Dearly Departed: A Conversation with Anu Lakhan


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Novel Niche is thrilled to unveil this exclusive interview with Anu Lakhan, Trinidadian poet, fiction writer, editor and debut chapbookist. First published by Argotiers Press in 2018, Letters to K is hilarious and heartbreaking, audacious and abashed, like no other letter-set to a dead writer you’ve ever read before. 

Here, I sit with Lakhan over metaphysical tea, and let her tell me all about the elusive J_L_, our protagonist writing missives to Kafka. I might know less for certain at the end of this interview than at its beginning: rarely is a fate so entrancing as when Lakhan’s pen is in the inkwell.

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Novel Niche: Letters to K lets us in on a writer’s deep love for Franz Kafka. Tell us how you feel about Kafka, yourself.

Anu Lakhan: Does she love him? I think there’s a way to go before she feels love—real love—such as one might feel for a mother or a pet. Right now she’s really just looking for someone to talk to.

I, on the other hand, definitely have something rather like love for him. It is very easy to love and admire a dead man. I already know he will not contradict me or shame me in any way. I miss him as if there’d been a time when we were together. Not only his fiction, but his letters and journals are so extensive it’s hard to understand how more people do not find themselves feeling this loss.

He was really quite a noodle. Funny. A funny, silly man in many ways. And yet the work is sharp, dangerous, immaculate. Impossible not to love him.

NN: The chapbook is a perfect vehicle for a series of (one-sided) letters. Is this your first standalone epistolary project? How did it come into being?

AL: This is the longest one so far. I’ve done one-off missives to Kafka before (in which an adolescent girl emails him to ask for help with her homework); to Dorothy Parker (in which a wife writes an agony aunt letter to Ms Parker about uncomfortable, bargain-priced beds); and most recently to the bracing poet Eric Roach as part of a Caribbean Literary Heritage project (in which I break off our engagement because of prevailing weather conditions and extinct animals).

Still want to know how we got to the letters from J_ L_?

J is a character who has long been looking for someone she feels comfortable with. She’s tried—over various stories—to be fine with her own company, with family and friends, and friends of the family (outcomes unsatisfactory). She has enjoyed and found solace in cats, dogs and horses. Occasionally it occurs to her that she should make some greater effort with other humans. So what kind of person would suit? She does not think like Kafka, but she likes how he thinks. She does not believe living as he did would work for her but she admires that he tried. That doesn’t seem like a bad place to start imagining a good companion.

NN: Fundamental loneliness, the narrator J_ L_ tells Kafka, is one of the truths she best shares with the deceased author. Do you think that the lonely turn frequently to the dead, in letters or outside of them?

AL: Not enough. Sure, lots of people talk to deceased loved ones. They may even keep journals that look like they’re addressing specific people.

Dear Mother,
I really needed your help with the garden today.

Dear X,
I miss you and would prefer to be dead at the bottom of a well rather than go another day without you.

That sort of thing. I hear it’s quite soothing. And of course, as Caribbean people, the spirit world is never far from us. But I don’t know if we’ve worked out healthy, non-desperate ways to engage with those not living. This answer holds for both the lonely and the not-so-lonely.

NN: Would the register and intimacy of these letters change if they were purely digital? Would VoiceNotes to K, or WhatsApps to K, be a different sort of endeavour?

AL: They would not be sent by J, so from the beginning the undertaking would be very other. If she seems confuffled in writing, only imagine how she’d trip over herself with VoiceNotes. How many times have you started sending one simple message and ended up saying everything wrong and had to send three or three dozen more to clarify your original thought? Or worse: she might start and after two words be reduced to whimpering. The shame. WhatsApps—equally a no-go. She’d go mad waiting to see the little blue ticks and then she’d fret about his lack of response.

These other options are not open to her because they have a force of immediacy. She’d fall prey to expectations. That wouldn’t do.

NN: Would J_ L_ Skype with Kafka, in another place, another time?

