HerKind Has Been Retired, VIDAweb is Still the Hub!

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HerKind Has Been Retired, VIDAweb is Still the Hub!

WOUND, EXHIBIT, CALL

by Quinn White

I began in my car. Summer. I was under few obligations and had time for sunshine, music, current events and my friends’ discussions of current events. More rancor than usual rang through their talk of social issues. On days of court decisions and death, days which were every day, I witnessed diatribes, litanies, incantations. Less than a week would pass when photos of cats, babies, and ornately plated dinners buried these passions. I knew people remained upset. I believed their dissent belonged to a space sturdier than that provided by social media. I began in my car, in the strong July light, wondering if an anthology of protest poetry could provide such a space.

I asked around to gauge interest in the anthology and was greeted with enthusiasm and offers of support. Now we’re building an artifact of diverse voices of dissent. We’re placing our words before the world as a marker to say we believe, we don’t accept, we speak against the noise of a rolling feed of commercials for bigger sandwiches, of gavels over gavels over gunfire, gunfire and bombs we’ve heard through our various radios, heard so often that war is played in restaurants and people continue eating and chatting about car parts. We write against the silence the noise presses us to assume.

What do we write? Protest poetry is aimed against an authority’s wrongs. It is written in a rhetoric whose intent is to excite readers to action. Protest poetry is a genre of wild indignation. Yet it can mourn simple as a lily. Protest poems are loud. Yet they whisper rage. Some shout like spotlights in interrogation rooms. Some tear language, slice tongues to rip issues. Many ask why without posing questions. The moves of protest poems are varied, surprising.

Working on the anthology has expanded my concept of protest poetry in ways I didn’t anticipate. In Martín Espada’s poem, “The Soldiers in the Garden,” a dying Pablo Neruda is interrogated by a lieutenant and Neruda says “There is only one danger for you here: poetry.” The soldiers, contrite, leave through the garden. Espada writes, “For thirty years / we have been searching / for another incantation / to make the soldiers / vanish from the garden.” The Neruda in Espada’s poem does not shout. The soldiers apologize. The lanterns in the trees dissolve. The poem is a wish against occupation. A wish for words. It does not shout. Yet it protests.

A rowdier protest poem comes from 2300 B.C. The writer is Enheduanna. In A Book of Women Poets from Antiquity to Now (Schocken Books, 1980) Enheduanna’s work is described as “highly politicized.” Consider her poem, “Appeal to the Moongod Nanna-Suen to Throw Out Lugalanne, the New Conqueror of the City of Uruk”

O Suen, the usurper Lugalanne means nothing to me!
Tell An: “Have An release me!”
If you will only tell An
“NOW!”
and An will release me.
This woman Inanna will carry off this young cock
Lugalanne.
Mountain and flood lie at her feet.
This woman is powerful as he.
She’ll make the city expel him.
Surely she will forget her rage against me.
Let me, Enheduanna, pray to her.
Like a sweet drunk let me cry freely for holy
Inanna!
Let me call to her!

Enheduanna’s poem shouts “NOW!” It demands the reader, specifically Inanna, to take action. Enheduanna writes in the midst of extreme circumstances. This is perhaps the earliest known protest poem.

Looking to the twenty first century, I see in Mazen Maarouf’s “S.O.S,” a speaker who does not shout, but says, “My voice / Is plain bread / I dream / of distributing it / among my exhausted enemies..” Empathy belongs to protest. Even as the poem later mentions violence: “a dog’s throat / whose soft barking / was run over by a tricycle.” “S.O.S” hurts. Yet what does it protest? In order to enter the political realm of a protest poem, one needs context, knowledge of the author and his or her circumstances. However, the best protest poems shake their readers with and without such context. From B.C. to A.D., the strongest protest poems share an ambidexterity.

Due to such shifts in manner and content, composing a definition of protest poetry is difficult. I searched for the right words and decided on wound and exhibit. In “Passport,” Mahmoud Darwish writes “my wound was an exhibit.” But if I stuck with wound and exhibit, I wondered how protest poetry would be represented as different from confessional poetry? The difference, I concluded, is that the protest poem inspires its readers to action against a wound. On purpose. The poem asks, however obliquely, for change. The poem needs its audience. Urgently. So three words belong to a definition of the protest poem: wound, exhibit, and call. The wounds are often political. The exhibits take many forms. The calls belong to different voices, different pitches, and different volumes.

I began in my car. I was listening to Stevie Wonder. Maybe the song was “Sir Duke” or “Higher Ground.” I don’t like telling this story. I wish I had a dramatic event to recount, that a comet’s tail set my house on fire and I believed then that I would die and that I must do something with my life. But, no. I was thinking of music. How albums protest. A book should exist, I thought, a mixed tape or a playlist of poems that make cases, a book that ensures voices are not forgotten among reels of donut innovation and purring squirrels*.

