Two Poems from a Dream of Anna Akhmatova by Jacqueline Marcus

6-4.1Sort of a strange experience on the writing of these two poems. I was an avid reader of Anna Akhmatova’s poetry, but it’s been years since I’ve read her work. The other night I had a dream about her: I was in a dark café—probably the Stray Dog, a name that always stuck with me in the biography, where Russian poets would meet and read their poems. Akhmatova stood up on the stage. I was trying desperately to make out the words of the poem, but I couldn’t hear her. The only thing I could hear was the sound, the tone of her voice that was like a very sad cello. And her eyes, I remember her eyes—those huge, mournful eyes. I could vaguely remember the dream when I woke up at 4 am And then I sat down and wrote these two poems. Both were written in less than ten minutes. I didn’t touch a word.

Abandonment

Bent on the weather of distraction,
I watched the blackbirds from the large framed window
make their way to the northern sea for the last time.
I don’t know why I was feeling the need to go with them,
or why the rain spelled the music of elsewhere,
or if the moon signaled its lost joy, like a child’s drawing
that had been left in a box of memories. All I know
is that the time had come for the end of summer.
A cold sun pressed its palm against the pane of glass
as if my heart would shatter—
so many pieces of impossible nights, a splash of leaves, perhaps,
in a field of elegant trees…

There was no point.

There was only the sound of a lifetime,
diminished. It drifts across the sea and a million stars.

It has no destination.

You come to me, dear soul, in the middle of this winter,
stubborn as a fierce storm.

What exactly do you expect from me night after night?
You follow me like an abandoned dog.

Crimes against Humanity

In the awkward moment of farewells,
small talk, coffee, the clatter of silverware at the café,
we left our signatures beneath the prose of endearments.
The train muttered the sound of towns with its gray whistle and scarves,
a cold wind embraced the warmth of the fire.
No one could have guessed by now how the country had changed.
We were strangers passing through centuries of farms,
cobblestone streets and mothers hurrying with their children,
bargaining prices for fish, cabbage and flour for bread…
The train sang through fields of wheat. Each time
it entered the tunnel of years,
it was a new dawn.
I got off, and stepped down to the platform.

I could tell you what I saw through the steamy windows:
the faces of the young, the faces of the old—

and the long, dolorous smoke of what we’ve done to one another.


Jacqueline Marcus is the editor of Forpoetry.com and EnvironmentalPress.com.  She is a contributing guest writer for Buzzflash at Truthout.org.  She is the author of Close to the Shore by Michigan State University Press. Her e-book, Man Cannot Live on Oil, Alone: Time to end our dependency on oil before it ends us, is available at Kindle Books. She taught philosophy for twenty years at Cuesta College, San Luis Obispo, California. Her essays, “The Beauty of Sadness: An Essential Human Emotion Exiled in a War Society”, “Neruda”, and “How Nazism Shaped US War Policies: Thousands of SS War Criminals Recruited to the U.S. by CIA-Pentagon after WWII” appeared in the North American Review blog. Her new collection of poems, Summer Rains, has been accepted for publication at Iris Press.  


Illustration by Eric Piatkowski. Eric was raised in Arizona, and after a few years of working in theater, he switched gears and studied illustration at the Pratt Institute. Now in Des Moines, he splits his time between drawing, drawing, and more drawing. Give him a call, he just might be the perfect man for the job. Prints of artwork are available through Etsy at Eric Piatkowski Art. The illustration above is titled “Adrift” for a story in issue 299.2, Spring 2014.

Crack by Amy Glynn

Amy Glynn gives us an excerpt from her in-progress essay collection “Knotweed, Bindweed, Crabgrass, Thorn: Field Notes on Making Your Bed and Lying in It, Bolting, Reaping What You Sow, and Other Useful Domestic Metaphors.” 

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I see humanity now as one vast plant, needing for its highest
fulfillment only love, the natural blessings of the great
outdoors, and intelligent crossing and selection.

