Category Archives: Litmag-Online

December 18, 2023

Monologue in a Room with the Portrait of My Dead Father

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Chinua Ezenwa-Ohaeto


for Dad



Dad, I’ve safe in my chest those bright years of spring flowers.

I’m listening to Wayne, Burnaboy, Yeezy, Kendrick and Rozay,

and writing this piece in-between. I carry every memory of you

everywhere I go. I am a piece of you that is whole.

I see you in everything I see.

I see you in each of my prayers and dreams.

And somewhere I read that when one prays for

long, silence becomes a prayer too.

I see you in my silence.


I bear your thin legs. Two radiant poles.

One afternoon, I was in one of your striped shirts.

Mum saw me from behind and let out your name.

It took me months to realize how much I look like you.

I bear your oval face. There are no claws in this truth.


Dad, a picture of you is in my wallet.

I carry it like a passport. Of course, it is.

You’re half of my entry into this world.


Dad, people tell me so much about birth and maps.

But I just want to live, travel, love, make love and art

and live, travel, love, make love and art.


I know the taste of iron because the earth is so familiar.

But is this world and everything inside of it not meant to marvel?

If not, Dad, how else will I make peace with the things I am yet to lose?


Dad, everything il-legit here is the new legit.

I’ve been meaning to tell you this in my dreams for long now.

And some boys here first experience sex as rape, so I gathered.

And it takes them years to know this.


I want to understand what I do not understand, Dad.

I think of the skies and wonder about its burning breath.

I remember my losses and imagine home drifting through my loneliness.

I read about the nights and feel sad for things robbed from me, from us.


Mum says a lot of sunrises and sunsets about you.

I wish you had enough time to teach me certain things.

Now I have to learn a lot by myself.

But tell me, Dad, if I search well enough, will I find everything I seek?



Chinua Ezenwa-Ohaeto’s poems appear in The Common, Malahat Review, Massachusetts Review, Ruminate, Salamander, and elsewhere. He lives in Lincoln, Nebrasa, where he is pursuing a PhD in English.

March 3, 2022


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Olivia Clare Friedman

Never had my mother wanted to live so much as when she was dying. What she made me promise was that she wouldn’t be cremated, that she would be buried with a gravestone in our own yard.

“If I can’t be in a cemetery,” she said, “the yard’s the one place I want to be.”

I told her I would do everything I could.

She said, “I mean it. Complete the circle.”

Just as she died within it, she’d been born in our house. My grandmother was in labor on the living room floor, the midwife guiding, sliding, coaxing my mother’s slick newborn body. For ten whole minutes, my mother did not let forth her first scream. When she finally opened her mouth, opened her eyes, the scream she let out would not stop.

Countless times while my mother was alive, I’d thought about her wish, about not reporting her death. About doing as she wanted, digging a hole in the backyard beside my grandfather’s bench, finding a makeshift grave marker. I’d even dug a bit of earth in the yard before she died, hacking at the ground with a rusted spade. I made no progress. The earth would not give, and I made no hole or dent.

I’d heard on the news about people doing it, burying their loved ones in their own yards, getting caught—one way or another, reported by a neighbor when the rainwater would wash a body up from its shallow plot. It was a federal offense, $50,000 in fines if you were caught, up to 5 years jail time, and government seizure of the body.

Jail wasn’t what scared me. In the end, I couldn’t think of it—my mother’s dead body intact, lying in the ground outside our house, so near to me. My mother’s physical flesh and blood, her blood not moving. It was her physical body I was afraid of. Her corpse so near to me in the yard. I couldn’t think of her body lying there in the ground, her hair, her toes, disintegrating. And when I woke up—her body still there, when I watched TV, ate supper. What if her body came up in a storm? I couldn’t think of looking out the window, seeing her hand or foot emerging from the earth, not quite buried enough, coming back up through the ground.

With me, the only person in the world knowing she was there.

I never wanted to lose my mother’s body, to surrender her. But I didn’t know how to live with her buried in the yard, or how to dig a grave for my own mother.

On the day she died, I couldn’t even touch her. I’d woken in the chair next to her bed. Her eyes were closed, she was no longer breathing. All I could do was sit, watch for a while, struck dumb with grief, stay in her company.

I thought for just a minute—almost struck up the courage—of carrying her body to the yard, wrapped in a sheet, her limbs draped over me. Folding her body up, sealing it in the ground, watching her face disappear. I couldn’t do it. I made the phone call, reported my own mother’s death. Me, the dolty-dolt, sorry-hearted Alma Lee.


On the morning of the fourth day Bordelon stayed with me, we drank beer, watched TV. Perky women on the shopping channel sold caftans made in fabrics in bright colors. Two easy payments of $19.99. We watched infomercials on synthetic diet pills and 7-in-1 insta-cookers. Then a game show with people rolling large dice for big money.

“Come on, big money!” I yelled.

“They have to pay taxes on that,” Bordelon said, when one of the women rolled right, won $26,000. The TV woman jumped up and down, cried right into the camera. I liked seeing other people cry on TV. I could feel my own tears coming, tears of simultaneous happiness and sadness for this woman who exclaimed she’d never had so much money in her life. I cried a lot when watching TV. Soaps and game shows and medical dramas and lawyer shows. Re-runs of Little House on the Prairie and The Waltons on during the day, then Matlock and Perry Mason. Even I knew what I was crying about was much more than fiction.

“How much are the taxes?” I said.

“At least a third,” said Bordelon. “And she doesn’t get it all at once. Bet they give it to her in tiny checks, little pieces at a time. You ever read about lottery winners?” She had her dress hiked up in the heat. She held her beer between her knees.

There was talk of the government officially making gatherings for public mourning illegal.

“Well,” I said, staring into the woman’s eyes, “she’s happy now. That’s something.” I never had near so much money in my life. At the moment, $362 was sitting in my bank account. Soon but not soon enough, an unemployment check would come, or one from the state from the account my mother had set up. The checks were always different amounts, and I didn’t know why. I applied to what few jobs there were in St. Gen, and I never heard one peep back.

We watched the woman crying into the camera, her eyes clear and lit with happiness.

“She’ll find out later,” said Bordelon. “She’ll find out later how it really is.”

Then the news started. A couple neighborhoods in New Orleans were being shut down for good. In a few years, the land would be unlivable from too many floods. We were coming up on the 37th anniversary of Katrina. A newscaster was telling us all this from behind his desk in the studio, a large graphic of the Louisiana coastline projected beside his face.

Then a segment on protests. There was talk of the government officially making gatherings for public mourning illegal. Religious groups in our state, all over the country, were protesting. They were some of the angriest. There were rallies being organized, people holding up posters. THE DEAD HAVE RIGHTS TOO and GOD IS WATCHING and JESUS WEPT. Whenever I watched protestors on the news, I felt my own sadness come alive. Whole families were there. Children on the shoulders of their parents, holding signs. I thought of what we were doing to children.

As it was, each state stored the urns of the ashes. What would they want with the ashes of our dead? To take away our memory. To take away our mourning.

Now, they wanted to take funeral rites. Any public gatherings of mourning, where three or more were gathered.

The pope prayed for America. The ACLU brought together their lawyers, started petitions, just as they’d done with mandated cremation. I’d signed a few of them last year, but now I was inside the new normal, a slow sink to the bottom of an ocean. When a change first happened, no one could believe it, and then, impossibly, we did.

I took the remote, punched a button, turned the whole thing off. Bordelon tipped back her head and closed her eyes. She wasn’t asleep, just still, holding her beer between her knees.

“Sometimes I think I’m already dead,” she said.

“Sometimes me too,” I said.

Sometimes I thought I could hear it all vanish. Even the edges of the earth.


