ONLINE BONUS: How To Grieve A Home

  1. Become so attached that you cannot separate your identity from it

Live and grow there with the people you love. Use each and every part of the house, every square inch. Let your siblings teach you how to use the foyer and living room for floor hockey. Use the tall, angled ceilings in the living room as movie screens and decorate the largest possible Christmas tree every year. Use the unfinished basement for band practice or gymnastics or as the set for a music video. Use the shower to shower, but also to cry. Cry in your room, too. Laugh in every room with every person who matters. Laugh at dad snoring on the couch in the living room. Laugh at mom leaving her retainer on the kitchen counter. Laugh at your brothers wrestling in the living room, the kitchen, the basement, and every bedroom.

Fight there, too. Deliver one word answers when your parents ask you how your day was. Roll your eyes at every tip your dad offers after your games and tell him you don’t need his help. Pretend you don’t hear the catch in your mom’s voice when she asks if you like her. Tell your brother you hate him, and don’t talk to him for days. Argue constantly. Slam doors. Punch walls.

Doing all of this, the place should know you better than you do.

 

  1. Leave temporarily

Leave for school, for a job, or just to leave. Take it for granted. Learn and grow outside its walls. Tell the people you meet about your home and about the people who live there. About the floor hockey and about the laughter and about the cruel things you’ve said and regretted there.

Get hurt. Find someone you love who loves you. Try to make it work until you wonder why you’re trying so hard and what that means for you both. Look around once it’s over and realize how few are the friends you have left. Hold onto those who’ve stayed. Keep learning and growing though it is difficult. Focus on your work.

Miss home.

 

  1. Return

Go back. Inhale the familiar smell of your mom’s Italian wedding soup and tune in to the clacking of siblings playing pool in the basement. Run your fingers against the walls as you walk through the hallway. Count the missing wooden fence posts that you knocked off the treehouse while playing soccer in the backyard. Lie down in the treehouse while you look up at the canopy, trace the leaves and remember what you used to daydream about. Fall asleep in the arms of the couch when your family watches football. Smile when the oak tree in the front yard drops an acorn on your head. Welcome back, it seems to say. Remember how it feels to be somewhere that knows you.

Hug your family for what feels like the first time, and don’t say any more cruel things. Apologize for old arguments. Feel comforted in every sense.

 

  1. Lose it, and blame a loved one

Someone will tell you this house won’t be your home for much longer because your parents will decide to downsize now that all their kids have grown up.

Interrogate them. Question why they would do this before you’ve graduated. Ask them if they don’t feel connected to it in the same way you do. When they explain that, yes, it is sooner than expected, shift the blame to the new homeowners while still holding a grudge with your loved ones. Avoid conversations with them. If they talk to you and you must respond, do so unenthusiastically. Slam more doors. Cry in more showers. Refuse to believe someone else will call this place that is yours, theirs.

Listen when they tell you they weren’t expecting this to happen so soon either. Pay attention to the tone of their voice, and watch their eyes as they tell you this. Hear what they don’t say. See that they are feeling things, too. Stop blaming them if you can.

 

  1. Commit every square foot to memory

Enjoy every inch of the place while you can, while still refusing to accept you will lose it soon. Memorize every creak in the floorboards, every paint chip in the walls, every nook where you used to hide, every heater you and your brother would sit in front of in the winter when you were little, every tree you’ve climbed. Remember the meals you’ve shared there with the people you love, the holidays celebrated, even the family reunion in the backyard you were too young to remember, and the family dog that bit the neighbors that you’ve only heard stories about. Imagine how many more memories your family has made there years before you were born that you don’t even know about.

Don’t forget the time capsule you and your neighbors buried in the backyard years ago, the clicking sound of the dryer as it tossed your icy clothes after a day of sledding, the cracks in the driveway you used to avoid when you were on your rollerblades following closely behind your brothers. Write it all down. Take pictures.

Drink champagne with friends and family in the empty house the last night that it’s still yours. Share fond memories of sleepovers in the living room, camping in the backyard. Notice how bare it looks with all of your family’s things moved out.

Try to enjoy the last night, but know that you won’t. Wish you could have a day by yourself with it. Write an ode to each room in your head or on paper.

