The challenge we gave our participants in this collaborative cultural experiment was to view, or re-view, the idea of a classic — and to re-invent it through some new lens of experience, point of view, or sensibility. We wanted more than persona pieces that fit the standard interpretation of these classics, more than contemporary re-tellings, and much more than simple parody.
What we got was re-visioning of classic forms and fables, familiar but fresh voices both canonical and chronically overlooked, and a flood of beautiful, intricate, funny, smart and fierce language and images raising familiar stories and archetypes in ways we had never considered. What a pleasure to guest edit qarrtsiluni, to have the opportunity to read such wonderful work, and to be able to craft an issue offering such fresh and startling takes on what we thought we knew.
For bios of Ann and Jessamyn, see the Call for Submissions.
An excerpt from Imaginary Loves
I am loved by someone so well that I never doubt it, Bettany says, as the nurse puts the IV into her arm. Do you know what that’s like?
This is what it’s like, the nurse answers, jabbing unnecessarily, when you refuse to eat.
The nurse’s sister died of anorexia.
She is very angry.
Bettany floats in the gray-white haze of zero blood sugar, way down below weakness and well risen to euphoria. Sooner or later, they will leave the room. She will take out the IV. They will come and put it back. She will wait, take it out; a perfection of passive resistance.
He meets me in the middle, she says.
If you take this out again, the nurse answers, you’re going into restraints.
Bettany considers the blue-black hair of the nurse. Like raven feathers, she says aloud. What is your name?
Sucking up to me isn’t going to help.
I’m not. I want to know your name.
My name doesn’t matter, says the nurse. I’m the nurse.
It matters to me, says Bettany.
No, it doesn’t, says the nurse. What matters to you is getting a grip on reality.
I have one, Bettany says. I am loved. It feeds me.
The nurse finishes taping the IV, cleans up a line of blood dripped down the girl’s emaciated arm. Leave it this time, she says, or restraints. I mean it.
Did I tell you about the letter he sent me?
You can’t eat letters, the nurse says.
Oh, yes, says Bettany, rising to one elbow with quaking effort. Yes you can.
All of it. Any of it. Just—something vivid.
I was walking.
And there were two deer.
Yes, whitetails, flashing alarm. They heard the dog. I didn’t tell him; he was looking for a good stick, something nice to throw. The deer flipped their tails and danced away. I could see reflections of yellow beech leaves in the eye of one of them, turned toward me: she was that close.
Tell me another.
I don’t know what to tell you.
Six or seven of them, exploding from the underbrush with wing-beats so loud I ducked. The dog ran so fast he ran right out of the orange t-shirt I put on him to differentiate him from bear.
It’s bear season. They’re shooting bears.
He treed them.
The bobwhites. They were furious.
I bet he was proud.
You’re going to leave, aren’t you.
Probably. There isn’t much left.
There is. There could be—
One more. Tell me one more.
Once I walked into the woods and there was only one way: further in. I walked and walked, and I was fierce and beautiful and brave and resourceful and I had many adventures, but I was getting tired. Very tired. I couldn’t walk any more, finally; I couldn’t be fierce and beautiful and resourceful and brave any more. Also? I was bored with myself. With all of it. I dug a fire-pit, lined it with stones. I gathered wood, and made a fire. I was so hungry, but I had nothing to eat and I was too tired to do anything else, so I sat by the fire and watched the flames. I figured I’d probably die of starvation eventually, but really, the flames felt good and I couldn’t think what else to do. A stag came out of the forest, walked right up to the edge of the fire across from me. We looked at each other for a long time, and I thought: how beautiful. After a while, he lay down across the fire and split himself open, his blood steaming in the coals. I ate his flesh, and was restored.
That didn’t happen.
I saw a peregrine eat a bat today.
You’re going, aren’t you.
I have an idea.
When I go, just look away.
Now? Should I look away now?
