Review of Nathan Alling Long’s The Origin of Doubt

The Origin of Doubt, Nathan Alling Long’s glorious debut collection of short fictions, is dedicated ‘to those who don’t quite fit in.’ Its fifty stories, some no more than a paragraph long, could serve as a missal for a vast congregation of outcasts and wanderers; angst-ridden adolescents, erotic explorers, and philosophical self-searchers.

These stories – most would be called flash fiction due to their brevity and obsession with ‘moments’ of experience – offer highly nuanced meditations on sexual awakening and its confusions, eternal parent/child conflicts, sibling connections and their opposite, romantic love and its impossibilities — and Long’s stunning imagery weaves them into a radiant mosaic. For The Origin of Doubt is, above all, a contemporary mosaic, a post-modern one, spangled with a pure and at times enthralling take on same sex love and its hetero counterpart, not to mention several other life and death matters.  Its protagonists, passionate and yearning, are so profoundly ‘there’ in their fictive worlds, be they Muslim prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, young seekers in a Thai monastery, or any of a score of other possibilities, that they pull the reader in close for an embrace, or, at times, a death grip.  Like all of the best fiction, Long’s stories takes readers places they never planned to go, and surprise them with the unforeseen pleasures to be had after their arrival.

Taro, one of the longer stories, examines the deep connection and subsequent disconnection of two brothers. During childhood, they fight, they wrestle, an endless competition, and Taro, the older, always wins.  One day, the family is moving, and the boys, in a joke played by the movers, end up rolled up together in a Persian carpet, a dark and airless space where, the narrator says, he’d be happy to die.  “I felt myself pressing, not down into the earth, but up against the weight of his body, to feel it more.  …this was all I wanted – not to be him, but to be against him, just as we were.”

It is said that flash fiction suits perfectly an age of short attention spans; readers who long for a quick hit and then move on to their next diversion. Long’s work may undermine that belief if only because his stories, intense and sensual, demand repeated reading.  Like prayers, they trigger reflection, and the desire to go back again through the words.  With repetition, these stories offer up more of their gifts.  Some, like When My Mother Died, might be called prose poems.  In it, the genderless narrator says,  “A thousand bottles of red wine flowed across the living room floor, and I felt the miscarriage begin, of the child I’d been carrying my entire life.” Others, such as Jealousy, Buried, Sweeping, and How to Bury Your Dog, might be considered parables. Whatever genre basket they’re dropped into – Long’s work defies them all – their impact far outweighs their word count

Long’s characters, sometimes named but often not, share the burden of being alive in a splendid but confounding world, a world in which urgent questions go unanswered, but experience itself creates an irresistible thrum.  Many remain spiritual long after they have fallen away from an organized religion. In this world, love is, more often than not,  “peculiar and unchained- like a neglected yard dog.  It can bite you more than once.  It can bite you in different places.” It’s a world in which summer buzzes ‘like neon,’ the moon sneaks in over sleeping faces ‘the way a moth might glide across your arm,’ the earth can be ‘wet as a tongue,’ and ‘conversation surfaces once in a while, like a whale coming up for air, then disappears.’  

The collection, published by the venerable Press 53 of Winston-Salem, is divided into three sections, The Origin of Doubt, A House Divided and The Fortunate.  Read in order, these sections create an arc of a storyteller’s coming of age. But because the storyteller is a shape-shifter with many guises, and the stories are told in many styles and from many points of view, the arc reveals itself only gradually.  In an early story, Between, a befuddled young boy visits his father in prison and asks him about the word ‘conviction,’ a query the father answers but not in the way the boy had hoped for.  “Before the next month was up, I would forget his face, forget almost, that he was my father.” In the collection’s penultimate story, Sweeping, the narrator opines, “My life is not without purpose…We sweep each day, that the world may be – not clean exactly, never clean – but cleaner: And that is enough. 

Yet The Origin of Doubt, doesn’t require orderly reading.  You can open the book on any page and be certain to find a reward: a puzzle, a provocation, a delight, a question asked but left unanswered. Long, a professor at Stockton University in Galloway Township, N.J., has said these stories were culled from about 15 years of his writing.  All but two have been published in such publications as Atticus, Clackamas, Indiana Review, Story Quarterly, Fringe and Salt Hill.  Gathered together, they generate a synergy of themes, and their heft promises more compelling work to come from Long.  In Portraits of a Woman the omniscient narrator reflects “…she knows this character is from another century, as no one, these days, looks out a window for quite so long, considers their life so seriously, so existentially, as she is now.”  This expresses – however ironically, given The Origin of Doubt’s contemporary concerns – the depth and significance of this beautifully wrought and generous book.




Here is an excerpt, a complete story:



At nineteen, he loved Michael who’d made them two flashlights that blinked in a specific pattern, like fireflies.  “So we can find each other in the dark,” Michael had said.

But they’d since broken up.  Years had passed.  They moved to different cities, in different states.  He became a teacher, Michael a pilot.

Still, on nights when planes flew overhead, he turned the flashlight on and pointed it at the sky.


An Interview with Philadelphia Writer Larry Loebell

LoebellPhiladelphia writer Larry Loebell, who placed third in Philadelphia Stories’ 2015 Marguerite McGlinn Fiction Award for his story 49 Seconds in the Box, has just published a collection of novellas. Titled Seven Steps Ahead, it is his second collection of stories in as many years. In a recent interview, Loebell described these works of fiction “as a total DIY project,” despite the many accolades he has earned during his long career as a playwright, a screenwriter, a dramaturg and a teacher of dramatic writing at both the University of the Arts and Arcadia University.

