Lemon tree and sky

Photo by Rowan Peter

Elegy with Lemon Trees and a Vision of God

It was just as likely you were making love
to God in a long column of shade,
that He drove your skin to bone

in a creek bed when an orgasm ripped
through His body, that you died exchanging
mortar fire with Him on a great plain

in a desert war. I was living in a reality
where He’d call from a payphone and tell me
to turn on the television: you were wrapped

in blue tarpaulin, and I watched the sun destroy
your features. I cannot help this
feeling that He buried you by the lemon trees

in my yard, that when I part the blinds,
you stand in the vein of His massive blue eye—
that if I walked out on a frozen pond

I’d find you under ice with pike flapping
in your jaws. It’s easier to envision
you eating stratosphere, your body

pulled apart in a black hole, or God spreading
your ashes from a crop duster
over the Midwest. When I speak your name

it hangs somewhere strange, where tigresses
have left their stripes in their cages.
Where nitrogen has turned to rain.

The Missouri Review, Ninth Letter, The Journal, The Adroit Journal, and Meridian, among others.

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One-sided tape

Photo by Bored-Now

Sweat of Thy Face

For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft
—1 Samuel 15:23

When Mrs. Oake put her chubby sneakered feet on the desk, the grey muumuu slid back to reveal a little cotton-socked ankle. I sat on the edge of a chair facing her, backpack slung over one shoulder. Inside it, my geometry textbook was wedged corner to corner between the chair back and the meat under my shoulder blade, its pressure-pain a focus, tether to body for my careening thoughts. I’d never ever, ever been in the principal’s office before, and I kept telling myself that, as if I was trying to crack the code of some dream by exposing its faulty logic. The worst part was that I didn’t know why I was there now.

It was Monday morning, second period, late spring, a good gazing-out-the-window sort of day. It was already muggy in the Tennessee Valley, the sky hazy, and the pond doubling the haze with the sky. The week before, my Advanced Freshman English sat outside by the pond, which had been dug as a part of the cooling system of the new high school building. In the middle of the lesson, a water moccasin, as it was later aggrandized, slithered up the bank and onto the lap of one of the Ashleys who screamed and threw her book at it.

I’d been called out of Mrs. Heller’s near comatose lecture on irregular polygons by the administrative assistant on the intercom. She was saying mmhm on phone just outside the principal’s office. Mmhm. Mmhm. Some kid was sick again. I wasn’t breathing or, second to second, I couldn’t remember if I had been. I started to feel lightheaded, claustrophobic, the way I sometimes did in the presence of Mr. Tomlin, the new geography teacher who’d just graduated college and drove a vintage, forest green Jeep with a canvas top. I’d used a Kodak disposable camera to take a picture of him while he was stopped for pedestrians outside of the Tom Jett gymnasium one day after school. My friend, another Ashley, had pretended to pose for a portrait and, through her smiling teeth, growled, “Did you get it?”

“Might as well get comfortable,” Mrs. Oake said, nodding to my bag, her lips thin as tripwire.

She’d never spoken to me directly before, but I’d never been this close to her either. I hesitated. Her face, stony and broad as a green man’s, maintained the seriousness with which she’d summoned me. Her gaze remained stalactic, almost elemental, so I let the L.L. Bean bag—also in forest green, the color of geniuses I hoped—slide down my arm and onto the floor, heavy as a sack of potatoes.

I kept my head down. A posy of limp threads had come loose from my monogram so that it gave the faint impression that my initials EAP were really EAR. Beside me, a microwave hummed on a TV tray with a great coprolitic russet potato turning slowly on a Pyrex dish in the Holy-Family-golden light inside. Mrs. Oake waxed abstractly about “Satan’s tricks” and “gateway behavior.” I sat dumb, trying not to listen to the potato hissing through its fork holes. She discussed the environment she strove to uphold at the school, nearly reciting the mission statement word for word, and how, in assessing students’ behavior, she was beholden to the Bible’s teachings on morality and evil. And I, she told me, had gone astray of The Light.

The introduction seemed rehearsed, a best practice procedure from the school’s employee handbook. I wondered if the star running back, balding already, had gotten the same speech when he shaved his head, a violation of the personal appearance code, and was suspended for one week or for as long as his hair took to grow back at least a quarter of an inch, whichever duration was longer.

I rubbed the slubbed hem of my gray uniform skirt between my thumb and forefinger. The room was dim except for the microwave and the light of the window that backed her, outlining her shape like counterfeit noir. Then, after a big breath, she got to the point. “I know,” she said, lowering her feet to the floor. “I know you’ve been practicing witchcraft.”

