Rising Waters

by Jonchy

The Indonesian word for flood is banjir.

In Jakarta, my hometown and the nation’s capital, the banjir comes so regularly that it is simply seen as a part of life. The rainy season begins in November and with it comes inevitable floodwaters. During this time, everyone places their valuables on high shelves and move vulnerable furniture on top of spare beds. 

I loved the banjir as a child. When it was low, it turned our street into a large puddle in which I could slosh around—provided I had my blue rubber boots on and didn’t stay out too long. Some days, as my mother watched dutifully through the window, I would go out in search for stray branches floating in the street-turned-river. I’d pick an acceptable one to be my sword. I’d imagine myself as a pirate in shallow waters, defeating an improbable number of invisible enemies on my way to shore.

On car rides to the center of the city, I’d imagine that we were in a tightly packed convoy of ships, sailing through a brown ocean in search of new land.

I appreciated the banjir too, for its habit of arriving sneakily in the night to fill up my primary school. I went to an English-speaking school in East Jakarta, some forty minutes away. This is a short distance in the context of notorious Jakarta traffic—which, at its height, can stall a city-center trip by two hours. 

Communication between the school and students’ parents could be lacking at times. Some days, my parents had the foresight to call ahead after a particularly stormy night to check if classes were canceled. More often than not, though, I’d be driven to school in the rainy months only for us to discover that rainwater had risen to shin-height on campus. This happened because the school was in a sort of valley and—like most of the Greater Jakarta area—was terribly irrigated.

On those days, a security guard would wade to us in his boots and tell us that class was cancelled for the day. I’d be happy, of course. I liked school, but not as much as reading chapter books or playing my daily allotment of computer games—this was 15 minutes, strictly policed by my mother. 

My Korean mother pronounces it “Ban-jil,” having been born into a language whose “l” and “r” sounds are barely and blurrily distinct. In the cruelness of childhood, I made fun of her for it, though I would give anything now for her multilingualism. My Umma speaks three languages fluently, while I can only offer stunted approximations of her native tongue, or of my father’s. 

As an adult and an immigrant I’m embarrassed that I am conversational but not fluent in the languages my parents passed down to me, even though they were spoken in the household. Though it was true that we spoke English the most—partly because it was my parents’ first shared language and partly because it was key to a successful future in the Western world—both hangeukmal and Bahasa Indonesia certainly had a place in our home.

When more than one language bounces around a household, it is inevitable that crosslinguistic jokes enter everyday speech. A favorite growing up was the conflation of Appa, the Korean word for father, and apa, the Indonesian word for “what.” Apa, Appa? was my stock response if my dad ever asked me a question, even if I’d clearly heard what he’d said. He humored me even after the sorry pun had worn itself out, always cracking a small smile in acknowledgment.

I’m not sure if we ever joked about the banjir, but I can imagine how it would’ve gone down. The word ban in Korean means “half,” and so the quip might have gone something like this: the ban-jir is up to my knees! I hope we don’t get a full-jir, that’d be up to my waist! My mother would have laughed gleefully, instead of giving me the groan I would have rightly deserved. 

Recently, I’ve learned that everything I was taught about the banjir is only half-true. 

I remember wondering aloud about why it flooded so much where we were. My parents would tell me it was because of what’s going on uphill. By this, they meant the deforestation in Western Java. I learned vaguely as a child that they were cutting down too many trees in Bogor, and that for some reason it made the banjir come upon us more heavily.

I know a little more now. I know that the logging industry uphill caters cheaply to the interests of Chinese companies, and that trees are often toppled to clear space for new apartments and factories. Apparently, dead roots don’t suck up water very well, so when the rains come down in the West the banjir surges down on Jakarta unopposed. 

Deforestation is one part of the reason the waters rise and fall in Jakarta. But there are other things that summon the banjir to my city as well. Larger, darker forces are at play. I’ve grown to see that the banijr I so loved in my childhood is more sinister than I’d first realized. 

I know now that the floods are getting higher because Jakarta is sinking. In the past ten years, the land in the coastal north of the city has dipped 2.5 meters—a full foot greater than the height of one Shaquille O’Neil. Jakarta is sinking because that is what happens when rampant urbanization sprawls outward and upward without a steady infrastructure to hold its weight.

