Still Life

When my cat was alive, and even days before her death, she brought in dead or half-dead creatures for my perusal. She lay them at my feet—their animal bodies so wrong, yet gorgeous, against the wood-grained floor—then rubbed sinuously against me, proud of her composition. Once it was a baby blue jay, recently evicted from the nest (so little a span between the twin abysses of birth and death). I couldn’t help but stroke her tiny feathers into place, touch her sharp and perfect beak. Her neck, it seemed, had been broken; her head canted to the side and lolled when I picked her up to take her outside. She weighed nothing at all.

When my cat died, she put up a fight. She wasn’t supposed to: the vet had given her the sedation syringe, then left me alone with her to say my goodbyes. Instead of drifting quietly to sleep, Madrona rose up in a panic as the medication hit her. I stroked her back down, said it’s okay, it’s okay, though I didn’t mean it. When the vet gave her the second injection, she was gone in just a few seconds. Her body on the examination table made its own still life: she lay on her side, surrouded by white, frozen in her last exhalation.

The birds my father brought home were always so beautiful on their string, doves or pheasant or quail—small birds we would have to bite and chew carefully, tenderly feeling for the tiny rounds of buckshot so we wouldn’t chip our teeth.  I grew up in a suburban household just one generation removed from people who raised and butchered and hunted their food. Fileting a trout or plucking feathers wasn’t an everyday occurrence, but we knew how. We knew that everything dies, and were taught to respect the work and sacrifice necessary to make a meal.

When my husband and our daughter Sofia lived in Yemen, we would buy a chicken from the vendor, who would kill it and pull the skin and feathers off right there, put it in a plastic for us to take home to cook. The first time we went to buy groceries back in the U.S., Sofia pushed a child-size cart and collected the items from our list. When we approached the register, she panicked, said we forgot the chicken. I explained that here we buy our chickens already butchered and wrapped up. I pointed to the packaged bird carcass in the cart. She seemed confused and asked: Is it any good?

I guess that story is also a momento mori, a reminder that death is always close, no matter how far we go to push it away. We are animals first.

Brenda Miller is the author of five essay collections, most recently An Earlier Life (Ovenbird Books, 2016). She also co-authored Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining and Publishing Creative Nonfiction and The Pen and The Bell: Mindful Writing in a Busy World. Her work has received six Pushcart Prizes. She is a Professor of English at Western Washington University, and associate faculty at the Rainier Writing Workshop.

Lee Gulyas’s work has appeared in journals such as The Common, Prime Number, Barn Owl Review, Event, The Malahat Review, Kahini Magazine, Tinderbox, Literary Mama, and Full Grown People. She received a 2014 Washington State Artist Trust Grant, teaches at WWU in Bellingham, and has twice participated as faculty in WWU’s Service-Learning Study Abroad Program to Rwanda.

Brenda and Lee’s collaborative work has appeared in Sweet: A Literary Confection, Los Angeles Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and ReDivider.

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ghost train

Photo by el-toro

Passages North is thrilled to announce the winner of this year’s Ray Ventre Nonfiction Prize*! We had a fantastic selection of entries this year, with over 130 pieces that ranged from gut-wrenching to intellectually exhilarating and always had us asking what else can this genre do? We’d like to thank Jenny Boully for helping us choose our winner, as well as everyone who submitted. The winning essay, and three honorable mentions, will appear in Issue 39 of Passages North, due out February 2018.

Winner: Danielle Lea Buchanan, “Derailments”

About Buchanan’s essay, Jenny Boully writes “‘Derailments’ isn’t simply about why things go wrong: it’s an examination of unseen sufferings, hidden tragedies, unwitnessed soul crushings. The piece brings together, so that they may present all their ironies and misfortunes side-by-side, the hopes and injustices and the dire means through which humans will suffer in order to journey to a new and better life. It’s about love unrealized, fractured bones, dismemberment, and bondage. The author doesn’t, however, tarry too long anywhere: after all, the world, as do trains, keeps going forward without regard to our individual lives. There’s also a sweeping lushness of language, a mechanical friction and musicality. I enjoyed so much the clashes of sound in this piece.”

Honorable Mentions

Garrett Brown, “Disassembly Required”

Noam Dorr, “Fragment | Fragment”

Tessa Mellas, “Keeping Houses”


Beth Bachmann, “Sun, God”

Megan Ellis, “Shedding: A Primer”

Jaimie Eubanks, “The Nature of Obstacles”

Patricia Murphy, “Toast: A Love Story”

Charlotte O’Brien, “Something in the Way”

Peyton Prater, “A Virtual Reality Itinerary According to the Harrison-Wheeler Equation of State for Cold, Dead Matter”

Natasha Sajé, “59 Theses”

*The Ray Ventre Nonfiction Prize has been renamed from the Hrushka Nonfiction Prize in memory of Dr. Ray Ventre, the beloved late head of the English Department at Northern Michigan University. We will never stop missing his endless support of Passages North, his contributions (great and small) to the NMU community, and his infectious snort-laugh.

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Photo by Gabia Party

Thank you to every one of you who submitted your work for this year’s Elinor Benedict Poetry Prize. Passages North received over 180 submissions to the contest this year, and we had quite a difficult time narrowing our choices down. We’re pleased to announce our winners, selected by Ocean Vuong.

Winner: Emari DiGiorgio’s “A Guide for Souvenirs You Get Without Going on the Trip”

On the winning poem, Ocean Vuong writes: “This poem moves with fierce and restless ambitions to rupture itself towards linguistic and imagistic possibilities. But in doing so, it also sutures the syntax of a lived life, fleshed in ‘tight-assed boys from Sioux City,’ and ‘dog tags clacking.’ It’s at once an homage and a testement to place, memory, and the power and vulnerability of not turning away. I love its spirit. Which is to say, I love this poet’s spirit.”

Honorable Mention: Keith S. Wilson’s “A Short List of Grievances”


Leila Chatti, “Explaining the Attempt to the Doctors, Beginning with Two Lines From Darwish”

torrin greathouse, “On Discovering my Gag Reflex, an Absence” and “Self-portrait as Medical Model of Disability”

Samuel Piccone, “Desert Pass”

Osel Jessica Plante, “Weightless”

Brandon Rushton, “Public Works”

Danielle Zaccagnino, “A Brief History of Infatuation”

All contest entrants will receive Issue 39 of Passages North, which will include the winning and honorable mention poems, due out next winter.


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Photo by Melissa Wang

When Writers Interview Each Other

Note from the editors: Some readers may know Jessica Cuello’s poetry from her recent collection Hunt, which won The 2016 Washington Prize, and Jenna Le’s poetry from her collection A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora, which Ocean Vuong described as being “as much about loss as it is about art—making and being human—and utterly, forgivably alive.” Between them they have four full-length collections of poetry, as well as multiple chapbooks, short fictions, essays, criticism, translations, and accolades. Passages North is excited to publish one of Cuello’s Moby Dick-themed poems in our forthcoming issue in February 2018. Le and Cuello took the opportunity to talk with each other about the similarities between their most recent collections, as they both deal with whales and address questions of progress and capitalism.

