piece. winter, 2019
Winter 2018 Essay 4 A Body Of Oneâ€™s Own - Molly Guinn Bradley 5 Poetry 22 Seasonal Want - Abigail Kirby Conklin 23 Tomato Leaf Perfume - Eden Bailie 25 Poetry Envy - Matt Babcock 26 Where They Buried Columbus - Dalia Ventura Abbas 29 Pastry - Rich Glinnen 30 Five dollar poem on the south bank of the River Thames - David Xiang 31 The Whale - Kelsey Shipman 33 On the occasion of the incarceration of the Assistant State Attorney Generalâ€™s wife for making over one hundred threatening telephone calls to her neighbor - Robert Keeler 34 Fiction 36 Motherhood - Alex Skosen 37
Letter from the Editors Welcome to the first issue of piece magazine. For those of you who are meeting us for the first time, piece is a collection of stories, poems, and essays that employ innovative imagination, that rally the hope in each of us and align us to a vision for how we might create the future together. Part of reimagining our future is reimagining publication. In many ways, publication today is as much about the promoted genius and creativity of an author as it is about their actual writing. But not all of us are geniuses, and not all of us have to be to create great art that inspires. piece hopes to separate itself from this reliance on the author as the hero and hopes to put the focus back on the ideas. You will notice that none of the works in this magazine have author bylines. If you like something you read, and you want to know who wrote it, you can find the authorâ€™s name in the Table of Contents or the Author Index. During the ideation phase of piece, we uncovered a quote from Italian novelist Elena Ferrante:
Writing requires maximum ambition, maximum audacity, and programmatic disobedience.
This message gained weight and meaning for us upon the discovery that
Ferrante wrote under a pseudonym, as if claiming that ambition, audacity, and disobedience were most discoverable when the sharp edge of ego that often clings to todayâ€™s literary works was shaven off. We believe that publishing should be a challenge. Gaining traction as a literary magazine should be an uphill battle. Discerning which works to include should be an intimate discussion of ideas, not author names and bios. We hope the pieces we have gathered here for our first issue are approachable, beautiful, and impressive to you, reader. They were all of that and more to us. With love, piece editorial team
A Body Of One’s Own At the dinner table, my mother and my older sister were teasing me. Mom, with her water glass in hand, was feigning tipping it over onto me. The more they teased, the further the glass tipped, and the sourer I grew. Stop, I said. Don’t! And then Mom poured her water into my lap. There was a brief silence before she started laughing. Then my sister. It didn’t take much longer for me to realize I was angry—surprisingly angry. Honestly, disproportionately angry. My mother seemed more shocked by my anger than by her action. Lighten up, she said. It’s just water. It’ll dry. She was right, but she wasn’t. By the end of dinner, we were both equally angry, each convinced that the other shouldn’t be. I want to say I went to my room and slammed the door, but I know I didn’t. My desire for everything to be OK, without conflict, has always been stronger than my anger, even if that has meant apologizing for something I didn’t believe was my fault. I knew I would wind up apologizing to my mom—and she to me—but in the meantime, I licked the small wound that had opened in a place I didn’t know I had.
When people came to visit my family in Paris, where we lived from when I was six to eighteen, it meant doing the rounds of museums. By the time I 5
was eight, I knew the layout of the Louvre like my neighborhood. My sister and I had names for our favorite pieces of art: Unicorn Lady; Goat Lady (which goat was actually, as I only recently learned, a deer); Naked Picnic. Naked Picnic—Edouard Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe—was an unjustifiable nickname to give a painting in which only one of the four people depicted was actually naked, especially since it hung in a museum where most works of art did, in fact, featured fewer clothed people than naked ones. The city was full of naked bodies: naked men in every fountain, the woman in the Cartier ad with a dress made of watch links that barely covered her areolas, the ad that played before movies in which cartoon genitalia chased each other around on little legs. In every production— theater, dance, opera—we saw over my twelve years there, at least one person had always stripped down completely by its end. Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe isn’t the only painting that features shirts and skins, but it’s an odd spread: two dressed men and one naked woman sitting on the grass, with another woman in a sheer shift in the background, standing in a river, bending toward the water. The men seem engaged in conversation, the foremost reaching out his arm to the other, as though to make a point. The naked woman on the picnic blanket, however, looks out—at us, perhaps, hand to her chin, seemingly thoughtful, possibly bored. Not only is the woman naked while the men are dressed, but the men really are fully dressed, topcoats and all. The man reaching out with one hand has his pair of gloves in the other, as though he’s only just taken them off, or is 6
about to put them back on, or otherwise isn’t staying long enough to set them down. Meanwhile, the naked woman sits only on a thin shift of blue fabric—her discarded dress, presumably. She looks, above all else, thoroughly inconvenienced. When we passed this painting—and any other painting, for that matter, that featured naked ladies, which meant most paintings—my mother would say some variation of, Brrr! She looks cold! She’d make more quips that drew attention to the peculiarity of the situation: Do you think her dress got caught on a tree on their way to the picnic? Or maybe she laid it down for all of them to sit on. Was she swimming? It passed the time in museums beautifully, and shaped the way I respond to art—which is to say, exactly the same way. It’s much easier to laugh at something peculiar than get closer.
