Surgam: Spring 2021
Letter from the Editor
by Ruby Landau-Pincus
This edition of Surgam is our third to be published virtually due to the coronavirus pandemic, and the first where that doesn’t feel particularly strange. Of course, I can only speak for myself when I say this, but I have gotten very used to this online format, with all its new possibilities, including the addition of audio and video to the magazine, and, indeed, all of its flaws. This is also probably the last primarily-virtual edition, at least until another pandemic strikes (God forbid). When my successor, Lucie Swenson, publishes our next edition, it will be one that we can hold in our hands, and prop open with a cup of coffee that will stain the pages as we read. This will feel novel; after all, it will be the first print edition that some of you have ever seen. Still, something about it will feel familiar. Surgam doesn’t really change. Like the editions before it and the editions to come, this edition of Surgam is filled with some of the best poetry, prose, art, and music that Columbia students have to offer, and I am deeply proud to be associated with it.
I would like to extend my utmost thanks to the other members of the Philolexian Society’s provisional executive board: Daisy Johnson, Lucie Swenson, Katherine Corrigan, Daniel Halmos, Michael Coiro, and Dylan Temel. Without them, the past semester would have been unbearable. I would also like to thank the editorial board: Lucie Swenson, Katherine Corrigan, Alla Issa, Jing Ye, Alix Kruta, and Dylan Temel. Without them, this edition would not have come together as smoothly as it did. Finally, I would like to thank everyone who submitted work to Surgam this semester. Without each and every one of you, this magazine truly could not exist.
In my farewell to Surgam, I am reminded of the Philolexian toast:
Hold fast to the spirit of youth, let years to come do what they may!
Table of Contents
- Cover: A Sunken Pirate, Lucie Swenson
- Letter from the Editor, Ruby Landau-Pincus
- It’s Something Close Enough to a Soul, Daisy Johnson
- Carmen, Michael Coiro
- A Peacock in the Loggia, Thomas Mar Wee
- Odyssey (Unfinished), Kat Chen
- Skinny dipping, Seowon (Angela) Lee
- Sorbet Beach, Melinde Madsen
- An elegy for a lost universe, Lucie Swenson
- Spirited, Emma Fromont
- 6 W Luray, Cobie-Ray Johnson
- Glow Day Spa, Alix Kruta
- On Self-Respect (and How I Lost It), The (under)Graduate
- Still Life (Miguel’s Alter to Sade), Ruby Mustill
- Split Vision, Crystal Foretia
- Lake Diptych, Ruby Mustill
- “Metamorphosis” or “Cis people skip this one, there’s nothing here for you,” Daisy Johnson
- P-Words, Michael Coiro
- Abandoned Places, Xan Nowakowski
- Heather was Here, Isabelle Robinson, featuring poem by Heather Quinn
- Backward, Emma Fromont
- Sally, Ella Weiner
- A Trip to the Store, Alix Kruta
- Blow, Alix Kruta
- The Choice in This Room, Lucie Swenson
- Kark’s Mitchen, Ella Weiner
- In Shambles, Melinde Madsen
It’s Something Close Enough to a Soul
by Daisy Johnson
There’s a spiral staircase leading down to everything you are, A few key differences between us and fruit and fish. There is an efficiency to life, either by way of evolution or creation. Our hair and nails are made of the same keratin as claws. Somewhere in the world chimpanzees have learned to spearfish, but does that make them people? Somewhere in the word people have forgotten compassion, but does that make them animals?
by Michael Coiro
A Peacock in the Loggia
by Thomas Mar Wee
As a boy, he enjoyed the sound of the word long before he knew its meaning. Not knowing what the word meant, it took on a variety of disparate meanings for him. Loggia, with its unfamiliar double g’s, which so rarely occurred in English, conjured up for him the little village in Northern Italy where he was sent every summer to stay with his grandmother. It wasn’t until years later, in a lecture course on architecture in college, that the boy, who was now a young man, finally learned the meaning of the word.
He was a student of architecture, and he came across the word, during a dull lecture one morning on palace aesthetics. Hearing the word, in this far removed context, he was startled by the memories it conjured up for. Sitting in the back of the dimly lit lecture hall, he was suddenly overwhelmed by associations. He recalled the slanting rays of sunlight that struck the courtyard in the afternoons, his grandmother singing in their cramped kitchen, the clouds of dust kicked up in the streets of the village, the feeling of the sun on his naked back after a swim at the lake, and the sunburnt bald men who sat in lawn chairs outside of their apartments playing a complicated card game involving dice. And, above all, he remembered the strange incomparable cry of a peacock echoing in the courtyard of the loggia as it died. Followed by an equally incomparable silence the morning that it disappeared.
In-between the double consonants of this word was the memory of this peacock, who belonged first to the animal dealer who had acquired him by accident, and later, once it had been freed to roam the apartment courtyard, to everyone. He remembered that it would eat straight from anyone’s hand, without the slightest fear. The peacock was large, larger than any bird the boy had seen back home, with a tremendous beak and a great blue robe of plumage that resembled a medieval tapestry. It terrified the small children in the neighborhood and was even known to have bitten a few of them. But apart from getting into squabbles sometimes with the other animals, it was mostly harmless and spent most of its days parading the courtyard, which had become, after a brief stint in captivity, its kingdom.
