On Restlessness | By Carl Phillips

Carl Phillips’s reflection “On Restlessness” appeared in NER 30.1:

dauguerrePoetry—the kind that does in fact give us the world as we had not seen it, that makes us question what we had thought we knew (and this is finally the only thing I am willing to call poetry)—poetry is the result of a generative restlessness of imagination. Such an imagination experiences uncertainty not as adversary but as opportunity, not as an object of fear but, for better or worse, an object of an all-but-impossible-to-resist fascination. These uncertainties become obsessions to be wrestled with, and with luck, the result is poetry: the poem as, again, evidence and record of the mind’s approach to, grappling with, and (if only temporarily) mastery of an uncertainty by putting it in a place, a context, for deeper scrutiny. The poems that most persuade me of their authority are those that leave room for further uncertainty once they’re over. The illusion is one of mastery, but somewhere the creative mind recognizes, with time, that absolute mastery of an idea has proved again elusive; we approach the old uncertainty from a new angle, it continues to fascinate by its very resistance to us, and we are on our way to the next poem.

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Fugitive Music | By Joshua Harmon

Joshua Harmon’s cultural history essay “Fugitive Music” appeared in NER 30.4:

phonographMy earliest home recordings were live, direct-to-tape. In a ritual common to my generation, but which now must seem unfathomably absurd to anyone under the age of thirty, I would hold my portable cassette recorder to the speaker of a portable radio and record the songs the DJ was playing. While some friends captured huge swaths of a DJ’s set, letting the tape run until it was full, I was an editor from the beginning, waiting patiently for a specific song to come on, then hurriedly pressing buttons and hoping the DJ didn’t talk over too much of the song’s introduction or fade its ending into another song’s beginning—especially one I didn’t like, since that combination would now become part of my own version of the song, the same way, hearing a song today that was once recorded for me on a mix-tape, I still hear ghost sequences of songs following it. Fidelity was irrelevant, given the cheapness of both the source and the recording devices, and given the media: FM radio and cassette. As Milner writes of the earliest phonograph Edison created, the uses imagined for this machine “emphasized the act of preserving information, with little regard to how that information actually sounded. Fidelity wasn’t the goal; permanence was.” And certainly what mattered to me as I taped music from the airwaves was what I might learn from those songs—about music as pop-cultural entry point and schoolyard currency, or about myself as auditor.

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Freefall | By Stephanie Austin

Imperial Valley, May 1972.

The doctor is running late this morning, and my stomach has pushed my heart into my throat. The nurse—a tall, thick white woman named Joe—talks about jumping out of a plane for relaxation. As she sets up the ultrasound machine, she tells me about slicing through blue sky and feeling her body become weightless. The gray room makes her red scrubs look like optimism. She goes up twice a month, she says. Her friends tell her they think she has a problem.

A skydiving addiction sounds better than a meth addiction.

When the doctor finally enters the room, she apologizes and says there’d been some emergency. Above us, the big TV screen lights up, and she begins to count the blobs outlined in white. She gets to 18. We like high numbers, she tells me. That means your ovaries are in good shape, egg wise.

The Cycle Day 3 test happens on the third day of actual flow (AF in infertility message board lingo). Coupled with a blood test, it measures your body’s reproductive potential. The doctor counts your immature follicles. The lab measures your hormones. It also takes into account your age. At 34, I’m told I’m on the cusp. The results of the test give you the odds. You have a good chance or a poor chance of producing a viable egg. It doesn’t offer condolences or explanation for the last 16 months of your life.

Blood work will be back in two weeks, the doctor says, and leaves me.

When I get off the table, tiny red blooms cover the thin paper on the exam table; they’re small bits of this month’s failure. Joe offers me tissues to clean up. I tell her thank you, and I hope she has a nice weekend. She tells me she’ll be in the sky, which is where she circles again, talking about the rush of the freefall. I try to close my gown behind me and nod along with her. While she talks, I imagine the broken landscape within my body. Looking down, I see the lovely red lines followed by the nothing colors, the evidence of the drought, the earth turning in on itself. I’d stand at the edge of the plane, clinging to the side, being eaten alive by fear. I’d look into the horizon, watch that yellow fog get closer, watch the Earth, that impossible thing, move farther away from me.


Secret Americas features writing about images from the U.S. National Archives.

