Lines from Billy Collins, Robert Browning, and Script from Legally Blonde (Exquisite Cento Project)

by Andrew Beckett Gibson and Zebulon Huset

Valor lies in bed listening to the rain
as we wind through a flock of abstract, silky, golden strands
                               then a mile of warm sea-scented beach
                                                that made up the miniature town.

The card goes one way, being signed, as the drinks go the other
                                thinning away to nothing,
                                            a salad bowl filled with cash—
                 think of an egg, the letter A,
                                                 with shrieking and squeaking.

You are the rapids, the propeller, the kerosene lamp
                                                (The reporters laugh as they snap pictures)
                you are the dove-soft train whistle in the night
hugging her knees and cowering in a wretched little ball.

He swims in candlelight for all to see,
                                (a cop stands guard at the door)
his death had pages, a dark leather cover, an index,
                                                                  with milky admiration
                (no wonder I find him in the pale morning)
                                                and blue spurt of a lighted match.

You are Jean de Brébeuf with his martyr’s necklace of hatchet heads.

                Outside was all noon and the burning blue,
                                                eating popcorn and drinking red wine.

                                Something is always missing:
his twenty-seven year old daughter and the pool boy.

                 But—all the world's coarse.                Thumb
exercise gives you endorphins, endorphins make you happy
                                in his hybrid creole accent.
His dead body                         with a bullet in it
                                              with a beauty queen smile in place.
                 It is Sylvia Plath in the kitchen,
a hook in the slow industrial canal below.

 


Andrew Beckett Gibson studied creative writing at North Carolina Central University. His work has appeared or is forthcoming at The Collidescope, The Bookends Review, Random Sample, Always Crashing, and Heartwood Literary Magazine.

Zebulon Huset is a teacher, writer and photographer living in San Diego. He won the Gulf Stream 2020 Summer Poetry Contest and his writing has appeared in Meridian, The Southern Review, Fence, Atlanta Review, & Texas Review, among others. He publishes the writing blog Notebooking Daily, edits the journals Coastal Shelf and Sparked, and recommends literary journals at TheSubmissionWizard.com.

Two Poems (Dark matter | Spell against nervous suffering)

Dark matter

by Moira Walsh

Never mind the alligator
at my doorstep or the rabid
fox under the dining table

Your love protects you
from my anti-love

 


 

Spell against nervous suffering


by Moira Walsh

If they see you
standing on tiptoe
to witness the star through the window
that’s enough

Say what you mean,
offer water

Sooner or later,
the outcast
is celebrated

May you live to see it

 


Moira Walsh, born in Michigan, lives in southern Germany. She became a published
poet in 2020 and is the 2021 Anne-Marie Oomen Fellow at Poetry Forge. You can find more of her work at https://linktr.ee/moira_walsh.

Not Beautiful Birds

by DS Maolalai

they are nesting
in the building's
shared carpark. they are
pigeons – not beautiful
birds. two in an alcove
just next to the AC
split units. two
by the gate control,
over the bins. it makes me
feel quite good
to see them
build space there.
I walk
the dog past them,
walk past them
myself. step
around birdshit
like burst toothpaste
packets. check in
every morning
to see how
they're doing,
like a baker
with a fresh loaf
of bread.

 


DS Maolalai has been nominated eight times for Best of the Net and five times for the Pushcart Prize. His poetry has been released in two collections, "Love is Breaking Plates in the Garden" (Encircle Press, 2016) and "Sad Havoc Among the Birds" (Turas Press, 2019).

The Gnome

      by M. Shaw

         We caught a gnome in our house, in a trap we had set out for the raccoons who kept getting in the basement.

      “He’s adorable!” said Jean, and we put him in a cage. A big, old birdcage, it had belonged to my late grandfather’s parrot, who had finally died the previous year. The little fella didn’t seem to mind. He slept a lot, and then he did these little kicky dances and made all these noises that sounded like words, but weren’t. “Dow-tee hoy biddo! Funger hoo tee hoo!” That sort of thing. It had a pseudo-Irish sound to it, but we didn’t think he was a leprechaun, because of the hat. His was cone-shaped, definitely more the kind of thing you would associate with a gnome than a leprechaun.

        “Do you think he, you know, has intelligence?” I asked Jean after a couple days, while we were watching him in there. He had completely replaced the TV at that point, in terms of how we spent our time.

      “All animals have some degree of intelligence,” said Jean, “so it depends what you mean. Human intelligence? I doubt it. I mean, look at him.”

      “He’s wearing clothes and everything,” I pointed out. It wasn’t complicated clothing, just some baggy trousers and a shirt. It looked a bit like pajamas. And the hat. No shoes.

      “So is Princess Diana,” said Jean. That was the name of our Bichon, who was, after all, wearing a doggy Christmas sweater.

        I still wasn’t sure that they counted as the same thing. We watched him for another five or ten minutes, and then it hit me. “But we didn’t put the clothes on him,” I said.

        “I should make him some little outfits,” said Jean. “On the sewing machine.” I couldn’t tell if she had misinterpreted the point I was making, or if she was ignoring me completely.

         I lost a lot of sleep thinking about this. Was that a good measure of intelligence? To be able to not just wear clothes, but to put them on yourself? Did that mean that, when my parents dressed me, when I was little, I wasn’t fully human? What if I became quadriplegic, or developed some kind of dementia, and couldn’t do it myself anymore?

      We gave the gnome some steamed chicken and carrots, but he showed no interest. We gave him some canned dogfood, and he wasn’t interested in that, either. He seemed to never need to eat or go to the bathroom at all. I asked Jean if we were sure he was really a living creature. The lack of eating or pooping would seem to indicate no. But again, he slept. And when he slept, you could see his torso rise and fall, breathing. And he had a beard, and the beard was grey, suggesting growth and age.

        “I think maybe he’s a filter feeder,” said Jean, cutting out pieces of a sewing pattern. “Like a sea sponge. Or maybe he does photosynthesis.”

        “In the basement?” I asked.

        She shrugged. “I don’t know, Todd, I’m not a scientist. What do you want me to do about it?”

        I didn’t want her to do anything about it, so I said nothing. I was just worried about the definition of life. Honestly, sometimes I worried about whether it applied to me, though I don’t think that had anything to do with the gnome.

        “I’m thinking of naming him Bernie,” she said.

        This caught me off guard, and I still said nothing. She was thinking of naming the gnome? Somehow, I thought, that seemed untoward.

          “How does that sound to you?”

        “What if he already has a name?” I said.

        “Why don’t you ask him?” she chuckled.

          He was asleep when I went downstairs, but I tried anyway. “Hey buddy,” I said, “what’s your name? You got a name?”

          He didn’t wake up, and it occurred to me that he had never directly acknowledged me in any way. In fact, I didn’t get the sense that he was aware of his surroundings at all, except for the cage, which was a physical limitation. But as far as his behavior went, the cage might as well have been in the middle of a corn field. Or on top of a skyscraper. Or in the area with the high crime rate. I might as well have been anybody, to him. Hell, I might as well have been nobody.

          We never saw another gnome. We had an exterminator come out, to figure out how he had gotten in. The exterminator fiddled around the basement with her tools. Wrote some things on a pad with carbon paper. Looked at the gnome.

        “Funny little critter, isn’t he,” she said.

        Have you ever seen one before, we asked.

        “Can’t say I have.” She shook her head. “Can’t say I have. But, what are you gonna do? Stranger things have happened. Stranger things,” she repeated, “have happened.”

        I didn’t think that was true, but she said it with such confidence that I couldn’t disagree. She made some suggestions about the chimney, about caulking and insulation and things like that. She also sprayed some poison, and I still wonder if there are dead gnomes in the walls of the house. We never smelled anything, but maybe they don’t stink when they decay? Maybe they don’t decay? They just lie there, little lifeless rubber dolls?

