Humber Literary Review: vol. 11, issue 1

Page 24

CATRIONA WRIGHT // interview



CARLA HARRIS & ADELLE PURDHAM // creative nonfiction



VOLUME 11 ISSUE 1 spring + summer 2023 $9.95



Featuring a third semester, industry-connected internship




SUE MURTAGH 4 Rescuing Spiderman

H FELIX CHAU BRADLEY 12 Second Appointment

MORGAN DICK 23 Autopilot Malfunction

K.R. BYGGDIN 33 Good Night, Reverend MICHELLE WINTERS 41 Happy Song

ERIC RAUSCH 51 Not Built to Last



BLESSING O. NWODO 20 [Three Poems]




ALISON COLWELL 18 Fairy Tale Fathers

CARLA HARRIS 28 A Slowest Growing

ADELLE PURDHAM 44 Navel-Gazing, a Revolution & a Love Story: the Importance of the Self and Stories of the Marginalized


BRIGITTE ARCHAMBAULT 36 Excerpt from The Shiatsung Project


CATRIONA WRIGHT 56 [Interview]






SARA ANGELUCCI 68 [Featured Artist]

VOLUME 11 ISSUE 1 spring + summer 2023



Patrice Esson


Eufemia Fantetti

D.D. Miller


Sarah Feldbloom

Kelly Harness

Matthew Harris

Alyson Renaldo


Leanne Milech


Meaghan Strimas


Angelo Muredda


Cole Swanson


Christian Leveille


Tanya d’Anger

Andrew Drager

Claire Majors

Andy Scott

Suzanne Zelazo


Kilby Smith-McGregor


Claire Majors


Vera Beletzan

Senior Dean, Faculty of Liberal Arts & Sciences and Innovative Learning, Humber College

Bronwyn Drainie

Former Editor-in-Chief of the Literary Review of Canada ; author

Alison Jones Publisher, Quill & Quire

Joe Kertes

Dean Emeritus, Humber School of Creative and Performing Arts; author

Antanas Sileika Former Director, Humber School for Writers; author

Nathan Whitlock Program Coordinator, Creative Book Publishing Program; author

Humber Literary Review, Volume 11 Issue 1

Copyright © May 2023 Humber Literary Review

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All copyright for the material included in Humber Literary Review remains with the contributors, and any requests for permission to reprint their work should be referred to them.

Humber Literary Review c/o The Department of English Humber College Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning

205 Humber College Blvd. Toronto, ON M9W 5L7

Literary Magazine.

ISSN 2292-7271

Layout and Design by Kilby Smith-McGregor Cover Image and Portfolio by Sara Angelucci

Humber Literary Review is a product of the Humber College Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning’s Department of English

Printed and bound in Canada by Paper Sparrow Printing on FSC-certified paper

Opinions and statements in the publication attributed to named authors do not necessarily reflect the policy of the Humber College Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning or its Department of English.

FRONT COVER | SARA ANGELUCCI NOCTURNAL BOTANICAL ONTARIO, (OCTOBER 14, MILKWEED #1), 34” x 47”, 2020 Image courtesy of the artist the Stephen Bulger Gallery.


FATHERS FIGURE PROMINENTLY IN THIS ISSUE OF HUMBER LITERARY REVIEW. It’s always interesting to see what trends emerge in the work submitted and selected for each issue. Sometimes they are obvious, reflective of broader cultural issues. We’ve seen issues full of stories about immigration and displacement, for example, and another where—as we began to emerge from the pandemic—writers grappled with isolation and increasing seclusion. At other times, such as in this issue, there are thematic strands that one couldn’t possibly see coming.

Many of the pieces that deal with fathers grapple with the concept and expectation of fatherhood. This can be read most prominently in Alison Colwell’s creative nonfiction piece “Fairy Tale Fathers,” where she describes how her father did not respond to a quiet call for help:

He thought he was doing the right thing. But I wanted a father like Sleeping Beauty’s, a father who would burn the world to protect his daughter. Yet that’s not the kind of father I had. It’s not the kind of father most of the daughters in the stories had. Our fathers are human. Our fathers are imperfect. No woodcutter is going to storm into our lives, axe held high, ready to take out the wolf. We have to wield our own axes. We have to take charge of our own stories.

This specific concept of the imperfect father is reflected in some of the fiction in the issue as well. K.R. Byggdin’s “Good Night, Reverend” tells the story of a gender nonconforming child semi-estranged from their father, who is on his deathbed. In Eric Rausch’s “Not Built to Last,” a man asks his telepathic friend to sneak into his son’s thoughts in an attempt to try to influence the direction he’ll take in life to predictably disastrous results. And while not dealing directly with fathers, Cuban diaspora writer Ana Rodriguez

Machado’s poems do deal with parenthood and grandfathers (among other concerns).

Of course, this fatherhood theme is not the only thread you’ll find stringing the writing together in this issue. There are also a lot of pieces dealing with identity, specifically around gender and sexuality. Carla Harris’s beautiful and poetic piece of creative nonfiction “A Slowest Growing” navigates illness and queerness and does so by creating a hybrid form, blending confessional poetry and the personal memoir. Similar themes can be found in H Felix Chau Bradley’s short story “Second Appointment.”

Along with these thematic connections, there are many pieces that stand alone. For example, Morgan Dick’s “Autopilot Malfunction” is a story about a teen boy obsessed with studying videos and memorizing facts about 9/11, and Sue Murtagh’s “Rescuing Spiderman” employs an interesting use of shifting POV to tell a heartbreaking story about a mother’s grief. Adelle Purdham’s “Navel-Gazing” argues for the importance of creative nonfiction and other forms of personal writing that embrace the “I” as being essential in providing opportunities for marginalized voices.

The issue is also packed with fantastic poetry in varying forms by Matthew Rooney, Blessing O. Nwodo, and Sneha Subramanian Kanta and an excerpt from a wonderful graphic novel by Brigitte Archambault, and we have the privilege of featuring the beautiful artwork of Sara Angelucci.

Despite some of the challenging and heavy themes outlined here, even in the darkest moments, hope can be found in this issue. Returning to Carla Harris, their piece delves into some dark places but ends on a profoundly hopeful note, declaring that “I will celebrate love in the unforced way that it sprouts: organic in unexpected times and unfamiliar places.” A declaration and promise that all of us should take to heart.

Best wishes, The HLR Collective


It’s the first day of spring, but remnants of shrivelled, blackened snow litter the community pool parking lot. You’re here to try a swim. The so-called experts claim this will help you. To be precise, they say it should help but at first it might hurt; they promise it will not harm you.

So here you are—you try to please—wearing the royal blue Speedo with the tummy ruching that you bought because it seemed correct to begin with a new bathing suit. You’ve chosen to launch your (supposedly) healing habit at the mid-morning lane swim. At this time of day, the pool is quiet, just a handful of lumpy people muddling through the strokes, fumbling through chemically treated water that could irritate sensitive skin.

There are three others in the pool. Everyone stays in their own roped-off lane. The only vacant lane is in the middle. You’d prefer to stick to the outer edges but this is your only option, so you carefully bend down to remove your flip-flops and sit on the edge of the pool. The water feels cool on your legs. You fixate on the circling red hand of the analog pace clock they keep on the deck—it measures time in seconds only—before you lower your torso into the water. What was cool on the legs feels harsh on your arms and chest. You can smell the chlorine.

You have a hard time finding your rhythm. Your front crawl seems off, your breathing laboured. You attempt breaststroke, hands together as if in prayer and arms in a V as you glide, but that doesn’t work either, so you revert to the front crawl. Your goggles are tight—too tight—but at least they don’t leak. They allow you to see the pool bottom and the walls at the ends of your lane.

Your face in the water, a Band-Aid on the pool floor drifts into sight. Spiderman’s red-masked face stares, fixating on you with blank white eyes. He is large enough to cover a gravel-battered knee after a six-year-old races straight into trouble. Some kids are

unusually accident prone. You had one of those and you went through many boxes of superhero Band-Aids. You assumed Josh would turn out fine because you put in the work. You weren’t a “jellyfish parent” or a “brick-wall parent”; you and your husband learned to “talk so kids would listen and listen so kids would talk.” Smug you and your smug friends slurped up everything those parenting manuals dished out.

What suckers.

You make it to the end of the lane, turn around and push off the wall to swim back. You don’t know how long you can keep this up, even though you used to easily handle fifty lengths four times a week.

On the way back, the Band-Aid is in the same spot, but Spiderman has flipped. Now a bloody rectangle floating like a cartoon ghost between the painted lines of your lane. You swim over him.

You can’t remember if they advised you to focus on being in your body or to be a mechanical doll. You pick doll, mechanical swimming doll, because you don’t see any other way to continue, and you must continue.

But the Band-Aid lingers. Instead of drifting out of sight, it somersaults beneath you on the pool floor. As your strokes create ripples, the Band-Aid turns, plastic side up, then bloody side up. Crimson mask alternates with a brownish stain centred between strips of adhesive. This breaks your doll concentration.

You imagine the bandage loosened and fell off the little boy’s knee during family swim and no one noticed, or maybe they pretended not to notice so they wouldn’t have to deal with it. With every length of front crawl, every time you swim over it, your chest tightens. You could switch to backstroke so you don’t have to look, but you choose not to.

The pressure in your diaphragm builds. You came here to relax all you wanted to do was relax they promised this would be good for you relax mechanical doll.

That Band-Aid has to go.


So you stop to alert a lifeguard. There are two guards on duty: one appears to be in his late teens, the other in his early twenties. Look at them—they move through the world in adult bodies with adult freedoms—but they’re still burdened with the frontal lobes and impulse control of teenagers. They have zero concept of the permanent consequences of their actions.

The older one is tall, dark-haired, and bearded. The brooding type. He looks familiar, but you can’t place him. The younger one is scrawny, skin raw with acne. In another time and place, your heart would break for him.

You pick the skinny one. You tell him about the Band-Aid. How gross it is, where it is. At first, it seems he will help. He asks you to point out the exact location, so you do head-up breaststroke, you stop and wave, gesturing that the spot aligns with an orange caution cone on the side of the pool. You want to make it easy for them to collect this debris. He nods and you continue your swim, expecting he’ll need you to get out of the way when he or the other guy cleans up. The skinny lifeguard approaches the bearded one. They confer; they part. You do a bit of breaststroke. You want to be reasonable, give them the benefit of the doubt, but you can’t wait.

“The Band-Aid,” you say to the skinny one when you finish that lap.

He tells you the long pole with the little net on the end—the skimmer—won’t reach that far.

“So we’d have to drain the whole thing,” he says. That’s just the stupidest thing you’ve ever heard. Ridiculous. He’s lying to you, lying.

You say so. What kind of people are they hiring these days? You say this too, which prompts him to wave over the other guard.

“If he can tear himself away from his phone,” you say. When your son Josh patrolled this deck, it was different. He’d be in that water in a minute. Jump in. Jump right in without thinking.

The bearded guard arrives to impart his wisdom.

“So the net won’t reach,” he says.

“I’ll do it,” you offer, to shame them, and they’re too lazy to even shrug.

You do your best head-up crawl back to Spiderman. Before you dive you look back to the pool’s edge where the young men still stand. Bearded One wears a smug smile, while Ravaged Face bears no expression other than stupidity. You, a taxpayer, are paying these useless specimens to watch you dive for someone else’s garbage. They’ll probably laugh about you at break time. It turns your stomach. You know you look like some entitled hag, but you don’t care.

The Band-Aid hasn’t moved, but reaching it is difficult. On the first try, Spiderman eludes your clumsy

hand. You pop to the surface to see the guards still gawking. Claustrophobia circles; panic will smother you. But you try again. You channel the mechanical doll. Long, slow inhale, long, slow exhale before you dive. You move deliberately; you don’t grab. You see the hairy kicking legs of an old man two lanes over.

This time you succeed. You spread your fingers like a net to block off escape routes and close your fist around the plastic. Spiderman caught in the palm of your hand.

Your task is complete. This moment should feel good, but the used bandage seems inconsequential. You swim over to the edge of the deck. It isn’t easy to swim with one clenched fist. You dump the Band-Aid on the pool deck. The younger lifeguard reaches over to collect it. You notice he now wears a blue plastic glove to protect his precious hand. The other guard just walks away.

That’s it. No one thanks you, of course. No one cares. And then you realize who the bearded lifeguard is. He was three feet shorter when you met him. You’re sure you know this kid. He’s one of the four Sams who were in Josh’s class. There were always multiple Sams— in hockey, in basketball, in the school band. For years, all you did was hand out granola bars and juice boxes to Sams. Even then, this one stood out as whiny and sullen. He was invited to birthday parties when the thing to do was to include the whole class, but he was never one of the guys Josh had over after school or on weekends. Not a friend.

A current of adrenaline races from your feet to your heart. Your pulse pounds. There’s sudden, excruciating heat on your damp skin, and yet again you can’t catch your breath. You raise your body out of the pool. Now you are on the deck. You approach the wall. Hanging horizontally is that scoop they claimed wouldn’t work, that they refused to even try. It looks like a giant butterfly net.

You tear the scoop from the wall, throw it like a spear and watch it fly into the water. It lands well into the deep end of the pool, which is roped off because people aren’t allowed to swim there at this time of day.

The aluminium pole bounces gently, silently, and then floats. Not satisfying.

You spy plastic bins of the pool noodles they use for aquafit class. The green, pink, and orange noodles are insubstantial weapons, inadequate, but they’re all you have. You launch your missiles one by one. Airy foam, they land lightly on the surface of the water and barely make a ripple.

So you try a lifejacket. You grab one from the metal box on the pool deck that looks like an open-topped cage. You hold the jacket over your head and throw


so hard and fast your triceps feel like they’ll snap like twigs. Fluorescent yellow flies twenty feet and lands daintily, with minimal impact, the straps splayed on the water surface. What you need is a deep, hard splash, a thud, a rogue wave, a tsunami. Instead, brightly coloured buoyancy cheerfully decorates the deep end, insulting you. A pool party with a missing birthday boy.

The lifeguards finally notice and come after you. Women your age are invisible until they make trouble.

“Is there enough crap in there now to get your arses into the water?” you say.

“That’s disrespectful. Not appropriate,” the guard who must be Sam says.


In the old days, you never used this language. You were the endlessly patient mom with the constant smile, handing out melting ice-cream cake and disappointing Dollarama goody bags. Where did that get you? Nowhere.

You notice the scoop pole is no longer completely afloat. It tilts at 45 degrees and may yet sink to the bottom.

“You little fucker, I know who you are,” you say to that little shit Sam, and still he does not recognize you.

The lifeguards radio me to help them deal with another breakdown on the pool deck. These clowns can’t handle anything by themselves. For this, I get an extra $2.58 an hour, a cubbyhole office behind the front desk and a hand-me-down name tag with no name on it that says Daytime Rec Supervisor. Yesterday, it was a middle-aged perv with greasy hair who hung around on the pool deck, playing with his phone. He needed the Wi-Fi, he said. The guards claimed he plunked his butt on a bench and stared at the junior swim team. Mega-creepy. I told the guy that the library has great signal strength.

Just down the hall. Off you go, buddy. Today, I hear the problem before I see it. A woman’s voice, angry: “Why the fuck are you here? You’re useless.” Good question. I sometimes ask myself that.

“Why?” the woman shrieks, straining her voice to the breaking point.

I know her as soon as I hit the deck. It’s Josh’s mom. I’ve only met her once and I was one of hundreds streaming past the family that day, but it’s her. Screaming, poking at Cory “why you,” sticking a finger in Sam’s face, “and why you.” Coat hanger shoulders under a layer of pale, wet skin, and her blue swimsuit is too big. Spiky, salt-and-pepper hair sticks up from the black goggles wrapped around the bones of her skull. I call her by her name, “Mrs. LeBlanc.” She freezes, then wobbles like someone about to faint.

I don’t feel too steady myself, but I offer my hand: “I’m Sarah. I worked with Josh.” I doubt this sinks in, but an instinct for politeness draws her hand to mine like muscle memory. Her palm is damp and cold; I hold on tight and lead her away from those gaping idiots.

We walk across the pool deck to the sauna with an Out of Order sign, and I open the door. She’s transitioned from yelling to dazed and comes along passively, as if this is not super weird. I close the sauna door, and we sit on the lower bench.

“And let’s take off those goggles,” I say. “You’ll feel better.”

Again, she does what I ask. The goggles leave deep purple indentations around her eyes, as if someone punched her twice. Maybe she doesn’t know that it’s suction that keeps goggles from leaking, not death-grip tightness. Or maybe she just doesn’t care anymore.

I take her hand again and rest two fingers on her wrist to check her pulse. Her heart is racing. I ask if she has tightness in her chest, pain in her arms. Yes, she has pain in her chest every day, all day.

“Do I know you? Do you know me?”

I tell her again that I worked with Josh, how we took our certification course together, that we were weekend morning shift partners. Buddies. We took breaks here in the sauna, which was broken most of the time because the maintenance guy was and still is a tool. Her bruised eyes show a flicker of life and interest as I talk about her son. When someone tells you a new story when there can be no more new stories, it’s a gift.

“We’d hide out. He always made me laugh,” I say, and that’s mostly true, the exception being at the end, the last few months, when he’d come to work still half-wasted from the night before. She doesn’t need to know that.

Then she unreels a tale about a filthy Band-Aid. I nod at the right times. It’s not the moment to break the news that there’s always crap on the bottom and, sorry, that’s just the way it is.

Her words come slowly, as if she struggles to construct a story from long ago, details fuzzy. And then she just stops mid-sentence and slumps, chest collapsing onto her thighs. I realize that my fingers are still on her wrist and that her pulse has slowed.

I’m tempted to tell her about my brother, but don’t. There’s a fine line between empathy and saying “I know just how you feel” when that isn’t possible. It always pisses me right off when someone jumps into their own shitty tale. Shut up for a few minutes and let me have my own story. This isn’t the Pain Olympics.

So I say, “Mollescum contagiosm.”


Mollescum contagiosm. During our first shift together, Josh told me that he came to a birthday party here when he was seven or eight. A week later, he broke out in the grossest bumps. Red, round, and shiny— they covered his arms and chest, he said. He had to smear on smelly cream for almost a year, and every few weeks the doctor burned off new growths as they erupted. Kids at school made fun of him.

The next time I heard the story, at a work party with a proper audience, he played it for laughs. “Bumps from the top of my head to the crack of my ass,” he said, and we all roared.

“He never complained, oh but I was so angry,” his mother tells me. In her version, some kid came to the pool with the virus, and it was her son—only her boy—who caught it. Josh was in the same pool doing the same things that everyone else was doing, but he was the only one who got nabbed. It was a one-in-amillion thing.

“It wasn’t fair,” she says.

I tell her she’s not wrong. “None of this is fair.”

In a fair world, we’d sit quietly together now, in peace.

But this is the real world, and the wooden box we’re hiding out in isn’t soundproof. A muted but still crappy Coldplay song drifts in as the warm-up for aquafit begins out on the pool deck.

She starts to talk again, tells me that a few days ago she went into Josh’s old room to rummage. Her husband warned that there was nothing new in there since the last time, but she was restless.

“I had no idea what I was looking for,” she says.

In Josh’s top dresser drawer, shoved under the flannel pyjama pants she gave him that last Christmas, tag still on, there was a stack of swim instructor material.

“Certificates, swim badges, blank lesson plans. My husband was right. Nothing new.”

Now I can’t help myself, and I tell Josh’s mother about my younger brother. I don’t insult her with the “I understand” line. I just tell her what happened. I’m not looking at her face anymore; I’m looking down at my fingers on her wrist, relieved that her heart rate hasn’t sped up again.

“He wouldn’t have taken it if he’d known what it really was.”

She doesn’t speak, just sighs: an intake of breath so prolonged it must be deliberate, and then an eternal exhale.

I finish by saying, “Nowadays, I write in a journal; sometimes I go to a group.”

I don’t tell her that on the dark, shitty days when I’m furious and want to hurt someone I choose to hurt myself, that I call in sick and close the drapes and

drink Mike’s Hard Lemonade and binge Netflix all day in dirty sweatpants. I don’t tell her that I have nightmares about the night the cops came to my own mom’s door. Or that now I keep Naloxone in my car and at my apartment, that I double-check our pool supply at every shift.

Instead, I blurt, “Bring it all in, and I’ll take care of it.”


“I’ll take those swim badges and stuff off your hands.”

She nods, and then asks if she can go to the change room now, that she just wants to go home. I tell her she’s allowed back in the pool whenever she’s ready, that I’ll talk to the guards. Maybe next time will be better.

“I see myself do these things. I yelled at some girl on the bike trail the other day because her stupid German shepherd wasn’t leashed. ‘Oh, he’s well trained. He’s friendly,’ she said, and that just set me off.”

I get up and she follows. “Don’t forget to bring me that box.”

The goggle marks around her eyes are fading. “Yes. Someone should use it. Otherwise, such a waste,” she says.

The truth is that if she does part with all of Josh’s leftover lifeguard crap, it will end up in the garbage. They chucked out the old learn-to-swim program last winter and brought in a new one. I might store the carton in the swim office for a few days, but ultimately its fate is the dumpster out back.

But at least Mrs. LeBlanc won’t have to look at it anymore.

I lead her to the change room. “On we go,” she says, and her tone has the forced cheer of a weary Girl Guide leader heading out on a hike, as she pushes through the door on her own.

