UNDER PRESSURE / 55
Summer 2020 $15
ru’mi-nate: TO CHEW THE CUD; TO MUSE; TO MEDITATE; TO THINK AGAIN; TO PONDER
Ruminate is a nonprofit, reader-supported community chewing on the mysteries of life, faith, and art. We invite slowing down and paying attention. We love laughter. And we delight in deep reading, contemplative activism, telling stories, asking questions, and doing “small things with great love,” as Mother Teresa said.
PLEASE JOIN US.
Cover: KATHRYN CLARK. Washington, DC Foreclosure Quilt, 2015. Hand-stitched textile. 57.5 inches x 84 inches. Collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Ruminate Magazine (ISSN 1932-6130) is published quarterly on FSC-certified paper.
We welcome unsolicited manuscripts and visual art submissions. For information on Ruminate submission guidelines, Ruminate resources, and to submit your work, please visit our website at ruminatemagazine.org. SUBSCRIPTION RATES & SERVICES
Subscriptions are the meat and bones of this nonprofit and what keep the printers printing and the postage paid. Please consider subscribing to Ruminate by visiting ruminatemagazine.org. If you receive a defective issue or have a problem with your subscription, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. Send all subscription orders and changes of address notices to email@example.com. Library subscription services are available through EBSCO and WT Cox Subscriptions. GENERAL INQUIRIES
We love hearing from you! Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit us online at ruminatemagazine.org or via social media at @RuminateMag. DISTRIBUTION
Ruminate Magazine is distributed through direct distribution.
Copyright ÂŠ 2020 Ruminate Magazine. All rights reserved.
YOU R G EN E RO U S D O N AT I O N S
allow us to keep the lights on and the fire going for the artists, writers, and readers of our community. This issue was made possible by the Friends of Ruminate, whose generous Summer 2020 donations gave us the financial support to make this issue of Ruminate possible. From the bottom of our hearts, we thank you! BENEFACTORS
Kim & Steve Franchini, Grace Church, Keira Havens, Kelly & Sara McCabe, Randall VanderMey, Janice Van Dyke-Zeilstra, Walt & Ruthanne Wangerin, Lisa & Ralph Wegner, & John Zeilstra PATRONS
Judith Dupree, Kelly Emslie, Jennifer Fueston, Kristin George Bagdanov, Katie & Tim Koblenz, Scott Laumann, Amy Lowe, Trey Morrison, Carolyn Mount, Anne Pageau, Nicole Roloff, Bruce Ronda, Cheryl Russell, Travis Schantz, Sophfronia Scott Gregory, Lynda Smith Bugge, & Amanda Wilkinson SPONSORS
Amanda Hitpas, Lary Kleeman, Carol Lacy, Rebecca Marsh, Alex Mouw, Richard Osler, Paula Sayers, Meg Schiel, Judith Stamm, Meredith Stricker, Seamus Sweeney, & David Tarpenning
TO BECOME A FRIEND OF Ruminate, VISIT
DIRECTOR OF OPERATIONS
Amanda Hitpas EDITOR
Rachel King SENIOR POETRY EDITOR
Kristin George Bagdanov NOTES & BOOK REVIEW EDITOR
Josh MacIvor-Andersen VISUAL ART EDITOR
Carolyn Mount NONFICTION EDITOR
Madison Salters EDITOR OF THE WAKING
Cherie Nelson P R I N T + W EB D ES I G N
Scott Laumann PUBLISHING AND MARKETING
Natalie Peterson P RO O F REA D ER
Alan Good I N T ERN
Keely Turner ASSOCIATE READERS
Rebecca Doverspike William Jones Zeynep Ozturk Craig Reinbold Amy Sawyer Joseph Truscello
Readers’ 6 Artists’ 32, 56 Contributors’ 84 Last 86
A Drifter, Arthur Diamond 26 Grunt, Danilo John Thomas 68
Nutcrackers, Jackie Connelly 16 A List of Songbirds, Melanie S. Smith 44
The art of Taraneh Hemami 33–40 The art of Kathryn Clark 57–64
12 America, Amy Gong Liu 13 No Myth, Stephanie Chang 14 Opposite Theory, Stephanie Chang 25 Season of Want, Casey Patrick 41 Inside a Mouth You Can Use Teeth the Way a Sailor Uses Stars, Jeff Whitney 42 Aubade with Ace Aro Woman, Kelly Weber 65 Lunch, Todd Dillard 66 Sometimes the Desert Almost Comes Alive for Me Again, Zack Rybak 78 Needles, Hailey Higdon 82 The Litany of the Body, Chris Haven
readers’ notes ON UNDER PRESSURE
First, the cancellations. Your trip, my trip, all the trips. Then, I tripped over the curb and I was number 153 in the ER. Hey, Mom, you’re tripping, said my son when I pulled a mask down over his nose and mouth. He was chewing gum. He did not look up from his game where zombies occasionally waved arms out toward us because I’d bought the 3D package when we were quarantined. The boy played that game as though his life depended on it. JILL BRONFMAN, USA
The rain hangs thick but falls light as I usher little ones onto the school bus. Clenching my teeth against the wind, I hurdle puddles home, postpone my errands, and brew another pot of coffee. My phone rings. “The birth mom has no one, and I’m wondering . . . can you drive her home?” Raindrops smack the window sideways and trees bend in the backyard. “Absolutely,” I answer, grabbing my coat. The elevator opens to the waiting room where a few nights prior my friend and I cooed at the baby she hadn’t expected. She’d become a mother within an afternoon. The papers said, “Closed. No contact.” No strings attached. We marveled at the life birthed and gifted, but didn’t speak of the stranger down the
hall, the woman in the room without a bassinet. I knock softly and she invites me in. She’s smaller than I imagined. Sweatpants swallow her lower half, a tank top hangs loosely from her bare arms. She has no bag, no coat. Discharge instructions in hand, she slides on flipflops and says she’s ready. Rain pelts the hospital roof. We make small talk in the elevator. She says she has a prescription to fill and I say no problem. “How about lunch?” I ask. She says she isn’t hungry. The lobby windows are a panoramic of November in cascades. I pull off my coat, hold it open, and she doesn’t resist. The car is warm and we talk easily about many things, except for the usual things women discuss postdelivery. The rain lets up somewhere between the hospital and her apartment, but the wind does not. I offer her my coat for keeps. “I’ll be OK.” She smiles. She hands me my coat and closes the door. MICHELLE STIFFLER, MESA, AZ
“Have you any recent pictures of me?” I look for my face in his phone and see his ex’s. In every photo he—with last-year curls rather than this-year
ponytail—holds her shoulders. He lies, then lies again. The next evening, the state bans all gatherings, all nonessential businesses. Now is the time for restrictions and sacrifices. “Where will I go when the epidemic ends?” My laptop sits on the edge of our bed, now my desk; his sits on the sofa bed in the living room/kitchen, now his room. On the third day of quarantine, a million colorless threads fill my field of vision when I stand up, when I turn my head, when I stagger out. I fill my cup under the washroom tap, feel better after three or four cups of cold water. “Have you eaten today?” He leaves a different cup full of green tea outside the washroom, by the front door. I drink it without sound, the way he cries in the next room, and place it back on the tiled floor. The cup disappears, then appears full of green tea again. MONICA WANG, DÜSSELDORF, NORTH RHINE-WESTPHALIA
I once had to give a presentation to the whole student body of my undergraduate college. I was so anxious beforehand that I obsessed about my speech constantly for a week. I wrote and rewrote and rewrote it trying to
bind my anxiety enough to find the courage to show up. Once in front of the podium, my hands shaking and my heart pounding, I began. My words spilled out with a force I didn’t know I had. With every word I became more confident. I could feel their response. They were paying attention, listening and liking what I was saying. I received a loud round of applause. At a speech I gave much later, at a professional conference, I was so confident and familiar with the subject matter I felt I could present it without any notes. My anxiety was barely above normal. I stood firm with normal heart rate; hands steady. My voice was calm, without emotion. There was motion in the audience, not really listening. The applause was polite. J GRANT, ASHEVILLE, NC
The bananas went bad in the closet. It felt like a death, one of only two remaining fresh fruits. It meant we’d have to wait another week before going to the store garbed in a hoodie, facemask, and rubber cleaning gloves—the unforgiving Florida heat cooking us ripe on the way. The next time Tyler goes to the grocery store, instead of leaving the bag
of nonperishables in the towel closet, we pick up each thing carefully, wiping down the sweeping body of bananas, the metallic edges of seltzer cans, the hard lines of grains in boxes. I’ve heard the virus lives on cardboard for twenty-four hours. Or was it seventy-two? We don’t want to wait. My toddler emerges from his room, his very own quarantine, while we perform our task. We keep my son away from the exposed, potentially infected bags of food. We hope we have done a good enough job. Bananas! he exclaims but does not reach out. He stays feet away, does a little dance for the bananas that he, I’m sure, envisions on top of bread smeared with peanut butter for snack. He goes back to his room, already accustomed to the giving of space. Kids are resilient. He has already adapted to this lifestyle, the same one I cry about in the bathroom. Bananas can last five to seven days. I resolve this time to turn any blackened fruit into a makeshift bread, maybe pancakes, whatever we have in the cupboard. I wash my hands, ready to make my son his treat. MCKENZIE ZALOPANY, SEMINOLE, FL
I can only imagine what I was thinking when I set the bag of dried beans in my shopping cart. A good old-fashioned Minnesota snowstorm, I suppose. In the intervening years, storms happened. Yet
the bag of Goya sixteen-bean soup mix sat on my pantry shelf. I never imagined a pandemic. Now, bean recipes abound as newspaper food sections serve up thoughts for weathering this storm. Suddenly, along with toilet paper and yeast, there is a dearth of beans. But I have beans. I dig them out from my back pantry to consult the newspaper recipe on how to cook dried beans. Beans, it appears, are good for about two years. Yes, beans have a lifespan. Mine were best by 02/18/2013. Even if I had one of those new-fangled pressure cookers, my beans are so old they’d likely turn out al dente—perfect for pasta, not so for legumes. I google “can beans really expire?” and find clever uses for old beans: poker chips, improvised checkers, bean bags. Then I remember that team of Russian scientists who recently grew a narrowleafed campion from seeds that had been buried by arctic ground squirrels some thirty-two thousand years ago. This gives me hope. My beans are now soaking overnight. In the morning, I’ll boil them in six cups of water with 3/4 teaspoon of baking soda, someone’s remedy for reviving old beans. I never liked beanbag chairs, and I don’t play poker. But I’m discovering the optimist in me. If those ancient campion seeds can bloom, surely mine can, too. MIRIAM KARMEL MINNEAPOLIS, MN
The Outport Museum and Tea Room in La Scie, Newfoundland, is owned by Valerie and Larry Whalen. Both are musicians and members of a local folk band, Codskiff, with Larry on guitar and banjo and Valerie on drums, bodhrain, spoons, and—that most Newfoundlandic of instruments—the ugly stick. This homely noise-maker resembles (and often is) a broom handle arrayed with bottle caps that jiggle together when the stick is pounded on the floor. The floor end of Valerie’s stick was muted with a stuffed sock. This cost-friendly instrument— made entirely of things found in every home—is a combination bass drum and castanets. One evening after a supper of stuffed cabbage and chocolate cake, we gathered in an adjacent room in the museum. Larry got out his guitar and Valerie grabbed her percussives. She also pulled out a sheaf of folk-song lyrics from Newfoundland and the British Isles. “Richard,” scolded Valerie, “you must sing, too.” “I am best suited to the audience,” I said. “Come on,” countered Valerie, “everyone can sing.” “Not me,” I protested. “I don’t so much carry a tune as drag it along on the ground behind me.” Eclectic folk guitarist Leo Kottke described his voice as sounding “like
geese farts on a foggy day.” But that did not keep him from singing, nor was my metaphor of any use to me as Valerie stuffed lyrics into my hands. RICHARD LEBLOND, RICHLANDS, NC
I’m walking with my teacher friend. It’s Sunday morning and town is nearly deserted. My friend tells me about the difficulties she’s having with the online platform she’s now using with her middleschool students. She keeps veering toward me. I step away, but she veers once more, like a car going off a road. Again, I try to maintain six feet of distance. I’m trying to listen, but I’m having trouble focusing. I’m thinking about her son who works at the supermarket and about another friend who recently recovered from COVID-19 but whose extended family is still ill. And I’m thinking about my ninety-year-old father who lives in New York. I want to see him. Finally, I stop walking. “You’re coming too close,” I say. She and I meet almost every Sunday morning. Until recently, it was at a local coffee shop. There, we’d sit inches apart, catching up, laughing, and hugging goodbye until the following week. “Oh,” she says, stepping back. “I’m sorry.” “No, I’m sorry.” I want to reach out and touch her shoulder. “I shouldn’t have snapped.”
My friend is six inches shorter than I am. “How ’bout we try this?” I suggest. “You stay up on the sidewalk and I’ll go out in the street.” I try to crack a joke about how our heights will line up better now, but it’s a stupid line and doesn’t do much to cover the sadness. She and I walk that way, six feet apart, until we turn a corner. Ahead is a small hill with centuries-old gravestones. Somehow the grass remembered to turn a rich deep green. “Look,” I say, pointing to the hill. “Wow,” she says. “It’s so beautiful.” She’s right. “I’m sorry,” I say one more time. LIZ PALEY, CONCORD, MA
My mother’s phone call brought the news: my father had suffered a severe heart attack and was in hospital recovering. Emergency over, my mother had reassured me. Despite my repeated offers to come over, she insisted there was no need to make the trip from Amsterdam to Newcastle. It would be a waste of time. But that had always been my mother: no fuss, no bother, no worries. Once I had told my son, Joshua, about his grandfather, he said, “It’s your father! Go!” For a moment I was motionless and speechless with received revelation.
