. Chinstraps waddle-dash out five, ten at a time. Surf in the same. March to nest changeout, chick feed. We follow. Low fog. Sheer basalt. World grayscaled by weather, geology, birds, logistics—then one macaroni: start or end or rejection of rookery among utilitarian hordes dandy crown, coral beak fabulous, unreplicated
* Macaroni penguins have brighter, wilder plumage than the Adelies, Gentoos, Chinstraps, Emperors and King penguins that one can see on the Antarctic continent. Although they are the most numerous penguin worldwide, for travelers to Antarctica, spotting one can be a challenge. “Dandy” references the origin of the Macaroni’s name: Maccaronism was a term for a particular style in 18th-century England marked by flamboyant or excessive ornamentation. A person who adopted this fashion was labeled a maccaroni or macaroni, as in the song “Yankee Doodle.” 37
Joe Jimenez The Shoal What the monte is going to say to me today, or how its shoal with its frayed pebbles and deaf fish will trickle inside of me and out toward the life I want to live, who can say? Near small cliffs, there are quail in the obedience of grasses, and the huisache like grief, in its long shots and answers, equals Love, and how it rips through the armature of trees: Yes, aggression. Yes, ardor and a venerable mirroring... And isn’t there a point to a man’s pulse dotting and dashing like jackrabbits through inwardness and rock? But isn’t there more to holding his hand than feeling the shyness molt from his skin? I say, Watch the sun rip through oak. A fat thread like the shallowness of a shadow, and the shoal is dry. Among the rabbits and oaks, Light enters the brown fields, which are eyes. Ahead of me, I’ve sent the dogs. The huisache heave. Yes, the dogs found the quail, disturbed them. In the shoal, clipping the wildness in me back to its red leash, the yellow sun shooting itself all over my chin and throat skin, I fear: the quail dapple every good thing, And scoldingly, scoldingly, No. Not again. I say, Or Maybe another time. Or not with him. Or with him. Yes, only. These leashes of my speech, as the sun uncloaks its red claw.
Tamiko Beyer A winter river sounds like hunger 1. The day logic fell was a blunt wind – full-scale attack on linearity. We watched revolution line up at the sill and on the sidewalks. We marched with it into financial district where the wind blew the hardest. Now, I hold the word against my lips. Is that delicious or de-centering. My brain slow to process binaries. Language doesn’t go anywhere. It marinates. Or, it goes bad like meat goes bad – all gristle and rot.
2. Two figures row over the river: waterbus skimming, its legs in unison, a movement as blue as winter. No sound and no counterweight. But the day as short as a sneeze. The question of winter coats and sealant.
3. In America a public place is full of guns. The city shifts to a new one while I am in an older body, a proxy, skin like river silt. Dredging means unsettling pollution long buried and inert. Is it better to leave whatâ€™s quiet quiet. Thereâ€™s no telling what mucks under mud. Who made what decision. On the river, on the boat, there is a sound like hunger. We drill to the core of it. A bodily gathering. Movement through streets. A crowding of signs
along the park for leisure while the earth heats up cracks, open for oil. What must be done. Our fists gripping nothing.
4. At night, the trees blaze for holiday. Who is dispensable? The one with nothing left, for one. The days building upon themselves for unsteady shelter. She learns certain marketable skills or she does not. If the light changes or does not. What roof means to her. The distance required, the fundamental change in the skeleton of capital. Something not there in the shape 40
of two figures keeping house. The roots, exposed and pale. Winter roses â€“ fragrant even among the brittle leaves, petals pressed tight in the wind. Like this, things come together and break apart. Like ghost lights on the river. What moves.
Lisa Mangini Triptych for the Incorporated i. You arrive at your interview 20 minutes early, so you chain smoke in the driver’s seat of your 1974 Dodge Dart, flicking ash off a pea-green blazer borrowed from a friend. You never, as a rule, ever arrive early to anything, but you need this job, bad. You have been making macchiatos for the people who already work here for five years now. You mist yourself down with an alcohol-based spray called “Spring Fresh,” a scent like Pine-sol, piss, something daisy-ish. It is early April in New England, and still too soon for anyone to remember the Spring scent of dandelions and tobacco barns and asphalt warming in potholes. The spray is in part, yes, for the cigarette smell, but also for the exhaust stench that sometimes clings to you, your carburetor running on the rich side. You chew six wintergreen Altoids, your tongue burning under the piquant white paste, unbuckle your seatbelt, and hope for the best.
ii. You fidget in the lobby’s commercial furniture. A redhead tries to prod you back into humanness with small talk, but you are stiff as the chair downstairs, stuffed with fluffed chipboard, full of an untidy, useless mass and stitched tight. Take a seat in a conference room, all oak tag everything and industrial carpet tile. Your hot palm leaves a fog print on the high-gloss wood-styled table. Redhead and a man tag-team the job description - It’s basically where the upstream meets the downstream, y’know? Our focus is high-compliance and accuracy, driven by an ever-evolving data stream. Your mind wanders to the last time you stepped in a stream: early summer, three years ago and 18 miles north of here, the water and memory winding its way into the Connecticut River, down along Interstate 91, running parallel right outside this office in the Insurance Capital of the World. Maybe with weekends off you could find the time again to do such things as rest your feet in shallow water with your pant legs rolled to your knees, seated on a rock with an iced tea? Did you follow all of that? Stay perfectly still with the exception of your steady nod. The man takes over now, and mentions the required drug test no less than six times, giving you a 42
wry knowing look, until you finally muster up everything in you to interrupt and say, Iâ€™m not afraid of the drug test. You watch him nod, clearly impressed. And your heart turns into one of those cheap little wind-up toys that march around, cranked up hard, all the way to the end of its gears, chirping and buzzing and tick-tick-ticking something wild in the maze of its tiny plastic cogs.
iii. Redhead calls you that afternoon, and gives you directions for the walk-in facility where you will not be allowed to close the door, flush the toilet, nor wash your hands after pissing into a plastic cup and all over your fingers. You are ashamed at the heat of your sample in your hand when you place it in the stainless steel compartment above the toilet tank. You arrive at your desk two weeks later: fancy desk calendar, fancy car loan, fancy cardigan with embroidered peonies.
James Cihlar An Age at Least to Every Part Dolores in the office, middle-aged, dating a married man. We tried to talk her out of it. Like she had time to meet someone better. Getting hers while she could. Sometimes she would hug me out of the blue. She’d ask, You don’t mind? I won’t begrudge anyone her pleasure if no one gets hurt. We only live so long. Josette, the stray cat in our basement. I read online how to satisfy a cat in heat. Insert a Q-tip in the vagina. Lots of posts about what to do if the cotton swab comes off inside. The average life span of indoor cats is eight to fifteen. Outdoors, just three to five. The grave’s a fine and private place. Mom and Derf fucking in the living room. Made stupid by desire. At least she got hers before cancer winged her away from here. On Netflix, Andy watches the sixties’ TV series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, comparing the hotness of the men. I worked in a mom and pop grocery store the year between high school and college. Except it was pop and pop. A married guy and his fat gay brother. Once I saw him naked in the storeroom, wiggling his gut on a vibrating-belt machine. The low sack of his balls shaking. Freddy Mercury sang “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” on the AM radio. Now and then, a stooped old man walked through the store, mumbling. Patty, the pretty clerk, told me what he was saying: Soft young boys, soft young boys, soft young boys. Once Patty visited my apartment. Her confused face after seeing a dress hanging in my bathroom, knowing I lived alone. It’s usually the ones who are not obvious who end up hurting people. In junior high, drunk, asleep in Morgan’s room, him naked next to me. Or sitting in the field at Bancroft, him rubbing his dick in front of me. On Eleventh Street to downtown, he asked, What if I took off all my clothes and walked naked next to you? Get yours while you can. Stop waiting. Pick up your hands.
Tony Leuzzi The Russians It wasn’t until my third term of graduate school during one of Cyrus Boone’s long-winded discourses on the great Russian writers that I learned Chekhov was born not in Moscow or St. Petersburg but the remote southern port of Taganrog, a circumstance which, one might reasonably assume, explains why all of his work— from the swift, nimble sketches to those long, dour dramas— is steeped in dislocation… I might have cared, but Noah’s thigh was pressed against mine while we slouched in plastic chairs watching an arrowhead orb weaver crawl the lyric hills and valleys of his arm. My eyes had often done the same when they weren’t trained on his neck or that moment of skin above the sock anytime he bent his knee. Oh, maybe it was pointless— but the night before we swigged warm gin from his bottle and traded woes on my stoop: he had this habit of chasing one wrong girl after another and calling them bombs; I couldn’t finish any of my stories: one began “Come hither, Adolf” and involved Eva Braun trying to get the Führer to remove a band-aid from her navel; another, starting “Laurence dreamed of Prague,” was about a journalist who told the world he was born to a poor family in Genoa when, in truth, he was raised in an affluent suburb of Zurich. “Man, Cindy would’ve dug that” Noah said, following one of my recitations. 45
Cindy was from Little Rock— a cheerleader-turned-environmentalist who fed her violets menstrual blood. In bed, he bragged, she was more cheerleader than earth mother but like all the rest soon left a vapor mushroom in her wake. Now with the stars hung heavy and close, he leaned in, asked me: “What about you?” I knew those words were a rope cast down the dark to lift me into the light beside him, but I couldn’t grab hold, cracked wise about the Russians and the rope was pulled back. Later, in the not quite dawn, I awoke in the foyer holding Noah’s naked foot like a small throw pillow an inch or two from my head. I released him, rolled away while he slept, and finished “Ward 6” for that night’s lecture where we sat, thighs still touching, hearing Boone ramble on about “Lady with a Dog” being a potent example of dislocation. “Taganrog” I jotted down, for if I was going to start a story about the indiscreet shoe fetish of a thin governess living near the Strait of Kerch I should know whereof I speak. Slowly, Noah lifted his arm from the desk, turned it right, then left, while the weaver skittered down the limb, a gesture he performed for me who loved him but could not yet sing the tuneful, tortured trills of lopsided ardor.
Tobias Wray Portrait of a Spider Even after, when the waters receded they stayed, so many that their webs wrapped the trees like distorted balloons, frozen mid-pull. Strange— fat spider trees, gnat-less skies—who knew if things would ever go back to what they were? It was during the late-year floods that spiders climbed the trees that lined the road to escape. The trees that decided the road, studded with moving glint. So many tenants, their webs wrapped the trees like cotton candy, silver-green. In cities beyond, an afternoon rain. Here, the corpse-still spider. Slick as a drop of water. Close. He lifts one and then another of his scepters in delicate gesture—if he’s a he— and begins to weave. The street below fills with the bobbing fruit of so many umbrellas. “The Tarantella” was one of the first songs in my Beginning Piano. I liked the ease of it, how my fingers leaned into it. They say the dance began in Italy, where the bite of a certain wolfish spider was thought to be fatal unless the victim danced the frenzied dance, a fly struggling against those final strings. Play it that way, my teacher told me, his hand on my knee so I would know when to press the pedal and when to release.
Erika Mueller Gretel’s Story I was not taken but walked out through a surplus of blackberries, tomatoes blistering on vines, turnips and apple trees, out past every wall, out of my white t-shirt and jeans. I believed my appetite was dangerous in the face of their own need. With no map, no trail of bread crumbs or stones thrown, it wasn’t easy to find my way. I listened to the call of boys in feather boas, watched gold lamé swirl over oak slabs and drinks. The storytellers did not want you to see my real hunger—for the neighbor girl who moved like verbena leaves between humming fat spring bees. One day she held my waist, kissed me until a hive grew live inside me. My body opened, lifting, full of wings
Alaina Symanovich The M Word No one taught me how to masturbate. I didn’t need to scour outdated issues of Cosmo, brave the late-nineties Internet, or smuggle The Joy of Sex out of the library, to learn my way around the body. I knew myself like a map, knew how to work the land with my hands. Even in preschool, I was a little orgasm factory, churning out pleasure with stunning finesse for someone who believed she peed out of her vagina. I didn’t have a language with which to talk about sexual things, and I didn’t want one. Just like Dr. Seuss said one fish, two fish; red fish, blue fish, the situation “down there” seemed simple: one hand, two hand, WOWZA. No discussion needed. So, one autumn evening, I toddled into the kitchen as Mom and Dad prepared dinner. Our kitchen glowed the yolky color of a fried egg, as did every room in the house, because Mom insisted that a neutral color scheme was calming. Our lives were a wash of creamy yellows, anemic in the omnipresent Pennsylvania dusk. I ambled up to my dad, casually massaging my pubis through my pants. Shock fanned over his face, but his voice was calm when he asked what I was doing. He was used to my strange logic: I carried around a tattered copy of Red Velvet for “resurge”; I rushed to our sliding screen door at the end of every infomercial to find “the number on your screen”; I believed ham came from a bird, misunderstanding “ham hock” as “ham hawk.” “I’m peeling,” I said, kneading myself. “Like a banana.” My dad’s response doesn’t matter. What matters is that I don’t remember my Mom reacting, not laughing or rolling her eyes or even reprimanding me. And maybe she did confront me—maybe she bent down on her throbbing, misshapen knees and explained not to fondle myself in public, and maybe we hugged afterward and laughed about my banana comment like actors in a sitcom. If so, I let that memory evaporate years ago. Like most things concerning my mother, I wanted it out of my hands. / A few years later, Mom forbade me to continue watching my favorite cartoon, Rugrats. I was turning into Angelica, she said. Angelica: the brat. The show’s villain. And, apparently, the lone obstacle to us living in perfect mother-daughter harmony. 49
I saw a slew of obstacles, and none of them looked like a pigtailed kindergartener. The worst one, I kept a secret, letting it boil me alive. I never told anyone that when I thought about Mom, I’d burn myself all over again with the memory of the time Dad left for a days-long business trip, and I was alone in Mom’s care. I’d remember her giving me one sliced pear for breakfast, because I was chubby and Dad wasn’t around to curb her skinny crusade. I’d remember eating that pear in little rabbit nibbles, hungry and humiliated for being hungry, gnawing at the pulp dangling from the stem when the last slice disappeared. And I’d remember going to school with my stomach—my fat, flopping, out-of-control stomach—groaning out evidence of how disgusting I was. That grumbling hunger, stifled with a sharp punch to the gut in Mrs. Ford’s art class—that’s the sound of self-hatred. That’s what Mom taught me. One day later that year, while Mom did laundry, I holed up in the basement and blared Rugrats and masturbated right there on the carpet. Because of her disability, Mom couldn’t get down the stairs to catch me in the act. I orgasmed repeatedly, my face pinched in ecstasy as the show’s theme song plinked on. / Before I knew what being “turned on” was, I knew that humiliation turned me on. My orgasms swelled the highest, like the soaring screams of a teakettle, when I screened nightmares in my mind. Nudity, incontinence, public shaming— they made me gasp for breath. Years later, when I became a long-distance runner as part of my personal skinny crusade, I’d find the exact opposite. To finish a challenging race, after my sides stapled with cramps and my legs started to quake beneath me, I needed to visualize triumph. The fifth-grade boy who, as a joke, asked me to be his girlfriend? He was chanting my name. The seventh-grade kid who called me fat? Blue in the face, he was rooting so loud. The girl who gossiped about me in ninth grade? She’d made a puffy-paint poster with my name in neon green. And the last person, the one stationed right in front of the finish line: Mom. She was screaming, I’m sorry. She was screaming, I was wrong. She was screaming, I love you. Whether masturbating or racing, I always finished well. /