AL: Again, immediate and intimate. It’s too intimate. Kafka could barely bring himself to endure face-to-face meetings with his myriad fiancees. Whenever personal contact was threatened, he wilted. Unless they both kept the video off, Skype would have been a disaster.

The letters were the only things that made sense because they made sense for him as well as J. The same beloved women he couldn’t face, he harassed them into writing him. He demanded letters. Three a day if possible. Gods! They had jobs. They were busy. He was busy. Prague and environs must have had the best postal service ever. If in this time, present time, we had anything like such a good service, email might never have been dreamed up.

NN: Letters to K made me reach for my old, secret correspondences, patterned boxes of love-and-eventual-hate-mail. Which published or private letters do you reach for, in your own life?

AL: I don’t. They usually hurt. I write new ones.

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NN: I read this book aloud for pure pleasure: it would make an excellent audiobook. Who would your dream narrator be? Would you give them any directorial notes?

AL: If J is a young Trinidadian woman, it would be my niece Jaya with her gorgeous sandy voice. Imagine Stevie Nicks young. And Caribbean. And less nasal. That’s my niece.

If J can be from anywhere, I have in mind Saoirse Ronan (as is), Dolores O’Riordan (alive) or Sinéad Cusack (younger). Apparently any woman with a tricky Irish name will do.

I didn’t have much of a J voice in my head (really had to think about it). I heard Kafka reading the letters to himself. Sometimes quietly, sometimes riotously. Kafka would be Adrien Brody with a German accent. Obviously he’d have to spend months in front of open windows, naked, in the Prague winter, preparing for this. Because, of course, K was all about that kind of thing.

Apart from the Brody-naked-window thing, no directions. That’s because I think I’d be a maniac as a director. Better to leave those things to professional maniacs.

NN: An illustration of a piano, done by Kevin Bhall, falls as if in slow-motion throughout the chapbook. What music is on the sheets we see, fluttering to the floor?

AL: A few songs, actually. The pianist who was unfortunate enough to lose his instrument in this—tragically—the most common type of piano fatality, was playing around with:

Scenes from an Italian Restaurant – Billy Joel

Coronita de Flores – Juan Luis Guerra

Last Dance – Donna Summer

Sweet Child of Mine – Guns N’ Roses

It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing) – Duke Ellington

See, it doesn’t matter what’s playing when a piano is ready to fall on your head. I’ve found the happier the music being played, the more likely it is the piano is on its way down.

NN: “I am not trying to elevate myself in the literary world,” J_ L_ explains in one of her early letters to Kafka. A writer as a hermit, scornful of and stressed by the literary social scene, is a popular trope… but do you think it makes for better writing?

AL: Oh, hell no. It’s horrible. I know some of the finest writers have lived like this but I think their work is brilliant in spite of such a disposition, not because of it. That is a bitter, bitter world. Somebody is paying in blood and insomnia for it.

By the by, J is not trying to elevate herself in the literary world not because she disdains it but because she’s not in the literary world. She’s not a writer.

NN: In the last of her letters, J_ L_ tells Franz that she’s always felt like an outsider. Are the best stories told from the fringes, and not the centre?

AL: I’m afraid this question is beyond me. I don’t think I’m always sure of the difference between fringe and centre. And as told by whom? The narrator or the writer? Do we always know we’re in the middle? Isn’t it beyond dreadful when we discover we’re on the outside when we’d been thinking we were in?

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Buy Letters to K here.
Read Paper Based Bookshop’s spotlight of Letters to K here.

Letters to K is Anu Lakhan’s first chapbook. She is a poet, writer, editor, friend to cats and Kafka. Born and living in Trinidad and Tobago, she has never knowingly sent a letter to anyone in Czechia, living or dead.

All images © Anu Lakhan.

“The Whistler” – A Mary Oliver Primer


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Image: The whistle, posted at Flickr by Amanjeev under a Creative Commons License. Image cropped.

