issue 18 · winter 2021
UNDER THE ALTAR THE SOUL · Sam Ambler
I hide under the cathedral’s altar
the gold-embroidered white linen
framing a perfect secret lair,
while the priest murmurs Mass
above me, in the cold incantations
of ancient Latin. I can feel
the weight of 2,000 years of death,
flagellation, and resurrection
emanating from the cross downward
toward me to shelter my sins,
outward toward the congregation
beckoning them to understand,
and upward toward heaven
where it receives ultimate release!
They all sit quietly reciting prayers
they don’t comprehend,
while I pray God will spare me
the priest’s marauding hands
at least on this holy day,
that he will leave me, for once,
in peace. I pray under the altar
until my body emerges
to perform its Eucharistic duty,
to transmogrify as it is consumed.
May God have mercy on my soul.
Beignets · Steven Ablon
fried, inflated under
a mountainside of sugar.
The Mississippi coalesces
muddy as we watch
container barges slip
inland carrying a child’s
blocks, orange, blue
even green. The coffee
stings of chicory, is
forever too hot to drink.
My love, we are just
sitting here, clouds hustling
overhead, no place to go,
a biker here and there,
this sacred time,
My kitchen, all chaos · D.S. Maolalai
in a long-neglected garden,
I make my way
to a hot sun
and cold water. paper bags
bang on the floor
and a broken gibbet
of laundry. plates,
collapsed like buildings
on the remaining liffey docks. I am here
and I am standing:
a god of ruined cities.
the thing which grows
on the sides of busy roads. the linoleum stained
with dropped and trampled onion-peel.
the dogbowl, left out
and accidentally kicked, dripping
bits of water
like piss in drunkard jeans.
You Drive Me to the Hospital the Day of My Surgery · Corey Cook
for the center console,
frets over air vents,
the radio’s temperamental dial,
the other remains on the wheel,
keeps us between the painted lines,
as the car turns left,
follows the dark vein of the river,
as trees gather,
as crows work on the carcass of a deer,
their movements systematic,
as the train track’s tidy stitches
receive a fresh dressing of snow.
RECIPE AGAINST DESPAIR · Mark Fleckenstein
To truly not be in despair, you must at every moment destroy the possibility of being in despair. – Soren Kierkegaard, from Fear and Trembling Unto Death
Begin with Bitterroot, Queen Anne’s Lace,
the Deadly Nightshade, Pyrite, Autumn Dew,
Snap Dragons, Silkworm Cocoons. Crush
Tiger Lilies, Delphinium, Black Tulips
four strands of her hair, one White Rose.
In a voice a soul freed as it breaks,
chant her name while stirring in Crabgrass,
Hyacinth, Chrysalis, Peyote. Calculate
the spectrum of rage from metal through mental.
Think of birds. Her face.
Crows, Sparrowhawks, Finches, Mourning Doves,
And Hummingbirds. Bring to rolling boil.
Fear living near Water, the Color Red,
her Eyes, the Tilt of Last Night’s Moon,
Telephone Calls like Half-Painted Room.
To rinse False Hope from the room:
a Fingernail, Two Plastic Carnations,
a Family Portrait Photographed on Glass
and Painted. Burn them in Mercury and Recite
the Equation for Transmuting Lead into Gold.
If Despair continues, Remove your Shirt.
Prick the Third Finger on your Left Hand.
Raise your Right Arm in Violence
against the Bedroom Mirror. Add Pearls
from a Broken Strand. Diagram the Heart’s Motion.
Rite of Passage #73–The Hospital Bed · Richard Fox
I. Practical prevention
Aides in crisp coats – hospice stewards
adjust head to reclined – feet to raised.
Switches, levers – beyond reach of the occupant.
Steel frames, iron bars – cells for the divine.
II. Recent encounters
Jan listens to the fire spark, kisses her wife’s hand.
Shares a fresh bowl of sorbet with her sons.
Dad needles his dead brothers: Shuffle, then deal!
The ante grows dearer. Victor affirms finesse.
Mom stares at Hallmark Channel’s flawless stars.
Familiar faces, transient titles, revolving roles.
Xavier gains an unfettered view of Mount Rainier.
