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[9 Nov 2014 | One Comment | 199 views]

by Jen Ehrlich

The Farm loomed high and bright upon my dreams

Hope grew within my heart, of school I wished

Thoughts of renown from which I knew it gleamed

If take me in I would truly exist

The Farm could give the life I’d lost again

Could grant the truth of me and shame let fly

The years of doubt, of hate, of waste, of pain

Letter to me all this it bid goodbye

But still the pain it clung, it grabbed, it came

Beneath shadow of great homesick and loss

Though no voices ever did shout or blame

Upon my breast quiet I bear the cross

Of love so strong they gave all wealth for me

To live and dare pretend normal to be


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[4 Nov 2014 | Comments Off | 197 views]

by Lilian Kong

Concrete walls, croquette court, cicadas.

My bare feet stumble on the sidewalk that is laced with broken glass, and sharpness shoots through my heel into my chest. Vision blurs. I look down at my feet and there is no more glass. The ground below is so smooth that my pain vanishes, almost out of shame. I walk on.

Suddenly, my mother is behind me, her curled hair a bush of frenzy – “We are going to miss our plane we are going to miss our plane” so I sprint as fast as I can, letting my sharp breaths turn the air burgundy, like exhaling wine smears over the pristine apartment complexes. I am lost in this perfect geometry of ninety-degree windows, parallel doors. My eyes glaze over but refocus like a camera lens. They swivel around to the apartment building closest to the main gate, counting first floor, second floor, furthest window to the left. My eyebrows furrow together until they are sore. The dark emptiness of that window reaches toward me and hollows out my eyes, two abysses even the burgundy sunlight refuses to peer into.

I don’t know what I am looking for but I can’t find it either. I just turn around and around and at times see corners of my mother’s curled hair yelling plane plane plane and all I can do is start sprinting again. I think of the garden in the back of the apartment buildings, so I run towards that direction, every movement instinctive.

My legs give out without warning. I collapse, but

I open my eyes, and realize I am standing in the middle of the garden, leaving me proud that I made it here after all. The garden has turned into concrete as well, grey and stiff, but I don’t think much of it – I hit my toe hard on a concrete tree stump but the pain goes straight to my heart.

No one is here. I haven’t found. The burgundy not smeared in the air now but raining down onto the concrete garden and this sense of dying, not gunshot fast but spread-out, three hundred sixty five days. I need so much and I don’t know what I need but I need it. So much.

The concrete flowers and weeds start to melt into the concrete dirt until everything is flat concrete surface. I need so much until all the so much boils into more red pouring down, scrambling like fire ants into a tiny space in the middle of the surface. I crouch down, eyeing this small circle of red, of so much. I wait to pounce.

Red molds to brown. Brown simmers to black. Black opens up like an embrace, expands like paint in water, stretches, stretches. Rectangle window. My pupils shrink. First floor, second floor, furthest window to the left, and just as I expect, his oily tuft of black hair shoots out from the opening in the concrete floor. I pounce into the darkness of that rectangle, and at first I feel the joy of skin, of coarse fingernails that I need so much, but then, again, emptiness. Surrounded by an emptiness even sunlight refuses to touch.

I open my eyes, and squeeze them shut as the smell of body sweat invades my nostrils. My mother’s curled hair at the top corner of my eye screams “to the train station, shifu”. I remove my cheek from the passenger side window and rub my jaw, gazing out the window as we approach the main gate of the apartment complex.

“Mom, isn’t the train station in the opposite direction?” A loud thumping in my left temple starts, irritating me. My mother looks straight ahead. The taxi driver beeps his horn at the sea of people walking by, some stopping casually in the middle of the road to listen to a peddler brag about his cucumbers. The sky is a bit red, which is weird, because Nanjing skies are usually light grey, with at most a tinge of blue. So I sit in my seat, with a thumping in my temples, contemplating the color of the sky as we struggle with the pedestrians scattering around like chickens on the street.

Then, a black t-shirt, an oily tuft of hair.

