Writing to Speak to the Dead

by Radhiyah Ayobami

I write as a way of speaking to my dead. I never consciously acknowledged this until I had a conversation with my mother recently. We were reminiscing about my grandmother and her deep orange-brown sweet potato pies, her way of sitting outside with a cigarette and cup of peppermint tea and heckling people from her porch—Hey man, why your head so little? It has been five years since she transitioned into the Great Big Yonder, and she still lives in our stories. At the end of our conversation, my mother said, I wish I could tell her how much I enjoyed her. I said, I’ll tell her. There was a pause.

Back when me and my mother lived in the same city, and sometimes even in the same house, I never said things like that to her. But I live in California now, 3,000 miles away from Brooklyn where I was born, and I’m old enough to have traveled a little bit, seen a little bit, and have a teenager with hair on his chin. I’m also finally brave enough to say who I am. I could make her less uncomfortable and speak into the pause. I could laugh my statement off as a joke, ask about her dog, and the weather in New York. Rainy? Windy? Snowing Yet? Weather is always safe. But I remain silent and finally she says, I don’t know what you’re talking about—I don’t talk to dead people. I say, But I do.

It’s hard for me to think about my ancestors as dead people—to me they’re just folks who live in the Great Big Yonder. I feel like I know them as well as people I see right in front of me, and this is probably my grandmother’s fault. The first stories I remember were hers, and all about growing up in a small town in Virginia, ten miles wide. Today, that town is an exit on the freeway that boasts one buffet, a discount store and a couple of budget motels. Back in her time, it was a town of farms that one drove through on the way to bigger and more exciting things. There she was raised, by parents who were sharecroppers, with her eleven brothers and sisters. (My grandmother would have never used a word like siblings. And since this is her piece just as much as it is mine, I won’t either.) I would never meet most of the people in her stories—they had long ago traveled to the Great Big Yonder. But when I sat at her feet as a little girl, playing with my dolls as she weaved stories, the people she conjured up were just as real as the neighbor next door who brought us over fat slices of homemade red velvet cake in Saran Wrap or the white-bearded preacher in his flowing robes that hollered and sweated and fell out every Sunday. The people in the story became real—and they were mine.

My grandmother’s stories were not child-friendly, and had she known about that concept I’m sure she wouldn’t approve. She was born in 1931, and black Southerners of that generation generally didn’t believe in hiding things from children. If it was grown folks business then a child knew better to question or comment, but survival for everyday living had to be shared. To hide the facts of the world might mean severe trouble or death in a land where they lacked human rights. So even before I started school, I knew how my great-grandmother, Mama Mary, had been snatched by a man when she was just a girl and had given birth to a baby boy who was later raised on an Indian reservation. And I could see what my grandmother called the boy’s hang-dog look as he crouched near the porch wanting to see his mother, while her new husband forbid it. I knew how Mama Mary had taken a child from the arms of a mother who was giving him away because she was going to jail for killing her husband—and how that little boy became one of the rowdiest uncles in the family. He wore the loudest suits, toted the longest rifles, drank the stiffest moonshine, and was always running from the law. I knew about the light-skinned and the dark-skinned side of the family—how the lighter side lived up on a hill and had a little land and looked down on the darker side, who were sharecroppers. I knew Mama Mary was magic—how she went around the town with her midwife bag and bundle of herbs grown in her garden, and she delivered babies of the poor and healed the sickly and had an extra plate for everyone—while her own son was chased from her door.

My grandmother didn’t do morals; she told her stories and you got what you got. Sometimes they were sorrowful and sometimes they were full of life. She loved to talk the years after the family migrated to Brooklyn and became settled. Back then, Brooklyn was a city where everybody was from down home and you could walk into anyone’s kitchen and smell pig feet boiling or be served a plate of fried chicken necks, backs and gizzards. Every woman kept an endless kettle of greens, white potatoes and fatback on the stove while Mahalia Jackson or Shirley Caesar wailed from a big floor stereo. Somewhere in each of those houses was the Holy Bible on its own stand, a shining picture of Martin, and the long-haired Jesus. All up and down Eastern Parkway were the organizations people had formed to survive, and when these folks weren’t busy surviving in the factories and rooming houses and storefront churches, they were celebrating—the down home folks had got citified. There were the dances kept by Daughters of the Eastern Star and the Masonic Temples, and regular old house parties and rent parties where folks propped speakers in the windows and the women in the house cooked down a full plate with a drink for a little pocket change.

