UNC Student Spotlight

Anuradha Bhowmik

Anuradha Bhowmik photo

Paper Dolls

Strips of masking tape stick to white cement walls,
pastel Multicultural Day flyers fall to the polished

fifth grade floor. Bulletin board trimmed, paper
garland tacked, cardstock hands linked by craft

fasteners. One family : laminated cutout kids;
ceramic skinned, chapped cheeks cold

and red. Freckled brunettes lipglossed with tousled
tresses, push-up bras, and polka dot dresses. Pressed

and folded: my paper figure wedged in a locker door,
the crinkled class worksheet scrawled with India.

Jellyfish Moon

Sadie knew that most girls her age would be happy to spend an entire week at the seaside, but most girls did not have Sadie’s mother. Most girls also did not have Sadie’s mother’s boyfriend, who drove with the steering wheel in one hand and a cold beer in the other. Every few minutes, he’d place the beer between his legs, then run his free hand through his hair to rid it of the excess moisture, a gesture that Sadie found disgusting. Sadie and her mother and her mother’s boyfriend had a single-room reservation at the South Wind, a motel smack dab between a fishing pier and a military base. “It’s got a pool,” her mother crowed from the front seat. Mickey was silent until after his second beer, when he started asking Sadie about boys. “Girl like you shouldn’t have any trouble finding a boyfriend at the beach,” he said. Sadie’s mother slapped his arm playfully, as if he’d just complimented her and not Sadie. Outside, the ground grew flatter with every mile, white fields of cotton blurring past. Cassie and Rachel were leaving that very day for Racing Wind Roller Coaster Park. They would wear those shorts with the rhinestones on the back pockets. They would have no trouble finding boyfriends. Once, when the three of them had met two boys at the mall, they’d asked Sadie to wait for them in the food court. Two orders of French fries and a Haagen-Dazs later, they still hadn’t returned. Sadie had taken the bus home. Still, she wished she was going with them to Racing Wind Roller Coaster Park instead of to the beach with her mother and Mickey. Sadie laid down in the back seat and closed her eyes. The highway thrummed beneath her.

The pool, it turned out, was a rectangle of tepid water set in a square of shadeless concrete. Sadie spent most of the first three afternoons there, huddled in the shadow of a maintenance shed. As the day wore on, the shadow grew longer, allowing her to inch closer and closer to the pool’s edge. On Thursday, she had just dipped her toes into the shallow end when a station wagon arrived in the parking lot, and out clambered two overweight women and two impressively large children. From the back, the boy looked like a grown man. Later, in the pool, Sadie studied his face over the top of her book, trying to guess his age. Eleven, she thought. Maybe twelve.

The boy’s face was lobster-red. He bobbed in the pool with his t-shirt billowing up around him. He was two-hundred pounds, easy, and not even in the sixth grade yet, according to his sister who was bobbing next to him. They were two capsized blimps, orbiting around each other in the aquamarine water. “Stop it!” the girl twin was screaming, “Stop it or that’s three strikes and you’re going back to juvy!” Sadie squinted her eyes at the glare coming off the pool and tried not to stare.

“Ain’t goin’ to juvy,” the boy was grunting, his arm locked around the girl’s neck. Sadie glanced at the gray-haired woman who had been driving the station wagon, but she had opened the gate on the chain link fence surrounding the pool and was walking through the parking lot and past the dumpsters, towards the ocean, which Sadie could hear, but not see. “Are too” – the girl started to say, but the boy dragged her under the water. Sadie wondered if she should intervene, but then she noticed that the other woman, a younger, brunette version of the gray-haired one, was sitting in a crooked lawn chair in the corner of the patio, watching the twins. The woman’s left leg was splayed out at an awkward angle and her face was frozen in a palsied grimace. Her left hand shook against the chair, and Sadie got the sense that she was trying to lift her arm, as if to point. “What’re we doin’ for supper?” the boy called out once he’d let go of his sister. The woman surprised Sadie by answering in a gruff voice, without changing her expression. “Hardee’s.”

Sadie watched them climb out of the pool and pile back into the station wagon, still wet. Then she unwrapped the oversized beach towel she’d been wearing and jumped in the pool, staying under as long as she could before coming to the surface and floating on her back. She exhaled at the blue sky above her, breathing out syllables until the right name came to her. “Candy,” she breathed. “My name’s Candy.” She fluttered her eyelids, stroked her hips which at this moment felt weightless, which in her mind were narrow and taut, the flesh pulled over the bones just so. “Thank you,” she breathed out loud, an imaginary compliment from the imaginary boy who was touching her there, saying something about the color of her eyes. “Mine’s purple,” she said, when he said his favorite color was blue. Her heart fluttered in her chest and she stared down at her toes, which she had painted pink. She was about to say something else, something to flatter him, when she saw a shadow and shot up from her backfloat, her feet kicking to gain purchase on the pool floor.

The shadow belonged to the motel owner’s son, the exact kind of boy Sadie had been fabricating (she was careful never to imagine a specific boy, just a type). He was tan and looked strong, his t-shirt hanging pleasingly off of his square shoulders. He wore a ball cap over his blonde hair, which curled out around the edges. He was fiddling with a vial he’d pulled from the pool’s filter. “Should I get out?” Sadie asked. Her voice sounded nasally, waterlogged. “Nah,” he said. His voice was neutral. She could even imagine it was kind, interested. Except that when he glanced at her from underneath the brim of his hat, his eyes were mean. Sadie looked away. She waded towards the deep end and held onto the ladder, listening to him behind her, hoping he’d ask how she was or what was her name. “Can’t understand why people want to swim in a pool when they’ve got an entire ocean right there,” is what he said. Sadie’s face burned.