 

  1. Settle somewhere new knowing it will not be the same, but that it will be enough

When you want to complain that the kitchen is smaller than your old home, or that the walls are too thin, or that it isn’t big enough for the holidays when everyone comes home, hold your tongue. Instead, listen as your mom rambles about all the changes they’re going to make, all the ways she plans on making it feel like home. Grab a paintbrush, a hammer, a drill.

Find fragments of home all around you. In the smell of the backyard’s freshly cut grass where you still play soccer. In the creaking sound of your grandmother’s old rocking chair as your dad dozes during the holidays. In the basement where at the pool table siblings break, share stories, and scheme together. In the family photo albums you routinely flip through that stand tall on the living room shelves. In your parents’ glistening eyes when they have all the kids home for the holidays.

Then, with these fragments, reconstruct what home means to you.


A recent graduate of Emerson College, Kira Venturini lives in Washington, DC and works in the nonprofit industry. She grew up in Wallingford, Pennsylvania as the youngest in her family of five. Her work has been published in Talking Writing.

ONLINE BONUS: POETRY BOOK REVIEW

Poems for the Writing: Prompts for Poets (2nd Edition) [Texture Press, 2019]

Review by Jamal H. Goodwin Jr.

Poems for the Writing: Prompts for Poets is more than a motivational tool or instruction manual for a beginner poet. It is a source of joy, insight, melancholy, curiosity, and humor. This variety of emotions arises thanks to poets of various levels, from students to classical poets to professionals. Valerie Fox and Lynn Levin, the authors of Prompts for Poets, contribute poems as well. Fox is a writer who teaches at Drexel University, and Levin is a writer and translator who teaches at Drexel and the University of Pennsylvania.

But this book is more than a writing guide with prompts for poets: it is also a poetry collection. Prompts for Poets offers strong lines, voluble stanzas, and opportunities for both humor and contemplation.

The narrator in Levin’s “Paraclausithryon” ostensibly pleads for entry into a lover’s abode, but is actually castigating them:

I beg news of your dreams

the milk of your voice.

Don’t waste yourself

like an unread book

I will wait a year, maybe two

then don’t blame me if I seek

someone simpler

less in need of coaxing.

 

The scorn of the narrator is palpable, and the ease of their transition from serenading their lover to threatening abandonment is almost disturbing.

Devin Williams’ “Rats” delivers insight on a marginalized soul. The mythology that Williams evokes demonstrates that there is more to a rat. They are not just subway dwellers; rats have admirers, and rats have feelings, too:

I am present when food is abundant.

Companion of Daikoku,

Savior of Sesshu,

First sign of the Zodiac

It is only language that separates us.

Yet, you avoid me

And attack me.

You don’t know me,

How can you claim to know how I feel?

 

Prompts for Poets has humorous, carefree moments too. In chapter 11, “The Advice Column Poem,” desperate readers ask columnists for life advice. Each poem’s columnist gives an absurd answer, one that ignores the question and frequently prompts a laugh. In Lauren Hall’s “Lost without Frank,” a wife inquiring about difficulties with her husband is told by the crystal-ball-consulting Madame Rosa that he does not exist:

You say this Georgina never existed, and there Madame Rosa agrees, but who’s to say that Frank wasn’t just more of the same? Who’s to say you didn’t make him up one afternoon while you were sorting your sock drawer or scrubbing the toilet?

There’s plenty more prompts and poetry to be found in Prompts for Poets. The prompts and instructions are sure to get the mind warmed up and ready to write while the poems bring about contemplation or give rise to a laugh. More can be found on Fox and Levin’s collaborative website, https://poemsforthewriting.com/.

 

Answer a Poem with a Poem

Among the things I dislike so much about our national political discourse, in the news as well as on social media (maybe especially on social media) is the lack of introspection and the ignorance of nuance. Pundits, politicians, trolls, and neighbors are quick to attack each other without thoughtfully probing their own motivations.

Luckily we have poets. Imagine what political debates, or just regular conversations, would be like if they were done in poetry? We actually have a good example of what that would be like in the form of Shakespeare’s plays, but don’t worry, I’m not going to ask you to talk to your neighbors in blank verse.