Then, “Josh, yes! You’re right!” I was off like a racehorse, unboxed from my uncertainty. Riderless, free. I spent the following week accompanying my mother on daily trips to the hospital to visit my father. He was a changed man. The wall around his soul, which had been there my entire life, was gone. Our separation evaporated. There, in that ward, we talked as we had never talked before. At the age of forty-two, I finally recognized something of myself— not in my mother, but in my father—for the first time. The day after I returned home to the Netherlands, my mother phoned. “He’s gone.” And through grief and shock rose gratefulness for the intervention of a thirteen-year-old. ANN VAN WIJGERDEN, ANTIPOLO, THE PHILIPPINES
Last week, I saw my stepdad beat my mom. Today, I’m going to the beach with a fistful of friends. We’re all graduating high school next month and we’ve decided to ditch in celebration. It is five in the morning. I’m in the restroom, dressed in black pants and a wrinkled, concrete gray shirt. My hair is a tumbleweed. My phone blinks on to tell me my best friend is on her way to my house. The sky is still a wound stapled shut so her headlights
will slit the dark like a cartoon. She is probably singing along to Mariah Carey in a tightrope-thin, strained falsetto. I realize I’ll have to be perky all day. None of my friends have the stomach to hold me. They don’t want to hear about how the blood polished the floor and my mom’s eye was a bloated clam shell. They only want smiley Polaroid-style photos they can post online. They wear dollops of luck and shine. If I were to say anything about how sleep does not come and I should have been choked but couldn’t move, I’d be the sour kind of weird. The kind that does not settle nicely. The kind you only find at night. And I’ve worked too hard to be likeable enough to be invited to the beach. I can be glittery, I decide. I have to be. My phone lights up again. My best friend is in my driveway. I stare at myself in the mirror and finally smile hard with my theatre of teeth. As I get into my best friend’s car, I exclaim, “I’m so glad to see you!” But it sounds like an engine falling from the sky. JASMINE LEDESMA, NEW YORK, NY
I had not touched another person in over a month. Not a playful tap on the shoulder or a firm, professional handshake or a gentle nudge in the right direction after wandering off the path. I had not felt
someone else’s body fold into mine, their warmth reminding me of my own life. I had not breathed as one with anyone, not cried on another’s shoulder or let them cry onto mine, not lifted or been lifted in any momentary pas de deux, either celebratory or mournful. I had not braided anyone’s hair or buttoned anyone’s coat, not patted a younger sibling’s head or let a grandparent lean on my arm. Instead, I buried myself beneath the crushing pressure of the air, and then the earth, and then the fire that burns beneath the earth. I watched the fire carve flowers into my skin as if burns could preserve youth like rosewater could. I saw the earth made into stars as it collapsed in on itself under the heat. I lifted my hands to catch those stars and pin them up in the earth-sky above my fire-bed but dropped them before I could touch any. I watched them fall, cascading like snowflakes from the hard nothingness above until they melted around me. Some landed on my skin and slid down the crevices of my body in small showers of light. They felt like bursts of ocean spray—milliseconds of coolness against the fiery weight of every breath I took in and let out. This is how diamonds are made, I thought. MAGGIE WANG, BLACKSBURG, VA
AMY GONG LIU
America I was made a citizen in the uterus. This is true; I asked the internet. I read thousands of pages about how to keep the door locked at night. Google: how exactly to vote. Answer: it depends on the state, also the mindset. Jerry, down the street, tells me that everything is a byproduct of everything, even the water. Here, by the dirtiest, I overlook the rich and the rich overlook me, drinking arsenic from their sinks. I am not always concerned about my dreams or the bombs. At least someone is always awake to talk about the violence, to convince me to press the beet-red button on my remote. There are days where I watch their faces to relax myself at night, these electric heroes of my pillow, and as I turn the weight of my cheeks into the cold, my guts entangle with their words. I could get used to the shrieks of my neighbors. In this country, we are all made out of the same material, and this night is sewn out of this same prideful doubt.
No Myth There are wiser things to do with the dead. Here, in Hong Kong, my mother plants daisies in a Yakult bottle in the most crowded cemetery. We overlook a mountain, the city folded away by marble crosses linked by proximity, or a lack thereof. I wait for the dead underneath to cross the sidewalk, peeled oranges and burnt-red money hung out of pockets, women gathering their dresses as passersby tear silks, apologize, and leave. This could be an urban planner’s worst nightmare. It is mine. I imagine my great-grandmother’s shadow trampled by strangers on her first day in death, how incense crawled out behind her breast. Asked do you know safe. Do you know we saved for this grave. Do you know we knew you could never pay us back. Come back. We could have cared about conservation, crushed your ashes more mush. You know we’re just saying that. Make baby food for the Pearl River’s mouth. But here, it’s so fertile. You are alive again, again, again, again. Eat the orange, peels, stub left from when the fruit belonged to tree. To a body ripe for the picking. Be thankful. There are worse things that happen to our dead, those dying, will die, dead and plucking rice from the wind, thanking God for sweeter scraps.
Opposite Theory At noon, I dream the deer is fed up, so she hunts the wolf instead. This story stings a bit. Her molars are unfit to play butcher, soften a canine’s bite, and mauling—minus the violence, subtract speed—becomes a process: Time-lapse video of a hydraulic press: down, dog. Down goes the wolf, her daughters, stuffed to the lining of the deer’s fallopian tubes, audio-synced to the IV drip of hospital airbags. I dream rice paper, skin, lights blowing up shadows of mice, and I, mesmerized at the circus act. Now’s naptime in some mother’s uterus, followed by breakfast. I only eat pineapple because she’s eating pineapple forever— the fruit that eats you back! Meaning: no way of telling what it killed, how close to the heart the acid peered.
So I can’t say she wanted me dead. I was once her body, then someone’s then I dreamt the deer held me in her teeth, licked away my juices as head(lines/lights) infected her eye sockets and when I opened my eyes, a wolf head engulfed mine. (I could not kill it) so the deer watched, waiting for an apology I had no mouth to give—
Ma, you are forgiven at last.
I MY MOM ’S primary avenue for physical contact when I was young was the smickle:
a game in which she’d smother me with a pillow while tickling me under the armpits until I peed my pants. I dreaded the helplessness—scorched plea of the lungs, writhing body yielding, warm trickle of shame leaking its way toward vulnerable knees. But after, watching her roll around laughing so hard I thought she might pee her pants, I couldn’t help but smile, too. I couldn’t cling to that harsh, urgent panic, not when it was so desperate to soften into a hysterical fit of giggles—a sort of bewildered gratitude. Her mood could plummet again any moment, and what a relief to be, momentarily, the source of joy, connection. There’s no rule that says it’s safe to belong. * WH E N I see chestnuts on the list for my weekly pickup at the CSA, my face contorts
as though I’m biting down on a mushy red grape. I concoct an immediate tranquilizer: I will trade them in, along with the chicken, and that should be almost enough for a whole liter of olive oil. But Fair Shares qualifies chestnuts as produce, and doesn’t allow you to trade your produce, because that’s the whole point of communitysupported agriculture—to support local farmers, no matter what they’re growing, even if it means figuring out how to peel and cook chard root when you’re not 100 percent confident in your ability to bake a potato in the microwave. I narrow my eyes at the little baggie of chestnuts. It’s all very festive—they’re bunched up with a twist-tie at the top like a present in your stocking on Christmas morning—but they’re an unknown, inherently untrustworthy. My stomach gathers its armies, braces to growl out a warning. “Ooh,” I exclaim instead, all confetti and pastels, artificial delight. “Now, what do I do with these?” The CSA lady peers over the top of her glasses. “They’d be great roasted with your parsnips.” My sham smile shifts, uneasy. “Do I shell them first?” “A lot of people like to, but I find that makes them tough.” * MY MOM grew up with five brothers—wayward inventors of the smickle—and an
abusive father who left when she was a teenager, just walked right out the door and never returned. When she married my dad, she moved out of her mom’s house, finally, finally, and dropped out of night school to have kids. She never forgave us for it.
We never had chestnuts, growing up. Jobless for nearly two decades, my mom was a formidable baker, and during the holidays that meant Christmas cookies—tins and tins of them, silent, beautiful temptations stacked up on the unused patio table in the garage. Between the beginning and end of December, she’d ration them, surprising us, now and then, with awe-inspiring platters loaded with every variety: chocoroons, spritz cookies with and without almond extract, chocolate-chip tea cakes, heaps of
Besides the CSA lady, I haven’t interacted with another human in weeks.
gingerbread. Something with a peppermint sparkle, I could never remember the name. The candy cane–shaped butter twists my sister recently warned me never to attempt, both of us susceptible to something like road rage when minor domestic tasks go awry. Besides those special nights, we weren’t allowed to touch them—she could always tell by the clumsy way we rearranged the cling wrap. “I know you’ve been into my cookies,” she’d fume, slamming cupboards, stomping around like my dad did when we played fee-fi-fo-fum. Except my fear of him was pretend, mischievous, like repeating “Bloody Mary” three times to the bathroom mirror with the door locked and the lights off, and my fear of her was a true, frozen terror, which would thaw into a Popsicled sludge, which would slink from my gut to the soles of my feet once the threat crashed from imminent to here and now. * WE N EV ER got it down to a science as kids—the exact ingredients that would make
her catch fire. Sometimes it was something obvious, like eating without permission or spilling a glass of milk or asking if a friend could sleep over, and sometimes it seemed to happen for no reason, and we’d be left disoriented, aching, as when your alarm yanks you violently from a dream so pleasant you can’t fathom how your subconscious imagined it in the first place, and you’re sure you’ll never fall back into anything so unjustifiably sweet for as long as you live. When something hurt, we deserved it. When we were sick, we went to school anyway, pockets full of damp, crumpled-up tissues. When we felt small or lonely or afraid, we didn’t discuss it. She didn’t believe in coddling; we yelled at each other instead. We fell asleep fastest to the distant sound of screaming, because if it was
happening down the hall, away from where we were, it meant it wasn’t for us—the spanking, the door slam, the locked-inside-your-room-till-further-notice, the hand soap scrubbed down your throat with such force it made you gag. It meant the fear could belong to someone else, it meant our hands were clean. What we understood, otherwise, was that we’d asked for it. We had nobody to blame but ourselves. * “WH AT I D O is take a pair of kitchen shears and cut a little x into the outer shell,” the
CSA lady is explaining. “But not all the way through, because then they’ll explode.” I’ve never even heard of these alleged “kitchen shears.” “OK,” I nod, solidly. “Then what?” “Then throw them on the tray with whatever else you’re roasting and take them out after twenty minutes,” she says. “Twenty minutes,” I confirm, loose-necked and affable like one of those bobbleheads with painted-open eyes. “When they’re cool enough to handle, that’s when you want to shell them.” Her voice has an edge to it now, caution. I swallow, my stomach pulls rank. “If you wait too long, you won’t be able to get them out of their little skins.” “OK,” I say again, with confidence. I have no idea what she’s talking about. “Twenty minutes. Got it.” I walk out seething—there’s nothing I resent more than an uncontrolled variable, a task that makes me feel incompetent, out of my depth. I can’t remember the last time I experienced an emotion other than some strain of anger or superiority and I don’t miss the rest of them. The only way I want to feel is right. No, that’s not enough—I want to be right, while everyone else is sorry. Besides the CSA lady, I haven’t interacted with another human in weeks. I smirk as I start my car, picturing the inside of my oven covered in chestnut splatters, picturing myself knowing something all of them don’t.
II S O ME P EOP L E find the smickle appalling. They learned connection, affection, in
the form of hugs, cuddles, bedtime kisses—something more traditional than a careful calibration of well-timed mercy—and that’s why they believe the dangerous lie that they deserve it, just by default. That they’re entitled to treasures like trust, just by sitting around, just by being born. I’m trying to tell the truth of the smickle: there is always a cost. Belonging has limits—it’s a reckless transaction. Show them who you are and they use it against you.
