Kimrey Anna Batts translates Santiago Vizcaíno

from Complex


and all I wanted was to see the ocean in malaga. I had the pilgrim’s notion that you could see africa from its shores. qué huevón. I’d been in madrid for two days and I was scared. scared of the thousands of eyes appraising me from above like some rare breed. if there weren’t so much fucking ecuatorianito here I think it’d be different. I might even pass for a piece of folk art. but no. in madrid it starts to get cold, te cagas, and here I am in this shitty suit jacket like a cultured thief. better put, like a chinese-suit jacketed thief. because in ecuador everything they sell to you as “american” or italian or french is chinese. even what you get in the shoppings, the worst really: do not wash in washing machine. do not expose to direct sunlight. do not iron at high temperatures. how the hell do you pay $150 for a suit jacket if the mere act of donning it causes damage. to the jacket and to you. and so on.

in madrid you feel like a strange bird. scratch that: like a brown piece of shit on the royal palace sidewalk. and the cold isn’t the “achachay” of quito. no. here it stitches your skin together with an enormous “s” of mountain sickness. but the cold passes. the elegance of these huevones is so unbearable that you understand how moctezuma must have felt confronted by cortez’s lead. the worst is that it all sticks to you and in two hours you’re already saying macho and joder and que te den por el culo. saying, fuck you up the ass, like it was nothing. but in madrid you’re still the chinese-suit jacketed weirdo like a dead rat on a street in caracas. there in el callejón de la puñalada. what’s perhaps surprising is that an andean latino who ought to be cleaning tables is dressed this way: a sort of neo-baroque dandy. a unique specimen who sits down to eat 20 euro pork shoulder and potatoes. the fucking potatoes that they would never have eaten if they hadn’t raped my great-grandmother. everything I think is, of course, subnormal: sub-developed sub-terranean sub-urban. but the words escape my throat and I say them to a chilean immigrant who also gives me a look as though I had offended her.

the thing is it’s muy jodido to live in madrid. my entire scene is the following: hostel basement in san mateo number 20 in front of the museum of romanticism. high heels of spanish women who talk too fast and pass by too fast in their silken pantyhose. well-mannered children who say: que se ha machao, madre, mother, it’s stained! la puta que les parió, fuck the cunt who begat them. and once again I feel like the underdeveloped sudaka who thinks himself somewhat cultured but has no one to talk to about literature or film or music or about anything. that’s why it’s been such blessed relief that they put spanish porn on TV at midnight. my first time making love to a spanish woman. it’s a saying. because to quote fogwill, “the love was already made.” in ecuador it’s all youporn with swiss poles russians and rumanians. all that mass of blonds that must have come out of a flea market but so long as the end purpose is served, who really cares.

my uncle lives here. he’s a migrant. he rents out this cold basement and sublets it to a chilean and an ecuadorian who show up about twice per week. migration is an underworld. ecuadorians here are like a plague. they’re useful as well. they do what everyone knows how to do, what the spaniards don’t want to do, or what they do in accordance to their level of poverty. the ecuadorian here suffers from a vital schizophrenia: mind divided, living off of nostalgia. but they’ve also become used to the comfortable way of life offered by this strange so-called first world. when they return to ecuador they feel out of place. they speak differently. dress differently. they even regard their roots with contempt. this is a rematch. the racism they suffer here they bring back to take out upon their own, redoubled. the ecuadorian identity crisis transforms the immigrant into a cultural monster.

my uncle is a guy who works in hospitality. waits tables and washes dishes at a seafood restaurant. people stand in endless lines to get into the place. this means I’ve been able to eat odd things like razor clams and barnacles and brown crab. I’ve also tried callos a la madrileña, beef tripe stew; what we call guatita in ecuador. but the best by far is the wine. everyone knows that. for a euro you can buy a harsh, sour wine that would cost ten dollars in ecuador. everyone knows that.

I’ll be here three days. even so I’ve managed to grasp some idea of this world. I’m far more interested in the lives of the characters known as immigrants. the spaniards are highly predictable. extremely conservative. they’re smart about exploiting the tourists though. but that’s another story. south americans in general are a richer phenomenon. their condition has turned them into something more complex. their own language has mutated in an extremely odd way. it’s laughable to listen to them saying tío, joder, macho, que te den por el culo alongside their own cultural idioms. the ecuadorian and the bolivian stand out in this jungle. they’re savage drinkers. the few resting places they have are dedicated to drinking beer: whichever’s strongest. they take refuge in their apartments with a steadfast conviction for self-destruction. fights are thus frequent. and jealously. the sexual explosion in their (our) countries is sinful. oh spain remove your sex from me.

I’m no immigrant. I don’t want to be an immigrant. I regard them with ire. but I find myself obliged to enjoy their delirium. there are those who want to return and those who don’t. the former retain a sense of self out of nostalgia. the latter have mutated. they have no idea what they are. or they do. they’re not going back. in that resignation lies their conversion into spaniards. the others will never manage to adapt. they work themselves to the bone to send back money and forever think of ecuador as the promised land. for them it’s a struggle, a lucha. work is a sacrifice. those who gave up live for the day and day-to-day. they want to bury their past. generally they’re the younger ones. they want to be included. they go out with spaniards. dress like them. eat like them. generally they regard ecuador with distain. they’ve grown.

my uncle’s friends run the gamut from one extreme to the other. there’s one, for example, who’s from one of those ecuadorian coastal towns where poverty and violence wound the days and take over the nights. he lives with a bolivian woman in a study, a single room that serves as bedroom, living room, dining room and kitchen, normally occupied by students, in the center of madrid. the woman is fat and indianized and wouldn’t stop talking about the tragedy of her job with a smelly old man that she had to put up with all day. one of those unbearably racist spaniards. she’s fed up, but a good person.

we have ceviche for dinner. every good costeño knows how to make a good ceviche, he says. how long have you lived here, I ask. I came fifteen years ago and haven’t been back to ecuador, he responds. they don’t like me there, ñaño. if I show up, they’ll kill me. some sons of bitches swore it to me. I put three bullets in a careverga who was screwing my woman. so I stay here. I don’t want problems. I’m rehabilitated, my bróder. why don’t you have a drink; do you like wine? and he takes out a bottle of marqués de cáceres nipped from the restaurant he works at.

that’s what my uncle’s friends are like. all with sad stories to hide. they’ve buried their past. those who go back, only go for a few months because they’re not used to it anymore. their country, our country, is precisely an imaginary line, a space filled with abandoned women and children, or in the case of the women, with abandoned men. be in spain and long for ecuador, be in ecuador and long for spain. that mental divide turns them into acculturated cabrones.

I already know that two or three nights aren’t enough to perceive a way of life, but this has been my first impression. my first contact with what would be called “my own kind.” like the last night before leaving for the mediterranean. we went to a disco in south madrid. it was sunday. I couldn’t believe it. in quito sundays make you want to kill yourself. nothing’s open. people flee. here it’s the day the immigrant goes out on the town, because a lot of them have mondays off, blessed day of the hangover, the resaca, the chuchaqui, the guayabo, the ratón, the cruda. sunday nights fill with the scent of sudaka cologne. the women go out heavily made-up in snug dresses they’ve bought on sale. or with out-of-style fake leather jackets. it’s like being in the 80’s. even the music they dance to is about 30 years out of date. it’s living off of nostalgia. so fucked up, but such great fun. they dance pressed against their dance partners, while the tables fill with pails of beers and bottles of rum.

salsa, perhaps, then cumbia, then bachata, and to top it off some reggaeton or vallenato. they’re eating it up. it’s like a quinceñera party. the men always have gelled-back hair and colored shoes and flowered shirts to attract attention. almost always a gold chain gleaming against their bare chests. it’s like kusturica’s underground but with south americans. young and old, all sharing in the same tastes. there’s consensus. here no one has issues unless you look at their girl. or their guy.

the thing is there are three of us sitting here with an insatiable desire to drink because it’s my last day in madrid. my uncle insists that I ask a girl out to dance and take her with me. no problems here, loco, he says, it’s all easy. they’re all crazy to fuck. I laugh with enthusiasm and tell him to wait, be patient, that I’m not that fired up just yet. and we toast to the joy of seeing one another after all these years. we’re friends now, we’ve moved over and beyond blood ties. to that, cheers. come whenever you want, ñaño. my house is humble and it is yours. thank you, brother, I’ll be back. and so on.

then I see that one of the guys who’s with us, also ecuadorian, gets up and goes over to another table where there’s a girl alone and asks her to dance. he draws her against his body but clearly has no idea how to follow the rhythm. it’s Cantinflas-esque. she tries to pull away, pushes him a bit and he says something into her ear and she laughs. she’s brown-skinned, long-nosed, wearing a turquoise dress with some type of flower over her right clavicle. she has mid-forehead bangs that suit her quite badly. she’s terribly unattractive but her ass is terrific. the guy looks at us and winks. we laugh.

suddenly a man approaches our friend and shoves him to the ground. our friend picks himself up and the squabble begins. we stand up from the table to get a look at what’s happening and kicks and punches start flying every which way. I take shelter to one side to observe the action. I see my uncle in the middle of the dance floor defending himself with a beer bottle. I come up behind him, grab his shoulders to calm him down. the bouncers arrive and throw us out of the disco, shoving us roughly through the door. just like that. the night ends in the middle of madrid with a bottle of whiskey and laughter. it would seem that all is normal.


the nights’ immense din has fed my fleeting pleasure. I also drank a large quantity of its beer to gather courage. terrible, by the way: water with alcohol and a pinch of gluten. I recall that the worst swill in Havana—by way of example—was three thousand times better than this insalubrious ferment that I’m now drinking in malaga because I can’t sleep. it’s the jet lag said a german whose looks could get him whoever he wanted, the hijo de puta. while we’re on the subject.

and now in malaga matters have deteriorated. so many other well-dressed miserable drunks. of course I’m in the tourist sector all-paid for in a shitty dorm and I can’t complain. this is my way of complaining. I came for a scholarship and I’ve begun writing a tale of resentment, of complexes, of a mediocre ambition for literary self-improvement that is somewhat lacking in comas—their brief silences. the good thing is that here they don’t catch on to what I’m doing. they’ll probably never figure it out. what would they know, these zombies taking pleasure in those beautiful faces of theirs. the women from malaga are so gorgeous that it’d seem they don’t need to have bowel movements like normal folks do. that’s to say, like mestizos do. and if they do you have to ask yourself how they’d clean that gorgeous ass.

the malagueñas have faces like god’s mercy. they stare dissolutely to the front, encase their venom in dark miniskirts. their hair falls like a mass of varnished cherubs. blond by force, some, between the menace of their dark eyes. redheads by force, others, between the menace of their olive skin. by night they can be seen cornered by robust men in the doorways of old romantic purlieus. the discos become awash in the bottled-up scent of their sexuality. the malagueñas embellish themselves with sand from a sea in which they never bathe. touching them inspires fear, of sullying the blouse revealing their pale sternum. where do the women of malaga go to hide should they trip on the tip of their slender stilettos? and when they speak, ah, when they speak, it’s like a vampire who might suck your blood, devour your arousal-swollen artery. they chop their words short in order to maintain their restraint. the malagueñas copulate with themselves and have seething orgasms upon the carpet of the chasm. they hate and love one another like queen bees. but never, hear me—never—will they betray the sick passion that devours them when they stand in front of a mirror.

all I wanted was to see africa from the coast of malaga and here I am piss drunk and downcast. the desire to suffer is immense but the realization of my smallness makes me laugh instead. I live on duque de la victoria street number 9 floor four in front of a hospital. sometimes in the morning I watch women in the adjacent window nursing their newborns white like michael jackson I think and laugh to myself. here the women don’t look at me like a rare breed but rather like an exotic animal. something has changed. maybe one time they saw a movie about the conquest and think that I’m one of those actors that played the inca cacique. and they like me. I parade around with my long scarf. I stare at their creamy tits and envision a porn scene so decadent that henry miller would get horny but from shame. I don’t talk to them of course. I barely flirt and with a generous decency that I’ve developed from I don’t know where or out of what. he’s probably some actor or primitivist artist or folkloric music dancer they must think. that’s my illusion. because as I’ve already said a gaze can also be sidelong or construct an impression. what I am is vergüenza ajena, cringe-worthy.

now they’ve put roberto goyeneche on a local radio station. my joy is boundless. I feel more latin american than ever. because I’d never written so much before and I go back to drinking this disgusting beer and I step out on the balcony to contemplate the cathedral dome and the sea of enviable drunkenness below in which I can’t partake because I’m not of this world. I carry a bolaño novel as heavy as a bible. in my mind I carry the long night of the 16th century that I feel as though I’d lived. in my bag I have a pair of sandals to walk through malaga’s sands like a crab and gaze at the coast of africa. it’s hard to know if this semi-zombie will become someone. if someone will be able to read this other contemplating himself with wonder and disgust. accepting myself would be like returning to a kind of normalcy that doesn’t exist. accepting yourself is finding the unsought prize that mutes the penetrating voice of your consciousness. accepting yourself is allowing the face of the other to be what you desire and knowing you’ll never be what you want. because what you want is gone as soon as you want it.

