If you’ve ever had the pleasure of reading Jennifer MacBain-Stephens, you’re already familiar with the dark, soothing air of serenity found within the stanzas of her poetry. Her work is very much like a walk through the woods at night, when the winds are steady and though you can’t see it, everything is moving beneath you. The air is crisp and comforting, and under the absence of light, you’re lulled into a false sense of security as deeply rooted vegetation coils slowly around your feet.
Jennifer MacBain-Stephens’ work is layered. It speaks to ideas, histories, and themes as much as it creates moods that you can’t help but curl yourself up into. In the collected poems within The Messenger is Already Dead, published on March 15, 2017 by Stalking Horse Press, MacBain-Stephens groups her poems perfectly to weave an intricate and multi-faceted breath that each one of us can harmonize with.
With this collection, we’re propelled forward and backward in time. In one moment, we’re reflecting on the raw power and emotion of Joan of Arc, and in the next, we’re reliving our own pop culture. Jennifer MacBain-Stephens easily blends the historical with the modern and pop cultural to create poems that feel timeless and classic. I never thought I’d read a line that referenced a “most wanted poster in a video game from 1999” right after a darkly beautiful piece about Joan of Arc and be at peace with it, but I did (and I am). The way MacBain-Stephens structures her prose, she can pluck anything from the ether and make it at home with her unique style.
It’s why The Messenger is Already Dead works. This collection of poetry isn’t really a collection at all. Each poem is a carefully arranged chapter, and one poem feeds into the next breathlessly and without skipping a beat. You could easily indulge in this collection in one sitting, or you could meditate on each chapter and let the swirling ambiance fill your lungs as you voyage from one thought to the next.
My personal favorite of the bunch is a tie between “Lustmord” and a piece simply called “Time.” “Time” has a wicked sense of humor to it, and it plays with the idea of perception using a host of pop cultural references to bring its point home. “Lustmord” is much darker, as it explores this feeling of trapping ourselves in torturous revelry. Paired together and with the rest of the pieces in this collection, these poems paint a disjointed sense of progress, as if we’ve been here before and we’ll be here again, as if the idea of time stopped long ago and we’re on a loop, switching out new props every time we choose to reenact a similar story again and again. It’s no mistake that tales of Joan of Arc are peppered throughout The Messenger is Already Dead. MacBain-Stephens wants us to look in this ether, tell her what we see.
Photograph in banner cited from: Sebastian Wojnicki (flickr)
Edited by Literary Orphans
The people of Alaska are the subject of Ryan W. Bradley’s outstanding collection of short stories, Nothing But The Dead And Dying. The harsh environment is but another challenge for hard-working folks dealing with unfulfilling jobs, troubled relationships, illnesses, addiction, or worse, deadly violence. Bradley’s minimalist writing style pushes descriptions and scenery to the background and concentrates on the essential. As famed author Donald Ray Pollack enthusiastically observed, Bradley writes “in spare, unadorned prose reminiscent of Willy Vlautin and Raymond Carver.” (Now that is a compliment to die for.)
Nicely balanced between character-driven and plot-driven, these stories are fast-moving, and yes, they entertain. But most of all they reveal the author’s gift, which is to create painfully realistic characters. Having faced setback after setback, they are burdened with complicated, often conflicting emotions. To bring them to life and make the reader understand their inner workings, as Bradley has done, requires a writer who not only possesses the chops to find the right words—that snip of dialogue, that just-right turn of phrase—but who also completely understands human nature, and has shared some of his characters’ life experiences. (Bradley has had numerous “blue-collar” type jobs, including working on a construction crew in the Arctic Circle.)
My favorite stories in this collection are:
“The Long Grass”: A teenaged boy’s awkward first sexual experience is complicated by guilt and dread, worrying that his father will find out he accidentally killed his dog. “Julius’ father had gotten [the dog] in the divorce, the only thing he’d really fought for, giving up the custody battle as soon as Julius’ mother dangled the rights to the dog.”
“Glaciers”: Heartbreaking and beautifully told, depicts the burdens of debt and life-threatening illness on patient and caretaker alike. “Maybe she’ll bring him lunch, like she used to. Surprise him with fresh steak or ribs. Or she’ll keep driving to the places where there is no development, no dirt to move. She will find a glacier, where her skin can adopt the pale blue of the ice, still hard, refusing to melt for anyone or anything.”
“Love And Death In The Moose League”: An aging, former major league pitcher hangs onto a secret as well as what’s left of his dignity in this poignant story that has just the right touch of humor. “Patterson wound up and as he released the ball there was a pop in his shoulder…The whole stadium was silent. The ball was laying in the grass not ten feet in front of the mound. Patterson looked at it in disbelief. Even the ump was bewildered. It was a few seconds before he walked in front of the plate and called ‘ball.'”
“WEST”: This tale of mass murder at a high school switches between point of view characters to excellent effect. The story dramatizes what plausibly motivates many such shootings, and is all the more chilling and tragic because intimate details about the victims are revealed. The last few lines are not ones the reader will easily shake off.
“Morning For Night”: A portrait of infidelity, of one-night stands, in the far north. The protagonist wonders “how it will all play out in the morning. How the sunlight will move on their bodies, the tangle of sheets. Like the slope, he thinks, seeing the sun in the middle of the night, it doesn’t feel right or wrong. You just get used to it.”
“All Things Infinite”: Bradley’s homage to a mentor. A man buries his father at sea, Viking-style, in a small boat set aflame. He recalls what his old man told him once: “‘There’s no rule book for fathering, Boy-o,’ he said. ‘I did my best and you turned out all right from where I’m sitting.'”
These are not only my favorites in this collection; they are some of the best stories I’ve read in years.
