Month: July 2020

Decade Old Elegy: Personal Dream

by Sean Cho A.

and you wake. You’re in the passenger’s seat
now here’s the first choice:
look forward or
look left
what you chose says a lot
about trust. Let’s say you look left.
The man driving looks like your father.
You wouldn’t have to look forward to know
where you were going; the last place
he saw you. Rehab, when he dropped you
off. Both of you knowing damn well
that he should be checking himself in
too. Let’s not talk about that.
Okay, so let’s say you look forward.
You see the fields of poppies, you pat
you pocket, lucky you brought
your pestle. It doesn’t matter
who’s driving now does it.
It never did. Obviously,
none of this is real. You buried
your father years ago you must
be asleep. For the first time
in years you can count
your sobriety in months
not days. This has a way
of minimalizing accomplishment 57, 58, 59
1. Say your best prayers
and believe them,
take your filthy pride
Guilt has no use
here. One of you
had to watch the other
die, win the race
and claim the ugly prize.

Sean Cho A. is an MFA candidate at the University of California Irvine. His work can be ignored or future-found in Salt Hill, The Portland Review, Hobart, and elsewhere. He is a staff reader for Ploughshares. In the summer of 2019, he was a Mary K. Davis scholarship recipient for the Bear River Writing Conference. Sean’s manuscript Not Bilingual was a finalist for the Write Bloody Publishing Poetry Prize.

Book Review: Parakeet

by Ioannis Argiris

The opening of Parakeet by Marie-Helene Bertino starts off as a wild dream state for Luna, a young bride-to-be. Her dead grandmother manifests as a parakeet in a hallucinogenic vision and urges Luna to reconcile with her brother before her wedding day. We meet Luna at a dilapidated hotel on Long Island, trying on her wedding dress, as her grandmother inquires about family and traditions. But when Luna brushes off her grandmother’s request that she make amends with her brother, her grandmother—the parakeet—defacates on the wedding dress, forcing Luna to plunge into an unusual journey. The novel delivers an honest connection to family, through the lens of the theater, that makes for a great read.

Parakeet is Marie-Helene Bertino’s third novel and it dives into a bride’s search for identity. Luna is anxious—as one might be leading up to such an event—but also conflicted, vulnerable, and dismissive both to herself and others. She’s getting married to feel something new inside, but what ensues is a chaotic, strange, sometimes dark exploration into the self. Luna, referred to as “the Bride” throughout the novel, must ultimately acknowledge her traumatic past life to discover growth. With her grandmother’s manifestation as a parakeet, Luna’s stable life rattles with unresolved questions from her past. Why must she reconcile with her brother? Can she really accept her mother’s control? Why has her grandmother appeared the week of her wedding, and as a parakeet, no less?

Acceptance and acknowledgment of one’s identity through maternal legacy strongly surfaces as the core of the novel. From her grandmother’s appearance, to a strained relationship with her mother, to whether or not Luna wants to become a mother, she must look back in order to move forward. Her grandmother questions Luna’s independence and freedom. “Those of us with able bodies have a responsibility to use them as much as we can. Given another chance, you wouldn’t believe how I’d use it. Threesomes. Foursomes. Moresomes. Smoking is a joy of life. Good lord, why did I ever give it up? My teachers called me disruptive.” This contradicts the conservative and traditional approach to life her mother instilled in her. Luna must accept not only that her formative years were shaped by these women, but that they continue to guide her today .

Identity through trauma appears in various forms throughout the novel. At one point, we meet “other mother,” a future vision of Luna. “I become aware of a third sentience inside me, blinking behind my mother and me—what I can only call ‘other.’” This out of body moment is raw and experimental. It enables Luna, the Bride, to really get at some core questions about her life. It is a catalyst that forces Luna back to what she must accomplish—who is she? And in order to determine that, she must meet with her brother prior to her wedding day.

