Winter 2021

Rooja Mohassessy

First Kiss

 

I wish someone had explained

how wide to open for that French

kiss, how to keep my front teeth

out of his way, angle my nose,

breathe and let the tip of his tongue

probe like a feeler.

 

I tried dodging to make room,

rolled mine into a morsel, nursed

it inside one cheek then the other,

feeling a growing need to spit.

 

If he entered too far, I stifled

the gag, when he slid under, I drew back.

 

It thickened when he relaxed,

slugged in my crammed mouth, sloshing

through excess saliva.

 

He’d pull away then quickly resume,

kiss me again, then again,

as though he had yet to get what he’d come for.

 

With each brief lull I came up for air, swallowed

the buildup in my mouth like I would at the dentist,

the taste of hard liquor, laced with the scent

of a stale ashtray.

 

I told myself with time I’ll get this,

the way I’d learned to swallow whole chunks

of French steak, rare and tough.

 

No, I wish someone had explained this was

an invitation of sorts. I’d been invited

to la dance des langues:

 

I wish he’d curtsied,

as it’s done at a French ball, to commence

a menuet á deux mouvements.

 

I wish he’d lingered, my lips the rounded

doorway, bowed

a little to enter and greet

 

Marguerite the pearl of daisies, damp at dawn,

not a dent de lion, or a common sedge

the buck-teethed teenager,

her breasts only just budding.

 

O how I would’ve looked upon him then,

with my dark eyes.

I would’ve danced, taken the heat, the burn

of the new day. My mouth young,

O so eager to please.

 


Rooja Mohassessy was born in Iran. She has lived in Europe, Asia and the United States. She is currently a candidate at the MFA program of Pacific University, Oregon. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Narrative Magazine, Poet Lore, California Fire and Water: An Anthology of Poems, Southern Humanities Review, Bare Life Review, Woven Tale Press (nominated for a Pushcart Prize), and elsewhere.


 

E. B. Schnepp

it’s christmas in anne boleyn’s throat

 

I.

and its halls are decked with mistletoe,

though she has no lips left to kiss

her lover. he has already gifted her final garnets

and left—she would take him back again,

if he asked. it’s christmas in anne boleyn’s throat

and her daughter comes to curl there, to sleep candied

violet warm. when she wakes it’ll still be christmas

in anne boleyn’s throat and anne will be considering,

over her stitches and hot chocolate, taking up the witchcraft

and treason she was accused of; she may as well. it’s christmas

in anne boleyn’s throat and she would sing, but she’s voiceless

now; headlessness has its drawbacks even though

it’s christmas in anne boleyn’s throat and her body’s

a miracle that moves even after severance.

 

II.

a miracle that moves even after severance,

anne boleyn went tower walking, husband-haunting,

and still found time to tuck her daughter into bed.

it started with the blade, with her eyes still moving

in their sockets. it’s said she rolled her eyes at the crown,

at the executioner, at her husband, at the drove of hares

streaming through the streets, overwhelming crowds

and uncatchable in their slick-soaked coats. it’s said,

with her head dangling from a closed fist, her lips moved;

she tried to speak, to call her husband’s name, or

her daughter’s, or to cast a spell and maybe she did

but no one could make out the words so it didn’t stick,

or it did and we just didn’t notice. either way,

this is how you know she’s a witch.

 

III.

this is how you know she’s a witch,

they buried her head separately to keep her from walking, but

her sixth finger was a homing beacon, sensed the sun

and she dug her way free. rising three days later, a woman

can’t be a god, can only be a witch, a saint

posthumously and anne boleyn isn’t dead anymore. she crawled

through all the men who died for the chance to be buried

beside her, their blood would’ve tarnished her crown,

she was glad she left it behind with the hung

jury. left the jury to the grave; in the end they’re useless,

kingsmen, soft-handed, in the end they’re flesh and returned

to soil and she carved herself free alone. that’s how you know

she’s a witch, her lips smiling apart from her body;

a witch doesn’t need a head.

