And Now You Know the Rest of the Story

A look back at The Overstory by Richard Powers

by Z.L. Nickels

“Now the gods are dying, all of them.”

It takes only thirteen pages for Richard Powers to paint the lasting image of what might rightfully be called the most ambitious novel of the 21st century. Thirteen pages, and a Brooklyn boy heads West with his new bride while back on the Eastern seaboard, the American chestnut tree is going the way of the dodo. Neither husband nor wife recognize the significance of the six seeds forgotten in the man’s pocket, buried later in their front yard. Of these, one will grow and come alive, just as its brethren die by the billions some 1200 miles away. Stripped from life, the gods begin to girdle, inch by inch. You have to admit it—Powers’ image packs one hell of a wallop.


The Overstory by Richard Powers. W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. 512 pp. $18.95.



Start again. Reexamine the text. Replace Powers’ “gods” with “trees,” so that now “the trees are dying, all of them.” We lose the metaphor but gain the thesis: first, that the Earth is rich and abundant and beautiful, the way all necessary things are; second, that human beings are killing it with the ruthless efficiency of late capitalism, and it has to stop. Because if not, not only is this going to end much sooner than we expect, but we will end up losing the one thing that made any of it worthwhile in the first place.

Despite the more than 120 single-volume books Powers read in order to write it, The Overstory is not a non-fictional work. However, as a novel, it is persuasive in the way all great non-fiction is: it presents the reader with a depiction of the world and asks them to treat it as if it were real. Only Powers’ depiction is more literal than most. Across nine separate (albeit interweaving) personal stories, each containing a character whom Powers asserts has a rightful claim to his alter-ego, we come to discover how truly intertwined we are with the natural world. The resulting effect is, quite possibly, the most comprehensive book on human beings and nature ever written. And yet, two years removed from its publication, the question remains as to whether The Overstory managed to accomplish its primary goals.

To the extent that any of us believes in science, the first thesis is easy to accept. Is nature necessary? Just open your eyes and go outside. However, the second thesis is tricky. Really, really tricky. One of the themes of The Overstory is that there is a multitude of forces working against the Earth’s longevity and nearly every single one of them is by human hands. The second thesis says that, if our actions are the disease, then our intervention just might be the panacea; while a book of fiction may not be a Bono song, it is still as good a rallying cry as any.

Right now, we are living through a pandemic. It is a suitable time to reflect. Because as our activity has slowed, nature has begun to stir: wildlife has returned; emissions have fallen; smog has lifted; vibrations have waned; the air is cleaner; the water is cleaner; everything is cleaner. But despite the clamor of our most outspoken extremists, the Earth cannot be rid of the human element forever; sooner or later, we must rejoin it. The logical question, therefore, is the familiar one: How do we balance our needs against the planet’s? Seeking answers, we return now to the novel that was written to solve this question. How does Powers balance these needs in his work—the needs of the world with the needs of his characters? The answer is appropriately bleak: he chooses the world.

“The full force of human ingenuity can’t stop the disaster breaking over the continent.”

This is the next sentence, the one that follows directly after the dissolution of the gods. As a postscript, it seems notable. One hundred years after a virus swept over our continent, destroying the American chestnut, something analogous is happening today. Our country is suffering from its own widespread disaster, one that we are currently incapable of solving. But the relevance here extends beyond the point of comparison: notice, it is only after addressing the trees that Powers chooses to mention the people. It is almost as though they are an afterthought.

Shortly after The Overstory was published, Powers appeared on PBS NewsHour to answer questions about the book. In one answer, he mentioned that there are two forms of storytelling Western writers are interested in: the first involves conflicts an individual must face alone; the second involves conflicts faced between two individuals. He continued on to describe a third form of story—one that has been forgotten about—which involves conflict between an individual and the rest of the world faced over an issue that the latter is “at best indifferent to and may be hostile toward or at least incompatible with.” As Powers tells it, he wanted to bring human beings and nature back to the negotiating table in The Overstory. The problem is that, in any good negotiation, both parties have equal claim to the outcome; in this novel, nature has the upper hand. Once signaled, the thematic victory is never in question.

At least at the outset, this appears to be otherwise. The first section of the novel (roughly one-hundred and fifty pages long) is comprised of personal narratives drafted in breathtaking detail. Like a series of intimate New Yorker character sketches, these accounts twist and wind their way through the lives of men and women who have all been touched by trees. This is where Powers’ characters are at their strongest. The conflicts that arise are of the usual variety—the novel has yet to address the inherent tragedy of the third form. Instead, we immerse ourselves in the descendants of that Brooklyn boy; the daughter of a lauded engineer; a precocious psychologist; the improbable romance of an oil-and-water couple; a former Stanford prison experiment inmate; a computer programming genius; the rise and fall of a cutting-edge biologist; and, finally, the death of a college student. It is during this last story that we start to notice the writing. Whereas before we were being eased into Powers’ world, we are now suddenly confronted with The Big Idea. Turning the page to the next section, we quickly learn that, in fact, the college student did not die. She is alive. She can now hear the voices of the trees and must save them.

In a novel where characters irreversibly die, get thrown in jail, get thrown in jail again, become paralyzed, consider suicide, get sentenced to one-hundred and forty years in prison, and more, this is easily the most jarring development. It transitions the novel from its original conception—a book about our relationship with trees—to a new work, which inevitably loses this thread. In The Overstory, the broader narrative is prioritized over the individual stories of these characters: they become vehicles for the discussion Powers wishes to have regarding our ecological predicament. The resulting effect is predictable: it undermines the reader’s ability to relate to the text.

As we continue through the novel, the essential relationship these characters have with trees begins to weaken. For four of these characters—Nicholas Hoel (a fine artist), Mimi Ma (an engineer), Douglas Pavlicek (the Stanford prison inmate) and Adam Appich (the psychologist)—this relationship is replaced with an inexplicable attraction to Olivia Vandergriff, the college student. Together, these five characters abandon the promise hinted at in their opening sections and commit their lives to Olivia’s ideals. Over time, their actions escalate from ideological protests to ecological terrorism, their desires having been replaced by the voices in her head: “Olivia needs only lower [sic] her chin and the others fall silent. Her spell over them has grown with each crime.” This unflagging devotion continues until they must choose between themselves and her ideals. At which point the novel begins its long, slow march to the end. 

Meanwhile, there are four other main characters who never, or who barely ever, interact with this core group of five. Patricia Westerford, the biologist, spends her time making revolutionary discoveries and advocating for her results in the courts of law and public opinion. Neelay Mehta, the computer programmer, builds a virtual empire that soon becomes more popular than the world it was based on. And Ray Brinkman and Dorothy Cazaly, the couple who begin their marriage by planting a tree every year on their anniversary, are reduced to staring out a window by its end, gazing upon a world with which they are unable to interact. It is almost as if the novel is running on two separate tracks: the Cult of Olivia, which maintains its prominent voice until the final page, and those original character sketches, which never make it off the ground and never really go anywhere.