          The gnome did not seem worried about his comrades.

          One day, Jean called me over. “Todd, look at this!” From the basement.

          I went down there, to find that the gnome was now wearing an outfit she had made
          for him.

          “He didn’t mind me putting them on him,” she said. “Didn’t make a fuss, not even a
            little.”

          He was wearing a black fleece pullover and dungarees. It looked like he was wearing little black sneakers as well, but on closer inspection, they turned out to be baby booties, made entirely out of linen but sewn to look like sneakers. She had taken the hat off and, what do you know, he was completely bald underneath.

          “He’s dressed like you,” she explained.

          “No he’s not,” I said, in a whiny tone of voice that embarrassed me immediately. I didn’t even own a black fleece pullover, which was the worst part, because it still seemed like the kind of thing I would wear, even though I had never actually worn one, as far as I could remember. Or maybe the worst part was the shoes, because I did own black sneakers, but mine were real sneakers. And this was like, these might as well be your sneakers, Todd, even though they weren’t even close, really. I’m not sure how the dungarees could have been the worst part, but maybe they were too.

          He absolutely was dressed like me, is what I’m saying, and I hated it. Not exactly like
          me, but like me.

        “Why did you do this,” I said.

          “It’s cute!” said Jean.

          It was cute, and there was nothing I could do about that.

          I decided to sell the gnome on the internet, secretly. I didn’t take any photos, but a few days after I posted the information about him, a guy came over to take a look while Jean was out with her friends at the roller derby.

        “Wow,” said the guy, watching the gnome dance in his cage. “It does this all the time?”

        “He actually spends a lot of time sleeping,” I said. “But apparently he doesn’t mind if you change his clothes for him.”

          “You ever let him out?”

        “Of his cage?” I said. “No. No, we never have.”

        The guy nodded. Princess Diana, wearing a tiny dog-sized cape with a Wonder Woman symbol, licked at his shins. “If I can ask just a really honest question,” he said, “is it legal to--well, I mean, not legal, but like--okay--I mean, to have a person, well, not a person person, but you--as a pet, or whatever--I--uh--like, is it kosher, you know?”

         “I’m not Jewish,” I admitted.

        He rubbed his temples with both hands. “I’ll give you thirty-nine dollars for it,” he said.

        “Okay.”

        “Well,” he made a wobbly motion with one hand, “thirty-seven.”

        “Okay.”

        “Actually, I’m not interested.”

        “You can have him for nothing,” I said. But the guy had already left. He really had turned on his heel and walked right out of the house, as if he suddenly found the whole thing appalling.

          Jean never found out that I had tried to sell the gnome. She came home from the roller derby and went directly downstairs to visit him, sleeping in his cage. When he first showed up, she and I would usually watch him together, and she would react to what he did by cooing or giggling or adding color commentary. Gradually, though, I had stopped spending much time watching the gnome, and she had transitioned into watching him silently. Like a vigil. But, that’s the way a lot of people watch TV, so I didn’t think it was all that weird.

            I spent weeks mentally destroying myself over why the guy who had initially wanted to buy the gnome became so upset. The gnome wasn’t doing anything wrong, so it must have been me, right? He must have found something repulsive about me. Maybe he noticed that the gnome, who was still wearing the fleece pullover outfit at the time, looked so much like me, which made it seem like I was trying to cast out this little simulacrum of myself. It would be like a kind of suicide, from his perspective. I wanted him to take away a facet of myself.

          The gnome was not a facet of myself, but the guy didn’t know that. And, from an outsider’s perspective, if the gnome and I seemed that similar, wasn’t that what mattered? There was no difference between me and the gnome, because a visitor to our house, who didn’t know me, couldn’t see one. And if that were true, then all the stuff I’d been thinking about, about life, was just wrong. Being able to put clothes on yourself, or have a name, that didn’t matter. It was all about how other people, with no connection to your abilities, thought of you. Which would mean that being intelligent, or being a person, had nothing to do with you. My body and my mind couldn’t be a person; only the idea of me could. Was that what the guy thought? Was that what everyone thought?

            I started watching the gnome with Jean more often, in silent vigil, the way she did. I wondered if she was thinking the same thing. If he was a person, in her eyes. If I was.

            She made him a little dinosaur costume, from a children’s Halloween pattern. “It’s October,” she explained. We had found the gnome in July.

            At that moment, I remembered that the guy had also asked whether we ever let the gnome out of his cage. Maybe that was the problem: that we kept him in the cage all the time, never letting him leave.

          When I thought of this, I felt an unexpected stab of resentment. Why should anyone be concerned about whether the gnome was being let out? What about me? Was anyone going to let me out?

          What am I talking about, I thought. Let me out of what?

          “We should take him trick-or-treating,” I said.

        Jean wrinkled her nose. “Jesus, Todd, he’s not our child.”

      This was true, of course, but then, what was he? “Is he, like, a pet?” The guy had used
     that word, after all.

        “I don’t really know,” she admitted. “I guess I have fun with him. He’s entertaining. And he’s harmless. He’s more like a,” she twirled her finger around in the air, “a toy, or something. Well… eh, the attraction is that he’s not dependent on me. That’s really the key piece. A child, or a pet, they need you. You have to do all these things to keep them alive and happy, feed them and clean up after them and whatever else.”

        “What about a husband?” I said.

        She didn’t seem to have heard me. “Whereas he’s basically alive and has a little personality, but he pretty much does his own thing. There’s no responsibility. I can rest.”

      “But you do all these things for him,” I said. “Making clothes. And spending all this time watching him.”

        Jean said nothing. It must not have registered as a contradiction.

      “Is that what you want?” I asked. “Someone you’re not responsible for, at all?”

        She nodded. She didn’t look at me. “Yes. Yes, it is.”

           I could see the gnome, then, as I thought she must have seen him: as an ideal version of me. A person wearing my clothes, and living in her house, but with no needs at all. A harmless me.

          We decided that, instead of taking the gnome trick-or-treating, we would move the cage near the front door, so that trick-or-treating children could see him, dressed as a dinosaur, and be horrified or delighted. There weren’t very many children in our neighborhood, so we usually spent the trick-or-treat time eating candy out of a bowl, watching television and occasionally answering the door, often seeing kids dressed as the very characters we were watching on TV.

          This year was different. Jean sat in a chair, facing the front door, the gnome in the cage by her side. Not eating any of the candy. Just waiting. When the doorbell rang, she would exclaim delight over the children’s costumes, then say, “And look at this!” And look at the gnome. He was almost always asleep, and she seemed no less excited for it.

          “Is that a bird?” one kid asked.

           Weird, said most of them.

         “It’s baby Jesus,” said another one, with a completely neutral facial expression and no trace of emotion.

           Others simply ran away.

            For the first bit of the evening, I stood slightly behind Jean, out of a sense of obligation. I felt it would be disrespectful to do anything else. Eventually, I took a break to feed Princess Diana, which had to be done. After that, nostalgia getting the better of me, I adjourned to the living room and turned on a show I’d been watching. She had no reaction. I looked over at her every so often, but didn’t get up. It didn’t look like she needed anything.

              I wondered if this was how things were going to play out from now on: Jean watching the gnome, inviting herself to be watched, watching the gnome; me, off by myself, watching TV. She with her perfect, harmless version of me, and me doing my best to be as harmless as possible, as much like the gnome as possible. I closed my eyes, using the sound of the TV as background for picturing this as normal. In the vision I made for myself, I was doing my best to disappear, or at least, to become invisible. I could sit here, in front of the TV, all day if I wanted to, and I wouldn’t be bothering Jean, because she would be with the gnome. I imagined myself wearing very large, linen facsimiles of sneakers, imagined what the linen would feel like on my feet all the time. I saw myself sleeping all the time, never needing to eat. I heard myself talk, and I heard what I said mean nothing. And what else is a house, but a very comfortable cage?

