Category Archives: Issue 5.3 Fall 2016

Clinton Crockett Peters

clint-photo-2Clinton Crockett Peters is the author of Pandora’s Garden: Kudzu, Cockroaches, and Other Misfits of Ecology, forthcoming from the University of Georgia Press. He has been awarded literary prizes from Shenandoah, North American Review, Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, and the Society for Professional Journalists. He holds an MFA from the University of Iowa, where he was an Iowa Arts Fellow, and is pursuing a PhD in English and creative writing. His work also appears in Orion, Southwest Review, Fourth Genre, Hotel Amerika, DIAGRAM, Hunger Mountain, and elsewhere.

 

Sailing the Iowa Sea

It’s Iowa City in October, and I’m riding my bicycle on an ethereal day, hinged on the moment of snow. There is a touch of clouds and radiant light in the trees that are changing into their death suits. They are giving up their hands, the wind kicking them up into glowing bursts of crimson and plum, swirling around my bike pedals as I ride, crunching in spokes. They are a color blizzard, piles of radiance like butterflies landing onto a field — everywhere — on car hoods, on people’s hats as I bike pass, curling around children’s legs. The sound is like gentle waves floating through the air.

“What you’re seeing,” Professor Drake says, when I meet him outside his Geosciences Building, “is a disaster waiting to happen.”

Dr. Lon Drake, professor emeritus, wears boots, khaki, and flannel. He angles forward like a greyhound as we walk towards his car. He is bald, ropy muscled, with a face like a lean Sean Connery.

“The emerald ash borer is on its way here,” he declares, and pauses, contemplating the Asian beetle threatening Iowa. “Everywhere from here on to the East Coast, ash lines the streets of America. All those golden trees you see; you won’t see any of them in a few years. There will be whole streets in the United States without trees.”

We walk away from his office, Drake, a tall man, a full foot ahead of me in every stride, somber in his pronouncement of death. “Yet, I still think it’s a good idea to move some things.”

*****

Another change is taking place, other creatures besides the ash borer on the move. Over one thousand documented migrating — on the run from heat — all across the lithosphere. Man-induced climate is cranking the thermostat, and sweltering species are moving out. One thought is, since we’re mixing them up, we might as well help them along. Drake was the first person I’d heard of doing the same, moving things, changing the world to save them.

So, I called him, looking, I guess, for some kind of guidance. Like many people, I am baffled by the extinction crisis. The 35 percent or so off all life slated for the chopping block by 2100 due to climate change and other human-caused crises. Given that most governments and companies don’t seem to be shutting down their heat-birthing factories anytime soon, I don’t know if I want to move endangered things myself or am terrified at propagating new kudzu-like monsters. I feel I needed a wise man, a mentor, a light to show the way.

You wouldn’t have expected me to grow into an environmentalist. My dad was an oil man, as his father was, and we were raised Rush Limbaugh conservative in West Texas in the nineties. I remember vividly watching my dad spit and shake his fist when Al Gore was on TV. But my father was beset by a brain tumor when I was in my late teens, and that, I think, sent me looking for some other kind of life, something to fill the void of loss of both parent and future. So I entered a decade-long search for purpose, which cumulated in my becoming an eco-writer and part-time activist. Saying this signifies that I’ve come to a fixed point in my life. But everything, including the climate, points up how change is the constant. I’ve grown weary with the dire news on the green front. Maybe it’s time for an intellectual relocation. At least in how we perceive the desirable world as stagnant, as refurbished Eden.

*****

One needs mentors. Lon Drake, aged eighty, glares at me with a certain kind of skeptical charm I’m used to from old professors, the kind who have dealt with the curious and imbecilic for so long. At 31, I feel like an awkward sophomore in Drake’s lecture. I follow the professor to his car, a dilapidated, rusty Ford Bronco. Drake is being kind enough to drive me to his farm, so I can see what he’s been sweating over for the past 24 years.

Talking in Drake’s car is difficult because of the rattling noise of loose windows and ancient bolts, and I find myself screaming to be heard. “This is not a quiet car,” Drake says. “But it gets worse. There’s no A.C., so watch what summer is like.” He lowers the windows, which fill with wind. The air cannot escape the sealed back windows, so it tornados and eddies inside the car. The glass rumbles basally, the decibel volume of a cranked hi-fi system.

“See?” Drake asks, and then the windows switch up, the experiment, I realize, concluded.

Suddenly, he daggers me with his eyes. “Don’t go thinking we can just move around species willy-nilly with this project. My approach is much more conservative. You have to test things.”

While I shift in my seat, startled, he goes on, “Think of butterflies. As much as people like butterflies, they come from caterpillars. Caterpillars eat voraciously. And if every one that was hatched survived, they would wipe out an entire forest in a couple of years. That’s why they’re bird food. They’re a key piece of the puzzle. But you have to make sure you have the birds around. The right checks. If they’re not, well, goodbye Iowa.”