At first, he was afraid of the bird, until he learned that its threats were mostly bluster and that its diet consisted primarily of figs, berries, and seeds. During his early visits to the loggia, his memories of the peacock were of a young, strapping bird with a brilliant, shimmering blue hue and impressive plumage, especially during mating season. Its feathers could be found everywhere, drifted into corners, tucked in the rafters of rooms, flittering off balconies. They were considered to be good luck and were often seen adorning peoples’ clothes, dangling from earrings, or tucked into a woman’s hair.
Initially, the peacock belonged to the local animal dealer, a thin-lipped, brooding man with a heavy brow. The boy’s grandmother had warned him to stay away from him, because the man, they said, drank, gambled, frequented brothels, and used birth control. He sold animals at the market in the middle of town. Ordinary livestock mostly, but occasionally he managed to get his hands on rarer, more exotic fauna. These he kept in a metal cage attached to the outside of his ground-floor apartment. The children in the village, including the boy, would stand by the cage, poking their hands through the bars, to pet or feed the animals.
The peacock was kept in the cage until the noises during its scuffles began to irritate the neighbors. It seemed that the bird was unhappy being cooped up among these other animals—goats, chickens, sheep, or rarer animals such as lizards, snakes, or sometimes an occasional chimp—animals which were obviously lesser compared to itself. Either way, it made much less noise when the dealer finally gave in and released the peacock into the courtyard of the loggia. At first, people were worried it would fly away. The courtyard was accessed by a metal gate that led onto a street, but the walls of the buildings that enclosed it were only four stories high. No one knew if peacocks could fly. At most, all they had witnessed from it was the occasional hop and a great fluttering of wings, but it had never managed to get more than a meter off the ground.
The boy came to the loggia, summer after summer. His grandmother, a widow, spent most of her days indoors except when she was out on the balcony, shouting across to her neighbors. The boy was left largely to his own devices, as long as came back at the end of each day for supper. As the boy grew older, he began spending more time in town or the woods, lounging on the steps of the cathedral in the town square, smoking cigarettes that the older boys rolled for him, or else in the woods, going for swims in the nearby lake.
The peacock still lived in the courtyard. It hadn’t once attempted to escape, either from lack of ability or lack of trying. The animal dealer had tried for years to find someone to buy it off him. It was expensive to keep, he said, and noisy. He went from door to door in nearby towns, dragging the peacock behind him in a hand-pulled cart. Nobody wanted to buy such an expensive, pointless bird. After a few years of trying and failing to sell it, he tried instead to find it a mate. The peacock was now in its middle-age, and the dealer imagined that a brood of younger peacocks would be flashier and thus more profitable. But in this, he was also unsuccessful. He had stumbled upon the first peacock by accident when a shipment of iguanas was lost off the coast of Lisbon, and he was given the lone peacock by a trader as a form of compensation. Male peacocks, because of their plumage, are more desirable and thus easier to obtain through illicit means. But female peacocks, with their dull, tawny color, are less coveted and harder to come by. And so, the peacock, despite the dealer’s best efforts, remained in the courtyard, an eternal bachelor, to be fed and teased with sticks and laughed at by the neighbors.
“What a stupid, pointless bird,” they would say.
The boy, who was now a teenager, was no longer afraid of the bird. By now, he had begun to shave and his voice had dropped and, one summer, he had discovered girls. His friends in the neighborhood drove motor scooters and he would ride on their backs as they rode around the village and into the countryside where they swam, drank, and made out with one another. At night, drunk, stumbling back into the courtyard, they would tease the peacock in its nest before going to bed. They threw pebbles at it until it squawked and stomped its feet and kicked up dust with its wings, generally making such a racket that it invariably woke everyone up.
One night, the boy was sitting with two neighborhood girls after a day of drinking at the lake. The other boys had gone to the pool hall, and he had somehow managed to end up with the two of them, alone, in a shaded corner of the courtyard. They were sitting on a moss-covered bench under an aging willow, still drunk, laughing and teasing each other. The boy was nervous. For some reason, two of the most beautiful girls in the entire village had decided to spend the evening with him. Now that he was alone with the two of them, he felt he needed to impress them somehow. He had already earned a reputation in the neighborhood for being timid and inexperienced. Everyone around him seemed to be growing up at an alarming rate. When he arrived that summer, he’d discovered that everyone he knew, it seemed, had lost their virginity while he was away. Sitting under the willow, the girls were getting bored and sleepy. They looked at each other like they were about to leave. The boy was about to say something when there was the sound of branches breaking and the peacock crashed through some ferns. It emerged, out of the darkness, and unfurled its enormous shield of feathers, its black eye glittering in the moonlight. After a moment, the peacock relaxed its chest, collapsed its feathers, and eyed them warily, releasing a kind of whine that sounded like a vacuum cleaner. It was old at this point, and everyone was surprised that it was still alive. No one knew how long peacocks lived, because this was the only one they had seen. By now, its feathers had begun to lose their luster and its tail drooped behind it when it walked. Every year, when he arrived at the loggia, he half expected to find that it had died.
But each time, he was surprised to find the peacock still alive. He thought, in his drunkenness, that it was ridiculous that a creature like this, impotent, stupid, pointless, should live so long. Interrupting the girls, who had resumed teasing him, he picked up an empty beer bottle resting against a pile of bricks. The girls stopped laughing and looked at him nervously, daring him, it seemed, with their eyes.