Jenna Le: Hi Jessica, I’m so happy that we were introduced to each other by Donna Vorreyer (herself a wonderful poet who draws inspiration from global myths about dolphins and whales)! After hearing about your new Moby Dick-themed poetry collection, Hunt, I knew I had to get my hands on a copy right away. It’s interesting how much whales are part of the zeitgeist right now—or perhaps it’s that they’ve never stopped being part of the zeitgeist?—as I’ve seen them invoked in recent collections by poets as diverse as Chelsea Woodard, Jeremiah Webster, Rajiv Mohabir, and others. And whales seem to have such intense, fiercely personal meaning to each of us who invokes them. In Hunt, it appeared to me that you were especially drawn to the parallels between the treatment of whales and women through history: how both have at times been stultifyingly Other-ized, emotionalized, turned into myths and muses, reshaped into foci of obsession and targets of both physical and economic violence. In my latest poetry collection, A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora, I was likewise attracted by whales as an entry-point for a discussion about the experiences of historically marginalized, less fully enfranchised human beings—although in my book I was most interested in how whale-lore could illuminate the struggles of immigrants to America, especially immigrants from Asia. I wonder if you encountered some of the same problems I had while writing my book: the problem of using animals as a means to open a dialogue about humans without letting the animal-ness of the animals diminish the human-ness of the humans (or vice versa!), or the problem of exploring the symbolism of whales without losing sight of the fact that they are more than symbols, that they are real living beings as well.

Jessica Cuello: Yes, It was a great problem when I began writing the poems! There was an absurdity that I faced initially that is exactly as you say—it diminished the animals and, at the same time, ridiculed the human experience I foisted upon them. Whales are both spooky and otherworldly to me. A simple picture of a breached tail makes me awestruck, but I don’t think the awe would register so deeply if there wasn’t a level of identification with whales.

I began these poems 14 years ago after seeing Frank Stella’s Moby Dick sculptures while spending a summer on a Melville NEH seminar; the poems, written as human characters, didn’t work, and I abandoned the project. About four years ago, I spent some time staring at whale skeletons and bones—even a whale brain—at the whaling museum in New Bedford. I began writing the poems again and this time I knew that the poems would be written from the whale viewpoint. During the interval when the poems were abandoned, my kids were born; pregnancy, birth, nursing—all of mothering—made me conscious of the body as animal. I remember staring at cows in fields and identifying with them–and not in a metaphorical way! This led to the idea of what happens to the self when the body is an object of desire–or how commodification of bodies (or violence to the body) negates the rest of a being in the mind of the desirer (or aggressor). But I had to work through the idea of animal as a persona first to get there…how can a whale have human concerns without being ridiculous, cartoonish, or fable-like?

I love how the poems in A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora move in the reverse direction–the animal anatomy and behavior appear as part of people, not the other way around–like in the poem “Mirror Gazing” where the “navel is the whale’s eye / a sluggish pupil.” The surprising presence of whale imagery evokes the same wild awe that I mention above. Or in “Whale Song,”  where “…. like gods, / whales live among us in our towns, / wearing human masks.”

JL: That’s interesting that you can trace your project back to a museum experience. Mine also, in a way, started with a museum visit, to the “Whales: Giants of the Deep” exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in 2013. Being a grown-ass adult woman who studied science at university and everything, I was bowled over by how many of the facts about whales expounded in the exhibit were new to me: in particular, the fact that whales are descendants of land mammals. Just as we’re taught to think of progress as going in one direction, we generally think of evolution as going in one direction, from sea to land, and the fact that whales in their cosmic wisdom had gone in the opposite direction, from land to sea, struck me as deeply pregnant. I didn’t start writing A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora until some time later, though, when one day I was sitting at a bookstore studying for my board exams and, feeling kind of frustrated and fed up, I turned to my companion and asked, “Why can’t we just be whales?” It started off as a random remark, but it stuck: in my spare time, I began reading about whales, researching them, encouraging friends to send me photos of whale-related things they saw. One friend and I, as a kind of a loaded joke, would begin incorporating whale jargon into our conversations. Dashing up the subway stairs at the end of a work day, I would shoot off a text: “I just ‘breached’ on 86th Street.” Or, on instant messenger, I would type, “Well, it’s time to brush my ‘baleen’ and go to bed.” It was simultaneously a wry joke (is it really possible for our small human brains to conceptualize whales without humor, I wonder?), a coping mechanism, and an awkward attempt at identification with something that, as you say, is so obviously bigger and spookier than ourselves. And being immersed in this new vocabulary, I began seeing whales everywhere: in our navels, our fat (blubber!), our bodies, but also our survival struggles and our histories of migration. And that became my book.

But I want to go back to what you were saying about directionality, about reverse directions, because I think it’s very interesting. The thing that first captured my attention about whales was their reverse directionality—how their ancestors migrated from land to sea—and I sense a similar preoccupation in Hunt, in how your poems use whales to subvert humankind’s traditionally unidirectional understanding of progress, to question the wisdom of unchecked capitalism, of being this exceptionalist species that “maraud[s]” and “kill[s] and sell[s].” And I’m intrigued by how you propose a less linear, more “fluid,” more community-based model for how we can relate, both women and men, in “Girls as Schools of Fish” and “Men Squeeze the Whale Flesh Together.” Do you see your poems as falling under the umbrella of eco-poetry? Are you influenced by any eco-poets, or do you see your poetry as belonging to a different political/philosophical project? As I was reading, I couldn’t help but think that, though your poems are set in a specific time and place, they also speak directly to our current age, our current socio-political position, our current environmental concerns.

JC: Ha! I actually learned that whales descended from land mammals from your book!

I can see that there is an eco-poetics to Hunt, but I didn’t approach the poems from that direction. If I write from an idea or an ethics, my poems tend to be doomed. I do think that environmental concerns are directly related to our violence to people; on my mind now is Flint, Michigan and the DAPL.

I stole the brotherhood of “Men Squeeze the Whale Flesh Together” from Melville himself; the chapter is an homage to democracy and it’s also kind of erotic. The poems in Hunt were borne out of a passion for Moby Dick and my own obsessions (which emerge from a kind of mixture of repression and pressure), but they ended up being eerily timely. At a reading in November, a week after the election, I read a few of the Ahab poems. When I read the first lines, “The word brother is not his word. / It’s Me and Them” from “The Chase ~ First Day” the room grew deeply quiet. We all knew. I had a lump in my throat reading the last lines.

A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora has a timely prescience too. I’m most moved by the relationship of the child to the immigrant parents–the child who both partakes of and witnesses her parents’ world. One of my favorite poems is “Chè Bắp” about the process of making and serving corn pudding; the tenderness of the preparation recalls an almost sacred continuity between parents and child. Our very humanity depends on keeping families together.

