Winter Quarterly – (Winter 2017 / 17.3)
Graphic artist and painter Allen Forrest was born in Canada and bred in the U.S. He has created cover art and illustrations for literary publications and books. He is the winner of the Leslie Jacoby Honor for Art at San Jose State University’s Reed Magazine and his Bel Red painting series is part of the Bellevue College Foundation’s permanent art collection. Forrest’s expressive drawing and painting style is a mix of avant-garde expressionism and post-Impressionist elements reminiscent of van Gogh, creating emotion on canvas.
Country of Salt
Along the rivers, it’s not boats
shedding that splash and dazzle
but the drag of a passing colossus,
what its people failed to become
chipped and flaking into the current.
On sunny days, light shakes out
thousands of revelations, shavings
scattered from skyscraper windows
drummed by an oceanic breeze.
On rainy days, the highest towers
tip their lightning rods with clouds,
every spirit huddled and ready
to sip from cups of seared vision.
When morning comes, they rise
dropping blankets of dream, rub stars
from their eyes and pocket them,
each one a flashing coin, payment
for return to the country of salt.
Michael Young’s fourth collection The Beautiful Moment of Being Lost was published by Poets Wear Prada. His chapbook Living in the Counterpoint received the 2014 Jean Pedrick Award. I received a Fellowship from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and the Chaffin Poetry Award. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous journals including The Cortland Review, Peacock Journal, The Potomac Review, Off the Coast, and RATTLE, as well as anthologies Phoenix Rising, Chance of a Ghost, and Rabbit Ears: TV Poems. He lives with my wife, children, and cats in Jersey City, New Jersey.
Map of Newfoundland
On the floor your boots are a still-life painting. Hair like a crown, lustrous and dark, the gray the same shade as the crow that perches on the garden fence most days. Spirit animal. They live to seventy, some of them, and their memories are rich. In the dark, the music weaving a spell of dismay and exile, we kiss for the first time. Fingers stroke the smooth skin of your forehead, the brown eyes as autumn leaves soaked by rain. “Neck kisses,” you say. We are a scandal in hiding; the ceiling a map of Newfoundland, where natives speak with Irish accents despite never having visited the place. Lips crack slightly, a change of rhythm to your kisses. Set fire to me, I plead. Strike a match and incinerate my flesh. The only way forward is through rebirth. My hand cups your breast, the heft of it a shock, the breath gone from my mouth. I pledge reform; confession (reconciliation they call it now) and I draw you close again.
James Claffey hails from County Westmeath, Ireland, and lives on an avocado ranch in Carpinteria, CA. His work appears in the W.W. Norton Anthology, Flash Fiction International, and in the Best Small Fictions of 2015. He was also a finalist in the Best Small Fictions of 2016. Blood a Cold Blue and www.jamesclaffey.com
We couldn’t read the map
for a road trip that swallowed
then spit us up wrinkled
Navigating the debris tore
earth from sky,
heart from soul.
Splitting then scabbing
then splitting again,
scars paved a new path.
I gathered all the pieces,
buried them deep
without a marker.
Charlotte Hamrick lives in New Orleans where she doesn’t eat gumbo every day and doesn’t ever say “chère”. Her work has been published in numerous online and print journals, most recently including Connotation Press, Literary Orphans, and The Poetry Storehouse. She was a finalist for the 15th Glass Woman Prize and is a Pushcart nominee. Her original writing can be found on her websites – Zouxzoux.wordpress.com and NOLAFemmes.com.
Where I leave you
We are back on old, familiar ground. I write a story for you, to bend the time from there to here. But there is another truth. That all the stories are for you. Everyone.
I have you in this page and I can take you anywhere. Name the place.
Amsterdam is yours.
An ice cold glass of beer? You wear your hat and no one stares. Our chair legs spark on the cobblestones outside the café. The waiter brings avocado bagels and we eat and watch the canal boats. I ask for the extra napkins you need. The day ends, dusk falls and the electric lights hum on the tourist boat. There are seven bridges and we sail under them all. You tell me that the journey from here to there is possible.
You want to see the girls too.
Don’t lie to me. I will always know.
That’s where we go next.
Yes. Anywhere you want. All those places you didn’t visit. I won’t have to tell you what I’ve seen.
Where do I want to take you?
I want to take you to the sea, to Whitby, where the streets are named after me. The damp salty air makes your knee ache but we walk anyway, along the harbour wall into the sea. Up the stairway to the Abbey. You are out of breath but you tell me that it’s the best time you’ve had.
It begins to rain, so much that the streetlights overflow to become fountains in the road and we sit inside until we dry. We are upstairs in the Magpie restaurant, the table by the window, and we watch the kids on the cliff playing with a torch, casting shadows on the church wall, acting out a silent drama for the town.
But you can’t stay here for long. You would never survive the winter.
And so I decide. I have to take you back to the desert.
