Search results: “star in the East”

A feast of small proportions

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can hardly be called a feast. More of a delicacy. But even that fails
++++++++++to describe the meager plates of meat set out on the long, dark oak.
The room glowed. From its corners, thorned branches

bloomed, and momentarily I was confused.
In my hand a clean fork, then my keys, then a snapped antenna
picked from the curb on a night-walk.
++++++++++All meal long, the brain tucked in its dome and the heart cubed,

presented on six white plates. The meat, almost raw, slid around,
and I grabbed one. I brought it to my mouth. Everything went metallic.
I ate and ate for I was starving; my hipbones tipped their empty bowls.
My hand pressed to my chest then curled into itself

++++++++++like the slowed shimmering legs
of a dying cockroach. But the heart, how delicate!
How marbled in the candlelight like a rotting honeycomb!

The head called for it as if it were a poem.
++++++++++The heart is filling, even when small.
Especially when. I finished and felt like the earth

resided in my stomach. Like if I moved it would come pouring out
in the form of an entire hive, in the height of spring when the field is set

++++++++++with hundreds of little feasts. Blossoms opened, glowing
like a body when the heart has been taken by another—licked until tender.


Brian Clifton

Poetry We Admire: Light

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For our December Poetry We Admire, we’ve curated some of the best recently published poems out there around the theme of “Light.”

This is the time of year when the days keep getting shorter and darker until the solstice finally arrives and the light begins ever so slowly its return. Light, and the return of it, is symbolic in myriad religious and cultural celebrations during the season. In addition to the winter solstice, there is the star that guided the shepherds by night in Bethlehem to witness the birth of Christ and brightly colored Christmas lights on houses and in trees. There is the lighting of the Hanukkah menorah, and fireworks and diyas during Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights.

This month we feature light-bringing poems from Salamander, Ice Floe Press, Black Bough Poetry, Raw Art Review, The Shore, and Rattle.

Drink in some winter moonlight. Let it shine.


 

 

For a long time I wanted

            to drink a cup of winter,

                      to become tipsy on early

                               dark & longer starshine.

 The thinning light

             my favorite ether.

 

from “Portent with Moonset & Blackbirds”

by Kelly Cressio-Moeller in Salamander

I love how this poem captures the full scope of the season’s moods, starting with its romanticism and wonder, moving through loss, then surrender to the darkness and uncertainty, and finally the  hope of new light. The whole poem and especially the line “I’m only a woman who con- / tinues to bury her dead” with the surprising line break in the middle of the word “continues” viscerally and rather brilliantly illustrates the particular surreal dissonance of grief when a loved one dies but the world and your life must continue, however broken. The speaker went to bed “feeling hope- / less & profoundly lonely” (another line break mid-word), but in the “morning’s early darkness” she woke to the soothing and “bewitching light” of the “fullest moon” poured into the “small bowls” of the room, and she “drank & drank.”


 

 

    my stomach is full with the

excesses of leaving & staying.

does it matter what we call a thing— the safety of shadows & how the ocean is a

safe place to begin. home is a ripe avocado on my tongue: sometimes darkness

offers you light.

i can’t afford to think like the moon—                     

 

from “Autumn Leaves”

by Ojo Taiye in IceFloe Press

Taiye is a young Nigerian poet and he’s definitely someone to watch. (Of note, his Twitter tag is “wild light.”) You will see why when you read his four wonderful poems in IceFloe Press. In his poem “Autumn Leaves,” Taiye gives us this memorable line: “forgive me i can’t repair my beginning— a body agonized by light in a bevel world /without a plot.” As he says, sometimes the darkness, the vast ocean, and the “safety of shadows” is its own kind of light.

Oh, and I should mention that Taiye won the 2019 Kingdoms in the Wild Poetry Prize for his chapbook All of Us Are Birds and Some of Us Have Broken Wings– available now!


 

 

Wolf-moon-light

 blooms in the dawn-dusk sky

 

from “The Star in the East”

by Iris Anne Lewis in Black Bough Poetry

The Winter/Christmas issue of Black Bough Poetry is a goldmine of poems about light. I admire this sturdy micropoem with its creative use of hyphenation/compounding to describe the winter sky and how the East Star looms, a bright light always present but hidden beyond the horizon. The way Lewis ends the poem by describing the star as shining “ox-blood-bright” simultaneously brings to mind pagan ritual and the ox and lambs beside the Christ child in the  crèche. This poem is so lovely and compact, yet somehow all-encompassing.


 

 

 you sliced up oranges, baked them hard

  until the house was scented with orange oil

  and they shone like stained glass

  among the fairy lights

 

from “Ornaments”

by Lucy Whitehead in Black Bough Poetry

In her poem, “Ornaments,” Whitehead recalls a winter when “we’d been evicted and you were let go.” With no ornaments for the Christmas tree, the poem’s “you” sliced oranges and baked them into baubles to decorate the tree, along with “a gingerbread family with icing smiles.” I  love how the narrator describes the way the gingerbread bodies were “strapped to the branches with satin ribbons” and looked like “people who’d lost their parachutes.” Perfect and profound.


 

 

Rough-strewn straw

doused with dense, lacquered black paint

splash of blood red

some ash

field aflame with white-yellow branches

wall of hair on fire

menorah, crematorium

To heap; to weld; to twist; to scorch

 

from “Shroud with Lead Wing”

by Heather Quinn in Raw Art Review

Quinn’s poem is a beautiful collage of metaphor and memory, an expression of trans-generational grief, and a powerful meditation on darkness and light. After the Tree of Life Synagogue massacre which occurred in the speaker’s hometown, she “walked one thousand steps / to the local temple / for a yahrzeit candle” and prepared to make her Grandma Irene’s beef stock from “cow knuckles, oxtail, marrow bones.” Then she visited the art gallery where she “received /Anselm Keifer’s paintings / like prayers,” paintings fashioned “on coarse linen / each work a shroud for the dead.” The poem shows how the speaker chose to respond to tragedy and its “impossible weight.” She made her grandmother’s bone broth, created and received art, and lit candles in remembrance of the dead. And as she and her beloved dip their “pinky fingers in the melting wax,” outside the “stars shimmer like ghosts.”


 

 

And what of your window?—where

the light fails me entirely, where

you read these lines

despite this failing. Friend:

let us tie each frayed photon

into a new, far-reaching braid.

Light needs such quiet, gentle work.

 

from “An Invitation to Light”

by Benjamin Cutler in The Shore

Another poet to watch is Benjamin Cutler, who has multiple Pushcart Prize nominations this year. His first full-length poetry collection, THE GEESE WHO MIGHT BE GODS, is available now from Main Street Rag Publishing Company. In his poem, “An Invitation to Light,” Cutler asks, “What is distance but a failure of light?” He describes “the third and fourth folds /

of mountain: how they pale / like lips bruised blue with need / of breath.” The poem is replete with gorgeous imagery. The narrator intimately addresses the reader as “friend” and invites us to share in creating a stronger braid of light so that we might together extend its reach.


 

 

You should know that the circus is holographic now—

whips are muted beams of light, the elephants,

like holy ghosts

 

from “Letter to My Mother, One Year After Her Death”

by Megan Merchant in Rattle

This poem is a moving and eloquent, imagery-laden exploration of how grief can sharpen you, how after a great loss the show must go on, but it will be different than before. The extended metaphor of the holographic circus is brilliantly handled and richly layered with images of light, grief, memory, loss, and longing. Merchant writes, “I’ve looked for you as leftover moon, on burnt toast, /in the wilting of leaves that hold a keyhole of light, / but mostly I pause for ravens that sling like a lasso / between the trees, anything that makes me feel alive.”