While I have fond memories of my childhood, there are many things about Jakarta I am glad to have left behind. I am still traumatized by my hometown’s standstill traffic, where spending an hour to move your car forward by a mile is not unheard of. I remember getting lost in the gaudy multi-story shopping malls which populate the city, crying and headachy in the neon lights of retail stores. 

People from all over Indonesia come to the big city to make something of themselves, or at least to make the sort of money that will go exponentially farther when they send it back to their families at home. There are too many people, and too many buildings built to house and entertain them. Jakarta is a city of gridlock and excess, and it is caving in on itself.

The literal weight of urban development is sinking my city, but there is more to it than that. Of coastal metropolises, Jakarta has one of the worst infrastructures for water distribution. Piped water comes at ridiculous cost, and only serves half of the city. This leaves the poor and the corner-cutting rich to drill illegal wells that tap into natural aquifers. Stifled by concrete, the aquifers have trouble filling up again. The weight of too-many buildings press down on the empty space left behind, leaving parts of my city as valley-like as my primary school, as pits for the floodwaters to fill in.

I worry that the sinister banjir might drown my city. But these are not the only rising waters that threaten Jakarta. Somewhere I have never been, far from my equatorial context and even from where I live now in New England, something called the Greenland Ice Sheet is melting very quickly. It is filling up the ocean and causing it to rise, even as far away as Indonesia. When you draw a bath, doesn’t the bathwater rise up evenly, and not just on the faucet-side? This is why the rising waters are creeping up the coast of North Jakarta.

The Greenland Ice Sheet is melting because of the sum total of all the coughing cars and spewy smokestacks and burning forests in the world, and because of the masses of cows that leak methane from their asses. The gaseous outputs clog the atmosphere and, increasingly, cause more heat from the sun linger by earth than we’d like. Jakarta’s gridlock plays a part. The neon malls play a part. So too, does oil drilling in Dubai and factory farms in Northeast China.

The government of my city isn’t as concerned with climate impacts of far-flung cities as it is with the reality that the floodwaters are threatening to invade us from the outside. They are building a wall to try and keep the waters out. They call it the Coastal Wall, and they’re building it extra-high because they know that it’s going to sink like the rest of the city. And as they build this wall they are preoccupied with dreams of an even more ambitious solution: the Great Garuda, a seawall of reclaimed land in the shape of its mythic-bird namesake, the national symbol of Indonesia.

There is something romantic about invoking a mythic power in tackling a great elemental threat. But, behind this grand vision of a guardian bird protecting its city from the onrushing ocean, is the same human hubris that got us here in the first place. The Great Garuda is a 40 billion dollar project which invites developers to build more malls and sleek condominiums upon the new land they will summon up from the ocean. Corner-cutting and corruption may leave the newly risen land carelessly formed, unstable and unsafe. Perhaps the deepest problem is that the venture does nothing to address the lack of piped water systems which cause my countrymen to drill wells that sink the city. The wall, meant to keep the water out, may only serve to keep the banjir in, leaving my city to someday filled to the brim—a post-climate Atlantis. 

As a member of the diaspora, I love and I hate my city. I cherish my childhood sloshing in the streets, but cannot shake the panic of being trapped in a crowded mall. I feel an affinity to my birthplace and my people, and yet speak my mother tongue inexpertly. I think and worry about Jakarta, and write it out in English. I remember the banjir fondly, but hate it because it is a harbinger of destruction.

Like the sinking city of Jakarta, I am threatened from without and within. I’ve internalized a hybrid culture, through which I crack cross-linguistic jokes that make my mother laugh and my father smile. The longer I live on my own, though, the more language I lose and the more I find myself assimilating. I appreciate the values of freedom and the ethnic and cultural diversity I find in America, my adopted country. And yet, I understand that I am a resident alien, suspect to changes in immigration policy from an immigrant-suspicious administration.

