Categories
2020 Poetry

Dorothy Chan

TRIPLE SONNET AND THREE CHEERS OF WHITE RUSSIANS

The couple at the bar wants to adopt me, even though I’m twenty-four, and I’ve just
ordered a White Russian, and my date’s
waiting for me with his pitcher of beer,
and what was I thinking, ordering a drink
with cream in it, but at least it’s not milk,
when the wife asks me to recite a poem—
“Just a line,” she says. “I want to hear
your voice more,” as she calls her husband
to come over, and I forget about my date,
wondering if these people are looking to make
their celebrity fantasy come true, quenching
their desires for an Asian baby, only I’m not
a baby anymore, despite what some men

try to call me, and I can’t be a baby, because
I behave myself way too much, and I wonder if
the three of us are actually starring in a play
of three acts: in Act I, my character meets them
at a bar, and the wife character says she wants
to adopt me, but the audience knows, and I know
what this woman and her husband really want
isn’t an adoption, but a three-way encounter, and
hello, that’s the beauty of theater: the truth always
comes out. And question: is it considered Oedipal
or Elektra if you bang someone who is playing
your parent? I’m asking for a friend, really, since
I can’t say I’d do it, because I’m not anyone’s
fetish, and look, I get it. I hate clothes, and I might

as well be wearing a bib with my crop top and
mini skirt, and I love the video of the drag queen
getting a bib in the mail, saying she’ll bedazzle it,
rhinestoning it all over, and that would solve
at least two of my problems, and I’m drinking
a cocktail with cream in it, but at least it’s not
milk, sitting atop a pool table, spreading my legs
just a little, but not too much, reminding me of
time the Russian architect offered to buy me bulk
candy if I watched a German film with him, and
no boy, no, don’t you dare try to buy me, and deep
down, I’m really such a good girl, and in this three-
act play, I end up leaving the couple at the bar, alone
with their fantasies, return to my date—chug his beer.


TRIPLE SONNET FOR CHARGING ADMISSION

Rita says I need to charge admission,
because my dress keeps riding up during
a performance, and that’s what I call art.
That’s what I call power. That’s what I call
walking into the room in the nude, and Alexa,
play something that takes me to the pink section
of the nail salon, also known as Yena’s favorites,
also known as the pink pussy section—orgasm
on the cheeks in the greatest shade of all time,
and thanks to you and you, and of course, you,
and aren’t fingers the most delicate feature on
a woman, other than the collar bone, and I love it
when celebutantes are asked what their favorite
body part is, and they all point to their collar bone,

like it’s some kind of hot girl secret code,
and brush on some highlighter there, ladies.
I love nuance, like a whiff of coconut milk cream,
also known as not giving it all away. But baby,
if you want to give it all away, I won’t blame you.
I won’t blame you if you want to march into the room,
skirt riding up, feeding ice cream to an audience
member, and save a little for me, why don’t you.
And I love nuance, or how in Art History 200,
we’re taught to study the way artists painted
the hands of their muses, or in the words
of a boyband, Do you want to hold her hand?
Does she come alive out of the canvas?

And I think of Raphael’s La Fornarina:

Margherita Luti holding up that gossamer fabric
over her breasts, and oh, that smirk, and oh,
that look into the camera. My heart pounds
for her, and I think wow, she really knew what
was going on, didn’t she, Raphael’s name on fabric
over her arm, and I heard he was the dreamiest
Renaissance man, marking his paintings with
one look into the audience, because in the words
of today, having a camera around makes life
just a little more worth living, which is a wise
saying by a wise woman. And Rita says I need
to charge admission, because my dress
keeps riding up during a reading, and all
I have to say is buy a ticket. Baby, I own it. I own you.


TRIPLE SONNET FOR LOSING MY VIRGINITY AGAIN

I dream of losing my virginity again
in Singapore when I’m in a deep sleep
on a queen bed with fluffed pillows
and white sheets—Good night, Dorothy.
And sometimes in life, I feel like a virgin,
because my ears aren’t pierced, no tattoos—
aren’t I such a nice girl for you to take home
to Mommy? Let me bake cookies for her,
messing up in pigtails and a frilly apron
in the kitchen, while the intercom yells,
Baking is a science, or some other gibberish
I don’t care for—I’m such a nice, wholesome
girl licking the batter, and cookie dough’s
the best topping for brownies and ice cream,

and I flash you on the countertop, a pink thong
exposing my butt cheeks, straight out of your
pornographic memory, straight out of a home
video—press play, lick my cake, press play,
lick my cake—go ahead and lick whipped cream
off my nipples, off my chest, and I dream
of losing my virginity again in deep sleep
in Singapore, but now I’m transported to
an office, sitting on an office chair, answering
office emails, and an office man opens the door,
and he’s got the same face as a man I knew
from college. I get up, stroke his hair, tell him
to sit down, and I want him to enter me, oh
so badly, and he enters me right then and there

on the office chair, my pink panties tossed
aside, and I moan in pain, I moan in pleasure,
but isn’t that so cliché, reading like romance
novels, or remember in the early 2000s
modeling competitions when girls faced off
with looks serving Harlequin covers—look,
she’s a milkmaid and he’s a farmhand. Look,
she’s a poor girl and he’s from the upper crust,
and back in the office, I moan more, then wake
in Singapore on a white bed with fluffed pillows,
and I feel pain. I feel like I’m bleeding, only
there’s no blood. I think about my double loss
of stupidity and how no pain will ever top
the pain I feel right now as I’m awakened again.


Dorothy Chan is the author of Chinese Girl Strikes Back (Spork Press, forthcoming), Revenge of the Asian Woman (Diode Editions, 2019), Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold (Spork Press, 2018), and the chapbook Chinatown Sonnets (New Delta Review, 2017). She was a 2020 finalist for a Lambda Literary Award in Bisexual Poetry for Revenge of the Asian Woman, a 2019 recipient of the Philip Freund Prize in Creative Writing from Cornell University, and a 2014 finalist for the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship. Her work has appeared in POETRYThe American Poetry ReviewAcademy of American Poets, and elsewhere. Chan is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and Poetry Editor of Hobart.

Categories
2020 Poetry

Nanya Jhingran

GRIEF

Today my gut is squashed-blackberry rotting on sidewalk. 
I want to say purple or spilled but I keep swallowing Bruise
And perhaps it is indigestion or constipated grief 
But it has valleyed into sour harvest and, besides the hedging,  
I am not doing a damn thing to clean up this rot.
Today I am reaping valor in futuring my own decay. 

I like to believe that I am mothering it, this decay.
That I found it, abandoned, on some dingy sidewalk,
That I didn’t have the heart to leave it laying in the rot, 
That I chose it, it chose me, and I brought it home, this bruise. 
I am swaddling it and feeding it ripe cherries and hedging 
A fence around its heart so it doesn’t fossilize to grief. 

The OED marks obsolete all meanings of the word grief.
Suggesting: for lack of evidence the word is in decay. 
To say that this very morning, as I found myself hedging 
against the bile come up my throat directly onto sidewalk, 
apologizing to strangers for spilling my invisible bruise, 
Grief seemed to be the only way to language this rot?

It is known that radiation turns poisonous when it starts to rot. 
Say when they first drop the bombs: it is grief, 
When your children play in its snowfall: a bruise, 
When you give birth to a grape or an octopus: decay.
I don’t know where to begin cleaning up: soiled sidewalk 
in a body fissuring to waste beside immaculate hedging. 