Luther Burbank

The damned thing split right along the midline of one of the primary limbs. Cracked under its own weight.

Ham-fisted symbolism in this backyard has just gone far enough already. Things wither unexpectedly, things overproduce and go to waste. Things you nurture and encourage and coax into giving you fruit instead rot, drop dead, get gnawed by rats, stolen by morbidly obese squirrels, set a bunch of fruit and then pitch it all before it gets ripe. And I feel badly for the tree, because that splintering exposed heartwood looks painful, but I am aware of a brooding, smoldering sense of—what?

Say it. Betrayal.

I tended this tree. I put it in the ground, a sapling, a baby, small enough for me to carry with one hand. I have groomed and clipped and shaped and fed and harvested the thing for nine years. Why must it, like everything else in the world and on such obnoxiously, face-slap-obvious timing, break?

The plums dangle in huge clusters, rosy or bluish, softly glaucous and exuding a whispery, oddly amorous perfume—I don’t have another word for it; it’s a come-hither smell, a come-on-take-me smell. The tree is one of storied horticulturalist Luther Burbank’s most enduring masterpieces, a Japanese-hybrid plum called Santa Rosa. That you can also find them in any west coast supermarket made them relatively unattractive to me, but they were recommended as the best pollinizer for my fetish plum, a green-skinned, scarlet-fleshed “blood plum” called Satsuma, first sent to market (also by Burbank) in 1899. Look it up and you’ll see it says it’s commonly cultivated, but I find it elusive to nonexistent even in farmers markets. Truth be told, I did not push to come back to this county, in the valleys east of Oakland, for the “good” public schools. I came because of that plum. Childhood next-door neighbors had an overbearing beast of a Satsuma—who could imagine so much fruit from such a petite tree? Outrageous floods of them, all ripe at once, nothing for it but to learn to preserve, not to mention eat nothing but plums for three weeks. Refugee grocery bags of them found themselves on our front porch every summer. Because no one could eat them all.

I could, though. My parents kept saying I’d make myself sick. I never did. 

In typical fashion for this holy war I call a garden, the thing I had planted as a concession thrived. The thing I planted for love withered. Still, no complaints about the plum that lived. Santa Rosas require little care, bear heavily (sometimes overwhelmingly), and, maybe because they’re naturally full of serotonin or maybe just because they are idyll incarnate when conveyed directly from branch to mouth, they just make you happy.

Plants speak to us, however wild or trained they are, however apparently simple or complex. They just don’t use words—though I suspect they appreciate them. The plum’s message is this: be patient and you will be taken care of. Tend me and I will tend you. Abundance and want follow one another eternally, so stop right now and enjoy this. You won’t receive that message from a plum plucked from cold storage in your supermarket. It might still taste good, but it has been detached from its source for so long it no longer remembers what it was trying to say.

I am alone. The children are with their father. Sun and tree alike past apogee, trending downward. It is early evening, late June.

Early evening, late June. The air smells like mesquite smoke and chlorine and plums; warm from the sun, the tree exudes a kind of exotic yet eerily familiar perfume. It smells like renewal, like rot, like love.

It’s still 98 degrees outside, down from an unpleasant pinnacle of 105. The kids are in the swimming pool; water rebounds off tiles, chaotic small waves that catch the sun and throw little liquid sparks.

Laughter; husband playing pool games with kids, friends cracking jokes, the soft pop of the cork being pulled on another bottle of the insanely beautiful orange Roussanne made by friends of ours. The heat has its own sound; an arid, windless composite of air rising from the scorching pavement; of the sharp, chiding voices of the hummingbirds and of the whirring of their wings; of the low scraping of cicadas, the high distant scream of a red-tailed hawk; foliage wilting audibly in the garden; the gentle slap of water against the pool’s coping; all underscored by a profound and almost subsensory hum which seems to be the actual sound of radiation from the sun.