The foot of his mattress bathes in sunlight.
III. Invitation to vigil
Lewis slumbers in his living room.
Wife sings a ballad, a lilting loon.
Watchers link arms, form a glum perimeter.
I stay home, guilty, healing – lung tumors.
IV. Coming attractions
Body bag – zipper jams.
Morgue gurney – squeaky wheels.
Funeral – casket creaks.
Burial – sealed up crypt.
MANTIS · Howard Faerstein
What shall I love if not the enigma – Giorgio de Chirico
Then afternoon again.
Jagged shadows in fall garden.
Praying mantis, supernatural insect
that Middle Kingdom Egyptians believed
escorted dead souls to the underworld,
that ancient Greeks trusted
would lead lost travelers home,
stalks the tangled bed of spent flowers,
steals across a lone sedum,
begins its climb up a trimmed boxwood
bordering the half-railing
to lay her eggs and die.
Triangular head attached
to flexible neck swivels
180 degrees, five bulging, staring eyes.
I pictured Escher’s haunting Dream,
woodcut print of a mantis
half the size of a man, straddling
a lifeless bishop reposed on a catafalque
above a casket, strikingly similar,
but for the mantis,
to the recumbent effigy above
the tomb of Bishop Potter
in the Chapel of the Tongues
in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.
I brought my young daughter to the Cathedral on All Hallows’ Eve
for its annual crypt-crawl: ghouls, demons, witches, parading
through the spacious nave, giant spiders ballooning
up the columns as Nosferatu, original Dracula,
towered on a giant screen behind the altar
while an organist played silent movie music
and peacocks spread their plumage in the outside garden.
The Wasp Woman, The Black Scorpion, The Fly, Them, The Deadly Mantis.
I’d save my allowance and race to the latest insect horror movie.
I believed then in monsters.
Devil’s Horse, God Worshipper, Nun, Prophet, King Solomon’s Camel.
Did Escher wake in a nightmare
sweat before creating Dream or did it comfort
him imagining this carnivorous ambush
predator, its spiky, raptorial legs cut
from side-grained wood dominating
the mitered spiritual leader?
Pure preternatural fantasy.
Evening darkness meeting ground at a black edge.
Is mantis praying with bishop,
is it solely the bishop’s dream,
or is the mantis, known for sexual
cannibalism, preparing to eat the bishop,
first to copulate, then devour him?
What I witnessed was real,
that visitation in the front yard,
now I’ll wait till spring,
and if I’m blessed,
for nymphs’ emergence
after their incomplete metamorphosis.
When Silence Is Not an Option · Anika Pavel
“An Iron Curtain has descended across the continent,” said Winston Churchill famously, as Europe became divided between East and the West.
On the East side, government-controlled publications like Pravda were full of untruth, misinformation and threats further spread by government installed radio and television broadcasters. People relied on institutions like BBC World Service, Radio Free Europe and Voice of America to shed light on what really was going on at home and abroad. After the brief interlude of Socialism With a Human Face put forth by Alexander Dubcek, and its subsequent, tragic end in August, 1968, Czechoslovakia fell into the iron grip of the Soviet Union.
Jan was an English teacher and, as such, was suspect. The pressure to join the communist party was enormous. He retaliated by utilizing tapes recorded from the BBC in his classes, arguing that “Oliver Twist” was hardly western propaganda. The party viewed this as a provocation. He was told to join the communist party and prove that he could be trusted to teach young minds the socialist ideals – or find a different job.
He’d thought about emigrating for a long time, but with two boys barely more than babies, it was too difficult. He watched the people who’d marched for Dubcek “turn their coats” (otocit kabaty), praising any order that came from Moscow. Truth was not an option.
In time, Jan’s sons were no longer babies and he felt more and more suffocated by the communist regime. At last his wife agreed to leave. To pull it off, secrecy was of the utmost importance. A vacation in the “West” for his whole family was not allowed. But Jan saw a way. He would divide his family and ask for two separate permissions to travel. It was a complicated affair and relied on the communists’ incompetence.
Jan had also an important trump card under his sleeve. He had a sister who lived in London and was married to a US citizen.
