(un)reality – Three poems by Allison Stein

In her three poems, Allison Stein uses visceral details and powerful imagery to paint compelling scenes and unforgettable characters.

liquid state of matter(being)

let’s go swimming, you say, 
a heat-scorched dragonfly
(who goes in memorable movements to sip the fresh sunlight

beneath the softlapping surface the lake shines wild green
and your ears are whorls of precious jade.
you burble through the delicate-draped light,
             (diving to wrap yourself in the dim)
down here our skin looks wondrously unnatural as we link pinkies
                          and trail our heels through the silt.

               pulsing storms in the eddies of our slippery bodies.
               how grotesquely powerful we are here
                           where no gravity exists
                           and we do not recognize the silken moss growing from our scalps
                                                                 and lingering behind us in the tepid water.
we are alien, perfected by unrepentant green,
vivid things tiptoeing on the rim of a boundless heaven.

i run out of breath faster than you do 
and drift to the surface like a film in reverse:

                                                 lips spit out clear water and hands brush hair back from shining 

                                                 face–
          back rises through the membrane into forgotten air–
slowly up up with hands grasping for the bottom– 

let’s drink, you say
dirty shoes off exposing ripped sock, 
your head sparely haloed by string lights
(but you are less iridescent than ever)

lovely you hands me vodka in red-knuckled, apathetic fingers.
        clear like tap water, smelling of bare collarbones and average late nights
                       and through it i see the everyday pink of your cheeks
                       and the places where your cheap earrings have scarred your lobes.
you and i are no lake creatures and no gods.
here we are, natural beings, sipping nothingness.

 

 

 

half an instant of light

we paint cities on the palms of our hands / and press them feverishly along the edges of the sky / knowing they will wash away in building hurricanes. / (we can hear their eyes blinking, their weight heaving through wet air) / fragility smells like crushed lavender, don’t you think? / how lucky, how cursed we are to be minuscule                  (timewise). / if you are a baby mayfly and i am the corner of the briefest cloud / can we ever hope to last longer than this holy-handed present? / and if we are so sweetly fleeting can we ever be anything but lovely? / we climb to the tops of cherry trees / until we can no longer see earth or sky. / (just the smudges we left with our chrism-oiled hands) / really there is nothing before or after us. / this you say to me with your fingers in your ears, / smearing skylines over your blushed cheeks. / (darling darling i long to hang streamers from god’s front stoop with you.) / (darling my darling i will stay with you forever / until we blink our eyes and the world erupts into empty—– / how awful and beautiful it is to stretch time ragged / breathing hard and fast to fit infinite life into half a second. / your head so cleanly haloed by tangible wind. / the sun rises and sets while we eat one overripe cherry. / is this not life? / is this not the span of the universe? / are we not occupying all the time that will ever exist? / look at us choking on luminous air. / our bodies burn out, quickly, quickly. / for the slowest of seconds we wind our fingers through the shuddering void.
darling, darling.  it is time to go

 

 

 

photo album, with you everywhere

here is me squeezing the last toothpaste from the tube
          hoping that when i slit it open, i will not find you
          sleeping on the silver foil, a neon, too-familiar thing.

here is me slicing an apple into messy eighths,
          hoping the overripe nectar will cover the taste of you: 
          stardust (which is all just heavy metals).
 
here is me peeling off my eyelids and soaking them overnight in contact lens solution
          praying that when i stitch them back on,
          your face will no longer be etched in this most fragile of skin.
 
here is me staring at my wall from which all lavender has bled out
          trying to rub my neurons raw enough
          that this will stop being your brain, too.

 
here is me losing my balance as i walk along the curb

here is me waking up to a tree burning scarlet in the yard. 

here is me trying to forget you.

                              (here is me wishing i had said goodbye.)

 

Allison Stein is a 17-year-old student living in Pennsylvania. She has been writing stories and poems since the age of two or three. Her work has previously been recognized nationally by the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards and published in the Ralph Munn Literary Anthology as well as several smaller publications.

Visual Art by Guo Cherry. 

Fish Magic

In her poem, Lynn Kong uses vivid language to reflect on and amplify the details in Paul Klee’s painting “Fish Magic.”

Based on a Paul Klee’s Fish Magic

It is the mirk of stained glass that glows by a slice
                                                                                                                        of moon.

Gaunt elegies speak of a desolation beyond the edges
                                                                                                                        of era.

Generation upon generation–genealogies betray the birth
                                                                                                                        of seed.

The ambiguity of a barren clock transfixed at IX:
Even the fish await the tearing of the veil.
Hands clasp dust. Ash taints scale.
Threads of exile weave into a silent cloak.
Only time will tell.

 

Lynn Kong is a sophomore at Cary Christian School. She is co-president of the Holocaust Literature Club there. She adores Dostoyevsky and Flannery O’Connor, and just about every line of epic poetry. Part of her is always lost in Amsterdam.

Visual Arts by Rudy Falagan

 

 

 

Of This Skin

In her poem, “Of This Skin”, Angel Benjamin creates visceral imagery that explores the details of the largest organ of the human body; skin.

shout out to the largest organ on the body;

a jewel of melanin and sunlight,

 

where rifts have been driven through,

marked up like tiger stripes.

 

housing our souls in armor

battered from time’s pain,

 

it has embraced the clumped earth

and slept on the ocean floor,

 

reaching outwards from the bloody west

to the hollow east.

