Efes Wrestling with the Poet Who Won’t Look Away

Rosebud Ben-Oni

To set fire to warships in the water                                                                                            cast your mirror

as parabola. You still won’t quiet these waters.                                                                Finite are bodies

to drown. Infinite only the quarks & electrons that you won’t see                                           keeping

you as one. As more than. Similar. Don’t reduce me, says the reflection. But it’s already done.

It’s a whisper.   As if nothing still.   Lies outside Saturn & Jupiter.   Vibrating the highest key &

timbre:: timber. Only in time is your God. Safe. In song smeared by a warhero across my zero

believers. They never give up. You, poet, are more than. Similar to this. Terror. In clear water

the nautilus forgets easily.  After a day it swims again straight toward me.  Hungering.  & you

hold a single knife. Without one fundamental sliver. Or steady. Particle. I will always. Terrify

water into flame.  Devour shell & cirrus.  Ornate & plain.  This is giving myself.  As.  Ghosting.

Timelines. & entrapment.  What comes after an entrance.  & harmony.  Drowns you in sleep.

 

Author’s Note: While efes can mean “zero,” it also means “to nullify” in mystical Hebrew text; in Sefer Yetzirah, Efes is a concealment.

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.

Art by @anna_croc01, curated by Dana Lyons.

Recipient of fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts and Canto-Mundo, Rosebud Ben-Oni’s most recent collection, turn around, BRXGHT XYXS, was selected as Agape Editions’ EDITORS’ CHOICE (2019). She writes for The Kenyon Review blog. Her work appears in Poetry, APR, The Poetry Review (UK), Tin House, Guernica, among other places; her poem, “Poet Wrestling with Angels in the Dark,” was commissioned by the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in NYC and published by the Kenyon Review Online. Find her at 7TrainLove.org.

 

I Haven’t Masturbated in Five Days
for Fear of Crying

Eloisa Amezcua

her eyes closed the way my eyes sometimes close when I reach a hand 

between my thighs              pretend they’re someone else’s fingers that slide 

the unsexiest pair of panties I own to the side of a lip                              her neck 

outstretched          the curve of her trachea like the bend of a hipbone 

that peeks above the waistband of low-rise jeans     her mouth open 

—no         agape—         the same as the women on my computer screen 

when they scream in what I’m supposed to believe is wonder 

her face pale & older than mine     maybe a few years            possibly decades 

—she’s ageless—   her body still the way                     unmoving in my bed 

unable to sleep again      I picture her still     when I close my eyes     remember 

how I sat stiff as frozen meat in the driver’s seat of a borrowed truck 

the passenger side unrecognizable after she sped through the red light 

& caused what the police called a t-bone collision   & again I call my father 

Yes           he says                she died                she was dead

 

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.

Art by Sam Flora, curated by Dana Lyons.

Eloisa Amezcua is from Arizona. Her debut collection, FROM THE INSIDE QUIETLY, is the inaugural winner of the Shelterbelt Poetry Prize selected by Ada Limón. A MacDowell fellow, she is the author of three chapbooks and founder/editor-in-chief of The Shallow Ends: A Journal of Poetry. Her poems and translations are published in New York Times Magazine, POETRY, Kenyon Review, Gulf Coast, and others. Eloisa lives in Columbus, OH, and is the founder of Costura Creative.

All the Things that Make Heaven and Earth

W. Todd Kaneko

The soil, the livestock, our memories of the war,
everything flourishing before it vanishes—breath

severed clean from our bodies, our shadows
sunset-deepened and woven with dirt,

whole family trees succumbed to the blight.
My grandfather returns to life, back still

bent by history’s quiet yoke, his memories
of camp forever decaying into the tiny garden

behind my house where my father’s death
is the soil, where silence blossoms now

all year round. Or the soil is my grandfather
eating darkness, the spectral memory of camp

that feasts upon my father and his father,
me and my son. There are no such things

as ghosts—I tell my son this every evening
as he gazes up the dark stairwell towards his room.

What will be waiting for us when my boy
is old enough to ask where he comes from?

What will we find when our memories of camp
finally molder back into the ground?

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.

Art by @anna_croc01, curated by Dana Lyons.

W. Todd Kaneko is the author of THE DEAD WRESTLER ELEGIES (Curbside Splendor, 2014) and THIS IS HOW THE BONE SINGS (Black Lawrence Press, 2020), and co-author with Amorak Huey of POETRY: A WRITER’S GUIDE AND ANTHOLOGY (Bloomsbury Academic, 2018). A Kundiman fellow, he is co-editor of the literary magazine Waxwing and lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan where he teaches at Grand Valley State University.

Horses’ Mouths

W. Todd Kaneko

When the army brought us to the stables on our way to internment, they warned us about talking to the animals. We crowded into the stalls at night and listened to the horses explain the difference between sugar and glue, the weight of plow and cart, the jangle of spurs against bare flank. Their manes sizzled blue, electric as they told us about Silver riding the Lone Ranger back from the dead, about Man O’War outracing death. They told us about Comanche, who survived the Battle of Little Big Horn and then survived America and we shuddered. Outside, the horses hurtled across the landscape, from sea to shining shoreline, then back across the badlands. Pegasus stirred the windstorm with ancient wings. Sleipnir struck lightning with all eight hooves against the prairie. Longma broke a cobalt sky with Chinese fire while we hid our faces under thin blankets. The horses sang low songs for us, the blues for animals who are more than animals. The horses used our voices because the words did not fit in their mouths. When the horses were gone, the trucks took us to the internment camp.

 

Question: What did the horses say?

a) Horses belong to the world.
b) There are no horses, just smells of horses.
c) We should not speak about these things

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.

Art by @anna_croc01, curated by Dana Lyons.

W. Todd Kaneko is the author of THE DEAD WRESTLER ELEGIES (Curbside Splendor, 2014) and THIS IS HOW THE BONE SINGS (Black Lawrence Press, 2020), and co-author with Amorak Huey of POETRY: A WRITER’S GUIDE AND ANTHOLOGY (Bloomsbury Academic, 2018). A Kundiman fellow, he is co-editor of the literary magazine Waxwing and lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan where he teaches at Grand Valley State University.

Looking Outside Airplane Windows

W. Todd Kaneko

I expect to see that boy
in the clouds, sad faced,
barbed wire tattoo ablaze
where no one can see it—

not a tattoo but a scar wrapped
around his belly like a belt
cinched tight to hold his body

together. Every cloud dissolves
one day, leaving so many boys
in the sky, hanging, waiting to fall
back to Earth. Girls too, hearts

where their stomachs should be,
guts twisted into brambles
now for the body’s deep sorrow
because we have so many words
for clouds: father, grandfather,

and one day, son. We spend our lives
searching for your shapes.

You already resemble those shapes
we know by heart.

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.

Art by @anna_croc01, curated by Dana Lyons.