Loebell is a four-time recipient of the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Playwriting Fellowship, and a 2006 recipient of a new play commission from the National Foundation for Jewish Culture. For more than a decade he has been writing a play called Living News which is performed during the school year at the National Constitution Center.

Loebell has just finished a novel, Tough Girl in the Jam, set in the world of professional roller derby.  He has also written and directed a low budget feature film, Dostoyevsky Man, loosely based on Notes from Underground which was a “Fringe First” in the 2012 Philadelphia Fringe Festival.  His full-length plays include  Pride of the Lion; Memorial DayThe Ballad of John Wesley Reed, which was premiered by Theatre Catalyst in Philadelphia; Girl Science, a featured play at the first Earth Matters on Stage Festival in Arcata, California; and La Tempestad, produced at the Ohio Theater in New York City. La Tempestad is also anthologized in Playing with Canons: Explosive New Works from Literature by America’s Indie Playwrights. Among Loebell’s career highlights are a “Best New Play” Barrymore Award nomination for House Divided.

How do you describe your new collection of novellas? Who should read it?

Seven Steps Ahead is a set of love stories, though not all of the happily-ever-after variety. As far as who should read it, Seven Steps Ahead is adult fiction. The characters include a former hippie medical doctor, a sixties radical hiding in the underground, a chess playing open marriage/polyamory advocate, and an actor turned folk singer. All of the stories are about the coincidences that lead people into relationships, and the forces that threaten them.

Why the novella instead of the short story? Or the novel, for that matter? What is it about the form that appealed to you?

One answer is that I was working my way up to a novel. I put out a book of short stories (The Abundance League) in 2016. The novellas came next. I needed to write novellas to convince myself I could sustain the longer form. But there is another answer. I really love the form. It’s a comfortable length for me, and I suspect I will return to it. There’s enough room to stretch out, but there’s also the requirement to be efficient. With the novella, the challenge is to tell a story that’s as expansive as a novel, but in a shorter form.

You have written in many forms, including for the animated program Rugrats. Which form is your favorite? Which is the most challenging?

My favorite is always the thing I’m working on at the moment. I’m really loving writing fiction right now. Rugrats was a sort of fluke in my writing career, a kind of one-off gift. It’s fun to be associated with something that so many people have seen, but it’s hardly the most important thing I’ve done. I’ve been writing a character-driven museum stage show for the past twelve years for the National Constitution Center about the human impact of Constitutional issues. Tens of thousands of people have seen that show, compared to the probably millions who have seen Rugrats on TV. Smaller numbers have seen my plays or read my fiction. Very different challenges, and very different rewards. But sitting at my desk while I am working, I experience similar levels of agita and pleasure trying to make whatever I’m writing work. I despise every project equally when I am struggling, and love each one unequivocally when I’ve completed it to my satisfaction. I feel lucky to have had as long and varied a career as I have had.

How does your long career in dramatic writing and dramaturgy impact your fiction?

Several of my plays and some of my fiction are based at least in part on actual events and therefore require looking at the facts behind those events. My entire dramaturg career involved working with living playwrights on new plays. One part of that job was helping playwrights with research. Another part was essentially editorial, diving into the text and asking questions about character, plot, and themes. Being a dramaturg taught me to ask those questions of myself.

Formally, playwriting has certain challenges that are different than fiction writing. There’s no omniscience on stage, for instance. Depending on the narrative style, in fiction a writer might have expanded options. But formal problems have always seemed to me to be simply puzzles to solve. The harder issues are creating worthy characters and stories, revving them up, and getting good conflicts going. That is pretty much the necessity in every story-telling form. I suppose it’s fair to say that since playwriting preceded writing fiction for me, the impact is that I learned how to do those things first writing drama.

When you get an idea for a story, how do you know what form it will end up in? Do you know before you begin writing?

In the years when I was most actively writing plays, I thought as a playwright, and my stories formed around the formalities and limitations of stage writing. Now that I am writing fiction pretty much exclusively, I am thinking about how my stories and characters activate in fictional forms. I feel this is a sort of necessity. To move forward, I have to know something about the genre I am going forward in. So, I suppose the answer to the question of whether I know the form before I start writing is: yes. But I will tell you that the novel I have just finished started life as a play. For many reasons, it was very unlikely to get produced (very large cast, difficult technical requirements) so it made sense to me to write the second draft as a novel. It feels much stronger to me as a novel than it ever did as a play.

Why do you write?

The answer to this question at this point in my life is different than it was when I was younger. When I was younger, I wrote with a kind of mission. I thought I had things to say that were important, and I was interested in a career as a writer with all of the things that brought: engagement with an artistic and literary community, an audience, and perhaps having enough renown to earn a living at it. So, when I was younger, in addition to liking to write, I wrote with some idea of personal and worldly utility in mind. These days, I write because I write. I don’t choose it or un-choose it. It is simply what I do. It is part of my life’s order. I get up in the morning, I walk my dogs, I eat breakfast, and when I finish, I go to my desk and write. I have made some promises to myself about the amount of work I want to finish over time. But I am not driven by those earlier expectations anymore. Why do I write? I guess the answer is I like it. I think it’s hard to keep at it as long as I have if you don’t.

