Dick Talk

by Mark Dow

The decision to cut the dick was a no-brainer, and it might have been the wrong decision.

After my poem “With” appeared in The Threepenny Review thirty years ago—it’s the first poem in my new book Plain Talk Rising—a reader found my phone number and called to say she liked the poem and that it was brave of me to publish it. I didn’t agree, and I don’t recall asking what she meant, but I assumed she was referring to the fact that the poem’s protagonist (all right, author) describes rolling onto his side, in bed as a teenager, “to hide the erection” from his mother, who is there to wake him. The reader/caller was also interested in the biographical note, which said that I was working at a Boston-area school for autistic and developmentally-disabled children.

One of the “low functioning” children was a pre-pubescent twelve-year-old boy with the mind and language of a five-year-old. Or so we thought. One day when the girls and boys were separated, he asked me why some words for “private parts” were “appropriate” while others were not. I said something about adults needing to make rules. I was in my mid-twenties. I didn’t try to address connotation, much less tone, something I still struggle to characterize. “Tone” doesn’t refer to quite the same thing in music as it does in poems, but in both, I think, mastery of it is what separates the men from the boys.

My friend Laura Wittner, Argentine poet, sent me this message while translating “Perforated Evening,” which is also in Plain Talk Rising:

“I always have this problem when I need to translate ‘dick.’ Because here, in rioplatense Spanish, let us say, we have ‘pito’ (which sounds childish, really, it’s what little kids say, but also some adults—I’ve heard my dad say it once or twice), and ‘pija,’ which is what we adults say, though not all of us, because it can sound offensive in a way I don’t think ‘dick’ does. For instance, I always said ‘pija’ but when I met _________ I found out he almost never said it and can’t help but show some disgust when I say it. . . .

“Of course there are other words, like ‘verga,’ which is what I ultimately use in translations because it is understood everywhere. But, for me, it is even more gross (!) than ‘pija.’

“So. Does “dick” have at least a little element of grossness?”

Laura went with “pija.” In the English—“piss trickling from an old man’s dick”—the word was never in question.

In “With,” after several years, “erection” seemed problematic. “Hard-on” and “boner” were no better. But, really, the issue was larger than the single word. Readers of the earlier version might hear the testing of tonal boundaries, impossible to show clearly with excerpts:

Less often (more often) her hand on my chest,
to my shoulder then onto my back as I
rolled onto my side, knees up, then stomach,
to hide the erection, wanting her
or myself to not exist . . .
and always the smell, lipstick and coffee . . .
Hello again object of my hesitant infatuation . . .

Eventually I removed the word, the explicitness, and a couple of stanzas, including the lines now shown here. Was it out of embarrassment that I hid the hiding, or was I right about the faulty tone? Or are these the same question? I’m not the best judge. Maybe I didn’t make the poem better or worse but simply made an “alternate take,” a possibility and practice that always intrigued me on jazz albums.

Writing words which refer to things is one thing. Revising the words is another thing. And reflecting on reasons for the revisions is several more.

Johnson, willie, pee-pee, cock, prick, schmuck; genitals, Genesis, genius, pathogen, gentle, engender.

Plain Talk Rising opens with “With,” as a boy retreats from the mother’s touch. It closes with the prose “Water and Light,” in which a father-to-be is sent back home through time, to where someone snipped a clipping from his clapper just to show that he was hers.”

“I was a body inside of my body,” says one narrator in these poems.

I think he thought that the appropriate words might bring the two together. I can’t be sure of that either, though. It seems like he’s still hiding something.

###

Note: The Threepenny Review archives are available through JSTOR and the magazine’s website. “Perforated Evening” first appeared at Fascicle; “Water and Light” appeared on Word Riot. The latter two websites are, at this writing, defunct or on hiatus. I am grateful to all three editors: Wendy Lesser, Tony Tost, and Jackie Corley, respectively. Here’s a link to a PDF of the first version of “With.”

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FullSizeRender Mark Dow’s Plain Talk Rising was a finalist in the Colorado Prize, New Issues, and Yale Series competitions, and a semi-finalist for the St. Lawrence Book Award from Black Lawrence Press. Dow is also the author of American Gulag: Inside U.S. Immigration Prisons (California). He teaches English at Hunter College in New York. See what he’s published in AGNI here.