JL: Yes! I had a similar experience at a reading in November, reading my poem “Prom Night,” which is about having refugee parents, and my poem “Ark,” which tells the interfaith love story of a Muslim Bangladeshi immigrant taxi driver I met during Hurricane Sandy. I don’t normally get choked up reading those poems, nor do I always feel that the room and I are on one wavelength when I’m reading them, but that night something was just different. I didn’t originally intend those poems to be “political”; like you, I don’t generally approach my poems from that direction—not because I don’t believe poetry and politics should be intertwined, far from it, but because, like you say, I have a track record of producing “doomed” poems when I go at it that way. In both “Prom Night” and “Ark,” I mostly just wanted to say something about love, how rare and precious it is, and how it sometimes manifests in strange ways that we can’t fully fathom without knowing everything that’s going on inside each other’s brains. And how I can’t fathom why someone would want to take that away from someone else.

I’m so glad you liked “Chè Bắp.” Family is endlessly fascinating to me; it can alternately be an instrument of love, of nourishment, of fear, of abuse, of hurt. So often we make the mistake of working out our own issues on the next generation, perpetuating the cycle of unhappiness: you portrayed that theme so lucidly in “The Counterpane,” your poem about an embittered stepparent, I thought. If only we could all be as self-aware as the speaker in that poem! What makes that poem great, to me, is how clearly it shows the ways the political intrudes on the personal, how in a society where not everyone is free, even the basic unit of the family becomes poisoned.

And I’m so glad you brought this conversation back to Melville. How impossible it is to write about whales in the shadow of his achievement! Could we talk about some of our other literary and artistic obsessions? What other writers and artists do you feel you’re writing in the shadow of? I thought I could sense some of Bertolt Brecht’s “Pirate Jenny” in the revenge fantasy “Queen Mab: The Whale Has a Dream,” for example.

JC:  “Pirate Jenny” wasn’t on my mind, but I love the comparison! I like what you say about love. I appreciate love’s fearless presence in your poems about family. As for literary obsessions…I’ve been reading Shane McCrae’s In the Language of My Captor and it makes me fired up to write. I read his book Mule before I began Hunt and I was blown away—I reread it the entire summer. His language makes me want to write better poems…or to cut away the lies from my own language. He is a breathtaking poet. What about you? And are you working on something new?

JL: I’ve been splitting my time between studying writers who use poetic form with exquisite skill in their work—for example, how Hannah Sanghee Park revitalizes the sonnet form in The Same-Different, or how Austin Allen does the same for the rubaiyat form in Pleasures of the Game—and marveling at writers who pioneer the hinterlands between verse and prose, like Natalie Vestin and Jenny Boully and Sophia Terazawa. And Max Ritvo. There are some Max Ritvo poems I could read all day.

I’m not currently working on a book, at least not consciously, although I’m always writing new poems. I’ve been writing quite a bit about dreams lately, and mental illness, and mothers. And what’s next for you?

JC: I’ve started new poems; I thought Hunt had emptied the poems out of me, but I am back at the very beginning. It’s been lovely to talk about whales, migration, love, and corn pudding with you. Thank you!

JL: Thank you so much! I enjoyed this conversation a lot.

Jessica Cuello’s first book, Pricking, was published by Tiger Bark Press in 2016. Her second collection, Hunt, was the winner of The 2016 Washington Prize from The Word Works. Jessica is also the author of the chapbooks My Father’s Bargain (2015)By Fire (2013), and Curie (2011). She has been the recipient of The New Letters Poetry Prize and a Saltonstall Fellowship.

Jenna Le, a daughter of Vietnamese refugees, lives and works as a physician and educator in New Hampshire. She is the author of two full-length poetry collections, Six Rivers (NYQ Books, 2011) and A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora (Anchor & Plume, 2016). Her poetry has appeared in AGNI Online, The Best of the Raintown Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Denver Quarterly, The Los Angeles ReviewMassachusetts ReviewThe Village Voice, and elsewhere. Her website is jennalewriting.com.

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After the Parade

Photo by Daniel Weber

I Am Pretending to Be Something I Am

Since he was sixteen, my son and I have been playing this game I call Empathy Chicken. It’s a little like a staring contest, except the loser is who respects the other first. It’s not just that he’s twenty-nine and dressed like Shrek. It’s that he won’t talk to me unless I pretend, like I do this morning as we wait for the Houndsneck Leash parade, not to hate all his decisions.

He cracks a can of High Life and some passing long-boarders laugh. My son leans back, bellows: “They judge me before they know—” but Shrek’s classic quote is silenced by Turn six, dumbfuck! Skin painted sickly, the brown tunic gripping his chest like a broken bra, he readjusts the green rubber cap with its mini-trumpet ears sticking out like antennae. Sadly, I watch him, thinking of last night’s hatch-burying session at I-Ching Wok when I told him my fortune—NO MAN EVER BECAME GREAT BY IMITATION—and all he said was, “Yet.”

This annual parade is sponsored by a pet company founded by an old high school bully of mine. Every marcher gets connected to one long retractable rope. People think it’s fun, marching in time together, constantly falling over like slow dominos. In a half hour, the throng will worm its way through this prairie town—my son, the Shrek, somewhere in the middle, waving at children and puffing out his gut.

“Forget about them,” I say, proud of myself for saying anything at all.

“Duh,” he scoffs. “Already have.”

He goes hard on the High Life. He thinks it’s the gut. Everything else—the accent, the exact color of body paint, each famous line—is solid. The gut’s what isn’t quite full. That, he thinks, is his problem.

Here are mine:

  1. I love my son more than I love myself.
  2. I’m not allowed to ask What would your mother say?
  3. If I tell him what I want to tell him—that other, sensible sons would kill for the free tuition I could give him (being I’m the local college’s IT dinosaur) and in four quick years I could be gone forever, maybe down in Florida playing poker, arm around a woman who’ll re-teach me to laugh—he’ll stop talking to me again because he hates when I tell him that. And a secret I could never tell him is that, early as his teenage years, I used to conjure the image of him mowed down in the street by a passing truck, just to make myself cry. But I never could. Maybe he’s right that I have no imagination.

Instead I simply try to smile.

“You don’t look happy, old man,” my son says in an off-Scottish accent.

“Well, no,” I say, running my list of moves through my head like a chess-playing PC. “Just worried. I mean…” My son squints at me. “I mean…what if it rains?” I try to keep eye contact. Don’t blink first, I think.

But my son’s eyes, I don’t recognize them. They used to be blue. It was the first thing his mother joy-cried over when he was born. Now they’re brown, because, Shrek. Because his mystic life coach (a retired actress who moved into the apartment above his this past winter) demanded he become what makes him happy and gave him a ride to Lenscrafters.

“When you finally find the center of your soul circle, Dad, you’ll have no room for worry, work, or rain. Only bliss.” Maybe ogres never blink. My eyes are dry. It’s a race I could never win. “For real though,” Shrek continues to lecture, “your life needs work.”

Out of the corner of my eye: teenagers. The kind I always avoid on campus by walking through the snow. The kind who’re the age my son was when he stopped talking to me because I told him if he didn’t go to college he’d end up working at Kwik Trip. The kind who steal from the Kwik Trip, and the kind my son, being the only Kwik Trip clerk who didn’t read the handbook, chases into street in pursuit of the hot contraband (tacquitos, condoms, gum). The kind who will never realize their potential.

