Three Poems by Amit Majmudar

The Opening

Open them up and they’re never the same,
the neurosurgeon said that afternoon
I watched him suction bloodclot from a skull.
A forty-three-year-old swan dove head first
into a barfight. I remember thinking
about trepanning, Neolithic skulls
with round skylights—nobody knows if those were cut
to let depression out or visions in.
The Druids tapped themselves like trees for syrup
and wore their own bone-coins as charms. All newborns
have soft spots where the skull has not iced over,
a fishing-hole ancestral spirits sit around,
ghostgusts of breath that swirl clockwise, down,
and in. I’m forty-three years old as I
am writing this. I’m still swan diving head first
into a love that opens like a coin-sized
locket of bone that holds my mind inside it.
Emily Dickinson knew poetry
by how the top of her head felt taken off—
poet as neurosurgeon, bone saw kissing
a crisp horizon just above the eyebrows,
pale recluse squinting up at cold white light.
Everyone has a pond inside that’s frozen
bone white, and love’s the only way to swan dive
heart first into the future. Through that hole
the spirits swirl down and in to help
unlock the waterfalls. You melt to slake them.
The pond becomes a lake becomes a sea, adrift
on its breathing, open in every direction.

*

Matriarchy

I like my religions founderless,
theologianless, commandmentless.
The fewer men in flowing robes, the better.
Best would be grandmothers, lighting incense
in front of the trees their grandmothers planted
and timing their fasts to the moon.
Turmeric on everything from food
to flesh wounds. Smudges of kohl
on baby’s cheek to divert the evil eye.
That gives me sacred awe, the mystery
mastered by knobby-fingered knowhow
that aches when it rains. All the inexplicables
stay unexplained, but all the rites
stay right. The wisdom of the forest
gave way to the wisdom of the desert,
but the wisdom of the kitchen
butters the loaves and fries up the fishes
and makes sure everyone takes seconds.
There is no talk of hell or holy war,
just grandmothers circulating like blood cells
through the capillaries of the cosmos
assuring everyone there’s more, there’s more.

*

State of Being

Between O and O
is a lowercase high,
a quick hello.
Our lives here jump
out of a manhole
into a manhole
on a street with no street
signs. I have spooned
the local honey
and failed to taste a difference.
I have rummaged
among the blotchy fruits
at farmer’s markets.
Forgive me, Ohio,
but apples genespliced in Wisconsin
trucked in from Michigan
glisteny with wax and pesticide
in artificial light
have always pleased me more.
I have never really lived here
after living here
my whole life.
In Rootstown mine was not the root.
In Mayfield mine was not the flower.
My hole of a life, Ohio,
has emptied through you.
I have been places
I would never want to live
and lived
in a place I never wanted to be.
I have never been
a place I did not want
to leave.
I do not want to leave
a place
I never loved.

*

Amit Majmudar is a poet, novelist, essayist, translator, and the former first Poet Laureate of Ohio. He works as a diagnostic and nuclear radiologist and lives in Westerville, Ohio, with his wife and three children.

Majmudar’s poetry collections include 0’, 0’ (Northwestern, 2009), shortlisted for the Norma Faber First Book Award, and Heaven and Earth (2011, Storyline Press), which won the Donald Justice Prize. These volumes were followed by Dothead (Knopf, 2016) and What He Did in Solitary (Knopf, 2020). His poems have won the Pushcart Prize and have appeared in the Norton Introduction to Literature, The New Yorker, and numerous Best American Poetry anthologies as well as journals and magazines across the United States, UK, India, and Australia. Majmudar also edited, at Knopf’s invitation, a political poetry anthology entitled Resistance, Rebellion, Life: 50 Poems Now.

Majmudar’s forthcoming collection of essays, focusing on Indian religious philosophy, history, and mythology, is Black Avatar and Other Essays (Acre Books, April 2023). Twin A: A Life (Slant Books, May 2023) is the title of his forthcoming memoir, in prose and verse, about his infant son’s congenital heart disease. The first volume of his epic retelling, The Mahabharata Trilogy, is entitled The Book of Vows (Penguin India, September 2023). His work as a translator includes Godsong: A Verse Translation of the Bhagavad-Gita, with Commentary (Knopf, 2018).