Home from my Ohio college one winter, I spent a night out with whoever was around: friends of friends from high school, people I’d never really spoken to but knew, still, by dint of four years stuck together as we willed ourselves into adulthood. We went to an Irish pub on the Quai de Conti, its entrance tucked away inside an alcove across from the river. Inside, a woozy Julian, who had never once spoken to me in high school, sat beside me and told me I was pretty. I smiled and thanked him, and turned back to my friends. No, like, so pretty, he said, putting his hand over mine where it lay on the bench to hold my attention. Vadim, who had also never spoken to me in high school and hadn’t yet that 7
night, pulled me up to dance. Later we made out in a vestibule, inconveniencing the people trying to pass through. I pulled away just enough to flash a sheepish Sorry! smile to the people passing by. Vadim didn’t seem to notice. Standing outside the bar afterward, waiting for a cab, he lit a cigarette. The wind blew toward me. Sorry, he said. Do you mind? I said no. I kind of like the smell of cigarettes, I said. In response he drew close, put his hand under my chin and brought it near, and blew a stream of smoke directly into my face. This same thing has happened a number of times since. It almost always happens standing outside a bar with a man who lights a cigarette, politely asks if I mind; when I say I don’t, he blows cigarette smoke directly into my face, usually with a self-satisfied smirk. The predictability is so uncanny that it has become funny, even as it happens. When I tell people about this, they’re surprised. Why would anyone do that? How rude! And yet, it keeps happening.
In Déjeuner sur l’herbe, there’s focus and attention to detail apparent in the brushstrokes that create the folds in the closer man’s trousers and the blue cloth beneath the woman, an earnest attempt at capturing fabric in a state of furl—difficult to accomplish, I’d imagine, in such dark tones in the shadow of the trees. It’s odd that the same attention seems to be missing from the 8
naked woman’s body. Three lines down the stomach and a delicate V at the fold of her thigh are as graphic as Manet gets with her flesh. The rest is just ripples of beige. More clues that indicate either a lack of attention or a deliberate departure from reality: the size of the woman in the background is too large, given the distance she seems to be from the three figures in the foreground. The intricate detail of the naked woman’s discarded clothing and basket of fruit compared to the ambiguous green wash of pasture out the back of the scene, beyond the woods. Nothing is quite as it should be, to the point that it’s a little maddening to look at. The longer I do, the more I start to wonder whether I’m not just seeing things wrong.
When I was little, the nakedness of the woman at the picnic seemed like a mystery. Whatever reasons she had for being naked seemed elusive, seemed like secrets the painting held that I would either never know, or that I would understand when I got older, as seemed to be the case with most nudity. One time my dad tried to show my sister and I, at 11 and 9, one of his favorite movies. Within minutes my mom walked in and, horrified, turned it off. I think it’s a little soon for this! she said. My dad, sheepish, agreed. I didn’t remember it starting like that, he said. The entire movie is like that, said my mom. But we had seen just enough to realize that it wasn’t so much that we weren’t old enough to understand, or appreciate, or whatever, the 9
gratuitous nudity or sex scenes that the movie had to offer, but rather that my parents didn’t think we were old enough to let this particular movie teach us what it knew about nakedness and sex and human bodies. My parents didn’t avoid the subject of sex, exactly. The talk I received at eight years old from my mother started: When your dad and I decided to have sex, the first thing we did was make an appointment to go get tested for AIDS. They didn’t want to shield us from sex, but they really only wanted us to witness nakedness that everyone was enjoying, that seemed safe and consensual and pleasant—or, otherwise, if it wasn’t consensual or safe or fun, that had a lesson to explain it away, like how Rizzo having sex with Kenickie in Grease winds her up with a pregnancy scare, or how in Saturday Night Fever Annette gets raped by multiple men in the backseat of a car because—well, actually, my mother hadn’t remembered that part. We skipped past it and didn’t talk about it again. Besides, they weren’t even naked.
