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FWR: I would like to start out by first asking about what it’s like to be publishing your first full collection of poetry? What was the process of writing and assembling like in comparison to the publication of your earlier chapbooks?
WL: My urge in assembling manuscripts is always to pare down. Because of this impulse, assembling my chapbooks felt like a much clearer and more straightforward process. For the manuscript that became Conversation Among Stones, I struggled with holding it in its entirety in my mind and had to be more deliberate in my approach. I understood how certain constellations of poems fit together but was a bit overwhelmed with shaping the manuscript as a whole. At one point, I actually made a spreadsheet of all the poems that I thought might belong in the book and notated and ordered them according to a few different axes to help me see how they might fit together.
FWR: Your title, “Conversation Among Stones” brings up questions of action between the inanimate. What inspired you to frame your collection under this title?
WL: That idea is definitely part of what I had hoped to evoke with the title—of speaking to the inanimate and what can’t or refuses to speak back, of language spanning, filling, straining, or distending across gaps, of failing to say or hear what matters. I think these intimations are a good way of entering the book, which I hope worries and enacts some of these concerns regarding the capacities and limitations of language.
FWR: My next question is in regards to the variations of length in the poems. In “Dear,” which is only two lines, you write “A knife pares to learn what is flesh. / What is flesh.” Both a statement and a question, you ask the reader to consider something so simple, yet laden with ideas regarding the body and violence. What was your process in developing these shorter pieces, and how do you see them functioning within the broader collection?
WL: Poems can beguile in so many ways, but I’ve always loved the compactness of a short poem. Part of it is how easy it is to carry them with you in their entirety and turn them over in your mind. Since I first came across Issa’s “This world of dew / is a world of dew. / And yet… and yet…” in a poetry class almost 20 years ago, I’ve been able to carry it with me. I’ve learned and forgotten countless things in poems and in life in the ensuing years, but have kept that poem almost unconsciously, without effort. Another aspect of short poems’ appeal to me is the paradoxical way time works in them. A short poem’s effect feels almost instantaneous because of its brevity but time also dilates across its lines. The duration seems somehow mismatched with the time it takes to run your eyes along the text. In Lucille Clifton’s “why some people be mad at me sometimes,” the body of the poem answers the charge of the title in five short lines:
they ask me to remember
but they want me to remember
and i keep on remembering
That last one-word, monosyllabic line, especially, seems to take forever to conclude. The compression of the poem—the words under pressure from the wide sweep of white space—exerts a redoubled, outward pressure and reverberates.
My poem “Dear” started as a longer poem (not longer by much, maybe 10 lines or so). At one point, as an experiment, I took out all the “I” statements in the poem and arrived at the version that exists now. Often, that’s how it works. I try different approaches and revise, sometimes rashly and foolishly, until something jostles loose. When I finally got to the two-line version of “Dear,” for me, the fragmentary nature of it fit with the precarity of its assertion and question. How the shorter poems appear on the page also matters in that I wanted the blank expanse that follows the poem to function as an extended breath. Because the book proceeds with no section breaks, it made sense to me to vary the lengths and movements of the poems to establish a kind of cadence, a push-and-pull.
FWR: In thinking about the themes that circulate throughout your work, a couple of specific ideas stand out as particularly potent. One is the issue of memory; the violence, complexities, and confusion of your past run their threads throughout the collection. In “The Vocation,” you write, “In the year I learned / to cease writing about history / in the present tense, / I was the silence of chalk dust, / of brothers.”
It seems like history, for the speaker, is something to be dealt with, instead of accepted unquestioningly. What does writing about the past, be it in present tense or not, do for you as an individual? Does confronting the past through writing work as a catharsis, a way to process, or does it instead serve as a conduit to expanding upon the ideas you wish to convey?
WL: I think memory—and the process of remembering—is an engine for understanding and, by extension, meaning. For experience to make sense, we have to remember. Knowing or thinking can’t really be separated from experience. It’s also true that memory, personal and communal, is restless and malleable. I have an image of the past as a landscape of sand dunes. The shapes drift. They slip, they resettle. How things feel in the moment can be one kind of understanding, how we remember them, how they shift, linger, rise, how they appear in the context of things that have happened since or what we do not yet know are other kinds.
In Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay,” when challenged on why she remembers “too much”—“Why hold onto all that?”—the speaker responds, “Where can I put it down?” I suppose poetry for me is one place to put it down. (Though I don’t think I could be accused of remembering too much in life. I have a terrible memory.) In writing a poem, I’m making a deliberate attempt toward an understanding, however provisional. Poems are good spaces for holding and turning, for thinking through and imagining, for venturing out—and that is the final, extravagant goal, to reach out and connect with someone else. In my poems, I want to make a path that leads inward to the center—and out.
FWR: In that same poem, you confront another central theme: men. When you mention men, they are typically described via their participation in fatherhood or brotherhood. You write, “the men/slammed the table when they laughed/at their circumstance, or drank/too much to learn what it meant/to have a brother, or were true to/no end, or tried to love their fathers/before they disappeared into/hagiography.”
Masculinity here seems to be defined as a relational identity, one that is constituted by lineage and socialization. I would love to hear you speak on your relationship with gender norms and roles, especially in your writing.
WL: This question is particularly fascinating because I can’t say I conceived of my poems working together in this way, even though of course you’re right to point to how often these types of familial terms come up. I suppose part of the answer has to be how the poems relate to my autobiography. In my family, my mother is the only woman in her generation. She has two brothers and my father has two brothers. I’m also the only woman in my generation. I have three cousins, all men. I’m an only child who grew up in China during the one-child policy, so all around me were lots of children just like me, who’ll never know what it means to have a sibling. I felt a bit of an outsider’s fascination with those types of relationships and inheritances, especially as I got older and became more aware of the other social forces at work that historically favored sons. I think poetry can function partly as personal interventions in cultural history and memory, holding the ambivalences, contradictions, and idiosyncrasies that live at those intersections.
FWR: We see many instances of place in relation to memory, but there are only a few instances in which those locations are given a specific name, such as in “Teleology” when you mention Nebraska. Can you walk us through your approach to location in your work and what places need an identifier, versus places that can exist more specifically within the speaker’s domain of recollection?
WL: I think generally the idea of dislocation is more important than the locations themselves in terms of how they function in the poems. Saying the name of a place evinces a kind of ownership of or intimacy with that place. For many of the poems, in not naming specific locations, I more so wanted to evoke a sense of rootlessness and for the intimacy to be with the speaker’s uneasiness within or distance from those places. “Nebraska” in “Teleology” is a departure from that model not only because it offers a specific name but also because I think in this instance Nebraska is not a real place but an imagined one—a kind of projection that stands in for other things (the poem says, “like Nebraska,” “many Nebraskas,” “Nebraska is a little funeral”—my apologies to the real Nebraska!).
FWR: In “Dream with Omen,” you end the piece with “I would like to rest now / with my head in a warm lap.” This is one of my favorite lines, because it both speaks to the sound and feel of this collection, and it interrogates the two balancing aspects of this collection: that of memory and the mind, and that of the physical present. The speaker in many of your pieces seems to be constantly grappling with the subconscious world, made alive by dreams. How do you view or negotiate the separation and/or melding of the subconscious and the “real” world? Does the mind and its preoccupation with the past stop the self from fully engaging in the present? Can the speaker rest in a warm lap and still accept the darkness of the subconscious?
WL: In putting together this book, I became conscious of how often I write about dreaming and/or sleeping. I felt sheepish both because we are told often (as writers and as people) that dreams are boring and because maybe these poems betray my personal tendency toward indolence.
It’s interesting to align the past with the subconscious and the present with the “real” as you do in the question. I do feel the tension between those things in writing even as I also feel that thoughts are real and fears are real, etc., just as senses—how we experience the physical world—are real. And it feels a little silly to say this but I have a kind of faith that our subconscious is working away trying to help us come to terms with what occupies us in the real, present world even as we sleep and dream. Everyone who writes has at times had that sense that what they are writing is received, as if they are tapping into some other world or force. Maybe that idea is analogous to what I mean.
Memories, dreams, the subconscious, however the particularities of the mind manifest, feel consequential in their bearing on lived experience—they are how the real world lives in us. There is no unmediated world. Or if there is, we don’t know it. We must encounter the world personally because we are people. All this is to say I’m still learning line-to-line, poem-to-poem how best to articulate that kind of interiority in a meaningful way, without leaving the reader adrift. Leaning on dreams can make a poem feel muted and entering memories can feel like putting on the heaviness of a wet wool sweater and those things do not always serve the poem. I hope for my poems’ sake that I get that balance right more often than not.
Willie Lin was interviewed for Four Way Review by Simone Menard-Irvine.
Simone Menard-Irvine is a poet from Brooklyn, New York currently pursuing and English degree at Smith College. Her work has been published in HOBART and Emulate magazine.
Ayesha Raees’ fabulist and fable-like chapbook, Coining a Wishing Tower (Platypus Press Broken River Prize winner, 2020, selected by Kaveh Akbar), is composed of 56 prose-like blocks—give or a take a few half-fragments.
These prose-poems, which are whimsical, profound, vulnerable, and full of pathos, grief, and transformation, depict complex relationships between parents and child, religion and women, lovers and the beloved, wishers and wish-granters. There are three separate narrative strands, teleporting between Pakistan; New York City; Makkah; New London, Connecticut; as well as more abstract spaces, like a Desire Path, as well as Barzakh (which, the chapbook tells us, Google calls a “Christian Limbo”).
The first narrative involves House Mouse, who climbs and climbs until the “end of all possible height” and finds itself in a wishing tower which can grant all its wishes. House Mouse performs various rituals including the ritual of death—in which both House Mouse and the tower die. The second strand, taking place in a wooden house in New Connecticut, involves three characters: Godfish, a cat who is in love with Godfish, and the moon, who is also in love with Godfish. And finally, there is the more realist narrative strand, with a female speaker—a daughter and an immigrant—who seems to speak for Raees herself, and her own personal experiences with family, religion, migration and displacement.
She is interviewed here by Cleo Qian, previously published in Issue 25.
CQ: How did you come up with the characters of House Mouse, the tower, Godfish, the cat, and the moon?
AR: Each character in the book embodies, not always wholly or too literally, a person of importance from my life. The book itself was conceived the night that I found out my best friend, Q, was in an irreversible coma due to a (eventually successful) suicide attempt. The characters in the book are my own reckoning with the different facets of the deaths we face in our lives before our eventual, more literal, ends. But I did not want this book to be so linear or literal; I wanted it to tackle death in varying ways.
House Mouse represents every young immigrant. Immigrants must leave their “selves” or “homes” for a better future, which is the mirage of the “American dream”—which calls for outsiders to come in and fill the gaps of a decaying system. Asian immigrants also, in many ways, are pressed for success or “height” to obtain ‘value’ from a very young age.
As a poet, “House Mouse” is also a play on words. What happens to a common house mouse when it is without a house? What happens to a young immigrant when they leave their homes for the world’s seductions?
The wishing tower is a symbol of the Ka’abah but is also something of extreme physical height, an unreachable thing. “Coining” in the collection’s title reflects stoning—a visual gesture, with prayers or wishes. Godfish is a play on goldfish, but this character also represents another close friend of mine, A, who was another young immigrant who left home to America to pursue another life and was lost in a tragic way. And the cat and the moon are, at the end of the day, spectators, both holding power but choosing to practice it in different ways; they are two faces of a white savior complex and American passivity.
I don’t believe I would have been able to say all I wanted to say without the aid of characters in this book.
CQ: Let’s talk a little bit about the settings mentioned throughout the book. What is the significance of the setting New London, Connecticut? Early in the book, you write, “I have never been to New London, Connecticut.” In the narrative of the Godfish, cat, and moon, New London is both real and unreal, and the wooden house they live in is centric to “unnatural happenings” and set apart from the “real life giant black road.” And what about the sites of pilgrimage throughout the book? Is America also a site to make a pilgrimage to, or is it a place to escape to?
AR: I have a love for places and the social cultures they inevitably hold. I am someone who has been in constant movement her whole life, and I believe places to be their own characters, to have their spirits. Therefore, the different locations in the book are all real, even the unreal ones. They are their own breathing, living organisms.
And that’s how New London, in Connecticut, feels to me. I have never been. In the book, it is a place of “unnatural happenings” as, just as written in the book, it is a place where Godfish died.
The character who is embodied in Godfish was my high school best friend, A. He went to Connecticut College (in New London, Connecticut) and was hit by a drunk driver while he was crossing the road at night to go to his dorm. The drunk driver, instead of calling for help, pulled A’s body aside and drove away. Leaving him. Right there. To spend a cold December night outside. He was found the next day. His date of death is merely an estimation.
I was myself a sophomore at Bennington College when I received the news. This was December 2015. I was devastated. Over the years of grieving, New London, Connecticut became a significant image for me. The side of the road A was on was very real. I don’t know what it looks like in real life. But in my head, there is a whole image. I live with the happenings of that night every time I am grieving. How can I have such vivid imagery exist when I was not even physically present? That’s the power words have over me.
The moon that captures and cannot fully lift Godfish embodies “moonshine,” intoxication, which failed both Godfish (and A). In the end, my friend was a gold marking on the road. And I believe when I started to write about Q [my friend who passed away after being in a coma], A came forward into the poetry as well. They both took me on the journey of characters and settings, and the book’s narrative reckons with all our losses and its impact.
Is that a sort of pilgrimage? I believe so.
CQ: The book opens with House Mouse climbing and climbing until it gets to the wishing tower. Godfish wishes to be able to swim to the sun, its beloved. The moon wishes to draw Godfish to itself. In Islam, Jannat-ul-Firdous, we learn, is a “place in heaven that is of the highest level, reserved for the most pious, the most special, the most loved.” Do you think the striving for height is a universal human desire? How do height and religion intertwine?
AR: Who are we but an accumulation of our wantings? Humans have inane, uncontrollable, desires that make us get out of the ordinary and strive for something that can give us, even for a single moment, a rich breath of fresh extraordinary. To be human is to be full of wanting, to exist in that kind of inevitable strive. And that kind of striving will always achieve some kind of height.
But my goal through the book, and of course for my own reckoning as a young ambitious Asian immigrant in the American landscape, was to ask what those systems of value ask of us. These “heights” we climb to that are a measure of our worth, giving our human life a value. In order to have value, we keep climbing. But until when?
I was thrown into this disarray because Q and I were ambitious young Asian women from so-called “third world countries” and quite alike in our dispositions. We wanted to be accomplished. To have value as individuals and not be reduced to our Asian womanhoods. But that striving killed us. I watched her fall. And I found myself falling. Like most Asians, we were sold to ideas of hard work leading to value, such as our grades, the length of our CVs, the honors and fellowships and residencies and awards. We were accomplished. But we did not have enough value to win the system that was built against us.
So what did we strive for?
As I was grieving, religion became my literature and God my mentor. I grew up with Islam but as with most religious countries, religion seeped in as a way of life rather than a radicality. Islam is a part of my cultural identity. It is part of my language. Islam is a constant reminder of how to live a life that prepares us for death. And even though I am (and was!) so young, to be handed so many deaths of so many loved ones left me in disarray. I was alone in the American landscape without much support or, as we all have experienced our capitalist systems, empathy. When I finally turned again towards Islam, I was looking for some sense that the West, and Western literature, could not afford me.
I will always say that I am not a religious person. After all, religion is a tool to control the masses. I don’t want Coining A Wishing Tower to be a religious book. I am, however, deeply spiritual. I do have faith in the unknown. I do believe in a God. Maybe when I am brave enough to proclaim it externally, I can even say my God. I have belief in the many rituals that help us decipher the literals of our lives towards a healthy figurative. A true kind of poem. It is inevitable for me to not see God with poetry.
CQ: Many of the prose poems—and the arcs of the House Mouse, the tower, the Godfish, cat, and moon—are written in a parable-like tone. Some of them also verge on fairy tales. You have such wonderful lines and imagination when, for example, House Mouse is cooking in the tower:
“House Mouse cooked fish for the first meal, corn for the
second meal, and melted cheese for the third meal. The
tower is one room full of great imaginings working towards
not staying imagined…”
Or when the moon tries to bring Godfish to itself:
“With every mustered strength, the moon lifts the water, rounds
Godfish into a dripping ball and pulls it through the opened
window only to bring it to a float and a hover in the storming
snow of New London, Connecticut….”
What was the influence of parable and fairy tale in your writing of these poems? Do you consider these narratives allegories?
AR: I celebrate poetry because a good functioning poem has great intentionality. If you spend enough time even with a single line, you can see how the poet has chosen to lay the words next to each other the way they are. Nothing is random. And everything adds to something else.
I do a lot of work with symbolism and imagery, often lent from my own life. I am always in awe at the contrast and the magic I see in front of me. For example, I am currently in Paris, sitting in a gorgeous reading room at Bibliothèque nationale de France (National Public Library of France) answering these questions, where I find myself watching a parade of silent children running through the rows of hunched working adults. They are not laughing. Or making any kind of noise. They are just running through the gorgeous rows of tables. What a contrast! What image and magic! And hardly anyone is looking up! Doesn’t that feel like a fairy tale? Or an allegory? Children running through a grand beautiful reading room of a world-famous library full of frowning adults?
I do the same in the verses you have pointed out. When I put [these contrasts] of the imagined and unimagined together, I surprise myself.
CW: Do you believe in epiphany? How does epiphany play a role in these poems?
AR: I believe in wonder, which can be quite like epiphany, but is not always the same. Epiphany feels like a lightbulb moment of occasional discovery, but wonder feels like a series of discoveries that were always present but are now fully being seen.
In this way, the form of the book holds a kind of wonder. It is an epic told in fragments. Even though I wrote it linearly and the editorial process did not include rearrangements but just clarifications, I saw how one narrative thread began to breathe while still supporting the other threads.
When I read the book out loud in readings, I flip through the book at random and read pieces from it. I am faced with more wonder in this as well.
CQ: Google is also frequently cited throughout the poems. Often, Google’s word is taken as factual and fills in missing gaps in the speaker’s knowledge—e.g. Google speaks on the status of New London, Connecticut, as a small city; on how many lives cats have; on what Islamic Barzakh is. Why did you invoke Google and what is the role of human technology in understanding these characters and poems?
AR: Isn’t Google some form of god now? We rely on it for all our small and big questions and immediately believe what it tells us. “Google says…” instead of “God says.” I find in both these common phrases a kind of significant mimicry.
In a past that’s not too far off (I am thinking of my parents’ lives), information was not accessible at all. My parents were probably faced with so much unknown but still had to strive forward with whatever understanding and skills they did have. They couldn’t just Google how to exactly use a new microwave they bought or how to apply for a visa to travel. In these observations, Google has become such a huge part of our contemporary lives that without it, we wouldn’t often know what to do. And with it, we often are also told how to live a life and exactly what to do.