I have so many quotes swirling around in my head that just now someone told me that it’s hard to believe that an ecuadorian has read so much. I laugh angrily because in my country there’s a load of idiots who’ve read far more than I and think themselves the literary crème de la crème. I met a writer once. I’d read a few not-too-bad stories of his in my university years. but I hadn’t seen him in person. and that would have been for the best. one of those types who thinks that they’re the nabokov of ecuadorian literature. one of those fat grey-jacketed types. one of those guys who calls up journalists to “grant” them an interview. one of those types who has a fawning boot-licking sect of mediocre writers trailing behind him. sometimes it’s better not to meet the person behind the book cover. almost always better. in summary, we were in caracas, at a writer’s conference organized by the venezuelan state. on one of those nights, I’d gone to have a drink in the hotel bar. I sat at one of the tables to contemplate the deformed landscape of intellectuals. a bit of everything: spiders, moles, leaches, dinosaurs…

one of the sorts who paid homage to the gordo loco recognized me and asked me to come sit with them, since the writer was alone—as though that was a terribly lamentable condition—and I made the idiot mistake of following him. in effect, we sat down around a table, as anyone does, except for a hideous reality: the second-rate nabokov was seated right in front of me.

and you qué, he said.

qué de qué, I replied.

what do you do, what’s your profession, why are you here?

nada. I drink, I said.

ah, another chumadito who thinks he’s a writer.

I remained silent, although not without the desire to spit in the drink that they were just starting to serve him. the waiter went around the table pouring tender streams of rum over the oh-so-cold ice in the glasses.

don’t go thinking this is free, he said to me. no one mooches drinks here.

then in a criminal impulse I grabbed the glass, tossed its ice-and-rum contents over his bust-like face, and left. one of his vassals, the one who knew me, insulted me, but his voice collided with the image of my erectile right middle finger, triumphant, like a penis.

important is that the avocado seller in the market laughs like my abuela. important is the joy of the dockworker who sighs when he thinks about the body of the colombian prostitute who he got to fuck once.

I don’t know if I could dance pegadito with a woman here because when they’re all done up they don’t let anything near them that might get a hair out of place. the beer, for the moment, swirls in the murky well of oblivion. everything I’ve left, everything that has withered into the sludge of memory is now a desert or perhaps better a cold and taciturn snow-capped volcano. I want to bury the image of myself but it comes now and shows me to myself from a shattered mirror and I see myself there, face cut, with the deformed mouth of one who can’t speak his own name. such are things.

they’ve always called me willy, since I was a kid. I hate coming from a spanish-speaking country and being “little willy.” it’s like being chinese and calling yourself eduardo. it doesn’t make sense, but sometimes it happens. that’s why people change names, or have to bear the weight of it their whole lives. willy, go do the shopping. willy, look at your sister. willy, clean your nose. willy, take out the dog. willy, don’t get drunk. willy, look me in the eyes, don’t hurt me. willy, vete de aquí, get out of here, I don’t ever want to see you again.

being called willy in ecuador is a huge joke. they deform your name until it becomes obscene. willy the kid I liked. willy the kid hates gringo movies dubbed in spanish by spaniards, he prefers subtitles. willy the kid in malaga is a parrot in a cage. you could have been called john or peter or walter. but not willy, por dios. you’re pitiful. vergüenza ajena. and yet you have to learn to laugh at yourself because if not they’ll break you. that’s why willy had to study and be the best, like his father said. but who thinks to study literature in ecuador, in an imaginary country? willy the moron, that’s who.

so, willy, who is me, is sitting in his dorm room with the window open smoking like a fat and lonely whore. up above, across the street, the illuminated dome of the cathedral, which they call the manquita, can be seen. in ecuador dawn must have already broken and thousands of mestizo bugs will be filling the streets like rats in a great flood. because they seem to reproduce in litters. I would happily fly over quito in a helicopter tossing out condoms. there’s no right to be so irresponsible. legions and legions of idiots birthing workers, just breakfasted, silently dreaming about a new pair of shoes. such are things.


most of what one writes isn’t worth it: inconclusive novels, decapitated stories, lines like ugly children that die because there’s no one to nurse them. you write because you can’t stand to see your sick mother in bed, because you you’ve grown horns instead of wings, because what you have to say is yours and therefore legitimate and varied; you write because you resent your parents, your condition, yourself; you write out of desire, the most beautiful expression of absence; you write because you want to give importance to the diminuta flecha envenada, César Dávila Andrade’s “tiny poisoned dart”; you write because you’re the persona non grata of your own life; you write because you’re a bookworm freeloader who feels pain just like the bank teller staring at you through the glass, face imprinted with the misery of your bank account. you write because you’re human and you suffer. y punto. I said.

it is however an act of surrender, a wager in which you risk life itself in pursuit of “salvation.” juan josé millás put it well when he said: “being a writer, at least a certain type of writer, means living in panic, sensing shapes that move from one compartment to another, with wet socks.” but there’s no romantic pretension in it, the writer can literally be burnt by the flame of their own insubordinate language. and that which is set upon the page begins to rebel against its father or mother like an angry child. I said.

one would think that conrad couldn’t have written heart of darkness without the vision, during six months, of a congo devastated by the belgian king leopold II. and one also realizes that such “motivation” is only commendable in accordance with its result. the fact of malcolm lowry’s having rewritten the same novel multiple times would be distinct if it were not the case that under the volcano is a masterwork. the examples, of course, exceed the reality—in the nietzschean sense—from which is taken the assumption that the writer is a good reader. but who legitimizes the literary deed as valid, or not? do we assume that there’s a subterranean consensus that ennobles the work at a determined moment? the factors are perhaps multiple. and perhaps therein it’s possible to make out a purpose: literature is an arduous exercise of language in which the writer confronts the firing squad of their own annihilation. I said.

from that also that every work, conceived as such, paradoxically attends a funeral and a birth. or only the former. when the two events occur, literature has begun, which is born out of the displacement of its creator, even when its content shows itself to be autobiographical. for a great number of authors, literature is a way to explain their circumstance, but between them and the object, language mediates, upending any original intent. language is not a means of expression, it is a means of implosion. that produced is a linguistic shattering of the senses. I said.

the senses allow for assimilation of the work as such. the mere conjugation of alternating words doesn’t produce the feeling. even in the most surreal or inscrutable forms there is a framework of meaning that makes the text accessible. that’s why literature is always masked, an unfaithful portrait of itself. in and of itself, it is playing with the translation of an intimately known language, which some call originality. and that is likewise a purpose, a quest that the author seems destined never to complete. if they do complete it, they never write again. I said.

as such, said framework of meaning is articulated by the pulse of a trade learned through effort and reading. and with that, the hypertextual relation is superior to the literary deed: every text makes reference to another text, and ad infinitum. that’s why literature in general is a form of plagiary, perhaps the most lovely of its forms, the most aesthetic. but don’t be confused: said plagiary has been devoured by the machinations of bibliophagy, which on the other hand may cause indigestion. I said.

It is no less true that the writer tends to deny, if not their writing, at least their motivation. it causes discomfort. the writer would rather go forward blind, know that the goal is más allá, just out of reach, but when this is named, it vanishes. the writer avoids the objective so as not to be broken. in the end, every writer is evasive. if it were direct it would be senseless. the writer arrives gropingly, blindly, as a drunk arrives home. but always knowing how to arrive. I said.

the ethical commitment with language or with discourse—over time—must also transcend the prose, mere accessory of literature. the fact of turning into a “writer” is also accessory; or perhaps the result, among other things, of the search. and yet, every writer believes that their scream or howl has some importance; yes, in some way appreciated, even in extreme cases like that of kafka. yes, the writer ennobles their ego, in irony, as language’s excess breaks it. forever paradoxical, literature is like a label that swathes a text in potential: a fixed object that drops its robes and places its wounds on display. multiple wounds that show us, in turn, the experience of the journey of a being, who, horrified by mortality, writes. I said. I was very very drunk.

Translator’s Note:

This translation is an excerpt from the first part of Ecuadorian writer Santiago Vizcaíno’s debut novel Complejo (La Caída Press, 2017), a loosely autobiographical work drawn from the author’s time living and studying in Malaga, Spain. The story telling is somewhat non-linear and flows between the protagonist’s inner musings and tormented reflections on self, the writing process, and language, to a more traditional narrative of his observations and experiences while living abroad. The protagonist, Willy, is intentionally unlikable, but as the title suggests, he is multilayered enough, with a biting wit and a keen talent for observation, that the reader’s reaction is likewise mixed, their perception challenged. As the author himself put it:

“If you were to ask Willy who Santiago Vizcaíno is, assuredly he’d laugh. He’d respond that he’s a pot-bellied guy who doesn’t have the balls to leave behind poetry. Because Willy’s like that. He doesn’t have hair on his hands, sorry, tongue. I, Santiago Vizcaíno, would say that Willy, the character in this novel, is a bullying machine, a tender and brutal complex-ridden man obsessed with women. Willy uses Santiago and Santiago uses Willy and it’s as though they had sex between two men, the purest love, they say. At one point I confused Willy with myself but I erased that chapter. One is too boring and politically correct, domesticated by the utilitarian hypocrisy of adulthood, by the correctness of academia. Willy in contrast is a beautiful adolescent beast, a neo-baroque dandy…”

In the remainder of the novel, Willy meets and describes the other international residents in the University dorm, pursues various women, falls in love, and finds himself in a shocking and somewhat sickening predicament. Much has been made of Ecuador’s so-called “national inferiority complex,” and this work takes those issues and places them nakedly on display in the form of its central character.

In translating the novel, I was at times unsure how much to allow myself to use the resource of leaving certain words and phrases in the original Spanish; however, I felt that doing so lent a certain flavor and sense of place that would have otherwise been lost. I likewise hope that such inclusions will broaden and deepen the reader’s experience, and give them further insight into the language and culture of Ecuador.

Kimrey Anna Batts (1983) grew up in rural East Tennessee and went to the University of Michigan, where she studied Anthropology and Latin American Studies. She moved to Ecuador in 2006, and her lifelong love of literature and language gradually blossomed into a career as a professional translator. In 2011 she went to Barcelona to pursue a M.A. in Literary Translation at University Pompeu Fabra, before returning to Quito in 2013. Her literary translations have appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Lunch Ticket, Bitter Oleander Review, Ezra, Cordite Poetry Review, Mantis, Asymptote and Exchanges, among others.

Santiago Vizcaíno (Quito, 1982) has a BA in Communications and Literature from the Catholic Pontifical University of Ecuador (PUCE). He was awarded a Fundación Carolina scholarship for study at the University of Malaga, where he completed an MA in Management of Literary Heritage. He is currently the Director of the PUCE Center for Publications. His works have received numerous recognitions, including the Ecuadorian Ministry of Culture’s National Literary Projects Prize and the Second Annual Pichincha Poetry Award. In translation, his poems and short stories have appeared in a number of journals including Bitter Oleander Review, Chattahoochee Review, Words Without Borders, Connotation Press, Eleven/Eleven, eXchanges, Lunch Ticket, The Brooklyn Rail and Ezra. His poetry collection Destruction in the Afternoon was published in translation by Dialogos Books in 2015. His first novel, Complejo, from which this fragment was taken, was released in 2017 (La Caída Press).

Brent Armendinger translates Mercedes Roffé

Situation to Break a Spell

Lie down
       –facing up
as if you were going to die
or give birth to yourself.

the slope of the years
in the dark.

Arrive at the threshold
        pass through it / submerge yourself
in the deep, narrow, stairway of oblivion.

Tell me what you see.
Confront it / confront
who you were even before memory.

Do you recognize yourself?
Yes, now you recognize the road
that has brought you here.
Its clarity reveals it
        —a blue dream that is projected on the blue screen of time
        and begins making sense.

Do you see yourself?
Ask why and accept it
–whatever the answer is

–I have come to say goodbye to you –respond.
Don’t say more than this
without fury
without violence
without any rancor.

It will try to make you stay
to answer once again what you already know
what you have already heard it say
perhaps in another way.

Lower your eyes and create
–with the gaze only–
a path on the ground
–a groove of wet earth and ash.

You will see a fire rising
a wall of fire
–a cold fire–
between you and your failure.
Say goodbye.
Turn your back to it.
Resume the road
   –the same:
    the blue dream against the blue of time.

Ascend the steps of the deep, narrow stairway.
Arrive at the threshold
pass through it and descend
the dark slope of the years.

Return to your body
do you feel it? –a pain in your womb or in your chest
as if something of yourself has been torn from you
alerts you that you have beaten it.

The pain will go
you will remain with yourself.

(The memory of the hollow
will follow you wherever you go.)