For a painting of nothing more exciting than a picnic, Le déjeuner sur l’herbe stirred people up. Contributors to Le Figaro and Le Petit Journal dismissed it on the basis of poor artistry: the painting was underdeveloped, form and modeling were unwieldy. Jules-Antoine Castagnary, a critic who encouraged the induction of the term “impressionist” into the lexicon of the art world, found Manet’s technique “flabby.” Émile Zola fictionalized both the painting and its provocation in L’Oeuvre, 10
his novel about the Paris art world in the 19th century and an artist who bore uncanny similarities to Paul Cézanne. “In the background,” he writes in the voice of a character in L’Oeuvre, “a chemise-wearing woman bathes; in the foreground, two young men are seated across from a second woman who has just exited the water and who dries her naked skin in the open air. This nude woman has scandalized the public, who see only her in the canvas. My God! What indecency: a woman without the slightest covering between two clothed men!” The character goes on to explain: Assuredly, the nude woman of The Luncheon on the Grass is only there to furnish the artist the occasion to paint a bit of flesh… it is this firm modeled flesh under great spots of light, these tissues supple and strong, and particularly this delicious silhouette of a woman wearing a chemise who makes, in the background, an adorable dapple of white in the milieu of green leaves. It is, in short, this vast ensemble, full of atmosphere, this corner of nature rendered with a simplicity so just, all of this admirable page in which an artist has placed all the particular and rare elements which are in him. And so, this man says, the painting is not about the woman’s body at all, but about how it fits within the scene, how it complements its surroundings. Her body is only so much dappled light in the forest. It’s not inappropriate: it’s art. In order to defuse the threat of the piece of art, the naked woman must become an exercise in the viewer’s ability to see her as such: as an aesthetic part of the painted landscape, instead of as a naked woman alone 11
After I graduated from college, I moved to Portland, Oregon, where I knew no one, into a house with six roommates. One of them, Bea, took me out my first night. I need a wing woman, she said. She was infatuated with a barber in Sellwood, named something like Mat with one T. She’d met him when she went to get a pixie cut. In the interest of spending more time with him, she went back and got her hair buzzed. We found Mat at a bar in northeast Portland with a friend who looked like a blond Christian Slater. We wound up spending most of the time with each other, Christian Slater and I, biding our time like bodyguards waiting on our celebrities. Bea and Mat proposed we go back to our house. We got in my car. As I started driving I smelled tobacco. Christian Slater was lighting up. Please don’t smoke in my car, I said, but I got no response. At the house we hung out in my room, in the basement, until Bea and Mat, giggling like maniacs, vanished to Bea’s room. Christian Slater pulled me onto his lap. Tell me about yourself, he said. His breath was beer-soaked and too hot. Before I could answer, he kissed me. Then after a short minute or so he pulled away. Let’s not have sex, he said. I was relieved. Okay. What do you want to do? I asked, hoping he’d leave. Let’s just talk, he said. We began, but found we had nothing to say to each other. Minutes later he was 12
he was kissing me again, and then undressing me, and it seemed like the route of least resistance to get from where we were now to him going home. After he went down on me, I tried to pull him into me. You could at least return the favor, he said, pushing my head down. But he didn’t get hard, so finally I sat back. I’m going to sleep, I said. Well, what do I do? he said. I have an air mattress, I said. I’ll just sleep with you, he said, and passed out immediately. I couldn’t move him over, so I crawled out of bed and slept on the floor. In the morning I woke to the sound of his retching into the toilet. He came back and got back into bed. I have stuff to do, I lied. OK, he said. I’d rather you not be here when I leave the house. Don’t even worry about it, he said. I went upstairs to find Bea and Mat entangled on the sofa. Please get your friend out of my bed, I said to Mat. We went downstairs. Mat kicked his friend in the side. Christian Slater sat up. OK, OK. As he walked out, he turned around. And what was your name again? he asked me.
It doesn’t matter, I said, and he left, and it didn’t.
According to critic Anne McCauley, in “Sex and the Salon: Defining art and immortality in 1863,” there’s humor inherent in the situation of the painting that defuses its sensuality. The lack of interaction between the men and the woman, clothed and unclothed, and the lack of explanation for their respective states of dress is an absurd antidote to the possibility of sexual tension. I haven’t seen Le déjeuner sur l’herbe in person in years, but when I look at photographs of it, sometimes it does come across as funny. The men, especially the one pointing authoritatively, seem to be making grandiose conversation, while the woman in the foreground gazes at us, uncaptivated by their carrying on. It’s a distinct Look. Maybe her Look is supposed to communicate something like, Typical: the artist paints his fantasy of being in control, with naked women around him. Or maybe it’s more like: Honestly, I am just trying to get this over with. But that very Look is what destroys Zola’s character’s defense of the painting as being simply an aesthetic drink of water, and McCauley’s cool dismissal of its sexuality. It’s easy to laugh at the notion of a naked woman sitting with fully dressed men in a forest clearing, especially as neither men nor woman seem particularly interested in each other. But other than the fact of the woman’s nakedness, there’s no sexual tension 14
to speak of, and therefore none to deflect at all, with laughter or anything else. There’s discomfort in the painting of a kind, but it has never struck me as sexual. The painting hardly suggests an orgy; the men would surely be naked by now if that were so, or at least have loosened their cravats. The only suitable word I can think of is inconvenient: for both women to have traveled all the way out here so scantily clad; to be sitting nude with properly attired men in an era when to sit naked in a public space wasn’t exactly the norm; to wind up in such a compromising position. There’s nothing wrong with the scenario, really. But I can’t think of an explanation for it in which the woman is holding the winning cards in her hand.
My boyfriend and I have engaged in more jarring physical collisions than I have with anyone. He accidentally dropped half an egg sandwich on me one time, onto a new pair of pants. I tried to laugh—it was funny, I told myself—but I froze for just a little too long when it happened to pass mirth off as such. I mock-knocked him in the balls one time but wound up actually hurting him, hovering as he remained bent over with his forehead cinched in pain, asking, in disbelief and self-defense, Seriously? But I barely touched you! Does it really hurt that much? It did. When I asked him how that was possible, he insisted (as, to be fair, most men do) that there was no equivalent pain for women that remotely compared, so I couldn’t imagine it. Sometimes he’ll wrap me in an embrace so tight it presses my lungs empty. 15
His body can’t calibrate its own power. Which is not his fault. But my body doesn’t know that. It’s sort of a mystical thing, or maybe just a very simple psychological one: consenting to physical discomfort makes it much less painful than when it’s unwanted. I am willing to give a lot more than my body can bear, but it would be nice to be asked for it—or, at the very least, be given permission to react.