The automated email from the Government Death Site came that afternoon. They wanted to see me at the parish office in Alexandria. It would be a 30-minute interview. I needed to bring the applicant’s (a) certified, state-issued long form birth certificate, (b) license or state-issued ID, (c) original Social Security card, (d) utility bills (lights, water, gas) and three other identifiers from column E, such as a bank statement or lease. For the decedent I needed to bring (a) a certified, state-issued long form birth certificate, (b) an original Social Security card, (c) $107 for application fee paid to the Parish Clerk, and (d) all of the following: any life insurance policy (she had none), marriage or divorce certificate (she had none), the last five years of tax returns, the last three years of bank statements, any of the decedent’s canceled checks, any will or testament.

The final thing they requested was a personal item. The best thing, the email said, was to bring a photograph. If you had one—“if available to the applicant”—a print photograph. I clicked to the page that would allow me to make an appointment. I’d thought I’d wait weeks, but there was a slot for early the next morning. I checked the box, clicked Submit. Went to my email for the confirmation link. I confirmed.

I’d kept everything about my mother, every form and scrap of paper. Every piece of mail that came. All of it was folded and scrambled, some of it unopened, stored in a battered filing cabinet I kept in the closet. All that afternoon and evening I hid myself away—Bordelon watching afternoon talk shows and dozing beneath the diamonded quilt on the couch, snoring, waking herself up, then back to dozing—searching through each box, finding what I needed, willing myself not to look too hard at what I didn’t. If I let myself look, if I let myself read everything, I’d be lost to it, drowning in the objects of my mother, unable to emerge or lift my eyes away.


On the road to Alexandria, we passed thick curtains of wild grasses and philodendron. I wrote about flowers, even drew them in my late-night time alone. I knew so many by their names. Bordelon put her feet up on the dash, stared out the window. She wore her Jackie O sunglasses like a star.

She’d been the one to ask to come with me. The night before she’d found me with the filing cabinet, surrounded by my mother’s papers. She’d wanted to keep me company and take a drive, and also she didn’t feel like being alone.

Hydrangeas rotted in front yards. Wild azaleas grew in packs. You could smell their rankness, the air brimming with sweet, candied stink. If my mother had a headstone, I would bring her azaleas. I’d pick each one—a quick snap of the stem from the ground—and fill my arms, my purse, my car to bursting. Yes, I could take these flowers’ souls.

The Office of the Parish Clerk was a standalone building with a dented metal roof, a large frayed American flag out front, the rope dinging the flagpole in the wind. Two people sat in the waiting room, the size of a high school classroom. A man and woman, both silver-haired, seated separate and silent, their hands in their laps. The front desk was vacant. I was carrying a large leather portfolio my mother had once given me for my drawings. In there were all the forms, birth and death certificates, policies and paperwork they’d asked for. I had also carefully placed a photo of my mother inside a manila envelope. It was my favorite photograph, the one that stayed tucked at the back of a drawer, only for my eyes. When I looked at it, even for a moment, my body ached.

Bordelon and I sat in a corner, all to ourselves. A sign hung above our heads: MARRIAGE LICENSES. But we didn’t see young couples there. One of the walls had a white line painted a few feet high, right on the brick. I’d seen those white lines before, meant to show the highest place the floodwater had risen to.

I looked to my right—the older woman sniffed, used a worn tissue to wipe a drop trembling from her nostril. There were Bibles, thin and thick, abridged and unabridged, on the scarred table. An industrial sized bottle of hand sanitizer with a grungy pump, a tabloid with a cover featuring British royalty in trouble with the law. Bordelon picked up the magazine and began thumbing her way through, her bag between her knees, her sunglasses propped on her head like two bug eyes.

“These assholes,” she said. She shook her head, looked right into the faces of a film star couple. I recognized them. The man had gotten in trouble for having an affair with the nanny.

A large man with a bald head came out from a hidden room in the back of the county clerk’s office and sighed and looked at a computer screen. Then he called out my mother’s Urn Identification Number. I stood, picked up my leather portfolio. Bordelon looked up at me from her magazine and squeezed her eyes with a long blink. We’d agreed earlier—I’d go in alone.

The bald man called the Urn Number again, and I walked up. He opened a thigh-high swinging door, led me to a smaller desk, told me to sit. He sat behind it, in front of what looked like a new computer. A small placard was posted: URN CLAIMS.

“What’s the State Death Number?” His hands were over the keyboard, ready for me to start talking. He wore a Saints tee shirt and bright blue braces. The Saints hadn’t played in a few years. There was talk of moving the team to another state entirely.

Her number,” I said, “is BROUS440931.”

“That’s the Urn ID,” he said. “What’s the State Death Number?” He looked at the screen, not at me, his fingers ready to type.

I took each page from my portfolio, delicately handed over each one, one by one by one, as though they were heirlooms.

I took the death certificate from my portfolio and searched for the number. He sighed and looked over.

“Give that to me,” he said.

He scanned the quick response code, then asked me a series of questions to confirm information on the screen. Full name? I told him. Address? Social security number? Weight? Age? Cause of death? I gave my mother’s full name, my grandparents’ full names, as best I knew them.

He stuck out his hand. “Are you paying with cash or card?” he said. “No checks. There’s a five-dollar fee for cards, credit or debit.”

I put my poor little credit card in his palm. $112. He had a card reader on his desk and scanned my card through. He printed out a receipt and handed that to me. Screen, scan, swipe was all I or my mother was to him.

Then he asked me for every single piece of paperwork I had brought. I took each page from my portfolio, delicately handed over each one, one by one by one, as though they were heirlooms. In some ways, that was just what they were. He snatched them from me, began to scan them through a scanner on his desk. His braces flashed in the fluorescent light.

After ten minutes passed, I said, “When’s the interview?”

“This is it,” he said.

“What’s it?”

“You’re in it,” he said. “We’re doing it right now.”

When the scans were done, he punched on the keyboard, looking from the scanned papers to the screen—up, down, up down. The sound of him punching the keys—something about how slight the sound was against the mass of what we were doing—made me dizzy.

He handed me a piece of paper with instructions.

“Read it,” he said.

I was to write out a formal letter, with specific guidelines for each paragraph, saying formally my relationship to the decedent, saying formally I had no other family. I was to sign the letter with a closing statement. I was to have it notarized. I had three days.

“In three days,” the man said. “You come back. You bring the letter, and you come back right here.”

“How do I notarize?”

“Hold on,” he said. He was looking right at me now. “Let me finish. If you are allowed to have the decedent’s urn,” he said. “You cannot bury it. You must keep it, in your own dwelling. Ashes stay in the urn. Read the bottom.” He leaned over, sharply tapped the paper with his pen. “See there? Read that there.”

Ashes must be kept in the urn. They may not float in the sea. They may not rise in the air. You may not scatter. You may not bury.

“Okay,” I said. “Y’all notarize the letter here?”

He turned back to his screen, smacked his mouth over his braces. “You go to a notary,” he said.

“Where’s that?”

“You find one yourself,” he said. “They charge you.”

“How much?” I said.
“Ask them, not me.”

“Where do I find one?”

He didn’t answer. Instead he took my stack of papers to a back room to make copies. When he came back, he had a can of Mountain Dew and my mother’s papers. He put the copies he’d made in an orange file folder. He handed my originals back to me, moist from the can’s condensation. I didn’t know what I was doing, or what got into me, but I had to say something. I said just what came into my head, letting the words leave my mouth before I could chase them back.

“Anyone else in this office think this is crazy?” I said.

He did not look at me. He put the folder in a metal stand on his desk of other orange and blue and white file folders.

“We can’t comment,” he said.

I couldn’t stop myself. “You can’t comment,” I said. “And we’re all just doing it. Saying nothing like this. Going about our business. My god.”

“It’s my job,” he said.

“I get that.”

“And sure. God’s involved too.”

“You think this is something God wants?” I said. “You pretend to know it?”

He sat there, looked stiffly into my eyes. “We can’t comment,” he said.

He cracked open his can of Mountain Dew and went back to his work. That was all, he told me. We were done. Later, I remembered: he never asked for the picture of my mother.


Driving back to St. Genevieve, I rolled down the windows for the green smell of life, the rotting overbloom. I told Bordelon I didn’t want any music on, didn’t want to talk. She just stared out, watched the wild roadside green scroll by.

“Just tell me what’s wrong,” I said.

