the madison review
fall 2015 volume 37 no.1
the madison review
We would like to thank Ron Kuka for his continued time, patience, and support. Funding for this issue was provided by the Jay C. and Ruth Halls Creative Writing Fund through the UW Foundation. The Madison Review is published semiannually. Two-year subscriptions available for $15 (2 print issues, 2 online issues). One-year subscriptions available for $8 (1 print issue, 1 online issue). Email email@example.com
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Editors Hiwot Adilow Alissa Valeri
Editors Tamar Lascelle John McCracken
Associate Editors Signe Bedi Cody Dunn Garrett Pauli Fiona Sands
Staff Zachary Clark Kenneth Dizon Jack Egbert Sonya Larson Louise Lyall Kendall Oehler Katie Spiering Abigail Zemach
www.themadisonrevw.com The Madison Review accepts unsolicited fiction and poetry. Please visit our website to submit and for submission guidelines. The Madison Review is indexed in The American Humanities Index. Copyright ÂŠ 2015 by The Madison Review
Staff Selin Gok Nora Herzog Sean Medlin Christian Memmo Justin Sparapani Francisco Velazquez
the madison review University of Wisconsin Department of English 6193 Helen C. White Hall 600 N. Park Street Madison, WI 53706
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the madison review
Table of Contents
The Madison Review is thrilled to present you with our 2015 Fall Online issue! With the release of this issue comes the celebration of our third online publication. Since the Fall of 2013 the editors and staff here at The Madison Review have worked hard to ensure that each Fall’s carefully curated selection of poetry, fiction is made effortlessly accessible to our readership. Did we mention that reading the online issue comes at no cost to you? This fall also marks the launch of our new and improved website, themadisonrevw.com. It is here that we hope to invite you to more comfortably keep up with our magazine, our events, and our other ventures, like interviews, contests, and upcoming projects. Earlier in the semester we had the pleasure of interviwing Ron Wallace, who will be retiring from UW this year. We’ve included the full interview here and will have it up on our website as well.
Tim Fitts | Home Fries John Smolens | Among the Beasts Matthew Wade Jordan | 2013 Cooper S, Soft Top R.E. Hayes | My War
The editors of The Madison Review would like to thank our academic advisor, Ronald Kuka for his essential help, the UW Madison English department and you, dear reader, for your continued support. Special thanks also go out to our persevering staff who read countless submissions each week in addition to full course loads, and finally, the contributing artists, whose creative brilliance keeps us in print! We hope you enjoy this edition of The Madison Review. Best, Editors of The Madison Review
Poetry Hannah Marshall | Speaking with the Maple 1 | Woman, Kind 15 Suzzane Richter | Hair 2 Julian Randall | And Then Grief Bacame the Winter 12 Mario Duarte | As if I Were There: On Eternity Road 13 Chelsea Kerwin| Of Her Changing Face 29 Lisa Bellamy | Not So Easy (Saving Sentient Beings) 31 Josh Bettinger | A Perfume’s Length in Years 36 Cover and Inside Artwork by Brian Thue Aurora Borealis | Oil on Canvas 18 x 24” Front Cover Incandescent Night | Colored Pencil on Paper 2.5 x 4.25” Back Cover Untitled | Graphite on Paper 9 x 12” 11 Can You Feel My Heart? | Oil on Canvas 18 x 24” 14 A Heart Attack In The Prayer Position (X-Ray) | Etching 5 x 7” 30 The Madison Review Interviews Ron Wallace
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Speaking with the Maple Hannah Marshall After attempting to climb the maple in the backyard, I said, “Being young had its advantages.” I was thinking of the scar on my abdomen and my soft palms. She said, “It’s okay not to be okay,” as if I had suggested some happiness lay hidden in the unopened bud, the fragrant basil leaves, the soft red phloem beneath her bark.
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the madison review
Work yourself into a mat. Get your strands up
in a twist, put your faith in mattresses and all
What a poser, the parted-sea pretender. Boaster
that comes with cold, silver coils or fall in love
of the fancy split: shake shake shake your pom
with twine for all I care. You wouldn’t dare.
poms, stiff-dressed drag queen parading
Peroxide cannot matter. The pools from which
for dead stars. I’m a mannequin head, stupid
you spring are poised to fail. You know how
dome with close-set eyes, too-small lips. You
to sprout in blue? Great! I need a grand disguise.
make me look alive. But you’re a spoiled child, squirming constantly turning your own way. I won’t listen to more of your crying. I can’t think about your million mouths. I don’t care what you do! Stand up, lie down, or curl.
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Home Fries Tim Fitts It was odd. The beaded curtain at Our Place Café was colorful from the dining room but black and garish from the kitchen view, even with the sun shining through. You would have thought it would be the opposite. The beads themselves gave the room an unnatural feel, matched with the wall-to-wall office carpet. Ficus by the entrance. Hippy décor versus motel lobby. Miranda, my boss, had already set each table with napkin-wrapped silverware, bowls of slaw, sliced bread, and little tabs of butter. Even the smells in the dining room seemed to be at odds, warm bread clashing with disinfectant and pockets of funk that proliferated in all kinds of unpredictable spots in restaurants. Grime. I stood at the front window of Our Place Café with the cook, Fat Sam, and we looked at an angle down University Avenue for festivities. A city parade was scheduled for late morning, but outside, the police had yet to clear vehicles and pedestrians from the road, although pylons and sawhorses had been set up next to side streets so they could block it off when necessary. Signs up on the lampposts and parking meters let people know their cars would be towed at the owner’s expense. Fat Sam’s belly hung so low that his apron seemed more like some kind of abdominal bra. He had shaved his nickname in the back of his head: Fat Sam. He had been training me for kitchen prep, coring cabbages, dicing carrots into matchsticks, mixing up dressing and tubs of coleslaw. “A parade,” Fat Sam said, and had said several times already, as if the concept were new to me, or as if we were about to witness some grand conjunction of planets seen every thousand years. He told me there were going to be customers in droves. He said vehicles would pass that would be covered in decorations, trucks with platforms like pirate ships and covered wagons. People on these vehicles would throw candy and all kinds of trinkets to the crowds. “Like a parade,” I said. Fat Sam looked at me. “What?” I said. “Come on,” he said, motioning me back to the kitchen. He had two metal tubs of scrambled eggs keeping warm on the back side of the griddle. We had bread in every phase of preparation placed around the kitchen. Bowls of dough rising under towels, dough shaped into loaves, loaves baking in the oven, loaves cooling on racks. We had a pot of potatoes for home fries cooling on the center steel countertops. The smell in the kitchen, however, was so dense with flavors and pungent with yeast, fermentation, and thick with butter, bacon and eggs that it didn’t even make you feel hungry. You felt full. So full you wanted to crawl under a crate and take a nap, fold up your apron and take 4
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a trip to REM-stage Tahiti, toes in the sand with an umbrella poking out of your pina colada, Fat Sam sitting next to you testing the tension on his Rubbermaid beach lounger, telling you the sky was blue because particles in space absorbed all other parts of the spectrum, sand was round due to eons of pulverization, water was less salty near the shoreline and every other obvious thing you could think of. Fat Sam broke my muse and told me to hurry up. The parade was coming soon. Miranda, my boss, also owned Our Place Café. She was pretty, but restaurant work was churning her into pre-mature middle aged. Twentyeight going on forty-five. Miranda was convinced the parade was going to save her business. I had only known her for less than a full day, but already I could understand that the parade was all she talked about. Even the day before, when she had hired me as an emergency fill-in, she told me she and Fat Sam could swing things themselves, but not during a parade. And the parade was going to be big. The parade was going to get her out of debt. The parade was going to establish the café as the go-to morning eatery along the strip. The parade was going to give her the upward momentum to establish herself with some pull at the Chamber of Commerce. The parade was equal to five thousand dollars worth of advertisement, and the allotted advertising money she could pour into the business, maybe build an outside dining area behind the café. The parade was going to get her dad and husband off her back. The parade, the parade, the parade. I didn’t want to say anything but, privately, I wondered if a parade would bring in any real business. After all, parades move along the street, and people move along with them. If anything, you would need to set up tables outside the café to give people a chance to soak it all in, but the city had cleared the sidewalks of all obstruction. Or at least serve samples from one of the floats and scatter coupons like confetti. In my estimation, people move along with parades and then go home. They don’t return to any of the places they might have seen along the way. People might make a mental note, but they probably make mental notes all along the way and then just forget everything. After all, most of the people at the parade would be drunk, or have to buy groceries after, or a zillion other things to think about besides her café. I didn’t want to say anything to Miranda, though, since she seemed to be all caught up in her delusion. Besides, she seemed nice, and it would be good working for a nice boss – I had not experienced that before, and I was curious. In a way, the place had already begun to feel like family. The job at Our Place had saved me. I had quit school and moved to Gaines5
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ville to play music and, after two weeks, I was already broke. Not busted, but teetering. I had been promised a job at Schoolkids Records on University Avenue, but upon arrival the manager, an old friend from home, had succumbed to selective amnesia and left me beating the pavement a mile and a half up University Avenue, turning my hand into a claw filling out job applications all the way up. Do you have any experience? No. May we contact your former employees? What days are you available? Are you in school? How do you see your skills functioning in a working environment? Can you thrive in stressful conditions? Where do you see yourself in five years? It got so bad that all of my thoughts and attention had begun to funnel down to finances. Thirty dollars for electricity. Twenty-five for phone. Fifteen for gas. Seven for groceries. When my roommate, Charles Russell, and I had moved in, our landlord had given us a month free, and I had money for the second month, but we had grossly underestimated the cost of cleaning supplies and utility connection fees. I was down to a handful of cash for burritos and Milwaukee’s Best, and scraping together two hundred dollars by the end of the next month seemed like an impossibility. I even stopped by the Gainesville Plasma Center for testing and was awaiting word on the salability of my platelets. Ten dollars the first pint, fifteen the second pint. After my third week of futility, I spent a dollar-ten on a cup of coffee at Our Place Café and sat next to the front window to get down with some Fante. Ask the Dust. Ah, Bandini. Where’s my Hackmuth? Of course, there she was, and her name was Miranda. She refilled my coffee and said she was the owner of the café. Was I new in town? Did I need a job? The following morning there would be a parade, and she needed an emergency fill-in. Could I start at six? I can wait until six, no problem, I told her. Six in the morning, she said. Fat Sam said we still needed a tub of potato salad, and we could save the sausages for last, but we didn’t want to wait too long. You leave one thing out, and before you know it, a party of fifty comes in and all they want is the thing that you haven’t got. We run out of food during a parade, that is a mark, he reminded me. Fat Sam set the tubs of eggs and bacon on the stainless steel countertop, squirted a line of corn oil on the grill, then scraped along the surface a pumice brick that grated and tore at your tympanic membrane. Then he dumped a bucket of water on the surface, creating a mushroom cloud of steam, leaving water marbles dancing on the grill until they shrank into pellets and tiny silver grains. Then he squirted
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more oil and heaped on cups of chopped onions, shaping the pile until they turned translucent and produced a deep smell of caramel. Fat Sam carved and shaped as if he were listening to music in his head, and then he dumped on a tub of chopped potatoes. He cut a quarter of a bread loaf and stuffed the entire piece in his mouth, then cut off another quarter and tossed it to me. When he worked down the bread, he told me that a critic was coming out to the café. He was going to do a write up in the Alligator. “If he can fight the crowd,” he said. “Why’s a critic going to be at a parade?” I said. “Why not?” Fat Sam said. “Everyone’s going to be here.” He said he wished his kids could be there, too, but he couldn’t be running around the kitchen while he was working. “You have any kids?” “One,” I said. “My roommate. He’s twenty-one and worthless.” I thought Fat Sam would laugh but, instead, he just told me he had three kids. Three boys. “Three expensive boys,” he said, then asked if I was making enough money. “No,” I said, except that I had an appointment for selling my plasma down the road. “You sell your blood?” “Plasma.” “What the hell is plasma?” “It’s the fluid that your hemoglobin swims around in.” “Hemoglobin?” “Your red blood cells.” “I know what hemoglobin is. Don’t you need that shit?” “Of course. That’s why they pay you.” Fat Sam reached down and turned the heat up on the home fries, then squirted a zig-zag of corn oil on the potatoes and re-shaped them. He told me that some people believe that your soul is in your blood, and I told him that some people believe that the moon is made of bleu cheese. “Listen,” he said, and told me that if I was hard up for money, he knew a friend who could hook me up with people in Starke County where you can make fifty dollars for taking part in executions. They hire three people to pull the switch. Only one switch was hooked up, so none of the executioners know who does the job. “Fifty bucks each,” he said, “but one person does the job. I can hook you up if you’re interested.” “Fifty dollars to kill someone,” I said.