Situación para romper un hechizo 

        –boca arriba
como si fueras a morir
o a darte la luz.

la cuesta de los años
en lo oscuro.

Llega al umbral
        traspásalo / sumérgete
en la honda, estrecha, escala del olvido.

Dime qué ves.
Enfréntalo / enfréntate
a quien eras antes aun de la memoria.

¿Te reconoces?
Sí, reconoces ahora el camino
que te ha traído hasta aquí.
Su nitidez lo delata
       –un sueño azul que se proyecta en la pantalla
       azul del tiempo y va cobrando sentido.

¿Te ves?
Pregúntale por qué y acéptala
–cualquiera sea la respuesta

–He venido a decirte adiós –responde.
No digas más que eso
sin saña
sin violencia
sin rancor alguno.

Intentará retenerte
volver a responder lo que ya sabes
lo que ya le has oído
quizás de otra manera.

Baja los ojos y crea
–con la mirada solo un reguero en el suelo
–un surco de tierra húmeda y cenizas.

Verás alzarse un fuego
una pared de fuego
–un fuego frío–
entre tú y tu fracaso.
Dale la espalda.
Vuelve a tomar el camino
    –el mismo:
    el sueño azul sobre el azul del tiempo.

Remonta los peldaños de la escala honda, estrecha.
Llega al umbral
traspásalo y desciende
la pendiente oscura de los años.

Vuelve a tu cuerpo
¿sientes? –un dolor en el vientre o en el pecho
como si algo de ti te hubiese sido arrancado
te anuncia que has vencido.

El dolor se irá
tú quedarás contigo.

(La memoria del hueco
te seguirá adonde vayas.)

Street Gloss


Avenida Paseo Colón y Cochabamba

F told me about this place, the night half-excavated underneath the autopista. The guidebook does not mention it. He’s in his studio, painting a boy he knows, the curse or spell of beauty. He waits for the face to dry and then paints over it with white. I hold a brush in my outstretched arm, a mirror or a magnifying glass. The guidebook falls asleep. I ask each passerby to pass it over me, until I’m gone enough. The paper bodies of the detained begin to climb the beams. What holds the traffic in place? There is no cover from the sound of it, the smell of diesel, the vibration of these passages. The light shocks them out of shadows and glues them to the wall. They are photocopies of photocopies. An officer is here to guard them. I ask him what it means. In his orange vest, he sways back and forth on the ground beneath his definition. It has something to do with magic, he says, like to get a girl to fall in love with you. There is a softness in his throat, but I sway on the uniform beneath his uniform, the half-excavated night. There is no cover from the sound of them, the curse or spell, plastered on the wall.


Perú y Cochabamba

A mouth opens in the concrete. I think of the rubble behind its grid of metal teeth, the words formed before they are spoken, the heaviness in direct proportion to the waiting. I want to give my gravity away. I ask a stranger what it means. It’s to put yourself up on something, he says, like a bicycle or a horse. I think of him, up there on his infinitive, throwing away the clocks and pronouns, covering the sidewalk like confetti. In the beginning, the first person climbed on top of the second hand. I think of this when I am alone at night. It is the only thing that keeps me from floating to the ceiling. He walks a few feet away and stops to look at me – in fact he is dismounting – in order to be here, as if the street unzipped itself.


Humberto 1° y Bolívar

She knows the sound but not the definition – maybe it’s a wall, like this one, covered in graffiti, the opposite of how to tell me. I run my hands over her shadow, hoping my skin will hear something. I want to stand all day, here against this wall, until someone offers to take my place. The color behind our stillness will change. Our collective refusal will be a painting. I want to stand against my scrawling, my ever almost happening. I want to throw it, this how, up against the wall, until it breaks, until it’s not a poem anymore. An older man walks by and I ask him what it means. He points to the flat rectangle of marble, chipped in the left hand corner, at the entry of a door. How can a door about to be written or erased be the same thing as graffiti? I want to walk through the hole inside the scratching, the aerosol. I want to walk through the blown-up photograph of a boy, his naked torso. A paper diamond, as if released only seconds ago, floats just above his howling. I want to stand inside the moment right before it leaves his lip, but I cannot get a foothold.


Humberto 1º y Balcarce

On the face of the no longer patronato, the word for childhood is covered with weeds. In the broken window hangs a photograph of ice. The elsewhere of a continent, a translucent advertisement. The word for Antarctica is Antarctica. It swings back and forth in the aftermath of glass. They say photography is the coldest continent, but I can tell that people are squatting here. Their clothing illuminates the string between the empty buildings. I pluck it with my question. A woman walks by and answers me with homophones. It’s a motorbike, she tells me, or that you and I, as if she knows me, we have good energy between us. Across the street is the Registro Nacional de las Personas. I empty my pockets in search of the breath of former inhabitants. A person is a string between the homophones. A person is a continent at the bottom of a continent, a window at the bottom of a window, broken from a name.


Avenida Independencia y Perú

What does it mean to walk between one word and another without stopping? The words I seem to know are see-through. Their letters fall from the dictionary, disappearing before they hit the sidewalk. Clarity, a stranger tells me – bien claro – and then what it’s not – oscuro – and some in-between word I do not know. Perhaps darkness is umbilical, perhaps forgetting is the first ingredient of memory. I am always looking across the street to see the ground where I am standing, as if the traffic were a camera in reverse. I want to see my body disappearing before it hits the photograph. There is a ghost falling out of the parking lot. Perhaps forgetting is the first architect. A fragment of continuous brick, a bruise that outlives the body. The color falls out of paint, leaving just the signature, Grupo Muralista del Oeste. There is evidence of circular scraping on the furthest wall, now exposed to the day. A tree grows out of its center, some in-between word, an umbilical cord.


Avenida Independencia y Perú

When tree is moving imperceptibly, tree appears to be tree. It presses into, and then disappears from, the wall outside this gomería. If I am still enough, I can see the names of the previous shops, paint beneath the paint. A worker steps out to light a cigarette. I tug on the smoke between us. It rises to the strips of cloth above me – just now I notice them, tied around the branches. Who put them here, the names and ages of who and why?

How like leaves they are, translucent, written on the day. A young man smiles and stops for me. I put the word inside his hand. Before he unfolds it, he asks my name. I appears to be I. Is my question a plea to be a name, evaporating in his hand? The sky inside the tree begins to shake. He tells me it’s an intervention. When the light is slow enough, it strikes me as a kind of writing. He says it refers to a truth that’s hidden, for example, something political. The names continue to shake. In my country, an activist from Code Pink stands up inside the Senate: “178 children killed by drones in Pakistan. And Mr. Brennan, if you don’t know who they are, I have a list. I have a list with all the names and the ages.” The sky unfolds its loneliness and sends it off to hover. It catches fire from the inside.


Avenida Independencia y Chacabuco

He puts his hands in front of his face, the little square he draws with his thumbs and index fingers, as if he is holding up the air, the us that floats between him and me. Us is not the sum of singular pronouns, only the between. The L of his left hand and its backwards brother seem to bow, and I think, which one of us is me? Closer than touching is the gap in which a word goes. If I were to actually look inside it, would I see the sound it makes? Accidentally, I give him two copies of this door I am trying to make out of someone else’s window. He returns with the extra one and what is the difference between translation and a screen. I put my hands where his had been. I lean my back against his before. I bow my head and the cracks in concrete appear to me as chlorophyll, a photograph holding its breath inside a tree.

The pigeons are still enough to be my shadow. It is winter here, after all, even if I am elsewhere. In what I call my elsewhere, I lean my back against the present tense, a season and its backwards brother. I want to tell you, dear reader, I get lost and lost inside the screen, inside the never ending elsewhere, but the truth is, I cannot enter it. There is no one here to hold it still for me. There is only the machine, and the tracelessness of the air between the pronouns. My cartographer says I should invite you to come and live with me. I can hold my breath, I can bow my head, I can be still enough to be your shadow. Closer than touching is the gap in which a word goes. I want to close my eyes and tell you this as you type it into my computer. I want to turn off the light so you unscrew the bulb and put it in my hand. I want to hold it there until it stops burning, the us that floats between us.


Avenida 9 de Julio y México

The seeds of the palo borracho fall through the notwithstanding winter. What is it to be prior? Like a tuft of fur, my friend who taught me how to say so. In the photograph, he is pointing to the tree in the park that autocorrect keeps turning into “lash eras.” I see him sometimes, a little green pulse on the screen, how to say so falling through the continent. I walk on cobblestones. They cover the former rails, where loneliness continues to dress up as the word I can’t define. Soon I will come upon the past tense. This is the lash era, the widest avenue in the world. How could this be fury? The out of place falls through the fact of me.


Avenida Independencia y Solis

It’s not a word, he tells me, so I push it back against the roof of my mouth. His face is a question I have rehearsed and repeated. I reach into my pocket for the poem and he unfolds it, still wet and fluttering, in his hands. He tells me his name, and then, do you like to read? Maybe it all comes down to this. A name leads one question to another, or the pattern of these bricks, an imprint that is not a word. It’s something on the ground but he doesn’t know for sure. Maybe it is this, an unmarked path between the tongue and paper. I cross the street to where the sun can warm me. The woman begging on the sidewalk and the blank pieces of paper, still wet and fluttering, in her hand. Currency, the little erasure that is not the sun. My face is a question she has rehearsed. I reach into my pocket, but not until I am through with my translation. I take it, the unmarked path between us, and let it dissolve inside my mouth.


Avenida Independencia y Avenida Entre Ríos

In my notebook I write young woman – a mark. Who slides across the hyphen? She says that’s what it means, and here I crank the clock into a corridor I can walk through, hands against the condensation on the wall. I ask her what kind. Like a mark on the road, a path, she says, pointing to the ground. Sometimes I feel that this city is written in invisible ink. How can I walk inside it if I go? I won’t remember the ground between us, only that it sinks and sinks until we can stand on it. At my desk, it spreads inside me. Like a lover, I beg and beg the mark to leave a mark on me, a groove, erasing me with sweat and teeth. A word floats on top of a word until the road becomes an alphabet. How can I land on what happens when I go? I take a photograph of a telephone pole, painted sickly green, the twine around it holding nothing but rust. I stick out my tongue and taste it, my translation, coming through.


Combate de los Pozos y Humberto 1°

When do all the things I discard become the street that holds me? There’s a strike going on. One summer vacation, I brought home a documentary for my father about his union, but I never set foot in the factory where he worked. When does the body become the body? I walk down the street, removing one piece of clothing at a time. My cartographer walks just a few feet ahead of me, and he gives me his coat when I am finally naked. I would like to choreograph this performance, the city through us moving through it in this way. I would like to walk the city from end to end, exchanging what is fleeting with every willing stranger.

I know what you’re going to say. Ever since the invention of the microscope, human touch began to flare. Still, my love for visible geometry, like the metal scaffolding holding up this billboard from the backside. More tender and ambiguous than advertisement or warning. A handsome boy approaches, his hands in his pockets, singing, or speaking to himself. When I ask him what it means, he offers me a sentence: Hoy fracasé en arreglar el auto. He says he can’t concretize it, he cannot find a synonym, it’s not poetry but… and then his voice trails off beyond the edges of my memory. What is mine is failure unless it is briefly. At the bus stop, two people get off as if there is no synonym, a choreography from different doors.


Combate de los Pozos y Avenida San Juan

I ask the cartonero what it means and he breaks the excess syllables into chau. What is the difference between goodbye and the instruction to say so? We carry our life around in a cardboard box that we empty again and again. It has this name – say goodbye – before we even fill it. Chau, a variant of the Italian, coils around the word for slave, schiavo. Not go with God but I am yours, forcibly. I walk toward the underpass, where pigeons flutter in their small round cages beside a makeshift tent. My cartographer frees them in the night and brings me their cages. Here I am, tossing my words into the metal hollows, trying to remember the shape of wings.


Avenida Pavón y Sarandí

On the concrete slab in front of the gate: Nadie es capaz no pueden cobrar mis recuerdos. The roots of the tree tilt the sidewalk, pushing grief’s white letters to the surface. Nobody is capable and then a vine eats away at the barbed wire fence. Nature multiplies the No: they cannot take away my memories. A boy from this housing project died in January. I take a photograph of the mural, his arm stretching towards me, thumbs up, his eyes open but somehow looking back into the wall. He was not yet twenty-one. Nobody is capable. Part of his face unpainted, as if the masonry contains him. The garbage strike is still going on, and everywhere the sun gets stuck in plastic. When I reach the intersection, there’s a furniture repair shop, chairs stacked upside down. A man steps out and I ask him what it means. He says it’s something that comes out of the wall, and he runs his fingers across the moulding. I’m trying to think of how to climb a stair for which there is no railing. The little cave where dust collects, the memory.