Christmas of my fifth-grade year, I unwrapped two books under the tree (in front of my father, and my sister’s teenage boyfriend): The Care and Keeping of YOU, and My Body, My Self for Girls. The first book, issued by the American Girl company, was a watered-down, cartoon-illustrated volume filled with tidbits of advice such as “never shave dry!” The second book contained the juicy information. Right there in the glow of the tree’s multicolored lights, I flipped to the final chapter, “The Big M.” My sister, Erica, laughed as she read over my shoulder; her boyfriend found a crick in his neck that demanded his attention. But I should give Jeremy—the boyfriend—more credit. For someone hailing from a family of conservative Indiana farmers, he’d adapted well to my family’s dynamic. For instance, my Dad’s hobby of making every wrapped present a “mystery”: wadding up items like underwear and bras inside cardboard toilet-paper rolls, so we wouldn’t know what to expect when we picked up the oblong gifts. One year, Jeremy watched Erica pop fourteen pairs of sheer Victoria’s Secret panties out of fourteen Charmin cylinders. Receiving those two books from Mom counted as The Talk, I suppose, since we never discussed anything within their covers, or acknowledged that she’d gifted them at all. / The Informal Talk—the preview to The (Silent) Talk—happened in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. I was five, sitting in our minivan with my knees jammed in the back of Mom’s seat. We’d rolled the windows down, letting the nighttime humidity crawl inside. I sweated inside my khaki shorts as Erica, Mom, and I waited for Dad. “What’s taking so long?” I slouched lower in my seat. I knew Mom hated the feeling of my knees piercing her seatback, so I pressed harder. She always reclined to a ridiculous degree, even when I would reach my adult height of 5’9’’ and be forced to sit with my knees pinned down. “Must be a long line,” Erica said. I knew Dad was inside buying her O.B., one of those robin’s-egg-blue cardboard boxes she stashed under the bathroom sink. But I didn’t know what O.B. was, or what was so special about it that we’d leave the condo for it at nine o’clock at night. So I asked. And there we were: three women, two generations, one family, trapped in a car in the sticky summer heat. And I’d asked what tampons were. And my mom sat silent. “Girls use them,” Erica explained, her eyes darting from me, to the back of 51
Mom’s head, to me. She dragged out her syllables, as if giving Mom time to catch up and take over. “For their periods.” She glanced at Mom again. “Sissy, do you know what periods are?” I didn’t. I’d seen the paper-wrapped white sticks Mom carried in her briefcase in Ziploc bags, but I’d never wondered about them. Except maybe to speculate that they looked like a pretty bland kind of candy. Not like the colorful packages I eyed in the grocery-store checkout line. “…and you just stick it up there,” Erica said, motioning with her index finger. “In the…” she grimaced, “vagina.” “The sex hole?” I asked, remembering what Nathan Erickson said on the playground. He knew all about sex, like that oral sex meant the guy peed in the girl’s mouth. After listening to him, I understood why Erica was had taken a vow of abstinence. “Yes,” Erica raised her eyebrows. “The same one the boy…enters. During sex.” The corners of my mouth sagged in horror. I imagined a man thrusting himself into a woman, the way Dad stabbed a meat thermometer into roasts in the oven. I imagined the juices spilling out of the woman, red then pink then clear. “He just shoves it up there?” At that point, Mom laughed. Breezily, as if we were three gals gathered at quilting club, gossiping about our husbands. “It has to get hard first,” she said. Erica covered her face with her hands and groaned. “Otherwise it’d be like trying to shove a piece of spaghetti up there.” Erica screamed with embarrassed laughter and I stared, horrified, as Mom laughed herself back to silence. I wondered how hard it got, still visualizing the metal spear of the meat thermometer. When Dad trundled out of the store, plastic bag in hand, no one breathed a word about our previous conversation. / I evolved into my role as the odd one out: the inevitable fifth wheel that my family couldn’t do without, but couldn’t do much with. Erica had Jeremy—from her sophomore year of high school onward, she was part of a They. (Peanut butter and jelly, salt and pepper, Erica and Jeremy—some pairings are just heaven-sent.) And Mom had Dad, always. Her disability required it. Anywhere we went, his hand vised her upper arm, steadying her every step. In my favorite daydreams, I had somebody, too. Not because I felt lonely—introverted to the extreme, I preferred to be alone. But having “that special 52
someone” would make me special, too, as special as Erica in her expensive prom dresses. Mom fawned over the custom-tailored, size-four dresses that hugged Erica’s ribs tight and swished around her ankles. When it came to prom (or anything, really, that involved Jeremy) Mom incinerated Life As We Knew It and served up a new normal. She stocked Jeremy’s favorite foods in the pantry; she prepared wild-caught salmon and grilled sirloins when he ate with us; she booked vacations to Disney World, the Caribbean, California. Mom cared what Jeremy thought. In second grade, I sulked to Mom that Elliot Vincent-Killian, an older boy I knew only vaguely, had called me fat. As I placed three slices of Kraft American cheese on my TV tray for lunch, Mom clucked her tongue at me. “Three slices of cheese, huh,” she frowned. “If you eat like that, you’ll really be fat, like that Elliot boy said.” / My Care and Keeping of YOU book, with its smiling cartoon teenagers, promised me that every body was beautiful. The American Girl brand cared about self-esteem. As a fifth-grader, I longed to believe it. But in the back of my mind— or sliding cold fingers beneath my belt—was Mom. Every time we shopped, Mom insisted on accompanying me in the dressing room. Gap caused the least anxiety, because its walls were floor-length, soundproof. Nobody could hear the knives Mom threw behind those doors. Old Navy was the worst. I would follow Mom’s unsteady gait across the thunderstorm-colored floor. Every dressing room we passed, I could hear the women inside—this is too tight, that’s too revealing, this is the one! I’d slam our door, but I couldn’t stamp out the sound of Mom’s voice as she barked her orders. She insisted we start by trying on the jeans. “Because they’re the hardest,” she would say, frowning, seated and staring as I undressed. If I asked her not to watch me undress, she’d get angry. I felt her eyes on my thighs. I was always the biggest kids’ size—sixteen, eighteen if they carried it. Eleven years later, I still avoid the sight of my naked body in the mirror. So the pants ritual began: could the fabric fit over my legs? Did the buttons close? If not, a protracted sigh. If yes, the humiliation began. Could I squat down? (Eyes on the folds of my stomach.) Could I bend over? (Eyes peeled for a bulge around my sides.) Could I sit comfortably? Lift up your shirt when you sit; let’s see if the waist strains. 53
And the final test, when I’d suffered all the others: could Mom fit her hand inside the waistband? Two or three frigid fingers, knuckles gnarled from her disease, nails sharp. She’d jam her hands inside the pants and feel my circumference. She’d touch all the contours of my body, everywhere fat laid its claim, and sit back, sigh. Then she’d decide whether or not she liked the pants. / In seventh grade, Mom caught me masturbating. She came home early to find me on my stomach, cheek to the carpet, hands burrowed underneath myself as an after-school special blipped across the screen. “What are you doing?” she cried, her keys like breaking glass as they hit the marble countertop. “Why are your hands down your pants?” I jumped up and clutched my lower abdomen. “Stomachache!” I shuffled to the bathroom like someone in a Pepto-Bismol commercial. “Diarrhea!” After a few deep breaths, and a few strategic flushes of the toilet, I trudged back to the living room, cradling my stomach for effect. “I just feel terrible,” I shriveled up my face, feigning pain. I never knew if she believed the lie. All I knew was she acted as if she did, flipping through a magazine and mumbling that I should take an antacid. / At dinner, age twenty, I ordered a grilled chicken salad—no dressing— while my date ordered a Swiss-and-mushroom burger. “Make me feel huge, why don’t you?” she joked, biting off the top third of a fry. I laughed and tried to cross my legs under the table, but my swollen knee stopped me. If it weren’t for the tendonitis, I would have run eight miles that morning, not walked them. Then maybe I’d be at my goal weight. I examined my date’s body while she ate. She couldn’t weigh more than a hundred and five pounds. Loading my fork with lettuce, I avoided the croutons. / The summer before ninth grade, Mom booked our family, plus Jeremy, rooms in a towering resort at the base of Ouachita Mountain. Each morning, Erica 54
and I ran four miles over the sinuous trails, her stride brisk, mine stuttering in time to my wheezing chest. I knew I’d never be the Cross-Country star Erica was, but since preseason practices were starting in a month, I fought to keep up. One afternoon, punishing my sore quadriceps on a hike with Dad, I felt sweat beading inside my shorts. I attributed it to the Arkansas sun, but when I shut myself in the bathroom, I found rust-colored stains on my underwear. “Hey,” I whispered, cornering Erica as she rifled through her open suitcase. Shirts and socks rippled around her rooting hands. “Do you have any pads?” The ripples froze as her eyes found mine. “Sissy!” Erica’s voice sounded delectable, like warmed honey. “Did you get your period?” I nodded, flushed and torn between laughing and crying as Erica pulled the familiar robin’s-egg box out of her bag. Back in the bathroom, one thought itched at me: when you get your period, you stop growing. Mom had said it loads of times. I’d felt grateful that, less than a month shy of my fourteenth birthday, I hadn’t had my menarche (a My Body, My Self for Girls term for a girl’s first period). I held out hope that, one morning, I’d wake with my feet hanging off the foot of the bed. I held out hope that I’d “thin out,” as Mom said. The blood between my legs soiled that dream, blot by blot. Erica demonstrated how to insert the tampon as I chewed my lip. At my last doctor’s appointment—the last one I would ever allow Mom to accompany me to—I’d sat on the crinkly white sheet as the nurse recited my basic information. “You’re at a healthy weight for your height,” she said, holding up her clipboard as proof. She read my blood pressure, temperature, and promised the doctor would be in shortly to conduct my physical. In the interim, I tried not to squirm. The paper beneath my thighs announced my every movement. Like a human Rice Krispy, I snapped, crackled, popped. “Hmph,” Mom grunted, brooding over the nurse’s chart. “Everything sounds good,” I said, staring at the spot on my kneecaps I always missed when shaving. I formed every word as carefully as I’d shape cookie dough. “She said I’m a healthy weight.” Mom frowned. “Eighty-fifth percentile for weight,” she sighed. “That’s pre¬tty high.” She stretched out the “pretty” on her tongue, long and sticky as taffy. I hated when she spoke Appalachian: “sam-wich” instead of “sandwich,” “yew-man” instead of “human.” I longed to look into her pinched face and say I hated pret-ty much everything about her. “…and you just shove it up as far as you can,” Erica said, discarding the 55
tampon from its plastic wrapper and fanning out one end like a skirt. Bell-shaped, it reminded me of the Jingles chocolates Dad bought every December. But bigger, and drier. “Will it hurt?” I held the little bell in my hand. It weighed less than a chocolate. I figured I’d enjoy it less, too. “Only if you don’t get it up high enough,” Erica said. She claimed inserting tampons manually—without an applicator—was easiest. Not knowing what an applicator was, I trusted her. An hour later, Dad found me laid out on the bed, legs and arms splayed snow-angel style, focusing on keeping my lower body motionless. “The curse of woman is upon me,” I groaned, flinging my arm over my eyes. Dad’s face lit up with happiness, jack-o-lantern style, as Mom wandered into the room. “What?” she asked, looking from him to me. “What’s going on?” “Laney got her period,” Dad said in a hushed voice, holding back a laugh. He looked as proud as he did when I crossed the finish line at track meets, even if I’d come in dead last (which I usually did). Mom tensed, the way she did when our kitchen’s smoke alarm blared mid-recipe. “Did you use something?” she asked me. “Erica gave me a tampon,” I said, pretending to wince so I didn’t have to look at her. “But it hurts so bad.” “It’s not in right,” Dad said immediately. He strode over to Erica’s suitcase, grabbed the box of O.B., and handed me another tampon. I wrinkled my nose at it, imagining the burning between my legs intensifying. But I took it, glad Dad had stepped up so I didn’t have suffer eye contact with Mom during this conversation. Because of Mom’s disability, Dad had played a larger-than-normal role in Erica’s life, and he was ready to play it for me, too. I appreciated that he knew a lot more than just where CVS stocked feminine products. “Really get it up there,” Mom called as I shut the bathroom door. At the sound of her voice, I punched the lock on the handle. Then, remembering Dad’s and Erica’s advice, I put one foot on the toilet seat, exhaled, and tugged at the string threaded inside me. Like ringing a bell, I thought, gasping as the burning sharpened, then subsided, leaving only the echo of pain. / When sixth grade arrived and I switched from Radio Park Elementary to Park Forest Middle School, Mom switched our family from normal life to diet 56
life. It began with a paperback volume on her bookshelf, but soon enough The Schwatzbien Principle was everywhere in our home. It was in the cupboard, suddenly emptied of crackers, pretzels, pasta. In the pantry, where low-carb chocolates roosted beside low-sugar Jell-O powder. In the fridge, where eggs, cheese, and meat abounded. “Carbs are the key,” Mom coached me, “to fat storage. It’s like they open doors in your cells that tells them to store fat.” And: “Cellulite is the fluffy fat, the kind that looks like cottage cheese. You get it from eating carbs.” Handing me a lunchbox: “School lunches pack in over eighty grams of carbs. That’s more than we—” broiling me with a stare—“want to eat in a day.” In middle school, I learned to keep my lunch inside my lunchbox as I ate, only letting bites be exposed in the second it took them to travel from Ziploc to mouth. I wanted to avoid my classmates’ questions, which proved impossible. Why did I eat rolls of turkey, instead of sandwiches? Why did I have low-carb faux-peanut-butter cups instead of Reese’s? Why did I have diet sodas in every flavor imaginable, from orange to cream to ginger ale? In college, when I moved out of the house, I was most exhilarated by the freedom to eat every meal alone. In my apartment, door locked and lights off, no one questioning me or teasing me or even knowing that I existed. / “Just what are you trying to do here?” Mom’s voice hacked through the atmosphere at The Cheesecake Factory, butcher-knife blunt. “Mom,” Erica said, squeezing my hand under the table. I squeezed back, trying to siphon as much heat from Erica as I could. I hadn’t taken off my bulky coat, even though we’d been in the restaurant almost an hour. “Calm down.” Mom’s mouth curdled as she looked at my chopped salad: a small pile of vegetables, raw, bare of dressing, as I’d requested. I’d guzzled Diet Coke since we arrived, filling myself with carbonation, imagining the little bubbles expanding inside me. I planned to chug as many glasses as it took to feel full before the dreaded dessert course. “That’s not a meal,” Mom said, her tone ratcheting higher. “Laney’s fine,” Dad said, looking around to see if other diners were watching. “Let her eat what she wants.” When Mom opened her mouth again, the muscle in Dad’s jaw twitched. “Let it alone, Sharon.” I stared at my plate, eating one diced tomato at a time to prolong the meal. 57
Since tenth grade, since my shin stress-fractured for the first time and my period disappeared and my hair thinned, Mom and Dad had been on high alert. They didn’t talk about my eating disorder, but they watched. That night in eleventh grade, skinnier than I ever dreamed, I swallowed a smile as I chewed my piece of diced cucumber exactly twenty-four times. Because even though everyone was watching me, they were glaring at Mom. I might have been sick, but I was not the problem. / In the months before my Junior prom, Mom steered the conversation toward boyfriends with her usual subtlety. “Is Jessie still with Graham?” she asked one night at dinner, eyes on her plate. I chomped down on my bite of chicken, hard, chewing it to mush. After a long pause: “Yup.” “You know, it might be fun to double-date. That’s what Erica and Jeremy did.” Mom put down her fork. “Mark, you remember—who’s that nice boy that went to the prom with them? Miles? Mike something? And his date—Andrea?” “I’m going with Jessie and Lauren,” I raised my water glass to my lips like a shield. I knew to take continuous gulps while eating: to induce fullness and impede conversation. “We’ll meet up with Graham there.” “But wouldn’t it be fun to go with a boy,” Mom said. “Surely Graham has a friend who’s looking for someone.” Several nights later, I set down my fork in triumph, leveled my gaze at Mom, and told her I had talked to Graham’s best single friend, Christoph Schlom. “He had a crush on Sarah, but was too shy to tell,” I smiled. I felt the meanness brighten my features as Mom’s sagged in disappointment. “So I asked her to prom for him. And she said yes!” / In college, the media propagated the new holy grail of thinness: the thigh gap. Girls longed for two toned, twiggy legs that didn’t touch—not even at the tippy-top, where most women’s anatomies dictate that thighs belong and gaps don’t. I scoffed at the trend when I read about it on the Internet, eating baby carrots alone in my dorm room. The thigh gap was nothing new; I’d been agonizing over it since middle school. 58