Instead I want to talk about the tradition of poets responding to other poets in poems. One of the most well known is Sir Walter Raleigh’s poem The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd, which is a response to Christopher Marlowe’s The Passionate Shepherd to His Love.

Writing response poems is a good practice for several reasons. First, it forces you to look closely at the tools, including the quality of the metaphors and references, the poet uses to make their point. Second, with a starting point essentially created for you, it eases you over that first hump of a blank page that can give writers so much trouble. Third, it’s fun.  Look at how Denise Levertov uses, and even subverts (though they actually agree on the main matter), the title of Willam Wordsworth’s poem The World is Too Much With Us.

O Taste and See

By Denise Levertov

 

The world is

Not with us enough.

O taste and see

 

the subway Bible poster said,

meaning The Lord, meaning

if anything all that lives

to the imagination’s tongue,

 

grief, mercy, language,

tangerine, weather, to

breathe them, bite,

savor, chew, swallow, transform

 

into our flesh our

deaths, crossing the street, plum, quince,

living in the orchard and being

 

hungry, and plucking

the fruit.

Try a response poem yourself, and if possible, incorporate a line or title from the original poem in your own poem. It’s easier to do if you start with a poem that makes bold or clear statements, such as Maggie Smith’s Good Bones,  Archibarld Macleish’s Ars Poetica, or William Carlos Williams’ This is Just to Say.

###

Grant Clauser is the author of five books including Muddy Dragon on the Road to Heaven (winner of the Codhill Press Poetry Prize), Reckless Constellations, and The Magicians Handbook. His poems have appeared in The American Poetry Review, Cortland Review, Tar River Poetry, The Literary Review and others. He works as an editor and teaches at Rosemont College.

ONLINE BONUS: A Quarter of a Life

We leave the bar a little before midnight. The laughter of the drunken crowds outside muffles the car horns and screeching tires in the distance. The air is sticky as the group of us ramble down the sidewalk toward the nearest subway station, bumping into one another on every misstep. We’re all dressed in nineties garb to match the theme of the bar, to celebrate my twenty-fifth birthday, but now, out on the street, we’re conspicuous in our Chuck Taylors and choker necklaces.

As my friends joke and debate which direction to stumble toward, the lights atop the skyscrapers steal my eye. There’s something about Philadelphia at night that always seems so foreign. No matter how many times I’ve stared up at those same buildings in awe, it always feels like the first time. Yet somehow, it also feels like home. I’ve spent the last six months trying to distract myself with beauty like that of the skyline, trying to numb a gnawing pain, or at least dull it.

Ever since losing my cousin Chris, I’ve been stripped of the ability to be completely present in any given situation. He died of a drug overdose earlier in the year, leaving me with the overwhelming sense a piece of me is constantly missing—like I’ve lost an arm in an accident, like my leg has been sawed clean off. They say amputees often experience a condition called “phantom limb syndrome.” The condition can cause them to wake in the middle of the night in a panicked sweat, antagonized by a throbbing pain or confused by a sensation felt on a part of their body that no longer exists. I’ve been learning that the ghosts of the people we have loved and lost can generate a similar effect.

We reach a street corner and everyone agrees we need directions to the Patco. Otherwise, we may never catch a train to carry our tired bodies back over the bridge to Jersey. We pause as one of my friends rummages through her pockets in search of her phone.

With my neck craned and mouth agape, I trace the sharp edges of the high-rises cutting through the foggy night sky and block out the sound of my friends arguing over which way to go. I think of the Patco and it reminds me of the story I told when I gave my cousin’s eulogy. I was riding the train home from the Phillies parade in 2008, after they had just won the World Series. Someone across the aisle mentioned they were from Magnolia.

“Do you happen to know Chris Boone?” I asked, explaining who I was.

The excitement gleamed in their eyes as they shouted to their friends a couple rows back that I was “Boone’s cousin!” and before I knew it, the entire train car had erupted into applause, chanting his name. I think of that moment, of what kind of person you have to be to have people love you so much they cheer for you even when you’re not around. Then I think of all the other times he rode the Patco into Camden alone to score baggies of heroin and suddenly I am snapped back to reality.

