Saving Sgt. Billings

“The Lonely Tree,” oil on canvas, by Casper David Friedrich, 1822.

by Kari Gunter-Seymour

We did what we could,
hid the bottles, drove what
was left of him deep
into the yawning hollow,
built a campfire, drank water
from a long-handled gourd
a galvanized bucket.

We set up tents for triage,
counted his breaths, worried
over irregular heartbeats,
sweats, persistent vomiting,
his jacked up adrenal system.

We waited. Listened for a canvas
zipper in the night, each long slow
pull a call to duty, our legs folding
over duct taped camp stools,
tucked tight around the fire,
his gut-fucked stories, stenched
in blood and munitions,
overpowering the woodsmoke’s
curling carbons.

Crows haunched on branches
behind our backs, sentinels,
silent as we wept.
We doused him in creek water,
a sharp sheen of moon over our bones,
recited communions, sang songs
our mothers taught us in the womb,
every neighbor dog and coyote
within earshot barking hill to valley.

Some people think they
don’t deserve to be loved,
every story scratched
into the dirt an ache.
That week, down in the lower forty
we all got born again.
It was hard to say who saved who.

“Saving Sgt. Billings” originally appeared in Cutleaf.

omega man

Kari Gunter-Seymour’s most recent poetry collection is A Place So Deep Inside America It Can’t Be Seen, winner of the 2020 Ohio Poet of the Year Award. Her poems appear in Verse Daily, Rattle, The New York Times, and on her website: www.karigunterseymourpoet.com. Her work was selected by former US Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey to be included in the PBS American Portrait crowdsourced poem, Remix: For My People. She is the founder/executive director of the Women of Appalachia Project (WOAP) and editor of the WOAP anthology series, Women Speak, volumes 1-6. She is Poet Laureate of Ohio.

First Nail

“Interior, No. 30 Strandgade,” oil on canvas, by Vilhelm Hammershoi, 1906

by Brendan Constantine

I take your portrait down to clean
and notice the scar of another
hanging, painted over. Whoever
lived here before also put a picture
on this wall, looking into the room.
It’s an old building. I remember
the landlord saying that over and
over as if it explained something,
the plumbing, the tile, the deaths
of people we love. And if it really
was “near a hundred years” then
there wasn’t just one picture before
yours, there were many. I’ve never
wanted a time machine so I could
stop assassinations or feed french fries
to dinosaurs, but I want one now,
want to set it before your lost smile
and watch the pictures change. No
telling into what: another person
or ten raising glasses, a faithful
dog, maybe Christ. Of course, there
must’ve been things, too: a calendar,
a coat peg, a little shelf for a candle.
But, I bet it’s mostly faces and
dear ones. That’s what you put on
a wall like this, that’s who should
greet you when you come home
from a wrong day. I would stop
the machine when the building
began to look new, just before
the first nail. Then I would run it
forward again and make a poem
of time, so that every picture—all
the saints or sailboats, all the wild-
eyed babies—digressed to you.

omega man

Brendan Constantine’s work has appeared in Poetry, Tin House, Best American Poetry, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. His most recent collection is Bouncy Bounce from Blue Horse Press. He has received support and commissions from The Getty Museum, The James Irvine Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. A popular performer, Brendan has presented his work to audiences throughout the U.S. and Europe, also appearing on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” TED ED, numerous podcasts, and YouTube. Brendan currently teaches at the Windward School and, since 2017, has been developing poetry workshops for people with Aphasia.

Thirteen

“The Young Shepherdess,” oil on marouflaged panel, by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1885.

by Rebecca Foust

I was thirteen, and there was a boy’s mouth
where my legs met. My heart beat

like a bird caught in a bag, let’s say
for her plumage. I could smell his want,

thirteen and there was a boy, and I became
something salt and sweet

where my legs met. My heart like a bird
swelled and split

the clear air with its song. I was the must,
the first press wine,

thirteen, and only this boy and the needles
under the pines,

that cedary bed, fragrant and ancient as dust
and where my legs met—thirst—

a boy, my heart like a bright, caught bird.

