Featuring 7 stories, 14 poems, interviews with Vera Chok & Oscar Schwartz, & an essay on Jerome K. Jerome
Contents 2 3 5 12 19 20 24 29 30 32 40 44 53 58 70 75 76 85 86 90 95 96 102
Front matter Editorial Mark Reece Dangerous Objects A.E. Weisgerber South Congress Constantin Preda Antwerp Scene Robert Selby Two poems Madeline Cross I Dreamt That You Died Daniel Bennett Kindnesses C.R. Hanchanlash Termite Wings trans. from the Thai by Noh Anothai Structo talks to Oscar Schwartz Kelly Nelson Three poems Mike Fox Another Way of Seeing Francesca Brooks An Alternative Castilian Dictionary Structo talks to Vera Chok Niamh MacCabe Golden Stone Territory Declan Ryan Seated Nude Girl with Pigtails (1910) Peter Papathanasiou The Truck Stop Maurice Devitt A Loose Connection Christine Nguyen Two poems An essay on Jerome K. Jeromeâ€™s hidden side by Carolyn Oulton Andy Nicole Bowers Academy Students Dissecting a Horse Travis Dahlke Theyâ€™ll Leave You Standing in an Old Sunburn Contributors
Structo is a literary magazine lost somewhere between the UK and the Netherlands. It is published twice a year, operates on a not-forprofit basis and receives no grant funding. Details about submissions, subscriptions and stockists can be found at our website. issn: 2044-8244 (print) & 2044-8252 (digital) editor & designer: Euan Monaghan copy editor: Elaine Monaghan proofreaders: Heather Stallard & Julie Hopkins-Oâ€™Keeffe editorial team: Will Burns, Adam Ley-Lange, Ahmad Makia, Mary Pipikakis, Sarah Revivis Smith, Valentina Terrinoni & Lydia Unsworth online editor: Nat Newman Structo is set in Perpetua and is printed with biodegradable inks on fsc-certified paper by Calverts, a worker co-operative in London. All text and other content is protected by a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 UK: England & Wales licence. Nothing in this licence impairs or restricts the individual authorâ€™s moral rights. This issue was powered almost entirely by almond croissants.
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ack in November 2014, Ursula K. Le Guin was honoured by the National Book Foundation for her distinguished contribution to American letters. She gave a short acceptance speech, a section of which seems particularly appropriate in light of world events: Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom – poets, visionaries – realists of a larger reality. Le Guin was talking in the context of publishers and others putting profit before art, but her words ring true in a very general sense. The writers and poets featured on the following pages likely did not set out to be political (perhaps with the exception of Peter Papathanasiou, whose story ‘The Truck Stop’ addresses a very real issue facing modern Australia). Each contributor to this issue of Structo had something to say, and they found their own way of saying it. But the moment a writer finds the truth of a situation, whether factual or emotional, and communicates that truth to others—that is a political act. The truth alone is a powerful thing but, as we’ve learned to our cost, it’s simply not enough. You have to successfully communicate this truth to other people and, by doing this, give them the opportunity to empathise with a point of view that is not their own. So be political, be a visionary. Or don’t. Just keep an eye out for the truth, and be sure to share it when you find it. Euan
Mark Reece dangerous objects I’d examined seven thousand, six hundred, and thirty-three pigeons without finding any dangerous objects. Or any objects at all, in fact. In the initial briefing, six months ago, ‘dangerous objects’ had never been defined; to be on the safe side, I would have classified anything I had found as dangerous. If I had found anything. I wiped my forehead with the top of my arm. I was always tempted to scratch my face or rest my head on my hands, which would have been unfortunate, given that my once-bright yellow gloves had become stained with shit. Despite everything, the pay and hours were okay. I knew that I had to do something like that to get a foot in the door. And I got to sit in a room unsupervised with my friend Adam for most of the day. It could have been worse. The people on the grade below us had to do cats. During the briefing, we were told that there was intelligence that dangerous objects were being hidden in various animals. The groups who were doing it, we were told, aimed to place a number of the items as a test, to see whether they were uncovered. If the trial plot was successful, more objects would be planted, for assassinations, to damage buildings, and for other types of subversion. I took the next bird out of the cage to examine it using the technique I had been taught. First, I checked around the beak whilst keeping my other hand firmly around its body. That was what most pigeons disliked about the process, but that one only cooed softly, making it seem to expand through my gloves. What had surprised me about the job was how much personality pigeons have. Apart from being more or less aggressive, some enjoy being petted, whereas others would buffet my hands with their wings the moment I let go. Some are quiet, others noisy; some prefer to be at the centre of their group. I think that all creatures are individuals if viewed closely enough. After finding nothing wrong with the beak, I ran my hand down its
neck, feeling the tiny bumps there between my fingers, before parting the tail feathers. No matter how delicately I did so, they always made a tearing sound, although the pigeons did not seem to mind. After checking that nothing was attached to the legs, the final part of the examination was to put a finger far enough into the ‘rear’ (as it had been called during the briefing) for me to ensure that nothing was inside and that it had not been tampered with. I then transferred the bird to the other side of the room and removed a glove to make a mark on my tablet. Adam’s gloves rested in the same position on the table as they had for the last twenty minutes. When he saw me watching him, he yawned then said: “I think something might be wrong with Sue.” “Go on.” “She just wanders round these days. She doesn’t seem to eat enough, I don’t know if that’s part of it. She doesn’t even like to stand under the tap anymore.” Adam had held Sue back on our first day of the job, and we had both watched her standing under a tap, hopping and twisting her neck before flying around the room, soaking everything in sight to a degree that seemed impossible given her size. Now, only Adam watched her whilst I worked through our quota. “Perhaps she’s lonely.” “I’ve thought about that. But none of these is good enough for her.” He gestured at the two cages to our left and right with a serious expression that broke into a grin when I raised my eyebrows. Whenever I paused, I found it difficult to get back to work. Although the room we sat in for ten hours a day was plain, with only the cages, a sink, and a work desk, with whitewashed walls and an Artex ceiling, I had grown to find the pigeons interesting, even beautiful. As with their personalities, they were differentiated in appearance in a way that had never occurred to me when I had walked past them in the street. The green portion around their necks was variegated around the black in a manner that was as unique as a fingerprint, and I could not see the black strip on their tail feathers without imagining that they were boasting and teasing each other about them whenever they
cooed. There were a few aspects of them that were generic, though. The soft ruffling of feathers and the smell had become omnipresent. I reluctantly resumed the examinations whilst Adam asked Sue what was wrong. Later that afternoon, we heard high heels from the other end of the corridor that made Adam jump up, place Sue in the section of the cage furthest from the door, where he had put up a divider to keep her from the other birds, before pulling his yellow gloves on. They were much cleaner than mine. Looked almost new, in fact. I had never understood the layout of the building. The length of the corridor, and how hidden away our room was, gave us licence to do as we pleased. The only thing they had to judge us by was their statistics and, with statistics, there is always an interpretation. By the time our supervisor, Lydia, poked her head through the door, Adam was able to look around as if surprised to see her. “Hi. Can I see you in the conference room please? Thanks.” She ducked away without giving us a chance to reply. I don’t think she ever got used to the smell. We took our gloves off and washed our hands but, as we were leaving, Sue cooed with her high-pitched trill. Adam went back to her and opened the cage, making her hop out on his shoulder. He scratched the back of her head in the way she liked. “Come on,” I said, but they remained in that position for some time before we left for the meeting. The conference room was dim by the time we reached it, and Lydia was circling around a laptop, making flourishes with her hands like an artist making the final daubs on a painting. She gestured for us to sit, then stood at the front of the room in a formal pose, as if addressing a crowd rather than the two of us. She made her usual general comments thanking us for the ‘efforts you’ve put in so far’, then showed us a presentation that seemed to imply, without the idea ever being spelled out, that we were not working hard enough. When it had finished, she switched the lights back on and sat opposite us at the table, taking a series of newspaper cuttings
from a folder. She laid them out before us as if they were pieces of evidence. “I don’t know whether you’ve seen these?” “I don’t read the papers,” Adam said. “I’ve seen them,” I replied. “Okay. Someone’s been leaking details about the procedures. This isn’t an accusation. I’m sure you both understand the importance of what we’re doing and of keeping things under wraps as much as we can. You see, when details such as the thoroughfare of pigeons are released, or the depth of penetration, without any context, then there’s a risk that the organisation could lose its reputation. As I say, I’m sure you understand that, but I’ve been asked to remind everyone. Do you have any questions?” “Hang on, sorry, I’ve forgotten something.” Adam hurried out the room with a speed that was unnatural to him. She watched him go then turned to me with a knowing smile. “Was there anything you wanted to ask, Dan?” “There was one thing. I wanted to say… you know, I understand the importance of what we’re doing here but… you mentioned a few months ago about me having a secondment, for me to find out more about other departments and things like that. Were you able to organise it in the end?” “I’m sorry, everyone’s been too busy lately. You’ve seen the presentation enough times, Dan. You know that the way to get yourself noticed is to improve performance. Do you understand?” “Yeah.” She looked at me with an entirely inscrutable expression, as if asking me to interpret a blank piece of paper. I was unsure, but I think I did understand. “Thanks, then.” I left her to pack up her laptop. When I got back to the room, Adam was feeding Sue pieces of bread by hand. “You know,” he said, “I was thinking about what you said just now, about Sue.”
“Oh?” I took a pigeon from the untested cage and started the procedure slowly so that I could listen. “I’ve done some research on the Internet and it says that they’re flocking birds. They like to stick together, that’s what that means.” I nodded, trying not to smile too ironically. It was at that moment that I knew that if things stayed the same, I would still be working in the same room as him twenty years from now. We would progress together from pigeons to the next thing. There would always be back rooms for us. “Let’s play blind date with her.” Adam carried Sue to the untested cage and set her on the floor. She looked up at him. “Is this really happening?” He shushed me and watched her every movement, like a father encouraging his daughter to take her first steps. His passion was infectious and I stopped what I was doing. Sue looked around before flying up then gliding down again several times. Several pigeons showed some interest but only one opened its wings. Adam took it from the cage. “He’s fat.” “Looks aren’t everything.” He turned to me and grinned. His shirt had become visibly tighter recently. The pigeon brushed against Sue then strutted around in a circle, raising its tail feathers. She moved away as if snubbing him and he turned around in ninety-degree angles, trying to cut her off. “Look at that!” Adam said, but I watched him instead. His face lit up with the simple pleasure of a man who rarely thinks of anything that is not before him. After Sue and the other pigeon had repeated their dance several times, she squatted down and he hopped on her back. They stood up together a few seconds later, scratching the sides of each other’s necks. “I’m going to call him Graham. He’s definitely a Graham.” “You’ve lost the plot.” Adam did not seem to hear, as he was entirely focused on ushering
the two birds to the other side of the room then lifting them into the sheltered section of the examined cage with the utmost care. He watched them until the end of our shift. “Aren’t you coming, Dan?” “Five minutes. I’ve just got to finish up what I’m doing. Lydia was saying about the statistics earlier, we need to hit the next target.” “Alright. Don’t stay too late. And don’t disturb them. It’s their honeymoon.” He stuck his tongue out as he smiled. “See ya tomorrow.” There’s a way to make a living out of anything, if you’re willing to do the same thing over and over until your moment comes. I completed the examination I was doing then stroked the pigeon’s neck before placing it in the checked cage. I slowly removed my gloves before updating my tablet. I looked over the room one final time. I got in a few minutes late the following morning to find Lydia in the room with two security guards, both of whom were so thickset that they had to shuffle their feet to turn around. Adam could not sit still and constantly lifted himself to either sit on his legs or stretch them. “Daniel, I’m going to ask you a question and I need you to answer me honestly.” Lydia wore a suit jacket that emphasised how thin she was compared to the goons. Her voice was clipped. “This morning, we’ve found these objects in the rears of two pigeons that were supposed to have been checked in this office…” she gestured at the work desk, on which rested two tiny strips of paper, “… there’s nothing on them but that’s not the point. There could have been anything inside. The intelligence was that this was a test run. Those birds were placed in a partition. Did you check them and is there any significance as to why they’re there?” “I didn’t check them. You’ll have to ask Adam about the partition.” He groaned before staring at Sue and Graham as if unable to take in what was happening. “They’re just pets, don’t hurt them.” She nodded, which was a cue for the guards to guide him out the
room, their presence enough to force his steps without ever touching him. After they were gone, Lydia turned to me and said: “Finish up here, Dan, and I’ll be in touch.” The room was quiet over the next few days whilst I stayed late to examine the remaining pigeons. I fed Sue and Graham by hand, like they were used to. But when I had finished the last bird, I removed the divider, and after a few seconds, I had lost them amongst the rest. This is what things are like. I updated the tablet to see that Lydia had booked a meeting with me the following morning. I washed my hands thoroughly before leaving the room.
A.E. Weisgerber south congress I told Akhil, or whatever his real name was, I was going outside for a smoke, but I bailed. My screen displayed this guy Earl’s moon-faced cowboy mug in a little circle, his Uber-Pac-Man dot indicated his 1975 Cadillac Deville, for god’s sake, would arrive in one minute to swipe me from this failed Grindr hookup. My escape pod was on its way. How did people survive before Uber? For mid-April, I’m told it was unseasonably warm in Austin. The live oaks already sprang into hyperdrive. Their clumps of ball moss gathered in drifts at the curb, left invasive tumbleweeds of green shoelaces scattered underfoot. Uphill, reflective, unblinking panes of darkened thrift and consignment windows, a smeary backdrop for the humid air, glazed over. I inhaled fresh scents of cilantro and onion as pico de gallo was mixed in the restaurant kitchen through the hedge behind me. The warm-up band’s chords and strains spilled out of the honky-tonk across the street. Down the hill, a staggered line of blinking hotel signs curved my gaze to the Bat Bridge. Right on time, my Uber’s unmistakable low-slung-and-long-arrow of a Caddy passed me, then hung a huge and precise u-turn in front of the Continental. Earl glid up to me on some creampuff suspension. How had I not seen this rig before? Austin was a big city, but not big big. Once my eyes took in the longhorn rack on the Caddy’s front grill, my nose registered a seeping cloud of bourbon fumes when my driver reached to shove open my door. Earl said git in, Slick. Something about the way he said it, flat and twangy, made me a little homesick for Phoenecia. Getting away from Akhil made me wish I had someplace to go. I put my hand up on the window frame, bent low to get a looksee: “You Earl?” “If you’re Fernando.” His caddy purred and chugged at the curb. “You sure you should be driving me tonight?”
Earl seemed suspended for a second before he followed my leap. “Oh, I guarantee I’m driving safe. Drunk passenger spilled a bottle of Maker’s two nights ago, and the humidity won’t give up the ghost.” Earl put his arm over the passenger seat and turned to face me a bit, pushed his cowboy brim up to get a look. I was still debating about getting in, and noticed Earl was wearing a huge wristwatch, its face as big as a medallion. “Uber says you need a lift to Rainey Street, let’s go before they shut that bridge down.” I was thinking what? Only an accident shuts down the bridge. Could be some Texas saying, like we’re in high cotton, which makes no sense to me. I slid in. I’m good about Ubers—I know drivers get downgraded by the company with ratings drops if they don’t complete a fare or don’t answer a call pronto. This guy seemed okay. I said, “Ok, let’s go.” I could see the lights on the Bat City Bridge, in silhouette, down the hill through Earl’s huge front window, which was pasted with driver decals for Lyft, too. Earl’s got a crucifix hanging from his rear-view mirror, homemade job. I forget about Lyft—Uber is such a New York thing. I didn’t feel like talking. When I was new in town, I did a little pick-up work for Uber before the State University cleared my papers for some adjunct stint. Austin was far from my home in upstate New York, where after four years at NYU and $210 thousand in student loans, coming out was the straw that delivered both a family breakdown and my father’s invitation to pack a suitcase and go to hell, so I did. I read an article that said Austin was welcoming, and one of my professors offered to reach out to friends in Texas to get me a job at UT. It seemed everyone I met in the past year, however, was from San Francisco and had been in Austin for 18 months or 18 years. I felt so East Coast, even a year later, and it was hard to connect with people. I was losing faith. I dug Earl’s Caddy. The dashboard was all-original: radio cassette player and buttons like gumdrops. Shallow caverns of dim dials spanned the dashboard. Earl was colorful enough and the backseat of this car was big enough to ride a pony, so I parked myself in the middle, my arms spanning the backseat as I settled for the short drop down Congress.