I remembered the spread in Seventeen magazine that triggered it—an article about problems “down there,” as vaginas were coyly referred to. Accompanying the text about yeast infections and off-color discharge was a cropped picture of a model, from lower abdomen to mid-thigh, her underwear filling the bulk of the page. But I wasn’t fascinated by her panties; my eyes shot to her pristine thighs, taut, tanned and separated by a full inch. When I looked in the mirror, I could only make my thighs separate if I gathered my fat in my fingers and pulled it out of sight. I mentioned the thigh gap to my parents in the car one day, the magazine article seared into my mind. “But that’s so unrealistic,” I studied my jeans, all the bulges I disliked. “Everyone’s thighs touch.” “When I stand, my thighs don’t touch,” Mom said from the passenger seat. She stared straight ahead as she spoke. I didn’t say anything. I didn’t say but you have Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, and all your leg muscles have wasted away! I didn’t say but you’re not normal! I was so silent, so still, I might not have been there at all. / I defeated nature during my freshman year of college. I reversed biology’s sinister march toward breasts and hips and thighs; I triumphed over hunger; I grew too lean, too strong, for any of my pants or belts. Sometimes I wandered into clothing stores and tried on small sizes, but I never bought them. Even when I slid into size-zero skinny jeans at the Gap, I left them folded on the bench in the dressing room. Because what if you outgrow them, I chided myself. Or what if you can get smaller. / I never got smaller than 109.6 pounds, roughly the weight of my fifthgrade self. I was never more proud than when I wrangled back a smile in the hepatologist’s office as he said: “We tested for everything that could cause elevated liver enzymes, and everything came back negative. We think it’s the anorexia.” I thought back to all the nights I’d touch myself while falling asleep. They weren’t sexual touches—I lost the drive for those. Instead, I’d trace the topography of my hipbones, fragile as icicles; the concave of my stomach; the delicate ridge of each rib. In the morning, I’d turn around in front of the full-length mirror and watch my back as I breathed. Exhale: normal. Inhale: every rib, in sharp relief. I’d 59
never known I had so many bones to see. As the months passed, I kept seeing more. “This—” the doctor gestured to my body. I flexed my stomach muscles, since I had no fat left to suck in. “This is too thin.” I walked out of his office into the caramelized June sunshine, shivering but elated. I was, officially, sick—I had EDNOS stamped on my file, referrals to two more doctors, orders for another round of blood tests. Besides elevated liver enzymes, I had the low blood sugar of a pre-diabetic, a sluggish heart rate, and several vitamin deficiencies. The doctors thought I’d be infertile, at best. At worst… they trailed off, their mouths stapling shut to hold back the truth. They didn’t say, outright, “you’re killing yourself,” but I tasted the blessing of that verdict on their tongues. For the first time, I felt proud of myself. So proud of myself, I thought I might not want to disappear, after all. / My nutritionist, a blonde woman named Heather, who wore pencil skirts and stilettos. She was the kind of flawless my mom could respect, even when Heather ordered her not to talk to me about anything food- or body-related. No comments about other peoples’ figures, positive or negative. No comments about eating, mine or hers or anyone else’s. No judgments about amount of, type of, time of meals. Essentially, no communication at all. Sorry, Mom: doctor’s orders. / It started with an apple. Fourteen months after that meeting with the hepatologist, and twenty pounds heavier, I watched a muscled bicep as it strained against the confines of a jean-colored button-down: apple to lips. Contact, crunch, chew. And the smell of cologne, like the cinnamony scent Jeremy used to wear, the one that had soaked into every pillow of our guest room. Jeremy had spent so many nights at our house when I was young that I associated his smell with Sunday mornings, sunlit kitchens, runny eggs and buttered toast. He and Erica left for college before the Schwarzbein craze started, so my memories of them are as inviting as Olive Garden breadsticks. I tried to pay attention to my professor instead of watching that apple disappear, bite by bite. What captivated me most was the raw strength of that bicep: strong enough to wrap around me and hold me tight, but buttery with the scent of apple pie. In contrast, the plush thighs, held tight in corduroys. Thick where they 60
met at the top, then lean through the legs and crossed at the ankles. She was the most beautiful person I’d ever seen: the pure marriage of power and grace. She was someone who could fight and love, I thought. And she took up the perfect amount of space—she set the standard for the perfect amount of space. She was not a man, like my Mom had in mind. She was better; she was magic. I didn’t have any words to offer her, though I couldn’t resist speaking to her. I craved her. I wanted her to hear my voice and hold me in her thoughts. “You know,” I said after class. I walked a halting half-step behind her as she moved toward the door. “You’re eating that apple wrong.” She raised her eyebrows, looking from me to the apple core balanced between her thumb and index finger. Her bite marks covered the surface, illuminating brilliant spots of white beneath the red skin. “Oh yeah?” I nodded. “If you eat it from the top down, instead of around the sides, you can eat right through the core.” My face simmered in the moment my eyes caught hers. “There’s got to be a metaphor for cannibalism in there somewhere,” she said, and strode out of the room. / She could cook. She danced while she fried eggs, using almond butter instead of oil and shaking her hips to electronic remixes of popular songs. She made meatballs and fajitas when she was drunk, pans sizzling under her gyrating arms, swigging malt liquor between stirs. The most elaborate meal she made for me: Atlantic salmon, baked with rosemary and apples and pine nuts, served over tri-color rotini, as we drank beer after beer. And in the morning, when we went out for breakfast, she understood why I only ordered carbs. / Over Thanksgiving break of that year, that magical year, I asked Dad to take a walk with me. We carved a mushroom-shaped path through the woods, five miles of snapping twigs and crackling leaves. Over the noise of our footsteps, I told Dad I was gay. He said he already knew. And so, as of the month before, did Mom. “I always suspected that your mother might like women, too,” he said, as casually as he’d test for ripe pears in the grocery store. Is this one soft enough? This 61
one might be okay. But he was talking about my mother, not a firm fruit. “Well, she doesn’t really like sex,” he explained, when I gasped. Hands in his pockets, he looked unperturbed by the conversation. “And she always had very—close—relationships with women.” “But, anyway, she insists you’re not gay,” he said. “Though she agrees that some people are born that way. Just not you.” As we sliced through the cold, rounding out the miles toward home, I wondered what it would be like to be Mom. So defensive, so cornered. Everyone— all the doctors, the nutritionists, her husband, Erica and Jeremy—agreed that my eating disorder was not my problem. And they looked at her, silent, when they said it. I wondered my sexuality would be served the same way: cold, with a side of judgment. The phrase “getting your just desserts” came to mind. / At my lowest weight, Heather asked me to write a letter to Mom, for my eyes only. It ended: “Don’t draw attention to my food intake. Don’t try to be involved. Don’t even compliment me. Please, try not to see my body when you look at me.” / At Mom’s retirement party, thrown in April of my senior year of high school, I wore a matching dress and cardigan from a department store, plus nude heels left over from prom. My hair fell past my collarbone, and baby-doll bangs feathered my forehead. I’d painted my toenails: a subtle rose, just shiny enough to be unnatural. In a few years, I would let my hairdresser shave the sides of my head; I’d throw away my tubes of lipstick and buy pants from the men’s department, sweaters from Goodwill. But for Mom’s party, I dressed demurely. I smiled sweetly. I was silent. Everyone from Mom’s office, along with Erica and Jeremy and their eighteen-month-old daughter, Ella, crowded into the restaurant. My mother’s assistant, Darlene, had reserved a private room for us. Plastic flowers adorned every available space, in line with the Hawaiian theme my mother—inexplicably—requested. I thanked Darlene when she draped a lei around neck, forcing myself not to fidget as the back of my neck erupted in itches. Objectively, I knew my mom was pretty. She dyed her hair a rich auburn, 62
kept it trimmed and curled and sprayed to perfection. Her features were symmetrical, even pleasing: button nose, not too fat; even lips, not too thin; high cheekbones. She knew where to stroke bronzer and where to swirl blush, and despite the disability that left her fingers clumsy and shaking, she applied mascara every morning. I could rattle off those facts about Mom as a food critic could analyze a dish—passionless, precise, informative. But at her party, watching her laugh with the office ladies and whisper with Darlene and hug her longtime boss, I saw Mom’s beauty. I saw a woman who, without a college education, held a position that required a Master’s degree. I saw a woman with friends who knew her secrets, who ate lunch with her every day, who brought her coffee on rainy mornings. I saw a woman in a tailored Talbot’s suit who’d counted her calories and carbohydrates for years, just for moments like these. Just so her thighs wouldn’t touch when all eyes were on her. Because we were in a large group, we could only select from a limited lunch menu. I picked at my chicken dish, nauseous before the first swallow because I knew the entree had been cooked with cream. Two hours after the party, I would lace up my running shoes and sprint into the woods near my house. I would run several miles before collapsing to the ground, fingers down my throat, willing my roiling stomach to seize. It wouldn’t; it would take me years to master the art of purging (and when I finally did, I would regret it). But before all that, I pushed the chicken around my plate, and over clinking forks and scraping knives, I heard the whisper of one of my mom’s coworkers. “My goodness,” the woman said to Mom, glancing at me, Erica, Jeremy, and Ella. “Sharon, you just have the perfect family.” And I watched the smile spill over Mom’s face, running free as an egg yolk broken out of its shell, and said nothing.
Stacey Balkun Landscape with Venus and Sourwood
Meig’s Creek Trail “The Birth of Venus” (1912) by Odilon Redon
Fog lifts on insect wings over the spindle coral mushroom the color of Venus’ shell. Redon painted her six times in two years. The sky paints six different versions of clouds every two hours and they ripple like an ocean or thunder or river water breath. A man fly fishes from a boulder in the center of the creek. It smells like sulfur musk, like skin and the sourwood blossoms fall like snow or teeth in a dream about death, then become soft frost in the mud. Despite the signs, so many people leap into the churning but no one can rise like her. I want to crawl into a pink shell, curl beneath a stone in the shade of tall trees like the crawfish hidden in the creek. 64
A Monster Named Myrtle, Atom Basham
MotherMoose, the Canadian Bird Lady, Atom Basham
In 2008, when I produced “Hungry,” I was still attempting to find my place in the art community. I’d been drawing my entire life, but it was always a bit aimless and overly experimental. With “Hungry” I was finally putting together the elements that would come to define the work people recognize today, such as children, monsters, enough bright colors to make it happy, enough dark subtext to make the viewer slightly uneasy. More than anything though, I discovered that I wanted my work to tell stories. With a single image, I wanted enough to be said,
that an inspired person could write a short book about what they were observing. I began that habit, which has become the backbone of my current career, with a suburban carnivorous tree and an indecisive red headed girl. 67
Untitled (Tree Girl), Atom Basham
Brenda the Feral Rabbit Girl, Atom Basham
The Ant Princess, Atom Basham
Anne Haven McDonnell Coming Out in the Ozarks The truck beds lined with dead squirrels parked along the one-room post office The yawn and teeth of that long silence, creaking floorboards, a rocking chair adjusts. All eyes stay down the men in overalls stare at their feet, the woman fidgets behind the counter. A tiny bloom spread through my chest, the whine and creak of my footsteps across that room. Outside, you wait in the car like a sunrise, thickening my voice at the counter, My freshly shaved head, a new animal in your hands. I donâ€™t know what I said â€“ Back at our farm, you pour candlewax, cover each tiny bite the raccoon left in every winter squash. That year we ripened with seeds we spread to dry on clean white paper in the barn. All that knowing condensed in hard tiny bodies we blew away the rest. 71
Joe Jimenez The Sow Has Opened Her Red Mouth After the hunt: the truck bed in a field of high yawns is the part I can tell you. The sun in the splayed cabbage of the sky is a cob husk, gnawed by Light. The horse jaw, the tongue slab that is grey with slobber, the cheek gash gushing its idle sap. Sod is the beak woe of cattle egret coiffing their golden mohawks like yarns of guilt in the glimmering. In the truck bed, the shit show, the part I can tell you is underneath the tusk: I let her die. And where are the starlings from my schoolbook, for they comfort me? And the orphaned sucklings, to where have they run? Soaked, the noon clouds swaddle their bodies: gentleness, nuzzling. But the sow, the sow, gunned down, the sow with bristle-back, the odd crude crust of the eyelids, the dark nostrils—moist, mud-clad, unshut—the tusk limp as loss: and isn’t there something in your life you wish you hadn’t let happen? And doesn’t it sit with you like a tough slug in the belly? The tripe has opened its red mouth like a well but no song, no eulogistic rise, no blood-dirge carved from field mud and hog yawns. The shoe-strings are sopped with melancholies. I hold my hand over the part of the sow that is mine. My grandfather will play the accordion in his backyard once we’ve unloaded the hog. They will cut her up. Someone will build a fire. I will ask for my mother.
Tim Carrier The Debris Field I tend to talk around the story. Here is its center : a body in the road form of a deer
A body in the sand shape of a boy Shape of crumple shape of fear
When a running childâ€™s soul flies his body : What is the shape?
Of the body?
What is the shape, also, of god around the body? Is it deer tongue, boy legs, wrapped up with their arms
The road, the sound, the upside-down tree, inside a person or : a scattered field of tray tables & other grey debrisâ€”
What is the shape of self-determination?
What is the shape of a legitimate state?
Possessing power does not mean ever being free What I describe is a personal pain : very close
I have no country and the small boy on the battered beach is dead and inside the boy, his legs & arms, the god-shaped tree
Tobias Wray Top/Bottom: Ekphrasis Image filter, a graduated blue, filmy as a bar glass; neither dawn nor dusk. The bucks stare back, their racks like the tight veins or rind-cracks of absent fruit. To heighten liquid attention, the quick-steeple gesture of one raised leg. Such stillness. Suspended in gaze, the photographer is the real subject. They watch being watched, notice the watching. They are more than curious, their racks held to chandelier height, their necks and ears tight, attuned to whateverâ€™s next, when with cervine grace the cowbirds like philosophies climb; a simple scienceâ€”no chase, no escape.
Tim Carrier Yellow Wheel Jane says the world full of tractors is the mystery world The other world is the seasons Like the creature on the sill I wish to live with little concealment as possibleâ€Ś. but which world for a person; for, fine as pollen table dust; the tractors in terraces of light Also, yellow wheel, turning in the air
Adam Halbur Out on the plain lies abandoned a hay rake with its hand-hewn teeth pulled and a vodka bottle emptied of its drug. Rain is blowing down from the Altai and beats the sides of a pup tent two Kazakh boys entangle beneath. The camel herd with humps erect stands wet in the dark. Lightning strikes, thunder rolls, and their dog with a lionâ€™s mane whimpers and moans. The dampened air is perfumed with mown grass and warm manure.
Tamiko Beyer Stirring
tend close to the reveal— sky pale bone into horizon. one small thing breaks into blossom, one small thing blossoms into breaking :: your heart loving the most fragile sign vulnerable to snow’s unpredictable weight. my heart loving without precaution— adoration for every fierce bud that shows itself to sun’s flame, to spring’s ambitious lungs. you know even the smallest breeze can set the underbrush roaring. no small price but this :: a new day—your most tender root pulses under winter sun our urgent touch brings fire.
Jeffrey Perkins Lover’s Discourse We will meet again in a frozen Oslo, reveal our bodies only after we spot each other’s naked hands in the post office line, then remember that skin of finger, bird of wrist, bringing us to a beach—the glowing arm of you holding a book, reading pages that were once alive in a forest in Quebec, while I, barely open eyes, daydream of binding your hands in leather tying your figure to a bed to keep you because I’m weak for your lucid skin. (Our lives as men, women—all the dreams we created before we knew about bodies.) Now, I’ll search for you in the profiles of others in a sparse Wyoming. Build a land of near misses of your neck. You will know me by the book in the window of the village store, reminding you of distant bodies of light.
Maria Nazos Before a Man in the Midwest Loses a Lover he thinks of those times he’s been sick, or drunk, desperate, or wild with love, or bent to snort a white trail. How human he is: scared, humbled, before a greatness so bright he blinks its light away. His healthy body feels like a dead husk while his beloved lies in a white hospital bed cuffed to an IV. In Nebraska, (where he can smell winter’s fresh frost gusting across the gold field, where some hearts are sprawling as the land), there ought to be a way for God to become visible in the sweeping pink spray across the sky, more audible in the wind shaking loose leaves like a woman pulling her ponytail free. He has seen God’s face not in the crucifix nailed above the neighbors’ door, or in the lapsed sunsets. He’s seen God in the squiggled veins of an old man’s temples, in light that spills
from a womanâ€™s crown as she kneels to help him pick up his groceries. What if he went into a field right now, spread his arms and flapped them or cawed like a madman in the almost-rain, so the gray boulders of clouds rumbled aside. Maybe he would hear the perfect answer as to why one more human life must be blown away in puffs. There will be no trees, just wind to buffer his cries, or carry them in the right direction. The prairie is calling, its dry mouth open wide.
