shows on homepage
For this installment of our new monthly “mini-issues,” I wanted to present a small folio on a genre which seems to gain more and more attention, particularly among poets — the “photo-essay.” Because so much of our daily life has gone digital, it becomes harder not to primarily encounter the world through our sense of sight. And “seeing” isn’t easy. For the photographer, when a photo essay is being built, he or she must whittle down, sometimes from hundreds of photos, until the image is found; then he or she must find other images that create tension with that original image. This month’s Monthly will present you with two poet/photographers, Chris Abani and Rachel Eliza Griffiths, both of whom I believe are doing fascinating and challenging work through photography. And please read the interview I conducted with Rachel! Such wonderful answers. That said, have a look-see (ha, see what I did there), and thank you for reading.
~ Nathan McClain
ON THE PHOTOGRAPH: AN INTERVIEW
with Rachel Eliza Griffiths
I’d been holed up with a new project, and it seemed time to get out and breathe some fresh air and talk to people, an outcome that the solitary nature of my work sometimes led me to desire more than dread. I’d received an email about an opening reception at an art gallery, the owners of which were two of the friendliest people I’d ever met, and I was an acquaintance of a friend of a friend of the artist and had been to two openings for this same artist at this same gallery before and had seen this acquaintance at both of them. I planned on speaking with him at the opening about my project, and I liked the idea that I wouldn’t see him again for two or three years and could therefore minimize the effect of any adverse reactions to whatever I said.
I arrived about an hour after the opening began, hoping to reduce distractions by giving my acquaintance enough time to view the show. The artist was a specialist in geometric shapes, mainly triangles, trapezoids, and parallelograms, painted in a variety of bright colors and floating against an abstract background that suggested a brooding, subdued turbulence, an occasional gnarly, dissonant tree root bursting through the surface as if hurled by destiny. I scoped out the crowd, an impressive turnout, the usual buzz and nodding and handshaking and knowing laughter. I didn’t feel at ease, one side of the room already rising and spilling me toward the door, the floor on the verge of grabbing me by the leg and yanking me outside, you don’t belong here, leave and nobody will get hurt. The art did nothing at all for me, except for the tree roots, which appeared to have come from another dimension and aroused an almost painful urge to lift the frame or remove it from the wall and check the back to see if some design or pattern could be found there that would alter the context of the front side, and if the front side, seen in this new and broader context, would again reverse you to the back of the canvas, and so on, a type of narrative rotation that would intentionally undermine the geometry on its face. One of the gallery owners approached me, which she never failed to do, and she actually seemed glad that I’d come, though I’d never bought anything from the gallery and knew her gladness must have been limited to such an extent that it barely existed, and who could blame her, yet her face showed nothing but good will. Where does her good will come from? I wondered. I couldn’t imagine how she could think I was worthy of her welcome, worthy of her welcome, worthy of her welcome. As I was saying how good it was to see her, a well-dressed woman walked up from behind me and she greeted her as warmly as she had me and, not wanting to exhaust her kindness, I moved on, deeper into the front end of the L-shaped gallery, and continued to the elbow of the L, where you could inform a staff member if you wanted to buy a painting. Glasses of wine were also available in the elbow, but I turned away from the wine, fearing that even a small amount would trigger avalanches of verbosity.
Sure enough my acquaintance, whom I believed was still a friend of a friend of the artist, did happen to be in attendance and was standing just on the other side of the elbow, though I couldn’t be sure if this chain of personal connections remained unbroken because the artist and the friend of the artist were both rumored to be insane, at least intermittently, and prone to tirades against real and imagined enemies. Whatever the case, my acquaintance was laughing at or with a slender man who leaned in and blabbed a few words that had an edge, that caused my acquaintance to flinch and grimace as the man departed. I saw it as an opportunity to stroll up and greet him, possibly taking advantage of his relief at seeing someone other than the apparent wisecracker, but as soon as he saw me his eyes narrowed and without glancing back he took off for the end of the L, as if fleeing to a back door or a line of shrubs outside to hide behind. I resented his aversion to me. All I’d ever done when I’d spoken with him was share an assortment of views on subjects I could no longer recall. So after hesitating briefly I decided to rise above his snub and dare him to repeat it. Did he see himself as superior to me in some way, and if so on what basis? And who else was I going to talk to? Someone else might appear, but I wasn’t aware at the time of another potential listener. I caught up with him along the far wall, his head turned at an angle as he stared at a painting.
Hello, I said, and he replied with the same word but did not take his eyes off the canvas. How’s your work been going? I asked, struggling for rapport. I’ve been stuck lately, he said and at the word stuck he looked at me as if I embodied the word, or that’s how I took it and with good reason as far as I could tell by his rigid posture and sniffy look. I made a mental note to remember the word sniffy. I enjoyed the sound of it and could use it in my project, perhaps over and over and in this way raise the subconscious nostrils of the reader, a sense engager, engager, engager.
I’ve started a new project, I said, that I thought you might be interested in hearing about. He pursed his lips, his attention directed at the geometric subtleties of the work before him. If you’re stuck you may find something useful in my method. I write down everything at every reachable depth that passes through my mind, continuously, or as close to that as I can get. I have a spare ballpoint pen on my desk and a second spiral notebook in case I need extra materials and I let it fly, scenes and images, words from past dialogues and the imagined thoughts of others, their lies and aversions and judgments, and I want it all in handwriting, no word-processing software used at the outset. I want to engage my entire body and thus strive toward awareness of whatever flows through body and mind to form consciousness. And as the narrative progresses I attempt to work from what was written in previous pages, to dredge interpretations and meanings from that text, to develop a deeper narrative and then to proceed further with an interpretation of the interpretation, spiraling downward and outward at the same time. This method does not exclude the possibility of introducing new events and scenes, but they must grow out of all that has unfolded before them. But the underlying issue I hope to address in this project is the question of whether, on the whole, the source of difficulties in human contact–
At that point my acquaintance, whose name I could not quite remember, raised his hand directly in front of my face, a gesture unambiguously equivalent to a stop sign. Once again he fled, again not looking back, leaving me stunned that he, a fellow writer, could lack any curiosity about my project, and at such a crucial point in my elaboration, as if I’d been describing something utterly trivial or revolting. I stood frozen in my mental tracks.
Then I heard a voice and looked toward the sound of my name, the word calling me back. It was Alexandra, a young woman half my age or younger, shy but inclined to express her opinions. She’d blush as these opinions spilled from her, her eyes imbued with an admirable sincerity, and the redness of her face caused her freckles to disappear. Her head usually tilted forward as she spoke and back as she listened, her mouth hanging open to varying degrees depending on the extent of her credulity. I saw her occasionally at museums or movies and I’d made an appearance at her book club. Before meeting with the group I’d felt a horror of hearing their opinions and had imagined them riding through my mind on horses and lashing it with swords. Still, I’d been grateful to be invited and immediately found them all pleasant and receptive and I retained some regret that I’d disagreed with nearly everything they said about my stories. I’d admitted to them that most of it had nothing to do with what I was thinking when I wrote them, adding that this experience was not at all uncommon for me and that I often wondered as I listened to people’s opinions on any number of subjects whether I belonged to the same race as they did. What could I have expected them to say to that? Did I want to dissuade them from speaking?
I read your story in The Milky Way recently, she said, already blushing and tilting her head, her ponytail swaying a bit, and I wanted to talk to you about it. I read it twice actually, once in the waiting room at my dentist’s office and a second time while I sat in the chair before he came in. He runs late, and I like to read something on my tablet until he gets to me. This one appealed to me more than some of your others. I still don’t get the one we talked about in the book club about the guy who killed his eighty-five-year-old father while sleepwalking. I don’t know if we’re meant to imagine a history that would have provoked the murder or if we’re supposed to think we can be completely different people in our dreams, an idea that appeals to me, but the story doesn’t offer support for either of these interpretations so nothing holds it together for me, even though I’ve thought about it quite a bit and find the tumbling words in the story similar to the way my mind works, but don’t tell anybody.
Her face was extremely red at the end of her statement and I felt relieved to be listening to her, in no imminent danger of making a nuisance of myself.
So with this new story I had an idea that you might say was not what you were thinking when you wrote it and is irrelevant because of that, but I thought you could have the story as it stands and then write a parallel version with the same character and situations but this time the guy is taking Paxil. It would be obvious, I think, that you’re comparing how he experiences things in a different emotional state.
She leaned back then, head moving to her listening position, the redness draining from her face, receding from the center back toward her ears, which were still red and looked warm to the touch.
That’s interesting. I hadn’t thought of using parallel narratives, but in my mind the narrator is already taking Paxil so if I wrote a second version, as you suggested, it would be the Paxil-free narrative. No names are mentioned in the story, and that’s because a side effect of the drug is that he can’t remember people’s names.