Five girls were coming over, so we’d be six on Saturday night: my Ashley and one of the Brittanys (the wild one) and Kelly, my best friend since elementary school, and Jillian, who could recite full sketches every week from the latest episode of Saturday Night Live, and the new girl, who will have no name because she was innocent really, and because I don’t remember. Early in the evening, we would walk down to the Exxon at the foot of the hill and buy candy cigarettes with names like Rodeo and Horseshoe and Four-Leaf Clover that we’d pretend to smoke while calling each other Dahhh-ling. Sometimes we’d light them so that they burbled black and melted to a sticky, rancid caramel. We would light them because they tasted like chalk and who wanted to eat chalk, and we were bored, but the new girl wouldn’t want to play along even though she seemed bored too. We’d eat whatever supper, hot and dripping with salty butter, my mother made us, and watch a movie, or just have one on while we whispered or dared or made promises or played light-as-a-feather-stiff-as-a-board.

Later, we would huddle in the floor of my bedroom painted the color of lime zest, surrounded by my things—a stickered Stratocaster knockoff on a cradle stand beside the Casio keyboard, the little white TV with a VHS deck, People clippings of the Friends cast and Robert Downey, Jr. (drug era) taped on the wall, and a strand of Christmas lights wound about the dresser, the only lights on—with a ouija board Wild Brittany had brought from her mom’s house, and my mother would walk in with a basket of folded clothes and, when she saw what we were doing, she’d egg us on: “Don’t ask the spirit how it died.”  So we would ask the spirit how it died once the door closed behind her. But we wouldn’t even notice the new girl wasn’t in the room, that she’d been in the bathroom for a half hour. We wouldn’t hear her ask my mother to call her father to pick her up. We wouldn’t even know she wasn’t sick, even though that’s what she said when she left. We would be so absorbed in the ouija board, until we weren’t. Forget death and taxes, the only sure thing to us was boredom, sure to come, and soon. But, for now, we would say “bye” in chorus without looking up, leaning into the planchette, following it from letter to letter. We wouldn’t even notice when the spirit misspelled decapitation.

I learned from Mrs. Oake that I’d held a séance at my house. I learned that the citronella torches my mother lit around our deck served to encircle the six of us as we performed the ritual. I learned that we had attempted to summon a spirit or a demon—or, Mrs. Oake said, if some of that had been exaggeration, well, what we girls had done with that ouija board was essentially the same thing. Gateway behavior. Black magic is real, and whether or not we knew what we were doing, well, it didn’t matter. Give Satan an inch, and you give him your soul.

I was trembling by the time she finished her indictments, most of which ghosted from my memory as soon as I left the room. I was scared of being in trouble in the abstract sense. I didn’t care about the reasons I was in trouble and I sure didn’t feel guilty about them; I only cared that I was in trouble. My stomach felt like a rainstick turned upside down so all the beads would tinkle down, except there was no bottom. What we had done was silly, just play. Wild Brittany had moved the planchette, I was sure. Or I was pretty sure. Should I say?

She sent me on my way. She wanted to talk to the other girls before she decided what she wanted to do with me. I would spend the rest of the day watching my friends called out of class one by one. I would warn them as soon as I got back. Wild Brittany looked cool as sugar-free peppermint gum. Panicked, Ashley would call her mom on her Cricket phone in the girls’ bathroom to tell her what was going on. Her mom would call all the other moms. I wouldn’t know that though. I would wait the rest of the day, saying almost nothing in class or at lunch, vomiting a couple times in the bathroom from nerves, something that came easily, practiced as I was on heavy caf lunches of nachos or chicken rings and fries, with the aids of 2% milk and two fingers. In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground. I was never called back to the principal’s office that day. It would be days before a decision.

Before then, before all of that, I had to pick up my L.L. Bean backpack—it seemed so much heavier—and walk out of Mrs. Oake’s office. Her potato was done, and she pulled out little pads of whipped butter and paper envelopes of salt and pepper out of her desk drawer, setting her place with a plastic knife with which to open the russet, and a fork with which to eat. “Shut the door behind you,” she said, and when I turned around and grabbed the knob, the steam rose into her face and fogged her glasses, and I pulled the door to, and the bell rang, and I disappeared into the halls.

