Editorial Note | SLQ October – December 2017

We are selling the metal that kills / so we can afford the spoons that feed our children; / then killing them with the metal that we’ve just sold / feeding them with the blood on the spoons from happy meals. (Matt Duggan ‘Metal’)

 

The poems. The short stories. The play. The Essay & Reviews. They come together in this issue to reflect on what we are doing to our world and to ourselves. We encounter the tricks and the subterfuges of personal relationships. We enjoy the struggles that come along when life-changing decisions are made at the risk of tearing apart families, separating loved ones, and we are thrown into a dance of jubilation as people change, make room for adventure, and somehow, just somehow, love and unity find a way, even as we cannot help the aftermath of wars and their enduring devastations.

 

The IDF in Nablus walk through walls / eviscerating living rooms, inverting geometry. / Where streets prickle with barricades / walls become the easy street, mapped / by laser, admitted by C4. (Noel Williams ‘Lethal Theory’)

 

We celebrate our Sentinel Champions from our August 2017 poetry competition judged by Oz Hardwick; the specially mentioned Kelly Nunnerley ‘Surrender’, L Thompson ‘Your windows’ and Sharon Phillips ‘Labile’. The commended Michael Brown ‘Our Father’, Kathleen Strafford ‘Swinger’ and Jim Friedman ‘Some have entertained angels unawares’. The highly commended Maria Isakova Bennett ‘Frozen Ringtone’, Diane Cook ‘The Softening’ and Sharon Phillips -again – ‘What does the heart mean in popular culture?’. Gabriel Griffin ‘Vanitas’ (third prize), Greta Ross ‘In transit’ and Noel Williams ‘Lethal Theory’ (first prize winner.)

 

Think about Travelling without Moving by Jamiroquai, when you read the play ‘Out of the Night’ by Geoffrey Heptonstall. Theatre of the absurd does in your head the way this play chips away at our minds and patience. Yet we recognize that out of the ashes of war, out of the coldness of prison cells and the loneliness of institutions for the mentally ill rise many Alans and Doloreses. We know it is time to change the way we live, the way we talk, the way we treat each other.

 

As we publish our last 2017 issue of Sentinel Literary Quarterly, we give many thanks to our poetry editor, Mandy Pannett, for her untiring love of this magazine and the sacrifices she makes to ensure we keep on publishing amazing. Many thanks to our subscribers, the generous individuals and institutions who pay for this magazine despite its availability at no cost online. Special appreciation to those faithful participants in our writing competitions. Many of you have been with us right from the beginning, through the times we have been strong and the times we have been troubled. You have stood behind us (whether your poems have placed or not), and the little margins, when we achieve some are plunged right back into publishing this magazine. We give our love too to those who have just recently discovered Sentinel and are building a relationship with us.

 

Finally, we owe the teams at The Poetry Library (London), The Poetry Kit, The Poetry Society of New Zealand, Writers Reign, Prize Magic, The Poetry Can, Orbis, Writers Editors, The First Writer and Christopher Fielden for all the free and regular promotion they give our competitions and magazine.

Merry Christmas.

 

Nnorom Azuonye |Publisher & Managing Editor

editor@sentinelquarterly.com

Call/Text/WhatsApp +44 (0) 7812 755 751

Acting Apart

Short story by

PAUL BROWNSEY

 

            It had all been nonsense.  “Forever shall I be faithful to the duty of a married woman,” she had cried, in the peculiar language of poetic drama, not the language of life.  Her eyes had shone, her bosom had been elevated as though to welcome the sword of martyrdom.  “My husband’s glory was of the battlefield; mine shall be the glory of a virtuous wife.”

There had been much more of the same. 

Thus, she had dismissed Yevgeny Onegin.

It had been nonsense because in Prince Gremin, Tatyana had married a man old enough to be her grandfather. Forever would be a brief interlude; then she would be free to marry again.  She must have known this even while she quivered in her ecstasy of renunciation and the polonaise snapped its grand heartless rhythms in the adjoining ballroom.

Striding –  did he sometimes break into a run?    along Nevsky Prospekt at a pace that caused stares, Onegin asked himself where it had come from, this sickness that caused women – and men, too –  to step aside from the simple facts of their lives and force themselves into scenes that might have come from novels or Italian operas.  Before the drama of Tatyana’s grand renunciation of him there had been, years before, when he was a visitor at her father’s house, the drama of her grand declaration of eternal love for him, made in a letter carefully composed to exhibit spontaneous unrestraint.  The same sickness had infected poor Lensky, whose response to Onegin’s harmless and entirely aimless flirting with his sweetheart, little Olga, had been to fling himself into the role of outraged lover from whom honour demanded the drama of a duel.  And he had died in consequence, for he had obliged Onegin to shoot at him, and a sensible man does not treat the conventions of society with contempt, foolish though the conventions may be to the eye of reason.

The same eye of reason disclosed to Onegin that he, too, had been prey to the self-dramatising sickness.  His response to Tatyana’s grand renunciation had been to embrace the Young Werther role, writhing in despair at his beloved’s marriage to another.  (Youngish Werther, anyway!)  Mightn’t he actually have blown his brains out if his friend Hermann hadn’t snatched the pistol from him?  And there, in Kazansky Cathedral, mocking him with its colonnade shaped like a woman’s embracing arms, he’d stood in vain through hours of mumbo-jumbo in hope of a divine presence because he’d heard she attended there.  He’d even flung himself to the floor in a full prostration –  he, an unbeliever!  Yet for all the intensity with which he’d felt his despair, it had still been this mad play-acting.  He had hidden from himself the same knowledge that Tatyana had hidden from herself in order that it shouldn’t impede her performance of the faithful wife forever renouncing her true love: the fact that her married state was bound to be brief.

That knowledge had been released into consciousness only now, unlocked by solemn newspaper columns reporting the death of Prince Gremin.  As he swerved around the squad of prostitutes sweeping the cobbles as punishment for plying their trade the night before, he did not neglect to ask himself whether this descent on the general’s house wasn’t a further exercise in drama, the scene in which, just when the heroine’s abandonment is at its most intense, the rejected lover she really loves, sweeps in to sweep her off.

That was not the way to look at it.  On the contrary, it would pre-empt drama.  It would be a simple acknowledgement by two rational creatures of facts they both knew full well and would thus eliminate at a stroke the play of hints and manoeuvres, contrived meetings that looked accidental, letters left on tables as in that English novel about old lovers that the French had translated.  Such directness might shock the conventions, but a sensible man knew when not to take the conventions seriously. 

Conventions created drama.

But already she was gone.  A servant in dirty ill-assorted clothes attempted the hauteur he might have seen his former master display in sending a pedlar packing to inform Onegin that immediately after the funeral of “his Great and Very Noble Prince Highness” and without waiting for any of the memorial services, “her Great and Very Noble Princess Highness” had departed for an estate in the Ukraine. 

“The name of the estate is…?”  Would a journey of a thousand versts and an unheralded invasion of Tatyana’s distant seclusion cross the border from directness into drama?