                I was asleep, is what was going on by the end. Jean woke me up late, with all the children long since gone home with their candy.

              “Todd,” she said, “it’s time to take Bernie back downstairs.”

              “Okay,” I mumbled, “I’ve got you. I’ll help!” I wondered how long she had sat in front of the door, waiting for another costumed kid to show up, after the last one had left.

              “You fell asleep on the couch,” she said. “Are you okay? How are you doing?”

              “Good,” I said. “Really good.” I stood up, did a couple shallow knee bends, getting ready to carry the cage.



M. Shaw is a graduate of the Clarion Writers' Workshop (class of 2019) and an organizer of the Denver Mercury Poetry Slam. Despite the best efforts of some, they STILL live in Arvada, Colorado, where they run the micropress Trouble Department. Their website is mshawesome.com. Their Twitter handle is @shawwillsuffice.

Smell a Rat

by Kate Maxwell

         When they all came in together, flooding the room with spikes, and swells of the last hour, minute, and now, it was always my favourite part of the day. The still panting ones, filling the room with sweat, green leaf volatiles, and just a faint trace of hot rubber from their sneakers. The squealing sherbet-breath brigade, seeping that sharp chemical punch of coloured textas from their fingertips. And oh, the delights of raspberry Slurpee pings, lingering lilt of tuna fish, and cheddar cheese preservatives, all swirling around the room in a pungent post-lunch storm. Sometimes ripe garlic belches and egg farts punctuated the masterpiece with bold and brilliant force. But nothing ever came close to me. I was, of course, the most profound and powerful force in the room.

         They’d been searching for me for weeks. Cleaning out desks, fossicking in cupboards. But I knew how to lay low, how to build and fade when necessary. I greeted the sensual smorgasbord, arriving after break time, with relish. All those familiar and new friends.
The class had moved shelves and tables, checking for mouldy sandwiches, or rotting
fruit that might fester in hidden peace. As if something that inane could create such glory. Beneath the carpet, beneath the floorboards, beneath perception, I putrefied
at glorious leisure.

         When I first took control of the room, everyone immediately blamed William. It’s true,
the boy can cultivate aromas usually too advanced for his years. A rotund child with large pores and a penchant for hard boiled eggs and kimchi, who often refuses to take off his woollen jumper on warm days, William does indeed have a unique and memorable scent. But, despite his talents, he was never a match for me.

         Today, the big one, that smelt of hand cream and deodorant, wafted behind chairs, instructing children to check their bags. Admittedly, some scents had stewed for weeks, months and were quite impressive; a deliciously rich, rotten banana in one bag, and in another, an almost stinging cocktail of wet socks mixed with rancid yoghurt. Oh, this was a good day. If the weather heated up a little more, it could be a great day. But, of course, opened windows and spinning fans denied that pleasure. Smells struggled and held on as best they could, but faded, settling into the carpet, walls, and skin instead. That rush of air, sprinkled lightly with pollen and dust, swept through in a stream of smug carnage
to diminish us. But I had reserves left. I could wait.

         Not long after recess, a strange scent entered the room. Hairspray-and-Stale Perfume I recognized, but another smell of metallic bitterness mixed with perspiration was distinctly new.

            “Mrs. James’ and Year Four, please welcome our regional director, Mr. Saville,”
Hairspray-and-Stale-Perfume said.

         An upthrust of scent as chair legs scraped the musty, cookie-crumbed carpet
and students stood. Less raspberry Slurpee and sweaty sneakers smell by now, and
more pencil shavings and bored farts. But what was that other smell? Hairspray-and-Stale-Perfume I’d smelt before, but this acidic aroma was definitely new; a corrosive overwhelming force pushing out all other scents. A smell of compliance and domination that sought to set one standard smell to rule the others. A growing whiff of fear emerged, sparking like tinder throughout the room.

         Even Hairspray-and-Stale-Perfume emitted spices of stress as she said, “Children,
Mr. Saville is here to explain the new testing system for next term. Once a fortnight we will test in preparation for final term assessments.”

         Metallic Acid interrupted, “It’s an exciting way to learn and will only take up ten extra minutes of your lunch time.”

         The children grumbled. A charred scent of scorn filled the room. Not the rich wonderful scents of the playground, flesh, and classroom, but a heavy, thick aroma, threatening to cover all the rich layers in the room.

         “Now, Now, Year 4. You and your parents will see that this academic immersion will
be of great benefit to the school and students.”

         Then I knew what must be done. If he wanted immersion, I’d show him immersion. Fortunately, the day had heated up, and a dense warmth had melted into carpet, settled under armpits, napes of necks, and baked into my core like radiance. I was ready to rise.

         There was a scuffing of leather on carpet. Hairspray and Metallic Acid were leaving.
It had to be now. Mustering a surge of aromatic outrage, I let him have it.

              “Oh, that smell!” cried Hairspray.

            “Yes, I thought it had gone,” Hand-Cream-and-Deodorant inhaled, “We’ve checked
everywhere. It’s been hideous this week in the warmer weather.”

        The students groaned, coughing and spluttering. Metallic Acid gagged. William,
who could not resist my call, added in some beautifully ripe kimchi farts. The classroom was in uproar. Students flapping, Hand-Cream calling for them to settle, but leaching out her own stale hungry breath into a kaleidoscope of scented air.

                                                                                        *

        Later, after the ammonia and detergent ones had done their best to subdue us all,
I pondered the day. The room, now empty, had only the faintest trace of glue sticks, banana and Cheetos left. I contemplated my spread. If I could merge into the sub cavity,
I may be able to infiltrate along the hall and enjoy other rooms too. I needed heat and maybe some moisture, but it was entirely possible. I could make these rooms reek like
the dungeons of hell. And on cue. Specifically, I could target those extra ten minutes
of learning allocated for the students. They’d be forced outside and then return with all their wondrous fragrances, big and small, bursting back into the room where I could then demur to entertain my old and new friends once again.

        Tonight, I would rest while the cleaning products reigned, and the sky was black
and cold.

        Tomorrow, William and I would take down the system.

 


Kate Maxwell is yet another teacher with writing aspirations. She’s been published and awarded in many Australian and International literary magazines. Kate's interests include film, wine, and sleeping. Her first poetry anthology will be published with Interactive Publications, Brisbane in 2021. She can be found at https://kateswritingplace.com/.

Sock and Buskin

      by Steven Bergmark

     

      There are moments in life that rip so close to a body such as almost missing the last chopper out of Saigon, or almost being hit by a bus, or almost kissing that person you know you shouldn’t, that when the danger’s passed, what almost happened still seems inevitable, and yet...

“I get this feeling in the back of my head.”

“Really? I feel it more on the face, like a mask I pop on and off.”

They sat at a mesh iron table, hot to the touch. It was early afternoon at a bar beside the highway. Less coarse, more elegant kinds of bars they once frequented in a better part of town were seemingly behind them now.

“Admit it though, where we were raised, where we went to school, we should have achieved much more.” He squint-scowled at the sun and noted it would be at least another half an hour before reprieve would reach them. There was something in his heart like those predecessors who named the god of Pompeii, the god of the Plague, the god of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Chernobyl. Some kind of coal that glowed with menace and burned cold.

At the time, the two were twenty-five.

“Oh, I don’t know,” he said, his cold beer resting, sweating, and wetting his belly. “I suppose in one, narrow way.” He squint-smiled at the sun and set his beer down. His heart also had that cold-burning coal--everybody’s got one--but it was not nearly so large. There was something in his heart of his predecessors who named the gods of holidays, the gods of fucking and drinking, the gods of the sky and the as-yet unborn god of global comity.

“I think you need to ask somebody,” said Squint-scowl.

Squint-smile ignored him and jerked the umbrella closer to their table roughly, and
Squint-scowl peered tensely at the bar’s black windows.