 

though familiar with metal’s tongue, 

it still dances in glitter

 

for its light illuminates my mind, 

has shown me futures where I

 

can step through that same gate, 

and revel in sharing the worlds I create.

 

it has walked, shouted, praised, and hollered

what an elastic thing

 

as our permanent fixture, a shield,

from the water’s grip and the tight rope clips

 

as our reminder, 

for it’s no mere shadow in the mirror

 

it’s a lens, 

and we are afraid of it.

 

Angel Benjamin is in eleventh grade and lives in the old state of Maryland. Her work was recognized for the first time by the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards for regional awards. She likes to create worlds, both imaginary and real.

Visual Arts by Audrey Carver 

A History of Drowning

In her prose poem, “A History of Drowning”, Pearl Reagler retraces her personal history of swimming by using very beautiful details and a series of intriguing events.

When I first swam, I was five. My swim coach was named Cricket and she taught me to breathe every four strokes. One, two, three, gasp, one, two, three, gasp.

 

Nobody knows when the first human swam. I assume they drowned and people kept drowning until swim lessons were invented.

 

It’s funny to me that many people are so scared of water. It makes up most of our body. We grew into our bodies in the liquid of our mother’s womb. People say water births are ideal because they provide the smoothest transition from the womb to the outside world. The child leaves it’s growing place and transitions to a place that’s similar. Descending out of itself and into itself.

 

When Missy Franklin, a gold medalist in the 100 and 200 backstroke, swam for the first time it was like destiny. It was like I was born in the water, she says. Like she was returning to the womb, descending back into herself spiral by spiral.

 

When the flowers in my backyard are almost open, but not quite, I like to grab the petals and peel them open. Pressing the soft layers back–I have no time to wait for nature. The flowers need to bloom now, while I am still here to see them.

 

I understand that this is cruel and pointless.

 

When I was little, I learned to count very quickly. I counted my steps to get everywhere in school. I knew that it took exactly 102 steps to get from my classroom to the cafeteria, and 90steps to get from there to the library. I learned to count because I had to. How else was I supposed to fill the empty space in my mind. The ambiguity of a walk through school poked holes in my body and made me sick.

 

Because of this, I joined swim team. Structure is good, my mother says. Now, I can learn how to make things feel better. I can learn that the more your legs burn the softer they are after a shave. I can learn that it’s possible to ignore the spasms that come after one has held their breath too long.

 

There are four strokes that are legal in competitive swimming. Freestyle, butterfly, backstroke, and breaststroke.

 

Freestyle was a race horse, full of beast and muscle.

 

Then there was butterfly. Butterfly is the stroke made most popular by Micheal Phelps. It is not as easy as he makes it look.

 

Backstroke is the scariest stroke to me. You can’t see where you’re going so everything has to be timed perfectly. You need to know exactly how many strokes it takes for you to get to the wall before you flip or else you’ll crash against the wall. My number was three.

 

Then there was breaststroke. I could ever understand it. It was always my worst. Cricket taught me to kick—turn legs out, chicken feet, parachute, snap jaws closed. My ankles couldn’t turn out all the way and catch enough water for me to pull myself forward.

 

When you start swimming you begin to become acquainted with the most successful people in your sport. Allison Schmitt has a gold medal in the 200 freestyle. She is 6’1 and cannot stop smiling in the interviews that I watch. For some reason, I found her very annoying.

 

There were trees that grew over the pool I swam at. They would drop pine needles and leaves into the water. They would get caught in your suit and cause little pink pricks to form all over your skin. Sometimes I would take the needles and weave little bracelets. Other times, I would throw them at people. Once I hit my best friend square in the back. The needle pierced a scar that she got from jumping a fence in the 6th grade. Now on top of that wound, there was another smaller one. Little pink pricks forming.

 

On my tenth birthday I stopped all other sports and outside activities. I swam six times a week, for at least an hour and a half. I noticed that another girl is getting private lessons. I decided I should do those too. I decided I was going to make the Olympics in 2020. I would be 16 by then. Plenty of time to improve.

 

Micheal Phelps made the olympic team when he was 15 years old. In the 200 fly he came in 5th overall. I’m sure he wasn’t satisfied by this. My first swim coach used to say, a good athlete is never satisfied. You should never look at the people you beat, only the people who beat you. I always liked winning. Usually it was pretty easy. But when it wasn’t I was incapacitated. I remember one morning we played a game and the objective was to get across the pool in as few breaststroke kicks as possible. The record was four. I was stuck at fifteen.

 

Micheal Phelps now has 28 olympic medals. 23 are gold.

 

Most people I knew loved swim meets. Another opportunity to win was very welcome. I never felt that way. Swim meets were terrifying to me. When I got too close to the edge, the tile on the bottom of the pool blurred and formed a goats pupil. I wanted to vomit but I never could. I could never throw up at a swim meet.

 

Micheal Phelps tried to race a shark after his final olympics in 2016. He lost. He even had a head start. Pathetic, a woman next to me whispers. She’s not talking about Micheal Phelps. She’s talking about her daughter who is struggling to finish her race. She flounders in the water, lagging behind the other girls. It’s like she’s not even trying.

 

I could never lead a lane at swim practice because I couldn’t count laps. I had many other things to think about. How I had to breathe on this stroke, blink twice for every leaf on the pool floor, apply the exact same amount of pressure to each leg pushing off the wall. I suppose my teammates were better at multitasking than I was.