Two Poems by Laurel Benjamin

To the Man Who Photographed Nothing But His Wife

You switch to ravens, wings developing
extra vision. You see beyond mundane feathers,

and in the apartment, overcome the dusty stacks
of prints and slides, towers knocked over at night,

plaid robe torn from stumbles into the table
holding five Nikons. Dead on snow,

you position one bird like your wife
when you told her, outstretch your arms,

open your mouth as in sleep. She grew no feathers
to form a V shaped tail, but you tried. When she left

for good you lied to anyone who would listen,
though we all knew how many times

you freeze-framed her. And now, beak steering
outwards, you study the inkwell, black

upon black, winter dotted until you double-vision
the living into the dead. Day not enough,

at night you find their beaks, effervescent,
and their bodies, outlines of women.

*

The Department Store

If you curve around the counters
you can return to your department store—
doors beveled glass, dark metal framed,

gloves folded inside cases, shaped wool hats
on stands. Mothers and daughters hushed
between curtains. You are the one

trying on dresses with your mother.
Hers a velveteen bodice, and yours, you trace
the raised lines of red & green plaid.

Across the aisle a curtain moves aside, folds
of a woman changing her skin,
different than your mother’s pink roses.

A yellow skirt falls onto the floor revealing
lace panties. Who owns it all,
belts tethered to tightened waists.

And your mother. She’s a librarian
who memorizes the plans of your family
as picture books. You’re in her stomach,

then you’re born into these tile-floored rooms
where counter after counter, where
rustled silk, sear sucker.

I have wrung my eyes trying to bring back
the store, wishing I had her metal-tight memory,
yet all I see is how I pushed her aside

then pulled her back from beyond
like we were in a lost world, just the two of us.
Everyone sees me as a hero, and I tried,

but I failed. Thought I could keep her,
could keep myself from submitting to
off-key songs, taking singing classes,

learning Leider because I couldn’t contain
her opera. Maybe that killed her, my not believing
in the heavy voices, the thick velvet.

*

Laurel Benjamin is a San Francisco Bay Area native, where she invented a secret language with her brother. She has work published in Lily Poetry Review, Burningword, Eunoia, South Florida Poetry Journal, Fourth River, among others. Affiliated with the Bay Area Women’s Poetry Salon and Ekphrastic Writers, she is a reader for Common Ground Review and has featured in the Lily Poetry Review Salon. She was nominated for Best of the Net by Flapper Press in fall 2022.

Six Poems by Luke Johnson

Memory

of my nana
rocking

with an afghan
on her lap

and asking
if I see the boy,

the one she lost,
standing

by her bed
and begging

for water,
Sinatra

quietly singing.

*

Memory

of my sister
swinging

both her arms
in summer air

and squeezing
sunlight

like an orange
in her teeth,

the bees
still busy then,

flowers.

*

Memory

of the rotted oak
I’d climb inside

to calm on days
when daddy

found his rifle’s
acoustics

pleasing,
how I’d fall asleep

to flies vibrations
and wake

at night
to my name

being called—
my mother

flicking a match.

*

Memory

is a pill my
mother lost

in the drain
and her

desperate
for more.

A blue kite
blurred

into yellow—

*

Memory

of a bag of quails
dragged through gravel

and my dad
above them smiling

as he plucked
the feathers

then slit
each belly open

so the heart
could splash

inside a bucket
and darken

as the hours
fell like aphids

from the apple blossoms
and gathered

around my feet.

*

Memory

of my dad
too sick

to stand
on New Year’s Eve,

how he
reached

to find
my fingers

and asked,
if ever, I

think of cardinals
thrown

through
a window

in the dark,
a deep whistle

torn
through sky.

*

Luke Johnson lives on the California coast with his wife and three kids. His poems can be found at Kenyon Review, Narrative Magazine, Florida Review, Frontier, Cortland Review, Nimrod, Thrush and elsewhere. His manuscript in progress was recently named a finalist for the Jake Adam York Prize, The Levis through Four Way Press, The Vassar Miller Award and is forthcoming fall 2023 from Texas Review Press. You can find more of his poetry at lukethepoet.com or connect at Twitter at @Lukesrant.

Two Poems by Rachel Rinehart

Uncle Herbert’s Bat Mill

It’s gone now, of course, ceded to blackberry canes
and stinging nettles, the sour scent
of sawdust subsumed by evening primrose
bubbling a doublewide’s new skirt.

