the blue collection 4: collaboration
(Winter 2013 / 13.24)
Eleanor Bennett, Francis Denis, Kathy Fish, Robin Grotke,
Ira Joel Haber, Bernard Heise,
Matthew Hittinger, Marilyn Kallet, Kari Nguyen,
Scott Owens, Pamela Parker Johnson, Alex Pruteanu,
Linda Simoni-Wastila, and Joan Stepp Smith
Ed. note: For blue collection 4, nine writers respond in poem and flash to five art pieces selected from BFR’s 2012 issues. The connections between the art, poetry, flash, and commentaries are a testament to the possibilities of the creative process.
* * *
la lecture huile sur toile 70 x 90
(Summer Quarterly 2012 / 12.17)
Joan Stepp Smith
Back to Dog Soup1
Think church [the mere mention of it made him pout]
. . . It could keep the stardust off her back unless
she tied his donkey to the looking glass
and let prismatics2 maim the whole enchilada:
think drum roll, think sheet creep, think causal improprieties
linguists claim bolster a stutter. Over time, think offbeat
[not offish like casket etiquette3 too muffled to mention]
Nope—Think face the wall—don’t think—listen: [now here
comes the haruspex in her head’s ex-ex-ex-ex-existentially4
hexed5 half stories liable to ruin a superb turbot and beet salad]
like panic trephined an afternoon by the ocean
like snapped twig brain snaps morning off night
before reason makes allowances [or swims to death
mid jackknife] . . . Mention what? [dive deeper into it?] I forget
she remembers only this: June tasted like hot fish and sand rash,
searing richly as the nerves frying nicely greased
and you, whosoever of you was where, when,
wouldn’t that be superfluous?
Well, do they still have pockets full of little hands?
Both hers? Still crammed with smashed thumbs
and stag’s scrotum unable to hum until I teach me nothing
before I leave my body, obliged6 to insist dubious
pronouns molt 40 years in mid-air, and the erstwhile grows vague,
vague as the day she counts 362 backward donkey hooves
to go back home where Mata Hari-Medusa-Maude Frickett-
Mauna Loa mistook moon glut for sun grift, too [whoa—
whoa—whoa—from here, better to just clean up the edges]
. . . carry the singe she was not,
out to the fringes of a blue light clumsiness,
the witchy way a wind stirs dust off a man’s hat once,
as if falling back to earth is ever the trouble
dropping dog soup in the lap is [not the romantic part
or long time sexy part or parlance for shunning
part adjacent to the barking parts, half hunger/half thunder]
tied to a body smooth as a skinned Texan
Antelope [half Biarritz/half fast-breather] near death
friendships—Cut: Years later. Near Paris:
a lugubrious chef enjoys a lavender tart, too,
advocates ditalini be eaten with spinach in the shade of sorrow,
no rush to parse the lips that lug in front of a heart stopping sauce.
Why breach the anatomy of hush? 7
Why—in broad daylight? In Paris, an open wine spits
amethysts to imbue complication upon a bed of squid
wrapped in chestnut leaves. In Paris,
ink and stink of the ignoble adds zest to the little stranglers,
don’t you think? He said that . . . [did he say that?]
. . . No, the donkey8 said it
soft as a moth9 with no world
Keep it to yourself [she probably thought]
. . . Think church.
1 Guukk (국☺, Bastardized Pidgin Korean): Murky concoction made from an amalgam of hothouse greens, wild gentian, pariah powder and puppy meat. Touted as an invigorating agent among the lackluster (and barren women contemplating divorce).
2 Prismatics: a type of Pantagruelism stemming from “a certain gaiety of mind pickled in the scorn of fortuitous things” [Rabelais, La vie de Gargantua et de Pantagruel]
3 Habit, not the stunted affect.
4 Euphemism for what lurks down-the-road is all secrets and stairs.
5 Existentially hexed, in this context, conforms to its alternate definition: hackneyed helices, that display chirality as left-handedness. On occasion, under-handedness or high-handedness occur but harder to detect. Disclaimer: existentially hexed are non-superimposables and cannot be mapped to their mirror image.
6 To feather back: by law, command, conscience or the torque of necessity.
7 Aperture angst.
8 This donkey may have been the red donkey from Hell, or the female donkey of Knowledge, like a donkey a savior might use.
9 Alchemical insect with danger fetish after the light bulb goes on. Catastrophic phototropism, aside, this is a crepuscular moth with a healthy fear of fire [and a high emotional IQ] out of this world.
The Blue of Milk
There was a woman who went to the park at night and swung on the swings and drank from a bottle in a paper bag. When she became dizzy she would stand and remove her clothes and walk the perimeter of the park singing low.
