the blue collection 5: collaboration
(Winter 2014/ 14.24)
James Lloyd Davis, Heather Dobbins,
Cheryl Dodds, Rachel J Fenton, Nathan Graziano,
Claire Ibarra, Nazifa Islam, Jen Knox,
Clare L. Martin, James Owens, Joani Reese,
Jo Ann Tomaselli, Ernest Williamson III,
Cherise Wolas, Robert E. Wood
Ed. note: For blue collection 5, ten writers respond in poem and flash to five art pieces selected from Blue Five Notebook’s 2013 issues. The connections between the art, poetry, flash, and commentaries are a testament to the possibilities of the creative process.
* * *
Railroad Diary Istanbul
(Poetry Special, March 2013 / 13.05)
Imagine a Woman Behind Razor Wire, Glimpsed
A long time ago, when we lived in the sky….
But no, we never lived in the sky.We invented that because of pain,
because desire tortures even the dirt and stones into division,
into definition fracture power solitude wall razor wire.
(But pleasure is also real. Joy is real. One autumn day, my wife
climbed a fence and stole from a farmer’s disregarded field,
knotty tart small apples burnished by the wind and the sun,
and she gave me one, though I watched her eat and tasted her mouth, instead.
Not everyone remembers that such things are possible, since they often happen only once.)
“Razor wire” is a slang term. Did you know that?
Industry professionals call it “barbed tape,”
which has a reassuring tone,
something your father would carry in his toolbox.
If no one beats you, how do you know who you are?
I insist on saying this plainly, without art:
if you remember joy, you should tell it
Once I found someone’s voice lying on the ground,
a little puddle or puzzle of utterances, desperate
and wet and confused by having been cut or torn from a warm throat.
I brushed it off, and it huddled against the inside of my hand,
nuzzling for safety. I held it to my ear,
and it was like the sea shouting in the vast rooms of a shell,
but not like that, at all.
Imagine a woman standing behind razor wire,
glimpsed, as you pass to your easy life.
This poem is not the gift of a woman’s voice.
See how external I have remained, despite certain maneuvers
that I hoped would bring me closer?
This poem is white noise leaning into silence.
Another Way to Use A Train Station
We, the Family Aksoy, lived in a gracious home at the edge of a cliff overlooking the Bosphorus. Our Baba and our Ana adored each other and madly loved us, their young daughters. Ana’s beautiful meals tasted of delicious hugs and Baba’s kisses carried us until dawn. My younger sister and I tracked time in our own ways; I watched the hanging moon at night, followed it from hook to ball, and during the day, Maral twirled in her tutus, counting her steps. All of that, what once was, is no more.
At the beginning, Baba told us spiraling fairy tales that ended at the knotted truth: a turncoat friend, mourning the days when he might have been an Ottoman heir, found himself throttled by jealousy over Baba’s meaningful endeavor, his luck in love, his receipt of filial devotion, and confiscated what was ours, and what belonged to us by right—the stars and the waves and the seaweed coiled up on the beach. He chucked us in here and turned the lock.
Now, even at the zenith of summer, our palms are iced over and we no longer hold hands. Our family has been made prisoners, walled off from the world by frozen bricks. When the turncoat visits, he grins at our undoing.
Our cloistered cell is in an abandoned building. Once it was a busy place, where trains thundered to a stop before rolling away to mysterious locales, and people dressed in beautiful clothes drank chai tea and ate sweets like tulumba, waiting to depart, or wore white blinding smiles and held jingling gifts in their laps for arriving friends and relatives.
We have been here so long that when blood flowed from my center and splashed on the cold stone floor, Baba and Ana looked at me in surprise. For us, time was no longer a tide, no longer a measurement we heeded, not even a pinpoint, but time never stands still, and now I am a woman. When the turncoat saw my crimson drops, he said, “Ah, good. I hope one of you is, at last, dying.”
Since then, Baba is at a perpetual slant in the northeast corner, a big man turned into a stick, a stick stuck in a fold, a folded-up man who plays his imaginary violin—music I swear we sometimes hear—until he is delirious in his velvety world. When he rouses, the melody of that faraway life faded away, he catapults off the sheer ledge in his mind.
Maral, a gazelle as her name implies, has made the southeast corner her own. My sister’s legs are long now, her feet, once arched, are now flat, and still she runs the positions, from first to fifth, like the ballet dancer she might have been. She leaves marks on the stone floor, on the brick walls, her torn fingernails driving in the maps of her old dances.
I refuse the angled corners. When I sleep, it is against the short west wall. Mostly, though, I circle around my Ana, now starfish-splayed and pinned to the cement floor, incapable of accepting or offering the slightest touch. For Ana, her memories of our magical births, her love for Baba, belong to a different world of laughing light. When I rattle, Ana breathes deeply, then says, “Atika, my free, noble, and beautiful girl, imagine yourself outside.”