Subterráneo Linea E, Estación Pichincha

Below the pageantry of history, people try to make a living. They will put a question mark in your hand. It will likely be made of plastic. If you refuse it, you must feel the weight of all the hands that held and did not keep it. As the train jerks its way through the tunnel, a woman is tearing her medical condition into small pieces of paper. Into my hands, her otherwise geography, she places not her body but the splinter. I hold it, the fire of uncontrollably, a single piece of paper. Her doctor has signed a statement, affirming, on the opposite side, the pain of wrong division. What is a body if not a collection of the strangers who are torn from us? I am thinking of Felix Gonzales Torres’ portrait of his lover, Ross, an installation composed of 175 pounds of candy. I take the candy in my mouth, the fact of his weight diminishing. I hold the cellophane wrapper in my hands. I look through it. What is a body if not a broken window?

Translator’s Note:

I first encountered Mercedes Roffé’s work at a bookstore on Avenida Córdoba in Buenos Aires. I was immediately drawn to this poem, “Situation to Break a Spell,” because of its haunting use of impossible instructions. I had begun an experimental project of translating Argentinian poetry through somatic ritual, and I knew at that moment I wanted to translate Roffé’s work. I was interested in how a poem might be an echo of the city itself. To begin, I made a rough translation of the poem without a dictionary. I then went looking in the streets of for the “definitions” of the words I didn’t immediately recognize. I started at a memorial to the disappeared underneath a freeway in the neighborhood of San Telmo. For every word I didn’t know, I made myself walk the number of blocks corresponding to the line in which that word appeared. Once there, I would try to ask a stranger about their own associations with that word, and then take notes about our conversation. I also wrote down raw descriptions of the physical surroundings and my emotional impressions. In this way, Roffé’s poem pulled me through the streets, into unpredictable encounters with the city and its inhabitants. At my desk, I began to collage these notes into a series of poetic definitions. A selection of these appear as “Street Gloss,” following the original poem in Spanish.

Note: “Situation to Break a Spell” has also been translated by Judith Filc in Talisman. Filc is the translator of Roffé’s book, Ghost Opera, published in 2017 by co-im-press.

Brent Armendinger is the author of The Ghost in Us Was Multiplying (Noemi Press, 2015), a finalist for the California Book Award in poetry, as well as two chapbooks, Undetectable (New Michigan Press, 2009) and Archipelago (Noemi Press, 2009). His poems and translations have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Asymptote, Aufgabe, Bloom, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, and Web Conjunctions. He is a recipient of fellowships from Headlands Center for the Arts and Squaw Valley Community of Writers. He lives in Los Angeles and is an Associate Professor of English and World Literature at Pitzer College.

Mercedes Roffé is one of Argentina’s leading poets. Widely published in the Spanish-speaking world, some of her books have been published in translation in Italy, Quebec, Romania, France, England, and the United States. In the UK, Shearsman Books has published the anthology of her poetry, Like the Rains Come (2008) as well as her poetry collection, Floating Lanterns (2016, translated by Anna Deeny). Translated by Judith Filc, her book, Ghost Opera, was published in the US in 2017 by co-im-press.

She is the editor of Ediciones Pen Press, specialized in contemporary world poetry. Roffé was awarded a John S. Guggenheim and a Civitella Ranieri fellowship.

Ali Kadhim and Chris George translate Salaiman Juni

Six Translations


The morning appeared like the barking of a distant dog—it flew past our neighbor’s house, arrived at our house, and crossed the garden where it collided with the lamp post– undeterred, it continued to march like a fearless tank until it reached the edge and almost fell—I dragged my body outside and tried to follow its footsteps, but I forgot to take my face with me and left it on the table, smiling stupidly like a dark dream. Although I was unafraid, the morning quickly passed like the barking of a distant dog—it flew past our neighbor’s house, arrived at our house, and crossed the garden where it collided with the lamp post—it continued to march until it reached the edge and almost fell—I dragged my body outside and tried to follow its footsteps, but I forgot to carry my face with me and left it on the table, smiling stupidly like a dark dream. Although I was unafraid, the morning quickly passed like the barking of a distant dog—it flew past our neighbor’s house, arrived at our house, and crossed the garden where it collided with the lamp post—it continued to march until it reached the edge… etc… etc…


My father rolls up his sleeves and digs into the night’s heart. As a smile falls off of his mouth and breaks like an old Babylonian god inadvertently fallen out of the archaeologist’s hand, he says:

Someone opens a gap in the magician’s book, and I’m afraid of being endlessly tormented by the secret.

At the time, I did not know the secret, and I did not pay attention to what it said. I was asleep next to the boat of Danish pirates and sailed with them to the other side of the world.

After I remove the rust from the mouth of the poet,

I can confide the secret to you


We are here—in this room—almost every day of the year. We mow the grass, and we mow it again when it grows tall. When our mothers delivered us, we were philosophers, but over time we became mere farmers whose only task is to mow the grass.

We are here almost every day of the year. We only leave this room on holidays, and when we do, we discover that in this wasteland nothing grows, nothing at all. The faces we see on our eternal march look exactly like our faces; when we talk to them, we realize that they babble in a foreign tongue, and to them, our tongue is foreign too. For entertainment we always give them 10-centimeter tall statues to take back to their rooms, and this is how they remember us when they mow the grass.

Often we find statues erected in our rooms, just like the ones we gave to the other philosophers, and it seems to me that it is the other philosophers, who speak in foreign tongues, who have given them to us.

A Disguise Party


While the king and the minister stare at a statue of Jesus, the minister suggests that the king wipe the virgin’s tears. He gives him the handkerchief, but the king trembles, and his hand stumbles by the tree that is painted on it. Jesus falls, but only breaks his nose. No one is saddened by the accident; it was a cheap statue.


This time we do not laugh at the clown. He is one of the invited, just like us.


Three Draculas compete next to the neglected fence. My girlfriend says: I saw the fourth one hide in the basement.


The mailman hands me a letter; he says it is from Mr. Noah. I open the letter and see an ark and flood. At the bottom of the letter, God watches what happens. I fold the paper and give it to my girlfriend. I tell her that we are at a disguise party. I assure you that this ark will never sink, Jesus will never break, Dracula will never hide in the basement. Everyone will go back to their homes, take off these clothes, and lay down naked on their beds, just like us.

A Life That Doesn’t Want to End

Baudelaire is actually Mr. Noah himself. Six hundred years ago, we used to call him Mr. Holago. A boy from Al-Thawra flips the pages of a book that says: “We were prisoners in a camp on the outskirts of Baghdad, but we were able to escape accompanied by Danish pirates to distant lands.” It also states: “During our stay in the cave, we have neither raised a prophet to guide us to the end, nor invented a new word for grandchildren, nor plucked a flower at the beginning of the year. We were incessantly counting our fingers the whole time until someone broke the secret to him; we found him right in front of us holding a kitchen knife. Terrified, we scattered across endless roads and houses. Now, we are writing our answers to philosophical questions; we are writing, attempting to persuade our British neighbor that we hardly escaped the wasteland safely.”

A Watch in the Stew Pot

A letter from Mr. Plato arrived; he says:

“Dear poet X,

After your absence, we have found a watch in the stew pot. It is as dead as the time that is empty of you. On your behalf, we buried it in the city cemetery, and on its grave we placed a toy as a headstone. As far as we are concerned, we live outside of time. What we really fear is that we won’t be born again.”

I wrote back to him:

“Dear Mr. Plato,

There are no poets in this room. No one among us bears that name. We are merely philosophers who look exactly like you. We are also waiting for another watch in lieu of the one we found in the stew pot.”

Chris George is a poet and translator who lives and teaches in Dallas, Texas. His work has been published in numerous journals, including The Arts United, Entropy, and Sarah Lawrence’s LUX. He has forthcoming translations in Asymptote and in Words without Borders‘ new podcast Play for Voices.

Salaiman Juhni is an Iraqi poet who left Iraq for Denmark in 1991. His poems, which are written in prose or free verse, have surprised readers through their use of fantasy and surreal worlds, where time and space are fluid, yet are defined by a keen sense of place and history. Memories of childhood in Iraq are mixed with events that happen in modern Copenhagen; nightmares of years of war and dictatorship are imbued with contemplations and dialogues between classic and modern thought, from Plato to Nietzsche. English translations of his poems are forthcoming in Asymptote.

Ali Kadhim was born in Iraq, but has lived and worked in the United States since 1998. His Arabic poems have appeared in many literary newspapers, journals, websites, as well as in two anthologies featuring Arabic poetry in exile. He published one poetry collection in Arabic in 2002.

Adam Greenberg translates Carla Faesler

from Formaldehyde


For abdominal pain, malaise, or social decay, for a white collar, cramps, corruption, place a pot of water in the anafre until it comes to a boil. Add a handful of rue, marjoram, sweet acacia. Let it stand (time is measured differently, not by saying five minutes, not like dropping in an alka-seltzer or some pepto-bismol) before bringing it back to a boil. Now, letting it stand once more, serve while the person, well covered, reclines.

            It seeps in you,

          the plant’s murmur penetrates you.

           Like smoke it wisps into your body, ideas, indignation, reflection.

            When they reach your navel the plants, the concoction, will say a prayer or give an order, and the unease, the non-conformity will leave you. They expel it, whatever there is inside you, they’ll rid you of it.

            We’ve known this always.

          I feel a crackling inside,

            for a long while, agitating inside me, it won’t stop from boiling.


She stands and it’s a saber in the glare. Delivering a spring of blood there. Stabbing. A network of veins. Again it charges and. In her face, a constellation of reds. The droplets wipe clean as if painting a mask. Open and the teeth. Eyes wide. White and white form that gaze and it’s hatred. The strips of glass flinch between her fingers, with the neck it swells until the scream is a hole. And she stands with fear. Sweat, sweat in her pillows and in the viscous blackness. But then it smells, smells like her husband, smells like the same nightgown as always. She finds her glass of water and drinks. She drinks it all. She wants to cast off her hair but her clinging hairs are tendons adhering to her neck. Blindly she guesses her feet into her slippers. Mangled, she mutters on tiptoes, like bound feet. She passes through the hall and her steps are swallowed in its walls. It’s not only in the darkness that we fumble blindly. Febe comes to the study to get a feel for the living. The heart never, never the heart, not even when we’re distracted, stays asleep. She turns on the light: the jar, the opacity of saturated tow-gray taupe. She grabs a book from the shelf. She reads, delves in, gets lost in a children’s story that Larca never liked. Now she understands it, everything is elucidated alone.



On this strange outing we’ve seen exotic plumage, strong shanks, their cunning eyes taking refuge in nests of hard earthen sticks, sculpted by dry feet. Beak sculptures of precious material, brilliant jade or coral, dying their necks when they eat it. Indifferent eyes fixed like the holes of masks. Binoculars fixed on eccentric worlds of birds flying in circles, of proud headdresses, warriors moving clumsily around their prey and dancing, the squawk from afar, drawing in on the snail. With their proud costume of feathers and stones, they fly in you, in this tunnel we wear from our eyes. Coming toward us, more present than ever, to eat snakes and grasses, what’s left of worms, or a museum’s data sheet. And in its elegant repose on the altar, we must see ourselves in its obsidian black. It picks at entrails, later to sing as if beckoning, the incomprehensible language, those songs, the distance we hear in our observation. Look, in their feathers the bright radiance of the water heralding markets and hatcheries. Look how strange it is, how it moves, how it prays, how it eats the little bit that it eats. And its hard skeleton. And its inner tension, ignoring you you know, snubbing you, that bird that’s very cruel, very cruel in its violence.


other worlds

(extraterrestrial question)

all of the time an all of the time seeing the sky

imagining imaginary beings

touched on the forehead                    accessories of war

strange technology                         unusual knowledge

extraordinary powers


all of the time an all of the time seeing the sky

and with the passing of the years discovering, firmament,

that in the sky there is nothing

that in the sky there is nothing


We’re damned, Moctezuma, condemned to disappearing. Your world and mine are marked for extinction. In you it was intuition, in us certainty, in you a hunch by way of a comet, in us the sign that it’s melting. Your world was consumed by an unfamiliar culture, mine by a culture without rival.

From here the volcanoes without snow are frightening. They’re the sight of the brigs approaching the coasts of Veracruz. They’re the beginning of the end of an era, an epoch, a civilization. From the height of a glen someone sees the stains of boats spreading in the sea. We don’t know what that person thought. What would they have felt?

From here the volcanoes without snow are frightening. Something stops short like a gallop, like a tangle, like a cold arrogance beginning to thaw.

Translator’s Note:

Formol is the story of a family heirloom, a heart in a jar of formaldehyde. A metaphor for Mexico, the heart is often only a meeting place, a formal center out of which Faesler’s cross-genre exploration expands and contracts. The novel interweaves contemporary life and historical landscapes as it shifts between the poles of fiction and poetry. Themes of obsession and the diffusion of cultural history inform the story’s treatment of contemporary family life and adolescence. Our understanding of contemporary Mexico City cannot be separated from our understanding of Mexico’s historical past.