“You should have asked first,” Squint-scowl said.

Squint-smile shrugged, and with a relieving grunt, fell back into his mesh iron chair.

“So you feel it in the back of the head?”

“Yeah, when I worked that job at the mall especially. It was this pressure back there as
the rest of me did the work. All jobs, really.”

“Yeah, I feel it in my face. Something I put on, but I’ve been told it doesn’t always work
properly.”

“You reek of contempt.”

“It’s nothing personal,” Squint-smile said. “So, how do you relieve the pressure back
there, with a spoon?”

“Liquid lobotomy.” Squint-scowl raised his pint and took a couple drinks.

“I see,” Squint-smile said and laughed.

Years elapsed and the history of their friendship accumulated like sand compressed to stone. Sedimentation is rarely so simple as some imagine, and all the time chunks crack and break apart, and yet the sand continues to compound over the craggy scars. Their personalities were brought together by accident of birth and circumstance, but they were held together by that engrossing mystery of the dance between clear water and golden oil swirled, resting, or slopping in a bowl. Comedy and justice. Ebullient and irascible. God of the sky, god of underworld.

Life went on and it turned out they were both right, but their fortunes bent away as quickly as light upon the bottom of a spoon. Squint-smile had many misfortunes to come, in time, but also with a few important, auspicious turns. Squint-scowl had misfortunes, and some auspicious turns, albeit not quite so auspicious, and in time, those rare victories soured in one way or another.

Squint-scowl lost his father, but he didn’t tell Squint-smile until one blind-drunk night of wine, when Squint-scowl smashed a box fan in his filthy apartment and stomped on it until he fell over and Squint-smile grabbed him and held him as Squint-scowl sobbed and pushed and Squint-smile kept holding him until Squint-scowl gave up on saying, “No, no, I don’t want it”, and he slept until the next morning, when he had no recollection whatsoever of his hot tears. He puzzled over the destroyed fan, but wouldn’t admit his forgetting to Squint-smile, and so did not ask about it.

Then Squint-scowl felt the cold-burning coal grow, as it was wont to do. He blamed Squint-smile; somehow the red veins of the coal seemed to pulse in Squint-scowl’s presence, so he turned away from Squint-smile. It was something about his smile, thought Squint-scowl, something obscene and abusive. Still, the coal burned and grew without Squint-smile. One day, the coal had burned and grown until it took up Squint-scowl’s whole heart, smashing the other chambers up against the muscular walls. It had happened, but he didn’t quite know yet, or rather, understand it.

Meanwhile, Squint-smile felt a little raw as the months went on, and his calls continued to be ignored. He resolved to visit Squint-Scowl and invite the one who held it in his head to take a walk.

“Haven’t answered any of my calls.”

“Haven’t answered anyone’s calls.”

It was the middle of a long, dry winter. The weakness of the sun rinsed the city in a
kind of pallid myopia.

“Why’s that?”

“I’m leaving. Going to live somewhere out in the country.”

They went on walking and Squint-smile wanted to keep going, but Squint-scowl
pointed back the other way, down a quiet road.

“So, just like that?”

Just like that, Squint-smile felt a bright lance of cold pain in his back and he would have stumbled forward were it not for a hand on his shoulder pressing him deeper into the lancing pain, until suddenly the hand let go and he fell on the salt-scuffed sidewalk and he saw the large, glaring eyes behind the coke-bottle lenses and beneath them, a black, dry scowl that turned away and was gone from him forever.

If it wasn’t him, it would have been someone else. For Squint-scowl, somebody had to die. Someone had to stand accountable for the obscene, abusive world. Such is the way many cold-burning hearts become killing hearts, and what they find crumpled before their feet is not this or that person, but in some sense, all life. This is how others die, even as they continue to live. They cannot kill themselves, because first, they need to witness the obscene, abusive world die first.

Squint-smile tried and failed to cry out as he lay, and the coarse salt clung to his coat and he could taste it on his lips, and he got the feeling it was his kidney, and it was no good. Somebody came and something was being done, but he was already stepping offstage as his heart, like the heart of his predecessors, the hearts who named the gods of holiday and sex and comity, ebbed onto the concrete.

His first thought was that he had so very little time left to think and so much to think about, and so he tried to think of all the things he thought most important to think about, namely, all the love of his lover, and the love of his dog, and the love of his family, and the love of his friends. He tried not to think about the pain, the pain of the newly wrought mittens so soon returned to his partner, and what to do with his books, and his clothes, and the empty spaces he’d leave to everybody else to handle.

His last thought was unfinished, but it had to do with this strange feeling he had about how all of it was inevitable, and yet the gods of holiday and fucking and sky would persist and yet, some would only almost die and yet, still more gods were yet to be born and yet...

 


Steve Bergmark (@BergmarkSteven) lives and writes in Chicago. He teaches
high school English and Humanities on the south side.

The Jellyfish

by Anna Attie

In 1991, the jellyfish went to space and their babies
could barely make it back. Picture this: tiny tendrils
unfurling in microgravity childhood—of course

the ocean gave them vertigo. Of course,
they splayed those tiny tendrils, a balancing instinct,
and resigned their lives to bedrest, to watching

their cousins take the lights out in Luzon
and plug power plants with their bodies
in Brisbane, Oskarshamn, and Ashkelon.

They heaved a sigh,
not the jellyfish, but the men who put them up there
with their fantasies of the final frontier.

I think the jellyfish know what they are doing. I think
they plug power plants with purpose.
I think the jellyfish are biding their time.

 


Anna Attie is a writer and community organizer living in Chicago. She recently graduated from the University of Chicago with a BA in English Literature.
Her journalism appears in In These Times, South Side Weekly, Inside Higher Ed,
and other publications. Her poetry is forthcoming in Flypaper and The Offing.

We Didn’t Know They Could That

      by Ryan Pfeffer

     

I had a hurricane outfit, apparently: a blue towel with a hole torn in the  middle that I wore like a poncho, completely naked otherwise. I’d wear it  while watching every hourly update of the storm’s projected track,  rooting for any squiggly line aimed at our roof.

“It was my damn fault,” mom admitted one time, when me, her, and  Sam were having dinner at Rincón De Jalisco. "I told you that  hurricanes were just god blowing all the monsters out of town,” she  laughed, pushing ice around her very green margarita with a plastic  straw. “You were still so scared of the dark back then."

By the time Hurricane Imelda formed, mom had left Redland, and it was  just me and an extremely pregnant Sam. She was about seven months  along but looked more like eleven. It snuck up on us both. She gained  20 pounds in three weeks, and all the sudden I couldn’t look at her  without feeling a kind of nervousness that felt vague and endless.

Sam wanted to stay put for Imelda. She said these things were rarely as  bad as the news made it seem, and she was right. But this was going to  be the last opportunity I’d have to be alone — truly alone — for maybe  the rest of my life. And that didn’t feel selfish at the time. I thought I’d  earned it.

“Why even risk it?” I told her, and went on about the various concerns of  having a pregnant woman in 96 degree heat with no power or safe  drinking water. Sam smelled bullshit, because Sam could always smell  bullshit, but also because she knew she was talking to the same man  who allowed her two glasses of red wine on Saturdays and even a  bimonthly cigarette without putting up the slightest fight.

I told her I’d stay back and watch the place, and she said “fine” in a  voice that meant “fuck off.” But I think some part of her wanted the  same thing as me, just a small break before an endless marathon. I  wish I’d just asked her that. Instead I gave her a big hug, a phony smile,  and the keys to my car. And she gave me a to-do list that was mostly a  form of revenge for making her drive six hours to stay with my mom in  Jacksonville. Baby’s Room was the big one, underlined twice and  circled hard enough to dent the paper.

