An eye devised for night spits out bright figures that dance in symmetry /disorder can’t reach the word for mulching the ground where /we have lily dreams. An eye devised for night beats stealthily behind your ears, proposes slow sentences interlacing daytime /routines. An eye devised for night clothes you in the pelt of a lynx charging, whose howls bruise the unmarkable, who catches butterflies like words soaring on the /wind.
Un ojo diseñado para la noche escupe figuras brillantes que bailan en simétrico /desorden, no alcanza la palabra para abonar la tierra donde /hemos soñado lirios. Un ojo diseñado para la noche late con sigilo detrás de tus orejas, propone oraciones lentas que entrelazan las diurnas /rutinas. Un ojo diseñado para la noche te pone la piel de lince que avanza frenético, que aúlla magullando lo inmarcesible, que atrapa mariposas como palabras caladas por el /viento.
This thirst turns checkered over dog days, dances to the rhythm of flies glistening above /the table of afternoon napping. At memory’s end, I have the key to the desert. A ritual’s machinery recurs in the afternoon’s /whirring opens in time like a mirror. Anguished and tame is the afternoon’s melody: making a nest to shelter our fears.
Esta sed se cuadricula en la canícula, danza al ritmo de las moscas que brillan sobre /la mesa de la siesta. En el fondo del recuerdo, tengo la llave del desierto. La mecánica de un rito se repite en el zumbido /de la tarde que se abre como un espejo en el tiempo. Angustiosa y doméstica es la melodía de la tarde: diseñada con pequeñas madrigueras para anidar nuestros miedos.
No, we’re not fire from a tide inhabited by voices. Nor the quiet memory of a stone recording us /in its blood. A bird’s green song doesn’t come to brush against /our eardrums. No, we’re not the syllable occupying space in /muteness. Which bones instruct our shadow? Sometimes, among the ruins, we move luckily forward ignoring our scar from angels in haste.
No, no somos el fuego de una marea habitada de voces. Tampoco la memoria callada de la piedra nos registra /en su sangre. El verde canto de un pájaro no llega a rozarnos /el tímpano. No, no somos la sílaba que ocupa un espacio en /la mudez. ¿Qué huesos edifican nuestra sombra? A veces, entre las ruinas, avanzamos dichosos ignorando nuestro estigma de ángeles desalados.
Sharply wrought imagery and a gaze so intense as to be almost intimate—these are the forces that drive Paura Rodríguez Leytón’s Small Changes (Pequeñas mudanzas). The three untitled poems that appear in this issue exemplify Rodríguez Leytón’s world building, the dream-landscape perceived—and rendered—by “an eye devised for night” (“Un ojo deseñado para la noche.”) In translating these poems, I found I had to lean back fully into that dream-landscape, with its “thirst [turning] checkered over dog days” and its “lily dreams.” As figured as they are, the poems resist—they never settle for—conceit. In Rodríguez Leyton’s work, the image is everything; even, in the philosophical “No, we’re not fire from a tide inhabited by voices” (26), where ontological desire, the need to understand our essential nature is rendered largely through its negation: “we’re not fire . . . nor the quiet memory of a stone. . . No, we’re not the syllable occupying space in / muteness.” What a pleasure it has been to enter this world for a while to translate these poems.
Janet McAdams is the author of the poetry collections, The Island of Lost Luggage, which won the American Book Award, and Feral. A chapbook of speculative prose poems, Seven Boxes for the Country After, was published by Kent State Press in 2016. Her poems have appeared recently in Poetry, Spoon River Poetry Review, Southern Humanities Review, Shenandoah, and the anthology New Poets from Native Nations.
Paura Rodríguez Leytón (La Paz, 1973) is a poet and journalist. Her books include Del Árbol y la arcilla azul azul [From the Tree to the Blue Blue Clay] (Argentina, 1989); Ritos de viaje [Travel Rites] (La Paz, 2004; Caracas, 2007, ed. digital); Pez de Piedra [Stonefish] (La Paz, 2007) and Pequeñas mudanzas [Small Changes] (Colombia, 2017), which was the runner up for the 2017 Pilar Fernández Labrador International Poetry Prize (Premio Internacional de Poesía “Pilar Fernández Labrador” 2017).
In my heart, something unspeakable, something even tears can’t quench, while her body –a mere footprint of flame. Only my eyes are left to dream, to fuel the embers from the ash of my chest.
Oh, what a fire to spend the night alone in. Each creak of this bed echoes the ache of this pulse. I have cried ‘Oh my soul’ and that soul has melted amongst the craters of this indifferent moon.
This indifferent moon, who desires comparison to the sun, yet no adjective exists for this, none. I am conscious of nothing except the sideways glance of what I hope to own but fear have lost.
I can’t let her escape me, I can’t allow the censor see my right as wrong, you are mine doncella, you are loved, unclasp your sabre. Sleep well. No- one, nothing should make you doubt.
What girl doesn’t fear her lover? What girl doesn’t ask her mother what should she do?
And the girl sings:
He is ready to kill if I venture outside. I see it in the burn of his gait, his eyes; each small gesture I make, scrutinised. Mother —tell me, what should I do?
The Iberian Peninsula in medieval times was home to a society unique in the history of Western Europe. Al-Andalus, although by no means a democracy in the way one would think of it today, was a place where Jews, Muslims and Christians lived together under a political system that advocated religious tolerance. One of the legacies of this multi-culturalism was a rich literary tradition including a complex form of Hispano-Arabic poetry called the Muwashshawah ( موشح) which translates in to English as ‘girdle’ poem, so-named because the individual stanzas were often linked by a refrain in the same way a belt might be linked by chains. The form is similar to the more well-known Ghazal.
The girdle poems of Al-Andalus were written almost exclusively by men in Hebrew and Arabic and often with an ending written in Andalusi Romance called a kharja or exit verse. It is thought that the kharjas were women-authored songs imitated or borrowed by their male counterparts. These exit sections are full of desire, they are often salacious and at times suggest sexual violence nearly always ignored by the male poetic voice. Modern scholars have attempted to reject the kharja as a representative of ‘feminine poetry’ and to down play the fact that a woman is protesting a male-imposed state of affairs. In so doing, there is a sense of silencing the female voice twice over – once by the initial action of the poet in appropriating the text and then by the scholar by calling into question its authenticity. Throughout history, women’s voices have remained largely unrecorded, primarily because they haven’t been deemed important enough to preserve but also because women were largely thwarted in their creative endeavours having limited access to a literary education. Their only recourse was to turn to the vernacular, the language of the street and wash houses, to songs and ballad, forms which sound refreshingly modern today in their concerns and approach. The kharjas do not disappoint in this regard – whether they are directed to lovers, confidants or mothers, they are frank and honest appeals that give us a glimpse into the life of women in medieval Andalusia, women whose words continue to reverberate today.
In this translation, I chose to dismantle the classical structure of the Muwashshawah but to retain a discipline pertaining to stanza length. There is a sense of the formal in the male poet’s language through use of classical metaphor as well as a sense of refrain through the use of repetition. The female led kharja stems from an early translation into Spanish that scholars dismissed because they deemed it too shocking. I have decided to reinstate that version here.
My hope is that through the act of interlinguistic transfer and the process of translation the female voice resists marginalisation and what emerges is a dialogue of equal standing between both the male and female voice.
Mary-Jane Holmes has been published in such places as Modern Poetry in Translation, Myslexia, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Prole, The Tishman Review, The Lonely Crowd and The Best Small Fictions Anthology 2016 and 2018.
She is the winner of the 2017 Bridport Poetry Prize, the Martin Starkie Poetry Prize, the Bedford International Poetry Prize and the Dromineer Fiction Prize. Her poetry collection Heliotrope with Matches and Magnifying Glass was published by Pindrop Press in 2018. She is chief editor at Fish Publishing Ireland, consulting editor at The Well Review and Guest Editor at V Press. Mary Jane is currently studying for a PhD on resistance strategies in poetry. She holds an Mst. in Creative Writing from Kellogg College, Oxford. www.mary-janeholmes.com
Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Arfa’ Ra’suh was a poet at the court of al-Ma’mun ibn Di-l-Num of Toledo, in the Taifa period of the 11th Century in what is now Andalusia, Spain.
—an elegy for the martyred Egyptian immigrants who drowned on the coasts of Italy, Turkey, and Greece
All my life I have wondered: where is the face of my country? Where are the palm trees, the warmth of the valley? In the horizon only darkness, and the headsman’s image: it never fades away. It is part of our fate, between birth and resurrection. I live in the call that raises palaces from gray hills. I long for my beloved land’s honor of both will and drive. I long for children dancing like drops of dew in morning. I long for days whose magic has faded, the bustle of horses, the joy of feasts.
I miss my old country. We moved, and it moved. In every bright star, an orphaned dream. Every cloud a gown of grief. In the horizon, flocks of leaving birds forego singing, become a swarm of locusts. This country traded in its land, fragments of the whole, subdivided for the auction. All that remains of the hustle of horses is sorrow.
Our history is full of glistening horses, but now I only see the headsman raping the valley, and a gang that twirls the blood from our eyes. The day’s cries subside, and the tombs are heavy with ancestors. There is no light from a wandering star. No longer a release dove’s coo. Sadness cackles past us, drops by without an appointment. Something has broken in my eyes.
The times are fed up with the revolution I loved to the edge of madness. When beauty is pimped, even the morning gets beaten. The land is devoured by the fire of slavery. Don’t ask me about my country’s tears during martyrdom, when agony hunts every acre. In the pale distance, beyond the black mountains, I see black mountains. I see waves breaking over our heads, feel gravel grit my skin in the wind, as the horizon’s line is washed out.
I raise my frostbitten hands to flag down a passerby, and see it is my mother dressed in black. We embrace, as if saying goodbye, and the sea heaves on with its corpses. Up until the moment of death, I will still rise with a bright heart, knowing this is my daughter’s face carved on my chest. Farewell, mother—a sack of salt is all our food. Give my shirt back to my mother, she saw what I couldn’t see: the string between destiny and death, a hijacked homeland that threw me away.