The bizarre expedition includes various moments that exude an offbeat tone. Managing the various wedding vendors and tying up loose ends at work enables Luna to wander from the inevitable wedding day. For example, she brushes off the florist multiple times and says she’s not getting married. And when she must close out her last case as a case worker for a law firm, she realizes how her client’s brain injury and subsequent memory loss has stifled his life. This finally nudges Luna to confront her own trauma by visiting her brother’s play, one that is based on her life. Seeing the various versions of herself acted out on stage is traumatizing for Luna. She becomes entranced by the beautiful feathered costumes that dive into her emotional wounds, which allows her to observe her flaws and growth along with the audience.

The concept of performance is an integral part of the novel—from her brother’s play to the wedding day itself. Luna must create a façade with a dress, makeup, and an attitude that emanates joy. The stage is the renovated inn that contains traps for her to confront and spaces for her to reflect in. She is a character in a play that then gets tested within a cage made up of her family, friends, and future self. Luna’s path to realization is both wonderful and dissociative. Bertino weaves the concept of identity through trauma into a raw and emotional prose that delivers.

In addition to Parakeet, Marie-Helene Bertino is the author of the novel 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas and the story collection Safe as Houses. Her fourth book, the novel Beautyland, is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux in Spring 2022.

Ioannis Argiris is based in Oakland, California, and is pursuing his MFA in Creative Writing through the Low Residency program at UC Riverside. He is currently working on his first novel and also his first graphic novel. You can find him online on both Twitter and Instagram.

Already Dead Things

by Stacy Bierlein

Outdoor education was a thing the parents liked. Kids should know how things grow, they said. Children want to take care of things, we agreed, to be individually responsible. If the cabbage actually survived we took it to a local food bank. This time, though, the rabbits got in.

Was something wrong with the soil? a little girl wanted to know.

No, I said, the rabbits were hungry.

I didn’t explain that they probably came down from the cemetery at the top of the hill, displaced by a digging of graves. In our perfectly constructed greenhouse everything that should have been green was dead. The Lahiris had endowed the new greenhouse. Two of their sons were alums and five of their grandchildren were here. It all should have been very nice but I had forty kids in there with me, my second graders and Ms. Frothmeyer’s first graders, staring into empty planters, scattered soil, absence. It was pathetic.

To make it worse, that semester the turtles died. They had been science room pets for years. Sometimes Ms. Frothmeyer held the turtles so close to her waist that a visiting parent would mistake one for her handbag. The turtles checked out because the water was contaminated. The kids seemed sad but not surprised. It was on the news every night about the water. Parents too smart to believe the city council when they said everything was fine—and that was most of them—had kids brushing their teeth with bottled water from the Central Coast.

They actually expected the tropical fish to die. The art teacher put a giant painting of orange and blue fish on the wall where the aquarium used to be.

Soon the invading rabbits were dead too, some of their carcasses found in front of children’s screams in the field adjacent to their playground. That’s when we heard from the funeral director that it hadn’t been graves alone displacing the rabbits—they’d been moving away from coyotes migrating from Bonita Canyon. Birds and voles had vanished too. None of us could remember the last time we heard a bird song.

The director said we had to remind the coyotes to be scared of humans. We needed to throw rocks at them. Several kindergarten parents were known to bring small dogs to afternoon dismissal. It occurred to me that a teacup Chihuahua named Paul could be the perfect amuse-bouche for an average coyote.

We didn’t have worms and frogs delivered as planned. Mr. Walter insisted we cancel the already dead things. The kids dissected digital creatures on their iPads with an ambition that might have been relief.

We had experience speaking to students about losses of grandparents and pets in previous years but never in such extraordinary numbers. We were alerted to heart attacks, strokes, and a suicide. Canine leukemia, feline lymphoma, dehydration. Three grandfathers, four grandmothers, and a Great Nana. A golden, a labradoodle, a Yorkie, and a spaniel. Two ragamuffins, a munchkin, a Burmese, and a Russian blue.  It didn’t help our collective anxiety that everyone’s middle school siblings were addicted to an unsettling X-Envio game where humans and animals died en masse.

Something is wrong with this place, one of the mothers, Ms. Flynn, kept saying. She sent her specialist in at night when all of us had left, someone who chanted and burned sage. When that didn’t help she said her specialist was distracted; coyotes are so loud at night.

