Hearing Crickets Late 0n the Last Night of June
for Ethna McKiernan
Now the tumbrels of July hurtle near with scallops
of heat, running fire not far away in Colorado,
already this dying month has honored flooding
& dislocation among those not alert,
some who were – but when one has not been touched,
it is still hard to keep smug because age & infirmity
reach all who defy accident, premature death,
those unsought martyrs we revere in story
but grieve for in life, in death – mortality, we say,
not to make it sound grim, which it is.
The wrought sounds of insects obeying their natures,
not caring for audience approval or needing approbation
from anyone who suffices with song or images,
these are the plaudits Yeats and Akhmatova craved,
the nature of this, our world, the real stretch of eyes,
hearing, and place, amenable or not – this, our lives
portending work, small joys, before the humblest death.
James Naiden’s third novel, The Chafings of Mortals, was published in 2011. He lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota and is a regular reviewer for IS&T.Read More
Dorothy Smith and others have contributed to our understanding of the standpoint, a theory which goes some distance in explaining why contemporary writers seem better at adopting a multiplicity of perspective in their work. Diaspora writers are especially interesting in part due to their unique access to various ‘outsider-within’ perspectives. Warsan Shire was born in the Somali Diaspora community in Kenya, moved to London as a young child, is comfortable in Italy, and has read her poetry around the world. Her writing is an open invitation into a multidimensional reality generous with its insights and observations. Her first collection is a clear statement of intent for a young writer who has assumed the burden of responsibility for communicating the traumatic aftermath of the Somali civil war and subsequent Diaspora with a particular focus on the impacts felt by women. Teaching my mother how to give birth is a modern treatment of the contradictions and conflicts of the Diaspora experience. The title, like much of Shire’s work, turns conventional wisdom on its head and forces us to reconsider received roles and notions.
Shire is a cartographer of the physical as body and place become metaphorical devices imbued with sense and meaning. In Conversations About Home, Shire’s powerful description of an obsolete passport being destroyed deploys extended metaphor to suggest the internalising of the process of identity crisis: “I tore up and ate my own / passport in an airport hotel. I’m bloated with language I can’t afford to / forget”. In the same poem: “They ask me how did you get here? Can’t they see it on my body? The / Libyan desert red with immigrant bodies, the Gulf of Aden bloated, the / city of Rome with no jacket”. The body, complete with scars and wounds, becomes the immigrants chronicle, a living and mobile Bayeux Tapestry, which carries the answers to the riddle of identity and on another level provides the history and justification for struggle.
In Grandfather’s Hands, Shire explores anatomy and geography as sexual and romantic metaphor with impressive effect:
Your grandfather’s hands were brown.
Your grandmother kissed each knuckle,
Circled an island into his palm
and told him which parts they would share
and which parts they would leave alone.
She wet a finger to draw where the ocean would be
on his wrist, kissed him there,
named oceans after herself.
… Your grandparents often found themselves
in dark rooms, mapping out
each other’s bodies,
claiming whole countries
with their mouths.
The notions of ownership and sensuality in the above poem offer an insight into the psychology of the stateless individual, where physical geography has become inaccessible, almost taboo, and therefore a fitting metaphor for desire. This idea is developed further in Things We Had Lost In The Summer, where desire, the sacrilegious and the physical collide to produce some wonderful imagery: “Amel’s hardened nipples push through / the paisley of her blouse, minarets calling men to worship.” Also, in Questions for Miriam: “You were a city / exiled from skin, your mouth a burning church”.
The central enquiry in this text is one of identity and occurs almost entirely at the level of subtext as Shire adopts a detached and impersonal voice and form. Often, we are confronted with characters who struggle to reconcile their religious, cultural, and sexual identity in an unstable and violent world. Shire aims to confront the conventional, epitomised in the final poem where the poet writes: “To my daughter I will say, / ‘when the men come, set yourself on fire’”. The traditional family unit is further scrutinised, with Shire writing: “I have my mother’s mouth and my father’s eyes; on my face they are still together”. This is a powerful expression of the failure of the old atomic structures to survive in the sexually and physically violent environment of civil war and the subsequent challenge of Western modernity in the Diaspora. In this instance, the body is formalised as a fortress against suffering.