Her mouth slowly opened as she assessed my reply and its possibly ironic content.
I like the story as it is, she went on. It’s one of my favorites of yours, along with the one about the baby who speaks German although his parents are both American and speak English. I get it that the child caregiver speaks German to the baby, but the question of what causes him to prefer the sound of German makes the story more interesting. Does it portend a deep-seated and maybe innate rebellion against his parents that will endure and develop throughout his life, or what? The questions raised by the German-baby story drew me further into it rather than throwing me into a funk, but I don’t think I could tell you why. I better get back to my husband, Homer. He’ll get jealous if I talk to you too long. I don’t mean that’s what this is about, but it’s how he’ll look at it. Are you enjoying the show?
Too many triangles for me, but I like the roots.
Me too. Where do they come from?
She left me, her hands twitching at her sides, a jittery sign language that I understood perfectly, understood perfectly, perfectly, just as I understood her impulsive urge to express her thoughts, plunging ahead despite the tension sometimes aroused in the speaker and the listener. It was conceivable that like me she struggled with the problem of whether you were intruding or indulging yourself in an unwelcome way and whether you were doing it intentionally or unintentionally or quite a bit of both. I’d never met Homer, whose wrath she may have risked in speaking to me, but I watched her go to the man I guessed must be him and was happy to see him absorbed in his own conversation.
It then occurred to me that I had no reason to stay a moment longer at the gallery. I was suddenly disgusted by the sight of people’s mouths moving and by the sizes and shapes of their teeth, and I imagined their empty stomachs roaring and them on their way to dinner after the show. I suddenly noticed the number of people avidly scanning their phones and poking whatever they poked on them. How could I have been so self-absorbed not to see it before? I imagined them walking into space with their phones, stepping forward onto down escalators, unaware of the drop as they tumbled forward, or striding obliviously off cliffs, eyes on nothing but their phones as they plummeted. Everything I saw in them filled my mind with noise and static, but what was the cause of my disgust? What did I care what they did with their phones? Did I fear that the mouth movers would angrily pounce on my body and eat me? What an absurd idea.
I got myself going and walked around the corner, not looking over my shoulder for a possible farewell glance from my closed-minded acquaintance, eyes directly on the front door, which a couple happened to be leaving through. They held it for me and I was out, drawing in a breath more free than any I’d taken inside, soothed by the air on my skin.
It was nice to see you, Alexandra said from behind, and the tone in her voice brought on a smile.
I looked back and saw her walking through the door, one of her hands tightening into a nervous grip.
I don’t know why I said that about the alternate storyline with the Paxil. I didn’t mean it. Maybe I wanted to provoke you, I don’t know why, just forget about it. I did think about the idea, seeing the story through a changed lens, and I guess I wanted your reaction.
I wouldn’t change the story, but it’s worth thinking about it in that light. I’ll do that. And I admit I hadn’t thought the narrator was taking Paxil.
I didn’t think you meant it, don’t worry.
She went back into the gallery, her final comment lingering as I pondered its implications. I’d preferred to see my comment about the narrator using Paxil as ironic, but why dress it up with a fancy label when I was simply lying to her and she knew it? How did she see me, I wondered, and how much had I unwittingly embarrassed myself when we’d spoken? So-called experts claimed that language should be used to connect people so why did I use it to distance others and thereby drive myself deeper into an isolated void? They claimed consistently that human contact made you happier, a subject that I questioned and explored in my handwritten pages. I felt strongly ambivalent on these subjects, but I couldn’t deny the simple pleasure at hearing Alexandra say, Nice to see you.
It disturbed me that she might see me as a liar, and though I saw no sign that she held it against me I held it against myself and knew she had a right to expect more from me. I’d been all set to get in my car and begin talking back to the unruly chatter inside my head and when I arrived at my desk to spill out as much of it as I could reach and try to make sense of it, the two warring sides of myself, the misnamed voice of reason and the wild animal that I rode around on without a saddle arguing with each other and trying and probably failing to come to an enduring resolution or peace. My throat clenched as I stepped toward the gallery and opened the door to look for her, into the arena with her potentially pugilistic husband. But why escalate the drama when I didn’t know what would happen? Two adults could have a conversation without anyone having to call emergency services.
Alexandra wasn’t far away, but she was standing next to the same man as before, presumably Homer, who appeared strikingly nondescript. If I closed my eyes virtually no image of him would have remained. I had second thoughts, but then she noticed I’d come back in, and she must have sensed that I wanted to speak to her because she was leaving Homer’s side. Words mounted, rising to meet her, and now here she was, eager to listen.
My latest project is to unburden myself, I told her, speaking far too fast, to heave onto the page the unending internal racket and to rewrite it again and again, each succeeding page and chapter originating from the buried content of the previous sections or chapters, until I reach a conclusion about whether I am the instigating source of the racket and its effects on my outlook or if it arises from the inherent conflict involved in human contact. Does it come from a partly submerged and untamed animal inside me, from networks of confused neurons, or is the noise an inevitable product of a collision between me and others with all parties sharing responsibility for the impact of the crash? I tend to think the source of the noise is me. What you said about Paxil suggests that. If a pill can change the outlook then that implies the problem’s source is within the mind. I wanted to resist the idea of putting Paxil in the story, out of fear that I alone am the cause of my anger and resentment and constant mental yakking, but on the other hand I haven’t been able to dismiss it.
So are you unburdening yourself or increasing your burden? she asked, her head tilting forward, the aptness of her question jolting me. All the words piling up, all the uncertainty in the process, and can you hope to explain the true nature of what you call the racket or to make what it may or may not want to tell you understandable enough to put it to rest? How much can you expect yourself to know or understand and how can you think there could be only one source, you, for what goes through your mind? And in the end, no matter what you do or think, maybe it’s just there and you could decide not to listen to it so much. It wouldn’t go away, but it might help.
Just when I thought we might be getting somewhere, Alexandra assuming the role I’d hoped my acquaintance might fill, Homer walked up, his face taking in mine.
I haven’t had the pleasure, he said and extended his hand, which I shook, though something in his choice of words made my flesh crawl.
Alexandra told him my name and explained how she knew me, her explanation doing nothing to reduce the intensity of his curiosity. He glanced at Alexandra to judge her degree of interest in me, vigilant for clues of a deeper attachment, but she revealed no concern he’d unmasked a secret and no hint that she wished we hadn’t spoken or that I should depart in order to defuse an impending uproar. Homer edged between us, obstructing our visual path, threatened by what he saw as my nearness to her.
His phone went off then, and he apologized to us as he snatched it off his belt. He turned his back to me but kept an eye on Alexandra, putting his hand on her arm.
He’s a doctor, she said.
I see he appreciates you, I said.
Her mouth tightened, stifling a pained smile. Homer gripped her arm tighter and I imagined his hand affecting the flow of her blood, her blood. Anyone could see she didn’t want his hand on her arm, but I cautioned myself that I couldn’t know what forces were at work between them, what words he might say about me on their way home or in their bedroom. I knew I shouldn’t assume the worst of him or make excessive inferences about her stifled smile. But were they excessive? So what did I have in mind, to disengage his hand and take her away from him? Was I the one to be feared, the one most in danger of being driven by haywire emotions?
Alexandra’s blush had reappeared, and as he spoke in a low tone to his phone she removed his clutching hand. I wanted a private word with her, but how could I do that without riling up Homer and therefore making the situation more difficult for Alexandra? Besides, Homer had returned his phone to its holster, and he was telling Alexandra they had to leave, a patient needed him. It was good to meet me, he said, his eyes now looking in the general direction of my face but not exactly at my face, preferring, as I saw it, not to fully acknowledge me. I said it was good to meet him, mirroring his words, I suppose, out of some sense of safe boundaries, though my resignation troubled me.
Alexandra’s blush had not left her, perhaps because he had her arm again, though not as firmly this time. But she didn’t seem afraid, which led me to reject the idea of following their car and pulling up alongside them if I witnessed a violent argument, Homer swerving from his lane, arms flailing. And as I imagined my pursuit I asked myself what got into me thinking like this. Why did I conjure up disparaging scenarios and attribute what originated in me to the motives and behavior of others?
I watched Alexandra and Homer exit the gallery, his hand moving to her back, nothing wrong in that, no gripping, no taking possession, only a touch. She turned at the door and gave me a suggestion of a wave, her freckles imperceptible beneath her face’s redness. Was I failing her? Why did I confront myself with this question? She wasn’t a prisoner and she could make her own decisions, and he had a patient to see.