Presented this way, one might wonder: Why read a novel that treats its characters as if they exist solely for the purposes of an ecological mission? Perhaps we find it refreshing to see these familiar roles finally reversed. Or perhaps it is because Powers draws the world so beautifully that we tend to forget the novel’s underlying problems. The truth is that Powers probably could have written five-hundred and twelve pages of tree descriptions, and we would have come along for the ride. But therein lies the issue.

Shortly after the release of The Overstory, Richard Powers conducted an interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books wherein he said, “If I could have managed it, I would have tried to write a novel where all the main characters were trees.” This is remarkable admission. Remarkable, first, in the sense that we are so rarely gifted an author’s true intentions: Richard Powers did not want to write a book about people fighting against one another, he wanted to write a book about what was in the background while they did. He wanted to write about the world, and when you see how gorgeous his world truly is, you can recognize why. But this admission is also remarkable in a second sense. He continued on to admit, “Such an act of identification was beyond my power as a novelist, and it probably would have been beyond the imaginative power of identification of most readers.”

It could be the case that such a novel would be beyond our ability to grasp. But we were not given that novel. Instead, the one we received includes nine main characters who are not trees: they stand collectively as the alter-egos of Richard Powers. He might not believe that our survival can be separated from the world’s, but his characters can; although they may speak for the trees, they can hardly speak for themselves. But maybe that is to be expected. When tasked with balancing the needs of nature with the needs of his characters, Powers chose nature. This is not a common choice. Perhaps the true lesson of The Overstory is that, if we are unable to strike a balance, it is better to err on the side of nature. It is a lesson that we should not soon forget.


Demise of the Starry Sky (星空之死)

by Yan An, co-translated by Chen Du and Xisheng Chen

看到星空之死的人是一个懂得取舍的人
一个缘木求水的人
一个缘海求云的人
一个抱住山脉的龙脖子测量体温的人
他熟知很多事物的来龙去脉
他在任何一个地方
都是在类似往世或者异乡的地方

看到星空之死的人 不论你在哪里
他都会看见你 你也是孤身一人行走
不是要寻找什么 只是在行走
巨大的旷野和地平线只是另一个人的背景
你没有方向,只有远方,不断地变小
仿佛也是一个身心尺寸蹊跷的人
要去会见另一个身心尺寸蹊跷的人

看到星空之死的人,对世上的好多事
哪个多哪个少哪个深哪个浅了如指掌的人
你要前去会见但并无多少把握的人
他看见大地在变 大地在大地中坠落
他自己也在大地中坠落

就像仰望苍穹
巨大的星辰比蚊蝇更细小更脆弱
在难以觉察和体会的焚烧中
缓慢地焚毁
同时向着虚无纷纷坠落

*


The man having seen the demise of the starry sky
Is a man knowing when to accept or reject
A man climbing trees to look for water
A man sailing in the ocean to seek for clouds
A man embracing the dragon neck of a mountain range
To take its body temperature
He knows very well the ins and outs of many things
No matter where he is, it’s a place
As far as in the past or in a foreign land

The man having seen the demise of the starry sky
No matter where you are, he will see you
You too are walking alone
Not to seek for something but for the sake of walking
The massive wilderness and horizon
Are only the background of another person
You have no direction, but only distance,
While you become smaller and smaller
As if you were a man with an odd mind-body size
Going to meet another man with an odd mind-body size

The man having seen the demise of the starry sky
Knowing which of the many things in the world
Is more, or less, or deeper, or shallower,
Like the palm of his hand
Whom you are going to meet but not sure about
Sees earth is changing earth is plummeting in earth
He himself is plummeting in earth as well

Just like looking up at the vault of heaven
The enormous stars are thinner, tinier
And more fragile than mosquitoes and flies
In an incineration difficult to perceive and comprehend
They slowly burn down
Meanwhile plummeting towards nihility, one after another


Yan An is a poet in contemporary China, author of fourteen poetry books, including his most famous, Arranging Stones, which won him The Sixth Lu Xun Literary Prize, one of China’s top four literary prizes. He is also the Vice President of Shaanxi Writers Association, the head and Executive Editor-in-Chief of the literary journal Yan River, one of the oldest and most famous literary journals in Northwestern China, and a national committee member of the Poetry Committee of China Writers Association. “Demise of The Starry Sky” is an excerpt from Yan An’s latest book, A Naturalist’s Manor, which was published by China Youth Publishing Group, and won the “Ten Best Poetry Books in China” award in 2018.

Chen Du is a Voting Member of American Translators Association and a member of the Translators Association of China. She holds a Master’s Degree in Biophysics from Roswell Park Cancer Institute, the State University of New York at Buffalo, and a Master’s Degree in Radio Physics from the Chinese Academy of Sciences. She revised more than eight chapters of the Chinese translation of the biography of Helen Snow, Helen Foster Snow – An American Woman in Revolutionary China. In the United States, her translations have appeared in Columbia Journal, Lunch Ticket, Anomaly, The Bare Life Review, and River River. Her essay was published by The Dead Mule and Hamline University English Department, where poems have also appeared. Her poetry chapbook was published by The Dead Mule online. She is also the author of the book Successful Personal Statements. Find her online at ofsea.com.

Xisheng Chen, a Chinese American, is an ESL grammarian, lexicologist, linguist, translator and educator. His educational background includes: top scorer in the English subject in the National University Entrance Examination of Jiangsu Province, a BA and an MA from Fudan University, in Shanghai, China, and a Mandarin Healthcare Interpreter Certificate from the City College of San Francisco, CA, USA. His working history includes: translator for Shanghai TV Station, Evening English News, Lecturer at Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China, Adjunct Professor at the Departments of English and Social Sciences of Trine University (formerly Tri-State University), Angola, Indiana, notary public, and contract high-tech translator for Futurewei Technologies, Inc. in Santa Clara, California, USA. As a translator for over three decades, he has published a lot of translations in various fields in newspapers and journals in China and abroad.

Two if by Sea

"Two If By Sea" by Christopher Woods
“Two If By Sea” by Christopher Woods, 2020.

Christopher Woods is a writer and photographer who lives in Chappell Hill, Texas. His photographs can be seen in his gallery. His photography prompt book for writers, FROM VISION TO TEXT, is forthcoming from Propertius Press. His novella, HEARTS IN THE DARK, is forthcoming from Running Wild Press.

Letter from the Editor(s)

Early mangoes growing in Maeve’s backyard. Photo by Ezra Remer, March 2020.

Dear Reader,

Spring in Miami is typically lush, the streets littered with fallen blooms from the multicolored flamboyan trees and rotting fruit carcasses leftover from mid-morning animal feasts. This week marks mid-May, and I’m writing to you from my kitchen table, nearly-ripe mangoes swaying in the breeze on the tree just outside my window.  The natural world is virtually the same as it always is today: cycling on and on unless otherwise disturbed.

But, the world within us is not cycling the same as it always does. I’m sure you feel this like I do, the day-to-day pulling of teeth, our feet quick-sanded—no matter what we do to drive ourselves forth, our world remains stagnant. We sit here, fixed in the strange space-time of the COVID-19 pandemic, unsure of what will finally break this sequence. Unsure of what lies just mere steps ahead. 