On my lunch break I go outside. The pool, my office, all of it is suffocating. The pervy pool guy is sitting on the next bench, hunched over his phone, hood pulled up over a grimy ball cap. The Wi-Fi signal is strong out here. It floats out to the metal chairs and wooden benches where people with no Wi-Fi at home arrive before the library doors open and stay after the doors close, even in cold weather when the garden is nothing but rocks and dead leaves. My logical brain knows he has as much right to be here as anyone else, but today he makes me angry, makes me feel he’s taking up a space reserved for others.

ARBORETUM, (MAN/WOMAN/PINES), 31” x 44”, 2016 | SARA ANGELUCCI Image courtesy of the artist the Stephen Bulger Gallery.




tell them there are trees here. when they cannot hide their surprise that you are smiling tell them again: there are trees here. when they pat the top of your head and smirk, like they can’t bear to reveal to you the fact of your despair, tell them again. there have been trees here stretching down for thousands of years before That Man tried to burn everything green and there will be trees long after he turns from ground to dust. there are trees here and children digging under them. there are llorones and date palms and arecas scratching old skin with long fingers. there are games of trompo and suiza and dominó. there is sugarcane and burnt coffee and old ladies yelling at young ladies yelling at dogs. tell them there are men who will tell you they love you again and again till the next jeva shows up. there are mothers sewing new dresses from old dresses from curtains from manteles. when they pierce you with their unbelieving stares, tell them again.

you are not talking about hunger or big words that end in –ismo, you are talking about your mother and her mother, and what it’s like to feed a man inside your house and what it’s like to weep at the death of your father and, no, again, you are not talking about death from starvation or shame, you are remembering a man who ate everything he wanted from life before life ate him. and, no, you’re not trying to get into politics or free mojitos and, no, you do not know when the oldest brother will die and what will happen when the Americans arrive. keep trying to tell them. repeat it again. between buildings dripping with age and abandoned construction projects, behind propaganda billboards and faces of big bearded men making promises we will all die to keep. they are growing as we speak, digging their roots deep beneath the crocodile at the bottom of Caribbean Sea and I know you are tired but know you must keep telling them tell them again, again, again so they don’t forget.



My mother is lucky like she got everyone out, not in time but enough to make a fire last the month, my mother is strong like she laughs while her stomach turns to ashes and what makes her go crazy is we let the bananas go bad, my mother is clean like the floors look like no one’s ever lived here and she’s happy we won’t have to hide the dust under our tongues, my mother is mad like she hugs us without reaching the ceiling and no man is ever gonna change anything, my mother is music like she’s a violin staccato and no one can catch her like a fox gone too far into wood, my mother is sorry like she laughed at her son’s good intentions, let her daughter drill holes in her skin, and no one forgave anyone, my mother is mine like she gave away hearts she picked up on the street so her children could see something other than this, my mother is



My grandfather used to say un real de tripas was something that never ended A story from a neighbour when your boots met in the stairwell Or a republic Un real es diez centavos in the old colony’s dime They called it un real de plata fuerte Dime of silver strong No mi abuelo called it un real de tripas tripas being a pig’s intestines A dime’s worth of guts thick silver unbreaking More guts than anyone ever needed The way a story never ends when you want it to The way a man’s beard can grow and grow My grandfather was not a dime or a peceta’s worth of guts His guts did kill him though or was it the republic We spill guts trust guts stuff guts with silver unravel guts like yarn When something follows something for so long it reels stacks of dimes and lifetimes of pesos in shirt pockets

The old colony did stop sending them eventually Just like someone’s guts eventually end in light if you lay them out flat



The appointment is quick and painless, so unexpectedly simple that I forget to rejoice when it’s over. Seated obediently at station G, luxuriating in the air conditioning, I look away from my arm for a moment, glancing around the echoing auditorium to see if I recognize anyone. Anyone’s upper face at least. Not to chat or even to say hi, just out of sheer curiosity, a sort of rubbernecking instinct that I have rarely been able to exercise for the past seventeen months. Maybe a glimpse of a new couple that has formed in the muffled stretch of time since anyone has run into anyone. Some gossip to bring back home to Hari.

Hari seems sick of me lately. They have burrowed into themselves. I keep catching them folded up uncomfortably on pieces of furniture, squinting at their phone. I don’t see anyone of note. When I turn back to show the nurse I’m paying attention, I realize that she is already completing the swift gesture and throwing the used needle into the receptacle, nodding at me.

“Good job,” she says.

“That was fast,” I say, or something similarly meaningless. “Been here long?” I ask her.

“Since 7:00 a.m.,” she says.

“Oh yeah, long shift,” I say, and I try to think of what I can say next to keep seeming friendly and grateful, but she’s already indicating the relaxation area where everyone has to wait for fifteen minutes before we can go back outside into the blaring sunlight.

At minute twelve, there’s a shout from behind me. I crane my neck around. A teen boy has fallen from his chair to the ground. We all gasp, or maybe I just imagine a collective response because I can’t fully see anyone’s face. A woman, his mother I assume, yells for a nurse. Two nurses are at the boy’s side in seconds, having materialized a wheelchair from a nearby nook, and he’s revived and being wheeled away with a water bottle by minute thirteen. “Did this happen to you last time?” one of the nurses is asking him. “No,” the boy

says. “Never happened to me before.” He seems lucid, calm. It was just a momentary collapse. Everyone relaxes back into their chairs once he is out of sight, behind some plastic sheeting. The digital clock blinks 16:35. I pick up my bag and sling it over my shoulder. My arm doesn’t even hurt. I push through the swinging doors into the muggy afternoon and bike home, squinting into the sun.

“Igot it!” I announce to Hari as I walk in the door. I waggle my arm at them, letting the fat ripple peacefully, like a sail. They used to appreciate this sort of thing about me. They used to praise me from head to toe until I blushed and squirmed out of their arms. Now, they barely look up from their screen. Their long body is folded up, like a bunch of tent poles, in a plastic garden chair that we salvaged from the sidewalk last year; a pile of dirty plates and glasses languishes beside them on the floor, within reach of their left arm. The apartment is thick with jasmine incense. The incense sticks smell alluring to me, until they’re lit. Then, they ignite an unshakable nausea. Hari knows this, but neglects to alter their behaviour. Incense is the only thing that calms them, they sometimes remark when looking at me. As if I’ve challenged them in that moment when in fact we may have had a disagreement the night before about something totally unrelated. Holding my punctured arm gingerly, I prop up one of our ancient windowpanes with a plank of wood. I fumble for the cord of our tiny metal fan and plug it into the socket behind the overloaded bookshelf. “Maybe you should move your appointment up. I saw all these people get through in the drop-in line. Then we’d be on the same schedule.”

“Nah,” says Hari, thumbs flicking, then tapping furiously. Are they playing a game or messaging someone?

“Why not?”

NOCTURNAL BOTANICAL ONTARIO, (AUGUST 15, CARDINAL FLOWER, MINT, JOE-PYE WEED), 34” x 47”, 2022 | SARA ANGELUCCI Image courtesy of the artist the Stephen Bulger Gallery.

Hari shrugs. They can’t be bothered, I think, irritated, even though not being on the same schedule means more and more negotiations about where each of us is going and who we are seeing outside of our household. The mutual sense of purpose that felt so natural in the early months has become laboured. I can’t pinpoint when it began, but now Hari orders take-out most nights without telling me and eats it in whichever room I’m not in. Sometimes even in the bathroom, which I find weird. Also, the measure of weird has morphed and bulged over the past year or so, and I don’t have it in me to say anything when I find globs of harissa under my feet in the shower. When they aren’t ordering takeout, they don’t seem to eat anything at all.

“Can we try to eat dinner together a few times a week?” I had asked them when it had first started.

“I just want to do my own thing for a bit.” They looked up from their phone, their thick brows knitted together. “We’ve been doing every single thing together for, like, two years.”

“It hasn’t been two years,” I protested. “Not yet.”

“I just need some space to myself,” Hari said, their expression softening a little. They gave me a half-smile. “I’m researching stuff. I need to concentrate.”

Since then, I’ve tried to remember that Hari wanting space isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Maybe some extra space to think will be good for both of us. Relationships have to ebb and flow. Like the seasons, the tides.

droning above. I knew that Hari had lived with several other partners before me, and that every single one of these cohabitations had ended badly. But maybe they were right. Maybe what had been missing in those other partnerships had been an abundance of quality time. There was no need to be paranoid: Hari positively beamed every time they looked at me. They got me excited about trying new recipes; they filled our bathtub with essential oils and rose petals for me. They introduced me to sex toys I’d never even heard of before, made my pleasure into a special project. This was love, I had thought. It was a little frightening how quickly it had come about, and sometimes I worried that I barely knew Hari at all, but with the world daily becoming more unrecognizable and more terrible, surely I could allow myself a little joy, even though I knew better than to say this to any of my friends who had been forced to hole up alone.

Technically, we do spend all our time together, but it never feels like we connect anymore. At the beginning, every day had been an ebullient adventure despite the worsening global crisis. Hari had been the one to suggest that they move in, even though we’d only been dating for two months—their belief in our romance was infectious back then. They had been so sure about us, so sure that the crisis and its attendant regulations were a “blessing in disguise” for our relationship. “Now, we’ll really have time to fall in love with each other,” they’d said, as we spooned in my creaky double bed, listening to the strange silence outside, the lack of traffic, the lack of airplanes

Now, in an attempt to prove to Hari that I can do things on my own, I’ve started growing vegetables on our cramped back balcony. My friend Milo helped me lug sacks of soil and compost up the fire escape. I spend my time defending the spindly plants from the hot summer wind, the random hail storms, and the increasingly hungry back-alley vermin. A muscular grey squirrel watches me daily from its perch on a half-dead maple that grows out of the neighbour’s backyard. At night, it makes numerous holes in the soil, and when I dig around, I find strange treasures: a length of red yard, a metal button, hunks of mouldy bread, three green twistties. Never anything that could actually be dug up in winter to eat. “What are you doing?” I shout to it. “This isn’t the way to survive.” I make embarrassingly small salads for myself: three leaves of bumpy dark green kale, three barely ripe cherry tomatoes, a handful of arugula that looks to have been chewed by small jaws, five chives, and some nasturtium flowers. “They’re edible,” I say to Hari. “Look!” Like I’m a magician at a children’s party, I wave my hands in front of my face and then pop the soft orange petals into my mouth, closing my eyes. When I open them, Hari is looking at their screen, frowning.

“What’s wrong?” I ask.

“Nothing. I’m just doing research.”

“Research about what?”

“About the current situation,” Hari looks at me ominously. The current situation is indeed ominous, but there’s something about the glint in their phonedazzled eyes that disturbs me. “You really shouldn’t have gone to that appointment the other day; we don’t know the risks. Something bad could happen to you.”

“What are you talking about? You’re still going to yours, aren’t you? You already got the first one. What’s the big deal now?”

Now, in an attempt to prove to Hari that I can do things on my own, I’ve started growing vegetables on our cramped back balcony.

“I’ve set it aside until I know more,” they say. They peer at the tiny salad. “Did you use any pesticides when you grew all this?”

“Have you talked to any of your friends lately?” I know they haven’t. In response, they turn over on the couch so that their broad back and tangled overgrown mullet is all I can see. I suspect that they’ve been getting into arguments with everyone they know. I’ve scrolled past heated discussions in various queer Facebook groups, and on Twitter, but haven’t wanted to look any closer. If I don’t read their new beliefs, they won’t take shape in the real world, I tell myself. Whatever they were saying to people online, I thought, isn’t any of my business. I can’t face the thought of being even more alone than I already am.

everywhere, multiplying daily. I’m trying to avoid using any chemical sprays, for fear of Hari’s reaction.

“Maybe your role-plays are your new way of communicating.”

“Maybe,” I start clipping away at infested leaves. But I can never remember what we say during those hours. The whole thing with role-plays, I think, is that you aren’t meant to remember them afterwards. If you knew you’d remember them, then you’d never be able to go through with any of them. I notice that something has dug up all my radishes, their plump pink forms gnawed at. Something or someone. Much as I hate losing my tiny crops, I begin to find something comforting about the physical evidence of visitation. Does the squirrel love me? I start to wonder. Does Hari?

ari and I still have sex,” I find myself declaring to Milo, who is aware of the increasing distance between us. We engage in increasingly obtuse role-plays, which come on suddenly, like weather, and recede just as quickly. “I’m a city bus that’s running seven minutes late and you’re the driver,” Hari might declare, rounding the corner into the living room. “I’m a contested parking ticket and you’re the clerk at the municipal court,” I might decide, slinging myself down the hallway to where they’re searching for something in the hall closet. “I’m a cockroach-infested slumlord property and you’re a corrupt building inspector.” “You’re an increasingly dangerous pothole and I’m a fed-up suburban commuter.” Then we’re shucking off our clothes, licking each other’s fingers and teeth, strapping on various apparatuses, knocking against walls and doorframes, slapping against the top of the stove, the side of the dryer. Anywhere but the bed. The bed is for sleeping and stewing, we decided long ago. We barely touch in bed. The timing of the sex has nothing to do with whether anyone comes or whether the narrative of the particular role-play reaches its conclusive arc. The end might be signalled by the buzz of the doorbell in a neighbouring apartment. The yowling of the tabby tom in the alley. The juddering finish of the rinse cycle. As one, we know when it’s done. With a gesture, we begin to pack away the dicks, we walk silently to the bathroom to ward off UTIs with urination, we rinse off the harnesses in the sink. And then, we separate, back to our various personal corners of the apartment.

Milo assures me that this is a healthy sign, the continued sexual action. “Still, we never speak to each other anymore,” I say, picking crunchy aphids off of a sun-fried pepper plant. Their tiny green bodies are

I keep my mind hooked to deadlines. If we get through this month, it’ll be fine. If we get through this week without all the plants dying, it’ll be fine. But also, I find myself unable to imagine anything beyond the next month or two. I have a writing grant that’s meant to last me until the end of the year. Hari is on government assistance, also until the end of the year—like everyone, or at least everyone we know. What happens after the end of the year? A massive hole, which I feel almost eager to disappear into.

A few days after my appointment, I notice a swelling pain in my crotch. I’m on a call with my granting agent, trying to explain why I haven’t been able to write anything, when the throbbing discomfort becomes so insistent that I have to bow out and lie in bed for the rest of the hour. Later that day, in the midst of an elaborate role-play about an unidentified life form and a paranormal investigator, Hari, face buried between my legs, raises their head to tell me that the whole area is inflamed. “Yes, I can feel it,” I tell them, but I’m impatient—the urgency of what they’ve been doing to me is primary. “Don’t stop!” I order, even though I’m the investigator and thus playing the more passive role to their probing alien. They shrug and go back to tonguing me. This time, thanks to the expertly judged insertion of a vibrating butt plug, I do come.

Part of me hopes that the new swelling is my genitals clueing into the signals from my brain, taking on the work of transformation without me having to go on hormones. Milo, who’s been on T for several years, rolls their eyes at this. Their attitude towards hormones is matter-of-fact: if you think you want to try them, just get on them and see. Quit blathering on about the undefinable and tragic mysteries of your identity and how your body will never match your soul, how you are doomed to a life of being misunderstood and dissociated.

“You’re still miserable and dissociated,” I rib them, deliberately mishearing the first word.


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“Yeah, but that’s in response to the world we live in, not to the inherent dissonance of my physical and metaphysical forms.”

Can I blame them? They’ve heard me whine about my gender uncertainty every day for the past year and a half, at least. But Milo is aggressively and athletically single and never sleeps with the same person twice, which I sometimes envy, especially lately, but which also means that it’s hard to trust their long-term monogamous relationship advice. They talk about my relationship with Hari as if it’s some sort of necessary financial investment—something that we both need to do, sacrifices notwithstanding, in order to be in a good position later in life. Milo has a large inheritance and therefore does not need to worry about this sort of thing, they say, frowning slightly in sympathy towards my predicament. “Acknowledging their privilege” is their new thing. Sometimes it is unclear whether we are talking about the stock market or romantic love or something else entirely.

Hari, meanwhile, is aggressively against going on hormones. “Just for me,” they say, when they argue with Milo about it. “I just don’t want to put foreign content into my body without knowing the full effects.” Milo argues that there are plenty of studies and that it’s not like T shots are some kind of unresearched new experiment. Hari doesn’t back down. “I just don’t like the idea, and you should be wary as well,” they say placidly, which gets Milo even more agitated. I usually leave them to fight it out. I can’t decide anything with the two of them constantly at it.

“Do you want me to have a look at your junk?” Milo asks me. They trained as a midwife for some time before losing interest, so I suppose they do have some sort of expertise about genital appearances.

Lying on the couch with my legs open, my back sweat dampening the velour, I let Milo prod me until I’m obliged to shout that they’re being too forceful. “If you weren’t so averse to mirrors,” they say, trailing off. They know that I find all angles of my body horrifying to behold. We’ve known each other since we were teens and have seen each other naked, fucked up, passed out—and worse—so many times that I trust them more than I would a mirror, anyway.

“It’s definitely swollen,” they say. “But not in the way you’re hoping for. More on the side—I think you have a cyst on your outer labia, kind of a big one, actually.” They say “labia” in a half-whisper, as if I might be damaged by hearing it. “Whatever you do, don’t try to lance it. It will become much more swollen and painful, probably, and you’re going to need to take about five hot baths a day, which will eventually result in the whole thing popping and draining.”

// 16

I groan. I hate baths. And it’s 35 degrees out. “What am I, a hotpot lobster?” I say. “You learned this in midwifery school?”

“No, I used to get them all the time,” Milo says. “They were psychosomatic manifestations of my trauma bond with my mom.”


“But after we went to family therapy together— remember?—I never got one again!”

“So you’re saying that the baths don’t actually work, that I have to address my deep-rooted inner pain or something? My mommy issues?”

Milo looks at me. “Well,” they give me a careful pat on the thigh. “Maybe try the baths first.”

writing office, which they have announced is now their bedroom. They can’t risk breathing in my “vaccine shedding” at night, they say. Afterward, I run the hottest bath I can coax out of the old lead pipes and submerge my lower half in it, shouting in pain. The pain is something tangible, and it has a purpose.

Inevitably, my cyst curtails Hari’s and my sexual activity. It’s too painful. I try fucking them instead, summoning my topping energy, but even being turned on without being touched causes a riotous throbbing that goes far beyond fun and into the unbearable. I start to panic. If we can’t have sex, what are we even doing together? As it turns out, this is the least of our worries.

“Maybe it was your second shot,” Hari says, as we lie side by side, the fan rippling hot air across our stomachs.

“Maybe what was?”

“Your mystery swelling.” They aren’t looking at me. My brain flips over. I think about the online arguments, the articles I’ve glimpsed them reading on their phone. “What Doctors Don’t Want You to Know.”

“You’re kidding, right? It’s a cyst, Milo said so. It has nothing to do with—”

“Well, I’m really worried about you—about us. I’m reading a lot of stuff out there, personal anecdotes, things the authorities don’t tell us. You’re sitting around trying to write a navel-gazing memoir and ignoring the actual news.”

“It’s autofiction,” I protest, “and I read plenty of news.” My voice comes out whiny, makes me sound defensive when I want to be confident, an authority on the truth. “The news you’re reading isn’t news—it’s conspiracy theory bullshit, the kind we used to make fun of together, remember? Flat-earthers? We even did a role-play. Come on! You’re not into that stuff for real, are you?”

“If you don’t respect my bodily autonomy, this situation is untenable for me,” Hari says. I start to laugh before realizing that they are in earnest.

For the next week, I take five punitively scalding baths a day. This helps me to stay off my phone, which is blowing up with the increasingly incoherent messages that Hari sends me from the other room, about the dangerous toxins I’ve put in my body, how these may have rubbed off on them, how I violated their trust by bringing foreign substances into our home. They send me paragraphs of text about how I was never trustworthy to begin with, how our entire relationship is founded on lies, and how I obviously don’t love them since I am “putting their survival in jeopardy” by not respecting their needs. “You are selfish to your core,” they write. “You never wanted to make space for me in your life. And now that you’re tired of me, you want me to get sick and die.” When I read this paragraph, a nauseous chill rises from my chest, up my neck and into my face. How can they possibly say I don’t love them, that I’m trying to get rid of them, when they are the one who’s been abandoning me, day after day, for months?

Hari lugs piles of clothing and a random assortment of items that they have decided are theirs into my

Shivering with indignant hurt and despair, I lower myself into the water. Should I have loved Hari differently? Is there something I should have done, a different way I should have been, that could have stopped this from happening? Should I have given them more space, or less? I let the water boil my skin bright red. I let the steam mix with the terrible humidity of the city until my forehead is bathed in sweat and my mind can’t hold a single thought. Not a worry about Hari, not a stab of hurt at their accusations, not a fear about what’s to come. I lie there, breath shallow, head empty, prodding my crotch every so often, waiting for the moment when the thing that is wrong with me will pop and drain away.

“If you don’t respect my bodily autonomy, this situation is untenable for me,” Hari says. I start to laugh before realizing that they are in earnest.


We have notions about fathers, ideas about who they are and the role they fill in our lives. Fathers are caring. Fathers are supportive. Fathers are loving. They are the bedrock from which we can grow and become all we have the potential to be. It’s all nonsense. I don’t know where we get these ideas. Fathers in fairy tales, as in real life, don’t always embody these ideals.

Cinderella’s father is so enamoured by his new wife and his new family that he allows his daughter to be treated as a servant in her own home. He ignores the fact she sleeps in the kitchen, is covered in ash, and has become less of a person. He never objects. He never tries to protect her. In fact, in older versions of the story, when the prince comes searching for his bride, it is Cinderella’s father who sends the prince away, telling him she’s deformed, before he destroys any evidence that connects her to the ball. Fathers do not always have their daughters’ best interests at heart.

the night. It was still early, but I could tell by David’s breathing that he was awake and already angry. He’d been livid for the entire two days I’d let my dad stay with us. I pretended to be asleep. I hoped David would just leave for work.

