And Still Burning. fiction by Mansour Noorbakhsh

And Still Burning

We — my colleague, and I —were in Rome, Italy, in the mid 90s. We had travelled there as the engineering team of an Iranian project to work with the vendor. The Iran-Iraq war had ended and some industrial projects had been re-started in Iran. As soon as we arrived and were settled in our hotel, my colleague, whom I would call Hypocrite, started talking to me about his dreams of drinking and seeking enjoyment during our short period working in Rome. Although he was acting ridiculously composed when we were in front of our bosses or other coworkers, you probably know what I mean….

One Friday evening when we were back at the hotel, he started saying: “It’s our weekend, let’s go to a bar and a beautiful cabaret, it’s our free time, why not?”

He knew that I drank occasionally. Eventually, we went to a bar close to our hotel. After some drinks he insisted on finding other places. I tried to tease him, and  said we should go to Campo de’ Fiori.

“Where is it?” Hypocrite asked.

“That’s a very beautiful place and it is the place where Giordano Bruno was burnt alive,” I said, but Hypocrite didn’t believe me and assumed I was joking. Then I started to explain about Giordano Bruno and the Dark Ages. I said: “Such people were sacrificed to teach us how to think.”

He still though I was joking, although I was serious.  We left the bar discussing Campo de’ Fiori, Giordano Bruno, and the Dark Ages. I dumped on him all I had read about the humanity and the history of philosophy, and shamefully I thought that I knew a lot.

We reached a cinema. We were Probably talking seriously and loudly in Farsi for we attracted the attention of a man who was attaching some photos to the board of the cinema.

He turned to us and sardonically said in Farsi: “Gentlemen, please calm down” as an invitation to a conversation. He looked like Omar Sharif in Dr. Zhivago, so here, I will call him Omar Sharif or Dr. Zhivago; you may call him whatever you like. When we started talking together, I realized that Omar Sharif was very overwhelmed and had been looking for a moment of rest after a long working day. But soon he wanted to leave, and said that his working time was over, and that he had to rush to see a sick relative.

But I asked him to drive us to Campo de’ Fiori because his working time was over, and we were ready to pay him for the drive. Inn the car I sat beside the driver and Hypocrite on the backseat. Hypocrite, apparently drunk and asked Omar Sharif to drive us somewhere enjoyable. I was interested to know about Omar Sharif’s life and why he was living in Rome, etc. But I realized that he was hesitant to talk in front of Hypocrite, assuming the latter was spying on him.

When I asked Omar Sharif about his life, instead of an answer he asked me: “Why are you interested in Campo De’ Fiori?” and again I tried to impress him with all I had read in the books.

“I have read some of these books too…I was a communist…I escaped after 1980…You might have heard about that time.” Omar Sharif said.

I was interested to know more but he hesitated to continue. After more questions and trying to reassure and relax him, he continued to speak vaguely; I understood that. he had been a university student but had to escape from Iran because of his ideology and having participated in protests with other students at the university against restrictions enforced by the strictly religious revolutionary government. And after several months of living in trouble, he had been lucky to arrive in Italy. And now he was working as a handy man in different places and his job in that cinema was the cleanest one.

“Your energy,” he said, “when you were talking about the Dark Ages reminded me of those days after 1979 in Iran and political arguments with my friends.” His political activities had been limited to distributing some newspapers and participating in some political gatherings. That was all the political activities he had done in Iran or elsewhere.

Then he asked me again: “Why are you interested in seeing Campo de’ Fiori?”

I explained that I wanted to open the eyes of Hypocrite, but he just replied to me with a cynical smile.

After a long drive we arrived in a an area that did not seem very beautiful or comfortable In street filled with apartments. He parked the car and told us: “Follow me.”

After passing a long staircase we reached a very small apartment. He opened the door and we entered. The apartment was filled with the smell of fever and sickness. A very sick skinny lady was lying on the bed, burning with bad fever.

Omar Sharif said, “There you go, here is Campo de’ Fiori…and the burning Giordano Bruno…see…he is still burning.” Some copies of a book in a foreign language that I was unable to read were piled beside that lady’s bed.

“Who is she?” I asked as I took one of the books.

“She is a refugee from the Balkan war. Don’t you know that a brutal war is ongoing there? She was a writer and escaped from this brutal war between formerly communist armies…like me a communist student who escaped from a religious country.”

Hypocrite was badly agitated and shouted at me angrily: “Let’s leave here soon.”

But I was interested to know more. I looked at the book, a green cover with a portrait of that lady on the cover page. For a few seconds I felt that I drowned into nothingness. I felt I was flowing in nowhere.

Hypocrite rushed to the stairs scolding me and went out onto the street. I wanted to give Omar Sharif some money, but he looked at me sadly. I felt ashamed, but I collected myself and said, “I want to pay for this book…I want to buy a copy.”

“You cannot read it, I cannot read it either; why do you want to buy it?” Omar Sharif said.

“Oh, yes, I even want to buy two copies, one for myself and one for my colleague,” I said. Omar Sharif looked through the window and said, “For Him? A book?”

I looked out at the street, and we both saw that Hypocrite was vomiting into a garbage bin.

We left the apartment. Omar Sharif was ready to take us back to our hotel because we were very far from it, and it was too hard for us to come back alone in that late night.

“What about that sick woman?” I asked, and he explained: “She will be sleeping by the time I get back”.

After vomiting, Hypocrite scolded me saying: “You ruined my night…Campo de’ Fiori…Campo de’ Fiori.”

In the car, Hypocrite rambled on in the backseat with unstoppable hiccups.

Omar Sharif was just burbling, probably because his heart was eagerly looking for an intimate conversation. He was speaking about the refugees of Balkan, and said, “I don’t believe in communism anymore and I don’t believe in any religion. Probably all I wanted as a student at university during the days of revolution was justice, which I couldn’t find anywhere.”

Between hiccups, Hypocrite was nagging that I had ruined his night by continually saying, “Campo de’ Fiori… what a night! Campo de’ Fiori…what a stupid friend!”

I felt I was sitting between two ruined lives, two ruined worlds, one who was driving the car and the other who lolled on the backseat seeking enjoyment.

I felt that I was sitting between one person who was mincing his words and the other who was nagging and hiccupping. It had started to drizzle.

After a long pause Omar Sharif asked me, “Do you… still want to go to Campo de’ Fiori?”

I didn’t answer, I didn’t have an answer. Instead, I closed my eyes so as not to see the striking row of streetlights running fast towards us and smashing on the car´s windshield through the rain drops and the darkness of night.

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Mansour Noorbakhsh writes and translates poems in both English and Farsi, his first language. He tries to be a voice for freedom, human rights and environment in his writings. He believes a dialog between people around the world is an essential need for developing a peaceful world, and poetry helps this dialog echoes the human rights. Currently he is featuring The Contemporary Canadian Poets in a weekly Persian radio program https://persianradio.net/. The poet’s bio and poems are translated into Farsi and read to the Persian-Canadian audiences. Both English (by the poets) and Farsi (by him) readings are on air. This is a project of his to build bridges between the Persian-Canadian communities by way of introducing them to contemporary Canadian poets. His book about the life and work of Sohrab Sepehri entitled, “Be Soragh e Man Agar Miaeed” (trans. “If you come to visit me”) is published in 1997 in Iran. And his English book length poem; “In Search of Shared Wishes” is published in 2017 in Canada. His English poems are published in “WordCity monthly” and “Infinite Passages” (anthology 2020 by The Ontario Poetry Society). He is a member of The Ontario Poetry Society and he is an Electrical Engineer, P.Eng. He lives with his wife, his daughter and his son in Toronto, Canada.

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A Wedding Gift. fiction by Dave Kavanagh

Dave-Author-Photo copy

A Wedding Gift

Dublin wept like a moody middle-aged woman, her tears cascading in a saccharin sleet of cherry blossom, the park littered with their detritus. Spring is so untidy.

Despite the sunshine, a breeze cut in directly across the Mourne Mountains with fingers of Baltic ice that quickly made my skin feel raw. I pulled my scarf across my veined cheeks and whiskey red nose.

I was returning home from a morning of tormenting staff and stockholders. It was early and the city still lay in the daze of a somnambulant Saturday morning. The streets were quiet, with only an occasional dazed fellow or a stumbling couple, all making their way back to cots in which they would waste the freedom of a weekend morning on sleep and rutting. Spring Goddamn it!

From Stephen’s Green to the canal, I walked along the tangle of green were the moderately wealthy and the senior staff of various foreign embassies lived. My own residence was a mile or so further on.

I considered hailing a cab, but I hadn’t a mind to listen to a halfwit driver. I yearned for the days when drivers sat atop hansom cars with a pair of ponies in harness thus leaving the passengers to their rest and leisure. Failing that, I’d settle for a glass partition between the driver and his unfortunate hostages, but few Dublin taxis are so equipped, so I walked.

In truth I was happy to flitter away the hours before lunch, the stroll promised both exercise and an appetite.

I saw her in a bright lane that connected two main roads, a nameless byway, a place where public service buildings clustered together. I had chosen it because it offered protection from the bitterness and the flurries of hail that had begun to fall.

She stepped out of a black car onto the shining wet cobbles. Her red hair held in place by a simple white band. Her eyes were green and luminescent and her skin pale as cream. I’m sure her face had been lightly brushed or blushed, that some powder or paint had been applied. But I know nothing of such arcane arts. I have been a bachelor all my life and seldom regretted it.

Our eyes met and there was a frankness to her expression that reminded me of bad decisions I had made, roads I should have taken but didn’t.

I felt my face tighten into its habitual scowl, but then she smiled, and I was undone.

I looked into eyes that were like pools of druidic wisdom. She was ancient and yet she was a child, eighteen or nineteen years old, certainly no more.