My leather portfolio sat on the back seat. The applicant. The deceased. The decedent. Here lies. Here lies paper. What I wanted was just her ashes, a simple thing to want. I could throw all the papers to the wind. None of these things was my mother.

“Hold on,” Bordelon said. She took off her sunglasses and looked out the window, sat up in the seat. “Pull over.”

“What?” I said. “Stray dog?”

“Pull over.”

We were on a two-lane highway, a few other lonely cars and a truck tugging a camper behind us.

“Just tell me what’s wrong,” I said.


“Right here?” I said.

“Pull over, pull over, pull over.”

I skidded to the soft, grassy side of the road, stopped the car. The truck with the camper took off ahead of us.

“Over there.” She looked back behind us, pointed out the window. “A ways back now. You wouldn’t pull over.”

In the middle of a small field, a few hundred feet from us, was a tree. A bold crepe myrtle, stark against the weeds, blooming alive with fuchsia.

I turned off the engine. We got out of the car, and all we could do was stare at the myrtle. It was all on its own, and not tall, and not not tall, but strong and rising, brimming with limbs and bright blossoms.

“I feel like we should do something,” said Bordelon.

“Like what, exactly?” I said. But I knew what she meant.

“I don’t know. Meditate, make a wish, throw a penny.”

As if by instinct, by some magnetic pull, we walked side-by-side to the tree. We had no explanation, no reason it should be there, but there it was, here, here, like a rising flame, a flowering sword.

Olivia Clare Friedman is the author of the story collection Disasters in the First World and the poetry collection The 26-Hour Day. Her fiction has appeared in The Paris Review, The O. Henry Prize Stories, Granta, and McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, among other publications. Raised in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, she teaches Creative Writing at the University of Southern Mississippi, where she holds the title of Nina Bell Suggs Endowed Professor. “Myrtle” is an excerpt from Here Lies, her first novel, forthcoming from Grove Press.
January 27, 2022

The Garbage Dump Veteran Museum and Gallery

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J. G. Parisi

Johnny Fabulous stood at the white glossy podium, stationed at the front of The Garbage Dump Veteran Museum and Gallery. He was dressed in all white. The gallery was a mammoth warehouse painted in shiny black paint. Everything reflected off everything. Lining the walls, were garbage dumpsters with lids in various states. Some opened. Some closed. “Goldfinger” by Shirley Bassey played from the Super-Fi speakers in the gallery, echoing off the mirror-like walls.

Today was Friday, June 13th 2042, one day before Halloween that year. Several buyers were stopping by that afternoon, which was why Johnny Fabulous had adjusted the calendar to accommodate the myriad of eclectic characters. An artist. A marketer. A president. A senator. A cause. Johnny Fabulous, a weary 62-year-old, waited patiently as the buyers filtered in.

“Keeping them half-dead keeps them palatable.”

“I need a veteran for the plot of my next novel,” the beret said.

Johnny Fabulous stepped to the side and held out his arm to the left side of the gallery.

The beret stroked his goatee. “I want him to be strong.”

“Don’t we all.”

“And broken. Pensive. Rage.” The beret took out his mole-skin notebook.

“I’ve got just the one.” Johnny opened the lid of the closest dumpster.

Inside, rested a set of wiry bones—twisted in circles. The veteran was alone. Afraid.

“He’s perfect!” The beret scribbled something. “Here’s an IOU. When I get rich, I’ll give back to the veterans.” The beret loaded the wiry bones into an alligator-leather side-satchel, next to his $10,000 laptop.

The dumpster was empty now. The lid was left open. Striding back to the front, Johnny Fabulous checked the sold-box on his clipboard. He was a shooting star through deep space. A white paint drop on a black canvas. A white dot in a hall of black mirrors.

“Good day, sir,” A woman with a cell phone said. “I need a commercial veteran.”

Johnny Fabulous flipped through sheets of paper. “For commercials?”

The cell-phone-woman punched buttons. “For, and mass-society acceptable.”

“Those are rare. Veterans are the worst.” Johnny led her to a dark corner in the back.

A shiver caught the cell-phone-woman. “It’s so cold back here.”

“Has to be. Keeping them half-dead makes them palatable.” Johnny Fabulous brushed back his wavy black hair and put on a pair of mirrored Ray-Ban sunglasses.

The cell-phone-woman saw herself staring back at herself. “I see.”

“Here she is.” Johnny lifted the lid.

A veteran sold for someone else’s cause, Johnny Fabulous thought, as he checked another box.

Lying in the fetal position, a woman trembled. She was fighter-pilot sized.

The cell-phone-woman gasped and covered her mouth with her hand. She shook her head.

“Bring in the billboard,” she said into her cell phone.

Four people ran in. The fighter-pilot-sized veteran was laid upon the billboard like a wounded warrior being placed on a stretcher. She was carried out.

The dumpster lid was left open. A veteran sold for someone else’s cause, Johnny Fabulous thought, as he checked another box. Back at the front, he waited for the politicians. They always came in groups. Retrieving a lint roller from under the podium, he ran the sticky tape over his white three-piece suit while he waited. The son of a Sicilian chess champion and French Olympian, he had made a name for himself as a showman on the stamp collecting circuit. He had been introduced to the world in 1980 when his mother heard the breaking news that Reinhold Messner of Italy had solo climbed Mt. Everest in three days, ending her eighteen hours in labor. He listened to Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” playing in the gallery.

The president, senator, congressperson, governor, and Super-Pac all arrived at the same time. “Give us a story,” they said in unison.

“We’ve got many veteran stories. What kind?” Johnny adjusted his sunglasses.

The politicians saw themselves staring back at themselves. “No. Not a story story.”

“I must have misunderstood. You don’t want a book about a veteran.”

“Why would anyone want that?” The politicians rubbed their heads.

“And not a book written by a veteran.” Johnny Fabulous took off his mirrored sunglasses.

The politicians became rowdy. “Who would read that?”

Johnny Fabulous stared at them with his abalone-shell eyes that shimmered in the dark-light like kaleidoscopes. “Even if it was fiction?”
“Even if it was fiction?” The politicians punched each other in the shoulders. “Especially if it was fiction!” The rowdy rancorous representatives roared in uncontrollable heaves. “A veteran writing fiction!” Everyone guffawed.

Britney Spears “Till the World Ends (Twister Remix)” played in the gallery.

Johnny Fabulous straightened out his all-white three-piece suit. “You want a veteran with a backstory.” He led the politicians to the rear, past the ice-cold dark corner, came to an elephant-sized bank vault, turned the silver dial this way, turned the dial that way, yanked the titanium door when the safe clicked, entered, held it open for the politicians to follow him through, let the door close as they followed the hovering bomber-group of lightning bugs that lit the path forward into a cement tunnel, dust crunched under rubber soles, trudging forward the tunnel-diameter shrank gradually, and lightning bugs grew bigger in size. The light grew brighter. Sitting cross-legged in the back, eyes closed, dreaming in color, was the rarest of veterans: an Omaha Beach H-Hour D-Day Veteran, a captain in the army—the greatest generation. A velvet sunflower.

J.G. Parisi was raised on 12 acres in a mobile home in rural California by two public school teachers. After high school, he enlisted in the Marines and deployed to Afghanistan two months after 9/11. His great uncle was an Omaha Beach H-Hour D-Day survivor, an Army Captain, and the inspiration for J.G.’s service in the Marines. He holds a BA in Philosophy of Language with a minor in Communication Theory and an MFA in Fiction. He has lived in his truck three times, worked on a rice farm, delivered pizzas, washed golf carts, and worked with at-risk high-school youth. This story, his first publication, appeared in LitMag #4. It was the winner of LitMag’s Anton Chekhov Award for Flash Fiction.
January 27, 2022

Of Seasons

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Jill Talbot

Long past August in Texas, the heat hangs on, a stubborn guest. Outside, the trees—their branches heavy with green—sweep in the wind. No signs of autumn, no ochre-butterscotch-rust, no sounds of onion-skin crunch, only sweat and swelter, a suffocation. I lean against the doorframe to my porch, weary. A year ago, I stood here talking on the phone with my mother, the two of us misunderstanding each other.

