Every dream a slip of a thing, a sojourn into the ordinary, coveted past until a deep quarantine sleep pulled Jupiter toward our small Midwestern town. Every step heavy, I trudged toward it. The planetary pull, cartoon-like. Its gravitational force targeting a particular part of me, leaving the rest enchanted but confused. I rolled over to check the news, the charts, the trends, and I stared out of my window. As so many of us have. At 5 a.m., I saw Jupiter, a slip of a thing with Saturn in its gaze. Surrounded by stars in a sharp, dark morning sky. And I felt hope.
The line for irregular, black shirts takes ten minutes. Forty-plus adults take single steps as stomachs hum. Necklines hang like hula-hoops.
At lunch, there is only a half-hour. A half-dozen ham and cheese. Now
there’s just cheese. Thirty-plus adults with lettuce and cheese. Blankets are
fibrous and prick the skin.
Warm lettuce means peeling wilted green bits off the tongue or swallowing
slimy leaves whole. The tinfoil makes a perfect, silver ball. Silver balls are
Orange cheese and loose-necked shirts with twelve minutes to
spare. Silver balls between blankets are reminiscent of Christmas tree bulbs.
For bus tickets, hands remain in pockets, eyes toward the street. There’s
something slippery about mobility, so many remain. Those who stand take single
steps. Patient steps.
Twenty-plus remain. Activities remain. Dance last week, art next,
poetry this. A young teacher looks as though she is speaking to blind kittens. She
closes her eyes and recites poems. She opens them and offers a writing prompt
as pens and paper are handed out.
There is nothing to put the paper on. The concrete works best. The
pen navigates tiny hills on the page. First come colors: purple, green, silver,
and orange. The pen suggests the salty taste of ham that almost graced the tongue
that was too many feet from the front of a line.
The pen moves beyond this. The pen moves much faster than the feet.
Our shadows introduce themselves & regulars grumble when a top set of teeth bared, even though we all know to grab the back legs.
The dogs run in transient packs, as squirrels rustle tree leaves & fall moves downward on a slow-moving swing.
We kiss the air when it’s time to go.
The world should know we were here, too, but our scents hug tight & we are left to share words and walkways, to scratch the same furry heads.
The imprint of my shoe finds yours.
I was dulled longer than you, so when I lost my sight, I wasn’t shaken. Glass seals well, blurs lines and clarifies sight, so I wore a glass dress & glass shoes, until you arrived with science and a string.
I felt the etching of sharp lines and gentle curves, the quiet power beneath the watery surface & had reason to shatter beneath you. You, with your collage of circumstance. A papier-mâché from elementary foretold. A careful collection of porcelain shattered & glued created a map.
You described it all. You told me how, but I still struggled until I realized the texture had to be rough to be felt, to be interpreted as anything at all. My fleshy thumbs drag against surfaces, forever searching for the right word.
Jen Knox is an Ohio-born writer, meditation instructor, and the founder of Unleash Creatives. She is the author of Resolutions: A Family in Stories (AUX Media), After the Gazebo (Rain Mountain Press), which was nominated for the Pen/Faulkner Award, and The Glass City (Prize Americana for Prose winner). Her short work recently won the Flash Fiction Magazine‘s Editor’s Choice Award for 2020 and other writing can be found in The Best Small Fictions (edited by Amy Hempel), The Adirondack Review, Gargoyle Magazine, Little Fictions, Literary Orphans, Lunch Ticket, Poor Claudia, Room Magazine and The Saturday Evening Post. Jen is currently working on her first novel. Jenknox.com
these are not options, this is the proper sequence
we are believers in the wisdom of ghosts
of fairy tales
we are believers in a void of our own making
wealth and self-righteousness
power from the end of a barrel
who are you to criticize until you’ve taken your first life?
between defeat and despair
first week of april all brown lawns and grey sky, threat of snow that never quite arrives and what i miss are leonora’s pale breasts in the mexican sunlight
are we still killing for the same reasons we were then?
seems like it was all pretty funny until we realized that everyone who’d died was someone we’d known
let all sounds be the sound of freedom
these houses and the spaces between them
these streets all heavy with silence in the early afternoon
trees and the shadows of trees and the ghost of de chirico
a kingdom of dust for the lucky few
can’t be god these days unless you’re willing to bleed and maybe that’s how it always was
not every cripple is a prophet
not every prophet understands the necessity of hope
picture yourself as the desert and your life finally starts to make sense
in a fog of numbed-out pain and creeping cold
in a collapsing city in a dying kingdom
a future built on ruins, and what is there to say about it?
you’ve wasted your whole life here
taste of guilt mixed with the texture of ashes, right?
the dead among the living and all of us blind
all of us halfway down the road to being forgotten
anonymous houses & abandoned factories and each day shaped by dull light without color
each moment meaningless on its own and then when added to all the others, and so breathe
gotta make a choice either way
gotta stand up and be counted or lie down in whatever shallow grave you’ve dug for yourself
there will always be a despair greater than your own
this kingdom of
rain, these corpses on fire
crows outside the suicide factory, first light of a dull grey morning
screams and whispers
there is no future in being holy, you understand
there is no future at all
the present is always with us, the past never remembered clearly and when i tell you i love you it sounds like an admission of defeat
when i get out of my car, the parking lot is littered with the bones of angels
the machinery has just begun to grind into motion
each day starts at zero, and then they all move backwards from there
i hate, and the reasons why
man with the gun says there need to be changes, but he’s just as dead the rest of us
he’s high on the fumes of burning children
he’s trapped in the shadows of his father’s fists
a slave and a whore, but fuck it
no one comes to this town to live up to their fullest potential
no one talks about better days until there’s no hope of them ever arriving
you learn this early, and then it just seems like something you’ve always known
nicole, lost in the labyrinth
the suicide season again, and all your fucked up lovers say it’s the sunlight that ties this noose so tight
they say it’s the fading warmth of a half-remembered past that blurs the future to a dirty grey, and what can you do but agree?
your father never liked you, sure
left nothing but the gift of self-hatred when he walked away from the burning house
and how many years did you wait before you went looking for him?
how easy do you think it was for him to forget your name?
opened the door to his shithole apartment with shaking hands, with a blank stare, and told you he’d never had any kids
told you his wife disappeared back before the war
made you start to doubt you’d ever been born
John Sweet sends greetings from the rural wastelands of upstate NY. He is a firm believer in writing as catharsis, and in the continuous search for an unattainable and constantly evolving absolute truth. His latest poetry collections include A DEAD MAN EITHER WAY (2020 Kung Fu Treachery) and No ONE STARVES IN A NATION OF CORPSES (2020 Analog Submission Press).
The quality of light Has direct bearing Upon this form
This illumination Nameless and formless Births dark within
Hidden and growing Your beautiful nightmare Of places within
These places are dark Are ancient Have survived
Within each of us It is dark It is ancient
We come as A desperate wish We come cobbled
By daily lives Not idle fantasy The skeleton of lives
The foundation Of what has been Neither forever nor instant
Who cares if it isn’t Real. You were born. You took your first
Breath. No longer Existing inside The future, but
Distinct, astrologically Speaking. The uses Are vast and varied.
As a mirror offers Reassurance and Alchemy, serious
And vaguely silly, The reality of the sky Seems its own kind
Of magic. A chance To see mirrors Inextricably linked
To other mirrors, All looking up. But The sky isn’t enough
If you want to know, Ultimately, why Oceans rise, forests burn.
If you hate your job. If you have a job you dislike. If you have an unpleasant job. Please consider building a ritual. You are free to create one Anywhere, any time. There is no place and no time Not possible.
Keep it simple at the start: Go to the refrigerator. The possibilities are endless. Reach for the milk, The leftovers, The hovering moth. Outrun patterns, Inhale coffee beans. If the coffee does not work, Stare straight ahead. This always works.