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“You don’t know if it’s you. Besides, it’s not killing someone. You’re executing somebody. You’re performing a service,” he said. He took a tub of sausages from the refrigerator and dumped the heap on the griddle, then spread out the links. “If you don’t do it, someone else is going to do it. It’s just like a machine.” It seemed as if it happened in a moment but, outside, the street emptied, and pedestrians walked casually along the pavement ignorant of the white-and-yellow lines, and then they disappeared. In a flash, the first float appeared. From our vantage point in the kitchen, all you could see were black or blue pants and the bottoms of wheelchairs, but you got the idea that they might have been veterans of the Korean War, or maybe even World War II, and then the next float had a bunch of naked legs that you assumed belonged to bikini girls from their high school surf club, or maybe a sorority from the university, all dancing about because they were outside and you were inside. And then Fat Sam was right: a covered wagon. And then there was a float that had an actual lion. It was a real lion, but caged, in a little circus box with iron bars, and the lion was either sedated, stuffed with giraffe meat, or smart enough to stay calm and wait for his chance. I had actually seen the lion two days earlier on the bike ride out to Schoolkids Records when I had cut through the woods behind the veterinary college. I assumed it was the same lion as the parade, because it looked the same. The beast I had seen had been in a similar cage, locked up outside. It was surprising and came as a shock that the lion was not under any kind of guard. I was able to ride up to it and press my face right against the bars and look directly into its eyes. Either way, watching the parade gave me a blue feeling. All of that manufactured joviality. The chime on the front door sounded, and Fat Sam said they were coming in, the rush was going to start, but it was only Miranda going outside to assess the situation. It sounded again, and again Fat Sam and I bit, but it was just her coming back inside. It happened a third time, but after that we just understood it was Miranda, and Fat Sam tossed me another wedge of bread. I had to admit, Fat Sam’s offer sounded interesting. In the previous two afternoons I had exhausted every foreseeable opportunity, getting the same spiel from managers at the donut shop, burger shop, pizza shop, book shop, yogurt shop, art-supply shop. The Holiday Inn was promising with a possible gig as a banquet waiter, but I needed thirty dollars to put down
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for a used tuxedo. I wondered if Fat Sam were telling the truth, if it were that easy to make fifty bucks up in Starke. I wondered how often they hired people to throw the switch, and if it would be enough to really supplement my income, and I wondered if it were really a switch. But, certainly, it made sense that they would hire nobodies to carry out the executions. The judge would not want to have taken the trouble of going to law school, work his whole life to rise to the thronehood of judge, only to slink back down to the role of executioner. And it wouldn’t be a bailiff, either – they didn’t sign up for that. Nobody is going to pull the switch unless they absolutely had to. But I thought about it. I thought if it were a one-shot deal, I could take my chance. If it was a firing range, it would be easy. When the officer yelled “Fire!” I would hesitate. If the man crumpled, I’d pull the trigger. If he didn’t, then I would hold my fire. But if it were a switch, then you wouldn’t be able to game the system, and God knows I would be the one with the juice. I could not have that. I would spend the rest of my life having forgotten all about it, or trying to forget about it, then at the end of the line make it to Final Judgment, and I would have a death on my hands. That was a mortal sin. No way that was going to work. Either that, or they would find out twenty years later through DNA testing or some found document that my man was innocent after all, and then I would transform from killer to murderer, and I couldn’t have that either. But fifty dollars. I asked Fat Sam if he had ever taken part in the executions. “Oh, hell no,” he said. “Why not?” “Because I ain’t no killer.” “I ain’t no killer,” I said. “Sure.” He told me he didn’t think I was. I didn’t look like a killer. On the other hand, he said white people had less hang ups about killing people, so he thought he would mention it. “Black people kill all the time,” I said. “True, but white people justify your murders. Black people do it and know it’s wrong. White people murder and think it’s okay if they got a good enough reason. Like this. Like…executions. White people are always looking for an excuse to kill someone if the reason is right. Somebody said Vietnam was all about an idea.” “You have drive-bys,” I said. “I don’t drive by.” “You don’t,” I said, “but I don’t drop napalm on villagers.” Fat Sam said that either way it was the same thing. If I was interested, then I was interested, if I wasn’t interested, then I wasn’t interested. All he wanted to do was give me a hand. 9
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the madison review
When the parade had passed, Miranda was still outside, and Fat Sam had me washing dishes, pots and pans, then scrubbing the grease traps, which were impossible. You can’t clean grease traps. The grease evaporates from the griddle and cakes up on the metal filters and turns into a kind of gluey goo. Like sap. And you cannot wash it off. You can wash it with hot water, wash it with detergent, wash it in cold water and take to it with steel wool, and you can run it through the machine as many times as you want, but the grease holds fast to the metal filter. In fact, it hardens. Its molecular grip tightens. After a time, I noticed Fat Sam watching me clean the traps, and he told me to give him the goddamned grease traps, that you aren’t supposed to clean them to a tee, just clean them enough to pass inspection. “Come on, man!” he said. “Toss me the traps.” I asked him if there was maybe going to be another parade, and he said there were not going to be any other goddamned parades. How many parades did I think they had? Miranda paid me cash for the day. She could pay me five dollars per hour for seven hours, and she threw in an extra ten, which I assumed was a severance package. On the ride home from Our Place Café, the town snapped back in to form, as if the parade was just some kind of half-spoiled food it had to pass before feeling normal again. Even on my bicycle, I still smelled of scrambled eggs, funk and bread. I bypassed Archer Road and cut back on 34thStreet to the shortcut behind the veterinary school. I was hoping that maybe I could see that lion again. Miranda had also paid me in food. I had a backpack full of bread, quarts of potato salad, a square plastic container stuffed with scrambled eggs and bacon, and one Ziploc bag of sausages. I knew the lion would like sausages, no doubt. Cooked or raw. Maybe if he were there I could toss him a few, see what kind of kick that beast still had in him. If he liked the sausages, I would let him try the other stuff. I had a half gallon of potato salad, and that stuff goes rank PDQ. Maybe he would like it. Maybe not. But of course, this time, as I rode along the dirt trail between the woods and the veterinarian college, the lion was no longer there. What had I expected to see?
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And Then Grief Became the Winter Julian Randall
the madison review
As if I Were There: On Eternity Road Mario Duarte
and February became a parade of tight throats and all the bottles went from brown to empty while the wind slaked its thirst for exposed skin and the sky gave birth to whiteness again until we just started figuring the sun was a myth because we’d seen so many bright things rising and falling again without our eyes’ consent that surely this was just another name we had not forgotten yet and February was a broken mirror was a mass of bodies was the white noise of everywhere was fists in pockets and everything brown suddenly emptying and I had too many hands debatably too many names and everywhere was slaking its thirst for exposed skin and everybody was fragile like glass and the room had been emptying for as long as any of us could re member and I started playing at Prometheus kept smuggling different names with me all of them brown fit to slake my thirst or remind me what the sun tasted like
I have to forget your eyes, azure puddles, and the cardinal among the elms in the backyard singing his mating song to nobody. I cannot sleep—something always lies ahead. Yesterday, the churning clouds expelled cold droplets, chilling my cheeks. So, today I slipped on my black leather chaps—rode my Harley down twisting Eternity Road. In the side car, donning helmet and seatbelt, sat Coal, my poodle. With her muzzle in the air, curly dark fur blasted flat, she barked at everything her little eyes spied. With her head down, did Coal dream with eyes open? Under a darkening sky, I dreamed of you unfastening your red, satin bra, until it rained so hard I pulled over. How long did I wait? I don’t know, but I still see us spot-lighted on stage. I played obsessed Hamlet to your crazed Ophelia. My sword cut our blood from the air. As they rolled over miles, the tire treads sang. “Never stop,” they advised. Amid sunset swirls, the roadside river’s swollen tongue blathered all our secrets and lies.
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the madison review
Woman, Kind Hannah Marshall We bear everything in bearing each child, until we believe that we are nothing but our bodies, fat thighs and stretchmarks. We burn and starve, we don bikinis and skinny jeans. We become ugly in our bodies, in our beauty of heels and corsets, hair treatments, razors, mascara. We are the grass we mow down to nubs so that the neighbors are happy with the state of things.
the madison review
the madison review
Among the Beasts John Smolens
I am here at a computer in the Learning Resources Center at the North Star Facility, the juvenile detention center in Hanley, Michigan, and at the request of my facilitator, Nolan Lyttle, MSW, PhD, I commit the following to a Word document, to what purpose I do not know, but I welcome the opportunity, not to defend myself, not to exonerate myself, not to declare my guilt or innocence, but to have my say, as they say. Besides, it’s something to do. It can get pretty dull in here. 1. So, to begin: my name is Timothy Randall Lutton, and I was born here in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, seventeen years ago, on 15 March 1995. I have arrived at this point in history through what some might consider pitiful circumstances. However, the last thing I seek is pity or sympathy. Rather it is from these circumstances that I have drawn the full extent of my strength. My greatest discovery is that I wasn’t just born—I created myself. No one else deserves credit or blame, thus guilt or innocence isn’t the question, despite the fact that these two opposing forces are the yin and yang that drive all judicial systems. My home, such as I’ve ever had one, is a small house in Menominee, about an hour’s drive south from here, which looks across an untended yard at Green Bay and Door County Peninsula on the horizon. In winter, ice would form on the bay, and one of my earliest recollections is of a massive grinding sound as the floes were pushed along the shore by the wind. To my knowledge, it’s the only place my mother has ever lived. She never said who my father was, and when I was growing up it was something she refused to discuss. Whoever he was, I like to think he’s now found his ultimate demise, which should be perceived as the only true glory, the moment when we all witness the cosmos around us before we are forever extinguished. 2. My mother was sometimes considered a simpleton but I know this not to be true. She was extraordinarily beautiful when young. I have seen photographs and the word voluptuous would not be inaccurate. She did well in school and wanted to go to college to become a teacher. Her first pregnancy—she was maybe sixteen—seems to
have curtailed such hopes, though the child died in infancy. There may have been another pregnancy, or perhaps two, I’m not certain—I only know that they did not come to fruition and I have no idea whether they were terminated as a result of miscarriage or abortion. What I do know is that I was conceived in 1994 and born the following year on the Ides of March. For a time, when I was very young, we lived in the house with her mother and brother. Her mother died of pneumonia before I was old enough to attend school, and her brother Jonas studied philosophy and comparative literature at Michigan State, and was then admitted to the graduate program at Harvard. When he would return from Cambridge he would always bring me a present, some book that he thought a boy should read: terrible books about hidden treasure and children getting lost in caves, books full of hope and lies. 3. The house was filled with my grandmother’s statues of St. Francis, St. Joseph, that ridiculous Virgin, and all the rest. The palm fronds tucked behind the crucifix were moldy and smelled of decay. Often I would get up on my mother’s bed and put my nose to the fronds and inhale deeply. But I unlearned religion, starting with the Day of the Dogs. A vacant lot down the street became my favorite place, the ground strewn with treasure: dented cans, broken bottles, used condoms. During the warm months winos slept in the bushes and huddled around small fires. I hid a pack of cigarettes in an Eight O’Clock Coffee can, which I kept buried under a rock. I discovered sex in that vacant lot. I saw two dogs. I saw a boy and girl down on their hands and knees. I saw two boys sucking each other off. I saw that it was all the same. We were all beasts. This was our true reward. I came to understand why Jonas would return at Christmas, and again for the summer. Nietzsche wrote “We have unlearned something. We have become more modest in every way. We no longer derive man from the ‘spirit,’ from the ‘god-head’; we have dropped him back among the beasts.” 4. My mother in the kitchen: not yet thirty, she smelled old. While she cut vegetables or cleaned fish, her mouth hung open and I could hear her breathe through her nose. As she worked, her breasts were often spilling out of her blouse. She took no more notice of them than of the air about her. Her skin held the scent of dish soap and stale milk and garlic and Pall Malls. On a warm evening she would sit out on the back porch and smoke cigarettes while watching the wind on the bay. When I was small there was a wooden swing, an old two-seater suspended by chains that were attached to a pair of hooks in the rafters. I often sat with her on the swing, causing those chains 17
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to creak and groan, and I would gaze distrustfully up at the rafters, fearing yet wanting the whole thing—the roof, the porch, the entire universe—to crash down upon us. My mother told me that she liked to watch the gusts move across the surface of the bay. This was the way her mind worked, like the wind that created swirling patterns on Green Bay, fitful and random, with no real purpose other than the impressions they made on the water. That swing has long since fallen apart and been discarded. 5. Nights when Jonas was home, I would lie in bed and listen for him to return from the bars. He often passed out on the living room couch, but some nights he would enter my mother’s room. I could hear the box springs beneath them, which reminded me of the dogs in the lot, how when a dog exerts itself the rib cage rolls beneath its coat. As the pace of the box springs quickened, there would come from my mother’s room hoarse sounds and I imaged that she and Jonas were in a race. Then their voices would explode, and in the calm that followed I would hear the beautiful sound of my mother crying. 6. One day, when I was twelve, I was alone in the house. It was just before Christmas. I got a large plastic garbage bag from the kitchen and went around the house collecting the statues, the photographs, the palm fronds, the rosaries, the crucifixes. They clattered together in the bag as I walked across the yard to the water. The beach was strewn with large pieces of driftwood, whole trees with snarled, twisted roots. There was one trunk that ran from the beach out into the water, and I walked out on it and heaved the garbage bag into the bay. Back in the house I went into the crawl space in the wall behind my bed. I kept the copy of Hustler I’d found in the vacant lot there. I looked at the pictures of the naked women and undid my pants, staying in there until it was dark outside and I was exhausted. Over the years it seemed my mother had worked in every restaurant between Marinette, Wisconsin, and Escanaba, Michigan, and when I heard her come home that night I went down to the kitchen. She was singing and I knew she’d had a few drinks somewhere. She was happy. When I told her I had thrown all the statues into the bay, she walked about the house, speechless, but it was interesting: she looked as though she deserved this. There was acceptance in her eyes, and, of course, guilt. Only those capable of feeling guilt can really experience happiness, particularly when it’s artificially induced by alcohol. She had been happy; I made her unhappy. And frightened. I told her if she brought any more religious stuff into the house I’d throw that out too.
