By Will Bellamy
Image: “Ladder to Heaven,” by Julian Johnson.
They were packed together. In the row ahead of them two people were smoking and talking and the smoke kept slipping between the seats and coming into their own row and Mary Meyers hated that. She hated that they’d gotten these seats and she hated that her husband, Gary Cleveland Meyers, could sleep through the smell and all the talk. Well, no: she didn’t hate that. Hate was no good. Yes, come to think of it, she did not hate that both she and her husband were accountants, or that their boss had sent them in prime Christmas season to New York for a week-long conference at Navistar International’s prissy HQ on the company’s upcoming budget for 1961. Not her. She just knew that this is how it always was—certain events and things just had to be endured, thought about. And suddenly she remembered that they would need a cab when they landed, and she tensed up at the thought of waiting outside of the United terminal in the rain in the line for one of the yellows. Add it to the list, she thought. And in the warm and dimly lit cabin she sighed, thinking that she should, for maybe just the last time, get up to stretch in the aisle.
Liz Cettina: How did you begin writing ‘Dreams of War’?
Doc Polk: I was actually trying not to write about the military when I first came to Wesleyan. I wanted to put that behind me and write about these other ideas I had, but every time I started writing, it kept turning towards the military. Eventually I said, ‘Okay, well, maybe if I just write it once, get it out of my system, then I can move on to something else.’ So I wrote it once, tried to move on to something else, and it fell flat. Even now, when I try to write about other things, the military stuff just comes out. I figure I’ve got to get everything out before I can move on to something else.
By Mara Woods-Robinson
Penelope Spheeris’ 1980 documentary The Decline of Western Civilization opens on a boy talking about punk rock, followed by a montage of the various front(wo)men of the film’s featured bands reading a disclaimer that the shows and crowds will be filmed. As the opening credits roll, the frontmen continue speaking over the soundtrack, until one voice commands: “Dance!” As if cued by the word, X’s song “Nausea” bursts into the soundtrack over the title credit, and then Spheeris cuts to a closeup of thrashing bodies in the pit. Initially, the image is abstracted: bodies move too quickly and ferociously to be clear; all that registers is the chaotic, blurred movement of flesh and clothing in and out of frame. Sound and image are at odds: the crowd’s arrhythmic (or, perhaps more appropriately, anti-rhythmic) thrashing contradicts X’s hypnotic, steady beat. For all we know, the crowd could have been dancing to another song, at another show, by another band. On the soundtrack, Exene Cervenka screeches into the microphone, irreverently warning the crowd about their impending hangovers—“Today you’re gonna be sick so sick / you’ll prop your forehead on the sink / say oh Christ oh Jesus Christ / my head’s gonna crack like a bank”—and submerged in the tight, abstracted frame, we get a little nauseous too. Gradually, the camera zooms out, revealing the wider scene: a nightclub, chock-full of young white men colliding furiously against each other. Instead of cutting to the band, we linger on the crowd, watching the bodies thrash in a free-for-all medieval-style melee. Ironic or sincere, Spheeris makes her point clear: this is the titular decline of Western civilization.
Emma Raddatz: When were these poems written? Were they written together?
Justin Greene: Three of them were written at the same time, mostly in my advanced poetry class, which was a year ago, or so, and then one, “Mimesis,” I wrote in my intermediate poetry workshop two years ago when Ben Lerner came to speak. He’s my favorite author ever. He kept vomiting genius at me, and I wrote everything down and thought, ‘Why not turn this into a poem?’ So that happened.
By Doc Polk
A work of autobiographical creative non-fiction, contains scenes of war
Image: Untitled (Demi-cône), by Alexander Calder, 1972.
