ISSUE 1 8
Based in Berlin, SAND is a nonprofit literary journal published twice a year by a team from the cityâ€™s international community. Featuring work by writers, translators, and artists from around the world, SAND seeks out fresh and underrepresented perspectives.
SAND Journal c/o Jake Schneider Willibald-Alexis-Str. 16 10965 Berlin Germany firstname.lastname@example.org www.sandjournal.com Connect with us for news and events: Facebook: SAND Journal Twitter: @sandjournal Instagram: @sandjournalberlin ISSN 2191-429X Published in Berlin Copyright © SAND Journal, November 2018 SAND e.V. is a registered nonprofit association (gemeinnütziger Verein) under German law. Designed by Bárbara Fonseca Printed in Latvia by Jelgavas Tipogrāfija Cover image: detail of “Still Life with Grapes” by Elina Bergmark Wiberg, 2017. Mixed media including soap, silicone, and legumes.
EDITOR’S NOTE AUNTS & ANCESTORS
This issue of SAND is filled with people on quests for their personal origins, people asking “who were they” to figure out “who am I.” Even when so many governments are trying to pause or rewind migration, when so many of us immigrants (in the broadest sense) would rather dodge the question of where we “really come from” and just be at home where we live, we find ourselves privately pondering “Where am I really from?” And when we start digging for facts, we get startled by complexity. Like us, each of our predecessors was connected not only vertically to their parents and children, but also horizontally, to cousins and entire communities. But we don’t give this context enough credit. We go looking for ancestors, only to find aunts. At fifteen, I had my own version of that quest at various archives in New York. It started by tracing the family of my great-great-grandfather Jacob Wolowitz, and branched out as I fast-forwarded through the microfilm. Soon I was collecting random Wolowitzes all over the Lower East Side, maybe distant relatives, maybe not: a tailor, an awning maker, a kosher butcher who once chopped off a customer’s index finger. A dozen of these forgotten aunts and uncles seemed to be waving at me from the Ws of each index reel. Then, minutes after I walked out of that twilit archive onto the sweaty Manhattan streets, the entire Northeast switched off like a lamp. Some trees had seized a power line, bringing down the grid and forcing us all to notice our context in the mayhem of the moment. I became part of a baffled crowd responding to the unforeseeable: trying to buy food, trying to cross the river. Why should I, struggling to get home in the erratic present, expect the past to stick to a script?
Family histories are full of such tangents. I could have considered the Wolowitzes quintessential examples of the American immigrant legend, with generations of hard work and assimilation culminating in my own comparative comfort. But nine years later, I abandoned that hundred-year ladder for better opportunities in Germany, where I started a fresh paper trail of visas and address registrations. In investigations of the more recent past, the wild card is usually human memory, not paperwork. The narrator of “The Memory Tree” finally meets someone in southern England who knew her long-lost mother – the missing link to her heritage “back in South Africa, or was it Namibia?” – but comes to question the witness’s state of mind. Meanwhile, the titular “Uncle of Things” (p. 84) is forgetting the details of his own varied life as a vagabond veteran, memories his niece tries to reconstruct from secondhand accounts. In her essay “The Plague Years” (p. 107), recalling the many members of her chosen family lost to AIDS in San Francisco, Joan Hawkins finds herself contemplating her own survival. Finally also in California, the narrator of C.M. Lindley’s story (p. 123) lives in her late aunt’s house, where she has a recurring dream of reliving the aunt’s grisly end. Again and again, the struggles of the living are distinct from, but linked to, those of the dead. And so inherited memories tend to mingle with present situations – as if through the portals of Guilherme Bergamini’s postcard collages (p. 77), which offer tantalizing glimpses of unidentified landscapes beside clearly postmarked correspondence. In “Sweet Blood” (p. 10), set in the Appalachian Mountains, Miss Suzelle believes that Esi, the Ghanaian-American protagonist, has an implicit kinship with the local African American ghosts – even if their forebears were abducted from West Africa in shackles, whereas her parents moved centuries later by choice. “I know you ain’t the same people, but you all come from the same place,” she says. Maybe so, but our ideas of ancestry are subjective: culture counts for more than any DNA test. “Call these / my mountains / recollected etc.,” writes MC Hyland in a poem (p. 28) that recalls its own poetic ancestor. “The real story just / here yellowing / paper.” José Trejo-Maya’s poem (p. 93) is shaped like the cenote it invokes – a type of watery cavern on Mexico’s Caribbean coast best known for preserving ancient artifacts and even human remains – and is titled in the poet’s ancestral Nahuatl. As it plunges, the text broadens to embrace
cultural aunts and uncles: references to broader indigenous America (Maya, Lakota) that circulate like cave fish in the murky waters of the poem. Near the end, there is one line in colonial Spanish: “los abuelos cicatrizados en las venas” – the ancestors scarred in [our] veins. To bear a scar, a person must survive to tell the tale. This is not about archeology; this is living culture. Other texts give us visions of an ahistorical present. Zou Jingzhi’s lyrical story “Green Vines” (p. 50), translated by Jeremy Tiang, is set at a labor camp during China’s Cultural Revolution, an icy landscape that seems to exist outside time. But when the frozen order is disturbed, the uprooted characters cannot carry on as before, responding to a new fragment of history. By contrast, a poem by the Berliner-by-choice Donna Stonecipher, embedded in another (p. 60) by her friend Eugene Ostashevsky, speaks to the sterility and rootlessness of urban space: “It was like slowly becoming aware one winter that there are new buildings going up all over your city, and then realizing that every single one of them is a hotel.” In Ostashevsky’s cosmopolitan commentary on this line, he gibes: “How things look transient to transients.” These writers hint at the consequences of forgetting, but their textual dialogue also shows the messy web of interactions that happen in any moment before it is archived, commemorated, or scoured for answers. “It always revolves luminously around an other, even if that other is our self, pointing in all directions,” writes Stonecipher in her own commentary on Ostashevsky (p. 81). Our origin quests slice dotted lines of meaning into a personal or ancestral past, but every past was just as vast and three-dimensional as our own present. Elina Bergmark Wiberg uses seeds – the same ones farmers have been sowing and harvesting and sowing again for millennia – to sculpt elastic objects that engage with agrarian and artistic traditions as well as modern materials and media. Glimpsing the seeds through the fruit’s synthetic skin, I remember that each vine is the child of just one grape, but that this parent grape was clustered among so many aunts and uncles, each with intertwining stories.
CONTENTS GAMBIT / SALVATOR Tolu Oloruntoba
BREAK-UP POEM Robyn Pickens
SWEET BLOOD Alex Luke
STRAY Alex Marsh
DARK FOREST Genevieve DeGuzman
THE HILDEGARD SEQUENCE Sarah Payne
from the CONCRETE DISASSEMBLE POEMS series Federico Federici
GREEN VINES TUNNEL #2 (STRANGE BALLOON ) Lawdenmarc Decamora
from the MOSCOW MEDITATIONS series Ekaterina Costa
Zou Jingzhi tr. by Jeremy Tiang 25
PIRATE RADIO, IF THERE'S STILL SUCH A THING Jason Wee
from HALF PIGEON, HALF PEACOCK Maren Kames tr. by Bradley Schmidt
HULLS LINES COMPOSED WHILE READING "TINTERN ABBEY "
THE FLOWER Anne Gorrick
COMMENTARY TO DONNA STONECIPHER'S "MODEL CITY (1. )" Eugene Ostashevsky
"SELF-PORTRAIT " 3
Elina Bergmark Wiberg Shayma Idris Tarek Al-Shamma Guilherme Bergamini
COMMENTARY TO EUGENE OSTASHEVSKY'S "FEELING SONNET 4" Donna Stonecipher
UNCLE OF THINGS Alexis Smiley Smith
SPINE INCIDENTAL Ollie Tong
THE MEMORY TREE Blessing Musariri
from the MOSCOW MEDITATIONS series Ekaterina Costa
SANDALS Wendy Lotterman
AT 10:00 P.M. Shanita Bigelow 81
from FROM A WINTER NOTEBOOK Matvei Yankelevich
[YEI OZOMATLI HUEYTOZOZTLI NAHUI TECPATL ] Jose Trejo Maya
THE PLAGUE YEARS
HOW TO WRITE A LOVE LETTER (NOTES) Elizabeth Allen
from the CONCRETE DISASSEMBLED POEMS series Federico Federici
FINE I ADMIT I AM BITTER 94
IF YOU SHOULD TURN A LEMON SWEET C.M. Lindley
HOW WIDE IS THE SUN 105
Gambit / Salvator The bronze Bonaventure Christ has a parka of snow on his shoulder today. Against the 8 am, long, suffering shadow, the gladiolus of his outstretch interrupts the lawn. I donâ€™t know, Christ, what should I do? Interrupt this bus.
Break-up poem What if you start with that: the hole in your throat after breaking up. Set the margins at 2.5 on either side because you need space. I cannot remember the past. It is the 14th moon tonight (tell me what that means). I spent the night rearranging dancers & gymnasts into patterns— overwrought poses, mannerist limbs, impossible flexibility. If I had a small mountain for every time you knew me as my own colour— kneeling at dawn amidst everyday things: an apple core (acidifying in the moon air), a paper dart (from you to me), a small digital clock (the gift I never should’ve given you). This is everything now. Nothing prepared me for Yerevan either. I’m kneeling in light with everyday strewn. The anonymous dancers have left & time is dangerous. There is only this leaking now, acidifying into a past I cannot rearrange.
SWEET BLOOD With St. Clement’s Youth Group we did something for the needy every summer and winter break, and often I also did things in between. I volunteered at the annual food drive, and outside of church I always gave a dollar or a satsuma if I saw a homeless black man because, Mom told me, we must be kind to our own if nobody else will. The summer charity event was a weeklong trip to some crumbling Appalachian town. Thirty of us from St. Clement’s signed up this year, plus a bunch of kids from other churches across Northern Virginia. We were divided into teams, each responsible for repairing one Impoverished American Home, each team made up of five high-school juniors and one adult team leader. Our impoverished home belonged to Miss Suzelle, who’d never really spoken much to any black person before, and when our team showed up at her trailer on the first day, she looked right past the others and grabbed both my hands in hers and said something like, “Tell me, sweetie, is it true you ladies sew other people’s hair onto your heads?” Our team leader was Terry Kirkpatrick, whose daughter was killed by a drunk driver last spring. His job was to shuttle us in the minivan between Miss Suzelle’s trailer and base camp. He mused over blueprints and delegated responsibilities. First thing after introductions, he made us all stand in a circle and hold hands, so we could tell each other what we were thankful for. He got teary-eyed talking about his loved ones, and his health, and this opportunity to help others, like now that his kid was gone he had more gratitude to spare for everything else in his life. “We’ll start and end each day doing this,” he told us. When it was my turn to share I made sure not to list too many things in one go, in case I ran out by the end of the week. “We’re just so pumped to be here, aren’t we, folks?” said Terry, beaming at us and at Miss Suzelle. She was born and raised here in Dingess,
West Virginia. She was sixty-eight years old and the farthest she’d ever been from home was South Carolina. She told us she dreamt of seeing the cherry trees in Washington, DC, one day, and we all cooed in admiration for this simple woman and her simple dreams.
Base camp was a thirty-minute drive away, a middle school out for summer. We slept in classrooms with the desks pushed up against the wall, and I drifted off that first night reading titles on the battered spines of geography textbooks. Laura and I picked spots next to each other in the farthest corner from the door, which first felt like a good catch, like the way you rush for the back seat of the bus, but now to go to the bathroom after lights out we had to blindly pick our way through the shadows of bagged bodies and backpacks and piles of clothes. I woke up on Day Two mid-shiver, wriggled out of my sleeping bag, and held my arm up to the gray light. It was covered in tiny bumps. Beside me Laura shifted in her own bag, and I shoved my mutant arm out of sight. In the shower, I discovered my whole body had been ravaged, in the most unlikely places: behind my ears and between my fingers and bubbling out of the knobs along my spine. All over my legs – I traced them from one ankle up to my groin and back down to the other. More than forty; I lost count. The itch spread slowly as I examined myself, as if each bite only became real when I looked at it, as if by seeing them I’d willed them into existence. It means your blood is sweet, Mom always told me, if mosquitos like you.
In the minivan, Terry played a John Denver compilation CD and when “Take Me Home, Country Roads” came on, he slapped both hands against the steering wheel. His delight could not be contained. He cried, “Here we go gang! You ready to sing along?” Laura was on my team, plus Rory, Michael Yu, and Michael Elliot. I knew from how Rory sniggered and the Michaels pretended not to have heard that we wouldn’t be a team that sang along. Terry boomed the first verse, made this guttural throat-hole melody that couldn’t have come
naturally, was maybe even painful, because by verse two he’d faltered and petered out into a half-hearted whistle. The road coiled meekly through forest and mountain that swelled in every direction and made us tiny. I loved this. To be tiny. I stuck my head out the window. It was muggy, it felt like you were sucking in the trees’ wet breath, and I knew that what I breathed back out was bloating the forest further. At some point we drove through Logan, a place built-up enough that once or twice we paused at a stop sign and found the buildings on either side of us had suddenly blocked out the mass of green that dwarfed and cradled the town. In those brief moments we might have been in any man-made place, on any patch of earth concreted into submission, except for the insects and leaves and the rushing water that hissed steady and scornful. By the time we came to the edge of the town it was already hard to imagine there’d ever been any interruption to the trees. Whoever built the road forgot to dig out the roots of what was here before, and now the wild had crept back in. The road crumbled under the weight of roots and branches that pushed from all angles; we edged around potholes, deep like some beast had gouged out fistfuls of tarmac. I dangled my hand out the window so the damp breeze might ease the itch of the bites on my fingers. To enter Dingess we passed through a tunnel, one lane wide, and nearly a mile long. Its mouth was a big black O in the rock. The temperature dropped as soon as we entered; the tunnel was dank and unlit, and Terry raised his voice against its maddening echo. This place, he said, was known for its ghosts; if you were quiet enough you might hear them whisper. The rock walls were slick with sweat, and I wondered how any voice could seep through that sticky wetness. The voices must come out hot and moss-fuzzy. They must have sour breath. “What do the ghosts say?” Michael Yu asked. Terry looked in the rear-view mirror, hoping, I guess, to catch Michael’s eye, but only I was watching. “They just say hi,” said Terry, and his voice had a quiet hilarity to it, mockingly hushed, like the guy at the beginning of the horror movie who doesn’t believe any of this is real. It took two long minutes to get to the other side. Miss Suzelle lived less than half a mile from the mouth, at the end of a long dirt track
with no streetlights, the forest and mountains to one side, grassy hillside dotted with trailers on the other. When we arrived on Day Two, she was waiting at the edge of her little plot of land with a pitcher of lemonade, calling out to us as the van shuddered to a halt: “Morning boys, morning Laura, morning Esi.” She faltered a little at my name. I told her, when I first introduced myself, it’s just like Jessie without the J. Mom would have cringed to hear me say this. When Mom and Pop want to take a cheap shot, they’ll make fun of my American accent. They mimic the length of my vowels: “Can I go to the mall, Maaahhhhm?” Their own Os are the short sharp sounds that are forced from your body when you’re slapped on the back. Mom. Pop.
Laura and I were the only two girls on our team, so Terry gave us all the easy jobs. The day rolled by, and all we did was measure things and hold other things still while the boys drilled holes into those things. Rory and the Michaels were transformed by these tools: they fought over the biggest, shiniest, sharpest ones; they competed over who could carry the most bags of cement. When I saw them on Saturdays at Youth Service they were boring, but here in this new setting it occurred to me that, if I had to go out with one of them, it’d probably be Rory. He’d gotten kind of lean and gangly this past year, in a good but funny way; limbs teased from the sockets, escaping his torso. He kept saying “That’s what she said,” but laughing at these jokes was getting tiring, because most of them I couldn’t link in my head to any sexual act. Laura and I were watching him dig a hole, and Laura said, “What happens if you hit a rock?” and Rory said, “That’s what she said!” and we all laughed. I hoped my laugh seemed unforced. Miss Suzelle dragged a rocking chair up to her front door and sat shadowed in the frame, knitting and watching us work. She was squat with sun-reddened rolls of flesh that spilled from the hem of her cotton dress. Her little legs barely reached the ground and she kicked them like a child on a swing, trying to shift her weight and steady the rhythm of the rocking. Sometime after lunch she saw me looking bored and called me into the shade to drink iced tea, which was kind of uncomfortable, kind of a relief. My ankles itched. The heat was heavy. I dropped my tools and
flopped down beside her. Terry bristled, but he couldn’t say anything: we were supposed to foster relationships with the homeowners; it said so in the program. Miss Suzelle topped up my glass and told me that my hair – such lovely long braids, so exotic – was very pretty, really suited to my face. Question by question she sketched out the ways we were different: she had ten brothers and sisters, I had none. She liked floral patterns, I wore (these days) almost only black. She never even went to high school, and I knew I’d need to get at least two degrees to satisfy my parents. “And as an African American—” Here I cut her off, like Mom always drilled me to do: I was not an African American. My parents were both Ghanaian, which made me an African who just happened to live in America. When Miss Suzelle heard this, her eyes widened in her skull. She’d seen Africa in documentaries, she told me.
By Day Three, planks lay scattered across the lawn, and soon they would be hammered into something substantial. Terry sent Laura and me up to the trailer’s tin roof to seal up holes with a caulk gun – we were smaller and more agile than the boys. “See, we’re lucky to have these little ladies on our team!” he said, slapping both Michaels on the back. “You great lumps wouldn’t be any good up there.” It’d rained hard during the night. Now, under the midday sun, big dumb bugs hurled themselves at the silver metal roof, thudding against it, landing in the shallow grooves where puddles of rainwater sat steaming, and they drowned or burned, whichever happened first. Up on our tin throne, Laura and I rated Rory and the Michaels in terms of looks, sense of humour, intelligence, etc.; we hypothesised about which of them had the biggest dick. At breakfast, everyone had been whispering about this girl from another team who had snuck out at night with one of the guys who lived in her Impoverished American Home. Laura wished we’d gotten assigned to that kind of home. Miss Suzelle was sweet and whatever, but also super creepy in the way that old people mostly are. “Plus,” Laura said, “it’s kind of awkward, the way she keeps, like, favoring you.” I focused on the oozing caulk.
When I was seven or eight, Ghana played the US in the World Cup, and the Kirkpatricks invited my family over to watch the match. This was the only time we’d ever interacted outside of church, so when Emily Kirkpatrick died last year, I thought back hard on this day, trying to distinguish her from the other Kirkpatrick girls. Terry and his wife, whose name I always forgot, had four daughters. The youngest one was still older than me by a few years, and they were all broad-shouldered with white-blonde hair, which made them seem sturdy from some angles and delicate from others. One of them was markedly prettier than the others, but Emily wasn’t that one, and in my head the others had always blurred together in that realm of almost-loveliness by virtue of being so blonde. During the match, Terry’s girls had sat next to each other, crosslegged on the carpet. Whenever the US team did something stupid, Terry would bark, “Girls! Where’d he go wrong?” or “Girls! How do we defend a corner?” And the girls would all chorus, “Man-marking, Daddy,” or something like that. My mom brought fried plantains, and I spent the whole match focusing on how to keep eating the plantains without drawing attention to the fact that I was the one eating all the plantains. My reactions to the game were all a second delayed. Ghana scored, and then the US, and Terry roared with joy. “We might not be able to match that strength, girls, but we’ve got the smarts, am I right?” Minutes from the end, Ghana scored again, which meant we qualified for the next round and the US didn’t. On the walk home, Mom said, “What a lovely family,” but I knew she felt smug too.
Terry used to be a dentist, but he stopped working when Emily died and never started again. At least one of the Kirkpatrick girls had kids of her own by now, and Terry seemed like he was softening into a real grandad – his shoulders sloped more gently. He called us down to break for lunch, and I moved slow while Laura held the ladder steady at the top; it hurt my swollen fingers to grip each rung.