And my grandmother was beautiful. Even though she wasn’t from the light-skinned branch of the family, she wasn’t what she considered ‘too dark’ and her eyes were hazel and changed color with the sun. Her hair was thick and black, and when straightened it curled limp and glossy over her shoulder as she stepped out in her sequined dresses and heels, splashed with rosewater. She was twenty years younger than her husband, and could read, write and mingle easily with anyone—and her husband had none of these abilities. He was the son of sharecroppers who had only done one year of school and had a Southern drawl that could be hard to understand. He knew two things well: hard work and drinking. And he did them every day. He also did things like mix up lye and boiling water in a bucket and threaten to kill his family, and drank up his wages so my grandmother had to take her small children downstairs to the neighbor lady and leave for work at the hospital early in the morning while the sky was still dark. Sometimes, softhearted male co-workers dropped her home, and her husband cursed at her and accused her of cheating. In this marriage, my grandmother stayed for decades.

My family would sit around the kitchen table and laugh as they told these stories. They would start, Remember when… and it was ultimately some story of a man in the family who hurt someone by stabbing, mixing up a deadly concoction or pushing someone through a plate glass window. (All true.) The women were also equal opportunity assaulters, but they were more subtle—they poisoned with a handful of leaves or a sprinkle of dust tossed into the stew. Or got hold of a few of your short hairs and burned a candle and Lord knows what could happen then. Some of the stories were funny to me, but whenever I heard about my grandmother and her husband, I wanted to cry. I couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to mix up something in a bucket to kill her when she laughed all the time and called everyone chile and shared everything she had in her sweet southern way. I wanted to know why the men in our lives were allowed to behave so badly. And because these weren’t questions I could ask my older relatives, I became a writer.

In my writing, I can ask the questions never would in real life. I can dream up the things I don’t know and make my own endings. I can let the women be warriors and still be loved by their men. I can imagine the women with their long rifles, aimed steady and sure, declaring they and their children won’t be abused. And I can see them sitting in the porch swing with their men at night, watching the stars and the long grass in the fields rustle.

Finally, I can give Mama Mary a happy ending. In my version, her teenage son lopes up the steps like her husband once did, and she peers out the window and sees him standing at the door. She places a lemon cake, warm from the oven, on the center of the table next to a butter knife and two shiny clean saucers. On the table, a pitcher of lemonade, chock full of fresh cut lemons and plenty sugar. The doorbell rings and her smaller children shuffle in the living room, ready to meet their big brother. She opens the door and finds herself looking at the young man with her face, and the family’s trademark honey eyes. The boy is thin, fidgety. Not knowing if he will be accepted. And all she can do is open her arms wide and say to him, Welcome. The story shifts, and we heal. This is why I write.

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radhiyah-blue-1 Radhiyah Ayobami is Brooklyn-born with Southern roots. She holds a B.A in Africana Studies from Brooklyn College, a MFA in Prose from Mills College, and has received awards from the New York Foundation of the Arts and the Sustainable Arts Foundation. Currently, she lives with her teenage son in Oakland, California, where she is at work on her first novel and the trees give her poems. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.

Things Ayurvedic Doctors Have Told Me

by Shahnaz Habib

One of my favourite things to do when I go home to Kerala is visit an Ayurvedic doctor. Ayurveda is an ancient medical science that originated in India. In America, Ayurveda is delicious-smelling creams at Whole Foods, plush spas, soy candles and massages in exotic sandy beaches that seem to exist only in travel magazines. In Kerala, Ayurveda is poor people’s medicine. It is wizened vaidyas in small, dark offices that smell of herbs and hard work. It is bitter brownish-black potions that you drink while pinching your nose to avoid smelling them. There are of course high-end resorts with tall walls that are laced with pieces of broken glass. But Ayurvedic clinics and hospitals tend to be matter-of-fact places where doctors tell you unpalatable truths. Over the years, I have heard some, and in this, its bleak view of life, Ayurveda is very much the fruit of Kerala soil. In my essay in AGNI 84, “A Letter to my Daughter About Palindromes,” I write about the rudeness of my mother-tongue, its can’t-do attitude, its tough love. When I visit Ayurvedic doctors, and they shake their heads and dispense their glum wisdom, I know I am home.

