AS YOUTH CONCLUDES
The best advice I can give about falling
is about landing, the darkness says.
Darkness does not overtake light,
the clock says. Sounds of laugher
fading way, the season says. The body
doesn’t know how to lie, the lie says.
Misremembering is in itself revealing,
the lie says. I can only be reduced
to archives, alchemy says. I can only
know you through a combination
of letters, the unknown says. Is this
how it feels to die, the paradox asks?
There is little to nothing to say—
death can be throwing away love letters,
entering an exaggerated experience,
the last bite of an ice cream sandwich.
SEE ALL THE PEOPLE AND PARTS LAUGHING
Was it jetsetter or temptation?
And me, in the bathroom, searching
for the shade of lipstick he liked.
I want my ribcage to fit
inside his hands
the way he holds a book.
to rub my earlobe, a way
to dog ear this idea.
If only I could find—
was it Hemingway’s fling?
I’m sitting tall on his
lap, lace my fingers
downward, cusp palms, say
here is the church
erect my pinky fingers,
here is the steeple
open the doors.
Was it messiah inspired?
He takes my red lips, hip
bone, curve in the bridge
of my foot. Shanghai express?
He begins a conversation
with these parts, talks Coltrane
and Stella, begins with lies
only later to include actual events,
begins to laugh at my trick, says
there’s something else I can do
with my hands. I’ve painted
too much albatross on my lips
I can’t ask about all the other
hip bones scattered, laughing,
across the floor.
Victoria McArtor is currently pursuing a MFA at Oklahoma State University while also pursuing her securities licenses while selling life insurance and annuities with Mutual of Omaha. Her poems have appeared in H_NGM_N and PMS poemmemoirstory.
(excerpted from the novel-in-progress, Anthropica)
At a very early age the boy had discovered the problem of causal determinism and renounced any lingering affection for the grim ontology through which he toiled. He had been standing on the bridge that led from his family’s farmstead on the outskirts of Kecel, Hungary, to the town itself some three miles distant. These were hard times for his family, who in many respects lived as if it were 1872, not 1972. They did not, for instance, own an automobile. The boy had never seen a television. One night a week he was permitted to listen to the live music broadcasts on Hungarian Radio; his father thought electricity had a whiff of evil about it and so wandered the farmhouse after dark holding aloft a candelabra and emptying the mousetraps of their bloodless and twisted quarry. They were farmers but their profit margins were so narrow that it was often the case that either there was food to eat or there was money to continue producing food to eat, a harsh irony that had not failed to register on the boy. Oftentimes he would work long days beside his father before devouring a small meal of barley soup and sugar beets. He would lie awake at night on his straw mattress with his belly twisted in hunger and a cold draft hissing through the seams of a house built some hundred years earlier to prolong the brutish and short lives of peasants during the monarchy. If the house had a soul, it was a masochistic soul that savored every pain and lived only to spite the bitter earth that was eager to swallow it whole. Lately the boy’s sleep had been frequently interrupted by his infant sister’s shrill bleating, though the baby had been dead for many months. Maybe the house was now haunted by her tiny ghost or maybe the cries ascended from the boy’s dreams or maybe the rats had again overtaken the barn to nibble on the soft ankle flesh of adolescent sheep. His father often lamented that they had been better off under Kadar but the boy only understood the political realities of his nation vaguely and skantwise. They were on their own, he knew, and that did not seem very good—but it didn’t exactly require an enormous feat of the imagination to conceive of something far, far worse. The bridge was maybe thirty meters across and constructed of wide-plank cottonwood and it spanned the narrowest part of the river which in midsummer withered to a mere trickle but right now, in late fall, ran clear and fast. Mulberry trees provided shade at either end of the bridge but at the center of the span (where he now stood) the sunlight was warm and prickly and tasted vaguely of copper. He clutched a tangle of mulberry leaves in his left fist, releasing them over the railing one at a time to watch the clumsy spiraling descent enter suddenly into a controlled rush downstream. The stream’s clarity was such that this change in speed and bearing was the only indication that the leaves had in fact touched down.