Sam found some stupid article about how an overwhelming percentage  of Nobel Prize winners say blue is their favorite color. But after five  weeks of deep research, she still couldn’t decide between Eggshell  Ripple or Autumn Dolphin. I was apparently not being thoughtful enough  about these kinds of details. Sam demonstrated that one night by  asking me to choose between two paint swatches and, after I pointed to  the one on the left, revealed it was a Chinese takeout menu, then  proceeded to hit me with it.

She left only a few hours before the storm hit, because Sam’s time  management skills were never the sharpest and those last 20 pounds  didn’t make her quicker. She was supposed to text me her final decision  on the paint when she got to Jacksonville, but that obviously never  happened.

The thing about Imelda is that nobody knew what was coming because  nobody had seen it happen before. We didn’t know they could do that.  We didn’t know that a hurricane could get so big, so fast, and then  just… stay put. Hover there. Like a spaceship trying to abduct an entire  city. We didn’t know that a hurricane could find the exact perfect set of  conditions that would allow it to remain completely still, stretching from  South Beach to the Gulf of Mexico, feeding itself enough warm water to  hold an entire city hostage for months.

I never talked to Sam after she left. Cell service went out just 30  minutes into the storm, and it didn’t come back. Every couple hours or  so I’d turn my phone back on and try to text her. Just little things like  “I’m safe” and “I love you” and, once, a video of me naked in the  backyard waving a golf club over my head along with the message  “EVERY MAN FOR HIMSELF.” I wanted to make her laugh because I  knew, wherever she was, that she was pissed. I just didn’t know if it was  because I wasn’t out there with her or she wasn’t in here with me.

Four days in and the storm still hadn’t budged an inch. Imelda decided  to stop with her eye directly over us. You could call that luck, I guess,  even though it wasn’t exactly pretty outside. But it was possible to leave  the house without getting shish kebabed by a grapefruit tree, so there’s  that. And soon enough people were jogging and driving to go visit their  friends. It almost felt like a town again, if you could manage to ignore  the world outside the storm, which I learned could.

Ed Tiller drove by one morning with four people and a small mountain of  avocados in the bed of his pickup. He invited me over to try an  experimental batch of wine he’d been working on. Over at Ed’s that  night, about a dozen people squatted around the radio, shushing the  folks who’d already had a little too much avocado wine. At first the  consensus from the meteorologists was that this would be over any  minute now. Hurricanes were like sharks, one of them said. They had to  keep moving or else they died. But the days passed, Imelda just got  stronger, and theories adjusted. Maybe it wasn’t even a hurricane, but  something different, a new kind of weather system. One scientist lady  called it a “permastorm” and suggested it could last for a decade.

Ed ran out of fuel for his generator about a week later and the batteries  in the radio died not long after. Ed’s generator lasted 72 hours longer  than the other generators in town because he convinced Ivan to siphon fuel from the monster truck he was restoring in his front yard. My phone  died around then too, but I sent one last text to Sam. I told her not to  worry about me, that I was doing just fine. And I tried to not think about  how much I meant it.

One night at Ed’s the wine was flowing pretty heavy when all the  sudden Ivan started shouting and pointing at the sky. A silver box the  size of a coffee table was floating down to earth, blinking red lights on  each of its corners. It looked for a second like it was going to hit Ed’s  truck, but missed by a few feet, and landed with a hollow thud. There  was a handle on top of the box next to the words “Pull Here,” so we did,  and the top slid off to reveal an impressive selection of canned beans.

“They could have squashed someone,” Ed said, stacking cans.

“They could have sent beer,” Ivan said, checking the empty box a fourth  time for booze.

After that, the sky drops — I’m not sure who coined the term but it stuck  — started coming about every three days, and kept coming for the next  month. Sometimes you’d find one smashed to pieces in an empty lot  with a crater around it. But most landed safely, full of food, batteries, a  little gasoline, firewood, cell phone chargers, first aid kits, water  purification tablets, toothpaste, toilet paper, playing cards, and socks,  which seemed odd at first but quickly became the most sought-after sky  drop item. One of the boxes had radios too, so I got my own and started  listening in the morning while I stirred instant coffee with a fork.

Imelda was getting less airtime every day, because different things kept  tugging at the country’s attention span: a pop star stabbed on the red  carpet of the Grammys by a crazy fan; the first daughter caught doing  heroin in the White House bathroom; Osceola, beloved horse mascot  for Florida State University, poisoned by a rival UF fan, and collapsed  on the 50-yard line during an important playoff game.

But Imelda was still a daily news story. One morning, NPR interviewed a  scientist who said that if Imelda wasn’t gone by March, things could get  real bad. El Niño was coming, he said, and all that warm water could  hypothetically sustain the storm for another nine to twelve months.

I turned off the radio and tried to imagine it: another year of this life.  Quiet walks and potatoes wrapped in tinfoil, cooked directly on the fire.  Drinking Ed’s wine in the backyard while the sun sets. Falling asleep to  the sound of wind and peeing outside, wherever I wanted. It didn’t scare  the shit out of me, and that’s when I first started to wonder if I was on  the wrong side of these clouds or the right one. And then a year didn’t  quite feel long enough.

The next day I woke up to a knock on the door and there was Ed,  lacquered in a layer of sweat and dead mosquitoes.

“You’re gonna want to come see this,” he said, and waved me into the  truck.

One of the sky drops had a little armored military laptop inside. When  Ed opened it, a video started playing. It was a video of our various loved  ones, hundreds of them, reciting pre-written words of support. It began  with a statement from the president, who said, “We’re going to show this  storm who’s boss,” while nodding solemnly.

The video was nearly over when mom came on screen, eyes all red and  looking like this was her fifth take.

“Hi, baby,” she said. “We love you so much. We’re all thinking about you  every day, and we know you’re going to be alright.”

She kept saying “we,” but there was no Sam. Mom paused to look at  someone off camera, probably signaling her to wrap things up.

“Baby, there should be a letter for you in the box. I need you to read it.  Everything’s going to be fine. I’m here and I’m taking care of it. But read  the letter.”

When the video ended, I found the white envelope with “JOSH” written  across the front in jagged black marker. Definitely mom’s handwriting. I  tore it open, and the words registered in bunches, like my brain was one  of those claws that could only grab one stuffed animal at a time.

“Premature… baby’s okay… named him Josh… complications… bad  infection… medically-induced coma.”

I could see Ed staring at me so I tried to keep a poker face, because I  didn’t want to cause a scene. But then I felt the wine in my stomach all  at once, like a water balloon exploded in there. I stumbled to the kitchen  and Ivan was leaning against the fridge, peeling an orange. I didn’t even  look at him, just went straight to the sink because I couldn’t tell if I was  about to throw up.

“Sick of this palace too?” he said in response to my dry heave. “Me too,  papi. Me too. That’s why I’m leaving tomorrow.”

“What do you mean leaving?” I asked, once I managed to swallow.

“I found more gas. There was a tank at the station everyone missed.  But not Ivan. I got in there with a jackhammer and now I have enough  fuel to run up the Turnpike. They say the wind’s not so bad after Boca.  Annoying, yeah, but it won’t kill you.”

Ivan was an alcoholic, but he was also a pretty competent mechanic.  And the truck in question, which used to go by the name Deadbolt in its  performing day, could run over sedans like they were speed bumps. I’d  seen it with my own eyes at the rodeo three years ago.

“Tomorrow at noon,” Ivan said, heading out the back door on the hunt  for more wine. “I’ll drive by and honk.”

As he swung the door open, I could hear laughter. People were  breaking into the latest batch of avocado wine, which came out like shit  this time. The same fucking Eagles song was playing on the radio. Ed  and his daughter were working on that night’s dinner: more unseasoned  canned beans and freeze-dried packets of buffalo chicken nuggets that  were more rubber than chicken.