Maybe I wanted to have Google in the book because so much of our consolations and salvation hinges on asking. In the past, we sat in prayer and asked. And now we get on our phones, maybe our hands poised ritually the same, and ask. We get answered in both ways. We believe. And sometimes, we don’t.
CQ: Another theme that pops up in the latter half of the book is forgetting. Of the Islamic heaven, you write, “Any kind of remembrance of our past lives, any regret, every love, it will all be flushed.” You, the speaker, ask if you will be forgotten on the day of judgment, and the mother says, “It’s inevitable…you will forget me too.” When the cat finds Godfish, dead, you write, “Would death tear them apart to a degree of absolute forget?” These lines really tugged at my heart. The fear of forgetting my loved ones after death is terrifying . How are these poems a response to the question of whether death is the ultimate forgetting?
AR: What we don’t remember also brings us relief. That’s the concept most Muslims have about death and afterlife. If I don’t remember the extent of love I feel for my mother, I would not feel the extent of her loss. I would be relieved of grief and the pain of it.
This is scary. But also, to some degree, comforting. There is consolation in thinking we won’t always be yearning for the ones we lose.
I have tried to tackle the question of love and endings through the poems in small and big ways. The last prose block of House Mouse “returning” holds that life and death can exist in mimicry. But what bridges each ending with another beginning is change and transformation.
CQ: There are a series of transformations: Godfish into a fish, the wishing tower into a pile of rubble. Are these “failed” transformations? Are they an inevitable part of the cycle of life?
AR: I don’t believe in “failed” transformations, and I think maybe that was what I was trying to truly say throughout this epic. Even though Godfish loses its God-ness, its existence still transformed the moon and the cat. The wishing tower is no longer able to grant wishes, and then it loses its life. But it transforms into something else, even if that is rubble which will erode away.
These losses are, in some ways, an indication of life’s inevitable end, yes, but [writing this book] also gave me the gift [of knowing] that there will always be some kind of other journey. Any end we think of is a ripple effect towards something else, beyond comprehension.
These fragmented thoughts are captured in the fragmented poems. We can see the “afterlives” of House Mouse, the Godfish and the tower. [I wanted to show how] there is never any true failure in our conventional ideas of failing. Things that “fall” fall to somewhere else.
CQ: Do you consider these poems of loss?
AR: Absolutely. But not only. These poems are full of grief. But also consolation. Also philosophical nurturings. They are an encouragement to move away from our unconventional thinking of the most universal experience of loss itself.
CQ: At the end of the book, House Mouse is somehow resurrected. I loved this ending, which felt joyous, miraculous, and yet also sad and full of grief because there is no one around to meet House Mouse. What are we to make of House Mouse’s return to life? What is House Mouse returning to?
AR: House Mouse holds huge parts of me as well as huge parts of the speaker, which, of course as poets say lingo, is both me and not me. The speaker leaves home, Pakistan, and goes to America, fulfilling her teenage dream to leave, but the speaker also returns. And with every return, there is change. Decay. Death. Loss. Transformations.
And each immigrant really asks these questions if they return [to where they have left]: “What am I returning to?” “What makes life life here and how much of it I have left?” “Who waits for me and who could not?”
“What has died and what still lives?”
Returning is hard. It is full of lamenting and an inconsolable feeling. We have to reckon with the relativity of time, the loss of romance, and changes that override our initial memories. House Mouse finally returns to the home which it left in the first prose block of the book. But so much has changed. What is home now?
I think there is consolation and love in the fact that we have our return. Even if our parents die. Even if our houses change. Even if the furniture gets full of dust. Just because there is this kind of loss, does not mean we do not feel all the presence of what home is there. Maybe, in life, forgetting can relieve us of pain, but remembrance reminds us of the original love we were given, however much it has been transformed.
CQ: You published Coining a Wishing Tower during the lockdown. Where were you, location-wise, when you heard that your book was accepted for publication? How did COVID-19 affect your experience writing and publishing this chapbook?
AR: This is actually a funny story. The day I got the email that I won the Broken River Prize from Platypus for the book was also the day Biden won (or, well, Trump lost) the elections—November 7 2020. We were all under strict Covid lockdown, but because of the election results, the streets of Brooklyn were flooded with cheers and shouts and music. We all ran through the streets. In that way, I felt I was also celebrating my own little win of accomplishing a dream (the wish I had coined a long time ago). The book was mostly written in 2019 around the loss of Q. But this book definitely was a huge victim of the pandemic aftermath. What with delays in publishing and then my press’s bankruptcy, my book only had a life in this world for one year. But I believe in its return. The life after its life.
CQ: What’s next for you?
AR: Even though I often fail to keep it as simple as the words I am about to say, all I truly desire is to keep writing. I am deeply in love with poetry. And I don’t think this affair will end at all. I am hoping to keep at it and, in small and big ways, keep being read.
To more poems! To more books!
Ayesha Raees عائشہ رئیس identifies herself as a hybrid creating hybrid poetry through hybrid forms. Her work strongly revolves around issues of race and identity, G/god and displacement, and mental illness while possessing a strong agency for accessibility, community, and change. Raees currently serves as an Assistant Poetry Editor at AAWW’s The Margins and has received fellowships from Asian American Writers’ Workshop, Brooklyn Poets, and Kundiman. Her debut chapbook “Coining A Wishing Tower” won the Broken River Prize, judged by Kaveh Akbar, and is published by Platypus Press. From Lahore, Pakistan, she currently shifts around Lahore, New York City, and Miami.
When wildlife conservationists released a dozen axolotls into the waterways in an abandoned town not far from Guadalajara, they were surprised to see the pink salamanders swim within the water for less than a minute. The endangered creatures jumped out of the pool on their own.
Eleven of them moved to the side and chose to die rather than learn to live again in this human-created habitat. Their smiling mouths stayed that way as they flopped along the dirt. Meanwhile, the last survivor came out of the water. It regarded its dying friends and marched down the road. The conservationists could not explain what was happening, but this last axolotl popped into a stranger’s home and, though they later tried to find it, they could not. The attempt to save the species was deemed a disaster.
Some years ago, on a flight from Tokyo to Guadalajara, I gave in to the cardinal sin of air travel—I spoke to a stranger. In the middle of the flight, when all those around me were asleep, I saw a slow set of tears fall from a Japanese woman’s eyes and disappear into her jeans. Hours to go, the short aisle between us was an insufficient chasm. I could not ignore the scene. So, I asked her what was wrong, and she confessed in carefully selected English that she was on her way to bury her son.
“But I’m not blaming Mexico,” she pleaded, as if I thought she was the type to blame a whole nation for a single incident. “He loved the country and the cities. Never had a bad thing to say.”
“What did he do there?” I asked.
“He learned to cook. He studied the cooks in the kitchen and the cooks in the home. Always, he said, Mexico produced the greatest food. He wanted to know why; so, he moved there the moment he became an adult. Would have been three years in a couple of days.”
“I think I would agree with his assessment. It’s a wonderful food culture.” The way I said it, with a remove and a distance, must have exposed my relationship to the country as also removed and distant. She had a wrong initial impression.
“Oh, I’m sorry. It’s terrible. I assumed because of your being on this plane and your…your look…you were from there.”
“I have family and friends I visit in Mexico. But no, I’m not from there.”
“It’s terrible of me,” she said. “I could have asked. I’ll…I’ll do that now. What takes you to Mexico? Those friends and family?”
“A cousin of mine passed away. One minute Alfonso was talking, then someone noticed him stutter. His heart was giving out. Then, it did.”
“Seems the airline put the grievers together.”
I looked around. We were the only ones awake. She might have been right.
“Weird, isn’t it?” she wondered, aloud. “To be on a flight to claim a dead body? I have never been to Mexico, and the moment I go it’s because I am on my way to see to my son’s death.”
Strange way of putting it, I thought, but she was right about it being weird.
Alfonso was a favorite cousin, an adult while I was a teenager and a teenager while I was still a child. Separated by less than four years, our minor gap in age nonetheless left him wiser and more experienced. When he was around, I ran to him for the sort of advice one is ashamed to steal from parents. He was dead at thirty-two and it seemed I’d lost a lifeline. Navigating a future without his guidance left me feeling adrift.
“We don’t need to speak about our dead,” she said. “One should remember them while one is happy to remind oneself they’re gone, or when one is sad to remind oneself of what one had.”
If that was true, then which emotion was she experiencing? What attitude toward her son possessed her that she preferred to think or speak less about him?
“Did you enjoy Tokyo?” she asked.
“It was a disaster of a trip, I’m afraid. I never saw it.”
Disaster was an adequate term. After a fourteen-hour direct flight, I’d landed in the airport, found the exit, and noticed on my phone’s home screen a long list of missed calls and texts. I sighed as I listened to each voicemail, and as I read each text. All of them were variations of the same sad news. I went to the bathroom, found an empty stall, and started to cry. I let that pass and then found a flight out.
Nine months of planning and fighting for this trip fell apart. It was a fight to get the time off from my data entry job, the courage to do it, and the money for two weeks abroad saved. While the first requirement wasn’t initially approved, a set of company layoffs I couldn’t escape made it all possible.
I booked the trip for no purpose other than a want to get off this continent. I suppose what I wanted more than anything was to go somewhere I could be lost, where I did not speak the language, and where I did not possess an overshadowing familial history dictating each sight or town. My journey was to see how I would adapt to a different culture—and if I could. When I called Alfonso to tell him about the trip, he described his favorite film Ikiru and said I should search out locations from the film. I didn’t bother to argue most of the film was shot on soundstages. I replied that my knowledge of Japan came from horror films and books by Ryū Murakami and Yoko Ogawa. None of those, I prayed, were accurate precursors to my trip.
Alfonso had not traveled much within Mexico, or outside of it. But there was one story about Japan he could share. He once heard reports of travelers who visited. The first Mexicans to the country reported arriving on the land, journeying from one place to another, town to town, until suddenly, they were unable to continue along a path. Blocked by a wall which could not be seen. Some claimed the wall was the product of spirit. Some said the travelers brought this fate over, and others said it was a uniquely Japanese magic. They learned there was one solution. Secrets could bring the walls down. The travelers had to give some truth about themselves up, else their journey was over, and they had to return home.
“Did they give up a secret?” I asked Alfonso.
About to tell me, Alfonso stopped to laugh, and suggested a different ending: “Would you?”
I did not explain my relationship with Alfonso to her. No, she wanted to get away from grief. We moved on to different topics with ease—like a spell had fallen upon us. So few people in life make conversation easy and pull from your soul the language and books and narratives you want to share. I almost lamented losing her to the nation once we landed. Even now, for comfort, I can close my eyes and imagine her listening as I confess my troubles and dreams. On that plane, in hushed voices so as not to wake anyone, we ceased being strangers.
As we landed, there was one final ritual to perform, one I nearly forgot.
“It’s Song Wei,” she said.
“My name. All this time and we never asked each other for our names.”
Of course, something as wonderful as a song, as music, defined her name.
“Mine is Carlo.”
The lights rushed on. Passengers quivered from the sudden transformation of noise and energy, the attendants raced down the aisles, they reminded us of the rules, and we prepared for landing. An orchestral track played over the speakers. Slow, it nonetheless had a familiar quality. Bernard Herrmann? They had to be joking. The score belonged to Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Its eerie sound continued after we hit the tarmac and as we exited the plane.
Taking care of Alfonso’s relatives, hearing them talk, and listening to plans for the funeral throughout the day took a lot out of me. That first day, I fell asleep early and easily when I returned to the hotel. By my third day back in Guadalajara, I had adjusted to the time difference and managed to stay awake long enough to enjoy a drink at the hotel bar. I sat across from the bartender, whose long and curly hair bounced as she prepared drinks. After finishing my cocktail and paying my tab, I crossed the lobby to the elevator, and suddenly there was Song, her arm wrapped around a man’s. Dressed in light linen, he looked local enough, while Song Wei wore a blue floral summer dress. We locked eyes, and she waved without an interruption. She hoped to see me later. At least that’s how I interpreted it.
“Excuse me.” I returned to the bartender. “There’s a Japanese woman by the name of Song Wei staying here. If she asks or if she sits at the bar, could you hand this to her?” The bartender nodded, her curly hair falling into her eyes.
I left a note with my name and a suggestion that Song have the concierge call my room. Including the room number felt too intimate, implicating myself as interested in only one thing.
Upstairs, in bed, I mentally reviewed the look the man on Song’s arm had given me. In between these thoughts, I wondered if the bartender would know Song from all the guests in the hotel and if the note would ever be delivered. To my surprise, an answer came at four in the morning. The hotel’s telephone rang. I put the receiver clunkily against my ear.
“Carlo?” Song asked.
“It’s me,” I said through a mistimed yawn. “I saw you earlier and thought if you’d ever like to talk—”
“—Yes,” she interrupted. “I’m in the hotel bar now.”
“Yes, it’s not open, but I have a story to tell you.”
I must have yawned—an instinct from the hour—because she began to sound a bit more urgent.
“Please, Carlo, I do think I can trust you on this matter.”
Two in the morning, seven in the evening, or three in the afternoon. I would have come to her no matter the hour.
Down the elevator, through the lobby, and toward the bar, I passed the bartender who was mopping the floor. She smiled, but I missed her eyes because her hair fell over them again. I turned the corner.
Without people, the bar was anything but a marvel. Brown chairs surrounded three empty glass tables. Earlier, these were occupied by working businessmen and their laptops. The bar itself was a wooden platform with a golden top and a long mirror behind the bottles. Seven barstools fit along it. All but two were flipped up, and Song Wei was sitting on one. Her dress had a quarter-open back. Long, black hair obscured much of her bare skin. If others could see us, it wasn’t hard to fathom Their impressions: questions or snickers about the older woman and a man half her age gathering so late in a closed hotel bar.
Amber light from dusty overhead bulbs filtered the whole bar into filmic twilight. It had the effect of rendering her body as the one piece holding all of reality together. She leaned forward, and in the mirror, I could see her hands resting on the bar, one over one another, her eyes darting forward.
A few seconds passed before I said hello. She turned, and though she had invited me down, and though she should have noticed me in the mirror, she acted a bit startled. The following smile seemed an afterthought.
Her hands did not come apart, and as I came closer to take the seat beside her, I realized it was because her palms held the thin ends of a transparent plastic bag together. Water in the bag came up to half the length of her arm, and in it was a pink axolotl. The salamander looked away from both of us.
“I’m glad to have found you, Carlo,” she said. “I don’t know if I can trust anyone else. It’s not like I have friends or family here.”
I could have snapped back: What about the man? Two of you looked cozy enough.
I stayed quiet.
“I went to visit my son’s living quarters when we landed. Talked to his landlord. Talked to nearby neighbors. Talked to them all in a terrible Spanish that should have me arrested. He was such a quiet and professional man that they didn’t have much to say about his life, personality, or hobbies. All his friends were local cooks at nearby restaurants, and that is where he spent most of his time. I thanked the neighbors and was let inside. A spartan, my son did not seem to give dust a fighting chance. Not that it was hard, the way he lived. Books about food and notebooks filled with recipes were the only real sign a person lived there.”
The axolotl in the bag started moving. Small arms pushed against the bag’s bottom. With a large and wide yawn, it reminded me of the hour.
“I pored through the notes and the writing. My son possessed a variety of talents. Penmanship was not one. Recipes and ideas for dishes require an academic to translate his handwriting. I’m not one. All I have brought back are the legible notes.”
She pointed her nose down. The encouragement led me to notice a small dark purse on her lap. Not wanting to release her grip, she used her nose again to direct me to open it.
“Please, look at the first recipes,” she said.
I opened the purse. Doing so felt intimate. It was filled with banal clutter—makeup, tissues, and tampons—and I had to dig to pull out the papers. Two condoms almost fell out of the bag as I did so. Those did surprise me, and I wondered if she intentionally brought them to Mexico despite the trip’s despondent purpose, or if she always carried those around. I remembered the man on her arm from earlier and shivered to burst the bubbles forming in my loose imagination.
At last, I found the index cards and loose sheets. Most of the recipes described or listed the ingredients of common cuisines. Mole. Aguachile. Cochinita pibil. None of these were so unusual as to require physical study. As local and delicious as they were, these were familiar dishes—a mere Google search away for anyone interested in the nation’s culture. But then I stumbled on the second to last recipe. The poor script would render any interpretation uncertain, and it was difficult to make out what the writer described. All I could decipher was one word: axolotl.
The axolotl in the bag seemed to read my mind. When I looked up, both the amphibian and Song were staring at me.
“I have to ask you a favor,” Song started. A real sense of urgency stole her voice, as if my decision could save or defeat her life. “I found this axolotl in my son’s room. Please watch over it. You saw the card listing it as an ingredient. I must know what my son wanted to make, what he wanted to use it for. It’s the last way to understand him. And, already, there are others who want to know too.”
Song released her hands, and unless I wanted the water and Axolotl to splash to the floor, I had to reach out. With my right hand, I did just that, and caught the top of the bag as the water threatened to spill. My palm became wet. The axolotl swam back to the bottom.
“Thank you,” Song said. She placed both her hands over my left one, looked me in the eye, and said it again. “Thank you.”
Retreating to the room with the bag in hand invited stares from the few night-shift workers. Kind smiles and professional grins from earlier disappeared into accusatory scowls. What could I be doing with such an endangered animal?
Online, I researched how to care for the axolotl. I filled the bath a quarter high and placed the creature inside. I stood there and wondered what I’d gotten myself into. Song promised she would see me tomorrow night, when she had dug around her son’s house a bit more, and when she could confess more about her findings. But what did I know? Even now, I had not learned her son’s name, who that man was, or why she felt the need to turn the axolotl over to me. Not that I was in the practice of asking questions at the right opportunity. Wouldn’t most men have pushed back against a stranger—even one like Song—thrusting a responsibility on them? Wouldn’t most have wondered why a chef from Japan felt the need to cook the poor, endangered amphibian?
Back in the U.S., the axolotl is largely banned. The level of damage they pose to environments outside their own is catastrophic. I did not know if these warnings or legal boundaries applied to Japan. If so, was it the danger or exotic quality of the axolotl that drew in Song and her son?
There were other matters to attend to. In the morning, Alfonso’s mom wanted me to speak with a florist, and a caterer, and a priest to settle the ins and outs of payment. The outsider, she thought, might best negotiate the price. Terrible logic. All she wanted was me to pay. Alfonso, you bastard, if you weren’t my favorite cousin—
The hotel telephone rang. I wondered if Song forgot to mention something, or if she would maybe want to come here. But it wasn’t her. I picked up and sat at the far edge of the bed.
“You’re wrong if you think her son wanted to eat him.”
A woman’s voice? Strong and stern, it wasn’t familiar. The caller continued:
“Her son liked to cook and loved to study recipes, but he wouldn’t eat the axolotl, not after getting to know the little guy. He had common sense.”