We walk, Gilgamesh and I, in preparation for the storm, twenty-five inches predicted. Weeks below-zero and chilling winds solidified feet of snow already fallen; finally,
we can walk, skating across surface, only occasionally breaking
through. Gilly runs for sheer pleasure, throws himself forward, compensates with sheer velocity
for uncertainty of ground. He hurls his body into space, ahead, ever
ahead; plants his face suddenly into snow when he falls. He always comes up laughing, black fur dusted white, ears crinkled. This is what dogs do. We haven’t walked enough lately;
snow too deep, crust too unreliable. I want to check on the beavers; it’s been many weeks
since we’ve walked enough, in the back field and the woods by the stream. So we pass
Shalom’s grave, a circle
of stones and a Japanese Maple surviving its second winter under heaps of snow. In a few months, the leaves will appear, scarlet, determined; yellow Narcissi will rise around the small tree and shout aggressive, happy color at the sky.
I invite the dead on my walks.
gratitude for our Northwesterly direction: behind the house, no stacks of wood to fuss with, no barns in which we do mysterious, officious human things
—sorting recycling, trying to get the damn mower to work—
no mailboxes to check, no boring cars for grocery shopping. To the Northwest, only trails; the ones I built with an ancient pair of garden shears, with bleeding, blistered hands while I grieved
one tough, fibrous goldenrod stalk at a time,
for miles. Gilly bounces me repeatedly; I shove him off, but he doesn’t stop, because I’m laughing. He knows that if a joke is funny the first time, it’s even funnier the next
twelve times. He bounces, I laugh. He bounces,
I laugh. This is what dogs do.
We pass the old shed full of ancient farm equipment abandoned
by the hippies who built our place, the dairy farm family before them. Manure spreader, enormous steel carrot washer, old sleds, hay rakes with snapped handles, detritus from ramshackle greenhouse. The piles irritate. We have history enough
of our own, the interesting nature of the machines notwithstanding. They threw nothing away, ever, and everything left is broken, it weighs
a ton, it has to be dug out of the ground where they let it rot. One person’s history;
another person’s litter. We crunch through the stretch of trail that is marsh in spring; quails and pheasants nest there, sudden explosions of wings when we pass
the Christmas tree I dragged out to the property line, barricading the gap that invited hunters from the next farm. Gilly pees on it obligingly. Do not pass, no killing
here, the yellow snow says; this land is a territory belonging to the living, and to certain ghosts who are in that condition because of the likes of you: you who are not welcome
here with your gun and your beer can and your ‘he came out of nowhere,
he died within minutes.’ Here
is what dogs understand about time:
forever away from now. For a long time now I have walked, understanding what ‘minutes’ means to a dog who is dying,
Good boy, Gilly, I say. You have a nice, big pee right there. There is other pee around the Christmas tree, too; coyote, probably. Good coyotes. You mark that territory line. Mark it
well. We pause
at the choice of trails: left into the lower field and a short-cut to the beaver lodge, or straight toward the woods and stream, the long way ‘round. The sumac canopy over the track into the woods beckons. Gilly looks at me, I look at him, and we break
for the woods. I lecture him: stay off the ice! He dances ahead, happily
ignoring me. At water’s edge we see tracks and follow them to summer swimming hole, a convergence of streams. The small pool is frozen
now, swift waters bubble under ice. Dry Brook—named for miles of course that run underground—rises ice-cold, even in August, from the South. From the East,
Unadilla Brook runs warm through the swamp where trunks of dead trees rise gracefully, sometimes home
to eagles, herons, hawks. The tracks to the pool are large, but dusted with new snow; I can’t tell who made them. Gilly tests the ice on the swimming hole, of course. I cringe
at creaks under his feet, his spread-wide toes, the light from below makes his webbing purple, his claws scrape for purchase. Convinced he will break through,
knowing he won’t, I have to look away. I inspect the deepest mystery track, shout: ‘I thought so!’ Gilly hurries over to see
what’s so exciting. ‘Look,’ I say, squatting down, pointing into large pad impressions and the outline of claws. ‘Bear.’
Gilly plants his nose in the print, snuffles enthusiastically, inhales snow, sneezes it back out in an explosive
burst. His eyes water. I laugh, so he does too, ears crinkled, teeth half-revealed. He slaps my knee with his paw. Another good joke. This is what dogs do. Back through the woods,
we skirt frozen stream, through maple and birch, under giant sycamores’ thick, mottled, white trunks that rise like enormous
bones overhead. The lodge: a white heap at a bend in the stream. Ice unbroken around it; no tracks. Utterly silent. I wonder if it is warm
in there, under the ice and snow, in the muddy heat of bodies, snacking on stored branches. I guess it is, if you’re a beaver.
