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NER DIGITAL | A VIsion and a Voice | John Poch

Categories: Confluences, NER Digital



Todd Murphy: Untitled (1994)

When I changed my studies from nuclear engineering to poetry writing (Georgia Tech to Georgia State), my new adviser told me I had to choose a minor. If I were going to be a poet, she said, it was either philosophy or art history. I didn’t know there were more options, so I chose art history. I loved the image and mistrusted the abstract.

About that same time, a friend of mine and I used to go around to the art galleries on weekends wherever we knew there would be an opening. Free wine. The Lowe Gallery was a place where we often ended up because Bill Lowe represented the best work in the South and the wine was drinkable. It was there I became familiar with the work of Todd Murphy. Through a number of coincidences, I was introduced to Todd at one of his openings, and he gave me a great deal of respect as a poet. He ignored a lot of rich people right then and there to talk to me. I was going to the Writers’ Workshop in Iowa in a few months. He had recently been to Iowa to photograph the floods! I had hardly read or written anything, but he said he wanted to stay in touch, and he struck up a small correspondence with me.

When I had dropped out after only a year in Iowa, I came back to Atlanta. I got in touch with Todd, and he invited me to his gigantic studio down near the old Mattress Factory so we could talk about art and poetry. I must have visited him there only three or four times over a few years.

One winter morning, I paid him a visit. I remember he showed me around to see his latest work. I followed him up to the loft that overlooked the warehouse. We drank coffee, and we talked about Pound. Todd brought out some of the Cantos and he read to me. I believe I recited a few poems that I had committed to memory. After I had sufficiently taken up the time of an actual artist, I felt I should go. Somehow it came out during our conversation that it was my birthday. We were headed down the stairs on the way out, and he pulled a big framed artwork off the wall. He pushed it toward me and said, “Happy birthday.”

I said, “I can’t take this from you.” His smaller work even then was worth many thousands of dollars.

He said, “Okay,” and started to put it back on the wall. Then he smiled and said, “Please, take it. I don’t have anything else to give you.”

I said, “But I don’t have anything to give you, either.”

“You give me your poems,” he said. This was true. I had been pushing my dreadful poems too full of feeling on him whenever I visited.

I said, “But your paintings are worth a lot. My poems are worth nothing.”

“They’re worth a lot to me,” he said, and he held the painting out to me. I didn’t actually believe him, but I took it, and walked out into the December morning. I put it in the back seat of my little car where the 36 x 39 frame barely fit. I drove off thinking that no stranger had ever done me such a kindness in my life. I hardly knew him! He believed in my poems, my art, when even I wasn’t sure what in the world I was doing.

The artwork is a huge piece of thick white cotton bond with a small figure at the center. The image appears to be made of broken beer-bottle glass and there are drops of the polyurethane all around it.

Todd told me this: at work one morning, he had peeled away the skin from the surface of an open can of polyurethane to use for the surface of another work, and when he cast these pieces aside, he saw they resembled a butterfly. And he had been working on a series in which butterfly images figured in various ways. So he rearranged the pieces on the paper and signed it with his trademark MURPHY.

The artwork hangs on a wall behind my chair in our dining room. I like that it hovers over me, a kind of encouragement, a reminder that an artist saw art in me. Over the years, I have followed his work. The larger body of it continues to amaze and challenge me as a poet. He seems to be relentlessly pursuing a vision that reminds me I might do the same with a voice.

John Poch’s poems have appeared frequently in NER, most recently in 34.3–4 with “Pomegranate Queen.”

You can see more of Todd Murphy’s artwork on his website:

NER Digital is New England Review’s online project dedicated to original creative writing for the web. “Confluences” presents writers’ encounters with works of art such as books, plays, poems, films, paintings, sculptures, or buildings. 