From where I sat, I could peek into the bathroom. Over the tub’s edge was the axolotl’s tiny head and pink hand-like claws helping it to hang on. It appeared to eavesdrop.
The caller continued. “Did you know axolotls were named after a god capable of breathing fire and lightning and regenerating its body? Believe it or not, an axolotl can still do two of those things.”
“I believe you.”
“You don’t sound so impressed.”
“I’m more curious how you know so much. How you know I have the axolotl? How you know about Song’s son?”
I rummaged through my luggage on the beside floor. The Death of Ivan Ilyich lay on top of my clothes. The book was the basis for Ikiru. Earlier, I planned to tell Alfonso I read it while in Japan.
“Do you know how important axolotls are in Mexico? You don’t carry one off without half the country speaking about it. People talk. People gossip. And some people? They’ll fight to save the axolotl. Or they’ll fight to kill it. Song’s son attracted all kinds of attention with what he wanted to do. That card in his collection? It is only partly a recipe.”
“What was he doing, then?”
“Attempting to recreate their habitat.”
“Did it work?”
“Not at all. But at least he tried. His home resembled something between an aquarium and a mad scientist’s lab. They have one native habitat left back in Mexico City. Hey, you heading to Mexico City any time soon?”
“Wasn’t planning on it.”
“Well, if you do, drop him off in Lake Xochimilco.”
“If you’re so interested in returning him to the lake, why trust me—a foreigner?”
“Because it’s your choice. She entrusted the axolotl to you. The lake is on its way out, you know. Too much pollution over the years. Because the axolotl can clean it up, and because there are so few things in life like the axolotl that can erase a history of human error.”
“To be honest, it’s not that I don’t trust you, it’s that I can’t quite see how one axolotl is so important. All Song wants is—”
“—Song. Song. Song. Get your sex-deprived mind out of the gutter and listen to me. Unless you want Lake Xochimilco to dry up and die, you can’t give the axolotl to anyone. It’s your choice whether you get him back to the lake. Until you decide his fate, don’t leave him alone at all. And don’t let Song eat him.”
The caller promised she would call each evening to ensure both the axolotl and I were safe. Part of me liked having a discussion to look forward to—even if I didn’t understand it all. Since Alfonso died, I hadn’t talked in-depth with someone.
Well, except for Song.
Because of this lack of practice, I forgave myself for having lost the habit of learning names. The caller came and went without one. I had almost done the same with Song on the plane until she offered it to me in an equal exchange.
But names are important. They are spells unto themselves. Take Lake Xochimilco. In the language of the Aztecs, the name refers to a flower field. (And no, I didn’t just know that. I had to look it up.) My point is that the name—Xochimilco—endures to tell us what was once there. Even if the land no longer looks like that, even if time and evil corrupt the earth and prevent flowers from growing, Xochimilco reminds us of what once was there.
That wasn’t all I found. Unable to fall asleep, I scanned stories about the place.
Lake Xochimilco is the last of a beautiful water network that survives a history prior to Spanish contact. Colorful boats float along the water and gardens grow along these vessels to sustain a forgotten and beautiful agriculture. Once a common sight, the number of boats has dwindled, and the tradition has declined with the lake. I watched a video on YouTube of a farmer who explained the lake was a living and breathing being, dying by coughing its last breaths. The water turned black and wondrous gardens burned up. What was left was all that was left…
The morning came, and with it came the lightheaded hangover of inadequate sleep. But there was no time. I had to visit the florist to prepare the bouquets for Alfonso’s funeral. Unable to shower because the axolotl occupied the bathtub, I simply changed and dressed. I was halfway out the door when the stranger’s warning from last night struck my brain: don’t leave him alone. All I had was the plastic bag from yesterday and, as I transferred him over, I felt the need to apologize.
“I’ll find something more comfortable for you later,” I said.
I walked through the town’s empty streets to a soundtrack of water slapping. Shuk. Shuk. Shuk. Holding onto the axolotl this way, I imagined that the bag would simply slip from my hands. Every few yards, I looked down, saw his smile, and felt relief he was alright in there.
After meeting the pastor and the caterer, I had one last task: ordering bouquets from the florist. Above the blue shop, a bright yellow aluminum sign was half faded, and the business name Flores looked to have been replaced green letter by green letter multiple times until each letter was oddly sized and shaped. On the window was written in white a common slogan: digalo con flores. Say it with flowers.
The inside was anything but falling apart. Black and white tiles looked new, and an art deco chandelier was touched by the sun, sending short shimmers of gold in the few open spaces between orange marigolds and pink dahlias. If Alfonso had a favorite flower, I had no clue. Who knows something like that about their cousin? Marigolds felt too stereotypically Mexican, and I didn’t want to choose a pink flower for a funeral. The florist ignored the axolotl, heard my concerns, and brought out several more plant types and said names I could not catch. The last one she brought out was purple, and she said the name in English: “Mexican petunias.” I agreed to it immediately and was happy to see that she could supply enough for the service. Not many people are interested, she said, and that surprised me given their beauty. Of course, once I paid, she told me the truth. Many in Mexico consider them a weed.
I decided to take a roundabout way back to the hotel, through dusty streets and over incomplete sidewalks. As I passed a bank a block away from the florist’s, I saw a familiar face leaving its entrance. He wore the same linen shirt as the man who held Song’s arm.
The man did a double take upon noticing me and seeing what was in my hand. He squinted to believe what he saw was real. That was all. I kept waiting for his attack, for a word, for him to rush and attempt to steal the creature. It never happened. I watched him move down the street, turn, and disappear.
Inside the bag, the axolotl’s pink face grew worried, as if it sensed what was coming, as if warning me. I was too loose, too carefree, too eager to see Song’s lover turn away. Suddenly, I felt my feet stumble—I had been pushed hard from behind. The bag never had a chance of being saved or held tight. Out of my hands it went, and by the time I regained stable footing, a puddle had melted into the ground. The axolotl flopped around.
“No!” I shouted.
Behind me, two men in wrinkled t-shirts ran forward. One knocked into me and started stomping hard. The other aimed a punch at my face. All I could do was fall to avoid being hit, and the attacker flew forward. The stomping man did not have much luck in crushing the axolotl. He resembled a rhythmless dancer. I stood and charged headfirst. Not much strength was needed—and a good thing because I don’t have it—to launch him back. He staggered into his partner, and the two collapsed to the ground. Their falling reminded me of goofy vaudeville akin to the Three Stooges. But this scene didn’t exist for me to laugh at. While the partners helped each other up, I grabbed the axolotl—a bit too roughly—and started running.
How long could an axolotl live without water? The number was not something I had looked up, or something I wanted to discover. Luckily, I was not far from my hotel and, like a madman, I raced to the fire stairs for the third floor. In the frenzy and worry about reviving my friend, I did not notice that I never used a key to get inside.
The door to my room was already open.
Alone, I drew the axolotl a fresh bath, dropped him in, and relaxed when he dashed from one end to the next. I cleaned a large red lunch container that could replace the plastic bag and better hide him. Surviving the attack evoked my mystery caller’s warning: some people will fight to kill it. I wondered if Song had already cracked this mystery when she forced the axolotl into my hands. When the phone rang, it was the mysterious caller, keeping her promise.
“Are you disappointed it’s not Song?” she asked.
“Only because when I see the axolotl, I think about her, and her son, and this man I saw on her arm. I saw him again.”
“She’s finding all those who knew her son.”
“To get to know him?”
“To know herself. She’s a biting and corrupting force. Part of that is because she’s lost her son, the other part is because when she had him, she took it for granted. She didn’t know how much she polluted the world with her sour thoughts.”
“Isn’t that just grieving? You judge so harshly when the same can be said about me. I lost my cousin, Alfonso, and when he was around…well, I didn’t always realize how important he was to my life. Are my opinions polluting the world?”
“Oh, yes,” said the voice. “And it’s terrible for the environment. Think ill of life and eventually you make life around you sick. You begin to lose sight of what’s important. You begin to forget who you are. You begin to lose your name and the names of others.”
“I keep forgetting to ask for names.”
“Would you like mine?”
I paused. “I don’t deserve your name now because I think…I think I’m sick, if I follow your definition of illness. I think about my cousin who passed. I don’t know what life will be like after the funeral tomorrow. That puts an ending on things, and I’m not like Song. There’s no mystery to unravel. He simply died while I knew him—knew him better than anyone.”
I worried the caller had hung up because the line was too quiet. All I heard was the wave of bath water from the axolotl swimming around. Then, at last, the caller’s breath.
“You’ll remember,” she started, “that there is a tomorrow. Each time you close your eyes, you will get closer to it. Until then, your thoughts are harmful. Remember that.” With that the line was disconnected.
A peace existed in the idea of a tomorrow without the sting of grief. But I also remembered how quick of an intimacy grief inspired on the plane, when Song and I overshared thoughts this caller might classify as pollution. Believing in the caller became much harder when there was a power to sustaining grief, and a time for it.
I didn’t want to leave the axolotl alone to head to the bar or take him away from his happy place. I regarded his smile as a reason to keep my promise to protect him. I ordered a mezcal sour to the room. Before long, there came a knock, and the barwoman handed me the cocktail. I watched the woman leave. There was a couple at the end of the hall. They were embracing, holding one another close, and when they kissed it was as the last step in a procedure. Now they could stumble inside the room. The woman, while I wasn’t sure, looked like Song.
Song was immune to normal, waking hours. She came to my room exactly twenty-four hours after our meeting in the bar. She marched straight in and looked toward the bathroom.
“The axolotl is alright?” she asked. She watched it swim back and forth. “Workers in the hotel told me you had quite the scare.”
“Two men attacked me and tried to take him.”
“Word gets out when it comes to these strange things. A woman at the bar told me she saw you run inside without the bag and I…I guess I worried.”
“You couldn’t be too worried,” I snapped. “To come at this hour. To not even ask about my state.”
“I only heard the story a few minutes ago. I was preoccupied until then.”
“Bet you were,” I let slip, succumbing to a jealousy I had no right to claim.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Song cried. “I am searching for something my son uncovered, something to bring me closer to him in this foreign place.”
“Maybe…” I sighed. “Maybe I just didn’t know that watching the axolotl was going to invite some people to attack me—and it.”
“My son wrote in his notes that the axolotl cleans the world. It eats the very things that poison humanity. For some, it’s easier to see the world suffer.”
“And yet, you still want to eat it? I heard your son wanted to save it. He tried to build it a habitat. He tried to—”
“—My son wanted to eat it…and…I am close to understanding my son. Another day. I promise Carlo…I promise it’ll be worth your while.”
Song did not stay over. We did not collapse into the bed as I imagined she’d done. She simply hugged me close, and in that embrace I felt strange. Intermixed with a lust for her I recalled the longing to speak with Alfonso, to share criticisms about life, and simply laugh.
I brought the axolotl to the funeral. What else could I do? Dressed in a black suit, I must have seemed a strange sight with the red container like a toy in my grip. However, the guests, perhaps simply polite, never said a word as they passed me, apologized for the loss, and regarded Alfonso’s body at the far end of the church. The exception was Alfonso’s mother, who asked to look inside the container. She smiled when she saw the axolotl’s smile, and confessed a truth:
“The axolotl is named after a god. In some stories, this god guided people to Mictlān—the underworld.”
I didn’t ask her what happened there because we were summoned forward. Alfonso’s funeral began.
My hotel room was trashed. Did I expect anything different? Sheets thrown to the ground, the bed torn apart, my suitcases searched and clothes everywhere. Books open, laptop gone, even the lint from my jacket inspected. I was thankful they had left my passport—stealing was not their goal. I should have hurried out, except I knew the axolotl needed to breathe again. I had brought new water to the tub and did not want to risk removing him too soon. I shoved the dresser near the door for security and waited out the rest of the day.
The female stranger’s call came in that short hour before evening.
“Everything is heading toward ruin,” I said. “Someone searched through my room!”
“Your thoughts!” she cried.
“All this for a single, damn axolotl?”
“Didn’t you hear me? They’re important to the country and its history. Some people will—”
“—Yeah, yeah. Some people will fight to kill it. They’re not so innocent. They’re banned back home in the states because of the environmental danger they pose. I’ve had enough of your warnings. I’m tired of strangers attacking me for carrying him around. I’m tired of not having help. I’m tired of a stranger calling me.”
“Control your thoughts.”
“What is that doing? Nothing I think will kill the lake or the axolotl or even me. What’s there will be there tomorrow, and if it’s not, it won’t be my doing.”
“I can’t speak to you if you’re like this. You’re twisting my words.”
I sighed. It calmed me. Alone, I didn’t want to lose this companion too.
“You remind me of Song.”
“Remind you? Earlier you mentioned her son, and you talk about her like…like you know her well.”
“Do you still trust me?”
“I just want less mystery. Everything in Mexico so far is mystery after mystery.”
“That’s life for you. Take Song as a warning. She’s disappeared into her thoughts and that made her disappear into others. She needs another’s touch to remember reality.”
“She told me the best time to remember someone is when you’re happy or sad.”
“She’s wrong. The best time is when you need to.”
“All I know is I saw her again in the arms of another guy.”
“There’s nothing wrong with love. There’s something wrong when it’s used to distract from the pollution you’re creating.”
I closed my eyes. Lake Xochimilco came to mind, and I pictured colorful flowers decorating boats slowly skimming along the surface. As the scene played out, the ship broke down, the flowers lost their color, and the lake its water. Left was waste and sewage and dirt. Flopping in this disaster were several other axolotls. If I opened my eyes, then the sad state of the lake would have convinced me of the caller’s wisdom. But I didn’t.
The scene continued to unfold. Alone beside the lake, I pictured myself leaning over its edge. The waste and sewage vanished. Water started rising. The floating gardens returned. And soon, the water’s deep hue reflected my face.
Song’s son wanted to recreate the axolotl’s habitat, the caller had said. Achieving the goal would have given them another chance for survival. It didn’t work but he tried, and that was the beauty of it. Song may have been wrong for simplifying her son’s ambition, wrong for ignoring how he aspired to heal a piece of the world, but the caller was just as wrong for pushing me to focus foremost on the disasters we humans create. Some may want to kill the axolotl, but some—the caller said—would fight to save it.
To hell with both of them—I decided—I was going to save it.
The caller said nothing else. She hung there, her breath audible until it wasn’t, until she hung up.
Song came again at four in the morning. A large grin stretched across her face, and she held up an index card filled with neat Japanese script—her own hand. In this state of enthusiasm, the room’s mess never crossed her mind.
“I spoke with another of my son’s friends. Through them, I was able to comb out what my son wanted to make with the axolotl.”
Her voice grew increasingly excited. Her plan was becoming complete.
“I also spoke with the hotel. They agreed to let me use the kitchen. Come down in thirty minutes with the axolotl. Everything must be fresh.” She squealed like a child and hugged and kissed me on the neck. Days ago, I would have been relieved to see Song take the axolotl, to have felt myself thrown into the game of chance where my desires might be met with reality. Instead, I watched her leave and was even sadder.
I waited in the room, watching the thirty minutes shrink on my phone’s clock. I don’t know why I waited as long as I did. Did I expect the stranger to call me? She never did. I picked up the hotel phone to request a car from the concierge, as fast as possible.
I never heard from Song. I wondered what thoughts crossed her mind as I betrayed her wish. Perhaps failing at the recipe, being unable to cook the axolotl, made her feel closer to her son. I never heard from the other strange woman, though I glanced often at my cellphone, half-expecting to read unknown caller on the screen. I would smile because I knew otherwise, because I knew I would lift it up and hear her again. That vision never transpired.
I drove to Mexico City and chartered a bus to take me to Lake Xochimilco. When I stepped off the bus, the air was cool, refreshed by an earlier rain. Sad-looking trees swayed away from us. The sight resembled what I saw in the video: beautiful but vanishing.
A man I recognized stood at the edge of a short pier. It was too late to retreat. I tightened my grip on the axolotl’s container. Dressed in a white linen shirt, sleeves folded high onto his arms, he regarded me with equal familiarity.
“I recognize you,” he said. “From?”
“From a hotel outside Guadalajara. You were on the arm of a woman I met. I saw you again near a bank.”
Instinctively, my arm came halfway across my body, reliving the suddenness and survival of the earlier attack against me. He waited for my anxious energy to slow before continuing.
“That’s some memory. You saw me on the arm of Song?”
“Well, I do remember your eyes—jealous and mean. You loved her?”
“I didn’t know her. Actually, I just met her days before.”
“She was a strange woman. It would be easy to say yes. Even, as you say, without knowing her.”
“And you hardly knew her?”
“She was the mother to a friend of mine. He was a curious fellow. Came from Japan and swore he would learn all the recipes of Mexico and perfect them and study them and bring them back to Japan. He was a hell of a cook. But he stumbled on an ancient recipe from the old world. Axolotl. None of his friends wanted him to cook one. He believed it worth trying. Where would he even get an axolotl, we wondered? Well, turns out at his front door. He found one that had escaped from a failed sanctuary.”
“I kept hearing he didn’t want to cook him, that he had other plans.”
“You’ve got it. That’s what happened. My friend changes his mind. He swears he won’t cook or eat him. He swears he’s looking into a way to save him. There’s just one place for him, though. Here, at Lake Xochimilco. Axolotls don’t have a natural habitat beyond it.”
The lake spread before us. A yellow boat floated along, and a worker on board put the tips of his fingers to the surface. Tiny ripples dragged along. My new acquaintance continued the story:
“I told her what I knew, but Song did not believe her son came to this conclusion. She liked to think he was simply a cook, not someone caught up in the world’s struggles. Completing the recipe might just…I don’t know…I don’t know what she expected. I have to confess; I watched the axolotl after his death. Yet she found me, and she took me to bed, and convinced me to surrender him to her.”
“She woke one morning, and I remember her crying about her son. I never felt worse for sleeping with my friend’s mother than that moment. She cried and cried. The water fell to the floor. But here’s the thing, I tried to hug her, to help her, and couldn’t. The room around me looked like this lake a hundred years from now. Tainted. Gone. Everything became dust. She ran out with the axolotl. When I saw her again the following day, she was almost a different woman. She looked at me the way one might upon the world ending. Do you think she could move past the heartbreak of her son dying?”
I paused. “I think she’ll have to,” I said. “A stranger recently told me enough disaster, enough pollution in the mind, can destroy one from the inside. I’m learning the same is true for me and my loss.”
I would be heading back to the U.S. soon. No job and no story about Japan and no cousin to call when I needed.
I opened the red container, lifted the axolotl carefully, and released him into the lake. Not a moment passed before he disappeared beneath the dark water. I stood watching, and after some time, the man shook my hand and left.
Boats passed. The moon came out of hiding. Under its glow, the lake and its floating gardens already looked that much greener. I stayed watching. Not because I thought the axolotl would return, but because I realized I had never felt so alone.