I see from behind the borders a parade of the hungry chanting for their masters’ protection, and death-crowds cheering around the hungry. In the middle of this weeping life, seized in the call of longing, the times passed me by.
Remember the story of a hopeful lover who left his home for the promise of another country? It turns out that country had nothing to offer, could only bow to the pimp.
My pulse is heavy, and all will be silent soon. The mirror of birth and death is glass-dust, and in its grains I see the headsman and his gang. And I see the river, and I see the valley, and I open my mouth for silence, for a country that is no more.
I carried all I had through the tangled night, blaming the road that spurred me backward to green windows, witness
to the hunger of our bodies, witness to the underside of forever. Alone now in the road’s slow night,
I re-sense the first days’ blush, the flash of your hand in mine: how do you bear all that is past?
Such bluff inside my boast: I will forget you. I try to move on, but a shadow slides along, chiding that folly.
Beside the road, pale light seeps into yellow tulips, and I quicken for what is lost: youth, freedom, dreams.
Aimless, I stare at the ground until dizziness takes me. Somewhere in the dust of these empty streets where we began:
the warmth of our hands. Somewhere in this dust our savoring footsteps, somewhere my roving tears.
Like the endless road, my story is here and there at once. Can I resist the was that beckons? Shall I continue alone?
As your memory strums the chord in my chest, the threads of my journey unravel, unravel.
Who Said Oil Is Worth More Than Blood?
As long as we are ruled by madness, hounds will devour fetuses still in their wombs, mines will sprout in wheat fields, and even the crossed light of morning will be eye-fire.
We’ll see the young hanged, wronged at the dawn prayer. It’s an age witness to a snarling pig fouling mosques.
When madness rules, there are white flowers on the ruined branches, emptiness in a child’s eyes, no kindness, no faith, no dignity held sacred. All fates futureless,
everything present worthless. As long as madness rules, the children of Baghdad can only guess why they wander hunger’s thorns,
why they share the bread of death, why off in the distance, American Indians hover in the cold, why greed shouts them down, every race crawling ghost-hearted.
Through blood-colored streets, between humiliation and disbelief, crippled shadows creep, and the madness-hounds howl in our minds.
We are on our way to death.
The children of Baghdad scream in the streets as Hulagu’s army pounds the city’s doors like an epidemic; his grandchildren roar over the bodies of our young.
The wings of wild birds are blood rivers, black claws claw eyes—all this cracks the silence.
The Tigris River remembers those days, so look behind the curtain of history—how many aggressors have passed through the centuries of our land, and still we resist?
Hulagu will die, and the Iraqi children will dance in front of Degla. We are not to be hanged from all corners of Baghdad.
A river can be a weapon against injustice on the earth. A palm can be a weapon against injustice. A garden can be a weapon.
Among the water, in the silence of tunnels, though we hate death, for God and right we will set fire forever to your refusal that Islam is holy.
Baghdad, raped by tyranny, your children are raising flags. Where are the Arabs and the white swords, wild horses, glorious families?
Some of them were condemned, some fled shameful, some stripped and gave away their clothes, and some are lined up in the devil’s hall to get their share of the spoils.
And people ask about a great nation’s ruins, but nothing remains of that shining empire that spans from the ocean to the gulf.
Every calamity has its cause.
They sold the horses and traded in the knights in the market of rhetoric: Down with history! Long live hot air!
Death comes to the children of Baghdad in the smallest toys, in the parks, in restaurants, in the dust. Walls collapse on the procession of history, shame upon civilization, shame from a thousand borders.
From the unknown, a missile charges, “Where are the weapons of mass destruction?”
Will daylight come again after the virgin smile has been erased, after planes block the sunrays, and our dreams spurt suicidal blood?
By what law do you demolish our homes, and flood fire upon a thousand minarets?
In Baghdad, days pass, from hunger to hunger, thirst to thirst, under the gaze of the master of the mansion, the thousand-masked face. Will there never be an end to this nonsense?
The curtain rises: we are the beginning.
To starve people—is this honor? “To prey upon supplicants”—that’s the glorious slogan of victory? To chase children from one house to another—the joy of tyranny.
These days, people have the right to humiliation, submission, death in every atom, and the chronic question, “Where are the weapons of mass destruction?”
The children of Baghdad are playing in schools: a ball here, a ball there, a child here, a child there, a pen here, a pen there, a mine here, a death there. Among the fragments, the cactus.
There were children here yesterday, fluttering like pigeons in open spaces. One of these days, dawn might lighten the universe, but for now the sun of justice is far below the horizon.
Despite sacrifice, there is a dark gluttony: some are faithful, and some are sellouts.
Oh nation of Mohammad, my heart longs for Al Hussein. Oh Baghdad, land of Caliph Rasheed, oh castle of history, and once-glorious age, the two moments between night and day are death and feast.
Among the martyrs’ fragments, the throne of the universe, shaken by a young voice. The dark night leaves when a new day flows.
Oh land of Al Rasheed, don’t lose hope, every tyranny ends: a child adores Baghdad, holds a white notebook and flowers, paper and poetry, some piasters from the last feast.
Behind his eyes, a tear that won’t break but flows like light deep in his heart: the picture of his father who left one day and never returned. The child embraces ashes, and stays a long time.
A thread of blood runs through his mouth; his voice and shed blood are one. His features washed out; all of this world is separation.
The child whispers, I long for Baghdad’s day. Who said oil is worth more than blood?
Don’t ache, Baghdad, don’t surrender. Although there is dissent in this blind time, there is, in the far horizon, a wave of visions.
Although the dream is distant, it rises. Rise, and spread my bones in the Tigris River, so daylight will one day rise over my funeral procession.
God is greater than the madness of death. Who said oil is worth more than blood?
Walid and I are met as part of an international educational exchange program housed by the College of Saint Rose here in Albany NY, during which Walid regularly visited my high school classroom for about three months to observe, talk, and collaborate. After teaming a couple of lessons on political poetry from a variety of countries, we thought it would be fun to collaborate on some translations of contemporary Egyptian poetry, which has received relatively little attention here in the U.S. Walid was particularly drawn to the work of Farouk Goweda, who is a literary giant in the Middle East.
Because I do not speak, read, or write any Arabic, Walid is responsible for the most important step: the initial renderings of Goweda’s work into English. Parts of those initial translations need, in my view, very little or no editing or re-casting into poetic American English. I take the parts that do need reworking and edit for simple correctness, clarity, and suggestiveness. Sometimes I move lines around a bit out of their original order to emphasize certain images or progressions. I often follow up with Walid on questions about intent, clarity of meanings, allusions, historical figures, shifts in tone, and cultural symbols. I always send him final drafts for approval, and he has been in touch with Mr. Goweda, who is glad to see his work steadily and increasingly recognized in the United States.
Line and stanza breaks are the most consistent liberty I take (though I do take occasional ones with certain images or colloquialisms): I do not think any of the poems we’ve published actually follow Goweda’s original lineation or stanza structures. I have approached those features searching only for a combination of line and stanza that both contains and propels the rhythm, power, and image-laden lyricism of Goweda’s work. I am fond of either uniform or alternating stanza lengths, with a small range of syllables per line, but I have tried to let the content of the lines drive the shaping of the lines, so some poems have had small syllabic ranges, whereas others stretch and sprawl similar to those of Whitman or Ginsberg.
In terms of content, Goweda is especially well-known for his political, religious, and love poetry—sometimes, at certain moments in certain translations, we have allowed those lines to be blurred. Of the three included here, “Forgetting” is both love poem and lament on the passage of time, and “Who Said Oil…” is a response to American foreign policy in Iraq. “This My Country No Longer My Country” elegizes a story we find in more than one part of the world, but has occurred in Egypt since the 1980s: illegal immigrants fleeing corruption and poverty in their home countries in hopes of making a better life in Europe.
Farouk Goweda is a bestselling Egyptian poet, journalist, and playwright whose nearly 50 books have been widely influential in the Middle East for their technique and content. His work has been translated into English, French, Spanish, Chinese and Persian, and he has been awarded several national and international prizes.
Walid Abdallah is an Egyptian writer whose books include Shout of Silence, Escape to the Realm of Imagination, and Male Domination and Female Emancipation. He has been a visiting professor of English language and literature in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Germany and the United States. His co-translations with Andy Fogle of Farouk Goweda’s poetry have previously appeared in Image, RHINO, Reunion: Dallas Review, and Los Angeles Review.
Andy Fogle’s sixth chapbook of poetry, Elegies & Theories, is forthcoming from Presa Press. A variety of writing has appeared in Blackbird, Best New Poets 2018, Teachers & Writers Collaborative, English Journal, Gargoyle, and elsewhere. He lives in upstate NY, teaching high school and working on a PhD in Education.
The first study of a woman who wants to be a poet is to know herself entirely; she searches her soul, inspects it, tests it, learns it. Once she knows her soul, she must cultivate it. This seems simple—a natural evolution which comes to pass in every mind, in every body—there are many who would declare themselves writers, who would boast of their intellectual growth. But the soul must be made monstrous, must be birthed into another form. Imagine a child pruned in the womb as you would a bonsai, snipped and stitched and stunted even before it’s born. Imagine the bones malformed and dislocated, relocated, orifices slit and cartilage burned. Can you see these comprachico children emerge from you?
I say that you must have vision, become a visionary.
You must become a visionary through an extended, immense, and deliberate derangement of all the senses, through carefully executed mutilations of the mind.
Find love, find pain, find madness—drain their poisons into your body and distill them, preserve their essence. In this inexpressible torment, find faith, find superhuman strength, and birth it too: your soul the madman, the criminal, the damned—and the savant, for she approaches the unknown.
You have cultivated this soul past all knowing—stare it down, your comprachico child who no longer has a face. See with the sharpness of his scarred-shut eyes, and even as your vision fails, remember: you have seen. And if—as you leap into such unnamable, innumerable things—if you lose yourself, no matter.
There are others who will follow, who will begin at the horizons where you failed.
I begin again:
And so the poet is truly the thief of fire—she, Promethea who sculpted man from clay. The poet bound to a boulder and made to wait while an eagle pecks at her liver every day.