W. Todd Kaneko is the author of THE DEAD WRESTLER ELEGIES (Curbside Splendor, 2014) and THIS IS HOW THE BONE SINGS (Black Lawrence Press, 2020), and co-author with Amorak Huey of POETRY: A WRITER’S GUIDE AND ANTHOLOGY (Bloomsbury Academic, 2018). A Kundiman fellow, he is co-editor of the literary magazine Waxwing and lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan where he teaches at Grand Valley State University.

I Haven’t Masturbated in Five Days
for Fear of Crying

Eloisa Amezcua

twenty-seven shots sent straight

to the deleted photos album

because my ass looks too wide from above

my belly too pale with the lights on

my left boob droops like thick paint

on a canvas when I try to pose sideways

when I lie on my back they fall so far apart

he could eat off the level surface of my sternum

still I’m the one who’s hungry & I want

to send him something sexy

but my cellulite won’t cooperate

so I contort my body into angles

any yoga teacher would be proud of

phone in one hand the other near my mouth

or covering my pussy because mother told me

that men prefer subtlety & I’ve played

poker before—I know better than to show

my hand so I snapfilter&crop

until I’m an unrecognizable sack of

bones & tits nipples taut

a shade the most unnatural of pinks

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.

Art by Sam Flora, curated by Dana Lyons.

 

Eloisa Amezcua is from Arizona. Her debut collection, FROM THE INSIDE QUIETLY, is the inaugural winner of the Shelterbelt Poetry Prize selected by Ada Limón. A MacDowell fellow, she is the author of three chapbooks and founder/editor-in-chief of The Shallow Ends: A Journal of Poetry. Her poems and translations are published in New York Times Magazine, POETRY, Kenyon Review, Gulf Coast, and others. Eloisa lives in Columbus, OH, and is the founder of Costura Creative.

Fashion, 1860

Lizzy Fox

Fashion, 1860

 

Ballerinas were particularly vulnerable, the tarlatan
and gauze. But all girls could light like chimney fires—

the bells of their hollow hoop skirts funneling air
up the legs. In the days of fireplaces and gas

stage lamps, don’t dance so close. Three thousand
women burned that year catching a hem, tipping a candle.

The fabrics were spiderwebs and angels’ gowns.
The women—dried-out Christmas trees, needles

dropping. Before household electricity,
but mass-produced fabric meant every girl

could leap like Emma Livry. See them
at their mirrors, pretending, making

pouty expressions with eyelashes spread—
the slightest mis-gesture led to death.

Ballerina skirts were longer then, and light—
made to look like seraphs. Everything was white

or lavender or buttercup and paid for by old male patrons
championing his girl to the top of a playbill. Once,

a whole row lit in formation. The one on the end—too close
to the lamp. The others—too close to the girl beside her.

A new dance began.

The same dance when one sister rushed to the fireplace
to put the other out. The trouble with hoop skirts
was that women could move their legs.
They burned down brownstones,

apartment buildings, theaters, lost
icons, lead dancers, soft faces, those long-carved limbs.

She was waiting for a casting call, stressed, sneaking
a cigarette—had just gotten the tobacco lit when he approached.

                    She’d insisted on warming the house with her husband
                    gone to work and the children away.

                                        She needed the candle to find her bedchambers,
                                        brought it right into the room. It cast light
                                        on her smile, her bodice, her undone button.

She was facing the wall, about to breathe in—turned
and tucked the flame quickly behind her back
so he wouldn’t see. You could almost hear the suck of air
pulling inside and up.

                                        She brought the candle to her own bedside,

                                        after all

                    insisted on doing things alone

had the audacity to dance

                                                            was trying to help her sister.

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.

Art by @anna_croc01, curated by Dana Lyons.

 

Lizzy Fox is a poet and educator with an MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she now works as Associate Director for the MFA in Writing & Publishing program. Her poetry appears in The Greensboro Review and has received the Laura J. Spooner Prize and the Corrine Eastman Davis Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of Vermont. In addition to her own writing, she teaches poetry and recitation in partnership with schools and arts nonprofits across the northeast, as well as online.

On Power

Lizzy Fox


On Power

 

“As a man’s knowledge grows, and his power increases, the road he takes grows ever
narrower, until at last he does only and wholly what he must.” —Ursula K. Le Guin

 

Bicep, bone, bloodstream, esophagus,
coughing fits, apologies, laughter
in the vocal cords and a current of air—
a lamp sits on the table.

Plug it into the wall. Flip it on. Unplug it.
Reconnect. Be careful. You don’t see
the current moving, but you know
it’s there—a circuit.

You see a wire. A glimmer of light.
A backlit lampshade. A shadow.

A friend once gave a shadow-puppet show
in his living room, the paper cutouts
scissor-snip-precise and delicate, intricacies
intended to channel the light exactly
where he wanted it to shine:

eye socket, patterned shirt, in-between
strands of hair. Highlights in the dark.
Sometimes we are backlit.

Take a heart as example, or shock-pads
and monitors, or just the sound of a voice.

You don’t see the current moving,
but you know it’s there—a connection
to tend, to harness, to extend outward.

You see the body you were given, its intricacies
intended to channel the light exactly. You must.
Though you’ll cast a shadow.

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.

Art by @anna_croc01, curated by Dana Lyons.

 

Lizzy Fox is a poet and educator with an MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she now works as Associate Director for the MFA in Writing & Publishing program. Her poetry appears in The Greensboro Review and has received the Laura J. Spooner Prize and the Corrine Eastman Davis Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of Vermont. In addition to her own writing, she teaches poetry and recitation in partnership with schools and arts nonprofits across the northeast, as well as online.

How to Make Art

Lizzy Fox

How to Make Art

 

Even when I’m sick, when I feel
the thorn of a sore throat
prick my right tonsil, and I purr
through a stuffed nose
while I dream of spilling my coffee
because I’m stumbling
through the house without opening
my eyes because I can’t open
my eyes because I’m still dreaming
and I’m late for work, I hear
the robin’s circular whistle
at the window. Winter is always long.
But the robin is back. Even
when the weather won’t stand still,
when it throws my body
into viral confusion with snowstorms,
hailstorms, and sixty-degree winds
all in one week, the robin is building her nest.
The robin has work to do. She is singing.

Lizzy Fox is a poet and educator with an MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she now works as Associate Director for the MFA in Writing & Publishing program. Her poetry appears in The Greensboro Review and has received the Laura J. Spooner Prize and the Corrine Eastman Davis Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of Vermont. In addition to her own writing, she teaches poetry and recitation in partnership with schools and arts nonprofits across the northeast, as well as online.