I’m not going to write to you and hypothesize a panacea for this uncertainty. I won’t even try to speculate about the future, the state of the world, of  it “opening back up,” or the metaphorical implications that statement might hold. Rather, I would like to simply acknowledge the fear we are all experiencing right now. The grief, the dread, the eternal sundown only ever disrupted by temporary blips of what it meant to be alive prior to now. Folks have lost their homes, their jobs, their lives. There is no ignoring this, the worsening embedded in our day-to-day. 

I have nightmares of the images of death we’ve been bombarded with since March. I can feel the miasma of despair weighing on everything I do. In all of the interactions I have, there it is. But, like many others, and as Myliyah Hanna writes, I’ve had to keep going. I’ve had to keep turning, loving, living, working. And what that means in the context of the world within us, I’m not quite sure. Maybe it just means that continuing on is a possibility, even if it’s only a mechanism we’ve adopted to stave off total hopelessness. Simply being is a possibility, even if it hurts. 

I write this letter to welcome you to Issue 8 of Sinking City. The writers and artists who have shared their work with us have continued this phenomenon of being. Their work, most of it submitted prior to the pandemic, glimmers with possibility in the face of our current deterioration. I hope it will guide you away from the dark space we are currently inhabitants of, even if temporarily. I hope it can speak to you as it does to me, in a close whisper: we are all still turning, still writing, still loving. Even if we aren’t cycling. Even if we aren’t moving. 

— Maeve Holler, Managing Editor 2019 – 2020 

*

I’m thinking about the smell of jasmine that comes alive at night, right outside the door of my house and which resides near the big tree that seems to have grown with me my whole life. I’ve made a nest of habits during this time of pandemic: I’ve sung with the first blue jay I’ve ever spotted before in Miami; I’ve become closer, more vulnerable near my friends, family. 

How lucky am I that I get to be near them, in all senses of the word.

I’m even more fortunate of being able to become a part of Sinking City in the midst of the pandemic, to introduce Issue 8 along with Maeve. Of being able to witness, read, indulge in beautiful pieces of work that resist uncertain, chaotic energy. That hold time back. Or, as Clair Dunlap writes, put forth a “wild act of self preservation,” where when we “shut our eyes there is only the color of the mountain at a distance.” 

I think about the concept of distance during these times. I think about how lucky we are to have this issue out in the world, one which asks that we join in in every work’s act of meditations, reflection, and hopefulness which are ingrained within their bodies, ones we’ve been honored enough to engage with, and carry along with us, as close as we can.

Thank you all so much. 

— Clayre Benzadón, Managing Editor 2020 – 2021 

Old Friends

by Daniel Elfanbaum

It is in the parking lot of a liquor store that I pick up a friend from college who was left there by the woman he’s been living with, a woman who wants to make a home-cooked meal for us to meet over, who thinks it’s a good idea that my friend and I meet up, the two of us, beforehand. I’ve been given to understand she likes to run things. I think this must be good for my old friend. I haven’t seen him in some years and it is very bright outside when I pick him up in front of the store. Two red plastic bags of beers and a half bottle of whiskey because he knows I like it. His workday uniform of ill-fitting khakis and an ill-fitting shirt sits familiar with my memory of him in ill-fitting gym shorts and tee shirts the year we lived together. The thing is that he was just so thin back then, and still is now, in the car driving in his new home town.

The highway exit ramps and interchanges loop over and around each other. We’d hugged when I got out to greet him, and I turn the music down a little as a gesture. Slow to start. We talk and catch up, a little. We exchange pleasantries about the weather and roll though our life updates in bulleted lists, and I’m happy to hear things are so good with him, these days. And these days they’re maybe not as much so good with me, but when we’d last known each other things had been at least OK on my end and not great with him. This meant that things were not great with us and our friends, and I spent a long time covering up this old friend’s tracks, misdemeanors, mishaps, and I can’t say that I had liked it. Had not liked it when there was a banging on my door at one in the morning, when the woman he’d been seeing started throwing shoes. Just kid stuff that shouldn’t have mattered, but of course kid stuff that felt important at the time. We were of an age for kid stuff. No more. And maybe a touch of infidelity is the kind of thing that always matters, I don’t know. Can’t really think how it’s always, things I’ve seen and heard about and done, can’t think of anything as always, but we’re not talking about it anyway, because why would I bring up that sort of thing. I wouldn’t. But I’m willing to be wrong about it.

My old friend lives in the kind of town that’s oscillating between new office buildings and old office buildings and buildings abandoned and buildings coming up. The familiar mish-mash of things and peoples and peoples and things moving, i.e., displaced, and I’m wondering what kind of car my old friend is driving now in his wrinkled khakis.

“I meant to tell you, I’m getting married,” he says, and I’m staying with him and his girlfriend, and so I hope I’ll like his wife. Fiancée. This is a slip.

Me? I’m single driving a cheap Japanese sedan but at least it’s clean, clean even though I’ve got my shit here and there and everywhere because I am right now in a way living here, in the car, I mean. The job I had had was over and the lease was month to month and I was so tired of putting so many things together poorly.

“I would love to be in the wedding,” I tell my old friend when he asks.

He directs me where and I drive and soon we’re in a little suburban town with green lawns even in February, with an attractive touch here and there of pre-dusk frost on the tips of the blades of grass, and my old friend is telling me about this house his fiancée bought a while back where he’s been living. Put together. They have a dog, a very good dog, and they’ve been going to church, and when we pull into the driveway tucked into the best corner of the cul-de-sac, and the house has half a brick front like the house that I’d grown up in, and I come in and meet the fiancée, this smiling woman, there is a constriction in my chest. I notice I am tense. I am pretending like I am not taking deep breaths to cool down. I don’t remember being sick or needing to cough or what I’m supposed to be stressed out about. I don’t know that this might be a kind of awe.

They together show me to the room where I’ll be staying. There’s pictures of them at a fair and with their dog on otherwise bare shelves, a double-high air mattress where I’ll sleep tonight and the next two nights at least, unless I do something wrong again, like when I saw my friend in Tennessee. When I come back into the kitchen after putting down my things, availing myself of the toilet, after observing that the room I am in feels almost intentionally un-moved-in-to, as if they were saving it for something, something, and I know what, I walk into the kitchen. My old friend is helping his soon-to-be wife make dinner. Smiling. He hands me a beer so as to clink glasses, and I feel as if I could weep. Marriage, babies, new life. Just me and the car and couches to sleep on.

We eat fish tacos for dinner and afterwards they let me join them to wash the plates and pan. We watch a program on TV and then his fiancée goes to bed to read. She says she wants to give us some “guy time.” I ask her what book it is, and it’s one I’m a fan of. We wish her good night.

“I thought you’d like her,” my old friend says.

Sinking into their big leather couch, I tell him he seems happy, and he admits he is. I’m glad, I tell him. I’m glad.