“Thirteen” originally appeared in Arts & Letters.

omega man

Rebecca Foust’s books include The Unexploded Ordnance Bin and Paradise Drive. Recognitions include the CP Cavafy and James Hearst poetry prizes, the Lascaux Prize in Flash Fiction, and fellowships from Hedgebrook, MacDowell, and Sewanee. Foust was Marin County Poet Laureate in 2017-19. She works as Poetry Editor for Women’s Voices for Change, serves as an assistant Editor for Narrative Magazine, and is co-producer of a new series about poetry for Marin TV, “Rising Voices.”

Satin Nightgown or Flannel Pajamas

“Sick Husband,” oil on canvas, by Vassily Maximov, 1881.

by Claire Scott

Suspended between lover and caregiver and not doing either
especially well. I prefer neat piles, no quarters in the heap

of nickels, no spoons in the section for forks, no screws
in the mason jar of nails or thumbtacks in the box of pushpins.

But some things don’t sort simply. You ten years older, your body
bent, shuffling like a polar penguin, misremembering
names and passwords, taking eight prescriptions a day.

Angry I have to change light bulbs, fill birdfeeders, fertilize
tomatoes. Angry you forget your hearing aids, your heart beats
too fast and doctors appointments fill our days.

But I see the gladdest smile when I come home, like summer heat
shimmering off asphalt. We watch Before Sunrise, my head on your shoulder,
falling asleep on the ancient sofa where we made love many times ago.

The cold coin of December waits, knowing its turn will come. We read
Mary Oliver, listening for the phone’s chime, signaling time for Aricept

and Lisinopril. Time for satin pajamas or a flannel nightgown and dreams
of nickels waltzing with nails, forks sashaying with pushpins.

omega man

Claire Scott’s work has appeared in Atlanta Review, Bellevue Literary Review, New Ohio Review, Enizagam, and The Healing Muse, among others. Claire is the author of Waiting to be Called and Until I Couldn’t. She is the co-author of Unfolding in Light: A Sisters’ Journey in Photography and Poetry.

Changing Hearts

“McSorley’s Bar,” oil on canvas, by John Sloan, 1912.

by David Watts

Yesterday we sat in the afternoon sun,
conscious how time was dissolving into the chill
of evening, sipping our cappuccino
or ginger ale between words
that my friend drew forth
like the inexplicable raising of nectar
into honey, and I heard for the second time
the news of his heart transplant,
details like a post card from a foreign country
navigating the impermanent collection of sludge and ether
I call my body, to the cabbage-like brain
swelling to make room for this surging astonishment.

He’d been lying on the slab, he said, stoned on Valium,
the surgeons dotted around the perimeter
discussing which parts of the dying man next door
they’d plant in him, removing the tattered bag
of his heart, lying-in like a newborn
in another man’s dream. The surgeon from Texas
leaned in and said, We’re about to give you what you need.

My friend woke in the astonished manner of expectation
when, met with the unexpected, rises
to a broader view, alive and aware
of the vigorous pump and surge of his new heart,
a dying gift from a man who no longer had use for it,
whipping about like a catfish in a river cove.

My friend stopped his story then, and tilted his head.
You know, he said, they never tell you
the identity of the person who gives you the heart,
but I awoke knowing his name and his three children.

He grasped his teacup in both hands
the delicate way one handles a gardenia blossom
just petaling open.

The afternoon dimmed and turned to embrace
the inevitably of night as we lingered, squeezing
the paling moments for their last sweetwater
drippings, drawing  into our bodies
what warmth we could.

Yet something far more than flesh and grit
was riding the chest of my friend,
sitting across from me, alive
in this world, augmented somehow.

There was a silence then,
nothing would do but silence
in which his story settled in me like my own new heart,
clinching and whispering,
as we rose and stretched and walked away
into the murmuring, breathing night.

omega man

David Watts’s literary credits include seven books of poetry, three collections of short stories, two mystery novels, seven western novels, a Christmas memoir, and several essays. He is a medical doctor, a classically trained musician, inventor and former television personality and commentator for All Things Considered. He has received awards for his work in media, in medicine, and as a poet and author.

Ecru

“Artist and Model,” oil and sand on canvas, by Georges Braque, 1939.

by Oak Morse

We were all one beautiful blend
of mama’s love. My brother,
the color of ecru, the other one
sepia, and me, ebony.