 

IV.

a witch doesn’t need a head,

but some nights even a princess needs her mother.

elizabeth is one of the happy haunted, like a witch

a mother doesn’t need a head, just a lap

or better, a hollow nest for a throat just large enough

for a small girl to burrow inside. she can’t remember a mother

with a smile or eyes, her mother crawls out from closets

and under the bed. no one else sees her mother

until they do, until they call her daughter bastard,

until they need to be punished and elizabeth believes

every mother-song is the wind whistling around an open wound

above her—it was a clean cut, the final kindness

of a king and a husband and a sword and

charges reading treason. reading lust. reading off with her head.

 

V.

the charges read treason. read lust. read off with her head.

and king henry started the hottest thing in queens,

headlessness. he took to bobbing all his wives

like docking dogs’ tails, he was told it was painless,

in their best interest, simply a mark of the breed,

but anne boleyn was the only one who came back,

who haunted him. he found himself falling for her again;

if he stood her by the fire she’d feel warm to the touch

and her mouth he could do without. he regretted marrying her;

he could have saved himself the rebellion, the paperwork,

simply forced her to be his mistress instead—

you have all the qualities of the whore, none of the queen he told anne,

she didn’t say anything and he was pleased. happiest on mornings

he woke to find her blood staining his sheets.

 

VI.

he woke to find her blood staining his sheets—

it was a bad idea to remind her he was still the marrying kind,

she was quick to poltergeist; his crowns went missing, catherine

parr found her standing at the foot of the bed, the wheezing

from anne’s windpipe coming in chokes and sobs, she stole coin

and lost it all against anne of cleves at the tables. henry was uncomfortable

watching his annes play flirt in the antechambers, sliding close

only to slide away when they caught him looking. anne boleyn stopped

obeying the crook of his finger, his whispers to come to his rooms,

his orders in full view of the court; a queen deposed has no master

and he’d made anne queen of herself. Crowned headless, her head

in an arrow case, an uncommon coronation, the first of her miracles;

the motto on all her heraldry reversing overnight from the most happy to

though they may grumble it is what it is.

 

VII.

though they may grumble it is what it is—

henry was drowning in advisors and wives and voices

ringing in his ears building a new suite of rooms in his walls

hiding from the voices and the courtiers and the wives but

the wives were all gone, now, all dead but a sister, all dead but

a reluctant new bride, all dead but they could follow

headless and headless and heartless where he went to hide from them

and anne, still standing at the threshold, didn’t appreciate him

saying he’d have loved her if only she knew how to carry a son

but he couldn’t love the mother of a daughter and stillness

and empty wombs and it couldn’t be his fault, he was the father

of a kingdom he could sire sons it was her and jane

and anne and katherine and catherine and catherine and

all of them filled the doorway and followed her in.

 

VIII.

all of them filled the doorway and followed her in

to her grave each night (mea culpa) digging (mea maxima

culpa) through yard muck for where anne boleyn keeps her head.

it was all innocent (mea culpa) if foolish (mea culpa)

I was there too, with them, waiting to peel back her eyelids

(mea maxima culpa) watching for her eyes to move; together

we stole locks of hair, pulled out teeth (mea culpa) to take

as souvenirs, as witchbane, as relics of a protestant saint,

as proof (mea maxima culpa) that we did it and her lips

didn’t move and she never spoke and we walked away, that we did it

and we weren’t cursed. (mea culpa) as I go to sleep, anne

boleyn’s molar tucked under my pillow, I’ll tell myself I did it all

out of love for the curiously headless. no desecration intended

(mea culpa) (mea culpa) (mea maxima culpa).

 

IX.

mea culpa. mea culpa. mea maxima culpa.

for a while I couldn’t remember how to love you—

there were just so many versions of you

and all of you were tragic; but I can love you

for your sons. you had sons and they were so small

and so still they were never christened, but I’m sure

you gave them a name, even if they shared one.

I couldn’t love you for your daughter,

she was so large and loud; I can’t seem to love that

the same way I love the still, the son you birthed still

only to be told he was breathless, he could never be king,

they were better off planting him. and your daughter,

you could keep her if you must, but

she couldn’t be king either.

 

X.

she couldn’t be king either,

but in the end I don’t know

if she wanted to be. I can’t see her, anne boleyn,

past smoke and burnt letters, through layers

of attributions, mis-attributions, and rotten

varnish—like how we speak about poetry,

I don’t know if I’m good enough

a reader for you. you were the queen

of nouns. whore. saint. witch. mother. false

wife. false prophet. first to the sword

and they deified you and didn’t.

and forgot you, but couldn’t and

your shadow stretched tall and

black-eyed, mona lisa-smiled. you lingered.