Maurice Milkin, Eraser Carver

Michael Martone

I go to the Pink Pearl factory store at the factory and buy the ones, discounted, beyond their expiration date. Stale erasers. I have been sculpting for years. Sculpting is about seeing what is not there, the negative space, the foil, the relief. It isn’t lost upon me that in my way I am erasing the eraser, whittling it away one rubber sliver at a time. In the end I have a rubber stamp embossed with a word. I use the stamp to stamp. It stamps STAMP. I have turned these erasers of flat language, turned them into these words with enough depth, a lip. It’s a slug of spongy type. I tool these one-word stories, use blue impermeable ink. MOM for instance. DAD. GRAM. YOU. DEAR. LOST. GONE. ?.

 

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.

Art by @anna_croc01, curated by Dana Lyons.

Michael Martone’s new books are BROODING and THE MOON OVER WAPAKONETA: FICTIONS AND SCIENCE FICTIONS FROM INDIANA AND BEYOND. He lives in Tuscaloosa and teaches at the university there

Mario Talarico’s Peonies

Michael Martone

My favorite variety is the Eleanor Roosevelt. I am very conscientious in the spring. I stake and cage the plants. I am careful to deadhead the side branching buds to lessen the weight. I know, you are thinking about the ants, but I don’t mind the ants. The ants are as drunk as I am on waiting for those buds to bloom. In the winter I review all the catalogs but I always go back to the Eleanor Roosevelt. Most people think the peonies wilt in the heat, but that is not the case. Peonies are heat tolerant. No, what they need is cold. The crowns need to be frozen, frozen solid. I take no chance. I mulch my peonies through the winter with snow and more snow. All the snow that falls I shovel onto the dormant beds. When it doesn’t snow, I’ll head down to Ed Harz’s Standard Station and retrieve bags of ice to pile on the crowns. It’s the tradition in Indiana to plant peonies in rows along the drive way or next to the white siding of the garages and they do look good that way, that peony green of the leaves, that exploding splatters of red. But I have planted my peonies in drifts, the icy pale pink blossoms piling up together, a dream of winter.

 

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.

Art by @anna_croc01, curated by Dana Lyons.

Michael Martone’s new books are BROODING and THE MOON OVER WAPAKONETA: FICTIONS AND SCIENCE FICTIONS FROM INDIANA AND BEYOND. He lives in Tuscaloosa and teaches at the university there.

Sue Johnson, Parking Enforcement Officer

Michael Martone

I have one of those new digital wearable fitness devices that counts the number of steps I take each day. If you aren’t moving enough there is a tiny picture on the tiny screen, a frowning face. If you are moving the face changes to a smile that gets bigger and bigger as you take more and more steps. That’s all I do is walk. I chalk parked car tires, circling the downtown parking spaces of Winesburg every two hours. That’s all you get of free parking, two hours. I time my walks. I have been doing this long enough I can mark the time by the number of steps I take. The marks I make with the chalk look like smiles too, smack dab on the treads of the driver’s side rear tire. Tire after tire. Two hours later, my pedometer smiling its biggest smile, I come back around. I mark the more recent parked cars, the tires a blank slate. But then there are the ones with the telltale mark from two hours before. I have to write them up. I can do that while I am walking, writing up the summons as I circle the infracting vehicle. I leave the ticket under the windshield wiper blade as I march in place. You can say I am motivated to move even as I enforce the sustained periods of standing still.

 

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.

Art by @anna_croc01, curated by Dana Lyons.

Michael Martone’s new books are BROODING and THE MOON OVER WAPAKONETA: FICTIONS AND SCIENCE FICTIONS FROM INDIANA AND BEYOND. He lives in Tuscaloosa and teaches at the university there.

The Weeping Willow Windbreak of Winesburg

Michael Martone

FDR himself came to Winesburg and planted the first few saplings. Well, he didnt actually plant them himself but sat up in the Sunshine Special and directed things. He wanted to build a grand shelterbelt from Canada to Mexico. We wanted to do our bit. The President motored away in that big old Lincoln, and he left a contingent of the CCC behind to finish the landscaping. That was years ago, and the shelterbelt was never really realized in the aggregate. But here in Indiana there is this little baffle of depression-era willows. Roosevelt was haunted by the roiling clouds of dust, dreamed of something to knock the dirt out of the thin air. Well, the wind is with us here. We always say there is nothing to slow it down, the wind, as it slides off the mountains out west. There was an oracle in ancient Greece where the priests got their instructions in the rustle of the breeze in the leaves. Oak leaves, I believe. The lachrymose leaves of the willow are all muffled, mumbling mostly. They are pretty to look at, I suppose, this memorial copse, this limping crippled orchard smudging the horizon.

 

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.

Art by @anna_croc01, curated by Dana Lyons.

Michael Martone’s new books are BROODING and THE MOON OVER WAPAKONETA: FICTIONS AND SCIENCE FICTIONS FROM INDIANA AND BEYOND. He lives in Tuscaloosa and teaches at the university there.

Poet Wrestling with Neutrinos She {Allegedly} Cannot Feel

Rosebud Ben-Oni

We forget the body can become a way out
of life :: & death :: & you

came to a dead river across two islands with all the weight
of a wake unprepared.

Shunned, even, of wrath & rage. Nothing would grow if you didn’t
have an answer

that my life was safe. I wasn’t asking for your hands. Nor were it
chance if you were

to join me in collecting all the little neutrinos we aren’t
supposed to feel.

But the nature of accidents isn’t accidental, my friend,

in that what you think isn’t there

knows exactly what it’s doing

                    to us
                    & how
                    & when.
                    & what cross-

roads bear. The weight of such a question divides us

because conviction itself cannot be measured. I wasn’t

                    asking for your hands—my body
                    is not two swans lost
                    to red tide :: the waves we make
                    elegiac.

It was a matter of invitation, if I should fall for it,

completely, a force greater than any strong, electro-

magnetic or weak. A force much. {Much} greater than

gravity. Efes bears the crown & brings me to my knees.

                    While it is numbers, shaky
                    & uncertain, that bind us
                    together.

                                                  & {I have no
                    burdens only} singing little
                    threads that bear no resemblance

to actual strings, much less two figures who can’t seem

to reach each other in the shortest of distance.

They are not elegant.

I mean. My vibrations, my math. In particular.

The math holding me together is particularly faulty.

My math is purely strings & exponentially misbehaving.

                    I am made up of much fucking {& many}
                    weird equations
                    full
                    of anomalies

where X equals all sorts of subatomic roads

unrelated & quarreling. My {most unnetural} apologies.

Because it seems, no matter what, anyway, all lead

                    :: back to Efes ::

                                                  & do you regret watching me

                                                                      go through this

                                                                                          :: {flitting} shape of being ::

                                                                      where gravity cannot compete.
                                                                      & rivers in which you seek
                                                                      assurances will die
                                                                      when there is no life

                                                                                                              :: {left} ::

                                                                                          at poetic feet.

                                                                                                              When those shallow waters are stripped
                                                                                                              of meter, syllable & accent—only then
                                                                                                              will time reveal itself

                                                                                          :: to no one ::

                                                                                                              that it is nothing

                                                                      compared to a force living
                                                                                          outside of it.

