TURTLE ISLAND QUARTERLY 17

SPRING/SUMMER 2019

featuring:

Sara Backer, Terri Kirby Erickson, Martin Willitts Jr, Daniel Romo,

Mark Thalman, Roger Camp, David P Miller, Michael Jones,

Jennifer Markell, Michael Spring, DS Maolalai,  Sarah Hase,

Gerard Sarnat, and Storey Clayton

Poem by Sara Backer

 

 

 

 

The Calligrapher

Animal spirits hover, curious to watch

what I make from their remains: cow skin

parchment, weasel fur brush, goose wing feather,

fish bone ink. So much at stake to mark & mar.

 

A paradox of exactitude, I must relax

to control my quill or metal nib,

to unify size & slant as I translate

words into shapes, music into curved flags.

 

Behold my monastery masterpiece!

As grapes into wine went silence

into script, the secret of my fingerprints

ink-stained for all to see.

 

Go ahead, sing this page!

Veni creator spiritus!

I know you sense it in you

many lifetimes later:

 

the wildness of ink, its flow & fade,

spread & flake, the magical powers

of sandalwood, cinnabar, clove,

the heart strike of vermillion.

 

 

 

Sara Backer, who holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts, has her first book, SUCH LUCK, forthcoming from Flowstone Press. Recent and upcoming journal publications include Valparaiso Poetry Review, Qu, The Pedestal, Hawaii Pacific Review, Crannóg (Ireland), unstamatic, The Lake (UK), and Gargoyle. Website and online links: www.sarabacker.com.

 

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Poem by Terri Kirby Erickson

 

 

 

 

New Bathing Suit

 

My friend is wearing her new black bathing suit.

It came with the proper cups, made to fill

with one breast and the memory

of another—which is not to say emptiness

but the fullness that comes to us, with sacrifice.

There is no one more alive than she is now,

floating like a lotus or swimming, lap after lap,

parting the turquoise, chlorine-scented water,

her arms as sturdy as wooden paddles.

And when she pulls herself from the pool,

her new suit dripping—the pulse is so strong

in her wrists and throat, a little bird

outside the window will hear it, begin to flap

its wings to the beat of her heart.

 

 

 

Terri Kirby Erickson is the author of five collections of poetry, including Becoming the Blue Heron (Press 53). Her work has appeared in American Life in Poetry, Asheville Poetry Review, Atlanta Review, Healing the Divide: Poems of Kindness and Connection, NASA News & Notes, JAMA, Plainsongs, Poet's Market, storySouth, The Christian Century, The Sun Magazine, The Writer's Almanac, Whole Terrain, Valparaiso Poetry Review, and many more. Awards include the Joy Harjo Poetry Prize, Atlanta Review International Publication Prize, and a Nautilus Silver Book Award. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, Leonard, and his vast collection of Loudmouth golf pants.

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Poem by Martin Willitts Jr

 

 

 

 

Sky Writing

 

A gust of sparrows shakes the trees,

withdrawing and returning all day.

The language of settled days

is thrashed awake, air kicked up,

ruffling. Quivering sparrows

are infectious, yanking light’s threads,

tangling light among the branches,

clotheslines, and proper fences.

 

Sparrows were skittishly moving

from branch to branch, making ziplines

tracing their movement,

rifting and improvising on patterns,

 

They delight in their own voices,

writing in air what they left behind,

flying straight through

their own cheerful melodies. They never finish

what they’re determined to do —

 

to be in the moment, to be that moment,

to gust-shake the trees,

writing, again and again,

their temporary messages.

 

 

 

 

Martin Willitts Jr has 24 chapbooks including the winner of the Turtle Island Quarterly Editor’s Choice Award, “The Wire Fence Holding Back the World” (Flowstone Press, 2017), plus 16 full-length collections “The Uncertain Lover”, “Coming Home Celebration”. Forthcoming books include “Harvest Time” (Deerbrook Press) and the Blue Light Award winner “The Temporary World”. He is an editor for Comstock Review.

