National Poetry Month Spotlight: Novels in Verse

National Poetry Month Spotlight: Novels in Verse

April is National Poetry Month, so I wanted to celebrate it with some Black YA novels in verse.

Novels in verse are my personal favorite YA subgenre because they combine poetry with narrative storytelling to enhance the thoughts and experiences of the characters. As a teen, the first novel in verse I read by a Black author was Bronx Masquerade by Nikki Grimes, which was about a diverse poetry club at a high school in the Bronx.

Two decades after its publication in 2002, there are now a plethora of middle grade and YA novels in verse by Black authors old and new. Maybe it’s because I’m a poet, but I get excited whenever I see a new novel in verse. I love reading them and seeing different poetry forms used and experiences told. Here are some of the most compelling Black YA and middle grade novels in verse.

Legacy by Nikki Grimes

This is more of a collection of poems and visual art than a novel in verse, but I’m including this book because it’s become one of my new favorites. Using the Golden Shovel poetry form, Grimes takes one line or short poem from a Black female Harlem Renaissance poet and uses it to make her own poem. The book itself is formatted so you read the Harlem Renaissance poem first and then the poem it inspired Grimes to write. Each set of poems is also accompanied by visual art by Black women, including Vashanti Harrison and Shada Strickland. As a whole, the poetry and illustrations work together to bridge the past and present.

Catching a Storyfish by Janice N. Harrington

A novel in verse aimed at a middle school audience, this book tells the story of Keet, a young Black girl from Alabama who loves talking and tellling stories. When she moves away, she isn’t sure how to cope until a fishing trip with her grandfather teaches her how to listen before speaking. However, her grandfather suddenly has a stroke and that makes him feel further away from her. In order to reconnect with him, Keet must find her voice again through stories.

Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds

In an elevator, a teenaged Black boy named Wil is on the way down with a gun in his waistband to take revenge for his older brother, who was murdered by someone in the neighborhood. But each time the elevator stops on a new floor, Wil is visited by ghosts who make him question everything he thinks he knows about revenge and emotions. Through a true-to-life cast of characters and powerful verse, Reynolds delivers a poignant tale of gun violence through both its victims and those left behind. This book lingered in my mind long after I read it because of how skillfully Wil’s conscience is represented and questioned through the characters and words.

Solo by Kwame Alexander

Filled with both music and poetry, Solo features the tale of Blade, the son of a washed-up rock star named Rutherford. When Rutherford’s legacy threatens to overwhelm him, Blade finds a letter about his parentage that leads him to Ghana. From there, he undergoes a journey to find out who he can become outside of his father’s influence and whether he can live up to the expectations he has for his life. I really appreciated how Alexander wove together various cultural influences, such as rock music and Ghanaian culture, to shape Blade’s character development.

Every Body Looking by Candice Ihoh

A coming-of-age story starring a first-generation Nigerian American female protagonist, this book explores the impact of heavy familial expectations and the desire to break free and express your true self. When Ada attends a HBU, she finds herself following her passion for dance while exploring her sexuality. At the same time, she also comes face to face with past issues as she tries to claim ownership over her body and future. It is rare to see a YA novel set in a college space, so finding one that is also in verse is extra special.

The Afro YA promotes black young adult authors and YA books with black characters, especially those that influence Pennington, an aspiring YA author who believes that black YA readers need diverse books, creators, and stories so that they don’t have to search for their experiences like she did.

Latonya Pennington is a poet and freelance pop culture critic. Their freelance work can also be found at PRIDE, Wear Your Voice magazine, and Black Sci-fi. As a poet, they have been published in Fiyah Lit magazine, Scribes of Nyota, and Argot magazine among others.

2021 Editors’ Choice Poems: Week 2

2021 Editors' Choice Poems

Week 2

Poetry Month Contest

Submit 1-3 poems of any form or style that speak to Remembering/Reckoning as a response to the traumas of 2020

“Thanatophobia”

by Amber Moss

When I visit graveyards, I gaze at the unwalled patches of the lot, scanning over the names of bodies submerged underneath calla lilies and peonies. I close my eyes and wait to feel the souls relinquished by God. Every body leaves behind a spirit. Words from my grandmother who swears she can feel the flick of her mother’s finger whenever she sprinkles too much salt in her grits. Maybe she’s right, and that warmth I feel when I lie down in a wilting garden is really my departed childhood friend holding my body against hers. Years ago, I adopted a vegetarian diet so I wouldn’t die from eating tainted slabs of meat. Death seemed too near and my only option was to push it in the direction of the ocean. I’d rather it extract the body of a trout than the Black skin that shields my bones. Every body leaves behind a spirit. Even the Black knuckles that turn the color of faded eggplant once cold. So, I dig my palms into the dirt and wait for the wind to squeeze my ears, announcing another spirit.