Perhaps he could tell from my breathing that I was lying to him?

Probably he never considered me at all.

His foot smashed into my back. Pain exploded up and down my spine. I cried out, then buried my face in my pillow, muffling my sobs and the shame of my marriage, letting the hiss of his angry words flow over me.

“Selfish bitch,” he said. “Stupid whore.” He stood up. “Worthless.” He closed the door.

I listened as he showered. Left for work. And only when he was gone did I hobble out of the bedroom, unable to stand properly, my back in spasm.

I didn’t have to tell my dad the truth.

I’d had plenty of practice making up excuses. Slipping in the bathtub was my go-to. But after three years of marriage, I’d finally realized that unless I figured out how to end it, I might not survive. So, instead of pretending, I told my dad what life was like for me. I told him about the rages, the abuse, David’s cycle of tears and apologies and pain. My dad listened. He was sympathetic. He was not surprised. He talked about my karmic contract, what past-life connections with David I’d carried into this life to resolve. We talked with detachment about how I might best extricate myself.

It’s February 1992, and I am twenty-one years old when I cram the suitcase into the back of my little silver Toyota Tercel and drive my dad to the Greyhound bus station. We’re early, so we go to the cafe across the street and order tea. I wrap my hands around the mug, absorbing its warmth, too rattled to drink.

Yesterday I told my dad the truth.

I’d been lying in bed, clinging to the edge, trying to take up the smallest possible amount of space, careful not to accidentally touch David while he slept during

And, a day later, I am sitting across from him in the coffee shop, bitter taste of cheap tea in my mouth, my hands gripped tightly around my cooling mug.

“I’m scared,” I say.

My dad reaches across the table and takes my hand in his.

“Remember,” he says. “We are never given more in our lives than we can cope with.” I know he believes this. I believed it then, too. I thought there was some kind of grand plan, some divine force keeping tally that would turn my life around when it got to be too much.

I listened as he showered. Left for work. And only when he was gone did I hobble out of the bedroom, unable to stand properly, my back in spasm.

It’s time. He stands up. Wheels his suitcase across the street, and I trail behind. He boards the bus to head up island and back to my sister, and I stand on the tarmac and wave. Diesel exhaust billows as the engine roars and the bus pulls away, joins the stream of cars, all moving away from me. I stay there, rooted to the grey cement, until I lose sight of the bus. My father is gone for another year. There would be no help. No rescue. I am still married, still scared, and still unsure if I am going to make it out.

In “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” an earlier version of the “Beauty and the Beast” fairy tale, the father agrees to trade his youngest daughter for wealth. When the Beast approaches her directly, she refuses to go with him.

“Give me a week,” says the father. And he spends the week convincing her to do the right thing. He wears her down. Eventually she agrees, and the father earns enough money off his youngest daughter to keep him and his other children comfortable for the rest of their lives. And she must live knowing that her life has a finite value. Her life is only worth so much.

Adecade has passed since that day at the bus station. But I still worry at the memory of that day, the same way my tongue returns to my broken tooth, exploring the shape, the sharp edge, over and over again.

I live on a different island now. With a new partner. I made it out. I built a different life. My dad still visits on his yearly vacation. On this day, we are hiking through the forest. The broadleaf maples fracture sunlight onto my skin, and my dog darts in and out of the salal bushes hunting squirrels. Ravens chortle in the high branches above us.

And hurt still eddies beneath my calm exterior. I want to cry: “How could you have left me with him?” But I’m a good daughter. So instead, I ask: “Do you remember that day when I was still with David and trying to figure out how to get away, and I told you what was happening, and you listened and you held my hand and then you boarded the bus and you left? I can’t stop thinking about that day. How could you leave me with him?”

“It was your choice,” he explains after a long pause. I glance at him quickly. He’s frowning, concentrating on getting his words right. I look away. “You were married. You’d been married for three years. It was what you wanted.”

“But that day I wanted to get out. I was asking you for help.”

“You didn’t though. Not exactly. And I thought you needed to figure it out for yourself. You wouldn’t have learned anything if I had just sorted it out for you.”

“But I might’ve died. Did you think about that?”

“Yes. It was hard. But you’d chosen to marry David because you had a lesson to learn. Maybe it was a lesson you could only learn if you died? I hoped you wouldn’t die. But it was more important that you do what you were meant to do. I prayed for you though.”

His New-Age answer infuriates me. I kick a stick off the trail. Stride faster, putting distance between us. Maybe I was meant to learn how to ask for help? Maybe I was meant to learn what being cared for felt like? Had I really not been clear about what I needed? The soft, wet scent of rainforest holds me, the scent of rot and decay and rich life. Breathe. Swallow my anger. I got out on my own, I remind myself. I didn’t need help. But that doesn’t stop the wanting, though, the desire to be considered worthy of saving.

When the thirteenth fairy curses Sleeping Beauty, her father acts. He orders all the spinning wheels in the castle to be burnt in an attempt to protect her. And when that fails and the curse comes to pass, he asks a fairy to enchant his entire castle, putting everyone to sleep so she is not alone. His grief is huge. In “Sleeping Beauty,” the father does everything he can to protect his daughter. Ultimately, he fails. But there is joy in the fact that he tried.

Fifteen years further on and I have my own kids. Being a parent opened a deep well of terror and love inside my heart. I can be ferocious if I think someone is hurting my child. Like a dog circling a worn blanket, trying to find the right spot to settle, I’m still trying to find the place I can rest with the choice my father made, find a way to forgive him for not being the dad I desperately wanted. I have to let it go. My kids need a grandfather. Forgiveness is tricky. It’s something we do for ourselves rather than others. I need to let go of the hurt I feel when I remember how he boarded that bus and left me. Let go of the anger that he didn’t take me with him. I need to forgive myself for not knowing better when I got married. I need to forgive myself for not getting out sooner. I’m flawed too. Each day I try to do my best as a parent. But I mess up. I make mistakes. He thought he was doing the right thing. But I wanted a father like Sleeping Beauty’s, a father who would burn the world to protect his daughter. Yet that’s not the kind of father I had. It’s not the kind of father most of the daughters in the stories had. Our fathers are human. Our fathers are imperfect. No woodcutter is going to storm into our lives, axe held high, ready to take out the wolf. We have to wield our own axes. We have to take charge of our own stories.




For once,

All the clocks ceased to tick

The buses refused to come to the station

The subway shut down indefinitely

Tracks shrugged off their trains

Babies opened their mouths but tears eluded them

Planes dropped like dead flies from the sky

Cars shrieked to a stop on asphalt

Drivers got out and walked into the confused ocean

Tenants leapt from apartment windows

The sun closed heavy lids on its eye

The moon abandoned the night Stars denied their shine Wind collapsed into nothing For once,

The scream of your pain stopped the world As one, the universe looked upon your pain And was blinded



The word baby refuses to form on my lips. If it was a single word like babe, I think I might manage to let it out. No, babe evokes my girlfriends or a baby in swaddling clothes. It’s easy to say, I tell myself. It’s just bay-bee, like bay—the sea’s inlet—and bee—a buzzing insect. Combine it, baybee—a buzzing insect by the sea’s inlet. I can say baby when passion is reduced to the sensation of blood pumping in my veins. I can say baby because I don’t have to put it through the thought checkpoints in my mind, I just let it slip out, baby.

But when my phone rings amidst the thousand eyes of the public, the endearment shrinks, this stifling of emotion increases, the words are in my stomach as the name flashes on my screen, I pick it up and the word is in my chest beating along with my heart, I say hello in a dispassionate voice so no one knows that someone special is calling, someone whose tongue has been in my mouth, we finish the conversation, and baby travels to my mouth, debating with my teeth and tongue to form the words that my mind has already said over and over again, baby is out of my mouth in a whisper when the call ends and can no longer be heard.


There is a woman on fire presiding in the place where even time and gravity daren’t exist Everywhere

Her feet tread

Is set ablaze

And She is bringing that raging furious damnation upon the heads of men pretending to be gods deciding who lives or dies ///

NOCTURNAL BOTANICAL ONTARIO, (JUNE 18, MOTH ASSORTMENT OF SEEDS, FLOWERS, LEAVES), 34” x 47”, 2020 | SARA ANGELUCCI Image courtesy of the artist the Stephen Bulger Gallery.


CONTENT WARNING: plane crashes, 9/11, violence, and war


At 0:03, the camera zooms on a man standing in the middle of a city sidewalk. At 0:04, he lifts his baseball cap and glances overhead. The camera swivels upward, following an airplane across the blue sky—it really is so, so blue—and toward the shimmering bulk of a nearby office tower. Fire blooms from the side of the building. The camera shakes. The person holding it cries out.

The video doesn’t show it, but many lives have just ended. Hundreds, probably. Max can’t help but go back a few frames in search of the tiny people in the pixels. He doesn’t find them, but he knows they’re there.

A news montage rolls from 0:24 to 1:22. Grey plumes on black-and-white vertical stripes. A single helicopter at the edge of the frame. Was this purely an accident, one anchor asks, or could this have been an intentional act? The second plane hits at 1:45. For some reason, Max still expects it to burst out the other side in one piece.

In the next shot, people lean from broken windows on the upper floors. Small and smudgy figures flail their arms and wave the white flags they’ve improvised from what appear to be tablecloths and dress shirts.

“Dude. Come on or we’ll be late.”

Max glances up from his phone.

Danny stands at attention, backpack on, chest strap buckled, as if his destination were a mountaintop and not third period phys-ed. “You know what Weiss is like.”

The school cafeteria has emptied, the tables scattered with debris: half-crushed cans of Monster, twisted candy wrappers, plastic trays spattered with ketchup and mayonnaise.

Max returns to his phone. He has a little more time.

Danny finds Max’s backpack on the floor and starts packing his stuff for him. Max, it should be noted, did not ask him to do this.

“Why do you watch that shit anyway?”

“You stream stuff from Ukraine,” Max says. The guys in their grade all live for those videos—the volleys of gunfire, the women screaming, the bodies lying facedown in dirt. Or they trawl Reddit for clips of people accidentally dismembering themselves with fireworks. But somehow Max is the depraved one?

“Your shit is creepier,” Danny says.

“Why?” Max makes a point of never listening to the 911 calls, though there are dozens of them on YouTube. He does read the transcripts sometimes.

“I don’t know.” Danny pulls Max to his feet. Easy to forget he’s got some muscle under all that dough. “But it definitely is.”

By the time they get their gym kit on and make it out on the field, the rest of the class has already split into teams.

Mr. Weiss greets them with a grin, clipboard under one arm: a menacing posture. “Tuttle! Cruz! I was starting to think you were dead.”

“We’re sorry, Mr. Weiss,” Danny sputters. The short run from the change room has left him breathless. Max doesn’t organize his friends into tiers because to do so would be highly douchey. But if he were to mentally stratify his friendships, Danny would fit somewhere along the second or third rung. He isn’t particularly funny or even fun. When they met in Science 10 last year, Max hadn’t looked at Danny and thought, That kid’s cool, I want to hang out with him Max hadn’t thought anything at all.

Weiss points to the far end of the field, a plain of gummy brown turf. “Laps.”

Danny’s eyebrows soar. “But Mr. W—”


The other kids snicker.

Max searches the crowd for Cayden Smithwick, a top-tier friend he’s known since kindergarten. Cayden won’t return his gaze. None of them will.


“I don’t know why I wait for you all the time,” Danny says as he’s jogging away.

of the North Tower, how patrons could see the whole Manhattan skyline while they ate, how the restaurant lost seventy-two employees that day, not counting the security guard or the six contractors who were there working on the new wine cellar.

“Don’t be pissed,” Max says.

Danny reaches into the plastic jug of steaming vinegar water and pulls out another handful of forks to polish.

Max tries again: “It was one class.”

Danny scrubs each fork with a folded coffee filter until the tines gleam, then chucks them all in the grey bin on the counter.

They’ve been huddling in the boggy warmth of the restaurant kitchen since their shift started twenty minutes ago, two busboys in matching red polo shirts. A whole rack of cutlery later, Danny still has not uttered a word. It’s slightly overkill.

In the back, one of the line cooks calls, “Service, please.”

Danny tosses his coffee filter aside and goes to collect the food from the window.

He has a good life, Danny—a normal life. A life completely undefined by random tragedies like autopilot malfunction and control system failure. Danny’s mom doesn’t lie in bed crying all day. Danny’s dad doesn’t sit around crushing beers all night. Danny’s sister isn’t—Danny’s sister isn’t—

Max sunders the thought, queues up a video, and props his phone against the cutlery rack so he can watch and polish at the same time.

A few seconds later, his boss presses through the swinging door and booms, “Maximus Decimus Meridius! How art thou?”

Max scrambles to hide his phone. Maybe Evgeni didn’t see it yet?

“It’s okay, man,” Evgeni says with a laugh. “Polishing is boring, I get it.” He retrieves a porcelain teapot from the shelf overhead and starts filling it with hot water from the spout on the coffee machine. “What are you watching?”

“Windows on the World,” Max says.

“Never heard of it.”

Evgeni has always struck Max as vaguely damaged. Something about the big silver rings he wears on his thumbs and the fuzzy grey tattoos that poke out from under his sleeves. He might, Max thinks, actually understand.

Max replaces his phone and hits the play button. “It was a restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center.”

“Oh. Weird.”

Before Max can help himself, he’s telling Evgeni everything—how Windows took up the top two floors

“Cantor Fitzgerald lost 658,” Max adds, for context. Water overflows from Evgeni’s teapot, gliding down the sides and over his knuckles. “Shit!” He thunks it down and shakes out his hand, wincing. “658 what?”

“Employees. Of the company.” Does Max have to spell it out for him? “Big investment firm, Floors 101 to 105, no survivors.”

Evgeni presses his lips into a thin line. His eyebrows draw down and together, as if a seam has tightened at the centre of his face. It is the look of a person thinking very carefully.

“You know a plane isn’t gonna crash into our restaurant, right?”

Max seizes another handful of cutlery from the jug. His nose stings from the tang of vinegar in the air. “I’m not stupid.”

“I mean, it makes sense that you would find that stuff …” Evgeni’s eyes flicker back to the phone, to the digitized camcorder footage of restaurant-goers in suits, servers in white jackets, high windows, a dusky horizon, “… interesting. Given what happened, I mean.”

Interesting isn’t the half of it. But Max can’t find the right words. “Everyone remembers where they were that day.”

“Except you. You weren’t born yet.”

Danny breezes through the swinging door with an armful of dirty plates and begins scraping mashed potatoes and green beans into the giant garbage bin beside the dish pit.

“I’ve been meaning to ask, kid,” Evgeni says. “How’s your family doing?”

“They’re fine.” A speck on this one fork won’t come off no matter how hard Max rubs it. Must be dried food or something.

“You know you didn’t have to come straight back to work, right? Like, I would’ve held your job for you.”

Max throws aside his coffee filter and attacks the speck with a thumbnail instead.

“Four months isn’t a long time, you know, when it comes to grief.”

The bit of dried food wedges up under Max’s nail with a tiny dart of pain.

Evgeni won’t stop talking, his voice a murmur and a jet engine: “I can’t imagine how you must—”

“Max, can you show me the new place where the saltshakers go?” Danny. He shores up before them with arms akimbo, another of his Boy Scout poses.


“The saltshakers?” Max says.

“Debbie found a new spot for them, didn’t she?”

“Oh. Yeah.” Max adds the fork to the cutlery bin and rubs his hands on his pants. “Yeah, I’ll show you.”

Evgeni glances between the boys, licking the fronts of his teeth. “All right. I’ll let you kids get to work.” He slides the teapot onto a plate beside a packet of orange pekoe and disappears into the dining room.

There’s something funny about the way Danny looks at Max.

“The saltshakers go next to—”

“I know where they go.” Danny shakes his head. “Obviously, I know where they go.”

Max still isn’t quite sure what his problem is.

“We got a recommendation for a therapist, a really good one.” Whatever Mom sees in his face, it leads her to lick her lips and add, “For you.”

Heat pools in Max’s chest. This is too much— Mom’s bedhead, Dad’s beer stench. Their raging hypocrisy. “Why me?”

“To process everything you’re feeling.”

“But why do I have to process it? Neither of you are.”

“I’ve started going for walks,” Mom says, which is hilarious.

“You walk to the end of the driveway, light a cigarette, and walk back.”

Dad catches a burp in his fist. At least he isn’t bullshitting.

“We need to take care of you,” Mom says. “You’re all … you’re all we …”

The next night, a knock arrives on Max’s door while he sits in bed in his boxers chomping down the last of his dinner waffles.

“Yeah?” he says.

The door creaks open, and there they stand, shoulderto-shoulder, faces shabby and grey, eyes at once puffy and hollowed out. Exactly like last time.

Max sits up straight. The dinner plate slides off his knees and scatters crumbs all over the bedspread, but what does that matter? “What’s happened?”

“Nothing, nothing. We only want to talk.” Mom sinks onto the edge of the mattress.

Dad lingers in the doorway, expressionless, hands thrust deep in the pockets of his jeans. Hard to believe these are the same people Max used to catch twostepping to Keith Urban in the kitchen, all smiles and sloppy kisses.

Mom smooths her skirt flat over her lap. The fabric is so full of wine and coffee stains it almost looks like that’s the design. “We’re worried about you.”

Max doesn’t buy it. His parents don’t have the emotional real estate to worry about him. These days, they don’t think of him at all.

“We’ve heard from a couple of your teachers lately.”

“About?” Max’s grades are fine. Max’s everything is fine.

“The videos you’ve been watching,” Mom says.

Max crushes a corner of waffle in his fist. “It’s … it’s history.”

“Your boss called us, too,” Mom says.

Max imagines Evgeni’s panicked voice on the phone. He knows which stairwells were blocked and how many people were trapped above the impact zones. He knows exactly how many firefighters died. That’s right— the exact number. I fact-checked him.

Max eyes the wall behind his dresser. If you blasted through the layers of paint and wood and fibreglass, you’d find Lib’s room back there, her bed half-made,

her closet teeming with the leather pants and weird leotards she spent zillions of dollars on. Everything exactly as she left it that day in January when she boarded a faulty Boeing bound for an exchange program in Switzerland.

“Why 9/11?”

This is the first thing Dad has said to Max in days. Weeks, maybe.

“Why 9/11,” Max repeats, to buy time. “Why 9/11 …”

Because that day was a threshold between two realities? he thinks. Because everything had changed, yes, but it had only just changed. For those few hours between 8:00 and 11:00 a.m., the old world was still near enough to see, to smell, to wave at.

Max shrugs. “The geopolitical consequences.”

He can tell from the way their mouths bunch and twist that this answer doesn’t satisfy them.

“She wouldn’t have felt any pain.” Mom says this all the time—to cousins, to neighbours, to herself in the mirror when she thinks no one’s looking.

He has a good life, Danny—a normal life. A life completely undefined by random tragedies like autopilot malfunction and control system failure.

Dad coughs.

Max rises from bed, finds some pants on the floor. “She would’ve been afraid.”

Dad coughs again.

“The appointment is at four o’clock next Tuesday,” Mom says. “Max? Did you hear me? Max, where are you going?”

He doesn’t know. Somewhere. Anywhere. “To meet a friend.”

“It’s a school night,” Mom says, blah blah blah, something, something. Max is past listening.

“I talk about basketball all the time, Max.”

Filling with an urge to get rid of the ball, Max squares up his feet, bends his knees, and takes a jump shot. The ball dings off the rim and goes clattering into a row of garbage bins between Danny’s house and the next.

Neither boy retrieves it.

“You’re too far away,” Danny says.

“I was trying for a three-pointer.” Everything has started fuzzing together—the hoop, the house. Max rubs his eyes. He must be tired.

“No—like … you. You’re far away. Lost in your head all the time.”

He isn’t sure where he’s headed until Danny comes into view. It’s a strange sight, Danny out on the driveway all alone, dribbling a basketball back and forth between his legs. Not that he isn’t tall enough. Danny’s always been more of a D & D kid is the thing.

“Hey,” Max calls.

Danny doesn’t look surprised to see him. “Hey.”

“Since when do you shoot hoops?”

Danny tucks the ball under one arm and scratches his nape the way he always does when mildly embarrassed. “I don’t know.”

“What do you mean, you don’t know?”

“I might try out for the junior team.”

“For real?”

“Haven’t decided.”

Darkness fell hours ago, the cul-de-sac illuminated by streetlamps and flickers of television in people’s windows. Awash in amber light, Danny strides toward the hoop and lifts off the ground for a layup.

The ball swishes down through the net.

Danny throws Max a chest pass with so much heat that Max staggers backward as he catches it. “You look like you’re in shock,” Danny says.

Max squeezes the stippled rubber between his palms. He isn’t shocked. Surprised, sure … “You’ve never talked about basketball before.”

There was a guy—Max can’t remember where he heard the story—whose contact lenses melted to his eyeballs as he fled one of the towers; that’s how hot it was inside the stairwell.

“It’s like you’re trapped in there or something.”

This guy met some people on the stairs who told him the way below was blocked, that he should join them and head for the roof. For whatever reason, he continued down, and down and down, through smoke and fire and rain from the ceiling sprinklers until at last he reached the underground shopping centre. The police wouldn’t let him out on the ground floor because the falling bodies made it too dangerous on the street.

“And here I am, out here all alone, just … waiting. Like some sucker.”

The building pancaked down behind him, and he woke up in hospital a few days later.

“I guess what I’m trying to say is it’s getting harder to be your friend.”