My son—his mother named him Chase—straightens his back, burps, and tosses Shrekisms their direction. “You know, sometimes things are more than they appear!”

And I have to say for a second he’s believable. Ugly, cute, and pitiful like a rescued dog.

The boarders pick up speed. I jump out of their holy way and watch as the girl boarder makes chit-chat with Shrek, while the youngest boarder sneaks behind him and crouches down. The kid’s like a table behind my son. The fattest boarder then shoves him hard in the chest. He goes down heavy, two more beers spilling from his tunic pockets. Each boy takes one. The girl grabs his ears.

The ears. They’ve always been the part of the costume I hate most, those floppy little rubber funnels. Often when I fall asleep at my work computer, I have daydreams of growing taller and louder than Chase, leaning over into one of the green trumpets and shouting into it like a bullhorn—YOU HAVE CHANCES OTHERS DON’T. YOU CAN APPLY TODAY. YOU CAN BE SOMETHING MORE THAN ME. I CAN RETIRE IN FOUR YEARS AND MOVE AWAY AND YOU MIGHT JUST BE OKAY.

But I’ve seen the green cap on his coffee table. Tried it on last night when he was puking up crab wonton and High Life in the bathroom—the funnels are solid, not hollow. There’s no direct pathway to his head.

I look at him in the grass, stunned, writhing a bit on his back. The kids laugh. “Snitch on us again, you little bitch,” they say.

The girl who grabbed his ears takes off down Locust. And before I can weigh the options, I’m running, somehow ready to sprint like this, after the bliss we’ve both lost, forever.

Tyler Barton is a cofounder of FEAR NO LIT, the literary organization responsible for the 2017 Submerging Writer Fellowship. He’s a radio/podcast host for Weekly Reader, an intern for Sundress Publications, and a writing workshop leader at Pathstone Assisted Living Facility in Mankato, Minnesota. You can find his recent stories in Little Fiction, No Tokens, matchbook, and Midwestern Gothic. He’s at @goftyler and tsbarton.com.

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Land Yacht

Photo by Wayne Stadler

Sailing Sounds Like This

I heard NPR’s All Things Considered host Melissa Block interview Todd Snider, a musician, about a favorite “song of summer,” and he said what I thought he’d say.

“Brandy, You’re a Fine Girl,” from the New England bar band, The Looking Glass.

The fuzzy AM radio, his parents’ backyard with burgers on the grill and a hose filling a plastic pool, Snider said the song “transported” him to childhood.

“There’s a point on a western bay / serving ships a hundred miles away / Lonely sailors pass the time away / and talk about their home.”

“I miss this time in America,” Snider said.

I never knew it.

A Pleistoscenic sea once covered the American Upper Midwest. Skeletons of lizard fish emerge in the limestone of western South Dakota. Last week I tried on a tropical shirt in the Sun Ray thrift store off the interstate in St. Paul. The day before, the poet Gretchen Marquette and I emerged with Café Breves under a steel sky and felt the pathetic fallacy swell beneath our puddle-slapping boots.

“The wind is cutting,” she said.

“Everything’s so ominous.”

I am still looking for the sea.

Toni Morrison says, “Truly landlocked people know they are.”

Maybe this explains yacht rock. Blue-eyed soul. Soft jams. Music from the 1970s and 80s from pop stars like Steely Dan, Rupert Holmes, Ambrosia. I love it, fixating on its vibe, its suave.

But am I susceptible to it? I sometimes think I should be listening to country songs, songs about belt buckles, sexy tractors, and diesel pick-ups.

But have you heard Paul Davis’ “Cool Nights?”

Yesterday I drove past Atlantic, Iowa, named for being halfway between America’s two oceans. Apparently, railroad officials flipped a coin, figuring out which name to bestow upon the grove of trees.

I have been far from the ocean my whole life.

Some people, though, want to insinuate we’ve already had the yacht rock resurgence.

Rolling Stone called “Yacht Rock,” an indie YouTube comedy series, “a reimagining of a bygone soft-rock renaissance, courtesy of hipsters with fake mustaches, impeccable record collections and a love of smoothness.” Michael McDonald appeared on a song from Brooklyn bands, Holy Ghost! and Grizzly Bear. Daryl Hall used to invite friends to perform Hall & Oates cuts on his internet series, Daryl’s House.

But that was a while ago.

Last week I watched a YouTube video with Elliott Lurie, who put out two albums with Looking Glass. It’s from an animal rescue benefit concert in a cabana-style bar in Malibu in which an older Lurie says, “I think this song has named a lot of pets over the years.”

It didn’t seem as cool. He used fake horns played on a keyboard. He sounded flat. In the background, I listened for the waves.

Before I hit 30, I’d only seen the sea thrice: at 23, in Ireland; at 20, in New York City; and at 6, in Florida. For a while, I counted Seattle, but this was just the Puget Sound. Someone said they still had whales, which is what confused me.

My initial traipse into the sea was inauspicious. On a beach in Florida, I took a giant wave to the face and sat on the beach wrapped in a towel, my aunt letting me sip from her Diet Coke.


But I remembered the grandeur.

For awhile, in response, I had a bad habit of imagining topography to fit my enlarged, disquieted sense of the world.

On our lake in northern Minnesota, I’d blot out the sky with my hands, like the director Martin Scorsece framing a shot, seeing white and grey mountains rising behind our lake. Or I’d envision a rushing river cutting through an open field.

Dad encouraged this, indirectly. On a notepad in the cabin’s wooden table, he wrote terse, telegraphic diary entries to the family cabin’s next visitors.

“Hot as hell this week.”

“Had to replace the trolling motor. Lost at sea.”

“The lake was angry today.”

Down on the dock, wind feathering through the White Earth reservation, scuffing the water into foamy knuckles, I stood cloaked in dripping towel on our dock, the neighbor’s pontoon slapping the surface, in the sound of a that, that, that thiissss, that, that, that, thiissss.

Once at the Bemidji Wal-Mart, I saw seagulls tossing a plastic bag back-and-forth, crying out…




It’s only later, though, I’d realized I perhaps was missing something, a gnawing absence in my field of experiences. See, at 23, when I reached Inishmore off the west coast of Ireland and saw the flat blue rectangle rising to an undefined horizon, the furthest western point between Europe and Boston, when I saw the sea, it was then I remember thinking, why would anyone live anywhere but near the ocean?

On the boat-ride back to Doolin, while the waves sloshed my ferry into the air, the radio played—with its muted horns, smooth vocals, and tidy hi-hat—Van Morrison’s “Days Like This.”

In yacht rock, I’ve found a language for the landlocked.

Steely Dan, Robbie Dupree, Christopher Cross. These artists and their music is as smooth as my imaginary sea. Do people who live within 100 miles of a meaningful shoreline like this music, though?

I grew up in southern Minnesota 100 miles from a meaningful shoreline (the Mississippi River). Our nearest lake choked in algae blooms and shimmered with the upturned white bellies of dead fish.

Once I had the audacity to tweet, “Sperry’s are the Thinking Man’s Boat Shoes.”