Rory and the Michaels were sprawled on the grass a little ways away from the trailer. They ate slices of pizza and glugged down Coke from plastic bottles, and the thought of fizz and grease inside me made me sick. I held back as Laura joined them, glanced over at Miss Suzelle. She was still sitting in that rocking chair, still knitting, eyes ready to meet mine. She didn’t seem surprised that I came to sit by her. Terry yelled that we ought to hurry if we wanted any pizza, and we both pretended we hadn’t heard. “I was wondering,” she asked softly, conspiratorially, “about the men?’ I plucked at the loose hairs at the tip of a braid. “What about them?” I said. “Which men?” But I knew which men. Down on the lawn, Rory snatched a pizza slice from Laura’s hand and took a wolfish bite. She punched him in the arm, and they both laughed, he with cheese between his teeth. I told Miss Suzelle that African men were bold, and I said this word with purpose, though I’d never used it to describe any real person. The last time I’d been to Ghana I was twelve. We’d visited an endless stream of aunties and uncles, and I couldn’t keep up with the Fante they spoke. My cousin Edward had waved his iPhone in my face and said “You Americans think we don’t get shit like this here. You think we’re all backwards.” Miss Suzelle’s family had mined coal for generations. She had loved men, she told me, who’d blown holes in these mountains and swallowed so much of the dust in the rock that their lungs had blackened and failed. She said she herself most likely had mountain dust inside her. But still, that evening, holding my puffy hand tight, she told the circle she was grateful for the mountains. Rory said, “I’m grateful for pizza,” and I said, “Me too,” and Terry looked like he wanted to say that wasn’t allowed. I knew, of course, how a place could get inside you and stake its claim, but I’d never seen this work as neatly as it did with Miss Suzelle. You could overlap her life onto her parents’ lives and then onto their parents’ lives, and the whole story would play out on the same land. Even the land itself was the same way it’d been for generations. The Dingess Tunnel was over a hundred years old and still had no lights, still only let one car pass at a time. They’d built it, she told me, so trains could cut through the mountain and make Mingo County and its coal a functioning part of the world. When she was a kid, in the 1960s,
she watched men rip out the railroad tracks like stitches so cars could use the road; her second husband had died by the time they paved it. She’d lost a childhood puppy in that tunnel, and I wondered but didn’t ask if she still heard it howl. She’d watched her nephews race through on their bikes, shrieking to see how big the echo would get. She’d lost her first husband “to the devil,” which I figured meant drugs, and he’d crawled into the tunnel to die. She herself had driven through thousands of times, back and forth and back again.
That evening, as we left for base camp, Terry seemed restless and revved the engine, and we rammed into the tunnel like we were trying to pass through the Earth’s atmosphere. My ears popped, and from the rock came girlish voices, hi, hi, hi, like maybe they were talking over us, bouncing between the walls, a hundred small voices or maybe one whose depth was revealed as each hi layered upon the last, until the noise was just one shapeless boom. And even if Terry made no sign that he heard, I felt sure it was all for him, because who would have anything to say to us, except our own dead? Your ghosts must follow you, waiting to find you in places like this, where the border between worlds was worn thin. That slope in Terry’s shoulders; the weight of Emily, always. And now she clamoured at these wet rock walls and whispered hi, hi, hi. Terry’s loss had been disruptive. The Kirkpatrick girls were all already too old for Youth Group when it happened, so this turned into the place we could share the rumors we’d heard from our parents. There was the time, Michael E. told us, that Terry turned up drunk to Bible study. Or the other weird incident, when he drove down to Emily’s old college and sat outside her dorm until campus security made him leave. He sent streams of barely coherent emails to her friends, begging to know the details of her life he hadn’t had access to. For almost a year, the congregation felt his madness at its periphery, but the other Kirkpatricks stayed stoic and pale as always. Some time after we stopped paying attention, Terry became quietly clean and new. He stopped drinking entirely, got more involved with the church. His smiles held a measured sort of peacefulness. When we came through the end of the tunnel, Laura let loose a mad
giggle, and I suddenly felt the silence we’d let build, noticed each of us quietly unclench our fists and breathe out what we’d been holding in.
The bites had been neat and small, and running my fingers across them felt like reading braille, but now they swelled beneath their puncture points like budding breasts – except not awkward and delicate like a girl’s growth is; these lumps were cyst-like, ballooning out of my bony joints, weird and bulbous and stinging. That night, before bed, I used the flickers of functioning internet to look up DIY treatments, and before breakfast the next morning I tried different methods on different body parts. I pressed little crosses with my thumbnail onto the bites on my inner thigh. For my stomach I poured hot water over a spoon and held the metal against my skin, but this was stupid – it just burned. All morning, I couldn’t stop fingering the new shape of my face; its outlines looked drawn by an unsteady hand. We climbed into the van, and Laura said, “Stop picking your chin,” and I said, “It’s my fucking chin, what the fuck do you care if I pick it?”
Once the week was up, another team from another church would come and take over, and on and on until summer ended and the trailer was repaired and extended. I spent whole days sitting by Miss Suzelle, watching the Michaels sword fight with spades as Terry’s schedule fell to pieces. Generally, I’d noticed, people asked questions thinking they already knew the answer, but Miss Suzelle knew nothing at all and she saw this in herself. She didn’t really use the internet, and I wondered whether this was what made her listen harder: everything I said was a thing I was teaching her, that she couldn’t find out from anyone else. When she asked me about “home,” I thought of the boys at school who swore they were princes in their villages in Nigeria. “We travel a lot,” I said. I listed trips I’d taken: to Rome, with my Latin class; Dresden, to visit an uncle; Sydney, the one time we got to join Pop on a work trip. Miss Suzelle made me describe each city in great detail.
She cared most about the men, and the kinds of trees that grew in each place. “Tall,” I said. Or, “Gentle, elegant.” “And do you go back home much?” Ghana we’d visited a few times. I told Miss Suzelle about my grandparents’ house, with its swimming pool and house boy. If she ever went there, kids would yell oburoni at her as she shuffled, stiff-limbed, through the markets. If she sat to rest they’d swarm and stroke her hair and finger the places where her pink scalp shone through. Of course, she’d never go. The day was nearly over, and Rory leant nonchalant against the van, listening to his iPod. Laura moved towards him, and he offered her an earbud. Michael Elliot and Terry were carefully painting a wooden pole stuck in the grass whose function I couldn’t work out. “You like it?” Terry called over, watching us watching them. “Oh, it’s wonderful!” Miss Suzelle shouted back. “Real pretty.” We lapsed back into silence. Terry’s gray t-shirt clung to his sweatsoaked back, so we could see the way his spine was bent in resignation to some unseen load. He’d been taller before, I was certain. I wondered if it’d shrink Mom and Dad, to lose me. “There are ghosts in the tunnel, right?” I said to Miss Suzelle, and I guess I’d hoped this would impress her, the way I understood even this space and history that was hers. But she nodded gravely. She wasn’t surprised. “I knew you’d be the one to hear ’em,” she said. “I know you ain’t the same people, but you all come from the same place.” They’d been brought in as labor, by the truckload, she told me; they’d been the ones who’d cleaved at the side of the mountains and put down the tracks. Her granddaddy’s daddy had fought to keep them out, keep the land how they knew it; he’d hidden with his friends and neighbors between the trees, pointed shotguns at dark faces as they rode in on the backs of carts. Those were the first bodies to litter the tunnel, hundreds of them, and they spoke to you, but they said so little it made you wonder what had ever been in their heads in the first place. Miss Suzelle had been sure, she said, that I’d feel that connection. I peeled off one sweat-dampened sock and rolled up the leg of my jeans. I blinked at the alien limb throbbing inside. In my sleep I’d scratched myself raw. It’d stung when I’d tried to cream my skin this
morning, so I’d stopped, and now the glistening open heads of bites looked even more hideous, erupting out of the dry white scales on my shins and kneecaps. “Well, they’re making a real feast out of you!” said Miss Suzelle. Then, thoughtfully, “Do you all have such sweet blood?”
In the evening circle, we got ready to unburden ourselves of our gratitude. We had two days to go, and the roof was watertight. The polymer skeleton of the front porch stood erect with all the glory of a monument, silhouetted against the lights inside the trailer. I thought, how strange to have made something so big, and so functional, so much more solid and real than the things we normally created (essays, group chats, basic pasta dishes). Laura tied a knot at the end of her hoodie sleeve and offered me the fabric stump, so she didn’t have to touch the bites on my knuckles and fingertips. On my other side, Terry Kirkpatrick clasped my hand, and his sweat-softened palm lay flat against mine. He’d be thankful, probably, for the weather that had cleared up in time for us to get a good day’s work done. I pulled free. “I don’t feel like it,” I said. I heard myself, sullen like a child. Terry reached for my hand again and I moved it quick behind my back. Laura and Rory and the Michaels were quiet. “I’ll wait in the van,” I said. Something flashed across Terry’s face before the gentleness set back in. “Come on, Esi,” he said. “It’s important we take this moment every day, just to touch base. If you’ve had a rough day, that’s okay. This’ll give you a chance to focus on the parts that weren’t so rough.” “Did your therapist teach you that?” I said, and I saw I’d touched someplace I hadn’t meant to, I’d scraped something tender, and it felt strange that I could find that place in him at all. That I’d had this power in me the whole time. I kept my eyes hard. “I’ll wait in the van,” I said again.
There would most likely be fish stew on the stove when I got home. After supper, Mom would dab gently at each bite with antiseptic wipes
and scold me for letting it get this bad. I’d spend whole days lying in bed waiting to heal. The others were silent when they got into the van. Terry didn’t put on any music. I let myself wonder if I was the root of the tension. I knew everyone was just tired. Miss Suzelle knocked on the window and waved goodbye. We eased down the dirt path and turned onto the main road, into the tunnel, and it whispered hi, hi, hi, not girlish at all, just hoarse and ancient. Emily Kirkpatrick wouldn’t haunt the same space as these men. Black hands had carved out this hole and bricked its edges to neaten the wound. My own hands lay spread on my lap, and when they sealed the leaks in that tin roof it was for charity. At the far end of the tunnel, a coal truck appeared. Its girth blocked the light behind it. “What does this chump think he’s doing,” muttered Terry. Then, louder, as if to the truck itself, “We entered first, buddy! You’d better back up!” The truck flashed its headlights at us. Terry slowed, uncertain. We were almost halfway through the tunnel. I heard its ghosts in the metallic ringing in my ears. The coal truck blared a noise too big for this space, a sound like the hot-breathed bellow of a giant. Its force might have wrenched loose our wheels and sent us spinning backwards, even without Terry’s consent. “Maybe we should back up, Terry,” said Michael Yu. “It’s cool, it’ll take like thirty seconds,” said Rory. Terry switched off the engine. The back of his neck turned a violent, comical red. The coal truck did not brake until we stood nose to nose, like before a kiss or a headbutt. “We entered first,” Terry said again. “That’s how this works. The rules don’t just change for you if you’re driving a bigger vehicle.” This felt like demanding justice from something vast and unmoving, like asking the mountain itself to follow fair rules. “Are you fucking kidding me?” muttered Laura. Under her exasperation was the quiet thrill of knowing how we’d tell this story when we got back to base camp. “I am not MOVING this FUCKING—” But the coal truck’s horn blared again and made his anger puny. In the backseat we were frozen in uncertain silence. I knew I should
find the kindness to reach out and squeeze a sloping shoulder, but I was tired in ways I couldn’t yet articulate. I said, slowly this time, “Back up the van, Terry.”
I noticed, as the van jerked backwards, that the itch was gone. The absence of sensation was so total that, with calm certainty, I thought: I have no body at all. This notion stayed with me for longer than you’d think; the length of time it took to make our slow retreat out the back end of the tunnel. Our eyes were all trained on the coal truck that inched along with us, as if attached by string, as if our strength kept it tethered and close. We emerged backlit by a deep red sun, and I turned to see if Miss Suzelle was watching, since I knew she could see the main road from her trailer, and here my body came back to me. In my stillness, the sores on my thighs had leaked pus that hardened against the stiff denim. Skin had fused with fabric until I shifted and ripped the two apart, and now the wounds wept fresh again.
Stray arising as a consequence of the laws of physics, but unwanted and usually having a detrimental effect on the operation of equipment
so much heaven gone into error & kept beside our body waterless some rundown too
we started home to go astray a core bond now reduced to fortunate frisk with pollen rock through sudden high me your mainstay in error became consequence of tender pixel our flicked prism became tent in wind outthere shining on like in motionsensitive Rex so tear as in strike so strickle
motions equidistant to lakeside mutual occupation of flickering between essences rising up the fibre miles away & wind founding the instrument used smooth the surface of our core aside
no traffic in tempo no traffic outthere
Tunnel #2 (strange balloon) The shadow tall and lean, inspired by a lighthouse, squints at a strange balloon. My morning behaviour skips breakfast just to tell my body to overcome the effects of the strange balloon. People at the pet store are giving up their jobs only to watch the strange balloon float alone in the sky. The newly admitted patient seen from the open window waves at the strange balloon. Clairvoyants finally predict a winner with the face of LeBron James on the disappearing strange balloon. Lovers split, fully convinced of the return of the strange balloon. Children down 10,000 bottles of Yakult so they can protect the world against the strange balloon. The televangelist reports a new miracle and how it takes advantage of the daily shifts of the strange balloon, spatial to temporal, particle to plexus. Accountants give celebrities free hugs, their palms are sweating, after taxing the civil case of the strange balloon. But hold on there, kid. What is the colour of the strange balloon? Does it speak a foreign language like resilience? And when it rains? Will it pop and disappear completely? I know a place where it can go when itâ€™s alone. Tunnels: right where it starts it ends.
EKATERINA COSTA from the Moscow Meditations series, 2017-2018
EKATERINA COSTA from the Moscow Meditations series, 2017-2018
Lines composed while reading â€œTintern Abbeyâ€? August 26, 2016
Wanting to know what I saw/what imagined. I mean smoke on the sight & where in time are we? To move an eye upon the vanishing. I was on the couch traveling to Wales before Napoleon or was I air moving from the airshaft through a fan. Was I an eye fixed on a valley? Let connect the scene to sky. What I. Call these my mountains recollected etc. With the stature of one who sees nature & in turn is seen, wilt thou remember me, my dear dear friend.
All preserved in textual syrup; tonight a staged parade swears a woman running is real. To believe truth is resident. Everyone wants to know the true story of the rich & handsome man made up by the brilliant spinster. Dwelling makes him; to have a house to show a self. I say what do we mean meant to be? The real story just here yellowing paper. One might speak to a sister or to a river in much these terms. I made a form for speaking direct & called it walking. Another time I might have called it Nature.
The sendoff salvos hammer the horizon fall apart back all across the day and an agitated flock of birds streaks blue-shaded across a violet stripe of sky and we smile for the group picture and lift our glasses high in greeting and throw our arms in arcs casting cries of ahoy all through the air and the fizz bubbles away in our flutes back in the sky the swarm of birds is brewing up and down and the radio operator announces: The President let it be known: be careful with the details of the war even long after it’s retreated, it happens to be very sensitive special information regarding the future of the country and the cap’n cries: Oh well! so all hands deckward! All hands up raised half to the right or half to the left as little as possible return we need to keep the occupation in place but even so they’re pioneers who will soon carry out immense maneuvers what I’m saying massive attacks! and just now a parade of birds! speed around their heads here in this purple-hued sluice everything seems so tied up until the sky fades to gray and we see: the troops have long dispersed clearly all have gone home in the meantime they took along the paper streamers and removed every order from the ledges and balconies now only stemware lines the sluice and some scattered spent cartridges
Maren Kames translated from the German by Bradley Schmidt
from Halbe Taube halbe Pfau (Half Pigeon Half Peacock)
Am Horizont platzen die Abschiedssalven fallen hinten überm Tag zusammen und ein aufgeregter Schwarm Vögel zieht blauschattig durch einen violetten Streifen Himmel und wir lächeln fürs Mannschaftsbild und heben die Gläser zum Gruß in die Höhe und werfen unsere Arme in großen Bögen zum Ahoi durch die Luft und die Brause schäumt in den Gläsern hinten am Himmel braut sich die Vogelmeute zusammen und wieder auseinander und der Funkmann ruft Der Präsident lässt melden: Achtet die Details des Krieges auch nachdem er längst versiegt ist es handelt sich um kniffliges Spezialwissen die Zukunft des Landes betreffend und der Käptn ruft Ach so! Dann deckwärts alle Mann rauf alle Mann in die Höhe zur Hälfte nach rechts oder linkswärts so wenig wie möglich zurück wir müssen die Besatzung zusammenhalten es handelt sich immerhin um Pioniere denen künftig immense Manöver was sag ich massive Attacken bevor stehn und soeben eine Parade Vögel! um die Köpfe saust hier im lilafarbenen Siel scheint alles vertaut bis der Himmel aufgraut und wir sehen: Die Truppe hat sich zerstreut offenbar sind in der Zwischenzeit alle nach Hause gegangen sie haben die Luftschlangen mitgenommen und jeglichen Befehl von den Simsen und Balkonen geholt es liegen noch Glasstiele am Siel und vereinzelt zerplatzte Patronen
DARK FOREST When the rickety outrigger hurls away from the dock, I wish for a miracle. You never know with these small boats. Last week, a boat bigger than this one almost capsized. I’ve bought passage to Port Larena in Siquijor, a tiny island just off of Cebu in the Philippines. For a brief moment, I’m regretting my decision. I look around me but find little reassurance. The fisherman manning the engine keeps squinting at me, unsure at my being there, as if I’m illegal cargo. I get it: my wrinkled clothes, my pale skin used to sunless, airless rooms, my jetlagged gaze. I also have a backpack and a suitcase. Overpacked again. Honestly, who brings a suitcase on a boat like this? With me are a cluster of women who guard sacks of rice, fruit, and vegetables on their way to the markets on the island. They don’t squint under the light. Nor do they flail like I do. Instead, when the boat collides with a big wave, many of them make the sign of the cross and close their eyes. I can feel the heat of their skin next to mine, and it feels more comforting than any life jacket. Hunched over, I press my knees together to brace myself against the pitching motion, and I suddenly realize the irony: feeling claustrophobic on the open sea. The island is famous for its starlit nights, secluded coves, rich corals, and, more notoriously, for its metaphysical hit men. They are known as mananambal, legendary healers who practice a pre-colonial type of medicine and sometimes inflict illness. Hardly something for the tourist brochure, right? I have no idea how hard it’ll be to find these jungle gurus, and then how hard it’ll be to convince one to see me. A spray of water hits me in the face and I wince. I’m back in the apartment again. Eight years ago. Jason was in the kitchen, stirring a pot of rice, looking away from me. What’s the magic word to make this image disappear? It leaps to mind but stops at my mouth: love? The silverware clattered to the floor when he shut the door. Outside the window, I re-
member, the college kids tossed Frisbees in the park across the street. From the radio, Kurt Cobain sang over snarling guitars, something about sunshine and rain and lovers leaving. The waves change from placid to rough again and slap against our little boat, but the island has appeared on the horizon, an outcropping of coconut trees swathed in a steamy scrim. I take deep breaths to hold down the nausea building up in my throat. The sun burns hot in the sky by the time the outrigger beaches on the shore. The sky’s so bright and plastic it’s like we’re all inside a blue balloon on fire. Once on the pier I have barely any time to get my bearings when several tricycle drivers flock in my direction. When I ask them about the healers, most of them drop their haggling and walk away. But one of them comes forward and says his friend is a powerful mananambal. “Balikbayan ka ba?” he asks me. Yes, I am a returnee. “A person who returns to the land” is the literal meaning. The émigré come home. To be an immigrant is to be cleaved in half, to endure separation caused by some form of trauma: displacement, fanatical hopes for a better life, escape from specters of previous selves. The ghosts. I shrug noncommittally. “Ako si Eduardo, ma’am.” Eduardo looks about forty, with sideburns that are completely white and a face covered in streaky grit. He is bowlegged from a lifetime riding motorbikes. A blue towel sprayed with cologne and dribbled with baby powder lines his shirt under his collar, sopping up the sweat. I know I must look and smell worse than him, but he doesn’t even flinch at my appearance. I like him already. “Gen. Nice to meet you.” We shake hands. He agrees to take me and we settle on a price. But first, he explains, we must drop by the local church. I’m tired and hungry and want to ask why, but he’s decided before I can say anything else. It’s Holy Week in the Philippines, after all. I’m waiting for him to park his tricycle and stow my luggage inside the compartment when a young girl in the distance, no more than seven or eight years old, gets my attention. She’s struggling with something in her arms. An explosion of black fur, and then raked, bleeding skin. A cat has wriggled free and dives into the shade of some guava trees, winking
out of existence in the leaf cover. The girl limp-hops across the clearing, until she finds herself at the edge of a compound at the foot of a wall. The thing has to be ten, twenty feet high; it’s massive. She looks straight up, her three long braids brushing the back of her legs. On the wall, hundreds of lizards cling in clusters, constellations of flickering tongues and tails. She picks up a palm frond and scrapes the wall. When the lizards scatter, she begins to climb, careful to avoid the crevices choked with bougainvillea, ignoring the passing adults chiding her. One of them throws a rubber slipper at her, but she’s defiant and already too far gone. There’s nothing anyone can do, and I silently cheer. “Visiting relatives?” a white woman in her sixties calls to me, observing my lingering queasiness and my rumpled clothes. She senses I am not a local, even with my Filipino face. She is across the way, waiting in line at one of the carinderia stands. I smile politely, noticing her garish jewelry, imagining her getting pickpocketed in the streets. One of those tourists. She tries again. “Holy Week. You must be here for Holy Week.” “Kind of. Yeah,” I say. She sips her Coke with a pink straw, the slim glass bottle dripping with condensation. “I hope you like the heat. The folks here say it’s the hottest time of the year.” The most crowded. The most devout. Every superlative seems to fit. The woman makes me think of my lola, my grandmother. Back home, Lola told me about her countless ailments and how she pined for the doctors at home. “But you have the best doctors here, Lola,” I said. In reply, she sighed dramatically. “Apo, not those kinds of doctors.” She explained that when people were really ill, suffering from ailments that had no discernible cure, they went back home and chartered boats to islands like this. “Most are swindlers, though,” she warned me in a disdainful whisper that suggested an unsavory encounter. “True practitioners are far and few. Watch out for the paper-doll show,” she said. “If someone tries to show you dancing cutouts made out of newspaper, walk away. They will steal your money.” I learned that they use wire and smoke and other sleights of hand. The real doctors, the ones who can supposedly cure and harness miracles with mortar and pestle, live deep in the jungle. If you’re the real deal, you have
no desire to be a showman working the docks for coins and applause. Eduardo wants to give me a quick tour of the local church, so I reluctantly agree, hoping it will give me enough time to let the seasickness subside. The Veneration of the Cross is in full swing, the ceremony where parishioners swarm the church’s stone nave to kiss the cross. The heat is making me impatient. When I try to argue that this is a waste of time, how I’m not even religious and we should go, he points to an old man approaching the altar. He is small, but I can see the sinewy muscles in his forearms and calves that evoke a dancer’s lithe form. He’s somehow different from the other devotees. He doesn’t cower to the crucified Jesus like the others, who have their eyes closed, hands clutching rosary beads. Instead, he strides appraisingly towards it. He bends forward to kiss the cross, mumbling something before his lips graze the wood. No one sees it except me, but the man walks away with a splinter of the cross in his mouth as if it were just a toothpick. Eduardo introduces the old man simply as manong, an honorific for male elders, and tells me to wait while he retrieves his tricycle. The old man nonchalantly lets the piece of wood hang from the corner of his mouth. He narrows his eyes and considers me for a moment, like I’m some strange creature that’s been reeled in with the morning’s catch, assessing whether I can be eaten or tossed out. “You do not look like other tourists,” the manong says, looking me up and down. “Your eyes. You have seen things. Tourists are always happy, taking pictures. Pictures of the water. Of the trees. Sand. Pictures of their feet wiggling in the sand. But they do not see anything!” He laughs as if this is the funniest thing. “Are you here for the dancing dolls?” Thank you, Lola. “No. I didn’t even bring a camera,” I say. He seems impressed. “Good. You don’t want souvenirs of this place anyway. You can go to Cebu for that. Boracay.” “Why?” I say. “It’s just as beautiful here.” He mimes taking a photo and then wags a finger. “You might take something back with you. Something that shouldn’t leave.” “Like the duende, diwata, aswang?” I say, listing the creatures in the stories my parents told me. “I hardly think they’ll want to take an 8,000mile journey back with me. I can only afford coach.” He takes out the holy toothpick and jabs it at me, sensing my snark.