I had a lot to recount, to weave thematically into my broader narrative, unrecognized elements and echoes to dredge up on my encounters at the gallery. I considered emailing my contact person at the book club to ask for Alexandra’s email. I could let some time pass and then write to her for an update, see if everything was going well for her. I saw it as fortunate that my memory couldn’t call up a clear image of Homer’s face. I told myself I wouldn’t be watching for him wherever I went, at some depth expecting to observe something that would cause me to develop further suspicions about his worthiness as Alexandra’s husband. But if I did happen to come across him at the grocery store, say, I might recognize him or, more likely, he might recognize me. We might stop and exchange a look of recognition. But what would the recognition consist of in each of us? For his part, would it have been limited to a passing awareness of a familiar face? I cautioned myself not to presume to know the obscure density and culture of Homer’s mind, but I suspected it would consist of more.
After giving it more thought I decided not to email Alexandra and resolved to stay out of their business, but as I worked the narrative constantly led me back to Alexandra and Homer. Did my brain crave obsession? If so, I couldn’t reasonably think I’d improve matters by involving them in my pathological patterns.
I continued with my routine, piling up the pages, and if I needed some space or missed the sight of other people, I went for long walks at the mall. I was forty minutes into one of them on a Saturday afternoon, my back hurting after hours hunched over spiral notebooks, when I saw Homer heading into the lower level of a department store, his phone hooked on his belt. I tried to ignore him, kept going, but found myself cursing his strutting gait, his obvious indifference to everything around him, headquarters of the world right inside his skull, how lucky for him to be such a person.
I decided to turn back and have a chat with Homer, realizing that without knowing it I’d been looking for him. I could start off with a phony apology for taking up Alexandra’s time at the gallery and for arousing his concern. I was sorry if I’d been inconsiderate of his feelings, I’d say, and regretted any difficulty I might have caused. It made me sick to think of this loathsome display of insincerity and I couldn’t begin to imagine how he might receive it, but if he didn’t accept my apology and became agitated I’d be under no obligation to be civil to him. If his voice got loud and he poked me with his finger or tried to tell me off, his eyeballs protruding with bulging anger yearning to find a way out, I couldn’t be blamed for taking up for myself, a time-honored principle of human interaction. Homer was considerably younger than I was and I had a sore knee and a hip that could benefit from surgery, but I still had enough juice left to step up if the little shit chose to disrespect me. In view of his line of work he should be healing people, not pushing his wife around or stirring up conflict and animosity. Did he think his profession gave him special rights, exclusions from the rules of behavior that applied to the rest of us?
I saw him at a sale table, as nondescript as ever, thumbing through stacks of trousers. He sensed me nearing and cocked his head.
Is that you, Homer?
He squinted at me with annoyance and then looked behind him. No one was there.
Who the hell is Homer? he asked. For that matter, who the hell are you?
My mistake, I said.
I made my escape as fast as I could. The unidentified shopper had no interest in hearing a superfluous explanation, and his breath was so bad that I wanted to don one of those plastic suits scientists wore when handling toxic materials. I couldn’t think of a more perfect person to make me feel like an idiot for mistaking him for someone else. All my raving about Homer and what would happen if he didn’t accept my ludicrous apology had been nothing but delusional drivel.
And though I fled the scene I couldn’t get away from the humiliating thought that I habitually devoted excessive time and effort to becoming a bigger and better fool. I resumed my walk at a reckless pace, the background mall music a blur, the shapes of others shifting in every direction. I needed to control my breath, control my breath, calm down the lurching, rumbling animal, all too aware that it would be with me wherever I went. I should leave the mall, get home and back to work, before I spotted another phantom Homer, subconsciously egging myself on with some melodramatic fantasy of rescuing Alexandra from a dark hidden room off a tortuous hallway, risking further episodes of mistaken identity, one of which would no doubt be my own. The unclouded truth was staring me down. I couldn’t look at people without injecting my self-generated racket into the picture, and the way I saw others had far more to do with me and my needs than anything to do with them. How could I have failed to halt my inner debate and fully accept this fact? I often didn’t even meet people halfway but invaded them, knocked down walls and painted the ones left standing. Had any of them invited me in? Did I care? Why did I persist in doing this? Was boundless stupidity or insufficient humanity enough to explain it? What less disparaging motive could I unravel? As the man fleetingly known as Homer had asked: Who the hell are you? Did I really want to know? Should I vow to control myself and permanently cease working on my project?
I changed direction, focused on walking out through the door that I’d entered, not far away, only minutes. I could get in my car and lock the doors and wait for my mental fog to subside, all those who happened to be nearby safe from me until I merged with traffic and drove with purpose toward my desk, where, I could already feel it, the relentless onslaught of verbalization would continue.
VIEW POINT, SAN ANDREAS FAULT
From here, I see the up-thrust of collision,
how the Indio Hills have changed
through time. In a year, the sign says,
we will be standing two inches to the left
of where we are now. I have wasted
the winter on a man who will never
love me. Five hundred miles from here,
my apartment stands on top of this same
fault, just hidden. Nights I can’t sleep,
imagining the forces beneath me
creating a world I’ll never see. In the one
I can, the park closes at sunset.
The light is handsome, but I can’t give it
to anyone. The flowers start shutting down.
Where the valley rises, I can believe
in a future that does not hold us close.
Intersecting, the plates broke through
the earth’s crust until time was visible.
I want us to matter like ephemera:
old stock certificates, the postcards we buy
in the gift store. Driving home, we pass
the air force base, which of course
we can’t see. It’s the army. It’s a secret.
From the overlook I could see
into Mexico. Everyone else leaving
each other in their different languages.
A BAD DATE
The pleasure boats cut across the lake we can see from the hotel restaurant’s floor-to-ceiling windows. “I’m a sucker for a view,” I say, which, he tells me, dignifies imperialism. What with Rome, and all. We’re meeting to see if I will let him, tonight, tie me to not-his-bed, to, with the instruments he will deem necessary, knock against me while his wife watches. I’m trying to forget another man, so I repeat what I have heard on the radio: to assuage traffic jams, engineers are studying ants. Sans egos, they get where they need to go. No flash. No honking. No aggressive driving. Outside is only an inch of glass away. I sip my wine. The fog bank has been erasing the hills for a week, and in the mornings I climb the stairs to my apartment’s balcony, where what is visible is mine, and I would kill for it, the right-out-there.
Starting this spring, we’ll be sending our subscribers monthly “mini-issues,” each one edited by different members of our staff. We see these monthlies as a chance to showcase more great work, and explore more topics of interest, than we have room for in our regular biannual issues.
To kick things off, I’ve chosen work that blurs the sometimes arbitrary boundary between poetry and prose. As a reader, editor, and writer, I’m most interested in work that blends the finest elements of both — the kind of work in which one hears, as Robert Frost once called it, the “sound of sense.”
I hope you like these “poems” and “stories” just as much as I do, and will keep an eye out next month for a brand new feature, chosen by a different member of our team. Until then, thanks for reading.
~ Ryan Burden
Managing / Fiction Editor
by Kevin McIlvoy
THE LUTHIER’S MOTHER’S MOUTH’S OPENNESS
The Luthier’s mother’s mouth’s openness, her hands’ finger’s
tremblings, her red hair’s fires’ warnings. It’s what you saw if you
were making your last visit to her ever. You were the Luthier’s
mother’s Possession when you walked into her son’s guitars’
home, in which son and mother also lived together in one room.
Inside their home’s heart’s sounds: the tub’s faucet’s dripping’s
splashings and the refrigerator’s coils’ hymning humming…
by Sierra Golden
Jesse isn’t really a pirate, but the Coast Guard thinks so when he calls to say he found a body. It doesn’t matter that she’s still alive, so cold she stopped shivering, blue fat of her naked body waxy and blooming red patches where his hands grabbed and hauled her from the water. He stands over her with a filet knife, slowly honing the blade as he waits for Search and Rescue. The glassy eyes of a dead tuna stare up from the galley counter. At dusk, Jesse flicks on the squid lights…
On November 24, 2014, my Facebook News Feed forked: all at once I was reading two wholly different kinds of perspective, like dispatches from parallel dimensions. I remember because I was laid up for days with a fever-dream flu, the kind where you pour broth down your throat while it’s still too hot because everything in your body aches for the fluid. I couldn’t sleep or work, but I could hold a laptop and click. That’s what I was doing when the grand jury announced its decision on the shooting death of Michael Brown some four months earlier.
Darren Wilson, the white police officer with some light facial bruising and a story that didn’t add up, was not indicted on murder charges. Michael Brown, the black teenager whose body lay in the street for hours, remained killed; we were just all officially meant to call it something else now.
The bifurcation of my social media stream was stark and immediate. On one side, outpourings of rage and grief, anguished and weary exchanges, posts and reposts of memes bearing Brown’s face, tagged with the gut-punching, ‘Is-this-real-life?’ hashtag #blacklivesmatter. For myself and my co-workers who teach young men of color, who have watched white cops put them in handcuffs for ‘disrespect’, very little felt larger at that moment than our terror for their safety, than the urgency of that terror. How much larger must that terror have been for their families? For the young men themselves? After all, a white cop shot a black child, and (the story goes) made enough money in donations to retire.
