Spring Quarterly – (Spring 2017 / 17.6)
James Paradiso is a recovering academic in the process of refreshing himself as a photographer and writer. His artwork can be found here.
His death has been ruled
a suicide, finally letting the Jews
off the hook. And now, he’s buried
in the garden behind my house.
I visit this morning, alone.
The women aren’t with me, duty
and a need of beauty sleep wrestling
for the upper hand, which sleeping in
finally wins. There’s no big stone
here, in this suburban rock garden:
a purple swath of phlox draped across
the hill. No centurions and no angels,
for that matter. Only a disused little X
to mark the spot.
Lee Passarella served as senior literary editor for Atlanta Review magazine and as editor-in-chief of Coreopsis Books, a poetry-book publisher. He also writes classical music reviews for Audiophile Audition. His poetry has appeared in Chelsea, Cream City Review, Louisville Review, The Formalist, Antietam Review, Edge City Review, The Wallace Stevens Journal, Slant, Cortland Review, and many others. Swallowed up in Victory, Passarella’s long narrative poem based on the American Civil War, was published by White Mane Books in 2002. He has published two poetry collections: The Geometry of Loneliness (David Robert Books, 2006) and Redemption (FutureCycle Press, 2014). Passarella also has two poetry chapbooks: Sight-Reading Schumann (Pudding House Publications, 2007) and Magnetic North (Finishing Line Press, 2016).
Just Before Midnight
You were conceived on prom night. You know what your mother was wearing and you’ve memorised the cut of your father’s tux, the shape of his boutonnière. You can recall every detail of their photograph, the one where they’re standing together in front of his car at the start of the evening, the sun lingering over the horizon, both of them clean and sober and smiling. It used to hang on the landing, but the day your father walked out, your mother hid it in the garage, leaving a square of wallpaper so bright it makes the whole world look dingy.
As you lean back in the back seat of your date’s car, you picture the dress still suspended in your mother’s closet on a hanger lined with faux satin, under a veil of plastic. You imagine your mother beginning to perspire, your father moving towards her, one hand fumbling with her hair.
He towers over you, this boy who isn’t your father, and he smells of stale cologne and dancing slow. There is beer and something else on his breath. You don’t love him, but you don’t hate him either, and his hands look gentle.
You close your eyes and wonder at what point the folds of your mother’s skirt were thrust up, over her face. You wonder if her mouth felt dry. You wonder at what point her shoes came off, at what point her dress was torn. You wonder if she yelped in pain.
Out here in the parking lot, you can just hear the band playing in the auditorium. You know that everyone is dancing, everyone but you. This is my night, you tell yourself. This is my night. This is what it’s meant to be.
Ingrid Jendrzejewski grew up in Vincennes, Indiana, studied creative writing at the University of Evansville, then physics at the University of Cambridge. Her novella-in-flash, Things I Dream About When I’m Not Sleeping, will be published later this year. Links to Ingrid’s work can be found at www.ingridj.com and she occasionally tweets @LunchOnTuesday.
Grandma, come back,2
this time I will listen
about the coal miners,
oplatki, how Pennsylvania
was still a wild country
when your parents spun you
into being like particles
of sugar mottle
to candy out of thin
air. Tell it
how your mother was
a beauty queen who still
insisted her daughter
be able to move
a refrigerator. Everyone else
says she was plain
but more than everyone,
I want to hear how you
tell it, voice unsplintered
by time, sounding to all
of us like the source
of a stream. Only you know
how far it runs back
beyond you, how history
was foisted onto you
and forced your hand
to be capable. What you have been
trying to tell me all
these years is that women
have to be practical
above all else and there is
no why. Women
have to be practical.
Grandma, they want to hear
about the holidays. How you
had your congregation pray
for me, how your father
cried when the pope
was Polish, how you only
speak that language now
to swear and there
are other women in
the nursing home
who hear you in your
own tongue and turn
their good ears along with
the other cheek, or face
you and send a curse
up from the old
I want to know
how to pray. My arms
with each passing year. I am neither
to be useless, nor useful
enough to be ugly.
I cannot move furniture
or men to war.
If your mother had been
alive to appraise me,
I would have walked away
worse than you
for the wear, would have
demanded even more
of my three daughters
and applauded my one
son still louder.
Women have to be practical
and that meant praising
your son for having the good
sense to be born a man.
How you asked so casually
if the person
I loved happened that time
to be a man or woman,
after I thought the years
had successfully hidden
one of the women I am
With Grandma the war-bride telling me love
between women is still love
in the aisle at Whole Foods, I am finally
permitted to say your name3 so said Stacie
in the poem she wrote
emptying New York completely
to try and dislodge just
one person from the
lining. But I think
you were saying more
than that. Love between
women is not just
love, you tell me, it is
all there is. There is
no one else to see it.
Grandma, there have been women
you will never meet
who told me they will never love
women but would like
for me to touch them
because they need someone’s
hands on them and they can’t
let a man. Not after
what they’ve done. I want
to ask you what kind
of secrets a Catholic
woman keeps after a failed
marriage, what kind of face
it gives her, what is rewritten
in her body to fit
her present condition, like
before she swelled to suit
Instead of that first
match, you kept the name
of the man who should
have lived, who
shook with scotch
and kindness and was
allowed his vice for
his part in liberating
Darcy wrote about a country
unsure if it had a war4
Leonard came to you
a man uncertain he’d
survived one. In another book5
a girl describes how she could not
take one step in Poland
without stumbling on
a grave, and I wonder
if this was all plaited
into your hair, like a list
of things no one wants
to know about their parents.
I wonder if you keep
your hair short so you
can be accused of hiding
nothing. I cut mine
to avoid being my great
grandmother’s pageant winner,
a lack of beauty with
a surplus of something
neither of us will name.
Grandma, after the war
Leo disappeared into his job
at the security agency and no one
asked him which doors
he opened there, never
to be closed again.
You asked for his war record
and without knowing who
won, congratulated him for
being able to get up
and walk away.
In my country too
every step we take signifies
death. They come
every day for children
you didn’t know needed
protecting, state hands
around a man’s neck,
his breath set to simmer
and reduced till it
boils out to nothing,
as police shout being
black is not a crime,
but if committed at the wrong
time needs no trial
and can receive no punishment
too great. Grandma, your
pays your rent among
other women getting whiter
with age while black nurses
leave their families at home
to take care of you.
I visit every few months and
they tell me I am
a good granddaughter. I
cannot add all this up, there is
more than one poem here.
There is your face, through
which I see a soup
of roots and my mother,
there is the dark place
in which money always
grows, and there is
this picture of America
I keep like a snapshot
of my grandfather in
fatigues, to remember fondly
what I never knew.
I always said
I didn’t want to hear
too much, made you
play a game instead of
showing me old pictures.
You loved to say
our fixation on faces skipped
a generation, because
you were disappointed that
in your litter of
not one wore make-up.
I am obsessed with your
face, how it looks like a person
close up, but from a distance
I can see the
oceans, a century nearly passed
like bread between us,
how your face replaced
the world in one pan
of the camera and I need you
to come back so I
can keep it.
1. a Polish swear which translates to “dog’s blood”
2. from “The Morning Baking” by Carolyn Forche
3. from “Hole Where No Sound Lives” by Stacie Cassarino
4. from “Dobra Voda” by Darcy Higgins
5. from After The War by Carol Matas
Lily Herman is an early-to-bed, early-to-rise poet from and around Baltimore, Maryland. She is the author of four chapbooks, including Each Day There is a Little Love in a Book for You through Dryad Press. Read more of her work here.
The Night My Sister Leaves
The night my sister leaves, electrons are brushed from their moorings and the air fizzes with anticipation.
I know what’s going to happen. I know about the leather case in the gap between the brick wall and lavender hedging. Yet it is me whom others see as dishonest.
I lie about the size of things, and am regarded as untrustworthy.
My sister is allergic to nut butters. She avoids touching knives. At night she sucks the space around us, our beds adjacent like parallel coffins. The room is dark, wet with our dreams, our fears slick as oil. She is growing into a woman, while I am encased in a child’s skin.
I am frightened of the gaps between darkness. She is scared of not being loved.
My sister has asked to borrow our mother’s coat. She says she’s going to a friend’s party.
I’ll be back by eleven, don’t wait up.
I know she’s not going to the party, but somewhere with harlequin lights and shady deals. I am bound by secrecy. She will cut my tongue out of my body if I tell. But I had to be told, because we share a room, and I see more than I ought.
The night my sister leaves, I am painting my aunt’s figure in watercolours. My hair is a mess, my homework unfinished.
My sister walks out of the door, and I’m uncertain whether I imagine a silky tail swishing from thigh to thigh beneath the hem of my mother’s coat. It might be the slinkiness of her dress.
I lick the tip of my brush. My uncle smiles at the prominence of his wife’s lips, her cracks shrunk to fault-lines beneath the skin.
It’s been six months since my aunt left. She took the baby with her.
He recognises her.
Everyone else sees only patterns.
My brother wraps a chocolate piece between slices of cold potato. There’s a blood-blister on the tip of his finger that I want to lick, but stare at him instead. He chews like a machine, tells me my painting disobeys the laws of physics.