We back away from the water: I don’t like to intrude
at the lodge for long. We never see the beavers. We eavesdrop on summer cannonballs into water, felling of trees. We spy on smooth impressions of teeth everywhere. We admire amazing feats of engineering. We sneak glances at the living, as unobtrusively
as wonder allows. Above the lodge, the field we mow into a rough circle each summer is smooth, a white ballroom floor now. Gilly races to the center
and does a gavotte.
I used to come here with Shalom, renovating the abandoned house; before trails, before carrying furniture, boxes, his body, shovels to dig
his sudden grave. One day, Shalom and I stretched out in this wildish ring of field grass and milkweed, goldenrod, buttercups. We cloud-busted
together, for an hour; each chewing a piece of grass, on our backs. My arm around him. His head on my shoulder. His heart beat on my ribs. He smelled like grass,
Shalom did: even in winter, he had a grassy smell. I buried
my face in his fur during February cabin-fever and March doldrums and breathed deep summer. Gilly’s smell is more floral, especially
when he’s hot. His little armpits reek of flowers. His breath smells like mushroom soup. Right now, he has his first cold, so his nose is running
in the chill. The sky has a laden, leaden look all too familiar this winter. The light the soft-focus of imminent storm; edges softened, outlines blurred. It’s warmer than it’s been. Gilly and I follow tracks:
rabbit, then squirrel, chipmunk, deer. Rabbits and deer move in purposeful direction. Squirrels, chipmunks, mice, and dogs run in circles; they leave intricate swirls and knots of passage in the snow. We follow them all, winding
home past sleeping pear and cherry trees, cluster of pines, winter-berry brilliant red, we avoid hawthorn spike, drink land. Near the house, mulberry trees tangle messy and delightful. In summer, their berries turn bird guano the most alarming shade of fuchsia.
goes and lies down in his grave. I wonder if it is warm in there, under the ice and snow, with his buried bed and his toys and his
emerging bones. I guess it is, if you’re a ghost.
Ducking under tree boughs, treasure: ‘Gilly!’ I point. He looks up at the branch above my finger, where a single, frozen apple hangs. Apple,
one of the first English words he learned. He apple-dances every summer, tossing them over his back and leaping to catch them
before they fall. His first autumn, he ate so much fermented fruit he got drunk. Dog Farm Apple Wine, we laughed, sitting at our fuchsia-streaked picnic table under mulberry.
Gilly sits for his apple. I jump
for it, hand him treasure he carries inside to thaw by the wood-stove. Later, he’ll throw it around, smear it all over the couch and the floor. This
is what dogs do.
The storm arrives.
Chinese pear a lemon-summer burst on my tongue as outside the window fine, small flakes fly in diagonal sheets, the kind of snow
that isn’t fooling around. Shalom’s grave looks snug, and lonely, a white heap beyond glass walls. ‘Come in
by the stove, love, if you want,’ I say, through ice, through silence. Gilly, in his bed by the stove, looks up at me, bleary, already asleep. I wink at him. He goes back to sleep. The wood hoop is full, the covered shed stocked,
the stove-flue seems to be working again. I have candles, kindling. My favorite tea, cream. A working flashlight, another pear in the fridge. Vitamins, St. John’s Wort, good dark coffee. Andres Segovia and Yo-Yo Ma,
split pea soup. We are settled,
in for the duration.
Download the MP3 (reading by Jessamyn)
This is a walking collaboration. A collaboration of loss and witness. A mother handing down particular vision of love and love of place, a daughter handing it back transmuted through a different life and a separate sensibility.
This is what happened when the daughter said: help me keep this place, help me document its magic, the bones of it, the love buried here. This is what happened when the mother said: this is convergence, this is the blood of those we’ve lost on cold and frozen ground, this is some of what home and history is.