The servant’s face opened in what seemed an attempt at a smile of warmth and recognition.  “God be with you, Pavel Davidovitch,” he said.  In a rush a newcomer had ascended the steps behind Onegin and was entering the house like one who had the freedom of it.

“The God of my fathers and yours, Fedya,” the man called gaily in reply, then halted to compose himself as though only now realising that he had overtaken a gentleman.  He bowed to Onegin and disappeared indoors.  Certain features of the man’s image lingered while Onegin retraced his steps to his lodging and his thoughts discovered the reason why Tatyana had fled to the Ukraine.  She pretended a grief-stricken retreat from society, fearing that if she remained in St Petersburg the force of her love for Onegin, which she had not omitted to confess to him in the course of her grand renunciation so as to make it perfect, would, now that she was free to marry him, drive her to some impetuous action which would mire her in scandal.   A woman could not flout convention as a man could.  The man had a swarthy face, a hooked nose. 

The man who had the freedom of Tatyana’s house, whom the servant had greeted while leaving Onegin unanswered, was a Jew.

Yes, he looked like a gentleman, and to the eye of reason, rather than to the eyes of good upstanding Russians, most of whom were blockheads, was it obvious that a Jew could not be a gentleman?  But Our Father the Tsar had decreed that the Jews should remain in their Pale in the territories to the south and west, forbidden to contaminate the pure heartland of Holy Mother Russia, where the knowledge still lay close to the soul that the incursion of the admirable and odious Napoleon must have been due to sins committed by the Russian people.  And could the Tsar’s decree be other than a good and wise decree?    for according to the principle of autocracy so happily ruling in Russia, the only measure of what was good and wise was what the Tsar decreed.  Still, though the Tsar ruled by the grace of God, he did not quite possess God’s omnipotence.  Like lice in barracks, Jews could be found in St Petersburg and Moscow if you looked for them, and many impecunious persons, such as Onegin’s friend Hermann, looked for them.

That thought reared up like one of the bronze horses erected a few years later on the Anichkov Bridge.

If a Jew could come and go as he pleased in the house of Prince Gremin, then Gremin, like poor Hermann, must have been in hock to the moneylenders.  And in that case –  and the fact that the door had been opened by a scarecrow of a servant made it the more likely    then love (Onegin’s own love for Tatyana, her love for him) had a powerful second.  If anything remained of Tatyana’s old self-dramatising devotion to her prince, perhaps even causing her to toy with the idea of remaining a widow to his memory forever (even a virgin forever?    there had been no child of the marriage), prudence would soon knock it on the head.  Her husband’s money gone to the Jews and thus not available to keep her in the style to which, from an unpretentious country home, she had become accustomed – well, this was not calculated to inhibit her love for a gentleman of large and unburdened estates. 

And the same prudence made him patient.  The envisioned pursuit of Tatyana to the Ukraine would indeed be drama, not befitting people whose lives were governed by reason.  She would be back.  He could wait for the meeting.  And there should be no further attempt to confront her in her home, where, he felt obscurely, influences lurked that might work against the progress of reason on earth that the German philosopher promised. 

It was at the Prussian ambassador’s, many months later, that he learned that she was back in St Petersburg; at the house of a senior official in the army ministry who had recently been ennobled, that she declined many invitations on account of headaches; from a doctor with whom he played kaisa billiards, that he had recommended air for the headaches; from a beggar, that, in her carriage, she had passed the very spot where, an hour before, Onegin had been stationed in case an airing took her that way.  Each piece of news brought a fear that her need of money, far from aiding his cause, might damage it, for it would be just like her to say that she wouldn’t marry him because she couldn’t be sure that love alone, in dramatic purity, was her motive.  At a ball, as a polonaise played, which could be a good omen or a bad, their eyes locked from afar; he could not find her later but his reason forbade him to yield to the belief that the crowd was deliberately keeping them apart. 

Could one say that destiny was slowly engineering a meeting between them, their wills playing no part in the process?  But of course, one did not believe in destiny; to believe in it was to accept that one’s life was a play written by another. 

If destiny did bring about their meeting, it deputed the details to old Countess X.  She was said to possess the secret of winning at gambling and Onegin’s friend Hermann had some crackpot scheme to clear his debts by beguiling the old lady into revealing her secret, a scheme he pursued by wooing some girl who was her ward.  Accompanying Hermann to the Countess’s apartment, Onegin learned that Tatyana was expected at a forthcoming music party at which guests were to be ravished by the piano-playing of the celebrated Irishman, John Field, revisiting the city of his first triumphs.  Onegin professed so intense a love of nocturnes so insistently that if Countess X did not extend an invitation to him, it must count as a snub of the first order; and she managed both snub and invitation together, saying, “You make it abundantly clear, sir, that my party would be incomplete if you did not have the kindness to attend.”

On the night of the nocturnes ladies and gentlemen nodded to them as though their rhythm were that of a trepak, and were so appreciative that for the most part their conversation did not drown the music.  Tatyana arrived when people were already seating themselves for the music and greeted Onegin with a distant but calm bow, then rather drew attention to herself by listening to the music in a distant but calm silence.  At the interval, when some crowded around the Irishman, who was old and ill and plainly drunk, with praise, and others, with even more enthusiasm, exited in the direction of the refreshments, Tatyana did neither, risking comment as she hastened to the library.  Here Onegin discovered her at another, smaller piano, picking out notes, for all the world as though she had not stationed herself there for their long-fated encounter.

He fired his bullet immediately, like a rational person.  “You love me and I love you.”

She absorbed the shot without ceasing to trace the notes of Field’s Nocturne in C Major.

“Tatyana, those are the only facts.  The rest is play-acting.  Your grand renunciation was all nonsense, and you know it.  Will you lie about your heart or about the fidelity of mine to you?” 

“That is the melody, is it not?  Yes, I acknowledge the fidelity of your passion for me and I shall not lie about my heart.”  The words seemed not attended to, so intent was she on repeating some notes.

“Tatyana!  Oh, my dearest, my angel!”  But it was awkward to embrace her as she sat at the keyboard, and so insecure was his balance as he stooped to do so that, though he registered the heat of her flesh through silk, her vigorous push overbalanced him to the floor.

 “I will not lie about my heart.  It is pledged to another.  I shall marry Pavel Davidovitch Edlin.”

“And who the devil is that?”  But that was how outraged fathers in novels addressed daughters who had professed a liking for someone unsuitable.  For that matter, her It is pledged to another was literature-speak, too.  Could people not help this, performing like automatons whose voices and phrases and tones and poses came from the books they’d read, the conversations they’d heard, the scenes they’d witnessed?  It was as though people weren’t real, uniquely expressing their own unique feelings and thoughts, but were mere channels for something else that could not be resisted.

He struggled to his feet and struggled to find a different way of putting his question until recognition flooded in and the latter was unnecessary.

            “The Jew!”

            “A good man!”  Her eyes blazed into his, then elevated themselves to the icon shelf that conventional respectability exacted even from a notorious free-thinker like Countess X.

 “How can you, a Russian woman, marry a Jew?”  And when he had said that, and in the silence that threatened to continue forever, he knew he had spoken words that were written by another and that the drama in which they figured was not his own, yet he also knew he could not have helped himself. 