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Poem by Daniel Romo

 

 

 

 

Hangman

 

Sink or swim or buy a vowel? The most effective trick questions begin as survival mechanisms. The Heimlich Maneuver or a pound of feathers and bricks? Infant CPR or

the square root of circular reasoning? Contemplating the effects of any purchase requires maintaining a level head during even the most desperate attempts at keeping your head

above an indifferent water. Frugal consumers often perish in a sea of indecisiveness,

wishy-washy being a catch-all for scared shitless, consequently, flailing when panic outweighs patience. Clinging to the safety of consonants is the only constant in some

people’s day. Ssshhh silences any risk of injury to the soul. The most dangerous letters in

the world remain A, E, I, O, U, and sometimes Y.

Daniel Romo is the author of Apologies in Reverse (FutureCycle Press, 2019), When Kerosene’s Involved (Mojave River Press, 2014), and Romancing Gravity (Silver Birch Press, 2013). His poetry can be found in The Los Angeles Review, PANK, Barrelhouse, and elsewhere. He has an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte, and he is an Associate Poetry Editor at Backbone Press. He lives in Long Beach, CA. More at danielromo.net.

 

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Poem by Mark Thalman

 

 

 

 

Logging Camp, 1921

 

Dad rigs spar lines,

while Mom stirs stew

on a wood burning stove.

She tries growing tomatoes

where sun cleaves through the forest,

but has better luck

bringing down ducks

along the river.

 

I go to school in a make-shift boxcar. 

I’ve had the same teacher for seven years,

Mrs. Brunig: silver hair, bad teeth, Medusa stare. 

Her voice, heavy as a baseball bat, stops any mischief. 

 

The bunkhouse crew leaves early.

Most days everyone comes back. 

If they are carrying a body on a stretcher,

don’t ask.  As returning from battle,

hardhats like W.W. I helmets,

their downcast eyes

tell the story.

 

 

Mark Thalman is the author of The Peasant Dance to be published by Cherry Grove Press in June, 2020, and Catching the Limit, published by Fairweather Books, 2009.  His poetry has appeared in CutBank, Paterson Literary Review, Pedestal Magazine, and Valparaiso Poetry Review, among others.  Thalman received his MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Oregon, and he retired after 35 years from teaching English and Creative Writing in the public schools.  Thalman is the editor of poetry.us.com.  He lives in Forest Grove, Oregon.  Further information can be found at markthalman.com.

 

 

 

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Poem by Roger Camp

 

 

 

Manhunt for the mandible  

Subverting compound eyes

     requires surprise, the kind

horror flicks thrive on:

     where hands erupt through floors

     and fingers penetrate doors

and the world is not as it appears.

 

Crushed in my hands,

     my digits compress a pesto

of petite limbs, petals,

     forewings and skins

     as a pair of herringbone hind legs

snap like toothpicks.

 

A pip of conscience

     relaxes my grip

the mess allowed

     to momentarily decompress,

     the unpinioned leg of the grass

hopper pricking my skin.

 

Standing before me

     a cherished rose bush

hand watered and fertilized,

     nourished with love,

     its crown denuded

its buds chewed to nubs.

 

A flick of the wrists

     twists my fists

to a smashing finish.

 

 

Roger Camp lives in Seal Beach, CA where he gardens, walks the pier, plays blues piano and spends afternoons with his pal, Harry, over drinks at Nick’s on 2nd. When he's not at home, he's traveling in the Old World. His work has appeared in the Turtle Island, North American Review, Southern Poetry Review and Nimrod.

 

 

 

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Poem by David P. Miller

 

 

 

 

TALL GRASSES

 

we listen like beetles to tall grasses

blade-edge voices, crinkle-rap voices

stoneware beans for inner ears

dry drum scatter-strikes flat and humble

 

guiro songs grate right at the grassroots

insects trill up scrape-stalks, whack-sprouts

clockless minutes when trickle windblades

shatter seedpod thundersheets

 

a motor clouts up behind the clack-leaves

motor uninvited, pushy phlegm-motor

oh motor motor we heard you the first time

a child with its same joke over and again

muscling at the lip of rub-grass, bird-jab

 

                              after a field recording by John Hudak

 