There was a bend in the waterway about twenty yards beyond the bridge and he tried to determine whether any given leaf would round that bend and remain adrift, or be ensnared by the eddy of leaves and other debris accumulating there at the elbow. He was running maybe a 75% success rate. Roughly two of every three leaves undertook easily extrapolated routes, but the outlying cases—which neither hugged the interior tight nor rushed clearly toward safety—challenged the boy’s powers of intuition in a way that made his entire body tingle. He felt in some strange, almost religious way that his guessing must have some effect on the outcome; when he was right it was because he made it happen the way he guessed, and when he was wrong… well, he must not have been concentrating hard enough. He was a strange boy, or so his father often said after hours from within the wicked glow of the candelabra, musing quietly aloud as if he (the boy) were incapable of understanding human language. The mulberries grew crookedly from the banks and traced an image for the boy of the old arthritic sheepdog they’d put down not three weeks earlier. The blast of his father’s shotgun had resounded out across the steppes to make its way around the earth and when his father returned to the house the boy thought that he had perhaps been crying, which was no more unprecedented on planet Earth than teleportation or the resurrection of the dead. His father had not cried even when his baby girl finally perished with a fever so intense that hours after death the body still emanated warmth. They buried her out behind the two rusted and retired horse ploughs (they did have motorized farm equipment, though his father had apparently resisted it for many long and unreasonable years), where the earth was softer and where they could embed the little molar-shaped stone etched with her name and the dates and the blessing. The boy himself would dig the hole for the dog (which had been called “Kutya”) not 15 meters from that stone. He, too, had loved the dog in a way he had not loved the baby, because the baby ought to have been stillborn (so said the doctor) and there was never any hope for her and both he and his father kept their distance and allowed Mother to revel in her grief unfettered by theirs, whereas the boy had often curled up on the kitchen’s stone floor and told Kutya adventure stories of his (i.e., the boy’s) imagined life as a world traveler and protector of the meek and had made of the dog a friend and companion. The boy was supposed to be on his way to town right now for flour and sugar and coffee but the leaves were a problem he could not surrender. He dropped another. It was an easy one—bearing hard left and toward the clear water. A question posed itself: Was it already decided whether or not the next leaf, the one still clutched in his fist, would safely clear the bend? Or whether or not he would drop the next leaf at all?
In the time it took to blink an explosion of thoughts left bright shrapnel throbbing in his skull. Has his sister asked to die? No, she’d been taken. Had he asked to be born? No, he’d been birthed, and then the world had gone to work on him. Certain lessons were received. A hand on a stove taught “hot”; a slap on a wrist taught “no”; a dark closet taught “do not test us.” He was becoming something new at every moment, but it had nothing to do with him. If all the inputs had been different—if grabbing a meringue from a countertop had resulted in laughter rather than punishment, if crying in his room had been met with consolation rather than abuse, if his father were motivated by pleasure rather than fear, then the manipulated object—in this case him—would be different, too. But wait… if this were true of him then it was also true of the inputs one level up. His father’s suspiciousness, his mother’s stoicism and quiet grief, his sister’s tortured wailing, these were the products of other inputs that were received like-it-or-not. The infinite cascade implied in this reasoning occurred instantaneously. No one chose to be the way they were. He stood on the bridge and held leaves in his sweaty fist and the light flowed around him like a second and more sublime river and the breeze tussled his dark hair. He had not chosen this. The inputs led here. There were only inputs… they went on and on and on. He thought of Kutya leaping through a pigsty with an absurd and unfounded joy that had roused a boom of laughter from his father’s enormous lungs. This tableau and all of its intricacies—the tusk of spittle hanging from Kutya’s jaws, the black shadow of the feed trough, the iron weather vane atop the barn pointing northward, one enormous sow raising her snout and growling, the dust kicked up into a funnel as if Kutya were in the business of raising demons—this entire collection of inputs arrived to his small brain because it had to. The world was encoded but we could never know the code. Everything was finished before the fact. A bead of sweat achieved critical mass and broke like a ball bearing down the boy’s temple and onto his cheek. He blinked.