Note: It is essential to do this Sitting. Feet flat, back straight. Close your eyes fast as you can. Repeat. When finished, Repeat once more.
Since the pandemic struck, Joy Williams has been holed up in her apartment writing and wishing she had a dog.
The generative project forms Rings, perfect inside And out. This is where light Becomes retrospective. These days propose themselves; body, Dust, breath. Blue body’s bridge and The endless setting of things spoken or Seen near the edge and not abstract Enough couldn’t make me feel better. Circle the best selection, omit nothing.
the little things
because little things are so
they wish what they wish
like a button, a grain of sand, a needle’s eye. they mention less than a shadow or a speck of dust
i will wait until later. later
is what there is to do.
Run in Circles, Walk in Lines
Silently slipping from holding The sun, you stay in river Islands darker than the clear Talk that opens mountains, A string of lumbered ivy. It’s been forever since I thought of startled light. Through these thousand heavens, you let down long Nights of jade wine, and I cannot contain The concrete favor between our broken line. September becomes an elegy, crow perched In pine, on the staircase braids of lace. The world becomes labored. I let myself out.
Delilah Against the World
More than enough for one We are goldfish She says a collection With a strange distance and wants A confession A commission contained In prize winning fabric Her man The first and only In English Is deliverance And the first prodigal light Of a son
Gavriel Ross is poet based in Michigan. He began studying poetry as a teenager and has contributed poems to Ditch Poetry. He was a paramedic for 10 years until he was injured while on duty. He finds that poetry is the most honest and creative way of expressing himself.
Winter fell like a hammer. Days cut off at the knees. Was this house always so dark? Was that tree always so menacing?
The moon is swollen and seeps into the clouds. A baby howls, then a dog. Songbirds all gone silent. What is that rustling in your chest?
It was Thursday when the doors closed for good. I went home but couldn’t sleep. Body accustomed to living by starlight – rising at dusk, sleeping at dawn. The cats and I keep the same schedule. Nocturnal, not lonely. I name the foxes that shuffle through the garden.
I miss the sound of glasses clinking in hands, dishwashers. Miss the steamy windows. The jostling for space. The smell of old beer in hair, clothes. Miss Friday nights and your hands rolling cigarettes, waiting for my break.
Now it’s always Monday, always noon. Now my hands are the only hands and everything is already broken. No cigarettes, just these few empty rooms and a pair of ceramic wrens silent on the bookcase.
Kate Porter is a full-time bartender and part-time poet. She has been writing for years but has only recently begun submitting work for publication. This is her first publication outside her local paper.
like a fire in the wind. My hipbone presses to highway, And I see her, my horse, running like she’s got everything to lose.
Here, the desert is a pale wish, as fragile as my horse’s shins, thin and temporary and unsure of how long it will last. I fell from a great place in order to get here: a rooftop covered in percussion, a stretch of ragged silver and bone in the dusk. I orchestrated tremendous beats–shin to hoof to desert floor. Our racket lasted for centuries.
It was no different from the way hands clap or the way a lover may place her lips to another’s neck. Hunger is hunger is hunger. Rhythm is nothing but a meeting and release. We open one door and close the other. My red horse bolts, a fire in the wind. Her hoofs beat sky, then sand. I fall from a place not unlike grace, but more like perfect joining. My hipbone presses to highway. A truck drives by,
and I swear, there is a mirror tacked to its door, and I see myself, and I am screaming, and then I am laughing with empty hands. The truck moves into horizon, becomes a star. Instead of myself, I see my red horse. We fell from a great place in order to get here: a rooftop
protecting a home of glory. Not heaven, but a lady’s house. She played records and kissed the forever grey sky. She was the first opening, the first feeling without word. And no, her house was no different than a harvest of stones, hands trying to make a place. Hunger is hunger is hunger. We open one door and close the other. My hipbone
presses to highway, and my red horse is there, right there, and it happens so quickly, her body touching the pavement, like mine.
She stares at me. She’s got everything to lose. When the land shakes, her shins become paper. Now, she is a story that the lady keeps with her, that I pen one more time, my hipbone becoming highway now.
I remember walking on a marsh bank
in the pouring rain
A friend walked with me
I was new to the everglades then, not knowing the given name of any bird or grass,
but I understood the language of that rain, holding my body underneath storm-clouds,
cooling me, cooling us all,
Ashley Inguanta is a writer, art photographer, installation artist, and holistic educator. In her newest work, The Island, The Mountain, & The Nightblooming Field, she gives readers a chapbook of poetry that thrives in its simplicity. You can take your copy home through ashleyinguanta.net.
When I was just myself, not latched onto and not stalking my own breath, I was not aware of how much I could unfold and conform the male race to my recesses, and what little I gave to hunger – six pounds to a hundred sixty of it – would meet with simple ferocious love. I became food, grass, playground, air, altar, my men forgive me when life is joy and joy is skin & sweat bloodhounds circling the promises of woman. The way my son set upon his drumstick last night, he deboned it, Genghis Khan on mission, worked the cartilage between molars waiting for the jaw lines of a young man, eyes closed to conserve energy, wrapping his senses around the pleasure in his mouth,
I wish life were so accessible for me.
I studied his tender oval chin, turning the poetry of it, his rapturous aggression. My husband, my boy swoop into the moment’s ascendency while I take longer, look out from the seconds that make up the minute. My body has to practice and permit. Happiness doesn’t come bearing me up so readily; I wait and wait at the threshold and it lingers on the other side. My men eat, chase, swelter, sleep, their day’s laughter lucent in the night sky of my contemplations like angels.
They met where the moon caught the sun’s path, and in hope’s half-light, in his makeshift tent, he now waits for twilight sun,
He – a soldier in love’s jungle; she – in the courtyard of her days, terracotta, quotidian ceremonies, garden stones at the feet of the persimmon tree.
Some dreams had a lifetime – brain, breath, and rolled for room in the womb, but the day comes, and air and joy are not hospitable to them.
He was astonishing and fresh out of my body, magical out of the nothingness that had been the world without him, just six pounds ten ounces of will and appetite,
I was awed – and quite gratified – when some two months into the feeding he, with his tongue, examined me against the false teat of the bottle, and adjudged my breasts more desirable. He sucked and turned his cheek to press it upon my pillow, milk sticky between us and suctioning his face slowly into my skin before drying on him like a watermark.
But my boy still loves my nipples and the round rest of them. They form one vanishing point into which all his mind pulls; today, he laughed as his badminton racquet slivered air, declaring: staring at them will bring me good luck.
I reached and missed the birdie. See, Mommy? It worked! Ten years old, he is funny, he is sick.
He runs between sea and sand, the song and form of mermaids that await him out deep, and the earthen floor where in younger days he had sunk, milk-sopped and a little drunk on his mother’s sweat. I watch the tide sweep in, reaching to carry the M o M M y inscribed in moist sand out to sea.
But what has not been said of this, of our voices meeting, our reflections hearing each other in the river air conducting the nerves of our cerebellum alive like wire, of this spiritual telepathy like bared bodies agreeing, of art.
Her shoulder-length hair gift wrapped in a floral towel and the way she leaned forward, her bath water breasts pressed to her thigh, her leg up on the edge of the tub and that arousing sound of the razor scratching across the soapy stubble on her shin while her left hand cupped the hollow behind her knee.
They often tell each other they’re often concerned about something that doesn’t concern them such as the Sunday afternoon they sat straight up in the wicker chairs on their open front porch using their smartphones to film the elderly woman who lives across the street as a darkening sky brought a threatening gust of wind that raised and flapped her floral cotton house dress up above her waist as she struggled with a mop handle near the top rung of her rickety 16-foot ladder to dislodge a wasp nest the size of a bugle’s bell buzzing with a call to arms under the second story eave of her raised ranch in a neighborhood where some are often concerned about something that doesn’t concern them.