However, these heady emotional posts were also interspersed with ones that now seemed oddly inane. I saw photos of people’s dogs in funny hats, a recipe for Moroccan chicken, and a video tutorial for DIY (“professional quality!”) blowouts at home. I saw new haircuts and bikes and album after album of adorable children who would never need to fear for their safety from the police unless they were holding a weapon. It was almost like watching what Facebook should look like: in that parallel universe that was nearly the same as our own, but in which Ferguson was not on fire and Darren Wilson was being arraigned. “Yep, we’re all still good here, the world makes sense, check out these cats—they’re dressed like they run a Pizza Hut!”
The poetry world did something similar in the months that followed. For example, I have vivid memories of reading Danez Smith’s blazing, beautiful, sad poems: sharing them and emailing them and quoting them and being excited about them in general. For example, “Not An Elegy for Mike Brown,” which in its very first line communicates a heartsickness, a weariness:
I am sick of writing this poem
but bring the boy. his new name
his same old body. ordinary, black
dead thing. bring him & we will mourn
until we forget what we are mourning
It is the work of someone who does not want to have to do this work, who wishes that so many other kinds of poem were available in this moment, but who writes this one because it is necessary. It is born of the urgency of having to live in a skin you’ve been shown is a liability. It is not saying, “I will choose to confront this.” It is saying, “I must.”
One of the things that makes this poem such a difficult read is the naked hurt that travels with this imperative, the continuous acknowledgement of its subject’s general invisibility within our poetic tradition: “think: once, a white girl / was kidnapped & that’s the Trojan War. / later, up the block, Troy got shot / & that was Tuesday.” The language swings between verve and heartbreak, as when Smith demands a war to bring Michael Brown back from the dead but follows immediately with a demurral, with lowered expectations. “I at least demand a song. a song will do just fine.” To locate Brown’s killing within the epic universe of The Iliad is audacious, so much so that the impact is even stronger when the poem’s speaker de-escalates the negotiations.
Frederick Seidel also wrote a poem about Ferguson: “The Ballad of Ferguson, Missouri.” More than mourning or disorientation, its oblique, meandering opening communicates a skittish reluctance to get political—anxiety over maybe being labeled pedantic runs through it like a tight-strung invisible thread. Rather than locate his concern too transparently in the political, he sidles up to the topic, approaching via the intellect. He writes:
A man unzipping his fly is vulnerable to attack.
Then the zipper got stuck.
An angel flies in the window to unstick it.
A drone was monitoring all this
In real time
And it appears on a monitor on Mars,
Though of course with a relay delay.
One of the monitors at the Mars base drone station
Is carefully considering all your moves for terror output.
But not to worry. Forget about about about it.
The body of the man you were
Has disappeared inside the one you wear.
Ferguson, Missouri isn’t mentioned until the sixth stanza, and the reader arrives there by way of Mars, Madison Avenue, the Carlyle Bar, and Indianapolis. It’s worth saying that this isn’t a bad poem, just a puzzling one, and it does reward re-reading. The line “I wouldn’t want to be a black man in St. Louis County” works as a fulcrum, smack in the middle, subtly and (not so subtly) altering the repeated refrains that follow it. The elegant Mad. Ave. clothes-shopper from the third stanza is transformed, now a man on fire, trailing the flames after him into the Carlyle. The polite Algerian waiter collapses in strokes and prayers.
Seidel uses this technique to demonstrate the way that even the most pedestrian (if elite) concerns and activities are sullied by systemic injustice. The poem is heavily historical, grounded in Seidel’s memories of the Civil Rights Movement; Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Billie Holiday are all present. It also strives for topicality, concerning itself to the point of preoccupation with drones, monitors, terror, privacy—all humans, regardless of race, united under a surveilling eye.
So where’s the difference, and does it matter? The obvious answer would be that white poets can choose to engage this topic—the destruction of black and brown bodies at the hands of our police, cavalier, casual, largely unpunished, and seemingly ceaseless. This is one of the most insidious benefits of white privilege. When our racist great-uncles insist on ‘playing Devil’s advocate’ on Facebook, we are free to defriend. When the news is baffling and horrifying, we are free to turn our eyes elsewhere. We are free to choose whether we make this ‘our issue’; when we do make it our issue, we are free to approach it as serenely, as philosophically, as much Devil’s advocates as we like. We are free, in essence, to live on the dogs-in-hats side of the Facebook feed.
On November 25, 2014, Danez Smith wrote an “Open Letter to White Poets,” saying:
There are people I cannot reach because what I make is degraded (& why not glorified?) for its label of black art. I implore, I need you to make art, black, dark art that shines an honest light on the histories of your paler kin. I ask you to join those fighting, under the cry of “Black Lives Matter”, in whatever way you can. Research ways you can be involved in your local community, think critically about how you can use your privilege and influence, effect change; I challenge you to make art that demands the safety of me, of many of your writing siblings, of so many people walking the streets in fear of those who are charged to protect us, even of people who we hesitate at times to call our fellow Americans.
As my activist friends have been putting it, “white silence equals white consent.” I would argue for a poetics that complicates this notion, or at least one that holds white artists to a higher standard than simple acknowledgement of systemic racism. In certain instances, without forethought or empathy, white speech on these issues can be incredibly harmful. Witness Kenneth Goldsmith’s now-infamous performance piece, “The Body of Michael Brown,” a 30-minute long reading of Michael Brown’s autopsy report. Goldsmith read this text (which he altered through cut-ups and remixing) beneath a massive projected image of Brown’s graduation photo. He chose to end the poem with a jarring line about Brown’s “unremarkable” genitalia. He played these choices straight, with a gravitas that could be called self-congratulatory if one were feeling uncharitable, and seemed honestly surprised at the outpouring of rage and pain that followed.
Many writers of color have deconstructed this poem, far more eloquently than I could here; I bring it up because it illustrates my point so well. White silence is unacceptable, but mere white speech is not enough. It is possible for white authors to enter the conversation in modes and styles that reify white supremacy rather than helping to dismantle it. Black and brown bodies—black and brown tragedy, misery—are not a canvas for our experimentation or philosophizing. At a certain point, Goldsmith’s reading of Michael Brown’s injuries can only look like appropriation. At a certain point, Seidel’s observation that he “wouldn’t want to be a black man in St. Louis County” only serves to remind that he is a white man in New York City.
This type of speech is easy, and it is not what we need. Rather, we need white poets to be accountable, to be honest about the power of our voices and their capacity to wound, to be aware of how far those voices carry. Claudia Rankine, quoting Judith Butler, wrote that “we suffer from the condition of being addressable.” Amiri Baraka wrote, “Let there be no love poems written / Until love can exist freely and / Cleanly.” The news continues to baffle and horrify. We need to keep our eyes peeled, our fever spiked, waiting for the poem that crashes our two different worlds—two different poetics—together until they are indistinguishable, down to the dental records. Who knows? Maybe one of us could even write it.
dear salt dear water scribbling difference between where I can dryly stand+not dear sea dear shell dear Florida from your panhandle I'm staring past seagulls flit +scurrying across sand white as my unsunned torso at an oil rig miles offshore which must even now be barbing into deep durk+mank to extract the treasure I'll later pump a refined version of into minivan's rear flank so we can trade this sucrostic malleability for the cold bones of home dear edge dear border dear horizon which just lays there flat as a that's that voice when what's done's been done, when there is as the phrase has it no going back up the road a thousand miles snow drifts where I'm from on hurt+merciful alike as it must, like Christ or a bad mechanic true cold can make no distinction regarding whom it bestows its shivery gifts upon dear south dear December I'm standing here because I believe the ocean keeps saying stand there then like any of us changes its mind, the way the waves gurgle playing the game of life which is called get everything then retreat dear boundary dear almost dear exact location where self ends+beach begins I came here to witness quietly shifting things: the moment one year breathes out + the next in, to listen to an I do transform Ellen's uncle+his love into husband+wife but my daughter kept shouting so we went outdoors where she again attempted to put the universe into her mouth dear littered plastic cup dear cigarette butt dear fallen palm leaves I watched the you may now kiss the moment from beyond the church's window as Jo said da and da and da pointing first at sky then trees then the cars passing the small white chapel +finally da pointing at herself, and then me, all of it da and how can I not hope she's right hope she hope me hope we never forget how the thin distinguishments of living are temporary mercies setting us free within flesh to believe beyond flesh dear wet envelope of ocean from which the moon slides nightly like the lovest letter dear moment bread becomes body there must be room within each infinity for all of us seeking the phonebooth in which our true selves stand waiting to answer whatever call finally comes.
A woman stands alone in the surf. She’s up to her mid-thighs in the water, warm Gulf of Mexico water, and she can feel the strong undertow of the sea. It pulls her legs and sucks the sand from under her feet. It’s tremendous—this undertow—a force of nature—powerful. But, she’s determined to stand in it. So, she does.