Alanna Shaikh headshot

Amber Moss is a Black writer and editor from Atlanta. She earned her bachelor’s degree in English from the University of South Florida. She is the author of one full-length poetry collection and two chapbooks. Her latest chapbook, Some Kind Of Black, is forthcoming in 2022 (Nymeria Publishing). Her poetry has been published in Bewildering Stories, Little Rose Magazine, Liminality Magzine, Poetry Super Highway, and others.

“Queer Crucifixion”

by Mallika Khan

I do not know loss, but I have lost to God.
Several times. Never by choice. Now, I hold
my Queer under my palm. It squeezes
itself between my fingers, clawing back
across the dining table. A spidery hand
slowly making its way to my mum.

I cannot let my Queer crucify my mum.
We interlock fingers around the table. Thank God
for the meal. Pray for my family to come back
to me instead. I ache from reaching out my hand,
knowing that my aunty will not hold
it anymore. Another death. The grief squeezes

my chest through my ribcage. She squeezes
her eyes shut, quickly. Before my mum
finds out. My gaze pierces my impure hand,
knowing all the perverse love it can hold
when I am with Her. Perhaps, I could ask God
why my Queer carries a hammer and nails. My back

should be hunched over. Instead, I lean back
to find more than a chair. Shame that squeezes
me into a tight embrace. How does it hold
me closer than my family ever would? Surely God
could reconsider this sin. I know my mum
carries my cross behind her. Her hand

covered in splinters. The same weary hand
preparing peace offerings. Meals to bring back
the relatives that denied me thrice for God.
For they don’t know me at all. I watch my mum
ask for mercy with every spoonful of rice. Squeezes
leftover grace into plastic containers for them to hold

onto as they pass over. She tells me to hold
my tongue when they speak death. Her hand
clutches my Queer firmly as they leave. Mum,
I wish I wasn’t something to fight for. It squeezes
out of me, a thought. That turning her back
meant they died for her too. Forgive me, God.

Truth is, I fear I will lose my mum to God
every day. But for now, I hold her hand
while we pray. She always squeezes back.

Jareen Imam author photo

Mallika Khan is a 22 year-old queer Pakistani poet and artist based in Bristol. They study Psychology with Criminology at the University of the West of England. They believe that where sorrow lies, resilience and strength is always there too; and this is the main focus of their work. Mallika’s poetry has received recognition from Bristol Women’s Voice and Art Within The Cracks, however, this is their debut poetry publication.

More information on Mallika’s work can be found on their website at: https://mallikakhan.wixsite.com/studio

Disgusted & Enthralled & In Love: A Review of Louder Birds by Angela Voras-Hills

Disgusted & Enthralled & In Love

A Review of Louder Birds by Angela Voras-Hills

In her poem “Splendor,” Angela Voras-Hills writes, “I am disgusted and enthralled and / in love.” The poem has just described the untangling of a mangled worm, half-eaten by millipedes—the millipedes deprived of their lunch, the worm (semi-rescued) but not long for it. After this hinge line, the next is, “The baby grows too big for my womb.” As the poem continues, the reader meets more bodies: flies, a spider, a fourteen-year-old son, an infant daughter. The poem closes, “The difference / between the moment of being and a moment of being. // When there’s a body and when there is none.” Here, each of these bodies is a notion of home—fragile. Hopeful, requiring tending. Throughout Louder Birds (Pleiades Press), Voras-Hills constructs notions of homes and tears holes in them—thin skins and ribs, wombs, papered layers of rooms & structures, old barns, traceries of farms & crisscrossed land.

The world made in these poems is stitched together by fragile associations—half made, tenuous. The language is incantatory, impressionistic. In “Preserving,” the form of the poem moves stanza by stanza with a word or image occasioning the next. The first, “I can spend a whole winter / in the summer of these lemons / if they’ve covered in enough salt,” leads to the next, where “Trucks are salting the roads / so I can drive . . .” An image of walking leads to an image of falling. Although this form is not as pronounced in other poems, overall the poems are made of these associations. Half-starts & skips. They are juxtapositions—a setting side by side of notions of the poet’s imagination (for better or worse). Sometimes, they offer a snapshot of worst-case scenarios or the kinds of ingrained knowledge that accumulate in small towns or rural areas of what could happen—because it’s happened before.

The opening poem of the collection, “Retrospective,” describes a girl holding a sign that reads “Zucchini / and God.” She’s barefoot and bare shouldered. There’s a gray sky, and a cat, and a corn field, and “the boundaries between home and the road // are insecure.” There are signs, and there are signs—sirens, it seems (and if you don’t know what that means—it’s a warning for a likely tornado or terrible storm). “We’ve all been in the presence of something dark // and have chosen not to seek shelter.” This poem, coming before all the others, is a warning of sorts—and it’s borne out in the following pages: in these poems, things will turn quickly. What seems to be only a roadside scene can quickly become something else, something dangerous. There will be loss, the evidence of something awful come before.