Ray Nessly hails from Seattle and lives near San Diego with his wife and their two cats. He is forever at work on a novel: If A Machine Lands In The Forest. His writing appears in journals such as Literary Orphans, Thrice Fiction, Boston Literary Magazine, Apocrypha & Abstractions, MadHat Lit, Yellow Mama, Do Some Damage, and the Irish magazine, The Penny Dreadful.
Photograph in banner cited from: Edith Schreurs (flickr)
Edited by Literary Orphans
Purchase Nothing but the Dead and Dying, published by CCM
Excerpt from Pax Americana
Cambridge, Boston’s cross-river sister, home to Harvard, MIT, and the vast, resulting acreage of rundown real estate. Behind the wheel of a rented, blue Epic, Tuck was angling for the last space on the block, one directly in front of what looked like an old foundry. Built of red brick and ashen mortar, this was Symmetra HQ.
“That’s it?” asked Clarion, looking up from his nap.
“Must be. That’s the address.”
Darkened with pollution and faded with age the resulting shade of a building rose in four, thick, Dickensian stories. Taking up at least half its block, it dominated the squat Fifties brownstones that surrounded it. Their basements turned into Guitar Shacks, Koko Curry’s, and thrift stores masquerading as boutiques, who knew what lurked above? People? Squalor? Nothing? Whatever it was, the reality lay in the signs that defined it.
This was what had become of the post-war building boom and its architecture of triumph, and it was a sad thing to look at. Tuck never understood why they kept this stuff around, why they didn’t just tear it down and build something else. History was about preserving the past’s beauty, not maintaining some tired record of what had really happened. If he’d been running things, the entire block would have been bulldozed and rebuilt in glass—made into something shiny and splendid, something worth remembering.
“Doesn’t look much like a cutting-edge research facility.”
“Guess not,” Tuck responded, shaking the ice in his Mega-Sized Turbo-Coke from Righteous Burger.
He’d been surprised when he’d seen an RB along the highway—Here, in liberal Taxachusetts!—amazed when Clarion said they could stop and get something. Sure, Tuck hadn’t liked the fact that Clarion had refused to go in, that they’d missed out on sitting in a booth and getting an actual sermon from Timmy; but just getting to go to RB still felt like a little bit of heaven. It always did.
“In fact, it looks sort of like a—”
“Dump?” Tuck finished.
Clarion laughed. “Not that either.”
“I thought you guys didn’t believe in ghosts.”
“Of course I don’t believe in ghosts, Clarion. What the flip?”
Clarion quirked another smile. “I was thinking it looks like a war zone but I guess haunted factory will do, sport.”
Tuck smiled, too. He knew he was wearing Clarion down by that point. That was how Tuck’s charm worked with atheists. His good humor and jokes always got to them eventually. That was his gift. But he would have been a poor Christian to court favor and use it for nothing but personal gain.
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Dear Orphans & Orphanettes,
We all know the story of Nikola Tesla. We know about the War of the Currents between Westinghouse and Edison Electric in the late 1800s. We know about Tesla’s invention of the alternating current induction motor and how alternating current enraged Thomas Edison. We know the story of an immigrant inventor who came to America, became a citizen, had a hand in developing long-lasting technologies to benefit the world, and who died penniless in a New York hotel. Tesla’s story is one that has echoed with us in various movies, documentaries, books, and monuments (most notably the statue in Niagara Falls) over the years. It’s a fascinating tale, and it’s one that we often like to romanticize as the story of an up-and-coming genius who took on the Edison empire.
This romanticized narrative, however, is very much like a pulpy noir story. Like all good noir, the bad guys don’t necessarily get their due, as they’re interwoven into the fabric of a society that is unmovable. No matter how poorly they present themselves, their bedfellows remember them fondly. In this grim society, an individual can put up the fight of a lifetime and still barely make a tear in the fabric. He can give all of himself and yet wind up penniless in a New York hotel, awaiting his final respite.
For many, 2017 began with a similar romanticized tale. More than half of a nation gawked in horror as the curtain was drawn and society was revealed to be ugly. Angry. Hate-filled. The world many of us thought we knew no longer existed, and in its place was this murky swamp others had been painstakingly trying to bring to our attention for years. Had we simply been willfully ignoring the menace woven into the fabric of our day-to-day routine?
In moments like these, we take comfort in the seedy tales of noir fiction. There’s something darkly beautiful about being able to identify with a character who is familiar with the notion of failure. Like us, this character is overwhelmed by the machine. Silenced. Put in his place. What we forget when we romanticize stories about Nikola Tesla, however, is that this genius inventor prevailed in the end. His dedication, his life’s work, and his intellect have been immortalized. With each year that passes, the stories of Tesla outweigh the stories of Edison. As time marches on, emerging companies take their name and inspiration after Tesla. What once was the narrative of a Serbian immigrant who made America his home has grown into a legend of a mythological hero whose genius was unmatched.
There are days where it may seem like we’re losing the war, but sometimes the path ahead isn’t always a step up. Like Nikola Tesla, we just need to keep at it and play the long game.
We’re all in this together,
It was my first real experience on an airplane. I was five years old and I had dreamed of flying since I first knew what airplanes were. Imagine, being up so high!
I sat near the window, looking up and out at the blue sky, so much closer to the clouds than I ever thought possible. My mom sat in the middle. In the aisle seat was a beautiful lady.
She wore a dark camisole, maybe a deep purple or maroon, and a long black knitted cardigan. Her hair was thicker than mine would ever be and so straight. She was quiet throughout the flight from Chicago to Detroit, and only started shuffling when the voice from the ceiling started talking to us about weather and time and landing things and how Detroit was only thirty minutes away. It seemed like so much longer.