My grandma was from the
midnight blue age,
before Brown vs. Board,
back when there were bright
no trespassing stripes between
coal and pristine places.

Southerners saw life
through a dirty shade of sage
and my grandma did especially,
even through the late 90’s,
shouting to Mama the reason
you show the youngest more love
is because he’s light skin.

I had no idea light skin
was sapphire and gold,
had no idea that one could
be loved in various weights.
Had no idea the treatment
that I felt was neutral was due
to the onyx in my skin.

The sun dimmed to dijon;
my future got dark, darker
than the hole I wanted to
crawl into. Mama told Grandma
she loves us all the same.
Grandma said she couldn’t
because we are different people.
I wondered how different?

Cobalt and boysenberry
or like crimson and ruby?
That day, Grandma baptized me
into a whole new world of color,
hoping I would come out closer
to sandcastle than chestnut.

I grew out of the grey area
and looked into Grandma’s penny-
colored past. Grandma is simply
a descendant of an overworked slave
with rusted hands who wouldn’t let go
when the proclamation was posted,
all because master treated his slaves
like they were all coconut hued.

My grandma knows
privilege comes in porcelain colors
and she knows that the more midnight
you are, the more undesirable you appear.
Does she know where it all ends?

Many elderly I know,
of mauve and royal jade,
live with flames in their throats
and can’t help but blaze
any crossover that could possibly
get us to the other side.

My grandma is a beautiful,
beloved, coffee-colored woman
with a fiery red voice bleeding
through generations. I just pray,
when I turn grey, that the red
will never show up in me.

omega man

Poet and theater instructor Oak Morse was the winner of the 2017 Magpie Award for Poetry in Pulp Literature as well as a Semi-Finalist for the 2020 Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry. Oak’s work has appeared in Strange Horizons, PANK, Beltway Poetry Quarterly, Menacing Hedge, The Nonconformist Magazine, and elsewhere. He has a B.A. in Journalism from Georgia State University. He currently lives in Houston, Texas where he teaches creative writing and performance and leads a youth poetry troop, The Phoenix Fire-Spitters. (@oak.morse)

Lunchtime at the Café Buade, Quebec City

“Waiting at the Cafe,” oil on panel, by Fernand De Launay, n.d.

by Barbara P. Greenbaum

There is a woman in the booth next to us.
She looks at me as I remove my new hat.
A deep red cloche, felt flower on the side.

As I try to fluff my hair back up,
her Gallic eyes smile to see me
struggling with the universal problem
of hat hair.

I smile back and we are
allies of static electricity,
joined by manes that won’t bend
or think of obedience.

I don’t speak her language,
but we know this one.
A song of gesture and resistance,
the thought we look flattened.
Recognition that at our age,
it doesn’t matter to anyone,
but us.

Her daughter and phone-glued
grandson pay no attention.
My husband’s nose
touches the menu.

As they rise to leave,
she raises her own hat to show me.
Hers is red, too.

Everyone overlooks
this intimate unfamiliarity,
nestled so seamlessly
among the clatter of dishes
slipping from the busboy’s hands.

omega man

Barbara Greenbaum’s work has been published or is forthcoming in Crack The Spine, Green Hills Literary Lantern, The Louisville Review, The MacGuffin, The Massachusetts Review, and elsewhere.

Elegy for a Living Mother

“Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose,” oil on canvas, by John Singer Sargent, 1886.

by Renee Agatep

When she finally dies
she’ll meekly ask God why was it all
clattering highchairs, whiskers on stained sinks
sunburnt lips and yellowed lace curtains
painted-over smears on doorjambs
warm well water swallows
scuffed linoleum, tinned green beans
phantom fleas and polyester sheets?

He’ll laugh
and say what of
cans of old pennies, drilling holes in pine boards
rumbling choir risers, boxes of matchsticks
rinsing rice, brass doorknobs
gin kiss mouthfuls, key lime pies, bonfires
carnations on safety pins, wax candy coke bottles
pipe tobacco and worn baseball mitts? What of—

But I’ll interrupt
and say how was she
supposed to know? She couldn’t hear
a goddamned thing over the baby screaming, living in that pigsty
with a bunch of little sociopaths, the neighbor’s dog never stopped barking for
Christ’s sake, she just needed a fucking cigarette because
nothing was ever good enough for me—
you see? She’s just so goddamned tired. She’s
tired, you hear?