NER DIGITAL | A Sense in the World | Maria Hummel

Categories: Confluences, NER Digital

Die Aschenblume Anselm Kiefer
Oil, emulsion, acrylic paint, clay, ash, earth, and dried sunflower on canvas
149 5/8 x 299 1/4 inches
Image courtesy of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth

The day I first encountered Anselm Kiefer’s paintings, I was seven months pregnant with my first son. Because I am no longer that not-yet-mother, I can see her in my mind’s eye, wearing her mint green jacket, blond head tilted back, hand on her belly as she enters a gallery filled with massive, brooding landscapes. At first she doesn’t know where to look—all the canvasses are so arresting—and then one catches her eye and she drifts slowly over.

Anselm Kiefer was born in Germany in 1945, the year the Third Reich ended. He is nine years younger than my German father, who raced down to the basement shelter when his hometown was bombed by the Americans and emerged the next day to smashed streets and imminent surrender.

Kiefer’s paintings made windows of the museum walls, with dramatic views of a black, gold, battered-but-still-fertile earth. I remember the paintings as a collective, except for one giant gray canvas depicting a ceremonial hall. A sunflower hung upside down at its center, its blossom husk nearly touching the floor. The label read: Die AschenblumeThe Ash Flower. The hall was the Grand Mosaic Room in the former Third Reich Chancellery, painted and then smudged with ash.

As I stared into the gritty, cracked canvas, I felt a thrum of recognition. My father was a good man, raised by Mitläufer, Germans who went along with Naziism, reaping its benefits and later its consequences. My father witnessed his own father, a doctor, deployed to an army hospital in Weimar, then after the war, get stripped of his license to practice public medicine and sent to work on a logging crew. My father experienced his mother dying in the childbirth of his youngest brother in 1942, and lost all the fingers on his right hand in an accident in 1944. By the time Anselm Kiefer was born, my father was orphaned, permanently injured, and starving under the strict international aid laws of the reconstruction.

All my life I had weighed these facts against the Holocaust and come up empty.

I stared into Kiefer’s Ash Flower. The ruined interior, the dried flower-stalk hanging upside down—it was an arid scene, but it contained the residue of life and renewal.

“There is no history,” the artist said in a video outside the exhibition. He sat loosely before the camera, a shaved-headed, intense man with a quirk of humor about his mouth. His English was broken but emphatic. “[But] each human being tries to create a bigger context.” To create that context, you created an illusion that you stayed on the earth for a century and saw what unfolded. “This reassures you to find a sense in the world because there is no sense.”

Kiefer had borrowed his image from a Paul Celan poem, and now I would borrow it from him. I would seek my way by writing toward the Ash Flower and my own sense of it, my own meaning. The ash flower: the blossom of fire and dust over bombed Germany. The springtime end of the war, the Holocaust exposed, renewal and guilt and suffering spun together. The blighted innocence of children like Kiefer and my father.

My own son was born. I began writing a book. At first it was about my grandfather’s experiences at the Weimar hospital and his flight across war-torn Germany to reunite with his family. A year into the draft, my son fell acutely ill, and I realized the heart of the novel was elsewhere, mostly in the home, where the children were. It was watching a new mother try and fail to keep three boys safe and well as the Reich crumbled. Retreating armies and liberated concentration camps drifted offstage, and in their place rose intimate scenes of neighbors betraying neighbors, a baby struggling to walk in a cellar shelter.

The novel’s original title was The Ash Flower. I knew the title would change: I had entered my book through a doorway that Kiefer had made, but I would exit through my own. The travels of a novelist are always one way, and once-great vistas become postcards in a long, idiosyncratic journey. Yet Kiefer’s work will always possess, for me, a humbling and magnetic power. When I think back to the young woman I was, gazing at the upside-down sunflower, I realize how tall that bloom must have been, when it first grew upward from the earth. It would have towered over me.

Maria Hummel’s most recent contributions to NER include her poem, “The First Turn Might Be the Right One Home” in NER 34.1, and her story, “No Others Before Me” in NER 31.2. She is the author of Motherland (Counterpoint, 2014) and House and Fire, winner of the 2013 APR/Honickman Prize.