He said, “I humbly beg your forgiveness.”

 “I forgive you.  One has to say that, it is what we are taught, what well-bred people say.”  Something in her broke open and fury cried, “But I do not forgive you!”  Then the fury in her went out, and it was as though positions were reversed and she were begging his forgiveness. “He came to see my husband on behalf of a mother, a widow, whose son had been taken by the army for twenty-five years, as they do with the Jews, the young men.  He pleaded with my husband to spare her son.  I knew that saving this boy would be good.”  Her pleading manner vanished.  “I discovered I wanted this more intensely than I had ever wanted anything.”  Pause.  “I made sure that certain papers disappeared.  The boy returned to his mother.  I seemed to have discerned a purpose for my life.  Since then I have interested myself in the fate of our Jews.”

 “And if you were troubled by the new disease you would marry a man with the cholera.”  But he said it gently, almost tenderly, remembering his efforts to ease the lot of his serfs in the face of his neighbours’ hostility, and wondering whether this piece of devotion on his part to the good of others could furnish an argument about how well he and Tatyana were suited.

“I am engaged with others in establishing a Committee for the Friendship of Christians and Jews.  We shall endeavour to bring to the knowledge of the Tsar how loyal our Jews wish to be and how merciless and brutal are those who act in his name.  Through my love for my husband all my powers shall be at the service of good.  My happiness shall lie in the happiness of a suffering people from whom the lash and the shackles are withdrawn!”

“No-one,” he shouted, frantic at the ineffable stupidity of her project, “will pay the slightest attention to your committee of Russians and Jews.” 

“Not Russians and Jews.  Christians and Jews.”  Her bosom lifted in the old way and her eyes shone in the old way.

But he had a bullet left to pierce this performance, get to her soul. 

 “Would I be right to infer that before your husband died you nourished a guilty passion for his successor?  I will not say that you deceived him as the world understands that phrase, but it appears you went behind his back to effect what your new husband wanted.”

“Your reproach is not that I nourished a guilty passion while my husband was alive, but that I did not nourish a guilty passion for you.”

“But you loved me, you did.  You told me so on the night -”

 “- on the night of my grand renunciation, as you call it.  But that, you have perceived, was all nonsense, play-acting.  All nonsense, and that must damn whatever confession of love for you it may have included.”

She had risen from the piano, and the manner in which she swept from the room showed how well she had learnt the deportment befitting the exalted role in society brought to her by Prince Gremin.  “Tanya, don’t get all princessy,” he cried after her, but the music was beginning again and she did not return.

The tune was a Russian song, In the Garden.  In the garden at her father’s house he told Tatyana to forget the love she had professed in her letter.  Why was Field playing a Russian song?     Wasn’t he here to play his own compositions?  That was a conundrum to challenge a philosopher.  “The tune is mere coincidence, for there is no destiny to mock us.”  After Field, composer of a piano fantasia on In the Garden, was gone, they found Onegin in the library, saying that aloud to no-one, again and again. SLQ

 

 PaulBrownsey-photo

Paul Brownsey has published around 80 short stories in Europe and North America.  His book, His Steadfast Love and Other Stories, was published by Lethe Press, New Jersey, USA.

 

Freewheeling

A short story by
PHILIP CHARTER

The sport of cycling attracts a particular type of sadist; one who revels in the punishment of screaming lungs and burning legs. Riding was the only time Luke Robson felt in control, really in control – it was him against the road. He had spent all week daydreaming about racking up the kilometers and now he was free, if only for a few hours.

            The city was still heating up in the late morning. North Africa was always hot, just another thing that Luke couldn’t control. He was supposed to be overseeing the installation of a new municipal water system, but things weren’t progressing much.

            “How’s work coming along?” asked Gabby.

            “Slowly, love, slowly. We’ve hit a roadblock with another community that wants to be ‘compensated.’”

            “God. People have always got their hand out here.”

            “Well it’s not that sim—”

            “I thought it was supposed to be wrapped up by now.” She always cut him off. And now she was even less patient.

“Still tinkering? I swear you pay more attention to that thing than you do to me.”

            Luke looked up from his brake calipers, like he’d been caught in bed with another woman. “Just getting ready to go out. I’m doing the whole loop today, can’t wait.”

            Gabby pursed her lips, “What time will you be back? Greg and Amanda are coming for dinner.”

            “I didn’t forget, I’ll be back to help I promise, just don’t expect me to go running off to the shops if you forget anything, not after six hours in the saddle.”

            She sighed a tired sigh, “I don’t know how much longer I can do this on my own Luke.”

            He paused “Do what on your own?”

            “This,” she waved an arm out of the window at the heat. “I’m pregnant if you haven’t noticed, I don’t want to bring a child up in this, this dustbowl. I want to have the baby back home.”

            “But we talked about this, Love, we agreed,” Luke laid his hand on Gabby’s shoulder. “We’ve got everything we need here, and besides it’s no good for a family to be apart.”

            “I just want what’s best for the baby.” She was raising her voice now.

            “And I want what’s best for this family. Look, let’s talk about this when I get back OK?”

            “Mmm, we’ll talk later.”

            She gave him a peck on the cheek, leaning from a distance because of the baby bump. She always kissed that side to avoid the scar on his right eye. Luke thought it looked like a faded viking battle wound, but Gabby encouraged him to wear his sunglasses for photos. The Bond villain scar had come from a fight with a burglar he had lost in his own Yorkshire home. Really, it was the crowbar that won the fight, the kid had scarpered in fear and was never caught. There was no damage to his eye, but people always stared, they wanted to know the story.

            Over the past few months, he had been working up to this ride, ratcheting up the distance. The route in question was a 140 km loop with a lot of cumulative elevation, it had been used as a stage on the World Tour a few years back. He wasn’t physically gifted, if anything he was skinny, but Luke was determined, and that goes a long way in cycling.

            Luke carried his bike down the compound stairs and asked the doorman to open the gate. Freedom.

            The wheels cut a path down the road, the air rushing past his ears. The rear cassette spun like a football clacker as he freewheeled around the bends. The roads weren’t as bad as they used to be, although the tarmac laid down before the big race was starting to crack. He looked out for potholes and stray rocks.

            Luke maintained a steady pressure, driving the gears, up to eighty revolutions a minute in his hill climbing gear. As he snaked up the incline, a pickup truck struggled up behind him. A gangly teenager sat in the back, staring.

            “Come on round,” he motioned for it to overtake.

            The vehicle drew level, engine screaming, its thick exhaust fumes engulfing Luke. It eventually got in front and disappeared over the brow of the hill. Luke clenched his teeth and chased it.

            At the top, the treeline broke and a vast, lunar mountain range appeared. The tiny buildings looked like they had been sprinkled from a great height. Some tiny white specks shifted in a dusty field. Luke looked up at the high sun and started down the slope.

            As Luke’s speed increased, so did his confidence. Up to almost 70 kilometres per hour, he didn’t want to lose momentum. He gripped the brake levers and ducked down to minimise air resistance. According to his cycle computer, he was about two thirds of the way round the course and making good time.