As we talk, the houses and buildings fade and corn stalks rise up on all sides — yellow and green shadows, intermittently broken with the knee-high, chipper and olive green shrubs that I know to be soy. More is grown here than any place in the world.

I stare at waving corncobs, the intermittent black and white cattle. Staring at the bloated, bovine faces, I remember that for all the corn in Iowa, native plants of Central America, half of it isn’t consumed by people, but by cows that are originally from southeast Turkey. Soy, of course, is from China. Pigs from East Asia. Homo sapiens from Africa. The North American continent is a patchwork of unintended consequences and immigrations.

It’s a peculiar beauty, for me at least, the Iowa landscape. I moved here from the red rock canyons and moonscapes of the Llano Estacado in West Texas expecting Midwest cesspools of pesticides and reeking manure. And proving this assumption, the state has been ripped from one end to the other, less than one-tenth of one percent of the prairie, now filled with herbicides, cancer clusters, overfed hogs, genetically modified, top-heavy chickens. More pigs than people, more corn than trees.

But when Europeans think of countryside, they tend to conjure scenes of farmhouses dotting horizons, fields of green and gold, specks of Holstein heifers. Sheep. Wordsworth and Coleridge used to enjoy walks in what they called “fields,” which were really pastures. This is nature too, in a way. And the transformation wrecked on Iowa is charming to the right beholder, the sunset electrifying corn leaves, the sparkle of endless plants, the awesome mirror effect of rows upon rows, the horizon a green and gold glitter, dipping like the arch of a whale’s back. As someone who became a wilderness backpacker, it wasn’t my idea of aesthetic beauty until I came to Iowa for graduate school. The fields, and their meditation-inducing undulations, won me away from the idea that mountains were the only sublime environment. My outlook, I realize, can morph as easily as John Deere uprooted Iowa’s black gold.

I mention something like this to Drake, who snorts.   “It’s just corn and beans to me,” he says. “From a biological standpoint, it’s a desert. It’s an industrial monoculture. A disaster. I’ve worked on oil spills, and this isn’t much different from driving through a wetland where they’ve spilled a lot of oil. Here we just spill a lot of fertilizer. If you want to call that nature, I don’t know.” He shrugs and then grins. “However, it is a good place to conduct experiments in assisted migration. I mean, why trash a perfectly functioning ecosystem when you can come to Iowa?”

*****

Driving down the crumbling gravel road through leering oak and maple branches of Drake’s home, my first thought is that Drake has co-created what might be the best view in the state. His cabin cradles a sunset-facing slope atop prairie hills of rolling evergreen and coffee brown bordered by neighbors whose acreage is bigger than small Iowan towns. Drake has football field-sized yard of rewilded Indian grass, blue stem, perennial flower upon perennial flower, all nicely leading to the center of a lake that is clear and supine. A wood canoe is tipped over at the water’s edge, waves tickling gunnels like in a Wendell Berry poem.

Here turkeys migrate through a prairie yard once corn. So do endangered bats. Coyotes hunt as well as bob cats and perhaps mountain lions (Drake saw paw prints). Pheasants roost. Vultures circle. Deer crisscross Drake’s land and are easy game for Drake and his son. Sixty years ago, there were no deer at all. Only that bulky and golden, Yucatan grass, zea mays. Drake is keeping alive the last smattering of local floral and fauna that are beset by the tidal waves of agriculture and climate change.

At the top of the hill, he has built a three-story log cabin. Drake tells me that he’s restructuring the west end. He’ll make a front door level with the bedroom, rebuilding the driveway, re-tinkering the porch. He will make it so you can take a wheelchair right to the bedroom. “It’s a lot of work,” he says. “But I’m not desperate for the driveway. One day I might be.” One day of course, he will have to move away with his wife, who is already severely arthritic.

With Drake at eighty, kids grown, and 30 miles to the nearest hospital, how long can he keep saving things beside himself? The answer is somewhere between days and decades. After then, he’ll find a willing hand to pass his work onto. Or it may all go up in a puff of prairie smoke.

Drake raised his cabin by hand with lumber scoured from abandoned barns. The state’s rural population has fallen apart, like most everywhere, and hardwood was easy to scavenge. All his windows are composed from rotting greenhouses. Drake details how he heats his house from the basement’s wood-fired stove. A pipeline of reverberated steel snakes through the walls and carries the warmth. His air vents are the bomb-bay doors of a World War II B-17 bomber. Drake took two full days to fix its nest of wires. The doors that once delivered fire to Dresden now deliver heat to his bedroom. What was once the threat of death now aids the life-sustaining force.

Later he shows me a picture of the house frame under construction and, because the beams Drake found were so short, the picture looks like the hull of a frigate, all crisscrossed with a lattice of sea-worthy logs. Upside down, the cabin, Drake’s handiwork, the prairie ship, is sailing across the grasses of Iowa.

As we stroll around his property, we talk about bobcats that have shown up at Drake’s door. Buzzards circle overhead, probably eyeing a rabbit. We maneuver through junipers Drake has planted until we come out of the woods and face his experiment.