  • Here is your medicine. A bitter potion for the morning and a very bitter potion for the evening. Do this for six months. Wash your feet with warm water twice a day. Avoid eggs and tomatoes. That’s the first phase of the treatment.
  • You won’t be able to do it. You will eat tomatoes. I can just see from your face. You will not be cured.
  • The face says everything. What you say is nothing compared to what your face shows. You think this is superstition. It is, in fact, a science.
  • In the old days, the food was made at home, and the toilet was outside the house. Nowadays, the food is from outside and the toilet is inside the house.
  • Yes, we have room for patients. But I am requesting you, unless you are seriously ill, don’t get admitted. There are thousands of people who are sicker than you. They need us. If you want a massage, go to a resort.
  • This is what elephants eat in the forest when their stomach aches. They are smarter than us. If it is good for them, it is good for us.
  • Yes, this oil smells. It has a special herb that can be harvested only once in six years. That’s if you can find it at that time—in the mountains. We do not ask such a herb to smell nice.
  • This medicine will not work in America. It was meant to be used in the weather here. The weather is an important element of every cure.
  • You want an appointment this Wednesday? Can you come at 3 AM?
  • You think you are eating organic food. How can it be organic when so many people in the world cannot afford it? What is organic about that?

Why is such pessimism so medicinal? Several years ago, I was unemployed and some boy had broken my little heart and I was walking around the city feeling doomed in the way only twentysomethings can. Then one day, I was talking to a monk. We sat under a tree and I cried, “I just want to know that things are going to get better.”

“It will not get better.” he said. “This is how life goes. You suffer and you suffer. You might forget this boy and you might get a job, but then you will suffer about something else. Life is just an endless series of suffering. Do not expect it to get better.”

And immediately I felt better. Immediately. What? I didn’t have to be happy? I didn’t have to get better? Sadness and suffering is normal? So there was nothing wrong with my suffering? My monk friend was not lamenting that life was suffering. He was simply stating it as a fact. The tree we were sitting under, the bench we were sitting on, the green coat I was wearing, his ochre robes, the suffering in life: these were simply realities, to be accepted. It was not his job to make these facts more palatable.

When pessimism becomes the new optimism, you stop expecting life to treat you like a server you will be tipping heavily at the end of the meal. Instead of asking “why me?,” you start asking “why not me?” You feel the softness of the ground underneath; you notice that the river of melancholy is always flowing nearby.

But sometimes, the tyranny of niceness can mask this perspective. The banality of “It’s going to get better,” “I am fine, how are you?” “Everything happens for a reason,” and “This is great!” can make us forget that every little joy has to be deftly fished out of the river of melancholy as it flows by you quickly. This is why I savor the loving rudeness of Malayalam. When I visit Ayurvedic doctors, I know I will not hear polite nothings. When the person you are talking to does not feel obliged to be likable, your interaction with them can become more honest, more intimate. And so in my own writing, I try to resist the temptation to be likable. I am curious about the relationship that opens up between a writer and a reader when the writer’s goal is not niceness, likability, happiness.

A few weeks ago, during the Malayali harvest festival of Onam, I heard about a Kerala restaurant in the outskirts of New York, where they were serving the sadya, the traditional banana leaf feast. I gathered some friends, persuaded the only one among us with a car to drive, and off we went. I spent the whole ride worrying if the food would be any good, if this Wednesday afternoon wild goose chase into the suburbs would be a waste of time. When I walked into the restaurant, the chairs were arranged in a long row (as they would be at a sadya at a temple or wedding in Kerala), not facing each other the way it is in restaurants. “Can you rearrange those chairs around a table for my group?” I asked the server in Malayalam.

“Absolutely not,” he replied.

I knew then that the meal would be delicious.

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shahnaz-fidel-photo Shahnaz Habib has been published in Agni, Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, Elsewhere, the Harvard Divinity Bulletin, the Caravan, Afar, and other magazines. Shahnaz is the founding editor of Laundry, a literary magazine about fashion. Born and raised in Kerala, India, Shahnaz works as a press officer for the United Nations and as a creative writing instructor for Gotham Writers’ Workshop as well as Bay Path University. She has received awards and residencies from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Ford Foundation, I-Park Foundation, and the British Council. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.

Big Five: Our Top Blog Posts in 2016

Happy New Year! As we look back on 2016, we thought we’d revisit the posts on the blog that have drawn the most readers. Check them out if you haven’t read them yet!