“You wouldn’t,” one of them gasped. She was smiling at him, and her demeanor had changed all of a sudden. He stood up straighter, weighed the bottle in his hand. Just then, the bird waddled in front of them and squawked. Its beak wobbled. He shouted at it, imitating its screech. The three of them laughed. One of the girls moved to put a hand on his arm. The bird did a kind of a hop, turned, and was about to leave. The boy, seizing the opportunity, lifted the bottle and hurled it. The bottle exploded in a whirlwind of feathers, scattering fragments of glass in the dust. There was the sound of shattering and then an abrupt, painful cry. The peacock fled, kicking up dirt, diving into the ferns and out of sight.
In the silence that followed, the girls stared at him. He realized that they weren’t at all impressed by what he had done. Instead, they looked furious and disgusted. One of them spat in the dirt. She looked at her friend and the two of them stood and dusted themselves off. Then they turned and walked with their backs to him. The metal gate clanged shut behind them, echoing against the walls of the courtyard. The boy looked at the cloud of dust where the girls and the peacock had been and sighed. Drunk, he lay down against the bench and fell asleep underneath the stars.
In the morning, he awoke to an awful sound. It was almost a human noise, as if a person were crying out for help somewhere in the distance. He covered his ears, groaning, hungover, and sat up. His back ached from sleeping on the ground. Although it was still early, he heard voices clamoring above him. He looked up and saw people clustered on their balconies. They were shouting to each other, “What is that noise! That horrible noise!”
The boy stood up. He saw, a few meters from him, a pile of shards and a few stray feathers scattered in the dirt. The night before came back to him in a rush. He was annoyed at himself. It had been an impulsive, stupid decision, and he regretted it. That entire day, the courtyard echoed with unrelenting cries. Its source was quickly identified as an animal, dying somewhere. A group of concerned neighbors roused the animal dealer from his afternoon nap. He listened and quickly identified the cries as the sound his peacock made when it was hurt after a fight. He told them he hadn’t seen it since the day before. The cries persisted into the night, and the dealer became concerned. His peacock was still missing. Together, the neighbors organized a search of the courtyard and the area around the loggia. The boy watched all of this unfold from his grandmother’s balcony.
The peacock’s body was found eventually, curled up among a pile of rubble in a neglected corner of the courtyard. The dealer’s cursing could be heard from below. He had found pieces of glass stuck in the bird’s breast, he said. Someone had done this intentionally. The animal dealer, who had never once shown any particular affection for the bird, became the perfect picture of righteous indignation. He referred to what happened as a “crime”, demanding that the culprit be found and swiftly punished. He offered a sizable reward for anyone who came forward with information about the attacker’s identity. Terrified of being found out, the boy fled the courtyard to wait for things to blow over. He ran into town and out into the fields under the pretext of buying food for his grandmother. He stayed out there, alone, for the entire day, wandering aimlessly through the woods until night fell.
When he returned that night, he smelled dinner cooking in the apartments and found a group of men sitting in beach chairs arranged in a circle. The older men and the animal dealer were conversing. The boy lingered outside the door to his apartment and listened to their whispers. They still hadn’t found the culprit, he learned, but there were several promising leads. The question currently under debate was what should be done about the bird. There was a doctor in a nearby village who sometimes treated animals, livestock mostly. But when the dealer visited him, the man told him that the bird was too far gone already and that the most merciful thing to do would be to put it out of its misery. The doctor offered to do it for him, via lethal injection, but the dealer refused, and took his bird home with him, bringing it into his house, hoping to nurse it back to health.
The men he sat in council with offered their advice. “It can’t have much time left. I say, just wait and let things run their course,” one said. Another suggested that the most humane thing to do would be to let it run free, to live out its final days in the woods above town. “Don’t be ridiculous,” the dealer said, “that bird is too used to his comfortable life here. He won’t last a night out there, fending for himself.”
The other nodded. It was true. The bird was utterly domesticated. There was silence. The men sighed to themselves. Seeing no alternative, the dealer stood up and went inside, hoping that a solution would emerge tomorrow.
That night, no one in the loggia slept. The peacock kept everyone up with its screeches. It sounded like someone was wringing a rooster’s neck, and just when it seemed to have stopped, it would start up again, even louder. The bird was, everyone agreed, at the end of its life. It wouldn’t be much longer. They all went out on their balconies, looking down at the dealer’s apartment and the outdoor cage where the peacock had been moved. They each secretly wished that the dealer would do the compassionate thing. He owned a rifle, they knew, and had loaded it the day he found the bird’s body. Now, it lay beside his bed, but he couldn’t bring himself to shoot it. The boy lay awake listening to the mangled cries and covered his ears with a pillow. He could hear his grandmother awake in the next room, murmuring a prayer. He refused to feel any guilt, which had consumed him in the past few days. Now, he simply wished that the bird would die. It was stubborn, he thought, even in death.
The animal dealer held out for three days. For three nights, nobody slept. They tried stuffing cotton balls in their ears, playing loud music, but nothing could cover up the cries. They all walked to work with dark circles under their eyes and were more irritable than usual. Children disobeyed their parents. Husbands fought with their wives. The boy’s grandmother was short with him when she realized he had forgotten to buy milk.
For three days, the boy rode a bicycle into the woods, alone, to skip rocks in the lake and grow sunburned in the late August sun. Each evening, he returned home as late as he dared, and tried and failed to fall asleep to the cries of the peacock. Contrary to their expectations, as the days passed and its death was prolonged, its cries only grew stronger. After the third night, the dealer gave in. In the morning, as usual, the boy left for town and went into the fields. He missed the event and only heard about it later, from the rumors. The dealer had conducted everything in secret, early that morning, as if out of modesty and deference.