Willa Cather says, “The heart of another is a dark forest, always, no matter how close it has been to one’s own.” What might strike some as an inscrutable terror – how dare we be denied ultimate knowledge of our most intimate? – is an occasion for joy in Mary Oliver’s “The Whistler”.

The scene is tender, domestic, everyday: the speaker is reading in the upstairs bedroom, and their companion, who is downstairs, bursts into a twittering of unexpected whistles. No one is more surprised than the speaker. “It was thrilling. At first I wondered, who was / in the house, what stranger?”

The quality of the companion’s birdsong is key to understanding the speaker’s response. We hear this whistling as if from “a wild and / cheerful bird, not caught but visiting”: what could be more precious code than this, for the truth of human-to-human cleaving? Not caught, but visiting. Perhaps we are happiest when we are forever in the process of visiting each other, liberally and with boundless, urgent affection. There is such an unshackled wisdom in learning you can never fully know another, not even a lover, not even a mother. It doesn’t scare our speaker. No, in fact, they listen long, because it is “finally”, some time after, when they ask, “Is that you? Is that you whistling?”

We are treated to interlocking delights in “The Whistler”. First, there is the speaker’s rapturous wow, upon hearing this companionate whistling for the first time. Secondly, we witness the companion’s own thanks, at rediscovering what she’d forgotten she could do:

“I used to whistle, a long time ago. Now I see I can
still whistle. And cadence after cadence she strolled
through the house, whistling.”

There is no hint of accusation here, no sense that one partner has denied the other a vital emotional lock, to stuff into a locket. Nothing has been concealed, and nothing is to be regretted. As in “Wild Geese” and “The Fish”, there is a gentle pedagogy here: keep yourself open to a total wilderness of unknowing. Recognize you can only ever know someone, anyone, so much, and that there’s joy in the forever-promise of discovering them anew.

You could read the last stanza of the poem as a turn toward the darkly contemplative: “do we even begin / to know each other? Who is this I’ve been living with / for thirty years?” There’s a reason it’s a rom-com trope, right, the guy or girl or un/other-gendered protagonist sitting at the bar, shirtsleeves dismally crumpled, knocking back another amber tumbler of liquid, dryly moaning, “I’m just saying, you think you know someone after xx years? And then. And then…”

Call me rose-tinted, but I just don’t read the ending of “The Whistler” that way. To read it like that, I’d have to believe that Oliver intends “dark” and “lovely” to be opposite states, and I don’t. The dark is often fodder for our nightmares, our skeletal fears, but this poem is a reminder of darkness as resurrection, as rebirth. It’s in the clear, dark beauty of their companion’s whistle that a true revealing opens for the speaker. This is resurrection: a coming to life of an energy, an ability, that the companion herself thought long dead.

“Elbow and ankle- / Mood and desire. Anguish and frolic.” These have been the stations of desire at which the speaker (who we might think of as *the listener*, here) has worshipped their lifelong betrothed. These are the stopping places by which they imagined their mapping complete. Isn’t it thrilling, then, to learn the map has secret places? To learn, and to accept, that no cartography we make of another can ever be complete? There’s freedom, in that, and humility, too. There’s the making of enough room in our houses of commingling awareness and unknowing, to hum a merry tune.

give feral thanks

Give Feral Thanks: A Mary Oliver Primer runs from January 21st – 31st.

“The Fish” – A Mary Oliver Primer


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Image: Lion Fish, posted at Flickr by Dave Scriven under a Creative Commons License.

I’ve seen fish being caught off the rocky outcropping of the North Coast at night. What transfixed me most was how violently, how viciously they struggled against death: it’s been years, and still, vividly, I can summon the muscular thrash of a fish torso, the rippling menace of tail sluicing seawater through the black sky, the mute outrage at being plucked from the water with a hook in its mouth. It did not go gently. Good, I thought. Good for you. 