In her introduction to the anthology Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness, Carolyn Forché writes that “monstrous acts have come to seem almost normal. It becomes easier to forget than to remember, and this forgetfulness becomes our defense against remembering—a rejection of unnecessary sentimentality, a hardheaded acceptance of ‘reality.’ […] These poems will not permit us diseased complacency. They come to us with claims that have yet to be filled, as attempts to mark us as they have themselves been marked.” The protest poem injures with its injuries. It is not the sound of marching. It is not, as Forché puts it, “an aerial attack […] One has to read or listen, one has to be willing to accept the trauma.”

For a long time, I did not read, listen, or write much about social issues. I felt helpless, small, and travesty was du jour. While working on the anthology, I wondered how I traveled here, how I became involved with protest poetry. I remember now. How simple. I began by listening.

*no offense is meant to donut innovation or purring squirrels.

WOUND, EXHIBIT, CALL

A Care Package for Tiana

by Dr. Yaba Blay

DSC_5848 a TEXTPhoto Credit: Sabriya Simon

Black women’s hair has made the news again. In the same week that Sheryl Underwood, comedian and co-host of The Talk (CBS) referred to “afro hair” as “curly, nappy, beaded…nasty,” a 7-year-old girl in Tulsa, Oklahoma was sent home from her African-Amerian led charter school because according to school officials and school policy, her dreadlocks are “unacceptable.”

When I first heard this story (sans the video), I, like so many others, became angry. But when I watched the news story, and saw little Tiana in tears, head hung low, I became saddened. Had I not seen the story come to life in that way, I would have likely kept my focus on the school, its administrators, and its offensive, anti-Black policy. But seeing that precious little brown girl break down and cry in front of news cameras, seemingly a day or so at least after the incident occurred, I became instantly focused on her. And her spirit. And her self-reflection. And I wanted to do something for her.

Here is that something. A care package of sorts. A digital book of photos and messages from 111 women and girls from all over the country and all over the world, all of whom wear their hair in locs, all of whom want Tiana to know that she and her hair are PERFECT.

Of course, I will send this care package to Tiana’s father and ask that he give it to her on our behalf, but I’m also going to send it to administrators at Deborah Brown Community School, as well as administrators at Langston University, a historically Black university under which the school is chartered.

I also ask that you share this with your networks because as much as this is for Tiana, it is not just about Tiana. Tiana’s story is the one that made the news. Our girls are under attack everywhere. I want them all to know that they have an army of sisters, cousins, aunties, Mamas, GrandMamas, and elders all over the world who support them and at the drop of a dime (or a news story) will have their back.

UPDATE: So many women and girls have reached out to me since I shared the care package asking to be included. For now, the care package is all wrapped up. We’ll see what the Universe has in store for this project, but in the meantime, PLEASE share your photos and messages of love with the growing Facebook community We Love Tiana & her Hair. 

Our girls need constant affirmation. They need to know that even though there are people in this world that would have us believe that our natural hair is “ugly” and “nasty,” that it is they who have a problem – not our girls. Not us.

As I did back in December, as I do almost every day, I’m calling on EVERYONE to join me in “singing a Black girl’s song,” not only for Tiana, but for all the little girls who could benefit from the affirmation of their beauty and their value. An intimate weaving of past and present, memory and contemporary, their stories are our stories. Perhaps if they know that we truly understand, they can be encouraged to see themselves through our eyes; perhaps they will soon be able to see themselves for what they are – Pretty Brown Girls.

Not matter her hair texture, length, color, or style, please, in some way, tell a little Black girl that she is beautiful today. And every day.

A Care Package for Tiana

Pull

by Deborah Reeves

The night before we flew away, our dad sang “Moon River.” You know how it goes—“Two drifters, off to see the world. There’s such a lot of world to see”. I think now of a poem by Bill Knot, and of where and how my sister and I are bound:

“Hair is heaven’s water flowing easily over us.

Often a woman drifts off down her long hair and is lost.”

 ***

It is dark when he wakes us to take us to the airport. It’s December in Dublin, a couple of days after Christmas. Presents have been unwrapped and it is the New Year that glints now and begs to be opened. Though it is frosty, we dress in light cotton and jeans that will soon be too heavy. I hold on to a cup of tea, brush my teeth, and triple-check I have everything I need in my backpack. And my sister, she wraps a silk scarf around her smooth head, then carefully places her hair inside an old hatbox, closes the lid, and pushes it far under her bed with a flip-flopped foot. I look into her frightened eyes and she stares into mine. I want nothing more than to crawl back into my own bed, forget the whole thing—except the whole world. I want that more. And so, we step into the still dark and soon are sitting at the gate, waiting to board a flight to Rio de Janeiro.

I had planned to travel alone. I had not imagined things this way. But how can I tell my little sister that she can’t travel with me when she asks? What right have I to stand in her way? I have shared everything with her—from a room to a doll to the unfathomable urge to pull out the hairs on my head. She was carried along that path right behind me and there is no returning now.