Sarah Audsley is a Korean American poet from rural Vermont. A graduate of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, her debut book of poetry Landlock X (Texas Review Press, 2023) explores the intricacies of being an adoptee not only through the textures of language but also visual arts crafts, such as collage. Deeply pastoral, and with the sense of the handmade, her poems aim to unstitch ideas of identity and what it means to be American today.
FWR: I’d like to begin by asking if you could talk about the use of the x symbol in your poems. Throughout the book it’s used to stand for an unknown variable, but also signals the X chromosome, multiplication, reincarnation, and erasure and absence, as well as the speaker herself. Can you tell me a little about where you got this idea from, and how it developed throughout the process of writing the book?
Sarah Audsley: Yes, the symbol “X” is doing a lot of work in the book. The manuscript went through several revisions and through that process I realized I needed (and wanted) a thread that connected the poems across the three sections. The concept of being a landlocked person, someone who is separated from and not touching water, or, in the case of the adoptee, separated from their origins, came to me and then it all clicked into place. The “X”, as you mentioned, is many things, but I also wanted to consider all the variables that make up a life, in particular, all the (un)known variables (and therefore consequences) of adoption. In the revision process, I was guided by two of the earliest poems in the collection: ‘When My Mother Returns as X” and ‘Origins & Forms: Eight Sijos.’ I think it’s remarkable how the writer can only see the breadcrumbs she’s already written for herself after some distance and perspective. So, all I can really say is that I followed the trail I’d left for myself.
FWR: Mathematics in general is also a recurring motif in the book, especially in the poems ‘Origins & Forms: Eight Sijos’ and ‘Continuum’. Can you tell me more about your interest in math?
Sarah Audsley: Mathematics does recur throughout the collection, which I think is spurred on, partly, by the symbol “X.” Honestly, I am pretty horrible at math, which may be why, in poems, I’m interested in the field of study purely from a theoretical standpoint. I am also thinking about how the speaker of the poems is one adoptee among so many. Numbers are only able to tell one kind of narrative. How do we calculate our decision making? How do we face the totality of so many relinquished and exported children? The last sentence– “I am all those mathematical distances”–in ‘Origins & Forms: Eight Sijos” somehow, in the context of the adoptee narrative, makes sense to me. Finally, I think the subconscious and the poet’s obsessions with certain ideas, is how themes like mathematics recur; it’s really not an overtly conscious process.
FWR: I loved how many of your poems incorporated the color yellow – as a woman of color I love writing about color! – but in particular I loved how you reclaimed the color from its racial connotations, such as in the poems ‘It Was a Yellow Light’ and ‘Broken Palette :: a retrospective in panels’. Could you talk more about your intentions around this?
Sarah Audsley: Yes, the color yellow is featured prominently in the collection and becomes one of the important threads throughout. “Crown of Yellow”, a poem early in the collection, was an important poem and began my exploration of the color yellow. I leaned into exploring the ways the color yellow recurred in my memory bank. I also did some research on its historical use and picked up art books on color theory. I am glad the reclamation of the color yellow resonated with you. As an Asian American, it is an important color to consider. I wanted to explore “yellow” not just in a racial context (which is so important), but also in art and culture, and to also mine my own memories and associations with the color.
FWR: You’re also a self-described rural poet. How would you say place and/or the pastoral influence your writing?
Sarah Audsley: “The rural poet” seems like it is in contention with “the city poet.” For me, maybe it is! Because, for me, place and my connection to place is essential. I enjoy visiting cities and being an interloper in city life, but I will always choose to live in a rural place. Walking my dog three times a day, cross country skiing in the winter, and hiking in the mountains in the summer, offsets all the daily computer grind. I like to think, too, that it feeds the work. To put it in another way, I’m a better poet if I’ve spent some time outside noticing and moving in the woods. The natural world offers me a sense of belonging. So, of course, this will appear in the poems. As for the pastoral poetry tradition, two poets and influences come to mind: Vievee Francis and the “anti-pastoral” poems in Forest Primeval, and Jennifer Chang’s Bread Loaf Lecture, “Other Pastorals: Writing Race and Place” (June 2019, available here.)
FWR: One of the major threads throughout the collection is the narrative of the speaker as a Korean American adoptee in search of her birth family. The quietly devastating ‘On Meeting My Biological Father’ is contrasted with poems on the possibility of meeting a half-sister, and meditations on the speaker’s deceased birth mother. While the process of searching for a birth family as an adoptee must understandably be a difficult and complex one, the book ends on a positive note with the speaker contemplating her mother’s reincarnation. What was the process of writing these poems like for you and where do you sit now with your relationship to your birth family?
Sarah Audsley: I am grateful for the opportunity to write and to think deeply about adoption (my own) and how it is situated within the larger adoption industrial complex. My relationship to adoption, and my birth family, and the term ‘family,’ in general, is not fixed in any way. Instead, I think it will continue to evolve and change over time. Landlock X is just one attempt at grappling with it all. I hope the collection adds to the ongoing conversation around adoption, and I’m pleased to offer it as one more voice contributing to adoptee poetics. (Check out The Starlings Collective.)
FWR: It’s clear that visual arts is a large part of your practice, as the book is scattered with many photos and documents in English and Korean associated with your adoption process, such as the average measurements for Korean children, or advice on creating cross stitches to ‘celebrate your Korean American culture.’ In response you’ve altered these texts with additional text or drawings or photos to create a kind of documentary collage. Can you talk a bit about how art inspires your poetry and your process around it? Are there any multidisciplinary artists in particular who inspired you?
Sarah Audsley: The visual components in Landlock X are important to the overall conception of the project, but they came later in the manuscript’s evolution. (I very much feel like I dabble in the visual arts and have not achieved any sort of mastery in that field.) As I was revising the manuscript, I turned towards collage, which makes sense to me as a way to access and interrogate texts through visual elements. The visual components (visopo or visual poetry) provided a way to examine and interrogate my adoption records in a new way that the traditional lyric and narrative poems could not. (Sometimes we just don’t have the words. Sometimes the image functions louder than the words. Then, the combination of the two creates a new alchemy. Here, I am still experimenting, and that feels freeing.)
In many ways, these files and records of my adoption are one form of my inheritance. I think of the collages as a transformation and reclamation of that inheritance. My parents diligently kept an archive of my adoption records and associated paperwork in file folders in a filing cabinet in the basement of our house. Working with them was a natural evolution in the writing process. The collages in Landlock X complete the overall vision for the book, and I’m grateful that Texas Review Press included them. Some influences and books that inspire me (some for their inventive use of text and image): Cleave by Tiana Nobile, Hour of the Ox by Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello, Ghost of by Diana Khoi Nguyen, Litany for the Long Moment by Mary-Kim Arnold, Dictee by Theresa Hak Kyung, Olio by Tyehimba Jess, and many more. (One more thing: adoption records are not always reliable or accessible, and in some cases they do not exist at all.)
FWR: One of the biggest nods you give to your love of ekphrasis is the structure of the book, which is divided into three sections — one for each of the words of the ekphrastic poem ‘Field Dress Portal,’ which you wrote in response to a friend’s painting. Can you tell me more about this collaboration and why you chose to structure the book this way?
Sarah Audsley: ‘Field Dress Portal’ is an important poem for me. Structurally, I wanted the collection to hinge on that poem, which is why it appears about half-way. ‘Field’ represents all the nature elements and the interrogation of the pastoral mode that recurs throughout. ‘Dress’ represents performative actions, costumes, exteriors, looking at something at face value, etc. ‘Portal’ represents transformation, metaphor, moving beyond this reality into another…So, these section titles provided structure and also each carried, in my mind, their own meanings. They also function like a triptych, which I really like, and they also helped me sequence the manuscript and to place the three erasures.
The poem uses the painting ‘Field Dress’ by Lauren Woods as a jumping off point. I watched the painting change over time as the painter posted images on social media and I was enamored. We’ve never met. We’ve only exchanged a few notes here and there when the poem was published in the New England Review. The ekphrasis mode feels challenging. It also makes sense to me as a way to engage with art, and to practice seeing and describing. It is another way to connect beyond the self. However, what fascinates me is how the selective process of describing actually reveals something of the speaker’s inner workings, their perceptions. In this way, ekphrasis as litmus test, is another way into the mind of the speaker of the poem, and, also, into the mind and heart of the poet.
Mónica Gomery is a rabbi and a poet based in Philadelphia. Chosen for the 2021 Prairie Schooner Raz-Shumaker Book Prize in Poetry, judged by Kwame Dawes, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, and Hilda Raz, her second collection, Might Kindred (University of Nebraska Press, 2022) skillfully interrogates God, queer storytelling, ancestral influences, and more.
FWR: Would you tell us about the book’s journey from the time it won the Prairie Schooner Raz-Shumaker Book Prize to when it was published? In what ways did the manuscript change?
MG: The manuscript didn’t change too much from submission to publication, though it changed a lot as I worked on it in the years prior to submitting it. Kwame Dawes is a very caring editor, and he really gave the poems space to breathe. His edits largely came in the form of questions. They were more about testing to see if I had thought through all of my decisions, guiding me toward consistency. The copy editing at the end was surprisingly tough. I realized how sculptural poetry is for me, how obsessive I am about the shape of poems on the page, and the visual elements of punctuation and lineation. I spent hours making decisions about individual commas – putting them in, taking them out, putting them back in… This was where I felt the finality of the book as an object. I experience a poem almost as a geological phenomenon, a shifting ground that responds to tectonic movement beneath it, a live landscape that moves between liquid and solid. Finalizing the details of these poems meant freezing them into form, and it was hard to let go of their otherwise perpetual malleability.
The last poem to enter the book came really late. I wrote “Because It Is Elul” in the summer of 2021. Right at the last possible moment, I sent Kwame two or three new poems that I was excited about and asked if he thought I could add them. He told me to pick one new poem and add it to the book, and otherwise, to take it easy – that these new poems were for the next collection, and to believe that there would be a next collection. That was a moment of deeply skilled mentorship; his ability to transmit a trust and assurance that this wouldn’t be the end, that we’re always writing toward the next project, the next iteration of who we’re becoming as artists. It meant a lot to hear this from such an incredible and prolific writer. It settled me and helped me feel the book could be complete.
FWR: When did you first start submitting Might Kindred to publishers and contests? I would love to hear about your relationship with rejection and any strategies you may have for navigating it in your writing life.
MG: I started writing the poems in Might Kindred in 2017 and began submitting the manuscript as a whole in 2021. I’m a slow drafter, and it’ll take me years to complete a poem. So too for a manuscript – the process feels extremely messy while I’m in it, but I’ve learned that what’s needed is time, and the willingness to go back to the work and try again. With my first round of rejections, I wondered if I’d compost the entire manuscript and turn to something to new, or if I’d go back in and refine it again. The rejections rolled in, but along with them came just enough encouragement to keep me going – kind reflections from editors, being a finalist multiple times – and then Kwame Dawes called to tell me Might Kindred was accepted by Prairie Schooner for the Raz/Shumaker Prize.
On my better days, I think rejection is not just an inevitable part of the creative process, but a necessary one. Which isn’t to say that I always handle rejection with equanimity. But it has a way of pulling me back to the work with new precision. It generates a desire in me to keep listening to the poem, to learn more about the poem. In some ways, this is the only thing that makes me feel I can submit in the first place – the knowledge that if a poem isn’t quite ready, it’ll come through in the process. It’ll boomerang back for another round of revision. Rejection removes the pressure to be certain that a poem is done.
Jay Deshpande once told me that every morning, a poet wakes up and asks themselves: Am I real? Is what I’m doing real? And that no matter the poet’s accomplishments, the charge behind the question doesn’t change. So, we have to cultivate a relationship to our practice as writers that’s outside of external sources of permission or validation. Jay offered that the poet’s life is a slow, gradual commitment to building relationships with readers – which I understood as an invitation to pace myself and remember to see the long arc of a writing life, as opposed to any singular moment in time that defines one’s “success” as a writer. I try to remember this when I come up against my own urgency to be recognized, or my tenderness around rejection. I want to write for the long haul, so, I have to try and value each small bright moment along the way. Every time I find out that someone who I don’t already know has read one of my poems, my mind is completely blown. Those are the moments when poetry is doing its thing– building community between strangers, reaching across space and time to connect us. And I think that’s what makes us real as poets.
FWR: In “Immigrant Elegy for Avila,” you refer to mountain as a language. You return to the imagery in “God Queers The Mountain”. Would you talk a little about how the mountain came to be a part of your creative life?
MG: Some of it is memory work. As a child, my relationship to Venezuela, when I reach for it in my mind’s eye, had to do with feeling very small in the presence of things that were very large– driving through the valley of El Ávila to get to my grandparents’ houses, swimming in enormous oceans. Since this book reaches back toward those childhood memories, and wonders about being a person from multiple homelands, the mountain started showing up as a recurring presence. The mountain was a teacher, imparting certain truths to me by speaking to me “in a mountain language” that I received, but couldn’t fully translate. This is what it feels like, to me, to be a child of immigrants–– all this transmission of untranslatable material.
Some of it is also collective memory, or mythic memory work. The mountain in “God Queers the Mountain” is Sinai, where the Jewish people received Torah and our covenant with God. That poem seeks to reclaim Mt. Sinai as a site of queer divinity and queer revelation. Similarly, this feels like an experienced truth that’s not easily rendered into English.
On the cover of Might Kindred is a painting by Rithika Merchant, depicting a person’s silhouette with a natural scene inside of them. The scene crests on a hilltop and overlooks the peak of a mountain, painted right there at the heart of the mind. The mountain in the painting is against a thick night sky, full of constellations and a red harvest moon. I can’t tell you how true this painting feels to me. Going back to Mt Sinai for a moment, in Torah it’s the meeting point between earth and heaven, where the divine-human encounter happens. It’s a liminal, transitional space, where each realm can touch the other, and it’s where the people receive their relationship to the divine through language, mediated by text. I love the claim, made by Merchant’s painting, that this meeting point between earth and sky, human and heavenly, however we want to think about, lives within each of our bodies. The possibility of earth touching heaven, and heaven touching earth, these are longings that appear in the collection, played out through language, played out at the peak of the mountain.
FWR: I love that “Prologue” is the eighth poem in the collection. Some poets may have chosen to open the collection with this poem, grounding the reader’s experience with this imagery. What drove your choice of placement? How do you generally go about ordering your poems?
MG: You’re the first person to ask me this, Urvashi, and I always wondered if someone would! Ordering a collection both plagues and delights me. I’m doing it again now, trying to put new poems into an early phase of a manuscript. Lately I’m struggling because every poem feels like it should be the first poem, and the placement of a poem can itself be a volta, moving the book in a new direction. The first handful of poems, maybe the first section, are like a seed– all the charged potential of the book distilled and packed tightly within those opening pages, waiting to be watered and sunned, to bloom and unfold. There’s a lot of world-building that happens at the beginning of a poetry collection, and one of the rules in the world of Might Kindred is the non-linearity of time. By making “Prologue” the eighth poem, I was hoping to set some rules for how time works in the book, and to acknowledge the way a book, like a person, begins again and again.
At one point, I had Might Kindred very neatly divided by subject: a section on Venezuela, a section on Queerness, a section rooted in American cities, a section about my body, etc. I shared it with my friend Sasha Warner-Berry, whose brilliance always makes my books better. She told me, “The poems are good, but the ordering is terrible.” Bless her! I really needed that. Then she said, “You think you need to find subject-based throughlines between your poems, to justify the collection, but the throughline is you. Trust the reader to feel and understand that.” It was a mic drop. I went back to the drawing board, and ordering became an intuitive process: sound-based, sense-based, like composing a musical playlist.
I want to think about the space a reader inhabits at the end of each poem. I want to feel and listen into that silence, tension, or question, and then respond to it, expand upon it, or juxtapose it, with what comes next. I also used some concrete tools. I printed each poem out as a half-pager, so that it was tiny and easy to move around on a floor or wall. I marked and color-coded each poem with core motifs, images, and recurring themes. This helped me pull poems together that spoke to one another, and also to spread out and braid the themes. Similarly, I printed out a table of contents, and annotated it, to have that experience of categorizing poems from a birds-eye-view.
FWR: There are four poems, scattered throughout the book, titled “When My Sister Visits”. These short poems are some of the most elusive and haunting poems in the text. Would you tell us about the journey of writing these linked poems?
MG: These poems began after a visit I’d had with my friend and mentor, Aurora Levins-Morales. I hadn’t seen her in a long time, and I was living in Chicago, where I didn’t have a lot of close people around me. Aurora came to town, and we did what we always do– sit and talk. On this visit, she also showed me around her childhood neighborhood in Chicago, including the house she’d lived in as a teenager, and the streets she’d walked as a young feminist, activist, and poet. It was a very nourishing visit, and afterward when I sat down to write, the first words that came to me were, “When my sister visits…” This was interesting because Aurora isn’t my sister. She’s my elder, teacher, and friend, so I knew something about the word sister was working in a different way for me, almost as a verb. What does it mean to be sistered by someone or something? This question came up recently in a reading I did with Raena Shirali. Beforehand, we both noticed the recurring presence of sisters in one another’s books, and we deliciously confessed to each other over a pre-reading drink that neither one of us has a biological sister. The word sister has a charge to it, I think especially for women.
At first, I wrote one long poem, excavating the presence of a shadow sister in my life who appears to accompany me and reflect parts of myself back to me, especially parts of me that I think shouldn’t be seen or given voice to. This sister embodies my contradictions, she asks hard questions. I was drawn to writing about her, somehow through that visit with Aurora, in which I felt that I belonged with someone, but that the belonging was fraught, or pointed me back to my own fraughtness.
This poem was published in Ninth Letter in the winter of 2020, under the title “Visit,” and I thought it was finished! Later, I worked with Shira Erlichman on revising the poems that became Might Kindred. Shira invited me to return to seemingly completed poems and crack them open in new ways. Shira’s amazing at encouraging writers to stay surprised. It’s very humbling and generative to work with her. So, I chopped the original sister poem up into smaller poems and kept writing new ones… Shira advised me to write fifty! This gave me the freedom to approach them as vignettes, which feels truer to my experience of this sister in my life– she comes and goes, shows up when she wants to. She’s a border-crosser and a traverser of continents, she speaks in enigma and gets under my skin, into my clothes and hair. Bringing her into the book as a character felt more accurate when this poem became a series of smaller poems, each one almost a puzzle or a riddle.
FWR: Ancestors, especially grandmothers, have a powerful presence in these poems. What did you discover in the course of writing these poems? What made you return to these characters over and over?
