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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Wordsmith Wednesday: Kaveh Akbar’s “An Apology”

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This week’s Wordsmith Wednesday is Kaveh Akbar’s poem “An Apology“ from his collection entitled Calling a Wolf a Wolf.

It reads:

“Lord, I meant to be helpless, sex-
less as a comma, quiet as
cotton floating on a pond. Instead,
I charged into desire like a
tiger sprinting off the edge of
the world. My ancestors shot bones
out of cannons and built homes where
they landed. This is to say, I
was born the king of nothing, pulled
out from nothing like a carrot
slipped from soil. I am still learning
the local law: don’t hurt something
that can smile, don’t hold any grief
except your own. My first time—brown
arms, purple lips, lush as a gun—-
we slumped into each other’s thighs.
She said duset daram, mano
tanha bezar—I love you, leave
me alone. See? There I go scab-
picking again. You should just hang
me in a museum. I’ll pose
as a nasty historical
facet, wave at the cameras, lecture
only in the rhetoric of
a victim. As a boy I tore out
the one-hundred-and-nine pages
about Hell in my first Qur’an.
Bountiful bloomscattering Lord,
I could feel you behind my eyes
and under my tongue, shocking me
nightly like an old battery.
What did I need with Hell? Now that
I’ve sucked you wrinkly like a thumb,
I can barely be bothered to
check in. Will I ever even know
when my work is done? I’m almost
ready to show you the mess I’ve made.”

“I’m sorry” tends to show up in our everyday vocabulary, similarly to “umm” and “like” and “what’s your name again?” when we’ve been taught to be apologetic for who we are and how we feel. We find ourselves in a tug of war between what we think, want to say, how we want to act, and what is expected of us based on social, sexual, religious, et al expectations. As much as we want/hope/try to fit into the mold or perception that our parents/friends/significant others have of us, when that is not who we truly are, our thoughts and actions aren’t always able to align. We speak out of turn, we feel too eager, too energetic, too prepared. We say our sorrys.

We want so badly to be someone else or discover who we are, learn from our past, but during that process we find out we are is a whole bunch of wires all mixed up together never connecting to the right plug. We are human and we want a range of uncertain desires that make us feel like pieces of puzzles that don’t fit together, that we’ve cut apart to line up. This mess is something we must love first before being able to present to others. We must find our roots, our initial selves, and hold fast or it will always be an inward fight. – KK

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Wordsmith Wednesday: Eileen Myles’ “An American Poem”

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Our words this week come from the end of Eileen Myles’ poem “An American Poem” from their 1991 collection, Not Me.

The excerpt reads:

“I am a Kennedy.
Shouldn’t we all be Kennedys?
This nation’s greatest city
is home of the business-
man and home of the
rich artist. People with
beautiful teeth who are not
on the streets. What shall
we do about this dilemma?
Listen, I have been educated.
I have learned about Western
Civilization. Do you know
what the message of Western
Civilization is? I am alone.
Am I alone tonight?
I don’t think so. Am I
the only one with bleeding gums
tonight. Am I the only
homosexual in this room
tonight. Am I the only
one whose friends have
died, are dying now.
And my art can’t
be supported until it is
gigantic, bigger than
everyone else’s, confirming
the audience’s feeling that they are
alone. That they alone
are good, deserved
to buy the tickets
to see this Art.
Are working,
are healthy, should
survive, and are
normal. Are you
normal tonight? Everyone
here, are we all normal.
It is not normal for
me to be a Kennedy.
But I am no longer
ashamed, no longer
alone. I am not
alone tonight because
we are all Kennedys.
And I am your President.”

Assuming a fictional role in an American political dynasty, Myles allows themselves to interrogate identity, both personal and national, in a voice that naturally oscillates between sincerity and sarcasm. A real-life blue collar New Englander, they use autobiographical content about being a young queer poet experiencing the class contradictions of New York City juxtaposed with their assumed identity as a closeted member of the (in)famous Kennedy family to complicate the typical idea of success as power, beauty, wealth, and fame with the realities of the mass, of the struggle, of the poor and diseased, of the imperfect normal. With this poem, Eileen Myles (who ran a campaign as the first “openly female” presidential write-in campaign the year after this poem was published) empowers the average in the face of the elite, pushes on cracks in persistent political and social structures, and challenges the idea of Americanness itself, all in a style that fosters messy love and honest dialogue rather than nihilism or didacticism. As the actual Kennedy family continues to whet its elite white teeth on our country’s political stage, Myles’ reminder to recognize the whole beautiful, bruised, transforming face of this nation as its truer identity is one that can continue to guide us as we navigate into a more empowered, inclusive, and just image of America. – NR

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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: Kendrick Lamar’s “LUST.”

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Our words this week come from Kendrick Lamar’s song “LUST.” from his latest record “DAMN.”

