Beyond Resistance: Transcending the Boundaries in Poetry

Photo Credit: Amelia Golden

This guest post comes from Brionne Janae. Her poem, “Alternative Facts,” appeared in LPR‘s Summer Issue 2018 (available for purchase at this link).

Janae is a poet living in Brooklyn, New York. She is a Hedgebrook and Vermont Studio Center alumni and proud Cave Canem Fellow. Her poetry and prose have been published in the American Poetry Review, Bitch magazine, Sixth Finch, Plume, the Nashville Review, and Waxwing, among others. She is the author of After Jubilee, published by Boaat Press. Visit her website:

The world is an ugly place. I have spent the majority of my adulthood learning and unlearning this lesson as I, like many of us, have struggled against the urge to succumb to the bitterness that daily threatens to pull us under, like quicksand thickening at the ankles. During one of my most memorable lessons I was teaching several community poetry workshops in Boston. It was the day after the 2016 election, and I entered my evening workshop to find that my students were as hurt and heartbroken as I was. Where the results of the election, and that 53%, had rendered me wordless, they in turn were ready to write poems that grieved, poems that screamed and set fire, poems that would curse the then-president-elect into the ground, where he belongs.

There is a long illustrious lineage of this poetry which works to document what is ugly in our world. Poems that rage against and weep for the individual and systemic violences and erasures endemic to the lives of people who exist at the margins. The cannon of resistance or protest poetry is as long and varied as it is gorgeous and important. And in times like our current political moment, when the world is not more hideous, but simply more visibly, unavoidably awful it can appear as if every poem and poet worth reading is writing as an act of resistance.

Of course this issue of what is visibly awful must be addressed. For Black people who have continuously been shot dead in our homes, churches, and streets, by agents of the state and homegrown terrorists alike, for Black and Brown people who have been locked up like animals, for Brown people who have been harassed and harangued and thrown into cages for breathing on the wrong side of some white man’s border, for indigenous people who are still fighting to protect the sanctity of their sacred spaces, the visibility of all that is ugly in the world has never been anything worth questioning, and it is only whiteness in all its innocence that is just being made aware of the nightmare.

That the world has been obviously horrid for some and only newly horrid for others is reflected in our art. White poets have had the privilege to write about nature, about joy, love, lust, and transcendence while others of us have been subsumed by the literature of struggle, violation, and overcoming. And while I do believe the move to invite the poetry of resistance into our cannon is monumentally important, as it marks an important shift away from the racist gate-keeping of those who would wish to keep the cannon old, pale, male, and pasty, I worry at times that it is presented as marginalized writers’ only option for poetry, that the only way for Black or Brown or queer writers to be read and read widely is for them to centralize and elevate their pain over all else in their writing.

I’ve heard poets say they feel pressure to write poems about police brutality or lynchings because that’s what’s expected from them. I too, have felt at times this nagging sense of guilt for not writing poems to elegize the latest victims of white supremacy though I have read their stories, marched in the streets in protest, and grieved for them as if they were my own blood and bone. I know this feeling of guilt is not unique to me, and I refuse to let it shape the way I art. If I spend all of my time reacting to the white supremacist patriarchy when do I get the chance to write the poems I want to write? That I am called to write? And to be clear, I don’t think anyone is called to write protest or resistance poetry. Not because it is, in any way, a lesser art form, but because I simply don’t believe anyone is called to oppression. Oppression is not a calling it is a situation, and while for many of us it is not temporary it is not the only thing that makes up our lives, and so, should no be the only thing that makes up our art. Continue reading

K.E. Butler Wins LPR’s 1st Michael J. Clark Award for the Best of Fiction in 2017

Little Patuxent Review’s 2017 Michael J. Clark Award is given annually to an outstanding work of literature published in Little Patuxent Review. This year’s inaugural award is being granted to a work of fiction written by K. E. Butler entitled “The Laws of Motion in the Heavens and on the Earth,” published in the Summer 2017 issue.
Butler photo

K. E. Butler

Michael J. Clark, LPR’s Publisher Emeritus, will present the award at the January 21st launch reading of the Winter 2018 issue at Oliver’s Carriage House in Columbia, MD.
K.E. Butler is a substitute teacher and livestock producer who lives in Carroll County, MD. This is her first published story.