In January of 2007 and December of 2008, a mother and daughter walked in storms, bearing witness to loss and history through separate sensibilities.
It shouldn’t be literal, necessarily, the daughter said. I mean, some of them might be, but not all — I want your interpretations of these words, your wholly separate vision of these themes as they exist for you. I know, the mother said. She doesn’t like to talk about her photographs.
Look at that, the daughter said, on these walks.
I did, the mother answered.
Sad, fierce, true: something universal emerges through unshared particulars. A fundamentally shared experience of love, loss, and complicated history blows in sharp, diagonal sheets.
Wine-dark steam embrace, flicker-light.
Incense rises, I submerge, rise—waves
of my own hair blind, myrrh-soaked;
a rosemary tress blindfold. Water
takes pain from muscle bruised
black, blood rises, condenses,
trickles to nothing. A foot
on the overflow, to keep
abundance in: add heat
to already pinkening
warmth. I think
and magical principles,
comfort freely given, received,
chicken rubbed with ginger, garlic,
pepper, lemon after lemon, the whole juice
beaten into eggs until the broth is Mediterranean
sun, the taste a cure for everything. I think about shapes
words make, landscapes of cresting dolphins, oceans of lions,
Nemean and otherwise, swimming the sky. Hunger grows, quietly.
Reading by Beth Adams – Download the MP3
……….Love, mainly; that thing that’s been strip-mined
by bards in adolescent coffee-houses and dusty agoras
for millennia, their scrolls monuments to glorious failures
of words to convey what it feels like to notice
……….the visible pulse on the inside of his wrist
(such shattering vulnerability in that spot,
the inner workings exposed, close to the surface
……….anything could happen,……….realizes the heart in response,
my god, anything, to this beloved);…..or the hollow between
her shoulder and collar bone, an explosion of beauty
so devastating the bottom falls out of the world
……….(she will leave me, sooner or later, but please god, let it be
later, just a little more time here in this hollow
……….where all is right with the universe);
or the daily catastrophes of witness that bestow
moments of grace;…..when the young man,
usually assured, stumbles and blushes, trying to speak to you,
……….and for a moment, you fall in love with him (he is never again
a stranger, after that); or when the young woman becomes radiant
……….under your praise, knows for a moment that she is brilliant,
and you love her urgently, happily, then;……………when your friend,
……….after a year and a half of waiting, calls and says: the adoption came through!
She’s preemie, three pounds six ounces, she’ll be okay, she’s perfect,
PERFECT, we’re telling her ‘pork up, Peanut, pork up…’ my god, we’re so happy,
……….and you cry, and laugh, and play the message twice,
and write the baby’s name in gold pen on a post-it note
and stick it on your refrigerator,……………or you receive a letter
……….from an absent beloved who, in spite of absence, makes your world
a better place with words spread across the page like coconut shavings,
like chips of obsidian and bloodstone and granite and apricots and honey-trails,
words that craft planets and sweetness you can live on for months,
……….(forever, really);……………or a stranger’s hair,
lit by sun, reveals itself to be comprised of no less than
one hundred colors…..and you die a little, because of it;
……….and your friends laugh at you, and call you hedonist,
a seeker of pleasure, a basker in beauty, but you know
it is worse than that, much worse:
……….it is that ……….in spite of all your craft and skill
you will never say it quite right……….though you will bloom
and die and cut back and bloom again in the trying,
and you will have joy because of it,……………it is that
……….in fact……………you have no skin,
and your heart — that stubborn, obstreperous organ — wears itself
……….on the outside,
trying incessantly……………in spite of everything……….to speak,
……….and you know, secretly,……….that though you will fail,
you will never get it right,
……….your hungry words…..will be enough.
by Jessamyn Smyth
Photo by Lucy Kempton
the livid plum
ascension to heaven
in love songs to Shiva
apologia that isn’t
for pleasures indulged
the world over
in poems and
against tree trunks
the way it can be
are left between
and legs sore
the next day
and the drip
of all of it
of wet flesh
and you will know
all there is
place one whole
in your mouth
about men too
but turn wholly
to plum shape
and you will know
all there is
to know about
miracles of light
and also about
the heart organ