The young immigrant pawpaws are four-feet tall, rabbit-ear leaves of emerald and banana-yellow. These are the edible trees that conquistadors in the Mississippi Valley survived on when lost. The pawpaws are spindly but their trunks seem hard-wrought like cables. And while they grow as far north as New York, they haven’t, until now, made it to Iowa, where the state siphons the cold from Manitoba. The shorter spice bushes have a rusty tinge to their leaves and a crinkliness as if beer-battered. Each spice bush is three feet tall, bending in the slightest breeze. The last plant experiment is pipevines that resemble bean stalks that snake up the brush piles, their leaves a wrinkled-pea green.

No one has ever recorded these species living here in any sort of numbers. The nearest grove of pawpaws that Drake knows of is in a river bend at the Missouri border.

Along with his three plant species, Drake has performed yet another unprecedented act, one not entirely his doing. Since planting the new Iowans, Drake has witnessed all three of the corresponding butterflies that feed almost exclusively on these plants show up and nest.

These butterflies (the zebra swallowtail butterfly, the spicebush swallowtail, and the pipevine swallowtail) whose caterpillars rely on these plants, have flown the distance, knowing somehow, finding some way, to the fifty or so plants Drake has installed.

In other words, it’s not just three new species but six that are making their homes in Iowa. Butterflies that birds had not eaten previously in Iowa.. Their colors, when spotted, add shades to the prairie mosaic. The butterflies and three prairie plants have redefined the dimensions of our world. Field guides will need to be rewritten as Iowa is insected anew.

Fortunately, the birds seem to be taken with all the new caterpillars. Every batch Drake has seen has been picked clean.

“All I thought when I started this little experiment,” he says, “is that it’s already getting warm enough for these species to live here now. But I never though I’d be this successful.”

I feel unabashedly stunned learning about the butterflies. That an experiment like Drake’s would synchronize with three other life forms not remotely close to the area is almost cinematic. Like a movie about ghosts and baseball filmed in nearby Dryersville, Drake has built it and they, fluttering, nectar loving they, have come. His results show that hand-guided change is not just possible, but potentially far-reaching.

But I’m skeptical too, wondering how many people like me can follow Drake’s route, when we don’t know how much longer Drake will be around to lead our little migration ships. When I ask him how he feels about changing the state, he shrugs. “I’m cautious, but somebody was going to do it if it wasn’t me. Somebody was going to make that move. It was one of those things you could see on the horizon.”

*****

I take a few pictures of Drake’s experiment, and then he ushers me onto his front lawn, the main event, a prairie, for which he has labored twenty years — the rolling Indian grasses and Blue stem, baptisma, wild iris. A delicious menu of names I can’t remember. Eighty species by Drake’s count, none of which existed in the bygone corn days.

I reach out and touch whatever Drake points out, heading downhill, taking a few samples that fall off their stems and stuff them in my notebook. The bladderpod, I note, is a five-foot scrawny plant with airy flower sacks like crinkly candy wrappers sewed together. When lightly squeezed, each sack belches white flour onto my fingers.

Drake is handling a cobalt blossom named bottle gentian because of its shape. I realize he has the cracked and near-bleeding fingers of a blue-collar worker, like those of my Texas oilman grandfather, defying the notion of soft-skinned nature lover.

“This is all an uncontrolled experiment,” Drake says, “I like to let nature do most of the work.”

We round a bend of tall grass near the lake, and I don’t see the alligator until I am almost on him. I leap back, slipping in the mud, all of me in the air. I land and slide, as in some horror movie, sinking towards the mouth. The reptile is gaping, half-in, half-out of the water, polyethylene body disguised in bark, painted eyes darting into mine.

Drake leans back and laughs throatily. “So sorry, but don’t worry.” He helps me up. “These guys haven’t moved up here quite yet. It’s not that warm. This was my son’s idea.”

I scrape mud off my pants, and my stomach descends from my throat. After enough futile brushing I ask, eyeing the life-size reptilian edifice, “Will it ever be that warm?”

Drake shrugs. “Well, remember, this all used to be an ocean here. There were crocodiles swimming over your head. We don’t know yet how far we’re going to take it. You look at governors and senators who don’t believe in evolution let alone climate change, and you have no idea how much change is in store.”

Later he says, “My interpretation is that climate will soon favor woodlands here instead of prairies. So that’s why my place is a matrix of forests and grasses. I’m hedging my bets. I’m Iowan. I don’t like to give up on the prairie.”

“Even if alligators come?” I ask.

Drake grins mischievously, “I’ll be long gone by then.”

*****

The last thing he shows me before we leave is his solar heated bat house. It is about the size and shape of a traffic signal light, painted charcoal black and perching on a pole twelve feet on the ground. It is solid on all sides except for tiny, half-inch slits on the bottom.

“Are they up there now?” I ask.

“Oh sure,” Drake says. “The problem with raising bats is when young, they’re like little naked jelly beans and have to be kept warm. This thing is filled with sand that heats up during the day and stays warm through the night.

“Who put the bats up there?”