Without any communication I could not be sure my brother Jan had pulled off his exit. When I saw him and his family walking towards me, I felt huge relief. Driving to my house, the boys, ages six and seven, took in the bustle of London. Their eyes were shining with excitement when they saw my refrigerator stocked with Coca Cola. Not that I thought Coca Cola was the best that the west had to offer, but it was not so long ago when my own eyes rolled in delight when I first tasted the dark, sweet liquid.
The quiet three-bedroom terrace house in Kew Gardens in London was suddenly full of life. Soon the boys discovered the 32 flavors of Baskin Robins and their conversion was complete. They pronounced themselves English citizens.
My brother considered himself a political emigrant, but I knew it would take a while for him to get his papers, if at all. Unexpectedly, good fortune presented him with a job opening at the BBC World service in the Czechoslovak section. For Jan, for whom the BBC World service had been a lifeline to the truth, the opportunity was a stunning gift. His qualifications as a Slovak and English teacher were well suited for the job description. But there still were written tests and translation tests to be passed.
Our mother arrived for what was originally going to be the highlight of the summer: the birth of my first child. I still had two weeks to go when my brother was invited to the BBC for his final test, the voice test. My mother chewed her nails as I drove Jan toward Strand. We watched him walk toward the Bush House at Aldwych from which the BBC World Service broadcasted. The job would almost certainly mean a work permit, not to mention security and good pay. But for my mother it was much more.
“Imagine, my son a broadcaster for the BBC,” she said to me after Jan disappeared into the building. I looked at her and she seemed to be sitting straighter, her face looked younger. I did not want to point out that it was going to make things difficult for her when she returned home. So, I nodded and we kept our fingers crossed.
I saw my brother walking toward us, smiling. I let him tell our mother that indeed she did have a son who was a broadcaster for the BBC. We all hugged and my mother and I shed tears of joy.
I pictured my mother back in Czechoslovakia, in our small living room, with all her neighbors as they listened to her son on the radio. She would be in the center of the room, proud as a peacock.
My brother saw himself fighting the communists by telling people at home the truth. He was dedicated to his work at the BBC and on weekends took a job in a restaurant. My sister in law cleaned houses and they saved rent money by living with us. There was no more Coca Cola or ice cream for the boys, but the sacrifice was worth it, because before long they were able to buy a small house in Harrow on the outskirts of London.
The London underground stopped running at midnight, so when Jan had his late night broadcast at the BBC, he would ride his bicycle home. He was still saving for his first car. He was approaching the last leg of his journey one night, when out of nowhere a car came behind him at full speed, blinding him for just a few seconds, and then everything went dark. He lay on the street until a good Samaritan called the police from a nearby telephone booth and he was transported to the hospital.
For the next few days his life hung by a thread. The weeks turned into months, and he was still suffering with headaches and double vision when I came to visit. He joked that he always wanted to have two sisters.
Eventually he came home from the hospital. The reality was, my brother was very lucky to be alive. As a child he was always very skinny. “Skin and bones,” my mother would lament. But the doctor told him, “If you were even a few pounds heavier, your own weight would have broken your neck.”
“You know . . .” Jan said, one day when we sat sharing some tea. He seemed to be mentally debating if he should tell me. “About a week before the accident, one of my colleagues,” he refused to tell me who, “told me that when he was on a vacation in Yugoslavia he was accosted by KGB.”
I felt a stab in my stomach.
“They wanted him to report everything that went on at the BBC. He called MI6, and they told him to give them some useless information.”
My palms began to sweat.
“He thought telling them I ride my bike home after work was pretty useless.”
“Except it wasn’t.” I finished for him. “You should quit BBC, you’ll find a different job.”
“That is exactly what they are after. Control by fear,” he said.
I cursed Brezhnev, and I prayed in my atheist heart that there would never be a leader of a powerful nation who would be able to spread falsehoods and untruth, and mobilize followers in his own perverse ideology, and have men who know better fear him enough to harm others just to gain favor with him. An unfortunate prophecy as it turned out, but fifty years ago I was just thankful my brother had survived the attack.
“Besides, they cannot kill us all.” Jan interrupted my mental prayer. When the doctor gave him the all clear, Jan went back to work at the BBC World Service.