It wasn’t the school, I told her, it was the world.

Soon teachers were dying too. Mr. Slaussen’s chemo stopped working and our woodshop closed. A skiing accident took Ms. Chloe, the new assistant coach. Beloved Ms. Bromowitz left a faculty meeting with a stomachache, went home, dropped dead in her kitchen.

After the holiday break it was the twins, Mara Lopez’s stepsisters, activists, fatally gunned down in their high school parking lot. One of them was wearing a March for Our Lives t-shirt. Her friends said she had a crush on the Parkland kid who was on MSNBC all the time. You can be aware as hell and it still doesn’t save you.

We promised to postpone active shooter drills. In a faculty meeting I glared at the administrator who instructed us to call the decision a wellness initiative; only Mr. Walter noticed.

It is a difficult time, teachers kept saying, to parents, amongst ourselves. We all turned greenish-grey in my mind’s eye, our eyes deep red. Even the most positive-minded among us started to look like zombies. Des morts-vivants. It was a hideous year.

Maybe we should have known better, given everything, than to let Mr. Gabriel rent the van. He felt so proud of the five sixth-graders who made it to the state history bee that he volunteered to drive them to Sacramento himself. A tire blew on the freeway, there was no visibility with the rain, there was a cement wall. What happened exactly remains the subject of some debate. The unspeakable result is the same. The heartbreak was like nothing we had ever seen.

This was all before the virus came.

The learning specialist’s ringtone was “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger-stronger-stronger,” and I told her please let’s stop with that song. For the love of God, they’re strong enough.

I hope so, she said. The mayor might direct us to close the school early this year. There are rumors of community spread.

Most of my kids were already wearing face masks. I wasn’t wearing one because little Zoie Thornton was hearing-impaired and read my lips.

When the grief counselors left the children finally wanted to talk.

Where did they all go really, they wanted to know. Our cabbage, the rabbits, the birds, our turtles, the fish, our pets, the nanas and papas, the twins, the teachers, our friends?

I don’t know, I said, there are various ideas about this. I’m so sorry—I just don’t know.

So who does know, they demanded.

I said, Maybe nobody knows.

They said, Is it true that we are going to grow up in existential crisis?

Maybe, I said.

We don’t like this, they said.

I tried not to fix my vision on the empty desk in the middle of the room, the reminder of a classmate at home with a fever.

This totally sucks, they said, all of it.

It totally does, I agreed.

We hate it, they kept saying.

I understand, I said.

Then one of the boys said, Will you at least make out with Mr. Walter so that we can see something new? We think you like him, one of the girls added. We think he likes you, another clarified quickly.

He’s nice enough, I said, laughing, but I will not.

He’s virus free, one of the boys told me. We had him for technology today. He took a test right in front of us and he’s fine.

It is important to be safe, I agreed.

We know he dated you in college, they said. You used to like a band called Counting Crows.

I opened the classroom windows wider. He told you that, did he? I said.

His homeroom kids are in the library, one of the girls said. He is all alone this period.

They had put some thought into this. I admit I was never so proud of them, my sweet, masked, grief-stricken kids.

Why did you break up in college? one of the girls wanted to know. He wasn’t mean to you, was he?

Not at all, I assured her. Our relationship was not … defined. I left California to study in France. Neither of us was sure I was going to move back.

So will you do it? They weren’t giving up. Will you make out?

Still a no, I told them. It would not be appropriate. We could be fired. Making out is not something one does as a demonstration. Not usually anyway.

Please, they said. Please-please-please make out with Mr. Walter. We need to see something new and weird. Something in-person. Something good so that we won’t be as scared.

It’s good that you are trying not to be scared, I said.

I told them that sometimes I am scared too. That’s when Jakob Walter walked into my classroom, unmasked. Jake, as I used to call him when we were the students. He had a forehead scanner in his right hand. He stood between the long blank whiteboard and the children’s desks and showed me his 98.60 reading on the tiny square screen.

Whatever, fine, okay, I said. He stepped closer to me, pointed the scanner to my head, took my reading. He smelled like a Mr. Sketch grape marker.

