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Featuring poetry by Raena Shirali, David Winter, Paul Asta, and Janelle DolRayne, and fiction by Scott Fenton and Blaine Ely.

 


 

Special Feature

Two poems from Laura Bylenok's forthcoming collection Warp, winner of the 2015 T. S. Eliot Prize!

 

 

 

   

  

Special Feature

Ninth Letter is pleased to present the winners of the 2014 Illinois Emerging Writers Competition: Whittney Jones, Jessica Walsh, and Pablo Otavalo!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Current Issue


 Spring/Summer 2015 is now available! Click here to see more information about this issue. To order, click here. 

 

Beatrice Mora

Fifty Shades of Grey 

We run

quietly. I raise my eyebrows                               

out loud.                              
He tilts into a                                  
strange deep.                                 
I tear away                          
fingers forward.                             
He sounds                           
out the rain. We                            
bet on                                   
every narrow threat. We                                    
shake grace to the                                    
snap.

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Brianna Noll

Resonance

The split hive buzzes 
on its own, the bees long dead.           
           Colony collapse.
It’s the echo of the swarm, 
a lingering song, the honeycombs 
a lattice of nerves,                       
               pulsing.
If you touch it, it will flinch.
It’s an oscillating force, an electrical force, a force           
          of life.
The hivematter is organic—           
          It’s more than wind.
We learned to hum so 
our lips buzz, tickle                      
                     and numb.
Honey coating the tongue. 
The tongue warmed            
              with light.
Otherwise, the sound is hollow. 
We learned to match frequency,
create waves,                       
                      not breath.
Press your finger into 
the beeswax            
            and speak.
Feel it vibrate
like the skin of your throat.

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Cara Stoddard

To a Player Piano, Grand Rapids, MI, 2010

The way my father’s calloused fingers plucked tiny checkers, careful and patient, counting aloud  as he skirted the perimeter  of backgammon’s felt-and-leather stage, teaching me addition in the pediatric ward. The only other sounds: the ding of elevator arrival and helicopter wings.  My skin raked bare by drug, scalp shining feathery under fluorescent lights,  and my father, still scraping together  some semblance of order, scolding me for itching out my eyebrows, Pick out mine instead. as if he wished he could take my place or that we’d all end up unchanged.  These are the moves of brown and ivory stones kept in neat rows, progressing in circles  from one corduroy cradle to another, Move one guy six and one four, or this one  ten. His stones advancing counterclockwise against the trajectory of mine like a sweeping negation.  The muted rattle of dice in felt-lined cups  again and again both of us traveling nowhere.  Maybe it was all just practice for what was to come, the way his tissues fell into mindless replication like a child pianist repeating the same measure.  In the months before he died, I found the backgammon set buried in an antique dresser drawer. His mind had been rollered flat by illness, his fine motor skills rendered imprecise, but backgammon came easily each gesture rising from the wreckage of memory.  In the lobby of the hospice hell-home where we let him die, some restored Steinway  kept playing itself from a pattern punctured in paper, the notes laid out like barcodes, each perforation a premonition of its sound that suck of air the way a choir holds its breath just before beginning the way a father leaves his daughter filled with holes.

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Christine Stroud

You Called the Night It Snowed in April

You called the night it snowed in April. I squeezed out of the dinner party, slumped behind the wheel of Molly's car and listened. Harshly,  you squeezed the dinner party from my mind. Delicate white flakes fell on Molly's car and glistened. Harshly, the wind blew the idea of warmth and eating well     from my mind. Delicate white flakes fell. “Are you in a safe place?” I asked. The wind blew. The idea of you warm and well in the shelter near Leicester passed,  “Are you at a bar?” I asked. You remind me you can’t drink  in the shelter near Leicester. The past, an unbreakable chain, links  me to you. “You shouldn’t drink.” But in the dim bar you will shoot cheap whiskey. There is an unbreakable chain which links you to me and light brown liquor. From the shitty,  dim bar where you shoot cheap whiskey you called. It snowed that night in April. You drank light brown liquor. I felt shitty and slumped farther down behind the wheel.