What advice do you have for beginning writers?

The most useful advice I have to offer is really the same advice I got from my best teachers: Write all you can. Try not to get discouraged when it isn’t going well. Kick all the censors out of your head, especially the ones you feel you might have to answer to: parents, family members, partners, lovers. Read a lot. Don’t fetter your imagination by worrying about what should or should not be your subject or your voice. Do your due-diligence when you research. Abandon research before it overwhelms you. Write what you imagine, not what you know.

Seven Steps Ahead is an Amazon publication. Why did you go this route? How has it worked out for you? Would you recommend it to other writers?

One of the reasons I stopped writing for theater is that I am very impatient. I want the road between finishing something and having it out in the world to be a straight line. Theater is slow, and often convoluted. The process of getting a play on stage at a professional theater can be excruciating – going through a development process, waiting for acceptances by theater companies, waiting through the casting and rehearsal process – and I say this having had five of my full-length plays produced within a year or so of their completion. Early in my theater career, I self-produced two shows. I did this because I was impatient, but also because I wanted to understand the process. I learned a great deal doing that, not just about the business side of theater, but also about what lands and what doesn’t when you’re writing for stage. I learned about audience reaction, about the role and job of critics, and about why some playwrights say no play is every finished. I loved the scrappy company of actors and technical folks I put together to do those pieces.

If I had been younger when I returned to fiction I might have gone a more traditional route getting my work published.   There is a real value in having organizational support, though my well-published friends tell me that book publishers are doing a lot less in the way of support than they used to. My later plays were all produced by Equity companies with decent budgets and marketing people, which meant that more people saw them, more critics wrote about them, there was a more significant response.

But I’m pretty sure that only the luckiest or the most blessed writers get book deals at sixty-five years old, which is how old I was when I published The Abundance League. I was not really all that excited about waiting around to see if I was among their number. I wasn’t sure, when I published my story collection how it would do with readers or critics. Because I had the skills and tools to publish it myself (and I didn’t really want to risk any money) I used Create Space to produce the book and then published through Amazon (under the Blue Footed Books imprimatur.) I know there are people who have big issues with Amazon. But it cost me nothing to produce the book. I knew that sales would be modest, though I have to say that the collection exceeded my expectations. It and the novellas are pure DIY projects.

What is your next project?

The novel that I am finishing is set in the world of women’s professional roller derby and is about sacrifice.


Julia MacDonnell (Chang) has lived many lives, among them, urban homesteader, circus performer, modern dancer, waitress, anti-war activist, newspaper reporter, college professor, and ‘gluer’ of velvet boxes on a production line in a rosary bead factory. MacDonnell’s second novel, Mimi Malloy, At Last!, was published by Picador in 2014, and chosen as an Indie Next selection by the A.B.A.  It was released in paperback in 2015. Her first novel, A Year of Favor, was published by William Morrow & Co.  Her stories and essays have appeared in Ruminate, Alaska Quarterly Review, North Dakota Quarterly and many other publications. She is the former nonfiction editor of Philadelphia Stories.


A Letter to the Philadelphia Stories Readers

Dear Philadelphia Stories readers,

I’m thrilled to announce that I’m joining the Philadelphia Stories team as the new Creative Nonfiction Editor. Susette Brooks, my predecessor, has moved to Baltimore for a job opportunity. Though we will miss her at Philadelphia Stories, we also know that we’ll be hearing great news about her writing career in the future. Please join me in wishing her every success.

Susette sought innovative styles and subject matter in her submission choices, and I hope to build upon the solid foundation she’s established by expanding the scope of our CNF selections. As the first child born in the U.S. to Cuban refugees in Germantown, and having resided for many years in Center City and South Philly, I know this is a city bursting with true stories from real people of radically different backgrounds, perspectives and experiences. What better place to share your writing than here at Philadelphia Stories?

If you would like to submit your essay, short memoir, or narrative nonfiction, please review the submission guidelines on our website carefully. Please consider the “universal” quality of your submission. Creative nonfiction’s greatest challenge lies in the organization of distinct and sometimes disparate events, details, and thoughts, culled from the enormity and complexity of lived experience that illuminates a real, living, breathing existence. On the page, no less.

Does your submission transcend the anecdote by expressing a deeper truth? Does it reflect your journey towards a revelation that is both satisfying to you and your reader?

If so, I want to hear from you.

Looking forward,

Adriana Lecuona

Creative Nonfiction Editor


Though Adriana Lecuona is a native Philadelphian, she now lives in Wallingford with her husband and son. Recently she completed an MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing from Goucher College. She has a previous MFA in Film & Media Arts from Temple University and a BA from the University of Pennsylvania. Ms. Lecuona won an award from the Elizabeth George Foundation for her memoir-in-progress. Her work has appeared in The Pennsylvania Gazette, Be Well Philly, Cure, Somos En Escrito, and others.