From Maggie Nelson’s Bluets: “A young doctor inside asked me to rate my pain on a scale of 1 to 10—I was flummoxed, I felt as though I shouldn’t be there at all—I said ‘6’—he said to the nurse, Write down ‘8,’ since women always underestimate their pain. Men always say ‘11,’ he said. I didn’t believe him, but I supposed he might know.”
There are only so many transgressions that women are allowed to let affect us, and they must meet certain qualifications. They must be physical and sufficiently painful, and we must be able to prove this. They must violate us in a way that both parties would agree is a violation. If they can possibly be considered just a joke, then they’re probably just a joke. Anything else is simply not a big deal. If the boundary crossed is not a very serious one, why would we demand that someone waste his energy remembering not to cross it? 16
In “Edouard Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe as a Veiled Allegory of Painting,” Danish art scholar Rolf Læssøe draws attention less to the nude woman than the man with his pointing hand. He analyzes other of Manet’s works in which hands are similarly prominent, always pointing in some fashion, always a central feature of the painting. “Obviously, as I have argued and discussed elsewhere,” Læssøe says, “the conjunction of these hands makes one think of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel, so that a subtle subtext for all of these pointing ‘Manet’-fingers is not only a notion of ‘pointing-as-painting’ but of ‘pointing/painting as creating—“life”’ and consequently a notion of ‘the artist as God.’ “I don’t wish to pursue this much further here,” he goes on; “it’s a kind of treacherous ground which invites potentially unhealthy, metaphysical speculations, and ultimately perhaps even madness.”
It might be a demand on someone else’s energy to remember our boundaries, but if they don’t spend that energy, we do. There’s a tangible toll to tolerating even minor bodily transgressions—physical microaggressions, maybe. It’s a stubbed toe that hurts like hell even though you can plainly see that there’s nothing truly wrong. It’s a long, slow leak that winds us up with a hefty water bill that isn’t ours to pay, but it isn’t anyone else’s, either. It’s the broken window from the neighbors’ kids’ 17
baseball that isn’t their fault, because boys will be boys. I don’t feel like I have permission to draw attention to any of these incidents. In the grand scheme of things, they’re scraps of paper in a drawer of complaints I keep shut. I’d rather not have to persuade anyone why these things affect me. I’d rather be the woman sitting on the grass, vulnerable but placid. That placidity is a very safe place to sit.
A man I went on four dates with two years ago has been texting me. It’s been almost a year since my last response. He’s tried a number of different tactics to elicit a reaction, and has sent a number of texts that seem almost to accept defeat—intentionally rhetorical texts, mostly photographs: of fireworks on the fourth of July, without caption; of a mountain range; of his slippered feet; of a cat. I don’t recognize the mountains. I don’t know if it’s his cat. For that matter, I don’t even know for sure if they’re his feet. I’ve considered an array of responses to his unsolicited missives. I’ve thought of asking outright: Why are you still texting me? But it sounds too harsh. Maybe to soften it, I’d say: I don’t mean to be rude, but I’m just curious: seeing as I haven’t responded to you in a year, is there a particular reason you are still reaching out? I might feel more emboldened to respond were it not for the fact that the 18
reason I stopped being willing to see him is that two years ago, when I canceled tentative plans we’d made, he became furious. He texted me increasingly agitated messages. By the time he began calling me names, I stopped responding. He called me a number of times and left an apologetic voicemail. I called him back. At first he apologized, then became bitter. I hung up. He left a voicemail that I didn’t listen to until months later. It was so apologetic that I messaged him to apologize. I told my boyfriend about this person who kept texting me, long after we’d been scantly involved. Do you respond? he asked. Sometimes, I said. I’m afraid of of making him mad. He looked at me, incredulous. Why don’t you block him? he asked. I didn’t know why I was reluctant. Maybe because I feel the same way about individual anger as I do about that of collections of angry people, like Four Loko devotees or white nationalists: I’d rather know the degree of the heat of someone’s rage than turn my back and pretend it’s not there.
“Certainly, the gentleman with the velveteen jacket did not work well, too fat, and badly seated,” says Zola’s Claude Lantier in L’Oeuvre, of the fictional painting known to be Manet’s own; “only the hand was beautiful. In the background, the two women, the blonde and the brunette, not developed sufficiently from a sketchy stage, lacked a solidity, and were amusing only to the eyes of the artist. But he was satisfied with the trees, 19
with the sunlit clearing, and the nude woman, the woman lying on the grass seemed to him superior to his own talent, as if someone else had painted her, and as if he had never seen her before, in such resplendence of life.â€?
Læssøe, Rolf. “Édouard Manet’s ‘Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe” as a Veiled Allegory of Painting.’ Artibus et Historiae, vol. 26, no. 51, 2005, pp. 195-220. McCauley, Anne. “Sex and the Salon: Defining Art and Immorality.” Manet’s ‘Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe’, edited by Paul Hayes Tucker, Cambridge University Press, 1998, pp. 38-74. Nelson, Maggie. Bluets. Wave Books, 2009. Zola, Émile. The Masterpiece. Translated by Thomas Walton. Oxford University Press, 2008.