The words are:

“We all woke up, tryna tune to the daily news
Lookin’ for confirmation, hopin’ election wasn’t true
All of us worried, all of us buried, and the feeling’s deep
None of us married to his proposal, make us feel cheap
Still and sad, distraught and mad, tell the neighbor ’bout it
Bet they agree, parade the streets with your voice proudly
Time passin’, things change
Revertin’ back to our daily programs
Stuck in our ways, lust”

On a collection of songs built around breathing life and form into broad human themes, Lamar engages lust not just as a sexual concept but also one of desiring the easy, the pleasurable, the lazily indulgent. The self-centered default. He reflects on this concept in men, women, and himself before dropping the above words at the end of the final verse. These lines reflect something essential and troubling about the recent US presidential election and the national response in the months that followed. After clenched stomachs and disbelief came genuine discussion and community building efforts, energetic and directed and productive. But sustained, unsexy resistance is hard. Legs start to hurt and throats go hoarse. Victories are small and meaningful outcomes require a marathon. Time passes. Normalization begins. Constant engagement and outrage get exhausting and complacency starts to return to those privileged enough to afford it and to some that can’t. Back to the default. So, while it may be human nature to seek the comfort of the self-centered action, real growth requires personal sacrifice for collective progress, less lust and more love. I’m definitely guilty of making the selfish choice in the face of greater injustice, but I’ve also made sacrifices to reach out and pull others up. It’s right, but it’s hard. Damn.

– NR

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Wordsmith Wednesday: Ross Gay’s “Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude”

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Our words this week come from Ross Gay’s eponymous poem “Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude” from his 2015 poetry collection.

The stanza is:

“And to the quick and gentle flocking
of men to the old lady falling down
on the corner of Fairmount and 18th, holding patiently
with the softest parts of their hands
her cane and purple hat,
gathering for her the contents of her purse
and touching her shoulder and elbow;
thank you the cockeyed court
on which in a half-court 3 v 3 we oldheads
made of some runny-nosed kids
a shambles, and the 61-year-old
after flipping a reverse lay-up off a back door cut
from my no-look pass to seal the game
ripped off his shirt and threw punches at the gods
and hollered at the kids to admire the pacemaker’s scar
grinning across his chest; thank you
the glad accordion’s wheeze
in the chest; thank you the bagpipes.”

Gay’s ability to shine warmth and love into dirty crevices and tease beauty from everyday experiences is what I believe puts him at the forefront of contemporary poetry. He doesn’t stray away from darkness or sadness, but he also doesn’t wallow; he shows it and says “This is what being alive and being human is” with an inspiring generosity. In a poem in which he expresses gratitude for a number of things from a lone lady on the bus to a patient, listening ear to finding the dreadlock of a murdered friend, I chose this passage because I find the images breathtaking, moving snapshots of human goodness and strength and life. I love the gentle men helping because it’s the right thing to do, I cheer and laugh for the old man proudly patting the pacemaker in his chest. These tiny actions, these little victories are the most beautiful parts of being alive to me and Ross Gay’s ability to show that beauty without overstatement and with a knowing smile is what keeps me waiting on his work.

– NR

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Wordsmith Wednesday: Rupi Kaur’s “milk and honey”

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This week’s Wordsmith Wednesday is from Rupi Kaur’s milk and honey.

The poem reads:

“you said, if it is meant to be. fate will bring us back
together. for a second I wonder if you are really
that naïve. if you really believe fate works like
that. as if it lives in the sky staring down at us. as
if it has five fingers and spends its time placing us
like pieces of chess. as if it is not the choices we
make. who taught you that. tell me. who
convinced you. you’ve been given a heart and
a mind that isn’t yours to use. that your actions
do not define what will become of you. i want to
scream and shout it’s us you fool. we’re the only
ones that can bring us back together. but
instead I sit quietly. smiling softly through
quivering lips thinking. isn’t it such a tragic thing.
when you can see it so clearly but the other person
doesn’t.”

Kaur’s milk and honey has become a companion to me. Something I carry and reference constantly. Each poem a beautifully crafted image of the daily internal and external struggles we face, pointed and direct. Though they are short and clear, I have spent hours indulging in certain poems, their words weighing heavy. I’ve read and reread them until my shock towards the raw, unadulterated realness subsides, leaving me that much more connected to my present state of mind.

In order to alleviate responsibility, we often find intangible concepts to take on our own difficulties. They act as surrogates to ourselves, relinquishing the blame of indecision and inactivity. If we leave the decision up to an omnipotent being, or “fate,” then we no longer are accountable. The reality of the matter is that we are the ones who must make the choices that propel us to where we want to be. We do not leave it in the hands of “the world” to guide us or shape us. This is much more difficult than the former. Working hard to achieve the job you want, the relationship you want to work, or the mindset you’d like to be in is not easy. It takes time, effort, and a realization that you want this change. The end result, the satisfaction received from knowing that it was your actions, you in your entirety, that got you there, is what makes it worth it.

– KK

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