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.

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.

ONLINE BONUS: Locks

Ghosts have a way of knowing where all the keys are hidden. –   William Evans

 

As though we, the living, are locks.

Or doors with locks.

 

Or small latched boxes,

lacquered or decoupaged with pansies,

 

or scorched like the unpainted dime store kind

you tried to inscribe with your name

 

with a neighbor kid’s wood burning kit,

all of them with a tiny hasp

 

and padlock worked by a thin gold key

that even a ghost could lose.

 

As though there are ghosts, real ones,

not simply regret.

 

As though regret were simple.

As though it were made complicated only

 

by our intricate tricks for containing

the ghosts of what we can’t let go,

 

but grieve and grieve and grieve over,

as though we were not the lock,

 

the latch, the lid, the door, not the rue,

not the sorrow, not the ghost with the key.


Hayden Saunier’s books of poetry include How to Wear This Body, Say Luck, Tips for Domestic Travel, and Field Trip to the Underworld.  Her new book of poetry, A Cartography of Home is due out in early 2021.  (www.haydensaunier.com)

ONLINE BONUS: Already

this is not what you thought you’d be reading

and honestly it’s not what I thought I would be writing

either, but this makes us allies, companions

in an unknown landscape, like students moved midyear

to a new school— cue up the cafeteria humiliation reel,

light the cheek’s fierce burn that sends hot sparks

to pock holes in the tiny hope chests tucked inside

our preteen hearts and most of us are still packing

some of that sorrow. The story we thought this might

be telling with its breadcrumb trail has slunk down

at the loser table to foot funk level in a plastic seat

with corroded chair legs, or better yet, it turned tail

and ran before even walking into the room

like we wish we had done instead of trying to sashay

across the page in the wrong clothes wearing

the cheap perfume of fake it till you make it like it’s

the kind of story that never sat alone at a table

pretending it didn’t want to die, but that story

and that story’s lie is long gone. So we begin again.

Each day. And look, whatever we didn’t think

this would be has been taking shape beneath our faces,

kneading its own dough, punching it down, letting it rise,

checking the oven, and now warm brown loaves

cool on a windowsill like in a book of fairy tales,

curls of steam lifting from their dark aromatic crusts,

delicious, whole wheat, gluten-free, or however

you need it, bread to pass between us in a story

we didn’t know would have a kitchen or windowsill

or cupboard where you find butter and I find

strawberry preserves, or a table where we sit down

together, take out our hidden knives, use them to spread

these slices, smooth the sweet jam, share the bread.


Hayden Saunier’s books of poetry include How to Wear This Body, Say Luck, Tips for Domestic Travel, and Field Trip to the Underworld.  Her new book of poetry, A Cartography of Home is due out in early 2021.  (www.haydensaunier.com)

(cape may)

like scraps of paper

folding themselves into birds

the sea gulls settle

 

the shimmering light

on the water at sunset

keeps its promises


Peter McEllhenney is a writer living in Philadelphia, PA. His work has appeared in Philadelphia Stories, the Seminary Ridge Review, and others. He blogs occasionally at www.PeterGalenMassey.com.

full sun

To view full sun by Tyler Campbell, click HERE.


Tyler Campbell is an artist outside of Atlantic City. He enjoys making tiny pancakes for many friends.