@

Among this celestial navigation,
under horse and crowns
lies these unrelenting light patterns,

my spiritual eyes are weakened,
my spiritual eyes are awakened,

massive tangled hair in my eyes,
I am the flowers of the dead earth,

in a blanket of darkness,
in a blanket of blackness.

A man you don’t know makes a joke online of which you are the brunt, you know the one—woman, kitchen, sandwich—that old droopy-eyed dog of a joke still rattling around under the stoop, its bark long faded to a hoarse cough. It’s ironic, someone comments, because he’s sooo progressive, a real champion for women, haha! and you wonder what it means when the champions use the same language as the oppressors, their lines interchangeable except that one of them, at the end, elbows you hard in the ribs and says, Just kidding. Tells you, Lighten up, take a joke, like they’re doing you a favor.

And aren’t they? Could be worse—at least they don’t mean it, right? At least someone’s having fun?

***

Not long after college, you meet your friend Tony* at the bar one evening for happy hour and find him waiting with your favorite drink—gin and ginger, tall, extra ice. He’s the kind of guy who will do that, who knows your drink and buys the first round while you’re stuck in traffic on your way over from work, the kind of guy who does it without expectation—no unanswered debt filling the space between you, crowding one of you out. But tonight he has an eye on the girl you’re with, the way she’s braided her hair and pinned it across the top of her head like a crown and has borrowed your turquoise earrings and listens with her whole body when someone else is speaking. Tony buys the second round too, because, you know, he’s nice like that, and then he stands close enough that his whisper in your ear trails a shiver across your neck, an arrow drawn back in the bowstring, unquivering: She’s deliciously rape-able in those jeans, yeah? And when you don’t respond because you’ve forgotten how to direct words out of your mouth he holds up his hands as if to fend off what he knows is coming, his smile unassuming, even genuine when he tells you, I kid, I kid. His betrayal is such a surprise that you know if you allow yourself a moment to linger beneath its weight it could snap each one of your ribs in half. Instead, you let your drink sit untouched on the table, the ice melting in your glass like a slow goodbye, and then politely refuse—and refuse again—when Tony offers to walk the two of you home. You sure? he asks, it can be scary out there, as if for even a moment you could have forgotten.

all the best moments of my life
have happened underwater,
and you are afraid to swim.

Did you know that the last fatal
shark attack in New Jersey was in 1926,
when your mother’s mother
was a glint in her mother’s eye?
You do not need to be so afraid.

Brian SmithI imagine you are very used to seeing your words in print after nearly two decades as a journalist and columnist. In fact, I saw you contributed music essays to two books published earlier this year. But does it feel different to have your very own work of fiction published? How?

It’s terrifying. I’ve written things in the past that had real consequences. Twice I had my life threatened from stories I wrote. One time in Detroit I was punched so hard in the face my eye was swollen shut for days. The guy hated what I wrote, but I’m pretty sure I was just telling the truth.

With fiction, it’s a different truth, a bigger one (we hope) in that the stories can ultimately define whatever moment we’re suffering through, or bouncing through with joy in our steps. That’s what my favorite writers, like Dorothy Allison, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Willy Vlautin, Denis Johnson, Jim Harrison, Harry Crews, and Charles Bukowski always did or do, somehow. I hope I can do a little of that for someone, somewhere. It’s about self-definition, and empathy for the world around us. I’m always terrified I fail at that. So that’s what’s scary.

Spent Saints_Book Cover_Full Spread_Final_1.30.17Eye for Sin

I climbed into the passenger seat and Tinkles lifted the pint of Southern Comfort from between his legs and offered me a shot. Took a good chug, handed it back and twisted an air conditioning vent in my direction. Pretty much all we needed to say to each other.

Tinkles wheeled the old Corolla back out onto my street, and turned west on Van Buren. We took it easy through downtown, headed north on Seventh Ave. and rolled toward Sunnyslope, a dark burb that rises up a sun-crested hill. There were few cars out and butter-colored streetlights fanned across the windshield. Tinkles flipped the car stereo on to Cher’s “Believe,” and turned it up. I reached out and turned it down. Blown distorted speaker, horrible song. Ears didn’t want it.

 

Cover_NarrowRiverWideSkyThe Minnesota relatives visited. Our grandfather had visited us. He walked among the thistles and goats and chickens while we showed him where the events of our lives happened – the place where I fell off the horse, the place where Brian found a big frog. The goats sniffed his shiny shoes.

Uncle John lived in a cottage behind the house for several months after he returned from Vietnam. He needed some time alone, Mom said. He’d gone to “Dog Lab,” become a medic, and served two tours. He left again to Minnesota, married aunt Barb and adopted the little boy she’d had from her first marriage, and they visited the farm. I remembered he said he wanted to spank his little boy one hundred times. After he spanked the child and joined us outside by the livestock gate, he said he’d counted pretty high, but didn’t get to a hundred. We’d heard a cry per strike. Mom told me not to speak about it as I stood beside her counting heart beats, blocking out the crying. I don’t know how many smacks I heard.

 

The Yellow House by Chiwan Choi

 

Choi

One part poetry, one part meditation on memory, Chiwan Choi’s third collection, The Yellow House, is a collage of captured instances, a tale of remembrances fragmented by time. A haunting, semi-hallucinatory trip through the immigrant’s perpetual no-man’s land—that zone between old home and new where people and places, love and death, happiness and sadness mingle—The Yellow House is about the struggle to belong, to reconcile the land of the past with that of the present. Seeing that reconciliation as a fundamentally impossible endeavor, the poet’s thoughts turn to forgetting one set of memories or the other, ultimately failing in this as anyone must.

Born as it is of a multitude of recollections, The Yellow House is not so cerebral as to be inaccessible. Far from it. This collection feels immediate, reads very much as the story of Choi’s life, often flirting with the mode of lyric memoir. There’s an acceptance of paradoxes here, the sort of contradictions that define everyone’s relationships with their parents. At once somehow god-like, everything to us, all parents ultimately fail us both while they are alive and in the fact that they do not live forever, leaving us assured only of our own mortality.

Choi’s parents figure prominently in these poems, many of the pieces referencing his father, more still his mother. His family having emigrated from Korea when he was very small, Choi seems constantly at cross purposes with himself, struggling to feel at home in the new land and the forgotten one, never completely achieving the sort of idyllic existence he longs for in either. There’s a glorification of both old and new homes here, and, thus, a devaluation of them as well. In this, Choi captures and rarefies the immigrant’s experience—the lure of the perfect future that never comes to pass, the love for a past made grander by the fact that it never was.

 

*Official May selection of the TNB Book Club.

 

NEW YEAR’S EVE

iurA young man walks down by the banks of the Blackwater under the full cold moon. He’s been drinking the old year down to the dregs, until his eyes grew sore and his stomach turned, and he was tired of the bright lights and bustle. “I’ll just go down to the water,” he said, and kissed the nearest cheek: “I’ll be back before the chimes.” Now he looks east to the turning tide, out to the estuary slow and dark, and the white gulls gleaming on the waves.

It’s cold, and he ought to feel it, but he’s full of beer and he’s got on his good thick coat. The collar rasps at the nape of his neck: he feels fuddled and constricted and his tongue is dry. I’ll go for a dip, he thinks, that’ll shake me loose; and coming down from the path stands alone on the shore, where deep in the dark mud all the creeks wait for the tide.