Max jogs over to the garbage bins, scoops up the basketball, and sends Danny a bounce pass. “Did contact lenses used to be made of actual glass?”

Danny lets the ball go sailing down the driveway, across the street, and under someone’s car. “Did you hear what I said?”

Here it comes, the old Danny Cruz guilt trip.

“You know what, man?” Max says. “I’m sick of you being pissed at me all the time.”

“I’m sick of you being an emotionally unavailable dickhead.”

“You sound like a girl.”

“Oooh, burn.”

They blink at each other. Laughter arrives out of nowhere and overtakes them both. They laugh for a long time—until Max’s stomach aches and he feels wetness at the corners of his eyes.

“I guess what I’m trying to say is it’s getting harder to be your friend.”

The camera zooms on the upper reaches of the North Tower. Flames bristle in the windows while smoke gushes to the—what would it be—the south? This video was shot from a boat on the Hudson River; the soundtrack is one of lapping waves and trilling motors. Max has watched it a couple times before.

He skips ahead to 1:39, when the cameraman says, Oh my God. The fires seem to brighten. The smoke seems to blacken. At 1:43, the antenna tips over and disappears into the pall. The tower peels open and showers down a churning mass of steel beams and silt.

“It’s PE now.”

Max glances up from his phone.

Danny: backpack on, chest strap buckled. “I’m not doing laps again, Max.”

The cafeteria has emptied, the stampede of postlunch foot traffic now a distant rumble.

Max rewinds a few seconds. There’s time to watch the North Tower collapse at least once, maybe twice more.

“Oh my God,” Danny and the cameraman say in near unison.

Dust avalanches onto the streets of lower Manhattan, a great cloud that funnels between buildings and spills onto the river. The camera pans across the

waterfront, a long stretch of seawall, green trees, and tiny fleeing people. They race madly away, away.

Max watches it three more times before closing YouTube. “All right, I’m—”

But no one hovers over him with arms akimbo. No one is packing his bag. There’s nothing to see but empty tables, nothing to hear but the breath jagging in and out of Max’s lungs.

Danny is gone.

Max has been left behind.


He leaves his phone on the table and runs. Skids out into the foyer. Hangs a left toward the gym. Weaves through the thin crowd of students lingering in the hall.

Though the building isn’t on fire, it sure feels like it. In his mind, he’s wading through knee-deep water from busted pipes, scrambling over heaps of concrete, descending floor by floor into the dark until finally he glimpses the back of a familiar head.

Max might cry. Because here’s Danny. Here’s his friend, leading him through the maze of crumbled walls and shorn rebar, through flames and smoke, toward the world.

/// Open Season Awards byEnterfor$35 Nov.1,2023 $6000 prize money in three categories • Poetry • Short fiction • Creative nonfiction


Before my heart grew wild as Northern Shield crocuses, my queerness was fighting to grow in shallow soil. Dust takes generations to cast dirt on the Shield’s slate rock. The Shield’s short seasons leave you growing slowly, leaning with the wind to survive nights when seasons snap cold. I was still collecting stones, planning treasure hunts, and designing mud pies. Love meant family, music, and outdoor exploring. I was a gradual child, imperceptibly gathering to build a self. It takes a long time to grow when you’ve been excavated from this world. Doctors crop you into slabs and haul each part away, the health-care system digging deeply. Being extracted and polished into pieces divorces the mind from the body. You are a quarry, so you gradually fill with water long after the abandonment.

When you’re a child, doctors speak about the body in third person. Doctors talk to your parents—rarely look down at you—send you to “play” in the next room. Through the walls, you feel your family being spun and wound into rope. Their voices taper off as tension pulses through the vents of children’s hospitals. As a child, you start to see your body as the black hole in your family’s galaxy. To stave off emergencies, you try to focus away from your darkness. You skip and sing and play to drown out uncertainties that hide inside the trunk of your body. If you stay busy stretching every leaf towards the sun, smiles and songs can keep your thoughts from snagging on those uncertain moments. When your body is engulfed in a fear you can’t explain, you wonder if you might be a lie and swiftly brush back memory to keep that fear from you.

You learn to discuss illness from a distance. Actions and decisions can be described in first person, but when you reach discomfort and fear, flip the language into third person:

“I was walking home when the left hip subluxated.”

“I hit the ground before the hands responded, cheek to the pavement, skinning a side of the face.”

When you grow up this way, you focus less on who you are. You shrink to hold posture with stillness. You become the rock, altered to sand, take up less and less space inside the body, let fewer and fewer people in, since they might feel fear. You pay attention to what’s different about you, you accept it, and block it from reaching the rock cliffs of their shores, because you are the ocean, protecting the stature of their precipice from the crashing erosion of your unpredictable waves.

// 29
ARBORETUM, (WOMAN/WHITE BIRCH), 24” x 34”, 2016 | SARA ANGELUCCI Image courtesy of the artist the Stephen Bulger Gallery.

A small town’s lurking ableism feels like a gong. Its reverberation surges to hold a sameness in its radius. The only way to deaden that type of sound is to absorb all the town’s voices. You grow to be a grounded stone, remaining stiff and planted until the jutting sneers and lunging laughs fly through you so quickly that they discharge like a bolt of lightning as it scatters across the surface to dwindle. You tightly smile back at nicknames they give for your body’s reactions. Since your body is unable to speak when an episode hits, you watch as hands rush to help, or feign concern, or stare with anger, with fear, or repulsion. You always will fear these moments when you can’t give consent as your capacity to push anything away dissolves. You always remember floating between them when you are voiceless. You always know you’ll be the loose link in every one of their games, red rover red rover, swallowed up in the group’s calculated wins. You’re it, come on, why can’t you chase me? Waking to hear their laughter, their pity, that swift rush of pride they spill when they see your imperfections. You focus to muffle your catching throat as they describe your body’s actions like some distant object: this rock, this water, that indescribable black hole.

When I stood by the campfire four days after the ice had melted, I felt my leaves open to the light of turning fifteen. Five new exchange students had appeared in our town that year, so my family offered to take them all canoeing. We set off to escape rural barn parties, ready to listen to lakeshores. As we set up a sauna on the beach to soak in the steam and dive in the ice-broken lake, I found myself star-struck, staring at a girl with the darkest wild and waving hair, who’d picked up a pair of scissors and chopped off reckless curls she didn’t want. She was glowing, standing by the fire, shaking from the iced cold, balanced somewhere between being locked in hypothermia and freed in a rush of taking the lake for herself. My hands fumbled with a towel and reached out just to wrap her, to press her warm … when a voice hissed the way drops hit the fire: “They’ll think you’re gay.”

The next fifteen years became a long circadian rhythm while I clamped my soft petals shut. It felt like an ongoing darkness, protecting people around me from me. The reservoir kept filling, until that wet spring when my dam suddenly broke. I was in grad school, trying to work my way up in the pack. Maybe the pressure became too much. All I remember are the looks in the eyes of my peers as I detonated classrooms and erupted exams. I refused to leave my studies for medical testing. But how can you focus when you feel the slow tick of a surgery waiting list deep in your chest, an uncertain bomb about to go off with a phone call that could come tomorrow or not at all? When a quiet anger thrashes your body as a marionette, you dance through pellet gun–stunning appointments, tests, and calls. They can sweep you in for brain surgery, and you have the same face painted onto you, unchanging. My body was positioned, screwed into a table’s sugita frame, installed in a surgery gallery, to be observed by anonymous eyes who honed in on the tissue of my faceless body—because during this surgery they needed patients to stay awake, to answer hours of questions after they tuck your uncut parts away. Your eyes are no exception, muffled below the blue cloth. Spectre surgeons call out testing questions to a body they never actually see, eye to eye. Alone you focus to fill the bowl, retain and release, to achieve a crucial correctness thick thoughts of the longest answers let’s hear you say the alphabet, with numbers in between, start with A-1, B-2, C-3 … and on, ok?

HARRIS // 30 ///

and so hard, you try into the stillness, tools clicking, their rustling so distant from your seat below the parachute of surgical cloth. To hear my body’s surgery without seeing any person felt like a seizure, shut from all others, firmly alone.

the only part of me that was not strapped down was the tongue, so the mouth shovelled words into the blue light of under water isolation.

It was a whole day later—maybe two—before my consciousness fully returned. I began to notice a palm-sized butterfly perched on my clavicle. Her breaths guided mine; her wings outstretched on our inhale, and I felt our shoulders melt to release the fears we’d been holding in. My butterfly and I spoke wordlessly in blinking breaths and light. We could see we had survived. We were seeds in the scenery. We’d washed down the reeded rapids with a cold rush that felt clear and symphonic. Now we could rest to grow.

I searched for her the next time I woke and recoiled to find instead an accordion-shaped drain cup, drawing liquid from the shunt in my skull so extra fluids could escape from me. Had I imagined my butterfly to fulfill my need and quell my fear, or had she appeared to give me the knowledge that ecology can be spiritual? When you are unconscious, you can still sense the world. You feel emotions fully without having to consider consequence or explain. What enters the mind sits there peacefully until you wake to fully regain the knowing. But when you do, you face unedited truths. When I woke from surgery, alone in the ICU, wrapped in a plastic tent that looked like a movie murder scene, the first truth in my mind was: “I am so queer.”

I might have still been in the hospital when I was on the phone with my closest friend. The receiver my dummy, words clattered from the stiff plastic grin in the highest pitch. She recalled the time we had to wrap ourselves in blankets drinking hot cocoa after that library hike was hijacked by a late-May snowstorm, and she told me that nothing would have to change, and it was okay. Then I gradually risked spilling out to my family, gripping my admissions like maracas; I rattled the words and waited. The pit stood alone, all extractors and handlers long gone; I remained, holding my breath to hear any echo of change. Finally, the quarry began to fill. I was calculating each affected source, measuring and reporting for years before I came to trust that this had changed nothing and I could see the water as a lake.

I finally started to breathe more. I don’t love bodies. Bodies can be broken; they change. Bodies are entitled to flaws. I fall for unpredictable hearts. I love minds, I love questions, and I don’t know what sort of person I might love next. I will celebrate love in the unforced way that it sprouts: organic in unexpected times and unfamiliar places. I will love my growth as it naturally appears by accepting both my love and limitations in equal and valid measure. I will love the way the Northern Shield crocus pushes to germination with snow still lying on the ground.




See me dead, and see the maggots dance in celebration of their simple birth— an easy world of food awaits them.

And after, when they take on wing to see the wider earth, I hope they hold a denser world than I, their host, contained.

Flies are my diaspora, they pull this bony scaffolding neat to shape a richer world.

And I have borrowed much. And I may not grasp the temporary.

But I know we must return what we are lent, and not hoard our flesh like the world’s greatest treasure.


Heavy; holding eyes dried by the brisk current of early autumn, we talk down the halo-sided streets until two,

Three, or four in the morning we return alone exhausted and sleep briefly cold.

A murder happened down the street from where we walked.

Often we were stopped by police and gave a stock response: we work night shift together.

But we never came across a body, only those bloody sheets on Elwin crescent.

We never cared to look—those nights we walked and spoke openly about the shared condition.

We shared cigarettes like truths; we tossed their ruined ends into other people’s green bins.



If it weren’t for the name on his chart, I wouldn’t have recognized the man in the hospital bed as my father. For one thing, he is completely hairless. The bushy eyebrows so often fused in disapproval are gone, as are the wiry tufts on his knuckles that used to scratch my skin like an SOS pad whenever he spanked me, which was often. I don’t know why he always used the back of his hand. Just another way to set himself apart from normal parents, I guess.

The straps of my carry-on bag bite into my shoulders as I stand beside him, feeling unclean in yesterday’s clothes and unsure of what to do next.

“Hi, Reverend.”

As soon as I was old enough to speak, I was taught to call my father Reverend, just like every other member of his congregation. Not that it matters what I call him at the moment since he’s been unconscious for three days. His body in the bed is much smaller than the one that still towers over me in my dreams. All the muscle and fat seem to have melted off, leaving only jaundiced skin stretched taut over a frame of spindly bone. His gown has fallen open to reveal his chest. I know he would consider this immodest if he were aware of it, but I make no move to rearrange the fabric for him. Instead, I pull a cold vinyl chair to the edge of the bed and sit quietly, watching his rib cage struggle up and down.

He must be mortified to have to share a ward with lifelong smokers. Although he often preached against the evils of alcohol and tobacco, ironically it was religion that made the Reverend sick. Turns out Regina has some of the highest levels of radon gas in the world, and his church in Albert Park was built right in the middle of a really bad pocket. The whole time my father was instructing us on the importance of spiritual cleanliness, his earthly vessel was slowly being poisoned by something he couldn’t see, smell, or taste. There’s a shitty sermon in there somewhere.

The sound he makes as he breathes is thick and wet. It reminds me of the porridge pot forever boiling on our stove as my mother herded her sleepy children into the kitchen for family devotions at six o’clock sharp every morning. More than once, my youngest brother nodded off and face-planted into his bowl while waiting for the Reverend’s long-winded lesson to end and breakfast to begin. Eventually, Mom took to setting out a wet facecloth with the brown sugar and 2 percent so I could clean him up with minimal disruption. Even now I can feel the cold, congealed oatmeal under my fingernails from scrubbing and scrubbing the dishes alongside my mother after the man and boys had all dispersed.

None of my brothers are here today, even though they still live in Saskatchewan. It’s a busy time of year for the trades, apparently, or at least that’s the excuse they’ve settled on. As much as I hate picking up their slack, I can’t say I blame them for keeping their distance. We’ve all had our fair share of run-ins with the Reverend over the years. Everyone’s got their own coping mechanisms.

It was easier when we were kids. Somehow, Mom managed to hold our family together through the silent Sunday dinners and disappointing camping trips and my father’s occasional forays into parenting. When she died unexpectedly during my final year of biblical studies at Briercrest, my predictable prairie world was totally upended. My siblings and I scattered to the wind like so many dandelion seeds, floating free from the withered stalk of our shared childhood to take root in our new and separate lives as adults. After moving to Toronto for graduate studies followed by a PhD, I never really looked back.

Certainly, I’ve done my best to call the Reverend on his birthday and Christmas every year, but our conversations never dip below surface level pleasantries into the murky depths of our tenuous relationship. When Priya and I got married, I didn’t bother inviting

K.R. BYGGDIN // 33

him to our wedding, and if during one of our biannual check-ins I happened to mention my non-male, nonChristian, non-white lover, he would politely clear his throat and shift the conversation in another direction.

“Theresa,” he said last time I called, even though he knows I go by Terry now, “have you got the same trouble over there with potato bugs? They’re giving me a real run for my money this summer. Just can’t get rid of them. It’s awful.”

I briefly muted the mic on my cell to hide the deep, calming breath I took before responding. “No, Reverend. I don’t have a garden anymore, remember? Priya and I moved downtown last fall.”

“Oh, that’s right. I forgot about your condo. Shortened commute, I suppose?”


I heard the squeak of skin on leather as he shifted in his recliner. Must have been hot in Regina. Growing up, the Reverend never wore shorts or swim trunks unless absolutely necessary. Every summer after we set up camp for our one week of vacation, the rest of the family would run down to the rusty-coloured lake for a quick swim while he stayed behind.

My mother managed to drag him along just once. I was snorkelling, and the sight of his legs sprouting up from the pebbly sand of the lakebed like ghostly white asparagus terrified me. I swallowed a good deal of water in my surprise. The Reverend had to haul me onto shore and thump my back to keep me from choking.

“Say, did I tell you Joshua Engle was accepted to the University of Toronto? Perhaps you’ll have him in one of your classes this fall.”


“Oh, you know. Tim and Sheila’s boy. You looked after him in the nursery during services, remember?”

He was always doing this. Talking about church people like I’d never left, expecting me to know or care what they were up to now.

I fiddled with a painting in the bedroom that hadn’t hung level since Priya and I moved into our new place. “I really don’t.”

“Anyway, I told him to look you up if he has any trouble finding a place to worship.”

“What? Why would you do that?” I didn’t bother hiding the annoyance in my voice this time. I’m a scholar of religion these days, not a practitioner.

“Now don’t be difficult, Theresa,” he huffed. “Because you’re my daughter and you know Toronto. I’m not asking you to give him a guided tour of the whole darn city. ‘She’ll point you in the right direction.’ That’s all I said. You don’t even have to talk to the boy. Just send him an email. It’s two seconds of your life. Honestly!”

I closed my eyes and pressed a thumb deep into the left socket to keep from blowing up at him. Terry, I wanted to scream. Child. They. You know that word. You used it to talk about potato bugs just a minute ago. Why can’t you get this right for me?

I didn’t say any of this out loud. Instead, I wrote down the contact information for some kid I’d apparently babysat twenty years ago and forced myself to offer a polite “Good night, Reverend” before hanging up. Priya greeted me with a kiss and a glass of wine when I emerged from the bedroom and collapsed onto our couch. She knew without having to ask how the conversation had gone. It was always the same with my father.

“You’re a good person,” she said, entwining her fingers with mine. “He’s lucky to have you as a child. I’m sorry he can’t see that.”

I wish Priya could’ve flown out to Regina with me. She understands me in a way I never thought family could. There just wasn’t time to make any sensible plans when I heard the news yesterday. The nurse caught me totally off guard when she phoned right before my evening class. Sure, one of my brothers had texted vaguely about our father being admitted to Pasqua a couple of weeks ago, but he didn’t sound worried. No one ever said the words Stage Four Lung Cancer to me. Or Metastasized. Or Unresponsive to Treatment. I’d already called the Reverend for his birthday, and Christmas was months away. I figured someone would let me know if things were serious. Someone in the family that is.

“Just thought you’d want an update,” the nurse said. “He hasn’t had many visitors the last few weeks, but he’s sure talked a lot about you. My cousin is parttime at U of R, and I’ve heard how hard it is to get tenure these days. Your dad kept saying how smart you were. He’s obviously very proud of you.”

This was news to me. The Reverend made his views on higher education pretty clear when I told him my time at bible college had led me to a master’s degree instead of a husband. How disappointing it was that I alone among his children held a serious interest in the study of religion. After all, people like me were supposed to take our biblical instruction from people like him, not the other way around.

I was surprised during our conversation that the nurse didn’t once misgender me or call me Theresa. Maybe it was unintentional, though she might’ve done some googling before reaching out. A few of my articles exploring gender and Evangelicalism are quite popular in certain (very niche) corners of the internet. Whatever the reason, I appreciated her kindness.

K.R. BYGGDIN // 34

As soon as I hung up, I cancelled my class and rushed home to pack. The next available flight out of Pearson left at 5:45 a.m. the next day. Part of me was pissed that once again my father was forcing me to get up early. That I was expected to look after him while my brothers sat on their asses. But I also knew I had to go. I needed to touch his heaving, rattling side, his cold and shrunken hands, and see for myself that this seemingly omnipotent force in my life was really dying.

The Reverend shifts in his sleep ever so slightly, or at least he appears to, and without thinking I cross my legs and snap to attention like he’s just caught me misbehaving from the pulpit. It’s infuriating how easy it is for this man to exert control over me again. I shift in my chair, deliberately spreading my legs wide and taking up as much space as I can.

I know just what my father would say if he could see me now. It’s the same thing he said on that frigid January day all those years ago when I almost made us late for church. My brothers and I had snuck out to the backyard to work on a snow fort during our precious free time between devotions and the start of the service. I was wearing hot pink leggings and a cotton T-shirt under my snowsuit to avoid overheating. As the eldest, it was my job to keep an eye on my Minnie Mouse watch and tell us all when to head back inside, but somehow, I forgot.

The Reverend was furious. He backed the minivan out of the garage and sat there fuming while Mom rushed around getting everyone buckled into their seats. There wasn’t time to change into our Sunday outfits, so we all tumbled out into the church parking lot with whatever we had on. My brothers tugged nervously on the sleeves of their ratty Riders bunny hugs as they filed past our parents towards the sanctuary. My father refused to look at them, but as I brought up the rear, he glanced down at my outfit and furrowed his brow.

“Not very ladylike, Theresa.”

My cheeks burned as I shuffled past all the women and girls dressed in floral patterned dresses and sensible Mary Janes. I took my place at the end of our family pew and kept my head down the whole service, staring at the once white fabric of my bulky winter boots, which had turned a dirty shade of grey after many adventures in the snow. In that moment, I realized I would always be a failure in the Reverend’s eyes.

I jump as my phone goes off way too loud for a hospital. It’s Priya.

“Hi.” Her voice is like a soft blanket wrapped around my shoulders.


“How’s it going?”

“The same.”

I press the heel of my free palm into my back and arch it to get the kinks out. The clock on the wall says it’s been five hours since my flight landed. I haven’t eaten or slept since yesterday, but I can’t tear myself away from the sight of my father’s chest expanding and contracting with breath after agonizing breath. For someone on his death bed, he sure is being stubborn about dying.

“You sound exhausted,” Priya says. “Should I book you a hotel maybe?”

I worry a hangnail with my teeth. “Maybe. I don’t know what I’m doing here.”

It’s odd. I thought the Reverend would have let go as soon as he caught a whiff of eternity underneath the duelling stenches of sterile preservation and bodily decay that overwhelm this room. After all, he’s spent his whole life telling me about the everlasting rewards his chosen brand of Christianity could offer its faithful few. So why is he hanging on?

“You’re being a good kid,” Priya reassures me. “It’s what you do.”

“I think I should say goodbye to him, but I don’t know how.”

I’ve never known how to communicate with this man. Every year on Father’s Day I tried to find a card that accurately described our relationship, but they don’t make cards for people like me: children who want to express how much of an asshole their parents are while still acknowledging that their lives have been inextricably shaped by their presence. By who they have and have not been to us.