Tobias Wray Terra Incognita The world again decides to end, another fire, some more ice. Following the creek bed to its crackling firs, I take a deep breath. Iâ€™ve lost another. I ushered it in, the losing. Twisted the blinds shut, drew the curtains on a dark yard, the creek deep beyond. / Hot summer took it low, bleaching the bodies of crawfish down to armored clusters among the rocks. The rest is bone, no water to coat what was once cunning with glint. Whatâ€™s left: this old name for home, where the mountains are slow to reveal themselves. You, my Arkansas. My unwanted. My jewelry keep, my loss beside the wishing well. This score I once knew how to play.
D. Gilson On Walking “Running or walking, the way is the same. Be still. Be still.” —Wendell Berry
Not paying attention, I have walked into a river and a concrete stairwell and a parade of four-year-olds marching out of preschool, linked with rope as if they were a chain gang in route to Oz. Drunk, I have walked through a screenedin porch and on top of a Volkswagen Beetle and into the fountain at the Missouri State House in Jefferson City. In a home video from 1988, I am four and wearing a pull-up diaper with cherry red Justin boots. My mother holds the camera as I sashay towards her, left hand on hip, right flipping in a beauty queen wave. I sing, These boots are made for walkin’, and that’s just what they’ll do. / I will write this from the screened-in porch of Will and Howard’s home in upstate South Carolina. Will and Howard will not be here, but their three dogs will be — Hobbes, the alpha, keeping watch over his backyard kingdom from the corner; Tojo, the eldest, inside where the AC hums to life every time the sun breaks through the oak canopy; and Milton, my favorite, the basset hound named for the Renaissance poet whom Will studies, alternatively drooling asleep at my feet or trying to nudge his way onto my lap. Inside the house, Will’s menagerie of fish swim circles in five tanks, much to Howard’s consternation, come resignation, come now bemusement. While they are gone, I will feed the fish and walk the dogs and, if needed, mow the yard. I will cook and not go anywhere in the car Will and Howard have left behind because it is a stick shift and I do not know how to drive one. I will bike into town where there is a gym and coffeeshop. Or walk. Will and Howard will escape these days in Alaska. Four months ago, they became foster parents to Caden, a boy from Ohio, with the intention of adopting him by the end of summer. But because all of us are haunted, Caden needed help neither Will nor Howard nor the State of South Carolina could provide. Ohio child services called Caden back and though I have no doubt Will and Howard will be 82
with their son again, the moment that is now is a queer grief for a boy that is not dead, and yet is no longer here. In his poem “Reaching Around For You,” D.A. Powell addresses a boy in an orchard: I do not mind you closing your own eyes, reclining. / Summoning the image of a lover put away. / Because virtue is hardly what either of us saved // from our separate, desperate beginnings. Though I am here because I care for my friends, I am also here to grieve, it strikes me: my mother’s bout with leukemia, my sister’s worsening multiple sclerosis, another brother’s death. Like Will and Howard to Alaska, like D.A. Powell to the orchard, I have come here to be alone in the country, to grieve and to walk. / In Old English, walk (from the Middle Dutch and Low German walken) means loosely to roll, as in tossing water, one use, or another, kneading bread. In the “Miller’s Tale,” Chaucer favors the former, him þenkeþ verrayly þat he may se Noes flood come walkyng (Old Noah’s flood come rolling like the sea, line 3616). I quite like this antiquated turn, walking like the sea. I think of my brother, Marty, stepping out of his bass boat and onto a log which I, only six, could not see just below the surface of Table Rock Lake. Marty walking away from the boat and me thinking him some sort of prophet. Until he fell with a woosh off the end of the log. Until we both laughed our asses off. / A fish walks into a bar. The bartender says, What do you want? The fish croaks, Water. / Perhaps my origin is the story of the grief of others. I am the youngest of eight children, yes, but my siblings are all half. My sisters Diala and Starla are from our father’s first marriage; Marty, Carla, Randy, Mike, and Jennifer, from our 83
mother’s. Duane, my father, spent his Air Force career married to Ginger. Because my father rose quickly through leadership training and veterinary school, he and Ginger drove beautiful cars and had a house full of Ethan Allen furniture. Because my father spent years away from home during the sixties and seventies, stationed in Vietnam and Okinawa and then Puerto Rico, Ginger cheated on him with my uncle and, as legend goes, my grandfather. Beverly, my mother, was married at seventeen to a man named Marvin. In the end, Marvin molested my oldest sister and beat my mother. At nine, I found a police photo of her face, all dried blood and freshly blooming bruises, which she kept locked in the safe in her closet behind a pile of Dooney & Burke purses. Though I don’t know if this specific memory is real, I know it must be, because this is a scene I will see played on repeat through elementary school and junior high, when I would sit in the kitchen doing homework as my mother bore dirty dishes clean at the sink, humming Patsy Cline: I go out walkin’, after midnight, out in the moonlight, just like we used to do. I’m always walkin’ after midnight, searchin’ for you. / In Washington, DC, I also do not have a car. This past May, it was stolen. Driven by three teenagers from Columbia Heights, our Northwest neighborhood, to Brookland, their Northeast one. Drunk, they jumped my Jeep Cherokee onto a sidewalk, hitting first a fourteen-year-old girl and then crashing into a nearby tree. The girl was walking to 7-Eleven for a slushie. She died immediately, the police tell me at the station, where I am accidentally left in a room with her grieving mother, who invites me to the funeral we both know I will not attend. The insurance company gives me a rental car until a settlement is reached. I drive it forty miles into Maryland to collect whatever is left — mixed CDs from ex-boyfriends, a gift card to Barnes & Noble — in the glove compartment. It all seems so trivial, or distant, what I am doing, snapping pictures of the Jeep as my father has instructed, finding a spot of smeared blood on the front bumper. I do not replace the car. I deposit the insurance check and take to walking. /
During chemo, my mother uses a wheelchair and calls to say, This is going to kill me. I text her statistics on walking to brighten her day: In the United States, walking is 36 times more deadly than driving, 300 times more deadly than flying. Similarly, my father takes to calling my mother Lieutenant Dan, after his favorite character from his favorite movie, Forrest Gump. / Every day here, I walk four miles to the gym as Howard’s cherry red Mini Cooper sits idly in driveway. Quickly I begin to think of this walk as something born out of more than logistic necessity. Though raised a Pentecostal, I am an atheist now with a recent, already passing, interest in Buddhism, less for its religiosity than its philosophical mores, which are so antithetical to my natural (impatient, controlling) tendencies. The Buddha is thought to have said, No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path. I am trying, mostly in vain, to not roll my eyes at shit like this. The walk begins with a steep hill that peaks and then descends from the scattering of houses that line Woodland Circle, pouring out onto Pendleton Road, which climbs west into Clemson via a slow, steady incline. Perhaps I feel accomplished taking this walk, like Thoreau in his 1862 essay “Walking,” where he claims, Every walk is a sort of crusade, preached by some Peter the Hermit in us, to go forth and reconquer this Holy Land from the hands of the Infidels. As I walk I listen to NPR reports on the Israeli carpet-bombing of Palestine, and grow frustrated there is little I can do about this. I sweep the headphones from my ears and stuff them into my pockets. Soon a black Mercedes stops and honks. Want a ride into town? the driver asks through the open sunroof, Sorry. The window’s broken. Because he rarely had a legal drivers license and often pawned cars for drug money, my brother took to hitchhiking through the small towns dotting the Ozarks, places with names like Miller and Crane and Shell Knob. If you ever wanna try it, Marty told me when I was about ten, just take stock of who’s offerin’ a ride. I notice this Mercedes is missing a bumper and a rearview mirror. I notice that its tire is a spare and that its driver is black. When I say, No thanks, I’m enjoying the walk, I hate that he may think I don’t want to take a ride from a black man in a beat-up Benz. I hate that I noticed he was black, registered this, and that the ghost of my brother, a racist amongst other 85
things, will never stop haunting. Whatever, the driver shouts, pulling back onto the road. This is not the only ride I will turn down on my walks into town, and I can only guess this is because my body is a body marked as harmless. With my beard shaved and my skinny shorts and my retro-hip backpack, not to mention my whiteness, I probably seem like a college boy trekking to campus. Don’t you have a car? one woman asks with concern, her kids watching Finding Nemo on tiny televisions in the back of a mini-van. When Leonard Woolf expressed concern to his wife regarding her long walks, Virginia replied, To walk alone in London is the greatest rest. I walk across a bridge over a muddy creek and think about bodies being where and doing what they are not supposed to, how this might be some essence of queerness, and how some of my favorite films are roadtrip movies with women at the center: Boys on the Side, Thelma & Louise, Little Miss Sunshine. For many gay men, to be gay is to be cosmopolitan and hold a disdain for nature. Which is maybe why I feel queer both in DC, where I live in a world of such gay men, and in these rolling hills, the place of my youth, the place I can’t help but return to again and again, this South Carolina not so unlike my Missouri. I step into the ditch, pull down the branch of a towering shrub, and smell its fuchsia flowers until bees begin to swarm. These shrubs are everywhere here, and they lined my grandparents’ homestead along the Gasconade River; I should know what they are, but I don’t. Pulling my iPhone from my pocket, I snap a picture and upload it to Instagram, asking, Can anyone identify these? Lori, a lesbian who grew up in Mississippi, responds almost immediately, Crepe myrtle. My southern lady flower lessons finally come in handy. By the time I reach the gym, I am drenched in sweat and ready for a shower. Unlike Thoreau, I’m not sure I’ve conquered anything beyond acquiring the colloquial genus of a pink roadside flower. / Popular music provides an extensive catalog of walking songs, many of which also contend with grieving. Ace of Base’s 1992 “Don’t Turn Around” and The Rolling Stones’ 1978 “Don’t Look Back.” Patsy Cline’s 1957 “Walking After Midnight.” Aerosmith’s 1975 “Walk This Way,” which was never that interesting un86
til Run-DMC covered it for their 1986 album Raising Hell. The Four Seasons’ 1963 “Walk Like a Man.” Johnny Cash’s 1956 “Walk The Line.” Marc Cohn’s 1991 “Walking in Memphis,” which Cher covered (horribly) in 1995. Yet, there is one tune in the American songbook that captures this country’s walking spirit, its desire for hope in the face of loss, better than any other. Ironically, it is Scottish twins Charlie and Craig Reid’s hit “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles).” Though released in the United Kingdom in August of 1988, the song did not see an American release until the summer of ‘93, when it appeared in Benny & Joon. Among cinephiles, the film is remembered for little more than making The Pretenders’ song a runaway hit, now as ubiquitous to American karaoke bars as Budweiser and drunken fraternity boys, ready to be the man who walks not only 500, but 1,000 miles just to fall down at your door. / After Patsy Cline died in a plane crash ninety miles outside Nashville on March 5, 1963, her grief-stricken friend June Carter was unable to attend the funeral. The two women loved each other so deeply the love became perhaps like the complicated relationship one might have with a sibling. Both wrote of this tumultuous love, and various other sources, from Johnny Cash to Loretta Lynn, have corroborated the sentiment. The year before the plane crash, Carter told Cline she was toeing a dangerous line, taking up with married men in the small world of country music. Cline called Carter a hypocrite, asking, “What exactly do you think it is you’re doing with Johnny?” I do not bring this up here to hypothesize why Carter didn’t attend Cline’s funeral. From all the reading I’ve done, it seems they had reconciled and slipped into old, happy ways by that point. But I do bring it up to say: sometimes those closest to us are capable of cutting deep with complicated motive, simultaneously pure and dark, loving and loathing. While their friends attended the funeral, June tasked herself with taking care of Patsy’s young children.
This, I can certainly understand — a desire to do in the time of grief.
In the years before Marty committed suicide, he kept a room at our house, where he’d stay as he tried to kick the methadone habit born out of his meth87
amphetamine dealing habit. In the months before he died, Marty seemed on the mend. He was laughing again, a boisterous laugh I also have, and working construction with our brother Randy and my father Duane. The last time I saw Marty we fought. I called him white trash; he called me faggot. A week later, Marty was dead, and we would learn just how adept he’d become at hiding his slip back into the hell of hard drugs. I refused to go to my brother’s funeral. In the weeks that followed, my mother in bed, my father absent in memory, I took to walking to the grocery store, asking for cardboard boxes, packing Marty’s things (clothes, splattered with the paint of a carpenter, and albums, mostly AC/DC), and stacking these boxes in a corner of our tool shed. / Will and Howard’s home is nothing astonishing, a split level ranch on a forest road outside of Pendleton, South Carolina, about four miles from Clemson University, where Will teaches Renaissance literature and Howard has a law practice. The house itself: four bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a basement rec room, where a 125-gallon fish tank anchors one wall. While Howard and Will are in Alaska, I feed these fish daily and think how this might be one manifestation of love. I love the screened-in porch on the back of their home. And this is strange, because it, too, is nothing astonishing: a set of comfortable rattan patio furniture that always makes me think of the living room from Golden Girls and a four-and-ahalf foot statue of a rooster made from salvaged metal signs. The plume of its tail is a Coca-Cola sign, and though the piece is perhaps kitschy, I love it. The days I am spending alone here, two of the three dogs — Hobbes, the alpha of the group, and Milton, the basset who rarely leaves my side — hold court on the porch, where I sit reading and writing, sometimes napping, sometimes listening to old recordings of Johnny Cash and June Carter, research for another writing project. Beyond the porch’s screens, the yard is parched this year, which embarrasses Will; normally, he takes great pride in having nice grass and landscaped flowers in this climate rejects non-native forest growth. In the past months, however, as spring became summer, Will spent his days and nights with Caden, the son so non-native to any environment his pruning required constant diligence. A border of pin oaks line the yard, punctuated by a single, tall, scrubby pine. I’ve always been drawn to this anomalous tree and when packing to come see Will and Howard, I hum “Wagon Wheel” by Old Crow Medicine Show, Headed down south to the land of the pines, thumbin’ my way outta North Caroline. 88
Why do I love their porch so? It is like my childhood home, a brown ranch on Slim Wilson Boulevard in Nixa, Missouri, where a sun porch faced a line of pin oaks punctuated by a single willow. Topographically, upstate South Carolina is not unlike the Missouri Ozarks, lands of unmanageable soils. But for all the reasons Will and Howard’s porch may reminisce of my parents’, it is also very different. The similar comfort is one of familiarity; the difference being that here, I feel the comfort of the absence of my family. And yet this explanation seems ultimately failed, along the lines of student essays – this text is both the same and different as – Will and I have come to mock. Today I have been reading my friend Sheryl St. Germain’s, newest book, Navigating Disaster: Sixteen Essays of Love and a Poem of Despair. Sheryl writes often of New Orleans, her homeland, but “this collection of essays,” she explains, “begins in a place, like New Orleans, of extremity and strong personality: southeast Alaska, where I traveled alone a few years ago...because it seemed in some ways as far away as I could get from Louisiana, and at a time I needed to put distance between myself and my family.” Sheryl goes on to poignantly, as is her generous spirit, build bridges between herself and the natural world, between her native Louisiana and Alaska, where she is not native, but finds solace, perhaps renewal. In a way, she writes much more eloquently than my students, or I, in a this place is both the same and different as manner. Will and Howard have travelled to Alaska, I suspect, for many of the same reasons: to be together in a place that is not this home of a fractured family. I have traveled to Will and Howard’s home to care for the dogs and fish of my friends, certainly, but also to mourn a complicated year for my own blood family. Tonight, in the yellowing light of early evening, I read more of Sheryl’s book on the porch. Sheryl is a top-notch nature writer, something I envy and fear I will never be. As I read, a bird coos from the pine tree, a bird whose call I recognize from the few hunting trips I took with my brothers. It is the mourning dove — I open my laptop and confirm this on YouTube — abundant in both the Carolinas and the Ozarks. It is the bird my brothers hunted, but I refused to shoot as a child. My brothers took to calling me Warden, after the song “Folsom Prison Blues,” where Johnny Cash sings, When I was just a baby, my mama told me son, always be a good boy, don’t ever play with guns. When Marty chose to kill himself, he did it with a .22 gauge shotgun propped on one foot so the other foot could toe the trigger, the barrels resting in his open mouth not unlike the kiss of a beloved. 89