the madison review
7. Jonas was drunk most of the time that December. Since moving to Cambridge, he dressed differently: a tweed jacket and corduroy pants, and he wore scarves even when he was in the house. And he talked with an accent now, not quite like a British homosexual. He seemed pleased that I had removed the statues. We were sitting at the kitchen table and he was drinking a bottle of beer. My mother had a fistful of salt, which she threw into the large pot of boiling water for the linguini (he corrected her when she called it spaghetti). Jonas was busy peeling the label off the bottle of beer when he asked me if I had lost my faith. I only stared back at him, and he offered an approving nod. 8. We had cousins who lived in Marinette, just across the border in Wisconsin, and one night my mother called to say she was going to stay there because of white-out conditions and 60 mph winds off the bay. I understood what she was doing. If the weather cleared, Jonas was going to fly from Green Bay back to Cambridge in the morning and it was understood that he planned on fucking her once more before leaving. He sat in the living room drinking and I went to bed early. He came into my room soon after and opened the small door in the wall. He asked if I had been in there lately to beat off. Before I could answer, he said to take a look. I was afraid but didn’t want to show it, so I took my flashlight from the nightstand and crawled through the door and there, tucked between two wall studs, was a paper bag. I brought the bag to the bed and it contained magazines that had pictures of people having sex, men with women, women with women, rooms crammed with naked bodies coupled in ways I had never imagined. He sat next to me and gently placed a hand on the back of my head. He said, “A going-away present,” and left the room. 9. The next year I grew five inches. Except for the real fatties, I weighed more than most boys in my class. I picked fights at random. My size frightened them; what baffled them was that there was no apparent reason for my hostility. More than once I would have a boy down on the ground, punching his bloody face, and he would beg me to tell him why I had chosen him. I would hit him harder and ask him “Now do you understand?” Eventually the boy would lie, saying he understood, just so I would stop hitting him. Teachers sent me to the principal; the principal sent me home; a man from the state came and talked to me; a psychiatrist sat with me in the school clinic; a police officer came to the house. I would not stop, I could not stop. When I was suspended I would continue, waiting for kids when school got out. When I 19
the madison review
was fifteen I was sent to another school over near Rhinelander, Wisconsin, a kind of reform school that they called boot camp because it was run by some ex-military men who believed shouting, cold showers, and physical exhaustion would cure anything. After four months they sent me home, saying I was better, but the fact was they couldn’t control me either and they gave up after I had dislocated a field instructor’s shoulder. I didn’t go to school that spring, but just hung around the house, walking the beach. 10. The following fall I returned to high school. Hardly anyone spoke to me. Boys avoided looking me in the eye. Teachers were polite but wary. I didn’t do any assignments but no one said anything. They just let me be. When the class worked on something that didn’t interest me, which was often, I would just read or look out the window. My English teacher did try to get me to talk when the class was reading Julius Caesar. I said I had already read it, which was true. She asked what I thought of it, and I could tell she thought she had found the key to open me up. I looked out the window and ignored her. 11. Later that semester I wrote an essay that my English teacher found disturbing. Her word: disturbing. The principal got involved, and ultimately people from the Department of Human Services (DHS) also found my essay disturbing, which resulted in my being sent to the North Star Facility in Hanley for “observation.” This leveraged my mother into a deeper state of depression, which naturally reinforced in their minds that I needed to be placed in a “supportive environment.” Jonas found some dipshit lawyer to represent us but that only led to a legal standoff, which taxed my mother’s meager resources. All this because of an essay I wrote for an English class. I could beat the crap out of kids and the school would deal with it, but write a paper deemed disturbing and you get the State of Michigan on your case. The essay assignment was to describe a “process”; it could be anything, and in class we had small-group sessions so we might “brainstorm ideas,” which led to students developing papers that described how to cook a hamburger, how to change a tire, how to twirl a baton, how to comb your hair. We were given the option of conducting research or basing our essay on personal experience. Needless to say, the subjects listed above were based on the personal experience of the students, some of whose personal experience did not include writing a single cohesive, grammatically correct paragraph in their sorry lives. My essay was based on information I found on the Internet, in the school library, and in some of Jonas’s books. Here’s the paper (for which I never received a grade):
the madison review
Process Assignment: Punishment for High Treason The punishment known as being drawn and quartered was first employed in England in 1241, when the method was used on a convicted pirate named William Maurice. Commonly perceived as one of the most sadistic forms of execution, the British government reserved this execution for cases of “high treason”: acts of rebellion toward the government, spying on behalf of the enemy, or attempts upon the life of royalty. There were also, particularly during the 1500s, over one hundred executions of men found guilty of “spiritual treason,” which were seditious acts toward the established state religion. Though there have been exceptions, drawing and quartering was reserved for men, whereas females found guilty of similar offenses against church or state were more likely to be burned at the stake. The term “drawn and quartered” is really a misnomer. It would be more accurate (and in many historical documents is stated as such) to call the execution hanging, drawing, and quartering. Though there have been numerous variations throughout history, traditionally this execution began with the victim first being hanged by the neck, though not in a fashion that resulted in immediate death caused by a broken vertebrae. Thus the victim, whose hands were usually tied behind the back, was first stripped naked, and then hanged so that strangulation began. The victim was not pushed off or dropped from some considerable height (which would often result in a sudden and lethal breaking of the neck); rather, the victim was gently hoisted up by the neck, just high enough that only the toes touched the ground. The victim’s “dance” was an integral part of this procedure (such executions were usually conducted before vast crowds and were intended to be both entertaining and instructive). Before the victim expired (the dance often lasted more than five minutes), he was lowered to the ground and his “privy members” were cut off. 21
the madison review
Next, his abdomen was slit open and his intestines were pulled out, piled before him, and set on fire. Then, in most cases, he was decapitated. There are numerous accounts in medieval documents that claim that if the procedure was performed properly the victim would still be conscious enough to witness the burning of his intestines. Finally, the body was “quartered,” cut into pieces, often, but not necessarily always, four sections. At times the limbs were severed with a saw or a sword, but there were also instances where each limb was tied to a horse, each of which then ran in different directions, thus tearing the body apart. The severed body was usually put on public display. Often the parts were first boiled in water to retard decomposition, and then the heads were erected on pikes in public places such as the London Bridge. In certain cases, the king would mandate that the body parts be distributed to various regions of the country, as a warning to any other plotters who might be considering violence and rebellion against the crown. For more than six hundred years the punishment known as being drawn and quartered was employed as a lawful deterrent to acts of high treason, and it was not until 1870 that language pertaining to this form of punishment was removed from England’s Forfeiture Act. 12. The following fall I returned to school, repeating sophomore year. The only thing worse than sophomore year is sophomore year the second time around. I was sixteen and weighed over two hundred pounds, and everyone avoided me. Except there was a girl named Leanne, who had spiked hair and a silver nose stud. She did things with boys for money. We met in the lot down the block. It was November, not long before Halloween, and the air smelled of burning leaves. I asked her how much and she said for me nothing. I told her I’d rather jerk off for free and left. For weeks I would go by her locker and slide a folded 20 dollar bill through one of the air vents in the metal door, and next time she would see me she would return it. She would wrap the money in a note, insisting that for me it was not for sale. Sometimes I found tapes 22
the madison review of music in my locker (how she got the combination, I don’t know). She listened to heavy metal mostly, but then she also liked certain pieces by Mozart, particularly his Requiem. She said she would not wash until I touched her. Though her hair color changed every week or so, she wore the same jeans, T-shirt, and leather jacket day after day. She sat two desks in front of me in homeroom and eventually I could smell her. Once she turned around (the desk between us was empty, having been abandoned days earlier) and stared at me. Her tongue and left nostril glinted silver. She said she didn’t believe in compromise but in this case she would accept a ten-dollar honorarium. After school we walked down to the vacant lot. When I gave her the money, she tore it up into small pieces and ate it. 13. Sometimes we would go to her house when her mother was at work. Sometimes we would go to the vacant lot. She knew a guy named Derek who could get us coke and pills, and to pay for it I told boys I would beat them up. When that wasn’t enough we robbed a few places in towns farther north in the UP: Crystal Falls, Iron Mountain, and once all the way up to Marquette. We hit gas stations and corner stores that sold bread and milk. We were never caught and we never made more than four hundred dollars. One night, as we were driving back to Menominee, Leanne told me she’d decided to commit suicide. She asked me if I would be there for her, if we could fuck as she died. I told her I might just go with her too. She said that was unacceptable. This was something she wanted to do on her own. She wanted somebody (me) to bear witness. She wanted somebody to remember it. If I died too, everything would be completely lost. People would just think it was some tragic teenagelove suicide. There would be no one to know the real beauty and purity of it. I had to admit she had a point. 14. There was the question of practice. While fucking me she would have a knife and pretend to slit her wrists. Once she drew the dull edge of the knife across her throat. Another time, when I tried to help by putting my hand on hers, she said, “No, you can’t be a part of this. This can’t be murder. This has to be my suicide. It’s the only thing that is completely mine.” She wouldn’t speak to me for days. Until finally I realized that again she was right. She said that suicide was the only truth, the only honest act. All else was cowardice, weakness, cynicism, and blind faith. The only way to defeat this life, its pain and hardship, was to leave it, without fear, on your own terms. Then you were untouchable. Then you were all-powerful. We began to make plans.