She wore a white gown, simple but elegant. I understood then that she would be married there that day. Her young life which had become suddenly precious to me, was on the cusp of change. I noted the swelling behind the bouquet of blue flowers. She was with child; I knew this because I was once a physician. She was carrying a boy I imagined. I am not a soothsayer, but the blue of the flowers suggested it to me.

Our eyes lock for a moment before she turned towards a man who stepped from the opposite side of the wedding car. He was handsome, tall, his complexion dark and swarthy. His hand’s suggested a man of the land or the sea. His hair was slicked back with oil or gel, plastered to his head in a manner I detest. This is to be her husband and I am disappointed.

The man had shaved, but new stubble was already visible, it looked untidy. His suit was expensive and hung well on his muscular frame. His shirt was white, the collar open. He was wearing no tie. I was disturbed by this lack of decorum on his own wedding morning. I looked back towards the girl and knew she deserved better.

I was on the periphery of the wedding party, a stranger walking by, but I had become involved in this small drama.

The bride and groom to be where young. I guessed that I’d seen four times as much life and ten times as much living as either of them. Yet there they were, preparing to embark on the journey of matrimony. A state that I had shunned my whole life.

I was still troubled by the groom’s appearance; I could do little about his rough jaw or his hard hands but I could fix one glaring error. I glanced again at the girl. The photographs taken later that day would become memories, they would need to stand the test of time.

I reached for my own tie. It was black as all my ties are, and it was silk of course. I liked that tie, but I did not hesitate. I stepped forward and offered it to the groom.

He looked for a moment bemused, perhaps trying to place me, assuming I was a guest, some relation to the bride perhaps. He looked around and as he did the girl came to him and took the tie from his hands and placed it around his neck. She smiled as she tied the knot with sure but delicate fingers.

Before I stepped away, I looked at her once more.  I grinned like a teenager as she rested a delicious hand on my arm and smiled in return. I nodded and then stepped back, removing myself from the small group that clustered about her.

I watched from a distance as the young couple stepped into a grey building. They would exchange vows or some-such. I am unfamiliar with how these things work. I was never the type to attend weddings. But as I walked on, I carried the memory of a smile and deep green eyes.

The sun erupted in a clearing sky, encouraging the birds in the hedges to burst into song. I was happy then that I had elected to walk, and that I now had the rest of that splendid day before me.

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Dave Kavanagh is a writer and publisher based in Co. Dublin, Ireland. His work is widely published both in print and online. As well as writing, Kavanagh is passionate about growing food in a sustainable manner and when he is not at his desk writing, he manages a large home garden where he grows vegetables and fruit for his extended family. The Tangle Box is his first novel came out in 2021 and has been well received. He is working feverishly on a second.

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Before the Seagulls. fiction by Nightingale Jennings

Venus

Before the Seagulls

Ruby was noticeable in a crowd thanks to her jet-black hair and upright posture. At age 12, people referred to her as the girl with waist-long hair. Her hair had never grown below just a drop down from shoulder-length. Ruby tried, but it didn’t help to argue even when she was able to prove herself right. She looked at herself in a mirror, found her looks and figure nothing more than standard, and tried to see the attraction to her hair. Although she couldn’t see through the fuss, she thought better of complaining and gracefully accepted the special treatment people so willingly offered. It came with a price until she was fully groomed into a lady of social calibre, just the way her friends and family wanted to see her.

There were limits to keeping out of trouble at such an early age. Hair was not at all the foremost interest in her mind. Ruby’s carefully guarded thoughts were deeper and darker. She knew many truths were naturally best left unspoken. For example, she’d be caught dead before she dared say anything about Great Aunt’s incredibly bad breath, or the kindly neighbour’s clammy hands which absolutely made her shudder. There were more tangible problems she was curious about. Like the pistol Aunt Z kept in her purse. Why did she have it?

Mum’s response was never accommodating. “Stop being inquisitive, it’s not safe for you to know so much.” Not safe? What was that supposed to mean? What did Mum know about that pistol? How could it be safe for Aunt Z to be walking about with a pistol in her purse in broad daylight? Ruby fretted wondering what would happen to Aunt Z if she committed a murder. What if she made a mistake and shot somebody in her family? And on and on her imagination flew with no bounds until her father stepped in to distract her with metaphorical explanations.

Unconventionally, Dad took Ruby by the hand one night and led her to a neighbouring field. Then he let her go and asked, “What do you see, Ruby?”  “I can’t see anything, Dad, I can barely see you, its pitch-black dark,” she replied. He moved a step back and asked if she could still see him. “Barely, please don’t move around, I’m afraid I’ll lose you in the dark,” she said. Her Dad teased her moving left, right, backwards, and forwards into the shadows until she relaxed and joined in the game. At one point he crouched down so suddenly she no longer knew where he was and called out for him. Once her eyes had acclimatized, she could be heard laughing out loud. “Do you get the impression somethings in life get real, Dad?” asked Ruby. “Well, if they do Ruby, all you have to do is take a good look around like right now and locate the glimmer of a star with your bare eyes,” he said. They gazed silently into the cosmos and chuckled at the sight of shooting stars before solemnly heading back indoors.

The comfort and serenity Ruby found from the stars faded quickly and a few weeks later, the subject of the gun came up in conversation with Raphael, the boy who taught her how to catch tadpoles in the local pond. She was not meant to be out with him just as she was not meant to visit any of her friends or bring any of her friends home. She also was not allowed to greet or speak to anyone outside the presence of her parents. Ruby played by the rules but only when it suited her, and it didn’t when she was with Raphael. She told him about Aunt Z and the pistol in her purse. He told her about his uncle and the gun under his bed. “Do you know why he has it?” she asked. “I think he’s afraid that people who fought in the war may want to come after him,” he said. “Do you know which war?” asked Ruby. Raphael shrugged, there were so many and couldn’t keep up with them “It’s all historical times. Come on, let’s race to the pond.”

Ruby and Raphael were used to having full privacy at the pond but this time there were people armed with rifles and a group of youngsters some distance from them. They naturally ran up to their age group to find out what was going on. A boy their age had drowned in the pond while fetching water, slipped and fell into the deep end. They asked but did not seem to know him. The pond was going to be closed off. Children were no longer allowed to play there.

When Dad returned home from work that night there was a proper discussion about the pond in the living room. Ruby’s parents paused for a minute as she slipped into the room and found herself a quiet corner. Aunt Z, Great Aunt and the neighbour with clammy hands had taken up the three armchairs and her Mum and Dad were sitting on the sofa. They seemed to think that the drowning was not an accident, and some names were thrown around as possibilities, both adults and children.   Raphael’s name came up. “No, that’s not true!” Ruby cried out before she could stop herself. The adults turned to look at her briefly then resumed their conversation as though nothing had happened. Ruby clamped her hand over her mouth alarmed by her spontaneous reaction. She kept it there as the adults continued to chat knowing she would get kicked out if she were to speak or openly gasp.

The discussion was most revealing. She discovered her parents had never married because their union complicated the relationship between family members that had fought on opposite sides of a battlefront. Ruby found out that Aunt Z’s husband drank himself stupid then raised his hands against her until one day she had had enough and put a bullet through him using his very own gun. Great Aunt hid her in her kitchen for years and gave her the pistol in her purse in case any other man ever tried to hurt her niece. The neighbour with the clammy hands had purchased the pistol for Great Aunt in the open market which meant it wasn’t licensed. They all agreed that times had changed and soon Aunt Z would have to give up the pistol or get it licensed.

With the pond closed and nowhere to go, Ruby stretched out on the grass and looked up at the sky. It looked so blue and so far, that only infinity could describe it. She had been told many times not to stare at the sun so instead she stared at the clouds. They always formed an image then dispersed and came back together from one thing into something else. A woman appeared with a whip in her hand. A chariot formed under her feet. It was being dragged by dozens of babies clad in their diapers. It made no sense, but it was fun. A pack of wolves appeared behind the woman drawing men on sledges. Her whip rose and fell on the men, the wolves dispersed and vanished with the men into a fluffy, racing cloud. The baby figures disintegrated, and the woman faded like wafting smoke. Any day with the sky was never the same as another and surely for Ruby those clouds were something peaceful to remember as soldiers dropped their guns wearily on her street.

Their arrival had been predicted and it had taken a long time. She looked to see if Raphael was among them. One soldier abruptly sat down on his haunches and dropped his head in his hands. Another sat beside him and watched. A lady in a black dress and a white cotton shawl grabbed the jerrycan of water she had carried for miles and yelled at her daughter to follow with plastic cups, which were filled and handed to the men. The one sitting back took a sip then used his right hand to gently wet the nape of the other, now sitting squarely on the ground still with head in hands.

Ruby roamed the city when Raphael failed to turn up at home. She had never seen so many men in uniform as she had that year. The ones that hadn’t recovered from their wounds were sheltered under plastic sheets against the city hospital. She visited every tent, talked to hundreds, Raphael was not among them.

At her new workplace in the bustling city, project managers discussed how to raise funding for displaced children. Questions were raised behind closed doors as refugees flocked from neighbouring countries. The police were having trouble keeping the peace between settled and refugee communities. Telephone bills skyrocketed as more lines were pirated. The same with electricity lines and bills. Everyone seemed to be stealing something from everyone else. In the meantime, answers were not yet found for the displaced children. Offers for international adoption flooded the city. Papers were signed left, right and centre. Rock bands from all over the world chanted “We are the World” and the project managers joined in. Mrs A looked like she’d lost her mind when she let the orphans in. Their numbers multiplied and they all called her mother.

Ruby shut the office door behind her as though it would keep the noise in her head out. She sat behind her desk and proceeded to go through the mail, slicing open envelopes with the tip of her pen. A letter addressed to her from the Ministry of Health attaching a glossy publication about AIDS. She had been trained to educate the public about this terrible syndrome that was looking up at her from multiple photographs in the form of skin rashes and abscess that chilled her to the bones. Every time she turned a page, she stiffened just a little bit more. Someone knocked at her door and broke the terrible spell. “Come in,” she said.