My brother would not be silenced.
Three Micro Poems · Margarita Serafimova
sun, sensual in a November way.
I was standing, pondering, a horse before space.
· · ·
All is beautiful,
terror has eyes of stars.
· · ·
Stunning fall, fiery brown,
I have nerve – I return its gaze.
Which I am · Ed Ahern
blowing sand back into the sea,
the faltering light that dries
standing water between rain storms,
the weeds that sprawl so obnoxiously
that they are cut down and burnt,
the possums that sneak out at night
and are savaged by feral dogs.
I am all of this, and am somehow
content with the process.
Spheres and Influences · Mary Ann Dimand
– For Ny and Francesca
The smell of smoke
at night is no oracle
of grilled meats now. The mountains,
afire. The plague, red
hot, and people maddened to flame, to gasoline
themselves or neighbors, strike
a match. We’re burning
our bridges and calling it thrift. It’s raw
down here, and cinder-scourged.
The lower sky is clogged
with ash and shouting. I look up,
up past the looming ghosts
of muffled mountains, up
to thinner air, darkened
by the universe beyond it.
There’s space behind the sky.
It’s very cold, and full of distances
and bigger forges. But as I pause
between the chill and conflagration, I track
the wave of Neowise greeting
our grim planet, and the wink
of fireflies, sentinels of grass
and roof-edge. We are embedded
in a world of allies. Bright bees
and subtle worms, the beetles
that tote the dung and tend
the corpses, plankton twinkling from the seas,
redwoods ever reaching and creaking, whales
with their long slow songs. We
none of us leave this globe
unchanged, none have no impact, none
can say “Myself alone” and have it
mean something. Let our breath
be sweet; our steps leave mossy
paths to where we’d want to gather.
Some Sweet · Catherine Arra
You came around at dusk, alone
ears tuned toward woods for the rustle
or mew of your new offspring.
Attentive mother, fatigued after fawning, you wanted
the bundle of apple pieces all at once, not our usual
one-by-one toss & talk.
I chatted away through each crunch-saliva-slipping chew
& long-neck swallow – asked you how it went, the birthing.
How many this year, one or two?
How tired you must be from cleaning, concealing, suckling
& how many fawns before? Five that I know of.
Now six, seven?
I told you how Leaf, your yearling boy, came around
this morning; what a fine sturdy-legged buck he is;
what a good mother you are.
I told you my prayer for you to live long in green peace,
to never suffer or perish by human hands, to die sleeping
in a quilted-leaf bed under your favorite tree & best-loved breeze.
You swallowed the last apple wedge & stepped to me,
a full-body-neck-stretch, closer than you have ever … I stilled,
matched instincts, & for a moment we were timeless,
a bare breath apart
like Michelangelo’s almost touch
of God & man.
I felt you whisper, more …
more sweet crunch, more sweet after strain,
more sweetness, please.
I scurried into the house,
quickly sliced another, this time in a pan of corn too
& placed all before you.
You will do this year after year
until you no longer can, or die. What compels you
through the cycles & seasonal trials –
the rigors of rut, the race against hunters’ guns
the hollow hunger in winter
to do it over & over
& still look into me with wild-doe love?
Inheritance · Shirley Hilton
To keep your fire hot
I leave you the blue lapis ring
purchased in the airport in Acapulco
parting gift from your papá.
Recipes for sopa de fideo
enchiladas and chilaquiles verdes
flavors the mouth remembers even
as memories of your homeland fade.
The Fisherman and The African Woman
rendered in oils by your tia abuela, an artist
whose name you carry and carried
to el otro lado, to a new life.
The grit of my Irish-German heritage,
work ethic, and the bootstraps
my mother gave me to pull myself up.
They don’t always work, takes practice.
My grandmother’s Recipe for a Happy Marriage
in her neat cursive, stained now
and faded with age, I attempted twice
burned both times, then filed under just desserts.
Faded pictures without names or dates
a puzzle of people and places
to store away or throw away, the weight
perhaps more than you care to carry.
Maps of the stars and my rusty scout compass
to keep you on track when others
would mislead you, and a white pearl
rosary to grace your journey.