Loneliness is an ache, but it’s an ache you can bear; to be seen, to reveal where you’re soft, is to surrender, is to lose control, is to lose. * I TRY to make the little x’s with a pair of normal scissors, the kind you use to cut
shapes out of construction paper or plastic tags off new clothes. The chestnut shells bend and creak, but they don’t break. They’re tougher than I expected and I fume about it, how they think they’re so important. What is it they believe they’re guarding, what’s their purpose biologically, what are they trying to prove? I dump the entire baggie of chestnuts onto my cutting board and pick up my carving knife, holding it tip down out in front of me. With my left hand, I hold a chestnut between my thumb and my pointer finger. With my right, I start to stab. I stab and stab, glee bubbling its way up my throat like cheap pink champagne, each chestnut left with three or four squinting, sneering eyes. But instead of releasing the pressure, the slashes go all the way through to the center and nothing happens. No sigh of relief, they just sit there—stupid, ugly wounds that don’t bleed. I keep stabbing, I have no choice, and it takes forever, far longer than it would have with sharpened “kitchen shears,” and I hate these little chestnuts, all chocolate brown and staring. I wish I could hear them scream. What a waste: all this trauma and nothing to show for it, except a few forgettable scars. * “I ’ M S ORRY ” was futile; she’d only fire back, “Not as sorry as me,” like my very
existence was regrettable. “It’s disgusting, what you do for attention. Everyone talks in this town. We all know exactly who you are. Have you ever thought about anyone but yourself? You wonder why you can’t convince anyone to be your friend, why no one wants to be around you?” I still know this speech as I know the “Our Father,” I heard it so many times. It erupted, furious, onto every situation, as pertinent when I failed to wash all the scum off the spaghetti pot as when she discovered I’d tied my black-lace belt tight around my neck and curled up on the floor next to my bookcase, waiting impatiently for my brain to starve and shut up once and for all. After she read about the latter in the diary I had hidden—ingeniously!—beneath my mattress, she flung the little pastel notebook in my general direction, arms flailing: “Are you punishing me? How dare you? How dare you?” She was wrong, but she was also right; at sixteen, I was violently lonely, so hungry for a friend, never capable of keeping one around. I wanted to throw it back at her, pretend I didn’t care, make us both believe she was small, irrelevant. But my
weaponry was clumsy; “I hate you” was the cruelest I could muster, and it only made her cackle. “You need therapy,” she’d spit back, in the same tone with which she talked about the strangers who brought their kids trick-or-treating in our neighborhood because our houses were bigger than theirs: bad enough to need anything, but unforgivable to need help. * THERAPY IS for suckers, we learned. “We develop maladaptive attachment patterns
to protect ourselves,” a therapist would tell me, much later, which is a $150/hour way of confirming we do what it takes to survive: my mom accumulating power and hoarding it like her cookies, my dad working and working and working some more, working hard,
I wanted to throw it back at her, pretend I didn’t care, make us both believe she was small, irrelevant.
working late, working weekends, “I’m busy—ask your mother.” My sister, who stopped saying no, who learned to apologize every third word, to cry preemptively like a security deposit, and me eventually perfecting the art of isolation, of pushing away, of convincing whoever thinks they love me that they are equivalent to a crumb cowering in the corner away from the roar of the vacuum. But I wasn’t so calculating then, a decade younger and stupider; I yearned to be seen, even held. No hard feelings—my prefrontal cortex was still developing. Soft as gingerbread dough, ruled by my hysterical amygdala, I’d end up frantic, wailing, slamming my bedroom door so many times my mom took it off its hinges. I hated her in that particular way we hate our mothers: ferociously but admiringly, leaking traces of instinctive, involuntary love. * AFTER TWENTY minutes in the oven, the chestnuts look exactly the same. I use my
bare hand to snatch them out of the ruffage, flick them into a small ceramic bowl. They’re too hot to handle but I don’t bother with an oven mitt, I scoff at the very idea. Ha!
I learned this tactic from her—who else? I’d sit on the stool at the kitchen counter and watch her long, knobby fingers remove cookies from a tray she just pulled out of the oven, the skin around her nails raw, red, and blistered from where she tore it away, absentmindedly, with her crooked front teeth. “I’ve built up callouses, so many years in the kitchen,” she’d explain, when I asked why she didn’t just use the spatula— it was sitting right there on the counter. But the callouses didn’t seem to protect her. She’d still burn the pads of her fingers, curse and swat them against her thighs, stick one into her mouth, cookie tray in her other hand, only to repeat the whole cycle when the oven beeped again in nine minutes. There she was, impervious, impossible to crack, and I attached by a phantom
The hard outer shell snaps off with a pop, into the trash, but it doesn’t reveal that creamy gold.
umbilical cord to the person she saw when she looked at me: someone conniving, unlovable. She hated me back, I thought, and it wasn’t fair—how she had incubated my brain inside her body, but I didn’t know her at all, had never even seen her cry. Back then, when we had to gauge the safety of home based on the heat of her loosecannon temper, I thought she was invincible, indomitable, something like a god. Not because of her calloused fingertips, but because she studied their weaknesses, reigned over their limits, forced them to their knees. Because she was hard and self-contained, something that wanted nothing; because she selected her own suffering and ours, then feasted on it, again, and again, and again.
III PE R H A PS YOU ’ V E never yearned to hold a pillow over the face of your unsuspecting
daughter. But perhaps you were sent home from second grade for encouraging Brittany P. to eat worms with you, then rendered her a pariah by telling everyone in your class it was her idea. Perhaps, years later, you devised live-action games of questionable morality, such as the one in which you and your sister, left in charge of your five-year-old brother, convinced him you had replaced him with a plastic baby doll. Perhaps he howled and howled for hours, racked with such mighty sobs you wondered detachedly whether it was possible for someone to cry themselves to death, while you cooed over your toy, snickering, refusing to even glance his way. Perhaps, just yesterday, you made barbed wire out of words and laid a trap for your partner, 22
then held their tear-stained face in your lap while you gently unwound iron from the defenseless, delicate thing that is love, murmuring sweet nothings at your own red hands. You can’t deny the peculiar appeal of the smickle, how it shifts the scales of intimacy in your favor. It’s better to be feared, even hated. If you don’t need them, it doesn’t matter how ugly you are; keep yourself safe, pull the strings just so, and they give up—everyone leaves. Who could blame them? Not you. All according to plan. * I WA I T ten minutes. “They should pop right open,” the CSA lady said, but I’m
skeptical as I approach the bowl. I pick it up and set it next to the sink, standing above the trash bin, inhaling the faint stench of days-old cantaloupe rind until I can’t smell it anymore. I squeeze a chestnut between my fingers and nothing happens. I roll it into my palm and make a fist and nothing happens. I pick up the knife and hold it the same way I did before, in my fist, blade up this time, chestnut secured again between my left thumb and pointer finger. I bring the handle of the knife down—bang!—flip the chestnut over, do it again. Again and again until, at last, it cracks. The outer shell is crisp and hard like wood. I peel it back with the very tips of my fingers, the parts used to play the piano pianissimo. Underneath is the meat of the chestnut: bulbous, golden, hospitable. I squeeze gently and it breaks into pieces in my hands. I pop one of them into my mouth and chew and chew, thinking of the effort that went into this thumbprint of impermanent warmth, promising the vein in my forehead it was worth it. * S O MET IM ES S HE’ D let me lick the spoon. Sometimes she’d let me fall asleep in the
back seat of her minivan while she drove us home from a softball tournament, singing along to Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks. Sometimes she’d let me stay up past my bedtime reading, pretend she didn’t notice the flashlight under the covers. But by the time I moved out, the battleground was innate and binding as DNA: all we had to do was look at each other and one of us would detonate, usually for no discernable reason, like that fox in South Australia who killed seventy-four penguins and only ate a few. Biologists call this type of casual slaughter surplus killing because it’s not necessary for sustenance, but that’s just a failure of language, sustenance narrowly defined. And so I must confess I still don’t know her. I don’t know what made her underline passages in the books of hers that line my shelves, don’t know what she thinks about while she’s driving, don’t know what it was like to wake up one day in a life she never
really chose, forced to nurture when maybe, probably, it didn’t come naturally. I don’t know what she did with all that anger, if she ever found what she was looking for, and I don’t know how she remembers it—what she would change, if she could do it all over. Anything. Everything. I don’t know, because I never asked, and I never told: how grateful I was those days she hid cookies in my softball bag; that I bake two batches of peanut-butter blossoms every year for Christmas, a holiday I don’t even recognize; that I’ve never felt safer than the night my sleeve slipped and she noticed I’d been cutting my forearm, tiptoed into my room when she thought I was asleep, lay next to me in bed, wrapped her limbs around my body, and wept. * TH E N EXT chestnut does not give way so easily. The hard outer shell snaps off with
a pop, into the trash, but it doesn’t reveal that creamy gold. Instead, it’s another shell, furry, like mildew: the “little skins.” It looks useful, compassionate, like it would keep my toes warm if I stuffed it into my socks, but when I try to scrape it off, it’s sharp as bamboo and thin as paper and it lodges underneath my thumbnail. I yelp and curse, swatting my hands at my thighs. I try again, a different nail this time—my right pointer. Again, it lodges itself beneath the tip, a peculiar, punctured hurt, nowhere I can see with my eyes. I feel a tantrum simmering just out of reach, like the parsnips that are still in the oven, like an inherited grudge. I bring the chestnut close to my eyes and peer carefully, trying to locate a loose edge. When I see a corner that isn’t plastered to what it’s hiding, I touch the tip of my thumb to it and prod tenderly—so, so tenderly. It flakes right off. But I don’t have that kind of patience. I’m tempted to dump everything into the decomposing trash, bowl and all. I sweat under the heat of the oven, the glare of those scornful eyes. Even when I manage to flick off little bits, the inner shell insists on clinging to every surface—my wrists, my shirt, the blade of the knife. It refuses to let go. It persists inside my skin. * BY TH E T IM E I make my way through the entire bowl, I’m crying like a teenager,
blood storming and pooling under six of my fingernails. The chestnut meat glows golden and clean, but it can’t be—think of all those microscopic blood cells dusting its hide, like sugar on my mom’s chocoroons. My stomach churns, but my body is not to be trusted, given its origins. Standing over the rotting trash, I eat, and eat, and eat.
Season of Want I have imagined you after all. I’m always doing this, dreaming up you or another you. Once, a man—this one real— brought a coconut and a hammer to a picnic. I didn’t know whether to laugh. He was as serious as his tools. The shade of rot before it’s rot is tinged with sweet: overgrowth of basil. His friend had drowned that summer. Mine had killed himself. We never talked about it. Deep earth scent; your smell. It was there, on someone else, and my body remembered. Remembered too the ache of want, the damage lust can do. I wanted that again, the ruin your hands on my back promised. He couldn’t open the coconut. Anyway, I’d already slept with him. Adrift in a new city thunderstorms never visited. Sky and sky and sky, says Montana. No wonder we always go back for more, low animals that we are. What next says the mountain, who can remake the weather. I lived in my body all summer, savored even the guilt. What the hammer and I have in common: blunt tools made for tasks of alarming precision.
TH EY HA D D RIV EN around in Taos and then spent the night and the next day, his
twenty-third birthday, in Santa Fe, and now they were approaching Albuquerque, where he had been at the university for a couple years, and she started in asking about his relationships. With her it always came back to relationships. She wanted to go further talking about them than he wanted to. “So you’d never had any problems with her mother?” “I didn’t really know her mother. Didn’t we talk about this?” “We didn’t really talk about her mother.” He reached down with his cigarette hand, felt the lump in his sock. It was a wad of twenties. Albuquerque was a big city. He relaxed a little. He had enough money to leave her. “I’d been out there before but this was the first time we went to have Sunday dinner with them. Oh, look at that, the Frontier.” They passed a billboard on the right and near it on the shoulder a crew-cut hitchhiker in an olive jacket. “Heading back to Kirtland,” he said. “Do we have to stop?” “He’ll get a lift. I once got a ride down to Las Cruces from an Air Force guy in a Trans Am and we never went under one hundred.” “Let’s find a motel. I want to call the kids.” “You called them a couple hours ago.” They hadn’t eaten since breakfast. He was smoking and she was trying not to eat. The kids were with their father back in Oregon and had gotten sick. Colds. They were good kids. “So go on,” she said. He groaned privately and crushed out the cigarette. He opened the window a crack. “Barbara’s parents seemed all right. They had an adobe house they were always working on, adding a room or redoing the bathroom or making an adobe wall to surround it, on a little piece of land, in this village, maybe twenty minutes south of town. Normal Sunday afternoon.” “But you’d been warned about her.” He sat looking out along the highway at the billboards lit in the dark. “You’d been warned.” “Sure. I knew her mother could flip out anytime. She was taking a lot of medication. Maybe she hadn’t taken it that day. She just lashed out at me. Right out of the blue, with Barbara and her dad and her little sisters and brother sitting around the table, all horrified. She cursed my religion, my family, my intentions—what she thought they were. I thought it was a joke.” “But it wasn’t a joke.” He shook his head no. “It must have been terrible. It must have been so frightening for you.” 27
“We left for Boulder a couple weeks later,” he said. “I had already decided to break up with Barbara and move up to Boulder on my own. But seeing what her mother was like I decided to take Barbara with me.” He waited for any kind of comment but after a few moments continued. “Then a couple weeks later in Boulder I broke up with her. We saw each other sometimes, but I was already involved with someone else. She ended up staying a couple months then going back home.” They began to see the lights against the mountains. Years ago he had come upon the city at night and with the light spread flat and cloudlike, like a hovering lit cloud,
He relaxed a little. He had enough money to leave her.
it was as if the mountains had made a wish and spewed a handful of luminous sand at their feet. Now it looked only like coming upon a city at night. He opened the window so that he could get his arm out, feeling the wind blow back his open hand. “Are you going to look up anybody else here?” He moved his fingers in the wind. “To close the circle,” she continued. “You know, to resolve things—what’s the word I’m looking for? I’m a psych major and I forgot the word.” “It’s not going to happen,” he said. Feeling the weight of her silence, he added, “and how do you know I haven’t resolved things already?” She gave a short laugh, not a malicious laugh, but there was an edge to it. They had been together for nearly a year. She was an Oregon Coast girl, twelve years his senior, back in college in Eugene after her divorce. She had three kids, two living with her. He had moved in with them in a small house in Eugene while he was bartending and for a while there was only newness and laughter, but he had grown weary of her. The wearier he grew the more desperate she had become. “I just think it would be a good thing to call her. I know I’ve said this.” He looked out the window. He was sleepy. He had not slept well the night before, or the night before that. He’d been driving a lot, too. “You could just make a quick call and get it out of the way.” He brought his arm inside the car. “You’re very persistent.” “Look, I know you care about her. You lived with her. You could at least look for her number in the phone book. And if you can’t find it, then forget it. I won’t bother you.”