But names will never hurt us, so the saying goes. So does that mean you can bash the door in on our private space with a battering ram of name-calling? Whack us up aside the temple with a rat-a-tat-tat of hate words? Go ahead and box our ears with malice? Your words might make us wobble and well up a bit. Your words might even feel like you swung a few sticks and heaved a few stones.
But please think how lonely and grueling and miserable to relentlessly lug and shove and drag from day to day so little love all over this little space . . . and to amass all that unpredictable volatility in the armory of your mouth.
Another October midnight is now just a sigh and a shrug. Halloween left trash cans choking on candy wrappers. Evil dentists counting on cavities. Costumes shoved back into burial bins. Cemeteries are nursing the annual hangovers of the dead. The burned-out jack-o’-lanterns with their mushy flesh and brittle brain stems know the trick is up. Today they will treat their maker in the compost pile.
But somewhere on a rutty path of an urban legend and leafless trees the ghost of a horse is still rearing in the startled dawn, still stamping and snorting. Its restless horseman still has a shadow for a head—no flaming pumpkin to burn his way through the fog. Only that same solitary candle continues to flicker in the gaping hole in his chest where his heart used to be.
Look What She Found
Look what she found on a hook behind her late husband’s garage workbench— a fortification that he occupied after his tours of duty to minimize casualties and endure the ongoing war: She found his missing dog tags folded in a farewell note buried in a blank envelope draped with a forever flag stamp. She seldom talks about the garage morning he yanked the ring—a grenade pin— from his finger and tossed it into the recycling bin as he stacked his moving boxes like sandbags on the concrete floor during that final battle— before the inevitable retreat— that would end the war.
Steven M. Smith’s poems have appeared in publications such as
Rattle, Poem, Old Red Kimono, Plainsongs, Poetrybay,
Ibbetson Street Press, Studio One, The River, Cabildo
Quarterly, Better Than Starbucks, Hole in the Head Review,
and Mudfish. He has poetry forthcoming in The Worcester Review.
He is the Writing Center director at the State University of New York at
Oswego. He lives in North Syracuse, New York.
The day is crisp as an opened beer. Trees conjugate with a sultry breeze. A silver plane comes in for a landing, the bodies inside, overly complex and heavy with issues. Not much is simple for our kind, though perhaps some of it, a little of it, should be. Harley-Davidsons rumble by. Denim clad dreams of teenage boys perch like raptors on the backseats. Their admirable mores have almost faded. Life is cruel that way. There is no wine here, only beer, and the cool empty hours curling naked at my feet. But I cannot leave this moment, the ideal air, the clouds thickening with life, recalcitrant shadows undulating against city streets. Fruit flies hover with hope, though I’ve not had fruit here for days. A slender woman carrying a yoke of hard years, pushes a small child in a plastic wagon. What will he recall of her in twenty years or more? A green car runs a red light. Bellicose sirens swell. The air is cheap. The beer is cheap. The minutes continue to unfurl themselves. Young people stand on the corner, laughing beyond mirth, their hands skating over unpracticed flesh. So many roles to be performed, as trucks add oily darkness to the day, and a topless car pulls to the curb, the clowns inside trapped within the painted vacuity of tweets and YouTube fails. Nothing there is more than a shrill laugh, an insecure desire to be momentarily liked. Sitting as this day rolls on, shadows and sun, green trees, monolithic clouds, and the ephemeral desires we hold, comprehensibly null.
The daylight lies clear and cool. Wind ruffles the feathers of old trees. The land is flat and unequivocally unremarkable. The denizens here act like it means something more. They carry pride like a dog carries its collar. What would you do if you were new here? The response is always the same: the falls, downtown, a park or two, gutted bars, meat to be cooked outside, God, in all his glorious indifference. Many here are fixing to make a change, but nothing really happens. The river runs like it does. Geese shit everywhere. Tattoo parlors fail like pacified boxers. Books fall to the wayside. It’s all about the hunt, pale beer, whomever laughs loudest, and what will happen when this no longer happens. “We got it pretty good here,” a drunk dullard exclaims, swinging his molded mug of thin beer. But he has been nowhere yet, not even to a neighboring state. His girlfriend is blank and overweight, and at nineteen, already much too pregnant. Suddenly the daylight seems too harsh. Dreams lose their tenacity. Ten years from now, it’ll be a small grey house with a dry yard, two kids and a dead cat. It’ll be ballgames with flies, impassive love on Wednesday nights, overtime on Saturdays, in-laws who break the slow momentum. It’ll be this and a shallow brown river, pigs pouring in by their thousands for slaughter.
At work the fools remain fully foolish. The lesser one bleats of the inhumanity of it all. The weirdo coats himself in the oily sheen of butcher/killer. The third descends into unlit catacombs, touching here and there a favored clutch of bygone bones. When the air’s not moving, tempers rise like winter waves. No one’s mother goes unscorned. When there is no dust, there is still sweat. Without sweat, only more boredom, more rage, more dry screws twisting in the drums of troubled minds. Dumb men can be so damn cruel when they’re empty. The hallways lie thick with dirt and squalid heat. Restrooms reek of dry piss. Flies live and die in lucid worlds overhead. Machines stay fickle as online love. Nothing dispels the ten hour day’s inextricable waste, and every word not needed, or unheard, falls to the unwashed floor, where it quickly dies under borrowed boots.
She pushes them on in a scoop of wheeled plastic. They can’t be more than two or three, maybe less, maybe more, who cares. Not her. Their faces blossom bright with snot. Their small hands wriggle twenty pink and tacky worms. Tiny naked feet are angered by the cool empty air. A dog captures their sullen eyes. Then a fire truck, with its blood red skin, large hands waving from inside. She pushes them on. They are keening loud, and the park is near. Turkey vultures dip the ragged tips of their midnight sails. An hour here, then home again. Nothing gained beyond enduring. Their cries continue, though the streets are childless, the skies thick with heavy clouds.
F. X. James is the pseudonym of an oddball British expat
hiding out in Minnesota. When not dissolving in another savage summer or
fattening up for the next brutal winter, he’s writing poems and stories on the
backs of unpaid utility bills. His words have appeared in The Sierra Nevada Review, Prairie Winds, The Adirondack Review, Mystery
Tribune,Foliate Oak Literary
Magazine, The Courtship of the Winds, and many other publications.
Pugnacious is another, though displaying it with gentleness
not a contradiction and is superior.
How I’m looking forward to standing on the deck of a frigate,
sailing to a metropolis I’ve always loved.
He’s smooth and beautiful, An angel of words. He always puts both feet forward, Both of them being his best.
He chronicles the human heart From past, to present and future, Always seemingly at the right place At the write time. Such ease
And wisdom pouring like honey Over his myriad readers, Who never fail to always follow Wherever he takes them: a golden
Highrise, a blue mountain top, A street too lonely to ever forget. He’s smooth and beautiful, You’d never doubt he had wings too.
for Agnes Varda
The night, dark as the Soviet, is here. A cat gets lost right outside the apartment.
The world teeters on its axis—is this when it finally falls off into oblivion?
An umbrella on a chair by the entrance of a garage, vacations firmly put to bed.
A boy and girl looking outside the window of a Place St. Michel high-rise, dreaming—
of red hearts painted on the street below, the future brittle, but heroes fighting hard.
THE WORLD AND I STRIKE A TRUCE
While I’m reading—and it’s kept its word and the truce has held, not that our arrangement is foolproof— the world will still sting hard and I will continue to disappoint it and myself from time to time. But we relish the respite together and self-pity doesn’t stand a chance between us—a little lamplight, the city coiled all around behaving itself admirably, the cold outside pressed against my windows, waiting and watching me turn every page.
