7 Days, 7 Artists, 7 Rings, is a living, responsive work of art created by Rebecca Campbell and Nicole Walker. Each week the painter and poet, respectively, alternate kicking off the current week’s collaborative artist project. Painters and poets, photographers and essayists, musicians and story writers will collaborate to create ongoing, live-made art. The responses will come daily, with artists having only twenty-four hours to respond to each others’ work. Click here to learn more about this project, the creators and participating artists.
Painter Rebecca Campbell Responds to Huffington Post Headline, “Wake Them When It’s Over” by Jason Linkins
Rebecca Campbell, Wake Them When It’s Over, 2010, oil on panel, 10″ x 10″
This is not a poem
I am not supposed to tell her there is anything wrong.
Perhaps I can distract her from the larger picture. There is no war
but I admit to her there is dust and sand.
I can’t explain the gun but perhaps I can explain the way
metal ripples like bed sheets. It is not beautiful but cylinder
plus sheen equals energy. You can’t ignore kinesis. The ship powers
forth. The plane flies over. The helicopter turns. They all have
to land somewhere. Who am I to complain about physical
forces? I brought this iron ore on myself. I believed in hard
and impermeable just like I believed in birth control and garage
door openers. There are some things about this present I cannot give up.
And there are others: Brain pan. Heart Valve. Brass Knuckle.
Look at the rivulets, the whorls, the shared characteristics.
Qualities that suggest good and intention. See all the work
they can do: Spin, smooth, train, direct. What you admire in metal
you can admire in the human. It is solid. It can bend.
That should not, necessarily, make us nervous, but
I have crawled into her bed and slept next to her before.
I can pretend I was protecting her but you can see
in the morning whose small hand wraps around whose.
Nancy Reddin Kienholz, Rebecca’s Dream, 2010, Mixed Media
Nancy Reddin Kienholz, Rebecca’s Dream (detail,) 2010, Mixed Media
Wisconsin Death Trip
Death Trip in this, something Exploding
Plastic Inevitable, something Weather
Diaries. Zapruder something, Michelangelo
something–the hands, unfinished, like his
slaves. Remember Cindy Sherman? At first
she looked scared, then it all turned
scary. Or Nan Goldin & her black eye, now
forever? If I listen to the playlist called NOISE on
my Ipod it will take 1.7 days–this
I can know. Tonight, between the guacamole
& the pork belly, our two year old threw her naked
body against the yoga ball, again &
again, each time with a burst of maniacal
laughter. It’s still taller than she is. She’ll grow up to be
Buster Keaton, Bowe said. They
threw him against the wall, Bill said, his parents,
night after night. Vaudeville people. The Flying
Keaton’s or something, Adam said. Keaton was
given the name Buster by Houdini, Adam
said. His real name was Chester, his real
name was Carlos, his real name was
Carleton, by then I wasn’t really
listening, by then I was doing the dishes, thinking
about the flowers Lili brought, wrapped in
newspaper, the headline about serial
killers. I was thinking about the first human
being to be photographed, getting his boots shined
on a Paris street, his leg is all that we see, the rest,
like everyone else on the street in those few
moment the shutter was open–every horse-drawn
carriage, every passerby–the light finding its way
onto the emulsion, everyone but this man’s leg
is less than a blur, less than a trace. Shine on
you crazy diamond dog day afternoon
delight. I rinse each plate before putting it into
the machine–maybe this is a waste. I saw
a bronze nameplate once, nailed at eye-level
–POPLAR–the tree swallowing it
whole. I thought of the disaster, of the live
feed–does it prove the plume is now several
plumes, is that what I heard? Or that no one
can find the oil, that it has all simply
vanished? The weeks we watched, through sheen
& top kill–for all we know
they simply moved the camera, for all we
know the earth simply swallowed it. I don’t care
what they say–Michelangelo’s Slaves
are the best thing he ever did. Only a fool calls them
Kenichi Hoshine, Untitled, 2010, Charcoal, Acrylic, Wax on Wood, 8″x10″
All of a Sudden You Reached that Age
All of a sudden you reached that age. On the other side of which lies The End. When everything is deja vu instead of deja new. When the perfect murder is an entertaining fantasy involving yourself as victim instead of somebody else. That age.
You could hike up a mountain, you could carry a bottle of too many pills, you could crawl into a cave, you could go to sleep.
Asleep, you might dream, exigencies and emergencies, everything exhausting.
If the children were young…
If it all hadn’t already been done…
You should have named the dog Ironical. Because it’s he who’d rescue you. Faithful companion, alibi, witness, optimist. Whose perpetual forgetting is his gift: Hello! Hello! Hello! Better to be brain-damaged, his grinning face proclaims. Hike! Hike! Hike!
So here you go again. Facing the funny fact that making coffee requires having already ingested coffee. That you need your glasses to find your glasses. Need the pills to feel like taking the pills. And need the scissors to open the container containing the scissors.
Kristin Calabrese, My Only Regret, 2010, oil and acrylic on canvas, 16 x 20 inches
The Physics of It
It was an accident. Who wears wooden shoes to a banquet? I was being as careful as I could be, carrying my plate of fried chicken, which really only counts as banquet food if the cooks forego the mashed potatoes and try to spice up the menu with something contrarian, but there wasn’t anything I wanted nearly as much as mashed potatoes. Well, maybe something. Mashed potatoes are the quintessential comfort food and yet sometimes you want something more than comfort–sometimes you want the powers of an eel, the ability to simultaneously electrify and to slip. Sometimes you want the swimmers to knowingly stay out of the water. Just for you. Sometimes you want the landscape dotted with potential blues and yellows so energetic that the water positively swims with you. So, without mashed potatoes and with, instead, the rather viscous macaroni and cheese I did let my plate fall to the ground in the spot right behind me and right before you and had you not been wearing those shoes, if you had not been there before, if it hadn’t been you, needing to make that loud sound, if you hadn’t simultaneously required and been given the attention of the banqueteers and, simultaneously, the attention of the chefs, then you would have noticed the mac and cheese swirling on the floor beneath you. All the greasy electrons pulling your protons down. It should have been your feet that hurt. Your ankle. Your loud noise. You were wooden. I should have taken comfort in the percussion but instead I sank and sank and sank. If I were carpenter and if I were, simultaneously, a ladder, I would have found my own saw teeth biting in my ankles. For every rung, I shrank. Took myself down a notch.
Rebecca Campbell, The Landscape Positively Swims With You, 2010, Mixed Media, 3″ x 5″
Rebecca Campbell, The Physics of It, 2010, Mixed Media, 3″ x 5″
Rebecca Campbell, Took Myself Down a Notch, 2010, Mixed Media, 3″ x 5″
A: The strange thing about the portraits was that sometimes from within the display case during my rounds as the night guardian (a part time job), I could hear them singing to one another.
A: It was noise if you weren’t listening carefully enough, but the kind of noise you find in the woods behind a farmhouse– the noise of hooves stomping a cowbell into a bed of dry leaves. Who knew so much genre could come from sticks and air!
A: Your guess is good as mine. It may have only been the courthouse basement (where we kept our town’s old photos and whatnots) was haunted by a tambourine player and fiddler circa Whitman on the battlefield, a brother and sister name of Quincy and Adelaide something or other.
A: Looking at them, there was no way of knowing whether they meant their expressions to be ironic or allegorical. (I could tell she had this really black freshly mowed mustache and lovely white eyes.)
A: I don’t think they were twins, but I’ll concede, you can do anything with make-up and lighting, and I don’t even know for sure that their tune was called “Quixotic Abolitions.” Where’d you hear that?
A: They had no children, but the woman couldn’t have had her tubes tied. It was against her godship and moreover it was the Reconstruction era!
A: I wouldn’t say that– I’ve got manners. He had no chickens and even less knowledge of you and me waiting down the road. His head was asymmetrical, his laughter made a strange pennies-in-a-tin sound when it came from his body, but no, no…
A: There’s nothing written about the town’s runners-up and third stringers: Mr. and Mrs. Beauford Wood who witnessed two, three dozen lynchings between them; Isaiah Davies, the thrice married banker who supposedly owned one of Abraham Lincoln’s handkerchiefs; the boot wearing widow, Martha Herman; Mr. and Mrs. Knot who being some manner of immigrant with no concept of the silent K announced themselves as Kinnot–but that’s why I’m giving them a shout out here. You should look into their stories.
A: He ain’t in the photos I’ve seen, but yes, there was a field-hand with enough muscle to muscle the land. I’m willing to bet he was blacker than you and me. Once or twice the postman saw him down on his hands and knees in the field, not like someone praying or weeping but someone waiting to be transformed back into a beast. Word was, he snapped and tied the couple up in the barn. (Could be fieldwork inspired in him an inkling of revolutionary violence.)
A: No, I wouldn’t say that. You seem to wrongly think that I think of him as the wrongdoer in this moral calculus.
A: That’s my point.
A: Who knows, who knows. The future came dragging a blue carpetbag up the long dusty road. In time the night would be pregnant with stars and I would be back to working the earth. Anyway, you can see how what happened to them could be made easily into a song…
Tomory Dodge, Appomattox, 2010, collage and watercolor on paper, 8×10 inches
App ro x i m ate
In the distance, Mason, receding in the distance, trailing the chain, a straight line vectored into a vanishing point on the beam of the horizon.*
The blue of the Blue Ridge Mountains looks like
At the courthouse, no one could produce a pen.
All maps distort, are distortions, distortional.
HEINRICH SCHLIEMANN, the discoverer of ancient Troy, made the fortune he used to discover ancient Troy selling indigo dye to the Union army.
The high-tension power lines transmitting electricity parallel the parabolic curvature of the Shenandoah River watershed.
Escape velocity can be imagined as
The blue of the Blue Ridge dissipates in the gray rain as if
Before entering the courthouse, Grant stops to lick his thumb to then wipe away a splatter of red clay mud on his right boot only to find the mud to be a fleck of blood.
The panting steam engine working a grade in the valley sends up a code of smoke, a meditation in clouds…
The last case heard here was a property dispute that remains unresolved.
The Blue Ridge Mountains etch a pattern like ________________ against the gray sky.
A forgotten observation balloon tethered to a caisson is left to rot in a field of red clover in bloom.
Dixon draws an X in his notebook, erases it, and moves it to the right an inch, in scale, solid soiled in smudges.
The North named battles after the nearest river while the South named battles for the nearest place, the illusion that they never occupied the same space at the same time.
The sound wave a train produces steaming up the Shenandoah Valley warbles as it approaches.
In the distance, the Blue Ridge dissolves in the soaked summer air.
A moth has gotten to the General’s gray sleeve, unraveling a hole.
My son, a baby then, picks up a slice of an apple left on Traveler’s grave by a visiting Son of the Confederacy and attempts to eat it.
Zeno’s paradox suggests a bullet cannot transverse a distance like this sentence can nev
An aide de camp collects the tears of his general in an empty blue bottle he found left in a drawer.
The surveyor for Walmart® stakes the parking lot perimeter with splintered sticks tipped with red flags.
Early studies of artillery contemplated the physics of projectiles and the force of gravity working upon it forward velocity like
An artist re-enacts the saturation of canvas with water in order to create that cloudy brooding quality, in order that the fabric not take paint.
* Dixon draws an “X” in his notebook, erases it, and makes it again inches to the right-solid, soiled smudge.
Iva Gueorguieva, Is it ever over, 2010, mixed media and collage on paper, 37″ x 53″
Iva Gueorguieva, Is it ever over (detail,) 2010, mixed media and collage on paper, 37″ x 53″
The thing about the body is that it operates much like a telephone and can therefore be answered when it jingles, ring-ring reverberant breasts! It can be ignored, the head cradled, line dead as Latin. It can certainly be used to cadge money. If you raise the red flag, it can be mailed home, with or without the proper attire. And if the flesh is plentiful, as it is in some parts of the world, as it is in certain months, in certain climates, it can be colonized easy as any moon. It can even be boarded up to guard against threat, the coming hurricane, the border skirmish advancing toward life and limb, though there’s no guarantee a body will remain standing after the lashing subsides. Sometimes the body, practical joker, wry exhibitionist, will send its most private parts to the store for milk and then return unnourished.
Brains in particular are not to be trusted. There once was a little girl who trusted everyone, biologically, her brain bamboozling her into believing here, here’s a nice war profiteer, quietly prodding the brewing fury around him like wayward cattle; here’s a kindly growling cur, shiny yellow teeth so prettily bared; here’s a poignant cardiologist who cannot make her mortgage, so ready with those urgent and spendy diagnoses, hearts afail all around her. The girl loved the world feet-first and arms wide, kissed on their curling moustaches all the villains she could find, gave any passing chiseler her heart. The girl eventually caught fire, as trusting girls are wont to do, which made the nearby alley cats cry out in sympathy. Muah, muah! sang the cats when the girl’s pinafore suddenly combusted. The crackling sound reminded them of mice nibbling electrical cable and though the yowling toms were distressed for the girl, they were also gripped by a powerful longing.
When the fire died down and the girl began to smolder, she felt as warmly about scheming, ill-meaning confidence men as she did about the itinerant gerbil she kept in a round plastic ball at home, that is as warmly as she ever had. And as the smoke rose from her stockings, she developed a particular tenderness for that hoax the robot, with its rusting rivets and high-pitched locomotion. She did not scorn the uncanny masquerade of the most plausible knock-off, the reproduction that blink-blinked when she blinked, sneezed when she sneezed, wept tears of the same salt, whose heart could be seen faintly pulsing the silvery skin of its sternum. No, in that uncanny valley where most bipedal creatures begin to feel revulsion, in that place where those robots cross the line and dare to resemble humans in all their corruptible, imperfectible flesh, this little girl felt nothing but love, the kind of love you find at the mouth of a cave, gaping, dark, enveloping, strewn with bats and stalactites, a love you’d have to spelunk to find your way out of. And this was all the trust this particularly believable robot required in order to pilfer the little girl’s persuasive skin and leave her with only her charred bones to warm her. But even this did not dull the girl’s fierce devotion to her stalwart heart, heart of her brain’s making. She loved and loved even as she shivered. Such trust left the robot, devious only by avocation, without a replicated leg to stand on, and it was not long before the robot itself, snugly huddled inside the pelt of the little girl, began to embrace the world and all its charlatans and could not distinguish its own deceptions from those of the little girl it longed to be.
Rebecca Campbell, Girl Wanted, , 2010, Photo Collage,12″ x 8″
My friend Craig
once wrote a poem
about hermit crabs. Hermit crabs,
he argued, are travelers, making home
in someone else’s leftovers.
How lonely their moving.
How smooth their tomb.
How fragile the flesh
The crabs want shells like girls
with openings broken as cage
doors, as fragile
as ribs, ones they can interpret
anything as a possible welcome.
What is it like to fight the sea
and the sand for a little bit of real
estate? Renters forever on slick beach
front property. It’s hard enough to walk across
foot-sinking shoreline. But try following a trail
over green ferns onto leaves whose sharp,
periwinkle edges only appear
to be attached to anything earthbound and solid.
We like to pretend our bodies are our own
but then the world keeps reminding us
in each edge of flick of cartilage,
through each calcium carbonate crash,
that the grass feels compelled
to stake a claim in us, that pink skin
is rubbed red with a rock scrape. The world
shares our body, making it of use, making its
home in the folds of skin and crevices.
Who knew a weird little bug,
little pink writhing naked thing,
would signal our salvation
saying move after move–
Our bodies. They come back.
Don Bachardy, Untitled (For Rebecca and Nicole,) 2010, Acrylic on Paper, Aprox. 24″ x 36″
Self Portrait painted over earlier painting.
Don Bachardy, Untitled (For Rebecca and Nicole,) 2010, Acrylic on Paper, Aprox. 24″ x 36″
Self Portrait painted over earlier painting.
Don Bachardy, Untitled (For Rebecca and Nicole,) 2010, Acrylic on Paper, Aprox. 24″ x 36″
Self Portrait painted over earlier painting.
Once I had a cat who studied himself
in the mirror. He didn’t know
what it was in there staring back at him
but he couldn’t stop looking
because the face never turned away
and eyes meeting eyes
want more seeing. It’s already dark.
No moonlight. No whippoorwill–
the bird that tormented my childhood
refusing to take on the night
without incessant song. That bird
must have been the size of a fire hydrant,
something alarming anyway, I thought then,
but learned later it was just a pip
of feathered life with a voice
insistent as the news, that continuity
of disaster and argument to which
we all belong–bomb in recruiting office,
stoning in public square, crude oil
in everyone’s hair, to mosque or not
to mosque. Don’t turn away. It’s just
the brute world that will outlive us,
the lean hard muscle of it
flexing. But the birds
don’t belong, they are settling
into the night, their feathered quilts
ready-made. Some of them
are rising out of their bodies, whole
categories of bodies, and into
the being of non-being where of course
we’re all headed after a few more parties
and fixations of eyes upon eyes. But first
who doesn’t want to make something
of it, the clutch of childhood’s
solitary rages and the way the face
begins to cave in on itself with age
so that it looks like an Arizona landscape,
all contour and defile, telling the outcome
of its story to everyone, leaving out
a few details, so that a person might stare at
himself and say, Don’t I know you from
somewhere? You look so familiar and yet . . .
Kimberly Brooks, Chains for Alison, 2010, gouche on paper, 9″ x 12″
Poet and Nonfiction Writer Steve Fellner responds to Kimberly Brooks’ painting.
Three Blocks from the Mosque
The protesters liked to watch TV even though it always made them angry.
There were the social agitators pushing away at the edges until borders and boundaries were meaningless. Life and death; chastity and lust; this country and the next. The pro-choice activists. The militant homosexuals. Illegal immigrants. Then there were the pelicans that got some oil on their fine feathers. The protesters liked birds as much as anyone else. They would define themselves as pro-birds. Birds were good things. Their kids seemed to like them. They flew in the air quite nicely. But still. They were birds, after all.
No point in getting themselves worked up about those things. Not today anyway. They already knew what they were protesting today: the mosque to be built three blocks from the site. The holy site. The site where it all had happened. Three blocks. The protesters could remember back in the day when the foreigners understood what the word foreigner meant. It meant: away from. It meant: I will keep my distance. It meant: I know you may come to realize I’m a good person as long as I don’t step foot on your land. Somehow over the years the foreigners lost a sense of who they are.
Three blocks. No way now would the protesters come to realize the foreigners were good people. They blew their chance.
Three blocks. A lot can happen in three blocks. The protesters knew that. That’s what got them off the couch and into the streets. That’s why after all these years they finally got cable. They didn’t want to miss their favorite shows: re-runs of I Love Lucy and CNN.