He looked at her laughing again, tossing her hair, and he saw how pretty she must have been at his age. She still had a quick, easy smile and quick blue eyes. He rolled up the window. He was out of cigarettes but felt of his denim jacket anyway. Farther along in the dark up the highway there had been an accident and they saw the flashing lights well before they came upon the scene, and by the time they got past it she was already worrying about finding a decent room. They found their exit and tried to find something by the university but it was state-fair week and they had to settle for a shabby place on Central Avenue closer to Old Town. He lugged their bags to the second floor and they walked single file along the railed balcony down to their corner room. Once inside he took a stack of menus the desk had offered and lay with them on the bed; she had called first shower and began unpacking, then stopped to call the kids. He said to say hi and spent the time in the bathroom with the menus. It was understood, of course, that they would have Mexican food, and that he would have chile rellenos. This had been the routine from the very beginning of the trip. And the chile rellenos kept getting better, the farther south they drove. When he heard her hang up he reentered the room and turned on the television and settled back on the bed with the remote. On a local channel there was coverage of the accident back on the highway. When the next story came on he put the sound down and moved to another channel, sports, football. She stepped out of the bathroom. “I hear they have very good spaghetti in this town. You want to go for spaghetti?” She was down to her red bra and when he looked at her she stopped undressing. He looked away from her eyes then, turning slightly, and waited for her to withdraw, which she did moments later, without a word. Soon the shower was going and it was quiet in the room with just the television on low. He went to the window. There was a good view of the avenue. The lights in a line moving north out of the Sonoran Desert to the base of the Sandia Mountains. He heard a wolfish snatch of tune from the horn of a passing car. Teens smoked outside a billiards parlor in the autumn night. The bathroom door burst open. She was looking out at him, her hair coarse with shampoo. It was getting in her eyes and she wiped with her white towel and blinked. “I had a strange feeling,” she said. “I had the feeling you were leaving.” He laughed to himself. “I don’t know,” she said. “I’ve been pressuring you to make that call, and I’m sorry.” “If you get dressed,” he said. “I’ll call her.” When she had ducked back obediently into the bathroom, he went to the little table by the door where the phone was. On a shelf in the table were phone books. He got one out, the Yellow Pages, put it back, brought out the White Pages. He thumbed through it and came upon a page where any one of three names there might be right, might be hers. He tried to guess by the addresses but they were just numbers or names
of presidents or minerals. In the bedside table drawer next to the Bible was a pen and he used it to circle the names. The shower had stopped and now the bathroom door opened and she stuck her head out, then she came out. She was rubbing her hair with the stiff white motel towel; he could see the other towel slipping from where she wrapped it around her torso, her cleavage quite visible. He tried not to look at her. She made a positive sound in her throat. Alice came to the bed in her robe and sat beside him on the bed as he dialed the first number. She was brushing her hair. She stared at the bedspread pattern, then looked up. She was looking at him, and brushing her hair, as he held the phone to his ear. A woman answered. It was her. He wanted to hang up immediately. There was silence after she said hello, and he said her name, and she said yes, and then he said his name. “Oh, it’s you. How are you,” came the voice impatiently. She sounded as though she was on her way out, somewhere important. Good, he thought—it would be a quick call. “I’m OK. How are you?” “Where are you? Hello? Where are you calling from?” “I’m in town. I was just passing through.” “You’re in town.” “How are you? What are you doing with yourself?” He swallowed. “I work in a nursing home,” the voice said impatiently. It was in a hurry. “I’m getting my nursing degree. And you? What are you doing with yourself?” “Oh, you know, between things.” He suddenly felt very self-conscious. “I’m a bartender now. Up in Oregon.” It was quiet. He listened for a moment. He thought he heard the television low in the background where she was. Then came the voice: “She did it, you know.” His mind raced. Who did what? “She always said she would do it,” the voice persisted. “And she did it.” He was nodding with the phone at his ear, showing it sympathy, and he looked at Alice. She was trying to read his expression. He didn’t know why he was nodding. It seemed noisy in the room but this was in his head, as was a dull sense of pained and vengeful disappointment. What was it that Barbara had said? He realized she was still speaking over the phone. “She killed herself.” He hung on, trying to listen. When she stopped talking he said he was sorry. He said it three times quickly. Then he hung on, listening to her circle around, a few clipped words on her father, her siblings, her nursing, and then coming back to it, repeating it. After another silence it was all right to get off the phone. “What did she say?”
He was shaking his head, setting the phone in the cradle, looking down at the bedspread. “What happened?” He was looking down and half-smiling dumbly. “What did she say?” “She said her mother killed herself.” “What?” “She said how her mother was always threatening to kill herself. And then she said again that she did it, that she killed herself. Two weeks ago, with a shotgun. That’s what she said. A shotgun.” He felt Alice’s small hand on his knee. “I’m so sorry,” she said. Outside the motel someone going by was calling loudly to someone else. The traffic was moving loud and slowly by the motel on Central Avenue. He remembered driving up and down this avenue, the old Route 66, with Barbara just two years ago, the both of them in college; she was such a bad driver, her stupid Volkswagen bug careering and other cars honking and the two of them giggling in the Albuquerque night. “I was pressing you to make that call and I’m sorry.” He was staring numbly at the bedspread. “Did she say what she’s doing now? With her life?” “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “What did she say?” “Don’t worry about it.” He thought: You and your resolving things. You and your closing the circle. “I’m sorry,” she said. “And this happened, what, two weeks ago? My god.” He felt his hand squeezed, and she looked mournful or perhaps coming to some kind of judgment while squeezing a fruit, and he pulled his hand away. He got up and went to the door and tore it open and stepped out, stopping at the railing, overlooking Central Avenue. “I’m sorry,” Alice said. She was behind him, in the doorway. “I’m so sorry.” He was feeling the night cooling his face and his bare arms. He looked down at the stretch of avenue which now seemed as cheaply alien as any lighted stretch of avenue and as empty where the light did not reach. His hands were tight on the railing. “Please, come inside.” “In a minute.” “You’re a strong man,” she said. She was standing in the doorway, talking to his back. “Do you know that?” He didn’t have to look at his hands. He knew his knuckles were white. “Say that you’re a strong man. You’re very strong. Say it.” “I’ll be in,” he said. He heard her recede and the door close but not shut. He was out there a long time before he felt able to face her again. 31
OV E R T HE PAST twenty years, my work has increasingly become the visual and
conceptual language with which I record, translate, and interpret my everyday realities. My projects translate the multiplicity of my experiences into a physical and tactile one to investigate in-between spaces; between art, artifact, and architecture; between two and three-dimensional space; between technology and handcrafted objects. I have explored themes of displacement, preservation, and representation, often engaging with many participants, scholars, artists, audiences, or communities to represent diverse perspectives, revealing complex stories. Hall of Reflections began in the aftermath of the historical events in 2001 to gather recollections of the Iranian immigrants of Northern California. Inspired by public talars (gathering halls) in Iran, the remembrances were embedded between mirror and glass tiles and decorated with traditional Persian silkscreened patterns. The mirror mosaics were gifted to a newly acquired community center in Berkeley, California, in 2004. The photographs were also used in Cutouts (2012), where people, cut out from their surroundings, floated freely in open two-dimensional space. What remained were new photographic assemblages, Absence (2016), which is a meditation on the in-between spaces of belonging, from within or at a constant distance from its original source. Cutting out bodies—individually or in groups—from interiors, landscapes, and cityscapes of collected personal photographs reveals multilayered fragments of place; intimate or public spaces of the everyday: a classroom, a backyard, a bridge, a brick road, a wall, the sea. The silhouettes frame the void, and the labyrinth of innerconnected narratives create new meaning. The bodies become anonymous, they become inclusive, their traces now filled with the complexities and remembrances, embodying multiple experiences. —TARANEH HEMAMI
TARANEH HEMAMI. Absence, 2016, from Hall of Reflections series (2001â&#x20AC;&#x201C;ongoing).
Photographic Assemblage. 36 inches by 24 inches.
TARANEH HEMAMI. Absence, 2016, from Hall of Reflections series (2001â&#x20AC;&#x201C;ongoing).
Photographic Assemblage. 36 inches by 24 inches.
TARANEH HEMAMI. Absence, 2016, from Hall of Reflections series (2001â&#x20AC;&#x201C;ongoing).
Photographic Assemblage. 36 inches by 24 inches.
Photographic Assemblage. 36 inches by 24 inches.
Photographic Assemblage. 36 inches by 24 inches.
Photographic Assemblage. 24 inches by 36 inches.
Photographic Assemblage. 24 inches by 36 inches.
Photographic Assemblage. 24 inches by 36 inches.
Inside a Mouth You Can Use Teeth the Way a Sailor Uses Stars Young I fantasized often, assigned ENEMY to everything: army men against a leak of ants, praying mantis versus mantis. How slow death moved, a whale fall. As my grandmother untied the string of the kite tied to the child’s wrist of her mind, as if to say Death fits whatever shoe it wears. And dreamt of ants carrying bazookas out of the house. I don’t know if this makes me despicable. I have the same map as you—small x in the corner, every pyramid burning, every room I walk in becoming a new Rome where Caesar is kissed to death. Do you also see the tiger that lives behind everything? The world’s ribs peeled back to display its real intention, which may be a burning fire beneath a turquoise swimming pool with everyone’s child-self at the surface peering down as though from a sky scraper, fingers curled over the edge and kissed on occasion by water?
Aubade with Ace Aro Woman moon falls a jawbone toward the ridge bruising new snow lavender across the backs of mountains named for blood of a sacrifice I stand on a ledge flakes stinging skin open every tongue of saguaro and cholla cutting a white-dusted cross against horizon’s dark shaft in spur and basin below me I hold grief in my hips widest part of female body people tell me what I am not split and riven red only for intestinal twists never a head soft-skulled crowning through my pelvis cupped only in shadow blowhole ruin am I not animal enough for you not enough hair to grip and pull to make me cry and come home to these bones interlocked in sinew narrow dusks of timber needle the slopes grief is not love is not here is not if my hands don’t caress if my eyes don’t search if my breast doesn’t bare if my back doesn’t bend into beast wind snaps my black shirt around me I make a thin stirrup against cloud pushing through my belly men want to undo my chest moan into soft pink clasp buckle and sup I’m so glad they say so glad you’re not burdened not mother only daughter everyone wants to see me filled and if I am not desire for fingers or mouth if I am not a longing for small deaths then I am not human there is no shadow no weight I hold here no imprint I leave no reason look at me cavity and spire I name every cloven-hoofed animal that beds down in this dust I come here to mourn not what I am but that only center of sunrise is teeth gripping throat I watch over every half-sleeping creature shiver-eyed as space between stars listening for sharp-jawed predators I want to be seen as powerful night pinned to clavicle whole gray violet line of these peaks in my shoulders to be seen as powerful first useful second I want to swallow winter whole chill metal I want to be seen as lungbeat and cinchbreath in shale and chert climbing cliff and gravity if I open my hips like this all this weeping will break loose peel this flesh away from sternum look at these slick pink innards blue-cavitied and wet-ventricled am I not this struggle to survive fast-beating with the cold and your touch its soft sweet fattening like the juniper thirsty as rattlesnake wakened in frost season am I not a muscle trying to hold every minute
wide isnâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t sky our first shadow reach our first attempt to push through our armature to others who can save us from every hunger hunting for our berry-dark carotid come here rest inside me I will keep the muzzles at bay until the only thing I can offer is scrap and carcass something to endure another night every glisten point of light grommeting black sky I will be what you pray toward with hand against hand when you are afraid and need the brush of mine against yours when everything feels too far a barrier between one heat and another my throat and churchyard of cactus stretching of every ventricle pushing blood toward morning pale of my wrists enough to keep us whole set in dawnâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s hard dark
MELANIE S. SMITH
TH E SC R A P OF PA P ER fell from the pages of an old copy of Sherwin Nuland’s How
We Die, a book I had begun in graduate school but never finished. I’d somehow left it at my parents’ house of thirty years, the house I’d grown up in, then reclaimed it during their move to a condominium an hour north of Boston. Reading on a train to work, I was engrossed by Nuland’s eloquent account of his own learning to greet death as an inevitable chapter of life, rather than a battle to be fought, when the scrap slipped out. My father didn’t read books; it wasn’t his bookmark. I must have scrabbled around for something to mark my place, and torn a page off his scratch pad, not realizing he’d written on it. The three-by-four-inch rectangle was unremarkable but for my father’s distinctive cursive, a left-handed script so jagged it reminded me of teeth or of cuneiform writing—letters incised with a hammer and chisel. I’d seen the blade-like script on checks, billing invoices, the birthday cards my mother made him sign, and once in a note—not a letter, just a note without a greeting—during my first year of college. Then, he’d ripped out a lined sheet from a spiral-bound pad to tell me that I had disappointed him tremendously and that I would have no one but myself to blame if my life tanked. What I had done to anger him was host a male high-school friend in my dorm room for a weekend. That my own friend was two years younger than I was and like a brother made no difference to my father. The note was blunt, angry, and written with such force that the letters embossed the paper like Braille. “You weren’t raised to be a butana,” he had written, borrowing a forbidden word from my Sicilian maternal grandparents. My father is Nova Scotian. The Italian word for whore was about as far from his vernacular as charmuta—the Arabic word with the same meaning—is to mine. He used it because he understood its particular power to shame. But the scrap of paper that fell from the book wasn’t a missive, it was a list. It said, simply: High St ’07 Cardinal Nut Hatch Sparro Chickadee Wren House Finch Junco Wood-Pecker Mocking Bird
Each name was capitalized. Sparrow lacked the w, nuthatch and mockingbird were two words, and woodpecker was hyphenated. I recognized it immediately as a catalog of the birds my father had seen alighting in the feeder that he hung in the crabapple tree, planted the year I turned fifteen. The prior winter, the car driven by my sixteen-year-old boyfriend had slid off the icy driveway and skittered across the front yard, wiping out a sapling that had begun to flower the summer before. We had just moved to the “High Street house,” as
My feet carried me forward, arms flailing, before I remembered that I was truant.
