A Fistful of Dirt

by Sujatha Fernandes

Manuel relayed buckets of moist earth to the concrete stairwell. It was Héctor’s job to hoist the buckets up and ferry them over to the dumpster. They had to work quickly to keep the buckets moving or the Bangladeshi contractor, a slight man with a beard, would start yelling at them, “Taratari koro.”
     The workers down below had broken up the existing basement floor of the six-story building with jackhammers and then used pickaxes to pry out the concrete. Now they were excavating eight to ten feet of earth to increase the height of the basement.
     Héctor was grateful to work in the open air instead of underground like a mole with the thick damp air and the artificial light from lamps. It was also safer up here. The men in the basement would dig themselves into three-foot-square holes up to eight-feet deep and there weren’t even any planks of wood to brace the sides. Suddenly someone would look up to see the sides crumbling in on him. He suspected that the contractors didn’t know what they were doing. It was only a matter of time before a worker was buried alive.
     Still, it was regular work, something Héctor hadn’t had in a while. He had spent several months going to the parada on Roosevelt Avenue, getting picked up occasionally for one- or two-day stints in demolition or renovation. He found this job through Jesús, a slim Oaxaqueño, always clean shaven with dimples and a broad smile. Jesús used to talk big on the corner about his influence in the construction world. The men would rib him. “So why are you here at the parada, dumbass?” It didn’t bother Jesús.

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Then and Now, the Essex Street Market

by Roger Mitchell
Featured Art: Hollywood Africans – Jean-Michel Basquiat

The person who took this picture took it
well above the parking lot across the street.
“Malted Milk with Ice Cream” cost five cents
once. Leroy’s on the corner sold “knishes
frankfurters and root beer,” and the cars
and everyone stopped moving for a moment
so this proof could be snapped of the way
a few things stood at the corner of Essex
and Delancey sometime between the Fall
of Rome and now. Which is also falling.

In the upper-right-hand reaches of the shot,
a line of laundry sags out of a tenement window.
The other end seems suspended in air,
like everything else, both in and out
of the window, the photo, the cowl of dust
that wraps the earth in its own heat. Damn,
said Napoleon, and he turned his horse
and started back across the steppe toward Josephine.

The half dozen newly planted trees lined up
in their iron jackets along Essex were leafless,
so winter must have been on its way, in
or out, we can’t tell. The little lie the picture tells
is that, though everything is about to change, it brought
life to a halt, so someone could open the door, now,
and let in a large whack of dust and noise,
the kind they make no room for in pictures,
passing them on to the woman in the next booth
who is giving, maybe the air, maybe her mother,
a colorfully athletic lesson in Spanglish,
involving, from what little I can make out,
most of what we call history, as it’s apt to look
when the future gets here, and “that fucker
Reynaldo.” I have no idea what Reynaldo’s crime is,
but, if you are listening, Reynaldo, get over here,
quick, if you don’t want to be history.

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by Owen McLeod

Every Thursday, on his way to therapy,
he drives past the house of the woman
he’s having an affair with. What interests
his therapist isn’t the sin, which she views
as a symptom, but the root. So they dig,
or seem to, and today he talks about his wife—
how, before they take a trip, she makes him
connect those timers to lamps in certain rooms,
and how much this annoys him, even though
it didn’t used to. As if their belongings were
of value. As if an automatic light might stop
an addict from breaking in.
As if the thief,
awake beside her, had not already come and gone.

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by John McCarthy

You taught me how hands could be laid, how they could touch
     a head and heal, but all of those hands eventually fell limp
like a field bent by threshing or a lit match dropped in water. Once,
     we used to dance in The Corner Tavern’s neon light
where the pickup exhaust wafted inside like harvest dust.
     Life in the Midwest is like one long goodbye because it is the same
every day, and I didn’t realize you had left until there was nothing
     but hard work and long days ending with the wind’s silent dirge
that sounds like trying not to die but always dies in smaller ways—
     screen doors that slam closed but don’t shut all the way
because the house has settled and the roof is warping from the sky
     boiling over with thunder and rain. I wake up now to the flashing
falling from the gutters and the water dripping through the holes
     in the ceiling. All I do is recall your voice like a prayer thrashing
my skull that mines the night begging our fathers our fathers
     our fathers in prayer, but they are off begging other women
in other towns. This town is not the memory I want, but I know
     how sadness works. It’s like a kettle-bottom collapsing onto
the details of every thought. I shouldn’t have, but I stayed in town
     to try and keep what I love alive, but no that never works. We were
a long time ago and a long time ago is too hard to get back.
     The last time we talked you said, We will end up like our mothers
waiting for nothing. Then you didn’t come back. No. Not ever.