Tim Suermondt is the author of five full-length collections of poems; the latest is Josephine Baker Swimming Pool from MadHat Press, 2019. He has published in Poetry, Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, The Georgia Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Stand Magazine, december magazine, On the Seawall, Poet Lore and Plume, among many others. He lives in Cambridge (MA) with his wife, the poet Pui Ying Wong.
this Ming nightmare: hordes tromping imperial courtyards, barbarians mugging for posterity from royal balconies
we squeeze, shove shoulders to metal rails stretch, strain, crane raise cameras to faces, over heads for shadowed glimpses of satin cushions long-faded under kowtowing courtiers and concubines – pushy crowds with earned entry to sheds of crumbling treasure hope for a shimmer of silk clack of fan in regal hand – we press the bars and gawk like peasants brought to witness the jailed Last First Wife – who warned her Emperor the Japanese despise your Ching Dynasty – demand towels, water clean linen of ghost servants, her own body risen against her for starving it of opium
back home we will tell our neighbours but bending to work wish, some of us guards had barred the gates
letter from Donghai
wake up, Father, till I tell you how you’d like it, this pier where beat-up wooden boats herd five-six deep black and blue hulls splintered, faded red flag jolly aloft each main-mast decks grey with ground sea-grime white with tromped and broken shells burly boys toting tubs abrim with rubber tentacles and finned legs shell and scale all iridescence all purples, yellows, silvers, pinks murk-greens – bristles, claws horns and webs – feelers, fangs – where sun-browned girls in scarves squat back of sea-snail vats and starfish trays wind-burned women kerchiefed grin at a lau-wei out-of-water leathern fishermen bare-headed, all rubber boots all haggle and bark as tip-toeing townsfolk skirt slime puddles start from horny vans – here fishwives by scores secret in workcoats, gloves and peaked bonnets battened down with scarves sort nets like other Fates untangling lives – briny breeze, seafolk wheeling-dealing, lusty youth plain work – just like the wharf in Arichat circa 1928
then the market-proper: rows of stalls bright-caparisoned – each fresh live sea-beast of the pier dried, hung, drawn and quartered piled where those are pearls that were eyes, are necklaces, shells wind-chimes
we could sit by Moon Bay, Father in Bohai’s breeze savor some sea-dish watch livings earned – you foretelling gain or loss, might suggest half in fun and all in earnest my next thousand-li step
I write, Father since you are so distant and I can’t wait to tell you if only you’d wake from that dreamless sleep
Notes: 1) lau-wei: foreigner (literally, ‘Mister Foreigner’); 2) Arichat: in Cape Breton; 3) Bohai: sea or gulf adjoining Yellow Sea; 4) li: measure of distance; figurative equivalent of a mile
after the restaurant – upstairs room a good twelve dishes, toasts enough to health and long life to reduce the chance of either – three couples arm in arm, we hear yearning through new concrete apartment blocks strains of er-hu – find on a bench an old man, smiling wife folded wheelchair
may we listen this fresh evening
he turns on a radio
too shy I’m told hasn’t played for so long – he offers the instrument to the lao-wei musician in the old fiddlers’ way: do you know enough to appreciate but not to out-do
bu, bu; sie-sie I decline
soon on warmer nights musicians gather come back he tells us
but I’ll be gone will only picture them summer evenings five or six old men another er-hu, a wooden flute lute, zither, gourd-pipe ancient music
setting off, we hear once more, are followed by his fading tones
looking back, I make out the wife turned to watch us her face a waning moon
the shower: open corner in a small cell
I turn the tap overhead and chest-height valve – nothing from shower-head – turn more, a cold spray around valve which with more turns targets bare flesh as shower-head looks on, dry-eyed
another turn – valve shoots to palm fire-hose torrent blasts chest, rebounds all directions
the valve – surprise – does not screw back – but a firm hand behind holds back the flood
extend right leg – Monkey Fist toes grab underwear – crook leg to Hissing Snake retrieve underwear with free hand pass foot through hole
lower foot to floor holding valve in place, underwear half up
insert left leg in left-hole
with hula swivel hoist underwear to waist
assume Floating Crane – stretch left leg to door handle, Monkey Fist toes turn handle
door is locked
call hey ni-hao hey! – kick till Elder Brother appears wavering through frosted glass
sliver by sliver door unlocked opens
head peeks round – upstage a chorus of Chinese women tragic and comic
Elder Brother shuts water – scuttle to bedroom
from the kitchen women laughing
remember at Penglai the fortress that warning-sign: say no to feudal superstitions
sea-fog sneaks on dragon feet paved street under lights where I stroll my last evening – from a clutch of teenaged ghosts a girl’s jade voice: welcome to Longkou
yelling, clapping, pebble-tossing to the window – Elder Brother, drink in hand, looks and turns back inward
the road to Yantai:
old man in blue pushing a bicycle up a dirt hill pestered by six white goats
among roadside vendors a farmer, arms outstretched hawks five-feet of writhing snake
lonely highway – on the median a shrub in flames
James Thurgood was born in Nova Scotia,
grew up in Windsor, Ontario, and now lives in Calgary, Alberta. He has been a
general labourer, musician, and teacher – not necessarily in that order. His
poems have appeared in various journals, anthologies, and in a collection (Icemen/Stoneghosts, Penumbra Press).
So that life is not just heartbreak And don’t give in to capricious arbitrariness It is vital to raise the spirit to the limit of the symbol Bringing from this strength the hidden deities And the cruel stupor that brings the disease Advance without fear the song of praise For the charm of the dream of modesty Settle doubts that clamor with clamor Everywhere share the experience That translates the transfigured life dream In the most intimate and painful experience In chaos do not fall or be vilified Bringing customs and signs very close Disguises of others not wanting Sweet and warm memories of my parents Juxtaposing correctly in crescendo.
He lived off the money his mother took out of the safe on lies that were told with a start in the cinema when the neighbor once died watching a pornographic film and a newborn was found in the trash. And through flying cars, satisfaction comes close to the accounting aspect of the sum of hours spent in urban traffic that rewards the recycling of consumption that is available in artificial intelligence and in drones that spray the crowds in disagreement with the governments with holy water. passion being a sporting success plagiarizing the personas who manifest themselves in the collective spotlight with the avatar corrected by social acceptance posthumously in which survival is thrown at the minimum wage on the way to a secular spirituality in the confrontation with the urban beast in orgasms of faith public with the day full of affections in a traffic enraptured by the paradoxical being perplexed.
The joke of the man from beyond the grave who laughs for the last time at his own funeral asking for a divine intervention to the saints that is canonized in the memory of those who stay here and to the delight of a capitalist who healed of problems in the vertical column was acknowledged on a holiday with Mass in which they celebrated it.
Play time And there we were all Flushed with enthusiasm Running through the undergrowth Discovering the hidden body In the timeless innocence of childhood We felt sweaty from the cold We ate carcasses with sugar and butter Barefoot between the gravel of the street In the starry night the promised wishes Noble intentions of a pressing wish That impelled us to enjoy brotherhood In the howling reeds that huddled us The sheets of a dreamy night
Sun has been here ever for so long when will the rains come? When will the pitter-patter on our zinc roofs we hear?
Sun has been here, we seek the coming of the rains like unto the coming of angels may it appear suddenly in our moment of wait but who can tell the way of the rains?
Our fathers lift the dust of the earth over fire to call it forth, It will not listen. Who can tell the way of the rains? Our brothers lift their glasses, looking in instruments pointed to the sky, it will rain today they say with a smile. The rain defies them a mocking smirk on his face, He laughs true thoughts to scorn.
For who can tell the way of the rains? The earth cries out in thirst, trees and leaves morn their fate for who can tell, man or angel, the way of the rains – Today it will come or tomorrow, never too soon but not too late. Who can tell?