The lady had a tiny makeup bag, much smaller than I had ever seen my mother carry. To this day, my father will ask my mom, “What is this, your makeup bag?!” every time she checks a piece of luggage.
“Oh hush!” she’ll say, hoisting one of several bags filled with countless items she surely doesn’t need onto the scale. He’ll chuckle and look around as if telepathically asking “Am I right? Am I right?!”
No, Airplane Lady’s makeup bag was not hoistable. It didn’t weigh enough. My stomached tickled and I wasn’t sure if it was the descent or my yearning to see what kind of stuff she had inside. She pulled out a tiny mirror and a little black tube with gold wrapped around the center.
“She’s going to see her boyfriend,” my mom said to me. I presume they spoke while I had been focused on looking out the window throughout the flight. I blushed at the mention of a boyfriend and the Airplane Lady smiled at us. I–always so painfully shy–was afraid she would start talking about her boyfriend to me too.
She didn’t say anything though. She just finished putting on her lipstick. It was a deep shade like her camisole, but it wasn’t sparkly like the gloss my mom wore once in a blue moon. I wondered if her boyfriend liked sparkles. I figured probably not because boyfriends are boys, and I didn’t know any boys who liked sparkles. I spent the entire descent trying not to look at Airplane Lady who was going to meet her Detroit Boyfriend after putting on her no-sparkle lipstick. I tried not to think of her or her boyfriend at all.
So naturally, I’m still thinking about her over two decades later. I used to think about her sporadically, maybe once every two or three years. I’m trying to think if there was ever a trigger that made me think of her, but I don’t know if there was. I would just wonder every now and then how she was doing. I would wonder if she was still flying to Detroit to see her Detroit Boyfriend or if they lived together or maybe they were finally married.
I used to think of her in a context separate from myself. I would wonder what her life was like: what she did for a living, if he was respectful to her, did they ever fight, if so, about what? I’d hope that they made the long-distance work and if they did make it, who moved where? Maybe they’re somewhere in Indiana, a compromise, geographically halfway between their individual Chicago and Detroit homes.
I never talked about the fact that as I grew, I thought of her more regularly because it didn’t make sense even to me, and I always wondered “What are you doing here?” every time I found her in my mind. Now though, I have a context in which she can exist. I sit in a Blue Line train car on my way to the airport. It’s 3 a.m. and I’m scared I’ll be late for my flight to Saint Kitts to visit my own far away boyfriend. She popped into my head on the platform and she hasn’t left me alone since.
“I only had to travel 280 miles for my boyfriend. Why the hell are you going 2,200 for yours?” she said from her 1994 airplane seat while I shifted in my own on the train.
“Well because I miss him,” I said, startled by her attitude. She had seemed so kind on the plane.
“Yeah, but Jesus, this is exhausting! You’re too young to be dealing with this. There are so many men in Chicago! Why do you have to go all the way to some island?”
“I don’t want to be with someone else just because he’s close by. I’m happy.”
“Yeah, I thought the same thing. Turns out I was wrong.”
“No, I don’t want you to say that.”
“Oh…I mean, you’re right I loved my Detroit Boyfriend, and I’m so glad I stuck with him. Have fun in Saint Kitts!”
The thought of her bothers me for the rest of the train ride. We wrestle on and off with each other about whether I am doing the right thing: If my love for him could stretch those thousands of miles. I’ve only been with him an amount of time I’m nervous to tell people, because women my age wonder why I’m subjecting myself to such a serious commitment so soon and women a generation ahead of me just smile and look at me as if they know something I don’t know, and I’m not always confident that they’re wrong. I tell Airplane Lady that our relationship absolutely can withstand the distance, and sometimes she believes me, but she’ll slowly talk herself back to questioning my confidence.
“Wouldn’t you rather have someone who could cuddle with you while you sleep?”
“No,” I say to her. “I never enjoyed cuddling before I met him. I don’t even like the word ‘cuddle.’ It reminds me of mud.”
“I never enjoyed needing to visit my Detroit Boyfriend,” she said, ignoring me. “We broke up shortly after you saw me on the plane. I had never been so relieved in my life.”
“No, please, don’t say that. That’s not how it’s supposed to happen.”
“Okay, we’re still happily together somewhere in Indiana.”
“I knew it.”
She leaves me alone throughout the rest of my travels, largely because I’m asleep for most of it. It takes a train, two planes, and 13 hours, but eventually I’m standing cotton hoodie clad in the Caribbean sun, avoiding looking at the parking lot, because she has convinced me that he’s late or has forgotten to pick me up or maybe he talked to his own Airplane Man and he convinced him not to come get me at all.
“Don’t worry, don’t worry, I’m here,” he says before I even turn around. I exhale slowly, relieved and tired of arguing with the Airplane Lady. I have to shield my eyes from the sun, but there he is, tall and toothy, smiling right in front of me for the first time in five months. I remember what he looked like the day I met him at the El stop for our first date while he was in Chicago. He was wearing a shirt that made him look like Where’s Nigerian Waldo, and one of only two pairs of shorts he owns. His smile looks the same as it did then, genuine and excited, and probably just as nervous as my own.
I’ve never wondered about what happened when the Airplane Lady finally saw her Detroit Boyfriend. Was he waiting for her at the airport the way mine is? I wonder if she was hugged the way I am, or if she felt hot in the sun like I do.