“They do not ride in there,” he says with grave seriousness, indicating my backpack. “They ride in here.” He taps his temple. I’m determined not to let him spook me. “Thank you for the warnings, manong.” He purses his lips in the direction of the mountains where he and his fellow mananambal live. “When you leave, watch for it. It will try to confuse you.” “Watch out for what?” For a second, the man’s slight body seems to vibrate, and then I realize it’s the rumble of a motor shaking the ground around us. Soon enough Eduardo comes rolling across the grass like a mirage. “Miss? Ready, na?” Eduardo calls out, my knight on a rusty tricycle. I turn to the manong to wave goodbye, but he’s already shambled off.
After the Veneration ceremony, the congregation snakes around Siquijor, people holding statues of baby Jesus covered with small, fragrant flowers. The cloying sweetness stays in my nose, along with the dust. We ride through the crowd, Eduardo honking continuously. It does nothing to prod the parade to move any faster, but somehow we manage to reach the main road. Meanwhile I can’t stop talking about the old man. “He’s not what I expected,” I say carefully. Eduardo just nods as if he’s heard this skeptical reaction a thousand times before. He tells me that people who practice sometimes bite the cross instead of kissing it. “They believe getting a piece of the cross, even just a splinter, amplifies their powers,” he explains. “Is he the one we are seeing in the evening?” For the first time, I’m worried I made a mistake coming here. Eduardo shakes his head, spits out a piece of gristle from his lunch. “Another person. Much more powerful.” My eyes get big. “Let’s just say he doesn’t have to bite the cross.” “Will he see someone like me?” He catches my drift. “Of course. He likes foreigners. Foreigners do not fear him.”
Leaning back on the bike, Eduardo pulls down a yellow bandana to cover his nose and mouth from the dust clouds. “Ta na,” he says, looking left then right. The tricycle comes alive like a toy scooter attached to a jet engine, and we’re off. Closing my eyes, I let the clamor of the traffic take me back to that night. I was the one who drove Jason to JFK for his evening flight to Boston. I shouldn’t have, not in the middle of February, not in the icy rain, but I’d agreed. In the car, I couldn’t look at his face. All I could do was drive. “Turn left at the intersection,” he was saying. I couldn’t even hear the car anymore; all I could hear was muscle of thigh, bone of knee, blood of vein, as he shifted on the seat beside me. I remember thinking: Should I study his face for something that would give him away? But his eyes were turned away from me already. As I overtook a slower car on the road and passed across the broken yellow line, I turned my head, about to say something, and saw his profile against the light. When I open my eyes again, Eduardo has maneuvered us to a narrow two-lane highway. Behind us, a halo of dust laps at the bike. In the country, a cloud of swirling dust is both a greeting and a farewell. I give one last look over my shoulder to find my girl-hero on her fortress wall, but she’s all but disappeared.
Two hours on a curving mountain road, the whirr of the engine quiets to a purr. “We walk,” Eduardo announces. “You can leave your things here.” On the dirt path there are heavy grooves, tire imprints in a muddy track long dried out. Eduardo sees me trying to dodge them. “A rich man came here in his brand-new Pajero four days ago, during the rains. His youngest daughter had eaten something at a party and was vomiting,” he explains. “So was she cured?” I asked. “Of course,” he shrugs. “The rich always get cured.” Around us, dozens of coconut trees sway in the wind. I follow his lead, walking down a trail of rotting palm fronds that cuts through a smaller grove of acacia and papaya trees. “Careful there,” Eduardo says, pointing at a trio of fallen logs that block a bend in the path. It’s at least four feet high in the most passable spot.
“Shit,” I mutter. He looks back at me and chuckles, holding out his hand. I take it and, with his help, hoist myself over the massive trunks. We walk along the length, and the bark under my sandals feels solid enough. I bounce on the balls of my feet, testing the surface. We’re not exactly scaling sheer mountain passes here, but soon I’m sticking out my arms like I’m twelve years old again, soaring like a plane. I think back to the little girl, climbing to the top of that wall, like it was her El Capitan to conquer. No one seemed that worried about her perched up there. Where was her yaya? Or her parents? And what did she see out there on the other side? There is the smell of smoke in the air now, an armpit brew of tobacco mixed with something mossy and wet. I want to call out to Eduardo, but a low groan, like from wood that’s about to break, makes me freeze. Above me, branches sway, but I feel no wind on my hot skin. I keep looking upwards to where the trees eclipse the sky, a blue circle shrinking as the forest swallows me up. My head spins. I see my legs scissor in the air as I topple backwards— Thud. I land less than a foot from where I was, on a soft pile of leaves. Eduardo runs over to my side. “I felt something,” I stammer, trying to make sense of it. “I don’t know what it was. Like something big was breathing overhead, taking all the air, all the oxygen.” “Are you claustrophobic?” “What? No! I swear to you there was something—” “Trust me, Lara Croft,” Eduardo says gently, righting me on my legs. “If something found you in the jungle – an animal, a bad person, something else – you wouldn’t be here talking to me.” He shoves a water bottle into my hands. “Drink. We’re almost there.”
On the downhill side of the trail, I finally see the village in a clearing in the jungle. Specks of light appear from the tiny nipa huts made from bamboo and palm leaves. It’s not yet dusk, but it might as well be. I can hear the cackle of a radio announcer. As more people light up their homes, my eyes adjust to see the path in front of me. Laughter fills the
air like bells and I realize that a group of kids has just raced past me. They seem to be carrying some kind of long paper kite that reminds me of the Chinese dragon dance. The form undulates as they run and I feel a delicious whoosh from the close encounter. The last child, the one holding the tail, wears three braids down her back. Surely it can’t be the same girl, but I feel the urge to call out to her. In my head, I talk to him: Jason, there was this little girl... More laughter greets me. I sense that Eduardo is far ahead now, that I’m like a trailing kite, sputtering in the air behind him. A man comes out and stands in front of his house, watching my ungainly approach. It must be the mananambal. I can barely make out his features, but he looks harmless enough. Mop of gray hair, a kind, lined face. His teeth are surprisingly bright in the darkness, and his smile glows with goodwill. “Eduardo’s friend?” he asks in Cebuano, a Filipino dialect I recognize, spoken in the Visayas. “Yes,” I say uncertainly. Eduardo is nowhere to be seen. I offer my hand. “Will you take me?” The manong sniffs the air and pauses for a moment, and I think I’m going to be rejected – unclean, too far gone – but he simply nods and pulls me by the hand through the wooden door and into his home. Inside, the room smells pleasantly herbaceous and earthy: vetiver, sandalwood, some wild mint. The other rooms are blocked off by beaded curtains, but by all accounts it looks like an ordinary home, just cleared and uncluttered. Then, without ceremony, he introduces me to a young woman who rises from a woven banig laid on the floor, a patient. I hadn’t noticed her in the stillness of the room. Her name is Luz. Early twenties. Hair unnaturally straight and shiny like something out of a Pantene ad, dark circles under her eyes. She clutches at rosary beads. “She can’t conceive,” he says, “because spirits have imprinted on her.” Luz smiles openly at me, unabashed at me being there. She explains that she’s been trying unsuccessfully to get pregnant for years. In these rural villages, family is everything. Not bearing children can break young couples; rather than acknowledging a possible medical condition, it’s often easier to blame it on something external – like unruly spirits. The healer leaves to get his preparations, and she turns to me: “You
want to... learn?” “Uh, to be a healer?” She laughs at my misunderstanding. “No. No one can study to be a healer. It is a blessing from God. I mean – to learn about your pain.” My pain? If only it were that simple. I look at her. “But don’t people know about their pain before they come here?” I say. “I mean, that’s why they go, right?” She considers this for a moment. “Some. Not all.” “What? Everyone’s pain is different, is that it?” I immediately regret what I’ve said. I don’t sound like an enlightened skeptic, I sound like an asshole. Another polite smile from Luz, some gritting of the teeth. I think of what a shovel sounds like when it strikes the ground. Not the loamy blackness of a bag of Miracle Gro, but the dense clay that’s as hard as baked pottery and defies any human coaxing. It’s the sound of a shovel hitting something that won’t yield. “What’s it like?” I ask, trying to sound contrite, softer. “To go under?” “It’s different for everyone,” Luz concedes. “And different every time. For my mother, when she first went under, she said it felt like how it feels to be in love, your heart expanding as it takes in the spirits. Then later, she visited again, and she said it was more like a tiny pinprick, she barely felt anything.” “We’re ready for you, Luz,” the healer says. And we both turn around at the same time. I watch his hands: The man churns a liquid mixture inside a metal bowl. First, he adds honey, which supposedly appeases the spirits. But then more insidious ingredients are thrown in. Dried seaweeds and sea creatures are ground into a powder. Then, the bone scrapings from a human skull. The skull must belong to someone who died before being baptized, “someone whose soul rests in purgatory,” he explains. I shudder when I think it must be a very young child. Finally, ashes from tree branches gathered during the seven Fridays before Good Friday are sifted into the liquid. A small fire is lit underneath the bowl. In another fire, coconut husks are charred in the flames. The man whips water at the heated husks, creating billows of smoke in the room. Luz’s breathing quickens, her eyes rolling back with each lash of water on the fire. More pungent, swirling smoke fills the room. Then, the heal-
er kneels down and puts his ear to Luz’s stomach. “No, don’t hold your breath,” he tells her. “Huminga ang apoy.” Another douse of water. The husks spark to life and the air thickens. Luz takes in gulps of the fragrant smoke like a bad swimmer gasping for air, and I find myself breathing in time with the quickening of her ribcage. Suddenly, I am back in a world of metal and glass and tile floors bleached by halogen light. Hallways lined with doors and beige walls. Doctors in lab coats and patients pushing IV walkers from room to room. A lady with a name tag hands me a clipboard. I don’t see any words on the paper, just the line where I am told to sign. Next of kin, it says, with my name. There hadn’t been time yet to update our records. Later, the police report was only a single page. I turned it over and over in my hands, looking for more. The roads had been wet from a previous storm and the drop in temperature the night before had turned all the pothole puddles into skating rinks. An eighteen-wheeler coming onto the freeway in front of Jason had skidded in the merge and bumped Jason’s rental. It was just a nick but it forced him to steer onto a sheet of ice. The wheels skidded to the left, slamming his car onto the guard railing, where it then flipped over the divide into oncoming traffic. His car spun like a top. After the accident, I spent days filling in the sequence of events like I was Jerry Bruckheimer writing a bloated action scene. All I knew was that somewhere on that page, in those typed lines, Jason was alive and then he wasn’t. There were no sparks on that cold night, thankfully. No ruptured gas tank. But there might as well have been an explosion. I can feel the all-consuming slithery heat of that wreckage in the smaller fire in front of me now. Through the white smoke, I sense the door open. A girl appears. I know it’s her, it’s plain to see: the claw-raked arms, the hair tied in tight braids. She is wearing a long dress, a nightgown almost, muddy around the hem. Without anyone else noticing, she pads her way through the smoky room and holds out her fist to me. I look up. Now I can see her face. I know that face— “Slowly,” Jason was saying to me as we approached the airport. “The exit’s coming up.” I could see the blue veins of his wrist as he raised his
arm to point toward the departures lane. Inside the terminal, I remembered the moving walkway, such a slow, syringed pain. I imagine Jason now – imagine, not remember, because memory degrades, memory switches faces if you look too long – humming that Nirvana song about the rain, in his car just before the crash. Why didn’t I tell him? My morning sickness was strong that day, but I made some excuse about it being the stew from the night before, that I was fine and he didn’t need to call a cab. I insisted on driving, and he didn’t protest. I didn’t say anything. If he’d known, maybe he wouldn’t have flown out that night. Then he wouldn’t have been on that icy road in the rental. A week later I wouldn’t have made the appointment at the clinic. Eight years ago. She would have been eight. My brave little girl. I would have taught her to be brave. Raised her to climb walls. And I would braid her hair in long ropes down her back.
My eyes flutter open, and I see the manong nudging a dazed Luz. He hands her a vial of the mixture he prepared earlier. Instructions are murmured. I feel sad, suddenly, that maybe I missed my chance to witness – of all things – a real miracle. But then Luz takes my hands and puts them on the curve of her belly. She is crying and laughing, and I swear I feel something quiver inside her. It’s impossible, and still I’m happy for her, I really am. When Luz leaves, the manong turns to me, waiting for my answer. “Will I forget?” I ask. “Is that what you want?” In the dark room, I take two deep breaths. Then I shake my head.
Eduardo says he’ll take me to some cheap resort outside the village to rest. But I have very little money left, and we reach a funny compromise where he lets me sleep in the passenger cab of the tricycle for a few pesos. When I wake up, it’s not yet dawn. From where we’re huddled by the road I can see a pale, orange glow in the sky. I rouse Eduardo, and we head back down to the docks.
The sun starts to break overhead. As I stand on the dock waiting my turn to wedge myself on the return boat, I look behind me toward the mountains of Siquijor, seeing coconut and acacia trees shrouded in the haze of the morning. Then, something flickers in the forest. On the ridged slopes, a single smoke plume rises into the sky. I think of the first manong’s warning, but I know this one, too. I know all the ghosts and legends. It’s where the kapre lives. A forest troll, a tree spirit. Protector and trickster. He is perched up high in the banyan tree, puffing on his pipe filled with tobacco. Maybe that’s what we both saw, that little girl and I. On the wall, she shades her eyes and scans the distance. She sees rice fields for miles, checkerboard patterns of green and brown squares. She counts the woven hats and the water buffalo, arranging them like game pieces in her mind. Then she sees the fireflies, embers from the kapre’s pipe, and the smoke rising, telling her where to go. She is unafraid when she leaves her perch, climbing down the other side of the wall. She will not be enchanted. She will not lose her way in the dark forest. I look back out at the water, the ripples that interrupt my reflection. For a startling moment I think of this tiny island in a way I thought I never would: not a refuge of monsters, but a holy city filled with ghosts.
THE HILDEGARD SEQUENCE HILDEGARD ACCEPTS THE CALL That I was given the tools to survive That the noisy bowl has not yet closed over me That I wish in the early day to come up from my sleep Which are desertine days where this is the merest living Which was the only route possible, which other roads were death-bound roads At the market in Mainz, a tavern owner: I used to be an artist, and then I figured out how to survive. Artists put poison in their mouths. Now, I am a business man. Now, every day I close the money box with my key. Lights on cobalt tiles, his black hair and ochre skin Lightly music seeping into the yard If it is a wholecloth habit of survival If rapture is not-dying before getting it on
MIGRATION When I was small my parents made me, their youngest child, an oblate to the monks. I was a gift and in my bonding was presented back my fractioned self. That this should be your humor,
In the abbey, I studied many quiet years. I was ill, I recovered. But,
, did you put me into the world to rehearse what you already made?
When the sisters came to Disibodenberg, as we accrued, we enriched its ringing walls so then the brothers who stood above us became fearful, covetous and locked away the emeralds, gold, and tight-braided leathers of our dowries. , do you always call into the next sweep those like us whose mouths are dispossessed of their feeding? We left the abbey. At Rupertsberg we built a home by the Light of eagles you sent to occlude my sight and peck my heels we built it smart and fine.
The garden white with yarrow, the halls ran with tonics and letters, our slow beat. And your word was in our livers,
We passed long and measured days, spent them out, met the dead. Then younger hands washed our ultimate bodies, possessed the buildings, as they will and have. They tell us one day our zion was burned by men at war for thirty years. Tell St. Peter, : I am going out to haunt its field. Say theyâ€™ll know me by the hot and sparking rubies in my eyes.
THE HILDEGARD SEQUENCE
THE EMPEROR FREDERICK I BARBAROSSA ASKS FOR A MEETING WITH HILDEGARD, AND SHE GOES I am God’s exile. The country of my understanding was forbidden when I came here: the musicians made unknown noises and the food was sourly fermented according to the regional custom. The wind dry and smelling of cold stones, in this city’s shadows smiles were ready as in the walks of our garden by the fifth hedge. Here I am called to speak over a powerful man in whose power my own increases: small things win sudden status. If you could see, Volmar, how I am like our kitchen cat, filthy and full of victory.
