All The Pretty Lights by Kendall A. Bell

In December, the day disappears by about five p.m., so I make sure that I turn off all of the lights in my house by 4:30-ish. It’s not like I need them on, anyway. I’ll end up in the living room, either lying on my back on the well worn rug in the middle of the room, or on the aging loveseat that never closes up right away when you want to stop reclining. I stare at the tree’s blinking lights for what seems like an eternity. I watch the outdoor lights pop on as night commences. I stay motionless, stuck in the wonder of the holiday season, like when I was a young girl in the back of my parents’ car, when we would pass by the houses of people much better off than we ever were. I love Christmas lights. Those Decembers were much colder than what passes for the holiday season now, but you can thank climate change for that. It was just me in that huge back seat, clad in the warmest mittens and a pink puff ball hat, my eyes scanning all of the bright lights in wonder. The best memories were of me helping my dad with decorating the tree. “Be careful untangling the lights, Chelsea,” he’d say, and I’d make sure that my small hands never let any of them clink together or hit the floor, even if we had carpet upstairs. I knew the kind of wrath I’d face from my mother’s prying eyes and the judgment that my father seemed to always have reserved for me. It’s why, to this day, I’d rather be alone in this house, like right now, than be surrounded by family that does nothing but wait until they’re face to face with me to tell me how disappointed they are with my life choices. I didn’t ask to be stuck in a relationship that only I was fighting for. I didn’t ask to be left before the holidays for someone that could pass as my younger sister. I didn’t plan to quit college or work at a job that doesn’t come close to paying a living wage, but I digress. This isn’t about them, and it isn’t about feeling sorry for myself. It’s not about how depression bores itself deep into my bones and leaves me empty and alone. Well, maybe it is a little. It’s more about escape than anything else. These lights are my escape. This seven foot, artificial, pre-lit tree is my escape. All of the decorations are my escape. I wish this were a winter wonderland. I think that everyone, given the chance, would take the movie version of the holidays, where snow is falling, and friends are knocking on your door, presents and freshly baked sweets in tow. Most everyone would love for their dinner table to be perfectly set with dishes and silverware, wine glasses and candles. It’s not the reality, though. The reality is this right now: the ache in my left hip and sciatic pain. It is me tilted towards the window where I can focus on the tree and watch the sun slowly set over this quiet town. There are a few gift bags under the tree. My mother sent me her annual card with a check in it. I’ve taped the six Christmas cards that were sent to me on the front door. Most of these people, I never see during the year. It’s ok. If there’s one thing that I can count on, it’s my own company.

Christmas is almost here, and I don’t expect a call from my best friend, or even my mother. There won’t be a pot luck or a secret Santa at my job. The Christmas present I give myself will be the semi-annual sale at Bath & Body Works. For now, I’m content making this pie for myself, knowing that I won’t have to share it, as I don’t know another person who likes coconut custard pie. I’ll cook for myself, and maybe make some cookies, too, and let the entire house smell like my childhood. Christmas night, I’ll lie on my back, a belly full of savory and sweet, and stare at the lights, my emptied gift bags at my side, my dog curled in her bed and aloof. I’ll think about how many more of these I want to endure, now that I’m older, less important, and less attractive than I’ve ever been. I’ll think of all of the pills I have in the bathroom: ibuprofen, naproxen, percocet. A glass of wine and a buffet of pills to get washed down by a full glass of moscato. Maybe it’d be the best present I could give myself. My body wouldn’t be discovered for weeks, maybe even months. I never have the nerve to actually do it, though. Instead, I just lie here in the dark, on my back, stare up at all of the lights and cry like a fucking failure. The kind of anguish I harbor never seems to get any lighter. It feels like a boot in my chest, getting heavier by the minute. Everything seems to be fuzzier right now from down here. It’s happening faster than I had imagined. These lights are so pretty.

Kendall A. Bell’s poetry has been most recently published in Crepe & Penn and Pink Plastic House. He was nominated for Sundress Publications’ Best of the Net collection in 2007, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2015 and 2018. He is the author of two full length collections, “The Roads Don’t Love You” (2018) and “the forced hush of quiet” (2019), and 27 chapbooks, the latest being “the frail spine of us”. He is the publisher/editor of Maverick Duck Press and editor and founder of Chantarelle’s Notebook. His chapbooks are available through Maverick Duck Press. He lives in Southern New Jersey.

Two poems by Kristin Garth

Kristin Garth is a Pushcart, Best of the Net & Rhysling nominated sonnet stalker. Her sonnets have stalked journals like Glass, Yes, Five:2:One, Luna Luna and more. She is the author of seventeen books of poetry including Pink Plastic House  (Maverick Duck Press), Crow Carriage (The Hedgehog Poetry Press), Flutter: Southern Gothic Fever Dream (TwistiT Press), The Meadow (APEP Publications) and Golden Ticket from Roaring Junior Press.  She is the founder of Pink Plastic House a tiny journal and co-founder of Performance Anxiety, an online poetry reading series. Follow her on Twitter:  (@lolaandjolie) and her website kristingarth.com

Four poems by Simon Perchik

You become a shell, this time
hardened by so many times
though the dress is empty

–your arm around the Earth
lets nothing brush against the sleeves
except the soft dirt that remembers

clearing out a place for snow
to be scattered the way you dead
give way to the great weight

pressing against your wish
that everything be as it was and you
no longer broken apart by those stones

you let pass through your fingers
–it’s all uphill and grass is everywhere
struggling to bring you to the surface

with nothing in your heart :a buoy
taking the lead as it used to
beginning to fill with air and marble.

