Should White Poets Write About Race? by Holly Karapetkova

Reginald Dwayne Betts wrote in a recent issue of Poetry magazine,  “Don’t write about being white,” a quote the editors thought important enough to reprint on the back cover of the magazine. Certainly Betts and the editors wanted to raise a few eyebrows, and certainly a careful reader will relate the statement to a quote elsewhere in the essay: “I am not sure it is possible for a Negro to write well without making us aware he is a Negro; on the other hand, if being a Negro is the only subject, the writing is not important.” The comment, which Betts attributes to an unnamed “reviewer,” happens to belong to Louis Simpson discussing Gwendolyn Brooks’s Selected Poems in 1963, and it highlights the dilemma at the core of the American experience where whiteness is taken as the given and anything questioning (or even calling attention to) the centrality of white experience is marginalized and disparaged.  But the essay, and the response it elicited from some white readers, raises a good question. Should white poets write about race?


I am certain that many white poets who are sensitive to the subjects of racism and injustice are wary of the potential to inflict harm. Many of us fear that because we are not fully aware of what it means to move through this world in non-white skin our words might, no matter how good our intentions, cause others pain. Hasn’t racism as an ideology and an institution done enough damage without white poets putting their foot in the hornet’s nest? This fear is closely connected with another reason I believe white poets shy away from the topic of race: the sense that we are not really the experts here. What white people do know about race is often enough to assure us of just how little we don’t know about the impact it has on the lives of people of color.

Indeed, contemporary poetry offers us some key reminders of what can go wrong when white poets attempt to take on the subject of race. In the worst cases, the text can come across as ignorant and dismissive, and insensitivity to the insidious nature of racism can create hurt and offense, as in the famous case of Tony Hoagland’s “The Change.” We do not, of course, have to identify the poet with the white speaker of the poem. We can also appreciate Hoagland’s comment in a later interview that “white anxiety about race is an under-represented, under-articulated part of American society”; the poem is intended to make such anxiety visible. But the response of Claudia Rankine on The Academy of American Poets website reveals the potential harm in such a piece, whatever its intent. 


Major Jackson takes on the reticence of white poets on the subject of race in his 2007 essay in American Poetry Review, “A Mystifying Silence: Big and Black,” attributing white silence to a desire for poetry to create a politically correct, emotionally safe sphere for language and thought: “so earnest are we in the vision of poetry as the province of communal good that we fail to create ‘speakers’ in our poems who are contemptible and dishonorable.” Of course, he also notes the desire to censor one’s own more embarrassing thoughts in a genre where the speaker is typically received (whether true or not) as a thinly veiled representation of the writer herself.

But at the end of the day he finds (and I agree) that all of this logic begins to sound like sorry excuses. At the end of the day, white silence is potentially as hurtful as getting it “wrong.” This gross ambivalence toward, or even indifference to, the subject of racism allows it to continue, passing itself off as invisible. Even a seemingly more noble reluctance to overshadow non-white voices on the subject of race implies a troubling fact: the relative absence of race from the conversation in contemporary American poetry in general. As one of the key traumas marking the American experience, race is relegated to a shockingly small portion of what is published, read, and written about. And all poets, including white poets, would be well-served by demanding more space for this conversation. Without a more fully developed discussion of racism in all of its various guises, we cannot truly understand its impact. We will remain, as Jackson claims, spectators on one of the key issues of our time.

3-30 clay

Poetry is a space where, as many poets before me have remarked, several things can be true at once. Moral judgement is not required; right and wrong are not required. The truth, which is always more elusive than words can lay their fingers on, is allowed to be complex and bewildering. Racism is complex and bewildering. It is often boiled down to matters of right and wrong, just and unjust, but the truth is not always what we think. I have both benefited from and been traumatized by whiteness. I have been both oppressor and victim. I have been complacent in my racism and I have grown furious, raging against it. Poetry, with its silences and absences, with its contradictions and its refusal to make logical connections, makes excellent territory for grappling with racism.

If we are going to finally confront the sickness that has dominated life in America since its foundation, then we need a literature that explores its impact from as many angles as possible. We need a complete picture, and we very much need poets willing to explore what whiteness is and what it does, even if they sometimes get it wrong. We need more white poets willing to enter the conversation.

Holly Karapetkova’s poetry, prose, and translations from the Bulgarian have appeared in Mid-American Review, Huffington Post, 32 Poems, and many other places. Her first book, Words We Might One Day Say, won the Washington Writers’ Publishing House Prize for Poetry. She is also the author of over twenty books for children. She lives in Arlington, Virginia, and teaches at Marymount University. Holly was a finalist for the James Hearst Poetry Prize 2015 with her poem “Big Hair” which can be seen in issue 300.2.

Illustrations by  Clay Rodery, an illustrator who lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. Clay’s illustrations have been featured in the North American Review issues 298.4, 299.1, 299.3 and the most recently is in issue 299.4, Fall 2014 and most recently 300.2, Spring 2015.

On a Secret Language of Women as Fragrance, or Postscript to “A Short Autobiography of Perfume” by Karen An-hwei Lee

If I could sprout wings and fly anywhere in the world, where would I go?


