|Art by Julie Dillon|
“Making Us Monsters” by Sam J. Miller & Lara Elena Donnelly (10894 words)
This is a breathtaking and beautiful story about history and poetry and love and war, all tied up and framed as a series of letters, both one-sided in many ways, between two poets during and after World War I. It’s the letters that ground the speculative elements of the piece, as well, delivered as they are from Wilfred Owen as he heads back to the front, as he lives and up to the tragedy of his death, to Siegfried Sassoon, fifteen years later. The letters that Wilfred writes are to Sassoon then, and yet they were not delivered, were censored or lost or never written. But the truth of them and the need for them find Sassoon so many years later, either in the post or in a pocket or in a favorite book. They arrive and they resurrect this old pain, this old pleasure, this old love. It also brings the war back to Sassoon, who sees a new war looming, who sees the rise of facism and sees his own life beginning to fall apart. Or perhaps continuing to fall apart. The letters from Wilfred are from a past that cannot be interacted with, that can’t be reached. Sassoon writes back, but cannot actually send his back in time, so the letters are always missing something. They represent a gulf that neither men can bridge, a yearning that exists in both of them to make sense out of the brutality and abuse that surround them and that they are forced or coerced into participating in. The story looks at power and love and pleasure and the kind of casual hurt that lovers do each other, that should be easy to heal from except that complication compound hurts until the almost inevitable separation, tragedy, betrayal. It’s a story that for me seeks to explain beauty and art, to justify something that, as the men struggle with, doesn’t really need to be justified. But with the war there, with the abuses of medicine and psychology, with how they must hide, and hate, and pretend...the letters are intimate and detached, playful but gutting. They show Wilfred losing himself on the battlefield, even as Sassoon finds himself. They show Wilfred retreating into a sort of lie while Sassoon is pulled toward a greater truth. It’s not an easy story, not a particularly happy one, but it represents a look at something beautiful and flawed flowering in the lap of war, and how these two men still, so long afterward, are caught in the pull of their meeting, the power of their feelings. It’s touching and it’s shocking and it’s an amazing story you should read immediately. Go do!
“Elemental Love” by Rachel Swirsky (454 words)
This is a very short piece that still captures something beautiful and full of love, something about design and precision and grace. It features a narrator that seems to be artificial in some way, metallic and yet full of a poetry from their partner, for the person, the human that they love. And biological and artificial, the two represent in many ways for eachother a series of miracles, of wonders, of advancements. The narrator, talking to their partner while their partner sleep (or at least addressing their partner, if not talking to), revels in the mysteries of the human body, the chemical composition, the particular formula that goes into making up the constituent parts of a human. And in that examination the narrator revels in the beauty of form, but more than that, the complete mystery of creation, that this precise mixture is more than just the chemical components, is more than just water and nitrogen and everything else. That there is a part of humanity that defies being properly quantified and explained. And for the narrator, who (it seems) cannot say that about themself, it’s something that gives their partner an undeniable power, and particularly in the way that their partner uniquely embodies their own series of odds so astronomically against this one human life existing that it’s boggling. For the narrator, there is a schematic (one would imagine) for every part. A way to explain the science of even their cognition. Not that they aren’t beautiful, but that they deny that only their form is elegant, because humans too have been shaped by their environment, by their whims and wills, to be what they are. It’s a moment of understanding, an image of distinct lines but also a togetherness, a closeness, and a love, which makes for a very sweet and tender read!
“The Bone Plain” by Karin Tidbeck (3373 words)
This is a story that to me speaks of being lost and adrift, of having been taken advantage of and being put into a bad situation only to find that things can get much worse. And, really, it’s a story about pilgrimage, about the purpose of it, and what it does for Erika, a young woman who is in something of a difficult position. The story finds Erika running without much of a destination in mind, and finding herself on the path of a pilgrimage trail, where people visit cathedrals and seek absolution for their sins, or rather try to find some direction for their life. The story really finds its characters at a crisis point. For Erica, it’s the fallout from moving away from home with a man she thought was her friend. Caught between feeling trapped with her parents and the horror that unravels as she tries to move away, it’s about Erica finding out about the world beyond her parent’s home, in all its ugliness but, as she travels the trail, its beauty as well. Because she does meet people who are kind and whose kindness is not a trick or a weapon to be used. She does find that there are some people she might be able to trust, even as she’s also reeling from the ways she is young, the ways that her parents seem right to have told her not to go. Only the truth seems much more complicated, that in most ways Erica has been failed. Failed to be prepared for the world and failed to be protected from those that would seek to hurt her. Her journey is one to try and find peace with what has happened to her, and to figure out where to go. It’s a complex story and one that doesn’t seem to offer too many concrete answers. It’s a story about distance and about running and about finding strength in a safe place, among people who really care, even for a stranger. And it shows how Erica can come to a place, not physically but mentally, where she can move forward, without the burden of a past that wasn’t her fault. It’s a compelling story for all that it seems to center on a sort of shock, where Erica isn’t quite feeling everything, and where few things are resolved exactly, except Erica herself, to move on. A great read!