Three blocks. So much could happen in three blocks. One of the protester’s teenage boy went astray and helped robbed some liquor store. The police nabbed him after he ran three blocks. Some other protester had a heart attack while out jogging.   ; No one was around. For three blocks he crawled on the ground until a car stopped and helped him out. Some time ago a monsoon had swept down during a parade, and everyone was so sad. The floats drifted only three blocks before everything fell apart. It was like the whole world was contained in three blocks.
And maybe it was. Maybe the earth was flat. Then again, maybe it wasn’t. Did it matter? What mattered was that it felt like the world was three blocks long. On a flat, dull surface. Ornamented with homosexuals, badly-dressed activists, and self-pitying birds.
You had to move the mosque. There was no choice. The mosque was an endpoint. An endpoint is a limitation. The world shouldn’t be limited to a mere three blocks. It needed to go on and on and on. It needed to stretch out far enough to circle back on itself, so the world was round and ready, ready and open to be cut and measured for appropriate boundaries.
Lia Halloran, A Militant Homosexual, Self Portrait age 10 (after David Wojnarowicz, One Day This Kid…), 2010, ink on drafting film,17″ x 14″
Lia Halloran, A Militant Homosexual, Self Portrait age 10 (after David Wojnarowicz, One Day This Kid…) detail, 2010, ink on drafting film, 17″ x 14″
My daughter Zoe starts Kindergarten tomorrow. They’re going to read Brown Bear Brown Bear What Do You See? I told her to let some of the other kids try to figure out the words. She can’t read yet but she’s memorized the words to Eric Carle’s book. I can just see her in the sing song voice “I see a golden fish looking at me” before the teacher even turns the page. I ask her to wait a minute while the other kids sound out fish. Not everyone knows the letter f makes an f sound. Let everyone have a turn. I like to think that I can mete out justice from here, my house two miles away. I like to think that if she is on the playground and asks if she can play hopscotch and the other kids say no that she will just go play with someone else rather than stand off the side, staring at the girls trying to plumb their meanness, trying to comprehend just how much space and time she takes up, how much she should ask for and how much she deserves.
There’s a reason the world is shrinking. All the mothers in the land thinking, my kid tossed the hoppy taw on the number 7. My kid owns the number 7, say the mothers. She can hop all over this sidewalk chalk. Move off, move off other girls, is what the mothers say. My girl needs whatever she gets as she hops, hobbled, over the numbers one through 6, then again onto 8, 9, 10.
It appears there is not enough room on the hopscotch for everyone. The asphalt tips sideways, laden with all the mother-heavy little girls. The playground bulges like a tsunami. The floods wash over them. The water turns septic. The fields have eroded and there’s nothing to eat except the extra-evident way the playground girls turn and toss and jump like they’re the only girls in all the world.
Joe Biel, Playground, 2010, Graphite on Paper, 11″ x 8.5″
Joe Biel, Playground (detail,) 2010, Graphite on Paper, 11″ x 8.5″
The ball is still, the boy is sleeping and I don’t see TIME at first because I’m swimming toward the horizon with the swallows dipping their little scissors to the surface but then I round the DANGER buoy and as I turn toward the shore there’s TIME painted on the pier below the broken steel cables, big swelling letters blue as the Virgin of the Rocks restored, “freed from an amber prison” as they say, the finest graffiti on all of Eastlake, outer city bricks wrapped around it in late peaching light with only TIME illuminated and I think yes, time, because this time last summer I couldn’t make it to the DANGER buoy, all my swim was sapped by labor, days of stroking toward the horizon in my own liquid until the lake of the light princess who lost her gravity was drained and the nurses were sandbagging as the baby floated by screaming while I closed my eyes underwater and didn’t see any of it until a month later when I found a pool of black blood in my belly button, which is why I’m smiling at TIME, thinking yes time, restored, but TIME is a wry blue now, blue of the eyelids on that girl at the register in Ace hardware, and I’m up with the men on the pier casting a line back to my first time in this lake, one bright noon bubble before the baby, but I don’t have the power to reel it in and I’m not about to shout take off my boots, take off my coat, like that drunk this cold spring, climbing over the steel cables and running out onto the ice shelf in his socks yelling stay the fuck out of my way, guiding his line to shore and falling on his huge fish, hugging it shirtless in the snow until it was dying on his line because in some timeless amount of time I’ll swim out here again when letters to the alderman, who doesn’t fix the broken steel cables that may sometime fail to contain my boy and his ball, have painted over TIME with parks department brown and I’ll tread water out by the DANGER buoy in the last light, wishing time free of its amber prison.
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Detail of Los Angeles in which the Bandleader Does Not Appear
In the painting one angel got left out
In the name of John the Baptist
and a few more rocks. When you’re
On the road there’s one less angel
In this city. I lay by the pool
And watched the plane
Fly overhead, my hand reached
Up and it seemed I almost touched
The belly of the thing.
Jasper said, “You’re in love”
And I thought of the day we found
The house in the canyon
How we didn’t think it suited us
Until we walked to the balcony
And I could see Catalina. Oh
White walls, wood floors, coyote
in the car port. Jasper brought
every sweet boy home.
I’d wake and find them sleeping
Naked by the pool. There were parties
That went on for days. A man in a white
Shirt read “The Lotus Eaters” aloud.
A woman placed her hand on my thigh
And said, “Where are you from?”
Pasadena. Land of my father, land
Of the rocket builder and crisp pressed
Shirts. The woman said, “Yes. But where
Are you from?” I took her upstairs,
Watched as her clothes came off
And she sank to her knees. I looked
Out the window at the bandleader’s house
A canyon away. There’s a blue in the painting
That the monks asked for specially,
“Ultramarine” The girl said, “What
do you like?” I liked hearing the music stop
and going there. I liked sending the tailor
and the tiger away. All those girls
walking down the hill toward Sunset
and some other band. I liked
the sun coming in and warming the blue
sheets. I liked leaving before the bandleader
woke. How I’d pick a grapefruit from the tree
and eat it as I made my way home.
Rebecca Campbell, Yes. But Where Are You From?, 2010, Globe and Copper Bees, 18″ x 16″
Rebecca Campbell, Yes. But Where Are You From? (detail,) 2010, Globe and Copper Bees, 18″ x 16″
Rebecca Campbell, Yes. But Where Are You From? (detail,) 2010, Globe and Copper Bees, 18″ x 16″
Rebecca Campbell, Yes. But Where Are You From? (detail,) 2010, Globe and Copper Bees, 18″ x 16″
Rebecca Campbell, Yes. But Where Are You From? (detail,) 2010, Globe and Copper Bees, 18″ x 16″
Blue wanted to be spun. The blue swam and flew and she watched. The way pink kept itself separate from orange and how the blue wrapped around everything. The blue needed to surround and it all spun, a whirlwind that fit neatly together, the way when the teacher reached continents down from the sky, every state stayed in its place. She loved how Iowa spun green, and out the classroom window, the corn fields, green, reaching as far as she could see and then, when she sped by in the car, even farther. The map portrayed truth: Iowa was green. The corn, the soybeans, the fields of clover where she spun, round and round in her pink dress, Easter, the world smelling of lilacs, she ran, barefoot, through the park, the bee sting a surprise, like a cloud passing between the Earth and the sun. She sobbed, though she tasted honey on her tongue when her mother explained and she felt remorse momentarily, then anger. Not everything was the way it appeared, the flower concealed a sting, the rose held out its thorn like a warning. The Earth, it turned out, wasn’t exactly round and the way Greenland looked, up near the North Pole, wasn’t correct. Greenland wasn’t green, but instead covered in ice. Swept clean, the way snow concealed the corn in winter. White.
Doug Harvey, Homespun 1, 2010, Acrylic on Paper, 18″ x 18″
The blossoming rushes away from the center of the dream
as bullfrogs rush away, as dragonflies rush away, as certain flora recoil when they don’t want a touch from you. One always missing; count your chickens: the reverberations of that motion will be infinite. The banana tree knows when to stop, when to hold: see now: a new blossom for you. Something in the backdrop wavering that ought not to be. Salamander loves once then moves on; starlight on the pond loves once then moves on; even paper boat, bottom so heavy with tugging, loves once and it too moves on. The dowager consoles: he hasn’t left you, really left you, he’s just on a crash course with. It doesn’t quite matter right now too much what it is: interior too heavy; interior all an anchor; interior still sunk way down in the pond and cannot. Do you know the way a moon moves on? It’s not orbiting a planet; but rather it’s spiraling away and one day, when it can spiral outward no more, it will start spiraling inward until it bursts. Old lotus bloom so sick of withholding. Old stormclouds, so sick of withholding, burst and disperse and move on. Monk’s mouth so sick of withholding. Waning moon so sick too of all of that withholding, loves once, and moves on. All lost things reverberating towards infinity; they too move on. Blue butterfly mates once and moves on, old turtle gets so lazy with moving and moves on. A sudden emptiness there now in the old turtle hole at the pond’s lip where so many turtles have. Moved on. Something beckoning from the underside that ought not to be. The old monk saying there will be too many days of rain. The ants begin to move their homes out from the underground–sand by grain of sand–a littering now of antmounds. Moonflowers pucker rather than see the light of day.
Alexandra Grant, reborn, 2010, mixed media on paper, 8 3/8″ x 10 7/8″
“ytrof ta nrobeR”*
In the dream   I am in a car
a rearview mirror stretches
its long arms the length
of the windshield blocking
the world before me in fact
I can see only the mirror not
the road ahead nor its future so
my foot remains in the well un-
moved & leaden &
my eyes glue to the mirror’s
shiny endeavors: what I’ve left
booms behind me
a panorama a cacophony of
blinking eyes & color & calls cities
warring elbowing each other
the rowdy bad actors buildings fall are
pushed from the mirror’s edge
sometimes an ocean drifts by or
the Detroit River or a turtle
stands & pulls out his lectern
sometimes faces emerge
from the bright jibing colors: a
former lover with his crooked cock
my mother who is dead holding
the leash of my dog who is dead
smiling both of them sadly
as if what I am not
as if I am not doing something
did not &;nbsp; do enough right. Both
the dog & my mother hold out
their furry hands. In the mirror
I can see a man’s voice as
the aurora borealis his light
brightening the whole scene:
cities where I lived the purple village
in upstate New York the very
white town I occupy the
moment of an understanding: My father
loved me. My father loved me
so much & his light is lovely & travels.
But in the dream I know I am stuck.
My back is hot from the color’s
heat & raucous pinching along
my spine my loves rubbing
their warm hands on my backbone
these parents I was given
that lover with his crooked
hot cock & it is all so beautiful
that my foot my foot fears
its own power. In the dream I know
I am dreaming– everything
but love is right-though-backwards.
& what I fear? No. There is no
body are no bodies to again
abandon me. There isn’t
anything to do to make the reds
yellows. In the dream
I understand suddenly
that it is imperative I move
that everything useful back there
my body’s wisest synapse & thew has
already fully taken in that
I need a new paradigm:
to wake or perhaps
turn from the glare.
It Is Always
It is always the drywall that is the first to go.
After the bomb, it becomes apparent that we
should have stuck with lathe and plaster.
The old houses, although cracked and open as cactus,
stand. Those Ivory Homes, stucco’d and Sheetrocked,
crumble like overheated glaciers. The film memorizes only
cannibals and once-mediocre-now-broken IKEA furniture.
The cut and build of the zero years swallowed up by the next year.
But it’s always the apocalypse around here. Just today,
I lost my sunglasses. I can’t find the note my father
left me. The tomatoes dying in the garden. The store-bought
tomato rotting on the counter. The baby throwing up
in my eye. The grass is too long for the neighbors
and too short to harvest for seed. The toast
browning in the pan burns when all I do is look away
for one second at the coming cloud of locusts.
We are always running out of butter. We are completely out
of maple syrup. We have no Panko breadcrumbs
and I’m too tired to go to the store. I lie on the floor
and look at the ceiling. There are cracks in the drywall.
A sign of a faulty foundation. No wonder the script reads
fade to black. No wonder I’m always hungry.
The apocalypse is always a series of domestic complaints,
made more serious by dust and guns. I plan ahead, bury
a leftover pizza in the backyard under the dying tomatoes
and half-assed grass which I realize is as practical as eating
your own foot and as tasty and nutritious as gypsum.
is all there is–
(two where there might have been
which is equal to none)
and poison, too–
into and along
the spectacular fact
in that crack
in the mirror
where I will bury you
(though it is not a mirror
and was never a mirror)
To see how long a mouse might live without sleep, they put one on a treadmill constantly moving toward water. The mouse learned to go to the top of the treadmill and sleep for the fraction of time it took to be carried back down. Nearing the water, it would wake and climb back to the top, where it would fall asleep again for that same fraction of time. A rhythm was established. The mouse grew tired enough to live.
We’ll begin with the Big Dipper, which is actually not a constellation at all, but an asterism: a highly recognizable part of a larger constellation, in this case Ursa Major. Now follow the handle of the dipper and “arc” to Arcturus, which is the brightest star you’ll see tonight. Arcturus is the base of the kite-shaped herdsman Boötes, and it’s moving so fast that the herdsman has stretched twice as tall as he was 2,000 years ago when Ptolemy first named him. Half a million years from now, Arcturus will no longer be visible and Boötes will have become obsolete. The idea of a constellation may seem permanent, but almost all are changing shape, comprised of stars both coming and going, igniting and dying. And anyway, people have freely revised the heavens for centuries. At the moment there are 88 officially recognized constellations, and scores of antiquated ones. For example: Ptolemy’s Argo Navus, a 50-oared galley so massive that a later astronomer saw better to split it into four parts: compass, sails, keel, and poop deck. In the 17th century, a German astronomer tried making the sky Biblical, replacing the zodiac signs with the 12 apostles. In those days, one might have named a new constellation after a king or ruler in hopes of landing oneself in royal good graces. “Official” constellations are really only a matter of taste.
Moving from Arcturus toward the horizon, you’ll see a pair of middle-aged yellow stars. Above and between them, you’ll locate a smaller blue star, young and hot. Together the three form a narrow isosceles triangle. They are a family of wanderers, the two larger stars sleeping in the same bed, and the younger star just across the attic, slumbering beneath a mosquito net. On an especially clear night you will see smaller objects related to the young star: a fleece monkey, an Italian cloth doll, a lifelike snowy owl. The story goes that the mother chose this configuration so she could sleep reassured of her child’s breaths, and so that she could in fact see her child without arising from her bed. It is said that she insisted on such proximity after the unsettling change in motion she felt one pregnant day when she realized that her yet-unborn child would eventually grow old and die.
All stars die, of course. It’s really only fondness and timing that makes this painful. I mentioned that most constellations will morph, crumple or dilate as time passes. But an exception is our familiar Ursa Major, a “moving group” of stars of uniform age and heritage, traveling together in the same direction at about the same speed. It’s a special constellation–or a tragic one, depending on how you see it–because these stars will remain quite close for a very long time, and then flame out all together.
Please don’t hit us. Ms. LeForge says you might hit us in twenty or thirty years. She also warned us about chlamydia. I checked it out on the Web and she was right: that doesn’t look like fun. She got in trouble for talking about it. Becky Thompson’s mom wanted her fired. She got a bunch of her helmet-hair friends to walk in front of school with signs like, YES TO JESUS, NO TO SEX. Becky Thompson already had her period. My dog Diego likes to eat my mom’s used Tampons. Sometimes I think about that when he licks my face. Becky has tits like footballs. My mom says, don’t say tits, say breasts. I say tits but I don’t say pussy. Our assignment is to write to an inanimate object but you don’t seem dead to me. In the drawing I found at ASTEROIDSARECOOL.ORG, you look like you have a face. Mostly I think you’re a potato. Vous êtes une pomme de terre l’espace. I’m not sure that’s right. If you hit us we’ll die but you’ll die too. They say one of you killed the dinosaurs. No one can explain to me why kids like dinosaurs so much. I didn’t. When I was a kid, I had to watch this purple dinosaur sing a stupid song on TV I still dream about. In the dream, the song is inside a toilet. Every time I pee in the dream, I pee on the words, I like you, you like me. Dreams are cool. I have this other one about driving a car into a wall but nothing gets hurt, not the car or the wall or me, and I don’t even know how to drive. I looked up dreams on the web. They all seem to be about sex. Sarah Davidson showed me this movie on her dad’s laptop with two guys in a woman at the same time. The woman’s face looked like my dad’s face when he fell off the deck and broke his arm. There was a piece of bone sticking out and I never told anyone how much I wanted to touch it. You’re a good listener. We had to read about Gandhi and non-violence. Maybe you could be like Gandhi and not hit us. I’m going to make movies in twenty or thirty years and I’ll make a movie about you if you don’t hit us. We’re supposed to try to feel what it would be like to be inanimate. I like this “empathy exercise” better than carrying an egg around for a week like it’s my baby. My egg looked nothing like me, especially when I dropped it, you know, accidentally from the top of the gym. When I raised my hand and asked if dead things have feelings, Ms. LeForge did that thing when she lifts her left eyebrow like it’s trying to be a bird and I know that means she feels I’m being too “creative.” I think telling someone they’re creative is a way to tell them to shut up, in seventh grade at least. I’m not going to turn this letter in. I already said pussy. I’ll have to write another one. Maybe I’ll write to a sock. It’s weird to think of left and right socks when they’re the same until they’re on your feet. Are they the same? They always talk about how cold and lonely it is in space in movies. I feel lonely too. I think everyone does. I heard my mom the other night on the phone. If I don’t move, she doesn’t hear me on the stairs. The top one squeaks so I have to be careful. She’d had like three glasses of wine. She was talking to this friend in California who isn’t married and designs clothes and goes to Milan. She said she counted all the friends she has and it’s two. Then she said fuck. My mom said fuck. Actually she said fucking. “I feel so fucking alone.” I wanted to go in and hug her and tell her she wasn’t alone but then she’d know I was listening and anyway, I don’t think she likes me. I think she loves me but I don’t think she likes me. Like if I was older and I called her and asked her to hang out, I think she’d be busy. I broke all the legs off my dolls once and glued them together into this kind of fort with a baseball cap for a roof and showed it to her and she made a face, like, where did you come from? It was like she didn’t know I was seeing her and her face told the truth. I wonder the same about you: where did you come from? They say everything comes from somewhere but something had to come from nowhere, you know, at the start. This doctor they took me to said I’m precocious and they gave me pills but I don’t take them anymore. It’s getting late so I better write the sock letter now. Dear Sock, What’s it like to hug my foot? Dear Sock, Let’s be friends. Good luck. Go ahead and hit us if you want. If you don’t, we’ll probably just use all the bombs anyway and walk around like zombies eating each others faces or the oceans will drown London and New York before I can get there and see what’s so cool about them. My mom says I’m too young to think like that, like when I’m thirty, being sad will be OK. But if I’m so precocious, why wait?