I needed a verse that would make me seem aware but also innocent, just lucid yet naive enough so that my decision to stay the path of righteousness seemed sincere. The path of righteousness—oh, that was good. I flipped through my girls’ Bible class textbook, an NIV edition of the New Testament, every page with a heavy slab foundation of teenage-specific, question-and-answer footnotes about how far was too far and how short a skirt was too short. Everything was too far, everything too short. Something from one of Paul’s letters would do—he was all about moral declarations. I wrote a verse down with a note that I was glad I’d chosen to stay a virgin. My boyfriend and I had decided to wait because that was the pure and right thing to do. My body was a temple, yadda yadda. I closed the spiral-bound journal and shoved it into the nightstand on top of the roll of condoms.

After I was accused of witchcraft and most of my friends were pulled out of school, I started a fake journal in which I’d say I didn’t do all the things I did. I kept it off and on throughout my tenth, eleventh, and twelfth grade years, fervently adding to it when I was sexually active or when I got into the habit of stealing from my mother’s liquor cart on Saturday nights—a capful of this, a capful of that into a suicide that was sweet and smoky and sludgy. Other times the cocktail was more elementary, and most often sickening: Glenlivet and crème de menthe, cheap sweet vermouth drowned in rot-your-teeth tea.

My logic in keeping the journal was that I could use it to prove my innocence, backdate my struggles and my long chastity, if I were to ever be accused of anything ever again. Look here, I’ve been fighting the good fight all along. Of course I sometimes fail or fall short. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. But see here—see? I avoided temptation. This was a one off. A mistake. So give me another chance. Give me a warning, a demerit, a day at home. WWJD? Give me grace.

My grandparents insisted I attend private school, but they also didn’t want to pay that much for it. Starting in my seventh grade year, I was enrolled at Loyd-McMahon, a Church of Christ K–12, the cheapest private school in town.

LMS sat next to the Brainerd levee on a swampy piece of land that often flooded with heavy spring rains. In March of my tenth grade year, the school cancelled classes for a week because of calf-deep water on the grounds and in the parking lots, but the buildings, on artificial earthen rises, always survived a deluge. On the back lot, behind the football stadium and baseball diamond, was a protected habitat with a dozen or more beaver. Sometimes they built dams that made the flooding worse, but no matter how often Mr. Oake, the principal’s husband and head groundskeeper, grumbled and shook his freckled fist from the back of his diesel-chuffing four wheeler, the school couldn’t touch them. Goose shit smeared the fields, especially in the fall when flocks would arrive from up north and waddle around the edges of our marching band practice, making our heel-to-toe steps unsure, our tennis shoes slick and rotten. Run it again. Measures 24 to 38. It was often still devastatingly hot well until the first of October, and on those wet-blanket-from-the-dryer afternoons, we’d become dizzy, blowing as loud as we could, the brass flashing and blinding.

The band was so small that first year, Mr. C recruited middle schoolers, and so I joined in the seventh grade and stayed until I graduated six years later. On the first day of band camp, my first day I’d ever spend at the school, one of the older boys, the section leader, called me “Phillips,” which made me blush more than any epithet could’ve. Later that day, while brass practiced basic commands in the parking lot and the sun went down behind the levee, he fainted, denting his trombone on the asphalt. He had locked his knees at attention.

My seventh grade English teacher had a metal locker full of hairspray, lined up like cans of creamed corn in the caf kitchen. Sometimes, when we were doing busy work, she would take out a can, shake it up, and touch up the great Sutton Hoo-helmet of her hominy blond hair while looking into a mirror on the locker door. The first week of class, I printed off her pixelated staff photo from the website and slipped it into the plastic, exterior pocket of my English binder, thinking to organize in a creative way. When she saw it, she demanded I remove it at once. “Hand it to me. This is just…inappropriate,” she said, wading deeper into her fury for words. “Just wildly inappropriate!” I gave her the paper and she took it away. I don’t know what she did with it. Hers was the only class in which I ever received a D, and I still don’t know why. I did all my work, and I did it on time.

In the eighth grade, the English teacher that greeted us on the first day had a square head and a little black mustache. He seemed like he needed to take a drink of water, like his voice was catching on every word. The next day, there was a substitute, a portly man with acne scars and thick bifocals, who introduced himself as Mr. Rousseau. He remained the whole year and even took on the additional quarter-long class of eighth grade French. Mr. Rousseau later told us that the wife of the regular English teacher had left him and that he’d had a nervous breakdown. I felt no teacher had ever been as honest with us before, and yet it still felt wildly inappropriate, embarrassing even, and it made me hold my breath the way I did when I watched the adulterous sex scenes of Richard Gere and Diane Lane in the movie Unfaithful with my mother and stepfather.