She is given this task by man, by beast even—she must make her creations known, felt, heard. If what she brings back from beyond has form, she gave it form; if it is formless, that too she gave.
To derive a language—after all, every word being a thought, the time of a universal language will come. You must be an academic, deader than a fossil, to complete a dictionary of any language at all. The weak may begin by thinking about the first letter of the alphabet, and quickly stumble into insanity.
This language would be of the soul, for the soul, encompassing all—scents, sounds, colors—a thought caught in the weave of another thought and pulled. A pattern of stitches looped or knit or crocheted, this language is women’s work. In time, the poet will discover her universal soul, define the quantity of the unknown—she will give more (than the formula of her thoughts, than the notations of her steps towards progress). Enormity becomes norm, absorbed by all, she will truly be a multiplier of growth.
This future will be materialistic, you will see—always filled with Number and Harmony, her poems will be made to endure. At their core, they might be like Greek poetry once more. Eternal art will have its duties, just as poets are citizens too. Poetry will no longer give rhythm to action—it will forge ahead.
These poets will come to be! When the infinite servitude of woman is broken, when she lives for herself and by herself—man, an abomination until now, him being expelled—she will be a poet, she too! Women will find their piece of the unknown! And will our worlds of ideas differ?
We will find strange things—unfathomable, repulsive, delectable—thieves of fire that we are, we will seize them, we will understand.
Until then, ask of the poets something new—ideas and forms. The clever ones may soon believe they’ve satisfied this demand. It is not true!
Rimbaud’s May 15 letter to Paul Demeny is one of a series of letters often referred to as the “lettres du voyant” (letters of the seer/visionary), where he espoused his ideas on poetry and the figure of the poet. This particular letter is perhaps the most recognized, for it contains his famous line advocating for a “dérèglement de tous les sens”—most commonly translated as a “derangement of all the senses.” In my translation, I worked to remain faithful to my understanding of this derangement of sense, and in that spirit, to reveal the strangeness that lurks beneath his epistolary prose. In places, I expand and “derange” Rimbaud’s metaphors and references to expose his most troubling or intriguing suggestions. I have made one more important change—an act of resistance against Rimbaud’s vision. The poet that Rimbaud saw, the poetry that he wrote about, was definitively male. In this translation, the poet, like me, is a woman.
Erika Luckert is a writer from Edmonton, Canada, and a winner of the 92Y/Boston Review Discovery Prize. Her manuscript, Prepared Ground, was a finalist for Tupelo Press’ 2018 Berkshire Prize. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Denver Quarterly, Indiana Review, CALYX, Room Magazine, Tampa Review, F(r)iction, Atticus Review, Boston Review, and others. Erika holds an MFA in Poetry from Columbia University, and lives in New York City, where she teaches creative and critical writing. www.erikaluckert.com
Arthur Rimbaud was a French writer known for his influence on the surrealist movement. Born in 1854 in a small town in northern France, his best known works include Illuminations and A Season in Hell. Rimbaud wrote most of his celebrated poetic oeuvre in a span of five years. During that time, Rimbaud also had an affair with Paul Verlaine, which ended dramatically in 1873, when a drunken Verlaine shot Rimbaud in the hand. Rimbaud died in 1881 at the age of 37; Verlaine published his complete works four years later.
Original title: “El capot, de Nikolai Gògol” From Mai no sé què fer fora de casa by Neus Canyelles Translated from Catalan by Marlena Gittleman
Nobody remembers when or how I joined the newspaper’s proofreading department, except for me, of course. It was in the spring. To fill the opening, they held a little writing test, to which ten of us showed up. My great stroke of luck was that none of the other nine knew how to spell the word desahuciado correctly. They all put the “h” between the “s” and the “a.” In the early nineties, that word was rare in Spanish-language newspaper pages. I assume that now, as evictions have become so much more common, they all would have spelled it right. That was how I made my triumphant entrance into La Gaceta Balear, one of the widest-read newspapers in Palma, where I would work six days a week, from seven in the evening until one in the morning.
They sat me at a table with two pretty large trays, one on each side of the computer: the texts to correct were piled up in the left-hand one—they always printed a paper copy of each article—and the right-hand one was where I would leave them after correction. I can say that the little I know about computers I learned there, on the fly. I’ve always liked words to be well written. First words, then sentences. Everything in order, without any mistakes. Some people can’t stand seeing dust on top of furniture or people touching their car. I don’t like seeing words mistreated. You know those people who say that accent marks aren’t important or who don’t use commas or periods and don’t let you breathe until the end of their interminable sentences? I can’t stomach them.
Each hour was different from the next. Some moments of the day were quite calm. But between eight and nine, the reporters started to get nervous, and the pace of work multiplied tenfold. Sundays, especially, were horrifying. Most of the texts that needed correcting were regional soccer rosters and game recaps. I didn’t understand anything the journalists wrote. The Sports section was the one that felt the most distant in all senses, despite the fact that the men in Sports yelled the most, and you could hear them from anywhere. The TVs stayed on all night in that buzzing office, where the windows were always kept shut. I spent the entire time watching the clock, hoping it would be time to wrap up.
It would be a waste of time to try to explain now how I found myself at that desk, with two drawers in which I kept a good journalist’s style manual and a Real Academia de la Lengua dictionary, as well as a pack of Inca biscuits for quick breaks. I was convinced that, after the summer, I would leave that job and look for another one. I got bored. I got bored a lot. Sometimes, I typed up some things that occurred to me in the midst of that chaos, in a personal file that I’d saved in a folder on the computer.
One day, Fani, a young woman in the Legal section, came over to tell me not to change anything in an official text. She was very friendly. She told me that she too had started as a proofreader.
“If you’re patient, maybe you’ll become a writer,” she said, as if wanting to encourage me.
I smiled at her politely, even though I didn’t see what one thing had to do with the other, and I offered her a biscuit, which she declined, touching her belly. Yes, she was a big girl. And also the only person who had acknowledged me instead of just tossing her sheet of paper into the tray of articles to be corrected from half a meter away without even looking at me. She was the only one who said hello and asked me how I was doing when I arrived at seven each day. The coworker who sat behind me, Cata, only spoke to me when she had to tell me to scoot my chair and desk forward a little more because there was barely any space to move, and she was right up against the wall.
The best part about the job was that I knew everything that was happening in the world. The whole world. You could say I’d become a current-events ace. Because for the first time in my life, I read the newspaper from cover to cover almost every day. I couldn’t get distracted at all. I only got up to go to the bathroom. And when the journalists stood in a circle with their coffees or went down to the bar to distract themselves a little and smoke, I had to stay there, trying to reduce the mountain of papers. I gained knowledge of international, national, and local politics. I knew the names of the ministers and the posts they held, and those of the regional and municipal councilors. I knew what happened to the famous people who came to vacation on the island (after spring came summer, after all). I started to have an inkling of what sports were, even soccer, which I’d despised. I recognized team names that I never would have been able to imagine, names of players that didn’t matter to me at all and whose faces I wouldn’t be able to recognize, but I did know which ones scored the most goals. And, finally, I knew about all the concerts, exhibits, book presentations, and everything else that makes up the vast and remarkable cultural world of the city. I could touch culture with my hands. In the end, I even wound up getting interested in sports. But that’s not the story I wanted to tell. What I wanted to say was, even though this was a job I didn’t like—I didn’t like the schedule, the rush, or that no one spoke to me while I typed behind the trays overflowing onto my desk—I had managed to become part of a newspaper, and I was earning a salary.
One evening, at a moment when I had my personal file open because there wasn’t any work to do, the director came over to me. He didn’t even know my name. I don’t think we’d ever spoken. On my screen you could read the following phrase: “They didn’t let me correct a flagrant error, because it was for an ad. And whoever’s paying gives the orders. And whoever’s paying can do as they please with spelling. And whoever’s paying is academic. We deeply disagree with whoever’s paying.” What had happened was that the accent marks didn’t look good in the ad, and they’d made me take them out. And so I wrote those words, angrily. But when I saw that the director was coming over, I quickly closed the file. He gestured for me to come into his office, which wasn’t far from my desk.
“Good afternoon,” I said.
“Hello,” he answered.
We sat down. He asked me my name, and I responded, forcing a smile and trying not to overdo it. He explained to me that they’d found another proofreader. They wanted to move me to the Agenda page, now that they had some confidence in my work; I would have to do a few days of training.
“You’ll like it better. You already know what page it is, right?”
“Yes, yes, of course. The one about which pharmacies are on duty.”
“Well, it’s not just about the pharmacies…”
“Right, I know. That’s just one way to put it.” I smiled again.
The list of gas stations, the calendar of saints’ days, the weather forecasts, the word search, the “this day in history” blurb, and some cultural events were also printed there each day.
“As you already know, the page also contains a short feature text on the bottom right…”
“Yes, ‘Through the Binoculars’.”
“Exactly! And you probably know that a different reporter writes it each day, and it has to be a little opinion piece on current affairs or events.”
“Right, I know.”
“Well, so… would you like to write one once in a while? You already know how stressed the writers get. Especially on the weekend, there aren’t many people at the paper. And someone told me you like to write.”
“Yes, but I can’t say who. Well, if you have no objections, on Monday they’ll explain how to set up the page. Cata will help you. And Wednesday you’ll start. Your hours will also change: now they’ll be from three to nine.”
“And the ‘Binoculars’…?”
But I didn’t get to finish the question. The director had already picked up his phone and I had become invisible to him. I simply wasn’t there. He hadn’t even told me when I could write the current affairs piece and if I would be free to write about whatever I wanted.
In any case, my mood improved a lot that evening. I even opened my personal file and wrote: “To hell with accent marks!”
When it was time for coffee, I mustered the courage to get up and go over to Fani and explain what had happened to me. She already knew.
“Today it’s my treat,” I said.
“You know what? The coffee from this machine isn’t any good. If you want, we can meet up somewhere over the weekend.”
And without giving me time to answer, she yelled:
“Hey, everyone that’s starting at seven tomorrow: meet for coffee at the bar on the corner by six-thirty. We have a new writer!” And she pointed at me.