 

 

We dread the dark here, though

there’s light from some lampposts

and maple leaves reminiscing

how brilliant they were before

they dried and thickened in our gutters.

I miss what is lit from within.

 

from “Advent on South Hill”

by Abby E. Murray in Rattle

Sunday’s Poets Respond selection from Rattle has the speaker “walking the loop” of her neighborhood during Advent when she “can’t tell if the sun / is technically up or gone.” It’s the time of year where we are all waiting for the light, when even the “finches ditch what dazzles us / in favor of feathers grown solely / to keep them alive, a coat / the color of waiting, of slush,/

of sleeping and waking and pacing.” In her accompanying artist’s statement, I love how Murray says, “Light, like poetry, is something we can carry and wear like armor.”

As we wait for the light to return, let’s all try to remember “what is lit from within.”

Peace.


Kim Harvey

If These Covers Could Talk #1

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In If These Covers Could Talk, poets interview the visual artists whose works grace their book covers. The result is an engaging discussion of process, vision, and projects.  If These Covers Could Talk is a celebration of collaboration—here, we champion the fruitful conversations taking place both on and behind the cover.


A Conversation Between Poet Alan Chazaro and Painter Francisco Palomares 


 

AC: I love connecting with other creators and learning about their processes. What are your thoughts about building relationships with artists from different mediums?

FP: It’s always good to diversify mediums. I love watching rappers and hip-hop artists specifically. I watch a lot of interviews and videos from artists like that and it informs my art. The other day, I was watching this old-school video of Outkast just creating music in a basement, working on their stuff, and collab-ing with all sorts of producers and music engineers. It made me realize how hip-hop lends itself so perfectly to collaboration. The visual arts kind of lack that ability to branch out to different genres sometimes. It’s a very solitary thing. But that’s why it’s good to work with writers and expand in new directions with others.

AC: Outkast is a great example of collaborative artistry. Can you tell us about what you do and who you are in one sentence?

FP: I’m an East LA visual artist, a sort of cultural anthropologist and documentarian who uses visual language, primarily through drawing and painting, to communicate myself with others.

AC: That’s the best one-sentence intro I’ve ever heard! I want to ask you about Piñata Theory. When I wrote it, I was thinking about fragility, socioeconomic and racial violences, breakages, regathering, and the brutal tension of it all. But what does Piñata Theory, as a concept, mean to you as a Mexican American?

FP: I feel like it’s exposure to a history and contemporary life of being Mexican American coming from immigrant families. It’s like viewing the life of people like us and those who are around us, what made us. Some things can seem stereotypical about our culture. There are certain trends. The uncles who drink too much, or the aunt who laughs too loud. To me, a piñata theory could be a look into that life, because it’s true. In my case, particularly as a man coming up as Mexican American, it’s about looking at what made us, entering that world, relating to it, and finding words you didn’t have before hidden inside. 

Piñata Theory by Alan Chazaro (Black Lawrence Press)

AC: Even though we hadn’t met before this book, I intentionally selected you and your artwork with the support of my press (Black Lawrence) because your style personally resonated with me. I’m glad our visions aligned! Are there any other collabs or projects that you have completed recently or are working on at the moment?

FP: My first collabs were live painting events. I would kind of be promoting a brand, especially beer companies at their events. That was cool (laughs). But to be honest, collaborations have kind of escaped me. As a visual artist, it can be very solitary. During the process of painting, for me in particular, I’m in my own mind, my own thoughts. I work alone in my studio. 

The book cover had actually been my main collaboration up to that date. After that, I’ve actually done a few more. The biggest one was a grant I received through the city to bring attention to COVID in El Monte. I would make artwork in the area to create conversations about safety and health. I got to collaborate with an entire city and not just a person. It wasn’t always as good as it sounds, though. There was lots of paperwork and logistics to manage (laugh). It’s daunting in a way. But it was a good entry into another world and an opportunity to share my work with a new, public audience.

AC: That’s baller. Often, Latinx authors and artists don’t get a say about how we’re being represented in media and culture, and our identities can be misconstrued, culturally exploited, or turned one-dimensional. How does that inform your art?

FP: There’s a disconnect within who gets to explain the narrative of a culture to an audience. Nowadays, there is more inclusion, but overall it’s overwhelmingly still white people documenting the history of another group. I’m one individual in a room of different creatives and professionals. Even though that isn’t the only solution, our presence matters [in those situations]. Getting a chance to tell our stories, straight from the source, is important.

AC: Speaking of the source, you grew up in East LA, one of the most recognized hubs of Mexican American cultura. What was that like? Who influenced you? How does your upbringing and community get reflected in your visual artwork?

FP: Growing up in East Los Angeles has played a huge part in who I am. My dad passed away when I was four, so it was basically me and my mom for most of my childhood. Being in East LA, it sounds stereotypical, looking for older male figures. I was looking for that and kind of found it through baseball, actually. I lived near a park where my school was. I connected with my community there. Since my immediate family was very small, it gave me something to do and allowed me to learn more about being Mexican American, the culture, and our traditions. 

As I got older, the park became a hub for social movements. I found mentors that were active in the Chicano Movement. For me it was like going to college or something like that. I got to know the history, politics and media of being Chicano. That’s how I discovered – how I keep discovering – what it means to be Chicano from East LA. It’s been organic but I’ve also had to research at times, even though the resources were always there in different aspects of the community. In high school, for example, I heard about this retreat for Chicano students and I wasn’t even invited to it, but I went and spoke to the teacher organizing it and they brought me along. It was called CYLC, Chicano Youth Leadership Conference. We had public speakers, artists, and other professionals connect with us. It was an early example of the possibilities and pride about coming from where we do. Sal Castro was there, too, and he led some walkouts in the 70s. I got to personally chat with him. To me, this is East LA. Being able to discover. My narrative about this neighborhood is not traditional. People think of it as low income, impoverished, gang-infested, or the wild west. I didn’t grow up seeing that. Mine is a community of acceptance. It was positive for me. I like to show that and how it built my identity. My artwork is a way of showing that. That’s why I say I’m a part-time cultural anthropologist and documentarian. 

East LA can become so common and traditional to those of us from here and we can forget how unique it actually is for people from all over the world. I try to capture that. It comes out in the colors and the palettes I use. It’s vibrant and eccentric. The buildings are all related to what I saw, what I grew up around. Liquor stores, night clubs, restaurants. They just remind me of the area. It all might be gone some day. But if that happens, hopefully the artwork I made will become an image of that history.

AC: That’s deep. I know you do a lot for the community and are constantly engaging with others. Tell us about your fruit cart. I remember seeing it mentioned in the LA Times, by the way, congrats! For those who’ve never seen it, can you explain what it is and how that idea became a reality for you?

FP: My fruit cart is a mobile vending art gallery, installation, performance piece. I live paint, and that’s the performance aspect, being in front of a street audience. The idea is that I’m just like a street vendor slicing up fresh fruit; I’m doing the same, but with oil painting. In half an hour or less, I’ll paint you something to take home on the spot. That’s the idea behind it. 

But before that, it happened because I was just struggling to make a profit from art and needed to create revenue and methods of survival for myself as an artist in California. It came from just going to work every day at MoCA, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and getting off [Highway] 101. I would see people selling oranges off the exit of that freeway. It was such a unique hustle. Like, who just thought “I’ll grab produce and sell it on the street?” You might not see that everywhere, but in LA, that’s common. It then occurred to me that it would be kind of wild for me to stand on one of those corners and make fresh paintings of oranges and sell them for like $20. I could make the same amount of money from doing that all day as I would working at the museum. It was also near downtown, so it felt like a performance and commentary. It felt natural to me because I was always used to seeing street hustlers in my community, but for others, it must have not seemed normal. You never know how people will react to you in public. I had to think about presentation and how it fits into my artist portfolio, too. Was it just me trying to make a buck, something long-term, a day job, or more of an expression of my art in a new form?