“Oh, mom. She comes by when she’s pregnant. I don’t have to do anything.”

“So you mean, you build this thing, and they, they just come?”

Drake laughs. ”It’s kind of an Iowa thing.”

He soon stops laughing, eyeing me again. “But it’s not like that with all species. Some need a little more coaxing; some won’t come at all. Some of course die out.”

We walk along the pond, the crystal water rolling in the fair wind, frothing on the shore. The clouds pass low overhead, reflecting in the lake mirror. Reeds and grama grass waves roll towards the shore like advancing, inevitable armies.

We arrive back at the house, and after getting back inside Drake’s Bronco and driving off, we discuss how things might change people’s attitudes. Time wears on people, I think. With wildfires, super storms, floods, and heat, there’s only so many warnings before people realize the climate isn’t kidding. Drake takes a deterministic view: things evolve from their origins as clearly as toxic spills from a tanker.

“The facts of the world don’t change lives,” he says, “except for a narrow range of people. Someone’s going to be a pro-environment or not from birth. For the majority of people, they continue thinking the same way they were raised.”

Quickly I refute this assertion, telling him about my conservative Texas upbringing.

Drake raises a finger in the air as if I’ve brought up his point. “The exception to that is the rebelliousness of youth, which I think is our salvation.”

He tells me about his little brother millionaire businessman who owns a pillared Mc-mansion. Drake argues global warming with him every time they meet, one dialogue bleeding into the next. The brother’s three kids have grown up to be the opposite of their father.

“They have totally rejected his money-brained mindset,” he says. “His oldest daughter even lives in a log cabin that she’s built by hand. She has chosen a primitive lifestyle, trying to have the smallest carbon footprint she can make. I laugh every time I see them together.”

Then Drake sighs. He has it the other way around. Lon’s son owns a fleet of trucks in Florida for lawn care, treating millionaires’ grasses and golf courses with enough chemicals to destroy all the Iowan prairies. He burns more car gas in a week than Drake does in a year.

“So I guess, it isn’t necessarily how you were raised, it’s how you respond.”

He looks over suddenly graver than usual. “That’s why when you do this assisted migration thing,” he says, “or whatever you do, I think you personally have an obligation to take a stand, wherever you chose, because people need some basis for making their decisions. Don’t be all wishy-washy. There’s enough of that.”

I feel a warm charcoal underneath my shirt but remain quiet. Drake has been kind enough to drive me the thirty minutes out to his place and back, answer all my questions. The least I can do is nod in ascent.

“Really,” he says, “I think you should get personally involved. I think you have a responsibility to try and convince yourself that there is a path.”

We drive in awkward silence, and I look to him, the hard-wrought canyons in his face, the knots of wood in his thumbs, and I don’t think it’s because he doesn’t have many pupils left that he’s leaving me with the charge of making up my mind. I think he rejects the notion of mentorship as indicating a future direction. Looking at Drake I feel like I’m following him through tall grass, and as he pushes ahead, he is ensnared by the gnarled life. Eventually he will disappear, his path obliterated. I think of the Vikings sending their elders off into the murky sea to eventually vanish within their waters. Soon, I’ll be left in the ghostly field alone.

But I am a rebel, as Drake knows. I affirm this by mentioning some quip about the landscape we’re driving through, still finding the serenity of the Iowan countryside. Drake doesn’t argue, just nods this time. I think he is giving me space, room to fill out his logic with my own.

Drake is responding to his environment, to the changes wrecked on a part of the world we can only see in microcosm in his backyard. The fact that he owns that history, that tableau of how eighty species responded to their climate, like our culture and survived, isn’t just science; it’s identity. Drake is a hybrid, sticking to the prairie he knows and loves, but cautiously welcoming the terrifying changes that must come. Nature, as Darwin knew, favors amalgamation, but also, ultimately, death and its service to life.

I wonder if I have enough flexibility, for the humility to understand that what I do will likely have very little impact, and even, perhaps, only seed the next thought, my child turning away from me as I did my father. To prepare for my demise and ultimate oblivion. To know that even the genes inside of my body aren’t my own, but my mother’s, father’s, evolution’s. To try, work, rebuild. I have to experiment, my solutions necessarily different from everything that came before. I wonder as we drive back to the city about a future where people experiment like mutations of DNA, to see where the next adaptation comes as old lives wink out. A constant testing of our familial and ecological landscapes.

We stay silent for most of the way back to the city, Drake’s window open, the wind fanning his flannel shirt, the noise of the air filling the car and drowning the rumble of the ancient engine, the bright noon light cascading into the car and on the ears of fresh, yet-inedible corn, flapping around like in a yellow and turquoise sea as we sail back to the city.