Some people didn’t even lift their heads from their computers, but three or four said they’d come. I still hadn’t fully managed to fit in among these people who yelled like it was nothing. Sometimes they argued and insulted each other like they were home in their kitchens; I wanted to hide under my desk. That made me suspect I wouldn’t be a good fit for the short, pithy pieces for “Through the Binoculars.”
The next day, seven people turned up at the bar on the corner. I bought them beers and coffees. The head of Sports, seated at the bar, spoke to me first:
“Damn, that was fast. Two months as a proofreader and you’re already doing ‘Through the Binoculars.’ And you definitely don’t know Reinés?”
“No, not at all. Not at all.”
“It can be a really good section,” one of the local reporters told me. “I don’t write for it now, but I did for a bunch of years. It seems like it’s not that important because it’s part of a throwaway page, but if you think about it, there’s the word search, the weather forecast… people do look at it. They entertain themselves with those little things. That and the obituaries steal the show here; you already know how devoted people are to funerals in our dear city,” he noted as he poured himself a glass from the pitcher.
I drank the last sip of my coffee and asked for the check. Fani and Cata came over and congratulated me, even though Cata didn’t seem entirely sincere.
“I’ll be training you on Monday.”
“Oh, right,” I said to her. “I hope it won’t be hard to learn how to do the Agenda.”
“No, no. The page is always set up the same way. You just have to fill it in, as they say. And then you’ll have time to do the opinion piece.”
“Right. Honestly, that’s more exciting to me. Thinking about what I can write.”
I was young then. We mustn’t forget that. It’s essential to keep in mind while reading this story. Over the years, writing articles turns into a job you might even call routine. But you have to start out well and know how to keep going. You can’t ever back down. I had just been given a pair of binoculars with which to observe the world. I had to take the rest out of my toolkit. That was it. Nothing more.
The rest of the writers simply thanked me for the coffee and beer. I don’t think they even learned my name or knew why we’d been celebrating. As we went up the stairs to the paper, I heard two girls saying: yeah, she’s the new “Binoculars” writer. And that was it.
After a few days of practice at the computer, I had almost memorized the list of every gas station and the on-duty times of every pharmacy. Then, I would go through some famous quotes from years past, and a young writer would send me the puzzles and games. I tried to do it all quickly to gain time to write. On the first day, I deleted my personal file, and I opened a new one to save the ideas and phrases that came to me for “Through the Binoculars.”
I also met the new proofreader. He was tall and thin, a recent graduate, and we hit it off right away. It started when he showed me an article by a reporter who wrote about exotic trips. His writing style was just as exotic as his expeditions.
“I’ve never understood the relationship between traveling and writing,” the new guy told me seriously. “I mean, if you don’t know about a place, why write about it?”
“I sit here. I was the proofreader until just the other day. If you need anything, you can just yell out to me,” I said, trying to make him feel better.
We went for coffee together every day.
I remember my first article perfectly. I devoted the whole thing to writing about a book. It was one of the books that had pushed me to write; in the beginning, we imitate what we discover. But for the story I want to tell here, it doesn’t matter at all what my first article was about. What does matter, however, is the fact that I felt as though I had tried on a new outfit, or a new coat one winter day. One of those rare days when the city wakes up freezing and you search in your closet for the coat that will best cover you. And you put it on and go out to the street feeling very sure of yourself, fearless. It doesn’t matter if the cold leaves your face red and your nose frozen. You keep going, sheltered by your best coat, made from the best-quality wool, firm and resilient. No lapels; buttons up to the chin. Nothing could breach the centimeters of fabric that protected me from the world. That was how I felt when I typed the final period of my twenty-five-line text. I re-read it a few times with pride. With full confidence, I can say that it was not my best “Through the Binoculars” piece. Binoculars need to keep focusing until you can see clearly and the images appear sharp, with perfectly defined contours. I’ve already mentioned that a columnist learns the job on the fly.
And that’s how all my afternoons went for a long span of years. I didn’t leave the paper when summer ended. I became an observer who focuses on all the details. In the summer, I would write tips for planning a good vacation, about sunscreen and the danger of prolonged sun exposure, and the loveliest beaches on the island. In the fall, about the expenses of the back-to-school season and the obligatory November cemetery visit. Then, the traditional annual pig slaughters. Christmas enlivened my beloved page, which would offer recommendations to consumers on how to take advantage of the first days of the winter sales. Some years, if I was lucky, it would snow. An homage to the working woman on March 8th was never absent from my page, and neither was a brief commentary about some detail of the Holy Thursday procession, which I put up with stoically, rain or shine. Then came Sant Jordi and the Book Festival. And let’s not forget the first days of summer and beach-going. The year was a wheel that turned and turned. Nothing new happened. The world continued on without moving from the same spot. Except for some mornings when they would tell us we had to stop writing about daily life, because once in a while we were hit with a yellow alert for devastating storms or a red flag for fierce waves. And I was protected by my coat, which suited me perfectly now that I’d started to have some regular readers. Not just Fani or one of the layout artists who, one evening before leaving the office, surprised me by saying the last paragraph of the “Binoculars” he’d just finished reading clearly put forth a biting critique of the cultural minister. My neighbors in the stairwell, my mother’s hairdresser, the shop owner on the corner, and other acquaintances in the neighborhood greeted me differently. I realized that having a column in a newspaper bestowed prestige.
Reinés, little by little, started leaving “Through the Binoculars” just for me on my own. The reporters seemed relieved. Not having to write those banal lines, which always felt like a drag, definitely allowed them to finish their work early. Did anyone truly want to explain, again—while also trying to be funny—that they’d gone to the sales and seen two women fighting over bras? Or was it necessary to write that every first of November hundreds of people nostalgically left flowers at the graves of their late family members? No, they were tired of it. They’d rather go after breaking news.
My desk was next to Reinés’s office. Every morning there was a long line of people applying to work for him. They all wanted to write for the Gaceta. There’s no shortage of opinions in this world. And putting them down in writing produces a satisfaction that can’t be compared to anything else. I couldn’t figure out what was happening at that newspaper. It was like no one could keep their mouths shut or their hands still. And they all got together to let out what they needed to say. I saw it from where I sat, through my binoculars. I barely had to make an effort. Sometimes you could hear screaming from Reinés’s office. “Do you know who you’re talking to? Do you?!” he once screamed at a wealthy, educated man. But on many occasions, he and his visitor would come out smiling, shake hands at the door, and say goodbye amiably. Some days later, a new column would appear in the main pages, with the visitor’s photograph next to the byline.
And one day, out came two guys who seemed pretty important. Sunscreens, cemetery flowers, and book festivals could last you forever. Everything is, like I’ve already said, about consulting your toolkit to avoid tedium. About saying what you like or what you can’t stand. About criticizing. About crying bitterly. About discussing those who move the pawns of every game. I had done it. And even your neighbors in the stairwell, your mother’s hairdresser, and the shopkeeper on the corner had sensed it. But the person who made decisions at the newspaper still hadn’t. In fact, he didn’t even see me at all. Two years had passed and, to him, I was the same trainee he’d assigned one day to that insipid page of pharmacies and gas stations. And due to a series of coincidences, she had at her disposal a little extra corner of the newspaper with twenty-five lines that had to be filled in some way.
He called me in one day when I was very proud of my “Binoculars.” I had un-fogged them despite the condensation that was a result of the heat and the newspaper windows always being closed. It was winter, and I had arrived wearing my new coat. Feeling very sure of myself. I’d hung it on the coat rack with care and sat down to type furiously.
I went into his office and sat down. He asked me how I felt at the paper. I told him it was going well.
“Soon we’ll have the Christmas street decorations, eh?” he smiled.
“Yes, that’s true, it’s coming up,” I told him. In fact, I’d already had the Christmas article written for days.
He didn’t look at me. His eyes were fixed on his computer, which was much more modern now. He told me that the Agenda page was going to be completely remodeled, and that “Through the Binoculars” already seemed a little outdated. It wasn’t that he wanted to eliminate those little articles I wrote that were so—what was it?—beloved. But now they’d be adding two new collaborators. He wanted to give it a punchier focus, with a touch of political commentary he didn’t envision me writing.
“I’m sure you’re aware that everyone has a concrete subject that works best for them. More… appropriate for their personality. That’s how it is, you should know that by now.”
“Yeah,” I muttered.
“Think of something a little more, I don’t know… I don’t want to say frivolous, because we have the gossip page for that, but a light little thing. With your creative touch, of course. You already show promise in column-writing.”
“Yeah,” I said again, thinking: wonderful, ten years and I show promise.
“And hurry. The two new bylines will be added next week.”
I don’t know what happened to me. Maybe it seemed like someone had pulled off my coat and trampled on it. That it was covered with footprints from dirty shoes. And my mouth, so often sewn shut, opened:
“You know, I’m tired of it too, the ‘Binoculars.’ Also, it’s a little bit of a ridiculous section.”
He made a weird gesture, throwing his head back and opening his eyes wide. How could an idea of his be ridiculous, even if it now seemed outdated to him?
“But you do agree with me that there are certain things you just can’t write about.”
“Of course. That’s for the people from the lines, not for me.”
“The lines? What do you mean?”
“I’ve seen people line up and then come in here doing genuflections and twitching their heads like nervous horses. But I have back problems that keep me from prostrating myself correctly…”
“Now I don’t follow.”
“Never mind. Personal matters.”
Before leaving the office I told him I’d already done the “Binoculars” for the following day. Too bad it wasn’t a farewell. At nine on the dot, I turned off the computer as I did every evening and went to look for my coat on the rack. There were many of them, in different colors, piled on top of each other. Some had even fallen on the floor. I went through all of them, one by one. Mine wasn’t there. I went over to Fani’s desk, a little bit worried.
“Hey, I can’t find my coat.”
“Did you really look? Sometimes they get all mixed up, because there are so many.”
Then she asked me:
“Is everything okay? You’re really pale.”
“No. I just can’t find my coat, and it’s cold.”
“If you want, I can lend you mine. I’m driving.”