            The road was starting to flatten out, and Luke snaked left past a small group of mud brick houses. The bend was tighter than it first appeared and the bike drifted out, toying with a shallow ditch. Luke fought to keep the bike on tarmac, but the front wheel entered the jaws of the trap at too high a speed. It dug into the dirt and Luke felt the rim crack under the pressure of the impact. He knew he had no chance of controlling the fall. As he tried to unclip his shoes from the pedals, a thought flashed into consciousness. Instead of thinking of his wife, his family or his unborn child, the face of his teenage assailant with the crowbar came into focus. He flew through the air, finally separated from his charge; reaching to protect his face rather than relaxing for impact to avoid broken bones. He shut his eyes.

            A splash of cool water brought him back to earth. His neck and arm and chest hurt, must be the collarbone. Luke got to his feet and checked his appendages with a shaking hand, they all seemed all there. He was shivering, wet through, his cycling top was torn at the arm and sticking to his chest – a large puddle had cushioned his fall and reduced the damage, he had been lucky. He hobbled towards the buildings on the corner, his plastic cycling shoes clip-clopping on the tarmac.

***

The old man raised the teapot up high, pouring the steaming liquid with pinpoint accuracy. By now, the process was ritual, each step performed with perfect form. Luke picked up the glass with his good hand, and blew on the tea. His other arm was cradled in a sling, held in place by two large safety pins.

            “A salaam alaikum, you’re very kind.” Luke leaned back in the armchair.

            The old man grinned back at him through grey stubble. There were four more glasses to fill. He squatted down with the legs of a much younger man. Yazir and Fatima, the couple, sat together on the sofa in long plain robes, hands on knees. Their child with its big tuft of black hair, sat next to them. He couldn’t have been more than five, but he already had his own little cup, the tea cooling next to the others. He stared in silence, his gaze fixed on Luke’s scar.

            “D’où êtes-vous, l’Espagne?” asked Yazir

            “England. Angleterre. Sorry. Je ne pas Francais.”

            “Ahh Englan’ . . . very good. Musique.”

            “Yes, yes. Do you have a telephone?” said Luke making a mobile shape with his hand.

            “Le Queen – Le Champions, good.” Yazir was still thinking other British rock songs he knew.

            Past the mud brick doorway lay two bedrooms and a kitchen just big enough to hold the range and some pots. A breeze blew through the open window and Luke could hear goats clattering around in the pen outside. 

            After a few back and forth gestures, it turned out that they didn’t have a phone, but there was a neighbour who might be able to help. Luke was old enough that he remembered the time before phones, without distraction and without interference. The few hours each week that Luke left his phone at home he felt at ease.

            Gabby asked him to take it when he went out. “What if you get lost, or need help. What then?”

            She even put it in his back pocket once, but he took it out before leaving. He was going to get the full ‘I told you so’ now. Even with the cycle computer, the carbon fibre bike, the electrolyte drink and breathable fabric, Luke was now at the mercy of a goat herder’s neighbour . . . who was seemingly out. This might be the end of the unaccompanied rides into the wilderness.

            He settled back into the chair and tried to rest. There wouldn’t be much traffic passing on a Sunday night, he would have to wait and see. Yazir got up to look at the broken wheel, tea in hand. He tutted and shook his head. 

            The sun was setting, bathing the hills in purples and yellows. The family insisted on giving Luke the full tour. It was a spectacular location, nestled between mountain ridges. As well as introducing Luke to the goats, Yazir showed off his pride and joy – the vegetable garden. Luke had had to fight for space in his own pokey kitchen in order to install a tiny herb garden, now he stood before this veritable oasis.

            The garden was planned to perfection, every available space used. A pump handle well fed irrigation channels running between the plants. Luke tried to test out the pumping mechanism, but his neck and shoulder still hurt from the fall. The sunflowers, beans, and squashes peered out from between thick leaves.

            Inside Luke showed his cycle computer to Yazir and his little son. “It’s only 42 kilometers back to the city,” he said.

             The boy was more interested in trying to get into one of the energy gel sachets. Yazir snatched the packet from his mouth.

            After dinner, the neighbour arrived. Thankfully he spoke a smattering of English. He held his woollen waistcoat trying to catch his breath under his thick beard.

            “Hello, my friend, I Hamid. What your name?”

            “I am Luke, nice to meet you.” He smiled sheepishly, pointing to his collarbone, not able to offer his hand.

            “Where you come by, the city?”

            “Yes, I need to get back to my wife in the city,” he made the rounded sign of a pregnant belly.

            Hamid looked at the family, raising an eyebrow.

            “You have telephon’ number your wife?”

            Luke scrolled through his memory, but his wife’s number wasn’t in the rolodex. “Err, you can call the office”. He asked for a pen and paper and wrote the following note:

            Luke Robson had a cycling accident and is unable to come into work. He will return to the office when transport is available.”

            “Can you read it OK?”

            “Yes yes, my friend, I call wife OK?”

            “No no, it’s my office, the office. My company, you understand?”

            Hamid looked blank.

            Luke wrote down the team secretary’s name, and the number. He prayed the message would get through.

 

***

 

            The smell of fresh bread filled the lounge. Luke’s shoulder still hurt but he felt rested after a night on the sofa. The old man was scurrying back and forth with the tea set, whilst Fatima toasted some type of pancakes on a griddle.

 

            Hamid burst in through the wooden door, ducking as he entered.

            “My friend, your wife call many time.” His eyes were lit up. “She say no working today.”

            “Tell her I will get home when I can.” Luke looked out of the door at the road. It wasn’t worth going all the way to the neighbour’s farm to speak with her, the trucks would start passing soon.

            The old man offered tea to Hamid. He drank it standing up, shifting from foot to foot, babbling about important neighborhood business.

            Yazir and the boy were dressed and ready for the day ahead.

            “Good morning,” Luke greeted them as they came in. “Thank you again for your hospitality,” he clasped his hands together. He wanted to give the family something to thank them, but had nothing with him. “Can I help with your goats today?” he suddenly found himself offering.

            They would welcome an extra pair of hands, and there it would be easy enough to get back to the city. Besides, he didn’t feel able to struggle through meetings – handshakes and smiles. Apart from the grazes and sore collarbone, Luke was enjoying his freedom. Herding goats had to be easier than his usual Monday business.

            Hamid translated the offer of help to Yazir. The old man looked at his son and they laughed. Yazir slapped Luke on the back and pointed out toward the field.

            After breakfast the men headed out to drive the goats towards greenery. It was no easy task. The hills were barren. The air was still. It was early, before the heat of the day.

            “Yalla yalla.” Yazir directed the goats, giving the stragglers and occasional tap with his stick. Luke held the right flank, vigilant, Yazir was on the left and the boy in the middle, marching along. The boy watched Luke’s awkward shuffling steps in his borrowed sandals.

After nearly an hour of stopping and starting, they reached a small hill covered with scrubby plants and patches of brown grass. Breakfast had arrived for the goats, who consumed whatever they could. They stripped the leaves from low lying bushes and plants like they were pulling the meat off a kebab stick. This was all so simple – no protracted negotiations, no forms to sign in triplicate, and no need to think about the digital requirements and social media implications. The goats just ate.

