Prime Number Magazine
is a publication of
PO Box 30314,
Winston-Salem NC 27130
Issue 13, October-December 2011
Prime Number Magazine is a publication of Press 53, PO Box 30314, Winston-Salem, NC 27130
Prime Decimals 13.5
The Plate Spinner Anagrams Mating Habits of the Carolina Wren
The Plate Spinner
by Curtis Smith
followed by Q&A
Freeing Myself from Foremothers' Clutches A Place to Hang Your Head Imbecile, Donkey, Flax-Head, Dope, Glump, Ninny and Fool Original Sin, a Mystery Play
Freeing Myself from Foremothers' Clutches
by Nandini Dhar
followed by Q&A
[Two Bangla (Bengali) phrases have been used in this poem—Pati Param Guru and Patir Punye Satir Punya. The phrase Pati Param Guru literally means, My Husband Is My God and Patir Punye Satir Punya means, A Chaste Wife Accrues Good Deed Through Her Husband’s. These phrases were often embroidered by middle-class housewives as forms of decorative art on pillowcases, bedcovers, and also framed on walls in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Bengal, a region in East India. ]
She knows only one story. Unlike her mother, who never let any of her stories spill
from her lips
This story, she repeats, everyday, amidst the heaviness of dailiness–
unwashed plates, sacks of potatoes to be peeled, clotheslines pressing down with linens–
workday’s end. She begins her double-shift. And summons me. Her index finger raised.
Perched on a stool, the bottle of coconut-oil at her feet, three kinds of combs peeking out of her
grip. This, I have been told, is the moment, when mothers and daughters, bond.
Throughout the planet. I sour
innovate curse-words pepper them with
can’t you just leave me alone, bitch the last word, of course, I say, only to myself in silence, that is.
She is unable to tame into shape my lips.
She makes up by oiling my hair in two fat braids of obedience.
It isn’t that she herself hadn’t ever apprenticed
in the school of laughters upside down. Like, she had once refused
to touch her own mother’s hands through the threads of this framed sampler–
now safe beneath its dust–worn glass, wooden cages–tulips which would never bloom
any time of the day. Birds copied from mimeographed pattern-books, and most importantly,
the advice manuals.
Pati param guru
Patir punye shatir punya
She, who is my ma, had once rejected the lure of the needle.
Refused to learn
to trace oneself in already determined designs
didn’t let her own mothers’ tears pierce her self, as if she is a piece of cloth waiting to be
embroidered down to the last detail yet that’s not the story she tells
in my facility to treat
the wall the page even my own skin
as the open field waiting to be curated with images yet to be named
she recognizes the shapes she could have taken had she not been so eager
to be taken as a fret board and played. Hence this need to curate my hair into recognizable shapes
She invokes her own mother thus every evening–the mother whose death-bed
she had once avoided. My grandmother, too, the woman who never shied away
from acting out every cliché
without shame or embarrassment charms up her damn stitches
wounds them around my neck, too tight—cutting off my oxygen. Me, powerless between my mother’s
knees. More so against this mother-daughter legacy. An once-disobedient daughter, after all, is much better than a granddaughter expert in casting
sideway glances to the very idea of family-name
What I wouldn’t do to free myself from my foremothers’ clutches?
She knows only one story.
Which, she repeats everyday, at least twice.
Once, during serving me my
night-rice, and once while leashing my hair into manageable shapes
Me, a captive audience between her knees,
silently promising to myself, I will indeed
leave. If for nothing else, for the sake of
foregoing this ritual of the tug at my skull every single day. For. I am not someone who
loves pain. Her fingers pricking stabbing my scalp
bereaves me of verbs everyday. Thus, for the next hours two or three, I have to plant myself nowhere else, other than the floor trying to remind myself that for a sentence to be fully complete, one needs the nouns and pro-nouns to do something.
Act that is.
Once I succeed to retrieve the order back again,
I cannot help admitting to myself, that this is how
her one story makes me feel too.
She knows only one story.
which, she repeats everyday, at least twice.
Every time she prefaces it with the same query:
did I ever tell you the story of...
as if her bag is teeming full of them.
As if, even if she tells ten new ones
every day, she would never reach the end.
If I delineate my mother and her mother’s trajectories, it would seem, the fate of a woman
is to keep on copying words without knowing their meanings spellings to keep on memorizing
stories others wrote for them without thinking of the consequences
I ask my her, my un-lettered, now dead grandma that is, did the curves of the letters you threaded, look to you like your own rounded hips? Did you once care to know the message you’re stitching?