“It’s 12:05!” my friend shouts, raising her phone in the air. The time shines bright on the screen. “You’re officially twenty-five!”

Everyone joins in her excitement, dancing and cheering like I’ve just hit the winning home run. Pedestrians are forced to detour around us as we claim the entire sidewalk in celebration. I laugh, and sit down on the yellow painted curb, hiding my face in my hands out of embarrassment as they begin to sing “Happy Birthday.”

When I was younger, it always felt awkward to have people sing to me on my birthday. My whole family would gather around a cake and turn out the lights, shushing each other as the candle flames illuminated my face. I hated being the center of attention or being expected to react some certain way as everyone harmonized and stared at me. But as time has passed, I’ve learned to treasure birthdays and holidays and any days where bliss hints of its pretty face.

For months, I’ve warned everyone about this particular birthday though, urging them to prepare for my “quarter life crisis.” And though it’s mostly a joke, the fear of getting older has been wrapping its calloused hands around my throat to remind me that every moment is fleeting. I can’t seem to stop myself from returning over and over again to the photo album that holds the memories of my very first birthday. My family threw me a party at my grandparents’ house. My cousin had just turned one a couple months earlier. In one picture, the two of us are wearing Sesame Street party hats and dazed looks on our faces as our parents hold us over the cake. Our tiny fingers are covered in icing and drool. The photos sharpen the phantom pain. They serve as faint reminders that my cousin, my partner in crime, my first best friend, will never get a twenty-fifth birthday, or any other birthdays for that matter. I won’t open my messages in the morning to find the same “Happy Birthday, I love you” text he sends each year, no matter how far we’ve grown apart. I’ll never get another chance to say the same to him; it leaves me with a throbbing sense of emptiness.

But here I am, on a corner in Philadelphia surrounded by buildings that continue to stand tall. Their lights reflect off one another’s windows creating a shine that’s impossible to ignore. Here I am surrounded by the people who continue to hold my hand as I navigate the ever-winding path of grief. I look up at them as they stand over me, singing. My wife’s eyes are gleeful and glazed over from one drink too many. A couple of my best friends sing theatrically, holding invisible microphones and clutching at their chests for dramatic effect. A friend who’s more like a brother laughs at the whole scene—a real, genuine laugh. The streetlight shines above them creating an orange glow in the thick city air around their heads. Just as they finish the final “Happy Birthday to you,” it begins to rain. No thunder or lightning, no torrential downpour, just rain—light enough to kiss my warm, June skin and let me know, it’s there.


Jackie Domenus is a queer writer and educator from South Jersey. Her essays have appeared in Watershed Review and Entropy. She recently received her MA in Writing from Rowan University and she serves as Associate Editor for Glassworks Magazine.

ONLINE BONUS: Making Eggplant Disappear

Every day for two weeks, my refrigerator vegetable drawer, stocked full on grocery day, slowly emptied.

The carrots accompanied paper bag lunches. The mushrooms, celery, and zucchini complimented several evening stir-fry meals served over rice or noodles. The seedless oranges and Red Delicious apples vanished as mid-morning and afternoon snacks.

The eggplant remained.

The vegetable rolled back and forth each time someone in search of food opened the bottom drawer, and after finding nothing but the eggplant, quickly closed the drawer again.

Knowing that a return trip to the grocery store to restock our fare would be irresponsible without cooking this sleek dark-purple vegetable, I resolved late on a Saturday evening to complete the task. This vegetable that no one would touch, this vegetable that refused to wilt or wither its way to the trash can, this vegetable that occupied too much space in the refrigerator drawer would become Eggplant Caviar, a dish that tastes better than any fish roe could match. I needed to make this leftover vegetable disappear.

The best pan for this task was the 16-inch frying pan buried in the back of my cabinet behind several more useful-sized pots and pans.

“Loud noise!” I called like a golfer who shouts “Fore!”  Then I squatted and pulled the rimmed pan by its handle from among its counterparts causing a clang and clatter that would have startled my 12-year-old son Nick when he was a toddler.

I set the heavy pan on the stovetop, grabbed a knife and dinner plate from the top cabinet, and set up my dicing station on the counter above the dishwasher.

Nick wandered into the kitchen.