“Chateaubriand” is one of those poems that turns quickly. It begins:

Love me here, a tangle in the wire, complicate
my limbs with your mouth. Like the trail,
we’re a handful of breadcrumbs . . .

In the second stanza, “A girl / from another town was pinned against a fence / with the grill of a pickup while jogging.” I thought I was reading a love poem—but here’s brutality, and it’s not random. It’s personal, a neighbor “the guy behind the wheel, a stranger, lived / on her street.” And the poem addresses the reader then, with a “you,” reminding me of the intimacy of the page, the small space I’m caught in: “one day, you’re eating Chateaubriand, / the next, you can barely pronounce tender.” Those notions of home return, complicated by the imagining (?), remembering (?), of that complicating act—the one that twines with the imperative to love. The body that “keep[s] / our organs safe” like the skin of a grape, “making a home of your darkest, inside spaces.”

The cover of the book, featuring a bird carcass arranged over dried flowers, as well as a number of the poems, invoke dead animals, and the bodies of “the beasts / we’d run over along the way.” In “The Rabbit in the Road,” a blood tide rises over the curb, coating feet and leaving tracks all the way home. In “Home (IV),” a coyote eats her young. In “Unfurling” (a poem that ends with the beginning of labor), there is a poisoned opossum, a blanket of glistening cricket bodies. The displacement of human pain onto the witnessing of other pain—often the close examination of animal pain—a kind of alchemic dissection, as if to engage with these safe bodies, at a distance, with some sort of critical analytical eye—is a recognizable strategy. This displacement makes for powerful poetry: close looking, and capturing that on the page in indelible detail, and then snapping the reader back to the real true thing.

The poem “A Small Hole Filled with Mud” calls to mind the beginning of Angela Carter’s “The Snow Child,” where the wife’s desire for a child is crystallized by a perfect blood-filled hole in the snow. All desire, all wanting, a stylized image of perfection in the contrast of crimson and white. In Voras-Hills’s poem, desire is cast in the rural imagery of salt licks and bait piles—those heady tastes that lure the animal in us. The way salt almost burns the tongue with its pleasure; the way fruit rots in a late-autumn heat, a dense sweet tangibly heavy. Called, the speaker of the poem has arrived, and is “waiting / for the man to see me through / the screen door.” Instead of that image of perfect beauty, there’s the hole filled with mud, the mud “up to my ankles.” In that field, “children who won’t exist are calling / my name.”

In the notions of home Voras-Hills suggests throughout her collection, as well as the ways she troubles their existence, she names a particular kind of landscape and place, best articulated in her poem “Maps of Places Drawn to Scale.” The poem begins with a car accident, a van flipping on an exit ramp. “In a small town, a priest / knows the man’s name.” The poem muses that at the Chinese buffet (there’s often a restaurant called this in small towns), no one’s fortune cookie says “you will suffer [ . . .] / but it’s implied / in the parking lot.” Throughout the collection’s accretion of imagery, memory, and imagining, a skeletal narrative has formed—one of a relationship surviving losses of would-be children, finding comfort in the world they make together even as that world is threatened. One of looking out windows into the distance at neighbors—people and fields and animals, the barn across the way—and trying to find one’s place there. This poem ends with the comfort and suffocating qualities of living in one of those small-scale places: “But in a small town, there’s one / name for each baby born, and eventually / it’s on the lips of everyone in the street.”

C. Kubasta writes poetry, fiction, and hybrid forms. She lives, writes, & teaches in Wisconsin. Her most recent books include the poetry collection Of Covenants (Whitepoint Press) and the short story collection Abjectification (Apprentice House). Find her at ckubasta.com and follow her @CKubastathePoet.

Terrible Awful Beauty

Terrible Awful Beauty

by Angela Voras-Hills

The night Trump was elected, I lay in bed awake all night, wondering if a nuke would reach the Midwest. I was sure we would all explode before the night was over. Lots of people were afraid in different ways, but my fears always culminate in the explosion of the world. Have you seen the movie Melancholia? That is always where my mind ends up.

When I was pregnant, I was afraid of falling. I was afraid the baby wasn’t kicking. I went to the doctor a lot to be sure she was still alive. But then, she was born, and the fears were bigger. There was not a squishy waterball around her body to protect her if she fell. I was afraid if a knife was in the same room as her. I was afraid of stairs. I was afraid of sleeping and of not sleeping. Don’t get me started about crossing roads.