#5: Designing Time: The Idea of Plot in the Lyric Essay
by Tyler Mills

Tyler Mills Headshot
“The lyric essay must transform our ‘erratic assemblage,’ moving them into meaning like the night sky that turns toward morning. The constellations change positions, and we pick out their patterns from the chaos of darkness. The crisis that spins everything toward the main thing is realization. Realization is what the mind does with these observations. Realization is what the mind does with the world. Realization is the heart of the lyric essay—what makes it move, what makes all of its light-riddled parts hold together.”


#4: Stanislavski in the Ghetto
by Maurice Carlos Ruffin

Maurice Carlos Ruffin Author Photo BW
“Someone much smarter than me once said that the act of writing while black is a political act. But the idea is broader than race. I believe the principle is true of all groups who don’t have access to the full panoply of human rights.”


#3: The Ultimate and Decisive “Is Poetry Dead” Article!
by David Ebenbach

David Ebenbach
“The ‘Is Poetry Dead?’ articles are coming. Often they show up in National Poetry Month (April), but they can appear at any time. Spring or Fall, day or night. Maybe you’re in the middle of writing poetry, or reading it, and you look away from the poem—only for a second, but still—and there, on social media, out from behind a curtain or something, jumps the article, screaming: IS POETRY DEAD IT’S TOTALLY DEAD ISN’T IT DON’T LIE IT’S DEAD I TELL YOU! DEAD! DEAD?


#2: Living the Process of Dying
by Kelly Cherry

“Writers who continue to write in old age—and as we live longer there are more and more such writers—often seek to write about death, which is not a pretty subject. Not a poetic subject. Except that it is a poetic subject by virtue of the poets writing about it. In other centuries many poets touched on the subject of death—we think particularly of Keats—but in our current century medicine stretches out the dying process, and poets are spending more of their lives living the process of dying. Dying is incremental, as a friend once pointed out to me when I exclaimed that I was falling apart piece by piece. ‘You don’t get it,’ he said. ‘That’s how we die. Piece by piece.’ Well, that woke me up.”


and…our most-read post of the year:

#1: Is Poetry True or False?
by Ben Purkert

“I now teach my own creative writing course spanning three genres: non-fiction, fiction and poetry. Invariably, poetry proves the hardest to define; it plays by a different set of rules, while seemingly breaking all of them. But if the formal conventions of poems can be tough to untangle, just as challenging is poetry’s relationship to lived experience. Non-fiction and fiction announce themselves on a basic level: the first is what happened; the second is what didn’t. So where does poetry stand, my students ask. Is it true or false?

Thanks, everyone, for a year of conversation, and we’ll see you in 2017!

Inspiration: Waltzing with Twain

by Phong Nguyen

It’s a dimension of writing we often ignore because it is something we cannot control. As writers, we often remind ourselves that all we can control is the number of hours we spend at our desks, composing or editing. Dwelling on inspiration is counter-productive, because it is outside of our control—a matter of mere chemistry, or luck.

Yet we can control what we read, what writers influence us, and to some degree we can control our own attitudes about that influence. We can partake in what Harold Bloom calls “the anxiety of influence”: an agon between the genius of our predecessors and our own original vision, where we painstakingly separate ourselves from the works and authors that have inspired us. Or we can embrace Jonathan Lethem’s “the ecstasy of influence”: partaking in the stream of creative afflatus, embracing the syncretistic nature of art-making, accessing the same spirit of play that animated our earliest encounters with story. This means ceding our claim to radical individualism—the notion that you or I represent an unprecedented unique vision that is divorced from all the voices that have come before it—and accepting a communal identity as writers who see themselves as a part of a continuum of language, of generations of tale-tellers, of an ongoing patchwork quilt of stories.

I used to make a habit of reading only the most non-intrusive literary voices while writing: Hemingway as opposed to Faulkner; Carver instead of Cather; Proulx instead of Proust. If a writer’s language is too distinctive, the theory goes, then their style will overwhelm the readers’, and the result will be a pale imitation of its source, rather than a sui generis “voice.” It’s cheating, in other words, to draw inspiration from the voice of others. Or worse, it’s a doomed enterprise from the start, because it will be the dreaded “D” word: derivative.