I left without saying bye and when I got home, I went straight to the  baby’s room, grabbed the screwdriver on the floor, cracked open  Autumn Dolphin, and stirred the paint. It was an executive decision, but  I just knew Sam was leaning toward Autumn Dolphin. She was just  waiting for me to say it too.

Sam had never been to a hospital. It’s not that she never needed to go  to one. She was covered in scars if you knew where to look, and at  least several of her toes had been broken, judging by their angles. But  she would rather super glue a bagel-related laceration shut than take it  to the professionals. She claimed it was due to a scary movie she  watched at too young an age. She could not remember the name of the  film, only that it had an evil nurse who liked to murder people with a  sharpened tongue depressor.

That’s what really freaked her out about being pregnant — the thought  of spending the night in a “death hotel,” as she called them. I told her  that, if she gave me the word, I’d break her out of there. Me, her, and  the baby. “What are they gonna do?” I said. “Arrest us for stealing our  own baby?” And she laughed and kissed me on the neck.

I’d only finished one wall when I heard the beep outside. There was  Ivan, as promised, with one arm hanging out an open window, dangling

just above the D in the word Deadbolt, which was painted across the  truck in melting green letters.

“Road trip time!” he screamed over the truck’s gurgle.

I had to take a running start to get into the passenger seat. It smelled  like cigarettes and gasoline inside, and I couldn’t hear Ivan over the  sound of the engine. I flashed him a thumbs up and we pulled out, my  house getting smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror until I couldn’t  tell it apart from the horizon.

When we reached the Turnpike, we were right up against the  Everglades, and I could see for miles since the truck was so tall. It was  just an even buzz cut of sawgrass as far as you could see, but if you  looked up, you could tell where the eye of Imelda ended, and the sky  turned black.

Lightning flashed inside the clouds silently, and I could feel the humidity  getting sucked out of the air. It suddenly occurred to me that there were  no windows in the truck. I looked over at Ivan as he lifted a red cup to  his mouth and swallowed hard.

I really didn’t know where we were going. I never bothered to ask. Ivan  didn’t seem to have any luggage in the car and I noticed that he was  only wearing underwear from the waist down. He looked straight ahead,  at the same clouds I saw, only he didn’t seem to see them at all.

“Stop,” I said, but Ivan didn’t respond. So I said it louder, right in his ear.  And when he still wouldn’t, I unbuckled my seatbelt and dove headfirst  to punch the break myself, which sent Deadbolt into a fishtail that lasted  forever. I scrambled out of the truck and landed on my ass while he was  messing with the shifter. Then Ivan pulled away, middle finger out the  window until Imelda swallowed him up.

Standing there on the shoulder of the Turnpike, I felt my phone buzz in  my pocket. And then again and again. Cell reception must have poked  through the clouds, for a brief moment, because the notifications were  coming in machine gun bursts, one after the other. My pocket kept

shaking for the next ten minutes, and I just stood there crying. When it  finally stopped, I forced myself to look, the way you force yourself to  jump into a cold pool. You just do it without letting yourself think about  how bad it’ll sting. I only read one message, the first one that popped  up, and it was from Sam. All it said was eggshell ripple.

 


Ryan Pfeffer is a writer and journalist living in Miami. He's a native South Floridian
and is currently the editor of The Infatuation Miami, where he writes about food and restaurants. He's covered everything from DJ Khaled to the official Pitbull cruise,
and has written for places like The New York Times, Washington Post, and Vice.

The Compost Manifesto

        by Dot Armstrong

 

Compost is Cyclical

        A mouse wriggles in from a hole in the bin’s outside. Burrowing up, sideways, and through, little paws disrupt compacted layers. Above, the fresher stuff. Weeds, straw, leaf detritus. Yesterday’s breakfast, still recognizable: coffee grounds, newspapers, eggshells, grapefruit rinds, pineapple crowns. Below, soil in the making. In the middle, scrabbling for purchase in the ripe darkness, the mouse digs a cave. She can’t see where she is but she feels a pulse. The pile seethes with rot. Though the top freezes, it heats from the inside, making a cozy spot for a rodent to spend a long winter. Microbes eat and fart, performing alchemical spells through their miniscule digestive tracts while the mouse sleeps. Snow comes, covering the bin and heavying its contents. The mouse and microbes sleep and eat, oblivious. The seasons shift: freeze and thaw and freeze and thaw and thaw again until the smell of last December’s grapefruits hits the air. The mouse stirs among the stems and seeds and the human grabs the pitchfork. It’s time to flip the compost.

 

Compost is Personal

        I left Brooklyn in March last year. I stayed at my parents’ house in Minnesota for what I thought would be a brief exodus from the virus. April came; I got restless. Birds darted through the warming air and tulip shoots poked through the leaf detritus on the lawn. As a kid, one of my chores was emptying the silver compost bucket onto the pile in the back garden. This task once belonged to my dad, but he usually forgot about it. So: as the prodigal child and out-of-place city kid, I returned to an ancient responsibility. I even declared that I’d turn the compost—proposing a complete takeover of the whole disposal-and-aeration affair. After a few fragrant experiments over the years, we learned it’s crucial to aerate the compost. Think of the pile like a parfait: if all the vegetable matter squishes together in compact layers, the microbes can’t digest it. Digging through the pile shuffles the layers around, giving every scrap a chance at decomposition.

        A simple acolyte to the compost’s eternal flame, I had my quest. The tools were simple, elegant: a pitchfork with sloping tines and three black barrels containing the compost. I tied my hair up and threw an extra bandanna around my neck. I planted my feet athwart the middle barrel, plunged the fork into the pile with a thud and heaved free a half-frozen chunk. Holding the weight of half-asleep microbes, I thought about New York. Like the compost, the city fosters a complex togetherness. Disparate entities, all packed together—dense and intertwined as layers of squash skins and banana peels. These networks, the connections we can’t bury, either help us or haunt us.

 

Compost is Communal

        As long as humans have eaten, they have composted. An ancient practice, old as decomposition itself. And composition: during Sargon’s reign in 2300 BC, Akkadian farmers wrote fertilizer reports in cuneiform. Scots and Britons, Italians, Greeks, and Spaniards, Chinese and African farmers all created systems for turning shit into gold. Here in the States, indigenous folks perfected techniques to enrich the soil with nitrogen using fish, dung, and food scraps. Techniques abound, but one truth remains: when you’re composting, you’re never alone. In New York, you’re also never alone. Composting should be a cinch.  But city-wide compost collection stopped altogether in spring 2020 and hasn’t yet resumed. I wasn’t there at the outset, but I want to know what happened.

        Where was I in the interim? Adjusting my bandanna over a barrel of microbes, reveling in the rank, funky scents rising to my nose. I stabbed at the gnarly tangle, glimpsing buried textures thawing in the sun. Unfrosted whorls, a winter’s worth of organic Gordian knots: skins, pits, pith, and rinds; seeds and leaves, mats of grass, severed roots, peelings—a living archive of decay, animated library of discarded materials barely resembling their former shapes. What looked like waste was fecundity coming out of hibernation. Just as vital as the tulips. A chaotic snarl of abundance. Life, smelling like death. As I thrust my tines in again and forked over more of the frosty top layer, a ripe warmth swelled up.
The compost had its own temperature. And I sweated my own smell over the mix.
I stink the body electric, I hummed, flexing my muscles.

        Whitman’s dream, echoes of Marx. Compost is an effort for the greater good, an earthy project of redemption and resistance. An ecstatic dissolution of individual parts into something richer. Cedar waxwings sang and shat in the trees as I fed the seething mass of microbes their breakfast. Making space; giving life. Over and over. Simple motion. But who turns the piles in Brooklyn? Who turns the city to face the turning seasons, the opening world? What values do we find, distilled like soil at the bottom of this year and the next?  I came back in September 2020. Theaters were closed; restaurants and bars were serving bold customers. Schools struggled to keep up with curriculum. Compost, once a component of lofty climate goals and a source for green jobs, was last
on everyone’s list.