Earl lingered a look in his shallow rectangle of rearview glass at me, shook his head then signaled to get in the turn lane. He said something under his breath; I assumed he was talking to the dispatcher or someone on his mounted phone, but I realized he was waiting for an answer. “What’s that you said?” I leaned forward as he slowed to a red light. “Nothing, just wishing I had some Tums or Tagamet. Must be something I et.” “Can’t help you there, man.” Earl kept it quiet, except for some slow mopey cowboy FM. It sounded good to me, truth be told: raggedy suitcases, Greyhounds, raindrops. I leaned into the question so he’d hear me: “Who’s this?” “This? Lee Hazlewood.” Earl pulled at his ear and touched the brim of his hat. “Good, right?” “Yeah. It’s good.” We kept moving, “Earl, why do you keep staring at me?” His chin dipped down a bit, then he cleared his throat before catching a glimpse of me. “I had a son, is all. Looked a lot like you.” He grunted again, “Yessir. A lot like you do.” I decided to bite. “Had?” I found you could learn a lot from Ubers. “What happened?” Earl checked all his mirrors and nodded to the driver who pulled up alongside before he answered. “My boy is dead one year today. Jumped off the bridge.” “Like a stunt?” “No, sir. Weren’t no stunt.” That suspended itself in the humidity for a moment. The car, cool and grainy as the sultry, begging Tom Waits ballad now grinding out of Earl’s dashboard, coughed to move down South Congress. I caught Earl hitching a look at me again, but it was okay. It was nice. I smiled, nodded, and said, “Sorry, man,” as I looked at the passing gate of the Texas School for the Deaf on my left. “If it makes you feel any better, you kind of look like someone I knew.” Earl didn’t look back again; I supposed he might be thinking about his son. I remember reading people who lost a kid like to hear their name,
like to know people have a memory of them. “What was your son’s name?” I kept my gaze on the mirror, and sure enough Earl glanced back at me when the pedestrian was safely across the road. “Sawyer.” “Like for Tom Sawyer?” “Yup. My ex wanted him to marry a girl named Becky when he growed. Wanted him to go find a pile of gold.” “Your ex-wife?” “Yessir. My ex.” The caddy moved forward, gave a little rattle when Earl backed off the gas pedal. My data for the month was close to its limit. Working for Wireless Austin, which helped cover the rent hike last month, I got a discount, but I didn’t want to run over my budget again so I slipped my phone in my pocket. I pulled out an old receipt from my wallet and jotted down my contact information—my real name and number. I rolled the paper in my fingers. I thought being away from home and being away from my family would free me up, and I’d feel less inhibited about putting myself out there, but I felt closer to them at this distance. They’d agree with me that Akhil was nasty—unshaven, unshowered, and unlike his profile pic. He was too quick to suggest leaving the restaurant and visiting a friend’s. He gave me the creeps. I don’t know what I expected from this town, but I didn’t think Austin would make me feel more alone than I was already. I could write a book about my Tinder and Grindr miscues. Funny thing is, Earl’s big car reminds me of my dad’s old Pontiac, the ghetto sled. That thing could glide along, sunshine on a cloud. What an engine, too. I remember the time he used it to jump-start the Good Humor Ice-Cream truck, and while they were busy under the hoods my friend PJ and I snuck off with a box of bomb-pops. I was fearful to come home that whole afternoon. It was worth it though, we ate what we could before they melted, then started a little fire down by the stream and burned the box and the wrappers and the sticks, and then we knew we were in trouble. I got the worse beating, when we compared later. When PJ went off to New York with me, he was always involved in some sex party, going to this club or that, and I
was so jealous of him. That’s what it was like in the magical town of Phoenicia, New York. People hear I’m from New York and they always think it’s the city, but my town is a small one. Small small. Everybody knew about PJ, but still Phoenicia opened her arms when he came home to be buried. Earl cruised past lots full of airstream trailers, offering barbecue or cupcakes, tacos or tapas, creampuffs or Thai food. I looked forward again, then at the rectangle of Earl’s face in the rearview mirror. He was about my dad’s age, thinking and driving. He was keeping things under 25, keeping his gaze on the road, and slowed to let a homeless guy wheel a cart across when we were about midway over the bridge deck. I looked at the guardrails. They were low, all right. “Sawyer jumped off this bridge here? It doesn’t seem high enough.” “I guess it was.” “A year ago?” “It was.” Earl popped his fingers off the wheel to acknowledge the pedestrian before moving again. “He’d be 23 by now if he’d been here. My boy was a good boy.” Earl glanced at me for just a second. “I didn’t raise him, so I had no say.” “I’m 23.” “I can tell.” Earl kept on. “I’m from Fort Smith. Come down here to put up a building. I got an apartment here. I knew my son was down here, trying to make it on his own since he was 16.” Earl was kind of talking to whatever he saw ten feet in front of the hood of his car, but he wanted me to hear the story, too. “He tried his best, I’m told. He was paying like four- five-hundred dollars for five days. That was too much, so I said come in with me; take the sofa. Have the place to yourself on weekends. He was stubborn.” Earl put on his signal, solid and measured ticking. “Downtown should have affordable housing. The people running this town keep saying density density density, but where I live, people want land and space. I keep pouring concrete, more luxury apartments fill with people who don’t pay.” Earl kept talking things through; he set his cowboy hat on the seat next to him and held down the top of his head with one hand and kept the other on the wheel. “I had nothing to give him but a sofa.” I kept
myself respectful and quiet, kept my phone face-down. Earl hit another stoplight at Rainey. I watched as he smoothed his hair back, real hard. He kept that right hand on the wheel, now his left gripped the top of his own skull, and strenuously pulled back, like he needed to press out some wrinkle. He was sweating all of a sudden, and I was itching, then Earl said, “I’d wished I’d got him and moved him to it.” “To the sofa?” I let that sit as the light turned green and we set off those last couple blocks to The Oil Can. “People make their own moves, Earl. You were a good pop. There’s no sofa could ever save a life.” Earl looked at me again in the mirror, slowed again to let another homeless guy pass. There was a grimy little kid in a car seat atop the bum’s wagon of belongings. I had saved some money by skipping out on dinner, so I asked, “Can we just drive around for a bit? I’ll send another pickup request and we can just keep driving.” I could see The Oil Can. “Uber don’t work that way. My rating will take a dive.” “Let it.” And I couldn’t take back my poorly chosen words. I saw Earl’s eye flinch. Earl tapped yes to his next Uber request. We rode the final couple blocks in silence. I checked my phone; there was a message from Akhil: <FU FAGIT> The fare was $4.83. The Caddy pulled up to The Oil Can. I could hear the bass line in my spine out here at the curb, the humidity kept the fumes from the car’s exhaust close to it, and the smell of tar, too. This section of Rainey was recently paved, and the heat made the seams bubble. I powered off my phone and let the screen go black, pulled the door lever and let myself out. Earl draped his right arm over the seat again to say something, but didn’t. I went to pass Earl the paper in my hand, the one with my real name: Justin. I wanted to tell him, hey, I’m no Sawyer but I enjoyed listening. Earl was quick to deflect. “No tipping necessary, Slick,” and then, “Goodbye, son.”
Next I saw my Uber’s big empty rear window pull a wide and precise u-turn into traffic. I heard another voice, saying call me, in all the swarm of cool noise outside the club. I felt a fresh chill. Might have been the air-conditioning blasting out of The Oil Can. It reminded me of opening the freezer in the Good Humor truck, and grabbing that box, and hearing the metal latch. I could see across Ladybird Lake, the humidity ringing that moon, that moon scattered all over its broken surface.
Constantin Preda antwerp scene We had black coffee, two streets away from Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal, that much is true, but not entirely. We spoke of Las Meninas when we saw that hurried, sweaty man with a bunch of flowers of a size so entirely apologetic we both laughed, and across from us those two old ladies, drinking what could have been that morning’s third glass of wine, one of them glancing over her shoulder and expressing at the sight, something half way between encouragement and a deeply felt optimism, although this might not be true, as they spoke Flemish and we did not. I thought that this little scene could make for a great poem, a poem about Las Meninas or Lot’s wife, looking, a December morning when it felt like something was thickening, something poetic but not entirely, something long and thin, like a slightly opened door, like a pillar of salt, like the flames of a burning city, but not entirely…
Robert Selby wild cherry The day came when the wind chose to kill it. The reach of its roots, stymied by border wall, was no match for the air’s violence. But you came from the garage with old rope and lashed the tree by its waist to hope: a post you hammered badly into grass. And your look said, ‘this wind shan’t cast our spring’s white signalman, our summer shade, into the memory of a tree only, a surprise sky when looking up from the page; we shall keep it this-wise for as long as we’re here, my love, and after we’ve gone down to intimate compost. The future unborn wouldn’t know what we’d lost, but they’ll enjoy what we have heaved on this rope like sailors to keep standing in the gale, will tread its red fallen leaves and drink, in summer lemonades, the light it dapples down. We will not fail.’ No, we couldn’t let that tree fall, and didn’t. We hear others succumb to chainsaws
across the way, make room for parking, and the surgeons over-employed each winter husband for a neatness we call meddling. Though our cherry leans, rod-straight new boughs shoot skyward in corrective pursuit to self-sustain its standing, make its anchor moot. You follow its progress from your desk, your eyes blossoming each time the wind rises, you look up, and it’s still there.
Robert Selby burning the clocks My train slows into the same old town: the lit copper spire of St Mary’s church, the bronze warrior’s sodium-lit vigil above civic pride’s floral roundabout, not in bloom now, but in fairy-light bloom the hornbeams on the high common. Ten years from having held you I sit on the train reading online what you did ten minutes ago, seeing how a lamp in your sea-view room cast a sheen on your white, ring-stained coffee table just this afternoon; your tabby curled up on a wicker chair; a fir twig standing in a jam jar – your Christmas tree; arrangements you’ve made with a friend on where to meet for drinks before Burning the Clocks. In SU bar light you were without origin. For one night talking through smoke with you the price was an ensorcellment years beyond our last hug in mortarboards. My goodness you were nice:
a tide over shingle in your voice, gull feathers and shells around your neck as you espoused a seaside city with all the fervour of someone not of it. Your real home was a commuter town where framed photos crowd upright pianos and birds flute from privets potteringly kept in cul-de-sacs nowhere near the sea. The train each night returns me to mine. Avoiding that fate, you walk the promenade of your dreams. It’s been a long time.
Madeline Cross i dreamt that you died We are the same. Even now, our early dreams are sharp and bright like polished brass. The dreams we shared. I don’t mean figuratively. I don’t mean dreams of marriage or children or saving the world. I mean the dreams we dreamt while sleeping in our first bunk beds, one above the other. You had the view of the ceiling, the peeling paint and cracks that formed the pictures you turned into stories for me. I had the view of the wooden base beneath your mattress, our names scrawled in crayon on the top left corner, stickers of dolphins and tropical fish from the toyshop, stickers that would never come off, not even with soap and water. Those bunk beds were also a climbing frame. Being slightly older and more confident, you taught me how to somersault from the top bunk to my own. Sometimes we slept top to tail, until one of us kicked the other in the face and the perpetrator was angrily shoved out of the bed. We were passionate and violent and enjoyed hurting each other. Children like to test their strength. We tested ours with kicks, pinching, hair pulling and name-calling, but always with rules. Our own little universe of law and order. In the real world you were my protector, just as long as that behaviour fitted in with the characters you created for yourself. Once it no longer did I could be discarded in an instant, but it was all part of the roles we invented. You were always a leader; a captain, a prince, a hunter. I just wanted to play a boy instead of a girl. We were not the same in that way, and never have been. You were built from fire, I was built from earth, and we could cause each other damage. But not in our dreams. It was as if somebody had taken a guide to Freud’s theories and mixed up all of the sentences so that while some of the ideas remained intact, they were in the wrong order, with a different logic, or with no logic at all. You hadn’t wet the bed for years. I was big enough to join you in your bedroom and small enough not to be blamed for my
midnight mistakes. My first night in that seemingly grown up world of the bunk beds, I dreamt of that most satisfying release, only to wake and find that the reality of a hot damp bed wasn’t satisfying at all. I slipped uncomfortably out of the room to pull our parents out of sleep. Mother dutifully followed me back to change my sheets and nightie. You poked your head over the top bunk and said, “Me too”. In our dreams we became adventurers in the universes we created for ourselves. Side by side we discovered forests of trees taller than any on earth, growing straight as arrows with their tops hidden in cloud. We ran along beaches that curved around the whole world, and swam in oceans with creatures so bizarre that when we woke in the morning we found them too confusing to describe, and gave up, satisfied that we both knew what we couldn’t say. We fought enemies and mostly we won, but if we lost we would both wake up at the same time, relieved that neither of us had actually died. We thought it was the bunk beds. We tried sleeping in the spare room and dreamt that we were pirates on a sinking ship. We knew that we were not the same as everybody else, and as we got older we understood that this would make it harder. But at least we had each other. Sometimes when we were awake we saw the world through the lens of our dreaming. Everything became exaggerated and absurd. Only you or I could understand what this felt like, the hopelessness it could evoke. Because if living is the same as dreaming, then what is the point in either? I was ashamed the first time I began to have nightmares and found that you, hundreds of miles away, in your own bed, had not shared them. I was a teenager and you had just left home. I dreamt of the end of the world. I dreamt of fiery apocalypses. I died, over and over again, and I didn’t wake up in time. The skin melted from my body in a nuclear explosion. You died too. Our parents died by drowning. I was a ball of fear destroying our dream-world and I hated myself for it. We spoke across the miles and you told me you had stopped dreaming altogether. You told me you were glad you hadn’t shared my nightmares. “I want to be normal now,” you said. Growing up brought me dreams of the living. Gone were the adventures, the battles, the creatures we couldn’t put a name to.
Instead there were the people I knew, and some that I didn’t. There were re-enactments of my daily routines. There I was, pouring pints until dawn, hanging clothes in shop windows; and later, arguing with the boss I never argued with, hated by the lover who didn’t hate me. My dreams became like mirrors, repeating reflections of everyday scenes, mundane, trivial, but full of my own insecurities, frailties. And you were not there. It would be years before the distance between us would shrink again. A few months before I moved across the country to be near you, you stopped sleeping altogether. Doctors told you different things, eventually agreeing on anxiety. You quit your job and tried counselling. You analysed your childhood and went digging for clues, for triggers, for reasons you couldn’t sleep at night, for reasons your heart beat wildly as you stared at the cracks in the ceiling. But you did these things with the part of you that believed in what the Doctors said. At night, the other part of you, the part that had wandered with me through an intricate maze of tunnels in a world that we only half remember, studied those cracks in the ceiling and began to tell stories again. But this time you told them to yourself, until one night your eyes closed and the tunnels appeared before you. That same night, on the other side of the country, I was dreaming too. Side by side we climbed a ladder from deep underground and emerged into a snowy daylight. We live together again now. There are no bunk beds. You have your room and I have mine. We had separate lives but as we grew old they became too strange and cruel for us to deal with alone and you came to live with me, bringing with you your brittle bones and insomnia. The insomnia doesn’t trouble you much now because we share the burden equally. Sometimes when you do manage to fall asleep in the chair by the fire I make the effort to stay awake so that there’s no chance I’ll disturb you in our dreams. I sit close by and read a book. This is how it happened last night. We had cheese on toast by the fire with blankets over our knees because there was an outrageous wind smashing at the walls around us and the icy air was singing through the cracks. We both drank a whisky and opened a book. You
fell asleep almost instantly, your head dropping against your chest, a slight wheeze escaping as you breathed. I carried on reading. But this time staying awake did not come naturally to me. It wasn’t enough to stare into the black and orange coals, reimagining all of the worlds we used to dream up, as I have a habit of doing now. I fell asleep in the chair beside you. My sleep was a dreamless one, full of light and dark and nothing solid to cling to. “I dreamt that you died,” you said. I had woken up before you and had already changed my clothes and made tea. “That’s funny,” I replied. “I didn’t dream at all.” You had a perplexed look on your face. It made you look like a child again, the frown in your eyes and your wobbling mouth. “I’ve dreamt that you died before, don’t you remember?” I said, trying to be reassuring as I put a mug of tea in your hands. I had to unlock your clenched fingers to place the mug in them. “I dreamt everyone died. Hell, I dreamt I died!” “I don’t remember that,” you said. That annoyed me because I’ve told you often enough about that painful part of my life when I felt abandoned and lost – the time you chose to stop dreaming altogether. “Well, it happened. It was a phase. I got over it.” I could hear the bitterness in my voice. “I think this was different,” you said. “How would you know?” “You were asleep.” “Yes, I was.” “But you weren’t with me in my dream, not in the way you usually are, not by my side.” “That’s true. But the rules don’t always apply anymore, you know that. We hardly sleep at all, so we’re bound to be a bit muddled. I certainly feel muddled most of the time.” That last part was more to myself as I went into the kitchen to get the teapot. When I came back you were staring at the fireplace. There were still a few lumps of coal that the fire hadn’t reached the night before. They looked as dead as a thing can look. “You died by fire,” you said. “You don’t need to tell me this.”