Our dad is driving home in the dark and we are anxious in the airport’s interminable glow and the glare of so many strangers’ eyes. I keep up a steady chatter, trying to distract her from looking to see who is looking at her. She reminds me of a nervous bird, bright eyes red and brimming. But I am looking too and, in the harsh fluorescent light, I see her as those who do not know her might: an invalid, an oddity, an alien—a girl with no hair.

I see, too, all the years of our girl lives before this. My mother wrapping tape around my gloved hands before bedtime. A boy in school plucking wildly at the air above his head, mimicking me. I see bare patches of scalp and tufts of downy damaged hair. I see hairs on the floor, on the couch, on my desk, between the pages of books. Myself crying. Myself not knowing how to stop. I see my sister say, “Look,” and point to her eyes. And a sickly fear spreads through me: raw, smooth ridges where eyelashes should be. I see I turn to Now Her Too, to We.

We hid from experience, from our lives: dancing, swimming, running, the rain, the wind, and boys. But, though I suffered with my own hair-pulling, with shame and self-loathing, my compulsion was never as acute as hers or the consequences so drastic. When every effort to stop had failed through the years, I see the day she made the decision to shave it all off and wear a wig. So long ago now that it seems to be a part of her. Barely out of school, it was supposed to be a final fresh start but what was meant to be temporary had become a painful and perpetual solution. The decision, then, to leave her hair at home filled her with anxiety and trepidation. But Brazil would be hot and humid and her synthetic hair was so stifling already. She wanted to dance unchecked till dawn. She wanted to swim in the ocean.

And, suddenly, we are there. Copacabana, Ipanema—from winter to summer in half a day. On stamps and postcards on every corner, Carmen Miranda wears a tall crown of fruit and flowers, and Jesus floats too far above us with outstretched arms. Beach-bars pipe out samba and bossa nova calls us in. We drink straight from the coconut and wander in a dream world where, as far as I can see, the girls are all tall and tanned and young and lovely. Regardless of who they actually are, I cannot—me, of all people—see them any other way but through their bodies. Brazil is beauty.

And women pay small fortunes in salons for all forms of it. The illusory hairless female body. The “escova progressiva,” otherwise known as the Brazilian treatment—a carcinogenic hair masque that straightens kinks and frizz. In the lucrative wholesale of human hair, the temple-offerings of Hindu-women’s locks in India are sold and rebranded as Brazilian. All around the world it is customary for women to lie on their backs and pay someone else to rip the hair from their legs and faces. Beauty is the dissolution of reality and the Brazilian wax epitomizes this. I’ve had it done too and felt quite normal. But when I do it to myself, when I pull the hair from my body in my own ceaseless cycle of insecure anxiety, it is a disorder and I feel like a freak. What is the difference though? It is all anxiety, fear, and self-loathing: the belief that we’re not okay as we are.

The allure of travel is not only to see a new place but also to be seen newly in a place. People do not know your story or the things you carry. They see you with fresh and, often, more forgiving eyes. You realize that you are not tethered to the beliefs and meanings you have assigned yourself. There are different ways of looking at a thing—even the hairs on your head. In the backpacker hostel in Botafogo, difference is a boon. Here, my sister is not perceived as a freak as she feared; rather, her bare head signifies freedom and non-conformity, along with the natty dreadlocked chicks and the boy with a bone through his nose. I can barely make out the anxious, little thing inside. Instead, she seems to me a Gypsy girl, bright scarves and golden hoops in her ears, silver in the palm of her hand.

We are blank slates and on New Year’s Eve we follow the custom, dressing all in white along with the entire, feverish city. We pin ourselves with flowers and ribbons, the color of which represents a wish, a desire, for the year ahead: yellow for money, red for passion, pink for love, and green for hope. White is the symbol of peace. Jenny appears in a bright white sundress and a bob of hot-pink hair, a novelty wig she picked up some place. She has hair again but it is no secret that it is not real. She’s excited for the party on the beach that night. She is glowing from the inside out. She is extraordinary. People are looking at her, the women and the boys, but she doesn’t seem to notice or need it. She is just happy. The ribbons are working.

It is a holiday so there are no trains or buses. We join the crowds and walk with everyone in the hostel around the bay of Botafogo to Copacabana. We dance in the streets and mingle and wander. There are thousands of people dressed in white and ribbons; there are drinks and drugs. Someone stops to tie a shoe, to take a photograph, to pee behind a wall, and in a moment Jenny is gone, swallowed by the white city. There is nothing to be done but believe she is part of a happy group and not lost or on her own. Others assure me she is fine and I know that it’s true, but it’s hard for me to not be afraid for her and the night loses its glitter.

Still, another part of me acknowledges that this is what I wanted. What color ribbon signifies your wish to be free of your sister? Free of her pain and my guilt. For years I have been carrying the thought that I am the reason she began to pull her hair, that I was the catalyst and the cause of so many years of damage and hatred and hopelessness. I am the eldest, I pulled first and she followed. And though I still struggle with the disorder myself, I have not suffered as severely as she has. My load has been lighter and I have compensated by taking the blame. Research says that it is chemical, perhaps genetic. But when my eight-year-old sister said, “Look,” and I saw her naked eyes, my twelve-year-old self saw a link from my hair to hers. No matter where I go, I cannot leave it behind.