****

And though this door is locked
it leans into the evenings
that hollowed out the place

for its marble and grass
where you still hide, afraid
make the dead go first

–they already know what to do
when the corners are no longer enough
and with your finger become

the sudden breeze filled with moonlight
and distances opening the sea
holding it over the fires –pilings

are useless here, these great walls
cringe from the cries rain gives off
where a morning used to be

and you are following it alone
as if there was a light in the window
waiting for you to come by.

****

You can’t stop, talk
and far from your mouth
wait for the grass

as the same sound
between your fingers
lowering for lips

–you talk the way rope
takes so long to die
–over and over and over

empty your mouth
filling it with thorns
with shoulders, afternoons.

****

It was a lake, used to bodies :islands
With an everlasting sunset and the glare
From jewelry, veils slowly drifting down

As the footsteps that now weigh so much
–it came here the way an icy stream
enters a slope that can no longer right itself

has no water left to give, no nights, no arms
though you are reaching for these dead
by hauling off smaller and smaller stones

on tip-toe, paving your hands for the unease
already smelling from wood, rope, holes
hidden in bracelets and never let go.

Simon Perchik is an attorney whose poems have appeared in Partisan Review, Forge, Poetry, Osiris, The New Yorker and elsewhere. His most recent collection is The Reflection in a Glass Eye, published by Cholla Needles Arts & Literary Library, 2020. For more information including free e-books and his essay “Magic, Illusion and Other Realities” please visit his website at http://www.simonperchik.com

A poem from John Tustin

Stupidity Or Hubris

When stupidity or hubris of the heart is mistaken for bravery
It’s easy to see death as nothing
More or less than the ending of life;
See loneliness as a badge to wear when trolling the supermarket
For bare legs to look at and think about later in your bedroom;
See your face in the mirror, pretend a better face and believe it.
See other people as a means to an end –
Things to sullenly pile into your emptiness that will never be filled.

When stupidity or hubris of the heart is mistaken for bravery
It’s easy to see life as not much more than what passes the time
Before death
And death as that endless moment
When your emptiness empties at last.

John Tustin’s poetry has appeared in many disparate literary journals in the last dozen years. fritzware.com/johntustinpoetry contains links to his published poetry online.

Two prose poems by Michelle Reale

Cinematic

I can’t get out from behind my own eyes. It’s not like it’s a secret. I wade into the imponderables and centuries of the nameless cling to me like a second skin. I have been told I owe them nothing. My father looked like Robert Taylor, pale with appropriate gravitas , though animated on celluloid. But that was way before I knew him and his penchant for deep sights and ingratiating gestures. I held onto this knowledge because it told me a little something about myself, the way I bind my own hands in front of me and the convoluted expressions I utter to the unsuspecting, but with utter sincerity. I imitated my father’s genuflect on the red carpet leading to an ivory altar on a lifetime of Sundays. It brought me down to where I needed to be. When I am subterranean, I can forget the cinematic world and how tired we are all from our lessons. I turn a fossil into bone I can use. I forget the process of evolving. Even the cockeyed could see how well my father constructed the vibrating, flesh and blood scaffold. Anyone with a heart could feel its flutter.

 

Circumscribe

Beyond the dividing wall, the mother with the arched eyebrows and frayed nerves herds her kids to bed. At the same time my mother lays a towel over the clawfoot bathtub to wash my long, tangled hair. I hear the kids next door fighting over the Viewmaster, the one they can never really use, because they stick their thick fingers through the fragile film of the wheel. My mother digs her fingers into my scalp and I cry, silently, repression a skill. I pretend I am a house with twinkling lights strung across my rafters, party favors in pastel iridescents on tables with bows where my imaginary friends will join me. The Prell slides into my eyes and I can’t tell if I am crying or just stung. It is not the washing as much as it is the rinsing, the deficits and subtractions of everything. The Italian Presbyterian minister who soaked in this same tub a generation before my parents claimed it, may have been plotting how to lure his people from their papal tendencies. Coal was an option. Give with one hand, take away with another. Allow gratitude to be the dominant emotion. My mother’s fingers catch in the snarled strands of my hair, though my scalp throbs with cleanliness. I hear the kids crying through the wall, an extension of my family by sheer virtue of proximity. I can’t let them go. I could poke a hold through the thin wall and meet them eye to eye, but it would take them years to understand my needs; how there would always be critical corners I would find it forever impossible to navigate.

 

Michelle Reale is the author of Season of Subtraction (Bordighera Press,, 2019) and In the Blink of a Mottled Eye (Kelsay Books, 2020) among others. She is the Founding and Managing Editor of OVUNQUE SIAMO: New Italian-American Writing.