Virginia Woolf described autumn this way: “The nights now are full of wind and destruction; the trees plunge and bend and their leaves fly helter skelter until the lawn is plastered with them and they lie packed in gutters and choke rain-pipes and scatter damp paths.”

There is no light in my closet, no switch, no bulb, no chain.

“Once, in a letter, Woolf realized: “I meant to write about death, only life came breaking in as usual.”

I am tired of the movements I make and make again, how I take the left turn on Hickory, how I come home to find that I forgot to start the dishwasher, how I pour a glass of wine at six, how I sort through the mail and throw most of it away, how I exchange the paper towel tube with a new roll, how I leap over the swelling stream of water in the parking lot outside my apartment as it storms, how I turn the comforter back on my bed hours before I get into it, and how I finger the soil of the hanging baskets on the porch, their pink periwinkles still cascading in October. Tonight, another obligation to check off the calendar. I set my wine glass on the end table and walk to my room, open the closet.

Once, in a letter, Woolf realized: “I meant to write about death, only life came breaking in as usual.”

A black dress, sleeveless, a dry cleaner tag pinned to the inside of its collar. I pull it from its slot between a pair of jeans and a gray skirt. The dress slips and drops to the floor. My fingers find it among the shoes.

“I bend toward the back of my closet for the black pumps and pull them from the dark.”

Last week I hesitated before taking the dress into the cleaners. I sat in my car, counting the months back to April (pressing the heavy fabric to my face, taking a deep breath), remembering how spring had drawn a sudden curtain of gray and drizzle and cold, how I teetered on the damp path toward a silver casket, how every mourner, including the preacher, offered a coat to my quiet refusals. My father already in the ground.

Grief lingers, a stubborn guest.

I bend toward the back of my closet for the black pumps and pull them from the dark. When I stand, I notice a crust of caked mud on the first inch of each heel.


The shoes like wilted flowers in my hands, and I remember the way my sharp heels sunk into the ground with each step I took toward my mother’s casket.

At the kitchen sink, I run the water. I wipe the mud away with a paper towel. Each sweep of my hand, each removal a betrayal.

Jill Talbot is the author of The Way We Weren’t: A Memoir and Loaded: Women and Addiction, as well as the editor of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in AGNI, Brevity, Colorado Review, DIAGRAM, Longreads, The Normal School, The Paris Review Daily, River Teeth, and Slice Magazine and has been recognized by The Best American Essays. She teaches in the creative writing program at the University of North Texas.
April 12, 2021


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Josh White

Mac had long carried a linesman’s tool bag to Midwestern fairs where he competed at each locality’s butter sculpture contest in search of a fame that eluded him due to his choice of venue for his talents. He’d found the bag years ago at a pawn shop while stopping in Oshkosh for a fish sandwich and a beer, drawn in by the sadness the weary canvas bag projected through the neon-adorned windows of the shop. Now Evers, the Lower Manhattan gallery owner who’d moved Mac to New York to alter his fate and become a well-known artist, rifled through Mac’s bag, giddy and chatting about how the smooth, greasy edges of the tools told stories to his fingers.

Mac and Evers had built an enormous, glass-enclosed, refrigerated chamber inside Evers’ gallery space, where Mac was to accomplish his life-size carving of a great white shark, sawn in half, laterally, organs fully detailed in salted butter.

“Butter, as a medium, poses its challenges,” Mac said, “Which is what draws me to it.”

Evers liked to spend his afternoons, cocktail in hand, chatting with Mac while he carved in full view of the street. Clusters of tourists and New Yorkers would gather to gawk through the glass at the enormous pale shape taking form.

“It was your attention to detail that I first noticed,” Evers said. He’d encountered Mac’s incredible dairy cow at the Wisconsin State Fair over a year ago while taking a break from helping a friend hang a show in downtown Milwaukee. Every hair detailed on the hide. The nose practically glistening with mucous. All in butter. The sight had made Evers’ stomach gnarl, such was the visceral and simultaneous attraction and disgust at this bulking effigy of Midwestern culture. He was getting the same feeling from the shark sculpture as it took shape, for which he had helped arrange the commission.

“Butter, as a medium, poses its challenges,” Mac said, “Which is what draws me to it.”

After Mac had roughed in the basic shape of the shark, he began to work on the head, in finished detail, moving inch by inch, from the shark’s teeth, to its eventual tail.

“You know I love your details,” Evers said, “But why so much?”

“I’m inspired by Tibetan butter sculpture,” Mac said, “Very intricate and finely crafted and colorful. For them it is an ancient art with its origin high in the mountains, where the ambient temperature was such that butter sculptures were practical for public display to celebrate their spring festival.”

“Okay, good.”

“They used Yak butter, which I am told has a milder, more acidic flavor than our cow butter.”

“Yak butter? I can get us yak butter. I think I have a guy for that.”

“But would that be honest? This is the American State Fair. It’s about celebrating the Middle-American folklore.”

Evers smudged a bit of the sculpture from the shark’s tail and tasted it.

“It’s not food. It’s not art—this is perfect. It will confuse the hell out of people,” Evers said.

“Back home I have a dog, his name is Cheese.”

“So the two of you are Mac & Cheese.”

“I left him in the care of my sister. I hope he isn’t missing me too much.”


After his day at the studio, instead of going to his apartment in Washington Heights, Mac took the train to Queens to visit Kelsey, Evers’ gallery manager. She’d invited Mac to come out for beer and sketching.

Mac was a large, rounded man with curly brown locks and a buttery softness to his skin and complexion. His body could have been a butter sculpture. Mac noticed Kelsey’s eyes on him as they putzed about her fourth floor walk-up.

Her apartment was long and narrow, the entry opening into a living room which then led to a kitchen which then split into a narrow bedroom to the left and a narrow bathroom on the right. The front room was floor to ceiling books on one side, and a couch and two chairs with a low coffee table crowding the leg space on the other. Charming bric-a-brac covered the spare surfaces along the shelves and the coffee table and the table by the couch: gem stones, buddhas, talismans, piles of hand-printed zines and show posters. The vertical space did not escape this horror vacui; prints and paintings hung salon-style on the walls while Japanese lanterns and various Calderesque mobiles dangled from the ceiling.

Kelsey got them beers from the fridge and they settled into the front room to chat. Mac took the couch, spreading his arms and legs, Kelsey sat in a nearby chair, which appeared to be rescued garbage and questionably functional. The spindles groaned and cracked with her weight as sparks of affection flew from her gaze toward Mac’s body.

“Would you like to sketch me?” Kelsey asked.

When Mac did not immediately respond, she added, “No pressure.”

“Um,” he started, “Actually, I was hoping you could sketch me. My entire body, in the nude. I’m working on something.”

“I’ll get you the robe, you can change in my room.” She dodged across the apartment to her bedroom. They crossed each other at the threshold and she handed him the red silk robe with black lace trim.


By the time Mac emerged wearing only the robe, Kelsey had set up an easel by the couch and installed lights trained on an area of the room where a grey sheet was draped down the back of a chair and across the area rug.

Mac shed his gown, leaving it on the arm of the sofa. His motions were graceful, like those of a man who never felt a sense of urgency. He took a pose at the center of the gray sheet and Kelsey began to put her marks on the page. He saw Kelsey staring into his eyes, possibly drawing them. His skin was buttery and luminous in the generous warm light she had trained on his body, giving a strong highlight on one side, and a clear shadow on the other.

“It’s disgusting, absolutely revolting,” Evers said, smiling broadly, causing a washboard of age lines to ripple across his forehead and around the edges of his mouth like multiple sets of parentheses.

“You seem to be a natural at this,” Kelsey said.

Mac raised an eyebrow. The gesture made it into the drawing.