 

David P. Miller’s chapbook, The Afterimages, was published by Červená Barva Press. His collection, Sprawled Asleep, will be published by Nixes Mate Books in the fall of 2019. His poems have recently appeared in Meat for Tea, Naugatuck River Review, poems2go, riverbabble, Nixes Mate Review, HedgeApple, The Lily Poetry Review, Peacock Journal, Redheaded Stepchild, Jenny, and What Rough Beast, among others. With a background in experimental theater before turning to poetry, David was a member of the multidisciplinary Mobius Artists Group of Boston for 25 years. He was a librarian at Curry College in Massachusetts, from which he retired in June 2018.

 

 

 

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Poem by Michael Jones

 

 

 

 

Shore

 

Not just edges

but what they breach,

such as

a toddler’s fast-

forward tripped

face down,

her smile

surging cryward.

 

Similarly,

the wind playing

across varied

resistances,

rippling right there

the water, right here

the tall-as-a-

toddler sawgrass.

 

 

 

Michael Jones has taught since 1990 in Oakland (CA) public schools. His work has appeared widely in journals (forthcoming in Cream City Review) and in a chapbook, Moved (Kattywompus, 2016).

 

 

 

*******
 

 

 

Poem by  Jennifer Markell

 

 

 

 

The Tom

 

I was frightened at first by your ungainliness—

no, your ugliness. How else to speak of

your blood-red wattle and atrophied,

ice-blue head? You appeared on the patio

leading a flock. I tried to behold you

as noble beast (beauty in your raiment,

thank you for your service)

but your dangling snood unnerved me

as I stood at the kitchen window watching

you dig in the dirt so close to the house.

With a sudden flap you hoisted your heft

onto the patio table beside the angel wing begonia

while the rest of your troop pressed

themselves against the sliding glass door.

Then you hopped down, leaving behind

a curl of steaming shit.

Something feral came alive in me, I ran

out the door, pushed past your gang of thugs,

grabbed the super-soaker gun and chased you

through the garden, pumping my arms

like a marine, shouting “Hooah!”

The other birds scattered, but not you.

Turning to face me, you raised your copper

tail feathers in a glorious shield.

You held your ground, and I held mine.

It was just the two of us then,

deadlocked on impassive flagstone.

 

 

 

Jennifer Markell's poetry collection, Samsara, (Turning Point, 2014) was named a “Must Read Book of Poetry” by the Massachusetts Book Awards, 2015.

Recent honors include the Firman Houghton award from the New England Poetry Club and Finalist for the Rita Dove Prize in Poetry (International Literary Awards, 2016). Her work has appeared in publications including Consequence, Gulf Stream, RHINO, Tinderbox, and The Women’s Review of Books.

A psychotherapist, Jennifer has special interest in therapeutic uses of writing.

 

 

 

********

Poem by Michael Spring

baladi

with this dumbek drum I play

for the belly dancer

for the silks and blades

of her body

a rhythm for her to swim

back to where she was born

she becomes a storm of birds

in a storm of leaves

the molting colors

under a gray whale sky

what sun is that inside the music?

what stirs the oceans now?

I drum I drum I dream

I enter the bleeding sunset

the dancer raises her arms

as if lifting a newborn child

Michael Spring, of Oregon, is the author of four poetry books and one children's book. Awards for his poetry include our first Turtle Island Poetry Award.  New poems have recently appeared ( or are forthcoming) in The Kerf, Gargoyle, The Inflectionist Review, and Rosebud. He is a poetry editor for The Pedestal Magazine and founding editor of Flowstone Press.

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Poem by DS Maolalai 

 

 

 

The ornithologist.

 

"Height of a tower? No, she can jump me."

                                    From Ulysses

 

I don't go to the park

or the countryside

really - I stand

at the corner

of roads

with bad traffic, crossing

back and forth

again and again. I watch

birds take off - seagulls scattered

all over dublin - and look at them

closely

when they land.

 

they always seem

bigger

on the ground

somehow.

far too heavy

to ever

get airborne. crows

clutch at wire fences,

and balance

like christmas decorations - mouths open

with those feet

like broken applestalks

scratching your fingers. beside them

traffic runs -

by scale

it must be

like moving

skyscrapers.