It was easier before the blood, but if I quiet myself, I fall into green dreams, into the blue of the Bosphorus where I swim naked, slippery as an eel, and when I rise up, I have floated out of our locked room, slipped through the blocking bars, and am in a place where the light is pearly, where black is no shade in the universe, not a color I am forced to wear. I never tell my family about what I see when I am free, roaring lions chasing screaming people. Rescuing any of them is impossible and soon I am pressed against the slatted structure, my spine fused to a cold pipe, staring at the hula-hooped razors that slice earth from sky.
Ana always senses when the dark silence visits me. She calls out, “Tell me about the colors you see, Atika,” and the roars and the screams, the whole world, instantly hushes. I say, “I see a peach of a sky, soft and furred as the peaches we ate on our last picnic on the beach below our house. A sherbet rainbow that begins with ripe lime and ends in pale lemon, and reunites lives lived and lives lost. A filigreed bronze that transforms serrated blades into art, makes a hard place a palace.”
“More,” Ana says, and I tell her this: “My bare feet are in the silky quilt of sand. Behind me are the pink cliffs. Before me is the living sea worth a forever gaze. I have been gathering dried sand-dollars and have lost track of the hours. I must walk back up the path, help you tend to our garden. I am rounding the bend, walking through our white-washed gate. Maral is arabesqueing across the bright lawn. Ana, you are on your knees, with your hands in the turned earth, your thumbs wiggling against the worms, settling in the bulbs, yanking the weeds, giving what may bloom a chance at a fragrant life. Baba is perched on a chair, his violin bow dancing over the sunny strings, his notes wafting out on the salty breeze.”
I know Ana wants to remain in the garden with the sun hot on her once-dark hair, turned sepulchral by our life here, so I go silent and say no more. But I know what will soon happen, what always happens: I will lose my born form, change back into the vaporous cloud I have become. Then I will slide through the bars, curl around my family until their hearts slow, their limbs relax, and their eyelids close—their lashes turning to butterflies in the dark.
Some gestures toward commentary on Cheryl Dodds’s “Railroad Diary, Istanbul, 2012”:
1. My initial reaction to Cheryl Dodds’s extraordinary photograph was the thought, this forbids speech. The voice is caged. Not “the woman is caged” but her voice. Then there was long silence, while I wondered what I meant by that. I’m still not quite sure, though the poem makes little forays in that direction.
2. Geometry is a power here, and even if geometry is inevitably symbolic of tragic-historical forces adumbrated in the photograph’s title, in the woman’s dress, in the intrusion of “Western” repressive measures of control (razor wire) into what could have been a peaceful “Eastern” scene, still it is line and plane, as if drained of detail to reveal underlying structure, sky and wall and roof’s edge and drastic perspective that forces the human figure into one narrow corner of this near-abstract composition. She is held at this distance. She cannot come forward. We cannot go toward her. We cannot hear her speak, though this is what I desired.
3. Does it matter very much whether the woman is trapped inside the wall or outside? Either way, it is division that is heartbreaking, though division is also the birth of desire. (Underneath the writing of the poem, though unspoken inside it, is the likely etymology of “paradise” in Persian as something like “place enclosed by walls,” the sacred as set apart, the desirable as distanced. What, then, does it mean to stand outside of a prison?)
4. In a world supersaturated with images, including images from this photographed woman’s part of the world, images whose narrative we tend to consider transparently understandable, it is of great value to be reminded of the silenced voice that would speak outside of our expectations, the surface of the image that rejects our wish to hear (understand, empathize), the voice an object of desire like the luminous fruit in the now-long-forbidden garden. (Oh, but these fragments don’t say what I wanted to say.)