 

XI.

black-eyed, mona lisa-smiled; you lingered,

but if I try hard enough I can step behind the gilt

gold frames of this and every other reproduction

of a reproduction of a painting of you. blink once,

then twice as my eyes slide into place where you were

(does this make me the witch?) the world is tinsel

and horrible and I cannot breathe for corsets, for smoke

and rushes, yet everyone drips diamonds like water,

diamonds like they don’t notice. and I suppose they wouldn’t,

but it’s practiced, how everyone pretends to not see the king

move by, drag the tips of his fingers over the curve

of our shared waist, whisper his invitation, until I am a tudor

rose blush, scarlet staining pale, everyone has to see;

anne boleyn smiles with all of her teeth.

 

XII.

anne boleyn smiles with all of her teeth.

anne boleyn invented the broomstick

flight. anne boleyn was lillith in disguise.

anne boleyn was the first vampire,

anne boleyn isn’t anne boleyn, that portrait

is jane seymour, is katherine, is catherine,

is catherine, is elizabeth with her hair covered,

is another woman entirely, anonymous.

anne boleyn could time travel. anne boleyn

died in france and was replaced by some other.

henry loved anne boleyn still, he didn’t execute her,

he couldn’t, so he replaced her with some other witch,

also named anne. anne boleyn died, ascended a saint.

anne boleyn is the only woman who can never die.

 

XIII.

anne boleyn is the only woman who can never die;

I made sure of it, fulfilled the promise of witchcraft

with six bumblebees and rue like salt you add to taste

with the peach flesh to save against rot. or

I venerated her, said enough prayers to mother

mary and god, her son painted in all the churches

to look the way anne’s son could have—had he breathed.

some days this little god-man mistakes anne for his own

mother and to rectify the mistake he thanks her

or her english bibles, her psalms translated into french

and keeps her in heaven as a queen and accidental saint.

or I wasn’t strong enough to raise her, catholic enough

to pray her way to heaven, and when her face began to melt

I gave her my own in its place.

 

XIV.

I gave her my own in its place—

my head—and left my name on the scaffold

in this year of our lord a calais swordsman is hard to find,

but he took to the work and now my head becomes anne boleyn’s

body. we decorated our shared interiors, she named me

her daughter’s godmother and elizabeth calls us both mother.

we all live together like this; anne and elizabeth and I.

and henry still tries to come in, but he’s grown fat

and tired and can’t seem to find his way; anne tells me

this is a blessing, says he was never good in bed

anyway. we fill our home with books and musicians and no roses

no needless lovers—every day it’s christmas in our throat

and our halls are decked with mistletoe.

 

XV.

our halls are decked with mistletoe,

a miracle that moves even after severance—

this is how you know she’s a witch,

a witch doesn’t need a head.

after charges read treason, read lust, read off with her head

henry woke to find her blood staining his sheets;

though he may grumble it is what it is,

all of his wives filling the doorways, following her in.

(mea culpa. mea culpa. mea maxima culpa.)

she couldn’t be king either,

but black-eyed, mona lisa smiled, she lingered;

anne boleyn smiles with all of her teeth.

anne boleyn is the only woman who can never die;

I ensured it, gave her my head in hers’ place.

 


E.B. Schnepp is a poet from rural mid-Michigan who currently resides in Indiana. Her work can also be found in The Laurel Review, Up the Staircase Quarterly, and Longleaf Review, among others.


 

Despy Boutris

Girlhood

 

As if we never touched—

that’s how we look at each other now.

 

As if we never met up that night

we hopped the chain-link

 

and watched shadows shift into shapes

in the golden light. How we lay supine

 

in the grass, chewing Starbursts

and complaining

 

about our twelve-year-old molars.

How side-by-side we counted clouds

 

and named constellations, how I turned

toward you and watched the wind

 

wind through your honeyhair,

watched it curl like the current in the creek

 

by our neighboring farms.