Zoe Dufresne (I know, weird name)
Erik Sather, Although the Sea is Red, the Water is Fine, 2010, Digital Photo
The weather dropped my tree house,
a perfect imitation of my family’s
white saltbox, on the carport.
Mother stepping on the dollhouse:
an accident, the sitting room
slicing her heel to the bone.
Blood on the baby wallpaper, maple
armoire in her toes. I thought
to trim the cowslip from shingles,
invite the splinters with a watch word,
curl on the pitch and ruptured pine.
My tree, I set to sweeping, slept
outside amid the cicely. I was listening
for the odd wild, how elephants escape
before earthquakes, white snakes
stream out of the ground. I would learn
that kind of warn. If you do not mind
I climbed into the wreckage.
If you do not mind I set the stump
for dolls and tea. I was a child; I thought
the acorn steeping in the china
was an acorn, and no fence rattle,
train moan, butterfly blown backward
in wind-spur would warn me
otherwise. Nor a cloud like a chiffon
sleeve. Wait for me. Let me learn to read
the leaves, hold the water under tongue
and sift the future. I was born inside
your flower. If the earth says to move,
let me swim to you through miles.
I don’t often walk at lunch, but today
I went to the gallery for its canvases of gold rings
and falling roses which, though I
didn’t like them, were cheap enough to flirt
with the thought of purchasing, as I did
with the little Hirst lithograph of a skull in the hall, or that terrible
steel vase beside it–
Then down to my mechanic’s where
(for once in his life) he didn’t charge a fortune
for the car but fixed me with a look of appraisal
and disdain, recalling my first husband, F,
who said, We disdain what we can most afford
Which is what he thought about the painting
some cousin who owns a shop in Chinatown
gave us, full of browns and blacks
on hide-thick paper. But what’s it mean? F said. Alma,
it could be an exit sign,
or cruddy house, for Christ’s sake–
(He was a practical man, equating
value with purpose
which is why for our wedding he bought the car.)
Then shrugged upstairs with me to sleep
among the many albums
I’ve since put on my I-Pod, his five pairs of pants
in the same bright shade of green–
We dreamt there of all the ones
picked up and lost, like so many disposable cameras
we never took any pictures with, not a one, leaving us
with empty palms, our hearts sinking
like a coin in mud–
Which is what F accused me of
as he was leaving. Alma, he said, you don’t get
what it is we’ve lost,
but he’s wrong. I have the art, I have the car (paid off)
which I hate, it almost never
works, but I still drive it, tell my other husbands
who ask, I’ll run it
to the ground before I’m done
because I for one
know the value of things.
I hope this image reflects both the immediacy of my personal experience as well as the amazing writing of Paisley’s examining memories of emotion and material worth. The image that I am submitting is the last thing we took Tuesday before we loaded 5000 pounds worth of animal, human and containers of “important materials.” It is an understatement to portray the surreal environment around us. There was no warning, no suggested evacuations. Just neighbors helping each other. The systems and technology failed many of us desperately in need of information. I cannot describe the kindness of people around us and the mixture of emotions that I feel. One thing that I have always suspected is that nature doesn’t care!
Sincerely, Kelly McLane
BELIEVING IN THE FUTURE WITH THE TORTURER’S APPRENTICE
I left but then returned in the after of after, when the world was mostly smoke and the air was completely ruined, without telling my husband or his other wife, those other girls with his eyes and her hair that I found under the stairs. We had agreed to leave it all behind. The silver vessels. The 132 Couroc trays I had collected. Our wedding rings. The cat’s ashes. My mother’s. The stinky sinks that you could never fully clean, not with help, not ever. The geologic rings of calcium around the pool. The hair clustered in the drains. The still-boxed Christmas lights. The speculum. The college syllabi. Love letters. Computers. The photographs of pain that were his life’s work, women’s mouths, mostly, frozen, opening into the acrid air. They were saying untold things, only my husband knows just what, and now they weren’t saying anything. They were burning. They had probably already burned.
It took almost a decade to believe with him. He did, after all, have another spouse. Another house. Two kids in the photographs he kept away from me in the cubby below the stairs. We had none. He hadn’t wanted another one. It didn’t bother me. I said it didn’t bother me. It was easier this way. I had my portion of the space. I didn’t need him every day. I got my way enough. I had my work enough, my friends enough. I was coughing less and less, the lifetime of whatever it was in my lungs finally clearing up.
The press called him “the torturer’s apprentice.” Though he disliked it, it was apt. You know his mentor, the more famous artist, the one who goes without a name. He uses just a pompous little glyph. Which drives people crazy. But my husband, the lesser-known, he has a name. He’s the one who’s into mouths. He prepares the girls. He does the contracts up. The glyph won’t do the contracts or the casting. Like a wizard, he won’t appear until the girls are prepped and ready, until they’ve been emptied out. All the materials have to be there before he shows. And he won’t stay after. My husband the apprentice takes his photos while they’re still in prep. Then the glyph does his famous thing. Then the girls go home. Sometimes they come to the gallery shows, sign autographs, editions. When they do they seem oddly blank. They say they don’t remember anything. They look like they are haloed in light, like they are levitating.
My husband showed me inside the studio. An operating room, totally clean and bare and chemical and steel. Restraints. One-way mirrors. It’s fucked up. I’m the first one to tell you it’s fucked up. I’ve always known it is. But it is honest. Deep down all of us are fucked. It takes a special something to bring that out so far, so fast from us. The two of them may be reviled, but no one looks away. In our world no one ever looks away.
The secret with my husband’s photographs is that you can’t fully tell what they’re about, orgasm or agony, groan or moan or first speech or hum, if there is a difference, either way it’s something emerging, not yet fully formed, a breath between breaths, an aperture opening, and a way to punctuate a day, a night, a life. The close-up of the mouth is where it’s at for him. The folded vee of tongue. The lemniscate of lips closed then opening. A mouth is like a flower, he said. A mouth is like a bird. A mouth is like a tease. A feet with toes unfurling. A mouth is like a fountain.
I said, no, a mouth is like a hive of bees, slow cave-in, being hung, a bomb.
You can’t deny it moves you, he said. You can tell it does something to you.
The time elapsed between the photographs is short. The time between his publication of the photographs and the girls’ release is short. Their skirts are short. It’s always skirts. It’s always girls. This world. It’s a little sick. That’s what makes it good, he says. They sign up for it. They confess. They open up. They release their secrets and are released. That’s the trick to it, that it’s not just release of voice, it’s not fake or forced. It’s their choice. Everyone has them, choices, secrets, voice boxes, constraints, restraints. If pressed hard enough we will all become swans.
The torture is not the point. The point is the joint between the time before and the time after. The crux. That photograph–not representing time, but time itself. That crossing space. This used to be the world. Now this is the world. Sometimes, the worlds, they seem the same. You can barely tell the difference. Clouds before. Clouds here after. But something’s changed. You can feel it. If you look close enough, the seam. The way we work out memories, what gets stored, starred for later easy retrieval, what gets discarded, boarded up. How a moment–an accident, a gas explosion, a runaway train, spreading sudden fire, a dozing driver off the interstate, fragment of falling satellite, an affair, a series of affairs, hair loss, a decapitation from a sheet of glass like in The Omen, power surge at the wrong time, power line drooping in the pool, anaphylactic shock, lightning strike, band saw slip, not to mention rapture, heart attack, stroke, or other ways the body can up and fail us–these are abysses with no bottom. Narrative works like this. Our lives work like this. Our lives are not narrative except as synapse makes them so.
If he needed to photograph it, which he did, needing to document it–I accepted that. He had nodded off in an ether haze in the medieval-themed Best Western (formerly the Sybaris, where we used to meet in the early days of our affair: now it’s under new management, but it still takes cash and asks no questions), so I clicked on his camera. There were sixty-six shots of the fireball going up, our house bursting with gas, our stuff being converted to flame, and one close-up of a mouth. My mouth. Was I laughing? I wasn’t sure.
He didn’t need to know I would go back. We agreed there would be no going back. It made sense. We left the cars; otherwise they would know. Ditto with the clothes, the photographs. The pornographic DVDs that we hadn’t watched for years. The two irreplaceable pieces of his mentor’s work. Anything that meant anything had to stay, to burn. Needless to say could be no note or explanation.
Since he didn’t need to know, I took the rental back. It was dark, but I knew the route. I wore a wig. I wore a skirt. In my old life I never wore a skirt. As I watched from down the block, I could see my mouth, an apparition in the daylight side of the rear-view, and, surprised, I closed it. I disappeared.
Ours was not the first to burn. For the last week in the hills around the town houses were going up like far off Christmas lights. It was festive. I’d have a drink each time. Plumes of gas erupting through roofs, the slow wind of sirens up the curling streets. I couldn’t sleep so I would watch them go. Sometimes I would take the car to get a closer look. No one knew exactly why they would burn. Faulty gaslines were blamed. Weak hearts were blamed. Electrical fires were blamed. Arson, maybe, the police started to think. Just bad luck, said others. The more of them that disappeared the more I started to think about it myself. I didn’t know where that feeling came from, but what I knew is that I wanted me gone, we gone, the whole record of us and who we had decided to be gone. We too could be swans, I said. We could come out of this something else.
It was a calculated risk. It’s not as if I wasn’t willing to share him. To be sure, I didn’t want him more than occasionally. His other wife, that family, I knew almost nothing about. He wanted it that way. I didn’t even know their names, though I knew where he kept the photographs. He said that way it would be pure. Prudent. Unputrefiable. He knew how women were, he said. He knew how knowing could weigh you down.
He did give up his secrets. That’s why he loves me, because I can know and hold his secrets suspended in my body and not hate him for it. Because I said I understood. By the end I knew them all, and that knowing was really something. That’s why I stayed. I couldn’t stand the house, his second house, the constant smell of gas, the unbroken winter sunlight, the flimsy walls that could barely keep the howls of the neighbors’ dogs outside, our sex lives in. The whole neighborhood, Lakewood Grove, had no lakes, no wood, no groves. The whole place was a fiction, a city without a city government or police force. It had no past. We had no past. We were pressed flat. We were drying paper. Without a past what were we? A moment in a photograph?
What he doesn’t know is this: I take my photographs when he’s asleep. I pet his throat. I pen him up. Subtly pluck his eyebrows. I tease his lips apart. I pry his eyelids slowly open like a clam. I touch the eye. Roll it in its orbit. Sometimes I spit on it. Interrogate it. Put small objects in the mouth. Make him swallow and wonder later. He can’t tell. He’ll never tell or know. He takes these sleeping pills because of restlessness. I can do whatever to his mouth when he is out. The drugs make him suggestible. This is my mouth, I whisper, breathing onion on him. I exfoliate his skin. Peel his lips. Watch his muscles move involuntarily. Stroke his teeth. Depress the tongue. This has been going on a year. When will it be enough, I wonder. It’s not art, I said. It’s something else.
The Safe Way to Look at An Eclipse: Four Options
“It’s misdirected, that money. There are people, children we can save.”
I couldn’t help but nod. I had to agree.
The doctor was pressing around the circumference of my breast like he was making sure the moon had craters. He was actually looking for mountains. Lumps.
“All those pink ribbons. They are effective. Pink opens wallets.”
He moves in closer, elliptically, orbiting the nipple.
“The truth is, they save a few more women a year. Maybe. The research doesn’t bear out.”
His gentle rounds up the fatty tissue like it’s cold clay.
“That much money. Kids’ cancers. How many kids could pink ribbons…? Kids’ cancers are weird. They are unique and expensive and they find crazy cures. No matter how much money we throw at breast cancer–how much longer do these women live? Some fifteen years. Some six months. But a kid. …. ”
He was practically digging into the tissue now, making craters with his fingernails.
“I can barely feel it.”
He told me I should come back in six months. It was a small lump. I never did call even though, in the middle of the night, I let my hand circle the thing. It helps me see the big, focusing on the small. I think it’s getting smaller, even.
It’s easy to take a spore print. You need a piece of paper, a mushroom, possibly a nice glass bowl. It doesn’t even need to be nice. It doesn’t even need to be glass. Put the mushroom upside down. It’s better if it’s an old mushroom, the kind where the gills have loosed their slack on the flesh of the mushroom, the kind of gills that are ready to give and give. You might wait an hour. You could wait for two. But if you want a pile of spores, enough spores so you can tell the deadly amanita from the yellow coccora, you should probably wait all night. All night seems like the longest time if you’re hungry. It might be the smallest thing you’d imagine, this 8-11 x 5-6 µm, elliptical, smooth, nonamyloid, white spore. But your long night and this tiny fleck make a thin wire of difference.
My favorite wine comes from the thickest region in France. The sun bakes the soil. Bakes the vines. Bakes the tannins right into the grape. You’ve never tasted sweetness until you’ve let that grape crush against your lip. The secret isn’t though, they say, in the hotness of the sun but in the coolness of the air that’s pressing in two-hundred miles from the ocean. High tiding waves push a saltiness north-east making you believe you love cherries, plums, hints of raspberry but letting you know that what you love are notes of oysters, bouquets of smoke, and streaks of seaweed flopped up on a beach that would take you far too long to walk to.
There wasn’t much left of the cigarette. Your average yellow-stained filter, the dotted butt, maybe a trace thin paper and a curled leaf of tobacco. You used to smoke and although you don’t anymore, and you really don’t miss the cigarette so much as you miss the idea of believing that this tiny thing meant no harm. You miss the idea of sitting on a slab of granite on the side of Big Cottonwood Creek and dragging on a cigarette thinking, smoke as pure as water, thinking, I could sit here all day. You miss having an ongoing purpose–make it to the store before closing, don’t wake up completely out. You miss taking a break. You miss having a reason to drive back and forth across the city, exhausting and exhaling and leaving it all behind you.
The women sit on stools for eight to ten hours a day scraping the spines away with small knives. Many of them seem elderly. One is sound asleep, hunched on her stool, knife still clutched in her hand. Mestizo women tend to be darker, more round-faced than other Mexicans here in San Miguel de Allende, and selling the cactus fruit is perhaps there only source of income. During my month-long stay, I have seen the cacti everywhere along the road from Guanajuato to San Miguel. This is painstaking work, or painful: the spines will stick in the soft flesh of your hand, break off, and take weeks to work themselves free.
One afternoon I stumble upon an exhibit in a local gallery, “The Heart of Frida.” Kahlo’s mother, Matilde Calderón y Gonzalez, was of primarily indigenous descent and Frida knew more than her share about painful spines. The exhibit is filled with small notes tucked away into boxes, poems and doodles on odd slips of paper, with titles like “Frida, the Crippled Eagle,” and “Diego, the Fat Amphibian.” The notes and pictures are overwhelmingly hopeless. In a poem titled “Wasting Away,” she compares her crippled body to the ash of a cigarette, waiting for Diego to flick her off, into eternity.
During my time in Mexico, I am surrounded by images of Diego Rivera, a circular man I am coming to resemble in my middle age. Rivera consumed human flesh; at least three times, he claimed, out of curiosity, feasting on cadavers purchased from the city morgue. So the least I could do, I thought, was to consume the flesh of the cactus. This wasn’t so hard in the end, when I learned that the little green slices in my morning eggs were in fact nopales, or prickly pear. I had been eating them all along, without knowing. The women in the market were confused when I asked for a bag of round nopales with the spines not yet removed.
Frida’s crooked spine grew worse over the years, as did her love for Diego, as did Diego’s legendary infidelities. Frida progressed from unsent letters ending with “Diego, my great love, I am here, I await you,” to poems declaring that Diego the useless toad was only good for eating, “in tomato sauce.” She had gone full circle. Looking in a mirror for years, painting her own picture, she found beauty in her stern face and dark eyes, until Diego’s endless appetites made her hate what she saw.
In one of her late-life paintings, “The Circle,” Frida Kahlo depicts her own body, with missing limbs, and no head — a woman disintegrating. Not unbroken. A few days before she died, she wrote in her diary: “I hope the exit is joyful — and I hope never to return.”
I’LL BE BACK
One must ask, what is it, cocks or knives swiveling
one ought to see in these lines; on the head a head-
piece laden with passion fruit, or a cactus-crown?
Walking very quickly makes it quite impossible
to note the lousy perfection of stars. It’s why I walk
as if everything from me might be snatched should
I slow down, as if even the stars might be whisked
out from the fumes of sky, as thunder claps, cracks
my own house in half, an egg chipped at the edge
of a bowl, so that when I spill out all saffron, slide
to the corner bodega to buy a forty, no one but me
notices me, for I am crawling beneath the window
frames. I am one with the weeds and their death-
hair, an anonymous splendor, my lines zigzagging
artery all over the crushed glass, the littered potato
chip bags that fill with air to blow their small metallic
balloons toward the water that meets the end of this
street: for water socked with salt is where I’m headed
nowadays, drawing up my will as carriages once drew
up to the entrances of ballrooms, to spill gentle-folk out
in gaudy dresses, smart suits, their fans aflutter before
every face: all the faces I am willing away, except for
my ghost, his face, he who barely remembers to visit
my bedchamber since years have trimmed my hair’s
length, its black sheet, split ends. I once had a quasi-
Victorian way about me, sat within my room, my quill
poised, watching the sad families stalk the sidewalk
before my window in the mercury warm pool gifted
to me by my mirror. A line does not always end having
arrived at a point. Live lowly, pull the blinds shut, drink
yourself dumb so as not to worry how you once let your
own self break into your own house through a back room
window when you accidentally shut yourself out without
keys or cash. If you can’t avoid being invaded, why not
extend an invitation to your destroyer? I don’t drink tea,
but I can brew it. I feed only on pomegranate. I’m that
big a fan of the underworld. It’s why I’m so whittled, it’s
why I don’t bother with blush. I should brush my cheeks
with rose-tinted gun powder? As if that’d make me look
more alive. I might have made a good mortician. I know
how to put a body back in its place. Crack my house open
again, I’ll call my lawyer. It’s called an order. Of restraint.
Three Long Threads Forget for a Spot that Their Bomb Shelter Is on Fire
three threads curl like cats shut like eyes of long shuttered windows
for the incessant length of two wars and their tense in-between middlings
these three trap on terraces treble spirals that name what they can’t have
Is their middle an aperture in which oxygen flares?
A breathing nose, hellhole, a cell phone, half empty lighter.
two ropes wish to slash the air as eyelash lowering its bucketful
of past peaceful lives as two threads would piece and halve the air in game double-dutch
slowing for the half blind jumper who takes her beatings thus: just two jump ropes alighting
Do they ignore the rats?