“The Fish” frames three movements for us: first, a capture; second, a consuming; third, a symbiosis. On this tripartite structure are so many religious doctrines founded — yet see how gently, how sternlovingly, Oliver gives us an entire sacrament, a fully-infused transubstantiation, in a poem that could be scrawled on the back of a napkin. Death is everywhere in this brief ode to the absolute truth that we are who we devour: after all, the poem’s speaker doesn’t tell us this is the first *and last* fish. No, we sense, dabbing scales away from our lips with moist towelettes, this is the original fish, the prime meal.

There is nothing to regret in it, and our speaker leaves no room for remorse on the gutting table. We receive a gift, instead, as the narrator “opened his body and separated / the flesh from the bones / and ate him.” If this fish-killer grapples with internal conflict, she doesn’t share it with us, unlike the speaker in another famous poem entitled “The Fish”, by fellow late American woman poet, Elizabeth Bishop. In that poem, there is a squaring off, a metaphysical showdown between fish and woman, one that ends in release from the angler’s line:

“He didn’t fight.
He hadn’t fought at all.
He hung a grunting weight,
battered and venerable
and homely.”

Bishop’s fish is a grizzled veteran of the tides, wearing old hooks from former tangles with death, like survivor’s jewellery. Bishop’s narrator doesn’t have the heart – or has too much heart – to put him down after a hard-won life. By contrast, who can say how old Oliver’s fish is? We know it fights, we know that it “flailed and sucked / at the burning / amazement of the air” before it perishes at the bottom of the pail. Its gradual death, in one of the poem’s most seemingly effortless lines of beauty, is “the slow pouring off / of rainbows.” All of this grappling endeavour, all of this ungently going into the good night: she who kills the fish eats every morsel, every scale and eye of experience.

This, we sense, is part of the alchemy of Oliver’s “family of things”. Specifically, it is a poem of place in the strata of that great world tree. “The Fish” is a ritual map: a promise, if you like, of what will happen when you kill, when you feed. The third movement of the poem opens the speaker, mirroring the speaker’s opening of the fish:

“Now the sea
is in me: I am the fish, the fish
glitters in me; we are
risen, tangled together, certain to fall
back to the sea.”

We will never travel alone. That is the assurance of this poem, which it makes without sentimental overture, without any truths but the truth of a fish’s carcass, each flesh-picked bone a skeleton key of certainty. It is an examination of the sometimes-grim, sometimes-gay covenant we make with the subjects of our pain. What we kill and eat becomes part of the ledger of our living: we eat its pain, its life, its every silvery thrash in the sea. Everything we murder for our survival, we give permission to one day, cosmically, ache us right back.

give feral thanks

Give Feral Thanks: A Mary Oliver Primer runs from January 21st – 31st.

“Wild Geese” – A Mary Oliver Primer


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Image: Wild Geese, posted at Flickr by liz west under a Creative Commons License.

In Las Lomas where I grew up and still return every Sunday morning, wild parrots wake me up, the incantation of their united screech a resonant, strangely innervating chorus. I have always felt the press of the wild more closely in Las Lomas, and it is a complicated wilderness. I have had a calamitous, giddy lifetime of loving the bush but not always loving myself there. I think Mary Oliver would have understood this. I think the work she produced proved that she did, long before I took my first steps down to the rich, uneven dirt of my family farm.

“Wild Geese”, published in 1986, is a disarming of a poem. If it were a person at the funeral of someone you love(d), it would be the stranger in the sensible shoes who makes you a cup of coffee — inexplicably, perfectly as you take it — passing it into your trembling hands without demanding you say a word. The only confession the poem asks of you is one you make to yourself, holding up the ledger of your life like a mirror scrawled with your own red-lipsticked secrets.

We see how simply Oliver begins.

“You do not have to be good.”

When James Baldwin spoke in 1984 of writing a sentence clean as a bone, this, surely, is what he meant. The poem is full of them, lines that strike deep and true to the marrow of the worst sins we’ve committed, the thousand and one minor dishonesties that take us through the day, the times we’ve struck our children after promising we never would, the divorce papers we sign while sick to the stomach, the evasions in tax and in tenderness. This poem may be the only forgiveness forthcoming. This poem may be the only opportunity for the worst we’ve done to rise to the surface, to be boiled off like frothing scum.