But so if it was true that his decision to play the game with the leaves (and, naturally, his decision to now think about the decision to play the game with the leaves, and so on ad infinitum) had been determined by a massive, innumerable collection of past inputs and if those inputs had been similarly rendered necessary by those further past, then, the boy wondered, how was it true that he was somebody?
He was nine years old and all at once, the world became impregnable to his will. He was not a free-roaming creature but a ball on a track, and the track would lead wherever it was always going to lead regardless (or because?) of the fact of his so-called existence. Whatever was going to happen would happen! If God was light, then this new revelation was the air through which God moved. The feeling he had on the cusp of every decision, the tingle of what he’d always thought of as free will, was itself absorbed into the larger substructure of a universe totally determined by first conditions.
So maybe he would jump from the bridge?
Just ten minutes earlier the thought would have been (as the saying went) unthinkable, and yet from this new position he realized—among countless other realizations percolating liquid-like through his skull—that every thought was unthinkable right up until the moment it was destined to be thought, so that the boy on the bridge asking the question “Will I jump from this bridge?” was always as inevitable as the boy jumping (or not jumping) from the bridge had been or now was, regardless of how likely or unlikely either eventuality might seem from a purely objective standpoint which of course was not something possible (i.e., objectivity) for humans who had no greater access to the necessary course the universe would take than a squirrel or chicken. A tiny, fast-receding part of himself was tempted to believe that jumping would somehow release him from the causal chain, as if the universe had decided he should not jump and he might spite its certainty, but no… if jumping was in the cards he would jump. He squeezed the remaining mulberry leaves in his fist and felt their cell walls crack and ooze chlorophyll into his dark palm. He opened his fist and a few shreds fell to the bridge planks while others remained affixed to his moist skin. He lifted a knee to the railing and pulled himself up and sat on his ass on the cold, dry beam with his legs swinging out and back above the river. Clouds fanned out high above the steppes, shaped like radio waves. He listened hard for their music but nothing came. If he was going to jump he would! Nothing could stop it and nothing could make it happen. Their farm was failing; their bellies were empty; his sister’s tiny body was rotting in the earth; Kutya’s favorite toy, a ball made of old kitchen rags and bound tight with tape, remained lodged beneath the pine boards at the threshold to the barn and it would remain there until somebody or something moved it. He and his father and his mother would all die, too, and the moment of each of these deaths was prearranged by what he couldn’t really call God anymore because God had been That Which Intervenes and he now needed a new word, something for That Which Made Intervention Impossible. He put his feet down on the several inches of planking that protruded beyond the railing. It was maybe twenty-five or thirty feet down. The water was crystal clear and, he imagined, very cold. It didn’t seem like a fall that could kill a person. Pebbles along the bottom gleamed, each intricately streaked with a pattern unique to itself. The stones were arranged exactly how they had to be. He thought, Now is when I jump. His arms extended out along the railing and his outstretched fingers dug in beneath the board. The universe itself had a shelf life that was also predetermined. It would burn out. How did he know this? He was only nine years old but he knew it. “Now is when I jump,” he said. He gripped the railing. He counted to three. He had only held his baby sister once and she had curled into him, sucking a thumb no bigger than a raisin. She was released now from the cold machinery of space and time. He leaned forward in his cage. He counted again to three. The wind, the sun, the sublime whisper of the running stream. Now is when I jump.
David Hollander is the author of the novel L.I.E., a finalist for the NYPL Young Lions Award. His short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in numerous print and online forums, including McSweeney’s, Post Road, The New York Times Magazine, Poets & Writers, The Collagist, Unsaid, The Black Warrior Review, The Brooklyn Rail, and Swink. His work has been adapted for film and frequently anthologized, most notably in Best American Fantasy 2 and 110 Stories: New York Writes After September 11th.