Daniel Elfanbaum is a writer from St. Louis now living just outside of Boston. Some of his other work can be found in S/Word, Taper, and Levee Magazine

All Lonely Roads Lead to Old Sembahnang

by Elizabeth Wong

There were roads in Sembahnang that had not felt the hum of cars in a while. These roads were now cracking apart into hexagons, with weeds pushing, forcing themselves into broken spaces where hot bitumen was once laid. Now, the mangrove swamp encroached. No one has used them, not since the flood—no one, other than runners, scientists, Scout troops on expeditions, and of course, themselves.

The two of them had spent many a Saturday on the green glass beach, when they were younger. They took the road Jalan Changkat Beruas that ran through the artificial rivers and lakes of Mr. Tan’s prawn farm and passed by a row of makeshift huts—zinc sheets slapped together to form homes for Mr. Tan’s Burmese workers. The zinc sparkled in the afternoon heat and scorched their hands when they touched it. And then, the road wound around a cluster of fish warehouses, where the fish were manually sorted before being carried away to capital, in shoals of ice in dirty grey styrofoam boxes. In the morning, wooden boats powered by diesel engines brought in the fish and hoisted their catch with slings into the warehouses by noon. The two of them would stop at the warehouses to help with the manual sorting. Big fish goes in one pile, medium fish goes in another, small fish goes in another, weird fish goes in the weird fish pile. Their hands, shoes, and clothes would be stained with fish ooze, but they got a free lunch—packed nasi lemak with a fried egg and anchovy bits.

After their lunch, Jalan Changkat Beruas would take them further, away from people, to an old railway line that led onward to the beach. They used to skip unevenly across the wooden sleepers, from one row to another. Their entire journey took forty-eight minutes one way, according to Kevin, reading off his black Casio wristwatch with a tiny calculator (he got his watch when he was eleven for doing well in his exams). If they ran all the way there, their journey only took twenty-eight minutes. But their return home took much longer as they walked home carefully: otherwise, the beach glass would break and they would have gone there with nothing to show for it. Nothing but a memory of their day—scouring for, selecting, and saving the best pieces of beach glass.

She had visited the green glass beach only once ever since she had come back from the capital after finishing university. There was nothing lonelier than walking on a forty-eight minute trail, once with company, now by herself.

Nowadays, she spent her Saturdays volunteering at the Buddhist Children Playgroup (BCP), a ten-minute drive from her home. It was not a perfect substitute, but the feeling of helping another person could offset memories, or at least helped her forget. At the very least, she was too busy handling the kids to think about anything else. Last year, sometime in May, she and another regular volunteer (it was that woman with the jutting chin, whose name she could never remember) had taken a group of BCP kids out to the green glass beach. Bringing lunch, first-aid kits and handphones with them, they walked the same road that she and Kevin had once walked every Saturday. The kids spoke too loudly; their blaring voices overwhelmed the whispers of the mangrove, the sighs of unanswered footprints. When they arrived at the beach, she explained to the kids where this beach glass comes from, and how they were formed. She taught them how to choose the best specimens and was horrified when they collected the flattest ones only to skip them across the water.

She never took them there again or suggested the green glass beach to anyone else. Her cousin and her ang-moh boyfriend had stopped by Sembahnang two months ago, as they were doing a grand tour of amazing Malaysia and wanted to visit a quaint charming place in the rural countryside. Something not too touristy, her cousin had requested, and so she pointed them in the direction of a beach resort twenty minutes away.

At any rate, no one went near the green glass beach unless they were scientists or foreign tourists. People said that it was haunted, a “dirty” place. You should shower after you go there to get rid of any evil spirits that have clung to you. You should never read messages in a bottle, because that is how spirits try to communicate with you. She didn’t believe in the superstitions, but she understood their essence, how they came about. There is something about sitting on the green sand, waves lapping at your toes, the whole sky unfurling wide-open over you that breeds a belief that there are things (forces) in the world bigger than you are. Everything that has happened in the entire history of the world—every death, every flood, every job, every farewell, every childhood love lost—lingers in the surrounding hills, in the drowned valley, in the green glass beach. What was she, then? A microscopic glimmer in a world where nothing ever changes? In many ways, she was comforted by that realization.

On the day her Ah-ma died, she had found a bottle, washed up on the beach and hidden in a cluster of phragmites. The bottle was battered, but there was a message inside, smeared, almost unintelligible. But she could very nearly make out the top, 1859, which would make it over a hundred and fifty years old. A hundred and fifty years of floating in the ocean. It seemed almost meant for her—that she should find it on the day her grandmother died when all life seemed transient.

She and Kevin had never told their families where they went on Saturday mornings, because they wouldn’t let them go there. Her mother would tell her that all these bad spirits would try to find a place in your soul and control you and you’d never be free.

Looking back, their families had probably let the both of them do whatever they wanted on Saturdays because they were hoping that they would fall in love, get married. He is such a nice boy, her father would tell her, so filial and obedient. Respects his elders. He would make a good husband.

*

They had gone to the beach for the sole reason of collecting beach glass. Every Saturday, they emptied their backpacks of schoolbooks and used them to carry beach glass home.

Beach glass is ordinary glassware—beer bottles and glass jars—that has found its way to the sea. There, it is whipped by waves, and crushed against rocks and passing ships, before being left behind on beaches far away from where it came from.

Imagine: you find a seemingly perfect green sphere. It is the size of a marble; it is sitting on your palm, still. It is the product of everything, everything (!) that has happened until this very moment: blown in a glass factory somewhere, used by someone, found its way into the sea, churned around in storms, washed up on a beach and now picked up by you to sit on your palm, still. It has seen fish, bits of wood and household rubbish floating in sea surface eddies, weed.

Crystallographically-speaking, it is unnatural: minerals do not naturally grow into spheres. Its crystal system is not in the charts.

Microscopically-speaking, it is flawed: glass is a supercooled liquid with no long-range structures, no symmetry, no order. Although glass may look solid, it is actually a liquid and can flow at very slow speeds, unnoticeable to the naked eye. After several millennia, this glass sphere will have flowed into another shape altogether.

But, in terms of a human lifetime and to human eyes, this glass sphere is perfect.

*

In any case, she hadn’t been back to the green glass beach ever since she returned— except for that one time with the BPS kids—until one day in December, when Kevin returned to Sembahnang. He stopped by at her house three days after he returned, while she was out at work. She called him as soon as she found out that he had stopped by and asked whether he would like to go walking the next day, out to the green glass beach.

He said yes, and continued with, “Are you still collecting beach glass, Min? Do you still have that jar filled with green marbles? Do you still arrange them by size when you are bored?”

On her dresser was a jar filled with beach glass spheres that she had collected over the years. Whenever she was bored, she would empty the jar, arrange them by size and then place them back in, one by one.

“Of course not,” she told Kevin. “Why do you ask?” She listened to the flat dial tone after he had put the phone down.

The next day Kevin came to her house and they walked on their forty-eight minute journey on Jalan Changkat Beruas, as always.

“I can’t stay too long at the beach—I’m leaving tomorrow, and I haven’t yet spoken to my parents about Michelle. They’ve been busy with the shop and everything for the past three days,” he told her, just as they started walking.