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Eric Paul

The Man Who Can't Say No

She lost her father to a city he founded in his brain.  He built disappearing streets, littered with  yellowed newspapers, bills, and love letters to  women he’s never met. Bus stops, skyscrapers, and  automobiles made from books he’s never read.  He’s sculpted statues of his children and ex-wives  out of canned goods, stitched a city flag out of  clothes he’d outgrown and turned bedrooms into  museums for the world’s largest collection of tiny  spoons. And suddenly the population explodes.  Ghosts of dead relatives and friends bang on pipes,  turn streetlights on and off. Families of stray  animals move in beneath the ceiling for a sky  that holds the suffering sun and moon.

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Gerardo Mena

Ode to the Enemy Sniper

Searching for your defining  moment, you’ve come to dance  in our little war. Life is nothing  more than a turn   of the windage knob, a slight  adjustment for distance, a tight lungful of breath, a sight bearing black reticle,   that crosshair etched into your lens  like a crucifix, reaching for the edges  of your omniscient circle, a transfer  of kinetic energy from man,   to machine, to man. The word  Dragunov strikes fear into your enemies,  but in you it triggers the ancient sentiment that sparks   wars among men; and so you aim steady, you squeeze slowly, propelling your projectile toward the anatomical  plexus that turns off the world. 

A different version of “Ode to the Enemy Sniper” appears in  Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors (Southeast Missouri State  University Press, 2012).

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Gerardo Mena

The Spent

It seems so long ago since we spilt  our bloom, sculpted our sleep  around the impact of ricochets  into powdered dust, cried out Mene Mene  as we waded into the Tigris  to recover bodies. This is not  the first time I have spoken of this. And each time the story grows  less. Grows thin. Each time I end  with a sigh, the only honest breath   from my lungs, borne of a lexicon of light breathing, these tiny learned exhalations covering the holes that now stipple my stories—that have displaced  those moments when I cried out: forgive me

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J. Scott Brownlee

Hill Country Elegy

Let the division of light be the barbed-wire fence line.    Let it divide up everything. Let it determine where the boundaries of the day and the first darkness are.     Let the beef cattle enter and exit the pasture as they each see fit, licking piles of salt from the round,    rubber basins the hired hands fill for their thick tongues  to lick. Let what the deer eat in the long drought be enough.    Let the landscape contain itself. Here where the golden light of sun going gradually down leaves me singing the songs     German forefathers sang, ranchers taming the land, let me return to the basics of living off the land.    For over eighteen years I thought I would never grieve,  leaving here. Now, it’s the deer calling me back    with their white tails, faint flicks in the darkness again between my snake chaps and the bee brush, the mesquite     scrub and the needled cactus spines. Everywhere I look, there is tangible evidence of my hill country origins.    As I pass through the pasture on my way to the highway,  I see a buck. In my high-powered scope, in the crux    of its cross-hairs where the deer marks a vanishing point,  there’s an infinite place I can never quite reach:     an erasure fills it. Both the buck and myself will disappear,  and I understand this. But until then, one bullet joins    my body to the buck’s. For a second, we’re linked   by the passing of it through twilight between us.     Its hot cone breaks his skin—enters in where it enters my skin. Shared friction burns the two of us      at its vanishing point, where a great peace fills me— and an emptiness, him. Christ got up on a cross     to prove he meant business. My own father took me   hunting several times, though I never liked it.     Now, I’m doing it simply because I miss him.  This one ritual kill is ours. Tonight we can say anything.      Distance passes through us like light thrown down  from stars. We are drawn near by it—so close     the bullet I shoot at the sky, streaking up, touches him.    

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Lisa Fay Coutley

Careo

Which means I’ve started watching YouTube clips from the local dog shelter in the city I was sure I’d burned behind us. Familiar never pushes in its chair or leaves the table  quiet. We live in a box. At night, I lock us inside & hope no one breaks in, or out. Sometimes, pre-sleep, I spin scenarios of what might happen. My sons never make it  to college or marriage or fatherhood. I try to imagine how my whole life has passed & only this year have I noticed my own  pigeon-toed stride. Parked, I’m stalking my oldest boy as he walks from school to his friend’s, where they’ll sit, chillin’ & smokin’ blunts all day. & so love saunters  dumbly away. No glancing back. This is it: the dream where I’m screaming underwater or trying to punch some bitch in the face. Voiceless. Armless. Careo—in need of, free  from, without. A kenneled dog comes closer to the word for missing than this dead language I'm learning, in this house where no one speaks.