Seasonal Want In Winter the appetite fades to stark shadow, screwed against a backdrop of wet wool and wind. Autumn: a force of stripping denial, scooping me out like a saw-edge spoon, leaving nothing to the imagination. Spring sees an uptick but turns stupid and hopeful, full of temporary bursts, the occasional grasp at piety. everyone reinstates church attendance because surely there’s more to life than— oh, but fuck me, then— Summer: swollen limbs sweat-drenched in peeled-back cotton, 23
pearls of moisture born on brows, trickling, some tumid beast of bottomless appetite suddenly rouses and ruins. tomatoes split, rupturing skins while crowns of raspberries overwhelm their canes bent over bent over shackled with blood-colored weight. figs soften in an afternoon give way to one another. I am to absent myself from the craving of my skin for othersâ€™, the taut hefts pressing upwards, the only fruit refusing to wither with the season. I want. I want. I want. the twist in the space strung across my pelvis, this sick puppet, is shameless. a can-can. a high knee. gaping, aching fruits snatching for phantom branches. 24
Tomato Leaf Perfume i was asked what childhood is the smell of tomato leaves 14 hand ponies my palms read wineberry stains and split oranges but the heat breeds tempers tantrums so i hibernate and search for unnecessary words i dig up absquatulate cacoethes entomophagy sixteen and drenched in academia weaving dandelion chain poetry now with novels of ink on my palms
Poetry Envy When I read the poems of W. H. Ogilvy with all their e’ens and whene’ers, I feel like I’m back in high school, watching the senior class jocks sashay down the hall past the Coke machines and framed facsimile of the Declaration of Independence in the Optimist Club Freedom Shrine. Each guy with a cheerleader named Candy or Jill draped over his arm like a golden fleece, telling the whole conventional world it could go to hell in a way I ached to embrace but would never dare mimic. Nowadays my afternoons brim with mockery aimed at the likes of Christopher North, the club-footed canter of his syntax, the wrenched accents and bogus urbanity of each ‘mid and ‘neath.
But in the robed silence of my private hours I burn to launch a line with “Lo!” or “Alas!” in the same way I used to plead with God to send me a single day in which I might lounge on the waxed hood of a midnight blue ’72 Mustang in the place of Cash McCallum or Paul Petruzelli on a blazing June afternoon in the Safeway parking lot the day after graduation, a glittering gallery of girls strutting by like veiled dancers through an Egyptian bazaar, my Levi jacket parted to reveal ropy California abs and pecs from so much weight lifting ev’ry day strengthenéd. There are days when I think I might trump up the gumption to walk and talk with the big boys. But deep down I know I’ll never allow myself the rolling grandiloquence of a heretofore or the hummingbird syncope of a ‘tis
any more than I could have crashed a kegger at the Fredericksen barn the night after the Wood River game. No, in the age of information, I’ll sneer at sentimentality and antiquated diction the way I used to console myself by saying that guys like that weren’t really happy. In memory, I’ll walk the same quarter mile home down Route 25, accompanied by the slinky dance of alfalfa and purple dusk, my casual arm hugging the hourglass hips of a new nineteenth century where the only trite expressions are those left unsaid.
Where They Buried Columbus 10 million pairs of eyes heavy and hooded with time, bright and silent and screaming and laughing and knowing and praying and dreaming. mama is ten thousand years old and has a soft face and holds you with warm hands, calloused hands, knowing hands and presses honeysuckle leaves to your fore head and feeds you berries, sweetly acidic, and hums in your ear softly and tells you where they buried columbus, and you smile. there are still ten million indians. they are bright and silent and screaming and laughing and knowing and praying and dreaming. they love you and hold you, and their names are all mama. their breath fans tree branches and stirs the dirt underneath traveled feet and whispers stories, each bright and knowing and never forgotten, and you dream quilts threaded from silver clouds, and you never miss the trees or the plains or the buffalo or the fish or mama, and your feet walk amongst ten million others like yours, and you sing all the songs mama taught you, and you know how to sing them, too, because your language isnâ€™t dead. you hold mamaâ€™s face, brush away salt tears, sweetly acidic, and press honeysuckle petals to her forehead and hum softly and tell her where you would have buried columbus, and you try to salvage stories, long forgotten, and you miss the trees and plains and buffalo and fish, and you sing songs in a beating language, brown and broken. and you still, always miss mama
Pastry I recall him as a slouched cone, paws fanned to the morning; face is perfection, the only thing thatâ€™ll understand me today. Soft, round, warming in the rising sunâ€” I pet my scone
Five dollar poem on the south bank of the River Thames its letters fall, leaves in the heart of summer that blur the question inside and carry flute of street corners from bird to bird until it returns, dampened by stranger coins the sounds lead you to this man selling poems pay what you like, his cardboard sign reads perched on a plastic baby blue chair, nimble fingers clacking on a gleaming red typewriter there is no one in line, and you do not say anything. You wish it was longer that time could be dammed by an extra mile to taste this peripheral foreignness in every step a perpetuity sodden in words that will remain words, nothing more, but the eye still turns. The bridges bring the stars down so we can look at each other, and there is a moment when you canâ€™t tell if itâ€™s a kiss of the night or these lights pulling warm breaths together, as if to say this poem stretches across the atlantic 31
in the afterthought, a touch so gentle you probably imagined it. For once these hands could mimic firefly love a caress tingling every heart in the body the poet returns your poem, and you keep half of it and your crinkled tube map slip the leftover softness into my pocket knowing this paper will make itself whole again
The Whale A single fluke on the horizon, and I am not alone. In the gray distance, time turns like a movie reel, and you beach yourself to be with me. Giant body in the sand. My hands wet and waiting. I push back against you, all mottled skin and brine. A perfect rolling blue, vast open wounds, and this wet perilous love. Something shifts inside me, as you bleed against the rocks.