I think of her throughout my trip. She is not on my mind every second, but she’s there hiding, ready to pop up at any moment. When my boyfriend and I lie on the beach at night, eating pizza and searching for the north star, mostly unsuccessful because we were accidentally facing south. When he introduces me to his school friends for the first time but I run out of jokes and the evening slowly fizzles into a quiet ride home. When we climb the hill that overlooks the entire island, Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea, and it looks so surreal that I wonder where the water stops and sky begins, and I know there should be something in my gut telling me that this is where I’m supposed to be, standing on top of the most beautiful island with the man that I love most in the world, but the elation that starts to grow in my gut is squelched so fast because she’s right there in the middle of it telling me not to get too excited. None of the moments that I’ve spent so many years believing will be perfect are perfect at all, and I blame her for that. I blame her for constantly reminding me that romantic comedies aren’t real and fairy tales don’t come true, so he couldn’t have been serious when we skipped rocks on our second date or when we kissed at the top of the Ferris Wheel on our third. But I also give up trying to silence her, to convince her that these wonderful things really can mean something great for us, because I simply don’t know how to do it.
I try to put her away for the rest of the trip, and it works a little bit. When I wake up on my last morning there, it’s as sunny as it has been all week. I know my boyfriend is already awake, though I have my back toward him unintentionally, but that’s just how it is. I don’t feel her anywhere inside of me, but I know she isn’t gone forever.
I wonder what happened to them, the Airplane Lady and her Detroit Boyfriend. I think about that all the time now. Her presence overwhelms me sometimes, but I wonder if maybe it’s because she was overwhelmed by the idea of settling in Indiana, or settling anywhere before she got all of her own voices out of her heart or head or gut or wherever Airplane Ladies stay.
We arrive at the airport early, and he waits with me before I go through security. We’re quiet mostly, all three of us, as we sit in the island air. The breeze blows inside the port, and for just a moment, my heart flutters a little bit, that unfamiliar feeling I think I’m supposed to get when I’m in love, and I realize she has left us just long enough for us to say goodbye.
He walks with me up the stairs and into line for security. It’s awkward, both of us aware of the eyes surrounding us as we kiss and hug and are unsure of what to say to each other, so he just says, “Let me know when you land,” and I say “I promise,” followed by quick, whispered “I love yous” and a door closed behind him.
I hold it together pretty nicely, I think. I start crying, but just a little bit. I reach into my bag for a tissue, and when I turn around, I see a young girl standing behind me in line, of course, watching me wipe my eyes.
“She just said goodbye to her boyfriend,” her mother whispers, and urges the girl to turn around and stop staring at me.
She keeps looking at me, though. I don’t mind, but her mother is clearly apologetic for the sake of my privacy. I smile at the little girl, smile at her mother, and move into the other line.
Kathryn Brostowitz has a bachelor’s degree in journalism, and recently received an MFA in creative non-fiction writing from Roosevelt University in Chicago. When she’s not writing, she enjoys traveling, yoga, and finding new favorite things. You can read more of her late-night shower musings on Twitter at @kfBrostowitz.
Photograph in banner cited from: Ronald van der Graaf (flickr)
Edited by Literary Orphans
With each subsequent issue of Literary Orphans Journal that’s released, along with the creative nonfiction side of the journal’s heartstrings you’ll find here at The Tavern Lantern, we strive to connect a network of readers with meaningful literary voices. And since the end of each year is slow-burning, we seek to fill the journal’s intricate spaces with a similar type of reflection. Below is the second installment of our 2016 Top Ten series. These lists are simple and meant to convey personally significant topics of the year from writers and editors we respect.
Let’s read together.
Top Ten List of Authors to Read in 2017
Many outstanding top ten lists have been weeded out and dispersed with zeal every year. These winsome philosophical poets and truth-tellers of the pencil/pen/computer/feather, who one might have masturbated, vomited on or tilted a head at depending on the onlooker’s stance, hold still and steady like a coin thrown into a fountain. Very unlike spitting or heaving into the political pond of 2017.
So, I felt charged to post a list of the top ten authors who make me happy and inspire in the wake of a racist, homophobic, rapist, sociopathic president who lives the statement that “orange is the new TANG”, with his wispy strands of a comb-over synthetic cap that when lifted, might show the calcification of a brain, or merely a neon stone that marks uncharted territory.
Thank you to Brittany Warren and Literary Orphans for this opportunity to gather some of my favorites together.
These are in no specific order. I hope you will put all of them on your reading list, if you haven’t already, and if you have or have not, please send out a book to someone you love! These authors are not only masters of the language, but create unforgettable and mesmerizing characters that are timeless. Through their extensive research, relentless work ethic, and beauteous unveiling of the unconscious, each of these writers breathes life back into bodies long gone. The spirit of what walked this planet lives on in us and eternally through these voices. We realize there is no past that isn’t our present. That is the gift. We live with and through these voices.
The Bluest Eye
Song of Solomon
God Help the Child
Don’t Let Me Be Lonely
The End of the Alphabet
Between the World and Me
The Beautiful Struggle: A Memoir
A Manual For Cleaning Women
Where I Live Now
Show Me All Your Scars: True Stories of Living With Mental Illness
Anthology edited by Lee Gutkind
Lead Belly: poems
The Chronology of Water
Dora: A Headcase
The Small Backs of Children
Women Write Resistance: poets resist gender violence
Anthology edited by Laura Madeline Wiseman
The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial
Owls Do Cry
The Edge of the Alphabet
Scented Gardens For the Blind
A State of Seige
Faces in the Water
(and many more)
Any number is difficult, because every book read is absolutely necessary at the time. There is always something we take away when we pick one up. My advice is to read as much as you can and join Goodreads online. It’s a great way to connect with other readers and find out what they recommend and have reviewed.
Here’s to 2017 with lots of time to read and write and also time to connect with the unknown. Embrace it! Reach out! Be uncomfortable, listen, protect one another! LOVE!