Evers and Mac stood side by side, small plastic cups of wine in hand, regarding the eight foot tall butter sculpture of Mac. One detailed brow was raised. The penis snoozed against the thigh, the legs spread apart, flat footed, the shoulders rounded. A bystander compared it to a Segal, only more edible. Another onlooker made the arch comment that the piece spoke to the idea of the artist as a victim of late-stage capitalism’s culture of consumption, dropping the names of several artists and philosophers Mac had never heard of.

“It’s disgusting, absolutely revolting,” Evers said, smiling broadly, causing a washboard of age lines to ripple across his forehead and around the edges of his mouth like multiple sets of parentheses.

“You’ve riffed on Hirst, you’ve done your Segal, what’s next?” Evers said.

Mac shook his head. “I do not know. I wish little Cheese was here so he could comfort me. Because, quite honestly, I’m getting a little stressed out from the attention I’m getting.” No one had ever paid much attention or made arch comments at the unveiling of one of his butter sculptures at a state fair exhibition, except for maybe a stray single mother with child in tow, stopping to exclaim, “Look, sweetie, it’s a man making a cow out of butter—imagine that!”

“Don’t worry about it, I’ll have your little Cheese on the next flight out of Milwaukee,” Evers said.

Kelsey pulled away from a cluster of fellow artists to join the two men. “Want to have a night cap at my place?”

“In Queens? No thanks,” Evers said, “You two go without me.”

Kelsey hooked her arm through Mac’s and led him away from the press of the well-heeled crowd toward the greasy light of the subway entrance nearby.


Mac awoke from an intense dream in Kelsey’s bed. The details were slipping away; something about the police forcing him onto a plane back to Wisconsin. The walls of Kelsey’s room were covered with her prints. Mostly organic colors and shapes colliding with hard geometric lines and plastic colors. There was one realistic oil portrait of a dog. Mac’s phone on the hardwood floor told him it was 2am.

“Go back to sleep, babe,” Kelsey said. She rolled her smooth, warm body against his and wrapped her arm around his torso.

“What are you working on? Do you have any projects?”

Kelsey seemed to suddenly become fully awake. Coils of energy shedding from her body.

“I’ve got a whole sheaf of sketches; you want to see them?”

He nodded and they climbed out of bed.

Kelsey fished around behind the bookcases in the front room, finally heaving a thick sheaf of papers from behind several other things jammed into a crevice. The light loitering in from the city outside was not enough to review the sketches by. Kelsey flipped the light switch for the overhead lamp, but it flickered and went out. She grabbed the creaky chair from beside the couch and stood on it, thick sheaf sketches cradled in one arm, the other arm reaching up to adjust the bulb, which flickered to life in that moment and seared into Mac’s mind the vision for his next piece.


The breeze blowing from the Hudson lifted Evers’ ivory tufts of hair away from his bronzed scalp like he was waving hello with his head. It was the gala opening for Mac’s newest sculpture, a Godzilla-sized work looking across the Hudson and out over the rest of the country. Caterers scampered to proffer snacks and refill drinks for the several dozen VIPs gathered inside the cordons. The sculpture commanded a central position at the end of the Highline, in the shadows of the freshly constructed waterfront skyscrapers.

“You know you are my fucking muse,” Evers said.

Mac grunted. “Kelsey is a good artist, too.”

“Of course I know that,” Evers said, “But I can’t find buyers for her work. I’ve tried.”

The sculpture was a forty foot tall refrigerated glass case, containing a thirty five foot tall butter sculpture of Kelsey, standing on a chair, a thick sheaf of sketches cradled in her left arm; her right arm extended to hold aloft a giant LED globe that reflected rainbow colors into the overcast night sky above.

Evers waved his hand in dismissal. “A group of women activists-painters will steal Kelsey away from me and then she will have her time in the galleries. It’s their fight, it’s not mine.”

Mac stood quietly and argued no further, scanning the crowd for Kelsey, the real Kelsey, who was not visible at the moment while likeness stood three stories tall, comprised of five inches of butter slathered to wire mesh and mounted to a massive steel frame.

Evers pulled a neatly folded satin handkerchief from his breast pocket and wiped his nose.

“I’m in love with your work! Look at her. She’s looking westward, beckoning. Telling the country, ‘Give me your coddled, fidgety masses. I lift my LED lamp at the golden door!’”

Kelsey appeared out from behind a cluster of art buyers carrying Cheese, the little dog scrambling to get down and see his owner. Cheese ran and jumped into Mac’s thick, smooth arms. He tried to pet his dog but Cheese obsessed over licking the butter on his fingertips.

Mac looked up and noticed dozens of birds animated along the roof of the sculpture. Thirty feet below the massive base thrummed with machinery and arm-thick cables ran across the cement of the plaza where tourists stood in clumps struggling to fit the full view of the sculpture into their selfies.

Josh White has a smattering of publishing credits, mostly nonfiction, in local venues. This is his first piece of widely distributed fiction. He lives in Brooklyn.
April 12, 2021

My Beethoven

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Kelly Cherry

I have loved Beethoven’s music since before I was born. My pregnant mother, having read that the child in the womb can hear music, played recording after recording of what was then unashamedly referred to as “good” or “serious” music. She wanted to be sure that I would be a good-music lover, as was she. She and my father were violinists. Sometimes Dad gave solo concerts—my mother fell in love with him when he played the Brahms Violin Concerto at L.S.U.—and both of them played in the New Orleans Symphony, but their passion was for the Beethoven string quartets, especially the late quartets, and wherever they were, they formed a string quartet. If I remember clearly (I was under the age of six), in Baton Rouge, it was the Cherry String Quartet. In Ithaca, it was the Ithaca String Quartet. In Richmond, it was the Richmond String Quartet. If the violist was weak, which happened to be the case from time to time, my mother would move from second fiddle to the viola.

Did the record-playing work? I can’t remember a time when I did not love Beethoven. In any case, I heard music, and in particular Beethoven’s music, very shortly after I was born. I listened from my crib, which was in the room where the musicians rehearsed. As soon as I could crawl, I was crawling around the eight-legged creature that is a quartet, or the four-legged creature that was my parents making music together, or the two legs of my handsome father practicing. He liked to warm up on the Bach Chaconne. In Ithaca, where we moved when I was five, my bedroom was down the hall. The night my eardrum burst and pus poured out I waited until rehearsal was over before telling my parents. It would not have done to interrupt them. Rehearsals were sacrosanct. They didn’t have to tell us that; we, the children, knew it in our bones. On concert nights, my mother wore long gowns, heels, a little rouge, and lipstick; if it was cold out, she might wear her squirrel jacket. Dad dressed in tails. In a swirl of glamour they left the apartment, and when they returned, still in their elegant clothes, they sat at the small, linoleum-topped kitchen table, reviewing the performance mercilessly but with high spirits. If we were awake, we could join them.

I tell people about my parents and their music because I am still entranced by their dedication and their struggle and grateful for the luminous, limitless gift they gave their children—my brother and sister and me—but it is harder to talk about what listening to serious music, and especially Beethoven, means to me. And would it have meant the same to me if I had not grown up with this music? I think so—because of who I am—but of course it’s impossible to know. I do know that neither I nor my siblings blindly accepted what our parents said about music. We were rebellious kids, somewhat neglected, rivalrous, angry, and anxious. My brother, who had a terrific talent for the piano, was not about to conform to any parental wish. When my father started me on the violin (“fiddle,” we said at home), I complained that my arm hurt. Years later he told me that if I felt any pain at all when I played the violin, I must have been holding it wrong. I’m sure I did hold it wrong. Who could keep arms and shoulders relaxed in such a tense situation? For me, that lesson was life or death. When we moved to Virginia, I started on the piano. I practiced five or six hours a day, after school, but it was stupid practice: With each mistake I’d back up and take the music faster. If my parents had been home, I suppose they might have explained to me that this was not how to get better, but they weren’t, and didn’t, and then I’d slam the lid down and go to bed hating myself. Nor did I have the hands for the piano.