 

but they flap

twice

and are up - everything

looks small then. sparrows

like ragged spots

and fat pigeons. seagulls

lithe as dolphins

floating

 

 

DS Maolalai, a graduate of English Literature from Trinity College in Dublin and recently returned there after four years abroad in the UK and Canada, has been nominated for Best of the Web and twice for the Pushcart Prize. His poetry has been released in two collections, "Love is Breaking Plates in the Garden" (Encircle Press, 2016) and "Sad Havoc Among the Birds" (Turas Press, 2019)

 

 

 

********

 

 

Prose by  Sarah Hase

 

 

 

 

Sounds: A Journal Entry from September 2017

 

 

 

            Crisp air greets me at my doorstep, carrying the melody of songbirds. I sit down on a cold metal chair, wrap my sweater tighter around my body, and bring my attention to the warmth of my core. The birds aren’t as cold and uncomfortable as I, however. Their songs are just as joyous as on pleasant summer days. From the monotonous chee-dit of the hummingbirds to the per-choos of the male doves calling for mates, they all work together to create collaborative music. Crickets stridulate in the background. One of my favorite things about fall is that they are active almost all day long. It is a reminder that the days are getting shorter and to brace for the winter ahead.

            But, amidst the cacophony of natural sounds is a frequent buzz I cannot ignore - the droning of the traffic below the mountain. And I know I am not the only one bothered by the reverberating sounds of our hectic modern lives. In Walden, Henry David Thoreau mentions the “whistle of the locomotive” that penetrates his otherwise serene landscape and reminds him of the restlessness of the city. I feel the same way about the cars that chug down the road below my house. I find myself echoing Thoreau’s idea that if these sounds represented something beautiful about humankind, then nature would resound in congruence with our errands. They wouldn’t seem out of place in the sun-dappled grass of my backyard. Unfortunately, however, these sounds only remind me that beyond the serenity, there is unceasing busyness and stress.

            I often take the natural sounds in my backyard for granted, so I try to ignore the cars. If I allow them, the human sounds overpower the birds and the crickets and before I know it, I’ll be thinking about which errands I need to run or what tasks I need to check off my list. I have a tendency to view true wilderness, untouched by human hands and human sound, as more magnificent than my backyard. But in this still moment, I begin to challenge that idea. Because what is true wilderness, anyway? I want to sit in this familiar place in order to listen intentionally. Thoreau could hear the faint cry of the train penetrating the wilderness, but he still found joy in the simplicity of the natural world right outside his doorstep. I’m challenging myself to think similarly.

            Instead of resenting the sound of the cars, I begin to listen closely to the cardinal’s call and to the whisper of the quivering oak leaves as the forest breathes. The forest inhales. An undulating breeze whispers in the northwest. Minutes later, an exhale sends a whisper to the south. Only after noticing the breath of the forest am I able to heed the sound of my own. I inhale with the rising wind. I exhale and the forest does the same.

 

 

 

 

In December of 2017, Sarah Hase received her Bachelor of Science in Sustainable Agriculture from Appalachian State University. As an avid outdoorswoman and former farmer, she has enjoyed writing about her experiences in nature, whether in the forest or in the field. Sarah spent most of her life in the hardwood forests of the southeastern United States but now resides in Colorado with her husband.

 

 

 

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Haiku by  Gerard Sarnat

 

 

 

 

EARTH DAY HAIKU [6]

 

 

Environment

 

The Buddha was born

and awakened then he taught,

died under a tree.

 

 

 

Enlightenment

 

Self-luminous in

this world, feeding on own joy

-- revere your Gaia.

 

 

 

Climate Change

 

Seven billion folks’

cumulative impact – greed,

hatred, delusion.

 

 

 

Great Pacific Garbage Patch

 

Woods, rivers, jungles –

preservation ethics -- don’t

use micro-plastics.

 

 

 

Meditation

 

If you really want

to discover who you are

spend time in nature.

