A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Overdose, of a Child in Anderson (Prose Poem)

(by Daniel R. Jones)

Ochre. Gold Siennas. Tawny-colored clusters and fallen umbers.
I last saw him just before the fall.
But these days, it feels as though there’s no such thing as Autumn. It’s just the extinction burst of a greener season.

His child was a “junior.” He took his father’s name (in vain, if you consider the short duration he used it.) The baby’s life was measured in months, not years. It was his father that I really knew.

I knew, in my heart, that “narrow is the gate.”
I knew that, conversely, hell is standing-room only.
But I guess I considered him safe.

Wasn’t he, after all, a Narcotics Anonymous coin collector? He showed off his tokens—one month, 90 days, one year—and with every new coin, it was like I watched him age in reverse: his face would smooth. His brain would wrinkle.

Even his eyes, as they creased at the corners, seemed to say, Don’t worry. I know my way home from here.

Each morning I saw him, loitering outside the courthouse, a menthol dart in one hand and an 18 ounce travel mug of Columbian in the other. A remote start for an idling mind, if you will.  He looked healthy enough to fool me. Perhaps when you work with the court you have that effect on people: the way someone straightens in their chair when a chiropractor enters the room.

But he’d come clean twice and only stayed clean once.

Mere weeks after they cut the anklet tethered to his leg, he had a needle in his arm again. They say the baby was cradled in the crook of his left elbow when it happened. He nodded out before he could cap the syringe. It pierced the infant’s skin, and his only son summarily died.

Art and poetry are defenseless against such tragedy. Scraping words around a blank page with the nib of my pen does nothing to assuage such impending feelings of guilt that plague this man.

The wages of sin are death, and devil doesn’t amortize debt. That man from Anderson had been working time and a half, and I suppose payday is coming. The whole town is seeing red, and rightfully so. There are entire area codes he’d do well to ignore when his phone rings.

I can’t shake the image from my head, though, of the man I once knew, the newly minted recovering addict. Is he shaking in his cell, gasping out fevered dope-sick prayers, begging God to cut him, cut him, cut him some slack?

I won’t pretend I haven’t scanned the headlines. I found the obituary. I keep waiting for murder to hyphenate and include suicide.

So far, that conclusion hasn’t been reached, so I’d like to offer a direct address:

My friend, if you’re reading this, I hope you take it to heart. Be rid of your vague “higher power…” that counterfeit G.O.D. just as easily substituted for “Group Of Drunks.” Don’t put your trust in some formless deity pushed on you by your sponsors in Narcotics Anonymous.

What you need is a more seasoned God. The kind that knows something about losing a Son.

And as for me, I’ll bastardize a Dylan Thomas line, and I’ll do it on purpose. After the first rebirth, there are others. There is life.

New life after new life after new life.

Bez & Co- October 2022 Issue

Table of Contents:

Book Recommendation-
Pilgrim by Mary Tarantini• Daniel R. Jones

Fiction-
Piecemeal Peace • Jeffrey Wald

Poetry
In the Holy Spirit • Phil Flott
The Moth • Gabriel Parker
Like Sparrows Satellite • Daniel Jones


Book Recommendation: The Pilgrim by Mary Tarantini

Mary Tarantini has become a mainstay here at Bez & Co. Her poetry leapt from the page since the first submission she sent my way. She writes in an unembellished but fervent manner that rings with conviction. Her verse has a decidedly intimate tone, but she still manages to appeal to a broad audience.

So it’s no surprise that others have started noticing her verse, too!

A collection of Mary’s poems is out now from Wipf & Stock.

In Pilgrim, Mary Tarantini showcases some of her most breathtaking and deftly crafted poetry. As the manuscript’s name implies, this is a collection of unadorned, simple poems, as accessible as they are profound. Still, the poems here hold the power to surprise the reader. Tarantini deftly crafts lilting, sonorous verse with a breathtaking prosody and unique word choice. This collection is a treat for the reader, as it is simultaneously gorgeous and sincere.

If you have enjoyed Mary’s poetry as much as I have…or especially if you haven’t yet had the chance to read her verse, check it out here! 

-Daniel R. Jones


Piecemeal Peace

OK, I admit, I shouldn’t have cussed in front of the kids, especially on account of we were all dressed up and just about headed out the door for Mass. But come on, hear me out.

There I was, sitting on the john, taking a, well, you get the picture, reading a little Gerard Manley Hopkins, that line “piecemeal peace is poor peace” from his poem “Piece” really striking me, because it was exactly how I felt at that particular juncture, on account of having had three drinks the night before, and too much puppy chow, the combination of which always gives me a tremendous gut ache and puts me in a terrible mood the next day. And if that wasn’t enough, breakfast had been horrendous, not so much the food, I having avoided the food on account of the gut ache. But the company, eight screaming children, being less than pleasant for a Sunday morning, and Sunday being the Source and Summit of the week, so it is said, although I wonder sometimes if that is more of a metaphor, like Hopkins’ “skylark scanted in a dull cage,” rather than a statement of reality. Whatever the case, I had escaped to the upstairs bathroom for some much-needed relief, gastrointestinal as well as psychological. And sure, I probably spent a couple more minutes on the john than was absolutely necessary, but remember I was reading Hopkins, not a Playboy or even GQ, which I am informed many men my age take to the john with them. And consider too that I’d just cooked 49 pancakes, and cleaned up three OJ spills, and broken up four fist fights, and cleaned two poop diapers from the same kid, that child having evidently gotten into the puppy chow as well the night before, and then picked up 58 stray Lego pieces (I counted them all, on account of having stepped on one, a Luke Skywalker holding a lightsaber, that cut my foot making me bleed on the newly installed light blue carpet, which, I might add, I was never in favor of in the first place, but we’re not here to keep score, right?) So I might be forgiven for wanting a moment of peace on the john, even piecemeal peace, which of course I did not find, on account of the gastrointestinal issues joining me in the john, but even more so, a full five children likewise joining me, each taking a turn barging in to grab some necessary item, like a book, or a doll, or a board game, which left me thinking why are books, and dolls, and board games being stored in the bathroom in the first place? And here’s the real gem of it all. Each kid loudly proclaimed upon entering the bathroom “Ewww, dad, why don’t you ever lock the door?” To which I wanted to reply, “Why don’t you ever knock?” But I decided not to waste my breath, instead pointing to the missing doorknob, it having been busted off by yours truly when the 2-year-old locked himself in the bathroom and proceeded to flush diapers down the toilet, his parents (myself included), not noticing (or, perhaps gladdened by) his absence from the dinner table until toilet water began dripping from the ceiling onto the dinner ham, on account of the marvels of modern absorption technology, even though said flushed diapers were the cheap Costco brand, not Pampers, the Mustang of diapers, which tells you how far modern absorption technology really has come. In any event, please be proud of me for keeping my inner cool after the first four darlings came in. But then, admittedly, I lost it when the last one entered, but again have mercy, because it was Johnny, and Johnny and I had been butting heads all week and I’m pretty sure he busted in not because he needed anything but just out of spite. And then I yelled “Leave me alone. Get out. Everyone downstairs,” which perhaps was not fair to my wife, she being downstairs and, likely, herself trying to hide from the kids. Which probably she was, because about one minute later she yelled up, “Joe, you’re sitting on the toilet reading Hopkins and hiding from the kids again, aren’t you?” Which made me think, does she really expect me to take two or three of them into the john with me? But then I remembered that this is exactly what she was required to do when she had to use the john, on account of the serious separation anxiety three of our kids have. So I didn’t have much ammunition on that front, but was still boiling mad, not even having finished one Hopkins’ poem. I finished up, and walked downstairs, but when I got to the kitchen I stepped on another Lego, this time Darth Vader who was much sharper than Luke Skywalker, and I flipped a lid then, yelling “Can’t a dude take a shit in peace around here?” And the older kids’ eyes all got big as they looked at one another and tried to hide little smiles but my wife, she was not stifling any smile at all, so I tried to recover by saying, “Everyone, to the van, let’s go, we’re late for Mass!”

We all got into the van, a big, brown, 15-passenger Ford E-350, and I turned around and glared at the kids, saying something like “Nobody better say a word. We’re taking quiet time. Prepare your hearts for Mass.” And I put that monster into reverse and pushed down on the gas and, I’ll admit, sort of gunned it a bit, which is embarrassing, considering it was a brown 15-passenger 12-year-old van, and not a Mustang or even a Honda Accord. We cruised backyard down the driveway and at the end I sort of twisted the wheel quickly to turn onto the street when we all suddenly heard a tremendous banging sound, on account of the trash and recycling bins still being on the side of the curb even though the garbage guys came on Tuesday and it was now Sunday but I’ve got a lot on my plate, including picking up Legos and making massive batches of pancakes and I hadn’t even had 10 minutes for Hopkins all week so maybe I can be cut just a little bit of slack? But as soon as I crushed those bins, Dominic, my three-year-old, who’s a funny little bugger if ever there was one, loudly exclaimed “Holy shit!” All of us went dead silent then, including Dominic, who looked around shifty eyed, wondering what kind of shit he might be in now. But then I couldn’t help but bust a gut laughing, and my wife started laughing too, and soon everyone in that van was laughing. And then we drove to Mass.

Only thing was, Dominic had discovered what he now considered to be the funniest damn expression there is, which is perhaps fine when you’re traveling in a big, brown 15-passenger van with a bunch of nitwits and bad parents, but perhaps not so fine during the elevation of the most Holy and Sacred Body and Blood of Christ during the most Holy and Sacred Sacrifice of the Mass, the very Source and Summit of our Life. I suppose I could chalk it up to “just being one of those days,” if in fact this didn’t feel like every single one of my days. But then again, at least I don’t have hemorrhoids like my man Hopkins, right? Although my wife often reminds me, cruelly I think, that soon I will if I continue to sit on the john for 30 minutes at a time hiding from the kids and reading Hopkins.  

Jeffrey Wald


Jeffrey Wald writes from here and there, but will always consider himself a North Dakota writer. His stories have appeared in publications such as The Windhover, Plainsong, Aethlon, Oakwood, and Collidescope.


In the Holy Spirit

It wasn’t a computer chip under the skin
but similar:
Something small slit all my molecules,
pervaded the depths of my plasma.
I wonder-full-y wanted to wish well
to all my brothers and sisters,
us daughters and sons of him.

So my new nature –
completely compatible
with deeps in me,
from which rose
warm electric streams
of tall sugar cane
with which I washed
the blue air of this world.

Such the first night,
the second week,
we are in a month,
I love this past year…

Phil Flott


Phil Flott is a retired Catholic Priest, due to action of the Holy Spirit in his life. The last two years he has been very active with poetry. He feels it is a ministry to the Body of Christ.