What an unburdening of a poem we have here, what a permitting, soothing assurance. Oliver gentles without tranquilizing, tempers without a full euthanasia of mercy. For there is still the despair of the world, at one’s doorstep; the poem makes that as plain as the balm of self-forgiveness. The cure for too much human spirit on the earth, “Wild Geese” gently, sternly proposes, might be the earth itself, unfettered of us.

Hearkening to nature is its own morality, of course — “the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain”, “the prairies and the deep trees”, “the mountains and the rivers”. Built into the poem is the subtle, yet vibrant suggestion that nature provides its own testing: after all, the cry of the wild geese above us is as harsh as it is exciting… and excitement itself is no antidote to danger. Yet, if you were to choose a way to be a more complete you, to be a you less shackled and conscripted to a desert of penance, this is the thrill you should choose, exhorts the poem.

Above all, whether your appetites are natural or nuclear, “Wild Geese” is a poem of the imagination as heroic instrument. It is the mind that will save us, or flay us. A different, as-necessary poem, Nicole Sealey’s “A Violence”, ends with:

“A body, I’ve read, can sustain
its own sick burning, its own hell, for hours.
It’s the mind. It’s the mind that cannot.”

Where do you turn, when the incendiary notion of your forced goodness threatens to kick you out of yourself? You turn to your mind. To its inviolable queendom. Even if you sicken. Even if you suffer. Even if there’s no forest for miles. Tune into yourself, and you will find as many wild geese as you desire.

give feral thanks

Give Feral Thanks: A Mary Oliver Primer runs from January 21st – 31st.

“How to Fix a Dancer When it Breaks” – Genevieve DeGuzman


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Image: Aspen Santa Fe Ballet – Teatro Arcimboldi, posted at Flickr by Elisa Banfi under a Creative Commons License.

The Dhammapada gives us what might be one of the most perfectly concentrated poems:

“There is no fire like passion;
there is no losing throw like hatred;
there is no pain like this body;
there is no happiness higher than rest.”

The fact that there is no pain like this body is the root, the seed, and the fountain of so much that calls itself poetry. “How to Fix a Dancer When it Breaks” is cut from that vast fabric, too: an understanding of the body as an active site for pain, perpetrated by one who both wounds and repairs it.

DeGuzman sets a narrative stage of trauma: “bull / horn temper breaking china” threatens the grace of the speaker, whom we read as the dancer. Undeniably, the dancer suffers, but retains a resilience that can withstand their aggressor/medic’s worst violence. The poem takes us through the aftermath of one kind of violence, through the routine of another, ‘healing’ ritual: the repair of the dancer, which is its own tenderness, and, we suspect, its own subversive brutality too.

I best like the ways in which DeGuzman renders the body for us, in terms both medicinal and mechanical: “Life begins in the joints / and facets, yanked cords and pulley systems. / Lumbar and sacral spine spindle.” Though the dancer’s body is ostensibly at rest while being sutured and scoured clean — a “clean slate” and “restart, erase” — the poem sparks, grinds and rotates with an uneasy kinetic energy.

The speculation of repair — its possibilities, its limitations — is under the microscope in this puissant, fierce poem. At its end, we’re given the speaker’s resolve to hold: told to ‘bear it’, they say they will. But we don’t know what will be broken the next time, no matter what arts of medicine and malice may emerge.

Read “How to Fix a Dancer When it Breaks” here.
Genevieve DeGuzman is a poet and writer of fiction. Visit her website here.

bon voyage.jpgThis is the twenty-sixth installment of Other Kinds of Men, a speculative poetry reader in honour of Ursula K. Le Guin. Speculative writing, which encompasses the major genres of mythology, fantasy and science fiction, has often given voice to the most relentless and ungovernable urgencies of this age, and any other. Le Guin understood this: that to write about dragons, ice worlds and other seeming oddities was, in fact, to write into the messy, riotous complexity of ourselves. Here’s to dragons, and here’s to Ursula.