Francisco’s Fresh Paintings, a public art installation piece

It all happened at a time when I wanted to make a change, and I left the country for a month. When I got back, a friend helped me find a cart. At first, the fruit carts were quoted at $500 to $1,000. It was expensive, but I saw it as an investment in my art career, so I went looking for one and ended up finding a much cheaper one and just touched it up. It was actually very inexpensive. I just started building it up and taking it out. When I first told my mom about it she was very supportive. She told me to turn it into my own art gallery. It was my own space to share my work with the public. Now people love it, and I’m the guy that people recognize as someone who was willing to do that. I’m currently taking a pause on it and working on other things. Maybe I’ll take it back out in the summer, who knows? It’s very laborious. That’s the performance aspect. It’s an insight into immigrant labor. Doing it day in and day out, no breaks. No regular access to restrooms. Things like that.

At some point, I’ll outgrow it and it will just be an installation about an East LA kid who wanted to make it.

AC: You paint images of queer folks, LA’s street scene, Mexico, and other social landscapes. You definitely represent many identities in your work and that’s dope. But you also have the piñata series, which appealed to me for obvious reasons. Describe one of your piñata paintings for us. What’s the process like to create one and why did you start painting them?

FP: Originally, I went to the piñata district and started searching for that one that stuck out. I wanted a burro or a caballo. One that stuck out to me with its colors and patterns. That was an interesting process. Going to the piñata district, searching through the piñata, and asking someone there to help me search. They were like, “a piñata is a piñata, what are you looking for?” Explaining what I was doing was very new to them (laughs). The piñata can all look identical in some ways. The French painter Marcel Duchamp actually used to say that any product was art once the artist touched it and declared it as a piece of artwork. He got a urinal once and put one in a museum installation as something he chose in order to make art. He went to a convention of ceramic toilets for that. There were hundreds and hundreds and he just picked that one. Then it became art. He had the vision and whatnot. It felt similar finding a piñata. Going to a warehouse of piñata and choosing the one that fits right, that says what I want it to say. 

My paintings are like a flash, a vision. I just had the image of the piñata in different forms. The understanding happens after I’ve done the painting. It’s just an eagerness to produce that image in my mind. I’ve painted a few piñata as pastel drawings, early on, and also in natural landscapes. I first tried using pages from an encyclopedia about Chicano history and painting on those but it just didn’t work. My studio was in Boyle Heights at the time, and I grew up around there, and there are just tons of murals around there. I was thinking about all of that, of negative space and floating air. That’s when I did the floating piñata. In reality, it’s just tissue paper, cardboard, glue. But when put together, it holds a lot of culture, significance to a whole community of people. Putting it on canvas, floating above me, it’s supposed to be a tribute to that.

AC: You also have the pinatas painted in rural, European landscapes. What’s that about?

FP: The landscapes are countrysides from Germany and Holland, and I just painted pinatas in that setting. I was thinking of paintings from the 1800s. They felt like something that could come alive, those traditional and classical oil paintings. I had received this education throughout my schooling— about European traditions—and here I was painting in Boyle Heights. I was curious if I could paint like a classical landscape painter would. So I envisioned the piñata in that space. It took about two years until it all made sense for me, just having conversations with other artists and letting it happen organically. It became a hybrid of my upbringing as a Mexican and my studies—it was always about European-based history. In college, at Long Beach, I always felt out of place, like one Latino amongst white people. The paintings were sort of a presentation of all those feelings. 

Also, there was lots of gentrification around that time. Some of them were brand new galleries, but other locals were very territorial about it. They would graffiti the new places. But I felt conflicted because I wanted to also be a part of the art scene and it felt closer. So painting piñatas in unusual settings kind of became how everything around me was changing. It suddenly becomes an elephant in the room. There was a Latino population already here. I became more proud of being a Chicano artist. At first, that felt negative in some ways, like cornering yourself into the Latino market which supposedly won’t pay artists. But when you think about Chicano politics, the messaging, it has changed. My generation actually got to go out of the neighborhood and access college. Chicano pride looks different now, and I think we can use humor and irony now to address it. I also tried to show that in some of my pinata paintings [by giving them cartoon character eyes]. There’s a lot to explore.

AC: There is. We could talk all day. Do you have any advice for other young, Latinx, POC, queer, or otherwise underrepresented folks out there who are curious about making a career as a visual artist?

FP: Get your education, go to college, and get involved with things outside of your medium. Things outside of your interests. Explore various aspects that call to you. That’s key for me, as a Latino. All of us should go to college, not as the exception. Even if you feel like you don’t need it, it’s a transformative experience. Then after that, it’s just about doing the work. It involves sacrifices, focusing on the craft, and sometimes it gets lonely as an artist—just being in front of the easel and making art, not worrying what others think. I have to continuously restate my goals and trust my gut when it comes to this. If I don’t do that, things don’t go as I had planned. Think about what specific things you need to do to accomplish all that. Then make it happen.

AC: What’s your next project?

FP: I’m going to Mexico to do open-air painting. I’m gonna check out the butterfly migration in rural areas. I like that slower pace. I’ll do some fun work, but no pressure to make sales or do anything specific with the artwork. It’ll be for ten days, just for myself. I found a spot and did some research since you need to hike into the mountains. I’m gonna go on my own and figure it out on the edge of Michoacán. There are a few spots, actually. I’m going to one that’s more distant from the main place, about a week before the tourist season really starts. It was just a coincidence of extra time I had and the timing of the migration season.

Homage to My Mothers, Francisco Palomares

 

 

Francisco Javier Palomares is an emerging contemporary artist based in East Los Angeles. Palomares draws upon his lived experiences combining elements of historical narratives and present-day social challenges. He is currently an associate artist educator at LA Commons where he directs a team of youth artists in the collection of community stories to create and prepare designs for printed banners.


Alan Chazaro

Alan Chazaro is the author of This Is Not a Frank Ocean Cover Album (Black Lawrence Press, 2019), Piñata Theory (Black Lawrence Press, 2020), and Notes from the Eastern Span of the Bay Bridge (Ghost City Press, 2021). He is a graduate of June Jordan’s Poetry for the People program at UC Berkeley and a former Lawrence Ferlinghetti Fellow at the University of San Francisco. He writes for SFGATE, KQED, Datebook, Okayplayer, 48 Hills, and other publications. @alan_chazaro

The Gallery of America

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“The Gallery of America” by Katie Hale is the winning poem for the 2021 Palette Poetry Prize, selected by guest judge Jericho Brown. We’re honored to share this thought-provoking poem as well as an interview with Katie about her work and process.

“This poem is amazing in its ability to speak to and through itself given its own history.  But there is much more than just syntactic technique going on in these lines of definite desperation.”  —Jericho Brown


The Gallery of America

The streets were paved with gum and flung cigarettes
and I needed to get out of the rain.

The promised rains were not falling. The heat in the city
was velvet, and the gallery pale and kept conditioned.

The gallery was warm, and the westerlies whetted
and cut to the quick. I presented my ticket at the desk

and the unsmiling man let me in. The bulbs were old-school
and golden, wistful as honey in winter; the walls

were cluttered with the burnished and the gilt.
There was ugliness, too, in the gallery, though the audioguide

steered me meticulously away. The stairwell flickered
and was difficult to climb. From the thresholds,

invigilators orbited like drones. Still, I was told
I belonged in the gallery,

though I was a curiosity and uncurated.
I trod mud on the marble but nobody asked me to leave. Later,

I was reading Rankine in the gallery café
where all the servers were black and the white punters

pretended not to notice, where none of us
paid our tabs, or offered to take our receipts,

where our mounting waste subsumed the bussing station.
This may have been part of the exhibition.