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Nathan Logan

Things Really Went to Hell

Everyone in your house had a beard, even the smooth-haired dachshund with the wheelchair attachment. Her name was Margot, you said.  You asked about my trip. Bus travel was invented for the fashion depraved and those who enjoy touring historical sites.  I am neither of those kinds of people, I said.  I was forthright about my interest in socks. You had hyped yours up in our conversations  over the Internet. Your best quality was love  of fabrics. That was also something you said.  I asked about them, your socks,  only to look down and see orange  polka-dot boots. Margot was there too,  a stuffed octopus in her mouth.  Someone sneezed upstairs. You offered to drive me around town in your bloodmobile as compensation for the lies you told me about your socks.  That didn’t seem adequate compensation to me. I said but all those pictures and you said Photoshop.  I asked if I was the first and you said not even close. Margot squeaked across the floor, tentacle in mouth.  I said my heart was not a plush toy and you said  it was a sock. I walked back out your door, past  the bloodmobile with the license plate motto:  The Sideburn State. Now, this made sense.   I wrapped this relief around me like a scarf  and was on a bus home twenty minutes later.  And I was so happy—my scarf said don’t mess with me, I’m the saddest motherfucker with a window seat.

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Portia Elan

What The Academy Does In The Library Stacks

The easiest part of being me is probably all of it but somehow I keep finding it hard. Especially the folding of clean laundry. Especially the throwing away of old flowers. I carry death on my shoe. I keep pebbles in my pockets—small ones of no particular significance but mine, still. I wear voluminous dresses too, big gashes of fabric & the body swirling underneath. I’ve got all these hands & I just want to touch myself, okay? & not always even that. 

Over & over the cat says she just wants to be where I am or, failing that, to know where I am. She keeps an eye out. She’s ready if the rats ever come. The body swirling underneath is sometimes a galaxy & sometimes an engine & sometimes a dog but please don’t mistake it for ever just a body please. How do I talk about a body? The cat walks everywhere with purpose. 

This article is a treatise on the semantics of bodies in relation. The weather is always an excuse for drinking I say. As if I needed an excuse. The sky is my excuse – my reason its unbounded size & the distance between it & me. Come closer please. Wouldn’t you like it if I said that to you? You would, you would. 

But the body beneath the body is an exploding star, a hidden tulip, a skeleton key that once spoken might open your heart beyond what you can bear. The body beneath the body has a voice. The body beneath the body beneath the body is composed entirely of heart. What is a body. I am going to keep drinking. Keep going. 

I am translating into academic language the story of peeling back the bodies of my lover, of holding her in my mouth & the awe-clapped collapse of one body into another, those infinite layers crossing one into one into one into one until there—was her heart in her mouth & O how it sang. Come closer, now. See how the body moves under all this fabric. Perhaps I’ve waxed long enough. The clothes unfolded, the flowers drooping.

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Portia Elan

A Simile Is a Suspension Bridge

God—loving you is like sleeping drunk on the roof please come get me  or at least give me a call & we can talk about having a party:  let’s talk about having a fancy dress party, a costumed fancy dress party  where everyone comes as the person they most want to sleep with  & I will make hors d’oeuvres from my mother’s cookbook,  the one from the seventies with the terrible off-color photographs  but I have faith it’ll turn out okay. Cheese balls, devils on horseback,  pigs in blankets, pimento-stuffed olives, Ritz crackers, tomato aspic.   The cat & I have been so sad, God, we wake up every few hours  to say “I love you” even though this only serves to remind us:  we are still alive.                       We’ll invite all your favorite people & all of mine,  but not Julia, who turned out to be a bitch, or Angel Michael,  who you know I like but sometimes he can be sort of smug  & I really want it to be the kind of party where we let loose.   God, needing you isn’t easy, not even a little I wish you’d come get me.   The cat & I miss you something fierce.                                  Faith is like a wholly undeserved hangover,  a stubbornly dry ballpoint, like realizing partway through an episode of Law & Order that you already saw the second half, in a motel outside Tempe,  your whole naked body goose pimpled under the air conditioner;   it’s like / it’s like a bridesmaid dress, faith is.  God, faith is the distance between you & me,  sure, but it’s also like a head full of the perfume of a girl  who probably doesn’t want me back.  Everyone knows this already, but of course  I would show up as Joan & I think that’s a defensible choice.  I’m getting carried away with the party, aren’t I?  I just want you to call or to show up when I go for my goodnight smoke  or sometimes I imagine you will be waiting on the porch  as I walk home from work because you’ve forgotten your key  but you don’t & don’t & don’t don’t don’t show up  & the cat & I are so sad God I wish you’d call.

