- Tommy Pico
- Ariana Reines
- Raquel Salas Rivera
- Prageeta Sharma
- Cedar Sigo
- Christopher Soto
- Brian Teare
- Jackie Wang
- Emerson Whitney
- Dara Wier
- Elizabeth Willis
- Joey Yearous-Algozin
Tommy “Teebs” Pico is a poet, podcaster, and tv writer. He is author of the books IRL, Nature Poem, Junk, Feed, and myriad keen tweets including “sittin on the cock of the gay.” Originally from the Viejas Indian reservation of the Kumeyaay nation, he now splits his time between Los Angeles and Brooklyn. He co-curates the reading series Poets with Attitude, co-hosts the podcast Food 4 Thot and Scream, Queen! is poetry editor at Catapult Magazine, writes on the FX show Reservation Dogs, and is a contributing editor at Literary Hub.
My first memory is at a funeral. My mother’s red baseball jacket and the rain. My dad is in the hospital again. Jennifer’s mom is in the hospital again. Benie’s dad is in the hospital again. I tell Lauren I’m writing a death essay. I call it a “deathssay.” I chortle. Mile’s grandpa died from Covid a couple months ago. I’m afraid of getting a haircut. I’m afraid of doing my laundry. I’m afraid of getting into a Lyft. Joe says everything is a calculated risk. It’s another heatwave in Los Angeles. “It’s hot as hell!” I say to no one in particular. I haven’t been touched by another person in five months. I don’t remember umbrellas. I remember Auntie crying. I remember someone cracking a joke. I remember everyone laughing. I remember everyone crying again. I remember the rain. My dad is in the hospital again. I drink smoothies twice a day. I say, “it’s time I got serious about my health,” to no one in particular. I take fish oil pills. I drink elderberry syrup. I put kale in the blender, and Pom and yogurt and bananas and lemons and strawberries and raspberries and blackberries and limes and peaches. I top it off with cayenne and cinnamon and turmeric. Twice a day. I am very regular. The Liquor Fountain app texts me they have a sale on gin. “There goes my progress,” I say to no one in particular. Morgan texts me there’s a sale on Hot Cheetos and frozen pizzas at the Smart & Final. I Google, “where can I get a haircut outdoors in Los Angeles.” I dream of the beach and walking into the water. I dream I’m at the mall but I realize I don’t have a mask on, and freak out. I wake up and brush my skin. My dad is in the hospital again. I remember throwing a handful of dirt onto the lowered casket. It was grey. I look down and I look up and everything looks the same.
Ariana Reines is the author of A SAND BOOK, winner of the 2020 Kingsley Tufts Prize, the Obie-winning play TELEPHONE, and other books. Described by KCRW’s Michael Silverblatt as a “crucial voice of her generation,” she has created performances for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Stuart Shave Modern Art, Le Mouvement Biel/Bienne, the Whitney Museum, & more. Her translations include TIQQUN’s Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl and Baudelaire’s My Heart Laid Bare. Her work has been translated into Spanish, Norwegian, Swedish, French, Turkish, Greek, and Quiché. She is the founding director of Invisible College, and a Divinity Student at Harvard.
for Francois Villon
I liked living near the dead
Houdini. The lovers who lived
With me in that apt. Going
To the cemetery with them
Was like being Louis XV
Walking around Versailles, as close
As anyone could get to being him
Doing that, there, in that day
And age. I was not less royal
Than the rich because unlike many
I knew my privilege, and where to take
Liberty, and that no one was going to give
It to me. You won’t believe me
About anything unless I press my life
Thru the computer. What makes
You think I don’t know that? Wanted
Dead or Alive. Democracy
In America. And what about you
Lover the computer brought me.
And even when we all agree over dinner
The medium really is deadening,
We all turn around the next day to work
Even harder to push even more life
Thru it. I think that is called doubling
Down. Fond dark lichens
Upon grey stone. My phone
Showed me a picture of my thigh
In Pere Lachaise. Bury me
There, or in the Cimitiere
Montparnasse, with Duras
And Baudelaire. Where
The departed rest is the only
Park you get
The only trees you get
The only kind of conversation
You can have without
Argument. I don’t want to be burned
I want to be buried. And when
That’s done you can come and see me
Wherever they put me. Never
Doubt it was what I always
Wanted. To be with you.
Raquel Salas Rivera (Mayagüez, 1985) is a Puerto Rican poet, translator, and editor. His honors include being named the 2018-19 Poet Laureate of Philadelphia and receiving the New Voices Award from Puerto Rico’s Festival de la Palabra. He is the author of five full-length poetry books. His third book, lo terciario/ the tertiary won the Lambda Literary Award for Transgender Poetry and was longlisted for the 2018 National Book Award. His fourth book, while they sleep (under the bed is another country), was longlisted for the 2020 Pen America Open Book Award and was a finalist for CLMP’s 2020 Firecracker Award. His fifth book, x/ex/exis won the inaugural Ambroggio Prize. antes que isla es volcán/before island is volcano, his sixth book, is an imaginative leap into Puerto Rico’s decolonial future and is forthcoming from Beacon Press in 2022.