the madison review 15. We debated the need for pain. That it is required in this life goes without question. Whether it was necessary to her suicide, we couldn’t be sure. She believed that a painful death would be more beautiful, more significant. It would allow her to achieve some greater perfection. But then she was something of a purist. And a perfectionist, so that naturally she worried about the final moments before she died. The last thing she wanted was to lose her nerve and resist her death. She didn’t want to be one of these people, so often depicted in movies, pleading, begging for their life to be spared. She didn’t want some survival mechanism to kick in, causing her at the last possible moment to do anything to stay alive. She definitely did not want to shit her pants. Yet an element of fear was essential. To go quietly, to simply slip into endless sleep, without some physical sensation of dying, she believed would be a copout. So it was determined that there would have to be some kind of pain, self-inflicted. But what kind became the problem. As in everything, Leanne took a methodical approach. She experimented with blades, knives, razors, tools. She practiced slicing her flesh. Rows of scars lined her thighs, which were always concealed by pants. To develop a greater tolerance for pain she inserted needles into herself. She decided that she didn’t want to die screaming. Writhing, however, had a certain appeal. She suspected that someone who writhed in pain would be so far gone they would welcome death. To ensure that she would remain silent, she decided that she should have her mouth taped. She said there was certain to be a point where she might lose control and her body would react to its demise. So as an experiment we fucked with her mouth taped closed. Breathing only through her nose was difficult. She wondered if she might actually suffocate during an orgasm, an idea that intrigued her, for a lack of oxygen (usually through strangulation) is known to enhance the orgasm. If she taped both her nose and mouth, it might cause silent writhing, and, as she said, she might go off with one incredible bang. But this method would be bloodless, and that distressed her. Without blood, she feared that the act of suicide wouldn’t be inflicted enough. 16. Jonas returned from Cambridge to spend the summer in Menominee. His transformation was complete; he no longer looked like, sounded like, or acted like he came from the northern Midwest. He was consumed by his dissertation, which discussed primarily Byron, de Sade, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Camus. His room was filled with stacks of books and I read most of them. I was most intrigued by H. L. Mencken’s translation of Nietzsche’s The Antichrist. It was written just as Nietzsche was ascending into absolute madness. The voice is so direct and unequivocal. It’s pure music.
the madison review
17. One night while we were in the vacant lot, Leanne mistakenly opened a vein in her forearm with a piece of broken glass. She said she wasn’t ready yet, and I got her to the hospital emergency room. A doctor stitched her up, and he was skeptical when Leanne explained that she had fallen and cut her wrist. This created problems at home for Leanne. She lived with her mother and there were visits by the DHS. They eventually concluded that Leanne might be taken away from her mother. That word “observation” was used. Leanne considered leaving the country. She wanted me to run away with her. We discussed whether we should flee to Mexico or Canada. Crossing either border would be difficult because neither of us had a passport. 18. Jonas no longer showed any interest in my mother. She had gained weight over the previous winter, and during the summer, which was particularly hot and humid, her clothes seemed constantly soaked with sweat. She was severely depressed in her quiet way and often acted like a true simpleton. Though it was summer, she was having trouble finding waitressing shifts in the restaurants along the Lake Michigan shore. Evenings she would sit out on the porch steps smoking and slapping at mosquitoes. A lot of nights she stayed with our cousins over in Marinette. 19. One night I called Leanne and her mother said she was gone. Her mother wasn’t entirely sober, as usual, and she said the authorities from the DHS had come to take Leanne to a juvenile facility. But the way her mother said “She’s gone” made me wonder if Leanne had managed to run away. At that time a man named Kenny was living with her mother and he got on the phone, not sounding exactly sober either, and told me not to call the house again, and if I did I’d have to deal with him. I told him I’d be right over and hung up. When I got to the house, maybe a half dozen blocks away, Kenny was standing on the front porch with a golf driver in his hands. He was balding and the way the hair on the sides of his head shot straight up he might have been standing in a powerful updraft of air, making me wonder if some alien force was about to suck him off the face of the earth. He wore boxer shorts and a V-neck T-shirt, with brown corduroy slippers on his feet. His legs were scrawny and red, looking like they’d been parboiled. When I approached the porch steps, he said, “You get off on beating up those little assholes at school, but all they need’s a good number-one wood.” He extended the club head toward my face. “This here’s my Ping.” I retreated to the sidewalk, where the pavement
the madison review
the madison review
was broken up, and found a piece of concrete that weighed a little more than a baseball. Behind Kenny, Leanne’s mother appeared inside the screen door. I heard the sirens coming from the direction of downtown and the way she stared out at me I knew that she had already made the call. I dropped the piece of concrete and began walking back toward my house. A police cruiser pulled over beside me and we talked in the heat for a minute, but somehow I gave them the impression that they should be dealing with a domestic disturbance involving a couple of drunks. The cops told me to go home and raced down to Leanne’s house.
ations. but this turned out to be the reason for my journey i truly believe that. i have been introduced to THE LIGHT and all my pain and despair has been replaced by LOVE and JOY in HIS PRESENCE. i know what you’re thinking but i am not bullshiting you. i have found PEACE and so can you dear tim if only you’ll open your heart. you can always write to me at this address, and please find it in your heart to contribute to HIS WORK. in the past we welcomed death but now I pray that you find your way to being the WITNESS TO LIFE. may you dwell with me in HIS LIGHT, leanne
20. For several weeks I heard nothing, knew nothing. I called various state agencies trying to locate Leanne. If she was confined in some facility, it might lead to her committing suicide by herself. When I’d first been at North Star, one of the “issues” that got a lot of airtime in counseling sessions was what I call the Big A, abandonment. Since I’ve been back here, Nolan Lyttle, MSW, PhD, has asked in various ways how I felt after Leanne disappeared, if I felt abandoned. In his own sly but not very subtle way, he has tried to link her abandonment to the fact that I don’t know who my father is, and to the fact that my mother was not in the house much of last summer after Jonas returned from Cambridge. I couldn’t buy into Nolan Lyttle’s notions about the Big A. I’ve never given two shits about who my father is or was, and my mother has been MIA pretty much since I tossed her religious statues in the bay.
If you were Nolan Lyttle, MSW, PhD, who will take notes while reading this, you might say that my abandonment issues kicked in at this point.
21. In August, less than a month ago, I received a letter from Leanne. The return address was a post-office box in Oakland, California. The one-page letter was written on lined notepaper in her small, tight script, using virtually no capitals except when she WANTED TO MAKE A POINT: dear tim, this has been the most extraordinary journey. when it was clear that those agents of the STATE were about to nab me i had no choice but to run. i hitched rides across the country (the hardest part was getting from menominee to marinette—go figure). along the way i encountered so many people steeped in AMERICAN WEIRDNESS that i really wished i had a passport or some means of getting across the border to canada or mexico. when i arrived here (i am not hint-hint actually IN OAKLAND but arranged to have this letter mailed from there) i was very close to taking my own life, with or without a witness. i’d been robbed in nebraska, raped by two truckers in the cab of an 18-wheeler parked in a utah truck stop, and forced to solicit when i first arrived in californ-I-A. weary of life on the street i went into a shelter for women run by an organization that you would despise for its religious affili26
22. The evidence (I am told by my court-appointed attorney, as much a dipshit as the previous one) is all over the first floor of my mother’s house. After I procured the necessary equipment, my biggest concern was where the rope could be suspended from, until I realized that on the back porch there were the two hooks in the ceiling rafters, used at one time to hang the wooden swing. Getting him to the porch and under the rope and block pulley proved to be the greatest challenge. After he’d passed out in the living room, which he did almost every night, I dragged him out to the porch. As I pulled him across the kitchen linoleum, he was alert enough to ask where we were going and I said he could use some fresh air. He agreed and within seconds he began to snore, until he realized that the irritation about his throat was caused by a noose. By then it was too late. I hauled him up just so he could do the dance, tiptoeing on the porch floor. After I tied the rope off on the railing, I proceeded with the process, which was conducted in a proper fashion. One for the history books. 23. My story went viral. The right-wing blogosphere lit up and a state representative in Louisiana told his constituents that if they were serious about reducing the crime rate they would support his bill which would make the punishment known as being drawn and quartered the penalty for heinous crimes. I was the lead story on CNN, Fox, and MSNBC. I think my mother liked the attention. When she came to visit me, she wore a dress and even some makeup. On TV she looked a bit of her voluptuous, youthful self as my attorney hustled her past the camera crews outside of North Star. She did respond to one reporter’s question, saying that the reason for her son’s actions was to protect his mother. This resulted in speculation in the media that Jonas was 27
the madison review
my father, a notion that my mother steadfastly denied. During an interview on TV she said couldn’t recall my father’s name—she only remembered that it happened in a car after she finished her shift at Lucky’s Lounge in Escanaba, which had gone out of business years ago. Reporters delved into Jonas’s activities in Cambridge and, wielding their favorite word, allegedly, suggested that he had a long history of predatory behavior. Not that I was exonerated. If the news angle on the story wasn’t exactly sympathetic toward my actions, at least some bloggers asserted that, considering the circumstances, they were understandable. My mother received several marriage proposals, the most promising from an Oklahoma dairy farmer who’d recently sold his land to an oil company and moved to the Cayman Islands. But these didn’t pan out, and once the story faded from the TV news cycle she began to show up at North Star looking the worse for wear and not a little medicated. Her tear ducts seemed to have run dry, her hollow gaze reminding me of the evenings when she used to gaze out at the wind patterns on the bay. Yesterday, when she and my attorney visited, I could tell from their body language that the state’s prosecuting attorney had succeeded in convincing the court that I should be tried as an adult. It was in that moment that it happened, that it came to me, and I reached across the table and took my mother’s hand and asked her if she would pray to Jesus with me, the way we did when I was a small boy.
the madison review
Of Her Changing Face Chelsea Kerwin (after W.B. Yeats)
As the cold, red-haired queen of the North or the illiterate bloodthirsty peasant of Western Ireland, she always surprised him, but not the audience of slighted citizens who came to see the famous Maud Gonne as a thin, tight-lipped whomever of the sorrows. She was the old woman coming down the road, the stranger at the house the night before the wedding. She had lost her four green fields, and wanted war. They say she sold her soul to the devil’s merchants and was their prize. She used the gold to feed and clothe a whole town- and then she died. They say she filled her pail at the lake of fire, bent low and plucked a silver trout from the burning water, but would not kneel. Her audience of young men turned salmon, dashing their flesh against the current, follow her. What are men’s bodies but bricks to hurl at kings? Miserable, aware of the danger, he still kept up his plan to love her to love’s rational end, to love her to daughter, though all his golden apples smoldered on her tongue. Too late he clamped his ears against her massive voice, that ate his words and spoke them back onstage crow by crow clawing out her throat. Is the green grave so terrible? A hundred years and tomorrow, all the same to this woman with dull magnets in her eyes and the walk of a queen.
the madison review
the madison review
Not So Easy (Saving Sentient Beings) Lisa Bellamy “Sentient beings are numberless; I vow to save them…” Bodhisattva vow When I drank, so many bodhisattva buddies tried to get me to quit. When I drank, I drank the way this cardinal is smashing into our living room window: hard, against the glass, a full beak-and-body-slam. Again and again he drops, as if shot, onto the grass, wobbles back to his branch, flies straight at the glass; again and again. My bird book says that, of course, he’s attacking his own reflection. I know if I cannot distract this suffering being with waves or shouts, he might finally meet the delusional goal he’s set— kill someone, kill the enemy—himself, it seems.