I am gathering plums in my skirt; now that the mercury’s back in double digits I’m going to brave the kitchen and make a tart. One of our friends trails me, gathering the ones I’m missing. The Satsuma is bothering me. Planted in the same soil on the same day, it is a quarter of the size of the Santa Rosa, and the fruits are fewer, tougher and smaller every year. This year I’m not even picking them. I can see its slow trajectory toward defeat, the tree kind that takes years of agonizing burnout. It still flowers and bears fruit and grows and drops leaves, but it will be dead within five years.

In spite of every conceivable intervention, so will my marriage.

 “My God,” my friend says. “Your garden is magic.”

Don’t get me wrong, this “magic” is the product of constant sweat and scratches and back spasms but still, yes, at the moment I think so too, how what I have managed to do with the trainwreck we bought is in fact amazing, that I criticize my failures to prune or weed or plant something in time far too harshly, and that I should learn to see what other people see, which is a sort of domestic paradise, part idyll, part micro-farm. My kids have never seen the inside of a McDonald’s, but they know which weeds you can eat and which ones are better left alone; they know what strawberries taste like when they’ve had a transit time of 3 seconds from stem to stomach, they know which beans are the Romanos and which are the Dragon’s Tongues. They can tell you when Meyer lemons ripen and which chicken lays which egg.

Everyone is the picture of pure voluptuous, indolent, summer-Sunday contentment.

What they don’t know is that once they drive off, my husband and I will not speak to each other. He will busy himself with putting the kids to bed and leave me with the dishes and the remarkable amount of recycling left in their wake.

They don’t know he will stay up watching the most inane television he can find so he does not have to go to bed with me.

They don’t know I’ll go to bed early to ensure I am asleep by the time he comes in because I know if he falls asleep first the snoring will cause me to stay up all night seething and fighting the urge to kick him awake.

They don’t know things have been cracking for so long I no longer remember what it felt like when they weren’t.

When my friend called the garden “magic,” she didn’t hear the sotto voce reply from the swimming pool, “Yes, there are lots of things with thorns. In places where people walk.” He has a knack for doing that in a way no one hears but me.

They don’t know it is always like this.

They don’t know it has almost always been like this.

Or has it? Am I making that up? Justification? Pathological focus on “the negative?” Am I crazy, wildly, violently unfair? Didn’t we love each other?

Didn’t we promise to? 

But here, now, it is a beautiful hot early summer Sunday, this group of our friends are gathered under our palm tree in our backyard and are about to be treated to a large amount of amazing food that was alive and growing hours or minutes ago, and I have plum juice all over my hands and my skirt and running down my chin like some beautiful simile about abundance and prosperity and plenty and sensuousness and the rewards of effort and no one knows. They don’t know the other me, the other him. They don’t know what happens when the door closes.

I’m not strong enough to pull the halves of the split branch together to try to bind them. I don’t want to call anyone for help. I am tired of needing help. I know this is wrong: none of us really accomplishes anything alone, at least not the big stuff. It’s one of the reasons we get married. Because you can do more that way, accomplish more, have someone with whom you share—oh, say it—the fruits of your labor.

Or I could leave it, pull the plums as soon as they’re ripe—I think they will still ripen —and then prune the branches and hope the thing scars over and heals, a lame limb, a broken limb, but—you know, still part of the tree. The entropy method. “Lassitude” or “Let Nature Take Its Course” depending on your perspective.

It might be the right move and it’s certainly the easiest. But to be honest, I’ve had it with broken things. I want all of them gone. Even if, as Leonard Cohen famously sang, “There is a crack in everything: that’s how the light gets in.”


Amy Glynn Headshot

Amy Glynn‘s poetry collection “A Modern Herbal” was published by Measure Press. Her work appears widely in journals and anthologies including The Best American Poetry. She has been the recipient of a James Merril House fellowship, Poetry Northwest’s Carolyn Kizer Award, and the Literal Latte Essay Award for 2014. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.