/ Descartes walks into a bar. The bartender asks, Can I get you a drink? Descartes replies, I think not, and disappears. / In Middle English, walk shifts to its present use, to move about, to journey. In his series of sonnets, “The Visions of Petrarch,” (1529) Edmund Spenser tells of his muse, gendered female: On herbs and floures she walked pensively. In her 1788 novel Emmeline, Charlotte Turner Smith muses on her heroine, Miss Mowbray was walked out, as was her custom, very early, no one knew whither. In 1974, Adrienne Rich amuses a (womanly) lover, Walking the City of Love, so cold we warmed our nerves with wine at every all-night café. Dad, I used to beg, can we take a walk? I never knew why he answered, Walking is for girls. My father and I? We hiked mountains, we paddled rivers, we ran bases. At night, we might exercise the dogs. The Four Seasons were wrong, my father might say, one cannot walk like a man. / When I moved to Washington a few years back, people warned of muggings and gangs. Be careful, one friend, a professor in gender studies, told me, or you’ll get shot. All this was well-meaning and apt advice, but our national culture that labels some cities as undesirable, havens of violence, is also a culture rapt with racism. To think of some of America’s most seedy cities, is to think of some of its blackest: Washington, St. Louis, Memphis, Detroit. In Washington, my car has been stolen, my porch pissed on, and my garbage can set ablaze in the early dawn hours. But I have never felt frightened, really, knowing that in a city you walk down well-lit and busy streets. Today I decide to walk not west into Clemson, its beautiful university grounds and charming, albeit small, splattering of shops downtown. Instead I walk to the east, to the small village of Pendleton proper with its square of historic buildings now housing antique shops, a liquor store, and two beauty salons, one black and one white, which is how the town is largely divided, black folks live to the north of Main Street and white folks to the south. One antique shop’s owner brags to me he has the largest collection of southern pottery. As I peruse his wares, I find he also has an extensive catalog of racist statuary: iron-clad mammies and yard ornaments of wide-grinning 90
boys eating watermelon. A bank in black face that eats coins, straight out of Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Leaving the square, I walk back west toward Will and Howard’s. Google Maps leads me to a winding road that cuts through a couple of gulleys before ending at the turn north onto Woodland Circle. This road is mostly unpopulated, its ditches overgrown with kudzu, that invasive species that creeps along many roads in upstate South Carolina, but now, too, my native Ozarks. It chokes out all other life: wildflowers and grasses first, then bushes, and eventually trees as mighty as sentinel oak or maple. I happen upon a bend in the road, where a group of white men sit on lawn chairs smoking cigarettes and drinking Miller Lite. From the other direction, a motorcycle in need of a new muffler approaches and one of the men stumbles up to greet it at the end of a gravel driveway. He waves at me, Howdy, and pulls a small baggie from his pocket, which the woman on the back of the motorcycle takes, handing him a wad of crumpled bills, before riding off past me. No, I am not scared on most city streets, but at three in the afternoon my heart rate quickens and I begin to sweat on this back road of upstate South Carolina. I am suddenly aware of how stupid I am, in my very gay and hip cutoff shorts and vintage t-shirt, iPhone and Jack Spade wallet dangling from pockets, backpack holding a MacBook. There is a variety of hydrangea I’ve never seen growing beside the trailer. I open my mouth to ask the man about them. But I stop myself, thinking better of being the gay boy asking about flora and fauna. I have seen my brother, a meth dealer and user himself, pummel his wife Gracia in the face, knocking her to the ground where he kicked her again and again — You dirty whore ‘spic! — until someone could pull them apart, all because she asked a question and he was rolling. No, I am not scared on most city streets, but I am scared of my own brother, of his ghost I see in every man sitting outside that trailer, their baggies of meth, their days passing the same as yesterday and tomorrow. / Shakespeare walks into a bar and asks the barman for a beer. I can’t serve you, says the barman, You’re bard! /
Like its songbook, our culture contains many walking films as well, though 91
they are talked about less often as such than say, road trip movies are definitively road trip movies. Like walking songs, many of these films revel in grief, often masked in the form of a quest (what is grief, if not part of a quest). Released in Technicolor on the first day of 1939, the most famous walking movie must be The Wizard of Oz, where four unlikely friends seek out the thing they have lost (Scarecrow, a brain; Tin Man, a heart; Cowardly Lion, courage; and Dorothy, queer icon that she is, longing for home). Because their budget precluded horses, 1975’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail brings us a group of knights trotting along English roads as if on horseback, followed by a man banging together coconut shells. This century brings us The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which feels, in my humble opinion, like a 47-hour walk through some boring woods that are supposed to seem harrowing. The most atrocious walking movie, however, has to be 2002’s A Walk to Remember, though perhaps it captures the walking-grieving compendium better than any other. On the film’s IMBD website, Scott of Milwaukee gives this synopsis of the film— In a coastal North Carolinian small town in the mid 1990’s, a boy [Landon] from the popular but troubled undirected group of students gets busted, and for punishment, you guessed it, has to do community service activities which include the high school’s spring play. This throws him in with the minister’s daughter [Jamie], you guessed it, the mousy seemingly awkward yet beautiful girl with an angelic heart, and she sings too. They grow hesitantly closer than their previous adversarial relationship as old bonds are tested and new awarenesses are inspired. A couple twists occur as the story concludes. I hate to ruin it, but the twists center around two revelations. First, Jamie (played by none other than pop star Mandy Moore) brings Landon (an admittedly handsome, if not tiresome, Shane West) back to the most banal, secularized form of Jesus loving (under a soundtrack chockfull of Christian rock bands like Jars of Clay and Switchfoot). Second, we come to find out Jamie, whose darkening eye shadow denotes her growing frailty throughout the film, is dying of leukemia. By the time this is revealed, however, Landon is in love with Jamie, and she him, so they decide (as any sensible high school senior would do), to get married. A phantasmagorical ceremony follows, performed by Jamie’s minister-father during while Jamie wears her dead mother’s wedding dress. 92
Jamie’s walk down the aisle becomes one of the many walks prominent in the movie, all of which, we are lead to believe, are ones to remember. In the most memorable, the film’s penultimate scene, we find Landon, four years older and now on his way to medical school, walking through a beachside nature preserve where he and Jamie went on their first date. Landon walks then to Jamie’s father’s door, whining that Jamie didn’t get to finish her bucket list, topped by the dream, witness a miracle. “I’m sorry she never got her miracle,” Landon says, prompting the father to conclude, “She did. It was you.” At this point I fully expected Jamie to leap out of the closet a la Christ-like resurrection. But no, Landon just walks away. / Unlike walk, the Middle English verb grieve is simply from the French grever, to put a strain upon, which is itself simply a derivative of the Latin gravāre, meaning heavy. In Wycliffite’s Bible (1382), Jesus comes upon his disciples asleep in the garden (Matthew 26:43) with heavy, grieved, eyes: And eftsone he came, and foonde hem slepynge; forsothe her eȝen weren greued. Three centuries later, a common usage was grieve as in assault. In his 1651 Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes contends, Nature hath armed living creatures, some with teeth, some with horns, and some with hands, to grieve an enemy. Likewise, the English poet William Cowper queerly predicts Sarah Palin’s sense of humor in 1782: A Christian’s wit is inoffensive light, A beam that aids but never grieves the sight. But this use of grieve is outward, not the use most common today. Grieue not the holy Spirit of God, beseeches King James’ 1611 translation of Ephesians. In 1667, Milton tells how God Griev’d at his heart, when looking down he saw / The whole Earth fill’d with violence. In his 1860 commentary The Minor Prophets, Oxford’s Dr. Edward Bouverie Pusey claims, The Holy Spirit they have grieved away. Somewhere, we stopped grieving God. In his 1951 villanelle, Dylan Thomas posits, Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight, / And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way, / Do not go gentle into that good night. Matthew Dickman’s 2008 poem “Slow Dance” replies, There is no one to save us / because there is no need to be saved. I am not sure if this is comfort, but I know Hobbes needs a long walk tonight after two days of rain. That I need the unresolve of a poem. Of walking, of grieving. Of this dog pawing my leg, warning he will piss all over the linoleum again if we do not get moving.
Kaitlyn Duling Thurman, IA There wasnâ€™t much to see standing at the corner of West and Filmore after the wind had blown in and blown out of Thurman. What birds were left carried tufts of insulation in their beaks, sharp strands against damp feathers and I didnâ€™t try to hold one of them in my hands, to pull the fiberglass from its mouth. What would I do then, after? A bed of the stuff lay under a shattered window and more piled into the branches of a stripped tree, pinking. I wonder if it wanted to warm the place, to weave its hair into the hands of Thurman, broken open as it was and cold. Every splintered piece of wood could not remember being dry or smooth or whole. To run a piece of sandpaper over
the roughened streets would take a lifetime and to pick every sheet of paper off the tumbled classroom floors, I know, impossible. And yet. And yet a mass of flowerpots, unbroken rolled down the middle of the street and terra cotta shined against the heavy air. Yet a chair can stand unbroken in a space without insulation or windows or even walls. Yet pieces of my neighborâ€™s flattened house are just now being fitted into a birdâ€™s nest, swift and sturdy and there are creatures in trees rebuilding themselves and somewhere everything flattened is rounded into warmth again, somewhere a starling tucks glass into her nest and it stays.
Sam Sax Poem about Gravity of course it pulls on you. of course, it pulls on every other thing with the same force. of course you know this. but no amount of knowing prepares for the experience. it wasn’t your fault you fell, shrill shirt ballooning, how could you not be drawn to such a massive body. but you glance over to see another boy falling beside you, his smile basic as a shot-gunned stump. he’s so much less than you, this boy, but he’s keeping perfect time, accelerating as you accelerate, the bridge left far behind. you realize he could just as easily be an apple rotting from the inside, could be a pig gutted and singing your given name, could be a boy with all his mouths shining and wet. it’s such a fundamental law really. of course, all the suitcases you packed, of course all the poems you pounded out into dirt, of course when you both hit the ground it won’t matter who wrecks first.
J.M. Gamble Atmosphere I. Tight-roofed aluminum, rain bullets dropping: every cloud a possibility of war. Tarpaulin-windowed, everything in the South is far apart of something clinking in the window: even the birds, heated, exhaust themselves, dust and more dust and mosquitos, armies of rain. Waking here is a condition of forgetting how properly to be dead-like and still breathing. II. Everything is over- abundant. The cages thrown out by light onto the ground a sort of whirligig laying itself onto the ground, the ground cutting itself back up, little pictures: before and after of frost, before or after frostâ€™s quiet lack. O everything is overfull after all the over, after all the ground ground ground (reiterates itself to undermine its own integrity) and everyone laughs nervously. III. My body my small dancing boardinghouse it crickets along impervious and permeable so dreadfully available to wind and you. Every day I sing a little Edith Piaf and the sparrows sparrow back to me: when you take me in your arms sweet man of mine I know I know the atmosphere here is waiting patiently to be entered gently like my body is waiting gently for your earthly touch. 97
Tresha Haefner On a Wire in Los Angeles All silhouettes. Tiny shadows from down here, but I see what they are. No mistaking the outline. Their scythe heads curve downward. Their half-moon beaks arced in the direction of mangoes. Black husks of seeds. Loose leaves hanging. They say the parrots broke free one night in a fire. When their rich, exotic owners let their animals go free, the red and green and blue bodies sailed up with the smoke. And then, they found each other. On telephone poles and wires. Sounds of traffic rushing up under their glossy wings. All over Los Angeles, the parrots are mating, eating figs once planted by missionaries, dropping seeds in places with Spanish names. Below, weâ€™re eating pasta, buying rings. They mark territory with feathers and eggs, left in tiny nests above neon lights.
The heart must be a great Amazon of furtive desiresâ€” the city full of feathers, winged knives, beating hearts in vagrant palm trees. Desires multiply like birds. How alive they are, their caws ravenous with delight, the world made beautiful by its hunger. And tiny gnats, they must want something too, as they wing their way over us, past the black beaks of the parrots, through the darkening breakfast plate of the sky.
Abby Minor An Inch of Air Belongs to Itself It was hunger or meddling boredom how I found each snapdragon flower’s set of pliable jaws and dusty yellow spikes, soft, rooted deep in the delicate hinge. It was summer (when? Just summer, evening, the open windows some version of purple); I wanted to do what anyone would do: pressing them open again and again, watching the mouth appear, the throat, the lenticular interior which was always there like a made thing—right sides pinned together, only no one would ever turn them out— I wanted to tear off the lower jaw, release that slip of snapped light (or air? or some thing? are air and light and matter the same? I missed that part in school, missed the part where they told us what everything’s made of, what exactly is the nothing inside a flower’s mouth, nothing burnished by petals the way silver is rubbed with cloths), make it do something, open again and again. Simone Weil says we don’t know the difference between looking and eating. I say we are always trying to determine
where the light comes from, even though of course we know there is only one massive, chemical source. Even though of course I knew those petals, those patches of navy-washed orange and scarlet spills were simply dying bodies eating sun. Still, I wanted to touch the hum of self-contained color, how such fragility muscles into the world creased and mellow, lit, indiscriminate. But I didn’t. And isn’t there any reward for leaving things alone? How to call those bodies sacred would have been untrue: to be sacred is to be set aside and used, but those fiery teaspoonfuls of air were simply there. Look: now I can’t think of a thing that isn’t a dragon. In a field of blossom and shadow, no one can say, “this is blossom, this shadow.” No one can separate the sun from a room on a two-block street turning purple, then dark, then embryonic, then just before. And if the small glow goes on, there, inside, if while we sleep those flowers do begin to flame without consecration—unless to be consecrated is to be willing to die a mystery—who would really be surprised?
Timothy L. Marsh Banjar Anthology The Dutchman Bruno van Persie stays away from his kind. He thinks it’s just awful what they’re doing to Bali. All the development and pollution, the exploitation of the natives. He photographs traditional Balinese habitat before the onslaught of civilization stamps it from existence. He wanders the banjar with his Nikon and tripod, and when he spots something traditional he spikes the ’pod and snaps its picture with seven different lenses. Rudi Haryaputra just fell out of a coconut palm. He was up there because he doesn’t have a job and can make a little money selling coconuts to restaurants. He fell 25 feet into a pile of water buffalo shit and shattered his ass bone and something in his foot. Rudi is still learning English. He isn’t sure what Bruno means by traditional. Using the photo album on his laptop Bruno shows him commercial photographs of flamboyant resorts and luxury villas. Then he shows Rudi photographs of the banjar. The humble tenements, the roads of naked earth, the rustic washwomen with bundles of clothes balanced on their heads, a black and white portrait of an itinerant harvester squatting in a flooded paddy, slashing rice stalks with a hand sickle. The coconut palms. “Traditional,” Bruno explains. “Truh. Dih. Shun. Nul. Understand?” Rudi knows that rice field. The parcel is badly irrigated and yields just one growing season. Rudi knows that harvester. He sleeps in a shack that’s missing a wall and sometimes coughs up blood. Rudi knows the cheap tenements that crumble during earthquakes and crush families, the unpaved roads that wash away during rainy seasons, and the disfigured Shudra washwomen with dark beans for teeth and scales for skin. Most of all he knows those coconut trees. Traditional? Rudi Haryaputra understands all about the traditional. And if the silly bules like it, praise Allah, they can have it.
Elephant Monster Komang is a wood carver. He carves the deities of his religion. He starts with a block of teak, turns it into an image of Shakti or Shiva or Vishnu the Preserver, then tries to sell the image to people who’ve never heard of Shakti or Shiva or Vishnu the Preserver. He has a nice gallery in a prime location, Jalan Legian, but the tourists rarely come in, and when they do it’s usually for shits and giggles. The tourists wander through the shop and ask Komang about his gods as though they’re mutant superheroes. They want to know their special powers—that dude with the four arms, that yoga weirdo with the eye in his forehead, and that elephant monster. “Ganesh,” Komang says. “Yeah, Ganeeze. What can he do?” There was a time when Komang took these questions seriously. He would talk about the all-pervading essence of Vishnu, the supreme consciousness of Shiva, the magnanimity of Ganesh, remover of obstacles, creator of success. The tourists would stare at him like stupid cows and walk out without a purchase, bored by the stock benevolence of his gods. They didn’t care about infinite compassion or inscrutable wisdom. They could find that with their own God back home. These days Komang is more of a salesman. Whenever the tourists ask about the four-arm dude he makes sure to mention that the dude rides a giant eagle, kills demon kings with a spiked club, and can save mankind in whatever form he chooses—like a magic dwarf. And when they ask about the three-eyed meditating weirdo Komang replies that sometimes the weirdo mediates and other times he opens his third eye and incinerates the universe. And when the half-dressed drunken westerners stumble in and pick up a carving of the elephant monster, Komang points out its super-powered ears that can hear all conversations, its enchanted noose that captures all dangers, and its magic belly where adversity and ignorance is digested. Komang’s wife worries about his next life. There is salesmanship and there is blasphemy. Komang says there is blasphemy and there is editing. He isn’t making anything up; he’s just giving the tourists what they want. So maybe there’s no mention in sacred texts of Ganesh shooting fireballs 103
from his trunk, or Vishnu winging his lotus flower like a ninja star, or Shiva’s third eye emitting a tractor beam. But there’s nothing that says they can’t do these things. They’re gods. They can do what they want. And besides, the bules like those little touches. They actually listen to his stories now. Sometimes they cheer at the end. Sometimes they’re so tickled and impressed they even buy a carving or two. In the last month he’s made enough money to finally fix up the house a little. And with that, at least for now, his wife lets the matter rest. She still fears for his rebirth, of course, but they could use some new curtains.