On Copacabana beach, at midnight, fireworks blaze the sky and we jump backwards over dark waves seven times for luck. We send tea-lights and wishes out to sea and pray they don’t return on the waves, unfulfilled, or sink to the bottom. We ask this of the orixá Iemanjá. The trail that moonlight leaves on water is thought to be her flowing hair but the moon is missing tonight. My sister is out there somewhere, leaping and wishing: perhaps she wishes to be free of me. There are millions of tourists and cariocas on midnight sands. We all have hopes and secrets to confess into a breaking wave. The difficulty is that pain can’t tell what it really wants.

It only seeks to soothe itself and I am ready for a new form of relief. When I twirl my fingers around a hair and pull, I cannot describe the release I feel. They call it trichotillomania: trich is Latin for hair, till means to pull, and mania is a madness that implies a sort of frenzy. But I’m not sure about that part and hardly ever call it that. It is a calm, soothing sensation for me—methodical, almost meditative. Agitation comes after and perpetuates the cycle that is potentially never ending. At thirty-two, I have been pulling for three quarters of my life. The pain doesn’t leave no matter how much of myself I pull and pluck away. Hair grows back, mostly.

And I know, too, that a continent or a city cannot remove me from the tangle of sorrow, regret, and guilt I feel for my sister. Rio is just the first stop on a much longer journey. And as much as we share the same experience and habits—and whatever the origins and reasons for them—we are ultimately each on our own path and will have to find our own way through this thing.

The fireworks have finished but the beach continues to sparkle and flicker, a million people dance and sway, an undulating sea of white. It is beautiful to watch and I am excited for what comes next in my six months in South America. There is such a lot of world to see. But I am missing my fellow drifter, my huckleberry sister, and I hope that she’s okay out there tonight. The moon is out now and the waves are softly crashing against music and revelry. I stare out into the crowd and catch a flash of hot pink, bobbing and weaving in the distance: a wish returned on the waves. Our hair will always bind us. It has been and will always be a way to know and see each other. I stand on my tiptoes and shout: “Jenny! Jenny!” And, somehow, she turns and sees me, smiles and moves my way.

Pull

Dreads

by Wendy Qian

I went to a liberal arts college with mostly white peers. My Nigerian American college friend E stood out for that reason. Her high-pitched, infectious laughter posed a stark contrast with the social scene that championed poised sarcasm. She would part by saying “Toodles!” White boys who heard her bubbly laugh would look at her weirdly or even tell her that she was “loud.” She knew that and complained frequently about the “bro-iness” of our dining hall. She tried to transfer to a women’s college on the East Coast, but eventually graduated from the same college as I did.

I never attempted to transfer, but I empathized with some of her pains. E expressed her frustration with the rigid African American stereotypes. I could relate somewhat because at the time I did not identify as Asian American, despite the fact that people would characterize me as “Asian.” Like her, I had more experience with my ancestral country and appreciated my ancestral culture more than many other immigrant minorities.

I knew very little about other minority groups; luckily E had a lot of cultural knowledge to offer aside from her grievances. Once, I entered the dorm lounge when she was braiding dreads for another African American girlfriend. The intimacy of the event reminded me of when my grandmother used to comb my hair, but this happened among peers. I asked her how often she would braid her hair, and exclaimed at the tediousness of the chore. She replied with a sighing tone, “Our hair isn’t as simple as yours, Wendy, and we have to spend a lot of time tending to it.” I continued to marvel at the speed of her hands braiding extremely thin strands, and I was truly humbled.

Still, there were times when I thought E was too defensive about defining her selfhood. She complained about an event that advised attendees to dress in the style of “ghetto fabulous.” “That’s such a lame title and it’s so stereotyping!” she said over brunch. I realized the irony when she mentioned it—rich liberal arts kids dressing up in reference to a community they knew little about. The media glorified the style and all social classes consumed it, much like the numerous parodies of the “Harlem Shake” in later years. But I still maintained that the “ghetto” style has become a source of pride for people from the ghetto, and she could not appreciate it because she preferred “classy” events and wearing high heels.

I enjoyed her self-assured opinions and witticisms. She knowingly judged Akon, also a recent African émigré, as a “confused man” accepting everything that American pop culture offered. But sometimes this attitude could come off as overconfidence, especially when she commented on other countries. She described her trip to the Caribbean as somewhere she found she truly belonged, where people accepted her rather than put her in a racial category. She reminisced about a time when she bonded with a local, while they made fun of a white female tourist. She looked forward to the same feeling in Brazil—the next destination of her study-abroad plans.