Two Months Before My Son Leaves for Belgium, We Visit the Zoo

 

And a few months before that, the airport is bombed. I get message
message message: am I letting him go? And maybe I’m to blame,
because I never told them I’d once caught him running on the roof
of our third-floor, that he was once hit so hard by a car his shoes
flew from his feet into air (a story I heard as his friends joked
about the lady who’d hit him, who’d cried and hugged him in the road,
making sure he was ok), or when, just three days before the bombing,
a high school kid scrawled plans to shoot everyone on a bathroom stall.
And so, two months before my son boards a plane to Belgium, we feed
giraffes, and he poses with peacocks. He wants to see reptiles and primates,
his sister wants elephants, crocodiles, never stops running until she sees a baby
kangaroo—we all stop and watch him hop around his mother
who lays on the concrete floor, bored. He cleans her ears, jumps
on her head to engage her in play, and she swats him away. He is already
half her size, but clearly still a baby. He doesn’t give up until finally
she stands, and I say I think he’ll climb into her pouch! My son doesn’t
believe the joey will fit, and I tell him he will fit, and then, an illusion—
the pouch one minute tucked against the kangaroo’s belly, stretches,
touches the ground as the joey climbs in head-first, shuffles and turns
settling in. After that, there is little to see. Black paws peek from the belly.
The mother nibbles her fingers, drags her baby toward a food bowl, and I
follow her eyes down the dark corridor toward the metal door bursting
open, the light blasting in, my daughter running out into it.

Most moms I know spend a lot of time at Target. The Dollar Spot. The end-cap clearance. The Starbucks. They go for toilet paper and spend $100. I am occasionally a mom who does this, and I don’t call this out to judge, but to say, when I am afraid, I go to Target. It feels safe there. (Though I’ve seen enough shooting footage at Walmarts to know better.) It’s easy enough to drink a latte, push my kids in the cart while they play with a random toy I won’t buy, and pick out a pretty thing or two that will make my life easier.

When I spend a lot of time at Target (or, more recently, internet shopping), I write nothing. I let all of my anxieties be swept away by faux eucalyptus wreaths, bamboo potato bins, vetiver candles— the promise of an organized home, manageable children, an “Instagram-worthy” life. But when I get these things home, I am unsatisfied. Most things I buy, I return within a week.

Haunted

 

Living alone, I’d call my mom, make her listen
as I moved room-to-room
looking in closets, behind doors,
under the bed, anywhere

a man could fit. I plugged my curling iron in
each day before showering, imagined
identifying a man in a lineup
by his melted cheek,

his missing eye. By then, I’d seen enough
Law & Order reruns to play each scene
out until sentencing. Ever since
I was a kid, I’ve wanted things

to be fair, believed hand-on-my-heart
in liberty and justice for all, but I’ve also
been so afraid. Mostly of a death
I’d have to live through—

drowning, fire, kidnapping that ends with me
tied up in a hole filling with dirt.
My daughter is scared of ghosts,
believes they’re in each

corner of her dark room. I tell her
they’re not real, but once playing Ouija
at the cabin with cousins,
we contacted The Blue Ghost

and the light above us flickered blue/
burnt out, left us in dark woods alone.
So who’s to say? I’ve never walked
through a haunted house,

staged or otherwise, but my cousin
pissed her pants inside one, left
a puddle someone had to clean.
One year, the gun club

sponsored a haunted hayride, and I rode
through the forest, hay splintering
my ass through jeans, and when
a man jumped out of the dark

with a chainsaw buzzing at us, I thought,
“God, who knows if this is really
part of it? Who gets paid
to behave this way?”

This was years before a man
shot into a crowded concert
from a hotel window in Vegas
and before so many

defended his rights. I watch TV,
try to believe “these stories are fictional
and do not depict any actual
person or event.” My daughter

asks about monsters, and I say they’re not
real, but news breaks, and she knows
I’m lying. If ghosts are real,
what do they expect

from a four-year-old? By now,
you’d think we’d all have heard
the unsettled dead. You’d think
something would’ve changed.

It took me a while to recognize this cycle of consumerism and fear, and especially how it is encouraged among women, particularly mothers, and it is fed by social media. The amount of money a mom can spend on “baby gear,” and the sheer volume of stuff one can buy for a tiny human being who can only roll over, is a testament to this.

A few years ago, I watched the video The House in the Middle, which is a PSA made by the Civil Defense Department in the Fifties and sponsored by a paint company. The video suggests that if you (the housewife) keep your house clean (and well-painted), your family could survive a nuclear attack. Can you imagine? All you need to do is keep a clean house, and ta-da! Your family survived the nuke. From there, I read bomb-shelter shopping lists. I looked at fallout shelter meal plans. I looked at photo after photo of how mannequin families “survived” nuclear tests. All of these mannequins looked just like me. They looked like every mother I knew: cooking dinner, stocking the pantry, decorating the fallout shelter with new bedding, encouraged to buy things and stay busy.