The Moth

You wander upon a boy setting the simplest of all things upon the dirt, overturned,
A glass: one that must have held water to quench sweat poured out
Upon dust and upon great blades of grass that now strike like fireworks
Shooting into a magnanimous sky, and one that would, must! 
hold the substance of that transient liquid between us and another world
But now, 
but now it holds the merest whisper of the darkness upon two little wings
like two kisses for each cheek and you see in it, in that creeping moth
the tiniest corpuscle of the light, like a seed and you wonder if you can see anything at all

Then you wonder first, how such a beast, 
such a hoary beast to be plucked from the cloak of Age himself
ever would find its way into the light of a day 
that breaks itself across your back like a board and you 
are here only to feel the splintering

And it is a hard rain as it splinters
Soaking, flooding, drowning the glass before your eyes
and yet you breathe it in with your irises and
taste the color upon the painting of your soul
and the boy like the memory of a song long forgotten
yet heard as a breeze twines its way through the dead trees of a dead winter

You wonder if the moth knows that it drinks its life away
edging ever so slowly back into its abode 
like a troll that grasps at the mouth of its cave running,
running, running from the coming sun while a speck 
inside its chest burns like a cinder to be caught out in the 
coming sun;
yet when it arrives it comes not as the conquering king
but in chains, rags, the passing glimmer 
of a dying man like a mote through the rooms 
he used to touch and the bits 
he used to feel and the life 
he used to have

You wonder if it can see its likeness in its starry cage
Or if the clime it has is all that it can view and
In the light of even Polaris herself, arrayed 
In all the passing seasons is a fog
of the mind of the body and 
she seduces you away from the skull upon your back

Does he know? Could he guess that you could 
with all the godlikeness of the mathematician
calculate the breaths he had left? Or will the pin
come as a surprise to him, as he hangs
as he hangs 

Gabriel Parker


Gabriel Parker is an undergraduate at Oklahoma State University majoring in Creative Writing. He has had fiction published by the Underscore Review, FoxPaw Literary, Ripples in Space, and in an anthology by Grey Wolfe Publishing. He can usually be found deep in the bowels of the campus library holding back piles of books with one hand and typing away with the other. You can find him on Instagram @gabrielparkerauthor or online at gparkerauthor.wordpress.com


Like Sparrows Satellite

Like sparrows satellite
a bird of prey,
all beak and fervor
and filoplune feathers;

It’s coming on again.
Snatches of poems
yet to be written
buzz about my head like gnats.

Tulip poplar buds reach through
shadowbox slats of cedar fence.
I knew the 3 pound grey mass between my
ears would try to find meaning there.

Leave me alone, you middle-weight
poet brain. You journeyman guru.
I didn’t ask for story or song,
I’m just out for a walk.

I don’t want these twisted tendrils
prying an embellished metaphor
for an already saturated market.
I want Beginner’s Mind:

An ordinary stroll
devoid of association
and mining my mind
for something faux-profound.

With all the Impostor
Syndrome of Saint Peter,
I almost prayed it:
Go away from me, Lord.

But this poem is proof positive
I’m your obsequious sycophant.
Make me one of your monkeys,
your infinite monkeys, pounding away

on a typewriter, fresh ribbon
and 20 pound copy paper at the ready,
that I might, by some happy accident,
produce the Encyclopedia Brittanica.

I have so little to do with it, after all.

-Daniel R. Jones


Bez & Co- July Issue

Table of Contents:

Poetry-

Tennis Court, 1958 • Peter Mladinic
Letter to My Comrades in the Arts • Judith Skillman
Worms Rise Like Cream from Hell• Judith Skillman
Tally • Don Thompson

Non-fiction-

Year of Suffering • Jessamyn Rains

Fiction-

Nikki and the Diamonds • Sidney Stern

Photography-

James Reade Venable


Tennis Court, 1958

As palm fronds sway in the sky a net
divides players paid, as I am, to be here.  
One player lifts a racquet
and serves a ball, it bounces shear
off a shield invisible back to the server.  

Similarly Colgate’s gardol shields 
our teeth from decay, 
its protective coat God-
like, like the Diety. God isn’t chemistry,
gardol (sodium lauroyl), or a windy day

in a commercial for tooth cream.
I stand in the foreground in tennis whites. 
Brush with Colgate.
What is God? God shield us from harm. 

Peter Mladinic


Peter Mladinic

Peter Mladinic’s fourth book of poems, Knives on a Table is available from Better Than Starbucks Publications. An animal rights advocate, he lives in Hobbs, New Mexico.


Letter to my Comrades in the Arts

This, then, was our passion, to become Godly
when no other remedy would suffice. 
With words, germs, tubes of paint, children
close at hand. With one arm fractured, in a splint
and always more rain or too little rain.
The hammers pounded, freeways widened,
yet our traffic passed unnoticed
as if it was nothing of importance.

Only for us the work went on, seated
uncomfortably far from the center 
of a cosmos whose expansion defied
theorists. Nebulae annihilated,
black holes inhaled, our sons died, we mined
our minds for pink Himalayan salt.

-Judith Skillman



Worms Rise Like Cream from Hell

Everywhere you see fleshy fingers.
Some bandaged in the middle,
knuckled together. To tear
is no big deal to a worm. 
You learn many wars later
of those parts within your body:
Imago Dei. A kid called envy,
the adolescent greed
an adult named rage
who uses fire fighters.
Picture the smiles of dictators. 
Not so different 
than these ledgers of curb
against which, posed as if for history, 
pink simpers ribbon asphalt.

-Judith Skillman


Judith Skillman

Judith Skillman’s poems have appeared in Cimarron Review, Threepenny Review, Zyzzyva, and other literary journals. A recipient of awards from Academy of American Poets and Artist Trust, Skillman’s recent collection is A Landscaped Garden for the Addict, Shanti Arts, 2021. She is the editor of When Home Is Not Safe: Writings on Domestic Verbal, Emotional and Physical Abuse, McFarland. Visit www.judithskillman.com


Tally

This dead sparrow’s hard at work
Becoming the hopeless color
Of dirt.  Well—
Dust to dust, as the man says.

Feathers disintegrate more slowly
Than flesh.  And the beak
Will hold out longer
Than its ephemeral bones.

Ants have come and gone.
And God too—
Adding one more to His tally
Of fallen sparrows.

Don Thompson


Don Thompson

Don Thompson has been writing about the San Joaquin Valley for over fifty years, including a dozen or so books and chapbooks.  A San Joaquin Almanac won the Eric Hoffer Award for 2021 in the chapbook category.   For more info and links to publishers, visit his website at www.don-e-thompson.com


Year of Suffering

There was a time when it seemed my closest friends were Facebook ads and a collection of e-newsletters I subscribed to.

Don’t get me wrong: these were great friends. They knew not only about the clothing and household items I was thinking of purchasing, but also my questions about lactation (I had a one-year-old and a new baby), postpartum weight loss, the identity crises new mothers experience, plus some of my pre-mom interests.

As the new year approached, one of the e-newsletters I subscribed to discussed the practice of asking God for a “word” for the year. This author had received inspiring words from God, year after year. Words like “hope” and “redemption.”

Desperate for some hope and redemption myself, I decided to ask God for a word for the year. I was hoping for something like “peace” or “joy” or even “rest.”

But the word that seemed to echo through my mind as I prayed was “suffering.”

I immediately began to panic: Is something going to happen to one of my kids? To my husband? To me? I became paranoid about the stairs outside our home. I had intrusive thoughts about accidents and illnesses. I became gloomy and depressed.

It didn’t help that I was trying to read The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People for the umpteenth time and that one of the first things it wants you to do is to picture your own funeral. I don’t think the exercise had quite the intended effect on me: all I could picture was my children waking up one morning asking, “Where’s Mommy?” and my husband having to tell them “Mommy will never be coming home.”

And then for work my boss gave me a book to read that was written by a person with a terminal illness. There was a chapter entitled “mindfulness of death,” where you do a similar exercise to the one in Highly Effective People, only this time you visualize the actual moment of your death and your body being lowered into the ground.

Now, I think that we should be mindful of our mortality, but for a person in my frame of mind, it amounted to torment and paranoia.

I had a talk with my husband about my “word of the year” and my newly-acquired obsessive fears, and he had these things to say:

1. maybe it isn’t about your suffering; and
2. maybe you’ll get pregnant again.

In the first couple of months of that year, I heard of more deaths via social media than I had heard of in possibly the rest of my life altogether. These were not the deaths of close friends of mine, but they were acquaintances, relatives of acquaintances, and people I had known well at one time. 

I also heard of divorces, other kinds of losses, and illnesses, particularly illnesses and hospitalizations of children.

~~

We had started going to a Presbyterian church in a beautiful stone building. We were from a different background–less Calvinistic, more charismatic–so the church and its style seemed stiff and staid to us at first. But we soon saw the warmth and beauty beneath the stiff façade and became regular attendees.

When the church announced a women’s retreat with an opportunity to stay at a beautiful bed and breakfast, this sounded like a foretaste of heaven. I envisioned eating in a kid-free zone, lots of female bonding and laughter, contemplative walks through gardens, and profound revelations from God.

Things are seldom what we envision them to be.

First of all, I had failed to remember that it was February. My windshield was covered with frost. It was too cold for contemplative walks through gardens, if there had been gardens. I got lost on the way to the first session and turned up late; then I spilled my coffee all over the beautiful tablecloth and the women had to scramble to cover up the big ugly stain with strategically arranged place settings.

There wasn’t much female bonding–at least not for me. I felt like a lonely weirdo. And for much of the time, I had to walk back and forth in the hallway with my fussy nursling.

And yet.

What I was able to catch from the speaker was mind-blowing, possibly life-changing.

Her theme was suffering.

She told a heart-wrenching story of a friend who had died young from cancer. A friend who had died a beautiful death, a person whose life and death had borne fruit for eternity.

She explicated the biblical reasons for suffering: a lot of it is hidden in the mysterious Providence of God. But suffering was also one of the ways that God works sanctification in our lives.

She unpacked a passage of scripture which, for years, had intrigued me: we rejoice in our sufferings, because suffering works patience and patience works character, and character, hope.

In my life, the thing I had most needed–and the thing I most needed at that time–was hope.

~~

I didn’t die that year, nor did anyone in my family. There was no catastrophe, no sudden illness. My trials and sufferings were of the more banal kind, more like a case of sciatica than a terminal illness.

I was dealing with a few spiritual and emotional brick walls in my life, a few unanswered prayers that lingered, for months and months. I tried to solve these problems myself –tried to be as proactive as I could, given my limitations–but to no avail. Eventually, I gave up on The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. It appeared that I was not destined to be effective.

One day I was sitting with a group of elderly men and women, singing hymns with them (this was part of my job), and they began to talk about God. One woman, in her 90s, said she had always sought the Lord’s guidance before making any decision so that she would be sure to do the right thing.

Another woman responded and said very pointedly, “Sometimes the right thing is to do nothing.”

A few people nodded politely, and she said it again: “Sometimes the right thing is to do nothing. The Bible says, ‘Be still and know that I am God.’”

I went home with these words tumbling around in my mind. Sometimes the right thing to do is nothing. It occurred to me that the right thing to do–with my particular sufferings, with my particular unanswered prayers–was nothing. The right thing to do was to be still and know that God was God. To recognize that my circumstances were part of his mysterious, sovereign will for me at that moment, and that he would bring good out of them, as He had promised.

A few months later I had an experience that some in more charismatic circles would call a “download from God.”