the madison review
the madison review
Okay, three things you’d take with you, he said. Like, in an apocalypse. He’d suggest little games to pass the time. She’d play along because what else was there to do? No, he said, not an apocalypse. More like, the threat of an apocalypse. And you’re being relocated somewhere safe. Somewhere you can start over. She dug her thumbnail into the quick of her pinky finger. She watched a large, low factory go by, tractor trailers nestled up against it like hungry piglets. Budweiser in huge red letters. Bud Light in huge blue letters. Three things, she said. That’s tough. Okay, five things. But just five. She listed her Kindle, body pillow, and electronic toothbrush right away. It took her a minute to come up with the other two: her favorite brand of chewable vitamins and a comfortable pair of black yoga pants. Really comfortable, she said. She didn’t ask but he offered his list anyway. His bike, his recording equipment, his leather messenger bag, the one he’d had since college, the one he’d taken to the cobbler again and again for repairs because he loved it so much. His own electronic toothbrush. His copy of Ficciones. That’s five, right? he said. He’d thought to list his wedding ring, beaten gold, but she hadn’t included hers. He watched the blacktop’s yellow stripes extend out in front of them and fade behind them in the rearview. She watched the teal horizon. Funny that we both listed the Sonicare, he said. She stood in the truckstop’s snack aisle trying to look interested. She stood at the fogged glass doors displaying the sodas and energy drinks. She stared at the huge neon cans. She felt guilty using the bathroom and not buying anything, as if it would offend the attendants, as if she’d ever see them again. On the way out the door she saw a tshirt that read You Mess With Me You Mess With The Whole Trailer Park in bright puffpaint. When she got to the car it was locked and he was gone. She found him squatting at the far end of the overnight lot, his headphones on, probing the prairie grass with his microphone. Gravel crunched under her feet. There’s sort of, like, a rhythm to the wind in the grass? he said, lowering his headphones and squinting up at her. Can you hear it? They listened to a podcast about life on the frontier in the late 1800s, about
the market for Indian scalps, about the savagery with which territorial and then federal government duped and manipulated tribe after tribe. The purpose of the podcast, it seemed, was to undermine things they’d been told as children. God, he said. She was reapplying sunscreen to her thin right arm. When we get there, she said, the very first thing we have to do is meet with your dad’s lawyer and figure out what can be saved. Until she married him she’d never had any money, and he’d never been without it. He’d never lived paycheck to paycheck, he’d never been in debt. She was terrified that he wasn’t terrified. You’ll have to get a job, she said. I know. Jesus, I know, he said. He looked at her but couldn’t see her eyes behind her sunglasses. He looked back at the road. We’ll be okay, he said. I’m serious, she said. I love our little car, he said. He reached forward over the steering wheel and rubbed the vinyl dashboard. A small amount of dust clung to his palm. Wanna put the top down? They drove between stone bluffs cloven by dynamite down into a small, hilly town on a slow brown river. A bronze plaque on whitewashed posts said that a President had lived there as a boy. They ate lunch at a café they’d read about somewhere, maybe the Times? Maybe a blog? It might’ve been on a TV show. He asked what the place was famous for and the harried waitress licked her incisor as she thought. Nothing really, the waitress told him. She smiled in apology. Well, I guess I’ll take whatever you like best, he said. Whatever’s your favorite. She hated when he did this, engaging with waitstaff or bartenders or concierges to make an experience special for him, as if it were their job to create his memories. She’d complained about it once. She called it condescending, oblivious. I don’t see what the big deal is, he’d said and looked at her wounded. I’m always nice to people. They agreed, philosophically, that people who are bad to service workers are bad people. She ordered low-fat cottage cheese and cantaloupe and sat reading her phone. A yellow sign with bold black letters warned them to reduce speed from 55 to 35 around a steep declining curve. Christ, James, she said, slow down. Sorry, he said. Look at the river, it’s beautiful here. The river ran alongside the highway behind bent, rusting guardrails, around and over gray and tawny stones. Where the sun shone through the forest’s canopy the water glowed like the moon. At a bend, the river had carved out a shelf of raw soil six feet up to the forest’s floor. Live roots shot out from the soil and hung over the river. It must’ve flooded this spring, she said.
2013 Cooper S, Soft-Top Matthew Wade Jordan
the madison review
Why do you say that? he said but she ignored the question. A brown sign with white letters read Be Alert for Hunters. He’d never been hunting, thinking it at different times coarse, or cruel, or a vain exercise in an outmoded masculinity. But suddenly he wanted very badly to hunt, to march in thick boots over responsive moss and crackling twigs, to sit silently in a treestand watching the forest through binoculars, to watch a deer in his sights drop heavily a split second after he squeezed the thunderous trigger. To be of one with the tinkling of river and shushing of leaves. Perhaps a throbbing, croaking song of cicadas would erupt around him. It occurred to him that stalking, killing, skinning, eating, rendering, tanning, wearing a beast is an extraordinary articulation of skill. How heavy is a gun? He imagined the sound of hide being torn from a carcass. He imagined the sound of a phonebook being torn in half. She noticed the sign, too. She imagined hunters all around them, shooting carelessly at anything that moved. She imagined an oblong rifle bullet streaming through leaf and bark and fern and out over the river and highway and through the rear passenger’s side window and into her husband’s neck and out of it again. She saw the car glide to a stop against the guardrail while she looked down at him in her lap, unable to think, a pool of blood growing between her thighs and another at her feet. I’ve never seen so many, he said and gestured to dozens of matte white windmills spinning above the cornfields to their left and right. He pulled off on a dirt road and got them as close as possible. He grabbed his bag and set out on foot. When she caught up with him he was sitting crosslegged against the base of a windmill, his eyes closed, his headphones on, the microphone in his hands like a lotus blossom. Sunshine was a pale yellow all around them, all around everything, and the sound of the windmill was like a great cool lake being picked up and dropped picked up and dropped picked up and dropped picked up and dropped. They’re beautiful, she said but he couldn’t hear her. She knew he couldn’t hear her. They drove through a tiny town that wasn’t much more than a shuttered real estate office, a Tex Mex restaurant, and a courthouse. On the courthouse steps a young child sat with his chin in his palm next to a woman that might’ve been his mother. The boy’s tshirt was an advertisement for a very popular video game. Okay, I got one. You have ten chips. Like poker chips. And you have to distribute them across the past, the present, and the future. You go first. No, you. Hmph I guess I’d go— Are we talking about, are we talking about what we want? Our desires? I’d go one, eight, one. I wish— 34
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Or maybe zero, eight, and two. I wish I was— I guess I don’t think about the past much. I— You can always move your chips around, is the thing. The sheriff wore a roundbrimmed hat like a park ranger’s and his voice came from far away but also everywhere, like the echo of a stone being dropped in a much deeper part of a very deep cave. James couldn’t understand—the sheriff was standing right there above him. He heard the sheriff say something about kids, about kids dropping things from the overpass. The sheriff said he’d heard complaints. But they’d never hit any cars, never dropped anything so big. A fuckin cinderblock, the sheriff said. We’re gonna find these little cocksuckers and they’re going to die in prison. Sir? I promise you that. Before someone drove by and had the sense or decency to stop, to call 911, James had sat in the car under the deflated airbag looking at his dead wife in something like disbelief or horror but different, something those words only approximate, something language won’t allow us to think. Her tongue hung out over her lips by a thread. She’d nearly bitten it in two. He could see her brain. He sat on the grassy embankment where the car was stopped asking himself What am I supposed to do? What am I supposed to do? the question flowing from the spring of this day thousands of miles over and through things, around things, thousands of miles, before discharging itself somewhere he’d never been, the slurring shores of the rest of his life. A deputy put a flannel blanket around his shoulders. You’re going to need to come with us, she said. Sir? You need to come with us.
the madison review
A Perfume’s Length In Years Josh Bettinger Plum trees in bloom, like clusters and voids—my child’s heart flickers on flickers off beneath the pixels of the screen, a vibrating moth— or octopus in slight sepia right under a full color poster of tropical beaches tacked to the ceiling in a strangely lit examination room. Technology reveals the miracle, the shell of shrugged-off tides, like moments turned möbius in the flattened image— which on the surface in vague dimensions seem to suggest a daughter carved from calcite and grit— the unborn moon in the water. From here I will cast my flies at her eternally. She—like each stupendous proposal— requires no watch no carnival no sewing kit, just the siren built deep inside her as the beadlike spirit, pulsing, grammatical, tiny—goes on and on.
the madison review
My War BY R.E. Hayes I All over America anxious young men asked other anxious young men if they’d received greetings from Washington. April 1944, the telegram arrived and afterwards nothing was ever the same. “From: The President of the United States. To: Howard Harris. Greeting, you are hereby ordered for induction into the Armed Forces of the United States.” This was twenty-five years ago, before the Vietnam War, before my knowit-all-draft-dodging son Jo Jo was born. Before the turmoil that most of the country didn’t see coming. *** After basic training, they marched me onto a troop train along with dozens of other Negroes; forty-six of us packed into each coach. Helmets on her heads, packs on our backs, buck privates humping all of our equipment except pistols and rifles, headed for Pennsylvania. A long rough ride with no air-conditioning. I was in the coach next to the coal car. If someone opened a window, soot blew in over everybody and none of us needed to get any darker, including the gray mouse that sneaked in and stuck around for the ride. Finally we arrived at the Broad Street Station in Philly where buses waited to haul us to Camp Fowler, up north near Scranton. The bus rolled through the main gate, past the headquarters building, the parade field, mess hall, infirmary, supply building, the PX and further on past identical wooden two-story barracks standing in the sun like unwavering rows of wheat. A long way from Chicago. Over and over I saw them and it surprised and confused me. I didn’t know what to think: German prisoners of war, whole platoons of the enemy on American soil. They looked confident and healthy and blond. Some of them, I later found out, still believed Nazi propaganda. Still believed Luftwaffe bombers had knocked down the Empire State Building. The shooting and dying ended for them. Safe as newborn babies. Eventually they’d return home to the fatherland, alive and mostly in one piece, fortunate that we’d captured them and not the ruthless Red Army. First off, all incoming prisoners went through the delousing chamber and then an evaluation by Military Intelligence. If any of them were discovered to be Nazi party members, or worse, the SS, the army shipped them someplace for further interrogation. Regular foot soldiers stayed put. The army allowed local Pennsylvania farmers to work the POWs, paying them 80 cents a day in chits, which they could use to buy smokes and other items in 37
the madison review the PX. Only two MPs to fifteen of them on the farms—all white of course. The shit would hit the fan if the segregated army assigned one of us to guard whites, even POWs. Most of them didn’t even try to escape. They knew a good thing when they saw it. One day, a young POW tried to escape. At least that’s what it looked like. It happened when the American Red Cross ladies showed up to distribute mail and care packages to them. As the women departed, this POW took off running after the truck heading toward the main gate, crying, arms flailing, pulling at his hair, ripping at his clothes like he was on fire. I was pulling for him to make it until I remembered he was a POW and wasn’t supposed to be running anywhere, especially toward an open gate. Two MPs rolled up in a Jeep and tackled him, sending the letter he’d just received kiting on a breeze across the wide parade field. Medics pushed and pulled and got him inside a straightjacket to prevent him from injuring himself. We discovered later that one of our B-17 Flying Fortress bombers had wiped out the kid’s mother, father, two sisters and a cow. I wondered if he still believed Germany was winning the war. Captain Billy Bolden, the CO, was a mean-spirited Confederate from South Carolina who fancied himself a proper southern gentleman. Maybe it was true but he never showed that face to us. We figured the army only considered him qualified to command us “coloreds” so we had a blast imagining other officers at the O Club snubbing him while he sat drinking alone trying to figure out how his career skidded off the tracks. The highest ranking POW was Colonel Klaus Ledbert. Most GIs just called him Ledbutt. He outranked Captain Bolden by two pay grades. According to army regulations, Ledbutt was entitled to all the military courtesies befitting his high rank, even though a prisoner. The way he strutted around camp in those black jackboots, you’d think he was back in Berlin on dress parade, peering down his nose at us Negroes as if we were the prisoners and not him. I never understood how a person we captured had the nerve to act so proud. One day Ledbutt was on his bunk, leaning back, hands clasped behind his head like some high and mighty maharaja, watching me spit-shining his boots. Captain Bolden ordered us to shine boots for all officers above the rank of lieutenant— American and German. We suspected he’d volunteered us because he wanted to earn brownie points with the battalion commander. Ledbutt thanked me after I’d given his boots a tip-top shine, metal heel plates and all. Thanked me as if God put me on earth just to keep his boots shined. I didn’t say anything. Pretended I didn’t understand what he was saying. But I knew I couldn’t relax, couldn’t let myself get fooled by the enemy. If I said what was on my mind, I’d land in the stockade. Keep your mouth shut, I told myself. He’s a POW, but still a white full-bird colonel.