For this reason, I must begin with the hedge.
It stands so prepared, dressed so well, to witness my rot.
So confidently a part of and apart from this sidewalk. 
Under it, too, lay vines smothered in grief. 
Yet, it sits on its florid, nauseating throne of decay, 
And I stutter apologies around my lacerated bruise. 

I want to say purple or spilled and I keep swallowing bruise
Because I am trying to say it’s in the hedging: 
In it soured the greed and apathy. It is decay 
that they seed the poison, the bombs, the rot
then leave it all outside and abandon grief. 
All you are left with is uninhabitable sidewalk. 

So I am staying with decay and excavating the bruise, 
I am hacking at both sidewalk and hedging, 
And I am calling it rot but I mean: Grief. Grief. Grief. 


LET’S SAY THAT UNKINDNESS, TOO,

Let’s say that unkindness, too, 
can wear the look of care. 
Say one in the hand, is
worth two in the bush.
In these cherry-stained grasslands,
sincerity makes heady promises.
In rage I lemon-ball your eye,
find: an emerald glacier in pre-melt rest.
Say, hospitality looks different house by house,
house by house, I lose my grounding.
In the yellow one, all the tables are too tall;
my elbows a little skinned after dinner.
In the blue one time passes so quickly
I am always at angles with the furniture.
This year, everything lays within measure.
The whole house rolled out foot by foot.
I enter the room, piles of folded clothes
line the floor. Say, this too is 
An unkindness. On an August night, 
with all the loves of my life
stoking a makeshift campfire,
I no longer thirst for gardenias. 
I peel the floorboards, find marigolds
shrining a pilgrimage of ant-hills.
Despite basal tears over tonsured hair, 
I now write of the Hawthorne  
Docks in a baptismal way. Say, unkindness dissolves
  into kindness in the image of Home.
House by house, I dander into couches and
fall to the skin of so many cabinets.


Nanya Jhingran is a poet, scholar & community organizer from Lucknow, India currently living in Seattle, WA. Her work has appeared in Cathexis Northwest Press and is forthcoming in The Crossing and TRACK//FOUR. She holds an MA in Literature from the University of Washington-Seattle where she is now working on her PhD. When not reading books or writing poems, she is found cooking large meals for friends and chasing her cat, Masala, around the house. Twitter: @nanya_biznes

Categories
2020 Essays

Kat Moore

TREES, MONSTERS, WITCHES: FRAGMENTS OF BEING A GIRL

Taylor’s cute and kind. He’s seventeen, I’m sixteen. He’s the valedictorian, I’m the weird girl with the dead brother, dead from AIDS, back when so many gay men were dying. One night, we sneak out and meet each other at a park. We walk through the tall grass next to a golf course. A policeman pulls into the nearby parking lot, and shines his lights across the field. We collapse into the weeds, among the tiny bugs that have been nipping our ankles. We flatten ourselves, our backs in the earth, as the bright white light sweeps over us, barely missing our bodies. The cop eventually drives off. Probably doesn’t want to bother with two kids or the overgrown grass. When we raise up, my hair has dirt in it, tangled flecks of green, and I worry about how I look. How Taylor sees me. The day before, he said that he preferred girls who didn’t wear make-up, and so, on this night, my face is clear, no eyeshadow, no lipstick, no coverup, nothing at all. In the night, under the distant streetlamps, I wonder if he notices. If he thinks I look pretty, if he understands this transformation is for him.

~

Metamorphosis is the action or process of a person (the meta, the self) changing forms, usually by supernatural means. No wonder men think they are little gods.

~

Perhaps, I’m Daphne, daughter of a river god, friend to animals, adoring of the leaves on the trees, and the babbling water of creeks, chaste, like the goddess Diana. It is my body after all. But then there’s Apollo, thick muscles, all brawn and brute, and his gaze lands on me. I feel it, the weight in his look, the intention, the violence, and I run. My legs pump, my calves ache, Apollo, so close to seizing me, his fingers close to grabbing my flesh, and I open my mouth and cry out to my father, the river god, and plead that he change my body, transform me into something other than girl. I stiffen into a tree.

~

My senior year in high school, unpopular, Taylor, the cute boy, now off at college in another town, and it’s common knowledge around my school that my father is a drunk. The jock boys and my history teacher constantly pick on me, call me names, point at me in the hallway, whisper slurs about my brother who died. I fall in love with the riot grrrl movement. In an edgy teen magazine, I read about the riot grrrl band Bikini Kill. The pic is of them on a beach, but they aren’t sun-kissed with blonde hair and perfect bodies. One of the grrrls, Kathleen, has jet black hair with bright red fringe bangs. Tobi has a short red punky bob. Kathi’s blonde but pale and wears her hair short. Kathleen, in a bra and black skirt, tattoos on her arm and stomach, leans against Tobi. I buy all their records from a local shop, and listen to each and every song, and read each and every word in the liner notes. I learn about riot grrrl.

On a fall night, mere months after discovering them, Bikini Kill performs at small punk dive bar in my town. I dance around and sing along. Kathleen, the lead singer, wears a short dress with an image of a beefcake man on it. She’s notorious for her clothing. Sometimes she performs in a sequined top and black panties, and when her midriff shows, the word “slut” appears on her belly in black magic marker. Sometimes she wears her hair in pigtails like a little girl and howls their song, “Suck My Left One.” Their music makes me feel visible, makes me feel heard. Kathleen distorts what it means to be a girl. She has become something other than girl, other than the social construction of what a girl is. A rebellion of semiotics, she alters the symbol, and controls the signification. I stop shaving my legs and armpits, though, I start to wear make up again, black eyeliner, and bright red lipstick. At the same time, I cut off my long brown hair with a pair of dull scissors which mangle any consistent length, and I dye it black as coal. A dissonance between girl and me—a becoming—now, grrrl.

~

Older, in a college level lit class studying Metamorphosis, I realize that most women are changed into animal or tree in order to either escape violence from a man, or as a punishment for being the victim of violence from a man. I google the word morph and my browser suddenly takes me to morphe.com which features a colorful palate of eyeshadows on its home page. How appropriate, another way that women morph. Remember the you tube make-up tutorial, the one showing women how to shade their cheekbones, and the woman cackles, “wait until they find out we can shape-shift” but they, this masculine they, a patriarchal they, have always known. I mean, women have always burned for being witches.

~

At twenty-eight, I pile into Becca’s old Toyota, the small boxy kind from the eighties, the kind that doesn’t dent so easily, or fold in like plastic. Becca’s newly sober, like me. Both of us loud. Both of us lost with longing, unable to yet know what sobriety will transform us into. Both of us so delighted to not be in the twenty-seven club with Jimi, Janis, and Kurt. We are on our way to stalk, something Becca has talked me into. We think one of our friends, Kim, the nurse, the one who loves to dance and stick her tongue out, has snuck off with the guy I’m dating. We drive past Kim’s house first, and it’s dark on top of the little hill where her house, the one she’s renting in an attempt to offer her daughter some stability, quietly sits surrounded by freshly mowed grass. Kim hated mowing the yard, the way it slanted, and she always cursed over and over as she pulled the mower along the incline. Her house is dark and lonely up on that hill in the glow of Becca’s headlights.