NER Digital is New England Review’s online project dedicated to original creative writing for the web. “Confluences” is a bi-weekly series in which we present a writer’s encounter with a work of art such as a book, play, poem, film, painting, sculpture, or building.


NER DIGITAL | Carousel | Kathleen Chaplin

Categories: Confluences, NER Digital



My father died suddenly a few months before I turned fifteen. Overnight the August heat gave way to the briskness of autumn and going-back-to-school. It was the early 1980s; he had just had cable TV installed, and one station repeatedly showed the 1956 film Carousel. I sat on the living room floor, watching it over and over again.

I can’t recall him ever taking me on a carousel. But when I was little, he won a stuffed red bull for me at a carnival. I called her Red Rose and clutched her as I fell asleep in the back seat on the way home, looking up at the shadowy canopy of leaves lit by streetlights.

I grew up in Hough’s Neck, a working-class neighborhood on a peninsula just south of Boston. Four miles across the water is Nantasket, once one of the grand seaside resorts. The old amusement park there was torn down just a few years after my father’s death, but the Paragon Carousel, built in 1928, was saved.

When the restoration artist began stripping away the layers of garish paint, he found that the wooden horses, carved in a realistic style, originally had been dapple gray, black, chestnut, piebald. They stretch their necks, rear their heads, and shy, muzzles jerking aside. Some have been restored: painted by brush, glazed, and richly varnished. Like greenery on a marzipan cake, a garland of daisies, roses, and petunias trails across a horse’s white shoulder. An emerald saddle blanket is radiant as silk, its corner blown back gently by a sea breeze. The horses waiting for their turn appear cracked and riven, and have an air of bravery.

The Carousel News and Trader catalogued all the carousels made by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company between 1904 and 1941. Only twenty-five of its ninety-three carousels are listed as Operating—at the Santa Monica Pier, Hershey Park, Disney World, Nantasket—while the fates of the rest read like a casualty list, or a dossier of missing persons: Fire, Dispersed, Unknown.

In Carousel, a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical later made into a film, Billy Bigelow is a carousel barker in coastal Maine. Broad-chested, he wears a striped roll-neck sweater, and his slick, wavy black hair falls over his forehead. I have a picture of my father as a teenager with two friends, taken at Castle Island in South Boston in the late 1950s; they all have something of the look of Billy Bigelow.

The carousel owner, a jealous woman, fires Billy for flirting with a young mill-worker, Julie. Julie and Billy marry, but he can’t adjust to respectability; he loafs and sulks, and one night, he hits her. When he learns that she is pregnant, he is thrilled at the idea of becoming a father and vows that, however he has to do it, he will get enough money to make a new start for his family. In a bungled robbery attempt, he falls on his knife and is killed. After that he sits on a ladder polishing and hanging stars in purgatory, until he is given the chance, for one day only, to come back to earth to help the daughter he has never met. She is now fifteen, and unhappy.

The stranger approaches the girl as she sits at a picnic table, head buried in her arms, weeping; he tries to comfort her, telling her that he knew her father. But when he attempts to give her a gift—a real star, he says, from up there—she becomes frightened. Coaxing, pleading, grasping her hand as she tries to pull away, he finally hits her, and she flees.

Thirty years after I first saw the film, I stand at the balustrade that surrounds the Paragon Carousel. Floating out from the Wurlitzer band organ is “Yankee Doodle Dandy” or “In the Good Old Summertime.” It must play “The Carousel Waltz,” sometimes. I used to know the lyrics to almost all of the songs from Carousel—though after “This was a real nice clambake,” I only ever got as far as “and we all had a real good time.”

I would cry at the end, when Billy’s ghost sings “If I Loved You” and, in parting, whispers to Julie what he never told her while he was alive.

The sun starts to set, apricot, pink, and lavender, like colored sand in a jar. Lightbulbs and mirrors seem to be everywhere: they wink and streak as the carousel rotates, faster—then faster than I would have thought a carousel could go.

