Each morning is the same
but I can’t help but look again and again:
skin smooth peony petal, vanilla-ice-
cream-cool; hair a ripple of milk pulled back
too tight (though sometimes I forget the aching);
even my eyes are eggshells. Only air where arms
should be, dimpled seams of unfinished
making I’ll never forgive, but the sling
of this sheet hugs my hips in the perfect
place that says, Hey, I can still be sexy.
Then, there are the drawers: forehead,
breasts, ribcage, stomach, my left knee—
the edges to my curves only someone else
can open—nipples, belly button, each knob
a puff of fur to touch and pull. I’m told
they’re so, so soft. Everyone wants to look
inside, and sometimes I let them
just to feel the rub and jolt, just to see
their faces when they find my secrets,
find their own. My favorite part is when
they shut me, shaking my spine so hard
I almost crack—and for a moment it feels
some part of me could change.
The absence of faith is the beginning of death.
What I call flesh is prayer bound to my bones.
All my prayers begin as songs from my bones
and end with blood instead of amen.
How I wish I began every request with amen,
like when I ask God to let doubt pass from me.
Amen. Oh God. let this sea of doubt pass from me,
for I’ve tried walking on water & almost drowned.
In Noah’s ark, a lost name is replaced with drowned.
In Ghana, anyone who drowns is without a name.
What is the value of a life without a name
to those who believe in what they can only see?
To those who believe in what they can only see,
the absence of faith is the beginning of death.
We are building a house
small in the woods,
refuge from disquiet
or vague boredom.
It must weather distance,
the hurt of proximity.
We do not mean to,
though we are so good
at breaking, scavenging
old bone and feather, stalks of
the hour of their heads.
You are boss, and look boss,
hammer and spackle knife
and blue hair, plastering.
At a window you like the way
open sounds, so you mouth it
until the word too becomes
some thing to occupy.
You can’t take it with you,
and the house won’t stay
when you’re gone.
Wind is saying this,
the way wind likes to say things,
likes the door swinging,
petals over the floor,
then floor, then house,
then whatever was before.
DREAMING OF THE GOVERNOR AND THE MAYOR PLUNGING INTO THE RIVER
Perhaps conjoined at the ankle
by a concrete block, like the tails
of Pisces. Yes, let them embrace
the East River together in early
morning so they may be blessed
at last by the light of a new day
rising beautifully without them.
MY DAD’S BIRTHDAY IS WRONG ON HIS BIRTH CERTIFICATE BECAUSE HIS PARENTS COULDN’T AFFORD TO PAY FOR IT WHEN HE WAS BORN
Officially my dad was born
June 3rd, 1957— that’s what all
of his documents, signed and notarized
claim in both countries that claim him—
though unofficially, hearsay,
there’s no proof that he entered the world
on April 11th, 1957: photos can be
doctored and both parents dead,
only the scowl on his face when it’s
brought up can serve as testament
to those fifty-four unaccounted days.
There is being born into poverty
and then there is not being born
because of poverty. One must pay
to come into existence and my dad’s
existence was delayed two months
because his parents could not.
There is something unforgivable
about being denied time, about
being made to feel as though you need
to catch up to yourself, make up
what’s been lost— no, what’s been taken.
Despite all the evidence to the contrary
I do not like dwelling on the past,
especially one inherited so heavily
and without consent; but I can’t help
but think of how being a dollar short
seems to be a family trait, of how
my grandparents split, fell apart
like dead trees in a storm, of how
my dad grew up to meet my mom
and repeat that cycle, unintentionally,
but intentions don’t matter when you’re left
indebted to the wreckage—
of how things could have been different
of how things could have been different.
with apologies to my brother, 11 months clean
The boy who cried sunlight, summer rain,
bird-in-the-bush, in the hand, who cried
fiddleheads, brook trout, berries in the field
by the chicken house, again and again
who cried lilacs, from each bloom
a hit of nectar and nothing to fear—
he’d pretended for so long the all clear
while something hungry paced the room
that even when of true wolflessness
he made a bouquet so pretty and perfumed
nobody in her right mind could presume
it wasn’t flowers, I called it beast,
saw in the gold-dusted mouth of each bud
a dogtooth sharp enough to draw blood.
EPITHALAMIUM WITH PAPER BELL
I was there on the day my mother married—
I’ve seen photographs of her in her borrowed
dress, bodice of a taller friend wrinkled
at her waist, slack satin pooling at her feet.
Her forehead shines above a startled smile,
and my sudden stepfather, in a rented tux
of powder blue, just looks glad. There I am,
too, tucked between them on my final day
of being five years old. I don’t remember
the ceremony or the reception, the kind I’d
later love when my mother’s younger brothers
wed their first or second wives at the Elks club
or the VFW, center of the room cleared
for a dance floor, tables pushed to the walls
and spread with crockpots of cabbage rolls,
spam salad spooned into hotdog buns.
Beer bottles and ashtrays. Uncles with their
sleeves rolled up, Red Wings buffed of mud.
When they weren’t twirling girlfriends
with spaghetti straps and long-long hair,
pulling them close for the slow tunes,
they lifted me into their arms so I could hug
their whiskered necks. There’d have been
a deejay and gallons of milk mixed with Kahlua,
a dollar dance, man after man paying to twirl
my mother a little, money for the honeymoon,
one night in a cabin at Portage Lake then back
to the shoe factory. But I only remember
the paper bell I found taped to a table that night,
miracle the way I could close its feathers so
easily, conceal the whole voluminous thing
between two half-bells of card, then open it
as swiftly as lungs can fill with breath.