“I thought you didn’t think it was important?” “It isn’t, but nobody wants to hear things like that, do they? You just had a nightmare. We’re old enough to understand them, surely.” But you wouldn’t stop. “I waited. I was outside, waiting to see if they would save you. It was as though everyone I had ever known was in the fire, and they all came out one by one, but I was only waiting for you. And then they finally brought you out on a stretcher. You were the last, and I didn’t go to you because I knew.” I was silent. I didn’t know what to say because you had tears in your eyes and it wasn’t like you at all. I took the tea from your hands and just held you until your breathing went back to normal. “It was a nightmare,” I said. Now it’s dark again and I’m lying in my bed. You were awake when I left you downstairs by the fire so there didn’t seem to be any need to stay up. I feel like I might sleep again tonight. Outside my window the trees are bright with frost and there is a crisp-thin moon watching me though the glass. There’s no wind so I can hear the clock ticking in the hall. You are clattering at the coals with the end of the poker. I should tell you to stop, I suppose. I turn out the bedside lamp but it’s a weak darkness and I can see the cracks in the ceiling like the borders of unexplored worlds. I was trying to be kind, when I held you and stroked your cottonsoft hair to calm you down. It seemed to be what was needed. The only reason I had felt no fear was because I had already had that dream, the one where I am taken from our home on my back, deathly smoke in my lungs, but mercifully not a burn on me. The dream had come to me a few nights ago, the one when you stayed awake into the blue morning cooking vegetable soup to keep you busy. We are the same. We are older now, and the rules have been broken along the way, mixing things up. But my dreams are your dreams, and I wonder what you will dream when I’m gone.
Daniel Bennett kindnesses The girl wakes to sickness in the night, a sour rush of fruit and lactose and we trip over each other into a fumbling comedy of tasks into washing machines and bath water drumming in the darkened flat, into fruit skins picked out of hair and off a panda night dress. Sorry, she says. Sorry. Why would a child apologise for something so guileless? What shame waits to be confirmed? Even now, I hear my mother’s voice during my own night sicknesses: her hand curved to my shoulder and fingers through my hair are fortunes I still count now years later, her kindnesses lingering across decades. Night blushes against windows and down in the street late revellers call. One day, there will be cause for apologies, my daughter. But not now. It’s fine. I say. Everything is fine.
Whose wings are these discarded by the hundreds and the thousands here flapping in the morning air, a challenge to the business end of my broomstick? Their owners, lured by its light, came here to dance their rounds around the yellow lightbulb and danced until exhausted, and then cast off their wings.
Bright and early coming downstairs I see the lawn littered with wings: Little wings the size of tamarind leaves translucent as a bead of dew as fragile as a blade of sun.
Translated from the Thai by Noh Anothai
Chamnongsri Rutnin Hanchanlash
The broom with coconut bristles is too stiff: no way it can beat back these wings that ride the wind. I reach instead for one with bristles of grass. I take its pliant end and lightly fan, brushing those wings back down to earth.
The owners have burrowed underground by now but their wings of glass still shimmer, yearning still for flight. Merely a tap of my broomstick and they rush into mid-air, then scatter and disperse themselves across the lawn again, harder to sweep now than before.
‘If there seems to be a lack of coherence in a poem, people are more likely to believe that it was written by a computer.’
Structo talks to Oscar Schwartz Oscar Schwartz is a PhD candidate at RMIT, the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, where he’s been working on the research question ‘Can a computer write poetry?’ All of those thoughts and questions that flooded into your mind just now? That’s why I wanted to talk to Oscar. — Euan Monaghan
structo: What is the Literary Turing Test? schwartz: The Literary Turing Test, which we call Bot or Not, is a project that a friend – Benjamin Laird, who is also a PhD student at RMIT – and I made in 2014. You go on the website and you’re presented with a poem with a title but with no author, then you read the poem and you have two options at the bottom. You can select whether it was written by a Bot: that is, a computer; or whether it was written by Not, which is a human. We collect the responses, and so once you click, you’re told whether you were incorrect or correct, and also the percentage of other people who thought it was a Bot or a Not. We also have a leader board with four different categories: the most human-like human poems, the most computer-like computer poems, the most computer-like human poems and the most humanlike computer poems. And those that are the highest ranking in the most human-like computer poems purportedly pass the Literary Turing Test. That is, they can fool a certain percentage of people into believing they were written by a human when in fact they were
written by a computer. There are some [poems] that are capable of fooling 66 percent of people into thinking they were written by a human when they were written by a computer. Of course this whole Bot or Not experiment is derived from Alan Turing’s test for computer intelligence, which says if you have a conversation and you can’t tell if [your conversational partner] is a human or a computer, then the computer can be said to be intelligent. structo: Are there traits which people mark as being particularly human-like or particularly Bot-like? schwartz: That’s where it starts to get complicated, because it’s hard to formalize aesthetics. That’s what so much of my project has been about: whether you can or can’t formalize aesthetics. To take a simple view: yes, there are certain traits in poems that will encourage people to select them as human. If they rhyme, if they have a theme that involves death and love or suffering. Generally, women score higher in humanness than men; and late nineteenth century women poets, in particular writing sentimentalist poetry, were strongly identified as being human. Computerness is easier to explain: it’s randomness. If there seems to be a lack of coherence in a poem, people are more likely to believe that it was written by a computer. structo: Where did the Bot poems come from? Do you code? schwartz: Not from my own code; I’m not a programmer, and certainly when I started this I had basically zero programming ability. They come from a variety of sources. I emailed a number of computer poets and asked them if they would give me unpublished work. There are also a lot of free generators online. I used these and took the [resulting] poems, crediting who made it, et cetera. I also came up with a few of my own little methods that didn’t involve writing code but what they produced was nonetheless what I would define as a computational poem. For instance, if you put a sentence into Google Translate and rotate it through 150 different languages and permutations, then it degrades. That passes under my definition
of what a computational poem is, so I did a few of them as well just to mix it up a bit. structo: So a variety of different methods, then. Do you know the generation mechanisms the other generators used? Machine learning?
torrential bed It loves like a serenity around the peace a shoulder and a hand carrying the thicket? A wind of smooth stones! From her finger and her mouth magnify veins of the earth. The romantic wells rejected. And you perservere like a bed.
schwartz: There are a Written by Poetry Generator variety of different methods. (/poem/75c9026b731b0ba1) Some are simple cut-up Programmed by Zackary Scholl methods: cut up and collaging. [With others] there’s a certain dictionary and set of transition rules and language rules that are coded into the computer. It then generates sentences according to those rules and within its limited dictionary. Then there are more complicated algorithms. I didn’t use any in Bot or Not that involve machine learning, but there are people starting to experiment with that. What is common is the use of Markov chains or what’s called ‘one-gram generation’. Let’s say I show the software the entire corpus of Shakespeare’s poetry. It will create a statistical model of the language; the regularity with which certain words appear in this corpus. If the computer begins with the word ‘I’, it would ask statistically: what is the most probable next word that Shakespeare would have used? The next word might be ‘shall’, and it will ask: what is, statistically, after ‘shall’, most common? That would be an example of one-gram generation – it works off one word. But it can get to bi-gram generation or nine-gram generation where it looks at the nine preceding words and then asks: if I have, “shall I compare thee to a summer’s”, what is the most likely next word? And it would be “day”. This is a really interesting trade-off. You don’t want it to emulate precisely what’s happened previously, nor do you want it to degrade Shakespeare entirely so it just sounds like random
language. You try and find a sweet spot in the middle where it’s Shakespearesque, but it’s something new in Shakespeare’s voice. structo: There are some strict rhyme schemes which are almost as generative. schwartz: Absolutely. That’s why I’ve always been surprised that rhyming poetry does well in “humanness” levels on Bot or Not. Because rhyme has got nothing to do with whether a computer can understand what it’s writing about or whether it actually has been in love. Rhyme is very easy to reduce formally or abstractly, or to give a definition of, in an algorithm. That was some of the trouble I had in my research. Suddenly I had all this data and I realized that the methods that the algorithms were using could be done – all of them could be done – by humans on paper following a set of instructions. It would just take a lot longer. structo: An algorithm is just a set of instructions. schwartz: Exactly. So it kind of made the Bot or Not opposition suddenly seem irrelevant. structo: Have any of the generated poems surprised you? schwartz: Yes, there have been some poems that I have chuckled at or been surprised by. It’s always been in some sense a conceptual project because I’m enjoying not only the output itself but knowledge of how it was made. I think what’s interesting for me about computer poetry isn’t the poetry itself but computer poetics, or computational poetics. That is, the way something is made. I think that’s what’s super-interesting about this area. structo: Your background is English literature? schwartz: Yes, I studied English lit. and also philosophy, and within philosophy I studied logic. I did kind of have a background. I mean,
I had a super-steep learning curve in terms of understanding how computers work, and I’m still hardly a programmer at all, but it’s been fun to learn. structo: Has it changed the way you write your own poetry? schwartz: When I first started the project it did, very much so. I started writing poetry for friends on the internet at a similar time to when I was starting my PhD. People in this community were writing highly sentimental poetry that wasn’t formally tight at all in any way. It was all about communicating everyday experiences. I think the connection there is that I was experimenting with ideas of how you write the most human poem possible to someone you’ve never met, who you only know via the internet, in order to authenticate your humanness when you could well be an algorithm. structo: All very Blade Runner. schwartz: [Laughs] Yeah, exactly. structo: And has it changed the way you look at poetry and literature more generally? schwartz: Well, it’s completely changed the way that I look at … not all literature or not all poetry, but my research has ended up being historical. The argument in my thesis is that while computational poetics seems like a new activity and something that is almost science fiction – Blade Runner as you say – it’s actually very ancient. It’s an ancient form of literary practice going back to ancient divinatory practices that involved chance-based generation of symbols and poetic language and interpretation. It has changed my understanding of literature in terms of broadening my understanding of literary practice throughout history. structo: Can you give an example?
schwartz: There’s a type of Kabbalistic practice called Abulafia meditation. Abraham Abulafia was a Kabbalist who lived in Barcelona in the thirteenth century. He studied the oldest book of the Kabbalah, which is called Sefer Yetzirah, which means Book of Creation. The Book of Creation describes the way that God purportedly invented the universe. The way that it describes that, obliquely, is that the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet existed and God commuted them in all possible combinations and from that permutation the world was formed. Abulafia – and people before him as well – came up with methods for letter permutation in order to understand God’s ways and God’s creative capacities more thoroughly. He would sit in a room for days on end and commute letters of God’s name and create reams and reams of essentially computational poetry. Through the process he would gain prophetic knowledge of God’s creative powers. That’s one example, and also it interestingly raises the same types of philosophical and linguistic problems. Literary theoretical problems. Who is responsible for the writings that Abulafia created? Are they in the methods or was it him? How is one supposed to read them and to whom does one attribute agency while they are reading? Is it to the method or is it, you know… if you’re reading these permutations and you’re taking meaning from them is it just because you – the reader – have agency, or because Abulafia had agency? It raises a lot of what seem to be contemporary literary theoretical questions. structo: There’s a lot of interesting work in the area of generative literature right now. The Infinite Monkey Generator has pretty much written Shakespeare. schwartz: The infinite monkey theorem is something that I’ve had to engage with in my research as well. For me the underlying tension and what makes all these questions really interesting are questions of agency. Where does the agency lie in the poetic act? Is it with the author, is it in the text itself, is it with the reader, or is it somehow an interaction between these three things? When you introduce a nonhuman agent into the poetic act, and give it poetic agency, we have a
certain resistance to it. I think it’s that tension between the human and the non-human, and poetic agency, which makes these ideas interesting.
‘Where does the agency lie in the poetic act? Is it with the author, is it in the text itself, is it with the reader, or is it somehow an interaction between these three things?’ structo: Can you define agency in this context? schwartz: Agency is just the capacity to make a difference, to be involved in activity and produce consequences. structo: How do you think literary work in the generative arts compares to progress in other fields? schwartz: I think music is the place where generative methods flourish and there seems to be least resistance and more joy in the act than kind of an, ‘ah, I tricked you’ kind of thing. There’s a long of history of generative music. Mozart used dice to compose some of his pieces by chance. I think because music is not representational people have less resistance in allowing non-human elements into it. Whereas with visual arts, if it’s not abstract, if it’s representational and mimetic of nature, then people have more resistance.
Kelly Nelson preface The following poems are created through a process of extraction, erasure and translation. I start by searching for Spanish words living within poems written in English. For instance, the Spanish word for dry (seco) exists in the English word second, and the Spanish verb to give (dar) begins the English word darkness. Sometimes a word in English (red) also exists in Spanish but with a different meaning (net or web). There are also words in the two languages that share spellings and meanings: invisible, mortal, doctor. Next I use a process of erasure to remove most of the words on the page, leaving just a few of these found Spanish words, which I then translate back into English. So the poem in the upper left-hand corner is the newly created poem and the echo in the bottom right-hand corner is a bilingual erasure of the source text. These poems braid together my background in anthropology and my interest in hybridity and found art. I started creating poems this way a couple of years ago after Pablo Neruda’s remains were exhumed in Chile. I was fascinated by the fact that his bones, forty years after his death, still contained stories about his life and how he had died. And so I started looking for buried messages in the very dna of texts: the letters. I live in Arizona, just a couple of hours north of Mexico, and I like working with these two languages and showing them coexisting, inhabiting the same space.
lazarus Look, I know nothing. I dug for days, a month, one thousand rows, withered, oblivious, out of it, everything born of baby food & crocks of our ashes. I am not going away.
miracle nose set in a day cave And I a smiling times million filaments second I do I do to do in a cell pure baby turn and nothing hair men from ‘Lady Lazarus’ by Sylvia Plath
ariel To give is such a hassle, a fuss. You vowed to give yourself up, to vanish, to retreat and I gave you a river emptying into the North Sea, and I gave myself a drift net.
darkness substanceless lioness Pivot of dark else air hair my White Godiva unpeel stringencies cry Melts And I red from ‘Ariel’ by Sylvia Plath
mother To see her. To see that she eats a bird & another bird & another with endless bird thirst. I loved what she set free. I made rhymes of my lack, of my own not having & to see that she kisses, & to see that she laughs.
never handled never come leave eye have my have contracted have eased sinned unfinished names deliberate crime mine Since You never be said you never cried from ‘The Mother’ by Gwendolyn Brooks
Mike Fox another way of seeing ‘Education is a platform,’ my father said, ‘but the train seems to have left without you.’ He held the sheet containing my final exam results between his thumb and forefinger, by the very tip of one corner, as though to avoid contamination. ‘Perhaps I could hitch a lift?’ I suggested. His eyebrows were known in the family for their freakish autonomy. Now the left one formed an almost gothic arch above the unsmiling eye beneath it. He obviously preferred his own metaphors. So I entered the world of work at sixteen without the ballast of my father’s approval. Certain parents, I now understand, have two essential functions. The first is to give you life, and the second is to ruin it. Sometimes they do this swiftly and dramatically, but more often the effect is incremental. My parents, I feel, took the latter approach. At the time of the above exchange, I had yet to realise the process was already under way. In fact I felt rather buoyant. A boys-only boarding school had done its worst, but a hopeful face still emerged in the mirror as I scraped away shaving foam, mostly unnecessarily, with my first razor. After all, my mother continued to use the word ‘genius’ when describing me to other parents, although recently she had began to pair it with ‘flawed’. I was unperturbed by this. To me it sounded romantic. I was obviously troubled and volatile – as well as brilliant. ‘So you had grandiose ideation by the age of sixteen?’ my therapist said. She phrased questions as though they were statements. It had taken ten sessions to get this far: she was nothing if not methodical. ‘To me it seemed like optimism,’ I said. ‘Still does really.’ ‘Do you still think you’re a genius?’ she asked the thirty-nine year old version of myself sitting opposite her.