I thought that she painted Brazil in such a rosy color on the basis of sharing similar skin colors. The gangs in the violent Brazilian film, City of God, were not divided by skin color. Unlike the 2011 cartoon Rio, City of God depicted Rio de Janeiro as a cruel and cutthroat place. I knew that one film could not tell the whole story, but I still believed that people living in a place of disparate income inequality would most likely cheat an American tourist, regardless of what she looked like. As a person who grew up in China, I was also extremely annoyed by the romanticization of a developing country. I tried to dampen her hopes by telling her that most people in developing countries need to hustle every day, rather than making her feel at home. She also got defensive and did not take my word for it.

No curse words were exchanged, but the dinner still ended unpleasantly. Both of us rushed to leave the table and put our dining plates on the racks. She did not say “toodles” this time. I posted an angry Facebook status when I returned to my dorm, chastising those who idealize foreign developing countries without understanding the reality. With the poor sanitation and crowded surroundings, those places are not as romantic as one would like to think. Fellow international students responded in agreement, while few American students understood what I was talking about. I did not mention E by name in that status, a common rule used whenever one makes a satirical jab at someone among the Chinese intellectuals. She did not comment on that status, or perhaps realized it was directed at her. I let the thought slide.

When E returned from Brazil, I never asked her about her experience as an act of defiance. By the looks of her crazy party photos, she did have a good time and made friends. Like E, I also enjoy traveling alone and I think back to my harsh advice. I might have been too cynical for E’s taste. Perhaps some tourists do get around better for their ability to blend in with the locals—E may have helped a Brazilian braid his long, dark dreads. I would never know.

Dreads

Foreign Study

by Sara Quinn Rivara

The house in Parchment was the nicest on the street, nicest in the whole neighborhood. White siding, blue shutters, green roof. When we looked at the house, which had been recently rehabbed for a flip, there were toads everywhere in the lawn. There were new fiberboard cabinets, almond ceramic tile, cheap Berber carpet.

It was a billion times better than the house that had no toilet, just a hole in the floor on Howard Street. Or the house made of cinderblocks across the street from the house made of tarpaper and plywood. Or the house in Cooper Township next to the shuttered Congregational Church that had termites crawling over the kitchen floor.

It had a bullet hole in the kitchen window. The neighbors across the street had duct-taped a trailer to the side of their house, cut a hole. An addition.

We paid Cooper taxes, though our address said Parchment. A mile up the hill, gracious homes flanked Kindleberger Park. Even those cost less than 200K. Even those looked down upon the hulking shell of the shuttered paper mill where dozens—maybe hundreds—of turkey buzzards roosted. Where an osprey had made its nest near the river, over the humpback of the toxic landfill. PCBs and sludge. The Kalamazoo River swung slowly past, dammed to an extreme, flat and wide and smelling sour and foaming at the mouth. Cedar waxwings darned the sky above the slow-moving brown water.

We’d been married for two years. I’d been cervical cancer free for a few months. I’d just gotten a tenure-track job at the community college where I’d been teaching for pennies, part time, since I’d quit my job as an assistant librarian at a small town library where everyone had Jesus in their heart. Where women went to college to be kindergarten teachers or to drop out to get married at 20.

I’d gotten married at 24. I’d been diagnosed with cervical cancer at 21.

I called myself a feminist, or had—had grown up in Chicago and had such ambitions! And now I was here. Married, 26, happy to be making 40K a year— tens of thousands less than my male colleagues, I’d learn years later, the college not recognizing my MFA because, Jesus, I’d been so happy to not be making 10K a year and didn’t know to negotiate, didn’t know it was my right.

*

I’d gone to an exclusive private liberal arts college in the Midwest. I’d spent my junior year abroad, I’d lived in the Women’s Resource Center and been a member of the Women’s Equity Coalition, co-founded a feminist theater collective. Taken mostly women’s literature classes, creative writing. I spelled women womyn.

My husband had dropped out of high school. Had told me, when I was diagnosed with cervical cancer—which, if you didn’t know, is only the result of HPV, a sexually transmitted disease which I only could have gotten from him, having lost my virginity on Devil’s Night my senior year—didn’t want me to tell anyone. He was ashamed. I should be ashamed: an STD? I was raised a Catholic. I had done everything right: had him tested for HIV, herpes, the lot. And still. Punished. Or whatever.

I had grown up in Chicagoland, gone to school in Michigan, and expected to move, post-graduation, to the Southwest for a gap year with my best friend, before pursuing my MFA in vocal performance or my PhD in literature. I was an honors student in college, second in my graduating class of English majors. I knew I was smart.

And then I was in Kalamazoo, still. My then-husband telling me that my shirt was unbuttoned too much, telling me he liked my body despite my mind. He said it was a joke. Why can’t you take a fucking joke? I knew my body to be a shameful thing.  I was fucked but I learned to leave my body. I began to think I must be a lesbian—please, God, let me be a lesbian—because I couldn’t scare up anything that was attracted to my husband. I wrote poems. I went to graduate school, got my MFA in poetry. I began to publish my poetry in journals. The woman who drove home from work every day transformed herself into something else. She wore only black, blue, brown.

I taught women’s literature. I told my students that I was a feminist.  As if that was something that would save me.