Formol is full of poems: prose poems, concrete poems, poems that resemble recipes or sets of instructions. These are not a departure from narrative. Rather, they often enact an interstitial space wherein thematic and narrative concerns meld, wherein voices converge or disappear.

The meeting of form and content in Faesler’s prose is perhaps best described as a pulsing, a contraction and expansion, a circulation that is both mimetic of the “human heart the size of a fist inside of a jar” and the productive overlap of the contemporary and the historical. I hope that the reader will occasionally feel the presence of the original text, not as something concrete but as a quiet “hidden pulse.”

Adam Greenberg is a recent graduate of Brown University’s MFA in poetry. His poems and translations have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Asymptote, Poor Claudia, Columbia Review, and Brooklyn Review, among others. Adam lives in Washington, DC and teaches writing at George Mason University in Virginia.

Carla Faesler’s poetry has often challenged genre descriptions, not only in the form of prose poetry but also as visual and conceptual art. She has written four books of poetry, Mixcóatl (1996), No tú sino la Piedra (1999), Anábasis maqueta (2003), and Catábasis Exvoto (2010), as well as the novel Formol (2014). She was awarded the Premio Nacional de Literatura Gilberto Owen for Anábasis maqueta. Carla Faesler was born in Mexico City, where she currently lives.

Valentine Conaty

Phases of separation

Sex enters a room,
windows agape.
Scrapes a figure from its shadow
as the sun crowns.

Wicker chairs’
vaulting silhouettes,
like mangroves,
finger their reflections.

Parabolas, following
their asymptotes,
wicker until the sun distends.
Our faces tuned by light.

This arm, tangent
my shoulders,
smooths deviant angles
and extends others.

The mute television
sighs onto the opposite wall
not unlike light
unwound by water.

A Picasso:
one face of the moon
kisses the other,
cowering behind night’s silkscreen.

Two figures
connected at the throat
and groin, we join,
pulling tides out of still water.


My body arrested, regressed, sleeps restless for days.
The cat on my lap climbs every breath, purring. Have I imagined a change in her attention over the year?

I keep a dream journal, adjusting my gender accordingly each morning.

How to love a girl for her long limbs, bones like a cat’s, supernumerary breasts?
Primal mammary ridges emerge. Invisible underskin, dissolved over millennia by evolution. I’d wondered if the third breast would respond.

The men on television don’t understand the significance of bathrooms.
Gossip with porcelain lips, daily autopsies in the mirror. Painstaking distortion by doses. An underscoring of the body transfixed by needles.

I’m in middle school again, being recruited by the pretty girls. They’re testing my blood.
Before I get my passing grade, they ask: lift your skirt, girl. show us your work.

A coyote in the choleric throes of voice wakes others from thin air; I jolt awake, tits raised. The cat whines, lapping milk from my cupped palms.

Valentine Conaty grew up in Birmingham, AL. In the past three years, she’s lived in four cities in four states across the Southeast and East Coast. Currently, she lives in Queens, NY with a partner and a ragtag family of practicing artists. Her work can be found (under various former aliases) in Educe, THEM, and (b)OINK. Follow her on Twitter @queertrix.

Jae Kim

The Sloping Lawn

Kay was on the campus lawn trying to wrap his thoughts around the fire hydrant when he witnessed a roadkill. A sliver of the wild rabbit was sucked under the tires, and then he saw the aftermath. The animal was disfigured to the point where you couldn’t tell what it had been to begin with. It could have been a pigeon or a fat rodent. The dusty campus bus stopped at the stop sign and moved on. Students were released with the twelve o’clock chime, and many crossed the road where the roadkill had happened only moments ago. The lawn was on a slope, the road below. Kay could see the rabbit at the center of the swerving foot traffic. It was like an abstracted painting, the parts barely recognizable, streaks on a patch so dark it was almost as black as the pavement. The road was the only road that cut across the university campus. The bus wasn’t going fast. Perhaps the rabbit had been sick and limping, or old and senile, like the long-legged mosquitoes trapped inside windows, inching up for all their lives. Kay looked at the fire hydrant. It was more a part of the lawn and the brick buildings than the clump on the road. On the other side of the road another lawn sloped up. On either side of the road were ditches and drains so the road wouldn’t turn into a river when it rained. If it rained, with the first few drops, the blood would thin and flow. If the road turned into a river, the rabbit would come unstuck and float, and the students, unable to cross, would line up along the banks. A woman’s hair fanned down from behind her ear and blocked Kay’s view of the dead animal. She leaned over it, her checkered skirt tucked under her knees. There was hardly anyone around anymore. She lingered over the rabbit, hugging her legs. She buried her face between her knees. A sedan came to a stop next to the woman. The driver, a young man, poked his head out, and was about to say something mean, Kay thought, but stopped himself. There was just enough room to go around the woman. Her hair took on a reddish hue. She was no longer watching, but soaking in it. She wasn’t sobbing. She was almost sleeping, taking an afternoon nap. The fire hydrant was the same as others on campus, those along the streets of the residential neighborhood surrounding the university. Worn, rusting at the edges. The woman stood up. A part of her shoe touched the rabbit, then she looked up in Kay’s direction as if to come up the slopes. There were two ways to come up the slopes. Some took the long-winded trail, others treaded the shorter path through the grass. The two paths met at the top, and there the fire hydrant sat marking the crossroads. Squirrels climbed it, jumped past it. The woman looked behind Kay. Kay looked and found a man whose face was hard to see under a blue visor. In his gloved hands were a shovel and a clump of plastic bags. He was coming down the slope the long way, which traced a circle around Kay. At first, Kay could only see his scruffy chin. As the man came down, though he wasn’t any closer to Kay, because of the sun’s angle, Kay could make out his shadowed eyes and the pale skin below his eyes. The chime rang, and students filed out like the parade of an automaton clock. In the midst of their stream, the man shoveled the remains of the rabbit. He planted the sharp end of the shovel firmly at the edge and scooped it up. The sheet of steel scraped the concrete in one grating stroke. Now the rabbit lay on the blade of the shovel, curled up in its embracing curve. Where it had once lain—there was only a smudge. The woman had been watching from the sidewalk, was still watching as the plastic bag was tied, tied again, and hung on the man’s fingers. A pickup truck blared its horn, and the woman stood back, but before the truck could pass by, a pair of students crossed the road. One of them nearly stepped on the smear, but the other caught him by his elbow. They climbed up the shorter path. The truck tires missed the spot, threw gray dust on it. The woman watched the plastic bag get carried up the slope the long way, and followed it from a distance. More cars passed and threw gray dust on the smudge. The smudge became a mere discoloration. Kay told his students to write about the fire hydrant while he watched, from the window of his classroom on top of the hill, the road. The chime rang, students poured out, and shoes and tires took turns rubbing the spot. On the blackboard Kay had written: мртва животиња. Kay had asked the students to write about мртва животиња to see if anyone else had seen the rabbit die. The students were there to learn to speak their minds in a new language. They were there to listen, read, and communicate with others. A student had written: Јуче сам видео мртво животињу—Yesterday I saw a dead animal. The name Sonya didn’t bring to his mind a face. On his way home Kay made himself step on the spot. He ran up the opposite slope and looked back. The smudge was nearly invisible, and because of it, the spot was prominent. He loved a woman much like the woman who had sat on the road and buried her face between her knees. Then he loved another, much like the woman who had followed from a distance the rabbit’s remains being carried away by the pale-faced man. They were two different women. Then it was raining, and Kay wrote on the blackboard: киша, meaning rain. While the students scribbled on their notebook papers, the sun came out and dried the road. The worn road. It would have to be repaved. Otherwise, there would soon be potholes to patch. On his way home, Kay hit a pedestrian. Clear sky, the trees along the street barren, though not pitiful. Behind them the townhouses crowded one another. The scenery could well have been that of a warm spring day. Kay imagined the naked branches sprouting shoots. But the whistle of wind that came through the gaps in the car’s doors and windows was a cold winter’s whistle. Kay lamented the fact that he was driving, not walking on the sidewalk with his coat and scarf in the wind. There was no cloud in the sky, which became whiter toward the horizon. It was like an ocean he could plunge himself into. Turning the corner at the stop sign, Kay was basking in the sun. The angles were such that the rays hit the dusty parts of the windshield, conjuring an explosion of brilliance. Kay couldn’t see anything. He wasn’t thinking the right way about how he couldn’t see anything. Kay hit a man named Pincos, who said his daughter was nearly twelve. His wife and daughter were away; that was how he put it. Pincos’s weight transferred fully through the chassis of Kay’s car. The sun had been blinding, and the shadow of Pincos had loomed over the windshield, allowing Kay to see him just before making contact. Pincos dusted off his pant legs and examined his coat for tears. The right things to say didn’t feel like the right things to say. “I’m so sorry. Are you hurt?”  Pincos held up his hand at the windshield without looking and began to walk away, limping slightly. He drew together the collars of his coat below his chin. Kay got out and said, “Wait!”  They exchanged their names and phone numbers. The cold resonated with the deep register of Pincos’s voice. Kay called him that evening to say the things that couldn’t be said before, and learned that Pincos had checked himself into the hospital. Drawing his down coat tight around his neck, Kay went out into the night to go to the university hospital, which was not far. He heard a chime. It reverberated through the air vividly. A nine o’clock chime. The snippet of melody followed by nine low-pitched gongs was different than the school’s chime; it came from a church nearby. For a moment, the clarity of the gongs made him pause in his tracks, riveted his two feet to the sidewalk. Pincos showed Kay a photograph of his daughter when she was only a baby. His wife seemed happy in a world of autumn leaves. A walk through the trail behind their house where they’d met a photographer. The picture had been taken with a large camera on a tripod. A nurse carried in Pincos’s meal: two slices of a meat loaf, peas, carrots, and a lump of mashed potatoes. Pincos asked Kay, “Would you mind stopping by my house to bring me some change of clothes?  I live down the road.”  He scratched his cast. Kay put on his coat and went out again into the night. Kay drew the coat’s zipper all the way to his nose, threw the hood over his head, and walked headlong into the wind. When his feet found stray rocks, he kicked them. There was no moon. Tap, tap, tap. The rocks spun away, skipping under street lights. Kay listened to his own breathing and felt the moist, slippery fabric of the coat on his lips. He sent another rock ahead. Tap, tap, tap. Was it the same rock?  Pincos had left his heater on. Kay shed his coat in the dark and fumbled for the light switch. The light, from a ceiling lamp, was as bright as the hospital’s lights. “Hello?” Kay said, knowing no one would answer. “Hello?”  Above the dresser in the living room, there was a family portrait in a frame. It was the same photograph Pincos had shown Kay at the hospital. Kay opened the shelves of the dresser. The top shelf contained towels and sheets, neatly folded. The other three shelves below were completely empty. Kay went into the master bedroom and found another, smaller drawer, where there were underwear in one shelf, shirts in the other. He put down Pincos’s clothes on the coffee table in the living room and surveyed the tidy, uncluttered house. In the kitchen cabinets: two sets of utensils, two white plates, two ceramic bowls. Salt and pepper, a bottle each of basil, thyme, and yellow curry. Tea. Sugar and honey. Cooking oil and vinegar. A lightweight, matching set of pots and pans. In the freezer there were blocks of frozen beef, in the refrigerator a carton of eggs and fresh tomatoes. A stick of butter down to the last slice. Half a clove of garlic inside the flower of its skin, the dry, broken bits decorating the prize. The refrigerator whirred and came alive. In the walk-in closet, Kay found a set of gray suit, a number of shirts, and a burgundy-striped necktie. A pair of socks stuffed into one of the brown dress shoes. An iron and a checkered ironing board. He pictured Pincos bent over the board, meticulously creasing the sleeves of his shirts. The stack of Pincos’s clothes were on the coffee table where Kay had put them. Kay lay down on the unruffled couch next to it, his head and ankles propped on the armrests. He folded his hands over his stomach. I could fall asleep, Kay thought. I won’t show up to class tomorrow. My students would chat for ten, fifteen minutes, then go home. The thought made Kay want to be there to see it, to hear their words and frustration. One student might remain throughout the class period, scribbling. Probably someone who isn’t always there, isn’t always on time. Someone who isn’t interested in learning to speak his or her mind in a new language.

Jae Kim lives in St. Louis and teaches fiction writing as a Third-Year Fellow at Washington University, where he recently finished his MFA. Jae’s stories have appeared or will appear in Puerto del SolThe CollagistNOON, and Platypus Press, among other places. His translations of Korean poetry are forthcoming in Poetry Review and Asymptote.

Casandra Lopez

house of bullet

I house the bang of Bullet in my amygdala, in my tizzied **** brain now prone
to hijack.                                         Brother’s brain housed

a bullet for 14 hours. 14 hours of waiting

                                         room chairs in a caffeinless hospital.
                                         14 hours is a song lodge in throat,
                                         a soft isthmus where no food can pass.  