And he will see
and let her sit for a spell on the
cut grass of eternity, serenity, peeling
oranges, catching her breath
among marigolds, unwrapping
cold foiled chocolates under easy
egg yolk suns, practicing
her name in wet cement
until we meet again.

“Elegy for a Living Mother” originally appeared in Rust + Moth.

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Renee Agatep writes of her rust belt roots in Ohio but now lives in Florida with her husband and children. She earned her master’s at Northeastern University and studies creative writing at the University of Central Florida. Her work is forthcoming in FlashFlood, Dear Damsels, Malarkey Books, perhappened, and Dunes Review.

Jenner Stones

“The Shore of the Turquoise Sea,” oil on canvas, by Albert Bierstadt, 1878.

by David Watts

At Jenner-by-the-Sea we scurry
over boulders to the place
where the breakers bear down,

the edge where rub and thrust
rinses everything finally clear.
It has taken a long time

to get here, past failures at love,
at marriage, but sometimes, after all,
there is an accident of grace.

We are cautious
and treasure everything
in our tennis shoes.

We teeter
over the runnels that rush
between footings, in which,

emptied by the gasp and suck
of the sea collapsing back,
we find the small

stones we came for: freshets
of color like floral nuggets
compressed to their smallest hardness.

Jadeite. Feldspar. Serpentine
and the one with an orange-mango cloud
marbling through like a fossilized sunset.

We cannot know where they came from,
though we imagine an ancient vein
glowing under a billion years of sediment

somewhere up the Russian River,
a cliff quarried
by the current’s constant fingers,

then fanned from the river’s mouth
and tossed on this beach
like jewel-stones left by a passing goddess.

I press them between my thumb
and forefinger. It may not be so bad
to go on for years with nothing

happening, nothing
but the downward heft of sediment—and then
this blossoming

omega man

David Watts’s literary credits include seven books of poetry, three collections of short stories, two mystery novels, seven western novels, a Christmas memoir, and several essays. He is a medical doctor, a classically trained musician, inventor and former television personality and commentator for All Things Considered. He has received awards for his work in media, in medicine, and as a poet and author.

Abeyance

“Farm Garden with Sunflowers,” oil on canvas, by Gustav Klimt, 1907.

by Rebecca Foust

letter to my transgender daughter

I made soup tonight, with cabbage, chard
and thyme picked outside our back door.
For this moment the room is warm and light,
and I can presume you safe somewhere.
I know the night lives inside you. I know grave,
sad errors were made, dividing you, and hiding
you from you inside. I know a girl like you
was knifed last week, another set aflame.
I know I lack the words, or all the words I say
are wrong. I know I’ll call, and you won’t answer,
and still I’ll call. I want to tell you
you are loved with all I have, recklessly,
and with abandon, loved the way the cabbage
in my garden near-inverts itself, splayed
to catch each last ray of sun. And how
the feeling furling-in only makes the heart
more dense and green. Tonight it seems like
something one could bear.

Guess what, Dad and I finally figured out Pandora,
and after all those years of silence, our old music
fills the air. It fills the air, and somehow, here,
at this instant and for this instant only
—perhaps three bars—what I recall equals all I feel,
and I remember all the words.

“Abeyance” originally appeared in the Academy of American Poets Poem-a-Day series and was featured on Tracey K. Smith’s The Slowdown.

omega man

Rebecca Foust’s books include The Unexploded Ordnance Bin and Paradise Drive. Recognitions include the CP Cavafy and James Hearst poetry prizes, the Lascaux Prize in Flash Fiction, and fellowships from Hedgebrook, MacDowell, and Sewanee. Foust was Marin County Poet Laureate in 2017-19. She works as Poetry Editor for Women’s Voices for Change, serves as an assistant Editor for Narrative Magazine, and is co-producer of a new series about poetry for Marin TV, “Rising Voices.”