Jakarta remains in me. But it is also a mirror to the world. The waters are rising everywhere because of Jakarta traffic and Korean barbeque and the same fuel-heavy flights that first brought me to America. Miami Beach is sinking, as is Shanghai, as is New Orleans, as is Manila and Rio de Janeiro. Just as in Jakarta, no one is really equipped to deal with it. I preoccupy myself by worrying about identity and parsing through my childhood, while corporations keep building heavy buildings and all people continue on with their lives.

No one wants to think about the waters creeping up our coasts, or to admit that we are sinking, or to consider that we may soon be submerged.

We will blink, and the water will be up to our waists.

Jonchy is an immigrant most worried about anthropogenic climate change—that deeply entangled reality which threatens to decimate our planet. He is particularly interested in the meaningful interplay between text and image, and often pairs his prose with scratchy sketches or family photographs. He lives on the North Shore of Boston, where he works with his hands.


by Jason Morphew

On the Caddo River
there’s a train trestle
and a swimming hole
down a dirt path
from a cemetery
where my brother
and his recent ancestors
bleed formaldehyde
into the water table.
It’s good for you
and children
diving from the trestle
into chemicals below
it keeps you dead
and white longer
skincare for the departed
poison for the getting ready
to go.

Jason Morphew started life in a mobile home in Pike County, Arkansas. The Washington Post calls Morphew’s 2018 full-length collection, dead boy a “striking debut . . . presented with an edginess and sharp intelligence that make the poems pop,” and The Antioch Review calls it “brilliant.” Jason has shared stages with Claudia Rankine, Afaa Michael Weaver, and Joe Wenderoth. He holds a PhD in English Renaissance Literature from UCLA and has taught English at UCLA, UC Davis, and Mt. St. Mary’s University. As a singer-songwriter, Morphew released albums on the labels Brassland, Ba Da Bing, Max, and Unread. He currently lives in Los Angeles with his family.

imaginary lakes & the houses near them

by Timothy Otte

more than sex or money
    mostly what I want is stillness
I could give up almost anything
    —just give me an hour
every morning with a cup of coffee
    & the loons

    calling through fog
over smooth water


let the city remain where it is
    small & far off

    most days I am not myself
other days I wake & sleep
    with the sun

I’ll leave my body here
    encased in concrete
if my spirit can walk
    through the meadow
    through the reeds


more than knowledge & power
    what I want is rain felting
the surface of the lake

keep your large rooms
keep the bars & tall buildings

    give me the whole sky
& hands to hold it

I’ll drink the iron-flavored
    well water
whiskey in winter

gin in summer


this is sentimental
    so be it
        —this is sentimental


    if I had known how easy
        contentment could be
    I wouldn’t have wasted my life
in these ways

I might simply have dug a hole
    & called it home
        hollowed a dead tree
    to fill with chimes

their song coloring the edges
    of winter

    stillness is a sort of wisdom
        wisdom is knowing nothing
is ever still or still for long

Timothy Otte’s poems have appeared, or are forthcoming in Denver Quarterly, Fence, Sixth Finch, SAND Journal, Structo, and elsewhere. My book reviews have appeared on LitHub, the Colorado Review, and in the Poetry Project Newsletter. Timothy is from and lives in Minneapolis, where he works at Coffee House Press, but he also keeps a home on the internet: timothyotte.com.

Last Transit of Venus This Century Draws Stargazers Around the World

a Golden Shovel after Margaret Atwood’s “you fit into me” by Soleil Davíd

High noon & I trek out to a Gangnam playground with you,
sit on a swing, trace larger & larger arcs & you fit
your face over the pinhole projector you made, staring into
the haloed reflection of a sun as yet unblemished. Around me

the cicadas trill, my summer dress flies up as I swing down. I like
us this way, tracing heavenly bodies in enclosed cardboard, a
hushed viewing room. Elsewhere a K-pop song, its hook
a cacophony, a far clangor of golden cymbals going into
its third verse. You don’t hear me make this observation. An
astronomical thing, our yard of silence. Your eye

is still trained downward, the sun content to shine behind you, a
rapt viewer following Venus’ path, as if it were a kind of fish
swimming upward. I leap off, nail the dismount, kneel & hook

both thumbs to the edges of the box, dive my head in, an
astronaut whose gaze waters in the sudden solitude, open
to a pockmark of a planet smudging sun, blurring my eye.