She doesn’t respond–predictably. Instead, she urges her own daughter to tighten the grip
of her knees around me keep my hair firm within her fist
Not even one should escape the braid or the ribbon redemption
That’s the only way girls can be taught that desires to explore alone is lust indeed in some
and should be abhorred thus, by all means
For a long time, I have wished myself free. From my foremothers’ love-clutches.
I do refuse to wait anymore for the rains to give me back my sighs, suppressed
often, with much too care and affection yes, one night
I cut off my braids kept scissoring them
until they were nothing but a black heap near my feet
At last. They have ceased to be me. I, then, opened my scalp for the sun to sculpt its furrows deep
See, I already have more than one story to tell.
There is no way you can convince someone of the need to
crack open the fence of the courtyard. You cannot tell someone
that’s one of the possible ways to go about collecting new stories.
Along the same lines, there is no way you can tell someone that
new stories build up their nests on her own eyelids every single
day, to be retrieved, peeled clean and prepared for the dinner-plate.
You cannot teach anyone the act of retrieval, so to say.
Meanwhile, the only story she has ever known, being interrupted,
multiple times, hangs as a jacket on the coat-tree on the porch. The
moral of the story, because it was itching to be let out in front of
the Parrot-King, becomes a pair of shoes. Just so that it has a shape
worth mentioning, touching, feeling, and wearing by a human being.
And, in their sleepless profiles, they finally acquire noteworthy verbs.
Nandini Dhar’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Stonetelling, Up the Staircase, Hawaii Review, Prick of the Spindle, lingerpost, Palooka, Inkscrawl, Chanterelle's Notebook, Cartographer: A Literary Review, Cabinet des Fees, Penwood Review, Wilderness House Literary Review and Melusine. A Pushcart nominee, Nandini grew up in Kolkata, India, and is currently a Ph.D. Candidate in Comparative Literature at University of Texas at Austin.
Q: What can you tell us about the origins of this poem?
A: The poem began as a workshop exercise. We were all supposed to write an imitation of Sharon Dolin's “To The Furies Who Visited Me In The Basement of Duane Reade.” At the time, I had been re-reading Ginsberg's "Howl," and wondered what it would look like if a woman like me– a politicized middle-class woman from a postcolonial/neocolonial Third World space– had given voice to the howls that reside inside. In my poem, I have retained Dolin’s rhetoric of outrage. Like Dolin’s narrator, my narrator spreads herself across the page. The lines are long–they take up literal as well as figurative space, in contrast to the self-dwarfing of the foremothers she writes about. I drew much of my material from family archives, women’s stories, and memories of my native Bengal. However, I also wanted to move beyond an uncritical celebration of “women’s cultures.” Using the rhetoric of outrage that I read in Dolin and Ginsberg, I tried to write about the conflicts that define relationships between women, and about how women’s cultures sometimes police younger and creative women, inadvertently reinforcing patriarchy.
by Steven D. Schroeder
followed by Q&A
A Place to Hang Your Head
Unfinished as the basement, nightfall
Drip-drips from pipe fittings and creeps
In non-egress windows—no bars means no
Burglary yet. Two doors require three keys,
But one freezes in ghettobird floodlight.
Deadbolt your bedroom to keep out
Sleep and break-ins by kin who chatter
At your attic squirrels.Yes, that’s our pickup
Idling outside, no we will not help you
Move again, and no you’re not invited
To our party and/or fight. The last owner left
Through default and walls made of holes.
That hallway leads to nobody.
Note: I stole the title from “Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead” by Warren Zevon
Imbecile, Donkey, Flax-Head, Dope, Glump, Ninny and Fool
My arms have grown too long for sharp corners,
So I cut them. I think some think on purpose
When them might not even mean my arms.
My best arm is a bastard sword. I fight dirty
By starting arguments about who gets
To fight first. Anybody who would try to buy
My sourcebook on remorse could buy it.
If I get bigger than this, I want to be a mogul,
A highrise or charisma. From the right height,
Concrete can treat you softer than water.
What do they say it means when I dream
Only about elevator shafts? Please oh please
May they name this disease after me.
Note: I stole the title from “Gimpel the Fool” by Isaac Bashevis Singer
Steven D. Schroeder’s first book of poetry is Torched Verse Ends. His poems are available or forthcoming from Pleiades, Copper Nickel, Barn Owl Review, The Collagist, and Drunken Boat. He edits the online poetry journal Anti-, serves as a contributing editor for River Styx, and work as a Certified Professional Résumé Writer.
Q: What can you tell us about these poems?