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Trattoria Tagliati, Positano

by Karla K. Morton
Featured Art: Stowing Sail – Winslow Homer

Vesuvius will claim a day like today—
serene September winds
blowing ashen siren songs
through each sail,

disintegrating each white triangle
as they make their way
across Li Galli Islands,
through the Gulf of Sorrento,

and into this perfect bowl of carbonara,
this excellent Brunello,

sky blues replaced
by the dark dollop of death’s digestivo—
claiming the check
the café
the city of Positano;

the accordion player
pausing only at the thunder of eruption,
then slowing his tarantella
to the flow of lava.

Let them dig us up, love,
10,000 years from now—
with a full belly,
and a third glass of wine,

our legs entwined like spaghetti,
our charred hearts
served up to the gods
at the very same time.

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The Illusion of Belief

by Kate Fox
Featured Art: Murnau Street with Women – Wassily Kandinsky

She took him as one would take a deep breath
or a second chance, though some days she doubted
her own judgment, as when his silence held them
hostage at the dinner table or rode with them
like a soldier sent to notify the next of kin.

She wondered then if she could ever know him
beyond the familiar stirrup of his collarbone, moles
forming a perfect Cassiopeia on his back, fingers
tying intricate knots in monofilament line. And what
could he possibly know of her? Dust, a whirling skirt,

between the windmill and the barn? Scent of juniper,
wild onion beside the garden shed? Her mother’s curls
pinned tightly against her scalp, or her father’s glacier blue
eyes gone milky with forgetting? How could these mean
anything to anyone but her, divorced as they were

from the lazy swing of the pendulum? And what
of those other lives smoldering now under dry grass?
Their stars are still there, she tells herself, even in daylight.
Even at night, their suns continue to circle and burn
in a world of space and time. We all should be so lucky.

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by Amber Wheeler Bacon

Sarah worked with Beth at a public library downtown. Chris was a biology professor at University of Louisville. They met at Beth’s birthday party.
     At the party, Chris quoted Winston Churchill and Hemingway in the same conversation, and Sarah couldn’t tell if she liked him. When she went to smoke a cigarette on the back porch, he followed. Muted voices came from the re pit at the side of the house, but they were alone on the porch. He took the lit cigarette from her fingers and flicked it over the railing. When he kissed her, she blew the last of the smoke into his mouth. They ended up at his apartment. The sex was drunk and sloppy. They kept laughing. Everything seemed hilarious back then.
     Sarah woke up buzzing the next morning, as if Chris had flipped a switch somewhere inside her. Driving home, she had the thought that she would put up with a lot from a man who made her feel this way.

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NOR 25.43: If Your Spouse Dies First

by Stephanie Johnson
Featured Art: Lady Lilith – Dante Rossetti

Option One

              Move to a different country.
              Take a new spouse.
              Make beautiful different-country babies
              with soft, different-country hair

and only speak your old-country language
late at night in between dreams.
Your new husband will ask the following morning
who this person is; you keep repeating his name.

              Oh, you say, in your new language.
              Don’t worry about it. Just an old friend.

Option Two

Build a house. Bake your late spouse’s remains
into the walls. Like the spectrophiliac Amethyst Realm,
feel paranormal hands on your legs and back
as you rub yourself on the corners of the foyer.

              Moan the name
              your ears haven’t heard
              since you reopened the coffin
              and saw silver bones.

Option Three

              Meet a woman with dark hair
              and patience longer than yours.
              Tell her a lie:
              you’ve never done this before.

                             She’ll grin and say, “Sure you haven’t.”
                            Later, in her shower, pressed against
                            the pink tile wall, you can’t help but notice
                            she uses his same shampoo.

Option Four

              Take his ashes to sea
              as written in the will.

                            Throw yourself overboard
                            with the urn in your arms.
                            Clutch a pewter cloud
                            and confuse the stingrays.

Option Five

              Shave your head,
              smoke Cowboy Killers,
              and take lovers. Flocks of lovers.
              Murders of lovers.