Please Click HERE for the original Spanish version
for my father, edelmiro
crabs have less legs than hearts
and it’s a maritime mystery how often the sun drowns in its bath.
mountains are just bent elbows
fishing corpses from cemeteries with rainfists.
papi passes through and says goodbye.
he is a dead person, not a corpse.
i explain to politicians who won’t listen
that, in death, my father is still a person.
sadly, but tearless,
relationships that swore they’d walk me to my door
practice the word daquí in portuguese and wave
from their hoods: boyfriends in leather jackets.
it stops seeming strange that car
windows go down and house windows go up.
air circulates otherwise in lungs,
living rooms, at stoplights.
at the wendy’s on the corner, a man
screams at his kid, who stares into a rainbow puddle,
saying with his whole mouth that he needs to wake up,
it’s only oil.
that oil in the gaze is my inappropriate grief.
i stare with the novelty of a sun that never swims,
no matter how many times it drowns,
no matter how many times it dies,
in death, the sun is still alive,
like my father is still a person.
——— ——— ——— ——— ——— ———
instead of continuing, time is, like that spanish movie,
arrebatado. which could mean someone tore it from me
or is stuck, still high. arrebatado in the present, but
held hostage by the past. time is absent. being was here now.
my father explains that a library awaits and i listen attentively
as if it were yesterday, but it’s today and he’s gone.
not being is like being in time arrebatado;
but not like, it just is.
like is for when we say things like,
it’s like he’s here.
sad things said at family reunions we don’t have.
things like invocations of gesture and not faith.
they give us five minutes to say goodbye and a white rose
each, and the worst part is i thought i wouldn’t cry since it was brief.
many said was i ok.
others offered support.
a few shamed me for silence.
to be honest, some have lost no one
in this pandemic
and it shows.
——— ——— ——— ——— ——— ———
this is the worst task:
to exercise my right to failure.
to wake and turn off the light
so as to stay in the dark
counting on the elements
to make something,
worse even than the insensible rush
and hyper-productive affect,
is my desire for a nothing so complete
it pacifies rest.
i want to scream at that man like a child
screams from the smallness of a puddle,
from the waste of reused oil,
to say that nothing is worth anything
if, when people die,
they don’t also take a few words.
——— ——— ——— ——— ——— ———
rehusado, like arrebatado, is as much a return as a surrender.
i return to your memory, surrendering to time.
that’s it. i surrender. you win, mister time. enough. you are the fastest,
the best, the champion.
what bullshit, papi, those last weeks.
i know you can’t hear me, that you hated doctors
that said you were fine and you knew that no, you weren’t,
nothing is fine, being fine is survival’s bad habit.
me rehuso, i reuse myself these weeks i only produce excuses.
i ask not forgiveness from contractors and far-off friends
who request normality, edits, or touch.
i don’t want to be or be sad.
mourning is not and also not not like freud said,
it isn’t adorno’s negativity, or being-stuck-on-death.
it is, at once, surrender and refusal.
a no to movement and the movement
of saying no, not today, not tomorrow, nor will i say when.
——— ——— ——— ——— ——— ———
crabs have more hearts than lives.
when they die, they keep beating.
they leave their shells and recave.
they forget names, but still love and carry
memories of predators and currents.
those are your hearts in the world, papi.
that is my heart following your departure,
now so many solar freckles,
dilated anemones, sliced
of the all.
DEATH STATEMENT ON COMPLICATED SPIRITUAL GRIEVING: YEAR FIVE
“The difference between the who and the what at the heart of love, separates the heart. It is often said that love is the movement of the heart. Does my heart move because I love someone who is an absolute singularity, or because I love the way that someone is? Often love starts with some type of seduction. One is attracted because the other is like this or like that. Inversely, love is disappointed and dies when one comes to realize the other person doesn’t merit our love. The other person isn’t like this or that. So at the death of love, it appears that one stops loving another not because of who they are but because they are such and such. That is to say, the history of love, the heart of love, is divided between the who and what. The question of being, to return to philosophy, because the first question of philosophy is: What is it to be? What is “being”? The question of being is itself always already divided between who and what. Is “Being” someone or something? I speak of it abstractly, but I think that whoever starts to love, is in love or stops loving, is caught between this division of the who and the what. One wants to be true to someone—singularly, irreplaceably—and one perceives that this someone isn’t x or y. They didn’t have the properties, the images, that I thought I’d loved. So fidelity is threatened by the difference between the who and the what.”
― Jacques Derrida
Some of the memories intrude on less neutral ones, sting still, five years later. And I think about how my love and grieving of your death was interrupted with disappointment: “the who and the what at the heart of love” and fidelity changed the circumstances, and I tried to keep it all even, and thus to keep being.