FEDERICO FEDERICI “Lapses” from the Concrete Disassembled Poems series, 2017
FEDERICO FEDERICI “Miniature Tone” from the Concrete Disassembled Poems series, 2017
Zou Jingzhi translated from the Chinese by Jeremy Tiang
GREEN VINES Because the Great Northern Waste was free of frost so little of the year, most crops wouldn’t thrive there. On the other hand, with the fertile soil and dramatic swings from hot to cold, anything that did survive would grow to be extraordinarily plump and flavorful. During the long winter (six months), our staple food (wheat flour) remained the same, and the side dishes seldom varied: potatoes and cabbages, boiled and fried, or fried and boiled. Through the entire season, the canteen menu scrawled on the chalkboard hardly ever needed to be altered. Of course, even cooked the same way, the ingredients occasionally changed. For instance, if a cow died, the vegetables would be served with beef. If a pig died – as long as it didn’t have swine pox – they would come with its rind, or fatty pork slices. But these were rare occurrences, because pigs and cows didn’t often die. Once, I ate some beef from a cow struck dead by lightning, but its flesh was tough and flavorless, meat only in name, its goodness zapped away by the electricity, like gnawing at wax. Old sows didn’t taste good either, bland and chewy as rubber. Still, it had to be eaten for the reassuring sensation of tasting meat, however loosely defined. There was that one time I got to enjoy some delicious veal. After I’d eaten, my schoolmate Lion Snout told me it was a young female, killed when a bull tried to mount her. That made me feel the cruelty behind the flavor, as if I’d been an accomplice to a crime. I cursed the blabbermouth. Why tell me something like that? Potato and cabbage were so important that, as soon as autumn arrived, we’d send teams out to quickly harvest them. Cart after cart would get unloaded into the storage cellar, and after thousands of root vegetables had gone through the narrow opening, our winter was secure. We could stay alive as long as these two staples kept appearing on our tables. The only alternative was a salty preserved vegetable known as “scare away
the guests.” If it had come to that, we’d have ended up as shriveled as the radishes in the pickle vat. Vegetable cellars were crucial in our lives, but at the time, most divisions didn’t have a decent one, probably because of the belief that revolution was more important than life, and that the harder your existence, the closer you were to the revolution. After all those excellent potatoes and cabbages were harvested, if they weren’t put away in time, the snow would arrive and they’d end up frozen solid, at which point, the only recipe left was to prise one free with a pickax, thaw it, boil it, serve it. Even the greatest imagination couldn’t make these dishes taste anything but acrid. Neither the joy nor suffering of life was discernible in them any longer. As we went through the process of being rehabilitated, us Educated Youths became increasingly aware of the need for a vegetable cellar, eventually accepting that eating unfrozen potatoes without beef might not be harmful to the revolution. And so we’d dig a deep, wide pit, hastily shoveling the vegetables in and putting a roof over them before the snow arrived. After that, you’d often see the duty cook climbing down into the cellar, emerging with basket after basket of unfrozen potatoes or cabbages, a sight that made us feel life was good and under control. These cellars had other uses, though we only discovered this after the incident. I just went down a few times, when I was called upon to assist the cooks. There was an electric light that, when turned on, illuminated the potatoes’ and cabbages’ peaceful faces. There was no wind or snow down here, but it wasn’t hot, and the air was thick with decay. Your hand had the power to choose, and all these vegetables, imprisoned so long, would glare at you coldly. A person picking the next victim to be eaten cannot expect a warm welcome in a vegetable cellar. I couldn’t feel good down there, no matter how much it added to our existence. It felt like a dungeon full of lives I’d never get to know. Camp Three, Eighteenth Company, was a small group, so naturally their cellar was small and cozy too. At the time, dalliances between Educated Youths rarely progressed beyond a spiritual level, partly because love was forbidden, but even more because we had no opportunity to so much as talk. Every division had hundreds of eyes looking out for this sort of thing – imagine being romantic under such scrutiny! Courage wasn’t enough. And so most relationships took place under conditions
of great secrecy, like working undercover, carried out through facial expressions and code words, or even more often, when forcibly separated, by thought alone. Love like this carried the intensity of suffering, so every second together was worth a thousand pieces of gold. Most people found themselves like bows stretched to breaking point. Love stimulates the mind. One couple thought of using the cellar: the boy was an Educated Youth from Tianjin, a platoon leader in our company, normally dignified and severe. The girl was from Tianjin too, unruffled and soft-spoken, of average appearance. Before this happened, no one had any idea they were together (up till then, I’d thought it would take superhuman ability to conceal love, but the Cultural Revolution produced just such superhumans). I don’t know how often they met there – when I get to this part, I think of Juliet’s tomb. We found their naked bodies in the cellar. The girl was a little closer to the entrance, as if she’d struggled to get out. The boy probably died faster, gloriously, no suffering on his face. In the midst of so many vegetables, they looked like stage props, or perhaps sculptures, left where they were, alone or maybe connected. Their souls lay scattered amongst those silent winter vegetables. We dragged their corpses from the warm cellar. I don’t know why none of us thought of putting clothes on them, so their pale bodies flopped out naked against the snow, not moving, black hair spreading over the white ground, only the tiny hairs on their bodies stirring in the wind – signal flags sending a last message. They shouldn’t have lit a coal-burning stove in the enclosed space. Even after all these years, I often recall this incident and find myself imagining the loving scenes I didn’t actually witness. I don’t know why this is. Perhaps deaths like these, beautiful as art, shouldn’t cause regret or sadness. Which of us is fit to feel pity? The entire company refused to eat the stored vegetables, perhaps afraid of stirring something up. In fact, they refused to go near the cellar altogether, so it fell into disuse and caved in. That spring, the buried potatoes sprouted, sending vines up through the soil, a patch of bright green.
Pirate Radio, If There’s Still Such a Thing Signal strength failing in nights of electric snow. I’m not sad, just breached. Behind familiar things, washed porcelain and salt, a keen hate, gas leak. Every podcast the host ums before he begins his final question. The arc of the evening nearly always departs from symmetry. The way slimy hairies with legs do not crawl upon the same sea twice. A dent in the steel when washed in steaming water resumes its smooth face. Who is the guest quoting? A paraphrase, my brain answers. But of who? I don’t mean to survive the morning, but I tend to repeat myself.
HULLS When Bethany used to bring her husband for get-togethers at Rita’s house, Rita’s bichon, Lieutenant, would eat raw carrots right out of their hands. After finishing dinner and getting a little drunk, they would go for walks in the woods out to a bog. Rita’s husband would usually get a fire going when they got back, which made her voice raspy. But the hearth was also a place where shoes could be left to dry out if one of them had accidentally been sucked into the mud a little. When Rita’s husband passed, a few years before the bichon, a propane-powered fireplace with decorative logs replaced the wood stove. It kept the house warm, almost as her husband had. Lieutenant was cremated. Not in the fireplace, but his ashes were kept on the mantle above it. Every Tuesday morning since they became widows, Bethany and Rita took walks. Their route was traditionally a three-mile pass around the neighborhood that ended where it began. This was a time for gossip and the revisiting of things they told each other the previous week. That summer, though, Bethany had left to stay with a dying parent in Ormond Beach, so there had been no walks. Rita tried walking alone, but she couldn’t help talking out loud, and it began to make others in the neighborhood uneasy, so she made juice. She bought an extractor at the mall, along with bags of spinach and apples from the supermarket. With Bethany gone, Rita had a two-month gap where noticeable changes to her appearance could be made. An opportunity to show her productive use of a passage of time. Rita started adding ginger to her juice and would display the roots on her kitchen windowsill. Her home became adorned by purposely placed novels with matte covers. She bought a Roomba from Amazon. Bethany was noticeably impressed when she returned from Florida. Both with how clean the floor was and with the gadget’s charm. “What’s its name?” Bethany asked, standing inside Rita’s living room.
The plastic horseshoe crab chased a path towards her bathroom, whirring louder on the tile. Rita laughed nervously. “Well, I hadn’t thought of it. I forget he’s there most of the time.” “He is cute, isn’t he?” “Florida must’ve been unbearable. The heat,” Rita said, changing the subject. It was easy to dye such places in a poor light. “It was what it was.” Bethany shrugged. Once again, Rita felt bridged to her friend and the thought left her renewed.
A car accident was reported that morning, so their walk was now with purpose, their stride a little more pronounced as an audience of rerouted cars floated by them. Bethany and Rita concentrated more on their dispositions. The portraits they made. According to the radio, the crash was severe, with one vehicle colliding head on with a utility pole. Some neighbors on the opposite side of 87 had lost power. Rita and Bethany knew exactly where it had happened. It was a bad spot, where the estuaries of cul-de-sacs drained out to the main road, and sometimes you just had to take a blind leap of faith. A woman had died there three years ago, which people still liked to talk about. “You do look slimmer,” Bethany said. Bethany was really the one who had lost weight. Her eyes had sunk into her head, and her old fall clothes wrinkled at their seams. Now she couldn’t walk without stopping to push her bracelets back up her wrist. Rita wasn’t used to seeing her friends pick up new habits. “It’s just a Braeburn and a handful of greens. Maybe I’ll drop in a little ginger or mix in some chia seeds.” “Really, you’ve pared down to nothing. It seems like so much changes after being gone.” “You didn’t miss anything, it was quiet.” They hadn’t talked on the phone while she was away, so Rita broached the subject of ill parents very carefully. Through rumor, she knew Bethany’s dad had improved. “It was just the flu this time. But—he isn’t going to get any better. I’m not being pessimistic, but this is the reality of it.” Rita felt a tinge
of dread at the thought of her friend moving away to stay with her dad, as this is what people often did when parents got old. She would have ample time to make juices, but who would be there to see? The mall walkers with their nylon jackets? Both of Rita’s parents died when she was in her thirties. Her husband followed a couple of decades later. Then Lieutenant. After that, she decided against garnering new loved ones. “Can you believe that?” Bethany motioned towards a lawn, cropped to the skin as if it were preparing for battle. “They’ve always been showy. I know Jan thinks we all care so much, but who is really looking at her lawn, really?” In the driveway, a man hurried into a sedan with his tie trailing behind, chasing something invisible. Caught in another dimension. “There’s Jan’s husband.” “He looks about the same.” They felt flaunted before the parade of cars. The attention was something new and relished. People rerouted from their normal paths, checking their phones for directions or calling in late. Neither woman was accustomed to so many guests at once. “How is Seth? I feel like I haven’t seen him in so long.” “Well, he’s fine. He’s working today,” Rita said, carefully examining her street’s borders. “Still at Lowes?” “He’s got about a month left. He even met a girl there. But then he’s going back to landscaping part-time with his uncle.” The sedan joined the detoured traffic and Jan’s husband waved a stiff palm at them. She imagined Seth courting a girl in a little blue vest, twirling her gum by the raw lumber, but then thought that kids don’t really chew gum anymore. “The dentist’s daughter?” “No, no this is a different one. He might do another semester down at the community college.” “QVCE?” “River East – where Filene’s was.” “You know I keep hearing good things about their programs. Nan’s kid went there, she’s going to study nursing.” Rita already knew this but pretended it was some new revelation. From the bank of roadside litter, she picked up a spent, miniature bottle of liquor and pocketed it as if it were an arrowhead.
“Whaddaya got?” Bethany asked. Rita displayed the artifact in her palm and carefully studied her friend’s reaction. Bethany was a woman who now spoke from the contented, orange places that they both used to mock from their porches, armed with Canadian Club. Rita thought Bethany could exist as one of those stateof-the-art dishwashers or a plastic fern from Hobby Lobby modeled after something a wealthy missionary brought his mistress back from taming the Congo. Bethany wouldn’t be able to leave again if she were made of polyester designed to look like bromeliad foliage. “We’re getting close, do you smell that?” “The rubber?” “Yeah.” “It smells awful.” They wrinkled their noses. “That’s a handsome zip-up.” “Thank you.” The arrows of brilliantly emblazoned detour signs showed visitors how to leave forever. Bethany was huddling into herself for warmth. Her efforts to establish cardiovascular warmth by walking faster had proven useless. “I could see you there.” Rita stepped back as if imagining Bethany cast against a different background. “Where? Florida?” “Yes, you could land a nice, charming widower. Live out your days in those see-through yoga pants.” Bethany laughed heartily, “Oh, I can see it.” Both sighed at the same time without realizing the other had sighed. Blue lights peered through the spindles of branch and foliage. A wrinkle of smoke in the air, peppered with radio chatter. “Oh my goodness.” They watched a tow truck churning up the hill. A boar, massive and starved, ambling towards its kill. Police officers had their hands on their hips. From behind a stop sign, Bethany reached in her pocket for a cigarette, but realized she’d quit smoking. The car had a sheet draped over it. “Look at that. That’s awful.” At the top of the utility poles, the powerline transformers surveyed the scene with their permanently unimpressed faces, and Rita was wary of them. One of the poles was splintered at its trunk where the car had made impact. The others were tilted,
as if in mourning for their wounded sister. “And look at that, there are no tire marks. Means he probably hit that thing at full speed,” Bethany said. The veiled car reminded her of a crudely-sewn ghost costume. “Just awful.” First responders were sweeping plastic and glass into the long mat of road humus that had accrued over time. With Bethany standing there rendered helpless by random, unavoidable violence, Rita made up her mind. If her friend was going to settle down, it wasn’t going to be as a juicer or a plant. Not the old toaster oven that only cooked if it was whacked or the hallway runner that still clutched mud and animal dander, but the dehumidifier in the spare bedroom.
The froth of the day set and turned yellow. Rita went home, where her little robot was making its way onto the carpet. She bent to give it a pat which it almost seemed to pause for. “Who’s a good boy, Lou.” It continued to an end table to inhale the remains of a rice cracker. She crumbled an extra measure for him. “You’re rambunctious today.” In the hearth, Rita’s husband pouted. “You be quiet,” Rita said. No response came from the ceramic logs, crossed indignantly. It was a place where spiders had once stowed away from the woodpile, before it deteriorated into a dune of rot. The spiders migrated to her cellar to breed, with any exiles now filling the belly of the Roomba. “I’d miss her too. I really would. But I doubt she’ll leave us anytime soon.” The Roomba bumped into a wall and readjusted its scanner. It chirped happily, rediscovering old paths. “A juice does sound good right now,” Rita said, separating the hull from a sunflower seed. The last volunteer firemen returned back to wherever they came from. A stream of traffic opened up to commuters driving up the hill, without any idea that anything had ever happened there at all.
The Flower Newark, Gasport The star manga attaches to what part of the plant? Scorpions hide among baskets of Delibes Duet derby, there are granite emporiums huge empty fields inside Carlsbad There are Girl Movies in Saugerties Her house has lost its fragrance In his mouth there are attics tangled in Spanish In my heart, your songs to me are iris-colored Jars of jasmine litter the kingâ€™s discography, his banks filled with desolation Paso Robles Poland, Ohio Lima, Sioux City Eerie nooks My heart is filled with carnage lyrics and their pots and castles The queenâ€™s cantatas are filled with daughter facts pattern-free quotes There is a Rose of Sharon in Southlake, Texas Vineland, Fleischmanns, Auburn I drank a moon by accident that blooms heavily with adversity Representation shattered under my umbrella There are vendor girls with violet lilies Xochitl may refer to: a retired female tennis player from Mexico a semi-retired Mexican-Japanese professional wrestler a Latin American voice actress In your x-ray prints yellow and pink means what again? I am filled with yard art made from plates and bowls zinnias
Commentary to Donna Stonecipher’s “Model City .”
It was like. A: Es war nicht gleich. There was a difference. B: Was the difference spreading. A: It was reading. It was spelling. It was spellbinding. B: In other words. It was also unlike. Slowly becoming aware one winter. A: Becoming aware. Becoming aware (=ah-wah-reh). B: Becoming mono-no-aware. A: How things look transient to transients. B: O the sadness of things. It is becoming. The sadness of things is becoming. That there are new buildings going up all over your city. A: Ich übersetze. Your heißt deine. B: Es heißt auch meine. Es heißt auch nicht meine. A: Es heißt auch niemandes. Es heißt auch jemandes, und jedermanns. B: The word your is like a hotel room—anyone can stay there, brieflich. And then realizing that every single one of them is a hotel.
A: A realization about real estate. B: How real is real estate. A: An object of realization ought to be real. B: I remember my oath to the real estate. It took place on a tenuous court. It was like. A: So speak we of feeling. B: We cannot speak feeling. We can only feel it. A: Speaking spooks feeling. It supplies it with a likeness. B: It makes it legal tender. Thinking about all those empty rooms at night. A: I set over. B: Empty rooms heißt leere Räume. A: Leere Räume heißt die Räume, die geräumt wurden. Rooms made roomy. B: It is proper to a room to be roomy, to contain not one who may leer, not one who may simmer. All those empty rooms being built to hold an absence. A: Room, stanza, mould. A mould built to hold. B: Four sentences, each ending in the third print line, as of / not as of old. A: 23 X 32 rooms cast in the same mould. B: A poured poem, a concrete poem. A Neubau. As you lie in your bed at night, unable to sleep. A: I get that ‘like’ starts with ‘lie’ but what is ‘ke’ (=kuh). B: Can truth be told. A: The correspondence theory of truth has to do with letter exchanges. B: The letter A corresponds to the letter B, and so forth.
It was like. A: It was like feeling. B: It was like fooling. A: It was like failing. B: It was like falling. A: It was, like, feeling. B: It was, like, fooling. A: It was, like, failing. B: It was, like, falling. The feeling of falling through the ‘o’ in ‘hotel.’ A: O you are a stone cipher. B: But is it a cold hotel. A: You lie in a hotel of Bethel, it hath a multitude of stars but the pillows are too rocky for kissing. B: How dreadful is this place! this is none other but the house of God, and that is the gate of heaven. As you almost fall asleep in your own bed, the bed that you own. A: The rule is, people who fall asleep wake up. B: At least when they land. But, in some cases, already while falling. A: Falls die Fremde die Fälle befallen, fallen sie oft in die Fallen der Fälle. B: They employ the genitive to a fault, and run afoul of the accusative. Caught at the last minute by ownership, ownership of your wide-awake self. A: Own. B: Do you own. Atone. A: I, lonely, own only a telephone. B: Telephone is handy.
Commentary to Donna Stonecipher’s “Model City .”
It was like. A: Jede Übersetzung ist ein heist. B: The bank robbers tried to translate a bench. A: The arresting copper received a shiner. B: This welt is the result of a fall. Giving in to your ownership of yourself and going to the window. A: Surrender, Americans! You are surrounded. B: You have nothing to lose but your charm bracelets. A: O, Americans! Vous devraient être des requins à la mer, mais vous voilà amers. B: Surrender to merriment! You are surrounded by merriment. You are surrounded. Looking out at all the softly illuminated versions of the word ‘hotel.’ A: Michael (=Mikha-el). B: Raphael. A: Uriel. B: Hotel. Announcing their shifting absences all over the city. A: English is very difficult. B: It is a language of angles. They stand on letters. A: What of German. B: I see only marks.
ELINA BERGMARK WIBERG SHAYMA IDRIS TAREK SEBASTIAN AL-SHAMMA
ELINA BERGMARK WIBERG “Grazing cattle on a pasture (A composition for the Milkmaid),” 2018 Elina Bergmark Wiberg borrows and mimics ideas, techniques, and characters from art history as a strategy to create both direct and indirect links to people and movements. In her piece “Grazing cattle on a pasture (A composition for the Milkmaid)” the partly fictional persona of the Milkmaid is presented through a slightly banal and romanticised idea of her natural habitat. The sculpture explores the extension of drawing as a gesture, both on a formal and a contextual level. Through her choice of materials, including soap, silicone, grain, and legumes, she moves towards a rather sentimental approach to making and thinking.
ELINA BERGMARK WIBERG “Grazing cattle on a pasture (A composition for the Milkmaid),” 2018
ELINA BERGMARK WIBERG “Still Life with Vases,” 2017
SHAYMA IDRIS from the Home Sick series, 2017
SHAYMA IDRIS from the Christmas in Masih Church series, 2018
SHAYMA IDRIS from the Doors and Windows series, 2017
SHAYMA IDRIS From the Almoulid series, 2017 and the Christmas in Masih Church series, 2018
TAREK SEBASTIAN AL-SHAMMA “self-portrait in front of a spot painting,” 2017
TAREK SEBASTIAN AL-SHAMMA “you can leave but it’s going to cost you,” 2017
TAREK SEBASTIAN AL-SHAMMA “calendar of ‘62,” 2017
TAREK SEBASTIAN AL-SHAMMA “the blues for the whites and reds,” 2017
TAREK SEBASTIAN AL-SHAMMA “Masters of War,” 2018 GUILHERME BERGAMINI Three photographs from the untitled series
GUILHERME BERGAMINI from the Contrações series, 2015
GUILHERME BERGAMINI from the Contrações series, 2015
Commentary to Eugene Ostashevsky’s “Feeling Sonnet 4.” We are trying to make sense of a feeling. We sense that we aren’t making sense of the fact that we feel but we can’t feel feelings. Making sense of a feeling is like building a boat from water. Or building a boat and trying to stick it into a bottle that is bottled up. It is like a message in a bottle, an ambivalent bottled-up message that might or might not reach its ambivalent recipient. Feeling is a field. It is uneven. None of its points is like any other. It is like a Herrnhuter star, luminously pointing in all directions. It is like trying to stick a Herrnhuter star in a bottle. A field of what. A field of being afield. A field of what. A field of being afield. Separating the what from the chaff. We feel asea, ashore, alee, astern, aweigh We feel until we felt. Until we felted. For feeling is fieldwork. For it involves an other. It revolves around an other, like Herrnhuter stars pointing luminously in all directions.
When it does not involve another, it is called fooling. Or failing. Or flailing. Or felling. Or falling. Or felting. A deeply felt piano. Even when it does involve another, it may still be called fooling. It always revolves luminously around an other, even if that other is our self, pointing in all directions. It never fully involves another. It fells an other. To fight against fooling we think of feeling as feeling about. We don’t feel like fighting. Sometimes we don’t like to feel and so we fight against feeling, bottled-up messages in bottles. Feeling about means trying to touch the object of your feeling. As is fooling around. As is feeling or being felt up. We feel around for our feelings like felt-tip felines. “Our moods do not believe in each other” (Emerson). Every feeling is luminously spiky, arriving like a Herrnhuter star from galaxies astronomers keep discovering of selves we didn’t know we had. It is often done in the dark. We feel about when we cannot see and grasp. We grasp felt. We deeply felt a piano. How do we feel about each other. Do we care how we feel about each other while we feel up each other.
Commentary to Eugene Ostashevskyâ€™s â€œFeeling Sonnet 4.â€?
We feel for each other. We feel for each other in the dark. We feel each after the other. We are tender inconsiderate disasters. Our feelings revolve, like Herrnhuter stars in our heads, not believing in each other, luminously pointing in all directions. We feel for each other in the dark, trying to make sense of the feeling. Feeling thinks it is knowing. It thinks it alone knows what now is. We consider it a catastrophe, for it does not regard the sidereal auguries in the stern senselessness of stars.
