Style is born, I told my students the other day, when writers lose themselves in writing they admire. Gay, urban, sex-loving Jewish Allen Ginsberg could and did recite all 193 lines of straight, bucolic, prudish, Christian John Milton’s 17th century elegy, “Lycidas.” Clicking my way to Ginsberg’s poem, “Howl,” I added, “And see—Ginsberg’s style is unmistakable!”
I read the beginning aloud. I’d forgotten it contains the phrase, “through the negro streets.” As I read, I wondered, “will some student report me to the Dean for saying an offensive, racist word?” I asked myself how often I think of a writer whom I wish to mention, then find, while I’m already reading aloud, some term that could get twisted into a meaning neither I nor the poet intend.
The problem’s worse when I teach Maya Angelou and Mark Twain, both of whose writings contain words this journal probably won’t print. Consider how much the euphemism “n-word” undermines their efforts. Angelou’s writing cannot be separated from her experience as a black person growing up in the Jim Crow South any more than Mark Twain’s experience as a white person growing up in a slave-owning family can be separated from his experience as a writer. These writers have the right to expect readers not to censor their language. The words of those who have the literary power for these uncensored words to inspire sadness and joy in all of us should not be expurgated.
But if I use the word, and if a student complains, any discussion I might try to have about how I and the class vicariously experience the sadness, the terrors of either of their lives, about how I and the class, through our common humanity, feel identified with their writers, would be rejected—and would be rejected by a number of New York Times journalists who are writing, and printing, things like, “I don’t ever want to hear that word come out of a white person’s mouth.”
For writers, censorship and bowdlerizing remain signs of disrespect. I do worse than dishonoring writers by euphemizing their words. I create a fantasy dogma in which black people feel one thing and white people feel another, neither can understand the other, and both are filled with fear. The point of literature gets lost. Forbidden words become powerful, fetishized.
I know what Allen Ginsberg would say: “America, why are your libraries full of tears?”
Melissa Knox’s recent writing appears in Another Chicago Magazine, Image Journal, and WOW. Her book, Divorcing Mom: A Memoir of Psychoanalysis, was published by Cynren in 2019. Read more of her writing here: https://melissaknox.com
My mother and I went to Prague because she believed that “Travel is the university of life.”
“Two rooms?” asked the clerk at the hotel check-in desk.
“No, just one. This is my daughter.” For an unknown reason my mother added, “she is still a child.”
The clerk, his hair thinning although he was quite young, peered at me over his spectacles and said, in a matter of fact voice, “Yes, still a child, but already interesting.” I was thirteen years old, tall, skinny with no breasts in sight, but I understood that I had received my first compliment. I decide to live up to it.
The energy of the city intoxicated me. While my mother did her best to get me excited about Prague’s historic sights, I was focused on the future. When the sound of an ambulance siren interrupted our conversation, my mother sighed in regret at the possibility of a life lost. To me the sound signaled the hope of life saved. I resolved to aim for life without regrets.
“Non je ne regrettte rien,” I sang with Edith Piaf on my transistor radio.
We returned home to my little town in southern Czechoslovakia. I finished my education and eventually my breasts appeared.
I left, to travel and to learn. Soon after, Soviet tanks rolled down the Wenceslas Square and I would never live in my homeland again.
I went from sleeping in a London telephone booth at the railway station to magazine covers and film, even becoming a Bond Girl. The Vietnam war ended and man flew to the moon. I fell in love, and travel did prove to be an education.
I watched in awe as my children’s lives took shape. I experienced happiness in situations I never thought that I would: the unconditional love of a child. The joy in helping people.
The Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia freed people in my country and I decided to go back to Prague, to see the change. I took my thirteen year old daughter with me. I booked us at the same hotel where I had stayed with my mother.
The hotel lobby looked mostly the way I remembered it. There was a couple checking in with a boy who looked to be about eleven. The clerk at the desk was now old and bald. He handed the couple the key to their room. Then he looked at the boy over his spectacles, and said, “What an interesting boy.”
My daughter rolled her eyes, recognizing bullshit when she heard it. I smiled at her with satisfaction and pride, humming quietly, “Non je ne regrette rien.”