I’d be lying if I say I didn’t fear Efes

                    as much as I murmur & hiss
                    against all these little strings
                    having their way with me.

& I’d be lying if I say I didn’t

                    :: like getting heavy heavy ::

                    with all these bomb solar neutrinos,

                                                            the wild-on ghost particles
                                                            seeping into my body
                                                            when they shouldn’t

                                                            affect me, much less
                                                            matter. To which they hiss
                                                            & murmur & mess when I hold
                                                            something as simple & delicate

                                                            as asking a friend
                                                            if it were meant

                                                                                                                                                      :: to be ::

That somehow could we still share          :: time ::          all the while with Efes passing
through

                                        me & has been
                                        & relentlessly
                                        reaching & reaching for
                                        & sometimes touching

                                                                                             God—

                                        & still you stand at the same river,

thinking of the answer you gave, one from where the head

                              cannot meet the heart

                                                            for reasons unknown

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.

Art by @anna_croc01, curated by Dana Lyons.

Recipient of fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts and Canto-Mundo, Rosebud Ben-Oni’s most recent collection, turn around, BRXGHT XYXS, was selected as Agape Editions’ EDITORS’ CHOICE (2019). She writes for The Kenyon Review blog. Her work appears in Poetry, APR, The Poetry Review (UK), Tin House, Guernica, among other places; her poem, “Poet Wrestling with Angels in the Dark,” was commissioned by the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in NYC and published by the Kenyon Review Online. Find her at 7TrainLove.org.

 

Drift(er)

Jake Skeets

                    after “Benson James, drifter. Route 66, Gallup, NM 1979” by Richard Avedon

 

Drift

to drift is to be carried by current of air or water

                                        but men are not the teeth

of their verbs

they pry nouns open with a belt buckle

to take a sip

Drifter

a drifter carried by a current of air or water

                                                                                         makes his way from one place to another

see vagabond, see transient, see

drunk

see a man with shoulder-length hair

dollar bills fisted standing before a white screen

see his lips how still

how horizon

how sunset

a train

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

passing through

 

I try to hug him

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

through the spine

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

left on the white space

                    his face becomes a mirror

if I stare long enough

                                         my face

charcoaled

                    pursed squinting

at the camera

 

train horn

                    punch shatters

the mirror

 

                                         frees him from the page

my uncle leaps from the

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.

Art by @anna_croc01, curated by Dana Lyons.

 

Jake Skeets is Black Streak Wood, born for Water’s Edge. He is Diné from the Navajo Nation and holds an MFA from the Institute of American Indian Arts. His work has appeared in Boston Review, Waxwing, and elsewhere. He is a winner of the 2018 Discovery/Boston Review Poetry Prize. His first collection, EYES BOTTLE DARK WITH A MOUTHFUL OF FLOWERS, won the 2018 National Poetry Series and was published by Milkweed in 2019.

Red Running Into Water

Jake Skeets

tsi’naajinii nishłí
pronounce the ł as water whistling through shadow
                    on black bark
the í as boy wearing only yucca
                    lake colored

tábąąhá báshíshchíín
the í is now mouth of narrow stream
                    inside a pink mobile home with white skirting
the ą sounds like pulling hair
                    from the throat
shaped like the á

táchii’nii dashícheii
the á now a head busted open
                    red running into water
the í is the boy now naked
                    red running into water
tódik’ǫzhí dashinálí
boy has the ó for mouth
                    washed with memory of salt water
pronounce this á as rain cloud
                    belly up
the í still the boy floating on the lake
                    except it is a field
his mouth left ǫ
 
From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.

Art by @anna_croc01, curated by Dana Lyons.

 

Jake Skeets is Black Streak Wood, born for Water’s Edge. He is Diné from the Navajo Nation and holds an MFA from the Institute of American Indian Arts. His work has appeared in Boston Review, Waxwing, and elsewhere. He is a winner of the 2018 Discovery/Boston Review Poetry Prize. His first collection, EYES BOTTLE DARK WITH A MOUTHFUL OF FLOWERS, won the 2018 National Poetry Series and was published by Milkweed in 2019.

Reeni’s Turn

WAITING

Monday April 16th

At the barre at Miss Allie’s
I lean and dream:

onstage alone
where the spotlight glows,

fears of an audience
scatter like stage dust.

Music flows through me –
it always does

like air and blood
moving my limbs

to dance in ways
that push me out

so close to the world
right up against the edges of the sky.

 

NEW GIRL

We plié-two-three, up-two-three
when a new girl comes crashing
through Miss Allie’s door

feet
pounding
down
the floor.

She flings her bag
flicks her hair
flips off shoes.

She shimmies her skirt off
slides into slippers
hooks her leotard on sharp-edged hips

the kind
real
ballerinas
have.

She says Sorry I’m late
but doesn’t look sorry
hands on her hips.

I’m hoping
she’s
not very
good.

 

UP AND DOWN

She’s looking at me
from behind, up and down –

I watch the mirror opposite,
sneaking a look.

Sasha’s eyes run up and down
the back of me.

 

UN-BRAVE

Miss Allie asks me
to come to the front

and something changes inside
like a tingling frost

on a winter window
that never melts.

Mom says my shyness will pass
but I wonder when.

I slip to the front:
I love it and hate it

and try to pretend
no one’s watching,

un-brave always
I wish I weren’t.

 

BACKBEND WITHOUT HANDS

It’s quiet now, no music, we’re stretching,
then time for backbends without hands.

One at a time she helps each girl
gently holding her back as she bends.

Now she’s in front of me, circling my back
not touching, but tapping, Right here, I’m right here.

I backward-bend slowly, smoothly,
half a circle down to the floor

and everything seems to disappear
but the strength of my thighs and belly

holding me steady, safe and strong
in the circle of her arms.

 

YES AND NO

Miss Allie grabs my hand
after class when the others leave.

She looks at me now
her eyes, crystal blue locking on mine

and says the time is here
for me to do a solo.

She says to choose a piece
and choreograph the steps.

She says at Spring Recital
I will be the one to watch.

No, no! I think and cringe
while my heart flies open.

Okay, I say and smile
but am sick inside.

I don’t understand how
you can want something

so much that you fear
so much.

 

IT’S TIME

I call Beck, my best, best friend
too excited to text her this kind of news.

I tell her what Miss Allie asked,
say I’m terrified – she understands.

You’ll be fantastic, Beck tells me,
She tells me this is my big chance

to be the dancer I’ve dreamed.
Now you can make it real! 

Beck says.

 

CLOSE

Wednesday April 18, 39 days until recital

After dinner Wednesday night
Mom and Dad want to see my dance

I mumble Not yet
and escape downstairs.

When I was four and five and six
I’d show them my dances –

only them, and Jules, but nobody else.
Mom would sing while I spun around.

Little dancing Reeni girl
Sway and swirl, whirl and twirl
Little dancing Reeni girl.

I’d spin across the room and back
but never far from their hugging arms.

