Category Archives: Featured Archives
Our Featured Author, Lina María Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas.
On Lina María Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas:
Lina María Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas recently received a 2016 Writer’s Award from the Rona Jaffe Foundation. Her nonfiction book, Don’t Come Back, which will include the essay, comes out in January 2017 from Mad River Books, an imprint of the Ohio State Press. She has MFA degrees in both creative nonfiction and literary translation, both from the University of Iowa. She is also the author of Drown Sever Sing.
“BOG-MIA-CID” appeared in Arts & Letters Issue 30.
In Miami I sweat. Partly because it’s Miami, partly because I have a fever. I’m asked to step out of the line and go up to a table where officers wait for people like me, and then they ask “Why are you sweating?” Partly this fever, partly this coat I’m wearing. Because it’s heavy and my bags are close to the weight limit.
They ask me to open my bags and take everything out, please, so I do. They don’t look at anything, they don’t look at me, and I’m so tired of traveling, I can’t stop thinking of other things. It was the eighties and then the nineties, my parents were young, and Bogotá was always ticking. Every doorman had a mirror at the end of a stick, every guard a sniffing dog, everyone knew to check the trunk, and never go near police stations because that’s where they liked to park their cars, tick, tick, boom. In Miami I pull out socks and shirts, little sweet things my mother has packed for me to find later. The officers stand a few feet away and occasionally look over their shoulders in my direction.
I imagine they see me, all of me. The small, the stupid, the no-sense-at-all look I can’t shake when I’m this tired, and dressed from head to toe in black. I feel swollen, discolored, and rank. Like something left out too long, soaking in the gutter and drying in the sun. I feel it, know it, and I know they see it too.
Bogotá was once a city of shattered glass, and repair shops thrived. Bombs are loud and cities are full of windows. Paula remembers too. Once she told me, “Bogotá was the place where bad things happened.” We remember these numbers under photographs on the screen between cartoons and telenovelas. Ones followed by zeros that went on forever. Bounties for information leading to the capture of, of, of, of… New names and old names and always, Pablo Escobar Gaviria, the Rodriguez Orejuela brothers, and José Santacruz Londoño, alias Chepe. It was the time of the Narco-state, the narco-tapes, the narco terrorists. It was the eighties in Bogotá, and the nineties in Cali that convinced my parents to get their three daughters out of there. Because it’s not just the bombs that do it.
When there are bombs it’s harder to care about the guns, and the knives, and little sharpened sticks and fists, and the limp bodies of those kids that started showing up all over the country with empty eye sockets. In the news they told us they sold the eyes for transplants, wealthy gringos and Europeans with envelopes of cash and red coolers, but we know better now—no good for transplants.
In 2011 in Miami, I watch from afar a beautiful black woman tell a beautiful Hispanic woman something I can’t hear, and then they look in my direction and nod. “Please pack everything back now.” They glance over the stuff and back at the planes. Mine was the last flight, no one is behind me, no one is coming, but they pace like I’m taking up their table and time and space, so I stuff these little things my mother wrapped so carefully in the corners where they’re sure to crack, and finally I take off my coat. Cali was full in the nineties; I wish these officers could have seen it. The stores were colorful mechanical wonders, everything moved, everything new and getting newer by the minute. Everyone had a marble fountain on their lawn; everyone wore gold and fur coats over tank tops in ninety-degree weather. My friends had bodyguards and chauffeurs, and every week some family member would fly back from Miami with a new little trinket, a new little nothing, new little everything just for them. Cali wasn’t like Medellin, Cali didn’t want to own the world—it just wanted a fair piece. So the Rodriguez Orejuela brothers never declared war quite like Pablo did. Though the city was still sharp and pulsing, and I remember the helicopters.
After I’ve packed everything back I’m told to wait, and they motion for me to clear their table. I ask again why I’m being detained, and they say things that make me feel conditioned, because they know exactly what to say, because they’ve practiced and I haven’t, so I nod even though I neither understand nor agree. The words get stacked into perfect little towers, protocol, procedure, only a minute, please wait here, let me check with my supervisor, don’t move, and I nod, then try again, but what was it that did it? I only manage to sound guilty. They tell me not to wander off, to stay put, to wait. They ask me, “Why are you sweating?” and “Are you on any medication?” I feel like we are dwelling on the matter; I don’t know. Why aren’t you? “What is the weather like in Bogotá?” I tell them it’s beautiful, so they ask again, “What is the weather like exactly?” Really great, like autumn all the time, and the rain, you should totally go, and I completely mean it. Sometimes people refer to Bogotá as the fall city, Medellin as spring. Cali is summer itself. When my family was there we swam every day, my mother drove my sister Paula and me to lessons, and we’d sing little songs about Daniela on our way back. We sang about that time she had worms, and we saw one squirming in her diaper, about how she reached out for my mother’s breast, about the time she stole and hid all the candied almonds, “Just like Chepe,” and then we sang another song. One day we were singing, and I saw soldiers springing up from bushes by the side of the road. Black helicopters overhead. Then, all these people running through the street—soldiers towards us, people away—while I yelled for my mother to turn on the radio. “It’s nothing,” she said, “it won’t tell us anything,” and we sped away.