Maybe to an overseas parfumerie where I’d try new fragrances all day long, or fly back in time to the earliest history of perfume ~ a narcotic blue lotus ancient Egyptians would hold right to their noses, for instance, or unadulterated rose petals distilled in copper florentines only centuries away from modern laboratories of ethers and esters, and oils such as horseradish, olive, and sesame mixed with a resinous fixative, as described in Jean-Pierre Brun’s “The Production of Perfumes in Antiquity” in The American Journal of Archaeology. “A Short Autobiography of Perfume,” appearing in the Spring 2015 issue of The North American Review, arose from these inklings.

Concurrently, I was teaching Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses in a lyric essay workshop where I invited students to write a short exercise inspired by the olfactory sense.  Here is an excerpt, quoted from Chapter 1 (“The Body of Memory”) of Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining, and Publishing Creative Nonfiction by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola, one of our required texts:  “Which smells in your life are gone for you now?  Which ones would you give anything to smell again?  Have you ever been ‘ambushed’ by a smell you didn’t expect?”

Laden with vials of perfume, subsequently, I’d fly to a village in the Jiangyong county of Hunan province where Chinese women, for centuries, lovingly hand-stitched books as gifts to their daughters.  Sisters and grandmothers, what is the aroma of your memories? Would you teach me a few words of your language?  This special language, nüshu  女書, not only existed in written form; as an oral literary tradition, it was sung aloud by memory, too.  In exchange for showing me books of nüshu 女書, I’d share the essence of this language in the form of perfume.


Sadly, the last surviving writer of nüshu  女書, Yang Huangyi, passed away in 2004.  According to Henry Chu of the Los Angeles Times, “At a time in China when most females were illiterate and considered the property of men, these women turned objects of domestic life into avenues of escape and found solace among ‘sworn sisters’ with whom they communicated in their own language.”  As a tribute to nüshu  女書, here is my sister-poem to “A Short Autobiography of Perfume.”

              On a Secret Language of Women as Fragrance

If I could, I would bottle nüshu as perfume.
What is the aroma of a secret language written only by women?
How would gynocentric proverbs translate to our daughters
via memory as fragrance or vice versa?
Without vessels, where would we pour
our grievances against the patriarchal order?
On the broom-swept dirt in the village?  Dust raised by bicycles?
The threshold of a school we could not cross as girls?
If our language enfleuraged as perfume –  no other linguistic traces
aflame  – we could revive the chemistries of aroma
without translation, wafting the base notes of female experience
at a draught.

Mexican women create their own paper from scratch using boiled ash, lye, and peeled bark. Brazilian chapbooks or foletos are sold on a string outdoors in folk-art markets.  I love hand-stitched books.  In Massachusetts, where I spent most of my girlhood, I read about Emily Dickinson’s fascicles and loved her poetry.  Nüshu  女書 is unique in Chinese, however, not only in its matrilineal transmission via handwritten journals, but the type of cursive script Hunan women invented.  To share their wisdom in a language transmitted only to daughters, the Hunan village women hand-bound their cloth journals and wrote nüshu女書 inside the pages.  In other words, without access to formal education, the women developed their own culture of literacy.

Japanese professor of socio-linguistics, Orie Endo of Bunkyo University, hosts a digital archive of research on nüshu 女書. Not purely derivative of tetragraphs, not quite pictographical nor alphabetical, nüshu  女書 (nü = 女=woman or women; shu = 書=writing or script) was written by ink brush with a thinner, finer hand than the robust strokes of classical calligraphy.  Incidentally, the eponymous poem of Kimiko Hahn’s electrifying collection, Mosquito and Ant (W. W. Norton 2000), refers to the culture of nüshu 女書The fine script was originally compared to the legs of a mosquito or ant, a dismissive observation initially made by patriarchal contemporaries.


When I lived in Berkeley during the late Nineties, I’d visit a shop displaying (for sale) reams and rolls of handmade paper from all over the world.  Once, I used long sheets of handmade paper ~ turquoise, gold, crimson ~ for a giant accordion chapbook as a part of a family literacy program. The chapbook, like a tall child, stood on the floor to the height of my arms.   What if all this paper suspended from the ceiling, layer upon layer of color as self-revelation ~ gave voice (i.e. wings) to the memories of women who made them? 

After I moved south of the Bay Area to a coastal mesa in southern California, I would make recycled paper.  The year-round sunshine in Orange County is good for shredding old paper, re-soaking it in glue and hot water, then drying the mess with zoysia grass, one-winged samaras, and bougainvillea.  In my little art closet, scraps of silk-screened washi mulberry and dyed rice paper sang forth in a range of vivid hues: cerulean, ochre, scarlet, midnight, dove-gray, fuchsia, saffron, or ultramarine.  If saffron were a woman, how would she hum in a language of windborne pollen: a diasporic fragrance of this late season?

Summer, summer, summer, I imagine.
Xiatien in Mandarin, the women echo.
. . .
Fragrance of ellipsis in honor of nüshu 女書.

Karen An-hwei Lee is the author of Phyla of Joy (Tupelo 2012), Ardor (Tupelo 2008) and In Medias Res (Sarabande 2004), winner of the Norma Farber First Book Award.  Lee also wrote two chapbooks, God’s One Hundred Promises (Swan Scythe 2002) and What the Sea Earns for a Living (Quaci Press 2014). Her book of literary criticism, Anglophone Literatures in the Asian Diaspora: Literary Transnationalism and Translingual Migrations (Cambria, 2013), was selected for the Cambria Sinophone World Series. She earned an M.F.A. from Brown University and Ph.D. in English from the University of California, Berkeley. The recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Grant, she serves as Full Professor of English and Chair at a liberal arts college in greater Los Angeles, where she is also a novice harpist. Lee is a voting member of the National Book Critics Circle.