Wild Brittany sometimes cut my hair with a pair of mini craft scissors in Mr. Rousseu’s class. Some days Ashley and I would trade notes about our celebrity crush Kevin Bacon, making plans for the next Bacon Night, a sort of sleepover devotional in which we’d gorge ourselves on BLTs and watch as many KB movies we could stay up for. We’d heap Twinkies onto one of our mom’s serving platters because his character in Hollow Man ate them and because they seemed phallic, rudely sploogey with their white cream interiors, and, to us, everything was entendre.  Sometimes we used Mr. Rousseau’s class as a kind of study hall for Algebra or Geography. Sometimes I made paper fortune tellers that would divine which boy had a crush on each of us, even though I felt that I was too old for that kind of plaything. One time, Rousseau wrote a few French words on the board, including mouton, sheep. A girl with white-blond hair and caked-on foundation went to board and drew a sheep—or was it a cloud with legs?—next to the word as definition. During our nothing classes, she would sometimes sit next to Rousseau and ask him questions in a hushed voice. I asked her one day what they talked about. “I want to learn French,” she said, but rumor got around that she was crushing hard on the middle-aged man, and that rumor soon morphed into the beast of slander: they were sleeping together. Somehow that mouton got involved, maybe because of her woolen swirl of nearly white hair, and sheep-fucker became less a synonym of bestiality than a euphemism for pedophilia. Jailbait was the cough of choice that year.

She was shunned, of course, like all accused girls, and he quickly became as unpopular as salisbury steak. Once, when he left the class alone, some boys broke into his desk and found a Wham! cassette. The rumors became spliced then: Rousseau likes young girls, Rousseau likes dick. Both student and teacher were gone the next year, without a word.

Mrs. Munson flopped into a chair at the head of the class, sighed, and said, “All right, girls. Let’s get to it.” Normally, we just had her just for algebra, but she’d been assigned to teach the quarter-long, eighth grade girl’s health that year, and she evidently loathed the appointment. She often trudged through the class with grumbles and sighs, and it made me like her all the more. Mrs. Munson was also the middle school volleyball coach, but we weren’t allowed to call her Coach Munson in class, unlike the male coaches, one of the school’s many double standards. Still, in algebra, she carried herself like a coach, sometimes delivering pep talks or “running drills” (practice problems), and, other times, she paced and yelled at us, her face growing red, like a sidelined coach. Her favorite word was hustle. Here, though, she seemed resigned, embittered.

She told us that we’d find a piece of Scotch tape on each of our desks. We were to take that piece of tape and stick it to the back of our hands. “But don’t—” she warned, wagging her finger, and then, through gritted teeth: “Take. It. Off. Until I tell you to.”

Her eyes grew wide, staring us down, an intimidating pause.

“Now. I want to demonstrate an analogy to you.” She reminded us how, last class, we’d talked about virginity and abstinence. Our text had argued—forgive me for not remembering its absurd name—that for every sexual partner, a girl would lose something of herself and be less capable of developing true bonds with another person, therefore jeopardizing any sort of future marital bliss.

“A woman is like a piece of tape,” Mrs. Munson said, not undramatically. “Once she touches her first, she is less capable of sticking again.”

She paused, and the class remained quiet. I flexed the back of my hand, feeling the tape pull my skin.

“Ladies”—she said it like a drill sergeant might say cadets—“now I’d like for you to remove that piece of tape.”

We ripped in unison, and a paler patch of dry skin remained on the back of my hand.

“Look at your tape. Look at it good, now. What do you see?”

One girl raised her hand. “It’s all covered in skin.”

“Mine has hair,” another said.

I studied the impression of ridges on mine, almost like lace.

“That’s right,” Mrs. Munson said. “That’s ab-so-lood-ly right. And that’s just like what it’s like if you have sex with someone. You leave part of yourself with them.”

Someone snorted. Mrs. Munson raised an eyebrow and scanned the room, but every face was as innocent as the moon.

She continued: “That’s sexual partner numero uno. That may have even been a one-time thing, but look how much of you was taken off on them!” We all looked. “Now. Try to stick that piece of tape back on your hand.”

The tape was less tacky, of course, but we did it and, at her cue, we ripped it off again.

She held up two fingers in a V. “That’s your second sexual partner. Maybe that’s your high school sweetheart, but look—you couldn’t be totally committed to him because of that first sexual partner, that one time thing that you thought was nothing. Girls, I’m here to tell you, it wasn’t nothing.”

I used my thumb to roll some of the tape’s glue left on the back of my hand into a little ball.