When asked if I would participate in the special Ekphrastic Art issue, I was flattered and said yes immediately. Working then on a novel, the idea of a piece that could not exceed a thousand words was appealing. Only after I agreed to write to or about a piece of art did I remember that I don’t work that way; I am a writer who hates prompts. As a mentor in a New York City nonprofit organization focused on guiding young writers, during the group’s prompt-writing activities, I sit and doodle, and rarely write a word. Some time passed before I received the art and my trepidation had grown. But then I printed out the photograph by Sheryl Dodd, titled Railroad Diary, Istanbul 2012, and taped it up on a bookshelf in my study. Even seeing it on flimsy white paper, Dodd’s photograph was luminous, alluring, strange, and I found it heartbreaking. I kept coming back to the photograph through the course of that day, staring at it carefully, taking its elements apart, trying to ferret out more meaning in the straightforward title that deliberately refuses to inform the viewer. Coincidentally, I had some research in a box about Istanbul, some articles, other pictures, Wikipedia information, intended for a future writing project. I sifted through what I had already collected, constantly referring to the photograph, but there was no collaboration. My research was about the vibrancy of Istanbul today and in Dodd’s photograph what is absent is nearly as compelling as what is included. Completely absent from the photograph are train tracks. There is a lone female figure in a courtyard, razor wire atop the building, a wash of unreal colors in the sky. Nothing about it said train station or 2012. I feel asleep wondering about what had happened to the trains, and when I woke I had the opening lines in my mind. That first draft about the Family Aksoy came quickly; within hours, I had something solid to work with. Then I researched Turkish names for the sisters, the history of the Ottoman Empire, the kinds of pastries people would eat, the Bosphorus Sea. While the first draft was a rapid exercise, I spent the next several months fiddling, changing words here and there, plucking and replacing, moving around a word or a sentence, compressing down until the words, in their order, felt exactly right. Of all the honing I did, that first opening sentence never changed. Indeed, Dodd’s photograph and my story became a sort of talisman: I began my writing day by looking at her picture, playing around with the story, before moving back to my book. The deep awe that I first felt when I saw the photograph only intensified. Indeed, that worn printed out copy still hangs on my bookshelf, and I wish I possessed the real thing.
Jo Ann Tomaselli
Birds & Fence
(BFN November 2013 / 13.21)
Clare L. Martin
Seek the Holy Dark
after Jo Ann Tomaselli’s “Birds & Fence”
No wind stirs us as we mull
earth, a sky,
We only surmise the fence
contains a breadth
for one impenetrable
Our pearlescent eyes
sever the heads
of the kings of night,
when merely perceived.
Bone by bone by bone,
we keep whole
the world’s shadow.
And perfume its inhabitants
with an incalculable weather.
You cannot know
from mundane: we begat
Do you seek the heart, too?
It is made of naked coal,
and the wine which flows
throughout is the remnant
If we do not fly,
we claw, reap, hunger
for that which you leave behind.
We will eat freedom
from your palm
if you relinquish it.
I’ve slept with four women in my thirty-two years, and until two hours ago, I assumed they were all still alive. I can’t comprehend the fact that I’ve slept with anyone who is now dead—much less someone who was murdered.
It has been almost fifteen years since that night with Haley Coletti at Eric Tomlin’s high school graduation party—fifteen years in which I’ve graduated from college and grad school; I’ve been married and, recently, divorced. This afternoon, the final carload of my wife’s belongings was packed then she drove away, back to her new boyfriend’s house where she lives now. I cracked open a bottle Maker’s Mark and searched the names of other three girls on the Internet. That’s when I stumbled upon Haley’s Facebook page, and then her obituary followed by a handful of news articles.
Woman slain in alleged Hate Crime, read a headline in The Baltimore Sun.
Haley and I were in the same graduating class but we were relative strangers until that night at Eric’s party. A tall girl with straight brown hair that she wore in a tight ponytail—Haley was a standout athlete in field hockey and basketball, earning a partial scholarship to a small college on the East Coast. I wrote for my high school newspaper and interviewed her once—the only other time we’d spoken.
The night of Eric’s graduation party, the two of us were drunk and started talking while sitting next to each other on the front lawn. I eventually convinced her to split a joint with me behind a tool shed then we took a walk down a dark dirt road behind the Eric’s parents’ house.
The stars were spattered in the clear night sky, and the music from the party grew dimmer as we walked beside a rickety white fence with a wire strung across the top where blackbirds were perched under the moonlight. We walked into quiet and nothingness. I stared at my feet the whole time and finally managed to mumble, “You’re pretty.”
“Don’t lie to me,” Haley said, stopping on the road and turning to face the fence. “Boys always lie. You’re all full of shit.”
“I’m not lying. I think you’re pretty. I always have.” While Haley was plain and plank-shaped—never wearing tight clothing or makeup—she had a full soft mouth and round brown eyes that were beaming that night.
“I’m drunk and stoned,” she said and tilted her head. “And I’ll never see you again, Ted. I’ll bet you’ve had a lot of girlfriends.”
I kicked at the dirt, my head down. “One,” I said.
She took my hand in hers and led me toward the fence. We lay in the misty grass and kissed, our tongues flickering at first then drilling deep into each others’ mouths. Haley pulled off her t-shirt. She wore a plain white cotton bra, no lace or bows or frills. A husky kid and self-conscious about my weight, I kept my t-shirt on as I kissed her neck and sucked her small nipples. In the distance, the music and chatter from the party drifted away as the crickets chirped in the tall grass and we panted between kisses.