It was this kind of obvious thing about herself that she was always missing. Of course it was stupid to swim in a tiny motel pool when you had the entire ocean at your disposal. She wondered what else she was being dumb about as she gathered her swim towel and sun lotion and shuffled back across the parking lot in a too-small pair of flip-flops, her heels burning on the blacktop. It was probably something like this that had made Cassie stop speaking to her. Rachel had said it was because Sadie was ugly, which Sadie knew wasn’t true, because she’d won three beauty pageants by the age of six. But she was fat. Not as fat as those twins at the pool, but fat enough to never be called skinny. And Sadie knew that that was worse than being ugly.

Still, she and Cassie had been friends since elementary school and surely Cassie wouldn’t give up on her altogether just because of Rachel and a couple of boys they’d met at the mall. As she rummaged through the mini-kitchen for something to eat, Sadie reasoned that maybe she’d forgotten Cassie’s birthday. Or maybe it was that thing she’d said about Cassie’s brother turning out no so bad after all. Maybe that wasn’t something you said about a thirteen-year-old. She remembered the disgust on Rachel’s face when she’d said it, and flushed. She found a half-eaten bag of Cheetos and took it out to the balcony, where Mickey was smoking a cigarette. Above them, seagulls wheeled about in a swirl that seemed deliberate. She watched them, but could not discern a pattern. “Look,” Mickey said, pointing out towards the ocean. A pelican folded itself into an arrow and dove into the sea, emerging with a sizeable fish. “Damn,” he said. It was impressive, Sadie had to admit, that kind of focus. Tomorrow, she determined, she too would swim in the ocean. Mickey pulled a joint from his pocket and lit it, wiggling his eyebrows at her as he did. He pulled in one long drag, the end of the joint crackling red, and then held it out to her. “Toke?” he said.

Her mother, who’d been sleeping in a mound of dark covers on one of the beds, emerged from the room. “Jesus, Mickey,” she said, and took the joint from his hand. “She ain’t old enough for that shit.” Sadie’s mother took a drag and Sadie watched the way her mother’s eyes closed as she drew the smoke into her lungs. Sadie separated her hair into three wet ropes, which she began braiding down her back, squeezing the moisture from her hair as she went. As the braid got longer, her mother leaned in to help, and Sadie could feel her wheezing breath in her ear. When the braid was almost finished, they all turned at the sound of a car pulling into the parking lot. It was the station wagon, the twins in the back holding matching burgers to their faces, their eyes passing blandly over the lower-level motel rooms as the car slid past. When they climbed from the car, Sadie saw that the girl, like her brother, was badly sunburned, long threads of skin peeling away from her shoulders. “Now there’s some kids your age,” Sadie’s mother said, drying her hands off on the towel Sadie had hung over the railing.

“They’re only in the sixth grade,” Sadie said, feeling for the end of the braid, which her mother hadn’t secured with a rubber band.

Her mother shrugged. “They look nice enough to me.”

Sadie could already feel the braid unraveling at the nape of her neck.

The next afternoon, at the pool, the twins addressed Sadie. “You hear bout the shark attacks?” they wanted to know. Sadie shook her head. She hadn’t. The twins didn’t know if anyone had died. “Somebody lost a arm, though,” the boy said. “Just down the other side of the pier.” The twins were going to go out on the pier that evening, to look for the arm, floating out there in the water. It was a ridiculous proposition, but Sadie had nothing better to do. “Okay,” she said, when they asked her. “I’m room 213. Just knock when you’re on the way.”

Instead, though, Sadie was waiting on the balcony, holding a pack of cigarettes she’d stolen from Mickey’s knapsack. She saw the twins walking across the parking lot and waved when they looked up at her. She tucked the cigarettes into her bra along with a pack of matches. “The South Wind,” they read in cursive, like matches from a fancy restaurant.

The sun was setting, but the parking lot still radiated heat. The twins still wore their swimsuits, the boy with a t-shirt over his, the girl with an oversized dress that looked like it must belong to the gray-haired woman or the palsied one. She followed them through the parking lot, then through the bait shop, where silver schools of minnows swam in giant coolers, the milky water barely stirred by their graceful movement. Out on the dock, the halogen lights made the sky seem gray and far away, the stars dim, but the ocean was alive, waves layered upon waves, white foam curling at their tips. It didn’t seem so crazy now that they might see the swimmer’s arm floating out there. Sadie wouldn’t have been surprised, either, to see shark fins slice through the gray water.

Between the weathered planks of the pier, Sadie could see the ocean churning. She smoothed her hair back and thought of TJ, the blonde curls escaping from beneath his ball cap. The cigarettes tucked in her bra made her feel womanly. She pulled them out, smiling slyly at the twins. “You two ever smoke a cigarette?” she asked.

The twins looked at each other. “Yeah,” the boy said. “Lots of times.”

“Stupid,” the girl twin said. “He ain’t never smoked one. Me neither.”

“Yeah,” the boy said, changing tack. “Cigarettes are nasty.”