“And, still, some more of you was left with this sexual partner.” She pointed down at her desk for emphasis on each word of with this sexual partner. “You grow less and less with each sexual partner.

I imagined a girl simply melting away like the Wicked Witch of the West.

Mrs. Munson had us repeat the procedure again. She grew more enthusiastic, her voice higher, as we went through the motions again.

“So what do you think will happen once you’re married? This, girls, is your husband,” she said, as if divining him in lines of a palm.

One girl sat up straighter in her chair. “You can’t stick to him.”

Another stifled snort. Another panoptic gaze over the rows.

“I mean,” the girl said, “you can’t be fully there for him. You’ve already given so much of yourself away.”

Snake Ashley, as I would later know her, jumped in: “Doesn’t this say that boys who sleep around just have pieces of girls all over them?”

Mrs. Munson sighed, dropping her stout shoulders. “It doesn’t work that way for men, honey.”

“Why not?” Snake Ashley asked.

“Because that’s how God made them.”

“So God is okay with boys sleeping with more people?”

“That’s not what I said,” Mrs. Munson huffed, irritation sandpapering her tone. “Of course God wants boys to be chaste too.”


“We’re not discussing it further,” Mrs. Munson said, raising her hand as if for a whistle around her neck. “This is girls’ health, not boys’.”

In ninth grade, we were handed over to Coach Heller for a semester of girls’ P.E. followed by a semester of girls’ health. A tall man with bulging eyes and a shaved head, Coach Heller proclaimed himself Mr. Positivity and Mr. Go-Go-Go and often drew smiley faces on the board and on our papers. After parent night, my mother called him Roadrunner after the cartoon character. At the start of each P.E. class, we had to run laps on the track or, if it was raining, inside the gymnasium. Many of the girls told Coach Heller they were on their periods, day after day, so that they didn’t have to do the laps. He never questioned them. They’d sit on the bleachers doing homework or whispering as they watched the rest of us. I ran my laps every day, no matter what time of the month it was, because I didn’t want to have to tell him when my period was and, for this, he gave me the end-of-the-year P.E. award.

One day at the end of class, when all the girls were in the locker room, the sweatiest among us showered while the others slipped on our skirts over our shorts, washed our faces, and put on deodorant. One of the girls boasted about how strong she was. “Push me,” she said to another girl.

Push me.”

They were on several sports teams together, and I suddenly felt like I was witnessing a kind of locker-room ritual.

“Okay,” the other girl said, and then, daringly, “But are you sure?”

“Push. Me.”

And so the second girl went at the first, and the two of them, squatting low, grappled, trying to pull one another down or throw one another off. Then, in one stumbling lump, they fell into the wood paneling painted a Buccaneer blue. The paneling cracked open and, for a moment, nothing else happened. The girls lay on top of one another, and the rest of us stared, and then the splintered edges of the wood began to darken and move with that darkness. And then a stream of termites tongued out and mushroomed into a swarm. Girls began screaming and pushing, throwing their deo-sticks down and running up the stairs and into the gym. Coach Heller, seated on the bleachers with a clipboard, turned toward us the stampede of girls in various states of undress, some in only soccer shorts and sports bras, one girl entirely topless. The termites coughed into the gym before Coach Heller ran and shut the door. At least one girl was still down there, in the shower.

In spring girls’ health, Coach Heller pontificated on the beautiful outpouring of menstruation, and he waxed lyrically about the female body. He said he identified with King David and his carnal sins. “Sometimes,” he said, smiling up at the ceiling, as if he could see all the way to heaven, “sex can be used in a marriage to solve any problems. Once, my wife”—our geometry teacher—“and I were having an argument on the front porch and right then and there, she lifted up her shirt and showed me her beautiful breasts. I was instantly not angry. It resolved everything between us.” The next day, in second period, Mrs. Heller leaned against the podium, holding herself up, squinting with a migraine across the rows.

When my mother found out I had been accused of witchcraft, her brows narrowed and her Pandoran mouth let loose every motherfucking portmancurse she could devise. (Dip-dong, a noun, was one of her favorites.) She called Father Paden and she stomped out to the deck with a pack of Basic Menthol Lite 100s to explain to him what happened. The next day, she and the priest showed up at the school and demanded to be seen by the headmistress. The priest had come to the school once before when a boy who went to my church was accused of attending a Satanic house of worship by a Church of Christ kid who’d seen the upside-down Peter’s cross. Father Paden brought this up to Mrs. Oake by way of reintroduction, like tapping the same hole in the scarred bark for syrup. “You know why it’s upside-down, don’t you?” he asked. “The designer was just dyslexic.” My mother howled, but Mrs. Oake didn’t make a sound.