“No, it’s fine. I’m leaving.”
“I’ll look for it. I finish late today.”
“I don’t think you’re going to find it,” I added.
Outside, it was cold and dark, and mist hovered in the air. I walked slowly, dragging my feet. What pained me most was that the work I’d done over so many years hadn’t served any purpose. I thought about my neighbors in the stairwell, my mother’s hairdresser, and the shopkeeper on the corner. How could it be that they’d understood better than anyone? They had understood me. I walked home very slowly, like a ghost dragging something more than its feet. My cheeks felt warm, but my nose was freezing. I felt feverish. And the only things that came to my mind were unconnected phrases. Who will take over my binoculars? Where will all the things I’ve said wind up? Will anyone remember the flowers I brought to the cemetery this first of November? Or the jokes I wrote about the January sales, in an attempt to be funny? And who will notice that I don’t go to the beaches in the winter anymore, just to prove that they exist and to say that they’re much nicer than in the summer, even though no one actually goes to see them?
“A light little thing,” Reinés had said. All of a sudden, I began to tremble. I couldn’t control the chills without the coat that had protected me before. As if I were naked. My whole body hurt. Head, neck, back. I didn’t even have pockets to warm up my hands.
That’s it. This was the story I wanted to tell. Now I’m at home, sitting in front of the computer, and I’m writing an article. The one for this week won’t be about economics, or politics, or society. Nor do I want to write about books, or about language. I want it to be a banal article, for lots of laughs. About a time long ago when I had a desk among many desks and I worked this job, but as if I were doing it as a joke. And about when I had to listen to men who screamed: “How dare you? Do you know who you’re talking to?!” and in that way got things they considered to be important.
The shopkeeper retired and my mother’s hairdresser sold the business, but my neighbors in the stairwell, who continue to read me, told me a few days ago that, since I changed newspapers, “Through the Binoculars” isn’t worth reading. For me, it’s been a while since it vanished into the mist of the night.
“The Overcoat, by Nikolai Gogol” appears in Neus Canyelles’s 2014 short story collection Mai no sé què fer fora de casa [I Never Know What to Do Outside the House], which won the prestigious Mercè Rodoreda Prize for short stories written in Catalan.
Mai no sé què fer fora de casa is especially intriguing from the point of view of translation. In the collection, Canyelles presents adaptations of 16 short stories by well-known international writers, including Dorothy Parker, Raymond Carver, Isak Dinesen, and Vladimir Nabokov. The title of each story is the Catalan translation of the original title, with the author’s name included. The stories do not directly copy or translate, but rather transform the originals by bringing them into a semi-autobiographical first-person narrative of one central protagonist, a woman who works as a journalist in Palma. The stories are all interconnected, but the episodes do not appear in chronological order. A major theme of the collection as a whole—as signaled in the title—is that of the everyday. The presence of the quotidian and domestic asks us to reconsider what makes a worthy literary subject, as well as the gender implications involved. Per its diverse intertexts, the collection contains an array of styles, and its tone is by turns playful, critical, nostalgic, and ironic.
The collection, through its narrator-as-translator, seems to trace a borderline between what is ripe for translation and what is not, while simultaneously calling that border into question. I, too, have often found myself negotiating this line and engaging not only with Canyelles’s stories, but also with the stories they reference. To that end, I am grateful to Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s English translation of the original Russian “The Overcoat,” which was an invaluable intertext in this process.“The Overcoat, by Nikolai Gogol,” adds new metaphorical valences to Gogol’s titular image as it depicts a woman who begins working at a newspaper, first as a proofreader, and later, as a writer. The story incisively transposes Gogol’s critique of bureaucracy into a subtle critique of gender and power in the workplace, particularly in the field of journalism. If Gogol’s overcoat haunts, then we might say that Canyelles’s story haunts back.
Marlena Gittleman is a translator from Catalan and Spanish based in the Bay Area. She is currently earning a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature with a Designated Emphasis in Women, Gender, and Sexuality at the University of California, Berkeley. Some of Marlena’s translations have appeared in Asymptote and eL Paper. She has just completed a yearlong Emerging Translator Mentorship Program in Catalan through the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA).
Neus Canyelles is a Majorcan journalist with degrees in Spanish Philology and Piano who writes for Última Hora, a daily newspaper in Palma. She is the author of five award-winning books, most recently La novel·la de Dickens. Her last published book, the collection of short stories Mai no sé què fer fora de casa, won her the prestigious Mercè Rodoreda Prize. Her new novel, Les millors vacances de la meva vida, has just been published.
If I could (if only time would permit and only if you agree) I (52) would walk back with you, together with you, unpack the rocks from your pockets, pick up your hat and cane and follow the road past farm fields and clover until we came to your cottage in the village of Rodmell (England) where we would take tea and both of us promise (promise) never again to say: Against you I fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding, O Death! The waves broke on the shore.1
On Tuesday, March 24, 1941, you wrote (part of your last journal entry): A curious sea side feeling in the air today. There’s something about springtime at certain latitudes (like East Sussex County, England, or the Midwest, U.S.) and those sometimes violent thunderstorms that blow up without much warning forcing crocus, hyacinth, daffodils, and tulips to wake from their winter slumber, forcing forsythia bushes and magnolia and crabapple trees to bloom. Had you flung open the cottage windows that day (or was it still too cold)? Shaken the oriental rugs, dusted the blown glass paperweights, the hand-painted lampshades and the asparagus green candlesticks? Did you consider the distance (just past the garden) to the Church of St. Peter from the steps of your kitchen door? Had you thought of the spring equinox (March 30) and Easter coming (April 14) and the communion bells (Now we move out of this cool temple, into the yellow playing fields2) and forgotten for a second the war and your sadness and remembered a time when everything was still fresh and new like it was long before that summer you had another mental breakdown and imagined birds in the garden singing in Greek (αγαπητός) and King Edward VII swearing at you from behind the bushes (never trust a king or anyone else for that matter, who doesn’t swear once in a while), before the deaths of your mother, your half-sister, your father and your brother, before the jumping out the window (not high enough) and the pills (not strong enough) and your marriage to Leonard, before the hospitalizations and the leather straps (I remember needing to be restrained) and the River Ouse.
There is the white house lying among the trees. It lies down there ever so far beneath us. We shall sink like swimmers just touching the ground with the tips of their toes. We shall sink through the green air of the leaves, […]. We sink as we run. The waves close over us, the beech leaves meet above our heads.3
On Friday, March 28, 1941, as you (59) were leaving your cottage (in the village of Rodmell) and walking the fifteen minutes or so past farm fields and clover before coming to the River Ouse (where you set down your hat and cane and collected rocks to fill your pockets) my maternal great-grandmother (60) would be dying of cancer two years later almost to the day. My maternal grandmother (31) was already twelve years out (and two more children in before the birth of my aunt and mother) from her first marriage to a blond-haired and doomed Saint Paul, Minnesota, gangster. Ernest Hemingway (42) was in Hong Kong on an extended honeymoon with his third wife, Martha Gellhorn. Future novelist Muriel Spark (23) was settled in London after having left her husband and infant son in Africa to begin pursuing her writing career. My father (13) was getting ready for school at his grandmother’s Grant Street apartment (125) in Portland, Maine. The British Royal Navy defeated Italy in the battle at Cape Matapan (did you get that news or were you already walking?) and WWII (no more fighter planes flying over the cottage) would be over four years and six months later.
I love punctually at ten to come into my room; I love the purple glow of the dark mahogany; I love the table and its sharp edge; and the smooth-running drawers. I love the telephone with its lip stretched to my whisper, and the date on the wall; and the engagement book.4
Our heads were filled with pestilence and glitter. Like when I (15) had that first psychotic episode (What a born alcoholic I am!) after my parent’s divorce, after moving out of our family home with my mother and leaving my brother alone to live with our father, after buying a guinea pig (who I named Angel) trying so desperately to recreate that sense of childhood safety and stability I’d once felt—cocooned in with my mother (opposite the starkness of my father) and our menagerie of small pets, before the bike rides out Pheasant Branch Road and into the country, before that giant devil-hand clamped down on my head (trying to squeeze out the voices), before I locked myself in my bedroom and shattered one of my maternal grandmother’s dark green plates (the ones with gold leaf trim) and screaming, cut my wrist and arms with the broken pieces and how my mother (terrified) forced open the door and scooped me up (still screaming) into the car and drove to the hospital where I (then hyperventilating) kept threatening to jump out of (but didn’t) the car.
Sussex Ouse sea trout return from the sea, entering the tidal reaches of the river in May before beginning their June migration (They have made all the days of June—this is the twenty-fifth—shiny and orderly, with gongs, with lessons, with orders to wash, to change, to work, to eat5) driven toward feeder streams further inland where the water is cooler and more oxygenated.
We were not like other girls. We (?) preferred our whiskey straight not shaken and our women and men dark-haired and serious/sensuous/frivolous (Look here Vita—throw over your man, and we’ll go to Hampton Court and dine on the river together and walk in the garden in the moonlight and come home late and have a bottle of wine and get tipsy, and I’ll tell you all the things I have in my head, millions, myriads—They won’t stir by day, only by dark on the river. Think of that. Throw over your man, I say, and come.6). Didn’t we set out (consciously and unconsciously) to devour those same women and men (literally or figuratively) like the Mares of Diomedes or those jealous, clucking Naiades and how we still insulated ourselves, built walls and towers and cathedrals spiked with glass shards and barbed wire to keep them from really loving us?
Remember how our belief in malevolent forces was never questioned? A belief (100% certain) in ghosts and hauntings and how I was sure that ghosts were haunting the dried up river bed along Pheasant Branch Road (where I rode my bike that day, trying to outrun the darkness, whispering to clouds) and how I thought a ghost had entered my body without my permission and sent me spiraling, cutting wrist and arms with those broken off pieces of my grandmother’s dark green gold leaf trimmed plate? And still (and yet still), how the disbelief (100% certain) in benevolent forces like angels and celestial beings and even a loving God was never once questioned?