I wonder why I don’t throw away your socks when I’m angry with you and I still continue to wear them, those and the black and blue cardigan. I wear it in the early mornings as if we are going to have coffee together. I feel the black and blue of you as a bruise sometimes, and it’s because I found more texts on your computer this summer. These were bolder, balder, and flirtatious—thorough in giving me a complete timeline of your true absence while I traveled that last summer of your life. These texts are far worse, in some ways, than the single one I found almost a month after your death.
So to add up our last summer: While I was teaching in Vermont or spending time with my family in Seattle, under that atypical rain-free blue sky of July; or I was attending a writing retreat in California and writing with friends and making new friends and listening to a deepening talk on Kathy Acker; I was finally feeling proud to have initiated deep community for myself on my own. You were courting your last hurrah. You were salacious in your secrecy and fervent in your desire to be with a ravishing, young woman who was a deep archetype of the many women before me that I saw in old photos of a nostalgic New York you had before us: your drug-addled portraiture, bursting of Jackson Pollock desires, a world you were proud of living and that I accepted as an affectation and not as a pathology.
I mentioned a loose deception as a vagary to your daughter and she said it was all about her; you would only act out because she did not give you the love you craved. Sad to eat these assessments. Maybe. But no, she doesn’t have to take you on either. I wished we could have defined you better in relation to your vices because it was all there to see: It was because you craved insatiable admiration, as endless as a blazing circumference, something singular and irreplaceably strayed to your longing. This wasn’t Myrrha and Cinyras; it was all about us. What we lost over the last several years.
You didn’t see me as a lover anymore in the latter year, only a matron for your daughter, and only a buffer to the outside world with the sort of pain of how it would unsee you daily. We were dissipating into your addiction, currying favor to all the vices carried into that center. I still feel this when I am wearing your socks, when I sip out of the Veselka mug you miss from New York City where these original women lived, one who drown in the East River after a week with you. Death ends all these very quickly, swiftly, and ours without the ardor I would have tried to consummate to fix us. I am not plunging into the East River nor any water of threatened fidelity anymore. I withdrew myself; I bred my will out of this schema of what had been so up-front familiar so I could lose this death-grip, finally, I hope.
Cedar Sigo is a member of the Suquamish Tribe. He has written numerous books of poetry. A book of lectures, Guard the Mysteries will be published in June. He lives in Lofall, Washington.
“It is not a game or sport. It’s life playing deliberately with death. Except that death is alive, too, taking an active part.” – Langston Hughes
There are those of us who have felt pursued by death since day one. Its constant attempts at translation can feel like a matter of course with almost magnetic sway. It was always there in the shadows and subtle wear patterns of our houses. From a fairly young age I learned to live with death and with the realization that there really is no ‘way out’.
My first visit to San Francisco in 1996 happened to coincide with the first resurrection and unveiling of Jay De Feo’s The Rose. It had recently been taken out from behind a false wall at the Art Institute and restored. It seemed to take the form of a temple rather than a painting or a sculpture. During the first year of its creation it was commonly referred to as Deathrose and it has continued to live under this title in my memory, as a single word unfurled in a perfect spiral.
Our current isolation has caused some of my friends to write and express doubts about what a poetry reading can do versus being physically out on the streets in protest. In this sense the pandemic has been framed and reframed as a ‘test of poetry’. This position assumes that we must somehow recalibrate our senses to now absorb and address the political. But as Native and/or LGTBQ+ writers we are never just entering into the political arena. We are born mid-stream where there can be no question as to whether we are dealing in the political. Rather it becomes a question of how transparent we choose to be in this regard.
Mvskoke (Creek) poet Jennifer Foerster recently explained the removal of native bodies from our homelands as a removal of poetry itself. It is useful to imagine poetry as just another human body attempting to survive as dispersed and outlawed. This removal of poetry could also be visualized as a spring run dry. The literature of Native Nations people has been forced to absorb and reflect these elisions. We can no longer relegate the term ‘historical trauma’ to the past. I heard Joy Harjo say just the other day, “Right now we are living through historical trauma.”
When you are out of balance, ceremony and ritual language balance the forces, harmonizing it. And that is the other kind of poetic I have access to, an ancient poetry that comes from the soil, comes from this land. This is brought to a kind of quality that resonates with language, somehow becoming the voice of the land. Language is another kind of landscape, an extension that goes away like the mist or the air that you breathe – Sherwin Bitsui
The death of George Floyd being recorded and released has led to a literal insurrection in terms of breaking quarantine. We are willing to risk our personal safety amid a pandemic to make clear that the police can no longer oppress and kill us and expect to go unpunished. The concurrent economic collapse has become a hugely unifying factor as well.
We must cast aside this idea of the political poem as a grim, immovable structure of complaint. If the poem is to remain a ‘high energy construct’ it must always add (at the very least) gasps of anger or political engagement. These may be present in a single line, a litany or carefully dispersed throughout an entire text.