Like hands that part to reveal what I’d
wished for bent at the bedside, what I’d seen
in my head and whispered into the dark.
I could almost have believed I heard it ringing,
that tissue bell, marvelous flat nothing
come to song. I kept it a long time, precious—
and then I guess I lost it. I guess we all did.
Young walruses, we all must adapt! For example,
some of your ancestors gouged the world
with four tusks, but you can grow only two.
It’s hard to say what evolution plans for your kind,
but if given a choice,
you should put in a request for thumbs.
Anyway, congratulations! You’re entering
a world that’s increasingly hostile and cruel
and full of people who’ll never take you seriously
though that will be a mistake on their end.
You are more tenacious than they know.
You’ll be a fierce and loyal defender
of those you love. You will fight polar bears
when they attack your friends and sometimes you’ll win.
Of course, odds always favor the polar bear,
but that’s not the point. The point is courage.
The point is bravery. The point is you are all fighters
even when the fight in which you find yourself
ensures unpleasant things will happen to you.
For example, the bear will gnaw apart your skull
or neck until you stop that persistent twitching;
it will eat your skin, all of it, then blubber, then muscle,
then the tears of your loved ones, in that order;
it will savor every bite, and you will just
suffer and suffer until the emptiness can wash over you.
The good news is: things change!
For example: the environment.
Climate change, indeed, is bad for you,
but it’s worse for polar bears whose conservation status
is now listed as “vulnerable” which is one step removed
from “endangered” which is one step removed
from “extinct” which is a synonym
for Hooray! None of you get eaten!
I suppose this will make some people sad.
Even now, they’re posting pictures
of disconsolate polar bears on melting ice floes
drifting toward a well-deserved oblivion.
They say, We need to stop this!
They say, We need to do something, now!
These people are not your friends.
One cannot be on both Team Walrus and Team Polar Bear
at the same time. I’m not saying these people are evil;
I’m saying, it’s time to choose a side.
I’m saying sharpen your tusks, young calves;
your enemies are devious. You need to train
yourself to do what they won’t expect.
For example: use computers, invest
in renewable energies, read Zbigniew Herbert.
Unrelatedly: your whiskers make you appear
to have mustaches, which, seeing as you’re
not even toddlers, is remarkably unsettling.
Babies that look like grown men freak me out.
Like those medieval paintings by so-called masters
where they’d make the face of little baby Jesus
look like an ancient constipated banker.
If that’s what God really looks like,
it’s no wonder we’ve done what we’ve done to the Earth.
Maybe you can repair what we spent lifetimes taking apart.
Replace some screws. Oil some hinges.
This might sound impossible, but have you ever
looked at yourselves? Seriously—take a quick look
and tell me how a walrus face is possible;
everything about it defies the laws of physics.
You will exist beyond the reach of nature.
You will learn to slow your own heartbeat to preserve oxygen
while diving to depths of over 900 feet.
You will stay awake for up to three consecutive days
while swimming on the open sea.
And when the ocean is too rough—
so terrible with longing, so ruptured with heartache—
you’ll find a small island of stone or ice offering refuge.
It will be difficult to climb from the water,
but because there’s hope for us all,
you will hoist yourself up,
using only your front teeth to drag your body
onto the shore.
Renaud com richchande thurgh a roghe greve
And alle the rabel in a res, ryght at his heles.
— “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” by anonymous
but what is the fox to think, duck-tumbling through green with all the dogs baying at his heels, of the scene unfolding across a hill inside stone walls much higher than the fences the fox can leap, inside the curtains and sheets sweetened with lavender, sweetened with words and hands touching: a man and a woman and the frightful truth that what you give is what you get but only if you’re one of the people in the story, only if that’s how you’re seen. a fox isn’t a person, a fox isn’t given, a fox has to get all on its own: a rabbit, a den, a mouthful of feathers because hunger is a gag in the throat, an acid turn in the belly; hunger is wanting and wanting and when someone does give a fox, it is not the soft part of a bird, not the thing the fox wants but some lines in a poem: a fox is gotten, a fox is given to someone else but only after the fox is dead and only to remind the man in the bed of the wager he made against the fishbone sliver of his life, and no one kisses the fox three times because a fox doesn’t know about kisses—
but a fox knows about fucking, a fox knows about a pull, a pull, an arch and bite and everyone in the fox’s poem knows about that, too—
but the fox isn’t a person no matter the name that’s offered; what good are names if the ink’s half-flayed and no one is who they’re supposed to be, not even the knight? were it otherwise, a fox might turn and fight, a fox might have some kind of agreement, like the man in the bed with another man’s wife (though they’re not fucking, only kissing and that only a little too), but this is not that version. the man in the bed is going to give those kisses right back to the man who is chasing the fox and trying to give a gift of a redbrush tail that no longer hides gold eyes, that no longer follows four fast feet, and it would be a handsome gift—all this soft amber of running, living, warming—but it’s not a gift, it’s a threat, like the horses chasing the fox, too, there behind the dogs, and the fox has tasted horse once. the fox found a dead one and all over its sleek hide the smudge of men and metal, but the bones broke easily enough and the sun-sour meat tasted like life and monsieur reynard doesn’t know what a promise between men has to do with foxes—just the same as a boar doesn’t know, just the same as the hart, both already hunted, both already still and spitted, and no one has to know, do they, to end up dead for it, to end up caught, to end up peeled bare, to end up in someone else’s mouth? and the fox doesn’t know this isn’t to do with food or fur because for the fox it is, and for the man in the bed it’s about keeping clean, which is also about keeping uncaught, keeping unbloodied, and for the woman taking his hand, it’s about finding out where the nail catches the skin and can peel it back—how much comes free in one piece? and for the man on the horse (all these men on all these horses) it’s a game to be played. the man on the horse lost his head to the game and picked it up and walked away, and a fox doesn’t know such a thing is possible because such a thing is not possible in this poem—at least for foxes in this poem—which is old, old, old enough that the pigments have scraped themselves thin. all the blood and the robes that were once real stones, once real things—