A: These poems are from a full-length manuscript with all stolen titles, dealing with theft, lies, and other transgressions. They both have notes of autobiographic accuracy in them as well, but I’m not telling which notes.
The plate spinner stepped onto the stage. Beyond the footlight’s glare, the clink of glasses. Tipsy murmurings. A woman’s shrill laugh. The audience little more than shadows, the plate spinner alone in his cocoon of light. He told jokes as he unlatched his trunk. The lumberjack and the milkmaid, the pool boy and the bored heiress—but his timing was off, the punch lines flat. Grumblings from the dark. The woman’s laugh again, drunk and choking with stupidity. In the plate spinner’s thoughts, the panic of nakedness despite his red blazer and black bowtie, the stage disorienting without his assistant. He retrieved a stack of plates and tossed the first high into the smoky air.
They’d always started with a juggling bit, the plate spinner and his assistant. His lover. Six years together, a bond deeper than the vows they’d never bothered to exchange, a marriage to the stage and the life. They’d chosen this underworld of clubs and bars and ten-dollar scams. They’d chosen the road over mortgages and backyards. They’d chosen each other. Somewhere along the line, he’d lost his grip on what held them together. This morning he woke in a dingy motel, his arms empty. A note on the dresser.
The plates flew around him. Their round faces cascaded through the light, an illusion of moon phases circling his head, their flight fueled by reflex. The three-piece house band lurched into a lazy accompaniment. In the wings, the Flandreau twins adjusted each other’s ostrich-plumed headdresses. They were the night’s stars. Soon, they’d hoof their clumsy steps, and piece by piece, their clothes would hit the stage. Their pretty faces and young flesh would shine like jewels, the darkness all around rippling with longing and desire.
One of the twins tugged her spangled bikini top and adjusted her breasts. Her sequins shone, and in the breath-wide cleaving of light and dark, the plate spinner’s lover appeared. Her gaze was as it had once been, familiar, welcoming, their eyes locked as the plates flew between them. A nod, the wordless shorthand of lovers and performers, and they dared each other with the Saint Louis Loop, the dicey Hungarian Weave. Sweat glistened on their brows, their bodies united with rhythm and purpose.
A plate slid through his fingers. His lover’s image dissolved, a curl of smoke that faded into the dark. The plate shattered, an odd and beautiful sacrifice at his feet. He reached out, grasping nothing, the spell broken. He stepped back, his hands covering his head, as the world fell apart around him.
Curtis Smith’s stories and essays have appeared in over seventy-five literary reviews. His latest books are Bad Monkey (stories, Press 53), Truth or Something Like It (novel, Casperian Books), and Witness (essays, Sunnyoutside).
Q: What was the inspiration for this piece?
A: My last novel had this big, long-running riff about plate-spinning. But that whole thread didn’t make it through the final edits. I guess I’ve been looking to do something with the concept since then. I’m glad my little plate spinner has finally found a home.
by Cezarija Abartis
followed by Q&A
When she rearranged them, the postcards felt smooth even after all these years. Postcards of Lake Baikal, Stonehenge, and white-washed houses with orderly terra cotta roofs. No people in them. Here was Devil’s Tower, a brightly colored image of stunted stalagmites growing out of red soil in Serbia, no cave, no ceiling, and no corresponding stalactite yearning toward the ground. Larry had sent her these postcards the summer that she refused to travel with him.
Here was the one that could have been their honeymoon, but she said no at the time, and later he said no: a glowing square in Barcelona at night, the lamp lights promising and peaceful, the full moon lovely and watchful above. Paula sighed. She and Larry had met in graduate school, where he was studying Social Justice and she was studying French literature.
He was the one. In her mind, he was the one she could spend eternity with. If they were imprisoned together, it would not be prison as long as they were together.
“Paula,” he said, “I need time to think about us. I’m just not sure we’re a couple.”
“Of course, I can give you time. Or I can change. Tell me what you want.” She tried to keep the fever surge out of her voice.
“It’s not you. It’s me.”
Another boyfriend had said that, before he left the city. Ed became an assistant district attorney and prosecuted deserving criminals. Well, she forgave him. He found another woman to love, and Paula came to this town and met Larry.
Larry was a good dancer. She was clumsy. He said she was intelligent and funny. She could do anagrams. “What is m-o-w-n-e?” he asked her the night that they met at a party. She had boasted about her ability to rearrange letters.
“I only need a second,” she said. “Women.”
“How about r-e-t-o-r-r?”
She leaned in and whispered, “Terror.”
“I can’t stump you.”