Meg Tuite is the author of two short story collections, Bound By Blue (2013, Sententia Books) and Domestic Apparition (2011, San Francisco Bay Press), and five chapbooks. She won the Twin Antlers Collaborative Poetry award from Artistically Declined Press for her poetry collection, Bare Bulbs Swinging (2014) written with Heather Fowler and Michelle Reale. She teaches at Santa Fe Community College, is fiction editor for Santa Fe Literary Review and a columnist at Connotation Press and JMWW. Her blog: http://megtuite.com
My father arrives for Christmas with Sylvia, the widow of his best friend from childhood. In the year they both lost spouses they moved in together. Blissed out on the amorous effects of simultaneous dementia, they assume they’ve always been together. They delight in a never-ending present of a past they never shared.
Masking. A need to feign competence cements their bond. Sylvia solves the problem of ordering food she cannot name by saying, I’ll have whatever Dusty’s having. Dad solves the problem of missing items by endorsing Sylvia’s theory – thieves. While they’re out and while they sleep, burglars run off with Glen Miller cd’s, dad’s chain saw, tubes of toothpaste. Their amusements are simple. At night, they sit in the dark with flashlights on. Cuddled on the living room couch they create safe.
I need my father to have Christmas dinner with us, just as he always has. Sylvia is welcome. We had to sneak the car away from them after Sylvia’s daughter complained about their long days driving lost in New England. So, my husband picks them up at noon on Christmas Eve and drives them to our house with overnight bags.
From the couch in my living room after lunch, my father spontaneously shares a revelation. It’s strange. . . but I don’t know where I live anymore.
He no longer recognizes my home, in the town he lived in for fifty years. You live in Springfield, now, with Sylvia I say.
Is that right? I can’t picture it, he says, calmly. Sylvia breathes softly beside him.
We walk across a field of dead grass to the woods as I wish – just the two of us. Under leafless trees, in silence, our feet crunch along the river’s edge. My father is with me for Christmas. When I slip my arm through his, he surprises me with another revelation. My mind isn’t working the same, he says.
Does that make you sad? I ask, perhaps because sad is what I can comfort.
No, he answers, matter-of-factly. It’s just different.
In the December chill, holding his arm, I walk us back across the field.
Around 4:00 a.m. Christmas morning, sleepless, Sylvia and Dad are fully dressed and ready – bags packed – to return home. Dinner is twelve hours away. My sister and brother-in-law plan to drive them home after dessert. My children will wake in a couple of hours to open gifts. I coax them to the couch at dawn. By the fire they sip hot chocolate, heating, and waiting. When the children wake, they cheerfully open a few gifts. But mostly, they will spend Christmas day searching for the bathroom, sneaking upstairs for their bags, wishing by the front door.
Please stay for dinner, it’s Christmas, I say, lifting their bags back upstairs, offering cups of eggnog, boxes of chocolates. Smiling, they agree to stay a few forced minutes at a time.
When my sister and brother-in-law finally arrive in the late afternoon, their patience has expired. Stuffed with chocolates and eggnog, they will not be distracted by the smell of prime rib being served in the dining room. My sister and brother-in-law volunteer to skip dinner.
Upstairs, I lift their bags and find that Sylvia, unable to distinguish her belongings, has packed up the lifetime she’s lived overnight in our guest room – sheets from the bed she’d slept in, framed pictures of my children displayed on the bureau, a stapler from a desk drawer, men’s work shirts we keep for my father-in-law’s visits, and gift wrap, assorted, from the closet.
They are nearly out the door, hurrying ahead of my sister, when I check one last time and slip the pink cashmere shawl a dear friend from Paris has given me out of Sylvia’s bag.
They are thanking me. I wave, wishing them a Merry Christmas, which they will find later, in a darkened room, with a flashlight.
Kelly DuMar is a poet, playwright and workshop facilitator from the Boston area. Her award-winning chapbook, “All These Cures,” was published by Lit House Press, 2014. Her plays are produced around the US and Canada and are published by dramatic publishers. Kelly founded and produces the Our Voices Festival of Women Playwrights at Wellesley College, now in its 11th year, and she serves on the board & faculty of The International Women’s Writing Guild. Her chapbook, upcoming, is “Tree of the Apple,” published by Two of Cups Press. More at KellyDuMar.com.
Pre-order “Tree of the Apple”
Photograph in banner cited from: Jakob Lawitzki (flickr)
Edited by Literary Orphans
With each subsequent issue of Literary Orphans Journal that’s released, along with the creative nonfiction side of the journal’s heartstrings you’ll find here at The Tavern Lantern, we strive to connect a network of readers with meaningful literary voices. And since the end of each year is slow-burning, we seek to fill the journal’s intricate spaces with a similar type of reflection. Below is the first installment of our 2016 Top Ten series. These lists are simple and meant to convey personally significant topics of the year from writers and editors we respect.
Let’s read together.
Top Ten Diversions 2016
I am notorious amongst my peers and relatives for being stringently — some may say curmudgeonly — in opposition of anything with even the vaguest whiff of current trends. The novels, movies, music, comix, etc. I gravitate toward all seem to have the common unifying theme of originating in decades past. Having said that, I was humbled by Literary Orphan’s invitation to provide my own top ten list of 2016. Seeing as it’s been one hell of a year I decided to list some of my favorite getaway vehicles, in no particular order.
1. Netflix series Easy
While it may not be Netflix’s best original series, Easy captivated my interest by deftly portraying the unfettered minutiae of everyday life and love. I am appreciative of the fact that there are no unnecessary fireworks or smoke and mirrors to be found. No illusions or spectacular misrepresentations of how relationships thrive, or at times come to an unexpected screeching halt. Life happens in the quiet moments. The subdued exchanges. The conversations tucked between the happenstance and bustle of this crazed world which are too commonly ignored onscreen. Easy gets that shit.