Your Mother’s First Kiss, imagines a mother getting a bus in London and finding the driver is the man who raped her and fathered her daughter. The daughter clutches a bag of dates to her chest, which is symbolically interesting as dates are the traditional food for breaking fast and represents the end of solemnity and silence; the end of reverence and obligation. The poem’s climax, with the mother’s upsetting realisation of the resemblance between father and daughter, is particularly haunting with its echo effectively ringing throughout the collection. The caricatures of mother/daughter relationships throughout he collection expose the frictions and tensions magnified by the width of the cultural-generational gap. In Beauty where a mother bans her daughter from saying God’s name because: “Anything that leaves her mouth sounds like sex”, and in Things We Had Lost In The Summer (exert below), when an adolescent girl explores her sexuality, we are shown how the search for identity produces as effect an adversarial relationship between mother and daughter:
I open my legs like a well-oiled door,
daring her to look at me and give me
what I had not lost: a name.
The identity of mothers, and more generally women of the pre-Civil War generation, represents the old order of characterised by female oppression and weakness throughout the collection. They are nearly always the victims of sexual and violent abuse at the hands of men. Even when, in Fire, a wife exacts her revenge by incinerating her husband for his infidelities, she also kills herself in the process, giving us an all-or-nothing position which is hardly the picture of strength. The contrast could not be clearer with the younger women, such as Maymuun and Sofia, who are renegotiating (on their own terms) the cultural and sexual balance of power.
In Maymuun’s Mouth, we are told the story of a Somali refugee and her adjustments to life in the West, taking photos of her newly shaped hair by a bridge. The bridge token works on two levels, the incidental and the symbolic, which extends the metaphorical reach of the poem in understanding transformation, journey and identity in Diaspora experience. Birds offers an ironic treatment of the conflict between modern and traditional sexual norms in Somali society and also between the expected moral standards for women and the double-standards of men:
Sofia used pigeon blood on her wedding night.
next day, over the phone, she told me
how her husband smiled when he saw the sheets,
On first readings, the book is comprised of a series of traumatic episodes with sensational and shocking images. But it is wrong to regard this collection as a work of tragedy. It is not exclusively a book about hope either. What it does exceedingly well is provide a series of concentrated vignettes about change. It does not answer all the existential questions raised by Diaspora identity but it demands that we revise our preconceived notions about a part of the world that to most of us is all pirates, warlords and famine. My only addendum would be to encourage more of the same, only extended in scope to give us more. Our picture of Somali women has gained new dimensions through Shire’s honesty, but I fear that a simplistic reading of this collection does little to challenge the unfair stereotype of Somali men as exclusively brute and savage. Needless to say, this is a work of depth, vision and beauty that deserves to be read, enjoyed and discussed. I have no doubt that it will.
Order your copy of Warsan Shire’s teaching my mother how to give birth, published by Flipped Eye here
I hate people, all those people who are so happy right in your face? The fuck you people strolling through the plastic malls the world over, their tinny voices bouncing off the walls even an iPod can’t mute.
I walk among them but I am not of them. You think me arrogant but I do not lie. For one thing, I never smile. My lips are a straight black line, like a dash in a sentence. I glide like a stealth bomber, invisible. When one of those perfume ladies even thinks to squirt me, I disintegrate her like she is a puff a smoke, like she was never there. Same with those people dangling objects in front of me from their carts. I tolerate nothing.
I am the Mall Stalker. When I’ve had enough, I pop into Mom’s Chevy Suburban and fly home.
Gloria Garfunkel is the daughter of two Auschwitz survivors and has a Ph.D. in Psychology and Social Relations from Harvard University. She has been a therapist for thirty years and is switching careers to writing fiction and memoir. She has recently published over thirty stories.Read More
The One that Got Away
They said it was a slow day in personal fitness.
They said it was a lorry going by.
But when love walked in wearing his Tuesday suit
The photocopiers started reproducing, immaculately,
Perfect versions of the same vacancy;
The coffee machine anticipated its twenty minute whine
Of life by a temporary miracle
And the tinfoil ashtrays in the canteen
Erupted in tremulous applause.
They said it was office party syndrome;
They said it couldn’t outlast June.
But you escaped the high fidelity of the computer’s one green eye;
If not scandal in the toilets
And you flew with love through factory land
Down the motorway in cloud like a car,
Past the service stations and the corrugated installations
And the giant models on hoardings inviting speculation
From semi-interest stirring by,
Towards the airport and a dream of release.
They say you sold time shares in Lanzarote
They say at least your tan’s your own;
These things were never meant to last —
A desperate confusion of needs and last chances
And they can only imagine how it damages the skin.