 

 

 

Get Out Of The Way If You Can't Lend A Hand For The Times They Are A-Changin'

 

Ignoble silence

when acts don’t flow naturally

as your excrement.

 

 

 

Gerard Sarnat is a physician who’s built and staffed homeless and prison clinics as well as a Stanford professor and healthcare CEO. He is a member of the longest-running U.S. Jewish-Palestinian dialogue group, and served on New Israel Fund’s International Board. Currently Gerry is devoting his energy and resources to deal with global warming.   Sarnat won the Poetry in the Arts First Place Award plus the Dorfman Prize, and has been nominated for Pushcarts plus Best of the Net Awards. Gerry is published in academic-related journals including Stanford, Oberlin, Brown, Columbia, Virginia Commonwealth, Arkansas, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Wesleyan, Slippery Rock, Appalachian State, Grinnell, American Jewish University and the University of Edinburgh. Gerry’s writing has also appeared widely including recently in such U.S. outlets as Gargoyle, Main Street Rag, New Delta Review, MiPOesias, American Journal Of Poetry, Poetry Quarterly, Poetry Circle, Blue Mountain Review, Danse Macabre, Canary Eco, Fiction Southeast, Military Experience and the Arts, Poets And War, Cliterature,  Qommunicate, Brooklyn Review, San Francisco Magazine, The Los Angeles Review and The New York Times. Pieces have also been

accepted by Chinese, Bangladeshi, Hong Kongese, Singaporian, Canadian, English,

Irish, Scotch, Australian, New Zealander, Australasian Writers Association, French, German, Indian, Israeli, Romanian, Swedish and Fijian among other international publications. Mount Analogue selected KADDISH FOR THE COUNTRY for pamphlet distribution nationwide on Inauguration Day 2017. Amber Of Memory was chosen for the 50th Harvard reunion Dylan symposium. He’s also authored the collections Homeless Chronicles (2010), Disputes (2012), 17s (2014), and Melting the Ice King (2016). Gerry’s been married since 1969 with three kids, five grandsons and looking forward to future granddaughters.  gerardsarnat.com

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Essay by Storey Clayton

 

 

 

 

The Nature of New Orleans

 

            New Orleans teems with life.  Watered by an endless series of downpours and thunderstorms, nestled in a swamp between a giant lake and a mammoth river, the city is often more jungle than buildings.  When I first moved to New Orleans, less than a decade after the devastation of Katrina, at least one house on every block was in the process of being reclaimed by nature, with trees growing atop roofs or through the wreckage of houses themselves.  The infamous Lower Ninth Ward, which experienced the worst flooding after the levees broke, is mostly overgrown now, tall grass and wispy vine-covered trees obscuring the cinder block foundations which once supported a waterlogged wood house with spray-painted search crosses on the front.  A few new houses huddle close to the main thoroughfares on the edge of this new growth, sometimes on twenty-foot stilts, like pioneer homesteads on the edge of a swampy prairie.  The levees a few blocks away look just like they did in 2004; maybe a few feet taller.

            In the areas of the city not abandoned since the storm (nearly every neighborhood besides the Lower Ninth Ward), more effort is made to tame the abundant flora native to the landscape.  New Orleans’ famous Garden District, for example, features mansion after mansion bedecked with a bursting cornucopia of plant life:  bright flowers, majestic trees, lush lawns, and tall hedges.  Throughout the crescent that forms the bulk of the city, tree roots dislodge what remains of cement sidewalks while their upper branches form a dense canopy over the streets themselves.  Along with the ubiquitous potholes and haphazard cracks running across nearly every street, the overall impression radiates total disrepair.  In New Orleans, man has only half-heartedly fought nature and nature has been permitted to win.  There is a humility to the aftermath of this struggle, a settledness of our place in the cosmos relative to the plants and animals that is utterly absent from every other American metropolis.