                                          We are all less now.
                                          Pieced together with lack.

                                          We must house
                                          him in our bodies—
                                          A clavicle scripted with initials, a marked arm
                                          or stomach and almond eyed children become
of a man’s existence.

Brother once housed a secret
and now I the prick of survivor’s guilt.

House this question: Who did this to you?
The police report says [REDACTED]
Someone tells me, [REDACTED]
Someone else tells me, [REDACTED]

Live this city as a question. A mark of tomorrow never guaranteed. Live
in this city’s muck, this edge                             of desert.                             What is below
will rise,                             a laked underground,               the gut of it,
our soupy middle.                                       Because each house is built      on a fault

line, so close to the spine.

Open my closet.           Open my suitcase.          Open our neighbor’s house. Open
my childhood friend.           Open our relations.           Open the stranger. Open
                                                  this city.  

And you will find each year it grows full
with more clothes printed with “In Memory” and ‘RIP.”

Do not advert your eyes when you shake
the hand of the mother of
Brother’s youngest child.
She houses Brother’s face

on her forearm.
                                          Here, she declares a theft,
                                          [ an                                     absence ]
                                          This tattoo, this scarred skin, a wound
                                          healing–made visible.

Bullet won’t stop.

It’s in Cousin’s computer.                                       She needs more
memory.                                                                       There is always more
to record,                                                                       more slides to set to music. More                                                                                Diana Ross singing
about                                                                                missing you.

Brother-Friend houses Bullet
in a drink, in his knuckles
deformed from a night’s punched fist.
Where else can he house                                             this wild?

                                            Can it live in a thirty day sobriety?

                                            Where can we rest our chorus of grief?

Eldest Nephew lives his grief
                                                        in a soccer limbed run, in a kicked

sphere. He learns this game—what it is to win and lose—in Spanish and English.

He learns that his first loss
                                                             after Father-death will turn him into a limp limbed

boy, his knees cutting into
                                                             the green regulated grass

He learns he will need help to stand.

for brother-friend who contemplates suicide on a Saturday

Casandra Lopez is a California Indian (Cahuilla/Tongva/Luiseño) and Chicana writer who has received support from from CantoMundo, Bread Loaf and Jackstraw. She’s been selected for residencies with School of Advanced Research and Hedgebrook. Her chapbook, Where Bullet Breaks was published by the Sequoyah National Research Center and her second chapbook, After Bullet,is forthcoming from Paper Nautilus. She’s a founding editor of As Us: A Space For Writers Of The World, and teaches at Northwest Indian College.

Aliceanna Stopher

Public Spaces

He’d put it to a girl like this, “Name somebody. Anybody. I’ve got ‘em.” Greg’s record collection was usually the clincher. His record collection took the date from subway platform to bedroom floor, before an altar of milk crate stacks. Nearer the endpoint, his bed, closer proximity translated to better odds. Greg had hundreds of records, at least that many. It was unfailing.

But Cheryl’s northbound train had arrived ahead of schedule.

A multicolored sea of toothpick legs in skinny jeans, stout women in trash bag parkas, bodies in hoodies and pantsuits off boarded. Cheryl smiled at Greg, started to extend her hand then withdrew it, laughing a little at herself, her own discomfort. Her uncertainty. A handshake felt sterile, a hug too intimate. She shuffled with the crowd towards the open doors.

“Give me a call,” Greg said, “when you get in. Or text. Whichever. Just so I know you got home okay.” The doors closed, he watched her take a seat by the window, her palm pressed against the glass, then she was gone.


Cheryl dreamed the city inverted.

In these dreams she hangs by her toes from the railing of a trolley car. A bat; bald-blind-leather-night mouse. Cheryl is happy, loose, swinging her arms in the light and pleasant breeze. The trolley floats, unattached. A truce between ground-turned-sky and sky-turned-ground. The trolley, because of this agreement, cannot stop. Cheryl instinctively understands this. Hangers-on accumulate. Insectoid strangers, limbs without faces, scuttle from the ground-turned-sky. They fasten themselves by tooth or claw onto the railings. Cheryl becomes afraid they’ll weigh the whole thing down. That they’ll somehow break the unspoken gravitational agreement and she will topple, head first, to a ground that is just sky. Everlasting falling into nothing on top of intolerably blue nothing. Forever and ever, amen.


They started with drinks and a playful argument over territory.

“You don’t live in the city,” Cheryl said. The bar was dim, cavernous. Though the bartender had not asked for their ID’s, Greg had left his new California license on the counter and Cheryl had swiped it, tapped his zip code with her chewed-down nail and tsk-ed. “94112? Boy, please, that’s Daly City.” She affected that Bayview speech, an east side almost-aggression, to cover up her Chinatown roots.

“No, it isn’t, not really,” Greg said, and smiled.

Greg was mild mannered and had a kind of boyish appeal. He was not unattractive but just, what was the word, tame. She would have to ask her sister Kim later why she kept setting Cheryl up with white boys.

“It’s almost not the city but it’s still technically the city.”

“Sure,” Cheryl said, “okay.” She traced the lip of her highball with her finger, shuffling her ice until it clinked. “You drive, though, huh? You’re not a real San Franciscan if you drive. If you drive then it’s settled.”

Greg threw up his hands. He wasn’t sure this was true; the everyday scramble for available street parking in his neighborhood directly contradicted this. And sure he took the BART, when he had to. When, like tonight, he knew parking would prove more trouble than it was worth.

Besides he liked his car, couldn’t imagine not having it. Even in the city, yeah, it was a hassle but most of the time it was worth it. For the freedom of movement. That was America, right? The open road? That he could get into his car and drive as far as his tank or his wallet would take him?

Cheryl was smirking in a slightly unpleasant way, and Greg noticed now she had finished her drink in two awfully unladylike swallows. He had about half a pint to go and still they had an hour to burn before their reservation. Would she order another? If she ordered another would she pick up the tab? Would it be weird of him to ask?

“I’m only teasing you,” Cheryl said. Greg noticed her shoulder go slack as she leaned back, the tumble of it, like air getting let out of it.


Cheryl watched herself against the rush of steel and wire, her outline barely perceptible. She imagined her mother in another seat somehow able to see Cheryl. See the way she could fold into herself, how in her reflection her cheeks seemed less wide, the fleshy pouch under her chin tucked itself away. See her looking so very much like a woman.

By 16th the pair of women she’d been casually watching, a pair of salt and pepper shakers, were comparing methods for at home pubic hair removal.

“I slipped once straddling the lip of the bathtub – ”

Another woman, or what sounded like a woman, somewhere behind Cheryl, shouted, “Is nothing sacred?” The shakers tittered. “Is nothing sacred?”

In the moments that followed it became more and more unclear whether this outburst was actually directed at the pair with the carrying voices. Was this other woman talking to herself? This seemed possible. To someone unseen? Also a possibility. It was almost dark on the Millbrae bound train, after all. The shakers’ shoulders softened then they resumed, albeit more quietly, their previous discussion. The kid beside Cheryl had closed his eyes, he was drumming his index and ring fingers against his flank.

The car doors opened, three consecutive beeps, then closed again.

Cheryl turned Greg’s business card in her palm.

“Next stop, 24th Street Station.”


Cheryl propped the phone between shoulder and ear, where the crook of her neck met the dip of her collarbone, a marriage of mind to body, spirit to flesh.

“Just don’t wear the blue thing,” Kim said, “It washes you out.”

Cheryl was turning over the card Kim had given her. Gregory Patrick Sobol. Floor manager. Sears. Cheryl knew she was supposed to be impressed.


“What about the purple top? You look so nice in jewel tones.”

“Have you ever loved anybody?”

Her sister clucked her tongue on the other line.

“Don’t be stupid,” Kim said.

Cheryl tore a thin line, as straight as she could, between Greg’s first name and his last, severing the Pat from the rick.

“Do you think she loved us? Really loved –?”

“Don’t start in.”

“I’m serious, do you think Mama –?”

Kim said, “Don’t wear the blue thing, meimei, okay? Okay? Are you listening? Walk me over to the closet. I want to hear what you pick. Pick something that swishes.”


Cheryl was lost in her own two eyes, twin black holes, so was surprised when the garbled voice over the intercom said, “Next stop, Montgomery”, her station. Sometime when she had been trying to unbleed pupil from the dark mechanical sheen of iris a man had sat down next to her. She shifted, her knee grazed his thigh, and smiled when he met her eyes.

“That’s me,” she said. Cheryl thought the man’s head looked something like an arrow. She gathered herself up. When the train stopped, she stood.

“This is me,” again. “This is my stop.”

Around her the shuffling of bodies. Everything moved in fits and starts.

“Please, excuse me,” Cheryl said, “This is my stop.”

The man stared. He said nothing.

Did he expect her to climb over him? To hike up her skirt and climb over the back of the seat in front, land into the laps of the elderly Filipino women seated there, examining their hands? Did he need her to say it again?

“Please, excuse me,” she said. She didn’t want to keep looking down at him looking back up at her, glassy eyed.

“Please,” she said, the intercom beeped, once loud and long, then twice, shorter and brighter, birdsong. The car doors closed. Cheryl had missed her stop. She remained standing but let herself fall back into her seat when the car pitched forward.

“Please,” she said.

The man seemed to jolt into sudden recognition. He hooked his arm around her shoulder. “My girl,” he said, breathy, low, “My girl.”


Is nothing sacred?


Kim was not wrong, Greg thought. Cheryl was pretty, even despite her slightly matronly glasses. He wondered if it was the glasses that gave her a more, what was the word, ethnic look than her sister. Cheryl had a firm body and those exotic eyes. Eyes that, despite their downward tilt, were maybe too wide for her face, really, and eyelashes thick enough to be fake. He wondered if they were fake. Glued on. He decided this was not the right moment to ask, but maybe later, he would ask her, “Were you wearing false eyelashes on our first date?” and she would say, “Wow, you noticed? I love you best for your fine attention to detail,” and then they might make out a little, but tastefully, because in this scenario they would be outside, on his front stoop, in full view of the neighbors and all, and it wouldn’t be dark quite yet.


Cheryl shifted her weight and waited to cross the street. This part of the Mission smelled like stale coffee and pomade, a sort of tarry smell, which depending on the breeze was tinged with either agave or rotted fruit. The high palms towered over the streetlights just waking up. It was dusk, speckled pavement awash in a shallow bath of neon. She kept a hand in her pocket, ran a finger over the tiny tears she’d already made at the edges of Greg’s card, some lines thin and long, others jagged and short. She took its corner in her thumb and ripped.

“Young lady,” a woman’s husky voice on the corner, “Excuse me, miss, young lady.”

The woman wore an obscenely purple coat. Under her arms she cradled copies of the Street Sheet but held, in her hands, a plastic bucket brimming with magnets she was selling for five dollars apiece. Cheryl recognized the magnets first. She couldn’t remember the woman’s name, which was Josie, or where she’d seen her before but she knew she knew her and for some reason this knowing made her feel ashamed.


Cheryl dreamed labyrinthine dreams.

In these dreams she stands in a line behind and in front of strangers whose faces are obscured from her. In these dreams they march, Cheryl and this horde, single file, twisting and turning, the knotted hedges growing taller, blocking out the sun, until everything becomes verdant, close. Faster and faster the line moves until the hedges begin to spread in. An invasion.

Sometimes Cheryl woke from these dreams scratching herself at the base of her throat; unable to untangle an outstretched vine coiling around her neck, convinced she is suffocating.


By the time their dinner had cooled enough to start eating they had exhausted several strands of conversation – it was established where each had grown up, had gone to college, their favorite colors, and the number of their siblings.

Here, Raleigh. UCSF, Emory & Henry. Green, also green. One, none.

Things began to take a more philosophical bent.

“You can rename a cat,” Greg said, “but you can’t rename a dog. Not one that’s a few years old, that’s learned to respond to a certain name.”

They’d been talking about a stray kitten that had shot into Cheryl’s lobby. She’d wanted to keep it but her downstairs neighbor had seen it first and shooed it out with a broom.

“I think what you’re saying is dogs have a stronger attachment to their first identity?” Cheryl said, her inflections making it sound like a question. Since they’d left the bar she’d felt less sure. “Like, they’re more invested in how we see them than cats are?”


Two women sat next to one another on the handicap accessible bench closest to the train car doors. The brunette from head to toe in ivory, the blonde in soft shades of black. They looked, Cheryl thought, like a pair of salt and pepper shakers. Perfectly matched. Complementary. A kind of yin and yang.

“Dressed to kill,” the dark haired woman said to the blonde, “When I go out I really go all out. And it’s not for Harry, it’s for me.”

Cheryl leaned against her window. This was the view she liked best; the occasional bright flash of tile as the train sped out of or into another station, the rest a not-even blur of blackness, grit, grime. Her city’s underside. Not soft, but hard. Mechanical. Cheryl liked the way she looked in this reflection, her shadow self. Here, she looked like the kind of woman her mother would have liked to have been seen with uptown. The kind of woman her mother used to point at, tug at Cheryl’s ponytail, and say in her perfectly imperfect English, “That’s a woman.”