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The Gospel of Grief & Grace & Gratitude

by Melanie Rae Thon

Love is life ~ All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love ~ Everything is, everything exists, only because I love ~
~ Leo Tolstoy

Writing, like prayer, must be a daily practice. For almost thirty years I’ve kept what I once called a “Book of Wonders” and now, in my age of awe, refer to as “The Gospel of Grief & Grace & Gratitude.” I have no rules or purpose: my apocryphal gospel includes songs of loons and visions of owls, flowering saguaros, hungry grizzlies—the last words of my father’s last days—my sister Wendy playing Beethoven on our grandmother’s piano. A hurricane splits trees, opening a smell deep and dense as the earth’s consciousness cracked open. My brother kneels to wash and bandage the open sores on my father’s feet. At twilight, soft copper light holds my sister Laurie as if it has chosen her above all others. Yes, we are safe now. A grasshopper leaps in the lake, and my mother calls me down to the dock to save him.

New words and phrases—poiesis, indolent infection, fastidious microbe—bring bemusement and revelation: words themselves amplify what I am able to perceive in the world. Photographs illuminate the gospel; lines of half-remembered poetry enter: the tulips are too excitable. It is spring here, not winter; still, I am nobody. I have never been so pure. I am aware of my heart: it opens and closes its bowl of red blooms out of sheer love for me. Long ago Sylvia Plath’s lines pierced me with intimate despair: in my age of gratitude & grace, tulips blaze gold and orange, immaculate white, deepest violet: there is no happiness like mine: two rogue red tulips bloom at the edge of the creek: they enclose and unclose me, open my most secret self, petal by petal. . . . Even now, opened by love, I know if it be their wish to close me, i and my life will shut very beautifully, suddenly, as when the heart of these flowers imagines the snow carefully everywhere descending.

The gospel feeds my life as a writer, teacher, sister, friend, daughter—as a customer at the grocery store, a stunned patient walking the corridors of a hospital—I am all; I am nothing—just one more transient being trying to understand infinities of sorrow, learning to surrender, hoping to find peace in this unbidden surge of co-passion with the afflicted everywhere. We are vast and devastated by and by. A PICC line from arm to heart opens me petal by petal, cell by cell to the broken world. I know it is a mistake to call the light tender, but not wrong now to feel its indiscriminate love touching my mouth, the bones of my ears, my heart, my fingers.

In my age of grief, I am unknowing of everything.

One brutal Boston winter, I filled the pages with blizzards and birds, a sculpture of starved horses, my frigid attic room, a hundred homeless children. They entered my dreams, cold hands on bare skin, and I tried to tell their stories. I needed to imagine how they survived on the street while I struggled to stay warm in my apartment. Pigeons flapped at my tiny window. The snow melted and froze, and another storm roared in from the Atlantic.

The Kingdom is here, on Earth, waiting for us to step into it. Ansel Adams says: I believe in beauty—I believe in stones and water and air and soil—people and their future and their fate. If we believe in these things, then the love and contemplation required to evoke them for our readers becomes sacred. Art is an Affirmation of Life—not only our separate lives, but our lives within the endless body of all living things, our lives as they are connected to stones and clouds and wolves and spiders.

Write every day for the rest of your lives! Fill your pages with fiddlers swaying in the wind and white roses waving. Don’t forget the lizard with its crooked tail or the cactus wren nesting in your mother’s teapot. Eat poetry! Let Ink run from the corners of your mouth! Lift lines you love, photographs you’ve taken. Make a cento, an erasure, a collage. Draw what you’ve seen or not seen whether or not you think you are good at it.

Intoxicated joy teaches us to pay attention. All there is to thinking is seeing something noticeable which makes you see something you weren’t noticing which makes you see something that isn’t even visible.

I see an ant carrying a dead moth, and another one lifting the bleached leg of a crawdad. What is my strength compared with yours? I see a whole tribe of ants, each one holding a single pink petal. They move in a meandering line across the sidewalk. Some carry their blossoms straight above their heads, floral crowns of rose and purple. The petals are five times the size of the ants and seem to float around them. That’s what I notice first, floating petals—and then, those astonishing beings beneath them! I follow the ants down a slope to discover they are covering their little hill with torn flowers. I don’t know why—do the petals keep the anthill moist and cool, safe from the blazing sun of Arizona—are the ants drunk with sweet scent—enchanted by the silky texture?