it’s the green that lasts least, all this green so lush and growing and false, though there is nothing truer than some shoot’s first twining and nothing truer than the ease of it crushing underfoot; it is not the province of a fox to follow these stems and roots. a fox follows low cuts between leaf and branch and the twisting trails toward warmth and blood. a fox only runs and pants against the pack’s closing howl and lunge—
inside the room the lady has a gift to save a man’s life if only he accepts and he’ll accept because if he doesn’t—
no one brings such a gift to a fox, to a body so desperate, no one brings water for the tongue dry and lolling, no one brings a soft green cloth to dab away fear’s white foam and bind up the soft underbelly, and no one asks as the strength fails in one limb and another and no one opens a door, breaks a fence, moves a stone—but what bargain wouldn’t this fox make right now right now, what wouldn’t he exchange—
what wouldn’t the boar, what wouldn’t the doe, what wouldn’t anyone trade to keep feeling the drum under the feet, that feeling of beating alive alive just the same as the heart?
I ducked down a side street when I saw the red and blue lights coming from the police cruisers blocking the Burnside Bridge. My big brother, Joel, trailed after me and asked, What’re you doing? I told him I’d never seen so many cops before; the only policeman I’d encountered was the one who visited our middle school to talk about the dangers of illegal drugs. They aren’t interested in us, Joel said. He took me by the wrist, led me out of the alley, and told me, We just have to make it past them to the river. Then all we have to do is swim.
The streets were wet and slick from rain and reflected the light of the moon. Ahead of us, the Burnside Bridge was drawn, halting passage across the Willamette River to the west side of the city. Officers milled around the cruisers, assault rifles slung over their shoulders, sipping from Styrofoam cups. We were close enough to hear the chirp of the walkie-talkies. A crackled voice said, Please be advised. An officer responded, Ten-four.
It all started a couple months earlier, with a single pothole on Ankeny Avenue. Then there was one on Morrison Street and another in Old Town. Every weekend, our dad picked us up and we crossed the river to stay at his apartment in the west side of the city, and each time we went there—whether we were going to the nickel arcade or on our way to browse books at Powell’s—we spotted more cavities in the streets.
Joel said, Every week it’s worse. But nobody made a big deal about it. In an interview on the evening news, a city council member said, This is just the routine erosion of infrastructure.
Crews were dispatched to make repairs. They came in white-paneled trucks and shoveled fresh asphalt, but for each pothole they patched, more appeared.
The last time we were with our dad, we got frozen yogurt from This Is Culture. We were walking up the street, cones in hand, when a Loomis Fargo truck hummed by. I doubt we’d even remember that truck if it weren’t for what happened next. One of its wheels sank. The truck slumped and came to a stop. The driver punched the gas, and the wheel spun, climbing just a little before the asphalt crumbled and the wheel slid back into the rut. The driver hit the gas again. The engine whined. Black smoke rose, stinking of burned rubber. The tire blew and the naked wheel dropped into the pothole. Then the ground gave way and the front half of the armored truck sank into a growing opening in the street. The driver clambered out the rear door and fled to solid ground.
Let’s get you home to your mom, our dad said.
We crossed the bridge back to the east side of the city. As soon as we walked into the house, we told our mom what had happened. She said she knew we were worried, and that Dad could stay with us for a while if he wanted. In that moment, I imagined all of us back together, like whatever had come between them could be forgiven and forgotten, but our dad shook his head. He assured us the whole thing was just a freak accident. It’ll be okay, he said.
We’d never heard of the Shanghai Tunnels, but once the Loomis Fargo trunk sank into the street, they were on the news all the time. Reporters opened trapdoors and pried open manholes. Beneath the west side of the city was a vast maze, pathways that led to openings along the Willamette River.
Some thought that the tunnels were just an outdated means of transporting goods to and from docked ships, but rumor had it that young men had once been dragged through the tunnels and sold as slaves to ships bound for Shanghai. Whatever the tunnels had been used for didn’t matter much now. The streets were sinking into them either way.
Even so, people carried on as if what was happening wasn’t happening. The city tried to reinforce the tunnels with lumber buttresses, but the streets just crumbled around them, leaving standing ribs of wood and asphalt. They tried to pump concrete into the tunnels, but the trucks were too heavy to drive around the west side. They parked on the Burnside Bridge, long tubes leading out of the mixers, burping cement. Then Big Pink, the tallest building in the city, fell. Forty-two floors worth of shattered glass and twisted metal collapsed into the tunnels, countless bodies buried in the wreckage. The city placed an evacuation order, but not everyone made it to safety before more buildings came down: the Overton Towers, the Wilkins-Spaniel Center, and the Harrison Tower Apartments, where on weekends we lived with our dad.