“In France, Thomas Billon was appointed a Royal Anagrammatist by Louis XIII.” She put down her beer. “Are we in competition? Do you need to win?”
Larry looked away, slightly guilty. “Of course not.”
“I have to go to the bathroom,” she said. But he was still there when she came back. She had not frightened him off. He sat smiling on the purple paisley couch. He stood and brought her another beer. He asked her if she wanted a ride home at the end of the evening.
“I came with my roommate. Judy’s over there.” Across the room, Judy smiled and laughed at what the guy with curly hair was saying. Couples danced to the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love.”
Larry thrummed his fingers on the table. “Could we meet for coffee tomorrow?”
Her favorite postcard was the single sailboat adrift on a limitless ocean with a speck of something on the horizon–perhaps another sailboat, but most likely just a dotted flaw in the paper, so the sailboat really was alone on the vasty deep.
Cezarija Abartis's Nice Girls and Other Stories was published by New Rivers Press. Her stories have appeared in Prime Number Magazine, Waccamaw, Story Quarterly, and New York Tyrant, among others. Recently she completed a novel, a thriller. She teaches at St. Cloud State University.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: In early February, I started this with a prompt about postcards on ShowMeYourLits.com. I posted this in Patricia McFarland’s office on Zoetrope.com and received helpful suggestions from Gay Degani and Mark Budman, which I incorporated in my September version. I’m almost embarrassed to admit that it took more than seven months to write these 499 words.
Mating Habits of the Carolina Wren
by Christy Strick
followed by Q&A
Carolina wrens are monogamous for life, only finding another mate if a partner dies or disappears.
The spring before I left Jake, a Carolina wren began attacking our bedroom window. At sunrise each morning, we woke to the sound of his beak hitting the glass. Snowy chest puffed out, tail erect, the slashes of white over his eyes like an old man’s eyebrows, he’d peck all day, until the sun went down.
The tapping drove Jake crazy. He couldn’t sleep past dawn, couldn’t relax on the weekends. The first time he reached for me in his early morning ardor and the bird started tapping, he couldn’t stay hard, and I was secretly relieved.
At the end of the first week, Jake said, “He thinks his reflection is another bird. I read that some company makes spider web decals to scare away birds.”
I searched online and found a giant web printed on clingy plastic. When it arrived, I stuck it to the outside of the window, but the wren continued tapping. I began to look forward to seeing him each day.
Carolina wrens are not selective about where they nest, building in evergreen branches, in shoes or hanging plants. The male wren builds multiple nests, starting before he has a mate.
The wren had been tapping for two weeks when he disappeared, and I thought he was gone for good. But the next morning he reappeared, shuttling twigs in his beak to a branch in the pine outside our window. Soon a nest began to take shape. Once it was finished, he returned to his tapping.
One website suggested a hanging plant, so Jake bought a pot of ivy and installed a hook over the window. But the plant didn’t hang far enough to block the wren’s reflection, and I watched as he built another nest in its tangled vines.
Desperate, Jake tacked a sheet over our window, thwarting the wren but also blocking our view of the river, and I made him take it down.
The river was the reason Jake and I had bought the property. We’d been married a year when, out driving, we’d seen a realtor’s sign. That day, standing at the top of the hill looking down across the lawn to the river and the sycamore on its bank, we knew we would build there.
We spent all that summer agonizing over choices we thought were critical to our lives. I picked the paint colors: a soft green for the boy we would have, pale yellow for the girl.
When the house was finished, we moved in to wait for our lives to begin. Eventually, the green room became Jake’s study, while I spent hours in the yellow room, reading about surrogates and adoptions that Jake refused to consider.
Four years, three babies lost. I wanted to keep trying, but Jake wanted a break, saying he wanted to let my body heal. I knew that what he really wanted was to return to a life when our dreams were still possible, when I wasn’t depressed and he didn’t have to comfort me. I understood. I missed our easy love. But I was no longer that woman, and Jake was no longer able to reach the one I had become.
The male Carolina wren puts on an elaborate show to attract a female. As soon as the female comes close the male starts courting by circling and hopping in a stiff pattern.
About the fourth week, I caught sight of a female wren. My wren began alternating between his pecking and courting the female bird. The mating dance was carried out underneath our bedroom window, the male hopping around the female, his chest out and his tail fluttering like a Victorian lady’s fan. The female’s tail and wings quivered, and as the male wren grew more frantic, and his tail became fully erect, I turned away.
