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The Smoking Poet - Summer 2008

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edrodegatemouthbrown_a3.jpg

"Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown's music defied any simple categorization, but it certainly encompassed country, Cajun, blues and jump music. Weakened by the cancer that claimed his life just a few months later, he nonetheless rose to the occasion in early 2005 to play two shows -- in one night -- with Gregg Allman at an Atlanta performance hall. Turning for an instant to cue the band on the tempo for a song, the light played perfectly off of his cowboy hat while I stood at the back of the stage. Gatemouth truly led a cowboy lifestyle -- in his own way."
 
~Ed Rode, photographer


From a Dark Field

by Shannon Carson

 

I begin each day cozied up in that warm half sleep of early morning: mind roiling, negotiating poem fragments; slipping seamlessly in and out of Spanish; silently arranging the activities that will comprise my day, only to realize nothing will ever be the same. Then I lie with my wide-awake closed eyes and dream of reversing the order of my days, trying to will back one moment, before which I’d unwittingly had all I wanted. But one August night changed everything.

It was cool, the moon low and large, and I positioned myself against the wood deck, peering up at the sky devoid of stars, nursing my anger at the universe for being so unmoved by my plight. I thought it must be comforting to have faith in something, anything, so complete that fear and doubt fall away. But such belief seemed foreign to me. Certainly, I’d find faith if I were spoken to, given proof I could hold in hand, texture and nuance I could see. I’m not religious, having been to church mainly for weddings and funerals, and am embarrassed to admit I sometimes wish I had one of those personal relationships with Jesus you hear so much about. Still, I shouted to the dark, hazy mass above that I would be converted if I were given a sign, a glimpse into the arcane workings of the universe.

I noticed a subtle but unnatural shifting of clouds, layers of shadow discernible only by the motion of one layer against the other. I’d seen only the dim grainy sky, but once in motion, I saw clearly, well, an Air Force stealth bomber, maybe, or giant manta ray? I suppose that’s why they’re called UFOs. It hovered large, directly overhead, in response to my request. They say the Lord works in mysterious ways.

The abduction happened quickly enough and my subsequent examination proved no more discomfiting than a trip to the gynecologist. I would describe them, but they have a way of blurring in my mind, like a dream in which you recognize a face, but can’t for the life of you think of detail. Things aren’t so bad. We eat TV dinners on Tuesday nights and try to make sense of world politics. They assure me they’ve never spoken to Dubya, but rather men with heavy hearts wandering a cornfield, or women stranded by the roadside, alienated from their own lives. My Spanish has even improved.

But not a day goes by I don’t wish that I could go back. Half the joy of learning a secret is the knowledge that it can be shared. I pine for my former ignorance and it’s too late now to shout from a mountain top. Every night I lean against exotic metals to watch the marbles of the universe hurtle past, unreachable, unforgotten. I think of how unremarkable my life used to be, how perfectly mundane, and pray for all those lost souls to never hear from us.

 

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Shannon Carson, a writer living in Portland, Oregon, recently completed her MA in poetry writing and is currently hustling for work. Her poems can be found in the Spring 2008 issue of the Suisun Valley Review and Volume 51 Issue 3 of The Portland Review. Her essay “Moving North” will be included in Citadel of the Spirit, an anthology commemorating Oregon’s Sesquicentennial due out next February from Nestucca Spit Press.

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1929

by Tamara Le

 

The pair made their way through the thick, canopied jungle. Master Dang introduced Van to new herbs, insects and forms of energy. They gorged themselves on wild apricots and roasted an orphaned baby pig over an open fire.

When the afternoon rains poured the travelers laid their shirts on top of green bamboo and then squeezed every drop of water into a metal bottle. “Drink only from the heavens,” cautioned Master Dang. “Anything from the earth has been witness to evil spirits.”

Hiking within a few kilometers of the Tra Vinh/Vinh Long border, the jungle thinned and flat plains became grassy, low and lush. On the horizon the Mekong held tide pools and mucky fields for ransom. Somehow though, on the near edge of the coulee, rice grew. The passageway home to Mo Cay was to the northeast across the river’s lower branch.

“Van Dong,” hissed Master Dang. “Over here.” As he grabbed the boy’s shirt and held him at his hip, his long white brows above his pale gray eyes twitched. He threw their satchels into a deep, rotting mango tree stump and then waded into a thick pool.

Van followed, uncertain. The water was warm, but he shivered.

“Shhh.” Master Dang lowered himself to his knees without rippling the mucky water. He coaxed Van in until the boy’s chin touched the surface. He pulled large palm fronds from the bank and placed them over the boy’s head.