The blonde scoffed at and to the brunette, “the blisters, the tweezing, the salon fumes, the cracked heels, the eyebrow threading, the waxing. Yep, all for you.” The women’s laughter was drowned out by the clack of train to track, by the sheer speed of forward motion.


It felt good to tear along the edges of Greg’s business card. Felt good to gnaw with careful fingers away at the heavy cardstock. Floor manager. Sears.

Someone had taped a poster for the annual Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence Easter Sunday in the Park over the bottom half of the BART map. As usual was scheduled the Hunky Jesus contest with cash prize—though no cash prize, it should be noted, would be awarded for the foxiest of the Foxy Mary’s—accompanied by the traditional trashcan marching band parade. But new this year a midmorning egg hunt with Sister Betty. For the children. Fun for the whole family. Cheryl crossed and uncrossed her legs in her seat.

At the next stop a kid wearing an A’s cap settled himself in next to her. She could hear the heartbeat, the war drums, playing in his headphones.


Cheryl was enjoying her food more than Greg. Meaning, she liked her food more than Greg did his, and also was enjoying her food more than Greg’s company.

The set up had come together like this: Greg worked with Kim, in appliances at Sears in San Bruno. Although he was Kim’s floor manager he still worked the sales floor. Moved among the little guys. He specialized in refrigerators. Kim seemed to think that this would make them a good match.


Josie didn’t need to keep trying to get Cheryl’s attention although now she had it she was not sure what to do with it. Josie had also forgotten Cheryl’s name but remembered her round pale face and long eyelashes. She remembered Cheryl stopping for her on a Saturday in the not-too-distant past, maybe late winter, an early afternoon after the fog had burned off. Stopping on a Saturday in Noe Valley, a kind of miracle. Stopping in a sea of people rushing past Josie, eager to avert their eyes, taking up sudden conversation as they began to move towards and then away from her as if Josie were stupid, as if she wouldn’t notice, as if they couldn’t hear her saying, “Street Sheets, Street Sheets” or “Anything helps.”

But this girl, Cheryl, had slowed and stopped and smiled and, after minimal coaxing, had lost her delicate hand in the deep well of magnets Josie was selling. She had pulled out and examined several as Josie explained to the girl how she knew a guy who helped her take the photos from offline at the library and print them out, all laminated and nice, and repurpose plainer magnets she’d find, for a price.

“That’s why they’re five a pop, baby girl,” Josie said, a kind of apology.

The girl deliberated, decided finally to buy two: one a black and white picture of a fire breathing Angela Davis, the other, a profile of John Coltrane and his sax.


Sometimes Cheryl didn’t dream at all.


Greg bit into his penne. It was a little undercooked. He would lodge a complaint as they were leaving, making sure Cheryl was already outside. Maybe he’d say he’d forgotten his coat. Maybe he’d actually leave his coat at the table. But would it be worse if she let him do that, let him walk out without it? He got so wrapped up in his scheming to complain to someone without seeming like an asshole to Cheryl, who, remember, he had only just met, that he never responded to her perhaps astute observation about cats, dogs and attachment, identity.


“My girl” he had called her, “My girl.”

He had made her his girl. He had named her, claimed her.

He was saying something else, now, with the breath of the ocean, a tidal hiss, saying something Cheryl was straining to hear. He was sitting close to her, she could feel the heat of his body where their legs met through her sheer stockings, could feel the rhythm of his breathing as he pulled her body closer into his, his soldering of ribcage to ribcage, armpit to shoulder. Still, she could scarcely hear him. What was he muttering?

“Pretty,” she thought she heard, or maybe “Fine”, or maybe he was saying something about the city, or the line, or the lights. “Bright lights,” he was maybe saying.

“Next stop, Embarcadero,” the voice over the speakers rasped, “This is a Richmond bound train. Last San Francisco stop, Embarcadero, this is a Richmond bound train.” Static.

Should she say please, again? Should she ask again, say excuse me, should she pretend that whatever had happened at Montgomery had been a kind of glitch, a mistake? Something she could laugh about when she got home, when she called Kim, if she texted Greg? You’ll never believe the mishap I got myself into on the train or, if to Greg, Next time we’re out, please put me in an Uber. Though Greg’s card was a wound knot of shredded paper she had been worrying all night in her skirt pocket she hadn’t deleted his number just yet. She could still chastise him if she wanted to. Would she want to when she got home?

Would she get home?

Cheryl cleared her throat. The man with his arm around her shoulder did not like this. He seemed to have shaken off whatever had frozen him before, his eyes were no longer glassy, his fingers clutched greedily, he did not like her noises, her stiffness. No, he did not like it. Not at all.

“Cunt,” he said, this time, loudly enough for her to hear him, “stupid, you stupid dog bitch, stupid.” Cheryl shut her eyes with every crash of fricative-s to t.

She lifted her chin, scanned the car between bursts of consonance, in the downbeats of the stranger’s noise. A body here, a body there. Everywhere cell phone glare. No one was watching. No one was paying attention. Not, at least, to her.

 “Stupid, stupid, stupid,” he was still saying it. He shifted his emphasis from the front to back half of the word, gnawing on the sounds. Spitting them back out before swallowing.

Across the aisle, a bearded man cupped his hands over his child’s ears. The father shushed his sleeping baby, kissed the crown of his child’s head.

“Embarcadero.” The car doors opened. No offboarders, a spattering of on.

The father’s visual assessment: Man in the aisle seat, wiry. Girl in the window seat, slight, Asian. The father wished the man and the girl would settle down, would handle their business at home, not make such a scene.

Three beeps, the car doors closed. “Next stop, West Oakland.”

The train shot beneath the Bay.


“His commissions are always really high,” Kim said, “and he’s got good taste in appliances. Really good. I’d kill for Sara to look at a toaster the way Greg does.” Kim and Sara had been living together for six years and though ding-dong-DOMA-was-dead, Kim was dragging her heels. This heel dragging had translated into setting Cheryl up with almost every male person Kim encountered. Kim seemed to have the idea any man might do. That straight women were somehow less picky. Cheryl was not sure where her sister had gotten this idea. Kim’s standards for her younger sister had gotten even lower, in Cheryl’s opinion, since their mother died last summer.

Cheryl, having set the phone down and put Kim on speaker while she continued to extol Greg’s virtues—he brings salads in cute little salad-specific Tupperware for lunch!—walked into her kitchen. She poured herself a glass of water and stared for a little longer than she ever had before at her microwave. She had no idea what brand it was. She wondered if she cared.


“This was interesting,” Cheryl said, her body already turning away. The bright lights from the oncoming northbound train preceded the boom of its arrival. Cheryl was saying now, although Greg couldn’t hear her, that they should get together again. Though Cheryl had made a paper nest of Greg’s card in her pocket she had saved his number in her cell phone before their date. Soon? Maybe after Easter? Maybe they could meet a little closer to her neighborhood? Maybe just for drinks?

When Cheryl was seven she’d taken a city bus, the 5, after dark for the first time without her mother. Her mother, bent over the dumpling wrappers she was wetting in the egg wash, lifted her heavy hand and shooed Cheryl out of their restaurant. “Here’s a dollar,” her mother had said, and sent Cheryl home.

It was a summer night, cool and a little wet. A man in the back seat climbed out of his open window and onto the roof of the bus. Cheryl remembered seeing him jump off, first onto the bumper, then onto the road. This was not the strangest thing she had seen on public trans. Or the strangest at night.

Approaching thirty she knew a few things for certain: not to take the 14 after nine thirty p.m. The K after ten. Never get off at Civic Center between the hours of eleven and one, or at any time of day if you’re meeting someone important and don’t want to run the risk of getting spit on, or if you’re wearing anything remotely revealing any time other than Pride weekend.

Greg didn’t know this much. When his train arrived he would take it two stops south, walk the mile from the station up a winding hill to his apartment, wearing headphones. He would feel unafraid.


The Coltrane magnet was what did it. “You like jazz?” Josie asked the girl.

“My mother did,” the girl said. She paid for the magnets with an astoundingly flat ten-dollar bill. She’d asked for Josie’s name and in return gave hers.

Now, what was it? It was soft name, wasn’t it? Something that swished?

“Your mama’s no longer with us?” Josie asked. The girl shook her head.

Josie remembered telling the girl right then and there that God was going to bless her. She said, “Chin up, baby.” She said, “Aw now, honey, don’t cry.” She said, “Your mama’s gonna bless you, she’s up there, looking down, and she’s gonna send a miracle your way, just you wait, aw now honey, don’t cry.” Josie gave her a Street Sheet, no charge.

And now, weeks later, after climbing out of 24th street station, Cheryl’s hand in her pocket on Greg’s card, she stared at Josie’s teeth, several of which on the bottom were blackened or missing. Cheryl fixed her eyes on the sidewalk. She waited for the light to change so she could move away.

“Young lady, young lady.”


Greg picked at his penne. “So what’s physical therapy like?” he asked. He had a pretty good sightline down Cheryl’s shirt and wanted her to keep looking at her food, sawing away, distracted, so that he could keep looking at the patch where she was exposed for just a moment longer.

“It’s very rewarding,” Cheryl said. She was weary of answering this question. It was, honestly, grueling work. She pushed people’s bodies and though they were grateful to her when she improved their mobility or range of motion, the process was long, strenuous, and her clients were often resentful for the small pains she caused them.

Also she was tired of being groped by elderly men who would pretend, at least when they were caught, they didn’t have control over the grasping fists opening and closing on her ass.

“One of my clients recently sent me home with a really lovely painting. Her husband was some kind of impressionist.”

“What’s the painting of?” Greg asked, a little annoyed. He knew very little about art.

“Sunflowers,” Cheryl said, “Enormous sunflowers.”


Greg was waving a hurried and hopeful see-you-later then was gone. Finally, Cheryl was on her way home. She let her palm slide off the window into her lap. In her peripheral vision she could make out a bearded man with a toddler asleep against his chest. He was rubbing the child’s back and may have been murmuring to it but Cheryl couldn’t distinguish his voice from the ambient hum. She could feel the lateness of the night, even here, underground.

She could be okay she decided, in a bunker without any sun or fresh air, any lightness. There is safety in the dark. Cheryl wondered if this certainty made her, even a little, she didn’t know, animalistic. In the depth of her skirt pocket she fingered her paper nest. She side eyed her reflection, wanting to believe she would find in it freshly sprouted whiskers or feathers or a forked tongue.

What might her mother think, then?


Cheryl dreamed apocalyptic dreams.

In these dreams she climbs down a ladder.

At the top of the ladder, or as close to the top as she is ever aware of beginning, the rungs are slick, cold. As she descends, as happens in dreams, this changes. The rungs transform, become braided vines, earthen, warm to hot in places, and this, this climbing, becomes a challenge for Cheryl, a challenge to know where to place her feet and hands or how to grip or for how long.

She never touches solid ground.  


But we were on the northbound train, weren’t we, headed home?

A snake of a man, arrow-headed, muscularly compact, thin, flitted on the opposite side of the car from one seat to another. He prowled the length of the car, unsatisfied. He was hungry for something he may not have had a name for. Let’s call it dream logic.

He sat down beside Cheryl. We already know this. He took the aisle seat. He was pleased.

24th Street.


Civic Center.


Next stop, Montgomery.

“That’s me,” Cheryl said. She’d been preoccupied with her reflection in the glass. She noticed the man for the first time seeing he was wiry and long. She shifted her body, her knees knocked gently into his thigh, and smiled at him.

He remembered his first county fair.

The reds, yellows, whites of the lights bouncing off the smooth edges of game booths, concession stands. Everything had a little shimmer. Then, coming into soft focus, the Scrambler. Only three tickets.

He remembered the noise, the vague smell of oil.

The ticket taker said, “Keep your limbs inside if you want to keep them,” and his grown up man’s fists swallowed the yellow tickets. The ticker taker ushered him on with a backwards glance at a gaggle of girls in tank tops and short-shorts waggling off into the violet night. The snake of a man, who was then just a bright-faced boy, was barely tall enough to climb into his seat without the man’s help. He pulled down the slick, cool bar across his lap until it clicked.

The Scrambler churned to life. The boy gripped the bar, the ride moving in a semi-circle, slow at first. Then faster. Then violently. The night air lapped against his cheeks and nose and he was beaming, and watching all the people start to blur together as he passed them. In flashes and bursts he could make out, behind the wall of porta-john’s, figures in the dark, a kind of slow motion chase, wolf and sheep, a dance, one body pressed against another, in sharp focus one moment, indistinct the next.

“This is me,” Cheryl was saying, tapping him lightly on the shoulder, “this is my stop,” the doors to the car were swooshing open but he was immobile. Cheryl was standing up but he didn’t see her. Couldn’t see her. He was elsewhere. He was gone.