“What are you cooking?” he asked, seeing the green pepper, onion and eggplant lined up for chopping.

“Eggplant Caviar,” I answered and pointed to the recipe. “It’s a dip to eat with crackers. I have whole-wheat sal-tynes, as you call them. And butter crackers.”

“Mom, I don’t call them sal-tynes anymore,” he said. “Can I help?”

Back when my son was a little boy who mispronounced the word saltine, finding a way for him to assist me cooking a vegetable like eggplant was difficult. He stood on a chair to reach the countertop. Few jobs were appropriate. The risk of danger prohibited him from chopping vegetables with sharp utensils or working with heat over a hot stove. He was reduced to measuring and stirring ingredients into a bowl. To assert his authority over the task, he would add extra spices to the mix when I wasn’t looking.

Now he was on the verge of becoming a teen-ager, and we prepared dinner shoulder-to-shoulder in our sock feet. I still cut the vegetables while he mixed ingredients. But seemingly overnight, he had graduated from a bowl on the counter to a pan over the stove.

“Sure, you can help,” I said, relieved to pass the bulk of the chore on to somebody else. “Get ready for the vegetables.”

The green pepper was a rich forest green. Using a dull knife, because that’s all we own, I cut through the tough skin of the pepper to make thin strips, discarding the seeds and stem on top of a grocery bag on the counter. I then chopped the uneven strips into smaller pieces like confetti. With the same blunt tool, I scraped the chopped vegetable from the dinner plate into the pan where my son waited to begin cooking. I repeated the task with a medium onion, adding its discarded brown skins to the trash pile and the tiny-white nose-stinging squares into the pan.

My son added olive oil and garlic to the mix and increased the gas flames underneath the pan until the vegetables sizzled, turning pungent and raw into pleasant and sautéed.

Looking over his shoulder, I saw steam rising from the pan. I wanted to nudge Nick aside and take over, turn the heat down, and stir the mix to prevent the onions from burning. I was just about to step in when Nick adjusted the stove himself and added a slight flow of chicken broth to get the simmer under control.

“Do you want me to stir?” I asked.

“I got this, Mom,” he said, giving me no room to intervene.

Nick stirred vegetables with a plastic, ochre spatula at the stove while I tackled the awkward eggplant with my insufficient tool. The blade of my knife was too short for the task, but no other cutlery we owned could get the job done. I adjusted the knife’s position each time the blade slit into the vegetable but stuck, barred by the curb of the knife handle. Good-bye you plain, purple vegetable that’s been in our refrigerator forever.

After creating rings of eggplant stacked like pancakes on the side of the plate, I cut through the edges of each slice and delicately peeled away the black skin, careful to separate the tough peel from the spongy meat I wanted to keep and cook. After all of the skins were discarded, I lay the beige circles one at the time on the open side of the plate and began slicing each in a graph paper pattern, dropping the resulting squares of eggplant into the mixture being stirred by my son.

“What we need is some music,” he said, temporarily leaving his post to find a pop station on his red I-Pad touch that he placed on the counter, closer to the refrigerator than to the stove. We listened to a singer I had never heard before release his emotions and somehow – abracadabra – carry away my worries about the eggplant, too.

My child worked at the stove, and I erased final evidence that the raw eggplant ever existed. I threw away the grocery bag filled with the inedible vegetable scraps and wiped the counter with a paper towel after spraying the surface with cleaner. Lifting the kitchen faucet handle and nudging it few times to adjust the running water temperature from scorching to tolerable, I rinsed the dirty prep utensils and dishes and placed them one by one out of sight in the dishwasher.

“I’m going to add more olive oil,” Nick said as he worked behind me. “Do we have any hot sauce?”

“No, I need to add that to the grocery list,” I said, continuing to move dishes between the sink and dishwasher.

“But let me see what I can find,” I said, scanning the different spices on the shelf and reaching for a familiar choice. “How about red pepper flakes?”

While I rummaged through a utensil drawer to find a measuring spoon, he jumped ahead and started sprinkling the dried herb over the pan. He also freely added oregano and basil.

“Wait, you might add too much,” I said.

“Mom, it’s fine,” he said.