we’d called the place they had just vacated, and my father was livid. All winter we’d been stuck with the ragged stump of the broken tree, jutting from the snow like the splintered bone of a lost explorer. Digging it out would have to wait until spring. It was a reminder to my father that while beloved young trees could be broken, frozen ground could not, and a reminder to me that even when I wasn’t at fault, in his eyes, I was. I tucked the list in my bag. Later, I would tack it to the corkboard over my desk at Boston University, in a building that practically straddles the Massachusetts Turnpike, which he, as a young immigrant, had helped to build. Then he had been a truck driver, one of many that lined up daily to cart away dirt removed by steam shovels to make room for the new highway. By the time we lived in the High Street house, he had a license to run heavy equipment—front-end loaders, backhoes, and mammoth excavators. Eventually he bought “the machine,” as he called his second-hand red backhoe, a fossil compared to the bright yellow Caterpillars and John Deeres then appearing on the scene. But that intrepid red backhoe worked on the Boston Garden, Northeastern University, the Big Dig, and the Harvard Square subway station, where I first saw my father at work. The memory is as bright and clear as the day it happened. I was sixteen years old and skipping school so I could shop for poetry books and posters at the Harvard Coop. It took two buses and two subway lines to get to Harvard Square, the gathering spot for the Cambridge elite. I knew that I—a working-class kid, chubby in dungarees and clogs—would never fit in there. That awareness enabled me to move through the square as if I were invisible, like a foreign tourist, until I turned onto Brattle Street and happened upon the red backhoe chomping at the earth. My feet carried me forward, arms flailing, before I remembered that I was truant. 46
“Dad, Dad!” I yelled. He had on ear protectors and couldn’t hear me. I stood outside the perimeter fence, jumping and waving like a windmill, until he caught sight of me. He pulled a lever, and the machine coughed to a halt. Then he jumped down and trotted over, his face set and his body rigid. My thoughts were some variant of, I’m in the shit. But as he approached the chain-link fence, he broke a bright smile. “How’d ya know it was me?” “Because of the red,” I answered, knowing that was what he wanted to hear. “You don’t see many red ones, do ya?” he laughed. My father was a beacon of pride, and I picked up on it like a human antenna. Sudden tears burned my eyes. I don’t know if he saw. “Tell Ma I’ll be late for supper,” he said as he trotted away. * MY TE A R S that day were the same tears I would later shed almost every time I
gazed at the tacked-up list of songbirds. Songbirds—feather soft, light in the bones, little more than flowers with wings—are everything that heavy equipment is not. A backhoe or an excavator or a crane is as near as human beings can get to dinosaurpower, monsters that bite into rock and soil that shovels and pickaxes can merely dent. Passersby see only dust-covered boots and hard hats, if they stop long enough to notice the operators. But the work of the people in those hats and boots is sacred: they build the world in which we live. I have often thought, as I’ve observed the operators of excavators as tall as a house or of cranes pivoting several hundred feet up, that there is something divine in their harnessing such might. The crane operator sees the horizon in every direction as well as the human activity below; the operator of a threestory excavator thrills to a power that we can only imagine. Such persons share an enviable seat, one with a view on both the puniness and grandeur of humanity. I would come to see them as modern-day pyramid builders, exercising dominion over the earth and pointing the way to the stars. * B UT HU M A N or godlike, their work is also strenuous, exhausting, and costly. There
is constant noise, not insignificant risk, and exposure to heat, cold, and precipitation. The work stops only when the ground is frozen, and forges furiously ahead in the fiercest heat. The operating engineers—as construction workers are called—are baked, frozen, sweated, and soaked. Their eyes are pinked by dust and red rimmed by goggles; their skin is often leather. My father endured probably one serious 47
work-related mishap a year. He dislocated his ankle jumping from a tire the height of a man, twice. He operated a crane on an old pier and had to be rescued when the pilings began to sink the machine, with him in it, into Boston Harbor. Falling cement chunks pelted the machine in the same Central Artery tunnel from which ceiling bricks eventually fell, killing a woman driver. He got stuck out in the famous 1978 blizzard when state troopers commandeered his backhoe to dig out cars on the highway. He didn’t come home for three days, sleeping in the unheated cab of the machine in the middle of winter. If there were one feature that attested to the work I did not witness until I was a teenager, it was his hands, perennially cracked, grime etching every crevice, as if he could never get them entirely clean. I was drawn to those hands, strong and square and capable, at the same time that I feared them. They wielded a hammer or paintbrush with the same skill they applied to the levers of “the machine.” But they also inflicted the sting of anger and the grip of rage. In my earliest memories, my father was a man who could hurt me, whose temper burned in the coal of his eyes, and whose power exploded in those hands. At the end of the day he would hop from his truck, the laces of his boots already loosened, shed them in the basement workroom, and sack out on an armchair before and after dinner. If my sisters and I squabbled, or someone had gotten in trouble earlier in the day, I—the eldest—would “catch hell.” Sometimes I was so terrified by the anticipation of the strapping that awaited me that I was unable to eat my dinner. If I tried to run away, he chased me, usually into a corner where I reflexively peed my pants. “I promise I’ll be good, please don’t hit me,” I would beg, but it never worked. Down came a meaty backhand or the grip that left marks where he held and shook me. Sometimes the hands snapped a leather belt that bit at my legs. Worst of all, I was expected not to cry. “Don’t you dare cry, mister,” he would shout, “or you’ll get it again!” * TH E TEA R S for the list of birds are not the same as those shed for my school-aged
self, a little girl who believed her own iniquity was as fixed as freckles or eye color. I did not know then what I would later learn, and I could not say what I would have said if I had. It wouldn’t have been “I promise I’ll be good.” It would have been, “I’m sorry for your loss.” I could not have understood that a list of common songbirds, noted as if they were rare and treasured sightings, told as much or more about my father as the rage that seemed to fill every room he entered for decades. My own life would have been entirely different had I known that rage is often evidence not of indignation at wrongdoing, but of vulnerability. I think of the bird carcasses left in my yard by my predatory cat; the bones are translucent and hollow, 48
the porcelain-like chassis for a winged vessel of song. Birds, especially the small ones—the chickadees, juncos, nuthatches, and sparrows—are like a kiss in flight. Long after I left college, I would have a son, and he and I would play a game. He would kiss his fat toddler-hand and blow the kiss to me, and I would catch it. Then
But they also inflicted the sting of anger and the grip of rage.
I would send one back. I like to think that, standing by the window and putting the names of those birds to paper, my father was doing something similar—taking for himself what he needed and longed for, but would not reveal to me until he was an old man. Even then, the wound was so raw, the words came out like hard pits of fruit that attested to his once, too long ago, having tasted something sweet. * H E WAS S EV EN T EEN years old when he left Nova Scotia; this I knew. As a child, I
often took the ferry across the Bay of Fundy to spend a few weeks of summer with my grandmother. I slept in my father’s old bedroom on the second floor of a tiny cottage overlooking a bluff and, farther below, a picturesque fishing village. Afternoons I would stand on a stool and look through a kitchen telescope, as my father had, to scan the horizon for my grandfather’s lobster boat, and evenings, I would listen to the clack of my grandmother’s knitting needles and the sigh of my great-grandmother, who sat like a plump hen in her corner chair and pieced together fabric scraps for quilts like the one I slept under at night. I ate homemade brown bread and preserves, and dried pollock from Grampy Vic’s line in the basement, and loads of fish chowder. I picked strawberries for jam and watched my grandmother hand-knead bread dough, enough for four loaves, more quickly and cleanly than the messes I would later make with a stand-mixer. I saw her carry and hang heavy wet laundry and observed the steady stream of fishermen’s wives and kids who wandered through her kitchen, as they did all the kitchens of the other village cottages. It was a very different life from the one in suburban Boston, and if truth be told, at the time I didn’t very much like it. The salty fish wasn’t anything like the Sicilian peasant food I had grown up on, and I detested having to use the outhouse. The fisherman’s wharf was postcard perfect, but it smelled of brine and chum and gasoline.
Life was smellier and grittier in Nova Scotia, even if the sky seemed brighter and the ocean, blindingly white. But those are the same things I would grow to love as an adult. At the age of thirtythree, during what would be my last visit before my grandmother’s death, I asked to see photographs of my father as a child. Grampy Vic—her second husband, and not
The fisherman’s wharf was postcard perfect, but it smelled of brine and chum and gasoline.
the man who raised my father—had long since died, as had her third husband. But much of the early family history remained sketchy. I knew only that my grandmother had remarried within six months of her first husband’s death. Right around the same time, my father quit high school, opted not to be a fisherman, and emigrated to the United States, where he got a job at a printing press. Despite sleeping in his bedroom and wandering his village, I encountered scant evidence of my father’s childhood, and had seen only one photograph from his boyhood: a wall hanging of a knicker-clad kid with a cowlick and a few missing teeth, his shoes polished and knee socks pulled high. It was easy to believe he was my father. The boy in the photograph looked just like me. The day before I left, I sat on the floor with a leather-bound album, shards of brown glue collecting in the cracks as I flipped the black pages. I had crawled into the eaves to dig it out from among the boxes of quilts and Christmas decorations. I knew as soon as I saw the round baby sitting on a porch, reaching for a kitten with eager hands, that I was looking at a snapshot of my father. Sobs that I hadn’t known were in me burst forth, followed by an almost tidal surge of love. “He was so tiny,” I howled, and my grandmother chuckled with puzzlement. “He was a very happy baby,” she assured me, and looking at the photograph, I believed her. That was the day I caught an inkling of something that needed mourning. The bright giggling baby reaching for a kitten was the embodiment of joy, and the taciturn father who had chased me around the kitchen wielding a dust-broom, stick, or belt was an engine of misery. What had happened in between? I yearned to know. But somehow, I knew to tread lightly.
That same year, my grandmother sent along copies of photographs in the Christmas boxes she packed with hand-knit socks and slippers. When I handed my father a print of the knicker-clad boy, a dreamy quality came over his face. “I remember the day they took this,” he said, softly laughing. “I was scratching like crazy. My long johns were wool. Everything Nan made for me was wool, and I can’t stand the feel of it next to my skin.” I felt a surge of warmth. A shared allergy to wool wasn’t the stuff of legacy-building, but it was a beginning. * I WE N T to college halfway across the country, followed by graduate school and a
ten-year stint in Washington, DC. One decade turned into two, and the jet fuel of anger that propelled me away spent itself, leaving the ashy gray of longing. In my mid-thirties, I returned to my birthplace, where in short order I married, had a baby, got divorced, and got a second graduate degree. On lonely nights, I wended my way to the High Street house with the excuse that my young son missed his “Papa.” My little boy did indeed love his grandfather, whom he called a “digger-man.” Together they read books and assembled puzzles about diggers, and rolled miniature trucks and backhoes around the kitchen floor. Their other favorite activity was lining up my son’s rubberized animals—dozens of miniatures that fit a child’s hand—and naming them, one by one. Some he had seen at the zoo: chimpanzees, zebras, and elephants. But many were prehistoric: tyrannosaurus rex, parasaurolophus, and triceratops. My son was a typical kid in his love for dinosaurs, perhaps less so in his ability at the tender age of two and half to pronounce the alphabet soup of their names perfectly. Each time he did, my father looked at me wide-eyed and gave a low whistle. “This kid’s a genius,” he would say. “He’ll probably be a doctor someday.” Watching my boy’s eyes light up as they turned the pages of a favorite book, my father smiled with something akin to reverence. “Look at his eyes,” I remember him saying. “They sparkle just like diamonds.” That was why—the dark memories of thrown dishes and burning rage notwithstanding—I returned to the High Street house again and again. I went toward what I needed, even if it wasn’t being given for me. It was his tenderness toward my son that emboldened me to ask what it was like to lose a father. The answer he gave was both blunt and anguished, and entirely unexpected. “What was it like?” he asked, his eyes looking far away. “It was the worst day of my life—I lost my best friend. It was a shock to my system. I cried for three days.” Had my father been to therapy, as I had, he might have announced, I am a survivor of childhood trauma. He might have disclosed the entire story: that his adored father
Doug, who had long suffered from the lung damage wrought by tuberculosis, died suddenly in his early forties from a horrific winter bout of pneumonia. He might have described how my grandmother loaded her husband into the car that would disappear into the 1954 rural dirt-road night, and how he—just past sixteen— begged to be allowed to go along. He might have teared up when he recounted his mother making him stay behind, and he might have broken down telling how his frail and feverish father hadn’t survived to the next morning. He would likely have sobbed with regret that he never had the chance to say goodbye. But he said none of these things, only that he had endured a shock to the system, one that left him crying for three straight days. I had never seen my father even tear up. Had he felt more trusting, he might have opened up further and let me hold him as he shared having found out at the age of twelve that he had been given at birth to his mother’s sister, and that Doug was not his biological father. He might have described what he learned as yet another trauma, his having secretly overheard that he was, inexplicably, unwanted by his birth mother. He might have relayed fear about leaving behind a rural fishing village with its one-room schoolhouse, button-sized store, and two churches—blink, and you miss it, I often joked—and his two best friends from childhood, and ending up in a gritty Northeastern factory, staring out at asphalt instead of shoreline and trucks instead of lobster boats. He might have shared a longing for comfort and the elation he felt meeting my dark-haired Sicilian mother, exotic by Nova Scotia standards. He might have even disclosed how they had to get married when she became pregnant, and how he had to take a second job greasing garbage trucks at night just to make ends meet. He might have, he might have, he might have. But he didn’t, and I burned to know. I would learn the story in bits and pieces over many years, in equal parts by asking questions and looking up records. He had tried to get his high-school diploma by taking night classes, but he had dropped out, too tired in the evening to stay awake and study. By then he had three young children. When the fourth arrived, our family moved to the four-bedroom High Street house. For years my father hammered and sawed and painted, transforming the spacious but run-down house into a place of classic beauty. That’s when he strung the bird feeders, filling them nights after work. He was feeding the birds on the occasion of the chest pain that he’d ignored for weeks because construction work is seasonal and he’d worried that if he were out sick there would be no income. I had been called home from college for his first open-heart surgery and, standing in the intensive care unit over a once-frightening form now stilled by anesthesia, I had floated a silent request. “Please don’t die before I have the chance to know you.” His brush with death prompted me to dig more deeply into the details of his life, hoping to find in them a tidy explanation for his rage. His aggression. Why he seemed 52
to be sleepwalking when he came after me, neither hearing nor seeing the kid—a freckle-faced little girl who was almost his double; why he never allowed himself to cry. “Don’t you dare cry, mister, or you’ll catch it again.” In the course of twenty-five years, beginning with that last visit to my grandmother, I would not only uncover the story of his childhood, I would also learn the identity of
That’s when he strung the bird feeders, filling them nights after work.