 

GROWING

In my morning shower –
the new shape of my chest

surprises me more
every day.

Mom says I’m growing
becoming a woman

but I think I’m growing
out of my clothes.

 

MORE THAN HALF

Way more than half
the girls I eat lunch with
talk about food and diets.

I guess I grew up differently
than Alex, Jess, and Morgan
who say what foods are good or bad

and how much of what
you shouldn’t eat
and when and how or even never.

But most of them
don’t seem to like
themselves either

anymore.

 

OPPOSITES

Beck’s always there at synagogue
where we giggle and talk
when Hebrew School’s over.

We find a cozy couch
and I tell her about my solo –
she’s so proud of me.

We’re eye to eye
in height and friendship
but when we high-five
her little hand whacks half of mine.

We laugh about her shoes
fitting into mine.
Her body isn’t changing yet.
She wishes it would.

 

BECK’S ADVICE

I ask Beck
who knows me inside out

Do you think
I’m getting fat?

You’re regular, Reeni,
says Beck, and shrugs.

I say, I don’t look
like a ballerina.

Beck smiles and says,
You dance like one.

 

INSIDE

Thursday April 19, 38 days

In class on Thursday I can’t help
wondering: will I grow up to look like Miss Allie?

She moves as softly
as water flows, and when I watch her my heart

dances with her –
it’s that powerful,

her dancing.
I wonder

why she was never
a star.

When I was four
I hid in her skirts

a rainbow wound around her legs
tucked up for moving.

She made a place for me at the barre
and touched my chin to lift it up

and said, You’re a dancer, dear,
I can see it inside.

 

OUTSIDE THE DOOR      

I show Miss Allie my solo so far
then go to change.

I hear some giggles
and then these words:

Reeni’s a little chubby
to be a swan.

It’s Sasha’s voice.
Then Dhara says,

Reeni’s the best
dancer in the school.

And how would you know?
You’re so skinny

a pencil would be fat
next to you.

Now I have to walk in
and pretend I didn’t hear.

 

THE WORD

It circles around me
like the cold wet wind
of Chicago in spring.

Chubby. Chubby. Chubby.

The word wraps and squeezes
l
ike a winter scarf
and hisses in my ears:

Chubby. Chubby. Chubby.

It breaks up and sounds like
fake word

CHUH. Bee.
Ch. Uh. Bee.
Chubby.

Chubby: now it sounds ugly.
And it’s about me.

 

NOT TODAY

There’s Mom grading papers.
S
he’s up from her chair to give me my hug

but I can’t hug today–I’ll be right back, I say
then I race up the stairs, lock my door behind me,

a huge pressing lump inside my throat.
There are the posters on my wall,

They’re old-time ballerinas a gift from Grandma:
I’ve studied their positions, arms, legs,

muscles, necks, faces, and arched, pointed toes.
I’ve pictured myself in a poster someday.

I always thought I’d look like them
when I grew up.

 

NEW PLAN

While Dad’s stirring soup
I search how to diet
on the computer
in the family room.

It’s written by someone
with a lot of initials
who says there’s a way
to lose weight fast.

Eat less, exercise more.
I don’t understand the calorie part.
Limit salt and starch.
Note to self: what is starch?

Oh my gosh, what can I eat?
Focus: fruits, veggies, egg whites, soy,
skinless chicken breasts and fish.
Nonfat dairy, very lean meat.

Then more instructions for the diet:
eat vegetables to feel full
                          More vegetables than I already eat?

drink lots of water
I already do.

get tempting foods out of the way
Don’t know what you mean.

stay busy
I already am.

eat from a plate
I already do.

don’t skip meals
I don’t skip meals.

write down what you eat
Okay.

make a note how you’re feeling
I already know: I feel hungry before I eat.

 

DINNER

Dinner is Dad’s steamy, spicy
tomato soup

perfect for cold and rainy
days,

creamy grilled cheese on crisp
brown bread

everything I shouldn’t
eat

I blurt out, I can’t eat
this stuff

I have to lose weight before
my solo.

Mom says your body’s changing,
you eat well, you dance every day

your body will take care of itself,
Reeni-beeni.

 

FRIDAY NIGHTS  

Mom’s roast chicken with carmelly carrots
and slithery onions
creamy-crunchy potatoes

and Dad’s homemade challah
baked every week
after cartoons meet the deadline.

The smells, the warmth
mix and surround me
with soon-to-be-Shabbat quiet

Mom lights the candles
I watch the flickering
Jules rushes in

and our heads bow together
to get Mom’s and Dad’s blessing
at sunset Friday night.

We’re not Orthodox
but we observe the Sabbath
each week, tonight and tomorrow.

We kiss each other and say
Shabbat Shalom
and no one notices

I leave my potatoes and challah
untouched on my plate.

 

NOT USUALLY

I usually don’t do homework on Shabbat
but tonight I write in my journal before bed:

now I understand what “tempting food” means:
those are the foods you’re not supposed to eat on
your diet

that you start thinking about
eating all the time.

 

CLIMBING OUT 

Monday April 23, 34 days

Sasha’s full of advice for me
cheering me on:

you’ll feel so much better
and be less shy.

And she says, besides
it’s not just about dancing

Thin gets you everything,
that’s what my Mom says.

The words feel like
some new language

I don’t understand
but also they feel

like a ladder out
of a hole I’m in

alone.

 

SHE SAYS, I SAY

Wednesday April 25, 32 days

When I tell Beck all about Sasha,
about wanting to change my shape and size

She says, that’s stupid.
She says, What do you think you’re doing?
She says, You better stop.

I say, you don’t get it.
I say, just leave me alone.

And when she does, alone eats up
all the space inside of me.

 

DIET, WEEK ONE 

Thursday April 26, 31 days

The only good thing is,

I feel as light
as a feather
and fly downstairs
to whirl my solo.
I’m hungry
but that doesn’t
matter right now
I feel a million times
better
just knowing I’m on a
diet.

I suck in
my stomach
and stare
in the mirror
my new breasts
still there
but I’m sure I
look thinner.

I’m sure.

 

TURNING

Sasha steps into the boureé turn
feet not pulled tight

her elbows out, her turns not whipped–
she spoils the line.

I’m in sous-sus, half-pointe, feet tight
and elbows in

I feel the rush and choose my “spot” –
Miss Allie’s smile,

My third time ‘round my whizzing head
spots Sasha there waiting

eyes right on me, I stumble, hop
then try to spin

the floor’s like water and I thud
off-balance now.

Miss Allie catches me and moves
me to the barre.

You can’t turn right when you don’t spot
right.

 

HALF                        

Sunday April 29, 28 days                   

I practice my solo on and off
I don’t remember how many times.

I want not to think about Beck or food
I want not to think about me in the mirror.

I try to get to the magical place
where I dance and dance and have no thoughts

but by the time I dip my curtsy
to the imaginary audience out there

I realize that half my brain
was thinking about what I could eat

and missing my time with my best friend—
we haven’t talked in such a long time.