I think of you there in the heat, in a place where there is nothing to see but the sky and the fragile dead shrub ground. The road and the dead snakes taper. The road is there because I can’t leave you anywhere you can’t drive away from. The sun rises and sets and you don’t mourn the day because the moonlight and the stars are brighter. It’s hot, but not humid.
It’s too hot for me.
The house is ranch style, just like you wanted, plenty of space inside. The horse is tethered to the porch, waiting for you. There is a water tower in the backyard and I have left you all the food that you could ever eat. I’ve taken care.
I leave you there because I’ve seen something I wish I hadn’t.
I have seen you standing by my door.
Gillian Walker is a fiction writer based in the UK. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Vestal Review, Bath Flash Fiction Award Anthology 2016, Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, The Airgonaut, Riverfeet Press Anthology and FlashFlood Journal and has been shortlisted and long-listed for the Fish flash fiction competition. She is a fiction reader for Bartleby Snopes.
Nan Lian Garden
The ancients mastered contemplation, but there was violence still –
one monk bitterly writing “the heavens have nothing to say” and today
a cat lies on a pile of rubble which was once an apartment building –
the same pile where a boy, a girl, a woman and a man sat, all kinds
of faces taut yet fragile as balloons, appearing and disappearing.
The poem you’re writing has flown out the window to circle far,
to report, coming back with only its edges a bit battered and singed –
it starts to snow, but you and the poem are already, like the old scribes,
setting out some sturdy blankets, waiting for the return of Spring.
Tim Suermondt is the author of three full-length collections of poems: Trying To Help The Elephant Man Dance (The Backwaters Press, 2007), Just Beautiful (New York Quarterly Books, 2010), and Election Night And The Five Satins (Glass Lyre Press, 2016)—along with three chapbooks. He has poems published in Poetry, The Georgia Review, Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, Blackbird, Bellevue Literary Review, North Dakota Quarterly, december magazine, Plume Poetry Journal, Poetry East, and Stand Magazine (England), among others. He is a book reviewer for Cervena Barva Press and a poetry reviewer for Bellevue Literary Review. He lives in Cambridge (MA) with his wife, the poet Pui Ying Wong.
On Top of the Tower
Kate Mahony is a New Zealand writer, published in Takahe, the International Literary Quarterly, Blackmail Press, Headland, Flash Frontier, Litro NY, and The Island Review, and others. Her work appears in the anthologies, The Best New Zealand Fiction, Sweet As, Contemporary Short Stories by New Zealanders, Landmarks UK, 2015 and the Fish Anthology (Ireland), 2015. http://www.katemahonywriter.com/
Wherever you try to walk,
regardless of where
you chose to stand on the map,
you will finally slip quietly
into a hidden corner
until you are overtaken,
until the air around you detonates
with the imagery
of where you once stood and why.
You can look up to see
the flattened faces and the fine
crushed pomegranate mist
exploding from the walls,
settling onto the passing shoulders,
terrified and courageously burned,
blazing through death’s door.
There are pieces of crisp skin and paper
still floating down,
the shadow of scorched leaves
settling on melted keys and zippers,
menus and meeting notes
creating a mosaic of grey frosting
on metal girders twisted into the shape
of bent human arms,
their wrists perverted,
three times round
to settle into the tightness
of crooked prayer,
on the back of necks,
a shape defying human imagination,
the geometry of the horror,
of terror of human flexibility,
still flailing in the air,
thrash and struggle to stay upright
all the way to the end.
I hear the others speaking,
prefacing names with a role,
my loving father,
my beautiful sister,
my lifelong friend,
my son, my son,
ladder three brother and firefighter.
The map in my hand
and the room where I stand
but the voices can never find
a place to rest,
they are singed beyond recognition
but will continue to fall
as long as someone is willing to pay the
money to hear them cry.
George Korolog is a San Francisco Bay Area poet and writer whose work has appeared in over 100 literary journals internationally, including The Los Angeles Review, The Southern Indiana Review, The Bookends Review, Anderbo, Pithead Chapel and many others. He has twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. His first book of poetry, Collapsing Outside the Box, was published by Aldrich Press in November 2012, and his second book of poems, Raw String was published in October, 2013 by Finishing Line Press. He is completing his third book of poetry, The Little Truth.
[Come Back] Negative
1) (Least Likely) You would have been happy. We would have agreed to make a go of it: you + me + baby makes three. I could have quit luring you over to my apartment with pictures of my tits and promises of blowjobs. You would have shown up — dutifully and willingly – to massage my swollen calves. Every day, you would have taken me to Kilwin’s — bought me one scoop of cookies n’ cream, one scoop of chocolate chip cookie dough. We would have spent months volleying around potential names: a pretense, since I’ve had names selected since I was eleven (Noah for a boy, Eva for a girl. Both sound perfect paired with your last name; I reflexively spoke the combinations aloud to myself the day I decided I could see myself with you). You would have taken pictures of the ultrasound images with your iPhone and texted them to your mother with captions like “Can’t wait to meet you, Grandma!” Instead of leaving around 3am, you would have stayed over every night, your breath warming the back of my neck, your arm slung over my torso, a tender, protective hand cupping my abdomen; our baby, tucked deep inside me, keeping us company through the night. I know you well enough to know you would have loved the child taking up residence in my belly. By extension, you would have loved me.