My sister, the third-born, had begun ballet and would have been, her teacher said, a superb ballerina, but a cyst developed on her leg, and that put an end to her dream of dancing on stage. When our parents got home from work, she would turn on the radio just before they reached the driveway, blasting the house with early rock-and-roll or country music. She was also going steady with someone in the middle-school band. Mom and Dad concluded she was “boy crazy” and that there was no point in paying for music lessons for her. This was exactly the conclusion she had hoped to lead them to. It removed the pressure (though our parents would have sworn they didn’t pressure us). Some months later, at dinner, she announced that she needed flute lessons. Turned out the flute was what she was playing in the band. They still assumed that the boy was why she was learning the flute. A year or two later, she said she needed a better teacher. She had already decided she wanted to study with William Kincaid, then considered the best flutist in the world. Astonished and proud, Dad drove her to Philadelphia for an audition, and she became Kincaid’s youngest student. She began performing at fifteen.

I had learned to read music, of course, but at twelve I wrote a poem. Not for school; it simply occurred to me to write one, and in it I made a rhyme. The rhyme, however simple and obvious, electrified me. I had not realized that words were, or could be, music. No doubt I ought to have realized that, but I hadn’t, or it hadn’t meant anything to me before I committed a rhyme of my own. At once, I announced that I was going to quit piano and become a writer. This caused a considerable ruckus, and I’ve long regretted that I insisted on quitting piano, but in our house it was always essential, we thought, to do whatever we did with dedication. I can no longer read music at all; I might recognize middle C but, then again, maybe not.

Thus I became a listener. My sister and I had bought our first records on our own when we were nine and six or seven, walking barefoot beside the road to the store. The selection at Woolworth’s Five and Dime was thin, but I found Smetana’s Moldau and my sister chose Bartók’s Romanian Dances, or maybe it was Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies, for 67 cents apiece. I already had some records that my grandfather had given me, Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, for one; Weber’s Invitation to the Dance, for another. (The latter were 78-rpm records.) There was a good-music station in Richmond; it ran all night, and I often stayed up all night to listen to it. My father checked out for me records from the Richmond Professional Institute, where he taught, including Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, and works by Elliott Carter, Paul Hindemith, Arthur Honegger, Sergei Prokofiev, Dmitri Shostakovich, and J. S. Bach (including the Glenn Gould recording of the Goldberg Variations).

As for the few crummy pieces, I say, Thank god for them. They remind us that Beethoven was human.

For a while, I was in love with opera, although I paid no attention to plot or character, only to the music. I sang along loudly, and when the notes outran my range, I dropped down an octave and kept singing. There was a time when I played a recording of Beethoven’s Missa solemnis over and over for weeks, for months. I did the same with Beethoven’s Christ on the Mount of Olives. Both brought me peace when ideas were boiling over in my head. My last year in college, feeling intellectually estranged from other students, I calmed myself—and reinvigorated my thinking—by listening to Bach’s B-Minor Mass; I listened to it with the same unquenchable thirst with which I had listened to other music. The Bach unaccompanied cello suites—recordings by Casals, by Rostropovich, by Fournier—mesmerized me. And so did the Beethoven string quartets—as performed by the Budapest, Hungarian, Juilliard, Amadeus, and Emerson quartets. (The Pro Arte Quartet, located at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where I taught for many years, traversed the entire Beethoven cycle while I was there.)

I love Beethoven’s piano sonatas and concertos and symphonies as well, and even the better-known trios. Beethoven had more musical ideas than any other composer. Probably I should say, less categorically, I believe that Beethoven….But when I listen to the great (and not so great) composers, that’s what my ear and brain are telling me: that Beethoven is richer in musical ideas than any other composer. That is, he is always doing something worth thinking about—some consideration or reconsideration of theme, orchestration, development, some lovely or lively moment. My interest never flags, because his mind never flags. Well, that’s not true—he wrote a few crummy pieces, but there are no lapses in his completed, great works. And there are dozens of them.

As for the few crummy pieces, I say, Thank god for them. They remind us that Beethoven was human.

He was human and he sweated over his themes. This heightens rather than detracts from his genius; he was genius enough to know he could do better than his early drafts. Genius enough to recognize that music needs to adhere to structural principles, the first of which, in my opinion, is that a slow movement needs to be supported by smaller moments of musical interest. A slow movement that is a suspension bridge will sway and tremble and trouble the listener trying to cross over it. In first and final movements, time passes, and the listener needs to believe that time is passing also in the slow movement.

I don’t mean to suggest that music is the same as narrative literature; I do mean to suggest that the excitement, the breath-taking excitement, of both lies in knowing that we are being led somewhere meaningful. Certainly we also enjoy meaningful moments along the way; they are what allow us to assume the whole will be meaningful. Music, it has been said, is linear, as is literature, or at least narrative, and Beethoven, with his dynamics and rhythms, and in his piano sonatas with the use additionally of sustain, creates a narrative that carries tension.

Meaningful? someone may ask. How can music that is not a pop song or program music be meaningful? Or, doesn’t something have to be translatable to words to have meaning?

How, I want to ask in return, can it not be meaningful? Music is patterning, and patterning is how we think. No, I can’t name all the patterns—fugues, canons, counterpoint, harmony, recapitulation; I never even took a music appreciation course, fearful I might earn less than an A. But I hear the patterns and rejoice in them, and surely it is true that the very existence of pattern registers in the mind as a sign of logic and even good faith. I understand why a contemporary composer might want to explode pattern, but the only way to do it is to create new patterns. Unpatterned music, whether electronic or instrumental, is music a listener will fall asleep to. It’s the patterns that make us think and feel and stay awake to the end.

His work still often sounds more contemporary than many contemporary works, and it will last for all time.

As for the whole: Every one of Beethoven’s successful pieces is a whole world. I find it impossible to hear another work in my head—even a poem I’m working on—while listening to Beethoven; the work commands—not “demands”—attentiveness. It is cerebral, playful, tragic, beautiful, and beyond paraphrase. It may lift up, calm, delight—and yet none of these words adequately describes its effect upon me, and, I think, on other Beethoven fans. Yes, Mozart was a genius, with his singing line and chromatic harmonies; he influenced Beethoven’s early work, and his late work anticipates Beethoven’s late work. He died too young. And yes, Bach more or less invented music, turning out masterpieces along the way. And yes, both Mozart and Beethoven learned more than a little from Haydn. But Beethoven took music to places it had never been. His work still often sounds more contemporary than many contemporary works, and it will last for all time. Perhaps his greatest achievement was to express the concept and value of freedom in sound. His music expands—swells—my heart, for I learn from it that anything is possible; it instills hope and courage. But not at the expense of ignoring reality: his music entwines light with dark, bringing me to a crux where I cannot choose whether to cheer with unalloyed joy or to weep in concert with the poet Rilke, who spoke of beauty as “the beginning of terror.” This dilemma cannot be referred to as “bittersweet,” a commonly employed term in literary reviews and criticism; rather, it reflects a vision that recognizes dark and light as inseparable, perhaps even interchangeable (though Beethoven wanted light, wanted freedom, wanted, perhaps—we don’t know for sure—God).

Naturally, my family had a recording of the Beethoven Violin Concerto. I remember that once, when it was on the player in the next room, my father came to the doorway of the kitchen. “Oh, God,” he said. “It tears my heart out.”

Beyond paraphrase.

When I was fourteen or fifteen, I submitted a story to my high school’s literary magazine. It was about a man who planned to take his life. Walking down the street next to the Richmond Professional Institute, he heard someone practicing the “Waldstein” Sonata (Piano Sonata No. 21) in an upper room with an open window; the beauty of the sonata drifted down and lifted up his heart so that he resolved to live after all. The teachers gently informed me that they couldn’t allow my story to be published—it might put the idea of suicide in some student’s mind. I understood, but I also understood that the teachers didn’t understand Beethoven’s music.