“Pollen” – Rose Lemberg


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Image: Three’s a crowd., posted at Flickr by Naveen Lakshmanareddy under a Creative Commons License.

What you send into space may yet await you, its compassionate tendrils ready to pet your face.

Rose Lemberg’s “Pollen” is a microcosm of a much larger story. This is how some of the best poems situate themselves: they focus on the minor wars unfolding on the tip of your eyelash. For the beings living there, the war isn’t minor. Nothing feels small about the world that greets us here, where a narrator tells us in reminiscence: “When I was a child, rocketships bloomed between my palms like dandelions.” On its own, this is already a speculation. It’s presented by a speaker who is no longer a child, but who did spectacular things when they were one, who is still deeply invested in the future of their creations. We all untangle our own handful-skein of the God myth when young: we either reconcile that myth through what we make, or live long enough to see our myths mutate into something else, entirely.

The passage of time sluices through the emotional undercurrents by which Lemberg gently steers us. The poem relies on a solid willingness of the reader to untether from orthodox concerns, or ‘childish’ ones. You must believe a child can manifest rocketships. You must believe “pollen cosmonauts I made from the tundra in bloom /  that clings to thin life above the chasm of permafrost” can inhabit the distant stars. More than this, you must want to believe: it is the wanting, the childlike optimism, that I find to be the most resilient and aware mechanism of this poem.

What a calm, cavernous industry Lemberg has made for us in trusting our creators, even (especially) when they do not bellow in terror, or consume their children. Why can we not believe that what a child makes might save us all?

Read “Pollen” here.
Rose Lemberg’s debut collection of poems, Marginalia to Stone Bird, was published in 2016 by Aqueduct Press. Visit Rose’s website here.

bon voyage.jpgThis is the twenty-fifth installment of Other Kinds of Men, a speculative poetry reader in honour of Ursula K. Le Guin. Speculative writing, which encompasses the major genres of mythology, fantasy and science fiction, has often given voice to the most relentless and ungovernable urgencies of this age, and any other. Le Guin understood this: that to write about dragons, ice worlds and other seeming oddities was, in fact, to write into the messy, riotous complexity of ourselves. Here’s to dragons, and here’s to Ursula.

“An Ethnography of White Men by the Goddess Kali” – Maya Mackrandilal


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Image: Goddess Kali, posted at Wikimedia Commons by Piyal Kundu (পিয়াল কুণ্ডু) under a Creative Commons License.

You don’t see the Goddess coming til her foot’s on your throat.

Maya Mackrandilal’s “An Ethnography of White Men by the Goddess Kali” sings right into my Hindu-heathenish soul. A poem in five increasingly bloody movements, the narrative unthreads Kali’s unsavoury encounters with men who seem determined to misunderstand her. Oh, they mean well. Don’t they almost always mean well, these men who are hockey players and passive aggressive dinner companions, these men eager to explain why her opinions are all a bit askew, or to convince her that a post-racial society really is possible. If you’ve dated men like this and despaired, read this poem to taste vicarious, goddess-distributed comeuppance.

I love this poem because it’s sublimely, hilariously relatable. Of *course* men mansplain to the blackskinned wielder of sword and severed head. How many “well, actually”s do you think Mary, Mother of God heard, bringing up JC? Mackrandilal balances each movement of this poem like a goddess-arm, calling out careless patriarchies in gestures both subtle and sharp. Witness this not-so-innocuous exchange, post-date, between Kali and her van-driving beau: “She says that the Tarkovsky film was fine, but all the mommy issues were a bit / tiresome / Hurt, he says she is self-centered, myopic, unable to see it his way.”

Does the evening end with a half-hearted grope under Kali’s sari? No, it ends with a literal sanguinary shower: “She bathes her hair with his blood in the moonlight / Before advancing into the dark.”