 

 


 

Interview with Katie Hale

by AT Hincapie 

AH: What was your initial motivation to write this poem? Might a visit to an actual art gallery have helped to inspire your “Gallery of America”?

KH: In 2019, I received a grant from Arts Council England to travel to the US, to research my poetry collection-in-progress. The collection tracks four hundred years of my family’s female history, from migration to the US, to return to the UK several centuries later – so I’d already been thinking a lot about heritage, and particularly about museums and galleries: about how they allow us to curate history, about how they’re often the result of philanthropic gestures derived from problematic wealth, and about what the role of the poet might be in responding to these spaces. All of this had been churning around my head for some time, but I didn’t yet know how to write about it, which I think is often the way with poems, at least for me – they sit somewhere below the surface for weeks, sometimes months or even years, till the right fishing hook comes along to bait them to the surface. For this poem, the right fishing hook was this grant-funded trip to New York, researching my family’s history using the collections at the New York Public Library. 

I’ve always loved libraries – they’re possibly some of the most democratic indoor spaces we have, with their availability of free resources, of so much accessible knowledge. Each morning, I would read in Bryant Park before the library opened, then head inside to begin the day’s research. At lunchtime, I would venture into one of the cafés across the street, and this was where the spark for the poem struck: in this chain café, within view of the library’s self-proclaimed beacon of democratic knowledge, here were so many of the US’s racial disparities and privileges being played out in a microcosm. This became the café at the end of the poem, lifted almost verbatim from my experience. From there, it was the disjuncture between what was deliberately on display, and what was simply ‘not hidden’, which provided the crack down which I pursued the rest of the poem.

 

AH: Though the speaker in the poem claims that “I was told I belong in the gallery,” they also admit that the audio guide leads them away from the ugliness in the gallery. What does this ugliness look like, and why would the guide try to steer patrons elsewhere?

KH: Over the past few years, the phrase ‘post-truth’ has entered common parlance. We live in a society where governments and companies and news channels work increasingly hard to present their own narratives, in which all ugliness (or at least, all of their own ugliness) is swept under the carpet (perhaps this has always been the case, but to me, it feels increasingly divisive). I’m speaking with the UK in mind here, but I also noticed it while flicking through news channels during that New York research trip: how language can be manipulated to present a particular narrative. 

In both the UK and the US, it’s easy to find narratives claiming that the country no longer has institutional racism, or gender inequality, or discrimination against LGBTQIA+ people – or, if these problems exist, it’s only because progress is slow, or because these things ‘take time,’ rather than taking real structural change. 

I think this is a measure of privilege: who has the option of turning away from ugly truths. I noticed this during the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, I’ve noticed it with responses to climate collapse during the recent COP26 summit, and I noticed it with the #MeToo movement, when people started leaving social media, giving themselves space away from these movements and conversations, as an act of self-care. Of course, the people who are most affected by these issues – by these uglinesses and the fights to overturn them – can’t just step away from them by taking a break from Twitter.

 

AH: You are also an accomplished novelist, and “My Name is Monster” has been translated into multiple languages. How might your narrative fiction contribute to your lyric poetry, or how do you see these different styles and genres overlapping in your writing?

KH: For years, I put off writing fiction. I had this naïve idea that writing in another genre would somehow make me less of a poet, as though poetry were this religious idealism that wouldn’t mix with other art forms. This sounds ridiculous to me now, but I think it was a form of imposter syndrome: a fear that my poetry would never be ‘good enough’ (good enough for what? I wasn’t sure) unless I shunned all other forms. 

Writing fiction has changed the landscape of my poetry. It’s helped me to think about all those fiction buzz-words, and to reapply them: setting, character, plot, ‘show don’t tell’, how information is withheld and then presented to a reader. At some point, I started to think of poems (or at least some poems) as illustrative scenes – like a tableau through which the reader is directed, or like one of those rides you used to get in museums, taking you through a replica Viking village with piped sounds and smells, its waxwork figures displayed in just the right positions to give you a glimpse into their lives. The poem becomes a journey, and so the poet’s job is to drag or coax or trick the reader along it. 

 

AH: You have won many honors and awards for your writing, including a residency as a MacDowell Fellow. For our readers and other emerging writers who may be thinking about this kind of thing in the future – how has this fellowship provided the dedicated time and space to focus on your work?

KH: There’s a great blog post by Amber Massie-Blomfield, written in her capacity as Writer in Residence at Gladstone’s Library in Wales, about how to read 22,000 books. The answer, she concludes, is by freeing up as much time as possible for reading, by getting other people to do the other life-work for you. In the blog post, she’s using this to talk about privilege, but it’s the same with residencies. One of the most wonderful things about the MacDowell Fellowship (and numerous other residencies, too), is how time seems to expand. Without the pressure of cooking or cleaning or dusting or doing the washing up, the days grow and grow, till you’ve swum so far into your creative work, you can no longer see all those emails and reminders and to-do lists lining up along the shore. 

I arrived at MacDowell off the back of those ten days researching in New York Public Library. With all that thought and research buzzing around my head, I holed up in my little cabin in the woods and wrote in a kind of frenzy, drafting perhaps a quarter of the collection in the space of three weeks. The residency was the perfect opportunity to tell myself (and everyone else through the much-needed form of the out-of-office reply) that I was available, briefly, for nothing but poetry. For those three weeks, I ate, slept, breathed, and swam in it. It was at MacDowell that I wrote the first draft of ‘The Gallery of America.’

 

AH: As a writer based in the UK, your work has reached an international audience of readers from different countries and cultures. How does this multicultural voice influence your writing – in your winning poem, “The Gallery of America”, or even in your pamphlets Breaking the Surface and Assembly Instructions?

KH: So much of the past five years has been spent researching my own family’s migration: from England and France to Virginia, and then across the US as far as Kansas, with other branches joining from Ireland, via India, before returning to the UK. 

I myself am from Cumbria, in the northwest of England, close to the Scottish border. From here, in that I was born here, I grew up here, and I still live here (in a house two doors from the one I grew up in). In Cumbria, we have a dialect word, ‘offcomer,’ which is used to describe someone who has moved to the county from elsewhere. But, because Cumbria is farm country, and because there are families who can trace their family’s connection to specific areas of field and fell over perhaps a thousand years, ‘offcomer’ status is something that is carried down at least two generations, sometimes more. Because my parents moved here from further south, I’m still classed as an offcomer. 

As a child, I hated this – it set me apart from my friends in the village – but as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to love my offcomer status. I’m both local and not local, on the inside and the outside, a part of the stream while also able to stand on the bank and watch it flow. The more I’ve uncovered of my family’s own migratory heritage, the more I’ve felt at home in this dualism: in the ability to belong, while also, as in the poem, to be ‘a curiosity, and uncurated.’ This sense of belonging, of course, is a privilege not extended to everyone, and something I’m highly conscious of in my poetry: how this dual heritage can shape my poetic voice and narrative interests, while also not shying away from the privileges granted to it (and to me) because of my whiteness, because of the history whiteness carries in the blood. 

Perhaps this was what I was asking all those years ago when I questioned whether my poetry would be ‘good enough’ – and if so, good enough for what? How (and whether) I can use my own multiculturalism, those feet on either side of the Atlantic, to disrupt the inherent whiteness in my own lyric voice. Whether or not my writing succeeds at this isn’t for me to judge – but I would like to say a huge thank you to Palette Poetry for the support of this poem, and particularly to Jericho Brown, for selecting it as the winner. May the words continue to disrupt their own narrative. 