Paper Trail Wayan loves being Balinese because once he visited the West. He stayed three weeks in London and was uncomfortable the whole time at the presence of paper. Everywhere he went, whatever he wanted to do, there was a piece of paper involved—some document or form that had to be stamped, signed, read or written on before anything could get done. By the time he left England there was paper all over Wayan. Receipts, confirmations, statements, stubs. The papers had a strange unpleasant power. They didn’t weigh a thing yet somehow made him feel heavy and strained. When he got back to Bali the first thing he did was make a little fire and toss all the papers in; and when the last document had burned to ash the power lifted and he suddenly felt light again, happy as ever, and officially home from the west. His brother Nando wasn’t so lucky. Two years ago he immigrated to Amsterdam and opened an Indonesian take-out. The restaurant barely breaks even and he has trouble making the lease. He lives in a moldy storeroom above the kitchen and is harassed constantly by this terrible nuisance called mail. The mail wouldn’t be so bad if it brought anything besides paper, but that is all it ever brings, envelope after envelope, bill after bill, an unceasing plague of forms and documents that need to be read, signed, and sent back to wherever they originated. Now there is almost nothing left of Nando’s once bright and lively outlook. It has been pressed from his soul by the great white weightlessness. Every meaningless document spawned from every pithy transaction since he arrived in the west surrounds him. He doesn’t need the documents and nobody cares about them, but he keeps them anyway, files them into boxes, stuffs them into drawers, afraid to throw them out, tyrannized and helpless. 104
It troubles Wayan to see so much paper in Nando’s life. Whenever they speak on the phone he urges his brother to build a little fire and burn the papers up, but little fires are not allowed where Nando is living. You need a permit for that.
Revenge of the Cow Banjar Dalung has a cow problem. The cow is tethered to a mango tree by a 30-foot rope that grants the skinny heifer ample room to graze and shit, and for whatever reason it is fond of shitting in the middle of the road. Its cow pies are frequent and large. Twice the size of Bundt cakes, dense and creamy with a downwind reek radius of a hundred yards, they are dropped almost tactically, like landmines, all around the narrow road. These slick heaping turds are responsible for two or three wipe outs a week. The villagers come zooming down the road on their motor bikes. They drive through a cow pie and lose control. The scooter careens into the bushes or skids out from under the driver. The people ask farmer Nanang to leash his cow elsewhere. The accidents are mounting. The dung stench blows into their homes and the flies are dreadful. Some think the fumes cause respiratory problems. But Nanang has no land anywhere else, and the only thing on this land sturdy enough to bind his cow is that mango tree. A complaint has been made to banjar officials, and in response the banjar has created a traffic sign out of cardboard and posted it to the phone pole. It is a crude illustration of a cow taking a crap. There is a pyramidal dung pile behind it and three plops of dung dropping out of its rear. The sign was made to appease locals, not to warn visitors, and since every local is familiar with Nanang’s cow there is no clarifying information. If you didn’t live in the area you’d have no idea what the sign meant. You might even think it was funny. Thus there is a kind of induction for anyone motoring through the banjar for the first time. Newcomers glimpse that sign at 30 kilometers an hour and don’t quite know what to make of it. Fifty yards later, scraped and bruised, picking themselves and their bikes off the road, they have a much better idea. Farmer Nanang doesn’t want any trouble. He promises to feed his cow plain yogurt and boiled rice, a known remedy for upset stomachs.
Third Time’s a Charm Panji and Putu are twenty-three years old. They’ve been married for two years now. For every year of marriage there has been a miscarriage, and for every miscarriage there has been a blame game. Panji’s parents say that Putu watches too much television during pregnancy. The television is full of terrible news. Too much bad news and the child becomes frightened of the world and refuses to be born. Putu’s parents accuse Panji of negligence. During Putu’s first delivery he did not open the house windows to ease the passage of birth. During her second pregnancy he did not properly fulfil ngidam. In ngidam the unborn baby, speaking through the mother, makes a request of the father, who in turn must satisfy the request to show his worth as a provider. Ketut Ardika explains that during Putu’s last ngidam the baby asked Panji to provide a cow. The request was impossible. There wasn’t enough money. Looking to be clever, Panji went to the toy shop and bought a stuffed cow instead. When the baby came out of Putu and saw the toy cow it was not amused, and died. But all that is water under the bridge, for Putu is pregnant once again. The raspy old midwives and village matriarchs harass the young couple with patronizing instructions and nagging reminders. They nag him about his hair, which must not be cut while Putu is pregnant. They nag Panji about being good, since bad deeds cause birth defects. Most of all they remind Panji that soon he will be providing for two mouths, not one. There will need to be more money. In the evening some of the older family men stop by to offer their blessing. They shake Panji’s hand and ask about the future. They are curious about where he will work, what kind of money he will make. As a friendly FYI they warn him about the rising cost of food and the famine of good jobs. Panji listens politely while the men go on and on about the difficulty of times, the strife of fatherhood, and when they are gone his posture deflates with an immense exhalation—a sigh so deep and puncturing that it visibly shrinks him—and he sits on the steps and launches his mind into space, his heavy blank gaze fixed upon the growing sundown, the shriek of pink and crimson stretching over the banjar and all its weary tenements. A tired, shrieking sky tonight.
Beny and Sidarta Beny and Sidarta are old. No one knows how old for sure, not even Beny and Sidarta. Their wives have been dead for many years. Some of their children have also passed away. They pre-date every resident of the banjar and most of the surroundings. Only the temple and its banyan tree are older for sure. Deaf, bald, shaky, stooped, each has been ransacked by their unstoppable lifespans. Every physical gift with which they entered the world is gone. All agility, all elasticity, all sturdiness and strength of breath—all of it is gone. Their weak bones creak and pop. Their muscles sag. Their voices, like their teeth, have almost entirely disappeared. They have been alive for so long that some believe they have lost the way to death, and must wait for death to find them. Mobility is uncomfortable, so they don’t do much. Mostly they play chess. They have a plastic table outside Ketut’s warung and a small hand carved board with Hindu deities for pieces. Morning to night they sit and play, each match taking hours, each move interminably pondered, their baked burlap flesh so withered and heaped with wrinkles that mosquitoes can’t drink from them. Between moves they fall asleep in their chairs while the other contemplates the board, and when the one has moved he takes up his walking stick and jabs the other awake. Day after day, week after week, this is what they do. Their lives were over long ago but their existences linger on. They are stuck. There is nothing to be done but sit and play carefully and wait to be found.
Fanny Fanny Yulianora has never seen the world. She tends to date white men who have. All the flowering village girls want to know what it’s like. How do bules kiss, Fanny? How do they smell? What do they talk about? In regards to these matters white guys are no better or worse than Indonesian guys, says Fanny. The only special thing about bules is what’s in their pants. Those big, thick, beautiful passports. She talks about her last boyfriend, a German businessman, whose passport was so thick with extra pages he could barely fit it into his pocket. It drove Fanny nuts. Any time they stepped out all she could do was stare at that bulge and think about yanking it out of his pants and wrapping her hands around it. Some107
times she even asked to see it in public. Her latest boyfriend is a French yogi. His passport isn’t as thick as the German’s but she still likes to touch it. Sometimes while the yogi sleeps Fanny will lie beside him and just clutch and stroke his passport and imagine what it’d be like to have one of her own. The privilege, the pleasure, the chance to thrust herself repeatedly into the world. The girls blush and snicker and urge her to tell more, but at 28-years-old and still unmarried Fanny doesn’t want to paint a false picture. All things considered it’s better to find a good reliable Indo man and make a normal Indo life. White guys with thick passports never hang around long, and when they’re gone there’s no way of knowing who’s handling their documents.
Omens Merpati Sutapa mourns for her son’s penis. She mourns for it like a family catastrophe. Pradana, her only male child, has just turned seven. His name means wealth and reward, but there will be no such fortune for Merpati and her bloodline, for Pradana’s penis is very, very small. Many afternoons Merpati sits on her doorstep, knees pulled to her chest. Silent. Listless. Morose. The neighboring mothers bring lychees and durian. They touch Merpati’s shoulder. They leave the fruit at her feet and walk quietly away, shaking their heads. A small penis signifies a bleak future. It is an omen of weakness and failure, of family ruin. With it will come poverty, lowness, disgrace. From its juice and seed a pitiful tree of wretched descendants will grow. Even the slightest incredulity enrages her. Silly! Don’t believe it, bule! She calls Pradana over and undoes his pants. She pulls them to his ankles, slides his underwear down, lifts the tail of his shirt. Pradana, a dark and serious boy, stands there unembarrassed, holding a racquet and shuttlecock. The penis is more like a toe. There is almost no shaft, no wiggle or hang. The testicles could be shot out of a straw. Merpati watches my reaction, a harsh level stare beneath thin dark brows. Then she pulls up Pradana’s pants, fastens his belt, and tells him to go play. Watching him run back to his friends she bursts into grief. She has taken the boy to the healer, but there is nothing to be healed. She has fed him ancient remedies, prayed hourly for growth, but the remedies don’t work 108
and her prayers are never answered. Fumbling for encouragement I explain that for many men a small penis is a powerful instigator. Napoleon had a small penis. So did Genghis Khan. Vast and mighty empires are born from tiny pricks. For a moment Merpati is heartened. A twinkle of hope on her face. Then it is gone and she begins to weep. Out in the street, oblivious of his shame, Pradana plays badminton with the other boys. He smashes the shuttlecock with smooth explosive strokes, leaps as he swings, lunges and darts. Everyone agrees it’s a terrible shame. The boy is very good, clearly a natural, and might’ve had a future had things turned out different. Product Enhancement Desperate times call for rainbow chickens. This third fetus will not die in Putu’s belly. She has been to the shaman. He has sanctified the womb, blessed it against black spirits that enter through the orifices and pollute the life cycle. The baby rests easily in a bubble of good magic, and so Putu rests easily too. Everybody except Panji. “Spirits may not destroy this child, bule. But hunger is not a spirit.” He buys a mother hen and six hatchlings from Rudi Haryaputra. He holds the chicks by their legs and dyes them each a different color—red, orange, green, purple, pink and blue. The chicks trail the hen like a string of Christmas lights. They look like Easter marshmallows. The local children are his market. All children love cute and fluffy playthings. Now these cute and fluffy things are bright and colorful too. The best part is that the dye is nontoxic. After the color fades or the children get bored with them, the fluorescent hatchlings can be raised, slaughtered, and cooked for dinner. At least Panji thinks the dye is nontoxic. He has never actually eaten a rainbow chicken. Neighbors warn Panji that he is wasting his time. People in Bali have been coloring hatchlings for decades and never make a dime. But Panji has a vision. If the chicks do well then maybe he will dye some puppies and kittens. He could even open an exotic petting zoo. Imagine a place where you could find purple goats and yellow monkeys, rabbits with cherry-red tails, pigeons with the candied plumage of tropical parakeets, mules as pink as watermelon meat. Imagine the money such a place would make. Imagine how well a family could eat. 109
Dogs In no condition to live, not quite unhealthy enough to die. That about sums them up. Berserk, rotten, stupid and desperate they are not unlike the mutated rummagers one might see in a post-nuclear fiction. A good portion of them have had their fur stripped off their bodies by disease. They are balding and inflamed, hobbled and deformed, ridden with once-treatable disorders that have progressed wildly beyond treatment. Frequently some tropical mite more despicable than a flea (if one can imagine such a thing) has eaten into their flesh and caused pustules or swellings the size of walnuts. Their teeth are rotting out of their mouths; their toenails are falling off their paws; their faces are ripped and scarred from street fights with other free-roaming packs; many are blind or going blind; most are bereft of intelligence from constant fornication within their own litters; and almost all of them are so itchy with mange that they’ve scratched themselves bloody and raw. Around Banjar Dalung we have no shortage of notable waste cases. Out here one will find maimed dogs, starving dogs, beaten dogs, insane dogs, dogs that stand by the road like madmen street prophets, barking unceasingly at nothing, and another that eats laundry off Citra’s clotheslines, but only girls’ underwear. There is one that has done nothing for several days but lick the worms in its anus under the shade of a pomelo tree. There is another that cannot push its stool and mopes around the neighborhood futilely popping a squat in one place after another, the expression in its eyes always as if it is about to weep. At the moment our grand attraction is a pair of sweethearts that have inextricably tangled their loins while copulating. The male has gotten its penis jammed inside the female and in its desperation to dismount has somehow twisted completely in the opposite direction, leaving the two hopelessly fastened rump to rump, pitifully whining from both ends. Despite the sickening pandemic there has never been a thought toward euthanasia. “Nobody in the banjar has ever been dead,” explains Ketut Ardika. “So how can we say it is better than life?”
Pa Putra is the local rich man. He likes to keep it old school. 110
He doesn’t believe in guard dogs because a dog’s loyalty is welded to its stomach. He doesn’t believe in guard men because a man’s loyalty is welded to his wallet. Both are easily bought off. One with a soup bone or hunk of pig, the other with new curtains or a rice cooker. Alarms? Alarms are complicated and ungratifying. Where is the sense of restitution? Where is the tax of flesh and blood that a thief deserves for dishonoring a man’s home? Channeling his peasant roots he has placed a ten-foot cinderblock wall around his property. Jagged broken glass, broad and lacerating like shark teeth, has been cemented to the top. Beyond the wall, roaming freely throughout the yard, are huge violent geese with demonic red eyes and sinister hisses. Underfed to ensure optimal malevolence, the nasty pimple-brained foul despise everything and attack everyone but Pa Putra. On three occasions they have even nipped his wife and drawn blood. His wife, Ibu Ani, detests the primitive wall and loathes the vicious geese. After three bloody assaults she has finally had enough. She pleads with Pa Putra to install a security system befitting the family wealth. Times have changed. Home security is more than just protection; it is a symbol of status. Elaborate ironwork gates. Professionally trained guards. Infrared sensors. These are the precautions of the rich and powerful. But Pa Putra is from another time and island. And in this time, on this island, thieves had their nipples crushed with pincers, their crotches scalded with torches, and were forced to grasp the edge of searing knife blades; and all this was after they were beaten within an inch of their lives and before they were shunned and banished from the village. No, desecration deserves an injury. Home security should disfigure, not just deter. Ibu Ani concedes. All that is fair enough, she says. But the next time his home security disfigures her she’ll cut off their necks, split their bellies, and feed their gizzards to the strays. He is not the only one from another island and time. She can take it old school too.
Under the Ambarella Some days Panji finds work as a laborer. Other days he pushes a cart through the banjar and sells banana fritters that his mother makes. He is gone from dawn to dusk and when he comes home he is bleak and exhausted and barely eats or says a word, not even to Putu. 111
The rainbow chickens do not sell. Two were killed by disease, another was eaten by dogs, along with the hen. The twilight sky grows red while Panji sits with his back against their scrawny ambarella tree, watching the remaining three peck around the yard. The children think they’re adorable but don’t have the money to buy them. Meanwhile the hatchlings get bigger. Their cuteness fades. He thinks about starving them to stunt their growth, but the birds will age regardless, and starving them will only make them sick and unappealing. Now the sun is gone and the sky is torched. The clouds are flaming tufts, massive and full. Panji wipes his hands down his face, dragging the bottom eyelids, exposing the red undersides. He brings his fingertips together at the tip of his chin, as though in prayer, then reverses the motion. The calloused palms move upward against the cheekbones, grind into the eye sockets with deep methodical circles, then continue across the forehead, the fingers scraping across his skull, through his heavy black hair that hasn’t been cut in months and makes his head hot. Over and over he does this, wiping his face, grinding his eyes, the rough bark of the ambarella jammed against his back bones. Somewhere down the road there is western pop music, vain and happy. Somewhere else the sound of iron being beaten. The twilight sky grows red.