Other than the anecdote, I have no idea what was said, but that night all five mothers (all of our parents were divorced) and all five daughters gathered together at my friend Kelly’s mom’s to discuss what would happen. Three mothers were pulling their daughters out immediately; my mother and Jillian’s mother agreed that they would leave it up to us, if we were given the opportunity to stay.

The next week I was called out of class again, and the administrative assistant directed me to the guidance office. The counselor was a kind woman in her fifties who’d recently gotten braces with purple rubber bands that twanged when she absently strummed them with her tongue, and whose name was so perfect for her job that it’s almost unbelievable. I’ll call her Mrs. Psittacus. “We’re just waiting for the assistant principal,” she said. Coach Ruffe, a middle-aged man with a chili bowl haircut and shirtsleeves so starched they tented above his arms, came in shortly to discuss what the administration had learned from their investigation.

“Where’s Mrs. Oake?” I asked.

He looked up from my disciplinary folder and pouted his lower lip. “Away at a conference.”

At that moment, I got to work. I got on the airwaves and asked every cell to lend me every ounce, every droplet of fluid they had. Give me your water against the drought of my not caring, the desert of my guilt. Drop that bucket down the well, deep dark and dank inside me, and bring it up sloshing. Hit the water main. Wrench open the hydrant and flood the street. Don’t build the ark, I want to drown. I wanted to be a sybil of tears, campus in spring. I wanted to raise every bruise and broken toe back to life, lazarene, and relive it. I wanted past pain to shift tectonically under the present so that it ruptured the surface and broke open a spring. I began to cry then and didn’t stop, heaving and gasping so hard that Coach Ruffe lost his sentence about the headmistress’s wishes. Mrs. Psittacus rubbed my back and handed me tissue after tissue. “I didn’t know what I was doing,” I gasped, “was wrong. I’m afraid”—gasp—“afraid for what I’ve done.”

“I think that’s enough, David,” Mrs. Psittacus whispered to Coach Ruffe. Bottom lip pouted, he stared at Mrs. P. blankly, trying not to look at my shuddering, raccoon-eyed faced, the way someone who has to stay at the scene while someone else goes to get the police stares at the moon to avoid looking at the naked body on the beach.

I slobbered and gagged, and Mrs. Psiatticus pulled me against her bosom.

“Okay,” Coach Ruffe said, clearing his throat. Then, with more resolve: “I mean, yes—you’re right. I think she’s learned her lesson.”

He stood up from the chair and moved to the door. “I think we can let this go with a warning,” he said firmly, and then he left, hands washed clean in my tears.

The problem with my fake journal was that, with all the pecking and scratching in the dirt, I eventually found something to swallow.

During my junior year of high school, I told my boyfriend we needed to stop having sex for a while. After a few dumb scares, I’d become paranoid about pregnancy and I’d started to wonder if my journal would actually protect me from expulsion. Two of our classmates were suspended for four months for having sex. There was also something else—was it guilt?—that needled at me. I wasn’t sure if I was feeling guilty over the act itself, or my duplicity.

Later that year, I found out about a mission trip the school preacher was leading to an orphanage in Ensenada, Mexico. I begged my grandparents and father to send me on the trip, saying that I would be doing the right thing, that I would be helping people. They agreed, and I went on the seven-day trip to Baja California. On the bus from San Diego to Ensenada, we drove through Tijuana, whose burned-out streets and graffiti and abject poverty made me suddenly question this new devotion, this drive. I spent the week reading to the children, singing songs during the devotional, and even playing the role of Abraham (the beard was fake) for our morality play. By the end of the week, however, when the “faith was strong,” as the preacher put it, I began to doubt—doubt their conviction, and my guilt. The last night fever-blistered into a bonfire on the hill overlooking the orphanage and an Alcoa plant. One of the teachers called for all of us to go to our bunks and get all our CDs and books—anything that caused us to have sinful thoughts, that exposed us to sex and bad language and violence—and bring them to him. I ran back to the dorms with the other girls, and although I flipped through my CD case of classic and alt rock, I couldn’t bring myself to take anything back to the bonfire. I climbed the hill, legs firing fast, and watched my classmates throw in all of their CDs, glinting and melting like Dalí’s clocks, in the fire which flashed with trace element colors—greens and yellows and purples—as the voices rose in devotional songs. I’m going home on morning train. I’m going home on morning trai-ai-ai-ain. The bonfire had been built beside a small wading pool, and the middle school principal began to approach each of the students he knew not to be baptized, grabbing them by the head and asking them if they wanted to be baptized. Meanwhile, the preacher raised his voice into the song as a wind gusted up and the bonfire moved, seeming to crawl out from its pit. One by one the students went down, coughing and spitting up water, crying and hugging and swaying around the fire. As the middle school principal went around the circle, I moved just behind it, just enough ahead of him so that no one noticed I was moving and that he would never get to me. I felt disturbed, rocketed into some sense of shame over the faith, which, in this display, seemed ignorant, backwoods, raw.