“What do you have to speak to them about Michelle for?”

“She’s leaving for the Netherlands soon. She just got posted there on a two-year assignment. You know what happened there, right?”

“No…other than the fact that the one of the princes got married. The good-looking one,” she told him, smiling a little.

He smiled too. “There goes your dream of becoming a princess.”

“Yeah, too bad about that.”

“Don’t be too sad,” Kevin poked her with his elbow. “I’m sure there are other princes you could marry.”

“But all of them are married now. Or too old.” She made a sad face. “Their families and government and countrymen won’t like it if I chased off their wives.”

He laughed.

They passed Mr. Tan’s prawn farm, the Burmese workers’ huts, the fish warehouses, then they came across the old railway line, where they stepped carefully from one wooden sleeper to another, neither of them energetic enough to skip as they once had. All around was a bit of raised land, with mangrove trees fringing the edges. Here was where seas and rivers mingled. Her heart felt light and heavy at the same time.

“A large storm hit their coast. The floodgates, dikes and dunes were all breached. The waves reached eight meters high in some places and flooded at least several low-lying villages,” Kevin said.

“Did anyone die?”

“At least twenty. And thousands evacuated.”

She had not heard about this. She stopped reading the newspapers a year ago. “Their system was so geotechnically-advanced,” she said. “I remember the prof. telling us that they have these giant storm surge barriers to protect their coasts—huge ones, six to ten meters high. If we have had that here, in Sembahnang, the flood wouldn’t have happened.”

“It was one of those freak storms, a one-in-fifty-thousand-year storm. Crazy, isn’t it? You would think, one-in-fifty-thousand-years—what are the chances of an event like that happening during my lifetime? Zero…except, it isn’t really zero. It has a one-in-fifty-thousand probability, and it could happen today, and tomorrow, and the day after, because that is all the number is, a probability.”

“Probabilities fail when you want them to work the most.”

“Tell me about it,” he said. “Michelle was asked to be a project manager on their reconstruction project, by protecting whatever coastline is left, and then to pump out and drain the area. She is flying out there in three weeks time.”

“Congratulations,” Min said.

*

Fifty years ago, their families used to live in Old Sembahnang, a town that once lay in the valley. It used to be a swamp, but over time, the swamp was drained by electric pumps, and protected by a system of wooden dikes. Old Sembahnang was two—maybe three—meters below sea level, but the sea was kept out and it stayed dry. During one monsoon season, storm surges breached the dikes. Several of the barriers broke down. Water from sea and rivers spread into the town, slowly. “You would have thought that once the barriers were breached, the whole town would be flooded in an instant,” Min’s Kong-Kong said. In reality, it took time to drown the entire valley.

There were puddles of water on the roads at first, filling potholes, then these puddles connected into a murky deluge that swept away anything left on the ground, kettles on wood-burning stoves, children’s toys, broken half-cups, a five-hundred word History essay on the fall of Malacca to the Portuguese with loose ink running off the pages. The residents tried to carry away whatever they could, grabbing spare fishing boats and stacking them up high with their things.

There was even one fishing boat that had sunk under the weight of its load. It was owned by Tauke Chong, who owned the town’s only sundry store. He was too greedy and tried to pile his entire store in. He thought he had succeeded in saving everything, up until the very last second, when the boat gave a last sigh and disappeared under the water. Cans of Milo drifted away, too beautiful to watch, hundreds of electric green cans bobbing in the brown murk. Some had even opened to let its contents mix with the seawater. Within a twenty-meter radius of the sinking boat, you could have had a chocolate-flavoured Milo drink.

Days passed and the waters kept rising, until you could only see the tops of houses, and then not even that. Min’s Kong-Kong and family, like the others, moved into the next town further south and renamed it New Sembahnang. The dikes were never repaired, nor was Old Sembahnang ever drained. The mangrove swamp grew between the ghosts of the abandoned town.

Old Sembahnang, transient and fleeting, existed for all of a generation.

If you were to try to visit Old Sembahnang today, all you would see are the surrounding hills, the mangrove swamp, the drowned valley, the green glass beach.

*

As they went along the old railway line, sometimes they would talk; mostly they would walk with the tips of their fingers occasionally brushing. She thought she heard footsteps—not hers, not Kevin’s, but a third person’s, a millisecond or two out of beat with theirs. She looked around whenever she heard the footsteps, but they would stop just as her head turned. Eventually, she realized that the footsteps were actually her water-bottle bouncing off her backpack as she walked.

Suddenly, Kevin threw his head back and laughed to the sky. He said, “Remember that one time when we found a bottle at sea with a message in it? We were out at the beach, and it was the day before your grandmother’s funeral. It was drizzling and I had slipped on the rocks. Remember? We were so excited. We actually thought it was a hundred and fifty years old.” He laughed again. “So gullible.”

“Wasn’t it? Wasn’t it a hundred and fifty years old?”

“Min, you trust everyone and everything. The cork is not airtight. Humidity and salt would have long destroyed the paper. The glass bottle wouldn’t have survived a hundred and fifty years of being thrown up by the waves.”

She was disappointed. The dull ache in her heart grew.

“Sorry,” he said. “I thought you must have known. The green glass factory was flooded just fifty years past, and only the green marbles have survived to today, because they are smaller than the other pieces. And one day, those green marbles will be broken up too.”

*

They heard it all the time when they were growing up. Get married. After all, weren’t they childhood sweethearts, in a way? He kissed her on her cheek several times, and even a quick peck on the lips, once, when they were both fifteen and it had seemed like the thing to do at that time. Kevin had knelt down, clasped her hand to his ear, and mock-proposed to her. She felt deeply thrilled by his mock proposal, although she took care not to let it show. But, all this happened in the context of a small town where there was no one else but them. When they both went to university, in the big capital city, their shared experiences diverged.

People liked Kevin. At dinner, they came around in groups, clustering, grouping, wanting to sit next to him. They felt unlucky if they got a place at the other end of the table, away from him. When he proposed seeing a movie, everyone wanted to come along. Kevin never walked in the hallways alone. Third-year students would ask him questions like, “What do you think of today’s lecture?” followed by a question on what he was doing for lunch. Or, what about dinner? All of them, the ambitious engineers, the hierarchical computer programmers, the idealistic humanities students, the cool kids. Even professors liked speaking to him.

Kevin would ask her to join him at the parties he went to, only that she inevitably ended up sitting in a corner and sipping at her drink, slowly, so she would look like she was busy doing something. She observed Kevin a lot from her corner. He was oblivious that life could be different for other people; he was always happy, sometimes cruelly so. From time to time, Kevin would walk up to her and have a private conversation or shout her name from across the room. Everyone would turn to look at her. She was flustered, but there was nothing more flattering than being linked to Kevin. Once, as she was sitting on the couch, watching everyone else dance, Kevin approached her with another guy whom she knew from her classes.

“Min, meet Heng Lee. Min’s from Sembahnang too,” Kevin said, before he disappeared into the crowd again.