“Just do what feels right. It’s all you can do. I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

I return to my vigil.

The Reverend breathes in. Out. In. Out.

I almost reach to take his hand, but pivot at the last second to smooth down his blankets instead.

“Just do what feels right,” I tell him, imagining how he’d rant against such New-Agey nonsense if he could. “Nothing’s holding you back here. You can go.”

Tomorrow there’ll be so many people to deal with. My brothers, the florist, the funeral home, his congregation. But for now, it’s just me and him, a failed father and his disappointing child doing the best we can. I’m not sure he’d want me here if he had a choice, but in the end, I’m the one who showed up. And I’ll keep watch as long as it takes.

Gradually, the space between each breath increases.

K.R. BYGGDIN // 35




, 2013 | SARA ANGELUCCI Image courtesy of the artist the Stephen Bulger Gallery.


Ipark behind the building near the dumpsters, taking a quick look around before slipping through the side door. Anthony won’t be here for another ten minutes, a precaution we take so no one sees us leaving work together. The smell of frying beef fills the vestibule and my guts flutter as I drop the key, so charged by the thought of what we’re about to do that the stink of meat makes my eyes roll back.

It was Anthony who started it—and he’s the one who’s married. I mean, I didn’t say no. As his supervisor, it’s the least professional thing I’ve ever done, but it’s not like I forced him.

He started six months ago in the Picnic Breads department, lifting bags of buns onto the stacking trays and rolling them onto the truck. There are nanas in Picnic Breads who can do his job. At the end of his first shift, he came up and asked if we could talk privately, then led me so far out of other people’s sight that I wondered why I was letting him. He turned to me with his little bird eyes and said, “If there’s something I’m doing wrong, I need you to tell me. I want to know when I make mistakes.” Since then, he’s made himself my pet: anticipating my needs, tattling on his co-workers, and every time I walk across the production floor, he’s watching. Like he knows something. I had no intentions toward him until the day we climbed in the company van to pick up the Christmas party catering and he gave me those eyes out on the highway. “You can make me do anything you want,” he said, his voice a full octave lower, “and punish me for fucking up.”

After that first time in the van, my perception changed. Every object—the clouds, the trees’ individual leaves—grew brighter, with sharper edges. I’d developed a new set of senses, along with two more legs and a tail. A part of me had awakened that couldn’t exist in daylight, and there’s so much daylight. I knew it couldn’t last, but while it did, I fed. Once the van became untenable, I rented us the apartment. It’s a basement, but it’s the cheapest I could find this close to the plant.

I walk softly down the hall carpet, trailing my fingertips along the confessional-hatched radiator, just like the one I used to pass as a kid on the way to Sunday School, when I could peek into the dark of the eye-level grate and try to see down into hell.

His wife, Heather, waits for him after work every day, standing next to their Jeep with the baby strapped in back. She has fairy princess features and itsy-bitsy hands. I watch her in the parking lot from the break room window. I’m so curious about her that some nights, after too many beers, I’ll scroll through their family photos on Facebook—their wedding, the Dominican resort, the baby—and zoom in on her face until she pixelates.

I open the door to the unit, switch on the murky hall light, and take off my work clothes on the way to the bedroom. I put on the raincoat and heels I brought in a shopping bag and twist my hair up in a clip. I’ve only worn these shoes one other time, to my cousin’s wedding. They have tiny velvet straps, and I can barely walk in them, but it’s part of the game. I also brought Dexter’s leash. Showing up before Anthony means I get to pace for a bit and pretend I’m impatient with him for being late. Get into character.

On my way back down the hall, my eyes still adjusting to the darkness, a sound like a laugh comes from the living room.

“Tone?” I ask cautiously. The noise in this building comes from everywhere and nowhere, through the walls and windows to the back alley where there’s always people fighting over drugs, or pigeons over an old souvlaki.

“Hello,” I say louder, and a papery rustle comes from the other room. I sneak a peek around the doorway then jerk back my head. The living room walls and ceiling are covered in black smudges like the place was vandalized with charcoal sketches. A flutter over the mantle and another laugh draws my eye to the candelabra atop which, covered in soot, sits a pigeon.

Not like we’d ever spend long enough here to use it, but one of the features of this apartment is a working wood-burning fireplace. The landlord showed me


how to open and close the flue, but I guess it got left open and this bird availed itself. There are bars over the street-level windows, so I’ll have to shoo it out the front door.

Grabbing a towel from the bathroom, I glimpse myself in the medicine cabinet mirror. Anthony would lose his mind if I ordered him to strip down and chase this pigeon while shaming him for not being good at it, but there’s only forty-two minutes left of our lunch hour and I’m reaching that point in our no-contact foreplay where my eyes go cold and my jaw relaxes. I’ll catch it myself.

I open the door so the bird has an escape route and come slowly at it, holding the towel out as a kind of scoop. It flaps overhead and perches on the windowsill opposite. I take another wobbly pass, but it swoops wide and resumes its spot on the mantle.

I should take off the shoes before I snap my ankle, but don’t want to risk spoiling the mood by making Anthony watch me stuff my way back into them. As I’m deciding my next move, a light-coloured object breaches the door, and I do a little pose with the towel. But, it’s not Anthony. It’s a beige bucket car seat, cradling a baby. With its tiny-handed holder.

The floor slides sideways.

From the dark hall, her eyes travel down to my shoes and back up, where they linger on my face. I stare back, open-mouthed, and she stops me with a finger, but just keeps looking.

“I’ll talk,” she says at last, the hollows of her face filled with the room’s brown shadows.

“So I’m up with her at two in the morning,” she nods to the baby, “and I’m playing ‘The Happy Song’ on my phone ’cause it’s the only thing that’ll make her stop crying, and from nowhere, I get a Like. On Facebook. On a picture from our wedding,” she pauses, head-cocked. “And I thought, Tessa Leblanc? Anthony’s supervisor?” Her expression flickers like static, then flattens.

“Him and me have known each other since we were kids. He’s not very smart. Or sneaky. He’s too chicken to break it off with you because he thinks he’ll lose his job, so consider yourselves broken up. Also, you’re going to quit, right after you give him a raise,” she shrugs. “If you don’t, I go to HR.”

Spit is pooling in the corners of my mouth when the pigeon gives a little grok. Heather narrows her eyes.

“It’s a pigeon,” I murmur. “It came down the chimney.”

She leans in through the doorway. When she sees the bird, her manner shifts. She sets the car seat safely behind her and rises to her full height, cocking a hip in distaste.

“You think you’re going to catch it with something that small?” she scoffs.

My mind goes blank, and I stand there with the towel like an idiot waiting for her to tell me what to do.

“Get a sheet,” she says like a smack on the forehead. My defenses kick in, then fizzle. “Right,” I lay the towel on the chair and teeter down the hall.

“Take those off. You’re going to kill yourself.”

“Of course …” I stumble, plucking at the straps. When I reach the bedroom, barefoot and dazed, I look down and register the state of the bed’s top sheet. It’s never been washed and crunches in my fist. I’d otherwise do anything to keep her from seeing this, but it’s not an option.

Returning to the living room, top corners of the filthy sheet in either hand, I position myself in front of the bird.

“Now move in on him like you’re a wall.”

I hesitate before spreading my arms wide to reveal the full forensic scope of the sheet’s soiling, and I swear I hear her suck in breath. There was a time I wouldn’t have believed I’d feel proud. Slipping a bare foot under each bottom corner, I advance. The pigeon protests, but gradually lets me gather it in my confines and edge it down the hall. I stumble at one point and have to go back.

“Careful now, don’t lose him,” she mocks from beyond my wall.

Finally, the pigeon emerges through the open front door into to the courtyard, where it takes up pecking like it’s been there all along. I follow it out into daylight, allowing myself the briefest satisfaction at the achievement when the door slams shut. The high August sun burns red through my lids. I’m going to have to ring every buzzer on that panel until one of them lets me in, but at least I know someone’s in there, cooking.

I turn to find her standing next to the locked front door with a foot lifted, like she wants to leave but can’t. She rests her sole and faces me.

“I want you to know that I hope one day you find someone to make you happy because I understand. I do. It’s a tough job to fill.”

I gather the sheet in my arms, running my palm over the calming texture of its spiky flannel nubs.

“It really is.”

We squint at each other through the haze until the baby starts to cry. Heather pulls out her phone, taps it, and a song starts playing. She hands the phone to the baby who jams a corner of it upright into her gums and releases a glob of drool, pulling the phone away into a viscous strand that she shimmies ecstatically. Together we listen to the bring, bring of the bicycle, the beep, beep of the car.



We will go near the lake and sit on the benches overlooking water and a stream of houses not far from the Centrum where people who have been here for long will tell you that time is an entity which is best one-acquainted with, for time itself flows, the same way like water does, and cannot be muted like the sounds of coffee spoons and porcelain from neighbouring restaurants that carry an inner-glow in the night and echoes of the breeze, where language becomes familiar as is meant to be, blossoming between us, like an animal calls another from in between birches, language must connect us more in the attempt to understand antiphonal properties, as an economist mentions that polarity indicates we’ve come to a closer knowing of disparate things, like the Bibliotheek where I trace afternoons on glass windows, looking at a windmill, below which a couple get out of the car, each carrying a carton of soda and snacks in their hand; inside, voices of two children playing among bookshelves, this plurality of thought and creation: flickeringly, and two days later, the news of a friend passing, driving to visit her grave, a road leading to another place, leading up to her dwelling where the television is switched off, the piano reflects partial gloaming light, peering through the window at her photograph, no one to open the door, when I begin to walk and stand proximate to the tree bark near her home beside a static pond, and while driving back, Sylvia says, If it wasn’t you, I don’t think we’d have arrived here—you know how it works when two people take a journey, and I say synchronicity, Sylv, energy of two people and between them like the restaurant we drove to in the middle of night, and like the napkins on our table, the world folds; folds, and unfolds into undulating harp and cadences, while I have known to listen more— and understand systems of thought indoctrinated in the world, know what we reckon, stillbreeze outside, the way it covers the landscape more than capital or expectancies—the movement of summer, trees reminding me of a familiar path



Have you ever seen two women fall in love?

My friend Tara confides in me her marriage is in trouble. As busy mothers in our mid-thirties, we meet to discuss at night, grab Tim Horton’s coffees, and find a bench to sit on before strolling through the neighbourhood. I rushed to our date, having thrown on a pair of jeans and my denim jacket over a black tank top.

“You look so good,” she tells me, looking me up and down. “Very sexy.” I’m shooing away the compliment, wanting to get into the nitty-gritty of her marriage. What she says next surprises me: “I got a Brazilian today.”

“Does Derek like that?” I ask, bewildered.

“Not really, I think he’d prefer it the other way,” and we cackle like hyenas. We both understand she hasn’t done it for her husband. My friend is ready to be happy, for herself. As her story unfolds and her marriage unravels further during that walk, we stop and take a moment to embrace, chest to chest, navel to navel. I hug her tightly, wanting her to know I am there for her. And the hug feels good.

Omphaloskepsis, or navel-gazing, is the act of contemplating one’s navel as an aid to meditation. But that is not its common usage. Navel-gazing is defined as self-indulgent or excessive contemplation of oneself or a single issue at the expense of a wider view. When applying that definition to the literary world, critics get stuck on the “excessive contemplation of oneself” as-

pect. “Navel-gazer” is used as an insult against writers of personal narratives, which I define here as any writing that includes the self (personal essay, confessional, memoir, autobiographical fiction), by either insinuating the writing is of poor quality because it centres on the self or that the writer has missed the larger picture, the universal, by narrowing in only on their one internal, singular point of view. Other interchangeable terms are “selfish, self-indulgent, and masturbatory” (Ponteri 2014). The term makes writers flinch, such as Charles Green, who writes in the journal Assay, “It pinpoints a real anxiety I have writing about myself: that I’m nothing more than Narcissus made flesh” (2019).

I would like to present the view that shutting down those who write personal narratives as navel-gazers is a way of dismissing marginalized groups, such as women, including racial minorities and the disabled, while emphasizing heteronormative behaviours and values, such as perpetuating the stereotype that men shouldn’t think or talk about their feelings. The expression and examination of the self through writing not only speaks to the universal themes of humanity, but it is an important, arguably essential, component of diversity in literature.

The week after my conversation with Tara, I spend the weekend at a virtual women’s writer retreat. Tara is there, and she is sharing a screen with a romance writer, a fellow mother, while the other women are writing


from their respective homes. Tara convinced her friend the romance writer to sign-up, or was it the other way around? The romance writer and Tara are neighbours and have become close friends in the last six months, going on hikes together to escape their families. The romance writer and I share similarities—high energy, athletic, positive mindset—while Tara has a calm presence and indefatigable patience for our shenanigans. I can see why the two of them have become fast friends. They sit together now, in the same room, giggling, meeting in solidarity against what I now understand are the troubles of their respective marriages.

Ifirst noticed the term navel-gazer in researching Rachel Cusk. In a critique of her famed 2001 novel, A Life’s Work, which delves into her disenchantment with motherhood, a woman reviewer wrote of Cusk:

Frankly, you are a self-obsessed bore: the embodiment of the Me! Me! Me! attitude which you so resent in small children. And everything those children say or do is—in your mind—really about you. Sooner or later, you end up in family therapy, because it has never occurred to you that it might be an idea to simply bring children up to be happy, or to consider happiness as an option for yourself … Talk about navel-gazing. (Cusk 2008)

Is it too much for women to want? To say I want to be heard, to want to write and to want to write about themselves in the first person? To have that voice, that wanting acknowledged and respected without being name-called, harassed, down played, and infantilized? Women writers don’t need male reviewers to bring us down because we do it to ourselves. And women, why do we do this? Lisa Taddeo offers one answer in her ground-breaking work, Three Women, where she follows the lives and complicated relationships of three women, intimately exploring their sexual desires: “One inheritance of living under the male gaze for centuries is that heterosexual women often look at other women the way a man would” (2019, 2). We inherit and inhabit the mindsets of men who would silence us.

The writing these women produce during the retreat is raw and real, the emotion behind each word palpable. A glass door shatters as a toddler runs toward it; a randy moose in the bush drags a lover’s tent away in the middle of the night; a beloved sister with Alzheimer’s is lost, a pet kitten flattened on the road. And, of course, there is the romance writer who writes only love notes, flowery romance, page after page of

unrequited love, notes of infatuation that take me back to my high school days of lust and longing. I quickly surmise these notes are not being directed toward her husband of twenty-five years.

Since the coming of age of creative nonfiction in the ’90s, critics have denounced navel-gazing as their mode of attack on the genre. In James Wolcott’s scathing Vanity Fair piece “Me, Myself, and I,” the disdain for writing about the self and creative nonfiction writers’ navel-gazing ways is evident:

Creative (fiction) writing and creative nonfiction are coming together, I fear, to form a big, earnest blob of me-first sensibility. Both share the same premise—that writing is primarily self-expression, not a voyage out but a foraging in. The academic community accepts this phenomenon with open arms (and legs) because it is in the thick of its own pierced-navel-gazing orgy … (1997)

Twenty years later, in The New Yorker, author Jia Tolentino argues “writers seem less interested in mustering their own centrality than they were” and that “there’s been a broader shift in attitudes about this sort of writing, which always endured plenty of vitriol” (2017). While I agree with Tolentino about the vitriol, I do not support her titular idea that “the Personal-Essay Boom Is Over,” noting it is “mostly women” who fit under this category (Tolentino 2017). The type of writing she’s referring to falls into the subgenre of the “confessional essay,” which differs from the personal essay. In response to Tolentino, Zoë Bossière writes, “Tolentino says herself that the writers of the confessional essay are almost exclusively female, so to say that the personal essay is no longer political seems like just a new way of telling women to shut up about themselves because there are more important things in the world to talk about” (2017). Isn’t saying the personal-essay boom is over just another way of silencing women? The writing of minorities? Name-calling just another way of silencing the self-expression of the marginalized? Tolentino cites Slate’s Laura Bennett who comments, “There just hasn’t been much oxygen left for the kinds of essays that feel marginal or navel-gazey” (2017).

Some of the more recent critiques around navel-gazing seem to see it as less a problem of writing about the self and more a problem of bad writing. But then we have to ask ourselves—is this actually the case? Or simply another way of silencing marginalized voices? With celebrated women writers such as Rachel Cusk, Sheila Heti, and Lucy Grealy receiving the criticism, the answer seems obvious.


Nearing the end of the weekend, the romance writer opens up with her truth. She reads her piece, hands shaking, then adds, “Wait—my title, it wasn’t ‘He’ Was, Of Course, a Piece of the Sky ; it was ‘She.’ She Was, Of Course, a Piece of the Sky.”

“Thank you so much for sharing that,” I say, but I still don’t get it. I mean, I now know that her love is directed toward a woman, but that’s as far as I get.

I sit with these women’s stories and I cry, but it isn’t until the retreat is over that the pieces of the puzzle come together.

Critics have continued to deploy the term navelgazing as an insult over the years, primarily directed at marginalized groups.

I came across navel-gazing again while researching Sheila Heti. Heti, who writes autobiographical novels based loosely (largely?) on her own life, is asked in a Financial Times interview about accusations of first-degree navel-gazing in her novel How Should a Person Be? Did this bother her?

“I once interviewed Elena Ferrante and asked her about that narcissistic question,” says Heti. “And her answer, I can’t remember it verbatim, was that women have always been surveilled by their husbands and their fathers and their brothers, and the beginning of being an independent woman is to surveil yourself. And I just loved that. You can call that narcissistic if you want, but it just seems like it’s a way of preventing women from thinking about their own lives.” (Harrod 2018)

I see the writing labelled as navel-gazing as the very opposite of how it is defined. Not as a selfish and self-directed practice, but as selfless. To give yourself to others so that they too may feel seen and heard.

Is it not the “I” that informs the “we”? Or is it a question of whose “I” and what right or voice they have to be heard? Notice who the loudest critics are—if they are in a position of privilege and power, if they have patriarchal support backing their claims.

Is navel-gazing an objection and rejection of “the truth” or “my truth” or “my truth as the truth” that critics oppose? You can’t handle the truth.

To some, the exposure of the inner self may seem frightening, too much, but to me it is necessary, essential, and exhilarating to read and write about. Imagine, a means by which to be seen most fully as yourself. Your truest self. And to connect with others from this place of being seen.

My incessant need to express myself through memoir is part of who I am. Even if I desired it, which I don’t, I could no more distance myself from myself in my personal writing—the writing I am passionate about, the writing that truly matters to me—than remove my head from my shoulders to examine my own brain. If this makes me a navel-gazer (or craniumgazer), so be it. I am what I am. I know myself. Or perhaps, I’m comfortable continually getting to know myself better in this way. But I’m not writing in a vacuum. Every writer wants readers, so we must avoid writing that fails to extend beyond the self; we must extend outward toward the universal.

Despite how it sounds, writing from the self and of the self and about the self is in no way solely about the self—it’s the opposite. In 2010, Lisa Gill explains this idea in Brevity : “I firmly believe that those of us who have experienced disability or trauma, dysfunction or simple oddities possess knowledge that, no matter how particular to the individual, speaks to the larger human condition.” As Zoë Bossière rephrases Whitman, “The self contains multitudes” (2017).

If I were to tell this story backwards, it would begin at the moment I am standing in my cottage kitchen, putting groceries away after the retreat is over and as the weekend is winding down. I’m standing there, perhaps holding a butternut squash, when it comes to me. Wait. Wait a minute. Is it—?

I text Tara.

“Tara … is it you?!”

I’m thinking, no, it can’t be, she would have told me on that walk we took together a week ago, when she told me about her marriage falling apart. She would have told me then.

Tara ignores my question and instead responds with two texts and a question of her own.

“Hey babe.”

“You ok?”

I find this question odd. Me? Yes, I’m fine! But didn’t you read what I just asked you? I’m asking if you are the subject of the romance writer’s desire! Are you the woman she’s in love with? I’m feeling so clever for figuring out the puzzle, yet I can’t quite believe it. In retrospect, her question is nuanced, loaded. Why wouldn’t I be okay, unless …

Denouncing writing as navel-gazing is just another way for a patriarchal system to silence female and minority voices. It’s another way of telling women, including those with disabilities, of varying faiths, ethnicities, gender abilities, socio-economic status, and sexual orientations that our stories don’t matter. Without


the personal narrative, the centrepiece “I,” our stories would remain largely untold. Largely women, whose work dominates the creative nonfiction scene, are ridiculed and infantilized; it is women and minorities whose emotions and issues are trivialized and belittled to amounting to no more than staring at a belly button. Women, whose personal stories arguably deserve no fanfare because they derive from the self, a female self, which society dictates is of lesser to no value.

In her 2020 book, They Said This Would Be Fun: Race, Campus Life, and Growing Up, Eternity Martis explains writing about the self as a form of “radical resistance”:

Personal writing by marginalized groups has often been treated as lazy and self-indulgent by the same critics who praise white male memoirists. Yet writing about one’s self has long been a means of survival for most marginalized groups. Survivors of slavery, residential schools, neo-segregation, conversion therapy and abuse. There’s a reason these memoirs continue to be popular. They braid together our common threads of pain, trauma, joy and healing. They remind us that, though much has changed for the better, some things have stayed the same. That all struggles and victories are tied to past history, and that history will repeat itself if we don’t start to rewrite it. (07:40:20)

What greater story is there to each of us than the one we have been given? Than the one we are living? Than the voice that can help others and change history? Is it that the personal narrative writer is too present? Too inside their own body? Too comfortable in their own skin?