 

TOO HUNGRY TO SLEEP

Every time I close my eyes
my stomach growls and keeps my brain awake.

Dinner was stir-fry. I didn’t have rice
and nobody noticed my one chunk of chicken.

I’m so empty, I’m out of bed in a quiet minute
and Jules’ bedroom light shines under her door.

Down the staircase two steps at a time
but softly, toe-touch, heel-light into the kitchen.

The fridge hums to me. I pull the door
and a package of cheese seems the perfect thing.

One slice. Then Sasha’s voice: don’t eat that stuff –
It’s fat! Resist! Resist!

 

A LIE LIKE A SANDWICH

Don’t skimp on lunch, Mom says.
I won’t! I turn my face away

and hide my sandwich from her view,
a hollowed out bagel cut in half

a slice of turkey so thin it’s in pieces.
With fumbling hands and a pummeling heart

I wrap the thing and stuff it away.
My lie like my sandwich

will never satisfy and leaves
Mom’s eyes asking for more.

 

MATH IN EVERYDAY LIFE 

Wednesday May 2, 25 days

Mr. Avery’s talking about
least common multiples

and how math can be useful
in everyday life

It’s true: I spend my time
adding calories for the cheese I sneak

subtracting weight I think I’ve gained
from what I thought I lost

multiplying lies
I’ve told Mom and Dad

dividing days left
into diet and dance.

One still seems strange,
and the other used to be heaven.

 

CAN’T DANCE

Too tired.

Pliés hurt.

Arms flop.

Turns jiggle.

Miss Allie scolds

then apologizes.

Reeni, are you sick?

I’m worried about you.

I’ll call your mom to let her know.

I tell her no, that I’m okay –

just tired from homework,

too much math.

 

TICKETS!  

Thursday May 17, 10 days

Mom’s late –
Was there a meeting at school? –
but her hands reach tickets out to me.

They’re for Swan Lake
for you and me.
A New York company, Tuesday night.

I can’t believe it.
We’ve never been
to a fancy ballet in downtown Chicago.

I’m bubbling
bursting
flying sitting down!

 

AUDITORIUM  

Tuesday May 22, 5 days

I’ve never seen a place so grand
with ceilings several stories high
and crystal lighting shooting rainbows
golden trim around the walls.

No wonder Mom said to wear my best,
the blue silk dress with jacket to match,
synagogue shoes and a blue-green pashmina
Mom bought to match my eyes and dress.

Mom squeezes my hand and slides her arm
around my shoulder while we move through the crowd.
It’s hard to stay mad when I’m with her like this.
We wind our way around small groups.

I notice pink tights on some of the girls
as if they’ve just come from ballet class
and want us to know they’re special somehow.
I can’t help noticing that they’re thin.

 

INSIDE

The stage and walls shimmer
with blues, greens, aquamarines
as if we are in water.

Lush with deep glimmers
dark shadows surround us
tucked into our velvety seats.

I know the story, the curse of the princess
becoming Odette, the beautiful swan.
To break the curse she needs undying love.

Mom chatters to me about the stars,
Here’s a picture of the ballerina dancing Odette.
I only half-listen, tighten my pashmina.

Lights darken, mystery settles, the music begins.
The Sorcerer’s behind the curtain
and a shadow princess becomes a swan!

The Sorcerer brings the swan onstage –
its huge wings open. It tries to fly.
I grab the edges of my seat as the Sorcerer disappears.

The curtain rises!

 

OH!

My heart leaps out anyway and whirls onstage.
Oh, the costumes! the greens and the purples
and blues

split in front so the whirling shows legs and
pointe shoes
and leaves room for leaps, kicks and arabesques.

Oh, the music, and the twirling
twirling
twirling!

 

WHAT I SEE

Then something grabs my eyes,
forcing them toward the bodices
above the whirling skirts.

One, then another, ten and twenty,
and suddenly all I see
is the upper half of ballerinas

flat and hard, straight across,
no breasts, tiny waists, strong
arms and shoulder to shoulder bone.

My breath sounds fast –
my eyes zig-zag from one
to the other, looking and looking

for signs of roundness anywhere
breasts, thighs, anything.
All I see is no one like me.

And the screams in my head
are louder
than music.

 

NEVER

Silent on the car, then stomping, slamming
to my room, locking myself inside.

I rip my clothes off, grab my flesh,
hiss, I wish I could cut you off!
I scream at the mirror I hate you!

I poke and pinch and push
at bulges

pound, pound, punch.

I hurt myself, I hate myself, squeeze flesh
’til I leave marks all over,
then I wrap myself inside a robe and collapse

in the corner, sobbing, sobbing.
Reeni, we love you, please open the door.
They call in again and again, jiggle the lock

again and again, but I can’t answer.
The ballerinas on my wall look down and laugh.
You’ll never be like us.

Never. Never. Never.

 

NOT ASLEEP

They leave me alone when I say I’m asleep
and promise I’ll come out in the morning for school.
But I wait for the quiet, tiptoe down the stairs.

Refrigerator open, air cooling my face.
Pulling out leftovers from Shabbat,
casserole into the microwave,

opening the door before the timer dings
burning myself with the steam pouring out,
pot roast hot and tender, juice dripping from my fingers.

Carrots, onions, potatoes and meat –
scooping it straight from the casserole
into the empty cavern of me.

I slump, sickened with too much food
and Sasha’s warning voice
and with knowing she’s right:

I can’t dance the way I am.
And there’s not enough food in the world
to take that away.

 

BROKEN

Mom’s voice outside presses in through the door,
soft and warm. I roll away and let her in

and she drops to the floor to crumple me gently
in her hugging arms.

I cuddle close. I can’t dance anymore.
I cough out the words. I’ll never be thin.

Mom wipes my face, my hair. She’s crying now.
No! She’s mad, but not at me.

No, no, no, no, Reeni!
She holds my face between her hands

and I can’t escape her eyes.
I won’t let you do this to yourself.

She holds me tighter, then I pull away
and find the place in her lap

that’s always been mine, and sob ‘til I sleep
Mom’s hand soft on my head.

But even her hand can’t find all the hurt
and the broken pieces inside me.

 

HOW MUCH I LOST ON MY DIET

Wednesday May 23

Mom and Dad trusting me,

my best friend,

and my ballerina dream:

these are what I’ve lost

instead of weight.

 

THOSE BLUE EYES

After school I run to Miss Allie’s house.
The little kids bounce out from movement class.
One girl’s dressed in pink and black, I bet
already dreaming about spotlights and applause.

Miss Allie’s blue eyes find mine and ask
What’s wrong? I can’t.
Can’t say.
After the silence, when I do, I tell the truth –

about feeling scared, then fat,
about Sasha and my diet
about Swan Lake and flat chests
and never being the right size for a ballerina.

When I say I’m quitting she steps away
her hand still holding mine
and says things about don’t and can’t and shouldn’t
and how I should let myself be special

but all I can feel is the hurt in my throat
and I pull away and run because
those blue eyes stare and I can’t stand
the sadness.

 

NO MORE DAYS                 

No more days for me,
no more waiting, no more diet
no more being afraid of my solo.

Instead of dancing I remember dancing
when it was like taking deep breaths
of clear mountain air.

Once on vacation
we stopped by a field
high up where our ears popped.

The field was flat
like a rest between mountains
with a pine forest at the far side.

The air gushed through me
and my deep breaths came fast
and faster as I ran for the trees.

Dad said he couldn’t believe
how I’d run without stopping
in that thin mountain air.

But I did it – I loved it.
Dancing used to be that way,
almost flying.

 

AFTER

At dinner tonight
I tell Mom and Dad, I’m sorry I lied

Jules watches me without saying a thing.
Dad says, Reeni I’m proud of you.

I feel better now
but I don’t feel right.

 

NO CHOICE

Mom says she’s taking me somewhere tonight –
that I don’t have a choice, and she’s smiling.

But I’m sick to my stomach when I see tickets
on the seat of the car that say DANCE!

 

DANCE!

Wider than the opera house,
not elegant, but chocolate-colored walls
instead of gold and velvet.

I’m cozy and warm in jeans and sweater.
The stage is right here,
up close.

No glowing blues, greens and purples.
No lake, no swan,
No orchestra.

High school kids and families
settle into seats and it’s noisy
until the lights dim down.

The music’s not Tchaikovsky
but it’s music all the same,
rap and pop and folk and blues.

Group after group of girls and some boys,
all sizes of kids in dance after dance
slithering, tapping, leaping across the stage.

Ballet, modern, Irish, jazzy
and I can’t help it – I bounce and sway.
I’m in the music, and the music’s in me.

 

JULES TELLS ME

That night I tell Jules all the things I’ve wanted to say

about bodies and ballet
about me and my solo.

She talks about girls in high school she knows
who diet and binge, or who starve themselves thin.

But she tells me Mom’s right,
that my body is just the right size for me.

I can’t say what you saw in Swan Lake isn’t real –
but if you’re a dancer, how can you not dance?

 

NOT SURE

I wish I knew the answer.
Mom says questions are part of growing up.

If I am a dancer, how can I not dance?
And if I am a friend…what should I do?

I decide to call Beck and apologize,
say she was right and I was wrong.

My hands are sweaty and shaking
but when Beck says, I really missed you

it’s all worth it and we plan
to meet on Shabbat.

I am braver
than I thought.

 

SHE SAYS YES

I call Miss Allie, ask what she thinks:

Yes, she says, your name’s on the program.

Yes, she says, I’m sure you can do it.

Yes, she says, I know you’re still scared.

 

BACKBEND WITHOUT HANDS  

Sunday May 27

Before I dance, before I’m on,
she stands in front of me
face to face.

My hand is right here,
and she circles it around
just an inch

away from the catching place,
and I bend, arch back,
and she taps, taps lightly.

Her deep voice reminds me,
I’m here, right here,
and my head leads the way.

In an arc, my hair, eyes, nose, mouth
continue downward, backward
upside down.

And in the safety of her circle
I forget chubby, forget ugly.
I’m Reeni again,

arching backward, then up again,
gently, gently with a guidance
never touching, always safe.

 

STAR 

Darkening stage, the audience softens
and curtains open. The spotlight glows,

carving a space for me, for my solo.
It took me this long time to know

I don’t need to be thinner.
I need to be brave.

One breath, and I dance. Brave,
light overflowing like a shooting star

streaking above, sparkling itself
into fingers and toes, hands and feet

shining bits of me all around
into the far corners of the sky.
THE END 

Finding A Prince: Illustrations

 

Editor’s Note: The illustrations in the online LOVE issue of Hunger Mountain (June 2015) are all details from Anca Sandu’s manuscript “Finding a Prince.” We learned about Anca Sandu’s work through the Katherine Paterson Prize. A picture book manuscript called “Emmeline,” written by Caroline Nastro and illustrated by Anca Sandu, was a finalist in 2013. We never forgot the charm of that story, and when we were looking for artwork for the LOVE issue, we reached out to Anca and Caroline.

Anca and Caroline are currently collaborating together on several picture books, including “Princesses Don’t Eat Peas,” a story inspired by Anca’s “Finding a Prince” illustrations.


“Princesses don’t eat peas! Princesses don’t clean their rooms! Princesses don’t help their little brother! I need a new dress and a new tiara, and I want to move to England!” –from “Princesses Don’t Eat Peas” by Caroline Nastro

Snapshot: Siam Commercial Bank in Bangkok is Celebrating Life’s Firsts

Hunger Mountain Roving Editor, Donald Quist, snapped these photos of Siam Commercial Bank’s ad campaign celebrating life’s firsts.

By the Light of the April Full Moon: an Abandoned Beginning

A.S. King

Sometimes a great opening never becomes a novel–even for an award-winning author. A.S. King was kind enough to share one beautiful beginning that never bloomed into a book.

firstkissdetail6

By the Light of the April Full Moon

Lillian Hinnershitz sauntered down the blacktop wearing nothing but a cotton nightshirt and a pair of dull-green foamy slippers that were four sizes too big. If you listened closely enough, you could hear her humming softly to herself.

At Spring Street, she ran into Gerald Moore. He lived at the same nursing home as Lillian, but she wouldn’t know that because Lily lived in her own world now, since 2005 when she had her second stroke. Gerald was in a striped flannel Sears pajama set, complete with a green button-down cardigan sweater and tartan slippers.

When they collided, time stopped.

He said, “Here. You must be cold. Take my sweater.”

“Thank you,” she said, stopping to fit the cardigan over her shoulders.

“Was a nice night for a walk, wasn’t it?”

“I miss the birds, though.”

“I think I’m in love with you,” Gerald said, not looking up from the pavement.

“I think I’m in love with you, too.”

“Let’s get married.”

Lily squeezed his hand. “And have a baby.”

And so began Lily and Gerald’s journey backward through time.

?

It was a small and simple ceremony. Gerald wore his tartan slippers and Lily went barefoot.

Fred Heller, in room 114, was still a pastor, so Gerald dragged him from his room at six in the morning and sent him to the activity room with a cup of decaffeinated tea. Lily found Erma Gilbert, who played piano during chapel services when she wasn’t scratching her severe eczema, and got her to come along to witness. Before the seven o’clock breakfast round up, they were married. Nurse Dora was so touched she picked a handful of daffodils from the over-mulched flowerbed at the home’s entranceway for a bouquet. She turned to the aide and said, “How cute is that? They get old and do like kids do at recess.”

At breakfast, Lily looked around and noticed how many people she didn’t know. She felt as if she had just pulled herself out of a gray fog and onto a movie set she’d never seen before. She took off her glasses and nothing appeared blurry. Also, her knees did not ache for the first time in twenty years.