MG: In Hebrew, the words av and em mean father and mother, and also originator, ancestor, author, teacher. The word for “relation” is a constellation of relationships, which expands the way we might think about our origins. This helps me find an inherent queerness at work in the language of family– how many different ways we may be ancestored by others. And at the core of their etymology, both words mean to embrace, to press, to join. I love this image of what an ancestor is: one who embraces us, envelopes or surrounds us, those whose presences are pressed up against us. We are composite selves, and I think I’m often reaching for the trace of those pressed up against me in my writing.
Might Kindred is driven by a longing for connection. Because the book is an exploration of belonging, and the complexity of belonging in my own life, ancestors play a vital role. There are ancestral relationships in the book that help the speaker anchor into who she is and who and what she belongs to, and there are ancestral relationships in the book that are sites of silence, uncertainty, and mystery, which unmoor and complicate the possibility to belong.
Also, belonging is a shifting terrain. I wrote Might Kindred while my grandmother was turning 98, 99, then 100, then 101. In those years, I was coming to accept that I would eventually have to grieve her. I think there was an anticipatory grieving I started to do through the poems in this book. My grandmother was the last of her generation in my family, she was the keeper of memories and languages, the bridge from continent to continent, the many homes we’ve migrated between. Writing the book was a way of saying goodbye to her and to the worlds she held open for me. There are many things I say in the pages of Might Kindred, addressed to my grandmother, that I couldn’t say to her in life. I wasn’t able to come out to her while she was alive, and in some ways the book is my love letter to her. The queerness, the devotion, the longing for integration, the scenes from her past, our shared past, the way it’s all woven together… maybe it’s a way of saying: I am of you, and the obstacles the world put between us don’t get the final word.
Lastly, I’ll just say, there are so many ways to write toward our ancestors. For me, there’s a tenderness, a reverence, and an intimacy that some of these poems take on, but there’s also tension and resistance. Some of the poems in the book are grappling with the legacies of assimilation to whiteness that have shaped my family across multiple journeys of immigration – from Eastern Europe to Latin America, from Latin America to the US. I harbor anger, shame, heartbreak, disappointment, confusion, and curiosity about these legacies, and poetry has been a place where I can make inquiries into that whole cocktail, where I can ask my ancestors questions, talk back to them, assert my hopes for a different future.
FWR: Three of your newer poems appear in Issue 25 of Four Way Review and I am intrigued by the ways in which there’s been this palpable evolution since Might Kindred. Is that how you see it too, that you’re writing from a slightly different place, in a slightly altered register?
MG: Yes, I do think there’s a shift in register, though I’d love to hear more about it from your perspective! I know something of what’s going on with my new writing, but I’m also too telescoped into it to really see what’s really happening.
I can definitely feel that the first poem, “Consider the Womb,” is in a different register. It’s less narrative, equally personal but differently positioned, it’s exploring the way a poem can make an argument, which has a more formal tone, and is newer terrain for me. It uses borrowed texts, research and quotations as a lens or screen through which to ask questions. I’m interested in weaving my influences onto the page more transparently as I write new poems. This poem is also more dreamlike, born from the surreal. It’s holding questions about the body, generativity, gender roles and tradition, blood, birth and death, the choice to parent or not. I think the poem is trying to balance vulnerability with distance, the deeply personal with the slightly detached. Something about that balance is allowing me to explore these topics right now.
The other two poems take on major life milestones: grieving a loss and getting married. I’m thinking of some notes I have from a workshop taught by Ilya Kaminsky – “the role of poetry is to name things as if for the first time.” Loss and marriage… people have been writing poems about them for thousands of years! But metabolizing these experiences through poetry gives me the chance to render them new, to push the language through my own strange, personal, subjective funnel. Kaminsky again: “The project of empire is the normative. The project of poetry is the non- normative.” There are so many normative ways to tell these stories. Ways to think about marriage and death that do nothing to push against empire. I think my intention with these two poems was not to take language for granted as I put them onto the page.
FWR: Is there a writing prompt or exercise that you find yourself returning to? What is a prompt you would offer to other poets?
MG: I once learned from listening to David Naimon’s podcast Between the Covers about a writing exercise Brandon Shimoda leads when teaching, and it’s stayed with me as a favorite prompt. He would have his class generate 30 to 50 questions they wanted to ask their ancestors, and go around sharing them aloud, one question at a time, “Until it felt like the table was spinning, buoyed by the energy of each question, and the accumulation of all the questions.”
As you pointed out, writing with, toward, and even through, my ancestors, is a theme of Might Kindred, and I think it’s one of the alchemical transformations of time and space that poetry makes possible. I love Shimoda’s process of listing questions to ancestors, which feels both like a writing exercise and a ritual. It draws out the writer’s individual voice, and also conjures the presence of other voices in the room.
I’ve used this exercise when teaching, credited to Shimoda, and have added a second round– which I don’t know if he’d endorse, so I want to be clear that it’s my addition to his process– which is to go around again, students generating a second list of questions, in response to, “What questions do your ancestors have for you?” I’m interested in both speaking to our ancestors and hearing them speak to us, especially mediated through questions, which can so beautifully account for those unfillable gaps we encounter when we try to communicate with the dead.
In Might Kindred, there’s a poem called “Letter to Myself from My Great Grandmother” that was born from this kind of process. It’s in my ancestor’s voice, and she’s asking questions to me, her descendent. My book shared a pub day with Franny Choi’s The World Keeps Ending, and the World Goes On, which I think is an astonishing collection. In it, she has a poem called “Dispatches from a Future Great-Great-Granddaughter.” In the poem she’s made herself the ancestor, and she’s receiving a letter, not from the past but from the future, questions addressed to her by her future descendent. I’m in awe of this poem. She models how ancestor writing can engage both the future and the past, and locate us in different positions– as descendent, ancestor, as source or recipient of questions. The poem contains so many powerful renderings and observations of the world we live in now– systems, patterns, failings, attempts. She could have articulated all of these in a poem speaking from the present moment, in her own present voice. But by positioning her writing voice in the future, she creates new possibilities, and as a reader, I’m able to reflect on the present moment differently. I feel new of kinds of clarity, compassion, and heartbreak, reading toward myself from the future.
These are the questions I return to, that I’d offer other writers: Think of an ancestor. What’s one question you have for them? What’s one question they have for you? Start listing, and keep going until you hit fifteen, thirty, or fifty. Once you have a list, circle one question, and let it be the starting point for a poem. Or, grab five, then fill in two lines of new text between each one. Just write with your questions in whatever way you feel called to.
FWR: Who are some of your artistic influences at the moment? In what ways are they shaping your creative thoughts and energy?
MG: Right now, I’m feeling nourished by writers who explore the porous borders between faith and poetry, and whose spiritual or religious traditions are woven through their writing in content and form. Edmond Jabés is a beacon, for the way he gave himself permission to play with ancient texts, to reconstruct them and drop new voices into old forms – his Book of Questions is one I return to again and again. I love how he almost sneaks his way back into the Jewish canon, as though his poems were pseudepigraphic, as though he’s claiming his 20th century imagined rabbis are actually excavated from somewhere around the second or third centuries of Jewish antiquity. I’ll never stop learning from his work.
Other writers along these lines who are inspiring me right now include Leila Chatti, Alicia Ostriker, Alicia Jo Rabins, Dujie Tahat, Eve Grubin, and Mohja Khaf. Kaveh Akbar, both for his own poems and for his editorial work on The Penguin Book of Spiritual Verse. Joy Ladin, whose writing is a guidelight for me. Rilke, for his relentless attempts to seek the unlanguageable divine with the instrument of language. I’m trying to write on the continuum between ancient inherited texts and contemporary poetry. These writers seem to live and create along that continuum.
I’m also reading Leora Fridman’s new collection of essays, Static Palace, and Raena Shirali’s new book of poems, Summonings. Both books merge the lyrical with the rigor of research; both are books that return me to questions of precision, transparency, and a politicized interrogation of the self through writing. On a different note, I’m thinking a lot these days about how to open up “mothering,” as a verb, to the multitude of ways one might caretake, tend, create, and teach in the world. As I do that, I return to the poems of Ada Limón, Marie Howe, and Ama Codjoe. And lastly, I’m trading work-in-progress with my friends and writing siblings. On a good day, it’s their language echoing around in my head. Right now, this includes Rage Hezekiah, Sally Badawi, emet ezell, and Tessa Micaela, among others. This is the biggest gift – the language of my beloveds doing its work on me.
Karisma Price is a poet, screenwriter, and media artist. Her work has appeared in Oxford American, Poetry, Four Way Review, wildness, Adroit Journal, and elsewhere. She is a Cave Canem Fellow, was a finalist for the 2019 Manchester Poetry Prize, and was awarded the 2020 J. Howard and Barbara M. J. Wood Prize from the Poetry Foundation. She is from New Orleans, Louisiana, and holds an MFA in poetry from New York University. She is currently an assistant professor of poetry at Tulane University. Her debut poetry collection, I’m Always so Serious, is out now from Sarabande Books.
FWR: There’s so much that I found remarkable about I’m Always So Serious, but I think one of the very first things I was awed by was the interplay between the natural and the surreal, and perhaps more specifically, the way in which the idea of transformation is operating–like with the marigolds that overtake a New Orleans mansion in the very first “I’m Always So Serious” poem. Especially given that this first section deals so closely with the event and legacy of Hurricane Katrina, how do you see poetic metamorphoses functioning in these poems, or what particular sorts of revelations do they allow for?
Karisma Price: Let me start off by saying thank you for these wonderful questions and I’m glad to be speaking with you. “Poetic Metamorphoses” is such a great phrase. I think these poems allow me to do the type of meditating on the page that I can’t always do in real life. Throughout the collection–but especially in the “Serious” poems–I wanted some of them to have a dream-like quality, because that’s what my anxiety feels like. As a neurodivergent person, my anxiety and OCD are such big parts of my life and affect how I navigate through the world. With my anxiety and certain compulsions, there’s always that “what if” aspect that tends to be a negative thought, and I know those feelings are directly-linked to and complicated by experiencing a disaster at such a young age. The revelation I had came not necessarily after writing the poems, but from talking to people who read them. I remember talking to a colleague who read an ARC of the book and telling him how I think family and music are two of the big themes in the book (which they are), but it wasn’t until we talked about growing up in New Orleans that I realized how much “hurricane anxiety” is just as prevalent.
FWR: Who were some of your major influences on this book, literary or otherwise?
KP: Oh, there are so many! Maybe too many to name. This collection is a very revised version of my thesis that I completed as an MFA student at NYU, so much of the inspiration came from the creative work I was exposed to in my classes. But, if we’re being specific about influential poets, Gwendolyn Brooks, Lucille Clifton, Jericho Brown, Natasha Trethewey, and Terrance Hayes are the poets I tend to think of as the close relatives on my poetic family tree. Definitely my kin. I love the way they write about family, Blackness, and landscape (both physical and emotional landscape). The last three poets in the list are also Black southerners. As a southern writer, I’m glad that they meditate on what home and the south mean to them. There are so many stereotypes about the South, and it’s very disheartening when non-southerners have a flat view of us and our history. I learned about these three poets when I was still a high schooler in Louisiana, who had no idea that you could major in poetry or that MFA programs existed. My English teacher taught us their work because they were from the South, they were ours. Brown is from Shreveport, Louisiana, Trethewey spent her childhood in both Mississippi and Louisiana, and Hayes (who became my thesis advisor) is from South Carolina but lived and taught in New Orleans for some time.
As made apparent in the book, music is also a big influence on my writing–particularly R&B and the blues. As poets, we have to be good listeners, and rhythm and storytelling is ingrained in our profession. I grew up listening to old school music (my parents controlled the radio in the car), so music also gives me that nostalgia. My memories are connected to certain songs and because poetry is such a meditative thing to me, it is helpful to understand which life experiences have brought me to this point in my life. Also, if you follow old Motown and soul drama, those songs are confessions! You’ll learn which singers were doing things that they had no business doing. There’s a similar (albeit not as scandalous) confessional aspect of poetry that allows the reader to learn about the writer, no matter if what they’re saying is “autobiographical” or not.
Movies and television are also big influences on me. I write scripts and studied creative writing in college (I also took several cinema and screenwriting classes in the film department), so storytelling and writing with visuals in mind is very important to me. It’s probably why I write a lot of narrative poems. Since editing my poetry collection, I’ve been reading more fiction and learned that I really like sci-fi and dystopian media, and I’ve started writing speculative short stories. With speculative fiction, there is an escape from the confines of our reality, but at the heart of it, the characters, no matter how flawed or human or robotic they are, they’re doing what they think is necessary and often it’s a critique of our current society and the social norms we have in place.
And, as always, spending time with my family and being in New Orleans are major influences.
FWR: What was the process of putting this book together like for you? What informed the collection’s structure? In the back matter, you mention that it took six years to complete. How does I’m Always So Serious as it now exists differ from how your imagination first seeded the manuscript those years ago? Did some poems or sections flow from you more or less easily or than others?
KP: The ordering of the collection changed several times from when it was a thesis draft, but I also had other poems that I started writing while I was still in undergrad (only two of those have survived. That is a good thing. Trust me). In early drafts, the “family” poems were much more scattered throughout the collection and even the book had a different name. Ultimately, I split the book into three sections to move the reader from an individual to a collective Black history. Throughout the collection I meditate on kinship that isn’t limited to blood relation. The first section is really family heavy and aims to establish the speaker’s background and origin. The second section is very music heavy and uses figures in media and history to further analyze kinship, and gives the reader a broader view of Blackness, history, and pop culture. The third section, hopefully, feels like a mixture of sections 1 & 2 and reunites the reader with the speaker from section 1 but is not limited to one voice.
The collection now exists with more experimental forms and fewer persona poems. I’ve always been a big fan of persona and when I first began writing poems, those were the only ones that I felt comfortable sharing with my undergraduate classmates. It felt weird to have people know things about me, but I’ve since gotten over that. I think the persona poems that I left in the collection are the strongest. After I took classes on learning form (and how to break them), experimentation with the page became something I loved to do, because I think there’s an endless number of ways for a poem to “be.” I never want to stop being playful.
FWR: The title of the book is also the title of several poems within the book, generally beginning each section. What inspired you to have “I’m Always So Serious” as a refrain, and how do you see the meaning of those words informing, illuminating, and/or evolving throughout the collection?
KP: So that series started out as me writing only one poem with that title, because people always tell me that I have a serious resting face. I don’t like to think so, but apparently some people believe that, so I decided to be very playful and mock that idea. It’s funny, because a lot of my friends who I told that story to and who read my work think I’m a very calm and funny person (you know, outside of the anxiety). The original poem that started this series did not make it into the collection, because I think it was the weakest out of all of them, but I also think its purpose was to try to figure out how to write a “serious” poem. The first “Serious” poem in the collection was the second one I had ever written and I brought it to a graduate workshop class. That poem was also much shorter than what it is now. Terrance Hayes (my workshop teacher/thesis advisor) asked me during the workshop why I was cutting myself off in that poem. An earlier draft had much shorter sentences and he encouraged me to use very long run-on sentences (I love a good run-on sentence) and just say what I needed to say. He also asked why I felt the need to try to say everything in just one poem. That made me start writing multiple poems on why I’m Always So Serious (cue joke rimshot sound effect). I definitely had more to say, so I ended up writing a lot of them. Overall, I feel that the strongest and the more creative ones made it into the collection.
Because the poems have the same title, I see the repetition of the phrase “I’m Always so Serious” change from moments of well, seriousness, to whimsical, observant, self-reflective, and pointing a finger at the reader. Repetition forces someone to look at the same word again and again and give it new meaning. I hope it makes the reader think about all of the reasons why a person needs to make such a declaration, but also, I hope it makes them think about all the times that they’ve needed to say something they felt was urgent.
FWR: To refer to the book as a “love song” to New Orleans–and Black New Orleans, specifically–would oversimplify what is in fact a profoundly nuanced relationship with the city. In a book so tied to questions of chance, fate, and injustice, how does New Orleans behave as not just a locus, but as a soul all its own? Do you feel like the process of writing this book in any way changed your relationship to New Orleans?
KP: Love has its nuances, so it wouldn’t be an oversimplification to call it a “love song” to New Orleans. One of the things that was really important to me when writing this book was to make New Orleans a speaker as well, and not just a city or an object being projected on. I think writing this book made me so much more protective of my city. I was already before I wrote the book, but the process of revising the book and returning home made me think about how much it takes to survive here. I love New Orleans for what it is but also know that we deserve so much more. There’s a term called “Katrina Kids” that describes a lot of young children who experienced the hurricane in their formative years, and I definitely view life and my memories from a pre and post-Katrina lens. The culture has definitely changed. There is so much more gentrification, and it is getting very hard to live here. I want this book to show a reader–whether they’re from New Orleans or not–an honest and deeply rooted representation that is not clouded by only thinking of what the city can do for you in terms of pleasure and entertainment, but what it really means to live here and how you need to sow resources back in to the city as well. It definitely made me think much more about climate change and how a lot of cultural bearers and their livelihoods need to be protected.
FWR: And related to the soul of New Orleans, the way these poems hold and cherish Blackness, and the emotional intricacy of these poems more largely: how do you see the blues behaving as a sort of emulsifier across the book’s arc, as that which has always been uniquely capable of holding both the love that’s in sorrow and the sorrow that’s in love?
KP: I think you’ve said it right there. I feel like life is a blues song. As humans, we hold both love and sorrow in one body, and those feelings often sit with each other, holding hands. The blues is very reflective and meditative, just like poetry is for me, and I really love moments in songs when an artist does an extra run, or pronounces a certain word a certain way when singing, or when a trumpet or a saxophone gets a solo. You can elicit love and sorrow in the blues by the way a singer makes a sound, and not simply just the sound itself, if you know what I mean. I hope the presence of The Blues can be seen as a speaker guiding you through all of these lived experiences with their hand held firmly into yours telling you, this is going to be a ride. But it’ll be okay because I’m right here next to you.
FWR: On the note of the blues–let’s talk about that astonishing middle section and the poems about the legendary pianist James Booker. How did you first encounter Booker, and what called you to place his story at your book’s heart?
KP: James Booker is one of my favorite artists and a New Orleans legend. I learned about him after watching the documentary “The Bayou Maharajah: The Tragic Genius of James Booker” by Lily Keber and then listened to many of his songs. In undergrad, I took a class on writing “The Diva” and what that word means. That’s when I decided to start writing persona poems about him and his life. He was described by Dr. John as “the best Black, gay, one-eyed junkie piano genius New Orleans has ever produced.” He has his own lore surrounding him and how he lost his left eye. He was larger than life, wore capes and costumes on stage, and called himself “The Black Liberace.” James Booker, to me, represents a piece of New Orleans that has always been here: complex, mythological, talented, and Black; however, despite all his talent, he was failed by a lot of people. He was a gay Black man in the South, growing up in the 1950s-60s. He struggled with drug addiction and mental illness and after the deaths of his mother and sister, he never completely recovered emotionally. He adored them and he always said his sister was the better musician out of the two of them.