2) (Most Likely) We would have agreed that terminating it was the best thing for everyone. I know you well enough to know you would have done your best to be decent about it. You would have paid. You would have taken the day off work to come with me. You would have squeezed my hand in the waiting room, kissed my forehead right before I went in. Afterwards, you would have bought me ice cream without me having to ask – one scoop of cookies n’ cream, one scoop of chocolate chip cookie dough. I might have been too nauseous to stomach it, but the gesture – and the fact that you remembered my favorite flavors – would have made my heart bloom open, and then split in two. You would have driven me back to my apartment and big-spooned me for hours, respectfully leaving a gap between our lower bodies; you wouldn’t have wanted me to feel your situationally inappropriate, but inevitable hard-on against my ass. You would have tried to break up the gloom by cracking jokes, by trying to alchemize this into dark comedy. You would have painted that idiotic, one-size-fits-all-occasions smile on your face, making your real emotions illegible, making me want to slap you, making me feel blood-stilling tenderness for the depth of feeling you work so hard to conceal, even from yourself. That smile, more than my physical pain or discomfort – more than the idea of our evicted future pooling between my thighs, staining my underwear, my sweatpants, my bed sheets — would have made me cry. You wouldn’t have known what to say; you would have just lay there, blank-eyed, in stunned, dumb silence, watching tears spill onto my cheeks. I’d no longer be carrying our baby, but as usual, I’d be carrying – in addition to my own hurt – all the hurt you’ve trained yourself not to register. Feeling for two. It’s possible that you would have made one of your exceptions and spent the night, your breath warming the back of my neck, your arm slung over my torso, a tender, protective hand cupping my cramping abdomen – but you probably would have asked me to let you out around 3am. I would have spent the better part of the next afternoon wondering whether or not you’d text to check up on me.
3) (Possible) I would have told you that I didn’t know whether or not I wanted an abortion, and you would have panicked. For once, you would have wiped that painted smile off your face. In a fit of desperation, you would have confessed everything: That you’re too young, too fucked up, and too uncertain of who you are to commit to a woman, much less fatherhood. That even though you know it’s up to me, you’d absolutely prefer for me not to keep this baby. That you don’t love me, and you’re not sure you ever could. I know you well enough to know that this has always been true, but these words — spoken out loud — would have left me lacerated. I would have wanted your child excised, like a malignant tumor, from my body immediately. But I would have served up some karmic justice by making you sweat — by scheduling an abortion without telling you. By saying I still hadn’t made up my mind. I would have taken some solace in imagining that you woke every morning for weeks with your heart palpitating, your stomach doing non-stop somersaults — that the depth of your anxiety matched the depth of my grief; that finally, you felt something you could name: terror. In the end, I would have told you I’d decided to go through with the procedure (how long could a woman drag such a thing out for?). You would have done the only decent thing left to do: Offer to pay (I would have accepted), and offer to come with me (I would have refused). After it was over, I would have returned to my apartment and fallen asleep alone. There would have been no breath warming the back of my neck, no arm slung over my torso, no tender, protective hand cupping my abdomen; no tiny human, half you and half me, materializing in my belly. All night, the clotted, red-brown detritus of our never-born (Noah/Eva) would have leaked out from between my legs. I might have felt like I was dying. I might have wanted to die. But I also would have been grateful that you gave me a reason to absolutely hate you. Finally.
Jeanette Geraci lives in Delray Beach, FL and attends Florida Atlantic University’s MFA Creative Writing program. Her creative nonfiction, original poetry, and translated poetry have appeared/are forthcoming in Room Magazine, 3Elements Review, Drunken Boat, Lunch Ticket Literary Magazine, Lingerpost, and numerous other publications. She received a Pushcart Prize nomination in 2016.
I’m not one of those women without a country. I’m not a tool waiting for a hand, copper on the ground. I’m not a tiny bone in a flat grave, or the Lamb of God. I’m neither a hide, nor a chain, not a crab apple, a garden or tree. I’m not a hallowed head or a lilac, a pretty little virgin, bullshit. I’m none of the space under the moonlight, the cork in my hand, his mouth on my tit, and the cold horizon all over my fat, naked body.
Loren Kleinman has published four full-length poetry collections: Flamenco Sketches, The Dark Cave Between My Ribs, Breakable Things, and Stay with Me Awhile, and a memoir The Woman with a Million Hearts. Her personal essays have been published in Cosmopolitan, Redbook, Woman’s Day, Seventeen, USA Today, Good Housekeeping, and The Huffington Post, while her poetry appeared in The New York Times, Drunken Boat, The Moth, Columbia Journal, Patterson Literary Review, and more.