I spot them in the distance, just as they clear the motor-house, and I see their backs after they have swung past. I try to wave in time, but I just miss them. Interspersed and revolving, it all moves as one: milky polka dots on glossy, blue-gray hindquarters; three teenaged girls, gliding up and down and laughing as they snap each other with camera phones; a Roman chariot whose yellow-haired muse clasps a lyre, her eyes shrunken and skin flayed; fear of a recurrence, followed swiftly by fear of the unforeseeable, of some trick of fate; hocks and shanks, coronets and hooves, frozen in various attitudes of motion, falling and rising; father and daughter.

In a Twilight Zone episode, a man pursues his boyhood self onto a carousel. He wants to tell him to enjoy this time of his life, to urge him to seize his childhood and enjoy it. Terrified of the stranger who is chasing him, the boy falls off the carousel: and in the end the man walks away, limping.

The children rush through the gate onto the platform and scatter to find their horses. He lifts her onto one, a different one each time, and she gives it a name, always the same name. If there are reins, he puts them in her hands: she holds them loosely, unsure of what they do, and looks around in anticipation.

Soon she will be old enough to ride by herself. Every time, my husband offers, “Would you like to go on with her?” Every time, I reply, “No, you go.” When the bell rings and the carousel begins to turn, smoothly and slowly, time stands still. I stand at the railing, as if banished, and watch.

Kathleen Chaplin’s essay “The Death Knock” appeared in NER 34.1. She lives in Milton, Massachusetts. 

Excerpted from “Waiting for Billy Bigelow,” a chapter of The Death Knock, a memoir in progress.

NER Digital is New England Review’s online project dedicated to original creative writing for the web. “Confluences” presents writers’ encounters with works of art such as books, plays, poems, films, paintings, sculptures, or buildings.


NER DIGITAL | Waiting for Nauman | Michael Coffey

Categories: Confluences, NER Digital

NER Digital is New England Review’s online project dedicated to original creative writing for the web. “Confluences” is a bi-weekly series in which we present a writer’s encounter with a work of art such as a book, play, poem, film, painting, sculpture, or building. We launch our series with Michael Coffey’s “Waiting for Nauman.”

Bruce Nauman, Square Depression Photo by Rebecca Smith

Bruce Nauman, Square Depression
Photo by Rebecca Smith

I never wanted to go to Germany. So much unimaginable blood and death and guilt there. I didn’t need it. But my wife, Becca, is an artist, and we decided to go to Germany for art—to visit the once-every-five years documenta show in Kassel and the once-a-decade Skulptur Projekte in Münster, a lovely Catholic city that had been mercilessly bombed in the war, but which now bristled, shone, and surprised with permanent sculptures added to the cityscape every ten years.

I didn’t like Kassel, our first stop. The art show was spread all over and we went from room to room and building to building and saw the kind of art you can see in trendy Chelsea galleries. Then, a long walk up an absurdly steep hill through a small forest cut by a terraced waterfall to a gaudy palace once inhabited by Kaiser Wilhelm. Dull old masters there, and no fun to look down upon the town from such a redoubt—a view of a quaint city that had once been a local subcamp of Dachau.

Doubtful of what I might find in Deutschland, I’d determined to reread Beckett’s trilogy during the trip—I had a scholarly interest in Beckett’s second stay in Berlin, in 1936, when he was looking at art and hiding out from some legal contretemps and a romantic humiliation back in Dublin. On the train from Kassel to Münster, I was nearing the finish—the end of The Unnamable—which I knew contained a hideous image—a creature of sorts, a single thorax, with vacuoles at either end, one unlidded eye, a large worm with human consciousness—sited in a place that had eluded my ability to envision it.

They look down upon him . . . he’ll have to climb to meet them . . . The slopes are gentle that meet where he lies, they flatten out under him . . . . This grey to begin with . . .  a nice grey, of a kind recommended as going with everything, urinous and warm.