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Ron Salutsky

In Praise of Kool Filter Kings

If the sea had skin  you could roll it up over Florida   like a condom, prevent what you only  in the comfort of others’ mishaps call   the spread of Florida. And what’s so wrong  with Florida, then? There’s none   more existential crisis than 6:30 pm in Florida,  and you need not have driven there drunk   the night before, parked on the street  outside the Daytona Beach YMCA, rusty harmonica   on the dashboard and God knows what  looks like donut glaze on the jeans you cut   into jean shorts with a buck knife  just south of Valdosta. We’ve come to the shore,   by God, so we’ve conquered the shore,  quoth you, for puking-on   is 51% of ownership in business-friendly  Florida. The sea is not indifferent,   but rather calms you roaring in your ear.  There’s still half a tank of gas   and an unopened pack of menthols  you must have bought at a Gate   in St. Cloud, now what? You gave  a homeless girl four menthols   and a five-spot and she swore she’d spend it on bean burritos   and she didn’t even cheapen the deal  by proffering a blowjob. The liquor stores   here never close because it’s the beach  and you know by the way your eyeballs burn   the sun will come up soon and you feel you should pray but you don’t know what to pray to   and a blue crane perched on the arm of a lifeguard chair somehow reminds you  there’s love in the world. Now what?

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Samantha Deal

Twenty Miles Offshore

I remember walking out into the field behind our house the winter after  I almost lost a leg to an unfortunate arrangement of old pine bark  and truck engine. The world is full of legs—I thought. I’ve never been sure   why hospital rooms keep cold the way they do—I think maybe those machines were special vacuums designed to suck up  all the warm. I think maybe that’s what snow sounds like, a vacuum   cleaner clearing carpet in another room. That winter after was when I started  to play this game I called, how cold. It’s a one-person game—just you in a field with the naked cotton air. There are so many edges  in the mountains, too many corners, places where one thing becomes another. I hate the sound of ripping fabric. When I think  about childhood, I think about running—and then, for a long time,  not running. There are monks that sit on snowy mountains, wrapped in soaking sheets. I used to believe I could lie on my back in a field of snow for hours and never feel it. When I drove back   from college that first time, the blue ridge spilled over the dashboard  all at once—I’ll never forget it. An hour ago I wanted things to be smaller. Now, I’m looking at water and thinking   about your calves. I’m afraid I’ll never understand what sex is really about. What is enough? I think maybe  there is a drift in my head. Things float off all the time—  I know it because I watch them go. I don’t know if this is what love ought to feel like, and I don’t know exactly what it is you love, but I know that when you disappear into the rolling hills  of your ribs—I want to go with you. The world is full of legs  and arms and spleens. Who knows how many different ways there are to be in pain. I think maybe you are what blurs the edges, I think maybe  you are the ripple where the big open gap-toothy sky piles into the road. What if I had never learned to swim? I am full of salt, the smell of chlorine. I am tired of talking only  to dead people. An hour ago, I imagined having a beer with Laurence. Now, I’m telling him about the ocean at night—Have you ever been out this far? I ask.

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Samantha Deal

Sometimes I Want You To Throw Things

You are talking to me about waves, about the difference between sets, about offshore winds and sinking tides—     I want to collect your lazy freckles and pile them up like goose feather       I want the grease stuck folds of your palms and your fingers       on my stomach like an almost-too-cold shower   There are things you cannot say to a person:    You taste like toothpaste and floss and rainy weather          I want to be your chewing gum I want to be the water-heavy air that fills the four feet      between where I am and where you are             Everyone’s beautiful is another person’s I-don’t-give-a-shit—I love you       sometimes  I don’t understand what you mean about drift. Does it frighten you when I talk about mountains, when I say that December is the only month  that tastes like December. Are you scared I’ll sink into my ditch of blue?  I’m thinking about the way you fall asleep on your back without any covers—I wish I could do that. If I hate you it’s because I’m jealous. If I’m not making sense   it’s because I want you to do it for me— I want you to gather up all my syllables  and arrange them into a perfectly constructed paragraph.  I disagree with you about the phosphorescence.                         It is not the emission of light by bioluminescent plankton It is the millions of lightning bugs that somehow migrated                       into the ocean. They only just figured out how to glow       underwater, they’ve been waiting on you for years


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  © Ninth Letter, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.