I also wanted to touch on Diane Di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters. I happened to be teaching this book in February during the initial stages of lockdown. These poems take pleasure in tearing down every form of infrastructure that we cling to, whether it’s our education, the food we eat, or our rampant colonialism. Many of the strategies Di Prima offers around going underground and getting back to the land are extremely relevant to surviving a pandemic. It was my student, Amelia Vigil that pointed this out in one of their papers. In Revolutionary Letter #3, Di Prima lists the chores one must do to prepare for extended periods of isolation. Her paranoia is justified and glittering throughout the poem. This is taken from the last two stanzas:
and help will arrive, until the day no help arrives
and then you’re on your own.
hoard matches, we aren’t good
at rubbing sticks together any more
a tinderbox is useful, if you can work it
don’t count on gas stove, gas heater,
keep hibachi and charcoal, Charcoal Starter a help
kerosene lamp and candles, learn to keep warm
remember the blessed American habit of bundling.
Christopher Soto is a poet based in Los Angeles, California. He works at UCLA and sits on the Board of Directors for Lambda Literary. He is currently working on a novel about indigo production in El Salvador.
“Death never gets easier, only more expected.” I remember writing these lines as a young poet, when too many around me were passing away. Death felt predictable and constant, though its various iterations and nuances in feelings would change. I remember when I was afraid, I would pray and feel the spirits of my dead friends and family members in the room, almost visualizing them. It felt like a ghost party. After time, I would only invite certain dead friends to join me in certain prayers. My abuela was always watching over me, next to my guardian angel. I met a fellow fag on a rooftop of a queer warehouse and housing collective in Brooklyn. They were houseless and relapsing and we were chatting in an inflatable pool in the summer when a friend’s ghost appeared and told me that they would take care of this new acquaintance in the pool. I passed the message along and stayed in light touch with the new acquaintance. My dead friends have done this a few times before, asking to caretake for the living who are around me, when I am mostly okay. My abuela was a medium in El Salvador and there are three people she said were sensitive in the family and could be trained. I was one of them. She has passed into the next world and I am trying to learn her lost practices now. It is scary and I suppress a lot of my connection to the spiritual world. I think about death, as a shift in our relationships to individuals from the physical to the metaphysical world– the world of poetry and faith and speculation. I also remember youth, experiencing domestic violence and how much I cherished funerals. Funerals allow for public mourning and vulnerability in a way that is legible to American society at large. While experiencing domestic violence, there felt like few ways to have mourned the daily deaths of self, the daily decay, to be legible and crying with another person during that chronic trauma. So I did the mourning of domestic violence, while I was at funerals and also mourning the loss of friends. During the covid era (which is another form of chronic trauma) the collective grieving rituals of a funeral are disrupted and grieving becomes somewhat solitary (in the way that it becomes solitary during domestic violence). I have little left to say, aside from my heart breaks for my family members and for so many people around the world who are trying to mourn their loved ones, without the funerals and communal rituals that help so many of us during difficult times. When all of this is done, I hope that we are able to pause and say our goodbyes and cry together again, hand in hand.
Brian Teare is the author of six critically acclaimed books, most recently Companion Grasses, The Empty Form Goes All the Way to Heaven, and Doomstead Days, winner of the Four Quartets Prize. After over a decade of teaching and writing in the San Francisco Bay Area, and eight years in Philadelphia, he’s now an Associate Professor at the University of Virginia, and lives in Charlottesville, where he makes books by hand for his micropress, Albion Books.
The Way Things Are // March 2021
Since leaving the hospital, I feel death’s proximity more often. I edge so close to the idea my bowels seize, my body startled in an animal way, afraid to be so near. Perhaps because of the hour under anesthesia. In the days after my veins seem laced with the elemental chill that spread from the fentanyl drip and, like a glacier, scoured my mind out lobe by lobe, frontal, occipital, parietal, temporal. First the total blank of it, and then the sudden comfort of waking. My mind capable of perceiving and of sensing itself, but without the capacity to feel or access its embodiment, freed from physical pain. The surgeon’s camera still inside me, the screens full of my rippling pink wet gut urgent as an earthworm.
I have a metaphysics. It’s rooted in biotic and abiotic community, the shared materiality of Being. I don’t believe in god, but I do believe in the interconnections that unite the biosphere, a scale of relation that’s mostly beyond comprehension. I believe matter is a paradox: thoroughly personal and thoroughly impersonal, a conduit for energies seen and unseen, thought and unthought, measured and immeasurable. I believe our bodies know far more about it than our conscious minds. And my body tells me that death will be blank and painless, but it won’t be sleep. Because I will die knowing the comfort of waking does not await. Lucretius is partly right: “Is it not/rest more free from care than any sleep?” But since there will be no self left, death won’t be rest either. There will be no being to free from care!
During ordinary time, death hums next to life like the third, electrified subway rail that lies alongside the tracks. Often on the platform beneath City Hall I’d stare at its menacing, protective metal hood while I waited for the Broad Street Line bound for South Philly. Passengers largely ignore the presence of that rail, and, even if they note the warning signs, they trust that they are safe from it. But the threat really is there all the time, thrumming. And when through accident or malice a passenger falls or is thrust upon the tracks, there the possibility of death lies near in all its reality. And we all hold our breath. During ordinary time, when death’s distant, we make it through our days propped up by the sense that we shall not fall, that others will perish on the tracks, but not us.