When the boy finally returned, the bird was gone. The gossip from the balconies that night gave several conflicting accounts. Some swore that early in the morning, they had heard a shot fired from behind the apartments, which startled the pigeons in the town square. Others were equally certain that they had seen the dealer wheeling his cart into the woods at sunrise. Some posited a third possibility. This theory was so improbable that it was mocked mercilessly and only believed by a few. No one had ever seen the bird fly before, and so it was impossible to believe, as some claimed, that something so ungainly could have managed to escape on its own accord, that morning, just before dawn.
by Kat Chen
by Seowon (Angela) Lee
you grin, and whisper baptism in my ear
I strip and name you rogue, name you rascal
And when we are spent, and lying
the salt, crystal on the skin I say,
Never let a first grader name themself
because they give no shits.
He laughs and asks, what does your name say?
as if it could speak and
say I was too lazy to look past “A”
in a book of acceptable labels.
Thank god, I didn’t know much English,
I might’ve named myself, Apple or Appalachia,
Anon or Axiological.
I say but I am thinking baptism
in salt water of oceans crossed
means dipped once, and drowned once again,
purified, pickled, fit with an ill fitting husk.
We’re all born here, water onto water
some are just born twice, or born
once, erased, and born again? But here I am
trying to cram all that into one sound.
You say, what’s your real name?
And I really don’t know what to tell you. And so
I say, I remember being laughed at for forgetting the names
of all the oceans, I still don’t think I know them all
I could say an ocean is an ocean, but here
I am trying again, to dwell in your mouth.
by Melinde Madsen
An elegy for a lost universe
let’s just say that there is this other universe where we fly by zeppelins to cleveland and the tax systems make sense and my brain always works: there, you would hold my hand. kiss my lips. tease me as i dance poorly in the kitchen after finishing the crossword puzzle. i’d kiss you again. your voice might follow me into my dreams after a day of fucking and fighting, choosing vulnerability over loneliness. but we would stay curled together under blankets until the sun broke over us at 7 a.m
by Emma Fromont
6 W Luray
by Cobie-Ray Johnson
I live in a purple house on a street called Luray in Alexandria, Virginia. There is a big tree in the front yard that my mom saved from getting uprooted by developers, and a thick black stain where the roof is starting to rot. In school, I always draw it just like that: purple box, big tree, and a thick black squiggle across the roof. Green car out front. Red mailbox.
Inside, everything is sunny. The living room is bright yellow, walls busy with photos and a thousand random objects from a thousand roadside antique stores. Against the wall, a couch, the body built by my dad and the cushions hand-sewn by my mom. In the kitchen, there is an old gas stove and a ladder against the wall that leads to my bedroom. On the wall is a newspaper ad from the 70’s, something about differently-colored cows and differently-tasting milk. There’s a hacking cough from outside, and out my bedroom window I can see our next door neighbor, Lou, pacing barefoot on the sidewalk. He does this a lot, a cigarette burning slow between his fingers and his sagging, leathery nipples peeking out from behind the shirt he never bothers to button up. His bright green parrot, Sweet Pea, is perched loyally on his shoulder. Our backyards are separated by a chain-link fence, and his side is mostly weeds, a giant mass of tangled vines and clovers. Sometimes I hook my bare feet through the metal and climb over to lay face-down in the soft green.
I love that house more than most things. My mom says that this is because I am sentimental, a trait I inherited from who-knows-where, but I know that she loves it too. It is the first place we called home.
During my first week of college, Amazon announced two new headquarters. One was four miles away from my house, and now my parents are moving.
Sometimes, when I have a bad day, it all starts to feel like an awful lot. I think about all of the new houses that have been built on my street, and how when it rains, all of their water drains into one big Puddle in the middle of my parents’ backyard, and how now my mom’s vegetable garden is dying. And how even when she tries to save it, she can’t stay outside for more than ten minutes at a time because of all the mosquitoes. Which are attracted to the Puddle. I know they’ll be happier when they move, but I am a nostalgic and selfish person. And I know that whoever buys our house is going to tear it down, and I won’t be able to drive by in ten years and get emotional about my childhood, and I think that I might hate Jeff Bezos more than almost anything in the entire world.
I didn’t realize that being from Virginia was something to be ashamed of until I got to college. In New York, everyone is either from California, Massachusetts, or the Tri-State area. You can’t blame them — they forget that other places exist. Girl from “Western Mass” widens her eyes, like there is only racism below the Mason-Dixon, like her mom didn’t vote for Bush and her daddy doesn’t go on rants about affirmative action when he’s had too much to drink. At a party last month, a girl from downtown L.A. with too-short bangs and multi-colored stars painted on her cheeks rushed towards me to compliment my pants, asking where I got them. “Oh, they were a lucky find,” I said. “Salvation Army.”
“The one on the Lower East Side?” she pressed. “I love that one.”
“No, in Virginia, actually,” I responded.
“Oh, my god, I love that,” she cooed. “So smart. My friends and I love driving to random states to thrift, too. They always have the best stuff.”
I should just start telling people I’m from Rhode Island. I feel like most people don’t have any strong feelings about Rhode Island.
I grew up in Alexandria, which is in Northern Virginia, fifteen minutes outside of D.C.. Practically D.C., I used to say, until I found out how people who are from actual D.C. react to that claim. Maybe if I was from actual D.C. I would have been more prepared for New York, for the obscure techno bands and the performance art that really makes you think. The expensive haircuts that are designed to look like cheap haircuts. The people with film cameras who take pictures of their skinny friends smoking cigarettes for their “photography” “portfolios.” On the wrong night at the wrong party it’s all a bit much. I didn’t realize I was from Virginia until I left.