Something about Haley was different from the girl who took my virginity—a dropout with crooked teeth who was bribed with a quarter of weed to sleep with me. Haley was stiffer, and clumsy. When I slid my hand in her panties, she was dry. With my back pressed against the fence for leverage, I tried wedging my finger inside her, like splitting a walnut. I kept trying as Haley’s heavy breathing turned into indecipherable moans of pleasure or, maybe, pain. As the blackbirds watched from the wire, I took down my shorts and tried to pry her open with my cock, getting inside her for only a few seconds before pulling out and ejaculating on her stomach.
When I pulled my shorts back on, Haley was sobbing. “What’s wrong?” I asked. “Did you not want to do that?”
“No. Not really,” she said and stood up and dressed. “But I wanted to try it. I had to know for sure.”
At the time, I didn’t understand the comment and chalked it up to confusion borne of pot and booze. We walked on the dark dirt road, back toward the lights and the music at Eric’s parents’ house, not saying a word.
Tonight, I’m depressed about my divorce and hating my ex-wife’s new boyfriend. I’m two fingers deep into this bottle of bourbon and sinking down fast. I can remember the look on Haley Coletti’s face that night—her eyes squeezed tight and pretty mouth half-open as the blackbirds watched.
I pour another glass and pause and peruse the article. I reach into the drawer of my desk and slip on my wedding ring. It’s all about me. It’s always been about me.
This photo speaks to me of stillness, starkness, and strength of image. I often feel my process is in pursuit of the image and my imagery is very visual. Allowing the image to ring through me; surveying details and “seeing” something that exists, in stasis and behind it, is a breathtaking experience. The poem came very quickly. The image struck me as rich for language to pull from and also to which I could add surrealistic layers. There is bleakness in the image and also in my poem. I wanted to cause “a whirling” with my words and also to capture something of the moment, however obliquely, in time and space. I know what I mean behind my own words, what got me where I ended up, but it is unnecessary for the reading to know what was surreptitiously in my head, just what I put on paper.
Quite honestly, I struggle to remember what I had for breakfast on any given day so trying to recall what was running through my morbid imagination when I wrote “Blackbirds” is likely to be pure conjecture. I believe I was devouring Elmore Leonard novels at the time so that could be where the crime that frames the story stemmed. I remember looking at the photograph and feeling a sense of darkness and desolation, trying to imagine what would happen if you placed characters beside this fence in such a barren landscape. In the story, however, I was also trying to make the picture a reflection of the narrator’s emotional landscape, trying to capture that sense of isolation and despair. The blackbirds, I suppose, were the low-hanging fruits. This was a really cool exercise in creativity, and one that I’m now using with the creative writing classes I teach.
Lost in Japan
(Spring Quarterly 2013 / 13.10)
Robert E. Wood
The holy mountain, always impending, is older than sight.
The blade that has borne more blows than the warrior whispers in air.
Before the carver has finished, the mask begins to speak.
The world is a fish, a bird, a flower, a splash of red on silk.
We are crossing a wooden bridge in the rain.
Ghosts drown in her long black hair.
The White Room
Davis’s palms prickle with heat. He stops rubbing his hands together and thinks maybe he should duck out, blend into the thick crowd behind him. He could thread through the lines slowly, disappearing among the thickening masses until no one notices, and he could run home. Creative cleansing seems so abstract, and who wants to sit in a room by himself, even a few minutes? He glances at the hundreds who wait behind him, two prongs: long lines of clean, pedicured feet—barefoot and sandaled, shifting. Most creatives reserve the room for one to five minutes, and this is supposed to be enough. The inspiration lasts years, possibly a lifetime (so says the small print on the black business card with a gold three). Davis’s three minutes are a gift from his agent.
He waits, silent, as everyone is silent, imagining his old self—the suit and acronyms, self-consciousness masked by routine. Hesitant to look back, he notices a woman with perfectly white hair and a tough, round face. He smiles, and the woman’s lips press tight. A corner of her mouth lifts slightly. They are both afraid of the emptiness and silence.
“Welcome,” the greeter says. She wears a ball cap and yoga pants. Davis stares in her direction, though he can’t really make out her face in the shadow of the hat. He studied for months, read all the literature about the purging, passed the personality profile and emotional IQ test. He signed and emailed his statement of intent. He was told he could cancel up to 24 hours ahead of time, was warned that creative energy, once released, causes myriad bodily reactions and irritations. Painful or draining, these side effects are supposed to pass quickly; meanwhile, Davis imagines the sucking of his very essence, his personal identity erased.
He turns to leave—his agent will understand—but the red door opens and the greeter grabs his arm, whispers, “Next.” He takes a step forward.