the madison review The army put a lot of time and attention into boosting the morale of its fighting men; talking it up on the radio, running special features in the Stars and Stripes newspaper, posters plastered around the base and in town—Together We Can Do It! But nobody cared one thin dime about the morale of Negro soldiers ordered to shine the enemy’s boots. Why didn’t I resist? Why didn’t I rebel and refuse to lower myself ? The short answer: in wartime you can screw around and get shot for insubordination and I wanted to live. Struggle? Oh yes, I’d read about Frederick Douglass, how he beat the snot out his master and escaped from slavery. I’ve read a book or two. I didn’t go to college but back in ‘36 when I graduated, a high school diploma meant you’d actually learned something. We struggled. Man, did we struggle. And now when I think back to my war, I can feel the pain setting in all over again, like a hand yanking at my gut. Entering through the main gate, you wouldn’t know they’d stationed any of us there. We lived in big general purpose tents along the back fence, awaiting construction of new barracks is what they said, not that we believed it. Ardell Wilson was in my squad, my main man, my ole jug partner. From New York City, he’d gone two years of college at Tuskegee before the draft and just missed getting into the flight program. Seriously funny Ardell, with lots of book smarts too. He told me something once, something he called a parable for colored people to live by and I still remember— This sharecropper is walking in the field on a cold winter day when he meets a snake. The sharecropper can’t stand reptiles but feels sorry because it looks almost dead. He takes it home and gives it food and shelter. One day when the snake is feeling better, it bites him. The sharecropper jumps back and asks why he did that since he had saved his life. The critter says, “That’s right sharecropper, but you knew I was a snake.” One day we were outside trying to look busy policing up cigarette butts when everything changed. Ledbutt came strutting along with his swagger stick tucked under the left arm. Always carried it, mahogany with a shiny brass tip. I was gazing down at his boots, admiring my work when he stopped and stared bug-eyed like he’d never seen Negroes before. If he wasn’t a true-blue Nazi, I’m the King of Ethiopia. All of a sudden his hands shot up sending the swagger stick flying sky-high, spiraling end-over-end, twirling and flipping in the sun like a drum major’s baton. Just before it landed at my feet he turned picnic-ham pink, eyes rolled back, clutching his chest and proceeded to drop dead. Face up. “Hallelujah,” Ardell said, like he’d just caught the Spirit, mumbling something else that I won’t repeat. Ledbutt stayed on the ground in the sun for a while, but not so long as to draw flies. We kept working. All I could think about was how sturdy the soles of those shiny boots looked, how that fine polished leather would get scratched with him sprawled on the gravel. 39
the madison review Captain Bolden gave the order that Ledbutt would receive a by-thebook burial. He told the First Sergeant to assign a detail to dig the grave. If there was any bitching in the ranks, Bolden warned, he’d cancel furloughs for every swinging dick. “Private Harris!” the First Sergeant screamed in my face, “what’s so fuckin funny about the death of a decorated infantry colonel? I seen you grinning like a coon eatin a watermelon.” He picked me to head a three-man grave digging detail. If it was raining soup, I would’ve been holding a fork. I figured Ledbutt most likely earned those medals for killing Americans, but it wasn’t my place to say anything. The following day, POWs held a service in the chapel. Me, Ardell, and Nate Brown waited outside while a covered quarter-ton truck rumbled around behind the building. We waited a while until the truck came rolling around to the front. This time the tarp was off, the coffin prominently displayed, covered with a big red and a black swastika flag. An eight-man American MP honor-guard, white gloves and all, marched behind. If I hadn’t seen it, I wouldn’t believe it happened in America. I figured none of the MPs wanted to do it. They had no choice but to follow the CO’s order and send that Nazi off to hell with full military honors. As the truck rolled by slow and solemn, POWs stood at attention and saluted, their arms stiff-angled in the air the way they do. It continued rolling to a grassy slope fifty yards from the nearest Negro GP tent and there we put down our spades. “Spades schlepping spades,” Ardell said, flashing a shit-eating grin. We dragged the coffin down and the chaplain said his piece. The bugler played taps and only the twenty-one gun salute was missing. I figured Bolden decided that would be too much R-E-S-P-E-C-T for the enemy. Everyone split and we went to work, griping, bellyaching and cussing a blue streak. Got the grave dug in about two hours. Planted that SOB six feet under and threw back the dirt. All the while Ardell was razzing Nate, saying the more he sweated in peace the less he bled in war. Ever since basic training, the sergeants had crammed that down our throats, but ole Nate didn’t want to hear it. We stumbled back to the tent with barely enough time and energy to make it to the mess hall for evening chow. Later, a fifth of Jim Beam magically appeared in Ardell’s footlocker. We passed the jug, nipping and sipping till we emptied it, comparing calluses, gassing about this and that, happy because one less Nazi remained alive on earth, hating Bolden. Nate said when the war was over, he’d leave the country. He waited for somebody to ask where to, but nobody did. “Colored people in America are like the GI who’s AWOL from roll call,” he said. “Not present or accounted for.” 40
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Ole Nate got skunk drunk and after a while he passed out. Come morning we wouldn’t be surprised if he couldn’t remember half of what he said. Ardell said, “We should have buried him upside down so the worms and maggots could get at him faster.” I said, “I wished I’d snatched those boots off him. I sure put plenty of elbow grease into them.” Flaked out on my bunk, I lay there thinking about everything that happened. And suddenly it hit me. I knew exactly what I was gonna do. Jumped up, put on my socks and boots, and slipped outside the tent, shying away from the fence line to avoid the sentry. In the moonlight I easily found the fresh grave and for a minute or two just stood looking at it, wondering why I wasn’t in my bunk sleeping, my mind playing tricks—shadows jumping in and out of the trees, the wind singing, crickets raising a ruckus, someone laughing. Pretty soon I got my act together. Dead set on carrying out my mission, convinced that what I needed to do would make the bitterness disappear, at least till morning. Stood there thinking about the big water fountain in town, telling myself to relax. Waited a few minutes that seemed like a week. When I felt ready, I whipped it out and aimed—pissed wholeheartedly on the Nazi down there in my spit-shined boots. II America was having a nervous breakdown and it had a lot to do with Vietnam and the turmoil in the cities. Already a whole lot of shaking had gone down. And like everyone else in 1969, I waited for the next big thing, often parked in the Sunset Tavern, a Southside watering hole where strangers seldom dropped in and the regulars knew to mind their own business. Elbows up, I hoisted a frosty beer but decided not to throw back another shot of Jim Beam. Taped on the mirror behind the bar, below unframed black and white photos of Dr. King and President Kennedy, a sign warned that only persons born before 1947 should expect service. Natural light rarely penetrated this windowless dive and no one hurried back because of the captivating decor. Someone entering on a bright sunny day would find his vision spooked by tiny black spots as if he’d fallen through into a dim cellar. Florescent tubes behind the bar produced a slow-motion frozen glow, red-tinted fog lights beamed down from an overhead track while glints of green, red, blue and gold bounced back from the pulsating jukebox. Inside, the Chicago night was everlasting. It was my fiftieth birthday and Jo Jo had said he might drop by and help me celebrate. I wasn’t holding my breath. He’s a pothead and thinks I don’t know. Going to college and wants to be a lawyer. We’ll see. Life happened and I messed up so last year his mother kicked me out. She 41
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won’t let me back in the apartment to celebrate birthdays, Christmas, or anything else with the kids. “Not while they’re under my roof,” she said, eyes flashing like a lioness guarding her cubs. She takes good care of our kids, but it bothered me that Jo Jo was mouthing off like Cassius Clay about refusing to go into the service. I’m halfway proud of what I did. I was ready and willing to fight but the army too often forced me into rotten situations that wouldn’t let me forget how little I mattered as a man in America. The letter he wrote to the draft board still puzzled me. I’m his father, so who does this knucklehead think he is, James Baldwin? I figured he got the idea because he thinks the worst of me. Thinks I’m scared to speak up, that I’ve been going along all these years “just another complacent Negro,” as he puts it. He says the revolution is coming. Protesting. What does he know? You don’t have to be militant like Malcolm X or a loudmouth like Clay to get your message across. Yes, I still call him Cassius Clay. It’s the name his mama and daddy gave him. Wonders never cease to amaze. Jo Jo showed up and he stuck around, my smart-mouth-draft-dodging son riding the barstool next to me. “Happy birthday Pops. Five decades and you’re still going strong. Cheers.” Wearing Levi bells and a color-splashed dashiki he had a mile-high Afro growing atop his head like wild African bristle grass. The boy was never interested in my war before, so I accepted it as a birthday present, him paying attention, learning about what we had to go through. I signaled for another round. Marshall the bartender turned and grinned. A tall gent, from New Orleans, light skinned with bushy sideburns and long thin two octave-spanning pianist fingers. “Birthday? Man, if you’d a said something, the first drink would’ve been on the house.” Then, as if handing over a gift, he wiped the bar top in front of me and slid down to a man who sat grinning like he’d just won the lottery, fingernails tapping up and down an empty glass. Soon they were rehashing last year’s election, heads bobbing, hands fluttering in the air like revivalists out to save each other’s soul. “George Wallace got thirteen percent of the popular vote,” Marshall said. “Bull shit,” the finger tapper yowled. “Man, if I agreed with you, we’d both be wrong. That peckerhead didn’t get no thirteen percent. Nigger what choo you been smokin? Bet!” Marshall blew his cheeks out and then looked him off. He leaned under the bar, slowly, never taking his eyes off the other man, as if his heart wasn’t in it but he’d been given no alternative. Came up holding a plastic White Sox tumbler. “You know the house rules, Sylvester, now drop a quarter in or go over there and feed the jukebox.” “Ain’t no females in here. I’ll cuss if I want to. Bet me. I’m so lucky I shit
the madison review
shamrocks.” “The other word, Sylvester. Now don’t act like you don’t know what I’m talking about. How’re we ever gonna lift up the race with you acting the fool like that?” Marshall shot a glance in my direction, looking for back up. I don’t like hearing the word either. In my grandfather’s day, when the KKK showed up in the still of the night with the lynch rope nigger might have been the last word a Negro heard before he dropped and passed into the next life. “Git on over now, or pay up.” He shook the tumbler, which didn’t sound as if many coins were inside. I watched the offender stand and shuffle to the juke box. After Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, we voted for Humphrey, Jo Jo’s first election. “Suppose the bartender is right,” Jo Jo said, “and so many people fell for Wallace’s racist rap, the revolution could be just around the corner.” I never respond to revolution talk, so I just smiled like I used to when he was a kid running around making faces, imitating TV people. “I got an almanac but it’s from last year,” Marshall said, groaning like his feet hurt. Then he came over to us. “Man, is this here your boy?” Eyeing Jo Jo as if picking him out in a line-up. “Didn’t catch the name when I carded him. Fine-looking boy and taller than you too.” “C’mon barkeep set your money out,” Sylvester crowed, slapping a bill on the wood. “I make money, money don’t make me. You so cheap Marshall, you won’t even tip your hat.” “Fool.” Marshall said. “On account of jokers like you, I don’t know if I wanna kill myself or go bowling.” Sylvester laughed himself silly. A Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell duet came up on the box. Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing. After the comedy team of Sylvester and Marshall finished up, I went to the men’s room and returned—I wasn’t ready to let go of the war. “Pops, Pops, you pissed on his grave. That’s it?” “No. No. That’s not all. On the way back to the tent, the sentry stopped me. Just like in the movies. Halt. Who goes there? I came to a screeching stop and identified myself. The sentry wanted to know what I was doing out at that time of night.” “Lemme guess. You said, just taking a midnight stroll boss.” “I told him I was taking a leak. From the way I was standing I figured he could put two and two together, and then—” “They put you in front of a firing squad but you escaped.” “Very funny. Listen here James Baldwin, he could’ve shot me. I had no business being out there. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. He could’ve easily put a bullet in my ass and no one would have given a good goddamn about some half drunk Negro GI prowling around the base after lights out. There was a war on.” “Black, Dad. Not colored, not Negro. Black.” 43
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“Never mind all that.” Annoying as Sylvester was, he was right about one thing. No women in the place. Typical. But a female did venture in last month, swept through the door like Dianna Ross and sat right where Jo Jo was sitting. Her entrance instantly brightened the place and made the regulars jerk up straight, jolted out of their reveries and suddenly ridiculously hopeful. It would have been strange not to say something to her, friendly, nothing more. Young enough to be my daughter. Rhonda was her name, small with a round walnut-colored face and light brown blasé eyes that I guessed never once witnessed evil. Smelled like oranges and honeysuckle. She had short and shiny dark pressed hair, a Marcel wave we used to call it, and she didn’t seem to care about the little gap between her two front teeth that showed when she smiled. In a maroon and yellow miniskirt, even wearing heels, she was tiny. What I remember most was her line of work. “I come out of cakes,” she said. Business men parted with cold cash to see her spring from a fake cake wearing only a bikini. “I’m gonna be the next Josephine Baker,” she said, as if show biz fame was guaranteed, sipping a screwdriver paid for by yours truly. After a short while Rhonda must have realized no worthwhile career options existed in the Sunset Tavern. She stuck her little hand out for me to shake and I stood and wished her good luck. My eyes followed her to the door. When it opened the afternoon sun fell on her like a spotlight beamed down on the star of a musical revue, Sam & Dave belting out Soul Man on the box. I would love to catch her act, coming out of a cake, but I couldn’t imagine Negro men and white men drinking together at an event, cheering and whistling like fraternity brothers. They’ve got the power and the money and spend it foolishly to watch her shake and wiggle in a bikini. Hell, they can hang out at Oak Street Beach and scope it out for free. “Go on, Dad, we got side-tracked. I wanna know about how you served your country when most places in America wouldn’t serve you.” Again, it touched me, hearing him saying Dad. I wanted nothing more than for my son to feel no awkwardness around me. When I went to visit the kids last Christmas Eve, she denounced me. Accused me of trying to buy their love and affection with five-dollar bills. She called me a dog. Things turned ugly, again. “But are you gonna listen or sit there fat mouthing me?” “Like the man said, Pops, I’m all ears. I’ll bet you raised hell over the way they treated you.” “What man?” 44
