Foreword: How Did I Get Here?
“How did I get here?” is a recurring question in one of my favorite songs, “Once in a Lifetime” by the Talking Heads. It is an anthem to the uncertainty of human existence that suggests the existential feel of much of this issue.
While several post-World War II philosophers such as John-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus are called “existentialists,” they were less a school than a group of related thinkers stretching back to the nineteenth century. Their ideas are kindred but quite individual. They came from an understandable beginning, as late eighteenth-century industrialization created an urban working class. Marx was predictive of existential thought, due to the threats to individual freedom that he argued would happen in developed capitalist economies, regardless of the label used by political leaders for their economic systems.
For me, all the consequential decisions are in the past, except, as you will see, the decision to write this letter. You may rest assured that I am not writing to convince you to stay enrolled at university. I know your mother and sister have already done so several times, to no avail. Your father, I understand, has remained silent on the subject of your enlisting, except that he would like to know whether or not he should be expecting to send a tuition check in the fall. Silence is the lingua potestatem in our tribe, so I have no idea how much your father has told you about his time on New Britain or Okinawa. I am sure that the 101st Airborne subscribes to a code that will not strike you as altogether unfamiliar.
6 Poems by Rebecca Lehmann
What specter? This baby’s love?
An extinct animal? Keats’s ghastly
prismatic ghost-hand reaching
beyond the grave? My stepmother’s
grandmother, now blind, head throbbing
as she labors to breathe, mouths
commands to voice-recognition software.
She just wants to see her family,
and not through glass,
and maybe not ever again.
A nurse spoon-feeds her supper,
helps her to the bathroom,
tries to practice kindness through
her mask and plastic visor,
through her taped-on gown and gloves.
What specter? What eidolon?
What phantom? At night we watch
an actress dressed up as a princess
dressed up as Christine singing
“All I Ask of You” to her ghoulish
menacing husband who hates her.
She’ll be a ghost in the next season,
when her car phantoms into the wall
of a Parisian tunnel in the spectral night.
We watch the fog sink in the graveyard
behind our house. In October
I walk through the back part
where the oldest graves are,
along the river, crying and snapping
morbid pictures of all the stones
that read Baby, Baby, Our Beloved Babies,
Mother & Baby, Our Beloved Infant Daughter,
Our Beloved Infant Son. How many graves
are from 1919, 1920, the last pandemic?
I weep on a stone bench, go home
over their luminescence. There,
in the corner of mine eye, a ghost
go-eth, curly haired, noose around
his neck, shaking his fist in my direction,
whispering Dumb bitch. In November
the deaths top a quarter of a million.
In December we lose and lose.
I run through the graveyard. What loose
pebbles slide beneath my athletic shoes?
What pointed leafless boughs snag
the bitter wind? What ghost? What specter?
What phantom? What fog? What
creeping miasma, come to carry
us Lethe-wards, come to sink and sink?
My whole life I’ve had this feeling at my core that people wouldn’t remember me from one meeting to the next and was surprised, even touched, if they did. Looking back, I kept clear of people because of this and spent much of my youth in solitary endeavors. I hunted fossils and Iroquois arrowheads along the shores of Lake Erie, framed my own kites from balsa and tarps, and started my own fish tank to breed tropical lionfish. All this to say, I was a lonely boy. So to have had a friend—any friend, when younger—perhaps bound me to give over part of myself and follow wherever they led.
4 Poems by Maggie Queeney
The Nature of the Body of the Patient
Was it a pet gifted to her at birth, or the wild animal
broken to bear and carry the load of her, drag the cart
of her. A ribbon around the throat or a thin leather
lash across her mouth. A seashell or wrapped in inches
of sweet fruit, bleeding juice before the rot. The sand.
Covered in chain mail of charcoal scales or iridescent
plumage. Her body is not the metaphor. Shelter is not
a metaphor. What covers is not what sustains. The vehicle
that drags her closer inward, the car rumbling deeper
into the dark glitter of the mine. Or that scatters like light,
a flock, a herd, a cloud of silver bait fish. Thunderhead
with heat lightning flaring the dark boil of it, hail like seed
pearls studded in the dark velvet, like seeds sleeping
inside the dirt, waiting for the burn of wildfire to crack
open. The impressions teeth leave inside her cheeks.