It was one of her male colleagues. “Hello Ruby, looking like summer itself, hmm and that scent,” he flirted. She knew he was harmless and ignored him. “I have something to show you,” she said solemnly closing the door behind her. “I can’t wait,” he chuckled with a spark in his eye.

She watched his face closely as he leafed through the pages. His eyes grew bigger, his jaw sagged as the images showed him how the skin rash was capable of eating through whole sections of body, decimating limbs with infection. “By God, is this some kind of leprosy?” he asked. “It’s what I fear will happen to people who won’t stop sleeping around,” she replied. “It’s none of your business, keep out of it,” he said lighting up a cigarette and offering her one. She took it. There were no windows in her office, so she opened the door. Another male colleague stopped by, caught sight of the book, picked it up and read a caption out loud. “Kaposi’s sarcoma, one of the most common cancers in people living with HIV.” It made her shiver. He shook his head slowly as he leafed through the pages. Gently, he put the book down, took a deep breath and facing Ruby spoke figuratively about not allowing reckless people to drown him in their problems. His words carried her back to the years when she played with Raphael at the pond. She looked at her colleagues and pleaded, “I haven’t found him yet, but Raphael may need blood when I finally find him, please for his sake and mine, don’t do anything stupid. I will need you, many people will need you.” They looked at her in surprise, struggled a little to understand. Then it all came together and hit home revealing how love, war, blood, and contagion was of human making and ready to tear down their part of town. They sent out project proposals. They found Raphael. They did what they could. No matter how hard they tried they couldn’t keep up. Eventually, nothing could charm them into staying alive.

On her nightstand, Ruby handcrafted three decorative, match-sized gift boxes. She sat on the edge of her bed brushing her hair, strand by strand.  She called out their names one by one in a song she had made up. “Raphael, my Prince gave love to touch my hair; Petros gave blood to keep love alive; Sam held the torch to keep out the darkness, all three now gone, my heart ablaze with their flames, will they ever be reborn?” She reached into her drawers found a pair of scissors, clipped tiny lockets from her hair and fit them in each gift box to thank the men for the sweet, brave and kind memories they had given her. She tied the boxes together with a thick red ribbon, vowed to fill lonely moments with their warm memories, and completed her private goodbye ritual.

The guns had cleared. Great Aunt, Aunt Z and her Dad were also all in heaven. There were no problems left, just experiences, very special ones.

It was difficult. A difficult relationship. Also, a difficult venue and a difficult situation. Ruby was dehydrated. A banging headache threatened to sicken her to the gut. She found a bench and sat down, lips parched, feeling lightheaded. She took a deep breath listening to the tingle in her ears of blood draining from her head. “Breathe, keep breathing,” she told herself expecting relief which arrived when her ears started ringing, and the saliva forming once again underneath her burning tongue. She took deeper breaths with her eyes shut. The evening air cooled and filled her lungs. “Better than a fresh glass of water,” she told herself. A breeze kicked up the leaves, a gentle drizzle covered her head and soon she was licking tiny raindrops that had gathered on the roof of her lips. Ready to get back on her feet, Ruby opened her eyes.

Her mobile phone rang. It was her mother. They had just spent the afternoon together but perhaps she didn’t remember. “Hello Mum.”

“Oh Ruby, I was wondering if I would catch you. Am I disturbing you?”

“No, Mum, did you need something?”

“Oh I just wanted to know how you are getting along, that’s all.”

“I’m doing fine, Mum, we spent the afternoon together, remember?”

“Ah, yes, that was yesterday, wasn’t it?”

“It was today Mum; I’ve only just left.”

“I’m sure you dreamed that up Ruby, we haven’t spoken today.”

Ruby needed to spare herself from another headache. “Well, maybe I’m the one mixing things up then, never mind, how are you today, Mum?”

“Fit as a fiddle, had rice pudding for breakfast and tea in the afternoon. Now getting ready for bed. How about you?”

“I had a toasted sandwich for lunch and we had a lovely tea, didn’t we Mum.”

“We certainly did, and I’m going to bed now.”

“That’s brilliant, good night, Mum.”

“Goodnight!”

It was easier on the phone, so much easier. And it was most difficult to see her go, so difficult.

Finally, home, Ruby turned on the kettle, jumped into the shower and stayed until she felt that all her unwanted layers had been washed down the drain. The steam had filled up the room, her ringing ears warned her she needed air. She turned off the tap and mechanically got into her bathrobe. She grabbed a clean hand towel from the rack and with one quick movement wrapped it around her wet head. Ruby charged out of the bathroom and flopped into bed dressed in a bathrobe. The ceiling was spinning up above her. The tingling in her ears roared like the sea. “Breathe, breathe,” she told herself and breathed attentively until the dizzy spell subsided. Then she took a sip of water from the bottle at her bedside and was out like a light.

That night she dreamt it was dark and cold in the shadows. Two little boys skipped ahead of her playfully. She noticed they were in a bog and followed them instinctively. Vine-looking plants sprouted up from where the children’s feet had landed. They grew very fast and lurched towards her ankles as she stepped over them. One of the boys stopped to watch but alarmed the vines would get him she screamed at him to run and wouldn’t let him ponder. The faster the boys ran the faster the vines lurched for Ruby’s ankles until finally they all came out of the shadows into the sun. It glistened magnificently at the same time as the sunrays fell on Ruby’s face prompting her eyes to open.

It felt like another life. The sky looked white, cold and indifferent. Seagulls squealed like hungry fat puppies. “Coffee please,” she asked and watched as the waitress sloshed the dark liquid beyond the cup and onto the saucer. An apologetic smile flashed before she ran off to the next customer. Ruby lifted her cup and watched it drip dry before she rested it against her lips. Her big burly husband shook the table as he plonked into the seat opposite hers. “Coffee, please,” he asked and was served by the same waitress. This time the hot liquid spread beyond the cup, the saucer and all over the white tabletop. A chuckle resounded, a new saucer appeared, and the mess was cleaned up in a second. Ruby reached out for her husband’s fresh white napkin and placed it onto her saucer. Her cup stopped dripping and finally she could drink her coffee in peace. They were on holiday by the sea near Norwich. They left the hotel and headed for the seafront. On their way they stopped at a bus stop to admire a protected Bansky spray painting on a brick wall. Ruby took a photograph, which she printed when they returned to the hotel. She stuck a first-class stamp on the back, wrote the words towards the light and handed it in at the post office.

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Nightengale Jennings: I was named Chuchu at birth, in 1968, a time when outer space was politically and scientifically significant. My parents named me Venus the year I was admitted to an English nursery school in Addis Ababa. Everyone was surprised to discover I already spoke fluent English, which I had picked up from TV and my older English-speaking siblings. At school, I had access to English language children’s books, unfortunately not in Amharic. I started keeping a diary in primary school, and wrote short stories and poetry in high school, primarily in English and in Amharic. I destroyed everything I wrote in fear of being incriminated in an uncertain society that suffered civil war and famine. I have written professionally for international organizations, and love writing both fiction and poetry. *Nightingale is my pen name, which I adopted from the bird and for the quality of the song.

 

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Sister Thresa’s Acting Class. fiction by Pat Jourdan

Pat Jourdan

Sister Thresa’s Acting Class   

1

A card on the school noticeboard announced that any girl wishing to join Sister Theresa’s Acting Class should go to the hall in the lower corridor after school on Tuesdays.

At four p.m. exactly, with all our homework packed into bags and briefcases, eight of us showed up. The first evening was a warm-up session. We learned about breathing. Counting up to three, holding it and then semi-whistling it out brought us, at first, to something like complete breathlessness. Pauline Murray started to go red in the face and was obviously doing it wrongly.

In no time, Sister Theresa moved us on to laughter. We were asked to giggle, then to laugh politely, then to screech, and then to hold onto our ribs with laughter. This actually happened, it got out of control, as, just like sneezing, it became infectious. Margaret O’Sullivan collapsed on a chair with tears running down her face, while even Sister herself had to use a large white handkerchief to camouflage gulps of laughter. We finished the evening by going through The Train by W.H. Auden and wandered home, very pleased with ourselves.

2

Next week was even more dramatic – we had to shout after someone, to project our voice, louder and louder and we tried out anger.

“A good temper now, a really good shout. Let it go, get really angry now.” Sister Theresa stamped her foot, and though conscious of the convent Chapel being above, we were soon ranting and raving. Any nun upstairs who had nipped into the Chapel to say her Daily Office would probably not be able to hear us; the building was stout Victorian Gothic with thick walls. “Get into pairs now, and really shout at each other!” All over the hall girls were giving convincing displays of rows. If anyone had walked in, they would have seen an upsetting sight. The session ended with Vachel Lindsay’s The Congo’s Boomlay Boom, which got us back to earth with its stomping rhythm.

The third week was genuinely my downfall. Sister Theresa had progressed onto movement. We had to loosen up, shaking our arms, shaking our legs, pretending to shiver.

“Now, girls, we are going to practise falling, try a faint or start off with a stagger. Just let go.” I did. I fell to the floor with gusto, a lovely fall. We got up and did it again a couple of times, legs and arms spread out as far as we could to make it look convincing. As the end of term play was to be Sheridan’s The Rivals and I was going to be Sir Anthony Absolute, there was no need for this carry-on, but it seemed to be necessary professional practice.

It was some hours later at home, when I was finishing a dinner of sausages and mash that I looked down at the nearly empty plate. How had I got here? The last two hours or more had totally disappeared without trace. Where had I been? What could have happened? Not wanting to worry my parents, I checked that yes, my schoolbag was in the hall, the school mac and scarf hanging up on the hook as usual. Two and a half hours had totally gone. How had I managed to walk home? The front door key was neatly in my coat pocket. The last clear memory was of that perfectly achieved fall and Sister Theresa congratulating me.