Jake started showering and doing his morning preening in the guest bath, while I drank my coffee staring out the window. We no longer made love. Jake couldn’t get hard, and I couldn’t summon the energy to help. He felt me pulling away, and blamed everything on the birds. I didn’t tell him there was nothing left for me in our house on the hill, that the wrens were the only things there that gave my life joy.
Female wrens lay about four eggs and incubate them for two weeks. A mating pair of wrens may have several broods each year.
A sixteen-week-old fetus is the size of a fledgling wren, though I didn’t know it at the time. All I knew then was that my first baby was a tiny mass at the bottom of the toilet, sinking in a bath of blood.
The second one held on longer, so that we knew it was a boy. The third slipped away before it was much bigger than the sunflower seeds I later scattered across the yard for the wrens.
A blogger suggested Jake hang a curtain of beads over the window. It was the final annoyance for the wren, because he and his mate disappeared, and stayed away even after the beads came down. I tried inviting them back, spreading the windowsill with peanut butter and seed, but they were gone, the nest in the pine abandoned.
Jake reached out for me again in the mornings. While we made love, I listened in vain for the sound of tapping against the window.
In the past, a bird tapping on a window was considered a bad omen, believed to be the soul of a dead person there to lead a departing soul into the afterlife.
The day I left Jake, I saw what I thought was my wren in the sycamore by the river. When he pushed off the branch and lifted into the sky, I saw his female, and beside her, I imagined the heads of three tiny birds peaking out of a nest, beaks raised to their mother.
Christy Strick’s short fiction has appeared in New South, Pearl 38 and Pearl 40, the Delmarva Review, Fast Forward: A Collection of Flash Fiction, Volume 3, lifewithobjects, and onepagestories. She is the recipient of the 2012 Marianne Russo Award from the Key West Literary Seminar, and has been awarded residencies at The Studios of Key West, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and Hambidge Center. Ms. Strick is a founding member and past president of WriterHouse, a nonprofit writing center in Charlottesville, Virginia. She is currently at work on a novel.
Q: What was the inspiration for this piece?
A: This story, like most of what I write, grew out of my curiosity about what makes people and things act and react in the ways they do. One spring, a bird tapped on my bedroom window practically nonstop for weeks. It almost drove me insane, and yet when he disappeared, I felt strangely bereft. I got a little obsessed with the whole thing, and spent quite a few hours researching why birds peck at windows, which led me to studying wrens and their mating habits (it made perfect sense at the time), which led, well, to this story.
Original Sin, a Mystery Play
by Wendy Vardaman
followed by Q&A
[… forgets the apple she was told to take—] Poet: I left my mother in the dark—she waved, but I didn’t look back. For six days we sat, while the seam in her knee, laced like a boot, eyed itself, grommet to grommet. Something hurts her underneath. Conductor: How do you know you’re not asleep? Poet: They broke the knee when they went in, bone that shouldn’t have been, peeled it away. Surg.: Not much left of the knee— Cond.:They say— Poet: snapping the new one in its place. I heard her weep but didn’t rise for the light. She pulled up the portcullis every night. Drew up the ladders, sealed us tight against— Cond.: What? always— Cond.: Been this way? I caught her fright, spent years— Cond.:Out-lapping Anxiety? Poet:I try to reason her back to life: give into fear. neurotic knots. Poet:Death will find us soon enough, won’t need to break in to carry us off. Cond.:Why speed its arrival with rank belief? with self-pity when you’ve a house and eat? with anger at those who don’t do things right? with panic, at every shadow and noise? locked in your house, watching the news? Come out? Surg:Come out. Cond.: When your worse self whimpers? Poet:Rehearse the thoughts you want to keep. Cond.:Start swimming now while your knees while your hips still work and your legs are true— Poet: Running Eve’s lines before falling asleep, I can’t recall all the words when I wake up, just the grief. Eve:Show me a moon— Surg:I’ll show you a broken heart: Cond.: All hearts are broken from the start.
Wendy Vardaman, www.wendyvardaman.com, lives in Madison, Wisconsin and is the author of Obstructed View (Fireweed Press 2009). She works for The Young Shakespeare Players, is co-editor and web master of Verse Wisconsin, and Cowfeather Press, has three children, and does not own a car. In addition to poetry, she writes essays and interviews, which have appeared in Poetry Daily, Women’s Review of Books, and on Poets.org.
Q: What can you tell us about this piece?
A: I work at a theater and find myself gravitating in my writing more toward drama and away from poetry. This piece started out as a poem that moved between rather sing-song nursery rhyme lines and prose. As the voices started to become more distinct from each other, I decided to rework it as a short verse drama. I enjoy exploring the line between poetry and theater.
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