I went around the counter and sat on a stool. Nick continued to transform the eggplant into an incredible dish. He added canned tomatoes, Worcestershire sauce and more rogue spices. When he declared the recipe was ready to try, I opened the crackers. We both chose the butter-flavored and ignored the whole-wheat saltines.

We moved to the living room. Nick put down a yellow placemat on the coffee table and served the caviar in a pottery dish I usually reserved for company. He set the crackers between us and scooped a helping of the appetizer onto a plate for me to try first.

The caviar tasted nothing like eggplant. Its savory flavor and texture had just the right kick.

“Is this good or what?” he asked, putting another spoonful on his plate.

Then we sat at opposite ends of the worn, tan couch, each of us blankly putting dip on our crackers while watching a re-run detective show on TV, enjoying the caviar, and making the eggplant that wouldn’t go away disappear.


A former newspaper journalist, Caroline Kalfas writes in Woolwich Township, NJ. Her work has appeared in various newsletters and the 2018 and 2019 editions of Bay to Ocean: The Year’s Best Writing from the Eastern Shore Writers Association. She is a graduate of N.C. State University in Raleigh.

Philadelphia Stories Chooses 2020 Winner of Short Fiction Contest

August 2020, Philadelphia, PA: Philadelphia Stories, a non-profit literary magazine serving the Delaware Valley and beyond, has named Colorado author A.C. Koch as this year’s winner of the Marguerite McGlinn Prize for Fiction for his story, “Young Americans.” Koch will receive a $2500 prize for “Young Americans.”

Editorial board members read through hundreds of submissions to narrow the list to seven finalists, which were then reviewed by the 2020 judge, Karen Dionne, the bestselling author of The Marsh King’s Daughter and The Wicked Sister. Dionne described “Young Americans” as “…[a] short story [that] ticked all the boxes for me. A nuanced, pitch-perfect father-daughter road trip told with an economy of language and an easy rhythm and flow that sucked me right in.” She went on to say, “Clearly plotted, well-drawn characters, along with just the right mix of atmosphere and insight make this story a winner!”

This year’s second place goes to Arkansas author Allie Mariano for her story, “Dead Women.” About this story Dionne says, “A character at a crossroads is always intriguing; how did they come to this place and what will they do going forward? I love stories that focus on undoing the consequences of bad choices. That this story is also beautifully written is a bonus.” The second-place prize is $750.

Third place goes to Philadelphia author David Updike for “Feral Wives.” Dionne writes, “This short story begins with an irresistible premise: women all over the country are leaving their families to live in groups in the forest, constantly on the move, building temporary shelters while they hunt and fish and forage. An engaging and thoughtful commentary on what it means to shed the labels of ‘wife’ and ‘mother.’” The third-place prize is $500.

2020 Finalists:

Charlie Watts                 “Almost Happy”                          Freedom, NH

Holly Pekowsky            “Almost There”                             New York, NY

Jo Anne Burgh             “The Women in the Club”           Glastonbury, CT

Shanteé Felix                 “Magic Hair”                                 Baltimore, MD

Koch, Mariano, and Updike will be honored at special virtual reception and reading on Saturday, October 10, 2020 immediately following the conclusion of Philadelphia Stories’ annual Push to Publish Conference, which will also be held online this year. Author Karen Dionne will be the keynote speaker. The annual conference is held in partnership with Rosemont College, which offers an MFA in Creative Writing and an MA in Publishing and actively supports the writing community through such literary events.

Review: Muddy Dragon on the Road to Heaven by Grant Clauser

Clauser, Grant. Muddy Dragon on the Road to Heaven. Codhill Press, 2020.

I read once that Sylvia Plath’s original manuscript order for Ariel began with “Love…” and ended with “spring” and that this was intentional and significant (despite being woefully out of step with the mythology that has grown up around her work since her death).

Similarly, Grant Clauser’s Muddy Dragon on the Road to Heaven (winner of the Codhill Press Pauline Uchmanowicz Poetry award) begins, “Lord, forgive us our pessimism…” and ends, “…giving the world all/it can take, light/playing over every/precious thing.” These choices are also clearly significant in terms of the voice Clauser cultivates between these covers.