Even the circumstances surrounding his death are somewhat unknown. He was dropped off at Charity Hospital in New Orleans but no one knows who brought him there or what was the cause of that emergency. He unfortunately died in the waiting room. I’d honestly like to write many, many more poems that highlight the genius and complexity of his life. He seemed like such a talented, yet troubled human who left this world too soon. There was something divine about him and I truly think he was able to tap into that divineness when his fingers hit the keys. I wrote this in the notes section of my book as well, but in an interview, Booker said, ‘…music is actually a divine product. So, whatever song I sing—I don’t care what the message is—it’s a product of my imagination and my imagination is the result of divine imagination.”
FWR: I’m fascinated by the way form is functioning throughout this book–how the beginning tends toward primarily more traditional forms, but with time we’re brought into collapse, collision, disjunction, and even highly visual poems in the style of Douglas Kearney. What brought you to the forms we find here, and what unique liberties did you feel that some of these forms allowed or roused for you?
KP: Like I mentioned earlier, I wanted to experiment with a lot of different poetic forms, because I don’t think a poem should exist only as a piece that’s lineated to the left. I also don’t want to bore myself because I know that means I’m probably boring the reader too. Just like anything else, poetry evolves and changes, and I feel that there are so many styles that can’t be confined to a page and some that have yet to be played with/invented. Because poems have an emotional truth to them–meaning there is a separation of the speaker from the writer, and not everything written down is exactly how things happened in real life–the truth should have room to be free. I often don’t know what form a poem is going to take until after I’ve started drafting it. I start all my poems by hand in a notebook and then bring them to the computer after I start scratching things out and drawing arrows everywhere. I noticed that when I’m drafting poems, I tend to use couplets as a default form–no shade to couplets. I love them–but it’s only after I have a solid draft that the poem begins telling me how it should look.
FWR: What poem or poems from this book would you say you were initially the most terrified or resistant to write, and why? Which, if different one(s), did the finishing feel the most fulfilling or necessary?
KP: I will keep that a secret =). The readers can guess.
FWR: These poems are about many things, but grief is certainly high on that list. How do you see the act of creation in relation to that? Do you see writing, for example, as a mode of processing, an act of transformation, a balm, a record-keeping, or something else entirely? What do you feel like your poems are able to reveal about the possibilities of art for writer and reader alike?
KP: I definitely see it as an act of processing. I feel that I am much more articulate on the page than in person, and allowing myself to write or type something means that I am relying on the body, and the body relies on the muscles, and the muscles rely on the fingers and the brain and so on and so forth. I hold on to a lot of things–a little too much for a little too long–and I view poems as a place where I can sit those feelings down and allow myself to explore thoughts without fear of judgment from others. I’m not looking for another’s response or validation. I get to check in with myself.
FWR: Bonus question: What might be a question that I didn’t ask, but that you wish that I had–and what’s your answer to it?
KP: If poets got to guest star in an episode of one of their favorite shows, which show would it be and who would you play?
I’d guest star in an episode of Abbott Elementary and play a visiting teaching artist who hosts a schoolwide poetry contest. Janine would, in an effort to help, accidentally destroy all the submissions, and the two of us would go around having the students complete the largest exquisite corpse poem (it’s not as scary as it sounds, non-poets), and then declare them all winners.
Oftentimes when I tell people I am from Detroit, people think of Motown or the car industry. But Detroit is a writing city. Through grit, comradery, and history, Detroit writers craft language that is some of the most stirring and resonant writing in contemporary American poetry. Detroit poets come from a legacy of Robert Hayden and Dudley Randall, while also drawing within today’s post-industrial cityscape. The writers featured in this issue bring forth the expansive experiences in a city that can feel divided and unified at the same time. This issue, like my city, is full of poems about family, grief, joy, the dozens, pastorals, and more. If allowed, I would have included many more than this small sampling of the incredible writers currently living in the Detroit area. I hope the following poems inspire curiosity in finding more work from my city.
NANDI COMER is a poet, DJ, and educator currently residing in her hometown, Detroit. She is the author of American Family: A Syndrome (Finishing Line Press) and Tapping Out (Northwestern University Press), which was awarded the 2020 Society of Midland Authors Award and the 2020 Julie Suk Award.
Featuring the work of:
Stella Lei is a writer from Pennsylvania and an Editor–in–Chief for The Augment Review. Rhythmic and resonant, her debut prose chapbook, Inheritances of Hunger (River Glass Books, 2022), is a vivid, thrilling collection featuring five stories punctuated by cruelty and intimacy as she interrogates generational hurt through the rawness of hunger and girlhood.
Emily Judkins/Four Way Review: Inheritances of Hunger’s themes of family, specifically mother-daughter relationships, shine throughout this collection, but I particularly love how you embody these themes by exploring hunger’s origins, as well as its consequences. Where did the image of hunger come from while you were writing? Did you find your intention in targeting hunger in its various forms a sustained investigation?
Stella Lei: Thank you so much for asking. When I was writing this [chapbook], I actually came up with the idea of putting these stories together because I had written “Games” and “Changeling,” independently of each other, in a row. Maybe coincidentally. Maybe not. After writing those two stories that focus on hunger and on cruelty and on familial relationships back to back, I noticed a lot of commonalities between them thematically, tonally, and imagery wise. I wanted to dig deeper into why I was so preoccupied with these themes and images and how I might want to continue investigating them. So, after I drafted “Changeling” and started noticing those common threads, I wrote a few bullet points for myself about how I was using hunger in both stories and the role that hunger plays in both stories, both as a physical sensation and as a motif, and the different ways in which these characters interact with their hunger (actively and passively). In that development process, this hunger became a literalization of or an embodiment of hurt and cruelty, asking if these experiences and emotions are inheritable, including the yearning that comes with hunger. I was thinking about how to convey generational hurt and generational violence in an embodied way.
FWR: I definitely felt all those threads being interwoven together. I think the core of the chapbook is so strong that when you experimented within the stories, the main themes remained cohesive and tangible . Once you found this core, how did you then draw upon and tie together these traditions, experiences, previous writings, and other inspirations to fully flesh it out so it could go in so many different directions?
SL: Once I figured out that I wanted to use hunger as a central metaphor/motif throughout this chapbook, I wrote down a lot of different ideas for different directions in which this hunger could go. I tried to approach these ideas of abuse and of generational violence and of complicated families in slightly different ways. For example, in “Graftings,” the familial structures get complicated because we have this mother who is very neglectful and the sister, in turn, has to take the place of the mother, versus how in “On Building a Nest,” the mother has trapped the daughter in this flawed ideology as a way of keeping the daughter dependent on her. These different dynamics play out across similar themes. As for inspirations from other sources, “Changeling” was very much directly inspired by Ren Hong’s photography, and from there I started looking into more contemporary Chinese photography. There’s a certain atmosphere to those works that I really love and that became sort of central to how I developed the atmosphere of the chapbook, even if it might not be explicitly related.
FWR: Yeah, totally! The atmosphere throughout the chapbook is so stellar and well defined. I think part of that is thanks to how you have so many different details, as well as the intuition of knowing when to pull back on them. I’m thinking about the two characters in “Games” and how their relationship isn’t really defined — they don’t even have names — yet they feel incredibly real and I personally found them recontextualized while reading more of Inheritances. I had inferred that the characters were sisters based on the other strong sister relationships in the chapbook and how these relationships can be obscured due to trauma and familial situations, such as in “Graftings” where, as you were saying, Elaine takes on this maternal role for Charity due to neglect. Could you talk about how you know when to pull back on details and obscure certain characterizations to allow more possibilities?
SL: One thing I tried to do in writing and finding the balance between details and obscurity is letting these characters and their relationships speak for themselves, rather than putting down hard definitions for who these people are and how they have shaped each other. By letting their actions and subtext speak for itself through the selection of specific details, I tried to demonstrate how the cruelty or the hurt or the mutual yearning of these relationships play off of each other and let the reader derive a context from that, especially in “Games.” Like you said, these girls are not named and their relationships are not defined, but there is a very palpable intimacy in that story and intimacy within the violence of what they’re doing and in their own hurt. I think that [intimacy] gives you an on ramp into the other familial relationships in the chapbook and how these stories work together in a community: they provide context and support specific details, while letting the individual relationships speak for themselves, rather than defining them very strictly on the page.
FWR: I love the idea of these stories working within a community, because, since so much of the chapbook is about generational trauma and familial hurt, it’s almost as if these stories became a supportive community for each other.
Focusing on the details and tones throughout the chapbook, I love how you utilize the idiosyncrasies of the characters and settings to really make them come alive. Still talking about “Games,” the two girls are playing knife games as “crabgrass chokes [their] feet” in their backyard, which is a “minefield of wounds” — I immediately understood from what was happening and how it was described that this game is not just about play. In the second anecdote of this story, these individuals weigh themselves “against the heft of morning as it dragged itself above the hills.” We are immediately thrust into the world and logic of the narrator, underscored by self-destruction and disordered eating. Each word feels so deliberate as you construct and connect the internal and external elements of the environments of the story. Since you find such accurate actions and use subtext so effectively, what’s your process in developing and/or collecting these details, and how do you ensure they all fit together?
SL: One idea that I always come back to is this concept of having an “ecosystem of language.” I did not come up with this term, but an ecosystem of language is where all the language throughout the story has a consistency in it regarding tone, image — kind of like how an image system might work. When I pick the metaphors that I use, I draw upon this ecosystem of language or image system to make this language like a figurative minefield, or figuratively like choking. Choosing to describe them in this way provides a lot of additional subtext that further frames what is literally going on in the scene.
A similar idea that I come back to when writing figurative language is what Ocean Vuong has said about metaphors and about sensory connectors and logical connectors. It is not enough that the tenor of your metaphor is physically similar or similar in a way that you can notice in your senses to the vehicle of the metaphor. There also has to be a logical connector to the specific qualities of the vehicle that become imposed upon the tenor and that adds nuance. I’m asking the implications of and the impact of describing the crab grass as choking their feet, versus caressing their feet. Caressing their feet is a terrible, terrible phrase, but just asking what is impacted by choosing that phrase over the other, what added nuance does that add, and how does that help shape atmosphere and subtext, and so on.
FWR: I love the term “ecosystems of language”, especially in reference to this collection — your strong, cohesive language really does feel like entering an immersive environment. It also reminds me of this recurring image of the knife throughout the chapbook and how poignant that image is, given the sharpness of your language. Bringing up “Changeling” again, both the chopped fragments in your writing and the cuts between sections made each part bite sized and satisfying on its own, yet each section added a new dimension to the narrative. As we move through time and discover more about Jennifer, Jessica, and their mother, and what they are living/have lived through, certain elements linger longer than others, both in terms of literal variance of length, as well as metaphorical resonance. When you were working on this piece, and on other pieces where you use this narrative structure, how did you establish this? Did you intend this choppier style to coincide with themes of familial hurt and relationships and hunger, or is this just a style that you gravitate towards?
SL: I think this style definitely lends itself to these themes of strained familial relationships and this sharp feeling throughout the chapbook. I am a big fan of the form of a work fitting the function of it.
When I am writing a story, I’m very interested in the negative space both surrounding the story and punctuating the story’s scenes: what is not being said in between these scenes and around these scenes, and how what is not being said or that “negative space” shapes our understanding of the “positive space,” or what is being said in the story. I try to be very intentional in picking certain scenes to show and make sure that these scenes have an exigence and a clear purpose. I often ask myself, “Why am I showing this scene? Why am I showing it right now? How does this develop the characters or move the plot forward?” I try to render the most focal moments or most impactful moments on the page. This often leaves a lot to be inferred in the negative space or in what is not being said, especially in stories like “Graftings,” where I have to cover a long chronology in a relatively short space.
FWR: I was really impressed by how much, chronologically speaking, you were able to fit into “Graftings” and how you were using this double lens of an unreliable narrator with Elaine and Charity, as described in CRAFT. I felt like I was alongside Charity as she was trying to understand her life, both from her perspective and from Elaine’s stories, and account for things in her life.
SL: Regarding the previous question, I also think it’s just really cool how you can have so much happen in the subtext, even in the scenes that jump between years. There’s so much that happens in between those two scenes that the reader can infer, based on where the characters are from one scene to the next, such as how things have changed or stayed the same. In that way, the reading almost becomes a collaborative process between the writer and the reader where the reader also has to do that work to uncover subtext and infer context and so on and so forth.
FWR: I think that collaboration particularly shines in “Meals for the End of the World,” where you’re using this very cool list format, encouraging the reader to make connections and collaborate with the work to make these lyrical jumps. How do you approach something that is more list-like and poetic, which may require the audience to make more leaps in logic?
SL: In my head, when I was conceptualizing this chapbook, it is a chapbook of prose, with some flash fiction and microfiction. Then when I sent it out to readers, people told me, “I really like this hybrid collection where you have stories and a prose poem and a list poem,” and I was like “Oh! That’s really interesting! I didn’t think about it before, but yeah it does function like that.” So the line between prose and poetry can be blurry in that sense.
Talking about the writing process of “Meals for the End of the World” itself, when I was selecting items for this list, I wanted there to be momentum and urgency in between the lines or from one line to the next, even if it isn’t explicitly articulated, to push you through the list and continue reading. Rather than making it feel like it’s just setting a bunch of items side by side, I wanted there to be some kind of escalation. I also wanted to pick images that felt urgent in that way, which are very vivid and very visceral as one way to push that escalation. Another thing I tried to do for this specific list story/poem is I wanted each line or each item in the list to “inherit” a word from the previous item in the list and preferably use it in a different way to really underscore the idea of inheritance through form and language. I actually messed up a little bit, but that’s okay, I’m just going to embrace that mistake.
FWR: Definitely! I think ending this piece with “Now I can swallow for two” with the final list item specifically encapsulates this theme of inheritance and working through generational hurt. This last line doesn’t just receive language; it also captures the feelings and experiences from the different stories and characters,ultimately choosing to release the hunger and hurt with the end of the collection. I thought it was beautiful.
I would love to talk a little more about this hybridization. I’ve been reading some of your poetry, both published by Four Way Review and other magazines and presses, and one thing I love is how even when you are not working in specifically prose, there’s often this clear sense of character and narrative. Similarly, I love how this prose collection had such beautiful and visceral poetic language. As you mentioned, there’s this wonderful element that blurs your work to feel like poetry and prose at the same time. Do you have a way to decipher what pieces will become poems and what will become fiction? Do you have any influences or guides to help you return to see what a piece will become? Or do you just kind of let it come out as it is, and go from there?
SL: I would say it’s mostly a gut feeling determining whether or not something will be a poem, piece of flash fiction, short story or a novel. Usually I will get an idea and I will almost immediately know which form I think it should be. There have been cases where I thought a piece would be one thing and turned out to be another, but most of the time I know in the moment. I ask myself, “What is the scope of this idea? How broad are the themes that I want to explore here? How many characters are involved? How in-depth do I have to go into their relationships and into their background? Do I have to create a whole world for this story, or can I focus in on one specific moment, or a short series of moments?”
FWR: Beyond hunger, I’ve also noticed this thread of apocalypse in your work — within Inheritances of Hunger, I’m thinking about “Changeling,” as well as “Meals for the End of the World,” but also in your poem “Prospective Final Girl Sits at the Gas Station” from Honey Literary, and I was wondering if you could speak to the appeal of writing about the end of the world and/or why you continue to return to it.
SL: I’m so glad you noticed this; I am definitely very interested in the apocalypse and I have been writing more apocalypse poems lately. I actually have an apocalypse poem forthcoming in Frontier Poetry. It kind of feels like a natural extension from my previous focus on hunger in this chapbook. I think the appeal for me on writing about the apocalypse is partially because the world does kind of feel like it’s ending, but it is less that and more that I feel like trauma often feels like a personal apocalypse. Some of the things that I went through when I was younger and that still shape who I am today felt like a personal apocalypse in that my own world was kind of ending. In more recent writing, I’ve been focusing on what comes after the apocalypse and thinking about and acknowledging the grief or the hurt of the past and wondering what to do with myself moving forward. In the apocalypse poem that I have forthcoming in Frontier, I was thinking about the appeal of losing that past and starting anew, but then the speaker decides to accept their place in the apocalypse in making a turn for preservation. Even if only for themselves, it’s like saying, “It’s okay, and maybe it’s even good if no one else knows this origin story or nobody else knows this trauma (ie. like the apocalypse).” The speaker is forcing themselves to understand what made them this way, and making the active choice to accept this and move beyond this on a personal level.
FWR: Thank you for talking about that. I’m very excited to read the poem when it comes out! I’m really interested in that premise as well as trying to navigate trauma. I’m wondering, how do you negotiate writing about what you are carrying while protecting both yourself, both in terms of self-care and safety?
SL: I’m so glad you asked this question because this is a question I ask myself and for me, well in fiction writing, I can just take these themes and these ideas and impose them on the characters and now it’s a story, right? In poetry, the line becomes a little blurrier. I think a lot about the separation of the speaker from the self and how, for me, my speakers are often a facet of myself, oftentimes put into a hypothetical situation, or put into figurative situations that did not literally happen to me. They are still an aspect of myself, and asking myself how I would react to XYZ situation is part of how I craft my speakers.
In a lot of the poetry that I write that addresses these ideas that are personal to me and that I don’t want to disclose to other people who aren’t very close to me, I will abstract these ideas and discuss them in figurative ways, or in hypothetical situations. I try to be very careful in the metaphors that I pick, or in these figurations that I create, where I can still talk about these themes and these ideas and emotions without disclosing real lived events.
FWR: That’s a really well-thought out way of approaching subject matter like this. You’re almost building in defense mechanisms and safety precautions to go about this kind of work. As a young and up-and-coming writer, how do you balance writing and everything else going on in your life right now, such as with school, family, friends, jobs, etc.? Have you found any writing “rituals” or practices other than these negotiations to be helpful?
SL: That balance is definitely hard. I will be very honest in saying that I haven’t been writing nearly as much this year as I did last year, just because of family and school and jobs. I’ve been working a lot this summer. I tutor in creative writing, so I’m surrounded by writing craft all the time. When I want a break from that, that oftentimes means not writing, which is not usually what I want. One writing ritual that I am trying to adopt and is helpful when I do actually engage in it is to just write for half an hour every day. It doesn’t have to be really anything, but just forcing myself to write for that half an hour and seeing where it gets me is better than just not writing at all. It seems intuitive, but for some reason it’s just not something that I was doing for the past few months. It’s just setting that timer and writing for half an hour and seeing where that gets me.
FWR: 100%. I often find that when you haven’t been writing, this sense of guilt from not writing starts building, and I know I can find myself in loops of self-doubt. I think a big part of getting into a consistent writing practice is learning to treat yourself with a bit more compassion and forgive yourself for not having the time. The skills are all still there, and you will be able to tap into them soon, even if it’s ten or thirty minutes — you’re still moving forward, and I think that’s really important to remember.