My first novel The Adventures of Joe Harper is a literary spin-off from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The relationship to its source material is shameless. The nature of the project is such that I could not wage a war in which I emerged triumphant over my influences (a la Harold Bloom), so by necessity, I warmed to my influences instead. I started out wrestling with Twain, and ended up waltzing with him. I read Twain copiously while I wrote The Adventures of Joe Harper, and I let his voice in.

My discovery in writing this novel was that inhabiting another writer’s voice was liberating, enthralling, and ultimately conducive to inspiration. But I soon found that dwelling in the author’s voice was not enough—for the purposes of this novel, I had to take possession of an individual character, one that was a hybrid invention of Twain’s and my own. I lived as Joe Harper for the duration of the writing, and frequently did not let the character go after the day’s writing was done. His voice and my voice fused to the point where I frequently felt as though I were channeling the story more than authoring it.

Several different authors seem to have simultaneously happened upon this revelation on their own: that “Method Acting” has a fruitful and useful analogue in writing. Earlier this year, The Independent featured an article by Thomas Hodgkinson citing Thomas Fink and Alexander Fiske-Harrison as the precursors to “Method Writing.” Also this year, the BBC did a write-up on Hodgkinson himself, whose novel Memoirs of a Stalker was written immersively. At least two writing teachers, Dick Bentley and Jack Grapes, maintain websites that promise writing results from what they independently title “Method Writing.” The earliest reference I came across to “Method Writing” was from filmmaker Quentin Tarantino, who in a 1998 interview with Creative Screenwriting wrote, “I joke about it, but I’m very much a method writer. I really become the characters when I’m writing them. I’ll become one or two of them more than others, I’m consistent that way. I become all of them when I’m writing, but I’ll become one or two when I’m not writing.”

All of these seem to me paths towards inspiration. Call them shortcuts if you would. If you remain open to its influence, dwelling for a while in another author’s voice can sometimes be the spark that fires the engine of inspiration. But inhabiting a character and letting him or her take control of the wheel is, for some, a necessary point of departure, after which one knows for sure that the story’s work is truly begun. There is still the hard work of laying words down on the page, but that work feels much more like just living your life when your character is, like the author herself, embodied and animate.

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phong-04c-1Phong Nguyen is the author of the novel The Adventures of Joe Harper (Outpost19, 2016) and two story collections: Pages from the Textbook of Alternate History (Queen’s Ferry Press, 2014) and Memory Sickness and Other Stories (Elixir Press, 2011). He teaches fiction-writing at the University of Central Missouri, where he currently serves as editor of Pleiades. His own stories have been published in more than 40 national literary journals, including Agni, Boulevard, Iowa Review, Florida Review, Massachusetts Review, Mississippi Review, and North American Review. Find out what he’s published in AGNI here.

How Do You Translate “Italy”?

by Wallis Wilde-Menozzi

Translating Elena Biagini’s poetry, one surrenders to sharp unexpected shadows in what often seems to be a domestic but not clearly Italian landscape. Given her interlocutors, Paul Celan and Emily Dickinson, in Biagini’s most recent book, Da una Crepa, the location arises inside literary borders where art’s importance is questioned and verified through time. Her language physically picks its way through dark, tight tunnels in our hearts and minds and disorients us with flashes from mirrors, and blessedly, shards of daylight. The nouns are concrete: soil, clods, spit, needles, glass, ears. Inside of dislocations, ears seeing, mouths listening, her language hosts significant events of thrilling strangeness.

In Italy today, outside of most cities, one finds plowed fields pebbled with clods. Modest size red or yellow tractors cross them. Irrigation systems arc jets of water catching light. Vine-terraced hills, seen from freeways, are rarely far from urban centers. Biagini’s clods have a place in modern Italian poetry. Soil is a real reference, as are clods, still wet from burials in the small walled cemeteries flanking every village. These words resonate differently if I think of them in English. The words mean more in Italian.

Translation may seem an act like a trucker’s transporting of goods from one place to another and delivering them, but what makes it fascinating and complicated are all the steps that remain unseen. Ultimately these are a highly conscious set of decisions about whose mind is being translated. Is place being shaped with the new destination in mind, or is it being constructed to reflect differences innate to its origin? Is soil the same word that Americans use: dirt?

