Prime Decimals 7.5
What He Sees
by Randall Brown
followed by Q&A
Instead, Sisyphus looks up, the stars like the deep-set eyes of Death, whom Sisyphus had tricked and chained so no one could die, a thing that angered Ares, who believed Sisyphus had thus ruined the fun of war, and hence this punishment, the rock, the hill, an essay by Camus that imagines him happy.
Now, the world has turned, and stars that weren't there appear. Were he to look down, past the rock, below the mountain, he'd see the faces upturned toward him, the famous roller of rocks, a star among the punished, like Atlas holding up the world. That descent back to boulder resides in that world, like gravity, pushes him toward Fate, and it is in this briefest of moments, when it is the rock and not the world he has left behind, that Sisyphus finally sees granite, a gray wall against which with all his might he sets himself.
The granite wall moves from his vision; the stars realign; and there Merope appears, the disappearing seventh star of the Pleiades, ashamed of marrying a mortal, of her husband Sisyphus's sin that knows no end. She flickers in and out of existence. He imagines this next ascension will be his last, that the gods and goddesses will tire of watching reruns. He imagines both an end and a beginning. In that moment, when she burns for him, he imagines the softness of eyelids and fingertips, the corners of lips, before his face is turned back, finally, to the task at hand, before all is once again that rock, worn smooth like a tombstone, and all he can see is his name etched onto it, like star-nymph daughters set into stars, like the chains etched into Death's wrists, like footsteps leading back to where it all began.
Randall Brown teaches at and directs Rosemont College’s MFA in Creative Writing Program. He is the author of the award-winning collection Mad to Live, his essay on (very) short fiction appears in The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction: Tips from Editors, Teachers, and Writers in the Field, and he appears in the Norton Anthology of Hint Fiction. He has been published widely, both online and in print, and blogs regularly at FlashFiction.Net. He's also the founder and managing editor of Matter Press and its Journal of Compressed Creative Arts.
Q: What was the inspiration for this piece?
A: The fact that I remember many mythic characters for their punishments—Atlas's shoulder to the world, Prometheus's ever-eaten liver, and Sisyphus's rock and roll, for example—and that I often forget their crimes made me start researching (i.e., Wikipedia) what they did to deserve such harsh judgment. That led me to some more information about Sisyphus, of his wife in the skies as the seventh star of the Pleiades. And that I thought would be the real punishment, her twinkling above him, reminding him of the world beneath his worn-smooth rock and mountain. That, I thought, would be the moment, when she appears, that would really, really suck.
A Night at the Opera
by Christin Rice
followed by Q&A
The lights dim in the opera house and the director steps forth. She is 6 feet tall and wears 4 inch heels. She looks into the audience and says, “Tonight, we have a real treat for you…”
The curtain rises and Danitza, the heroine, sings to her love, Arturo: “I will always be smarter than you, I will always earn more than you, but darling you are so fetching in that pinafore I can’t help but love you forever.” She is singing in Pig Latin.
Arturo sings in return about how he made her his. She rolls her eyes and lets him believe that is exactly what transpired. He doesn’t know that the architecture of their lives was born on an excel spreadsheet that she drew up at work, a project plan for romance.
In a frenzy of telling and not showing, or singing and not showing, we hear the story of how they met. And there will be much exposition, much exposition, much exposition through song.
Arturo will be too busy singing his heart out about conquering the neighbor’s nation, won’t take time to notice she isn’t listening, isn’t swooning. She is instead calculating the time it will take to make partner at the law firm and how to break it to him that there won’t be any children. Their dogs dance in unified choreography around them, a complicated ballet of leashes and dog strollers. And the supporting cast of friends and spa staff gather in a chorus about the joys of an organized bookshelf. Their beautiful home sparkles around them.
Theirs is a sweet and healthy marriage. It works because both parties think they are in control. What they don’t realize of course is that they are both wrong. Control rests in the hands of the gods who are offstage right and the gods are jealous. They are jealous because the mere mortals have not spent even one moment thinking about them. And in opera, if you don’t think about something you don’t sing about it either and you are left with songs about dry cleaning and hair care. Which, let’s face it, makes for pretty dull opera. And the offstage gods are nothing if not vain and refuse to let the audience depart without at least a taste of their mighty powers. With much clanging and banging of symbols and sirens, thunder is represented and fear will be known. The trumpets signal the rising of action and darkness will trigger a round of applause.
The curtain drops. It’s intermission, quick! Check your cell phone and grab a $10 plastic flute of California Champagne. Now, back to your seat, it’s time for the rest of the show.
Act II erupts with drums and horns and the gods. We can tell they are gods because they have the letter G hanging around their necks. It’s kind of a blingy G and hurts your eyes to look at. Danitza walks on stage and sings to them: How nice of you to join us. My husband is in the middle of a spiritual crisis about his diet, could you please attend to him? And they leap for joy to be needed and run off stage to help.