Top and bottom illustration by Claire Stigliani, a drawer and painter known for her works inspired by paintings, photographs, magazines, posters, YouTube clips, literature, performance, and plays. These works explore the act of watching and being watched and blur fiction with reality. Her recent shows include The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, The Chazen Museum of Art, Madison, (WI), The Dean Jensen Gallery, Milwaukee, (WI), Russell/Projects, Richmond (VA), and the Jenkins Johnson Gallery (NY). She is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Art in Drawing, Painting, Printmaking and Photography in the School of Art at Carnegie Mellon University.

“The Wait” by Nick Kolakowski from issue 300.2


New York City never sleeps, but late at night it pauses to take a breath. Deep underground, on the subway platforms, the floods of people empty out; those who remain keep their distance from one another, for safety. You stand and wait for the next train to arrive, your ears straining for its rising rumble, your teeth gritting with frustration as the minutes creep past.

At that low ebb, the repair-work begins in earnest. You see it first as a white flicker at the edge of your vision, which resolves into a flashlight beam bobbing down the black throat of the nearest tunnel: subway workers checking the lines for wear and tear. Sometimes they emerge into the station, climbing onto the platform to await the train that will carry them to the next point on their shift. And it’s not just repairs; with each passing day, the urban miners drill a little further into the bedrock beneath our feet, creating the routes that (the mayor promises) will ease the crushing crowds, the delays, the collective irritation.

It takes a lot of effort to keep the great metal heart of the subway system beating at roughly the right tempo. With each passing year, though, it seems that tempo becomes more and more arrhythmic. The trains take longer to arrive, or never appear at all. Sometimes they stall in mid-tunnel, under the river, sparking your latent claustrophobia. The best way I’ve found to get through the daily commute is to adopt a certain Zen attitude, and bring a book.


One night, as the M train crawled its way through Manhattan’s arteries, I glanced up from my copy of Philip Levine’s poems (Detroit crumbling majestically, line by measured line) to see a pair of grimy boots float past the window, at eye level. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to that exterior dimness, to realize that I was looking at a worker standing on the narrow concrete walkway that runs the length of some subway tunnels. I couldn’t see his face; but at that moment, separated by a smeared pane of glass, I wondered about his thoughts. Does spending most of your life in the dark, sharing the tight space with steel leviathans that could crush you in an instant, create its own Zen? Or does it just wear you down?

I reflected on the titanic effort necessary to keep these hundreds of miles of track alive, and the toll that takes on the human body: the broken bones, the weakened knees, the sooty lungs, the long shifts, the fearful prospect of death by fire or electricity. There’s a price in blood and spirit for the frameworks that support us, and it’s largely paid outside of our sight. That was the kernel of “Sandhog,” my poem, although it didn’t emerge fully formed; I made a point of tinkering with its structure every time my train stalled for a lengthy period of time, as a sort of ritual to goad the system into moving again. I like to think the writing made me more empathetic—and less frustrated—about the wait

Nick Kolakowski’s fiction and poetry has appeared in the North American Review, The Evergreen Review, McSweeney’s, Carrier Pigeon, Shotgun Honey, Crack the Spine, and The Adirondack Review. He is also the author of How to Become an Intellectual, a book of comedic nonfiction. He lives in New York City, where by day he writes about science and technology for a number of publications.

Illustrations by: Anthony Tremmaglia, an Ottawa-based illustrator, artist, and educator. His clients include WIRED, Scientific American, Smart Money, HOW, and San Francisco Weekly. Anthony is featured in issues 299.1, Winter 2014 & 299.4, Fall 2014 and his most recent work (featured above) in upcoming 300.2, Spring 2015. Find more of Anthony’s work at

Throwback Thursday featuring Travis Mossotti from issue 294.2

Travis Mossotti’s poem “The Dead Cause” won first place in the James Hearst Poetry Prize in 2009. His poem is featured in issue 294.2, Spring 2009 and can be still be purchased through our online store.  grasshopper-249115_640

The Dead Cause

On the porch, a grasshopper waved its serrated foreleg at me while I juggled

groceries for keys; it was the kind of friendly wave I might expect

from a loved one, recently dead, reincarnated into this green husk.

The whole ordeal triggered an alarm of distant thunder, stuffing my head

with dark seeds; so after waving back, I ducked inside, fearful

of inadvertently giving the dead cause to haunt me—the last thing

I needed. Regina was off doing research in Glen Rose again, otherwise

she would’ve identified the grasshopper using the scientific precision that always

fussed my mouth with cobwebs. As it was, I dialed her number

just to make sure she was okay, that she wasn’t yet a grasshopper.

Probably nothing more than a locust—Melanoplus spretus, she said. It could’ve been Buddha, maybe,

I should’ve invited it in for tea, I said before saying goodbye. Raindrops the size of doorknobs

began chasing a garbage truck past the kitchen window. I set the kettle

on the stove to boil, and with curtains curled back slightly, watched a procession

of locusts lope out from the tall grass, apparently no longer waiting for an invitation

TravieTravis Mossotti was awarded the 2011 May Swenson Poetry Award for his first collection of poems About the Dead (USU Press, 2011), and his second collection Field Study won the 2013 Melissa Lanitis Gregory Poetry Prize (Bona Fide Books, 2014). Mossotti has also published two chapbooks, and recent poems of his have appeared in issues of the Antioch Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Southern Review, and elsewhere. Photo by: Regina Mossitti

Illustration Link

“Professor Tolkien’s Rebel Readings of Beowulf” by Ted Morrissey

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In my review (issue 300.2) of J.R.R. Tolkien’s translation of the Old English poem Beowulf, I allude to the Oxford professor’s radical interpretations of certain sections of the poem; however, space limitations in the print magazine didn’t allow me to elaborate on those interpretations, so I spoke with NAR editors about using their blog to further discuss Tolkien’s rebel readings.