The white ash trees, too, begin to hollow out
and soften in the jaws of jeweled beetles,
though the saw’s long sold or lying
vine-snagged in some defunct junkyard.

Who knows what Uncle Herbert heard
in the crack of Mazeroski’s bat that fall,
laid up drunk in the logs clutching his transistor,
dreaming of diamond dust and mink oil,
the hot sun on leather.

Perhaps he mustered an afternoon
lingering under the trees of his courtship,
lush and light dappled, his hand snug
between bark and the lithe arch of Grace’s back,
groping for the smooth, wood-singing spark
of a Hank Aaron two-run dinger.

These boozy hallucinations
Aunt Grace endured at a distance—
down the road in her kitchen apron
with a washcloth and a cup of cool water,
the Maytag ready to wring the salt crust
and whiskey from Uncle Herbert’s flannels.

All this, it’s been years.
The benders and the trees sacrificed
for The Series, the mill saw screeching
like radio static as it carved up slats
to send to Louisville for sluggers,
billets beveled and hewed to the grips
for Mickey Mantle and the Say Hey Kid.

Somehow, yet, old trees beget both bats
and record books, bedfellows, these,
on the long march down the West Kentucky hills,
logged to pay a few months on the mortgage,
or for a last-ditch round of chemotherapy.

Checks folks cash with a long look back
to that other time where Aunt Grace, still waiting,
puts up the last of her preserves and closes
her cupboard on the season.

*

Old Breaks

Your wrist gives way with late December,
bone shards like snowburst along an old fissure.

When you call, I am stumbling between boxes,
moving again—back to the city
and its pharmaceutical haze, needles glinting
in the grass like sparks woven through tapestry.

“At my age,” you say, “there will be no surgery,”
and as you laugh, I can hear you
nonchalantly toeing that galactic chasm
across which there is little use for wrists.

Between us harried angels dodge cell signals
that carry our voices to each other.
The connection spits and fizzes
like singed feathers.

Out home, the new year heals over quietly,
as plowed furrows under snow.
The Earth roars on in its old treads.

Tomorrow, I know, you will pull your coat on
with your teeth and shake food into a bowl
for cats that coalesce like vapors out of barn stalls,
rangy familiars mute and unblinking.

You tell me you knew a man once
who roused his family just before midnight
and led them all in their night clothes
out the back door and round through the front,
frost stinging the little ones’ ankles.

Later, in the cold, early hours
I hear the neighbor woman settle on her stoop
in the false dawn of the street light
to sing, of all things, The Hallelujah Chorus,
like some old-time mystic or prophetess.

When it is over, how graciously
we fall back in our tousled beds
snug in the ebbing heat of the old year.

*

Rachel Rinehart’s poetry collection The Church in the Plains was selected by Peter Everwine as the winner of the 2016 Philip Levine Poetry Prize and was published by Anhinga Press in January 2018.

Death of a Child Who Never Was by Sarah Mackey Kirby

Death of a Child Who Never Was

I need to bury you, this mind-figment
that can never become.
Into a place where you lose meaning.
Some former dream, diminished.
A white dwarf star succumbed to light pressure,
helium-swallowed core, collapsed but somehow
still shining inside my narrative,
each evening’s reemergence unwelcome.
I want you, who never was,
to stay distant and vague.
Unrecognizable, obscure music.
Disconnected as chartreuse, the color and name.
Some untenable heel-dug position
decomposing at last under the weight of proof.
Leave me. Fall cooling into the wilderness,
canopied under treetops. Capitulate to this gravity,
and descend into the thickened woods at dusk,
where I can no longer author your voice.

*

Sarah Mackey Kirby grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. She is the author of the poetry collection, The Taste of Your Music (Impspired, 2021). Her poems appear in Muddy River Poetry Review, The New Verse News, ONE ART, Ploughshares, Third Wednesday Magazine, and elsewhere. She taught high school and middle school social studies until a few health surprises changed her path. Sarah is an always-teacher-at-heart and a forever second momma to hundreds of students. She and her husband split their time between Kentucky and Ohio. https://smkirby.com/

Fragment by Amorak Huey

Fragment

If, in a given moment, I am not being touched —
in that moment, I would swear to you it has been decades
since I was touched, indeed I have never been touched.