Beyond the red, there is nothing but white. Davis enters slowly, noting the softness of the ground, the way it seems to suck at and release his feet, a gentle massage. The walls are solid but seem to be moving, defined by their corners alone. He can’t tell how far or close he is to anything. He takes measured steps toward a small, circular cushion near the middle of the room, barely distinguishable.
The door closes, and the same whisper tells him there will be a thirty-second reorienting session. “Please enjoy,” she adds, “and don’t forget to breathe.”
Davis closes his eyes but remembers he isn’t supposed to close his eyes and opens them. His pulse throbs, and he wants to rush to the door, demand the soft-voiced woman in yoga pants let him out. He can no longer tell where the door is.
His skin itches. His heart screams and spreads, and although he knows the dangers of freaking out, knows he has to center himself, to focus on his core, to remember the mantra he’d been given, all he can feel is a desire to run. Eyes open, the white washes over and inside of him, coating like good paint, thick and without aroma. Bodies color the wall like a movie: his ex and daughter running after the dog, his writing assignment—first reality, then the characters in a novel due two months from today. The images are leaving his body, he realizes. His previously upset stomach settles as his emotions bleed out, his skin calms.
The greens, earthy, and dark blues spread out like ink blots, bleed up the white walls and retell of losses and desire. His love, illogical, is not red but black. His anger, muted beige, seems a sort of clog in his veins that resists but releases. His emotions are all outside of him now, crawling up the walls.
The purging speeds his heart then relaxes it. He slumps, trying to feel downcast and alone, as he should from such a state of mind. He curves into himself, a seashell, and frowns so intensely that the strain reshapes his face.
“It is now time to unwind. Release—” a voice says, softly. His minutes are up, and he must remember to breathe. He shakes his hand and feels nothing as he looks at the walls, mosaics of his previous self. The numbness expands.
He stands, feels the wall with his hand, tracing a woman’s face—his ex-wife. He tries to grab the greens and blues, struggles to feel them again. He wants to grip the floor and press himself to the wall until all of the color returns, or he returns to it, because it is so beautiful. But the door is opening and what is left on the walls—the regrets and previous loves, the illnesses and joys—pool on the ground and drain out.
Davis is escorted out, given a set of directions, but as he drifts along, the paper slips from his hand. Everything seems an empty canvas. The crisp outline of each tree leaf imprints itself onto his mind, and Davis feels each of the small stones massaging his feet through his sandals; he moves, heel to toe. Vivid oranges of a setting sun tease the horizon as the star sets, and he breathes its colors. How quickly the world refills the space provided it, he thinks, and how necessary that he define it all. Davis is awestruck as a child, new to the world, taking it all in.
A horn honks and tires screech. Mid-step, Davis watches as two cars barely miss each other, swerving to avoid him. He feels a surge of fear, yellow, and moves faster. He hears a child crying and notices the clasped hands of a young couple, bodies leaning in. He walks faster, remembering the way home, to his family, his deadline. The color inside him is vibrant and new, and Davis is hungrier than he’s ever been.
As a result of the title of the painting, this poem is haunted by Lost in Translation in the sense that the film conveys a sense of being lost in another world. The actual images within the painting suggest to me another Japan and a culture that is always suggesting something older than itself—poetic traditions that incorporate traditional phrasing, dramatic traditions that suggest the transformation of the actor into legendary archetypes, the famous swords of the samuri. Hovering over the prints of the Edo Era stands the sacred Mount Fuji. And finally, from the depths of “Lost in Japan,” I attempt to invoke the human voice of Akiko Yosano calling across the centuries to punish men with her long black hair.
“Lost in Japan,” to me, is vibrancy offset by stifling emotion. The downcast face appears lost inside color, inside beauty, but unable to see it. The face is tight, the frown pronounced. If only he’d open his eyes.
(Winter Quarterly 2013 / 13.04)
How do bodies contain what’s been done to them?
A man steps on the pavement’s painted stripes.
A traffic light over his head supposedly prevents
cars from running him over—another god from the skyscape
telling others something not
for him. Black slacks and a white button-down.
A cry in the city center is not civilized.
I clean the glass to see him better—a smooth rag
smearing diagonals, all that geometry outside.
Not a curtain in sight. Length times width. I remind myself
here is inside there, fragile city. A life, pulverized.
In photography, what is enough light? Polarized.
I look through all my questions.
O, my destroyed togetherness.
An aperture, a facet. Cut. The suffering
of column and concrete, skin scent.
The fragility of transport and buildings.
What was always sand and dust, returning, to gild—
not fixed, admitting light or air, but providence, blindscape.