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“Van Gogh . . . the ear. Get it?” “Oh, now you’re a comedian.” “Lighten up, Pops. It’s your birthday, remember?” I gave him the look and then went on. “The sentry, I’ll never forget, tall and lanky. Had a twang like he hailed from somewhere back in the hills. Pointed his rifle at my belly and ordered me back to my tent. As I stepped away, he said he hated Nazis too and was gonna take a leak before his shift ended, sounding like he had something to prove. I understood exactly what he meant.” “A grave undertaking.” “Okay, boy, you can snicker all you want but remembering is about all I got left now and there’ll come a time when it’s all you’ll have too.” We shared a moment in smoky silence. “Look son, I don’t want you believing that I just went along all these years, happy with the man’s foot on my neck. We protested back then as best we could.” “I never believed that Pops. And I didn’t say I wouldn’t go in the service. I wrote the letter because I had reservations about the fairness of the draft.” “You had what? Reservations?” “Yeah, Pop, as a matter of fact, and I still do.” “Be careful boy or you’ll wind up on a reservation with bars. A Negro ain’t supposed to be writing to the government, that’s why Mister Hoover sent those FBI men up to the hotel checking on our loyalty. Acting foolish, making yourself stand out can get you killed. And I know you know about Emmett Till.” Last August during the Democratic convention, I watched longhaired hippies on TV running around like monkeys fumbling a football, the cops in Grant Park whaling on them with batons, soldiers in wedge formation thrusting forward into the mob with pointed bayonets. White kids mainly, free as the evening breeze—hardly any who looked like Jo Jo. On Michigan Avenue, even further west to State Street, shoppers and mystified tourists left to fend for themselves, coughing, crying and gagging from tear gas drifting over on the wind off the lake, wondering what in Heaven’s name was happening in the Windy City. Lately, I’d been hearing a lotta talk about black power but I’m seeing no signs that we’re getting closer to having more power, black or otherwise. When I was growing up, it wasn’t copacetic to call a Negro black. Now, all over the Southside you hear them sounding off. Black power this, black power that. Before the ’65 Watts riot, they’d trot out the same tried and tested Negroes on TV. Harry Belafonte, Ella, Louie, Sammy Davis, Pearl Bailey, Count Basie, mostly on the Ed Sullivan Show. New faces on the tube now, entertaining the country, helping us forget the war and the troubles in the cities. “Who you gonna believe,” Richard Pryor cracked, “me or your lying eyes?” And white folks in the audience yukked it up. Maybe the times really are a-changin like the song says. 45
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“Listen here Mister Bald-win, they draft you they draft you. Case closed. You gonna refuse to serve your country? I served, Joe Louis served, Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays served. You think you’re better?” “C’mon Dad, stop calling me that, I know what you mean.” I swiveled on the barstool and gazed into him. “Do you?” “So did you really believe the sentry was gonna shoot you?” The light in Jo Jo’s eyes made me think he just might have good sense after all. “Well son, I suppose it all depended on the color of his heart.” More silence and now it seemed even the jukebox was waiting. Our elbows met on the bar top as I scooped up the coins in front of me, fumbling for words. If I had it to give, I’d slip him a twenty, “ten for you and five for your brother and sister,” I’d say, like a decent father doing right by his kids. Steady on my feet, I went pocket-fishing for cash to pay the tab. Outside in the steamy night, we moved along 47th Street, down South Park Boulevard, passing in front of the brilliant Regal Theater marquee, hoping to catch an occasional breeze even this far from the Lake. Every now and then you see white cops in a cruiser but rarely do you see a white person on foot. A few neighborhood nighthawks now made their way along the not-so-clean but well-lighted street, some hurrying, some lingering. I wondered if my revolutionary son could tell me which of them was Negro or colored or black. Two men about Jo Jo’s age came bopping down the sidewalk toward us. The three of them exchanged clenched fists salutes, ignoring me and showing confidence that I lacked at their age, meeting life on terms unfamiliar to me. I was the one on shaky ground, the outsider, a stranger among my own people. After President Kennedy’s election, before this war started, life was different. People had hope. White men stopped wearing hats, fedoras. They wanted their hair to go free like Kennedy’s when he showed up for the inauguration not wearing a hat like every president before him. Older Negro men still wear hats but the young blades go hatless preferring big natural hair. They’ve got no time for parables. I figured they also wanted their hair free and maybe this was the start of some lasting truth that I didn’t fully understand. I hope the changes under President Nixon bear fruit. I don’t know much about him except that as VP under Eisenhower he didn’t care much for communists and says he’s for law and order. Please, please, no more as46
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sassinations, no more riots. “Dad, dig this. If Shirley Temple Black married Tyrone Power, her name would be Shirley Black Power.” I paused for a sec, and couldn’t resist smiling big. “I stole it from Laugh-In.” “Shirley Black Power. Boy, what will you come up with next?” We neared Calumet Avenue where I’d have to cross and turn left. Waiting for the light to change, I put my arm around his shoulder and pulled him close. I held him that way, squeezing till he squirmed. “Tell me son, how’s your mama? The kids? How’re they doing?” Maybe he’ll tell her I asked.
the madison review
The following is an interview, which Hiwot Adilow and John McCracken of The Madison Review, conducted with Professor Ron Wallace. Professor Wallace founded the UW Madison’s creative writing program in the 1970s and has been an instrumental literary presence on campus ever since. Today he serves as the co-director of the Creative Writing Program, the Halls-Bascom Professor of English, and the Felix Pollak Professor of Poetry. The Madison Review is grateful for the opportunity to learn more about Professor Wallace, discuss his time here at UW Madison, and more broadly dialogue about poetry and fiction. MR: The Madison Review is currently doing an interview with Ron Wallace on the occasion of his impending retirement or partial retirement. And we have a few questions for you Ron, thanks in advance for agreeing to do this. Ron W: Thanks for asking me. MR: Sure. What was the English Department like when you got here in 1972? Ron W: Ah, what was the English department like? When I arrived in 1972 the Department was largely male, the professors wore tweed jackets with elbow patches on them, and although one or two literature faculty occasionally taught creative writing courses, I was the only full-time creative writer. Creative writing had been taught largely by graduate teaching assistants, though there was one visiting writer each year sponsored by funds from the Rennebohm family. The British poet George Barker and the American poet Diane Wakoski both taught in that program, which ended just after I arrived. So I was teaching the only upper level creative classes. The students lined up in the halls with their writing sample, hoping to sign up for the workshops (this was before computer registration of course), and I had to turn man,y many students away from those two courses. MR: Was it one fiction and one poetry? Ron W: One fiction and one poetry class and nine introductory classes taught by graduate teaching assistants. MR: Knowing that you work in both poetry and fiction I was wondering whether you think there are subjects that are better suited for poetry than fiction or vice versa. And how do you choose between the two?
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Ron W: Well, I basically think of myself as a poet; I always have. I have published fiction in magazines, and I have published one collection of linked stories, Quick Bright Things. I have a draft of a novel sitting in a drawer where it will stay for the rest of my life. So although I am primarily a poet, I have written fiction and criticism as well. Helen C. White, for whom the English Department building is named, was herself a fiction writer, and she argued that any student or critic of literature should have written creative work in the genre they were teaching. I think this applies to creative writers as well— they should have written work in the genre they were teaching. So I felt that I should be writing fiction myself since I was teaching fiction writing. I have also found that poetry writing and fiction writing seemed to tap different modes of perception. When poetry deserted me, fiction came to the rescue. And vice versa. Although I realize this is a gross over-simplification, I think that the two major distinctions between poetry and fiction can be seen as involving language and rhythm. With poetry, language is often an end in itself (I love, for example, the richly textured poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Dylan Thomas, Wallace Stevens); with fiction, language is more often a means to an end (I love a good story). The rhythm of poetry is a rhythm of repetition and recurrence; the rhythm of prose is a rhythm of continuity. My poetry, particularly early on, was more lyric than narrative, relying on sound and image and rhythm to evoke emotion. When my concerns turned to story and character and the age-old fascination of “what happens next?,”I turned to fiction. I also found that poetry, for me, lent itself to humor (in the American tradition of Whitman and Dickinson and Frost and others), whereas my fiction was more often somber and even melancholic. I realize that the opposite is probably true for most writers. I also found that in my poetry I wanted to capture the truth of my experience, exploring what really happened in my own life. In fiction, I felt freer to invent things that had never happened to me. This did cause some problems. When one of my daughters, who had read my poetry and recognized actual events from our family life in it, read one of my short stories in which the main character’s wife has an affair, she assumed that that meant my wife had had an affair. MR: Let’s get back to the history of the Creative Writing Program here. What were the early steps in its development? Ron W: It was clear to me at the beginning that the English department shouldn’t be turning so many students away from classes that they wanted
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to take. The very supportive literature faculty agreed, and authorized me in 1975 to hire a second writer, Kelly Cherry (who writes and teaches in all genres), to teach additional courses. In 1978 we established the undergraduate English major with a creative writing emphasis. Kelly and I offered four to five courses per semester; eventually we hired fiction writers Jay Clayton and Lorrie Moore. With Kelly retired, and Jay and Lorrie gone on to Vanderbilt, today Jesse Lee Kercheval, Judith Claire Mitchell, Amy Quan Barry, Amaud Jamaul Johnson, Ron Kuka, Sean Bishop, and Danielle Evans now offer over twenty upper level classes per semester.
the history and tradition of poetry, so I started teaching traditional forms, and I continue to do that today. I’ve also required more and more reading of contemporary poets, and I’ve devoted half of every workshop to reading the work of classic contemporaries that I think any poet or fiction writer ought to know.
MR: Have you changed any way you’ve taught poetry over the years? I mean obviously times have changed and literature and what not.
Ron W: Well, I would like to say it has, but it really hasn’t particularly. I think the emphasis on spoken word and Hip Hop and slam poetry has opened poetry up to wonderful new possibilities. But I think spoken word poetry needs to be spoken. I think slam poetry and hip hop needs to be performed. Often times when I read performance poetry on the page it seems less successful than it does in performance. It works by different rules, and so it doesn’t respond to the same kind of critical response or critique. More traditional poetry also benefits from being read aloud, but doesn’t require it. I simply don’t have the expertise to help a performance poet strengthen their work.
Ron W: Not necessarily, though I think, with practice, I’ve gotten better at it! When I first started teaching I had actually never really taken a creative writing workshop. When I was in college (at the College of Wooster in Ohio) and even in graduate school at the University of Michigan, people didn’t quite know what to make of creative writing classes. There were only three graduate degrees in creative writing in the country (at Iowa, Johns Hopkins, and Stanford). So I got a PhD in English rather than an MFA since the MFA wasn’t necessarily valued at the time. With my PhD in hand I worked in a department store in St. Louis, selling men’s underwear. My fellow workers called me “Professor of Underwear.” When I got the invitation to teach at Wisconsin I wondered how I would teach classes I had never taken myself. I spent the summer sitting in on a class at Washington University taught by Donald Finkel, a wonderful poet and master teacher, just to watch him teach. Basically what he did, and what I did early on in my own teaching, was just to have the poet read the poem and then open it up to the workshop for a free-wheeling discussion. What worked so well for him didn’t work as well for me however. I originally assumed that my students would be so dedicated to their writing that they would neglect all their other classes and inundate me with work. Well, that didn’t exactly happen, and several very good students advised me that the reason they were taking the workshop was for me to be a tough task-master and force them to do things they wanted to do, but wouldn’t do on their own. So over the years I became more and more structured about assignments and requirements. And in fact that was what the students were taking courses for. My course evaluations, which were always good, got even better.