Becca and I head to Rod’s apartments. We smoke cigarettes and blast music like we’re teenagers, and not women. We circle the parking lot of his apartments, and don’t see Kim’s car. I feel relieved, and silly, and a little embarrassed. Becca and I laugh at ourselves, and then let the guilt of doubting a friend sink into us. Becca turns onto a side street, and suddenly I see Kim’s black car, the one with the yellow paint on the bumper from where she backed into a pole.

“Stop!” I yell. Becca hits the brakes and stops parallel to Kim’s car. A fire surges through me. I don’t even care about hot Rod. I can’t believe Kim would do this to me. I want to find a brick and smash Kim’s windshield. I want to kick her car doors until they dent. I want to key “traitor” into the paint. I want to unleash curses on her. Sadly, I still want Rod to want me.

Becca asks, “What do you want to do?”

“Go,” I yell, and Becca’s tires screech as we pull out of there.

~

Or could I be Circe, born ugly in a family of beauty, but with a knack for magic spells, and I use my power against Kim as Scylla, causing dogs to bark where her legs once opened. All because of jealousy over a man. The gods banish me to an island, my own paradise over-run with animals, seafaring men who I transform into beasts, into lower creatures. On my island, I hold the top position of the hierarchy. I was forced out of society, yet, men still find their way to me, and one, Odysseus, tames me to his desires. My might no match for him. My sting gone.

~

When I’m twenty-two, a man rapes me. I transform into even more of a drug addict. I dive deeper into addiction, and pulsate with a need to obliterate. I don’t want to be more of an addict, I want to be gone. I feel gone. No longer grrrl, not woman, an absence where there was once meaning. The ultimate abjection of the self from the body. I steal my mother’s credit cards, and I rock shut, like Sylvia, until someone has to pick the bugs off me, so close to death, like all women who can’t be who they are and have to change. Is this our only means of survival? Like a caterpillar to a butterfly but more violent, a gross leaky woman into a junky with bruises on her arm.

~

Now, I’m Medusa, the one the goddess Athena turns into a monster with snakes for hair. My hair hisses and writhes, and my face turns men into stone. A woman turned monster as punishment for being raped. Yet, instead of a snake biting me, or tricking me to eat an apple, I am now the snake. Now, men can’t look at me. If they do, they will turn into stone. What wonderful powers! What if Apollo had been turned to stone? What if the man who raped me had stiffened in this way, limbs turned to rock, unable to move, when he first saw me? But if men can’t look, if men can’t control you, then you become monster.

~

When I’m twenty-five years old, I check myself into a long term rehab facility. When I arrive, I look sick, yellow skin, and dull eyes. After a month, my skin tone blooms back, my eyes bright and alive, healthy. My mother brings me new clothes to wear. Tops and jeans that fit me and aren’t falling apart like the clothes I had brought with me. The rehab is coed. The men on one side, the women on the other. We all share common spaces, but aren’t allowed to speak to the opposite sex. I’m young, thin but curvy, and the men stare at me in the dining room, in the day room when I play ping pong with another woman, and during group time.

One day, the director, Ms. Nola, takes the women for a walk around the neighborhood. She’s an older woman, and has been sober for twenty years. Her voice reminds me of my grandmother’s. We walk on the sidewalk, past the run down bungalow houses with shutters that hang lopsided around windows, porches held together by splintered wood. Ms. Nola tells us young women, “You know the men will look.” And I look at the leaves on the trees whose branches we pass under. “They will look, and it is your job to keep them from looking.” I only half pay attention to what she says. I am more enchanted by the way the wind rattles through the trees. One of the trees has white buds blooming, and I wonder if I’m really done with drugs, done with the life I had been living, done with being the addict I had become. Ms. Nola suddenly grabs my hand, and says, “Your momma has to bring you some oversized t-shirts, until then, you can’t be in the common areas with those men.”

~

I sit on the floor of Becca’s living room. We sit on the dull blue throw rug, an ashtray for cigarettes in between us. Becca flips tarot cards to tell me my future. “Oh, Miss Kitty,” she says, using the nickname my mother called me, and intentionally adding the Miss as an allusion to the prostitute on Gunsmoke. We love fallen women.

“I see hope,” she says as she points to the Empress card, “This is you.”

We stay on the floor. Read more cards until we get the answers we want. The ones that make us happy. Make us forget we are both newly sober. Barely hanging on. Her card, the Queen of Cups, the blonde ruler, full of intense emotions. Loud. Outspoken. A Katharina, still a shrew, still at the beginning of the play. That night, we both have futures.

~

Katharina exclaims, “If I be waspish, best beware my sting.”

Married to the man who responds, “My remedy be to pluck it out.”

Katharina goes from a woman with a fierce spirit to a woman beneath her husband’s heel. Her final speech at the end of Taming of the Shrew places me on the edge of tears, a knot in my stomach, as Katharina renounces her former strength, and calls for all women to stay in their lower places because their minds are as weak and soft as their bodies. Total obedience and submission to her husband, “thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,/ thy head, thy sovereign…” But why does a play, a fiction, one often labeled as comedy, cause me to cry? Because the beliefs contained inside Kate’s speech are still present today, still firmly planted in the mainstream. Because my name is Katherine and I’m always being told to simmer down. When I was little, I heard of Kate the shrew, and I couldn’t wait to read the play, to see this fierce young woman raise a ruckus. Then I read the play. Katharina is abused. How comedic. How funny. We all know the common joke:

What do you tell a woman with two black eyes?

Nothing. She’s already been told twice.

~

Years later, just before Thanksgiving in 2018, Becca’s husband shoots her, and then shoots himself. They both die. No one knows what happened. But many speculate. Almost everyone believes that Becca ran her mouth, snapped at her husband, possibly hit him in the head. A woman, a mutual friend says, “You know how Becca could be.”

~

Perhaps, Becca is Eurydice dancing with nymphs. Imagine them all beautiful among the flowers, the sun in their hair, arms reaching out and up to the sky, not a care in the world, that feeling of freedom as wind blows through them, the pollen kicks up dust like swirls of confetti. In another version, a man sees her beauty and chases her, a woman running through fields, fleeing from a man, her feet tapping earth as she runs. In both, a snake bites her, and she dies. Her husband Orpheus descends into hell for her, and woos Hades with his lyre playing. Hades allows Eurydice to follow her husband out of the underworld. Hades warns that Orpheus mustn’t look at her. Almost out of the underworld, the light from the world filtering in up ahead, unable to hear her footsteps, Orpheus worries she is no longer behind him. He turns to look at her, and as his eyes see her, she disappears. Did Hades suck her back in as mere punishment for not following his directions? Or did Hades know that while Eurydice was still a shade, not a fully corporeal form, she wouldn’t be able to withstand his gaze? Perhaps the point is that the male gaze causes women to cease to exist.

Becca is no longer here because of her husband.

~

Or maybe Becca is Medea, full flight in a chariot, the sun god chasing her across the sky.

~

I’m five years old, and I run with a whole pack of kindergarten girls, Medusa, Eurydice, Katharina, Circe, Becca, Kim, girls with ponytails and pigtails, and Velcro tennis shoes, rays of sun hit our faces, small beads of sweat form on our temples, and all of us girls, little goddesses, panting in pursuit of a fifth grade boy. The boys do it to us. The kindergarten boys. They chase me almost daily, and when I cry, I’m told that the boys just like me. So none of us girls understand what’s wrong with our lungs pumping, legs running, little arms reaching out to the older boy.