Years later, a vision comes to me at the edge of sleep, an utter profusion of flowers—bed, floor, walls, ceiling—each petal glowing as if lit from inside, so luminous they cannot hold their shapes: they dissolve into particles of light until they are only fiery sparks surrounded by vast darkness.

Then bliss comes, and sleep takes me.

I realize I have had my own vision of Rabbi Luria’s description of the beginning of the universe: these sparks of holy light are hidden in everything and everyone, everywhere in our shattered world. It is our blessing and our joy to recognize and restore them.

Notes :

Taking many liberties in phrasing, ellipses, and punctuation, I have lifted and transformed lines from Sylvia Plath’s “Tulips” (the tulips are too excitable . . . ); Mark Strand’s “Eating Poetry”; (there is no happiness . . . Eat poetry . . . Let ink run . . . ); “somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond” (they enclose and unclose . . . if it be their wish . . . i and my life . . . ) by e.e. cummings; and Michael Martone’s “4 Fe + 302 —› 2 Fe203” (we are vast and devastated . . . ). Paul Maclean’s words (All there is to thinking . . . ) are quoted by his brother Norman Maclean in A River Runs through It.

In The Anthropology of Turquoise, Ellen Meloy keeps what she calls a “Gospel of Wrath,” which has led me and my students to contemplate titles for our own apocryphal gospels.

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Melanie Rae by Andi editedMelanie Rae Thon’s most recent books are Silence & Song, The 7th Man, and The Good Samaritan Speaks. As a teacher and writer, she is devoted to the celebration of diversity from a multitude of human and nonhuman perspectives, shattering traditional limits of narrative consciousness as she interrogates the repercussions of exile, slavery, habitat loss, genocide, and extirpation in the context of mystery and miracle, the infinite wonder of cosmic abundance. Originally from Montana, Melanie now lives in Salt Lake City, where she teaches in the Creative Writing and Environmental Humanities programs at the University of Utah. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.

Working in Murky Territory: Four Questions with David Yee

Grace Yun for AGNI: Here is a life lesson from your story “Donut Man” (AGNI online here): “You know the best way to lose something, Beak? Let someone know you have it to lose.” Do you think this statement also pertains to the process of writing (e.g., withholding information from the reader)?

How I see the absence in narration, specifically in Donut Man, is an extension of “show vs tell.” For instance, when the father sleeps in the car, leaving the son to sell everything by himself. The narration almost defends the father, describing his exhaustion, explaining the hours the father works. Yet, the narrator couples every moment of luxury between the father and son with a scene describing how bad things are in the mother’s household. I was trying to insinuate the charisma of the father, how he can be irresponsible and yet the other characters in the story continue to believe in him, to trust him, to love him.

GY/AGNI: What is it like writing about your personal relationship with your father? Are the physical details from your childhood the most salient or your emotional state?

My father is my buddy in that I have no ill will toward him. We aren’t very close. If I hurt his feelings by telling a story from my perspective it would cause me little pause. I don’t feel the stories are unkind.

I submit real stories as fiction because it allows me to more fully utilize an emotional memory rather than a factual one. My father never called me “Beak” but I always felt like he saw my mother in me, maybe not physically, but in how she was raising me, and treated me with some distance accordingly. I find a lot of inspiration in Stuart Dybek who writes often true accounts as fiction. I wouldn’t say I embellish the details of a story, rather I streamline the truth to make a better narrative. The day I sold us out of donuts was not this day in my memory—the first time I sold by myself. But the days of our visitation, as short-lived as they were, often blend together.

I don’t mind working in a murky territory between the two genres. I’d also have no issue submitting this as nonfiction. Nothing that happened in the story is untrue of my life. I usually submit based on the tone of narration. If it is more narrative, like this story, than I submit it as fiction. Which is not to say that every piece of fiction I’ve written is factual, but typically, there is some emotional memory in my life that I’m trying to emulate in a story.

The physical details from this time are what bring me to the page. I can recall vividly odd sensations from this time. The smell of the cleaning product. The brown ottoman he kept in the middle of the van as a “backseat.” The way his voice pitches when he yells. I don’t recall as clearly how I felt. I remember always waiting for him to show up. I remember feeling a sense of adventure. Those things are easier to make up, though, which is why I often submit mostly true stories as fiction. Real life is often boring. Getting to give the details, the feelings some direction make it a story.