That night I couldn’t sleep because I tried to imagine hell and couldn’t. The next morning, after only an hour or two of nightmares, I woke up with a fever. I bought a pack of Nyquil at the airport and slept the whole way home.

Emilia Phillips is the author of two poetry collections from the University of Akron Press, most recently Groundspeed (2016). Her poetry and essays appear in Agni, Boston Review, Kenyon Review, New England Review, Ninth Letter, Poetry, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. In Fall 2017, she will join the faculty at the MFA Writing Program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

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Photo by En Voyage

Editorial intern Brian Czyzyk on today’s bonus poem: “New Palmyra” is a poem of dichotomies. In carefully constructed couplets, Emily Jaeger combines poetry of place with portraiture. What emerges is a sort of inventory, never far removed from the inhabitants of Palmyra, and the grief and relief of their daily lives. Jaeger juxtaposes the limestone remnants of the old city with the satellites and tall buildings of the urban site to display a sort of combat between modernity and antiquity, and to show that the history that haunts us may be “skin-close.”

New Palmyra

I could only find one picture of the new
city: a man walks down a bare street blue

with puddles. A grapevine hangs loose. The coat
buries his hands. In the old city, a scribe wrote:

a lost offering in a wedding gown.
Here, the limestone turns each home into a town

of many-eyed brides, craning their satellites
for any sound. Between the roof-tops a slight

tree bears figs a year early. Who’s coming?
I can’t see old Palmyra here, buildings

block the view and then you must cross a wake
of sand. The wind aches under the weight

of relief and real life, lungs cut in two
pale halves: a woman digging through

leaves for pink figs, her hundred mothers’ stone
fingers carved grasping. Later she’s alone,

freeing a tag from her new dress—paisley
swims into a worn stripe. Whom does she

call to scrape clean the last pot from dinner?
She sits on the back porch. A fire simmers

in a caged iron bowl. Mosquitos lurk
skin-close before they’re flung away in the smoke.

Emily Jaeger is the author of the chapbook The Evolution of Parasites (Sibling Rivalry Press) illustrated by Robin Levine. Her poems have appeared in Four Way Review, TriQuarterly, and The Offing, among others. After completing her MFA at UMass Boston, Emily will be the 2017/2018 Olive B. O’Connor Fellow in Poetry at Colgate University. She has also received fellowships from Literary Lambda, TENT, the New York State Summer Writers Institute, and an Academy of American Poet’s Prize.

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Photo by James Wilson


I wheel the body through the vet-hospital. She is all limbs. Baby-thing.

It’s the beginning of the poem now so something has to happen. Warm,

soft enough still for freezing. But she is, even now, animal—all wrong

for narrow hallways. Her hooves drag across the drywall. It is hard work.

Garbage bag puckered where a limb has stretched the plastic thin. I hold her

head in my hands to keep the skull from kicking corners. I never let it be easy.

Something has to be at stake in the poem. Question: what is the situation?

A toaster oven. The conveyer kind with a dial for controlling speed.

There is a piece of toast in there. A girl spinning in her pinkest dress. The floor

cement so her knees are scabbed. It is fragile, moving all around throughout

the day like that. That crusted over skin, her perfect throat. And so close

to the fingertips—that coil heated until it glows. What does this have to do

with the foal, who is hardening now in the walk-in freezer? It is, in fact, very difficult

to say. The ideal poem is a surreal game of garbage in the attic. Hornet’s nest.

Mice like well-upholstered poppy seeds. Pool float made of unsinkable foam.

The girl’s assorted pet names—princess, butter-toast. Beneath the attic there is

a single stable with a colic horse. She grinds & grinds her teeth against the grain,

sucking air in & out. As if breathing. Something has to be at stake, she says.

                                                                   It’s like filling yourself, she says.

Carolyn Orosz is an MFA candidate in poetry at UW-Madison. She is managing editor of Devil’s Lake. Her work can be found at Forklift, Ohio and Beecher’s Magazine, among others.