There is a little statue my family members always have at home. It’s a plump, short, pig-faced man with a million bags around his arms, waist, and neck. He is El Equeco, god of abundance, and that’s what I look like now holding poorly packed bags and carry-ons and coats—one little bag with Colombian pastries because “You might get hungry, you never know.” The officers don’t tell me if they’ll be back, they don’t tell me anything and I understand, I do, it’s a job, but I’m so tired. I wipe my forehead, I feel like shivering but I’ve stopped sweating, so I tell them, “I’ve stopped sweating now, can I go?” Mostly to say something, mostly to get them to say something back. I ask them one more time why I’m being detained, if I did something wrong, but they don’t answer, they only ask me again like a nervous tic, “Why were you sweating?” The day with the helicopters and the soldiers was June 9th, 1995. I know because that’s the day they captured Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela, just a few streets away from where I saw the soldiers popping up like weeds. Gilberto is here in the US now, extradited in 2004. They flew him in through Miami.
The black officer comes back and tells me to put the bag on the table, so I do. She tells me to open it, so I open it, and then “Please unpack it.” I stare sort of blankly. Why? “Please unpack the bag.” Why again? What are you looking for? Where are the dogs? Bring them over, I’ll let you bring them over, what do you need? But she doesn’t answer. Instead, this severe look on her face and she repeats, “Please unpack the bag.” I’m suddenly aware these bags have already been sniffed by dogs, been X-rayed, been searched. I’m far away, I am alone, I am not from here, I have less than twenty dollars in my bank account. Almost everything of value that I own I carry with me, it doesn’t take much, so I start again, bit by bit almost everything I own on a table. She doesn’t look at anything, she doesn’t look at me. I lived in Cali for three years, and then my parents sold almost everything we owned and bought tickets to the US, “Where the middle class lives like our upper class and things aren’t so hard.”
The second time I know better. I unpack slowly and re-pack carefully. It’s been a few hours now, I’m getting cold, but I won’t put my coat back on. They come back and say, “Please come with us.” They watch me struggle with my bags, and I figure the beautiful black officer must be training the slightly less beautiful Hispanic officer because she tells her what to do. “Now tell her to take off her shoes,” and she tells me to take off my shoes. “Now tell her to sit down,” and she tells me to sit down. “Tell her to wait here,” and I’m left alone a few minutes to rethink my answers so far. For example, what is the right thing to say when asked, “Did you meet anyone while you were there?” Or, “Why was your passport issued in San Francisco?” Or, “Why so many books?” What is ‘so many’? Or, because these are the ones that fit? Or, you should see the ones I left behind. Or, you should read this one; it’s about the drug war in Colombia.
I leave my bags unattended to be interrogated, and I wonder about these protocols. I wait in a little room, on a little bench and the colors are all wrong. To begin with, there are colors. Worn out greens and blues, and the paint is peeling off. There is no two-way mirror, and no one looking in. I slump, feel the salt of dry sweat on my skin, close my eyes for a second. My family left Colombia in 1995, and it was 1998 when we went back, when things were already getting better, as they’ve kept getting better since.
When they get back the one doing the training tells the other to check my feet.
She tells me, “Spread your toes please,” and I don’t know what that means but I try anyway. The Hispanic officer feels between my toes, I stare down at the socks Daniela gave me for Christmas, this little owl head smiling at the woman as she presses down on its face, as it stares back and exclaims with the knitted writing across my ankle, Genius. “Now stand up against the wall.” Somewhere inside the black woman’s brain, she is making the decision whether or not my cavities will be searched more thoroughly. “Against the wall please, arms out.” I put my arms above my head, and she repeats, “Arms out, out!” The officers are tired too, and I understand, I do, but I’ve stopped registering any of it. “Not above your head, out like this, like this!” She motions but I’m facing the wall away from her, and I can’t really see. “By your side, like a plane, like a little plane!” So I finally get it and then I stop getting anything else. Because I’m against a wall pretending to be a little plane, and I’ve started thinking of Wilson my high school English teacher. “That’s what I used to do,” he said, “checked planes for drugs and Uy! You can’t imagine.” He told us he worked in Miami, security. He used to go through planes after they’d landed, looking for the stuff. Between the seats, under the chairs, along the walls, “You can’t imagine.” Little white bags, latex glove fingers cut off, stuffed down the side, hung like sausages, swallowed like pills. “If this is the stuff they leave behind, imagine,” he said, “just imagine how much gets in.”