James Lloyd Davis
Winter came on with its bluster, settled cruel in your bones, turned everything grey and unsettling with the monotone drab of incessant cold. A dim light. Or, are your eyes getting weak? And now this sudden pain in your joints, your elbow first, and your shoulder, alarming pain. You try to shake it off, wave your arms, climb the stairs to your room instead of riding the elevator. You turn around at your floor and walk back down, stand around in the lobby, head outside to smoke.
The pain gets worse. Arthritis?
Or the heart attack she always said you’d suffer if you kept on smoking. You stomp out the cigarette, walk back into the lobby. Should you ask the desk clerk to… what? Call 911? Bring paramedics down from wherever they were waiting to give you first aid for a… what? Pain in your shoulder?
It’s the fear that kills you. You laugh it off.
Hell, you were at the Bulge. Long time ago.
Men laid down in the snow all around you. All of them dead except you. You’d survived, played dead in the snow while Germans moved like thick grey wolves among the fallen. Hard not to scream. Hard not to run. Hard not to breathe. Hard not to jump up, to die standing up for fear of dying on your back, for fear you might beg for your life on your back. The only way the fear would ever pass was to dream in the daylight, to dream of something so incredibly perfect you could watch the sway of the frozen limbs of trees above your head, hear the Germans shout and grunt and laugh amid the dead, your friends… and not go mad.
What you dreamed, you remembered.
The most perfect moment of your life. A short walk from work in the sunlight before the war, leaving work at the old warehouse, heading for lunch with Lucretia.
Lucy, you called her.
Lucy of the luminous eyes, unalterably blue, incessantly deep, and curiously forgiving. Lucy of the golden hair and perfect mind. Lucy who was waiting for you to return from the war, to come back from the land of the dead.
You can see it now as you swallow the fear of your growing pain.
You can see it all again, like you’d seen it that day in the forests of the Ardennes. Even now, decades later in the dull lobby of an old hotel in Iowa, you can see the vision that had kept you still and saved your life.
You understand that you are on your back again, that you’ve somehow fallen.
You understand that you might be dying.
You’re afraid. And it’s the fear that kills you. You fight the fear with a vision.
You look up and you can see again the old streets of home, the buildings, the people, the cars, an insistent sunlight, the sky and the clouds all breaking through the dull, dusty ceiling up there as if projected on… no, not on, but through, as if the street has suddenly exploded through the dull shadowed, spider web grey of a high lobby ceiling, seldom seen, seldom considered. Patterns and spider webs. Windows and glass, dust you could see if you squinted. But the street of that one perfect day is up there again, as it was then, as it was in the war, as careless and youthful, expectant, in love, you walked toward Lucretia and lunch. Stretching your arms and your legs as you went… stride, stretch, stride, stretch. Step by step closer to…
A shadow blocks the view.
The shadow of a face above you lingers.
I am honored to contribute an ekphrastic poem to this collaborative issue. My adult life in Memphis has been full of art openings, usually on a Friday with three galleries to visit. The gallery space is where I see friends and support their work. I try to show them that I see them as artists. All those hours spent in solitude in the studio are recognized. I always walk through the doors, look down, and then start a lap around the walls. I make sure not to talk to anyone until I’ve looked at all the work. Honestly, I am also relieved to spend a bit of the last night of the week without words. All the other hours of writing, editing, and teaching are quieted. Then I take out my notebook to write down some observations from my favorite pieces. I’ve been mistaken for a journalist, which cracks me up since my notes are barely readable. I love how visual art, distinct in this way from other genres, reaches me and raids my mind. I printed a copy of Claire Ibarra’s Bent and looked at it all summer. I love the layers, reminding me of the complicated ways we see, and how windows, light, buildings, and a body hold us. So many lines take the eyes here and there from one container to the next. A body crosses a street alone.
The inevitability of death is stunning. We don’t want to talk about it, but it’s there, in the dark, in the closet, waiting.
“Death is the tyrant of the imagination.” Bryan Procter
(Flash Mob Special 2013 / 13.17)
Song of The Other
– Seamus Heaney
Below the skull of sky, blood leaves a tail.
One-handed, beaten, running, he has failed
To win himself a place beside the fire
A comitatus gathers near the weir.
His loping body cleaves the fetid air.
His steps don’t linger; no thing lingers here.
The son of Cain begins his last descent
as strands of seaweed ribbon him and bend
around the jagged trunks of trembling knees.
A storm advances, whirring from the east.
Above his head, two Loons hover and dance,
He slinks back to the womb, a hag’s embrace.
All children learn an outcast never wins.
This is no hero: one-armed, ragged, grim.
The swimmer eyes the shore, then dives again.
No poets sing to glorify his end.
Rachel J Fenton
It starts as a Top-Down approach, the shape of the thing in parts, part-sized spaces apart. You imagine the spaces filled with repetitions of the parts you have, like superimposing every other missing chunk of a jigsaw. Experience dictates your implants will fit. Snug: habits. What else could you put there?