 

Once I tried to count laps for a friend instead of myself. She was swimming a long event at a swim meet, the 800 free, which is almost half a mile of swimming. Because of this, the athletes ask friends to count their laps for them. Counting laps is pretty simple. You stand at the end of the pool and hold a long pole. At the end of the pole are large plastic cards with numbers on them. For every lap, you flip a card and when the swimmer is turning they look up and see how many more laps they have. When I was counting for my friend I got distracted by the tiles on the deck and nearly dropped the pole on her head.

 

I chased down a boy I liked and hit him on the arm with a branch from a rose bush. I felt guilty about this for a while. Watching his arms under water, seeing how little pink lines had bloomed. When swim practice went on too long, I would lock myself in the bathroom. Staring at beetles crawling on the locker room floor. Watching little pink lines bloom.

 

In May of 2015, Allison Schmitt’s cousin commits suicide.

 

I cut my hand open at the bottom of the pool. A bee sting in between my toes. A stabbing pain in my shoulder.

 

When I was little my friend had a pool party. He said he could run, run faster than any of us under the water. He cut the soles of his feet open on the bottom. Little rivers of blood pooled on his pale skin. Even now I can’t forget it. I can never let my feet touch the ground. I have to tread water for hours.

 

Tiles are very important. Every time I finish a set there are four tiles I have to touch. One, two three, four, one, two, three, four.

 

Micheal Phelps has gone a year without skipping practice.

 

My mother learned to tread water in the YMCA pool by her house in Virginia. She was never the strongest swimmer. Too anxious, she says. Instead she played tennis. I was never as good as you, she says.

 

Micheal Phelps is pulled over for doing 84 in a 45 mile zone. He failed two DUI tests in a row. After that day he lays on the floor of his apartment and thinks about drowning. In an interview years later he admits, I was in a dark place, not wanting to be alive anymore. His coach, Bob Bowman said, I thought, the way he was going, he was going to kill himself.

 

Micheal Phelps older sister should’ve gone to the olympics. Unfortunately, like her brother, she lay on the floor for days, trying to hide her broken back and blue body.

 

I am very good at counting. I count every stroke I take. I can make it across the pool in fourteen. My coach wants me to make it eleven.

 

Missy Franklin has lost air in Rio. To her, it feels as though she has run out. Her coach removes her from the relay race she was supposed to swim on. She watches from her hotel room as they win the gold medal she was set for. The carpet under her suffocates her body. She folds back into her throat ring by ring.

 

My last swim meet was unplanned. After making finals in the 200 free I walked up to my coach and told him I was never swimming again. The only thing that disturbed me about the encounter was how unsurprised he seemed.

 

The first time I almost drowned I was jumping into a cold lake. I had a life vest on but when the water touched my body I was certain I was going to die. I hadn’t swam in two months. My cousin had to pull me out and I lay on the boat deck in shock. As my aunt explained that the cold currents came from the mountains nearby, my cheek melted into the warm metal like an ice cube.

 
 

Pearl Reagler is a student at the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Houston Texas. Most of the time, she likes to write poetry and screenplays. She also enjoys photography and film.
Visual Arts by Sumin Seo 

Silent Child: A Joke With No Punchline

Kalista Puhnaty takes a look at Silent Child and why the book is disappointing because of its unsatisfying plot twist.

Sarah A. Denzil, Silent Child, $15.99, ISBN-10: 1542722829

Sarah A. Denzil’s Silent Child sets itself up to be the thriller of the decade through the use of cruel and disturbing real-world events, an intriguing and unique concept, a well fleshed-out cast of characters, and an intricately woven collection of minor plotlines that relate to the main plotline—and not in the way I expected. It remained wonderfully calculated and kept me on my toes…until the plot twist arrived.

In the beginning, the book introduces its main conflict: Emma Price’s child, Aiden Price disappears during a flood and is presumed to have drowned. The only thing left is his red jacket. His body is never found. Emma eventually declares him legally dead, closing the investigation. Ten years later, he wanders out of the woods, mute. He also has not properly learned to write due to being kidnapped at such a young age. Aiden Price is the only one who knows what happened to him, but he can’t tell his mother or the police for reasons unknown. Emma has regained control of her life in Aiden’s absence, with a new husband and a baby on the way, but that begins to disintegrate. Nothing is as it seems. Familiar faces are coming out of the woodwork. Emma’s friends and family are no longer to be trusted, as they are all turning against each other and Emma, for many reasons . The stage is set for the big reveal, some shocking plot twist, and in the moments before the final chapters, I was thinking almost anyone could be guilty of kidnapping Aiden. It was enthralling, it was exciting, and I was on the edge of my seat, expecting my mind to be blown.

When the plot twist is unveiled, the novel’s plot unravels in the most unsatisfying way, and the twist falls flat. The novel turns out to be more about Emma’s new life than Aiden’s trauma, and the resolution of his plot is poorly executed. My excitement that had been growing exponentially as time went on was lost—not popped, but slowly deflated, like someone letting go of the balloon they spent five arduous minutes pushing air into. I got whiplash from how quickly the focus of plot shifted, and the novel’s sloppy ending and explanations certainly didn’t help matters. I was left confused as to what point the book was trying to make by focusing all of its drama on the specifics of something that, in the end, didn’t really matter to the resolution. There are very few books that I would say do not provide any sort of payoff, but this book makes that list. Overall, Silent Child is a book that resembles hosting a slumber party: it began on a strong note, held my attention for the majority of its duration, and as I neared the end of it, I realized that I had wasted my time and that the book had overstayed its welcome. The book departed in a hurry, and I was left sitting on the floor, staring at the mess it has left behind in a mixture of awe and resentment.