Rich Ives is a winner of the Francis Locke Memorial Poetry Award from Bitter Oleander and the 2012 winner of the Creative Nonfiction Prize from Thin Air magazine. His books include Tunneling to the Moon, a book of days with a prose work for each day of the year (Silenced Press), Sharpen, a fiction chapbook, (Newer York Press), Light from a Small Brown Bird, a book of poems, (Bitter Oleander Press), and a story collection, The Balloon Containing the Water Containing the Narrative Begins Leaking (What Books).
The Dying Time
gray is the great eraser of light on a turning page
gray the oak & maple
gray the walnut with its cradling arms
falling branches precede their leaves
fields of brittle corpses stretch for miles
a good tree can’t bring forth evil fruit
but an evil tree might crush a good man’s skull
“that one will fall” my mother says
“we should cut it down”
we kill the dead before they die
to spare us little bits of agony
Ace Boggess is author of the novel A Song Without a Melody (Hyperborea Publishing, 2016) and two books of poetry, most recently, The Prisoners (Brick Road Poetry Press, 2014). Forthcoming is a third poetry collection: Ultra-Deep Field (Brick Road). His writing has appeared in Harvard Review, Mid-American Review, RATTLE, River Styx, and many other journals.
All of the mothers in Gardenville were child beaters, welfare cheats, women who looked up to trailer trash and bullies (both physical and psychological). They not only beat their kids but the fathers of their children, the teachers, school bus drivers and each other on a regular basis.
There were only mothers and only single mothers: women abandoned, never married, divorced mothers sent here by the court because they were considered “at risk” mothers.
There was an office in Gardenville’s Building One that held four government surplus olive drab metal desks, file cabinets and mismatched chairs for the social workers. There was one for the guard. There were also three doors, always closed. Behind the first a room of beds. The second held an infirmary and the third housed cells.
By being allowed into Gardenville these mothers were required to get their GEDs if needed and to go to anger management courses every day, which only made them angrier.
There were other single parent mothers who wanted in to what was considered “the best” of Garden View Village nicknamed Gardenville, but they were not allowed into this section, in the center of the Projects. They never understood why the good mothers lived on the outskirts in the original smaller apartments in buildings that were all in disrepair, while the evils lived in the safety of the three-story brick buildings with flat roofs, and small dirt yards with clothes lines.
These Gardenville mothers had one major thing in common—they all blamed their kids for their plight in this world, which is why they withheld food, clean clothes, and any kind of affection. The worst of the mothers ended up in cells behind door number three while their kids were fostered out to surrogate mothers from Garden View. But nonetheless the infirmary was kept open and busy 24/7 for the children in the complex.
After the second boy went missing people started talking and speculating on which Gardenville mother was the culprit. Of course, the mothers of the two boys were the prime suspects but they both happened to be in cells behind door number three. The guards were ordered to patrol instead of sitting in their office and the social workers were all questioned.
When nine-year old Theresa disappeared the gossip mongers got to work but the only people who didn’t appear upset were the mothers of Gardenville. The state police were called in to help locate the missing children and the only people not interrogated were the good mothers who couldn’t get in to Gardenville.
After a year, half the children were missing, and a good number of Gardenville mothers, now childless, and who no longer had a reason to live there were moved out. Word was that when Gardenville became child free all the apartments would become available.
One of three social workers poking around a newly vacated apartment spotted the linoleum lifted up in one corner, peeled it back, and found the entrance to a tunnel. She grabbed her flashlight and followed the tunnel to see where it came out, but kept silent after returning to the apartment and gluing the linoleum back into place.
Paul Beckman’s story “Healing Time” was one of the winners in the 2016 Best Small Fictions. His stories are widely published in print and online in the following magazines amongst others: Connecticut Review, Raleigh Review, Litro, Playboy, and Thrice Fiction. His latest collection, Peek, weighed in at 65 stories and 120 pages. His published story website is www.paulbeckmanstories.com and blog is www.pincusb.com
DeMisty D. Bellinger
The Unrequited Love Story of Mary Mallon
Everyone cries but Mary, who moves with lifted head above the famished crowd. Everyone is too miserable to know they’re hungry. It is Mary who can’t stop eating, won’t stop cooking. She grows bigger, hips knocking boney patrons who come to dine, but can’t bring themselves to order or worse, leave food congealing on their plates. Mary busses the tables she served and hidden in the kitchen, eats their wasted food without fork, unknowingly recreating the taste of salt on his skin.
DeMisty D. Bellinger teaches creative writing at Fitchburg State University in Massachusetts. She has an MFA in creative writing from Southampton College and a Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her works have appeared in Diverse Voices Quarterly, Driftless Review, Eunoia, Litsnack, Necessary Fiction, Specter Magazine, The Monarch Review, WhiskeyPaper, and Wilderness House Literary Review.