98.65. Close enough, he said, smiling.

He kissed my forehead. He ignored the stares of nineteen curious children and embraced me as if a hundred thousand terrible things hadn’t happened since the last time we touched. We held each other. He kissed my forehead again. The children were excited. The bell rang but they didn’t leave their seats which made us laugh a little. D’accord, I said, okay, nodding with consent.

Briefly we made out. The kids cheered. Some even whooped, some made a standing ovation. Suddenly a yellow-rumped warbler flew in through the window, circled the room. Even with the cheering I could hear the flutter of its wings as it circled again.

The kids cheered harder, jumped up and down, laughing, alive.

Stacy Bierlein is the author of the story collection A Vacation on the Island of Ex-Boyfriends, editor of the anthology A Stranger Among Us: Stories of Cross Cultural Collision and Connection, and co-editor of the anthology Men Undressed: Women Writers and the Male Sexual Experience. She was a founding editor of Other Voices Books.

Book Review: Two Menus

By Andréa Ferrell Gannon

Rachel DeWoskin is a five-time novelist and memoirist. Two Menus is her debut poetry collection which, despite being billed as poetry, does not escape a certain delicious fictionness, like here: “The night Des tore her hair out, it was literal. / White sheets beneath her lit the hospital,” or here: “Today, school again in the wrong / boots, dress Kari S. writes along / my locker ‘bitch.’ She still / leaves me notes: ‘I hope you die – I will.”

These story-like poems, accessible to even the finickiest nonreaders of poetry, travel fast and span a lifetime of a woman as recounted by an accidental sex-symbol of the Chinese soap opera “Foreign Babes in Beijing,” later turned author, wife, mother, and university professor.

“Remembering is falling,” writes DeWoskin, and she brings us with her down a waterfall of words, passing through Beijing, crossing under an Ozark sun, and over Oregon mountains, navigating countries, cultures, and languages. She dives into the past and wanders into the future, wondering how and where will we be until we end. In the space between, she brings us reminders to live life full-heartedly and to jump into love full-bodily: “Let me love you without / believing as I used to that we’re safe, may last. Instead, / let’s peel, strip raw, find what matters, move against each other and whatever this is.”

For DeWoskin, love and marriage are as extreme a sport as bungee jumping, white water rafting, or rock climbing. “Let’s jump,” she writes, “a cord snaps / back, keeps us from the dirt another day. Perhaps …”

Add practical application to such wisdom, like what is needed and appreciated on a prison visit, or how to confront loss and deep sadness: “Here’s how / we stay human even torched by sorrow: / stare at my (it might be your) tomorrow,” and we have a surprising and thrilling debut collection.

As we travel from the first poem, “The Blind Massage Parlour,” to the last, “Too,” we hear a woman grow from silence into a full-throated claim to be heard. First, mute, she lies atop a healing massage table in China, listening to doctors insist that Titanic is a stupid movie and that Americans are ignorant in matters of love.

I make shy eye contact with the client

in a bed across the row. We are the only two

here today. I think she loves Titanic

from the delicate way she lifts

her neck to look at me, confused.

Yet, neither woman asserts an argument. Pages race by in a flurry of forms and we experience the author not only finding her voice, but imploring us to join her in chorus, and mean it. “Don’t pack words / in your furious marrow, shout out / what we made: language, all the babies, hell, ourselves.”

Particularly delightful is the exciting and eye-catching ways the poet masters form. In “I Was Dancing When I Heard,” the words and the world tilt at the news that a lover has moved on.

           I was dancing.

                  When I heard you’re

           getting married,

                  I was dancing. And reeling

          just a bit on impact, just

                   a little impact. Just a bit.

Likewise, the words inside the lines of “Girls at 1001 Nights” undulate and thrust, imitating the motions of the belly dancer within:

We were small-talk and falafel

      when she shimmered from the kitchen gold all

              over, tables suddenly full

                      of hungry people. A beautiful lull

                      in conversation, now she pushed her right

              side into air so thick the room bulged tight.

