Wordsmith Wednesday: Natalie Diaz’ “My Brother at 3 A.M.”

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Our words this week are Natalie Diaz’ poem “My Brother at 3 A.M.” from her collection When My Brother Was an Aztec on Copper Canyon Press.

It reads:

He sat cross-legged, weeping on the steps
when Mom unlocked and opened the front door.
        O God, he said. O God.
                He wants to kill me, Mom.
When Mom unlocked and opened the front door
at 3 a.m., she was in her nightgown, Dad was asleep.
        He wants to kill me, he told her,
                looking over his shoulder.
3 a.m. and in her nightgown, Dad asleep,
What’s going on? she asked. Who wants to kill you?
        He looked over his shoulder.
                The devil does. Look at him, over there.
She asked, What are you on? Who wants to kill you?
The sky wasn’t black or blue but the green of a dying night.
        The devil, look at him, over there.
                He pointed to the corner house.
The sky wasn’t black or blue but the dying green of night.
Stars had closed their eyes or sheathed their knives.
        My brother pointed to the corner house.
                His lips flickered with sores.
Stars had closed their eyes or sheathed their knives.
O God, I can see the tail, he said. O God, look.
        Mom winced at the sores on his lips.
                It’s sticking out from behind the house.
O God, see the tail, he said. Look at the goddamned tail.
He sat cross-legged, weeping on the front steps.
        Mom finally saw it, a hellish vision, my brother.
                O God, O God, she said.
Part of a collection wrapped around themes of family, addiction, and Native identity, Diaz builds a space that is spiritual in its commonality, the mirror between real and surreal shivering on the masculinity and meth use of a brother. This poem blends those worlds in a way that sets the fears of the addict and the addict adjacent next to each other, both seeing the devil in the flickering in the dead of reservation night. A silent audience, the darkness surrounds and absorbs everything between the mother and her son: the familiarity, the desperation, the confusion, the love. Linguistically, repetition wraps a peculiar calm around the frantic energy of the son, peeling back the mystery of addict behavior with a knowing hand both clinical and caring. Loving an addict can warp expectations of normality, deadening nerves past shock and exhausting empathy into apathy. Diaz expresses this beautifully through her approach to the erratic, irrational behavior of the poem’s eponymous brother: her descriptions of the man’s addiction, much like the behavior of the mother, is without exaggeration or judgement. Her’s is the deadened, hesitant compassion of one that’s seen the devil too often to be still be scared of his tail, let alone the spitting lips he splits. – NR

Natalie Diaz
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Submissions for Issue 7

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Submissions for Issue 7 are open until April 15th!

Send us your poetry, prose, and creative nonfiction!

Find full submission guidelines here!

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Editor’s Note for Issue 6

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The following is the full Editor’s Note for Issue 6:

One cannot walk this winding street with pride
Straight-shouldered, tranquil-eyed,
Knowing one knows for sure the way back home.
One wonders if one has a home.
– Gwendolyn Brooks, “One wants a Teller in a time like this”

What should young people do with their lives today? Many things, obviously. But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.
– Kurt Vonnegut, Palm Sunday

I’ve come home again.

I sit in my car in the morning waiting for the engine to heat up, for my bones to stop creaking. I speed down country roads lined with cornstalks, green and strong until they are harvested or left to turn dead-gold. I drive past the cemetery where my friend’s grave is on the way to and from work, sometimes slowing down to look through the narrow gate and across rolling headstones. I ride the Metra line downtown to avoid the Dan Ryan, the one my dad took for years when he worked at Wrigley, the one that goes through my childhood hometown and Brooks’ Bronzeville, too. I walk suburban streets with my dog, I walk from the L to my friends’ apartments, I walk down high school halls, weekend alleyways, the steps to my parents’ basement. I sleep in my middle school bedroom on an air mattress. I dream of Chicago and its sprawl because I’ve come home again.

Home doesn’t always feel that way. When I left Illinois for Tennessee almost four years ago, I swore I’d never miss this place. I told myself nothing tethered me here besides family and the familiar. Graduation from college had been followed by a failed job hunt, a funeral for a close friend, and sixty-hour work weeks in food service. Lost and apathetic, I’d unconsciously distanced myself from the people and places that reminded me of my past, of myself. But I hadn’t been able to hide. I’d haunted my old campus, broken shouldered and cloudy eyed, for months until I’d moved back in with my parents to try to piece together part-time teaching jobs around Chicago. I’d felt lonely, pathetic, and out of place, no longer at home in the spots that were once mine. Winding through the suburbs and the city’s south and west sides, I wondered if I had a home.