Chauna Craig

A Glittering of Hummingbirds, a Charm

I am the knife and the wound it deals.
–Charles Baudelaire

Walk to the beach everyday. This self-prescription, a pledge I can keep. The northern, rocky beach of Orcas Island is a quarter mile from the artists’ residency, with clear day views of Lummi Island and Mount Baker. On fog-drenched mornings I can still see and hear the slate waves lapping, mergansers adrift, bobbing unbothered by winter waters. I sort rocks in the rain, pick over driftwood and snail shells, their rigid lips plugged with pebbles impossible to spit out. I listen to the hypnotic buzzing of light aircraft ascending over the sea. Focus on these, and my mind settles for awhile.

This is not a nature essay. Except that every essay is an inquiry into the nature of something.

*****

A hummingbird emerges from the bluing dawn outside the window, bowing its head to the feeder. This may be the tiniest bird I’ve ever seen. Cup it in my hands and its wings could still flutter. One moment the bird appears dull, monochromatic as rain, but the next slight turn, a fiery jewel. I begin to doubt what I see, but the bird book tells me I’ve just met Anna’s hummingbird, a species that doesn’t leave the island.

*****

The night before I left Pittsburgh for Washington State, fear spread its first tendrils around my heart, which convulsed, trying to shake off the sickness, the building dread. I thought about canceling. I told myself to stop. Please stop. Not this again.

Six years earlier, I’d left someone whose all-consuming self left no space for empathy, even when I was at my most needy. I no longer recognized myself—anxious and depressed and so dull. I’d been awarded a month-long residency in Vermont where I intended to write, return to myself and then to an apartment I’d leased in secret. Only I felt disloyal and guilty and told him anyway, calling it my “summer writing studio,” a farce we both pretended to believe until I slipped and mentioned the two bedrooms.

*****

There are children on the edges of this story. And they make it impossible to tell this story. They also make it impossible not to.

*****

He told his first set of children, the ones from his first marriage whom I’d helped raise, that their biological mother had abandoned them. I imagined the trio as victims in a fairy tale—a lonely woodcutter and his two children starving for love in a cottage deep in the forest. Who could counter this sad story when he had custody and she lived in another state? Who wouldn’t pity this man the burden of single parenthood and its companion, loneliness? Then, I still believed I could trust the evidence someone else laid out for me.

*****

On my third morning at the beach, I perch on a boulder to meditate on the waves and notice what appear to be the legs of a crab rising from the water. Squinting, I recognize the feet of a sea bird cramped and curled like claws. Waves slap out from a boat’s wake, the water raising one drab, bedraggled wing like a greeting. Not waving, but drowning. Not drowning, but drowned.

*****

The hummingbird chooses the only feeder that appears empty. Sugar junkie craving the syrupy sludge at the bottom. Head raised after a long drink, its body forms a vector from sleek tail to needle bill, poised like an arrow. I see movement in its throat and what looks like a fine spray from the end of its bill, gargling before an operatic burst of song, its rapid, ribbon tongue unspooling to taste the air.

*****

I left for Vermont, for a future unknown, and the thrill of escape eroded with every mile. Low-thrumming nerves morphed into fear, ballooning into terror after a sleepless night in a house full of strangers.  He was a long day’s drive away, but I was afraid. After thirteen years, I was leaving a man who’d once held a kitchen knife to my throat.

This is not a hostage story. Except that it is. And suddenly I want to apologize for being a cliché, for having these experiences, for not knowing better, for still feeling the effects. Which is to say I (still) want to apologize for being human.

*****

Every morning I return to the rocks on the beach. I breathe slowly. I let the constant waves lull my brain: rest, rest, rest. I tell myself, Don’t think of the dead gull. Which summons its image from the crypts of my mind. Okay, at least don’t look for it. There, Mount Baker, snow-capped and stunning. There, mergansers, puffing their heads. The clouds shape-shift, sunlight burns distant but fierce, and I feel my life pulsing from every cell. Still, I look. I look until I see those pale legs: The dingy wing separating like a frayed hem. I never draw closer to look at the whole corpse, but I never sit on the other side of the rocks either. I hope that one morning I will not see any evidence of this fallen thing submerged and stuck between shore and sea.

*****

We made dinner together in his apartment one night in our first months together, his children gone visiting their mother. I was chopping lettuce when I felt him behind me, mouth warm on my ear. Then the thin, cool edge of his knife at my throat. My brain blanked. Love or danger? I froze, waiting to learn what to believe. He kissed my neck. He used that knife to finish preparing a romantic dinner for two.

*****

I could not stay at the Vermont residency. Panicked and frantic, my brain wired for motion, I bolted, leaving one kind friend’s house then another, weaving my way back to the good things left from my marriage: the biological children we shared.  I picked them up from daycare and called him. Choking with the shame of my vulnerability, this all-consuming distress, I told how I’d broken down, terrified, unable to stay. His words, little knives severing my last threads of hope: “Have you ruined my chances of going there now?”

*****

I keep the evidence I need to remind myself of the nature of a relationship six years in the past and receding, but still punctuated with court filings and contemptuous messages, ugly exchanges over those children who I keep pressing to the far edges of this essay. Not forgetting, but protecting them.