The Hispanic officer runs her fingers down my back. Between my breasts, as deep inside me as clothes allow and I’ve stopped asking questions. Then they have a little moment, the two beautiful women—and I’m a mushroom growing on this tiny green bench in an interrogation room. The officers whisper something and then exchange glances. They decide I’m not a little plane full of cocaine and they are going to let me go. Or maybe they are as tired as I am, or this is just an exercise. I don’t know. All the same they’ve decided to let me go, so I thank them and drag my bags up an escalator. I sit by a Subway restaurant drenched in the smell of disinfectant and meatballs.
I was thinking about my aunt before they pulled me out of the line, and I’m thinking about her now. About how she held me tightly my last night in Bogotá. Her chin on my shoulder, the cigarette smell I love, and her colostomy bag against my hip, warm, like her, warm like Cali. “Come back, Lina. Please, please come back.” She cried into the fabric of that heavy coat, she told me I had to see her again, and she nearly crumbled in my arms, my beautiful aunt, decimated by cancer, and lupus, and history, and herself.
The next day my mother held me tightly too, by the international gate I know better than some apartments I’ve lived in. She choked but didn’t stutter. She pulled me close and told me, “There’s nothing here for you Lina, don’t come back.”
On Melvin Adams:
Melvin Adams is a retired scientist and technical manager. His poetry and prose have been published in a number of journals and have won several awards. He is the author of Netting the Sun: A Personal Geography of the Oregon Desert and Remote Wonders: An Explorer’s Guide to Southeastern Oregon, both published by Washington State University Press. His book Atomic Geography: A Personal Geography of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, will be published by WSU Press this fall. Mr. Adams lives in Richland, Washington with his wife Onnie.
Stoning the Porcupine
“Stoning the Porcupine” appears in Arts & Letters Issue 32
A few years ago, I attended the reunion of my small high school class. Seeing the faulted mountains, sage flats, and rangelands where I was raised prompted some reflection about how the geography of that place formed my concept of the sacred. Thinking back on some of my experiences growing up, I was reminded of the poetry of Rilke: the gods of nature are wild, some are beautiful and some are terrifying. There seems to be a constant tension between the terrifying and the beautiful in nature.
I grew up at a time in eastern Oregon when the hunting culture was even more pervasive than it is today. I remember hunting deer with my father, ducks and geese alone, and pheasants and quail with my friends. Often on the first day of hunting season, school was let out because so many of us would be out hunting. When times were hard my father, a sawmill worker, poached deer so we could eat. The economic culture was extractive. For a time during and after World War II, the Ponderosa Pine forests were overcut and were producing more lumber than the much wetter forests on the west side of the state. Since the settlement of the area by Irish sheepherders and cattlemen, the rangelands were overgrazed. Only the intervention of the federal government that owned much of the land eventually led to more sustainable use.
On my trip to the reunion I realized that my life on the Oregon desert was by turns extractive and violent, but I also realized that the beauty and mystery of the desert had led me to know a numinous dimension and impulse in nature that as a scientist I could not explain, but as a poet I could attempt to describe. Nature is in a tension between the violent on the one hand and nurturing, even loving, on the other. These two impulses are not in tension like two ends of a spring, but perhaps more like a symbiosis, or even a quantum entanglement where one atom can change its spin at any distance instantaneously when its original partner changes its spin. Maybe Rilke was right: are beauty and terror the same, two faces of the same reality?
One of the formative experiences I recall was the day when the cougar was a god. My father and I were fishing a small stream in a meadow. I was probably about ten years old. He was upstream casting flies while I stood near the bank with my pole. Suddenly my father dropped his rod and began pointing to the east while starting to run towards me. Out of the tree line I saw a large cat bounding towards me across the meadow. I do not remember being frightened at all, just curious. The cougar got to my part of the stream well before my father, suddenly veered and jumped clear across the stream between us. I am astonished that any living thing can jump that far. Later in life I asked my father what he was thinking at that time. He said that the cougar was beautiful but terrifying. The wild god of that day in the form of a cougar, for some reason I will never know, chose to spare me.
I learned about violence from another experience from my youth. The Forest Service had decided that porcupines were killing too many trees and offered a bounty on them. Never mind that a logger with a power saw could kill more trees in a day than all the porcupines in the county in a year. Our scout troop was driving home from a camping trip when we saw a porcupine at the edge of the road. The troop jumped out, picked up rocks and began stoning the porcupine. The porcupine began screaming and crying just like a human baby in distress. I will never forget the sound of the porcupine pleading for its life, or the sight of blood seeping from the mouth and ears of a helpless being.