Last February, I took a weekend trip home to see my parents. When I got there, the bed that my dad had built me was dismantled, my mattress sitting lonely on the floor where it once stood. They hadn’t even started to think about putting the house on the market yet, they assured me.
It’s a long process. The living room was mostly empty. I could feel in the back of my throat. My last night there was an unseasonably warm one, so I tiptoed down the creaky ladder and out through the kitchen, like I was fifteen, like I had something to hide. I stepped outside, bare feet first on the rotting wood of the patio and then a cold carpet of fallen leaves. The tired wood of the porch swing groaned slightly under the weight of my body, but I rocked myself back and forth anyway. For the first time in a long time, I wasn’t afraid of the dark. I sat in it. I sat in it until my eyes adjusted and it felt light again.
The chain-link fence is gone. In its place, a towering wooden moat installed by the family who demolished Lou’s house after he died. The weeds have been pulled. Their garden is thriving. On our side, it’s all still there. The mighty oak tree where I once hung a hammock that broke under the weight of too many bodies during my seventh grade birthday party, now all decaying branches and dried-out bark. The grey slats of the roof where I’d lie on long summer days, surrendering pink skin to a ruthless August sun. There are plants in every direction, big green leaves and bright flowers that my mom and I hand-picked at the store and grew from seed, three or five or ten years ago. In the center of the yard is a huge dirt rectangle where the vegetable garden used to be. The Puddle looms large, now more of a Lake, even wider and deeper than when I was last home a few months previous. The shed in the corner is at least six inches underwater. The wood is rotting fast.
I laid my head back and let my eyes drift closed. My chest rose and fell. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was saying goodbye.
Glow Day Spa
by Alix Kruta
On Self-Respect (and How I Lost It)
by The (under)Graduate
I knew lights were never turning green for me. Maybe in the cruelly promising way a green light blinked at Gatsby, but probably not in the sense that Joan Didion meant it. And what did she mean?
No, seriously, my first read of “On Self-Respect” was parasocially reminiscent of a Neanderthal reacting to fire. Looking back, I was so grossly emotionally and academically underprepared to catch her fast clip of allusions, where her voice stopped and where an extended reference began, why it was such a “tragedy” that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s apparent enthusiasm for triangles went unrecognized– all of this to say, I got none of it. While my brain was nowhere near up to scruff, my heart felt like it was in the right place. I liked that she wrote misspelled words like “rôles” because it looked fancy. I liked how she was able to string together words I was perfectly capable of interpreting separately into these elegant messes of misunderstanding. But most of all, I liked that she seemed to earnestly try to help me.
I didn’t start reading Didion because I was going through some angsty, intellectual (gag) phase. I started reading her because Mom was dying, and I didn’t know what to do with myself.
Eleven is such an awkward age to lose a parent. At that point, I loved my mom in the purest sense in that my love was unconditional but in some ways unfounded. When you’re that young, you don’t actually know who your parents are; you don’t get the chance to grow resentful for the issues you’ve inherited from them or foster a genuine admiration for everything they’ve overcome. During flu season at the hospital, kids under thirteen were barred from entering the cancer ward else the extremely immuno-compromised patients are exposed to the virus. Eleven is such an awkward age to lose a parent because you’re old enough to understand loss, but too young to understand just what and how much you’re losing.
It was more than just basketball games and afterschool pickups and general quality time my mom was missing during that time. She also couldn’t be there for me when I had to face my racist 5th grade teacher. This isn’t a story about that bitch, but for context, she once called me, “a jaundiced yellow-faced brat” for daring to sharpen my pencil in the middle of a riveting lecture on prepositions. I mention her because I was stuck between an instinct of deference to my elders, the people in my life that were supposed to protect and educate me, and a discovery that for some reason or another, those same people will do everything in their power not to. I was tied to an indescribable hurt I didn’t know what to do with and lorded over by an adult who would’ve preferred to stand and watch me writhe.
Somehow I found Didion, likely by accident. I found her, and I found Sontag and Woolf and Henry James and Proust, and even after my mom thankfully recovered, I dove into the deep interiorities of writers like Rooney and Moshfegh. As I’ve said before, I was a dumb kid. It wasn’t until those later years that the emotional truths I felt were there translated into something cerebral. I built myself a pantheon of white ennui, and I worshipped it because I never felt like these thinkers insulted me. They wrote with a style so fluid and erudite. They wrote how they wanted and without regard to making their ideas any more digestible. I might have been dumb, but unlike the people in my real life who drew lines in the sand to indicate that spaces weren’t for me, they never made me feel that way.
As much as this is about self-respect, the more important focus should be on how I lost it.
Sometime during my junior year of high school, I realized Joan Didion was not my friend. She wasn’t my god or my mentor, and if she actually met me, I’d be a neutral stranger to her at best and a waste of time at worst. Once I knew what they were, I wasn’t a part of the camp that cared about Phi Beta Kappa or the Princeton Triangle Club, or at least not enough to relate to the apparent devastation of missing membership in both. I learned that one of Virginia Woolf’s greatest pranks involved blackface. Nothing fundamentally changed with them. They were still the quick-witted, coolly detached authors who seemed to me born with all the right perspectives on the world. I changed when I realized I wasn’t part of the view.