“But it’s more fun than science,” I say, and my father asks if I have done my homework.
He grunts without opening his mouth, lips like twin caterpillars beneath his moustache. So I tip the paint-water into the kitchen sink and sit in the dormant shadow of my mother as she cooks. Reciting equations under my breath, I shout at the absurdity of sub-atomic particles.
“What are cations?” my mother asks.
“They’re like lions, but with less fur,” I tell her. My lie is absorbed into the atmosphere of dishonesty and malaise.
When I’m done, my mother pulls my abundant hair into a ponytail and shows me the alchemy of baking. We make buns for my grandmother. It’s her birthday, and she won’t eat anything with egg in it.
Later we talk about viruses and hobgoblins. I tell my grandmother they are roughly the same size. I like to fill her head full of lies. Head lies.
The cat, as fat as a macaroon, licks imaginary cream off itself, while my father complains about the importance of a good education and shakes his fist at the television, unaware that his eldest daughter will be knocking back vodka in the arms of a passing sailor. My mother’s coat will be ruined.
I lie about the size of things, and am regarded as untrustworthy. So when I find my sister is missing from her bed that night, I shrink her absence into something that cannot be measured.
I close my eyes until morning.
Birds explode in the sky like myths.
My sister has not come back. The case has gone. This is the first day of the rest of our incomplete lives.
For now, the house has a full set of chromosomes in every brick.
Nod Ghosh’s work features in anthologies: Love on the Road 2015 (Liberties Press), Landmarks (U.K. 2015 NFFD), Horizons 2 (Top of the South NZSA), Leaving the Red Zone (Clerestory Press, N.Z.), and various other publications. Further details: http://www.nodghosh.com/about/
The Bereaved Mother
My indoor garden, overwhelmed with sunlight,
butterflies of burgundy and bright
green, the coleus he brought me,
a gift for Mother’s Day, when he was eight.
When he was in his teens, I daily thanked
the stars he’d heard the sirens, the honk
of the car, when he drifted, like an autumn leaf
downriver. A little Left Bank, and half-
sunk, like his license lost under the influence.
I always knew there was a chance, I’d lose him,
but he’d show up with his hug and smile,
my smile, my son, so stupid, while
now I press my nose into his sheets, and fail
over and over, to rouse him from the soil.
Carla Schwartz is an actively publishing poet, blogger, and youtuber. Her work has appeared in Aurorean, ArLiJo, Fourth River Review, Fulcrum, Common Ground, Cactus Heart, Switched-on Gutenberg, Poetry Quarterly, Naugatuck River Review, Solstice Magazine, and Ibbetson Street. She is the author of Mother, One More Thing (Turning Point, 2014). Learn more at carlapoet.com or her blog wakewiththesun.blogspot.com.
That Was Nothing
Yellow fires on David Mora’s suit of lights erupted as he placed a large, pink cape over his head, holding it behind his back so that it jutted out from the left-hand side of his body, his right arm crossing his spine. What he was about to do, no other bullfighter thought was sane.
Silence packed in the packed ring, silence born from the new, fans in women’s hands the only things moving, the quietude ocean-deep, the ocean deepening, Mora kneeling before the open doorway that led into the ring, all men are equal before open doorways, that vast, pink cape jutting out from Mora’s body, like a single wing on a humanoid insect, fans flickering frenetically, like butterflies’ wings, against the crowd’s cubist patchwork of hues, the packed rings of patchwork, radiating from the arena’s sandy disk, silent, still, expectant, butterfly-fans hovering over cubist clothes, a kneeling Mora waiting, silence compacting, oceans of silence plummeting into vast valleys of anticipation.
Five hundred kilograms of bull fled out of the pens, straight at Mora, lunging left on reaching the man, Mora ending up on the bull’s back, the crowd gasping, Mora’s feet pointing skywards; then he was spinning against blurred, patchwork hues, crashing onto his back.
Groans boomed from cubism, Mora prostrate, the bull distracted by other bullfighters, pink capes waved into the bull’s face.
Men in shining clothes lifted Mora up, his legs slow in straightening.
“Can you walk?” an assistant asked.
Mora gasped, bent over, his suit ripped where two fist-sized, red stains covered his shoulder blades. He sucked in, air blasted out of him by horned muscle.
“Okay,” he said. “I’m fine.”
Purple, green and yellow fabric surrounded him, his assistants’ suits shining. Bullfighters often say they are fine before collapsing, so his assistants kept hold off him, the bull attacking pink capes nearby.
The capes ceased flying when Mora’s left hand adorned his left hip, the arm forming two sides of a triangle, the matador’s size increasing in the bull’s eyes, the red cape drawn from behind the man. Back upright, hand on hip, Mora turned smoothly, the bull following the cape, its snout finally rising skywards, front hooves rising, the bull flying vertically, cubism roaring, Mora’s hair silver in the sun.
The stationary bull, observing retreating yellow fires on Mora’s green back, saw two fist-sized red stains that Mora ignored as the bullfighter fused, from the bull’s perspective, into strange planes of cubism.
Mora turned, his left hand fusing onto his left hip, elbow a foot from fusion. That hand, fused to that hip, kept the elbow the same distance from his side as Mora turned, the captured, asteroid bull orbiting a shining star, the roaring crowd’s waterfall voice rising as Mora switched the cape to his left hand, the bull flying after that red wing that hovered over the horns before disappearing, horns and snout facing mango clouds.
Waterfall ovation showered the ring, Mora turning away from the bull, his adversary now his partner, his back upright in the bull’s vision, the bull’s aggressive curiosity fundamental for creating grace, a bull, attacking humanoid insects’ pink and red wings, unhampered by thought, hide black under a brown, spinal strip, as if a singed brown bull had charged into the ring seeking retribution for that burning.
Mora aimed his blade at a spot between the horns, horn tips rising like divining rods locating liquid gold in gilded skies. Left knee bent, right leg straight, Mora faced the bull. They attacked each other, Mora’s left hand lowering the cape, the right passing over the right horn, the blade penetrating the bull’s back up to a red hilt, the crowd shock-gasping at this kill’s perfection, the wobbling bull staggering as if whiskey had flooded its veins; then it was collapsing, horizontal legs kicking in death throes, white handkerchiefs waving around the arena, the crowd wanting the bullfight’s president to give official recognition for Mora’s performance, a white scarf hung from the president’s balcony in acknowledgement of Mora’s performance, rising people applauding, Mora circling the ring, hats, scarves and jumpers raining down from the crowd, Mora hurling them back, spinning hats sailing back to their owners, the crowd and the bullfighter linked by this giving and returning, the bull getting hitched up to six horses by men dressed in red.
When Mora left the ring, the bull was dragged around the arena in a lap of honour, the standing crowd, applauding the bull’s bravery, were also acknowledging the bull’s breeder, Mora waiting behind the barrier for the bull to be removed from the ring, the bull’s half-open, bloodied mouth and half-closed eyes like someone knocked out in a fist fight.
When the bull left the ring, Mora re-entered the arena, crossing his arms over his heart to signal gratitude, the two red stains rotating as Mora turned and turned, acknowledging the crowd, the blow and the stains dismissed by Mora as nothing.
Kim Farleigh has worked for aid agencies in Kosovo, Macedonia, Iraq, Palestine, and Greece. He likes to take risks to get the experience necessary for writing. 146 of his stories have been accepted by 86 different magazines.
C. Wade Bentley
After Coming to Rest
We discover the old Studebaker coupe
in a copse of scrub oak and aspens, rusted
to the color of stone. Saplings seep
through floorboards and windows.
The crumpled roof suggests the car rolled
several times once it left the road
a hundred yards uphill. It’s a scene ripe
for character and plot. Perhaps a post-war
party, the driver having toasted V-Day one
too many times. Or a wintry slalom down
the narrow canyon road, in a hurry
to reach the hospital in the city below.
The passenger-side door is flung open wide,
no doubt someone looking to escape
desperate straits. Should any have survived
the crash, it’s likely something more sedate
will have finished them by now, along with
any who may have grieved them. The large
steering wheel seems poised to pick up
where it left off, the prow of the hood set
to sail cleanly through chokecherries and bluebells.
Now towhees and magpies pick languidly
at the last of the leather and ticking. Whatever
panic there once was has passed.
C. Wade Bentley lives, teaches, and writes in Salt Lake City. For a good time, he enjoys wandering the Wasatch Mountains and playing with his grandchildren. His poems have appeared in Green Mountains Review, Cimarron Review, Best New Poets, New Ohio Review, Western Humanities Review, Rattle, Chicago Quarterly Review, Timberline Review, Reunion: The Dallas Review, Pembroke Magazine, and New Orleans Review, among others. A full-length collection of his poems, What Is Mine, was published by Aldrich Press in January of 2015. Read more about his work here.
His first car, a Yugo, disintegrated rather rapidly just like the country of its origin. On a hot and humid day, at an exit ramp near the mall of Memphis, the vehicle refused to budge. The embarrassed owner was grateful that the long line of kind Southerners waited patiently, without honking, for a tow truck to remove the offending piece of metal.
Eventually, he rose from a poorly-paid computer programmer to a savvy stock analyst on the Wall Street, and his vehicles — American, Japanese, and Korean — matched the meteoric rise in status and pay.