 

By Kalista Puhnaty

Two Poems by Pearl Reagler

Pearl Reagler’s poems, “Night Walkers” and “cicada women”, express an authentic and creative use of imagery. Through her powerful use of vivid details, Pearl paints scenes and emotions that bring to life interesting character relationships.

Night Walkers

I have not yet learned how to sleep through the night.

Houston Texas, and then some. Under the oak trees. By the pool white flowers melt like snow.

The air still fits over my body like a second skin.

And the crickets chirp.

And then the rain would pound. It didn’t stop easy. I’m walking down a suburban street, towing a wooden beam behind me. On my phone a man wades through water, clinging to his kayak.

Did you know that there are more stars in the sky then there are grains of sand on every beach in the world? I do.

On my way home a man speaks to his wife on a black berry. He accuses her of something. And I assume she answers.

And the crickets chirp.

There were hills made of dirt in the lot across from mine. A new house about to be constructed.

When I was little, I used to slide down the hill, and scrape my knees raw and red.

There’s a chandelier in my bathroom. It hangs over the four footed tub, heavy, waiting.

I took a picture of a walnut on the deck. It was cracked open and raw, still green on the inside. After I took the photo I ate it and it was bitter.

The grass here is a dry hairbrush, the roads are a ball of tangled yarn.

Cows eat their own shit in a field speckled with star dust. The owner pulls his whip out. The water is poison.

My sister puts her spurs on.

And the crickets chirp.

You’re driving in a car with the freeway backed up. The cars stop moving entirely and we are stuck in a stand still. You bang your head on the steering wheel.

I can’t live here anymore.

You tell me about how you saw a dead horse on the side of the road the previous month.

It was disgusting, fucking disgusting.

A car cuts us off. You slam on the break and curse.

Look at this fucker! Some people need to learn how to fucking drive! Can you believe that?

No, no I can’t.

Honestly.

Honestly. What else am I supposed to say?

Can you believe these crickets? They’re so loud.

On my street there are no sidewalks. The street melds into each yard in the rising summer heat. The night time wanderers can’t sleep walk.

One day on my run, I noticed a white cat venture out into the middle of the road. It’s nose lifted smelling something. I assume it was an incoming storm.

And as it was paused a man in a huge truck with rimmed wheels came flying down the road. I dove for cover, but the cat did not. He was smashed under that truck’s wheel. His insides worming into his outsides like the guts of a ripe berry. I assure you that’s how it happened.

I watched it myself.

 

cicada woman

Under the humming of insects they were married. My mother tasked me with the photo taking. Very embarrassing. Almost worse than photos being taken of me. My thin elbows jutting out. First pimple still stained red on my cheek. When adults turned to meet my eyes, their pupils said, who is this child? Why is it pointing a camera at me? Where is the professional photographer? Where are its parents? Is it ok for me to keep drinking in front of them? I wandered the festivities in a sleep haze, plagued by seeds of prepubescent insomnia. Meanwhile my cousin bragged about a romance film that her mother let her watch.They had sex a LOT, she says, it’s like really gross. We sat in a pile of dead grass and sucked the juice out of worms. Ah yes, I murmur, I’ve seen it too, yes I have, so gross, so gross. Later we went firefly hunting. Running through the tall grass, our mouths stained by chili powder. I had to keep pulling up my shorts because I didn’t have the hips to fill them out. It was my first time seeing fireflies. We have these in Houston, we have lots, I say, trying to look unimpressed. Finally we caught one, squirming, in my cousin’s palms. The lights shone through her thin fingers and tinted them red. Inside her clasped hands I could see the body.

 

watch the inside of

a cicada woman, damp

blood sucked by night lips

 

Pearl Reagler is a student at the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Houston Texas. Most of the time, she likes to write poetry and screenplays. She also enjoys photography and film.

Visual Arts by: Johnson Anthony 

The Symbolism behind Driving into an Underpass on the Garden State Parkway

In her piece, “The Symbolism behind Driving into an Underpass on the Garden State Parkway”, Zoha Arif beautifully captures an eccentric character’s relationship to love and nature.

One time, while driving home from a Tuesday grocery trip at the Little India produce market, you wiped the last fragment of boiled spaghetti away from your lips with a Chipotle napkin and said that only things that bluntly resemble the form of humans can have symbolism. Take the trees, you said, and see how their branches jut out like frozen twizzlers from the lean figure-eight waist — it all looks distinctly like the silhouette of a human body. This is why there are so many poems littered with metaphors about trees. And look ahead at the chipped brick underpass, you said, there is no symbolism in this thing, no blunt resemblance to humankind, just a loaf of carved brick designed to spare our Chevy truck from the humming Jersey rain for a few seconds. Pay no heed to the underpass, pay heed to the trees, you said. 