On the occasion of the incarceration of the Assistant State Attorney Generalâ€™s wife for making over one hundred threatening telephone calls to her neighbor These are the shards: a chilly climate, a heaving breast, her calamity, her fertile disaster. Once, she did command a magnificent vessel. Cast down by some hideous strength, by some Ouroborian worm that infiltrated reason, sowed piles of transparent scats, perhaps she was so thirsty for life, she fell into that ugly maelstrom, then became progressively thirsty for plight. We are all cast down a hundred times in life by forces older than amber. We are all pinned against cold green foams of our own making.
In dense, remote, Amazonian rainforest jungles, lightning-lit fires burn for weeks unseen by white man. One hundred thousand hectares of old trees ablated: underbrush, early growth, goneâ€”sane acts of Providence. In dry season, however, those low fires burn for months, trickling into furrows, bypassing ridges. Why and when did her conspiring genius, like green folds of winter cabbage, turn arcanely malevolent? Over time, stands of young juniper and mango trees rise up again.
Motherhood It starts with the congregation of First Baptist Ministry pouring out of their chapel, singing and clapping hands. They spill out into the street, obstructing traffic. Eventually the police are summoned, but then even they join in the celebration when they hear the good news. It’s a Sunday commuter’s worst nightmare. Of course there are doubts. First Advent United Methodist across the street raises hell at the beginning, but eventually they get visited too, which puts an end to that. Soon it’s just the non-believers squinting their eyes at the whole thing, hands in our pockets, muttering questions to each other and to the faithful majority who keep insisting on seeing miracles where we see a practical invasion. Take me, for instance. I haven’t heard a gospel sermon since I was fifteen and my mother left my father and my father retreated to his office to think things over for the next five, ten, now twenty years. The church ladies would come by the house. They got me to one or two more services before I got wise to their act — I took a job at a bakery that made sure I was at work every Sunday morning. Who can argue with work? I didn’t. Not for the next five, ten, twenty years. And now I co-own the place — though I stayed at my dad’s, just to make sure he was all right. The visitors say they’re angels, but I could have sworn I saw one of them snapping a picture of some graffiti depicting at least three naked bodies and one act of copulation, another taking a leak in an alley when he 37
thought no one was looking. They’re not like angels from paintings, either: they don’t fly, no halos. They do wear white robes and glow, so there’s that. One asked me for a light once, but I don’t smoke so I couldn’t help him. Of course the Baptist-and-Methodist-majority city of November Falls granted the visitors protected status; the mayor pledged to get them certified as an endangered species if that’s what it took. He won his reelection by a landslide that year. The angels came and went as they pleased. A few got girlfriends, real beauty queens. Whatever else these visitors were, they sure weren’t over-interested in the men of November Falls. Polite, sure. But uninterested. I asked my dad what he thought of all this, and he said he wasn’t really sure, which is what he usually says. About a year after they first showed up one of the church ladies came into the bakery. She was elated: an angel had just rented out her basement. She didn’t even mind the weird glowing, was totally used to it after only a few weeks, practically couldn’t sleep without it now, if she was being honest. “Isn’t it just glorious?” she asked me. “Soy or whole milk in your coffee?” I said. So nobody really knew where the angels came from or what they were up to. It was difficult to keep track of how many there were. At least ten, maybe fifty. They all looked similar. Guesses flourished, one Reddit thread that I followed had a working theory that I hardly understood. It involved words 38
like Weinberg angle and dirac matrix, convergent differential and antisymmetric tensor. They started appearing on late night TV, in click-bait articles, on YouTube, different newspapers, and even, once, on NPR. Everyone asked them the same questions you’d expect: Where did you come from, and, Why are you here? What was amazing was that the angels never answered, not once, not really, and yet everyone carried on as if they’d said, The system you know as Cygnus X-1, and we’re just here to hang out. See the sights. No. What they’d do was tell some anecdote, or sermonize, always something forgettable, distracting. What shut us non-believers up, at least in November Falls, was the tourist money. A year and half after they showed up we had a Whole Foods. Then a chef with an Instagram following that could populate a small country opened a chic restaurant in our quiet downtown. The city commissioned a renovation project that would have shot the entire budget only a few years back. There were rumors that the president wanted to visit. It seemed like everyone wanted a picture with the angels, be they tourists, Instagram celebrities, or YouTube personalities. My Facebook page was flooded with angel selfies, and I wasn’t even friends with any of them. One of the old high school associates that I’d friended years ago and never managed to remove was a body-builder, and had started working out with one of the angels. From her alone I was witness to a torrent of celestial side chest and side tricep, a constant flood of angelic front lat spreads, front double biceps. 39