              In the wan, silent kitchen light
              after the trampling herds leave
              for the evening, you will pick up
              your wedding ring from the dish by the sink

                            and contemplate, once more,
                            throwing it into the garbage disposal,
                            how it would spark and grind
                            slick in the coffee grounds.

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After the Date

by Lana Spendl
Featured Art: Writing by Gari Melchers

I went on a date with a girl who knows how to live her life.
On the restaurant patio where we sat, I told her I needed to
finish my novel. And “Do you really?” she asked. She runs a
kindergarten business from her house. And she put up a
chicken coop out back. In overalls and workman gloves. I saw
the process later in pictures online. Dirt on forearms, easy
smiles. A stack of notebooks sits on a table in one shot, and
she peeks from behind with smiling eyes. Her book is
complete, she writes. She’s writing a book too? I am surprised.
And then the shot of the back windows of her house, and
suddenly I am looking out. At scraggly bushes and trees far
back. And I picture her standing before that glass, mug in
hands, in a sweater she knitted from yarn. And daylight wanes.
She turns off the lamp. The crickets chirp wild.

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World Order

by Lesley Wheeler

With a blunt knife, cheap, he slices the out-
of-season apple, applying reasonable force,
thump, thump, and the hiss of cells torn open.

Window beside him a polite shade of blue,
not too, too, and the maple gracefully
conveying leaves so tender and appropriate.

This is a civil kitchen. No need to explain itself.
Gritty clouds of fur beneath the fridge vibrate
in silence. Onions too chilled to express themselves.

No news of what’s mortgaged. Who ripped
that marble counter from what ground. Where
the apple grew. The grievous rain that swelled it.

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by Lesley Wheeler
Featured Art: The Trojans Pulling the Wooden Horse Into the City – Giulio Bonasone

The magnolia drops its anger pink by pink.
Eighteen-wheelers loaded with it rumble down interstates
aroused by their own dark momentum.
Cats rake claws through anger then nap on shredded upholstery.
Cables fizz high above gutters, looped and twisted, twanged by doves.
Flags snap in it. It propels the old woman and her encumbered cart.
A suburban circular. A city racket. A maritime breeze.
Some people give it away, but when they drive off
the cur of anger follows, homing unerringly.
You don’t love me, it snarls, but I will always want you.
Each cloud an anger of its own, dimming the alfalfa fields.
Some people exorcise it, smudging sage through anger’s rooms,
rinsing walls with vinegar and bleach. They claim
to have forgiven anger. Burned it off. God or Clorox granted peace.
Look, no anger here, I’m not angry, that’s not how I feel.
But you can detect the scent even on the street,
rising from his wool suit’s weave, caught in her hair, samara’s wing,
even in sighs, sick and sweet, because anger is born in the gut, feeds
on your nourishment, and you’ll never in life starve yourself clean.

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Flower World

by Jeremy Schnotala
Featured Art: Still Life with Flowers – Odilon Redon

Cathy sat at the bedroom vanity and used a comb to separate a few of the dull curls in her hair. They always tightened up into something ugly by the afternoon. She thought about what she might buy when she and Bill got to Flower World. Maybe some flowers for the kitchen, fresh flowers, something red or orange to shock the dull ivory Bill had insisted on painting the kitchen walls, counters, trims, cupboards—what was it, twenty years ago? “Ivory is universal,” he’d said, as though their kitchen needed universality. The kitchen had faded now into a boring beige and all the flowers that came to mind were out of season—tulips, lilies, stuff like that. It was mum season and mums smelled like the dead. Maybe she wouldn’t buy anything. She would just accompany her husband like she promised. Smile when he put a garden gnome in the cart. Question whether he really needed two bags of fertilizer. She hoped they could just slip in and slip out without talking to a soul. Cathy could push an empty cart down empty aisles, unnoticed by anyone, some old tune from The Mamas & the Papas echoing from above. “Monday, Monday.” Was that the title?
     But they would probably see someone. Likely the whole world.

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by Kathleen Radigan
Featured Art: Actaeon Nude – Jean Antoine Watteau

In the garden I cup a hand
before you, strain my wrist,
willing you to perch.

A nearby woman grips her cane.
“Young lady. If you touch them,
they die.”