3

Luckily, we were now considered capable of being let loose on the play proper and I spent the rest of term trying to sit cornerwise on chairs, flicking back the coat-tails of a gentleman’s eighteenth-century costume. Lots of doffing of feathered hats. The lines were elegant; best of all, real costumes were hired from London and appeared in large boxes with tissue paper inlays. The costumes were brocade and silk and lace and velvet and feathers, instant richness. The shoes had silver buckles. We were transformed. We sauntered and glided around, secure in the knowledge that no falling down was called for at all in the script.

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Pat Jourdan is a painter from Liverpool College of Art. Winner of the Molly Keane Short Story Award and second in the Michael McLaverty Award, won the Cootehill, Poetry Pulse and Veterans Awareness prizes, published in  200 magazines, with 4 self-published novels, 5 short story collections and 6 poetry collections. Mentioned in Ian McEwan’s Saturday, p137 as “Pat Jourdan, a little-known poet of the Liverpool School.”

Lived in Galway for 10 years; divorced; 2 sons; now lives in Suffolk down a country lane.

Blog-of-sorts at patjourdanwordpress.com.

 

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Memoir of a Boyhood in Cameroon and Nigeria. by John Echem

JohnEchem

Memoir of a Boyhood in Cameroon and Nigeria 

“A man can only tell where it started raining on him, but not where he’ll get dry.”

—Igbo proverb

Chapter 1. Mbenge Mboka

i.

We lived in many houses in the years of my boyhood, but the plank house on the street of Mbenge Mboka, in Mbonge, located in Southern Cameroons, in the Republic of Cameroon, is the most memorable to me. The slim chopped planks of the house, or karabot as it is locally called in the town of Mbonge, tugged on one another with termite-infested ribs. It was a big house, with rough lumps of earth that clumped in every nook and cranny, like mottled tree bark, or the swellings in the stomach of a sickle cell victim. They were hardened by the fire rack — located at the far left corner of the house when one entered through the front door — such that each time I hit my toe against any of the lumps, it bled with red open flesh that was peppery.

 

          I was five years old and always barefooted. I loitered that way in the family compound, and sometimes even followed Grandma on bare feet to the market to sell plantain. Mamma was tired of buying me flip-flops because I always returned home  without them, and I couldn’t recall where I left them.

          “I won’t buy you any more flip-flops because you always throw them away. Do you think I harvest money from a tree?” Mamma demanded.

          I didn’t know what to make of her ranting. It didn’t strike me that I had done something wrong. So I went barefooted, and all my toes had their share of flesh ripped open by the clumps of earth in the house, which left me hopping like a bullfrog each time it happened.

          I was the second of three sons (coming after Keburu, and followed by Sakanitua). Tirie, our sister, was the eldest of my parents’ children. On many rainy evenings, we sat under the fire rack, suspended on four wooden pillars, to warm ourselves. Grandma would tell stories that made Mamma either laugh or jerk in surprise. We laughed too, mimicking Mamma’s outbursts.

          I remember especially the story about Namondo, a stubborn little girl, who ran away from home and was kidnapped by chimpanzees. While they were dancing around her in celebration of their catch, which would serve as their breakfast, Kombe the hawk flew down and snatched her away up into the sky. Kombe warned her while flying with her not to look into its anus. But she did, and exclaimed that Kombe had made a fart. The hawk warned her again, but she disobeyed a second time. The third time she disobeyed, Kombe threw her into the sea, where she was eaten by fishes.

          Then Grandma asked us, “What did you learn from this story?” I told her that Namondo was stubborn. Grandma corrected me by saying Namondo was a disobedient child, and she cautioned us against disobedience. She ended by saying we should remember what happened to Namondo.

          Another evening, the heavy falling rain stole through the leaky roof, and stray mysterious fireballs from under the fire rack filled the house with excitement. We argued over who owned the fireballs. “That’s mine! No, they’re mine!”

          It ended with Sakanitua, the youngest, the shrinking violet, complaining to Mamma that we were trying to take his fireballs. Mamma warned us not to take his fireballs, and assured him that they were his. Dissatisfied, he put his right hand into the fire to rake and loosen more fireballs, and then withdrew it quickly with a sharp cry of pain.  His palm was burnt, and bubbled like a roughly burnt ripe plantain. Grandma threw water on the ground, dug out the soft clay, and rubbed it all over his right hand, as a potter does to a clay pot. I was scared that it was my fault because I was always blamed each time he cried.

          The rain stopped falling. Insects began to whistle wildly in the bushes around the compound. Night birds ushered in serenades to invite their lovers. I began to doze off, my head falling at intervals to my chest, like the agama lizard. Mamma carried me to bed.

 

ii.

Women in numbers I couldn’t keep track of filled the house, crying and sprawling on the ground. I was excited about the scene at first, that our house was filled with throngs of people, and even those who never visited. But then I saw Mamma sprawled out, and women were trying to stop her from doing something I didn’t understand. I fearfully watched the scene with rapt attention.

          Grandma came from the backyard with a few women of about her age carrying Tirie, our older and only sister. She was naked and silent. Her mouth was open, but her eyes were closed. Grandma laid her on a mat on the bare ground, and the other woman rubbed her entire body with the secretion of a leaf that filled the house with an offensive smell.

          More people came, and I felt lonely because no one noticed me. Sakanitua was strapped to the back of Mamma’s friend. He shook uncontrollably on the back of the woman, sometimes cried, deeply troubled by the tumult that took away his mother. She wasn’t tending him and calling him Bobo ’m — the pet name she would call him by to appease him when he cried. It means “my handsome” in the local parlance.

 

          Each time Mamma called him Bobo ’m, she tickled him around his ribs, strumming them like a guitarist on his instrument’s strings. Limme, limme — “leave me, leave me” — he would say. Bobooooo ’m, Mamma would tease on until he cheered up again.

          One of the old women stepped forward. Her nostrils were deep and dark, like the holes of a bush mouse. Her head was covered with a dirty head tie. She brought out an old sharp knife and cut deep on both sides of Tirie’s cheeks and on her forehead. Tirie did not cry out. Her body remained still.

          Another old woman stepped forward with a snuff-like box. She emptied the deep dark powder from the box into the cuts on Tirie’s face, and gave her stern instructions. “Return as a good child and stay. If you will not stay, don’t return.”

          Still another old woman stepped forward and wrapped away her body in a bed sheet. It was the sheet that Mamma covered her with at night when she lay on her sleeping mat. They took her to the cocoa farm behind the house, and returned after a while without her. Women gathered around Mamma for several days. Eventually, they departed, but would visit again with a bounty of food for us. They brought so many delicacies. I was happy and ate almost everything that was given to me.

          It was customary for me to take Sakanitua to the karabot wall to see whether our stomachs could touch the wall when we stood close to it. If they didn’t, I took it that we had not eaten well enough. My stomach never touched the wall, no matter how gluttonous I had been.

 

iii.

Mamma gradually became scarce to us. She woke up early every morning and swept the compound with a broom made from a little palm tree branch which spread out like a girl’s bushy Afro. She cooked and sold koki — bean pulp that is smeared with palm oil, folded with a leaf, and cooked until it fully pulps and hardens a little. It is best eaten with boiled plantain. She also sold palm wine at a local palm wine bar. This bar was built with palm branches, and benches were arranged in a circle for people to sit on and drink together. These activities took up all of her time.

          Sakanitua strayed unchecked. He sometimes fell on his face and got badly bruised. He would cry until he was exhausted. Sometimes I begged him to stop crying, and gradually he sought comfort and security from me. I felt I owed him care and succor, and tried to be there for him. I sympathized with him and learned not to hit him. I was his protector.

          One time he was beaten by our neighbor’s son. I went to fight for him and got beaten too by the same boy. We sat together in the cocoa farm in the backyard (where Tirie was taken and from where she was never brought back), and we cried for a long time. I still remembered and wondered about Grandma and those old women who took Tirie away and didn’t return her. One evening, when we were all sitting under the fire rack with Mamma and Grandma, I asked Mamma, “When will Tirie return? Where was she taken to?” The sudden unexpected question caused hot tears to roll down Mama’s eyes.

 

 

CHAPTER 2. The White Man

“The masquerade that would dance well begins from the shrine.”

                                                            — Oroko proverb 

i.

Mamma’s business expanded. She began a bilateral trade between Cameroon and Nigeria, buying bales of used clothes, locally called okrika, as well as household items, and then selling them at the local market. Eager customers came often to our house to check for her return, so that they’d have the opportunity to make their selections first before the clothes were taken to the market. She also traded footwear for both semesters.

 

          During her business hours, she’d wobble the bell she took to the market, danced like an elated masquerade, and sang songs that lacked any perceptible rhythm: “One-one hundred francs, one-one hundred francs, pick one, pick two, mother of all children is here.”

          She’d take a break when she felt uninspired, and then reignite her enthusiasm with more songs. This new path became so engaging to her that she became completely immersed in it. Sometimes Mamma traveled and didn’t return for months, so that,  gradually, she became a shadow in my mind. I was scared that something wasn’t right. Otherwise, why would Grandma be crying in the dead of the night?

 

ii.

My younger brother Sakanitua and I often went to school without eating, and Grandma would pull me by my ear and sternly remind me to come with Sakanitua after school to her at Grandpa’s farm in the forest. She said our food would be ready before we reached the farm. 

          We returned home from school one day during lunch break and there was no food. We were hungry. I decided to light a fire under the rack to boil some cocoyam (a root vegetable) to eat with palm oil. All my attempts to make a fire were futile. Sakanitua began to cry. I sat close to him and we cried together, changing gear after gear, with varying pitch, until finally we were subdued like a drone. I stood up, took him by the hand, and we began trekking to Grandma’s farm.

          The road passed through the grounds of the Roman Catholic Church, where there were fruit trees of all sorts, and a statue of a woman carrying a child in front of the church. I didn’t understand why everyone who wanted to enter the church paused before her first, chanted something to her (inaudible to my ears), and performed a certain hand gesture to their faces and chests. There was also a statue of a nearly naked man nailed on a tree.