There was a man who walked his dog, who saw her, but kept to the other side of the street and never entered the park. When the moon was out and shining she looked blue he thought a naked blue or silver or the blue of milk but he tried not to look at her.
There was a small child who lay in bed waiting for his mother to return. He decided one night to follow her.
The man saw the boy trailing far behind the woman. The boy dragged a blanket. The man kept to the other side of the street and didn’t enter the park.
All the nights after this were the same with the woman taking off all her clothes and circling the park and drinking from the bottle in the bag and the boy trailing behind like a ghost and the man walking his dog and seeing them both but keeping to the other side of the street and not entering the park or calling out to the woman and the boy.
The nights grew colder. The woman persisted with taking off her clothes and the boy persisted with following her in just his thin pajamas and the man persisted in walking his dog but the man began wearing a coat and the dog too wore a coat that matched the man’s.
One night the man’s dog, a terrier growing old and blind, started to bark at the woman as she passed by and the woman and the boy trailing behind her were startled and for the first time noticed the man and his dog and the woman stopped and the boy stopped and the woman cried out and the terrier strained at his leash and the man felt now he had no choice but to cross the street and enter the park and apologize for his dog and get the woman to put on her clothes and maybe help her and her son back to their house and God knows what else but now he probably had to do something as they had both seen him.
The terrier stopped barking and the man bent to pick him up as he crossed the street and entered the park and approached the woman who was crying and patting the head of the boy whose arms were wrapped around her naked legs.
The man said I apologize if my dog frightened you I don’t know what got into him but see he’s very sweet really and you can pet him if you’d like. The man knelt and the boy reached out his hand to let the terrier smell it. Both the boy and the woman petted the terrier and let him lick their hands and the man tried not to look at the woman.
Ma’am he said you seem to have misplaced your clothes can I help you find them? The boy looked up to his mother now embarrassed but the mother only said yes let’s find my clothes and she set down the bag with the bottle in it in such a way that it would not tip over.
Her clothes lay on the ground near the swings and the woman pulled them on. They were only pajamas and it had gotten quite cold now and the man took off his coat and put it over the woman’s shoulders and his stocking cap he put on the boy’s head and now everybody looked quite normal and it seemed okay to walk them home which he offered to do.
It turned out that the woman and the boy lived not far from where the man lived, on his own with the terrier, though he’d never seen them during the day or any other place in the neighborhood. She asked him to come inside and she would make them all tea but she was unsteady on her feet. She said this is our abode and it sounded like a warble and she made a sweeping gesture with her arm and the boy started to cry. She went to the kitchen and the man sat down with his terrier on his lap and the boy lay on the floor with the blanket knotted in his fist.
The woman brought a cup of water with a tea bag in it but the water had not been heated. The man watched the brown color of the tea swirl slowly into the clear water and said I would like to help you if I can do you need some money or food do you have a job what can I do? The woman said there is nothing to be done or said we are fine you finish your tea and go please. The boy dragged his blanket to the other room and the woman said we need to sleep now and she came to the man with the terrier on his lap and gave him a kiss on the cheek. The man could see her breast through the opening in her pajamas and he touched it and mouthed it and she let him and she liked it and this is how they were for some time, the woman bent to the man, the long strands of her hair falling onto the little dog’s head and over his blind eyes, in the quiet of the woman’s abode.
The Denis painting grew more enigmatic the longer I looked at it. The subjects are doing what? Where are they? Where have they been? The “what” pertaining to identity deltas out—Who are they? Are they lovers, corpses in a ditch, pure spirit, or glyphs for an army of missing selves caught in an instant of lamination to the shadow opaque as Hell—What?
I taped an enlargement of the painting to my office wall and began to write “Back to Dog Soup” in a mood of the reluctant observer, having only a title for a month. Then, one line started to follow the next, no sense of elation until the end forced its own thrill on me, much like discovering a well concealed nest no poacher is ever going to rob.
Paradox is the bird that flies through luminous dark and dualisms in the Denis work. Time is twitchy, words fall short and can alter memory, shift experience, change up reasons and order to things: details and structures, narrative [vis-à-vis habits], longings, trauma, adaptation—provocative subjects for conjecture in an exploration of overtone and undertone. Gradually, it became the open country with switchbacks, waterfalls, eddies and whatever hoopla I imagined before everything came to a halt in blue glow.
As a six-year-old wanting to learn about the animals on my grandparents’ farm, not just their care and use, but wanting to know each one from a vantage of like-kind, I would sit many hours among the chickens and pigs and cows and goats, content in the deepest levels of my soul for whatever unification they granted me. Over time, I refined camaraderie with animals [mainly horses] to be about incremental, taking small, strangely insensible steps into the mysterious in order to get closer to them. I learned to hone [and honor] the telepathic, equal parts wishful thinking and the purest communion I was able to access, staying still and very open. There was an aesthetic to it. It had a moral center, profoundly intimate and profoundly blessed. I sat with Denis’s painting the same way I would a horse I want to know.