I was doing some mundane household task when all of a sudden I just knew: God had allowed certain sufferings in my life to bring about needed change. Once upon a time, I had been on a selfish trajectory. I had started out living for Jesus, but for various reasons that are too complicated to go into now, I had subtly given up on this and had begun to live for myself. If I had continued down that road, I might have ended up somewhere I never meant to go. Moreover, I had certain lifelong defects of character that grieved me–things I couldn’t change with sheer willpower–and the particular trials God was allowing in my life were helping to bring correction to these.

~~

I still had my unanswered prayers, my spiritual sciatica. But there were many consolations. In fact, when I look back on that year, I look upon it with fondness: it was full of beauty. I think of family walks amid wildflowers in the spring. I think of my little girl learning to talk, my little boy learning to crawl.

And then there was that trip to the Dollar General for a pregnancy test.

It was positive.

We bought a minivan and moved to a different house. I quit my job to stay home with the kids. I grew queasy, then large and unwieldy.

All of these things, too, were a mix of suffering and beauty.

In December of that year, as I sat at our kitchen table with a dark, gloomy world outside, I asked God if He had a word for me for the next year.

The word was “joy.”

Jessamyn Rains


Jessamyn Rains

Jessamyn Rains is a musician, writer, and mother of four. She lives near Chattanooga, TN. You can hear her music and read some of her writing at www.jessamynrains.com


Nikki and the Diamonds

A back molar was protesting when Nikki, last seen astride one of the plastic horses revolving around a pole on stage at the Treasure Club, called. “My mom’s lung cancer is worse,” she began plaintively, as if the cancer were my fault.

Pre-occupied by dental pain, I was in no mood to deal with what I figured was coming next.

“Yeah? Well, I’ve got a toothache!”

“They say she needs new lungs.”

“I need a dentist.”

“A double lung transplant costs $75,000.”

“What’s a root canal cost?” I replied, keeping an edge in my voice, speculating as to whether the lung transplant was a fictitious lever by which Nikki intended to pry money from me. With Nikki it always came down to money, and I wanted to see if she was serious.

“Stop joking,” she countered with a tone of finality. As if to say: “You’re going to have to deal with this.” 

“The procedure actually costs $750,000,” she continued, her voice shifting to silk and sweetness, coaxing my awareness away from my infected molar and the possibility of a scam, then pausing to let the enormity of the cost sink in. I glanced aimlessly around my kitchen, wondering why a month earlier I’d so readily volunteered $400 to bail Nikki’s brother out of jail, no doubt precipitating her current request. As if in response to my inquiry, a potted orchid attracted and held my gaze. Its blossoms had just opened, and the smooth fleshy petals were spread wide, milky-white like untanned portions of Nikki’s anatomy. “Duke Medical Center has a charity program that pays ninety percent,” she began again, “but we have to come up with ten percent or they won’t operate.”

“We?” I inquired. I lowered my phone to my hip.

She expected ME to come up with $75,000. That was clear.

And somewhat irritating, given the matter-of-fact way she was assigning financial responsibility. “Ask another customer,” I almost said. But I didn’t. Because some other damned fool might say “Yes.” 

And THEN where would I be?

#

Not for nothing had Nikki been “top producer” at the Treasure Club eighteen of the last twenty months. Her choice of the word “we” penetrated my consciousness like a sperm cell in utero, fertilizing an ovum of hope. Which now began dividing and subdividing at an exponential rate, growing into the nonsensical self-contradictory assumption that our pay-as-you-go association would develop into a genuine romance were I to mortgage my home and write her a check for $75,000.

Instead, I obtained a passport for Nikki and Congo visas for both of us. That took about three weeks last March, and on April 2 we headed for Raleigh-Durham Airport in my pick-up truck. Our destination was Kisangani, the navigable endpoint of the Congo River, once a lonely outpost cryptically referenced in Joseph Conrad’s famous novel, now the third-largest Congolese city. On first appearance, Kisangani is an unexpected civic jewel, a town with broad straight avenues and European-style buildings centered in a rain forest the size of Texas. That the buildings have been crumbling for more than a half century is of no apparent concern to the natives. Nor do they complain about their corrugated-steel shanties, residential ovens under the equatorial sun. The Congolese are high-spirited, commercially-minded, and for the most part, delightful. They persist, like Nikki herself, undaunted by challenging circumstances.

Getting there from North Carolina required consecutive connecting flights from London, Nairobi, and Kigali (Rwanda). A total of 9,000 miles. 

We took a room at the Olympia Hotel, two stories of white stucco enclosing a packed-dirt courtyard where in 1964 seventeen Belgian nuns and priests had been butchered by Simba rebels. 

I stationed myself in the hotel’s open-air café: half a dozen greasy tables, a rosewood bar with matching stools, and a loudspeaker rasping current African tunes to draw in customers. Rimming the thatched roof were hanging baskets of bougainvillea, their mild scent overmatched by the stench of the open sewer bordering Lumumba Boulevard and raw vehicular exhaust. 

Nikki, a bull’s-eye for white slavers among the sordid characters I hoped to attract, remained in our room. Hardly a vacation for her, given the lack of air-conditioning in the 20-square-foot concrete cubicle which cost us 10,000 Congolese francs ($5 U.S.) per night. A room slightly superior to her cell at the Juvenile Detention Center from which she’d been discharged at age eighteen; but decidedly less comfortable than her current residence, a $29.95 per night motel room, conveniently adjacent to the Treasure Club where I’d made her acquaintance two months previously.

This being Africa and me being reasonably well-dressed, it wasn’t long before various natives “came out of the woodwork” to join me for coffee or Nzoro beer, depending on the hour. After a bit of conversation in French, imposed on the Congo during the colonial period, I would mention “ivory” which, like diamonds, is available in much of Tshopo Province. My real interest was not ivory, which was just a topic by which I could get the word out that I was a “player.” 

On day four at the café, a fellow sat down at my table and introduced himself as Henri-Paul. He wore a light blue tunic over matching slacks: business attire in tropical Africa. Lighter-skinned than the coal-black Congolese, he said he’d emigrated from Nigeria. It seemed unlikely that English-speaking Nigerian parents would have named their child “Henri-Paul,” but if true, encouraging insofar as Nigeria’s culture of criminal entrepreneurship is well known. 

Henri-Paul rested his left his arm on the table so I could notice the likeness of the Congo’s president on the dial of his wristwatch, a status symbol of sorts, an “African Rolex,” so to speak. His cheeks and forehead bore no tribal scars. Nor had his incisors been filed to sharp-pointed cones. Perhaps Henri-Paul was fronting for someone else, rougher-cut and living in the bush. I wasted no time in revealing my (pseudo) interest in carved ivory. He nodded gravely and took his leave.

The next day Henri-Paul arrived at the café with statuettes of a lion and a lioness, crudely rendered, perhaps carved overnight. I paid him $25 U.S. for each (and later threw them in the Congo River). Yeah, Henri-Paul was the “real deal,” I figured, so I asked him about diamonds. “Beaucoup, beaucoup,” he exclaimed, lifting and shaking an empty water glass as if to suggest he could easily fill it with diamonds. There was a self-congratulatory twinkle in his eye as he departed; perhaps he’d pegged me as a diamond trader from the outset.

Henri-Paul rejoined me two days later at the café as a gigantic soldier, Kalashnikov strapped like a toy over his shoulder, was accepting a wad of currency from the bartender. This was probably the or-else-your-business-will-be-ransacked tax, one of the shakedowns by which the Congolese military pays itself. Henri-Paul flashed a polite smile at the departing trooper, then whispered: “Au Congo, toute le monde est criminel.” Scanning the café to assure himself we were alone, he withdrew a burlap pouch from his pants pocket and emptied the contents onto the ebony tabletop. Five round diamonds of excellent grade, each about three carats. Likely cut in Amsterdam or Beirut, these gems may have changed hands a dozen times. Dumped for next-to-nothing in Kisangani by an international crime syndicate? Swapped for ordnance by combatants in recent African civil wars? Looted by Nazis from European Jews during World War II, arriving in this commercial cesspool after more than a half century? Without written records painstakingly authenticated, a near impossibility in central Africa, the provenance of medium-sized diamonds is anyone’s guess.

I handed Henri-Paul sixty $100 bills, received the diamonds, and excused myself, without seeming to hurry, to our hotel room. Once inside, I shoved a bulky colonial-era dresser against the in-swinging door. Nikki tacked a sheet over the humidity-fogged window behind which I crisscrossed a copper wire enlivened by a nine-volt car battery I’d bought from a street vendor. Makeshift barriers against uninvited guests. In a kleptocracy (a society in which theft is the established method of commercial transaction), what was to prevent a savvy businessman like Henri-Paul (or his associates) from cutting our throats and taking back the diamonds, along with any U.S. currency we might have?

Self-confined to our room for three days awaiting the scheduled flight home, we sustained ourselves on bottled water, mangoes, bananas, pineapples, and Chinese canned tuna Nikki had stacked in a corner. As seating was limited to a single straight-backed wooden chair, we spent most of our time lying side-by-side beneath a gauzy mosquito net draped over our narrow bed. If that sounds romantic, it wasn’t. The only part of me not uncomfortable was the molar treated by my dentist before I left Greensboro. An antique fan, operating four hours each day when electricity was available, did no more than push hot humid air over us. Bathing was out of the question, as any visit to the shower booths in the courtyard would entail risk. Without books or electronic devices for diversion, we sweltered for 72 hours, bored and irritable.

“You smell like a cantaloupe,” I commented, omitting “unrefrigerated for the better part of a month” from my actual observation.  

“Is that so? Well, you smell as bad as this town,” she replied. “In fact, you smell worse.”

Given the fruity/fecal odor that permeates the carbonized smog arising from thousands of cooking fires in Kisangani, her insult was acute. And perhaps accurate. 

Empty cans of tuna accumulating in our room suggested a possible rejoinder, as, in fact, my comparison of her aroma with that of an overripe melon had been gracious. But, under the present circumstances, a verbal brawl was not advisable. Like a movie director responsible for the orderly progress of a complex production, I decided to humor the brat who was my star.

“What are the best shops at the mall?”

“Choosy. Mango. Maybe New Girl Order. What’s it to you?”

“I was thinking we might go shopping when we get home.”

“Possibly. Depends on my schedule. Forever 21 is at the mall.”

“You can’t go in there. You’re twenty-two years old.”

“Very funny. When did you turn twenty-two? Four decades ago?”

#

A car rapide (native taxi) arrived at the hotel entrance before dawn on April 13 and delivered us safely at Bangoka Airport, a few kilometers east of Kisangani. To our relief, our pre-booked flight was neither canceled nor delayed. Our return voyage, with connections in Libreville and Paris, lasted 30 hours. Finally and fragrantly, grimy and unkempt as gypsies, we landed at Raleigh-Durham Airport. I suppose our port of debarkation, combined with our age differential, typical in cases of human trafficking, aroused the interest of U.S. Customs.

I won’t elaborate as to the details, but four diamonds were discovered “on Nikki’s person.” 