Soleil Davíd’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Arkansas International, Post No Ills, and The Margins, among other journals. Davíd was born and raised in the Philippines and received her B.A. with high distinction in English from the University of California, Berkeley. A VONA/Voices alumna, she has received fellowships from PEN America, Bread Loaf Translators’ Conference, and from Indiana University, Bloomington, where she is currently an MFA candidate in poetry. She is the current Poetry Editor of Indiana Review.


by Carrie Greenlaw

A long time ago
things used to turn off.

Sleep drifted in great swaths
that blotted out the stars,
upending Gutenberg’s press,
the cotton gin, splintering looms

and memory used the dark
to tend its garden.
We spun oblivion into silks;
forgetfulness, a saint’s medallion
forged of pilgrimage through pain.

These forests have been razed.
The world undulates and feels unwise.
Deglove means skin turned inside out.

Our hands shed uncontrollably
and out of sight.

Metaphors lead to motherhood.
In each orphanage,
urgency weeps from a dark grid of cradles.

Foul milk or no milk—
which mouth
can tell the difference?

Carrie Greenlaw is a poet and artist residing on the North Side of Pittsburgh. Her work has been featured in Masque & Spectacle, River & South Review, Inscape, and other publications. Her debut chapbook, Dark Garnet, is forthcoming by L&S Press in January 2020. She believes in living low and living slow. More at carriegreenlaw.com.

The Invasives

by Michele Sharpe

I was six or seven, on vacation.
Flamingos landed in their hundreds by
the infield lake at Hialeah.
Their pink, so lipsticky. Their size.
How could a bird be taller than me?
An old man called them exotic, from Cuba.
The flamingos bred.
                       Hialeah shipped the fledglings
to zoos around the country. Some escaped,

provoking rails against exotics, and now
I hear flamingos are our natives after all.
Hunted for their feathers and their meat,
the old ones fled Old Florida like other
natives fled conquistadors across
and back across and under,
                            over, through

Up north, on Ichetucknee, I watch the manatees
browse on water lettuce from my kayak.
Upstream, well-intentioned activists
pull at what they think
a strange and noxious weed.
It might as well be called another world,

the research station thirty miles away,
where water lettuce seeds, preserved like flies
in amber, speckle fossils older than
our puny memories.
                                           They stay inside
their case and wait for vindication.

Michele Sharpe, a poet and essayist, is also a high school dropout, hepatitis C survivor, adoptee, and former trial attorney. Her essays have been published or are forthcoming in the New York Times, The Rumpus, Guernica, Catapult, and The Sycamore Review. Michele’s recent poems can be found in B O D Y, Rogue Agent, Poet Lore, North American Review, Stirring, and Baltimore Review.

Faced with Extinction

by Susanna Lang

the dinosaurs made themselves
small, gaudy with feathers,
lighter than air. Compass needles
enthralled by the earth.

Case in point: this starling,
the iridescence at its neck,
its command of language.

Cocks its head, unafraid.
It should be more wary: my kind
have gone the other way.

I had to bend over to kiss
my grandmother, who
made herself small
to escape the pogroms.
But I grew tall, put on weight.

In the 18th century, men
wore lace at the throat
like this starling. Now
a young man in my class
boasts of his new sweatshirt—
white, nondescript
except for the logo.
No more gaud.

Our planes tumble out of the sky.
Our devices have lost our way.
Our capacious brains
have rooms for rent.

No need for asteroids.
We are picking apart
our own nest.

Susanna Lang’s third collection of poems, Travel Notes from the River Styx, was released in 2017 from Terrapin Books. Her chapbook, Self-Portraits, is forthcoming from Blue Lyra Press in June 2020. A two-time Hambidge fellow, Susanna’s poems and translations have appeared or are forthcoming in publications such as Prairie Schooner, december, New Poetry in Translation, The Literary Review, American Life in Poetry, and Verse Daily. Her translations of poetry by Yves Bonnefoy include Words in Stone and The Origin of Language, and she is now working with Nohad Salameh and Souad Labbize to translate their poems. She lives and teaches in Chicago. More information available at susannalang.com.