She’s not entirely alone. Her lover is near, standing behind her on the dry sand, holding a bag of beach supplies. She calls for him to come to her and though at first he doesn’t move, eventually, after she throws him a stare, he does. He might be a boyfriend—most would describe him as such—but that sounds too serious for the woman so she says lover, even though they’ve been in each other’s lives for years. It’s okay to say lover, since it’s been off and on. This is what she tells herself.
It’s not really swimming weather. Though warm, the wind is too strong. It whips the dry sand, sprays saltwater on her body, and plasters her short hair to the side of her head, molding it like a swim cap. The gulls sail around her without moving forward, hovering close to the ground, wings expanded in the constant breeze.
She walks deeper in, letting her fingertips trail on the water which is murky, browned with swirling sand.
They came from out West, or rather she did, from Los Angeles. He’s in New York now, an emerging actor, though if he hasn’t emerged by now, pushing into his mid-thirties, she knows he never will. She could have helped him at one point since she’s a little older than he and more experienced and it’s her business too—not acting, but getting actors to do what they do, getting, in fact, all those involved in the process to do what they do. And do it right. And on time and on budget. She produces. More than anyone else, she makes it happen.
They’d met up in Galveston (“in the middle,” she had said) because she wanted to look at the sea wall there first—a movie idea that’s been rolling around in her head ever since hurricane Katrina hit, then Rita, a period drama about the devastating one from 1900; a timely retelling to show people what real suffering looks like. And so she stood on the wall and took it in, felt its strength and the seas’ and she knew her idea was solid. She also knew she’d have to wait for another storm to hit (and hit hard) before she could pitch the idea for real. Though that would only be a matter of time.
Then they drove the full length of the Gulf Coast—her driving the entire way because that’s what she does—through the swamps of Louisiana, that endless elevated highway, and then lonely New Orleans, and onward to this panhandle town in the pit of Florida. She picked it precisely because it is on the panhandle and small and unassuming and would likely be deserted this time of year.
This is supposed to be a vacation, a getaway in between projects. It’s the off-season, the middle of October but still pleasant enough. And she likes him enough; he’s familiar (had been one of many at one time), which she’s fine with, since she doesn’t feel like trying all that hard right now. The town is deserted, like she thought it would be. There’re even fewer people than she expected. At first, she’d thought that maybe Katrina was still lingering here—or Rita or BP: Florida gets a little of all of it don’t they—but after the first hour, she could tell that the town has been like this for a long time. It’s kind of dumpy. They stay in a motel.
In the surf, wading against the undertow, she is already badly burned, cooked while sun tanning on the beach without any sunscreen. He, her lover, had forgotten the lotion at the motel and she made him go back to fetch it. He had forgotten her new two-piece as well, and, in the meantime, while waiting for the suit and lotion on the empty beach, she had taken off her clothes down to her bra and panties and sunbathed that way. The burn has put a floral print pattern on her breasts from her lace bra, two little arcs of flowers. That night, sitting on the bed in the motel room, she will think it’s kind of pretty, but it also hurts like shit and she will blame him for it and make him go from store to store, looking for the right kind of aloe.
She doesn’t respect him very much. She thinks he’s a pushover. She thinks he’s weak.
She says this a lot. People are weak. It’s her wisdom, what she’s learned, a phrase which she deploys like shooting rain over the people who work for her, over others whom she takes to bed, and over him.
So why is she with him? It’s not money, even though he has it; he’s had the semi-luck of a semi-talented man, but in the end she has much more of all three: money, luck, and talent. It’s not intellectual either. He’s not dumb per se, but she knows that she is much, much smarter than him. He’s creative; there’s that, but he is by no means brilliant. He is, on the other hand, very attractive and she loves men. He’s a good lover. More importantly, she knows that she can make him do things. Anything she wants. This is why she’s with him, has been for so long, off and on. This is what she tells herself.
Almost every single boyfriend she has ever had has brought up that one Velvet Underground song, Stephanie Says, the one with her namesake being compared to Alaska. And every one—which includes this near-successful, near-talented, malleable, yet good-looking man—gets her same flat stare, the same, really, wow, you know, you’re the first one to make that connection. I’m cold too? You must be a fucking genius.
She has no problem treating people this way. Because she has always been very honest and upfront about herself with others, and if someone still wants to be with her knowing full well how and what she is, well then, she immediately loses respect for them. They are like pets coming back to an abusive master. Morons. Idiots. They deserve whatever she doles out.
As she sits with him in the motel bed, late at night watching TV, flipping through the channels, she can feel her body radiating heat. Her burn is intense. She’s naked because of it, stripped down with no covers because everything that touches her scorches. She flips the channels quickly, the room darkened briefly between screens. Eventually she comes to one of her own shows, one that she has produced, and even though she’s not particularly proud of this one, it does make money like a garbage dump. She puts down the controller and proceeds to apply and reapply the aloe carefully, smoothing wide slicks of it on her arms and thighs, across her flowery chest. She has a glass of ice water by the bed which she drinks from occasionally, small, cool sips, and the cold water seems to instantly soak into her, gone forever once it passes her chapped lips. She looks at him lying next to her in the TV light, prone and relaxed in his grey striped boxers. She looks at him staring at the TV, just watching, comfortable and very much unburned as her show fades to commercial. She takes her glass from the nightstand and holds the cold water above his beautiful bare chest. She smirks at him. She says to him, “How tempting, what would you do, I mean, really, what could you do?” She likes to push this pushover.
Then, this lover, this man she has spent countless meals with, traveled with, lived with briefly on occasion, fucked in every manner possible, directed according to her will, bossed around, dominated, this man looks at her calmly and says right to her face that she should really stop confusing someone being weak with someone being nice. And his eyes don’t flicker a single millimeter when he says it. She is the one who looks away first.
This throws her. She withdraws her glass. She’s off kilter for the rest of the night. Sips her water slowly. Watches her terrible show in silence. Her body is burning and she can’t use it against him to right the balance of power, distract herself from his comment. It was different than anything he had said before. She sensed something different in his voice, a line drawn in the sand. But why now? Why here? What had changed in him? Or, was it even him at all?
She remains off kilter into the next day—awakens to it after sleeping in, her sunburn and her racing mind having kept her up most of the night. Her skin in the late morning air is dried and crinkled fire when she moves; even a cold shower seems impossible—although she does it anyway, and then stays in it for a long time. On the beach the day before she had decided that she wanted to eat at a pier she had seen in the distance. When she’s finally ready, finally through her routine, it’s mid-afternoon and they begin the long walk towards the pier. It is while walking with this man on the beach towards that pier that she starts to think of him and all their time together, all their years spent mutually or tangentially. Replaying all their past interactions as they walk. Moments, instances she thought she had controlled but which now, with every gritted step, become increasingly unclear to her.
The day before, wading in the surf, the undertow tremendous, she was so determined to stand in it. She’d called him over to join her from the shore where he was. But he hadn’t come. She’d called to him again and again, come here, come on, again, come here, and finally, eventually, he did come. And she’d thought at the time that somehow this meant she had won. Had won.
I want to eat here, okay—had won; no, not here, take me somewhere else, okay—won again; now get the check—won; and take me home—won; and take off your clothes and get your ass on the floor, I’m tying you up—won.
These previous thoughts now seem incredibly trivial to her. Presumptuous. He might have acquiesced for any number of reasons. On any number of occasions. As she slowly walks with him through the sand, dangling shoes in hand, she becomes more and more embarrassed by her past actions. She starts to see this man, with his pale eyes, his graceful tapered hands, as some form of saint for being with her. A good man. And she starts to see herself as some form of corrupting evil for being with him, for exposing the goodness that is him to the corroding influence that is her—the idea making her think that she might just be what she has never truly believed herself to be: A bad person.
There are crabs all over the beach. Little zigzagging darts of movement. She is startled and jumps at their incursions. She even moves to him for support, for some weird form of protection. A line of footprint divots converges in the surf behind them.
She starts to remember stories he’s told her, from his life, his childhood. Stories she thought at the time were tedious. She remembers him as a kid on another beach collecting burrowing crabs in his little hands. They tickled his palms as they tried to escape. She never offered a real reaction to this story or to any of the many he’s told. Not one meaningful comment. She thinks there must be pages of responses somewhere out there. Responses that she should have given.
She stops walking. He continues on alone without her for a pace or two, before turning to the sea. She looks at him standing there by himself, white shirt billowing, face aglow, squinting at the dipping sun. They’ve been walking a long time. She thinks, admits, that he looks very strong, squinting that way in the light, as if he is facing the struggles and limits of his career and his age and himself and is doing it graciously and with pride. She thinks of his face, the clean angles, the scratch of his unshaved cheek, the boy softness of his mouth. She thinks of how she never talks to him in the present, asks him how he is, or what else might be happening in his life. She opens her mouth to do so now but nothing comes. She wants to say so much but she has no idea how to organize the words.