 

 

 


Katie Hale

The Guest #19

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In The Guest, poet and literary translator Robin Myers explores poetry translation as process, practice, vocation, meditation, and craft. Drawing both on her own projects-in-progress and the work of other translators, The Guest is a kind of diary, a thinking-out-loud about the pleasures, challenges, and decisions required—and invited—by bringing poems into another language. To do them justice and to make them new. 


Miracle Words

Honey, sweetheart, darling, dear, love, babe, buttercup, sweet pea, angel. There’s a name for these croonings, these softeners, these affection-offerings. In English, they’re often called terms of endearment, and in the endearment is the backstory, the stage fully set: I might use a term of endearment to express how dear you already are to me, or in hopes of endearing myself to you. Every language has them. And every speaker of every language—depending not just on their personality, but also on where and when they live and who they share their space and speech with—surely has access to a range of terms that feel comfortable, others silly, others subversive, and others too syrupy to even say aloud.

There are terms of endearment for acquaintances, too: used not to express love or passion, but to inspire trust, proffer everyday kindness, relay friendly intent. And they can all be very difficult to translate! Some may look simple: the Spanish “querido,” for instance, can shift quite smoothly into the terrain of “dear.” But what about a young vendor calling out to me in a Mexico City market, in her Mexico City accent, as “amiga”—a term that means, of course, “friend,” but spoken with an air of truly casual banter, a dash of complicity I wouldn’t receive if I were much older than she? What about a friend mentioning his “abuelita,” where the diminutive has actually nothing to do with his grandmother’s physical size and everything to do with his fondness for her? Güey, boludo, pana, pata, tío: How are these nuances—their places and times, their tones and edges—to be rendered in translation?

As usual, it depends. And it depends, I guess, on almost everything else.

*

Chamini Kulathunga, who translates from Sri Lankan Sinhalese, has a wonderful way of approaching terms of endearment: she calls them “miracle words,” because they can make or break an interaction between people. 

A frequent miracle world in colloquial Sinhalese, she tells me, is “machang” (මචං) [macaṃ]. She defines it as “an umbrella term that covers a range of endearment terms including bro, buddy, dude, man, mate, my friend, yo, and everything in between and beyond. In the context of Sinhalese, it is a term that has the capacity to dissolve all social hierarchies, be it class, caste, profession, ethnicity, religion, and lately, even gender. It is a term that turns strangers and enemies into friends, suggesting that they are ready to have an honest conversation with you, simultaneously inviting you to do the same. It is a term that creates a safe space between people in that particular linguistic situation.”

Historically, “machang” has been used mostly among men. “The origin of ‘machang,’” Chamini explains, “traces back to the Tamil word ‘machchan’ (மச்சன்), which is used in formal Tamil as a kinship term by the siblings of the bride to address the groom who is marrying into the family. As such, the original Tamil usage of ‘machchan’ resembles a meaning similar to ‘brother-in-law’ in English. Over the years, the Tamil kinship term ‘machchan’ has transformed into a general term of endearment used among friends. It is believed that the term came into being…as a result of young men starting to call their friends who had an unmarried sister to playfully suggest the possibility of the two men becoming ‘machchans’ (brothers-in-law) one day.” In other words, the colloquial use came about by dint of macho solidarity. 

Today, Chamini continues, millennial-aged women increasingly call each other “machang,” too—invoking a similar sense of solidarity, but without the machismo. And there’s another layer at work: “The women involved in the conversation…share the awareness that they are together transcending a linguistic territory that conventionally inhabited a masculine linguistic space. In fearlessly incorporating ‘machang’ into their vocabulary to interact with each other, the women also share a sense of being linguistic rebels in reforming linguistic norms to reverse traditionally gendered language.” What’s more, “machang” is increasingly being used by millennial Sri Lankans of all genders to address their friends. Cropping up more and more often in contemporary conversation, this act of genderless solidarity, as Chamini calls it, expresses genuine social progress. It’s nothing short of “a very powerful linguistic event in the history of the Sinhalese language.”

*

Given the complex social history of “machang” and its contemporary shifts—and given that it can mean, as she said, “bro, buddy, dude, man, mate, my friend, yo, and everything in between and beyond”—I asked Chamini how she translates “machang” when it comes up in her work. 

While some translators opt to keep certain colloquialisms in the source language, she quickly decided that leaving “machang” untranslated wasn’t an option for her: the cultural underpinnings are too important, and almost all Anglophone readers would miss them. So, she says, “I have variously translated ‘machang’ depending on the period the text was written, [the] nature of the relationship between the characters, and texture of the language used in the original.”

Chamini shared an example from the prose poem “Eastbound,” by Ruwan Bandujeewa, published in The Los Angeles Review: a surreal poetic account of smoking, the loss of time, and Wind—personified—at death’s door. “My friend, Wind is sick,” we read early on. “Machang,” translated here as “my friend,” recurs several times throughout the piece. Chamini opted for this term over “bro” or “buddy” because she felt those words would stand out too much, might distract from the otherwise gentle, lyrical register of the whole poem. So she had to choose a word in English that would speak not only to the nuances of “machang,” but also to the texture of the poem in its entirety, folding the former into the latter. 

At the end of the day, Chamini concludes, such decisions are mostly instinctive, and they’re never carved in stone: another translator may have chosen different words in the same context. “Despite all my efforts,” she says, “I have been unable to come up with a word in English for ‘machang’ that encapsulates all its beauty and social implications.”

*

So what happens to them? To all of the word’s beauty and social implications, I mean. In the absence of an “equivalent” term, have they been—here comes every translator’s least-favorite phrase—“lost” in translation?

I’d like to think not. In fact, I find myself remembering something I once heard the poet and translator Lindsay Turner say (something I liked so much that I mentioned it in an earlier column as well): what if some things in translation are not lost, but kept secret?

I’d like to think that every language has “miracle words” that are miraculous precisely because they come alive in that language, charging the air between speakers of those words, gesturing collectively to a shared history—and to the way language must and can and does change as its speakers do. 

I’d like to think that translation isn’t an exhibit of equivalences or a certificate of total exposure, but a conversation, as between two people who are interested in each other and respect each other and will never be able to learn everything about each other even if they tried. They’ll say as much as they can, as clearly as they can. Some words will change in their mouths and ears, because that’s what mouths and ears do, and will be beautiful in transformation. Some words will unfurl like ribbons. Others will stay coiled in all their complexity: not absent, just secret.

Isn’t that a miracle, too?

 

 

 

Chamini Kulathunga is a Sri Lankan translator. She is a graduate of the Iowa Translation Workshop and a former visiting fellow at Cornell University’s South Asia Program. She is a recent recipient of The Global South Translation Fellowship awarded by Cornell University’s Institute for Comparative Modernities. Chamini was Asymptote’s former Editor-at-Large for Sri Lanka and a former blog editor and staff editor at Exchanges: Journal of Literary Translation. She is currently working as an associate editor at The Song Bridge Project. Her writings, interviews, and translations have appeared and are forthcoming in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Los Angeles Review, The Massachusetts Review, The World Literature Today, Asymptote, Project Plume, and elsewhere. More of her work can be found on chaminikulathunga.com. 

 

 


Robin Myers

Knee Length #4

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In Knee Length, poet and journalist Khalisa Rae navigates the nuances of an inherited conservative legacy. Pulling from memories of her religious upbringing and education, family history, and matrilineal teachings, Knee Length is a history reimagined and excavated—a rebellious relearning of desire and respectability, family and faith.