In living quarters adjacent to my office, my father is bedridden from late stage dementia and near the end of a long life. “Back to Dog Soup” concerns being in the facts as they are, were, or may not have been. Whatever conversational snippets surfaced, they arrived in an argot to negotiate the no-man’s-land between guesswork and facts no longer in evidence. It is a stance, not unlike a desire for a lever and a place a stand. The ekphrastic stance here contains a similar ambition and seeks to suture image to textual elements. What happens is not seamless. There is dissonance, and a scar to grapple with, central to the process. I can describe the feeling best by comparing it to visiting the hives at my ranch and, that sensation, more is underway than bees at work and honey-gathering.
La lecture huile sur toile is such a beautiful and ghostly painting. It evoked in me a terrible sense of loneliness. From that feeling, I created this gauzy scene with two characters: A naked woman walking in the moonlight and a small boy trailing behind her, dragging a white blanket. I wrote various observers into the story and finally settled on a man walking his dog. I wrote the story with the repetitions and flow the way it felt and sounded to my ear. Later, in revision, I found myself trying to wrestle the story from its strangeness into something safer, but it just wouldn’t take. I wrote a new ending, went deeper into the strangeness, and finally the story felt exactly true and right.
Someone Is Outside the Window
(Spring Quarterly 2012 / 12.10)
Pamela Johnson Parker
Someone Is Outside the Window,
Or Pamela Once Mean Comb of Sweetness
Forget your name, forget the time, try to forget he’s gone. Remember the
moon is full. She calls out to you: Old Crone. Know nothing, honey,
nothing but the scent of beeswax. Buff the floors of your old Queen
Anne to blonde. Saffron threads, daffodil ruff, and spring has sprung
its gear. Farmers in yellow almanacs can foretell it— Lenten Moon. Give up,
the ghost, the ring, the name, give up the gifts in their bright cocoons;
give up on him, and give him up. This space intent- ionally left blank.
Beestings, itchy hives, mercury rises from the silver dollar in the old
thermometer. That Strawberry Moon reddens the sky. Pile your hair atop your head;
bite your beestung lower lip till it bleeds. Moon, Swoon, June. July with its haloes
of heat, July with its sparklers like stars, July with its litany of lilies, lilies, roses,
of pollen pistil sepal brings you to; it brings to you the hagiography of
the ceiling fan. Restless, decide to spread your wings; work percale sheets
into rumpled angels. Confess, confess. Sin of omission. Sin of commission.
September falls away to fall; gingkoes he planted for you shrug off
their gold kimonos. Insinuating through every branch is susurration. Bee in Her
Bonnet. Cliché in the Harvest Sky. Shiver under your ceiling fan’s halo,
sleep under a hex of quilts. Add to hive the murmur of R and learn
hiver, word for winter, diminished shiver with its S frozen, that coin’s
bitten arc, that toepick at the end of your skates. Remember the sharp
tips of his teeth, like a comb’s, as your tongue riffed over their stings. Stings.
Da Capo Al Fine:
December offers you solstice, if not solace. Skate at night, pirouette;
remember that some of the moves you have learned are compulsory.
Inscribe figure-eights into the scrim of the pond. Maybe it’s for, maybe it is
eternity; maybe it figures—what all he promised you, flushed with kisses,
drunk on the premise of years and years; maybe it’s that long, maybe it’s so long,
maybe it’s longing; how long you’ll have to wait here, honey, for your hive to fill
back up. OBJECTS ARE LARGER THAN THEY APPEAR IN MIRROR.
Restring the pearls you snapped in a fit of pique, think of a swarm of snow
flakes, white bees bestirring a cloud. Say your name more often, a rosary.
Call yourself Queen Who Lives Through Winter, call yourself Vacant—Offices
to Let, call yourself perfected in the pond’s mercury glass. Understand that
the moon’s just your own tarnished image. Light Thief. Pseudonym. Slip from
your house when the sky is clotted with stars; make wishes that sting like
sleet. Await your own catasterism. Pleiades. One star imploded.