Alexis Smiley Smith
UNCLE OF THINGS I heard a story once. Maybe it was on the news or maybe someone told me back around the time Uncle got diagnosed. I can’t remember. An old man got arrested for tying his wife to a tree in their backyard while he went out for groceries. Spousal abuse. His wife suffered from late-stage dementia. I can imagine a live news interview with the old man, seventy or eighty years old, a nice man, a good man. News Station 5’s very own Kristy McKristy, perfectly made up with layers of foundation and glossy fuschia lips, reporting live, standing in front of the house next to the husband. They’d cut to a shot of a rope on the ground by an old mangled and knotted pear tree, in need of a good pruning, and then cut back to the old man dressed in a work shirt in need of a wash. He is a nice man, a good man, a man who loves his wife. I was just trying to get groceries, he says. When Uncle started needing verbal cues for everything, like Here’s your shoes, Uncle; Put on your shoes, Uncle; Drink water, Uncle; Please drink water, Uncle; Here’s your hat, Uncle, I heard another story. Well, not really a story per se, more like a warning or an inside scoop. The lady from Veterans Affairs and I were chatting in the kitchen one morning about how my mom and I were doing with all of this. When she said, all of this, she moved her hands in wide sweeping circles. The sounds of The Price Is Right dinged from the other room where Uncle sat in his recliner. She leaned in like a co-conspirator and whispered, You know, alotta times the caretaker goes crazy first. Or gets real real sick. She leaned back and folded her arms across the wide expanse of her fat belly. I wanted to punch her square in the mouth. We’re fine, just fine, I’m here. Mom’s here. We’re fine, I said. Made some excuses about a writing deadline and went back outside to hide out at my table for the rest of her shift. There are sinkholes all over this trailer. There are pockets of sand that
give way underneath, a quick funnel underfoot. I have the sensation of being swallowed and slipping down into the untethered world where my uncle is now living. One morning I’m trying to tell a story about work and I lose my train of thought mid-sentence. I can feel my brain reaching for the words, yet I am unable to connect the slipping gears. The levers are all out of sync. In Uncle’s brain, where there was once mass, the neurons have now been invaded by microbial proteins that create holes or dead zones. Memory goes first, then motor skills, loss of control over the bladder and the bowels. His brain will forget to tell his throat how to swallow. I wonder if we could all move to Mexico. Get a cheap place and live by the sea. Uncle could get back the memories of the surfing spot from his Southern California youth, The Wedge. Maybe we could find ourselves a place north of Cancún, where the Caribbean meets the Gulf. Or maybe further down by Tulum we could find us a place where the waves roll in a little gentler than at The Wedge, and Uncle could work his memory back into an agreement between brain and synapse. I’ve never seen Uncle bodysurf, but Mom keeps a framed picture from a newspaper clipping from back then. It sits on the bureau in Uncle’s room, placed so that he can see it from his bed. A young man of twenty enveloped in a cyclone of water, gliding through its surface, his smile a flash of light. But there is no getting back the memories; he just travels away in his mind, and we follow him through the disintegrating, shifting layers. Uncle is literally losing his mind. I decided to move back to my hometown in Oregon in the early summer of 2015 after a string of bad choices or bad luck or maybe a mixture of the two. Mom had moved back from New Mexico earlier that year to care for her two brothers. Uncle Bob had passed away from pancreatic cancer and now she was alone in the trailer with Uncle Ken. His motor skills were still strong enough that we would take a walk most early evenings. I’d say, Uncle, would you like to walk? and we’d put on our sunglasses and step outside and make our way left up the circular road that loops around the trailer park. Each evening, each walk a déjà vu of sorts. I hoped the repetition, the ritual could somehow contain Uncle, keep him from falling deeper and deeper. We’d turn left out of our trailer and the rhythm of words between us would begin. Uncle says, Cool breeze.
Alexis Smiley Smith
A few moments later, at the crest of the hill, after the single-wide with the panting yellow lab, we reach the fence that divides the trailer park from the sun-gold harvested hay fields, the line of vision where hill meets sky becomes a perfect half sphere – just sky and sky and sky, edged with the haze of ryegrass and then infinite sky again – and I say, Curvature of the earth, Uncle, and Uncle got used to me saying this, so that sometimes, I’d wait a bit when we reached the crest and he’d turn to me with a smile and trickster eyes and say, Curvature of the earth. We are a rhythm, the two of us, lost in the space between memory and the present, using the familiarity of the walk in this loop at Echo Park Terrace. People’s small pockets of garden, plots of beans and stands of tiger lilies, the leaning violet shock of a gladiola burdened by its own weight, using these small observations as a cue for this shared repetition of words with one another. Uncle asks me if I’ve seen... and loses the words in his mind, but points to his Marine Corps ring that he ordered from the Sergeant Grunt catalogue, and I point at the ring and say This? and smile upwards. I say, That’s lovely, and ask what the two little words inscripted there say. Semper Fi. What’s that mean, Uncle? Always faithful, he says back every time. Sometimes, I’ll mispronounce the words on purpose, just to check. I’ll say, Semper fee? and he’ll laugh and say, Semper FI. We turn the loop and head back home. I ask him, How was it, Uncle, what was Vietnam like? and he says, I had a blast, really. His steps slow, and I match my pace to them. We pass in front of the trailer where a couple around my age lives. I think the guy works at the Dollar Store in town. The woman keeps a garden with a tall crop of corn. I think I’d maybe like to be friends with these people. Maybe drink a beer, smoke cigarettes under their carport in the evenings, shoot the shit. I bet they’re from here, just like me, and we could talk about that, but Mom likes to keep a low profile, doesn’t like people knowing us beyond a wave or a nod, and I can’t help but agree. We pass the couple’s house and Uncle slows his walk as he searches for the combination of words that fail him. My uncle went to Vietnam. He volunteered to go, even though his lottery number was such that he would have had to go anyways. The thick jungle, the rivers, the villages burning. He was a tall, striking man with stunning good looks. He was
UNCLE OF THINGS
a part of the killing and burning. Mom tells the story that one day he was in a helicopter leaving a village they had just burned. A young girl and an old man were crouching in the corner, and when Uncle stood up and motioned to the girl to give her his seat, she jumped back from him in fear and hid in the safety of the old man’s arms. That’s when a piece inside of him fractured, shattered, broke. Later that night, he took a grenade out to the perimeter of camp, took the pin out, and tried to blow himself up. He says, I had a blast. We reach the trailer for sale where the woman with the buzz cut once lived. Before I knew she lived there, I’d see her stomping down the highway with a forty-ounce in a paper bag, yelling rap lyrics and scowling at the sky, high as hell on crystal meth. And then she disappeared. One day, Uncle and I were on our walk past the trailer in our rhythm of words about war and Semper Fi and who the real bad guys were, and the entire contents of her trailer filled the front yard. Dirty dusty stuff. Broken file cabinets. Old sleeping bags. Stained pillows without their cases. Somehow Uncle managed to not blow his hand or himself up because the grenade slipped, or maybe he threw it in some last-second instinct of self-preservation. The bits of shrapnel lodged in his hand did enough damage to get him to a military hospital in Germany where he recovered. Was discharged. Sent home. We took our last walk together two days before he fell off the back deck. Mom turned her back for just a minute to pull some weeds out of the bed of irises. A slight fracture in his back. A fall won’t necessarily kill him, but the lying in bed for extended periods of time can. Bedridden, the lungs weaken and fill with fluid, a perfect set-up for pneumonia. First, the brain forgets a life lived, then it forgets how to stay alive. Uncle shuffles along, stops and fixates on a small rock, bends down, picks it up, turns it over and over in his hand. He has an absolute preoccupation with tiny little things. He will gently pick at the fabric of his shirt or fold his napkin over and over again. Mom jokes that she could hit the jackpot by selling aprons with sewn-on little buttons and shells or small lengths of ribbon. Had I known this would be our last walk, would I have done anything differently? Would I have slowed down more? Cool breeze. Curvature.
Alexis Smiley Smith
Semper Fi? We rarely get to know when something is a last time, a last walk, a last look across the valley floor. It all comes down to shit and piss. He wears adult diapers now and gets up in the middle of the night and pees on the floor by his bed. Mom laid down a blue tarp after the first time it happened. He can’t tell us he needs to use the bathroom, so we watch for grimaces on his face. He gets frustrated, but can’t tell us the reason. We can tell by the stiffening of his jaw, or he’ll get up and walk around, go to his bedroom and stand like he’s looking for something, but he doesn’t know what he’s looking for. We can’t live by the sea, so we bring the sea to him. Move his tray table in front of him and place the woven baskets of his shell collection before him. He fingers the perfect shapes of pink gloss, the scalloped edges, the muted colors that speckle in beige and cream, the bits of abalone that catch the sun through the window as he turns and turns them in his hands. My uncle was a great collector of things. His penchant for thrifting is something I’ve never seen in another person. Although he lived on the beach for thirty years in Florida, migrating back and forth between Sarasota and New Smyrna, he had the fashion sense of a bohemian hipster. His pack and what he carried were perfectly tied to his bike. He sewed back then and would find cotton or linen button-ups and replace their synthetic buttons with wood or shell. He made wool bags with custom seams and brightly colored straps. A French photographer spotted him on the beach one day and asked him to do a photo shoot. I like to think that somewhere in Europe, there’s a coffee table with a book on it. Guests come over and peruse it, and my uncle’s tanned face and wide smile flash on pages as they thumb through. Even though Uncle was technically homeless all those years, I would call it more professional beach camping. What he found on his thrifting missions, he’d send to Mom or his brother, Uncle Bob. Boxes and boxes. Silk shirts, Pendleton sweaters, wool blankets, t-shirts with pictures of wolves. He’d come and stay with us in Oregon for the summers. Back then, I dreaded those visits. His anger could be explosive and base itself in tirades about the British or about homosexual men, who he referred to as queers. I hated having friends over for fear they’d witness one of his rants. He ran the miles into town in his flip flops to go drink coffee and hit the thrift stores, his long dreads naturally formed by the sun and saltwater bouncing in rhythm down his shirtless back.
UNCLE OF THINGS
I heard somewhere once that you don’t really die or disappear until the last time someone speaks your name. Even after you’re buried or cremated, you still live through your name and the stories people tell of you or in passing conversation. But that last time – and there is one – that your name is spoken, that’s when you’re gone. Your life is over. But what if someone is alive, or their body is, but they themselves can’t remember their name, the life they’ve lived? Uncle went to Europe on an exchange when he was in college before Vietnam. He came back wearing a cape and high leather boots with his hair in an afro. Mom says he looked like Jimi Hendrix. This was before the hippies had hit Orange County. His mother wouldn’t even walk beside him when she picked him up from the airport. She pretended not to know her own son as she walked ahead. The tray table and shelf by the window become a micro gallery for Uncle’s changing installations. Mom puts out small pieces of agate and polished stones, figurines of turtles and howling wolves, thin slices of quartz rock. He loves his painted rabbit the most. I catch him trying to feed it some beans one night during dinner, tell Mom about it. She laughs. That’s okay. People feed their rocks with water, she says. He gets an apple every day at three thirty. He’s taken to finishing it and clutching the browning core like something sacred. The mixture of the sweat from his hand and the strength of his grip begin to soften and decompose the leftover fruit. I’ll try and take it from him and sometimes he won’t let go; he’ll look up at me with that glimmer of old stubborn anger. Instead of prying the clumpy mess from his hand, I’ll get one of the stones or the rabbit and make a trade. One thing for another. As far as I can tell, Uncle’s anger probably came from a lot of places. His hatred of gay men somehow confused with his hatred of pedophiles. He hated the British because he hated the legacy of colonization. Women rule! Boys drool! he’d say. When he came to live in New Mexico full-time with Mom, his anger had all but gone, just a trace. His rants came less frequently. He found a companion in a roadrunner he named Fuzzy and would feed bits of hamburger meat. He still insisted on sleeping outside, and Mom put a daybed under the cover of the cement slab porch where he’d wrap up in his wool blankets. Maybe Uncle carried all that anger because he’d seen too much in his life. Too much to hold, too much to carry. A predator for a stepfather; a
Alexis Smiley Smith
violent, drunk mother; the reality of war. The anger took up residence inside of him like a long-term lodger. When he got back from Vietnam, he couldn’t hold down a job. Refused. He spent his days at The Wedge inside the massive curls of current, his slick of skin and muscle riding the rolling edges of waves. When I visited Mom in the summer of 2014 in New Mexico, I saw the change in him. Truth Or Consequences: the little town that would be forgotten altogether if not for the hot springs and Veterans Hospital. Were the protein plaques already starting their work of dismantling, digging holes? I think that’s when the rhythm between us started. That summer is when our walks together began. With Mom’s house serving as a makeshift storage unit, Uncle really started thrifting. Mom would go to work and so would Uncle Bob, and Uncle and I would split a pot of Folgers Black Silk coffee and sit out on the porch feeling the warmth of the air increase by the minute with the rising sun. We’d walk through the neighborhoods into town. He taught me to put a couple of big rocks in my pocket in case dogs came at us. We’d head down to the park by the Rio Grande and he’d do stretches, sit-ups, and push-ups while I smoked a couple of cigarettes and watched. Then the thrifting mission would begin. His radar for high-quality cotton and wool was uncanny. Mom had just helped him through the process with the VA, where he was officially diagnosed with PTSD and awarded a life-long stipend. How many years did it take for the federal government to finally admit what the Vietnam War did to the men who served? To admit that exposure to Agent Orange was the norm, not the exception? How many years? And by the time that any responsibility was taken, the men were lost, fallen soldiers, buried under drugs and alcohol, or with PTSD-induced dementia, just like Uncle. The thing is that when the sinkholes formed and his memory slowly subsided into them, his anger went too, dissipating, lifting the weight of a lifetime. Sometimes it’s a sweet release from certain memories, the kind that tether you to unwarranted pain or the kind that come from the brutal hands of others. If there is any justice in the slow collapse of my uncle’s mind, if there is any freedom in forgetting an entire lifetime, then it is there. Uncle and I reach the top of the hill and look down across the valley floor. We will soon turn left and head slowly down the hill towards home.
UNCLE OF THINGS
But not just yet. I hold the cool of his hand as we gaze at the eastern mountains. Theyâ€™re hard to see this summer, marked by forest fire after forest fire, but I still ask him just the same, Uncle, do you see the mountains? Can you see through them through the haze?
SPINE INCIDENTAL To keep drinking water As if it would speak to acknowledge the bridge Hardly as if we expected it The spectral reflection: a wire overlaying a helix perfectly a staircase, almost The unlocking lips are slack â€“ the sigh â€“ for some reason warmth How a gospel choir moves much more than you do Keep it up Keep collecting buckets Drain that well It is the only method for feeling The only rope to wish our way out of a cave Extinguished it turns into the sound alone The piled-high brick blows out the candle, and still it keeps on So how goes it, tell me how does it go?
[yei ozomatli hueytozoztli nahui tecpatl] .:I:. iris teal white screen invisible disappears ther time: sun flashes of anosan-sun. Tulum ded in ether airs/Ku– clipse: Itzamna/suspenSerrated eyes/memory elight in the iris/Lakota songs. material roads in the skies/blue can’t. Rainstorms in the isles/im– So the poetic voice sheathes what you tochtli feel words –you can’t see/shadows. zumel. Like suns glare in the tonalpohualli –13 heart beam. Tilt axis @ 30 degrees face north Cofeathers camouflaged into rainbows/accelerate pulse ch shell and the pyramid/edged in the mind stream. Macaw cenotes/whirlpools in the crystalline might. Go back to the conshrill. So the 1st hero twin Xbalanque @ sundown burnt skies in the field & the hologram bright. Feel ghost in the bones/orographic winds melanin darkens after rain. What can I do was borne with this burgundy shapeshift nexhuitzilin –a chill in the carbon 14 frame. DNA shards skin tone/ flight/waves in Iztapa Cihuatanego. Invisible lightning how thoughts outlast time/ cortex/I cut stars collide: los abuelos cicatrizados en las venas. Spirits in hummingbirds So one’s bleeding this light/dark winds telluric currents you can’t see. Scars in the visual
THE MEMORY TREE My father was a hateful man. He hated my mother in particular and me in general. I left home at eighteen, married a soft man almost twice my age, a carpet-store owner named Doug. Doug walks in and out of each day with a deeply rooted acceptance of everything. His day is a cup of tea with a third of milk and two sugars every morning, walking two streets down to open the store for nine o’clock, fish and chips or a pie for lunch, home for supper at six, a cup of tea with a third of milk and two spoons of sugar for an hour in front of the telly, then bed. Me, I am like my father. Doug is an island in the middle of a bastard sea. He learned the unhelpful lesson of forgiving from his mother. In and of itself not a bad thing, but in forgiving and forgetting, the trouble starts. Perhaps it was because Doug’s mother outlived three children; if you can forgive the loss of a child, you can forgive anything. Forgiving is a tiresome business. Forgetting is thirty-five years of a hurt so deep it paints me empty. I married Doug because he asked. He is kind. I accept this about him and behave accordingly. When my father died, I asked his brother about my mother. My father kept nothing of hers; did he – my uncle – have any photographs of her? Anything that might have belonged to her, even a present she might have given him, or his wife, or any of their children? Your father didn’t come round much when he was with her, and after she was gone, he didn’t like to talk about her. As a child I learned not to ask. I remained mute until I was older and my need to know outgrew my fear of my father’s temper. He threw out everything of hers, cremated her and scattered the ashes. Back where I found her, he said. In her own country. Half of me is from that country. A country with no name. Ashes with
no family. What would they have said to him about bringing back their daughter as a grey powder in a nondescript jar? They disowned her when she married me. I should have known, I only met them once. Then he wouldn’t talk anymore because his whisky provided better conversation. He never wanted to talk to me, especially about her. When he didn’t want to talk, my father was capable of erasing me. He had a way of moving around the house as if he was completely alone. Doug and I conceived two children. In the rocky ground that is my body, they knew better than to try and grow. They left by way of a bloody mess between my legs. They must have warned all others to keep their distance. I don’t blame them. They weren’t mine yet and, to be truthful, I was afraid of them. Both times, Doug put his arms around me all night for days and said what became a mantra: It’s all right, love. It’s not your fault. Doug is a lamppost on a dark street. Sometimes I see him as if for the first time – tall and solid. Warm with quiet eyes. I don’t know what he’s still doing here. With me, a thousand years of winter nights. After he died – my father – I found old bills with the address of the place we used to live before she died. They had called me from his assisted-living flatlet to come and collect his personal belongings. Like a cadaver dog, I went to trace the scent of my mother. It’s a house where the door opens out almost into the street. If you run out without looking, you will be run over. It’s no wonder everything moves slowly here. Holt Rambling, an interminable bus ride east of Reading. The sky is a strange yellowish grey, washed soggy by a hovering mist. I know instinctively that this is how it almost always is here. I have some memory of the place, even though it’s hesitant. I don’t know what I expect to find at our old home, it’s been so long. Maybe something remains that has survived the odds. It’s a beginning. They’re not home, dearie. She has a blue rinse that is the exact colour of her eyes. Her skin is powdery white. I lose myself in her gaze for a minute. She is old but present in a way that makes her seem vibrant. Gnarled hands are collapsed around the head of a wooden cane that looks homemade. I am overcome by a desire to wrap my hands around hers, around the knob of the stick.
I know her skin will feel warm and delicate. Oh my. She looks right into me. You look just like her. Lighter of course. And those eyes of Tom’s, like silver. You’d better come in before you start to feel like a noodle. The wet will do that. My father’s eyes were shards of glass. The cracks let a frost in that never thawed. He loved me only just enough to keep me alive. He never touched me, neither in anger nor with affection. He was there and I was there. In between us was the span of a life, a bridge that no one built. They were such a good-looking couple. They just couldn’t... Oh dear, I haven’t offered you anything. Cup of tea? I think of Doug: one third milk, two spoons sugar. He had offered to close the shop and come with me. I didn’t want him here. He belongs in his daily habit of straight lines. I don’t want him to hold me later and say he’s sorry and wishes he could make it better. His wishes will always be his, even when he tries to give them to me. She was a butterfly, Celestine. That’s her name, my mother. This seems like new information. Up to now I have only known her as “your mother.” It gives her presence where she was once only absence. It calls her ghost into the empty space she left. She made things. Oh, in fact she once gave me something. I mean she didn’t give it to me, she asked me to keep it safe for her and that’s not really giving it, is it? Give me a minute, dear, and I’ll go and get it for you. A mechanical bird pops out of a colourful clock and cuckoos in quiet tones as she shuffles out. Floral wallpaper and carpet smothers the room, keeps the heat in so that I am forced to remove my sweater. An electric fire is simulating flame below a mantelpiece strained with photographs. They’re mostly black and white, and from where I sit in the over-sprung armchair I see no one I recognise. I have come to accept that no one kept any pictures of her. Celestine. A whisper in an over-warm room of muffled air, as if I am breathing her to life. I sip my tea, an exact brew of Earl Grey the way I like it: no milk, no sugar, clear in white porcelain, fragrant. She returns with a wooden box. Heavy with smooth rounded corners. The wood is dark and polished to a shine. It smells smoky and deep. Engraved in the square carved into the top of the lid is a lattice of leaves.