She panicked—the light was too strong, the voices were too loud—but then she told herself that Heng Lee was just another person.

“Have we met before?” Heng Lee asked her.

She wanted to say, yes, you borrowed one of my pens during Structural Design and never returned it. Instead what she said was, “I think you’re in one of my classes. Structural Design.”

“Seriously? I usually sleep through it. It’s too early in the morning.”

“Yes. So, where are you from?”

“Bangsar,” he answered. “Not too far from here, not like Sembahnang, I guess.”

“Yes, Sembahnang is about eight hours away.”

“They make those green marbles, right? That famous green glass factory.”

“The factory was closed a long time ago. It was destroyed in a flood.”

She couldn’t think of anything more to say. She sipped at her drink again and smoothed her skirt. She wished Kevin were here. When she looked up, Heng Lee was still sitting at the other end of the couch.

“Where are you from, anyway?”

“You already asked that question,” he smiled.

“Oh…ha…that’s right. Yes. What do you think of this party?”

“It’s a nice apartment. We are in Bukit Tunku, after all. Probably one of the most expensive places to live in capital. Like Kensington or Chelsea in London.”

Min shook her head. She wasn’t sure what he was referring to.

“Have you seen the view?” he said.

“No,” she answered. The windows were far from where she stood, and besides, there were too many people standing by it.

“Come on, I’ll show it to you.” Heng Lee took her hand, and they walked to the full-length windows. The sixteenth-floor apartment overlooked the entire skyline, the city pulsing with light. She could see, beneath her, the capital city, the horizon and the sky of stars beyond.

“Kuala Lumpur,” he said, sweeping his free hand in an arc, as if unfurling the glittering streets and all of the city’s deepest quietest secrets.

“I need to go to the toilet now,” she said, and left.

In their final year, Kevin got himself a girlfriend, and her name was Michelle. When they held hands, it was the most natural thing in the world.

*

Everything in Old Sembahnang had revolved around the green glass factory. Before the flood, the green glass factory had produced some of the world’s finest glassware. They made everything from goblets to pitchers to vases to art glass to chalices, all in monochromatic gradations of green: pistachio, jade, lime, forest, olive, emerald, avocado, Lincoln, Nile, sea—and no other colour. They were especially famous for their green glass marbles. Each marble looked like little frosted balls of green, covered in scratches—except when you looked closely, the scratches were actually intricate patterns on the surface, carved by men like her Kong-Kong. Too expensive to be played with, these marbles were bought by collectors.

Old Sembahnang would not have existed without the green glass factory. Min’s Kong-Kong moved to Sembahnang for a job at the green glass factory, where he learned the skill of carving tiny patterns with a scratcher. Min’s father had expected to find a job in the green glass factory too. Schools, clinics, restaurants, hawkers, tailors clustered in the town and Old Sembahnang grew into a thriving community.

After the flood drowned Sembahnang, the green glass factory was moved to a large industrial park down south, where they now produce glassware of many different colours and no marbles. The glassware remnants from the factory were swept up with the flood, broken up by the waves and thrown up on the shore. The green marbles kept their sphericity, but their distinctive patterns were erased with time.

And that is how the green glass beach was formed.

*

They approached the green glass beach and stood, facing the surrounding hills, the drowned valley. The glass spheres moved around their feet. There was no one other than them, not even the occasional Saturday runner. The shuffling noises their feet made echoed throughout, so loud, unanswered.

She picked up a seemingly-perfect glass sphere from the ground and cradled it in her palm. “Are you ever going to come back and live in Sembahnang? Not now, obviously, but sometime in the future. Perhaps when you retire,” she asked.

“There’s nothing left here, with everyone moving away. No jobs, not for a civil engineer.”

“So, you’ll be staying in the city then, in Kuala Lumpur?”

“Yes, or another city. Oh, I wanted to ask you whether—”

She cut him off. “It’s beautiful here,” she said, agitated.

Min wanted to tell him that there was nowhere else she would rather be, that everything in the world is linked to here. When she saw green glass vases in anonymous street cafes, or on display at a receptionist’s desk, she was reminded of this place where waves lapped at her toes. Living anywhere else meant that she would live each day knowing that something important was missing in her life, something that whispered her name even when she walked along the busy Petaling Street with people pushing at her elbow, wanting to eat a bowl of laksa from the most popular street cart. Something that whispered her name even as the neon signs buzzed in her ear.

She wanted to tell him that the entire history of the world was contained here, in the miniature pictorial scratches on green glass marbles that men like her Kong-Kong had carved. But, she didn’t know how to say this to him, so she repeated herself, “It’s beautiful here.”

“It is beautiful,” he sighed, “but that’s all it is. There’s no future here—it’s some backwater place, Min.” Kevin waved a hand at the mangrove swamp, “And I mean it literally: backwater. The sea’s slowly reclaiming the land, the mangrove swamp is spreading. New Sembahnang is dying small town. We weren’t meant for anything more than the glass factory, and even that’s been gone for fifty years.”

“But this makes it worth living here, for now.”

“Ah, Min, the ever hopeful one,” he said, placing an arm around her shoulders. “Sembahnang is too small for you, and it will only get smaller. Don’t let changes act on you. No one can give you a destiny to follow. This is life and it is not a fairy tale; there is no deus ex machina, and there is no prince that can sweep you off your feet.”

“But isn’t that what love is? Isn’t love a type of deus ex machina? Love is an unexpected, transformative power that sweeps people off their feet and makes everything right. Love is a happy ending, a gift of grace bestowed on two lucky people, where just one kiss makes the world go ‘round. Isn’t Cupid a god and doesn’t he shoot his bow on two unsuspecting people? Isn’t it all so random who gets it, this gift?”

Kevin said, “No, that’s not it. Maybe, you could call that an infatuation. Because love is something you seek and build and create, an experience that you might be scared of, but push yourself into anyway, nervous, but excited, because you and the other person could build new worlds. Together as a whole instead of as imperfect halves, worlds that you could have never built on your own. It is transformative but the transformation comes from within, it is not imposed or forced upon the walls of your soul; rather, you break down your own walls because you want to break them down, even though you don’t quite know what is out there yet, and even if there is a chance that there is nothing out there after all.”

He took her hands in his. He said, “Get out of here before it’s too late, before you drown too.”

She was calmed by the touch of his hands.

They stood there a while longer, before he said, “Well, we should head back. I need to get back early to talk to my parents about the wedding and all that,” Kevin said, as he slipped his hands back into his pockets.

“You’re getting married!”

“Well, we were talking about it. It seems a little sudden, but we thought that it might be good if we got married, so that I could go to Holland with her. She’ll be there for two years after all.”

The green glass sphere that she was cradling seemed to melt in her hands.


Elizabeth Wong grew up in Malaysia, majored in English and Geology at Yale University, and now lives in London, UK. During the day, she works as a geologist, exploring stories of how the world used to be. She recently completed her first novel, We Are Stardust (longlisted in the Bath Novel Award 2018 and the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize 2019). 

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.