Italian words, like the life I live here in Parma, brim with nuances, unstated innuendoes, double meanings that make words a complex game. Literature is rarely about truth as a straight path from a self. Literal is not an option. Words and the meanings attached to them are bound to the culture in which they developed. Italian language is its history: soil, painting, palace, Cathedral. Italian words have thickness, opaque “spessore.” In Italian, terra breathes. Like a matryoshka, earth, as a planet, is the first meaning of terra, then terra becomes soil. Clod adheres to its past lives. In English, these words, like agriculture itself, began sounding archaic by the mid-nineteenth century. Today in English, earth has spun off into Star Wars. Mother Earth is more likely to be called our planet. Its association with soil is gone. Clods are people, with no links to plowing, trenches or death. Thus the challenge.

Italian words are complex to touch, wonderful to hear and maddeningly difficult to bring across. Making choices about finding equivalents in another language, there is an inevitable sense of impossibility. A translation of a poem assumes its new body and rises, leaving behind some of the original complex reality of sound, shadings, double and often opposing meanings.

It is not always true, though, that the translation is a shadow of the original. More often, assuming that the matrix of the poem has been understood, it can be quite close, except for the sensuous, and often ambiguous economy of the original. We don’t necessarily have high regard for copies of works of art. Yet a good translation often is that which reflects the same patient willingness to learn and reproduce the original. There are many ways to discern if a copy is a good one or not. Many translators are writers themselves or become writers having done this apprenticeship.

The most recent suggestion about the identity of the Italian writer Elena Ferrante is that she is Anita Raja, a translator, whose Bulgarian mother immigrated to Naples after being interred in a German concentration camp. Raja translated the novels of Crista Wolfe from German into Italian. In an interview Raja describes how dwelling in Wolfe’s work in such an intimate way gave her insights into writing, structure, new understanding about how to approach fiction. The anonymity required of a translator, the willingness to serve another’s ideas and feelings, has this symbiotic kickback. Almost against one’s will one becomes an interloper—not a thief so much as someone who has allowed another mind to take over one’s own for a while. That totalizing effect is probably why I could never be a full-time translator. I empathized too much. If Dino Buzzati’s story led me into an airless trap, I got pneumonia. I wanted to write my own books. I didn’t want always to be a vessel carrying someone else’s voice.

Yet, if Raja is Elena Ferrante, she made anonymity a necessary condition for putting her books into the world. Asserting her need to write her own material seems physiological to me. As a professional translator she lived a mental life as an invisible presence. The ambiguous serving attitude of a scribe or one who channels are part of her way of handling words. When it came her turn to write, perhaps she felt strange using words without that specialized, complex angle of symbiotic identification or eavesdropping. I don’t mean to push an esoteric point. It is easy to imagine more practical reasons for her mysterious decision to take cover. However, if she is the sole author of books so closely reflecting class, women, corruption in Naples, maybe she didn’t know how to change the vicarious part of knowing things, the double vision. Too exposed and naked as a writer, she needed Elena Ferrante in order to write as a translator of herself.

The writer and translator Tim Parks and I share common concerns as writers in English living permanently in Italy. Occasionally we exchange emails. There are differences. He is British, male, and extraordinarily productive. I am American, a woman, and, in that lens, interpreted as everything from “a burning cauldron of a mind” to “a whiner about the lack of washing machines.” Our last email was about Jhumpa Lahiri’s decision to write a book in Italian and have it translated into English by a well-known professional. Both of us had entertained the idea to write in Italian at one time or another. Both of us had rejected its results, finding that our memories, our sense of self, resided in the English language. Our power is greater.  The experience of living in Italy allows us to feast on abundance at the richness of an Italian table. We are neither guests nor outsiders. Looking among the hand-written place cards, it could be no other way. Our names are written in English.

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piola1Wallis Wilde-Menozzi has published two memoirs: Mother Tongue, An American Life in Italy (North Point Press) and The Other Side of the Tiber, Reflections on Time in Italy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). She has published a novel, Toscanelli’s Ray, with Cadmus Editions. Her poetry, essays and translations have appeared from Granta to Kenyon Review. “The Oneness of Music,” originally published in AGNI 53, was included in Best Spiritual Writing 2002. Find out what else she’s published in AGNI here.

Mural Speaks!

by Ben Miller

For two years I’ve been on an unusual mission. It involves collecting translations of the famous American poem “The Red Wheelbarrow” (William Carlos Williams) in each of the 140 plus languages currently spoken in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The effort is part of the preparation for a duel event in Sioux Falls and in New York City celebrating the often-unpublicized diversity of the urban Midwest.