Never once would I let myself get to the bottom of things like the reason why (aside from a mind-numbing physical attraction) I (21) began that relationship with a (then) married (among other complications) older man and the secrets we kept and the coming out only at night or only out of town where I was free to pretend that what was going on was perfectly normal and right. There was a pregnancy and an abortion (I cannot be a mother—I cannot) and then there was another pregnancy and another abortion and how I tried so hard to destroy the truth that the heart will (eventually) not be denied. Remember that sweet tabby cat who survived my moods and rages and the beautiful gray Siamese mix (like your cat Sappho) and how she and her gurgling howl would die of natural causes seven years later in my tiny studio (the first time I’d ever lived alone) and how I would crumble at the loss of her, at the ripping away (again) of the scab (already so threadbare) that covered over that deep, existential mother/father/God wound?
You set down your soup spoon. You picked up your cloth napkin. You set down your cloth napkin. You picked up your pen (your favorite?). You set down these words: Dearest, I feel certain I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that—everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer. I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.7You picked up your resolve. You set down your spectacles (or were they Leonard’s?). You picked up your knitting (all of the scarves and socks I will ever knit, have already been knit—hélas!). You set down your knitting. You picked up your cat (Sappho or Pluto?). You set down your cat. You picked up your keys. You set down your keys. You picked up your hat (which one?). You picked up your cane a.k.a. your walking stick.
Remember how Dylan Thomas said, I hold a beast, an angel and a madman in me?8 Which naturally implies that we all (Leonard included) hold a beast, an angel and a madman in us though most of us are much better at hiding it or projecting it out onto others, so much so that we generally refuse to even consider the possibility of especially the part about the beast and the madman. What I’m trying to say is that despite our husband’s (perhaps) appearances otherwise, we have no reason to feel inferior to them or to anyone else because of our past histories with mental breakdowns and/or mercurial moods. Motto novum: I’m a madman, you’re a madman (we are all madmen).
The darkness felt like a steel trap in (some of) us, like a Titanic hitting an iceberg and going under at 2:20 a.m. (April 15, 1912), like a grisly shark attack in a cold impersonal sea, like a stagnant fish bowl (the Siamese fighting fish—belly up), like a clawing out from underneath damp (self-pity infused) earth, coupled with an intense (devouring) hunger for love and fear of love and fear of the hours and the burning away and the resurrection (and the dark to light).
We were tied to the ship’s mast, we were tied with an anchor. We passed through the Straits of Gibraltar, we passed through the Siren’s Song (sit tight my love, it’s okay, clouds can’t hurt us).
Did you know that some of your photo albums were published recently online?9 There are pictures of friends playing boules in the garden and there is the old port in Carnac, France, and Leonard’s pet marmoset sitting next to a green (?) hat. There is T.S. Eliot smiling and Vivienne frowning and there are the cats, Sappho and Pluto, lounging in the sun. There are the snowy farm fields (without clover) and there is the River Ouse (?) flooded in spring. And there you are and how I search your face now for the young girl in you, before your features were set in sadness before you looked so much older than your fifty-seven or so years (1939-1940) seen especially in that photograph of you sitting in a floral armchair in your bedroom (?) (Virginia Woolf reclining in an armchair, undated. Gelatin silver print; 8×10 centimeters) where it seemed like the life had already gone out of you. You (Virginia—virgin, maiden): a shimmering moth-wing (hay-colored and tasseled), a phantom ship, a will-o’-the-wisp who once said, What a born melancholiac I am!
I would have loved to go out walking with you those sometimes eight miles in an afternoon, cutting through farm fields and clover, scuttling up hills, jumping ditches, scrambling under barbed wire fences. Barbed wire fences couldn’t stop us. The war couldn’t stop us. Our fathers and even our mothers couldn’t stop. One cannot alter a condition with the same mindset that created it in the first place (I will repeat that line sometimes attributed to Albert Einstein). I will call you Diana, the Huntress, or I will call you The Empress (III). I will try not to be afraid and I will try to forgive us. I will say again (out loud): “Do you remember when we were fish (in place of our limbs grew four fins and our lips, ears, and eyes went real small)? How this was all we ever wished—to be known as beautiful ones who swim and breathe under blue wave. Remember when we were fish and the cool soaked our skin? Then once, sliding down deck and hull—hooked on a fisherman’s line real small?”
March 28, 1941, Swiss psychoanalyst, Carl Jung’s (66), The Red Book a.k.a. Liber Novus, stillsafelysecreted away from public view, would be published in 2009, forty-eight years after Jung’s death (June 6, 1961—twenty-six days before Ernest Hemingway’s suicide on July 2, 1961).
Remember how even after I was married (post-sobriety, post-Catholic Church conversion) I was still prone to those mood swings and rages especially isolated in that tiny village near Nîmes, France, where my husband and I had settled? How I ended up requesting an exorcism from a local priest who seemed shocked but found an exorcism unwarranted and yet still didn’t know what (the hell) to do with me. How I’d wished so badly that the reason for my troubles could have been something as simple as demon possession instead of having to, at some future point, roll up my sleeves and begin going deeper into that Jungian process of individuation.
What if those of us who jumped off a bridge, tightened a noose, pulled a trigger, took a handful of pills, shut the garage door and started the engine would have had just one extra second between the thought (obsession) and the act? Would we walk back (full of relief and splendor)? What if our lives could be anything, anywhere, with anyone or with no one at all (we are free to change course at any moment). What if our pasts could be forgiven, every slight forgotten and all guilt banished? What if saving our lives meant leaving (definitively or indefinitely) our writing (and/or parents, alcohol, drugs, wives, husbands, lovers, jobs, etc.)? Would we choose it?
A breeze rose; a shiver ran through the leaves; and thus stirred they lost their brown density and became grey or white as the tree shifted its mass, winked and lost its domed uniformity. The hawk poised on the topmost branch flicked its eyelids and rose and sailed and soared far away.10
I imagine I’m standing on the banks of the River Ouse with you. The sun hasn’t yet set and the river is almost indistinguishable from the gently rolling hills and farm fields.11 Let this day end like any other day (without despair), any other Friday, any other March 28 (and not April 18—the day your body would be found). Summer will be here soon and the Sussex Ouse sea trout will begin migrating upstream from the North Sea and the apple trees in your garden will drop their immature fruit. Dearest Virginia, I know I have no right to claim you (and you likely would refuse) but if by chance you agree we could unpack the rocks from your pockets and pick up your hat and cane and together, follow the road past farm fields and clover until we come to your cottage in the village of Rodmell (England) where we will take tea and both of us promise (promise) to not forget to laugh (Rule 62) and to remember that all is well despite appearances otherwise. Yes, this is the eternal renewal, the incessant rise and fall and fall and rise again.¹²
1 Virginia Woolf’s epitaph (from The Waves). 2 Virginia Woolf, The Waves (Penguin Classics, February 2000), 26. 3 Woolf, The Waves,10-11. 4 Woolf, The Waves, 127-128. 5 Woolf, The Waves, 29. 6 V. Sackville-West and Louise Desalvo. The Letters of Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf (William Morrow & Co; 1st edition, January 1, 1985). 7 Virginia Woolf’s suicide note (left for her husband, Leonard). Copy of original letter on Wattpad, [14 June 2013] 8 Unsourced. 9 Harvard’s Houghton Library, 10 Woolf, The Waves, 159. 11 Variation on Woolf’s opening sentences of The Waves. 12 Woolf, The Waves, 228.
Jody Kennedy is a writer and photographer living in Provence, France. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Fairy Tale Review, DIAGRAM, Tin House Online, Electric Literature, and The Georgia Review, among others.
“…because what they do has nothing to do with us at all.”
– Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk
There is a whole strange world underneath us where things are done differently. That startling moment where, once the goggles are properly adjusted, you can really see what’s going on. Where all who swim become clear. The ones who exist in that constant state of float, that hug of wet air, that slow moonwalking dream.
And the zombie-faced puffers, the ghostly slick freaks, the Monet-bellied clowns; they become the real ones. Instead of walk, there is flutter. Instead of run, there is dart. Instead of jump, there is breach. Also, alongside means something else.
Imagine. Imagine he is pregnant. Imagine he is pregnant and his smooth, flat stomach is swelling. Imagine he is pregnant and his smooth, flat stomach is swelling and imagine him waking just before dawn. He is standing in his front doorway, bathing in new sunlight, and his wife comes up behind him. She is lovely and long, like him, ethereal almost. She has curves like no other. This pair could be mistaken for twins. She moves in a slow circle around him, appreciating all his body is doing for her, for them. She wraps one leg around him, runs that leg slowly up and down his bulging body, and presses her forehead lovingly to his. After their eyes lock, after they’ve said I see you and I know you without opening their mouths, after this pre-dawn dance, she floats off to work, leaving him to putter around the house all day.
Until I started staying home, I never realized how many nicks there were in the walls. Especially in the living room where the kids play. White flaking out from under all that Sea Foam Blue. Gouges, really. My husband tells me I’m going to have to re-paint the whole thing. But who has time for that? So I take a Q-tip, blob the white spots back to blue and there you have it. My living room is back in order.
While she is gone he eats and waits. He sucks food into his mouth like a vacuum. While eating and waiting, he hangs on to the furniture as if his life depended on it, as if he might be carried away by the slightest breeze. As if he never quite learned how to stay.
Recently, at my annual appointment, I told my doctor I needed to be tested for everything. She raised an eyebrow and asked how many partners I had. Just the one, I said, looking up at the ceiling where a mobile of cardboard seahorses bobbed in a slow circle above the exam table. My doctor rested her hand on my knee for a long moment and didn’t ask me any more questions after that.
After many days of eating and dancing slow and resting, when he has more than doubled in size, things will begin to happen. His bulging body will begin throbbing subtly at first, it will feel like cramps or a dull backache, but soon enough contractions will rip through his skeleton (yes, he has one) and consume him. He will writhe in pain. He will wrap his leg around something tall and straight (think of a floor lamp or a cat scratching post) and he will cling to that as he pushes. Finally, after some time, after he thinks he can no longer handle the pain, he will open up all the way and one thousand tiny babies will explode quietly from his body like underwater fireworks.