Image: Imperial Valley, May 1972, photograph by Charles O’Rear. National Archives and Records Administration College Park

Stephanie Austin’s short stories have appeared in The Fiddlehead, American Short Fiction, the South Dakota Review, and Washington Square Review, among others. Her creative nonfiction has appeared most recently in Used Furniture Review.


Marc Chagall by Carl Van Vechten, via Wikimedia Commons

Abigail Ulman’s short story “Chagall’s Wife” appeared in NER 28.4:

“A monogamist.” Mr. Ackerman had come up behind me.

“A pardon?” 

“Chagall. He loved his wife very much.” He leaned in close to the painting. “That’s her up there, see? She’s flying. And there he is, on the ground below, waiting for her to come down. Hoping to catch her. He put her in all his work.”

He walked on to look at the next one and I watched him go. For a science teacher he seemed to know a lot about art. I, on the other hand, didn’t feel like learning schoolish things on the weekend. I dragged myself from painting to painting, ignoring the essay-long inscription next to each one, staring at the colors till they blurred before my eyes. I made inkblot tests of them all. Instead of a tableful of angels I saw a close-up of a mouth with teeth falling out; I turned a juggling bird into a woman belly-dancing; a bunch of doves in a tree became soggy tampons just hanging there. 

But it was true what Mr. Ackerman had said, about the guy’s wife. She was all over the place. First she lay draped naked over a tree of roses. Then she was dressed as a bride with a long veil and holding a baby. And later she wore a housedress and the two of them floated together above the orange floor of their kitchen.

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Calming the Chickens | By Kristin Fitzsimmons


“Why on the ceiling?” I yelled at my grandfather over the sound of the drill. I had both hands on the ladder, keeping it steady. At my feet, a small boom box, circa 1998 with CD player and tapedeck. Powder blue.

“It used to calm the chickens,” he said. “Hand me that thing, will ya?”

“I don’t get it.” I lifted the boom box up to him.

“Well,” he said, “when my daddy had a chicken farm, we used to play music for the chickens to calm them down when there were people in there—feeding or cleaning.”

I didn’t ask him any more questions as he continued to work. He’d been kind enough to let me stay with him since my parents and I weren’t getting along. He hadn’t blinked an eye when I basically moved my entire bedroom into his attic, which, as it happens, had been my father’s childhood bedroom. He retreated down the ladder, stepping back and admiring his handiwork. “Well, whaddya think?”

The boom box was suspended on four hooks, two close together under the handle and two further apart attached to the handle by cables so that they had the visual effect of tearing the boombox apart. The set-up looked sturdy and a little unreal.

I squinted at it. “Why the ceiling?”

“Well, honey,” Grandpa said, brushing his dusty hands on his pants, “chickens ain’t too clean sometimes. They also can’t fly.” He chuckled to himself. “Couldn’t wreck a radio on a ceiling.”

We stared at the suspended boom box with our arms crossed as if we were in a museum. “But I’m not a chicken, Grandpa. And I’m twenty.” Next thing you know the old man would be bringing a crib up here.

He looked at me and winked.  “I know that. I just thought you might want a radio in here.” He reached into his back pocket and handed me the remote, then snapped the ladder shut. “You wanna help me carry this downstairs?”

That night, I spread a sheet out on the twin mattress and switched off the light. It was only ten and Grandpa was already asleep. One stipulation of my stay was that I wasn’t to go out on weeknights. I lay on my back and stared up at the boom box. It stared down at me, two speakers for eyes, gaping tape deck mouth. I reached over and felt my iPod on the floor and the hard plastic of the stereo’s remote next to it.

I pressed power and Louie Armstrong’s deep voice sang out The odds were a hundred to one against me. I tapped down the volume but the sound still filled every corner with sound. He’d set it to the same music he’d listened to as a boy, helping his dad on the farm. I closed my eyes, imagining the rows of chicken cages, the volume lowering from squawks to gentle clucks as Ella Fitzgerald’s voice came on, a duet, asking who’s got the last laugh now?


Secret Americas features writing about images from the U.S. National Archives. 

Image via Wikimedia Commons – Caubles Egg Factory; radio suspended from ceiling is for quieting chickens at feeding time, 1937, National Archives and Records Administration Southeast Region.

Kristin Fitzsimmons lives in Minneapolis, where she is a recent graduate of the MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Minnesota.

Writers’ Conference

Josh Goldfaden’s short story The Veronese Circle” appeared in NER 24.1:

By Pentti Helenius, via Wikimedia Commons

“Seven,” Camus says. “Goddamnit, seven.”