We checked into our hotel and set out to see what we could on our first day. We had a map of art works and locations. Some were bells that chimed at intervals where buildings once stood; one was a recorded chant beneath a bridge. Another was an encampment of objects such as a routed circus troupe might leave, on the side of a hill. Jenny Holzer had a granite bench in a park with an antiwar inscription.

In late afternoon, we rode bikes looking for a Bruce Nauman work. It was supposedly near a small campus on the outskirts of town. After canvassing the site once and finding nothing, we checked the map, and tried again. And there it was, an empty space, a plot of sorts, in the ground: Nauman’s Square Depression—four concrete triangular planes sloping from ground level to a vertex in the center about six feet beneath ground level. The place of the unnamable.

The first light rain all week began to fall. I waited for some visitors to the site to leave, and slowly they did, so I could have Nauman’s work to myself. I walked down his Square Depression. At first, walking toward the center, I felt I was entering a drain or a spill catch. When I arrived at the bottom, however, I looked up, as one will. The sky sat above me, stilted by the four cardinal points. I was in an architecture of both earth and heavens. No longer a sluiceway but a kind of reverse temple, reaching down—a conceptual verso to the sacrificial altar to Zeus. The sky above was gray. Becca stood on the apron at the top; she took my picture. I felt for the moment invisible in Germany but in it, six feet under but alive, hidden from all but my wife and the eye of the sky, just me there. I have the photograph.

Then we walked down toward a body of water; saw a frank Donald Judd piece there—two chest-high, foot-thick concrete rings, one inside the other, set on a gentle slope; and a sublime redwood pier built by Jorge Pardo that angled out from shore to brave the middle of the long, narrow lake. We wandered to the end of the pier and sat down. It was evening. Lights came up in Münster, streetlamps counting off their measures and car lights winding their way along the lake drive into town. I wanted to live right there, on the water, in the words we spoke about what we had seen that particular day—the art, the fourteenth-century Catholic cathedral, half-destroyed by the RAF in 1945, rebuilt with the help of the citizens of Coventry. We felt ourselves very much in a world of history—frozen, broken, yet restored. Something horrific had been pounded out here in Münster, perhaps in all of Germany. The dead souls that flew, that flew above us in the dark I couldn’t see, but I knew they were there. I could imagine them. It was Nauman’s piece that made me look up.

Michael Coffey’s collection of stories, The Business of Naming Things, will be published by Bellevue Literary Press in January 2015. His most recent pieces in NER include “Sons,” in NER 34.1, and “I Thought You Were Dale,” in NER 32.3. 

The Wallet Lady | By Elizabeth Kadetsky

Categories: NER Digital, Secret Americas

LandscapeExcuse me, a woman in the hallway calls to us. Do you know where the manager is? I’ve left my wallet in my room and I’m locked out. She carries a sturdy pocketbook, which she holds open for us to show it is missing its wallet. She’s dressed to go out — it’s spring. Miss! Miss! She cries when the aide passes.

You lost your wallet again? The aide is from St. Kitts.

How will I go out?

Terrible. The aide tsssks. It’s not in your purse now?

The woman holds it open to her.

My mother shrugs her SOL shrug and raises her eyes at me. C’mon, honey. We pace to the end of the hall. Where now? She asks.

How about down there? I point to the other end of the hall.

Yeah. Yeah. C’mon. Doopdy doo. She grabs me in an elbow lock and makes a dancer’s kick with one leg for her first step, then the second. I join her. We’re winded by the end of the hall. That was fun. Again?


At dinner, the missing-wallet lady sits with us. She leans forward and cups her mouth in a whisper. I’m terribly sorry. This is awfully embarrassing. I’ve lost my wallet. All my credit cards. I’d meant to treat you.

My mother pats her pocket-less genie pants and gives me an alarmed, private look. Her eyebrows meet in tips between her eyes. She checks the back of her chair. Honey, do you have any… Because… My purse… Do you have keys?

It’s on me, I tell the table, with my magnanimous grin.