Not long after that in the winter I went hunting alone in the grain fields north of Goose Lake. It was a cold, clear morning. I had put out the goose decoys and was trying to stay warm in my blind when just before dawn I heard flocks of ducks overhead flying north, the sound of their wings making a distinctive whistle. As soon as the sun rose, the geese began rising off Goose Lake and began flying north. The flocks were literally stacked up over each other and filled the sky from horizon to horizon. The racket was pervasive. A few flocks landed in the decoys, and I took a shot or two with my ancient single-shot twenty-gauge, but soon I just dropped the gun and stood there in amazement. It was as if the cold waters of Goose Lake had spontaneously generated thousands and thousands of living beings flying off into the clear sky of the brisk blue day in a vast proliferation of life, a release of energy from the primordial waters of cold, inanimate night. It was as if the Pleistocene had become entangled with the 20th century; vast flocks of the ancient lakes had returned once more. I have come to realize that there is no difference between the inanimate and the animate, between life and death, between the past and the present. They are simply different spins of the same fundamental atoms and fields in entangled connection. The gods of that day were geese, and they were beautiful. The day was an episode in the beginning of the end of my interest in hunting.
Goose Lake is a large, shallow, alkaline lake on the west side of the Warner Mountains on the Oregon—California border. It is a pluvial lake that formed from precipitation and melting glaciers during the Pleistocene epoch.
A frequency of a complex wave that is a multiple of a fundamental. Attuned and symmetrical vibrations. Living in peace with a place by caring for it. The harmonic chemistry of the periodic table relating elements to each other. Profound bonds as between parents and child.
I went to my buried mother and father near the wild plum patch overlooking Goose Lake where one hundred years ago the pioneers came out of the desert to find the Eden of the Goose Lake shore. I went to them and dressed their ground with paintbrush, agates, and purple sage. I offered them what I had, what was native to the place, what they loved.
The relationships between light, time, space, gravity, energy, and matter. A difference in viewpoint between two people looking at the same thing. Viewing the same thing from a different vantage point of time or space.
Walking home the field white and barren as the moon, bathed in cold light. My boots squeak in the snow leaving tracks for spring. The road blurred with drifts. No lights, skeletal trees show me home.
A barn bleats cold breath from huddled sheep. The sawmill burner throws sky sparks—temporary stars—the moon too bright for real stars.
Why do I remember the steppe now with childhood so far back, think of the moon before man walked it, think of the Oregon steppe, cold space, the dog, warm house?
How you loved the moon and hated snow. I left you without a choice beneath the snow bathed in the moon—your life always a cold compromise.
My father and I shared many trips into the backcountry of the Oregon desert. Some were eventful and even frightening: being caught on open rim rocks during a lightning storm, hiking through blizzards and drifts when a sudden front came in on a hunting trip, being flooded out of camping trips, having tents blown over by sudden gusts of winds on clear days, getting stuck in mud or breaking an axle far from any help, using pliers to pull porcupine quills out of our careless dog’s mouth, being startled by a rattlesnake on the next rock over. But there were times of inexpressible joy and peace: baking freshly caught native trout on a campfire, listening to my father play the guitar by a campfire many miles from any human light or habitation when the stars seemed to come down from the high dry air and hover right above our heads like a billion sparks, taking a nap under a quaking aspen grove with the leaves rustling in every desert breeze on a lazy summer afternoon, watching the trout come up for a fly on a beaver pond.
I remember one such evening of perfect bliss. It was on a desert stream on a warm evening. Nighthawks were darting and dodging overhead collecting insects in the warm air, the creek was murmuring as it ran over rocks and around boulders, trout were dimpling the water as they rose for flies, the Milky Way came down close, and a beaver came along and sat with us by the campfire. My father serenaded the beaver and me with his guitar and the Gene Autry songs he knew while the beaver just sat there taking it all in for the longest time. My father said later he should have offered the old boy a cup of coffee. Each of these days was a beautiful god—the god of beaver, the god of trout, the god of the Milky Way.
Chemical processes maintaining life by synthesis of needed biochemicals. The release of energy in cells and tissues by chemical decomposition of nutrients along with the release of waste. The energetics of life. The slow burning and oxidation associated with life.
Today is the god of orange and red, autumn flames of marsh grass and cattail.
Red flaming trees scattered on golden hills. Orange meadow armies,
crossed blades of red botanic swords.
The god of today is dying.
Summer photosynthetic green is burning away day by day.
The god today will die and lie in the snow.
The god today knows he is dying— knows he is beautiful.
He sees his hot image in the cool ponds.
He reflects back to himself, I am a god, I am on fire and I am dying.
I realize now that everything on the desert is in a sort of symbiosis, a communal metabolism, an entanglement of violence and death and life and creation and rebirth.