GY/AGNI: Has your father or mother read your stories? 

My mom is a huge supporter of my work, even more so now that I spend most of my time bartending. I know she reads everything, even some of the stories I try and hide from her because they are about moments in my life that hurt her feelings. I’m not sure if my dad does. I don’t think he knows most of the time when I get something published. He takes a lot of morphine, prescribed.

GY/AGNI: Do you like donuts? What’s your favorite flavor?

Everyone likes donuts, even if they don’t eat them regularly, which I don’t. At the time this story was about, I could eat an entire dozen Krispy Kreme glazed, but there is honestly this saccharine smell to old garbage that reminds me of them and vice versa. When I was a kid, the lemon-filled ones would be what I’d call my favorite. Now, I think I like buttermilk/cake-style.

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David E. Yee Author PhotoDavid E. Yee is an Asian American writer whose work has appeared in American Short Fiction, Seneca Review, Gulf Coast Online, and elsewhere. In 2017, he won the New Ohio Review Fiction Contest, judged by Colm Tóibín, as well as the Press 53 Flash Contest judged by Jeffrey Condran. He holds an MFA in fiction from the Ohio State University, where he was associate editor of The Journal. He lives in Columbus, Ohio. See what he’s published in AGNI here.

 

 

 

GYGrace Yun, an intern at AGNI, is from Los Angeles. She is in the BU fiction program. Her grandmother is her muse.

The Damage Done

by Greg Bottoms

I knocked on my grandmother’s tattered screen door. This was in Hampton, Virginia, in 2002. She had asked me to visit.

The door spring was broken, and the hook was undone, so the door whapped against the scarred, paint-chipped frame after each knuckle rap. There were small holes in the lower part of her screen, as if a child had poked through it with a pencil, or someone had held the cherry of a cigarette against it.

I didn’t know my grandmother very well. This was my dead father’s mother. I saw her once, maybe twice a year once I was a teenager and after, and then usually only for an hour or so around Christmas or Easter. My father had grown up at the edge of poverty. His parents fought. His mother drank. His father was a schemer, later depressed, later dead of a heart attack or stroke (no autopsy) and left to rot for a couple of days in this small, brick house while his mother and father had been briefly separated. My father found his father’s body, dealt with the ambulance, the police, the coroner, the funeral home, the grave, the headstone, his mother’s grief, his own. But he never talked about it. He was like that. A product of dysfunction, distrust, precariousness. He turned this all into a tough-guy veneer. “John Wayne,” my mother called him. The Marlboro Man. Tragedy, strain, and painful memories had partially, in an unspoken way, estranged my father from his mother, even though we lived barely ten miles away. He loved her but he had no faith in her. He became the parent and she became the child.

So I had never had a serious or intimate conversation with my grandmother as an adult. I was nervous about her invitation.

I called out hello, looking into the crosshatched, dark gray of the house, seeing the ghostly outlines of her worn furniture.

I stepped away from the door, turned and looked around, scanning the neighborhood. Small ranch houses, brick or vinyl-sided, lined the street as far as I could see in one direction and to a stop sign and a busy thoroughfare in the other. It was spring, new leaves on all the tall, front-yard trees. Two young teenage boys and a girl with the hood of her sweatshirt pulled over her head were skateboarding off a steep curb over and over again, trying some trick, something new they couldn’t figure out. I thought about how I had been a decent skateboarder, spending hours and hours in a halfpipe, my head filled with the magnified, throaty roar of wheels on wood. The kids’ skateboard made a loud crack noise every time the deck hit the weathered asphalt, and my eyelids involuntarily blinked like doors slamming.

“Hello,” my grandmother called from behind me. I turned, and there she was materializing out of the dark like a figure in a Polaroid to open the screen door. I stepped inside, smiling.

She was in her seventies then, but she looked older. Her face was puffy, as if she’d been crying only minutes ago, eyelids red and tumescent, though she was smiling wide now. She had newly dyed hair—a deep black. She wore a teal leisure suit. She had already told me earlier on the phone that this was her bingo night, that she’d only have a couple of hours to talk.

She stepped to me suddenly in the small foyer, a gesture that belied her fragile appearance, reaching up and putting a hand on each of my shoulders, staring for a long moment at my face. She pulled me to her and held me as if I had risen from the dead, as if I was not myself but my dad, without the killing cancer, the mouth ulcers, the skeletal frame.