Even this metaphor is a distancing device. But death is not metaphor. It won’t be a metaphorical experience; it will ripple and cascade through each of our shuttering cells. The mammalian fact of it will be so immediate, so material, so visceral, the mind can barely make sense of it. To think its own death, the mind must join its body. The body it has always been a part of, the body from which it has been taught to hold itself apart. Coming closer pains the mind. To touch the idea of its own cessation, to understand that the reflexive self-knowing, the touch of consciousness upon itself that is so tender, the in-folded knowledge so essential to the experience of being here, will stop. It is hardly thinkable because it is the thing that won’t be thought at all.
This is no ordinary time. Mass burials and vaccines. Masks and double masks and Zoom funerals. Extended wildfire seasons, accelerating extinctions, microplastics raining over the Pyrenees and threading the flesh of marine animals. Sirens and protests. A gyre of gun violence, racist police brutality, far right terrorism. Screen after screen of mis- and disinformation. More easily than anything else, COVID-19 has made visible, literal, and even thinkable the interconnections that unite us. Did you think our shared materiality were some utopia? “All those things which people say exist/in Hell,” Lucretius writes, “are really present in our lives.” Deforestation and habitat loss allowed one virus to find the right vector; through contact indirectly facilitated by us, it moved from horseshoe bat to animal intermediary to human host. Zoonotic, highly contagious, the virus has taken the true measure of the scale of our relation: a vast cascade of mortality, almost three million now around the world.
But when have I known ordinary time? After forty one years and no vaccine, thirty two million have died of AIDS. Hardly out of childhood, I helped carry the beloved bodies from hearse to grave. I kissed their cheeks at the wakes. I held their thin gone hands in the impersonal light of hospital rooms. How cold their lips. I was one among mourners and protestors. And so I carry those beloved bodies forward into these extraordinary hours and know it’s impossible to live out one’s days in full animal knowledge of death. And there is value in bringing the mind close to it: to be aware of the sweetness of thought’s innate reflexivity, to acknowledge we are together here briefly, to savor the mind’s embodiment and materiality in full relation to the mortal world of itself and to the mortal world outside itself.
Our shared materiality is no utopia. Blissful as they can be, our interconnections are also violent. Our bodies a pleasure and torture, they inflict pleasure and torture on other bodies. We lust and fuck and age and die. Ecologically speaking, our bodies are supposed to return to earth as sustenance for other lives. This is the way things are. Such knowledge can be a source of selfishness or of ethics. Seized with the full implications of disappearing from itself, the mind does not necessarily experience the pleasures or responsibilities of material being, but rather the animal spasm of fear. Often it’s only afterward, upon reflection, upon the self-reflection that is its essential solipsism and its particular gift, that the mind transmutes mortal knowledge into something useful. We remember each of the beloved bodies. Their cheeks. Their thin gone hands. How cold their lips. In the middle of our difficult history, during extraordinary hours so awful no one wants to remember them, we carried the beloved bodies and we buried them as we too hope to be carried, buried. In our minds we still carry them, and in doing so, we remember: we too shall leave our leaving in the care of the living.
Jackie Wang is a scholar, abolitionist, poet, harpist, multimedia artist, and Assistant Professor at The New School. She is the author of Carceral Capitalism (Semiotext(e), 2018) and the poetry collection The Sunflower Cast a Spell to Save Us from the Void (Nightboat Books, 2021).
Death Fugue: A Pandemic Dream Sequence
I dreamed that someone dreamed of a dead person on a gurney whose head was a roasted coconut with a smile frozen on it. It was the maraschino cherry eyes and icing smile of my dead grandma as an iHop pancake. I was inside the dreaming person’s dream—had she dreamed me?
Dreamed that a young woman named Sally Porter had taken up residence in my shed office behind my parents’ house in Florida, beyond the brick wall, where the oak trees made a cave-like sanctuary, the Delphi of my childhood. She was good at growing plants, there were plants everywhere, I liked having them around but I could feel them slowly taking over.
My beloved dog, a wolf-like husky, kept me company, but I could see that the dog was dying. On the edge of the bed her breath became shorter and more strained until finally, at the moment of her death, she stopped breathing and fell off the bed. I wrapped the dog in a blanket and thought about where and how I was going to bury her, my only consolation now gone. I knew that my dog had been poisoned by Sally. Soon after the dog died a brown and white pig that looked like a mix of dog and swine, with a cartoonishly long snout for sniffing out ants, came trotting toward me to offer itself as my new consolation, my new companion. I knew this pig contained the soul of my dead dog, but I couldn’t figure out how to square that belief with the fact that the pig was born before my dog died. Did the soul hop from one mortal envelope to another? At some point I wanted to go home. The brick wall now had many gaps; it was a straight shot from the shed to my parents’ house. Nearby a neighbor was having a pool party. I jumped in on a noodle.