George Saunders: My Imaginary Boyfriend

Celestial Bodies by Pamela Lee

George Saunders, author of Lincoln in the Bardo and several excellent short story collections, visited Rutgers the other day to do a reading. I went to his master class, which was an informal-ish discussion and Q&A for students and rabid Saunders fans like me.  He showed up, this ordinary man in jeans and a button up shirt, carrying a water bottle and looking a little shy. He has written some of the funniest, saddest, most memorable stories I’ve read (see: “Victory Lap.” See” “Puppy”). I couldn’t believe we were in the same room, and I couldn’t believe how he just acted like this regular person you might see on the subway. I always imagine successful fiction writers as somehow having an other-worldly, untouchable glow. George (may I call him “George?”) appeared very approachable and modest; he’s a teacher too, after all, at Syracuse University, but, I mean his writing has been published in The New Yorker. I am certain that if I ever have a story published in The New Yorker, I will forever forward shun ordinary folk. As the conversation progressed, he was funny, self-deprecating, smart, and generous with his advice.  I took notes because my memory is never reliable (and also because if he happened to look up at me, I wanted him to see someone who was really paying attention).

These are a few of the pieces of advice he offered for beginning fiction writers.

  1. He related a story about how his mentor, writer Tobias Wolff,  said Saunders was allotted only three dreams sequences for his entire writing  career and cautioned that he should “use them wisely.” For beginning writers, this suggestion seems particularly important—dream sequences in fiction are about as interesting as dream explanations by our co-workers. Unless we’re in them, who cares? (This is my interpretation, not George’s).
  2. When a student asked what to do about her work being criticized for being too “raw,” he asked a few more questions, trying to get closer to what she meant. The woman said that her nonfiction was confessional and difficult for others to read. He nodded, and suggested she go back to the page and see if there is a deeper level to the truth she was uncovering.  He suggested she turn toward the criticism from peers, not away from it. He said that most people know what works for them or doesn’t. The writing is for the imagined audience, so we must always be seeking to engage them, and to charm them, line by line. If we can bear to look more closely at our own work, we might uncover something even more beautiful and truer.
  3. Even if you are a young person who hasn’t not necessarily experienced great disaster, you are still allowed to write about trauma. He quoted Chekhov. I wasn’t able to write it all down fast enough so I looked it up just now:  “There ought to be a man with a hammer behind the door of every happy man, to remind him by his constant knocks that there are unhappy people, and that happy as he himself may be, life will sooner or later show him its claws…”  We have all experienced some degree of misery and pain, and so it’s okay to try to imagine it in other contexts.  On a related note, his breakthrough moment as a writer was when he realized that he was allowed to explore this human suffering and also allowed to make it entertaining.
  4. Most dialogue is really a monologue. In other words, in real life and in fiction, we are often speaking not directly to one another, but rather continuing whatever we’re thinking, regardless of what the other person is saying. I find this to be depressing and true. I am working on in my personal life, but in fiction, it’s a useful bit of wisdom. Our characters have their own internal thoughts and egos, and so may actually respond to those things more than what’s being said by another character. We often talk past one another.
  5. Fiction requires empathy training. We have to understand and care about our villains as much as our heroes.  Give the bad guy a limp, a vulnerability, something that the reader can identify with so that he is more alive and complicated.
  6. Consider putting down the phone and/or getting off-line. Take a break from social media and go read some James Joyce. As artists, part of our job is to keep reading. Rework your life so that you are both reading and writing more. Twitter will wait for you.
  7. Be more Buddhist. He did not suggest this—but I am. He did mention that he is Buddhist, and I think that approaching our characters with more humility, attention, and empathy can only help to make them (and the story) more engaging for the reader.
  8. And lastly, make life easier by allowing yourself to throw some words on a page without worrying them to death. Put something in place conditionally, even if you think you will probably get rid of it later. It’s too much pressure to agonize in the beginning, so give yourself a break. Later, you will go back and find the places where the text is boring or the dialogue sounds mechanical. For now, just write it.

Emily Rose Cole, Love & a Loaded Gun (Minerva Rising Press, 2017)

Rodman’s Hollow by Murray Brandon

Emily Rose Cole won the 2014 Sandy Crimmins National Prize in Poetry for the poem “Self-Portrait as Rapunzel,” selected by judge Jeffrey Ethan Lee. Her poem considers the relationship between Rapunzel and her mother and how a person accepts or rejects various aspects of abuse or isolation because of the attention or even affection that might accompany them. The poem, included in her new chapbook as “Rapunzel Learns to Build,” is startling and delicate, but with a deep resolve and grit at its core. Cole’s Love & a Loaded Gun approaches many familiar characters in unfamiliar states of resignation and agitation. These poems force the reader to reevaluate expectations and assumptions about the figures we like to think we know.


While the premise of the collection suggests Anne Sexton’s Transformations, the figures treated throughout the collection come from all manner of sources; only Rapunzel is shared among the Grimms, Sexton, and Cole. The remainder of the poems concern figures from myth and fable, but also comic books, film, and video games — media that are literally two dimensional in their presentation of characters. Flat characters in our shared stories allow audiences to tailor characters to best speak to or for themselves. Here, Emily Rose Cole shows us what she has brought of herself to these characters: wit, rage, and tensile strength.


A shared quality in many of these poems is the characters’ emergence from a few significant male shadows: those of King Arthur, Clyde Barrow, Superman, Zeus, or Mario (the video game plumber). No longer diminished by their male counterparts, Cole’s speakers often express anger at, awareness of, or frustration with their situations — and the men that accompany or abandon them. Tellingly, the collection is dedicated to “every… woman who’s ever been made to keep her mouth shut.” We cannot ignore these long-silent voices, Cole tells us again and again.