 

          “Come, let us go and stone down mangoes and apples,” I said to Sakanitua. He followed behind me as we passed through sweet fragrant flowers into the orchard. Chirping birds chirped tunefully on the trees. I tossed stones at the ripe fruits while Sakanitua waited anxiously to pick any that would fall, but my weak hand failed to budge any of my targets. Nonetheless, I kept on trying. 

          “Look there!” Sakanitua suddenly cried to me. A white figure, dressed in a white cassock and wearing small, finely fitted, transparent eyeglasses, stood before a building a little distance from us. He beckoned us to come to him.

          “Ruuuuuuuun!” I shouted to Sakanitua, while bolting away down the steep hill towards the football field, owned by the mission school. When I reached the main road, I remembered I was with my brother. I heard his voice back from where I’d run, crying and calling on me to come and take him. I knew I was done for. “Grandma will kill me today. Oh, I am finished!” I began to weep.

 

iii.

I gallivanted nervously around the football field until it was almost nightfall. Farmers were returning from their labors along the main road. I was certain that my brother had been eaten by dogs. [?] I wanted to die, but lacked the courage to do so. Lost in my worries and frustration, I suddenly heard footsteps behind me that made me writhe in fear. I turned and saw that it was Sakanitua and the White Man, holding hands like friends do, and walking towards me.

          “I didn’t pluck any mango! I didn’t!” I pleaded in my great panic.

          He kept walking towards me with an assuring smile on his face. He offered me his hand to shake. I nervously took it. He asked me some questions I couldn’t understand because it seemed the words were falling from his nose. I couldn’t make out a thing. But I grew confident that he was friendly. 

 

          He took us back to his house and the cook there brought me rice and stew with a big slice of chicken on it. My brother refused to eat with me because he was already overfed. I ate and drank absolutely chilled water, such as I had never drunk before. 

          He brought out his car, opened the doors, and told us to get in. He drove us home while I showed him the way. When we reached our compound and alighted, he got out too. Suddenly the compound was crowded with children and adults. Children were chanting: “White Man, I want to get into your motor too! Come and carry me!” When he turned to look at them, they all ran away.

 

iv.

He went with us to the backyard where Grandma was sitting. When she saw him, she stood up and brought him a chair to sit. Grandma told him that her husband was a hose-boy to the Whites at Victoria, Cameroon (renamed Limbe in 1982 ). She said that she and her husband had served them for more than twenty years, until they returned to their own country. 

          It was the first time I heard any of this. I began to wonder about why we didn’t have chickens and fruit trees, and beautiful houses like the White Man? I also couldn’t understand why Grandpa always went to the farm with torn and dirty clothes? Did the White Man not give him decent clothes? I no” had many unanswered questions. 

          That night when we sat by the fireside, with Grandma roasting corn, I asked, “What did the White Man give you and Grandpa?”

          “Where do you think that the wall clock with the big knob, that rings every day in the parlor, came from?” she responded. 

 

  1. The Death of My Friend Pappy

Death is a thief, 

Death is a thief, 

It steals and runs away.

                    — Igbo proverb

i.

          “Get up and bathe! You are late for school already,” Grandma said. 

 

          I was languid, the morning sleep in me as sweet as fresh palm wine. I staggered up, a sleepy-eyed child with drooping eyelids, wishing Grandma would allow me to return to bed. 

          She reacted with a hard slap on my back with her palm that was as hard as sun-baked mud. I ran wildly into the back yard, mumbling rude utterances with a contorted face. 

          I hated morning baths with everything in me because the weather was often cold. I hated bathing as a must-do routine. It made me unhappy, and Grandma knew I was pretending to be sleepy and unaware that it was time to prepare for school.

          “If you don’t go to school today, you’ll not sleep nor eat in this house. I will ask Teacher Nanje if you were in class.” 

          She knew most times I stayed away from class and instead wandered in the palm plantation with my friend Pappy, picking ripe palm nuts, because my school uniform was usually dappled with palm oil like a leopard’s stripes, and particles of palm kernel chaff often hung between my teeth.

          I hurriedly washed my face and legs, cleaned up, and rubbed palm kernel oil, which is called manyanga in the local parlance. My face glistened in the early morning sun. My shin bones glittered too, like piercing osiers. I left for school, barefoot as usual.

 

ii.

          “I knew I’d meet you here,” I said to Pappy. 

          “Yes, when I couldn’t find you here, I knew you were on your way. So I decided to wait for you like you did for me.” 

          There was a hidden cove in the cocoa farm behind the school that was our rendezvous. We would always hide there until after Assembly for morning devotion, and the lengthy National Anthem that was sung routinely. Then we’d try to sneak into the class, but if the teachers on duty, especially Miss Ngole, were walking around the school compound, looking for truants like us, then we’d be done for the day. So we’d change directions, and instead head into the palm plantation on the other side of the school. 

          We hated Assembly because our legs were riddled with wounds that reeked and secreted unpleasant-smelling moisture. During the singing of the National Anthem, when everyone stood at attention, if any pupil mistakenly shook his body, they would be severely flogged. 

          There was no way my friend and I were going to manage to stand still because the malodorous smell from our wounds invited colonies of flies for a mammoth feast on our legs, and sometimes their proboscis drilled so deep into our bones that we twitched in paroxysm. We always succumbed due to the flies, and we were never pardoned because of our wounds. To escape from these guaranteed punishments from flies and our teachers, we stopped going to Assembly.

 

iii.

          “Let us please go to the other side. We might find more palm fruits than these few we’ve gotten here,” Pappy implored. 

          We had rambled through the usual areas where we normally picked the palm fruits that served as our morning food. Sometimes we cracked out the nuts and sold them to other pupils for pencils and pens. We ventured deep into the other side of the plantation, picking more fruits and eating like hungry animals.

          “Let’s play hide and seek,” I suggested.

          “OK! I’ll go first while you’ll come searching for me,” my accomplice said with excitement. 

          After my count, I went after him. I searched for him everywhere I possibly could, but couldn’t find him. The sun was ripe in the sky. It put forth a bold face with streamers of flames on palm trees, amidst dry winds and the solemn and mournful music of the birds. Suddenly, I heard his moans from afar, calling out to me in grief and fear. I ran in his direction, calling out on him: “Papppeee . . .”

 

          Then I heard his pitiful voice, still distant from me, underground. I was scared. I went further and saw him in an old water-soaked grave that sank with him and there was a termite-infested cross on his chest.

          “Give me your hand, Pappy. Climb up!”

          We struggled and cried. No one was there to help us until he inexplicably climbed out of the grave. He was so dirty, but before I could say a word, he bolted off.

          “Wait for meee!” I cried, while I pursued hard after him.

 

iv.

 

I didn’t see him for two days because he didn’t come to school after that incident. I was unhappy and scared that he might have told his parents, and that they might show up in school to speak with our teachers. That would mean big trouble. It kept me restless and alarmed. 

          On the third day, all the pupils were brought out just after morning devotion. The headmaster instructed us that prayers should be said for Pappy because he was seriously sick. I became even more afraid. I was at my wits’ end. 

          On the fourth day, all the pupils were brought out in the afternoon. There were freshly plucked blushing roses here and there. I couldn’t understand what was going on. The pupils were arranged in lines, according to their classes. Primary Five pupils were given more flowers. I was called to stand at the front, and a red rose was given to me. The headmaster addressed us.

          “We’re going for a condolence visit to the family of one of your friends and classmates, Orok Pappy, who was sick and died this morning.” 

          Most of the pupils began to weep. I was scared and felt I was going to die too. Thoughts about that day filled my mind. 

 

          We marched to the family compound of my friend, singing: “Peace, perfect peace, in this dark world of sin….” 

          When we reached the house, we were instructed to enter single file. Each of the classes would enter the sitting room one by one where his remains were laid. When it was the turn of Primary Five, I began to shiver. Immediately his mother saw me, and she sprawled on the ground.

          “Echem, look at your friend. He’s gone. Won’t you call him so that you two might go out to play football? Won’t you call him so that you two might go to school as usual?” She continued to cry and recounted many more of our adventures. 

          I impulsively stopped walking, stared at his body, and saw fresh blood trickling from his nose. The headmaster ordered me to continue moving for other classes to have their turn. We all left in a single file.

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John Echem was born in 1982 at Mbonge Maroumba, Southern Cameroon to the family of Rose Namondo Sakwe, a native of Mbonge Maroumba, and the late inspector Aluu John Echem, a native of Amata-Amachi, Akpoha, Afikpo North L.G.A., Ebonyi State, Nigeria. John Echem lived and grew up in Mbonge, his maternal hometown, before moving to Nigeria in the late ‘90s to acclimatize with his father because his mother and father were apart. He lived at his paternal hometown, Akpoha, and got immersed in the culture of his people. He presently lives in Abak, Akwa Ibom State, Nigeria, where he teaches the English Language and Literature in English for local schools. His genre of specialization is poetry. He has not been officially published yet though there have been ghetto publishings of his poetry and stories in the U.S and on various social media poetry platforms.

 

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Sunflowers. non-fiction by Susan Glickman

(“Sunflowers”, oil on stretched canvas, 18×24. July 2021 by Susan Glickman)

Theodor Adorno famously declared that “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” One might just as well observe that to paint sunflowers after Van Gogh is arrogant. But how can anyone fascinated by colour not attempt this most charismatic of blossoms? For Van Gogh himself, they invited an almost scientific investigation of chromatic possibility using newly-invented yellow pigments. He made two series of sunflower paintings; the first, in Paris in 1887, consisted of five studies of the flowers lying on the ground; the second series of seven, painted in Arles in 1888, depicted them standing upright in a vase. They remain among his most beloved and iconic works.