Sadie shrugged and smiled. “Suit yourself,” she said. She pulled one from the pack and placed it between her lips, handing the pack of matches to the boy. “You at least know how to light one?”

She curled her body over the cigarette, away from the wind, and he struck the match, cupping it expertly inside his free hand to protect the flame. “Sure I do,” he said. Sadie turned away to take her first drag, pulling the smoke into her mouth but not her lungs. She turned around to exhale, blowing the smoke towards the girl twin.

“Gimme one,” the boy said. Sadie pulled one from the pack and handed it to him.

“Juvy,” the girl twin said. “Third strike.”

They stood like that at the edge of the pier for a while, looking out at the wide ocean, the boy twin and Sadie leaning over the edge to ash their cigarettes, then throwing the still-lit butts down into the water.

“What’s the matter with your mom?” Sadie asked.

“She’s not our mom,” the girl said. “What, you mean her leg?”

“I guess,” Sadie said. “And her face, how it’s, you know.”

“She had a stroke,” the boy offered. “It’s our aunt.”

Sadie didn’t ask what had happened to their mother. In a way, she thought she already knew. She wondered if it’d been gradual, a little bit at a time, or if it’d been all at once – a car in the driveway that left one morning and never came back. Sadie didn’t know which was worse.

“Look,” the boy said, pointing. Sadie looked, expecting a shark, but saw instead hundreds of purple discs undulating in the water, a fluid constellation. “Jellyfish.”

If Sadie looked too closely at any single one, it would shift from her line of sight, slide into the valley of a wave. It was better to make her eyes soft and see them all at once, filling the water, purple blooming up everywhere she looked.

“They can’t really swim you know,” the boy said.

The girl rolled her eyes. “That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard,” she said. “They’re fish.”

“It’s true,” the boy said, strangely un-argumentative. “They can move up and down in the water, by sucking water in and then pushing it out.” He cupped his hand upside down in a bell shape, then flattened his fingers like they were spitting something out, to demonstrate. “But they can’t choose what direction they go in. They gotta go where the tide takes them. That’s how come you see them this way, in groups so close to shore.” The boy looked at her. ”Sometimes they’ll wash up, hundred at a time. Then they’ll die on the beach, all together. Stinks like hell.”

They stood like this at the edge of the pier, the boy talking on about blooms of jellyfish and the feeding habits of sharks, until the girl made a snorting sound, loud, and pointed in the opposite direction from where the boy and Sadie had been looking, towards the motel. “Beached whale!” she said. Sadie felt her heart leap a little, because suddenly something about the night seemed so magical, with the jellyfish and the cigarette smoke under the hazy lights of the pier. It was beautiful somehow without boys, without Rachel or Cassie, beautiful in a way that felt new.

But Sadie scanned the beach, and there was no whale. The girl twin’s snort made its way to laughter, and the boy was laughing too, and the beached whale, Sadie understood now, was her mother. Her mother in a too-small bathing suit, pounds of loose flesh escaping from its elastic, and behind her, standing in the surf, Mickey, his stomach like a pregnant belly, clutching a beer koozie in each hand and watching her mother roll backwards with each wave, unable to stand. He was laughing, too, Sadie saw. The twins and her mother and Mickey, all of them laughing.

Sadie kept watching for a moment along with the twins, then took the cigarettes and matches from her bra and handed them to the boy twin, who accepted them reverently.

“I forgot something back in the room,” Sadie said.

By the time Sadie had walked back down the pier, through the bait shop and parking lot, and out onto the beach, she could no longer see if the twins were still on the pier. The sun had sunk completely behind the motel roof and the water was losing its sunset tinge. As Sadie trudged through the sand, a slender woman in a bikini walked past, an infant in her arms, a man a few feet away from them snapping pictures. Further down the beach, a family gathered seashells in a bucket. Her mother’s bathing suit bottoms had nearly come off in the force of the waves, her wide, white buttocks exposed in the dying light, their surface dimpled and uneven, like raw meat. Sadie knelt behind her mother and grabbed the slick material of her bathing suit, pulling with all of her strength, until the fabric once again covered her mother’s white flesh. She felt the cool of the ocean on her sandaled feet. “Sadie!” her mother said, “you found us.” Mickey raised a koozie at Sadie and grinned. “Gimme!” Sadie’s mother shouted, laying backwards and reaching out to Mickey. He leaned over and rested one of the koozies on her mountainous belly and they both laughed at the way the beer balanced there a moment before toppling over into the surf.

Sadie walked out into the ocean a few steps, then a few steps more, leaving her mother and Mickey to the waves. There was a dip at the place where the waves crashed against the sand, and there, Sadie found herself waist deep – “shark depth,” the boy twin had told her, a merry glint in his eye. Before she went under, she looked back at her mother, who was still lying on her back in the sand, the top of her two piece swim suit pushed up her chest and exposing her gelatinous white belly. “They lose their color when they die,” the boy twin had told her. “So it’s easy to step on them by accident.”

Sadie wanted to laugh. Or maybe cry. So much of the world she had never touched, so much she didn’t know. In sixteen summers of beach trips, she’d never swum in the ocean. She had only waded, like her mother was now, like a child would, letting the waves come to her. But tonight she was going to swim, shark or no shark, jellyfish or not (“Moon jellyfish don’t sting,” the boy had said). She submerged her shoulders and then her hair, which felt cool and heavy on her shoulders. She floated on her back for a second, the moon just starting to take shape in the sky above her, then turned on to her stomach and began to pull at the water with her hands, striking out towards the horizon, every stroke of her arm pulling her closer.