Sincerely,

Maeve Holler

Managing Editor, Sinking City

Galatic Energy, Sea Life

by Sandy Coomer

Sandy Coomer is an artist and poet living in Brentwood, TN. Her poetry has been published in numerous journals and anthologies and she is the author of three poetry chapbooks and a full-length collection titled Available Light (Iris Press). Her art has been featured in local art shows and exhibits, and has been published in journals such as Lunch Ticket, Gravel, The Wire’s Dream Magazine, Up the Staircase, Taxicab, Spider Mirror and The Magnolia Review, among others. Sandy is currently the director of Rockvale Writers’ Colony in College Grove, TN.

Three Translations of Jacques Viau Renaud

Sendero

by Jacques Jacques Viau Renaud

Sendero retorcido de dolor
mordido por la sangre
y botas que envenenan.
Sendero fecundado de cruces,
de cielos ausentes
y de esqueletos de árboles
en coloquio con la muerte.
Con la muerte que cicatriza llagas
llagas abiertas
para mi solo
por mi solo
para el hombre
por los hombres.
Sendero que huye de la urbe
ebrio de humo y de alchoholes
dilatados de ausencias
espera…
Sendero de abortada presencia
de horizontes
siempre viejos
mordido
por la sangre
y botas sordas
al gritos de la tierra.

Path

translated by Ariel Francisco

Path twisted by pain
bitten by blood
and poisonous boots.
Path fertile with crosses
of absent heavens
and skeletal trees
in colloquium with death.
With a death that scars over sores
open sores
only for me
for man
for mankind.
Path that flees the city
drunk on smoke and silences
where the drunk whore of liquor
dilates absences
wait—
Path of aborted presences
of horizons
always old
bitten
by the blood
and deaf boots
to the howls of the earth.

Estoy Tranando de Hablaros de mi Patria

by Jacques Viau Renaud

ESTOY tratando de hablaros de mi patria,
aquella que comienza a deslizarse
allá donde crecen las guazabaras,
las cayenas fragiles,
los cantaros sedientos y polvorientos,
la yerba rara,
amarillenta,
solitaria lanza midiendo el corazón de mi Isla.

ESTOY tratando de hablaros de mi patria,
desde aqui,
desde mi guarida salina,
desde Santo Domingo,
quizas os hable de ambas:
son dos terrones complementarios
puntos cardinales de mi tristeza
caidos de la rosa de los vientos
como amantes cuyo abrazo se rompieran.

ESTOY tratando de hablaros de mi patria,
de su prole de montes y altibajos,
de planicies soñolientas,
donde ha mucho parieron ríos:
muchedumbre de cristales apiñados en las hondonadas.

MI PATRIA
es una tierra elevada
de dilatados herbazales y doradas mazorcas
que cruzan los mares y se van muy lejos
mientras los hombres del monte y la llanura
se dilatan hambrientos.

Es una tierra con muchos montes pelados,
sonoros rios de apaciguada fauna
y violentos vegetales…

CRUJE mi patria al parir
y sus proles se reducen
y parecen hojas desprendidas
confundiéndose en los bosques con la magra corteza de los
arboles.

ALLI, aprisionada entre dos brazos de arcilla,
roca y piedra,
duerme una ciudad que huele a muerto,
a caña madura,
a virgen alcohol terrosa
como resina de nudosas raíces destacadas.

ES UNA ciudad de calles sin nombres
y atajos de espanto,
habitada hasta en las grietas,
en las cloacas,
quedamente recorrida por las ratas y los murciélagos.

ES UNA ciudad de muchas proles numerosas,
de millares de niños que nunca crecieron,
que nunca supieron el color de los faroles
ni del alba con pan y sin lágrimas,
de niños que maduraron las tumbas,
la tierra apisonada adornada de girasoles,
y la luz de las pupilas ciegas.

ALLI he nacido,
de alli parti atado a la sangre,
solo, después de los años,
descubrí en mi pecho la mancha roja,
entonces aprendí a leer en las hojas,
a hablar con la tierra
y a callar cuando ella reconstruía la historia
de los muchos muertos que la sustentan,
de la sangre que alimentó sus frutas,
del llanto que sostuvo la precocidad de sus montes.

MUCHO tiempo ha transcurrido desde que parti,
nada ha cambiado,
siguen los ismos montes pelados,
la misma vegetación de vegetales y girasoles,
de cafetales oscuros y pastizales estrellados,
solo el hambre ha crecido,
ya no hay lugar en los cementerios
ni en mi Isla patrias,
solo dimensiones de tierra y harapo,
de muertos desencajados en el vientre del barro.

ASI es mi patria,
prolongación del Santo Domingo que llora,
asi es mi guarida,
prolongación del grito que recorre los montes,
los caminitos,
los bosques,
desde el otro lado de la sangre,
desde la mole de San Nicolás,
hasta la frente de cristal salobre
y esqueletos de peces mudos amontonados sobre la playa
creciendo y haciéndose montañas
entre redes hambrientas y ahumados pescadores.
Allí los muertos se hacen peces hermosos,
algas extensas, musgo silencioso,
o acantilado de rumores que la noche protege.

HE QUERIDO hablaros de mi patria,
de mis dos patrias,
de mi Isla
que ha mucho dividieron los hombres
allí donde se aparearon crear un río.

I am Trying to Tell You about My Homeland

translated by Ariel Francisco

I’m trying to tell you about my homeland,
the one that begins to slip
there where the guasabara trees grow,
the fragile peppers,
the thirsty dust covered pitchers,
the yellowish
strange grass,
lonely spear measuring the heart of my island.

I’m trying to tell you about my homeland,
from here,
from my saline lair,
from Santo Domingo,
maybe I’ll speak of both:
they’re two complimentary mounds
cardinal points of my sadness
fallen from the wind’s rose
like lovers breaking their embrace.

I’m trying to tell you about my homeland,
of her children, her peaks and valleys,
her sleepy plains
where countless rivers are born:
crowds of crystals huddled in the hollows.

My homeland
is a plateau
of betrayed herbs and golden corn
that cross the seas to go far off
while the people of the mountains and plains
grow with hunger.

It’s a land of many bare mountains,
loud rivers of cheerful wildlife
and violent flora.

My homeland cracked giving birth
and her children wither
and look like dying leaves
confusing themselves in the forest of thin barked trees.

There, imprisoned between two clay arms,
rock and stone,
sleeps a city that smells of death,
of sugarcane,
an earthly virgen liquor
like the resin of great gnarled roots.

It’s a city of nameless streets
and ghostly alleys
even the cracks are inhabited,
even the sewers,
quietly traversed by rats and bats.

It’s a city full of countless children,
of countless children that never grow up,
that never learned the colors of lanterns
or the dawn, with bread and without tears,
of children who ripen in tombs,
the tamped ground adorned with sunflowers,
and the light of blind eyes.

Here, I was born,
from there I left, tied to the blood,
alone, after years,
I found the red stain inside me,
and then learned to read the leaves,
to speak with the earth
and quiet when she reconstructs the history
of the many dead that sustain her,
of the blood that fed her fruits,
the screams that sustained her precocious mountains.

So much time has passed since I left,
nothing has changed
those same bald mountains go on,
the same vegetation of vegetables and sunflowers,
the same dark coffee fields and starry pastures,
only hunger has grown,
there’s no more room in the cemeteries
or in the crying eyes
or in my island homeland,
only dimensions of dirt and rags,
of the dead unhinged by the wind from the mud.

This is my homeland,
an extension of Santo Domingo crying,
this is my haunt,
extension of the cry echoing from the mountains,
the paths,
the forests,
from the other side of the blood,
from the mole of Saint Nicholas,
to the face of the brackish crystal
and the bones of deaf fish piled on the beach
making and becoming mountains
between hungry nets and smoked fisherman.
Here the dead turn into handsome fish,
covered in algae, silent moss,
or cliffs of rumors protected by the night.

I’ve been trying to tell you about my homeland,
of my homelands,
of my island
that has long divided man
there where they came together to create a river.

LA LLUVIA

by Jacques Viau Renaud

La lluvia se abría sobre el pavimento
dibujando.
Ociosas prostitutas
semiescondidas
se guarecian
esperando algun tonto beodo
que vierta en sus enganchados encantos
su semanal hambre aguantada
de agrio sudor infecundo
de mujer que se rompe las uñas y los dedos
de niños que aguardan el plato siempre lejano
el postre extrañisimo.

La vida transcurria
los focos de los automóviles
asediaban las calles de impúdicas visiones.
La voracidad babeante de los callejones oscuros
abría orificios en la carne del hombre.

Los guardias
y sus fusiles
la policia y sus garrotes
el espia y su largo oído
anunciaban el estallido
anunciaban la muerte sobre las espaldas de la lluvia.
Finamente cayendo
como lianas transparentes y quebradizas
que dejan entre sí estrechas compuertas
por donde el aire se escapa seco
en esta noche de caluroso diciembre
abierto a la sangre
como una migaja abandonada en un puñado de hambre.

La vida transcurria.
Los guardias
y las prostitutas se hacían señas
y pronto las palabras no eran más que recuerdo.
Los niños
cubrían sus cuerpecitos con sus manos
pequeñitas
expuestos a la lujuria del tiempo.

Los grandes señores
codeando la noche cambiaban de ropaje
para extirpar de la infancia
la honradez todavía incipiente de los arrabales.

Los callejones aullaban un sucio espanto.
La noche se deshacía
se alejaban las estrellas
las prostitutas
cansadas
bostezando se marchaban,
mientras que un niño limpiabotas
empujaba las pocas puertas que del amor quedaban.

Diciembre con dias sangrientos
y dilatados
empapados de savia rebelde
arrancada del pueblo como raíces
que van limpiando las mugrientas edades pasadas
levantando la vida.

The Rain

translated by Ariel Francisco

The rain opens over the pavement,
drawing.
Idle prostitutes
half hidden
protecting themselves
waiting for some drunk idiot
to empty into their charmed hooks
holding in that weekly hunger
of sour sterile sweat
of women that break their nails and fingers
of children that await that far off plate
the strange dessert.

Life goes on
the car headlights
besiege the streets with lewd visions.
The drooling veracity of dark alleys
opens holes in the body of man.

The guards
and their rifles
the cops and their clubs
the spies and their long hatred
announcing the blood
announcing the outbreak
announcing the dead on the back of the rain.
Falling finely
like transparent and brittle vines
leaving narrow gates between them
where the dry air escapes
in this hot December night
open to the blood
like an abandoned crumb in a handful of hunger.

Life goes on.
The guards
and prostitutes signal each other
and soon words will only be memories.
The children
cover their small bodies with their hands
tiny
exposed to the lust of time.

The large men
hustling through the night change clothes
to remove their childhood
honor still incipient in the suburbs.

The alleys howl a dirty ghost.
Night comes undone
the stars back away
the women
tired
yawning, they march,
meanwhile a shoeshine kid
pushes the few doors left by love.

December of bloody
and dilated days
soaked with the sap of rebellion
pulled from the people like roots
that clean the grim past
lifting up life.

Letter from the Editor

It is the night before the fifth issue of Sinking City is released & there is a rip current warning in effect. It’s mid-February & I can’t remember the last time I touched the ocean.

In the Arabian peninsula, Jabal Al-taweel freezes & thaws as it stretches to the sky. In Cape Cod, the temperature skirts above & below freezing, turning snow to slurry before freezing to the ground.

In Marquette, Michigan, where Krys Malcolm Belc lives, there is currently a blizzard. The National Weather Radar shows a light-blue storm, shaped like a semi-colon, spanning the entire width of the Upper Peninsula.

Meanwhile, at the bottom of Lake Michigan, Chicago barely thaws from last month’s polar vortex. A light snow is falling on Cermak & California as commuters wait for the 21 Bus to take them East or West.

In Southern Louisiana, rain clouds will withdraw, only to circle back & rain again by midnight tonight.

Today in Beijing, the temperature is -5 degrees Celsius. Meanwhile, in Bogotá, the humid air hangs at a balmy 13°C. In Emperatriz Ung’s poems, dishes break like blossoms under the heel & fuse together again.

This year, the ground hog did not see his shadow, predicting an early spring. In his 132 year history, Punxsutawney Phil’s shadow has evaded him only 19 of times; 5 of those instances occurred since 2007. A February 7th report stated that the past 5 years have been the hottest in the history of recorded weather.

In Sinking City’s fifth issue, 19 poets, writers, & artists show what it means to live in a world teetering on apocalypse. It’s the first issue produced by a second generation of editors, & we’ve sought to honor & expand this magazine’s founding mission. Often, these pieces are less about the environment itself, & more about the challenges of intersecting identities during our historical moment.

In the morning, Coral Gables will be doused with rain as we graduate students assume our day-to-day positions as teaching assistants, administrators, & scholars. I will sweat inside my navy-blue raincoat & attempt (unsuccessfully) to leap over growing puddles in my bright pink Converse sneakers. Meanwhile, my family in the midwest will prepare for lake effect snow, & wait for me to crack a joke about how I’m never moving back. We’ll all laugh. Then I’ll remember the approaching hurricane season. I’ll remembering that Miami Beach will be entirely under water by the time my future children are old enough for college.

As I prepare to release the fifth issue of Sinking City into the world, I find myself meditating on the words of recently departed Mary Oliver: Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination. Through the process of compiling this issue, I have found myself pausing, again & again, to linger on the images & stories of these 19 contributors. Again & again, I am transported by their work, to new places & new perspectives.

When the storm clears again, I will fix my gaze on the sky & wait to see what new birds will pass by in their migration. I often wonder if lifelong Floridians have grown used to the sight of them, the way that I, in my final year at the University of Miami, no longer feel a pang of sublimity at the sight of a royal poinciana arcing across the road.

Where ever you are, in your own late winter, on behalf of the MFA program at the University of Miami, it is my honor to offer you these worlds of imagination.

Signed,

Stephanie Lane Sutton
Managing Editor, Sinking City