One silver-backed mirror, small enough to carry
in your pocket but large enough to take
a good hard look into your own eyes
when you need to remember who you are.
Clever Heart · Dinamarie Isola
truest of them all,
whispered only all I wanted
With fingers knotted
behind the back
I failed to see
Choose when to
take the beating
that comes while
or plan your funeral
It matters not
For time and tides
wash desire from hands
that toil, knit and pray
While the clever heart
Aspens, Probably · Amanda Hope
My poems have too many birds; it’s like that damn Hitchcock movie in here. Lots of them are sparrows, because you’re supposed to write what you know and sparrows are all over this city. The rest of the birds I don’t dare specify. People are always putting birds they’ve never seen in poems, like albatrosses and phoenixes and doves. I don’t trust them. They’re just abstractions in bird suits.
I won’t name a flower in a poem either. In junior high, the student council sold carnations for Valentine’s Day. You had to know the code: pink for friendship, white for admiration, red for love. Blundering, I sent a red one to my best friend, and for months savvier girls followed us around hissing lesbians. That was before I realized that they were probably right, about me at least. Poems are like junior high that way.
Trees are even worse, because they all look the same to me. Once I signed up to be apprenticed to a naturalist for the summer and learn what everything is called. He wore a necklace made of his own baby teeth. I lived in a cabin in the woods where he tried to convince me he was God. I wanted to be susceptible to this, but it didn’t work out. The fact is, no one knows which kind of tree is which. They are all just making it up.
At a Crossroads · Cliff Saunders
and drop on a path through
the heart of a collapse.
Maybe it’s not so crazy
that matches are falling again
on cranberry bogs.
One thing is certain: Sightings
of creepy Bozos are out of
control on three continents.
Tenacious violets are unraveling
around the silo of granite
in a man’s final days.
Together again, for one night
only, souls collide just outside
the battleground of memories.
A magic carpet chimes 17 times
as it heads for the door
of optimism, happy to be alone.
Inside a bee hive, there’s an eel
rapidly melting. Who says
the sky’s giving birth?
It doesn’t get much better
than sitting at a crossroads
while awaiting a new dawn.
Trail of Roots · Gail Thomas
Maybe I must forget what I thought
I knew about walking to hike this trail
with my dog who is thrilled to be free.
This is not a time for ambling, not Shinrin Yoku,
forest bathing, where one walks untethered.
Though slice of sky beyond the canopy
stares like the milky blue eye of a newborn,
today my eyes only focus on feet, what lies
beneath and ahead. Tangled web of roots
course like bruised veins at every angle,
matted leaves layered with a thousand years
of dead news lined with scarlet mushrooms,
waist high wings of ferns. In China children
wear brightly painted butterfly wings to keep
six feet of distance in school. What bird is making
that sawing noise, or is it a porcupine high in an oak
ready to drop a gnawed branch for its young?
The years when I used my body and skin to feed
my children, denied by their father, a blind
alley with stacks of bills and ragged clothes.
Follow the blue blaze on the next tree, lift
a low hanging branch before it slaps my face,
then an uphill stretch and downhill tumble of pebbles,
more up and down until calves and toes cramp, and I
begin to stumble. Pushing a stroller, walking home
from a pride march, holding my other child’s hand,
red faced men screamed at us. In our garden, a teenage
neighbor spit on the ground, the thick clot daring
me to protect them. And now a bridge
of wet boards spread across shallow muck, where
the dog’s desire to tramp in black sludge is met.
Orange newt skitters across a decaying stump,
home for larvae and beetles. Sweating, I tear
a wide frond of fern to swat the gnats that swarm
like bullies who taunted on the school bus,
You’re dykes just like your mother.
The lovers who came and left, distraction and guilt
like borers leave sawdust around my heart.
Blocking the path, a storm struck white pine
stretches out like a corpse. I hoist myself
over its rough bulk, balance then straddle
before lowering to solid ground. Flecks
of pine wings rain down, souls of dark skinned
boys, child soldiers, girl brides, babies lost
at the border, unmasked and innocent.
The bounding dog comes back to check
then runs ahead again, nose to the ground
on the scent of something I cannot see.