Translators of all ages and skill levels—located anywhere—are welcome to participate in this public art project designed to build community across boundaries of many sorts—regional, economic, generational. To learn more about the genesis of the project, click here.

The project was inspired by my appreciation for the Meldrum Park mural created in 2013 by artist Dave Loewenstein and the children and staff of nearby Whittier Middle School. Each morning the seamless flow of mural faces and flags stands tall against the day’s Dakota weather—blue sky or storm clouds. It foists forth a bright vision of America as a place of harmony and rich cultural exchange.

Are we defined as a nation by our differences and divisions or by the greatness of our commonalities as human beings? Will we let our lives be debilitated by the poison of paranoia or urged forward by the healthy aspirations of freedom?

Though it might seem otherwise, these are not questions a discordant American election year has minted afresh. These are queries all people, in all epochs, have confronted and then answered. Questions that—whether we know it or not—shape every moment of our every interaction with loved ones, co-workers and anyone else with whom which we share offices, store aisles, sidewalks, roads.

When I think of these questions, I recall September 14, 2001, when I, and my wife, and millions of other New Yorkers, returned to our desks as World Trade Center rubble burned downtown. The quiet of the subway train. Its faces of all colors in pain, and how that hurt did not inspire violence but the opposite—words of gentle kindness as commuters shuffled in and out of doors at stops. “Take care,” we chanted to the strangers on either side of us. “Take it easy.”

We were armed with what? Our humanity alone. And it was somehow enough to carry us forward through that difficult day, and the many to follow.

The current translation count stands at 98.  These translations come from as far away as Kurdistan and Japan and Bangladesh, and from as near as the Black Sheep Coffee House located behind our home on West 10th Street. The youngest translator was a seventh grader at Edison Middle School in Sioux Falls last year.

To this point the project has progressed without a cent of formal funding (although staging the events will require some small measure of financial support). I have gathered the wide gamut of original translations via personal outreach and Internet postings, weaving—poet by poet—a cultural literary tapestry. I am particularly cheered by the fact that often the contributor from afar is a person who was previously oblivious to the existence of South Dakota but now knows otherwise—that there is such a state and in it, a city welcoming of art and artists.

A little over fifty languages still need to be covered before the events can take place in Manhattan and in Sioux Falls.

To participate:

  1. Pick a language from the list below and consult the poem’s English version. (Or send us a translation in any language you like: we accept duplicates in order to give readers alternate versions to choose from.)
  2. Put pen to paper or fingers to keys. Remember: perfection is not the aim here. Let your personal response to the poem’s images, and spirit, guide the work when word choice isn’t obvious.
  3. E-mail results to muralspeaks@gmail.com, along with a three-sentence biography, and the name of your favorite poet in the language you picked. This information will be included in the program to create a global bibliography of poetry that event attendees can take away and spend years exploring.


The Red Wheelbarrow

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

William Carlos Williams (1883-1963)

LANGUAGES: European: Croatian. African: Acholi, Akan, Avokaya, Bari, Burundi, Erapice, Grego, Gurage, Hiadi, Kabila, Krahn, Kuku, Lango, Lakoka, Lango, Luganda, Mai Mai or Bantu, Mandinka, Mawo, Mondari, Moru, Murule, Ndogo, Nubiar, Nuer, Nyambara, Nyangwana, Oduk, Ogoni, Pojulu, Rafica, Ruel, Shilluk, Sholuk, Tekamah, Toknath, Zande. Asian: Bhutanese, Cambodian, Cantonese, Dari, Gujarati, Hindi, Lergdie, Nepali. Central and South American: Kiche, Mayan. North American: Ojibwe or Chippawa, Dakota, Nakota, Omaha, Ponca, Winnebago.

(Translations donated are for community events, and will not be published in any form. The author retains all rights: use is strictly joyful and informal.)

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anmural1Ben Miller, 53, proudly lives in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, with his wife, the poet Anne Pierson Wiese. His prose has appeared in Best American Essays, AGNI, Kenyon Review, Raritan, Yale Review, New England Review, Antioch Review and many other journals. He is the author of River Bend Chronicle (Lookout Books) and the recipient of awards from the National Endowment for the Arts (fellowship), the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University (fellowship) and the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America (research grant). Find out what he’s published in AGNI here.





by Laura Kolbe

I live most days in ritualized chaos, a condition hardly unique to medical residents, though perhaps the profession renders the tumult more starkly. I bike through Jamaica Plain and Mission Hill at 6, sliding between grocery trucks and Green Line trolleys. Every two-hundredth ride or so, I have an accident and fall over the handlebars like a fish to an ice chest. Most days I don’t. I pick out my white coat and stethoscope from the polyester haystack in the corner of a windowless computer room near the top of the hospital. I make my pager available for messages, and immediately the pages start, asking for medicines I hadn’t thought to order, kinds of food and drink I’d previously restricted, nudges to the front of the line for MRIs or CTs.