Nikki was arrested and charged under 18 U.S. Code 545. Fortunately, as the diamonds were “cut,” she had not violated the international “conflict diamond” laws, which pertain only to “rough” diamonds. She was taken to the NC Correctional Institute for Women in Raleigh and held under a $200,000 bail bond pending an October trial. For $20,000 I could have bailed her out; but had she failed to appear at trial, a scenario by no means unlikely, the bondsman would have come after me for the rest of the $200,000.

US Customs had considered charging me as a “co-conspirator” but since they knew they could not prove my participation, I was released. What the customs officials DID NOT know was that I carried the fifth diamond inside the previously-decayed molar hollowed by my dentist before I left Greensboro.

A week after our homecoming I took a same-day-return flight to New York and headed for West 47th Street, Manhattan’s Diamond District. One of my regular customers received me in his cubby-hole jewelry shop. He examined the diamond and gave me an adequate price: $90,000. 

I paid $75,000 to the Duke Med Center which performed the lung transplant in late May. Nikki’s mom recovered nicely and her prognosis is good. With regards to my own “health problem,” a dentist repaired the molar he’d hollowed before my departure, sealing it with a new gold crown.

In late September I engaged an attorney who’d occasionally defended me on criminal charges to represent Nikki. He assured Nikki her juvenile convictions would be barred from the current proceedings and advised her to plead guilty in U.S. District Court in Raleigh. At my suggestion, he calendared Nikki’s hearing in front of a judge with whom I’d partied throughout the 1980’s at Jaycee Conventions. Florid-faced and jug-eared, by appearance better suited to a tractor than the judiciary, he’d been a shrewd and effective litigator before his appointment to the bench.

That her crime had been intended to finance her mother’s lung transplant, a plausible mitigating circumstance, was inadmissible; but no doubt considered by the judge, broadsided by Nikki’s subdued presentation of physical beauty. She’d allowed her thick brown hair, dyed unconvincingly blond since I’d met her, to return to its natural lustrous shade. Cropped shoulder-length for the proceeding, a few wisps curled demurely beneath her chin. Her mischievous blue-green eyes, soulful and serious after expert application of eyeliner, were accentuated by a blue-green dress, belted to emphasize her slender waist. Hemmed above the knees, the dress showcased her dancer’s legs, eye magnets after months of state-sponsored exercise. Narrow leather straps secured four-inch, open-toed heels to her ankles. Prison pallor had yielded to a healthy tan that came out of a jar. She appeared the wholesome young woman — such as might be encountered on a collegiate soccer field – she’d likely have become if born into different circumstances. 

The issue for Nikki was not guilt, which had been admitted, but sentencing, up to twenty years under the federal anti-smuggling statute. In such a proceeding, the prosecutor summarizes the evidence for the judge, who then renders sentence. Our case went routinely until the judge interrupted the prosecutor’s monologue, asking for clarification as to the phrase “discovered on her person.” With possession of the diamonds already established, this request was gratuitous and therefore, to my mind, auspicious. Using clinical terminology, the prosecutor patiently obliged the judge’s inquiry before wrapping up his summary.

The judge consulted his laptop, likely reviewing guidelines for sentencing, then stared impassively over our heads. His ruddy weather-beaten face might have been agriculturally comedic on the street: nose bent left, ears like antennae, tobacco-stained teeth framed by a cracked-lipped grimace. In a federal courtroom, nodding to the bailiff to instruct the defendant to stand for sentencing, such a physiognomy was no doubt worrisome to those who assumed it mirrored a judicial mentality similarly unrefined. I understood, however, that a rough-and-ready approach to adjudication might work to Nikki’s advantage.

She arose with a single motion and shifted her weight onto one leg, the arc of her buttocks on that side gracefully delineated beneath the thin fabric of her dress. She awaited sentence with the bored expression of a shopper in a checkout line, indifferent to all eyes. This, of course, was deliberate. 

The judge examined her head-to-toe and then repeated the process, blinking and shaking his head. He leaned back into his chair and folded his arms across his belly, eyes closed as if immersed in a private and personal reverie. Long obsolescent hormones — activated by Nikki’s fresh face and form, emboldened by her apparent powerlessness, and piqued by her nonchalance — did what I’d hoped they’d do, swamping his professional judgment beneath a tide of lascivious adoration. His magisterial grimace melted into the dippy grin of an assistant principal disciplining an attractive student caught smoking in the girls’ washroom.

“My personal advice, young lady,” the judge said with a sour smile at me, “is that you distance yourself from persons involved in illegal transactions.”

He sentenced her to two years in the low-security federal prison in Huntsville, Alabama, suspended two years provided she remain within the jurisdiction during the probationary period.

“Jacked up the courthouse and towed it away,” was our attorney’s evaluation of Nikki’s courtroom performance.

#

Eager for a chocolate/caramel/coffee concoction after five months incarceration, Nikki suggested we stop at a Starbucks on our way out of Raleigh. We settled at corner table and she gave me a quick smile as her lips met the creamy surface of her Frappuccino. Affirmation of a durable connection between us? Tacit thanks for my assistance in funding her mom’s surgery? Or merely a flash of happy anticipation before tasting her beverage? 

Possible interpretations that revolved in my mind like the colorful horses on the Treasure Club’s carousel, slowing then halting with a jolt as Nikki’s countenance grew unexpectedly somber. The corners of her lips, tinged white with whipped cream, curled downwards. Unhappy eyes looked directly into mine. Here, at 3:00 pm in an ordinary coffee shop, Cinderella’s clock was striking midnight. The grand ball would end, my pick-up truck would be reduced to a pumpkin, and Princess Charming would write me, her protector and provider for six months, out of the script. No matter I’d introduced her to a business considerably more lucrative than striptease. I was to be re-assigned my original role as an extra, an old coot watching the girls glide by on center stage, waiting his turn to creep forward and slip a twenty-dollar bill into Nikki’s g-string.

Or so I thought.

Like many persons of tender years, she was fretting about a matter completely beyond her control (or mine).

She wanted to know what U.S. Customs would do with the four confiscated diamonds.

The diamonds would be auctioned, I explained, with the proceeds going to the U.S. Treasury.

“In other words, we’ve donated about $400,000 to the government?”

“That’s about it.” I replied.

She stirred her drink with a tiny wooden stick, then asked: “Do you think Henri-Paul will be in Kisangani two years from now?”

Sid Stern


Sid Stern

Sid Stern operates a small company in Greensboro, North Carolina, home to America’s first lunch counter sit-in and the author O. Henry. Giants of the Jaycees, Sid’s collection of biographical parodies in the style of Plutarch’s Lives, was published by Hard Copy Press in 1989 and his African adventure novel, The Screaming Eagles, was published in serial form by Projector Magazine in 1990.


Photograph by James Venable

James Venable

James Reade Venable was born in Manhattan, New York. He has been published in Conker Nature, F-Stop, Dodho, Black +White Photography and many more. He is a 2x London Photo Festival Monthly Competition Winner. He lives in New York City at the moment.


Bez & Co- April 2022 Issue

Table of Contents:

Introduction • Daniel R. Jones

Poetry-

What It Takes• Linda McCullough Moore
Temptation: The Story • Linda McCullough Moore
Seen Unseen • Linda McCullough Moore
The Blessing of Being • Kathryn Sadakierski
On Sanctification• Daniel R. Jones


Introduction

Springtime often reminds me of a famous Charles Dickens quotation from Great Expectations: “It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold: when it is summer in the light, and winter in the shade.”

While it’s April now, it’s pretty remarkable that those words hold up over 150 years later, and in a different continent! The weather here in Central Indiana has been prone to its ups and downs, as is common for this cranny of the world. We’ve had 70 degree (Fahrenheit) temperatures and snowfall within the same week.

Even still, spring has been my favorite season for as long as I can remember. Because after the cold, wintry months, it holds the promise of new life and better weather. I’ve always felt it made perfect sense to celebrate Resurrection Sunday in the spring time for this very reason. Christ’s death and resurrection are His followers’ clarion call to hope. And while Jesus reigns supreme, the “summer in the light” has rendered the “winter in the shade” meaningless.

This issue, by and large, centers along the theme of victory: from sin, death, and suffering. In Him, we are a new creation, and I hope that the writing herein reminds you of that.

-DRJ


What It Takes
He made the never sighted, 
birth-blight blinded 
share the seeing. 
But some doubted.  

He stood still, not tippy, 
on the curly waves that made 
the sober sailor dizzy; 
that sure footed on the sea. 
But some did not believe.

And crucified, he hung
by spikes on cruciform,
gave death three days, 
then let five hundred
see him back alive. 
Of that number
some did not believe.

However, he met Nathaniel 
(a.k.a. Bartholomew) and said, 
“I saw you sitting by the fig tree earlier.” 
And Nathaniel/Bartholomew said, 
“You are the Christ, the Son of God,” 
and fell down on his face in worship.

He met an often-married woman 
at the well of Jacob and told her 
common-law not quite the same 
as marriage with the first five men, 
and she goes off to bring salvation 
to the town, “Is this not the Christ. 
He told me everything I ever did.”

On the morning of the Resurrection
before she will be sent to tell the news,
before the angels know, he speaks 
one word, “Mary,” 
and the world is reinvented.

That’s how much we want 
someone to know us. 
That’s how sure we were
it couldn’t be.

Linda McCullough Moore


Temptation: The Story

The enemy appears just past
the six weeks fast, just when you,
gentle reader, have come to like 
the hero or begun to think you might. 

In the story one is called the devil,
angels are not named, 
(I don’t believe they care) and
God goes by the name of Jesus. 

The devil says, “Come here, I want 
to show you something.” He curls 
his finger, squints one eye. “Turn 
the stones to bread,” he says, and tries 
a smile. (A big mistake.)“Throw yourself 
off this cliff here.” “Fall down and worship
me.”(Decidedly no poet, he.)

And Jesus answers, No, and No, and No,
and adds a tad of Jesuit elaboration –
not his first temptation. 

“But I will give you bread and honey, 
wine and dancing girls, protection plans, 
and all the kingdoms of the world. 
Oh yes, and adulation.”
It’s not his first temptation either,
though the sell could still use work. 

“Get thee hence, dog,” the Lord says,
the canine reference mine. Jesus calls him 
Satan. Not a stranger by a long shot, having 
seen him fall from Heaven. (Think skydiving 
from space stations with no parachute,
no atmosphere.) 

And now the sweet part. Angels traipsing 
up the mountain in the wilderness, loaded 
down with food enough for fifty, fasted men, 
and power in the flutter of a single wing 
to drive off every harm on offer, and there 
they worship as the Lord Almighty first 
designed the thing to be. You see. It’s they 
who give him Satan’s offerings,
his proffered three: food/rescue/adoration.

You turn the devil down, 
God cues the angels.
That’s how it works.

Linda McCullough Moore



Seen Unseen

“But God is everywhere,” he says,
a line most often sung by people
who do not have a clue where God is
or might be,

by women who have not tracked him,
laid traps, tricked and pleaded, by men 
who have not hammered at the gates 
of heaven, just to get a glimpse of grace,
much less His face.

“God is everywhere,” says he,
who has not once gone looking for him
in the pagan hours of the night,
in fright so fierce guards quake;
the room tilts round,
your separate parts go flying off
in wild trajectory.
He’s right of course.