It seemed like hours before she stopped swimming. And then, almost immediately, she felt afraid. Was swimming in the ocean – like, actually swimming – something that people even did? Was this something else she had missed? She had seen people with surfboards and boogie boards, she had seen people wading in the waves, riding them in from close to shore. But she had not, she realized now, seen anyone swimming the way you would in a pool, the way she had just been doing, a full out head-down freestyle. Mixed in with the knowledge that she’d gotten even this wrong was a sick sort of panic. Her heart was beating so fast she could hardly tread water. Her mother was just a hazy dot on the beach, and she couldn’t see Mickey at all. How far away she was now from everything! From the motel and the pool and her mother and Mickey, from Rachel and Cassie and rollercoasters and boys of all kinds.

Up above her, on the pier, the halogen lights were a string of moons to match the real one. She closed her eyes. “I could sink,” she thought. She opened them again. Between the halogen moons was another light, a red one, tiny, looping in tight wild circles, and then a voice. “Girl!” it was calling. “Girl, hey!”

It was the boy twin, waving a lit cigarette in the air. He was calling out to her, Sadie realized. “Float!” he was yelling to her, “Float on your back!” Beside him, the girl was following suit. “Float!” she was screaming, shrill as a seagull. “Float!” And she remembered now, something the boy had said earlier about sharks and struggling swimmers –how you should float to appear less threatening. “Keep your body parallel to the water’s surface,” he had said. It seemed an enormous effort, when she pulled her knees up to her chest, to float instead of sink, but she saw his red light waving and decided to try, just for a second. She inhaled and pushed her hips up towards the sky, her shoulders down. Her legs and arms rose up as if lifted there. She could hear nothing now but the hollow echo of the sea, a pulsing in her ears that followed her heartbeat. Her breath came easier. She looked up and there was the boy, waving his cigarette, his mouth open, calling down to her. Sadie closed her eyes and floated.

The next time she opened her eyes, she was beneath the pier, which was a dark tunnel in the newly fallen night. Sadie knew she should feel afraid. She saw the shadow of one of the pier’s pilings pass her by but did not reach out for it. She closed her eyes again.

Eventually, the swells she was riding started to curl and crash. Sadie felt her shoulder brush up against the sand, and a moment later, her feet. She didn’t understand at first that the men in the blue uniforms were there for her, with their flotation devices and their sleek white trucks with flashing lights. The men barely had to wet their trousers to retrieve her from the water, one on each side, carrying her to the waiting ambulance. Sadie had to explain, more than once, that she didn’t jump. “First I swam,” she said. “And then I floated.”

Sadie’s mother was standing with a paramedic, sobbing. Mickey stood off to the side, looking over the slope of his belly down to his bare feet. Their beers were gone, the koozies too, discarded somewhere on the beach. “My baby,” Sadie’s mother was saying. “My baby.” The paramedics helped her into the ambulance and hooked her up to an IV. “Dehydration,” they said. Sadie’s mother reached out to Sadie and wiggled her fingers, but Sadie pretended not to see. Instead, she laid very still on the gurney, listening to the men’s voices swirling around her, their fingers pressing on her sternum, her forehead. A light now, in each eye, a probing of her belly. One of them pulled the hair back from her forehead to check inside her ears. But then, no water in her lungs, no dehydration, no abrasions. Only, “You’ll need to get some rest, and some lotion for that rash on the back of your legs.”

“What rash?” Sadie asked.

“From the jellyfish,” the paramedic said.

The twins were standing a few feet away from the ambulance, just outside the circle of light cast by its open doors. It felt like a party, with the flashing lights and the sound of the waves and everyone standing on the sand like that in a circle around Sadie. Sadie felt sorry when the paramedic told the twins to go on home and then helped her mother out of the ambulance. Mickey took her mother’s arm and led her up the small flight of stairs to the parking lot, then through the parking lot and up the stairs to room 213. Sadie followed behind, her shorts and tank top crusty with sea water, her hair hanging in ropey strands. When she looked behind her before stepping into the motel room, she saw that the twins were still in the parking lot, standing side by side at the pool gate, one like the shadow of the other.

Inside, the room was ice-cold, the A/C unit in the wall turned on full-blast. A layer of cold perspiration coated the walls and the blankets were tossed in heaps on the bed. Sadie shut off the A/C and then arranged the blankets where her mother had laid down sideways on the bed, trying to cover her, folding them down just under her chin, smoothing her thin hair out on the pillow. “You’re okay,” her mother whispered, stroking Sadie’s hand, which Sadie had laid over her chest. And then again, “You’re okay.” When Mickey emerged from the bathroom, he climbed into the bed next to Sadie’s mother and was asleep within seconds, so still he could have been dead. It was easy, for just a second, to wish that he was.

Sadie pulled the comforter off of her bed and carried it out to the balcony, laying it out like a rug. Out in the pool, she could see that the twins had decided to go for a night swim – the girl twin in her bathing suit and the boy twin in his dark t-shirt, the two of them silent but for the noise they made moving through the water. Sadie watched them for a while, their fluid weightlessness, the grace of their sizable frames in the half-lit pool. They were separate from her, but the same, like two variations of the same species. She laid down on her side and watched them, the backs of her thighs and arms throbbing from the jellyfish stings. When she closed her eyes, she could see the tip of the boy twin’s cigarette looping in the darkness behind her eyelids.