*****

We lived apart for a year before I moved to join him. In one of our many emails, I wrote, “Danger is sexy. You’ve held a knife to my throat before.” He confirmed this memory, adding, “I suppose I had a need to ‘push’ your trust in me to see if you really did trust me.” Encouraged, I elaborated, recalling how I smiled and pressed my body back into his. But he insisted that he would have remembered that. No, he told me, you didn’t smile or even flinch. “I thought you’d do something.” But I froze and I waited. For thirteen years. Love or danger? When I finally tapped into that other possibility, I ran for my life.

*****

There are still children darting along the edges of this story, children I leave behind for these necessary retreats. There is guilt and fear. Anger when my phone calls go to voice mail and my texts asking about times to talk to our kids go unanswered. Memories of him telling my step-children, the ones created in his long ago prior marriage, how their biological mother had abandoned them. The piled weight of his scorn and contempt followed by long, silent stretches that still say you are dead (to me).  But, finally, too, there is my refusal to play dead.

*****

One spring a student shared her writing teacher’s favorite metaphor: Love is a hummingbird with its throat cut.  Another impressed student stole the line for a short story. I was sickened but careful in my response because I, too, had once been impressed. I’d craved the sugared rush of violent passion, terrorism packaged as some twisted test of trust and love. His knife, once at my throat, remained there for years, held by my own willing fingers.

*****

I keep my promise to visit the beach every day. On the windy, rain-slicked morning that I don’t see legs or wing when the tide pulls back, my heart seizes. If it’s not there, where I expect to find something horrible, I don’t know where or when I may be ambushed. I edge closer, wanting a glimpse. Nothing but the brutal, empty kisses of water and rock.

*****

A gathering of hummingbirds is called a bouquet. A tune. A glittering. Or a charm.  On my last morning on Orcas Island two hummingbirds frolic in the mist, luminous as light shattering water. When they pause to rest in a bare hydrangea, they rub their bills against the branch like whetstone.  Staying sharp, staying ready. They will not be caged in hands, even gentle ones. They are no one’s sacrifice, not even their own.

Susanna Lang

Susanna Lang’s newest collection of poems, Tracing the Lines, was published in 2013 by the Brick Road Poetry Press. A two-time Hambidge Fellow and recipient of the Emerging Writer Fellowship from the Bethesda Writer’s Center, she has published original poems and essays, and translations from the French, in such journals as Little Star, New Letters, Prairie Schooner, December, Blue Lyra Review, and Poetry East. Book publications include translations of Words in Stone and The Origin of Language, both by Yves Bonnefoy. She lives with her husband and son in Chicago, where she teaches in the Chicago public schools.

 

Tulips

Look, you said. Look now—
tulips brimming red among the daffodils,

cowslips gathered at the river, under the hawthorns
in their confirmation dresses.

Two little girls in white run to the church.
Their father calls after them but they do not listen.

This is the peak, you said.
Tomorrow it will be gone.

But I also love the moment after, tulips
with their mouths wide open,

petals beginning to curl back,
a little brown at the edges.

 

 

In the Garden

My father-in-law deadheads his roses
early, before sun has dried the lawn.
A black-capped bird waits near him,

knows where the seeds are hidden.
Sometimes it lights on his hand, a reminder:
Do not cut too much.  This is the 97th year

my father-in-law has lived—how many dead roses
has he snipped in his lifetime, making room
for new buds to emerge?  And what has brought

this chickadee into his hands, the brief
touch of its feathers, its change of heart?

Wally Swist

wally-swistWally Swist’s books include Huang Po and the Dimensions of Love (Southern Illinois University Press, 2012); The Daodejing: A New Interpretation, with David Breeden and Steven Schroeder (Lamar University Literary Press, 2015); and Invocation (Lamar University Literary Press, 2015). His poems have appeared in many publications, including Commonweal, North American Review, Rattle, Sunken Garden Poetry, and 1992-2011 (Wesleyan University Press, 2012). Garrison Keillor recently read a poem of Swist’s on the national radio program The Writer’s Almanac.

 

Black Bear

1.

I take the Frost Trail up the mountain,
before coming to
the plank walk through the marsh.

In the grassy clearing, among the stones
of the path, a bear’s black hulk streaks into
the copse to my left—I stop mid-track.

Go back down
the way I came, fear stalking every step?
Or move forward, making

as much noise as possible,
pass its hiding place in
the tangle of pine and bending birches?

So, I whistle—why not?—
and pass the place at the edge of the woods,
it begins to huff, to woof

like nothing I’ve ever heard before.
I put one step in front of the other,
bang the end of my walking stick

over each stone, set the echoes
ringing.  I climb the summit, the fire
in my legs driving me forward.

 

2.

I hear
the screaming even inside the house, bolt
out the front door,

my friend’s shrieks rending the night,
startling the black bear, and me.
It spins around,

sees me, falls, slow motion, backwards—
lands on its bottom—
in an instantaneous reverse of direction,

in athletic brilliance.
He darts on all fours into the spring woods,
the deadfall snapping into distance as far

as we can hear.  At the feeder’s suet—
the fading heat of the bear’s body,
the heavy reek of overwintered fur.