The bakery not only kept its head above water, but became something of a tourist attraction. There was always — and I mean always — a group of three angels hanging around the front. I wanted them to leave at first; the glowing freaked me out. But, since the glowing freaked me out, I didn’t work up the guts to say anything about their loitering. One morning I found one of the angels in the back, with the supplies. I was surprised, and scared, so all I could do was point him out of my kitchen. He smiled and made to leave, but when he got close to me he put his hand on my shoulder and said that he could tell it was my mission to feed the hungry, and he could tell I was excellent at it. I didn’t know what to say to him, so I just stared. He said that he’d said a special blessing over the flour, that I should never worry about being unable to feed my family. Normally I’d be mad as hell, but when I checked everything I couldn’t find anything weird. Two years after the angels first appeared the congregation of First Baptist Ministry starts getting lumps on their arms, under the skin. The lumps itched, itched in a way that was unignorable, and so lump-bearers would scratch until they were bleeding. Then officers at the November Falls Police Department developed a rash, then lumps. Next, First Advent United Methodist. Pretty soon the Center for Disease Control was called in, but the CDC doctors started getting lumps on their arms, too. The CDC responded in force. One morning they went door-to-door in full hazmat gear to all the houses near First Baptist and First Advent, pulled me and Dad out of our home, pulled my neighbors out of their houses, 40
stripped us of every last stitch. Dad and I didn’t even have lumps and still they sprayed us down with everyone else, used a hose attached to a clear plastic tank on a truck. The spray smelled chemical, more than just water. It burned my eyes, was like acid on my crotch. I screamed, shouted. Dad only gasped and hugged himself. The spray knocked the church ladies over in the mud. They writhed there, bulging lumps over not just their arms but their stomachs, their legs, growing like mushrooms off their wrinkled breasts. People screamed and cried, and all at once the spraying stopped. Through the moaning came a voice over a loudspeaker: “Quarantine!” it said, “Quarantined, all of you!” They announced the new boundaries of our lives: not one inch past Maplewood to the north, not a centimeter past Center to the south, and we could forget about anything beyond 117th to the east and Rosewood to the west. They mailed us a list of medicine they thought might be effective. Between the lines the CDC admitted they had no idea what the hell they were dealing with; between the lines the doctors who wrote the letter were scared shitless. Potassium iodide. Lorazepam. Elotuzumab. Rifaximin. If we couldn’t find it locally, we should wait and they’d be airdropping some presently. We should not worry if our feces or urine changed color, no matter how alarming the color—that meant the medicine was doing its job. I couldn’t even look my neighbors in the eye. Once one of the church ladies called to me about a week after we all got sprayed, but I just walked faster 41
– pretended I hadn’t heard her. How stupid could you get? I thought, mad at myself, too. How stupid could you get? Of course something like this would happen, of course it wasn’t all hallelujahs, high-fives, and mounds of cash. Why hadn’t I worked up the guts to tell them to leave? Say something? Worst of all for some people, and for me and the local economy particularly, the angels had disappeared. With them went the tourists and their sweet Whole-Foods-bringing money. No one remembers the angels leaving, or saying they were going to leave. But they left just like that, just as First Baptist announced a faith healing that they were sure their holy guests would oversee. The hazmat incident was bad publicity. The chic Instagram chef was spending more and more time at his LA venue, and soon enough it was clear he’d ditched November Falls altogether. Can’t say I blame him. If anything, I envied him. The White House wasn’t returning the mayor’s calls. Whole Foods stopped restocking, one of its windows got smashed, boarded, never fully repaired. More and more people got lumps, itching, bleeding. The CDC expanded their list of recommended medicines: Albiglutide, cabazitaxel, loteprednol ophthalmic. Bakery necessities were easy enough to get at first. I’d hired people that lived outside the quarantine zone who could bring supplies, but soon the zone expanded. Soon all my employees had their lives confined to a box, and then there was a roadblock, no one in or out. Food was airdropped, so was medicine. A black market sprouted in our formerly-happening, now rapidly-approaching-derelict downtown almost as quickly as the lumps had 42
appeared. Costs went up, customers down, but the bakery scraped by. The First Baptist’s lumps had sprouted from head to toe so that they looked practically prehistoric, armored, but the itching had abated with the lumps’ growth and eventual ossification. First Advent’s congregation looked horned in a way that escaped no one’s sense of irony. The beauty queens with angelic ex-boyfriends had growths on their ovaries, their fallopian tubes, their uteri. My bodybuilding Facebook associate looked shredded in a way I guarantee she’d never thought possible, certainly not desirable. It was around this time that my first lump showed up, below my left wrist. It was bound to happen, I guess, given where I live and the fact that I’d never worked up the guts to tell the loiterers to leave. It was just as well, too. I’d started to feel left out — or I guess it would be more accurate to say that my neighbors, customers, co-workers, and friends started to notice I was lumpless and had taken a mild-to-intensely (depending on who and when) hostile air around me, and that up until my lump appeared I’d started walking around with a folding knife in my back pocket, just in case. Okay, I’ll admit it too - I was still mad. Maybe I’d hoped to use the knife. Then my lump showed up and it just didn’t seem that important. After its appearance the bakery stopped struggling, was back with a boom. More and more people offered to help bring me supplies. Someone was restocking my flour because of all the ingredients I needed, that one seemed to always be flush. The quarantined congregated to purchase my rye and focaccia, sourdough and French baguette — scant though my offerings of bread were becoming, I kept selling out of goods earlier and earlier. 43