2. Backderf’s The Baron of Prospect Avenue
This webcomic picks up immediately following the events depicted in Derf’s 2010 graphic novel Punk Rock and Trailer Parks. Through regularly updated installments on www.derfcity.com, the further adventures of the protagonist Otto unfold as he makes his way through the punk rock scene and cultural landscape of the early ‘80s. The main attractions for me are Derf’s inimitable style as well as his no bullshit approach to dialogue and storytelling. Appearances from icons like Lester Bangs and The Ramones sure doesn’t hurt either.
3. Nevermind turns 25
I’m not sure I have ever experienced more of a geriatric moment than when the quarter of a century anniversary for Nirvana’s Nevermind arrived. Though In Utero is by far my favorite Nirvana effort, Nevermind was an unequivocal milestone of my adolescence and was even one of the inspirations behind my own (unsuccessful) foray into performing music. On the album’s anniversary I found the blistering track list on heavy rotation. Standout tunes for me are “Drain You” and “Lithium”, but there remains to be a haunting comfort in that opening riff of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. It’s still fun to lose and to pretend…
4. Switched on Pop! Podcast
I never actively dove into the plethora of podcasts available until my wife introduced me to a number of fantastic shows. One of, if not my favorite of the podcasts introduced was Switched On Pop!. Hosted by musicologist Nate Sloan and songwriter Charlie Harding the show seeks to break down pop songs to figure out what makes them tick. Sloan and Harding dissect their selections in a manner anyone can follow. One of the aspects I enjoy the most is the fluid, conversational tone in which the two longtime friends conduct their analysis. Thus far I found the most entertaining episode to be the one which revolves around auto-tuning entitled “Pop Drops and Chipmunk Soul”.
5. Kate McKinnon
Saturday Night Live hasn’t truly exhibited exceptional comedy since its inception in the ‘70s. Others’opinions may differ, but my impression is the overall quality of the writing spanning the past few decades has been uneven at best. Aside from the flimsy gags and torturously prolonged sketches there have been a handful of breakout talents. One such talent deserving of much wider recognition and acclaim is Kate McKinnon. Her subtle deliveries and comedic timing upstage anyone unfortunate enough to share screen time with her. I for one believe that what the world needs at this juncture is a Kate McKinnon variety show.
6. Bridge School Benefit 30thAnniversary
Every October the Bridge School Benefit Concert converges upon the gently sloped hills of the Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, CA. The Bridge School is a non-profit organization whose mission is to ensure that individuals with severe impairments achieve full participation in their communities. The lineup rotates annually releasing the schedule just weeks before show time. This year marked three decades of shows, treating those of us in attendance to acoustic sets by the likes of Nora Jones, Willie Nelson, Metallica, and one of the concerts organizer Neil Young. I spent an entire evening with my wife and in-laws being transported far from the election gridlock on waves of mellifluous performances. Substance ingestion is encouraged, though not necessary for full immersion.
7. The Cartoon Art Museum
The Cartoon Art Museum has been in operation since 1987, but 2016 decided to throw them a curveball. In April they were uprooted by the gentrification which has been pummeling the San Francisco creative scene for some time and forced to relocate. The odds were looking dicey until a new permanent home on Beach Street close to Ghirardelli Square was announced in November. They are set to reopen in spring of 2017 and I highly recommend a visit to anyone with even the slightest affinity for comics, animation, etc. I spent many a care-free afternoon or evening at the museum as volunteer, and even served as cartoonist-in-residence a time or two. The Cartoon Art Museum is not only an integral non-profit organization promoting literacy and the arts. They also make it a point to support and promote cartoonists at any level, regardless of the size of their oeuvre.
8. Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide To Earth
I loved Sturgill Simpson’s first two albums as they were beacons for the classic country fans wading through the bro-country sludge currently clogging the airwaves. To say the album was a bit of a departure is an understatement, though this is by no means detrimental to my listening experience. Simpson shines on songs such as the funk-tinged “Keep it Between the Lines” and the slow-burn reimagining of Nirvana’s “In Bloom”. Perhaps he is trying to distance himself from the Waylon Jennings comparisons. Maybe he simply needed to expand and explore uncharted sonic ground. Either way, Simpson never relents on the fundamental factors which make him a brilliant singer and songwriter.
9. Tom Hart’s Rosalie Lightning
Rosalie Lightning is precisely what I want from a novel, graphic or otherwise. You will not find any grandiose stoking of the emotional bonfire, spiraling into plumes of clichés. This is a tempered, yet no less heart-wrenching, reaction to an unimaginable tragedy. Hart does an amazing job of approaching the subject matter with a poise that is once tender and full of the rage that only a parent who has lost a child can experience. His artwork is uniquely personal, just understated enough to know I am in the hands of an author who has put in the time… personally and professionally.
10. Dancing in the Street sans music
Just watch the fucking thing. You’re welcome.
Alex Schumacher has toiled away in the relative obscurity of minimum-wage jobs and underground comics longer than he cares to admit. Currently he produces the weekly illustrated feature Decades of (in)Experience for Antix Press, the bi-weekly column Bread Crumbs from the Void for Five 2 One Magazine, and the monthly comic strip Mr. Butterchips for Drunk Monkeys. His comics and stories have been published by the likes of Arcana Studios, Cultured Vultures, The Round-Up Writer’s ‘Zine, and Hobo Camp Review. More info can be found on his site https://alexschumacherart.com/.
Our almost baby is conceived on tacky brown hotel sheets. His father and I are a frantic tangle of limbs and teeth, leaving bite marks and saliva against each other’s throats. The next morning we stop at a Rite Aid and buy Doritos and condoms. Four weeks later we buy an EPT. My bladder is an aching pulse while I wait for my first morning’s urine. The warm rush is such a relief that I’m laughing and crying before I see the word “pregnant.”