Danitza has the stage to herself. She likes it there. She lets the audience know through song that no one will be killing themselves for love in this opera, and that this too is beautiful. And there will be much exposition, much exposition, much exposition through song.
But what am I saying is maybe we go to the opera to be transported out of the everyday grind of wheels in our head and we don’t actually want reality. Maybe stories of star-crossed lovers who kill themselves are good; then their love is never really tested, right? Imagine an opera about paying bills and folding laundry and trying to make conversation for forty years. The audience would focus their little binoculars elsewhere, training them on the dust caught in the great chandelier above.
How do you make your own dreams come true while also having a day job? At Wells Fargo? This is the opera I want to attend. Maybe opera can’t answer that, maybe there are no costumes to accompany songs about living the creative life. Maybe I will have to stage my own. I’ll be holding rehearsals soon.
Christin Rice is a writer in San Francisco who is not above using humor as a defense mechanism. Her work has appeared in Pif Magazine, Soma Literary Review and performed at LitUp Writers.
Q: What was the inspiration for this piece?
A: I spent a season trying really hard to like opera, because it just seemed like something I should love. I saw it simulcast at AT&T park, I saw it in all its grandeur in the opera house, I saw an edgy version in a museum, and every time I left wondering whether opera was really relevant anymore. Trying to find myself in the story, I wrote my own opera in response.
by Joseph Mills
followed by Q&A
I’ve had enough.
For years I’ve supported you and come to your readings. Even when the audience wasn’t big enough to get a poker game going, I was there. But now, frankly, I’m getting too old to keep sitting through hours of bad performances. I’m tired of you wasting my time. I’m tired of you seeming to have no sense of what I need. I’m tired of you not working on our relationship.
Understand, I love poetry. It’s not your poems that are driving me away, but how you deliver them. You’ve been reading your work so badly, so obtusely, or so arrogantly, that it’s painful to listen to.
That is, when I can listen to it. Sometimes you make it so that I can’t even do that. You mumble. You whisper. Even when you’re given a microphone, you turn your face away from it. Often you don’t seem to know how to use the equipment, so you ignore it and then look baffled by the popping and screeching occurring as if it doesn’t have anything to do with you. Or, you act like the microphone’s an immovable piece of furniture. You stoop or tippy-toe to get near. I don’t understand why you don’t simply adjust it, or, if you don’t know how, why you don’t ask someone else to do it.
I know that you can be shy, and I know that just because you wrote the poems that doesn’t mean you want to read them out loud to people. But, if you’re too uncomfortable or embarrassed to do it well, or at least competently, then don’t. I’m there because I want to better understand your work; if you mangle it, that defeats the purpose. I’m tired of waiting for a reading to be over and staying only because of pity or vague feelings of obligation or politeness.
I’m also tired of your Jekyll and Hyde act. When we talk before or after the reading, you speak normally, but when you start to read, it’s like you’ve been taken over by some alien force. What the hell happens to your voice? What’s with the odd intonations? The stilted diction? The weird emphases as if This … Is… Ve…ry…Import…ant. Or the rocking rhythm, the back and forth repetition, the sense of righteousness and mission, of someone on Def Poetry Jam? The words become sounds, and the sense drifts away. No one, probably not even you, can figure out what you’re saying. I want to hear a person, not some parody of a poet.
What I don’t want to hear is the snocking up of snot or the constant clearing of your throat. If you have to stop to blow your nose or cough, go ahead. This isn’t a whitewater ride where once you’re moving, you can’t stop. If you need a swallow of water, take one.
I understand when you have to make adjustments like that. What I don’t understand is why you act sometimes like you’re not prepared. Why do you get up and say things like “I haven’t decided what to read tonight?” Why do you waste everyone’s time flipping through books? If you knew you were going to read five poems, why do you have twenty-five post-notes? If you haven’t thought about the event, even though the date has been on your calendar for weeks, that’s insulting. If you have, then you’re lying.
It’s also insulting when you act disappointed at the turnout. I’m there; is that not good enough? And why do you sometimes tell me before you even read the piece that I won’t understand it. You’ve said, “This is probably too abstract” and “I don’t know if this will make sense.” If you suspect that it won’t, why read it? Do you not care about me? And why do you read new work that you suggest might not be done? Would you serve half-cooked food if you ran a restaurant? Am I some white rat you’re running tests on? You know most of the rats, except the ones that get the good drugs, don’t enjoy that very much.
Look, I know that you’re excited to share your work, but do you have to share so much of it? I can listen closely to a few pieces, but I’m overwhelmed by two dozen shoved at me one after another. When you do that, they become an undistinguishable mass. You’re a poet, not a fiction writer. An audience can listen to a twenty minute story, but we can’t concentrate on twenty minutes of poetry without breaks in between, especially when they don’t seem to fit together or you don’t give us any kind of connective material between them.