Illustration 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 will be in upcoming 300.3, Summer 2015. Find more of Anthony’s work at http://www.tremmaglia.ca/

Poetry and Other Cities by Tobias Wray

5-19

Notes on “The Archeology of Music” from issue 300.2, Spring 2015

My father had a certain expression on his face whenever he played. His eyebrows arched high on certain notes and his forehead would round and dip in anticipation of a run. The correct embouchure for a clarinetist tightens the lips and flattens the chin into the comic appearance of a chimpanzee communicating a dramatic feeling. Yet, he seemed the most himself then—much more accessible somehow than the stormy man who complained about the state of the kitchen or the rudeness of store clerks. Here was a man who existed only once his case opened and the first note filled the room.

5-19.2

Here is a city you used to live in, one you are only returning to now after many absent years. The towering buildings seem familiar, as does the scent rustling over the streets, but it is another city you know, a city that has already ended. I haven’t spoken to my father for years now. There are no adequate explanations for such things, except that he left and his leaving has stayed. I remember tiptoeing past his practice sessions in the living room, afraid my distraction would draw his haunting notes to a halt, the authority his clarinet imbued on space. The sound of rustling sheet music and the angular towers of stacked CDs carve at the edges of my childhood. Music for me is a world of artifacts, physical yet emptied. What is left to us but to wander the city and to leave it strange?

forrest_groove_oil_on_canvas_panel_10x20_2010_w

I imagine that I remember the music as it was, distinctly. Of course, it is more than its pitch, its demarcations of sound—the idea of a sound shaped by memories since. Poetry is often like that, too, something more than lost, more than artifact. In 2011, I went to a lecture on the Tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng, which was buried for over 2,400 years, famous for its set of unique bells and other instruments. The unburying of the site is what captured me, the careful way we are always rediscovering our own histories. The insinuation of archeology, that nothing made should be lost, appealed—that a sound might wait so long to be heard, how it seems so inevitable once it is. It touched on a desire I hardly knew I had, to hear my father play again. It is as much what we bring back to the site as it is what we pull.

 Everything we know has been recovered. This is what we fill the cavity with, our recovery. 


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Tobias Wray is a poetry editor for the cream city review. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Third Coast, Blackbird, Bellingham Review, The Fourth River and elsewhere. He’s been a finalist for the Black Warrior Review Poetry Contest and the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing Fellowship. He holds an MFA in poetry and translation from the University of Arkansas and is a doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.


Illustrations by: Allen Forrest. Born in Canada and bred in the U.S., Allen Forrest works in many media: oil painting, computer graphics, theater, digital music, film, and video. Allen studied acting at Columbia Pictures in Los Angeles, digital media in art and design at Bellevue College (receiving degrees in Web Multimedia Authoring and Digital Video Production). He lives and works in Vancouver, B.C.

Why I Do This by Eric Barnes

In one of the best rejection letters I’ve ever gotten, an agent told me recently, I honestly don’t have a clue who’d be a viable publisher for this.

A line like that is a condemnation of sorts. In 2015, this agent goes on to declare, there is no market for the kind of literary fiction I am trying to write.

That she said this about a manuscript I spent nearly three years writing means I should feel some heavy mix of defeat and depression. Hopelessness and hatred.

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I don’t feel that.

I should. I really should.

But I don’t.

I’ve been doing this for a very long time now—this being the seemingly endless act of sending queries to agents and short stories to editors and manuscripts to book publishers and in return receiving, far more often than not, rejections that vary from the generic to the cruel to the inane to the insightful.

In the fray of all of this rejection, I can say that I’ve had some successes. Two novels published. Nearly thirty short stories in journals and magazines. Agents of note who signed me on and agents unknown who nonetheless committed everything they could to my writing.

None of it, though, has been what I want. I’ve never been reviewed in The New York Times. Never published a story in The New Yorker. Never made more than a token amount of money.

I know writers who’d kill for the successes—such as they are—that I’ve had. I should, in that sense, accept and be happy with what I have done.