The Mannequin Refreshes the Facebook Mom Group While Sitting on the Toilet

 

A pregnant woman has been reading— childbirth
sounds awful, bringing baby home is terrifying,
she wants someone to tell her it’s not. Someone
say it’s beautiful. And they do. 97 comments
gushing about the beauty, assuring her yes, it’s hard,
but you will only remember the joy of those first days,
they go so fast. The mannequin has had enough
babies to mostly remember the awful, the weight
of body after body escaping her own, she can barely
read the comments without feeling cheated
out of forgetting, so she scrolls past them, another
mom wants recommendations for a nutritionist,
her husband won’t let their toddler eat sugar, natural
or otherwise, and her toddler is losing so much weight
so fast now that he’s weaning, and that’s as far
as the mannequin gets before the door bursts open,
and a photo appears in her Facebook feed, and it’s
her baby a year ago, and here’s her baby today, and
she sees he was beautiful—the baby on the duvet,
stretching in his new skin, now wobbling in
on chubby legs, such terrible, awful beauty.

Jareen Imam author photo

Poet, community organizer, and instructor Angela Voras-Hills grew up in Wisconsin. She earned an MFA from the University of Massachusetts Boston. She is the author of the poetry collection Louder Birds (2020), selected by Traci Brimhall for the Lena-Miles Wever Todd Prize.

Voras-Hills has received grants from the Sustainable Arts Foundation and Key West Literary Seminar as well as a fellowship from the Writers’ Room of Boston. She cofounded The Watershed: A Place for Writers, a literary arts organization, which evolved into Arts + Literature Laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin. She lives with her family in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

2021 Editors’ Choice Poems: Week 1

2021 Editors' Choice Poems

Week 1

We were so happy to receive a significant number of submissions to BMP Voices National Poetry Month 2021 — in only the first week. Editor C. Kubasta’s theme seems to have resonated with poets, and in this first week, we discovered a theme within the theme.

This set of nine poems, this week’s Editors’ Picks, speak out to specific but very different audiences and seem to reach out to connect in order to share what these audiences may need to hear after a year of global pandemic. A thirteen-year-old poet gives us insight into the experiences of young people during this time, protest poetry indicts a complicit United States, a Mainer wife squares her chin and maintains her space, two poets imagine hauntings and ghosts in very different ways. Masks and quarantine bookend change and grief.

Thank you to these poets for sharing our collective experiences and the powerful experiences unique to different communities.

Ruth & Mary Ann
Brain Mill Press Publishers

Poetry Month Contest

Submit 1-3 poems of any form or style that speak to Remembering/Reckoning as a response to the traumas of 2020

“Roosters”

by Alanna Shaikh

I’m used to roosters
I’ve always lived in cities; when I hear an outdoor sound, I know it’s roosters
Roosters or stray dogs
Drifting off in bed I hear them
ooo-uh-oo-oo, faintly or loudly but always clear
in the dark of night tending my bladder
in the morning as I cling to my blankets
as I eat lunch by the window

This new city though.
First, it has no roosters.
I never hear them, not ever.
Next, it has other birds; it teems with them.
exuberant choirs of birds
festivals of birds and
determined rusty squeak of palm squirrels

Now, I fall asleep to cooing, trilling, that squirrel squeak
I wake and sleep and urinate to choruses
I know a chirp from a tweet from a squawk
The small hours are all hoots and chirrups

It’s a new thing, this abundance
My ears need time.

Alanna Shaikh headshot

Alanna Shaikh is a first-generation Pakistani immigrant. Her poetry is influenced by the landscape of Northern New York state where she grew up, daily life and the literature in the seven countries she’s lived in, and her work in global health and pandemic response. Her poetry has been chosen for publication by Eclectica Magazine and the Norfolk Coast Guardian.

“The Ghost at Home”

by Jareen Imam

I found her standing in the corner,
or maybe I should say, she found me.
She was watching me as I worked late into the evening.
My face illuminated by the pale blue light
shining from my overheated laptop.

I think she mistook me for one of them, initially.

You’re up later than usual, she finally said.
This is normally my time to haunt.

Just give me another hour, I responded.
I’m working on a PowerPoint my boss wants.

She sighed as she threw the white bedsheet off her ghastly frame,
huffing and puffing before she vanished into thin air.
The next night, she found me again,
but this time she was sitting on my bed.

Are you working late again? she complained.
When is this going to end?
I’ve got a schedule to keep up with, she moaned,
as she showed me her planner

Haunt 30-something-year-old woman
between the hours of midnight to 2 A.M.
Make sure to instill feelings of inadequacy, the planner read.
A footnote was scribbled at the bottom, reading:
Extra 10 percent commission if woman dreams about
never getting married.

I couldn’t help but chuckle as I read her notes.
You don’t have to worry about doing these things, I said.
I already feel so alone.

Jareen Imam author photo

Jareen Imam is an award-winning American journalist who has worked for media companies such as NBC News, CBS News, and CNN. During 2020, she led a global team of journalists who investigated and reported on stories about the pandemic, the death of George Floyd, BLM protests, voting issues, the U.S. presidential election, and more. In 2020, while reporting for NBC, she endured the death of her grandmother, the separation from her family—many of whom worked as frontline healthcare workers and took care of those infected with Covid-19—and a painful breakup from her long-term partner. It was also the year she started to write poetry again after a 20-year hiatus.