Monkeys and birds muted their chatter. Van heard muffled, human cries. Something heavy was being dragged along the ground, like a canoe or ghe. Peering through the leaves Van watched Master Dang. He eyes protruded from his skull like braised banquet eels.

There was a flash of red satin sliding along the ground a meter or two from the pond. It was a woman’s body writhing back and forth between two shirtless men. A ceremonial ao dai. Perhaps she is of imperial blood or was celebrating the onset of Têt. Behind them were more men. They were dirty and wild and had mud matted to their bodies. They carried two young girls dressed in black and white ao dai.

Van’s mentor fixated on the mob behind the girls. They carried the body of a bloodied man who still screamed with a life force. His legs had been severed at the hips. Boys behind the men held the legs in the air, as if they were French colonial soldiers parading their ceremonial flags into battle.

Behind the boys were six or seven ancient peasant women; tiny, arthritic and toothless. They were angry and sang a rhythmic hymn as they whipped a swamp buffalo’s rump to time.

Van closed his eyes and begged for forgiveness. “Phât Tô, I should not have asked you to blind my father to my truth. I failed as the medicine man’s protégé. Let me bear his punishment. Not yours.”

“No!” screamed Master Dang’s terrified eyes. The old man’s snow white beard floated on top of the water as he took in a mouthful of water. Van did the same and then prayed to Buddha in silence.

The wretched parade came to a halt at the edge of the narrow rice field. Van could see the shirtless young men begin to dig holes in the field. Deep holes. Dirt flew into the air as they dug four, wide square pits.

Master Dang’s grip on Van’s shirt hadn’t loosened. They did not move for hours. I wonder if Master Dang will return the land my father gave him for trying to make me a doctor. The land that was to be in my sister’s dowry.

The men stopped digging and everyone grew quiet. Everyone except a lone, excited young man. He looked to be Van’s brother’s age. He talked and yowled and the people shook their heads. They screamed at the well-dressed man and woman. The girls cowered in each other’s arms.

As the sun began to arc toward the horizon, the pit men put down their shovels and hoisted the captives overhead. They threw each one into an earthen tomb. The boys and old women helped fill the pits with wet handfuls of muck. Only the heads of the captives remained above ground.

A large sand viper slithered across the bank of the lotus pond, eyeing Van and Master Dang. Neither the birds nor the monkeys yet sang.

The woman screamed the loudest as the sharpened plow sloshed through the mud toward the girls. The metal blade gouged and then sliced open their necks. Their heads fell limply to the side of the furrow.

Betel-chewing grandmothers followed the plow. They stepped slow and methodically on the skulls, burying them in the earth between blossoming lá lúa. By the time the swamp buffalo made it down and back up the row; through the woman and through the man, Van and Master Dang had submerged themselves under water.

 

š

 

Toward the end of the growing season, Van’s father grew tired of his son’s preoccupation with their rice fields, swamp buffalo and his mother’s red, ceremonial ao dai.

“Have you seen what is happening in the canals, young man?” the elder man asked.

His cigarettes make him sound like a French movie star. Van knew better than to think this was an opportunity to confide in his father. To tell him what he and Master Dang had seen in the jungle. Van knew better than to answer his father at all. His father already had his answer.

“The French have machines that dig the sediment from the canals. They can dig and sift and clear a canal in a day. It takes a thousand peasants and an entire season to do that,” said Van’s father. “You don’t have to feed machines. We must think like the West Van, like the Japanese.”

The hotness of the afternoon fell and a soft, blue-gray rain shrouded their fields in the distance. “You’re going to Saigon, my son. You will master engineering, accounting and French at the Jesuit School.”

Van watched the peasants toil with rice blossoms in the thick, slow earth and clutched the lining in his well-worn pockets.

 

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Writing is Tamara Le’s unapologetic pleasure. Her mother dissuaded her from writing books when she was twelve (“It’s lonely work…”) but she survived without therapy.

Tamara worked on Capitol Hill, in China, in a Psychiatric Hospital and in Public TV, but it was her daughter’s birth that brought her back to fiction. As an infant, her daughter was in a body cast for four months so Tamara propped her in a beanbag chair and began that first manuscript.

After another baby girl, Tamara now writes a paragraph each day. As for her mom, she’s now writing herself. Not a lonely one in the bunch.

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The Fence
by Greg Stickrod


He hunches into the wind-driven snow, a posture he disdains. His feet slide off iced river rock and he stumbles, losing his balance, splatting head-long into the snow. Lying there for a moment, trying to catch his breath which comes raspy through lungs full of fluid. Sweat beads on his forehead, but only momentarily before it freezes. He swipes at the ice jutting from his face with his forearm like an anguished bear might paw at hornets. Torment is no stranger.