Amy Foster Myer
How We Do Things Around Here
They were a youngish couple, childless, industrious. This is about all we could piece together from what we had that first week: a man and woman heaving rolls of sod from the pallet at the curb to their yard, the for sale sign plucked from the parking strip and lying cattywhompus across the side walk. By sunset, they had an emerald sea stretching down the short hill of their front lawn and the man toasted everyone who passed with an upraised beer, the other hand ready to shoo eager dogs away. You’d have thought they were like us.
Attempts at conversation wilted, they fell over flat like the stalks of foxglove the man weed-whacked to a pulp one early Saturday morning.
We only ever learned what they did for work. He, a doctor, a type of specialist none of us had ever heard of, one of but two in the whole city, which accounted for his long and erratic hours, how he’d drag the trash down to the curb at 4 am on Monday mornings, waking those who lived to each side with the stuttering of his wheel-less bins.
She was a freelancer of some type which we had also never heard of and which some of us suspected might have been the most modern adaptation of the stay-home wife. She left the trash bins at the curb half-way into the week. Once, we thought to be neighborly and drug it all the way back up their driveway. But there she was, watching us, glaring, through the side panel window while her arms flailed in some strange calisthenic routine she followed from the screen of her computer. After that, we left them down there until he could be bothered with it, again at some god-awful hour of the morning, and we just shook our heads as we veered around them on the way to work.
He left early, came home late, might wave if one of us happened to be out. For many months, we began to sight her like the elusive Cooper’s hawk that sometimes landed in our trees, fleeting, wings still extended, taking off again by the time you could call anyone else to come corroborate what you’d seen. But toward the end of May, she was suddenly always on the porch, avoiding eye-contact and knitting. The ball of yarn often rolled down the steps into the detritus of leaves and dust and anthills forming at the base of the front stoop. But she didn’t seem to mind reeling in yarn flecked with twigs and moth wings and other things. Just wove it all in.
We tried to ask questions. Be neighborly. How were they settling in? What was she making? But we were met with terse answers. Fine. Oh nothing. The most anyone ever got was “it’s about the process. Not the product” and we weren’t sure if she was talking about marriage or knitting. We accepted they were waving neighbors like the old Japanese fellow down the street, nice as can be, whom we could only ever wave to because no one could understand him.
Finally, the thing was undeniably a blanket. Not square shaped. Rather odd-looking really. But so large! What else could it have been? We thought she might be getting a little bigger, a little rounder about the middle, but sitting down, it was hard to tell.
And then they were gone for many days. We watched their house for them because that’s the kind of street we are. We poked their mail all the way through the slot until it fell with a heavy thud on the stack of mail on the other side. We looked for packages so we could bring them in to our own homes and keep them safe.
Then a light came on behind the curtains. And the next day, the woman was back on the porch, very pale. The blanket on her lap. The needles gone. She pulled the yarn out line by line, the crinked coils gathering at her feet. That night she went inside and left the pile there, where it stayed for many weeks until the two moving vans arrived and movers put the boxes with her name in one truck and his name in the other.
Within a week, a Sold sign sat at a jaunty angle across the realtor’s name. This is a good neighborhood. It was never going to take long. A lesbian couple moved in. Friendly. Returned our plates with similar gestures of neighborly goodwill. Cookies sometimes. Or banana bread. They knew how this works.
They swept the pile of yarn into a black bag and set it in the bin, already at the curb by Sunday evening.
Amy Foster Myer writes and teaches in Portland, Oregon. She holds an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte. Her work has appeared in Smokelong Quarterly, Jabberwock Review, Lunch Ticket, Pacifica Literary Review, Prime Number, and others.
Blessed be you
For my great-grandparents, Jacob and Anna
Candles sputter on the cloth Zelda stitched
by hand, blue and white thread soft, sun-faded,
rituals constant across continents.
Despite slick skin the color of Odessa sunsets,
apples taste sooty, crumble rather than crunch,
salty on the shared plate.
borei p’ri ha’eitz
Lick sticky trails from each other’s fingers
honey sweet on salty skin, hint of something
beyond this endless city, unformed hopes for the new year.
Snores chant from the bedroom, Rs stretch even in their sleep,
the boys sound more American daily, collect baseball
cards and marbles, hold hands with blonde girls at school.
Y’hi ratzon mil’fanekha Adonai
With the synagogue back home smoldering, salt
tilled in the frozen fields, wonder if anyone
still listens, or if words stick in the cracked ceiling.
eloheinu vei’lohei avoteinu
Seal the new year’s prayer: the forsaken
war should end, possibilities multiply like pomegranate
seeds, scatter in hopes of warmer spring.
sh’t’chadeish aleinu shanah tovah um’tukah
Bake challah slowly, murmur the prayers said since
childhood. the ritual itself still soothes, words as smooth
as the butter sliding golden onions in the pan.
Keri Withington is an assistant professor in the English department at Pellissippi State Community College. When she’s not in the classroom, she grades papers, visits museums with her family, and writers. Her poems have previously appeared in numerous journals and other publications, including The Fourth River and Fox Adoption Magazine.
Quarter Notes: Essays, Reviews, Interviews
Review: Virginia Bell on Hedy Habra’s Under Brushstrokes
The Liquid Sentence:
Hedy Habra’s Under Brushstrokes
Under Brushstrokes by Hedy Habra
Press 53, 2015
On a walking tour of street art in London, a guide once told me that the artists intentionally let the paint drip from their images and letters. The technique of dripping paint—or liquidation—captures the mystique of outlaw art, of work done on the run, after dark, under the pressure of time. It’s an essentially romantic notion, one that allows the next day’s sunlit viewers to encounter the work voyeuristically, as if they’re spying on the exploits of the previous night, suddenly privy to someone else’s moments of intimacy, transgression, ecstasy—or despair.
Such is my experience of reading Hedy Habra’s recent collection of ekphrastic poetry, Under Brushstrokes (Press 53, 2015). Although the title poem is lineated in interesting ways, the bulk of the collection is made up of prose poems that capture reactions to visual art, mostly paintings. In choosing the prose poem form, the poet has put aside the tension between the sentence and the line, focusing our attention instead on the sentence itself. Although Habra writes about museum art rather than street art, her own sentences echo the aesthetic of liquidation as they drip down into, over, and around letters, words, and images.
Consider this sentence in “The Camisole,” Habra’s take on Leslie Sealey’s painting Hotel Room:
The silk fabric slides between my fingers, I still feel the softness of its essential oils, permeating my skin, pungent and smooth as though I’d woven it just for you with spikes harvested from endless lavender fields in Provence, or as though I were a silk worm raised on lavender petals, and I’d spun that silken thread to wrap around me when you’d finally come, all that and more I dreamt of offering you, year after year, and here we are, that is, my camisole and I, waiting for you in the silence of that hotel room.
This one sentence comprises the entirety of the poem whose liquid aesthetic is its core strength. We follow the speaker’s spilling of image, idea, and emotion, from the literal opening—fingering the camisole—to the fantasy of having woven it herself, to the extravagant transformation of self into a “silk worm raised on lavender petals,” to the lover’s arrival, and finally to the surprising turn in which we learn that the speaker is expressing loss and grief, possibly even rejection and abandonment, that the lover will never arrive. The moment of intimacy and ecstasy gives way to despair. The keen insight of this poem, however, is the recognition of the fluidity of movement between emotional states. And the liquid sentence is key to this fluidity.
In “Boreas’ Anger,” one of my favorite poems in the collection, the subordinate clauses cascade in waves of eight movements, echoing the setting and landscape of Viktor Safonkin’s “Metamorphic Awareness (Island of Dead),” the painting in question. The first lines of the poem prefigure the rest: “After giant waves whipped the rocky shoreline…what seemed…a snail…has filled my heart with consternation.” As we get deeper into the poem, misapprehension surfaces: “these volutes of smoke…appear now to be fumes spewed by the combustion of sins, the world turned upside down.” Near the end, the speaker insists “all I can do is lower my head in consternation but do not mistake me for Charon.” The speaker in the poem, of course, is Boreas, the Greek god of the cold north wind and the bringer of winter, not Hades. Winter is not to be mistaken for death.
The accumulation of waves of subordinate clauses may obfuscate the subject and predicate of the independent clause at the heart of a sentence. In The Art of Syntax, Ellen Byrant Voight lists types of this sort of syntactic disruption: inversion, interruption, periodic, elided, right-branching, parallel, and so on. It is one of the deep pleasures of reading poetry, however, to let ourselves be manipulated by this deliberate syntactic effusion; it defamiliarizes our ways of seeing, thinking, and feeling, opening us up to the tingly and the new.
In reading this collection, one notices that many of the prose poems, in addition to the liquidity of their sentences, rely also on the power of persona. In the original painting on which “The Camisole” is based, there is no human figure at all, but Habra has imaginatively construed a speaker who is also in the room, just out of the frame, and the poem speaks in her voice. In “Boreas’ Anger,” Habra takes on the voice of Boreas himself. In an even more imaginative move in “Initiation,” Habra seizes on the epistolary form to write in the voice of a mother addressing her son (neither present in Salvador Dali’s Archeological Reminiscence of Millet’s “Angelus,” the painting on which the poem is based). Habra wisely uses end stops in order to make the poem conversational, emphasizing the imperatives and injunctions characteristic of a parent addressing a child:
Come, son, we shall circle the human ruins, hand in hand, rest under the coolness of their elongated shadow: we can enter the arched doors and climb the inner stairs to enjoy the breathtaking view from the man’s hollow heart and the woman’s generous thighs, even reach higher into the curve of her hands held like a vessel gathering dew for the birds that nest in the fissures of the stones. See my son, only now can we move freely about the canvas. Let’s follow that fragile light…; see how it leads the way to the inviting doors? Let’s hurry before life resumes in the hallways and someone notices our absence.
While I don’t believe that all ekphrastic poetry must work independently of the original visual art—think, for example, of Mary Jo Bang’s brilliant ekphrastic collection The Eye Like a Strange Balloon—it is a strength of Habra’s Under Brushstrokes that the poet has translated the paintings into her own works of art, adding characters and voices, making the paint of her own imagination, as it were, drip onto the original canvases. Occasionally, Habra undermines her own poetic power by describing too literally the details of the paintings she has chosen. I prefer her poems which deviate from and transform the origin works.
Just as street art’s dripping paint began out of necessity with the sound of the policeman’s footsteps just around the corner but ended up a conscious aesthetic choice, so too the prose poems in Under Brushstrokes emerge from Habra’s breathless attempts to capture her own, private and immediate reactions to visual art, solidifying into a signature aesthetic.
Virginia Bell is a Pushcart Prize nominee and recipient of a Ragdale Foundation residency. Her poems have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including Fifth Wednesday Journal, Gargoyle, Cider Press Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, CALYX, Pebble Lake Review, Wicked Alice, Ekphrasis, The Burden of Light: Poems on Illness and Loss, Brute Neighbors: Urban Nature Poetry, Prose and Photography, and A Writers’ Congress: Chicago Poets on Barack Obama’s Inauguration, among others.
Hedy Habra was born in Egypt and is of Lebanese origin. She is the author of two poetry collections, Tea in Heliopolis (Press 53, 2013), winner of the 2014 USA Best Book Award for Poetry and finalist for the International Book Award for Poetry, and Under Brushstrokes (Press 53, 2015), finalist for the 2015 USA Best Book Awards. Her collection of short fiction, Flying Carpets (Interlink, 2013), won a 2013 Arab American National Book Award’s Honorable Mention, and was finalist for the 2014 Eric Hoffer Award and the USA Best Book Award. Her book of literary criticism, Mundos alternos y artísticos en Vargas Llosa (Iberoamericana/Vervuert, 2012), explores the visual and interartistic elements in the Peruvian novelist’s characters’ interiority. Habra writes poetry and fiction in French, Spanish, and English and has numerous poems and short stories in journals and anthologies. Her website is HedyHabra.com.
Essay: Bill Yarrow
HOW I READ A POEM
Understanding precedes explication. Perception precedes understanding. But observation comes first.
When I first read a poem, I just take it in. I just let it wash over me. If something in it grabs me, then I take a closer look.
When I reread a poem, I look closely at the poem to see what’s there. What is the first line of the poem? What is the first word of the poem? How does the poem end? Where do the lines break? How is it capitalized? How is it punctuated? What is its structure? What is its shape? How is it organized? How is it arranged? Is there any repetition? Emphases? Is anything parallel? What patterns can be glimpsed? What is the movement in the poem? What in the poem is ordinary? What in the poem is unusual? What in the poem is outrageous? Does anything in the poem stick out? I desire to see exactly what’s there. I pay special attention to what attracts my attention.
I take seriously this sentence from Biographia Literaria: “In the truly great poets…there is a reason assignable not only for every word, but for the position of every word.” 1 “A reason assignable.” I read everything, poetry especially, through that filter. In a great poem (or any work of art), everything 2 is intentional. Thus, the careless, the sloppy, the slipshod, the thoughtless, the unattended, the unintended, the unrevised is never art.
First Data, Then Evidence
Information by itself is meaningless. A catalogue of data is just an inventory until we see something distinctive in it, until we shape it into something useful, until we make what is useful significant, and then make it meaningful. It is perception that moves data toward evidence.
Let’s look at the well-known E.E. Cummings poem that begins “in Just- / spring” 3
Without talking about what the poem is about, let’s just look at what’s there.
1. First and last lines of poem:
2. Hyphenated words:
just-Spring [hyphen ends the line]
mud-luscious [hyphen ends the line]
3. Compound objects in prepositional phrases:
from marbles and piracies
from hop-scotch and jump-rope
4. Portmanteau words:
when the world
luscious the little / lame
mud-luscious [soft “u”)
puddle-wonderful [soft “u”]
luscious the little / lame balloonman [the “l”s]
8. Non-standard spacing
throughout the poem
10. Parallel phrases:
come running / come dancing
eddieandbill / bettyandisbel
hop-scotch and jump-rope
11. Repeated words and phrases
and (7 times)
spring (2 times)
whistles (3 times)
when the world (2 times)
far and wee (3 times)
balloon (3 times) [balloonman, balloonman, balloonMan]
12. Variation in repeated phrases:
1. when the world is mud-
2. when the world is puddle-wonderful
1. whistles far and wee
far and wee
1. the little / lame balloonman
2. the queer / old balloonman
3. the / goat-footed / balloonMan
1. come running
2. come dancing
1. and / it’s spring
2. and / it’s / spring
What stands out in the poem?