Dream of processing my ex Morgan’s corpse in a bicycle shop. She was in a translucent plastic bag on top of a row of bicycles for weeks slowly decomposing and A insisted we process the corpse for the funeral… it was a kind of jealous revenge for him… her head was decapitated and her corpse was waterlogged after being submerged in the river so long. There was blood everywhere. I had a breakdown doing it; it was so disgusting. At one point her guts were spilling out. Told myself, “Well she would have loved this. She was obsessed with gore. This is her revenge on the world.” The bike shop became an Asian market run by an old Chinese woman. Her lackey was an old man who looked like the Patrick Star character from Spongebob SquarePants except his intestines were on the outside of his body. In the dream, the closer you are to death, the more your organs are visible through your skin, which becomes increasingly translucent with age.
Morgan’s mom was micromanaging the processing of the corpse. The corpse kept changing every time we went to work on it. It was a process that took many days. At one point her head was a melted pile of bloody pulp but you could still make out the features of her face. “The eyes,” someone said. I got very upset and left to read some old journal entries about her in a room where some of my high school friends including Noel were waiting in dim lights. I asked about her life after me. I had taken little bits of her flesh and put them in some gruel to eat. Everyone thought it was disgusting. I insisted I made the same food with her dead skin while she was alive. In fact it was the same bowl of bottomless gruel that I had kept going for years, now it contained bits of flesh from the alive period and dead period. After days of processing the corpse it was finally clean and looked like play dough.
Dreamed I was at Morgan’s memorial again, but this time it was held in a glass conservatory. Everyone was competing with each other to prove they knew her best. We were all rewriting her life, seeking her ghost’s approval while her ghost wandered naked among the crowd. She no longer cared about me and laid down next to her last girlfriend, who was also reclining naked. At Morgan’s mom’s house I continued to try to capture Morgan in words but couldn’t. Forgot about my flight. My little bro was with me. We rushed to the airport. I had forgotten how to scan the boarding pass with my phone.
Dream that Morgan’s mom was hosting a memorial with people playing strange exotic instruments, one was a cross between an accordion and a harmonium from west Africa. Again, she wanted me to write about her daughter, I could feel the pressure emanating from her. But was Morgan alive, dead or about to be executed? Saw her on the floor of my elementary school and ran to her; time is running out, the execution is imminent. It was Tennessee, there was a law that required the execution of those who attempted suicide. I ran to her and she cried out to me. She said, You don’t hate me anymore? I said, I don’t hate you. But was it her ghost? Was it too late for a reconciliation? She was pregnant and had me touch the glowing ember of the fetus inside her disappearing body, how it thrummed red. I was a lawyer and had filed a case against Zimmerman on behalf of the Trayvon Martin family but the publicness of my job fatigued me. There isn’t enough time to write things down. Woke up thinking about how terrible it feels to be on bad terms with someone who has committed suicide. Forgiveness as release. The tenderness that was denied. I can’t set the past right. I can’t fix this. Stop the tears from coming on, get ready for your job interview.
Can the direction be changed from hostility to tenderness? Dr C: accept what you can’t fix, the real world has limits, delusion of omnipotence, turning a corner or not, there was nothing more you could have done, but perhaps, perhaps something is being born.
It was like I was staring at a picture that would not come into focus. I wandered the barricaded city at night trying to retrace the last moments of Morgan’s life, hoping to finally understand why she did it. She was gone but her hatred of me suffused the atmosphere of the whole city. The friends wanted a report. They knew she hated me and that I had no standing as a witness. The business, it didn’t feel finished. But my plane was leaving soon. Said I would come back and finish my inquiry into why she did it. Why did I need to write it in money? Grief coins. What were they for? Collector’s items. I had been given them accidentally as change because they looked like the real currency. Each coin was a golden word.
Dream. Grief, my plants. They have no roots. Yet the pink peony blooms in the orange bucket, its stem magenta. A peony that contains the soul of the dead. I slide off a pyre into water. E says, “You’re not going to do it, are you? You’re not going to write about loving the one who abused you? You can’t do that.” The mother wants something from me.
Dream. The dead, they’re in the plants and the animals. Suddenly I live on a lake and have a pool. Shall I get a kayak? In the dream I have ripped abs rather than quarantine flab. Where did these abs come from? A histrionic Kardashian lives next door but sometimes she morphs into a Karen and I don’t know if I should let her use my pool. I put my plants on my dock. N hits on my lover. My brother is staying with me but the animal statues are suddenly animated and the cows and the serpents are tramping and slithering through the house, they are in the air vents. So it is like Jumanji featuring Robin Williams? Let’s distract ourselves. Let’s go for a swim. Then a camouflaged anaconda starts to languidly rise from the crown of the pool. Be still, brother.
Metabolization of the corpse by the unconscious, from dreams of eating and kneading the corpse as playdough to dreams of the soul’s dispersal—now the soul inhabits a mystical two-toned peony that grows without roots. When does grief turn to animism, I wonder? The unmoored souls drift in search of a body, they are absorbed by animal statues that come to life—everything is terribly fecund all objects have eyes the way they do for children who believe that things have an ontological status.