He was thinking about force. About being slammed into the crook of the Scrambler’s seat. About how he made a game of trying to grip the bar and inch his way back into the middle but couldn’t because he was too small and the force, the gravity, was much too strong. Gravity as strength. Gravity as taking what’s yours.

“Please, excuse me, this is my stop.”

He was moving too fast and his stomach was flipping inside of his tiny boy’s body. He was whipping back, forth, tears stung his eyes, everything blurred, but the ride cranked along, oblivious.

“Please, excuse me.”

His seat kissed the ride’s enclosure. Though he had been warned against it he wanted to reach out to touch it, see what it felt like at this speed, but he couldn’t move his arms. Couldn’t move a thing. Back and forth, weaving in and out. Joyful shrieks and high-pitched screams. A woman’s glasses flew past and were lost in the high grass. Music, on a loop, from a ride somewhere he could only hear when his body was flung towards the ticket taker. Music against the tinkling of blackbird song, tawny owl, or warbler.


It was all too much. He wanted to get off.

Aliceanna Stopher is a fast reader and slow writer, a short story evangelist, and a cardigan enthusiast. She is an MFA candidate in fiction at Colorado State University and editorial intern for the Colorado Review. Her short fiction can be found in KindredThe FemPretty Owl Poetry, and elsewhere.

Trace DePass

requiem for the butterfly effect

a butterfly tripped over its wings
or walked with shackles
shushing itself to swallow sustenance
like the rest of them, vittles and now skulls
become Earth’s nectar.
[i took one step forward, then two steps back]
out of dancing on death’s toes. we don’t flinch.
we departed that…
left Africa for white-washed wooden ships,
rotting, with dead folk and repetition
no God. no witness.
i saw the butterfly that held my fate
(and realized that the ship is still buoyant,
it did not matter,
there are no options besides our own death…

and it was likely i would walk the plank,
watching water become my audience,
and spit me back out,
where the dead used to sing & had a song
like the rest of them, i am still here,
making a habit
out all my nerves, most left not long after
we had left that land. left it for floorboards,
purpled with black blood,
green men with gray bullets and no mothers.
when i was about to plunge off that plank
i thought i would jump
whether it be with, or without, dead weight,
still don’t matter. we would all become slaves,
soon, if not then late).

carefree black / ghost peering beyond two masks

                                         yes, i am
soft in the meantime   the interim in
electron & absence, of course
i don’t care for strength.
i mourn, yes, my mouth.
i read black lips, peer, & see the syntax –
broken. my tongue dragged
by ankles
       with english
soon as i ask        wusgood, sambo?
i wade, perched north beneath a roof
as stalactites in the interim, the
cavernous english dark inside my mouth.
i become (because why not?) a long pitch black tunnel
rivered underwater between
African & American,
whose manta rays & Cuttlefish disperse & hover

the hyphen, like Atlantic oceanic mantle
inside black people, yet relinquished        in
the interim, we drink a bottle full of endless;
all the drowned names name themselves monks
of the caves inside
amongst themselves too early. in the interim, we
blow out the speakers & haze like philosophers in
Southside Jamaica. in Southside,
                    maybe we speak the english that
learned to get along with itself. you know
i laugh at the idea of laughing, these things which we
cackle involuntary at;

perhaps, given we speak language
we ain’t supposed to speak,
white men know we must know there is
some type of peace here
they can’t perform. hey, maybe when i say
  wus crackin other than yo lips, negro?
                                    white men start
inquiring for the human tender enough to
grieve the dark body in its hands still damp
from genocide, hoping i won’t take him
to how my mouth got this way, how i took
back english, how i make it mourn itself
for birthing

niggas like me. how i crush phonetics
behind latin script behind my molars
& make the syllable crash into self.
white men don’t know i’m only soft spoken
for now. they don’t understand how i could
still take my time, since they ain’t kno
time is mine.

they ain’t kno how often i had to be enough
to endure the odds of it happening – all of the
atoms within the slave at the brim of becoming
water; allied powers gleaming their will

when sour, their white horse gallops
toward my body, rippling crests in my
now cracked-open dialect in each dialectic.
                         here, 400 years
unsheathed hairs of a mare thickened ripe with
invasion, his hooves painted each black lip
burgundy & whinnied an undoing. they ain’t kno

how i once told my


what you doin here? i see you,
cowboy. where you
bout to be out to?
where we finna go?  

the tesseract tethers rooms

[if a cube, once beyond 3D, becomes hypercube,
the way square face smack-collapse henry’s box,      his body’s part vitruvian here,]
if each room is a cube, if  here  perhaps is a room  
this night i’ll sit, stay, spin, congruent with hypercubes.

                    yes, time, in the cubes with deaths in them, passes so much
i could see all, even the deprived, of time, evaporate into a sky’s black face
is it transpiration once animals with human limbs depart earth as stray water?
      or no?
allowance, adhere this – allegiant s[p]un arisen
to hue from its own animal & then adhesion.

perhaps when your black body needs more time, something mass-
ive enough to be it lifts, from it, up.
perhaps when your black body needs           ,
minutes might chip away from it      

                or us; then, perhaps,
dearbody, i knew    never could i ever keep up.
everything, blackbody, which did not make me beauty enough, ran like a creek thru
                or us; then, perhaps,
dearbody, i knew    me and coaxed oxbows not oxygen, just gin, from blood.
i had dreams of becoming for entire seasons a season back when i had dreams
                          & only Autumn.

i depart some father’s lids’ dark & see: i barely recall light but please observe how
i was born how it is: to mourn.
the it itself, “mourning” mourning,
peering thru as it self,   seeing
& knowing
                     here is no exit,
excavating, with deer eyes, here
                      as it, only until the gradual dying-it.      the neon puss dye
in the rigged big, marred open, [a]jar from worms & dirt,
it reeks & itches like a house of too many nails,
burrowing its own white walls pink;
it looks.        like someone’s entire incised, expired,
melonhead, here — this collapsed underground underground.
certain places the dead still grasp
possess no place for the living & yet,

here might be but refurbished, repurposed,
a white ghost — that cenotaph… is it yours?
my father’s dog, found in the yard with a
bullet in its head, moved out here
where the belonged stray.


can’t want to stay here without want.  
am i too happy now to want     to marry something?     so bound-in by its dimensions, the love
               sets, resets by whim’s direction & not intention?
is it just to(o) in the present? that’s just     to(o) bad. hell, i might just love anywhen else.
               so, no, not “my bad”.
i tire of death, relative to me, not passing, in 3D. i need this divorce.
you go writ(h)e,
               go anthropomorphize rot incessant all     thru my body. look! there’s ceiling to this
passivity: dirt. here’s this room i’ve named —
outside that room lives just my other room,
                                  another empty tomb, maybe
                                  a separate cube,
which, after peering at it for long enough, i too
on some days become. watch: i’ve lost

track of my own tesseract face, mourning my spun abandoned boy/hood. time saddles, hastes,
whips, leaves all at once. i get a few good looks at myself when a lens     the other side

of me can tell me

how sharp
i look, in passing, in 3D.

this here! in a body who might soon forget me tells me of nuance in my will, how this
good letterhead tops my death certificate; how different i must be before she felt

my hands, and, maybe, i like her
usage of time. the it within her knows
certain things before they happen.
perhaps, i’ll make this place some when within her all my
omnidirectional, omnitemporal,  omni-
                              scient/present at least out & thru
all my deerbody; my last, boundless &  final place.

Trace Howard DePass is the author of Self-portrait as the space between us (PANK Books 2018) and editor of Scholastic’s Best Teen Writing of 2017. He served as the 2016 Teen Poet Laureate for the Borough of Queens. His work has been featured on BET Next Level, Billboard, Blavity, NPR’s The Takeaway, and also resides within literary homes-Entropy Magazine, Split This Rock!, The Other Side of Violet, Best Teen Writing of 2015, & the Voice of The East Coast Anthology.

Celina Nader

Little Things

Tiny green grapes grew every Syrian spring on the vine in my grandparents’ concrete backyard, and Giddo snipped off underripe clusters for me and my siblings. We dipped them in salt, puckered our mouths at the astringency and spit the bitter pips into the ground under the loquat tree.

They tore him open. They ripped into the priest’s face, scooped out his eyes like glistening grapes, and left him to die slowly. They spit vile questions into him before emptying him, washing their hands with his blood. He baptized me when I was a baby and came to visit my family often in our little apartment. He sat on our sage green couches and laughed as four-year-old me came dancing out in a new dress I wanted to show off. I don’t even remember his name.

Around age five on a summer afternoon I convinced my cousins Mike, Maggie and Mireille that we should take off our clothes and compare urine streams. My aunt had only to glance at my face to know that I was behind the row of kids, little shorts bagged around chunky ankles, genitals exposed, faces equal parts amused and guilty. I ran all the way down the street, Amto Michline trailing far behind me as she yelled. My young legs lapped her heavy ones.

My cousin Raya almost died five times in Syria, bent her legs in basement lockdowns and hugged her sister close, pressed her foot hard on the gas to escape the exploding neighborhood pharmacy, stepped within inches of airborne shrapnel. “We were happier there than we are here,” she says. Raya went out with her friends in spite of the risk. She didn’t care. “We were scared but no one gave a fuck.” She works harder and harder every day in pursuit of her desires because everyone back home cannot. She motivates herself with the thought of her cousin Majed stuck in Aleppo, stuck defending his crumbling land, stagnant with unspeakable visions glued to his mind. She paints her life in fiery colors because he cannot, sculpts her days into stairways toward the future because he doesn’t have one.

Little tadpoles flitted around the jar held between my slippery hands one summer afternoon. I caught them by drawing the jar through pond water, the pond with the big black rocks jutting out of it and overripe figs rippling the surface. I came up with ten feisty fish, admired them for a while, then pulled them out with my hands to feed to the new kittens of a friendly alley cat. The kittens pounced toward me and devoured the still-wriggling, shimmering tadpoles. I marveled at the ferocity of nature. I felt no guilt at being a predator.

I’m comfortable in my warm Columbus apartment. I inhale clean air and watch my laptop screen flicker with footage of children suffocating. I have their dark eyes, their thick brows, their olive skin, and nothing else. I wake to sunshine and fresh drinking water rippling out of the tap; my people rise to bombs in place of birdsong. Why them and not me? Why is my breathing so easy?

The stars winked at me, cool little studs puncturing the hot velvet night. Melodies floated out of Ammo Tony’s oud, strings vibrating into the notes from his throat. He made up little ditties, inserting our names into the lyrics. Laundry hung from thin lines stringing the yard. Glass teacups tinkled as sugar granules melted from silver spoons. Cigarette smoke clung to my growing lungs, to my clothes, to my hair, to the spaces between my taste buds.

They breathe fire into my land. Powerful nations wrap their scaly skins with a keffiyeh and call it religion. They paint their stacks of dollars with graffiti and call it revolution. They hide their oil-glazed eyes with reflective glasses and call it media. Government officials feed us bitter lies tucked into smooth lines and coat their words with honey, each syllable dripping with obscure sweetness.

My grandmother left various foods to dry on the concrete steps; juicy figs shriveling in August sun, apricot pits, big black watermelon seeds. Later we’d take a hammer to the apricot pits and crunch the tender kernels inside. Bitter baby olives drooped from their branches until Teta gathered them in her strong arms and took them to the neighborhood press. While the machines squeezed oil from olives, she sipped a tiny cup of Arabic coffee with her thick pinky finger raised, relaxed her quiet mouth into laughter with the other housewives, and lifted her cracking feet out of her shoes for a moment.

I brew Arabic coffee whenever I run out of American grounds. My electric coil burners have left circular scorch marks on the bottom of my ibrik, but it still boils water. Once the water bubbles, I lower the heat. A long-handled silver spoon gathers mounds of powdered, cardamom-infused coffee beans. Constant stirring is key; an ibrik of Arabic coffee left unattended is sure to boil over. Soon, a milky crema collects at the top layer, and I stir and stir until the liquid turns viscous. Before the first sip, I wait for the grit and sediment to settle at the bottom of my tiny cup.

Arabic Glossary

Amto: (AHM-toh) paternal aunt

Ammo: (AHM-moh) paternal uncle

Giddo: (JI-doh) grandpa

Ibrik: (Ib-REE) long handled pot for making Arabic or Turkish coffee

Oud: (OOD) a large, pear-shaped stringed instrument similar to the lute.

Teta: (TAY-tah) grandma

Celina Nader is a Syrian-American writer, editor, chef, and entrepreneur. She reads cookbooks like novels, runs a small food business in Columbus, OH (Scrappy Cat Co.) and is currently working on a collection of creative nonfiction stories regarding the Syrian people and their lives during war. You can read her words on food, culture, and sexuality at Insatiable, and follow her business on Instagram at @ScrappyCatCo.