 

3.

Placing my foot beside the dented track,
I look down into it, here
at the bottom of the five hundred foot

vertical rise that twists up Mount Toby’s
north face.  I calculate
its size, its proximity, as I stand

next to where the black bear stood.
Along the trail, the trees
all at once ripple, matching the ripple

that ascends my spine—
the crowns
of trees shiver in the chill autumn wind.

Mary Moore

mary-mooreMary Moore’s new chapbook, Eating the Light, selected by Allison Joseph as the winner of Sable Books 2016 award, was published in August, and she has poems out this year in Birmingham Poetry Review (BPR), One, Cider Press Review, McNeese Review, Canary, Coal Hill Review, and in “Hoppenthaler’s Congeries” (Connotation Press).  Work is forthcoming in Georgia Review, Poem/Memoir/Story, Unsplendid, Still the Journal and In Eyes Watching From the Woods, an anthology from WVU Press. Other recent credits include Terrain (one of three finalists), Nimrod (as contest finalist, and as regular submission), The Moth, Drunken Boat, BPR, Cider Press Review’s Best of Volume 16, Sow’s Ear Review, and others.  Besides earlier poems in Poetry, Field, Prairie Schooner, New Letters, her first full-length poetry collection, The Book of Snow was published by Cleveland State University.

 

Ear To the Sun

Stanford Solar Center Satellite

 

The satellite’s winged tympanum
turns like a sunflower to the sun’s hum,
a long, low chord.  Two hours
it takes to roll from corolla to core
and back again.  You can hear
the sun’s audio:  40 days of hymn
pressed into seconds, a continuum roar,
basso profundo:  Om
it says, in the opera villain’s key.
The sun’s skin oscillates with the tune,
like the ripples we can’t see
in a struck bell’s metal.

Knell of a giant slow bell.

Silence is all in the ear.  Ours
are shaped like bells made of felt,
pink, brown, yellow,
bone hammer, skin drum, resonant
with the million notes of the world.

The first bell was a stone.
The Druids’ in their curious pantheism,
ears to the standing stones,
must have heard the sun’s low thrumming,
like the groans of warning and mourning
we now know the eldest trees
make in drought.  As if atoms
and the spaces inside them can suffer.

There is no silence.  Om is a prayer.

Eduardo Milán

Eduardo Milán (author) is a quintessential outsider. He was born in 1952 in Rivera, on the Brazil/Uruguay border, to a Brazilian mother and Uruguayan father. He left Uruguay in 1979 one step ahead of the death squads and has lived in Mexico for nearly four decades. However, Milan is an outsider to both the Uruguayan and Mexican poetry scenes. Milán’s concerns are political and epistemological. Uniquely vulnerable to language, his reverberations off-message offer risky freedom to the translator. Eduardo kindly insists that my translations are better than his originals: “lo que suena en español de locura, suena en inglés de poesía.”

 

John Oliver Simon (translator) is one of the legendary poets of the Berkeley Sixties who has grown by steady dedication to his calling. Published from Abraxas to Zyzzyva, he is a distinguished translator of contemporary Latin American poetry, and received an NEA fellowship for his work with the great Chilean surrealist Gonzalo Rojas (1917-2011). He is Vice-President of California Poets In The Schools, where he has worked since 1971, and was the River of Words 2013 Teacher of the Year. His ninth full collection of poems is Grandpa’s Syllables (White Violet Press, 2015). For his lifetime of service to poetry, the Mayor of Berkeley, California proclaimed January 20, 2015, as John Oliver Simon Day. In May 2016, the Berkeley Poetry Festival will present him with its Lifetime Achievement Award.

 

Undress Your Language

Undress your language
now the man’s not around.
Stop talking to see who you are,
take it off now there’s no one there
or fog the window so no one
can see you. Language:
take it all off. Leave your myrrh
on the moors for the Moors, fine.
Right here? Lose
the incense, over the top.
Language in language out.
Destiny? Origin? Hair in the wind.

 

 

Quítate el lenguaje

Quítate el lenguaje
ahora que el hombre no está.
Deja de hablar para ver quién eres,
quítate aquí, ahora que nadie es,
o sea, estría en la vidriera para que nadie
te vea. El lenguaje:
quítatelo. Allá en los morros,
déjate la mirra, está bien.
¿Pero aquí? Pienso, déjate
el incienso, que es demasiado.
A lenguaje dado lenguaje devuelto.
¿El destino? ¿El origen? El pelo suelto.

Raymond Wong

im-not-chinese_raymond-wongI’m Not Chinese
by Raymond Wong
Press: Apprentice House
Pages: 246
Date: October 2014
ISBN: 1627200266
Reviewed by: Charse Yun

 

A Homeland Excursion

Memoirs have historically been both a bane and boon in Asian American writing. Early autobiographical chronicles by Asian writers in the U.S. remain valuable today for conveying immigrant struggles. But with the explosion of memoir in the 1990’s, more recent autobiographical accounts seemed plagued by formulaic narratives. One common motif is the Americanized narrator of Asian descent who travels back to the homeland of his or her immigrant parents. The writer successfully undergoes a journey of healing and self-discovery and ultimately “comes to terms” with his or her bicultural identity.