THE MEMORY TREE
It has a hinge and a small brass clasp. For a minute, I imagine that I will open it and there at last will be my mother. Maybe a photograph, a letter, directions to her family: Here is my daughter, remember me. I am afraid to open it. We waged war, my father and I. Our battles were crippling: we’d retreat, advance, engage, retreat. When he found my sketches, we finally torched the huts with the women and children inside and slashed and burnt what remained. I’d tried to imagine her face. I had drawn many different versions of my own face in charcoal, widening the nose in some, narrowing her eyes, and in some setting them deep and slightly wider apart than mine. I removed every feature of my father’s from my own face and doubled up on what was left. All those parts had to be her: the heart shape, full lips, and thick eyebrows. The most difficult part was deciding on her hair. I liked to imagine she was bold and kept a mid-length rumpled afro. That her hair was black, shiny, and smelt of coconut oil. I also liked to draw her wearing long braided extensions all the way to her waist, sassy, with black power bracelets all down her arm. What is this rubbish? he bellowed. I had gotten there too late. A pile of pieces of paper lay on the table. I dropped my school bag on the floor and rushed to gather the shreds of my sketches to my chest as if somehow that would save them. What have you done? What did you do, you bastard! The heat in my words was always dry. We could start veld fires my father and I, all raging heat with no hope of rain. I wasn’t the crying type, neither was he. That is rich, coming from you. He was always quick on this mark. Oh, that again. You would love it if I wasn’t yours wouldn’t you? Then you would have a real reason for your hate. You’re a miserable drunk who can’t let go of a past he screwed up himself. Why did you marry a woman you didn’t love? You don’t talk to me like that, you little cunt. Don’t you call me that, you heartless monster. I’m your daughter and she was my mother. She was my mother! Why won’t you tell me about her? Why did you destroy everything of hers? She is the one who did it! She destroyed everything. She didn’t think of you. Blame her. She’s dead! And you blame her enough for the two of us. What did she do
that was so terrible? You’re just like her, he would shout, and the house would shake. Selfish, disloyal scheming little bitch. I ought to throw you out. I left. I married Doug. He dressed me in his wishes, paid for art school, and watched my star rise. Then the children came and didn’t stay. I stopped showing my work, then I stopped painting altogether. Sometimes Doug leaves his daily routine of lines and tries to get me to paint again. He wasn’t as gentle with her as he could have been. I am startled back into the overheated room in Holt Rambling. The old lady leans forward and continues as if sharing a secret. She was a capricious sort. Must have been growing up in the sun, you know. You coloured people do love to sing and dance, don’t you? It’s all that fresh air where you’re from. I want to laugh, but our blue-haired neighbour is serious. Deep in her recollections. What was that song she used to sing? Something about the wind. She hums the opening bars of a song I think I know: something about love and a wild wind. She could sing. It’s what she used to do where Tom met her, back in South Africa, or was it Namibia? I don’t quite recall. I have been afraid to interrupt her all this time; there is something fragile about all this. I can’t believe here is someone who knew my mother, who will talk to me about her. I don’t want to disrupt this almost unbelievable event, but I have to ask: What happened? What did they fight about? Everything. After your brother fell into the pond – the ice cracked, you see. I am surprised that I am not clutching my heart in my hands, the way it throws itself against its wall. My cup in its saucer feels the reverberation and jumps from my hand. The old lady watches it fall and clatter, breaking against the saucer, which is saved from the same fate by the busy carpet. Oh dear, let me get you something to clean that up. At the door to the kitchen she turns, rests on her cane, and says, She turned away for a second to talk to her friend when the boy ran onto the ice. She was holding the baby, so her friend, he ran to try and save the boy. It was too late.
THE MEMORY TREE
She shakes her head. Such a sad business. For the time she is gone, I am a statue, the wooden box still on my lap. A brother! The questions are a moss that has been growing from the pit of my stomach for years. It has finally reached my mouth, and it is so crowded in there I can barely form the words. My father’s bitter frost paralysed me all this time. I should have come here sooner. I should have tried harder to find a link that would have finally brought me here. I spent years fighting him instead of working my way around him. Throwing myself against the rock until I could no longer think, no longer feel the pain. I don’t realise how long she is gone until a key sounds in the door and a cheery voice calls out. A young woman enters. She has frizzy red hair and a colony of freckles all over her face. In the process of removing her scarf, she sees me and stops in the doorway. Oh, hello, she says. The old lady, from the kitchen doorway, greets her with an indulgent smile. Hello dear. Back again, so soon? I told your father it would take at least two hours. Then she looks at me, as if seeing me for the first time. You brought a friend! She nods in my direction and smiles. Hello dear, I wasn’t expecting you, so I’ll need to set an extra place for tea. I’m confused, but somewhere in a distant part of what I know for sure, is the understanding that here is the fragility of the situation realised. Don’t worry about that, Maude. The red-haired young woman hangs up her scarf and coat. I’ll take care of it. That’s what I’m here for. She bundles about until the old woman, Maude, is seated in a chair by the fire, crochet rug on her lap, a beatific smile on her face. She is right there in front of me, but she is gone. The smile doesn’t leave her face as she closes her eyes and sighs back into the chair. Thank you for coming, dear. It’s been so long. She’s patting the younger woman’s hand. Your father will be pleased. The young woman is a care worker. Maude gets a little confused sometimes, she tells me, all good cheer and
breezy energy. Sometimes she knows me, and some days she thinks I’m her daughter. She’s been a bit poorly this last week. Keeps mixing everything up. I explain that I am an old neighbour. Where is her husband? I ask. Will he be back soon? He passed on years ago, rest his soul. I am sunk. When I leave, I still have not opened the box. At the bed and breakfast, I call Doug. Yes, I say, I met an old neighbour. No, we didn’t have much time to talk, she got tired and I had to leave. I will tell him when I get home. I can’t form the words right now to tell him about everything. It’s all just floating around inside, unsure of where to settle. How much of what she said is true memory and how much is fog? I cannot breathe. My eyes are misting over. The moss has spread to my head. I didn’t even ask his name. My brother, I have no memory of him. Even though I was a baby, wouldn’t there be some sense of not having been alone in a family? Surely he would have left nuances of himself in the womb for me to inherit. Why did my father never mention him? Nor my uncle and his family? Was Maude confusing us with another family? Maybe there is a record of this incident somewhere. Tomorrow I will look. boy drowns in frozen pond is what the headline might say. Who was my mother’s friend? A man. Was he her lover? Was she unfaithful? Is there a real possibility I am not Tom’s daughter? I have his eyes. I have his stubborn chin that is slightly dented. I see him when I look at myself. I cannot have another parent I don’t know. Who would that make me? A phantom. A thing with no claim to the ground because there is no mother, no father in my head to bind to. I have cleaned my face, brushed my teeth and I am sitting on the bed in my pyjamas when I finally open the box. The mist is still hovering, in my breath, in my eyes. My heart is a cannon, my hands can barely function. I am afraid of what I will not find. I open it slowly, peeking in as I lift the lid, bit by bit. Could Maude have been mistaken? Perhaps Celestine was not the one who gave her this box. I think of how present she was when I first saw her; I think back over
THE MEMORY TREE
our conversation, the time I spent in her lounge listening to her talk. It all changed when the cup broke and she had to go into the kitchen. I am convinced she was with me until then. I slip a finger into the dark interior of the box and feel a soft cloth – velvet, or something like it. Tomorrow I will try our old house again. Maybe there are things they kept that I might recognise. We moved to Bath when I was three, surely something will trigger a memory. Maybe something was overlooked in the attic. I can ask around the neighbourhood. There must still be people living there who knew her. Celestine, I whisper again. She’s a faint form now. She was a singer. She liked Nina Simone. “Wild is the Wind,” that’s the song. I wish I had asked about her hair. It would tell me more. Did she burn her scalp straightening it or did she sit for hours having it braided? Maybe she wore it natural, locs – no, capricious. That doesn’t seem like a locs personality. Does that mean she was petite, like me? Flighty, unlike me? Was she delicate? I never tried to draw her body. Never really thought about it. It is everything I feared. When I finally pull the lid all the way open, there is no letter, no photograph, no heirloom with an inscription, nothing that says, to my daughter, or to anyone. There is no photograph or memento of a child who died trapped beneath the ice. There is nothing but a smooth egg that fits in my palm. It’s the same kind of wood as the box, maybe from a different tree, the rings are different hues of brown, some swirls almost cream. A wooden egg, in a wooden box. What does that mean? Why was it so special that she gave it to Maude for safekeeping? Did she know Tom would erase her from my life? Was it the only thing she could hide from him? A wooden egg in a wooden box. I hold it between my hands and close my eyes. The mist stings beneath my eyelids and my breath is gathered in my throat, suddenly confused about which way to go. I don’t remember lying down or crawling under the covers. I am watching myself from some other place as the tears trickle into the pillow, stuffing up my nose.
THE MEMORY TREE
This is not me. I am my fatherâ€™s daughter. We do not cry. We do not feel this kind of pain. He is a monster and I am the image of his brutishness. We are dry heat. Anything else will break us. We are the kind who, once broken, become ungovernable, especially within ourselves. Yet a wooden egg has breached the citadel. I move further and further away as I slide deeper towards sleep. And here, on the cusp of surrender, is the unimaginable, arrived just this second: I do not know how my mother died. I donâ€™t remember if I ever asked the question as a child. After that, all my other questions just assumed I knew. I am too far gone. Sleep claims me. That night, I dream the egg is hollow and I crawl into it. On my side, knees up to my chest, arms around my legs, head down. I close my eyes and I die. Doug plants me into the ground, bores a hole into the top of the egg and places a newborn tree through the space. The roots burrow into my hair, and above ground the tender leaves tremble in the crisp air.
EKATERINA COSTA from the Moscow Meditations series, 2017-2018
SANDALS You find figures, fissures, ways out. Sandal’s half-angelic measure. Reruns redistributing leisure on the beach with singles and straw skirts. Castles enact an accidental crawl space, enamored of canals, you get small, demure, push through. The pressure pops you out the chiasmatic acme atop valleys that drag on weekends as peak. Widows and orphans. Drop the refrain. That unsublatable remainder is you. Haunts the rubber running for judge on public treadmill. Twins breathing in synchrony; fictive whisper fluff piece. Enough. I dissolve into the next-door neighbor. We count our bounty dispossessed and redress the Countess, singing. It’s the same key with new teeth, redoubled until you get it. But mine is yours and always has been. Weird exclaves of patience ecstatically accept the premise of actually melting down the road cones, making synonyms of citrus and squash. A body without the bones. Gives like jelly or the geometric bottom of all things solid. But the property panics in advance, knowing the dandelion belongs to the neighbor even before you blow her. Endless restorations on the basement. Mold erupts in the subprime child; spores at first foreign become you. We focus and freak out. Futures flipped by the endless delicatessens of presence, iridescent cold cuts in warm-weather events. Massaging balm into the desert’s cracking theme, you get wet, restless, head by the belly. In the dim-lit violet fish-shack, we remain, for that moment, explicit. Rehydrating baby, cannot name, however advantageous to corral. True correlation becomes not really possible: bottom subtending tops, or the opposite, but not at once. Lips collapse into access without accent: siren of a superintended pleasure. She wakes you up. Mists on crypts of grass. Gives sun to Sci-Fi’s unforgiving cyan. From here on out, the porcelain only kindly greets your thigh. Angel, no more anguish in the ball pit. Olympia Dukakis will live on in your pocket. Swarms of kin on tape, unfolding tongues on the double-helix freeway. Does it matter. How this started. Tonal rapture on the chapped and ragged totem, milk sprayed from the paw with all four winds. But a unity still plays on repeat in a separate scene that I could never hold, or own, or pick up. Lives forever in that cognate promise. Splashed up, heeding screams of early seasons, sustained and released into the endless beleaguered meantime. We repeat.
“Self-Portrait” 3 I refer to the design of the body that glows with pins and needles. I refer to the body of the designer who identifies as a heat sensor. I refer to the weeklong humidity. What happens to the person in this photo? If you’re blurred into ocean-like waves, I will cry. And on hot days I will eat boysenberry gelato. What else shall we do? Here is an old jpg of sweet young pale me. “Take me home to your television.” I meet me at the edge of the couch. My jaw adjusts by degree hourly. That you’re not talking about it widens my concern. Hi, craterface. Most of what I love I reject. It’s me not you operating on a working definition of ‘maybe.’ I think as a loon, and it’s a great way to relax. I’m looking for literal boundaries not literary boundaries. I love you as a poetic subject. Why the mouth? I cut myself into a quote. Consider this as part of an elaborate plan to transform myself back into a word. Consider this my origin.
THE PLAGUE YEARS Ignacio died first. With his elegant conquisto nose, his jade eyes, his jetblack hair, Ignacio was – and remains – the handsomest man I’ve ever seen offscreen. My cousin Mark met him in Buenos Aires and brought him home to San Francisco six months later. The party where Mark introduced Ignacio to his friends was the season’s big event. With cases of Malbec and Chardonnay, plates piled high with salad and lasagna, it was like a wedding banquet, Skip said. So many laughing, smoking guests crowded into Mark’s tiny Tenderloin apartment that the fire alarm sounded. Skip stood on Randy’s shoulders to turn it off. Then we made a midnight run to Just Desserts, bringing back three kinds of cake, Double Rainbow ice cream, and blondies. Did I mention the Champagne? And the conga line that snaked out of my cousin’s window onto the fire escape and up to the rooftop? Up there, next to the night sky, Mark and I wrapped our arms around each other and watched the fog roll in across the Bay. “I am so happy,” he told me. “So goddamn fucking happy. Is this what being in love feels like?” About a month later, Ignacio got sick. Little things at first – a cold that would not end. A fever that came and went. An upper respiratory infection. A rash. Thrush. A severe itch that would seize him at the oddest moments. Doctors didn’t seem to know what it was. Elena brought herbs from the Mexican farmacia; Mudita gave him acupuncture treatments. Nothing worked. Mark had no patience. “Honestly,” he told me. “The only hope for Ignacio is Lourdes!” The rest of us blamed the weather. It was a damp, cold, miserable winter, and we thought that what Ignacio the Argentinian needed was sunshine. So Jenny Tripp, Skip, and I threw a Casa del Sol party to raise money for a restorative trip to Cancún. We made about $1,000. Even though the trip was abandoned, the money came in handy. Because two nights after that party, lesions appeared. Within a month, Ignacio was dead.
Mark sobbed in my arms at the funeral. “I wish I could take back every bitchy thing I ever said,” he told me. We were standing in the vestibule of Glide Memorial Church, San Francisco’s activist Methodist sanctuary. And we were there because Catholic St. Mary’s – Mark’s church, Ignacio’s church – refused to say a Requiem Mass. Randy circulated a card of protest addressed to the archbishop of San Francisco. My conservative Catholic mother was the first to sign. “You have sent us into the belly of the Reformation,” she wrote. “Shame on you.” Thoughtful Salvatore inscribed Bible verses: “Whatsoever you have done to these, the least of my brethren, you have done it unto me.” Mark’s brother Michael simply wrote “Fuck you.” We mailed the card en route to the Savoy Tivoli, Ignacio’s favorite San Francisco restaurant. The site of many a post-Memorial gathering, the Savoy was art deco to the max. Artificial trees with golden leaves, Aubrey Beardsley prints, and etched glass doors on all the booths. People raised glasses, made toasts, gave speeches. My mother, Hollywood elegant in a black silk dress that Ignacio had given her, stood at the bar, drinking a martini. “Cookie,” she called – it was an old childhood endearment she hadn’t used for years. “Cookie, I’ll buy you a drink” – and then, when I was close, she looked at me and said – “does anyone know what actually killed him?” “Some kind of cancer,” I told her. “That’s what the autopsy said.” “And what do you think?” she asked, her nails thrumming the bar. “I don’t know, Ma,” I answered. “I don’t know what to think.” “Exactly,” she said. “Do me a favor; stay close to Mark.” A few months later, Tim died. Then Miguel. Then my boyfriend from elementary school, Gary Niduaza. Then a close friend from high school, Kevin Coughlin, affectionately known as Cog. Then Richard, and Andy and Tom, and Sam, and Max, and Kim and Geoff and Allen and Randy. Randy, who’d told the archbishop of San Francisco to go fuck himself, Randy also died. After that, a blur. At the height of the crisis I went to a funeral a week. Sometimes more than that. My mother gave me $30 to buy a second “nice” black dress from the thrift store, so I could send the one I had been wearing to the
THE PLAGUE YEARS
cleaners. “This reminds me of the war,” she told me. The medical establishment didn’t know what the hell was going on. A gay cancer, they said initially. Even after HIV was identified in 1984, it was difficult to get a handle. HIV could incubate for years before people developed AIDS, so compiling a virus profile in the lab was difficult. Since it seemingly only affected gay men and IV-drug users, low-priority groups in Reagan’s America, there wasn’t a lot of funding for research, or even much discussion of the need for it. And the little discussion there was was often appalling. Senator Jesse Helms proposed reopening the old World War II Japanese internment camps and quarantining all gay men, all junkies. Lest the disease cross over to the “general” population. Because the one thing that was clear was that in the affected communities AIDS was an epidemic, a plague. In 1985, the number of known American deaths from AIDS was 5,636. One year later, the year Ronald Reagan uttered the disease’s name for the first time, 10,000 more people died. Straight No-Wave women inherited our dead friends’ black leather jackets and, wearing them, we descended on the Castro. We walked dogs, changed cat litter, cleaned apartments, made meals, and sat with the afflicted so that their caregivers could get out of the house. Leather Angels, my cousin Mark called us. Every week a small group of us went to the San Francisco airport to pick up grieving mothers flying in from Nebraska, Oklahoma, Indiana – many of whom learned that their beloved son was gay at the same time they found out he was dying. ACT UP organized in New York in March 1987; by April there was a San Francisco chapter. ACT UP Golden Gate arranged marches, held kiss-ins, intervened in clinical drug trials, and went en masse to public meetings. With Dykes on Bikes, they closed the San Francisco Bay Bridge and they inspired rag-tag groups of AIDS activists to regularly shut down the BART stations. Anything to inconvenience people, to disrupt their day, to make the straight establishment sit up and take notice. And still the funerals rolled down to the two-tongued sea.