Give up on that moon; in dreams and in your bed, no longer moan his
name. You wouldn’t come, even if he called you, even if he called you
sweetheart, even if he called you burnished like wax. That yellowing
almanac brings you back around to Full Hunger. Drink a little less. Know
a little more. Know the day, the month, the year. Buff your skin to bones, spindle,
starve yourself into a satin dress. Remember Miss Havisham, who told Estella,
Little star, you break his heart. Oh, break, heart, break. Honey’s no longer a
After the performance, he laboriously placed his instrument in its chipped case and left the gymnasium using the back door. I followed him through the alley. He drank a Silva beer and smoked a long Kent at Lido. He ate one small pork schnitzel standing at a high top outside the pub, leaning against his cello case as if it were a brother or a crutch. It took him forever to chew the meat. He paid. He crossed the Boulevard Victoria and entered another alley. I followed behind him. I saw him pause and hover over a glass door. I thought he was breaking into a store. He fumbled with the key. He opened the door and went in.
I stayed outside the building and watched as he turned on all the lights. He disappeared. He reappeared; first as a thin shadow magnifying itself as he came closer to the frosted glass, then suddenly revealing the bucket and mop flanking him. He went to work on the floors. It looked like the lobby of a bank. I came to the glass door and knocked. He approached, his stickman shadow stretching itself exponentially, placed his face against the door, and shook his head. Then he made a gesture as if he were cutting his own throat with his palm. I knocked again.
–Closed, he yelled through the glass.
After he let me in, I told him I saw his performance. He said he’d been traveling from Belgrade east through Timisoara, Resita, Tirgu Jiu, Pitesti, Bucuresti, Slobozia, and was on his way to Calarasi. He was hoping to cross into Bulgaria, and then on to Turkey where he had a woman in Ankara and another woman in Izmir. I told him I knew Izmir from an old Hemingway story about dead Turkish soldiers in World War I laid out on the quay, waiting for coffins, dressed in traditional garb with upturned shoes.
–The question is what Jesus wouldn’t do, he said.
He was an odd, kind man. We had two thimbles of tuica. He pulled the home-made moonshine out of a small, felt pocket inside his instrument case.
—Un ciocanel, he cautioned and we drained the clear, potent brandy.
It was a little hammer, just as he’d warned. Straight to the blood. Straight to the head. I asked him to play something, and he refused. His cancer was only going to let him live for a few more weeks. He said he was saving everything for a performance in Kalabaka, Greece. He was hoping he could also make a concert on Sifnos Island but didn’t have much faith in his timeline.
–A woman, naturally.
And he laughed.
–I think I can make the Kalabaka concert though, he said.
We had a second round poured from his flask before he got up and told me he needed to wax the floor.
–This is how I make my money. Cleaning office buildings. They pay in cash.
I left, and he locked the door. He put on a gigantic pair of headphones, turned, and began to swing the mop from side to side on the marble floor.
I was entranced by Robin Grotke’s Someone Is Outside the Window. The opacity of the windowpanes made me think of calendars without any days, months, or years to mark the time. Janus (and maybe Lewis Carroll) reminded me to consider time as a portal moving both forward and backward. What and who, I wondered, waits there? I decided to write my own calendar/diary entries, and I chose the stanza and line shapes to suggest the shape of the window.
In marrying “The Violoncellist” to the photograph, I decided to go with a literal visual instead of the often chosen metaphorical road taken in ekphrastic collections. My aim with this piece was to give an abbreviated biography of a man, a musician, coming to the end of his time, yet still doing what most musicians I know have been doing all their lives: traveling and telling their stories. The photograph, for me, presents a seemingly insignificant moment in time, but taken together as part of a framework of experiences for an individual, it is an important definition of a human being.
(January 2012 / 12.01)
(Meditation on Cracked by Bernard Heise)
The summer the Dome crashed down Stephen King grew richer.I didn’t hear a thud when you went dark.No hamburger half-cows littered the fence line.
Nada.Tuli jumped off the Brooklyn BridgeAnd lived. You leaped into the blank without a splash.
When I went out searching,Mud cracked into obscure maps.I’ll admit the breaks were breathtaking.
Maybe I’ll also gleam with loss,Like those cracked Japanese cups sealed withGold leaf.
Today there’s tarnished copper underfoot.Baked mud beckons like gingerbread.Sidewalk cake
Hints incarnation.Who finds divine directionIn dirt?
As kids we played witches with dousers.Little voyants roamed up and downThe leafy dead-end on Vernon.
Cards in our bike spokes ticked.We nestled pretty street rocksIn tins next to fifty-cent Aggies.
The summer the Buddha left his father’s palaceOn PBS I ate it up, fedBy his tears turned drinking water.
I’d forgotten you in the downpour.Is that still me raining blues,Becoming seedbed, nimbus?
Is that you strumming Morrison’s “The End”behind the wallsof your ex-wife’s house?