Two Poems

Oil Spills and Orcas

by Jasmin Lankford

Scatter white lilies in the water to save the Salish orcas.
Southern resident killer whales battle big business boats
as Trans Mountain Expansion engines emit a frequency
masking orca communication among mates.

British Columbia borders watch a whale hold her dead
calf above rough waves for weeks. All mothers mourn
lost babies. Her family, a pod of 30, float on without her.

In the church, lilies line the altar above a small casket.
No one speaks of the silence, even if they’ve felt it before.
There is no body in the box, but a soul swims to heaven.

In ancient Roman mythology, the genus name Orcinus
means “of the kingdom of the dead.” Mourning mothers
accept lilies as crude oil tankers tell orcas their irrelevance
to pipeline production. A kingdom of mothers without
children reign quietly in communities across every species.

Everyone is just struggling to swim with part of their body
weighing them down. Do their wombs recover? Where
is the resting place for whales? 75 orcas live near Seattle
while Chinook salmon, their primary prey, are dying.
Tanker traffic and runoff pollution conceive shoreside tombs.

The church mother by her baby tries not to drown in the death,
nods as people say she can just try again. The orca finally
drops her calf, letting it sink in the sea. A boat spills oil
on its way through wildlife. The lilies die within days.

Jasmin Lankford is a poet, cat mom, and world wanderer native to Florida. She graduated from the University of South Florida with a degree in Communications. Once upon a time, she studied Creative Writing in Paris. Her work has been published in Honey & Lime Literary Magazine, Kissing Dynamite, and Ink & Nebula. For more information, visit jasminlankford.com.

every memory is another country

by MJ Santiago

When walking through Houston heat, I became
the only living creature; an alien
in a land made for eating oil. Streets made
maps meant to lead me safely towards
another planet. Remembering when
I heard the word alien and thought it meant
primarily, foreign, like a country.
Green meant legal, like a card, or a going.
Like when a carrying makes movement safe.
Back then, in Florida, I never walked.
I was one of many living creatures.
Back then, I thought California was a
planet. The word originally was
yet another country where I was from.

MJ Santiago is a queer Chicanx from Central Florida. They take photos, write poems, and organize with their community of LGBT people of color in Brooklyn, NY. Their first chapbook, Baby Knife, was published by Tenderness Lit in 2018. More of their work can be found at mjsantiago.com.

Letter from the Editor

Photo by Maeve Holler

Dear Reader,

Today, we release the sixth issue of Sinking City. It is the first day of the Fall 2019 semester at the University of Miami and the sky is teeming with a thick humidity only known as August to South Floridians. The air is wet & dense & impenetrable.

For us in Miami, today marks the end of the eternal summer. Perhaps for The Girl Caught in a Landslide, today is merely a Monday where she is remembered again as out-of-place and subterranean. Or perhaps she, like many of us, is being Rapunzeled, over & over again.

Today, the Queen of the Sunken City is resurrected in flashes of yellow. For her, today may be a tool of re-imagination. A way of knowing The Broken Parts are only a blurry recollection of yesterday. And perhaps, while she flares in between space & time, the Queen rides slow on a ’77 Alva, Megamillions ticket in hand.

In Sinking City’s sixth issue, 11 writers, poets, and artists explore the mechanisms of today, tomorrow, and yesterday. They question the validity of reality and expand with futurism into possibility. Like our previous Managing Editor Stephanie Lane Sutton wrote about issue five, while Sinking City is directly dedicated to bringing attention to climate change and environmental issues, “these pieces are less about the environment itself & more about the challenges of intersecting identities during our historical moment.”

I am encouraged by these pieces to consider a universe beyond the challenges at hand. These writers and artists expand the concept of probability tenfold. And, sitting in the high morning sun of Miami, watching the pregnant rain clouds flit by, I know that the work in this issue is much needed, and will continue to generate new meaning over time, sight unseen. As Alina Stefanescu writes, “If you watch a plant, it won’t grow.”

On behalf of the MFA program at the University of Miami, I am honored to welcome you to this realm. And whatever today means for you, wherever you are, I hope these pieces grow alongside you—no matter what storm, or lack thereof, you are facing.


Maeve Holler

Managing Editor, Sinking City