*

Amorak Huey is author of four books of poems including Dad Jokes from Late in the Patriarchy (Sundress Publications, 2021). Co-founder with Han VanderHart of River River Books, Huey teaches writing at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. He also is co-author with W. Todd Kaneko of the textbook Poetry: A Writer’s Guide and Anthology (Bloomsbury, 2018) and the chapbook Slash/Slash (Diode, 2021).

First Love Debunked by Andrea Potos

First Love Debunked
               for Win

It’s the second love
I remember, the boy
who baked a banana cream pie
from scratch
for our first dinner,

played a Brandenburg concerto
and told me that,
with orange juice, it was the best
hangover medicine,

the boy who whirled me around Milwaukee
in his red convertible MGB, and,
like a cliche come true, ran out of gas
on our first date.

The boy who, whenever
he came to pick me up,
paused before his rearview mirror
to straighten his wind-messed chestnut hair,
a gesture a girl might do, I’d watch him
through the sunroom window, he wanted
to be beautiful for me,
he landed on my doorstep like a prince, written
in a better story.

*

Andrea Potos is the author of several poetry collections, including Marrow of Summer and Mothershell, both from Kelsay Books; and A Stone to Carry Home from Salmon Poetry. A new collection entitled Her Joy Becomes is forthcoming from Fernwood Press this November. Recent poems appear in The Sun, Poetry East, and Lyric. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

Four Poems by Sarah Carey

All You Can Fit In A Suitcase

Three tanks, an all-weather sweater
for layering, thermals. Leggings, a pair

of well-treaded boots for forced marching
in this hypothetical, which imports me

into your country like an unwanted pest
or an exotic species.

In the sides, tuck rhinestone toe-posts—
for sparkle, like champagne, like leisure-to-go—

or my mother’s diamond solitaire
with the story of my father’s postal route that bought it

and the grief they carried
when the bloom fell off the rose

sewn into a parka pocket. There’ll be room left
for my native birdsong on a flashdrive,

notecards with embossed gold leopards
right below the fold, as from the depths

of territory I can’t bring myself to navigate,
I’ll pen what’s left of my salvation

in the lining, like a legend you can follow
mapping how caged hopes burst free

like the restless wild cat dimmed
in memory, a handy guide to hold the world

in hand like the bird you know
and the heart you can’t,

closer to the vest than any secret.

*

What You Don’t Know Can’t Hurt You

If the baseball on a chair in someone’s office
represents a teen at home or a love of game

or where fun falls in the intersection of rules
and gray matter, hope for the old vestiges

of selves. What to make of anyone’s lack
of family pictures. What a masked face holds back—

breath, what you’d finally say if you could or would stay
married to restraint. If you play safely for keeps,

my first move doomed from the start. If you imagined
I moved at all, or in which direction.

If anyone claimed to be the wiser for their strategy.

Who could have known of the darkest year
before the darkest decade in 536, or how a volcanic eruption

could trigger a new ice age, the end of life
as anyone knew it. Churchill said those who fail

to learn from history are doomed to repeat it
we remind and remind and remind. Over and over

we revisit the scene of our crimes, whatever was done,
undone by our little treasons. Whatever evidence

remains behind. No touching. No room left
for heart. Meanwhile a colony of ants

overtaking my garden gobbles the sugary bait,
fake poison they will never recognize,

and die and die. Who knew? If looking back
we’ll reframe our murderous instincts

forgivingly in our best light. If we’ll both-sides regret.

If the brightest star in Orion knows its name
when you’re guessing it in today’s crossword,

a reminder that light lives, thousands of years
beyond our near annihilation. If you understand my curiosity

or would feel obligated to answer if I asked.
If you have learned yet fantasy

football, or can pinpoint your priorities. What it means
to win a battle with oneself. As if we don’t know

to open a certain door is to strip away pretenses
of innocence. As if we could ever go back.

