Call kindness sweat or carbon dioxide
expelled. The essence of exchange
between organisms. A natural resource
that can’t be stockpiled or charged interest.
Call it a setting free, not a paying.
Call it rhythm. To flow rather than forge.
A word unsaid. An action delayed.
Call it renewable. Accepting it is anti-sin
for it is a current called to work its work
through and through—and through you.
And as all things held too long become weight,
kindness won’t require your hands
or handsomeness or donations.
It requires no self-deprecation
or peacekeepers armed to the teeth
atop green tanks. It is the tree left uncut.
The cell not yet turned against the body.
The opposite of the not quite white flag
you wave anxiously from your perch
in the first world. Why not become
conduit or watershed? You too
are soft-wired synapse of sky.
Your life is the mouth of a river
that provides and doesn’t stop moving
for commandments or constitutions
or jihadists or lawmen. It is prayer
beneath the rubble.
The ounce of mercy.
is the same on every side if you can speak of sides when it’s the same,
even when you’re outside
together with the neighbors you meet,
every meeting has minutes,
that’s the kind of neighborhood it is.
The halls are so narrow you have to turn sideways and flatten yourself against the wall, rubbing the way you polish a shoe,
I think we have an affinity for barriers
and also for entry.
Sometimes we move around in order to see if we end up in the same place or a different place, or somewhere in between,
circling around in order to go forward backward.
I don’t think there’s a center,
or a main entrance,
this is what the sign with the slanted line through the red circle means,
the floating red circle,
you don’t feel like it,
not right now.
It’s the kind of intimacy where you’re close to something you’re not even aware of.
The corners curve like the top of a radiator,
when you touch the walls the plaster has the consistency of peat moss, nourishing but not very solid,
thickening as it dissolves,
the walls don’t know anything about the space between the walls,
while the streets cross each other like strings in Cat’s Cradle, Jacob’s Ladder, Breastbone, in order of appearance,
pulling in one place
pulls in another,
there’s energy all over, do you think it needs to be used up?
The lights are on,
or else no lighting is needed.
We spend a lot of time putting things where they belong.
To save time we often follow the neighbors home,
going the same way
but not together,
when the signs tell us to yield
I’m not sure which of our desires they’re referring to.
Seen from above, the interior is an origami crane folded over itself,
overlapping like a bouquet or Venn diagram in which you’re in a lot of different places at the same time,
touching all over,
not lifting or flying away,
not outside the city,
which is already a sanctuary for folded birds.
Peter Leigh has previously published poems in Paris Review, Partisan Review, AGNI, Western Humanities Review, Cincinnati Review, Seneca Review, The Southampton Review, Cimarron, Hubbub, and other magazines.
It is important, first, to realize that the country Josué Guébo refers to in the title, My country, tonight, is the Ivory Coast. Guébo’s poems respond to the civil wars that have been at the center of life in Côte d’Ivoire since the new millennium. The first civil war, following coups and a contested election, spanned from 2002 to 2007. The ongoing conflict continued to divide north/south. Ethnic groups in the north are often perceived as influenced by the Islamic Kingdoms that have come and gone in the Sahara for over a thousand years. The south, like the north, is composed of many ethnic groups, but has identified, historically, primarily as animist—though Christianity has certainly wedged itself in. An ecological border once existed, a coastal rainforest, but that jungle is now lost to plantation- and small-scale monoculture. Reconcilation efforts in 2008 and 2009 led to the first presidential election in nearly a decade. But the 2010 election gave way to the second civil war, a period of violence that reached its peak in April 2011 and concluded with French and UN military intervention. My country, tonight was published later that year. The title’s claim, my country, speaks to the source of the conflict: national identity. Who has rights to citizenship? Who belongs in the Ivory Coast? Who has the rights to what territory? What territory, in fact, composes the Ivory Coast? Its brief split rendered a Republic of the North. Guebo’s position, however—and he asserts his ideological position consistently—regards the conflict as part of larger geopolitical concerns. For him, the ethnic conflict is a consequence of neocolonial policies imposed by international agencies such as the IMF or World Bank on behalf of G-8 nations. Those policies preserve the structures of colonial governance, most basically the exploitation of labor and resources, creating conditions of scarcity. This is the case with many former colonies. Guébo sees Françafrique, the French-African alliance once regarded as a positive postcolonial relationship, as profoundly ruptured in the Ivory Coast—it was, after all, French and UN forces that bombed parts of the de facto capital, Abidjan, in an immediate response to the 2011 election dispute. The poems in My country, tonight connect Ivorian cities to other African sites of colonial violence—Bouaké to Kinshasa, Abidjan to Gorée. Guébo reanimates the littérature engagée championed by writers of the Panafricanist movement who contributed to the creation of national liberation states in the 1960s. Unlike many of his Panafrican forebearers, Guébo does not try to face this work West. My country, tonight is not interested, anyway, in conciliatory gestures. Guébo is defining his country, his Africa, in fact. Consequently, I have had to add footnotes in order to clarify allusions that would be familiar to West African readers, and probably to many French readers, but less so to Americans.