MR: A lot of the contemporary poetry I know best comes from the spoken word and Hip Hop forms, and I was wondering how that has come into you classroom or your study of contemporary poetry, if at all.
That said, I’m drawn to poets who can bring the two modes together. A recent student I worked with, Danez Smith, has produced wonderful poetry that embraces both. With him, I stepped back and said just keep doing what you’re doing. Which he did. Now he has a couple of celebrated books out. So I certainly value that mode of writing. I think it is hard to bring the two sides together and often people are effective in one and not the other. My own background and history has been more in the traditional mode, so that’s pretty much what I’ve taught. But I certainly welcome into the classroom, and into the world, these exciting directions that poetry is taking. MR: How have you found time to maintain your own writing--either when you were starting the program or now? What process goes into the work?
At the beginning I didn’t teach any sort of formal poetry or history of poetry, it was mostly free verse. But again, I think students wanted more of
Ron W: In graduate school, I quit writing completely for two years. I thought that it was just something you did when you were young. All young people love poetry until it gets taught out of them. Many of the students here who graduate probably will never write seriously again. It is hard to do, it is hard to find the time, the world gives you little support. After I got my PhD, and before I sold underwear, my wife and I went to Europe on one-way tickets because I wanted to devote myself to writing. If you say you
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want to be a poet, people roll their eyes and ask how you are going to make money, how you going to live, etcetera. We told people we were “travelling” which was much more acceptable to them than “writing.” In a primitive chalet in Grindelwald, Switzerland I wrote the eight poems that helped me get the job here. When I got to Madison I set two days aside every week to write. And that meant that I was working 60-70 hour weeks because I was trying to develop the creative writing program, I was teaching for the first time, I had these administrative responsibilities, but every Thursday and Friday I would shut the door and write. And I did that as long as I could (making time for my family) and then one of those days disappeared and then the other day disappeared. Of course, University teachers have their summers, which are crucial; there are holidays, which are nice. One good thing about poetry writing is that you can sneak it in during little moments when you are supposed to be doing something else. Sometimes that is the best time to write. Sometimes big expanses of writing time can be intimidating for a poet. A decade ago I wrote a sonnet a day for a year, getting up at 5 o’clock in the morning and writing for two hours and finishing a sonnet no matter how good or bad it was. I did that also more recently for six months. Forcing myself to write every day was invigorating. It was also depleting, though, and after a year of doing that I didn’t write anything for months. Writing comes and goes but there has always been a point for me when I become anxious because I haven’t written something. That’s when I have to sit down and write no matter what else there is in the world going on. It just has to be a priority. MR: Do you imagine your writing would have been different for you if you had not been at this campus or even in this state? Ron W: Yes, absolutely. That was the best possible move I could have ever have made in my life. I was in St. Louis at the time selling underwear in the department store. I had just been offered a job in the rare book room of the Washington University library. If I had stayed there in the city my poetry would have been very different--if I had kept writing at all. A lot of my work has dealt with the Wisconsin countryside and a lot of it has been written at a country place that we own in Richland County--forty acres and a farmhouse with no indoor plumbing or central heat. My family grew up there with goats and chickens and a large garden. All of those things, which have been central to my writing, would not have been there in St. Louis. 52
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Could I have written about the city, would I have been a city poet? I don’t think so – I was never inspired by the city, even though I grew up there. Also, many writers today are teaching. The university is one place that values poetry, that values literary fiction. My colleagues at the department store where I was selling underwear didn’t. It was very hard to go home after an eight-hour day, and do anything else but watch T.V. and drink beer. But at the University I’ve had students who are exciting, who are energetic, who have pushed me to learn new things. I’ve had colleagues who value what I’m doing. And I’ve had time to write. MR: Are there any regrets you have about the creative writing program, or anything you didn’t get to do? Ron W: I don’t think so. With my retirement looming, I’ve had friends try to reassure me by noting that in retirement you can “do what you’ve always wanted to do.” But that’s what I’ve been doing for forty-three years—exactly what I always wanted to do. I didn’t win the Pulitzer Prize. But I did get to work with the best faculty, the best administration, the best students, the best donors, the best writers in the country. I’m proud of the program we built and I know that it is in good hands and will continue on to new heights. The community of writers here is incomparable, and I intend to remain as much a part of it as I can. MR: Building a community is a nice segue to talk about the beginning of The Madison Review as a program here. Ron W: When I got here in 1972 there was a good literary magazine that had just gone defunct called Modine Gunch. (Those were the days when magazines were supposed to have eccentric names). I figured we needed a new magazine, so we started Bloodroot, named for a Wisconsin wild flower. That magazine lasted for a couple of years. But then we found that there was another national magazine with the same name that was run by an unprofessional and amateur poetry group that was publishing pretty bad poetry. We didn’t want to be associated with that group, so we debated other names and decided on the solid (if somewhat uninspired) The Madison Review. At the same time, some graduate students started their own magazine called The Madison Review and for a couple of years we had two magazines on campus with the same name. When the graduate students left, their magazine collapsed, and the current magazine survived as one of the few (perhaps only) national magazines in the country edited solely by undergraduates. Jay Clayton was managing editor until he left for Vanderbilt, and 53
the madison review Ron Kuka has been managing editor ever since, with talent and devotion and energy, developing the magazine into the respected literary journal it is today.
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MR: What do you see as the future of creative writing? Ron W: When I started here in 1972 there were three graduate creative writing programs in the country and there were no really well-developed undergraduate programs. I would not have predicted that things would have grown as dramatically as they have. Today there are three hundred MFA programs, and many more undergraduate programs. There are an increasing number of post-MFA programs, and writers’ residencies, and conferences. The Association of Writers and Writing Programs has grown to the point that over 10,000 writers attended last year’s conference in Minneapolis. University presses and small presses and on-line magazines have expanded to publish more creative writing than ever before. So there are lots of opportunities for writers that didn’t used to exist. Back in the 1920s writers went off to Paris and formed the salons which were the predecessors of today’s creative writing workshops. If you weren’t able to fly to Paris and didn’t have the resources and the friends to get into those groups of writers you were left out in the cold. Creative writing has happily been democratized. More and more students have become involved in writing and publishing and I don’t see that changing. I doubt that there is much room for further expansion, but right now, as enrollment is decreasing in humanities in general and in English departments in particular, they are not decreasing in creative writing. Writing programs seem to be holding their own. I think that sort of outlet, that creative outlet for people, whether it is music or art or drama or creative writing, is going to continue to thrive, as it always has, since it is just such an important part of the human endeavor. Poetry, literary fiction, creative non-fiction, writing of all sorts, will continue. I don’t see young writers becoming any less interested in writing, from grade school on up through graduate school. My grandkids now are writing poetry and fiction and essays in and out of school. So I am optimistic about the future of writing. I think we are in a very good place.
Lisa Bellamy studies poetry with Philip Schultz at The Writers Studio, where she also teaches. Her chapbook,Nectar, won the Aurorean-Encircle Chapbook Prize. Her work has appeared in TriQuarterly, Massachusetts Review, New Ohio Review, Hotel Amerika, The Southampton Review, Cimarron Review, and Calyx, among other publications, and she won the Fugue Poetry Prize in 2008. She lives in Brooklyn, NY and the Adirondacks with her family. Josh Bettinger is a dad, poet, and editor. His work has appeared in, or is forthcoming from, journals in the United States, England, and Canada including Oxford Poetry, Salt Hill Journal, Western Humanities Review, Handsome Poetry, The Los Angeles Review, and Boston Review, among others. He lives in San Francisco with his wife and daughter. Mario Duarte lives in Iowa City, Iowa. He is an alumnus of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the University of New Hampshire. He has published poems in Slab, Steel Toe Review, and Passages North, among others, and short stories in Huizache, Oddville Press and Storyscape with another story forthcoming in aaduna. Tim Fitts lives and works in Philadelphia with his wife and two children. His short stories and photography have appeared in journals such as Granta online, The Gettysburg Review, The New England Review, Shenandoah, among others. Fitts serves on the editorial staff of the Painted Bride Quarterly and teaches in the Liberal Arts Department at the Curtis Institute of Music and Creative Writing at Penn State Brandywine. “Home Fries” is part of a series of linked stories set in Gainesville, Florida, early 1990s. Fitts’ short story, “Sand on Sand Yellow” is currently available on Amazon.com as a story single for Kindle. R.E. Hayes is a former Marine, retired labor lawyer living west of Chicago, and the author of two novels. His short fiction has appeared in Evening Street Review and Crab Orchard Review. Other works have been anthologized in Daring to Repair (Wising Up Press) and in Law and Disor-
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der (Main Street Rag Press.) One story dear to his heart appeared online in the Huffington Post. Matthew Wade Jordan lives in Atlanta, where he manages programs that help deliver clean energy technologies to people in the developing world. He’s working (very, very slowly) on a novel. Chelsea Kerwin recently earned her MFA from Bowling Green State University, where she won two consecutive Devine Fellowships. She currently lives in Birmingham, Alabama, and works as a resume writer and amateur dog-walker as well as a volunteer teacher for the Desert Island Supply Co. She has been published in Hobart, Tulane Review, and Euphony Journal. Hannah Marshall lives in Madison, Wisconsin. When she’s not writing, she enjoys cooking in her small apartment kitchen and reading to her daughter. Her poetry has appeared in a number of journals, including the Anglican Theological Review, Wisconsin Review, Rock & Sling, The Phoenix Soul, and Minerva Rising (forthcoming).
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he was the recipient of the Michigan Author of the Year Award from the Michigan Library Association. He is emeritus professor of English and Creative Writing, Northern Michigan University. Brian Thue is a recent December 2015 graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He fulfilled the course requirements of a Bachelor of Science degree in Art with a Graphic Design focus and also received a Bachelor of Business Administration degree in Marketing from the Wisconsin School of Business. Brian believes in the power of art, design, branding, and beauty, not just as imaginative expressions of identity, but as total experiences that can connect people, inspire optimism in those that encounter them, and drive business growth. Working toward a marketing degree in addition to pursuing his primary passions for art and design taught him to understand the intended consumers of art and designs, and what needs to be communicated. Brian plans to be employed as an Art Director or Graphic Designer in the creative department of an advertising agency in 2016. To see more of his work, please visit: www.brianthue.com
Julian Randall is a Living Black poet from Chicago. A two time national college slam competitor, he traveled to the 2015 National College Slam (CUPSI) earning the title of Best Poet. He currently works as a teaching artist with the Philly Youth Poetry Movement. His work has appeared in Winter Tangerine Review, The Killens Review, and Pluck! A Journal of Affrilachian Arts & Culture. Suzanne Richter received her MFA from Fairleigh Dickinson University where she studied with Kathleen Graber, David Daniel, and Renee Ashley. Suzanne’s poems have appeared in Orion Magazine, Oberon poetry journal, and on Nashville public transit. She currently lives in Middle Tennessee with a very lively cairn terrier. John Smolens has published ten works of fiction, most recently Wolf’s Mouth. His work has appeared in publications such as The Massachusetts Review, The Virginia Quarterly Review, Columbia Journal of Literature and Art, The North American Review, The Southern Review, and The Washington Post. In 2010, 56
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THE FRIENDS OF THE UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN-MADISON LIBRARIES The Friends honor The Madison Review for its four-decade support of literacy in America, and for the creativity of its undergraduate staff of organizers and editors. The Friends of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries, founded in 1947, is one of the oldest library freinds groups in the U.S. The Friends are dedicated to the enrichment and enhancement of the UW-Madison campus libraries. The Friends activities include • A huge semiannual book sale each spring and fall • Fundraising to support library resources and preservation activies • Grants to campus libraries for special purchases • Supporting the annual Libraries Magazine, biannual newsletters, and other publications • Grants-in-aid to visiting international scholars to use the great resources of the campus libraries • Support for School of Library and Information Studies students
is now accepting
so they can attend national workshops • Supporting students who contribute to, edit, and produce ILLUMINATION: The Undergraduate Journal of the Humanities
Fiction | Graphic Fiction Poetry | Non-Fiction
• Supporting student-led poetry events through readings during the year •Bringing speakers and lecturers to campus The friends of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries would welcome your membership.
visit http://english.wisc.edu/devilslake/submit.html to submit
For more information, please visit the Friends website at www.library.wisc.edu/friends or contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org, 608-265-2505
The Madison Review is an independent literary arts journal published through the University of Wisconsin-Madison.