The least of these pages is instructive: other people are full of desires; they feel the snug, insistent wrap of their bodies as I do; they are extending themselves. I don’t like asking for things, and I assume most people don’t either. But here we necessarily are: quivers of punctuation, exclaiming and asking, glancing into each other. The pager beeps the same for men and women, whether what’s wanted is Tylenol or chest compressions. No one, thank God, is asked to set his or her parcel of need on a scale. I see all my patients before formal rounds; I hear them breathe and I squeeze their ankles for edema. I apologize for my cold hands.

I write when I can, which is more often than I would have believed before starting my medical residency. When someone skips her appointment in my outpatient clinic. When a lecturer is ten minutes late. When I come home at 2 am from the “twilight” shift, too sharpened by the night’s work and the bike-sprint home to sleep right away. While my boyfriend revises his novel; while our dog pushes a plush monkey into my non-dominant hand. I write on my phone, my palms, on duplicate EKGs. I should form a notebook-habit but I’m superstitious of it all drying up, the way weather does for the bearers of umbrellas. Plus I like to be a shade disastrous and iffy, when so much of my day is a clench towards control.

Little wonder that I’ve been drawn to series as a way of repeating the discontinuous, or continuing the unrepeatable. I started the “Imagining Marriage” series in my final year of med school. It was, at first, a chat with Marianne Moore; a way to talk to partners past and present without, you know, talking; and a place to confess and prod some of my more morbid and self-involved identifications (in the first poem: the cosmonauts of Tarkovsky’s Solaris, so deeply in exile from reality that they’re hypnotized by paper strips pinned to a space station airshaft, which rustle like a real backyard—c’mon, Laura, ICU shifts aren’t that long…). I went on, talking to the weirder scenes in War and Peace, to my childhood love of frontier tales, talking to my gluttonies, my intoxicants. Why do I continue to need others, and should I feel angry or grateful for this sticky dependence? The order of the poems changes as I find out where the story is going, so all numbers are provisional. When the arc feels wrong, I shuffle. When the arc feels right, I shuffle too, for the goad of discomfort.

Lately I’ve been doing the same in fiction, following a young medical student named Frances who’s more than a little Faustus. Like him, she wants to know everything; like always, the world’s holding out on her. She’s both meaner and more thoughtful than I am in real time. By putting her together sidelong and hopscotch, in unstably-sequential short stories that sift through shards of her larger story, I’ve made something smarter, more rancorous than I know how to do all at once.

Could I ever write a book-length poem, a novel? Maybe I’ll learn to stay put, attend to my breathing, to fix myself in some less slapdash sense of the present and glide calmly from there. I have to say, I’m not seeing it.  Right now it feels good to jump and pivot. One of the cliché admonishments among doctors is, “Don’t just do something; stand there.” The idea is that nine times out of ten, the sustained thought is more helpful than the scurry and the panoply of tests. Which is true, for humans healing humans. But when it’s my writing on the table—let’s order all the bloodwork, let’s turn it inside out, let’s tinker piecemeal at all the odd hours of the day and night.

Our emerging dire political moment requires, of course, all of the above: attention and sustenance, the dignity of the long and slow-fleshed thought—but also, yes, speed of response, speed of cry, the scattershot heat of the old stove that warms unevenly—here a spark against glass, there a blue coal rattling unkempt. I don’t know how I, we, will do all this with even mere adequacy, much less grace. There is altogether too much to learn and to do. But I don’t see a way to opt out without abandoning the first principles of poetry and medicine both. Find the pulse. Go where the blood is. Brave the surprise.

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Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbHLaura Kolbe’s poems have appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, The Awl, The Cincinnati Review, The Colorado Review, The Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. Her fiction, essays, and criticism have appeared in Bookforum, The Literary Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. When not writing, she works as a resident physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. Another section of “Imagining Marriage” appears in the forthcoming Yale Review. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.