All living things are in a vast communion, made from the same template of fused atoms from the same suns, all embraced by the same gravity. But the mysteries remain. How could the lichens live on such exposed surfaces with the incessant winds and heat and cold, how could a tiny chub species survive in an isolate spring on a dry playa that was once a vast lake, how could tiny shrimp live by the billions in a lake much more saline than the ocean? How can the Ponderosa pines seem to glow when the light hits their orange bark? How can a whole grove of aspens grow from a common seep root? These questions tantalize me still, and they are all places in the geography of my soul.
These layered, high clouds form in the prevailing Westerly winds in the lee of the Cascade mountains. These clouds were visible at sunset in the high desert east of the mountains.
A symbiotic organism of fungi and algae. Considered a “pioneer” plant by its ability to grow on and form soil from rocks in dry, windy, and extreme conditions.
A discrete amount of light, energy, or charge in nature.
Standing on the bluff of the flaming autumn with red and orange dancing below,
in the grassy wind of the ice blue day,
stabbed by the shafts of the sun burning hills, amid the cold sloshing ponds
darting birds, circling birds in swirling columns of invisible air,
crying salty marsh tears, not wanting to leave but being called by far off cranes.
Lord let me come back here if only a mote of dust, a mole of wind, a quantum of light.
Let me crawl in the grass and be a feast for a red tail or speared by an egret,
even the howl of a coyote would be enough for me,
in this mystery, this sacred ground, this all.
Salty. A solution of salt. Ocean water. The water of an alkaline lake. A primordial substance critical for life. The medium for halophytes—salt-loving animals like brine shrimp. The basic composition of human blood.
I look back to you buried on a gold dredge pile, softening to trees,
look back to your sadness, too soft for a hard land.
I look to the salty lake where I will be next to Warner Mountain, at the end of Pine Creek.
I imagine the forever of ice and wind, the endless wetting and drying of the soul.
Can a speck of consciousness survive this elemental harshness?
Moonlight inscribes the lake in gold, a goose call ascends, my heart beats for you on the shore of night.
Lake Abert is a highly saline lake in the arid region of eastern Oregon. It hosts an abundant stock of brine shrimp and brine flies and is a major habitat for migratory birds on the Pacific flyway and for a variety of shore birds.
Weak or tired. Near death. Having a tragic demeanor. Wounded.
In the rigid blue sky of the dying year,
the weight of autumn sage on the deer’s body,
I saw in his black eyes the tragic pool beneath all existence,
like my father’s eyes in the end, his rifle never used again.
A ubiquitous species of deer on the rough Oregon steppe in eastern Oregon.
I remember the last time I went deer hunting with my father. I was finally able to write a poem about it. His hunting rifle is still in my closet and has not been fired in fifty years. I sometimes wonder what my daughters will think about it when they find it after I am gone. But I hope they will find the pictures of a young boy out in the wilds holding up a rattlesnake longer than he was tall or the picture of my father with his guitar in front of a tent on the desert or the picture of me holding up a large trout with the rim rock and a stream behind. Each day was a different god; some were beautiful and some were terrifying. The West of my youth was a tension between the frightening and blissful. But in the end, one cannot see god and live.
Petroglyph lake is a vernal pool—a lake that as it dries in the summer leaves rings of different types and colors of vegetation around the edge. This particular lake has a basalt rim rock surrounding the pool that is an important petroglyph site. The petroglyphs were made by shamans to depict various stages of their trance flights to the heavens. The plants in the foreground are sage and yellow rabbit brush. Both rabbit brush and sage brush are members of the Aster family.
On María Isabel Alvarez:
María Isabel Alvarez is an MFA Candidate in fiction at Arizona State University. She was born in Guatemala City, Guatemala where most of her fiction takes place. Fruit, plants, and other objects of the natural world are common symbols in her writing. Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Gulf Coast, Black Warrior Review, Arts & Letters, The Gateway Review, and Agave Magazine. She is the First-Looks Editor for Hayden’s Ferry Review. Follow her on Twitter: @maria_i_alvarez
“War” appears in Arts & Letters Issue 32.
I travel through North America at the expense of strangers. In Massachusetts, I sleep on the twin bed of a little girl who never reached the age of ten. Her mother receives me in her arms and leads me to the tiny second floor bedroom, wood-plank stairs creaking beneath her pale bare feet. The room appears dusty yet tidy. The silhouettes of floating ballerinas border the blush pink walls, delicate lace the color of bone drapes the single bedroom window, and a floral comforter lays stiffly over the mattress as if handwashed in starch. The mother points toward the direction of the bathroom and offers a set of towels, a spare key dangling from a lanyard, and a gentle reminder that she’d prefer if I return each night no later than eleven. I ask this question of every one of my hosts and each time I receive a vastly different response: What compels you to open your home to strangers? The mother’s answer echoes how I feel about the home I’ve left in Guatemala, that through the continual exchange of strangers she has learned to overcome the residual madness of grief.