In a letter he sent from Arles to fellow artist Arnold Hendrik Koning (1860-1945) on 22 January 1889, Van Gogh notes that he had recently painted “two flower-pieces with nothing but Sunflowers in a yellow earthenware pot. Painted with the three chrome yellows, yellow ochre and Veronese green and nothing else.” In a letter to his brother Theo, dated 11 April 1888, he had specified that the three chrome yellows are “orange, yellow and lemon.” These happen to be the same colours I used, instinctively, in my own painting, but I also added a little Cadmium red and even Alizarin crimson. I was not trying to evoke Van Gogh but rather to get out from under his looming shadow. Still, a sunflower is a sunflower, and must therefore be sunny! (As for “Veronese” green, that is usually called “Viridian”; I used a similar pigment—Phthalo green, blue shade—sometimes tinting it with lemon yellow, other times with white).

The two sunflower paintings mentioned above were hung in the room of Paul Gauguin, whom Van Gogh had invited to stay with him at the Yellow House in Arles. Gauguin admired them and asked for one as a gift, but Van Gogh was reluctant to part with it. Of the Arles sunflower paintings, four reside in museums in Amsterdam, London, Munich, and Philadelphia, one is privately owned, and one was destroyed by bombs dropped on Japan during World War II. The artist was unable to sell any of the canvases during his lifetime, though he was very proud of them, telling Theo he hoped to sell “Still Life: Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers” for 500 francs, then worth about $125. That same painting was sold to a Japanese businessman for nearly 40 million dollars in 1987; he donated it to the Seiji Togo Yasuda Memorial Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo. This was more than triple the contemporary record for an auctioned painting, and seen by many as an ironic commentary on the painter’s lack of commercial success during his brief life.

What I didn’t quote from Van Gogh’s letter to Koning is that he had just been released from hospital, where he had been treated for an unspecified condition. As he described it, it was an “attack of brain or some other fever that had already pretty much passed off. And as regards the causes and effects of the illness in question, we’ll do best to leave it to possible discussions by the Dutch catechists as to whether or not I have been or still am mad, fancy myself mad, or regarded as mad in a flight of fancy consisting only of sculpture.” That last bit intrigues me. What does it mean for a painter to describe his attacks of delusion as “a flight of fancy consisting only of sculpture”? Well, for one thing, it means the absence of colour, for all the sculpture popular in Van Gogh’s day was made of bronze or marble, its claims to realism as limited by its lack of chroma as paintings were by the absence of three dimensions. In the visual arts back then, you had two main options: to evoke the material world in space without colour or to imitate its colour without the use of space.

Either attempt might well be seen, by those around you, as a form of madness.

The other great artist who has left his imprint on how we see sunflowers is William Blake, who lived a century before Van Gogh. Blake is best known as a poet although he was also an accomplished printmaker, working both in relief etching and intaglio engraving. Like the Dutchman, the Englishman was largely unrecognized in his lifetime but is now celebrated as a genius. Also like Van Gogh, in his own day he was often regarded as a madman, having had his first vision of God at the age of four, and insisting thereafter that all people would be able to experience such revelations if only their imaginations were not repressed by conformity to social convention. Blake was extremely devout and politically radical, both of which Van Gogh had been in his early life (he was the son of a minister and spent two years as a pastor himself), before abandoning the church for the religion of art. Van Gogh sought to convey the sanctity of the world and the need for compassion through his art just as Blake did, but by depicting material reality as he saw it, not by creating an alternate mythology of the world.

This is to say that Blake’s vision of sunflowers was deliberately symbolic rather than representational. Thus he made the flower into a symbol of mortality in his Songs of Experience. Here is the poem.

 

Ah Sun-flower! weary of time,

Who countest the steps of the Sun:

Seeking after that sweet golden clime

Where the travellers journey is done. 

 

Where the Youth pined away with desire,

And the pale Virgin shrouded in snow: 

Arise from their graves and aspire, 

Where my Sun-flower wishes to go.

 

I have never been able to relate to this poem, as “pale virgins” and “pining youth” fail to evoke the exuberance and stalwart endurance of that tallest of flowers. Far from being “weary of time” and yearning to live in Eden, the sunflower embodies an alternative chronology, one based on an acceptance of the natural order. Yes, like all creatures, it will die, but it will be resurrected in the springtime, right here on earth, not in some alternate “sweet golden clime / Where the travellers journey is done”. Still, the temptation to use the sunflower as some kind of metaphor for human aspiration may be irresistible for folks not content with the material world, given the flower’s heliotropism. Before blooming, most sunflower plants turn towards the sun in order to expedite photosynthesis. This continues for a short time after the plant blooms, perhaps to attract pollinators who prefer snuggling into warm flowers. Mature sunflowers stop following the sun and stand still, facing east (which reminds me of old Jewish men at prayer – an image which Blake might have enjoyed).

Not being a botanist, Blake failed to recognize another potent symbolism inherent in the sunflower. It is a community rather than a single being! That is to say that each sunflower head consists of 1000 to 2000 ray florets (the golden petals) and disc florets (tiny flowers inside the ray florets which contain both male and female sex organs). This ability to self-pollinate places the sunflower in the category of “perfect” flowers, meaning it can produce identical offspring. It is interesting to imagine what Blake might have written had he been aware of these facts.

Despite both Van Gogh’s and Blake’s monopoly on their imagery, sunflowers were not brought to Europe until the 16th century. The genus Helianthus belongs to the daisy family, Asteraceae, and comprises about seventy species, all but three of which are native to North and Central America, the last three located in South America. Humans have been cultivating sunflowers since 3000 BCE, using their seeds to make flour, eating their sprouts, and prescribing the plant as a medicinal remedy for chest pain or snakebite. The Russians were the first to cultivate sunflowers for oilseed, which has since become a worldwide industry. The oil is widely used for cooking. It also has anti-inflammatory properties and can be used to heal wounds and relieve gastric upset.

Sunflowers are golden in so many ways!

Here’s another: Alan Turing—best known for helping crack the Enigma Code during World War II, and often credited with inventing the modern computer and the science of artificial intelligence—noticed that the Fibonacci sequence often occurred in the spiralling seed heads of sunflowers. The sequence is found by adding the previous two numbers of the sequence together (it looks like this: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34 and so on, ad infinitum). He began studying sunflowers to understand more about how the sequence, also known as the “golden ratio”, was involved in plant growth. During Turing’s centenary in 2012, Manchester University invited citizen-scientists to plant thousands of sunflowers and complete Turing’s study. Consequently, they discovered that other patterns besides the Fibonacci sequence occur in sunflowers, and they are now trying to understand the mathematical models behind those variants.

Perhaps this unexpected nonconformity may be seen as a rebuke by nature to systems that try to confine it to approved epistemological models. Or as Blake put it, “To Generalize is to be an Idiot; To Particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit.” I hold this aphorism in higher regard than I do his sunflower poem because sweeping statements, whether about nature or humanity, hold little attraction for me. Respecting the sweet particulars of the world is what I try to do with both image and text.

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Susan Glickman used to be an English professor, then a creative writing instructor at both Ryerson University and the University of Toronto, and now works as a freelance editor and is learning to paint. She is the author of seven volumes of poetry, most recently What We Carry (2019), seven novels, most recently The Discovery of Flight (2018), and one book of literary criticism, The Picturesque & the Sublime: A Poetics of the Canadian Landscape (1998).

www.susanglickman.com

 

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Thomas Graves: Getting to the bottom of Ben Mazer’s poetry. a review by Andreea Iulia Scridon

Andreea Iulia Scridon

Thomas Graves: Getting to the bottom of Ben Mazer’s poetry

 

“Mazer is good enough not to care for contemporary fashion”

Reading Ben Mazer’s poems one after the other, or in no particular order, gives the reader the impression of what holding a diamond in the palm of one’s hand must be like: one can turn it this way and that to admire its special schiller, enjoying the cool firmness against one’s hot skin.

I find that this is due to Mazer’s technique of tight-roping between searing candour and calculated conceit: or rather it should be further specified that Mazer’s poetry is at the same time highly culled and dizzyingly human. Thomas Graves, the poet and critic who runs Scarriet, has himself riffed on this idea in his book, Ben Mazer and the New Romanticism (Spuyten Duyvil, 2021), an effusive and lively manifesto unlike any other work of criticism I have read as of yet (save, perhaps, for Ben Lerner’s The Hatred of Poetry, which too deviates from the traditional academic form). This important point encapsulates within itself two salient aspects of this unusual text: its success in convincing readers of Mazer’s value, and that Graves’ style in itself signals a new, personalized and emotive way of writing and analysing authors.

I should first address Mazer in my own terms. Mazer is a cathedral builder, a demanding maximalist who works with the best materials, the best masters, and produces the best possible results. Thomas Graves seems a kindred spirit with his subject in being a major-minded critic, taking up an eurythmic and consonant view of art and history:

The progress, or movement, within a poem resembles history in poetry generally, which in turn resembles the movement of time and society, which comes to understand beauty as more and more necessary—beauty and its proportionate necessity, which requires beginnings, their middles, and their ends.

He cites Wilde and to a greater degree Eliot (claiming that Mazer follows Eliot’s technique of “hiding oneself in the art”), but above all pins Mazer against Ashbery, whom he sees as his primary competitor, suggesting that “Mazer belongs to that generation of American poetry which has no fame whatsoever”, thereby asking the age-old question: what comes after postmodernism?. He takes this opportunity to express similar anxieties about the contemporary poetry world:

‘The Waste Land’ is a harbinger of all that follows— the professor/poet in the university teaching Creative Writing to students who are sincere at first, but who give up and die in the wood that is the Program Era—the Writing factory which devours itself, as dead leaves fertilize more bad poetry every year.’

The catch is that Ashbery is worthy because he continues a 19th and 20th century tradition today, and Graves, a convinced champion of this heritage, sees that this where Mazer’s value also lies. When he notes that “Mazer walks alone”, he means that Mazer is self-defined as the best of poets are, for it is this self-definition in tandem with their writing in and into tradition that guards them from being mimetic.