These are not naïve poems, but they are hopeful. There are times when the voice is wry or even briefly despairing, but they always seem to carefully weigh the natural world and the father’s place in his growing family to find something to rejoice in, as he states in the closing lines of one poem: “how in this life we tell each other/stories to get through the day, to teach/our kids to love something distant/…because it seemed/like the best way to preserve/the time we had, the time we have” (from “Adopting a Manatee”).

These poems build upon the voice and awareness Clauser first explored in Reckless Constellations (his 2018 collection from Cider Press Review). In that collection, the poet’s love and nostaligia for his childhood spent outdoors resonates throughout his poems. In this one, his meditations mourn the coming loss of the natural world from climate change. He also looks to past environmental disasters through the lens of individual creatures, such as the ill-advised dynamiting of a whale carcass on a beach in the 1970s, an “anti-ode” for the spotted lanternfly and the creature who lends her name to the collection, the Muddy Dragon on the Road to Heaven (a fossil discovered in China and thought to be about 66 million years old), who “was beautiful/because even as it died/it was so close to flying.”

Several of the poems make use of Shakespeare or Miltonian lines as their titles, but the trained eye of Clauser’s poems return to the smallest living thing as a telescoping metaphor for our purpose here on the planet as in “Hummingbird,” which previously appeared in the Sugar House Review (wondering in the closing lines, “how dark worlds hidden from sight/can still bend starlight around them”). But the beating heart of the collection is the poem “Men Weeping in Cars,” where Clauser admits, “Maybe life is good after all,/you’ve worked and saved and built/but the color of the sky reminds you/how thin the line is between wanting/and needing, and you tell yourself/not to do this to your heart again.” Trust this poet and his brilliant poems.

Muddy Dragonby Grant Clauser

Review: Simulacra by Airea Matthews

Matthews,  Airea D. Simulacra. Foreword by Carl Phillips, Yale UP, 2017.

Airea Matthews’ Simulacra doubles then quadruples its mirroring. As the author teases in her Notes, “the [title] derives from the Latin… meaning ‘to make like’ or simulate. …[but], according to [Philosopher Jean] Baudrillard, the simulacrum was that which ‘hides truth’s nonexistence.’” It is clearly this secondary definition that she is playing with in her text: these poems seem to pull back the curtain, revealing a dark mirror or pond that in its brightest spots truly illuminates the show behind us.

The compelling majesty of these poems is that they somehow remain inviting; it would be easy for such complexities to lock out the casual reader. But Matthews draws on a vast literary store of familiar characters (from Ancient Greek mythology and celebrity poets), folding in a modern sensibility that manages to not feel gimmicky. She often uses epigrams from French philosophers and writers (Camus, Baudrillard, Barthes) to remind us of the depth of what she is trying to achieve, even as she drops her characters—some recurring, like Anne Sexton the nurse who has never heard of Anne Sexton the confessional poet—into familiar settings. Matthews uses the operetta and biblical-style verses as easily as she does some more quotidian forms of communication that hardly seem artful (like texting and tweeting), until, in her hands, they become so. The text messages delivered, significantly, out of order—so that the reader must rely on timestamps and numbering to read them in their intended sequence—between poet Anne Sexton and the doomed Arthur Miller character Tituba from The Crucible of “Sexton Texts Tituba From a Bird Sanctuary” could really be titled something along the lines of ‘desire, foreboding, and womanhood.’ Those ideas pulse throughout this collection.

The spine of hunger, longing and trauma runs as an undercurrent through all of these poems, voices, and shifting presentations. As Carl Phillips mentions in his foreword (detailing his decision to select Matthews’ manuscript for the Yale Younger Poets series), “she offers us nothing less than an extended meditation on the multifariousness of desire” (xv). The poet herself remains unknown, even though she uses several characters (like “The Mine Owner’s Wife,” “The Good Dentist’s Wife” and Anne Sexton the poet) as stand-ins for the “I” presence, so that it becomes clear that there is something she finds compelling about women who were limited in their ambition at the hands of their male counterparts. But these are far from “domestic poems,” as some of these titles would have you believe. Matthews’ heroines are powered by their self-awareness, even though they are trapped. Her voice vibrates with the power of the poet Ai, that great master of the dramatic monologue. Matthews seems to be saying that there is power in femaleness that rides the great tide of generations. As she writes in “Select Passages from the Holy Writ of Us,” “They called her morning.5 She misheard mourning.6” This collection is a tour de force in its breadth and depth.

