From Happy Stories, Mostly by Norman Erikson Pasaribu, translated by Tiffany Tsao. Excerpted with permission from the publisher, Feminist Press.
Welcome to the Department of Unanswered Prayers! Here’s your ID. When it’s time to go home, put your badge in your bag and leave the bag in your car. Rather than tossing it in some drawer, I mean, or chucking it somewhere inside your room. Don’t worry. No one will steal it. And don’t forget to bring it tomorrow and the day after and all the days after that. You’ll need it to get past security and to access the main entrance, the department, the sub-departments, the letter storage facility, and the archive. It happens every now and then—someone forgets their badge and has to go home to retrieve it. What a waste of time and money. Remember, every minute you’re late will incur a corresponding reduction in your heavenly salary. Each minute you’re late also incurs a 0.33-point penalty, to be subtracted from your end-of-year point total. Don’t let it get so dire that you can’t redeem them for the leave you’re entitled to every fourth year, because if you’re short even a fraction of a point, you’re still short a fraction of a point.
There are no streetlights between the old slaughterhouse and the edge of town. The road that links them feels longer than its few hundred barren meters, proceeding above a rocky slope that ends in channel water—the former landing place of blood and entrails, arriving by chute while dogfish gathered. Six nights per week, a young woman makes her way along this route, tiny phone-light in hand, walking toward the main village on the Greek island of Hydra. Her name is Marina. I’ve known her since she was a child.
My first encounter with Mona Kareem’s work was not her poetry, but her essay in Poetry Birmingham on the trend of Western poets “translating” from languages they are not literate in. Kareem brings attention to what she calls the “colonial phenomenon of rendition as translation,” in which a poet effectively workshops a rough translation done by a native speaker or someone who is otherwise literate in the original language. Often, this is the only way acclaimed writers reach Western audiences. I was excited, then, to see that I Will Not Fold These Maps, Kareem’s first collection translated to English, defies this trend. Presented with the original Arabic alongside the English translated by Egyptian poet and journalist Sara Elkamel—for whom this work is a debut full-length translation—this book is a mixture of Kareem’s previously collected work alongside brand new poems, presenting a great overview of her work. I Will Not Fold These Maps’s execution as a collaboration between Arab poet-translators only strengthens the experience of reading it, filled with poems that vividly explore exile, grief, and writing and its relationship to resistance.
Robin Lee Carlson speaks to managing editor Emily Everett about her essay “Reading the Ashes,” which appears in The Common’s fall 2022 issue. Robin talks about the many-year process of observation, illustration, and writing that went into the essay, which explores the cycle of fire and rebirth in Cold Canyon. She also discusses how her work balances the poetic and artistic with the scientific, how sketching and watercolors help her understand the natural world, and how she hopes her book will encourage readers to observe and question ecological change in their local areas.
Table of Contents:
—Timothy Donnelly, “Eglantine” and “Mill”
—January Gill O’Neil, “Us”
—Nguyen Binh, “Two of the Graves by the Highway” and “Uncle”
Eglantine By Timothy Donnelly
after Marceline Desbordes-Valmore
Thorn-blossom! Tender thing, prone to solitude
like yours truly, don’t get it twisted if I reach out my hand—
it isn’t to pluck you, who are my beacon down this path, but a gesture
of acknowledgment common among my kind.
May 2023 Poetry Feature: New Poems by Our Contributors
For you, it’s your marriage. Your husband and his six-pack and fifth-a-day habit. Him and his blank job applications sitting in a pile on the floor. Him and his teary proclamations that your lives will never get better in California. Him saying you are the only thing he has: if you leave, I’ll have nothing. Does he see that you’ve wanted this the whole time? To leave? He must. Maybe it’s you that breaks. Your willingness to take it. Your eagerness to soothe. To pick up beer cans and cigar wrappers. Certainly, it’s the illusion that breaks. That it’s perfectly reasonable to marry someone only after months of knowing them. Did you even know what marriage would be? Did you only assume it would be all pleasantries and his-and-hers bath towels? Well, those are gone now too. It’s what you used to gather what he smashed on his way out. The dinner plates. Your bike helmet left in pieces on the sidewalk. You know what was left behind because he’s the one that walked away, but you’re the one that asked for the vow to be broken.
“My way is so long, so long, but my road is foggy, foggy,” reggae legend Winston Rodney, aka Burning Spear, chants on his 1980 song “Road Foggy.” The beat sways underneath him like a horse plodding on a mountain track, and the horns sound muted and distant through the mist. It’s a song about the song as journey, a track that feels like it’s never meant to end. You travel not to get to get to the end of sound, but to luxuriate in it. As Spear said in an interview, “If I walk away from music, I walk away from myself.”
Colin Channer includes that quote and the line from “Road Foggy” in several poems in his recently released second collection Console (FSG). The volume is suffused in dub and reggae recordings he loves from his homeland. Dub is not just something left behind, though. It’s also a metaphor for the way that Channer’s own experience and existence makes Jamaica live in his new home of New England, and vice versa. Music creates an imagined space in which disconnection is its own coherent landscape. The consolation is that the places you go are both where you’ve been and who you are.
Interior of a silver Volvo wagon, back door pockets stuffed with Candy Ring wrappers, pencils, and rocks; I am looking in the rear-view mirror or over my right shoulder into the backseat, my left hand on the wheel, right hand on the seat back next to me. Two small boys, both with eyes the exact color as my own, stare back at me, pleading or explaining or demanding or questioning or laughing or crying or sulking or fighting or trying to hide. The car smells vaguely Cheerio-like. No matter the music, the soundtrack is chatter and the rhythmic kicking of a seat back. They also like punching each other’s seat warmer buttons with their feet to be annoying.
Joetta woke from a dreamless, midday nap to a knock on the door, and the first thought that came to her was, The grass isn’t mowed. Visitors to the Thatcher home were rare, but like the woman traveler who wears clean underwear in case of an accident, Joetta believed a house’s tidy exterior promised a respectable life within.
On the other hand, with bills to pay, with the Indiana heat stifling, with Mother sick in bed upstairs, the last thing Joetta needed was company.
She rubbed her eyes and limped to the front window. A young man in a corduroy jacket stood on the porch. Joetta didn’t know him, though she decided he wasn’t a Jehovah’s Witness. Those people carried tracts and bibles, not manila folders under their arms. Also, they had a smile at the ready, while this one—he knocked again, then mopped his face and checked his watch, all in the same harried motion—had difficult business before him.
She thought not to answer, but she figured someone compelled to be there would feel compelled to return, so she opened the door slightly and peered over the safety chain.
SARA FREEMAN‘s arresting, lyrically economical Tides has been generating buzz from the likes of Time Magazine, The New York Times, and Lit Hub since it was released last year. The Guardian calls this fragmentary, feminist novel “an experimental study in grief.” But what does it mean to write a feminist novel, these days, and to dwell in your characters’ grief? And how do experimental writing forms intersect with feminism?
MELODY NIXON sat down with Freeman, her graduate-school colleague, to discuss Tides; its liminal setting; what it’s like when we hear our characters’ voices in our heads; the ways that novels might ruin our lives; and the anxiety “of near-constant potential narrative collapse” that Freeman navigated while writing this extraordinary debut.
Sentences Worth Keeping: Melody Nixon Interviews Sara Freeman