 

Compost is Messy

        New York produces 14 million tons of waste per year. Bags on the corner for trash day, sagging with carrot peelings from the banh mi place, moldy cronuts from the bakery, pizza crusts. Lemon slices and soggy fries from the dive bar next door scattered across the sidewalk. So: where do we put food scraps to avoid this unidirectional horror? Pre-pandemic, the New York City Department of Sanitation managed compost in two ways: through residential collection and independent drop-off sites. To receive residential collection service, you needed a “food scraps and yard waste” bin to put beside your
trash and recycling bins—city employees did the rest, collecting an estimated 50,000 tons of compost in 2019. 50,000 tons of cilantro stems, wilted lettuce, onion skins, eggshells, mango peels. The New York City Compost Project, founded in 1993, once partnered with seven locations across the five boroughs to facilitate food scrap drop-
off and compost education. GROW NYC arrived in 2011 to close the loop between locally-sourced food and locally-sourced food waste at its Greenmarkets and gardens. And let
it be known: New York’s community gardens are magical little spots, minor shrines to the deities of rot and reuse, decked out with flags and signs and furnishings reminiscent of the ‘hood they’re from. Odds are, there’s one right around the corner. From the Lower East Side to Ridgewood, gardens flourish with tenacity in unbelievably small spaces. Composting is a typical exception to strict members-only rules at the gardens. There’s
a tacit understanding. We’ve all got food scraps; we need to put them somewhere. And we’d be tripping if we erased that reality by dumping our carrot tops and apple cores in the trash. Compost: the great equalizer.

        As the pandemic spread and I high-tailed it for the Midwest, composting sites across the five boroughs shut down. Deeming collection unsafe, the city cut funding for the Department of Sanitation’s program on May 4, 2020. The cycle stopped altogether. And New Yorkers did what New Yorkers do: they took matters into their own hands. Spring arrived. Magnolias bloomed in the botanical gardens. A friend of a friend started collecting compost for his neighbors after the NYC Compost Project laid him off. Shocked by the lack of support from the city, he outfitted his bike with a capacious trailer and pedaled through the boroughs. Another friend made a weekly pilgrimage of her own. She biked from 148th Street in Harlem to Dean Street in Brooklyn, taking the Waterfront Greenway bike path down the west side of the island and crossing the Manhattan Bridge, carrying food scraps in her backpack.

        Meanwhile, outside the city and far away from convoluted urban infrastructure, I stepped into my parents’ backyard and lifted the lid on the barrels. Considered the many peregrinations, the cycles of arrive and return, arrive and return. I considered the miles I’d have
to travel to get back to my apartment, the distance between what I knew of the city pre-pandemic and what the city might become upon my return. Not an afterlife, exactly, but a revitalization. Second coming. The new metropolis, bustling and stirring with civic activity. Rot to soil; isolation to communion. Resurrection.

 

Compost is Ritual

        Five minutes by foot, two minutes by bike. There’s a line. There’s always a line, here in the city- Brooklyn on a Sunday is no exception. We wait, solicitous and patient as parishioners waiting for communion or parents waiting for school dismissal, clutching our bags and pails and buckets. Afternoon means queue, means showing up. A duty we took on; a project we are still responsible for. Two steel buckets on the sidewalk brimming with scraps half-frozen and multicolored in the bright January air. I clutch my own bag of peelings, rinds, and seeds, feeling the weight of the week’s refuse. A volunteer stabs one bucket with a shovel, making room for my offering. I’ve walked past the Prospect Heights Community Farm so many times, it took consulting Google Maps to find its exact location: cradled between two brick apartment buildings, across the street from PS. 9. Here I am, and here it is: square, deep, and withered to match the season. Though the black iron gate is locked, I imagine strolling forever into the tangled mass between the buildings. Trees branch and bend; raised beds, stalks, stems, seedheads, rocks, paths, benches. There’s a lot I can’t see. From where I’m standing, the back of the garden doesn’t exist. Does it end? Climbing vines caress a 5th-floor windowsill.

        More things I can’t see: legislation, boundaries, agendas. When the city quit collecting, the Farm welcomed anyone with a bag of roughage. But I know there’s not enough space here to process all the organic material from my neighbors’ endless pandemic kitchen experiments. On the gate, hand-lettered posters reading “OPEN HOURS” sag against fiberglass placards from the city council. Best Green Space 2017. Best Neighborhood Garden 2018. City gardens are as much made of words as they are of seeds and soil.
And what of the name? Utopian forecasting: call it a farm and the meager plot will stretch, exceeding its confines and urban situation, brimming with space and possibilities. Not exactly the shit-polishing of the delis and markets—every block in Brooklyn has its own “World’s Best Cup of Coffee”—but an agricultural variant. Call it what you want it to be.

 

Compost is Revolutionary

        The term compost derives from Old French, then Latin. One etymological direction produces compote, stewed fruits to drizzle over ice cream; another makes soil. Compost is a mixture, a putting-together, a combination bigger than the sum of its parts. Compost is a party, an improvisation: it’s a jam session roiling with unpredictable harmonies. Compost is beyond ripe. It’s frightening, anarchic. No wonder it scares us a little. Food scraps decay at rates slower or quicker than human expectation and take on new forms foreign to our senses. Fragments of recognizable produce—celery leaves, squash skins, apple cores—get weird in the pile’s deep heat.

        And here’s the weirdest part: there’s a hierarchy of waste. Trash bag mountains line the sidewalk on my route to Prospect Heights Community Farm. Blue and black, grey
and white, slouching empty or stuffed with bizarre angles. Towering heaps spilling down the curb and into the street. So what, we say, the trucks will take them somewhere else. Keep walking. Trash is ubiquitous in the city. The Big Apple’s real rotting core. And where does it go? Consider: New York sends its trash as far away as the Carolinas for processing. What would the city look like if the wine bottles and takeout containers and aluminum foil burger wrappers and single-serving froyo cups stuck around? We’d have to build our luxury condos in the black bag mountains. Compost is gnarly, yes, but in the way Brooklyn hipsters are gnarly: gross, sure, but beguiling and sexy. A hot mess. Trash,
on the other hand, warrants no shot at redemption. Compost is reincarnation, hippie garden magic; trash is Capitalist waste. Real waste. Real death.

        NYC promised to send zero waste to regional landfills by 2030. The crisis, as always, is spatial. Expanding alternative systems for waste management means rethinking where and how we live. The answers rely neither on community gardens nor city collection alone. We need composite solutions: many locations, many hands. The reality is not seamless, but tangible, proximal. Two spaces in particular offer visions for New York’s food waste future—but they’re in trouble. The Lower East Side Ecology Center, a satellite of the NYC Compost Project, continues to accept and process food scraps as it has since 1987. This location, along with the Big Reuse in Queens, faces removal due to misguided city planning. Eviction threatens humans and their microbial companions alike. Consider: would you rather live next to a garden fragrant with new soil, or a dump?

        Big Reuse processes GROW NYC’s compost. LESEC, in addition to processing, offers educational programming and equipment distribution. When these spaces—and the humans with pitchforks who tend them and render them operational—are forced out, the city has no recourse but to keep throwing things away. Compost, residing down the block like an eccentric neighbor, gives the lie to this illusion: there is no away.