*

At 20, sitting on the banks of the River Dee in Aberdeen, Scotland, I figured my life would be prescribed by travel. A man in every port. I was going to see the fucking world.

At 26, I was pregnant. Married. I hadn’t traveled since I’d graduated from grad school.  The horizons were so small.

No one wants to hear your poems about breastfeeding or bread rising on the counter, a poet (male, prominent, editor of a major literary magazine) had said in a workshop in grad school.

At 27, I was in a hospital room, 26 hours into labor, my then-husband telling me I was overreacting. I pushed my sweet boy into the world, and goddamn, it’s a cliché. But that night, my husband gone home to ‘let out the dogs’ and because he had to work the next day, I held that small boy in my arms and felt something: what was it? I was terrified. I’d never felt it before, and it was overwhelming and I realized holy shit, this is what it is to be in love. And I thought if this boy had my life, would I be okay with that?

And I’ll be honest: if I’m religious it’s an academic pursuit. But there was a voice that rose up in me and it said NO.

*

And there was my life. Blue light flickering beneath the door as the nurses walked past my hospital room, my Bird nursing and my nipples raw and I was crying and I knew:  I have to get out.

It took me almost two years. In those two years, my husband began to sleep on the couch because a crying baby all night made it hard for him to go to his shitty job, my son slept in my bed. I went back to my full load of classes when Jonah was three months old, teaching five courses on 2 hours of sleep a night. My ex called my midwife to tell her I was crazy and needed drugs because I didn’t want sex. Because I thought—he told me—I was frigid. My episiotomy had healed the wrong way. I couldn’t sit or walk comfortably for months. We took a vacation to Munising, Michigan, on Lake Superior. All I wanted was to slip into the crowd with my son, disappear. But I was terrified: if I told my husband I wanted a divorce, that I didn’t love him, never had, that I had stayed out of fear, he would kill me. He would take my son. He would kill himself. And what about the house? The dogs?

And then I got tenure. And then I read every poem I’d written and realized: I’d known all along. I was miserable and couldn’t raise my son to think that was okay.

I told my husband I wanted a divorce. He hacked into my email, accused me of having an affair with a student because I exchanged a list of books. He told me I was a whore. He got his GED, got a Breathalyzer on his car to get his license— which he’d never had—back. He threatened to kill me, chop me into tiny bits. He took every cent we had, and no one would front me the money for a lawyer. He got exactly equal custody because I was terrified he’d take my son from me forever.

At thirty, I was divorced. Tenured. I’d bought and sold a shitty house. I lived alone for the first time in my life. I got a tattoo. I published poems.

But I stayed in Kalamazoo. I desperately love my son. I started to attend writers’ conferences, found my tribe again. Became department chair, union agitator. Published my first collection of poems at 36. Filed with the courts to move across the country with my son. And even all these years later, I am terrified. My son has been with his father for two days; his father won’t allow any contact.  I am still terrified that he can bully me, that crazy always wins. That I am the crazy one, because I’m a woman. And emotional. And admit that I don’t know everything. And am small and female and he could kill me, he could.

How can I be a feminist?  A student asked years ago in my Women’s lit class. It’s easy for you, she said. Assuming, of course, that because I was standing in front of her as a professor that I must have had a different life than hers. I just want my boyfriend to love me.

Don’t write about domestic things, that poet said. Write about what’s important.

Okay.  I will.

Foreign Study

First Summers of Mischief: Round Two

Thank you to everyone who submitted. Here is our final round of First Summers of Mischief.

 

Sarah at 15, before a mirror, I watched her watch herself. She lifted her tank top, examined her stomach and her breasts, pulled her underwear down to her knees. Her boyfriend, she said, wanted her hairless.

*

I was modest to a fault then. And often afraid, often embarrassed. Silent too. And nervous and glinting. Like a handful of hot sand. Like the burnt hood of a blue-black car in a parking lot at noon. Like a pot of milk on the coiled eye of an electric stove. A pot of milk near scalding. Scattered shards of glass in the sun.

*

Finally, the cool lips of midnight. Finally, we slept. The hills outside, yellow, dusty, combustible.—Mary Camille Beckman

 

17: no car, no job, no air conditioning. I read all of The Fountainhead in one reclined moment and felt an adolescent yes. Ignoring the sandwiches dropped off by my mother and the disturbingly erotic fantasy novels recommended by the Barnes & Nobles clerk, I discovered, in a book that no one had ever read, something that no one had ever thought of. Freedom is the most important thing, and some people are just better than others. Yes, I thought, succumbing to the lure of the sandwich. People need to know about this. A year later, at college on scholarship, the drip of money ate away the candied dream of my teenaged meritocracy.—H. V. Cramond

 

Night at Kennywood was magical. White lights strung around the lagoon illuminated paddle boats, earlier populated by rowdy boys splashing, now serene with pairs of adolescents seeking escape from the warning eyes of adults. “Don’t get too close,” said the sharp, mother’s glance as thighs pressed close on the sticky roller coaster seats and day-dirty fingers feed each other Potato Patch fries. My girlfriends and I ran past the funnel cakes and Noah’s Ark. Running, we transformed: the carnival lights revealing that despite small breasts and bruised knees we were no longer girls but rather women seeking dark corners and the eager fingers of those, who hours before, were just boys.—Erica Gene Delsandro

 

The sun was an enormous hot pearl. I lay in the warm sands, staring into an endless white sky. A little dog passed, the old man with him only slightly less scruffy. I waved. I wasn’t doing much else; I was just there, under some boy from Queens whose face I will forget.