Pattern: the print of the duvet, the texture of the comforter that shed downy threads over your lover’s room the way the sea leaves hair weeds every time she comes, high, on shore. His beach, corrugated with salt lines, an attempt at grown-up writing in the shape of elastic on panties.
Bracken: eye-level, green, intersected with slices of sky, pie for fairies’ picnics. Down: knees onto soft-needle earth-spring soil, pine and decay, the personification of decomposition. Someone told you fern spores are carcinogenic. Their blackened stems seem to confirm this, like smoker’s fingers, bent, at your ankles now, aged twelve. The smell won’t let you forget it.
Felt-tips: let the air through. “Leave a gap between the legs.” Give the illusion of standing. Arranged as trees in shade order, dark to lightest, you remember you thought pens revealed your desire to be an artist. “Don’t colour in the whole deer if you want it to appear real,” he said, seated beside John-in-bed, two oxygen cylinders, clear tube and a condensed mask. Later, you examined your flock-ruined nibs, understood why he never married.
Wallpaper: samples employed for suggesting opulence in your cardboard doll’s house. Dismantling follows, a maze your pen’s lost in.
Brain: a cross-section. You’ve been feeling down, as deep as the Mariana trench. Swimming isn’t easy, but some semblance of it kicks in with instinct. You rise quickly. Yet you cannot kill your curiosity to return to the sea, your desire to take it all in, if only on the way down, before you.
Bottom-Up: ink runs in water, a poem you never intended to be read. Drowning, the words you love.
When I first saw the art piece for which I would compose a poem, its darkness and solitary mood put me in mind of the idea of the other, that loner whom we look right through, that person who cannot, or will not, fit into society. I thought of Grendel, the furious other, the monster born to doom and rejected by all. I imagined this son of Cain, whose mother did not even matter enough to name, standing outside in the icy dark, banished from Heorot, a shadow among shadows. I felt his anguish as he gazed at the blazing fire, heard from a dark distance the comitatus laughing and drinking as they listened to their scop sing of glorious battles, brave ring-givers, the mead hall, the peace weavers. An outcast soon learns to hate and fear the men for whom companionship is as necessary as breathing. He must destroy that which rejects him.
I thought of Grendel’s final, terrified flight back to his mother’s cave, his dive into the strangling mere, desperate to reach the safety of her womb, which becomes his tomb.
To many, the loner is simply a foil for the hero or, on a symbolic level, a cultural warning about individuality and the dangers that lie hidden on the path less taken. Our tales tell us that to be Grendel is to be doomed; to be alone is to be rejected and reviled. Finally, we learn that should we step outside cultural boundaries, we will, finally, disappear.
John Gardner’s Grendel influenced me as I wrote and helped me to feel empathy for the outcast. As I finished this poem, and as a gesture of solidarity with the other, I thought about Seamus Heaney’s marvelous translation of Beowulf and then his last, profound words, a kindness left for all of us, spoken gently as he crossed over the edge of the unknown to become one with the other, nolo timere: Be not afraid.
“Poetry is treated as a problem by them, whereas it is a sea into which you dive.” George Szirtes, in response to Jeremy Paxman, in The Guardian.
JAMES LLOYD DAVIS lives in northeast Ohio with his wife, MaryAnne Kolton, who is also a writer. He’s published short fiction and poetry in numerous venues both online and in print and is presently finishing work on two novels.
HEATHER DOBBINS’s poems and poetry reviews have appeared in Beloit Poetry Review, CutBank, Raleigh Review, The Southern Poetry Anthology (Tennessee), The Rumpus, and TriQuarterly Review, among others. She has been awarded scholarships and fellowships to Squaw Valley Community of Writers, Vermont Studio Center, and the Virginia Center for Creative Arts’ workshop in Auvillar, France. After ten years of earning degrees in California and Vermont, she returned to her hometown of Memphis. Her debut, In the Low Houses, was published in March by Kelsay Press. For more information, visit here.
CHERYL DODDS was co-editor/publisher for Urban Spaghetti, a literary arts journal. Her artwork has taken the form of mixed media, graphite drawings, photography, painting, woodcuts and multimedia as well as a few conceptual art projects. More of her work is online at AbsoluteArts.
RACHEL J FENTON is a multi-genre award-winning writer based in Auckland. Her work has appeared in the print journals Short Fiction, JAAM, brief, The Stinging Fly Magazine, and many venues online. AKA Rae Joyce, she is featured in New Zealand Comics and Graphic Novels (Hicksville Press), Two Thirds North, was Artist in Residence at Counterexample Poetics, and blogs here.