I pondered this. ‘In any logical sense, no,’ I said. ‘After all there’s no evidence to support the idea. But I’ve always had an inkling in my heart that I was special.’ ‘Ah yes,’ she said, ‘that nebulous word.’ She sounded curiously like my father. ‘Would you care to be more specific?’ There she had me. I fell back on the Channel swim. ‘I swam the Channel when I was twenty-three,’ I said. ‘It took me nearly nineteen hours.’ She produced one of her silences, and my mind went back to that time. I remembered telling my parents. ‘It’s brave of you, dear,’ my mother said, although later I overheard her remarking what a pity it was that I’d abandoned a life of the mind. My father, without commenting, managed to convey that he thought the plan vulgar. In fact, their lack of enthusiasm proved universal. I wonder if it was the least-heralded crossing ever. My pilots, an expectorating Yarmouth fisherman and his wall-eyed son, guzzled my energy drinks, and seemed to think it my fault when I swam into a floating plank. No one greeted me as I gained the stunted beach on all fours. In fairness, to do so would have involved abseiling down a cliff. Even the local paper failed to report my triumph. I described this to my therapist. Perhaps bitterness entered my voice. ‘A decision to swim the Channel,’ she said, in her most neutral tone, ‘can bear the hallmark of an inner child hoping to please the parent archetype.’ ‘I think it was more an attempt to blunt the disapproval – or at least pierce the apathy – of my actual parents,’ I said. ‘If only they had been archetypal.’ I should explain that, at the time of this conversation, my parents were ten years dead. The only true animation I noticed in my therapist – swiftly suppressed – was when I told her in an earlier session that they had bequeathed their entire estate to a llama sanctuary. That was when she offered to negotiate a lower rate for long-term work. ‘All parents are both actual and archetypal,’ she said. ‘Our task is to reconcile the two.’ ‘Even when there’s a yawning gulf?’ I queried.
‘Especially then,’ she said. A yawning gulf. I remembered the time I hired scaffolding and redecorated the entire outside of their house while my archetypal parents were away on a cruise. Neighbours had looked on approvingly, and I think shared my perplexity when my actual father engaged a firm of sandblasters within minutes of returning home. I described this to her. ‘You wished to present a facade to the world, but your father wasn’t willing to collude?’ she said. It was my turn to go silent. Could my unconscious really be so devious? Eventually I said, ‘I doubt either of us was that subtle. Maybe he just didn’t like the colour.’ ‘Are you protecting him?’ she asked. ‘Do you mean I don’t want to admit he was a sadist?’ I was getting used to this interpretation malarkey. Her next question was phrased without words – her eyebrows were almost as athletic as my father’s. ‘Fair enough,’ I said, ‘he was a sadist. At least towards me.’ ‘Every sadist needs a masochist,’ she said. So therapy lent me a new personality: that of a self-immolating people pleaser. Except that I was clearly not adept at pleasing. As we continued to review my past the clues stacked up. There was the surprise barbecue, and the year it took to clear myself of arson. There was the job as national archivist for the Quakers, and the stray click that wiped the archive. There was the short spell as a zoo attendant, and the rare macaw that flew past my shoulder and away to a different destiny as I opened its cage. In every instance I had meant well. I described these events at my next session. ‘The saboteur within,’ my therapist said. ‘Giving everyone a reason not to love you.’ ‘I’m not sure my parents needed a reason,’ I said. ‘And maybe I was just born a disappointing person.’ ‘Assuming such a thing was possible,’ she said, ‘do you wish to continue to disappoint?’ ‘Is there a choice?’ I asked. ‘As far as I know I never wanted to
disappoint anyone. Disappointment was more of a byproduct.’ ‘It seems quite central to me,’ she said. ‘Have you chosen to be disappointed with yourself?’ ‘It certainly wasn’t my main aim,’ I said. ‘But now you point it out I can’t claim to be cock-a-hoop. And surely any serial disappointer must also be disappointed?’ ‘Permanently?’ she asked. I realised my hand was clamped to my jaw. I removed it and flexed my fingers. ‘It does feel as though I’m stuck with it,’ I admitted. ‘I’m not sure I can change.’ ‘Change is endemic to the human condition,’ she said. ‘We are always in the process of becoming something else. The cells in your body are changing and renewing at this very moment.’ ‘But that’s involuntary,’ I said. ‘How does that help?’ ‘The trick is to engage with the process of change consciously and creatively,’ she replied, angling her head and looking at me slightly askance. ‘But I’ve tried that,’ I said. ‘I’ve told you – I’ve tried lots of things.’ ‘Indeed you have,’ my therapist said. ‘Unfocused ambition is the last refuge of the self-avoidant.’ ‘So that’s what I’ve been doing,’ I said. ‘Bugger me.’ ‘Your challenge,’ she said unwaveringly, ‘is to identify a single meaningful goal and realise it. But it must be meaningful to you.’ I saw the Yeti costume as I wandered round Covent Garden. There was something touchingly sub-human about it: the shapeless body, the crouched posture, the ingratiating smile of one of life’s natural outsiders. ‘Please accept that I exist,’ it seemed to say. I went into the shop. ‘Can I try it on?’ I asked the proprietor, pointing. ‘It’s just a display item,’ she said. Then, looking at me, her expression changed. ‘Take it into that booth,’ she said, lifting it out of the window. ‘And call me once it’s on – you’ll need someone to zip you up.’ Five minutes later I peered out beneath a vast matted brow and saw the world differently. Once inside his skin, I realised I had misread the Yeti’s demeanour. There was no diffidence. I felt unkempt, robust and independent: a loner who, by living apart, had generated centuries
of fascination. I negotiated a price and left the shop with my spirit uplifted. Later that week I sat opposite my therapist in full Yeti persona, feeling sweaty but otherwise at ease. Her eye contact was as constant as ever, but she had ceased to mirror my body language. ‘You’ve clearly discovered something new within yourself,’ she said. ‘I feel we should approach it as a sub-personality.’ ‘It’s more than that,’ I said. ‘I’ve found my true self and I know what it is that I have to do – that goal you told me to identify.’ She said nothing, but maintained a mildly expectant expression. ‘I’ve decided to go to Ladakh and climb a mountain as you see me today. I just know that, for the first time, I’ll be able to feel I belong to the world around me.’ A slight frown broke through the controlled surface of her brow. ‘It would certainly be a new way to address feelings of alienation,’ she said, ‘and physical ascent is considered by some to be a metaphor for aspiration.’ ‘You don’t seem convinced,’ I said. I had imagined she would be delighted by my display of enterprise. ‘Do you actually have to do it?’ she said. ‘To heal the effects of your relationship with your parents, the most important factor is internal change, and that, by your account, seems already under way. If you feel the need to consolidate I could take you through a guided imagery exercise. As long as you visualise the experience clearly it will have the same effect.’ ‘I feel that in order to realise the change fully I must embody it,’ I said. Her eyes widened slightly and I realised I’d been scratching my armpit involuntarily. ‘Don’t worry,’ I said, feeling the need to reassure, ‘I’ll take full responsibility.’ As arranged, I met Sherpa Zogpar in the foothills of the Karakorum, somewhere west of Ladakh. He was small, bright-eyed, and as agile as I could have hoped. He shook my paw without reluctance, and spoke in what I think was once called an Oxford accent. ‘Are you from these parts?’ I asked. ‘You look as though you are, but sound as though you aren’t.’ ‘I could say the same about you,’ Zogpar replied, ‘but yes, I am indeed.
I was orphaned when I was six, but had the good fortune to be adopted by Sir Sidney Ormoroyd, the triple Everest man. I accompanied him on his fourth ascent, which was sadly ended by an avalanche, as was the prospect of any subsequent attempt in this earthly realm. After that I decided to return to the vicinity of my birthplace.’ He paused reflectively, gazing at me. ‘Sir Sidney would have approved of you. He believed in the Yeti. Sometimes swore he’d seen one after a few malts.’ I felt very much at home with Zogpar. ‘Now, before we embark the monks want to bless you,’ he said, suddenly businesslike. ‘I showed them your photo. They’re calling you “The Holy Fool”. They say you have the valour of innocence, and so believe your venture brings luck to the entire village, even though the light of your wisdom has dimmed.’ He led me to a small monastery painted in stark primary colours and crowded with statues of deities. Monks of indeterminate age with shaven heads and childlike faces greeted me with bows and smiles. One led me by the paw to a small room with a single shrine, and the rest crowded in behind us. The ceremony was short and would have been enjoyable, had their use of incense been more restrained. As it was, the sweet, cloying aroma of patchouli clung to my fur for most of the ascent. However, I slept well, and met with Zogpar the following morning to finalise our plan. After some discussion – I demanded a genuine challenge – he agreed to take me up the intriguing sounding Stok Kangri. ‘It should be achievable for someone of your age and condition,’ he said. I wasn’t entirely sure what he meant by this, but let it pass. ‘I’ll carry our tent and provisions,’ he continued, ‘so all you have to do is climb. And I advise you to start with this.’ He passed me a hazel stick with a worn carved thistle in its handle. ‘It’s a cromack,’ he said, ‘given to me by Sir Sidney himself. It’s from Glencoe and it’s been up more mountains than he and I put together.’ More reassuringly it had come down again. It was an emotional moment. The following day I woke and rose purposefully. I performed a short
private ceremony in my room before going out to meet Zogpar. He stood before me clear-eyed and alert: the epitome, I thought, of a true mountain man. We were both ready. As we began the initial trek the landscape seemed curiously familiar. I felt calm and sure-footed, and found myself waving fraternally as we passed herds of blue sheep, several thick-limbed ponies, and the occasional curious marmot. I quickly realised that Zogpar was a tactful man. He allowed me to lead when the terrain required less agility, but quietly moved ahead if our path became more demanding. As we started to climb in earnest, he paused to point out flora, or bearings in the landscape, whenever my breathing became laboured in the thinning air. ‘I feel as if I was born here, Zogpar,’ I said at one such pause. ‘Perhaps once I was.’ ‘The longer one spends in these mountains the more it’s possible to believe,’ he said, ‘although personally I leave reincarnation and such flummery to the monks.’ ‘I suppose the demands of your profession tend to make you a realist,’ I suggested. ‘Not entirely,’ he replied, eyeing my attempt to locate my mouth with a sandwich. Before we resumed our climb Zogpar exchanged my cromack for an ice axe. ‘This part will be the most strenuous,’ he said, ‘but therein lies our greatest reward.’ In all, the ascent took us four days, and grew increasingly intense as we neared the peak. More than once Zogpar commented approvingly on my instinct to find the right foot and paw hold. Finally, having risen with the dawning sun, we reached the very pinnacle. We stood where earth and sky met, and gazed together at the embrace of cloud and mountain. Then Zogpar broke our reverie. ‘It’s traditional to take a selfie,’ he explained, passing me his phone. He put his arm around my shoulder. I put my paw around his. ‘This will go viral,’ he said. The thought that our simple act of companionship could go out into the world prompted a momentous decision. I asked Zogpar to unzip my costume. He looked aghast.
‘It’s too early for that,’ he said. ‘The monks were quite specific: you have been blessed as you are, and while you remain so the mountains are your protectorate. It would be unwise to relinquish that now.’ Waiving his somewhat arbitrary approach to monastic authority, never have I received sounder advice. I realised at once that neither of my journeys, physical or spiritual, was complete. ‘Thank you Zogpar,’ I said. ‘I bow to your judgement.’ So we approached the descent in a spirit of kinship and, if I may say so, of mutual regard. Despite the physical demands, when I remember it that phase of our adventure has a dreamlike quality. When we finally stepped back into the village Zogpar accompanied me to my lodgings, embraced and unzipped me, and left me in privacy to contemplate our experience. I fell to my knees and repeated the ceremony with which I had preceded our climb, then lay on my bed and fell into a deep sleep. As evening came, I heard a knock on my door, and opened it to find Zogpar. ‘I have a request from the monks,’ he said. ‘They ask respectfully if you have any further use for the costume. They want it to ward off hungry ghosts. They’re willing to pay for the taxidermy.’ ‘Take it by all means,’ I said. ‘May it serve them as well as it has served me.’ I handed it to him. ‘I only ask that I can come to the monastery before I leave tomorrow to bid it farewell.’ Zogpar bowed and left with it under his arm. When I reached the monastery the following day, the costume had been hung carefully on a corridor wall. I stood before it with hands clasped. ‘It seemed transformed,’ I told my therapist. ‘I looked at it and saw the man I had become.’ I sat, conventionally groomed, and at peace with myself in her presence. ‘As though it was your reflection?’ she asked. ‘Exactly,’ I said. ‘I saw a being of goodwill, who can go his own way in life. And Zogpar has written asking me to be best man at his wedding, by the way.’ ‘You obviously formed a strong bond,’ she said. ‘And what about your parents?’ ‘I left them at base camp, so to speak, just before the climb began,
but met them anew when I came down. That was what the ceremony was about.’ ‘There’s no need to describe the content of your ceremony,’ she said quietly, ‘but I take it your life no longer feels ruined?’ ‘Far from it,’ I said. ‘I’ve taken back my power.’ ‘It seems our work is complete,’ she said. ‘But I wonder if I could ask your permission…?’ The paper she published was called ‘Altitude, Anthropomorphism, and the Attainment of Psychological Perspective.’ To this day, when I dream, I see friendly mountains through strange and magical eyes.
Francesca Brooks an alternative castilian dictionary (or, the spanish i learnt in chile) Cochayuyo n.s. (Quechua) dried and folded and tied in brown rubber packages, they sell seaweed out on the streets. As strange and inexplicable as the syllables sound; does anybody know what to do with this root dragged from the beach?
Las estrellas n.pl. they speak of their distance in the expanding space of their double ‘l’s, and their strangeness: these lights estranged from us. They speak of their multitude even in the singular, these pinpoints of dying lights, these stars.
Feo adj. the word is diminutive, dismissive, as though the language has little time for ugly things.
It is the feeling of the low clouds that roll in to shroud the town.
Las frutillas n. pl. here the language exposes its preference for the sweet little fruits, the sweetly dominant fruits, theÂ strawberries. You can fill a bag and wait until they are soft in their deep red juices, and still succeed, and eat them all.
Hallulla n.s. (chileno, from Hebrew challah) it sounds as if it might rise and rise, but thereâ€™s something in the yo-yoing of syllables that keeps it flat and soft. Hot and fresh, it rolls into the deep shelves to be brought to table for elevenses: the hallulla bread.
Madurito adj. you might think it were hard at first, its flesh.
But if you bite through you find it lush and ripe, like the word repeated at speed on the market street.
Marejadas n. pl. on the news it sounds like an incredible force: the progeny of some beast beneath the sea, a rupture in the fractious Pacific depths. Yet these surges and swells are soon swallowed by the dark surface – made yesterday’s news.
Orilla n. s. it gives form to a sound, a sound that the wind makes as it passes over sand, a sound that the waves make as they fall in foaming rushes against the shore. A boundary, a semi-circling cove enclosed, in the open first and last vowels, the perpetual lapping of that double ‘l’.
Pajarito n. s. it takes flight in the flutter of the first two syllables, ‘pajar’, and then diminishes, recedes like a little bird upon the sky.
Palta n.s. (chileno) you hold it softly in your hand, precious flesh of green and yellow: the avocado. Palta: because at its edges, soft and ripe, you feel it giving in your firm hands; your tongue held between two consonants, the smoothest of touches.
Pololo/polola n.s. (chileno) like the rhythm of a soft, coquettish dance, the syllables the steps. With each other’s hands and at each other’s hips, po-lo-lo-po-lo-la, the boyfriend and girlfriend dance.
Sendero n. s. it sounds defined, demarcated, a winding through syllables; down wooded slopes towards the sea, it winds also, its weeded edges overgrown: the path that leads us to the beach.
Temblor n.s. you think, perhaps, that it will remain a tremble, shuddering softly beneath your feet. Then it stretches, roars and rumbles on: the earthquake to shake the house.
‘Real laughter, real comedy is so much about humanity. It’s to do with sharing.’