A shattering hurry, scurry, a scattering dance, mouth half full of smoke.
see in the basement dark images flicker against a wall see what I want to taste
see jill lead vision from its twin labyrinths
see jack jump to draw relished threads through eyes from concentric channels of refusal
Do they ignore any and all birds who might still see fit to flitting visit shuttered windows?
I am the negative of Jack’s cravings.
we shake we smudge in our haste to exit childhood
to stay in a world whose dark characters can never in dark mark what we crave
spin the wind a curlicue a tornado mixing in mixed media: peace war
Do they war with the pieces or only with any and all openings who see fit to be born?
I am the monster you beautiful nemesis are just divinity’s demonstrance.
I have lost an eyeful of sight I have lost a (little) finger my leg is on fire
the medium is water and ink water spun from tornado ink ground from the plump
phosphorescent trails of snails wholly blind slugs one plum sail going black or out ahead
Who storms the beach thus? What middling meddlesome soldier forgets his place?
Achilles Grendel The god swirling River The Actor Fake it The Bomb The Life The Shelter The Wait The Take It The Breath The Space The Death Needling The Lace
Taken together battered like three like any three personed god they demand you seek their face
Murderous Love was written and performed by Todd Grossman.
Jane Armstrong responds to Todd Grossman’s “Murderous Love.”
A raven, dead, on my front walkway, smooth feathers glistening black in the bright Sunday morning. One year after cataclysmic disruption, just when I thought my universe would finally, finally stabilize, this–a dead raven. I immediately reach the insupportable conclusion that the woman whose happiness I convinced myself to be less important than my own, the woman who screams through my nightmares with her desire for vengeance, has left the dead raven on my front walkway as an omen of the dark, tortured future I justly deserve.
The man who is no longer the husband of the woman whom I irrationally suspect of leaving the dead raven on my front walkway gently lifts the bird, already stiff, and places it in a black plastic garbage bag. A man of reason and of science, a software engineer who has sent rockets into space, he consoles me with talk of the perils of urban wildlife and jokes of the “Monday morning memorial” when the trash is collected.
But Thursday is my garbage day and I lie awake on Sunday night, as I do most nights, and into Monday morning. I imagine the bird at the bottom of the trashcan in the garage. I strain to hear small sounds. Maybe the bird is alive after all, only in a coma, awakening in the trash can. Maybe I can revive it, free it. It was beautiful lying there in the sun, fully intact, black as a black hole. Maybe that’s where it came from– molecules ingested, recombined and spewed back out from millions of light years away, a random thud on my front walk.
Black holes are mysterious, evident only from how they bend and warp nearby matter, doomed objects soon to be devoured by the irresistible pull of intense gravity. We gaze at the night sky and think it beautiful–“the heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit” said James Joyce. We indulge ourselves in the romance of coherent electrons, molecules split apart in cosmic explosions, seeking and finding each other against infinitesimal odds across vast universes to unite in harmonious, perfect love. But this sky we read for patterns and portents would murder us in an instant, suck us in if we get too close to its secret spaces.
Spaghettification. That’s what happens when you find yourself at the edge of a black hole. Gravitational imbalance will stretch your body toward the point of singularity at the bottom of the hole, a thrilling moment of intense sensation before you’re obliterated into strings of code to be retained within the vortex of blackness.
Time moving forward predictably, inexorably, at the rate of one second per second, I lie alone in the dark, stretching toward singularity, pulled toward fitful sleep.
Patricia Fernandez responds to Jane Armstrong’s “Event Horizon.”
Where the Air Blows Through
In the forest behind their house she finds a bone. They are waiting for dinner to be ready, for their father to be home, for their mother to call them in. They wait for the evening to click along its track. In the near-dark the girl holds the bone and her brother touches the back of her neck. “A vertebra,” he says. “Like from here.” He tugs at her dirty-blond ponytail, reaches underneath it and opens his palm against her spine. “If you break your neck, you aren’t able to move anymore. They put this hole in your throat and you wheel around in a wheelchair.”
The girl drops the bone on the ground. She is in sixth grade. Her brother is in eighth. He lets her ponytail fall and touches the hollow of her throat, above the collar of her purple hoodie. “Here,” he says. “In the front. This is where the air blows through.” His finger presses too hard, like he is accusing her of something. “That’s called a tracheotomy.”
He is clumsy with his hands, clumsy with his words, even though he has so many. When he is talking about bones–osteology–or the deer that run behind their house–Odocoileus virginianus–the words come in a flood and he flaps his hands like wings. In her homeroom a few of the boys do imitations. “And this is a stick!” they moan in excitement, waving their pencils around.
She feels her brother’s hand, imagines him cracking her spine, knows this is ridiculous, knows he loves her. Sometime she wishes he wouldn’t. She pushes his hand away, kicks the vertebra further into the dirt. She knows her brother will bend to pick it up, and when he kneels she sees his hair is greasy. She knocks the bone back out of his hand. He tilts his head like a dog: not angry, only puzzled.
When her brother is angry he beats his head against the carpet in the upstairs hallway. He says this makes him feel better. He says the carpet is full of dust mites and anger. He tells her to wear shoes in the house. Socks, at least. But she’s already walked through it. She thinks things will be worse when they are in high school. She is already bracing for it. She is wondering how much loyalty she will allow herself to show.
Her brother dusts the vertebra free of dirt and puts it in his pocket. He says it belonged to a deer. At dinner he talks about deer and decomposition until their mother says, “That’s really interesting, honey. Now we should see if anyone else would like to talk.” But no one else feels like talking.
That night he bores a hole into the bone at their father’s basement workbench so she can wear it like a necklace. He hands it to her and she can tell he is wondering why she doesn’t run for ribbon or string. She tosses it up and down in her palm. She wants to wash her hands.
“I’ll keep it in my treasure box,” she says.
“Can I see?”
“No,” she says. “It’s mine.” She looks at her brother and imagines she can feel his breath blow through her neck. She is eleven years old and already full of holes. She does not want to show him the box with its blue lining and fragile silver lock. She’s kept the dead brown sticks he gave her, the pointy rocks, a scrap of fabric. A rectangular piece of white cardstock he shoved under her bedroom door. It was sealed in a gold envelope, but blank.
The blank card in the box says, “My brother loves me this much.” It says, “I love my brother this much.” It says, “Close this lid.”
The City’s words pressed flat inside its books.
The City’s words rising off the flames–
as if dispersing from a radio tower,
a dandelion clock. As if they’d fall
and swirl across the road, traffic passing through,
stirring them up. The air
catching their filaments.
How much wind before a clock
is blown apart? How much wind
leaves it intact? How do we find that line?
Each page a seed head–a pincushion.
Such minute dimpling.
When it’s over, the books that survive
lie charred and soaked for weeks
inside the structure of that shipwreck.
Then the walls are collapsed
inward, like pages,
and it all gets hauled away.
I remember so few words
inside those books. The rest I remember
only abstractly–as words.
Dearest City–City of Insurance–
Nearly all your books exist
in more than one copy.
There was something German about the way
the wind made braids out of corn rows.
From seventy miles away you could hear the lash
and whip of leaves that peel as easily
as bananas but as nasty as whips. Oh corn.
How could we know you would be the thing
to fuel our forward motion? The tornado
looks up to you. Its force is so borrowed,
so random, so unsubsidized. No wonder true-blonde
Helen Hunt gets the man in the end. Jamie Gertz,
telling her psychiatric client “we got cows,”
burns all her coastal torque in that moment. To be
Midwestern, to be German, to be braided real,
you have to know that cows come and go,
as do clients, as do men, as does the hyperactive
memory of occasional tornadoes. Corn holds
the muscle memory. Corn is the source and the root
that Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton hold onto, the thing
that reaches to the core of the planet and regardless
of car or fuel or delicious steaks with beef gravy,
we will gravitate to it like tornadoes gravitate toward
trailer parks—with a promise of eternal protein
and a going forward even as we leave our brown-haired doctor
by the side of the road, twisting her hair, wondering
how she will get back to Los Angeles and organized wind.
She thinks California and Iowa are so different but they
know one thing the Germans don’t. Corn is human
food and will fuel you in the west on I-80, south on I-5.
I have been feeling very tense, my grandmother says.
She is standing at the kitchen counter, gripping lemons. When she sees me looking at them, her hands loosen around the fruit.
She shrugs and reaches up to pat at her hair. In the morning sunlight all I can see is the perfect outline of her skull, its neat egg shape. The women in my family tend to lose their hair. No one tries to cover it with hats or scarves, or else you become an unwilling recipient of gentle smiles and whole grain bread wrapped in cheery linen towels.
I think I may try acupuncture, she says. I’m told it’s calming.
It is. It’s very calming.
But it is difficult to picture her at an acupuncture clinic: stretched out on a table, her face serene and fringed with needles, soothed by the music of tree frogs and raindrops and the scent of sage oil.
She halves the lemons decisively and sets about squashing them in a hinged contraption. The lemon is the key, she says. Let no one tell you differently.
Let me take you, I offer.
She flaps a hand in my direction.
No, really, I say. I know a good place.
Where is she? my grandmother asks.
Over by the lake.
No, she says, not her.
Oh, I say. She’s home again. There’s a service that comes twice a day. We rented a hospital bed.
She nods. Then she chucks the hollowed lemon halves into the trash and pours the juice over a platter of chicken.
can come and see her, she says.
She still seems angry, I say.
Who’s not angry? We can be angry together.
It might just be the medications. She’s also very sleepy. She sleeps a lot.
I can bring her soup. She always loved soup. Something creamy.
If she’s asleep you could just sit with her, I say. Maybe we can ease into it that way, you know? She’ll get so used to having you around that one day she’ll just wake up and forget the whole thing.
It won’t happen, she says. Even as a child she never forgot a jot. She wouldn’t speak to her cousin Mary for a year when Mary took the hairnet off her doll. I was mortified. Of course, Mary had to rip the thing out of the poor doll’s skull. She was always such a hulking child; it seemed to get the better of her sometimes.
There, you see? Mary was there just a couple weeks ago! They were fine. They played rummy 500. Well, rummy 100. She got tired.
My grandmother gazes down at the platter of chicken. She has seasoned it with salt, pepper, lemon, crushed garlic, and olive oil. She gives the platter a little shake and then bends over to place it in the oven. From this posture she calls, over her shoulder, She can sleep, then?
Yes, I say. And it seems to be real sleep, very calming sleep. Not that medicine coma people just trip into like a wormhole. She loves it; she says she feels luxurious.
That’s ridiculous, says my grandmother. She’s only saying that to make you feel better.
I don’t think so, I say. Well, maybe a little. But she seems to luxuriate in it. The bed is very big, and she can stretch out. I rub her feet. She adores it. She’s been a closet sybarite all these years.
But she has very ticklish feet.
Not anymore, I guess.
How can she be relaxing now? asks my grandmother. It’s unnatural. I haven’t slept in days.
Let me make an appointment for you. I bet you’re right about the acupuncture. Or massage. That would be even better. You’d fall asleep right there!
I can’t, she says. Can you imagine? No one wants to rub an old lady.
I don’t think they think of it that way.
Oh, they do. It doesn’t matter what they say.
Come over today, I say. Come see her. It will do you good. Even if she’s sleeping. Maybe especially if she’s sleeping.
I want to sleep! She’s kept me from sleeping for months. I grind my jaws like an ox, I’m going to break a tooth. How can she sleep? She’s like a monster.
Stop it, I say. She has no choice. It just comes for her. It tugs her right down.
Ben Dean responds to Michelle Wildgen’s “Relaxation.”
Let Me Tell You What I Got
I cleared the kitchen island and took out my shiny new things. It had been such a long time since I had a good day shopping, since before the banks collapsed before the oil spill. In the new era of being careful I’d been keeping an eye out for, among other things, the perfect bag, a perfect bag for me for carrying things around in, and I finally found it! A shiny black one you can tell might be made from recycled materials—but not obvious in any way that would get dated fast—and with the right amount of pockets, so you don’t lose things in the bag and you don’t lose things in the pockets. I took it out of the brown paper grocery-style shopping bag with stiff twine handles they’d placed it in, and I placed it, in its silver tissue wrapping, on the ice-white and recently de-crumbed surface, unrolled it like a body from a carpet. I set that aside for the moment, as I am one who eats the tips of pies last.
Then I spread the silver tissue. What a satisfying feeling against the outer edges of my hands, like what I still do and have done all my life with my hands across the surface of the water in my bathtub every chance I get—what a day! take me away! Across the water I make the gesture of a conjurer, like I could make something rise, like an old-time farmer, an orchestral conductor, a hooker/geisha/schoolgirl/Viagra. Then I folded the tissue into a square the size of a picnic napkin and put it into a bag of likewise pretty paper in the closet in the hallway for the future. Then I lifted the brown paper bag by its twine, shook it against the air, not that I have anything against air, pinched it at the folds, not that I have anything against, well, whatever. The bag made a huge noise in the quiet apartment in the silent weekday complex, a mountain crumbling between the tectonic plates of history, everyone in the universe still caught in rush-hour except me.
I repeated the process with my remaining purchases. A jeweled pillbox: I carried it in the palm of my hand into the bathroom and filled it with an assortment, a couple Sudafed, a couple Advil, a couple Ambien, Xanax, Anaprox, Multi-Daily, golden Omega fatty acid fish oil caplets. Now the jewels were jeweled. I returned to the kitchen, my formica island, and put the pillbox into the slick black bag along with my old good-enough wallet. And finally, a baseball cap: a bird embroidered upon it. Beady eyes, pointed beak. Maybe or maybe not on the endangered list, our struggling local team. I had never gone into such a store before but it had been so long since I really shopped. I could be a fan, I thought. For once in my life! I realized this gazing into the store window, nostalgia for stuff I’d never done panging away at my insides like a bird. In a transformative shopping experience, I wanted to cultivate a relationship with everyone. Something to put myself into.
What a slick crap apartment, thrown up in the boom.
I placed the cap upon the bag upon the island, remembered the fable from childhood with the cock on the cat on the donkey on the road—they were musicians running away from destitute lives to be in a band together—and tilted my head at what I’d created: a tower with my head like this, a pile with my head like that. My purchases, one, two, three. Purchases within purchases within purchases. I even gazed at the popcorn so-called cathedral ceiling above the island and thought of the sky above it, my skull and bones below. I inserted my new cap between layers, adjusted my new strap across my shoulder, and went back into the world at large. I walked like a wandering mind around the neighborhood, dot, dot, dot, with my new things among blocks below highways, whistling my favorite tune (you’re toxic I’m slipping under…) until I came upon a vacant lot surrounded by chain link over-flowing with thistles—
Vacant only in the sense of probably something like foreclosed upon or some building way back when condemned and finally demolished after something like a neighborhood anti-drug uprising held up as an example of “you can do it,” then probably something like meanwhile who could afford the property taxes or whathaveyou, some notices in the back of the paper that no one reads, I mean seriously you get it all over your hands—I mean that black stuff, not blood—to the effect of I guess there might be a sign in there somewhere deep in the thistles about the property, the status of it—
Surrounded by chain-link like a net bag for groceries or dolphins and simply overflowing with the hugest thistles you’ve ever seen, just glorious, elbowing each other on the way up, spines shining, purple heads like the heads of muppets and dragons in pre-artichoke glory, this overflowing of weed, of life, I dare you to pull me—
Now, I happen to know a little about the thistle, thanks to having internet on my phone, which I took out of its compartment in my new bag and entered into it THISTLES:
Rosette stage early May, and flower May to July, double dentate, toothed again, predicted soon to monopolize a large extent of country to the extinction of other plants, as they have done in parts of the American prairies, in Canada and British Columbia, and as they did in Australia, until a stringent Act of Parliament was passed, about twenty years ago, imposing heavy penalties upon all who neglected to destroy Thistles on their land, every man being now compelled to root out, within fourteen days, any Thistle that may lift up its head, Government inspectors being specially appointed to carry out the enforcement of the law. http://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/t/thistl11.html for your information if you care about what is happening in the world.
Thistles that spread like oil over waves over whatever constitutes the currently indigenous, birds and animals and plants in oil catsuits like run-down superheroes mixing thornily with mankind is what I thought as I considered the (possibly) foreclosed-upon lot, whistling Britney, the sun pretending not to be there in my peripheral vision. The plants were so impressive. I practically wanted to hug them, just like I almost ran away with my friends and joined a band at a certain point in my history when anything seemed possible, though the animals in the story just ended up tricking some robbers out of their house, eating their food, and curling up on the rug on their hearth. And now where are the tambourines? But let me wrap up so to speak with a few words about the value of shiny things floating icily in the constant state of becoming lost to us. Some time ago I started keeping a log of things and money I wasted. Some effort to contain them. A sweater left on a bench in the city (someone pick it up and use it?). A ticket for disrupting street sweepers (I’m sorry). Pie I ate all of that was nowhere even close to delicious.
Sure, the chrysanthemums are undeniably dead
but the sun-dried leaves scuttling across the sidewalk
insist, nothing’s over yet. Really, it was pretty traumatic
what they did to the house today. First one man, and then
another, came to put a hole in our home. Not that we didn’t
ask for it, but still. After all these years, we are finally
going to have a range hood that vents outside. From the apocrypha
on the topic, if you get one that’s too strong, it can suck
your pilot light right out, leaving you cooking up, quite literally,
a firestorm. Or worse, if your house isn’t like ours and it has, say,
windows that actually close tight, given a strong enough hood
it can suck the oxygen right out of your house. Speaking of fires
and death, I heard on NPR this morning that it’s the anniversary
of John Lennon’s birth, as well as the Great Chicago Fire.
You probably knew that, history buff you are, but,
what most people don’t know, unless they’re from Peshtigo,
is that there was a much worse fire, this same day, up north
in Wisconsin. Sixteen towns were burnt absolutely to the ground.
They aren’t even sure how many people died. In Peshtigo itself
there were probably a thousand dead. All that remained
was a bible buried in the ground, a tabernacle a priest hurled
in a river, and one newly built house, whose wood was too green
to burn. Who knows what a tabernacle even is? I don’t, and
I’m pretty sure John Lennon doesn’t, who was just on the radio
singing about God and how he’s only a concept by which we measure
our pain. And I know Lennon’s rarely confused with Trent Reznor
but it’s got me thinking about you, man, and all that Tool
and Nine Inch Nails you’re into. Not exactly the Beatles
but I think you’d like that song. Anyway, your sister and I, we
want you to come to Minnesota–the flowers might be dead, but
it’s 85 degrees today, and–who knows?–it might be again. I mean,
I just got off the phone with you–we were talking
about great northern beans–and bacon–and I should have said
something, well, pretty clearly, but I didn’t. I should have
said something about how we could cook together, and how
with the new hood, we won’t get grease all over the place, and
you don’t have to live with us, but if you did, you could totally
have your own space downstairs, and how I really wouldn’t bum
any cigarettes off you–really, not, well, that many–and how
your nephew adores you and would probably share his trucks
and princess movies with you. I mean, is there somebody in Denver
who calls you Uncle Puppy? And Rochester, it really is
right down the road, and one of my student’s parents probably
owns the place. I know, I know, you don’t need anybody
hounding you, but we’d put in an egress window, too, so, you know,
if things go south with the new hood and there’s a fire, you’d be all set.
We’d have to figure out something with respect to the guns,
but surely there’s a range or some public land nearby. Maybe
someplace in Wisconsin or down around Rochester. I don’t think
you’re into poetry but, this is James Wright country, and if
you came here, there are supposed to be these two Indian ponies
just off the highway. All we have to do is hop a little barbed wire fence.
I have been remembering things lately about my childhood. And not because I want to. It spooks me in the night as my mind involuntarily moves through a haunted house. Memories long locked away in my subconscious suddenly pop up — a ghoulish flash from the past. A leather belt with a brass buckle. A man with clenched teeth. A white, four burner gas stove.
I had a tight and tidy version of my childhood that worked well for nearly 40 years. It was that my father and mother, a physician and psychologist, respectively, were intellectual eccentrics. And my father would sometimes “lose his temper.” And my mother “had a nervous breakdown.” They were just kooky, that’s all.
As an adult, I could tell funny stories about my youth that would make my friends laugh so hard they would spray wine out of their mouths. Like, for example, my mom used to wear a gas mask when she drove my sister and I to school. We’re talking about an industrial strength Vietnam War era, triple filter gas mask. This was because she said our suburban neighborhood north of Houston was filled with air pollution that gave her migraines. When mom donned the mask, my sister and I would lie on the backseat floorboard of the Oldsmobile station wagon, cringing with embarrassment and desperately trying to stay out of sight of our classmates.
But, the truth is, growing up with kooky parents is really not that funny. When not driving us around wearing her gas mask, my mother would shrink away into the dark bedroom of a helpless hypochondriac, leaving my sisters and I to bear the brunt of my father’s rage. It would start out as something, anything, but most often me, annoying him. And maybe it would just blow over. But, other times, the heat would crank up and quickly escalate to roiling: A 6’4” 200-pound man releasing his repressed, tortured self onto a little girl.
But, did this really happen? Maybe not? I mean, I can’t remember it, exactly. So, why can’t I sleep?
My therapist sighs and looks down at her notes.
“You need to learn what your triggers are,” she says.
“You mean, like a white four burner gas stove?”
I was maybe 6 years old and we were on vacation in Galveston, staying at a beachfront motel called the Jack Tar. The cramped room had a kitchenette with a refrigerator and a small stove. My sisters and I were jumping on the beds and were grating on my dad’s nerves.
Mom noticed that I had an infected cut on my foot. A red streak extended up above my ankle. I had been running around barefoot again.
“We’ve got to soak it in hot water,” my dad announced.
This sounded reasonable to me. I did not want to die of blood poisoning. And my father was a doctor.
Mom put a pot of water on the stove. My dad knelt on the floor next to my foot. My sisters stood nearby, silently, to observe.
Mom said something annoying to my dad and I could feel his temperature rising.
The water was bubbling and steaming on the stove and mom brought the pot over and sat it on the ground.
Dad clenched his teeth. His eyes were fire. He held my small foot in an iron grip.
“Felix!” my mother yelled. “It’s too hot!”
I could not pull away. I focused on the bald spot on top of my father’s tan scalp.
Darkness. I sit up in bed, suddenly awake, breathless and trembling with heat. It is as if someone was holding a plastic bag over my head and I pulled it off just in time. It is the terror of a 6-year-old releasing from a 49 year-old body.
Oh I’m scalding, spitting blue, and gassing out: “One time, you fuck! Flip it one time!” Not three times, not four, not fourteen. Oh Gus, Oh pull-a-Gus, this ain’t no beer commercial! This ain’t fat dumb slob with supermodel wife, you slaw cheeks! Here comes the coffee mug full of wine and prehistoric spatula and the lighter fluid into the charcoal on a fucking gas grill. You tickle the knob, Gus! They make marshmallows now the size of white rhinos, big-ass marshmallows, bunch of white rhinos running terrified down into the water wallow, sort of rolling around, over and over, like a fat kayak only in slow motion and actually a white rhino crusted up in mud and white rhino dung, and the sun’s all smeared up and reflecting off the big white, white rhino eyeballs/gumballs or the wide, wider lenses if white rhinos even have lenses–I assume they must. Then again they can’t see for shit. Hmm. There’s this little boy, dumb, tentative, don’t get hydrocarbon at all, holds his white rhino five, six inches off the umbrella vapor puff, but his mom sticks her tomato stake white rhino right down the throat, all black and crusty and goopy and sucks off the husk like a pinecone exploding. Tacky teeth. Those are lips. Hold up, whoa, let me get this–
No, no, no, no, no…no. Ok, bye. No. No…no, no. Ok. No. No. Bye.
That was River. River says she’s been here before me and will be here long after, just flowing along. You see what I have to deal with? So. Why did I enter the forest? Let me tell you why. Fuzzy teenager kid, you know him? Major donut slusher. Kid has a head like a fuzzy nut, a buckeye nut I guess, sort of shaped like a kidney or that little swimming pool Elvis is buried right next to, along the horse stables there, shiny buckeye acne-grease kid, and his mouth always moving, some heron scissor-walking lips, like a what?…a chrome blue heron I say, only wading through a parking lot up to its knees in wet asphalt while six-year-olds form a gauntlet and try to hit it in the head with soccer balls. Can you see it? Gus hands him a beer and a firework. Man ritual thing, something. Like half a warm beer and maybe three M-80s. Kid lights the ass-end of the firecracker! The ass, not the tongue! Well, you see how it was…the grill a bathtub of lighter fluid…I just threw up, threw up over everybody and everything and zipped the woods and sat the woods and watched all the leaves coming down, I don’t mean one leaf over here, over there, all the leaves, at once, pouring, fluttering, cluttering, spinning down, an impressionistic blur of leaves, a hammering of leaves, a blender, a sensory mind-scrub, all coming down about me in a orange/red/brown hard-talking dry-rainy sigh-crunchy fart-knocker of leaves. Man, it was a folk song, a beautiful thing.
That was the day the Christians found me… I’m not going to say one word without my…Look, I am hideously complex.
um. nothing. not one. thing. ok, one thing: Smart Phones. if I was a You i would come. here and not even Lip, i would just text. all the answers. honestly. no out voice. honestly i want to be. sexted. i keep reading about it. i want some young. man to text me his enormous. and extraordinary breast muscles. or his balls bouncing. video. white underwear rope. it will never happen. i would pretend. to leave my Smart. Phone behind but the record voice thing would be on and i. would catch all your real Lips about me when i came. back. and. got the phone and took it to hickory field behind Krispy Kreme and listened. the one where. you hum a tune. and then you can go sputter the tune. the vuvuzela. that’s sort of cultural and loud. the tac tic toe. the one that blocks you from drunk. dialing. The zippo thing. is fun, for a while.
The pink ones made me fat and also I started drooling during breakfast so I traded the whole bottle to Jennifer for the jelly she keeps behind her kneecaps.
The river devours my heart. I wear a visor, orange with a blue tip. They keep making smaller vibrations in the television. An orange crow is perched next to a Budweiser. I touch R on the nipple while he sleeps. They put hoses on the interstate. Jags is how I feel every morning. A lot of me float through the air. I know her password. The next step is to act quiet. I look at plastic differently than you look at plastic. I keep remembering August.
Boom!! Just kidding.
April 4, 1968
All the lights in Vegas go out, all Freemont’s neon,
the Strip’s bright marquees, all the colors water makes
as it falls–pearl, cerulean, carnelian, auburn, rose.
In the west, if anyone was looking, a bright cloud
flowered like a maguey’s cyme, high over the desert,
a bright, impossible white, then tore from itself
agate, tangerine, mimosa, scarab, cobalt, perse, wine,
bruise, obsidian, leaving a scar in the dark
where you’re not supposed to see. If you look directly
into the sun or at a photographer’s flash,
you get black spots in front of your eyes and you can’t see
for a few seconds or a few minutes… At shot time
all personnel on or above the test site wear
extremely dark glasses or turn away. Cameras watch
this unfolding so someone else can see it,
moment by moment lifted from one bath,
then another, the dark writing itself back around
the bright, the red of terror cooling, then the orange
of a motel coverlet in Memphis, 1500 miles away,
first light finding this color first, and then
the bone of the coffee mug, the Styrofoam, the carpet’s
brown as morning carves the television
and the table and the case out of the dark again,
the paper from last night’s words,
I may not get there with you, but I want you to know
dawn glinting off the windows of a boarding house
higher up the bluff, trash piled in the streets,
the police chief preparing to testify
to the theft of guns and ammunition, to tell the judge
King won’t survive, as the first smoke
goes up from the barbecue pits and the sun
on the river’s crests bleaches the water
a blinding white, then falls quickly back
through yellows, umbers, sepias, to the perfect
crisp of a biscuit, the steam of breakfast,
the tangle of bleached white sheets,
surf collapsing on the Atlantic sand. Shock waves
go out in all directions… If they reach
an inhabited point they may be felt or heard.
The sound is similar to distant thunder
without sharp cracks or bangs. The sound is similar
to boulders crashing in a canyon miles away,
to the countdown manager clearing his throat
into the microphone, or the final
roar of five F-1 engines, two thousand tons
of fuel burning acetylene in the Florida sky,
or the blunt silence on the radio when the shock
buries the needle deep into the red.
Waves curved back to earth by the ionosphere
carry the voice, the report miles downrange,
the army plans a double test in the Nevada desert,
two bombs to be set off next week,
a patrol plane is missing off the coast of Vietnam,
a blizzard hits Wyoming, while an engineer
is watching a graph of the rocket’s shaking,
the relay code faint in the background
of each transmission, a stream of electromagnetic
pulses, each a smaller version of the one
an H-bomb sends, blacking out the towns for moments
after the blast, the rush of energy
that says listen… Sara Alise Powell of 2509 Nadine
said three Negro youths came into the store
while two others stood outside. She said the youths
also took beer and cigarettes before
they took her to a back room, tied her up
and one youth struck a match and touched it
to her blouse. The blouse caught fire… and Tonight
at the New Memphian, Around the World
in 80 Days while the empty capsule circles
overhead, over the ocean, Africa, Australia,
over the desert’s scar again, to splash down
in the Pacific just before supper.
In another room, Dionne Warwick is singing
“I Say A Little Prayer For You,” as the catfish
they’ve ordered comes up at last, two plates
and a pot of coffee. It’s going to be
a chilly night, the porter says. I can feel it coming
already. He’s humming as he leaves
“Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” a tune
King picks up as soon as the door
has closed. Lead me on, let me stand.
The news comes in as Ellington finishes
“The Shepherd Who Watches Over
The Night Flock,” the emcee touching
his elbow, then calling for the mic.
I’m sorry to tell you that Dr. King has been shot.
Then the concert feels more like a prayer
than a program. In the ocean, the capsule
hits its mark, and the lights go up
in the desert again, the galaxy’s smoke
twining across the dome again, so faint
the eyes ache to pull it from the dark.
Only the camera can watch that long,
and this is what light has written: the first few
Lyrids streaking the night, their iron
blazing into vapor, the snake straightening itself
in the night. In Memphis, the light
from the balcony shows the empty plates,
the Styrofoam cup filled and ready to go,
the case with its plaid pajamas, newspaper laid out,
his face already on the news.
In Washington, the telegrams come,
What hath God wrought? Telephones ring,
and soon the city’s blazing,
black, bruise, indigo,
magnolia, cherry, blind.
Sources: Atomic Energy Commission Letter to People Who Live Near the Nevada Test Site (1955); Memphis Commercial Appeal; New York Times.
The History of Seams
You can put it all together. You 2nd person who I guess might be me although that would require that I do a lot of the work here. It could be you you but you hate to be dictated to especially over the telephone. But you love the telephone itself. It’s how you get from here to there. Telephone poles act as great signposts. They’re also great conductors of electricity. If we summon together all our powers you and I will puzzle this piece together with the next piece. You will create either a Frankenstein or a quilt or maybe a lovely tartan because you can picture a Scotsman in your head but maybe you confuse tartan with tartar.
Steak tartar is still legal. On the internet, where all connections are lightning fast at 1.5 megabytes per second, a woman wrote that steak tartar is illegal in Wisconsin. I don’t know anyone in Wisconsin who I can call directly but my friend Matt is from there. Matt is a genius with transitions. A good transition is where all the moves are made behind the scenes like hiding your big, fat stitches on the “wrong” side of fabric. Still, I could call him and ask is steak tartar illegal and he would laugh and say the only thing illegal in Wisconsin is the prohibition of beer.
Beer goes with steak tartar, seamlessly but fakily so. Really I want to get back to tartar which works well with beer but perhaps not so well as Bordeaux which is site specific and only wants to be made out of terroir and noted with proper appellation. Bordeaux wants its own paragraph and is struggling mightily to not let me talk about tartar.
I meant to argue that the origins of tartar are ostensibly Scottish but you know that’s not true. And you might think this was a trick to letting me talk about haggis but not even I want to talk about haggis although perhaps I will because there may be a common thread, now that I think about it, now that my transitions have led me to here, to this place between haggis and tartar.
Steak Tartar is not illegal in Wisconsin. It is made of this: 1 lb. filet Mignon or top sirloin, freshly ground, 2 tbsp. yellow mustard, 1 tbsp. Dijon mustard, 1 egg yolk, 2 tbsp. Worcestershire sauce, 1/4 cup finely chopped onion, 3 tbsp capers, drained, 4-5 dashes hot pepper sauce, salt and freshly ground black pepper ,1 tbsp. cognac. Witches make a mean steak tartar. You’d think without cooking it wouldn’t require magic but unlike haggis and like telephone poles and quilts, witches prefer to stay away from fire.
Lost Abbey Brewery in San Marcos, California has just released a new beer with a label of a hot woman in a pointy hat being burned. Hot witches. Does the smell of smoking (hot) witch flesh smell the same as other flesh or does it smell more of oats boiled in a lamb stomach? Who is the expert here? Who has smelled cooking haggis? In 1591, six women, confessed cooks and seamstresses, confessed to being witches too when King James’s honeymoon was ruined by stormy seas. So many thunderstorms that year—King James thought there were possibly more than six witches disturbing his country’s weather. Scotland is estimated to have been the biggest persecutor of witches. Over 4,000 women were burned after the Norwick witch trials. At the time, no one believed witches were also women. Or, if they did, they were willing to overlook that seam.
What you need is a big needle. One as big as a lightning rod. Think of all the things you can do with needles. Poke behind the paper, stick the metal into the glue, peel the label off and tear it into tiny shreds. You can dip your needle into a square of chopped tenderloin, catch a thread of mustard, a knot of onion. You can sew together stomach lining, keeping the oats inside the bag so they can absorb the delicious flavor of lamb flesh. You can make a witch quilt by taking seventeen separate fabrics, each piece of fabric including an element from the periodic table, each element of the periodic table referring to a savory dish you can make in a bowl or a cup and eat with the side of a knife or a needle and patching the fabrics together with the blood of a woman, but by that I don’t mean anything drastic. Your pricked finger will bleed enough—no need to go all King James on the women in your country. Did I mention you must do this all outside in a thunderstorm, standing at the base of a telephone pole and wait for lightning? It’s the lightning that stitches it all together.
You are not the tracks to Auschwitz
tho like there
You’ve become a museum
Fish bowl blue,
stolen river bedded darling–
We live under skies
Unaccountable to you,
you you, whoever you are
where is my wriggle where is my way
nothing worth nothing comes home today
you are history
and we are the west
listening for what’s missing
in an emergency broadcast test:
Western Hills Motel
upon which the left over arsenic of Emma Bovary’s best fling poisons a ghostly shadow
I turned 38 this year, and I am the quietest I’ve ever been. I put my shoes on quietly, so as not to alert the dog that I’m going somewhere awesome, like Kwik Trip, without him. After slipping into my coat (this enormous bulky Columbia jacket I picked up at the thrift store for fifteen bucks; it still has Mount Kato ski lift tags, from March 6, 1994, attached to the zipper), I hang out on the couch, silently flipping through the channels, hoping the dog is fooled enough to fall back asleep. He’s a sly one when it comes to eating what’s in the litter box, and while he knows shoes mean I’m leaving, he hasn’t put two and two together yet when it comes to me hanging out in my coat. Getting past him is hard only because it’s time consuming.
Sneaking past my daughter is easy. I can hustle to Kwik Trip, buy two packs of smokes, and hustle back without her ever noticing I’m gone. The problem comes when I want to smoke a cigarette. Indoors is out of the question (though for the week over Christmas when she was at her mother’s, I smoked in the house nonstop: while watching America’s Next Top Model marathons; while soaking in the tub; while reading in bed; while frying eggs like I was a short order cook in a dingy diner.) Smoking on the front porch is an option, except for when her friends are coming and going. Smoking on the back deck is best, though not comfortable–it’s cold, it’s cold, there’s no place to sit, it’s cold.
(Just now, after I maneuvered past the dog, hustled to Kwik Trip. and smoked a cigarette on the back deck, I thought how ridiculous. It’s absurd, living this way. Sneaking past a dog, sneaking around a twelve-year-old. My father wouldn’t have been so quiet. You would have known what he was doing. You would not have had an opinion about it. And if you did, you would have kept it to yourself. You would have been the quiet one.)
Turning 38 has brought a few other small inconveniences and a few larger-sized ones: the cats’ nightly spat; how every morning the kitten tips over her water bowl; that my pants are tighter than I like but cookies are more delicious than ever; how falling asleep at night comes regular, but staying asleep through a night is rare. I wake up and everything is quiet (not counting the dog, whose breathing is heavy like an obscene phone call.)
Everything is quiet except for the boom boom boom of my panicky heart and the noise in my head. I lay awake and think, I am having a heart attack, I am having a panic attack, I am losing my mind. I am 38 years old.
Thirty-eight is the year I stopped calling people just to talk. It’s when I stopped telling everyone everything. I don’t know why, exactly, I got quiet. I’ve even gotten quiet with myself. I move through the day, I go through all the motions–outwitting the dog, insisting my daughter drink a glass of milk with her supper, inquiring about everybody’s day, how was everyone’s day, has everyone had a good day?–but I’m not aware of having any thoughts. My thoughts are too quiet for me to hear.