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baby goat

Photo by Pimthida

Mystery Schools

When gods didn’t have bodies, humans gave human emotions and human desires to the rain, and the dark, and the way that dust particles looked in the light that streamed in through open windows. First, there was anarchy. Then out of the emptiness of the universe, Erebus appeared followed by Night. And from the void, Love emerged from one of the dints in the great Nothing.

Cronus had womb-envy and swallowed his children. Kumarbi bit off dad’s genitals to become king in the heavens. Isis had to reconstruct Osiris’s penis with magic. Clusters of deities grappled with their role as exalted non-persons: a thunderbolt donning autocrat, a dick-consuming son, and a goddess that tends to her husband’s detachable penis. A given culture’s gods and goddesses that reflected their society’s neuroses.

Much later a new pantheon of gods appeared. They were born from the drops of salt that fell like rain coming off of the first burrito a girl ate from Taco Bell the day she stopped being a vegetarian. They were gods of calm, and colors manufactured in crayon factories, and of scent memories from those markers found in middle schools.


Apartment C104 in Wyncote, PA, was born out of the blackness of chaos. An unknowable place with a flat roof and red bricks that shared a parking lot with Michael’s Diner. The apartment was created in the absence of light in the under-dark of Tartarus, the darkness from the bottom of the underworld’s world. Rainwater leaked into the complex during storms. The kitchen sink never drained. When the sink was full of fetid water, the apartment cat, George, would drink from it to gain his powers of disapproval.

Russell is a baby-goat-god that lives in the apartment’s master bedroom, which is filled with novelty posters of 80s movies taped up 15 years after they were released. He sleeps on a chair stolen from Arcadia University’s campus lounge, a relic from Heinz hall that everyone on the floor would fight to sit on. Russet colored beard with a wobbly body like an exhausted puppy, the velvet of his horns are worn smooth and bare in certain spots like the over-loved fuzzy bodies of woodland creature toys you loved in your childhood. His kind of magic means that he is every one of the Sylvan family collection of forest friends™, even the ones that your parents couldn’t afford to buy.

In the silence of the apartment, Russell plays hide and seek in the piles of dirty laundry that dot the corners of the master bedroom with dust that takes the form of Tu’er Shen, the rabbit god. From the heaps of clothing that everyone affectionately calls, “clothes mountains,” Russell takes form and scuttles out from the lip of the mound kicking out his back legs with the joy that comes from being an eternal baby animal.

When no one is home, Russell opens the fridge with his prehensile lip and eats all of the sweets. After playing and eating, he returns to his chair and slips into dreams—the sleepy snores are the manifested god-magic of how it felt when you filled up a page in your sticker book during 5th grade. By the time a roommate comes home, they find the honey jar on the ground, and Hershey syrup on the wall, and say ughhhh Russell.


Because goats are fearless, Russell doesn’t shy from the thunderstorms of melancholy that regularly occur in apartment C104. He counts out Tylenol PMs in little blue china bowls and leaves them outside of every bedroom. He knits handkerchiefs from his wool that the roommates press to their faces, absorbing salt water sadness resulting from yet another human misery. Soft god breath cushions the bang! of a would-be slammed door.

Even generations after Tefnut was the result of Atum’s proclivity toward chronic masturbation, sex proves a problem—especially for mortals. No pantheon has been successful in providing a strong enough warning against the stickiness of sex with feelings. The mortals of C104 suffer in the proto-darkness, curled up in covers that won’t warm hollow limbs after Fleetwood Mac mistakes. Sniffling drunken mistakes, hands hovering over hickeys that you can’t hide from your partner. Heart palpitations from confessional, then romantic, then enraged whiskey-fueled texts to your ex two doors away that you only remember in the middle of the night—jumping out of the black of dreamlessness shouting the words oh fuck!

Russell finds you wet-faced, and butts his head against yours. He shakes out the sadness, the perfect god pet for the modern neurotic. The baby-goat-god slips his head under the crook of your arm, and the two of you sit in the warmth of the world of the apartment. With Russell’s breath synchronized with yours, you raise your finger to your mouth—mimicking the Egyptian hieroglyph in a gesture that settles you like a child.

Jane-Rebecca Cannarella is the editor of HOOT Review, a genre editor at Lunch Ticket, a cat fanatic, a contributing writer at SSG music, and a candy enthusiast. When not poorly playing the piano, she chronicles the many ways that she embarrasses herself at the website www.youlifeisnotsogreat.com. She occasionally drinks wine out of a mug that has a smug poodle on it, and she’s not wonderful at writing in the third person.

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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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