Mamá’s really wanting me out of the house, but I’m not going, not yet; I’m raiding the place for things I’ll need. I can’t find the scissors. I’m looking in every drawer in the kitchen. I’m looking in the box of Mamá’s sewing stuff. They’re not under the couch or under the cushion where Papá’s sitting—his nose in the newspaper—or anywhere. “Stop hopping around!” she yells at me, her black eyes fierce. She’s short, but she can be mean, so you don’t want to mess with her. “It’s too hot for that and I’m too tired, and this house is too small—especially with your fat Papá home. Vete! Shoo! Out!”
What she really wants is to watch the telenovela, La Fea Más Bella, a new one that’s come out, about an ugly girl who is really beautiful beneath her ugliness somehow, but I’m not sure how. I can’t even be in the room when it’s on—not just because Mamá makes me leave, but because if anyone knew I was watching it (and my brothers would be the first to tell everyone), I would be the joke of the entire Eighth Grade, and maybe even the whole barrio. They already call me La Fea—and that’s got nothing to do with the novela. It’s got to do with my terrible, crooked teeth and the zits I have all over my dark skin. I look like a burnt chile.
“Lupita, what are you doing with that knife!” Mamá calls behind me, but I’m out the door, through the gate, and to the street. And the theme music for La Fea Más Bella is ringing out, so I know she’s not coming after me.
My twin brothers are already out on the street. They’re only ten, and I’m older, but they still try to tell me what to do like they’re the rulers of the house. Especially Beto, who’s got no right to talk because he’s got worse teeth than mine, who sits at the table in the mornings like a pompous king and says to me, “Fea, get me more eggs. Fea, take away my plate. Fea, there’s dirt in my juice. And do something about that face, would you?” I guess if I had to pick which brother to keep I’d pick Alfonso, though I’d rather do away with him, too. Because he’s almost as bad, never saying anything, but laughing along with Beto, making faces behind my back.
Now they’re bossing all the kids around. Just because they have the nicest soccer ball in all of Cuatro de Marzo, they think they can slave-drive the other kids to make the soccer field, to carve it out from the dirt street. They think they can practically reinvent the game. The ball is pretty nice. Nobody knows exactly where they got it, but they never let it out of their sight. They take turns guarding it, sleeping with it at night. It’s the same kind the Guadalajara Chivas use, one that looks official—all red, white and blue with their coat of arms on the side.
It’s a regular night in Cuatro de Marzo—our same old dusty barrio in the middle of the desert, a good hour’s walk from town. Same old street, dead-ending into the hill with the white cross on top. All the small, unfinished cinderblock houses with re-bar sticking out of them. Everyone’s out. Up and down our road, kids are playing hide-and-seek, kicking things, climbing trees or hanging out in front of the super-mini. There are older boys heading down to the hot dog cart, even though they probably just ate, so they can be graced by Inés, definitely la más bella of the barrio, the saint of the cart. She’s got smooth skin the color of café con leche and long black hair pulled back into a ponytail. She’s on the corner every night, except Sunday nights. She glows beneath the streetlight, she really does.
My brothers are still telling all the kids what to do, and making our sister, Quile, who is only seven, carry big rocks from the ditches and neighbors’ yards and who-knows-where in order to make the goal posts. They’ll work on this soccer field forever, as they do almost every single night, carving the boundry lines with the heels of their shoes, or with sticks, setting out the goal boxes, the center line. But all the lines they draw are wiped out in less than five minutes of game time.
I sit on the sidewalk, the cement now covered with dirt even though I scrub it with a broom and soapy water every morning. That’s how it is. I don’t know why we bother at all, but Mamá says we don’t want people to think we’re pigs. We’re always fighting the dust and sand; it blows in through the windows, covers everything in our house the moment we finish with the cleaning. Then we have to clean again. I have to shake it out of my clothes. It gets in our food and in our beds. I swear sometimes I feel like I’m made of dirt.
Quile drops a rock on the pile then comes to where I’m sitting. She’s still in her school uniform, shorts under her skirt. Her ponytails are loosening, the rubber bands slipping. “Are you playing?” she asks me. She’s got the same black eyes Mamá has, but she got lucky with Papá’s pale guero skin.