Born again from a gauze
coffin, you’re blackwinged,
fragile on a wax leaf.

In the heat
of a weeklong life
you batter between

fluorescents and dahlias, legs
thinner than wires,
and float over tendriled

chrysanthemum heads.
Tease everything—hands,
canes, stem, with a feathery

suggestion. I want
to chew you.
Taste the metallic

powder of each wing.
If only to become
so beautiful

that being
touched just once
would kill me.

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Quail on the Airfield

by Ellen Seusy
Winner, Editors’ Prize for Poetry, selected by Bianca Lynne Spriggs

In Texas, near the Gulf, a man wakes up
and pulls on coveralls and heavy boots.
He drives his truck along a narrow road
to the strip where jets line up for fuel,
heat already shimmering near the ground.

He works alone all day in the exhaust
and roar of jets, as planes take off and land.
He’s paid to save their engines from the birds.
All day, the heat accumulates; his clothes
go dark with grime and sweat, while sickening
fumes waver in the air. He knows this dance;
the quail softly tumble in his net.
He closes it to carry them across
the runway to where the tarmac ends, then
frees them in the sedge where he knows they nest.
Some mornings, when I would rather sleep
than go to work, I remind myself that
in Texas, near the Gulf, a man wakes up
and pulls on regulation boots, then goes
to sweep the quail gently in a net.

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Drag Heavy Pot to Shed (Ars Poetica)

by Janine Certo

Squint at the barred owl, then race down
the steep hill of your childhood. You lost
the dog but found your grandmother
who drank a bottle of rubbing alcohol. Shake
her ten times. Prepare a fine cheese, sliced peach,
hazelnuts. Drizzle with honey. Slide it under
the bed to the monster. Hear the crack in a mother’s
voice who says it would be so easy to go down
to the garage, turn the ignition on. What will you do with all this
moonlight on the pond, at once galaxy, scattered photons,
shards of glass? If you want to know Truth, see
the Pope’s Swiss Guard cursing at tourists,
throwing stones at pigeons in the square. Play a game
of Chase the Trees for leaves like wine in a human
heart—darker than the blood it pumps, the beating silence
in those hours cleaning after they took away
your father’s body. I tell you, we cannot say love
enough times. The vacuum’s defective, so it sings.
Write until the sage & fir candle kills the smell
of the wall’s rotting mouse. Look over your
shoulder for the child you never had, the sibling
you left in the front yard, the dog returning, bread
in her mouth. Revisit title. Now your words are the
loose parts of a rocking chair, the longing for meadow—
some ground of consciousness, what the philosopher
called the dialectic of inside-outside. And when you’re
close, smear the shapes of ghosts. Draw grief a warm bath.
Lately, there is little spring or fall, but keep the large bright
mum in its pot until the flowers are dull, their necks broken.

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Feature: Ohio Stories

                                                                                  Editors’ Note:

Ohio. How is the state, the landscape, the word itself used in literature? As a community to be idolized or escaped, as a locale of unexpected mystery? Or, simply, as a bouncy amphibrach (unstressed-stressed-unstressed) to end a line?

In stories and poems, Ohio often seems to stand for America itself, or at least a certain slice of America. It is sometimes meant to indicate Industrial and Rural and Suburban. It can be gritty or pure, used for nostalgia, or to create a par- ticular kind of speaker. And its history has certainly contributed to its literary import. But we were curious about the speci c ways writers have employed our home in the past, and how they might use it today.

Certainly, it is a place that characters love and hate, an idea that must be contended with. And we are convinced, having read thousands of poems and stories mentioning particular spots, that Ohio is one of the most versatile (and sonically pleasing) of all of them.

For the following feature, we asked five writers to reflect on the state that’s often referred to as “The Heart of It All.”