Unless it’s 3:38 a.m. Then I’m breathless and heart-pounding and I know exactly what I’m thinking about. Genocide and babies with cancer; the corporatization of higher education; global warming; meteorites falling from the sky. There’s so much to be sorry about, to be sorry for. There’s that dream I had where you were a bad person coming to kill me; there’s the cold I gave you the last time we kissed; and what about the Hitler mustaches I snipped out of electrical tape then stuck on the Pilgrim salt-and-pepper shakes you put on the Thanksgiving table? Should I still be sorry for that?
Because I’m not.
An Embrace, An Entire Number
When she was young, so she said, a young child, she was and was, watched: the birdmen came at me from every angle, as she looked up to the ceiling. Are they there now, I would say–no questions ever, I had learned well, all in the intonation. What age what age and three she would say, she was three. And five. And fourteen. And twenty-seven. And a number she’d never say. Tell me about the birdmen, I’d say, and sometimes, sometimes her arms would extend, the closest to an embrace, her mouth open. Was it rage or was it joy, or the in-between, the both, the confidence. Tell me about the birdmen, and sometimes her arms would cover her head and she would shriek so loud so loud all I could do was bow my head, all I could do, close my eyes. What was it I wanted. We must take cover! And how many times I dropped to the floor, her hands in mine, waiting. How many. Tell me about the birdmen, I could not help myself or could not surrender. What was it. And she would flap her arms like a child, she would and would, and I was and was. Oh what color in her gray. And we would roost in our seats, in the trees, and she would look straight at me. I was and was. What age. Ten and forty-two and that number. Tell me about the birdmen, and the branch would break, and our wings would shrink, and we would look up and up and cower, we would, and then she was she was.
Emma Ramey lives in Grand Rapids, MI and is co-poetry editor of DIAGRAM. Her chapbook, A Numerical Devotional, was published in 2003 by New Michigan Press and her work has appeared recently in Cimarron Review, Caketrain, American Letters & Commentary, Swink and elsewhere.
Today, Patrick Abbey responds to Emma Ramey’s “An Embrace, An Entire Number.”
Patrick Abbey, All I Can Do, 2010, Video
All I Could Do Was Look
All I could do was look.
There were signs in three languages.
Ne touchez pas.
And a third that I could not see.
You could not touch
the hair the forehead or the lips.
Smoking was forbidden.
A museum guard discouraged you
from making an effort to define
the color red in such a way that a blind
person could see it.
I did my disobedient best.
strolling on Scarlet Street,
ordering a flask of rojo a car of rouge.
But then red became a concept,
not a color, and the game was over
like a war with no casualties
except national pride.
Now you see the boy.
That boy no longer exists.
That boy was
Who I am now.
Counting spaces, there are 630 characters in David Lehman’s “All I could do was Look.” The highest frequency of red in the spectrum of visible light is 630 nanometers. 629 is orange. The above color emits light at a frequency of 630 nanometers.
Manifesto of the Artist’s Model
I do not need instruction in the ways of seeing. I do not have to be shown the patterns of nature, the abstractions and geometric designs that artists are trained to see. At will, and sometimes against my will, I see only the geometric role an object plays in nature. I see the color behind the color, the gash of an ear, the tube of blue that might be a person, or a bush made bright orange by the incandescent flame of its potential, the snow white hills a humped jumble of houses, their small lights as vivid as lipstick. People and churches streaked and caked on the landscape like sloppy makeup, a stream, a lake, the horrifying shapes inherent in the shadows of a meadow, the hidden violence of a tree, a cloud, the edges of decay. I suppose he thinks I want to be like him, but I don’t. If he asked my opinion, I might recite these words of Rilke:
In a few the urge to action rises so powerfully,
that they are already waiting and glowing with their heart’s fullness
when the temptation to flower, like the mild night air,
touches their tender mouths, touches their eyelids:
heroes perhaps, and those chosen to vanish prematurely,
in whom Death the gardener wove different veins.
I see the lines of motion that make up the world, the symmetries of the world, a visual language of horizontal, vertical, diagonal, plane, color, line, form that the eye extracts from the blur of the everyday. We cannot help but organize our world into shapes repeating themselves infinitely. A pattern suggests the infinite and yet the patterns that we make are always finite and some trap the eye rather than extend the vision. And this is why I say that shapes are horrifying, bladed to me because I see where they end, where everything must end.
Spinach Dumplings with Frisee and Asparagus Salad | Mustard and Sriracha Cloud
Out of soil,
nature grows delicate leaves in green vibrant color.
Wild like fire,
the frisee harnesses the bright orange clouds above.
Endless-seaming streaks of spiced hoisin sauce beneath, encapsulated dumplings evoke the finite entrapment of patterns.
Today, Cathy Day responds to Angelo Sosa’s “Spinach Dumplings with Frisee and Asparagus Salad | Mustard and Sriracha Cloud.”
What Alan Does
Jenny is a single professional woman–a writer and college professor living in Baltimore–and at 40, she moves in with a retired chef named Alan. The first night, he makes poached orange roughy with a cranberry-pomegranate-lemongrass-cream sauce with quinoa and broccoli.
What would she have had for dinner before meeting Alan? Fancy Boiled Tortellini from a Plastic Bag and a Jar of Mama Mia’s Gourmet Puttanesca.
The next day, Jenny’s sister calls to see how things are going and to find out what Alan “does.” Jenny takes the bus to school, and Alan works on his book and reads and runs errands. When she gets home, she finds veal stew on the stove.
Dinner before Alan: Quizno’s Sub in a Paper Sleeve, purchased near the bus stop.
The next day, Jenny’s best friend from college emails and asks what Alan “does.” Jenny takes the bus to school, and Alan works on his book and reads and runs errands. When she gets home from seven hours of conferences, she finds almond-herb crusted halibut with polenta and roasted vegetable ragout. After dinner, he shoos her out of the kitchen, and she goes upstairs to write a little.
Dinner before Alan: a Ginormous Bowl of Buttered Popcorn with a Side of Bourbon.
The next day, Jenny’s father calls and says, “Your mother wants me to ask you what Alan does.” She takes the bus to work, and Alan installs some closet organizers. When she gets home, he’s made chicken piccata, risotto, asparagus, and a green salad with pine nuts and balsamic vinaigrette.
Dinner before Alan: One-Pot Couscous with Boxed Frozen Mixed Vegetables, topped with Pre-Grated Cheddar Cheese. Jenny invented this dish when she taught at Eastern Plains College, her first job.
She moved to Kansas with her then-husband, who morphed slowly into Underemployed Trailing Spouse, a man whose abject misery filled their apartment like Sarin gas. One day, Jenny came home early. She had a friend with her who wanted to borrow their turkey roaster. They surprised her then-husband, who was dusting the living room. He saw them glance down at the can of Pledge in his hand. He looked like he’d been caught wearing women’s underwear. Later, he said, “I wish you would have called first.” And towards the end of it all, he said, “I think I might hurt myself.” She tried tried tried to help, until she realized that what he really needed was a job equal in prestige to hers–preferably greater. He left her for a big opportunity in Toledo. Jenny faced the six-month winter alone, eating One-Pot Couscous every night for dinner. Because it was easy. Because you could eat it on a paper plate. Because her then-ex-husband took all the white Pottery Barn dishes they’d gotten at their wedding. Because she couldn’t bear to go out and replace any of the things he’d taken.
The next day, Jenny goes to a reading and reception in downtown Baltimore, where her colleagues–whose spouses all have jobs of equal prestige to their own–ask her what Alan “does.” She leaves early and comes home to jerk pork chops, fried sweet plantains, sweet potatoes with scallion/ginger/lime butter, and papaya relish.
Dinner before Alan: University Catering Service Mini-Quiches with Fruit Tray Garnishes and Toothpick-Skewered Cheese Cubes, finished with a Big Bottle of Wine.
The next day, Jenny takes the bus to school for a meeting–a horrible meeting–and when she arrives home in tears, she finds Moroccan chicken with couscous and roasted zucchini. To take her mind off the Horrible Meeting, Alan tells her how he learned to make the prune sauce from a chef named Mohammed, who threw pans at his head and screamed “If you cannot do eet, you cannot do eet!” Alan shrugs his shoulders. “I could not do eet anymore without drinking myself stupid at the end of the day. So here I am.”
Dinner before Alan: Edible food products eaten absently at the kitchen counter while rehashing a Horrible Meeting in her head. Always-on-hand cocktail party supplies (chips and salsa, hard salami, Triscuits, martini olives, and gherkins) which could be inserted into her mouth within fifteen seconds of decision to eat. Taste, color, texture, nutritional value–irrelevant. A swallow-able material to silence the gnawing ache in her abdomen so she could get back to work and prove to everyone at the Horrible Meeting that she was not in over her head, and if need be, she would work all weekend to prove this.
The next day, Jenny and Alan spend the morning reading and writing, and in the afternoon, they walk to a seafood market to buy fresh scallops. He breaks out her never-used blender to make purees of sweet pea and red pepper, which he pours into squeeze-bottles. “This,” he says drawing green and red zig zags on the plate “is jizz. And these,” he says, garnishing with chopped parsley, “are sprinkles.” He places the red plate before her with a flourish.
Perhaps it’s the jizz and sprinkles that remind her not of the food on the plate, but the plate itself. Purchased years ago in Boston–which was after Kansas, but before Baltimore. She taught then at a small college with an adjunct named Tanya who was married to a full professor, a Big Star. One day, Tanya asked “Oh please, will you take me to Target? I need diapers and paper towels and laundry detergent.” Jenny picked her up, and Tanya cried all the way there. “He never helps,” she said. “I have to do it all. Everything so he can work. I had to beg him to watch the baby for a few hours so I could come with you. He wanted me to bring her with me so he could work. He never helps so I can do my work.” That’s when Jenny told Tanya about the can of Pledge. Tanya sighed and looked out the car window. “Do you remember the video for “Imagine”? I wanted that. John and Yoko walk in the park, and then they go inside and make things. But I wanted to be John, the one sitting in a dark room at the piano. I didn’t want to be Yoko, the one who opens the shutters to let in the light.”
Sitting now in her Baltimore kitchen, Jenny wonders how long it’s been since she thought of Tanya, who swallowed a bottle of Ativan a few days after that, and for months, Jenny could think of nothing but that day at Target, every moment from start to finish. Like how she confessed to Tanya that she was still eating off paper plates. The woman marched her over to house wares. “Everybody says white plates are better for presentation, but I like these red ones.” Tanya turned a plate over in her hands. “These will give you something to look forward to after a long, hard day.”
Cathy Day is the author of two books: Comeback Season, a nonfiction novel (Free Press 2008) and The Circus in Winter, a short-story cycle (Harcourt 2004), which was a finalist for the Story Prize. Her stories and essays have appeared most recently in Post Road, Sports Illustrated, Freight Stories, Creative Nonfiction, and Ninth Letter. She lives in Indiana and teaches at Ball State University.
Glow of the Wick
Diane has left Robert stranded with the kids on Halloween. The woman who was supposed to do the event at the library where she works is sick, so Diane has to go. “I’ve laid the costumes out. You’ll have to help Clara but Elijah can manage himself.” Even though Diane has spelled everything out for him, he’s certain there will be one thing he won’t be prepared for, and he’ll be made to look like an idiot.
Diane tells him she’s leaving and he asks why so early. “So I can get my prescription at Walgreen’s.” Right. She’s up to four medications now, all to get her chemicals balanced. “It’s what they do to women,” he’d said when she started the first one. “Drug them up so they can’t feel anything. They made a movie about it.”
They went through long hard conversations where his only goal was to get her to either say it is, or is not, his fault. As things stand, she says it’s not.
Now, she says the pills are working. She tells him, “You’re sweet for worrying, but I’ll know if they aren’t safe.” Robert is forced to face the possibility that he’d rather the pills didn’t work, maybe even that they would do something horrible to her, just so he might be proven right.
Diane kisses the kids goodbye and reminds them of the reason that she’s leaving–so all the boys and girls can get candy, not just the lucky ones like them. Robert interprets the tilt of her head to be directed at him and to mean, You are selfish if you want me to stay home. Cooperate.
Like so many of their friends, they’d stopped at two children. Most days, handling two was plenty, but he couldn’t help thinking of the broods of the pioneer families and how a small family still seems un-American. Still, it’s more than one-child China allows, so maybe two qualifies as patriotic after all.
How could he handle more, anyway? He doesn’t like what this night will require of him: holding a flashlight, leaving him only one free hand. He would be able to hold on to the three-year-old, but six-year-old Elijah would be loose. Elijah might–he’s done it before, not that long ago–run into the street because his world is limited to the three inches in front of his face.
It turns out the thing to make him look stupid is Clara’s stocking cap. “No! Mommy said I didn’t have to wear it.” The girl is dressed as some PBS character, who Clara insists “does not wear a stocking cap.”
PBS is the only channel they let the kids watch, an hour a day at the most. Robert agrees with this rule–in fact it was his idea–but only in a vague way. It’s a shield of sorts, and it makes him think of the phrase “Parental Control,” even though they don’t have that option on their TV. Really, he still likes the old shows, and has even started to sneak them episodes of The Brady Bunch on the computer.
Robert finds a pair of old ear muffs for Clara to wear instead. He tells her this way she can talk to headquarters. He finally got Clara to wear them, but only after he agreed to wear a pair himself.
He leaves the porch light on and a bowl of candy on the front step. This had been Diane’s idea. He was against it because it advertises their absence, but she won. He tapes a note that says, “Please Take Only One. Happy Halloween!!”
Elijah is a skeleton with a long death cape. The costume seems too old for him but Diane said he insisted, so there you go. The mask is plastic and looks like the face is melting, a little like that Norwegian painting. It scares his sister so Robert makes Elijah walk a few paces ahead.
The neighborhood is alive with children. It’s joyous but also makes Robert think of insects. He’s already thinking of how he will describe this scene later, and he wonders if imagining future conversations means he’s not enjoying this as he should, if it means he’s not fully recording the Dad credits that he should be getting for flying solo this Halloween.
Robert steers the kids away from some houses because even though he knows the razor-blade scare has been debunked, sometimes you still should follow your instincts. But every year there are a half dozen houses that go all out with the soundtracks and spiderwebs and such, and they are hard to avoid.
“Dad,” Elijah says, dazzled by the canned sounds of moaning and the buzz of a group of happy children running away, “I want to go to the spooky house.” Clara hangs back with Robert, but Elijah goes forward, fearless. This particular jackknob homeowner decided it would be a good idea to line his walk with paper lanterns. Robert wants to warn his son about the lanterns, but he imagines the look Diane would give him and keeps quiet.
“The candles are pretty, Daddy,” Clara says, trying to talk herself out of being scared.
He squeezes her hand. “Don’t get too close,” he says, even though she’s not moving.
The hem of Elijah’s cape scrapes the sidewalk. Robert can see what might happen: the cape flips a lantern over, burns the paper. The flame will rise up the cape. It will move fast and sure. Elijah disappears into the porch.
There are probably coffins there, fake eyeballs, a bloody ax. Maybe the guy will make him take the candy from a bowl with a severed hand inside. Whatever. When Elijah emerges from the darkened door, Robert keeps his eyes on the lanterns. Inevitably, the boy’s cape swishes out to the side, flickering one of the candles.
Robert lets go of Clara’s hand. “Stay here, honey,” he says, and he knows if something happens to her it’s because of the dangerous world we live in and the choices we have to make, and he reaches his son in three strides. He grabs the cape and flaps it to check for a flame.
“Dad, you’re choking me.”
“I know, son,” Robert says. The cape is dark, cold. He lets his son go and checks the lantern. For a brief moment he sees the candle as plastic, battery powered, himself a fool. But a closer look tells him yes, he has been right all along. It is a real flame. He bends down and blows it out. Then he goes down the line and blows the flame from every one. He stands until the orange glow of the last wick dies. He’s always liked the smell of a blown-out candle.
They arrive home before Diane. The candy bowl is empty, but the house is safe. He has no way of knowing if the neighborhood followed the rules of the note or if one kid just dumped everything in his bag. Robert crumples the note.
Inside, the children sort their candy. Clara likes peanut butter so she gets the Reese’s and gives away her caramels. They stack the Smarties like they’re rolled coins. Some of them are the same color as the pills he has seen Diane sort. Then Elijah pulls out a pair of cookies twisted in plastic wrap. Where had these come from?
“Dad, can I have these?”
“You know the rules,” Robert says, and the look on Elijah’s face says yes, he does, but it never hurts to try. The boy has plenty of candy, so he’s not worried about surrendering the cookies. Robert puts the package in his pocket.
“Whatever’s not eaten by Thanksgiving is mine,” he says, borrowing a rule he overheard from a parent at church. He likes collecting these tips. He thinks of it like plucking vegetables from a garden and bringing them to the dinner table. They’re bountiful, free, and good for you, if you’re willing to put in the work.
After the kids are in bed, Robert remembers the cocktail of feelings Halloween used to bring: all those houses and strange hands, those candy colors. The chill in the air. A dream, really, and part of it was the danger, the ghosts. You knew it was manufactured danger, but even manufactured danger is exciting.
He thinks about Diane’s pills. The lettering on some of them look like smiley faces. Maybe that’s all they are. Little circles of happiness. Where is she, anyway? Shouldn’t she have been home by now? He’s made it through the night, through a couple of minor crises, but he’s had enough. He wants to be off duty now. He wants her home, safe, but at the same time he knows what she doesn’t–that recklessness comes at a cost.
The cookies are still in his pocket. He thinks about putting them on the cabinet shelf with Diane’s pills, which are secured in their weekly organizer, safely out of the kids’ reach. Instead, Robert takes the cookies from their wrapping, examines them. They probably came from the paper lantern guy. Who knows what’s baked inside? Arsenic. Ex-lax. Antidepressants. He sniffs one. Chocolate chip, with a faint chemical smell underneath that is probably just from the plastic. He takes a bite. He knows that the pills are not supposed to make you happy–nobody tells you that they will–they’re just supposed to mask the unpleasantness.
Mask. Now there’s an idea. It’s Halloween, isn’t it? He sneaks in Elijah’s bedroom, snatches the skeleton mask.
Robert turns out the lights, gets into bed on Diane’s side, and puts on the mask. He will wait for her like this, however long it takes. His breath warms the inside of the mask, dampen his cheeks. This is what they both need, he knows. A little play. A little danger. Tonight, he will be a monster for her, just to show her, to make her believe. They are real. They are.