Structo talks to Vera Chok Edited by Costa-shortlisted novelist Nikesh Shukla, the essay collection The Good Immigrant was crowdfunded by publisher Unbound in just three days, revealing a hunger for black and minority ethnic voices woefully underestimated by traditional publishers. The book features twenty-one writers of colour discussing race and immigration in the UK through their own personal stories. The writer, actor and performer Vera Chok is intimately familiar with the way our bodies are used to express ideas and emotions. In ‘Yellow’, her essay in The Good Immigrant, she explores what it is to have assumptions and labels pushed on you because of your ‘yellow foreign body’, including the peculiar way we fetishise that body when it’s female and emasculate it when it’s male. When the experiences of black, brown and yellow people are under-represented in culture, swathes of the population are undermined with a silent dexterity. Somehow the first of its kind, this book puts a name to a lack and shows that ticking “other” doesn’t have to mean being alone. —Sarah Revivis Smith
structo: How did you get involved in the book? chok: It was via Twitter. I saw the Unbound crowdfunder and remember ignoring it because the copy listed fifteen writers of colour and it was just black and brown people. I was quite cross. I think I tweeted Nikesh something like, ‘There’s no yellow people.’ I was being semi-jokey, but he said he’d since gotten Daniel York
and Wei Ming Kam on board and extended it from fifteen writers to twenty-one. I love Nikesh, and we’ve had great conversations since, but I still feel a bit sad that perhaps East Asians were an afterthought – but I understand that. I write about our skin colour being ‘too pale’; about being invisible. I didn’t propose myself as a writer but people on Twitter said, ‘You should get Vera!’ and I worried because I’d only started describing myself as a writer fairly recently, and I mainly write experimental poetry. But he got in touch and said, ‘Would you be interested in writing if someone drops out?’ I was the last one in! structo: How did you decide the topic of your essay? chok: I didn’t know what the other writers were writing about. I was very nervous about making ‘official’ political and personal statements, and I didn’t know how polite or controversial people were going to be in the other essays. Nikesh and I decided together what I would write about. The first draft was terrible from my point of view because I was trying to do the ‘right thing’, but what’s ended up in the book is more my voice and what I care about. structo: What do you mean by the ‘right thing’? chok: Before Nikesh picked me he said, ‘Send me a proposal of what you’d like to write about.’ Once I started there were so many things I wanted to write about and they were really specific. The way East Asian women are hypersexualised, the intersection between East Asians and the class system in the UK – which I think is very different depending on what your skin colour is. But then from his point of view – it was towards the end of his process, so he already knew what everyone else was writing about – he saw there was a gap and no one was really talking about: ‘What is East Asian?’ My initial response was, ‘Oh, that might be very boring’, because it’s going to be one of those things of how did the phrase come about, one of those dry things. What I ended up writing wasn’t one of those dramatic personal account stories of this horrible thing
happened to me, so it didn’t have that much of an emotional hook. I really wanted to write something punchy and not academic but my first draft was really quite laboured: it was really explainey – about why language matters and why labels matter and how we make meaning. So I handed in this terribly staid first draft. And I was nervous because you make a statement and it goes into print once it’s in a book and the first book of its kind. I’m so interested in dialogue but once [the book is] printed how do you [have a] dialogue with your audience? And Nikesh, bless him, he’d never seen any of my writing – what a chance to take, right? He was very positive about my first draft and he didn’t ask me to rewrite it as dramatically as I did. I rewrote really quickly, into the night, jetlagged and ill. I think that level of stress and the changing circumstances [in my life at the time] really forced things out of me. I wrote about sexual inequality and I rejigged the whole thing and made it more in my voice. I’m really interested in sex and power. I don’t think we talk enough about sex in general, anyway, because it doesn’t seem classy or cultured or we’re all ashamed. And I think fundamentally it affects equality across the board. I couldn’t not write about sex. structo: When did you start writing about race? chok: I think I became aware of it in the theatre scene with the whole RSC [Royal Shakespeare Company] kerfuffle with The Orphan of Zhao 1. Daniel [York Loh] was spearheading the campaign against that and I kind of ignored it because I thought, ‘Hey, the RSC can cast who they want; they’re just being very silly about their public statements’. I genuinely believe that if any artist for artistic reasons wants to make a super-white anything, and it’s thought through, then it’s fine. If they have deliberate reasons for controversial artistic choices, they should stick to their artistic guns and bear the consequences, good or bad. But it’s the unthinking bias and position 1 One of China’s oldest plays: when adapted by the RSC in 2012 it featured only three East Asian actors in a cast of seventeen.
of unquestioned privilege that is the problem, so for example all the RSC’s marketing was very Chinese-looking and they made a big deal about going to China and researching ‘authentic Chineseness’. I started educating myself when I started working with other Chinese actors, so Liz Chan, Daniel, Kevin Shen, Lucy Sheen, etc. It was because all these China plays were happening in the UK. structo: What year was that? chok: 2013 was the year of Chimerica and The World of Extreme Happiness and when I stopped burying my head in the sand. structo: How do you think the conversation has changed since? chok: The book came about before any chat about the referendum or Brexit or Trump and it’s just so weird to think a book like this hasn’t existed before in the landscape. In terms of change, it depends on what circles you move in. It baffles me when I come across people where the conversation hasn’t changed at all. Some people aren’t familiar with the concept of intersectionality 2, which I find superhelpful to explain everything. I think now the conversation’s become more difficult because people are saying it’s the left liberals’ fault that white people are being radicalised. But before this tricky political point in time, I think an interesting shift within my industry (theatre and media) was that people were beginning to look at gender, sexuality, age, race together as one ‘diversity’ campaign. The Act For Change project 3 was instrumental in creating this positive shift. So we weren’t isolating racism, we were looking at society as a whole. This was a really helpful shift for everybody’s causes because it’s not as if there’s a limit on compassion or humanity or equality. I think that was a really positive shift a year 2 A theory that describes how different minority status such as race, gender, age and health overlap or ‘intersect’ in a person’s identity to create layers of discrimination.
3 A campaign for ‘greater diversity in the live and recorded arts’.
or two ago, but now I think larger world politics is throwing us. On a basic level, though, I struggle a lot with not having the language to talk about myself and people like me because of the word ‘Asian’ and how it’s used in the UK.
‘The book came about before any chat about the referendum or Brexit or Trump and it’s just so weird to think a book like this hasn’t existed before in the landscape.’ structo: That was very informative for me in your essay, the terms ‘East Asian’ and ‘South Asian’. chok: Because ‘East Asian’ only appeared around four years ago and before that there was only ‘oriental’, I guess. I used to use the word ‘oriental’ and then I realised I don’t actually even know what that means. When I was growing up I used the word ‘Asian’ because that was the word I grew up with – I came from Asia. I’ve been aware of ‘East Asian’ and I use it if I have to. I wasn’t advocating using the word yellow; I think that some people did think that I was going ‘reclaim the word’. I guess my point was I don’t have a word and that’s a problem. I wanted my essay to provoke thought. Actually I spoke to one of the writers in the book about the term Asian. He said with ‘Asian’, people just mean ‘Indian-looking people’ and with ‘East Asian’ we mean ‘Chinese-looking people’. We completely generalise. And obviously there are other countries in South Asia apart from India. He said, in the UK, South Asians don’t use the word Asian because they’re thinking of themselves in specific terms of Bangladeshi, etc., or their religion – whether they’re Muslim or Sikh. And I hadn’t thought about it that way because we just go, ‘um, yeah, Indian’. I have been using the word Indian as a generality and now I’m like, ‘Oh God, stop doing that’.
structo: I think a point the book makes well is having an awareness of some of the detail and vastness when we use these sweeping terms. So Inua Ellams’s essay ‘Cutting Through’, which differentiates the countries in Africa, because it’s huge and we just say ‘Africa’. chok: It was useful for me to read The Good Immigrant. It’s not just a book for white people to educate themselves; that would be so patronising. I was so struck – I hadn’t thought about the GreekCypriot situation, I hadn’t really thought about the caste system abroad. Because the book isn’t just about ‘other people’, everybody has their own prejudices and I think it’s important to keep reminding ourselves of the complications and the plurality. The world of information is so fast and fragmented because of social media. Because of the book I’m paying so much attention to the media, which is always chasing the sound bite when actually we need to keep all the complications in. So on news programmes everyone’s pitted against one another in a binary, black and white way because it’s simpler, or more entertaining. Or we get caught up in the anxiety of, ‘if I write this statement I can never change my mind, it’s locked down’. I know that I’m going to keep developing and growing and learning so I force myself to say things I believe in at whatever point in time. Because dialogue is the way forward. structo: The media are chasing the sound bite as a practicality as well, they don’t have infinite space and they’re constrained by needing to sell papers. They need that snappy thing. But it’s an interesting point about being able to hold multiple viewpoints in your mind, and how either we’re not primed for it, or the current system doesn’t allow us to. But as the reverse of that, that’s a reason why people like Trump are so popular: they make things black and white, good and bad – there’s a yearning for a simpler time. chok: It’s very strange but I completely understand that he seems to make things simpler. But America’s values are already so simple: everyone is equal, it’s in the constitution, right? And you kinda go, ‘that’s simple enough guys, let’s base everything on that…’ How did
they end up voting for a person who isn’t for equal freedom? I understand, though: I definitely believe that human beings have to categorise to make sense of the world, so the basic [idea] – whether you want to think of it as anthropology or philosophy or whatever – [is] ‘I’m me because I’m not you’. There’s that basic separation, but what I don’t think we need to do is place value judgements on top. You’ve got blue eyes so therefore your life is worth more? You know when you say it out loud or you’re standing next to a blue-eyed person it just doesn’t make sense. We can just say, ‘I’m you, you’re me, we’re different’ and just leave it at that level. Why do we place value judgements? It’s fear. structo: We live in a world that’s changing rapidly and there is a lot of fear. chok: It does feel like fear is being generated where it’s not warranted. In terms of US gun crime killing more people than terrorists, whereas people are so much more afraid of terrorists. You go, ‘No, wait, stop: we’re afraid of the wrong things’. I don’t know how to reverse that or address that fear. Because fear really, really messes people up on all sorts of levels. I’m really interested in how people see themselves in the world. We’re more fragmented now because of modern media and the lack of shared experiences. The way we interact with each other in the digital world is different. People have been talking about the disenfranchised and I think it’s an important thing – if you feel powerless or disconnected, you don’t realise your actions affect other people. But they do. Throwing litter into your neighbour’s garden does have an impact. Not voting with care has an impact. Because it’s about empathy, it’s about thinking about the other person and the impact of policies or behaviour. And then when I think about the book: who is gonna read the book? I mean, it’s doing really well, but it’s still a book. And poor people aren’t going to spend however much to buy the book. Some of the articles have been pulled and put in the newspaper, great. But those are still for people who read. And it is easyish to read the book,
but it isn’t that easy, it’s quite chewy. My point is that I feel very strongly about grassroots – I don’t even like the phrase – but how do we relate to each other? How do we change things? And I feel it must be on a personal level, because if you do sit down and talk, you connect. structo: You’re right, because there is a certain type of person who’s going to read The Good Immigrant. And books aren’t the dominant form anymore so how do you get the message to everyone when people aren’t in the same place like they were. How do you find them? And do they even want to hear what you have to say? chok: Which is why I’m really interested in comedy, for example. structo: I wanted to ask about your comedy. When I saw you in The World of Extreme Happiness, you were so, so funny. Can we talk a bit more about the role humour plays for you? chok: That was my breakout comedy role actually. I loved it and I really discovered stuff. We talk about accessing people: I think you have to be naughty about it. You can’t just go like parents, ‘Eat these greens’. You have to make it fun. How do you access people? How do you get their attention? I think through something that’s interesting, that’s entertaining and that they can see is not scary. I also think comedy is the hardest thing to do well. The greatest comics are really smart and have a real instinct and their rhythm and humanity is so that you’re in tune with them. There are lots of standup joints where people are laughing, but it’s a surface laughter. But real laughter, real comedy is so much about humanity. It’s to do with vulnerability and sharing Also, someone said this to me – I don’t know if it’s true – that in general people don’t laugh out loud when they’re by themselves. It’s a social thing. I’m interested in shared activities and there’s an energy that’s generated. I’m really opposed to art, or things that purport to be art, that smashes audiences down and goes, ‘the world is so disgusting and terrible and awful: feel bad about it’. So either the
audience is incapacitated and can’t go out and make any social change because things seem so hopeless, or they’re like, ‘pat [us] on the back, we’re so liberal; we’ve seen something awful, we can go home and carry on living because we’ve suffered enough during this experience’. Comedy works differently. Even with absurdist, observational comedians like Eddie Izzard, you might be talking about giraffes, but really we’re laughing because we’re human beings and we see something about feelings and being alive. The content doesn’t need to be overtly political but if it makes you think and feel, share and empathise? That’s political. structo: I also think there’s something quite alchemical about laughing, it changes your state. You cut through the crap we build around ourselves. chok: Yes, if the comedian and the comedy can cut through all the crap it strips down your defences and it equalises people. Because if the teenager in a hoody down the street laughs at the same thing I laugh at, then at some level we are similar, and so I’m less likely to be violent against them or them against me. So if you practise that across all the different groups… structo: You end your essay with the brilliantly sinister line, ‘I see you’, which kind of suggests accountability; but more than that, I read as you actively looking out – rejecting your role as a passive ‘thing’ to be looked at or have Chineseness pushed onto. Is that something you were trying to do? chok: I was trying to do that! Is that super-cheesy? I’m bad at endings in all my work, and I remember having to rewrite the end. I was jet-lagged, ill and on my tiny laptop in America sweating, ‘it’s such an important essay, I have to do this properly’. But you’re right, it is about that; in all my work I want people to feel. In my essay I’m poking with comedy and with difficult statements and it’s apt that I end on something that is tricky, so is it accusatory or is it accepting? One of the things that I feel is invisible or not quite whole.
If I see that someone does accept all parts of me, and doesn’t reduce me to ‘small woman’ or ‘East Asian woman’ or ‘actress’, if they see me, then I think that’s so valuable. I think that it’s so important to really see each other. All my work is about whether people can connect and for how long. Because it’s not like once you connect you’re always connected. So the act of seeing is an active thing. If we continue seeing each other then I think that’s a massive thing that will really change our lives. structo: Writing is quite a new thing for you but one of your first forays is one of the biggest books this year, and I read your piece on political blackness in The Guardian that I thought was excellent. So it seems to come naturally to you. How do you feel about your writing? chok: I haven’t quite worked it out. I don’t write compulsively but I do want to do more with my writing. I think that I will always make stuff, and expressing myself is going to be important to me for the rest of my life. I’ve got an artist friend and I asked her, ‘Why do you create?’ She says she makes to make sense of the world, that’s her process of living. It’s the same for me, but I’m also very interested in connecting people, connecting to people, and one way I can do that is through writing. I’ll be finishing my MA next year. My mentor [Tim Atkins] is the reason I’m doing this MA. He’s helped me to discover so much about my writing. structo: How do you write? chok: I’d say I’m playful while being very controlling! I try to provoke and to manufacture spaces my audience can dream around. I want my audience to keep being affected beyond the event of reading or experiencing my work. It has to do with my performance training and my degree in anthropology on how meaning is made, how we use space, what is culture, how do we communicate, build, play. I like to control what my words are doing in the space and I like the idea of being with the reader, so rhythm, formatting and punctuation
are important. I put in lots of starts and stops – ideas that butt up against each other. I like to drop in provocations. I try to be surprising, I try not to be patronising. It was hard to write an essay with data because I don’t like explaining stuff. I am primarily a poet, I would say, and some people find my writing easy and some find it difficult. Tim says I should look to America as there’s a lot more experimentation going on there. He’s talking about American, experimental avant-garde poets. He currently doesn’t know anybody who writes like I do which is … interesting! structo: Can we talk about the use of quotes in your piece, in particular the first quote? chok: It’s the quote about the bird that flies and flies and then lands once in its life and then it dies. The quote for me is to do with travel and seeking, and birds cross borders all the time. The quotes in the essay act as interruptions. Because I can’t be with the reader when they’re reading this is my way of being with them. But the initial quote is around this idea of constant movement. I feel like I’m seeking a home somewhere. I’m seeking happiness and belonging and I don’t know when I’ll find what I’m looking for and what will happen when or if that point comes. So in a way the bird quote is quite cheesy and romantic, like I am! Nikesh asked, “Why do people come to this country; what are they looking for? If they don’t find it here do they go elsewhere?” And so this seeking – look, I can’t go back to Malaysia and I absolutely can’t go back to China because I didn’t come from China, and if I wanted to be all tragic and sad about it I’d be like, “Oh God, I don’t have a home! Will I ever have a home?” I like wondering if we’re asking the right questions. I don’t want to die at the point of landing, I want to live while I fly.
Niamh MacCabe golden stone territory She meanders through the damp grass, thick with insects and a myriad of scents, pausing frequently to gather pockets of information. Some new, some old, some ancient, they are cross-referenced with her memories of the same journey this time yesterday. Her zig-zag path appears chaotic, like the staccato movement of a housefly: forward, stop, reverse, stop, swing left, take a wide arc back to just beyond the start, stop, follow the original direction, stop, swing right, a tight circle, twice, stop, go again, forward. She only knows what she is looking for when she finds it. Pausing, she analyses the find then moves on towards the next. Head down, black nose to the ground, the tips of the shorn grass tickle her bald belly and catch the diamanté “R” that chinkles from her collar. She finds a place where another bitch has urinated: the mark wasn’t there yesterday. Snorting up the scent; it washes in and out through her wet nostrils. She notes: female, close to oestrus, healthy, well-fed, recent trespass. Manoeuvring her rump over the exact spot, she urinates in short, robust spurts, then pads on. She is making for the rear of the house. Though her nostrils skim the ground, her ears are cocked for sound. Usually at this point the old man has appeared at the door, roaring in her direction and striking the doorstep with his stout brown walking stick. She always slinks away from his challenge, head low, ghost tail held between her legs (it was docked at birth but she does not know this), back towards the scraggy hole she made in the privet hedge separating her home territory from this no man’s land, this almanac of smells. Yesterday, on her way back through the hedge, she sniffed out a mystery: her own faeces, which she had excreted earlier in no man’s land, now wrapped in a small plastic bag, hanging caught and torn on her side of the fence. The scent of her excrement wafted sidelong with the scent of the old man.