Dream. She disappeared. Into the water. Someplace very remote. The mad hunt for the body. She had done it to spite us. She wants to know why. Why what? Are you looking. Are you so upset. “You were my great love.” Shapeshifting between dead and alive, between sad and angry at us for destroying you by making you exist. There is a map in my mind of all the cold waters. I listen to the radio for clues about the location of the body. I am traveling for “university research” and can only eat school cafeteria food. The radio anchors are discussing gothic neo-new wave, the influence of Bauhaus and Christian Death. Why are you looking for me?
Recurring dream: the teacher has died. All that’s left behind: bereft students, chaos in the crumbling mall. Her silks, the knowledge she planted in us. I knew it was coming but didn’t know it would be so soon. The grim reaper takes an eraser to my life. One by one the people are deleted from my memories. It’s late, or early, depending on your periodization of the day. How will I get home? It’s the end of the world. I wish I could remember everything she taught me. Here’s a paper with notes written in red sharpie. The husband rages: the management of her estate has been left to her tyrannical sister. She will be in charge of the posthumous books. In the dream I was the least loved and least lyrical student.
Emerson Whitney is the author of Hot (McSweeney’s 2022), Heaven (McSweeney’s 2020), and Ghost Box (Timeless Infinite Light, 2014). He teaches in the BFA creative writing program at Goddard College and is a Postdoctoral Fellow in gender studies at the University of Southern California.
There was only one time this happened: I was alone near a 16th century castle with rectangle cut-outs that paced the sea for scouting. There were pastel-colored buildings with paint chipping off and overturned dingy boats and yellow buoys that bobbed like bodies in the water. The light off the water was perfect, it made the backs of my hands an incredible blue. I wanted to marry the sea or fuck it. Both, I guess. I liked and didn’t like how it felt. It was July. I was totally alone and had planned it that way. Just me and the sea. I was turning thirty. My mom called me to say that she’d cleaned 15 rooms or something, was on her hands and knees the whole day. Her knees were bleeding, she said, and then, I hope you have fun.
I’d cut my toe just between the big toe and the next one, a thin gash with tissue that opened and closed in salt water. I’d been swinging it in salt water all day, skin flaking off like pink breakwater. The breakwater was being pulled away by the waves, little chunks. I bobbed in there and watched the pieces roll into waves, pushing at a line of boats. I was breathless, moving my legs in the dark. There was nothing except water all around, salt, and salt where my little mustache is. I was being eaten by it, everything in contact with the sea was being taken and eaten and pushed back. From the water, I looked at the castle and its tower—an attempt to control what seemed impossibly open. The tower was supposed to protect everybody from the sea, from danger that was carried to shore by pirates, apparently. The sea is our most open door, it said.
In the town, water sloshed on all sides in a raw way. I liked my body bobbing in the salt, a wet horde. I cupped the sea to say goodbye, I wanted to say goodbye right to it, put my lips against its salt. I could smell the age in it, the ancient mud in there. A kiss wasn’t enough. Children were playing nearby, lovers were huddled around thin paper circles of gelato. I was alone in the dark. The small lights from dotted restaurants in town glowed through the top layer of water. The depth seemed jarring, always does.
My instinct was this: find a bottle to put some of the water in. I wanted to fish a gelato cup from the top of a trashcan nearby. I could take a cup home, I figured. I could take a piece and house it, love it all the way out, it would move when I moved it. I wanted to screenshot it, smell at it, uncork it for for a second before buttoning it back up. I’d do that until it grew dull and sour on my desk.
“We kill what we love,” writes Hélène Cixous in Insurrection of Dust, a collaboration with Adel Abdessemed, an Algerian conceptual artist, famous for his work “Who Is Afraid of The Big Bad Wolf,” a sculptural rendering of taxidermied animals mashed together in a rectangle the size of Guernica. He’s also famous for “Coup de Tête,” a giant sculptural work depicting Zinédine Zidane’s 2006 World Cup Final headbutt.
“Zidane, that day, offered us a rapture,” said Abdessemed in a New York Times piece. His work, which he frames as meaning to spotlight everyday cruelty, gets him death threats all the time.
“I search feverishly for a way to flee the theatre of natural cruelty,” writes Cixous in her collaboration with him. “This point of horror is situated in my chest, somewhere between my lungs, it dozes hidden away like a volcano, like a store of terror that would explode upon contact with certain images.”
Recently, I was scrolling around and clicked on an article that listed images of keychains that house live reptiles—miniature snakes, turtles. They’re in these multicolored liquids and are tiny. Apparently, the liquid is semi-nutritious and the animals are sealed into it in plastic bags around the purchaser’s neck or wrist and live for a month or two before they die. When they are dead, the purchaser is able to throw the animal in baggie out and there’s no smell.
“We are bitten and we bite,” Cixous continues. “What is a bit surprising is our vital need to misrecognize our natural cruelty. To not see: what we do, what we swallow, what we kill. That is what life is…I do not want to see what I do not want to see. Art is for opposing the vigor of separation, for making visible what we don’t want to see.”