But this is a cruel business, where moments of achievement are either very rare or very fleeting or are shared only with yourself, alone in the dark or well-lit room where you work.

My first short story was published more than twenty years ago. My first novel was published more than fifteen years after I committed to writing seriously. Two novels I’ve written have gone unpublished, rejected by publishing houses of every possible size.

The time has gone by more quickly than I can honestly calculate.

subserv

Why do I do this?

Two different agents that signed me up then left me in limbo for years before giving up on my writing after a mere handful of rejections. I never read more than the first fifty pages, one agent admitted after sending me a letter that said he was, immediately, dropping me from his list.

And he—like the other agent who kept my manuscript for nearly three years and finally wrote to say he’d sent it to just six editors during that time, who said this while also dropping me from his list—was a big name agent. An agent whose writers you know very well. An agent who, if you are a writer and he offered to represent you, you’d say without the slightest hesitation, Yes, of course, do whatever you want, take as much time as you need. Yes. Please, yes. I’ll be having a celebratory drink in the bar, yes and yes, this is it, the one. Yes.

Yes.

Why do I do this?

The number of rejections of short stories I’ve written totals far more than one thousand.

One thousand No’s. Some stories rejected fifty or sixty times before they were published. Other stories still out there. Other stories given up on, filed away in a folder where they will stay from now on. An inbox—and prior to that a physical mailbox—filled with form letter dismissals.

The number of rejections I’ve received from agents totals in the hundreds—plus the one I just received while typing this post.

Why do I do this?

The answer is longer than I can possibly explain. The answer, in truth, is something I’ve never fully articulated to myself.

clearing2

There’s ego. That’s part of it. If a writer tells you otherwise, you ought to be skeptical.

I keep writing because The Millions called my second novel remarkable.

I keep writing because a short story of mine was later picked up in one of the Best American series.

I keep writing because after more than a decade of being rejected by the North American Review, they suddenly said yes to one of my short stories.

Because Steve Almond published a short story of mine, telling me—nearly one hundred years ago, as we talked via landline between South Carolina and my first kitchen in Memphis—I told my students this is how you fucking want to fucking write.

Because a friend of one of my wife’s best friends had one of his friends in San Francisco hand him a copy of my first novel and say, Dude, you need to read this book.

(That he said dude only made my joy that much greater.)

Ego. Exposure. The knowledge that there are—finally, actually, maybe, always—people out there who’ve read the words I’ve spent so much time and energy stringing together.

Maybe that’s why the “email” from the agent telling me, in effect, there is no publisher for my new novel didn’t depress me more. She had some kind words for what I’d written – just a few, but they were kind and they accurately captured the intent of what I had written. The agent called me talented, said my work is inventive, compared the manuscript to Kafka as she described it as a dystopian, surreal fable of sorts.

All of that made me happy. All of it, I think, is true.

Or maybe, sadly, I’m just that desperate for praise. Token praise, probably, meant simply to soften the blow of rejection.

But also I think I liked that agent’s email because it was honest. The business of publishing, she has in effect said, does not have a place for me.

Maybe it should.

But it doesn’t.

That much, at this point, is painfully clear.

Ours is not an industry that is big on fiction as social commentary, she wrote, except when cloaked in the [guise] of a commercial novel.

There’s a formula behind this, a multi-layered puzzle maybe, or a maze of rooms and hallways and doorways to navigate.

Whatever the analogy, I’ve yet to solve it.

So I keep chasing agents for my work and publishers for my novels and editors for my stories. Another big name agent has asked to see my new novel. An agent who’s interested seems to be up and coming in the industry. There’s a Canadian agent who might be a gateway to a better, less commercial, more artistically accepting publishing landscape (but who, it turns out, would reject me while I was still writing this post).

Why do I do this?

brainstorm

It’s a thought that haunts me every day. Every time I sit down to write. Every time I receive another rejection of any sort.

But then I tell myself there are other Canadian agents.