This misnomer could happen because “yacht” was never a financial adjective to me, only aesthetic. Our rich kids on the plains drove 4-wheelers, not catamarans. In effect, what interested me wasn’t the prosody of yacht rock, but its cultural geography: apricot melodies, falsetto singers in Canadian tuxedos backed by tinny, percussive stamps suggesting the slightest drawstrings of disco. Songs carried the gyrations of waves scuttling boats, while shaded strangers lounge in linen spurt across a crystal clear bay, in view of distant, hoary cliffs.

Sure I liked it sometimes on-the-nose, such as The Beach Boys’ “Sail On, Sailor,” Cross’ “Sailing,” and Rupert Holmes’ “If You Like Piña Coladas.” But the stern, the pulleys, the jib, the canvas taught into leeward winds, the blurry rocky Maine coast hoisting a lighthouse is also found there in timbre and sonic elocution, in mood, like Andy Gold’s “Lonely Boy,” Stephen Bishop’s “On and On,” or Leo Sayer’s “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing.” These songs turn like the wheel on smooth chromatics, trochaic downbeats, lyrically whimsical, falsetto melodies sung by diamond-eyed singers as gentle as the boat disappearing into the ether of the horizon line. I see this like I see Quint’s boat, The Orca, in Jaws, lonely men in tiny little kitchens, floating, with bottles of beer in rough hands, netting on the walls, metastasizing their woe.

Geographically I should’ve been listening to John Mellencamp’s Scarecrow, especially that title, track. “Rain on the scarecrowd / blood on the plow!” But I knew people in Mellencamp’s 1985 opus maybe better than he did. This music never made me wonder. It never had pathos, loss.

And it’s not as if the sea is more tragic than the fields. On “farm safety day” in the fall, FFA (Future Farmers of America) kids covered straw dummies in loose-fitting flannel, set them in the path of runaway John Deere tractors, or chucked them into vacuum of a grain auger to show us what happens when we don’t button up around farm machinery. My fifth grade teacher talked about the man she once loved before her husband killed by a train coming home from the fields.

She was driving behind him and saw the twisted steel and shattered glass.

“She could feel the ocean fall and rise, its rage and glory.”

But knowing this land—the Coteau des Prairies or Buffalo Ridge in southwestern Minnesota, the foreclosed farms and bearded pig farmers and dusy combine seasons—has prevented its sonic elegies from mythologizing in my head.

Instead, I followed disco, bright lights about shimmery cakewalks in translucent cities. Or the music of a leisure class, a separate anxiety I’d never know.

Also, I think I became a man when I discovered the major-seventh on the piano.

The night in high school I bought a CD with “Brandy” on it, America’s top song for one week in late August, 1972, I drove home from the Wal-Mart in Albert Lea, Minnesota, sailing like a speedboat over the cracked county highways, zipping on S-curves around cornfields, lights from the combine lit-up like the spots docked atop barges or shipping vessels.

In theory, yacht rock, which is really just a pejorative term for “soft rock,” should resist reference points for continental folk. The writer Nick Flynn told a dinner table in St. Paul he couldn’t imagine understanding Moby-Dick without a proper relationship to the sea, and I stammered out something about the whiteness of the whale before my thesis advisor—from Michigan—told us she never understood the prairie-to-ocean analogy. I was sinking.

But then, a glimmer.

“I didn’t know the Mississippi ran through Minnesota,” Flynn said.

And I thought, see, see!

But it’s true. How does this music talk of the sea to people who’ve never been? And I’m not a synesthete, but I believe the translation is understood, similarly. I feel yacht rock more because my absence of the ocean, like tasting the color red, only possible because there is no taste of the color red, and thus whatever taste I hold in my mouth when I imagine tasting the color red is far more spectacularly imagined. The same goes with the sounds of swirl, tempest, and turgid waters, of Cayman beechwood and unbuttoned blouses and Borsalino hats, arrested in me by songful emotions that aren’t limited or “checked” by realities, such as jerks from school who wore unironic boat shoes or talked about summers on the Cape.

But I also shouldn’t pretend this avoidance of the sea hasn’t come without consequences, without its own payment.

For starters, there’s linguistic damage.

On the prairie, we call things that don’t belong to the sea, in fact, oceanic. Early white adventurers described a wave-like movement of the tall grass, blushing in the wind. My ancestors rode the land on “prairie schooners.” Now, along the river, they throw around the word “port” indelicately, as though the stopping-off-point for the barges carrying scrap metal needs romantic rhetoric.

As a child, a friend went to the ocean and came back with a large red welt on her forearm.

“A Portuguese Man-of-War…” she said. “Bit me. It’s a jellyfish. I nearly died.”

I just didn’t understand.

In Disney’s The Little Mermaid, jellyfish played the marimba.

Finally at 17, I visited the Shell Aquarium in Chicago on a marching band trip, amazed to discover sea horses are microscopic, not saddle-able, coming up to at least my chest, ridden by mer-people with long waving hair hoisting spears. They’re beautiful, complicated insects.

When you miss the sea, when you lack its proportions, you start allowing yourself to imagine more is possible in the world than really is.

In college I interviewed a man who dug up dinosaur bones on a South Dakota reservation who told me he didn’t believe dinosaurs existed, that the world was only 6,000 years old.

“But you’re holding the femur,” I said, “of a dinosaur!”

“God put those bones there simply to busy people like me,” he responded.

This kind of stuff makes sense when you don’t grow up near the ocean. You think God can do this. But God can’t do this. Or He wouldn’t do this. He was too busy building the sea.

Toni Morrison writes, “Once the people of the lake region discover this, the longing to leave becomes acute, and a break from the area, therefore, is necessarily dream-bitten, but necessary nonetheless.”

But I have not been able to leave. I have been stuck here on the prairie since childhood, since birth.

So have my parents. Maybe they’re to blame. They’re the ones who listened to the jazz-referential songwriting and college-educated sounds of the blue-eyed soul heroes, such as Billy Joel and Jackson Browne and Boz Scaggs. At night, I’d fall asleep to James Taylor records playing in the basement. These artists aren’t cornerstones of the yacht rock movement, but the sonic DNA—tons of treble, layers of harmonies (America, anyone?), and walk-away lyricism about giving up or giving in. Can we see now what fruition was brought by Robbie Dupree in “Steal Away?”

My father is now retired from teaching band and is principal at a Catholic School, serving the parish of St. Canice in Kilkenny, Minnesota. Last fall we ate at the harvest dinner at St. Canice. Walking into the dinner, Mom said, “Canice was patron saint of the shipwrecked.”

The settlers from Ireland landed in Minnesota and knew they’d never leave, so they brought their gods with them.  It was breathtaking. On the way in, we’d passed a small lake surrounded by a cornfield and a few shelter belts. In town, a black-and-silver-haired woman stood next to an Irish bar, smoking a cigarette in her maroon-and-camouflage jacket. She’d walked to a steel-siding building to grab a bag of fried chicken and Styrofoam cup of mashed potatoes and walk back. Her hair—like my mother’s—was Irish. Thick, black, turning grey. Hair tough for whipping winds on coasts, genetics of geography still lingering.