“I thought you said the jellyfish don’t sting,” she said to the boy the next morning. Her mother and Mickey had packed their bags and were waiting in the car. But Sadie saw the twins in the pool and told Mickey to stop a second, she’d left something by the pool. The boy shrugged. “Maybe it’s cause there were so many,” he said. “They carried you in.”

Sadie shook her head. “No, I floated. Like you said I should.”

“Yeah,” the girl said from the shallow end. “But they were all floatin’ under you, like a big purple life raft.”

They were all quiet for a minute, conjuring the image.

“Better than getting your arm bit off,” the boy finally said.

Then, she didn’t know why, she leaned over and kissed the boy on his pudgy, sunburned cheek. The boy didn’t move a muscle, just looked at her like she’d slapped him, and then she leaned in and kissed him one more time, on the lips.

“Thank you,” the boy said.

“Oooh!” she could hear the girl twin squealing as she walked back to the car, “I’m telling!” But already the boy was back in the pool, punishing her with a splash of water to the face. Mickey put the car in drive and they pulled slowly out of the parking lot. Through the front office window, Sadie could see the motel owner’s son behind the counter, staring up at the television screen. What does he know about the ocean, Sadie asked herself. Absolutely nothing she answered. Not one goddamn thing.

Katherine Van Dis is a writer living in Durham, North Carolina with her husband and two young sons. Though Katherine has lived in Durham for fifteen years, her roots are in Michigan, where she attended the University of Michigan and received a Hopwood Award for fiction. Her work has most recently appeared in The Los Angeles Review. She is currently working on a collection of short stories called Our Lady of Sorrows.

Interview: Poet Ben Goldberg

CQ: Facets of the mythic appear in several of your poems (“Daedalus Builds a Treehouse” and “This City Hands Me Myths; I Hand Them Back”), not only evoking and playing with Joseph Campell’s understanding that “It has always been the prime function of mythology and rite to supply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward,” but also through the sense of wonder that invades that which is unknown and larger than ourselves. How do you conceptualize the mythological in your poems? What work do myths do in your writing?

Ben Goldberg: It’s interesting, because I often feel like myths shrink in my poems, and the mundane becomes more myth-sized. When I write (at least in early drafts) I happen upon the mythological unintentionally and usually through something mundane. It’s been that way in my life, I think. When I was about twelve years old, I read an article in science class about a self-powered plane called the Daedalus. It took off in Crete and had a successful flight of over seventy miles before “crashing” a few meters offshore near Santorini. At that age, I was unaware of all the ways the event echoed and subverted the myth of Daedalus and Icarus. To be honest, I was unaware of the myth. I just liked the word Daedalus. It wasn’t even a word to me really, or a name. It was a grouping of sounds I found pleasing. I enjoyed it so much, in fact, that I called my dad Daedalus that evening at dinner. Over the following weeks, this became a habit and the name stuck, though it would be several years before I understood the significance of “renaming” my father this way. Nearly two decades later, I still call him Daedalus, and he’s quite patient about it. That’s how the mystical and the mythic work on me, though. They stick to the bottom of a sensory experience or memory and dissolve in my subconscious. They become habits and obsessions. They catalyze poems.

CQ: Your work juxtaposes the ordinary with the extraordinary: “another tunnel turned gospel by headlight,” “any trash bag swept / from a storm grate can apotheosize above skyscrapers,” etc. Why do you give such everyday things this sacred element of the divine?

Ben Goldberg: I feel I’m a pretty vehement agnostic, but people I trust tell me that my poems suggest otherwise. To be sure, my answer to the question of “god, yes or no?” varies considerably (often from moment to moment), as does my belief in the relevance of such a question. However, I am fascinated by spiritual dichotomies—sacred vs. profane, mystical vs. mundane, transcendence vs. presence—and have been for much of my life. It occurs to me, though, that dichotomizing such ideas is a reductive way of engaging with them. They are so much larger than our binaries. I feel like many belief structures teach to us to do this with them, though—to pit them against one another and insist that we choose.

Certainly there is an intrinsic conflict arising from these sorts of words being in such close proximity, and simply subtracting the word “versus” won’t change that. But does this make these words irreconcilable? For me, sublimity is any moment opposing ideas coexist without producing dissonance. Perhaps that’s what I’m trying to write toward. I want my doubts, faith, rationality, unreasonableness, and wonder to belong on the same pedestal. Then I want to kick the pedestal out from underneath. I want my ugliness to be as praiseworthy as my virtues, the state of ruin to be as holy as that of reclamation. I want a religion that keeps its deities in a spray paint canister. I want a heaven I can root through a dumpster for when I realize I’ve accidentally thrown it away.

CQ: Building off of the contrast between the everyday and the divine, “Daedalus Builds a Treehouse” has a tension between the peaceful innocence of youth and the peril of growing older. The son is safe with his father but we also get a glimpse into the danger that his future holds, because we witness him in a time “before the pills that douse what he can’t name, / before the feather in his hand means blade.” How do safety and danger interrelate for you, and why do you choose to focus on the transition from innocent to damaged?