One night after having enough, I dragged my two little boys from their beds and buckled them into their car seats. I sat in the garage gripping the steering wheel, holding on until my knuckles turned white. I didn’t have anywhere to go so I just started driving. After only thirty minutes I turned the car around and headed home. When I got there, I curled my limbs around my husband’s sleeping body to check for signs of life.
When this is done, when the pushing is all over and there is nothing left, his body will go limp and he will fall, as if in slow motion, to the floor in exhaustion. He will lie there on that floor for a short time, maybe two minutes, maybe four, until his wife comes home and sees that it’s all over. She won’t wonder about the thousand tiny babies, she already knows they will be gone. She won’t take any pictures. There will be no glass of water. She won’t even shake her head slowly back and forth. She will react exactly as if exploding this much life into the world was normal. She will lie down next to him and gently nudge him until he is sitting up. He will not want to do this, but he will.
He will sit up because now is the right time for sitting up.
It is the middle of the night and I am in my bed. One has a fever of one hundred and three. The other has the croup, his ragged breath wheezing out from between his bluish lips. It sounds like air being torn.
And I am alone. And no one is with me. And somewhere, I later learn, a phone has gone dead in a bar.
And because they only have up to five years, and because only one out of their one thousand tiny babies will even survive, and because they could be plucked out of their home at any moment, their small still-breathing bodies dumped onto concrete and left to suffocate, crack and dry in the sun, because their dead, shriveled flesh retails for as much as three thousand dollars per kilogram, because both of them could easily be lost in storm-roiled seas, and because many before them, most before them, have been ground up and ingested by others who wish to bear life but cannot, for all of these reasons she will not waste any time. She will wrap one leg around him and slip herself into his empty body, filling him with one thousand new eggs.
Under the cover of water, nestled between whispering blades of sea grass, together, the two seahorses let go of their anchors and drift upward nose-to-nose, spiraling slowly as they rise. And they begin again.
My foot reached for your foot in the middle of the night and you quickly kicked it away. You don’t like to be bothered while you sleep. I need to understand this.
J.L Peters essays have appeared in or are forthcoming in: Seneca Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, River Teeth, Passages North, and the anthology River Teeth at 20, University of New Mexico Press.
Because her skin is fair and slightly freckled, she’s used to people telling her she doesn’t look Native American. But at least in person she can buffer challenge with her darkly dyed hair and Native American jewelry. She can pull her tribal identification card from her wallet and hand it over for inspection. So the letter she receives, asking her to prove she’s a certain percentage Native American, seems to undo what progress she feels she’s made through her appearance. It hurts more than the typical eyebrow raise, guffaw, or laugh.
They want information from her Certificate Degree of Indian Blood—a card issued by the Federal Government’s Bureau of Indian Affairs showing what “percentage” Native American a person is. She does not have this; she’s never needed it. The Cherokee Nation issues only tribal identification cards. To them, if you have any Cherokee blood, if you have been granted citizenship status for several reasons, (the most politically complex being the tribal status of the Cherokee freemen—descendants of slaves Cherokee once owned), then you are Cherokee.
In drafting her fellowship application, she feels she’s being erased all over again, this time by the institution she hopes to make her home, a program she applied to, in part, because they have a Cherokee professor; for the first time in her academic career, she wouldn’t be the only Native American in the department.
She wants to write, you can’t imagine what it feels like to be doubly outsider, to be the only one, all the time, to answer for your entire culture because you’re the only one people can ask questions of. Instead, she writes what she thinks is a bold, but appropriate letter. She tells them that by qualifying someone based on “how Indian” they are, over time the action will erode the candidate base so that people like her—who are Native American—will not qualify for assistance at all. She also points out that the Certificate Degree of Indian Blood that determines blood quantum is calculated from the Dawes Rolls, which have not been changed since 1914. She tries to explain to them, as diplomatically as she can, that it was also common to lie when registering for the Dawes Rolls—to say you were less Native American than you were—because for those whose parents had to walk the Trail of Tears, they feared that if they were “too Indian” they would be forced onto a reservation.
So what is it? she wants to write. First, we were too Native American, and now I’m not Native American enough. When, and where, can I live and just be?
She writes this essay in third person because she hopes if she erases the author, what she says might be heard better by those who don’t understand—that the third person might make the essay palatable. She thinks nonfiction should make the writer identifiable and original, but because she does not look Native American, because she’s passed for so much of her life, she’s heard what people may not otherwise say around her: minorities are so angry.
She writes this essay in third person because saying she instead of I embodies some of the double-ness she feels. But there is also no double-ness, because to be both is to be neither.
She writes this essay in third person because in the act of writing, she remembers a troubling past when she was not both, but only one. She writes this essay in third person because it is a way of not just collapsing a gap between the content and the reader, who may not respond well to her minority anger, but also because she wishes to create a larger gap between her two selves.
She tells her friend, who is another minority writer, about her troublesome recovery of memory. She tells her friend about how she was once a Nez Perce Indian Princess. She tells her friend that she used to be without knowledge of individual tribes and culture. She tells her friend money is politics, and when you ask people for money, you don’t point out why you may not feel entitled to it.
As a child in Texas, she wanted to be an Indian; she did not know she shouldn’t this term, and no one told her not to.
The first Indian she met was Charlie Eagle Plume, who owned a “trading post” outside Estes Park, Colorado where her family vacationed every year. The store was filled with glass cases displaying silver, red, and blue jewelry. There were drawings and paintings—some framed and some not—of Indians—some stoic and others wild—in headdresses on horses. Braided baskets held arrowheads and she once convinced her mother to buy her a colorful beaded necklace with a small child wrapped in a felt cradleboard hanging like a charm. But her most prized possession was the eagle feather given to her by Charlie Eagle Plume himself.
She would tuck this eagle feather into the waistband of her pants when she and her brother played Cowboys and Indians with the other neighborhood kids, cap guns from the grocery store popping until they ran out of ammo. She was enamored with the story of Cynthia Ann Parker, a woman of European descendent kidnapped by Comanche, who refused to be “re-civilized” and ran back to her Indian family time and time again. She ogled the Kachina dolls in the jewelry store near her home: their dances caught mid-pose, elaborate headdresses and masks. She had a dreamcatcher in her bedroom window, three dark beads in the spider-web of its string.
She mixed up all the Indian cultures. She thought everyone scalped their enemies on the plains, that everyone wore headdresses and rode horses and worshipped the earth and lived in teepees, and that the Indian man made of wood and holding a cigar box outside the river-rafting office was an authentic representation. She did not know she was Indian already, Cherokee by blood, her family one of the founding families of the Cherokee Nation.
Her dad enrolled her and her brother in a YMCA youth program that promoted bonding between fathers and their children: the Indian Princes and Indian Princesses. Step one was choosing an Indian name. Her brother chose Bear Claw but would go down in the book as Bear Clam, the tiny leather disk he was supposed to print his name on reflecting a child’s misunderstanding of letters: W and M looking the same, just facing different directions. She swore at her first meeting, the naming ceremony, she wouldn’t make this mistake.
And when she got to that first meeting, all the girls and men gathered in the backyard around a pond. The girl whose family hosted this first meeting had a sprawling two-story house, a pond and a pool, and the girl didn’t hesitate to make it known that her father was the chief—the man in charge. At the meeting, this girl’s father beat a drum to quiet the rowdy princesses-to-be. The girls sat cross-legged in a circle and drew straws to determine the order they would pick their Indian names. Our main character got first choice, and chose Tiger Lily, the name everyone was gunning for, the Indian in Disney’s Peter Pan. Tiger Lily doesn’t remember what her father chose because the girl who owned the house was angry that she didn’t get to choose the name she wanted and rallied the other girls around her. For the rest of the night no one would talk to Tiger Lily.
She still doesn’t know what there is about children and meanness and why at times they are so eager to embrace it. Mayhap children are inclined to experiment with it: a lack of knowing social nuance, the desire to have what you want without understanding economics or even fairness, an immature narcissism. She thinks about this when she remembers how she cried that night after the first meeting. Her dad tried to make her feel better by explaining that some Indians were war-like people; the girls were really just being more Indian by being mean. And at six, she took what her dad said to heart; now, she feels (hopes?) it must have been a joke she didn’t catch.
As an adult she bristles at the memories of her youth: not just the meanness of children but the meanness of the Indian Princesses. Inadvertent or not, it set the girls up to think all Indians were the same; it erased and conflated entire cultures.
When she visits the program’s website now she reads that the program has been re-named Adventure Princesses. She scrolls the website’s page: “The YMCA’s commitment to being a caring, honest, respectful, and responsible organization, and an evolving cultural sensitivity of Native American history prompted YMCAs across the country to re-evaluate their parent/child programs.”
She thinks it would have been nice if things had changed before, or even when, she was little.
She also wishes her mom, from whom she gets her Cherokee heritage, had said something to her dad about how insensitive the program was. She wishes when she heard arguing in their bedroom at night that they were fighting about this: cultural appropriation (or mis-approproation). She wishes either of them had been willing to—instead of saying it’s a good way to bond—say that there are other ways to bond. Apparently, her life is made of wishes.
Every year there was a large campout where tribes from all over the surrounding areas gathered to have a powwow. Girls slept in one cabin, fathers another. They went to events like wild animal lectures, where Tiger Lily let a tarantula walk on her arm (she doesn’t remember this; now she is terrified of spiders). She also ran through meadows and over large, low rocks. She ate in a mess hall with all the other tribes and she wondered why everyone was getting along. Shouldn’t all the tribes be fighting?
She did Indian things like shoot bows and arrows, sew her own tan-colored open-front vest (they came in a bag, already with punched holes and virtually assembled), complete tasks for brightly dyed feathers, and attempt to prove her Indian prowess by getting patches for hiking, helping to prepare snacks, and memorizing the organization’s goals. She did cheap bead work activities and proudly wore her thunderbird necklace, even though she had no clue if the thunderbird was associated with the Nez Perce, her assigned tribe. She didn’t even know her tribe never lived in Texas.