SL: 100% exactly that.
FWR: I know that we were talking briefly before about some different project you have coming up, as well as this thread of apocalypse in your work. Can you tell us anything about those projects? Will you be returning to any of these themes from Inheritances of Hunger?
SL: The whole thing about the apocalypse is interesting because I have enough work about the apocalypse that it is a noticeable trend, so I am thinking about maybe putting that into some type of poetry chapbook or some small scale project like that. It’s not very clearly defined yet, but that is something that is on the table.
The two big projects that I am supposed to be working on are two novels. When Cicadas Sing for the Dead is a surrealist family saga across two generations. It’s about ghosts that are both metaphorical and literal, the American dream, the past recurring into the present, and how these ideas kind of unravel in this family and in the surrealist or fabulous things that happen to them. I see a lot of times that people will say that a writer’s first novel is always kind of autobiographical, which I think is probably true for me. Even though I am not living the exact life that I am describing in this novel, it does partially take place in Pennsylvania, which is the state that I’ve been living in for the past 18 years. The character’s family is from the same region of China as my family. Beyond those superficial similarities, it addresses a lot of themes and ideas that I have been ruminating on for the past few years, including in [Inheritances], so this novel almost feels like a natural extension of this chapbook.
After that, the second novel that I’m working on is less directly tied to my personal life. It’s a lot less fleshed out, but there’s a dead girl in a pool and there’s a lot of summertime imagery. I really want to make this novel experimental form-wise and I wanted to introduce things like fake newspaper clippings or diagrams and things like that. I’ve been thinking a lot about playing around with aspects of form and oral tradition and stories within stories. One of the major thematic focuses is on archive and the fragility of paper and cultural memory, and also how real people can become mythologized through a very specific process of remembering. Then, in turn, the people surrounding this myth can interact with it and reject their place in it or try to enter it from the periphery, and then cover more about it. That’s a lot of abstractions, but those are kind of the ideas that I’m thinking about for this project. I’m really excited to work more on it.
FWR: I’m really excited for both of these projects! I’m definitely going to be checking them out once they’re in their final form.
As we wrap up, what do you want your reader to take away from Inheritances of Hunger? Is there one major overarching question or idea that is crucial to leave with?
SL: I always have so much trouble answering this question because I’m not sure if there’s any singular thing. The thing I think that makes me the most satisfied and most like I’ve done a good job is in the response to the chapbook — when somebody messages me and says, “I had familial issues and I dealt with XYZ and I really connected to this chapbook,” those people are my ideal audience, right? The fact that my themes and ideas came through so clearly to them means that I have done what I needed to do and done what I intended to do with this chapbook, and connected with who I really wanted to connect with.
Stella Lei was interviewed by Emily Judkins for Four Way Review. Emily Judkins is a queer writer and artist studying English and Film and Media Studies at Smith College. Their writing has received the Ruth Forbes Eliot Prize and has appeared in Emulate, Voices and Visions, and the Worcester Art Museum. You can reach them on Instagram @ee.jay_
Forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux this fall is the long-awaited collection of poetry by Iman Mersal, translated by Robyn Creswell, titled The Threshold. The author of five books of poems, Mersal is a highly acclaimed Egyptian poet and writer, currently based in Canada, where she teaches Arabic language and literature at the University of Alberta. Her collaboration with Robyn Creswell began when he became poetry editor of The Paris Review in 2010, with an enthusiasm for publishing more Arab poets. In addition to The Paris Review, Creswell’s translations of Mersal’s poems have appeared in The New York Review of Books, The Arkansas International, The Virginia Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. To accompany three featured poems by Iman Mersal this September, Four Way Review poetry editor Sara Elkamel spoke with translator Robyn Creswell about The Threshold.
SARA ELKAMEL: Congratulations on your forthcoming collection of Iman Mersal’s poetry in translation, The Threshold (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022)! It gathers poems from four of Iman’s collections: A dark alley suitable for dance lessons (1995), Walking as long as possible (1997), Alternative geography (2006), and Until I give up the idea of home (2013). Can you tell us a little bit about the process you went through, together with Iman, to get this collection together? How did you go about selecting the poems?
ROBYN CRESWELL: Iman is a poet of sensibility: she has an immediate, idiosyncratic presence on the page. Her voice—really a congeries of voices—is unforgettable once it gets in your ear. But it’s also a sensibility that develops in large part by looking back on prior performances: reading Iman’s work in chronological order, you have this feeling of astonishing self-sufficiency—her voice expands, matures, and addresses itself to different topics, but the transformations result from self-reflection.
When we chose the poems of The Threshold—and we discussed the table of contents endlessly, because it was fun to arrange and rearrange the poems—I think we wanted to make sure the distinctiveness of Iman’s voice came through, but also its dramatic evolution. So the poems are arranged roughly in the order they were first published, although we also made sure that short and long poems alternate, and the variety of voices is on full display.
SE: You’ve been working with Iman for several years now (I remember reading your gorgeous translation of “The Idea of Houses” in The Nation in 2015). Can you tell us how you first started translating her poetry, and how your evolving collaboration has in turn manifested in the translations?
RC: When I became poetry editor of The Paris Review in 2010, one of my aims was to publish a larger chorus of Arab poets in the magazine. At the time, I think the only poet writing in Arabic who had been published in the Review was Mahmoud Darwish. An Egyptian friend of mine, Waiel Ashry, suggested that I read Iman. At the time, I had what I now recognize as a schoolboyish appreciation of modern Arabic poetry: I mostly read the classics (Darwish, Adonis, Nizar Qabbani, Badr Shakir al-Sayyab), and was suitably awed. Reading Iman was like encountering a contemporary: here was someone who was, I felt, writing the present (to borrow a phrase of Elias Khoury).
I wrote to Iman asking if she might be willing to share some current work with me and among the poems she sent was “A Celebration.” I love that poem—the way it begins with a figure of speech, then literalizes it (“The thread of the story fell to the ground, so I went down on my hands and knees to hunt for it”). Then the juxtaposed scenes of an encounter on a train with an Afghan woman and a patriotic rally in Cairo. The relation between the two episodes, one intimate, the other collective, is never spelled out—it has something to do with the experience of speaking words in a “foreign” language—but the idea of putting them together is what makes the poem characteristic of Iman.
After that first poem we began working on others, until the idea of a book became more or less inescapable. Working with Iman—we’ve worked very closely—has been a pleasure and a privilege. She has a knack for seeing where my English versions aren’t quite right (I’m abashed now to look at some of my first drafts), but she never imposed her own solutions. I’ve learned more from her about Arabic poetry—how it works, its range of tones, its levels of diction—than any other teacher. I’ve been very lucky.
SE: You’ve previously referred to Iman Mersal’s voice as having a “sinuous, rough-edged music” that can be challenging to translate. I also find that irony and wry humor permeate Iman’s poems, which I imagine would be difficult to always carry across into English. Do you remember any particular challenges with translating any of the three poems featured in FWR?
RC: English can do wryness, but Arabic verse has musical possibilities that I don’t think contemporary poetry in English can really capture. Because written Arabic is a literary language—it isn’t spoken except in formal situations—it’s possible to be grandly symphonic or virtuosically lyrical in a way that’s hard to imagine in English. You’d have to be a Tennyson to match the musical effects in Darwish’s late poetry, for example. But of course trying to be Tennysonian would be fatal.
With Iman the difficulty for an English translator is different, and I would say more manageable. In a poem about her father, she wonders whether he might have disliked her “unmusical poems.” I don’t think they’re actually unmusical (I don’t think Iman does either), but their rhythms and cadences and sounds have a lot in common with the spoken language. She writes in fusha, sometimes called “standard” Arabic, but her style shares many features of the vernacular: she doesn’t use ten-dollar words, her syntax is typically straightforward, economy is a virtue. She also uses tonal effects—sarcasm, for example—that we tend to associate with speech.
We talked a lot about “A grave I’m about to dig.” I’m still not sure Iman likes my choice of “diagonal” for the Arabic ma’ilan, to describe the way a bird falling out of the sky might appear to an observer on the ground (but that’s how I think of Iman: she sees things at a slant). The last phrase of the poem, “were it not for the sneakers on my feet” is a typical moment of self-deprecation, a comedy of casualness. There are no feet in the Arabic original, however, which just says “were it not for my sneakers” (or, more literally, “my sports shoes”). I thought adding the phrase “on my feet” was needed, both for musical reasons and because it suggests a pun that isn’t available in Arabic, where verse meters aren’t called feet. For me, Iman’s (musical, metrical) feet really do wear sneakers: they’re quick and agile, casual but spiffy. They’re what we wear today.
SE: Iman’s poems typically take on different forms as well as registers–at times indulging in the lyric, and at times sacrificing it for the sake of a more restrained, almost academic language. She recently told me that she believes poems don’t have “forms” as much as “personalities.” Do you find you have to “get to know” a poem of hers before you approach a translation? If so, what does that process look like?
RC: I think translation is the process—or a process—of getting to know a poem. My first versions tend to be awkward, formal, overly reliant on obvious equivalents (something like the French faux amis). That isn’t so different from the way one talks with a new acquaintance: conventions can be useful. It’s only later, and gradually, that you begin to see what makes the poem—if it’s a good poem—worth spending time with.
SE: Finally, can you tell us a little bit about the choice of title for your forthcoming collection, The Threshold?
RC: “The threshold,” in Arabic al-‘ataba, is an important motif in several of Iman’s poems. It names a site of risk, guilt, transformation. It’s also the title of a long poem that comes at the midpoint of the collection. To my mind, this is Iman’s farewell to the era of her youth. It’s a valedictory poem about Cairo in the nineties, full of Europeanizing elites, posturing poets, and entitled State intellectuals. It’s a poem of the open road that also tells the story of a generation: Iman and her friends wend their way from the Opera House in Zamalek, Cairo’s poshest neighborhood, to the ministry buildings and bars of downtown, through the streets of Old Cairo, and out into the City of the Dead—a burial ground that’s also a point of departure.
Robyn Creswell teaches Comparative Literature at Yale University and is a consulting editor for poetry at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. He is the author of City of Beginnings: Poetic Modernism in Beirut, and a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books.
Iman Mersal is the author of five books of poems and a collection of essays, How to Mend: Motherhood and Its Ghosts. In English translation, her poems have appeared in The Paris Review, The New York Review of Books, The Nation, and elsewhere. Her most recent prose work, Traces of Enayat, received the Sheikh Zayed Book Award in 2021. She is a professor of Arabic language and literature at the University of Alberta, Canada. Photo credit: Hamdy Reda
Robyn Creswell teaches Comparative Literature at Yale University and is a consulting editor for poetry at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. He is the author of City of Beginnings: Poetic Modernism in Beirut, and a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books. Photo credit: Annette Hornischer
Four years had passed since I returned to this building, the old city, and the old job. At work digitizing the poster of another Czech New Wave film—this one depicting algae sprouting from a woman’s head, dark eyes sparkling with silver pin lights that reminded me of plankton—my heart started racing so fast I handed over my shift and went home. I sensed another panic attack. What did it was the smell of jasmine that wafted through that image—impossible but as real as a bite.
The jasmine had been trailing me. At first it was like a furtive glance across the room. The scent of a blooming vine would slither into the apartment with a passing breeze from an open window or suddenly shut door. It even made its way in the stillest of air that had been chewed on for days, keeping out the gelid winter. I checked my clothes, my linen, perfume bottles, but that couldn’t be it. I didn’t wear perfume, the bottles were decorative, my grandmother’s mementos. In the summer and fall I’d dismissed the scent as a whiff of viburnum or linden. Jasmine just wasn’t something you would find in Prague. I knew that smell; I knew it well.
“Maybe you should go to the hospital,” my co-worker Marketa suggested one day, her eyes scanning me as she held up my coat.
“It’ll pass,” I said.
I measured my steps to the Staroměstská metro station, the snow sludgy and clinging to my hems, wishing I hadn’t worn high-heeled boots. I gripped the rubbery escalator handrail on that interminable descent from which I could hear the train’s distant hum in the earth’s bowels. That whistling, the pounding of wheels, turned into a chugging roar as vertigo washed over me.
Inside my studio, Grandma was listening to a Hana Hegerová record, sitting on the couch and knitting another bright-colored scarf, presumably for me. “You’re early,” she said, watching as I unzipped my boots and put on the slippers by the door.
“Yes,” I said. I was used to finding her in my apartment, especially since she lived upstairs and my studio was officially hers. Her plump, stockinged legs and muumuu-adorned presence were as ubiquitous as the heavy walnut furniture. “I need to lie down,” I said.
Her eyes searched mine as she put the yarn in her canvas bag, slung it over her shoulder, leaned forward and rose with great effort. Lying down on the couch that doubled as a bed, I could feel her warmth on the woolen cushions as I closed my eyes.
“Rest,” she said. “Come over later. I made goulash.”
“I’ll call you if I’m coming over.”
“No need to. Just come in. You need to eat,” she said. I could hear shuffling around the room, the clinking and rinsing of glass in the sink, the creak of the cabinet door as she opened and closed it. How did I end up here again? I saw myself at 5,17, then 29, 50, 72, my entire life spent between this studio and the larger one upstairs, which was my parents’ until they moved to their country cottage and I returned from Brazil.
“You’re lucky they took you back,” Grandma said often enough about my job at the National Film Archives, since I had returned with nothing aside from a suitcase and a few wrinkles. For her, my relationship with Samuel and all those years abroad, they didn’t really count. And for a while I, too, was almost convinced everything had been a long holiday, a mindscape in which life intensifies, attuned to another frequency.
In my early twenties, when I got into film school, I took up Romance languages in my spare time, learning some Italian and then Spanish, but it was Portuguese that intrigued me enough to go to Portugal and then, finally, to Brazil. I’d always been drawn by unknown places and people presented to me through photographs, films, and documentaries. At home, I felt part of the furniture.
After dozing for a couple hours, I put on my jacket and went upstairs. We ate Grandma’s goulash with the television on mute.
“Backgammon?” she asked after dinner.
“Not tonight,” I said, sniffing something. There it was again, the faint smell of jasmine. “Do you smell it?”
She turned on the TV and looked at me impassively. “You’re right. Too many caraway seeds.”
“Not that. The goulash is fine.” With legs propped on the coffee table, her swollen shins caught my attention. “How about a massage?” I asked.
Her eyes lit up, youthful with expectation. Sitting across from her, I picked up her leg and rubbed the pressure points on her feet. Closing her eyes, she basked in pleasure like her big red tabby. In moments like these, I could see the young woman she had been.
“You’re a jewel,” she said, her voice lilting. “Pavel’s a bachelor, you know. Still single, like you.” Worse than unattractive, Pavel had a bland handsome face, a smug grin, and a ready string of infantile jokes that appealed to my grandma.
Re-shifting my weight, I reminded her again: “I have been married.”
“Oh. A beach ceremony in the middle of nowhere doesn’t count,” she said. “Besides, no one knows about it.”
“I know about it,” I said, laying down the peeling, reddened foot.
Snapping her eyes open, she huffed. “That’s it? You’re a tease,” she said.
I got up to wash my hands. By the time I left the bathroom, she was already talking to her friend Helča on the phone. The two compared notes on talent shows—this one called Dazzling Incarnations—while watching. “That’s what passes for talent nowadays,” Grandma usually said, only this time the talent in question happened to pass her test. “She’s the spitting image of Edith Piaf,” she declared. Pressing the cellphone to her chest the way she would’ve done with an old receiver, she looked up at me. “Rest, Evička. Good night.”
As I lay in bed, I watched the snow against the windowpane. The wisps conjured memories. At this time of year, summer in the southern hemisphere would still be in full swing, the sea calm enough to swim at all hours, with tourists alternately reveling and devouring the village like insatiable hounds. Samuel’s three bakeries around town would be so bustling he’d employ additional people, making regular trips to Rio to restock any gourmet merchandise. Jaunty açaí stands would’ve sprouted for the season, and a mixture of techno, international and Brazilian pop, jazz, bossa nova, favela funk would all compete for attention, heard from stand to stand and house to house. Soon, those tourists would be gone, leaving the village, then the town, flushed out with the remains of a summer-long party.
During the summer, I’d see Samuel at short intervals during the day, spending my mornings alone while he slept off the late nights at Belezapura, his recently opened music venue and side project. At the time I was teaching English online to Japanese students, so I’d rise early with the golden wash that entered the bedroom through the windows, glance over at Samuel’s sleeping face, cross the room and open the house’s colonial windows one by one. The window at the end of the hall I saved for last. It opened into a mesh of lush passion fruit vines that laced the sunlight—an interplay of copper, lime green, and butterfly shadows. As the vines grew into an arbor outside, they drew stars on the floor and the chair by the window. If the wind blew just so, the scent of jasmine circled the three front pillars—straight and modernist, white-washed but blending with the sand and earth that trailed the house like a passing sigh.
Images dissolved as I fell asleep. When I woke up the next day, I realized I’d forgotten to set the alarm. I took a quick shower, made instant coffee, poured some milk in it, and layered on my scarf, hat, coat. I trudged to the subway station, grateful for the splash of sun breaking through the clouds. I sidestepped the first slush pile on the pavement but stepped into the second, my boots sinking right in. The frigid wetness seeped in—an icy gel of discomfort.
In the subway, I caught my reflection in the dirty glass. I looked sallow and puzzled. How could I return to something that no longer made sense?
I arrived at work barely on time, went to my desk, and examined the pile of posters. I removed my socks and boots discreetly, leaving them on the edge of the radiator. The socks would dry soon enough, I figured. Marketa shot me a sideways glance when she spotted them, but so what? We had plenty of space between desks, and my socks didn’t smell. This is the type of thing Samuel would’ve done without a second thought. Not that he was clueless. He simply lacked inhibition. At first it was shocking, then it freed up a space in me. The opinions of others were something one could live without. After shaking them off, they seemed like an extra appendage.
“Are you feeling better?” Marketa asked during lunch in the cafeteria. By then my socks had dried stiffly and crackled as I wiggled my toes.
“Better than what?”
She took my answer for sarcasm and smirked.
“It’s supposed to be nice this weekend. We’re going up to Honza’s cottage on Saturday. What are you doing?” she asked. A speck of plaster fell from the ceiling, landing on the wooden table. “Filthy!” she said. She looked around for someone to clean it up.
In Brazil, the so-called invisible people who did the cleaning had been all too visible, tasked with keeping everything orderly according to the tastes of their employers. Samuel liked to teach people, offering coffee, snacks and doing the work along with them until they knew just how he liked it done. For the younger ones, he’d put on a rock album, instilling a sense of freedom—and energized labor. “Post-colonial propaganda,” I’d said to him.