            Walking through New Orleans on any hot humid afternoon, one will send hundreds of lizards scattering from the sidewalks to the shade of a nearby bush or flower bed.  They vary in size from bug-like micro reptiles, more tail than torso, to six-inch monstrosities that resemble small iguanas.  Every color in the pantheon is represented, with the average a muted beige which blends, perhaps inadvertently, into the sunbaked sidewalks they adorn to absorb the toasty rays.  Their unpredictable movements are sudden and swift, alternated with absolute stillness or perhaps the slightest throbbing head-bob, watchful, waiting for the perfect moment to dart from the sunlight undercover.

 

           The other primary walking hazard, besides the occasional cockroach at twilight (ugly and big enough to occupy a zoo in most states), are the unleashed dogs.  I’m sure there are theoretically laws against unleashed dogs in New Orleans, but these are as well enforced as those prohibiting fifteen-year-olds from consuming alcohol or politicians from accepting bribes.  When my wife claimed she hadn’t seen that many unleashed dogs, I considered starting a blog, Unleashed Dogs of NOLA, and accepting submissions to join the many surreptitious phone pictures I began taking to prove her wrong.  We have an ongoing debate about whether it would be safe for us to walk our pet rabbit on the streets of the city, one which I revisit every time an eager unleashed pup crawls halfway up my leg before I see it coming, much less before its sheepish owner rebukes the unruly canine.  Any given walk through a neighborhood will also feature a barking contest between one of these free roaming dogs and another barely contained by a wrought iron fence, one just three inches too high for either animal to hurdle over, with deterring fleur-de-lis spikes at the top.  Each combatant will snarl and bound from thin iron pillar to thin iron pillar, examining for a previously unseen gap that will enable them to gnash at each other more directly before the outside dog’s owner calls it away from the confrontation.

            And then there are the cats.  Cats are nocturnal creatures and before I drove for Uber, I would have argued that cats are conspicuously under-represented in New Orleans, though one of our earlier apartments hosted a family of strays beneath a nearby house.  Preposterously thin kittens would mewl pathetically as we piled in the car to go to work, all awkward legs and bristled tail, as though you individually were responsible for their present hunger.  Shortly after I began driving, however, I found all the cats.

            Many of the cats, of course, live indoors, pampered and well fed and peering periodically from robustly curtained bay windows at the forefront of stately Southern gothic homes.  But most of the city’s felines spend the night outside, if not their whole lives, gathering in large conventions in the quieter quarters, lurking in alleys and behind plastic trash cans atop gravelly pockmarked streets.  At two in the morning, I will often get called to one such cat haven, down a narrow unlit street dotted with dark houses sealed shut for the night.  I have come upon as many as six cats all in a roadway, many of them refusing to scatter until the last minute as though they are proving themselves by challenging a motor vehicle to a game of chicken.  When I pull up to the frequently empty house to wait for the alleged passenger, the cats will reconvene, slightly warily, in the street or now up on the sidewalk, eyes glowering at the pair of headlights that just disturbed their clandestine gathering.  All too often, the rider I’m awaiting is standing at a closing bar across town, having drunkenly reversed their location and their destination.  I have adopted the habit of calling these folks immediately when I pull up to a dark house, just to confirm that they are too far away to retrieve and should cancel immediately, wasting less of our collective time.

            Occasionally, there is a rider lurking in the unlit confines of the house, often a local heading to work at a late-night bar or hotel desk.  They’ve been stumbling around in the dark, trying not to awaken lovers or spouses or children, as they throw on a uniform or makeup or a nametag and prepare to greet the world.  These are my kindreds, my teammates on the graveyard shift, and we share warm soft conversations as they prepare to serve and greet customers while the bulk of the world around us remains asleep.

            On the way out of those neighborhoods, another cat might dart in front of the car just as it passes, making every apparent attempt at a grisly suicide by waiting till the last second to enter the thoroughfare.  Riders, nestled as they usually are in the back, are almost always unable to see the reason for my sudden braking, but nod knowingly when I explain.  To date, I have yet to make actual contact with any animal, cat or otherwise, though the sudden manifestation of these felines remains unnerving, resulting in some miraculous near-misses.  Certain birds, crows especially, also remain strangely unperturbed by the approach of my car, darting away from a morsel of food or a cooling drink from a pothole at only the last safe nanosecond.  I remember believing as a child that animals were literally incapable of misjudging these situations, that no squirrels ever fell from wires, that no house pets were hit by cars, that animals were impervious to the hazards of urban life that invaded their roaming grounds.