A few years later I couldn’t get enough of the “Hammerklavier” Sonata (No. 29). These days I listen endlessly to Sonata No. 32. In the second half of that piece, high notes cluster with sustain, sounding transcendental. These measures seem to suggest a kind of liberation from the struggle of the real world and possibly freedom from the trials of life—by which I do not mean a longing or lust for death. It’s as if the composer has discovered a world freer and wider than the one we have. He has achieved mastery of his medium and is therefore free to write whatever comes to him. (This is true artistic freedom.) I can hear the Wilhelm Kempff recording in my head as I write this, the lighthearted and bell-like jazzy notes an efflorescence of perfection. I also recall hearing this sonata played by the astonishing Maurizio Pollini in concert twice: once in Italy and once at Lincoln Center. Pollini’s renditions struck me as a case of the performer becoming the music; he seemed to be at one with it, his interpretation as precise as if he had been Beethoven. After the crashing chords of the first movement, the second is like fresh air and sunlight—or no, like heaven, were there a heaven. And if it sounds like heaven, maybe it is heaven. Anthony Burgess, writing about his novel The Clockwork Orange, referred to “the vision of paradisal order which great music conveys.”

The “Grosse Fuge” is another piece in which the movement of the whole is onward and upward. Terrifically exciting, the quartet negotiates a double fugue in a single astonishing movement, intense, complex, and passionate measures rising to a transforming climax. I reflexively lean forward, the better to hear every note, contrapuntal encounter, variation, every design. Earlier critics called this piece “discordant,” but I doubt that anyone thinks so now. In his 1995 collection, Atlantis, Mark Doty justifiably, and lyrically, asked, in his poem titled “Grosse Fuge”:

What does it mean, chaos
gathered into a sudden bronze sweetness,
an October flourish, and then that moment
denied, turned acid, disassembling,
questioned, rephrased?
(Quoted with permission from the author)

What it means, I wish to suggest, is that, as a world unto itself, the “Grosse Fuge” responds to the light in the dark, the dark in the light. In a poem of my own, “The Memorial,” I envision the music as a ladder of strings: Beethoven climbs the steep, moving steps to a confrontation with the Almighty (or the universe). The poem first discusses the String Quartet No. 13 in B-flat Major, for which the “Grosse Fuge” was originally meant to be the last movement:

. . .the Beethoven,
Which one writer describes as “dark” and “near-
Impenetrable,” though it is neither impenetrable
Nor dark, the adagio gravely lovely, allegro
Electric with energy, both leading to,
Originally, the Grosse Fuge, in which
Beethoven climbs to heaven on a ladder
woven of strings to knock on God’s closed door
And have it out with him, man to man.

Music and poetry are ever entwined.

Beethoven’s work often reminds me of the color green. I’m not synesthetic (though my sister is) but—maybe because I imagine him striding through woods, or maybe because my husband and I frequently listen to Beethoven while driving through countryside, or maybe because Beethoven’s music is so filled with life, a sense of movement, of development—I see, with my mind’s eye, green, an abundance of green, of growth, feel surrounded by greenness, a burgeoning, as I listen to it. Not always, but often enough to associate great art with the idea of development. In a short lyric poem the development is of depth, layer upon layer; in longer literary works it is a series of changes—and those small moments that fortify the larger lines—and a sense of direction, for I also believe in ends. Contrary to many, I do not think that process is art. I think that process is process until it achieves an end, whereupon the work exists, and exists separately from the artist.

When I was ten, I asked my mother if there was a God. She said, “I don’t know, but there was a Beethoven and that’s good enough for me.”

Think of Beethoven’s endings! And his beginnings, too: how they declare themselves, how they notify us of the composer’s intent. He wanted listeners to know where he started and when he was done. What is between the beginning and the end is Beethoven, the incomparable composer. The beginnings and endings are themselves so distinct and characteristic that we know at once to whom we are listening. The Fifth Symphony’s four famous opening notes have become almost a part of our DNA, they are so well known. Listeners the world over recognize them. Similarly, the “Ode to Joy” that concludes the Ninth Symphony is acknowledged by all as a metaphor for brotherhood (and sisterhood) and freedom. But whether loud or soft, his beginnings and endings define the works as completed objéts d’art. This is not always the case within his works. One movement may advance attacca—without pause—to the next.

Of interior moments, I am particularly drawn to the Heiliger Dankgesang (Holy Song of Thanksgiving) in the Quartet in A Minor, Op. 132 (No. 15 according to publication, but number thirteen in composition). In a meditative mood, aware of how close he had come to death (an illness), grateful to be allowed to live for the nonce but knowing that he cannot live forever, Beethoven furnishes the quartet with five movements; the Heiliger Dankgesang occurs in the third. The high notes have a celestial quality like the high notes in the last movement of Piano Sonata No. 32. There is again a sense of the deep worthiness of life, of freedom as a result of self-discipline, and yet of playfulness.

Surely, the “Muse of fire” Shakespeare solicited to attend his play Henry V is at Beethoven’s side as he “ascend[s] / The brightest heaven of invention….” T. S. Eliot, writing to Stephen Spender, called the fifteenth quartet “inexhaustible,” and said of Beethoven, “There is a sort of heavenly or at least more than human gaiety about some of his later things which one imagines might come to oneself as the fruit of reconciliation and relief after immense suffering; I should like to get something of that into verse before I die.”

But I don’t think Beethoven was in the least masochistic, and Eliot does sound a bit, here. Eliot is toying with the idea of pain as a catalyst to artistic transformation; Beethoven, on the other hand, believes that he has an obligation to “artistic destiny” and is annoyed by any crisis that threatens to keep him from it.

At the start of the “Heiligenstadt Testament,” a letter to his brothers in which he acknowledged his thoughts of suicide, his fear that loss of hearing would capsize his career, and, finally, his determination to live, he notes, “I was ever inclined to accomplish great things.” Considering death, he writes that “only my art. . . held me back. . . . [I]t seemed to me impossible to leave the world until I had brought forth all that I felt was within me.” And I imagine this sentiment was not mere sentiment; he always had various works underway, ideas he wanted to explore; he may have had quite specific projects in mind.


When I was ten, I asked my mother if there was a God. She said, “I don’t know, but there was a Beethoven and that’s good enough for me.” I’m inclined to agree with her. In a poem (“What the Poet Wishes to Say”) I speak of

. . . Beethoven,
who, deaf and lonely, brought his art to such
sublimity, it is as if he wrote
his music among the spheres of music, working
at a desk of sky, the innumerable stars for lighting,
a gust of solar wind sending manuscript
flying. In the late piano sonatas,
you hear the composer placing his notes, solid
and silken as they somehow manage to be,
without hesitation but with deliberateness
exactly where they are supposed to go,
thereby fixing the apparatus of heaven
God had let fall idle.

My parents died in the eighties. The fiddles—my mother’s an Amati, I think; the Guadagnini, my father’s—for which they had scrimped and saved and gone into debt were auctioned at Sotheby’s. It is a joy to have found out that the Guadagnini, known in the literature as the Ex-Kingman, now belongs to a vigorous and impressively fine violinist in the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. My husband and I heard him draw his bow across the strings when he came to our hotel, and the sound was like lightning, the lobby suddenly brilliant and stark and gladsome.

Also in the eighties, I went to Germany and Austria for a couple of weeks. I turned that trip into something of a pilgrimage, visiting Beethoven’s birthplace in Bonn, the woods he walked in, and, in Austria, the house outside Vienna where he wrote the “Heiligenstadt Testament.” Whenever I came across a concert that included Beethoven, I went. Perhaps the trip was less pilgrimage than a desire to experience the conditions of his great creativity. Beethoven has always been my guide to life in art. From him I have learned that there is no law that obliges the artist to restrict herself to a single genre or form. That a work of art must be interesting at every point. That competence necessarily precedes maturation. That the artist works for the art, not for anything else. That beauty may seem to be simple—a field, a forest, a musical scale, a line of poetry with no difficult words—but is always complex, a union of contraries, of contrasts, of hard work and inspiration.

Walking in Beethoven’s steps, I was in some sense listening to him—to the echoes his life created. What do I hear when I listen to Beethoven? I hear him thinking. And feeling, yes, but thinking about what he is feeling. To be inside a mind like his is an immense privilege, enlightenment, and delight.

Always, delight.