My mother sighs in relief. Thank god.

You’re very kind, says the wallet lady. You’re her sister?



My mother is on to the next conversation in her head. She’s staring at a bald man on the other side of the room eating at a table of only men when he starts shouting racial epithets in front of the all-Caribbean staff. All the employees have just stopped everything and started shouting: Enough of that! None of that! You stop that now! They look at each other and some of us and smile and hoot. You don’t say that! Enough of that!

My god, some people have not even a little bit of class, the wallet lady says.

I’ve seen that man before, my mother says, staring at the racist. I feel like I know him. It’s like déjà vu but something else. Do you recognize him, honey?

Yes, he’s always here. He lives here.

What!? No. I mean, it feels… misty… I have a vague memory… like from a past life.

After dinner I sit on the other double bed in her room and she strips off her clothes for no reason and asks when we’re leaving.

I’ll have to go home pretty soon, I confess to her.

You’re taking me with you, right? You have the keys? Her eyes are lost and angry and panicked. Also, she’s topless. Take me home.

There is no home. And you’re not dressed.

Then with you. She slips on a white tunic from the closet. I have to go. We’re leaving. Okay? C’mon, honey. She walks to the door and peaks out, then peers back with the conspiratorial expression. C’mon honey. Now. We have to go.


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

Image via Flickr: “Lunch-Hour Nap in Battery Park, 05/1973,” National Archives and Records Administration.

Elizabeth Kadetsky’s short stories have been chosen for a Pushcart Prize, Best New American Voices and two Best American Short Stories notable citations. Her personal essays have appeared in the New York Times, Guernica, and elsewhere. Her memoir First There Is a Mountain was published by Little, Brown in 2004. She is assistant professor of fiction and nonfiction at Penn State.


Floor Models | By Elizabeth Kadetsky

Categories: NER Digital, Secret Americas


Tante Annette was a model at Peck’s, where there’s an L.L. Bean outlet now.

Annette was so tall, Grandmaman used to say.

Oo, ooo la la, my mother said. Tante Annette was my role model, said my mother.

Peck’s was near the mouth of the Androscoggin, just inland from where the Bates Mill gave off its effluent to the river. The Androscoggin, during the mill days, was the most polluted waterway in America. On the town side of the factory, girls called out the windows to the boys from Bates College, my father’s alma mater. Oooo mechant canard — Oh, wicked duck. Alouette, gentille Alouette…— Oh, pretty goose. They made thick, navy wool blankets. I still have one, with a red and white striped satin border and my name on a white label sewn for summer camp.

My mother was a model, too, and she made it out of Maine and went on to New York, where she became the floor model at Lord & Taylor, circa 1976. She walked the main floor greeting people and looking tall, in Charles Jourdan shoes.

Your mother was a floor model at Peck’s, Grandmaman said to me, another time.

That was Annette, I say. Mom worked at Lord & Taylor.

She was so tall and pretty. Jolie. Mon dieu, Grandmaman said, crying, drinking straight from her bottle. Why was Grandmaman crying? Why did she ever cry? Life, joy, remorse. Her second baby died of a disease. Congenital, or environmental, perhaps.

It’s my mother who worked in New York, I repeated, and she looked at me and said, You’re so pretty. The bottle was Grandmaman’s pollution.

After 1917, every mayor in Lewiston was French. Grande-grandmaman Léa came by Grand Trunk Rail in 1895, a middle child among nine. Féline, her sister, worked at the mills. No one else in the family worked in the mills, said Grandmaman, only they did. The family talks, instead, about the cousin who also became mayor, and how Léa made magnificent hats for Anglos and was tailor to the wealthy of Auburn, across the frothy Adroscoggin. She rode in a carriage with her hair piled high wearing tailored dresses. They talk about Grand-grandpapa Philippe, who died early, of meningitis or some other toxin, possibly alcohol.

My mother talks about how she used to be the floor model at Peck’s.