He walks straight past my car window. There is a single bead of sweat on his nose. The thumping turns into screeches. My mother does not react. I look down desperately and see my own mouth wide open, my throat constricting. I cannot stop my screeching. I listen to myself until the screaming gradually civilizes into bursts of “shifu, stop” and “let me out” and “so, so much”. The taxi driver turns his head precisely 20 degrees in my direction and says with restrained politeness, “it is not convenient miss.”

And I scream out two words, over and over and over, until my brain realizes it’s your name I am screaming, so I scream even louder, my jagged breath fogging up the window, fogging up the image of you walking calmly ahead of the taxi in your black t-shirt. The driver turns his head 45 degrees now and says a little louder, articulating all the syllables: “not (he pauses here) con-ven-i-ent.” My mother has disappeared. It’s just me writhing behind the obnoxiously polite taxi driver. My voice cracks in the middle of yelling your name, and with that crack, all of the pedestrians are gone.

A taxi in the middle of a deserted street, going nowhere. The shops were empty, just rooms with objects in them, waiting for their owners to come back, to give purpose to their existence.

I know now who I was looking for in that concrete garden and I saw his face, but now he is gone again, only his essence remains, sad, like bits of a corpse in my mind. The taxi driver accelerates down the street, and I glue my eyes to his window on the second floor of the apartment complex that’s facing the main gate as we drove away. And it was not a racecar-style driving away, but a slow pulling, three hundred sixty five days slow, maybe more.

I opened my eyes to the gray blankets of my bed. It was dark inside my room. My alarm blazed out 5:30AM. Jet lag still hadn’t shown mercy. I processed the time in my head. Right now, in China, I’d be eating dinner with my grandparents. Three days ago, right now, I was an ocean away, eating dinner with my grandparents, thinking that three days later, I’d be an ocean away, in bed waking up due to jet lag. And three hundred sixty five days later, I’d be back in China, eating dinner, at this exact time.

I stretched my limbs sluggishly. I licked my rough lips. My feet struck the floor with a hollow thump that echoed all the way from my toes to the tips of my hair. Every step was cold on the wooden floor as I trudged down the stairs. I felt lonely in its geometry – five steps down, ninety degrees to the left, three steps down, 45 degrees to the left, and seven hollow-sounding steps down to the first floor. I could still smell the sweat from that taxi. I could feel his fingernails grazing on my forearm and even tried reaching out my arms in front of me in some form of inspection, hoping for something to have happened, like scratches, maybe a little bruise, a leftover mark of physical contact. There was nothing. I exhaled deeply, took out two eggs from the fridge along with a carton of almond milk, half empty, of course, at this point in my life, it’s never half goddamn full. I plopped the carton down on the kitchen counter. I delicately placed the eggs to lean like fat hamsters against the sturdy carton. Rays of sun peeked over the counter to settle onto my forehead, so I shuffled to the window and pulled down the Venetian blinds. There was no place for sunlight here. In China, it would already be dark now anyways. I glanced at the clock. 6AM. In China, I’d be –

A familiar shadow flickered across my mind. My throat constricted on impulse. In China, he’d pick me up by now.

He picks me up on a Thursday at 6PM, and after I get off the bus stop, he is waiting for me like a little schoolboy, head perched innocently to its side, shoulder bones sticking out of his black t-shirt, and it’s funny how I’d planned on telling him how he should wash his hair more often, especially when coming to pick me up, but instead I gather up all my courage only to give a soft nod. He takes out a worn plastic bag with two little bookmarks to give me because this is the last time and he does not want me to forget. I find that funny. He thinks he is just a stain in my life that 15 hours in the sky will rub away.

I wanted to say his name really bad, let the two characters flutter into the dim kitchen, uncontaminated by the sunlight outside, just because I haven’t said it in such a long time, because I needed it so much right now, so much. Thumping started in my left temple. I held his name on my tongue, forcefully, almost choking on it before swallowing it back into me. I watched my fingers snatch up an egg, roll it around the palm of my hand, crack it open into the frying pan. With that crack, that sizzle, and the thumping of my temples, 6:01 passed by. 6:02. I stared at the egg in the pan. By 6:07 I was stuffing oiled yolk into my mouth.

I tasted nothing. It was beautiful. The almond milk tasted like chalk water and so I guzzled it down.