Now I don’t understand what this Garden State underpass has done to you to be named the most un-symbolic thing on the planet, but, then again, I don’t get a lot of things. For example, how did we two people, one a believer and the other an atheist, find ourselves together in the midst of a wedding. We announced our commitment to each other somewhere in the local mango fields, property of a fruit farmer who was not invited to our ceremony. I did not fancy stealing another man’s oxygen and trespassing like this, but you said that it did no harm, and so we exchanged rings on another man’s property unbeknownst to that man. 

The mangoes of the tree we stood under decorated the tufts of leaves like hairpins and your soft fingers did not hesitate to plunder a fruit from this tree for your lips to bite into, water syrup forming rivers through the lace of your gentle fingers like poetry. I was stunned when you did this. The fruit, mango, was nothing more than a complicated collection of particles to you, but I saw clearly that it was a child of the tree and the property of a man we both didn’t know. In the taxi your brother paid for, I pressed you for a reason as to why plundering the forbidden fruit was the arch for sharing my life with you and you said that it was just a mango, that it didn’t matter, that we shouldn’t fight on our wedding day. 

But our first night together, we fought anyway, this time with pieces of hips and elbows for the first right to the bathroom sink and, in the end, we had to share, like children. In between toothbrushes and shaving cream, with mouth foaming with listerine, dental floss, and toothpaste, I turned to you and said that I would love to be a liquefied mango, or any fruit for that matter, because it would be nice to be able to just disappear down the sink drain sometimes. Except, the part about being a liquefied mango is important because it would be quite horrid to flow down the drain like regular bathroom water. And you spat out a puddle of Colgate toothpaste into the sink and told me that you didn’t understand how mangos could possibly matter. I must have looked crazed to you, defending an eaten mango and then announcing that I want to be a liquified mango. But I didn’t want to tire you with my theory about the universe so what I said, instead, is that I guess what I mean is that I want an overripe mango for breakfast. 

Then dawned the days when you used to bike to Chinatown every morning, through dim sum palaces and dumpling dens, to buy a pound of fresh mangos for me, wearing nothing but husky trousers and that oversized gray Santa Cruz hoodie you once left on the couch and missed a flight to retrieve. And even though you never bothered to fix that brake lever, even New York City traffic didn’t keep you from your bike. Thinking of you one day as you had gone, I came to the conclusion that your Santa Cruz hoodie and your bike spend more time together than your lungs do with air. I wondered what a love letter from your Santa Cruz hoodie to your bicycle would sound like, maybe something like this: 

 

     Dear Bob the bicycle, 

I fell in love with the perfect curves of your tires that carry your full lust. I can fit into any space you allow me to. I wish for our dust to dance together like charcoal at the end of each day, when you’ve tired yourself and return from the dirt and grime of the winding streets.

Love, 

Your Santa Cruz hoodie 

 

I thought the love letter was quite clever, but when I gave it to you, you said that I have this unsettling tendency to pay attention to things that don’t matter, like bicycles, sweatshirts, and pigeons. Stealing a mango from a plastic grocery bag, you said that the rooster windbreaker with a missing “W” and the Chinese minimalists shopping for vegan tofu in China Town don’t matter in the grand scheme of life and the universe. So the next morning, I really tried to not think of the symbolism behind your tongue pushing water through the tube of your throat after 59 push-ups in the foyer, or the meaning behind a person who cuts an apple pie with the knife tilted up at 90, instead of a flat 180 degrees angle, or the symbolism behind the strange way in which you eat spaghetti and meatballs because you, My Lord, are the only living being who can get drunk off of dipping spaghetti, like nachos, into a tomato sauce with eggplant and zucchini. Now the truth of the matter is that I tried to pay no heed to the underlying symbolism of things for about two days, before rolling over and accepting defeat and the fact that cheesecake somehow represents the birth of a child. (A cheesecake is heavy and burdensome on the stomach, buttery, satisfying like the feeling one has after birthing a newborn, but touch the crust, and it crumbles to reveal a world of sin.) 

But you never got how these things could possibly matter because you never cared about the mango from the tree that did not belong to you, or the rooster windbreaker with the missing “W,” or the Chinese minimalists. You don’t remember the three people who always stood leaning on the tar hill cascading around the price pole for diesel in that gas station that bordered our flat. You don’t remember what the moon looked like, crescent or full, that night we built a cardboard airplane out of the cereal boxes in our pantry. That night, I told you that the reason our marriage collapsed was because of the mango and you laughed and asked again how mangos could possibly matter. The truth is that if you had cared about the mango, then the walls of the world would have leaned closer to you, given pieces of itself to you, and held you like honey with the gentlest of arms and lips. 

But the world and its things obviously never mattered to My Lord, you, who never hesitated to plunder and pluck the forbidden fruit and drink the soul of the mango leaves that were summoned to protect you and I, the paired pigeons, from the rest of the world. The people vomited sins and you spat back in the name of the holy Scripture. I am bitter. I wish that the fruit farmer had awoken our marriage night and thrown us both, like Adam and his beloved Eve, with the complementary threats and curses, to the cumbersome paved streets for drinking his property’s air. 