            Sadly, of course, this is not the case.  Many of my drives involve passing by (and even over) the remains of a beloved animal, usually a cat, that is in some level of transformation from corpse to meat.  Every stage of this decay is heartbreaking.  When it’s just been hit, it’s still recognizable as a beloved pet, sometimes sporting the shiny silver reflection of an ID tag from its collar.  When it’s matted fur peeking out from some fleshy pile of gore, I am struck by the possible unmitigated unknown for its family:  the grainy photocopied posters going up on streetlights, the tearfully expressed hopes of the youngest child, while the actual remains sit unidentifiable in the gutter.  Then the worst is perhaps the bloodstained blob marking the final stage of decay, sometimes being picked at by opportunistic birds or bugs, wholly unrecognizable as a formerly living being now reunited with the earth.

            One wonders at what stage animals will start to evolve mechanisms for avoiding traffic or if the nature of cars’ sudden arrival in the world has rendered such evolution moot.  Surely most urban beasts are able to determine that the alacrity of cars makes them a mortal threat, but the heedless cats trying to get under my wheels provide ample evidence that patterns of vehicular behavior remain inscrutable.  Or could cats, dogs, lizards, even birds and roaches, be used to help teach self-driving cars about the erratic peril of human navigation?  Do they need that same sense of fear, that same life-and-death instinct for self-preservation, a hard-wired proclivity for fight-or-flight, in order to understand what could be at stake?  Or is the fact that a self-driving robotic car has no sense of self or a life to lose mark its innate superiority over a human-helmed craft?  Can programming perfectly trump our own flawed and selfish perspective for the net good of us all?

            Surely there’s a reason that the rider wants the driver to care about their own fate as they dodge cats, potholes, tree roots, and falling acorns (let alone other drivers!) ’neath the thrumming humidity of a New Orleans summer night.  Just as planes that could probably be flown by remote control, by air traffic controllers staring at amber or green dots on their abstract maps, still carry pilots to give those in charge a mortal investment in the fate of the flight.  As we stand on the verge of a new era of transportation, the wisdom of putting a thinking, fleshy, vulnerable being at the front of that transportation perhaps comes into renewed focus.  They can care not just about the beings that may unexpectedly jump in front of them as they hurtle forward, but also about the fate of all those trailing behind.

            Then again, it may be irrational to value the cat darting into the road, however beloved a pet it may be, above the smooth ride of the Uber customer as they traverse the New Orleanian night.  Such sudden braking, swerving, and careening has been known to cause accidents, no doubt some of them fatal to real live humans.  Can a robot car anticipate all these outcomes, make the correct decision as fast as a computer chess move, maximize the safety and minimize the tragedy?  We will, inevitably, find out.

            In the meantime, I’ll keep scattering late-night Macavities and Toms, Snowballs and Princesses, contorting my car to preserve their existence.  I’ll dodge the opossums, too, giant and alien in the pale headlight glow, the raccoon families back from a hunt, the foraging nutrias (also known as coypus, the imported invasive river-rats that haunt the more aquatic climes of the city).  They’ll keep occupying the asphalt, a gentle reminder that all of this is land we borrowed from their ancestors and that they will reclaim it the moment we let our guard down, the minute we allow our infrastructure to succumb to neglect.  No matter how many vehicles we send zooming through the darkness, this is still nature’s ground.  We are the visitors here, making chaos out of order.

 

 

 

 

 

Storey Clayton is a current MFA candidate in Creative Writing at West Virginia University. He’s worked as a youth counselor, debate coach, strategic analyst, development director, rideshare driver, and poker player. His work is forthcoming in Typehouse Literary Magazine, The Bookends Review, and Barely South Review and recently appeared in Blood & Bourbon, Riggwelter, Pilcrow & Dagger, Spitfire, Eunoia Review, and Montana Mouthful. You can learn more about Storey at his personal website, The Blue Pyramid (bluepyramid.org). 

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