his birth family, discover my own dual Canadian citizenship, and manage to unseal his adoption file—which was a difficult feat, since he was born in rural Nova Scotia in 1937. He didn’t even have a birth certificate. The project would involve researching family history, tracking down death certificates, paying for replacement birth certificates, and even traveling to Nova Scotia to talk to extended family members, a multipronged effort that seemed—right up until nearly the end—to lead only to dead ends. But the frustrating search served another purpose as well. It was like a rope that pulled me out of a dark hole and closer to the light. And the closer I became, the less willing I was to hold on to old resentments that had kept me at a self-protective distance for that same twenty-five years. The cost had come in Christmases and other holidays spent alone, birthdays unobserved, achievements uncelebrated, and a grievous sense of “unbelongingness” that began to outweigh the old emotional armor. In the spring of 2019, I was out for a walk when my cell phone rang. I was coming out of a string of my own losses—most notably, the cancer-death of my beloved husband only five months after I married him, three years before. My father had instantly loved the man too; the death shook him. He’d taken to wearing one of my husband’s caps nearly all the time, a gesture that touched me in my own grief. “There’s a big envelope here from Nova Scotia,” my father said. “It looks official.” “Did you open it?” “No—I was waiting for you.” The next morning, I was behind his door by nine o’clock. Together we opened the oversized envelope and spread the contents across the kitchen table. Inside were copies of affidavits and his adoption certificate, along with documentation of his family history. The name of his biological father, whose identity I had long ago confirmed, had been redacted per the family’s wishes. But the most compelling line
was in the social worker’s notes, a sentence not about his biological parents, but about Doug—the man who raised my father. “One helluva nice guy,” my father had always said of the fisherman who played the bones in an old-time band and bought his son chickens and ducks and rabbits to raise, and a white half-chow named Snooks. The child seemed very much devoted to the father and followed him around a great deal. “Listen to this, Dad.” I read the line out loud. “I did follow him around,” my father replied, leaning in close, his blue eyes liquid with light. “My mother would look out the window—remember that telescope over the sink? She would look for my father’s boat coming in and I would run to meet him. And—” I instantly sobbed, and so did my father. I reached for his arm and held on tight. I understood. Once, years before, I had run to my own father, and jumped up and down on the other side of a chain-link fence. He had longed for his father, just as I had longed for mine. “It still bothers me,” he said afterward, “that I never got to say goodbye.” * BY THE TIME my father learned his adoption story, I was fifty-seven years old, and he was eighty-one. He was in failing health, having undergone three open-heart surgeries and developed congestive heart failure. The surgeries left him with vascular dementia which made him hazy and sometimes anxious. But as he approached his own inevitable mortality, I observed an emergent clarity, honesty, and welcome tenderness. One weekend, a precipitous drop in his blood pressure had landed him in the hospital. He was alone when I visited. Seeing me, he teared up; thinking he was hungry, I called the kitchen to order food. “That’s not it,” he said. “There’s something I need to say to you.” He worked his mouth, trying not to cry. “I know I was hard on you when you were growing up,” he said slowly, “and I am sorry.” I had waited fifty-seven years to hear those words. “It’s enough, Dad.” I laid a hand on his leg. “It’s the past. I love you.” I didn’t say, I would do anything to take away your grief, but I thought it. *
A C H I L D without a parent experiences a singular suffering. She dons emotional
armor to protect her from a rough world. But armor is heavy, and it hurts, a constant reminder of the vulnerability she would rather forget. I wish it hadn’t taken fifty-seven years to understand my father. His days are numbered. One weekend during the spring of his eighty-second year, I met him and my mother at a historic garden where we strolled among rows of irises, peonies, and roses. I watched his old-man hands, thin skinned and purpled, gently cup a blousy hotpink blossom as he exclaimed, “Have you ever seen a color like that?” Then we stood on a veranda and watched birds flitting in the fruit trees, and he chuckled at the rabbit that had somehow managed to find its way into a gated patch with rows of delectable beans. “Can you smell that?” he asked about the lilac bushes, and “Did you hear that?” of a red-winged blackbird’s familiar song, as if he had never heard anything so lovely. Pure beauty—scents and sounds and sensations: this was now the stuff of my father’s life. What had seemed an occasional oddity was in fact his essential feature. Gone were the days of pounding the earth, and gone were the times he pounded on me. Gone, too, the armor. * Cardinal Nut Hatch Sparro Chickadee Wren House Finch Junco Wood-Pecker Mocking Bird I finally typed a key code to the now nearly illegible list pinned over my desk. The list is fading, much like the life of the man who drew it up. I can’t look at the list for too long; it hurts. Instead, I stand to gaze out my window at the rising skyline of Boston, dotted with the magnificent cranes that defy mediocrity. That’s when I finally understand that list of birds—not only why he wrote it, but why I kept it. Before my son, before the birth story, before the simple but clear-eyed expression of remorse, that list offered a glimpse of one boy’s hidden and protected heart. Small, delicate, and chirping as he fed them, songbirds were the children he could love without words.
I N 2 0 07, I began to notice foreclosures at a much higher rate than normal. A lack
of maps at a neighborhood level made the foreclosure crisis easy to ignore. Articles would show only statistics and text. I wanted to move beyond statistics and show the average person how significant the foreclosure crisis was. I realized a quilt would be an ironic solution. Quilts are an approachable medium and would allow me to show the intimacy of the crisis. Quilts act as a functional memory, an historical record of difficult times. It is during times of hardship that people have traditionally made quilts, often resorting to scraps of cloth when so poor they could not afford to waste a single thread of fabric. For the past decade, I have been making art about geopolitical narratives using the traditional medium of textiles. Presenting these subjects through the use of the aesthetically pleasing fabric offers a viewer a more approachable relationship with narratives that we often choose to conveniently ignore. What at first seems beautiful, upon further investigation reveals a darker tale. The medium of textiles is a familiar one to me. My mother was a textile artist, and growing up in the Deep South, quilts were commonly used as storytelling tools. Each of my series involves copious research into maps, government data, and journalism. This stems from compiling and presenting data in map form as an urban planner but also from my passion for research and infographics. There are no arbitrary designs in my work, every stitch and line relates back to my research. Showing the foreclosures as holes cut into the quilt touches on the harsh loss of security and comfort of a home, an aspect statistics can’t relay to a reader. The neighborhoods shown are not an anomaly; they are a recurring pattern seen from coast to coast, urban to suburban neighborhoods across the United States. The problem has not been solved; it is still occurring, just changing shape, and will soon come back to haunt us again. These quilts are a reminder to us all. —KATHRYN CLARK
Cover: KATHRYN CLARK. Washington, DC Foreclosure Quilt, 2015. Hand-stitched textile. 84 inches x 57.5 inches. Collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
KATHRYN CLARK. Chicago Foreclosure Quilt, 2013. Hand-stitched textile.
42 inches x 31 inches. Collection of the Bank of Kaukauna, Kaukana, WI.
KATHRYN CLARK. Detroit Foreclosure Quilt, 2011.
Hand-stitched textile. 44 inches x 22 inches. Private Collection.
KATHRYN CLARK. Detroit Foreclosure Quilt, 2011 (detail).
Hand-stitched textile. 44 inches x 22 inches. Private Collection.
KATHRYN CLARK. Cleveland Foreclosure Quilt, 2011.
Hand-stitched textile. 60 inches x 25 inches. Private Collection.
KATHRYN CLARK. Cleveland Foreclosure Quilt, 2011 (detail).
Hand-stitched textile. 60 inches x 25 inches. Private Collection.
KATHRYN CLARK. Flint Foreclosure Quilt, 2013. Hand-stitched textile.
46 inches x 26 inches. Permanent Collection of Michigan State University Museum.
KATHRYN CLARK. Flint Foreclosure Quilt, 2013. Hand-stitched textile.
46 inches x 26 inches. Permanent Collection of Michigan State University Museum.
KATHRYN CLARK. Washington, DC Foreclosure Quilt, 2015 (detail). Hand-stitched textile.
57.5 inches x 84 inches. Collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Lunch The tomato is simple until it meets the complication of the knife. The thumb is complicated until it meets the knife’s subtraction. Ever since you said you wanted your ashes spread at sea I’ve been thinking the ocean is a kind of coffin. But then too I think a coffin is a kind of boat. Perhaps death is the self journeying into a larger self. I didn’t know I’d cut to the nerve until you came in and said there was too much red. On the way to the hospital I said blood is a kind of ocean. You told me not to worry, we were almost there. Inside me, like a red sea, a red sea roars, I said. Just a little longer, you said. It’s right around the corner.
Sometimes the Desert Almost Comes Alive for Me Again At twenty-two I left home, somewhat later than most, I guess. I moved from the desert’s edge into its interior, where that older space suggests still the existence of another, the unconscious again a geography of sun and rock, and the dream repeats: dried brush, drier grass, dirt for miles, and the fire burning beneath low, mauve smoke. Then I’d wake into a past that was too vague or abstract to be thought, though holding those questions that never go away: how’d I get here? and what do I do now? There’s a story about how I ended up there and like most stories it involved money, and there’s a lot of money in trying to stop the desert from burning—that’s all the desert is after all, fire’s anticipation of itself. We each waited alone, heat extending those calm moments, and it was then that the questions would return, reminders of that which cast my being there into relief against the dust. Night put out most fires before dawn, then I’d walk the black sand, stir the black sand. Night doesn’t put out the mind. Instead, as coolness falls, as blue turns over into darker blue, belonging turns over too, and taking part becomes a gut-pull.
This is what Charles Olson means when he talks about space and its feeding on man. All this space opening in every direction, all of it lost already, returned only accidentally in the occasional catch of a second, for a second. Within the first month, my life had become a context of fuel: ten-hour, hundred-hour, thousand. There are no new questions. There is no new problem. This is it. This, and the urge to get on with it all. As we drove toward my first fire, I could see the line of light burning up the hillside into evening sky. The captain turned around to ask me how not even that view could bring a smile to my face. I donâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t remember if I smiled then or not. The fire in my dream had become the fire in front of me. I was far away, not anybody anymore, and the world was alive, a subtle animal.
DANILO JOHN THOMAS
E I G H T Y F EET B EL OW me SAG mills the size of trailer homes mash stone into
liquid. The revolving barrels spin water, ore, and ten-foot steel rods into a slurry that gets piped into smaller barrels filled with softball-sized shot. The liquid stone is fed into blenders—two hundred wheels each roughly the size of a firing barrel spinning inches away from each other and vibrating all of the enormous pipes in the tin building that house the concentrator—and left to settle. This morning, I stand on the roof of the concentrator watching the water ripple across the Berkeley Pit, a strip mine that has slowly turned into a lake of acid. The men who usually drive trucks the size of houses pick up the bodies of dead geese. Thousands of bodies litter the shoreline. People called it a ghost flock, a group of geese lost and confused in the dead heat of summer. After they landed in the pit, its waters a mix of arsenic, copper, cadmium, cobalt, iron, manganese, zinc, and sulfate, the geese’s throats swelled their guts out of their beaks and blistered their webbed feet. Their black feathers drift to the shoreline in lonely patches bleached translucent by the toxic water. The drivers of enormous trucks grab the geese by their limp necks and place their bodies in trash bags.