 

Compost is the Future

        I am explaining Easter to the kid I babysit. She’s eating pineapple chunks out of
a plastic container and I am standing beside the sink, chopping garlic for a stir fry.
The discussion began when she offered her definition of Jesus: he’s the Messiah,
and the Romans had him crucified- which means they nailed him to a cross! Ok, tell me about what happened after he died, I prompt, raising my eyebrows. She blinks. I chuckle, crossing my eyes and sticking my tongue out. Braaaaains! I groan. Her fork thuds to the table in a spray of yellow juice. Zombie Jesus?! Oh, right! He was dead, and then he wasn’t! she exclaims. I shake the papery garlic skins into the compost bag, along with the vegetables’ earthly remains: carrot tops, broccoli peels, radish tails, furled layers from decapitated onions. This Sunday, I’ll tote my bag to the community garden and start
the cycle anew. Rot to soil. Scent of citrus rinds, overripe pineapple, moldy leaf matter. Birds chirping; mouse nibbling; humans in the garden, grunting and huffing. Turn, turn, turn.

        A city without compost is an impossible utopia. A family without arguments, a theater premiere with no line, a deli without bagels. To meet the next phase of New York’s awakening, we must concede to live amid the waste we create. It is our quest. Take up your pitchforks and buckets, people. Locate your nearest community garden; petition your leaders to value compost collection as an essential service. Look at the leavings from the breakfast you just made. See beauty in entropy, loveliness in dry grapefruit
skins and discarded coffee grounds.  Renew your faith in decay.

 


Dot Armstrong is a is a queer, nonbinary freelance writer and movement artist based in Brooklyn. They received a BA in English Literature and a BFA in Dance Performance from the University of Iowa. Their work has appeared in Isele Magazine, Tiny Seed, and Culturebot. This spring, they started taking pictures of their compost.

Singing Beyond Melismatic Existential Questions: A Review of Marlon Hacla’s “Melismas” (translated by Kristine Ong Muslim)

Many friends and folks I have found kinship with have confided in me that they never imagined themselves beyond the age of eighteen, so once they reached that milestone, the path onward seemed totally nebulous. It’s hard to know what is on the other side. Maybe it’s because we all formed an intimate relationship with loss at an early age, losing classmates and friends before we finished high school. The summer I turned eighteen, I became hyper-aware of my own mortality, and consequently felt burdened by that awareness. I knew I was on borrowed time and I felt the urgency to use it wisely—or maybe it would be more accurate to say that I felt the imperative to use this time the “right” way or suffer the consequences for eternity. Unlike my peers, who at the time were worried about what to do with the rest of their lives (e.g. college, career, etc.), I fast-forwarded to agonizing over the afterlife.

Raised Catholic and an active member of my local church community, I was startled by my first formal religion class at the Jesuit university I attended as an undergraduate. The course, titled Sacred Scripture, forced me to reckon with the reality that, regardless of believer status, no one knew with certainty what, exactly, awaits us after death. Rather than participating in campus life or joining friends for foggy bonfires at Ocean Beach, I agonized over the limitlessness of eternity, wholly consumed by utter unknowability of something so permanent and inevitable.

The same questions that my teenage-self obsessed over are explored (much more artfully and resonantly) in Marlon Hacla’s Melismas, translated to English from Filipino by Kristine Ong Muslim and illustrated by Tilde Acuña. The poetic speaker articulates the same existential questions that I circled around as a teenager, with significantly more maturity and finesse in old age than I was capable of at eighteen (and even now at twenty-five). Whereas I was (and still am) brimming with restless anxiety and existential angst, the speaker in Melismas embodies a more sober tone, not romantic, or even necessarily regretful. Though still in existential anguish, the speaker commemorates the mundane aspects of earthly life and leans into the ambiguity of their fate. Hacla writes into the unknown, shining a light into the void to expose its vastness and to illuminate all the speaker does not and cannot ever know.

Melismas is a book-length poem, resembling epic poetry in some ways (e.g. length, cyclical structure), though without an obvious narrative thread or discrete beginning or end. Rather, each moment in the poem exists contemporaneously with the others as the poetic speaker (who, unlike an epic hero, is almost invisible in a way that allows the reader to enter the poem as themself) experiences them all at once, circling back to the same obsessions and ruminating on the senselessness of existence—it is as though this piece is written in a spiraling train of thought.

Many poets will attempt to engage readers by posing a question and temporarily withholding the answer, inviting readers to participate in the poem by reflecting on their own inquiries. However, by the final page of Melismas, the speaker’s questions are left open-ended. This feels true to the spirit of the poem: these things remain unknowable.

In the earlier pages, the speaker encourages the reader to ruminate on these existential questions by nestling them within shorter stanzas. These moments are usually surrounded by blank space, which allows for the reader to have more “breathing space”:

 

                  [E]ven if you leave behind a list of what has been accomplished
                  by your love, as long as we are left to rot,
                  remarkable light of our life, then what’s the use? (33)

 
 

Yet toward the end of the poem, the existential questions begin to crop up. They occur back-to-back within verses that extend over several pages, leaving little room for pause or reflection, urgent and unrelenting:

 

                      For what is this all for, if not to spread
                      love, for lubricating the lips that eulogize
                      the futures we have longed for? For peace
                      of mind, for clarity of purpose. For delaying
                      the festivities. For our small victories. (101)
 

                                                      [...] But, how would you go about
                      possessing me? How would you marry my indecision
                      with your confusion? If you were the moon and I
                      the earth, how do you propose we become one body and not be
                      destroyed? How would you distract me
                      the moment I realize that we are falling
                      in a well, that we are just flecks in the eye of hell,
                     that we are tumbling down a pit piled high with daggers, spears, cutlasses? (119)

 
 
Within only a few pages (the pages alternate between the original untranslated Filipino text and the English translations), there is a sharp turn in the speaker’s mood.  The first excerpt suggests acceptance, the speaker assigning meaning to their fleeting existence, whereas the second selection encapsulates the speaker’s spiral into doubt and dread, requiring distraction from their individual insignificance. These two disparate passages exemplify the speaker’s temperament, their mood vacillating between wistfulness and despondence.

Rather than undertaking the impossible task of addressing these unanswerable questions, the speaker is invested in reflecting on the concepts of transience and the ephemerality of earthly existence:
 
 

                                                                        [...] We become
                     the dirt encrusting all things, and like the world’s ill-use
                     of your short-lived existence, a voice instills in air its lone register,
                     calm like how the chirping song of a lost
                     bannatiran is calm, echoing way past the limits
                    of our discoveries, going over all possible paths I imagine you would have taken
                    if only you had suspected how the end was already taking us all to task. (25)
 
 
In this passage, the speaker identifies with the dirt, acknowledging with humility their insignificance. Like the echoes of the bannatiran are beyond the limits of our discoveries, the answers to questions such as “What’s the use?” (33) and “What is this all for?” (101) are outside the scope of attainable knowledge. This again signifies the speaker’s acceptance of uncertainty, though only to an extent. Still, despite the years, the speaker considers their past actions, anticipating the moment in which they will be held accountable. Furthermore, the use of the word “already” implies a predetermined fate, unavoidable regardless of the speaker’s awareness of their own march toward the inevitable, as though no alternate course of action could have led anywhere but here.

Hacla unabashedly embraces doom and gloom, and yet, this epic poem strikes a delicate balance between existential anguish and active acceptance. Hacla’s words rouse some innate anxiety within us and targets our most vulnerable selves, tender human beings subjected to the unsympathetic will of fate. Much of our incessant asking after the meaning of it all is redundant, leading us to run in circles like headless chickens: “As our voices wane / in the wilderness, time is already / mocking us” (89). And yet, the speaker in Melismas hones in on the minutiae of everyday life with reverent attention, documenting the small victories alongside the lowest of humanity. Though this work is a speck of dust in the grand cosmos, it is an invaluable offering to the universe in its audacious declaration of feelings experienced, a record of things impermanent.

 


Paula Mirando (she/her) is a queer Filipina American writer from the Bay Area. She earned an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Miami, and her writing has been supported by the Kearny Street Workshop Interdisciplinary Writers Lab, Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation, and Philippine American Writers and Artists. She is currently working on a collection of linked short stories.