Christopher Cross’s father grew up in South Dakota. Cross is the Harper Lee of the yacht-rock era, the reclusive everyman thrust into the limelight who delivers one smashingly successful work then retires. Cross had a couple, I suppose. His debut record, 1980’s Sailing, was a mega-hit. The album produced top-20 hits such as “Ride Like the Wind,” “Sailing,” and his second album, Another Page, came out in 1983 put out “Think of Laura.” In between he had the Oscar-winning song, “Arthur’s Theme.”

The lyrics for his biggest hit, “Sailing,” start like this:

“Well, it’s not far down to paradise, at least it’s not for me

And if the wind is right you can sail away and find tranquility

Oh, the canvas can do miracles, just you wait and see.”

Cross, if you don’t know the story, is the poster-child of this music—a whiny rich kid plastering lush string arrangements behind a maudlin tune about white privilege.

Who gets to go sailing? Most of us aren’t sailors. We’re more like Bill Murray’s character in What About Bob, a half-mad jester duct-taped to the mast screaming out, “I’m sailing! I’m sailing on my first try!” as the boat skims through the horrified flotilla.

And thus fate dealt a fitting hand to Cross, whose career cooled off as dramatically as his ascent—a victim of the music video age, with his jowly paunch and fastidious gaze. Or of an increasingly punk-like America. Cross wasn’t a bad boy nor a charmer. He didn’t dance. Your father liked his songs better than you. And so he sailed into the egg-yoke sun with his flamingo-themed logo.

But now he’s been sailing back.

In an interview with the CBS Sunday Morning Show, in 2012, Cross said he’d found peace with his career’s peripatetic nature. He’s still making music. He has a wall of gold records. And when the interviewer asks him what he’d tell his 30-year-old self, he quotes his father, who told him, “One of the tragedies of life is experience is non-transferable.”

Cross’s father was a doctor, who worked at Walter Reed, so they moved around a lot as a kid, eventually settling in San Antonio (within reach of “the border of Mexico” as iconized in “Ride Like the Wind”).

In a story that he tells at his shows, that he also shared with the CBS Morning Show reporter, Cross says the real story of his most famous song, “Sailing,” wasn’t about sailing at all (“I only went a couple times”) but rather about art. Canvas refers not to the tarp of a sail but the painter’s medium, suggesting the transformative power of the artist to move yourself spiritually or emotionally when unable to physically.

Mom was in the audience at a casino in Iowa when he shared this tale two years ago. She’d driven over with her sisters. They waited in line afterward to get to meet him. In all my years, I’ve never known her to drive so far for a show.

Songs of melancholia near the sea come from various cultures.

In Portugal, the musical genre of Fado exists—heart-strong love-songs taken from the Portuguese word “saudade” (“suffering”), sung in guttural tones for lovers lost at sea.

Then there’s the sea-shanty, not just that bromide of an image of the thick-necked man with steel ring around his neck pounding a cow’s hide-bass-drum while grunting and sweating men pull on long, wooden oars. But the sing-out of uproarious melodies in French by pirates or merchant marines. In 1961, Stan “The Last Shantyman” Hugill, who wandered around for photographers in a ribbed stocking cap half pulled off his churlish blonde hair with a pipe’s ladle chewed and worked for twenty years on boats as a merchant marine, published Shanties of the Seven Seas, collecting scraps and melodies he’d heard of sometimes ancient tunes sung down by men swabbing the poop deck and hauling line.

One formula of sea music—like many working songs—is sharing tales of travels.

“Have you ever been to Frisco Bay?”

And the “ae” vowel cues up the response.

“And seen a girl named Molly?”

I’m not sure who Molly is or if this is even a song, but you see what it’s about. Songs condition and compel movement. If, as Morrison says, we can’t be on the sea, we might still travel on a tune.

Woody Guthrie, born in Oklahoma far from the sea, put “this machine kills fascists” on his guitar in 1941, after writing a song against Hitler. It’s a nice wish. But, of course, music has authoritarian possibilities—songs of nationalism, songs of chauvinism, songs of hate. They can all be played on a guitar quite easily. Songs of identity or consensus can be the scariest, and maybe if I were living in Maine with a family of blue-blooded, wine-swilling dock shoes, I’d be cautious about my thesis from this voice. But, to me, a son of public school teachers from the Midwest, yacht rock feels like one of the least authoritarian mode of music for me as it inspires exactly what I don’t and never will have: the sea.

Last year (2016), I was able to visit the sea three different times: Los Angeles, Washington D.C., and New York City. I understand that D.C. is not the sea. It is the Potomac. But I am talking about maritime culture. And that was on full display, as we went for a morning run through Alexandria’s Old Town district, where I saw a pelican perched ambassadorially on a thick wooden pole submerged into the mucky bottom of the pier, and men and women in pastel and mint shorts and shirts wandered the cobblestone in Sperry’s, and I felt a vile taste in my mouth. This was not me. I wouldn’t be a yacht clubber in a tidy polo as clean as the vacuumed carpet in the brig. I felt the prairie call to me, the husk and flannel and buffalo with yellow bird roosting on its furry butt.

Robert Frost in his early poem, “Mowing,” uses the letter “S” often to invoke the sound of a scythe swooshing and swishing through stalks of tall, summer grass.

This was a memory I knew. A memory of the land and culture within me, and when I returned to the prairie, all I could think about again, was the sea.

Mom’s family—the O’Connor’s—crossed the sea from Ireland in the 1880s. In the 1960s, she remembers Christmas Eve nights, going out to the big farmhouse south of Beresford, South Dakota where all of her relatives ate not ham or turkey but cod, fresh from some godforsaken place near Sioux City. My grandmother, whose grandparents crossed the ocean, only moved away from Union County in South Dakota once, when she moved down to Vermillion, South Dakota, to live with Tillie Geppert and care for her children.

One of those kids—Leo—grew up to be a doctor who after years moving between Army bases eventually landed in Texas, where he raised his own family, including a son, Christopher, who says only demurely that he had a “rough” upbringing in the CBS interview, playing in bands around San Antonio and eventually, upon signing with Warner Brothers in 1978, changed his last name.

He never really came back to the farm in South Dakota. But when he’d played the area over the years, there are often cousins and second cousins waiting backstage.

The website AllMusic wrote in 2014 in praise of yacht rock, with an expanded definition saying, “[T]he term has only gained strength, coming to describe a whole smooth aesthetic that existed roughly from 1975 to 1982, expanding far beyond the white soft-rockers of LA and encompassing smooth jazz and “Yacht Soul.”

In recent years, the stigma around the term has softened as indie movements, such as respected, so-called “chillwave” or “bedroom pop” artists like Ariel Pink, Beach House, and Mac DeMarco have emerged giving if not verbal at least sonic send-ups to their denimed, longhaired forbearers.

Cross has even been resuscitated in the culture, getting mentioned on the popular television show 30Rock, as Tina Fey’s character Liz Lemon wished for a special ode written to her and sung by Cross, paraphrasing the chorus from “Arthur’s Song”

“When you get lost between the moon and New York City…”

But Cross was far from New York City in an Iowa casino two summers ago when Mom saw him. After signing the record she’d purchased, Mom asked Cross about her sons—one a musician and the other a writer—who were struggling to get their work off the ground and how their struggles she tended to internalize, and then Cross told my mom, his second cousin he never knew until tonight, something his friend Steve Martin told him: “You are only as happy as your saddest child.”