I tell myself there are good books published all the time.

I tell myself the story, the novel, the paragraph I’ve just finished is certainly the best I have ever written in my life.

I tell myself there are people who have enjoyed the things I have published and who will want to read more of what I write.

If only I can find a way to get the words in front of them.


EricBarnes-Headshot (1)

Eric Barnes is the author of the novels Shimmer, an IndieNext Pick from Unbridled Books, and Something Pretty, Something Beautiful from Outpost19, which The Millions called a “remarkable book … where cars are freedom, stories are everything, and home is thick with ghosts. ”

Additionally, Eric has published nearly thirty short stories in publications such as North American Review, Prairie Schooner, The Literary Review, Best American Mystery Stories, and more.

Eric is publisher of newspapers in Memphis and Nashville that cover business, politics and most things in between. Additionally, he hosts and co-produces a local news talk show on public television. In the past, Eric was a reporter and editor in Connecticut and New York. Years ago he drove a forklift in Tacoma, Washington, and then Kenai, Alaska, worked construction on Puget Sound, and, many years ago, graduated from the MFA writing program at Columbia University. Eric’s story “One Day, One Week, An Hour” appears in issue 298.2, Spring 2013.

More at www.ericbarnes.net and on Twitter at @ericbarnes2.


ldNX3rfo (2)Illustrations by: Rob Dobi is an editorial illustrator from CT.

“For the past decade I have been designing merchandise for the biggest bands in the world, photographing the decaying ruins of the northeast, working on his t-shirt brand Fullbleed, co-running the apparel design community at Mintees and poking fun at hipster stereotypes.  Lately my focus has been on editorial illustration, providing media outlets with meaningful work similar to the style I have been honing in the music industry for the past ten years. I have a BFA in illustration from RISD and currently reside in Connecticut with my wife Christina and dog Buddy.”

Concerning “Man in Flower” by Brian Patrick Heston from issue 300.2

Man in Flower” was an Honorable Mention in the 2015 James Hearst Poetry Prize contest.

Roy Batty

With “Man in Flower,” I was attempting something of an urban pastoral. Yet rather than celebration, I was interested in something more detached, where wild nature could take precedence in a place, the city, which we usually attribute to civilization. However, since detachment is so foreign to how we humans experience the world, I decided the scene needed some form of human presence, but not a living presence, because a living human would ultimately take over the landscape both physically and metaphorically. The man in the poem is dead because death has a way of lifting our veil of illusion. When we bury bodies, we do not see the equalizing force of decay. Yet, what happens to the man in the poem is exactly what goes on once we are buried in the earth. I wanted to present the man, objectively, as dissolving organic matter that feeds other organic matter. Ultimately, I am attempting to explore a vision of a connected nature, where nothing is wasted and everything, including human bodies, are transformative matter.

The last layer of metaphor I hoped to get across in the poem was the very fragility of civilization itself. Though it may be the greatest invention of the human species, it is never far from collapsing under the immense weight of all the demands we put on it. Countless civilizations before us have disappeared, and before their disappearances, the inhabitants of those civilizations felt just as secure, just as indestructible as many of us do today. Therefore, the poem borders on the apocalyptic, but I hope it resists apocalypse because nature once again reclaims the cityscape.

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The man might be dead, but everything else continues to live, which is very much something we seemed to have forgotten in our mad rush to set wider and wider boundaries between our civilization and the rest of the nature we share the planet with. So, I guess, in the end, I wanted to write a poem of recognition rather than a warning. Warnings seem too human-centric and only end with a fear that moves us to protect ourselves. Recognition, though, offers us so much more than fear. It offers us understanding, and in this particular case, the understanding that polluting and destroying the nature that sustains us is not only foolhardy, but also ungrateful. We have had the privilege to exist on a tiny blue oasis in the middle of frigid airlessness. It has given us oranges, sex, and Paris. It has allowed us sunny stoop and porch days filled with birdsong and the scent of baking pizza, and if there’s one thing our probes sent into the abyss of space have communicated back, it’s that nothing of what we have here can be found out there.