There were no sounds but the song

 

of breaths, the cricket calls,

and the arrhythmic boom of a bolt gun

 

making contact with hogs’ heads

in the barn down the hill. Nothing to see

 

but the swarms of flies and your irises

refracting starlight. No feeling

 

but the terror of being touched—

the terror of wanting it

 

too much, of shattering. And the feel

of twin bloodblisters on our hands,

 

fireflies flying in lungs. Do you remember

our hands twitching toward each other?

 

There was still that hillbilly lilt

to our speech as we smalltalked

 

and bigtalked, the air

above our hungry mouths

 

turning to steam, our hands

two hot twigs making smoke. Then

 

you kneeled frog-thighed above me

and scorched me with skin, cut my breath

 

in half. How we brimmed with want,

even before we knew what want was.

 

And, as cattle grazed grass

and teeth grazed lips,

 

we learned what want was—

in looking

and not looking at each other.

 


Despy Boutri’s writing has been published in Copper Nickel, Colorado Review, American Poetry Review, The Gettysburg Review, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. Currently, she teaches at the University of Houston and serves as editor-in-chief of The West Review.




Natasha King

a gate will not remain closed

 

a gate cannot,

will not

remain closed. what cannot be denied will

crack the shell and

sip the yolk.

 

you are more than calcified cage bars.

your body is not

what left the womb.

 

you envenomate your body. drink it like

milk and honey. the rib clot soul. that first bite.

 

you are the snake with hinged fangs,

granting knowledge in the garden.

you dislocate your jaw and your teeth

open, a door to your body.

 

you aren't adam at all. you aren’t

the ground, you aren’t the dust,

you aren't the blooded clay

gripped tight on the potter's wheel.

you are the snake crushing the egg,

you are the yolk

blooming like a sunflower,

freed.

 

you used to pretend your hands were

seabirds and your body the

whitecaps, skimmed and ever-changing. you used

to lick salt from bone.

the seas your skin would sweat.

 

now the yolk

runs down your chin. sap and fruit juice.

you are laughing at the garden gate.

you are eve under the cobra’s hood.

you are the apple.

you drank the whole tree, and now there is nothing

about yourself

you do not know.

 

 


Natasha King is a Vietnamese American writer and nature enthusiast. Her poetry has appeared in Constellate Magazine, Oyster River Pages, Okay Donkey, and others. She lives in North Carolina, where she spends her spare time writing, prowling, and thinking about the ocean. She can be found on Twitter as @pelagic_natasha.


 

Alison Stine

Planned Community, Southern Ohio

 

The woman you sometimes picture me

with posted photos: slaughtering a hog.

 

She’s a wolf, I’ve been told. Often

 

I picture myself in a bathtub of worms.

How to tell about small kindness: I am not

 

the sort of person to make an altar

of men. I am not the kind of person

 

to stand in the doorway of a motel,

 

my dress a beaded curtain. I put away sex

like a hatbox. I need nothing but a glow.

 

I get my fix from sleep and sugar.

I need no touch but a wing.

 

The thing I remember most

 

was the steaming

body laid open on a steel garage plank,

 

amid the ATVs and the open air.

Grit punks getting it done.

 

Because there is no sate without struggle.

 

I wait. You wait with plates.

The bamboo feels solid as silk

 

or scalded water.

 

In the photos, the hog was a rib pink blur:

the boys with knives—and the white air, rising.

 


Alison Stine's first novel Road Out of Winter was published in 2020 (MIRA/HarperCollins). Also the author of several books of poems, including Ohio Violence, her awards include an NEA Fellowship and a reporting fellowship from National Geographic. A longtime resident of Appalachian Ohio, she now lives in Colorado and writes for The New York Times and others. Her next novel, Trashlands, releases in October 2021.




Fiction

Wynne Hungerford - It Comes to This

Jennifer Popa - Pity the Mammal Who Accepted the Blessing That Was Never Hers to Keep

Vincent Yu - Private Illusions

 

Poetry

Rooja Mohassessy - First Kiss

E. B. Schnepp - it’s christmas in anne boleyn’s throat

Natasha King - a gate will not remained closed

Despy Boutris - Girlhood

Alison Stine - Planned Community, Southern Ohio

Sean Cho A. - Dogma

Ro Daniels - Number 5

 

Creative Nonfiction

Amanda Gaines -  Something About Which We Could Talk Forever

Jean Coco - Here, Now



 

This project is partially supported by the Illinois Arts Council

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  © Ninth Letter, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.