Anika Pavel was born Jarmila Kocvarova in Czechoslovakia. She became a refugee when the Soviet Union invaded her homeland. She lived in England, Hong Kong and Monte Carlo before settling in New York City, where she is a writer. She writes in Slovak and in English. Her short stories have been published in BioSories, Potato Soup Journal, Tint Journal, Nixes Mate Review and others. Her story “Encounter With The Future” is currently nominated for the Pushcart Prize.
We’re cousins. Six decades of weddings, graduations, and hospital bedsides are tucked under our belts. With enough time, a language develops. A sort of Morse code. A drumbeat of inference and innuendo punctuated by sighs.
“So what’s new?” I say.
Then holding the phone away from my ear, I prepare myself. My cousin talks in a shout. No matter where I find her– whether it’s a plane or a doctor’s office or an elevator– her voice booms.
“You shouldn’t know. Five trips to the bathroom just this morning. Today I’m like a sieve.”
No one does torment better.
“How’s by you?” she throws out.
When she asks how I’m doing, I’m already sucked into the cadence of calamity.
“Not so good,” I reply. “My knee…it could be better.”
We’re getting into a rhythm now. She doesn’t miss a beat.
“You’ve got a bad knee,” she answers. “I’ve got a bad back and a neck that’s killing me.”
It’s like a bizarre poker game where whoever’s sickest has the winning hand. An Olympics of suffering. My heartache trumps yours.
The reverse occurs when we speak about our children. No lie is too small. Like an archeological dig, the essence stays underneath. No matter how far we probe, there’s another layer buried.
“How’s Howie?” I ask.
Her son is thirty-five years old and still on the dole. He ping-pongs from one financial pipe dream to another.
“A great opportunity fell in his lap. The kind that makes millions.”
“You know from Kickstarter?” she says. ” Everybody wants in.”
“And Susie? Is Susie still with the boyfriend?”
Our children Facebook. This boyfriend will never commit in a million years.
“So devoted. Such a hard worker. He’s saving for a really big ring.”
She changes the subject quickly and tosses the glove to me. “Your son?”
“A star, ” I say. The rotten kid hasn’t called me in a week. “One promotion after another.”
I’m not exaggerating here. My son went to Ivy League schools and works at a bank. Her kids work at the family plumbing supply. The news is like a dagger in her heart.
“So you’ve got a bad knee,” she says. In the background, I hear a faucet running. She’s taking her sweet time with this one. She’s probably zipping her pants.
“You know what you do for a bad knee?” she asks.
I’m fumbling for an answer when I hear the toilet flush. “For a bad knee,” she shouts over the flush, “you need to lose some weight.”
It’s my turn. Wherever she is, my cousin’s patient. The water must be circling now. She watches and she waits.
Marlene Olin was born in Brooklyn, raised in Miami, and educated at the University of Michigan. Her short stories have been featured or are forthcoming in publications such as The Massachusetts Review, PANK, Catapult, and The Baltimore Review. She is the winner of the 2015 Rick DeMarinis Short Fiction Award, the 2018 So To Speak Fiction Prize, and a nominee twice for both the Pushcart and the Best of the Net prizes.
I stand on the shore on a Sunday in July while dark birds hover above, and I squint into the early sun that barely peeks through the mist. Martha and I drove several hours through a downpour to get to this wide lake in off-the-main-road Massachusetts.
It’s days before an operation on my weakening heart and I watch swimmers churn toward me, the Australian crawl, the lake chopping, moments near the end of a half-mile through foul brown water, the initial chunk of Martha’s first long-distance triathlon, and after this, a twenty-eight mile race-bike ride with a six-mile sprint to the finish, a three-legged action she’ll call “grueling” when she looks back years later. She’s the oldest competitor at fifty-four (instead of a race number an organizer scratched “54” in black marker on Martha’s right bicep and left calf), and yet she is 132 pounds at 5’11” after furious years in pools and on a road bicycle, and sweat-drenched runs on pitiless asphalt.
Martha’s grandfather, “Spider” Clute, is in the sports Hall of Fame at Cornell. The Yankees tried to sign him in 1913 but his fiancé said NO: It’s me or them, she said, me or those drunk godless ballplayers. Martha’s grandmother didn’t yearn for the life she’d have as the wife of a professional athlete. Even so, there’s a family black and white of Grampa Clute in a Cornell uniform stretching for a throw at first-base, the “Spider”-body a double for Martha’s, not an ounce wasted . . . pure elegance and grace.