“Tell me about the couplets,” I say.

“You wouldn’t understand,” and he looks me over (bitter distaste), his vanity eventually winning out over my abject non-writer status. “Okay,” he says. “Try. To. Follow. Along. Think of Whitman, in his poem ‘I am the Poet,’ when he says ‘all the things seen are real.’ It’s a poetic truth, and I’m close, Ted, I’m brutally close to discovering an even greater truth: something which can tell us why the things we see are real, and even more importantly, what value we have in relation to these things: what the value is of a single human life!

“I can see by your bewildered gape that you have no conception of what I’m talking about. I’m talking about why Eli made the right decision not to throw himself off that train. If I write this as well as I think I can, it’ll answer that question.”

“I understand,” I say.

“I doubt it,” he says. “Now go wash yourself.”

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A Complaint | By Bradley Bazzle

Stacked Cars In City Junkyard Will Be Used For Scrap, August 1973.

Dear Fortress Plus,

I write with not-so-good news. The Car Wall 4.0 I ordered is rusting more quickly than advertized. Your salesman, Herm C—, who’s a very nice fellow so I don’t want to cast aspersion on him, said that the wall would last “ten lifetimes, plus!” More specifically, he referenced the Great Wall of China and said that because Car Wall 4.0 is made of metal it’s twice as strong as that one, which is made of stone. It made sense at the time. But then I saw the rust, and also how the 1963 Chevy Impala was sagging from the weight of the 1963 For Fairlane directly above it, and so I did some online research and learned that metal doesn’t fare well under compression, which is why the pillar things under bridges are made of stone. Other bridges are made of metal but those are suspension bridges, so Herm was kind of wrong when he told me to think about the Golden Gate Bridge and how strong it was. Maybe correct him. Don’t fire him, though. He’s a really nice guy. The anecdote he told me about protecting his own family homestead from marauding meth-crazed looters using Appliance Rampart 3.0 was deeply moving. Which brings me to another point. Several of the cars, e.g. the 1957 Plymouth and 1959 DeSoto Adventurer convertible, are faring extremely well. Barely rusting, barely crushed, and the grills are kind of nice to look at, like faces. Would it be possible to have more recent and flimsier models, such as the aforementioned Impala and also the 1967 Pontiac Catalina and 1965 Chevrolet Corvair Corsa, replaced by models from the fifties? Also—not to be piling it on—but there’s something beneath the 1962 Cadillac Coupe DeVille, in what the owner’s manual calls the Seventh Quadrant, that looks kind of not like a car. Is it the undercarriage of a bus or something? Like, folded over? I ask because, while it’s actually pretty strong, it isn’t very fun to look at. That’s it. Whew! Except, well, it would be kind of neat if I could turn on the headlights from time to time, just for effect. Herm said that that was in the planning stages, possibly to be featured in Car Wall 5.0. Sign me up, if so, because I consider myself a lifelong Fortress Plus customer, despite the circumstances. Yours is a company that looks towards the future, because, I mean, where are all the dead cars going to go otherwise? Junkyards? Pretty soon there’ll be more cars than people, and every grave will have a car on top of it, maybe sideways. At least that’s what Herm said. And I believe him.

Yours Sincerely,

Bradley B—


Secret Americas features writing about images from the U.S. National Archives.

Image via Flickr “Stacked Cars In City Junkyard Will Be Used For Scrap, August 1973,” photograph by Dick Swanson. National Archives and Records Administration College Park. Part of the Documerica project.

Bradley Bazzle’s story “Gift Horse” appears in NER 31.4. Other stories he’s written appear in The Iowa Review, Epoch, Phoebe, Bad Penny Review, The Beloit Fiction Journal, and elsewhere. He lives in Athens, Georgia, where he’s working on a novel and a PhD in English.

They Drove | By Sean Hill


It’s 1973 and they’re young and newly married. They grew up in the same small town in Georgia. He’s seen a little bit of the world—Tennessee, Alabama, and—framed by airplane windows—Alaska, Mt. Fuji, and the Philippines. He has Polaroids of these places that he mailed in letters to his momma, sisters, and wife while he was away—show them a very little of what he’d seen. There’s been a war going on, and he enlisted before they could draft him and tell him where to go.