We’re scolded. We sit in punishment atop the hot asphalt, the heat stings through my jeans. Circe complains, tells them that they will all be sorry. Medusa and Kim hiss at the teachers. Becca and Eurydice ignore everyone and braid each other’s hair. Katharina kicks one of the boys in the shin. Teachers, red-faced, shout, point, and condemn us girls as un-ladylike.

The next day, Timmy chases me, reaches out his leg and trips me, and as I fall, I see the clouds in the sky, hear the babble of the creek behind the playground, almost touch the edges of the stiff tree so close to where I land. No one comes to yell at Timmy, no one comes to tell him not to chase me, not to trip me, not to make me fall face first in dirt and split my lip. After all, boys will be boys.


Kat Moore has essays in Brevity, Passages North, Diagram, The Rumpus, Entropy, Hippocampus, Whiskey Island, Salt Hill, New South, Split Lip, and others, as well as forthcoming in Image Journal, and Hotel Amerika. Her fiction can be found in Cheap Pop Lit, Hobart, and Craft, An essay of hers appears in the anthology Bodies of Truth: Personal Narratives on Illness, Disability, and Medicine.

Categories
2020

Zackary Medlin

LEFT

alone like a cabin gutted by fire
until naught but black bones
stand scorched. Ribs of a roof
that used to shelter shed soot
like the antithesis of snow
when the wind blows through.
The kudzu that consumes so much
of the state wraps itself around
the rafters, crawls through
the empty sockets left in the wake
of windows broken by the kids
that explore sites like this as
a sort of rite. But this is not
a haunted place; rather, what’s left
after the ghosts go home. Imagine it
in an auburn hour in late autumn,
when the groundcover crackles
with each step through a litter
of rusted leaves and the air’s gone
dry as a husk. It’s a form of grief,
to stay upright in a state like this.
The want is for those invasive vines
to strangle you back into the earth,
to become corpse covered, in time,
by a small copse of black tupelo
surrounded by red oak. The want is
for all the leaves that died bright
but brittle in their burning to be
rattled loose by the fall winds.


Zackary Medlin is the winner of the Nancy D. Hargrove Editor’s Choice Prize, the Patricia Goedicke Prize in Poetry, and a recipient of an AWP Intro Journals Award. He holds an MFA from the University of Alaska Fairbanks and is currently a doctoral student at the University of Utah. His recent work can be found in The Cincinnati Review, Jabberwock Review, Cutbank, and Colorado Review.

Categories
2020 Poetry

Kevin Madrigal

GUALMAR

after Terrance Hayes

I come from a long line of code-switching enunciations
Gualmar, Cosco, Estánfor, & Piksa Hoot all in my neighborhood
& matter of fact everyone I know works there. I was once asked
to report anything “suspicious” as I drove by a kids toy motorcycle
straddling highway dividers that made me question illicit definitions.
I’m from “hijos de su chingada madre” straight out the
hocico of mi chingada madre. Phrases as sacred, aftermath not
calculated till A+’s in algebra & English teacher scolded parents
nuisance & unfocused & illiterate & diction deficient
“hijo qué dijo tu maestra” y “nada, no te preocupes” translating signs
from English to Spanish soon as I learned to breathe. CA my home
they say it’s empathy’s fault that causes these quakes. I took cover
when the 4.3 hit, sister shouting to stop shaking her bed. My ancestors
whispered in my ear to unfinish degrees advised otherwise, true to
blood that circulates through these frijolero veins. I’ve been asked:
What the 5 fingers say to the face? What the fajo say to the nalgas?
What the chubby boy say to esteem? Self-doubt express the only way
I know home. I’m from a technicality, youngest in my family
miscarried unmet sister would have beared a beautiful
first communion dress, instead it was me. My search history reeks
of fermented agave & missing employee names + obituary. South City
& Zapopan raised me. Dutch crunch sandwiches & tortas ahogadas
would test positive in my curly hair, if my culture was considered
a drug; a threat. Which it is. I come blessed like the
15 Virgen de Guadalupes found in my home. They say I never stay
put & yet laid me in a crib. When the morning came I was out
the door crawling, walking, running
& I haven’t stopped since.


Kevin Madrigal is a decolonizer of food, art, and health. He is a Chicano first-generation child of inmigrantes Mexicanos from Sur San Francisco. In 2016, he founded Farming Hope in San Francisco to provide employment opportunities in food for folks experiencing homelessness. Through his writing he hopes to honor his ancestors and work towards a better future within his community. He is working on a collection of poems about anxiety and promoting positive mental behaviors through acknowledging, identifying, and countering disruptive thoughts. In his free time, you can find him listening to hip-hop / rap and on the dance floor with friends.

Categories
2020 Poetry

Alexa Doran

FOR MY SON WHO ASKS WHY

Maybe we only get to be a mother once
and the rest is repetition I keep thinking
I’ll get another chance at the garden
to glow slick with some stamen to honey
and honey this womb Have you seen the
conifer twirled in winter this is the gentle
with which I would shimmer if I could
double and brew but puff puff pass out
is hardly a bedtime story even if the dragon
is delicate not gory even if the sirens
shed their sex dredged sweat and invite
you to tarry who is to say I deserve two
I never thought of semen as another kind
of dreaming but lately it has the same
oracle bright shade crystal balls emanate
and if I could just gather in its gloss
muck my ovaries and toss in its wake then
what then I could fan out: so many blades


Alexa Doran is the author of the chapbook Nightsink, Faucet Me a Lullaby (Bottlecap Press 2019), and is currently a PhD candidate at Florida State University. Her series of poems about the women of Dada, “The Octopus Breath on Her Neck,” was recently released as part of Oxidant/Engine’s BoxSet Series Vol 2. You can also look for work from Doran in recent or upcoming issues of Passages North, Salamander, Pithead Chapel and Harvard Review, among others.

Categories
2020 Poetry

Dujie Tahat

BALIKBAYAN FOR MY STEP-SISTER FOR THE FIRST & ONLY TIME WE MET

Sorry I made you cry. I was crying, too, at
your door in your crying father’s arms. I
didn’t know you’d be there. I was yelling
when I hung up on pops last. A weaker conn-
ection. A crack in a golden Beamer’s wind-
shield. A hairline. Then all at once black &
yellow static slid into the astonished gap
between his lips. Not a word since. What else
have I been silent about? To whom? I have to
say: I love you. It’s almost impossible to be-
lieve. My son is your age; my youngest, your
sister’s. In my bed they still sleep, so some
nights when I rise, it’s from your dreams.


Dujie Tahat is a Filipino-Jordanian immigrant living in Washington state. He is the author of Here I Am O My God, selected by Fady Joudah for a Poetry Society of America Chapbook Fellowship, and SALAT, selected by Cornelius Eady as winner of the Tupelo Press Sunken Garden Chapbook Award. Their poems have been published or are forthcoming in POETRY, Sugar House Review, ZYZZVA, Southern Indiana Review, and elsewhere. Dujie has earned fellowships from Hugo House, Jack Straw Writing Program, and the Poetry Foundation, as well as a work-study scholarship from Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. They cohost The Poet Salon podcast.

Categories
2020 Poetry

Caroline Chavatel

RESTRICTION IS THE NAME I GIVE THE MOUTH I
WANT TO OPEN


When we cannot sleep
it is as if the sky chokes
the room. Outside shifts.

The only place soft enough
to palm is a bombless field.

In the after, no after, no—

On the radio, static. Outside,
a photographer learning

what her hands might make.
Night tears itself like a cloud.