https://yalebooks.yale.edu/book/9780300223965/simulacra

Writing for Social Justice: The Devil in Society

My Auntie Lilith is a storyteller adorned with all the histrionics a 5-foot Trinidadian woman can muster. As a child, visiting her home meant witnessing random flares of dramatic scares where, without warning, she’d turn out all of the lights, lock all of the doors, and provoke spirits as my sister, cousin, and me ran alongside her fighting evil in complete dread.

That eight-year-old me hid under her table in a puddle of my pee while my thirteen-year-old sister with tears on her cheeks locked herself in the closet and my cousins yelled in terror as my auntie’s unbridled jumbies and soucouyant and dwens chased us down the stairs and into varying corners of the house.

After a full night of panic, Auntie Lilith gathered us all at her feet for story time. Heaving breathlessly in the darkness of the house, she said, when she was my age, she fought off a mischievous haint that embodied a little boy named Seth. In her classroom, he’d walk past her desk and pull at her ponytails and call her a pickaninny, daily and without fail. Aunt Lilith knew that Seth was filled with an evil that only she could fend off. The notes she wrote to her teacher warning that a wicked energy dwelled in the classroom were unheeded and even mocked.

One day, as the wild and unchecked power hypnotized Seth, lil’ Aunt Lilith sharpened her pencil, fully intending to use it to pen yet another poetic prose of precaution. However, when Seth pulled his hand from her hair, placed it on her desk, and then bent down to whisper pickaninny inches from her lips, she knew it was her duty to exorcise the demon that ran rampant in Seth’s body. She stabbed her pencil straight through his skin, his nerves, his blood—scaring the hell out of him quite literally.

The metonymic adage, the pen is mightier than the sword, assuages the egos of writers who use our words to pen poetic prose of precaution about impending doom or a euphoric past. But, perhaps the pen is only mightier than the sword because it has the dual ability to both communicate brilliant essays and defend brilliant lives.

Today marks 147 days since Breonna Taylor was brutally murdered by her city (officers and officials), her state (her governor and her attorney general), and her country (her president and his administration). We, as taxpayers, play a part in her murder because we continue to pay the salaries of the people who murdered her. We also pay the salaries of the people who conspire to cover it up.

A good many of us have written think pieces and social media posts demanding justice, but, like my Aunt Lilith’s, our warnings are unheeded and even mocked. There is a wild and unchecked power that is running loose in our society. It continues, like Seth, to victimize and brutalize young, Black girls because it is drunk with power.

So continue writing your think pieces, telling your stories, and saying her name. But today, right now, sharpen your pencils and prepare to act boldly because this is an evil that we must fend off.

*The Writing for Social Justice column will appear quarterly in Philadelphia Stories. 


For the last 10 years, Jeannine Cook has worked as a trusted writer for several startups, corporations, non-profits, and influencers. In addition to a holding a master’s degree from The University of the Arts, Jeannine is a Leeway Art & Transformation Grantee and a winner of the South Philly Review Difference Maker Award. Jeannine’s work has been recognized by several news outlets including Vogue Magazine, INC, MSNBC, The Strategist, and the Washington Post. She recently returned from Nairobi, Kenya facilitating social justice creative writing with youth from 15 countries around the world. She writes about the complex intersections of motherhood, activism, and community. Her pieces are featured in several publications including the Philadelphia Inquirer, Root Quarterly, Printworks, and midnight & indigo. She is the proud new owner of Harriett’s Bookshop in the Fishtown section of Philadelphia.

ONLINE BONUS: The Thunderstorm

After slaughtering the moon and stars

The storm stills.

 

The night piles up like black angora

Then sleeps.

 

Summer’s crickets come to trill

And I rest into the blackness

And write this poem

To still my body from that storm

Nowhere to be found now

But in me.


Roberta “Bobby” Santlofer (1943-2020) was a mother of sons, an avid reader, and a poet. A posthumous collection of her poetry is forthcoming.