Sometimes he throws stones at her. She can’t help but chase down these trophies in the grass while retreating, though this seems to make him more aggressive. The game, if the man plays it, is this: he snarls and throws, she catches and runs for escape, muzzle aloft, holding the prized golden stone stamped with the exciting smell of her human territorial rival. This evening, there is no man. She gives this little consideration, dealing only with what there is, and incapable of dealing with what there is not. Reaching the end of the front garden, she defecates, and paws clumps of soft lawn over her excrement before moving onto the golden gravel. Here, among the stones, she picks up a series of unfamiliar scents. Males, human; adults, three; none of them the older man from the front door. Latticed around these males are mysterious traces of agitation. She notes the curious smells but does not linger, having edged onto what is the old man’s territory. Heading for the rear, a place where territorial rights are still in dispute, she trots across the golden stones and skirts the side of the house. Poking her head around the corner, she spots the cat’s bowl. The piebald cat is sitting on the window sill by the back door, staring at her, having noted her approach long before. He narrows his eyes in his yin-yang face and swings his tail, but both know this is no contest. She pads up to the bowl, ignoring the faint feline hiss, and barely notices the cat jumping away with a grousing flourish. She gnaws at the remains of the cat food; there are some dried bits left clinging to the sides, but no tinge of morning-milk remnant. She is about to investigate the yielding hatch of the compost bin when she senses the cat engaging. He is sitting inside the threshold, enveloped in the safety of the interior terrain, black tail curling containment around neat white paws, peering at her through the open back door. This is new. There is an open door. There is no old, shouting man; no stick. Looking at the half-moon beacon face of the cat, she considers. The two animals lock stares. The dappled cat streaks inwards. She hops up onto the vacated threshold and enters. The old man’s terrain is dark. She draws in layered inklings of him. Other unsettling
scents linger from the recent past on the walls, the floor, the stairs. The kitchen door is agape, the room is empty of life. She walks in. The astringent essence of the three young males she identified earlier is here; vestiges of human testosterone, tinged with less tangible elements of panic. She pads over the broken crockery and sniffs at the upturned drawers, overturned chairs, and scattered debris. No edibles here, though she can ascertain the possibility of food behind the strewn sachets of granulated soup and the cardboard boxes of dried marrowfat peas on the floor. An intimation of cat floats in. Turning to find the source, she sees him crouching halfway up the stairs, glaring at her through the banisters, head low, black pupils wide. His distress excites her. She yips sharply, running at him. He flees upwards. She chases, her highpitched yelping reverberating off the walls as she ascends the stairs in giant leaps. She stops on the landing. The scents frighten her. The old man, present. Blood, his. Urine, his. Blended undertones of fear, of injury, relics of a troubling wound. Several doors are open. She enters the room that contains the source. She cowers; here is the old man. He is slumped on a chair that has been pulled up to the bed. His arms are tied behind him, wound with reams of duct tape, then bound to the metal bed frame. His torso is tied to the chair. The tape also covers his mouth, the torn strips running the whole way around his skull. Blood-stained mucus runs from his nose over the shiny surface of the tape, and drips from his unshaven chin. His eyes are open and gaping towards the door. She determines he is immobile, and no immediate threat to her. She sits and observes him. He snorts but there is no challenge in the tone, just pain, exhaustion, dehydration, and a fragment of anticipation. She notes the piebald cat, perched up on top of the wardrobe, far from reach. He begins to emit a low grumbling whirr, gawping down at her. A mottled shaving mirror on the mantelpiece reflects the evening sun. The iron bedstead is pushed up against the wall and the bedside drawers have been toppled, their contents scattered. Papers, cigarettes, a bottle of yellowing holy water shaped as the Virgin Mary, a bar of Palmolive soap, pens, some curling photographs, cufflinks tied together ď€ˇď€´
with fishing-line, a fake tortoiseshell comb with grey hairs caught in its broken teeth. Nothing threatening here, nothing edible. Identifying no menace, she turns her head to scissor-itch her hindquarters with her incisors, her front paws scratching purchase on the carpet. The man is blinking dried blood from his eyelids, and looking straight at her. He starts to moan. After a struggle, he structures the gurgling sound into a sing-song incantation, raising the pitch at the end of each bar. She knows this is directed at her. Without turning her head from her rump, she listens, considering the nuances of his tone. Suddenly recognising the inflection as an invitation to play, she replies with an excited yelp, jumps up, docked tail wagging, and yelps delight again. The cat crescents, hissing. The man taps his foot and she runs to the spot, scratching the carpet where he had indicated, whimpering with the thrill of play. His trouser leg is sodden with urine. He moves his foot and taps again. She jumps to the new indication, sniffs the carpet, and looks up at him, eyes fixed, anticipating. She knows this game. Stretching his foot forwards, he taps the plastic Virgin Mary bottle. She yelps and grabs it in her mouth, runs to the door and runs back, whirls several elated tight circles in front of him and drops it at his feet, yelping a cracked full stop. She waits, tongue lolling, gazing at his feet, little barrel chest rising and falling at speed. He is breathing slowly, turning his head, looking around the room, small whines rising from his lungs. The distress that she discerns from these sounds confuses her. She draws in her tongue and cocks her head sideways. His crusted eyes come to rest on a mantelpiece ornament, propped beside his shaving mirror. The figurine depicts a jolly, chubby-cheeked man brandishing a fishing rod, oversized hat perched on his balding head. The engraving on the base’s plaque reads: “Best Wishes on your Retirement from your Neighbours Joe and Sarah (and Roxy!)”. He slides his torso down the chair as low as his ties will allow. Perched on the edge of the seat, he stretches out his leg towards the fireplace. She watches him, following his foot’s slow progress, eager to decipher whatever is expected of her. His foot travels up the fire surround and reaches the edge of the
mantelpiece. The figurine is pushed back against the wall. He positions his foot in front of it, taps, stops, taps again; intoning, with a series of high pitched little whines from behind his gag, the sing-song invitation to play. She has watched his footâ€™s journey and is ready. Her squat legs propel her small body upwards towards her goal. Her muzzle only tips the edge of the mantelpiece and she falls down. Without pause, she jumps again, resolute. She angles her head in towards the figurine and grabs it before falling down on her back. She has it. She yelps, full-mouthed, and celebrates in frenzied twirls. He pulls himself back into an upright sitting position, wincing with pain behind his spittle-filled mouth covering. She drops the prized object at his feet, and waits. He inhales through nostrils blocked with mucus and dried blood. Bringing his foot over the gift, he hovers there, making sure he has her full attention. She whines in anticipation. He taps on it. She jumps and snatches it up into her mouth, runs to the door, runs back to him, circles his legs, runs to the door, runs back and drops it once more at his feet. He taps again, she grabs it again, getting a firm grip on it, familiar now with the game, and runs in twirls towards the door, spinning nose touching her stump of a tail; round and round she chases herself, figurine held firm. This time, he raises his leg high in the air, pauses, then brings it crashing down on the floor. The powerful thump shocks her. She stops short, figurine still gripped, and stares at him. He wriggles violently in his seat, shaking the metal bed frame, growling and snarling behind his gag. He bashes his foot off the floor once more, and kicks out at the iron legs of his bed. The clamorous sounds thunder off the walls. She turns and flees, ghost tail held low between her legs. His terror-wails chasing her, she runs down the stairs, out the open back door, across his golden stones, heading straight for the privet portal, back to the safety of her own territory, the figurine with his name emblazoned on it still held in her strong jaws.
Declan Ryan seated nude girl with pigtails (1910) Most meetings are coincidence or instantly forgotten; analysis starts at the result to rewrite the game. I would like to be alone with someone in the evening, a few drinks, a smoke, a companionable dawn chorus. No fatalist, a life is going on somewhere which I’ll encroach upon in time. I may know it already, in other contexts. I have my suspicions. Like when you leaned back in your seat, framing your face with an arm. Not desire, not yet, just close attention, seeing that your hands move like naked, articulate creatures; noticing how you gather your hair; I think about some evening down the line, coming home to you. What that might be like. All the while waiting for the lightning strike which won’t be seen till post-production, like a god, or any ordinary monster.
Peter Papathanasiou the truck stop Aw Christ. Look at all them bloody trucks lined up, sitting there by the highway on the border to Queensland. Must be a dozen of the bastards. I work down through the gears quietly, find a park, and kill the engine. Flashing me headlights, I see a mob of black-tailed wallabies feeding by the roadside. Their movements dislodge small stones as they hop away. An unseen barn owl flies overhead, its call echoing into the night. Cicadas chirp and frogs croak, and the moonlight is brighter than the biggest halogens. Out here, deep in the outback, the starlit evening is perfectly serene and peaceful. That is, until we come along. We come like terrifying beasts in the night, metal monsters, lurking in the dark, waiting. If you sit for a while and watch, it’s all nice and quiet at the truck stop. But trust me, it’s all happening. You just can’t see it. Tonight, I’m late. Fuckin’ bastards beat me here. Christ, having to change that bloody flat cost me. And now, I can’t wait, I’m getting antsy, there’s too many drugs in me system, I’m charging. But I’ll wait a few more minutes before I flash me lights again. That’s me only bet. I wished I’d gotten here earlier, down to the highway. It was late now, nearly midnight. But I was cold and wet and couldn’t hold it in no more so I had to whip behind a bush for a piss. I didn’t want to miss anyone new turnin’ up but I was goin’ to burst. I got back to the truck stop as quickly as I could and returned to my position sittin’ in the gutter. No one’s come in half an hour anyway and I kept gettin’ my hopes up with every set of headlights. But they were all only cars flyin’ through, not trucks parkin’ for the night. Perth to Brisbane was an absolute cunt of a shift. Changing a flat tyre in the pissing rain on the South Australian border was like knee sur
gery on a centipede. Plus I banged me bonce, twisted me finger, and got sprayed with diesel. The crows in the Alice must’ve heard me swearing blue murder. Tonnes of roadkill in New South Wales, as usual. It’s as if the roos are dumber once you cross the border. With Queensland in me sights, and the prospect of stopping for the night, I popped a happy pill and sunk a Red Bull. Then I wound down the window and cranked up the doof doof. I wanted to really let ’em know I was on me way. Me older sister hung herself, down by the creek not far from here. On a quiet night, you can hear the frogs, which always remind me of Jessie. She was messed up, Dad said. No good kid. Can’t help a kid who’s no good. Mum still bawls her eyes out, every day. She drinks until she sleeps. Sometimes Dad went to work, most days he didn’t. But he always found time to drink, and then he didn’t know what he was doin’. Me and Mum was always scared. I cried heaps, and Mum was always yellin’ at me to shut up. She’s always drinkin’ and smokin’, and when Dad saw that it made him real mad, and he’d yell louder, call her a cunt, bitch, dog, throw things round, break stuff. He always had a steel fencing post, a star picket, which he swung with all his might. The nurses at the clinic were real nice. But poor Ma. She cried. So I cried even harder. People are idiots. Bloody idiots. Christ, is it that hard to imagine that ninety-five tonne o’ road train barrelling down the highway might cause some damage? Idiots. Even tonight, at dusk, I nearly turned two cunts into pancakes. They overtook me and then merged without looking. I nearly punched a hole in the floor hitting me brakes. And then there’s all those pricks who tow caravans without proper mirrors on so they can’t see the mile of bloody traffic piling up behind them. School holidays are the worst, people drive like there’s a fire. If I had a dollar for every time I seen a car approaching me, still way off in the distance, which wandered across the white line. Rich fuckin’ man. You can tell they’re tired but are too dumb to stop and rest. They may
make it past me – at the last second – but the next rig may be different, and that could be a mate o’ mine, could be Thommo. No wonder truckies are strung out. Jockeys don’t last long no more. Just after Christmas, three young blokes were killed on the Great Eastern trying to outrun a bushfire. Fifty degrees in the shade that day. And don’t even get me started on the cost of petrol. Daylight fuckin’ robbery. The drugs will help, Becky had said. She was right. Full moon tonight. Cold as. The day was hot as, but then the storms rolled in and it cooled off. The Wobbly Boot’s closed now, so whitefellas better show soon ’cos this grass is cold ’n’ wet. Becky was here earlier. When I saw her new outfit, I called her a complete slut. ‘Ah, get fucked!’ she yelled at me from across the road. ‘You’re just jealous.’ I was a bit. Becky knew me well. I just really liked her new shoes. They were red and had high heels. A gift. And her straight shiny hair was much nicer than my curls. She looked like a model. Becky ’n’ me are besties. She saved me life. The drill was easy. You just park at the truck stop behind the servo, not far from the Wobbly Boot Hotel, and flash your lights. That’s it. Piece o’ piss. Me mate Thommo first told me about this. He calls the truck stop ‘party row’. The locals know the signal, there’s prompt service in minutes. A little drink, a little toke, a few bucks, and Bob’s yer father’s brother. Jesus. I can’t believe I’m still out here, in the middle of fuckin’ nowhere. I blinked and nineteen years disappeared. Not much to look at on the Nullarbor. Just an endless black line. No wonder they call it ‘the bore’. At least there’s the two-way and radio. And audiobooks, Thommo’s a true mate putting me onto those. I never read much at school. If only the menu gave as much choice. It’s the same stuff every day – frozen, then deep fried. Me ever-expanding gut, me black insides. It’s
a good day when I can shoot one out on the crapper without biting me bottom lip raw. But at least now there’s this. She’s the little black cherry on top of the cake at the end of a run. Home didn’t last long. Me ol’ man was always drinkin’, always angry. Unca George too, Dad’s brother. We’s always fightin’ with someone, ya know. Neighbours, the whitefellas at the dole office, cops. Took us a long time to stop ’em comin’ over to the house, breakin’ down our door, causin’ more trouble. Dad would never let Mum call the cops. One time he held up a knife to her throat when she tried. You fucken’ whore, he said, and undid his belt and pants. Ma was cryin’ the whole time, tellin’ me to look away, to go outside. We both stayed at the clinic that night. And our street’s, like, real bad. All the houses got wood where the windows should be, burnt-out cars all over. Posties, school buses, pizza boys stopped comin’ down our road. And even when cops come, they’re in packs, with shields and guns and angry dogs. All we got is cricket bats. Fuck, it’s c-cold. Me and the missus got hitched young. Her dad offered me a job drivin’ for his company. Good man, ol’ Reg. Straight shooter. A man to respect. It’s just, ya know, not much fuckin’ fun to come home after a month staring at the horizon to a woman what can’t stand the sight of ya, let alone wanna touch ya. A hundred per cent she’s got her own thing on the side when I’m on the road. She’d be mad not to, probably one of me mates, maybe even Thowmmo, the prick. The rigs are a lonely life. Christ, is anyone out there? Even with the full moon, I can’t see a damn thing through me windscreen, it’s completely still out there. I’ll give it another couple of minutes before I flick on me lights again. Thommo tells me we gotta be careful, the coppers have started watching. I didn’t know a single person who worked all the time. Until I met Becky. Her mum was a cleaner. Her dad drunk too much too and died, she was still in nappies. But she says she was lucky. Becks and me met in the park last year, and I went over to her house all the time, hung out there, you know. Safe.
Becky says there’s girls all over the world doin’ what we do, in Africa and America and India. America’s great, lots of money, glamour, movie stars. But they have men there that help them. Pimples, I think they’re called, which is pretty funny. But they get some of the money. I don’t need no pimple, I wanna keep all me own money. I can’t even believe I get money for this now! The blackfellas never gave me no money, only trouble. I dunno why we’s always fightin’ with whitefellas. They’re good blokes, you know. Give us food, drinks, and we get happy together. Everyone else’s got them, every bloke who can anyway, or so Thommo reckons, and he’s been around. Reg probably does too. So don’t go telling me there’s not some middle-aged suit in Sydney nailing his secretary right now while his bored wife’s at home eyeing off the gardener. He’s looking for sumthin’, no fuckin’ doubt. But so’s she. And if you ever saw the Wobbly Boot, you’d know what I mean. The regulars are as blind as a welder’s dog and the floor and walls are concrete. Fuck that. Out here, in the fresh air, there’s no trouble, no demands, no agendas, it’s all on the table. We’re all animals after all, deep down. And for blokes like me and Thommo, we’re just a second away from having our brains splattered across the Great Eastern. ‘That’s mine!’ Becky shouted as a rig pulled up. I didn’t worry about Becky. She was a year older and looked after herself. There was this one time I didn’t see her for about a week. But she came back, sayin’ she’d just fallen asleep and woken up in Sydney. I’d love to go to Sydney! See the bridge, the ocean. I never been. ‘I love you!’ I called to Becky as she climbed up into the cabin. ‘Love you too!’ I wished I’d brought a jumper. Look… I know it ain’t right. But I dunno what to tell ya. Honestly, I couldn’t give a fuck no more. Thommo says we’re just doing what our forefathers did, we’re being traditional. They had needs, we got needs. It’s only human. These things don’t change just ’cos we landed a man on the moon. And, anyway, what we’re doing ain’t the root of evil out here.