I come from the corner birthed in darkness in the weary cold night. I was conceived, in October, brought forth in July my life will never see sunlight, only the dark. It rains tears and sorrow and my father never had a face, Mother always weary. It is time to ask my creator what sin I sinned. For there is a name I often bear the beginning of a taunt the muttering of a chant It is the feeble cry of some or the roar of all. It is the word of no man’s, it is the call of a bastard –
YOU, I AM.
All around you, I am in your food, in your water in the air that you breathe close, right by your side. I am your reality – Your future your fini, your very end. I be your all.
** The growl of a Tigress, the pant of a Leopard I am – the very roar of the Lion the howl of the drowning whirlwind the swash of soul seas the cry of the lone Wolf I am, the dark eyes of the hooting Owl, the enchanted paws of an enraged Cat I be your all.
** Coming from the darkness like the laugher of a closed heart the wand that drips blood the piercing scream of the eagle – the vampire resident in tales and myths I am here, beside, the hate in your heart I am. Your friend. I think you see – I am you.
Abasiama Udom is a Poet and Writer with polymathic tendencies. She is currently pursuing a personal course on the meaning of life and has found a few joys during this study: food, music, books, family, sleep, and football. Twitter: @AneuPoet
(it is spring), i miss your damp forehead between my shoulder blades
(i can’t bear to look at the moon again); i miss how you used to bite my earlobe whenever i drifted away [or whenever i picked up books like
the hundred thousand songs of milarepa because poetry more beautiful than ours gave you a headache]
(my darling), i miss your firm grasp on my hips
(i’ve been sleeping on your side); i miss how your eyes used to soften when i sang ballads to the cosmos, wearing your duvet as the high priestesses of athena would have worn their robes
[and when you looked at me with
adoration i felt like an enchantress
,,,,, dazzling, alive, fire in my belly, a daughter
of the seas ,,,,,, and i conjured all the elements in the
texture of our lips]
(i’m sorry i promised to visit but i didn’t) i miss curling up to you sweaty hearts pressed together, your fingertips drawing stars and suns on my back;;; the night i left you i laid awake locking eyes with the night sky through your half-opened window, i was cold and i wiped my tears on your pillow case. at one-point i could have sworn the sky slipped into your chamber and laid in bed with us and i thought etcetera.
kiss me i’m peaking
you murmur lips pressed against my forehead i look up to you your eyeballs are shaking your hair is damp and you look so beautiful i feel my eyes rolling to the back of my head as i crash my mouth to yours my hands fall on your chest and i feel your warmth slip through my skin wrapping my heart your hands rest on my waist your beard scratches my ear and i feel tangled with you my mouth is dry and the music is tearing my chest open i feel dizzy i bring your hands to my heart
do you feel this
your voice is hoarse you are holding my youth between your fingertips i nod
is it love
i don’t know but i feel so close to you right now
sonnet sorrow brief to
I am digesting my loss as life dances on the tip of my tongue
Téa Nicolae is a Romanian poetess based in the UK. She writes
confessional, Occult and devotional poetry. She was short-listed for the
Literary Lancashire Award 2019 and her poems have been published in several
print and online publications, including Cake
Magazine, TAST Zine, Dissolved Magazine and SCAN. She is an editor at Flash Journal Lancaster and she studied
Film and Creative Writing at Lancaster University.
Uncoerced lion stirred the brink Of his roundabout, Dodging traffic’s eyes. At the open-hamper belt Maisie’s plastic fork cracked. Lipstick deformed into a grudge. Coordinates on our map highlighted words: “Quick, quick, come and see, Bettina is teasing a spider”.
Liberty Atoms 17
Nettle-plait bracelet Fringed her snow-lace. Quickstepping limped as the amp passed over. Maisie jostled into our hawthorne, Sizzling to ends of permanent wave. Imprint on beetle unevenly read: “‘I want so much to help you,’ said Edward, ‘To bring you anything you want’”.
Liberty Atoms 18
Toy pigskin angel Sweats by cinders. Vase sorrel decomposes, yawning. Blubbing keeps Maisie from playing up. Sequins on our drop-leaf neatened to: “Oh let that not be so! thought Thomas”.
Liberty Atoms 19
A falcon and Maisie Voodooed seven clocks. Herky-jerky brick-stuffed pillow Couldn’t intuit dim light. No phantoms undertook to align. Riven fingernails inscaped with: “Edwards’ first searching look Was for a male figure, waiting”.
Liberty Atoms 20
Gossamer ping-pong ball Vaporized into lustre. Maisie flounced, clacking stairs. Postwoman disputes virtue Of balanced economy. Our ladybird’s spots can be networked to: “We’re quite cut off now, it’s nice”.
Quotes: Iris Murdoch, The Nice And The Good
Christopher Barnes won a Northern Arts
writers award. Christmas 2001 he debuted at Newcastle’s famous Morden Tower
doing a reading of poems. Each year he read for Proudwords lesbian and gay
writing festival and partook in workshops. 2005 saw the publication of his
collection LOVEBITES published by Chanticleer Press, 6/1 Jamaica
A stone between two stone piers Passes to everyone’s satisfaction Murava flourishes In green waves Blazing attractions A bumblebee lands on the waterpolo ball Broom is yellowing Out of it the yellow scent of the Sun And lemon
The system of considerations
Insects Perfected in that specific environment In thousands of nights & darks Crashing into that bulb Light impacts of ferocious attacks Congratulated admired Each character with its own specialty A monolith of single purpose In thousands of nights & darks The rise of expansionism Of endless scrolling You’re on the upper floor Comfort lies in the littleness of things You’re on the upper floor but why wait You might as well jump in
The thousands of nights & darks
There’s one wing swing One leg movement One eye catch The possibility of reaching the total With no comparison Just one bulb and thousands of bugs Nights & darks
In the window Crystal reflection In the dawn I Am attacked by panthers lions by wolves bears In the window I Crystal reflection of me In the dawn Will slaughter A bear a lion a panther a wolf
Prijatelj is a writer from Croatia. His work has appeared in several Bosnian,
Croatian and Serbian magazines, and most recently in Maudlin House. He
is currently working as a junior project
manager for an IT company, while majoring in linguistics and phonetics.
He has a bachelor’s degree in film & TV directing, and he occasionally directs plays.
Janée J. Baugher: As an undergraduate in the 1970s, you had a rich introduction to poets and politics.
Judith Skillman: Yes, as a student at University of Maryland, I studied with Rod Jellema, Ann Darr, Reed Whittemore, and others. The visiting poets at that time included Galway Kinnell, Tess Gallagher, Stanley Kunitz, and others. Because UM didn’t yet have an MFA program, I studied English Literature with an emphasis on creative writing. Supportive criticism was not in vogue then. Peers in workshops would make statements like, “This poem is shit.” Whether or not someone’s poem is crap, it takes a thick skin to continue to write after feeling eviscerated by your peers.
Richard Brautigan came to Western
Maryland College (now McDaniel College) when I was an undergraduate. His
anti-war poems were so resounding at that time. I was politically active when I
was young, joining campaign groups, manning the phones, wearing buttons, and
handing out fliers. Working at campaign headquarters in proximity to Washington
DC was exciting. When my daughter Lisa was born and only a few months old my
mom and I went, all dressed in white, to the Women’s Rights March at the
Washington Monument. I was a feminist then, and a member of NOW, for which I
did freelance work.
As a child who had to go down into
the bomb shelter during the Cuban missile crisis, I have been aware that the world
could go nuclear since I was nine. I won’t forget the trauma of walking down to
the underground cafeteria carrying my blanket and lunch. One can barely watch
three seconds of news before being reminded of the brutality of mankind.