Call it celestially-curated wish fulfillment. Call it giving the white cishet macho club a reckoning in dancing feet and rouged lips. This poem is a playful, precise shiv between the eyes of oppression, even – and perhaps especially, as the last movement shows – from those who want to touch your feet wrong, and call it love. Kali forbid.

Read “An Ethnography of White Men by the Goddess Kali” here.
Maya Mackrandilal is a transdisciplinary artist and writer. Visit her website here.

bon voyage.jpgThis is the twenty-fourth installment of Other Kinds of Men, a speculative poetry reader in honour of Ursula K. Le Guin. Speculative writing, which encompasses the major genres of mythology, fantasy and science fiction, has often given voice to the most relentless and ungovernable urgencies of this age, and any other. Le Guin understood this: that to write about dragons, ice worlds and other seeming oddities was, in fact, to write into the messy, riotous complexity of ourselves. Here’s to dragons, and here’s to Ursula.

“Ciguapa” – Mario Ariza


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Image: Yellow feathers, posted at Flickr by Claire Dickson under a Creative Commons License.

The difference between what is horrendous and what is beautiful is only the defect of our own eyes, not what we regard.

In Mario Ariza’s “Ciguapa”, a woman offers cocaine, then tells her listener a story. The ciguapa is the character beneath the folkloric mat, revealed for tongue-dusting. Nocturnal, mountain-dwelling, with feet turned backwards, Dominican ciguapas make me hearken to Trinidadian douens/duennes, with a notable exception: douens are unbaptized children; ciguapas are human women. This puts them in a juxtapositional league with churiles, of Hindu origin, who are the spirits of pregnant woman who died during childbirth. Douen, ciguapa, churile: all orthodox instruction warns you to avoid them, as they are all ‘dangerous’, with varying degrees of vindictive malice beneath their straw hats, knotted in their long ropes of hair.

Ariza’s poem is speculative and stabilizing in particularly the ways I like. It aligns the folkloric real — the horror of the ciguapa we can imagine — with the immediate brutality of everyday living: its victims here are malnourished children, so hungry their parasitic worms are starved. I admire the capacity of what Ariza seeks to do here, vaulting horror against horror, embroidering our bare palms with many different ways to be scared.

The poem turns doubly speculative in the heavy vaguada rains: not only is there a ciguapa, but she is presented here as a lodestone, in a story of ancestral recall. The speaker accesses her through reflection on another self, another time: “women with their feet turned / backwards, vengeful Taina women with matted hair / and the thin moon in their obsidian teeth / drove my body in its past life away from its home”.

Think, then, of all the visitations wafting, stirred into the dark blood of your ancestry. How many spirits have stalked you in the dark, teeth so ready?

Read “Ciguapa” here.
Mario Ariza is executive editor of Sinking City Magazine, and an editorial fellow at The New Tropic.

bon voyage.jpgThis is the twenty-third installment of Other Kinds of Men, a speculative poetry reader in honour of Ursula K. Le Guin. Speculative writing, which encompasses the major genres of mythology, fantasy and science fiction, has often given voice to the most relentless and ungovernable urgencies of this age, and any other. Le Guin understood this: that to write about dragons, ice worlds and other seeming oddities was, in fact, to write into the messy, riotous complexity of ourselves. Here’s to dragons, and here’s to Ursula.

“No Poisoned Comb” – Amal El-Mohtar


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Image: Core values, posted at Flickr by genericavatar under a Creative Commons License.

What we call wicked in a stepmother might be only the tip of the poisoned dagger.

Amal El-Mohtar’s “No Poisoned Comb” is a subversion of fairytale that, mid-twist, turns the knife deeper into the rosy red core of what you think you know. We hear the testimony of the Evil Queen of Snow White, who tells us we’ve got the original tale all tangled up. She’s convivial about this mangling of history: “I bear no grudge. / A story in the teeth of time / will shift its outlined shape, be chewed / to more palatable stuff.” We almost feel she might be setting the record straight not in a court of law, but by a roaring hearth, while we raise glasses of cherry wine to our lips, listening. We drop those goblets to the parquet, when the Queen spins her story darker than the Brothers Grimm themselves might have penned.