“No,” I say, “they always cheat.”
“But I’ll be the only girl,” she whines.
“And you’ll win,” I say. “But they’ll say you didn’t.”
“I don’t care. I want you to play. It’s more fun when you play.”
“Go,” I say. “I don’t care about soccer.” I give her a little shove back out to the street because what I really want is to be left alone. She goes back to hauling rocks. Quile is pretty good at soccer; she’s good at getting the ball through all those pairs of big feet and good at angling it in through the goals—though my brothers always say it’s too high, or it’s off-sides, like they really know.
As the game begins, I lay out my things on the sidewalk: plastic bags, rubber bands, sticks from the ciruela tree, Quile’s hair ribbons, kitchen knife. A spool of Mamá’s thread. Scissors would be best, but I’ve seen kids do without them. They use their hands and teeth, their fingernails—and the tougher ones whip out little pocket knives, cut away the edges of the plastic bag so it’s a perfect diamond.
This is what you do: Make the sticks into a cross, then tie the plastic bag to all the points. You have to cut off the extra plastic. It has to be a perfect fit. It has to be loose enough to catch wind, but it can’t be too loose or it will billow out. You don’t want a parachute, you want a kite that can rise into the night sky, rise over the little houses, over the barrio, high above the whole town. You want it to go as high as it can go. I want mine to go up at least to where the UFOs are. For this you need lots of string, meters and meters of it. I’ll need that much just to get past all this dust. The game’s kicking up huge clouds of it, and I can’t see much of anything, much less the sky.
I believe in UFOs. I’ve seen one before. I’ve seen the red lights, three of them in a little row, blinking at each other like they were talking. No, not an airplane—I’m not stupid. I know how airplanes move—and this was no airplane. I don’t care what anyone says, I saw the strange, red lights spiraling down behind the hill with the cross. I even ran after it, ran through the desert shrubs, through the prickles and the cactus. I huffed up the hill, trying to imagine what might be on the other side—imagining everything about them metallic and smooth and clean. Their world with lots of clear things, glass and water, all silvery. But at the top, looking down into the next valley, there was nothing at all—only rough shadows and darkness.
There’s a big fight on the soccer field. Beto’s tackled a neighbor boy, and they’re rolling around in the street trying to punch each other. “That was a goal!” someone is yelling, and Quile takes the opportunity to kick the ball through the piles of rocks, but nobody notices that she’s scored a point. Now the brawl is about the whole world—Francisco Palencia is a maricón, shut your fucking mouth, he’s the best player ever, you’re the fag, to hell with Clúb América, traitors, bastards, to hell with you, you stole my girlfriend, and on and on until my brother yells, “Your mamá’s a whore!” and everyone knows that’s it. That’s the final straw, and bloody noses, black eyes and split lips are really going to happen now. There are huge billows of dust, fists and scuffling. There’s a circle of kids yelling and cheering.
There is so much noise that Inés looks up from her saintly place at the hot dog cart and stares in our direction. The dust doesn’t reach her. It’s like she’s in some sort of bubble—she’s always like that. It’s beginning to piss me off. Nothing ever affects Santa Inés, her face smooth and serene, like a porcelain figurine, like the ones we see when we go to mass. I want to hate her, and part of me really does hate her. Stupid Inés in her niche. I want to take this knife and smash her, use the blade to chip off that painted face, reveal the clay beneath it. I bet her face would look like mine. But at the same time, I want to get down on my knees and pray to her, that maybe she could give me some of what she’s got.
Now my hands are busy with the white plastic and I’m trying to pull it tight over the sticks without ripping it. Quile is beside me, sitting cross-legged on the sidewalk, her head down, sad because the fight’s interrupted the game. A cockroach goes skittering across the cement towards me, and she picks up the knife so quickly I don’t even have time to scold her, and in a single, quick stroke, she chops the bug in half. Then she flicks both halves to the street.
“What are you doing?” she asks me.