“Yes,” she finally says. I drag it out of her. The romance writer is writing about her. My friend has a potential lover. This is huge. We need to talk. She calls me and, in her soothing voice, it all comes tumbling out. That the romance writer told Tara a week ago she’s madly in love with her; she also told her husband, three children, and extended family. The romance writer’s husband now hates Tara. Tara told her they can only be friends for now, but that she wants to be more. My friend is confused about her feelings, understandably. This is new.

“Have you done anything?”

No. She’s remaining faithful to her marriage for now, but she will, she wants to. Her husband knows, too, and he’s okay with it.

“What do you mean he knows?”

“Well, she’ll put her arm around me in front of him, or we hold hands and stand really close.”

“Oh my god. Have you guys kissed?”

“No … we just stand with our faces really close, touch our cheeks, or our noses.”

I’m drawn into the romance, the hot button of sex pressed, the intensity of her desire—I can’t look away. I’m happy for my friend, giddy even, like we’re back to the first time before men, when love was exciting and new.

Alicia Elliott, author of A Mind Spread Out on the Ground, talks about writing from minorities as radical. She cites the case of British visual artist Alison Lapper, born with phocomelia, meaning without arms and with shortened legs. Lapper paints, points the camera at herself, and is the subject of a prominent sculpture. “The very idea that a disabled woman is worthy of the sort of love and attention art requires is radical. The idea that she can make that art herself is revolutionary” (Elliott 2019, 05:16:12).

For women writers, marginalized writers, what we need is a revolution. A revolution of words.

What greater story is there to each of us than the one we have been given? Than the one we are living?

“Sometimes we hug, like really deeply,” Tara says. “She tells me she loves me, and that I’m sexy and gorgeous, and compliments me all the time.” I’m thinking back, and now the world is coloured differently. The times Tara told me she loved me and that I looked sexy. The times we hugged deeply and our cheeks touched. The times we got together and she talked about the romance writer. Why it matters to her what I think of the romance writer.

“She was so nervous to meet you,” Tara tells me. “Why?” I’m confused.

“Because you’re my best friend.” Whom I hug deeply, chest to chest, cheeks touching.

The next morning, I wake up and realize a truth I could not put my finger on, a truth I have been ignoring: I am the other woman.

Emilie Pine dismisses the concept of the personal writer as sensationalist and needy by sharing her miscarriage experience and telling about the two


women who share with her in kind: “Neither of these women wanted to confess, or to broadcast her experience, or to show off her pain. They only wanted, in that moment, to be witnessed” (2019, xvi). Through expressions of the self, women are striving to be seen and heard and have issues traditionally viewed as “women’s issues” acknowledged and taken seriously by society in the same way “men’s” concerns have always been. If you don’t talk about it—rape, incest, death, sexuality, gender identity, poverty, miscarriage, abuse, mental health—it doesn’t exist. The same is true in writing. Women’s problems persist and continue to be labelled and dismissed as just that—feminine issues.

Iam the other woman. Have I been used? Am I perceived as competition? Am I part of their lover’s game, unbeknownst to me? Have I been used to make the other woman feel jealous? Am I that person, the one your new lover is close to, whom you hate with a passion, but you have to pretend to like? I’m not sure I’ve ever been the other woman before in this context. I’m not sure I’ve ever witnessed two women falling in love before, either.

arrived anyway despite Grealy’s continued habit to hide her own face, despite her admissions of self-hatred and loathing and wanting to disappear, despite wishing she felt beautiful and denying herself any pity for all the pain she went through. Despite never wanting or asking for others’ pity. Despite that in the end, Grealy does eventually make herself disappear through her addictions.

Is a facial deformity and childhood cancer too sensational to write about? Too confessional in nature? Forget that. Women can’t even write about their friendships with one another without facing accusations of selfishness. Beloved author Ann Patchett is criticized for the memoir she wrote, Truth & Beauty: A Friendship, about her loving friendship with the deceased Lucy Grealy. She is especially lambasted by Grealy’s family who, during Grealy’s long struggle with drug addiction, largely turned her away, while Patchett held the door open as long as she could. Are women’s friendships in and of themselves too evocative, too taboo a topic, too in your face for men and the women who want to be like them, who have a burning need for the female gaze to be directed solely at them?

Turn away from yourself and your boring problems, away from the women in your life who support you, and instead look at me, look at me, look at me! patriarchy demands, the true petulant child. Not the women and minorities who have suffered and asked others to bear witness. Not the women and men who support them, who are fighting for social justice and writing for change. The only navel-gazers I see are the institutions and individuals who seek to propagate only themselves and an ableist, racist, sexist monolithic society. Through personal narrative writing, we gain the perspective of the other.

In her collection of essays The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison confronts the reviewers who dub Lucy Grealy’s work as “woe is me” (2014, 210). This comment has the dismissive mark of navel-gazer emblazoned at its core. Lucy Grealy, author of Autobiography of a Face, is a woman who endured childhood cancer and multiple facial reconstruction surgeries. Jamison cites a passage from Grealy herself: “‘Because I had grown up denying myself any feeling that even hinted at self-pity, I now had to find a way to reshape it’” (2014, 210–211). Jamison asks, “Reshape it into what? Into faith, sexual promiscuity, intellectual ambition. At the pinnacle: into art. Grealy offers this last alchemy, pain-to-art, as possibility but not redemption” (2014, 211). In other words, just writing about her pain was not enough to make it go away. And this is her greatest gift to others, Jamison argues, granting us the truth of her experience. The criticisms of Grealy as attention-seeking are unfathomable, but they

“You should go for it, Tara,” I say. “This is so beautiful.” I say the words, and I mean them, knowing she hasn’t felt loved in a long time. I’m overwhelmed by how their romance feels like the most natural thing in the world. Their love is imperfect and real. In the romance writer’s work, I could identify the feeling right away. Love. Burning desire.

The Collected Schizophrenias is a series of personal essays by Esmé Weijun Wang, who describes herself as “schizo-affective, living with schizo-affective disorder, living with mental illness, living with mental health challenges, crazy, insane, but I am just like you” (2019, 01:44:40). Wang shares the example of Francesca Woodland, a photographer who became famous for her style of self-print portraits after her suicide at twentytwo years old. “‘Every moment of Francesca’s life was in preparation for a photograph,’ a friend wrote” (Wang

… put me where the people are, the real people. Smack dab in the middle of them. Give me their personal stories, each and every one of them.

2019, 06:14:58). Wang, who at times believes she is dead, asks, “Why not as a writer, create essays in which I myself appear. Francesca, what do you think of these photographs? Do you see what I was trying to do? I was trying to make myself more real” (2019, 06:15:17). Is it too much of Wang to ask her readers to see her as she sees herself? To give women the opportunity to feel real?

“Hey babe.”

“You okay?” she asked me.

Am I okay that it’s not me? Am I okay that you like women? Am I okay in my marriage and my identity and my sexuality? Okay enough to admit I’ve felt attracted to a woman before, but not in that way, not with a need to act on that impulse sexually? Okay with the fact that you do? Yes, yes, yes, and yes. And do I feel attracted to other men, too—sure. Do I feel a need to act on that impulse—no. And does my husband know? Usually. As much as we can ever know the intricate labyrinth of another person’s thoughts and heart.

Or am I misinterpreting entirely and are you only just asking about my day?

What pivotal role does the personal narrative play in teaching others about important social movements? About the dehumanization of marginalized groups? About those who have no voice?

I’m thinking about the rape victims in Roxane Gay’s Not That Bad, what their personal narratives mean to them, if they’d rather sit with their assaults in shame and sadness, or if finding an outlet, controlling their own story, was possibly healthy, essential, healing, or at least part of that process. And how the effect of writing about their experience and reaching out to other women helped them cope.

I’m thinking about Martin Pistorius, the author of the powerful memoir Ghost Boy. Ask him about the right to use his own voice. He’s an authority on the subject.

Pistorius loses the use of his body and his mind in childhood when he falls into a coma as a result of a mysterious illness that steals his faculties and every facet of his life. He becomes dependent on others for day-to-day survival and, as a result, suffers horrendous abuse. Pistorius comes back into himself as a teenager, but nobody knows because he is paralyzed and unable to speak. The result of such powerlessness is devastating. Mind-numbing hours in front of Barney on the television, scalding hot showers, then being left out cold and naked to dry, or placed in the beating sun without sunscreen or protection and suffering burns. Unimaginable sexual abuse. Finally, one bright and caring nurse notices a sparkle in Martin’s eye. She gives him the support he needs to be able to use eye-to-text technology. Over time, he works up the strength and capacity to

use his voice. Then, miraculously, he writes his story in the first person, his incredible memoir Ghost Boy, and I challenge anyone to question the compassion that is wrenched out from inside when you read it. While the writing is unflinchingly narrowed in on the self, you would never argue that Pistorius’s purpose in reliving all of that pain is self-serving any more than you would say Lucy Grealy asked for cancer and painful surgeries. Survivors write so that the atrocities they experience at the hands of humanity will hopefully never happen to another human being again. Their pain is our collective pain. They aren’t writing themselves, for themselves, they are writing to us, so that we will listen. The marginalized do not deserve to be criticized and dismissed as navel-gazers. They deserve to be listened to.

The moment I consider myself the other woman, I know I have to ask Tara about it.

“So, um, do you like me?” Because we are best friends, and best friends can be totally honest with one another, she won’t wait a heartbeat before answering.

“No. Oh no, sweetie, no. Never.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, I promise.”

And I don’t know whether to feel relieved, insulted, or nothing at all. In the end, as I am in a loving, committed relationship, and I have no romantic interest in my friend or women whatsoever, I decide her answer is obviously the best possible outcome, besides my embarrassment. Besides having inserted myself into a love story where I don’t belong. But having considered my own feelings on the issue were worthwhile, the bigger picture is not lost on me.

I saw two women fall in love right before my eyes, and I’d say yes, I am fine.

It’s understandable that those who do not feel a need to be human, those who are above all that mess, would feel compelled to point out navel-gazers with their white gloves, to keep their hands from getting dirty, instead of looking around at the real people standing next to them and actually doing something to help their cause.

But put me where the people are, the real people. Smack dab in the middle of them. Give me their personal stories, each and every one of them. I long to hear that chorus of beautiful voices, in unison, that human hum that rises when we speak our truth in aching harmony. Have you ever seen a woman fall in love with herself? Now that would be something to read.

[Works cited in the essay can be found on p. 67]

NOCTURNAL BOTANICAL ONTARIO, (JULY 30, BLADDER CAMPION, TEASEL, BINDWEED, VETCH, DAISY FLEABANE, ASTER), 34” x 47”, 2021 | SARA ANGELUCCI Image courtesy of the artist the Stephen Bulger Gallery.


Upper management loses the contract on a big job in November and finishes December by laying off their junior crane operators. This means Brent is out of work just in time for the slow season. He lands a few interviews in January and a few more in March, but they’re always for gigs that might be there in May and might not. A temp job in the auto plant is keeping him alive, but it’s bad work: using a rag to polish car door panels as they run by him on a conveyor.

Most people in Brent’s section have grabbed this job on the way down. Lots of sad stories. Lloyd’s is a doozy. He just turned fifty and he’s an arborist by training. Big company went under, and they’re trying every trick to avoid paying severance.

One night at the punch clock, Lloyd asks Brent what the evening has in store.

Brent says, “Nights, I go to the gym. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday.”

Lloyd doesn’t believe him. “You go after work? In the middle of the night?”

“Do a month of good stuff, mix up cardio and free weights, and you won’t even feel this job anymore. It’s good for the depression, too.”

“Oh yeah?” says Lloyd.

“Hell yeah it is, and hell yeah I’m depressed. This ain’t where I wanted to be at thirty.”

To Brent’s relief, Lloyd snickers and says, “Me neither, buddy, at fifty.”

Brent removes his civilian shoes and gym bag from his locker. “You got a set of runners?”

“At home,” Lloyd allows.

“Go get ’em and meet me at the 24-hour place on Echo Drive. Wife and kids are asleep by now, right?”

Lloyd says, “Maybe next time.”

Brent hefts the gym bag by its double handle. “Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday.”

A week later, Lloyd brings athletic shoes to work. He admits to Brent he hasn’t exercised since the ’90s.

“Let’s get busy,” says Brent.

He starts by teaching Lloyd basic forms: the dead lift, the bench press, free weights. He can tell by the way Lloyd bares his teeth on the final reps that he’s giving everything he’s got. All the disappointments, frustrations, and betrayals are dripping onto the floor as pools of sweat. In the middle of everything that’s gone wrong, it’s the start of something good.

On their way to the showers one evening, Brent decides he’s ready to tell Lloyd the truth. Partly it’s so he can reciprocate everything Lloyd has told him. Brent has heard all about Lloyd’s wife, Vanessa, and their sons, Slade and Mike, and it’s time to return the favour.

He needs to work his way up to the edge, though, and visualize the jump before executing it.

“You did good tonight, for an old hedge trimmer,” says Brent, sitting down on one of the changing room benches.

“Crane operators,” says Lloyd, “sit in a box all day thinking of clever shit to say.”

Brent lays down lengthwise on the bench.

“What’s your opinion of the people in our section? At work, I mean.”

“They’ve been kicked around pretty good, some of them.”

“Do they seem like they’re hiding things? Infidelities and shady deals and such?”

Lloyd doesn’t know what he’s being asked. Eventually, he says, “Everybody does, I guess.”

“Not like this,” says Brent ruefully. “They’re crawling with secrets.”

Lloyd is digging through his locker for the plastic sandals he wears in the shower. “How do you know?”

“Great question. Wanna know the answer?”

Lloyd looks sidelong at Brent, trying to figure out why Brent won’t leave this alone. “Is someone at work hassling you?”

Brent sits up, looking Lloyd straight in the eye. “I know about the warped floor in your bathroom—you’re


not sure if it’s a leak from above or if it’s some pipe under the floor. And no, I didn’t break into your house to have a look at your plumbing. I know you’re worried about your heart at the gym. It clips along fine, but you think maybe your pulse stays elevated too long after cardio.”

Brent stares and waits patiently for Lloyd to say something. The information tends to draw a big, primal response from men. Their brains are reluctant to go where Brent is taking them, and they sometimes lash out.

For his part, Lloyd spends a moment looking at Brent’s eyeballs—not his eyes, but the physical objects of his pupils, his corneas—and when he finally speaks, he stutters. All of this is an unconscious attempt to buy processing time. Brent wishes he could reassure Lloyd that he can take all the time he needs.

“So,” says Lloyd. “So, are you some kind of professional … I don’t know what the word would be …”

“Nope,” says Brent. “I’m not reading your body language. Nothing cute. Your first car was a Ford Orion, 1984. Bald tires, and you rode ’em ’til one of ’em popped. The left rear. Things I couldn’t know.”

Lloyd continues to stare. Stamped on his face, plain as day, is the thrill felt by many an astronaut in the movies, meeting their first extraterrestrial.

“Well,” he says, “do you work for some crazy government outfit …”

“Nope,” says Brent. “I drive cranes.” Anticipating the next question, he adds, “Here, in this city, nobody knows. My grandma, when she was in the hospital, I told her. Buddies in high school knew. But they’ve got enough shit to do, without trying to figure out why the guy they used to play ball with can read minds.”

Lloyd nods as a way of acknowledging Brent’s pe-

fine. In the big picture, you’re a stand-up guy who hit a rough patch. You’ll get away from this and into better things; probably a lot sooner than the rest of us.”

“Oh,” says Lloyd, relieved. “Thanks.”

Brent laughs. The inappropriate timing seems to startle Lloyd.

“Haven’t talked about this in forever,” Brent explains. “Feels good.”

“Iknow what you’re thinking, but trust me, other people’s heads are not places you wanna be,” says Brent. They’re eating lunch on the company lawn, away from other employees. “Never had trouble with mental health as a kid, as far as I know. And I’ll go weeks without a problem. But then somebody new moves into my building, and it starts again. Anxious minds, depressed minds—it’s like second-hand smoke. You breathe it in. No joke, I’ve had to leave neighbourhoods. Cities.”

“Still,” says Lloyd. “I’m sure it comes in handy.”

Brent shrugs. He knows that Lloyd is angling for a demonstration, so he squints at the managers and supervisors gathered in the smoking area.

“You see Dan standing there?”

Lloyd sees Dan all right. From day one, Dan has made harassing Lloyd an indispensable part of his hourly walk of the factory floor. He does this with all new employees—hounding them whenever they’re seen polishing doors at lower-than-expected speeds—but it’s especially humiliating given Dan’s age. At twenty-eight, the kid simply does not grasp that his high-handedness has made him an enemy for life in Lloyd.

“I see him,” says Lloyd.

“Dan’s keeping a secret. He’s trying to lose weight. So you buy a box of doughnuts for the managers, and it’ll make all the managers happy except Dan. Talk about southern BBQ in front of Dan, and it might tip him off the wagon. He’ll start to feel like the whole world is against him, when really it’s just you. You could do something to him every day, for a long time.”

“Well, that’s something,” says Lloyd.

“Certainly something,” Brent agrees.

A week later, Lloyd approaches Brent in the break room, and Brent can tell he’s ready to start asking questions.

culiar circumstances, but there is nothing he can say about them. He simply asks, “Is there something you want from me?”

“You’ve been ripping yourself up inside for taking this shitty job. I just wanted to tell you: you’re doing

“Listen,” says Lloyd. “You know what I’m going to say already. But I don’t want to lose the ability to have a normal back-and-forth with you.”

“I appreciate that.”

“So Slade, my oldest, comes tearing into the house yesterday. Stays just long enough to eat supper and tell us he wants to quit school. He’s in psychology at

"… Anxious minds, depressed minds— it’s like second-hand smoke. You breathe it in. No joke, I’ve had to leave neighbourhoods. Cities."

Toronto Metropolitan. One thing I know for sure, the kid does not leave without a degree.”

“And you want me to read him.”

Lloyd is quick to add disclaimers, but his basic enthusiasm for the project of moderating his son’s decision is clear. “You can tell where his head is at. Me, he doesn’t talk to anymore; he just yells.”

After a pause, Brent delivers his careful reply: “I can read him cover to cover. It won’t help us. We need to persuade him, and that’s harder to do.”

“Tell me how I can help.”

“Let’s skip the gym tonight,” says Brent. “We’ll sit down somewhere to eat, discuss it there.”

pain or stabbing pain? Located in the head or the heart? Be specific.”

And when they’ve explored the matter to Brent’s satisfaction, Brent nods sharply and says, “Okay. Let’s bring the fight to your kid.”

Aweek passes before Lloyd invents the situation that will put Brent and Slade in the same room together: Lloyd will invite his son to the gym.

Slade is a deadpan boy with wet-combed hair in a wintergreen hoodie. Finally able to look the young man in the eye, Brent introduces himself.

But there’s no reply, not even a glance.

ell me what you’re most afraid will happen to your son.” Brent is distributing salsa into four soft tacos while he says this.

“What do you want me to say?” says Lloyd, unhappy with the idea of explaining himself. “Can’t you just read me?”

“Your head’s a mess on this. Talking will help. Once your thoughts make sense to you, they’ll make sense to me.”

“You believe what they charge for guacamole here?” says Lloyd. Then, sighing, he explains. “We have a couple deadbeats in the family. At one point, the wife’s brother is laid off and comes to live with us. He’s a mess; he’s not shaving. And I make sure Slade gets a good long look at him.”

“The importance of hard work,” says Brent. Then, sensing it’s a crucial point, he adds, “The importance of a job.”

“Fuck that,” says Lloyd fiercely. “A job is what I had. A job is what the brother-in-law had. Slade needs a career.”

Brent frowns a little. “You were an arborist fifteen years. Ask anybody—that’s a career.”

“I was an arborist when they let me be one. When they downsize or sell the company, I’m a landscaper. When they downsize or sell that company, I’m nobody. I’m polishing door panels next to twenty-five-year-olds for $18/hour. No offence.”

Brent nods. “So when you imagine Slade in the same situation, losing his job and polishing door panels, how does it feel?”

Lloyd glares at Brent, wary of any sign that he’s being mocked. Eventually, he says, “What’s to tell? You need money and you don’t have it. The people you love can’t count on you.”

“More basic than that,” says Brent. “I’m hearing you describe pain and suffering, but is it throbbing

Bench press is open,” says Lloyd nervously. “Spot me, Slade?”

Backing off, Brent grabs some free weights and watches from a distance. He makes contact with the

network of thoughts radiating from Slade’s mind and gathers his first information on the young man: he learns the name of the girl Slade is pining for, and he learns the name of the young woman’s current boyfriend. He understands, in broad strokes, the relationship between Slade and his father: a history of mutual suspicion, miscommunication, and weary acceptance. At a signal from Lloyd, Brent approaches.

“Your turn, Slade. Put me to shame,” says Lloyd. He adds, in a stagey voice, looking at Brent, “Will you spot him? I gotta cool down.”

Brent is kicking himself for agreeing to this. Now he’s stuck hovering over the kid, avoiding eye contact at all costs.

“Put on two more plates for me,” mutters Slade.

“That’s 225 lbs.”

“Yeah,” says Slade. “Do you mind?”

Loading the bar with the requested weight, Brent says, “How many reps?”

“Many as I can.”

“What do you want me to say?” says Lloyd, unhappy with the idea of explaining himself. “Can’t you just read me?”

“Ballpark,” says Brent. “I need to stop you ripping your shoulder out of its socket.”


“Five it is,” says Brent.

He watches the kid snort his way through five repetitions and shrug the bar back into its cradle.

“Your dad and I work a shitty job together,” says Brent. “I guess in his mind, that means you and I should be friends, too. Sweet guy. Heart’s in the right place.”