At first glance, Raymond Wong’s I’m Not Chinese seems to be just another addition to this storyline. But that would be misleading. Wong’s work (published by the lesser-known Apprentice House in 2014), is a much more thoughtful. Although it may not reach as wide an audience, his work admirably demonstrates that what is most personal in writing can be deeply moving and transcend cliché.

The book begins in 1996 with the Raymond, a single, 30-something job counselor from California en route to Hong Kong. He is traveling with his mother, a strong, determined woman who might be called “difficult.” Twenty-eight years earlier, she separated from Raymond’s father and ran away to the U.S. with Raymond in tow. Raymond was only five at the time. There, she re-marries a white American man, who becomes a complicated step-father to Raymond. From the very outset, Raymond is not your typical Asian American narrator. In elementary school, his classmates ask, “What are you?” “British,” answers Raymond. The British, he points out, ruled Hong Kong for over fifty years.

But Raymond soon learns cheeky answers don’t translate into a sense of belonging in the States or China. When he tells his Chinese relatives that his girlfriend is Vietnamese-American, he notes: “The translation induced somber expressions, as if I’d announced the collapse of my business.”

Mother and son begin their headlong trip into Hong Kong and China, and the scenes are composed mostly of dialogue, the back-and-forth translations provided by his domineering mother. Interspersed are an abundance of tactile, finely wrought details. Wong writes with a fiction writer’s eye: “the hypnotic sweep of the windshield wipers,” the “flickering glow [of an incense stick] like a child cupping a butterfly.”

As the journey progresses, Raymond notices his mother losing steam: “Her eyes seemed distant and lost, and her shoulders slumped like the stem of a plant, once strong and vibrant, now wilting and slowly dying inside.”

He soon discovers why. Raymond is finally reunited with his real father and learns the startling secret of his parents’ divorce and his mother’s decision to abandon her husband in Hong Kong. Readers may be surprised that Wong was so much in the dark about his family history for most of his life. That his mother would not tell him may strike one as irresponsible.

But that is what makes the story compelling. Throughout, Wong describes his experiences with very little filters. Unlike other Asian American narratives, the foundation of I’m Not Chinese is not a journey to self-discovery or closure, but a stumbling upon familial secrets. This is the real thread of the story that gets pulled along by the current underneath. Even the lyrical details accentuate how disassociated Wong has become in light of his family’s wounded history. In one scene, Raymond’s mother argues bitterly over a forty dollar telephone charge at a Beijing hotel. Normally, Raymond would be annoyed. But now, he realizes his mother’s inability to find healing across generations or continents is intimately linked to her own wounds. Raymond now sees her more compassionately: “A frightened 12-year-old girl watching, helpless, as soldiers took her mother and father away.”

It’s a moving scene, yet nothing is resolved. Later, Raymond is shocked to learn his mother has never told his father that she has remarried. When he urges her to do so, her response closes the chapter: “Without answering, she turned to the window.”

In I’m Not Chinese, healing and closure may be just out of reach, but understanding and reverence for his family, Wong shows, is close at hand.

––––––––

Charse Yun is a Korean American writer and translator who now lives in Seoul, S. Korea. Currently, he is a visiting professor at Korea National Open University. Born and raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, he studied at UW-Madison and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, but he is most proud of his recent status as an alumn of Antioch University’s MFA program in Creative Nonfiction.

Kathleen Boyle

Kathleen Boyle has recently appeared or is forthcoming in numerous journals and other publications including Zyzzyva, The Seattle Review, and The Atlantic Online. She works as a Public Defender.

 

Fire at the Grand Storehouse of the Tower of London, 1841

You paint my destruction
from beyond the moat
crowds heave as you paint
and go on painting
three days it takes
page after page cadmium quick
your hands as I throw
my insides to the sky
as you are jostled
as I burn and simmer
flare center-red quinacridone
churn wheels of manganese smoke
you are bristle and water
wash after wash
I am a yellow heartbeat
as you curse bitter
they would not let you close
your spilt paints vermillion
yet still you see things rise
to the right are steeples and trees
huge mass burns alizarin to the left
whirlpool cesspool tornados out
shoves in. My tower my
drawbridge gone
your paintbox your paper
your nine sheaths.

 

 

Sierra Valley

Sunstroke, brushstroke: morning source of swallows, their orderless
streaming, of colors, of things that swoop and twirl. I wanted to hold onto
them, frenzied, the way they flew together, in dawn, in dusk, across the
high yellow valley, across dry fields and marshes. I stood there to catch it –
the spinning, the circling that knows to move together. Night comes down
on the bridge where the swallows rest, moonstroke, then barely sunrise
and streaming birds, streaming light. How did we do so much damage?
Again the whole swirls, day’s wheel, now singular, now angular.