No, that was Tante Annette, I remind her. You were the floor model at Lord & Taylor.

Oh, Annette. I loved Annette. She was so elegant. Who did you say?


Ohhh. My mother peers off. Who’s Annette? She looks round. We’re at a family reunion, hosted by Cousin Roger with the Gallic chin and Vichy mustache. Tante Terry is here, and my mother’s childhood best friend, Cousine Raimonde, who lived with the family in Lewiston. Tante Simone, Tante Annette, Tante Fleurette: they have all passed on by now, of old age. Oncle Roger, he died jumping from a train near a lumber farm outside Montreal. Oncle Raymond, who never got over World War II, they say alcohol took him as well.

My mother takes my hand. She never drank, never worked in the mill. What was her toxin? Who are all these people? She asks me. They keep hugging me and asking How do you do? She is very slim and her hair is dark and dramatic, and she is beautiful so people hug her.

They’re your cousins. Remember Raimonde? You called her Taffy.

Taffy, my mother says. The past is there before her, across a spray of water.


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

Image via Flickr: “Foam on the Polluted Androscoggin River, Seen from the North Bridge at Lewiston, 06/1973.” Photograph by Charles Steinhacker, National Archives and Records Administration.

Elizabeth Kadetsky’s short stories have been chosen for a Pushcart Prize, Best New American Voices and two Best American Short Stories notable citations. Her personal essays have appeared in the New York Times, Guernica, and elsewhere. Her memoir First There Is a Mountain was published by Little, Brown in 2004. She is assistant professor of fiction and nonfiction at Penn State.

Wave | By L. S. McKee

Categories: NER Digital, Secret Americas


That day, the water bent the sun like radio waves. We’d learned it was how voices reach across distances. In class, when we asked how things worked without wires, Mr. Jones outlined in chalk what sound would resemble if you could see it—not like a tide’s in-and-out or an elevator’s lowering, but like the mountains’ undulations, their ridges mumbling at dusk.

At the pool’s edge, I closed my eyes. But I could hear nothing except the gulp of the surface divided, the splash of a cannonball, a tangle of boys vying to hold their heads above water. The ones who lost snotted out chlorine and punched at the surface as if it would hold.

I wonder how far the ruckus traveled—if our fathers could hear our yelping in the rooms of the mountain. Over the coughing shovels. Or veins crumbling in their hands.

We practiced their curses, the work-shirts of their language, even the voices we couldn’t remember—like Billy’s dad who was somewhere in France, buried by the only ocean he’d ever seen. His son swam the hardest, demanding race after race until he collapsed on the bench. His face turned away from the chain-link fence.


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

Image via Wikimedia Commons - “Miners Memorial Swimming Pool, West Virginia, 1946,” Photograph by Russell Lee, National Archives and Records Administration College Park.

L.S. McKee’s work has appeared in Gulf Coast, BODY, Indiana Review, Ninth Letter, New South and elsewhere. Originally from East Tennessee, she lives and teaches in Atlanta.

Short, Unhappy | By Imad Rahman

Categories: NER Digital, Secret Americas

5008809952_a7ee933d8c_o1971. You are born. It is Pakistan, and it is hot. Ceiling fans hum overhead in the small, cramped rooms and small, cramped corridors of a small, cramped hospital. There is a war on. Move, they say, we need storage space for the dead. Spend a week in the home basement while outside planes swoop and weave in the sky. Someone sings you to sleep, an androgynous croon.

1975 is just like 1974.

1979. Riots in the street. At school, a girl tells you a ghost story and you believe it. Gummy worms snake out of stumped arms in your dreams. Next day, refuse to go to school. Lie, say you miss your mother. Realize right away it would have been better to have just told the truth, mama’s boy.

1983. Move, Karachi to Kansas with your father after your mother disappears – supposedly there’s been a plane crash. Your new town is all strip clubs and churches, the geometry of sweaty desire bisected by loud faith. Later, you learn she is still alive and living in Amsterdam under an assumed identity. At school they have a hard time with your name. Your father, of course, is a liar, but your mother is crazy.