And that’s exactly what protects us from the police. Nothing gets reported. The boongs say fuck all, they keep secrets and intimidate. The kids are told not to say anything to the cops ’cos the cops can’t be trusted. If anyone talks, it’s only ever to nurses. And if the pigs do hear anything, we’re way down the list of suspects. First suspects are the other blackfellas. Then the roving cotton chippers who come and go with the season. And then, maybe, us. Chippies at least got some time to build up some trust, they’re in town a few months. They buy food for the mum, clean the house. Then the minute she’s dead drunk on the couch, they’re straight into the kids like flies on shit. But we truckies just fly through, ya gotta catch us in the act. Hell, most coppers are compromised anyway ’cos of their own relationships with the black sheilas. Abuse of power, tsk tsk. We don’t talk much about this game, Bec and me. We giggle and laugh a lot, give one another shit, dare each other, you know. We know our mas and aunties aren’t happy about it. But that’s okay, it’s just fun. I love Mum but I know what I’m doin’, I’m a big girl now. It sometimes hurts, but not enough to stop. Becky wouldn’t let me really hurt myself. She’s me guardian angel. She saved me life. And we’re not gonna do this forever. Becky reckons she’s gonna be a model in the big smoke. And I wanna be a nurse. Make Mum proud. I try not to, but yeah, I’ve thought about what this’ll do to the kids. What am I, some monster? Mental health services round the clock. But it’s been there for generations and always will be. This is just a fart in the wind, it’s nothing compared to the past. Look, it’s real straightforward, right. I’m just trying to put some food on the table for meself, me missus, and me beautiful little girl, and not lose me fuckin’ marbles in the process. The rest of the world can go to hell. I’ll see Becky in the mornin’. She always gets more money than me; gifts too. Prob’ly ’cos she’s older, knows how to talk to the whitefellas better than me. Becks and me will kiss and hug in the mornin’ and walk home holdin’ hands. Sometimes we see blackfellas cookin’ a roo they just speared over an open pit. Sometimes we see ’em pissin’ and shittin’ in the street. That’s pretty
gross. Whitefellas don’t do that. Whitefellas got manners. Blackfellas are like animals. Spear ’em and roast ’em over a pit. But sometimes, yeah… they see us walkin’ home cryin’. There was a police roadblock on the outskirts of town tonight. Like Thommo said, they’re onto us. I had to turn down the radio, put on me straight face, and act like I had no idea what they were talking about. In the end, it was too easy. Mister Plod gave me his lecture, I nodded me head stupidly and acted all surprised. No further questions, drive safely sir, and have a good evening. Too fuckin’ right I will. I made it to the local takeaway just as they were closing. Potato scallops, chips, hamburgers with the lot. All candy for the baby. I avoided eye contact with the overweight proprietor and returned to me truck, speeding towards the truck stop at the northern end of town. I wondered if he knew what I was up to. Nah, I was just another fat truckie buying his deep-fried dinner. The sad prick should be lucky I’m giving him me business. Yeah, I cry. Buckets. Thinkin’ about poor Jessie, about Mum. And yeah, even thinkin’ about Dad. And then, when I’m all cried out, I just wanna go hang out with Becky who helps me escape to where it’s all excitin’ and fun, to the truck stop. These big men in their big shiny machines. Becky calls hers sugar daddies, ’cos they’re always so sweet, they say she’s beautiful, they give her presents and love her. But, I wonder. All these men, who make promises and say they’ll look after me, and who are always leavin’. Will they ever stay? Or take me away too? Jesus, am I just wasting me time here? I can’t see anything out there tonight, it looks dead. Fuck me, these chips have got too much bloody salt again. Might flick on the radio to catch the news at midnight… ‘Welcome to News on the Hour, keeping you informed through the night, it’s twelve o’clock. Well, it was a long time coming, but the prime minister yesterday delivered on a pre-election promise and apologised to the Stolen Generation for the mistakes of the past. In a moving address from the chamber in Parliament House – ’ Click.
Christ. That’s the last bloody thing I want to think about now. Not when I’m sitting here at the truck stop, waiting for service. Instead, I’m gonna imagine their bright eyes, their big honest smiles, their smooth skin. And anyway, it’s different now. Like Thommo said to me earlier tonight on the two-way: ‘Mate, it’s not another Stolen Generation. This time, we’re paying for ’em, fair ’n’ square.’ A modern-day philosopher, is our Thommo. But recently, I dunno… something’s been troubling me, something niggling away. I don’t wanna admit it but I reckon I might think about the sweet black cherry too much. I think about it at home, days before I go on the road. I have dreams. Hell, I even think about when I’m playing with me angel. It’d kill me if she ever knew what her daddy did. And I’d fuckin’ murder anyone who ever did that to her. And hey, if all else fails, there’s always another ‘sorry’. Ha! Right, that’s it. Time to flash me lights and pray it’s me lucky night. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s no one left, if they’re all taken. Christ, that bloody tyre cost me… The headlights. The brakes. The signal! Phew. I was losin’ hope. Thought I’d be out here all night. He must’ve arrived when I went to the loo. Shiverin’, I make my way over. ‘Gudday love!’ ‘Hey mistah!’ ‘Cold?’ ‘Yeah, been a while outside tonight. Wet too.’ ‘Well it’s nice and dry in here and I’ve got some hot takeaway.’ A glossy photograph of a young family on holiday taped to the dash shines in the moonlight, while a siren is heard wailing off into the distance. The heavy cabin door swings open, and then closes with a thud.
The night is still. A cicada chirps, frogs croak, wallabies hop away. It is several minutes before light footsteps are heard on the wet asphalt, circling the perimeter of the darkened truck stop. Fanning out, surrounding the trucks, getting closer. A sudden cacophony of noise shatters the silence. Headlights smashing, window glass breaking, voices screaming, angry. Doors are flung open, young girls are dragged from the cabins. They flee into the darkness, their partially clothed silhouettes like silver in the moonlight. And then the trucks are overrun by fast-moving shadows wielding cricket bats and star pickets.
Maurice Devitt a loose connection There will be days we canâ€™t remember and nights we will never forget, names jotted down for future reference and, at some point, not chosen by us, we will find ourselves at a loose end, no worries to crowd our mind, no puzzles to be solved. The first coat of winter and hands, rediscovering pockets, will turn up a piece of card, name and number just faint enough to be read but not recognised. We will be tempted to call, to hide in the silence and wait for the familiar cadence of a voice we thought we had forgotten.
Christine Nguyen komodo dragon habits Komodo dragons will swim to another island if the one they’re on is short on food. A snap — just like that. They’ve moved on. And I think that’s smart. There is no fear about betrayal, no anxiety about attachment, about shared history. Though this may be the water that’s fed you since birth, the sand you’ve slept on for nine years, the trees no longer bear birds and the forests no longer hide hogs — you can’t prevent its deterioration, and so it’s off to the next island. And I want that, that courage of the komodo to brace the deep currents of the sea, to swim for an island they might not have ever seen, one that might not be there, but maybe the wind has brought the smell of its pungent durian, and maybe they’ve stepped on crisp water apples that have washed up on shore, all signs: there is an island out there, nearby, with life. I tell this to my mom, but she is old fashioned. It’s not stable, she says, it’s not good. Not safe. She thinks every moment is meaningful. The fruits will come again.
I hear her voice. It’ll get better; it gets better. I don’t know what it is or where is better, but I know this island is dying, the trees are withering — and I’ve smelled the papaya on the wind.
Christine Nguyen black sears There are black sears on your skin where my fingers have lingered for too long. I thought I touched you gently. Those nights where you trembled and muttered hexes beneath your breath? I was the one who turned over and touched your cheek. For you, I unzipped my spine, cracked open ribs, washed the lungs in cold water and laid them out to dry, flat above that hideous Christmas quilt you wanted so badly last year, and then next to them in jars of waters I placed my kidneys, my stomach, my heart. I let you crawl inside what was left. Was I not shelter? A feathered embrace? A nest heated by the warm flow of blood? Sometimes I pull the petals off daisies, or cut the rose from the bush, or press the dandelion in between vanilla-scented pages — but don’t I leave the stem to feed the soil? Don’t I bring the rose home, leave intact the thorns, gift it a glass vase with cool water on the windowsill? And I’ve always kept the book, always opened it to admire and remember.
The forest fire burns the centuries-old oak, but it leaves the ashes for the acorns, for the roots. Did I not kiss those same sears? Didnâ€™t you also play songs with my bones, singing melodies that churned me from the inside out?
To Say Nothing of the Dog
Jerome K. Jerome, sexual panic and degeneration at the fin de siècle
by Carolyn Oulton
erome K. Jerome knew full well that he would be remembered primarily for his 1889 comic masterpiece Three Men in a Boat. If he had wanted to be renowned as the author of a disturbing novella about sexual betrayal, the 1892 Weeds, he should perhaps have put his name on the title page rather than allowing his authorship to surface only during an auction of letters at Christie’s in 1968. But understandably he was concerned that as ‘the best abused author in England’, notorious for giving the lower middle classes something to laugh about at the end of a day (half day on Saturdays) at the bank, there was simply no point in trying to reinvent himself as the fin de siècle prophet of Degeneration Theory. He was primarily associated with London, home to the intellectual and literary metropolitan elite at the vanguard of late nineteenth
century debates on gender and sexuality. However, critics persisted in undermining his work by associating him with a less glamorous embodiment of London life, the cockney ‘’Arry’, or flashily dressed but uneducated working class man on the make. Accused of laughing at serious subjects whenever he did make a considered pronouncement, Jerome was in effect forced to entrench his position by using humour in his own defence. In response to the constant descriptions of him as a bank-clerk and cockney, he responded that: I have never been a bank-clerk. I have served as clerk in most other offices, but never in a bank. To call me “Cockney” is even more unjust. Meaning from the beginning to be a writer, I took the precaution of selecting my birthplace in a dismal town in the centre of the Stafford-
shire coalfields, a hundred and fifty miles, at least, away from London.1 Notwithstanding this typecasting as the primary agent of the ‘New Humour’, as it was known, Jerome also wrote extensively on the related and highly topical themes of sexuality and degeneration during the 1890s. The anonymous Weeds tells the story of Dick Selwyn, a young clerk living in a faux aesthetic house in the suburbs, whose middle-class aspirations are derailed by his obsessive sexual thoughts and a destructive fling with the cousin of his naïve wife Daisy. The publisher Arrowsmith had brought out Three Men in a Boat three years earlier; however, Mr Arrowsmith was so horrified by the plot of Weeds that Jerome was forced to edit the seduction scene in order to make it appear that Dick and the pre-Raphaelite stunner Jessie do no more than kiss on the fatal night. Even with this amendment, the lack of extant copies suggests that the book was never released for general sale, and it was not made widely available until the Victorian Secrets edition of 2012. Within a year of this debacle Jerome was publishing essays and short stories in his own journal The Idler, in which the themes of sexual obsession are pivotal to the plot. In the 1893 story ‘The Woman of the
Saeter’, a newly married man travels to Norway with his wife, only to fall in love with the ghost of a murdered femme fatale. The man’s descent into atavistic madness is traced in a series of letters, as: here, amid these savage solitudes, I also am grown savage. The old primeval passions of love and hate stir within me, and they are fierce and cruel and strong, beyond what you men of the later ages could understand. The culture of the centuries has fallen from me as a flimsy garment whirled away by the mountain wind; the old savage instincts of the race lie bare.2 In the same year the journal ran a series called Novel Notes, based on the idea of four writers who try to write a book together. One particularly haunting passage outlines a dream in which a male protagonist apparently abandons his lover, only to encounter her again as the prostitute who has unwittingly followed him in order to solicit his custom. No wonder the narrator states grimly at one point, ‘That is all a man can do, pray for strength to crush down the evil that is in him, and to keep it held down day after day.’3 Indeed Jerome would maintain in his autobiography My Life and Times 4 (published in 1926, the year before his death) that ‘All cruelty
has its roots in lust’. In his fiction it is not men alone who are capable of cruelty (or for that matter, the more censorfriendly forms of lust). The short story ‘Two Extracts from a Diary’ is related by one of Jerome’s most chillingly exploitative narrators, a woman who manipulates a man into marriage despite knowing that he loves another woman called Jenny. Jealous of her more attractive rival, the narrator steals this woman’s new lover Gascoigne while she is at it, thus depriving her of the possible consolation offered by a new relationship. The narrator then tells Jenny what she has done, with the result that – as she plans – Jenny elopes with the husband who has always loved her. The narrator’s final act of revenge is to refuse to divorce her husband (meaning that he cannot marry Jenny and she is irrevocably ruined as a ‘fallen woman’). Once past the dizzying complexities of the plot, the real interest of the story lies in the narrator’s exploration of unrequited desire. She suggests that her own passions have been perverted as a result of her long-term disability, which in turn allows her to pose as an uncomplaining victim of male faithlessness, ‘To-night I am going to burn this diary page by page, and the world will only know me as a sweet and much-injured lady. But it
is good to read the truth, even if it is necessary to destroy it immediately afterwards.’ 5 Fully aware that her fate will be to ‘fawn upon’ her unloving husband, she observes that, in the same way, ‘Gascoigne would marry and fawn upon me, and love me the better for my contempt and indifference. We are animals, we men and women, and we love our masters.’ 6 It was not, of course, unusual for writers to publish work of widely different type and quality, anonymously or otherwise, in a range of outlets. Jerome’s significant achievement was to balance the guaranteed publicity of his status as a famous humourist with the freedom and opportunities provided by his journal editorship, enabling him to join pressing debates on a series of contentious issues, from female employment to animal rights (he was a formidable opponent of vivisection). While his attitude towards the ‘crimes’ of Oscar Wilde is best forgotten, it can be said on the other side that he was one of the few successful editors in London (in addition to The Idler, he edited the weekly To-Day) who refused to capitalise on the 1895 trial by running detailed accounts of the drama in court, surmising – probably correctly – that readers’ supposed outrage masked a considerable level of salacious interest.
An innate pessimist despite his famous ‘J’ persona, he had little confidence in the beneficence of human nature or the progressive doctrines put forward by many of his contemporaries. In fact, with a slightly dubious grasp of Darwin’s theories, he held that: … you can take an ape and develop it through a few thousand generations until it loses its tail and becomes an altogether superior ape. You can go on developing it through still a few more thousands of generations until it gathers to itself out of the waste vapours of eternity an intellect and a soul, by the aid of which it is enabled to keep the original apish nature more or less under control. But the ape is still there…7 But when The Times described him in a somewhat condescending obituary as a naïve ‘typical humourist of the eighties’, completely bypassing his response to some of the most important social questions of the 1890s (not to mention his political activism during and after the First World War), the laugh was surely on them.
1 Jerome, J.K. ‘The Idlers’ Club’, The Idler 4 (August 1893–January 1894), p. 108. 2 ‘The Woman of the Saeter’, The Idler 3 (February–July 1893) pp. 579–593. 3 Jerome, J.K. (1893/1991) Novel Notes, Alan Sutton, Stroud, 1991 [1st edn publ. by Leadenhall Press, London, 1893], p. 130. 4 Jerome, J.K. (1926/1992) My Life and Times, Folio Society, London, 1992 [Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1926]. 5 ‘Two Extracts from a Diary’, The Idler 5 (February–July 1894), pp. 558–560. 6 Ibid. p. 559. 7 Jerome, J.K. (1893/1991) Novel Notes, Alan Sutton, Stroud, 1991 [1st edn publ. by Leadenhall Press, London, 1893], p. 128.