I had written a story in the late 90s about my father, which was about 80% true, if you can quantify truth in that way (or in any way), or really it was a stylized essay, with heavy narrative elements and a fragmented structure and time jumps (I was overly interested in artistic form then). In this story I recounted an anecdote about my father having to go help out with his mother when she was found drunk and barely conscious in a neighbor’s front yard one night. She was an alcoholic, recovering and relapsing throughout her life, but significantly better and stable during the time of this visit. And she had been, decades before her summons to me, twice temporarily committed to Eastern State Hospital—“the asylum,” as everyone I knew called it—for life-threatening substance abuse and odd and erratic behavior.

In my story—which included my own aestheticized version of a real moment in an old woman’s life—I aired all this dirty laundry like an eager would-be author fiddling with material. And, for effect, for some kind of symbolic resonance, I included a true but devastating story about how she once killed my father’s favorite pet and fed it to him. Then I published it in a well-regarded but probably little-read literary journal. It was not directly about my grandmother insofar as she was not the main subject; it was an elegy of sorts for my father and his tough, hard, sometimes tragic, and too-short life, ended by lung cancer at the age of 52.

I knew few people would see it, fewer still would read it start to finish. But I had needed to write it. So I was happy when I heard the piece would be listed in a “best of” anthology and even happier when I was informed it would be reprinted in another. Still, I thought it would be ignored, even anthologized and in wider circulation.

I was young, and prose was an art and craft I approached with religious zeal, much more seriously than I do now, since I am older, make my living teaching, and have a realistic understanding of how little what I write has any impact on the world. I have become more minimalist in style as I have become more minimalist in ego, in life (I don’t mean this as a defeatist statement; I find it all quite relieving, a quasi-Buddhist peace with what is).

Anyway, my grandmother had an eighth-grade education, was a recovering and relapsing and recovering alcoholic, as I said, and lived in a world a million miles away from literature and writing and the English degrees I had pursued. Or so I thought. It didn’t occur to me, not even for a second, that she could have read my story when I sat down on her couch. I had used her, turned her into a character, which alters the truth of a person for some more singular narrative purpose. The ethical thicket of the way I represented her burbled beneath my mental surface, if you will, but it didn’t occur to me that I would have to face it.

She wanted to talk about my father. She wanted to talk about being a mother—the joy, the pain, the pressure. She sat down in a blue, plush chair across from me—so frail, so wrinkled—leaning forward, her leisure suit almost blending into the upholstery. There was a clear effort to be as close to me as possible, as if to emphasize what she wanted to say, our connection, I don’t know.

“He loved that little duck,” she said—no set up, no prelude. “I think your dad was ten or eleven. Called the duck Pete. Pete the duck. He found him one day at the pond with a broken wing and brought him home. Had a little pen out back that I helped him make with chicken wire I had for keeping rabbits out of my vegetable garden.” She paused, looked me in the eye, waited to see if I would say anything. My heart was beating a little faster, and I could feel my face was blushing. I said nothing.

She went on (and of course this is remembered, recreated, and fictionalized dialogue). “Well, I drank back then, and I know you know that.” A pause, a long look. My incrimination. “Anyway, my husband, John, your granddaddy, dead long before you were born, of course, got on me about not having any Sunday dinner. He was real country, you know, and he expected a Sunday dinner in the early afternoon and he could be mean. We didn’t have a good marriage, I’m sorry to say. Fought all the time. I was angry, fed up, and I got to drinking, and I went out back and got your daddy’s little Pete out of the pen. I snapped his neck like I used to with the chickens back on the farm when I was a girl. Your daddy ate Pete that afternoon none the wiser. He had a great Sunday dinner with his father grimacing at the head of the table, not saying one word. Then I told him what he was eating. He went right into a crying fit, right over his plate, weeping and carrying on. I swear that boy cried for three days.”

I sat very still, attentively listening, holding my expression as blank as possible, as if this was a story I was hearing for the first time.