But it is that far down to paradise when you grow up in landlocked Minnesota and never leave. My genes have gotten lost moving from tropics to temperates, from maritime to prairie climes. I’m in Des Moines today and there is a river and that seems enough. Seagulls swirl. A bridge is being built, so small motorized boats are anchored next to a miniature barge upon which workers in yellow hats scuttle. The sun is out, and because the way the water runs around the boats, the rive appears faster than normal, chugging along, like it’s rushing heavier, downhill toward something—what? A release, an escape, a sea—than is real.

It’s a mirage. A painting. An artifice.

But as I walked the East Village neighborhood, I sensed the dramatics that accompanies seaside villages or towns with larger rivers, closer to the ocean—a worldliness, a cosmopolitan urgency and contentedness, something we never had growing up.

Last fall at a yacht rock dance party, I won tickets to go see Firefall, who had a big 1974 hit.

“You are the woman that I’ve always dreamed of/ I loved you from the start.”

After offering them to Gretchen, I instead gifted them to my parents.

“Oh, it was wonderful,” Mom said, Sunday morning when they got home.

I happened to be home that weekend, trying to finish a book. They hadn’t seen my brother, either, who had moved into his shell a few months before he’d depart for Los Angeles on a music career. But my parents are starting to go to music again now that we’re long out of the house and not to return.

“They’re originally from Denver,” Dad said.

“And the venue was nice?”

“A really great place,” Mom said, referring to the jazz club, named for an indigenous culture, who was at home on the prairie, who traveled underneath the sun and moon across its stark horizon line, the grass its sea, its sailing grounds.

And so, too, is becoming my sensibilities—tethered primarily now to flatlands and grass. But I sense, still, crying out, I carry memories of the sea, fossils bedded in my rocks, like the sound of waves in a shell. Our ancestors cried and stayed awake drinking Guinness when family set sail for America, mourning not for the faces they would never see again, but for the children of their children, who would awake with only dreams of the sea and miles of endless, cornfields, dusty flowers separating from them the lap of the waves. That is why we sing songs of the sea. Why we put porcelain fish atop fancy restaurants in Midwestern capital cities. You miss the sea, even when you’ve rarely seen it. You dress for it. You sing for it.

When I lived in Minneapolis, a bar down the street hosted sea-shanty sing-alongs on Monday nights. Everyone wore sailor hats and cable-knit sweaters and slaked sloshy drinks. I never went. It seemed too sad. Us out here on the prairie, mistaking lakes for oceans. Friends still go. Maybe someday I will. And afterward, emerging onto the busy street traffic, not a sea in sight or smell, the falling snow might slick the sidewalk just enough for me to grab hold of the stern of the nearest street lamp, steadying my balance on the prow of this ship me and my bones have always known how to steady.

Christopher Vondracek lives in South Dakota, where he’s working on a memoir about Lawrence Welk.

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Moon Mockery

Photo by Carol VanHook

Rubber Bubble Rubble
Children who lose balloons
throw up their arms, and watch,

Bursts wait
on the puffed purses of their mouths
as their eyes chew every bob,
silent spectators to a
drifting bruise.

Serena Eve Richardson is a poet, essayist, and singer/songwriter. She received her BA with a concentration in creative writing from Montclair State University. Her forthcoming album, Some Imaginings, features poems that have been transitioned into songs. Serena enjoys practicing Siljun Dobup, a samurai sword martial art in which she holds a second-degree black belt.

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The Green Monster (#2711)

Photo by Mark Sebastian

The Gaffe

The film was about making a drama, which was about making a thriller, which was about making a comedy about the making of a horror flick. There were five of us script supervisors, each responsible for the continuity of our assigned storyline. We had to make sure that no props and actors from the outer or inner films enter into the one we were in charge of.

The script was a hefty spiralled tome with annotations overflowing onto the margins like leafy branches. The screenwriter had color-coded the thing to signify what section belonged to which film. Inspired by this organizational move, the director chose to use different camera filters to visually assist the viewers. He praised the script as a masterpiece, golden material. It was too bad that the screenwriter never received the compliment. Sadly, he passed away of a brain tumor, leaving us with a plethora of unresolved riddles.

While the films had to be interesting by themselves, the idea was that the overall experience should be greater than the sum of its parts. The audience was expected to figure out the depths of the story after repeated viewings. The first time, it sufficed if they could figure out the actors and their multiple roles. Only a few actors appeared across all the films-within-a-film, the most central of all being the starlet who was supposed to get murdered in every instance using the familiar formula of the respective genre: with a gun, poisoned, falling down the elevator, and then, of course, slashed by a knife. She ran around set joking about the upcoming interviews: how the hell did she prepare to die that many times in a film!

We started our days by reviewing the storyboard and the scenes we were scheduled to shoot. During shooting, several shouts of “cut” echoed. But we knew only to listen to the director whose vision had brought this to life, and not to the actors whose roles asked them to play directors. After his cuts we scurried to the scene to validate everything was in order for the next take: that the camera filters were in place; that the actors knew who they were supposed to be in the scene to come; and, that the mise-en-scène was consistent. Inevitably, quarrels would ensue when one of us got it wrong, a more than likely case. The arguments would settle themselves one way or another with us smiling away our rancour and returning to our lair—five folding chairs—to wait for the clapboard to rise and thwack. Late at night we watched the rushes together to make sure there had been no gaffe: that the conspicuous red car in the thriller was not visible in the comedy or the horror; that the omnipresent heartthrob always appeared with the right haircut, the accurate accent. On our way to our beds, the scenes held their grip on us, and that grip tightened in our sleep. We dreamt not only in tones of black and white. At times it turned sepia, grainy, into saturated colors even. That was how we grew into the universe of our respective films. We felt ownership, became territorial. The dreams transformed into nightmares when we turned against each other, our fellow supervisors. It was as if our individual films were nominated for a prize and we were keen to throw each other out of the race. What began with a cooperative spirit turned into an unhealthy rivalry. We saw each other as trespassers, as usurpers of our own universes.

And then it happened. In the middle of filming, while the real camera had the starlet and a fake camera within the same frame, the starlet jerked her right hand, unscripted, and placed it on her left shoulder. She gasped, took one step back. Her left hand moved in the air, seeking something to lean on. She seized the back of a chair. But it collapsed and took her with it. None of the directors, the real one or the actors, shouted cut. We all gazed at the scene, wondering to which of the films this act belonged, which death she was dramatizing. After a few seconds of disbelief, the crew dashed toward her, calling out her name, yelling for a doctor, and all the while, we five remained slumped in our folding chairs, casting accusatory glances at each other as if to discover the culprit. We leafed through the colorful scripts hoping they’d hold all the answers in the world, while the sirens approached and the paramedics rushed to carry the starlet’s lifeless body away on a stretcher.