I peer out and think I’ll never be able to find her in this broil of bodies, the dip and swirl of red-winged blackbirds. A few swimmers back I glimpse a pair of black arm-warmers like the ones she wears, elbows high, the body level, head down, no unnecessary motion, smooth, strong, steady. Is that her? Martha fears the swim the most. Though she splashed summers as a little girl, a swimsuit her all-day attire, each day, every day, in the lake at a family camp, she has never swum competitively. Never. She fears her upper body will give out. She’ll flounder. She’ll stray off course on the open water. She’ll drop behind and be the fool, she’s sure. She’s old. The youngsters will stomp her. She can’t beat them.
But those black arm-warmers . . . they must be her. And the woman I see isn’t the swimmer I remember from a year ago. That one thrashed, arms flailed, head bobbed high, body twisted side to side, too slow, too slow, nothing flowed. This swimmer glides . . . she skims the angry water, each stroke of the arms a mirror for the next. She’s efficiency and control and power. She’s feet away and rises out of the water, tanned body shimmery in the sudden sun, she’s smiling at me and I’m crying, tears streaming down my face and I couldn’t explain why . . . . She’s fifth out of the water.
Kent Jacobson has been a teacher in prisons and a Massachusetts inner-city for nearly thirty years. His nonfiction appears (or will soon appear) in The Dewdrop, Hobart, Talking Writing, Backchannels, Under the Sun, Punctuate, Lucky Jefferson, and elsewhere. He lives in western Massachusetts with his wife, landscape architect Martha Lyon.
Tucked under a pile of wool sweaters, under the wedding dress that I didn’t let you help me pick out, under the little white sailor outfit that I bought on Etsy for your grandson’s baptism that you missed because you were dead, deep in a corner of the cedar chest that grandma wanted me to have even though what I really wanted was her piano, are your ashes (some of them anyway) in a black velvet bag.
That you wanted to be burned, instead of locked in a box to not-rot under the dirt, was the only thing we knew for certain. We split you up between the three of us, each with our portion, and made our own plans. I used to tell myself that I would scatter your ashes from the roadside overlook where dad took your picture on the way to our wedding, but I kept waiting for the right moment: when I got pregnant, when I had the baby, when he was old enough to come with me. When. I want to stop grieving you.
But there you are, buried in the dark at the bottom of your own mother’s cedar chest, trapped in the smallest room of my house, where dad sleeps when he comes to visit.
Dad told me he can’t find his bag, his share of your burned up bones and flesh. Maybe you got yourself lost? Perhaps I’ll get you out, tell him I found you, and set that part of you (of us) free.
Desi Allevato lives with her husband in central Virginia, where they are raising one child, two cats, and a hundred tree saplings in a suburban backyard. She has a brain tumor and an unfinished dissertation about Russian history. Her recent work is published in Longridge Review and mac(ro)mic. Follow her on Twitter, @desirosie.
My husband climbs the stairs, slow and defeated. His eyes brim with tears threatening to spill onto the kitchen floor. “What is it?” I ask, even though I know. This is not the weight of work or the isolation of this pandemic. This is about our first baby girl. He breathes into my embrace, and I feel warm salty droplets seep into my sweater.
His exhaustion has compounded these past six months. Tentative and still holding him, I articulate what we both know, “I think this is depression, Ryan.” He nods. His shoulders tremble. “I have been where you are.” Once there, the mind fogs over as if having been injected with a paralyzing venom. “You are not in this alone,” I whisper, like he has whispered to me so many times before.
This is his season. We have exchanged places. I now carry faith and hope through our desert. “We have three good and beautiful children,” I tell him. Our thirteen-year-old will make it through to el otro lado. One day this barbed wire fence between him and her will be dismantled and tossed onto a heap of remembrance.
Julie Sonnek is a writer and language teacher living in Minneapolis, Minnesota with her husband and three children. She writes creative non-fiction and poetry about family, place, and faith. She writes primarily in English, with sprinklings of Spanish. Her writing has appeared in Literary Mama. She has self-published a book of poetry and photography available through Blurb.com titled: Una Vista Brillante: Reflections of Colombia.