Words for Butterfly, Words For Moth
Those stones, thrown at feckless heads of tidy
boys, sprouted wings, bloomed in the wind.
Gravel became the envy of flowers, rocks
the desire of birds.
I learned about metamorphosis in middle
school: those caterpillars dreaming of dashing
new wardrobes, their distress upon waking in hairy
bodies ornamented in gloom and sawdust.
When Dolly Parton said love is like a butterfly,
she didn’t give much thought to moths,
luminous in moonlight, invisible
in the thick oxygen of barns.
When butterflies make love, they don’t
call it that–they take flight, fight with tongues
hooked until they tumble into a heap of bodies
sewn from lily tongues and brash sunsets.
If the butterfly is a fiery blossom flickering
on the breeze, the moth is a dusky bloom
at your gravestone, an outline of the witch’s oven.
That butterfly, about to
alight on your shoulder, will
punch you in the neck.
I said to the moths, O saturnine insects, please
stay your larva from my bedroom closet.
The moths frowned and ate my favorite sweater.
The butterfly doesn’t believe in himself
as a symbol of transformation. He lusts after
orchid petals and that bitter tang he leaves
in the mouths of sparrows.
If the moth is the butterfly of the night,
the butterfly is the whole shadow of
The butterfly’s nickname
for the flower: heart tongue.
The flower’s nickname
for the butterfly’s tongue:
the Devil’s throat.
To the caterpillar, the butterfly
is the afterlife–the dead clad delicate
in vestments of flame and moon silver.
If a butterfly farts in Michigan,
that wind will swell into a hurricane
by the time it reaches Thailand.
The moth has no tongue–just that vampiric
tendril coaxing nectar from moonflowers,
sipping tears from quiescent birds.
The butterfly was a symbol of purity
long before it was tattooed at the small
of your teenage daughter’s back.
These butterflies gather the monsoon
each night those moths consume our fortunes
like rust. The angels hibernate in our back
yard, plotting the end of our honeymoon.
When Muhammad Ali claimed to float
like a butterfly, sting like a bee, it was just
his way to say I’m gonna fuck that dude up.
That butterfly trapped in a mayonnaise jar will
suffocate quicker than any of the people
dying around us–this moth will say thank you
at funerals and from behind stone walls.
When that flight of butterflies storms about
our heads, when those moths plunge tongues
into our ears to deafen us with the thrashing
of tiny hearts, remember that there are only so
many words for love, so many words for what
we might become.
Votive All the little birds bow down. Little soldier-birds, their roots and nuts. What do they want with such light? Everyone into the light, why? Everyone’s hungry, everyone’s nest’s in ruin: dispossessed, sad birds. A push, a fluster of nudges, the little shoulders advance–so long as they’re each tucked safely behind the next staunch bird, the next clipped wing. There’s a fire in there: it looks like a ghost but it’s a flame. That’s the ticket, circle up, circle in. Bite whatever you find, either you get nectar or you get singed. Risk is ultra-American. Go on, you put what you think right there in the pink center where your raw thoughts edge toward the fire. Come on, closer, we all want love. Dinner, too.
Susan Silton Devotional/Lullaby, 2010, Video generated with SitePal, altered hypnosis script
This Is The Dream My mother said, love will come. It will be so easy; you won’t have to worry about anything. She meant anything financial. If I’d married one of the men she’d offered me, a doctor, I would have been very comfortable. She would have bribed me if I’d allowed it, with diamond and ruby jewelry from the best gem merchants, with an elephant to ride at my wedding, and a groom that processed in on gaudy horseback. A grander declaration of intent than any I’ve found in a romance novel. I rarely read romance novels. I have spates of them, now and then — they attack like swarms of bees. At twelve, I read through an entire bookshelf of Barbara Cartlands — each ending in an innocent kiss, promising wedded bliss to come. At twenty-five, I went on a Jude Devereaux kick, consuming one after another, including all her work under other names. Until Kevin asked me to please, stop reading romance novels. Apparently, after I finished each one, I picked a fight with him, about dishes, or laundry, or marriage, the lack thereof. Now, it is too late for romance novels. Too late for handsome Sri Lankan doctors. Kevin and I will be twenty years together come spring; we have two small children, finally. We are emerging from the psychotic haze of infant care with heads bloodied and bowed. Parenting is about running up against your absolute limits, again and again, a friend tells me. Her children are much older, and I do not want to think about what bitter days have led her to such wisdom. I want to believe this will be over soon. We fought about the dishes once again last night. A bad fight, this time — before it was done, I was head-pounded, dizzy with fear and frustration. Kevin looked better, but sounded worse. We struggle toward equal partnership, splitting the work fifty-fifty. But there is too much work, and not enough hours in the day. Something has to give, the children must come first, and we cannot bear to give away any more of ourselves. So what suffers is affection, and friendship, and touch. We go through our days flinching away from each other, grabbing for breath. I believe we will come back to us. He says we will. I put my trust in twenty years. I choose to believe him. But there are shadowed days when I wonder if my mother could have been right. I do not believe in free rides; that equation she offered had a long list of hidden costs. But I wonder if with that Sri Lankan doctor, I could have expected less, and therefore struggled less. Loved him and the children more.
Bird Carrying a Cranberry Necklace
(after Wallace Stevens)
The painting must resist the eye
Almost successfully. Example:
The bird ruffling its wings up resists
Identity. The necklace it carries resists
Our need for making sense–cranberries,
Or pearls? And why the seductive unstringing?
Accept the beads, the lovely string curled
In one place only. And wingspots, too,
Though they remind one of a butterfly.
Other butterflies migrate, this bird stays,
Flirts. If a bird can lift a skirt hem,
Showing her ankles, this is it.
A horror of birds that suddenly are real,
Or not. We must endure our dreams all night,
The man leaning in a tree, poems dangling
On strings, his resemblance to your father,
Until the obvious multicolored bird stands
Motionless, no longer able to flutter, or sing.
Patrica Clarkis Poet-in-Residence and Professor in the Department of Writing at Grand Valley State University. She is the author of three books of poetry: She Walks Into the Sea, My Father on a Bicycle, and North of Wondering. Her poetry has appeared in magazines such as The Atlantic Monthly, Slate, Poetry, Mississippi Review, The Gettysburg Review, New England Review, Pennsylvania Review, North American Review, Seattle Review, and Iowa Woman. She has also co-edited an anthology of contemporary women writers called Worlds in Our Words.
Between Light and Death
(Lights up to reveal a completely dark stage. In the dark we hear a car engine revving uncomfortably high. Just as the engine is about to explode, it cuts out. Silence. The car’s headlights are aimed at the stage, illuminating what looks to be a tombstone and creating shadows of people who are nowhere to be found. Offstage with hear two voices.)
Cookie: Is this it?
Butch: I can’t tell.
Cookie: Put on the brights.
(Butch quickly clicks the lights to bright mode.)
Cookie: Are they on?
Cookie: So… is this the right place?
Butch: I don’t know, I can’t see anything.
Cookie: So, what, we’re just going to sit here?
Butch: No, of course not, let’s get out of the car.
(As Butch and Cookie open their respective doors, the sound of an enormous
door slowly creaking open pulls focus.)
Cookie: That was creepy. I’m not getting out of the car.
Butch: Look, I know what I did was wrong, but you don’t have to disagree with everything I say or do to make a point. Ok?
Cookie: It’s freezing here.
Butch: It’s winter here.
Cookie: I’m not prepared for this season.
Butch: Well, it’s winter, I don’t know what else to tell you. I’m sorry.
Cookie: Why didn’t you tell me we were going to the Southern Hemisphere?
Butch: Where did you think we were going?
Butch: Why would you think that?
Cookie: Transylvania is in Europe.
Butch: I told you were going to Tasmania.
Cookie: I thought you said Transylvania.
Cookie: Well it looks like Transylvania. (Pause.) Is Tasmania even a real place?
Butch: We’re in it.
Cookie: I thought Warner Brothers invented it.
Butch: Look; I’m trying to make this situation all right again. That’s why we’re here. I’m trying, you know? You’re the one who wanted me around again, so I’m trying to make things normal.
Cookie: Wait, so you don’t want to be here?
Butch: That’s not what I meant. I just want us to relax a little and try to…reconnect. I want to see you again. I want you to see me again. Like in the beginning.
Cookie: I know. I know. But this doesn’t look like a cruise ship.
Butch: A cruise ship?
Cookie: Yeah, you know, free food, Rosie O’Donnell, shore excursions, and fun. This place doesn’t look like fun. Not the kind of place where two people go to make things ok again.
Butch: I’m sorry. You know I’m sorry, right? I’m sorry you’re in this situation. I didn’t mean to do it. I just, I had needs and…Fuck. I’m sorry.
Cookie: Nothing says I’m sorry better than a chocolate fountain and shuffleboard, you know?
Butch: Next time, shuffleboard. I promise.
Cookie: Can we go now?
Butch: Let’s get out of the car, check it out. If this is the right place, you’re going to love it, I promise.
(They get out of the car. Cookie sees the shadows of two other people.
Cookie: Do you see those people?
Butch: They’re just shadows.
Cookie: Which means that there are people attached to them that we can’t see. Please, let’s go.
Butch: Wait; let’s check the address first. What are the numbers on the lawn ornament?
Butch: Huh, the address they gave me was 500 Davey Street.
Cookie: This is a fucking cemetery!
Butch: Hang on; let me look at the paperwork. (He pulls a piece of paper from his jacket pocket, unfolds it, and reads.) Ok, here it is: Off the beaten path, secluded, and cozy. Lots of shade. We are the last residential street before the end of the road. Pet-free and smoke-free, this home has a down to earth feeling. It’s eye-catching, uncluttered, and contemporary.
Cookie: Let me see the ad. (She quickly scans the ad.) It says, cemetery!
Butch: I thought it said contemporary.
Cookie: You traded our house for a cemetery?
Butch: I’m sorry.
Cookie: No, I’m sorry, I should have known, this makes so much sense. (Pause.) You know what, this time I’m leaving you.
(Cookie turns to leave the cemetery.)
Butch: Come on, I came back to be with you. Don’t go. You don’t even know which hemisphere you’re in; where the hell are you going?
Cookie: On a lesbian cruise.
Butch: But you’re not a lesbian.
Cookie: Well, you’re not alive.
Butch: So what?
Cookie: So, now we’re both invisible. Only now, I’m happy and I get to dip my fingers in a chocolate fountain. You never liked that side of me anyway. It didn’t help with your “needs.”
(Cookie heads for the car, jumps in, puts the key in the ignition, turns, and
presses her foot deep into the accelerator.)
Butch: You’re just going to leave me here?
Cookie: (Screaming out the window) It seems like the right place for you!
(She takes off. The sound of Cookie’s car grows faint. The lights on stage
fade to black. Butch slowly sinks into the darkness when a spotlight hits him
in the back of the head like a bullet. His shadow slowly bleeds out until it
overtakes the stage. End of play.)
Tania Katan is an author, playwright and performer. Her memoir My One-Night Stand With Cancer is the winner of the 2006 Judy Grahn Award in Nonfiction, an honoree of the 2006 American Library Association’s Stonewall Book Award in Non-Fiction, and a finalist for the 2006 Lambda Literary Award. Since the success of her first book, Tania has been performing her one-woman show, Saving Tania’s Privates (adapted from My One Night Stand With Cancer), which made its European premiere at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August 2008 where it was a critical success!
Equal parts Toasted and Ground
- Fennel Seed
- Mustard Seed
- Salt (not toasted)
- Pepper (not toasted)
Elk loin, cut in half long ways
Tabouleh Salad (see recipe)
Mustard Cream (see recipe)
- Rub the loins with the spice mix.
- Sear loins in a very hot pan so they stay very rare .
- Wrap the loins in plastic, torchon style, and place in freezer.
- When frozen, slice very thin on slicer and arrange in concentric circles on parchment.
- To serve, flip a parchment arrangement onto a plate.
- Top with a scoop of tabouleh, and finish with a drizzle of mustard cream.
Tabouleh Salad (Yield= 6Cups)
1/2C Finely chopped parsley
2T Finely chopped mint
1.5C Tomato concasse, brunoise
3/4C Cucumber, brunoise
2T Lemon juice
1ea Clove of garlic, minced
salt and pepper
- Bring water to a boil, stir in bulgar, cover and turn off heat. Let stand 25 minutes until most of the liquid is absorbed and bulgur is fluffy and tender. Pour off remaining liquid if there is any.
- Whisk all dressing ingredients together.
- In a bowl combine bulgur, herbs, vegetables and dressing and mix until just combined.
- Cover and store in the cooler.
1ea egg yolk
1C blended oil
1/2ea lemon, juiced
3T whole grain mustard
salt and black pepper to taste
water to thin if needed
- whisk together egg yolk, lemon juice, and mustard
- slowly incorporate the oil in a thin stream while whisking constantly
- season to taste, and thin to thick nappe consistency
Kelly Liken is the award-winning chef and owner behind her namesake restaurant located in Vail, CO. A James Beard nominee (2009 and 2010), Liken’s enthusiasm and passion for sourcing and featuring ingredients unique to the Rocky Mountain region is exemplified in her extraordinary seasonal American fare and customized tasting menus. Liken has developed relationships with Colorado’s finest local farmers, ranchers, and artisan purveyors and can often be found throughout the summer foraging for her own ingredients. Liken has received national recognition including appearances on the Food Network’s Iron Chef America and Bravo’s Top Chef D.C., as well as The New York Times, Food & Wine, Bon Appétit, and more.
Everything Is Backwards and Everything Will Kill You
Hot. The blood pumping. There’s heat even at this altitude.
The snow masks it but if I stand there long enough,
at the end of the path, at the place where it says, “Wilderness
Boundary Do Not Cross,” (as if I and the wilderness are
anathema. As if the wilderness would disappear if I
were to cross the line. As if the wilderness knew in advance
to put up signs against me) I will find warmth. I go ahead
and cross. Put my hot foot onto frozen ground. The dirt clicks under
my boots like granite, something familiar, something hard
like love or possibly sepsis, something hard to get and even harder
to get rid of. April’s electronic speed is a long time off.
Snow makes me believe nothing moves but I see something
crossing in the forever-scape. I see the movement of something
not only alive but hot and fierce and the moment it sees me,
it stops. It buckles. It folds and I am sorry but my feet
are cold and the only antidote is wilderness flying wildly.
The menu is full of asterisks. “Consuming
raw or undercooked meats may increase your risk
of foodborne illness.” I long for foodborne. I
long for something traceable. My best bets are
listeria and e coli. My worst bets are the nights I
stay at the table with all the dirty dishes piling
up and everyone is healthy enough to drink too much
wine which probably does its best to kill the promise
of food borne illness and other edging microbes. How
will I ever get out of here if the wine is good, the Carpaccio
thin? The flakes of parmesan keep making their
sticky way from table to finger to mouth. A hazard.
It was her birthday and so I invited her to dinner and even
though she was a vegetarian I made her roast beef. I sweated
over it. I cooked it rare and sliced it thin. I took forgiveness
in the form of mashed potatoes. In the salad. In the green beans.
But all night long I’m sure she was starving and all night
long, the not-sleeping-one, I wrestled with guilt and fibrous meat.
Tomorrow night it is my birthday. Redemption is this: Tabbouleh.
Spanikopita. Tzitiki and hummus and the lamb chop resistance.
Nicole Walker is the author of This Noisy Egg (Barrow Street Press, 2010). Her poetry and creative nonfiction have appeared in Ploughshares, North American Review, Bellingham Review, Fence, Iowa Review, Fourth Genre, Ninth Letter, and Crazyhorse, among other places. She has been awarded a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and she teaches at Northern Arizona University.
Tomorrow, Micol Hebron responds to Nicole Walker’s “Everything Is Backwards and Everything Will Kill You.”
Micol Hebron responds to Nicole Walker’s “Everything Is Backwards and Everything Will Kill You.”
Micol Hebron, Suicidal Dear, 2010
a bruise in the air
to live being poor another year
downtown the old migrants
are sitting on benches
discussing the coming weather
to live a change of direction, leashless
is not to die without stuttering the beautiful names
a retarded girl pretends to plash in the dry fountain
her hands who will enter their astonishing rhythm
to live in the body and become
is to live forgetting
each time melancholy is a house no more
than a book I once read
on the bus
moving my fingers
as if praying
is the same as to live with your face that rests inside me
is to live thus without ever saying goodbye
is to live thus beyond the sound of tethered voices
is to follow a form of the future
yet to be written
when we are most hungry
when we will become a terrible music
a terrible roar that will rise
revising what was–
until it is neither terrible nor tendered
is when she will appear
the little girl like a lamb, holding the floating world.
Today, Jody Zellen responds to Sean Thomas Dougherty’s “Yellow Balloon.”
They who would not make the national news
were their loss less gruesome in detail,
the artificial leg chucked behind the barn,
the “unspecified amount” of blood
that in its very mystery blooms a blue
contusion in the mind’s unwitting hospitality
to treachery’s suburban tracts. We will not admit
to collecting them, but someone does.
Their open spaces long for strings of code
we could execute with scripts we know,
each harrowing an invitation to a crime
we dream our own, dream from which we wake
radiant with guilt, before the cogs of possibility
revert to useless zippers in our skin.
Then we understand again that our minds
might not, after all, be our own to close.
The missing live inside a slim chance
like that, an act as dreamed as done.
Were we awake at the reported hour,
or merely lost in task, departed from chronology
in hot pursuit of some compelling counterpoint?
The toddler on the beach transfixed by some
bright enticement making for the sea,
the girl so busy naming imaginary babies
she’s failed to draw the weapon of her key.
In the tiny hammer of that unguarded moment
both are suddenly flush against the world
they left, and though their familiars keen
for them, the rest of us, such perfect strangers,
watch the tiny banners of code add up
and hope to learn exactly what it was we did
and whether or not we ought to run.
Not Happier With Them But Better
I loved how warm she was and how she seemed to grow
Even warmer as we huddled together; it was so dark there
And so cold. And when the long night ended and Todd
And I had cut our way through the brush and saw the sea,
I loved the days we’d spent together and even let him go
Into the water first. What I loved best, though,
Was the time before all that, when I worked in the field
By myself. The world behind me was dying, but I just
Did my job, and when it came time to rest, I’d lean
The bottom half of my body against one haystack
And drag the top half over to another and look at everything,
A puzzle I’d taken apart and would put together again
When it was time to take up my brushhook, my scythe.
It was like being in a painting by Millet or, after him, Van
Gogh. I like nature, sure–who doesn’t?–but it was fun
To feel as though I were part of the art world
As well, an old world I had somehow updated. And then
The end came, and we had to join the others or die.