Outside shifts.

Daybreak: soft, forgettable,
the only hiding spot they’ll

never find, a room for
undress. Tragic, really:
the rehearsed pageant of day

in the city street, the hands,
what they forage. I get lost
in the squall. A bombless

field. The photographer
learning to form, to function:
the lie of a photograph

heavy in what it holds outside
its frame. When we cannot

sleep it is as if our

nightmouths shut, refusing
to open until light.


NEW MONEY

In this it resembles the old money:
America, some expired red
bank card, empty in its gold hoard.
I never signed the back. All the new
thinking is about money and how
to reach it and I read a study called
THE ORIGINS OF CREATIVITY
about successful artists who come
from wealth. To come from wealth:
like we are hatched from the dollar’s
crisp breast as children of this dark
machine. This argument is elegy
to what it signifies. I fight
with my friends over beers about
stipends and waivers so we can
survive in graduate school, in the
heat of professional development
and expert exploitation. We want
to be rich because plane rides
cost money. We are love animals
and distance is the unit that feeds us.
We talk like we know what’s coming
next, we recite blackberry blackberry—
On a Sunday in New Mexico,
I retrieve some old money
from a drawer to do laundry.
It is hot and dry. While I wait
for vacancy, I talk to J
on the phone about ethical
consumption and its impossibility
in this delirious state of buy.
We get naked like it’s our job.
I say to the street-side lamp, expose
me, like I would to a lover.
The washer is in use, cycles.
I keep an eye on my clothes
because my new neighbors have
a tendency to browse like magpies.
I tell J all relationships are
about loss and in this they resemble
the departing flight, the long goodbye.
It is always about loss prevention
while the machine hums like
a woodpecker in its rhythms.


Caroline Chavatel is the author of White Noises (GreenTower Press, 2019), which won The Laurel Review’s 2018 Midwest Chapbook Contest. Her work has appeared in Sixth Finch, AGNI, Poetry Northwest, Gulf Coast, Poetry Northwest, Prairie Schooner, and The Journal, among others. She is editor and co-founder of both Madhouse Press and The Shore and is currently a PhD student at Georgia State University.

Categories
2020 Fiction

Anne Carney

BARBIE DEATH STAR

Sometimes Joan thinks she sees her daughter Shannon–just a flash of her as the light shifts through the sheer curtains. Sometimes the feeling almost seems to solidify beside her on the couch or behind her elbow, as she butters toast in the kitchen–just waiting to snatch one of the pieces from Joan’s plate. “Get your own!” Joan had snapped last week, and when she realized she was talking to the shadows from the clouds drifting over the skylight, she felt it all over again. It was a little like banging a toe into a sharp corner. She can’t get into the habit of being alone. Her body isn’t attuned to it yet.

Joan writes the addresses of promising sales in a neat column. Because she is left-handed, she crabs her fingers around her sentences, as if protecting her words. Sheltering them. She rinses her coffee mug and leaves it in the sink. Laces up Shannon’s Converse All Stars. They are white, and covered with lettering in blue inkpen. Also, there is a phone number scrawled across the tongue. “Buy tampons!” is written on the rubber strip by the toe. Joan wonders if Shannon really needed the tampons, or if it was a line of subversive feminist poetry.

She takes an empty storage tote from the stack in the garage, and puts it into the back of the minivan. One tote-full of Barbie dolls, packed well. Then her weekend mission will be complete. Barbies in any condition are fine. Any iteration of Barbie in any state of dress or undress. Bald or braided or stippled with the tiny pockmarks of cat teeth–it doesn’t matter. Sometimes, it takes her a day. Sometimes, all weekend and into the next week, making it necessary to scour eBay and place ads on the internet. Joan likes to get clever with the ads. “Desperately seeking Barbie . . .”

Barbie should be stacked like wood–face pressed against tiny pointed feet. Layer one–bosoms up. Layer two–bosoms down. And so on. It’s slow going. Spring cleaning is over. Summer vacation cash grab, over. Now, it’s people with pill habits. They’ve already picked the attics and basements clean of anything worthwhile. Then, the tool sheds and garages. Now, they’re desperate: Frayed sweaters, mismatched dishes, formula-stained baby clothes, Christian devotionals with handwritten supplications and dogged underlinings. By four o’clock, Joan has only two full rows, and barely more than half of the third.

She’s tired. A sad day without the gleeful texts from Shannon with pictures of her newly captured plunder. A sad day, with the cagey eyes of old women following her movements as she picks up vases and melamine bowls, and sets them back down. “I’m looking for Barbie,” she phrases her statement as a question, to which all but a few shake their heads. “No. No Barbie.” They’d had boys, or their girls had grown up years ago, or they didn’t believe in Barbie, as one woman told her. Didn’t believe in Barbie?

Back at home, Joan pulls the staircase down to Shannon’s workroom over the garage. It’s getting colder out. This is the time of year when the electric goes way up because of the space heater Shannon lavishly employs. Employed. The quick, sharp realization stabs at Joan, but she moves through it. Breathes through it. She hasn’t been up here since before. Her studio, she’d called it.

Joan sets the tote of Barbies at the top of the stairs and turns the worklight on. The old dining room table is pushed against the wall. There are apothecary jars full of barbie parts for easy access. One has hands. One has heads. Another is filled with tiny plastic high-heeled shoes. So delicate, Barbie’s forced arch. Joan dips her fingers into the jar of hands. They move around choppily, stabbing into her skin. “Deceptively strong,” Joan says to herself. She feels like Shannon is watching her. Approving of her comment.

She walks around the space in a slow circle. Shannon had been an art teacher at a small private school. She had an MFA from an expensive college. Her father had refused to pay for it, but she’d been able to get some sort of funding. Joan didn’t understand it. For her final project, she’d made a large, puffy chaise lounge in the shape of a vagina. She’d said it was her “shesis.” This same chaise lounge was set under the dormers and backlit by pink fairy lights. Joan switches them on. The chaise beckons to her.

She toes off Shannon’s Converse and sits on the chaise. She jumps a little as the soft flaps form themselves around her like a warm hug. There’s some kind of gel-like foam in it. It conforms to Joan. She settles her head back, but jerks it away as she realizes that the pillow is a plump, pink clitoris. Laughing, she snuggles down deep. The lights sparkle around her.

When she wakes, full dark has fallen. Joan thrashes about to escape the vagina and sets her feet against the cold floorboards. Rubbing her face, she slips the shoes back on. She delays the trip downstairs to eat her solitary supper. Walking around the room, she tries to see Shannon’s projects with a new perspective. Art. She had avoided calling it art before. It seemed like an insult to the paintings in museums–lifeless and static–placed against white walls, needing the silent breath and echoing footsteps of false reverence. Shannon’s art is quite different.

Joan is surprised at the religiosity of the pieces. Each one, made entirely from Barbie dolls. Joan sees a large crucifix, maybe six feet tall, made of tiny Barbie hands, as if supporting the tortured form of Christ. He is affixed to the apparatus with Barbie’s earrings, bright drops of nail polish blood spiral down his tortured form. His arms are made from Barbie arms, corded muscles are suggested by the mass of glued appendages. Some darker. Some lighter. Joan reaches out to touch him. His legs are made of legs. His feet are made of feet, overlapping like fish scales. He’s a stocky Jesus, not serpentine or elongated. He looks more peasantlike, this thick Jesus. He has a low center of gravity. His face, a distorted cubist sculpture. The smooth, plastic Barbie flesh is removed of its overt sexualization, and become something else. Joan doesn’t understand.