I did not begin my time in Jerusalem with the desire to be dangerous. I arrived in that most intoxicating, infuriating, enervating, derelict, and sad of cities with a large black suitcase into which I’d folded a year’s wardrobe, plus books and toiletries. I had a postcollege fellowship at an Israeli civil rights and legal organization that soon came to feel too conservative for me. Its mission was laudable: it advocated for greater separation of religion and state and for equal allocation of government funds for all minority groups within ’67 borders. But the organization relied on funding mostly from Jewish groups in the United States, Europe, and Australia, which were, as one colleague explained to me, “progressive except for Palestine.”
4 Poems by Joe Wilkins
A slash pile always looks like it hurts.
Torn limbs & uprooted stumps.
The land about dozer-rutted tractor-gouged.
Trees all gone a raw face a black boil it hurts.
I wish we didn’t have to wait until the first snow.
Wish we could burn it now.
My grandfather told me one winter in the ’30s they fed all the chairs to the fire.
Then the table the shelves the beds.
The wall between the bedrooms.
They had to burn the house to keep the house warm.
He said he didn’t much like to think about it.
Wasn’t even sure why he told me.
He was dragged half a mile by a horse when he was fourteen.
Ever after one leg an inch shorter than the other.
For some reason it’s easier to see his limp when he’s walking away.
The Last Reported Sighting of the European Goldfinch
The Last Reported Sighting of the European Goldfinch in Michigan
David M. Sheridan
When my friend Essa said, some years ago, that she had become a “birder,” I couldn’t place the word. I thought she was telling me that she had been diagnosed with some kind of mental condition. I think my mind connected the word with “birdbrain.” I grew to understand that she was merely saying she likes birds a lot. She had purchased an expensive pair of binoculars just to look at them. She and her daughter, Jade, had begun journeying to distant locations where rare birds are known to hang out, and occasionally Essa would text me a photograph of some notable species they encountered: a brown thrasher, an indigo bunting, an evening grosbeak.
4 Poems by Jessica Garratt
EARLY MORNING, GALWAY, 1998
I’d walk downhill, bayward, down to the French café where I worked in a
country that wasn’t mine. The air had the chill clarity of the shop
windows a few men were washing in their white suits and caps—the same
men each day; I waved—as white gulls carved roundy shapes and calls
into the blue overhead and burly kegs rolled loud down the cobblestones
with alarming force and buoyancy, barely under control, until they were
guided with sudden grace down into a pub’s dark cellar. On that
morning, which is many mornings that shine in time as one, I too
arrived, slowed by heat, dense smells, Thierry’s grouchy gaze as he
wound the kitchen like a clock. I tied on an apron fresh from the
laundry sack and tried to tamp my joy, or let it find a narrower
tributary (comradely co-misery) that Thierry wouldn’t mind. Later,
others would join us: More waitresses. The window washers, done for the
day, flirting and ordering heavy English breakfasts as they tipped their
chairs back like boys I remembered from school. Lunchtime tourists
squinting and turning their heads like birds whose gazes I’d try not to
meet for fear of recognition that I was like them and didn’t belong. I
wanted to feel at home and also entirely free. I almost managed it. The
scene rustles its subtle senses, itself torn free, a page blowing wildly
down the thoroughfare, then lifting for a life-long moment into the sky
over the bay.
Of Sound Mind and Memory
Of Sound Mind and Memory
On Wills and Language and Lawyers and Love
by Judith Claire Mitchell
I, _____________, being of sound and disposing mind and memory,
hereby declare this to be my Last Will and Testament . . .
Before I became a writer of novels, I was a writer of wills at the oldest law firm in Rhode Island. The firm was founded by two attorneys in 1818, but by the time I was hired as an estate planning paralegal, 160 years had passed and there were now fifty-some lawyers, almost all male, a like number of staff, almost all female, and a roster of prominent clients, almost all inanimate. The clients were banks and hospitals, manufacturers and developers, municipalities and Brown University.