She waited to see if I would say something now about an incident I had turned into a scene and which she had obviously read. It would have been natural to ask a question. One would expect a question, some comment, offered here. I didn’t. My silence told the story of my guilt. Then she said, “I’ve always felt real bad about that. I loved your daddy and I’m ashamed I did that. I’m ashamed of a lot of things. If I could take it back, take that day away, not hurt him, I would. I certainly would. I was his mother and I loved him. I want you to know that. That’s what I wanted to tell you, and I needed to say it to you in person. I needed to look at you.”

For months after this meeting, I was haunted by shame to the point of depression and mental paralysis, her words—and even more her red, wet eyes—on an excoriating tape loop through my thoughts.

A few years later, after she died suddenly of undiagnosed late-stage colon cancer, and after two of my cousins, clearly also readers of my work, refused to even look at me at her funeral, I started a new story meant to redeem her. The first line was: “I knocked on my grandmother’s tattered screen door.” But the damage was done. I never finished it.

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AGNI GBGreg Bottoms is the author of seven books, including the memoir Angelhead and the travel book The Colorful Apocalypse: Journeys in Outsider Art, both published by the University of Chicago Press. See what he’s published in AGNI here.

Trying to Make Sense of an Absence: A Question with Evanthia Bromiley

AGNI: Your story “If the City Falls” (AGNI 85) focuses on characters who are experiencing the same thing—a bombing—while keeping them apart for most of the story. It’s such a striking choice. I think the choice serves the story well, but why did you choose to isolate the characters from one another?

Bromiley: I think it has something to do with the inefficacy of language in times of trauma.

During World War II, my grandmother was interned at a work camp in Germany. Whatever happened in those years—and I know very little about her, can only surmise—drove her crazy. After the war, she had my mother, but she couldn’t care for her; she abandoned her. My mother and her brothers were split up and given to relatives to raise. That’s something my mother has never been able to forgive.

I never met my grandmother, but I remember the day she died; we heard over the phone. I must have been ten, about the same age she left my mom. The phones still had those long, loopy cords, and my mom kept wrapping that cord around her wrist. My grandmother was asking her to come, please come, to her bedside. And my mom couldn’t. She said no; she didn’t say much else. Afterwards my grandmother died, and the day went on as usual. Judaism, traditionally, is matrilineal: every child of a Jewish mother is considered a Jew. Yet in my family, there’s this rift in the maternal line.

So I think something of this absence made its way into the center of “If The City Falls”—invention in place of fact, feeling in place of memory. Your question makes me wonder if rifts like these open in the absence of words. We need words to express these things, with each other, I think. A lost story is dangerous. That’s why so many people tried, at all costs, to preserve testimony. Emanuel Ringelblum, for example, buried sheaves of archives in milk cans, beneath the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto—he knew these events were unprecedented; they must be preserved. It’s possible that if my mother knew my grandmother’s story, she could have forgiven her. It’s also entirely possible she wouldn’t have—but she would have had the chance to try, a choice. Instead we have this impenetrable silence: no one speaks of it. So when people say the Holocaust and the events leading up to it has been written, or can’t be, well, I think that’s not quite true. It’s this strange, human paradox: Words cannot rectify the evil truth of what happened. What might also be true is we have to try, anyway, to find words, to make sense of an absence. That paradox isolates my characters, and is what I’m trying to explore in “If the City Falls.” The characters try to reach each other through the ruin, and even though they’re very close… there’s the inefficacy of words to face up to something like that.

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Evanthia Bromiley Evanthia Bromiley lives, writes and teaches in Durango, Colorado. She is the recipient of a grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation, a Lisel Mueller scholarship, and the 2017 emerging fiction fellow at Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop. Currently she attends Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. “If the City Falls” is her first published story. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.

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.

Personal Essay as Homage: Rubin’s Deli, 1928-2016

by Alisa Wolf

RubinsDeliIn 2010, Agni Online published my essay “Lokshen Kugel.” It was an homage to Rubin’s kosher deli in Brookline, Massachusetts and my great aunt, Bessie Cohen, who worked in the kitchen there for most of her adult life. I haven’t eaten at Rubin’s in more than a decade. But when it closed its doors for good on Friday, August 5, 2016, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of sadness that I will never order a Rubin’s pastrami sandwich again.