God is everywhere.
But he like me

– for variations on the reason –
will miss the sightings. His God fluff,
mine solid stuff. Same difference.

He, his eyes on other prizes,
will mistake Him for a vapor,
(see: everywhere above). A notion.
Not a bad idea, if perhaps
an airy one, wraith insubstantial.

Me, I doubt that I could
pick him out of a line-up,
inasmuch as He refuses 
to resemble such a god 
as I design.

Linda McCullough Moore

Linda McCullough Moore

Linda McCullough Moore is the author of two story collections, a novel, an essay collection and more than 350 shorter published works. She is the winner of the Pushcart Prize, as well as winner and finalist for numerous national awards. Her first story collection was endorsed by Alice Munro, and equally as joyous, she frequently hears from readers who write to say her work makes a difference in their lives. For many years she has mentored award-winning writers of fiction, poetry, and memoir. She is currently completing a novel, Time Out of Mind, and a collection of her poetry. www.lindamcculloughmoore.com


The Blessing of Being

Snowflakes weightlessly fall
Past a cardinal, waiting, unnoticing
On a white-laced branch of tree,
A ruby set on a staff of light.

The snow, laid out gently
As a baby’s cotton blanket
Cradling this land,
Wiped clean like the white clapboard churches,
Festooned with their evergreen wreaths,
Lining the town commons
Still under the soft string-light glow
Of early winter,
Faint dove-gray skies
Touched by a copper necklace of sun,
Cozily warm as though shining from a tin lantern.

Everything is filled with a quiet importance,
As though, just by being,
Each part of this scene 
Is blessed with beauty,
A holiness of humble spirit,
A benediction of inborn serenity
Encircling all that breathes, and returns
To the heart’s center
Where the power to lead is sparked,
Where the hope burns that draws the stars
Back from the evening’s vestment of dark.

Night sweeps in from the dust of sunset
Like a song fading out on the radio,
Ushering in another tune
Without introduction.
A bunching of pink in the sky
Is still extended earnestly,
Like a rose bouquet
Offered to you
To light your way home,
To the soul of hope where you long to go,
Where dreams and love
Will always belong.

-Kathryn Sadakierski

Kathryn Sadakierski

Kathryn Sadakierski’s writing has appeared in anthologies, magazines, and literary journals around the world, including Agape ReviewCritical ReadEdge of FaithEkstasis MagazineHalfway Down the StairsLiterature TodayNew Jersey English Journal, NewPages BlogNorthern New England ReviewOrigami Poems ProjectSilkworm, Snapdragon: A Journal of Art and HealingSongs of EretzSpillwordsThe Abstract Elephant MagazineToday’s American CatholicToyon Literary Magazine, Yellow Arrow Journal, and elsewhere. In 2020, she was awarded the C. Warren Hollister Non-Fiction Prize. She graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. and M.S. from Bay Path University.


On Sanctification

When I was a kid,
mom offered me a bite
of her rum cake.

But what about the alcohol?
The apotheosis of evil
to a six-year-old evangelical.

It all bakes out, mom said.
By the time its out of the oven
the alcohol is gone.

Not wanting to call “unclean”
what my mother called “clean,”
I took a bite.

Spongy and soft, sugar and oak.
I tasted and saw
the cake was good.

May my life be the same.
Consumed in your Holy Fire
may all my evil cook out.

Daniel R. Jones

Bez & Co- January 2022 Issue

Table of Contents:

Poetry-
pseudesthesia • Daniel Jones
Saint Peter • S.E. Reid
Pray For Us Mothers • Mary Tarantini

Book Review-
Cuarentena • Stephen Lang [Wipf & Stock]

Advanced Book Review and Interview-
I Close My Eyes and I Almost Remember • Matthew J. Andrews

pseudesthesia

Here goes our phantom limb of hope.
We both feel something
which hasn’t existed in years.
A flutter, a tremor, a quaver, for me.
For you, a nagging ache.

-Daniel R. Jones

Saint Peter

the small dead fir
had hidden behind a taller hemlock
until the storm
brought it to its knees,

tipped near the top
snapped
head downward
shaggy and undignified
against our driveway.

that’s where the dog and I found it the next morning,
puffs of breath in the cold sunlight
we walked around it,
admiring how it had hidden there
until this moment of revelation;

the dog investigated its top-most branches
seeking out bird-hymns and bug-psalms
as yet unsniffed;

but my nose could only find the sweet scent
of the dozens of usnea lichen that had grown
soft and fragrant
slowly eating away at the dead limbs;

and I thought: what a fate
for your true beauty
to be witnessed in this death,
shaggy and undignified,

a testament
upside-down.

-S.E. Reid

S.E. Reid

S.E. Reid is a freelance writer, editor, and poet living on a patch of wooded wetland in the Pacific Northwest with her craftsman husband and her big black dog, Finn. Her nonfiction work has appeared in the now-retired Plants Are Magic magazine in the UK as well as the current issue of Being Human magazine, and her short fiction has been published by webzine Mysterion. She regularly posts her poetry and short prose on Instagram. When not writing she loves to cook nourishing food, read widely, and tend to her vegetable garden. Website: http://writersereid.wordpress.com

Pray For Us Mothers

A cardinal alighted upon a branch
Outside my window pane
Red against a piney green – 
I called you by your name

Your name is ever on my lips
My first gift to my first love
Bestowed before you breathed your first
With every dream I could ever dream of

I never should have lived to see
The day that you were taken from me
Pray for us mothers who bury their babes
Kneeling by gravestones now bearing their names

– Mary Tarantini

Mary Tarantini
Mary Tarantini, TSSF, is a poet, mother, high school English teacher, and a professed member of The Third Order Society of Saint Francis. She holds a BA in English and a MA in Theological Studies. Some of her poems have been published in The Franciscan Times, the newsletter of The Third Order Society of Saint Francis.

Review of Cuarantena by Stephen Lang
[Review by Daniel R. Jones]

Besides the obvious tragedy of the climbing death toll, the outbreak of COVID-19 gave way to a myriad of other, more subtle tragedies. The trajectory of the entire world seemed to turn on its heel, overnight. The routines we so tightly clung to were disrupted and thrown askew. And somehow, born out of all that chaos, was Cuarentena, Steve Lang’s second collection of poetry.

You may remember this author from our inaugural issue, released exactly one year ago today. His poem “Humility” appeared in that issue. “Humility” can be found in this collection as well, alongside 39 other well-sculpted poems that plumb the depths of human experience.

Lang’s preface tells us that our English word “quarantine” comes from the Venetian word “quarantena,” which literally translates to “forty days.” A ship entering the port of Venice had to spend 40 days in isolation in the days of the Black Death.

And while most of these poems are not directly “about” the pandemic, they all stemmed from it.

On the one hand, you could liken these 40 poems to the 40 days Christ spent in the desert: they’re stark, raw, and often take an unflinching gaze at the most painful parts of our humanity. An example of this can be found in Lang’s short poem “Late Afternoon Sunlight.” He writes:

Late afternoon sunlight

On a cloudless day
in El Salvador

So pure
And placid
And appaling

Upon cracking the spine of Cuarenta, Lang’s attention to craftsmanship and wordsmithing become immediately obvious. His images are so deftly crafted that they’re sure to haunt his readers with an uncanny feeling, long after the book is set aside. One fascinating example of this comes in the poem “Littoral,” which inverts a saccharine “Chicken-Soup-for-the-Soul” type anecdote and fleshes it out with a more austere and poignant sense of abandonment.

But yet, for all the dark shades present, Lang rounds out the picture with lighter tints. The wide-eyed surrender into the Kairos of the present moment can be seen in “Ser/Estar.” Indeed, throughout the entire book, the effortless vacillation between Spanish and English (Lang wrote these poems in El Salvador) adds a level of intrigue and musicality to the poems.

Although an English-only poem, “Orchid” shows off Lang’s abilities to craft a sonorous poem as well as any in this book. He writes: “…Pink slippers lurid/ Adder’s mouth/ Resupine/ All wanton inflorescence/ Labellum swollen fused/ In Vanilla inner whorl…” The cadence and vibrant imagery of the flower creates for a gorgeous reading experience.

But perhaps my favorite in the collection is the poem “Cuarenta.”It’s a rumination on the number “40” as much as it is an exploration of our own quarantine. Rather than spoiling a perfect piece of writing, I’ll only say that it manages to be the most profound poem I’ve read on the subject of our post-Coronavirus world.

If, coming out of the past couple of years, you—like me—ask yourself, “What more can be said about this pandemic?” The answer is “Cuarenta.”

And in a broader sense, one that spans much more than just COVID-19 and the global backlash to it, Stephen Lang has much to say to you in Cuarentena. The subject-matter is wide and engrossing, the language is vivid and lyrical, and the author doesn’t shy away from taking on the most difficult of topics. Grab your copy at Wipf and Stock’s website or Amazon today.

Daniel R. Jones

Interview with Matthew J. Andrews

Daniel: First and foremost, Matt, thanks for taking the time to chat. Right there in the blurb, it’s announced that I Close My Eyes and Almost Remember is “born of spiritual crisis.” Without prying into your personal life, can you talk a little about that? How did events in your own life inform the creation of these poems?

Matt: In short, the “crisis” at hand was a real disconnection with the Christian faith, which had once permeated every aspect of my life. I grew up in church, absorbed all the right teachings, even contemplated seminary, but within a matter of years I found myself on the brink of apostasy. I had a lot of things pulling me away, but at the heart of them was the fact that I had grown disillusioned with the Bible, what we often put at the centerpiece of the faith. I grew to no longer trust it, to place its stories more in the category of “myth” than “truth,” which had a domino effect everywhere else.

I spent many years adrift before I felt compelled to revisit my faith, and poetry was a big part of that process once I did. The poems in this collection were written as a way of reengaging with the stories of the Bible, of trying to breathe new life into something that had become stale and lifeless, of making these communal narratives feel personal again. I spent about two years writing poetry in this way, just creating out of the need within me. It wasn’t until much later that I realized I had a collection on my hands.

Daniel: Speaking of “spiritual crisis,” this book is filled to the brim with biblical figures facing such a dilemma! The collection is described as being filled with characters that “struggle with their place in the grand narrative.” What I find interesting is that some of these struggles are emotional (i.e. the picture we see in “Ezekiel’s Wife,”) while other struggles could be described as cognitive or “thinking errors.” (I’m thinking particularly of the eyebrow-raising methods suggested in “Boanerges.”)  When you wrote these poems, how did you choose the particular struggle each character faced?

Matt: Most of these poems sprang up pretty organically. As I read through the Bible again (and again and again), it became sort of a spiritual discipline, something akin to the practice of Lectio Divina. Rather than trying to force anything, I tried to let myself notice what I was taking away from my reading: what characters am I relating to, what images are resonating with me, and what emotions am I experiencing as a result? I then built poems based on honest answers to those questions. It wasn’t until I looked at these poems as a whole that I understood just how much I was writing about the challenges these characters must have faced, the burden that comes with being compelled by the hand of God.  