Our mother couldn’t turn away from the TV after that. He should’ve stayed, she said, speaking to footage of the wreckage on the screen. Joel told her, He might be okay, but our mother shook her head. We hadn’t heard from him in days, but I wanted to believe what Joel believed: that our dad was still beneath the rubble waiting to be rescued.
He was right about the police; they didn’t even notice us walk past when we made our way to the river. We knelt by the bank and dipped our hands into the water. I said, It’s cold. Joel told me, We’ll get used to it. Then we waded into the river together.
We were only waist deep when the current swept us away from each other. I struggled to swim, but I was quickly pulled under, stuck in the current, suspended between the river bottom and the air above it. It was like flying, though I couldn’t breathe. I saw nothing but darkness punctuated with pops of light. I was sure I would drown, and right as my lungs went empty and my throat filled with water, I felt a tug around my neck.
When I resurfaced, Joel had me by the collar and was pulling me back ashore. You’re okay, he said. You’re okay, you’re okay. He got me out of the water and onto the bank. We were far downriver from where we’d started, the police lights no longer in sight. I coughed up the water I’d swallowed and began to sob. Our dad was beneath the debris on the west side, dying or already dead. I wanted to believe there was something we could do, but we couldn’t save him. We’d barely been able to save ourselves.
Joel put his arm around me and said, Don’t cry. Then we sat there, cold and wet on the bank of the river, and watched the city buckle in the distance.
Smaller Uncle claimed he could predict a flood was coming when all his nose-hairs swooned and sprinkled the sink. A long time ago, before he washed cars, he used to be a weatherman, which I thought meant he could manufacture weather, plucking out strands of his own hair to double as lightning, the way the Monkey King scattered stalks of his hair to multiply himself, but Medium Aunt told me that actually, it just meant he used to stand in front of a cardboard cut-out sun and guess what time the sky would arrive. My uncle got fired for making a lot of shit up, she explained, like one time predicting a rain of crab claws, and of course everyone was very upset about that because crab claws are delicious and they were all waiting for that day with their pots full of boiling water to catch them. Smaller Uncle interrupted and said, I didn’t mean it would rain literal crab claws, I said that the raindrops would be as large as crab claws, and they’d latch onto you and twist out the meat of your palms, and besides, in the end it didn’t even rain any size and everyone blamed me. That’s nothing, Medium Aunt said, the real scam he pulled is that he can’t even read. The channel was local and there wasn’t a teleprompter or anything, just this guy smoking and holding up pieces of cardboard with the script on it, and your uncle would just make up the script, saying shit like, Tomorrow is sunny with a chance of getting stabbed, likely there will be a night, and all this week there will be sporadic skies soiling themselves. It will be cooler under the shade, so grow some trees. It won’t rain unless you have a leak.
In the sofa bed I shared with my Smaller Uncle and Medium Aunt, I was pocketed between them like a switchblade. In bed, Smaller Uncle laughed so hard at his own made-up weather predictions that the whole apartment rattled like a broken jaw. We fell to the ground, and Uncle rolled me under the sofa bed and said, I forecast it is now earthquaking. Seek shelter beneath your nearest niece. His laughter could even dislocate the building like a shoulder, shifting it half a block up the street, and no one could predict it. Sometimes he would just look at our walls and laugh, and when I asked him what he was laughing at, he said he was reading the mold. It’s making fun of me, he said. There was mold on the wall in the shape of a mouth, and he claimed he could read its lips, claimed he could order the ants on our ceiling to arrange a single sentence. Okay, then what are they saying, I asked. They’re saying you should stop smashing us into sesame paste with your fingers and let us be fluent in foraging, he said. Fine, tell them I don’t like them crawling into my mouth when I’m asleep, I said back. Smaller Uncle shut his eyes, sketched lines in the air with a single finger. Okay, he said, I wrote back to them, but just know that they enter your mouth at night so that you’ll have words to speak in the morning. You think we make words ourselves? We borrow their bodies to speak. That’s nice of them, I said, but still taped my own mouth shut at night, laying strips of tape sticky-side-up around the bed. I asked Medium Aunt if she thought tonight would rain, and she said, I hope not, our ceiling doesn’t even hold up against the dark, look how tomorrow’s leaked in. The mold will multiply into men and then where will we go, she said.