“Sounds like my dad,” says Slade. Brent is treated to some unwanted thoughts that fly off Slade’s frontal lobe: a portrait of Brent as a middle-aged ape, too stupid to work anywhere but an assembly line, and who should kindly die and make room for younger, fitter men like Slade. Brent is beginning to dislike him.

“Five more reps,” says Brent. “Unless you just blew everything.”

“Six,” says Slade.

He delivers five good repetitions but can’t achieve the sixth without Brent’s help—a good moment to try and get in the kid’s head.

He wants to travel. He’d like to see Denmark first—a clear image of Slade standing on a darkened windblown coast—and then journey across northern Europe on foot. Overseas, Slade believes something will find him which will change him permanently for the better. And Brent can’t help but admire Slade’s quiet, sterling confidence that the world can be made to wait while he figures everything out.

Fascinated by this small, sparkling gem, Brent rolls it around in his brain.

Now he’s ready.

At any time, the channel which delivers material from other people’s minds into Brent’s can be reversed. He can force someone to have an idea. And if he can successfully impersonate the inner voice of his subject—their own mannerisms, their own grammar, mirrored back at them—the results can be surprising.

He starts with the big picture.

The world is not a thing to be explored, traversed, and enjoyed. Anyone with a brain must realize that it’s a thing to be feared. Banking information can be stolen remotely, the next Great Depression is coming, and no matter how much they might deny it, each of Slade’s friends would abandon him if he failed for long enough to contribute to their happiness. Furthermore, there are no important differences between Slade and his father. They’re working-class people living through a period of steep decline. The same hurricanes that demolished Lloyd’s career can destroy Slade’s prospects just as easily. The only possible escape is to get educated, to get a salaried position with a large company resistant to shocks and to ride out the storm.

“Your dad tells me you want to drop out of school.”

“Oh, that? No, I actually decided to stay,” says Slade. “Might as well get the degree at this point, right?”

Shameless lies.

“Well, that’s good,” says Brent. He concentrates on Slade’s temporal lobe and begins sifting through his memories. One of these strands—Brent harvests them in handfuls, as if from a mountain of cooked linguine—will provide the template for his cunning counterfeit.

“Five more reps,” says Brent, knowing that Slade has three more reps in him, at most. “Show me everything.”

Slade rises to the provocation and lifts the bar off the rack.

Just then, Brent’s determined excavation pays off. He hits the motherlode and finds one of Slade’s strongest convictions.

Then, in order to really sell it, Brent places a concrete image in Slade’s mind: Slade in his middle age. He’s a mess—he hasn’t been shaving. Cartoons on the TV, and no food in the house. The court has ordered $400/month in child support, but they’ll have a hard time collecting because polishing door panels on an assembly line doesn’t pay. There’s an aching pain, anchored near his heart and blooming outwards.

Brent can already sense Slade’s thoughts rushing towards the disturbance, investigating the spike that Brent has driven deep into Slade’s soft tissue. Slade has noticed the new idea and has begun to punish himself for thinking it. A kind of mental friction begins to build as more and more of Slade’s thoughts run into the obstacle. The effect will intensify over time.

Slade has delivered two shaky reps and is about to lose the third. Brent briefly considers allowing the kid to break his own sternum—to attach Slade’s new

The average person, given abilities like his, would likely become a monster. As long as he falls short of being a monster, he’s doing all right.

realizations to some memorable physical trauma— but ultimately lifts the bar out of Slade’s hands and re-racks it.

“If you can’t control it, don’t lift it,” says Brent. Sitting up, Slade tries to make sense of what has just happened to him. And because nothing in his experience allows him to identify Brent as the culprit, he regards Brent with simple irritation.

“Blow me,” he says.

“That’s right. Get mad and storm out of the room. That’s been working so well for you.”

Before doing exactly as he’s been told, Slade spits on the floor, very close to Brent’s feet.

Alone at the bench, Brent gives the thumbs-up to Lloyd, who has been watching from the water fountains.

It’s possible he was too rough with the kid. Certainly possible. But Brent tries not to worry. There are millions of people out there who, if they could do what he can do, would stick suicidal thoughts into strangers’ heads just for fun. The average person, given abilities like his, would likely become a monster. As long as he falls short of being a monster, he’s doing all right.

He believes it.

Lloyd stops coming to work. Unable to read him from a distance, Brent settles into troubled silence, hoping to spot Lloyd at the punch clock or the gym but never seeing him. This goes on for a week, and then Lloyd reaches out by text message. He’s taken a landscaping gig, and he will meet Brent for their regular workout on Monday. As if nothing had happened. As if Lloyd hasn’t missed three Mondays already.

Brent waits nervously outside the changing rooms. Lloyd arrives, reminding Brent of a rolling dark cloud. Lloyd doesn’t want to talk, and Brent doesn’t need him to. Something is wrong with Slade.

Apparently, Slade came for supper on the weekend. He’d refused to respond to questions about school, and, when pressed, had thrown something—a vase or an antique bowl or something—on the floor. Responding to his parents’ outrage with silence, he’d turned and left and hasn’t been back since. It’s difficult for Brent to learn any more because Lloyd is attempting to do what no one has done to Brent in years: he is making a concerted effort to hide his thoughts. Lloyd is forcing himself to think about other things—anything other than the thought which can’t be suppressed. It keeps rising to the surface, and every few seconds, Brent catches a glimpse of it: Lloyd

blames Brent. Brent is responsible for the startling changes in Slade, and Lloyd is barely managing to be civil about it.

“I think we’d better talk,” says Brent.

“Forget it. Arms and chest today, yeah?”

“I’m not going in there chucking weights until we’ve sorted this out. You wanted me to talk to your kid and I did.”

Lloyd takes a big step backward so he can lunge forward in anger. Brent has never seen this side of Lloyd, the father full of wrath.

“I never should have let you anywhere near him.”


“Don’t offer. Don’t offer to help me.”

“Wasn’t gonna,” says Brent.

“I think we should turn around and get back in our cars.”

Brent gestures down the hall, inviting Lloyd to do as he’s suggested.

Brent goes the other direction. He stands before the dead-lift rack and gets to work. If he’s going to survive this rough patch he’s in, he has to avoid putting in half-assed performances—at the gym or anywhere else.

It’s always like this.

Showered, but feeling greasy from the industrially softened water, Brent staggers out to his car. He sits in the driver’s seat and doesn’t move because he’s in no hurry to leave. There’s plenty of quiet sitting in his immediate future, and all of it doesn’t need to be done at home.





AWright’s always sharp and often eerie interrogations lead us through a world of cryptocurrency, grunt work, predictive policing, extinction, haute cuisine, billboard ads, smoke breaks, breast pumps; these are poems for our moment of onslaught and bewilderment that, having had the world forced down their throats, spit back.’

on my screen. Her head was turned away, her mouth caught in a grimace that was probably the beginning of a final thought vocalized; her face was distorted, blurred, caught abruptly in mid-turn.


Working hard or hardly working? Continuity Errors wonders aloud why we privilege productivity over rest, disruption over care. Written before and immediately after the birth of her first child, Wright’s poems imagine the future her son will inherit amid ecological collapse and naive techno-optimism. Encounters with an unusual cast of characters – including lonely cryptids, unrepentant grifters, and persistent ghosts – provide incomplete answers, and while the continuity errors multiply around her, Wright finds space to consider whether our devotion to innovation is keeping us stuck.

and after speaking again—this time in person—did this distorted freeze-frame goodbye seem a fitting conclusion to that initial conversation. As the pub lisher description states, this collection questions our “obsession with” and “privileging of work and produc tivity over care” and wonders whether “our devotion to innovation is keeping us stuck.” In service to this questioning, the book is loaded with interruptions and contradictions, with raunchiness and absurdity and hilarity, and in both form and content, with the kind of continuity errors that the title promises.

told in such an assured and at times beautiful way that it’s easy to mistake this ugliness for its opposite. And, eventually, this book is also about rebirth (figuratively) and birth (literally), which is perfect, actually, because there are few things in the world that capture that ambivalent space between ugliness and transcendent beauty better than childbirth.

Wright, who also teaches in the University of Toronto’s engineering communication program, explains that the book “was written at this time when it felt like there were these big global continuity errors; the pandemic seemed like one big, weird continuity error … Everything changed completely and [now] we’re trying to return, but everything is slightly off. And then, also, it sort of feels like once you have a kid, your life just switches and the stuff that came before doesn’t quite fit. The word ‘continuity’ goes back to a lot of the poems having to do with contrasting innovation and disruption … and the maintenance and the drudgery that goes into keeping the world moving.”

She describes how one of the first readers of the manuscript noted that Continuity Errors wasn’t nearly as funny as her excellent first collection, Table Manners (Signal Editions, 2017), was. Despite some funny moments, this is true.

“It was written during a pandemic while I was pregnant,” she responds. “What are you going to do? It was a darker time.”

Born in Ottawa to parents who read widely but were not necessarily literary, Wright was surrounded by books. “I always wrote a lot,” she says about her childhood. “I read a lot; I wrote a lot. I don’t really remember a time before I was doing all that. I was one of those kids.”

That’s not to say her parents didn’t provide any literary inspiration. When Wright was ten, her mother, a civil servant, wrote a haiku about memos and submitted it to a contest hosted by a local paper and won (she took her children on a book-shopping spree with the winnings). The influence can be seen now not just in the act of writing poetry, but in the subject matter she tackles as well—namely, in her ability to find the poetic in the mundane, the banal. This was evident in Wright’s first collection of poetry and in the short stories that make up her first fiction collection, Difficult People (Nightwood Editions, 2018), as well.

Given her proficiency in both prose and poetry, Wright is hesitant when asked to define herself as either a poet or fiction writer: “I guess just ‘writer’ in general,” she eventually says. “Although I think my natural inclination is poetry, I read a lot of fiction and I would

‘A book of snaking moves and sneaking intellect, a book of style and fortitude and sass $23.95 cdn | $18.95 us ISBN 978 1 55245 459 6
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Continuity Errors Catriona Wright

like to be writing more fiction. But poetry comes more naturally to me; I feel like fiction is more difficult.”

In an interview with the Hamilton Review of Books after the short story collection came out, Wright said that “people expect fiction to have at least some relationship to reality” and confirms that this is still her issue: “I think like there’s just more expectation for logic and things like that in fiction. Obviously, there’s lots of fiction that doesn’t do that, but I just feel freer writing poetry.

“I started loving writing for words and word sounds and images. I think that’s the most exciting thing for me. And that’s the vocabulary of poetry rather than fiction; although those things are part of fiction, you still have to do the character and plot and all that.” This focus on word sounds is emblematic of Wright’s poetry: “A lot of what I do is by feel and sound. I am concerned with internal rhyme and metricality

wasn’t necessarily explicit to Wright early on. Her first poetry collection was all about food, and while the approaches and topics within that constraint varied, it was a thematically unified collection. Finding that cohesion for the new book was a process, one that saw ten poems from the original manuscript get cut from the final product.

“It was written over a really long time,” she explains. “There didn’t naturally seem to be [a theme or focus]. I mean, you’ll see there are strands in the new collection, but it’s not as thematically cohesive [as Table Manners]. I wrote a lot and then it only became clear to me that there were connections later on.” The book changed significantly during the editorial process, more so than the first one, and because of that, it was a much more collaborative process involving editor Matthew Tierney. “I was writing a lot of poems about my work, like about engineering, school and innovation and techno grifters and things like that. And then I got pregnant and then I was writing about that. And so those two things sort of started being braided together … but the collection changed a lot in editing—a lot, a lot, a lot. And during the editing process, it became a lot clearer to me.”

and things like that, but I don’t sit down and think I’m going to do it that way. I read it out loud over and over again until it feels right.” Earlier, she’d put it more bluntly: “You wanna feel it in your mouth.”

And it is easy to feel the rhythm of the poems, to be pulled along by their metricality, such as in “Notes Toward an Anthropocene Fable at a Russian Sauna in Mississauga,” which appears early in the collection: “I eavesdrop on the heat, / practise different pronunciations. He ate / she ate, we all ate the sun’s treats, / licked black seeds from slit vanilla beans, / plucked gold croaks from toad throats.” And later, from the opening of “I Pushed You Out and Offered My Breast”: “a champagne coupe of colostrum. / All business, consultants assessed / that first latch, scoring suction, seal, / the fish-mouth flange of your lower lip.”

The book is divided into three roughly equal sections (mirroring three trimesters of pregnancy), with three to four “load-bearing” poems in each that touch on the multiple themes of the collection, and includes, interestingly, a poem as preface (“Continuity”). The first section covers girlhood, young adulthood, and origin stories (that includes fables, for example); the second moves into discussions on precarity, scams, and pregnancy; the third concludes with meditations on death and (re)birth (of her son, Rowan, to whom the book is dedicated, and of herself as a mother).

“Precarity is definitely in there and environmental destruction. I mean, I think that is in every book of poetry at this point, [but] it’s directly mentioned a couple times. The way that we framed it, it’s kind of me imagining the future that my son will inherit, and it’s just sort of thinking about all these strands right now, like the obsession with innovation, the obsession with utopias and things like that, and then versus maintenance work, caregiving work, and that kind of thing … things that get things going day-to-day.”

Continuity Errors is very carefully and intentionally organized with clear thematic threads, but that

Now, the collection feels cohesive and as if it’s speaking to very contemporary issues. But even formally, there are continuity errors, also by design. When determining the order, Wright wanted to insert continuity errors into the sections through poems that didn’t immediately seem to fit: “Deposition” in the first section, for example, describes a corporate retreat where the participants take turns lying in a coffin while their

“… I read it out loud over and over again until it feels right.” Earlier, she’d put it more bluntly: “You wanna feel it in your mouth.”

co-workers list their flaws. In the final section, “Fifteen” takes a break from discussions of childbirth and raising a newborn and calls back—much like a flashback—to a teenage coming-of-age. The middle section’s “Danse Brutaliste” is a response to (and ultimate rejection of) William Carlos Williams’s “Danse Russe,” in which the American poet revels in loneliness. Wright’s version seeks “to banish loneliness from the world.” “Danse Brutaliste” is just one of four poems in the book that are written “after” someone else. Two more are after poets she was introduced to through a UK poetry group she is in (Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin and Will Harris, whose “The Seven Dreams of Richard Spencer” becomes “Four Dreams of Elizabeth Holmes,” about the precocious Theranos founder who frauded investors out of $700 million based on a blood-testing technology that never actually worked). The final, “The Love Song of Dust,” is after C.D. Wright’s “Our Dust” and captures not only the themes of the book, but also acts as a kind of living eulogy or poetic-mission statement. In the original, C.D. Wright tells an imagined ancestor about herself and specifically describes the kind of poet she was. Wright’s version begins similarly—as a past-tense description of her poetic life to an imagined ancestor—but became more specifically addressed to her son Rowan in the editing:

I never met my grandparents, never tamped their pipes or inhaled their dandruff or heard versions of my parents’ stories. I floated, insecurely tethered to my lineage: white skin, witticisms, a predisposition for colon cancer. I am your ancestor. Do you feel close to me? Do you have my teeth?



Wright laughs easily. She has a big voice and speaks with confidence; her easy laughter punctuates conversations. Her poems inhabit a similar kind of assured friendliness: they can be loud, overwhelming even in subject matter, but are ultimately grounded in an often-comforting familiarity. While undeniably “poetic” in their heightened language and metred control, there’s a groundedness that comes through in the subject matter.

When asked about whether she wants to be this kind of grounded, narrative-based, and accessible poet, she acknowledges that while she’s “tried to write in different ways … this is the way that actually feels like [her] voice.” She explains: “I’ve experimented with more avant-garde, experimental style poetry in

the past, but this is what I naturally gravitate towards and what I read. I’m not going to prescribe what other people should get up to, but this is what I’m concerned with … I guess I am interested in writing beautiful language about ugly things, mundane things, things that aren’t typically considered subject matter for poems.”

She admits as much in “The Love Song of Dust,” where she concludes the poem by admitting that she’s a “poet of spit-up epaulettes / and diaper ceremonies. Of dishwasher tablets. / Poet of winter tires and flossing and fibre / and dragging the recycling to the curb.”

When asked what she’s working on, she says that she’s hoping to complete a short story collection, potentially about “monstrous mothers.” The parenthood themes that became more and more prevalent in the later stages of Continuity Errors are not monstrous at all; they are celebratory. However, perhaps a bit of this potential for darkness is hinted at in “How to Expect: A Triptych,” when she writes, “When I googled is it wrong to have a baby? / the algorithm told me, / to bear children into this world / is like carrying wood into a burning house.”

Wright has shown that she’s comfortable with dark themes and is not afraid to delve into ugliness. What distinguishes her is the ability to do so with such thoughtfulness, humour, and beautiful language.


”I guess I am interested in writing beautiful language about ugly things […] things that aren’t typically considered subject matter for poems.”



In his memoir, Son of Elsewhere, Canadian journalist Elamin Abdelmahmoud explores the turmoil of immigrating to Canada from Sudan at the age of twelve, where he struggled to fit into new identities, relationships, and cultures. Through humorous, self-effacing, and occasionally poignant essays that traverse various topics such as race, WWE wrestling, television shows, marriage, fanfiction, family strife, and Sudanese history and politics, Abdelmahmoud delivers an eclectic and fragmentary rumination on his coming of age in the predominantly white city of Kingston, ON.

Coming from Sudan—where notions of race are complicated by Arab identity, colonization, and shadeism—Abdelmahmoud’s first and biggest struggle upon arriving in Canada was being considered Black. “I left Khartoum as a popular and charming (and modest) preteen,” he says, “and I landed in Canada with two new identities: immigrant, and Black.”

Rather than wholeheartedly embrace this realization, Abdelmahmoud tries to understand Blackness through pop culture after a cousin points him to hip hop music and fashion as wayfinding signposts. Ultimately, however, Abdelmahmoud rejects these cultural artifacts in hopes of being accepted into whiteness. “I ran away from anything I saw as ‘Black,’” he writes.

With time and self-reflection, Abdelmahmoud realizes this avoidance strategy will not serve him well.

“I became Black the way a person falls asleep: slowly at first, then all at once,” he writes. Through new relationships, self-study, and university experiences, he learns how race and history have impacted him and the people in his life. As this awareness grows, he starts to see connections between his own experiences and that of Sudan. Both are embroiled in struggles to throw off the impacts of colonization in search of a way forward. “You cannot banish the ghosts from your past, but

you can turn from them, flailing, and limping toward redemption.”

While Abdelmahmoud’s engagement with race and his gradual acceptance into an imagined Canadian nationality takes up most of the book, its best parts deal with the intimate fissures and strains that run through his family life. For example, we learn about festering tensions with his parents, and then while he establishes new relationships, his mother’s health falters as both parents’ longing for the life they once had in Sudan intensifies. In a later essay, the book’s prose sings when Abdelmahmoud describes how his falling in love and eventually marrying a white woman throws his relationship with his parents into crisis.

But the book offers more than these interpersonal sagas. The contradictions of moving toward Canada and away from Sudan, for example, are articulated keenly through the author’s coming to terms with his fading facility in Arabic. “My Arabic,” he notes, “is forever suspended in that place—I don’t know how to be a fully grown adult in Arabic. I don’t know how to reveal the inner workings of my brain in Arabic.”

Through all his searching and self-discovery, Abdelmahmoud comes to realize that life in Canada is hard for Muslims. In an intriguing section, he shares how the famous soccer star, Mohamed Salah, has become a beacon of hope and pride for Muslims in the West. “For so many Muslims, so many Arabs, day-today life hasn’t changed much,” he writes. “The racism and discrimination and suspicious looks are still a common enough experience. But a North Star has appeared. We can watch one of ours be the best in the world at something and ride his coattails.”

While Son of Elsewhere traffics in some of the hackneyed immigrant story tropes readers have come to expect, it also brings us into a delightful Sudanese–Canadian world that we seldom experience. By offering a moving and earnest account of emerging into a fuller knowledge of race, culture, and identity, Abdelmahmoud makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of what is both gained and lost when we call new places home.



A major poet, whose principal theme is diasporic history—especially of the Black diaspora in the Americas—Dionne Brand is full of passionate conviction, energy, relentless drive, and lyrical skill, though her work is also marked by less appealing formal and didactic quirks and mannerisms. Nomenclature includes new poems and collects eight volumes of Brand’s work, omitting her debut collection, ’Fore Day Morning: poems (1978) (which Brand calls her juvenilia) and The Blue Clerk: Ars Poetica in 59 Versos (2018) (a verse essay). The collected work can be overwhelming in terms of sheer volume and urgency, even if one is sympathetic to Brand’s political and social activism.

On the one hand, there are the merits that Christina Sharpe outlines in her substantial introduction: “the intimacies and estrangements of histories, the radical inventiveness of communities, the glottal endeavours of sound and language, the ways that one is held in and by enclosure”; “the largeness of blackness that gives heft to Brand’s work,” by which she means Black communities anywhere, beyond nationality; her “numeracy” or ability to reason using numbers, as in her attacks on imperialism, invasion, and the foreclosure of possibility. On the other hand, I note idiosyncrasies such as an overuse of lists or inventories, a relentless polemical tone, disjointed syntax in the service of dialect, and a romanticization of radical leftist political ideology. It is possible to justify some of the idiosyncrasies: inventories can be useful to a poet to archive what can be overwhelming, and verse dialect (as Charles Bernstein contends) refuses allegiance to standard English without necessarily laying claim to an affiliation with a definable group.