The Norwegian Didrik didn’t trust hospitals. People went in but they didn’t come out. Ketut Ardika suggested that perhaps they didn’t come out because they waited too long before going in, but that was Ketut’s opinion. Didrik’s opinion was that it was more hazardous to visit a hospital than to stay home and wait a sickness out. So when he caught Dengue fever, that’s what he did. Didrik doesn’t live in the banjar anymore. He’s got a small room at Kasih Ibu General Hospital. He sleeps 22 hours a day and when he’s awake he tends to bleed through his nose and gums. He craps black stools through a hole in his bed because he’s too weak to walk to the bathroom or sit on the toilet. Tiny infernos rage in his joints and he’s developed a moaning revulsion toward movement. The nurses rub cream on his rashes—big red splotches on his face and neck—and turn him every two hours to prevent pressure ulcers. He is pale, clammy, frail and emaciated, and if he survives the week the doctor warns him that he will live the rest of his life like that. Didrik isn’t conscious often, but when he is he tries to be a good sport. He 112
tells visitors from the banjar to inform Ketut that both of them were right. People go in to hospitals but they don’t come out. And yes, they should have gone sooner.
Settlement Little Dewi can’t reach that mango in the mango tree. So she throws a rock at it. The rock misses the mango but smacks a bees’ nest. The bees miss Little Dewi but sting the shit out of Citra, the washwoman. A dozen livid buggers chase Citra around the courtyard. She screams and flaps her arms. Blind with panic, she slams into a porch post and breaks her wrist and splits her forehead. Citra and her husband are some of the poorest in the banjar. They can’t afford the medical fees. Little Dewi’s parents say they are even poorer. They can’t afford the fees either. But Citra’s arm is still broken and somebody has to pay. According to Citra’s husband, since it was Little Dewi who threw the rock and angered the bees, it should be Little Dewi’s parents who cover the costs. Little Dewi’s father disagrees. It is not their fault the bees mistook Citra for their daughter. The bees are part of nature and answer to God alone. If the bees attacked Citra then it was by God’s infallible will, and no one can be liable for the will of God. The Balinese don’t do courts. The law is carnivorous and swallows money and time like a great shark. Legal procedure depletes the family treasury. Inability to resolve a dispute degrades menyama (all Balinese are family) and disgraces the banjar. When a case ends up in court the friendly Bali nature disappears. The people get emotional and competitive. Women start to wail. Men throw punches. Sometimes a fire is started. Instead the banjar head is requested as a mediator. Prominent family members from both sides are called together at Pa Putra’s homely-walled estate. The demon geese are driven into their coop. Tiny plastic footstools are provided for seating. Citra sits quietly during the proceeding, six swollen welts on her face, a bandage around her head, her arm in a sling. Behind her Little Dewi watches from her grandmother’s lap, ferociously sucking a cheap popsicle, blue syrupy goo dripping over her knuckles. The mediation is slow and difficult. Pa Putra urges both families to split the charges evenly, but Little Dewi’s father swears he cannot even afford that. Impatient and tired, Pa Putra presses Citra’s husband to let the matter drop and seek donations from neighbors. Almost miraculously Citra’s husband agrees—on one condition. Little Dewi’s father must take the sacred oath. 113
A startled murmur breaks out among the families. The sacred oath is the most serious method of resolution, reserved for only the most serious disputes, such as land rights or fatal accidents. The one who dares take the oath is granted credibility beyond suspicion. But should the oath be taken after one has falsely testified, the consequences are tormenting and eternal. Citra’s husband does not wish to make a poor family poorer. If Little Dewi’s father is speaking the truth about their hardship he need simply recite the oath and the matter will be settled. As a taste of what’s at stake Pa Putra summarizes the vow. Under penalty of the sacred oath liars and their accomplices will be confounded by every evil and struck by lightning. When they go into the forest they will become entangled in the creepers, losing their way, running here and there without finding the road. On the road they will be crushed by falling trees, their skulls split open, their brains spilt out. In the field they will be struck by lightning from a clear sky and impaled by the horns of buffaloes. They will fall into deep rivers where pointed stones will cut their chests open. Their bones will be smashed against the rocks, the blood will flow from their veins, their corpse will sink to the bottom of the water. In their house they will be the prey of terrible sickness and die unnatural deaths. Their defecations will be bloody and black, they will have stomach pain that does not get better. No one will help them and during their sleep they will die while dreaming. Neither they, nor their children, nor their grandchildren will be men on this earth again. They will reincarnate as maggots, clams, worms, serpents. Such is the cost for all liars and imposters as ordained by the eminent Gods of the East, North, South, West and Center. They, and all their offspring, will know no further happiness forever. Little Dewi’s father looks sick. It is the most awful thing he has ever heard. Family elders warn him not to do it. No amount of money is worth such a damning, dreadful pledge. But there is little choice. Going to court will disgrace and ruin everyone involved. He calms his frantic wife, kisses Little Dewi on the head, and agrees. Pa Putra sends for an authorized religious man, who recites the official oath from a huge tattered book. The oath takes fifteen minutes to read and contains every form of anguish a person can suffer. Certain parts are so graphic and horrid that some of the witnesses plug their ears. When every ghastly consequence has been recited Little Dewi’s father places his hand across his heart and swears by the sacred oath that he has spoken the truth. The dispute is settled. Leaving Pa Putra’s estate there are no hard feelings, no punches or fires. Each family departs respectfully and walks home together. Citra’s husband helps his feeble wife to her feet and escorts her off, while Little Dewi climbs her father’s back and rides his shoulders out of the courtyard, wailing for another popsicle, beating his head with her sticky fists. 114
Little Miss Sunshine Third trimester and Putu’s belly hangs low and large. Every precautionary ritual has been observed, every taboo has been eschewed. The television stays off. No newspapers are permitted. She drinks young coconut milk and keeps away from octopus meat. To assure the forming child that life is beautiful and worth entering the banjar puts on a kind of fundraiser. Everyone donates a positive vibe. Wherever Putu goes the people make sure to laugh and joke and make nice comments. There is no talk of sorrowful things. Politics are banned from conversation. Complaints and arguments fall off a cliff. The congeniality is adamant and ubiquitous. It waves from every verandah, smiles from every balcony, wishes her well from every warung; and anywhere Putu goes she is sure to feel the sun and breeze of everyone’s disposition. The world is warm and happy, all day, every day, and nothing bad ever happens. In the whole banjar there is just one shadow, and it sleeps in Putu’s bed and sits against her ambarella tree, wiping its face with its hands, watching their rainbow chickens.
Evening at the Warung Old man Sadewo is Hindu-Balinese. He doesn’t like what’s been happening lately. Thirteen years ago, before the Kuta bombings, there were six Muslim families in the village. Now there are fifty-seven. And it isn’t just Banjar Dalung. All over the island Muslim presence is intensifying. Make no mistake about it, bule. They are taking over. That is what they do. You let in one and soon there are five, and before you know it, another mosque, another soup dumpling vendor. Then the bombs. Old Sadewo leans in close. His tattered brown lips have some kind of vitamin deficiency and there is a salivary problem, little white clumps of spittle at the corners of his mouth, wet and hot. More and more their influence escalates. Already Balinese-Hindus are beginning to pray three times a day. Already their children are being coerced to pray in school while English tourist books ignorantly explain that it is Balinese tradition to pray three times daily. But that is not the traditional Balinese way. Even worse, prayers are now broadcast from loudspeakers around many Hindu temples and on 115
Bali TV, just like the Islamic call to prayer from mosques and the broadcasting of Islamic evening prayer by national networks. Then there are the dark letters. Evil conspiratory flyers circulated by the hundreds, authored by anonymous Muslim groups that threaten to overrun the island and mock Hindus for their naïve tolerance. The letters speak of villages already in the hands of Muslims, boast of a future when all of Bali is under Muslim control, and are interspersed with sinister HA, HA, Has. Enough is enough! Bali is for the Balinese! Focused initiatives must be put in place to ensure the safety of its territory. Village councils must stand strong to prevent the sale of land to Muslim outsiders. If Islam is more fanatical than ever, then Hindus must be more fanatical. No inclusion. No intrusion. No dilution. It is cleanse or be cleansed, purge or be purged—though surely he doesn’t need to tell me. If anyone can understand the situation, it’s an American. I know what these people can do. I know what must be done to them.
Banjar Legend Budi Santoso has the biggest laugh in the banjar. Ketut Ardika, who lives 1.3 kilometers away, can hear it from his balcony even when the wind is blowing against it. He has even complained that it startles the dogs around his building and makes them bark. No other laughter from this side of the banjar has ever reached Ketut’s home, and no laugh originating from Ketut’s side has ever been heard over here. Ergo, Budi’s laughter is the biggest in the village, at least 1.3 kilometers in size. And traveling downwind it’s likely bigger than that. On the darker side of the lore coin is Yenny Novenia, who is alleged to possess the biggest, most horrifying shriek in the banjar. Rumor says that while giving birth to her first child she screeched so monstrously that from thereon the neighbor’s chickens never laid another egg. During delivery of her second child they say she shrieked her cousin into celibacy. The pretty young girl was assisting the birth, cooling Yenny’s head with a washcloth. When she heard that hideous screech she fled the room in terror, dumped her boyfriend over the phone, and the next day ran off to join the nunnery. It is said that several marriageable girls have been rendered religious sisters by Yenny’s frightful birth wail. The mothers of the young men fret for their sons, and warn them in deadly earnest to keep their sweethearts away from the banjar the next time she passes child. 116
Professional Opinion At a beach bar in Kuta I meet a retired veterinarian from San Diego who is enjoying his time in Bali, but disturbed to his deepest medical sensibilities by the glut of diseased mongrels that are roaming within armâ€™s reach of tourists. He says he will not walk with his wife after dark because he is certain it is only a matter of time before the dogs shed every last vestige of domestication, instinctively assemble into packs, and attack someone in numbers, if they havenâ€™t already done so, and it is his belief that in the more rural areas they probably have. Two months later the grim prophecy comes true. A toddler girl is found ripped to pieces in a rice paddy outside Dalung. She has been attacked by an animal, or multiple animals, and almost immediately the blame falls upon the stray dogs in the area. Public outrage is fierce. Fear and retaliation override principle. For the first time ever dozens of wretched mongrels are being rounded up or killed on sight. Around the banjar poisoned meat (strychnine and nux vomica) is placed strategically in uncovered bins, and at night when the dogs scavenge we can sometimes hear one baying miserably in the dark somewhere, slowly dying in tremendous agony. This morning a rendition of Romeo and Juliet. The local sweethearts breathe no more. Still joined at the genitals, still rump-to-rump, they are both stone dead on the side of the road. As a final disgrace each has leaked their bowels across the other. In the afternoon two skeletons in surgical masks come by with a junk cart. Each grabs a dog by its forelimbs and yanks at the same time. They tug and pull, pull and tug, but the bond is unbreakable. As in life, so in death. The men drop the bodies in the dust. They pick them up and try again. They swing the dogs back and forth by the legs, gathering momentum, then heave the bodies into the cart. As the jumbled cart wobbles away things shift, other things are seen. Another dead dog and two headless geese. There is also a green chicken.
Karla Linn Merrifield Fair Warning, Taos Pueblo
for David Richter
Dust more dust squalor dogs beggar bitches do not touch them, please do not feed them please, no frybread, fruit pies, no tourist handoutâ€” such tribal beasts are off limitsâ€” Red Willow curs must obey only masters who can speak to mountains.
Joe Jimenez Mesquites In a field a plethora of mesquites grew. Rampantly, and some of them unruly. Wildness and fending off shames. Shames? you may ask. For being bent, for shaping in unnatural ways. It was said. And so it was—. But magic, for none of these were trees in the sense that trees should take root and not tremble or growl or know Love for one other. Water and wind. Earth, Light. Saplings, groves. And some spread their seed pods for the sole sake of giving them up or taking another’s seed. And pleasure and wildness—. Earth and light. And this was the world. Then. Something emerged among the mesquites. And overcome, how the mesquites suffered—. Over time, seed pods grew strange and dire. The field soon became a field. People witnessed. The mesquites began gradually, forthwith, to die off. So many of them. No one could halt the suffering, though so many tried. And distance and grief—. And heavy murk where once fullness and joy, and wonder. A sad hymn of sinews and mottled shadows, emptiness—. For years, the hymn hummed, and harrowed, the field knew somberness as if it were wind and Light, the field knew erosion and understood what loss uttered to its bones: the spirits of every bird and the tall yellow grasses, 119
the souls of the mosses and the armadillos digging grubs from the most tender soils, the little deer who relied on the mesquites for shade, the coyotes who satisfied hungers with the pods—. For many years, then: loss, affliction, tribulation, woe. In time, in time, the mesquites would return to the field. Newer ones, and yes, some of the original ones, too, older, unbroken. Often forgotten, the surviving mesquites stood tall, while the new ones easily fed on the field, the nourishment of those mesquites who had come before and given of themselves to the soils on which we all stand. And this newness was newness, too brash and swaggering—. Sometimes, solipsism and disregard—. But I can tell you there are minutes, whole afternoons, full seasons where a mesquite will feel unpresence— the knot in its deepest wood or a hiccup in the root span, and how it knows, for how can its body not know that someone was once there? an emptiness of spirit—a little voice carried on the soft back of wind. I tell you it happens, the mesquite compelled to feel an aloneness only known by mesquites of this field, for someone should be here beside him, but isn’t—. And you might call this outlandish, or you might comprehend this suffering, the idea of all mesquites carrying this epoch— and why? and how? and who? and does it ever go away? In a field a plethora of mesquites grows. Rampantly, and some of them unruly. Wildness and fending off shames. Shames? you may ask. 120
For being bent, for shaping in unnatural ways, it was said. But magic. But water and wind. Earth, Light. Saplings and seed pods, whole groves.
Celeste Gainey clubhouse love after the secret handshake recitation of favorite Moonrise Kingdom moments we crank up the boombox kick off our Timberlands & Joe Boxers get down to it in our knotty pine forest of fornication first we lie side by side atop our stolen NanoWave 45º sleeping bag stare up at all the glow-inthe-dark stars my left side completely touching your right side your right hand completely clasping my left hand we lie completely still suctioned like this forever our own private Adirondack hearts pulsing hardons climbing the Pet Shop Boys stop Being Boring David Bowie asks Where Are We Now? in both songs there’s a station someone leaving with a haversack some trepidation pushing through the floorboards poking our naked backs the moment you know you know you know we’d bolted through a closing door
James Crews After Love While you slept, one arm pinning me against the bed, I watched a pigeon limp across the skylight, his tiny feet printing a message in soot and dust I took to mean: Suffer thy limits and learn to praise this dream. But I could not abide the way pleasure clouds the mind, turns words to moans in a pillow, stones in the throat, then leaves on the wind of each breath after, lifting from us through the pores of skin bent on feeling more, again, soon. The pigeon flapped his wings, that simple, and rose up into the fog now rolling across the bay, pushing through the window Iâ€™d left open, hoping for some sunlight and not the flies that lit on our bodies, buzzing, feasting, having their way with us.
J.M Gamble from Stabat Mater iii. Joseph the roses Joseph the roses rising red-lipped toward morning Joseph doing their best impression of the sun I plump myself my petals bursting with a new language for birthing O Joseph the sun rises in me as regular as breathing whatâ€™s the word for terraform for apples blooming in me Joseph I need a word for the whole world inside me as breathspace as orcharding I am orcharding in a new air O Joseph you are aghast at the ghost of me but even the trees Joseph the trees the trees the trees the trees they repeat Joseph the parts of a rose are peduncle sepal petal anther style receptacle stamen filament ovary stigma Joseph stigma Joseph stigmata my God my body stigmata my body my God stigmata wounded my body stigmata wounded by the orcharding breathspace of a rose that rose stigmata rose rose blessedly in me my God Joseph I have breathed in everything
Abigail Minor Genesis: A Little Later in the New Found Place the story advanced → by muscle and maneuver
[cue the sound of summer pond frogs reaving dusk.]
wild vomits → into the black night
[those who go not, but advance their monies.]
how we knew blessed → when we saw it
[all green blessed with a particular shape. Logic of the leaf.]
the scented weight of snakes → leaving skin
[choose a site, shoot the garden, plant for gold.]
that’s the sound → of you undoing
[the dawn of history is a mental health issue.]
this heavenly body stocked → with heavenly bodies
[those other guys? all they wanted to do was eat & look for gold.]
for real: cherries, mulberries, → applecrabs, hurts
[the mind understands them as planets.]
and the sun → would be nothing
[I am begging for a shape.]
to bring order → out of chaos
[by shooting invisible bullets into them.]
send out your eyes → a roving, a roving
[as that you may know how injuriously the enterprise is slandered.]
and your eyes → shall be opened
[chestnuts, oldwives, oysters, oak.]
cool lights (appeared) black → among green (forms) thrashing
[early July. hollow when picked.]
to stumble through the words → [too many gentlemen, worthless in a wilderness.] inhabiting & planting who have spoken of more → than ever they saw
[the cause of their ignorance was, they didn’t know a thing.]
