12:4: “River”, by Kelly Rose Pfug-Back...

When you left
it rained for weeks in the town where I live
the bodies of fish writhing, everywhere on the pavement.

I knelt and held them in my hands as they gasped and drowned
houses, treetops, the sun behind its milky cataract
inverted in the serene black domes of their eyes.

We slept below the surface like sunken islands, in my dreams
and the shadows of oars dipped over our bodies

urchin spines fanning from the soft places behind my ears

your hair a moonless forest
alive with the movements of crenellated fins.

My ancestors were sea serpents, I told you once
and guided your hands to the frilled crests of bone
that still ridge my skull at the temples

coiled turrets of chain link fence,
the lichened beetle shells of cars

rising all around us
in the columned light.

Past the scrapyard behind my house
the river bloats with oil-sheened suds

shallows thick with frog spawn
mosquito larvae flinching
in the dark concavity of upended tractor tires.

On its rust-stained banks I pull my knees to my chest
watching the silhouettes of cranes and excavators
arch their brontosaurus necks

red sun sinking below the skyline’s jagged teeth
as I wait for next summer’s drought

and all that stands to be revealed
by time’s receding tide.

Kelly Rose Pflug-Back is an author, social activist, and student based out of Toronto, ON. Her poetry, fiction, and journalism have appeared in publications such as Goblin Fruit, Mythic Delirium, This Magazine, Counterpunch, Canadian Woman Studies, and many others. Her first book of poems, These Burning Streets, was published in 2012 with Combustion Books. She is a contributing editor with Iconoclast Media and Fifth Estate Magazine, America’s longest-running journal of anti-authoritarian politics. Updates on her various readings and speaking events can be found at www.kellypflugback.wordpress.com. She says:

I wrote this poem while thinking of the ways in which we can learn to embrace loss and loneliness, and view these things as potentially cleansing and rejuvinating rather than wholly negative. A lot of the imagery I used relates to water and submersion; in some ways I associate these images with illusion, submission, and loss of control (being “swept away”): all of which we experience if we allow ourselves to become lost in or overwhelmed by things which are external to ourselves.  

Photograph of Tidepool in Porto Covo, west coast of Portugal, by Joaquim Alves Gaspar, is provided under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

11:1: “Sweet Mercy, Her Body an Ark of Wild Beasts”, by Kelly Rose Pflug-Back...

There are dead who light up the night
of butterflies,
and the dead who come at dawn
to drink your tea
as peaceful as on the day your
guns mowed them down.

– Mahmoud Darwish

My life has been the tin ribbons of a jaw harp,
its bent notes twanging
in the lightless space cupped between my hands.

I’ve tried to make sense of it:
the button eyes of cloth animals,
frayed cotton straining
at their herniated stitches.

The bones of my face are a map, I told you
the plates of my skull fused like petals at my crown

where the Queen’s infantry anointed me in mortar dust
and closed their ranks forever.

I told you the truth:
before I knew you, I lived for years as a sin eater.
Beauty was a charm I would never inherit,
my palate’s cracked seam a cleft between floorboards
in the attic apartment
where we lived before the war.

You never stared at the palimpsest of scrawled transgressions
that I was sure still etched my body.

Once you took my hand
and pressed it to the shallow depression in your skull
where you told me famine had wracked you while the bones were still soft.

Trepanned from birth,
your fontanelles like spy-holed fingers
never quite closing
over the keyhole to a locked room.

As a child, you told me how you used to wake sometimes
to see a wax museum of saints looming above your bones’ cradle

the dark haired Virgin standing over you,
her robes a swimming quilt of fish and birds.

Their feathers were cursive, crested
in halved suns;

she pressed her palm to your chest, once
and fear died inside you.

I wonder where the mark of her hand is now
watching hoarfrost bloom against the panes
of a shattered city.

The world turns its black spokes,
and the wind covers my tracks forever.

Daylilies wilt and bow their heads,
blight-palsied stalks
curling, clawed against my palm.

The insult of bayonets will erase you

a limp body left to bear witness
to history’s bloody unfolding.

I am a corpse, like the others
they heap like sandbags
along the edges of their barricade.

I am a man who has blinded himself
painting portraits on eggshell fragments
with a single-hair brush,
touching the clothes you left folded in my room
until their texture no longer recalls your body

and my hands, too are cast into the insensate dark.