1987. First kiss, at dusk, leaning up against the crumbling white brick wall of a café known for loose meat sandwiches. She can’t pronounce your name either. Don’t care. Your father has found religion. Arguments ensue. Your mother shows up. Legalese ensues. You hang out with others displaced, others dispossessed, drift into the second kiss. Then the third. Every time you look into someone’s eyes you feel empty.

1991. Don’t go home for Thanksgiving. Get money wired to you for a root canal and spend it on a flight to Amsterdam. One night, lose your virginity to a prostitute. Like you, she is from someplace via someplace. Your bicuspids, once sturdy, start to hurt.

1995. Get a job.

1999. Go back to Amsterdam. Take money from dad’s wrongful death settlement, invest in a bar called Café Kansas. It is big and made of brick, which reminds you of both a church in Kansas and of your mother. In 2006, all potential immigrants of Pakistani origin will have to demonstrate fluency in Dutch. Lucky for you this is 1999.

2003. They mispronounce your name.

2007. There is a woman. The color of your skin turns her on. The color of her skin turns you on. She has firm breasts and sings unfamiliar songs in unfamiliar languages in bed before the lights go out. A ceiling fan whirs. The woman has a husband with powerful arms. You have an upset stomach. He works construction. You do yoga. Find yourself in an unfinished construction site suspended from a great height, the wind slipping through the hollow cavity of your body in great furious swoops. As you fall, imagine yourself swooping and weaving. When you drop, think nosebleed. Below, concrete closes hungry, like an unexpected lover.

There is no 2011.


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

Image via Flickr – Wonderland Arcade, 1200 Grand Ave. Kansas City, Missouri, 1968,  National Archives and Records Administration.

Imad Rahman is the author of I Dream Of Microwaves, a book of connected stories. His stories have appeared in One Story, Gulf Coast, The Fairy Tale Review, Willow Springs and Chelsea, amongst others, and in the anthology xo Orpheus: Fifty New Myths. He currently teaches creative writing at Cleveland State University.

Cut the Cables | By David Hamilton

Categories: NER Digital, Secret Americas

LandscapeIn a theatrical moment during the 1854 New York Exposition, Elisha Otis, a Vermonter with a checkered past, mounted an open elevator cab, hoisted himself above the assembled crowd, and, with a flourish, cut the cables. Otis dramatically failed to die, as the car plummeted downward just six inches and jolted to a stop. Patents followed, and cities were reshaped into the vertical skyline we now regard as inevitable and desirable.

Otis invented neither the concept nor the basic technology of the elevator. Rather, he contributed a device to assure passengers that they most likely would not perish on the way to work, having ascended hundreds of feet above the ground in a trice, an act of technological magic made mundane.

The introduction of Otis’s brake loosed the floodgates, enabling the vertical growth of New York and Chicago that we now see as natural. Half a century later, the automobile began to exert a horizontal pull on the city. In the twentieth century, good roads and airbags pulled suburbs out, while elevators and fire departments pushed towers up, in a dynamic opposition that has confounded great minds of urban planning on both sides.

Take your pick of “cars” – automobiles or elevators – or combine them until you end up with the basic parameters of the built environment we inherited from the twentieth century. The most humble safety inventions drive us out of town or send us floating above the streets. Maybe the fear of death – or, rather, our ability to allay that fear on the everyday level – is substantially more motivating than abstract ideals like “population density” or “decentralization.”

Welcome to the future. It probably won’t kill you.


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

Image via Flikr – “Elisha Otis’s Elevator Patent Drawing, 01/15/1861,” National Archives and Records Administration.

Trained as an architect, David Hamilton is a homebuilder and developer. He also writes and lectures on urban design and economics. Most recently, he is the co-author, with Prof. R. Peiser, of Professional Real Estate Development.

Freefall | By Stephanie Austin

Categories: NER Digital, Secret Americas

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.