I filled my stomach with liquid nothingness.

I chewed on the last bit of egg white, then I

Swallow. What a grimy aftertaste. I thought about washing the plate, or maybe at least place it in the dishwasher. I stood there looking at it. What beautiful porcelain, tarnished by the drying egg yolk and grease. I dropped the plate in the sink, rested my hand on the faucet for a second or two, then went back up the stairs. The bedroom smelled like a soiled grave.

I climbed into my sheets, and retreated once more into his shadows.



Blog, Blog feature, From the Editors »

[14 Oct 2014 | One Comment | 200 views]

by Grace Kearney

There is a list of colors we cannot wear, and for each prohibited color a reason we can vaguely understand. Orange, of course, belongs to the inmates, though only the highest-risk among them actually wear the conspicuous jumpsuit. (You can’t count on a murderer for fancy clothes style.) Most of the others wear blue jeans. Tan and forest green are reserved for the guards, and anything with the number five is strictly off limits. Red, despite its gang associations, does not appear on the list—but then, chances of a white girl from Stanford being mistaken for a Blood are slim no matter what she wears.

Having realized twelve hours earlier that I own nothing but blue jeans, I stand before the gates of San Quentin State Prison already uncomfortable in clothes that are not my own. My petite roommate’s rust-colored corduroys graciously attempt to fit my six-foot frame, but even my baggiest sweatshirt cannot cover the places where they pinch and squeeze. I pass anyhow through various layers of security, bending and outstretching and nodding to guards whose indifference allows me to breathe.

Let me pause here to provide the disappointing explanation that the journey into this heart of darkness is nothing more than a school field trip—within hours, my classmates and I will be back on the bus with our boxed lunches and clean records and San Quentin receding quietly in the rearview mirror. We will soon be embarking upon a three-week collaboration with students at a nearby juvenile hall, and what serves as the final destination for an unfortunate majority of them seems an appropriate place to start. Surprisingly, groups like ours are not infrequent in the halls of the state prison; tours are available three days a week for the sadistic masses or merely curious local residents. For thirty dollars a head, a glimpse of the lives that pass here.

Just around the corner of the first brick building, a sprawling cement blacktop comes into view. In the shade of the massive prison, men shoot basketballs at netless rims or lean on broken picnic tables. This is why I haven’t seen any black people in California. The disproportionate amount of space black men occupy in this hidden adult playground compared to the rest of America is striking. (In terms of population, not physical space. We later find out each man’s cage is smaller than what could legally house a dog.) From a purely statistical perspective, isn’t this proof that imprisonment is not the result of immorality? Our next stop is a sweating factory room with dozens of sweating men, each adding one piece to a chair as it gets passed along. My increasingly bitter internal monologue leaves me silent. Has all the cotton already been picked already? No one hurries forward to explain that it is not slave labor. With the air of a magician opening his hands to reveal a transformed object, our tour guide presents six men standing in blue, hands folded peacefully in plain sight, smiling toothlessly as they offer to answer our questions “from the inside.” I narrow my eyes in suspicion. You are the same six every visitor sees.

That afternoon exists in my mind now as the series of frozen scenes I have just described. But one moment still exists in real time for me. We have left the warehouse and crossed the dining hall, and through a set of double doors we enter death row. Death rows, to be more precise. Death warehouse. The men on the ground floor are milling around, presumably on a closely monitored break, and the occupants of the second and third floors peer down from behind their bars as we walk by. There is no correct facial expression to wear now and I want to hide my entire body. Walking feels like strutting and curiosity feels like an invasion of privacy, but nothing fuels the prison industrial complex like another pair of averted eyes. As I walk by the water fountain, someone calls out to me. I do not hear what they say, but the next moment a chaperone pulls me aside and tells me my clothing is causing a disturbance. Too tight, she scolds me, as if I am deliberately seeking male attention at San Quentin State Prison. I nod, and explain about my tiny roommate and her tiny roommate clothing, and as soon as she turns away I feel tears springing uninvited into my eyes. Why am I being accused of promiscuity, and the prisoner not accused of harassment? Then the lump forms in my throat, I know that I am crying for entirely the wrong reasons, and I hate myself for it. My hiccups become unbearably audible, attracting the attention of inmates and classmates alike. The former, who have seen enough tears in their lives to know how useless they are, are surprisingly sympathetic; my classmates look uncomfortable. Afterwards, I am remembered as the one whose humanity was so great as to weep at the prison’s misery. The conditions were horrifying, and the internal monologue buzzed loudly in my head, but I would be lying to myself if I didn’t admit that nothing moved me to tears until my own pride was wounded.