She sees then how all of these acts of love, with him and every other person she’s been with, or moved away from, dumped on, every other person she’s used, conquered, bested, and left, how all these things have soaked her straight through, unnoticed. She feels flimsy and useless like a wet paper napkin. The inside of her chest aches, physically hurts, like nothing she’s ever felt before, and then, finally, after all this time, and beyond all reason, for some stupid fucking cosmic purpose, it cracks and she becomes human, compassionate, affected by her lover—she’ll say it: her boyfriend—of so many years, finally matched up in synch with him. Standing on the beach in a crystalline moment.
Now, this is the moment when you have to trust her, the her that is her, the producer, the leader, the bossy girl from the playground, the manipulator of men and women and audiences alike, that coaxer of heartstrings. So please, just do it. And pay attention. It’s very important:
Did she reach all these conclusions just like this, just like she says it happened, all on her own, standing on the beach with him in this beautiful moment? Did her feet rest in sand and her eyes on him when she had these life altering realizations?
You know her. Was it there? It’s a simple question. Was it there?
Well, if not there in that exact spot, in that exact way, then surely it was close to that, maybe after their meal on the way back to the car, before they started driving to the motel. She should be allowed a little poetic leeway. The parking lot sounds nice too, the sun just set, orange glow fading, walking hand in hand. She would take that. It could have been there. She could have done it. Made the leap.
But you do know her after all. So then, her doubting friends and lovers, please, if you would: Did she at least realize all these things before they got in the car, before they started driving back, before they crossed that intersection and were hit by the drunk running the red light? Did she at least realize it all before they flipped and landed upside down? Before they stopped spinning? Before all the scraping metal and splintered glass went silent? Please, if you could, because she’d really like to know what you think. She values your opinion on this, even if she might not want to hear it.
Well then, she would insist on going further. Another step into the water. Was it in the very least—this last, most important very least—before she looked at him hanging broken beside her, before she heard his wet breathing slow, before she saw his eyes, those beautiful pale eyes, so glossy, then still, only inches from her own? Well, what do you say? Did she realize it all before it was too late?
Was it after? Days after. Weeks after. Months after.
She will say it was before.
Just like she says it happened. Back on the beach.
It was before.
And for all those idiots who love her, either then or now, she would say to them that she now vows to never create another one of you for the rest of her life.
That the only reason she’s still even here, that she hasn’t walked into the ocean herself to join the undertow, is that while she did finally realize that she cared for this man—cares for him more now even after the fact; after he’s gone—he wasn’t the one she loved most.
For that she has to go way back, which she’ll do to survive, back to the only boyfriend who never brought up the Velvet Underground song. He was from Alaska. And she’s sure he still lives there. She’s sure at least he’s still used to the cold.
And who knows, maybe, if she ever stops moving, she’ll drop him a line, somewhere out there, at one point. It would have to be a very small line with no details. She does have her principles and when she makes a decision she sticks with it. Maybe just a postcard with nothing on it, or a photograph of some vista she might see and think he might like. She reserves the right to do this.
To all the others, lovers and friends, all those who have played with her, she wishes them well. Really, she does. She wishes them the best. Good luck. She hopes you succeed. She hopes you survive.
In this installment of “Between the Lines,” Dustin Pearson talks with Benjamin Miller about journeys through the desert, words as objects, and poetic self-interrogation.
DP: A lot of the poems in your collection share the same titles. The title in common I found most central was “Desert.” Between the appearance of the first “Desert” and the last, the speaker seems occupied with the idea of having done or doing nothing. My mind immediately associates those poems with Moses’ liberation of the Israelites from Egypt, but I struggle to draw an explicit connection considering the different circumstances by which the two journeys are provoked. How do you imagine the connection, if any?
BM: I did put that title there with a biblical text in mind, but it was Abraham I was thinking of, not Moses. Or, at least, Abraham most of all. He’s told by God, not once but twice (Genesis 12:1, 22:2) to get up, go, find himself, don’t worry about where, God will show you. And that idea of journeying without knowing where you’re going is what appealed to me, the being drawn forward, but where are you the whole time? You’re in this desert, this vast and isolated space. And you don’t know if you’re close or far, or if in fact you’ve traveled any great distance at all, because the light plays tricks.
Now, I know the poems themselves don’t enact that exactly: there are trees and windows and clocks and doorlocks and couches and things.
Part of it, I confess, is that this title came late to this series of poems. Originally these were days of the week, starting I think with a Wednesday, which generated the wolves who chase the sun. But another part is just a function of how I compose, which often involves taking words or objects (or words as objects) and playing with them — subsetting them, rearranging letters, thinking of their opposites and apposites — and trying to get them to yield up some insight or emotional understanding I hadn’t had before. So the couches and the bathroom door cracks and the days started out as real, but they took me to that lonely place where I could see the lines being part of this series of poems, even if the narrative of the text itself isn’t set in the desert.
DP: Your collection seems to be sensitive to the coming of night and morning, the idea of home, and especially return and arrival. I most readily think of your poem “Field Glass (Manifest)” as a good example of all these themes working simultaneously. Can you comment on what inspired this? How conscious or unconscious are their recurrence? Did that element of consciousness change over time?
BM: It did become more conscious over time. The poem you mention was written in more or less one quick outpouring, though it did get a lot cut out of it afterward, and some minor revisions made. (Other poems have had a much more belabored history.) So that wasn’t a deliberate attempt to include these themes; it just was the headspace or wordspace I was in at the time. But in my MFA thesis workshop, we were put on “word watches” by Lucie Brock-Broido; I think I also had wings and lightning and dark, which I was happy to cut back on because I didn’t want the whole book to be too, too, well, for lack of a better word, emo. But I think it was around then, seeing the consistent presence of departure, travel, sand, light, that I began to think of the book as cohering around the Abrahamic journeys I mentioned earlier, and to look for more ways to build those up: more deserts, more field glasses, more sand.
DP: The interviews in your collection are among the most fascinating and difficult poems. Can you comment on how you imagine your readers accessing these poems?
BM: Though you might not know it to look at the pages, much of the book was written under the star of W.S. Merwin’s The Lice and The Moving Target; his “Noah’s Raven” was one of the first poems I remember learning by heart, and its spirit floats over the waters of my deserts. These interviews bear clear traces of Merwin’s “Some Last Questions,” which I’ll quote a little of if I’m allowed:
What is the head A. Ash What are the eyes A. The wells have fallen in and have Inhabitants What are the feet A. Thumbs left after the auction No what are the feet A. Under them the impossible road is moving Down which the broken necked mice push Balls of blood with their noses
and so on. As in other cases, what I think we’re both doing is trying to re-see the significance of something right in front of us, whether it’s parts of the body or parts of words. It’s a self-interrogation, a self-spurring onward beyond the first impression. When I write,
What is the sun?
A single star does not define an evening.
I really am trying to answer the question, but to use the search for an answer as invitation to aphorism, so the answer can also stand apart from the question — and, of course, to generate new questions in turn.
… Does that answer the question?
DP: Yes, that’s a fantastic answer, thank you.
DP: Your poem, “Checklist for a Savior” seems as much a critique of saviors in general as a critique of saviors in a Christian or other religious context. Many of your poems juxtapose spiritual musings with common daily happenings. There are multiple individuals that are likened to Biblical saviors. Regardless of the miraculous tasks included, do you imagine your speaker’s checklist as an appeal to any one savior or is the checklist more symbolic?
BM: Thanks for this question: I do think the intimation of the spiritual within the everyday is part of what I wanted here, throughout the book, not least because I felt a debt to some of the people who recommended me for graduate school: I applied at the same time to MFA programs and to rabbinical school, and had the same recommenders for both, which led to some interesting conversations, to be sure, but also a conviction that to walk through the world in search of a poem is in some ways to search for the numinous. That was one idea, anyway, and somehow I ended up with swans, so go figure.
This poem is not addressed to Jesus, if that’s what you mean, and in my own Jewish context the coming of the Messiah ushers in “ha’olam haba,” which I take to mean “the eternally approaching” (rather than the usual translation, “the world to come”). So in my head, the savior isn’t someone who actually does arrive. To use the terms of your question, then, this isn’t addressed to anyone in particular.
At the same time, I don’t think symbolic is quite right, either, at least in the sense of signs referring to some clearly marked referent. What’s important for me is the stance — the waiting — the speaker, more than the spoken-to. If the poem had only the last two lines, maybe it would work just as well. Or maybe then I wouldn’t be able to say them.
Benjamin Miller has studied at Harvard, Columbia, and the CUNY Graduate Center, and has taught writing at Columbia and Hunter College. His poems have appeared in RHINO, Pleiades, The Greensboro Review, and elsewhere; Without Compass is his first book. For more about Ben, visit majoringinmeta.net.