This excerpt begins from page nine of the book and covers much of the book’s first third.
Josué Guébo is a professor at the University of Félix Houphouët-Boigny of Cocody in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, and president of the Ivorian Writer’s Association. He is the author of five collections of poetry, the most recent of which, Think of Lampedusa, won the 2014 Tchicaya U Tam’si Prize for African Poetry.
Todd Fredson is the author of the poetry collection, The Crucifix-Blocks, which won the 2011 Patricia Bibby First Book Award. My country, tonight, his translation of Ivorian poet Josué Guébo’s collection, Mon pays, ce soir, will be out from Action Books in Spring 2016. Fredson’s poems, essays, translations, and nonfiction appear or are forthcoming in American Poetry Review, Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, In Review at The Volta, Warscapes, and other journals and anthologies. He is a doctoral candidate in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Southern California and a 2015-16 Fulbright Scholar in the Ivory Coast.
I watch the market, rooting for my stock
like a child at a ballpark, wearing the colors of his team.
Bernanke has done well within the system,
protecting all the right players from shock.
But others infect our dreams, flickering over screens
as we eat pasta and watch the pundits scream
about lines being crossed as we speak, portals broken
to our inner cultural selves, the American dream
filled bottom up with grits. Pundits forget the universe
in a grain of sand. A girl on a wire fence
without food or drink, sent home without trial,
returned to scrub our sinks and bath tiles
clean. Clean is what they think they need
when they see themselves on the screen.
But the market goes up and we are pleased.
We hire a nanny from the south and buy
a barbie in dark hue. We learn to read
Neruda in his tongue while Juan Rulfo’s ghost
haunts visitors that never meet their hosts.
Borges has written us into a stylish labyrinth
of desire, with no Grecian thread to lead us out.
A monster of our own making prowls the plinth,
eating ideas of purity until we are born again, minotaurs.
One half climbs the market. The other climbs the fence.
Rimas Uzgiris is a poet, translator, editor and critic. His work has appeared in Barrow Street, AGNI, Atlanta Review, Kin, Quiddity, Per Contra, Hudson Review and other journals. He is translation editor and primary translator of How the Earth Carries Us: New Lithuanian Poets (Vilnius, 2015). He holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and an MFA in creative writing from Rutgers-Newark University. Recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Grant and a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Translation Fellowship, he teaches literature, translation and creative writing at Vilnius University.
Counting backwards from ten, I’m lost
at one: it was meant to calm me down, like
an apology or shaking the snow globe,
but I have to start again, replaying the song
that speaks to my reverie. I drift
from my wish, the candles, a burning forest
now. The pearl in the box, a piece of that
burning. Will I always be the sum
of my poverty? Last night, I woke
to that, from the dream of hammering
a copper star in a whitewashed room.
I hadn’t washed my hair for weeks. I guess
from the despair. It’s amazing: after so little,
or so much, I think of the possibilities.
Nicole Greaves holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University, and a certification in secondary English from Bryn Mawr College. Her poetry has appeared in The American Poetry Review: Philly Edition, Jacaranda, Calliope, Cleaver Magazine, Acentos Review, and Friends Journal, and she was recently a finalist for the Coniston Poetry Prize held by Radar Poetry. Her work has also been awarded prizes by The Academy of American Poets and the Leeway Foundation of Philadelphia. In 2003, she was the poet laureate of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. Much of her work explores themes relating to tensions around acculturation, gender roles, and class. She teaches at The Crefeld School in Philadelphia.
She looks out on the ruins of her rooftop garden, remembering it as it was: her late husband, immaculate, whiskey tumbler in hand, stands beneath the grape-covered pergola hung with Chinese lanterns, schmoozing, cutting deals with hedge fund investors and CEOs; beside her favorite Asian Pear tree, their daughter, tall, blond, precociously elegant, flirts with the handsome Yale-bound neighbor boy; their son, dark, unfathomable, skulks alongside the jasmine covered wall, uncomfortable in his blazer and tie, wishing he were anywhere else. She blinks and they are gone: in their place lay broken pots filled with parched stubble, splintered lounge furniture, cracked Italian tiles covered in sunburnt husks—her water shut off months ago.
She sets her teacup down, the tartness of the cinnamon wanting, the aroma weak, the tea leaves in their third or fourth steeping. She studies her chaffed hands and bare fingers, the imported creams and oils that once lined her bathroom shelves untouchable on her austere budget, her rings and other jewelry sold for a pittance. “Austerity.” She whispers the word, and her mouth turns up in a bitter smile—she’d always presumed it was meant for other people, never her kind.