They say love woke up after a month
And left you with the hotel bill
And Sangria stains on the memory.
Of course he went back to his wife.
Where you went we don’t really know
But we’re expecting a postcard.
Although Simon Leonard has reached an age at which even his parents consider abandoning their ambition for him, he remains an inconsistently optimistic writer of poetry in English and at best an intermittently ambitious writer of short fiction in Spanish. He has had poetry published in Envoi and has been shortlisted in two fiction competitions. He currently lives in the United Arab Emirates, where he teaches English Literature in a Secondary school. He is married with two children.Read More
I Went To Space With Leo DiCaprio
We fell in love in space,
but then quickly fell out again,
we divorced in space,
which made things awkward,
In space everything is thinner,
I looked like a supermodel,
that’s probably why he fell in
love with me in the first place,
it’s fun being rich in Space,
eating caviar is a challenge!!
I took lots of pictures with an old
from space Earth looks like
you probably didn’t expect me
to say that,
I’m sorry to dampen your
illusions, but seriously,
I didn’t have time to bear Leo’s children
so the divorce wasn’t messy or anything,
in case you are wondering,
I told Leo my dreams in Space,
he thought I was weird,
and asked about Lithium,
it was a bumpy ride on
the way home,
and very loud,
I plan to sell this story to
Melanie Browne is a poetry and fiction writer living in Texas with her husband and three children.Her work can be found at Storyglossia, Johnny America, and Pulp Metal Magazine. She has a story forthcoming in the second Zombies Gone Wild Anthology.
A Neighborhood of Vertebrae
This sky is a sunny place unless you’re somewhere else, a cloudy place if your face is chattering in the rain. I like to think it would be as easy as saying “I’ve had enough pain, leave my body,” and it would pick up and go. It would gather its belongings and take care to leave nothing, not even a breath drawn tightly through the teeth, behind.
It’s almost beyond imagining, but to bridge memory to the present, ask. What would it be like to feel comfort again, to wake up and actually feel pleasure in the muscles standing, to enjoy the stretch as the hands bring water and wash the face of sleep?
Resist the temptation to answer the question with another question or a solution that dulls the inquiry. There is reward around here somewhere if the tension is followed past the point of a logical conclusion, followed to the source of the problem, even if the problem is a widespread something not right, unclear, probably genetics, or environment, the untold difficulty of living in this body in this world, a dysfunction that fails to fit the paradigms of diagnosis, but quiets down when given a pill whose effect overlaps its song: so much garbled, muscular, nerve-taut rage.
A refrain on repeat, a theme with such potential for variation there is no hope of exhaustion.
A language for one, perhaps shared, but incommunicable from one speaker to another. A book inside of someone who never learned the dialect, who never knew there was such a thing until it started speaking, and if hearing foreign voices in the head, where voices belong, is an indication of a break from reality, what would you think of me if I admitted to hearing the spine speak in ten different tongues?
One for each herniated disc, overlapping grammar
but each with its own syntax
for sending the brain its shades of pain.
Ricky Ray was educated at Columbia University in the Stars and Stripes, where he traded a career in engineering for a penniless prospect of self-investigation. His work has been published variously; recent examples can be found in Esque Mag and the anthology Chorus.Read More
I met a traveller from a land Down Under, who said:
“What passing-bells for those who die
With the lights out? It’s less dangerous
Where Angels fear to tread.
I grow old, I grow old, O sweet child o’ mine!
I want a Hero; an uncommon want:
He’s gotta be strong, and he’s gotta be bold,
And he’s gotta be Tyger Tyger burning bright.
Hail to thee, blithe Poker Face painted on the wall
Looking as if she were alive, yeah I’m still alive.
Whoa, I’m still alive! If I should die, think only this of me:
I get knocked down, but I get up again –
You’re never gonna keep
The pockets of our greatcoats full of barley.
We all stand together, killing in the name
Of cannon to the left of ’em,
Cannon to the right of ’em,
Here I am, stuck in the middle with
The finest minds of my generation.
Shanti Shanti Chantilly lace, and a pretty face
And look on my works, ye mighty, and jump around.”
Andy Bennett is a poet and performer. He likes history and tries not to be too serious. He has performed at poetry nights, comedy nights, and festivals across the country, and even once took an anarchic puppet show to Finland for some reason. www.andybennettpoet.co.ukRead More