One night everyone was gathered around the campfire and roasting marshmallows, waiting for the shaman to make his rounds. When he appeared, he was in full costume: suede-fringed pants, suede-fringed jerkin, a staff lined with feathers, a feathered headdress, and a book. When he opened it, the pages ignited into fire—he said it contained information about where gold was hidden, but that wasn’t for the girls to know. They’d have to find it themselves.
The fathers turned the girls loose with flashlights, little squaws in the dark, searching under leaves, in dirt, at the base of trees. When the chief’s daughter—the one who alienated the girl that first day—found gold, Tiger Lily wanted it. She remembered how the other girl had wronged her, and she hated her for it. The chief’s daughter showed Tiger Lily the gold, shining in a beam of light. In her hand it was heavy. It was unfair that the girl with the large house and all the things also now had gold. She didn’t deserve it.
Each of the other princesses hoped to find gold for herself, but none could be uncovered. Tiger Lily acted like everything was okay. She acted like she wasn’t angry. She said, let’s play Indians, even though she already was one.
She said, let’s catch a rabbit,and her and the other girls fashioned a useless snare out of branches. They waited for their rabbit and as they did Tiger Lily told stories she made up about Indians fighting: war stories full of horses and gun fights and tomahawks. When the rabbit never showed she blamed it on the rich girl—the girl with the gold—and said it was because she’d already killed it.
Sometimes it is easy for children to believe their own fantasies, and because of this, the other girls blamed the chief’s daughter too. Or perhaps it was because they were also jealous—either way, in the dark, the girls formed a circle around the chief’s daughter, their flashlights bright and pale on her face. They accused her of killing the rabbit without them, and then Tiger Lily accused her of not being Indian. They all yelled at the chief’s daughter, and then they chased her. She fled back to the safety of the fathers, crying, and when Tiger Lily arrived at the campfire she knew she’d be in trouble. And she was.
All the girls were appropriately chastised, but the lectures were not so much about being cruel, or where cruelness stems from, as they were about the foolishness of the particular brand of cruelness the girls exhibited. Even then their fathers got it wrong, misunderstood the lesson the girls should have learned. The fathers did not sit the girls down and talk about envy or bullying. They sat the girls down and explained that it wasn’t real gold anyway; it was fool’s gold: either a mineral that looked like gold or worse, some spray painted rock.
Tiger Lily didn’t know what was worse: that she had been tricked about the gold—the value worth nothing at all—or that she didn’t feel any shame in what she’d done, even after she knew someone had been hurt.
So she apologized—she was forced to—but she didn’t really mean it. Later, when the other girl’s father—the chief—lit a cigar, she told him smoking was bad. He told her that she was a child and to mind her own business. She hated him too then, and the next year she decided not to be an Indian Princess anymore.
But even after she quit the Indian Princesses, Tiger Lily wore her tribal headband—a thick band of leather across her forehead. She stuck Charlie Eagle Plume’s feather in it. She was still a princess, just not a Nez Perce princess. She played Indian for a few more months—had her one girl tribe, watched Peter Pan again and again, wore her beaded moccasins around the house, silently stalking invisible prey with her rubber tomahawk.
For a time this made her meaner—alone, fending for herself, having no one who was also Indian. She picked on the family Mastiff—pulled his tail and tried to ride him around the house like a horse. She threw her tomahawk at birds in the backyard. When her dad brought home doves from his hunting trip, she plucked out their feathers and kept them in a small, wooden box, pretending she had shot them herself.
Her mom would not let her keep the feathers, afraid they harbored microbes and mites. When she fought with her mom about it, stomping her feet and screaming about how she needed feathers for her headdress, her mother said, this is not how a princess would behave.
Now that she is older she is still angry. She is angry with herself for having taken so long to research her Cherokee heritage.
One day she calls her brother and asks if he’ll learn Cherokee with her. She tells him she’s writing an essay about the Indian Princesses, and the conversation leads to Charlie Eagle Plume. Her brother laughs and says, “Those eagle feathers he gave us were turkey feathers, remember?”
But she doesn’t remember. Of course, they weren’t real eagle feathers (now she knows about protective status and poaching), but what they really were didn’t matter as much as what she thought they were.
She thinks back to Charlie Eagle Plume and that feather she used to have. She remembers how he would show her clay pots and geode rocks. She remembers how he would tell her stories. She does not remember what these stories were, but she remembers the feeling of knowing they were hers too. She realizes she does not know what tribe Charlie Eagle Plume came from, and since this is the era of the internet, she searches for him.
She finds out that he died many years ago, and she uncovers a transcript of a speech commemorating him, from September 1992. In it, Hank Pederson says, “All the kids under eight got a feather, because everyone under eight was an Indian. Now if you happened to be an Indian child and came to see him, you were a double Indian. And if you were a boy or a girl over eight, you always get an arrowhead…. Charles, in traveling all over the United States from 1933 until 1981, had certain phrases that he constantly would weave into all of his talks. He didn’t talk about Indians. He talked about love. He didn’t talk about white people, red people, brown people. He talked about civilization of which we all are a part.”
She wishes she could remember these stories about love, about how colors don’t matter. Perhaps, if the stories had stuck, she wouldn’t have been so cruel to that girl with the gold. Perhaps if she had more lessons about love, she would have been nicer too.
This is pleasant to think about, but as an adult she also knows that colors do matter. They matter a lot to the people who are persecuted because of who they are, the color of their skin, and that to talk about one people united across color by love is to erase, or ignore, the trauma and hardships of marginalized groups.
And then she finds another article. In “Charlie Eagle Plume: Man of Mystery” she learns the following: “Charlie Eagle Plume liked to tell stories to tourists. In one of his tales, he claimed to have arrived in Estes Park by horseback, from a Blackfoot Indian reservation in Montana…. According to well-documented genealogical research, Eagle Plume wasn’t from Montana at all. Instead, he was born in Leadville with the name Charles F. Burkhardt. His father, Fred Burkhardt, was German and worked as a butcher. Eagle Plume acknowledged he was half-German but claimed Native American heritage through his mother, Ella May McGahren. Census records, however, reveal that Ella May’s father was Irish and her mother was born and raised in Illinois by parents from Ohio.”
She doesn’t know how to feel about this. She knows that blood ties are tenuous—records don’t necessarily reflect history’s truth—but she can’t help but feel she’s been duped, that Charlie Eagle Plume wasn’t Native American at all, and that he, like her as a child, masqueraded as an Indian.
The article says that he “established the Charles Eagle Plume Memorial Scholarship Fund to pay for the college education of Native American students. He also developed a nonprofit foundation for his art collection, stipulating that if it ever was sold, the proceeds would go toward the students’ educations.”
When she receives news that she has indeed been granted the minority fellowship, she doesn’t really feel anything at first—not even relief what with it, she will be financially independent for the first time in her life.
The next day, she feels angry. She put a great deal of thought and care into that letter she wrote to support her application, and though she didn’t know it at the time, she was hoping something would come of it: an admission that their evaluative criteria needed to be amended, a recognition that the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ CDIB card is terribly and unequivocally political for the wrong reasons, anything to signal to her that the content of the letter would change thinking, and therefore, might change action.
She knows social change is always a long time coming; still, she thinks this is a terrible way to come full circle.
She understands now that there were no Indian Princesses—that the word princess is European in origin and incapable of adequately representing a tribal structure. In her Cherokee dictionary she finds no word equivalent for princess. She finds four versions of the word chief, but even then she cannot differentiate between them. She is trying to learn the language, but she is used to alphabets, not syllabaries, and she cannot find anyone to help her navigate the nuance of language.
She speaks with her friend again, the one who is also a minority writer. They sit on her back porch in the Texas heat with iced coffee, listening to the cicadas drone, sweat trickling down their calves.
She asks her friend what the memory of blood means. How it implicates. She asks, can I write about this? She asks, should I write about this?
She is unsure of her exposure, making herself visible during the process of becoming, of unbecoming. She is worried about the many gazes through which she will be viewed, half-formed, on a cliff of understanding herself but not necessarily understanding her culture.
Am I ashamed? She asks, more to herself than her friend.
Ashamed of what?
She doesn’t want to say it, but she does because she knows she can’t have this conversation with her other friends, or if she does, it will be one in which she informs and does not explore, and so she says, ashamed of everything. Of not being Native enough. Of having a family who kind of ignores that we’re Native at all. Of this system, this country.
Oh, her friend says, you’re at that stage.
She does not know what her friend means.
Shame, the woman elaborates, for not being white. For being other. You’ve spent a whole life passing. Now you know.
She thinks. Rests her cigarette in the ashtray. She asks, what comes after shame?
Anger, sometimes. Or resignation.
Anger comes after. Anger comes before. Anger comes all times, she thinks, and the threat of it always being present, no matter what she does, or doesn’t do, disturbs her.
Later, she thinks about this word—anger. She dwells in it. She looks up this word in her Cherokee lexicon. She tries to sound the word out, uses the phonetics provided: u-ta-la-wo-s-gv. She tries to write the Unicode—ᎤᏔᎳᏬᏍᎬ—and her script is marred with hesitation marks.
She thinks about how anger can be tied to cruelty, and how they perpetuate each other.
She looks up cruel in her lexicon as well: ᎤᏲᎢᏯᏓᏛᏁᎯ. u-yo-i-ya-da-dv-ne-hi. She tries to match the rhythm of pronunciation, to find its scansion. It takes patience. It takes listening. It is not something she can rush, and it is not something a reader can either.
Listen: u-yo-i-ya-da-dv-ne-hi. Say it. Trip over the word.
u-yo-i-ya-da-dv-ne-hi. Find a new understanding for sound:
˘ ˘ ˘ / ˘ / ˘
oooh yo eh yev duh ney he
Fall into it.
Gwendolyn Paradice’s nonfiction has earned nominations for both the Pushcart and Best American Essay. Her nonfiction, fiction, and poetry have appeared in Assay, Crab Orchard Review, Fourth River, Booth, and others. She retains a MA in Nonfiction from the University of North Texas, a MFA from Bennington College, and is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Missouri. She specializes in genre-bending and speculative writing.