Poetry is a limber instrument that lets us include all aspects of our being, the trivial and the sublime. From the poem in hand, “The Mysteries,” you can tell what I’ve been watching on TV, which music I’ve been listening to––The Doors, The Fugs. Tuli Kupferberg was the Fug who jumped from the Brooklyn Bridge and lived. Recently I’ve suffered a spate of losses. Throughout my lines you can hear a yearning for transformation––sorrow wants expression and meaning. Tercets are a tightrope act; they help to morph journey-through-hell sadness into blues, and blues are riddled with laughter.
Last spring I led a poetry-and-healing workshop for the cancer community, and one of the participants brought to class an article on Kintsugi (“golden joinery.”) In this Japanese art, the painter repairs cracks in porcelain teaware with gold or resin that looks like gold. The cancer patients and poets loved the idea of objects and humans becoming more beautiful because of imperfections and brokenness. Bernard Heise’s artful photograph, Cracked, also exudes excess beauty and splendid imperfection.
Our faces reveal age and experience, too, but women in America are not encouraged to grow old gracefully. Instead we’re urged to pay high prices for fillers that are injected into our faces; these substances––some of them poison––smooth out the Marionette Lines (yes, that’s the dermatological term.) But if the Buddha’s right, then our age lines will become maps as we learn and grow. That’s our hope. None of us want to get stuck in several lifetimes of junior high.
Cracked by Heise awakens these thoughts. To my hungry eye, the photograph also resembles gingerbread. Art turns change and loss into food for the spirit.
Yet I find myself unable to look closely at the image for long. Somehow “Cracked” becomes sacred space that doesn’t brook staring. Last weekend I saw “The Great Gatsby” at the movies, and the billboard with the glasses and giant eyes for “Dr. T.J. Eckleburg reminded me of “Cracked.” The Gatsby image rose high above the tarnished city. The seasoned colors of the billboard called to mind the weathered copper I find in Cracked, suggestive of alchemical transformations. The eyes are missing from “Cracked,” but not really. The photographer’s eyes are implicit there, and now several poets’ eyes have visited as well. The picture holds none of the disillusionment of the Gatsby billboard. It is not a symbol of anything. Cracked is an image, whole and beautiful in itself. Old copper mailboxes glow with a similar patina that invites time and change and letters.
Cracked lets us remember childhood play, too, the way sidewalks became our canvases and our jumping-off places, our charms and protections––no stepping on cracks. We tested the sureness of our feet. The pull of the childhood neighborhood grows stronger in an artist’s imagination. Play is still sacred. Let’s treasure the freedom of imagination that art and poetry offer.
Ira Joel Haber
Portrait of Denis (In his Library)
(October 2012 / 12.21)
The Library The Lion
chlorophyll collar moustache glass
face vase paws vase droop
pocket pod rope palmate brain
sun dried flower head root
elliptic node pistil lobe dandelion
sky vine scrape
leaf sheaf line spine mute
Soul, Sole, So
In the study of the meaning of life and the perpetuation of what is seen and not seen, there is no doubt that many questions remain. Open the wide box of evidence captured to date and it might become clear, while thumbing through stacks of thin pages and examining archaic dioramas at eye level, that the best of what is known and a large part of what is not is most accessible only at a close and uncomfortable range. And that which is missing – flecks of one collective key we’ve turned lifetimes over without knowing it, a fragment dulling with each missed connection – is the one teensy part temporarily tripped up and dislodged from our brain or heart or another other place where it might have settled deep inside us, and where it now and then flutters silently only to fall back again among our bones. And while these pieces hide and we forget the tremors of momentary understanding, forget they ever occurred to us, we hear rumors of those strange stories and unusual occurrences never meeting with an audience, the blink of miracles and disasters and other-somethings in between, other-somethings known fleetingly by one.
Here’s Dennis, a writer of great promise and little distinction, his published books both his pride and joy and his greatest frustration. Blips on the literary map, per the critics. They share space, the books, in his cases with the greats and grands, the stalwarts of literature. He knows his efforts don’t belong. He is reaching and faltering, his drive cutting a wild path of material. At his desk he inks the next try, his solemn face suppressing angst and hope and a heart beating forward because isn’t that the way? Fuck. He’s almost given up too many times by now.
But what to say next? He’s junked several thoughts. An intricately woven tale beginning in a crude house beside an avocado tree. The continued adventures of the Earl of Chichester. A grand scale house arrest which no one notices. A doctor who paints patients and a beautiful woman who cannot exist for him. Dennis’s mind bends now toward the poet XY Brehman, her written words leaving readers with burns and then scars in a tight, delicate script. Dennis can’t get past the image of a wrist and forefinger, the words circling around and around until there is no pain and nothing left to say, either.