These poems reveal secrets about the characters that sometimes illuminate and sometimes complicate their sources — often the poems do both. The title of the collection comes from the final poem, “Black Widow Explains.” In it, Natasha Romanoff shares her history and shrugs off any interest the reader has in her work. She tells us that there is no real trick: “It’s not hard to be a spy. All women are made of muscle / and trauma.” The speaker tells the reader how to use sexuality to subvert and exploit expectations. Her offhanded manner suggests that her work exists on a continuum that most women find themselves on at various points for various reasons.


Cole reminds us that women often approach challenges differently from men. In her poem, “Your Princess Leaves the Castle,” Mario’s damsel in distress, Princess Peach vents:


For years you’ve solved every problem

by stepping on it. It’s simple for you: pulverize

the henchmen, emasculate the boss, watch me

swoon. Well, joke’s on you, Mario. I quit.


Lois Lane and Guinevere reveal bedroom secrets that show their somewhat magical or alien lovers as more human than not. Leda, after being raped by Zeus in the form of a swan, decides to leave town and “pursue a new hobby: take a shotgun / to the edge of a lake and shoot at every shadow of wings.” The anger and frustration these characters express, being beholden to predictable too-familiar men, is felt throughout the collection.


Though we may have originally found these characters supporting more familiar figures in stories, they have a great deal to say for themselves. They finally defy and emerge from the flatness of the page or screen to speak. Emily Rose Cole recognizes how important the teller of the story can be, and in Love & a Loaded Gun, she brings her own savvy gusto to these compelling voices. In providing such deep interiors for these characters, she forces the reader to look around at other stories and the other characters not examined here. How many flat, unconsidered female characters still have stories to share?

Dawn Manning Packs a Subtle Punch in Postcards from the Dead Letter Office

Stormy Village by Daisy Cohen

Philadelphia poet Dawn Manning brings a historic influence to her writing in Postcards from the Dead Letter Office, using a form of Japanese lyric poetry called the Tanka to create quick, hard-hitting poems that float on the tongue and leave lasting images on small pieces of page. In an engrossing debut, Manning weaves snippets of time and space into beautiful encounters with people, places, and experiences.

Nothing appears to be more than what it is, yet each poem contains multitudes more than what it first suggests. In [spring tanka], ideas of the season encompass rebirth and cleaning house, simply enough at first with the image of a newborn child (“the husks / of their eyes must split open / to pull in the world”) then more deeply (“spring winds sweep goslings / like loose lint / from under their mother’s downy skirt – I only / throw out most of your old things”); and in a beat the reader is pulled from the clear surface to the foggy, deeper meaning within, swept gently enough to make the discovery an inviting and mysterious part of the poem.

Manning continues this theme of subtle, powerful imagery through Oranges in Winter, where the thoughtful description of fruit so elegantly gives way to the silent destruction of two people that it hits us right in the chest: “and we carry bitterness / in our skins like the Clementines / we peel together, carefully / pulling up the veins / with the rind.” The quiet thoughtfulness of each poem before and after this one leaves the reader with something to consider long after they’ve closed the book.

From a simple observation of everyday Venice life in [Venetian tanka] (“pastel laundry / strung between windowsills / prayer flags and flypaper / for photographers / on the tourist’s pilgrimage), to the innocent discovery of a deceased cat by a group of children out for a bike ride in Hit, Run (“We keep vigil from our bicycles / as life scurries back into the cat, / ant by ant.”), Dawn Manning manages to dig deeper into the seemingly monotone ways we are connected to bring the reader the discovery of something that may just have them pausing an extra moment to soak in the world.


Also They Are Families Too

In the apartment

there is smoke.  Margarita comes to sit

and packs feet into shoes.  Time for

the next shift.  It’s original

sin if you believe it.


They have begun to round us up,

vienen para nosotros, in Jersey, in LA nos esperan

en Wal-Mars, escuelas and hospitals.

We won’t be

there to pick you up

in our arms today hold

your sister’s hand, bring her home.


Wind blows the bedroom curtains

apart.        The sky divides into blue and white.

Three birds nest in the tallest

winter roble.

Two cannot fit

in so narrow kitchen.   She thought

she had tiled the walls with art.

Alicia Askenase is a writer, educator, and museum docent. She is the author of The Luxury of Pathos (Texture Press), Shirley Shirley (Sona Books), Suspect, and Cover. Her poetry has appeared most recently in the anthologies, Not Our President and New Work by Philadelphia Poets.

I Consider a Twitter Follow

I pendulum on whether to press the button. I pause. I ponder

the little blue birdie that tells all of our thoughts to the world,

wonder if bald eagles have already gone extinct―dropped

dead to the earth like bombs built of bone, beak and feather.


To say I’m living in a time without symbols is also to say

there is no higher calling than protest, than the calling of

fingertip to keyboard, our new key of life, and yet I hesitate

to endorse anyone in a way that can be counted like a vote

of confidence, when, on the contrary, I’m shaken daily

solely for the music of it, bone-shingled skin bag beaten

against by tempestuous winds I’m told are coincidence

rather than conflict between our planet and our politics.