TH E C ON CEN T R AT OR , the sound and rattle of it, grates on my nerves. Everything
on this site wants to kill. The grit in the air gifts silicosis. Gloves don’t do jack against the dust. Blisters crack and callus my hands and fingertips thick enough to drive a nail into. That’s no shit. I won a pitcher off Mike pushing a tin-man tip to shank across my palm. My toenails are all broken, jammed off on the steel toes of my boots. I have to wear two pairs of socks and my feet sweat and fall apart. The mine-issued safety glasses are scratched from rubbing the grit off them with a shirt covered in the same. My hard hat has a diamond-shaped divot where I slammed my head into the edge of an uncovered I-beam. My hearing is going. It’s gotten harder to distinguish the shouting from the muffled explosions of generators, the whizzer of drills, the clang of pry bars being rammed between support beams and tin roofing, the squeal and metallic slap of the booker truck hauling and dumping the sludge, mud, rubber, screw strips, plywood, drywall, lunch sacks, lead plates, and vermiculite into one of the forty-ton dump trucks the mine has loaned us. Maybe I’m not going deaf. Maybe I’m just getting used to it. Either way, deaf or not, we’ve started to use hand signals. When somebody snaps a phantom baseball bat over their knee it means break time. When someone points at himself and then at you and then at something else it means they need your help with that
thing. When Mike shoves his middle finger through his other fist it means fuck you, doughboy, and I laugh. We’re drinking water from plastic one-gallon jugs. Eighty feet below, crushed rock puffs around the tires of the water trucks spraying feathers of gray water along the silt roads to keep the polluted dust from blowing up the ridge or into town. I sit on one of the stacks of fiberboard that we’ve freshly unloaded from the booker. On the stack nearest the ledge sit Mike and the Old Goat, who runs a glove through his silver
When he didn’t die, I knew that things could go on even if they were difficult sometimes, or lonely or frightening.
beard. Cigarette smoke has stained the Old Goat’s chin the color of an aged bruise. Mike says the Old Goat has horns under his hard hat, but nobody’s seen them since he never takes it off. Mike taps his boot off the deck. He is in a rock band called My Fist Your Face. He is missing most of his lower teeth and his waxy red hair curls around the brim of his hard hat. His hands twitch and spasm when they’re idle, but when he drills, cuts, or uses the roc-welder, they become oaken and constant. I have a cousin who has epilepsy. He’s more like a brother. When we were children my aunt was never home between eight at night and two in the morning, and I would sit there and watch him shake knowing he would die. Every time I knew it was the last time, until it wasn’t and the quiet, spasming boy would simply relax and fall asleep. Every time, I knew he would die until he didn’t. When he didn’t die, I knew that things could go on even if they were difficult sometimes, or lonely or frightening. Anyway, I’m bringing it up because my cousin’s transition from calm to calamity and back is the only thing that resembles the shift that comes over Mike when he starts to work.
MI KE G IV ES S HIT to everyone. He says out loud what would best be kept in his
head. Then he smiles. Then he sits on his ass like his comedy routine gets us through the day. And it might. He is yelling at the Old Goat now. Yelling about the dead geese. The high pitch of his voice carries across the roof in the wind and debris. The Old Goat ignores him or doesn’t hear. Our fifteener ends and we hop to. Mike adjusts his hard hat full tilt backward and mops his head with a dirty rag. The sun has centered itself over the Continental Divide. He chuckles to himself. I watch him sit there for a moment and then I fit another screw onto the bit. Mike sits there while I work a seam line. It’s frustrating work: plate, screw, drill, repeat. Hundreds of yards of this shit, on my hands and knees fumbling with five-inch screws that want nothing else in this dry world but to wobble off the little washers I’m trying to punch them through. I’m halfway done before Mike puts his hard hat on square. I walk back to him to get more screws. “You feel like doing some work today?” I ask. His mouth twists into a crescent, slightly ajar. He turns his head toward the sky and his laugh is gross. I almost expect crows to spill out of his throat. Missing teeth leave vacancies in a smile that owes its weirdness to something burning behind it like a lit fuse sparking deep, hissing dangerously closer to the powder kegs. His legs are spindly, his clothes pocked with patches and burn holes. He’s an addict and there’s something obviously frightening and strangely admirable about the man. I fear having him as a friend. “Young Buck pipes up,” he says. He nods at the pit. Dust rains from the terraced slope a mile and more above the rust-colored waters. The pebbles fur the swells capping purple at the center of the pit and green along the shoreline. “What you think about that?” “The pit?” “The geese in the pit.” “Well,” I pause, though I’ve been thinking about it all day, wondering who or what is responsible. “Seems like both followed their natures to tragic ends.” Mike stands up. “Hell, Young Buck. That water’s not natural.” He picks the gap in his teeth with the tip of a screw, contemplating the waters. He shrugs as though he’s decided on something and throws the screw off the roof. “But, ain’t we all just kindred spirits anyway?” “With the geese, or the pit?” “All of it. I’m mourning us all today.” “I’m sorry for your loss,” I say. That laugh again. “Want to see that drill smoke?”
I’ve worked about halfway across the breadth of the roof, seventy-five yards or so. “Yes sir,” I say. I hand him my drill and twist the top off of a gallon of water. It’s been shaded under a towel in a screw bucket, but it’s still warm from the buzzing Montana August, and it tastes alkaline from whatever purifies the water in the mine yard. Mike puts out his smoke. He stands and blows his nose, splattering an impressive wad of phlegm across the roof. He grabs a fistful of screws, takes the time to turn the tips in the same direction as his index finger. This allows him to fit the drill bit into the screws without stopping, punch them into the roof. He sets, feeds, and punches the screws into wood like a gun chambers and ejects bullets. He has an asterisk-shaped scar in his left index finger from jamming the drill into his hand. I asked him about it once. He said, “Practice.” Mike kneels low to the ground, one leg sticking out, while his chest hovers above his drill. His arm pumps up and down, the whir and thud of the sinking screws mechanical and rhythmic. He creeps along, sinking thirty yards of plate in the deck in about ninety seconds. Still smirking, he hands me back my drill. Smoke seeps from its overheated motor and it smells like burned wire. “Keep practicing,” he says, wagging his finger under my nose.
MO STLY I D O grunt work with the tear-off crew. We’re not professional laborers. We
haven’t developed a useful set of skills and so have been gifted the burden of cutting the rubber off of the roof of the concentrator with hooked razor knives. We scuttle backward over dangerously rotten roofing in awkward buzzard hops, cutting and rolling the rubber, pushing it through a long plastic tube that swoops off a corner of the building and into one of the dump trucks. We pop out the tin strips with a heavy, multitoed steel shovel connected to the end of a pry bar. After we load the tin strips into wheelbarrows, we unscrew the plywood from the tin deck below, pick up screws, and load loose scrabble onto the booker hoist and send it to the ground. Uncle Bill, the owner of the operation, repurposes what he can to cut cost, so we get on the ground and tie the good half-sections of plywood to the truck. Then we climb back through the concentrator’s maze of pipes and steel and start a new section.
TH R E E D IFFER EN T roofing crews work on the concentrator every day. The tear-
off crew has four people including me. The tin crew has twenty workers ripping off and replacing the rotten tin that makes up the bottom layer of the roof. The rot is the reason we’re all here, and removing it is the most dangerous job. These men work on rotten roof and steel rafters, surrounded on all sides by open air. The repair crew, which includes Mike, employs eleven men who replace the fiberglass drywall and rubber on top of the new tin. We work with harnesses over our shoulders and under our crotches, which strap together in the middle of our chests with a large leather buckle. The yo-yo, a large
His arm pumps up and down, the whir and thud of the sinking screws mechanical and rhythmic.
winch the shape of a teardrop, attaches us to wires running across the roof and bolted to the walls. We can move in a twenty-yard diameter of the anchored wires. The yoyos work the same as seat belts. They are meant to catch you if you fall through the roof but are often more of a hassle. We are always in each other’s way. We buckle, unbuckle, swap hooks, do-si-do, hug, smack each other with different tools, step under cords, get tangled, swear, berate, stop production to figure out who the hell is standing on whose cord. It’s a nightmare, and on the hotter days when tempers flare people start making questionable decisions. Today, a big man, over six foot, a new guy I haven’t seen before, works on the tin crew across the chasm from where I saw and scrape away the deck. It must be his first day. He removes the strip sheets of tin that others have cut loose. The roof is hot enough to melt boot soles. Sweat pours off the large man, and his soggy pants bunch around the harness wedged into his crotch and armpits. He is having all of the difficulty of an egg trying to wear suspenders. The shoulder straps fall around his elbows when he bends to pick up the tin, and his arms keep getting pinned to his sides. He can’t lift a sheet high enough to get it on the donkey cart, so he drops it, props the slack harness on his raw, sunburned shoulders, and starts all over again. The yo-yo keeps tugging at him. This happens all morning. Every time I look his way
he’s dropping tin or adjusting his harness. Eventually I’m looking his way because of the racket he’s making between the dropped tin and his steady flow of curses. Finally, when the sun is at its highest and hottest, and the harness straps fall round his elbows, he drops the sheet, mutters something, and unhooks his harness from the yo-yo. The cord zips across the roof dragging the carabineer through a pile of screws before slamming off a generator and rapping into the metal shell that houses the
Men slap my back, but for whatever reason all I want to do is finish loading my cart and push it as far away from the man as possible.
winch. The screws scatter through holes in the roof and tinker off whatever metal thing hums below us. The man, relieved, walks to the end of the tin sheet, stops on a firm-looking piece of old roof, and stoops to lift the tin again. The torque of his weight, wedged between the roof and the sheet that he lifts, pushes him through the canopy. There’s barely time to yell before he’s wedged between the roof, an elbow, and his right ear. His left arm, slammed between the deck and the tin sheet he was trying to corral, pins him in place. His hands flop uselessly above his head. The concentrator keeps rolling eighty feet below him. I dive toward him, stopped short by the damned yo-yo. He dangles while I crawl forward. Men drop weld torches behind me. I know they’re burning holes in the deck by the black smoke and smell of burning rubber. I hear the whump as they are extinguished. Rivet buckets sound like spare change in a jar when they spill and bounce against tin, and out of the corner of my eye I see the donkey cart, abandoned but still in gear. It rolls off the roof. Hundreds of pounds of old metal flutters through the Montana air, and a short time later, the cart crashes through the cab of a flatbed loaded with timber. The kind for telephone poles. No one is around to be crushed. I pull on the man’s harness. The roof quivers and rips. Other men labor to move the tin sheet without letting him drop. Someone produces a chain, and I manage to thread it under the man’s arms. We yank him out with pry bars threaded through the links. Clear of the hole and refastened to his yo-yo, the man sobs. His shoulder hangs in the socket below a doorknob-sized knot pushed from his collarbone.
Men slap my back, but for whatever reason all I want to do is finish loading my cart and push it as far away from the man as possible. It’s my only thought and it tries to explode out of my skull. OSHA is going to be all over this. The head foreman will be here to chew asses soon. I’m stuck in place. A wind blows through my legs and I feel shaky. Just to do something, I peek over the edge of the building, remembering that the cart ran off. The truck full of timber has been destroyed. The metal roofing is splayed across the ground. The cart’s drive shaft is in pieces but otherwise it isn’t much worse for wear. Mike and my guys rally around me. They keep patting my back. They call me a hero. I look at Mike. “That boy is lucky you’re on-site today, Young Buck. Damn lucky.” I’ve lost track of the lucky man. He slides himself onto finished roof, removes himself from the job site, disappears down steel stairs. His sobs make their way up from the ground. They are ugly, caused in no small part by the pain in his shoulder, but also from some strange, poisonous mixture of warring emotion: shame, fear, anger, exaltation, wonder. I don’t know what he is feeling, but I can hear it, and from the edge of the roof I track his exit. He limps. His good hand holds his damaged shoulder. The hand on his bad arm keeps his pants, drooping where he has shit in them, sodden in sweat, from falling. Mike points this out. He mocks the lucky man, but his heart isn’t in it. I don’t speak. Lucky man should wait for help. Someone should help him. I should go help him. But I don’t help him. I don’t help him anymore than I’ve already helped him. I don’t know what it would mean if I did. If I could face his shame of living. I stand on the edge. I don’t shout. I wave my arms over my head. It is the only motion my body will make. My arms cross at the elbows above my forehead. They cross. They uncross. It’s not a warning. The injured man cannot be warned. He already knows. He’s already gone.
T H E DAY W I N D S to its end. I wrap fifty feet of extension cord around my palm
and elbow. I tie a knot to secure it. I sling it under a tarp. I do this task fifteen more times, then take off my yo-yo. The boys have already covered the generators and fiberboard with Visqueen. They hang their harnesses on the ladder for tomorrow. I follow them into the concentrator. A labyrinth of steel walkways and ladders crusted in dried slurry unfurls beneath us in the humid stink. We walk in a line and trust the man in front to lead us out. It is a simple matter of knowing when to go up and down and right.
I go home to shower. My apartment is small and in the backyard of a family’s house, but it’s the first place I’ve ever paid my own rent. I put on clothes I chose and bought myself. I head to Mike’s show, which is under one of the old gallows frames, the skeletal, steel elevator towers that once lowered miners down the shaft. The crowd lights a couch on fire. They throw broken pallets into the black smoke, and flames tongue the bottommost iron beams. The moisture from the ground below hisses out of fissures and swirls the dust. A cable runs from the massive sheave at the top of the gallows, and smoke blows along its swooping arc across the street and into a wheelhouse. The snare and cymbal and the lead screamer’s voice sound like rotary blades tearing through cement. Pigeons flutter into the night toward the pit, but they’re familiar enough with the water not to test it. Mike plays the bass and moves to the microphone every once in a while for the chorus. The crowd slam-dances around the fire. The chrome spikes on their leather jackets heat and tear holes in each other. I sit on the hood of my truck and drink whiskey. The band takes a break, their music replaced by blown-out car stereos, and Mike finds me. “Let’s go for a walk,” I say. The Berkeley Pit’s viewing stand is across the street. We hike a small ridge to get on the tracks coming out of the mine and slide under the fence, facedown, where the latticing has been staggered to cross the ties. A tunnel cuts through the upper rim of the pit, and our footsteps echo in the claustrophobic cement walkway. It is damp and we crouch to get under the dangling light boxes, rusted and unlit, before we arrive at the observation deck. A drawing under plastic shows where the mountain used to sit in place of the pit. Arrows point out more than thirty mines that were once in operation there among the city’s streets. There is a list of the scientific advances ushered in by their existence. Electric lighting, alkali fusion, copper bullet casings from Butte, Montana, litter the battlefields of World War II. A mile high, a mile deep. The walls of the pit have been stripped away layer by layer in a spiral that crumbles into black water. There is a moon there, in the lake at the bottom of the hole. The sky falls out the bottom beneath it, and a small purple current in the center of the void catches the breeze and ripples it all away. I ask Mike if he likes his job. “Meets the basic requirements,” he says. I turn to him and try to look him in his jack-o’-lantern eyes. He crosses his arms and drops his chin to his chest to consider. “Tell you the truth I’ve been doing it so long, asking myself that question doesn’t seem to matter. It’s what I do and what I’m going to keep doing.” Police car reds-and-blues light up the tunnel. We sneak back to my truck, but too drunk to drive, and too far away from home to walk, we sit on the tailgate while Mike digs through my toolbox. I doze. Mike plays with my cordless drill. He puts the drill motor near my ear and pulls the trigger. I swear and sit up.