For twenty something weeks my body does its thing automatically. This is my fourth time in the pregnancy lottery. My skin stretches. My belly is a drum. My son is an underwater acrobat. He is a bubble. A twist, a turn. A series of thumps in the dark. My naval becomes an inside-out love letter. His toes are a perfect ripple underneath my freckled skin.
He slips quietly away in the 26th week. While I’m sitting Indian style on a burnt orange shag rug. While I’m burning my palm on the toaster. Or mixing red Kool-Aid and tuna fish. Maybe while I’m eating the last mint Milano in the house. Or when an abrupt arm catches me in the chest. Sending me over a ripped green chair. While I”m falling in slow motion. Hands trying to grab the air. Landing in an awkward, pregnant heap. Laying on faded blue linoleum. The thing is, I don’t know. I will never know.
I don’t notice his sudden silence for a day and a half. Until I’m losing bright drops of blood into a toilet bowl at The Knights Of Columbus Hall. My pelvis has become a clenched fist. Furling. Unfurling. I am losing bits of breath and sanity with each cramp. They give me water and Valium to stop the screaming. A student nurse with tears on her cheeks juggles a cup with ice chips. My throat feels like a half cooked steak. They give me Morphine in an IV to manage my physical pain.
Nothing they offer me will save my heart.
The Morphine has me retching and drooling into a pink basin. Choking on the taste of my son’s death. My husband sits completely still in his torn Beatles tee shirt. Watching “Halloween” while my abdomen melts and my bones break dance with no one.
My body becomes thunder. It slowly pulls me apart. While across the room, Jamie Lee Curtis stabs the prodigal brother in the eye with a metal coat hanger.
My body is a failed sanctuary. Destroying me while it methodically tries to empty itself. I know that when I’m done puking and crying and thrashing, this body will never feel full again.
Would he have played the guitar? Would he have been tone deaf? Would he have been good at math? What would he have looked like behind the wheel of a car? On his graduation and wedding days? Holding his first child? Would he have tattoos and drive too fast? Would he call me on Mother’s day and at 2 am? What would his hand print look like in paint? What would his hair have felt like between my fingers? I imagine these things for him. For me. I try to call life back. I try to give my dead child experiences he never had. To make him into what he may have been if he hadn’t died in the dark, underneath my heart. The only life he knew happened in the dark. Floating in amniotic fluid between my ribs.
Every year on Oct. 13th and Oct. 14th I remember some new detail. Some small, needless piece of information. Something that is important only to me. Because I was his mom. I am his mom. I remember something new about that day. I talk about it. I write about it. I speak my child’s name out loud. Like a poem that’s never been published. A dream that never existed in daylight. Every year as I take an almost vicious pleasure in remembering him, I think: I’m over this. I’m really over this. Until I remember that “this” is not bad sushi. This is not an awkward blind date with bad breath. This is not tight pants. This was my child. This is my child. I am not supposed to get over this. It’s okay not to get over this.
This, was a small boy named Timothy. He had blue skin, black hair and perfect hands and feet. He never cried or kicked a ball. He never outgrew my arms.
These are the things I know. He was conceived in an ugly little dive in Pittsfield, Maine. On scratchy brown sheets that smelled like someone else’s hangover. My husband sang “Hard Luck Woman” into my ear. We ran, holding hands, laughing through a pouring rain, and across a parking lot filled with broken glass. We were drunk and without condoms. He bought some the next day at a Rite Aid. It was 12 hours too late. I tasted peppermint schnapps for a day and a half.
I got Dorito dust on my fingertips and read Danielle Steele’s Palomino on the ride home. I curled my naked toes around the dash, while inside of me cells danced and floated and divided and a brand new person began. My husband drove with one arm dangling out a window. I sang under my breath to Foreigner songs. He said: “Your hair is just so fucking beautiful when the sun hits it.” I am one day pregnant with a child I haven’t planned on. We will spend 214 days together, my unborn heartbreak and I.
People don’t know what to say or where to look. Not at my face, where grief has left deep, wet lines in my still young skin. Not at my arms, no newborn to congratulate me on. Not at my torso. Hollow. Guilty. Deflated. Ugly. Not into my eyes, where grief is a bottomless vortex. This grief is rude and loud, and just may be contagious. People leave flowers and food and prayer cards, while I stand in the shower with my milk coming in. They stand on the other side of the bathroom door, talking about God’s will, while I lean into the spray of water and milk and scream silently into a cheap Walmart washcloth.
If he had lived he would be 5, 10, 15, 20, 25 years old. He would be a soulful boy/child/man. He would have a goatee and soft, full lips. He would probably have long fingers and curly dark hair. He would probably wear glasses and squint. He would have been beautiful. Thin and jittery in the way of the perpetually hungry. I don’t know what he would have sounded like. I can only imagine that he would have grown into the husk and honey of his brothers’ voices. His father’s voice. I don’t know what he would have smelled like. Is it crazy to say I miss the scent of someone I barely knew? Mud and grass. Apple Jacks with Saturday morning cartoons. Steam and sand and Axe cologne. These are the smells I’ve assigned to my dead son.
Perhaps the vicious pleasure comes from being able to be in control of my own grief. To own my sadness. After the doctor pronounced there was no heartbeat, everyone tried to take over my grief.
The doctor turned my son from “The baby” to “The fetus” with a quick curl of his tongue.
Tried to give me distance from a tragedy that had occurred over my pelvic bone. My husband tried to take my head physically in his hands. Tried to guide my eyes to a place of unseeing. To bury my sorrow in the sweat and beer and ripped places of his decades old Beatles Tee shirt. Our son stopped for him on that night. Our marriage gasped a last breath not long after. Though we remained under the same roof for 11 more years. Though we brought another boy into the world 6 years later. A boy with long fingers and curly dark hair.