Sobotka grew out of that emotional homelessness. Kathy and I needed something to focus on besides day jobs, and we felt we could provide a platform for people seeking that same connection: a community built not from place, profession, or past, but from words. So we started working on this project nights and weekends, with nothing but a feeling and few hundred dollars.

In the years that followed, this magazine helped create one of the most stable communities in my life. It connected me to Chicago while allowing me to explore creative opportunities in Nashville. It has provided me the space to express myself alongside artists I respect. It has introduced me to the writers, readers, editors, and bookstore owners that continue to breathe life into this magazine and other creative pursuits. It has showed me that a community can grow from a gut feeling, hard work, and a dedication to kindness.

Now, after three years away, I have come home again. This time I find comfort in the cornrows and the creak of airbrakes. I feel the magic in the streetlights, in the midnight train’s horn. The mythos of the Midwest feels present in the memories of my past, in the spine of this place, in myself. I ran from these streets at my sickest, but now I’m back having combated the disease of loneliness and emerged stronger. Time may heal most wounds, but community heals the rest. We want this magazine to be a meeting place for like minds to warm their hands and heal a bit with us from the stress and stimulus that daily life can bring. Come sit down by the fire a while. Make yourself at home.

We are proud to bring the pieces in this issue under one roof. The works here deal heavily with loss, confusion, frustration, and the search for a sense of comfort. They examine the idea of a home (or lack thereof), whether in the literal sense, in relationships, or in one’s own body. They range from the deeply personal to the slyly humorous to the bizarre, but all offer a space for the reader, whether it be a quiet seat in the corner to observe or a spot at the table for an intimate conversation. The authors within may not know for sure the way back home, but they’re willing to walk with you, to help straighten your shoulders and calm your eyes, to keep you company down this winding street.

As always, we hope this makes you feel human and unalone.

Nick Rossi
Chicago, November 2017

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Wordsmith Wednesday: Kelly Link’s “The Summer People”

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This week’s Wordsmith Wednesday stems from Kelly Link’s short story “The Summer People,” in her collection Get In Trouble.

It reads:

“When you do for other people (Fran’s daddy said once upon a time when he was drunk, before he got religion) things that they could do for themselves but they pay you to do it instead, you both will get used to it.

Sometimes they don’t even pay you, and that’s charity. At first, charity isn’t comfortable, but it gets so it is. After some while, maybe you start to feel wrong when you ain’t doing it for them, just one more thing, and always one more thing after that. Might be you start to feel as you’re valuable. Because they need you. And the more they need you, the more you need them. Things tip out of balance. You need to remember that, Franny. Sometimes you’re on one side of the equation, and sometimes you’re on the other. You need to know where you are and what you owe. Unless you can balance that out, here is where y’all stay.”

So much of life is transactional. Currency can take form as physical money, or time, or advice given and taken. We often forget that at the base of almost every interaction is an exchange of goods. If we forget this, if we begin to give and give and give, we lose ourselves in the process. Our individuality becomes intertwined with those whom we are looking after.

In “The Summer People,” Link explores the loss of identity and individuality within a family and, particularly, at a young age. Franny is indebted to The Summer People. Her Ma was indebted to them. There is no other life, there is no other option, she must always listen and do what they ask. They gift her with useless, beautiful, unique, outdated objects/toys/knick-knacks, as a thank you for scouring the city for their needs. Though this relationship has tilted to one side, this is all she knows, this connection with The Summer People is what defines her.

It is easy to lose ourselves in our relationships with others, allowing what we do for them to validate us as human beings. Reminding ourselves where we stand in the midst of these transactions helps us to keep a firmer grasp on our individual identity.

– KK

Kelly-Link

Issue 6 Authors

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We proudly present our Issue 6 authors!