The sun chasing the morning chill, the breeze
In the grasses, days that seemed agelong but were over too
Quickly, my sundered self: I missed all that, but it was better
With her and with Todd. Happiness isn’t what it’s cracked
Up to be, but I hadn’t known that before. Todd coined a phrase
To describe just this sort of thing; as Todd says, “Live and learn.”
Click HERE to hear Ian Dye’s song “After Reflection.”
Dem lieben Gott
It’s always music isn’t it Waiting
for it or silence which is another
tune I suppose Friday it was Bruckner
Symphony no. 9 conducted
energetically by Skrowaczewski
in Abravanel’s great golden hall
Jennifer dressed up but put her head down
half-way in It’s too much she complained
the Scherzo touches of pizzicato
against the searing counterpoint of horns
(what is it with Austrians & their horns)
I on the other hand was convinced
by the last strains of the Adagio
the wizened conductor sprite for eighty-
eight still needing to grip the rail
This morning waking to the blue-throated
winter light reflecting off the first real
snow of the season it was the traffic
sounds pushing through slush & the boys chirping
Mom make pancakes & later in church
“How Can I Keep from Singing” harmonized
during offertory It is ine-
scapable or feels that way sometimes
piling up like the snow or yard work
I wish I were better at it more than
the occasional & half-hearted
parishioner & wish I possessed too
power over it to pluck the single
strain from the overwhelming wall of sound
Instead so much music exhausts me
It’s easier to drift off or let it
drift over us Probably saner too
& good to know there’s also laughter
(scherzo from the Italian for “joke”)
as much polka hall as Wagner woven
into the Austrian’s “Farewell to Life”
After all more snow in the forecast
tomorrow meaning more shoveling
The trellis vine I pruned back too late
finally hides under great clumps of it
& the small tea-rose we planted this year
the one I felt sure would die this morning
sent up a single peachy-pink cup
tightly wound & florid above the snow
which made the boys bundled to their chins
in their warm winter coats laugh & laugh
The inhalation of his hello —
The goodbye of his baby—
he speaks these twins
as if played
from a phonograph
has nowhere better
The only weapon,
the only tool, he wields
against death is language.
I bring my infant son to him, to Herman. Here’s a fan I tell him, Herman. He’s not amused. He’s the great, great grandfather who for decades has written poems no one reads, or ever will read. For him the great sea has turned black as a cancer lined stomach. After landing the novels he is aground.
For his part the baby,
eyes wide and nearsighted,
yields spots, yellowed reasons
to draw another breath.
The first snow will fall
The brown bricks of the ground
promise certainty, a place to plop
Herman has never worried about being forgotten. He’s surprised we already have not. I pull up a chair, son cradled in my arms, and we talk. We talk about you. You arrive a little late with 2x2s, ten penny nails, a dozen angles for us to learn. And we do. You, readers of the future, the only weapon, the only tool, we wield against death is language, which you already know.
Today, Jeffrey S. Chapman responds to Thomas Kidd‘s “Visual Language of a Skinhead Wolverine.”
Yes, yes we don’t know what it is and it terrifies us, all this not knowing.
This is what we know: There’s a monster in the hills that has been stealing pets and chickens to take them back to the hills and, of course, eat them.
This is the story we want to hear: that when we gather into a loosely-organized, grassroots mob to track down and deal with the monster, when we finally get close in on her–or maybe him, we aren’t the experts when it comes to monsters or even gender, we are only really good at the grassroots stuff: flyers, bake sales, rallies–she hasn’t eaten the pets and chickens, instead she has brought them to her cave to play with them, indulge them, she is actually holding a tea party with them. She loves them. They might love her; they don’t understand the nuances of a tea party, but they seem happy for the most part. She turns her sad eyes to us upon hearing us approach mobbishly and she speaks. We can see by the way she juts her lower jaw out that it is a strain to produce human words from a monster mouth, and My friends, are we not more similar than we are different, she manages finally with trombone-like clarity. She extends her forelegs towards us, mimicking supplication. It is grotesque and moving. Look around you (a hodgepodge of chipped cups, a camp stove, a few framed & tawdry cross-stitch art pieces propped up on rocks to create a feeling of home), and tell me this is not also humanity. Do I not love? A young woman steps forward out of our mob, a woman who wears her hair in braids, and puts her two hands on either side of the monster’s face. She thinks she sees her mother’s eyes, eyes she hasn’t seen in over ten years since her mother died. She weeps and we weep and we stay for tea and gossip.
That is the story we would like to hear. It would be nice. Because if a monster can be redeemed, who amongst us can’t? If a monster can be erudite, can’t we all be erudite? Those are the best monsters: those who allow us to learn more about ourselves.
But no. That isn’t how it happens. We organize, we take to the hills, we find the lair; we don’t find the monster; we never find the monster. Nor do we find signs of humanity beyond the way the pet and chicken bones have been organized in three orderly piles. We learn nothing about ourselves; what is to be learned from piles of bones? Sometimes the monsters are simply monstrous.
Our pets and urban farm animals continue to disappear.
It is unsettling to have the monster in the hills, we all agree. If only there were a moral. Without a moral we get nervous. We stop going out alone. We stop talking to our neighbors. Only five middle-aged women attend the spaghetti and pancake function at the local Presbyterian church, and they snap at each other. Someone winds 25 skeins of yarn around the trunk of Mrs. Fitzgibbon’s birch tree in a gesture so random in its aggression to be indecipherable.
A young woman lives in town–the woman with the braids–and she is the only one who sees promise in destruction. She is a ballerina, or at least she walks like a ballerina, every step coming from the top of the head and extending through the toes. She walks everywhere. We avoid her for this and other eccentricities. We see her heading out into the hills alone at night. It gives us chills. She doesn’t mind walking alone at night; she has felt alone for a very long time.
Tonight she is dreaming that she will find the monster and that the monster will tear her apart. That is not a sexual metaphor. She walks up and up, into the red rock foothills, the sage and the ginny juniper. A coyote trots past; this she sees. She sees squirrels that look like baby squirrels but are full-grown. Pelicans are on the wing. The night is cold like it is only ever cold when the sky is clear of clouds and moon. The air is porcelain; it tastes dry. Everything is gathering. She wraps her coat closer around her and walks. She will find the monster. She will find the monster and look into her eyes. She will find her monster.
Today, Jacob Rhodes responds to Jeffrey S. Chapman’s “Yes, yes we don’t know what it is and it terrifies us, all this not knowing.”
For volume, please download http://drop.io/EverythingIsGathering.
Today, Nicole Walker responds to Jacob Rhodes’ “Everything Is Gathering.”
I went to the cellar for the seeds. We thought we’d saved enough. I’d collected seeds from the Hopi. My husband had kept several heritage varietals from his uncle. Sometimes, when we were bored and prescient, we ate our tomatoes, spit the seeds in our hands and dried them on the window sill like so many wishbones from Thanksgiving. We even saved Monsanto seeds–they said they wouldn’t grow again without their double-taxed permission but who believes in that many mechanical genes clicking around inside a miniscule seeds like microscopic figures from Tron? It’s not a matter of whether we believe or don’t believe. We’re out of seeds and, even if we had seeds, the rains that the weatherman promised are coming not from the sky but from the ground–great big bubbles of trouble–hot and shooting, like geysers or other unseemly projectiles. Still. We can’t over worry. Perhaps within the ground-cracking hot waters there’s a new seed or a new food or a new light. It’s dark and cold and we’re a little hungry but there is always tomorrow. The wishbone said so. The trees that have left their sticky shadow-pasts on the window sill so argue.
Tonight, the Moon Is a Bullet Hole
We’re driving up over the bridge, to the edge of the world, or, at least, to the edge of our crinkly old map. We’re driving into a foreign city that is really just a jumble of islands rising up to meet us as we crest their bridges, and I am thankful, at this moment, that my husband made me take the extra-strength drug.
It’s a dark dark night and the moon is a bullet hole, shot through a construction paper sky. In fact everything in downtown Vancouver seems cut out of an elaborate stencil – the white orbs and tubes of the street lights, the grids of lit windows checkering the sides of the hundreds of identical sky scrapers. It’s a set design of a city, perfect for a film about the future.
Our two-year-old son is passed out in the back. Buckled into his high tech car seat, he looks like a mini astronaut, from whom ground control has asked too much. We have blasted him through space, for five days. We have driven him up the side of an entire continent, crept along steep cliffs, and wound through prehistorically tall trees. We have frolicked with him in icy cold brooks and camped, covering ourselves with thin sheets of plastic. And now, “surprise!” We are sick.
My son got the virus yesterday, and it’s moving through him with intensity, flushing his cheeks, pushing tiny beads of perspiration onto his forehead. Asleep now, he’s never looked more angelic, more doll like, and I’m reminded of Victorian photographs of dead children, black and whites, where the pink has been rubbed onto their cheeks in perfectly round orbs.
“I read in my book that high fevers can cause seizures,” I tell my husband. There is tension; there is obstinance in my voice.
“They have to be really high,” he says, “I’m not worried,”
But I think he is cavalier. He’s an M.D., and he’s driving too fast, and I’m still angry with him for insinuating that I was paranoid when I sensed our son was getting sick. Angry with him now when he says, “I’m more worried about you.”
How has he become so good at spotting the onset of my mood gathering? This turning inward, the gathering up of everything into black and white, into me against him.
Still, I gather, gather, gather. Because I want to stay here, in this city for the night, and I imagine he wants to take the ferry to the tiny island, to search for a cabin in the wilderness. I imagine he wants us to reach our planned destination. Our finish line, all so we can take a picture and tell a good story. But I am done. I am tired of his “wilderness,” and believe only a tyrant (his profile is illuminated in a sharp silhouette against the window) would ask me to do this now.
We have done our nature duty, I will tell him. We have been humbled by the wind and rain. We’ve been tiny blips against sublime landscapes. We do not need to completely disappear.
He will say, “It’s not us, it’s nature that’s rapidly vanishing, we must see more!” and I will say, “If that is the premise, shouldn’t we practice living without it? Shouldn’t we practice sleeping in a city of the future, such as this one?” I will tell him, condescendingly, that his distinction between nature and civilization is partly artificial, that if he wants a wilderness, he should just look at me – at my hair, which has thickened and risen yeti-like around my head, and at my canines, sharper than I remember when I run my tongue over them. For I feel all the wildness of a grizzly rising inside me, when I imagine having to take my fevered boy over another body of water, into a cabin in the woods.
But as it went, something else happened, the medicine, the strong drug he made me take kicked in. Or, maybe I’m finally maturing. Maybe my wildness is vanishing too.
I simply say, “I’d like to stay in a hotel tonight.”
And he says, “I was thinking the same thing.”
Questions About Beauty
How wind finishes
wood into bone socket,
breath-only intoning over
and over it. How
summer’s fevered mind
gathers spool and frond
into nests lovely as they are
curious – I have
so many questions
about beauty. How black
shimmers in a wing,
why crickets remember light
in their shrill purr,
how unstill is any given leaf,
how many words there aren’t
for the idea of green. Why
does beauty elicit longing,
for what god? What if
splendor’s not in things but
transformations? The same
wind tarnishing a trunk,
thin reeds can capture into song.
Chrysalis, snakeskin, bay
wreath, splendid remnants
of change not wrought,
just witnessed. Attention
into ecstasy, feather
into moonrise, stem
into instrument and branch
into artifact, itself, again.
I have a recurring dream. In this dream I am a writer trying to write the perfect lesbian film.
I type and type but nothing seems to make sense.
Should I write about the past?
My first love?
My first cat?
My first feminist book club?
My first bar fight?
It’s been 20 years now and all I have are questions and more questions.
What type of Lesbian am I?
Am I the right type of lesbian?
Why did I get all those strange haircuts?
The more I search for answers, the more I feel like something is searching for me, but what?
Suddenly, she reveals herself. A lady in an owl mask. I think to myself, “Is that my Mom?”
As I unmask my predator I realize what’s been following me is me, but older…
Steve Tuttle responds to Julia Schwartz‘s paintings.
She’s standing there in the doorway, just standing there. And we have to wonder why she’s standing there like that, like someone who sees a doorway not as a thing to pass through, but as a thing to stand in, making a point by not passing through, refusing to pass through. Why is she standing there in our doorway – it is ours – and not passing through and not going away and not saying more than she is saying? What does she want? Because she must want something? Standing there in the doorway like that must mean something. But it’s hard to say.
She has asked us to please consider others, to be considerate of others who might be nearby, who might live on the other sides of these walls so thin they will hardly support a nail, these walls so thin they will hardly contain the heat we all pay too much for.
Are we inconsiderate people? Are ours the actions of people who fail to consider others? This look that passes between us, this look that hangs in the air like our frozen breath, this look says that we do not think we are the people she thinks we are. This looks says that one of us should say to the woman that we are not the culprits if culprits are what she’s after. This look is content to assume the passive voice and say that perhaps a mistake has been made.
The baby, she says, the baby. And we say, the baby? And she says that it would take so little, really, a little consideration is all she asks. All she asks, she says, standing there in the doorway that is very clearly ours and not hers is that perhaps we might consider others a bit more than we have. And here she raises up just a little, pushes forward onto the balls of her feet, stretches her neck like she’s a bird. She leans through the doorway that is ours and not hers, peers into the space that is ours and not hers, looking for the baby, the baby, that sweet, sweet, inconsiderate baby.
We are not inconsiderate people. We are not, of course, unaware of these thin walls that will do so little to muffle sounds meant for other ears. And we have wished – haven’t we – for walls just a bit thicker than these. But the baby? The baby is a baby. The baby has been a perfect baby, an ideal baby, a model baby. The baby has performed babiness with such perfection, such total perfection.
We have not slept well, it is true. And we have smiled our thin smiles and said to each other that one day, soon enough, we might refer back to this exhaustion like the others have done (have claimed to have done). And there have already been moments we regret, moments in which we have said oh, hell, or dammit, or when we sighed so heavily it was as though we had cursed our god or the graves of our grandmothers. There have been these moments – these moments that are ours, that belong to us and us alone – that are no business of this woman whose head, like a periscope, keeps searching for the inconsiderate baby.
We have not told her she can’t come through the doorway. We have not told her she can. We opened the door, as considerate people would. We said hello and smiled, as considerate people do. We allowed our brows to wrinkle, our faces to assume expressions of consternation, as any considerate people must, when she said that there was something the matter, something in need of correction. Our heads bobbed up and down while she talked, in a continuous state of agreement. Our heads said everything there was to say: that we are considerate people who will listen to the pleas of a hunched, old woman, who will wait patiently through her senseless preamble, who will speak in hushed tones when hushed tones are appropriate.
But, the baby? The perfect baby? The sweet baby that is ours and not hers? There has been crying, certainly. Oh, how our sweet, perfect baby cries when crying is necessary, when crying is the perfect, sweet, appropriate thing for a baby to do. Oh, how our baby cries when a baby ought to cry, when a baby must cry, when a baby would be mistaken not to cry. All that crying, all that crying, oh sweet baby, the crying you can do. But it’s part of the equation, isn’t it? Isn’t there an equation somewhere that always ends with crying, that must end with crying? Isn’t crying at the end of that equation and others, too. Weren’t we told to brace ourselves for this? Weren’t we?
She cranes her neck, clearly dissatisfied. She allows her weight, the little there is of it, to fall back to where it belongs, on her side of the doorway, the side that is not ours, the side that is also not exactly hers. Her face has this thing about it, this fixity. Her face is so perfectly unchanging. Her eyes are wide open but seem so flat and sleepy. Her lips are thin and form a perfectly straight line that looks as though it has never smiled. Her face is perfect and awful. Her face is perfect and mean. Her face is ready, at any moment, to assume a scowl, to glower.
May I? she says, and uses her hands to make a motion that suggests she is giving us something. She turns her palms toward us and opens her arms as though to escort herself into the room. No, we say, no she may not. And that does the trick. That puts a little curve in her perfectly straight, perfectly flat, perfectly vile little mouth. And then we apologize, make our own gestures – palms to the chest as though clutching our own hearts – and say, the baby, the poor, sweet thing. The baby, we say, and we shake our heads and purse our lips let our hands come together like an empty cup before us to show exactly how sorry we are. The baby, we say. Finally getting some sleep, we say. Thank the heavens, we say.
The baby, she says, we must consider the baby. The horizon of her mouth has found its equilibrium. Absolutely, we say. We can hardly tell you how happy we are that the baby is finally getting some sleep, we say. Yes, she says, we must consider the baby.
She is on the other side of the door, the side that is not ours. She is in the hallway. She is in the hallway that is not ours and not hers. She has every right to stand there in the hallway. She has every right. We thank her for nothing in particular. We whisper good night as though we just remembered to keep our voices very low, as though we have developed, of a sudden, some pressing need for stealth. We give the door a nudge, a quiet little nudge, and let it close gently, quietly, as though of its own accord.
Today, Silvana Straw responds to Jared Pankin.
After my grandfather’s funeral,
we drove the four hours
from Marysville back to New York,
my Dad and I blasting the stereo,
and singing Elton John songs
at the top of our lungs.
Night fell and we grew quiet,
as the red moon revealed herself above the mountain,
full of love and promise that it all makes sense.
Everything that day felt like we were in outer space…
it was all so sad and it was all so funny–
the funeral home, the cemetery–
Great Aunt Sally’s stories of Grandpa
eating her out of house and home…
and then onto the giant crater of Manhattan,
magnificent and still,
the new Trump buildings lit up like electric beehives,
one less light in the window.
Falling asleep in my little sister’s bed
with her window to the world,
I felt as though a thousand years had gone by–
as though I had crawled on my knees
to the center of the earth and back again,
and still knew nothing.
Dear Neighbor Part I
Dear Neighbor Part II
Dear Neighbor: Text/images from a video collaboration between Silvana Straw and Scott Wingo. They stumbled across the first letter from a neighbor one day taped to the wall in the hallway of Straw’s apartment building. The second letter is Wingo’s response — which he in turn taped to the wall in the hallway next to the original letter.
Silvana Straw is a poet, writer, performer and D.C.’s original Poetry Slam Champion. Her solo performances have been commissioned by The Washington Performing Arts Society and Dance Place. She has performed in venues throughout the U.S. including: GALA Hispanic Theatre and The Kennedy Center (Washington, DC); Galleria de la Raza (San Francisco); The Nuyorican Poets Café (NY); Out North Theatre (Anchorage); and The Art Institute of Chicago. Her work has appeared in publications such as Indiana Review and Conversations Across Borders. Earlier versions of Teratophobia have appeared on Gargoyle #52 and in the Short Fuse Anthology. For more information, click here: http://limpflig.blogspot.com/