Poems by KERRY JAMES EVANS, CHINUA EZENWA-OHAETO, RICHARD MICHELSON, and LAKSHMI SUNDER
Table of Contents
Kerry James Evans
—It’s Either Men Made God or God Made Men
—The Wedding in the Cemetery
—My Mother Cuts My Nails
By Kerry James Evans
At seven, I ate my first real banana in the Azores, a volcanic archipelago of nine islands bubbled up like soap suds in the middle of the Atlantic. It was always windy and the bread tasted sweet. But on this one particular morning in spring, I walked into the backyard of a cottage where we were staying—my family and me; I remember walking down a stone path into a small banana orchard, then reaching up on my tippy-toes and pulling one down, ripe, then walking over to a rock wall, happy as I’d ever be. As I sat there, pushing my hair out of my eyes, I peeled the banana with such care, one might have thought I’d discovered the first fruit. There I sat, seven years old, eating a banana on a rock wall near the edge of a caldera while two peacocks paraded by, squawking, batting their eyelashes. The landlady saw me, asked if I’d had breakfast, Essas bananas são boas, não? Mas você já comeu seus ovos? She was short, like me. Her name was Maria, like the Maria from church, and she had curly black hair, a kind voice, but scarred—a voice like smoke, like she spent a few years singing in back alley Fado bars in Coimbra, then her mother got sick and she had to come home, stayed. Maria took my hand, and off we went to the big house, which wasn’t all that big. She said my parents were coming over as well. They did. We sat in wooden folding chairs on a veranda overlooking the orchard, which looked as if it were waving—all those leaves in the wind. The peacocks, she said, were her mother’s. Her mother hated them, she said. I told her I loved them, and she said I was young, and to eat as many bananas as I wanted.
By Kerry James Evans
Evidently, a bee experiences sound
with its whole body. I imagine
a dog’s bark is like ice water
splashed on its pollen-dusted back.
I imagine you don’t. Why would you?
You are the only curve in the sea,
and I am a catamaran caught
in a lash of wind, the whitecaps
swelling, the rope a tangled state.
Do you remember, or are you
remembrance itself—a wave
breaking on the ship’s bow?
More and more, I perceive you as pi
rolling down a limestone cliff,
each number a blade of grass
—hoof stomp, wild basil, chicory,
a game of hide-and-seek, the dog
zooming down the hallway
for a treat—each piece
of you parceled out like a game
—light distilled, a vision of vowels.
Then, there is the bee, fastidious
—a creature of frequency,
a worker’s ultraviolet-painted paradise.
God, save the Queen. Forgive me,
I just had the thought of a river
ending in a forest of mirrors,
and all I saw was you reflected
in a halo of jade. Never mind
the rest. Night is the shadow
a camel casts on desert sand.
There has never been a sound
so sweet that it did not need
the accompaniment of a harp
—is that you plucking strings?
Aren’t you both the string
and the song? Was David’s chord
the sound of your blushing?
I, too, know how it feels
to be seen. Last night, I dreamt
of a labyrinth of thorns
and trapdoors, eyes peering
through cracks in cobblestone.
I raced through it like a muskrat,
and when I woke in a panic
I turned to you. I imagine
it’s no different for you, turning to me
—a gull skimming a bee-loud glade.
Am I not the garden you made?
Is my name not the fire
Prometheus stole, the riddle of spheres,
the Tower, the gyre, an unwound
galaxy of red and blue thread?
No, you are the lamp and the crow.
I am the stone the builders
rejected buried in a heap of doubt
in a city you once called home.
Be still, you tell me. You are the temple.
I am the sea. Boats drift in the distance,
their sails perfect triangles of light.
It’s Either Men Made God or God Made Men
By Chinua Ezenwa-Ohaeto
I wasn’t born to die in a minute.
I want to be alive for the moments ready to dress
And undress me, ready for the clouds sipping teas from the oceans,
Ready for the embraces marking the right answers in wrong questions,
Ready for the son who sees the light with/against his father.
Sometimes, I wonder
What I know about history absorbing faces and distances and divergences.
One day I would like to stand outside of my reality,
Just to see who wants to know why I was crying by myself at the bus stop.
Tonight marks the first day I experienced love fill a room.
From the outside of my experiences, I’ve been wondering
About the written elegies for the names that don’t mean anything anymore.
I have learnt about the secrets of reaching out. And it has implored me
To reach deep into myself. And there, I have found no absence.
In every absence, we do not hate everything. So I was told.
But we do hate the bullets, the batons, the harassments
Pulling us away from ourselves, homes and schools.
Wherever you are gaze at what is left of everything, gaze
At it until you start hearing it laughing and laughing at its own oubliette.
There’s something about laughter and men. Let me rephrase:
There’s something about men laughing at a thrashing bird gasping for air.
It’s either men made God or God made men.
In this story’s basement, I want to know why it’s often my
Mum’s voice in my head that turns out to be my voice of reason.
I understand that sometimes we cannot defeat our supplications.
I am nearer to my pains—it’s the only way I weigh my punctured
Clouds, the only way I know I would save myself again. And again.
By Richard Michelson
It was essential, Einstein stated, that he bring his violin
to Berta Fanta’s salon on Prague’s Old Town Square.