Ben Goldberg: I guess it goes back to opposing ideas, the way they so often contain one another. There’s a danger in safety, and a safety in danger. I think sometimes of the tradition at Jewish weddings of smashing the glass. I find it brilliant and devastating. Yes, the temple is destroyed. Yes, to forget this, even in our joy, is to potentially invite sorrow to blindside us once more. But it will, regardless of our vigilance. Really, then, what does our awareness prevent? What does it honor, and at what cost?

However, the genius of the tradition, I feel, lies in how attuned it is to the psychology of loss. There’s something achingly human about the need to remember our traumas, personal or cultural, as a way of exerting agency over the pain they continue to cause us. Or is it humbler than that—a way of laying claim to that pain, or even offering oneself to it?

As all this relates to the poem, the speaker’s father stands at the edge of what will hurt him most in the world: the suffering of his child. The autobiographical aspects of this poem reflect my attempt to look from a (my) father’s perspective upon a moment during which a (his) son is unreservedly safe, if not happy. Of course he knows that neither this kind of safety nor happiness exists, let alone endures. Yet, the breaking of the glass works both ways. Or at least it should. The father is going to see his temple smashed. I want him to have a memory of joy, however splintered, to bring into that future.

CQ: This contrast between the innocence of youth and the danger that comes along with growing up highlights the use of time in your work. We see the son in “Daedalus Builds a Treehouse” simultaneously as a child and as an older, struggling person. “The City Hands Me Myths; I Hand Them Back” references both the past –“Someday I’ll stop measuring / my distance from certain memories in fire escapes,”— and the future— “Tomorrow, I’ll go to where I laid beside a woman / I’d never see again outside of sleep.” The narrator also says, “our windows keep a kind of time.” What’s happening with the blurring of the boundaries of time and stepping beyond chronological order?

Ben Goldberg: Lucidity so often feels like a luxury to me. I guess I’m looking for ways of presenting this as authentically as I can, of lucidly (for the most part) rendering the state of not being lucid. In this regard, I’m definitely trying for a sense of destabilization and dislocation—geographical, psychological, sensory, temporal. Time, I believe, is one shade of lucidity. The nature of time, like that of lucidity, is negotiated within and among individuals, and thus requires some kind of consensus. So yes, time exists objectively to the extent that societies rely on it as a construct, and individuals within those societies schematize it similarly enough to belong, more or less. But I’m interested in less.

CQ: In your work, words themselves come to life. You describe a relationship with a woman in which “every word we never spoke was either a city I hoped / we’d live in, or a cinder dusting an ashtray / whose smoke I woke to, and then you “throw down the only holy word I know. I’ll see if it becomes a dove before it hits the pavement.” Why do you choose to write about words?

Ben Goldberg: I really do believe words are magic; I believe it as literally as I can allow myself without feeling embarrassed. But why am I qualifying this? Honestly, if I were writing this in a journal, I’d delete every word of the first sentence after magic. How original, right—a poet who believes in the magic of language? But really what else is it (even after all the ways one might rationally answer or evade this very question)? And why is the trope of words as magic so perennial? In so many belief structures, words are the codons of the cosmos as well as catalysts for the forces governing it. I’ve always been compelled by this idea.

But let me make it a little more personal. A word is, among many things, an affirmation until it becomes reality or doesn’t. We name a city we want to live in, and wherever we end up, we align ourselves more closely (for a moment, at least) with a reality in which living in that city is more possible. We say “love,” and if we mean it, it’s immediately physiological, just as when we say “over.” The emotion precedes the words, of course, but the words concretize the emotion, which is part of what makes using them is so terrifying and exhilarating.

I also believe that some sensations are too large for the body to process, and that some experiences don’t entirely fit within the consciousness. For me, words have been the best vessels I could find to hold these sorts of things while I clear space for them. So, I’ll continue to attempt making memory-shaped vessels until my life and I fit one another.


Benjamin Goldberg’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Best New Poets 2014, TriQuarterly, West Branch, Ninth Letter, Salt Hill, Blackbird, and elsewhere.  He is the recipient of an award from The Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and was a finalist for the 2014 Vinyl 45 Chapbook Contest, the 2013 Third Coast Poetry Prize, and the 2012 Gearhart Poetry Prize.  He lives with his wife outside Washington, D.C., and currently attends the MFA program at Johns Hopkins University.  Find him online at www.benrgold.com.


Genoa: A Telling of Wonders Review by Eric Meckley

Paul Metcalf. Genoa: A Telling of Wonders.

Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2015. PP. 264

Reviewed by Eric Meckley


We humans have a strange attraction to round numbers, and a penchant for marking the decades. En route to a sacred centennial we satisfy ourselves with intermittent end-zeroes, and what tastes sweeter on the tongue or rings more melodiously in the ear than “half-way?” It is no surprise, then, that Coffee House Press has chosen to publish a 50th anniversary edition of Paul Metcalf’s Genoa: A Telling of Wonders. Although the book is billed as a novel, it may only qualify as such because of its substantial, if not massive, length at 264 pages, and its fragmented fictional narrative.

Metcalf, a descendant of Herman Melville, sets passages from his great-grandfather’s works alongside selections from the diaries of Christopher Columbus, L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics, and other sources to narrate the ruminations of lapsed Hoosier M.D. Michael Mills, who sits in the attic of his ancestral Indiana farmstead ignoring his children until his wife returns from her shift at the GM factory. His thoughts meander from the books on his desk, to the minute sensations of his club-foot, to the tragic life of his brother Carl, who––after surviving the Spanish revolution and a stay in a Japanese prison camp––is finally executed in a Missouri gas chamber for murder.