My emotions ran hot and raw and intertwined with an undercurrent of intergenerational and interethnic trauma even those easily-sunburned geniuses couldn’t tap into. I found new authors who didn’t look like them, some that looked like me, who wrote in that hot, raw, historically traumatized, the-lights-were-never-green way. Not that Murakami or Garcia-Marquez, or Achebe were ever obscure names, but I never went out of my way to find them. They made me realize more of myself than I ever had before, that in my unspoken mission to emulate the voices I once exalted as “the greats”, I never developed my own. I used to dedicate my nightly prayers to my mom and our eventual return to each other, but when the time came, I didn’t spend the time I could have with her because I was busy trying to mine out what defines that elusive yet distinctive balance between empathetic and unsentimental.
When I gradually expanded my frankly pretty narrow-minded bookshelf, I realized that I don’t know what I am. That admission must be one of the greatest disrespects to one’s identity, but isn’t it also the biggest step forward to achieving genuine self-respect? The eventual union of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy in Pride and Prejudice isn’t the best point of the novel; it’s not the emotional climax. The scene that matters most is when Lizzy admits that she does not know herself. Kafka only becomes “the bravest 15-year-old on the planet” when he realizes how much about himself he does not know. One valid interpretation of Didion’s On Self-Respect is that self-respect derives from that lowest point of unknowing, of understanding the prejudices you’ve built up for yourself and deciding whether it’s worth your pride to tear them down.
I lost my self-respect, and the verdict’s still out on how much of that even existed in the first place and how much has been regained. In a place like Barnumbia overfilled with determined high-achievers who might as well be walking instagram feeds, the most humiliating and healthy thing I can do for myself is to practice that noble unaware self-awareness and say
I DON’T KNOW.
Still Life (Miguel’s Alter to Sade)
by Ruby Mustill
by Crystal Foretia
How do you look yourself in the mirror without seeing me too? You hid me away in the wavy hair you stole in the cherry lips you plumped in the plastic ass you bought. Yet you spent all of grade school calling me ugly. I see you in the mirror everyday when I straighten my hair when I slim down my nose when I smoothen my accent before my fourth job interview. No rolls to be found in my Rs nor contractions in my diction. I do not have your luxury to be primitive. So remember my name the next time you drive to your French salon to steal my face. Remember my name like you remember my face.
by Ruby Mustill
“Metamorphosis” or “Cis people skip this one, there’s nothing here for you”
by Daisy Johnson
Wild intrigue into universes of difference between what is and what ought
Squinting out into the blinding sunset horizon for what I could have been
What’s out there?
I like to say that I would be happier if I was born a woman.
A convenient narrative, easy to spout off, easy to understand, easy to not think about.
But is it true?
So much of how we think is
Everything must be a means to an end, up to and including the ends themselves.
A very economic worldview, thus inherently inhumane.
What I am, what I am trying to be,
If I think
If interrogate it
MTF: Male to Female
It seems less and less about
And more about
No matter what I was born as, I would be inherently incomplete like that.
Transience as a through line between any version of me there is and could be.
Maybe some people simply require change to be complete.
by Michael Coiro
by Xan Nowakowski
I returned to Tallahassee, the passing rite of every May with dark red robes in hand. Caught beneath sleep, I wandered footsteps echoing on granite tiles that swallowed my despair then as now, although no longer young. Around me the vast and vaulted space yawned like open tombs waiting for coffins, or perhaps urns. Things burning had long since become a leitmotif in other dreams. I searched around old dormitory desks arranged like market stalls. I waited for the vendors to spark with recognition, passed unseen into lists of names engraved in stone beneath the naked body of a man. I found a crumpled essay in a drawer about how sweet you were to everyone but me. In the courtyard I appeared again to dedicate a plot of earth but became only shadows, faceless in photographs with our trustees. A tailored suit and stockings swallowed my bones, and the carbon patches of my sunken eyes just vanished in the flare. Others looked straight through me, suits with spades. And I walked on frail legs, marveling at how they held me still. A scar, a poster session, the patio where we first met one bright spring morning. You were everywhere and nowhere all at once, a boldfaced note in pages left scattered. And then I went to Kennesaw which somehow was Valdosta. This I knew for certain, for everything converged into its reaches. Familiar stained hotels encircled me, thin walls redolent with grime and other signs of giving up. I dodged traffic, seeking sustenance at long buffets of wilted fare like funeral banquets never disassembled. Behind the kitchen pass servers with decaying limbs lifted heavy plates bereft of food in plumes of foul steam. Emerging I found myself ensnared by exit ramps for Highway 82 in Tifton, though my calendar said Jennings. Things never happen quite as planned, and I never did wear my red robes. And I never could manage to find you in any of those places we once haunted.
Heather was Here
by Isabelle Robinson (featuring poem by Heather Quinn)
In loving memory of Heather Maryanna Quinn, who knew that there were poems still inside of me. I wish the world could have seen all of the poems inside of you.
It began like most things do—with a swelling: a split of cells, a blood test on a bad day, a phone call, a push, a little harder, the smell of damp. And the flesh, only allowing so much, giving way.
I asked her once what cancer felt like. It hadn’t occurred to me, until then, that I didn’t know—whether it stung or ached, throbbed or burned. We were sitting side by side in a friend’s backseat, sheltering against the viciousness of early summer heat, and for the first time I realized she looked sick, like really sick. I started to worry that we had driven too far. She wiped away the sweat that clung to the peach fuzz on her upper lip.