Now if we’re going back to the underpass, My Lord, there is lots of symbolism behind that Garden State underpass. The underpass broke the slaps of the rain as we drove underneath and somewhere in between, I grew up. That underpass is a symbol for our marriage, above all things. We drove Ferraris and Mercedes through each other as if we were somehow able to still stand even with an arching hole simmered through our pooling belly buttons. As we ate the fruits and beets, the things of this world fell from our throats through our bellies and out, though the difference is that I tasted it and you shoved it down your throat. You are like the underpass. You don’t stop to think about the cars and trunks that pass through you. You stand and assert your strength and courage by pushing something as gentle as rain away. The truth is that no one will care when that Garden State Parkway underpass is torn down one day and built into a better, stronger underpass, and the underpass knows that and maybe that’s why it’s so bitter. The underpass breathes, My Lord, just like the mangos breathe. The world beyond our bubble breathes, full inhales and exhales, drunk on the taste of air. It carries lessons and meaning and that’s why something as prosperous as mangos matter to the overarching scheme of the universe. 

 

Zoha Arif is a 16-year-old high school student studying computer science and programming at the Academy for Information Technology. She currently lives in New Jersey and enjoys spilling her strangest ideas into her works of fiction in her free time. She is also an editor for her school newspaper, Polyphony Lit, and E&GJ Press.

Visual arts by Ordy Chen

A Conversation With Peter Twal

Peter Twal is a Jordanian-American electrical engineer, and the author of Our Earliest Tattoos. His poetry collection won the Etel Adnan Poetry Prize (University of Arkansas Press). His poems have appeared in The Believer, Poem-A-Day, Best New Poets, Kenyon Review Online, West Branch, Ninth Letter, Gulf Coast, Quarterly West, and elsewhere. Peter lives in Phoenix, AZ with his wife and newborn son.  

 

Rome Smaoui and Claire Kim sat down to interview Peter about his recent poetry collection Our Earliest Tattoos. After Peter’s poetry masterclass at Idyllwild Arts Academy, the Parallax team had a variety of questions about his work and his sources of inspiration. 

 

Q: When did you get into writing?

 

When did I get into writing? It sounds silly but the first instances of writing for me, I was probably four or five. I used to write little prayers. I grew up in a Catholic home, so that was something that I thought a lot about. And so I wrote little prayers. Probably around when I was in middle school, I got into writing poems for the first time. They were terrible, they were trash poems. I think in a way that we all probably kind of struggle in the beginning when we’re just reaching for things that we’re not sure are even there. It was probably around middle school, but I didn’t really get serious about writing until I was in high school, and then later in college where I kind of had to make a decision about whether I wanted to study engineering or creative writing. Ultimately, I chose engineering, simply because I knew I wanted to do both, and I knew I wouldn’t get an engineering job without an engineering degree–that’s the way that companies work, unfortunately–but I always wanted to go to grad school for writing, and I’m really glad that I did. 

 

Q: Why did you choose science and engineering as a career path instead of writing? Does this ever inspire your writing?

 

So like I was saying, it was part practical. Where I just felt like I wouldn’t be given a shot as an engineer without a degree. And it meant a lot to me to pursue that, because it was a passion to me, as a kid. Just tinkering with things and interacting with the world in that way. So even though I was going for an engineering degree, I was doubting it the whole time. I think it was my sophomore year, and I was getting into courses that were intentionally designed to make you fail—they were really hard classes—but more importantly, I remember my sophomore year, I got a 33 on a circuits exam and I went home distraught because I had never done that poorly on a test, and I told my parents “I’m done, I’m not doing engineering, it’s not for me. I’m going to study writing,” and my parents, in their infinite wisdom said, “Okay… but why don’t you just keep going and see where it takes you. And you can still do poetry in grad school, but just stick with the engineering for a little bit longer.” I think that was a real gift. I ended up learning a lot from engineering and that segues into the writing portion. I don’t think my writing would be what it is without my engineering degree, and my appreciation for math and science, and how things interconnect. I think of circuits, specifically. I try to apply that to my poems, because in circuits you can constantly point to power sources. You can point to moments of resistance. Other elements that hold energy and voltage. That’s how I write; that’s how I try to write, at least. I try to map everything out on the page in the way a circuit looks, maybe. Where I understand what it’s trying to accomplish to the best of my abilities, and then build a plan from there. 

 

Q: Each title in this collection is a lyric from “All my friend s” by LCD Soundsystem, what inspired you to use those lyrics? Other than the titles, where do you see the song appear in the collection? 

It’s a really tough one. In 2012, a couple friends came over, and we spent some time together. We had a really nice evening. My friend, Drew, played that song for me and I loved it; it really struck a chord in me. I thought it was a beautiful song, I thought it encapsulated a moment that I was in really well because the song was all about growing apart from people, and I think I was realizing at that time, a year out of college, that I was growing apart from a lot of my friends. Friends that I cared about. And I took friends for granted. I took for granted how good of friends we were and how it wasn’t necessary to communicate all the time, because I knew they were there, I knew they were my friends. So the further I moved away from home, the more I started to write these poems. I felt like it was something that pulled me back home. It reminded me about a lot of people that I loved, and at the same time it reminded me about the distance between them and I. Last September, my friend Drew died. The person who introduced me to the song. And it was a shock to the system, different from anything I had ever felt. It reminded me of what I loved so much about that song, and what I loved about Drew, and how important it was to me that he was one of the people who introduced me to it. Aside from the lyrics, the way that I see that song appear [in the book] is: I think the book deals with grief; to me it’s a series of elegies to a band that had broken up before I had ever gotten to see them live—but then they got back together and I did see them— It was a series of elegies in the way that I think that song was an elegy to a past life, as well. I was writing elegies for the band, I was writing elegies for the people I love, I was writing elegies for friends that I simply thought were separated from me by distance, and I didn’t realise that it was more than that, that it was only a matter of time before they were gone. I didn’t take full advantage of the time I had with them, maybe in the way that the speaker in the song didn’t take advantage of the time he had with the people in his life. 