Kelly Cherry is the author of twenty-five books, ten chapbooks, and two translations of classical drama. Former Poet Laureate of Virginia, she is Eudora Welty Professor of English and Evjue-Bacom Professor Emerita in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This essay appeared in the print edition of LitMag.
April 12, 2021

40 East to Knoxville

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J. C. Jordan

a grieving fortune teller
who reads death in every palm
my mother says, to make me ache,
you’ll never come home again

I know that I’ve been careless in my truancy
I’ve been wayward, hoping to drift,
Odysseus’ least successful protégé,
but when I left I didn’t mean to leave forever

take back your stinging accusations—
I have not been unfaithful to my mountains
or my southern dirt; no other land
has laid its grasping hands on me

I still dream of hazy summer like a fever,
your lilting tongues, and some goddamn
peace and quiet; even the churchyard
that nestles my blood’s dusty bones

remember me anointed, slathered thick
beneath the soothing liniment of where
I’m from, homesick, faithful lover
of a land that could never keep me

J. C. Jordan is a doctoral candidate in English at Stanford. This poem, which appeared in the print edition of LitMag, is her first publication.
February 25, 2020


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Seth Brady Tucker

He picks scabs, won’t answer questions; he’s still in a cave
in a jungle, swamp water seeping up into the musky leather
of boots, like a wasp sting, the soft tissue under the scab a pudding,
skinned, oozing thin as red Kool-Aid.
?                        His mother, class valedictorian, then unwed teen,
?                        then prostitute, then dead. His father, wealthy
son, happy, happy, happy, a whole other family, the balance
of rich & poor scales bent to favor blind pedigrees. Look
for the scaly red tail, the cracked horns under the hairline,
those stupid biblical revelatory numbers.
?                        Clean as white palms forever building sandcastles,
?                        the sea-salt spunk of varsity on her skin the closest
his mother comes to payment, genesis, protozoa, the ovum a blink
of pathos & logos, sperm-stupid ethos, fate’s black eye. He was born
across the tracks, his father the great unknown, money the great
unknown, the acid pit of the stomach lining sloughing
?                        until it feels full, the manna of forgiveness & the rectangle
?                        of the empty grave, cheaply done, with spades, elliptical,
& he sees himself launching across the void, a red-speckled
creature of misfortune, to take this man down, finally, into the rank misery
of the dark hole, his hands forever squeezing his apology into the pleasantly
fleshy neck, O forgive me, the sound of his begging like please & please & please.

Seth Brady Tucker is the executive director for the Longleaf Writers Conference. His work has appeared in December, Copper Nickel, Poetry Northwest, Driftwood, and the Indiana Review, and other journals. He teaches at the Colorado School of Mines and the Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver.
December 18, 2018

Cause of Exit

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Terese Svoboda

?                        The Ark Tablet, written 1000 years
before Genesis, remembers it  2 x 2
unclean/clean pairs, with
?            noisiness or wickedness the cause of exit,


the houseboat’s interior bituminized
?                                        with the blackest tar,
Babylonian creosote    then
?            oil smeared everywhere.


?            Noah gave his hundred laborers a farewell party
though he knew they’d all drown,
the moon disappearing after
?                         the first course.         What reason
did he give for the work?


The giants Gibborim and Nephilim
?            roamed the earth but not the Ark –
they’d sink it.
?                                                      Compartments


for the Sirens    and birds on top.
?                         In this version Noah’s sons
and refused to board.


?                                      Ante-
diluvian, basically the Ice Age,
the world covered
?                        with vapor canopy
?         and sea monsters,
thunder and lightning


wicking the landscape       the bitter sea.
?                          Those Babylonians loaded the boat
with gold and silver, and whatever
?                         rounded up with minimal effort,


?           then pushed on    to a mountain jagged
as the point of a dagger: Nisir in Kurdistan,
not the Turk’s Ararat.
Gertrude Bell     1911    reported the boat had


?                           run aground
in a bed of scarlet tulips,
?             the planks reused for housing
and souvenir stands,
?             the way
?                         vertiginous spacemen
will mount pop-ups on Mars.

Terese Svoboda’s most recent book of poetry is Professor Harriman’s Steam AirShip. Great American Desert, her second book of stories, will be published in 2019.
July 26, 2018


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Jayne S. Wilson

A better person, she will think later, would worry about him. And maybe she does, but in a way that she can live with.

She will enter his room, take in the smell of crusting dust and stale breathing with a fresh comforter and two pillowcases folded over her arms, and notice the creases on the yellowing sheets and how empty they seem without the spindly arms and legs they have sunken around. She will tuck her hair, gray roots reemerging, behind her ears and think that he is probably in the garden, must have pulled and forced himself out of bed and down the stairs to sit outside on the chair shaded beneath the oak they’d planted together some decades ago on their first weekend in the house, toasting later with sweat on their foreheads and above their lips to the years and the firsts in them that then still had yet to ensue, and that mostly confused him now, tethered somewhere behind his eyes on the same frangible thread as songs he didn’t know he knew, movies he couldn’t be convinced he’d seen, and the faces of neighbors and friends, and her face too, that he had to be reintroduced to, their existences like items that had rolled, one by one, from atop a dresser and into the dark, small space against the wall behind it, lodged and invisible.

But when she steps outside with his lunch tray poised between her hands, she will find that the chair, too, is empty.

But when she steps outside with his lunch tray poised between her hands, she will find that the chair, too, is empty. She had missed the subtle creaks, softer than before, of his weight against the old wood on the staircase, the shifting of dust from the bannister to his pruned hand while she kneeled in the basement an hour earlier pulling laundry from the dryer, and the empty dish on the hall table where the car keys had been. And when she does notice, when she does see, there will be unease, like a pinch of the skin, but only for a second before she’ll think of him remembering the steps to the door and the color of the car, and she will not be able to keep herself from hoping, instead, that he loves the push of his feet against the pedals and the feel of adjusting his rearview mirror, peering into it for blind spots and cautionary distances, perhaps seeing her.

The car door was heavy, the leather thick, the steering wheel unexpectedly stubborn, but the radio dials were tuned to where he hoped he could sing along to a Tom Petty song…

And all this she will not know: how he had strewn his pajamas upstairs on the floor of the bathroom with the careless grace of a teenager running late; how the bottoms had almost slid down on their own as he stood, how the buttons on his shirt had an easy give; how even with the keys in a different bowl on a different table, the second family car had been an easy take; how he imagined his parents at work and no one else to notice him slip out with no clothes on his back when he aimed the car out of the driveway and toward the lake just at the edge of town, a flash of blue he could almost see between trees.

The car door was heavy, the leather thick, the steering wheel unexpectedly stubborn, but the radio dials were tuned to where he hoped he could sing along to a Tom Petty song, with the windows down to let a fickle summer breeze tease his hair and the sun warm the eager goosebumps from his bare skin. The rest of the baseball team’s seniors were, like him, barreling from their homes and climbing into their parents’ cars, or cars that had been given just days before as graduation gifts, in nothing but sneakers, stifled laughter and palpable heartbeats soundtracking their ride to the senior picnic at the lake to answer the rallying call of team captain, Joey Guadagno, who wanted to one-up the football team’s “piss-poor” senior prank of super-gluing all the school doors shut by having them all streak their entrance to the picnic – a line of boys with farmer’s tans hooting with the mania of summer and a future that was nothing but theirs.

The skin on his thighs lifted from the seat like warm rubber and he imagined, vivid as memory, the stupid-brilliant lot of them dodging blankets and coolers and scandalized girls and Principal Hadley, who later, when they were dressed in the gym clothes they’d pre-packed in Joey’s car, would give them a lecture on decorum, saying, “I guess you fools are proud of yourselves,” then asking them what in the hell there’d been to gain, because he couldn’t see it, that there’d been only Maggie amongst the girls, laughing as she tucked her hair behind her ears, and that there’d been the pushing and daring of distance, and the taste of endless sunlit air. And so who could feel remorse?

Jayne S. Wilson lives in California. Find her @thisjayneperson and This is her first published fiction.