I love a fairytale-comeuppance in verse as much as any other Disney-cartoon contrarian, but El-Mohtar is spinning something here I like even better than the tale of the wronged villainess. Think less Maleficent, more Lady Macbeth without madness dropped in as a plot restriction. “I cored her”, says our speaker, who knows history misremembers her not as murkier than she was, but better, more sanitized, scrubbed and desexed for public consumption. The poem’s title serves as a possible clue – no poisoned comb signifies one less step to the ultimate savagery enacted by Queen upon Snow. The comb, in the Grimm versioning, is a sort of trojan horse: a parcel of venom wrapped in a gesture of goodwill.

Why tease goodness, this Queen seems to ask us, when you know the epicentre of your motives? The huntsman is merely a hungry prop here: it’s the speaker’s red ambition that will colour your cheeks.

Read “No Poisoned Comb” here.
Amal El-Mohtar is an award-winning writer of fiction, poetry, and criticism. Visit her website here.

bon voyage.jpgThis is the twenty-second installment of Other Kinds of Men, a speculative poetry reader in honour of Ursula K. Le Guin. Speculative writing, which encompasses the major genres of mythology, fantasy and science fiction, has often given voice to the most relentless and ungovernable urgencies of this age, and any other. Le Guin understood this: that to write about dragons, ice worlds and other seeming oddities was, in fact, to write into the messy, riotous complexity of ourselves. Here’s to dragons, and here’s to Ursula.


“Sealskinned, Crowned” – Hester J. Rook


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Image: Don’t breathe, posted at Flickr by Petra Hromádková under a Creative Commons License.

We move from skin to skin, sloughing ourselves in the pursuit of something resilient and strange.

That human beings crawl out of skins is no foreign concept to folk of the Caribbean. So too for the mythos at the heart of Hester J. Rook’s “Sealskinned, Crowned”, which immediately conjures associations of selkie culture. The poem’s speaker, who describes their skin as “misshapen from disuse / stretched and constricted / all at the same time: / a snakeskin left too long in the grass”, is in the throes of a transformation. The poem begins with starkly action-fuelled language: there is the immersive symbolism of the speaker, pouring themselves “full and thick / like the syrup left from poaching pears”.

I hearken to poems that highlight the body as transport, and I pay attention to poems that preoccupy themselves with the limits of that transport as alchemy. Rook’s poem does both. See how the speaker laments the skin’s suboptimal condition, yet purposes it anyway for another journey. Their talismans are “garlands of feathers”, their surgical thread is “roughened shell shard splinters”.

In this world, the poet presents us with a speaker whose awareness of their physical limitations is lifted and lilted with objects of beauty and best purpose. This adornment and alteration – making sure the skin can be of service, can surround safely, bedecked with an avian crown – is nothing short of what we do in ‘the real world’. Surgery: isn’t that the scientific speculation that the wounded body might yet persist, that crushed limbs can be uncrushed, that a shattered face can be removed and replaced with the face of another?

Back into the sea our speaker goes, freshly restitched and feathered, ready to be “flooded, familiar”. See their skin shine amid the sargasso. Count the trail of kingfisher plumes they leave on the shore.

Read “Sealskinned, Crowned” here.
Hester J. Rook is an Australian writer and co-editor of Twisted Moon magazine. Visit their website here.

bon voyage.jpgThis is the twenty-first installment of Other Kinds of Men, a speculative poetry reader in honour of Ursula K. Le Guin. Speculative writing, which encompasses the major genres of mythology, fantasy and science fiction, has often given voice to the most relentless and ungovernable urgencies of this age, and any other. Le Guin understood this: that to write about dragons, ice worlds and other seeming oddities was, in fact, to write into the messy, riotous complexity of ourselves. Here’s to dragons, and here’s to Ursula.