He adored the greenback and left his stately mansion in New Jersey at the crack of dawn and returned late in the evening. His lonely wife sought solace in the arms of the many Hindu gods and goddesses, and volunteered at the temple. Nevertheless, on occasional weekends, he took her out to shop for expensive trinkets as well as to relish the cuisine of their home state, Karnataka, at the Hoysala eatery.
Somewhere along the way, however, a penchant for all things European — vacations, vehicles, and designer labels — emerged and he became an ardent admirer of the Eurozone luxury vehicles. When he purchased his latest, a twelve cylinder German toy with many bells and whistles, his loyal wife suggested a car puja.
Car puja was nothing new to him. In his home town, Bangalore, even an old, badly battered, carbon-spewing vehicle received the reverent treatment on every Dasara festival. On that auspicious day, accompanied by a pujari’s chants, a garland of marigolds would be placed on the radiator, a tender coconut cracked open, and the milk sprinkled on the hood, and vermilion and turmeric smeared on the windshield. While this annual puja was the norm for all vehicles, a much more elaborate puja was in store for brand-new wheels. Among other rituals, four pieces of lemons were required to be placed right in front of the wheels, and the vehicle driven on these lemon pieces. Although the significance of this ritual was unclear, the skeptics conjectured that it was to ward off the vibes of a lemon — a defective vehicle.
While the pujaris in Bangalore zipped from one auspicious event to the next on scooters and motorcycles, and fiddled with their smart phones even while conducting a pious puja, their business savvy brethren in the New Jersey environs elevated the car puja to an art form, and installed drive-thru car puja kiosks at many temples.
The thoroughly agnostic man was pleasantly surprised at the podgy pujari’s prodigious knowledge of the vehicle’s bells and whistles. Before the pujari got down to the spiritual business of blessing the vehicle, he proceeded to acquaint the proud owner with various features, features that the proud owner was yet to learn.
With a paste of turmeric and vermilion, the pujari carefully sketched two ancient Hindu symbols on the hood. Om — an invocation before the beginning of an important undertaking (in this particular case, a safe and smooth ride) — and Swastika, to beseech god’s blessings. A garland of marigold and chrysanthemums was placed on the hood and an aarti — a purificatory blessing by circulating a camphor-lit lamp around the vehicle — was performed. To ward off evil spirits, turmeric-coated rice grains were sprinkled on the vehicle as well as on the owners.
Throughout the tedious ceremony, so as not to sully his wife’s reputation at the temple, the Wall Street walla nodded his head, put his palms together as a sincere supplicant would, closed his eyes and appeared to pray fervently.
But, once in his luxurious sedan, he shook off the devout demeanor as well as the rice from his hair and roared off. Although he wanted to get rid of the meaningless symbols (to him anyway) on the hood, his wife insisted that he wait for a propitious time. But, after the prescribed period, when it was brought back from an upscale car wash with the faint symbols still visible, the irate owner berated his factotum about the shoddy job only to be told that abrasive measures, which would almost certainly scratch the surface, would be required to wipe them off. While Om was not a problem, the Swastika presented a dilemma. The stock analyst was worried that his Jewish boss might take offence at such a blatantly Nazi symbol. That the Nazis appropriated this ancient Hindu symbol for their devious purposes was not common knowledge. Other, albeit minor, irritants were the rice grains which popped out of the plush seat crevices to poke his butt. He silently cursed his wife’s piety, and wished that he was not so accommodating.
Notwithstanding the elaborate puja, the brand new car came to a screeching halt on the New Jersey turnpike. Irate motorists racing at breakneck speed, honked, cursed, showed their middle fingers, and managed to swerve off.
He nursed his frayed nerves with a large single malt and pondered. He regretted that for all the money he spent, the sedan turned out to be a dud. And then the futile puja. For all those Sanskrit slokas, symbols, garlands, camphor-burning, and the nuisance of rice grains, the ride was neither safe nor smooth. Apparently the gods were not appropriately appeased. Maybe his skeptical approach jinxed it.
He poured another stiff shot and wondered if perhaps the puja saved his life. With so many fatalities on the highways, it was a miracle that he was not rear-ended but emerged from the ordeal without even a single scratch. It was evident that the merciful gods protected him. Was it time to become devout and join his wife in the good works at the temple? Was it time to shed his adamant agnostic ways and embrace Lord Ganesha and other omnipotent deities? Yes, yes, he must mend his ways, and perform the daily morning puja along with his wife.
Rudy Ravindra lives in Wilmington, NC. His fiction has appeared in Bewildering Stories, Ginosko, Chicago Literati, Saturday Evening Post online, and others. More at: http://rudyravindra.wix.com/rudy
Illusion of Self
I was once a paper swan
Adrift on a mirror
Dust has obscured the view
The unfolding of my body continues
The wings were the first to flatten
The neck and head followed
What will my body become
When all my edges are smoothed
When the mirror loses its silver
And I am pressed open
All my words revealed to others
My spirit swimming in their voices
Paula Ray is a poet and fiction writer from Wilmington, North Carolina. Her work has appeared in Wigleaf, Word Riot, decomP, and Up the Staircase among other literary zines. Her poetry has been nominated for a Pushcart prize and Best of the Net.
Humid over Kaikoura Island
Sing the wind it flies through your heart, a bronzed moth tasting the lipids of inflorescence, on the migratory horizons of love, inhabiting a cloud hanging over the ocean at Hauraki, watching the silvery surface below, its silky rippling in the slightest of breezes, with heat trapping the humidity in our skins, captured by the magnitude of your eyes, the light echoing in galleries, in cathedrals of clouds, when the sky plunges on wings of rain, into the slopes of Hirakimata, igniting kauri crowns, the distant blue yellow summer flushing green with cones and the forest splashes like a stream in rapids, its days of thunder swarming in clouds of lightning, its air wetter then hotter than its own humidity over Kaikoura Island, in a tiny cove with details, a flotsam line on gravel, tanekaha foliages, and spiny totara tips, with silver lip-sticked pohutukawa leaves and kowhai yellow beads, minute transparent algal bundles and nylons, bright green wooden slivers, twigs, sticks, and Neptune’s necklace strands slippery and hard, an old leather belt stranded snake like, it’s the insects that crawl and the ones that fly, the black beetles, it’s the wetness beneath the stones where last night’s rain passed by, filling spaces between clay fragments and silicon messages from hillsides, that sound of the shells when they speak of the sea, the rush of breaking waves on stones, the softened edges of amber glass, a shag over there frolicking, happy, and a takapu-gannet cruising, it’s a gull spying and screeching, and the wind shaking with heat, the colors of coralines in shadowy caves, smell of salty foam, gleam of the glisten on an ocean under cumulo-nimbus bursting with the fertility of its creation, the air you breathe, where has it been before you breathed it in?
Piet Nieuwland has been published widely in New Zealand in journals such as Landfall, Catalyst, and Brief, in Australia in Mattoid and Pure Slush and recently in USA in the Atlanta Review. He is a poetry reviewer for Landfall Review Online and edits a new anthology of Northland poetry titled Fast Fibres Poetry Four.
On the pale jade horizon
clouds shield a retreating sun
Nebulous rose brushes the still-
blue heaven above
In this dying light shimmers
a mother-of-pearl sea
She swells sea-green
Thin fingers of water reach between
leaving their prints of
Then the water swiftly
streams through fissures
In those left-behind pools
zebra-striped shells anchor
to the wave-worn granite
Upon a many-fractured boulder
the eternal lovers embrace
their eyes upon the retreating sea
The chilled wind rustles
Matilde’s spirit hair
They watch me
a lone figure in this
My slow steps print
the sand washed smooth
by the night’s high tide
I search among the pebblets
placing shells in a matchbox
I flee from the waves
that wet my not-
In a tidal pool
a deep-red anemone sleeps
& higher upon the tumbled rocks
limpets, shells & barnacles still cling
Salt lakes lefts in basins
begin to crust in this
strengthening summer sun
The midnight-blue sea
rises into translucent green waves
Far up on this golden beach
they wash leaving behind
a paler print of foam
The day ages
greying with clouds gathering
over the ocean
This frothing tide grows
Spray leaps higher
Watery fingers reach deeper
Curtains of seaweed resilient
in the crush of surf
& once more these salten waters
caress the zebra-striped shells
anchored to worn granite
Author’s note: In section two, “the eternal lovers” refers to Chilean poet Pablo Neruda and his wife Matilde; Pablo Neruda was a lover of the sea, and his favorite house was at Isla Negra, Chile.
Lorraine Caputo is a poet and travel writer. Her works appear in over 100 journals on six continents, eleven chapbooks of poetry – including the forthcoming Notes from the Patagonia (dancing girl press), and seventeen anthologies. She has done over 200 literary readings, from Alaska to the Patagonia. Caputo travels throughout Latin America, listening to the voices of the pueblos and Earth. Follow her journeys at: www.facebook.com/lorrainecaputo.wanderer.
Louder than words
The lizard in my gumboot was the last straw. Realisation of this came via the fact the lizard was dead, flat, and that I’d been wearing those gumboots all day long. It was time to stop pretending this was funny. It was time to be honest with Connor.