Since moving to the Seattle-area,
I’ve had the privilege of taking workshops from Beth Bentley, Patiann Rogers, William
Stafford, Madeline DeFrees, David Wagoner, Jana Harris, Marvin Bell, David
Wojahn, and Andrei Codrescu, to name a few. At Port Townsend Writer’s
Conference in 1995 I met the illustrious Jack Gilbert. We kept up a modest
correspondence for a few years. He taught me that when you revise your poems, it’s good to be aware of the
difference between fancy and imagination, particularly with
associative material. Fancy is contrived, whereas the imagination is defined as
the “mind’s eye.” Fancy fits under imagination, and not vice versa. Although
it’s employed under the verb, fancy is a “faculty of the imagination.” We want
leaps that follow a subconscious thread. We don’t want to impress the reader
(s/he doesn’t exist when we’re writing, anyway) with ostentation, showiness, or
flamboyance. Keep it understated—that’s a good measuring stick with which to
judge images that run rampant. Prune adjectives—another way to resist the
ornate. Write from feeling, not from intellectualizing or over-thinking. Pay
attention to your dreams and the songs that get stuck in your head.
JB: In our digital age, I wonder if “letter to a young poet” correspondence relationships are still happening. How much did you gain as a writer, for example, with your epistle relationship with Jack Gilbert?
JS: I learned so much from Jack. He was single-minded in his passion for writing, and lived a monkish life, rarely leaving the cottage at Centrum where I was his neighbor for a month. After I gathered up the courage, I showed him a poem, which was, I think, about deer—there were many deer in Port Townsend—he pointed to a few lines in the middle of the piece and asked me pointblank “Is this fancy or imagination?” I remember being both puzzled and fascinated by the question. So we talked about the quality of fancy and how it differs from the imagination. He took it upon himself to teach me this lesson, which has become extremely important as years go by. Fancy is contrived. Jack had an eye and an ear for whatever is fake, forced, strained, artificial, affected, or put on.
While I was under his informal
mentorship, Jack spent not a small amount of time discouraging me from continuing
to write poetry. He said that there was no point in it, as so few poets would
get a job even at the community college level. Yet he continued to support me
in my work, as we exchanged letters over the course of ten years or so. I have
saved these for their truthfulness. I learned something of his “métier”—to
write a poem a week while enjoying the “meanwhile.” For him, the idol of so
many poets and non poets alike, the act of writing was one of communication
with a wide audience while living a solitary, frugal life.
I recall, when I saw his kitchen
table, that there was a letter from The
New Yorker soliciting his work. I asked incredulously “Aren’t you going to
send them something?” To my surprise, he replied with a shrug. This was not an
act. It was the gift of a great poet bestowed upon someone struggling for
recognition—a gesture that said everything I needed to know and to remember. The
writing is what Gilbert was after. Sitting with his feelings and letting them
percolate and finding out what was in there that had resonance; what could
become a surprise or the hidden meaning in a broken relationship. It was not
the acquisition of a reputation, fame, or fortune. This despite the Yale
Younger Poets Award, and the fact that he told stories of walking around with
Pound in Italy. He spoke much of his wife Michiko, whom he mourned with an
altar on his dresser in each place he landed. This self-imposed reclusion despite
having been nominated for the Pulitzer at the same time as William Carlos
Williams made him truly unique.
JB: How does a person leap from being a student of poetry to having published eighteen poetry collections?
JS: When I had my first child, my mom was very supportive. She said, “Babies sleep a lot. Why don’t you enroll in law school?” So, after I attended one semester, I turned to poetry, which people are wont to do. Anyhow, shortly after I quit school and began writing, I made a decision. “I’m a poet,” I began telling people. I turned to magic realism, the fiction of Borges, and lapped-up the language of Mark Twain. I wrote poems and was, therefore, a poet. Simple as that.
JB: Is poem-making for you like creating sand mandalas? Normally, I wouldn’t mention obsession, but, given how prolific you’ve been throughout your life, what would you say about the compulsion to writing thousands of poems?
JS: Making is the thing. Poets write the same poem over and over, similar to mandalas. What lasts? Why do we do the things that we do? This isn’t something one needs to overthink, nor should one. The War of Art is a book that, for me, explains the necessity of overcoming one’s resistance to succumbing to one’s innate passions. Why do we have so much resistance? It seems that the “maker” in each writer does have a war to fight, against her/his own inner critic.
As humans we are especially
self-critical. The internal voice demands to know why on earth the “I”—that is,
the ego—would expend itself to serve the self. There has to be some gain,
right? Some recognition for all the work that goes into creating a unique
package of words—a poem, a novel, a memoir, or a screenplay. A piece of visual
art, or sculpture—even an entrepreneurial endeavor. What is the pay off? I
learned a lot when Tibetan monks visited my son’s college (Reed College, Portland,
Oregon). They spent a number of days creating beautiful mandalas of sand. My
son played pool with one of the monks each evening. Parents came on the day
these works of art were to be thrown in the river that flows through the
campus. There they would turn to milk, all color gone, nothing left to identify
any one of the particular, unique pieces.
Poem-making is the same process. We
bring the inner beauty and magnitude of our thoughts out on paper. The
exquisite moments of that are personal to the extreme. Will anything come of
this act? Will the endeavor last? This is not for the maker to decide, nor to
concern him or herself with. It is an act of relinquishment.
Obsession plays a part, as in,
possibly, OC syndrome—in that a writer may not feel grounded unless they are
playing and replaying some incident in thought, and mimicking this by
repetitive behavior. For me, the act of writing poems (and I have dabbled in
fiction and essay writing, and written reviews as well) is a welcome respite
from the daily grind. Simply sitting still within one’s writing place, whether
it is a corner carved out of another room or a room of one’s own, stills
habitual thought patterns. Reading and mulling over events become a kind of
practice that yields, at times, unexpected results. Sometimes I find myself
sitting very still and a strong feeling wells up. It may be uncomfortable. Life
is full of grief, for instance, though we prefer to talk about the weather.
There are the numerous transitions our children go through, aging parents,
financial problems—you name it.
So the compulsion to write poems,
while it resembles other repetitive acts, is completely different. In the act
of feeling and subsequently writing down what comes to mind without censoring
that material, some seed appears. Perhaps the would-be poem remains a fragment.
That’s fine. Fragments can be pieced together or lead to sequences. If the
internal censor can be vanquished from the room, the act of piecing words
together based on either a form or free verse or associations (I prefer the
latter) can lead in surprising directions. Connections may not be clear at the
time. It’s a form of day dreaming, or, perhaps, in the best case, of dreaming
JB: Some writers have spent a lifetime writing about the mundane, but you’ve found artistic fodder in the subject of trauma. Robert Frost reminds us, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” Is it trauma’s dramatic occasion, its personal significance, or its intrinsic tension that interests you?
JS: My personal traumatic experiences go as far back as I can remember. My childhood tonsillectomy, for example. Instead of getting ice cream I vomited three bedpans of blood, and had to stay overnight in the hospital alone. Parents did not stay with children in the sixties! I had hallucinations of spiders; climbed out of my metal crib and wandered down the hallways only to be stiffly reprimanded by a nurse. As a writer writing of tragedies, it’s curious to me how and why I remember these sorts of details so vividly. I barely remember my graduations from high school and university, but those imagined spiders from my childhood still haunt me…
So your question is salient. I
would say all three of these come into play—the dramatic occasion that lingers
or malingers in the mind, the personal significance, and the tension and/or
angst provided by the memory. It demands to be exorcised. I am not sure why my
happier memories aren’t stronger. Somehow it’s the wounds that want to come out
of the closet when I write. I have tried to change this. Public readings about
unpleasant events—these poems are not leavened by humor in the slightest—leave
me feeling the audience is not only getting depressed, but I am too. Of course
there are exceptions. But by and large, perhaps because of expectations that
may have set me up for an easier path through life, my attraction to the trauma
has not diminished with the years.