Is it colder than the day before? I don’t see how that’s possible. Thoughts pass through my head like soldiers dragging their feet on a forced march. Maybe the frigid air has been freezing my brain. Maybe the endless cloud cover obscures the sun, causing a gray haze. “Doc!” the call jerks me from my deep contemplation about the weather. I turn and realize I have walked right past the entrenched soldiers on the front line. A voice from miles away whispers something about being exposed to enemy fire, but it is too far away for me to care. I trot back to the front line more to keep the blood flowing than from fear. “Damn, Doc. Their snipers would have taken you out. You got a death wish?” The question strikes me as odd. What soldier in this frozen Belgian forest doesn’t have a death wish? I ask my guys how their feet are doing. “They’re there,” one says. I tell them to keep them dry and call me at the hotel if they need anything. “Ha! Hotel. If that’s the case, then bring me a bacon sandwich!” I start to walk down the line. “And coffee! Black, two sugars!” they call after me. As I walk, I remember something that brings a smile to my face. I have two cigarettes that were delivered along with a small resupply of medical equipment. I make my way to my best friend’s foxhole to share a rare morning smoke. I try to remember the last time I had even a spark of happiness like I do now. It had to have been right before D-Day. Seven months ago? Seems like years now. I look up and my buddy turns to see me approaching. He waves and I wave back. A painful smile splits my face as I pull out the cigarettes. Then the foxhole explodes. I stand frozen in place, still smiling. Suddenly I am on the ground. The world is silent and fuzzy. It has started snowing again. The silent flakes float safely to the ground. It is beautiful. I feel a quiet, peaceful solitude while watching snow fall. Black smoke flowing from the flames engulfs my buddy’s position. The world comes flying back to me as another explosion rocks the ground. “Doc! DOC!” The Germans are shelling us again. I hate artillery. BUZZ! SNAP! I also hate German machine guns. “DOC!! Let’s go, we got four!” I begin to stand…
By Justin Greene
Image: “Nana bleu,” by Niki de Saint Phalle, 1987.
Nuclear Family Bricolage
“The dog dies
if I don’t feed it.”
A woman finds family
in dependence. A man’s mother
is carried on his back. He jumps and
the bones jangle in his bag. They clamor
an aftershock. A crisis rhythm suspends
in the wake of disaster. There are no bodies
but salvaged slabs of drywall, eyes and ears cut off
at the edges of photographs, dog bones, bones of dogs,
of your dog, your dog who may now be your mother when
things all look the same. Scrub the relics clean (when did this
become an archaeology?). The waterspot becomes a watermark;
the soiled polaroid becomes a new family history. “I’ve come to feel
narrow in this low-ceilinged room.” “When we sat we never actually sat
at square tables or even octagons, only at circles. This was to avoid all of
the edges that divide us.”
Image: “Lumières allumées,” by Bella Chagall, 1948.
Liz Cettina: How did you begin writing “are you there?”
Anna Schwab: Well I found a message in a bottle actually, the summer before I wrote it. And it was kind of the feeling of finding a message in a bottle and being really excited, and it was actually a family from Nantucket—and it wasn’t very exciting, so I thought I was not going to respond. But my boyfriend, Jack, said,“No, you have to write them back! When do you find a message in a bottle?” And so I wrote them back, and it was a really sweet experience, and all the kids sent me photos of them waving, and they were so happy that someone actually found their message in a bottle. They kept emailing me saying, “Where are you from? Who are you?” It was really sweet.
By Anna Schwab
Image: “9 x klingeln,” by Johannes Geuer, 1976.
It was July. The afternoon light was slowly sinking behind the sand dunes. She was standing alone in the ocean foam. She was whittling away at a piece of driftwood, the woodchips falling with the wind. She was watching a catamaran slowly circling its mooring.
A knock at her ankle. A flash of light. A whisky bottle. Jack Daniels, with the label peeled off. She picked it up. There was a message inside with wet ink stretching spiny spores on the page. “We have figured everything out,” it said. She read the words aloud. She tossed them around in her mouth, said them one by one, said the syllables two by two saving the last for the rush of hot air and the cool snap of the t.
There was no number, no address, no name. Just “we.” She knew she did not belong to that we. The knowing we the everything we the we that wrote these words in a cheap bottle of whisky and threw them into the sea. A message in a bottle! The moment was taken by the importance of it all, by that sometimes illusion of future prospects.
She went home. Her father was sitting at the dining room table, grading summer-term papers. She told him about the message in the whiskey bottle, about the mystery of the we, of the we have figured everything out. Send one back, he said. Try sending your own message, he said, see if you can reach someone. At that idea she felt the shift, the maybe sea change of her life in watercolor.
So she went back to the beach with the whiskey bottle but this time it contained her own message sealed tightly in a plastic bag.
I am here
it said. At the bottom: