The Forests I Have Lost

by Theophilus Kwek

And, after all, it is to them we return.
Their triumph is to rise and be our hosts:
lords of unquiet or of quiet sojourn…

— Geoffrey Hill

I.

The first was one I’d never even ventured into. It lurked on a low hill behind our house, and, by the time we moved in, had been parted down the middle like the Red Sea – or the neat path through my father’s hair – to shorten the journey to our MRT station. For years, I went to bed terrified of the creatures that might dwell within (Singapore’s last wild tiger was, alas, killed in 1930), before finally daring to cross it on my own, aged ten, to catch the bus to school. 

It must have occurred to me even then that our darkness-defying footpath, recently paved and still brightly lit, was a sign of things to come. But the developers dragged their feet and our forest stayed, unruly and unruled, to shield us from the world. On occasion, a ten-foot python would steal into someone’s drainpipe, but a quick call to wildlife rescue was all it took to return the creature to its haunts. For the most part, I grew up with friendlier neighbours: kingfishers on our back gate, the odd civet-cat, bats feasting among the fruit-trees next door.

We moved into public housing when I was twelve, and after seven years I moved again, to another country. So the end, when it came, was muted by time and distance; relayed, like the death of a relative, through cousins who still lived in the estate. 

What happened – I imagine – was this. One weekend, men with name-tags and shovels would have come to breach the fence around our forest’s fringe, clearing the perimeter for heavier equipment. Then the toughest work: trees sawn at the base, split and piled; denser understory dug from the earth. More men arriving afterwards with more machinery to stamp recalcitrant roots in place, level the overgrown hilltop to a surveyor’s plane. 

By the time I returned home, four years later, a housing project had taken pride of place at the top of the road. Someone had thought to name it ‘The Glades’, even if barely a sliver of the old canopy remained. All steel and glass, it barely seemed to fill the space: dwarfed, almost, by the ground beneath it. Even our home felt smaller. Stopping by one weekend, we realised the new tenants had re-done our yard, where a dishevelled palm had once held court. The new, neat porch felt like a scene from a film shot on location, with the plots of impossible lives layered over ours. 

With an image of that now-shaven hill in mind, I began to realise that I lacked a vocabulary for its disappearance. I had read plenty of books that dealt with more personal losses, but none that quite prepared me for this – losing a forest that I loved and feared at a distance. 

I come from a part of the world, after all, that has acquired new literatures as quickly as it has lost old landscapes. Poets and novelists from our region observe how built environments have been transformed by urbanisation and globalisation, turning established social worlds on their heads. Fewer have written about the contests that continue to take place on the city’s edge, pitting tightly ordered streets against the rooted knowledge of field or forest. 

This is especially so in Singapore, where I live. On the one hand, the loss of natural habitats has formed a rallying-point for civil society: over the last decade, the government’s plans to run a highway through different segments of the Central Catchment Reserve have earned sustained opposition from a wide and colourful lobby. But ruffled feathers do not translate easily into the landscapes of our imaginations. Instead, jungles of the concrete variety have come to lend their ersatz backdrop, of a flourishing literary scene with thoroughly urban sensibilities. 

During my time abroad, I attempted to make sense of my lost forests by turning to a rich tradition of landscape literature in the English language – a genre which, in 2014, was being revived under the label of ‘New Nature Writing’. 

Many authors claimed their places in this lineage with close observations of local landscapes; from Gilbert White’s landmark Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne to Richard Mabey’s The Unofficial Countryside, a paean to the no-man’s-lands of the 1970s. More recently, writers like Kathleen Jamie, Helen McDonald, and Elizabeth Jane-Burnett were reinventing the genre, taking the natural landscape as a foil for the personal and global anxieties of a new millennium. 

All these writers could name native species as if they were friends, map every hollow of a habitus, or habitat, locations which they knew from inside out. But though their deciduous worlds welcomed me in, I still grasped for words to describe the uprooting of what had, for me, always been at arm’s length. 

Like everyone else I knew growing up, my own forests grew almost exclusively in the past and conditional tense, as what had already been cleared to make way for the city, or what would one day be paved and signposted for a weekend’s walk. It seemed a privilege to have such intimate awareness of one’s landscapes, even to know where to look for a knowledge of what was gone. 

It was too late for me to tear down that fence at the edge of my wood – but here I was, miles from my own disappearing forests, trying to come to terms with a more peripheral loss. 

II. 

Flying home each summer became synonymous with such absences. Fighting off the jet-lag on my commute from the airport, I’d keep count of the new malls and condominiums that had sprung from once-empty fields. The forests of my childhood hovered like a ghostly presence above the shape-shifting landscape, refusing to give up their place in my subconscious. 

One year, it was the deep wood behind our church, yanked away like a scab to show the red earth beneath. The next summer, it was a forest that arched over the side-gate of my secondary school, the last outcrop of an overgrown cemetery dug on its slopes. Years after the graves were exhumed, the last pockets of remaining forest were to be replaced by astroturf. All that remained were the old columbarium’s jade-green tiles: the boys would have their artificial grass. 

Back in 2007, when I first went to school there, the Land Transport Authority announced plans to fell a century-old tree that stood by a traffic flyover behind the campus. The decision – ostensibly, to protect motorists who might veer too close to its trunk – was thought to be prime-time material, and every news outlet reported on the tree’s fate. What seemed to grate on everyone’s nerves was that two years earlier, the same Authority had chosen to preserve the tree by building the three-lane flyover around it, but now decided that this was too dangerous after all. 

Never ones to forgo a ‘teachable moment’, our teachers organised classroom debates around the Authority’s decision, taking the chance to fix sentence structures as we made fervent arguments about ‘The Disasters of Development’ or ‘The Powers of Compromise’. It may be that too long has passed since then, but I struggle to recall if any of us actually took notice when the old angsana was felled. Like other roadside trees that had become inconvenient, it must have been hewn down under the cover of night; branch by branch, and out of sight. 

This episode is memorable for many reasons, not least for what it revealed of a school that dared to prepare us for the big questions of running the country, but not always for the small truths of living in it. For more than 150 years, it had produced men who thought themselves planters and planners; under their leadership, a gregarious young country had come of age. By the time I enrolled, the school had come to see itself as no less than a seeding-ground for the city’s elite. 

One Chinese proverb puts it this way: it takes ten years to cultivate a tree, a hundred to cultivate a man (or a people). The character for ‘cultivate’ has shades of meaning; here, it reads as the verb ‘to nurture’, but also as the noun for ‘tree’. Just as a garden must be pruned before it comes into bloom, I can almost hear my teachers say, one’s character can only flourish if it is trained and taught. Needless to say, the old colonial institution found itself faithful to the task.  

In 2015, some years after I graduated, the school was designated as a nomination centre for the parliamentary elections, and I made my way back to hear the candidates make their maiden speeches. One of the ruling party’s new faces that year was an alumnus, who happened to be running in the same constituency where the campus was. Stepping up to the podium, he gestured to the high-rise apartments on all sides, reminded of how his party had turned ‘swamps into showflats’, a success mirrored in the life-stories of his prospective constituents. 

Except, of course, it hadn’t – or at least, not here. A century and a half ago, Cantonese and Hakka immigrants had chosen the hilly, wooded area as a communal cemetery, and built two villages in the vicinity. One village came to be run by a federation of sixteen Cantonese clans, which oversaw a population of more than two thousand by the early 1900s. When the Japanese arrived in 1942, the high ground of the cemetery made it a natural staging-ground for many skirmishes, echoed in the bitter gang fights that erupted in the area after the British returned.   

From at least a century before the postwar government began its first housing project in Bishan, then, the area had been of no small significance to local communities, who negotiated their forested slopes into a precious resource for the living and dead. Perhaps I was naïve to expect more from a moment of glib electioneering, but something about how he waved history aside troubled me deeply. Our forests, it seemed, were forgotten long before they were even felled.  

III.

It is safe to say that no state has had a straightforward relationship with its forests. The word itself has tangled roots, signifying in Old English both woodland and hunting ground. Not long after the Norman Conquest, it became a legal term for the new aristocracy’s game preserves, and the ‘New Forest’ in South England was one of the oldest, so called. Later, the crown would find more uses for its forests: timber for the ships of empire, or vast tracts of land to reward loyal nobles with.    

To those in power, forests have always been equally tempting and forbidding. Abundant in riches, yet careful guardians of secrets, forests are fertile for conquest, but lend a safe haven to the rebel and exile. Little wonder that so many tales of resistance are set in sylvan surroundings, from the Green Knight’s duel with Gawain, to Robin of Sherwood’s egalitarian heroics. These stories have since arrived on stage and screen, most memorably in Sondheim’s classic Into the Woods.   

Here, the same dynamics are evident. From the clearing of rainforest for plantation agriculture to the making of Western reputations on indigenous ‘discoveries’, Malaya’s forests were exploited by generations of colonial administrators, aided by the business classes that flourished on their watch. Early traders dealt in rare produce, while later merchants shipped rubber and tin to fuel a distant ‘industrial revolution’. The jungle itself was held at bay: one well-worn tale from my alma mater involves a former Headmaster shooting a tiger under the bar of the Raffles Hotel. 

After the Japanese left, the Malayan National Liberation Army took to the woods for a decade-long guerilla campaign against the British, and the tiger came to stand for Communism itself – or at least, the righteous and unpredictable fury of the anti-imperialist movement. Singapore’s first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, was said to have won power by ‘riding the tiger’, but the image of a ‘Garden City’ that he later promoted was far more amenable to investors from the West. Without irony, the country successfully applied for its colonial-era Botanic Gardens to be accorded UNESCO World Heritage status in 2015, exactly half a century after political independence. 

Much of this history remains visible in our urban geography. Old Peranakan houses financed by the plantations of an earlier era still stand along Orchard Road, which now serves as our main shopping belt. The Thai Embassy occupies the site of one such mansion, first acquired by King Chulalongkorn in 1880. A stone’s throw away, the President’s official residence – built entirely by convict labour – sits on the sprawling nutmeg slopes of Mount Sophia.  

Though sizeable tracts have already been lost to developmental projects, even the forests that survive are enlisted to the national purpose. During National Service, we’d drive out to ‘training plots’ across the island to watch 18-year-old recruits practice against an imaginary enemy. Occasionally, we’d find the ruins of demolished or abandoned villages, their crumbling walls now used as props for infantry maneuvers. No doubt, some of their former residents are still alive. Yet the Singapore they knew could well have been an altogether different place. 

These days, one hardly encounters ‘true’ forests in urban Singapore. Larger tracts line our landlocked reservoirs, and others fringe upon our mangrove waterways. Those closer to the city centre are whittled down or hemmed into ‘park connectors’, while rooftop palms cast a semblance of long-lost shade. We take perverse pride in our roadside trees and verges, tended to evergreen perfection by low-wage workers who spend difficult hours on these modern ‘plantations’. The Garden City remains verdant, while their labour provides the window-dressing.  

In late 2016, Singapore made an appearance on Planet Earth. It was the city’s debut on the series, despite playing host to an astonishing range of flora and fauna (including five hundred species discovered in the past five years). As David Attenborough’s narration went on, cameras homed in on the gleaming ‘Gardens By The Bay’, a 101-hectare development at the mouth of the Singapore River, which, the producers hoped, would point a way forward for urban greening. 

Unmentioned was the fact that this billion-dollar project sat entirely on reclaimed land, part of a coastline altered forever through the bulk purchase of sand from across the region – not to mention the destruction of marine ecosystems. And all the more unnoticed: how the Gardens’ two iconic greenhouses, built on earth stolen from the sea, seemed to represent the way in which a country had tamed its forests at long last, building for them an oasis of air-conditioned calm.    

IV.

The lines at the beginning of this essay are taken from Geoffrey Hill’s poem, ‘An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England’ (1968), where they refer to the warm, cathedral stillness of the English church, open by custom – as they would have been in Hill’s day – to the homeless and destitute. There’s a wry nod to the 19th-Century architect Augustus Pugin (best known for having designed ‘Big Ben’), whose eponymous tract urged a return to an architectural style he saw as the ‘correct expression of the faith…and climate of our country’. 

Outside of the Anglo-Saxon world, those lines seem better suited for an older and more universal calm: the sense of earthy resolve that settles over us once we step into a forest’s hush. Despite our penchant for depicting forests as untamed and dangerous, they retain a capacity to carve reflective pauses out of our hyper-active days, even in the mere moments we spend beneath their canopies. Gone is the hard asphalt from beneath our feet. We feel the spring and crunch of leaves, a pleasing cool in the air, and the trees take us under their wing. 

It is for this reason, perhaps, that forests seem inseparable from belief. In January 2019, National Geographic ran a story on Ethiopia’s ‘church forests’, some of which date to the fourth century. Surrounded by harsh desert, these pockets of green envelop hand-painted buildings of wood and stone, lovingly maintained by the congregations of the Orthodox Tewahido Church. To them, the forest has always been ‘as much a part of the religious space as the church building itself’. 

A similar association persists in Singapore, albeit on a more prosaic scale. It’s hard to walk through any of our older estates without encountering a ‘tree shrine’: one of many meeting-places of Hindu, Taoist, and Islamic tradition, as ancient in their syncretism as this port-city itself. 

The question of where, and how, we worship is inextricably tied to what we rely on for a sense of welcome and security. Though our oldest ‘tree shrines’ are lost to time, it’s no stretch of the imagination to see how those coming ashore in an earlier era would have found, in the forests’ calm repose, a refuge from the threatening seas. Or how the trees’ agnostic shade would have afforded a natural gathering-place for those with few shared languages or traditions.   

The part of Singapore where my first, lost forest is located is known as Tanah Merah – literally, ‘red earth’. Among the manuscripts available to us today, the name first appears on a 1604 map of the island by the Bugis-Portuguese travel writer Manuel Godinho de Erédia. It was, as historians have surmised, a reference to the blood-red cliffs on the island’s eastern flank, which served as a navigational landmark for the orang laut, who have frequented our waterways for centuries. 

Those heights, once so reliable a guide, no longer exist, having been levelled in the 70s to extend our southeastern shoreline. Part of the area which became the housing estate where I grew up, while what was once known as Tanah Merah Besar (the ‘greater cliff’, as opposed to Tanah Merah ‘Kechil’, the ‘lesser’), was shorn down to make way for Changi Airport’s third terminal.  

I like to imagine that my own tree-topped hill was once part of another history, a past that reaches much further back, and remains open to much wider possibilities than the timeline we have grown accustomed to. In that history, its indomitable forest still stands, the crown jewel of a long red ridgeline beaming welcome and journey’s end to those out at sea. 

Being orphaned of that forest, what gives me a sense of refuge now are individual trees that, defying the city’s logic, have come to root deep in the mind’s terrain. In my final year at Oxford, I lived on the ground floor of Grove Building, an old house that looked over the city wall onto Merton Field, where James Sadler made England’s first hot-air balloon ascent in 1783. A tall redwood rose like a sundial over the lawn outside, throwing its deep shadow across my study table. 

Five years on, I am writing this in my office, nestled beneath the austere blocks of the Singapore General Hospital. Across from me, separated by a pocket of green, are the old dormitories of the King Edward VII College of Medicine, reassuring in their bauhaus simplicity, while a rain tree of unknown vintage reaches over the low buildings. On hot September afternoons, it casts a clean circle on the grass, as if inviting us to step away from our desks and breathe its cool. 

Trees such as these offer a universal, age-old belonging that seems radical in the modern metropolis. Unlike malls and cafes, islands of bourgeois respectability which have come to pass for ‘public space’; trees insist on their own place in the landscape, creating misshapen zones of rest, reverence, and play that are as safe as they are open. All are utterly welcome beneath their shade: their generosity, so unnatural to our present ethos, astounds us.

Lest we miss the forests for the trees, our true loss may well be this: a sense of the wider ecology in which we have lived and must live, a knowledge of the messy, mutual dependencies that belie the straight lines of our streets and stories. I started this essay to seek a language for the forests I had lost, but the histories retold here only begin to shed light on what new ways we might find to speak to each other. 

Words we might learn, that take our collective past and present into account. And make a path, perhaps, through the trees.


Theophilus Kwek has published five volumes of poetry and was shortlisted twice for the Singapore Literature Prize. His poems, translations, and reviews have appeared in The Guardian, Times Literary Supplement, and The London Magazine. He has edited several books of Singaporean writing and serves as editor of Oxford Poetry. His next collection, Moving House, will be released by Carcanet Press (UK) in June 2020. 

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.

Cermak & California

by Stefania Gomez

I.

Buses leave to Mexico from my street.

Tonight the laundromat auto body shop and taco stand left their lights on late, their curtains flung open.

The couple working in the laundromat were still as a portrait against the rows of clothing. They were still as the rows of clothing hung around them.

On those buses that leave to Mexico from my street, my neighbors go places. By the looks of it, the neighborhood is going. She says, we left the hood for the suburbs, but the gangs and the rats followed.

Sebastián says, to this neighborhood, I have given so much of myself. Including, 2 times near Western, nearly my life.

Which neighborhood are you from? Where are you going?

I live at Cermak and California. Each morning a ghost pounds on my door.

Back then, I bought the building for $50 K, she says. Paid 20 in cash. No brainer. Now, I have 4 people lined up for one unit.

Sebastián wants to travel and take photos. If he has to stay abroad for some months, 6 months even— so be it. He says, I want to buy a home here so I never have to live in it.

II.

I live on Cermak and California. In my neighborhood there is an enormous park that divides one people from another. The north end of the park is a different nation from the south. Today, a citizen of the north end wandered south, his shopping cart full of soda cans and his head bowed just as low as the cans were flattened. Beside him, a puddle of vomit dried. It looked like an impressionist painting depicting the planters that the viejitas fill with pink and yellow blooms outside of their homes, and flood with water from their hoses each summer day.  

III.

At the other edge of the park there is a hospital, so often does the need for one arise. From the hospital doors constantly stream white-haired, uniformed nurses like so many ghosts.

IV.

The Douglas Park service garage on Sacramento is open and empty, hollow and brick. Car hood up, mid-fixing, and a truck outfitted to fix. What happens here? What kind of service does the park require? A single truck, laden with foils and machinery will suffice to manicure the grass, fill the divots with sand, collect litter from the pond, referee the endless matches of soccer, 10 at a time, played by children and played by men. Clear the gazebo of those that live there. Re-pave the fractured sidewalks.

Abandoned through the winter months, built when the park was dreamed up as a place so different from what it would become. Even its signs were painted and posted when that dream seemed still within reach, before everything issued by the city and county was made from plastic. Today the garage door was wide open, the insides were exposed for all to see. Men were at work, tilling a field of degraded soil. The men were seeds planted in the field. They seemed to say, something can live here again. In the summer, this is how the neighborhood can sometimes feel.  

V.

My only friend in my neighborhood is the woman who works at the train stop. Today she tells me that they’re transferring her to the blue line next week. We’re going to miss you, I say, utterly floored. She says nothing, reaches out and shakes my hand.

I board the train and sit next to a woman reading the Bible quietly to herself. On my other side, a man discusses chess moves over the phone. At Western, a man boards, a lit cigarette long as a pistol hanging from his mouth.

VI.

The people who live in the Park’s gazebo disappeared today, leaving it empty as the Service Garage. Did they disperse across the Park? Did they leave together, all at once? Or slowly, one by one? Did they melt into the concrete floor? Did they transubstantiate into air? Did they leave because in the end, the gazebo never really belonged to them, but to the Park? What happens to a people whose home is not their own?

VII.

An Uber driver explains to me how he got shot when he was 15 twice in the back once in the foot at 22nd and Oakley but his foot is fine now. Over there? The SDs. Past this busy street? The Latin Kings.

Someday, he says, he’ll buy a passport. Take a vacation. Go to the blue water they have over in Hawaii.

VIII.

The Douglas Park Service Garage is empty today except the light bursting in through the pulley doors and the open roof. Inside, the brick walls have been spray painted with a series of identifying numbers—house numbers, perhaps, or a phone. Either the Park District’s municipal logic, or that of some delinquent, their impulse to reveal the way we have been indexed, our eagerness to reduce ourselves to something like the combination to a lock.

Anyway, this is a story about grit, you dig? This is story about the urban experience. This is not a story about how I kill all the plants I keep, or how I lose everything that matters to me, or how I will never belong in this neighborhood, no matter how much I write about it.

IX.

Which neighborhood are you from? Where are you going?

I live at Cermak and California. Each morning a ghost pounds on my door.

X.

Up and down California the kids detonate small bombs that stream into the sky and burst in golden florets, and nearly strike cars driving as they explode in the street. The kids scream as they light them off. California smells like sulfur.

I take the train away, east, to flee, but through the picture window in the train car, high above the buildings, the three-flats, I see the fireworks rise from every block, on every street, between each house, the whole city catching fire, exploding, and extinguishing, over and over.


Stefania Gomez is a queer writer, radio producer, and teaching artist from Chicago’s South Side. She received her BA from Brown in 2017, and has work in Bluestockings Magazine, the Offing, and the Missouri Review. She currently works at the Poetry Foundation.