While the story is sparse, Metcalf’s command of the source material is extraordinary, and the book displays a remarkable literary, geographic, and temporal dexterity. Many may find Genoa novelistically lacking; as a textual collage, however, it is a striking and evocative work of literary art. What is more, the capacious temporality and prodigious referentiality has allowed the book to age remarkably well. The book’s suburban Indiana setting, for instance, thrums with the same flat, frigid, spacious liveliness of my own teenage years spent there at the turn of the 21st century. The book thrives on its oddity, and even as I heartily recommend Genoa to adventurous readers, I realize that my fondness for this text depends upon my own devoted obsession with all things Melvillian.

In his essay “Hawthorne and His Mosses,” Melville wrote: “It is better to fail in originality, than to succeed in imitation. He who has never failed somewhere, that man can not be great. Failure is the true test of greatness.” Certainly this wisdom is proven in the pages of Genoa as the originality of Metcalf’s derivative text transcends mere imitation. Ultimately, the success and failure of his art form a Melvillian joint-stock company; happy bedfellows in a text that defies definition, even description, sure to polarize its readers to the end. For fans of experimental fiction, Herman Melville, 15th Century explorers, and Ik Marvel’s Reveries of a Bachelor.

Unearthing these Roots to Everywhere and Nowhere

When I visited my great-grandparents in Florida as a child, I often shook the trunk of the old orange tree in their front yard. At the time, I did not know of the tangle of roots that stretched for miles below, the worlds upon worlds of living things that existed beneath the surface.

My ancestors picked or­­anges in the groves of Southern Florida. I imagine their shadows moving against the skyline. Lanky men in straw hats and women with heads covered in sweat-stained rags, hauling ladders and baskets filled with fruit from morning until dusk. Years later, when the men moved from the orange groves to the packing plant, my great-grandmother spent her days cooking and cleaning in someone else’s house. They used to call it “day work” back then, even if the day’s work extended into the night.

We called my great-grandmother Nanny, the name she was given by the white folks she worked for, the name she wore like her lavender church hat on Sundays, fancy and with a fringe of lace. Educated in the ways of the family she cooked and cleaned for, Nanny spent her days watching the world in which her existence was peripheral. Through the corner of her eye she watched. She listened to the house guests, gathered around the table for lunch. She listened with a fierce intent to this world she was not allowed to enter unless bearing a tray of sweet tea for the guests.

It is with a deep sense of urgency that Nanny resolved to learn the careful art of assimilation. It is from this place she returned home to groom her own daughters with hopes that their futures would not be spent in someone else’s kitchen. She corrected their speech, along with their manners, and pulled each girl’s hair back into a single braid. She commanded them to lift their chins and to cross their legs when they sat. They would now carefully unfold their napkins and place them on their laps. And from here on out, you would not say ain’t in this house.

The open arms that once carried baskets filled with fruit in the orange groves now embraced the ways of those who lived in a world of which she would never be a part. I presume that this rejection of her self was not propelled by any sense of shame. To raise her daughters to assimilate with the folds of white culture was instead driven by an instinct for survival.

When the guests left and the children were settled into bed, Nanny polished the silver and cleared the porcelain dishes from the table. She was the silent keeper of the house. Her presence was everywhere and nowhere at the same time. And even now I am reminded of this sense of invisibility in my own life.

A short time ago, one of my students admitted to an assumption she’d made about the setting of an Alice Walker essay. The student’s interpretation of Jim Crow South in rural Tennessee had become, in her mind, an impoverished village of Eastern Europe. Really? Did the histories and struggles of people of color in our own country simply not exist in her mind? I wondered, then, how many other students of European descent were unable to see beyond the reaches of their own experiences. Later I returned to the text in search of clues that led to my student’s misconception. Was it in the descriptions of the rural landscape? What would I find buried in Walker’s sharecropping roots that conjured images of a tiny village in Yugoslavia?

We closed our class discussion with a reflection of how our identities, our histories, and social locations inform our interpretation of the world around us. In hindsight, I recognize that without exposure to the history of the African American experience, why wouldn’t we imagine Walker’s childhood spent in an Eastern European village?  When we belong to a privileged group, what motivates us to explore that which exists beyond the margins of what we know?

It occurred to me then that in order to foster a space for critical thought, a thirst for knowledge beyond the picket fence, and to nurture engagement in global citizenship, we must first seek to see, to hear, to smell and taste the world beyond the limitations of our own experiences.

What motivates the human spirit to crack the undisturbed earth with the blade of a shovel and to explore the realm of hidden things that live beneath the surface? Settled back in the easy chair of our own imaginations, where is the impetus to transcend the confines of our own identities? How are we to recognize the great tragedy that most often only half of the story has been told? The roots enable the orange tree to bear fruit, and this is the whole story that I seek to understand.