That night, Smaller Uncle told me more stories about the extreme weather incidents he lied about, how he invented local locust plagues, volcanic eruptions, and the impending extinction of the sea. He claimed the sun was a severed head. He said the people of Rudong County believed him so thoroughly that they removed their roofs the day he predicted a hail of pearls. Stop laughing, I told him, I don’t want the city to get a splinter tonight. Okay, he said, and told me another story. About a man named Cangjie who had four eyes. All four were the size of pearl onions in a cocktail of light. This was a long time ago, he said, back when the moon was square, before they realized that light with corners caused accidental eye-gouging when you looked at the moon. One night, the emperor told Cangjie that all across the kingdom, people were rioting against knots. Knots were the only form of writing, and it was beginning to progress into weaponry. Nooses and handcuffs and hogties. So the emperor begged Cangjie to find an alternative. The alternative to a knot is a knife, I said, and the emperor sounds like an idiot. Smaller Uncle smiled and said, I’ll have to decapitate you for disrespect. Listen. Cangjie sat beside a river, but all day it spoke nothing to him. He sat in the mud, but it had no tongue, only stones that settled into the crack of his ass. I told Smaller Uncle that this story was slow, and he said, wait for me to make up the weather. Up in the sky, a crow flew by and dropped a hoofbone at Cangjie’s feet, but he couldn’t read what species the print belonged to. He consulted hunters all over the kingdom, and one finally told him that it was the hoofprint of a pixiu, a species that stomachs gold. Cangjie copied its shape on the sole of his foot and stepped onto a scroll. And that, Smaller Uncle said, was the first written word. I told him the story had holes, like who was the hunter, and why was the bird holding the severed hoof of a pixiu, how did it know where to drop it, and where was the pixiu going, and what did gold have to do with rivermud. He was silent, looking at the ceiling again, and I wondered what he read in those cracks that chronicled our lives, those ruts filled with our blood. You see, he said, a word is just the shape something makes when it falls. Rain too. I imagined the transcription of my feet in mud, how deep a word I would be.
Open your mouth, he said, listen to the leaks saying there’s rain coming. He opened his mouth, and inside I saw the larvae of a language, clung to the roof of him, clusters of light inside. I opened my mouth too, stretching it wide, and waited all night with him. But there was no rain, and in the morning, when I turned my head toward my uncle, he was asleep with his mouth already shut. Medium Aunt was awake in the kitchen, backlit by the TV screen. I kept my mouth open until Smaller Uncle rolled over and told me I could close it finally, that he was wrong after all. In the kitchen, we sat cross-legged on the floor and watched our dumpster-dive TV, which could no longer speak after Smaller Uncle accidentally kicked it over one night when he was drunk. It also meant that some of the faces went missing, and so we identified actors by their shoulders or shadows. After the sound surrendered, Medium Aunt kept the subtitles permanently turned on, and we took turns reading them aloud. Smaller Uncle was silent when we did this, turning his head to the wall, so we pretended to read them aloud just for ourselves, saying the lines like we were repeating them out of shock, like wow, that can’t be true, that there was traffic today, that the clouds came by wind, that the concubine was going to bury the other concubine’s baby alive, that the drought would last for another two hundred years at least, that a fire was furring the sky, that a new species of fish had been found and it used four pairs of eyes, and Smaller Uncle lowered his head and pretended not to listen, sitting cross-legged on the sheets of newspaper we spread on the floor before every meal, the headlines rubbed blank by our knees. He stared at the moldy wall, even after we turned off the TV, sitting still for the ants collaring his neck and stampeding down his spine. I opened my mouth to recite the newspaper headlines swarming around his legs, but he shushed me and said he could do it himself. He told me that all he had to do was sit like Cangjie did, waiting for something to fall, to mean something in the mud. All you have to do is look long enough at something you wanna say aloud, such as the sky, he said. Tomorrow I’ll write you into it.
The Gutter Spread Guide to Prayer is the debut of Eric Tran, released through Autumn House Press in Spring 2020 and selected by Stacey Waite as the winner of the 2019 Autumn House Rising Writer Prize. He previously published the chapbooks Affairs with Men in Suits (Backbone Press, 2014) and Revisions (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2018). Eric Tran is a writer and physician, based in North Carolina.
FWR: How are you doing?
Eric Tran: I’m doing well. I just got off this really intense rotation and this is the first weekend where I don’t have to go back on Monday. It feels like a nice chance to get back into the world. How are you?
FWR: I’m doing alright. It’s week two of school, so it’s back at it.
ET: Are you online or in person?
FWR: We’re in person. I have a few students who are remote, but the majority are in person. My students are wearing masks and they’re trying to stay apart, but our school is not sized so that they can always stay apart appropriately. It feels like a waiting game, unfortunately.
ET: It’s a valiant effort, and hopefully people stay safe. Hopefully, it’s not that people get hurt and that’s why things have to change.
FWR: Yes, I think, and I’m sure you see this too, that folks want to do the right thing but there is this disconnect between wanting to do the right thing and not wanting their lives to change.
ET: Yes, I feel like there is this lack of radical imagination, otherwise known as empathy, of being willing to sacrifice what you have. It’s very unfortunate that the only way for some people to be able to recognize that tragedy can befall them is when it happens to them.
FWR: Exactly. It’s an inability to imagine a broader context. Which, I guess, brings me to the way The Gutter Spread Guide to Prayer obviously plays with characters, plots and themes from various comic books, but I’m interested to talk about to what extent the structure and style of comic books influenced the writing of your poetry. Did you feel the structure of a comic page influencing the way you visualized poems’ layouts or their syntax?
ET: I think that we forget that poems are visual objects, in addition to being text to be read, which I think gives another layer of richness. I prefer to write in white space. I think a line by itself is just a little too lonely, it’s a little too much to be putting on that single line. So I prefer couplets or tercets, lines that have more space around them.
Speaking of the coronavirus, I’ve been thinking a lot about breath in general. I’ve been working on this essay about breath, how necessary it is but also how we take it for granted. We assume that it will always be there, that it can always be there when we need it. For example, if we’re reading a prose block and we need air, we can look away from the page, but what happens when the text requires us to stay with it? If there is something so important that we must stay with it, can we give the reader some air within it? Does taking a breath necessarily mean stepping away from it? I think adding white space to your poems or your prose is a way to strike a compromise. I think that exists within comics as well.