In the beginning I found it discomfiting to employ cleaners at home—and they were all women—not just in terms of subservience but also for the intrusiveness, the inherent lack of privacy in exposing your dirty laundry to a stranger. “Treat them with respect and it’s fine,” Samuel liked to say. The women didn’t talk to me, and Samuel said I needed to learn how to be a boss. “I don’t like being a boss or being bossed around,” I’d say. He’d smile, amused. We had a string of faxineiras until we finally met Selma—a shy middle-aged countrywoman who brought herbs from her garden. She responded more to my hands-off approach than Samuel’s marionetting.
There I was again, lost in thought, so that Marketa repeated, “Do you want to come? Honza’s bringing a friend from Brno. He’s funny, I hear.”
Since my return, people had been trying to set me up. From the little I had told Marketa about Samuel, she assumed that “funny” was my one criterion. I was tired of saying no, so I agreed to go out for a drink on Friday.
I met the three of them at Kavarna Lucerna. Marketa waved to me, and joined the trio sitting by a window overlooking the upside-down ass of Saint Wesceslas’s dead horse. “I know, I know. There was nowhere else to sit. I hate David Černý,” said my would-be suitor by way of introduction. He was wearing a tight-fitting pinstriped suit and a manic grin.
“David Černý’s brilliant,” I said, taking a seat.
“And what is so interesting about creeping babies, pissing fountains, suicidal businessmen hanging off a pole, and this”—he pointed to the sculpture across the glass—“travesty of our national hero?” Honza and Marketa exchanged glances.
“It’s not a businessman. The man hanging off the pole is Freud and he’s suspended, hanging on,” I said. “Ambivalently but still. As for the babies—”
Petr stared at me like I was speaking about barnacle formation in gibberish, so that Marketa interrupted. “We’ve been indoctrinated with surrealism, Petr,” she conceded for his benefit.
“Subversive poser. Enough horse shit,” he said. Honza laughed. I must have furrowed my brow, because Petr turned to me. “Let’s get you a drink. You could use one.
I ordered a bavorák, then another, fizzling out their presence. Now and then, I stared out the window at the horse’s dangling tail. At some point Petr got up to answer a call, and Marketa turned to me. “He’s just nervous. Petr takes care of his mother. You live with your grandmother. You two have something in common once you get past his taste in art,” she said. I thought of correcting her, as I lived below my grandmother, but what was the point? Her comparison soured my mood. I excused myself, went to the counter, and paid for my drinks. As I was leaving, Petr grabbed my forearm.
“You can’t go,” he said.
That weekend was surprisingly warm with the soft pastels of early spring. Along the river line even the willows showed signs of life, people were out, their faces tilted to the sun like flowers. Before I knew it, I was traipsing alone in the castle district of Hradčany. The Belvedere palace slid into view with its verdigris roof, the spruce’s branches framing the Renaissance building. Ever since I’d returned, I gravitated towards the building which was envisioned as a summer palace for the wife of Ferdinand I, who died before its completion. It’s a suspended playground meant to embrace the sun, the garden, and the city. The lightness of the arcade and many windows reminded me of Samuel’s modernist house in Brazil.
Samuel had taken me to see it shortly after we met. I was so struck by its scope and imagination, that he’d build something like it—at once classic and avant-garde—that I said nothing. It was constructed in incongruous sections, an open plan for the main part and another for the bedrooms, hallway, and foyer. The kitchen stood apart from the house altogether, in the back, with its own garden. Unlike the other houses on the street, it had a simple wooden gate, its plants grasping for the sea through the sand and earth. Someone who would build a house like that must have an original mind. And of all the qualities in someone, originality was what I sought, tired as I was of templates of being.
“So, you want to live here?” Samuel had asked.
“What do you mean? We’ve only just met.” He didn’t take his eyes off me, his gaze unwavering, almost like a child’s in frankness. I had looked at the burnt cement floor of the living room, which was painted a deep indigo, all sky and wonder, and I could not think of a good reason to say no. Samuel had first introduced himself to me at Belezapura, his music venue in town. I was there with an Argentinean acquaintance, a woman who worked at the local art-house movie theater. “Do you usually prefer the A or B side of an album?” he’d asked. An experimental version of Heitor Villa-Lobos’ classic “Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5” was playing at the time, which sounded vaguely familiar.
“The D side when there’s one. What’s this, a sampling?”
He crossed his arms and shook his head so slowly it seemed mechanical. “Egberto Gismonti, baby,” he said. I couldn’t help but laugh. He was equally attractive and strange—tall, his skin a mahogany shade from the sun, a large aquiline nose, and an asymmetrical face, one eye much larger than the other. Altogether he had a calm assurance, the way he stood apart while taking everything in. It wasn’t so much that he owned the place but rather he owned his space.
A few days later, we went on a date that lasted a week. He’d said to bring a toothbrush, and I figured I would spend the night at his place. Instead, we got on the road.
Like a racecar driver, he changed lanes and passed cars, going too fast and then halting to a stop. At one point I’d closed my eyes. “Slow down,” I pleaded. He did, but I could sense the effort involved.
Soon we entered a mountainous region flecked with cottages and enveloped by blue mist, the bucolic landscape reminiscent of Slovakia, with its bungalows and enmeshing forests. Our cottage had a porch and was pushed back into a hill, where pine and eucalyptus surrounded us. A creek coursed through the property, the air crisp with a mineral scent.
Samuel had brought a bottle of whiskey, and we drank it slowly, sitting on the porch before retreating inside, where we made love for the rest of the week—on every conceivable surface as well as in the creek—and just when we thought we were exhausted, a feral glance would rouse us. We were trying each other out. There was a gleefulness to it all, a game of making up for lost time—of a future where we might not be together. If we were never to meet again, this time would have to suffice.
We swam naked in the nearby lakes and ate breakfast and lunch in the property’s common area. Everything was prepared by a beautiful, stout second-generation Polish woman with a gentle smile and a mischievous glint in her eyes. She was obviously familiar with Samuel’s preferences—he’d brought an ex there before, he said—and served us graciously, stopping to chat and feed the birds. When she learned I was Czech, she nodded slowly, as if calibrating a response. Finally, she said, “This is the land of forgetfulness.” She said she grew up without television, newspapers, internet, and news of the world, and did not learn Portuguese until she was sent to school at seven. Her parents, she said, had eventually forgotten where they were whereas she had forgotten much of what they told her about Poland. Her Polish now consisted of a few scattered words, recipes, and habits. I counted the number of wildflowers on the vase on the table, and surely enough, they were odd numbered, a superstition common to Slavs. It also struck me that the place her family had settled was a simulacrum of a village in Eastern Europe, as nebulous as that was.
At some point, Samuel chipped in, “There are many Ukrainians here as well. Jana, why don’t you get together?” Jana shook her head, chuckling. “Because then a Russian would come out,” she said. Apparently it was a joke in these parts, a joke Samuel was in on.
When we were ready to eat, I marveled at the colorful array of dishes spread on the linen cloth. “She killed a chicken for us today,” Samuel said.
“A sacrifice,” I responded.
We ate it reverentially, in keeping with the fantastical feel of our mountain alcove. During that entire time, we were the only guests around.
At night, we had access to the kitchen. In between swimming, sleeping, and exploring, we warmed up the pans in the industrial kitchen, our appetites as robust as the sex. In the morning, I would rise just as the first blue-grey light began to show and go onto the porch to be alone for a while. I wrote on napkins, just so I wouldn’t forget as Jana said. I feel cleansed. A tightly-shut room has cracked open, I wrote.
Next, I was looking through fronds at the apricot sky by the sea. In less than a month, I brought my few belongings to Samuel’s beach house. And he, day after day, would bring in new furnishings—a new rug, chaise, a dresser, wardrobe, a vanity—found in antique shops, on the side of the road, or from the many people he knew or ran across, all bargained in his favor. I wasn’t used to such extravagant gestures and distrusted them. I seemed to have no choice in the matter, as items would be summoned by a passing glance of approval. For a while I was almost reluctant to notice something that would soon be mine, as though by magic. “I grew up under communism, you know,” I told Samuel at one point. “We were taught to shun excess and impulses.”
He would give me one of his sardonic looks and slap his thighs. “You’ve come to the wrong place then. A wild colony. No place for amateur anthropologists.” These comments annoyed me enough to make me question my certainties.
We had a ceremony on the beach at sunset to mark our wedding. We played Dorival Caymmi. He got people from the village to build a pergola, and they stood at a distance looking on as the vow, which consisted of silently looking at each other for a while, exhausted itself and the justice—a friend of Samuel’s—said, “So be it!” We were supposed to formally register a civil wedding at the town hall, but never got around to it. I found that informality liberating. Used to a Kafkaesque bureaucracy where everything had to be notarized, stamped, and apostilled by countless hands, I relished its undoing. A piece of paper would’ve broken the spell.
Still, many people referred to me as Samuel’s wife, rarely by my name.
As I think of that beginning now, I recall the contours of a seashell—enigmatic but merely the surface of the roaring inside, its bony scent unfurling the connective tissue among people. Soon, Samuel’s female friends began to visit us at home. I had met them before at the music venue, in passing. They were the daughters of the elite—well-educated, fashionable, and used to all forms of privilege, even if some were conscious of social causes. They greeted me with polite interest at first but were skeptical of our relationship. I supposed I would’ve been, too, in their place. All of a sudden I was just there, an interloper as far as they were concerned. My reserve and Samuel’s expansiveness didn’t seem to fit. “So different from Bel,” I heard them say about the ex, whose traces could be found in the garden. Apparently, she was the one who chose that particular strain of Madagascar jasmine around the front pillars. These friends brought gifts—candied orange peels, jazz albums, a Persian rug once, like an offering to a prince. It became evident that many of these friends had once been lovers or wanted to be one, and the ongoing question was, why me?
Samuel and I tended to question each other’s questions from other angles.
“Freedom can be agonizing. Have you read any of the Existentialists?” I asked Samuel once.
He didn’t respond, pulling out books by George Gurdjeiff and Idries Shah from the shelves. His friends would come over at all hours; they showed up unexpectedly and sprawled. There were a couple of constant fixtures—Laura, for instance. She had a piercing gaze, both steady and provocative. She seemed to glide through space, effortlessly at ease. No sooner would she arrive, and she had a ready quip to match Samuel’s. Laura refused to speak Portuguese to me, saying it was easier to converse in English.
“You should teach Czech,” she said.
“There’s not much of a demand for that.”
Exchanging a glance with Samuel, she smirked. “Czech could be the new Esperanto.” She suggested I teach those who had an interest in learning something impractical just for kicks. Laura owned a boutique in town and when she appeared at the village, expected to stay the night. Sitting back on the chaise, she’d smoke a joint, alternatively choose and have records chosen for her benefit and bask in Samuel’s way of getting you to air out your thoughts. For a while jealousy had given way to a certain voyeurism. I didn’t want to interrupt something I wanted to watch unfold.
Once, after my one visit back to Prague during those six years in Brazil, I’d brought Samuel a book about the city with a pop-up map. He’d noticed the picture of the Belvedere and remarked on its arcades and verdigris roof. I tried to convince him to come here to Prague with me, but it was no use. “Wherever you go, you take yourself,” he said. “The trip is internal.”
He was fond of mystics, adventurers, and phrases like that, and when I rolled my eyes, he’d smile and tell me to get out of the cage I’d built around myself.
“I’m here, aren’t I? Isn’t this proof enough that I am open?”
“The cage may be open but you’re still inside.”
“I don’t want Laura to come around anymore.”
“Because I’ll bite her if she does.”
“I don’t recommend it. I don’t see why you can’t be friends.”
“That’s just a façade. You should know better. Lay out the candied oranges she brings.”
We began to argue about Laura constantly. “You’ve changed,” he said. “When did you become someone who looks at an orange and only sees the orange.”
A few days later Samuel went to São Paulo. I stayed in the village and got invited to the film festival in town, a yearly event run by a French producer who had retired there. The festival had become one of those chic little spots in the circuit that could only remain hidden for so long. I noticed Laura inside the hall of the festival. Neither of us greeted the other, acknowledging each other sideways while she talked to a group of men, and I spoke to my acquaintance who helped organize the festival.
After an Argentinian film—Wild Tales, it was called—the last screening of the day, people slowly petered out and the ones who stayed were invited to the mansion of one of the producers. Laura was there. I don’t remember much of the party aside from a flurry of people on a deck, strobe lights, and glasses of champagne and whisky. Eventually we gravitated towards each other and exchanged a few banal words.
“Where’s Samuel?” she asked.
“Not here,” I said.
We went to one of the back rooms and she mentioned Samuel again, made fun of his sideburns. Tanned and hazel-eyed, she was wearing a white pantsuit with a deep decolletage. I noticed a reddish spill on the fabric, near her shoulder blade. “Well, so you’re human, after all,” I said.
She huffed. “This oily pest spilled it on me while trying to impress me with his credentials.”
“You look like a swan in that pantsuit.”
“And you look like an owl. So serious all the time.”
I stared back at her. A light switched on in me. I now felt a strange lucidity, when something previously out of focus sharpens. I seduced her by merely looking at her long enough, seizing the power of watching her react. She was beautiful, more so as drops of sweat pooled on her upper lip. I leaned over and licked the salty sweat from her cupid’s bow. She stared back at me. Grinned.
I felt like Samuel. But I was nothing like Samuel, and she must have sensed that intermingled with sudden desire was a wish to stamp her out. At that moment sex was a substitute for a fight, a latent desire to take control, to change the plot and become the protagonist and the director. It didn’t take long for Laura’s expression to darken, as if she had just remembered who I was. Already dressed, she left without offering me a ride.
The public vans that had brought me to the party were no longer running. I had to walk all the way to the village. I don’t know how long it took exactly—it felt like hours, my sobering up every step of the way—but I was at home by seven in the morning, feeling strangely bereft at that house by myself after such an unusual turn of events. Nausea settled in. It reminded me of the time my grandmother had forgotten a roast in the oven and I ate it greedily. Then, as the staleness of the meat sunk in, I’d slumped into a corner of the room while my body raged, my tongue stale and leaden.
By the time Samuel returned, I had decided not to mention anything, assuming neither would she. It would be our pact, some kind of a ladies’ agreement. I didn’t think she would show up at the house again, not for some time anyway, but I was wrong. Not only did Laura meet him in town, but she also began to come by at least once a week, often unannounced and sometimes accompanied by Samuel himself, her laughter heard from the front gate. I couldn’t believe her nerve, the taunting. Then it occurred to me that she didn’t have anything to lose. I did.
At some point I told him about Laura and I. He just listened as he rolled a straw cigarette. “Well, you beat me to it,” he finally said, pausing before adding with a lopsided smile, “you’re telling me this to compensate for something else.”
“Who do you think you are? A guru?”
I was considering leaving him, and it bothered me that he sensed it.
“Only to myself,” he said.
Not long after that, I traveled to Rio alone. He didn’t question it or ask why, but something in his silence told me he was hurt. It was supposed to be a short trip, and it was cut even shorter. When I got the call, I was sitting in a bookstore café drinking hot milk, something Grandma often made for me. Laura, of all people, called to tell me Samuel had run into another driver on his way home at night. She said it was an instant death. In fiction, this was a deux ex machina, but real life is free to pull all sorts of tricks, drawing the curtain in the middle of a fight or a kiss.
So shocked I couldn’t bring myself to think, I must’ve made enough robotic requests to get from A to B. Everything from the moment I left Rio back to the village, the bus to town and then a van, blurred through numbness jagged with pain. Like a terrible toothache lodged not in my mouth but in my chest.
It was overcast when I arrived in the house, still damp from rain. When I opened the gate and trod the yard, my footprints matting the sand, I stopped to look at the vines of jasmine on the front pillars. Their buds were shut tightly like eyelids. I took it personally, as I couldn’t remember a time when they had been closed up like that. A new car was parked in the driveway, a stretch of land without shrubs or plants. Usually, it was where Samuel’s old Variant would be, its absence now conspicuous. I walked inside the house and saw the mirror on the foyer’s wall. It was covered with a sheet. The house seemed austere yet defiled, the floor streaked with dirt tracks from shoe soles.
Samuel’s two brothers were there. I had met them once before in the central bakery, and briefly at the house. They were urbanites with little taste for rustic beach houses or villages for that matter, preferring to stay in a hotel in town. They had been polite enough, though they clearly regarded me as just another girlfriend. As I watched one of them empty one of Samuel’s drawers, I tensed up. “Leave it,” I protested.
The older one turned around with a shrewd glance. “What do you want?” he asked. I wanted to assert some right in the matter, to sift through its contents—the letters, the photographs of Israel, the Kinder egg toys, the sunglasses, which I knew well enough—everything suddenly valuable to me. I balked at his gaze, however, like I was applying for another permission to be, to stay or to go.
I suppose a piece of paper would’ve helped then. Their mother, they said, was “too upset to come.” She had demanded Samuel be buried in São Paulo. After taking care of business matters, settling debts, closing the shops and Belezapura, the brothers left as silently and efficiently as they came, showing no interest in the house. I stayed put. The reckless driving then made sense as vestigial rebellion from his earlier years perhaps. I remembered one of his jokes, “My family, we’re commies. Everything is everyone’s and no one’s.” Like me, he sought some autonomy by coming here, by making a house so odd by regular standards. Unlike his lapidated brothers, he chipped away at veneers.
“Take care,” the brothers said on their way out. They looked like a blanched version of Samuel, lit within by artificial lights.
At some point Laura showed up. “The door was open,” she said. “Careful with that.”
“Here we are,” I said. “Come in.”
She sat next to me. We both stared at the mirrors—all of them covered with sheets. I cannot say we became friends, but a certain truce was reached, her very presence a form of consolation. After all, we had loved the same person. At some point we even held each other’s hands, like sisters and witnesses to one of life’s unanswerables.
She came around every day for a month, bringing quiches, bread, and soups.
When I finally left for Prague, she questioned the decision. “Why?” she asked. “It’s your house.”
“Yours, too,” I said.
“No. It’s not.”
The roaring of the sea turned a higher pitch, crashing and then fizzing with the foam. “This isn’t real life,” I said.
Real life. What a clipped bird it was turning out to be, wings trapped in caged reminiscences. And the jasmine trailing me was turning putrid. I left the Belvedere just as the air chilled and the sky turned violet. Now I often forgot where I was, lost in a time that seemed more real than my surroundings. Since my return, I had been living in this gelatinous reality, this maze of thoughts that all return to Samuel in that house. On the tram back to my studio, I heard Laura say, “You have to wait it out. Otherwise this sensation will follow you.”
We’d walked out of the house together, dragging my bulging suitcase across the yard, and she drove me to the airport. I took nothing of the house but its key.
Arriving at my studio, Grandma wasn’t there. Suddenly, I wanted to see her, to tell what I was about to do. I found her in front of the Dazzling Incarnations show upstairs, busy with my scarf. “I’m leaving,” I announced.
She didn’t even look up, knitting. “You already left.”