The word rebel is not used merely for dramatic effect. Scholarship devoted to Beowulf has been a thriving subculture in the academic world for more than 150 years. Opinions are often held passionately, and challenges to those opinions can be contentiously and even bitterly met. Tolkien held the post of Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University from 1925 to 1959. It was an esteemed professorship, of course, and brought with it respect, but also a host of jealous rivals. Tolkien seems to have been keenly aware of his colleagues who were ready to pounce on anything he might have to say about English literature.

Christopher Tolkien, who prepared his father’s translation for its very posthumous publication, quotes from a letter that the professor wrote to his publisher in 1965 regarding his translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight:  “[I]t cannot be doubted,” said Tolkien, “that the book will be read by students, and by academic folk of ‘English Departments’. Some of the latter have their pistols loose in their holsters.”  Tolkien went on to say that he had “made important discoveries with regard to certain words, and some passages”.


It is important to note that Sir Gawain was composed in Middle English—not Old English, also known as Anglo-Saxon—and therefore was not in Tolkien’s primary field of expertise. We can imagine the profundity of the discoveries he made in his study of Beowulf, his pet project, and also the pressure he must have felt from the itchy-fingered academic pistoleers who were watching his every scholarly move. This factor combined with what Christopher Tolkien describes as his father’s determination “to make a translation as close as he could to the exact meaning in detail of the Old English poem” (8) accounts for the work never fully reaching completion in the professor’s mind. Though a draft was finished in 1926, Tolkien continued to refine his translation, tinkering and annotating, for at least the next twenty years.

Besides the professor’s expertise and his obsession to render a perfect literal translation of Beowulf, another reason to pay particular attention to his reading is that he occupies a very special place in the history of the poem. It was his now-legendary address to the British Academy in 1934 (published two years later as “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics”) that altered the way scholars viewed the poem. In essence, interest in the poem had been primarily as a historic and linguistic artifact, but Tolkien made the case that Beowulf was a beautifully rendered piece of art by a single poet who was at the top of his game when he brought it to its final form, represented in the lone surviving manuscript dating from about the year 1000.

Indeed, Beowulf scholarship tends to be thought of as either B.T. or A.T., Before Tolkien or After Tolkien. Thumbing through A Beowulf Handbook, edited by Robert E. Bjork and John D. Niles, one finds scholar after scholar referring to Tolkien’s 1934 address in terms like “major achievement,” “renowned,” “a revolution,” “famous,” “rhetorically powerful call,” and even “manifesto.”

I want to speak in particular to two of Tolkien’s rebel readings. As I noted in my review, the translation itself takes up just over 100 of the book’s nearly 450 pages. Tolkien’s lectures, or commentaries, on the poem—though only a small excerpt, according to his son—constitute the lion’s share of the book.

Several pages of commentary are devoted to explaining the professor’s first rebellious passage, which comes early in the poem (lines 166-69 in the original). After the monster Grendel has begun his murderous assaults on King Hrothgar’s hall, Heorot, the Danes try to save themselves by abandoning Heorot at night. In the conventional rendering of the poem, we are told that Grendel often visits the empty hall but is prevented by God from approaching the king’s throne. In Michael Swanton’s well-respected prose translation of Beowulf, he writes, “On dark nights he [Grendel] dwelt in the treasure-decked hall, Heorot. Because of Providence he could not approach the precious throne, the source of gifts; nor did he feel his love.” In his end notes Swanton emphasizes that the passage is especially challenging.

Tolkien read the passage very differently. Because the poem was composed by a Christian poet who was telling a tale of pre-Christian people (a juxtaposition that is made clear at several points in the poem), the professor believed that it was Hrothgar who was not allowed to approach “the precious Throne of grace” (17), with Throne being a metaphor for the Christian God’s love. In other words, Hrothgar wasn’t able to seek solace in God’s love in his people’s time of need because he had the misfortune of living before Christianity made its way to his part of the world. Tolkien writes in full, “Heorot’s hall bright with gems in the dark night he [Grendel] dwelt. (Never might he [Hrothgar] approach the precious Throne of grace in the presence of God, nor did he know His will). That was great torment to the Scyldings’ lord [Hrothgar], anguish of heart” (17-18).


In his commentary, Tolkien calls lines 168-69 “perhaps the most difficult [couplet] in Beowulf” (181), and not because they are corrupted due to physical damage or faulty emendation, but because one must bring to bear on them an extensive knowledge of Old English (including the work of Cynewulf, another Anglo-Saxon poet) combined with a firm grasp of their historical context in order to make accurate sense of the Beowulf poet’s meaning.

