Frontier OPEN Finalists: Part 1 of 3
First, a sincere thank you to all the finalists for partnering with us. All of these poems deserve high praise. For Part 1, we’re sharing work by Rachel Jorgensen, Bola Opaleke, C. Mikal Oness, and Jessica Turney. The pieces are diverse, arresting, and substantial, each in their own voice and method. Part 2 arrives tomorrow!
Speak by Rachel Jorgensen
The night I asked to go to your bedroom
I cut a slit under my chin and peeled off a strip
of skin, like wallpaper, down over my left breast,
through to my upper thigh. Only the epidermis.
When I took my shirt off you didn’t mention it,
but slipped your warm fingertips into the soft tissue
of my stomach. You were comfortable.
Next morning your hands were on my shoulders,
chilly. The edges of my peeled skin were curling.
I LOVE YOU, I said. (You were asleep.)
I took coffee and an Advil for the headache.
No one asked me where I’d been; the only girl
who knew I was missing also knew
I would have laughed at the question.
I HAVE GONE DAYS WITHOUT SPEAKING,
my friend tells me. She will graduate early this year
and teach statistics. Two years ago I mocked her
for not being able to walk across a parking lot
without kissing her boyfriend. I tell her she must
get out of the house. NO, I PREFER IT THIS WAY,
she says, and smiles. PEOPLE AREN’T WORTH
IT TO ME. YOU ARE. She is dressed like
Joan of Arc, plate armor and a French crest.
With her helmet on, you will not notice her.
Sometimes I don’t reply aloud right away.
Sometimes I am busy with the nerve endings
on my neck. Now that the skin is gone they want
to come off too, peeling up like hair in static.
I pinch the end of a nerve by my throat
and drag it downwards. CALL ME, I write.
I’VE BEEN THINKING ABOUT YOU.
Down by my collarbone the first nerve
has gotten tangled up with three more;
with a little pinch and twist, all four rip off
simultaneously. I tuck them in my pocket,
knot them up for safekeeping.
I have seen my mother cry four times.
My father only gets quiet.
One thing we do not discuss is our bodies.
I have slept in the same room as my sister
for eighteen years but she has no idea
that I could think the way I do
about your body, that I would like to tear
open my skull and claw the words out, shatter
under your chest like empty eggshells, wax
into your boiling stomach, cocoon myself
in your mouth, hyperventilate.
One day I will tell her—perhaps she is the same.
Now my left breast is melting,
like frost. The nipple stiffens, curdles,
inflames; the areola an oil slick
slipping backwards, clinging onto itself.
BE CAREFUL, I tell you. IT’S TOO SOFT.
When my eyes are closed I feel
my breast soaking through my ribcage,
through the skin on my back, the sheet.
Another moment, and my nipple dissipates
like ice in the heat of your hand.
CHRISTIAN SEXUALITY IS ABOUT
GIVING YOURSELF TO THE OTHER PERSON,
insists the man at the pulpit.
IT IS ALWAYS A COMMITMENT.
PLEASING THE ONE YOU LOVE
IS FAR BETTER THAN YOUR ORGASM.
He is smiling. I consider the girl
with the black lace bra, (who is not you).
When I took her breasts under my tongue I still had
all of my skin, latched against her flesh like
crisscross, a garden lattice. An embrace. Afterwards
I only saw her in pictures, or while passing by
some common restaurants.
Muscle comes off in patches,
not strips. I watch you riffle the pages of your
book of sonnets, shuffle a deck of cards. We kiss.
The breeze bubbles up like laughter and
when I am not paying attention
the patches of muscle lift up too, like drapes
on a windy day. Around my chest they begin to
slide off, as if sliced with a sharp knife.
In my own mirror I am a silhouette.
YOUR PROFILE IS CHARMING,
laughs my sister. She leaves the door ajar.
I wait for you to look at me; the afternoon unfurls.
Without body or color I bend into the familiar position
of portrait-sitting, paper cutouts, and folded
Rorschach tests, of the first time you said
you couldn’t see me (long ago now), and the days
when you are turned away—a shadow
extending from my forehead to my kneecaps,
and no words, no words, no words, a heartbeat.
OPEN UP, I said.
NOT NOW, you said.
Not now? Not now, when I am standing
here, on your stairs, outside,
my skin gone, the tissue stripped away,
the south wind on my paper ribcage,
which dangles from the bottom of my throat,
and swings from left to right,
and holds a quaking bird?
Rachel Jade Jorgensen is a current undergraduate at Stanford University majoring in Symbolic Systems and minoring in physics and creative writing. She has won awards in the Bocock-Guerard Short Story Contest, the Hollins Literary Festival, and the Cantor Arts Center Geballe Prize competition, and her work has appeared in Aerie International. In addition, Rachel is a producer and technical crew member with the Stanford Shakespeare Company.
Ila Sisi, Ila Sisi by Bola Opaleke
“whoever cannot tell himself the
truth about his past is trapped in it,” – James Baldwin.
Grandpa Sallie helped built Farmers Board
which later became the School Board which later
became Counter-Boko Haram Unit –
the United Sallie Alliance. And because we can
no longer wear our school uniforms
we instead wear half our brains, wear cutlasses
and hoes, forget stolen tobacco in our teenage mouths
and hum hip-hop lyrics as we take twerking
lessons. And that is our school for which we received
praises for which guns taller than us shrunk to pistols
for which we no longer raise the middle fingers toward
every Police car that races by. Back home,
Father told us about his father’s plan
that later became his plan and so must become
ours too: the plan to not plan for the girl child.