The Laws of Motion in the Heavens and on the Earth

It’s been a month since we buried my brother. I was a pallbearer. I even threw a shovelful of soil on his grave. Mama was bawling her eyes out; Dad just stood there with his head down, staring at the frosted ground like he could see through it, see down through the frost and the grass and the red clay, like he was watching worms. The preacher asked if anyone had anything they wanted to say, and some of my brother’s buddies shuffled up and said they couldn’t believe it, and what a great guy he was. Mrs. Johnson, his science teacher, reminded us that he had so much potential, and how it was a terrible loss. Vera got up to talk, but she started crying and sat down. I hate seeing Vera cry. She’s prettier now than ever; her hair’s longer, and it curls down her back. Preacher came up and asked me to talk, but there was no way in hell that was gonna happen. I had nothing to say.

Eph was born when I was two years old. When I was old enough to catch tadpoles, he’d tag along and he’d wade out up to his waist chasing frogs and get stuck and start crying. Mama would yell out the kitchen window that he was my responsibility, so I’d pull him out. Summers before we were big enough to help with the haying, we’d take our ponies out into the fields and fencerows—we’d be gone all day. I was the cowboy waiting to round him up. I’d sneak up on him and break into a lope; he was the Indian trying to get away. When we got tired of that, I’d be the sheriff and he’d be the bank robber, his horse’s hooves pounding through the cornstubble, trying to make it back to the hideaway, kicking up doves and Killdeer as we flew. I guess Eph was fine being the Indian and the robber. I let him get away sometimes. If he minded, he never said nothing. He always did what I told him to do. There’s a picture of us boys in the upstairs hallway on our ponies in cowboy hats and bandanas. Hard to believe that was ten years ago.

Boy did he love to read. From the time Mama taught him, that boy had a book in his hand. If you wanted to find Eph, look in his room; he’d be stretched out on the bed, reading. He was always showing me pictures, and wanting to read to me. Another thing about that boy: he loved science. I mean, he devoured science, he ate it up. Even when he was little, he’d see a tomato hornworm in the garden and, instead of crushing it, as he should have, he’d put the damned thing in a jar. He’d poke holes in a piece of tinfoil, and put a piece of tomato plant in there with it, and he’d watch it. He had a hardback book Mama had given him one Christmas, and he was always wasting my time looking shit up with him.

Now, I’m not saying my brother was lazy, but by the time he got to be about twelve, about the time a boy should be doing real work around the place, he wasn’t doing his share. Funny thing was, Mama and Dad kept cutting him all kinds of slack. They’d make excuses for him like: “Ephraim is very conscientious about schoolwork”, or “Ephraim has a big exam coming up”, and even “John-Lee, you’re so much better at stacking, let Ephraim throw the bales off the wagon. You stack.” Basically, what it meant for me was that I had more work. Don’t get me wrong, Eph and I got along good. But to be honest, it kinda pissed me off that just because he always had his head buried in a book, they made me pick up the slack. I could tell they thought he was special. Eph still said “I love you, too” when Mama told him she loved him. Not me.

I grew out of that; I stopped years ago. I loved her, but she knew it: I’ll be damned if I’m going around telling her. I guess maybe she got tired of me not answering back. Maybe that’s why she stopped telling me she loved me.

I’ll never forget one time, right around Thanksgiving, we were cutting firewood. Of course I’m cutting, Eph is stacking. And this bigass blacksnake comes out of the pile, heading straight toward Eph. He didn’t even see the thing, he was too busy daydreaming. You can’t do that around equipment like that, but try telling that to Eph. So this snake’s coming at him, and I mean, this thing has gotta be seven feet long. It’s so thick one hand won’t reach around it. And I just I reach down with the saw and, just like that, slice its head off. That’s how quick I was; that snake didn’t even see me coming. And do you know, Eph had the balls to tell me I shouldn’ta killed it! He said blacksnakes eat mice, and that they’re beneficial, or some shit. I am talking about a seven-fucking-foot blacksnake here. I didn’t miss a beat; I just started the chainsaw and went back to work. And you know what Eph does? He stands there watching that headless snake writhing around on the snow, black on white, as the blood makes a little red stain. You know, snakes will keep moving like that, curling around, even without their heads? Eph read that in a book once, and it is true.

By the time we’re in high school I’m failing most of my classes. My teachers say it’s because I don’t try, maybe they’re right.

“Why can’t you be more like Ephraim?” Mrs. Johnson asks, as if I wanna be like my brother.

For one thing, I intend to make my living farming. I don’t have time for homework, I can make ten bucks an hour stacking hay for the neighbors, and I do every chance I get. At first I tried to get Eph to come, but he made some excuse about a research project. For another, I never was that good of a reader, sometimes the words kinda jump around on the page. I never told anyone, but if a line says, “The laws of motion,” I’ll read, “The motion of laws.” If I’m gonna get blamed for not trying anyway, why should I bother?