“What does it look like?” I lay what I have so far on the cement. I take the kitchen knife from her and cut away a little more plastic. I think I’ve almost got it right.
The fight’s ended, Beto with a bloody nose that he sops up with his t-shirt. The other boy’s about the same, sitting on the other side of the street with his face pressed into his shirt. Now they’re going back to carving out the field again, scraping out the lines. Quile’s happy about this; she runs back out to help. I’m securing the points with extra rubber bands, thinking about a place without dust, a place that is like Inés, a place without brothers.
My kite is a nice, white diamond. I cut Quile’s ribbons, then tie them into a long tail. I want to live by myself some place up on a high mountain, higher than the Sierra Madre—or if I could, in the sky, like the creatures in the UFOs do. If I were still a kid, a kid like Quile, I might believe that if I held on tight enough, the kite could take me with it, pull me up into the sky. Now I know it’s impossible, and even if it could, it would really hurt; it would kill my hands.
Chelsea Bolan grew up in Washington state and completed her MFA from the University of British Columbia. Her work has appeared in The Kenyon Review Online, CutBank, Fourteen Hills, The Portland Review and other magazines. She is a 2010 Milkwood International AIR fellow (Czech Republic) and a 2011 Grants for Artist Projects recipient, awarded by Artist Trust. Her work is also currently part of an exhibit about Hanford and nuclear issues.
THE OTHER ROOM
An affair is a room to disappear into for a few hours, another place to hide.
– Nick Flynn
Your brown freckles come after
the wine-tongue sky I’m sucked
in between your teeth, my skin
neon-lighting for a fling.
I go home to the shared
towels and locks.
We get up every day
and then disappear.
I notice this rock sometimes
gets twisted around my finger.
I am pulled under by a fingernail
or a sentence I haven’t heard before
but I don’t invite them in,
not to the walls we hold each other to.
Body parts are stories I read, the lines
of women I can’t keep track of who said what
lips I did or did not kiss.
Let me smell a girl in
a jacket or a back pocket
of three-day old jeans.
WHICH WAY YOU FALL
(after The Bridge documentary)
Drive the bridge and wave the trees. We give credit to our bodies and none to the
shoes we wear. Is it the water that pulls us under? The survivors of the Golden
Gate managed to flip their trajectories mid-air and escape broken necks. Backs are
spliced into organs, not quite the end. My eyes close in on the sign laced through
the chain-link: “Closed for seismic retrofitting.” If a bridge is unprepared for an
earthquake, does that mean it can no longer prepare its people for death? Will they
have to move south to Bay? Tragedy knows no navigation. Found: one female, post-
shark, eyes destroyed by crabs. Do you want this skin? Take too much and end up
any way you’d like. The gods aren’t looking for you—despite the man who said he
was carried to safety by a sea lion. The dark rocks beat us all from time to time.
We sink blue and swim yellow. Our doors know no entrance or exit. Records skip,
skipping history. A little unconsciousness in another set of arms. We love looking
out the window into the air.
Britt Gambino work has appeared in anderbo, DecomP, The Battered Suitcase, and the blog at Visual AIDS, among others. She holds an MFA in Poetry from The New School and works at Gotham Writers’ Workshop.
ACCIDENTS OF HISTORY
This is not about the smell of trees.
I will not mention the names of flowers
or loam. Loam will not appear in this poem.
There is no frost on the barn, no soft snow falling.
It never snows in this poem. Only consider
an empty field in a neighborhood of tract houses.
A field, as you know, suggests waiting and
the accidents of history. Consider the tires
and floral loveseats in this field, and the girl
in the one gnarled fig tree, book open on her lap,
book she’s about to drop in the dust, dust in this valley
of no snow and little rain. Now, imagine something
as real as a plate of spaghetti hurled against the wall,
in the middle of a dinner no one asked for,
in the middle of a family stunned into silence
by the accidents of their lives, by the fact
of a red stain left on the kitchen wall.
When I was six I let the neighbor kid
rub butter on me in the hot Marin sun.