       A man in yellow blew fruit hookah smoke

and bellowed, singing, took a toke

The title is Two Menus, but perhaps the poem most illustrative of the power and brilliance of this poet may be “Horse Fair,” where language’s spirit and aliveness burst within constraints of form, much like a carousel horse who “raged away, / tore off his pole still twisting up and up, / no longer through his stomach out his back, no fear. Imagine: no fear! Now I’ve made it so it happened. Here.” And though a plastic horse will outlast us all, with the language that the poet harnesses, she immortalizes herself.

About that title. Bitterness and Happiness is a restaurant in Beijing that offers two menus, one with a selection of excess, the second scarcity. We find those contradictions in this collection—pain/joy; heartbreak/fusion; language/silence—all here to read in this remarkable debut, a veritable smorgasbord to appeal in equal measure to both the poetry finicky and the poem gourmand. Bon appétit.

Andréa Ferrell Gannon is currently the poetry editor at The Coachella Review and an MFA candidate at UC Riverside’s Palm Desert campus. She works as a World Languages teacher and raises two boys to men.


By Guna Moran

A rock can only be made smaller
By beating and hitting
Can never be made larger

Rocks are generally homeless
They lay everywhere

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By Guna Moran

Bless me to turn into dust
Would stay stuck to both your feet every day

Bless me to be your teardrops
Would glitter in your eyes in times of joy and sorrow

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Book Review: Rodham

by Amy Reardon

Today in America 2020, it is four months until the next presidential election and nothing is certain except our ever-growing regret that we did not elect the most qualified person for the job when we had the chance. But why not? And would it have made a difference if Hillary Clinton were not attached to Bill?

Enter Rodham, Curtis Sittenfeld’s sixth and boldest novel yet, a fictional story of Hillary’s life trajectory had she followed her own bright star instead of her husband’s. Delicious in its fantastical rewriting of history, the book’s most irresistible pull lies in the promise of the parallel life. For don’t we all secretly fear a better life might have been just around the corner, if only we had been brave enough? But the novel’s true brilliance lies deeper, in Sittenfeld’s examination of one key question: why didn’t we elect our first woman president in 2016? Was it her … or was it us?

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by Heather Browne

I was eight before I knew she was crazy. Until then, I thought maybe it was me. Maybe I was confused or maybe not all that bright, not brilliant like her. I was eight before I understood that talking to trees, dogs, the coat hanging in her closet, dancing with imaginary fairies that only she could see, was something other than spectacularly magical. It’s hard to tell the difference sometimes between creativity, genius, and mere insanity, especially when you are too young to even know how to slant your pen.

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Book Review: Notes on a Silencing

By Linda Romano

Lacy Crawford’s memoir Notes on a Silencing speaks to the ways gender, privilege, and power silenced Crawford twenty-five years ago. When Crawford was fifteen years old, she was lured to a boys’ dormitory one night, pulled from beneath the night shadows, and sexually assaulted.

Crawford’s story is a familiar one. When psychology professor Christine Blasey Ford disrupted her life in the summer of 2018 to testify against Brett Kavanaugh, a nominee for the United States Supreme Court, she was harassed and forced to relocate from her Palo Alto home. Thirty years earlier at a high school party, she alleged, Kavanaugh had assaulted her and put his hand over her mouth to prevent her from screaming. Ford and Kavanaugh were students at elite prep schools in Maryland: Ford attended Holton-Arms, a private all-girls school, and Kavanaugh attended Georgetown Preparatory, a Jesuit high school for boys, where alcohol and deviant sexual behavior were a common cocktail.

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A Twist

by Mary Higbee

My sister Nancy and I have become used to answering the door to strangers. Since arriving a week ago, people we don’t know have shown up bearing sympathy cards, plates of cookies, and casseroles. They also brought a story or two to tell us about some adventure they had shared with my father.

But today we are too busy to welcome callers. The severe winter storm predicted to descend in twenty-four hours has shortened our time for being in Arkansas. Noon tomorrow is our deadline for starting homeward if we hope to stay ahead of the bad weather. My husband, sister, niece, and I are down to hours to get the house ready to close up and for each of us to pack the chosen keepsakes we are taking.

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