I’ve been reading a lot of Tom King, and he is really drawn to this idea of six panels per page, which can be fairly rigid or overwhelming. But because he has the gutter, the space between panels or the margin, this margin allows us to take space between each panel where you can linger for as long as you need. I think the white space on the page of a comic book does a lot of things that the white space in poetry does; for example, moving from one panel to the next, sometimes it’s linearly connected (such as in one scene someone is sitting on a couch and in the next scene they’re standing up), but something will have happened between those two panels that we didn’t see. The white space signals that a jump is going to happen, and it clues the reader to take a breath and take the jump with the narrator. Or, sometimes if it’s a more experimental comic book, something even bigger can shift in that white space. Tom King, or rather the layout artist, decides how big that white space gets to be; sometimes it’s very minimal and sometimes it’s very large. I think comic books are playing with that narrative leap, much like poets like to. And that’s if we’re just talking about comic books that adopt that layout with panels and gutters. Some comics will have someone leaping across that white space or a hand reaching from one panel to another, which I think is very daring. Similar to poetry, that space is not just a place to take a breath but it’s also a place to do work in, to transform the poem or the layout.
FWR: What you’re saying about taking these leaps makes me think of the trust the writer must have in their audience and the material that they are generating.
ET: Most certainly, and a willingness that the reader must have that they are in good hands. I think that adhering to a kind of form, even if you end up breaking it, or it’s a loose or challenging form, gives that trust in the confidence in the artist and a structure to lean on. We all need to structure, even if we demand freedom; it must be freedom from something.
I think that adhering to a kind of form, even if you end up breaking it, or it’s a loose or challenging form, gives that trust in the confidence in the artist and a structure to lean on. We all need to structure, even if we demand freedom; it must be freedom from something.
FWR: Thinking of how you lean towards couplets or tercets, how did you find your way into the prose poems that are in the manuscript?
ET: I started my MFA as a nonfiction writer, but it turns out all my friends are poets, so I got pulled in. To be quite honest, I think that prose is always poetry. I was toying with sentences over and over, trying to make them beautiful, and it hit me one day that maybe I should make my words beautiful, as opposed to trying to build a narrative. A gateway from prose writing to poetry can be the prose poem. In this book, I think the prose poems make sense; I tend to be a poet who has a lot of narrative lines in his poems. I have been moving more towards more associative ways of using logic, but I do tend towards narratives. I think that one way to present it is in a prose block, because that’s how we tend to think of stories. And then I think that within that prose block, we can make leaps from one idea to another because there is a tight structure on which to rely. Then within those borders, you can be as experimental as you would like to be. In a way, this mirrors a comic book panel, which is usually rectangular and bound by a back and front cover.
In the book, I make a lot of leaps, such as from the Pulse mass shooting to the X Men comic books, which, in some ways, is not a hard association to make, but in other ways it is a hard association to make, moving from a comic book and kids’ TV show and multimillion dollar franchise to something very visceral, very real, and impacts people who are not multi-millionaires, who are not mainstream. I think the structure of the prose poem block contains those two more tightly than if you gave the distance of white space from each other; entropy might tear them apart. If you give them structure, they adhere more tightly.
FWR: Yes, exactly. I think there is so much juxtaposition in the text; I grew up in a Pentecostal house and the language that jumps to mind is being “of the world, not of the world”, or here, of the body and the body in these different places, whether it’s the body in the comic book or in an action film. I think of the way you move from high ekphrastic poetry to a poem that considers the guitar player in Mad Max: Fury Road (“Self Portrait as the Fire”) or Chris Evans (“Portrait as Captain America Holding a Helicopter with a Bicep Curl”), and then bringing it back to the body of someone helping a drag queen descend the stairs; the way that you’re moving in and out of these different worlds allows the various visualizations of the body to come together in a really cool way.
ET: I purposely try, as I said in my MFA thesis, to mix the high and the low. In some ways it feels very purposeful and effortful, and in some ways it feels very natural. We think of Keith Haring, who we think of currently as high art, or Frank O’Hara, who died on Fire Island, which was known for gay revelry, so these contradictions already exist together. And although those things exist together, I think hegemony, or the white washing of things, wants to push them apart. What our job is as artists is to reveal the truths that are already there.
hegemony, or the white washing of things, wants to push them apart. What our job is as artists is to reveal the truths that are already there.
FWR: I think that goes back to what you said when we first started talking about radical imagination and having that empathy to imagine a better world, or a world that responds to everyone in it. Did you feel like that in choosing or attempting to seek out truth, that that impacted your diction or the images you chose, in order to create a more expansive or more nuanced view of the world? I’m thinking of a poem like “Treatise On Whether to Write the Mango”, both for how the shifts in language mirror the shifting identities throughout the text, but also how you deploy interruption in the poem: “your ever-shitty teenager/ attitude (American!), never clearer/ when I woke wanting mangos/ instead of the rubbery jackfruit/ she woke at dawn to peel/ away from the thin white casing and so/ of course mangos”.
ET: I love the idea of radical imagination. I was part of this social justice, podcast listening group, and the podcast we were listening to was about how the principles of America were always set up to be against Black people. So we must radically imagine a new world, because the rules by which we play are inherently always going to resist change. Speaking of entropy, things always revert back to what they were.