JB: While writing-through-trauma isn’t new, the current zeitgeist is making the mode even more relevant and necessary. While we usually don’t think about the biographical elements of Robert Frost’s poetry, the fact remains that he was a man long traumatized by his loved ones’ diseases, mental illnesses, and sudden deaths. “Home Burial” is a remarkable illustration of that gulf that exists between people caught between the dead and the living. Do you feel as though you’re a poet who writes through tragedies and trauma?
JS: Yes, and there’s so much to unpack. I’ve tackled topics from childhood illnesses to generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Rimbaud was right when he wrote, “Too bad for the wood that finds itself a violin.” I think artists of every discipline, compared to the average person, have more acute sensory awareness. Often this manifests in a heightened sensitivity of the body. For example, Wordsworth has a poem about chronic insomnia; it’s his third night without sleep and he invokes God. Sleeplessness erodes confidence. Insomnia is both humbling and insistent, as is chronic pain. One feels one can’t trust the body, its impulses when young, and its ongoing ever-increasing sensibilities and foibles as we age.
JB: Your treatment of writing-through-trauma is resolute and understated, and the mystery is palpable. You span subjects such as illnesses, disease, depression. W.H. Auden was precise when he wrote, “About suffering they were never wrong.” In your Journal of American Medical Association poems, there’s surprise in the juxtaposition of beauty and pain. There’s something ethereal beyond or somewhere within the imagery of tragedy, trauma, suffering.
JS: The fact that MFA writing programs may be offering a new track, writing-through-trauma, is interesting. One of the first “trauma” poems I wrote was “Written on Learning of Arrhythmia in the Unborn Child”. The title describes exactly when this was written—after an ultrasound late in the first trimester of pregnancy, when my then unborn third child had an arrhythmic heart beat. The uneven heartbeat became just the tip of the iceberg, as a subsequent ultrasound revealed that she only had one working kidney. The title “Written On Learning of….” might be an inherent preface for each poem written out of a traumatic experience.
I believe the authenticity of the
work depends upon a sliver of disengagement from actual events—an ability to
detach, even if just momentarily, from the object or subject of one’s shock. After
shock comes fear, and that seems more ordinary. Perhaps by ordinary I mean that
fear in the context of daily necessities can become uncomfortable, but subject
to avoidance. Daily routine presses onward, and any space one might have for
contemplation is lost. By its nature, shock includes a surreal element, but
this can make it easier and, in fact, feel safer, to look away from the
abnormality of the experience—to discount strong emotions and move on with
problem solving. Of course, at the time, I was in a state of shock, as prior to
this I had two healthy children by natural childbirth. That is not to say they
didn’t have any problems, but the early illnesses they experienced were garden
variety compared to this set of issues.
JB: So, while that poem, “Written On Learning of Arrhythmia,” published by Poetry over 30 years ago was your first trauma-related poem, it certainly wasn’t your last. Is it true that for the last 25 years you’ve had over 25 poems published in the Journal of American Medical Association?
JS: Yes. It was at the time of my third child’s major surgery, which required an eight-day stay at Children’s hospital in Seattle, and she came home with tubes in her kidneys and bladder, that I wrote “The Body Especial,”—my first poem published in JAMA’s Poetry and Medicine column. The subjects of my JAMA poems have included, diagnoses such as Hashimoto’s disease, Epstein-Barr, post vitreous detachment, tinnitus, spasmodic torticollis, traumatic brain injury, shingles, serum sickness, and diagnostic procedures such as mammograms, echocardiograms, and biopsies.
While I have had personal resonance
with this list of subjects, my first concern is honoring the energy of the
moment in which I write. When various maladies are diagnosed, words get
involved and that becomes exciting. There is the challenge to discover not only
what the word holds, but what the body is holding onto. Our bodies know more
than we do about how events in our ever-changing environment influence our
lives. I found the term “Spasmodic Torticollis” very funny even as I
experienced the pain of a wrenched neck. It does sound like an Italian dish, so
the poem’s first line was a found line.
JB: As a poet who battles chronic pain, you’ve mentioned to me the importance of having read Sarah Anne Shockley’s book, The Pain Companion. Will you discuss the correlation between intellectualizing and managing your pain with writing about it imaginatively?
JS: Well, there is a depth of fury and rage when one’s body doesn’t function normally. Often this anger turns inward, towards oneself. That is unproductive and exacerbates the condition. You have to choose how you want to relate to your pain. I can’t trust the body, and have rarely felt comfortable in my own skin.
Writing, however, helps establish a
foundation for trust in reality. There is a tremendous amount of release
available when one can take to a private place such as a poem with one’s
feelings—the heartache engendered by trauma. It isn’t a panacea by any means,
but writing holds the moment in place. By anchoring an event with words, the
experience becomes externalized, and makes shock more bearable.
So while I feel rather like a
magnet for trauma, I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to express these
events of varying kinds and proportions in the form of verse. While there is
little to recommend about trauma, except perhaps the ability to empathize with
others who experience it, we all live through deeply distressing experiences.
Just being born is a critical condition for the human infant, who relies on his
or her parents to meet each and every need for a full year, as compared to
other mammals, who are born and learn to fend for themselves in a relatively
JB: Writing-through-trauma seems like a method by which a writer can actually claim an event that she herself couldn’t control. By writing a script in which beauty collides with trauma, a writer can orchestrate a slowing down, a way of regaining command of a life that’s vast and unpredictable. In that spirit, talk to me about the poem, “You’ll Never Heal.”
JS: I have been inspired to write by new traumatic events that seem to spring up continually and leave scars. “You’ll Never Heal” was written after one of my children had a serious car accident. It speaks of the sensibility of a shock experience from mother to daughter. I know for myself healing doesn’t necessarily happen in the actual world. In the ideal, of course, we want and expect that restoration and exactitude: that our loved one will emerge unmarred, unscarred. The thing about poems is that verse, at least for me, can capture the moment better than autobiographical prose can.
Though they say it could have been worse, give you ice and pills, nothing bandages the millisecond you can’t remember
or the afterwards, a shock wave traveling in slow motion through your knee, your back, neck and stomach.
Though they say the limp will disappear, you feel as if cottonwood fell to the curb to be collected by the accident and packed into the ball and socket.
This kind of snow never melts. Through glass you watch the great hulk of mountain, that part you can see, its summit clipped by cloud, frame, pall.
(Preprinted with permission from Came Home to Winter, Deerbrook Editions 2019)
JB: My favorite Anne Sexton quote concerns her label as a confessional poet: “I often confess to things that never happened.” I wonder if “Writing through Trauma” is just the 21st century term for “Confessional” writing? What’s your take on the mode of writing-through-trauma? Do you consider your writing about trauma to be confessional? Is trauma a matter for art? While there’s an inherent autobiographical nature to writing-through-trauma, my question to you is how can writers ensure that their work doesn’t succumb to self-indulgence?
JS: I would say stick with the experience, stay true to the details, and keep yourself present to what happened. Also, follow the mood, if and when that develops. Think of a mood as a guide forward into the material that needs to be accessed and brought back into the light in order to be examined under a microscope. Use your senses, all five, and the sixth sense if it can be accessed, to avoid self-pity. Know that you are not alone—trauma is experienced every day by everyone, even if it is present as the affront of a wooden table to a toddler who is learning how to navigate a living room. When the pity and confession begin, allow yourself to feel that, but don’t engage overlong. The smallest child moves forward with mercurial changeability from crying to laughing, and in a split second is on to the next thing. That’s a good lesson.
JB: So, is that to say that your primary concern in poem-making is image development versus writing on the facts of a certain situation? Writing-through-trauma for you isn’t a means of catharsis?