Sam Blackburn has never feared for his life before except a few times after he’s nearly lost it. He doesn’t dwell on that. He’s forty, and bullet-proof. He gets a knee under him and pushes up, rising from the snow in an awkward slanted way. Like a ship listing in high seas, he thinks. Then he puts his hands on his knee and pushes his body up. Pulling his trailing leg forward and planting it in front of him he makes sure the ground is solid before he lets the weight of his body pivot forward. It feels as though his chest is filled with concrete.

He leans to port and then starboard as he makes his way through icy rock like a floundering ship on high seas. All Sam Blackburn wants is to circumnavigate the globe, just once, and he’s sure it will happen. There is the tiniest twinkle of moon haze on the river - the only light Sam sees. It’s like the light bouncing off the ocean on those long voyages he’s made. Six months fishing off the coast of Siberia. Six months without setting foot on terra firma, or a shot of whiskey, or a flirt from the barmaid. And, there were lots of shorter trips out of Alaska. But he’s not at sea now. He’s in Montana. He walked here from Florida. He didn’t give it a second thought. When he got tired of Florida he just turned north and started walking, and five months later he got here. The fishing was lousy in Florida, barely made any money, and the fish were big ugly groupers, not like the silvery sleek salmon in Alaska.

It was Indian summer here yesterday when Sam took a Montana shower. He smiles at the thought. He sat in the middle of the river and tossed handfuls of water over his head until he’d washed enough stink off. Then he ran like hell for the fire and warmed up before his teeth broke from the chattering.

But when he came here in the summers with his dad it was different. They’d fish all day throwing dry flies and nymphs at the big rainbows and browns. And at the end of the day they’d get in a water fight filling their hats with river water and dousing each other, as if the water mattered; hell, they’d been hot and wet all day anyway. That was years ago. But it was part of what drew him here this time. That and the University. It was time to finish the degree. Settle down, maybe start a family.

Today the temperature started dropping. Clouds the color of iron rolled in and spat icy flakes of snow. The sickness Sam had been nursing settled deeper in him, in his lungs. Wind driven snow funneled into his lean-to and buried him tonight, so he picked up the gear he could and headed for town.

Sam stumbles again and it throws him forward, his feet running just to keep up with the rest of his body, and then he hits a tree that seems to jump out of the darkness onto the river trail. He hangs on, his nails grating into the bark, and coughs until it seems his lungs will explode. He puts his arms around the tree and slides down it to his knees and pants in short breathes that don’t fill him up; it’s like licking at the rain when you’re dying of thirst.

He thinks about the times he’s cheated death. Overboard in the Bering Sea, falling from cliffs, crashing his motorcycle, rolling trucks, tangled in seaweed, his oxygen tank empty, caught in whiteouts, jumping boat to boat as they sped through schooling Tiger Sharks. Goddamn little Montana blizzard isn’t going to get me, he mutters. He takes a pull on the pint of whiskey in his pocket and pushes on.

The lights of town appear like half a dozen flying saucers suspended in the blackness. It’s the motel, Sam thinks. And now a hint of that fear, the one he’s only felt after near-fatal incidents, rattles up through him. He pushes forward at a quickened pace. Then suddenly he’s stopped in his tracks. There is a barbed wire stretched across his chest. The fence runs up along the creek that feeds the river. He will have to walk up it a quarter of a mile to cross on the small rock bridge he built. Or he can try crossing here. Goddamn fence, he’d forgotten it. There’s no time, he’s fading fast. He climbs the fence and gets one leg over then falls tumbling into the creek. The water is deep here and the bitter coldness of it rushes in under his clothes. He wills his legs to move and finally his feet touch bottom and he claws his way from the depths of the creek sucking air hard. He crawls to the fence on the other side of the creek wriggling through the wire, and it saps the last of him. Goddamn fence.

His coat catches on the barbs. He pulls himself free of it, and it hangs there on the fence, an effigy of him frozen stiff. Odd, he thinks, it is so warm. He stands and hobbles into the cone of light radiating from a mercury vapor lamp. The light swirls around him warming him perfectly. For the first time in his life he feels no pain. He stretches his arms out toward the light and falls backward into a bank of snow so soft and warm it seems made of down. A boat approaches him through the Montana sky. A sail boat, a sturdy one, built to circumnavigate the globe. “Magnificent, fucking magnificent,” Sam utters.

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Greg Stickrod is a scientist and administrator having worked in university, hospital, and biotechnology settings. He has sold articles to fly-fishing magazines, and published many articles in scientific journals. He has now turned his focus on fiction writing. “The Fence” is a fictional piece about what Stickrod imagines his oldest son’s last hour may have been like when he died in a Montana blizzard in November of 2007.

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