Caitlin Scarano My god has barely enough skin or whatever it is that covers him. If he unfurls or kicks too rapidly, he splits a bit at the corners. Red sand and screaming like a cyclone. My god is not a father. He certainly looks nothing like mine, that beard with hands and a liver. When I was a child, my mother decorated my bedroom with cherubs. Sometimes they were just baby heads with wings and wet lips. My god and I are no longer interested in what stains inherit skin. We want milk from a mammal, her yellow circuit throb. There was a year when I needed no gods. Only snow, snow. As many mouthfuls as my hips could hold. But I found the copper tipped bullets in his nightstand. The stitches and vials of human oil. My god with his collection of throats small as buttons. 127
Jim Nawrocki The Known World A cold wind comes to claw the cottage, knocks limbs against roof, wall, window, each tree an alien of restless arms, as we tangle, body to body, in the cluttered darkness of our one room. The evening sputters just beyond us, as if sending us its agreement with our hungry grasp and climb upon each other, our heat turning to water upon the windows. Somehow, we ease into a lull, this engine evening out into rest, as a simpler hunger overtakes us, and we dress, walk into the cold, down the hill from our aerie to the avenue that proclaims, in illuminations, the food on offer: Italian, Mexican, Peruvian… we pass into the warmth of a Korean place, huddle over bowls of broth with fish so small their bodies look like silver hyphens, each of us cradling a little sea of them, filling ourselves with what were once whole currents of eyes in shimmering schools. We’ve come here from a world away, our secret quarter still waiting in the night above, and take this necessary communion, while outside, lights of shop windows, of neon, of traffic eliding in its river, all glow in fog’s halo, certainty and doubt, in their endless wavering.
Bradford Tice The War with the Dandelions They sound like a slur for what we are. Dandies and, at times, when it’s called for, lions. Chris and I are in the backyard after heavy spring rains have called out prides of them. After weeks of the news channels talking of disappearances— a plane cut from the sky, two hundred Nigerian girls swallowed by the night’s voracious hunger—blooms have upturned toward the sun like children or mystics who read some dispatch in fat, wetted clouds. Chris has recently taken up a complaint. Our neighbor’s yard being spotless and coveted, uniform as military garb our neighbor wore in another life that landed him a bullet in his hip, a Korean wife. Chris wants to know his secret, life without weed, without the serrated edges of those leaves slicing up the soil. Chris pumps poisons into canisters, this now being a world where death is engineered with the finest precision, tinctures so refined they can stifle what we hate while sustaining our green joys. I always loved them, as I often do anything slated for abuse. I picture them preparing in the night, arranging their skirts, the quiet gossip as they wait. After it’s done, I will watch then wilt. Lithe, pink stems twisted earthward, writhing. Maybe they’re too much like us to win our affections, like progeny who carry all our flaws—a disarming exuberance, vanity they don’t even bother to conceal. What will I be without the later hush of them letting go, the skirts billowing, even as their heads, heavy now, lean toward the support of their arms like children exhausted by figures, by genders of language, the general questions?
Table o About f
Stacey Balkun has two chapbooks, Jackalope-Girl Learns to Speak (dancing girl), and Lost City Museum (ELJ Publications). She received her MFA from Fresno State and her work has appeared or will appear in Gargoyle, Muzzle, THRUSH, Bodega, and others. A 2015 Hambidge Fellow, Stacey served as Artist-in-Residence at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 2013. She is a contributing writer for The California Journal of Women Writers at www.tcjww.org. Tamiko Beyer is the author of We Come Elemental (Alice James Books, 2013) and bough breaks (Meritage Press, 2011). Her poems have been published in The Volta, Tupelo Quarterly, Quarterly West, and elsewhere. She works in nonprofit, social justice communications. Elizabeth Bradfield is the author of the poetry collections Once Removed, Approaching Ice, and Interpretive Work. Editor-in-chief of Broadsided Press and a contributing editor to Alaska Quarterly Review, she lives on Cape Cod, works as a naturalist locally as well as on expedition ships, and is Poet-in-Residence at Brandeis University and an instructor in the low-residency MFA program at University of Alaska Anchorage. www.ebradfield.com Tara Shea Burke is a poet, yoga and writing teacher, and restaurant server. She served as poetry editor for The Quotable and Barely South Review, has an MFA from Old Dominion University, and her chapbook Let the Body Beg was published by ELJ Publications in 2014. She volunteers for Sinister Wisdom, a Multicultural Lesbian Literature and Arts Journal, and is the grants administrator for The Money for Women/Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Inc. Find more with links to publications at http://tarasheaburke.wordpress.com/ Tim Carrier is originally from St. Louis, Missouri, and lives in New York City. He received his MFA in poetry from the Institute of American Indian Arts (as a non-Native / White student) in 2015, and was a 2014 Lambda Literary Fellow. James Cihlar is the author of the poetry books Rancho Nostalgia and Undoing, and the chapbooks A Conversation with My Imaginary Daughter and Metaphysical Bail130
out. His writing has appeared in The American Poetry Review, The Threepenny Review, and Lambda Literary Review. His website is jimcihlar.com. James Crews’ work has appeared most recently in Ploughshares and The New Republic and he is a regular contributor to The (London) Times Literary Supplement. He is the author of The Book of What Stays, winner of the 2010 Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry. He lives in Providence, RI. Leslie Doyle lives in New Jersey and teaches at Montclair State University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Front Porch, Cobalt, MARY, Gigantic Sequins, and elsewhere. When not writing or teaching, she continues to kayak New Jersey’s back rivers, bays, and wetlands, mostly not getting lost. Kaitlyn Duling is a transplant from Illinois to Pittsburgh, where she manages the Storymobile program at Reading is FUNdamental Pittsburgh. She is a graduate of Knox College, where she studied poetry. Her poems have found homes in IDK Magazine, Catch Magazine, Wilde Magazine, Outrageous Fortune, Naugatuck River Review, and others. Celeste Gainey is the author of the full-length poetry collection, the GAFFER (Arktoi Books/Red Hen Press, 2015), and the chapbook In the land of speculation & seismography (Seven Kitchens Press, 2011), runner-up for the 2010 Robin Becker Prize. J.M. Gamble is a PhD student in English and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan. D. Gilson is the author of Crush (Punctum Books, 2014), with Will Stockton; Brit Lit (Sibling Rivalry, 2013); and Catch & Release (2012), winner of the Robin Becker Prize. His work has appeared in PANK, The Indiana Review, and The Rumpus. Find D. at dgilson.com. Stephanie Glazier’s poems appear or are forthcoming in the Iraq Literary Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, YEW, and others. She has been a Lambda Fellow in poetry 131
and holds an MFA from Antioch University LA. She lives and works in Portland, Oregon. Tresha Faye Haefner is a native Californian. Her poetry appears or is forthcoming in several journals and magazines, most notably Blood Lotus, The Cincinnati Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Pirene’s Fountain, Poet Lore and Rattle. Her work has garnered such accolades as the Robert and Adelle Schiff Poetry Prize from The Cincinnati Review, and a 2012 Pushcart nomination. Adam Halbur is the author of Poor Manners (Ahadada 2009), a collection of poems awarded the 2010 residency at The Frost Place, Franconia, New Hampshire. He holds an MFA from Warren Wilson, Asheville, North Carolina, and has previously published poetry in Forklift, Ohio, Midwest Prairie Review, Rosebud, The Fourth River, and Dunes Review as well as poetry in Never Before: Poems about First Experiences (Four Way 2005) and essays in Local Ground(s)—Midwest Poetics (Cowfeather 2014). Joe Jiménez is the author of The Possibilities of Mud (Kórima 2014) and Bloodline (Arte Público 2016). Jiménez holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles and lives in San Antonio, Texas. He is a member of the Macondo writing workshops. For more, visit joejimenez.net. Shelly Krehbiel holds an MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles. Her poems have appeared in The Midwest Quarterly and To the Stars Through Difficulties: A Kansas Renga in 150 Voices. She currently lives in Eugene, Oregon, where she works as a manager. Tony Leuzzi has published three books of poems, including Radiant Losses (New Sins Press 2010) and The Burning Door (Tiger Bark Press 2014). In 2012, BOA Editions released Passwords Primeval, Leuzzi’s interviews with twenty American poets. He lives in Rochester, NY. Ed Madden is the author of four books of poetry—Signals, Prodigal: Variations, Nest, and Ark (forthcoming 2016). An associate professor of English and director of the Women’s & Gender Studies Program at the University of South Carolina, he was recently named Poet Laureate for the City of Columbia. Lisa Mangini holds an MFA from Southern Connecticut State University. She is 132
the author of the poetry collection, Bird Watching at the End of the World, as well as three chapbooks. She is the founding editor of Paper Nautilus, is a Lecturer of English at Penn State. Timothy L. Marsh is a doctoral candidate in Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University Wales. His stories have appeared in The New Welsh Review, Ninth Letter, Barrelhouse, The Evansville Review and The Los Angeles Review. He has been a Tennessee Williams Scholar at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and was a 2014 Graduate Exchange Scholar at Auburn University. Anne Haven McDonnell lives in Santa Fe, NM and teaches English and sustainability courses as an assistant professor at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Her poems have been published in Terrain.org, Flyway: Journal of Writing and Environment, Whitefish Review, and Crab Creek Review. Two of her recent poems won the 5th annual Terrain.org poetry contest, and one was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Kevin McLellan is the author of Tributary (Barrow Street, 2015), and the chapbooks Shoes on a wire (Split Oak, 2015), runner-up for the 2012 Stephen Dunn Prize in Poetry, and Round Trip (Seven Kitchens, 2010), a collaborative series of poems with numerous women poets. He has recent or forthcoming poems in journals including: American Letters & Commentary, Barrow Street, Colorado Review, Crazyhorse, Kenyon Review Online, Spoon River Poetry Review, Western Humanities Review, Witness, and numerous others. Kevin lives in Cambridge MA. A nine-time Pushcart-Prize nominee and National Park Artist-in-Residence, Karla Linn Merrifield has had over 500 poems appear in dozens of journals and anthologies. She has eleven books to her credit, the newest of which is Bunchberries, More Poems of Canada, a sequel to Godwit: Poems of Canada (FootHills), which received the Eiseman Award for Poetry. Her poem “See: Love” was a finalist for the 2015 Pangaea Prize. She is assistant editor and poetry book reviewer for The Centrifugal Eye, a member of the board of directors of Just Poets (Rochester, NY), and a member of the New Mexico State Poetry Society, the Florida State Poetry Society and TallGrass Writers Guild. Visit her blog, Vagabond Poet, at http://karlalinn.blogspot. com. Abby Minor has studied at Smith College, The Penland School of Crafts, and Penn State. Her poems are forthcoming in Weave Magazine and Calyx Journal; her book 133
reviews have appeared in AGNI Online and The Georgia Review, among others. She works as a community writing teacher in central Pennsylvania. Erika Mueller is a poet, mother, and activist. Her visual art and poetry have appeared in Gertrude, Women’s Studies Quarterly, Crab Orchard Review, and elsewhere. Mueller holds an MFA from University of Oregon and an MA from Iowa State University. She is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of WI-Milwaukee and lives in Oregon with her family. Jim Nawrocki’s writing has appeared in Poetry, America, Kyoto Journal, Mudfish, Ricepaper, modern words, and the anthologies The Place That Inhabits Us: Poems of the San Francisco Bay Watershed and Art & Understanding: Literature from the First Twenty Years. He lives in San Francisco. Translator, poet, and lyrical essayist Maria Nazos is the author of A Hymn That Meanders. Her work is published or forthcoming in The Florida Review, The Southern Humanities Review, The New Ohio Review, Poet Lore, and elsewhere. She is a doctoral candidate studying English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She can be found at www.marianazos.com. Jeffrey Perkins received his MFA from Bennington College and lives in New York City. His poems have been published in Memorious, The Massachusetts Review, The Southampton Review, The Cortland Review, Melancholy Hyperbole, and Rhino, among other journals. He can be found online at http://jeffreyperkins.tumblr.com/. Sam Sax is a 2015 NEA Fellow and finalist for The Ruth Lilly Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation. He’s a Poetry Fellow at The Michener Center for Writers where he serves as the Editor-in-chief of Bat City Review. He’s the two time Bay Area Grand Slam Champion & author of the chapbooks A Guide to Undressing Your Monsters (Button Poetry, 2014), sad boy / detective (Black Lawrence Press, 2015), and All The Rage (SRP, 2016). His poems are forthcoming in The Beloit Poetry Journal, Best New Poets, Boston Review, Indiana Review, Pleiades, New England Review, Poetry Magazine, and other journals. Caitlin Scarano is a poet in the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee PhD creative writing program. Her poem “Praise” was a finalist for the 2014 Best of the Net Anthology. Her recent work can be found in Crazyhorse, Colorado Review, and Chatta134
hoochee Review. She has two poetry chapbooks: The White Dog Year (dancing girl press, 2015) and The Salt and Shadow Coiled (Zoo Cake Press, 2015). Alaina Symanovich recently earned her BA and MA degrees in English from Penn State University. In fall 2015, she will begin working toward her MFA in creative nonfiction at Florida State University. Her website is https://alainasymanovich. wordpress.com. Bradford Tice is the author of two books of poetry: Rare Earth (New Rivers Press, 2013), which was named the winner of the 2011 Many Voices Project and a 2014 Debut-litzer finalist, and What the Night Numbered (forthcoming from Trio House Press, 2015), winner of the 2014 Trio Award. His poetry and fiction have appeared in such periodicals as The Atlantic Monthly, North American Review, The American Scholar, Alaska Quarterly Review, Mississippi Review, Epoch, as well as in Best American Short Stories 2008. His poetry was also selected as the winner of Prairie Schooner’s 2009 Edward Stanley Award. He currently teaches at Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln. Tobias Wray is a doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee where he is a poetry editor for cream city review. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Third Coast, Bellingham Review, American Literary Review and elsewhere. He was a 2014 finalist for the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing Fellowship and the Black Warrior Review Poetry Contest. He holds an MFA in poetry and translation from the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville. Atom Basham is a Chicago artist, based in the historic Flat Iron Artists Building. Having drawn his entire life, it’s only been in the past ten years that he’s seemingly found his “direction,” illustrating monsters and children and fairy tales with both light and dark humor, hopefully taking familiar characters in new and unexpected directions. Each individual acrylic and ink image attempts to tell it’s own story. Generally light hearted, but often with a subtle grim subtext meant to encourage the viewer to think twice about what they’re seeing. When not working in his studio (which is rare), he can most often be found absorbing local inspiration from bookstores, street graffiti, and his surrounding artist community. Kathleen Ellen Marshall was born in St. Louis, Missouri and studied fine art with a concentration in figurative drafting. After moving to Chicago she turned her art 135
from the traditional to the contemporary. All collections have been shot and edited exclusively on a smart phone. Variations in photographic technique as well as digital process via myriad apps have not only affected the visual result of the image but the idea passed forth to the viewer. Kathleenâ€™s work involves urban architecture both with and without human interaction. By using current technology, she is able to bring traditional structure and composition into abstract ideas. For more information contact Kathleen Ellen Marshall at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Issue o.2 Contributors Stacey Balkun Tamiko Beyer Eilzabeth Bradfield Tara Burke Tim Carrier James Cihlar James Crews Leslie Doyle Kaitlyn Duling Celeste Gainey J.M Gamble D. Gilson Stephanie Glazier Tresha Haefner Adam Halbur Joe Jimenez Shelly Krehbiel Tony Leuzzi Ed Madden Lisa Mangini Timothy Marsh Anne Haven McDonnell Kevin McLellan Karla Linn Merrifield Abby Minor Erika Mueller Jim Nawrocki Maria Nazos Jeffrey Perkins Sam Sax Caitlin Scarano Alaina Symanovich Bradford Tice Tobias Wray
A publication of the Chatham University MFA in Creative Writing Program.