In Texas, I toss and turn from the humidity, my neck and thighs seeping in sweat. In New Jersey, I fall dormant to the angry screams and then savage lovemaking of an Italian couple. Then in Louisiana, I never sleep. I lay immobile among the cotton sheets, my forehead pressed flat against the cool plaster as I attempt to decipher the language in which my host is weeping. And though I never discover what heartaches ail her, or what tragedy visits her dreams, once dawn casts its nuanced indigo light, I conclude that her sorrowful crying sounds as haunting and harried as mine once had.
I learn to sleep on sofas and loveseats, some clean, some covered in dog hair; down comforters spread in layers across the floor, leaky water beds and children’s bunk beds—sometimes vacant, sometimes not; day beds and trundle beds and outgrown racecar beds, canopies slung heavily in curtains, rubber air mattresses, a single army camper cot, the rear seat of a Cadillac sedan, and an eco-chic, Japanese-inspired platform bed made entirely of faux bamboo.
My favorite remains the hammock strung between two California palms, the crosshatch twines pressing against my arms and legs as the repetition of waves rippling like black silk hypnotize me into a sleep so deep and continuous that I wake the next morning as though I am finally well-rested.
When I arrive in Minnesota it is spring, and I am unprepared for the sleet that pelts the pavement. My host’s name is Reta, an Ojibwe woman of the White Earth Nation of Northern Minnesota, and she is as simple and quiet as the house in which she lives. The interior is coated in a deep shade of crimson and unlike many of the other homes suffocating in family portraits and opulent pieces of art, her walls are void of any distractions. The house possesses a kind of uncontaminated spirit, as if those whom have lived within its corridors summoned every known indigenous ritual and cleansed it of impurities.
Reta speaks curtly and selectively, in a low and smoky voice, and relies heavily on hand gestures to relay emphasis on certain key phrases. The kitchen is there. The bathroom is upstairs. There is no telephone. I am intrigued by her economic way of speaking and feel it imprudent if I don’t employ the same courtesy, so I simply nod in understanding and thank her for her hospitality, never asking what had motivated her to open her door to a nomadic Latina woman with nowhere to sleep.
She shows me to the bedroom parallel to hers. The room contains only three pieces of furniture: a twin bed swathed in a vibrant indigenous blanket, a cherry wood bureau affixed with brass hardware, and an old wicker rocking chair that seems to mysteriously sway.
I unpack my duffel bag, extracting toothbrush and travel shampoo, washcloth and hand soap before submerging myself into the well of a clawfoot tub. I rub the bar of soap under my breasts, lather the crevices between my thighs, scoop water into the cavities of my collarbone, rinse the oil from my roots with baby shampoo, my brown skin pruning like dehydrated fruit as the minutes turn into hours and the hours turn into sleep.
I dream about my family, remembering how we bathed with buckets of cold water drawn from a well. My mother had washed all six of us in a large yellow tub outside our tin house, taking a kitchen cloth to our baby skin and scrubbing the dirt between our toes, the sweat from under our chins.
“My children are clean children,” she’d say in our native Spanish. “Because my children are God’s children.”
During the summer, she’d boil a stockpot of water and wait for it to cool before draining it over our mosquito-bitten backs. Then she’d leave us to play and we would splash each other and poke each other and huddle against one another after the leaf-laden water had lost its appeal, oblivious to the fact that half of us were girls and the other half were boys and we were all naked.
And then our bodies became less like taper candles and more like kerosene lamps, shapely and heated from within. Us girls were forced to plead with our neighbors about bathing in their private showers, offering to sweep the dust from their floors, feed rice to their many wailing children or stir their simmering pots of homemade recado. And sometimes they’d oblige, immediately propping their colicky babies into our arms, but other times, because these were war times, we were left to wander outside the city and into the lush countryside for fresh river water, only to discover that the rivers had become bloodied with bodiless limbs.
After the war, after the Ixil and the K’iche and the Q’anjob’al had been wiped from their communities, after their homes had been set ablaze and their children trampled like stalks of weeds and their wives and daughters raped as repeatedly as shells are shot from a submachine gun, we found that the rivers could no longer sustain the sins of our country, could no longer dilute the transgressions of war, so we stopped bathing altogether.
My brothers were the first to succumb to the bloodshed; one after the other they were slaughtered like pigs with corroded machetes, dropping to their knees into the wet earth, their carcasses devoured by ravenous white maggots.
My mother and sisters—they weren’t nearly as lucky.
Our neighbors, church fellows and distant relations, they fled to the mountains, believing the myth that the highlands would save them, that the closer they were to God, the better they could evade death.
Death found them faster than sound travels.
I dream these things each night. Each night the dead haunt me for having survived; each night their cries strangle me in my sleep.