Shadow and Shine: Ohio in the Literary Imagination

by Jana Tigchelaar
Featured Art: In The Sky Somewhere Else – Emma Stefanoff

In his preface to The Marble Faun (1860), Nathaniel Hawthorne infamously recounted the limitations of America as material for art and artists, citing the “difficulty of writing a romance about a country where there is no shadow, no antiquity, no mystery, no picturesque and gloomy wrong, nor anything but a commonplace prosperity, in broad and simple daylight, as is happily the case with my dear native land.” Hawthorne’s words were and are astonishing in their obtuse, perhaps willful ignorance of one particular “gloomy wrong” shadowing America’s “commonplace prosperity” as the nation careened toward the Civil War. But they also set up the persistent idea that America is a contented and peaceful country, one without a shadowy past that is ripe for romantic literary exploration.
     The notion of America as a young, fresh, tabula rasa had its inception long before Hawthorne set pen to paper, and even then, in its earlier colonial and Revolutionary-era iterations, it was a lie. While Hawthorne’s description of America suggests a blithe happiness that characterizes the nation and its inhabitants, the specific literature of Ohio, for instance, would suggest otherwise. In fact, literary portrayals of Ohio seem particularly in tune with the tension between shining surface and hidden shadows. It is as if Ohio is, as Bill Ashcraft notes on returning home to the fictional New Canaan in Stephen Markley’s novel Ohio (2018), “the microcosm poster child of middle-American angst.”

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“On the Lip of Lake Erie”: Toni Morrison’s Ohio Aesthetic

by Dustin Faulstick
Featured Art: People Growing Pink – Emma Stefanoff

In an interview with Claudia Tate, Toni Morrison had this to say about her home state of Ohio:

The northern part of the state had underground railroad stations and a history of black people escaping into Canada, but the southern part of the state is as much Kentucky as there is, complete with cross burnings. Ohio is a curious juxtaposition of what was ideal in this country and what was base. It was also a Mecca for black people; they came to the mills and plants because Ohio offered the possibility of a good life, the possibility of freedom, even though there were some terrible obstacles.

In Ohio, there’s a distinct feeling of being in the middle—not only in the physical middle, mostly landlocked near the center of the country, but also in the ideological middle, politically, morally—having been on the right side of history regarding the question of slavery, but, even during the same time period, often in the wrong on questions of justice: at least as supportive of fugitive slave laws as of the underground railroad. Morrison not only grew up in this contradictory state, it pervades her fiction. “In my work, no matter where it’s set,” she once told an Ohio audience, “the imaginative process always starts right here on the lip of Lake Erie.”

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The Importance and Depth of “Ohio” in Two Poems by Rita Dove and Ai

by Marcus Jackson
Featured Art: Linez and Boxez – Felicity Gunn

In poems, Ohio—as word, as a set of landscapes, as a cradle for psychological, emotional, and cultural exploration—exists with significance and versatility. Derived from the Iroquois word that means “beautiful river,” Ohio, as a name, is vowel wealthy, bookended by o’s, assuring that its mention brings a sonic vitality and depth. Ohio, in terms of topography, is rolling plains, glacial plateaus, Appalachian hills, stretches of bluegrass. Due to its proximity to the Great Lakes, and its general position on the continent, Ohio has hosted all of the following: major, ancient routes used by Native American tribes to travel and trade; pivotal exchanges between Native American and European fur traders; the ruthlessness and violence brought on by the heightened European demand for exportable goods and by the grueling process of colonization; numerous battles fought during extended, armed confrontations or wars (Pontiac’s Rebellion, the American Revolutionary War, the Northwest Indian War, the War of 1812, and the American Civil War); hubs and final stops for freedom- seeking slaves along the Underground Railroad; early industrialization; and destinations for African Americans leaving the Jim Crow south during the Great Migration. To many poets and readers, the mention or involvement of Ohio can at least subconsciously educe some of the locale’s extensive identity. Looking closely at two poems by Rita Dove and Ai, we will examine a few of the elements and forces that the incorporation of Ohio brings to the texts.

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Buckeye Sci-Fi: “Does Anything Exciting Ever Happen Around Here?”

by Christopher A. Sims
Featured Art: Up In The Air – Emma Stefanoff

Ohio and Science Fiction. Perhaps unexpectedly, given the overwhelming norm- ness of Ohio, the two have become inextricably linked. So, for the bene t of colonizing aliens and future AIs, busy consuming every spec of human information in an effort to understand us—where we went wrong, what were our occasional successes, what is meant by “Cincinnati Five-Way”—I’m happy to set out on a kind of fantastic discovery of my own, seeking to answer: Why do an inordinate amount of authors and directors set sf works in Ohio? What could the place represent that makes it such rich soil for these stories? And how might sf itself be enriched by Ohio-ness? Dust off your ray gun and wearable OSU memorabilia, I’m going to need some help.

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