The film never finished; it remained an incomplete masterpiece. We parted ways; we didn’t collaborate ever again. We omitted that botched project from our resumes, doing our best to erase its memory. But, after years, we still wake up at night with a shriek, yelling at ourselves, or at one of our unfortunate bedfellows, that it wasn’t my fault, it didn’t happen in my film.

Mehdi M. Kashani lives and writes in Toronto, Canada. One of his short stories in Persian won first-place in the Sadeq Hedayat 12th Annual Short Story Contest in 2014. His fiction has appeared in The Malahat Review, Hobart and Litro and is forthcoming in The Los Angeles Review and Portland Review.

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Photo by David Marvin

This week, Associate Fiction Editor Ethan Brightbill asked our editors how they’re kicking off summer.

Jackson Keller
Associate Editor, Fiction
Livonia, Michigan

Swearing that today is finally the day I’m going to clean my apartment before going outside to frolic in the woods for three hours instead.

Tianli Kilpatrick
Associate Editor, Nonfiction

Visiting much-missed Dunkins and beginning to read thesis books.

Ethan Brightbill
Associate Editor, Fiction
Allentown, Pennsylvania

Bombarding lit journals with my work. I’ve been terrible about submitting since starting grad school, so I’m making up for lost time.

Krys Malcolm Belc
Associate Editor, Fiction
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

In New York doing some research for my thesis and eating as many bagels as I can.

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Photo by Jack Satta

Lower Columbia Watershed Haibun: Field Notes on Going Home Again

1. There are no watersheds downstream, only the ocean. There are no watersheds downstream, only the ocean. The ocean, the repository for everything. Microbes, salt, aluminum foil. Herbicide, pesticide, plastics, oils. The taste of your cheeks when you cry. No watersheds downstream. Upstream, the Willapa Bay watershed and the Lower Columbia-Claskanie watersheds, where also you have lived and wandered the logged hills, the fished rivers, the lusted-after foxglove you hoped would stop your heart from longing, from wanting, wanting anything but these logged hills, wanting anything you didn’t have, which was everything except your body, the body you pressed like a flower, tired of filling in the gaps, into the pages of a book until it was flat and thin. You drank the flower (to stop your heart from wanting a boy?, any boy who didn’t want you); you were stupid and malleable, you were not yet a feminist, you were always a feminist, walking into those hills was a way of walking into an ocean of fuschia, of waves, a meadow of not-metaphor. You wrote and you wrote and you wrote. No writing it out ever satiated your thirst. These flowers are still one way to die, drowning, electric current plushing your heart, slowing it until it stops beating and you fall into the river below. Chemical defoliant. Fleshy waste.

          On your father’s nightstand:
          a revolver
          in its case.

2. One can access the EPA reports of each body of water, the watershed summary reports, the microbiological, contaminant reports by organization. For example, the Shoaltwater Bay tribe reports, in 2009, on the Metal(80), Microbiological, Contaminants(314), Nutrient(339), Pesticide(4052), Physical(4293) toxins in the Willapa Bay. In the 1990s, you run the clear cuts of these watersheds. In 2014, the local oyster industry sprays the bay with a known toxin, marketed to the public as disastrous near any water source, in order to suppress the shrimp population so the oysters can thrive, so the locals can continue their reign as the oyster capital of the Pacific Northwest. All of the oysters fished in Willapa Bay are now toxic, but if you drive through Raymond, you can still see the piles of oyster shells, Babylonian in height, their insides gleaming with a moony glow in the daylight.

          Microbes, salt, aluminum foil.
          Herbicide, pesticide, plastics, oils.
          It’s raining. It’s raining again.

3. Driving, driving like an Inland American, you can reach this corner of Washington State. There’s a freeway of Scotch broom. Yellow yellow yellow. There’s Tacoma/ Neko Case. There are scabs of sawed down hemlock. Then foxglove, beautiful slippers on a stalk. Your partner tries one for the first time. Your reader wants to, but is afraid. (He’d have to try a thousand. She’d have to want to die to eat enough to die.) Exit at the turn for Olympia. You’re heading way out of town. Skirt Raymond, skirt Montesano. Remember your young legs in Montesano, or on a dock in Brownsmead, on a slough, on a spit of desire. Remember how much you desired? Remember desire, that slim stalk with the bloom you can reach, the bloom, the actual bloom? Is it reality? Is it part perception?

          Foxglove, Scotch broom
          bouqueting for hours
          the watershed of your heart—

4. Scotch broom in oceanic waves of yellow, flotsam/jetsam washing up along the roadside. Its smell is non-native, invasive, potentially allergenic. Its pollen is transported by wind, not bees, so it will survive the apocalypse. Its smell is everywhere. Roll down your window: let it in your car. Let it in your car because the wood can make beautiful pens; you’ll learn this later, you’ll learn so much, it’ll never be enough; and you’ll still be alive. Let it in your lungs because it won’t really hurt you, unless you’re allergic, unless you’re non-native. According to The Everett Herald, Scotch broom was spread by highway workers kicking up seed when they widened the freeway. According to The Everett Herald, the widened freeway disturbed the soil, made way for the bushes. According to gardeners and educators, the plant was imported from Britain to California. It was 1850. They wanted to control erosion.

          How can you control the erosion
          of a teen? Will she slide
          downstream with the mud in the rain?

5. In the 1990s, you want to control the erosion of your heart. It’s 1996. You’re juvenile. You’re a  teenager. You’re pretty and stupid. You’re ugly and smart. You know there are no watersheds downstream, only the ocean. You know the names of all/almost all the plants, the trees, bushes, ferns, and mosses. You are learning the mosses. You make a book for biology class, once in Astoria, and when you move across the river (Columbia River, straight to the ocean), you make one again in Naselle. What you learn in one state is often repeated when you move to another. What you learn in one small town is often repeated in a smaller town, in a county school, in a classroom where everything feels repeated. What you learn as a teenager is repeated when you’re an adult, what you learn is what you learn, is you never learn. You are learning the mosses. You are learning the veins. You are learning the heart, the roads, the watersheds. You are learning there are no watersheds downstream.

You drive for hours and hours to see yourself again, this maze of water, this topography of loss and lust and hormonal mess. It’s spring. It’s spring and the roadsides are blooming, blooming back into the hills. Everything’s blooming on State Route Four. Everything’s blooming, shoring you up.

It’s more like the smell of honeysuckle than death, more like warm wet wood than a heart, opened, on the table. On the table, your watersheds, unfolded, repeating.

You turn away, look out at the house just torn down so all that’s left is dirt where the house once was. The house where you lived. The highway just a few steps away.

          Where the house once was:
          a hole full of water.

          Where the house once was,
          your heart:
          a hole full of flowers.

Maya Jewell Zeller is the author of Rust Fish (Lost Horse Press 2011), Yesterday, the Bees (Floating Bridge Press 2015), and the forthcoming collaboration (with visual artist Carrie DeBacker), Alchemy for Cells & Other Beasts (Entre Rios fall 2017). When she is not cavorting in geologic landforms & waterways, Maya teaches poetry and poetics at Central Washington University and/or parents two small children.

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