We are, as far as we know, stranded on an island, but unlike Crusoe, we do not long for England because there is no England. There is only the island for as far as the mind can fathom. And here we remain blissfully ignorant of how truly rare we really are.   


Man in Flower

The man lies in the tall grass by the old railroad yard.
No one walks this way anymore, it’s moon-filled
and sun-stilled. Trains haven’t run here since before
the bicentennial. Weedy trees rise up around the man
like a jungle, or barley waiting for the farmer’s scythe.

A white flower has burrowed its way through his temple,
blossoming from his bottom eye. He is man with flower
now/man-flower. Above him, in the ratty leaves
of an ash, starlings have made a noisy nest. Each day,
they speckle him. Seeds also gather, stubby sprouts

already rising from his thin jacket, his faded jeans,
the loose skin of his face. His body will be safe
for a while. But once covered in grass, in the heaviness
of daisies, everything the man is will shrink, flatten out,
until what remains is a field where no one ever goes.


Brian Patrick Heston grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His poems have won awards from the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Foundation, the Robinson Jeffers Tor House Foundation, and the Lanier Library Association. His first book, “If You Find Yourself,” won the Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award and is available from Main Street Rag Publishing. He is also the author of the chapbook, “Latchkey Kids,” which is available from Finishing Line Press. His poetry and fiction have appeared in such publications as Many Mountains Moving, Rosebud, West Branch, Harpur Palate, 5AM, The Spoon River Poetry Review, Poet Lore, South Carolina Review, River Styx, and is upcoming in Borderlands, Tampa Review, and Canary. Presently, he is a Ph.D. candidate in Literature and Creative Writing at Georgia State University.


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.

Flashback Friday featuring Devi Laskar from issue 294.2

Necessity breeds invention!

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I was in an online poetry boot camp and had a few hours to come up with that Tuesday poem. Everything I had written that day stunk like raw fish baking on a dry dock. I overheard my children discussing their favorite movies at the time. My oldest said “Little Mermaid” and my middle said “Sleeping Beauty” and my youngest said “Snow White.” When I asked my youngest why, she said the wicked stepmother had the best laugh. And a poem was born.

“Cackle like a Wicked Stepmother” first appeared in issue 294.2, March-April 2009. Here is a flaskback of the poem as well as link to purchase your very own issue.

How to Cackle like a Wicked Stepmother

First you’ll need the accessories,
dazzling with mischief and ill-
intent: poisoned apples, floor-length
mirrors that talk back in iambic
rhyme; sinuous black evening
gowns, eye-shadow the color
of a bruise, lips too crimson to
be kissed, a castle with a working
dungeon; stone stairs always in need
of mopping, henchmen, preferably
hunchbacked, a charcoal forest whose
trees disappear into the abyss
of moonless nights, a thunderstorm
thick with jagged rain; oh, and a man
with a charmed life standing before
you, confessing his abiding
love for your sister, or best friend
since the second grade. The rest
is easy, look into the glass, bite
through to the core, delicious,
forbidden down to the guttural,
and feel the crows’ wings fluttering
in your belly finally rise.


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DEVI S. LASKAR was born and raised in Chapel Hill, N.C. She holds a BA in journalism and English from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, an MA in South Asian Studies from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and an MFA in writing from Columbia University. Ms. Laskar is a photographer and writer—and a former crime reporter in Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, North Carolina, and Illinois. Her poems have been published in the Atlanta Review, the Squaw Valley ReviewPratichi, the Tule Review, and the North American Review, where her poems were finalists for the James Hearst Prize in 2009 and 2011. 


CLAIRE STIGLIANI (b. 1983) is 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), RussellProjects, 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.

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?

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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 http://www.tremmaglia.ca/

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


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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.


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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 http://www.press53.com 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 http://www.tremmaglia.ca/

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


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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.