 

Q: Why did you choose to write sonnets? What was the process of writing/deconstructing these sonnets? 

 

I think sonnets are one of the earliest forms of poetry that I dabbled in. I started writing them when I was in college, and I just thought that they were so compact and neat. There are obviously the really popular Shakespearean and Petrarchan forms, but there is a long history of people who have tried to take the sonnet form and adapt it to their own style. I felt a calling to do that. So, I wrote all of these poems, and they were all fourteen lines to begin with. I knew that they weren’t sonnets by definition for many other reasons. Sonnets have different formal elements like an “if/then” structure to them, that I liked and enjoyed working with in my poems. So like I was saying, at the core of it, they were all fourteen line poems. When I began the editing process, a lot of those poems got a little longer, and most of them got a little shorter, and probably about half of them ended up being fourteen lines. I wondered if that still meant they were sonnets? I think that kind of got me thinking about form in a new way, because what is it about a form in poetry that says “Yes, you are a sonnet” or “You are a ghazal (غزل)” or any other form? I think there are elements that are maybe more important than others, but I think my poems are now haunted by the sonnet form. To me, that doesn’t make them any less sonnet-like, and even if these poems remember being sonnets at any certain time, I think to a certain extent that still kind of makes them sonnets. As tough as it was to cut away some of the more formal elements that I thought proved that they were sonnets, it kind of opened up a new realm where I felt free to put the form of the sonnet in service of my poems, as opposed to putting my poems in service of the form. 

 

Q: How did you decide on incorporating such unusual characters such as death, God, and the Mars rover? 

 

Going back to growing up in a religious family where—I mean as an Arab— religion is almost part of your identity. It’s something that I still think about, it’s something that I still struggle with, and I am constantly negotiating what I believe with myself. I’m still trying to figure out what my fate is in my life, and what its role is at that given time. So in this book, it was kind of an opportunity for me to work some of that out. It’s easiest for me to understand God and death as concepts when they are brought to my level, which is being that of a human. A human in this current age and being kind of shallow—or mischievious, or needy—the not great things about being a person, that we all kind of do. It was also a chance to poke fun at myself, because in making God or death say something in the book, I was thinking back on things that I had said or done in some fashion. There are only a few instances of that because I think I tried to make God and death way more…bratty. So that was the idea behind that, it was about how I can take these grand concepts and bring them down to my level so that I can understand them a little bit better. As for the Mars rover— aside from my obsession with it at a scientific level— I think I had a few poems in the book where I had essentially tried to make the Mars rover out to be a God figure, where they’re far away and in communication with humanity in some way, but never present. Always watching, always in echo. To me it just seemed like a connection I felt like I had to make between those two characters. 

 

Q: How do you think your poems address modern technology and ideas in relation to timeless poetic themes like love and death? 

 

I guess, thinking about technology, characters are constantly texting in the book. I came into the texting game very late, and I text like a ninety-four year old man because it’s heavily punctuated, so I would text how I would read off from a page and would be like, “Yeah, that sounds like a sentence.” When I tried to put that into the book, it forced me to relax some of those tendencies, those twitches, and how they I guess are related to concepts like love and death. It goes back into bringing it down to a new level that I don’t typically interact with. I think these are very lofty concepts that we think of as hard to understand, but the technology is so embedded in our lives and we don’t find that hard to understand at all. However, when we talk about love or death, it seems like this far-off thing that we can’t really grasp as a larger presence in our lives. 

 

Q: How do you think your poems deal with the idea of permanence vs. impermanence? What made you feel drawn to this concept? 

 

Wow…these are all stunning questions. The poems deal a lot with grief and I think grief is a permanent thing in my life. Whether it would be people in the past and mourning them or people that are soon to pass, like in this book, there are a couple of folks who were really important to me as I was writing these poems. Maybe as I was writing this poem, I was working through this idea of impermanence and letting it go. Memory is something that is permanent, but also impermanent, and it’s constructed by both us and our surroundings. So we have this idea that memory is pure, imperfect, and untouchable, and it’s always not, it’s always tainted. When we make the connection in our minds, we begin to appreciate the parts that are permanent, which are emotions that are attached to the memory. Maybe going back to my point on grief, it’s a different way to understand what we’re taking with us and how we shape ourselves with those things that we take with us. 

 

Q: What is your favorite period of literature, or genre, and why? Are there any other genres you feel particularly drawn to?

 

Favorite genres of literature—definitely poetry! But if we’re talking about periods, when I was in high school, I read a lot of romantics, romantic poems, and I was so struck by them. How vivid the imagery was and how much they felt. I think sentimentality gets that grab in writing or art because it’s perceived as being like weakness, or it’s also an engendered thing, but I love sentimental writings, and I think the romantics were seen as the sentimental group. So back then, I was really struck by that. I haven’t really read much about it since, but that’s probably the group that I still appreciate. 

 

Q: Are you working on any new projects? 