“Grief Is the Ghost”

by Anne Marie Wells

"Grief Is the Ghost" poem
Jareen Imam author photo

Anne Marie Wells (She | Her) of Jackson, Wyoming is a queer poet, playwright, and storyteller navigating the world with a chronic illness.
AnneMarieWellsWriter.com

FB|IG @AnneMarieWellsWriter
TW @AMWWriter

“Parable of the Drought”

by Merridawn Duckler

I was rattling the inside of an old saltine tin when you came home. We’re out of tears, I said. Again, I said. You put the bags down in a huff. They were supposed to last until the party, you said, where do they go? We both know the answer to that. You spent them. Pretending it’s for others, to be donated or sent overseas. But it’s crap. Everyone knows you cried up all those tears for yourself. My eyes have been dried for fifteen years. My mouth is like a ghost lake. Sadness scurries in rat feet at the bottom of my well. A soul could drop a rock in there and hear no echo. Whereas you are a fountain, bountiful crocodile. The world is your blue handkerchief, wrung once and snapped out fresh. I am sad, I said, I’m broken. I walked to the other room and saw you absorbed in the images, taking a screen shot and superimposing it on your face. What do you want now, you said. I tried to explain to you about my hollow. My dust. You turned your face to me. Goddamn, you are beautiful. I’m so sorry, you said. And your eyes filled up with tears

Jareen Imam author photo

Merridawn Duckler is a writer from Oregon, author of INTERSTATE (dancing girl press) and IDIOM (Washburn Prize, Harbor Review.) New work in Seneca Review, Women’s Review of Books, Interim, Posit. Fellowships/awards include Yaddo, Southampton Poetry Conference, Poets on the Coast. She’s an editor at Narrative and at the philosophy journal Evental Aesthetics.

Twitter@MerridawnD
Instagram@merridawnduckler

“[2020] The Divided States of Attica”

by henry 7. reneau, jr.

"Grief Is the Ghost" poem
Jareen Imam author photo

henry 7. reneau, jr. writes words of conflagration to awaken the world ablaze, an inferno of free verse illuminated by his affinity for disobedience, is a discharged bullet that commits a felony every day, is the spontaneous combustion that blazes from his heart, phoenix-fluxed red & gold, exploding through change is gonna come to implement the fire next time. He is the author of the poetry collection, freedomland blues (Transcendent Zero Press) and the e-chapbook, physiography of the fittest (Kind of a Hurricane Press), now available from their respective publishers. Additionally, his collection, The Book Of Blue(s) : Tryin’ To Make A Dollar Outta’ Fifteen Cents, was a finalist for the 2018 Digging Press Chapbook Series. His work is published in Superstition Review, TriQuarterly, Prairie Schooner, and Rigorous. His work has also been nominated multiple times for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net.

“Lucency”

by A Whittenberg

Amongst a breathless, debilitating, incapacitating panic
attack, I told myself not to panic and… without warning, I was
suddenly all right.

Jareen Imam author photo

A Whittenberg is a Florida native who has a global perspective. If she wasn’t an author she’d be a private detective or a jazz singer. She loves reading about history and true crime. Her other novels include Sweet Thang, Hollywood and Maine, Life is Fine, Tutored and The Sane Asylum.

“We Stand”

by Keira Schaefer

2020 broke the limits
Tearing our boundaries apart
Like Buffalo trampling the plains
Through nothing but darkness
Our world was the midnight sky
2020 overwhelmed our healthcare workers
Many lost beloved friends and family
Others lost their job, and the ability to pay rent
We thought we lost the world
But we had each other
Now, in 2021, we stand together
We raise higher than the ocean’s tides
Although we are still apart
The light, the sun, the new day is coming
Through hardship we are more united than ever
We stand, we raise, we unite

Keira Schaefer is a thirteen-year-old girl who has a passion for poetry. She loves to express her feelings and emotions through her literature. Other than writing poems, she enjoys gymnastics, playing harp, ice skating, and photography.

“Sea Change”

by Nancy Cook

The sun is midsky when he cuts the diesel.
Now he can hear the tonguelap of water ripples
against cedar plank, feel a shadow of sweat
forming on his brow. A line of pelicans whips
across the horizon and he sees, without looking,
tricolored bullet buoys in neat order, bobbing
at water’s surface in a subtle play for attention.
He senses the sadness all around. In times past,
on days such as this, the water would talk to him.
Now it has nothing to say. The fishing is good,
the weather is fine, but all the world is as quiet
as winter. He unpacks the sandwich the wife
has wrapped in waxed paper: ham and cheddar
and mustard on rye. She’s thrown in some chips,
a folded napkin, and a sliced apple sprinkled
with sugar like she used to do for the kids.
A cold beer would taste so good right now.
He reaches deep into the cooler for a Dr Pepper.