I remember my bikini, with its irregularly sized, perfectly round polka dots. It made me a Bond girl—Pussy Galore or Plenty O’Toole. It would take countless forgettable boys until I was Holly Goodhead.

That boy from Queens? He wore a red bathing suit. And I wonder, does he remember my perfectly polka dotted white and black bikini?—Jodi Doff

 

For mosquito season, we sleep adjacent, along front and back seats in the pickup. I pulled out pictures of them building the log cabin; stakes, friends, ex-wife; his sharp chin looks bitter without the beard. Don’t worry, in winter the woodstove keeps the cold out; firewood stacked out back, the swallows dive bomb you, he smelling like bush and chainsaw oil; the guy he works for bulldozed up the pond, the dog comes in with me, I am fat, hot bike ride back, he puts his beer in the pond to keep it cold, we kick up silt, it is hot but it was cold the first night we were together.—Paula Eisenstein

 

Smirnoff Secrets

An American rite of passage is the 21st birthday; an opportunity to check off your proverbial to-do list of things you’ll regret, and boys. I spent the beginning of my Christmas-in-July birthday in a classy downtown bar, the next hour passed out in the park next to a homeless man named Wayne, and then counted down the last minutes to midnight in the emergency room; singing karaoke to a stomach pump and an epi-pen. My first, and last, drink of my adult life was a magenta rum cocktail called “Victoria’s Secret.” It wasn’t until halfway through it that I realized my own summer secret was an acute allergy to alcohol. —Pattie Flint

 

Three feet from the stainless steel toilet, I sat on a thin mattress and surveyed my surroundings. A metal bunk bed, secured to the wall, housed a thin woman wrapped in a grey wool blanket. A drinking fountain was attached to the toilet tank. There were two scarred plastic cups and a door with a six-inch window.

Brown plastic flip-flops hung off my toes, partially obscured by supersized grey pants. Underneath I wore issued stained-pink granny panties and an ill-fitting, well-worn bra. My wrists ached from too-tight handcuffs; my pride suffered from injustice, gawking neighbors, my crying children. I promised my chattering cellmate my breakfast; I didn’t plan to stay. —Andrea S. Givens

 

A moodiness claimed him and replaced the man I loved with a stranger. We sat side by side but between us was an 8-lane superhighway I couldn’t cross without sustaining grave injury. Motorists sped along as I stared across at him, waiting. Finding courage, he advanced and, weeping, purged. I put my hand on his back and felt hatred toward those who dared harm him. Then he told me about Trevor. My brain, heart, and ears filled with cotton and I was cold. He was hugging me but I was still freezing. I wanted my blanket, the torn pale blue one with the satin trim. And I wanted him to leave.—Stacey Givens

 

knees up throat clenched manubrium sternohyoid omohyoid sounds almost like, not yet. focus on sand, sun between our toes, her lips cut from rosehips, fingers measuring everything, remember it? scorch at the back of the sternohyoid omohyoid we pulse dock we grill muscles we kick up sweat, you warm asking skin, me salty eyebrows, a red car backing up into the ocean, the loudest singing, girl with the eyes that cut glass, remember it? salt stained, canoe dune, state troop, something thrust and buried in the sand, loudest singing on those shores before we had the word, before we knew the many muscled word, sternohyoid omohyoid sounds like, but isn’t yet.—Monica Gomery

 

I went to sleep that summer, shivering with fever, and I woke up six weeks later. There were, during that nap, some moments of lucidity. Someone talking to me, someone opening my curtains, a beeping intercom . . . quickly fading into the landscape of an endless dream. That otherworldliness so enveloped me that I preferred it there. It was a place of peace and possibilities where I was content. My awakening was as sudden and unexpected. They whispered and I heard the words “brain-damage” and “slow recovery.” The diagnosis was viral encephalitis. I am a phenomenon. Not damaged after all, having awakened to the beauty of a place of peace and possibilities within me.—Janice

 

Reading Michel de Certeau convinced me walking is a form of syntax. I tested this the summer I moved to a new city alone, recently heartbroken. I walked, making sentences to build a language-city inside, remaking the landscape of alone-thinking. But, then, how to reach out of myself again? The concepts of Wing Chun Kung Fu explain its motions. You move as if you have a center line, then do. Personal space makes a triangle if you think it that way. After walking, I learned the martial art. I built an armature to hang my violence on, retrained myself outward. Theory allows me to hit with all my weight behind it.—Jennifer Kronovet