He hands me a fistful of screws and points at a loose piece of timber lying on the ground. Across the pit, the concentrator rattles ore into mud, and somewhere out across the water on the steep shore, a new siren goes off, setting all the dogs to barking and keeping the geese away. I point the screws in the same direction. Mike tells me to trust the drill. I hit a few yards, feeling the action and rhythm of the small engine, the torque of the screw. I can do it. I am doing it. The drill bit sheds the head and the drive. I stab the bit through my index finger. It hurts like hell, and it will scar. In the twilight of a new day, the running blood cuts a strange course across my palm.
Needles Give me a bank to squander the dole out some noise teased extra around the headquarters of marrow
when the needles come they come the month not softened by medicine it is not about you but because of
tend longer to the invisible gist of it what the needles do on land they collect under a body swimming on dry dunes
over the course of a competition two limbs stayed in love not the puzzle piece king and queen kind something else entirely akin to the love of the sea to its retention
somebody went bananas for keeping for collaring the neck of closeness to the ground
I sat on the beach with my coffee a crack in the cup that had been there for ages it did not leak there was no leak in the battery of my waiting
to stay full the history of lovers cued plates in the dishwasher smothering the lure of hungerâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s wander to the loam the category of soil I chose as a child in deliberation in ribâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s envy of other ways to live
the paper-thin realization engulfed the tale of the lead balloon scrawled traces of every tide before tide where survived was a layer of love a part of the process of observation that time I waited for someone else to offer a wage I never knew I wanted
was it the love of grain to water? the missing material aquatic to my terrestrial thinking? something sequestered from my life on dry land?
what must we do to fuse our nets together?
the earth has no true enemies only those who treat it badly miss the messages forget to lead the animal to water
it matters to me that itâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s clear on the road it matters that itâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s clear on the ground unequivocal who we are and what we need this is how the house stays tied to the idea of current those things you expect to get back to come back deliver sway to you
but youâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;ve grown all tourist in your own house mold yourself over your temper labor the drift the up and down of it the in and what does it take to know oneself enough
those footsteps that are always moving toward your door though sometimes even in the best description of yourself you still crust over the byways move your shadow from the window and turn out the light
it is the right of an entity to refuse change but the change that makes a being
The Litany of the Body In the end when we are asked what we have done with all that we’ve been given first comes the litany of the body. Each joint has a name and each bone but don’t worry the names of each will be provided. First you will start from the fragile knuckle of the index finger to the soft tip and like a movie the choices will come back which means all the things you’ve done with this part of your gift and the things undone and never considered alike. This account will not be full of regrets you will have moments of terrible pride. Many will be known by their elbows, the balance of injuries received and those inflicted. The jawbone will take the longest and even those who can’t sing will have to sing the ugliest parts. The heel, and what we have lifted ourselves up on. The hips and all the dances would bring tears to your eyes if you had eyes still. Last we come to the knee. The wind will pick up and you will recall all the times that knee has bent and the times it has refused to bend and the times it bent sincerely and the times
it bent for vanity or fear. You will remember the places it did and did not bend and because this is the last accounting it is the one that will keep ringing along to the same song that you knew from the start, that the knee, it only bends one way.
S T E P H A N I E C H A N G is a seventeen-year old writer from Vancouver, BC. Her work appears or is forthcoming in The Adroit Journal, Kenyon Review, Storm Cellar, Penn Review, and Diode Poetry Journal, among others. She has been recognized by the National Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, Anthony Quinn Foundation, and League of Canadian Poets. Stephanie currently interns for Sine Theta, a literary arts magazine by and for the Sino diaspora.
T O D D D I L L A R D ’s debut full-length collection of poetry Ways We Vanish was released in March of 2020 from Okay Donkey Press. His work can be found in journals such as the Adroit Journal, Fairy Tale Review, Booth, the Boiler Journal, Electric Literature, and others. A shameless butterer of Pop-Tarts, he lives in Philadelphia with his wife and daughter, and can sometimes be found in his backyard, spreading breadcrumbs for the crows.
K A T H R Y N C L A R K is a conceptual textile
A M Y G O N G L I U is a Chinese-American
artist who lives in Sonoma, CA. She grew up in the Deep South but a move to San Francisco in the nineties deeply influenced her work and led her to focus on global societal issues in her artwork. She has exhibited widely across the U.S. and has been featured in several publications including Quilts and Human Rights and Craft for the Modern World. The Washington, DC Foreclosure Quilt is part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s permanent collection. www.kathrynclark.com
writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her work has been featured/is forthcoming in Poetry Northwest, the Rupture, the Rumpus, Empty Mirror, RHINO Poetry, and more. She thinks too much (or perhaps too little).
J A C K I E C O N N E L L Y ’s creative nonfiction explores the intersections of queer identity, unstable bodies, constructions of language, and mental illness. Their essays have received honors including a Notable in Best American Essays 2019, first place in Prairie Schooner’s 2019 Creative Nonfiction Essay Contest, and the 2018 Pinch Literary Award for Creative Nonfiction. You can find more of her work in The Rumpus, Zone 3 Literary Journal, Iron Horse Literary Review, and more. A R T H U R D I A M O N D ’s fiction has appeared in Ascent, the Gettysburg Review, Guernica, New ‘Orleans Review, Superstition Review, and other publications. He lives in Queens, New York.
C H R I S H A V E N is the author of a forthcoming
book of stories, Nesting Habits of Flightless Birds (Tailwinds Press) and a forthcoming collection of poetry, Bone Seeker (NYQ Books). His work has appeared or is forthcoming in journals including Cincinnati Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, the Southern Review, Blackbird, Saint Katherine Review, and North American Review. He is also a past contributor to Ruminate. He teaches writing at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. Born and raised in Tehran, Iran, T A RA N EH H EMA MI is an artist, curator and organizer living and working in San Francisco, California. The complexities of the relationship between the two countries she has called home for forty years, her experiences as an immigrant in the US has shaped her and practice. Hemami earned her MFA from California College of the Arts (and
Crafts), now CCA in 1991 where she teaches. Her works are widely exhibited, published and collected internationally. www.taranehhemami.com H A I L E Y H I G D O N ’s debut poetry collection, Hard Some, is available from Spuyten Duyvil Press. She is the author of several small press chapbooks including A Wild Permanence (Dancing Girl, 2018) and Rural (Drop Leaf, 2017). She lives in Seattle with her partner and their Instagram-famous brindle pug, Frankie. Find Hailey online at haileyhaileyhailey.com. Find the famous Frankie @poetandthepug. C A S E Y P A T R I C K ’s poems have been published in the Massachusetts Review, the Pinch, Green Mountains Review, Passages North, and other journals. She has an MFA from Eastern Washington University and has received support from Vermont Studio Center, Hub City Writers Project, and the Minnesota State Arts Board. She lives in Minneapolis with her cat, several plants, and a manuscript-in-progress.
After earning his MFA at the University of Montana, ZACK RYBAK returned home with his partner and their dog to Reno, Nevada. His poems have appeared in New England Review, MidAmerican Review, and Jabberwock Review, where he was awarded the Nancy D. Hargrove Editors’ Prize in Poetry. Other poems can also be found online at Narrative, where he was a finalist for the 30 Below Contest, and at Oxidant Engine.
prefers solitude to crowds and mountains to beaches. She has been making her own bread since college and writing since she could hold a crayon. “A List of Songbirds” is excerpted from her memoir, Dear Doodlebug: Letters to an Absent Son. D A N I L O J O H N T H O M A S is the author of the
chapbooks The Hand Implements, published by The Cupboard Pamphlet, and Murk, fine letterpress printed by book artist AB Gorham (abgorham.com). His fiction has won the Ryan R Gibbs Flash Fiction Award from New Delta Review and has most recently appeared or is forthcoming in the Matchbook Vol. 5 from Small Fires Press, the Rupture, Tampa Review, Fugue, and High Desert Journal. He earned his PhD in Creative Writing from Florida State University and his MFA from the University of Alabama. He manages Baobab Press (baobabpress.com) in Reno, Nevada. K E L L Y W E B E R lives in Colorado. She enjoys
exploring the outdoors but has little experience, so she mostly sweats and rides horses. She is the author of the chapbook The Dodo Heart Museum: A Fabulist Curiosity Cabinet (Dancing Girl Press, 2020) and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Tupelo Quarterly, DIAGRAM, Cream City Review, and elsewhere. She’s been longlisted for the [PANK] Book Contest and received nominations for the Pushcart Prize. She also talks about her cat. A lot. J E F F W H I T N E Y is the author of five
M E L A N I E S . S M I T H is a writing instructor at
Boston University and a 2019 graduate of the GrubStreet Writers Memoir Incubator. She
chapbooks, two of which were cowritten with Philip Schaefer. Recent poems can be found or found soon in Adroit, Passages North, Pleiades, Sycamore Review, and Tin House. He lives in Portland, Oregon.
last note ON UNDER PRESSURE
Yesterday my neighbor asked me if I wanted forty thousand glow sticks. Though our county’s been in COVID-19 lock down for weeks, he still goes out every day. His wife passed away in February, before the pandemic devastated the Northeast. A few weeks ago, just as things were ramping up, he handed me a Corona over the fence, and I went inside and wiped it down with a Clorox wipe before drinking it. He’s cleaning out his house. He says his dog knows, is grieving too. Whatever need he had for forty thousand glow sticks is gone. Today, again: Do I want them? Am I sure? For the eighth day in a row he mows his lawn.
I drafted “A List of Songbirds” while on a 2017 solo trip to Newfoundland. Unsure that it fit into the book I was working on, I polished the essay and sent it out, then forgot about it. Three years later, at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the new memoir I had been contemplating took on a special urgency. In March 2020, I finished Dear Doodlebug: Letters to an Absent Son, an account of everything I wish I could say to a beloved but estranged young man. “A List of Songbirds,” about forgiving my own father, became the obvious last chapter. MELANIE S. SMITH, NONFICTION
TODD DILLARD, POETRY
I often think about ways to push down, through, up, and against male language and gaze as an aroace woman. When I struggle to ground myself, I often turn to landscape: strata, rock pressure, a where that becomes the world of crisis in the poem. Carving out a landscape where the I of the queer female lyric tradition can exist always feels like a first step for me in grappling with the pressures that ultimately make a poem, like trying to make a diamond.
I wrote the first draft of my poem “America” outside. It’s funny to look at it again in its final form now from inside, waiting (hoping) for normalcy. AMY GONG LIU, POETRY
KELLY WEBER, POETRY
“Needles” was written when my partner and I began IVF. At the time, I not only questioned my ability to create a human, I lost my energy for poetry too. I didn’t realize how aptly the situation prepared me for the uncertainty of now. Fertility treatment feels so eerily like quarantine—you don’t travel, constantly systematize, and have no idea what your body will do despite your best intentions. If you aren’t careful, creativity can be depleted. These days it’s so easy to be overtaken by anticipating future losses, there’s little room left to creatively explore anything. While the ability to organize or plan has its use, tell me, does it ever really take you anywhere magical? HAILEY HIGDON, POETRY
Last week at the hospital, walking beside one of our chronically suicidal adolescents as she paced up and down the hallway, she said, “I want to die,” and, after a pause, “but also I want to stand in the rain.” I think she was onto something. ZACK RYBAK, POETRY
There’s the pressure of deadlines and your car’s tire pressure, which always seems to drop on the least convenient day. There’s the pressure of remembering to wash your hands before and after you leave the house in a pandemic—plus seemingly every other hour while at home—and there’s the pressure at the bottom of the sea, inside a cave where no light reaches. There’s the pressure in outer space, which is so low we need suits to protect our bodies from their own internal pressure. Of course David Bowie and Freddie Mercury singing, “It’s the terror of knowing what this world is about.” Of course the pressure against your ribs as your heart swells with want or pain or love. CASEY PATRICK, POETRY
“Because the morgue is full we leased a refrigerated truck. They’re like tractortrailers, you know. We figured we could get fifty bodies into the truck. So when it’s full and we call for a driver, the leasing company will only allow a drive-away of one hundred bodies. Economics. So I get hospital maintenance to build shelves into the truck. So the truck leaves with one hundred corpses but when we get the truck back the next day the shelves are gone. They restored the truck, in case someone else leased it to haul lettuce or whatnot. Maintenance had to build shelves all over again.”
The bluest skies are in high-pressure systems. Pressure equals force over area. Clouds disappear. Solve for P: it is seventy degrees. There is a brown Crown Victoria in neutral at the bottom of a hill in a cemetery. A young father has driven it there. He tells his daughter, who is riding shotgun, that ghosts will push the car up the hill. The car rolls up the hill backward in neutral. The car gains speed, defies gravity. The gravel breaks under the tires, speaking the names of the ghosts and remembering their hands that were once so capable. DANILO JOHN THOMAS, FICTION
ARTHUR DIAMOND, FICTION
Photographic Assemblage. 36 inches by 24 inches.