The other rebel reading that I want to discuss is especially important to me because it substantiates my own unconventional reading of one of the poem’s final images. In the summer of 2012, I was working on my monograph, The Beowulf Poet and His Real Monsters, and translating passages in an effort to support my trauma-theory analysis of the poem. I was interested in the female mourner at Beowulf’s funeral who appears in lines 3150-55a, just thirty lines from the end. The typical translations of the passage describe her as a woman or, frequently, an old woman who is devastated at the loss of her king and the thought of the coming attacks by the Swedes and others.

Swanton, for example, writes that she is “a Geatish woman, sorrowful, her hair bound up.” Seamus Heaney, in his award-winning and bestselling verse translation, writes, “A Geat woman too sang out in grief; / with hair bound up . . .” In Burton Raffel’s widely read and often anthologized version, he refers to her as “[a] gnarled old woman, hair wound / Tight and gray on her head.” R. M. Liuzza, in one of my favorite translations, calls her simply “the Geatish woman, / with hair bound up,” and in a footnote explains how uncertain the description is and why many translators opt for her being a woman of “advanced age.”

Indeed, when I looked closely at the original Old English I discovered just how open to interpretation the mourning woman’s age is. The Anglo-Saxon word used by the Beowulf poet, meowle, could be “young woman” and even “virgin.” It seemed to me that a young, inexperienced woman (from a modern perspective, an adolescent girl) would be even more terrified by what was taking place than an adult or, perhaps especially, an aged woman. After much deliberation I decided to go against tradition and translate the passage as “Likewise, a sorrowful Geatish woman, young and virginal, her tresses bound, sang out painfully and repeatedly of the coming days of anxious mourning and acute dread, of the legion bringing horrifying slaughter, of humiliation and captivity.”

My translation went unchallenged when the book came out in 2013 and was reviewed by eminent Beowulf scholars, including Robert E. Bjork and James W. Earl. Nevertheless, I was surprised and pleased when I read Tolkien’s translation in May of 2014 and came to the passage “There too a lamentable lay many a Geatish maiden with braided tresses for Beowulf made, singing in sorrow, oft repeating that days of evil she sorely feared, many a slaying cruel and terror armed, ruin and thraldom’s bond” (104-5). So Tolkien, too, saw her as young and virginal.

Unfortunately, Professor Tolkien doesn’t speak to this reading in his commentaries, but in Christopher Tolkien’s “Notes on the Text of the Translation” he explains that his father originally went with “his lady aged” for the female mourner but changed his mind in what became the final version of the translation’s manuscript with no direct explanation for his revision. Christopher infers that his father had been tempted to force a reading onto the passage that he was attracted to for other than philological reasons (128-30).

My hope is that Tolkien’s lectures will be published in their entirety as they would be an invaluable resource to scholars and serious students of not only Beowulf but Old English literature as a whole.

Ted Morrissey is the author of The Beowulf Poet and His Real Monsters, winner of the D. Simon Evans Prize for distinguished scholarship, as well as the novels Men of Winter and An Untimely Frost, and, most recently, the novella Weeping with an Ancient God. Visit at

Images: Wikimedia Commons & Photobucket[term]=tolkein&filters[primary]=images&sort=1&o=34

Flashback Friday featuring Rebecca Foust from issue 294.2

Rebecca Foust was a finalist in the James Hearst Poetry Prize in 2009. Her poem “The Cormorant” was featured in issue 294.2.


“The Cormorant”

Satan “flew, and on the Tree of Life . . . sat like a Cormorant;”
—Paradise Lost, Book IV, ll.194-96

The four-chambered heart and wings
somehow transcend his reptilian brain
and come with dusty black feathers

that fray the frock coat of this dour,
penurious parson. An oddly dense
puddle of shadow inking the float,

he does not give deign even one glance
in our direction. We dog-paddle close,
but he waits until we touch wood

to unfold awkward, creaking wing,
splash down on water, upend, dive
and sleek as a snake disappear,

no ripple or wake. We climb up, cold
and late. The sun in decline has turned
the lake red; it’s already starting to burn.

From the author: I wrote this poem when, during a re-read of Paradise Lost, I was struck by the detail mentioned in the epigraph: on his first trip to earth, Satan came not in the form of a serpent but in the form of a cormorant. Cormorants are shore birds, dark-feathered, and sizable, weighing upwards of 11 pounds and with wingspans as wide as 39 inches. All species are fish-eaters, catching their prey by diving from the surface, sometimes as deep as 100 feet.


The events recounted in the poem occurred in the summer of 2008 when I was staying in outer Cape Cod with my family. My husband and I somehow managed to get away by ourselves for a late afternoon swim and decided to go to Slough Pond, a tiny, pristine kettle pond whose location is a closely guarded local secret. To get there, we wound through thick woods on a single-lane sand road, ending at a clearing just big enough to park our car, then picked our way down a narrow foot trail. It was a perfect Mary Oliver kind of cape afternoon, with the smooth surface of the pond inked slightly more indigo than the sky, and a few wild azaleas blooming at the water’s edge. We’d gotten a late start, and when we arrived the shadows were already long on the water, the light beginning to slant. We’re strong swimmers, and so we planned to swim all the way across the pond and back, resting on an old wooden float moored about halfway. We noticed a cormorant there perched on the float, spreading its wings out to dry, and I remember thinking that it looked like a dark blot on or tear in the otherwise bucolic canvas of water and sky.