In my mind
I called you Lost.

I called you City of Ur.

Your eyebrows the dark arches of Fayoum portraits,
the bones of whales’ ancestors scattered through the floors
of now-parched Cretaceous seas.

The stelae of their backbones rise like buzzard-ridden arbors,
spines whip-stitched, lacing between sun-bleached dunes.

I want the ululations of a thousand throats
to guide me across black waters whose shores I’ll never reach

a ghost of night overpasses
watching the headlights of transport trucks pass through my body
before the dark under the train bridge swallows them again.

I want to open my eyes to see her staring down on me
from the grotto tattooed on your sunken chest

frail and impossible, a hothouse flower
blooming in the nuclear heat.

I have bled, and seen a river fork through this place.

I have watched lithograph smoke
spill from the barrels of silenced guns
to curl in bows and lariats
around her heart-shaped face;

fetal buds pushing through cracked asphalt,
the bones of plowshares rusting
in soil too anemic for even the grass to anchor its roots in.

Somewhere, a revolution is happening
that will never be broadcast.

Somewhere, the sun rises on a world
no longer drawn as if by some hand

of human pain.

Kelly Pflug-Back is a 22-year-old writer and activist living in Toronto. Her poetry, short stories, journalism and essays have appeared in places like This Magazine, The Dominion, Mythic Delirium, Ideomancer, Not One of Us and The Molotov Rag, and she has won awards from the League of Canadian Poets and the Great Canadian Literary Hunt as well as having been nominated for a Rhysling. She goes to Wilfrid Laurier University, pursuing a double major in Contemporary Studies and Human Rights. She says:

I wrote this poem for my partner after we were both arrested during a protest where martial law was enforced and over a thousand people were swept off the streets, brutalized and detained in a makeshift facility with little access to food or water for days. I felt that this experience gave me a deep sense of intimacy and identification with people in my family tree as well as my partner’s family tree who have lived through (or been killed by) war, famine, genocide, and political violence in various parts of the world. The first-person narrative used throughout the poem is influenced by Carl Jung’s theories of the collective unconscious, specifically the concept of “ancestral memory”. While the narrator’s identity does not change, in a sense they are speaking through the voices and experiences of many people in various times and places throughout history. 

Also, the Mahmoud Darwish poem was translated from Arabic by Sargon Boulos, and it was originally published in Darwish’s anthology Eleven Planets (1992).

Illustration is Albert Goodwin’s “Apocalypse”, 1903.

9:4: “My Bones’ Cracked Abacus”, by Kelly Rose Pflug-Back...

night spawns the shapes of dark birds
suspended legless on their wing tips,

loping like stilt walkers
ragged in their gait.

i saw the moon curve its ridged spine against your cheekbone once;
a crescent of bristled fork tines, spokes,
tendons forming ridges under the skin of my hands.
i thought of you while she combed my damp hair over my face,
a curtain of blond tatters to veil my eyes.

the birds walked hunched under their winter cloaks,
only graceful in flight.

they pull themselves, dripping
from the cluttered dark of your pupils,
leaving sparse haired brush strokes
where their wet feathers drag.

when i stood still they used to flock to my twisted arms.
my body was a filter, a valved artery for the world’s slowing traffic.

they grinned under their beaked masks when i sang,
when my ribs creaked and opened.

a jew’s harp strung between broken teeth,
the striated palette.

i hummed under your bow once,
an instrument gutted.

inside me is a world of oil-dark pistons,
a rhythm madder than the heart.
my hands unfold embossed in red seams,
anemone flowers petalled in boneless fingers.
this is where they cut me, i told you.
this is where the flesh-tone doll’s parts were grafted;
blank ugly sutures, a torturer’s braille.
this is the cartography of the blind.

my body is scarred in botched attempts,
a city untouched by grace.

sometimes when i lie awake at night
i can still hear their scraping laughter.
her back arches,
the sky filled with battering wings.

i live on the banks of a tar-black river;
its silence swallows everything.

she bunches the skirt around her hips,
crumpled gathers of white netting.
the birds take form under her hands,
bright eyed in the pooling ink.
they tug like kites
until she cuts them from their puppet strings,
dusk flooded
with the clatter of hollow quills.

my flesh rasps, i tell her.
there is nothing that could appease me.