            “What’s that?” Luke pointed out a small wooden sign.

            Yazir smiled. “For sale. Hamid sale.”

            It hadn’t even crossed his mind that people bought and sold land here. The quiet life must be pretty cheap, a few thousand for a decent plot. Luke suddenly found himself marshalling his own herd, calling the names one by one. Maybe staying here had been a mistake. The more time he spent here, the more he dreaded the return to the compound.

            An idea started to form in Luke’s mind. He had always wanted his own project. He wanted to provide the best life for his little family, and this was beautiful. Simple. It was as if the bright sunshine had scorched an imprint of the three of them there, pulling up vegetables, not locking the doors and windows like back in Yorkshire. Gabby would take some convincing, but Luke never backed down from a challenge.

            The rocks were too hot to sit on, so they watched the animals in silence and shuffled about to try and keep from overheating.

Luke rummaged around in his top pocket and extracted an energy packet. He pressed it into the hand of the boy, who looked at him wide-eyed. He ruffled his black hair. He reached into his pocket again to get his phone for a picture, but remembered it wasn’t there.

            When the herders returned, the family said their goodbyes and Yazir stayed with Luke to help flag down a passing car or truck. Luke stood in his bright cycling gear, much taller than the shepherd whose cotton robe reached his sandals. There was no sign of the crash from yesterday, no skid-marks, and no water on the road, evaporated. Luke’s bike lay next to him waiting patiently. A brown lorry approached the bend and Yazir squinted into the sun and waved his arms high.

 

***

 

            Luke straightened his back and rested on the pickaxe handle. Summer was coming to an end and he wanted to get planting in the hope he would have something to pull up by the end of the year.

            Even after softening the ground, digging was tough. He had put the well in a week ago, using a contact at work to get an easy-to-install kit. The fun part would come in a few months, but the tranquil farm life that he had craved felt a lot like hard work now, just a breeze and the occasional passing bird for company.

            Gabby had sent a few messages, but they still hadn’t spoken. She used to be his biggest supporter, cheering him on during his cycling races back in England. Not anymore. She had someone more important to think about, someone he hadn’t even met yet. The baby couldn’t grow up in some underdeveloped backwater. Too hot. Too dry.

            “It needs a bit of work, but it’s a wonderful place, great for a family,” he had said. “Not too far from the city, you have to see it at least.”

            “You’re mad if you think I’m going out all that way to look at a big piece of dirt. What will happen to the house back home? What about your parents, and mine? You’re just not thinking straight.”

            “That’s it. I am, it’s you who isn’t getting it. We came here to get away, to make a new start. We don’t need all of that bullshit to be happy. The garden, the mountains, and such nice people. It’s pure, Gabby.”

            “I can’t talk to you when you’re being this pig headed. If you do this, then you can count me out.” She folded her arms on top of her swollen stomach.

            “You can’t make threats like that” Luke’s voice was cracking. “I’ve already committed to it. It’s no money, and I’ll still be working. I’ll cycle in every day.”

            “There’s not even any mobile service out there, I had to call up that bloody madman four times to get a message to you.”

            “Well you never miss these things when you don’t—”

            “Arrgghh. It’s not up for discussion. I don’t want to talk about it anymore.”

            “So you’re just going to run home. I am doing this for us. You know I can’t come back with you.” He shut his eyes.

 

            Gabby was true to her word and had gone back to Yorkshire. She had cut him out of their lives. Nevertheless, Luke had spent his evenings and weekends preparing the house and the garden, getting ready for the arrival of his family. He still had eight months left on his work contract and was already thinking about whether to keep on gambling, or just fold. He still hoped.

            He got the occasional progress report from the grandparents. Mother and baby doing fine, she’ll come around. He had seen the photos, but Luke felt like Gabby had conjured his son out of nowhere and stolen him away before he could even lay eyes on him. At least he felt at peace on the farm; they would be impressed at how far it had come, he sent regular updates.

            He rubbed his eyes and thought about finishing up for the day. Why didn’t he just call it quits? Going back to basics didn’t seem selfish to him, but his family and friends had already rallied around Gabby and the baby. His back and shoulders hurt from digging. Just another few meters would do, then he could pop over and see the neighbours. It had been a while since he delivered a bike for the little boy, a thank you for everything they had done.

 

            The sun was beginning to cast its shadow over the hills. Luke needed to rest before the ride into work tomorrow. He lifted the pickaxe and started to head back towards the house. He saw a familiar figure making his way across the field in his robe and sandals. Hamid held his kufi in place as he skipped towards him. 

            “Luke, Luke! Incredible.”

            “What is it?”

            “Mrs. Luke call me.”

            “What? Are you sure? When? What did she say,” his heart was pounding.

            “She say you call her.”

            “She wants to speak?” Luke felt a surge of energy. “Oh Hamid, I could hug you . . . you.”

            He gripped his neighbour in a tight embrace. Hamid smiled, revealing a missing tooth.

            “En y va.” He turned and headed towards the road that led to his property, signalling for Luke to follow. SLQ

 

Philip Charter is a British writer who currently lives in Pamplona, Spain. Between writing fiction, songs and poems, he runs a blog about teaching and travel. His work has been featured in Flash Fiction, Storgy and Carillon magazines.

Landing Stage

Author: Joan Michelson
Publisher: SPM Publications
ISBN: 978-0-9935035-6-6
Pages: 65 pages
Price: £7.50
Reviewer: MANDY PANNETT

Landing Stage by Joan Michelson won a well-deserved third prize in the SPM Publications Poetry Book Competition 2016. It is a highly original book which deserves to be read many times, cover to cover, to appreciate the full impact of the themes of displacement and alienation from the 1930s to the present day.

In her Preface, Joan Michelson describes the ethos that underpins the collection and asks how individuals and members of a community can live with and learn from devastating tragedy and trauma. One possibility, she suggests, is to build on feelings evoked in response to situations and images. In Landing Stage she does just that, capturing ‘individual moments caught in the crosshairs of place and time.’

The collection is divided into three sections vastly different in content and layout but which overlap in terms of theme. The first section Reportage begins with these striking lines entitled If Not I, Who?

‘With no right, I step into your life.
With an ‘Alright’, I assume my right
to cross the border of your voice.’

The thirteen poems that follow are fragments of some of these borders, echoes of their sounds.

The overall tone is laconic and detached, the style of a news report but written in the speech rhythms of individuals in different cultures trying to convey their stories through unfamiliar English. Schoolboy, Serbia, 1992 is a strong example of impact achieved through detachment: ‘We lived in a block/of flats. My friend Moamer/was killed by a grenade. My/friend Aldin was killed by a/bullet while he was sleeping.’

This extract from Syrian Mother, Berlin 2016 where a whole family waits in one room for the asylum process to be completed, is poignant in its bleakness: ‘I say/that it is better than to be in/the streets and in tents. Just/we are waiting… And I leave my parents/because they are old enough/they can’t go with us… ‘As soon as/possible I need them because/I miss them too much. I am/afraid. They are not safe. I/don’t want them to die/before I see them.’
Some of the most tragic and telling words are spoken in Syrian Woman, Lesbos, 2015 which gives an account of forty-eight people being landed from a boat: ‘So dark. We arrive with/too many dead. All refugees/think here is heaven. Here is/nothing.’