The pews of First Baptist and First Advent had started to get light, judging by the amount of their members hanging around the bakery on Sunday morning. Soon the place was jam-packed all the time. I practically hosted — and fed — a town hall meeting every day of the week from 6 to 3 . My father even came, got out of the office to go somewhere other than the mailbox or the grocery store. It was the first time he’d visited me at work, which has got to be a record somewhere — twenty years! He got in line behind the rest of the crowd and when it was his turn he leaned across the counter, stared me in the eyes. “I dreamt I was a mother,” he told me, “I dreamt I was with child.” It struck me as odd, and not just because it was, actually, an odd thing for my father to confess — and while I was at work during his first-ever visit in the twenty years I’d been there — or in the sense that dreams are nearly always odd. It was odd because the other night I’d dreamt I was in a field of gophers that mewled at me like kittens. In my dream I felt compelled to give them all milk, like it was the most important role of my life to give the mewling gophers milk. In my dream I felt like I was their mother and my heart broke with each of their whimpers. My father raised his right wrist. “I’ve got one too.” His voice was barely a whisper. He stared at me, waiting for a response. But I had nothing to say. Dad looked around the bakery, eyes flicking across the counter and behind the glass pane that housed our pastries — nearly a bare shelf at a time that only a few months ago would still have been loaded. “I never even saw an 44
angel. And I’ve got one too,” he said. Two and a half years after the angels first appeared there wasn’t much looting, not anymore. I guess we all started to see each other as in this together, and what good was ransacking a new TV from the department store when all that was on was photographs of you and your neighbors? Journalists snuck across the barricade with such effectiveness that we all wondered whether the roadblock was still in place. Eventually they stopped coming. I remember that a few had developed their own lumps, and at least one winded up staying — this was around the time I’d developed my second, on my left elbow. At that point no one in November Falls paid much attention anyway, we’d settled into a routine: bakery in the morning, then most of us would head to a nearby park. There we’d form circles, and circles around those circles, and we’d rub each other’s lumps, which at this point felt like ripe avocados. Massaging them felt euphoric — especially when two different lumps were rubbed together. People with the most lumps took the inner circles, those like me and my father stayed farther out. Clothes become a hindrance, and none of us looked human anymore anyway. Our bodies looked like cubist sculptures, works of art to be explored and worried over. Three years after the angels first appeared the quarantine area keeps expanding, until it becomes meaningless. Nobody in November Falls travels much anyway, never did much in the first place except for those few boom months with the tourists. Most of the homes get abandoned. We start 45
sleeping under the stars, we huddle for warmth in the cold months. I can’t remember the last time somebody was sick. The only buildings that aren’t abandoned are my bakery and the two churches where this all started, and the latter two only because enough of us feel sentimental enough to sit in the pews every now and then. We all dream of nourishing the young. We all head to the bakery each morning. Most of my supplies run out, but my flour gets refilled again and again. I don’t charge anymore - what would I do with their money anyway? We eat the flour raw, pour it down our throats with measuring cups and coffee mugs. No one is hungry for the rest of the day. A lot of times people aren’t hungry again for several. But they still come to the bakery every morning as part of the ritual. We huddle and massage. We move as a pack. The lumps grow larger. I’ve been thirty-five now for as long as I can remember, and my father has been sixty for at least that long as well. My arms are covered in bulges, my legs and torso also, up to my neck. No one keeps track of how long ago the angels visited, but we all look forward to their returning. We all sing to them each night as we huddle together. We all dream of holding children in our arms. No one can remember the last time a baby was born. We’re hungry for progeny, for whimpering coos. One 46
of the church ladies swears that soon, soon we’ll have more young than we know what to do with. Or maybe it’s something that my father thought. In a hundred years, someone thinks, maybe me, maybe my father or a lady from church. In a hundred years we’ll see our children to the stars. We think: In a hundred years they will mark us as pioneers, heroes. From our flesh we’ll bear, we’ll nurse what we have born. We’ll see our children to the stars.
Author Index Babcock, Matt “Poetry Envy” Bailie, Eden “Tomato Leaf Perfume” Glinnen, Rich “Pastry” Guinn Bradley, Molly “A Body of One’s Own” Keeler, Robert “On the occasion of the incarceration of the Assistant State Attorney General’s wife for making over one-hundred threatening telephone calls to her neighbor” Kirby Conklin, Abigail “Seasonal Want”
Longenecker, Rebecca Editor Longenecker, Sarah Cover Art Luther, Jordan Cover Art Mast, Ben Editor Shipman, Kelsey “The Whale” Skosen, Alex “Motherhood” Ventura Abbas, Dalia “Where They Buried Columbus” Xiang, David “Five dollar poem on the south bank of the River Thames”
A literary magazine including one feature essay, one feature short fiction, and several poems.