He was in love with something he saw on TV
or heard on his mother’s lonely radio.
His mother with her rings and loose laugh
listened in once on the bedroom phone
as Sean told me a new thing we could try,
something he saw her do with one of her boyfriends.
We’d wander around the dry fields and yellow hills,
playing at love. He pulled me in a red wagon,
picked cattails for me, taught me to whistle.
When he told me take my shirt off, I did it.
Like some kind of strange insect, we rubbed
our naked chests together in the bright afternoon
near the hill all the kids slid down on cardboard boxes
for that thrill, that thrill that sometimes caught fire
and burned those yellow hills.
Michelle Patton‘s poems have previously been published in Southern Poetry Review, Atlanta Review, and Crab Creek Review.
Go until there’s no more galaxy,
Until all the going is given
And I touch green as sneeze,
Always cranberry, a crow upstairs.
All I have to do is clutch
This hour’s pulse, then flee
The palace mad as honeymoon
After the king gives me back
My history in a homesick bowl.
Sign hello fox. Hello silhouette.
Go suck a cough drop in my
Sleep to wake my throat.
Go eat a penny to feed
Economies fat and steep.
Go until there’s no more road,
Until landing at winter’s dust,
The fog’s flame, pleated,
Lips of an unkissed book.
DIADEM ON LINED PAPER
After Reina/Madonna, art of Martín Ramírez
I saw you first as a man
Whoe left arm was the brand of a tree,
Your frail stretch
No thicker than fingers on a gingko,
Meant for downfall.
But then you turned over
And became a tree
Whose branches were the arms of a queen,
Spanning before me
Like a bridge, earthen silk,
Love that works
Without a thumb
I took to you to my birth,
My almond song, chrysanthemums
Spun into corona and gold.
Before morning, I gave you the memory of blossoms,
Carried your scapular weight.
You learned me, I did not write,
But my hand did,
I did not walk, but my feet did.
When fire set itself
To expired sleepless nights,
I uprooted you from a grave
To mark myself mourned.
Mai Der Vang, a first-generation Hmong American poet, has published poems in the Collagist (forthcoming), the Lantern Review, the Journal of Southeast Asian American Education & Advancement, and Paj Ntaub Voice. Her poems have been anthologized in Troubling Borders: An Anthology of Art and Literature by Southeast Asian Women in the Diaspora (University of Washington Press, 2013) and How Do I Begin: A Hmong American Literary Anthology (Heyday, 2011) where she served on the editorial board of the Hmong American Writers’ Circle. She has completed residencies at Hedgebrook and is a fellow of Kundiman. She is an MFA candidate in poetry at Columbia University.
BIRTHDAY PARTY #15:
I once spent an entire summer afternoon
outside my house on the bay.
While the roses were tying knots
on the foottrail
and the moss on the ground
had begun to form their own islands,
I was behind a place mat
at my dining room table,
contemplating how a teenager
is a lot like a red balloon
caught to the flagpole of a school
or the spokes of a ramshackle bike.
The way the two grapple
day in and day out
with an adversary unfit to listen,
too rugged to feel their pull.
The way they hold air inside of them
as if to prepare for a great outcry,
their lungs filling like the stuffing
in a toy bear.
But what I really think about
is how they both rise
the instant you let them go.
Headbutted by the wind,
continuing because of an
energy inside of them
that knows only upward.
I look at the knife on my napkin.
I think about how the only way
to bring them down
is to puncture them.
I think of how their red
will spatter everywhere.
Alex Greenberg is a 14 year old aspiring poet. His work can be found in recent or upcoming issues of The Louisville Review, Literary Bohemian, Cuckoo Quarterly, Spinning Jenny, and as runners-up in challenges 1 and 2 of the Cape Farewell Poetry Competition. He recently won a gold key in the Scholastic Arts and Writings Awards and was named a Foyle Young Poet of 2012.
HER BREAD BAKES WELL
In a kitchen soaked with August, she folds
and folds the flesh of flour salt yeast and water.