 

Lorelle had a cigarette she was flipping around in her pocket, not a match to be found, and someone busted the lock on the kitchenette and Lorelle lit the cigarette on a burner coil, then put her whole palm on it—flat-assed down—held it there a good four seconds before Tag started screaming, so Lorelle punched Tag on the neck, and he went down like a bag of flour; Lorelle prancing around blowing smoke out her nose, flipping the bird and wiggling her hips like a whore. I can’t remember a better night except after that they took away our butterscotch pudding and the binoculars for six weeks—those fuckers.—Rebecca Loudon

 

Every afternoon, a greasy bag of churros sees me past the reek of the abattoir. It’s 1966: I’m 17, still virgin, summer schooling in Santander, and vulnerable as veal. Holed up in my nunnish room, I alternate: Sex and the Single Girl vs. Sense and Sensibility. Paths will soon diverge, but not easily. Extremes will test me throughout my twenties, with sex, sex, ever more sex assuming the upper hand after years of fearful repression. Repatriated, at Barnard, I do not get pregnant the very first time. Neither do I fall in love, except with the wonder of tumescence. Let’s see if it works again, and again, how and with whom.—Sandy MacDonald

 

July of 2008: The Return of My Sense of Self

I wasn’t in the process of suffocating, I was finalizing the act. Imprisoned by a husband-turned-tyrant, I felt further trapped in a state I saw as a black hole. Although at my lowest, I realized that I was not powerless. I declared divorce. Air! And when that damn Colorado border continued to taunt me, I loaded the kids into the car and drove right over it. Freedom! My tumble into adulthood had somehow made me forget that we are either jailers or liberators—of ourselves. So, to keep myself reminded that limitations are self-inflicted, I continue to cross borders: Mississippi. South Dakota. Chicago. Lost my job—kids, lets drive to Florida!—Lesleigh Nahay

 

You were always prettier—but that summer they liked me best. We pretended to be French—you speaking with an accent, translating my nonsense sentences. They believed us until we confessed, but still they wanted to meet us at the beach to watch the sunrise. It was the first time I snuck out of my grandparents’ shore house, wearing a dark blue sweatshirt that smelled of sun and salt. We climbed on top of a boardwalk pagoda, using a pay phone as a ladder. When mine yelled “Police,” I leapt off the roof in the dark, trusting the sand to catch me, sealing their attraction, and led the way to escape.—Randon Billings Noble

 

Some Sort of Exchange

Shortly after my boyfriend tried to kill himself, we drove with his mother through the night to Georgia. I didn’t meet his father until the morning. We had coffee on the screen porch. A Japanese businessman learning English was staying there, too, some sort of exchange at the college. “It is my pleasure to meet you.” During the day, my boyfriend and I had the house to ourselves, soaking in the hot tub, watching hawks through a telescope. One evening we all had supper, soft shell crab. We clinked glasses—kampai! Lifted, my boyfriend’s stitched wrist emerged from his buttoned sleeve. Maybe only I saw tears roll down the businessman’s face.—Deirdre O’Connor

 

Worst of times; best of times. Age 12: a new set of boobs and strange fuzzy hair “down there”; a new baby brother who screamed; a father who’d died; a mother who . . . wasn’t “present”.

I was shy in my red-and-white polka dot bikini. It lies in a drawer 50 years later. That was the day a (nice, tanned) vacation beach boy met me in an ocean rock shelter. “Can I just look?  Please?” he’d begged.

Not knowing, I channeled Gypsy Rose Lee.

He ran, leaving me the sweetest softest juiciest ooziest tingle, unknown to my little-girl body. Opening the drawer, I can resurrect that sandy memory. It gives me new power.—Diana Perkins

 

small pricks of hot gravel made me Coal Walker outside a Timbuktu of Canada. heel-to-toe, asphalt bubbles popped. by my piggie that went to the market. by my Tyrannosaurus Rex dewclaw. by miles of empty road, the verge a brushtop tinder of grass, soles burnt into a red-hop step. friend’s dad slowed his bulgy-fendered pickup. want a lift? he turned off into pastures, not to my parents. the cab, the exhale concentrated boozy. over ruts behind the enclosure of cedars. forest shadows were my fingers, closing cold. ordered to the ground, my reply command: take. me. home. now. low, level, controlled as all that is most dangerous.—Pearl Pirie

 

The beach reaching, just below the sky, where else would it be? The ocean, not as blue as I imagined, next to sand, hotter than I could ever imagine, towels, tanning oil, magazines, Marlboros, what else would you need? The tall cool blonde, the auburn haired athletically built beauty, and I, the curly topped companion to both, who else would be there? The day, just on the edge of July, most are away on vacation, but we are not most, when else would we be here? The bodies, all bent back boldly, all breast, hip, thigh, over extended in repose and response, searching, seeking, why have I never been here before?—KP Ponzio

First Summers of Mischief: Round Two