There is something blue in the corner. Joan snorts a little because she knows what it is. Last Christmas, someone had stolen the Mary figure from the light-up nativity set at the Nazarene church. Mary is big. Four and a half feet tall. Joan wonders how she missed her. There had been quite a scandal, and Joan can’t believe that she’s even surprised that it was Shannon who had taken her. Who else? Kids, the police had speculated, in the pages of the small weekly newspaper. Joan sighs. “I should have known,” she says softly. She thinks for a second that she can hear Shannon laughing.

Now Joan must go downstairs and illuminate the darkened, empty house. She has a freezer-full of casseroles from the funeral, but she is tired of starchy, heavy food. There is a broccoli salad in the fridge that she made this morning. She wants to watch the news while she eats it. The voices make her feel less alone.

Dragging Mary out of the corner, Joan notices a stack of her best Tupperware stacked under the eaves. She’d asked Shannon if she knew what had happened to that Tupperware, and Shannon had looked her right, straight in her face and told her she didn’t know. Everything with Shannon had to be a fight. She’d taken up so much energy, not caring that Joan worried relentlessly about her.

When Murphy came to the door that night, what was it? Two months ago? Already? He’d taken off his police hat, and was holding it in his large hands. She’d known it was Shannon.

“What is it, Murph,” she’d asked him.

He did not answer immediately, and she did not invite him inside although he was her friend and had been there many times. Instead of pressing him–instead of letting the urgency within her swarm around the both of them–she leaned against the doorframe and cherished that small sweet space between knowing and not knowing.

Meghan had promised Joan that she wasn’t going out to work on her guerrilla art installments, as she called them. She said she was only going out with friends that evening, but she’d fallen off the old stone railway bridge just south of town where she’d been suspending a creation made entirely of Barbie heads. They’d been attached to lengths of fishing line, an undulation of Barbie heads meant to sway in the wake of cars driving through the tunnel.

The installation had been successfully affixed to one end of the tunnel and fed through to be attached at the other end. Twelve feet by four. Joan had done the math. There were twelve hundred Barbie heads in the installation, their hair braided together in a tattered net. Shannon’s head had broken against the road when she fell, the blacktop perhaps still releasing exhausted waves of late August heat. All but one corner of the Barbie net was attached. A pertly macabre carpet of upturned Barbie faces witnessing the death of her only child.

Shannon would see it as romantic, dying for her art. Dying, perhaps, in a silly way. Yes, Shannon would have put her hands on her knees and dissolved into peals of giggles. She looked like an elf–lithe and little, her features often contorted with the dime-flash contrast of mirth and anger.

Joan goes downstairs, dragging Mary with her, the plastic from thunking emptily on each step. The Nazarenes had been so righteously outraged over the theft, but there wasn’t much to her anyway. A plastic, light-up Mary? Cheap and tacky. Joan’s fingers follow the placid, plastic contours of Mary’s face. She wishes Shannon had stolen a more substantial product, like maybe from the Catholics. They had a lovely nativity, hand-carved and painted in Italy.

Joan puts Mary in the corner of her bedroom, then she gets the broccoli salad from the fridge. The directions say to leave it overnight, to allow the bacon and onion flavors to meld together, but Joan will eat it now. She turns the news on. Someone has set fire to the odd concrete house on the outskirts of town. A giant fantastical concrete orb, constructed in the 70s and meant to withstand any number of natural disasters, yet it had succumbed to fire. The rubbish inside had collapsed and had likely fueled the fire until it fissured the concrete, causing it to crumble.

Nobody had ever lived in the house. It had sat there for generations; bait for horny teenagers and You-Tubers until one group or the other had likely tossed a still glowing cigarette into the sphere. There is footage before the collapse, flames leaping out of the windows. It was a gorgeous image. Shannon would have been delighted.

The orb had stood by the side of the highway for most of Joan’s life. She remembers when it was clean and new, and people expected that it would one day be finished. By the time Shannon was born, hopes of its completion had been long since given up. The owners had tried and failed to sell it many times. The windows had been broken, the doors smashed. Brush grew up around it, prickled and scraggly. Now Shannon is gone, and so is that damn house. It seems wrong to Joan, maybe because each–in their own unlikely way–should have been indestructible.

Joan turns off the television. She doesn’t mind as much, watching the current events that take place elsewhere. She feels insulated, if not by privilege, at least by geographic removal. But this, this house. This landmark. She can’t. So she takes the broccoli salad and goes back up to Shannon’s studio. She sits at the work table and forks the broccoli into her mouth while she turns the pages of Shannon’s sketchbook.

She sees the plans for the Barbie crucifix. Sees that it is meant to be suspended somewhere. But where? She sees a plan for a Last Supper diorama, made all of barbie parts. Blasphemous. Joan shakes her head. The crucifix doesn’t bother her like this does. Maybe it’s because she’s seen the crucifix. It’s real to her. She catches her breath. Here is the drawing of the heads attached to the fishing line.

Joan turns the page quickly. Takes another bite, and tries to swallow the bloom of grief rising up her neck. There is a drawing of a rounded scaffold of barbie limbs, interlocking in a chain design. It rises up and up like a spiral with appendages randomly jutting off of it. This one is in color. Shannon’s notes specify that melted crayons are to be dribbled over the structure. It is quite lovely. It reminds Joan of birds, drifting on air currents. Shannon’s attention to detail really was superb. She had talent, Joan acknowledges. She’d often wished Shannon would use it for something less creepy and weird. There are no heads in this design. Joan supposes that the heads had been used already in the installation that had killed Shannon. These were the leftover parts.

Joan opens one of the large totes under the table. Legs. In another one, she finds arms. Taking a generous handful of each, she begins to wire them together bending them into a gentle coil as the chain grows. She feels sloppy and awkward. The whole thing slips apart. She needs glue. She begins again. By the time she is done, she has one loop of Barbie limbs the size of a hula hoop. She imagines Shannon surveying her progress, hands on slim hips.

“You never even cared about my work before,” she says.

“I spent every weekend looking for these damn things for you,” answers Joan. “I still do.”

But Joan knows that invisible Shannon is right. She only went Barbie hunting to humor Shannon, and because it was a way to spend the weekend connected to her daughter, however tenuously.

“What’s with all the Catholic stuff?” Joan asks.

“Catholicism is like herpes,” Shannon grins. “You can’t get rid of it, and sometimes, it festers.”

Joan rolls her eyes. Even in her imagination, Shannon is a blasphemous smartass. But she does wonder about the religious nature of the work. She’d given her a biography of Dorothy Day shortly before she died, hoping that Day’s subversive, radical brand of Catholicism might bring Shannon back around. She remembers being flattered that Shannon had taken Joan as her confirmation name, but she’d told her mother that it was because Joan of Arc was a cross-dresser, and obviously gay.

Joan is somehow transformed by the work in Shannon’s studio. She stays in, day after day, gluing and wiring and bending. Talking to Shannon. She eats all the food in the house. The broccoli salad. The rest of the frozen funeral casseroles, starting to get frostbitten, but still hearty. She runs out of toilet paper and uses Kleenex. Runs out of Kleenex and uses paper napkins. She runs out of food and eats the rest of the Halloween candy from last year.

The project has begun to resemble the sketch in Shannon’s book.