NATHAN GRAZIANO lives in Manchester, New Hampshire. He is the author of three collections of poetry—Not So Profound (Green Bean Press, 2003), Teaching Metaphors (Sunnyoutside Press, 2007), and After the Honeymoon (Sunnyoutside Press, 2009)—a collection of short stories, Frostbite (GBP, 2002), and several chapbooks of fiction and poetry. A chapbook of short prose pieces titled Hangover Breakfasts was published by Bottle of Smoke Press in 2012, and Marginalia Publishing recently released a novella titled Some Sort of Ugly. For more information, visit his website.
CLAIRE IBARRA is a writer, poet and photographer residing in Miami, Florida. Her photographs have appeared in numerous literary magazines, including Smokelong Quarterly, Roadside Fiction, Foliate Oak, and Lummox, and her work is forthcoming in Stone Path Review. She was a visual artist in residence for Counterexample Poetics in January 2014 and is currently art director for Gulf Stream Magazine.
NAZIFA ISLAM Nazifa Islam, whose cover art became the symbol of Flash Mob 2013,grew up in Novi, Michigan. Her poetry and paintings have appeared in Anomalous Press, Flashquake, The Fat City Review, and Kindred Magazine among other publications, and her debut poetry collection Searching for a Pulse (2013) was released by Whitepoint Press. She earned her MFA at Oregon State University. Find her on Twitter at @nafoopal and on the web at http://www.nazifaislam.com. ‘Deep Sea’ was created using watered-down acrylic paint on a white cotton canvas. The unmarked canvas was pressed down on a pool of green and blue paint to create a sea weed-inspired fractal pattern.
JEN KNOX is a teacher and writer living in San Antonio, Texas. She is a regular contributor to Fiction Southeast and reads manuscripts for PANK. Jen’s fiction chapbook, Don’t Tease the Elephants, was released in 2104 by Monkey Puzzle Press. Find some of her stories in A cappella Zoo, Adirondack Review, Bound Off, Gargoyle, Istanbul Review, Midway Journal, Narrative Magazine, Per Contra, and Room Magazine. Find her here.
CLARE L. MARTIN’s debut collection of poetry, Eating the Heart First, was published fall 2012 by Press 53 as a Tom Lombardo Selection. Martin’s poetry has appeared in numerous journals including Avatar Review, Melusine, Blood Lotus, Poets and Artists, and Louisiana Literature. For more information visit here.
JAMES OWENS has published two books of poems – An Hour is the Doorway (Black Lawrence Press) and Frost Lights a Thin Flame (Mayapple Press). His poems reviews, translations, and photographs appear widely in literary journals, including recent or upcoming publications in Superstition Review, Valparaiso Poetry Review, Poetry Ireland Review, The Cresset, and The Stinging Fly. He lives in central Indiana and northern Ontario.
JOANI REESE (JP) is the author of two poetry chapbooks: Final Notes and Dead Letters. Her poetry and fiction have been widely anthologized. Reese has won The 15th Glass Woman Prize for her short fiction, the first Patricia McFarland Memorial Prize for her flash fiction, and The Graduate School Creative Writing Award from The University of Memphis for her poetry where she also earned her MFA. She is currently Editor-In-Chief of MadHat Lit. Reese lives in Texas.
JO ANN TOMASELLI has studied with renowned landscape photographer Joel Sternfeld and Pulitzer Prize winning poet Stephen Dunn. Defining herself as a particular type of photographer is impossible as every moment behind the lens offers an opportunity to see the world from a different point of view. Her inspiration? Color, shape, design, and the most delightful factor of all – fun!
ERNEST WILLIAMSON III has published poetry and visual art in over 320 national and international online and print journals. He has work forthcoming in The Columbia Review, Bricolage: University of Washington’s Literary Arts Journal, and many others. View more of his work at yessy.com/budicegenius.
CHERISE WOLAS has a BFA in film from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and a J.D. from Loyola Law School. Her short stories have been published in a variety of literary magazines and journals, including, most recently, Aramaic and the Story of the Week in Narrative Magazine (May 2014). Her novel, Words of New Beginnings, is currently under submission. She is also an editor, a lawyer, and a film producer of various movies, including the SXSW Audience Award Winner, Darkon. She is the Director of Creative Development for a UK-based digital media company. A native of Los Angeles, she lives in New York City with her husband, the founder of AwkwordPaperCut, and Pearl and Henry Wolas Dickes.
ROBERT E. WOOD received a PhD at the University of Virginia and teaches at Georgia Tech. His chapbooks Gorizia Notebook and Sleight of Hand were published by Finishing Line Press, and his poetry collection The Awkward Poses of Others by WordTech. He is also the author of Some Necessary Questions of the Play, a study of Hamlet.