*

Monuments

Every town in eastern Colorado has one—
a silo, a silver sliver of granaries
clotting the landscape, harbor
for hundreds of tons of wheat. We plow
through every sleepy four-way stop, bisect
each major artery, often one
and same, ubiquitous, grateful for quiet
feeders where the world looms straight
ahead. Heartland. Endless roads, far from forlorn,
hold us—a testament to our rootlessness.
We can see forever ahead. Kansas,
sunflower state. Settlers used buffalo bones
to plant and harvest, I discover on my cell
when we find a signal. Tell me what you know,
I say, besides the fact that tasseled crops
we pass on either side are corn.
You shake your head. Farther west,
in Yellowstone, bison claim the park road
as their own. We stand our ground,
are never charged, keep well away from wildlife
like good tourists. Drawn to fame in South Dakota,
we traverse Wyoming scrub to view
Mount Rushmore, squinting at gray granite faces
we should know, though never keen on history.
We’ll share our own: we love the land,
remind ourselves, then look away.

*

In Florence, in the Summer of ’69,

we learned the taste of saltless butter
served with rolls as big as fists
at the villa where our father taught,

heard the word diesel for the first time
when he bought the black Mercedes
to sightsee in Naples or Rome

or for the longer drive to the train to Zermatt
where chalets and flowerboxes taught me quaint
and longing could burn both retina and heart,

drew me back to the alps in my thirties
to verify. In our flat, we learned the cost
of soft drinks at the supermercado

where our stepmother shopped for the week,
how not to assume we’d always have
our small indulgences. At night, gelato

of no price or peer among the novelties
we would select two generations later
from the freezer aisle, back in the States.

You’re never too young to be an orphan,
someone said, and the world returns
both seen and unseen in our innocence:

now we know Neil Armstrong
walked on the moon and David Bowie floated
in his tin can high above the world

while we followed the burning
smell of garlic, oregano, extra virgin
olive oil to the pizzeria

stared up in awe at the Ponte Vecchio
moved through time on cobblestones
into our father’s shadow, merged with our own.

*

Sarah Carey is a graduate of the Florida State University creative writing program. Her poems have appeared recently or are forthcoming in Five Points, Florida Review, Zone 3, Redivider, River Heron Review, Split Rock Review, Atlanta Review and elsewhere. Her book reviews have appeared recently in Salamander, EcoTheo Review, Tinderbox Poetry Journal and the Los Angeles Review.

One of the Many Reasons I Married You by Ona Gritz

One of the Many Reasons I Married You

Remember the boat my son built
in his mind when he was eight—
sturdy and sea-worthy, though not
with more than two people in it?
Every few days, he’d climb in,
have us join him,
and ask me to choose.
What he didn’t yet know
is that I’m the daughter
of a woman who gave up her children
for a man with no place
in the skiff of his heart
for kids who weren’t his.
I will never be her, I told myself
over and over. So whenever
he asked, it was you I threw
into the churning waters he imagined.
And you, who as a boy his age
nearly lost your life in a camp-side lake,
drowned as often as you had to
for him to feel safe.

*

Ona Gritz’s collection of essays, Present Imperfect, is out now from Poets Wear Prada. She is also the author of Geode, a Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award finalist, On the Whole: a Story of Mothering and Disability, and a middle grade novel, August Or Forever, forthcoming from Fitzroy Books in February. Ona’s poems have appeared in Ploughshares, River Teeth, The Bellevue Literary Review, Catamaran Literary Reader, and previously in One Art. Recent honors include two Notable mentions in Best American Essays, a Best Life Story in Salon, and a winning entry in The Poetry Archive Now: Wordview 2020 project.

What We Can Gather by Gabby Gilliam

What We Can Gather

I can see you trying so hard to look happy
clenching your jaw when you smile
grimacing at the pressure on your loose teeth
willing yourself to have fun though
your dinner of pills roils in your stomach

but you dragged yourself
out of your house to sit
with me on this sofa.

Blue jays will weigh nuts
comparing heft before filling beak
with the largest available meal

the way you weigh options
which last memories you want
to take with you––what smiles
to leave behind for us
so hungry for more time with you
our mouths filled with as many
minutes as we can carry.

*

Gabby Gilliam lives in the DC metro area with her husband and son. Her poetry has most recently appeared in Tofu Ink, The Ekphrastic Review, Pure Slush, Deep Overstock, Vermillion, MacQueen’s Quinterly, and Equinox. You can find her online at gabbygilliam.squarespace.com or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/GabbyGilliamAuthor.