“Oh, God” is a Testimony 

At twelve years old, I am sitting in church with my mother when suddenly, the wail of the pastor reaches a deep, gut-level, and a woman, overcome with emotion, throws her baby in the air like a wad of dollar bills at a strip club. Yes—she lobs her baby in the air as her arms fling open; we all stop and stare in awe. She is taken with the Spirit, and there’s nothing we can do but watch.

This particular Sunday the Spirit is higher, thicker than usual. The organ knows all the notes to sing to get us deep into our feelings. Each note is a punch in the stomach. All the pastor’s words about David and Goliath and overcoming insurmountable obstacles hit and tug on heartstrings that are barely held together with duct tape. The mothers and deaconesses sway and rock, fans in hand, arm raised to the heavens, crying a sorrowful hymnal. Moans, groans, and wails can be heard from every corner like surround sound, and all I can do is look around and soak all this worship and reverence in. The pastor says, “Now, now, you see. When he got ready to craft that slingshot and fight the giant, don’t you think he had doubt in his heart? Don’t you think his hands were shaking? His feet a little wobbly, saints?” Just then the organ hits a call and response note to play up the powerful part of the sermon—the part where the pastor knows he’s talking that shit and “going in.” He steps away from the pulpit to get closer to the crowd and grabs his mic to start screaming. Jerry curl juice dripping like the sweat flying from his forehead. The crowd shouts back, “Yeah!” “Amen!” “Go, ahead.” “Say that!”

The organ speeds up and just then, the woman—one-year-old baby on her hip—starts to jolt and jerk her body, like she’s convulsing. As the organ gets higher in pitch and faster in tempo, her back buckles and feet stomp. With baby in tow, her hands are moving so quickly now that the rest of her body can’t keep up. My eyes dart to her, mesmerized by her breasts that jostle and move carelessly as if they are dancing with her. They are adornments to the rhythm of her praise. I turn my head away from her for just a moment and turn back to see the baby flying mid-air, still swaddled in a blanket like a football baby Jesus. That’s right—her baby catapults through the air now like the pastor’s sweat or a wad of spit, and all our eyes follow his soar. The woman next to the baby’s mother watches dumbstruck but reacts just before the baby hits the ground, catching him in her arms like a wide receiver. But the dancing woman is unphased and utterly entranced by the Holy Ghost—by the feeling of deep overwhelm from a spiritual appearance. 

I believe our ancestors danced like this. Shook their bottoms and hips and jolted like they were possessed by some otherworldly, magical sensation. But the root wasn’t anything of rituals and sacrifice; it was a dance of celebration. Being overcome with emotion like David. The Bible says David danced out of his clothes, and I know now that this is meant literally. When the Spirit moves through your body, and the chord of the keyboard hits a note that stirs your soul, your shoulders have no choice but to Harlem shake. Your knees can do nothing else but drop low, your butt has to twerk; it’s innate in you. It’s innate to praise the heavens in a full-body dance.

This Sunday, we are all transfixed watching her celebratory burst of energy and wailing cry. Her legs hopping like she is walking across a bed of hot coals. Her feet stepping on each note the organ played. And the pastor, her father, egging her on. Slow and methodical, he screeches each word. “Welllllll, when the Lord moves, so does the Spirit. So move, my sistah.” he urges. With each phrase, she lets out a moan that makes my skin flush pink. Goosebumps coat my forearms and shoulders and I fix my eyes on her hips. Her breast and full legs jiggle to the rhythm of Gloryyyyy. Glorrry to God. Yes, yes, yes, God. Praising God with guttural glory. A full body outburst where arms fling open and the head drops back, eyes close, and feet jump. 

This is what I imagine sex to be. 

Later, in the car, I ask my mother to explain what happened. I was still a bit mortified by the sight of a baby flying mid-air like a football. 

“Why would she do that?” I asked.

“Sometimes,” my mother begins, “you become so overcome with the Spirit that your mind and body get disconnected, ya know?”

“Like you’re in a trance…” I nod slowly.

“Yeah. Think about a time when the pastor has said something that resonated with you on a spiritual level. You lose all thought or control. Your spirit just feels everything, and wants to cry or move.” 

 “But the baby…”

“She didn’t know what she was doing, sweetheart. The baby is fine.”

“But what if the woman hadn’t—”

“Trust, baby girl. The Spirit was high in that place. The baby was covered with holy protection.” 

 I nodded, knowing my mother was right, but I still couldn’t imagine feeling so out of control that your mind doesn’t know what your body is doing.

“There’s a special warmth and fullness that overtakes you sometimes,” my mother added.

So much of what my mother said reminded me of women in the movies. The woman’s moans mimicked the love scenes my mom always made me close my eyes for. Two bodies pressed together, with only the warmth of their breath filling the silent spaces. Every time, I would peek through my hands to see what it was my mother was hiding, and every time, a couple was lip-locked on the screen, overcome with emotion. Their cheeks grew flush. Their bodies convulsed and squirmed as if they were possessed. But it was always the woman who would cry out, “Oh God.” And I wondered, are these the same things? Was the woman in the movie taken by the Spirit just like the woman in church?

Was she yelling out in that passionate moment to thank God for all He had done? Was this pleasure or spirituality, or both? What’s the difference between her connection to a man and her connection to God? I just didn’t understand. What were these men doing on screen that made women sweat the way I watched the woman in church sweat and pass out after? I remember how limp her body became, how she could no longer move her limbs. People fanned her and brought water and towels. 

Maybe this was how a good orgasm felt: a spiritual experience that made your mind and body disconnect. Honestly, it sounded pretty nice to lose control and blame it on the Spirit. To be wrapped in a funk-filled perfume with no fear of consequences. Those strange noises I heard in church sounded just like a woman having a good orgasm, so maybe that too was a way of talking to God, of thanking him for the out-of-body experience she had as she climaxed. Despite all the scenes my mother tried to shield me from, I was beginning to understand that there were countless ways women could feel the Spirit: being overcome with passion. Praising, dancing, grinding, worshipping. Lovemaking. It was all the same freedom, the same head-back connection to something greater. Maybe that’s what my mother was afraid of me seeing— what happens when you relinquish control and just get free. 


Khalisa Rae

The Guest #18

By

In The Guest, poet and literary translator Robin Myers explores poetry translation as process, practice, vocation, meditation, and craft. Drawing both on her own projects-in-progress and the work of other translators, The Guest is a kind of diary, a thinking-out-loud about the pleasures, challenges, and decisions required—and invited—by bringing poems into another language. To do them justice and to make them new. 


The Way Out Is In

If you’re looking for a new source of stress in your life, may I suggest you try translating a sonnet? You’ll get to grapple not only with the constraints of the form itself (fourteen lines, iambic pentameter, one of several possible rhyme schemes), but also whatever other constraints the poet has imposed on their own work before you ever got your hands on it. The form will give you a road map to follow, as May Huang (featured in The Guest 11) writes about translating sestinas—but you’ll also have to draw a new map from scratch. No matter how hard it is, you’ll want to make it look easy, which will make it even harder. Like dancing in ankle weights.

Emma Rault, who translates from Dutch and German, is intimately familiar with this dance. She has been translating a sequence by the Flemish poet Kurt De Boodt, whose rich, dense poems are marked by sound play and formal limitations. (You can read the full translations here, at Flanders Literature.) Some are full-fledged sonnets; one is a “deconstructed sonnet”: “something that starts out as a traditional sonnet and then falls apart,” Emma tells me, “to mimic the mental disintegration of the character featured in the poem.”

I felt vicariously daunted by this challenge even before I’d read the poems themselves. Of course, translation always involves the struggle to find freedom within constraints: that’s the point. That’s the art. A deconstructed sonnet, though, means a whole other level of restrictions. How did this translator find her way out?