Form and style are different in Section II The Reach of War but the feelings are the same. One poem that is heartbreakingly effective is Bosnian Girl which begins with the brutal lines ‘When they had finished with her and her mother/she climbed a tree and hung herself’ and ends with the narrator’s fantasy of turning back time so that she might free the girl by unbuckling ‘the woven belt she slung around a branch./Her slim bare legs are swinging down./Feet on earth again, up she springs and runs.’

This section is rich in striking poems but possibly the one that I’ll remember most is Half an Angel. Here a woman, sixty years after the war, tries to find out about her father ‘who was never mentioned.’ To her horror she finds a photo of him in SS uniform being condemned for war crimes. The poem ends with this:

‘She finds some solace in a witness statement
that describes her father as ‘half an angel’.
He allowed caps on during roll call.
And sometimes, he kept the killer dogs in check.’

The final section of this book is called Fire Goddess and adds an element of myth and folklore to the story of Bets whose father died in an Occupation Camp while she and her mother suffered a year in solitary confinement. These poems are multi-faceted and shift between narrative, reportage, letters and the lyricism of a poem like Oranjehotel where Bets dreams that her Oma (grandmother) is singing ‘And she woke./And saw the prison walls./And heard herself singing ‘Soo – lee – ram,/the song her Oma/used to sing to her/when she was small.’

Landing Stage is one of the most powerful and effective poetry collections I have read. Joan Michelson says she hopes that ‘feelings will rise from reading these poems’. They certainly do for me.

Buy Landing Stage here

Mandy Pannett, author of All the Invisibles</em> (SPM Publications), is the Poetry Editor of Sentinel Literary Quarterly

Oranges in January

Author: Pansy Maurer-Alvarez.
Publisher: Knives Forks And Spoons Press.
ISBN: 978-1-909-44377-8
Pages: 119 pages
Price: £9
Reviewer: MANDY PANNETT

It is always a pleasure to read the poetry of Pansy Maurer-Alvarez and I appreciate this chance to review her latest, beautifully produced collection, Oranges in January.

A key feature of all her writing is its musicality. As she herself says in an article ‘poetry is first and foremost music … the brain automatically, instinctively, makes associations without one having to think.’ It is the sensuousness of the poetry and the intuitive awareness of connections that appeal to me. May, Apparently from a Calendar begins with a medieval pageant crossing a bridge into a crowded town ‘unnoticed’ by a ‘you’ who is one of a boating party on the river. Simon Bening’s painting shows May as a green month – an ‘allover green’, a ‘profusion of green’ but the predominant colour is red which becomes the link between the medieval calendar and the intimacy of a present day phone call as images mingle and shift as gradually as the river light in both scenes.

The poem, In Memory of the Unclaimed, is a perfect example of the subtle use of concept conveyed through metaphor. The unclaimed are the thousands who died during the heat wave in France in 2003 and whose identities were never acknowledged by their next of kin. Apart from a footnote no facts are given but the tragic events are depicted through the metaphor of ‘birdness’ which is ‘removed’ with the loss of air, flight and song. ‘This summer’, we are told, ‘the sky has dropped its birds/and doesn’t know them anymore.’ They are poignant lines.

Central to the poems in Oranges in January is the theme of memory. There is the kind that is both collective and personal, built into ‘Neolithic landscapes of/awakening and wonder’ where ‘our bones/retain a memory of living: of clouds/of things like jasmine/or milkweed;/a foot sliding into a shoe on a /grey and rainy (again) day;/of places that were dark and cold,’ (Spring’s Sudden This Year and Things Change). There are memories that are random, triggered by something as natural as ‘reflections seen in street puddles’ or ‘the swish of wet cars’(Coming and Going in Rain). In Particular (for snow) memories like this evoke other, deeper moments, precious as ‘bright petals/buried two years now in the snow’. Especially moving and beautiful are memories of the poet’s father, some elicited in dreams ‘as darkly coloured as water at night’, (Valediction), others that are tantalisingly elusive as in Draw Me Closer where ‘I listen for your story remembering the voice I know best but it has lost/ its face like one misplaces an earring’ and ‘I know you’re telling me something important enough to remember./You’re describing a picture that isn’t a picture. You aren’t using/ colours. You aren’t using words.’

Memory, then, is an important theme in Oranges in January. Possibly the poem that I find most meaningful is Water-Meadow with Birches where a video installation shows the reservoir that ‘served the kitchens and latrines of Birkenau’. Here the surface of the wind-moved water might stir the imagination into summoning up ‘living/memory’ of ‘nightmare shadows’ but, at the same time, ‘life/ goes on and people live nearby/Not everything comes to the surface of the water/Not everything is said or stops’.

It is this sense of a living memory that I find significant in Pansy Maurer-Alvarez’ poetry. Memories, she implies in Particular (for sunrays), are more than just a re-visiting of the past, more than a moment of nostalgia for ‘that yellow light’ in ‘our daisy fields’. They are a new experience, a source of ‘knowledge’ to be treasured and stored as if in an ‘exquisite box of/inlaid Japanese lacquer’ and glimpsed from time to time. ‘Inside is where we need to go’, she says, describing the source of her own creativity and inner life in ‘my personal compartment/inside the music where the poems go – where they run with the river alongside me/when night is low, the destination clear.’

The poems in Oranges in January are multi-layered, rich in imagery and shifting moods, personal and moving, mysterious, dreamlike, contemplative, elemental (especially evocative of air and water) – there are many, many facets to enjoy and linger over.

Buy Oranges in January

Mandy Pannett, author of All the Invisibles is the Poetry Editor of Sentinel Literary Quarterly.

Reflections of Fate

Short story by JOHN A. BARRETT

Lionel Stone’s career at Wade’s Stockbrokers of London was over. His gambling habits, both at, and away from work ensured it. Certain to face fraud charges and probable imprisonment. Unless, he could replace the missing fifty thousand pounds … by Monday? His wife Sarah, had been patient with his reckless gambling, but she’d never forgive him for using his friends’ money while representing the firm.

As the commuter train gathered speed, Stone’s future spread hopelessly before him. His body ached and his breathing labored, as if he’d been kicked in the chest. Despair threatening to crumble his skull with vice-gripped tension. His inner voice screaming … failure!

Was his compulsive gambling a disease with no cure? Did he care anymore to wear the pretense of a grandiose lifestyle? Could he lose his wife’s steadfast support, along with the confidence of his friends and colleagues? Was the dreaded condemnation enough to …?

Alone in the carriage, daylight dissolved as the train entered the long familiar tunnel near his home station, his image reflected by the carriage window, amidst the interior lighting. Dispirited, Stone raised his newspaper, but a reflected headline from the window instantly caught his attention: ‘Outsider, Tainted Passion wins the Grand National at 100-1.’