The earliest quirk—as seen in Primitive Offensive (1982)—is a staccato insistence on maintaining a virtual drum beat (“ancestor wood / ancestor dog / ancestor king / ancestor old man”). While the cantos emphasize

the sheer willpower needed to survive various forms of colonial abuse, there is an artificial theatricality to them: “Naked skin woman dance, run / belly full of wind / I dance, run / my arms then eloquent wisps / worn over this shawl of a face, / something of a poised mantis / so poised, turned to wood.” Chronicles of the Hostile Sun (1984), dated with entries before, during, and after the US invasion of Grenada, is filled with poems (as Sharpe declares) “for and to friends, comrades, other poets, revolutionaries.” Informed by Brand’s strong political animus and brutal satire, the collection exercises anecdotal skill, as well as some splendid scene-painting and diaristic narrative, but sometimes the rushing, urgent lines disintegrate on arrival.

Brand is quite capable of epigrammatic terseness in Winter Epigrams (1983) and Epigrams to Ernesto Cardenal in Defense of Claudia (1983), but her rejection of smartness in various aspects of life weighs down her technique. Yet, it is only fair to praise her lyrical riffs on dystopian sentiments and realities (unending wars, fundamentalisms, violences in thirsty [2002]), as well as her succinct impressions of urban life (“separate dreamers” in “a mass of silences” and “a universe of halted breaths”), her use of counterpointed voices and images (from history, music, and painting) that sound and reckon with what can and cannot be reconciled in living museums of fading cultures and ideas (as in Ossuaries [2010]), and her lists that are also lamentations (seven in Inventory [2006] alone).

For me, her most appealing collections are No Language is Neutral (1990) and Land to Light On (1997). The first, whose title is taken from Derek Walcott’s Midsummer, is built on poems addressed to Phyllis Coard, one of the founding members of the National Organization for Women of Grenada, and is a rebuttal to what she deems white history. Brand, who worked for the revolution in Grenada, is explicit about what she has fashioned out of the weight of inherited colonial language: “I have come to know / something simple. Each sentence realised or dreamed jumps like a pulse without history and takes / a side. What I say in any


language is told in faultless / knowledge of skin, in drunkenness and weeping, / told as a woman without matches and tinder, not in / words and in words and in words learned by heart, / told in secret and not in secret, and listen, does not / burn out or waste and is plenty and pitiless and loves.” As Sharpe puts it: “Brand writes again and again into that dilemma that is witnessing—she writes into that gap between what has been done and an accounting of it. What happens in thresholds, doorways, and on street corners? What is registered in flesh, in bone, in viscera? What accumulates in lungs, chests, hearts, skin, and eyelids?”

Land to Light On shows a poet who is not of a single voice. Her book speaks to British imperialism, the rapaciousness of capitalism, the vacuum in radical leftist politics, and the way race, sex, gender, and language shape language and identity. Encompassing a wide stretch of history and references (colonial Spain, Russia, Poland, Nicaragua, the US, Sri Lanka, etcetera), Brand delivers a withering verdict on her era, while admitting to her own vulnerabilities. Her technical span is also impressive, with the verse flowing and building in dense chunks and then couplets.

Nomenclature for the Time Being (2022), the summative book (though the anthology leads off with it), brings together themes, moods, and historical and philosophical perspectives. Here, Brand consolidates herself as a poet who refuses “to reproduce whiteness,” acknowledging in the process that she has lived “a strange, strange life” in a world where the oppressed continue to live in an “emergency situation.” The content is a rehearsal and rephrasing of what she has continually expressed, without, however, expanding the power of what has come before.


IN THE BOWL OF MY EYE (Mawenzi House) & FINGER TO FINGER (Frontenac House)

Keith Garebian is well known both for his poetry and his literary and drama criticism. Some veteran poets find a modus operandi that includes certain themes or settings and ways to write about them that becomes a comfortable rut. There may be some wonderful poems in their later work, but their approach is no surprise. Garebian is not that kind of poet. I will approach his latest two books, in the bowl of my eye and Finger to Finger in the order in which I read them rather than their order of publication.

As the author’s note states, “ in the bowl of my eye is a radical departure from my previous poetic themes and aesthetic practices.” The heart of this book is place, specifically the Lakeshore area of Etobicoke and Mississauga. But rather than extolling the beauties of the lake or autumn leaves, Garebian declares, “I have sought to refuse familiar tropes of nature poetry.” Most of the poems concern neighbours and community members or his own life there. As one might expect from a writer so adept at criticism, there is little sentimentality here. Even though quotations from Walt Whitman introduce sections of the book, Garebian does not follow Whitman in embracing all humankind, seeking the common spirit in himself and others. I don’t mean that the voice here lacks compassion, passion or love, but that his sharp perception isolates each subject almost clinically. In this book, he is more the flâneur, noting those he passes without necessarily engaging with them. Hence the title—he’s inspired by what lingers in the bowl of his eye.

There’s an echo of Yeats’s self-selected epitaph here: “Cast a cold eye, on life, on death. Horseman, pass by.” Speaking of other writers, the author works their lines into his own in an intriguing way. Rather than using them just as an epigraph at the kick-off, they’re woven into the poems, as if the resonance suddenly occurred to

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him. He incorporates quotations from Wendell Berry, Nietzsche, Susan Glickman, Bruce Meyer, and others, shifting the poems from an inner monologue to a conversation with the larger literary world.

These poems are set in suburbia, a liminal space between the grittier big cities and the open fields and farms. As the speaker says in “Suburban Purgatory”:

suburbia being ex-urban pedestrian, minds as finely clipped as lawns luxuriating in weed-killer.

Suburbia is not traditionally a fertile place for inspiring poems. Yet Garebian, without romanticizing his locale, views it as a space as uncertain as Hong Kong, with its protests and repression, or as the US mired in toxic politics, interweaving lines from the Irish poet Eavan Boland in “Prologue”:

And I live in suburbia, no paradise or Sahara. Suburbia, I know too well “the kitchen bulbs which blister your dark”

Some poems are quiet, carefully pared observations. Others surprise with a sudden punch—like “You Who Knew the Name of Every Plant,” about his relationship with a gardener, which concludes, “We smell of mortality.” Formally, all are free verse and unrhymed, but there is considerable variation in line breaks, overall length, and use of stanzas. This echoes the fact that each poem addresses a different subject or a distinct way of experiencing the world.

Finger to Finger, despite its different themes, has some commonalities with in the bowl of my eye. One is the cosmopolitan, globe-trotting sophistication of a writer born in India to an Armenian father and Anglo-Indian mother, who then moved with them to Canada, and has travelled extensively himself. Another is Garebian’s honesty, calling things as he sees them.

He strips bare his own confusions and illuminations without overly lyrical imagery or evasions. This is an intriguing approach for a poet who also writes, “the dream was the heart / lying to itself the way poetry sometimes does.”

Finger to Finger focuses on more personal issues, particularly relationships, marriages, the death of parents, raising a child, and exploring one’s sexuality. The title, which at first recalled for me Michaelangelo’s famous image of God creating Adam, is drawn from a poem about Garebian’s last contact with a dying exwife. Garebian reveals that he has had relationships with both men and women. He writes about these with both directness and tenderness, noting that caring for another can survive even a break-up. He does not spare his own errors and hesitations during the hard work of loving others. As he puts it in “Mind Swallows Itself”:

as I write, hoping to forgive myself for so often prizing books above humans

I found the final poem is this collection the most moving. Inspired by a throat cancer diagnosis, in “Lost in Old Age,” the poet confronts the meaning of life and death in indelible lines:

we’re no longer part of the universe’s phantom design, we have been writing ourselves on sand, on water

He ends with a couplet that neatly encapsulates the paradox in understanding that we will end, at least in our current and mortal forms: “our exhausted wake, as we sleep to rouse the infinite.”

Such lines make this reader hope that these two collections are not Garebian’s final words in poetic form.

AVIARY, (NORTHERN CURLEW/EXTINCT), 22 x 33.5 , 2013 | SARA ANGELUCCI Image courtesy of the artist the Stephen Bulger Gallery. CONTRIBUTORS // 64


BRIGITTE ARCHAMBAULT, born in 1973, lives in Montreal. After graduating with a degree in fine arts from Concordia University, her career debuted with solo and group painting and sculpture exhibitions in galleries in Quebec. Concurrent with this, she worked on animated film projects, including her own short films, which have been screened at festivals worldwide. More recently, she has found the time to realize a dream: that of creating her first graphic novel.

K.R. BYGGDIN is the author of Wonder World (Enfield & Wizenty, 2022), a novel that explores the possibilities of queer belonging in a small Mennonite town. Their writing has also appeared in journals and anthologies across Canada, the UK, and New Zealand. Born and raised on the prairies, they now live in Kjipuktuk (Halifax).

H FELIX CHAU BRADLEY is the author of the short story collection Personal Attention Roleplay, which was a finalist for the Danuta Gleed Literary Award and the Kobo Rakuten Emerging Writer Prize in 2022. Their writing has appeared in carte blanche, Cosmonauts Avenue, Maisonneuve, Weird Era, Ricepaper, Xtra, and elsewhere. They live in Tiohtià:ke (Montreal).

ALISON COLWELL is a bisexual Canadian woman, single working mother of two children with mental health challenges, and a survivor of domestic abuse, all of which inform her creative writing. Her creative nonfiction work can be found in the climate fiction anthology Rising Tides, published by Caitlin Press, FOLKLIFE magazine, the NonBinary Review, and The Fieldstone Review and her fiction in Daily Science Fiction, Flash Fiction Magazine, The Drabble, and Tangled Locks Journal. Alison was recently awarded a Canada Council for the Arts Grant to work on a series of interconnected essays that weave fairy tales with memoir.

MORGAN DICK (she/her) is a neurodiverse writer from Calgary, AB. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Grain, Geist, CAROUSEL , Cloud Lake

Literary, Vagabond City Lit, The New Quarterly, and elsewhere. You can find her at or on Twitter @jmdwrites.

KEITH GAREBIAN has published thirty books to date, including many books on theatre, his autobiography, Pieces of My Self, and ten poetry collections, including Frida: Paint Me as a Volcano (2004), Blue: The Derek Jarman Poems (2008), Children of Ararat (2010), Poetry is Blood (2018), Against Forgetting (2019), In the Bowl of My Eye (2022), and Finger to Finger (2022). Several of his poems have been anthologized in Canada and the US, and one of his Jarman poems was set to music for choir and instruments by Gregory Spears, in the company of a poem each by Thomas Merton and Denise Levertov. Garebian has been shortlisted for the Grit/Lit, Freefall magazine, and the Gwendolyn MacEwen/Exile poetry awards, and some of his poems have been translated into French, Armenian, Hebrew, Bulgarian, and Romanian. In the fall of 2023, he will have his eleventh poetry collection, ThreeWay Renegade, published by Frontenac House. Garebian has served on many literary juries, including those for the Gerald Lampert and Raymond Souster Awards.

CARLA HARRIS (they/she) is a disabled, mad, queer, enby writer, performer, and interdisciplinary artist from Treaty 4 territory, living in Regina, SK. They have performed in Verses Festival in Vancouver (2016), the Saskatoon Poetic Arts Festival (2018), and at the Lieutenant Governor of Saskatchewan’s Annual Poetry Soirée of 2022. They released their first chapbook, Obtain No Proof, with Dis/ Ability Series of Frog Hollow Press in 2020 and had publications appear in antilang (2021) and The Lesley Strutt Memorial Chapbook with League of Canadian Poets (2022). The creative nonfiction piece “A Slowest Growing” made the long list of CBC’s Creative Nonfiction Prize in 2022, so they are grateful to have found a home for it with the Humber Literary Review. Harris teaches creative improvisation and is working on their first play and their first book of poetry in unconfined #CripTime.


SNEHA SUBRAMANIAN KANTA is a writer from the Greater Toronto Area. She is the author of the chapbook Ghost Tracks (Louisiana Literature Press, 2020). Her poem “Un-Elegy, Or How Water Unmakes A Country” won The Canadian Authors Association–Toronto inaugural Poetry Prize 2022. She is the founding editor of Parentheses Journal. Website:

ANA RODRIGUEZ MACHADO is a Cuban diaspora poet and writer from Toronto. Her work has been published in The Malahat Review, The Capilano Review, The Ex-Puritan Town Crier, and elsewhere. Her poems have been longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize, shortlisted for PEN Canada’s New Voices Award and The Mahalat Review’s Far Horizons Prize in Poetry, and awarded the Aspiring Canadian Poets Prize. She holds an MFA from the University of Guelph.

SUE MURTAGH is an emerging Nova Scotian writer, whose work recently appeared in carte blanche, Grain Magazine, and The Nashwaak Review. In 2016, Murtagh won the short fiction category of the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia’s (WFNS) Atlantic writing competition and apprenticed with Alexander MacLeod in 2020 through the WFNS Alistair MacLeod mentorship program. She is a graduate of Humber College’s creative writing program, where she mentored under Danila Botha.

BLESSING O. NWODO is a Nigerian writer residing in Toronto. She is an MFA candidate at the University of Guelph and an editor of Held Magazine. She is a finalist of the 2021 Toyin Fálọlá Prize, 2021 African Writers Awards, and the 2019 Lost Balloon Pushcart Prize for Speculative Fiction. When she’s not relishing fashion, she can often be found pulverizing the patriarchy. Blessing is working on a collection of short stories and a novel.

Born in Guelph, ON, JOHN OUGHTON has lived in Alexandria, Baghdad, and Kyoto as well as various parts of Eastern Canada. He studied English and writing at York University and the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University. Now a resident of Toronto’s Beaches area, he retired a few years ago from Centennial College, where he was named the first Professor of Learning and Teaching. He has published five books of poetry and has a new collection, The Universe and All That (Ekstasis Editions), a mystery novel, Death by Triangulation (NeoPoiesis), and Higher Teaching: A Handbook for New Post-secondary Faculty (Mirolla/Guernica Editions). Over 400 of his reviews, articles, blogs, and interviews have appeared in various journals and zines. He is also a photographer and guitar player.

ADELLE PURDHAM is a writer, speaker, and parent disability advocate. She holds an MFA in creative nonfiction writing from The University of King’s College and she’s a qualified French teacher. Her work has appeared in literary journals, anthologies, magazines, newspapers, and online. Her essays were shortlisted for EVENT Magazine’s 2022 Non-Fiction Contest and The Fiddlehead ’s 2022 CNF Contest and longlisted for the 2022 CNFC/HLR Creative Nonfiction Prize. Adelle is founder of The Write Retreat, facilitating wellness and workshops for women writers to create. She lives in Peterborough, ON, originally Nogojiwanong—Anishinabemowin for “place at the end of the rapids.” Adelle is a creative writing instructor at Trent University in continuing education. Visit her online:

NEIL PRICE is a writer, editor, and educator. His writing has appeared in NOW Magazine, The Globe and Mail, Ocula Magazine, Frieze, Hazlitt, Canadian Art, and The Conversation, among other publications. He lives in Toronto.


ERIC RAUSCH grew up in north-central Saskatchewan, and earned a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Saskatchewan. His work has appeared in Existere, and he has edited fiction for the online arts publication The Paper Street Journal, based in Hamilton, ON. He lives and works in Kitchener. Instagram: @rauschwrites.

MATTHEW ROONEY is a poet and visual artist from Halifax, NS. His poetry has been most recently featured in Queen’s Quarterly, The Antigonish Review, Canadian Literature, and Biblioasis’s 2021 anthology of the Best Canadian Poetry. His short stories have been published in The Lamp and elsewhere. Matthew is currently a first-year PhD student at the University of Western Ontario, where he serves as the content editor for the journal Word Hoard

MICHELLE WINTERS is a writer, painter, and translator from Saint John, NB, living in Toronto. Her debut novel, I Am a Truck, was shortlisted for the 2017 Scotiabank Giller Prize. Her short stories have been published in This Magazine, Taddle Creek, Dragnet, and Matrix. She was nominated for the 2011 Journey Prize. Currently, she is working on her second novel, Hair for Men.

WORKS CITED in “Navel-Gazing, a Revolution & a Love Story: The Importance of the Self and Stories of the Marginalized” (p. 44–49)

Bossière, Zoë. 2017. “A Response to Jia Tolentino’s ‘The Personal-Essay Boom is Over.’” BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog. June 12, 2017. brevity.wordpress. com/2017/06/12/a-response-to-jia-tolentinos-the-personal-essayboom-is-over/#comments

Cusk, Rachel. 2001. A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother. New York: Picador. ———. “I Was Only Being Honest.” 2008. The Guardian, March 21, 2008.

Elliott, Alicia. 2019. A Mind Spread Out on the Ground. Anchor Canada. Audible.

Fechner, Alyssa. 2019. “I Didn’t Want to Write Another Navel-Gazing Piece about Writing.” Medium. May 20, 2019. fech/i-didnt-want-to-write-another-navel-gazing-piece-about-writing9515065a8139

Gay, Roxane, ed. 2018. Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture. New York: Harper Perennial.

Gill, Alexandra. 2001. “Her Life’s an Open Book.” The Globe and Mail, March 22, 2001. /article1337821/

Gill, Lisa. 2010. “The Necessity of Navel-Gazing.” Brevity, August 10, 2010. essays/the-necessity-of-navel-gazing/

Grealy, Lucy. 1994. Autobiography of a Face. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Green, Charles. 2019. “In Praise of Navel Gazing: An Ars Umbilica.” Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies 5.2, Spring 2019. /charles-green-in-praise-of-navel-gazing-an-ars-umbilica-52.html Harrod, Horratia. 2018. “Sheila Heti: ‘I Don’t Have to Imagine Anything.’” Financial Times, June 22, 2018. content/32c55934-6fee-11e8-8863-a9bb262c5f53

Heti, Sheila. 2010. How Should a Person Be? Toronto: House of Anansi Press. Jamison, Leslie. 2014. The Empathy Exams. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press. Martis, Eternity. 2020. They Said This Would Be Fun: Race, Campus Life, and Growing Up. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart. Audible.

Matherly, Desirae. 2016. “In Defense of Navel-Gazing.” The Essay Review, 2016. Patchett, Ann. 2004. Truth & Beauty: A Friendship. New York: HarperCollins. Pine, Emilie. 2019. Notes to Self: Essays. New York: The Dial Press. Pistorius, Martin. 2013. Ghost Boy: The Miraculous Escape of a Misdiagnosed Boy Trapped Inside His Own Body. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.



Humber LiteraryR

Ponteri, Jay. 2014. “In Defense of Navel-Gazing.” Oregon Humanities, March 25, 2014. /in-defense-of-navel-gazing-jay-ponteri/.

Taddeo, Lisa. 2019. Three Women. New York: Avid Reader Press. Tolentino, Jia. 2017. “The Personal-Essay Boom Is Over.” The New Yorker, May 18, 2017. the-personal-essay-boom-is-over

Weijun Wang, Esmé. 2019. The Collected Schizophrenias. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press. Audible.

Wolcott, James. 1997. “Me, Myself, and I.” Vanity Fair, October 1997. archive.



de-visite with photographs of extinct and endangered North American birds from the collection of the Royal Ontario Museum. In Nocturnal Botanical Ontario, Angelucci explores the flora in the area outside her cottage in the Pretty River Valley, scanning at night to reveal plants—native, introduced, and invasive—which grow entwined. Taken together, the projects in this exhibition speak to environmental grief, the role of science in the classification of nature, and a call for our urgent need to protect and care for the natural world.

Sara Angelucci is a Toronto-based artist working in photography, video, and audio. Over the years, her projects have drawn inspiration from a range of archival images, from family photographs and home movies to anonymous snapshots, scientific lantern slides, found tintypes, and discarded studio portraits. Pointing to histories outside the image frame, her work considers the ways photographs are constructed to tell stories, create histories, replicate colonial beliefs, and participate in memorialization. Research into the technical development of photography and its social uses informs the direction of her creative production. Her projects are often a response to what we cannot see in the picture itself. For example, the prolific development of American tintypes in the 1860s went together with soldiers wanting to leave their loved ones an image of themselves as thousands left home for Civil War battlefields. So, her work often asks not just “who” is this anonymous person in the picture, but why and how did this photograph appear in this form?

Since 2013, Angelucci’s projects have deeply considered our fraught relationship with nature. In recent years, an archive of discarded scientific lantern slides at the Visual Studies Workshop has provided rich material for considering the evolution of photography and its relationship to the study of natural history. A mid-career survey of her work, Undergrowth (with accompanying publication), expands on these ideas with a series of projects from Aviary (2013) to her current and ongoing series, Nocturnal Botanical Ontario. The images in Aviary were produced by merging found carte-

Sara Angelucci completed her BA at the University of Guelph and her MFA at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. She has exhibited her photography across Canada, including exhibitions at the Art Gallery of York University, Le Mois de la Photo in Montreal, Vu in Quebec City, the Toronto Photographers Workshop, the MacLaren Art Centre, the Art Gallery of Hamilton, the Richmond Art Gallery, and the St. Mary’s University Art Gallery in Halifax. Her work has been included in exhibitions in the US, Europe, and China, including the Canadian Cultural Centre in Paris, the Beijing Biennale, and the Lianzhou Photography Festival. Her videos have been screened across Canada and abroad at festivals in Europe, China, Australia, and the US She has participated in artist residencies at the Art Gallery of Ontario, NSCAD University (Halifax), the Banff Centre, and at Biz-Art in Shanghai. Angelucci has been the recipient of numerous grants from the Toronto Arts Council, the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council. In 2016, she received the prestigious Chalmers Fellowship from the OAC.

Angelucci was the Director of Gallery 44 Centre for Contemporary Photography from 1998–2008. She is currently an adjunct professor in photography at the Toronto Metropolitan University School of Image Arts, and is the curatorial coordinator for the student gallery at The Image Centre. Her work is represented by the Stephen Bulger Gallery in Toronto.



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