The irony was Connor had been raised a city boy. At university he’d studied accountancy. When he left the family firm and bought a farm with the money his grandmother left him, his father and brothers told him he wouldn’t last a year. Three years later, when he met me, they warned him that if he was serious about this farming thing I was the wrong sort of chick to hook up with. Of course there was no way I could logically refute this. I tried to explain to Connor that even though I’d grown up on a farm with six brothers I’d never wanted to raise pet lambs or ride horses or swim in the river or empty rat traps. I told him my mother used to shake her head when she saw me with my nose in poetry books and said she’d obviously picked up the wrong baby at the hospital. Even my brothers had warned him off me when they noticed the way he stared at me on my first visit back home in four years. But when I’d looked into Connor’s face and saw the laughter lines around his bright eyes and watched him blush to the roots of his curly black hair, my heart – my intact heart which had just taken me all around Europe and back without mishap – broke into a thousand pieces. He convinced me to cancel my flight back to Berlin and move in with him. My mother laughed out loud.
I really tried to make it work. My mother and aunties had taught me well, so I knew how to make jam and preserves, bake scones, cook stews for the shearers and coax vegetables out of a weed-infested plot, which admittedly would not have been so weed-infested if, as my brothers’ wives so succinctly put it, I’d got off my arse more often. But while Connor’s dreams were of tractors and wheat yields, mine were of foreign cities, museums and old architecture. Where he saw beauty in the mist over the mountains and acres of peace and quiet, I saw fog and emptiness and silence. The more I tramped through mud to hang out the washing, feed the hens and gather the fruit, the more I longed for shops, city streets, theatres and restaurants. While I picked caterpillars off the cabbage and threw it into steaming pots of soup on the AGA, my thoughts drifted to how I’d once dreamed of living. My dreams had never included an old wooden house with rats running inside the roof by day and possums wheezing outside like asthmatic old men by night.
I heard Connor on the back step removing his boots and hanging up his driza-bone. The casserole was in the oven. I started pouring the Pinot Noir. I had the words ready. I had the arguments lined up about how he might find he loved foreign travel if only he’d at least give it a go. He opened the door and I saw he was carrying a newborn lamb. He wrapped it in a towel and set it beside the stove while he boiled water and mixed it in the colostrum replacer, poured it in a bottle and headed over to the lamb. He held it close while he fed it, talking to it in a soft voice. It drank weakly before collapsing again on the floor. Connor finally raised his eyes to mine. “She’s one of triplets. The ewe couldn’t feed her, so I brought her home to give her a chance. She’ll need feeding every hour.” He grinned his lop-sided grin.
We ate the meal I’d prepared and drank the wine. He complimented me on my cooking and said he had to pinch himself each day because he couldn’t believe it was possible to be this happy. I saw tears in his eyes. “When we have kids, what an environment they’ll grow up in, eh? ” That grin again. “We’ll get married first though. Make it legit.” He winked. “After the hay’s in, d’you reckon?”
I lay awake all night. Several futures projected themselves onto the pitch black darkness. The one I kept replaying had us sipping wine with friends, discussing plays, books and art exhibitions. In this picture there was no mud, no animals and no children. I watched it fraying around the edges. I listened to the possum gasping and snorting outside the window, and in the far paddocks the cows and sheep, until their sounds were drowned by the rain ricocheting off the iron roof.
Next morning, to my surprise, the lamb was still alive. I heard Connor talking to it as he pulled on his work clothes. Before he left the house he kissed me and left instructions for the lamb’s feed. I heard him whistling as he strode towards the sheds. From the kitchen window I watched him stretch his arms to the luminous sky as if he were embracing all the joy in the world.
On the windowsill I had spread tomatoes to ripen, chillies I’d collected from the greenhouse, walnuts I’d picked from the ground under the hundred year old tree. Early morning sunlight struck the brass pendulum of the clock on the wall that had belonged to his grandmother. Connor had polished and repaired the clock after I moved in. “Let’s put the heart in,” he’d said, replacing the pendulum. We fell asleep each night to its resonant tick.
I picked up pen and paper. I tried to write the words. Really tried. In the end, though, after feeding the lamb, I left only a blank piece of paper on the kitchen bench, anchored by the lizard’s tail.
Sandra Arnold is an award-winning writer living in New Zealand. She is the author of three books. Her short stories have been widely published and anthologized in New Zealand and internationally. Her flash fiction appears in Flash Frontier, Jellyfish Review, The Airgonaut, and TSS500, among others. Her work is included in the UK’s National Flash Fiction Day 2017 anthology Sleep is a Beautiful Colour.
I, on the hinge
I need to
but speak and my life
takes its path
I but sleep
moving. Ho! How we
daunt and skip golden.
This grin, I own.
This future so scary,
I know so
what I matter
Daniel Lassell is the winner of a William J. Maier Writing Award and runner-up for the 2016 Bermuda Triangle Prize. His poetry can be found in Slipstream, Hotel Amerika, Atticus Review, Connotations Press, and elsewhere. Recently, he received a Pushcart nomination from Pembroke Magazine. He lives with his wife in Fort Collins, Colorado. Read more here.
Alone on the F Train
The last car was empty when we got on at Carroll Street. It was seven-fifteen, the lull after rush hour. Joanie and I were meeting some of her friends in the East Village. They were intellectual types from Hunter College, but I liked them well enough. Me, I was going to Kingsborough Community part-time and barely hanging on, but they were cool with that, they didn’t act superior or anything.
Joanie was wearing tight jeans ripped above both knees, a white cotton tee shirt, no bra. A pink paisley bandana creased her forehead. She had been a Catholic school girl: plaid skirt, knee socks, two-toned oxfords, the whole bit. A year in college had changed all that. My mother had noticed.
“She used to be such a nice girl. What happened? She looks like a beatnik.”
“Ma, she’s still a nice girl. And its 1976 — no one says ‘beatnik’ anymore.”
I liked Joanie’s new look. It was Bohemian, sexy.
The train was still empty when we stopped at York Street. A black guy got on, looked around, then started to walk in our direction. I wasn’t prejudiced like my parents, but everyone knew how bad crime had gotten on the subway.
The guy came over and stood right in front of us. He was tall, lanky but muscular, very dark. He wore mirrored sunglasses and a dangling cross in his left ear. He grabbed the bar above our seat with both hands and leaned back slightly. There were just the three of us in the car. I shifted in my seat, crowding closer to Joanie; I placed my hand possessively on her thigh.
We picked up speed as we left Brooklyn and descended into the tunnel under the East River. It was a long way to the next stop at East Broadway. The guy’s hips began rocking slowly from side to side with the rhythm of the train. I tried not to look, but it was impossible. I found him staring down at Joanie, smiling.
“How you doin’, baby?” His deep voice had a trace of the Caribbean.
“Doin’ OK.” Joanie’s voice was surprisingly calm, almost playful. His smile widened.
“Good. That’s good. Real good.” He shook his head up and down, still smiling. “You wanna come out dancing with me tonight?”
I looked at Joanie out of the corner of my eye and saw her smiling back at him. I couldn’t believe it. Maybe she was just nervous, I thought, trying not to provoke a confrontation.
“I guess I shouldn’t,” she said.
“He won’t mind none.” He was looking at me now. “You don’t mind if your sister come out dancin’ with me, do you, bro’?”
Joanie laughed. “I better not.” She sounded disappointed, almost annoyed.
The train slowed as we entered the East Broadway station.
“Unh, unh, unh. And we coulda had such a good time.” He let go of the bar as the doors opened and disappeared out onto the platform.
“Thank God,” I said, blowing out a long sigh.
Joanie lifted my hand off her thigh and placed it firmly in my lap.
Ralph Uttaro is a native of Brooklyn, New York. The Carroll Street stop on the F line was his home station during his youth. The New York subway system, always a great place to quietly observe a vast spectrum of human interaction, has also provided the setting for several of his previously published stories. He currently lives in Rochester, New York, with his wife Pamela.
Is this sadness a new form of solace
or chrysalis pre-revolution?
What does normalization mean
under a post-truth regime?
How can our country have a hole
in its heart the size of our country?
Even a man filled with hate is prone
to paper cuts and spider bites.
If his heart fails in the middle
of the night, we will know
by the absence of tweets
and flash mobs of birdsong.
Scot Siegel, who is from Oregon, is the author of five books of poems, including The Constellation of Extinct Stars and Other Poems (2016) and Thousands Flee California Wildflowers (2012), both from Salmon Poetry. His work has recently appeared in Coachella Review, San Pedro River Review, and Verse Daily. Visit his site.
Quarter Notes: Essays, Reviews, Interviews
Review: Susan Slaviero on Alexandra Van De Kamp’s Kiss / Hierarchy
Kiss / Hierarchy by Alexandra Van De Kamp
Rain Mountain Press, 2016
The poems in Alexandra Van De Kamp’s Kiss / Hierarchy offer a cinematic view of the passion to be found in both art and ordinary days. This collection invites us to revisit the past while longing to live fully in the present. Ultimately it demonstrates “How to Survive Yourself” by being “grateful for the small survivals: the dimple of blue the bluebird / flies through—that slit in the day, that vial of violet.”