She said it was a relentless exhaustion, like every cell in her body was slowly being smothered, suffocating beneath a massive weight. I considered this in silence. Gently, I sank my teeth into the pink flesh of my palm.
I read once that if you focus on pain as it occurs—the sharp cry of an incision; the dull grind of bone against bone—it becomes just another sensation, like a tap on the shoulder or the feel of a woolen sweater against your skin. I imagine millions of cells swaddled in itchy sweaters, vibrating against one another in the unbearable wetness of human heat. I imagine them consuming her, clogging her: her abdomen, her lymph nodes, whole labyrinths of veins and arteries. When I close my eyes, little clumps of malignance dance against the red-black bruise that prefaces my sleep.
Excerpt From a Eulogy, No. 1:
She was the spirit of nature, the serenity of a still lake, the quiet of dawn, and the calm of the color yellow. Most importantly, she was our daughter, our sister, and our friend. She is still our friend. She is the rustle of leaves in the wind, the smell of the first day of autumn, and the sun on the windowpane. Like a forest, she was peaceful, and yet still full of so much life. To speak with her was to be in the presence of ancient trees.
The beast does have a name: small cell carcinoma of the ovary, hypercalcemic type. Less than 500 cases have been recorded in medical literature, with a 10% survival rate. The average age of diagnosis is 24, although tumors have been identified in children as young as seven months. She was 18 years old when they said she was stage four.
I’ve never been good with numbers, but, for better or for worse, I memorized these. 10% of 500 cases is 450 dead women and girls.
“You couldn’t just get cancer, could you?” I asked. “It had to be an ultra-rare mega-cancer that no one’s ever heard of.” It was August, and I would leave for college in just a few weeks, while she deferred admission to continue the chemo cycle. On the precipice of a world just beginning to bloom, I had been spared right as she was struck down.
She grinned. “I guess I’m just special.”
There is a picture of us sitting on a dock, taken two years before she died. We are 16 and painted radiant in golden hour hues, legs dangling lazily over still blue water. My face is turned towards hers, though my expression is out of frame. She was smiling so hard her cheeks must have ached, eyes closed against the ray of sun that illuminates the contours of her face. There’s no way to know now, but I would like to think she was smiling at me. I imagine her reading this and laughing, saying, “Or maybe you’re just vain.”
Over time, it becomes difficult to tell what’s true and what memory has constructed from the fragments she left behind. I take to writing lists—in notebooks, scribbled on scraps of paper, sandwiched between my school notes, entitled: LIKED, DISLIKED, and THINGS TO REMEMBER. I am my own army against forgetting.
biking, animals, museums, the color green, summer, the ocean, travel, poetry, mountains, laughter, hiking, art, tattoos, music, hugs, astrology, memorials, water, dancing, redwood trees, and logging off
calculus, hormones, negativity, guns, social media, band practice, surgery, rejection, anxiety, nightmares, boys, bad news, politics, radiation, and running out of time
THINGS TO REMEMBER:
Her birthday was September 23rd, 1999. She died on October 31st, 2018. I know she wouldn’t have wanted me to stop celebrating Halloween. Every year, I decide whether to mourn on October 30th or November 1st.
Excerpt From a Eulogy, No. 2:
Sunflowers are the flower of loyalty, adoration, longevity, and vibrancy. This is fitting, as they were her favorite flower. Like her, they shine bright, stand tall, and spread comfort and bliss. They are a beautiful reminder of the nineteen years she blessed our lives, and how that blessing lives on.
Less than a year before she died, our small city was rocked by a mass murder at the local high school, where she and I were both in attendance. She was the first person I saw in the harsh sunlight outside, first face my eyes adjusted to after the hours spent huddled in a dark storage closet. She was crying harder than I’ve ever seen someone cry; I was ambling along the push and pull of the masses, too numb to feel afraid.
I am not a hugger. I asked her if she needed one—we hadn’t spoken in a year at least, the result of some stupid high school bullshit—and suddenly, for just a moment, I was being held tight enough to squeeze my broken heart back in place.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t do well with death.”
I wonder how much longer I will be able to hear her voice inside my head.
The Poets’ Corner is carved from the smooth, cool marble of St. John the Divine. I’d passed the cathedral dozens of times, but never entered until an unseasonably warm day in late September, on what would have been her 20th birthday. I didn’t know how to remember her in a city we’d never shared, and yet I couldn’t bear to leave the day unrecognized. I spent my grief under a cavern of glass and stone.
The corner was created in 1984, in memory of the dead who lived long enough to secure brilliance. An inscription reads, “My heart is inditing a good matter, my tongue is the pen of a ready writer.” Beneath it, authors and poets of great renown are honored on polished tile: Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, and Flannery O’Connor are all agleam, eternally etched in stone. I carved her name into a candle, and let it burn.
WE WILL HANGOUT THANKSGIVING BREAK
applying to columbia
that dumb motherfucker
what the HECK that boy think
he be doing in your city thats
WHEN IS THANKSGIVING
THAT WEEK OF NOVEMBER
When I was young, maybe nine or ten, my friend Cody’s father killed himself. It was explained to me in the bluntest of terms: he was very sick, on the inside. He wanted to die. I don’t remember if I asked, but I was told—he shot himself in the head, in the woods, alone, leaving a wife and two young children behind.
A year later, Cody and I were playing in a bounce house. She was a summer friend, the kind you see once every year and realize how much you’ve both grown. We were laughing and screaming, doing front handsprings that we learned in gymnastics class. Struck with sudden inspiration, I invented a game—there were five swells of thick, colorful vinyl across the inflatable floor. Our goal, to try and see if we could jump all the way across.