“Not bad,” says Shannon. “Did you eat my candy?”

Joan’s hair is auburn, once vivid as autumn but now faded into pink, like milk stirred into tomato soup. It clumps against her head, unwashed. The seat of her sweatpants is saggy. She vacates the studio space only for her bed with the sheets gone sour, and the protection of her Mother Mary with her forty-watt circle of yellow light. After a month of this–or maybe longer–Murphy starts to knock on the door. Joan doesn’t answer. He leaves a bucket of chicken one day. She kneels on the tiled floor of the entry and eats it in large bites, pulling clean bones from her mouth with greasy fingers.

The third time Murphy comes, he doesn’t leave. He sits in the bentwood rocker on the covered front porch. Joan sees him through the sidelights of the front door. The rocker–which was intended to be ornamental–sags under his weight. His plaid shirt is fastened over the curve of his belly, the buttons almost straining apart, but not quite. Joan ignores him. He reaches into a shopping bag and pulls out a covered dish. Joan is hungry. The chicken was how long ago? Two days? A week?

Joan opens the door. Murphy sets the casserole on the entry table and takes Joan by the hand. He leads her into the master bathroom and kneels by the tub. Opens the taps and stirs the water with his arm. Then he takes one of the good towels off the bar. It is only for decoration. It is stiff with sizing and embroidered with glossy thread. He places the towel gently in Joan’s hands. He closes the door behind him, but Joan opens it. Now that he is here, she can’t be alone. He turns his back while she removes her clothes and steps into the tub. She tucks her knees under her chin and rests her head on them. Murphy washes her back. She cries.

After dressing, Joan eats. Murphy has brought shepherd’s pie, his own recipe in which every usual ingredient of shepherd’s pie has been replaced with something Murphy likes better. Instead of peas and carrots, there is buttered corn. Instead of mashed potatoes there is a layer of cheese-infused tater tots. He also has brought Miller Lite and after one, Joan’s head is buzzing. She hasn’t drank since the glass of wine she had that night, right before Murphy came to the door to tell her about Shannon. They don’t speak much.

“So, did Shannon take that Mary from the Nazarenes?”

“I like her. She helps me sleep,” says Joan. “I’m finishing her work.”

Murphy follows her up to the studio. He laughs when he sees the vagina couch. Joan tells him it’s comfortable and invites him to try it out.

“Did you see about the round house?” he asks her. “I always loved that thing.”

“Murphy,” Joan says. “Will you help me?”

Murphy has been a cop for twenty years, and still works the second shift. In the morning, he comes to Joan’s house and helps her. He brings donuts and bottles of Bailey’s and 64-ct. boxes of Crayola crayons, the kind with the sharpener built in.

“They have boxes now with 152 crayons,” says Murphy. “It’s excessive. I think that’s the problem with the millenials.”

“Their problem is they have too many crayons?” Joan says.

“No. It’s more that they have too many choices, but they don’t lead anywhere, maybe. I think it stresses them out. They worry too much if they’ll make the right one,” says Murphy. “I’d tell them not to worry so much, you know? If I had kids, I wouldn’t let them worry. It’s all so arbirtrary.”

“Yeah,” says Joan. “Hold this.” She hands him a butane culinary torch, and rips open a fresh pack of Crayolas.

“As far as I’m concerned, anything more than the 64-pack is just vulgar. How many colors can our eyes even see? This isn’t Heaven,” she says. “It’s like the grocery store. The last time I went, I tried to buy toothpaste but there were too many kinds. I couldn’t get any. Maybe it’s because it was the first new tube since Shannon.”

“Or shampoo,” said Murphy. “Why so many kinds?”

The floor of the studio is covered with wax dribbles in 64 colors.

“They brought in new colors and took some away,” Murphy says. “Why did they take out lemon yellow?

“That was so light, you couldn’t see it,” says Joan. “It was too thin as a color.” She surveys their progress. “It kind of reminds me of those wine bottle candles that hippies used to have. Remember? My mother had one. Wax dribbled all down it.”

“We can’t do the rest of it up here,” says Murphy. “We won’t be able to get it out.”

So they load up Joan’s van on Wednesday afternoon, because Wednesday is Murphy’s Saturday. They’d cleared out the totes with the arms and legs. They’d used the contents of the apothecary jars, and Joan’s good Tupperware. They’d melted thousands of crayons, making vivid confetti of the paper coverings. Murphy gets a ladder from the rafters and puts it in the van. Before they drive off, he gets a piece of paper from his truck.

“What’s that?” asks Joan.

“Temporary permit,” he says. “For a memorial service on city property.”

They drive to the round house grounds, the place where the concrete orb had burned. Heaps of rubble still remain, but there is nothing left that resembles the former structure. They lay the base of the installation, but the ladder isn’t tall enough for the rest of it, so Murphy calls in the city tree people, and from the plastic bucket of their truck, they finish it.

“Is this legal?” asks Joan.

“No,” says Murphy. “But I play poker with these guys.” Joan doesn’t question. Murphy is a simple man of few words, but a good one. Something about him just feels right. Comfortable.

The men in the truck turns the headlights on, and they stand and look at the thing. Joan doesn’t know what to call it. The installation? The art? She supposes it doesn’t matter.

“It looks like a mangled Death Star,” says Joan.

“I’d tell you not to quit your day job if you had one,” says Murphy. “We could put that giant Jesus cross in the middle if you want to.”

“No. I want that.” she says. “I feel like it needs something else. Do you think it needs something?”

“I don’t know. If you mess with it too much, you’ll ruin it. Just let it be done.”

Joan leans against Murphy. They wave to the tree men as they drive off, taking their light. The wax surface of the installation glimmers in the partial light of the moon. Joan feels Shannon beside her.

“It’s lopsided,” she says to her. “I’m sorry I fudged your last project.”

“No,” says Shannon. “It’s perfect.”


Anne Carney holds an MFA from Bowling Green State University. This is her first published story.

Categories
2020 Fiction

K-Ming Chang

SWALLOWER

We brought the woman our hands to swallow. She stood at the intersection where ghosts were known to knit themselves into gloves, sheathing the hands of drivers and misdirecting them into telephone poles and duplexes and each other. The woman called us her daughters and claimed she could swallow anything if we paid her. In her hands, a baseball cap purpled with sweat and jingling half-full of nickels. One time she was featured in the World Journal, the only street performer to ever make the bottom-right-hand corner of the front page, and tourists drove in from all over the city with dollar bills in their fists and backseats full of things they dared her to swallow. She was tall and so thin her fingers had more knuckles than ours and her veins surfaced like snakes when she swallowed, her mouth unhinging wide enough to cleave open the sun and suck out the squirm of its seed. When she walked, her shadow preceded her into any room, a dark that rotted our teeth to seeds and repainted the walls wherever she went. She spoke in an accent none of us could name, each of her vowels spat to the sidewalk and split like scabs.

One time, one of us brought her a sparrow to swallow, a sparrow that had been living in the wall of our duplex for weeks, along with the rotting carcass of a raccoon and an assembly of squirrels. It was only after we hammered holes in the walls, the way we saw men in nature shows tapping trees for sap, that we freed the sparrows fortressed inside. The woman plucked the sparrow by one wing from our palms, tipped her head back, and balled the bird into her mouth as if it were a document she needed to smuggle through her bowels, and there were rumors of that too, that she was a former spy, that her one and only skill was to swallow evidence of what was stolen.