Because deep in the ocean of storms only
a single language survives – that language
no woman knows how to speak. The language of the Tree
Sadly, Father went to school before it became a tool
used in bombing markets and stealing teenage girls
from their sleep. Father cried because he knew
he had let his father down the way I’m probably going
to let him down “school changes everything,
changes even change itself” he stuttered.
By this time I was alone with him,
for it is forbidden to have your friends see
your father shed tears. Grandpa Sallie
built Farmers Board. Father built School Board.
What I’m building I never wanted to build knowing
how fast bombs get strapped to bamboozled waists
of lost cousins “is this a punishment for our fathers’ sins?”
A song rises in Swahili, it says ila sisi, ila sisi, ila sisi eee…
I held my father’s hand, I could hear his heart
pounding as the song breaks nets and cobwebs
over his mind. I took his tears and
made it mine: ila sisi, ila sisi, ila sisi eee…
and this music we dare not to dance to. Later,
we struggle to give birth to girls but our sperm
could no longer hug she-eggs. As the song continues
to turn itself into a melody around the hips, we seek
forgiveness from the gods that wear breasts to make us
survive. After the earthquake, we look for what new Board
to build. But there are no more boards
only bombs. We fall into the arms of our mother
cry solemnly into her bosom: ila sisi, ila sisi, ila sisi eee…
*ila sisi – “Save Us”
Bola Opaleke is a Pushcart Prize nominee. His poems have appeared or forthcoming in a few Journals like Rising Phoenix Review, Writers Resist, Rattle, Cleaver, One, The Nottingham Review, The Puritan, The Literary Review of Canada, Sierra Nevada Review, Dissident Voice, Poetry Quarterly, The Indianapolis Review, Miracle E-Zine, Poetry Pacific, Drunk Monkeys, League of Canadian Poets (Poetry Month 2013), St. Peters College (University of Saskatchewan) Anthology (Society 2013 Vol. 10), Pastiche Magazine, and others. He holds a degree in City Planning, and lives in Winnipeg MB.
Say Nothing by C. Mikal Oness
Spring comes to the grass farmer with a sickle and whip.
Reagan would not be pleased; the whip was his purview.
Just ask the Sandanistas. For my part, the loose valve
That before was just a little wheeze on my Cockshutt
Tractor is now a full-blown rattle, and the coolant
Forsakes its role in the detente between fire and pull
And the clump of weeds caught in the haybine.
The radiator cap rattles; the liberals are spewing
Again, leveling their venomous charges on the docile,
Senile old man. The American way is to remember nothing.
Come July, I head out to the year-long fallow paddock
And brush-hog high the cover of corn flowers, red clover,
Canada thistle, the glory of the nettle and shepherd’s purse
I left all spring for the bumble bees. Comes a cloud of curious
Or angry swallows and redwings. A grasshopper lights
On my rumbling gas tank. I dismount nearly on a snake
Weaving away from my guard wheel. After all, I’m rehoming
Just a few echelons of ecosystem, and just nicking the sword
Of the sod to make way for my wife’s ponies, already fat
From all the spring winnings in the bottoms by the creek.
Generations of Haitians who never saw their ancestral homes
Are getting sent back. The DR is renting buses for the repatriation.
I’m sending my refugees along the ground and through the air
To the woods or to the cornflowers still in bloom the next paddock over.
Or let them find the alfalfa, the orchard grass, the timothy and vetch
For in the coming weeks come the cattle, the gelding, the stallion,
The barking, crapping dogs.
Tomorrow I rake the hay, for today I ted the hay.
Tomorrow I band the bull calves, for today I behold the fat loin of the steer.
Say the word ‘bees’ and you will hear the feral field, say nothing and you will hear
the pasture. Man is an animal, and all flesh is grass.
C. Mikal Oness is the author of Oracle Bones and Water Becomes Bone. He also has a cow and is a mountaineer.
Forgiveness by Jessica Turney
My aunt scrapes the flesh from an avocado
off her hand with a long,black knife. Her hands
are rough but careful as she scours
the rind of all its meat. Tell me what’s wrong,
she says; I have said nothing. She watches
me from the corner of her eye, her lips pressed
in a smirk. I know something is wrong,
but I’d rather watch her slice into a tomato, the juice
pooling on the blade, slowly falling onto the countertop
than tell her I’m worried about my brother, how he’s been
sleeping on my couch, how I’ve been
smoking cigarettes again, because he’s out
on my patio raising the lit tip toward me, gesturing
me out to join him—I want him to tell me everything
he’s scared of, and I’ve had four cigarettes
today. My aunt puts tortillas on the stovetop, no pan, flat
on the iron web. Small brown patches rise; I see sheets
from my parent’s bed lift up and settle
back down, my brother telling me to get in, it’s just a game.
I am six and I trust him. At 27, I am comforting him
as he asks me, how could you love me? How could you forgive
me? He reminds me of our game of “Doctor, Doctor,”
of the toolshed in our aunt’s back yard, of rules
like take off your pants, tell me when it hurts,
Does this feel strange? My aunt pushes a block of cheese
down the ribbed grater, the shreds piling
on top of one another as they fall on a paper plate.
Sweet girl, she says, sometimes we have to love people
from a distance, and I am not sure how she already knows,
but I think that she may be right. She tells me to grab the tortilla
while it’s hot. I start with seasoned ground beef, add
the avocado, tomato, cheese and it smells good. I pick it up,
don’t even bother to clean up the grease running
down my wrist, my forearm.