The Heart The Brain

by Krys Malcolm Belc


Krys Malcolm Belc lives and writes in Marquette, Michigan, where he is the Managing Editor of Passages North and an MFA student at Northern Michigan University. His essays have been in Granta, Black Warrior Review, Redivider, and elsewhere. 

Three Shorts

by Chase Burke

Evergreen

Years ago Barry developed an aversion to amphibians and reptiles after hiking the Everglades, where he battled kudzu vines and violent ivy and dodged hidden green animals that snapped disease. He fled the preserve a changed man.

Even mild suburban turtles, Barry knew, were terrifying cesspools. And one morning in July there one was, in his swimming pool. So he drained the pool and left the turtle at the bottom. He brought the neighborhood skatepunks over, told them to have at it. The empty pool, Barry realized later, looked like the hollowed-out shell of a turtle that had died on its back.

In the pool’s deep end, the turtle shelled itself as boards skated by. Barry, sitting in his lifeguard chair, guarding nothing, thought uncomfortably of the turtle in traffic. Plodding on asphalt, stopping. Waiting on someone to carry it across, someone who might move it home. He watched as a kid stopped, kicked up her board, and picked up the turtle. “A little help here?” the kid called out.

Everything about the Everglades sounds eternal. It sounds forever, like a gesture of defiance against swallowing industry. Defiance in name only.

Barry runs a skate park now. He’s in his sixties and melanomaed, but his mouth is full of white teeth. He’s afraid to cross streets or shake hands or even leave his chair. He avoids looking at the ground. He doesn’t trust what could be underfoot.

“Nothing,” he says when a tattooed kid asks him what it takes to run a skate park. Barry doesn’t know how to give the kid a straight answer. He doesn’t know how to encourage anyone, even himself. “I’m green,” he says. “I’m new at this. I could apply that thought to everything.”

How Embers and Apples Are a Recipe for Disaster

translation of Günter Grass & response poem

by Allie Marini

Fleisch

by Günter Grass

Rohes faules tiefgefroren gekocht.

Es soll der Wolf (woanders der Geier)

anfangs das Feuer verwaltet haben.

In allen Mythen war listig die Köchin:

in nasser Tasche hat sie drei Stückchen Glut,

während die Wölfe schliefen (die Geier

umwölkt waren) bei sich verborgen.

Sie hat das Feuer vom Himmel gestohlen.


Nicht mehr mit langen Zähnen gegen die Faser.

Den Nachgeschmack Aas nicht vorschmecken mehr.

Sanft rief das tote Holz, wollte brennen.

Erst versammelt (weil Feuer sammelt)

zündeten Pläne, knisterte der Gedanke,

sprangen Funke und Namen für roh und gekocht.


Als Leber schrumpfte über der Glut,

Eberköpfe in Lehm gebacken,

als Fische gereiht am grünen Ast

oder gefüllte Därme in Asche gebettet,

als Speck auf erhitzten Steinen zischte

und gerührtes Blut Kuchen wurde,

siegte das Feuer über das Rohe,

sprachen wir männlich über Geschmack,

verriet uns der Rauch,

träumten wir von Metall,

begann (als Ahnung) Geschichte.


Meat

translation by Allie Marini

Raw rotten frozen cooked.

It has been said that it was the Wolf (though elsewhere, the Vulture)

who was the first keeper of fire.

All the myths agree that she was a cunning cook:

while the Wolves slept (and the Vultures

remained in the clouds) she secreted

three coals, still smoldering, in her pink pouch.

She stole fire from the Heavens.


No more tearing tendon and sinew with elongated canine teeth.

No more bracing for the aftertaste of carrion meat.

How delicate, the call of dead wood, longing to burn.

At first, we gathered together (because fire gathers people together)

plans were set alight, thoughts crackled,

sparks ignited, as well as the names for raw and cooked.


As liver sizzled over the cook-fire

so were boar’s heads set to bake in clay,

then fish, strung up on a sapling green branch.

Or intestines, stuffed and buried in the hot ashes,

when bacon was fried on heated stones

and blood was stirred into pudding,

that was when fire claimed victory from the raw,

and we men learned to speak the language of flavor.

It was the smoke that bore testimony,

we dreamed of metal,

and so began the (premonition) of history.