In the fragments chosen by Graves, Mazer demonstrates that his way of writing is taut, yet never bland, he is a master in poetry’s deflective qualities, always surprising. Consider, for instance, the poem “Divine Rights”, in which each line strikes the reader:

“Poetry appears to be living.

I heard it strike the sky like keel and thunder worn into evening like a headline’s banter.

I saw it grab my hand like dad in winter.

I walked it home, the sky ripped at the center, dark merchant hulk. Perpetual, aimless Leviathan which strikes the heart of time.

My first knowledge of a light in winter.”

The above demonstrates that Mazer is a seriously lyric poet, spurred by nostalgia and spiritual transcendence: “Poets work within memory—this is their material, since their art is temporal. Kings may be an antiquated subject, but no poet can escape the lineage, the tradition, the aesthetic progress, the self-consciousness, the Romantic trope of childhood, return, prophecy, tradition, birth—and Mazer, self-consciously a major poet (a poet must decide this) takes this on. He learned it from Eliot”, writes Graves. Given that “to watch the growth of a poet today, embracing, against all odds, Romanticism, in a Modernist universe, is a profound pleasure”, it is no surprise that what attracts in Mazer’s poetry is this glamorization of the poetic narrator’s personal history. This is what gives Mazer’s poetry its cinematic and thus very American (with reference to Hollywood) feeling. What’s more, Mazer has an almost supernatural sense of place, creating effervescent cityscapes which he inventories as an ingenious flâneur.

With Mazer as its “living example par excellence”, Romanticism is sketched out as belonging to Ben Mazer and not the other way around. If that seem hyperbolic, that’s because it is, yet Graves’ argument appears justified when we examine Mazer’s technique, which is “guided by exceptional metrical engineering—adept rhythm, assonance, rhyme”. This occurs on an intuitive level (“In an empty swimming pool we saw his grave/A museum display of radiant glowing jade”) and becomes memorable through the homogeneity of Mazer’s long and complex, yet pellucid poems. His rhyme seems effortless, yet it becomes apparent again and again that Mazer overcomes his purely emotional instincts and is in fact a cerebral technician beyond his obvious talent. This is indeed what it comes down to when considering Graves’ entirely valid claim that Mazer is working towards “reshaping” his ascendancy with every poem he writes. To cap off, here’s one final sketch from a Mazer poem that has that lovely, quintessential old-school feel:

“The falling leaves of autumn magazines

are framed by nature. Frost said you come too. Your gowns and sandals crown your nakedness, Each season justifies all that you do.

The sidewalks spread out their appearances,

the towers and the gilding celebrate

the dates and calendars, commemorate

and underneath it all there’s only you.” (“Autumn Magazines”)

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Andreea Iulia Scridon is a poet and translator. She studied Comparative Literature at King’s College London and Creative Writing at the University of Oxford. She has a poetry pamphlet, Calendars, forthcoming with Broken Sleep Books and a poetry book, A Romanian Poem, forthcoming with MadHat Press in 2022. Her debut poetry book in Romanian, Hotare (“Borders”), won second place in a national manuscript contest and was published October 2021.

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Literary Spotlight with Sue Burge: Featuring Helen Dewbery

As well as being a poet and creative writing tutor, I also teach film studies, so it was a huge privilege for me to interview Helen Dewbery.  She is a brilliant film-maker with a very unusual focus.  I hope some of you will be inspired to explore combining text and visuals thanks to her advice below.  It would surely be a fascinating and innovative way of coming to a deeper understanding of our own words.

Helen Dewbery

Helen, thank you so much for taking the time to think about these questions.  To begin with, I think maybe people mistakenly think a poetry film is a film in which a poet or an actor reads a poem and this is most definitely not the case.  It seems to be a genre in its own right.  How would you define a poetry film?

Thank you for inviting me to talk about poetry film. Your question is a good place to start.

The common conventions of any poetry film will be to include all or part of a poem that is combined, in some way, with images and sound. Beyond that, the answer to defining a poetry film may lie in what values one wants to prioritise. Is it a film genre, a poem, an artwork, or some sort of hybrid work? There are poetry films that can be defined within all these categories.

I have been studying and researching poetry film for many years and I have closely followed its development. I have become increasingly convinced by my idea that there’s a formation of words, images and sound that can intrinsically be described as a form of poetry. And in this form of poetry, every poetic and film device can used – rhythm, repetition, metaphor, and so on. Structure and syntax come from words and images. Frames and transitions give space for enjambment. Not all poetry film will fall into this literary definition, but the idea that poetry film might be described as a form of poetry is the area of poetry film that interests me the most.

How did you get into making poetry films?  It’s quite an unusual choice.  I believe you have a background as a photographer so you must have a really good visual eye. 

My passion for poetry film began on a flight home from New York in 2008. I was scanning my photos, my partner Chaucer Cameron was writing, and as I looked from the screen to the page, I knew I wanted to put images and words together. I spent the next decade studying film and poetry whenever I could.

cool drop from blue through pins of cloud to concrete
where heat plays baseball between blocks
(Chaucer Cameron)

I’ve read poetry and carried a camera with me as far back as I can remember, and my photography has been quite conceptual, so to discover that I can put the two together has been one of life’s generous gifts.

That’s so interesting!  I love those moments when two passions collide and this is such a wonderful example.  I was wondering how do you decide which poems to use?  I imagine you can’t just use any poem, that there has to be the right feeling/the right “fit”.  What do you look for? 

That’s an interesting question that I often think about. I usually know from a quick read of a poem if it’s a poem that I can work with – and I don’t go into a deep analysis of it at that point. I have an instinct as to whether I will be able to relate to it visually. It also needs to be a poem that has enough space. The main criteria for me, and this won’t be the same for everyone, is that I can relate to it emotionally or that it has some mystery to it. In short: does it capture my imagination? And then there’s the sound of it: when I read it aloud, or I can hear in my head the poet reading it, that brings rhythm and pace.

Sometimes I’ll start on a poem, and may even be some way through it, before realising that it’s just not working. Occasionally I’ve had to give up on a poetry film – but I usually find a way through once I’ve started. It can be hard work. And I welcome this opportunity to say that people often don’t realise how many hours, weeks, months and in some cases even years it can take to make a poetry film that works. I can literally work on one transition for a whole day!

What is the process of collaboration with the poet?  How do you work together to produce a film?  How do you think the film stands alone from the poem?  Is it your interpretation or the poet’s in conversation with you?

I’ve been fortunate to work with Nine Arches Press poets since late 2017.

I spend a lot of time with a poem until I begin to know it intimately – often when I’m working on a poetry film I wake up reciting the lines. I work differently with each poet, sometimes having lengthy discussions (recently via Zoom), or by email correspondence. I have far more confidence nowadays to ask a poet exactly what they meant when they wrote such and such – a word or a line. I know that when a poem goes out into the world it no longer belongs to the poet – details can be re-imagined, and ideas revealed beyond the writer’s intention. But I don’t believe that when I’m making a poetry film that the poem can mean just anything I want it to mean. Sometimes new interpretations can be quite trivial in comparison to the far more complex and interesting layers in a well-crafted poem. If the poem is in a collection, I will, of course, read the collection and research around it, including any reviews and comments, to build up as much knowledge as I can about the work and the context of the poem.

Occasionally the poetry film comes intuitively and quite quickly, most of the time, as I’ve said, it takes much longer. For instance, I began to work on a poem but when I received the voice over from the poet it didn’t match how I’d envisaged the poem. I began to re-edit some film clips that I had put together, but also to question whether it was the right poem to use. I re-studied the collection to get a better understanding of what was intended. I then created a further metaphor (though there’s always a risk in doing this – you may kill off the one that is already there by replacing it, illustrating it or confusing it), and eventually I was happy with the outcome.

Collaborating takes risks, you learn from experience – there should be a manual! But when they work well it brings huge creative rewards.

 

This is fascinating Helen, and the poets you work with must feel they are in a really safe pair of hands thanks to your insight and meticulousness.  What would you say have been your most successful poetry films to date? 

Through making poetry films I get to understand my own world through the words of someone else. The process of making poetry films literally changes my life. So, I view success through the process as much as, or perhaps more than, the end result. For example, in “Endlings”, my most recent film with Angela France, I researched Thylacines, passenger pigeons, tattered butterflies, Laughing Owls. I laid down in a field in Wiltshire imagining I was looking at ‘the Forest Thrush, circle the sky/possessed/by an older, greater need and scarred/by hope’, I can’t describe this experience to you exactly, but I still feel it. The result in the film was a complex system of delicate overlays that see through the generations, that lose and gain hope, that ‘weeps for the want of an ark’. If that is success, and I believe it is, then many of my films are equally successful.

From “Endlings”

I can’t measure success, my own or anyone else’s, through gathering wreaths and awards. What’s the point? I’m not aiming for an Oscar. I want to make the world just a little bit better for myself and for those I meet on the way – and who knows, that may result in something truly incredible.

I love Tarkovsky’s film “Stalker”.  In one scene of the film Stalker lies asleep in an apocalyptic landscape and has a strange dream; the voiceover to this dream is Tarkovsky’s father’s poetry and the words and visuals go together perfectly.  Have you been inspired at all by the presence of poetry and film in any feature films or do you feel this is quite a rare combination that maybe you would like to see more of? 

Ah, yes, the dream scene! I saw that short clip before I saw the whole film, it works as a poetry film in itself, but you also know it is part of something broader. There are many films with poetry in them, but I think in “Stalker” it is less predictable than most. But, always happy to see more poetry and film, however it is combined.

Your question has reminded me of the bee in Lee Chang-dong’s film “Poetry”. It acts as more than part of the ambient soundtrack – in addition to foretelling something, it interacts with the protagonist’s thoughts. I tried to replicate something similar in a poetry film but with disastrous results – it’s a lot harder to achieve what Chang-dong did than it looks!