On Carol Frost:
Carol Frost’s latest collection was published in 2014 by Tupelo Press (Entwined – Three Lyric Sequences). In 2010, The Florida Book Awards gave her their gold medal for Honeycomb. She has new work in Poetry, Kenyon Review, The New Republic and Shenandoah. Frost teaches at Rollins College, where she is the Theodore Bruce and Barbara Lawrence Professor of English, and where she directs Winter With the Writers, a Literary Festival. We’re very pleased to welcome her to the Georgia College campus on March 15th to read from her most recent collection. Frost is also our poetry judge for this year’s Arts & Letters Prizes.
Lucifer in Florida
I Lucifer, cast down from heaven’s city which is the stars,
soar darkly nights across the water to islands
and their runway lights — after sunset burning petals;
sights, sorrows, all evils become the prolonged shadows
and lightning through palm trees and the ancient oaks.
… And ride with darkness, dark below dark, uttermost
as when the cormorant dives and the fish dies, eye-deep
in hell; the bird is I, I hide in its black shining
spread of wings raised drying afterward on a tree bough.
Nothing more onyx or gold than my dark wings.
Yet Venus rising, the off chords and tender tones
of morning birds among the almonds, small flames
of lemon flowers, phosphorus on the ocean,
all I’ve scorned, all this lasts whether I leave or come.
The garden fails but the earth’s garden lives on
unbearable — elusive scent on scent from jasmine
mixed with brine, the smell of marshes, smells of skin
of fishermen, burned rose and a little heroic
while leviathan winds rise and darkness descends.
Sin and death stay near, black with serenity,
calm in dawn’s light suggestions. If the future is
a story of pandemonium, perfection’s close —
from the sea the islands at night, from the island
the sea at night with no lights rest equally, lit by
a wanderer’s memory bringing dark and light to life,
luminous and far as dreams endure, charcoal and flame
in a fire, the embers of pride and pain in each breath.
From the somber deeps horseshoe crabs crawled up on
Man-of-Wars’ blue sails drifted downwind
and blue filaments of some biblical cloak
floated below: the stinging filaments:
The cored-of-bone and rock-headed came near:
Clouds made wandering shadows:
Sea and grasses mingled::
There was no hell after all
but a lull before it began over::
flesh lying alone: then mating: a little spray of soul:
and the grace of waves, of stars, and remotest isles.
On Kirun Kapur:
Kirun Kapur grew up in Hawaii and has since lived and worked in North America and South Asia. Her work has appeared in AGNI, Poetry International, FIELD, The Christian Science Monitor and many other journals and news outlets. She is the winner of the 2012 Arts & Letters/Rumi Prize for Poetry and the 2013 Antivenom prize for her first book, Visiting Indira Gandhi’s Palmist. She is co-director of the popular Boston-area arts program The Tannery Series and is poetry editor at The Drum. Find out more at www.kirunkapur.com.
From the Afterlife
“From the Afterlife” first appeared in Arts & Letters Issue 27.
I wanted to be a bone—white like
the Taj Mahal, hard as a puritan—
when vein and wish are stripped
still able to rattle the essential notes.
But no music gets made when you pit
your self against ideas of yourself.
Dust suits me better. Grey-brown fleck—
I can mix, move into the smallest space,
spark the grittiest tunes. Divide me
into fifty states: winsome, wondering, crazed, my face
scattered by teaspoon. Over the Great Basin
of played out mines and salts rising in a haze,
over hard farmed heartland, the bent
fair-headed wheat, the combine’s cloud,
silt along the fat lip of river bed. Semis
hissing and grumbling in tongues.
I can still feel the hum of the telephone wires,
running from one life to another. I filled the lines
in case a story is a body, in case we lose our place.
Hello? Friend? I can touch everything,
but can’t stop thinking. Turns out, thoughts
granulate. Turns out, I never was a girl, I was all
those girls, a girl statue, torch raised, you know the one—
standing in the harbor, wearing a sari.
The tide foams up. Now, I’m so much dust,
I am a continent, absorbing—a thimble full
of mother, angry powder, laughing specks, froth,
filth, lover, crying cinders, particles of mineral wind.
I’m proof that nothing is lost.
You can breathe me in.
On Bret Lott:
Bret Lott is the bestselling author of 14 books. He has served as writer-in-residence at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv, spoken on Flannery O’Connor at the White House, and was a member of the National Council on the Arts from 2006 to 2013. He teaches at the College of Charleston.
“Halo” first appeared in Arts & Letters Issue 5.
He gave the cashier his money—a twenty and a five—and waited for change, the blanket already in the white plastic bag.
He needed the blanket because he knew it would be cold tonight, sleeping in the car. Of that much he was certain: the cold, him in the car, this blanket.
His wife, the woman he’d loved all these years, had kicked him out over what he’d said once they had arrived at the end of the argument: “Whenever I tell you something and you can’t remember it, it’s because I never told you,” he’d said there in the kitchen, certain of the words lined up, certain of the sense they made. Certain, certainly, of the truth they would speak of the way their lives worked. “But whenever you tell me something and I don’t remember it,” he went on, “it’s because I wasn’t listening.”