Your examples are interesting, and I think they point to the variety of ways people struggle with faith. On one hand, the story of Ezekiel’s wife (detailed in Ezekiel 24, for those who are unfamiliar) is told so quickly that it’s easy to overlook it, but it’s a troubling story with a real human cost and some hard questions about servitude and justice. It’s hard not to read that story and have your heart sink into the floor, to feel like Ezekiel was a victim. “Boanerges,” inspired by James and John offering to call down fire and destroy a Samaritan village in Luke 9, is a very different kind of struggle, one based more on the corrupting power of a faith held too closely to the chest, where the main character looks more like a villain. In the end, both are very human stories, and I certainly find pieces of myself in both of them.

Daniel: The carnal, more base desires are at odds with higher, more spiritual purposes in this collection, just as they conflict in Scripture (and indeed, in our everyday lives.) The Bible is filled with broken people who use songs, hymns, and poetry to process the disparity between spiritual reality and the way they feel. This is probably most evident in the Psalms of King David. To what degree does writing serve this purpose for you? Do you see writing as a sacrament of worship or a method to process the events of your life?

Matt: Writing poetry is definitely a process for myself, a way of wrestling with the things that weigh on me. And as a man with propensities for doubt and cynicism, I have many things weighing on me! This is not to say that I don’t also write poems that venture into the area of worship, but even when that happens, I feel much more like I am exploring the depths of something I don’t quite understand than making declarations that come anywhere close to sacramental.

Daniel: You said that poetry is a “way of wrestling with the things that weigh on me.” Israel, of course, means “wrestles with God,” and anyone who does even a cursory reading of the imprecatory psalms can see that King David used poetry to work through some tough emotions. How does one make this an edifying exercise? As we all know, when dwelling on the tough aspects of life through the arts, it’s easy to become self-indulgent or lead ourselves into a worse headspace than when we started. What’s your take on this?

Matt: The job of the poet is to interrogate and probe, and I think that’s key to avoiding the holes you described. When wrestling and writing, I try to take a step back and create some distance, to give myself space to ask questions: Where do these feelings come from? What do they mean in terms of my relationships with others, or with God? How would I feel if things were different? I think writing from a place of exploration keeps you balanced. 

In retrospect, I’m seeing now that working through issues via biblical characters automatically creates some of that distance by channeling myself through their experiences, sort of like giving a kid a toy to play with in therapy. As a result, the poems end up a strange hybrid of myself and the characters.

Daniel: Are there specific poems in this book that you hold particularly dear? If so, how come?

Matt: “Isaac at Twilight,” which focuses on the aftermath of Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son, holds a special place for me. Some of that is thematic – the father-son dynamic comes up a lot in my writing, and this story in particular has always been a very difficult one for me to stomach – but a lot of it is because it took such a long time to get right. It’s not a long poem (12 brief lines and 44 words), but it was stubborn; it started out as two poems and then took a lot of finagling and adjusting once they came together. I consider it a triumph that it exists at all.

Daniel:  I Close My Eyes and Almost Remember is your debut collection. Though the book isn’t yet released, do you anticipate a second chapbook in the future? What can readers expect from you in the future, and where can they find your work?

Matt: I certainly hope this is the first of many books from me! I am actually hard at work finishing and compiling a second chapbook, which I intend to be a collection of surrealist prose poems based on the songs of Bob Dylan. Once again, I didn’t intend on putting a collection together, but I had a goal to listen to the entire catalog of Bob Dylan (39 albums!) in 2021, and I suppose it just kind of bled out of my brain and onto the page. I’m hoping to have that wrapped up by early 2022. Beyond that, I’m not sure, but readers can always keep up with me on my website (http://matthewjandrews.com/) or on Twitter (@2glassandrews). 

Daniel: That sounds fascinating! As a fan of Bob Dylan as well as sprawling prose poems, it sounds right up my alley. Are the poems ekphrastic–that is, a direct sort of “reader’s response” to Bob Dylan’s catalog, or based more loosely off the themes in his songs?

Matt: The poems are all pretty loosely based on the themes in his music and events in his life, with each poem grounded in a song and every one of them featuring Bob Dylan as a character. They’ve been fun to write, and as a group they explore that strange relationship between the artist and the audience, as well as between the artist and the people in their life. I’ve had a few of these published individually, and these three poems in Pithead Chapel do a pretty good job of previewing what to expect: https://pitheadchapel.com/its-all-right-the-thin-man-and-with-god/.

Review of I Close My Eyes and I Almost Remember by Matthew J. Andrews
[Review by Daniel R. Jones]

I Close My Eyes and Almost Remember is Matthew J. Andrews’ upcoming debut chapbook from Finishing Line Press. Anyone familiar with Scripture will recognize the figures scattered throughout these pages: the prophets, kings, disciples, and warriors, herein.

I’ll admit, I was reluctant to review this collection, initially, for this very reason. Poems aimed towards reimagining biblical figures are notoriously difficult to pull off. Too often, the author takes so much creative license that their theology suffers. Or else the author swings to the other end of the pendulum, taking no risks, and writing a poem that is ineffective due to its lack of nuance or creativity.

I Close My Eyes suffers from neither of these maladies.

The subject-matter is approached respectfully and reverently. Even still, each piece feels unique and inspired.

Sometimes, this creativity comes in the form of a clever play on words. For instance, in “A Toast,” Matt writes: “Drunk at the bar, Pilate slams his glass/ on the table to broadcast his emptiness.”

The decision to frame this image as Pilate broadcasting his emptiness rather than the glass’s emptiness is as clever as it is profound.

In “Onesimus,” the titular character contemplates going from one type of slavery to another. Paul reminds Onesimus that “You are no longer your own.” Onesimus counters with “I have never once been my own.” Our narrator struggles with varying forms of “entrapment” in the poem, and the writing is razor-sharp, contemplative, and thought-provoking.

The chapbook has a pleasant cyclical motif, as well.

In the very first poem, “The Sixth Day,” we see God feeling a “compulsion” to create, and that feeling is satiated by the creation of humankind. It’s only fitting, then, that in the final poem, “The Gardener,” we see a mirror image of the Almighty: the poet imagines the Lord at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, his eye straying to the void bursting with possibility. He feels the inkling to create again.

In reading this collection of poetry, I found that same inkling rising in my own chest: the desire to not just digest the material, but to let it impel me towards a creation of my own. And to be frank, I can’t give any chapbook a great endorsement than that.

-Daniel R. Jones

The Wheat and Tares of Indianapolis, Indiana

(by Daniel R. Jones)

Not so much
wheat as tares these days
if you ask me.
Best let Christ do the culling,

lest I damn someone
He wouldn’t damn.
There are humans
I have to consider:

the black women in checkout lines
who call me “baby” and eke
out the last drop of oxytocin
in my world-weary brain.

Grown men who can’t contain themselves
and whip out phones to film a murder
of crows as it darkens the sky,
countless as cares of this world.

Teenaged boys not yet grown
into their bodies, heaving themselves
perpendicular against a stalled jalopy
piloted by a perfect stranger to safety.

It’s those sort of people
I have to consider,
and if they tip the scales
and stay God’s hand

as He and I hash out specifics,
looking out on this jagged
city skyline on the cusp of
a desolate Midwest winter.

Perchance there lack five of fifty,
I ask.
Perchance forty and five are found there?


P.S. I’m currently accepting submissions for our Winter 2022 issue! I’m looking for original photography, artwork, short stories, flash fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, and lyric essays! If you have interest, please check out the Submission Guidelines here.

Each submission that is accepted for publication will be paid at the rate of $5 USD. Payment is upon publication. Bez & Co prefers to use PayPal to pay its contributors. If you need alternative accommodations, please let me know upon acceptance of publication, and I will work to find a solution.

Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?

(by Daniel R. Jones)

I thought it’d be prudent to give you a quick update on my writing life. (By the way, if you know where the title of this post is from, we could be friends.)

I’ve had a couple of people reach out to me and ask why the frequency of my posts has diminished in the past year. A few have also asked why I don’t post as many poems as I used to. I appreciate the concern! In truth, I’ve been on a bit of a hiatus from poetry. I’ve still written three or four poems in the past year, but that’s about it.

But why? What gives?

I’ve actually spent the last half of 2020 and the bulk of 2021 honing my skills as a prose writer. I’ve written five different novels, and published them under a pen-name. This has afforded me the opportunity to learn a bit about the craft of fiction-writing, and it’s also given me the chance to learn more about the self-publishing game.

So, why the pen name?

Well, the reason is two-fold.

First, I need that professional distance in order to avoid psyching myself out. Having my name attached to any piece of writing is a little daunting; all the more when it comes to a medium that’s completely foreign to me. By allowing myself to write under a pen-name, I can stave off “impostor syndrome,” just a bit. It helps me to keep my nose to the grindstone and focus on the work.


Secondly, I have to admit, I’m not a novelist. These first five novels I wrote weren’t all that good. I’ve had modest success in terms of sales (just a hair under 200 copies sold, total…all to perfect strangers,) but nothing phenomenal. The reviews have been kind, averaging about 4.5 out of 5 stars. But still, I’m a long way from where I want to be.

During this time, I’ve also read 12 books on the craft and business of fiction writing, and I feel confident that I’ve improved with every new manuscript. I’ve taken a few online courses to get the hang of it all. I’m getting there.

What’s next?

Well, I’m going to continue with this blog, for starters. I’m also going to self-publish a few novels in 2022, and not under a pseudonym. I’ll post on this website once they’re live. I finally feel confident enough in the product to attach my name to it. These books might not be NY Times bestsellers, but I can honestly say they’re the best work I can put forth, right now. I’m hopeful that I’ll continue to build on what I’ve learned and improve at writing prose with each new piece of writing.

Oh, and I’ll definitely get back to writing some poetry, soon. 

Bez & Co- October 2021 Issue

Table of Contents:

Book Recommendation-
Lifting the Veil: Imagination and the Kingdom of God by Malcolm Guite • Daniel R. Jones

Fiction-
The Bullet Maker • Matt Hollingsworth

Poetry
Another Expedition • Debasish Mishra

Visual Art-
Equity’s Decline • Kay Em Ellis


Book Recommendation: Lifting the Veil: Imagination and the Kingdom of God by Malcolm Guite

Judging based on our shared interests, I suppose it was only a matter of time that I found Malcolm Guite. He seems preoccupied with the Numinous. He’s interested in the writings of literary giants such as G.K. Chesterton, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Seamus Heaney. Oh, and he’s really into Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan.

In short, right up my alley.

In this book, Malcolm Guite takes a look at the intersection of the artist’s imagination and Christendom. Guite himself is a particularly interesting character. He’s a poet, song-writer, and Anglican priest. He holds a PhD from Durham University. So, it’s not surprising that Lifting the Veil scans in a pretty academic tone. Even still, though, his profound and spiritual message is never overpowered by his eloquent words.

The book serves as both an exploration of Christian Art through the ages, as well as a clarion call for creative followers of Christ to “lift the veil” on their own lives, in order to notice the ways that the Lord works in and through the imagination. 

One truth that stood out to me from this book involves the difference between “apprehending” and “comprehending” language. 