They skipped afternoon activity time in order to consummate their marriage. Neither of them had made love since the first Bush presidency and when they finished, they collapsed into the adjustable bed, curled in each others’ arms, and fell into a sweaty, love-induced sleep.

It was when they awoke, the trouble began.

loveatfirstsight

First Fish

1967. A Connecticut prep school boy with a new driver’s license and an Ozzie & Harriet haircut. Never been to a rock concert. My cousin, an undergraduate at Yale, had started out organizing and producing folk concerts there, had since branched into rock. Very good bands were available then for not a lot of money. Tom had already pulled in Jefferson Airplane and Cream.

Tom needed ushers for Country Joe and the Fish, who would play at a crumbling music hall in a neighborhood seedy even for New Haven. I recruited some buddies—same prep school, same haircuts, and we decided to wear blazers and ties, fercrhissake—and we drove from Hartford packed into Mom’s Chevy Corvair. My girlfriend, my first true love, came too.

It was wicked cool to be part of the production team at this event. In every other respect we could not have been less cool, more geometrically square, more antithetical in appearance to all this concert represented. The first patron I assisted looked like Samuel Johnson, the 18th-century man of letters, complete with wig, except it wasn’t a wig. The next looked like Jigger Johnson, lumberjack. Then came Jeremiah Johnson, mountain man.

The air was already sweet with pot. Jeremiah took back his ticket stub, eased his buck-skinned bulk into a fifth-row seat, looked at his usher the way the Wampanoags must have looked at the Pilgrims. “You’re not from around here, are you, man?”

I couldn’t have ached more to be where he was from. The Fish came on. If you listen close enough to “Section 43,” you can hear the beating heart of God. The first time is still the best.

My girlfriend came from up the coast, from East Lyme, and Lynn’s mother wanted her home by ten. She and I left in the middle of “Bass Strings”—I believe I’ll go out to the seashore, let the waves wash my mind/ Open up my head now just to see what I can find—it felt like coitus interruptus (as if I knew what that felt like then).

By the time I got back to pick up the other ushers, the concert was over. They were scuffling around in front of a dark building, glad not to have gotten mugged yet. It was all just beginning.

firstlinedetail

First Bram

When I brought the book home from the library, I didn’t know I was coming down with simultaneous measles and mumps–or that there was no better way to read Dracula for the first time. Hallucinatory fever dreams, the taste of blood in my mouth, the smell of mildew from the old volume’s pages….I was nine years old, too weak to resist as Bram Stoker’s Undead hovered over my sickbed, very much alive.

I did identify with him. For a period of time after reading the book, I began to sign my name Diane Draculefer. Fourth-grade teacher was not amused.

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First Flannery

The first time I read Flannery O’Connor’s story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” I was in college and it scared the shit out of me. I was taking a class called “Short Stories” and we were assigned the collection A Good Man Is Hard to Find. I trudged up to my attic bedroom to read the title story for class the next morning and was surprised by how funny the story was—the grandmother is ironic, unreliable, and sociopathic–and even more surprised by the lightning-quick change in tone, that a short story (a homework assignment!) could feature the systematic execution of an innocent family, little baby included. My plan had been to read this story then fall asleep, but I paced around my house for several hours, too afraid of the Misfit to turn out the lights, too excited about what writing could be to not read the story again.

First Elk Bugle

I was five or six the first time I had the living daylights scared out of me by the bugling of elk. We were high up in the Rocky Mountains, lost in the deep-sea darkness of the wilderness at night, and I was perched on the roof of my parents’ car. My mom had wrapped me in a flannel blanket and set me there to see what I could see—and what I could sort of maybe see through the blackness, and what I could most definitely hear, had me equal parts terrified and rapt.

We lived in Boulder, 2,000 feet of elevation away from Rocky Mountain National Park. As a kid, trips to the mountains seemed long to the point of being inhumane. I measured the drive in the number of episodes of Full House I could’ve instead been watching. Despite my protestations, we made the trek to the park almost every weekend. I hiked, looked for bighorn, and collected creek water samples in empty Tic Tac containers. The lake I’d declared my own, with my beach, was just around the bend from where we waited that night for elk.

But that place, the moraine of our vigil, felt weird and unfamiliar at night. We were lined up with a number of others across from a stand of aspen, a known hotspot for elk dating. Family friends were a car away, but there was enough darkness between us and the others for me to feel completely at sea. Adding to my anxiety were the highlights I’d latched onto from a horror novel my Dad had kindly synopsized for me on a previous nature expedition—he took a particular Dad kind of pleasure in telling me about a breed of demon that disguised itself as bits of shredded tire along highways. Even if my parents hadn’t propped me and my thermos of goulash up on the roof, I would never set foot on that meadow.

From where I sat, the elk looked like black afterimages, the not-quite-real signs of something moving. What was real and immediate were their calls—the distorted, netherworldly gargle of sound that passes, if you’re an elk, as a love song—and the smack of antlers. My mom waded into the grass just away from the car, and I held that thermos of goulash tighter. I was two Full Houses away from home, at night, without light, in a valley boxed in by mountains. There was enough scariness out there beyond the car for me to relish where I was, snuggled in the blanket that later saw my dad through a blizzard-bound night on the floor of an A&W. I sensed that I was right to be unnerved. There was the wild and there was I, a little precarious on the roof. But I had, too, a feeling of comfort and thrill at the dark, of being safe at the edge of the world.

First Time with Charlotte: New York City, circa 1996

This was not, strictly speaking, my first time. I had done it now and again with the famous one, Charles, and a posse of anonymous theatrical types. Every one of our hook-ups, if you want to call them that, as alien and lovely as Victorian horsehair upholstery against bare legs. There was always that papery feel of aged skin under my fingers and a lingering scent of the last century, which sometimes made me sneeze, even at the apex of my joy.

I gave myself to famous Charles and the nameless others, because I desired intimacy with them and their brief period in the long stretch of this world.

So this was not my first time, but it was my first time with her—with Charlotte. It was not her first time absorbing the impact of an untimely death—she had done that now and again, in those anguished moments when her family at Haworth grew smaller. This day, I held her yellowed letter in tentative hands and willed my nose not to bleed, as had happened once before in London during an encounter with some deceased playwright and his ragged scrawl.

“Emily is dead,” she told her friend Ellen Nussey, in tight, faded script on a sheet of paper that had not, by 1996, weathered the years very well. It was my first time with Charlotte, and my virgin pleasure was shattered by those three hard words at the mid-point of her letter. I was the luckiest woman in the world that day, a world of riches mine for the asking.  And also, like Charlotte on the day she wrote her tiny sentence about a sister gone like a dream, I was the most bereft.

It was the first time I wept soundlessly in an archive, wetting my cheeks and my hands but not the precious letter, which I pushed away in the nick of time.

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