I believe the word I’ve been looking for is fear. Everything

bigger than me there was to believe in now seems entirely

too big a target on my back; I’m left interrogating myself

on what I still hold faith in during these dumbfounding days:


when I’m in a church, I still believe in the idea of divinity;

when I’m in a school, I still believe in the idea of education;

if I’m invited into a woman, I’m to believe, at least, in power,

programmed to be a man not unlike all those men I despise,

another reason I’m made queasy at contemplating the click,

though it’s a way to keep my enemy close but also theoretical.


I stare directly into the dearth of punctuation and grammar;

the gutter of blood above my eyelid overflows, causes a glitch

of motion, a flicker in the flesh. I’m smart enough to stay away,

but curiosity is a narcotic, can kill. But so does a lack thereof,

I know, because a little blue birdie told me so, sweetly sang

he’s trying to distract you, so I turned around to find nothing

behind me, and that’s when it happened:


a button somewhere

being pushed on somebody,

a trail of digits dictating

follow him, follow him,

follow him

Cortney Lamar Charleston is the author of Telepathologies, selected by D.A. Powell for the 2016 Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize. He was awarded a 2017 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation and he has also received fellowships from Cave Canem, The Conversation Literary Festival and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. He currently serves as a poetry editor at The Rumpus.

Field of Rye at Twilight

Peace by Alice Chung

How do you explain to your six-year-old daughter, who stays with you two weekends a month, that you killed a dog?  That while you were returning from market in the van—you driving, she sleeping—a dog ran into the road, and you hit it.

The driver has just turned thirty and thought the number would protect him from such uncertainty, from social awkwardness of all kinds, but now he squats in the gravel shoulder of a country road, holding a bleeding dog’s head.

The thud of the impact woke his daughter from her late afternoon slumber.  Her mouth formed the word, “What?” as he pulled over.

“Stay in your seat,” he told her.  “I’ll investigate.”  He still felt thirty years old.

But now, left with the certainty that the dog’s breath is not warming his hand—the dog no longer has breath—he feels his maturity running low. Paralyzed as he is by the question, he may as well be the same age as his daughter.

At home with her mother, his daughter has three cats and a dog.  When the man visits his friends, and his daughter goes along by default, she sits rapt for hours stroking their pets.  He is grateful for a chance to talk to adults.  Though sometimes the long days with chickens and crops for company leave his mouth empty of words and he decides to cut out early.  The last time this happened, his daughter refused to leave.  She forced him to stay another half hour so she could pet a Siamese who hissed every five minutes.  His daughter was not deterred by the hissing, just lifted her hand until the animal resettled herself, then resumed petting.  She went home without a scratch on her.

Now the man looks at the dog more closely.  No collar.  Nondescript breed and color.  Not a dog he has seen before, though he has driven by this field of new rye before.  Earlier, in summer, corn was grown and the dried husks, turned back into the soil, glow in the setting sun.  The man doesn’t know the grower, but he admires his methods.

The man looks across the field for a house or clue where the dog lives, but sees nothing beyond the field of rye.  Narrowing his vision back to the road, he checks the dog one last time.  Nothing.  Just mangled fur and blood, thanks to him, to his slow reflexes and bad brakes.

The man lifts the dog, one arm under each set of paws, and moves the cooling body to the side of the road.  Maybe his people will find him there, settled amongst the green shoots of rye.  The shoots stand only six inches high, but the sun is so low that they cast a long shadow, fingers of new growth reaching across the dog’s body.

The dog’s shadow looms monstrous, covering the gravel shoulder and stretches all the way back to the spot of road stained with his blood.

He glances back at the van and sees his daughter’s face pressed against her window.  She has stayed in her seat, but watched every move.  She knows.

He walks back to the van to write a note.  He is prepared with a ream of brown wrapping paper he keeps in the cab for making impromptu signs at market.  Before he can reach for the green marker he carries, his daughter says, “Dad?”  She sees the blood staining his jacket and her brown eyes stretch wide, her neck freezes in a twisting posture that makes her look like a wild animal.

“What happened to the dog?”

“Be right back,” the man says.  He wishes then that he is forty years old, instead of only thirty.  Perhaps another decade would give him the words he needs for his daughter.  He wishes too for another adult—his parents, his daughter’s mother—they would know the right thing to do.  The right thing is not returning to the dog right now, he knows that much, but he needs more time.

He lets the question play and replay as he scrawls on the page.

He writes, “I’m sorry I hit your dog.  He ran right into the road, and I couldn’t stop in time.  He died after impact, and I moved him to the field.  Beautiful rye!”

He signs his name, proceeded by the word “love.”  Then he adds the name of his farm, just five miles down the road, in case anyone wants to see him about the accident.  He tucks the paper around the paws that aren’t bleeding and lets the dog’s dead weight hold it.

Then he turns back to the van where his daughter sits staring, her neck still frozen in that crazy twist.  He motions to her to roll down the window.  She hesitates, then cranks it down.

He says her name, that beautiful name her mother picked.  He remembers the night he agreed to the name, imagining a life where they would call their daughter that together.  Now he stands by the side of the road and says the name alone.


His daughter doesn’t move.

“Eden?” He says her name again, then the truth, the truth that was so easy to write to whomever knew and loved the dog.  “I’m sorry I hit the dog.”

She won’t look at him.  She’s staring into the field at the motionless animal.

“Eden?” he says, beseeches her to look at him.  When she refuses to turn her head, he says, “It was an accident, and the dog died.  I’m sorry.”