That can’t be right, he reasoned, the Aintree race doesn’t run until tomorrow? He rechecked all the newspaper pages, but there was no such headline. Stone sneered, shaking his head. Probably wishful thinking from an old napping dream, induced by the rocking train. Besides, reflected writing reads backwards!

Regardless, the thought straggled his imagination. An omen, or a message from a guardian angel …? Yet as a gambler, Stone knew a horse called ‘Tainted Passion’ was in tomorrow’s race. He pondered the relevance, until the germ of an idea crossed his mind. Reinvigorated, he’d postpone the dire financial news for Sarah until after the race, or never if the horse won. He’d bet the last of his pilfered, stashed away funds and determine his future, either way.

‘Tainted Passion’ did win the Grand National, and as Lionel Stone collected the 100-1 winnings, he considered his extraordinary gift for seeing the future. Was it his destiny to be a wealthy man, a talent to use as he wanted?

Stone won more than enough to pay off his debts, although Wade’s irreparable tirade ensured Stone must leave the company, otherwise his shady dealings would be exposed to the Stockbroker’s Association. Then he’d never be allowed to conduct business in the city again.

Irritated by Wade’s discarded attitude, Stone quickly recovered, reveling in his good fortune. He opened a London office to advise, encourage and appropriate funds from willing investors in return for professional fees, plus performance bonuses.

Every working day, Stone took the train with a folded newspaper, while looking for the future, but it only worked when he was alone in the carriage, as today. The train came to the same tunnel of darkness, and Stone raised the newspaper to the business section. The reflected headline read: ‘Record High for Incorporated Oil Baffles Brokers’. That company had the lowest shares on the market for oil subsidiaries. This could make him a major player in the markets. And it did.

Within months Lionel Stone became a multi-millionaire, investors rewarding his business savvy with more investments for his profitable and respected business. He had an inner sense, telling him, and subsequently his investors, the right options, at the right time. Stone reasoned it also brought relief to Sarah’s earlier financial worries. His apparent gambling addiction, replaced by lucrative business strategies.

Wealth and popularity didn’t change him either. He still caught the evening train home each night, although he wasn’t often in the carriage alone, but he didn’t care. Stone had made a fortune, and could make the future work for him whenever he wanted, simply by leasing a private carriage. He’d heard that Timothy Wade Stockbrokers’ was in trouble and the firm up for sale. Stone incensed at the memory and manner Wade got rid of him last year. The way he resented Stone, despite him paying all outstanding debts, Wade never believed Stone came by the money honestly. Now Stone was a successful business executive, their situations were somewhat reversed. Wade close to bankruptcy, Stone ripe with more riches than he could ever imagine. Yet, Stone didn’t care about Wade’s misfortune, he wanted more. Revenge …!

Others also vied for Wades’ acquisition, but none more determined than Stone. He had to have it, but needed to know the actual selling price. He needed to peer into the future … again. He boarded the private train carriage with his newspaper and waited. The train stopped a couple of stations before the long tunnel, and Stone was surprised that his carriage suddenly had another occupant. A woman dressed in black, wearing a long coat and a wide brim hat with a veil obscuring her face, like she was coming from a funeral. The woman’s pose resembled his wife, slim, carrying an elegant air about her, as if she had once been a model like Sarah. Yet, there was something sinister about her, as if she had seen beyond the threshold … of darkness? Her body erect and still, head held high and looking straight ahead, as if contemplating an uncertain future.

The train began to move, but by the time it reached the station stop before the tunnel the woman remained in the carriage. Stone panicked! With urgency, he approached her and offered fifty pounds if she would immediately leave the carriage. No Response. Then he placed a hundred pounds on the seat beside her, but she made no move to take it, or acknowledge his presence. In a fit of rage, Stone yelled at the top of his voice that she should leave, he needed to be alone!

He was about to strike the woman, when she steadily rose from the seat, staring trance like through the mask of her shaded veil, as if deliberating a judgment. This was more than Stone could take. He opened the carriage door and grabbed for the woman, but she floated out onto the platform before he reached her, then disappeared. Was he going mad …?

The train started to move again, entering the tunnel within seconds. Stone reached for the newspaper’s business section, but no reflection of the future! Frantically, he turned to the front page, then caught a reflection: ‘Late Warning Kills Six in Devonshire Floods’. Nothing he could do about that. He crazily turned more pages, looking for a clue to outbid everyone else for Wade’s Stockbrokers. Then to his surprise, he saw his own photograph and a headline: ‘Business Magnet Lionel Stone Killed in Freak Train Accident’.

It can’t be true, it can’t be! His heart galloped, as he screamed to the empty carriage. He reached for the emergency communication cord and pulled hard, the train screeching to a halt just beyond the tunnel. Stone clambered fearfully out of the train, trembling with panic up the embankment to the roadway. He had to get away from the train.

Desperate to end the nightmare, he stepped in front of an approaching car, waving his arms with lunatic hysteria. The car stopped and Stone pleaded with the driver to give him a ride, but the man hesitated, unsure, suggesting he might drive on. Without further delay, Stone opened the car door and dragged the driver out, with the desperation of a man gasping for his last breath. Behind the wheel with lightning reflex, he drove off, distancing himself from the train, towards home … to Sarah. Free at last, and instantly relieved to be away from the train. Only one level crossing, then a straight road home.

Next day, newspapers announced: ‘Ministry of Transport officials have not yet identified the victim of a stolen car, who was killed at a level crossing when the gates failed to close for an unscheduled freight train. The investigation continues.SLQ

How to translate

IRENE THALDEN

She was invisible

opinions left to the roadside

eyes on the fritz

she danced

to the tunes she was taught

side-step this way side-step back

sure, she eventually waltzed like a pro

though quick whirl-a-round turns

left her dizzy.

What the hell

she was dancing, wasn’t she?

 

It turns out

dancing isn’t her forte

now she’s into the shuffle

into the one step

music once loud in her ears

veiled background

finally eyes wide open

she regrets not burying

her head in the sand

when she had the chance.

 

Instead she’s left with mayhem

here there everywhere

her opinions getting louder

escaping unedited

look at what’s going on

she asks what world is this

I’m dying to leave

can’t translate now

into what she assumed

past tensed

all those years of expectation

proven wrong

even if she danced backwards

there’s no looking back

and those words never voiced

relinquish the way

things are supposed to be

I’m ready to leave she says

you take care of it

you dance.

The Lazy Gondolier

WILLIAM C BLOME

 

Rumour has it you’ve cast your lot

with one lazy gondolier, a melodious jerk

who barcarolles with the very best of them,

but isn’t worth a crap when it comes

to finding treasure in the Lido’s squooshy turf

at daytime’s lowest tide. Oh, he can expertly

steady his boat into wasp-waisted slips

and rough-sea piers, but give your guy a shovel —

even show him exactly where to dig or scoop —

and damned if he’ll ever turn over one ducat,

much less something feminine and personal

like a corroded or encrusted bracelet. Moreover,

everybody sees he never breaks a sweat,

never pants like a strung-out greyhound

from genuine exertion, which is why I rush

to call him lazy. But now confide in me,

pretty-pretty please: is he the selfsame way

when he’s practically all by himself? (You know,

when he’s with no one except the likes of you?)