As a woman of color, for me, it is much more than a search for my own reflection or a wish to transform underrepresented voices from novelty to necessity. I seek to expand the reaches of my own imagination and to transcend the dominant narrative that has shaped my own worldview.   Yet, within the context of a segregated community in which social stratification most often occurs along the lines of race, we continue to bear witness to history repeating itself in our own cities and beyond. In the wake of Ferguson and Baltimore and ten years post-Katrina, some of us know fear like we know our own hands. We urge young people toward civic engagement and community service. We send them to public schools and nonprofit organizations with hopes that what they learn in the classroom may find deeper purpose in the presence of real world experience. If there is no pressure to escape the lens of what we know, no longing to seek worlds beyond the limitations of our own experiences, Alice Walker will continue to live in Yugoslavia, and these streets will continue to burn.

We are charged with preparing students to navigate within a world that is unjust. Yet so many young people arrive to our classrooms with a gaping chasm in their worldviews. At the center of this black hole exists a universe filled with moons and stars, all revolving around this sense of one’s own life experience. If not driven by an impulse to seek the discomfort of viewing the world through someone else’s eyes and if the instinct for survival is asleep, how do we inspire young people to engage in global citizenship? How do we challenge them to view the world through multiple perspectives in an effort to illuminate the whole story?

In my own universe, my great-grandmother’s secret power may have only been visible to herself, acknowledged when she looked at her own reflection in the mirror, when she removed her powder blue maid’s uniform and replaced it with a dress of her own.

Nanny died when I was 12 years old. Many years later, when I reflect upon her contributions to my life, I see myself as a daughter of the Third Migration, among the generation of Americans of African descent who returned to the land of their ancestors to learn the whole story. In this place I call home there are many trees in my own front yard, and when I shake the limbs to watch the autumn leaves fall, I feel the strength rooted in the earth below.


Tamiko Ambrose Murray is a writer, a teaching artist and is the co-founder of Asheville Writers in the Schools and Community. She is on the executive committee of Alternate ROOTS, a southeast regional arts service organization for artists, activists and cultural workers, is an Asheville Arts Council Regional Artist Project Grant recipient and received the Wilma Dykeman Award for non-fiction at UNC-Asheville. Her poetry, short stories, and commentaries have appeared in various publications including Verve Magazine, Gentle Strength Quarterly: A Journal of Fine Arts, Headwaters, and the Mountain Xpress. She is an adjunct professor of Literature and Language at UNC-Asheville and is presently writing her first novel.

DOLLS by Stuart Gelzer

We hope you enjoy this teaser of, DOLLS, by Stuart Gelzer. The rest of the story can be found in our most recent issue, 64.3.

Though he didn’t know it when he set off for work, Turek had already lost his job. No one had the decency or common sense to call him at home and save him the trip across town (two marshrutkas, both crowded). When he got to the Polytechnic they said they’d been too overwhelmed to think of it, what with everything, blah blah blah, though they were all just sitting around the staff office watching some glitter-covered Kazakh rapper on YouTube—trying to suck up as much Internet as their heads could hold before someone came and repossessed the computers.

Apparently once the head of the Polytechnic had collected all of this term’s tuition (U.S. dollars, cash only, please!), he put it in a suitcase and left for Germany. When Turek said, “Wouldn’t he get stopped at the airport?” the young people looked up from the screen and smiled condescendingly and said, “Turek, Turek!” and rubbed their fingers and thumbs together like carpet merchants—but if these kids were so cool and in the know, what were they still doing here? They went back to watching the Kazakh video, their faces bathed in golden light, and Turek stood there awhile, long enough for them to have forgotten him. Then he said, “So how do I get paid for the weeks I taught so far?” and they didn’t say anything, though one of the young women laughed, maybe at the music video. Because he couldn’t seem to stop himself from asking dumb questions, he said, “Has anyone notified the students?” This time all of them looked up and laughed, and the skinny guy whose name he couldn’t remember said, “Hey, good idea, Turek, why don’t you go down the hall and break the news to your class?”

It was class time, but in the room where he’d been teaching this term he saw only two students, and they were sitting on a desk kissing. Turek said, “Excuse me.” They kept going awhile, and when they stopped they looked annoyed. “Are we bothering you, Dad?” When he told them the Polytechnic was closed the girl said, “What Polytechnic?” So apparently everybody had figured it out except him.

Leaving the dim urine-scented lobby, Turek pushed open the heavy front door that still said Twenty-First Century Polytechnic and went down the wide uneven broken stairs, rusty rebar poking through the gaps in the marble here and there. He stepped back onto the curb to dodge a clanging streetcar, and decided to save his return marshrutka money and go home on foot: after all, what was there to hurry for now? As he walked along Young Pioneer Avenue—it had a new name, but he couldn’t recall it—he pictured his mother, poor woman, all those decades ago in another and simpler world, writing carefully on the title page of the yellowing old book that was to be his graduation present, Remember, now and always, the door to the future stands wide open before you!

Of course, when she said things like that his mother couldn’t imagine the real future, the one in which her beloved Soviet Union fell, first to its knees, then onto its face, then into a dozen bleeding amputated fragments—nor could she imagine that her clean shiny son, the pride of the V. I. Lenin Central School, would grow up to mimic the Soviet Union in everything short of the dismemberment (so far). Maybe it was a good thing that his mother, taken from him so suddenly, had not lived to see Turek in the full fruit of his manhood: desperately clinging to his last few remaining strands of hair, inexplicably bony and a little bit pot-bellied at the same time, forever exploring the gaps left by a couple of strategically missing teeth (all the dentists seemed to have left for Brighton Beach), still short of fifty, and now walking home jobless.