It is 1912, four years until Relativity, and six before
the first wave of the Spanish flu will kill, among the
500 million infected, the painter, Egon Schiele, already
despondent over the death, three days earlier, of his lover,
Edith, and their unborn child. Painting his pregnant lover
the day before her death he could already hear the viola
and mournful bassoon of Mozart’s Requiem Mass. Ready
now to sketch himself dying, he gazes into the small square
of his shaving mirror, and recalls how he first entered the
Vienna Academy of Fine Arts at age sixteen, even before
his initial shave, no younger student accepted before
or since. He died, never to know he’d won that spot over
the seventeen-year-old Adolph Hitler, who’d later loathe
“degenerate art” and “physicist Jews,” moving to Berlin
to pursue politics, aborting both brush and pen. The square-
root-of-time displacing millennia-of-atoms is music already
usurping Einstein’s brain as, nodding to Max Brod, he readies
his violin under his chin. The pianist, who already has four
of his 83 books penned to literary acclaim, looks squarely
into the eyes of his closest friend, Franz Kafka. Brod loves
his quiet companion’s unpublished scribblings, which violate
all of fiction’s conventions. He had offered Franz absinthe
for courage before inviting him to Berta’s if he’d recite the
story about a transformation into vermin. Yet, rising to read
to his fellow Jews, even Kafka cannot conceive of violence
so extreme that each present will be dubbed a cockroach. For
now, though, let’s leave these imaginative culture-lovers
in paradise; and in a Kafkesque absurdity of E=MC squared,
time travel to British Columbia where we’ll reappear squarely
inside a brothel owned by Bavarian born Friedrich Trump. The-
oretically viable, we can locate the villain who, full of self-love,
emigrated at sixteen to avoid the military draft. He has already
planned a move to Queens, where he’ll die five months before
Schiele of the same deadly flu, his atoms still infecting us via
his grandson’s love of Hitlerian speech; even Kafka cannot square
anti-alien taunts with Melania’s Einstein-visa violation. I pray Thee
Lord, a fevered Mozart pleads; forgive me, forget me, I am done for.
The Wedding in the Cemetery
By Richard Michelson
The wedding in the cemetery featured scripture, loud
music, two rabbis, and the bride dressed in a shroud
my grandfather tells me. He’s inching toward the heart
of his lecture, while I’m composing till death do us part
punchlines, my pre-teen self not yet grasping the subtext
or the year. 1918, he repeats, the Spanish Flu infecting
a third of the world’s population, already fifty million
dead and in my grandfather’s Polish shtetl, superstition
has brought hundreds graveside to congratulate the groom.
I think of this now while watching my niece wed via Zoom,
her plans amended by today’s pandemic; rabbi-by-remote
reciting sacred rites, relatives clicking the thumbs up emoji
or the clapping hands, as ancient Hebraic prayers appear
scrolling across a six-foot flat-screen TV. Love, not fear
must triumph, my grandfather says once again, as I suffer
one fortune-cookie aphorism after another. Someone offers
an on-line toast and we raise imaginary glasses. L’chaim
still reverberates off of every broken headstone. I Am
That I Am, God tells the assembled. Pity the living guests,
the dead jest, who believe themselves amongst the blessed.
My Mother Cuts My Nails
By Lakshmi Sunder
In one breath you tell me I don’t love you
and in the next
you ask me where the nail polish remover is
The silver teeth of our clipper clomp down
on the night and create moons for the granite to swallow
Your pinky toe drips blood
but when I point out the
dot of festive red on the tile all you say is oh
In this game I prove I love you by
racing to my bathroom to get a glass jar
In this game I prove I love you by
vacuuming up your fallen hair on the carpet
In this game
it’s never enough
The jar I found was once packed with the cocoa
you fattened me with
You give me
mugs that hold slices of your soul
I give you poison
I pour the teal acetone into the pitcher
and you place it under the sink like a discarded gift
The question I voice: what if we mistake it for mouthwash?
The question beneath the question: what if one of us drinks on purpose?
I don’t ask because it aches / because I know the answer
Like two dominos—
if one perished,
the other would be quick to follow
Kerry James Evans is the author of Bangalore (Copper Canyon). He lives in Milledgeville, Georgia, where he teaches in the MFA program at Georgia College & State University and serves as the poetry editor for Arts & Letters.
Chinua Ezenwa-Ohaeto (@ChinuaEzenwa) is from Owerri-Nkworji in Nkwerre, Imo state, Nigeria and grew up between Germany and Nigeria. He currently lives in Lincoln, NE where he is pursuing his Ph.D. in English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a focus in Creative Writing (poetry). A MacPhee fellow, 2022- 2023. His works have appeared in Isele Magazine, AFREADA, Poet Lore, Massachusetts Review, Frontier, Palette, Malahat Review, Southword Magazine, Vallum, Mud Season Review, Salamander, Strange Horizons, Anmly, Up the Staircase Quarterly, Spectacle Magazine, Ruminate and elsewhere.
Richard Michelson’s most recent collection of poems is More Money than God (Pitt Poetry Series, 2015). He served two terms as Poet Laureate of Northampton, MA, where he owns R. Michelson Galleries and hosts Northampton Poetry Radio. Michelson has received a National Jewish Book Award and two Sydney Taylor Gold Medals from the Association of Jewish Libraries. His books have been listed among the Ten best of the Year by the New York Times, Publishers Weekly, and The New Yorker. He received a 2016 Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellowship and his work was chosen to represent the Commonwealth at the 2018 Library of Congress National Book Festival. His forthcoming collection, Sleeping as Fast as I Can (Slant Books, 2023) includes the poems in this issue.
Lakshmi Sunder is a senior at the Kinder High School for Performing and Visual Arts in Houston, Texas with a concentration in creative writing. She particularly enjoys writing speculative fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry. She has been recognized by the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers, the Bennington Young Writers Awards, The New York Times Learning Network, and the YoungArts Foundation. Lakshmi is an editorial assistant at Apogee Journal and the founder of Write On, an organization that teaches free creative writing classes to students in the Houston area.