The deli opened in 1928 (or 1927, by some news accounts). It featured a corned beef sandwich for 15 cents, and, for 25 cents, on Thursday and Friday only, “Ho-Made Gefilte Fish.” That typo from a menu posted on the deli’s Facebook page must have been fixed—and the menu updated repeatedly—by the time my father started bringing my sister and me there in the 1960s. But there was still corned beef and gefilte fish, English spoken with a Yiddish lilt, and jokes whose sensibility I didn’t get. In all these ways Rubin’s was an exotic locale that did as much to form my ideas about the old world—namely Vilnia, Lithuania, at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries —as my Nana’s Shabbos candles and gooey taiglach did.

RubinsMenu croppedI had plenty of colorful details to draw on for my essay. But I didn’t want Auntie Bessie to come off as a caricature. The family already regarded her as something of an oddball. The adults couldn’t resist making jokes behind her back about the way she doted on her husband, feeding him a special diet that seemed to consist entirely of milk, spinach, and toast, and the well-known fact that he wore a truss under his shirt and vest to keep his hernia from popping out. I laughed too.

But Auntie Bessie and Uncle Irving were both there for me when I was floundering in my early twenties. No matter when I dropped by their Brookline apartment, they welcomed me. Uncle Irving took an interest in my various jobs and political opinions, while Auntie Bessie warmed up a meal for me in the kitchen. I protested that I wasn’t hungry, but I always ate.

I struggled to do justice to Auntie Bessie on the page. I wanted to show how strange she seemed to me when I was a kid but also how vital my connection to her was. Yet so much about Auntie Bessie lent itself to stereotype. The whole Jewish food motif is practically a cliché. The “oy veys” and Jewish guilt—Auntie Bessie embodied them all. But she was also a real person. Someone I loved.

In this essay, caricature came first. Only after prodding the broad outlines did the nuances come out. I worked on many drafts, especially of the first paragraph. I wanted to ground Auntie Bessie in a particular time and place, to show her in her element. The rhythm of our meals at the deli, the tone of the adult conversation, how the food looked and tasted—getting these details right seemed essential to conveying Auntie Bessie as a fully realized character and myself as a flawed narrator whose view was decidedly objective.

Because the original deli moved in 1981 to roomier digs down the street, I couldn’t go back there to check the accuracy of my memories. But the essay wasn’t about a building, or even a way of life. It was, I discovered, about my uneasiness with the Jewish culture I was born into, which worked against a deep desire to connect with it. This ambivalence underlies the relationship between the character I called “Auntie Bessie” and the character based on me. It’s there in the way I flaunt my knowledge of the Yiddish term for noodle pudding—lokshen kugel—only to crave pizza and Kraft Macaroni and Cheese when Auntie Bessie serves her traditional dishes. It’s in the way my frizzy curls and olive skin reflect the shtetl culture embodied by Rubin’s, which on the one hand gives me a sense of belonging there and on the other, feeds my jealousy of my blonde, straight-haired sister. It’s in the tension between my fantasy of a close traditional family, exemplified by the older generation of Rubins, and the dissolution of my own family, as my parents find new partners after their divorce and my sister moves away. It’s in the way I show up at Auntie Bessie’s door in my disheveled, “hippie chick gone ’80s punk” outfit, none too happy with myself and just a little worried about how she’ll view me. But when she answers my ring, I get what I came for: a greeting and embrace that convey how glad she is to see me, no matter what state I’m in.

Toward the end of her life, I got to know Auntie Bessie better, as one adult to another. One of the regrets she shared with me was that she never had kids. Who, she wondered, would say the Jewish prayer of remembrance—the Kaddish—for her when she died? In the essay, I hold her hand and mourn my own road not taken. Because by now I know that I’m not going to be a traditional Jewish housewife—a baleboste—and mother. But because of Auntie Bessie’s example and unwavering love, it’s okay.

I can’t say how Auntie Bessie actually felt when these scenes occurred in real life. I depicted her as honestly as I could. I can only hope I’ve done her justice. Or at the very least, that in employing her to bring clarity to my own questions about who I once was and the choices I once made, I’ve drawn her in all her complex humanity, not as a caricature.

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AlisaWolf_May Alisa Wolf’s work has appeared in Agni Online, Calyx, Cimarron Review, Concho River Review, Fjords Review, Pisgah Review, Red Cedar Review, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Sojourner, and The Legendary, as well as the Prentice Hall Reader, 11th and 12th editions. She lives in Medford, Mass. and is a member of the Writers Room of Boston. Find out what she’s published on AGNI here.