On page 27, he writes:

In the gift of faith, and in Christ himself, we glimpse more than we can yet understand, our imagination apprehends more than our reason comprehends. This is not to say that the Gospel is in any way “imaginary” in the dismissive sense of “unreal” or “untrue.” On the contrary it is so real and so true that we need every faculty of mind and body, including imagination, to apprehend it.

Throughout the book, Guite draws from his deep understanding of poetry and the written word to get to the heart of his thesis. The author is clearly well-versed and at home with poetic devices, and his ability to elucidate the complexities of language in well-known pieces of literature is eye-opening. 

At the risk of sounding cheesy, he really “lifted the veil” on several occasions for me. I was able to see connections that I hadn’t previously noticed, both in Scripture and in poetry. If you haven’t already, I highly recommend you pick it up. I hope and pray that reading it will be as serendipitous and as joy-filled for you as it was for me.

-Daniel R. Jones


The Bullet Maker

Peter was seventeen when he first saw the names.

Perhaps they’d always been there and he’d never noticed. Thinking back, he couldn’t remember ever looking closely at a bullet before going to work in the factory.

He thought it was a joke at first. A bullet with your name on it, like the old phrase. But he soon realized that no one else could see them. It was like a superpower, and Peter felt sure that if he’d been clever, he could have thought of a way to use it for the good of the Empire.

But the truth, Peter knew, was that he wasn’t particularly clever, nor strong, nor special in any way other than that he saw the names. He hadn’t even made the draft, though almost all males were required to spend at least a couple years in the military. Rather he was told he could better serve the Empire at home. In other words, the Emperor didn’t need a 50 kg asthmatic in his army.

So here he was, now twenty-one, earning a meager living for his family, pulling levers to operate the press that made bullets. And as he examined them, looking for faults, he would see the names of the people those bullets would kill.

He was surprised, at first, how few bullets actually had names. Fewer than one in a hundred. The rest, he guessed, would miss, finding their final resting places in muddy battlefields, under rubble, beneath sand dunes, or in the trunks of scorched trees. (He could never keep the locations straight for the seemingly endless conflicts the Empire fought.)

Often the names would be foreign, but sometimes he would see Imperial names—Jonathan, Stephen, George. He guessed that these were casualties of friendly fire, and as he examined them, he would cause intentional damage so the bullet wouldn’t fire. The name would disappear, and Peter would send it on its way. Then Peter would smile, happy to have saved a life.

He considered for a while disabling all the bullets with people’s names on them, saving many more lives, but he didn’t do it. Such an act would be treason, and it wasn’t his place to determine which wars and killings were just. Besides, if he stopped an Imperial soldier from killing an enemy, that enemy might instead kill the Imperial soldier. Then Peter would be responsible for the death of one of his countrymen, and he’d been taught that there was no greater crime.

Peter completed his ten-hour shift. It was a payday, and he walked home with the satisfying clink of coins in his wallet. Walking back, he routed himself to avoid the tent cities. His family wasn’t rich by any means, but he felt guilty when he saw the truly poor.

He lived with his parents in a one-story cottage on the outskirts of the city. He’d been engaged until six months ago, and his fiancé, Jennifer, was planning on moving in with him after their wedding. They couldn’t afford their own home on his meager salary and would have had to live together with his parents. 

He’d secretly felt like he didn’t deserve Jennifer. He hadn’t confessed these fears to her, but she must have guessed them, for she would always tell him how much she loved him and how it didn’t matter if they lived in one of the tent cities—she just wanted to be together. She’d said that right until she’d met some rich war hero and fallen in love with him. She’d broken their engagement in a 30-minute conversation, and he hadn’t seen her since, although he hadn’t actually tried to contact her.

He told himself that he was happy for her. That she deserved someone like the war hero. 

He told himself that.

Peter’s parents were happy to see him as always. Their city had fallen on hard times recently, and all three of them worked long hours to afford rent on their cottage. It would have been easier if Jennifer was there. A fourth income would have gone a long way, and unlike them, she had some university education which qualified her for more prestigious jobs.

Peter’s parents were old now, long past when they should have retired, but they still managed to put on a smile when he came home. And they would dine together, grateful for their modest meal. Then, after eating, they would gather by the hearth, basking in the warmth.

As he sat in his room that night, he grabbed a book off his nightstand. It was Jennifer’s. A war novel that she’d loaned him that he’d forgotten to give back. He liked to hold it sometimes, ruffling through the pages. 

Sometimes, Peter wished he could see his own future the way he saw the future of those bullets. Other times, he was glad he couldn’t, because what if his future was sitting at that machine, pulling lever after lever until he died. How would he feel about that?

#

The next day, Peter returned to the factory, pulling levers and examining bullets. He’d seen quite a few today with names—all foreign—and he was happy that the Empire’s armies were winning. And then he saw something that gave him pause. He lifted the bullet from the conveyor belt, reading it a second, third, and fourth time, though he was certain he’d read it correctly the first.

On the bullet was the name of the soldier that Jennifer had left him for.

Immediately, all the forgiveness he’d thought he had for them was gone, and he found himself, almost without thinking, placing the bullet back on the belt. 

But no, he couldn’t do that, could he? Killing a fellow countryman was a crime. The greatest crime.

But was Peter really killing him? The soldier would be a victim of friendly fire a thousand miles away. No one would even know about this moment. No one would know what he’d done.

Maybe Jennifer would even come back to him. He imagined seeing her at his doorstep, begging forgiveness for having left. He felt tainted.

He couldn’t believe he was considering this. He had thought himself a good person, and he wondered if the guilt would be unbearable. If Peter killed Jennifer’s soldier, maybe he wouldn’t be able to live with himself.

But somehow, he knew he’d be able to. At least, he thought he knew.

But he pictured Jennifer sobbing after hearing the news. Pictured her dressed in black, crying over a casket. And that was something he couldn’t let happen. Before he could think about it further, he damaged the bullet. A dud. The name disappeared and Peter smiled.

Another life saved.

And suddenly, Peter was overwhelmed by the vastness of the world. How many names had he seen on those bullets? How many people with lives just as rich and complex as his own? And here he was in his tiny corner of the universe. This small sliver of creation. And he knew in that moment, that he wanted to make it the best sliver it could be.

Matt Hollingsworth


Matt Hollingsworth is a Christian and a freelance writer/editor from Knoxville, TN. His blog is available at https://jmhollingsworthblog.wordpress.com/


Another Expedition

Rowing past the tides of blinding white
and Leviathan-like large obstacles,
I move on quietly like a breath of air:
from a coherent beginning at the shore
to a smoky panorama of indecision.

Even with the wealth of my skills
and supreme foresight, a gift of Christ,
there comes a time when I wonder,
Will I be home? Or am I lost in 
the sea? Will I reach the end?

Life is threatened yet I hold on
and believe in the strength of the oar—
too small a device for too huge a task—
like Hemingway’s poor Santiago.
But faith buoys me and I gently pass.

Tomorrow, somebody else
would be rowing here,
in this very boat, in this very place,
with the same oar against the same white foam
while I would be off somewhere
rowing past the tides of another sea.

Debasish Mishra


Debasish Mishra, a native of Bhawanipatna, Odisha, India, is the recipient of The Bharat Award for Literature in 2019 and The Reuel International Best Upcoming Poet Prize in 2017. His recent poems have appeared in North Dakota Quarterly, Penumbra, trampset, Star*Line, Enchanted Conversation, Journal of Postcolonial Writing, and elsewhere. His poems are also forthcoming in The Headlight Review and Quadrant. A former banker with United Bank of India, he is presently engaged as a Senior Research Fellow at National Institute of Science Education and Research, HBNI, Bhubaneswar, India.


“Equity’s Decline” by Kay Em Ellis

When Kay’s not writing, you might find her traveling the world. She especially loves hitchhiking through Transylvania, playing guitar outside Notre Dame in Paris, and dropping notes and poems along the riva in Hvar Town. Don’t ask her to take another bumpy, dusty bus ride through the Bolivian desert (she’s on strike), but she’ll be happy to talk to you about her favorite country in the world (Romania). Her devotions have been published by Christian Devotions Ministries, and a list of her writing awards can be found at her website: www.backpackwithkay.com

Bez & Co- July Issue

Table of Contents:

Poetry-

Still Point• Sarah Law
Slight Visual Inclusion • Sarah Law
Inverted • Tony Deans
Gira Sole • Mary Tarantini
De Nominibus De • Don Thompson

Nonfiction-

The Things We Carry • Dan Hankner

Artwork-

Bliss • Zachary Toombs


Still Point

neither wisdom
nor miracle, this God
in whom you seek it – 

footfall on cobblestones
following spiral or labyrinth
into the centre

(the molten core
the bright abyss
the host, the disc –)

and out again
as though you never made it
beyond the open door

the only mystery is this:
that there is anything at all
that calls us, and anywhere

at all that is our home 
when loss is love’s itinerary – 
following her utterly

into the riven silence, you 
are graced with it – 
the clean bone

the rinsed heart
the rising light,
the known.

Sarah Law


Slight Visual Inclusion

We are more blinkered than the thoroughbreds
racing over ditch & hurdle. Never mind planks,

not even the healthiest retina holds a hundredth
of the rods & cones requisite for full vision.

Every breath is barely caught in mist. Fog’s
our groping synonym for God. That’s the least

of reasons to solicit mercy. Yes, he is just,
& yes, we’re bound by limits. Now, if only

there were a lens, & I, a dull glass plate,
doused in silver citrate & exposed to holiness…

None of this anodyne selfie-stick witness –  
all my hope’s in one strong shot of light.

Sarah Law


Sarah Law

Sarah Law lives in London and is an Associate Lecturer for the Open University. She has poems in The Windhover, St Katherine Review, America, Psaltery & Lyre, Soul-Lit, Heart of Flesh and elsewhere. Her latest collection, Thérèse: Poems is published by Paraclete Press. She edits Amethyst Review, an online journal for new writing engaging with the sacred. Twitter @drsarahlaw


Inverted

I stood in the courtyard, 
I heard the cock crow,
I wept. 

quia non novisset hominem 

The rock upon which the Messiah built the church was,
Weak. 
Cowardly.
Unworthy.
He fled Rome. 

quo vadis

He returned and was crucified,
inverted.
My tongue is boastful and proud, 
it will never deny the faith.

mori tecum non te negabo  

My heart is uncertain,
my soul is unknowing. 
If I had been born in another time,
another place,
would I apostatise? 
I have not seen yet I believe. 
Peter had seen.
If certainty gave him no strength,
then how weak will I be in uncertainty?

alius te cinget et ducet quo non vis

You are strong,
You are forgiving. 
You already know whether I will drink from this cup,
I know not if it will even be offered. 

gloria et nunc et in die aeternitatis

I am unworthy to die like you.
Put my head to the ground,
my feet in the air,
let the world be a blur,
and you always in focus.

Tony Deans


Tony Deans

Tony Deans is a Catholic writer from the United Kingdom. His previously published work has appeared in several magazines including Mystery Weekly Magazine and the Literary Hatchet.