His daughter knows what death means.  At the farm, she has seen chickens, killed by foxes at night, being torn apart and eaten by their former coopmates by day.  But this is not such a violent, cannibalizing death, just an accident, just a dog who ran at the wrong time, and a man who couldn’t stop until it was too late.

“He’s at peace now,” the man says, the words coming to him from a deep, familiar place.  “He’s at eternal rest.”

Yet, he looks back across the field, the sun tucking down behind the farthest hill, and knows that if the dog’s people don’t come before the turkey vultures, things will get messy and there will be dog organs and guts strewn everywhere, just like the dead chickens back at the farm.

Then he realizes too, the origin of his words.  That Baptist funeral he went to the week before for his ninety-seven-year-old neighbor.  Ninety-seven.  That woman knew a lot.  He wanted to hear about that, how she really knew how to live, but it was just some man she’d never known giving the same speech he gave every time.

He curses himself for repeating these meaningless words to his daughter.  He had wanted her to grow up knowing only peace and love, milk and honey.  Wasn’t it bad enough that he was driving around killing dogs?  He didn’t have to infuse her with Baptist preacher-talk on top of it.

“Eden,” he whispers, and she finally moves, pulls at her long wild hair, putting in the tangles he can never comb out or explain to her mother.

He takes off his jacket so his daughter won’t have to look at the blood while he drives, then rolls it up, and places it into an empty vegetable box.  He hops up into his seat and turns to see if she’ll let him hug her, but she hangs back.

Then they both look up and see the sunset shooting off across the horizon and the long trails of red look like nothing but streaks of blood.


A week later, the man is returning from market alone, the sun setting in his line of vision, when a shape bounds across the road.

A moment or two passes, and he wakes up and realizes he’s been in an accident.  His foot has left the clutch, and the van is stalled.  Everything has gone dark, and at first he thinks he’s blacked out so long that the sun has set, but then he sees that the hood of the van is crumpled against the windshield so that he can no longer see out.  His ear is ringing from an object that’s flown off the dash and struck him.  Turning, he sees empty vegetable and egg boxes tipped from his careful stacks and tumbled across the back of the van.

He checks himself for soreness, but other than the ringing ear, he feels fine.  He says a prayer of thanks that he was alone, that the small body of his daughter was not strapped into the backseat.

Adrenaline takes over and he jumps down from the van, looking for the cause of collision.  He remembers the shape, then sees a deer, bounding along the top of a farmer’s field.  The animal darts into the distant woodlot and disappears.

The man looks closer at the field and recognizes the shoots of rye, the freshness of the green in the otherwise brown, November landscape.  Yes, it is the same field, the rye an inch higher, but he is a quarter mile closer to home from where he collided the week before.

He walks around the van and surveys the damage, amazed that an animal could crumple the hood onto the windshield and still run away.

On the passenger side of the van, he sees a dirt driveway with an old-time farm collie guarding the mailbox.

“Salut,” he says, his greeting to all dogs.

The collie doesn’t move or bark, but his green eyes, catching the light of the still-setting sun, see everything.

The way he’s staring, the man knows that no matter how many years he accumulates, they will not give him the right answers for his daughter.  She will always have more questions.

Louise Bierig grew-up in the Northwestern corner of Pennsylvania and now lives in the Southeastern corner. In both corners, she has enjoyed writing as well as growing native fruits and vegetables. Currently, she leads the Lansdowne Writers’ Workshop, grows a small garden, and raises her sons. She has published her work in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Soul Source newsletter, The Swarthmorean, and wrote a column for the Lansdowne Fresh Picks newsletter titled The View from Lupine Valley.

The Lucky Ones

Lemonade by Constance Culpepper

On my last day of radiation, I sat eagerly awaiting my release from six months of treatment. In anticipation, my eyes scanned the fluorescently lit, crowded waiting room of Abramson Cancer Center. As I waited for my name to be called for the last time, I thought about the young girl—about five years old—who I noticed in the waiting room the prior week. Her head was bald, and a yellow mask protected her small face. She sat in a wheel chair, which was too big to accommodate her tiny frame despite being made for children. The ill-fitted device called even more attention to what I was thinking: She shouldn’t be here. None of us should be in this waiting room but especially not her.

I thought about how lucky I was when I was six. The humid Philadelphia summer evenings of my childhood had been spent eating cherry popsicles in my parents’ backyard and running through the sprinkler, feeling wet, squishy grass beneath my feetWhen dusk settled into darkness, I would walk around a white flowered dogwood tree and catch lightning bugs.

 I hoped the little girl I saw spent more days playing in her backyard than confined to a waiting room filled with yearning. All of us were waiting for the day we didn’t have to feel scared and uncomfortable anymore. We were waiting for life to resume. She didn’t appear to be burdened by this same longing, I realized, as her eyes connected with mine. She sat serenely in her chair while I impatiently tapped my leg, wishing I could be anywhere else. I knew I couldn’t have handled a cancer diagnosis at her age with as much grace.

I remembered the girl’s mother had wheeled her towards the exit of the waiting room. Please let her ring the bell. Please!  I held my breath as she passed near the silver bell that hung from a wooden pedestal. Ringing the bell was a rite of passage for any patient who completed their treatment. The girl’s mother stopped at the bell, and I saw a small arm reach up and forward to grab the wooden clapper that was attached to a string. Thank God. Sound permeated the room, and everyone applauded.  The girl’s eyes hinted at a smile under her mask and her body sat a bit taller in her chair, projecting the same pride as if she were the winner of a spelling-bee contest.

My name was finally called, breaking my train of thought, and I walked back to the changing area. Once I was gowned, I stepped out into the patient waiting room and stood in the doorway, peering out into the hallway periodically to ensure I wasn’t missed for treatment.

In the emptiness of the room, I wished for the company of a woman with breast cancer who had become a familiar face and a comforting maternal presence. When we spoke, deep lines hugged the corners of her mouth, suggesting she laughed often. We met on my first day of treatment, and I recalled our conversation when she glanced at me as I sat in a chair facing her.

“What are you here for?” I asked.

“Breast cancer,” she replied, “full mastectomy.”

I winced. “You look good,” I told her. This was one of the only compliments many of us paid to one another. If you looked good, your treatment was going easier than most.

“What are you here for?” she asked.

“Lymphoma. Non-Hodgkin’s,” I replied.

“How old are you?” she asked.

“I’m thirty-one.”

She shook her head vigorously then stopped and fixed her eyes on me again.

“My daughters are in their thirties. I’m so glad it’s me here and not them,” she moved back further into her chair.

I realize now that the look I saw in her eyes on that first day of treatment is the same look I must have given the little girl weeks later. She was relieved she wasn’t me. She was relieved her daughters were not me. How lucky, she must have thought, that she was healthy as a young woman.

The definition of luck evolves after a cancer diagnosis. What used to be a simple dichotomy – lucky or unlucky – stretches into a continuum that is flanked by the number of blissful moments before cancer and the number of moments to be lived after cancer. Luck used to be finding a quarter on the ground or free parking in the city or winning anything more than a dollar on a scratch-off lottery ticket. Now, luck was a good day feeling like you used to or that moment when you first wake up and, for a few unburdened seconds, forget what has happened to you. It is lucky to see a sunset or feel the embrace of someone you love. And, it is still very lucky to catch a lightning bug.

A woman in her mid-forties entered the waiting room, returning from her treatment. She had thick hair that fell to her chest and was pinned haphazardly in the front with a small clip. I looked with envy at her as she passed through the room. How lucky is she to be done for the day.  How lucky is she to still have her beautiful hair. Although I lost my hair months before radiation, feelings of discomfort would rise every time I caught my hairless reflection in the mirror or a car window. I would have given anything in that moment to experience the sensation of placing my hair behind my ears or threading it together carefully into a braid.

My name was called again, and I was ushered back to the treatment room to receive radiation. Technicians secured me to the hard, cold table with my radiation mask and placed a breath hold tube in my mouth. The breath hold apparatus mimicked a snorkel with goggles, a mouth piece and a nose clip. Every day during treatment, I pictured myself diving into clear blue water searching for fish to ease the claustrophobic panic that set in when my entire upper body was restrained. As my treatment began, I thought about how luck’s definition becomes even more complicated when examining its relativity.

Cancer is generally classified as an unlucky disease yet even that is relative. Some people find luck in having a particular type of cancer or early disease staging. It can be lucky to have fewer side effects from treatment or have the support of loved ones on good days and bad days. Luck can also be measured by quality of the time before and after cancer. Luck can be remission and luck can be acceptance. Relativity shatters the dichotomy – it seems you can be both very unlucky and very lucky at the same time.

To prove my own theory of luck’s relativity, I turned towards another recent memory. Midway through my chemotherapy treatment I lost my dad who had been a steady beacon of light in this world. Extended family and friends approached me at his funeral with teary faces and said, “How unfair this is. How unlucky you must feel dealing with your treatment and your father passing.”  What they didn’t know is that I am the luckiest person in the world. My cancer was caught accidentally and early, and because of this, my treatment plan was shorter than most people diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. I would also rather embrace every moment of grief I experienced from the loss of my dad than spend one day not being his daughter. I had a wonderful dad for thirty years. When I was six, it was my dad handing me a popsicle in the backyard on a warm summer evening and my dad holding me close when a game of hide and seek became too scary. Our memories together play like a montage through my mind and soul every day. How many children in this world never know that kind of love?  How many children, like the girl in the waiting room, experience a childhood with undeserved hardship? I am a lucky person.

My treatment ended unceremoniously with the technicians freeing me from the radiation mask. I thanked them and walked down the cold, white hallway back to the changing rooms. As I dressed, I rationalized that luck is always with us, we just have to want to find it. Even in the darkest night, if we search the horizon until our eyes are strained, we might find a small beam of light in the distance to guide us forward.

After I changed out of my gown, I walked slowly into the general waiting room and made my way towards the bell. I paused to take in the room exactly as it was that day. I wanted to remember what it was like to be there in that capacity, in that moment. I reached for the bell clapper and pulled it towards the mouth. The quiet room erupted in applause as the first sound of the bell pierced the air. I stood facing the bell, listening to its echoing sound, and felt both relieved and guilty. The bell only rings for the lucky ones.

Kara Daddario Bown is a writer who lives outside of Philadelphia. Her writing focuses on her experiences with illness as well as being a Philadelphia native. She has performed at The Moth and is a StorySLAM winner.  Her work has been published or is forthcoming in The Belladonna, The Pennsylvania Gazette and The Penn Review.  She holds a Bachelors in English and Creative Writing from the University of Pennsylvania.