 

So, I read four poems last night at my reading, that were new, and that were not in the book. If I’m being honest, I haven’t written much new stuff for a long time. I don’t know why it has been difficult. I think now within the past years, I moved, started a new job, my partner and I had this new baby, and I think a lot has changed, so a lot of how I moved through my life has changed as well. I typically used to go to one spot at a coffee shop and write. That was how I did it, and I can’t do that anymore, so I’m having a hard time getting back into any form of consistent writing. So, long answer, I don’t think I have any projects right now. I have a lot of poems that are cooking and a few that are finished, but I don’t know at this time if there’s anything more than a stack of poems, pages, and I’m okay with that. I’m okay with letting them sit, spend some time together, and work themselves out to a certain extent. I think every time I come back to them, I start to make new connections, and I think a new project will come out of it eventually, but I can’t say that I have anything other than a few poems at the moment. 

 

Q: When you were writing this collection, did you have a particular target audience in mind? Who do you hope will read this collection? 

 

I think I talked a little bit about this yesterday, about the way I had to relearn what it is to be an Arab body at this current time. As a kid, I let a lot of things go that I took for granted and didn’t think enough about my role in society, the responsibility I had, and what it was to be an Arab. So, when I began to edit this collection, that changed, and I hope now that other folks in my community who maybe grew up in a similar way that I did without realizing how Arabs are being portrayed in popular culture and how they are depicted in the news. I hope other folks, who don’t realize how harmful some of those things are— as I didn’t when I was younger— would encounter this and maybe gain something from it. 

 

Q: What advice would you give to the growing writers and poets?

 

I think two things. One, reading is writing. Even if you’re not putting something on the page, but you’re still taking in the work of others, you’re participating in writing in some way and you’re learning. I didn’t think that enough when I was first starting out. I thought writing was me sitting there, putting words down and I didn’t read enough other poets until a poet that was very kind and helped me a lot at LSU (Louisiana State University)—where I was for my undergraduate— shared a quote with me. She said, “The relationship between reading and writing is like eating and shitting.” The other thing is that, even if you’re not reading, writing is always happening. Writing does not necessarily have to be an active thing at all times. If you’re walking around and absorbing the things around you, and taking notes on them, you’re still eventually contributing towards writing. For weeks, I would jot things down that happen around me, whether it would be things that I would see, things that I hear, and I would eventually sit down and think how these pieces fit together, if they do at all. So, there are a lot of different ways to write, and I think in this society that we live in, there is an emphasis on production and producing work no matter what you do, even if it’s not about writing. “You’re only worth on your current output” is a thing that we’re taught, and it’s really terrible. I think writing could push back against that, where you don’t have to be constantly producing poems or stories to be a writer or to be at any given time.

Blue Eyes

In “Blue Eyes”, Hannah Han creates beautiful settings and characters through her detailed imagery.

In an old Chinatown classroom

she uncaps dried markers

and folds scratch paper.

I lean forward to see her name,

pinned, crooked, to her shoulder.

Yihua.

That’s a beautiful name, I tell her.

She shakes her head.

You should

call me Charlotte.

 

Six years ago I drew only thin girls

in floral dresses. They

always frowned with

purple lips and porcelain eyes.

Each had a name,

sprouting across the

page in inked plumes:

Anastasia, Evangeline, Coletta.

 

She drops a chewed pencil into my hand.

Can you draw me?

With graphite, I sculpt her eyes,

round as lychee seeds.

Do you want me to color them?

She nods, hand hovering over

a torn box of washable markers.

She picks up a blue pen.

Blue? I say. Are you sure?

She pries open my fist,

an oyster of flesh, and lays the

marker inside, a still-warm pearl.

 

In the bathroom, I hung my drawings,

pencil smearing with soap.

Each morning as I brushed

my teeth with sweet toothpaste

and bent to spit out foam,

I flinched at my reflection.

 

She watches as I uncap the marker,

the plastic click echoing.

I fill each bullet-sized hole

blue.

 

I was lucky.

During my elementary years,

I was surrounded by freckled

dolls packaged in silk bows.

But for ten years, I forgot

the color of my own hair and eyes.

I held only icy marbles in my palms and

and four-syllable names with rolled r’s

that I could not pronounce.

 

She smiles, takes the drawing,

scrawls Charlotte at the bottom,

tucks it into her bag.

 

Bye, I say. When she turns, I drop the

brown marker into her backpack.

 

Keep drawing, Yihua.

 

Visual Art by Heidi Songqian Li.

A Woman at Veradero

Madeleine Quirk beautifully captures the essence of a woman in Varadero. Her unique use of imagery creates a reflection that will resonate with you.

At 15 I watch her buy Cuban cigars
and I can tell that she carries the taste of smoke
wherever she goes. Its richness hangs
about her like sleep,
a golden mist of many suns and hieroglyphs:
she reads hands and cocked hips
like they are a language that is not dead,
only resting.

When she breathes tobacco dust,
it is not escaping but returning to the earth,
to the leaf and the burnt orange field.
I think for a moment,
I should cover myself in a blanket of fertile soil
and only ever bathe in rain,

but I remember I have heaped
my bags with some sea glass
I found alone on a murky beach
and held to my eye, looking inland from the shore.
Miles away a stone-carved saint
scowls at the skyline smog.
She smacks a stick of chewing gum
and cracks her teeth on concrete.

It comes from deep caverns
in subterranean whispers
and it comes on the breath of a woman:

return.

By: Madeleine Quirk

Madeleine Quirk lives in Kingston, Ontario. She is in her senior year of high school. In her spare time, she enjoys reading poetry and singing with her choir.

Visual art by John Michael Dee