She crosses her pale legs and considers what she will do today. Read, she imagines, as she does each day—it passes the time, allows her to forget—until the words swim across the page and she realizes she has understood nothing for some time. Then she will close the book and gaze out again on her garden. It was her refuge, a place to feel the sun on her shoulders, dirty her hands, be lost in a moment of potting or pruning. Much of their family and social life took place amongst the dogwood and ivy, marigold and wisteria she’d planted and nurtured: birthdays and anniversaries; celebrations of her husband’s deals and bonuses; that final Independence Day barbeque, the four of them arm-in-arm admiring fireworks above the Manhattan skyline. Inside her apartment it is different, her memories darker, more complex: sparring with her husband over his drinking, his infidelities; he countering with complaints of her profligate spending, her remoteness, their deft jabs escalating to verbal roundhouse rights and lefts. It’s been nearly a year since he jumped (was pushed?) from the firm’s top floor, one of hundreds in his profession to do so at the time. The “Wall Street Lemmings” the media dubbed them
Lunch today will be peanut butter on crackers; perhaps a little broth. Then a nap; she sleeps often. It keeps at bay the memories she can’t control: her sixteen-year-old daughter, whom she has not seen or heard from since, announcing on Thanksgiving Day that she was leaving with the greasy-haired, tattooed youth milling about their vestibule. Her son, picked up five months ago on some vague charge of participating in a demonstration, obstructing justice, before vanishing into the labyrinthine penal system.
At night her sleep is fitful; home invasions are not uncommon. Helicopters crisscross the evening sky like fireflies, awakening her with the sounds of their rotary blades, their sweeping searchlights. Sirens wail from the streets below; shouts and gunshots fill the intervals.
The President has assured the nation that all of this is temporary, that law, order, and prosperity will soon return, but first every citizen must sacrifice, stay calm, do as they are told. She wants to believe this, but at times doubts his words, and then worries her thoughts are unpatriotic.
In the morning, Jesús, her co-op’s former doorman, will bring her food and water. She is fast running out of money, a bag of groceries now costing as much as the first-class flights she once took to Paris, London, or Barcelona. Jesús has hinted at other ways she might pay. She is still young and attractive—a currency untouched by the ravages of hyperinflation.
Suddenly she is sleepy; the tablets she took earlier having effect. She dozes.
The afternoon air chilly on her skin, she soon awakens. She opens her eyes, reaches for a sweatshirt. She pulls the opening over her head, shakes her hair free. Standing, she walks to the far end of her garden. She leans over the garden wall and gazes down on the shuttered boutiques and cafés; a few pedestrians scurry along the sidewalks like roaches; tinted-windowed cars crawl past blasting out throbbing baselines, menacing lyrics—her Upper East Side street no longer part of a network of blue-blooded arteries knitting moneyed zip codes together, but a testament to the cessation of a way of life and her own helplessness. She stands at the precipice looking down, the wind blowing cool and dry through her hair, her hands gripping the rail along the wall. How easy it would be, she thinks. Over in seconds.
Lost in thought, a faint riffle of voices—or is it pigeons? … rats?—reaches her on the breeze and breaks the spell; she releases her hold, and once again time moves forward. On the far side of the garden, something green and leafy catches her attention. Startled, she ventures over to investigate. As she draws closer, she sees that it is only a weed. Canada thistle, she thinks. She sighs, strides into the apartment and a moment later comes out with a half-full bottle of water. She unscrews the cap and pours the precious contents onto the prickly growth, watches the sunbaked earth suck it in.
Born in Oakland, E.K. Allaire now lives outside Barcelona, Spain. His short stories have been published in Passages North, The MacGuffin, Big Muddy, and selected as a finalist in the Third Coast Fiction Contest.
They are dropping smart bombs on the glue factory.
They are sending saber-toothed drones into the bakery.
They are inseminating the migrant seamstress
And repopulating the mountain states
With mutant jackals and polyethylene waterfalls.
They are selling our skin cells to the cosmetic surgeons.
They are dismembering nude mannequins
And stacking the spikey limbs in the courtyard
So you can climb the pile and peek over the barbed wire
For a glimpse at the newly upholstered boardroom
Where they are declawing the help staff
And drafting the bill to outlaw the law.
They plan to kick us with steel-tipped boots
Then they’ll stuff us with arsenic and gag us
With clumps of hot tar. They’ll assassinate the cartoonists
And fuck each other on hardbacks in the library
Before incinerating the archives with antique flamethrowers.
They’ll arm the snowmen with Uzis
And bury the bookkeeper under the mossy rocks
In the backyard with the beekeeper
And the beehive’s desiccated hull.
They’ll take a breath, have a smoke,
And paint our eyelids shut with golden honey—
So while I still have a face inside my face
I try to look at them with the most objective eye
And hold the breath inside my breath
Until a flood of light washes over my body
And when the body has been consumed
The server brings back my debit card
And the thin slip of paper and the almost inkless pen
And when I turn to sign the paper
The strap of my dress falls over my shoulder.
The pendant nest suspends the breeze.
The flower in the vase swirls out of itself.
Nathan Hoks’ books include Reveilles (Salt, 2010) and The Narrow Circle (Penguin, 2013), which Dean Young selected for the 2012 National Poetry Series. He currently teaches poetry writing as a lecturer at the University of Chicago, and Convulsive Editions, a micro-press that produces handmade editions of chapbooks and broadsides.