So, using that radical imagination to imagine a world where everyone has a place within it, why then do we have to adhere to the diction, the imagery, the logic that existed in these previous worlds? I think poetry already does this. It supposes that there are other ways to make sense of the world, outside of the linear joining of two words to make meaning. If we accept that power, we can use whatever diction, syntax, imagery we want to hear. For example, there are times when I juxtapose the word “twink” with the word “prayer”. In a radically imagined world, I would love for twinks to be alongside prayer, and in my world, they are.
It supposes that there are other ways to make sense of the world, outside of the linear joining of two words to make meaning. If we accept that power, we can use whatever diction, syntax, imagery we want to hear.
FWR: It also creates humor too. In thinking about your work, and describing it to folks, you’re so clearly wrestling with grief, but there is also humor. With humor comes that sense of life. It doesn’t have to be a monopoly on one feeling.
ET: Yes, that speaks to this balance of extremes. Something I’ve been thinking about a lot is in mental health, we work with the idea of the dialectic, which are two disparate truths that seem to contract each other, but they come together to form a deeper truth. For example, a bowl is something that has had something removed from it. So, you have the something and the lack of something, and together they form this new truth, which is a bowl. So thinking about grief and joy, sex and death, not necessarily to find a balance between them, but instead attempting to establish a dialectic in which they’re speaking to each other. That’s something I love about the cover of this book; it’s neon, in your face, very gay, but it belies that there is a lot of tragedy within in. I don’t think that’s hiding anything. The first poem (“Starting with a Line by Joyce Byers”) helps lay out pretty clearly what the book is going to be about.
FWR: That jumps me to the Lectio Divina series, which meditates on characters ranging from Emma Frost to Hektor the Assassin, and the way that by holding those disparate parts together, the reader sees the threads that exist across different characters but also different experiences. To me, these worked as stepping stones to take the reader through the text. How did the Lectio Divina series of poems originate?
ET: The concept of Lectio Divina is from the monastic Christian tradition of approaching a sacred text in different ways. I was introduced to it through a podcast called Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, which is run by two folks who have Masters of Divinity. They approach the chapters of Harry Potter as if each has something to teach them, if they approach it earnestly enough. I started listening after Trump was elected in 2016; I stayed with it because, I believe in the first episode, one host said to the other ‘thank you for teaching me how to love again’. I felt like this was something we needed to relearn how to do. It is a funny, tongue-in-cheek show, but it is deeply serious as well. I also love the idea that they taught me prayer, because it feels like justice.
I think queer people, in particular, often feel excluded from spiritual practices, either because they feel excluded from many denominations or they feel like that need to decide between their queerness or their spiritual life, rather than having a dialectic or harmony of the two together. So, having a spiritual practice is a way of reintroducing a process by which to experience the world. During that time, I was also looking for a spiritual practice because there was a lot of loss in my life and I was thinking about how we learn to grieve. It’s not taught, formally or informally, and yet it’s one of the most important things we must learn how to do. I think spirituality can teach you how to do that, but if we exclude an entire group of people, who inherently have a lot of grief in their life, that is an injustice. So, using something like Lectio Divina feels like, to me, an act of justice to reclaim those spaces and bring them to my people.
FWR: This is making me think of how in so many spiritual traditions, there is also the sacredness of the body, and in your work, you have such attention to the body in your work, as if viewing it as a sacred text, a thing to be treasured, even if it doesn’t exist in the structures deemed appropriate or acceptable.
ET: I think most certainly the body is a text to be approached, spiritually so. To me, prayer is the act of paying attention to something you’re working with. We can approach everything as if it is prayer, but if we don’t know we have the ability to do that, we’re not going to do that. I think that prayer helps us deepen our relationship to things. I think this is the reason prayer is a factor in mental health– not religion, but spirituality in particular is a strong protective factor. So if we’re then aware of all the times in which we can practice prayer, that can only lead to a better life. I think so many things can be approached with prayer, which is part of what draws me to these so-called low texts, like comic books, which are not low texts at all, but would not otherwise be brought up in traditional religious circumstances. If we’re modeling the ability to do prayer in those circumstances and in very traditional circumstances, we’re showing ourselves and each other that prayer exists in all the spaces between. The body is one of those places, because the body exists in the high and low places as well. One way to think about approaching the body is to be with it, in sex, for example, or death, or loss, and think about how that special attention can guide us to and guide us through moments of wonder.
FWR: Not knowing the shape of the piece or pieces you’re working on about breath, I think of the attention there to the minutia or what feels like a mundane aspect of the body. It feels so simple, and yet if we were to stop, suddenly we have a big problem!
ET: Yeah– or if someone stops us from doing it. We take it for granted that it’s always here, but it’s here for you and me, but not for Black people, all the time. I love how much attention poets give to the body, in the here and the now, but I also want to give us the ability to think of the body beyond the physical body, as well. The body will fail us at some point; that’s written into its DNA, it’s not meant to be here forever, but how can we still give attention to the body when it is not here? Breath as well– it’s something but also inherently nothing.
FWR: Right, it goes back to what you were saying about the bowl, being the absence and the presence of something.
ET: And then what is the human body if not a bowl for air?
FWR: Or a bowl for memory, for experience…
ET: Right, and that’s the idea of mindfulness in mental health. Things will come, things will go. You experience them as they fill the bowl. It’s ok to be sad as they leave the bowl, and the bowl can be filled again.