Now Dennis writes a different bit. A cat walks lazily across a city street, and is nearly missed by a drunk motorcyclist. The drunk motorcyclist manages the corner poorly and crashes into a red dumpster. Coming the other way: an elderly lady “driving to Cambridge” for lemonade and miniature cupcakes and a chance to meet the congressional district’s chairwoman. She’s heard so much about her.
Dennis knows this scene is a limp entry, and maybe even perhaps an echo of something he’s heard before, but he can’t tear himself away, managing to be the cat skittering away as well as the motorcyclist crashing to red metal and the old lady giddy for a high she’s not known for many years. And it’s a busy city and amidst the bustling folks are dying and being born and kicking the shit out of themselves, not unlike any other city, but at this moment there is only a cat walking lazily across the street and a drunk motorcyclist managing a corner poorly and a goddamn elderly woman behind the wheel for the first time in months so she can live out a small dream in some small, brave way.
Dennis gets up for some fresh air, intending to stand a minute at the large casement windows, but he knows that instead of the familiar view to the sloping street and the shops, the oak branches close enough to touch, he’ll see the contrived picture, dusty and cold. He sits back down and continues to refine the scene so clearly that it becomes obvious to him that he must cut everything else he’s written so far. Then he rewrites from the point of view of the cat, of the motorcyclist and the motorcycle and the red dumpster, of the elderly woman and the woman she is driving to meet. And it’s disappointing to him, all the same, but there it is, all in front of him. A moment of unknown souls in a never-ending reel, something which should have come and gone but has decided to stay.
He tells himself that this is only the beginning of something, that he’ll move on any minute, but he’s there now, part of a tiny world of his fashioning, inconsequential but real nonetheless. A place for him – the only place, at present.
He keeps writing, on and on over the same ground, and his disappointment is gradually replaced by an airy lightness. He has a sense of the wind in the windows entering his bones, loosing joints, a shushing, shushing against his feverish pitch. The lines of the body retreat, absorbed back into the thoughts of the room, words which fell just short of any real meaning. (The wind, for example, is carrying with it more truth than all the books on the shelves). And there, yes, he is just about gone, so that he cannot answer his wife when she knocks at the door, and she cannot hear a response. She walks into the room to check the yellow dahlias on the desk and then she leaves to look for Dennis in another part of the house, not noticing a faint sound, the terminating, fading pressure of ink on paper, as Dennis unwittingly writes himself off scene, his books behind him quavering at the impermanence of flesh.
Wherever books assemble – a shelf or two, a stacked tower – they begin to dream of Alexandria.
I enjoy the excitement and challenge of working from prompts and was thrilled by the chance to write to this fantastic image created by Ira Joel Haber. At a quick glance this might be considered a simple sketch, but it is anything but – there is a great deal at play here, and I wanted to capture at least part of that with the story. I tried taking this to some weird(er) places: wild plot lines and ideas that didn’t quite fit. Dennis was reeling me back, saying “Remember me.” It was difficult to leave the room that way. I think Dennis finally agreed to shoulder some additional eccentricities to satisfy this writer. (Thank you, Dennis!)
The Sleepy Homes
(International Special 2012 / 12.15)
Down to Sleep
after Eleanore Bennett’s The Sleepy Homes
I’ve heard what they call me,
skulker, reaper, nightcaller.
Funny, I prefer mornings,
dawn or just before,
when the birds arise and sing,
when no one quite trusts their eyes.
Not that it matters. These days
most don’t notice me anyway,
just another transient, homeless
sorting through refuse, or shiftworker
coming home down streets of stone.
I threw the wings away years ago,
couldn’t concentrate with all
that flapping about and mine
is a task where mistakes
are not readily forgiven.
The black coat seems better,
less conspicuous, almost shadow.
It’s morning now, so early
there is not another sign
of living, and I can’t remember
if I’m coming or going.
I could sleep anywhere.
The slightest open door
is all it would take.
Invite me in. I have lived
in your dreams since childhood.
The Dustman’s Daughter
The Dustman’s daughter collects things no one else wants: rusted cans and broken bottles, potato peelings and wilted cabbage, soiled sheets and grease-stained newspapers. She collects these things before the dreary dawn breaks, while the townsfolk slumber in their sleepy homes; no one sees her push the rickety wooden wagon over cobble stones, although they hear the creak of the wheels in their dreams. The Dustman’s daughter pushes the same wagon used by her Pa, dead now these three years of a broken heart (god rest his soul)—the wagon is the one thing left to her, that and teeny flat built into the side of the hill. Every morning he trundled his wagon, piled with the town’s waste and refuse, to the backside of the town, to the gorge where all the dustmen dumped their wagons. Black smudged the sky, smelling of singe, smelling of something dark and unnamable. Hell, Pa called it. Hell here on earth. But the Dustman’s daughter does not tip her wagon in the gorge; no, when her wagon fills, she wheels it back to her flat, opens the door, and unloads her finds. It takes her the rest of the day to sort the unwanted things and put them in their proper place. At dusk, she opens the door, props the wagon by the stoop, closes the door, and lights a single candle. By this candle she takes her tea and inventories her possessions. The townsfolk walk over their clean stoops and through their swept alleys and tidy wee yards and give grace for their good fortune, that they are not Dustmen.