I may have been musing over the name of the pond as I started out across its cool surface, thinking about how some people pronounce “Slough” to rhyme with “cow” and others to rhyme with “cue.” I may also have been thinking about the “Slough of Despond” in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. The sky was completely clear when we entered the water but then dark clouds blew in, turning the pond gray and chopping up its surface. The waves made it hard going, and we wanted to rest on the float before swimming back. We expected the cormorant to fly away but it remained, implacable, and looming larger and larger as we approached. It looked, as I said, like a blot on the day, and I felt some kind of deep, old fear. Utterly unperturbed, the bird waited until we actually touched the float before taking off—huge and black and suspended on air for a second before diving and submerging. As it disappeared, I saw the dark, sinuous form eeling away under the surface, and it may have been then that I thought about how much the bird resembled a snake. While we sat on the float catching our breath, the storm blew over and the sun came back out to descend with fiery radiance, turning sky and pond red and orange as any ember. It had completely set by the time we swam back to the bank and emerged, chilled.


A few months later I came across that reference in Paradise Lost and remembering the day at Slough Pond, thought about how birds and reptiles share a common ancestral root and have similar physiologies with feathers and beaks perhaps being modified scales. That got the poem started. I must have been reading one of Lemony Snicket’s books in the Unfortunate Events series to my kids that fall, because it occurred to me that the while drying its wings, the bird looked a lot like the Baudelaire children’s evil uncle (Count Olaf), envisioned by me as “a dour penurious parson.” I thought about how the bird didn’t move until we touched the float, and about how that could be expressed as “touch wood,” a superstitious ritual with roots in touching a relic of the true cross. And I loved the connections between the cormorant and the snake, not just what I’d observed, but also their sharing a common evolutionary ancestor, and both being forms assumed by Satan while on his mission to bring about Eden’s fall. I wanted the poem to convey what I felt that day, a horrified realization that evil can show up in the middle of any ordinary beauty and that even when you cannot see it, it is still there, a reminder that what looks like Eden is not really Eden at all. The reference to the fiery lake in the poem’s last line is straight from Paradise Lost.

This poem, in pretty much the same form you see here, was reviewed in a workshop during the second semester residency of my MFA program at Warren Wilson. In what would be my first experience of the “herd mentality” that can mar such workshops, the teacher pretty much advised me to scrap the poem and start over, with the others sitting around the table chiming in their agreement or saying nothing at all. I did not scrap the poem, and my belief in it was validated later when the editors at the North American Review notified me that it was a finalist for the James Hearst Prize. It was my first sonnet attempt and is among the first dozen or so poems I ever published, but “The Cormorant” remains important to me because it was what taught me not to take writing workshop pronouncements as gospel and to trust my instincts about my own work.

Becky_author photo_cropped_7-12-14 (1)

Rebecca Foust was the 2014 Dartmouth Poet in Residence and is the recipient of fellowships from the Frost Place and the MacDowell Colony. Her fifth book, Paradise Drive, won the 2015 Press 53 Award for Poetry and will be released in April. About its linked narrative, Thomas Lux says “There is great music in these poems, and sonnet after sonnet is masterful. Not since Berryman’s Henry have I been so engaged by a persona.” You can order Paradise Drive by visiting and clicking through to Foust’s author page.

FYI: Since 2007, Foust’s poem’s have appeared in 7 issues of the North American Review. She won second place for the James Hearst Poetry Prize in 2012, and was also a James Hearst Poetry Prize Finalist in 2013. Rebecca’s poem, “Prayer for my New Daughter” is featured in issue 300.1, Winter 2015.

Top Illustration (Sneak Preview) by Anthony Tremmaglia, an Ottawa-based illustrator, artist, and educator. His clients include WIRED, Scientific American, Smart Money, HOW, and San Francisco Weekly. Anthony is featured in issues 299.1, Winter 2014 & 299.4, Fall 2014 and his most recent work (featured above) in upcoming 300.2, Spring 2015. Find more of Anthony’s work at

Second & Third Images: Courtesy of WikiMedia Commons

Why We Need Description by Wes Ward

Most of us have two eyes. And with those two eyes we see things that others see. But
because my eyes are different from yours and hers and his, nothing we see can ever be seen the
same way.


To make matters worse, when we try to communicate what we see, the reality we try to capture is never accurate. It can’t be. It’s impossible to see something and communicate exactly what we see because the words we use to describe an image are just, well, words. Take the human hand for example. I can describe a hand by using words like smooth, soft, stubby-fingered, calloused, etc., but those words are merely labels—intangible labels—that we try to apply to something in the physical world.

So there you are, trying to describe an object or a scene or a feeling with words that have
no physical existence in a physical world. You’re bound to fail. And if that’s not foggy enough,
in walks someone else to try to do the same thing, describe that object or scene or feeling. But
wait. Your eyes are different and, therefore, you will see things differently. Your impossible
mission just got worse.


The secret to descriptive writing is that there is no secret. You can only hope to capture a
fraction of the reality you experience. We do that with sensory details, describing the physical
world (sometimes figuratively), while relying on dominant impressions, those invisible vibes
we get from a particular experience. We want the reader to see what we see, taste what we taste,
hear what we hear, etc. So we rely on the words we’ve learned throughout life to convey those
sensory details: His boots crunched through the snow is a lot different than He walked through the
snow. In the former, I see “boots” and I hear “crunching”—two details that second sentence
lacks. Again, this helps the reader get a better idea of what you see and what you are trying to
make him or her see. Consider this sentence about eating: We inhaled our cereal, knowing we would be late for school once again. The figurative “inhaled” (unless the cereal was actually breathed in) expresses the speed at which the cereal was eaten, but it doesn’t descriptively paint the picture, like this: We shoveled the cereal into our mouths and, without swallowing, inhaled the next bite with a continuous spoon-to-bowl-to-mouth motion. Only the sense of sight is used here, but at least a clearer picture is provided with the description of the physical action in the second sentence.