Her throat was translucent as the core of a pear, incandescent, and we saw the sparrow dive into her belly beak-first, its black wings bound by sound. For months, we heard the bird flying around inside her, carving a sky inside her belly, and when she opened her mouth it was to chirp. We thought maybe the sparrow had mated with whatever else she had eaten, and now there was a family perched inside her. We threw handfuls of birdseed onto the sidewalk and watched her kneel to lick them up, her tongue studded with shells. We took turns being in love with her. First we were in love with the butcher at Ranch 99, the one who could slice a lung thin enough to drape over a lamp. There were rumors that his wife was a knife and that is how he learned to be precise. Even in the way he spoke: he could sharpen any sound narrow-tipped enough to enter any part of your body. Our love for him was a like a tendon, elastic, easily snipped, and sometimes we didn’t love him at all and sometimes we were willing to hang from hooks if it meant he would touch us, treat us with the tenderness of a stampede.

The swallower we loved differently, more from a distance, her face like the surface of a planet, one of those planets with an atmosphere so toxic your skin dissolve on contact. That was until the day we brought her our hands to swallow. For tips, we’d seen her swallow a golf club, a lit candle, a flashlight, a drawerful of socks, a cell-phone, a pen knife, a whole fish, but we had never seen her swallow a fist. We believed our hands would finally defeat the gravity of her belly, and when we lifted them to her, the way we saw illustrated flames reach up to a woman tied to a stake, she gathered our hands as if plucking dandelion heads from the sidewalk and tugged the bouquet to her mouth. That was the day we touched the pit of her, our arms sleeved inside her dark, our fingers combing the carpet at the bottom of her belly, the place where all things return to before they’re reborn. She gagged our hands back up again, pulled us out glistening like roots, and we knew we would never know her. There was an art to swallowing, she said: consumption without destruction. It was an inherited skill, learned from her father who mastered swallowing an entire pistol. He smuggled ammunition past Japanese troops, swallowed gold bars and set off airport metal detectors, shoplifted a live hen in his stomach. When he died years later of pneumonia, she said, tears came out of his ears. He’d been in a coma for three weeks, and to smuggle water into his body, she drilled a straw into the base of his throat and sponged water down it. Hearing is the last thing to go, she said. The last thing the dead know is the sound of our voices, the chorus of hornets in our lungs, and the dead keep listening even after they’re buried. The ears take the longest to decompose, and sometimes they reincarnate into butterflies. This is why it is important to announce ourselves to the dead. To enter every room voice-first, asking our ghosts if we can wear them.

The day she swallowed and regurgitated our hands, the woman sat down on the curb and stretched out her legs, their shadows bright as sails. She said her father never taught her how to swallow because daughters do not inherit, but she learned in a dream how to mimic the sea’s plumbing, how to be a body of water wide enough to drown anything. We reached out our hands as she told this story, all of us hoping to remain in her like a thorn, to make of her skin something holy. Each of us planned to reconvene in our dreams that night, to see if we too might learn to swallow in our sleep, the only place where we did not have bodies, where our legs were the length of our lives. But the woman warned us against dreaming, said that it was possible to get lost inside one, to sever the tether back to your body and be set loose like a sparrow in a house of glass, everywhere a false sky to fly into.

There was a girl she knew once, a girl who got locked out of her body because she wandered off in a dream and did not return. For three weeks she was asleep in her mother’s bed, and each of her sisters had to take turns wiping her ass and flipping her over so that sores would not scuttle all over her body like roaches. It was only later, when we repeated this story to our mothers, that we learned the girl was not asleep for weeks because she wandered off in her dream but because her brother knocked her head against the side of a duplex. We often saw our mothers slapping a fish’s head against a flat stone, the best way to stun it bloodlessly before severing the head, and we wondered if the girl was like that, laid out on the bed so that her vacated head could be cut off cleanly and painlessly. There were ways to wake up, but the woman did not tell us, and she did not tell us how it was possible to maintain a mouth inside a dream, when we ourselves were mouthless in ours, always waking inside of cities didn’t know their own names.

We tried swallowing too, we practiced on doorknobs, our razor blades, on kitchen sponges, on spoons, we tried swallowing our own fists, clouds punctured by our tongues, CDs broken in half, we tried colors, swallowing our shadows, we tried wind, parts of cars, aquariums, live fish, a gerbil, roadkill, we tried knives, fish bones, a leash, a puddle, we swallowed our mothers’ necklaces, earrings that dangled in our throats and lit us from the inside like chandeliers, lightbulbs, a clothes-hanger, a struck match, a flame. But everything cancelled out in our mouths, unstitched into steam, and we always swallowed nothing.

We returned to her and asked how to drown things in our bodies. The way you do it, we said, and she said we had to be gifted the way she was, gifted by ghosts: if you feed a starving dog in this life, she said, the dog will reincarnate and come back to you and save you. She said: My dog lives curled in my belly like smoke. My dog is the dog that returned in this life to bite me – I was just six years old then – and my teeth turned to sweetcream and I vomited out my tongue but when the fever lifted like a flag in a fallen country I was cured and my mouth was the entrance to a freeway. After hearing this, we tried to find a dog in the neighborhood to feed, but none of them were starving. None of them were strays, all were tame, and we couldn’t find a single one to save. One of us finally stole a pitbull out of someone’s side-yard, gnawing the leash with her own teeth, and we starved it over many weeks, feeding it only leaves, nips of our sleeves. Then when the dog was so skinny its breath played its ribs like an accordion, when it was so starved it began to levitate, floating away from its feet, we fed it. Raw patty meat, stolen lung slices, bread-crusts: it ate so much we thought its stomach was a snake’s, the kind that can swallow its prey and digest it over a lifetime, the kind of creature with a hunger elongated across history. Then the dog lifted its head from our palms and rolled its eyes back and died and we cried because now the dog would not return to us in its next life and save us or teach us to swallow. The dog would return only for revenge and bite us and fill our mouths with clouds, and we might as well leash ourselves now, we might as well forfeit our mouths.

When we told the woman what we’d done, how we failed, she laughed and said we were haunted now, that the dog would return as our husbands and we would soon give birth to litters of six at a time. She knew a woman who once gave birth to sextuplets, naming each one after a different month, and halfway through the year she tore her voice and never spoke again. We wore scarves now, trying to protect the tender sides of our necks, until the woman said a ghost would snag the ends of our scarves and suffocate us. We were tired of the woman and her stories and her reincarnations, tired now that we knew we would never as full as her, symphonic with discarded objects, so we swallowed her. It was the Sunday before rain was invented. It was night and the woman looked up at the moon as if she might swallow that too, as if every light was located inside her, every light was another of her lives.

We took her the way we took the dog, by striking her between the eyes with a flashlight, and then we each held a limb and began to swallow and swallow until our mouths met in the middle of her and she was gone, divvied up between us, siphoned into us as smog. Inside us, she took root in our bellies, hinged us to our knees. She was submerged like a radish before it surfaces and is skinned bright as a knuckle, and we waddled now instead of walking, sharing the weight of her, building our breaths into rungs for her to climb out of us, heaving our pregnant bellies, hearing her beg every day to be born breech, the way we all should be, legs-first and running from our lives.


K-Ming Chang is a Kundiman fellow, a Lambda Literary Award finalist, and the winner of a 2019 Pushcart Prize in poetry. Her debut novel is forthcoming from One World/Random House in September 2020.