He ends the day early with a light haul. On town
streets bereft of tourists, still he savors whiffs of
rendered butter, partakes with phantom taste buds
the sweet succulence of boiled lobsters. It is one
pleasure that doesn’t age. Before joining the wife
at the church, he showers and shaves. This evening
is the annual strawberry festival, which every year
she organizes. She is a pillar as they say, always
in public her chin lifted, daring and determined,
one ear cocked as if to say I’m listening. And though
tonight, socializing will be minimized, face masks
mandatory, she’ll oversee the sale of two hundred
fruit pies, baked in honor of the state bicentennial.
Keeping busy is a way of life. They all respect that.

Two dozen tables are set up in the churchyard
under hulking shade trees. Broad leaves like titans’
hands block the ebbing sun. The dusk feels heavy
with sadness. As if reading his mind, the wife says,
Even with the church locked up, light’s passing through
the stained glass. There’s secrets older than memory.
Sins to be forgiven. He doesn’t know that some mornings
she takes the deer path down to water’s edge. There
she stands on the old dock, hands deep in the pockets
of her oversized Mac, and watches for the fog to lift.

Jareen Imam author photo

Nancy Cook is a writer, teaching artist, and completely recovered lawyer. She serves as flash fiction editor for Kallisto Gaia Press and also runs “The Witness Project,” a program of free community writing workshops in Minneapolis designed to enable creative work by underrepresented voices. She has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has been awarded grants from, among others, the Minnesota State Arts Board, the National Parks Arts Foundation, the Mayo Clinic, and Integrity Arts and Culture. Her first chapbook, Written in Nature, is forthcoming in 2021.

“Safekeeping”

by Tracy Mishkin

We go to some essential job, our faces swaddled
in fear. Masks leave us lightheaded, but sometimes
we wear two because there are worse things.
In the produce section, we struggle to open plastic bags.
We must have licked our fingers back before all this.
And touched our faces.

Walking the dogs feels good. We shout hello
to every stranger, for nothing is stranger
than this year. We used to pick up trash, but now
it’s masks and tissues scattered in the grass.
That neighbor we haven’t seen in months says
the pandemic is a hoax. Six feet isn’t far enough.

A vet we’ll never meet says the big dog has cancer,
and every three weeks she hops behind the wheel
as though it’s normal for dogs to drive. “Shotgun,”
we say, and she moves over. We do a piss-poor job
of watching the road. When we brake hard,
we throw out an arm to stop her from hitting the dash,
the way our fathers tried to protect us, remembering
a world before seat belts.

Jareen Imam author photo

Tracy Mishkin is a call center veteran with a PhD and a graduate of the MFA program in Creative Writing at Butler University. She is the author of three chapbooks, I Almost Didn’t Make It to McDonald’s (Finishing Line Press, 2014), The Night I Quit Flossing (Five Oaks Press, 2016), and This Is Still Life (Brain Mill Press, 2018). She lives in Indianapolis with her family and fewer than ten cats and dogs. You can read more of her work at tracymishkin.com

Top photo by bennett tobias on Unsplash

“Sisters Always Love Each Other the Most of Anybody”: A Review of Leslie Pietrzyk’s Silver Girl

A short interlude chapter entitled “Strategies for Survival #3: Silence” occurs almost exactly halfway through Leslie Pietrzyk’s novel Silver Girl (Unnamed Press, 2018). It’s halfway through the numbered pages of the book, and halfway through the unfolding story. Chronologically, it’s closer to the end than the beginning, but chronology fragments in this narrative, as does the protagonist’s voice. In this section, so does point of view. She begins by telling us, “It was cool on campus to talk about the Tylenol killer.” But this girl hides in silence, her own, made of all the things she doesn’t say. The section ends with her at a frat party apart from others: “. . . the single girl—you, me—standing quietly near the keg.” And someone shows up—some he—and she thinks, or pretends, that maybe he’ll rescue her. He asks about the Tylenol killer, who she thinks did it. And she says they’ll never know, that it’s the perfect crime. But he doesn’t believe in perfect crimes.

You smile at him. Sweet boy. Sweet, sweet boy. Then you fuck him anyway. I mean, I did. I fucked them anyway.

The telescoping of this perspective all at once, mid-story, was a sudden wrenching in my gut, a closing of my throat. It revealed what I’d been suspecting throughout the first half of Silver Girl—built on the scaffold of real events of poisoned Tylenol in 1982, and the deaths of seven people in Chicago: this book also speaks to larger truths that the best fiction attempts. The unnamed college girl protagonist is you, me—other girls and women seeking sisters, escaping home, wanting rescue but discovering only a “sweet, sweet boy” with failures of imagination. That’s not the story anyway—it never was.