Andy Nicole Bowers academy students dissecting a horse No one dissects to quicken his eye for beauty, wrote a painter, but I watch beauty disobey, enter without permission, dissolving like a single stroke of ink across a page brushed wet so that it touches faintly every surface of the lesson: the students pale and kneeling at the lip of light, hesitant as if they stepped out on a frozen pond, the damp walls without windows breathing winter at their backs, their aprons smeared with rust or something like it, a tray of silver instruments before them on the cellar floor—kit of needles, hooks and blades that even in their stillness can’t stop blinking on and off—and then, under the oil lamp’s glare, a bed of sawdust, cedar, the body of a horse I once dreamed running in a field, the black hide I recall molten with sunlight now congealed, the nostrils slack, the lids ajar, the eyes opaque as milk glass; and yes, I watch it trespass even here, where flesh becomes a curtain their bare hands push back and back, where veins cling in a tangle to the long neck and they sketch this—beauty, which is strange to speak but keeps forcing my tongue.
Travis Dahlke they’ll leave you standing in an old sunburn “Now where do haunted places go when they die?” my friend Harry would ask, as we walked back from school. What prompted this question, on that day coated with such a fine layer of pollen, was a farmhouse set back from its mailbox on Route 187. We’d always lingered by what I guess was a driveway, slowing our pace and really staring it down. Displaying the venom still nestled inside of our baby teeth. Showing that we weren’t scared as it glared back at us sadly, its panes reflecting nothing of the outside. Its stupid ivy. We’d even chuck seashells at it, half expecting some cinnamon-bearded creature to spring from his hive or for the shells to be piled neatly before us the next day. Neither happened. Harry invented backstories for the people who had lived there, mulling over horrible things they did that were imprinted in the air inside those rooms. Bacon fat foaming on a skillet. A thing, bare-chested in suspenders stomping down the stairs, its grandmother fidgeting with the crow feeder. It wasn’t even really on a farm, except for the wild lines of pear trees. No one had bothered to develop the lot, instead choosing to let it breed hair-like clusters of thorns that seemed to crawl up from the floors to peer out the windows. The porcelain of mollusks whitened several places of the lawn, with Blimpie cups carried there by weather. “Probably an orchard planted by someone to cover up all the buried stillborns,” Harry would whisper into his hand. Little by little the house would disappear with each thaw. Getting swallowed up by its own cellar – a place that neither of us could muster up the courage to imagine. We got older and there were more important things to be done after school. There were convenience stores to wander in and give sideways
glances to the half-masked-out covers of dirty magazines, while mixing the syrups of our 7/11 lattes. We had disposable income. Harry’s dad paid us to dig up stumps in the family yard, so they could install a pool or a gazebo or something. When he got home from work, he would open a beer and tell us about his day. Ask if we filled out our W-4 forms. Harry and I bucked up and pretended we were forty-eight too. Cursing and swearing. Spitting into his mother’s squash. “Don’t do that,” Mr. Hauflax would say evenly. Sometimes he might drift into his younger years while we dug, delighting us with tales of scaling fences to infiltrate lumber yards, or stealing golf cart parts from country clubs. Omitting the names of women who weren’t Harry’s mother. We traded him our stories of kids we heard about from other grades who got suspended for possessing nippers or getting in cafeteria fights, and we told him about our haunted farmhouse. “I lived in a place like that.” At once we imagined a rundown mansion, but in reality – “It was this little apartment in Richmond. I lived there while I molded fiberglass for GE. Great job, shit pay, shit pay.” His eyes were shrouded beneath the visor of a Whalers hat. Harry’s dad told us how he started to realize that every time he woke up in the morning, his desk chair was facing him. Before he went to sleep he turned it to face away. In the morning, there it was staring back at him. Now Harry’s dad was a pretty logical man, a yard sign Republican with a background in engineering and exhaling just loud enough at other people’s opinions. So he started experiments. He tried tightening its joints, tucking the arms of the chair under the desk and even taping them to the edge. “Still every morning, it was turned in the direction of my bed.” We asked why he didn’t roll the chair down the hall or move it into another room. “You shoulda thrown it away!” Harry cried. But his dad would shrug it off or maybe it was a shiver, this was hard to tell. “Just how it was. Something I just didn’t understand.” I can see it in my head. An office chair with yellow cushions and a coffee stain shaped like a lake on the lumbar support. It is menacing. It could hurt you if it wanted.
In college, sometimes I would visit Harry back home and we would sit around at a bar by the Tire Clinic. Usually with people who used to work at the Tire Clinic, but who retired a long time ago. Other times, Harry came to visit me at Mount Ida, where I went to school. There was a semester in the spring where he had with him a girl whose name was Denise. Looked like a Denise. She was always trying to make someone laugh, even if it was just herself. We decided to venture to a party in a run-down Victorian on the outskirts of campus, where Harry pissed in a houseplant even though we told him not to in a very “really don’t do that” kind of way. That had us leaving early and we drifted back through the shortcut of a dangerous neighborhood with stolen beers, tucking them behind our backs when headlights grazed us. “It was a bad idea to come this way,” I’d say. The town lights spat all kinds of warmth down on everything, blanketing the thread mills and abandoned artists’ lofts in a glow. We would try to ignore the black spaces in between the shards of glass in the factory windows. The family names scrubbed out on brick. We got back to the dorms, to the safety of headaches gestating in our scalps. To the staleness of air conditioner breath. We sat with scatterings of friends in it and recounted suicides that had happened on campus, rejoicing at first in how we were alive, yet getting leery that those patches of fog would eventually find their way to us too. That they might already be on their way. Moving from a great distance. But it was another place that crept up on us instead. A stretch of pavement acting as a shortcut between Route 66 and Main Street of Denise’s hometown. “Trumbull Road,” Denise said, her voice getting smaller, a little croakier. “I don’t think there was much in the way of residential sprawl. Kind of just one of those neighborhoods where a registered sex offender would hole away in aluminum siding, or some old lady stays forever in the darkness of her porch. It was where car accidents happened. The trees there grew crooked or had permanent bald spots. When parents got the bad news, their kids had always been on Trumbull. It was like a cancer street, everyone was somehow connected to someone who knew someone else who was affected by it. But the
thing about Trumbull Street, about all those accidents, was that they came back.” “Came back?” “I guess for the most part you’d just see one, or just part of it. Maybe a tire mark that’s there one moment and then gone in a few minutes. But if some awful variables line up, they say, you’ll be driving down it at night and you’ll see every single one. Every accident that’s ever happened, you’ll pass by. Cars steaming and packed up against oak trunks, glass and plastic sprayed across the surface. You’ll glide by them in silence, maybe catching a glimpse of some mangled passenger. A head turned, hair appearing sticky or wet. You’ll see a horse crumbled on the shoulder. Wagon wood splintered, twisted like copper on a rail.” Our air conditioner roars a sound like boiling water. We beg Denise to stop with our stillness but she keeps going. I’m not sure why but I see a figure sitting on the couch of the living room in my parents’ house, when I get up in the middle of the night to get water. The refrigerator light blinds me and when my eyes adjust, she is gone. “A light-blue 1986 Ford wagon with its tires aimed at the sky, exposing its tangled underbelly of exhaust pipes. All of them appear at once. Who knows what they were trying to say, if anything. Wondering about why they were there, or if they were stuck. What was so awful, people would say, was how silent it would be. Passing by them. Just total quiet.” I try to find some kind of delight in Denise’s face, but she is even. Her laugh lines are at rest. We all huddle closer, and I turn a fossil in my hand. Catch Harry looking at Denise like he can’t believe how lucky he really is. The importance of being alive. Harry’s brother’s wedding was an autumn one, as all New England weddings are. At our table after the ceremony, we wound down beneath the canopy of a tent strung with rope lights. It was rented only for another few hours and the wind was picking up and whipping itself against the last slivers of candlelight. I sat there drunk, thinking about Harry and Denise arguing by a woodstove and consolidating their childhood Christmas decorations. A guy Harry worked with and
his wife were there too, talking about how they had moved up here from down south. Their starter home was on the outskirts of a Florida suburb, cheap because the manufacturing district was trying hard to be turned into restaurants or boutiques. I could imagine it. A ranch with ceramic roof tiles and tropical trees planted outside. Right in the ground. Built or made to look like it was built in the 1970s. White carpet, micachipped countertops, the whole deal. But he said it didn’t work out. That the house had some bad vibes. I pressed him to go further, everyone did. Bad vibes? Bow ties half undone, glitter-sweat sparkling off collar bones. They said as soon as they moved in they just started fighting all the time. At first it was attributed to normal marital stuff. “I mean she was kind of a handful back then, so maybe that was it,” he says. She doesn’t smile. “It was that place that got into us,” she said, fidgeting with the place card. “It just got worse and worse and weird stuff would happen, like creaking but the kind of creaking that comes from someone walking or shifting their weight upstairs. Appliances would sigh, things would kick in the corner of your eye. Dust accumulated on everything so fast,” she said. “We tried to go out to the city as much as we could. We wouldn’t argue in public. But then this one night we came home and we walk in the kitchen and the sink is just full of knives. Every single kitchen knife in the sink.” They moved out in a week. Things returned to normal. A sunburn scaled over me, and I saw the fluttering walls of the tent. Heard Lionel Ritchie push out of the speakers and bounce against the collapsible dance floor, now mostly vacant. The imprint of something once alive. We let ourselves laugh at the expense of a passed-out uncle, who earlier had been talking up his years in Manhattan while sucking down olives. We try to fill ourselves with something warm again. We’d better get going soon. It’s getting to be that time. Now, I never leave a dirty knife in the sink and I don’t allow anyone else to either. This is a superstition that I keep. My kids, I tell them
never to leave knives in the sink, and they listen yet they have no idea why. The farmhouse on Route 187 and all of its thorns eventually got demolished, maybe by a bulldozer or maybe by decades of wind and sleet. “For Sale: Acreage” signs went up. I’d drive by, Harry long gone. I’d say: Harry, that grass is haunted. That dirt. And it looked that way, too – blade tips all tall and weightless in the wind. We move around here, our lives fodder for the beginning of a story that someone can tell when it gets dark. Our bodies will be covered in bed sheets. Occupying a swimming pool, a kitchen, a chair. A Florida suburb that becomes a slum. We see snakes slinking off petroleum jelly poured out on asphalt. The printout of a photograph sinks lower into a garden of deflated helium balloons and candles. I think some places were meant always to be in dusk. They don’t want to be developed, I would say, maybe drying off the dull back of a knife, or watching the turned-off TV. When the door of the bar opened we’d both be gone, Harry and me. Where dust shows in light, or light shows the dust, I’m not sure of the order. They look like they could be momentary vaults supporting the walls. Some might catch a glimpse of us, keeping up, but all they’d smell is perfume dense with tire rubber. I would say we leave them feeling like they’re standing in an old sunburn. Harry talks about seashells, and we go back to digging those holes and chewing on gnats. When he talks about it I can smell sweat and all those green things that are now dead and digested by the world. Stained glass window will quit throwing a prism down on the pool table’s felt. Filling me with silt again.
Contributors a– z
Noh Anothai was a researcher with the Thailand – United States Education Foundation (Fulbright Thailand) from 2012 to 2013, when he began seriously translating Thai poetry. Since then, his translations and original works have appeared in journals such as Words Without Borders, Asymptote, Tin House, Ecotone, and others. His Poems from the Buddha’s Footprint, one of only two full-length translations of Thailand’s national poet Sunthorn Phu in almost thirty years, is forthcoming from Singing Bone Press. He is currently based in Chiang Rai, Thailand. This is his second appearance in Structo. Daniel Bennett’s poems have appeared in a number of places, most recently in Structo and The Literateur, and he has work forthcoming in The Best New British and Irish Poets 2017 from Eyewear Books. He is also the author of the novel, All the Dogs. Andy Nicole Bowers is an MFA candidate and instructor of poetry and composition at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her fascinations include animal painters,
still lifes, taxidermy, illustrated anatomies, reliquaries, and dioramas. Francesca Brooks writes short fiction and poetry. Her work has previously been published with The Nottingham Review, Firewords Quarterly, and The A3 Review, amongst others. Francesca is also writing her doctoral thesis at King’s College London on the influence of AngloSaxon literature, language and culture on the modern British poet and artist David Jones. Madeline Cross graduated from the Birkbeck Creative Writing Masters in 2015. Originally from Wiltshire, she works in the nonprofit sector in social action and arts charities, and is currently writing her first collection of short stories. In 2016 Maurice Devitt was selected for the Poetry Ireland Introductions Series and shortlisted for the Listowel Poetry Collection Competition. Winner of the Trocaire/Poetry Ireland Competition in 2015, he has been placed or shortlisted in many competitions including the Patrick Kavanagh Award, Over the Edge New Writer Competition, Cuirt New Writing Award, Cork Literary Review and the Doire Press International Chapbook Competition. He has had poems published in Ireland, England,
Scotland, the USA, Mexico, Romania, India, and Australia, is curator of the Irish Centre for Poetry Studies site and a founder member of the Hibernian Writers’ Group.
a therapist. At the moment he is preparing a second book of short stories. The first is currently being considered by a publisher and he is praying fervently for acceptance.
Chamnongsri Rutnin Hanchanlash (b. 1939) is well known as a writer in both Thai and English and across several genres. A generous philanthropist, Hanchanlash was active in establishing Thailand’s first university-based, freestanding hospice and has worked to raise public awareness about the need for adequate end-of-life care in Thailand. Trained in meditation practices from the Thai Forest School, Hanchanlash has also penned several works on Buddhist living. Still Touched by Rain; Still Reached by Thunder (1997), from which ‘Termite Wings’ is taken, is one of her most popular collections.
Born in Dublin, Niamh MacCabe grew up in Paris, in north-west Ireland, and in Washington DC, where she graduated as a visual artist from the Corcoran School of Art. She worked overseas in the animated film industry, returning to rural Ireland to raise her children. She began writing in 2014. She is published in Aesthetica’s Creative Writing Annual 2016, Bare Fiction Magazine Issue 7, The Incubator Journal Issue 8, The Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology 2016, and has forthcoming publications in Wasafiri, Tears in the Fence, A Furious Hope Anthology, and Ireland’s Own Winning Writers Anthology. Find her on Twitter @NiamhMacCabe.
Travis Dahlke has been published in Love on the Road 2013 (Malinki Press), with other work appearing in Five Quarterly, Soliloquies, The Head & the Hand Press, The Tishman Review and his own site, sparrowmeat.com. He has a degree in graphic design which he currently uses as an immense coaster for beverages. Mike Fox is the author of a book about a specialist field of counselling. He splits his week between writing fiction and working as
Kelly Nelson lives in Phoenix, Arizona. Her erasure/translations have appeared in Forklift, Ohio, Interim, Hinchas de Poesía, and elsewhere. She’s a Senior Lecturer in Interdisciplinary Studies at Arizona State University. Christine Nguyen lives in Texas with her three opinionated cats, and is working on her BFA at Stephen F. Austin State University. Her other
works have appeared in Sundog Lit, The Blue Route, and Humid. Carolyn Oulton is Professor of Victorian Literature at Canterbury Christ Church University and author of Below the Fairy City: A Life of Jerome K. Jerome (Victorian Secrets, 2012). Her most recent poetry collection Accidental Fruit is published by Worple Press. Peter Papathanasiou was born in a small village in northern Greece and adopted as a baby by an Australian family. His writing has been published by The Guardian, Fairfax Media, News Corporation, SBS, The Huffington Post, The Pigeonhole, Caught by the River, 3:AM Magazine, Elsewhere Journal, Litro, Overland, Going Down Swinging, and Tincture Journal; and reviewed by The Times Literary Supplement. He recently completed an MA in Creative Writing from City, University of London and is represented by Rogers, Coleridge & White. He divides his time between Australia, London, and a small village in northern Greece. More @peteplastic. Constantin Preda’s work has appeared in Ink, Sweat and Tears, The Cadaverine, Hark, POEM Magazine, and Ambit, amongst others. He lives in London where he writes about art for various journals and also
translates from Romanian, focusing on Nichita Stanescu and Mircea Cartarescu. More of his work is available on constantinpreda.co.uk. Mark Reece has been published in numerous literary magazines and anthologies, most recently Orbis and Here Comes Everyone. For more information, see markreece.co.uk. Declan Ryan’s debut pamphlet was published in the Faber New Poets series in 2014. He works at King’s College, London, where he edits wildcourt.co.uk. Robert Selby co-edited Mick Imlah: Selected Prose (Peter Lang, 2015). His poems and reviews have appeared in the TLS, New Statesman, The Spectator, and elsewhere. Anne Weisgerber is a Best of the Net, Best Small Fictions, and Pushcart Prize-nominated author whose work will/does appear in places like SmokeLong Quarterly, The Collapsar, DIAGRAM, and Entropy. Recent non-fiction in The Alaska Star, Alternating Current, The Review Review, and Change Seven. She reads for Pithead Chapel, and is working on a novel about money, booze, and artists, and an illustrated storybook called Lives of the Saints. Follow her on Twitter @aeweisgerber, or visit her website anneweisgerber.com.
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