“The old woman who hands you an apple” by Betsy Aoki
This is a short poem that is heavy with fairy tale, with stories, with an old woman who seems to represent much more than she seems. The voice of the poem, for me, is one of admonishment but also wisdom, danger but also power. The central image of the piece is that of the title, the old woman with hand outstretched, offering something like poison. A threat, certainly, but the voice that speaks also has an understanding of what stories mean. The power of them. As warnings, as guides, as spells. They are magical, the stories that the woman knows, because they can offer lessons that are ripe with meaning and lessons. But, like the poison apple, these stories are not always what they seem. They are bitter truths at times about the way things are. Not exactly the way they should be. Not how we’d like them to be. But they are guides about how to navigate a world that is full to bursting of metaphoric wolves and other beasts, people hoping to catch a young woman unprepared. And the stories, and the storytellers, present this rather dark vision, this grim take on reality, in order to show the readers, the listeners, those who would eat the apple, how to better survive. How to get by. These are not always the happiest of things. It’s still really only those with power who are allowed to live unscathed. But it does speak to the ways that the world shews and spits out those who go unwary. Those who have not heard the stories, as difficult as they are, go unprepared, and it’s that which the narrator seems to implore the readers to resist. The apple is an offer of knowledge, as always, and it’s not going to be free of pain or consequence. But this isn’t paradise, and for those who refuse the apple, the ignorance is even more deadly. So yeah, it’s a complex little poem that really looks at stories and warnings, and offers a bitter truth of its own.
“Spice Islands” by Nin Harris
For me this poem is about family and about history, about the strange ways that we can trace our lives, the many different unlikely and incalculable things that led our ancestors to meeting and having children, and on down the line to us. And here, the narrator of the piece, also evokes place, the confluence of those stories, the frame in which our ancestry is placed. Here, the place is a pair of spice islands, is a history of flight and looking for new beginnings, fresh starts. Is a history of not being satisfied, of pushing for something different. And to me the poem is also about stories, about having the power to redraw those lines of people and place and time in order to point toward a future that the narrator wants. That, pushed into a roll that might not fit all that well, the narrator imagines a different past in order to reframe and recontextualize the present, in order to give momentum toward a future that is freer, that is what they truly want. And it’s such a powerful idea, this retaking of control of history and familial stories. How it allows the narrator to find resonance in what they do to what has gone before, imagining pasts that would not feel so restrictive, that were not so confining, in order to reach for something more open and rewarding. The poem is long and a bit airy, for me evoking the faint lines of history, the wide brushstrokes of story that can be nudged and imagine different, the real story coalescing only when it diverges into what might of been, and how it might have been better. It’s a bit of a difficult story for me in part because of the airiness, the ambiguity, but I love the effect, that lingering sense of family and hope and fantasy. A great read!
“For All My Missing Jiejies and Ayis” by Sharon Hsu
This poem takes on erasure and racism in media, in television and movies and beyond, into the idea of what is acceptable for people to see, and what happens when you are not acceptable to be seen. It asks what the consequences are for having to be invisible, unrepresented. How it affirms and protects those who would target people who aren’t considered real, considered present. And the poem moves around this insistence that this erasure is not racist in nature, is just business, as if business in many places, especially in the West, is not entirely based around racist systems and practices. The poem for me becomes about the walls that exist only because they are insisted upon, the emperor’s new clothes which we are all taught to see instead of the reality beneath it, the naked fact that the West is not White, has never been White. That there is an entire erased history, and huge numbers of people who have always been here, always been living and dying out of sight, with full deniability. It makes for a rather challenging read, the poem about the right to be seen and by extension to exist, because saying that a person, that people, can’t exist in media because of how they look is only a single step removed from far worse things, as evidenced by the violence and atrocities that litter history, both distant and recent. The poem makes the case, plainly and powerfully, for the inclusion of all people in media, to take part of the spotlight in order for there to be the constant visual reminder, the evidence, that real people exist and are here. To give them space in media so that we cannot deny their space in the real world. It’s a sharp and insightful piece that varies its stanza length and line lengths as if confronting the reader with all the different arguments, all the different ways of asking why this erasure is allowed. And it’s a question that lingers long after the poem is finished, ending like a whisper that sticks in the mind, echoing louder and louder. Another excellent piece!
“An Announcement” by Sara Cleto & Brittany Warman
This poem captures a sense of magic and urgency for me, a call for people to take up arms of a sort. A call, at the very least, for people to gather, to come together, in a way and place that is safe in some ways, but in others is very not. There is a sense of code and secrecy about the poem, that this announcement is not meant for everyone, that indeed if everyone knew about it there would be a great danger. But the magic of the piece, of the world it creates, is that this is not a message that will be intercepted. But it does imply a need to be discreet, to be able to gather out of the sight of prying eyes. It implies a general self-censoring, a repression, and here a chance to lift that, to come out into an openness, to create a safe place, a sanctuary. And, from there, to organize and plan in order to make that space bigger, to draw the lines of it out in order to create a larger safety for people to live as they are openly, without fear of violence or other danger. And I love the way that the poem builds up the magic of this message. That it’s there waiting for the right people to see it, and that they will, that really they cannot miss it, because to be in a place where you aren’t safe means to be extra aware, means to have to pay extra attention at all times. Which is a burden, which is a way that the marginalized are forced to do more work, to carry the cost of their own marginalization. But here that cost, that burden, is being used for something else, is being subverted in order to build community and safety. Because to have a safe space is more than just being able to talk and exist—it becomes a place where resistance can concentrate and organize, and where change can begin. And it’s a great way of capturing that, of crystallizing that, around magic and subterfuge. It’s a fun piece and a wonderful way to close out the issue!