He’d said it, there in the kitchen, and he’d nodded hard once at her, put his hands to his hips for the certainty in the world he’d outlined with just those words.
She was quiet a moment, a moment filled, he was certain, with her recognition of his keen and convicting insight into the injustice of her perceptions: she believed her words went unheeded by him, and believed his words had never been spoken. He was certain of all this in just that moment.
And in that moment he was certain he still loved her. He loved her.
But then she spoke: “You understand,” she said, and put her own hands to her own hips, and in that movement, a movement that bore extraordinary witness to her own certainty, he’d seen that his own certainty in his own words had been only a vague notion, a moment of smoke. Nothing more.
“Now you understand,” she said. “Finally,” and she nodded once at him, but gently, carefully, the care she gave the gesture all the more proof of how certain she was.
That was when she turned from him, took the requisite steps to the kitchen door and opened it wide, swept her hand toward the darkness outside like a game show girl. She said nothing more, so certain she was he knew what she meant by this move.
And he knew.
He watched the cashier’s hands in the drawer, watched the efficiency and certainty with which her fingers extracted the correct number of coins, the single dollar bill, then tore from the register the receipt, handed all of it to him in just one moment. He looked at her hands a moment more, then her face, in him a kind of unbidden awe at the sureness of her hands, of these moves.
Then, the moment over, he took the money, the receipt, lifted the white plastic bag from the counter, and left. She hadn’t noticed the moment her hands had been held out to him, or his moment of watching her, and he wondered if in fact there had ever even been this moment between them. Maybe he’d imagined that instant, he thought.
The automatic doors opened, and he stepped out into the night air, felt the chill and the damp. It would be cold tonight. He was certain of that.
He started off, away from the store, and into the lot. His car was here. He was certain of that, too. He would have a place to sleep. And he had this blanket.
He walked, and walked, passed beneath first one parking lot lamp and then another, each lamp casting thin halos of light down around him while he looked for his car.
He knew it was here somewhere, here on this aisle, ten or twelve slots down. On the right. Or maybe it was the next row over. Maybe a few more slots down.
But the lot was nearly empty for how late it was, and he did not see his car here.
He felt his skin prickling over for the damp out here then, and for the dark, felt how strange and alien this feel was as he walked, as though his skin were that of someone else, moving on its own in reaction to things out of his control: the temperature of the air, the turn of the earth away from the sun, the ability of air to hold water within it.
He stopped, just inside yet another thin halo of light.
Where was his car?
And did he love his wife still, despite the way words worked in their world?
And then, in the feel of his skin prickling over, and in the growing recognition of his misplacing an item as large and important this night as his car, and in the weight of the blanket in his arm, even in the vague halo within which he stood—a halo, he saw, like words lined up believing in their certainty, only to be found as hollow as his hands on his hips, as empty as a solid single nod—inside all this, he began to wonder:
What made me believe it might be cold at night? And when did I come to believe night would come?
Of what am I certain?
He breathed in, breathed out. He felt himself swallow, though he could not be certain that was indeed what he felt.
Quickly he took the white plastic bag from beneath his arm, held it and what was inside it out in front of him, held it with both hands, his hands trembling now in the smallest way but holding on tight, as if the bag and what was inside it and even his hands, his arms, himself might all disappear this moment.
What do I know?
And now he felt even truer, even dearer the earth turning upon its axis, felt deeply and dreadfully himself hanging from this round planet head outward and into space, felt too the wind of all space blow unforgiving and uncaring through him at whatever speed this unheeding planet revolved around the sun, and at whatever speed this unmerciful galaxy blew from its beginning toward its ever-expanding end, felt all of it in just that moment.
Then finally, horribly, he felt fear move inside him, rising, unbidden and awful.
He looked at the bag and his hands and his trembling, looked and looked, and wondered with a deep and incalculable wonder:
What does the word Blanket mean?
And what is Car?
He looked then to the circle of light in which he stood, saw the asphalt and white lines in this thin light begin to tremble of their own, the world shivering beneath him as sure and certain as the cashier’s hands had measured money.
What is Halo? he wondered.
He looked up to the parking lot lamp then, felt himself go blind for it, as though scales were being settled into place instead of falling away, while still the earth shivered beneath him, and now the air around him began to swirl, and swirled, and lo! he felt himself lifted, felt himself rising into the pitch and twirl of the air, felt himself lifted and lifted into the vortex of swirling air and shivering earth and incalculable words that surrounded him, until he felt at last each molecule—if there were such a thing, or a word for it—explode into nothing, himself at its center, and nothing. Nothing at all.
What is Love? he wondered then. And finally. Finally.