The Dustman’s daughter collects wanted things, items people mind when they go missing: abandoned on playgrounds, forgotten on store counters, dropped on bus stop benches. Dolls with dangling limbs and mussed hair, stuffed bears with missing eyes, books with broken spines. She keeps her gaze to the ground, looking for the shine of a penny or jewel or button. If she comes upon a door left ajar, she enters, soundless, and slips out with a slice of still-warm bread, a linen handkerchief, an umbrella folded by the door. Once she found a silver spoon, small enough for a baby, and she dropped it in her apron pocket. When she looked in the silver spoon, her face reflected upside down, she had a vague memory of a woman, skin pale as the moon and hair like flames, bending toward her. The Dustman’s daughter raised her fingers to her forehead and felt the warmth of the kiss from her Ma, dead now these four years from consumption (god rest her soul). When the townsfolk miss their hankies and umbrellas, their silver spoons and broken books, the parents say to their children, “Shush now, and be good, or the Dustman will get you.”
The Dustman’s daughter collects things, wanted and unwanted, not wanting these things herself but, rather, needing them; taking things and making them hers fills her, at least for the day, at least until tea time. After she washes out her pot and her cup, dries off her plate and saucer, after the sun slides behind the hill and the moon slowly rises to take its place, she settles in her small wooden bed covered by her one woolen blanket and waits and hopes for dreams to overtake her. But until her eyes close, she feels the need growing in her gut, the way a flame sputters before the twig catches fire. The craving blooms in her, even as her accumulations swell in her small space and cover the chair and table, the small sink, the lone window. Even in her sleep the longing kindles. When she awakes, the Dustman’s daughter tumbles through her piles of wanted and unwanted things to the door, to another dreary morning, and wonders what treasures she will find, wonders if she will finally feel full.
Considering Eleanor Bennett’s photograph The Sleepy Homes, my attention was drawn to three things: the mysterious, black-coated figure who seemed to be just arriving or perhaps just leaving; the significant pile of refuse seemingly a common and accepted part of this townscape; and the prevalence of brick and stone and the correlative absence of living things. While the scene reminded me of some of the places I had seen while living in Germany in high school and had that same cool, wet, quiet morning in a place that has been habitated for a long time feel to it, it also had a more somber, sleepy (as Bennett’s title suggests) and complacent feeling in it. So, perhaps it is no surprise that the coated figure would make me think of death. Or perhaps my thoughts were influenced by my having recently reviewed a manuscript of poems on the figure of Azrael, the archangel of death, by Phebe Davidson. In any event, given the necessary presence of death in all things human, it seems proper that the figure of death should be quite familiar and quite human as well, almost a companion throughout our lives.
The Sleepy Homes is an image lush in grays, one which evokes thoughts of secrets, of lingering sadness. By the wall, a tumble of items, discarded and derelict. Who could possibly want them? This, in turn, made me consider why people place such importance on things, needed and un-needed, and for what purpose. The woman in black, walking with her back to the camera, provided the glimmerings of the character needed to hang my story on.
ELEANOR LEONNE BENNETT is the CIWEM Young Environmental Photographer of The Year 2013 and has also won first places with National Geographic,The World Photography Organisation, Nature’s Best Photography and The National Trust to name a few. Eleanor’s photography has been published in The British Journal of Psychiatry, Life Force Magazine, British Vogue, and Harper’s Bazaar and as the cover of books and magazines extensively throughout the world.
FRANCIS DENIS is a semi-professional French painter. One reviewer states emphatically: “Francis’ abstract figurative paintings evolve around the single theme of emotion. Everything in these mysterious works is centered around the humble and sad angst that the figures portray. How Francis does this is quite spectacular. Set on a single tone backdrop, an immediate mood is set by the colour of these bold platforms. The expressive brushwork uses contrasting tones and the white outline of his subjects creates an almost collage-like aesthetic. [His work] allows for a playful and engaging guessing game for the viewer.”