*

By finding a way in. Emma says she thinks of translating poetry “as creating a chink in the poem, a crack that’s just small enough for me to slip through and ‘live inside it’…it helps to think of what I do as ‘trying to get the poem to open up,’ just sort of tapping away at its exterior.” I love this idea: the translator hovering outside a sealed object, a hermetic vessel, probing the surface until it yields and lets her through.

I also love the way the image helps de-romanticize translation as a craft. It sometimes bothers me how literary translation (especially poetry translation, considering how insistently poetry itself is romanticized) can be construed as an act of esoteric channeling. As if the translator gets beamed up into the spaceship of the poem and deposited back onto solid ground, translation magically in hand. Caught and released. Which isn’t to say that translation doesn’t involve moments of mystery, affinity, and intuition: thank goodness for those. But poems are made of words, and words are material to be labored with. That, too, is the point, and the art.  

Emma’s labor begins, she describes, with a rough cut, an unvarnished, here-is-what-the-words-are-saying rendition of a line. “And then I just start trying to rephrase it and rephrase it, trying to get to the point where the artistry sneaks its way in there”: first on paper, then a round of editing triggered by the act of typing it up. Then pages and pages of free-associated notes: lists of similar words, alternate turns of phrase, possible formulations and reformulations. This is the tapping part. Tapping and tapping and tapping until the mysterious crack opens up: the quiet shift that tells a poet and translator that’s the one. Come in. 

*

Back to Kurt De Boodt’s deconstructed sonnet. This poem is called “Seam,” and it’s from a cycle about deterioration and recovery, both mental and physical, after World War One. “The central metaphor is a sewing machine,” Emma explains to me, “which may be repairing an item of clothing, or may be attempting to repair a person.” De Boodt has described the poem as a sonnet that falls apart: fourteen lines, with the first four lines having ten syllables each—

The Brother Contraption snores below us
She’s wrapped in dreams of mending fraying thread.
The rattle of her breath soothes nightmare demons
into a hail of bowler-hatted heads.

—before the poem swerves in the second stanza, veering away from the original form. The effect is instantly destabilizing:

Brother waits
Brother waits impatiently
What Brother makes of you
remains

undone.
undone.
undone.

This stanza reads, in Dutch, Brother [the sewing machine] wacht (…) / je herstel / niet af / niet af / niet af, which means “Brother doesn’t wait for your recovery.” But in Dutch syntax, Emma tells me, “the ‘not’ is tacked on at the end, so the line break creates surprise: it sounds like Brother is waiting, and then it turns out the opposite is true.” Brother waits / for your recovery / not. What’s more: niet af / niet af / niet af, the repeated negation, is onomatopoeic, mimicking the sound of a sewing machine. 

Emma’s challenge, then, was to keep tapping until she found a way in English to convey not one but both of these critical elements: the delayed, subverted resolution of the line, and the rattle of the machine. These aren’t mere devices in the poem. They are the poem: they help enact both the subject’s disintegration and the sonnet’s. Form follows function, as the saying goes.

So Emma tapped and tapped, repeating variations of the line to herself throughout the day, especially while cooking (I can relate to this tactic!), until she stumbled into the word “undone.” It was perfect for niet af, “for the surprise at the end, because it means unfinished, and there’s also the sense of ‘coming undone’ as in having a mental breakdown, and it was the closest to that sewing-machine sound that I was going to get. I knew I could come up with a line that ended on that word… I just had to find my way there.”

*

As I revisited my conversation with Emma to write this column, I found myself thinking of a word I love in Mexican Spanish: “talacha.” An etymological amalgam between the Náhuatl “tlalli” (land) and the Spanish “hacha” (axe), a talacha is a tool: a mattock, used for digging and prying by hand, for loosening hard ground, for pulling up stalks and roots. Today, though, the word is also used in reference to maintenance or repair, especially for cars. And it can invoke any kind of small-scale, hand-executed, slow-and-steady kind of labor. “Talachear” or “hacer talacha” conjures a general sense of plugging away, keeping at it, getting something done a little at a time. 

A translator is an artist, but an artist is also an artisan. This, I’d like to think, is what we talk about when we talk about craft—or at least it’s how I want to talk about it, and what thrills me about how Emma does. Talacha: tap-tap-tapping against a poem, exploring what it’s made of, learning what we can make with what’s inside.

 

 

Emma Rault is a writer and a translator from Dutch and German. She is a 2019 Idyllwild Arts Non-Fiction Fellow and the recipient of the 2017 GINT Translation Prize. Her work appears in Guernica, the LA Review of Books, Literary Hub and elsewhere. Her most recent book-length translation is The Dandy by Nina Polak, published by Strangers Press. She lives in Los Angeles.


Robin Myers

Knee Length #2

By

In Knee Length, poet and journalist Khalisa Rae navigates the nuances of an inherited conservative legacy. Pulling from memories of her religious upbringing and education, family history, and matrilineal teachings, Knee Length is a history reimagined and excavated—a rebellious relearning of desire and respectability, family and faith.


Howling at the Moon

I’m not going to say I hate hair, I just didn’t like the way it looked on me. When I turned twelve, I would stare at my bushy underarms and legs for days on end and seethe. Then I’d turn on Sister, Sister, The Cosby Show, Boy Meets World, A Different World, and grow green with envy. I was certain that Denise, Whitley, Tia, Tamara, and Topanga had smooth, sensual legs. Hair made me feel wild and untamed like I was morphing into a werewolf. And at twelve, I had no interest in howling at the moon. Plus, it was itchy and made me feel utterly unsexy, underneath my clothes or otherwise. 

A part of me also wanted to be like Ella Fitzgerald in “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” smoking a cigarette in long gloves, a petticoat, side-tilted hat, and pin curls, with some man in a three-piece suit, bow-tie, and slicked-back hair eyeing me from across the smoky club. There was no way Humphrey Bogart, Sidney Portier, or Nat King Cole would sneak a hairy-legged broad like me into the back seat of his Model T Ford. 

But these are things you can’t tell your mother at twelve, so you stick to the script. For me, it was the prickly pine feeling and itchy stubble coming through the porous holes of my nylon stockings that were so irritating. Plus, I was sure the boys in school could see my hair poking through and talked about me in the locker rooms. I’m certain “wolf girl” was my colloquial nickname. My mom would have to care about me being called “wolf,” right? That I was the laughing stock? Don’t even get me started on gym class. The sheer mortification of wearing shorts during kickball when my legs looked like Carl Winslow’s chest hair.  No one would ever ask me to a school dance with taco meat saying, “hello, stranger” through my tanks tops and shorts. I was like the pretty-faced girl that seems attractive until she reveals she’s got a black, feral squirrel living under her arms and on her bean-pole legs. 

Most of my life was spent wearing plaid button-up uniforms and church dresses in stockings, so hairy arms and legs in tights were embarrassing. If I had to be stuck in knee-length uniforms and long church dresses, the least I could do was have smooth underarms and legs. Smooth legs were the sure-fire way to still be somewhat alluring like Britney Spears in “Oops, I Did It Again.” She definitely wasn’t hairy anywhere. 

Honestly, I really just loved the idea of freshly shaven legs—rubbing their sleekness against the sheets, running my hands up and down to feel the stumble-free, buttery surface. At night in the bathroom, I’d prop myself up on the toilet, one leg on the tub basin edge, and imagine shaving with Skintimate shaving cream in one hand and a pink Daisy razor in the other. I’d close my eyes, smile ear to ear, and feel sexy and grown-up like a pin-up model. It might have had something to do with all the black and white films and shows I used to watch—I Love Lucy and Casablanca— or maybe the fashion magazines that cluttered my room. Elle, Vogue, Seventeen, Marie Claire. Each cover featuring different smooth-bodied beauties whose legs had us religiously buying issues, millions of copies sold off those luscious limbs alone. Case in point, the 1996 swimsuit issue of Vogue featuring Cindy Crawford: though her perfectly perky breasts and devilish smirk allured me, what captivated me most were her legs that seemed to be a mile-long of silkiness. Her shaved legs seemed to be running off the page and I wanted to run with them. 