JS: I think it goes both ways. The first impetus is “Let’s get this thing that feels like being slimed out of my body…let’s make it into words, because it is too awful to retain inside.” The facts are the facts and they are important. This experience happened. It was shocking and surprising. It made me feel angry, upset, hurt; it caused pain and suffering. I am still here, however, and looking out at a world that doesn’t seem to care that this happened. In fact, people can distance themselves from their loved ones who suffer—this occurs much more often than one might like to think. Pain and suffering are scary and uncomfortable. They remind others of their own pain. Clearly PTSD and its attendant emotions can become a toxic and isolating concoction.
So what in nature does this
feeling-experience resemble? That’s where image development comes in. There’s
an organic part to being human. We try to pretend that our animal qualities
don’t exist. We have our cities, our high rises, concrete, pavement—we’ve
covered civilization with a flat veneer of ‘enlightenment’. Despite this, if,
when wounded by our own bodies, we turn back to the natural world, there are
abundant examples of scarred trees, burnt vistas, branchings, tramplings,
floods, and randomness. Many images are available to translate our feelings
into words. The correspondence of image to situation may or may not ease the
current situation. It is not something to be done for the purpose of catharsis.
That may backfire, because any purpose can become pat, forced, studied, and
artificial—again, can be fancy.
JB: Speaking of the autobiographical elements in your writing, you’ve had physical injuries, hereditary maladies, social trauma, and chronic pain, all of which have been given voice in your poetry. Will you discuss the struggles inherent to using personal pain as a subject for poetry?
JS: I’ve always had a sensitive constitution. Acute sensory awareness, sympathetic pains, feeling deeply about things, people. A propensity for worry. I’ve felt shame, guilt (some milieu-induced and some society-specific) about my chronic pain, but that never prevented me from writing about it. Trauma is omnipresent and omnipotent, which is to say that no one’s immune. I’ve done research on PTSD, and still I cannot figure out why some people are consumed by it and some people seen to be inoculated from it.
JB: In your poem, “Biopsy,” which ends with the words, “She couldn’t feel / more like a hostage / were she to don / the bee’s jacketed stripes, / the garb of the jail,” there’s a curious string of associations from needle to sting to bee to imprisonment. Do these associations come easily for you in the creative process, or do you made these conscious links during revision?
JS: They simply arrived, in this case. The associative process was working—all I had to do was get out of the way. Of course this doesn’t always happen. I think in this case the links were internalized from having been stung by wasps, bees, and hornets some twenty times while growing up in Maryland. Physicians and/or nurses often use the phrase “This will feel like a bee sting”…again the process is dipping into what’s already there, waiting to be found.
JB: When I substitute taught your Richard Hugo House class, “Generating Associative Verse,” I puzzled over who were my favorite associative poets. In that class I realized that your poetic associative moves are the ones I most admire. One of my favorites is your punctuation-free poem, “Tiny Animals,” which has that bullet train feeling:
in blown glass on shelves Wedgewood plates stacked on the buffet for company quilted place mats salt and pepper shaker from Tahiti horns of ivory rhinoceros don’t you dare touch else the host will bellow you’ll become the child who ran into winter jumped the fence to fall on concrete where a shard entered your palm look at the cicatrix like a tattoo a little leg pulled from flesh
published in Hamilton Stone Review
JS: It’s the subconscious that knows best, so the question then becomes how to access that part of our minds when we go to write. Sensation seems to be the driving force for a poem, especially one of an associative nature. “Tiny Animals” is one of my personal favorite associative poems also. It’s impossible to explicate why, except perhaps that when I look at it now there are concrete images and explicit warnings. The injury experienced by the ‘you’—“you’ll become the child” is a splinter from one of those “Tiny Animal(s)”—but how does the piece move from beginning to end without knowing consciously that there would be a convergence? Because it (the unconscious/subconscious part) is the best tool available to any writer.
JB: Will you talk about the image-and thread-driven nuances of associative writing?
JS: In writing associatively, it’s the subconscious that knows best what material is of the utmost importance for addressing—or for feeling our way—through a specific subject matter. So the question becomes how to access that part of our minds when we sit down to write. Dreams are poem-like; associative poems can be dream like, and are compared to Hieronymus Bosch by Richard Hugo: “When you see a painting by Hieronymus Bosch your immediate impression may be that he was a weirdo. A wise man once told me he thought Bosch had been a cynic, and the longer I thought about this the truer it seemed… Had Bosch concerned himself with the relative moral or aesthetic values of the various details, we would see more struggle and less composure in the paintings themselves. The details may clash with each other, but they do not clash with Bosch. Bosch concerned himself with executing the painting—he must have—and that freed his imagination, left him unguarded…One way of getting into the world of the imagination is to focus on the play rather than the value of words…” (from The Triggering Town)
JB: Besides the propulsion of associations through your poems, will you enlighten me about the irreducible relationship between your titles and your first lines. There’s so much happening in that white space! The poetic leaps don’t feel like leaps at all; they feel more like scaling a German wall. Here are some of my favorite title/first line combinations from your selected, The Phoenix, 2007-2013: Wind—Like pain it came and left by halves; House of Burnt Cherry—Here the martyr and the porcupine; Extinction’s Cousin—I came back for scraps; and November Moon, Past Full—Pours its dead, mimetic light.
JS: In that white space, the poems take-off, so to speak. I think that exists because of the need strongly felt in the body to write the poem. It’s more of a mood or a feeling than an idea. Ideas are the enemy of associative writing; the goal is to allow ourselves access to what’s frozen, or invisible, below the tip of the iceberg. The feeling that drives the poem’s initial impulse and its title come almost in tandem, then a huge feeling that must come out (William Stafford: “writing a poem is like getting traction on ice”). The first line may be the easiest part, because the rest of the poem is figuring out the relationship between the first line and the feeling. You have to wade through self-doubt and confusion. As David Wagoner has said, you have to become a mad person when you write, to see where the mood and the music leads you.
JB: Your poems are a rapid-fire in that I don’t ever know exactly how I got to the end of each poem and when I do get there I want to reread the thing immediately. In a 2008 interview in the Centrum Foundation newsletter (Port Townsend, Washington), you said, “The best poems are those that go through you like a bullet train.” Is that to say that good poetry reverberates? Good poetry is blurry? Will you explain what you mean?
JS: I learned this from Beth Bentley, when I studied from her at the UW. She wanted emotion in poems. She didn’t want philosophy, or even, necessarily, a lot of narrative, though she herself is a master of the narrative voice. Good poetry moves quickly. It contains images that build upon one another—the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Too many ideas spoil a poem—that’s what I came to see from bringing poems in to Bentley’s workshop. The idea contains seeds or germs; this is what needs to be developed. So yes, I would say that good poetry does reverberate in that it calls upon the senses. If there is any blurriness, that would arise from connotations that differ somewhat from person to person, but it’s a straight shot from start to finish, and when you are done reading a good poem, you feel electricity. There is then the aftermath of watching that current pass through you.
Perhaps the poems feel fast because they are not rational, and not puzzled out in logical imagery. I’m more comfortable when I’m in that trance zone—when an unusual or unique feeling leads me to where a poem is headed. These are poems that I don’t really revise. I’m comfortable with the unknown, a gut feeling that I’m an explorer, an adventurer—perhaps the luckiest gift of being raised as the child of two scientists. I love letting thought follow some half-wrought lines anywhere they wish to lead. While composing verse, I myself am suspending disbelief.
Janée J. Baugher is
the author of the poetry collections Coördinates of Yes and The
Body’s Physics, as well as the forthcoming academic book, The
Ekphrastic Writer: Creating Art-Influenced Poetry, Fiction and Nonfiction (McFarland,
2020). She teaches Creative Writing in Seattle.