1. its odd first line [“in Just-”]
2. its unconventional capitalization [first words of sentences not capitalized, the words
“Just” and “Man” (in “balloonMan”) capitalized]
3. its varying line lengths, its layout on the page
4. “goat-footed” as an adjective to describe the balloonman
5. “mud-luscious” and “puddle-wonderful”—two memorable assonant phrases
6. “eddieandbill” and “bettyandisbel” written as one word
7. the unusual phrase “far and wee”
8. the unusual spelling of “wee”—we expect “whee”
Critical Reaction and Reader Response
This is a much beloved poem and almost all readers agree that its subject is spring. Critics have seized upon the hyphenated adjective “goat-footed” to describe the balloon man and some have speculated that he is Pan, the woodland god of revelry (but, if so, then why “little, lame” and why “queer, old” to also describe him?). Others see the cloven hoof of the goat as a sign of the devil and think the balloon man is Satan, haunting the landscape and threatening the innocence or even the future of the children. One detail, however, does not an interpretation make. Does anything else contribute to or corroborate the Satan theory? Not really. For many readers, this is just a poem about spring, dammit! Leave it alone, will ya? It’s spring. Kids are playing games (“marbles” and “piracies” and “hop-scotch” and “jump-rope” and jumping in puddles, which, as all kids know, are “puddle-wonderful,” and getting muddy, which, as all kids know, is “mud-luscious”). Leave this lovely poem about spring alone! Don’t wreck my pretty picture/fantasy/memory. Please!
Helen Gardner is a better critic and better reader and sees the movement of the poem from “balloonman” to “balloonman” to “balloonMan,” asking rightly why that “Man” is capitalized the third time around. I agree with her that that is the key question of the poem.
Here’s my answer to that question and here’s how I got there.
“In Just- / spring” by E.E. Cummings: A Reading
From my observations, my data, I notice there are a lot of hyphens in the poem, some used absurdly (“Just-spring”), some used grammatically (“goat-footed balloonMan”), some inserted into compound words (hopscotch becoming “hop-scotch) or connecting two separate words (jump rope becoming “jump-rope”), and some (mud-luscious” and “puddle-wonderful”) used poetically-deliciously. I also notice that some words are smashed together (“eddieandbill” and also “bettyandisbel”—”eddie” half rhyming with “betty,” “bill echoed in isbel” and also “balloonman”). The more I start to think about this, the more compound things I see: the boys “come running” from “marbles and piracies,” the girls “come dancing” from “hop-scotch and jump-rope.” The balloonman whistling “far and wee.” Spring seems a time of compounding, of friends playing together on playgrounds and in puddles. What better way to express the closeness of best friends than to express that closeness in two separate names forged into one (“eddieandbill,” “bettyandisbel”)?
But against this, I also notice all the monosyllabic words: in, Just, spring, when the, world, is, little, lame, far, and, wee, and, come, from, it’s, queer, old.
The balloon man sells his balloons in the nice weather of spring, when it’s sunny, when the kids are out, when the kids are all playing together with their best friends.
The kids are playing. The balloon man stands apart, selling.
The balloon man is alone. Separate. He is “little, lame.” He is “queer, old.”
He whistles “far and wee.” Wee, but not the joyful “wheeee!” of kids. Rather, “we” 4 with an extra, desperate “e.” 5 “We” as in not just “I.”
“Far and wee.” A strange phrase. Uncommon. More usual would be “far and near.” Or, even more common, “near and far.”
Why that formulation, why “far and wee”? Is the “foreign” one hears in “far and” intentional? Is the “ennui” one hears in “and wee” intentional?
That notwithstanding, the balloon man is a passive figure in this landscape. The focus in the poem is on the kids, their energy, their vitality, their animation, their youth. They transfer their wonder to the puddles. They transfer their lusciousness to the mud.
The poem moves toward the recognition of the balloon man as not just a “balloonman” (whose only compounding in life is given him by Cummings in the spelling of his occupation) but a balloonMan with a capital “M,” that is to say, a person, worthy of notice,6 worthy of respect even as spring and the children dominate the poem and our thoughts.
But what of the compound adjective “goat-footed”? Is the balloon man Pan? Or, even worse, Satan?
“The word “tragedy”…derives from Classical Greek τραγῳδία, contracted from trag(o)-aoidiā = “goat song“, which comes from tragos = “he-goat” and aeidein = “to sing.”7
That’s how I see the balloon man—as a tragic figure.
That’s how I see this poem—as a goat song, a poem about the tragedy, the unfairness, of spring to those who are not spry, not carefree, not young, not coupled, but rather are “little,” “lame,” “queer,” “old,” isolated, alone.
After all, the poem’s first line is “in Just,” i.e. “unjust,” as in “injustice.”
Great, moving poem, but the title is two edged and all its eccentricities intentional.
1. Biographia Literaria by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Chapter I, paragraph 3.
2. Even an accident.
4. Notice the meaningful spacing in the line “whistles far and wee”.
5. A word meaning “little,” a word a letter shy of the word “weep.”
6. As Arthur Miller wrote in Death of a Salesman, “Attention must be paid.”