I hurled my young body into the sharp autumn air, and screamed the first word that came to mind: silibant, hissing, SUICIDE. And then, everything stops. I am suspended midair, mouth still open, weighed down with the heaviness of that word on my lips, staring into Cody’s blue eyes. I smack down face first, bending the wire of my glasses. I do not make it across.
Excerpt From a Eulogy, No. 3:
She made us strong, and because of that strength, we will have the fortitude to let her go. We will learn to go on without her because we had the privilege of knowing her. She will live on in every tree and every flower, in the mountains and in the sky. We will feel her whenever we are surrounded by nature’s peace.
The half-life of violence is a long, long time.
Before the funeral, I asked her brother how he was doing—an inane question, but the only one there is.
“Oh, you know,” he sighed. “I’ve had better days, better years, better lifetimes.”
This resonates with me. I tuck his words in my back pocket, commit them to a later time.
Two years later, mere days after I committed these words to the page, he was on a ventilator in critical condition: a traumatic brain injury, the result of a collision of heat and gasoline, blood and bone. My wrist begins to swell from a source unknown. Sara, a friend from home, is hit by a car. Workshops are cancelled—my professor’s father had a stroke.
After the funeral, we gathered all the flowers and wove them through the picnic tables at a local park; lavender and catmint took root where she once rested on a wooden bench, sweating and alive—as if grown by her touch. I strew sunflowers, roses, baby’s breath, hydrangeas—all with the utmost care, cupping silken petals in my palms.
The next day, a family with two young children will stumble upon my art, and wonder whose hands were so tender. Nearby, my funeral shoes are forgotten in a heap of forget-me-nots. Neither of us bothered learning how to walk in heels.
Poetry by Heather Quinn my grandfather taught me everything I need to know about poetry he took me to ancient churches and chapels built and rebuilt centuries before America was discovered, engulfing me in poetry written centuries before even his grandfather was born he spoke of an Abbot in France who took it upon himself to rebuild the Church of St. Denis, which houses the famous rose stained glass window. a flower blooming above the doorway, pouring color, as if from its vase, upon the heads of the congregation And we watched in awe as the poems in every stained glass window splin- tered, cracked, split, and shattered the sunshine into millions of signing colors, landing all over my skin “the word ‘Poetry,’” he said to me, “means: ‘Creation’” “create something all your own create something that will outlast you and your children and your grandchildren and write about it every day” and so I did I learned how to write myself my creations into glass poetry for the eyes as well as the ears I learned the shapes of sounds and hum of every vowel coasting between the snap of every consonant I learned why the curves in my surname read like the Milky Way because they are also in my grandfather’s I learned the different colors and edges and hills and valleys of every letter and word how the word “create” looks different, spills from my mouth unlike how it rolls off his tongue I learned to refine my glass creations sometimes they were clear, sometimes tainted, or stained, or frosted, or cracked lately I’ve been writing for others writing my mother tall, skinny, beautiful vases where I put all the Fire-Breathing Flowers she picks for me writing my brother a new pair of glasses every week so his eyes, gray and fading, have at least one lens to see Captivating Color writing my father glass oysters that live in the heels of my shoes where I keep all his pearls of Wordly Wisdom I write, create, pitchers of poems pouring colors and thoughts and memories into the stale, arid air between us drowning out the silence and washing away the words I have already spilled that haven’t had the chance to stain but, if the stains of poetry created centuries before us can live on, breathing and shattering the sun every day, then why can’t mine?
Six months after her passing, I came across a sign. In bold, striking letters:
HEATHER WAS HERE.
I was taken aback, just like every time I see her name. Printed on a “Give Blood Today” poster the day before she died—Heather, blood recipient inscribed beside a little girl’s face. On a Beanie Babies name tag. Pasted on the wall of my favorite New York bagel shop. An email from an absolute stranger who goes by the same name. Sweet nothings fall from the sky like a gentle rain, and evaporate.
by Emma Fromont
by Ella Weiner
Her song slides Across my ears Silk and sinew Sinks into my eyelids Weighing with sand My head drifts Slowly Slanted across her shoulder One hand skims across Skin tags, soft and strange Her flesh a subtle drape, velvet settings That set me in sleep
A Trip to the Store
by Alix Kruta
I often wonder how we got here, more specifically how I got here.
To this specific point
I probably took some lefts.
But if I told you to take 3 lefts could you get to this point?
If you did get here would it be the same?
Or if you took 3 lefts would you get to a different “here”?
Would taking a right make a difference?
The problem with a specific yet incredibly general word is it leaves room for interpretation?What I’m really trying to say is what do you want for dinner and do we have enough milk?
by Alix Kruta
The Choice in This Room
Upon learning what a Man was, the Girl knew his lavatory was off-limits to her— he dragged her there: Who would choose for the setting of their first kiss a Man’s restroom? Single toilet. Unisex. It was a sanctuary in which the Girl could forget her gender, forget her self, until one day, once the door had closed and her pants were down, she spotted blood. The Girl became a Woman in that restroom. The Woman didn’t know Him, she didn’t provoke Him, and yet blood poured out of her nose into a McDonald’s sink because of Him. Such was a decrepit public restroom. The Woman carries her Baby into a private stall: this time, she’s with someone of her choosing—another crier. The Woman whispers, “We’re safest alone, together, in this restroom.”