Journey by Moonlight

Be careful. It’s possible to describe too much. Your reader doesn’t need to see, hear, or
touch everything you do. The doorknob to your apartment doesn’t need to be described as a
smooth, brass knob, cold to the touch. Just open the door, please. And The way the wheels of the car slipped across the loose gravel isn’t necessary either, unless a description of that scene is absolutely significant to the purpose of your writing (a car crash, perhaps). Once, a student of mine wrote a personal essay about visiting his mom in the hospital after she was diagnosed with cancer. In the essay, he filled an entire paragraph about the floral design on a box of tissues in the hospital room. Because he couldn’t bear to look at his mom, he focused on the looping green vines and the curling tips of the white flowers—a typical decorative box of tissues but a significant object in this particular setting.

The bottom line is to make connections. As a writer, you want to connect to your reader. After all, it’s the primary purpose of writing: I have something to say and I want you to hear it. The more carefully and meaningfully we communicate with our words, the better connection we
make. We’ll never be able to know exactly what someone else sees and how he or she sees it. (Is
that dress on the Internet white and gold or blue and black?) But thanks to descriptive writing,
we can make valid attempts to communicate and connect with our readers, even if we fail to
depict, with words, the reality our senses perceive.


Wes Ward earned his MA in Writing at Johns Hopkins University. His poetry has appeared in The North American Review, Sewanee Theological Review, Birmingham Poetry Review, Philadelphia Stories and other publications. He was a finalist for the Bridport Prize in the UK. Wes teaches high school English and lives with his wife and two children in Pennsylvania. Wes appeared in issue 297.4, Fall 2012.

Illustrations by  Clay Rodery, an illustrator who lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. Clay’s illustrations have been featured in the North American Review issues 298.4, 299.1, 299.3 and the most recently is in issue 299.4, Fall 2014.

Throwback Thursday featuring Michael Spence from issue 294.2

Michael Spence’s poem, “The Unbroken Code” was an Honorable Mention in the 2009 James Hearst Poetry Prize from issue 294.2.

Note from the author: “The image of blackberry vines coming over the back fence and encroaching on the yard of a childhood home came to mind as I found myself writing a poem about my father. It occurred to me that his natural quietness was perfect for the kind of engineering design work he did for both the Space Program and various military projects. In my mind, he was bound in his silence as someone might be wrapped in those blackberry vines. This was, in an everyday sense, both heroic and tragic: this quiet meant he’d never reveal secrets, but it also rendered him unable to admit or express his deepest thoughts and uncertainties. His mother’s apparent suicide–an event that was rarely mentioned and whose cause was left to dark rumor–seemed to me a strong motivation for his keeping his feelings inside himself. I tried in the poem to bring out the complexity of his character and actions resulting from this silence, which made him completely trustworthy in his job, yet hampered and rather cut off in his private life. The title is meant both ways: a code of honor that won’t break, but also a code that can’t be cracked, even by its keeper.”

The Unbroken Code


The Plant demanded silence. Something thorned And tangled as the blackberries, which waved Behind our house. Tentacles reaching
For me—this is what I saw when Mother
Said: While Father’s at the Plant, he’s not allowed
To talk; he’s building secret things.

My comic books explained the Code of Silence— I could see the ritual to get your job.
Tied to a chair as someone hissed questions, You clamped your jaws tighter than the vise Numbing your hand, and wouldn’t even utter Your name. You were the perfect man to draw

Blueprints of missiles and anti-missile Missiles whose letters never spelled a word. The rockets you designed flew astronauts Two hundred fifty thousand miles away—
To a place beyond sound. For you, these heroes Signed a giant photo of the moon.


I thought for years all fathers held their tongues. Your children nearly grown, the family ringed The Christmas tree; to catch our banter, Mom Set out a tape recorder. When it played back, Your voice was missing: as if you weren’t there.

Near middle age, I crossed the ocean with you To Australia. We swam through water hiding The Great Barrier Reef. Jellyfish trailed
Tentacles in the vast cold your sub had patrolled, Where the slightest word could be your death.

I asked about torpedoes. Short as a fuse Or the rapid taps of Morse you’d sent
As a radar man, you quoted your father—

Useless talk is so much crow-squawking.
I wondered why you’d been born with a mouth.


Now you are gone. Attempting to construct The puzzle of your past from these fragments, A meager handful, I’m forced to cut my own.

I learned your father left his family nothing— No money, food, or word when he’d return— The times he’d disappear for weeks in the swamp

To hunt. His girlfriends were a secret, too; One the whole town whispered. What promise
Made you keep those other secrets? Did you blame

Yourself for the way your mother died?
That day, Grandfather leaves once more to hunt
“Two-legged deer.” Your mother sends you out

To play, then sets the house on fire. Lifting
His shotgun, she ends her darkness with a shout
Of light. You never spoke of this: thorns

Had wrapped your throat, cinching off the words. I didn’t see—your flesh sealed over the barbs.