Gira Sole

Turn to the sun, magnificent flower
Show us all the way
There is no shame in primal power
There is no shame in grand display

Docile habits draw us inward
Yellow is thy flame
In my ear you dared to whisper
Summer is your name

Howling wind nor sudden downpour
Dissuade you from your steadfast mission
Stand in thrall – divest – adore
Impetuous devotion

Mary Tarantini


Mary Tarantini

My name is Mary Tarantini. I am a high school English teacher and have been writing poetry for several years. I have a BA degree in English and a MA in Theological Studies. I am also a second-year novice in The Third Order Society of Saint Francis. Some of my poems have been published in our newsletter The Franciscan Times.


De Nominibus Dei

Hash tag He is bone keeper, honey rock, cloud that whispers, latter rain, star namer and accountant who numbers your hairs, whose books always balance, who knows how many beans are in the jar;

paradox juggler, original verb, peacemaker before the Colt .44, holy ghost stun gun, lockpick of every dungeon, hidden hiding place;

plumb bob of the cosmos;

knotter and loosener of knots, legit defender and always pro bono, sting extractor, know-it-all’s nemesis, Gnostic’s conundrum, Nietzsche’s straw man and Sartre’s bugbear;

feeder of hummingbirds and humpback whales, tracer of lost sheep, fence mender, engraver of the Decalog on the head of a pin, who incises galaxies on a hazelnut;

unwinder of whirlwinds, artesian well in a parched land, He is the infallible dowser of dark hearts and denouement of time.

Don Thompson


Don Thompson

Don Thompson has been writing about the San Joaquin Valley for over fifty years, including a dozen or so books and chapbooks, most recently,  The Art of Stone Axes (Broadstone Books). For more info and links to publishers, visit his website at www.don-e-thompson.com.


The Things We Carry

Mr. Flemming drove a Cadillac with gold rims, sported a head full of white hair thanks to a transplant, and held an unrivaled passion for basketball.  His house sat on the edge of the old bus barn (a gravel lot that transformed into additional parking by the time we entered high school), while his modest back yard had been converted to an outdoor basketball court open to all; players on his team, students in his 7th grade math class, complete strangers.

Every day Mr. Flemming would grab a marker and scratch something on the board that had nothing to do with math.  Today he sketched a river, a forest, and the great pyramids.

“Where did all that stone come from?”  Nobody knew the answer, so he continued.  “The Egyptians cut down trees, heaved the stone on the logs and rolled them across the desert.”  He worked the marker like he was drawing a play for a last second buzzer beater, and when he was done the board was so plastered in ink that you could hardly tell its original intent.  He looked at us, excited by the history and brilliance of these ancient people, and said, “Now that’s a game changer!”

Every class began with a random lecture, news article, or explanation about reaction time and 100 car pile-ups.  Sometimes these segments would tarry on so long that the math lesson became an afterthought, and instead of a detailed rundown on how to divide decimals or carry fractions, he concluded with, “Oh yeah, don’t forget to do chapter 6.”  And when you flipped to chapter 6 later that night, you realized in growing dismay that reading was no substitute for verbal instruction.

I was a good student who excelled at math, yet I distinctly recall an internal tremor – ‘We’re halfway through the semester and I haven’t learned a single thing.’

A few weeks later, I sat at my desk and laid my pencil down, having completed the test with 10 minutes to spare.  “If you finish early, I’d suggest checking your work,” Mr. Flemming announced.  I trusted my answers, but there was no harm in a second glance.  I skimmed through and, to my surprise, found numerous errors.  After making the corrections, I noticed Matt Edwards had finished as well and was staring off into wonderland.  Five minutes remained.

“Matt,” I whispered.  Matt was a friend, and I didn’t want him to miss any of these tricky little questions either.  “Check your work – I would’ve missed five if I didn’t.”

Matt turned towards me.  “What?”

Not desiring to raise my voice during a test, I decided to hand signal.  “I would have missed five questions,” I repeated, holding up the number five.  Looking back, I can see my error, of course; a foolish, well-meaning blunder, but we were kids, mind you, kids.

“Danny and Mathew!” shouted Mr. Flemming.  I’d heard him yell at others before, but that was reserved for the bad kids, of which we were not.  “Flip your papers over and see me after class!”

We did as instructed, still not catching on until the bell rang and we approached his desk.

“I will not tolerate cheating in my class!”  A quiet rage burned in his voice – the magma of the proud bubbling just below the surface, threatening to blow when authority was questioned.  To us, however, it was an unexpected slap in the face.  

“We–we didn’t cheat!” we protested.

“Oh please!”

“But I was—” I attempted.

“I don’t want to hear it!  Don’t ever let me catch you little punks cheating in my class again, now get the hell out of here!”

Had an older version of me been standing there, I would’ve bristled at his arrogance instead of cower.  I would’ve met this man’s gaze, swept aside his dismissal like some Jedi mind trick and laid down a clean dose of reality.  But that’s not the me that stood there.  Although my mind was sharp for a 12-year-old, my confidence hadn’t yet blossomed, and my command of words and ability to argue hadn’t even sprouted wings.  We walked out of the class on the verge of tears, shocked and unable to even articulate what had just transpired.

The next class Mr. Flemming announced everyone’s test scores out loud, as was his way.  “Danny, 95%, minus 10% because he was caught cheating.”  He shook his head and tsked.  “Too bad, this could’ve been an A.”  I grabbed my paper and returned to my seat without rebuttal.

Up until this point I held a neutral position on Mr. Flemming, but now I began to see just how polarizing he could be.  Some of his students loved him, some of them despised him.  My neighborhood friends (mostly older) joked about his unorthodox handling of troublemakers, while another neighbor (whose mom he was dating) professed hating his guts.  Adults would remark about his achievements on the court and talent in putting together a winning team, while I once overheard two of his fellow teachers, appalled by how he treated his students.

I continued to handily pass his class – as everyone did – despite retaining nothing of value.  This exchange struck me as blithely unjust, and I wondered at what point this symbiotic arrangement would catch up to us (it did the following year when I re-learned everything that was lost in 7th grade).  But before that could happen, poor luck drove me headlong into one more episode with our math teacher.

The padlock on my locker broke.  I remember fiddling with it, but it refused to latch.  I felt a brief taste of panic – a minute remained before class began, and my locker was now exposed to the world.  Frustrated, I left the defective hunk of metal dangling through the ring and crossed my fingers, planning to fix or replace it after school when I had more time.  When the following period ended, I returned to the scene, but the padlock was now missing.  I flung open the locker and rummaged, hoping a good Samaritan had stashed it somewhere inside, but no, it was gone.

So was my math book.

A sick dread washed over me.  I’d heard of other kids losing their books, then acquiring new ones to the sum of $40.  I didn’t have $40.  I didn’t even have a job thanks to child labor laws (“Come back when you turn 14,” said the manager at Subway).  My parents certainly didn’t have extra change lying around – things were tight, and the idea of making them cough up a chunk of dough because some jerk stole my book because my stupid lock broke was like vomit on the breath.

I sighed a heavy sigh, held my head low, and dragged my feet into Mr. Flemming’s classroom.

“I lost my book,” I confessed.

I can’t recall to you the look on his face, only the details of the thinly carpeted floor.  His voice sounded annoyed, like a master who tires of continually instructing a dumb dog.  He rose from his chair, moved to a cabinet, then hurled a textbook at me.  It landed on his desk; I jumped.  I expected it to be a loaner, but I was wrong. 

“Found it laying outside your locker.”  I picked it up – despite some additional damage, it was mine.  “I don’t understand how you could just leave it lying in the hallway.  How irresponsible can you be?”

I thought about telling him the truth but knew the effort to be moot.  He returned to his desk and didn’t waste a second glance at me.  “Here’s a novel idea; maybe take care of it this time.  Wouldn’t that be a game changer?”

I walked out of his room, his wrongful indictment barely a blip on my radar.  I didn’t have to buy a new book – that’s all that mattered.

The year ended; I moved onto the 8th grade while Mr. Flemming moved out of town.  In the 20 years since, I haven’t given him much thought until the other day, when I happened across a post on Facebook.  I don’t know the severity or details of his lung disease, I don’t know whether he will live another 20 years or die tomorrow – all I know is but a flash of the man’s life, a glimpse of who he was two decades ago.  Was Bill Flemming a lousy teacher?  Maybe.  A jackass?  Probably.  Any worse than you and I?

No.

The disease that plagues Mr. Flemming is the same that courses through all our veins – it is the sickness that sundered the world, the deceit that destroys our bodies, the cancer hidden behind one crisp bite of an apple.  I can only imagine what’s going through his mind, coming face to face with his own mortality.  But here’s the plot twist, dear reader – this story wasn’t written about Bill Flemming’s mortality.

It was written about yours.

Now pause for a moment and let that sink in – imagine we’re sitting in class.  It’s quiet but for the sound of pencils scratching paper and a box fan humming in a window.  Afternoon sunlight drifts in from the west, and you look up.  Everyone is engrossed in a test, but you and I have finished early, and I’m whispering this story to you with 10 minutes to spare.  Your back is to me – you were barely listening, but this is where I divulge something that makes you turn.

“My dad passed away the day after Christmas,” I tell you. “Five months ago.”

“What?” you say.

I don’t want to raise my voice, so I decide to signal.  “It was five months ago,” I repeat, forming the number on my hand.  This time there is no teacher to interject – no fabrication or alternative reality where we move forward with whatever falsehood we want to believe.  There is just the truth of it, left to sink or swim in our souls.

Now close your eyes, let the classroom fade; no more tests, no more grades, no more struggles.  There is a book bigger than any math book, locked away and kept hidden from thugs who seek to damage and destroy and leave them abandoned at the foot of lockers.  This book is so great and important that all the works of men compiled aren’t but a speck of excrement in comparison.  

My dad’s name is written in this book.

And you know what, dear reader?  So is mine.  But the ending is unknown to me, and I cannot say whether yours has been etched alongside ours.  This book is not a book of records; no matter how many tests you’ve aced, dollars you’ve made, good deeds you’ve done or varsity games you’ve won – these feats won’t account for one scratch on one page.

Open your eyes and look towards the writing on the wall; the Egyptians labored to haul stone out of the valleys and into the pyramids.  You can relate to this.  The burdens you’ve carried may not have been dug out of mountains or pushed across deserts, but you’ve carried them, and you carry them still.  Yet here’s a novel idea; what if all that laboring was in vain?  What if someone had already come down and done the heavy lifting for you?  What if all you had to do was believe the words that were spoken to you?

Wouldn’t that be a game changer?

Dan Hankner


Dan Hankner

Dan Hankner began penning stories about himself and his idiot friends as a teenager.  Now, masquerading as an adult, he lives in Davenport, Iowa with his wife and three children, working as an electrician for his own company, 12 Stones Electric.  Dan’s work has appeared in places like Downstate Story, SQ Mag, Bending Genres, and others.  If you’d like to read more of Dan’s writing, he sends out a new story every month, visit his website www.storyunlikely.com and sign up.


“Bliss” by Zachary Toombs

Zachary Toombs

Zachary Toombs is a published writer and artist from Winter Park. His works have been featured in various venues such as Freedom Fiction, Against the Grain Magazine, Mad Swirl, City. River. Tree., and more. Check out his artwork and other pieces of fiction at his website, zacharytoombs.com.