Van De Kamp’s work is especially effective in the way it reflects our “neglected interiors” back at us. We are the creators of our own story. How real are the stories we tell? We cannot fully believe our own tales, as “the mind is always on trial.” These experiences are not as large as we believe: somehow, they are both larger and smaller. However all-encompassing the story may seem, the rest of the world continues to move about at a frenetic pace.
Van De Kamp often uses images of art or film to reflect this, as in her poem “Dear Key Largo” where “the wind ignores / the plot unfolding inside and tosses / the palm trees around like dice.” She draws a parallel between film and the stories of our lives. Both are told from a specific viewpoint. Looking at the story from another point of view can change everything.
In “Dear Teresa Wright” she admonishes us:
Watch how preconceptions shift
and tumble: newspaper clippings,
the library—ivy-covered and panic-
stricken—with its turrets and lit windows
going out one by one.
Are we too concerned with the plot, missing out on the lyric beauty of individual moments? As the speaker in “Dear A-” asks, “Do plots end up like cities, a little fed up / with themselves?”
Kiss / Hierarchy is a book of poems that invites us to investigate the small, elegant moments that fall between the dramatic ones. It’s a powerful collection of work that asks us to explore the tension between the artist and the listener / viewer.
Van De Kamp expands upon the mundane, shows us how all things hide a history of the extraordinary, whether she is writing about an ordinary apple or describing the trace elements found in the color blue. These poems are concerned with what we retain in our memories, as “invisible, succulent slippages; / each life a seam in a silk stocking snagging unexpectedly.”
In “A History of Apples” she writes, “This is not a novel, but it is the beginning of a history, / a groggy, personal tract.” So too, her collection of poems mirrors one’s personal history. We question what we know, what we recall: “Will I die without ever remembering / the exact first apple I placed in my mouth—was it red (I wrote read) / or as bright as a green grape?” The speaker ruminates on the imprecision of language, how it fails to fully capture our recollections and experiences:
See how easily geographies and facts drop away,
like the exact color of my mother’s house, being repainted as I speak.
We argue over whether to call it buff or shell, as if the name will change
This imperfect recall is what makes us human. It colors our lives and makes them unique and worthy of examination. A perfect memory could be a curse, as described at the end of “Dear A-”
thank god I am not
the boy in the Borges short story
who can never forget anything—his body
teetering on stone walls, his mind
tallying and tallying.
In Kiss / Hierarchy, Alexandra Van De Kamp welcomes us into her “lurid fairy tale” where even the most ordinary items—such as nightgowns—are woven with esoteric language and unexpected imagery: “crying stars,” “a cage of syllables,” “a rain of hums.”
Her writing seeks to capture the fragments that make up our lives, whether watching an old film, traveling the world, or coming home from that trip to find vermin in the kitchen sink. There is beauty in these juxtapositions. In “Upon Returning From Our Tenth Anniversary Vacation,” she writes of “dunes and their slender paths” and “the sunset like watermelon running / its pale juice down the sky,” this lovely, fleeting time to be replaced by “small cruelties…the cruelty of not knowing how to handle a half-dead / bat, hunkered down in the drain.” There is something powerful in these small cruelties.
Even moments which aren’t pretty are to be valued. We realize how much we love the man we watched kill an injured animal—an act both brutal and merciful. Van De Kamp tells us there is much to consider, even in head colds and mammograms, for the body is a “terrain / the radiologist caresses / with her eyes and mind.”
We fall in to Kiss / Hierarchy and navigate “the mind’s dark hesitations.” These poems resonate in our mirrors, gardens, vacation photos and x-rays, leaving us to wonder if we have still have time to “kiss / … [our] way through to… [our] own truth.”
Susan Slaviero is the author of CYBORGIA, a full length poetry collection published by Mayapple Press. Recent chapbooks include Selections from the Murder Book (Treelight Books), A Wicked Apple (Hyacinth Girl Press) and Apocrypha (Dancing Girl Press). Her work has been awarded a Pushcart Prize as well as two Best of the Net Awards and she has been published in journals such as RHINO, South Dakota Review, Arsenic Lobster, Jet Fuel Review, and elsewhere. She lives and writes in a suburb just outside of Chicago.
Alexandra van de Kamp lives in San Antonio, TX, and is the Creative Writing Classes Program Director for Gemini Ink, a literary arts nonprofit. She also teaches intensive online poetry workshops through The Poetry Barn. She is the author of The Park of Upside-Down Chairs (CW Books 2010), and several chapbooks, including Dear Jean Seberg (2011), which won the 2010 Burnside Review Chapbook Contest, and A Liquid Bird inside the Night (Red Glass Books 2015). She has been published in numerous journals nationwide, such as Denver Quarterly, Connecticut Review, and The Cincinnati Review. For six years she lived in Madrid, Spain, where she co-founded and edited the bilingual journal, Terra Incognita.
Review: Kathrine Yets on Kris Bigalk’s Repeat the Flesh in Numbers
Repeat the Flesh in Numbers by Kris Bigalk
New York Quarterly Books, 2012
Kris Bigalk’s poetry collection Repeat the Flesh in Numbers (New York Quarterly Books, 2012) much like the collection’s cover, is dark and sensual. Step into a world of a mistress, a comatose patient, a trailer-park mother. Learn what the body knows about hunger and death. Laugh out loud at humor dark and bright. Through unexpected metaphor, see the world in a completely new way.
Bigalk in her poems shares the lives of people in their mundane daily lives and also in their most secret sins. In “The Summer before He Came Out,” the author steps into the heart of a homosexual young man. Through the vivid images of the final lines, a beautiful transformation emerges:
… what he meant was
Come closer, the longing for those boys
so deep, so beautiful and foreign
as if feathers had grown from his scalp,
as if his eyes had turned to opals.
Bigalk helps her readers live inside her characters. As I read, I stepped outside of myself into the people she writes about. I was that boy, that cancer patient, Eve from Genesis.
Bigalk listens to the body’s truths. The titular poem “Repeat the Flesh in Numbers” teaches that, cell by cell, we are dissolving “into silence.” In “Repeat the Flesh in Letters,” she dives into DNA, “helix of imagined / perfection, twisted around a rope / of good intentions.” My favorite body poem is “Exegenesis” where she expresses lyrically the experience of menstruating. The repetition of “I bleed” leads the reader through the possibilities and impossibilities of menstruation—“I bleed passion” and “wept-out hopes / the leavings of dreams.”
WARNING: Bigalk had me laughing out loud. Her humor is dark, and often I could not contain myself, even in public. From wayward brains to dead squirrels to Barbie abortion clinics to Mr. Spock choosing breakfast cereal, she is fearless in her choice of subject. For example, in “Aging Gracefully,” she writes,
I am searching for more mistakes to make—
errors in judgement, like buying two hundred rolls
of toilet paper, or impulsive blurting, telling the bag-boy
I dreamed of him last night, French-kissing a navel orange
behind my back. Errors are better than wrinkle creams, dermabrasion,
even bo-tox— they keep the face flushed, expression haunted, eyes wide,
no crow’s feet visible, no smoker-wrinkles around the mouth.
Or, from “Twenty-Four Want Ads”:
Wanted: one sober poet
with plush, moist, talented lips
hard hands with soft touch
Wanted: one drunk poet
to sleep on my couch and snore
to remind, forget.
In poems like this, we laugh at our own desires as Bigalk makes us realize how none of us really know what we want when it comes to relationships, possessions, or even ourselves.
Bigalk is never short on imagination. Consider her extended metaphor from “Brain Storm”:
A storm broke
in my brain, thunder cracking
as material and spiritual
bumped against each other,
white hot bolts of intentions
threading crooked down
my spine. A storm broke
in my brain, and each second
so that the God I believed in
ended up being myself, a blend
of us all, or none of us.
This poem caused a storm to break in my brain!
When I read Kris Bigalk, when I read lines like these from “Gravitas,” I am sent into a state of meditation and transcendence, soothing and wooing me toward a sleeping world.
Don’t sleep too hard or fast
let the eyes drop slow
the wrist curl towards your face,
the weight of blankets press
in, the weight of bed beneath
fall away, until you are suspended,
like you were once in the womb,
tethered only by an umbilicus back
to your mother, your unconscious.
Do yourself and your body a favor: read this book.
Kathrine Yets lives in West Allis, WI and works as a night shift librarian, who hides behind her desk reading and writing poetry. Kathrine’s work has appeared in various literary journals, including River & South Review, Straylight, and The Windy Hill Review.
Kris Bigalk is the author of the poetry collection, Repeat the Flesh in Numbers (NYQ Books). Her work has recently appeared in the anthologies It Starts With Hope, Down to the Dark River, and The Liberal Media Made Me Do It. She directs the creative writing program at Normandale Community College in Minnesota.
Essay: Karren LaLonde Alenier
A System to Pointing:
A Close Reading of Tender Buttons
as Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas’s Holy Text of Matrimony
To slowly read Tender Buttons, Gertrude Stein’s love poem to her life-long partner Alice Babette Toklas, is to realize the importance Stein placed on the relationship between herself and Toklas that was rooted in familial exposure to Jewish teachings. To enjoy the scope of this difficult text in which Stein hides her extreme joy about how this holy union will allow Stein to make a literary contribution unlike any other, one needs, like a Talmudic scholar, to go word by word digging into the root meanings of Stein’s carefully selected vocabulary of mostly simple Anglo-Saxon words. However, to do so without acknowledging authorial biography, world history, religious creed, philosophical belief, and literary allusion would be to miss the complexity of this sui generis work.