Her brow knits softly, as if there’s a secret to baking
baguettes in humidity, that only she knows. I remember her
white dress in Lake Pontchartrain’s
Fourth of July breeze, and how her lips moved
with the words she always recites to herself, fragments
of Sinatra lyrics, a love by the wind-crossed sea. Even here,
outside her window, I want to know the syntax of her
body and I am overwhelmed. I do not hear the slamming
of the oven door, or our bourbon spilling into the cracked
tiles of the floor, but watch as she says my name, Billy—
says Billy—and her own hand, covered in the sticky wet
dough, steadily kneads the column of her throat.
LEDA’S GRACE AT DAWN
April, West Texas
Victoria Marie Bee is an artist, letterpress printer, poet, and translator.
A MFA candidate in Fine Art Photography at Texas Tech University, she currently lives in Lubbock, Texas.
BABA YAGA’S SISTERS
The holy women are skinny, their hair
loose horse tails swishing blind
between what could be shoulder blades,
or remnants of hard wings, forgotten,
lost, shed. The blessed women weep
with sharp tears leaving troughs
from cheek to knee, borrowed sorrow
of winter bears, scarce badgers.
When they allow their fingers to play
at reeds, lips curled into kissing sound,
it is the forest floor they are feeding, never
the openness of sky above, where crows
keep vigil. Music is for the faithful, for mammals
whose hind paws catch the bread we drop
in error, to find our way home.
FOR MY MOTHER, WHO WAS NEVER REALLY RAPED
They held her down, face in the loose dirt near home plate, a few hours after
dusk, and took turns, first one boy, then the second, until she was sufficiently
split, and they spent, quickly as boys inherently are. She had bruises, of course,
and there was blood, and she remembers crying enough to create a mud paste
where she kept her cheek imprinted until certain she was alone. Alone
in a way new to her, apart even, from the heaviness between her legs
to the lead of her hair, matted, losing its soft wave to damp dust and growing dark.
She told me this story, with no variation in tone or length, from the time my own
first bleeding announced itself, to four days before my wedding. Offered as warning
of a man’s need/evil/hatred/desire/greed, any of the words most demonic,
and, for her, most base. There was nothing eloquent about my mother.
Believing stories carries us down the quickest waters into one pool after another
of calm , of stations resembling rest, sometimes clarity. Hers was the truest myth—
the kind wherein there is no happy resolution, just a lesson to move forward
or submit to slow burning, fading, erasure. Truth comes later, after the ever-after
has expired into crumbs, too stale to consume, too fine to walk over with soft feet.
As with all myth, my mother’s story, a woman’s story, held only a richly imagined
disaster. The betrayal was never in the telling, rather in the final admission
that her belief in this swirl of detail was vaporous, a landscape unseen, weirdly
desired, needed for her to feel whole, rooted. This is the gift given to her daughter:
Faith in what is repeated, recognition that branches break from weight we offer
Who points the way, holds out a gloved hand
with a single, simple sign stating This way?
What book officially begs us to give attention
to a list of rules which includes You may only ask
one question of the steward? What if the answer
to both queries has been carved in shallow print
into soap stone ever nearing the shoreline’s
inevitable lick and curl? We should admit
there is sense in answers near wetness. Swallowing
is its own sign—a reflex won at birth, repeated
with every phrase, every taken pleasure.
I think of this as ghosting. What came before
certainly does not wish for us to forget
and so offers a seeding of questions, which we embrace
without intention, and this I call, not paranoia,
rather knowing-lust. That radiance we suspect
has been threaded into our every lysosome, namelessly,
unearned, ours as a right of carrying cells upon
cells until we think we might be whole, is never
really new and so we keep vigil for signifiers.
Kelli Allen’s work has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies in the US and internationally. She served as Managing Editor of Natural Bridge and holds an MFA from the University of Missouri. She is currently a Professor of English and Creative Writing at Lindenwood University. Allen gives readings and teaches workshops throughout the US. Her full-length poetry collection, Otherwise, Soft White Ash, from John Gosslee Books (2012) was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. www.kelli-allen.com