When he comes back home to Georgia, on leave to visit family and pick up his wife for the long drive back to Fort Lewis in Washington state, they learn quickly to wake him slowly. Though he doesn’t much talk about it, he does say it wasn’t as bad for him as some of his buddies. He’d kept helicopters airworthy over there. He and his wife, they drive across the country in his ’65 Chevy Chevelle SS four-speed—American muscle. They take the southern route—through Texas out to California and up the coast to Washington—and they see more of America on this trip than most in their families have seen or will see in their lives.

This morning, as they check out of the motel in Flagstaff, a postcard catches his eye. He points it out to her. What looks to be an old English village with a towering bridge behind it and mountains in the distance behind that. They read the fancy script: London Bridge Lake Havasu City, Arizona. And she wants to see it; it’s only twenty miles out of the way. He wants to see it too. What’s the bridge doing here?

A rich businessman and land developer, looking to build an oasis in the desert, bought it from the City of London two years before—had it taken apart, the pieces carefully numbered and brought to Arizona to be put back together on a peninsula in a new manmade lake on the Colorado River. The land was dug from beneath the bridge to let water flow and create an island—a reason to cross the bridge—a destination in this landscape of sand and buttes. Take an old stone bridge and seed a new desert vision. A bit of out-of-place past to build the future in this country to prove anything’s possible.

They have dreams and will soon have a family of their own. It’s 1973 and it matters, but matters differently every day, that they’re Black and the rich businessman is white—things seem to be getting better.


Secret Americas features writing about images from the U.S. National Archives.

Image via Flickr  “London Bridge–brought from London to Lake Havasu City in 1971, May 1972,” photograph by Charles O’Rear. National Archives and Records Administration College Park

Sean Hill’s first book, Blood Ties & Brown Liquor, was published by the University of Georgia Press in 2008. His second collection of poetry, Dangerous Goods, is forthcoming from Milkweed Editions in early 2014. He’s currently a visiting assistant professor in the creative writing program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. More information can be found at www.seanhillpoetry.com.

Japanese War Balloon | By Jill McDonough


During WWII, Japanese schoolgirls were called out of school because of their nimble fingers. They brushed root paste on washi paper and layered it, pasted pieces to pieces across sumo halls, courtyards, school auditoriums. They made paper balloons like this one.

The balloons carried bombs over the Pacific to here. They figured out what’s a jet stream, used to it send bombs up and off and aimed toward the Pacific Northwest.  They landed in Thermopolis, Wyoming, and Santa Monica. In Lame Deer, Montana and just outside Detroit. About 300 turned up.

But when the jet stream works, the Pacific Northwest is wet and cold. So hardly anybody died.  Except at one Oregon church picnic—a pastor’s wife, a group of children. The pastor dropped them off and went to park. The wife was pregnant, wasn’t feeling well. She found one of these in what was left of the snow, and walked toward it with the children, calling: Look what I found, dear.


Secret Americas features writing about images from the U.S. National Archives. 

Image via Wikimedia Commons – “Japanese War Ballooon, collapsed balloon on ground, close up of various parts of balloon & mechanism,” 1945, National Archives and Records Administration Central Plains Region.

Three-time Pushcart prize winner Jill McDonough is the recipient of NEA, Cullman Center, and Stegner fellowships.  Her books include Habeas Corpus (Salt, 2008), and Where You Live (Salt, 2012).  She directs the MFA program at UMass-Boston and 24PearlStreet, the Fine Arts Work Center online.

To Be Continued | Jason Mittell on Serial Criticism

AK_PosterOn June 6, Jason Mittell, Associate Professor of Film and Media Culture and American Studies at Middlebury College, delivered the keynote lecture at the Popular Seriality Conference in Göttingen, Germany.

Mittell, who had had spent a year with the Popular Seriality Research Unit in Göttingen, explores the stakes of “the ends” of serial narratives, both how they conclude and how they make meaning—or how audiences make meaning from them. In addition to discussing scenes and thematic threads from television shows such as The Wire, Homeland, and Breaking Bad, he asks:

“Why do serials seem to embrace reflexive meta-storytelling so often in their final seasons, and can this explain why I feel so inclined to talk more about my experiences and process rather than actually presenting my research? Television creators seem to become hostages to their own storyworlds by the final season, so embedded in the process of storytelling that they feel the need to use fiction as an outlet to explore their own experiences, as well as offering closing arguments to prove the relevance and missions of their series.”

You can read the entirety of Mittell’s “The Ends of Serial Criticism” at his blog Just TV.