Prose by:

Irving Greenfield
Helen Grochmal
Thomas Elson
Riley Lalumendre
Reggie Mills
Alison Roland
Ashley Roth

Poetry by:

Emily Allison
Amy Bales
Robert Beveridge
Kersten Christianson
William Doreski
Brian C. Felder
Jonathan Greenhause
Ann Howells
Selina Kyle
Sean J. Mahoney
Christopher McCarthy
David Stevens
John Tustin
Georgette Unis

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Wordsmith Wednesday: Rage Against The Machine “Bulls On Parade”

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Our words this week come from Rage Against The Machine‘s song “Bulls on Parade” off their 1996 album Evil Empire.

The words are:

“Weapons, not food, not homes, not shoes
not need, just feed the war cannibal animal
I walk from corner to the rubble that used to be a library
line up to the mind cemetery now”

As a kid, Zack de la Rocha’s lyrics on the radio were my first unconcious introduction to anything resembling radical American political thought, planting seeds about corrupt government (“Testify”), brutality by racist police (“Killing In The Name”), and exploitation for greed (“Sleep Now In The Fire”) in my head that would germinate into adolescent opinions during the Bush Era. Rage Against The Machine and The Battle Of Los Angeles both served as catalysts to the development of my personal politics and interest in alternative histories before an introduction to Howard Zinn at sixteen gave some structure and solid argument to de la Rocha’s anger. However, it was always these lines that stuck out to me as a boy growing up in the shadow of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, specifically the imagery of a destroyed library. The juxtaposition of war and ignorance against learning and care is a relationship that has only become stronger and clearer as I’ve grown up in a world where the United States has been at constant, endless, expensive war without any clear objective or exit strategy. For over half my life now, we have had troops on the ground in Afghanistan fighting, and dying, in a war on terrorist organizations that essentially fuels itself by providing propaganda for these organizations with U.S. military presence. Just this week there has been a presidential call for an increase in troops. Eisenhower is ignored, Halliburton is forgotten, and the military-industrial complex chugs on. This cycle is pushed forward by politicians and pundits championing American safety, strength, and prosperity while children in parts of this country go hungry, homeless, and hopeless. Unfortunately for those kids, feeding, clothing, and empowering the poor has little of the perceived or real political and economic benefits that war can provide to the powerful elite, so they just keep rallying around the family with a pocket full of shells.

– NR

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Wordsmith Wednesday: George Saunders’ “The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil”

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Our words this Wednesday come from George Saunders’ 2005 novella The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil.

The excerpt is:

“Suddenly Phil didn’t seem like quite so much of a nobody to the other Outer Hornerites. What kind of nobody was so vehement, and used so many confusing phrases with so much certainty, and was so completely accurate about how wonderful and generous and under-appreciated they were?

‘Boy oh boy,’ said Freeda.

‘He just comes right out and says it,’ said Melvin.

‘Thank goodness someone finally has,’ said Larry.

‘As for you Inner Hornerites!’ bellowed Phil. ‘Please take heed: You are hereby testing the limits of our legendary generosity, because of how you are, which is so very opposite of us. Friends, take a look at these losers! If they are as good as us, why do they look so much worse than us? Look how they look! Do they look valorous and noble and huge like us, or do they look sad and weak and puny?”

If some of the rhetoric in this excerpt seems to echo what you’re hearing in the current political discourse, that’s because the language of nationalism and it’s dumber, more violent cousin, jingoism, often rest on the vilification of the “Other.” This is the language you heard on the campaign trail and it’s the mindset behind border walls, travel bans, and threats of nuclear war. Throughout the book, Phil’s populist approach and appeal to Outer Hornerites, similar to that of Trump, is almost entirely built on expressing their superiority over Inner Hornerites, of using single incidents or accidents to generalize about “Them” and using fear to quell any dissidence among the Outer Hornerites themselves. Originally meant to be a children’s story in response to a challenge to write a book where all the characters are conglomerate objects, The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil uses satire to simplify, and clarify, factors that lead to conflict, subjugation, injustice, and, in this case, genocide. This story’s cautions against blind faith in authority, national hubris, sensationalist media, and compliance with injustice seem a lesson to navigating our current sociopolitical landscape, a shifting lesson I’m learning every day. I don’t have the answers, but be careful of those who try to win your heart and mind by vehemently spouting confusing phrases with certainty.

– NR

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