I realize that my own screen-shot impulse is about control. In my story about the sea, I left the water alone, let the memory just ebb.
Dara Wier is the author of numerous collections of poetry, including In the Still of the Night (Wave Books, 2017), You Good Thing (Wave Books, 2013), Selected Poems (Wave Books, 2009), Remnants of Hannah (Wave Books, 2006), Reverse Rapture (Verse Press, 2005, 2006 SFSU Poetry Center Book Award), Hat On a Pond (Verse Press, 2002), and Voyages in English (Carnegie Mellon, 2001). Her poetry has been supported by fellowships and awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and the American Poetry Review. In 2005 she held the Rubin Distinguished Chair at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia.
Going backwards in all ways
Being extra careful to step back
Exact & in just those tracks you took
To get from where you went
From there to get to here
To get to now’s the time
I’ve been looking for
For what for and for what else
Are we put here on this frangible
About to be atomized minute
Disintegrating chunk of stuff
All we know and little of it
Yet yet yet keeping yourself
Alive turns out to be confusing
I wanted for a second to call this poem after an Ed Roberson poem “The Universal Ephemeral” or a title of mine, “Infinity of Ephemera,” reminding me how where are you from? codes out as what are you doing here and what do you want and do you deserve what you have and who are you anyway and how unalike and where do you come from? is compared to make yourself at home. Put here feels like a kinder way to say what are we doing here, how did we wind up here, and further along there could come the balm of it’s okay now to stop asking unanswerable questions; on a day CAConrad kindly and gently reminds me of promising him some words regarding death
Elizabeth Willis’s most recent book Alive: New and Selected Poems (New York Review Books, 2015) was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Her other books of poetry include Address, Meteoric Flowers, Turneresque, The Human Abstract, and Second Law.
A few words about death I’ll try not to get drunk on. A poem that lies down like a sentence about what it looks like, how it feels, what you were told.
When my mother was gasping for breath, I was packing my car. When her mouth filled with blood, I had no words to give her. When she tried to touch her hair, her hands were bound. When my father had already gone, she was seen in the air above the grass.
The word precarious means literally previous to decay. We are on our way to carrion. We must. We do. But not yet.
One foot moves from subject to object. One shoe in the air, on its way down.
A fathomless thing. This will be after me. I will be something else. While this is still this.
I feel my mouth open and close. Water in one form or another. The shell as it dries. I’m stopped with my mother on a cloverleaf trying to read the map. She is younger than I am.
At the sound of the bell. At the moment of impact. This thing squandered endlessly wrapping around your head until it ribbons out into ether.
I draw my mother’s outline. I trace it over and over. A trace becomes a meditation on a trace; it soothes me as she did not. It sinks below the surface of anything I could tell you about her silences, her ailments, the ways she held me up and put me down. The ferocity of her desire to be seen, how and what she hid. Her inattention, her hurt feelings, her barely buried rage at what she didn’t understand. The drenching sadness just behind her joy. Her hands moving down the rows from which we pulled a plague of potato bugs on the plot someone had offered when we were hurting. The shape of the actual air her body touched. My mother and her friend. My mother goofing at the shore of a lake. My mother pouting on her mother’s lap beside the oversized birthday cake made at the bakery above which she and my grandparents lived in a single room. She’s there for a moment, resistant to capture, facing her father who has just disappeared behind the lens that is now reaching out to take her in. Her mother’s face, exhausted and delicate, as if this three-year-old has just kicked its way out onto her lap. As if everything including the sky were about to close into the shutter.
Joey Yearous-Algozin is a poet, teacher and publisher. His most recent book, A Feeling Called Heaven (Nightboat), is forthcoming this fall. He is a founding member of the publishing collective, Troll Thread. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.
from A Feeling Called Heaven
this feeling called heaven
is a pleasure
only witnessed in the past tense
and from a distance
this sense of annihilation or future death
a collective sense
of something having already happened
while you were paying attention to something else
as you stand in the produce aisle of a grocery store
holding a sleeve of celery still wet from the overhead mister
and hear yourself
singing along to whatever song is playing
over the store’s PA
something vaguely recalled
but which for the brief moment of its singing
takes away the pain of
a loved one or family member’s passing
which you thought to have stained even this chore
and as you stop
the words no longer leave your lips
your mouth closes of its own accord
shamed for finding refuge in something
as seemingly so inconsequential
as a pop song generic enough
to find its way into the background of your attention
you return to a conscious awareness of
the tiled floor beneath you
and the fluorescent lights above
as the environment returns
so too does the pain of their passing
the absence they created in your life
and as your attention returns
it brings with it an awareness
of your own grief
and its absence in that moment
a compacted nothingness
that seems to repeat itself
out and beyond this doubling
which increases in minute degrees of intensity
such that it pushes this pleasure
you barely knew you were in the process of experiencing
further beyond your cognitive grasp
until it’s gone