Dustin Pearson is an MFA candidate at Arizona State University. He received his BA and MA in English Literature from Clemson University. He would eat white rice and soysauce regardless of living on a graduate student budget. He is from Summerville, South Carolina, and would love to direct your literary festival. He can be reached at Dustin.Pearson@asu.edu.
|More InterviewsJoseph D. HaskePaul LisickyMegan StaffelCraig Morgan Teicher|
it is winter again as we feel our way through a bed of glass in the river we’ve been here before everything’s the same still the morning still the pieces of glass we pile in the image of a child and praise in truth we can’t make anything happen between us winter began inside you no one knew but I knew * I want to believe this will end with the child coiled around your finger with thousands watching and throwing roses at us with lights and glitter in our hair but we both know how it ends we practice until we don’t need to tell our bodies how to do it the child with her glass head— her lips curled in my palm trying to say her name for her will you hold her to the light will you breathe a little pink into her your hands on her throat looking for the song at the other end not everything is a bright flute made of bone * we tried shaking her out of us like a bee down our shirts but what if the bee had been a wasp what if it died not because it stung but because it grew tired of stinging milk eyed small lunged prophet in the mud you wash the sand out of your hair where the mushrooms outnumber the stars we sit on the bank in the sun and quietly roll clay between our legs and its hardening is a form of meditation winter begins with her hands detached from the branches you knew you always knew
The potholes in the road were filled with muddy water because it had rained the night before. Some of the holes, jagged around the edges, were the size of miniature craters and every time we reached one, we stomped our feet in it and sloshed the brown water on each other. We roared in excitement, our voices pummeling the cool and heavy morning air, as the water splashed on our clothes and skins. It was as if the dirty liquid were seeping into our bodies and energizing us for the task at hand. We were on our way to burn a thief.
We were partly shoving and partly dragging him along with us, hands under each armpit to keep his shaved head and muscled torso upright. At first, when we’d caught him hiding under the carpenter’s workbench with Auntie Naa’s smartphone stashed precariously in his boxers, he’d played stubborn, locking his arms around a leg of the bench when we’d tried to pull him out by his waistband. But a head-twisting slap had left him dazed and pliant. We’d hoisted him to his feet and stripped him of his tools, a screwdriver and a knife with a curved, glinting blade, similar to the ones the butchers used to slice through singed goat hides in the market. After that we’d yanked off his jean trousers, causing him to trip over his callused feet, and fall, and ripped off his t-shirt to reveal the crisscross of smooth, raised scars that decorated the entirety of his back; the man was obviously a career criminal. A bottle of kerosene and a box of matches were not hard to find.
“I beg you in Jesus’ name,” he’d started to cry when we began shoving and dragging him, head lowered, in our midst as we jogged down the main road. We’d ignored his pleas. Jesus himself, in all of his white glory, would have had to come down to rescue this guy. We’d caught others like him before but had let them go after a simple beating with our shoes and belts. Big mistake. They had returned with reinforcements while we slept, broken into our homes, tied us up and struck us with the blades of their machetes and the butts of their locally-manufactured pistols, and taken all that we’d toiled for and cherished the most. At least once a month, we woke up to find that a family in our neighborhood had been beaten and robbed. Two weeks before, armed robbers had shot Mr. Francis, who worked at the passport office, in both hands because he’d refused to tell them where he’d hidden his laptop. They preyed on our mothers who traded in the market and had to wake up while the sky was still gray to meet with the middlemen who supplied them with yams and tomatoes from the north and cassava and okro from the south. These criminals grabbed them while they waited for the buses, which ran infrequently during the early hours, slapped them until their faces ballooned, and stole the monies that they hid in the shorts they wore underneath their cloths. Lately, these animals had begun tearing off these shorts and raping our poor mothers! Right there in the open! Why couldn’t they just take the money and leave?
And we weren’t even rich people. Small Frankfurt, our neighborhood on the outskirts of Accra, consisted of two and three-bedroom bungalows haphazardly thrown together so that street names and house numbers would not make sense if they were ever introduced. Ours was one of those communities where most homeowners had not painted their houses and were comfortable with the grayness of the cement blocks. Cement blocks on which city workers frequently scrawled in red paint: REMOVE BY ORDER OF THE ACCRA METROPOLITAN ASSEMBLY. If only the Assembly cared as much about the state of our roads. All but the main road were un-tarred and the red dust that was whipped up by cars coated us and everything we owned. When we washed ourselves in the evenings, the water that spiraled down our drains was red. Not that we could afford to bathe every time we scratched our skins and saw the grime that accumulated underneath our fingernails. The water pipes had not yet reached us–and seemed like they never would–so most of us were buying water by the barrel from the dented water tankers that lined up on the side of the main road like the UN convoys that we watched on TV, driving into warzones. We were, therefore, stingy with the water in our drums and buckets. Not like those people who lived in neighborhoods like Kponano and Alistair. Those people who watered their expansive green lawns at noon when the sun was highest and had large flat screen TVs in their pristine villas and small flat screen TVs in their gleaming cars. People whose homes were littered with the things that robbers sought; the kinds of things that we barely had.
We neared the open field where we planned to burn him. There was a large mound of trash at the east end of that dusty tract of land, a putrid collection of the degradable and the non-degradable. We picked up speed, our feet rhythmically pounding the pavement like a police battalion marching against protestors. In fact, we were speeding up because of the police. We were sure that someone would have called them by now; they would fire bullets into the sky to disperse us if they showed up. The thief would be rescued, held for a few weeks, and released back onto the streets to terrorize us. We weren’t going to let that happen.
There were many others who wanted to stop us. Word of the thief’s capture and of our plan to necklace him had spread quickly. People, mainly women, had lined the road while others ran behind us. They still had on their sleeping clothes; the women with their cloths tied around their chests and their hair gathered in hairnets. Toothbrushes and chewing sticks poked out of many mouths.
“This man has a mother somewhere o, you cannot do this,” Auntie Naa was screaming from somewhere behind us. You would think that she would have been grateful that we’d retrieved her phone and were about to punish the thief who had stolen it. That we were about to send a strong warning to others who refused to work and, instead, chose to use our community as an ATM. Another woman began to ululate. In between the piercing cries she shouted, “Come and see o, our youths are about to kill somebody’s son.” Annoyed, we began a protest chant that immediately drowned her out.
Weee no go gree
We no go gree
We no go gree
Weee no go gree
“We will not agree!” we sang. We clapped our hands and stomped our feet harder. The surface of the un-tarred road onto which we’d branched was too damp to produce dust. Instead clods off dirt flew into the air around our feet and stung those whose legs were uncovered. Not like we felt the pain. The chant had thrown us into a frenzy. We’d become encased in a bubble, generated by our lungs, that blocked out any sound that wasn’t produced by us. We were one clapping, singing, stomping body, pulsing with our determination to avenge what those criminals had done to us. This one, who was stupid enough to strike at dawn when some of us were awake and alert enough to begin the chase as soon as Auntie Naa raised the alarm, would pay the debt that his brothers owed. It seemed like he’d resigned himself to his fate and had stopped crying out the name of his Jesus. Or maybe he hadn’t stopped, but how were we supposed to know that, enclosed in our bubble like we were?
As we stepped onto the field, we were approached by about twelve of the older men who were not with us. They’d come to rescue the thief. We immediately formed a circle around him. They might have invaded our ring of sound but we dared them to break through our solid wall of flesh. They threw their bodies at our barricade but we held strong and surged forward. They stumbled and fell at our feet. We would have trampled them if they weren’t our fathers, uncles, and older brothers. We marked time until they got to their feet and began to stagger away, defeated.
We threw the thief onto the edge of the trash heap so that his head was cushioned by rotten bananas and cow entrails while his legs lay on the red dirt. We pulled a frayed tire from a ledge of waste above his head and formed a semicircle around him. It was time. He was now frantically searching our faces and boring through our eyes with his. His eyes were watery. We became still. Our throats closed up and our sound bubble began to rise and float away without us.
“God will not forgive you, don’t do this,” we heard one of the women shout.
“Why won’t the men stop them?” someone else cried.