FWR: I think this connects back to the idea of teaching grief. The emotions you are feeling in that moment may not last or may be tempered, and experiencing new emotions or developing new relationships does not mean that those previous ones have vanished, only that new relationships or feelings are coming in and adding to that space within us.
ET: Right, it’s a kind of object permanence that we’re always learning. This reminds me of what we were saying earlier about schools being open, and that they will probably close again. Will we look at that moment as a disaster, or will we look at that time together as something it’s now time to move on from as we approach a new situation and appreciate that situation for what it is, at that time.
FWR: There’s a connection that’s at the edges of my brain between what you’re saying and the fight for racial justice that is making its way through the country. So much of it is connected through video or social media records, and yet these are resulting in real actions that are being manipulated again through videos, which then inspire other actions. It’s connections across distance, space and time.
ET: Inherently in that is change. The injustice that is here right now is not the injustice that is here to stay.
FWR: And yet it goes back to what you said about entropy, that things will want to revert back to that old world. So how do we make a new world in the shell of the old?
ET: Absolutely, and I think that is the idea of being present. Being present doesn’t mean being inactive, it means living in this moment and evaluating what you can do in this moment. What in this present moment is doing anything at all. It’s that narrative leap we were talking about. Leaps are uncomfortable. If I don’t understand how a line can go into the next line, I can be delighted, but I can also be a little bit offended.
FWR: It’s that act of trust again, to believe that there is something on the other side of that gutter or narrative leap.
ET: That’s the job of the artist, to say I’m building the next breath for you, or the next content for you. Isn’t that an act of justice? To say that I guarantee my fellow human being has another breath, whether that be in racial justice or in terms of coronavirus? Why do we create art if it is not a self-perpetuating action?
That’s the job of the artist, to say I’m building the next breath for you, or the next content for you. Isn’t that an act of justice?
FWR: Are there artists or writers who are doing this work, or serving as guideposts for you?
ET: I feel like I am perpetually in debt to Ocean Vuong: he blurbed this book, he tries to bring up a multiplicity of artists, and he also picked my chapbook Revisions for Sibling Rivalry Press. And then I catch things he says off hand, like he was saying why people wear slippers in their houses is not to keep the outside world from coming in, but to show respect to someone’s stuff. He was saying that the reason he speaks so quietly is because he wants his voice to wear slippers in the world. I feel like that has influenced me a lot. More actively, Danez Smith, who is organizing in their local community and has raised something like 40 or 50 thousand dollars to do racial justice work in that area.
FWR: I see both of those writers in your work, especially as I think both are poets who are so interested in exploring and preserving a sense of self; each has a willingness to put oneself at the forefront of one’s writing.
ET: Yes, and a lack of apology, which I think is probably the most important thing. I think many artists, and I include myself in this category, can tend towards emulation. But emulation alone, I think, can serve as a sort of apology for yourself. I think a lot of us have imposter syndrome. It’s been interesting that some of the poems people have gravitated to have been poems I’ve never submitted for publication, because they felt too something– too something that I wanted to hide, or sneak into the manuscript. And yet those are the ones that people have brought up. The book is very personal, and for people to feel reason to talk about any piece of the work, but those in particular, has been very moving for me.
FWR: Is there one of those poems in particular that jumps out to you?
ET: A friend of mine experienced one of the first big losses of his life, and he sent me a photo of the poem “Closure”, which is a poem that I, I don’t think like is the word. I remember writing it and feeling like it was right for me, but it’s also very simple to me. I wish he was not feeling that loss or that suffering, and yet when that suffering happens, I feel both obligated to and happy to provide a tool with which to approach that tragedy.
FWR: Looking at the poem, it has so much we’ve talked about: the push-pull between absence and appearance– the airless kite, the mud prints– that threads so beautifully through the poem, even as the poem is also about moving forward and carrying griefs and memories forward. It’s a beautiful poem. I’m not surprised, but I’m glad that people are responding to your work and finding solace.
ET: As a debut full-length author, it feels like too much to expect such a personal response to the poems. We love accolades, or for someone to say something nice on Twitter, and those things feel lovely, but then once that moment is over, you go back to your everyday life. So, when someone reaches out, perhaps someone who maybe is not even a poet, to say that your book resonated with them, that, personally, is the most gratifying moment. That’s what poetry does– it reaches individual people, not just big swaths of culture. It seems strange because on one hand, those moments are not prestigious and on the other, they feel too valuable to reach. It’s very humbling.
FWR: I can’t imagine how having your debut come out against the backdrop of the coronavirus, how that might impact those feelings even further.
ET: Yes– initially I mourned the loss of a book tour and yet what has happened in response with my book, and thus my life, has been a rededication to racial justice. All the readings I’ve done online have been in some way related to that. A bunch of Western North Carolina writers and I hosted a fundraiser, where we used our books and our editing skills to raise money for organizations benefiting Black people. And isn’t that what I would want anyway? Can I imagine a better use for my art than benefiting the world in this way? So in that way, not thinking that ‘Oh, I don’t get to celebrate my book’, because I am. My art is existing in the space exactly where I hoped it would have. But in the previous models, pre-corona, that wouldn’t have seemed like a possibility to me. With this new world we’re creating, with our radical imagination, it is possible. Everything we do happens within a context. Our bodies, and beyond our bodies. Our breath, and our breath leaving us to intermingle with the larger world.