Does film poetry satisfy your creativity or are there other creative pastimes you undertake?  I know you are co-editor of an on-line journal, Poetry Film Live and perhaps you could just tell us a little about your involvement with this? 

I set up Poetry Film Live as a place for poetry film to be submitted and published. The poetry film ‘community’ is international which is something that has brought new and rich dimensions to my life, it truly has. I’ve travelled to places I wouldn’t normally have gone to and come across a diverse range of voices and identities. I think of my involvement with the Wild Whispers Project that started with one poem and led to 14 versions in 10 languages and 12 poetry films. The films, in different languages, were all ‘whispered’ from the previous one. I was a small part of that project, but I found it very moving and magical to be an essential part of something bigger.

Poetry film now takes most of my time, but I have been working for a number of years on a photographic project with a working title: “Mum’s Things”. It started in an attempt to resolve the problem of what to do with my mother’s things, which had accumulated in my attic after her death. They were not particularly valuable and were in the main everyday objects. But it is in everyday objects that we deposit meanings, using them to remember things, and to construct ideas about how we used to live. My initial instinct was just to photograph each item: as Fox Talbot said over 150 years ago: “the whole cabinet… of a collector of old china might be depicted in paper in little more time than it would take … to make a written inventory”. So, I started with a photographic inventory, and then together with some of the many letters that she wrote, I have since worked on different ways of making a ‘museum’, which has so far included a catalogue and a poster. I’m not sure the project will ever be finished. It’s been a way to process grief and a lifetime of displacement through adoption – but that’s a very long story…

I’m sure the genre of film poetry will grow and grow, what advice would you give to someone who might like to take this path? 

Watch as many poetry films as you can! There’s plenty on Poetry Film Live.

My following advice is aimed at poets – extend your poetic practise into working with visual language. Wherever your inspiration to write comes from, that might be a place to start – combine what you see with what you write. Return to a location you’ve written about, and with your phone take images, take film clips. See what happens!

Trust your voice and intuition however off-piste, quirky, unfashionable or experimental that may be. (That’s why I’m impressed with the work of Finn Harvor – he combines, film, voiceover, sound and sketches in a way I haven’t seen anyone else do it.) As in many things, ask yourself why you are doing it and what you want to achieve. The result will come from your imagination, and then practice, practice, practice! When you feel like it’s time to give up – keep going! And check out the training section on Poetry Film Live.

You are co-director of a very popular poetry festival, the Big Poetry Weekend.  What do you feel you bring to this role in terms of your background?  I was able to come along this year via Zoom and it was stupendous!

Thank you. It’s been a great privilege to have been involved in the Big Poetry Weekend (formerly Poetry Swindon Festival). I’m hugely thankful to Hilda Sheehan for giving me free rein to develop poetry film at the festival since 2014.  It started when Chaucer and I showed the first screening of our collaborative work “Nothing in the Garden”, a 30-minute poetry film collection. Each year after that we put on something different, including poetry film projected onto the walls of the Richard Jefferies Museum, an installation with two screens and one voice over, and screenings in the central public library. This year, my final year with the festival, I showed my video essay “In Search of the Perfect Poetry Film” – it seemed a good note to finish on!

From “Nothing in the Garden”

Any strange and interesting experiences as you worked on your films? 

I always smile when I think of a residential visit I made to Lundy Island in the Bristol Channel with a group of friends. The conversation on the way over went something like this:

“I’ll be focusing on birds.”

“The landscape.”

Me: “I’m going to find a portal that will take me to another world.”

I was working on “Nothing in the Garden”. It maps an internal tectonic journey through maternal loss from England to Japan. Being part of the islands weather, landscape and buildings for five days, gave me a place to live the stories.

More recently, working with Katie Griffiths on “Moonbather”. The soundtrack included Katie singing a version of the French childhood tune “Au Clair de la Lune”. I headed to an orchard to start filming but when I got there the footpath had been closed due to bad weather. By chance I came across a nearby woodland which only later I discovered was Friary Wood – once a monastic settlement of an order founded in France. That seemed so apt!

From “Moonbather”

I love those moments when things just seem right – when human effort combines with something ‘other’.

 

I totally agree, those moments are so rare, precious and thought-provoking.  What’s next on the horizon for you Helen? 

Thanks for asking. I’m starting 2022 working with Chaucer Cameron on another poetry film collection, this time based on “In an Ideal World I’d Not Be Murdered”. Then I’ll be starting a monthly series of online poetry film events in partnership with Lucy English and Bristol’s Lyra Poetry Festival. I will also be continuing to collaborate with poets from Nine Arches Press. I hope this year brings good things for you too!

 

Thank you so much for these generous responses Helen, there is much to savour here.  You can find more information about Helen and her work below:

Helen Dewbery has taught poetry film extensively, in person and online. Her work has appeared internationally at poetry and film festivals, where she has also presented talks and curations. She currently works alongside Nine Arches Press creating poetry films and book trailers with their authors. For seven years she delivered a programme of poetry film events at Poetry Swindon Festival, including events in the community and an outdoor projection. Her video essay ‘In Search of the Perfect Poetry Film’, is a personal journey with a searching quality that resists easy answers or received ideas. She is currently exploring how poetry film is used to express trauma. She has worked on projects which have included the poetry film collection ‘Nothing in the Garden’ and has edited various photography and poetry books. She founded the online poetry film magazine Poetry Film Live www.poetryfilmlive.com

www.elephantsfootprint.com  

All photographs courtesy of Helen Dewbery

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Sue Burge author photo

Sue Burge is a poet and freelance creative writing and film studies lecturer based in North Norfolk in the UK.  She worked for over twenty years at the University of East Anglia in Norwich teaching English, cultural studies, film and creative writing and was an Associate Lecturer in Creative Writing with the Open University.  Sue is an experienced workshop leader and has facilitated sessions all over the world, working with a wide range of people – international students, academics, retired professionals from all walks of life, recovering addicts, teenagers and refugees. She has travelled extensively for work and pleasure and spent 2016 blogging as The Peripatetic Poet.  She now blogs as Poet by the Sea. In 2016 Sue received an Arts Council (UK) grant which enabled her to write a body of poetry in response to the cinematic and literary legacy of Paris.  This became her debut chapbook, Lumière, published in 2018 by Hedgehog Poetry Press.  Her first full collection, In the Kingdom of Shadows, was published in the same year by Live Canon. Sue’s poems have appeared in a wide range of publications including The North, Mslexia, Magma, French Literary Review, Under the Radar, Strix, Tears in the Fence, The Interpreter’s House, The Ekphrastic Review, Lighthouse and Poetry News.   She has featured in themed anthologies with poems on science fiction, modern Gothic, illness, Britishness, endangered birds, WWI and the current pandemic.  Her latest chapbook, The Saltwater Diaries, was published this Autumn (2020) by Hedgehog Poetry Press and her second collection Confetti Dancers came out in April 2021 with Live Canon.  More information at www.sueburge.uk

 

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December Lights. a poem by Monica Manolachi

Monica Manolachi

December Lights

The blinds opened at night let in the moon,
who paints the dreams of someone loved.

When cars give hasty glances through the windows,
the morning sunrays join you for breakfast.

An old shop shedding a flood of glass tears
reminds you of innocent hands.

The hopes glimmering on people’ faces
roost in your mind every time you meet someone.

When a class is over, turning off the lights
is like putting unborn children to sleep.

You feed on the glow reflected in door handles, 
bells and trays, bulbs and cutlery and screens. 

On the way home, you buy a small pot
of African violets to make a little corner shine. 

Windows light up one by one into the wide night
and time falls from the sky like new snow.

As you walk slowly under the silent lamps,
you look up at the murmuring celestial bodies.

Light and its companions follow you
like a flock of singing birds in spring.

The way everything dies like falling stars
is to say they travel to other heavens. 

Put your head on the pillow, close your eyes
and turn on the chandeliers of the other world. 

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Monica Manolachi lives in Bucharest, Romania, where she teaches English and Spanish at the University of Bucharest. She is a literary translator and a poet. She has published numerous articles on contemporary poetry and prose, and is the author of Performative Identities in Contemporary Caribbean British Poetry (2017).

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Night and Day. Oh, Heisenberg. poetry by Lauren Friesen

Lauren Friesen

Night and Day

We cannot see it 
Or feel when it arrives
Even our ears are helpless
In separating this reality
From nothingness
Except we now learn 
That it is not a thing
Or even a million
But the detritus
Cast off in waves
From the heart 
Of beating atoms
Within a beating heart 
And becomes 
A leap of faith
When eyes see the light.


 
Oh, Heisenberg 

I saw a particle
In less than the blink
Of anyone’s eye
Become a wave
Which lit a lamp
And jolted my brain.

There is no being
No material thing
Except what flows
Through you 
As a wave
And takes 
All certainty
With it.

These waves dart
Through the hollows
Of our minds
As castaways  
From electrons
As nothingness
Lights up
Our being
And our sunsets
On Helgoland.
   
Making Quantum Waves

When I sing
Of angels and demons
I am making waves.

When I see 
All that surrounds me
The light is making waves.

When I touch
And enjoy my family
I feel their waves.

As I walk 
The direction I take
Creates waves.

As I think
My mind constructs
Ideas that make waves.

When we march
Toward justice and hope
Knees bend from waves

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Lauren Friesen was raised on a farm in Nebraska and from there went on to a career in poetry, theatre, and education.  He served as Poet-in-Residence for the Seattle Arts Commission and published poems in Poetry Nippon, Mississippi Valley Review, Dark Waters, and Madrona Review. He has also been a production assistant with the San Francisco Opera Company and, most recently, the David M. French Professor of Theatre at the University of Michigan-Flint. His published plays include Rothko on the American painter, and a translation of Hermann Sudermann’s The Storm Komrade Sokrates.  He has also published a number of essays and book reviews.