More than a year has passed since that afternoon, and I have not forgiven myself for that moment of vanity. But because in that moment I experienced the tiniest slice of what the men of San Quentin experience every day, I do not try to forget it. The humiliation of being punished for a rule I was set up to break, the burn of judgment that went through my skin, the relentless feeling of exposure and the inability to hide, the desperate wish to go home, and the list of colors not to wear. San Quentin State Prison wishes you a pleasant journey home.



Blog, Blog feature, From the Editors »

[29 Sep 2014 | Comments Off | 236 views]

by Brian Tich

There’s a scene in the movie “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” in which we meet an aged Spanish poet, the father of the painter Juan Antonio (played by Javier Bardem). The eponymous Vicky, brought by Juan Antonio to meet this man, learns that the poet has deliberately chosen not to learn any language besides his native Spanish. As Juan Antonio puts it, “He writes the most beautiful sentences in the Spanish language, but he . . . he doesn’t believe that a poet should pollute his words by any other tongue.” Vicky seems to grasp only vaguely why this should be so, when she responds, “I understand, ’cause of the translation and the things you might lose.”

What is it, then, that you might lose? Learning a new language, you will have to experience the feeling of, “Somewhere, there is a three-year-old child—nay, a whole cohort of three-year-old children!—who can communicate with more precision and eloquence than I can.”  And this won’t be melodramatic; it will be true. For anyone who never questioned her own fluency, the idea of having the tongue amputated and then rebuilt with agonizing slowness (and never to the dexterity of its native original) is not just a trauma. It’s a permanent loss. After that, language, any language, can never be a given. Maybe when you first wrote something and it pleased you, maybe then you could hold together indistinguishably sound and meaning and connotation, not even wondering at the ease of rhythm, because there seemed to be no difference; it was all one thing. Think about how to conjugate your verb, find a substitute for the word you don’t know how to translate, and then you can’t believe anymore in an innate totality of language. Of course it’s still possible to achieve the effect, but you’ll know all the little ways in which language is a kind of alien object. You’ll know how strange it is that it ever seemed natural.

Despite this (or because of it), I can’t help but think that what we’re all doing here is finessing the loss. Whether the language is French or C++, chemistry or philosophy, photography or biology—in short, any of the things you might come to Stanford to study and get good at—we can’t claim not to have altered ourselves in this process, altered much more than our own sense of continuity would probably suggest. We’re eroding all the old feeling of unencumbered naturalness to make way for our newer, wider reach. So when I say that we’re finessing the loss, what I mean is something akin to the courtiers of Renaissance-era Europe, striving to inhabit an inimitable gracefulness that’s so powerful precisely because it’s no one’s native state. It isn’t false, it’s merely learned. Contrary to the poet’s fears, detaching from our born idiom doesn’t diminish us, but we trade it for all that’s greatly strange.

(this post originally appeared as the editor’s note to our Fall 2013 issue)


Blog, Blog feature, From the Editors, Poetry »

[13 Jun 2014 | Comments Off | 626 views]

by Brian Tich


I did not sigh; I saw I was an invention. With forks I ate present wonders

and grew full and then read to fall asleep. It was obvious: only a malcontent wanders.


Airports act like cities. Cities act like people who ask you to learn by looking.

California, France, Anatolia, Russia, he doesn’t have to pay rent so he wanders.


How to pronounce soft vowels, tune slack distances?

In a language unclasped from people, places – how the accent wanders!


[though never can

circumvent wanders]


Writing by rhymes, I think about endings that arrive again (again)

and with all the same elements; it’s only that their sense wanders.


Writing by rhymes, I think about endings—like walking to a place, then pausing, then walking, pausing—

and how, between pauses, the intent wanders.