KATHY FISH ’s short fiction has appeared in Indiana Review, The Denver Quarterly, Guernica, and elsewhere. She was the guest editor of Dzanc Books’ “Best of the Web 2010.” She is the author of three collections of short fiction: a chapbook of flash fiction in the chapbook collective, A Peculiar Feeling of Restlessness: Four Chapbooks of Short Short Fiction by Four Women (Rose Metal Press, 2008), Wild Life (Matter Press, 2011) and Together We Can Bury It (The Lit Pub, 2012).
ROBIN GROTKE received an MA in Anthropology/Museum Studies from the University of Denver. Her background in the museum field allowed her to observe visual artistic expressions and the processes for their creation, thus further providing a means of learning about various societies and cultures. The museum environment, which included exhibit design, also helped cultivate Grotke’s creativity which led her to photography as an inspiring, galvanizing medium for communication and expression.
IRA JOEL HABER was born and lives in Brooklyn New York. He is a sculptor, painter, book dealer and teacher. His work has been seen in numerous group shows both in USA and Europe, and he has had 9 one man shows including several retrospectives of his sculpture. His work is in the collections of The Whitney Museum Of American Art, New York University, The Guggenheim Museum, The Hirshhorn Museum & The Albright-Knox Art Gallery. Haber is the recipient of three National Endowments For The Arts Fellowship, two Pollock-Krasner grants and The Adolph Gottlieb Foundation grant. Currently he teaches art at the United Federation of Teachers Retiree Program in Brooklyn
BERNARD HEISE is an internal emigrant who lives with his family on a sailboat, currently in Southeast Asia, who on occasion finds the time to write a few things down or snap a few pictures, like the one features here , which is a close-up of the hull (starboard side, forward) of a wrecked freighter tethered to the shore in Whangaparapara Harbour on Great Barrier Island, New Zealand.
MATTHEW HITTINGER is the author of Skin Shift (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2012) and three previous chapbooks. He lives and works in NYC. You can read more of his work at matthewhittinger.com.
MARILYN KALLET is the author of fifteen books; her new volume of poetry, The Love That Moves Me, was published by Black Widow Press in April 2013. She is Professor of English at the University of Tennessee, where she directs the Creative Writing Program. Every summer she teaches poetry workshops for the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, in Auvillar, France.
KARI NGUYEN writes from New Hampshire where she lives with her daughter, dog, and husband. Her work has received recognition from Glimmer Train, the Glass Woman Prize, The Binnacle, and New Hampshire Writers Magazine. Her recently published stories appear in Metazen, Camroc Press Review, Olentangy Review, and other places. She can be found online at karinguyen.wordpress.com and on twitter as @knguyenwrites.
Author of six collections of poetry and over 700 poems published in journals and anthologies, SCOTT OWENS is editor of Wild Goose Poetry Review, Vice President of the Poetry Council of North Carolina, and recipient of awards from the Pushcart Prize Anthology, the Academy of American Poets, the NC Writers’ Network, the NC Poetry Society, and the Poetry Society of SC. He holds an MFA from UNC Greensboro and currently teaches at Catawba Valley Community College.
PAMELA JOHNSON PARKER’s works have appeared in Poets/Artists, Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal, OCHO, and Six Sentences. She is also the featured poet in the April 2009 Broadside series of poetry and art. Her chapbooks are A Walk Through the Memory Palace, selected by Dinty Moore as the winner of the chapbook contest sponsored by qarrtsiluni, and Other Four-Letter Words (Finishing Line Press).
ALEX PRUTEANU is author of novella Short Lean Cuts, available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell’s Books. He is also author of Gears, a collection of stories from Independent Talent Group also available at the aforementioned retailers. He has published fiction in NY Arts Magazine, Guernica Magazine, PANK Magazine, Specter Literary Magazine, and others. More here.
LINDA SIMONI-WASTILA writes from Baltimore, where she professes, mothers, and gives a damn. You can find her stuff at Smokelong Quarterly, Monkeybicycle, The Sun, The Poet’s Market 2013, Scissors and Spackle, Connotation Press, Camroc Press Review, Right Hand Pointing, Every Day Fiction, and Nanoism, among others. Senior Fiction Editor at JMWW, she slogs one word at a time toward her MA in Writing at Johns Hopkins and two novels-in-progress. In between sentences, she blogs at http://linda-leftbrainwrite.blogspot.
JOAN STEPP SMITH, a native San Francisco, has degrees in English and Art History from the University of California at Berkeley and Sir John Cass School of Art and Design in London. She founded Starworks, a San Francisco public relations and conceptual marketing firm, and co-produced the award-winning documentary G-String Mother, with Erik Lee Preminger, about growing up as the love child of the legendary Gypsy Rose Lee and Otto Preminger. A lover of all animals, Smith provides respite care for retired performance horses on her ranch in Northern California. In a Pasture with Palominos (Tebot Bach, 2010) is her most recent collection of poems.