Their voices were intruding on us, breaking our concentration. We had to act quickly. We lifted his shoulder and put the tire around his neck. He was whimpering. He cupped both hands and began slapping them together. The fool thought he could beg his way out of this. As if he and his friends listened when our mothers pleaded with them at the bus stop in the dark. We poured the kerosene over the length of his body. Some of it splashed on our legs and we drew back, our chests heaving. We were struggling to breathe; there was no air, only the stench of kerosene and garbage. The thief, on the other hand, was breathing just fine. He began struggling to stand up, as if the kerosene had ignited his desire to live. The tire around his neck made his efforts clumsy, almost comical. We jabbed our feet into his legs and thrust him back down onto the trash. He started doing the thing with his eyes again, looking at me as if he was trying to escape from his body into mine, through my eye sockets. My palms became slick with sweat. My hands stiffened and I felt that if I wriggled my fingers, they would break with a loud clack. This had never happened to me before. Even when I dissected a frog in the lab for the first time, when I made a vertical incision down its abdomen with my scalpel and pulled apart both glossy flabs to reveal the dark brown of its large intestine and the pale pink of its small intestine. My hands had been steady, flexible. But now, my wet and stiff fingers caused the matchbox to slip and fall.
“Pick it up,” Henry said to me. The matchbox had landed near my right foot. It was touching my big toe.
Why should I be the one to pick it up, weren’t we all standing there? And who was he to tell me what to do?
“Priscilla, stop wasting time and pick the thing up,” Kweku said. We were standing pressed so close together that I could feel his sweat on my arm. I turned my head and glared at him.
“Don’t you have hands?” I snapped. I was used to fighting with Kweku. He’d sat behind me in school since kindergarten and we both planned to study biology in the university next year. I stepped back so that the matchbox was no longer touching my toe.
“My sandals!” Susan yelped. She’d been standing behind me, mashed up against my back. I ignored her. Hadn’t she known she was wearing sandals when she was jumping into puddles of dirty water a few minutes ago? Besides, she was the one who’d brought up this idea about burning the next thief we caught. She’d been furious because robbers had broken into her house, stripped her father naked, slapped him around, and made him do jumping jacks in front of his family. He’d had a heart attack the next day. She’d said that necklacing was how people dealt with robbers in other places, maybe in other countries. When she brought up the idea I should have told her that that is not what is done here.
“I beg you, sister,” the thief sobbed. Now he was focused only on me. No one had made a move to pick up the matchbox.
I retreated further into the wall of people behind me. A chorus of “agyeis,” “ouches,” “ahs,” and “ohs” followed my move. I imagined us falling down on each other like dominoes, falling so low that we were face to face with the thieves, rapists, and murderers who dwelled at that level. When I turned, each person was still erect but shuffling backward. Sensing his moment, the thief struggled to his feet, lifted the tire from around his neck, and dropped it on the ground in front of him. I stepped back even farther; I didn’t want kerosene on my uniform. The man began to walk sideways in the gap between the pile of rubbish and the now-cracking wall that we’d formed. I didn’t try to stop him. No one else did. He glanced at me and then at his escape route, once. Three seconds later, his legs were scissoring the air as he ran toward the opposite end of the field. A voice in the back–it sounded like my mother’s–said, “Won’t you people hold him until the police come?” I didn’t answer, no one did. We began to disperse. I had to go back home; I hadn’t even had breakfast yet and my shoes were wet.
Look for more work by Peace Adzo Medie in Issue 6, due out this November.
IN THE PLACE OF BEST INTENTIONS
As this is not the land of ice packs
and regenerations, of spent glue guns
or antiseptic counters—since shy
reminders filter through the streets all night
(mountain streams that city fountains sip)
absconding with old disappointments—
because the powerlines are wet with flames
that spill their music into shallow halls
devoid of short-term motives, I am lost
and cannot say what may have led me here
to watch the girls unwrapping fiberboard
from miles of burlap while the waitresses
tattoo their angry daisies on my arms.
What is this place that leaves me so unmoved?
A hat I’d never worn or wanted worn
is now my prized possession; tissues packed
into abandoned zipper pockets breed—
I had forgotten that the small glass cups
were hidden in my socks and that my hands
were laced with fine red scratches
long before the advent of arrival. Now I feel
the heat of my illusion dim to tremble,
a dull intrusion into some romantic
basement of unknowable books. And so
forgive me if the water left for tea
is steeped in silt and valentines; forgive
the unexpected token undisclosed.
Last night I thought I wanted tragedy,
a chance to wick away the morning’s
donut, bagel, muffin, scorn. But to span
the gap from night to night, from night
to some hello, is more than I can yet
achieve: a phone that rings without response
and without end or empathy.
Belief is a raft tossed out on a thirsty plain.
Were I that lonesome, I’d never have left.
ON THE MARGINS OF THE PORTABLE COUNTRY
The making of ideology, of how stories learn,
ends in bone. Thus, facts without lives are trouble.
Even squall, the art of, must learn to scramble hours
as the scribblers do; and so some argument electric
in its innocence arrives to silver fictions
out of mauve and maudlin discipline.
All worthy hearts embark. But who returns
from such a journey—who could tent beneath
that zoo and cairn with time’s fool law
and still press on unscathed? (The lathe, the nick,
the cutting tree remembering the cutting.)
On the margins of the portable country,
a stranger compendium lands its craft
of pleasure and scorn, a balloon
in love with a wood, a turtle fallen
from the subjunctive into the academy.
I’ve started marking up a manual of dangers.
You have not all been selected.
IN THE WAKE OF AVOIDABLE TRAGEDY
What little remains is clear: it is over.
The first and the last having gone
and returned, come and returned,
we have learned to welcome those
who make the place feel welcoming.
A guitar in the corner hoards the light,
says: you, in a collapsing world,
your eyes such sharp, undarkened things.
From Without Compass (c) 2014 by Benjamin Miller.
Reprinted with permission of Four Way Books. All rights reserved.
“In the Wake of Avoidable Tragedy” was first published in The Greensboro Review.
No turning back. Deep in the Utah desert now, having left one home
to return to the temple of my grandfather. I press the pedal
hard. Long behind me, civilization’s last sign—a bent post
and a wooden board: No food or gas for 200 miles. The tank
needling below half-full, I smoke Camels to soothe
my worry. Is this where it happened? What’s left out there of Topaz
in the simmering heat? On quartzed asphalt I rush
past salt beds, squint at the horizon for the desert’s edge: a lone
tower, a flattened barrack, some sign of Topaz—the camp
where my mother, her family, were imprisoned. As I speed
by shrub cactus, the thought of it feels too near,
too close. The engine steams. The radiator
hisses. Gusts gather, wind pushes my Civic side
to side, and I grip the steering wheel, strain to see
through a windshield smeared with yellow jacket wings, blood
of mosquitoes. If I can find it, how much can
I really know? Were sandstorms soft as dreams or stinging
like nettles? Who held my mother when the wind whipped
beige handfuls at her baby cheeks? Was the sand tinged
with beige or orange from oxidized mesas? I don’t remember
my mother’s answer to everything. High on coffee
and nicotine, I half-dream in waves of heat: summon ghosts
from the canyon beyond thin lines of barbed wire. Our name
Ishida. Ishi means stone, da the field. We were gemstones
strewn in the wasteland. Only three days
and one thousand miles to go before I reach
San Francisco, the church where my mother was born
and torn away. Maybe Topaz in the desert was long
gone, but it lingered in letters, photos, fragments
of stories. My mother’s room now mine, the bed pulled blank
with ironed sheets, a desk set with pen and paper. Here
I would come to understand.
TEMPLE BELL LESSON
Son, I am weighted.
You are light.
Our ancestors imprisoned,
in sand, swinging
between scorching air
and the insult
Their skin bronzed
to their sorrow
Any noise alerts me. My wife Grace shifts beneath our comforter.
Respecting my uncles long dead, I climb from bed, grab
the bat, climb stairs, walk halls with a thousand sutras shelved
high, my grandparents’ moonlit ink floating on pages sheer
as veils, the word Love rescued from censors. In the nursery
I check window-locks, sense my son Brendan falling in and out
of seizures and sleep. Backed by the altar, its purple chrysanthemum
curtains, gold-leafed lily pads, corroded rice paper, I crouch
then stand at the window to watch silhouettes fleeing
past streetlamps, the gate unmoored from its deadbolt, unhinged
from ill-fitted screws and rusted nails. The front door cottoned
with fog shakes in night wind. Backyard bushes rustle. For now
I let the mendicants crack open our prickly crowns of aloe, soothe
their faces with gel, drop bottle-shards and cigarette butts that slash
and burn our stairs. Inside, we fit apart and together.
Grace and Brendan sleeping, me standing guard.
From my grandfather’s scrolls moths fly out, and I grab at air
to repel the strangeness of other lives circling toward us.
From Topaz (c) 2013 by Brian Komei Dempster.
Reprinted with permission of Four Way Books. All rights reserved.
An earlier version of “Gatekeeper” was first published in Parthenon West Review.
Topaz, Brian Komei Dempster’s debut poetry collection, examines the experiences of a Japanese American family separated and incarcerated in American World War II prison camps. This volume delves into the lasting intergenerational impact of imprisonment and breaks a cultural legacy of silence. Through the fractured lenses of past and present, personal and collective, the speaker seeks to piece together the facets of his own identity and to shed light on a buried history.