And speaking of time, if you say that you’ll read for twenty minutes, do you secretly think I really want you to read for forty? I don’t. I really don’t. Whenever you ask yourself, “Do I have time for one more?” the answer always should be “No.”
Please, show me that you care about our relationship. I don’t want to leave you after all these years.
But I will.
Your long-time, but frustrated, fan
Joe Mills teaches at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts where he currently holds the Susan Burress Wall Distinguished Professorship in the Humanities. He also is the poet-in-residence at Salem College. He has published three collections of poetry, including Love and Other Collisions, and he’s given plenty of poor readings
Q: What was the inspiration for this piece?
A: I started thinking about this piece after being at yet another reading that seemed almost perversely designed to alienate people. In fact, I had been hoping that it was performance art, but, unfortunately, it was simply ineptness. At first I thought of structuring a response as an audience’s Bill of Rights which would include such radical demands as we have a right to expect the author to be prepared and we have a right to hear the author. Eventually the piece became a letter.
Upstairs at the Mardigan Museum
Followed by Q&A
a bulky piece of bark waits atop Mt.
Ararat, barely breathing, everything
waiting for the command to open its
throat and sing hoofs and headaches,
feathers and stench, webbed feet,
nerves and sneezes, elbows, knees,
caterpillars and capillaries en-wired
and mired in flesh, not to mention
the mysteries divided into their strange
compartments between mottled
and flat freckled skins. The storm
is over. Thinning clouds wait for
joy to exhale its hundred strange
winsome little movements with such
abandon even the sogged earth must
briefly turn away with unguarded delight.
Jenn Blair is from Yakima, WA. She has published in Copper Nickel, the James Dickey Review, Cold Mountain Review, New South, Rattle, Tulane Review, and New Plains Review among others. Her chapbook All Things are Ordered is out from Finishing Line Press.
Q: What was your inspiration for this poem?
A: I was fortunate enough to spend the fall semester of my senior year of college in Jerusalem. I lived just outside the walls of the old city and walking through the Armenian Quarter was one of my favorite ways to spend an afternoon. It is there that you will find the highly worthwhile Mardigan Museum.
Light Through a Train's Roof
Down to Loch Long, a thousand rims of rain,
the archipelago in the angel forming the body,
and so I learn like A’saph in his melody:
the sky and the rain all at once.
Humble, I pray; and I am lost, another blue atom,
another obscene soul in this whole blue earth,
in the blackness that stretches out into sempiternity,
that day of God before he created the universe.
And in those skies the colors darken,
the autumn colors that come from Africa, copper and diamond,
Jehovah God in the trees and in the wind and in the rain,
the last light of the day through the broken ceiling of the train ...
God in everything that surrounds us—in every last minute,
night and day.
An 8-time Pushcart Prize nominee, Jéanpaul Ferro’s work has appeared on National Public Radio, Contemporary American Voices, Columbia Review, Emerson Review, Connecticut Review, Sierra Nevada Review, and others. He is the author of All The Good Promises (Plowman Press, 1994), Becoming X (BlazeVox Books, 2008), You Know Too Much About Flying Saucers (Thumbscrew Press, 2009), Hemispheres (Maverick Duck Press, 2009), Essendo Morti – Being Dead (Goldfish Press, 2009), nominated for the 2010 Griffin Prize in Poetry; and the recently released Jazz (Honest Publishing, 2011).
Two Men Rowing Madly Toward Infinity
followed by Q&A
The current flows in the opposite direction
so they are moving, always,
Time is like water, but is not water.
Time flows, but isn’t a river.
They’re determined to reach their destination,
that point when they may turn the boat about
and head toward home. But oars drag slowly
through these viscous hours.
You cannot set your watch by it.
Better to use the sun, approximate
your position in the sky.
As they row, the shore becomes a series
of scrolling scenes, a diorama of one era
crashing into the next, an index
of possibilities. There is always the pull
its opposite. The push into one day
If there were such a thing,
one might say they’ve been in this boat
But there’s not, so they’ve always only just arrived.
It’s a warm day on the river.
See how the light falls on their shoulders,
sweat glistening in the long sun.
Without the will to go forward,
they can only
As the daylight ebbs, the dusk engulfs them.
In their vessel, the atoms of all that’s
merge in the darkness, erase any difference between
the men, their craft, the water, and the endless world.
William Reichard is the author of four collections of poetry, including Sin Eater (2010) and This Brightness (2007). He is the editor of American Tensions: Literature of Identity and the Search for Social Justice (2011).
Q: What was the inspiration for this poem?
A: This poem was inspired by an untitled painting by Ivan J. Fortushniak.