Tender Buttons, published by the small press Claire Marie in 1914, is both linguistically spirited and philosophically serious. It simultaneously hides and flaunts forbidden love between two women of Jewish backgrounds who were breaking standards of behavior set by social and religious communities to which they had ties. Stein and Toklas made their home together in Paris. While France had no law against sodomy, the majority of its population in Stein’s time followed the religious dictates of Judaism and Christianity. Neither Jews, Catholics, nor Protestants tolerated same-sex relationships. Nonetheless, particularly after the trial and imprisonment of Oscar Wilde in the late 1890s, Paris was a refuge for a visible and wealthy coterie of lesbians, including Natalie Barney and Colette. For Stein, this discreet but tolerant atmosphere allowed her and Toklas to be outwardly respectable while privately living together as a married couple.
Stein grounded her writing in events from her life, the ordinary objects of daily living, and routines established with Toklas; however, she chose a life with Alice Toklas that ignored prevailing rules of acceptable behavior. This included not participating in Jewish religious practice. She also distanced herself from the Left Bank lesbian crowd. William James, her undergraduate professor at Harvard, taught her that if you want to be recognized as a genius you must abandon habit. From her friend Pablo Picasso, she embraced the idea of Cubism, seeing life from multiple perspectives. Her early works—The Making of Americans (1902-11), Q.E.D. (1903), and Three Lives (1905-06)— which showcase her use of multiple points of view in character development, predate Cubism.
TO BE TO MAKE TO MATTER AND MORE
The thematic currents that run through the “Objects” section of Tender Buttons are existence, appearance, gender, sexuality, morality, and union. Interwoven in these themes is Stein’s preoccupation with writing and publishing. Gaming, both mundane and writerly, becomes a metaphor of the risk that Stein was undertaking in stepping outside the boundaries of the socially acceptable and an avenue to release tension created by the seriousness of her life choices.
Identification of themes and strategies addressed within a subpoem depends largely on the use of particular words rather than on complete sentences. For example, the existence theme can be seen in these words or categories of words: various forms of to be; various forms of to make; containers (carafe, glass, bottle, cup, box, sac, pencil); table (as a philosophical construct); matter (substance, thing, particles); time (time, season, winter, clock, summer, August, day, life); and water (a canonic metaphor that Stein deconstructs in a variety of ways, including hyphenating watermelon in “A little called Pauline.”.
The first five subpoems establish Stein’s context for these fluid themes and strategies. I will discuss “A carafe, that is a blind glass.”, “Glazed glitter.”, “A substance in a cushion.”, “A box.”, and “A piece of coffee.” through the lens of the Ten Commandments.
ONE GOD WITH A SYSTEM TO POINTING
Stein was intent on celebrating and living out her union with Alice Toklas within a moral context that seems to be underwritten by the Hebrew Bible, the Ten Commandments, and the Kabbalah, though other belief systems are also part of Stein’s landscape. Thus, I will look at Tender Buttons through the lens of Jewish scripture and practice, agreeing with Samuel Seward (cited by Linda Wagner-Martin ) who said that Stein “found the world comprehensible” from her “‘Talmudic’ background.”
As Tender Buttons opens, Stein establishes a sense of oneness with A carafe that is A blind glass. The repetition of the article “a” emphasizes the singular, the first in a series, the highest rank. This sense of oneness brings to mind the first commandment of the Hebrew Bible, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” In this subpoem, Stein establishes a system to pointing, a way to read sacred texts. As Stein promises, the difference is spreading. That is, the system to pointing, which is simultaneously nothing strange but also not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling, is carried throughout Tender Buttons.
Gertrude Stein was not religiously observant. She was an assimilated Jew. Perhaps though an arrangement in a system to pointing refers to the old world practice of arranged marriages. Another of the meanings of pointing is the act of inserting punctuation or vowels to assist the chanting of a psalm in a Hebrew text. Could Stein, if she were consciously aware of the religious meaning, be joking about how she constructed Tender Buttons such that she inserted homophonic repetitions of her marital vows?
Another meaning of pointing is repairing joints in brickwork. The idea of joining two things together suggests also the sexual union of a man and a woman and a subsequent child. A tender button could refer to a newborn’s belly button which would give credence to the idea of the opening subpoem referring metaphorically to the womb.
I first read “A carafe, that is a blind glass.” as an expression of Stein’s birth, a clear expression of the existence theme. A kind in glass could be read as a child in the amniotic sac where kind is the homographic German word Kind or child. The subsequent words spectacle and hurt color might describe the miracle (spectacle) of childbirth that includes a bloody show (both a spectacle and the hurt color of red blood). The addition of words like cousin and resembling support the theme of family, a subtheme of existence.
The occasion of Stein’s birth was colored in Stein’s psyche by the knowledge that her parents had always planned for five children and that she and her brother Leo were replacement children after the fourth and fifth died in infancy. Therefore, the subject of being is ever-present in Stein’s work. While Stein had no biological children, she had assisted in the birth of black children born in Baltimore where, from 1897 to 1900, she studied at Johns Hopkins University to be a doctor. However, her professors preferred to see women having babies, not delivering them. Stein in Tender Buttons embraced the idea, keeping with the tenets of Jewish faith, that a marriage should produce children, but with a significant difference. Overall, Tender Buttons paints a portrait of the daily living of happily married partners focused on a joint career of writing and publishing, but where the “children” are Stein’s published books.
Stein’s repeated use of the article “a” cues the experienced reader that “A” or “a” stands for Alice Toklas and that Alice is the subject, the muse, the article of Stein’s affection. In the “Objects” section, “a” appears 366 times as if to suggest that successful marriages are measured by every day in a year (365 plus one for a leap year). As in Kabbalistic numerology, the use of “a” 366 times might point to something like Psalm 23 and the line, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” Psalm 23 has resonance with other subpoems of Tender Buttons in the use of such words as mercy, water, paths, darkness, cup, and table.
Thus Stein begins her holy text of matrimony called Tender Buttons with “A carafe, that is a blind glass.”. The union with Toklas that Stein unfolds is not ordinary, but is thought out (not unordered), though it does not resemble traditional marriages—those between a man and a woman. What they are doing in this difference, their difference, is taking dominion, and that sovereignty (control), that territory, that self-governance is increasing (spreading) their joy.
DISCARDING THE GLITTER OF A GRAVEN IMAGE
“Glazed glitter.”, subpoem two of “Objects,” deals with Stein’s livelihood. In the 124 words of this subpoem, she uses the word is fourteen times to emphasize being. Initially, she says the change has come. While the reader might be thinking of Toklas entering Stein’s life, this change has more to do with subsistence (money as in tender buttons—coins) and how Stein will earn her living. What she thought she wanted was a comfortable job or at least one with monetary security—there is that hope . . . there will be a sinecure. She added certainly glittering is handsome and convincing, but she announces there is no gratitude in mercy and in medicine, signaling her failed career as a doctor.
Although she had at least two supportive professors and did well the first two years at Johns Hopkins, Stein, like other women in the Hopkins medical school at that time, was subject to constant disapproval and harassment from the majority of the male professors. Known for her brilliant research, she, according to her professors and fellow students, was not good with her hands. Moreover, people said she was sloppy both in her work and personal appearance. During medical school, Stein had abandoned wearing corsets. In the words of “Glazed glitter.”, Stein was not spitting [spit shining] and perhaps washing and polishing.
Another possible dimension of “Glazed glitter.” is Stein alluding to the second commandment: Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image. “Glazed glitter.” begins with the question nickel, what is nickel. Do words like glitter and breakage suggest false gods or idols? Perhaps they do if one is thinking disparagingly about a lucrative career. And what about the possible deconstruction of the word nickel into nicht KEL [or EL as in the Hebrew god Elohim] meaning no god—no other gods before me.
HONORING A GOOD NAME
“A substance in a cushion.”, the third subpoem, focuses on Alice Toklas. A [Alice] is she who has mass and occupies space. She is the matter that matters to Stein. Alice is Stein’s gist, her heart. Alice is that which is solid and practical in character, quality, and importance. She is essential and the essence of Stein’s existence. Alice is the container of Stein’s marital bliss and, therefore, Alice is both the substance and the cushion. Alice, as cushion, is giving birth to Stein’s life as a published author.
Stein met Toklas in September 1907. Early in 1908, Toklas began typing Stein’s work. She helped prepare proofs for Three Lives, which, after rejections from established publishing houses, was published in 1909 at Stein’s expense by New York’s Grafton Press, a vanity publisher. Stein’s Radcliffe friend Mabel Weeks had tried to find a legitimate publisher for Three Lives, but it was Mary (May) Bookstaver, Stein’s first lover, who found Grafton Press. Bookstaver, whom Stein met when she was at Johns Hopkins, broke Stein’s heart, influenced her decision to quit medical school, and, until 1932, was completely unknown to Toklas as Stein’s lover.