By the end of the decade, entire San Francisco communities had been decimated. The Castro, of course. Noe Valley. Polk Street. The theater
community. The arts community. My community. In late 1990 – a year after the Loma Prieta earthquake – my friend Jenny Tripp died. Jenny and I went back a long time – to Damien Switchboard and 1960s Crisis Hotline days. I’d spoken to her just days before her death. She’d been stabilized on a new drug for months and was looking forward to going back to work. We’d made a date. “Let’s go to the Cliff House,” she’d said, “and drink tequila sunrises like the old days.” So the call from my cousin Mark came as a shock. Jenny Tripp was gone. When I heard the news, I ran all the way to the school where Skip taught art. Slinking into the back of the studio, I sat until the lunch bell rang, barely able to acknowledge the students who recognized me. I couldn’t bear to wait until four that afternoon to tell him. And I couldn’t bear the thought of telling him on the phone. As it turned out, I didn’t have to tell him at all. I just said her name and he knew. That night, Jenny’s sister Alex came by, with a card addressed to me and a midnight-blue 1930s cocktail dress. “Make sure they play Janis Joplin at my funeral,” the card said. “And that everyone has a red ribbon. And wear this dress. Because I bought it for you.” A few years later, we moved to Indiana. I had gotten a job teaching at the state university, and Skip was happy to retire and focus on his art. At the time we moved, we hadn’t been to a funeral in over a year, and we thought the worst of it, at least in our little corner of the world, was over. And then one night the phone rang. My mom calling to tell me she’d seen my ex-partner’s mother. “Kay came into the store,” Mom told me. “She’s been trying to get in touch with you. Honey, Chris is dead.” “How did he die?” I asked. Chris was 42, and I was hoping she’d tell me he’d been in a car accident, or hit his head swimming, or even OD’ed… “Pneumonia,” she answered in that crisp tone she’d used whenever she caught me in an adolescent lie. “AIDS-related pneumonia.” “Cookie,” she said. There it was, that childhood endearment again. “Cookie, have you been tested?” Well no, as a matter of fact, I had not, despite all the friends and lovers who had died. Despite everything I knew, I had not been tested. I was in a monogamous relationship, and I guess I thought that would protect me from my past. “I think you should,” my mother insisted. “I heard this show on the radio and they keep pushing back the date.” I knew what she meant. At
THE PLAGUE YEARS
the beginning of the crisis, people asked who you were sleeping with three years ago. Then five. Then seven. Then ten. “And I keep thinking about your friend Jenny,” my mother continued. “You two were always – well, I thought you two were a lot alike.” My poor mom – she had spent my entire adolescence and early adulthood pretending not to know anything about my sex life. And she was doing her damnedest now to avoid saying she knew I’d slept with some of the friends who’d died. That, like Jenny Tripp, I had a history of falling in love with complicated men. In those days, it took a while to get the results of an HIV test. The blood was sent to some lab out of state. I knew it would be at least two weeks before we got the results. And during those two weeks I made Skip wear condoms. He was puzzled when I brought home the box. “You want to do some role-playing?” he asked me. “You wanna pretend we’re having an affair?” But no, I was just superstitious. I used to joke that I believed in the ancient Greek gods because they were only ones capricious and petty enough to be real. And during those two weeks, I did not want to tempt the Fates – or the Furies. We tried not to talk about it much. But we couldn’t really avoid those late-night conversations. What would we do if… ? What would we tell our son? When would we tell him? How would we tell him? When they came, our reports were not quite comforting. Both of us tested negative for HIV. Skip got a clean bill of health. No need to re-test unless he changed or added partners or unless his current partner – me – tested positive. My report was more ambiguous. Because of my history, I was urged to re-test in six months, and if I developed any sudden fevers or a rash, I should seek treatment immediately and tell my health-care providers… Tell them what exactly? That once, long ago, I loved a man who loved men as much as he loved women? That I’d been always attracted to fineboned men who moved like cats in the night? I did finally have that conversation with my son. Not, thank God, because I was dying, but because I wanted him to be careful. Because I couldn’t stand the thought of losing him. Because I didn’t want to be one of those moms I used to comfort – flying in from Indiana. And I wanted
THE PLAGUE YEARS
him to listen, not see me as a mom-cop, speaking from a morally superior – oh, I never casually fucked anyone – height. So I told him that I’d lost a lot of friends. That once I’d loved a man who loved men as much as he loved women. That I’d often been attracted to bisexual men. And that many of those men were now dead. “Have you been tested?” he asked me, his voice small and thin, so different from his newly-acquired man-voice. “Yes,” I told him. “We both have. We’re fine. We’re fine.” Well – maybe not that fine. But we survived. Skip and I and Mark – Mark – survived. It was a plague. A black plague. And Ignacio was the first to die.
at 10 p.m. When at 11 your brother learns to polish his shoes and count backwards from 15 years too late, I change my mind. I think of the space carved, time—all spectacle and chard—given to Someone once called me the black girl by mistake, figured the distinction between girl and black was thick enough to I wanted to play the French horn because it’s fancier than the trumpet, more unique than the flute. Music was never a menace: rhythm pushed, spackled into guilt. I placed the Pietà in a shoe store because that’s the place of reckoning. A mother held her son, remembered telling him about being prepared for changing seasons, the limitations he’d tread. If a god willed it—those changes—where’d they go? If divined into speech, give me any silence. What can I say? Too late is impossible: blind spots, careful iterations of sharp corners and plunging musical arrangements. Fifteen years, a solo bent under the weight of every responsibility placed in his hands: the smell of shoe polish never fades. Its density only parallels that of plastic burning on a stovetop in 1996. That stove still exists, works just as it did then, except for the front eye on the right side: its gauge is off, medium is high and high is too hot. Prisms fracture lights left on, suggest we’re always home.
From a Winter Notebook
*** Winter, ending in soft rain, softening the tree bark, the dog turd, and leaves from last year uncovered. I can send my CV further than I am going. Saying goodbye, farewell, adieu — my jacket over your nightgown. It’s not the party you want to be drunk at. Like a dog, cynics stick around. Remember, I did this for you—
*** Pass by the co-work, they offer gelato, unlimited Australian coffee — non-dairy creamers, sweeteners provided. Check, nothing quiet’s playing at the movies, blue hydrangeas, so I go home, past runners training behind glass to run longer in American apparel. I thought I heard somebody say to someone “You look like a Cy Twombly.” Then I come back to you in Spain, though it’s only your photo I tacked up by the door last winter sometime.
*** I got tired of starting in winter, forgetting the calendar to get around it. I hate to be alone but step outside my own party. Songs teach that love is free and beautyâ€™s pricey: some give their eyes for it. Even the simple life goes for an arm and a leg. All hours sound alarms: my ears are shot. These cukes are long and summerâ€™s short, lit from the south.
from FROM A WINTER NOTEBOOK
HOW TO WRITE A LOVE LETTER (NOTES) Start by living in a house together as flatmates. Receive an email from a small independent publisher announcing a call for submissions to an anthology of Australian love letters. This publisher has already published Australian Love Poems and Australian Love Stories. Next they will probably publish Australian Love Songs. Think about submitting a love letter, but hesitate, as you aren’t sure you and the publisher have the same idea of love. Love letter. Letter. Let her. Love let her. Let her love. Think you love your flatmate but also be unsure. This is important. You are not sure how to write a love letter to him because he doesn’t believe in love. Perhaps you should just write him a short note – a postcard really – that says, “I am emotionally dependent on you.” You cannot remember where this story began, as for you there has only and always been this situation. Someone opened the book halfway through; they creased the spine, and this is how it will always fall open. Certain actions and words must have brought you to this point, but you can’t remember what they were. He broke up with his girlfriend, that was part of it. It seems like you have always been here: him sitting there at the table reading and you sitting here on the couch typing on your laptop. Spend a lot of time in your study, typing. He teases you about it, calls it your parlour. Sometimes he is like a nice gentleman caller visiting you in your parlour: you chat a while, you laugh a while. You have refresh-
ments. You drink sparkling mineral water while he drinks cheap beer. So little information makes it to the parlour – you appreciate it when he brings you the news of the day. As you talk, he makes you feel interesting. Sometimes you are like a spider inviting him to come into your parlour. He is like a fly. And we all know how that turns out. When you are near him he sings about birds suddenly appearing. He sings about longing to be close to you, just like the birds. Your spirits lift, you think, at last, at last he adores me. You look down and there are little birds all over your dress, and it is like he has sung them into being. Then he sings a different song that is in no way connected to you, that is none of your business. He hurts your feelings with the smallest gesture, the smallest arrangement of words in space. Your confidence puffs out its chest with the smallest compliment. He inflates you, he deflates you, like old bellows. He leaves a curry fingerprint on your poetry book and you feel the smudge for weeks. This is a soaring, a crashing love. This is a love that scares you. It opens doors to the centre of your self and takes out memories that haven’t seen the light for a long time. The memories are made of glass and some are very dusty, but when you polish them up with your t-shirt they look okay. Together, you look at the memories and say things like: “Oh, that is nice,” “That’s a nice colour,” and “The light shines through that one nicely.” One day you are caught as still as statues on the stair landing. If you were in a museum, people would come to see the two of you there. Critics would argue over the asymmetry in the arrangement of your figures. Him turning, telling you he is afraid, asking you to hold him. You reaching, your arms reaching through the air, yet frozen. You only know love came first and then the words for it, the sound before the note. Feel the careful origami of your life unfolding. He empties the dishwasher, you take out the garbage, no one waters
HOW TO WRITE A LOVE LETTER (NOTES)
the plants. One night throughout the slow preparation of dinner, your thoughts bunch like heartbeats or kisses until everything rests on the fall of a blade. And then it falls and still nothing is decided. You think you will be dead soon so it doesn’t really matter, or maybe that is why it matters. For what could matter more? There is a kettle whistling. Hear yourself whistle like a kettle. This love curls up inside you like a lazy earworm, then slowly, over weeks, it dissipates and things go back to normal. You no longer think you might love him. He gets back together with his girlfriend. You type, he reads. You drink mineral water. He drinks cheap beer. You wear your size-14 dress made out of cotton cloth with birds on it. Your little feelings are neatly packaged back up: a little box with a little ribbon on top. Yell out, “Oh, give us some straws to clutch at!” to no one in particular. Look back and realise that this is the order it had to happen in, the way it had to be written. It couldn’t have been written any other way. Follow these instructions to the letter.
FEDERICO FEDERICI “Wolkenzug” from the Concrete Disassembled Poems series, 2017
FEDERICO FEDERICI “Breadth digit” from the Concrete Disassembled Poems series, 2017
Fine I Admit I Am Bitter and my heart is swollen with dark venom I vodka my body into the vultureâ€™s mouth as poison my country raised me on bad milk now I do bad drugs to polish my tongue I'm the rift in my neighborhood water cycle I kill flowers as a way of coping and yes I do think everything is a way of coping do not dear boy do not bite life is such good fun at night I know my fear as the sharpest form of vanity my hands folded inside a deep gash I watch the smoke pirouette out of the gap in my teeth I sink into a silent dream of the good wolf being so starved that it bites
IF YOU SHOULD TURN A LEMON SWEET Three weeks before I was born, a mountain lion mutilated my aunt’s body and left it on the side of the road to bleed out, so by the time paramedics got there, granules of dirt had soaked up most of her blood. At this point, she’d already earned her PhD and traveled around the globe. Along the way, she purchased a house in Pebble Beach, a gated community on the coast of California famous for its golf courses. A house with three huge lemon trees in the backyard. She left it under my name. I don’t know why, because I certainly never did anything to deserve such a gift. Pebble Beach is not a beach. Sometimes things are not what they appear to be. Or rather, sometimes words get things wrong. Lemon shortbread, for instance, isn’t bread. Jellyfish are not fish. We get the sea-nettle kind around here, but I’ve never seen one in the water. Unrelated thoughts: You can still breathe through fog, no matter how dense. Salt climbs to the top of your lip when you sit on the beach in the middle of winter so that when you eat later, you can still taste the ocean. When I was younger, my mother told me I’d die if I drank too much salt water, so I said “Wanna bet?” and pretended to scoop buckets full of it into my mouth. In actuality, I was just pouring the water behind me, back into the Pacific. Around this same age, I would defiantly cut lemons into quarters, pour salt on them until they began to wilt, and eat their insides with a crab fork at the dinner table. “You are a sour little girl,” people used to tell me, so I got sweeter like they wanted, grew up into someone quieter, started making lemon jam, lemon meringue, lemon cookies, lemon everything.
In the kitchen at the restaurant where I worked with Stella, they stuffed lemons inside of ducks and scalloped the peels to look like roses. There again: a thing appearing to be what it’s not. Stella and I had been living together for just over a year when she met the artist. She didn’t know who he was, but I did. Admittedly, I kept on top of trivial celebrity news, and the artist was, you could say, quasi-famous. Especially in a place like Pebble Beach. I didn’t tell her this at the time because back then I was not worried about being honest. When it rained, Stella would curl up with me in bed, an anachronistic blue ribbon in her soft hair. We would get under my heavy, pungent blanket, but our bodies would never make contact. One time, I had been baking iced lemon cookies just before. I still had confectioners’ sugar under my fingernails and my tongue felt rough from tasting the acidic flavors, even though I had brushed for minutes. Because the fruit was on my mind – and, to be honest, I was tired and couldn’t think of other topics to discuss, but the silence felt wrong – I started a little game. “Before a lemon gets ripe,” I said, “it swells like a balloon.” This isn’t true, by the way. It’s something I made up. “What if I told you lemons don’t go rotten if you bury them six feet in the ground?” Also, not true. “What if I told you some people are sexually aroused by lemons?” Possibly true, but I couldn’t be bothered to do any research on the matter. “I had a friend,” Stella played along. “She took that pill, you know, to get rid of her baby, and in the bath that same night, right in the water, she saw a blood clot the size of a lemon floating there. Just beside her like that.” We both knew this friend was her, but we didn’t say that out loud. In fact, after that, we didn’t say anything at all. The dictionary defines truth as “a body of real things, events, and facts,” which makes sense, I suppose. Because in the body, you remember every-
IF YOU SHOULD TURN A LEMON SWEET
thing. Every real thing. In the body, you don’t need words in order to speak. Stella and I looked similar. My aunt and I also looked similar. By that measure, Stella looked like my aunt. At the restaurant where we worked, people mistook us for one another, though I was two years younger, just eighteen at the time. I always retorted, “She looks like my dead aunt,” until my manager told me not to talk to the customers like that. Of course, what he didn’t know is that I knew I shouldn’t talk to the customers like that. I am not an idiot. The restaurant was located inside the most upscale hotel in Pebble Beach. In one direction: the ocean, in the other: golf courses. If you ventured northeast from the property, you could walk right up to the edge of a cliff. Had I thought about jumping off of it before? Of course. This does not make me special. Still, if you held a gun to my head and asked me if I thought I was special, yes or no, I would probably tell you to pull the trigger so we could find out. One morning I woke up and could hear ringing in my room, so I called an electrician to check out the house. This was sometime in the spring, before. Stella and I watched him look around for hours as we ate popsicles and followed his footsteps, asking if he wanted something to drink. Our house was covered in jetsam we should have found mortifying: underwear, empty birth-control packs, half-drunk bottles of Shiraz, to-go boxes from the restaurant. Most of our curtains were always closed. The Spanish tiles in the entryway, cracked. In the hallways, carpet peeled around the edges as if it were trying to escape. Mold curled up in the corners of our cabinets, and the kitchen had a constant, punitive stench that was at once comforting and depleting. After confirming nothing would or should be creating a buzzing noise, he said, “You should get some light in here. It looks like you two are starting a coven.” “Watch out, we’ll put a spell on you,” Stella replied and kissed him on the cheek. The ringing never stopped. I, on the other hand, learned how to ignore it. Stella finally brought the artist over in August. Before I came home from
my shift that night, he had knocked a large glass of red wine off the coffee table, and our beige living-room carpet had seeped it right up. When he introduced himself to me, he did not sound the least bit penitent about the stain. I felt he really should have been, and his insistence not to be was a missed opportunity to get on my good side. Later I told Stella, “He’s so tall,” as if it were a scary thing, or something to be worried about. In reality, his bigness should have been comforting. He had a nice-looking face, even if, at certain angles, it was kind of plain. I remember thinking at the time how it might be important for artists to have unremarkable faces. I also remember thinking how I shouldn’t have allowed red wine in the living room. I kept pictures of her – my dead aunt – hung up on the wall. Or, I guess, I never took them down. “Really beautiful,” the artist said when he passed by the photo of my aunt at the beach. She’s looking away from the camera. She must have been around my age. “That’s my aunt.” “I could have sworn it was you.” “Doesn’t it look more like Stella?” “I don’t see it,” he said and then went on about something regarding apertures. I should mention that when the artist spoke to me, it didn’t seem like he was doing it for the sake of being polite. It seemed like he really wanted to. After all, there’s a difference between feeling like you ought to do something and like you want to, and I’m being honest when I say I’m actually not sure if I ever learned that difference. The air was often thick in the house, so Stella and I would leave the doors and windows open at night. I looped hanging bells through fishing line and hung them in front of certain entry points in case an animal – or intruder – came in. Part of me had this hope someone would. You know, come inside and tape my mouth shut and unbutton my clothes. Sometimes I imagined it could be him, but really it could have been anyone. On another note, never mind.
IF YOU SHOULD TURN A LEMON SWEET
The artist wore dark jeans and a blue crushed-velvet jacket zipped all the way up. He had a tattoo on the underside of his wrist. It said something in Latin. Sometimes he wore a baseball cap. I asked if he liked baseball. He said, “Do you?” Sometimes he wore Buddy Holly glasses. Other times, he touched the soft part of my arm when he passed me in the hall or bathroom or kitchen, and on occasion, I did not flinch or retract. And not just because I didn’t want to be rude or come across as strange. Because I didn’t mind. At first, the truth wasn’t that I liked or disliked him, though objectively, anyone would deem him likable enough. I had it in my head that I preferred a more battered type of person. Someone with visibility. But when he started talking to me about art, for instance, he was condescending in a way that made me want to prove myself. This felt inviting. It made him fatally interesting, even though it really had nothing to do with him but everything with who I thought he was: someone who knew I was a big phony, who was inviting me to reveal myself, to shed a layer, to go back down to bones. Which honestly sounded like relief, like rest after a long day’s work. Like turning the light off, like taking the whole bottle. Like drowning on purpose. One time, Stella sprained her ankle when we ran through the sprinklers on the golf courses late at night. I gave her a few pills from my old Vicodin prescription and watched her become loopy and pallid as she crawled into bed with me. “Let’s play our game,” she said. I pretended to have fallen asleep. “Come on! I’m broken, feel bad for me.” “Fine,” I acquiesced. “But you have to go to bed after this.” She nodded. I paused, then continued, “There’s a magic pill that turns sour lemons sweet.” This was true. I had read about it on the internet, the miracle-berry fruit pill. A pill that changes the taste of foods, derived from a West African plant. She seemed to think about my comment for a second, this look rushing over her face in a tiny wave as the blue ribbon in her hair fluttered. Then she said, so loudly I thought she’d wake the neighbors, “We have
to try that!” I liked Stella. I never wanted to hurt her. It was somewhat of a fad during this time to hold miracle-fruit pill parties, so we threw one. Before everyone arrived, I popped a different kind of pill (Xanax), to ease the social anxiety, and got drunk off vodka sodas. Stella and I sliced up lemons from the backyard and laid them out on the table. We invited a mixture of coworkers and her friends. I didn’t have much to contribute. After our guests left, Stella and I finished the vodka together on the kitchen floor. To this day, vodka makes me feel like I’ve been hit in the back of the head with a charitable rod of electricity. It also makes me feel less alone, which is another way to say, more alive, which is an embarrassing thing to admit, and something I wouldn’t say out loud. On another note, I did not think the fruit pills were miraculous. The Xanax, however, felt pretty good. Who was the first person to bite into a lemon after ingesting the miracle berry? And were they happy when the lemon wasn’t what it seemed? Did they know the truth? The presence of the miracle berry didn’t mean the sourness had gone away. It only meant I could no longer taste it on my tongue. We were in the car, the three of us, on our way to Big Sur. The artist was driving. Stella was asleep in the back seat. They had invited me last minute, and because of my inability to say no (a fear of disappointing others, of letting people down, etc.), I said, “Let me pack my bags,” and then packed them. Everything was in bloom. Flowers crackled pink, blue, and yellow. He touched me lightly on the kneecap and told me something about the coast that I already knew. This made me instantly uncomfortable, but I didn’t want to embarrass him after he had been nice enough to invite me, so I did nothing but smile back at him and nod. Like an idiot. What matters, I suppose, is what we’re not saying. You could reduce it down to a word, if you wanted to. The only problem is that, historically
IF YOU SHOULD TURN A LEMON SWEET
speaking, the word doesn’t really fit. The word is for strangers in alleyways, for dates with ruthlessly entitled men, for plot devices that move a story forward. Not for a sensitive artist with Buddy Holly glasses who keeps stacks of Virginia Woolf in the back of his car, who has an older sister, who paints, who asks if you want a glass of water before he forces you face down on his bed, and then asks if you want another one after he’s done. I will not continue to describe the ways in which I’ve heard or seen the word used, because, for one, the word conjures up tons of other words, some shameful, some not, some that disintegrate when I pull them apart, and it would take too long to delve deeper into other people’s use of the word. Plus, I’ve been thinking about the word for a long time now and I don’t believe it’s done me any good. I also don’t believe that putting a word on something will help me understand it better. Words are rigid, bottomless cups, not built to contain anything, like that unsuspecting pull of the Pacific that flutters and sucks, that the swimmers run out to and expect something else of, but that silences them instead. Leaves them only heard by the vibrations of their cold, shaking limbs. The night we checked into the Big Sur hotel, the artist and I went out on the balcony and lit a cigarette. Moments later, the door to the balcony on the left of us opened too. The balconies were not far apart and we could see at least a dozen of them on either side. An elderly woman stepped outside. After a few minutes of silence, she looked over at us and smiled. “What a nice couple,” she said. We didn’t correct her. I used to have this one recurring dream about my aunt and the mountain lion. In the dream, I’m walking on the trail and the lion approaches me. It turns itself on its back and I scratch its belly. I told my mother about the dream. “Sounds nice,” she said. I didn’t tell her how, at the end of the dream, I get eaten alive by the lion, and once I’m inside him, another one comes and eats me too, and that it goes on, the eating and eating and eating, until I wake up. I broke a glass in the driveway once and wasn’t wearing any shoes, so a small piece of it must have lodged itself under my skin. When I woke up
the next morning, my foot was swollen. “Is it infected?” I asked the artist as he sat on the floor of our bathroom, trying to dig out the impossible shard with tweezers. “Dunno,” he said. After several minutes of failed excavation, he told me there was no piece of glass, even though, like the ringing in my room, I knew it was there. I still think it is. I can feel it when I walk. During our conversations – which started to take place more frequently, often while Stella was asleep or working a shift at the restaurant – I began revealing parts of myself to the artist. The only problem was that these parts were not real parts but rather false fragments of a deeply embedded persona I had made up long ago. Probably around the same time when I pretended to pour salt water down my throat in front of my mother. When I learned to lie. When I got so good at it, I couldn’t quite recognize the truth anymore. Someone’s remains were found by the hotel pool once. A young girl, sixteen. At first, they thought it might have been an animal attack, but evidence showed she had been tortured and violated. The top of her trachea sliced open like a smile (allegedly). Many nights, Stella and I snuck into that pool, around midnight or later. The air smelled wet and grassy. I always thought I saw people watching us, but Stella always assured me they were just shadows. Back then, every so often, a flock of businessmen would stay at the hotel. They offered Stella and me to come back to their rooms. They had coke on the table. They had heavy credit cards. They had their sheets changed three times a day just because someone would do it for them. They exploited each other for the sake of the story. Jumped off the roof into the pool. Went naked into the ocean. They looked to no one for permission. They didn’t care about anything, so we all didn’t care together. How interesting it was that nothing ever went terribly wrong. Our young and slim bodies in those pools in the middle of the night. On the night it happened, I got home after and sat down on the couch next to Stella, who was watching a documentary. I was drunk and con-
IF YOU SHOULD TURN A LEMON SWEET
fused and blocked by my own thoughts. Or maybe it was the liquor. Either way, I was numb, neutral even. Now, I should admit that, absurdly, the more I thought about being neutral, the angrier I grew there next to Stella, watching her watch a documentary. As time passed, I became more and more revolted by my ineptitude to really sit through something and process it by way of actually feeling, of actually letting something into my body. That’s when I started to wish my dead aunt’s home would liquefy with Stella and me inside of it. And that we would all drip out into the ocean. Because then we’d never have to talk – or not talk – about anything ever again. When it started to rain, I imagined, for a moment, that I had won. Later that night, while we were brushing our teeth together in the bathroom, I spit pink into the porcelain below me. I thought I brushed too hard, but when I looked closer in the mirror, I realized my upper lip was cut open, just above the cupid’s bow. I must have bit myself in a panic. I should have done the proper thing, disinfected it. But instead, I decided to let it keep bleeding, let it stay there, climb to the top of my lip and dry. Sometimes the waves got so high in Pebble Beach, the water appeared as if it might swallow the grass. The golfers would move their bodies and carts back, afraid. I always wanted to tell them they didn’t have to worry. The water would never get that close. Sometimes I am the golfers moving back from the waves and I think, if I’m being honest, which I am trying to be, I would conclude this is my biggest problem: I am afraid of the wrong things. For instance, when I learned how my aunt died, I asked to see photos of her mangled body, that’s why I’ve never been able to stop thinking about the blood-soaked granules. Because I had no problem looking at them. I had wanted to. I had asked. When he was done with me, we were still in his room. Somehow I had ended up on the floor. I think I said, “I should go, get back to her now.” He thought I was referring to Stella, but I was talking about my aunt. I was going on about how she needed me back at the house to help her make lemon meringue pie for the party we were having. There was obvi-
ously no party due to my aunt being dead. I stole his car and drove it back home. I almost crashed it right into the side of the house, but, at the last minute, decided I shouldn’t. I didn’t want Stella to have to clean up the mess. The next morning, I took two Xanax and danced around my room, abuzz with a hangover. I saw his car on the grass and went to move it, to make sure Stella didn’t see. It was then that I noticed the blood stains I had left on the seat. I don’t know if it hurt. I thought of the red-wine stain and I laughed, I laughed so hard I finally stopped thinking. Then I went back inside and made linguine with a lemon cream sauce. I ate it on the bathroom floor. I called my mother and asked about my aunt. I wondered what she would have thought of me now. One night, Stella brought home a Ouija board. She threw the books off the coffee table and demanded I sit and play with her. We made a thorough list of questions. Mine: Who are we? Have you seen my pair of jeans that went missing three months ago? Do you know my aunt? Is she here? Hers: Will the artist and I fall in love? We put bandanas over our mouths to make sure our breathing wouldn’t affect the movement. “Do you know my aunt?” The planchette quivered. “Is she here?” Stella laughed, “Can you at least tell us where those jeans went? Can you at least tell me if the artist loves me yet?” The planchette spelled: N, O. “It’s okay,” I said. “It’s not real.” But I didn’t actually notice the response, because the whole time I’d been thinking about how I had never seen a photo of my aunt looking into the camera. After Stella found out about the artist and me, she left and I began to have insomnia. I would exit the back of the house in only my shirt and underwear. I walked in the hushed grass, in between the sounds of the ocean. I sat down in the grass, in front of the lemon trees. The fog was dense, but I was still able to breathe. Here’s what I remember. I remember saying, “I shouldn’t do this, I usually don’t do this,” and then I remember the artist saying, “I don’t either,” and then, I remember saying nothing.