But being the 90’s kid I was, that defense would not hold up in the Christian court of my house. Parents at the time were all convinced that media and MTV were corrupting their kids, so the fashion magazine story had to stay a secret. So I stuck to more practical reasons to plead my case. Shaving was synonymous with puberty: get your period, wear a training bra, shave your legs. I watched boys shaving peach fuzz with their fathers on TV, and I yearned for the sacred experience of the “first shave.” That’s it, I thought, I’d tug on my mom’s heartstrings and maybe say something about gender inequality. 

I begged my mother every day for a year to be a part of this hair removal ritual.

“Please, momma. What if I just shaved a little patch?” I whined, trying to bargain with her. 

“You’ll have to deal with itchy prickles while you’re under my roof,” she said. 

“Why not, ma?” I pleaded. 

“Because you’re not ready for that. Let’s wait until you’re sixteen.”

My Bible-toting momma wasn’t having it. She was worried my silky sleekness would lead to desire, convinced that I wanted to be smooth for someone else’s touch. But truthfully, the sexiness I so longed for wasn’t for any boy, it was for me. To pluck and de-fluff every follicle would make me feel more like I was becoming a woman, and maybe that’s what she was afraid of. So I started to resent her. I’d mumble during movie nights, “See, she gets to shave. It’s not hurting anyone,” crossing my arms in frustration. 

My anger would fizzle out, and then spark up all over again when it was time to put my stockings back on during fall and winter. I blamed her for making me sit through judgmental gym class glances. Eventually, I became the only girl with hairy armpits and legs. “Does your mom let you shave?” I’d ask each of my classmates. And they’d always say yes. Most girls in class were shaving when they started their period. 

“Ugh. Mine won’t let me. I’m stuck being Tarzan until I’m sixteen,” I’d say. When I walked out onto the soccer field in shorts, the other girls would point and laugh. “Eww, she’s a fur baby.” Mortified, I would run home, hoping my mother would be sympathetic. 

“Mom! The girls in class are making fun of me. C’mon,” I begged at thirteen. “Can’t I shave my underarms at least?”

“That’s their problem. We don’t concern ourselves with what other people think.”

We? I thought. I didn’t know about we, but I most certainly did. 

Eventually, my mom caved, and we compromised around fifteen, the only caveat being that I’d have to foot the bill. Though she’d conceded, you know how they say be careful what you wish for? Keeping up the smooth appearance was exhausting. My mom didn’t warn me how quickly my hair would grow back. With my wonky, soon-to-be sixteen hormones, a shave only lasted a week tops. The shaving life was for the birds— razor bumps and itchy armpits. Spending my allowance money on shaving cream and disposable razors. My first time shaving, she took me to the drug store to get the coveted Nair wax kit. I’d been dying to do the hot wax and rip method I’d seen on Teen Vogue, and while she conceded, I could have sworn I saw a smirk. 

When we got home to the bathroom, I tore open the package, glossed the caramel-colored goop on my legs giving them a good slather, and waited. Then, I stuck the sticky strips to the hair, pressing down hard to make sure it got all of it. I would never be called “fur baby” or “wolf girl” again. 5-4-3-2-1, I counted down, staring at my mother with a crazed look, eyes wide, all but salivating at the anticipation that I was seconds away from becoming a hairless beauty. My mother stared back smiling, slowly backing up like she knew where the chips were going to fall. On ONE, I yanked the sticky strip, and let out noise so high-pitched it could only be heard by dogs and wild animals. 

“OUUUUCH!,” I yelped. “Owwww. Ahhhhhhhhh. Mom! Why did you let me get this?” 

 “Oh, no you don’t,” she laughed. “You begged and begged, whined and cried. This is what YOU wanted. Now live with the consequences,” she said, grabbing a cold rag to ease the pain. 

“So I have to do this again?” 

“Yeah, unless you want to walk around with mismatched legs.” She chuckled. 

Needless to say, my first waxing experience had such an impact on me that when I turned sixteen I decided to only shave when I had to. I’d get excited on shaving day, but the smooth bliss wore off with the appeal of being a “lady.” And what did that even mean? To sit properly with legs crossed at the ankles in Mary Jane shoes and ruffly socks? That was me. My life was plaid skirts and white button-ups. Lace and tea parties. Somewhere between rinsing our mouths out with soap after saying dirty words and getting paddled for hiking our skirts up above the knee, I grew bored with the daydream I once had of being the good little girl that followed the rules or was liked by all my classmates. The less I wanted to be the male-gaze version of Britney Spears or Dorothy Dandridge, the less I wanted to stay slippery and glossed.

And what was wrong with the rough edges? When I left private school, something cracked open. I saw girls in torn shirts and ripped jeans, expressing their individuality, and I wanted that. Who was I when I wasn’t in uniform? When I wasn’t performing what I thought femininity meant? To this day, I wonder if that had been my mom’s plan all along. To show me maturing is nothing like the movies and magazines make it out to be. To teach me how to howl at the moon. To embrace not just my wild lady bush, but who I was at my rawest—uninhibited and free. In the movies, they don’t show you the nicks, razor burn, and bumps after. They always leave out how actually, howling at the moon isn’t half bad. Plus, I kind of liked how my raspy howl sounded when I let her out. Nowadays, I go to my proverbial mountain and let her roam free. Life would later teach me that embracing my wild, untamed side would lead to sexual freedom, but how I arrived at that realization is a story for another day.


Khalisa Rae

The Future at My Father’s Feet

By

Some people say in order to do things in the future you have to have a father in the future. Not only do I shriek and scratch at my cheeks in the future, I also inherit nothing but deeds to lands pronounced dead. Some people say fear comes from the devil. Some say the sky is another desert. If you can build cities in one you can build cities in the other. Well our fathers tried. Couldn’t scratch the face of the desert. So they took tea as sweet as honey to the Valley of Dreams. Fed smoke to their fibrotic livers. I once dreamed a circle of men around a fire. I named each man after my father. I saw them clapping and dancing, and later realized they were puppets. For the fathers I built castles in the arid sky I am calling heaven. A large-scale construction project. They say a woman can do some things but not others. They say in the past women wailed, and men drew courage from the configuration of the stars. I envy the geese, the macaques, the yellow baboons and the finches—their livid beating of the chest. I hold my breasts like dandelion bulbs. Some say women can walk the dead only with loaves of dust in their mouths. From the future, I erase the syntax of my scream. I practice singing the one with no end and no beginning. On the tips of my toes in the house that was heaven, I begged the peephole, and begged and begged. Heard the keys rattle clairvoyant leaves. And I thanked the back of his neck for not dying. People say when he dies he is not your father. Different man. Someone else will need to wash him. Today I rinsed my body with sidr and camphor. Wrapped lengths of linen over my eyes to see the future. Some say on the night of its flowering, a corpse flower will smell like it’s dying. It’s a good thing I’m good, and not flowering. It will make the noise of 600 daughters wailing. If in their graves the dead are tortured for the wailing of the living, are the living tortured by the reticence of their fathers? Angels pounce with red iron rods. My dreams, which come with trees, come with trains, come with my love’s back fitted with bright blue wings, never dared to kill my father. But day and night he died and dies and will die again. And the light is always golden, and my breasts are always, despite my caution, breaking, and this morning I will see a girl, small, and she will scream the sound of what bird? I cannot say.


Sara Elkamel