In the 470 words of “A substance in a cushion.”, Stein uses the word is thirty-five times and the phrase there is thirteen times. (In “Glazed glitter.”, there is is repeated six times.) Stein employs the article “a” forty-two times in this subpoem. Among the fifty-eight subpoems of “Objects,” use of “a” is absent in only four subpoems (“Objects.”, “Malachite.”, “An umbrella.”, and “Peeled pencil, choke.”) and is most present in “A substance in a cushion.” followed by “A plate.” (twenty-five instances) and “A shawl.” (twenty-four instances).
Because reputation is at stake in this forbidden relationship between two women loving each other, Stein cannot publicly use Alice’s name. As in the third commandment, she not only does not take Alice’s name in vain, but also she does not name her at all. Thus, A cushion has that cover. Not overtly naming Alice is a sacred trust in the loving relationship Stein establishes with Alice.
However, A cushion has that cover could also describe the way Jewish men bring their prayer shawls (tallitot) to synagogue. The prayer shawl represents a spiritual home where the wearer can pray, reflect, or heal. In addition to being an aid in prayer, a tallit can be used as a chuppa, wedding canopy, to create the first home for a bride and groom. The tallit, when stored inside what looks like a square pillowcase, takes on the characteristics of a cushion. In this case, if the substance inside such a cushion is a Jewish prayer shawl, then Alice as cushion is Stein’s spiritual home.
“A substance in a cushion.” is one of the most complex subpoems of section 1 “Objects.” It is Stein’s dark night of the soul that opens into the sweetness of the pillow. This is Stein addressing Alice in pillow talk that begins with Stein saying she sees a change of color coming and she (Stein) is prepared. As in a cubist painting, slices of artifacts glint here and there with multiple meanings, like a circle of fine card board and a chance to see a tassel, which could be the mortarboard that Stein never got to wear at the graduation she never attended or a reference to tefillin (phylacteries) used by devout Jews in prayer. Soon what is serious points to something joyful and even hints at sexual play: a little groan grinding makes a trimming such a sweet singing.
WHY IS THIS JEW DIFFERENT FROM ALL OTHERS
From subpoem four “A box.” comes impressions both sacred and profane. Box is slang for vagina. In Stein encoding, containers such as boxes signal existence. Out of kindness comes redness could be understood as sexual manipulation but something dark also appears in these seventy-eight words. The dominant words in this section are rudeness, question, research, painful cattle, order, something suggesting a pin and is it disappointing, and then this telling thought—it is so rudimentary to be analysed and see a fine substance strangely. Woven into this subpoem are the colors red and green that psychologically translate as danger and serenity (or, as in railroad and traffic signal lingo, red, stop; green go). Could Stein be revealing how she first viewed Toklas?
In a footnote from Barbara Will’s Gertrude Stein, Modernism, and the Problem of “Genius,” Will quotes a passage from a Stein notebook that gives Stein’s first unfavorable impressions of Toklas: “She is low clean through to the bottom crooked, a liar of the most sordid unillumined undramatic unimaginative prostitute type, coward, ungenerous, conscienceless, mean, vulgarly triumphant … in short just plain low.” Brenda Wineapple in her Stein biography Sister Brother: Gertrude and Leo Stein suggests that while Stein was attracted to Toklas, she was wary of Alice’s capacity for deceit and manipulation, which Stein interpreted as crookedness.
Or could Stein be alluding to the rift with her brother Leo that was happening during the time she was writing Tender Buttons? In 1913, Leo Stein moved out of 27 Rue de Fleurus, the apartment he had found and leased before Stein moved into in the fall of 1903. Leo was annoyed that expenses for Toklas, who moved in during the winter of 1910, were coming out of their shared household money. Also, he was furious about the influence Pablo Picasso was having on his sister. Leo despised Cubism, Picasso’s new style of painting, and Leo was nonplussed about Tender Buttons, which he called nonsense. On a personal level, he wanted to be free from Gertrude’s dependence in order to explore a relationship with Nina Auzias, the woman he would marry. Mutually, the sister and brother disapproved of each other’s love interests. Leo believed Gertrude’s homosexual liaison with Alice Toklas would lead to public humiliation, and Gertrude chided Leo for choosing a woman who did not match his intellectual capacity and was below their economic class.
Stein takes a break from her matrimonial celebration to consider whether her system to pointing is working (it is so earnest to have a green point not to red but to point again. Because of Talmudic study methods of questioning and debating, it is often characteristic of Jews to ask questions. The context of the question asked in “A box.” is reminiscent of the four sons mentioned in the Jewish Passover service, where the wise son has done the research, the evil son has rudely questioned God’s authority, and the simple and apathetic sons cannot or do not ask why this night is different from other nights. Going one step further, this subpoem could be Stein asking why this Jew (Stein affectionately called Toklas her little Hebrew or little Jew) is different from all others. In “A box.”, Stein, the scientist, but also Stein the Jew full of questions, combines an examination of the sacred and the sexual through some out-of-the-box perplexing text meant to shake up the reader.
PRODUCING OFFSPRING—A COFFEE KLATCH LIKE NO OTHER
In subpoem five “A piece of coffee.”, Stein shifts to a more encoded and circumspect treatment of matrimonial union. Doubles and comparisons that detail difference or use the word more or the suffix er dominate these 300 words. However, words with an er ending or words that approximate the er sound (nineteen occurrences that include such words as dirtier, detainer, never, splendor, pleasure, answer) set up an echo for the word her as a counterbalance to the eighteen occurrences of the article “a” that signifies Alice.
Puns suggest themselves, starting with the title. The phrase “a piece of coffee” is hard to understand. However, “a peace of coffee,” which to a habitual coffee drinker points to its calming effect, is decipherable. Because table is the ninth word, one might imagine that having coffee is an occasion for bringing two people together, although a place in no new table might very well be heard as a table of learning—as in “a place in know knew table.”
Fraught with such words and phrases as sight, reason, negative answer, amusing side, supposing that the case, supposing that there was no reason for a distress and more likely for a number, supposing that there was no astonishment, time to show a message, one way not to shatter, one way to use custom, the perfect way that seem to be philosophic discourse, the mention of a table, and no new table at that, brings to mind the use of the idea table in metaphysical arguments. Aristotle referring to work done by Plato and his followers called the table argument the One Over Many argument. The principle of the One Over Many stands for any set of things to which we apply the term “table,” such that there is a single Form, a concept Plato learned from Socrates.
The One Over Many argument—how we recognize some thing (e.g., love)—reverberates in a large way when one notices that the last stanza of “A piece of coffee.” is filled with the words may and may not. This seems to be Stein working out her emotional issues about the failed love affair with May Bookstaver. Stein scholar Ulla Dydo recently discovered that many instances of the word may had been edited from the original draft of Stanzas in Meditation, a love poem to Alice Toklas. The corrected Stanzas in Meditation edited by Susannah Hollister and Emily Setina restores Stein’s use of the word may and provides the backstory of Toklas’s jealous rage when she heard that her partner had never disclosed a previous love affair. The disclosure came with Stein digging out for a visitor the long hidden work Q.E.D., a novel of explicit lesbian relationships.
Stein ascribed significant importance to the object table. In the “Objects” section, table appears in “A substance in a cushion.” (joy in a table and more chairs), “A piece of coffee.” (no new table), “Dirt and not copper.” (spread a table fuller), “A box.” (The one is on the table. The two are on the table. The three are on the table), and “A table.” (A table…means a whole steadiness. A table means more than a glass… A table means necessary places and a revision). While this discussion limits itself to the relationship between Stein and Toklas, it is worth noting other meanings of table: truth table, table of contents, periodic table, and table as furniture for such uses as eating and writing. In terms of the Stein-Toklas relationship, Stein associates table with Toklas. If Toklas is Stein’s beloved partner preparing food for their table and helping Stein with her writing, then Stein exists. Tender Buttons stands as the truth table of Stein’s relationship with Toklas.
Application of the fifth commandment—honor thy father and thy mother—loosely applies to this subpoem. While honoring one’s parents includes producing heirs (more of double because a single image is not splendor, Stein’s (and Toklas’s) dilemma is that their union will produce no human offspring—the same sight slighter, i.e. Alice is thin and not pregnant, a simpler negative answer, i.e. no pregnancy is possible). “A piece of coffee.” could be Stein working out the downsides of such a union while simultaneously alluding to the elements of printing which might produce a book by Stein. Double, table, clean mixture is whiter and not coal color, simpler negative answer, no hanging in a blight could suggest a polluted darkroom where photographs are developed. Supposing that the case contained rose wood and a color could suggest a California job case used by printers. Settling of stationing cleaning (lots of cleaning goes on between print jobs on the old printing presses), a design concentrating the illusion, the illustration, and it is light enough in that all suggest the language of a print shop. From the print shop will come the couple’s figurative offspring.
MAPPING STEIN’S THEMATIC FLOW & JEWISH CHAMPAGNE
If one were to map Stein’s themes, existence would dominate her Tender Buttons universe. The other overlapping themes would be subsets, planets in that universe. Perhaps the best example of this is the highly abstract and sonorous “A seltzer bottle.”, which like “A piece of coffee.” includes the majority of Stein’s themes and strategies. The title of this thirteenth subpoem combines two objects—effervescent water (seltzer) and container (bottle). Seltzer is naturally gas-infused spring water with high mineral content.