IF YOU SHOULD TURN A LEMON SWEET
I remember a feeling of emptiness in my stomach. Which was good. Except it didn’t sit deep enough to override how, after that point, after I stopped talking, I began to really not mind. Mind what was being done to me or my body. I remember thinking that he had gotten this far, and that it was easier to swallow my words than it was to double back and try to stop what I didn’t want to be doing. Especially because I might have, at one point, wanted to be doing it. I remember thinking that, in that moment, while he held my head down so I could smell the paint under his fingernails and I looked over and saw Stella’s blue ribbon hanging off the corner of his bed, quietness was the only thing that made sense. I have heard that, on the day my aunt died, they dragged her body off the gravel and into the ambulance, and my mother, standing in the kitchen, felt me kick inside of her stomach so hard she fell to the ground. Once, during a terrible fight, my mother looked at me and said, “What happened to your aunt, sometimes I wish that would have been you. You’ve been too lucky in your life.” It’s true. I have been given many things I don’t deserve. I’ve been safe in times where safety should have evaded me. Mostly, the world has indulged me, accommodated me. Still, I do not feel lucky. I didn’t tell my mother, how in that recurring dream, my aunt’s there too. Before I meet the mountain lion on the trail, I find her. Her body’s hacked to pieces, but still, she looks beautiful, happy even. She’s eating something, and as I look closer, I notice what it is. A rotting lemon. “Have some,” she says, and I swallow it whole.
How wide is the sun? Life is a song we play to each other with varying degrees of resolution. These might be our fruits offered across bracken, silicon & gullies. In rooms & open spaces & shadows our main sequence of days open & close. Even stars die. I read that it took 12,000 shellfish to dye one toga purple. Someoneâ€™s at the sea fringe counting, raw-knuckled, queuing for ice cream. We live halfway through the life of the sun in open melt.
tarek sebastian al-shamma is a self-taught artist born in London to French and Iraqi parents. The work is his personal reflection on history, migration, culture, East, West, death, and sex. He has had several solo shows in Britain and is part of collections in Singapore, Los Angeles, and London. elizabeth allen writes in Sydney and works as a bookseller at Gleebooks. Her poetry, short fiction, and literary criticism have found frequent publication in many well-respected journals and anthologies. The author of two full-length collections of poetry, Body Language (Vagabond Press, 2012) and Present (Vagabond Press, 2017), Elizabeth won the Dame Leonie Kramer Prize in 2001 and the Anne Elder Award in 2012. She has recently completed residencies at the Arteles Creative Center in Finland and the Bundanon Trust in Australia. guilherme bergamini was born in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. He graduated in journalism and has been working with photography for 22 years. Through this art, Bergamini intends to express his experiences, worldview, and anxieties. He has received awards in national and international competitions and festivals, and has taken part in group and solo exhibitions in 21 countries. He has had his work published in several Brazilian and foreign media outlets. He publishes part of his photographic journey on www.guilhermebergamini.com elina bergmark wiberg is a Swedish artist who centers her practice around an interest in the â€œvisually elastic object,â€? a concept born out of an attempt to define sculpture that examines repetitive motions and the layering of realities. She is currently based in Stockholm after fine arts studies in Paris and Odense, Denmark. Some of her recent exhibitions include XX Hoveder at Kunsthal ved siden af, Svendborg, Nemme Roser at Ă˜en, Copenhagen, and PILLOW at Konsthall C, Farsta.
shanita bigelow’s work is forthcoming or published in Bombay Gin, New American Writing, Callaloo, African American Review, Kaffeeklatsch, and Anomaly, among other publications. Her chapbook, Wherever Clarity is Necessary, is available through dancing girl press. ekaterina costa is a Russian-American multidisciplinary artist and co-founder of Slanted House Collective currently based in Paris. Her work investigates themes of memory and identity through language and documented spaces. The works manifest primarily as text and photography installations. Ekaterina’s self-published artist’s books include today and every day (2016) and Cloudberry Season (2017). Her work has been exhibited in multiple group exhibitions in Paris. travis dahlke’s work has appeared in literary journals such as Structo, Sporklet, Apt, Bridge Eight Press, OCCULUM, and The Longleaf Review. He has a chapbook available from The Head and the Hand Press, and a novella with Otherwhere Press. Find him at deffbridges.com lawdenmarc decamora is a Filipino poet and teacher. He holds an MFA in creative writing and is presently completing his MA in literary and cultural studies. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in The Seattle Review, Drunken Boat (now Anomaly), Cordite Poetry Review, Kitaab, Columbia Journal, and elsewhere. He has received several nominations from literary publications for the Best of the Net Anthology. He teaches literature and humanities at the Royal and Pontifical University of Santo Tomas (UST) – the oldest existing Catholic university in Asia. genevieve deguzman is a poet and writer of fiction. Her work has appeared in Five:2:One, Folio, Gravel, Hobart, The Puritan, Reed Magazine, Strange Horizons, Uncanny Magazine, and elsewhere. Born in the Philippines, raised in California, and road-tested in 20+ countries, she now lives in Portland, Oregon. Find her on the web at about.me/genevievedeguzman Logan February is a Nigerian poet and a book critic. His work has appeared in The Adroit Journal, Vinyl, Tinderbox, The Bind, The Raleigh Review, and more. He has been nominated for Best of the Net Awards, and
his first full-length manuscript, Mannequin in the Nude (PANK Books, 2019), was a finalist for the Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets. He is also the author of How to Cook a Ghost (Glass Poetry Press, 2017) and Painted Blue with Saltwater (Indolent Books, 2018). You can find him at loganfebruary.com federico federici is a physicist, translator, and writer. He lives between Berlin and the Ligurian Apennines. His works have appeared in 3:AM Magazine, Magma, Le Monde Diplomatique, Raum, Trafika Europe, and others. Among his books: the long poem in English and German Requiem auf einer Stele (2017), Mrogn (2017, Elio Pagliarani Prize) presented at the 19th Poesiefestival Berlin, and the asemic album Liner notes for a Pithecanthropus Erectus sketchbook, with a foreword by SJ Fowler. In 2017 he was awarded the Lorenzo Montano Prize for prose. His last collection is Alle Lichter schief am Himmel. anne Gorrick is a writer and visual artist who lives in West Park, New York. She is the author of seven books, including An Absence So Great and Spontaneous It Is Evidence of Light (the Operating System, 2018); My Beauty is an Occupiable Space (Paloma Press, 2018), a collaboration with John Bloomberg-Rissman; and The Olfactions: Poems on Perfume (BlazeVOX Books, 2017). She also co-edited (with poet Sam Truitt) In|Filtration: An Anthology of Innovative Writing from the Hudson River Valley (Station Hill Press, 2016). She serves on the board of trustees at Century House Historical Society, home of the Widow Jane Mine, an all-volunteer organization (www.centuryhouse.org) devoted to the historic preservation and investigation through the arts of the now defunct cement industry in Rosendale, New York. joan hawkins teaches Cinema and Media Studies at Indiana University-Bloomington. She has published extensively on horror cinema and the avant-garde. Her latest academic work, William S. Burroughs: Cutting Up the Century, is forthcoming from Indiana University Press. She has been writing and performing creative memoir and spoken-word pieces for approximately five years. This is her first creative nonfiction publication.
mc hyland is a PhD candidate in English Literature at New York University, and holds MFAs in Poetry and Book Arts from the University of Alabama. From her research, she produces scholarly and poetic texts, artists’ books, and public art projects. She is the founding editor of DoubleCross Press, a poetry micropress, as well as the author of several poetry chapbooks – most recently THE END PART ONE (Magic Helicopter Press 2017) and (with Anna Gurton-Wachter) The Laundry Poem/Five Essays on the Lyric (self-published, 2018) – and the poetry collections Neveragainland (Lowbrow Press 2010) and THE END (Sidebrow, forthcoming 2019). shayma idris is a freelance photographer and a dentist by profession. With the help of her smartphone camera, she documents her life in Egypt and Sudan. Inspired by The Everyday Projects, she is the Everyday Khartoum project founder and Everyday Cairo contributor. Ever since she was a student, Shayma has been interested in raising the health and general living conditions of the underprivileged; she now works as a team member and has founded two organizations focusing on improving health issues in Sudan. maren kames is a freelance writer and translator living in Berlin. Her writing is situated on the borders between poetry, prose, and drama, and is often staged as interdisciplinary live performances and installations accompanied by sound and video. Her first book, HALB TAUBE HALB PFAU (Secession Verlag für Literatur), was published in 2016 and is being translated into English by Bradley Schmidt. In 2019, she will be a fellow of the Villa Aurora in Los Angeles, and her second book, LUNA LUNA, is forthcoming. šime knežević is a writer and artist. His poems have appeared in Ambit, Cordite Poetry Review, Magma, The Stockholm Review of Literature, and elsewhere. He lives in Sydney. c.m. lindley is a UC Berkeley alum and a creative director living in the Los Angeles. She’s currently at work on a collection of short stories and a novel. Sometimes she posts about the books she’s reading on Instagram @c.m.lindley.
wendy lotterman’s chapbook Intense Holiday was published in 2016 by After Hours Ltd. She is writing a dissertation on classical liberalism and the lyric in the United States. Her email is email@example.com. alex luke is a fiction writer from London. She was a recipient of the 2018 Maat Scholarship at the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley, and her work can be found in The Good Journal. She currently lives in Philadelphia and is completing an MFA in fiction at Rutgers University–Camden. alex marsh is a poet and publisher who has recently had his work published and performed as part of Datableed and Praxis. He is based in London and has just completed his MA in Poetic Practice at Royal Holloway. He also self-publishes books of poetry, most recently Give Me That Living Water (2018). blessing musariri has published four children’s titles, two of which have won national awards. She writes short stories and poems, many of which have been published (and translated) in various international anthologies and online publications. Some of her short stories are included in South African high-school English textbooks. She holds an MA in Diplomatic Studies from the University of Westminster and originally trained to be a lawyer (called to the English Bar in 1997). She has since worked as a freelance editing and proofreading consultant, an English teacher, and a project coordinator for the British Council in Harare. tolu oloruntoba, born in Ibadan, Nigeria, is a somewhat-lapsed physician and itinerant poet. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Pleiades, Columbia Journal, Bird’s Thumb, Entropy, Obsidian, and other publications, and his short fiction has appeared in translation in the Dansk PEN Magazine. He lives in the Greater Vancouver area. eugene ostashevsky is the author of The Pirate Who Does Not Know the Value of Pi (NYRB, 2017), a poetry novel about challenges in communication between a pirate and a parrot. Translated into German by Uljana Wolf and Monika Rinck, it was published by kookbooks as Der Pirat, der von Pi den Wert nicht kennt.
sarah payne grew up in Maine, and lived and worked for the better part of a decade in south Louisiana. She is a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley. robyn maree pickens is a PhD candidate in ecological aesthetics at the University of Otago, Aotearoa - New Zealand. Her poetry has appeared in Cordite, Plumwood Mountain, Matador Review, Jacket 2, and at ARTSPACE, Auckland. Her poetry criticism has appeared in Rain Taxi and Jacket 2. She was a finalist of the 2018 Sarah Broom Poetry Prize judged by Eileen Myles. bradley schmidt grew up in rural Kansas, completed a B.A. in German Studies at a local small liberal arts college, studied German Literature and Theology in Marburg, and started a doctoral project on Schleiermacher in Halle an der Saale before completing a masters in translation studies at Leipzig University. His first translation of a novel, Anatomy of a Night by Anna Kim, was published in 2013 by Frisch & Co. He lives and works in Leipzig as a translator and instructor at Leipzig University. alexis smiley smith’s wanderlust heart brought her from Oregon to Berlin via a one-way ticket and a desire for connection. Her writing life centers on using personal narrative to uncover the universe of the human condition. She holds a BA in English/Creative Writing and an MFA in Creative Nonfiction. “Uncle of Things” is part of her thesis work entitled “Liminal Spaces: Essays On the Beautiful Terror.” donna stonecipher is the author of five books of poetry, most recently Transaction Histories (2018), and one prose book, Prose Poetry and the City (2018). She lives in Berlin. jeremy tiang’s translations include novels by Yeng Pway Ngon, Zhang Yueran, Chan Ho-Kei, and Li Er; plays by Xu Nuo, Wei Yu-Chia, Zhan Jie, and Quah Sy Ren; and most recently, Jackie Chan’s autobiography Never Grow Up. He is also a playwright and the author of the novel State of Emergency (winner of the Singapore Literature Prize) and the short-story collection It Never Rains on National Day.
ollie tong grew up in Cardiff and currently lives in Edinburgh. josé trejo-maya was born in Celaya, Guanajuato, Mexico, and he spent his childhood in the small neighboring rural pueblo of Tarimoró. He has been published in various literary journals in the UK, the US, India, Spain, Australia, and Argentina. He was a 2015 Pushcart Prize nominee, was awarded third place in the 2016 international poetry competition of El Atlantico, the Canary Islands Center for Caribbean Studies, and received honorable mention in the 2017 international Fusionando Palabras competition. He is a remnant of the Nahuatlacah oral tradition, a tonalpouhque Mexican, and a Purepecha/Otomi commoner. jason wee is an artist and a writer working between urbanism, queer feelings, poetry, and photography. He is keenly interested in secrets and their futures, idealisms and their conundrums. He founded and directs Grey Projects, an artists’ library and residency, and is an editor of the poetry journal Softblow. He is the author of the poetry collection The Monsters Between Us and co-editor of the anthology We Contain Multitudes: Twelve Years of Softblow, as well as numerous other publications. His forthcoming collection, An Epic of Durable Departures, will be launched at the 2018 Singapore Writers Festival. He has been an artist-in-residence at Artspace, Sydney; Tokyo Wonder Site; Gyeonggi Creation Center, South Korea; and ZK/U, Berlin. He lives and works in Singapore and New York. Matvei Yankelevich’s books include Some Worlds for Dr. Vogt (Black Square) and Today I Wrote Nothing: The Selected Writings of Daniil Kharms (Overlook). zou jingzhi is an acclaimed Chinese playwright, poet, and prose writer. Extremely influential as a poet in the 1980s, he has continued to shape public opinion in China more recently through his stage productions and screenplays, including The Grandmaster (dir. Wong Kar-Wai) and Riding Alone For Thousands of Miles (dir. Zhang Yimou). He is a founding member of the theatre collective Longmashe, which regularly produces his plays. Zou is a member of the Chinese Writers Association and a resident writer of the Beijing Writers Association. “Green Vines” is from his collection Ninth Building (2010), forthcoming in Jeremy's Tiang's translation.
Editor in Chief
Assistant Fiction Editor
Assistant Poetry Editor
Incoming Poetry Editor
Incoming Assistant Poetry Editor
Distribution & Finance
Communications & Outreach
Communications & Outreach
Communications & Outreach
Can’t get enough SAND? Subscribe or order back issues at sandjournal.com/get-a-copy
SAND Online sandjournal.com • • • • •
Exclusive interviews with writers, artists, SAND editors, and figures from the literary community Supplementary materials about each issue and our events Literary playlists Profiles in transnational publishing More on writing, art, and Berlin
Follow us on social media For literary news, Berlin events, and online features @sandjournal @sandjournalberlin Newsletter Sign up on our website footer for irregular updates. Support SAND sandjournal.com/donate
Submit to SAND sandjournal.com/submit-your-work Poetry, fiction, flash, nonfiction, visual art Submission periods: November–January, May–July
Contact us We’re always looking for collaborations, guest posts, invitations, and bookstores. firstname.lastname@example.org
ISSUE 1 8 Tarek Sebastian Al-Shamma Elizabeth Allen Guilherme Bergamini Elina Bergmark Wiberg Shanita Bigelow Ekaterina Costa Travis Dahlke Lawdenmarc Decamora Genevieve DeGuzman Logan February Federico Federici Anne Gorrick Joan Hawkins MC Hyland Shayma Idris Maren Kames Šime Knežević C.M. Lindley Wendy Lotterman Alex Luke Alex Marsh Blessing Musariri Tolu Oloruntoba Eugene Ostashevsky Sarah Payne Robyn Maree Pickens Bradley Schmidt Alexis Smiley Smith Donna Stonecipher Jeremy Tiang Ollie Tong José Trejo-Maya Jason Wee Matvei Yankelevich Zou Jingzhi DE €10, EU €11, UK £10, SE 120 kr sandjournal.com