Photo on 1-26-14 at 2.30 PMMichael Spence retired last Valentine’s Day from thirty years of driving public-transit buses in the Seattle area. His poems have appeared recently in THE HUDSON REVIEW, MEASURE, THE NEW CRITERION, THE SEWANEE REVIEW, SHENANDOAH, and TAR RIVER POETRY. New work is forthcoming in THE HUDSON REVIEW, THE SEWANEE REVIEW, and SOUTHWEST REVIEW. His fourth book, THE BUS DRIVER’S THRENODY, was released last September by Truman State University Press. He was awarded a 2014 Literary Fellowship from Artist Trust of Washington State. His fifth book, UMBILICAL, is slated to be published by St. Augustine’s Press this fall as the winner of The New Criterion Poetry Prize.”

Connectivity by Julia Shipley


Around 5:30 PM on Monday, December 8th, 2014, a couple down the road from me, Patricia and Stuart Little, both in their 70s, returned home from a shopping trip. When Mr. Little fell while getting out of the car, Mrs. Little was physically unable to help him up. At that time, like most houses along the rural Creek Road, the Little’s were in the dark, owing to a storm-wrought power outage which rendered the Little’s home phone useless. Presently there’s no steady cell service in this remote part of Vermont, so Mrs. Little struck out across the snowy field to fetch help from the neighbors.

In Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, which was a one of the last precincts in America to be electrified, this delayed or lacking linkage to grids and networks means that people who live here are, by necessity, deeply and directly tethered to each other.


These kinds of connections tend to withstand power outages and missing bars on smart phones. Like mycorrhizal fungi running under the soil, exchanging information and resources between trees, there is a secret service contract between residents of the Kingdom, an unwritten “thou shalt look after your neighbor” system here. My next door neighbors exemplify this, once calling to inquire if I had broken up with my boyfriend, noting, “We haven’t seen his car in your driveway lately.” We have not, I replied, saying he was simply busier these days than before.

Well, guess what, they’d clued in sooner than I had. Yup, I soon learned, he and I were done.

Alternately, they often checked in to see if I was, “Ok” saying, “There’s a lot of snow on your car, and it hasn’t left the driveway recently. We wanted to be sure you were alive in there.”

My poem “Migration of Baling Twine” was inspired by these kinds of mundane connections that bind us together. My poem (full disclosure) is also a love child born from the coupling of Nancy Willard’s poem “The Migration of Bicycles” and author Helen Scott Nearing’s passage about “love” as a connective substance. I was inspired by Nancy Willard’s playful poem included in her collection, In The Salt Marsh (Knopf, 2006) where she observes the behavior of bicycles with the same intensity as a wildlife biologist chronicling a pride of lions, reporting how they operate singly “balanced on one foot like a clam” and in clusters, “…a whole pack / will stand for hours in the rain.” As anyone whose ever strolled through a backcountry barn knows, baling twine is as ubiquitous as bicycles in the city–so commonplace as to be invisible, and yet… Helen Scott Nearing, author and co-author of a kind of back-to-the-land Bible, The Good Life, later wrote (I have to approximate, as I can’t find the passage right now) that she believes this world is held together by ordinary strands of love crisscrossing the globe. Long before the internet she said that she thought our loving thoughts crossed the distances like a spider’s silk and made a net that kept the planet in tact (or something like that).

Another piece that secretly informs “The Migration of Baling Twine” is William Stafford’s poem “A Ritual to Read to Each Other” with its threat of broken links and severed ties: “For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,/a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break” and its consequent, “lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.” Any connection, Stafford suggests, be it a fungal strand, a transcontinental phone call, a loving bond, an artery to the heart, or a piece of twine tying the door open, is subject to rupture, a rupture that could equal disaster.


Mrs. Little never made it to the neighbor’s house. The combined circumstances of grave illness and no power to call out meant that Mr. Little was unable to rescue the wife who’d set out on behalf of saving him. He was discovered inside his house in medical distress by a relative who visited two days later, whereupon, the relative alerted authorities of Mrs. Little’s disappearance. She was found, halfway across the field, no longer alive.

Despite all our connectivity, both it and our humanity are fragile, fallible, friable as baling twine, anything but foolproof. The warning contained at the end of Stafford’s poem haunts the Littles’ story, haunts all our stories, “the signals we give–yes or no, or maybe–
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.”

unnamedJulia Shipley is the author of Adam’s Mark: Writing From the Ox House, a book-length essay exploring reciprocity between farming and writing, selected as a Best Book of 2014 by the Boston Globe. Also. Her first full-length poetry collection, The Academy of Hay won the 2014 Melissa Lanitis Gregory Poetry Prize and is forthcoming from the Bona Fide Books in the fall of 2015. She works as independent journalist, the cofounder of a micro press, Chickadee Chaps & Broads, and a small scale farmer living with her husband in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. Her poems and essays have recently appeared in Cincinnati Review, CutBank, FIELD, Fourth Genre, Green Mountains Review, Poetry, Poet Lore, Orion, The Rumpus, The Toast and Verse Daily. Julia’s poem “The Migration of Baling Twine” appears in issue 300.1, Winter 2015


Illustrations by Gigi Rose Gray, an illustrator born and raised in New York City where she received her BFA in illustration from Parsons New School for Design. She now resides in sunny Los Angeles. Her works are inspired by the grace and elegance of women, mid-century design, french renaissance interiors, the colors olive green and mustard yellow, dreams, cypress trees, Greco-Roman art, and nostalgia.