Before World War I, Jewish American families typically consumed a large amount of seltzer, and this drink became known as Jewish champagne. Stein, who consumed very little alcohol, may have been offering seltzer as the celebratory drink on the occasion of her marriage, which occurred in the summer of 1910 (if you suppose this in August). Words in this subpoem seem to point to a wedding and these words address her various themes: a certain time selected (weddings have a precise time on the clock: time—existence theme); permitted (usually two people marrying need a license to do so—morality, gender, sexuality, and union themes); the message (in a marriage officiated by clergy, the cleric presents some kind of sermon or homily—morality theme); black border (might indicate a decorative element of a printed wedding invitation—publication theme); a dress (weddings feature a special dress for the bride—appearance theme); an elegant settlement (in a Jewish wedding there is usually a marriage contract called a ketuba which can be very artistic—morality and union themes); and a present (gift—word play because present also indicates time—existence theme).
SILVER, QUICK SILVER, AND POINTS OF ARTICULATION
Throughout “Objects,” Stein has set up a dialectic between elements (single distinct items) and union (joined items—doubles). Elements, however, also mean elements of the periodic table. One might call this a form of Stein’s writerly gaming. The opening sentence of “A seltzer bottle” (Any neglect of many particles to a cracking, any neglect of this makes around it what is lead in color and certainly discolor in silver) mentions two elements: lead and silver. While silver, the metal with the highest electrical conductivity, can be found in a free form in nature, most often it is refined as a byproduct of lead, copper, gold, or zinc. Lead is also known as liquid silver. The periodic table symbol for silver is Ag, which playfully could be associated as Alice-Gertrude.
Subpoem nine, “A method of a cloak.” comprises one sentence that begins A single and ends with the word silver: A single climb to a line, a straight exchange to a cane, a desperate adventure and courage and a clock, all this which is a system, which has feeling, which has resignation and success, all makes an attractive black silver. What seems to be suggested is the occasion (summer of 1908) when Stein, with walking stick in hand (cane), led Toklas into the Tuscan hills and proposed to her. For Stein, who was already thirty-four years old, her clock for a love relationship (union) seemed to be running out. To make this trip, a one-time chance (A single climb) to deliver her proposal (a line), seemed a desperate adventure requiring a lot of courage, but all in the interest of a system to pointing which has feeling leading (she hopes) to Alice’s successful surrender (resignation and success) and a union that looks like patina on silver (attractive black silver).
The title “A method of a cloak.” speaks to what is under cover as well as to keeping up appearances. Keeping things under wraps (the intimate relationship between Stein and Toklas) was an agreement which both women honored. Taking the lead on the materiality of this agreement, making it easier to see this subpoem as Alice’s method of cloak, was Toklas, who was the seamstress of the pair and who influenced Stein’s style of dressing.
Before plunging into a discussion about why Toklas was the guardian of the family jewels, one should pause to consider a pun that Stein included in the “Objects” section of Tender Buttons. The homographic word spelled l-e-a-d, which in English can be verb, noun, or adjective, speaks to the dialectic between elements and union in a mind-dizzying way. In “A seltzer bottle.”, a new look at the opening sentence might yield the following interpretation: to ignore one’s feelings (any neglect of many particles) such that a person becomes crazed (to a cracking) may lead to (any neglect of this makes around it) the heavier one (what is lead) taking light away from the more lustrous one (and certainly discolor in silver). In other words, Stein identifies herself as lead, the heavy metal element, while Stein sees Toklas as the precious metal silver. Stein also considers herself the leader, the male partner in this relationship, the one who leads, while Toklas follows. In nature, lead is the cover (container) of silver.
To complicate matters more, leading is associated with the typography of printing. In Stein’s time, print on a page was done by hot metal type using strips of lead between the lines for spacing. This spacing is measured from baseline to baseline in terms of points. So here is another system with pointing. “A leave.”, the fifty-second subpoem of “Objects,” reads: In the middle of a tiny spot and nearly bare there is a nice thing to say that wrist is leading. Wrist is leading. Could Stein be equating wrist to a printer’s spacing? Wrist is the joint between the hand and the forearm. Joint is the junction of two or more parts or objects. In human anatomy, a joint is a point of articulation between two or more bones. The first meaning of articulation is the act of vocal expression but it also means a fixed or movable joint between bones. In Stein’s world, the limb of importance is the arm, which performs writing.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, wrist comes from writhe, meaning to make twisting movements or contortions of the body. Visually the wrist-to-writhe root points to write (writhe minus its h). For Stein, writing was both written and spoken. So, a possible reading of this subpoem is the space (leading) between lines measured by unseen points (In the middle of a tiny spot and nearly bare) might be admirably articulated (is a nice thing to say) or compared to the wrist. As to the title, a leave, in this context, refers to that blank space left between the lines of writing or type. Anything having to do with writing and printing points to publishing and the Stein-Toklas covenant that Stein’s books would be their surrogate children.
Author’s Note: “Stein was very particular about punctuation. Stein also cared about design since her writing of Tender Buttons was based on Picasso’s cubism.
I often think that Stein was influenced by Apollinaire’s lack of punctuation in his first book of poetry Alcools. To be a genius you must do what others do not.
What better way to get your reader to pay attention to the titles of your poem by making that reader come to
A full stop with a period?
Those periods are not decorative. They are intentional.”
Editor’s Note: Part 2 of Karren LaLonde Alenier’s essay will appear in the Summer Quarterly 2017.
Cohen, S. Marc. “The ‘One Over Many’ Argument.” University of Washington lecture. 2006.
Accessed June 26, 2014. http://faculty.washington.edu/smcohen/320/1ovrmany.htm.
Corn, Wanda and Tirza True Latimer. Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories. Berkeley:
University of California Press, 2011.
The Oxford English Dictionary, Compact Edition. 1971, s.v. “Wrist & Whow.”
Retallack, Joan. “On Not Not Reading Stanzas in Meditations: Pressures and Pleasures of
the Text.” Introduction to Stanzas in Meditation:The Corrected Edition, by Gertrude
Stein, edited by Susannah Hollister and Emily Setina. New Haven: Yale University
Simon, Linda. The Biography of Alice B. Toklas. NY: A Discus Book/Avon Books, 1978.
Stein, Gertrude. “Poetry and Grammar.” Lectures in America. Boston: Beacon Press, 1957.
—. A Stein Reader, edited by Ulla E. Dydo. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1993.
—. Tender Buttons: The Corrected Centennial Edition, edited by Seth Perlow. San Francisco:
City Lights Books, 2014.
Wagner-Martin, Linda. “Favored Strangers”: Gertrude Stein and Her Family. New Brunswick:
Rutgers University Press, 1995.
Will, Barbara. Gertrude Stein, Modernism, and the Problem of “Genius.” Edinburgh: Edinburgh
University Press, 2000.
—. Unlikely Collaboration: Gertrude Stein, Bernard Faÿ, and the Vichy Dilemma. New York:
Columbia University Press, 2011.
Wineapple, Brenda. Sister Brother: Gertrude and Leo Stein. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins
University Press, 1996.
The exploration of the courting and illicit marriage of Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas are based on close readings of Tender Buttons, section 1 “Objects.” The initial readings took place from October 2013 to June 2014 by an international online study group known as the Buttons Collective that I organized, led, and contributed to inside the discussion forums of University of Pennsylvania Professor Al Filreis’ Coursera MOOC (massive open online course) “Modern and Contemporary American Poetry” (ModPo). This study group predominantly comprised of eight active members (including me) contributed to half or more of the forty discreet study sessions, but numbered as many as twenty-four participants. The discussions are documented in my blog The Steiny Road to Operadom.
With limited historical and literary critical background, the “discoveries” made by The Buttons Collective followed an experiential, speculative, and playful approach that one might employ while standing before a canvas of abstract art. Thoughts expressed in this essay reflect Stein’s sense of play and operate in the realm of bon sense versus nonsense. I made secondary readings and many subsequent discoveries for this essay but my discoveries gained advantage from the groundwork put in place by the crowd-sourcing hermeneutical work done by the Buttons Collective.
Principal contributors who participated in half or more of the forty discreet study sessions are Eleanor Smagarinsky (Australia), Mary Armour (South Africa), Peter Treanor (United Kingdom), and Karren Alenier, Dave Green, Allan Keeton, Judy Meibach, Claudia Schumann (United States). Other contributors included Carol Stephen (Canada), Ellen Dillon (Ireland), T. De Los Reyes (Philippines), Sarah Maitland Parks, Nicola Quinn (United Kingdom), Barbara Crary, Tamboura Gaskins, Barbara Goldberg, Mark Herron, Randy Parker, Peter Rant, Tracy Sonafelt, Mark Synder, Pramila Venkateswaran, Eric Weinstein (United States) and Jason Zuzga, ModPo Teaching Assistant (United States). For editorial work done on this essay, I especially thank Nathalie Anderson, Mary Armour, Corinne Blackmer, Dave Green, Barbara Goldberg, Peter Treanor, and Eleanor Smagarinsky.