He is conceived on striped sheets. In a cotton candy pink room. The window is up. There’s chicken thawing on a counter in the kitchen and no condoms in the night stand. His father and I are a quiet puzzle of mouths and skin. Interlocking fingers. Fistfuls of hair. Bursting apart. Falling together. He is conceived in the middle of a summer rainstorm, to a rerun of Cops. Later we get up and make Chicken Parmesan. I wash the smell of conception off my skin with a tube of Mister Bubbles the kids left in the tub.
I count days on a calendar full of loons. Standing still in my in-laws’ kitchen at camp. Middle of the night dark and water lapping against the dock. I count and count again. Tears grow cold on my face. I count until numbers lose their meaning and dawn begins crawling across the floor, toward my toes. Then I wake up my husband with the word: “pregnant.” He bundles me like stained glass into the car and drives 10 miles into a town so small that if you blink, you’ll miss it. I sit beside him, afraid to speak, afraid to breathe around this brand new fragile thing inside me. My body has proven it can’t be trusted with fragile things. I do the public toilet hover dance and pee on the stick provided by a rural clinic nurse with an infected nose ring. I pace through the waiting room, ignoring the 8-year-old Time magazines and ripped copies of Highlights, until the doctor with the Bozo hairdo and the yen for eating paper comes out and smiles around the word: “positive.”
I don’t think of this brand new fragile thing as a baby. I don’t think of it as forming cells belonging to me and to his father. I refuse to talk about names. I refuse to touch the flesh above my pelvis. I continue to breathe shallowly around the newness in my core. In the seventh week there’s some mild cramping. Blood on the Charmin in my hand. If I close my eyes, the blood will turn into a dead baby in my palm. If I breathe too deeply, my body will become a grave. There’s something heavy banging around in the dryer. My knees are shaking. The kids are killing each other over an episode of Golden Girls in the living room. I put on a flannel nightgown and my husband’s tube socks. I crawl into bed and talk to some doctor I’ve never met. He says wait and see. He says if the worst happens, we can try again. I wonder what he knows about the worst. I stop breathing shallowly and start breathing fire. I shock both of us with my vehement words: I want THIS baby. My 5-year-old climbs into bed beside me and we read Winnie the Pooh. My voice doesn’t shake when I become Winnie the Pooh, and Rabbit, and Tigger. I don’t flinch when my son places a small hand over the flesh of my belly and whispers: “Are you listening, baby?”
Janine Canty is a writer posing as a human. She puts on scrubs by day and passes meds in a busy nursing facility. She writes by night. Usually in a ratty robe and fuzzy socks. She is passionate about Pepsi, chocolate, and her granddaughters. And words. Words are her thing. Especially the gritty and uncomfortable ones. Her work has previously been featured on The Manifest Station and The Weeklings, as well as Sweatpants and Coffee. Her most recent essay appears in the lit journal, The Dandelion Review. She can be found on Facebook.
Photograph in banner cited from: Michael Mandiberg (flickr)
Edited by Literary Orphans
Last month I celebrated an artist near and dear to my heart, one whose music sparked my imagination and gave me strength to strive to be greater. This month, our phenomenal managing editor, Brittany Warren, shares a similar orphan. Please read her incredible letter down below, and let us know who your favorite orphans are in the comments.
–Scott Waldyn, Editor in Chief
Dear Orphans & Orphanettes,
Science fiction is unbelievable. Please don’t take this statement to mean that I don’t see any credibility in the genre. In fact, I’m pedaling the opposite here. “But Brittany, you haven’t given us any italics, or even an exclamation point to indicate your intrigue,” you state aloud. Well, that’s because I want you to really feel my emphasis, without my having to show you. Aside from this, though, I want you to move forward with your own opinions.
We are currently digesting a historical battle to prove that propaganda is rigid and rough in all the right places—that propaganda against one or the other will benefit several. Get into my car, it emphasizes. You know who I am.
After facing the rich, soapy lathering of egos from atop the highest pedestals, we’re left questioning, what comes next?
What we need is something to remedy the counter intuitive nature of today’s progress friction. With this, Literary Orphans is enthused to bring you Issue 27’s chosen orphan, the renowned science fiction writer, Alice B. Sheldon.
Sheldon, born in 1915, was a prolific writer within a predominantly male genre. For her, progression meant adopting the pseudonym James Tiptree, Jr., as no one believed that a woman could possibly write the way she had. In particular, with there being so much movement regarding gender, I feel a certain fondness for her short novella, “The Girl Who Was Plugged In.”
P. Burke is Tiptree’s pickled lady protagonist who’s deformed and not “lady” enough, so her brain is sourced to control the body of pretty doll Delphi remotely as the face of illegal advertising. And oh my, oh my! The way the story’s narrator repeatedly refers to the reader as a “zombie” and a “dead daddy” really lights a special, special spark. For in this instance, the reader is made to appear clueless to the powers that be, and oblivious to the idea that gender, genre and voice are all-inclusive.
However, this isn’t a story that’s to be read blindly, regardless of what our fancy, new nicknames as readers might suggest. There are similarities within Tiptree’s work that are quite kindred with our scenarios of today. She speculates that who and what we’re led by is always hovering over us as something influential. But sometimes, the guise of influence is a big, blushy mistake. So, we must move forward of our own accord, as individuals. Certain voices and mindsets just aren’t as cotton candy sweet as rhetoric dictates.
Much like the purpose behind Sheldon’s work, the writers we feature in Issue 27 are purposeful, too, and every type of wonderful. Whether you flock to poetry, fiction, non-fiction, or visual art, we’ve got it all. The final decision of what to read is so special, it would be as if you made it yourselves, without pressure. Only you, Dear Readers…it’s up to only you.
We hope you enjoy the new issue.
There is purpose in reading together,