Silver Girl coverSilver Girl is told in sections: The Middle, The Beginning, The End, and Where Every Story Truly Begins. Through sections that skip between the protagonist’s college years, her late childhood, and immediately after college, the reader meets her family, her college best friend and roommate (and her family), and contrasts those dynamics. Sisters—their bonds and rivalries—are central to the story, both biological sisters and the kinds of sisterhood that develops when people live together, forced into intimacies by shared spaces and confidences. The protagonist sees college in Chicago as an escape from her Iowa town, from her family, but also as a chance to reinvent herself, to be someone else. At home in Iowa, she takes her younger sister Grace to the mall before Christmas, where she has to explain the bookstore isn’t a library and then beg the salesgirl for a book, pretending to be the family named on the paper ornament hung on the charity tree. All that work for a $2.25 paperback, but they needed every coin for the bus home.

In her first conversation with Jess, the woman who will become her best friend, she refers to herself as “the devil’s daughter.” It may be a rare moment of honesty, but Jess is attracted to her bravado—the protagonist is only trying to distract from her cheap trunk suitcase, her threadbare clothes, the imitation pearls that don’t shine when compared to those of the rich girls in the dorm. Jess who wears “winter white,” and gifts her a plane ticket to London, and teaches her to spray perfume on her wrists, and knees, and the inside of one thigh only. Jess whose entire family calls each other “Lovey.” Throughout the novel, the protagonist works to conceal her identity, always wary of being found out. The unkindest thing Jess can do is let her know she knows she’s poor.

The protagonist has other secrets, too—these are revealed in bits and pieces throughout the story. She loves her sister Grace but cannot take care of her—that would mean having to stay. Boys and men are ways to hide, but also maybe ways to escape—she’s trying to figure that out. Her high school friend Janey resents and hates her. There are other family secrets no one is talking about. As her relationship with Jess grows, the protagonist ends up taking on Jess’s secrets also: the ones Jess talks about and the ones she doesn’t. The story is built on secrets, and it’s often unclear how self-aware the characters are—they are unknowable, unreliable, but dearer because of this. I deeply love stories about sisterhood, about girls and women navigating the complexities of their desires for intimacy: failing each other, and needing each other all the more. As the character we inhabit, the protagonist seems so clear-eyed about everyone but herself. I ache for her, want to walk up to her standing alone by that keg and talk to her about the things she thinks—make a list with her (one of her pastimes) about those stupid, sweet boys—and point out all the other girls at the party just like her who are only better at pretending, but no different, not really, than she is.

Ultimately, Silver Girl is a rule-breaking book. The narrator breaks rules and wonders when she’ll be caught. The storytelling breaks rules: we readers try to piece together clues to create a coherent picture of what made the narrator who she is—but in the end, there are shadows that remain, so we guess, and our guesses reveal more about ourselves than what’s explicit in the story. In this column, I try to focus on new writing from the Midwest, so writing about Silver Girl breaks a few of my own rules—although set in the Midwest, Pietrzyk no longer lives here, having left Iowa City, Iowa, years ago for Washington, DC. And the book came out a few years ago, but I just discovered it. I think we need to sing and celebrate the writing that speaks to us, that brings us out of whatever silvered-over thickened skin that’s interfered with our creativities during COVID isolation. For the last few months, I’ve had trouble reading much, and my TBR stack has grown and grown. The fractured narrative of Silver Girl broke through; the sharp eye of the protagonist that berates herself while seeing others so clearly made me want to telescope through time, talk to this fictional woman, tell her she’s seen.

A couple of months ago I was talking to dear friend—a sister—and she was telling me about my astrological sign. We were in our cups a bit, and I turned to her and said, “You’re only telling me the good things . . .” We were side by side on a couch, shoulders touching, and she turned her face toward me and said something so true—it could have been painful, but it wasn’t. It was a moment of recognition. There’s a moment like that when the protagonist and Jess are shopping, and rediscover composition books at Osco. It’s another interlude chapter, “Strategies for Survival #4: Lists.” They talk about list making. Jess says, “Like a diary, but quicker.” There’s recognition:

Her eyes locked on to me, into me, like I had breathed a secret out and she had breathed it right in.

My stomach did that thing it did when I read the perspective switch. Sisterhood, an intimacy of secrets—not only our own. Seen, and so sharply. Clear-eyed about everyone except ourselves.

 

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About the Author

C. Kubasta writes poetry, fiction, and hybrid forms. She lives, writes, & teaches in Wisconsin. Her most recent books include the poetry collection Of Covenants (Whitepoint Press) and the short story collection Abjectification (Apprentice House). Find her at ckubasta.com and follow her @CKubastathePoet.

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Portaging celebrates new writing from the Midwest with a particular focus on experimental and hybrid work from small presses.