Subtitles: 1

Matthew James Babcock

 

This is the first in a series of short creative nonfiction pieces called “Subtitles” (where the title comes at the end). 

     I am a paid pair of eyes. I help a bearded man in ragged cutoff shorts — a man named Kasim —with his English translation of the Koran, until the director discovers he isn’t enrolled as a student and bans him from the center.  Before he gets banned, Kasim waits down the hall in a sunken room of cranky radiators and abused cubicles and prays kneeling on his braided rug of exquisite gold and maroon, and when I enter and call his name he rises and from his smoky beard his smile flashes like a shard of rare sunlight.

     I help a redheaded guy who smells of canned chili and wears black jeans, a black T-shirt with a Casper the Friendly Ghost decal, and a black overcoat streaked with powdered sugar.  Acne shellacs his forehead like a curse.  He grins and braces gleam.  Behind his greasy glasses his green eyes glimmer as he reads to me about his suicide attempt — a hanging in the garage, foiled by his dad on his way to tee off at the country club.  As if savoring a delicacy, he beams over the account, particularly pleased with the phrase “feces bulged into my underwear.”

     Midweek in the morning a blond girl in an oatmeal overcoat enters and asks for help.  I scoot over and she sits next to me.  Her stapled white paper flaps on the desk, and her hands hover over it like relaxed claws.  Rainbows ring the fingers of her fingerless gloves of white wool.  Her frizzy hair cascades to her shoulders like the hurried coiffure of a French poodle.

     “I’m not sure it’s any good,” she says, shrugging off her coat.  “I just need help with some things.”

     “Let’s look,” I say.

     The “Center”: a junction of cramped offices in the basement of the old Ray B. West Building.  Green metallic bookcases teeter against cinderblock walls, overflowing with the hardback psychedelia of a museum of style manuals.  In the hallway students thunder past like bison.  Through the door to the lab, rows of students gawk at computer monitors the size of microwave ovens.  Their slack-jawed faces glow electric blue, twenty zombies waiting for twenty frozen burritos to cook.  A Filipino-looking graduate student with Buddy Holly glasses and glistening black curls balances an apricot Danish on a paper plate and serpentines through the computers, speaking like a Cambridge don.  His belly paunch hangs over the waist of his faded jean shorts.  His T-shirt is two sizes too small.  Black flip-flop sandals slap his heels.

     “This is what they call the world wide web,” he says and takes a bite of Danish.

     “What’s your essay on?” I say.

     “Virginia Woolf,” the girl says.  “Due next week.”

     “Why don’t you read it, and I’ll listen.”

     I speak without hope because it is impossible to hear anything at this crossroads of chaos.  The graduate students work in the back room, like privileged priests sequestered in solitude, where they can close the door and meditate on the work of their young charges in the natural light spilling through a bubble-glass window.  Andrea, the center’s director, lurks in her office, her door perpetually propped open, ready to pounce on any writing heresies uttered by undergraduates.  Andrea wears plain plum cardigans, olive slacks, and pointy black pumps.  The woman has black marbles for eyes.  Her head hangs on her neck as if she’s short a few spinal discs, and her long grayish-brown bangs mask half her face, which makes her look like an aged skateboarder. 

     The graduate student in the back office is a petite blond woman — Arctic blond — with an elegantly sharp nose.  Her favorite uniform is a ribbed white long underwear top, form-fitting bleached jeans, and a canvas belt with a brass D-ring buckle.  Her masculine hairstyle — sheared up the back, short over the ears, floofy “rooster” bangs — could land her as the front man in an 80’s band.  I don’t know if she’s gay.  She’s friendly with the openly gay undergraduate and graduate students, but when she’s not working, she sits in a chair behind me, and whenever I turn around she tucks her bare feet under her in a salacious lotus position and arches her back the way women do when they pretend to stretch in order to showcase their breasts.

     I try to listen to the girl’s Virginia Woolf paper, but noise muffles her voice.  It’s also hard to listen because I just finished To the Lighthouse myself — the night before, staying late and locking myself in the graduate student office — and the book has toppled my inner gyroscope, leaving me feeling rapturously unmoored in the mosaics of Modernism.  I try to hook my thoughts into the girl’s sentences, but I can’t stop thinking: How can you write a three-part novel and have the second part be basically about the cleaning lady?  The audacious grandeur of one sentence keeps undulating through my inner ear: “Mrs. McNab, when she broke in and lurched about, dusting, sweeping, looked like a tropical fish oaring its way through sun-lanced waters.”

     “Because of the evils of men,” the girl reads.  “We see . . . ”

     “Evils of men?” I say, snapping back to reality.  “Why are men evil?”

     Andrea’s upper half flaps into her open doorway like a hinged vampire figure in an amusement park ride.

     “Because they have strong backs and tiny minds,” she says, vanishing into her study.

     The girl and I gaze at her paper.  She holds her hands like a pianist unsure of which chords come next in the concerto.  I glance behind me.  The blond graduate student sits with her knees apart, hands clasped behind her head, back arched, breasts shooting for the sun as if painted on the nose of a B-52.

     Then Andrea’s upper half swings into the doorway, a swollen smile on her lips. 

     “Matt,” she says.  “When you get a second, could you help me move this bookcase to the other side of my office?”

Introduction to Feminism

 

Matthew James Babcock: Professor.  Writer.  Failed breakdancer.  Lived for two years in Great Britain. Books: Points of Reference (Folded Word); Strange Terrain (Mad Hat); Heterodoxologies (Educe Press); Future Perfect (forthcoming, Ferry Street Books, 2018).

Geography

VINCEN GREGORY Y. YU

Tonight, my lover promised we would go places:
edge of the sun or rim of a lunar crater,
circle the burst of stars in our patch of sky,
hitch a ride on a spinning asteroid
and feel how space invades the distance
straddling two electric bodies.

Here was our house, next to Moscow
and the frost that permeates its empty squares.
Every morning, we woke to bells ringing
from the onion domes of St. Basil’s,
sounds we imagined mailed to our window
by melting snow, the hurtling wind.

My lover believed in all things real and imagined,
and I, the rest that hover in between.

In the place where they sell coffins,
I first saw her, looking from beneath the glass
reflecting the whites of her eyes, her body
a lazy shadow supine in its polished casing.
I took her, there and then, on a trip around the globe,
painting portraits of ruins and walls, hillside
trees, a field of wildflower, mountains.
She devoured the sights, the moving pictures,
down to the final shred of celluloid.

Stop—Touch this acre of soft earth.
Here was the place for the invention of promise:
bend of the harsh ray of light
and spark of the first gleam of life.
Notice how everything collapses to its core,
how nothing seems able to withstand
the pull of gravity. This is also a place
for broken things, and for things to be broken.
Shards of glass collect on the bleeding feet,
wounds refusing to close with every washing.
Here was where we landed last night:
not in Zurich or Oslo, balmy Barcelona,
the lofty heights of Denver or swampy New Orleans,
but a house of stone and fog, both solid and wisp,
like whispers inhabiting the space between our mouths.
Here, our words are nothing but air.