I don’t know why girls like Eph better than me. I can stack five hundred bales, and it shows. My hands are like iron, and Eph’s are “artistic.” I’m tan and my hair’s bleached from the sun. Eph spends all his time in the science lab. His hair is darker and he’s lankier than me. When he and Vera started dating and they asked me to tag along like a third wheel, of course I said no. Eph said it was Vera’s idea. She is nice like that.

“Come on, we’re going to see Apollo 13,” Eph tried to convince me.

“Nah, you all go ahead.” I wasn’t especially interested in some guys almost dying in a tin can a million miles out in space. I was just fine sitting on a snag over the creek at night with my coondog, looking up at the stars from down here. That was the difference between us; I could appreciate things from a distance. Something in Eph made him have to try things himself.

It was a perfect fall Saturday when Eph and I jumped in the bed of the truck. The leaves were turning, and it had rained the day before. The air smelled fresh and sour, that smell it gets in early fall when the apples are ripe and start to drop. Empty apple crates shifted as Dad accelerated down the gravel lane and turned out onto the paved road toward the orchard. A few apples rolled around the bed of the truck. I remember bright red leaves littering the wet black pavement. Eph was sitting on one wheel-well and I was opposite him on the other.

The sliding rear window to the cab was open, and we could hear Dad singing along with Ralph Stanley on the radio. It was Angel Band. I put that slider in a while back when some two-by-fours shifted toward the cab and broke the original window. I installed it myself. I loved that old blue Chevy truck, and I was working on Dad to get him to sell it to me. I figured I could go in the firewood business when Eph went to college.

Eph was all fired up about something he’d been learning in science Friday. Something about Newton’s first law of motion, how stuff that was moving kept moving until some force caused it to stop. He tried to explain it to me. I kind of remembered something about it from school, something about gravity. Eph said it was really this guy named Galileo’s idea, that Newton was born the year Galileo died, and that he really just built on the older dude’s work. Eph puffed his chest up, and he started goofing on Newton. He lifted his curly brown head high, and said real slow, in his deepest voice, “The laws of motion in the heavens and the laws of motion on the earth are one and the same.”

“Get outta here,” I laughed.

“I will now proceed to test my theory.” Eph was laughing, too, and then his eyes narrowed, and he kinda cocked his head to one side, and I could see the wheels turning. I knew that look.

“No, seriously, this truck is moving about thirty miles an hour,” he guessed, “and we’re sitting here in the bed, so we’re going thirty miles an hour, too, right?” He picked up an apple and tossed it to me. It arced up into the air and straight across the bed of the truck. I reached up with one hand and caught it. He picked up another. This time he threw it straight up, and it came down in his hand. He looked at the apple and smiled. “See, John-Lee, that’s Galilean relativity,” he explained.

I turned and threw my apple at a big sycamore tree as we went by, and nailed it. It was a good throw; we could hear it hit with a loud crack. “And that object just came to a sudden stop,” I said, grinning. Eph laughed.

“Knock it off,” Dad yelled through the open window.

“So what would happen if I jumped up?” he wondered out loud, “Just like the apple, right, I’d still be moving thirty miles an hour?”

“Hell if I know, Eph,” I shrugged, “Try it.”

And he did. It happened so fast there was nothing I could do. My little brother, with the artistic hands and the questioning mind, jumped straight up into the air. The tailgate banged him right about his knees. He bounced over the gate and hit the wet black asphalt at thirty miles an hour. I tried to scream but my throat was full of lead. I turned and saw the back of my dad’s head. I scrambled forward in the truck bed, banging my fists on the glass. Dad turned around, and when he saw my face, he slammed the brakes on. My head collided with the glass, then I flew back. The truck skidded sideways, tires screeching on the wet asphalt before it came to a stop. He got out, and we looked back and saw something in the road about two hundred yards back. It wasn’t moving.

I don’t remember how I got from that truck to my brother. I beat my dad there, and I was gulping for air and shaking. I stood there paralyzed, watching my brother curled up on the wet asphalt, making little jerking motions, opening and closing his mouth slowly. Then I kneeled down next to him, and I watched the life go out of my brother.

Vera came over today. She says she’s checking on Mama and Dad and me, but I think, really, it’s because we remind her of Eph. We walk toward the board fence where the horses are. We each hike a foot up on the bottom board, and wait. They come over to nuzzle us, and we stroke their soft faces. I pull a peppermint out of my pocket and unwrap it. They prick their ears at the sound, and Eph’s gelding nickers. I give it to Vera to give him. We stand there, listening to the hard crack of candy between the horse’s teeth. She’s wearing this Indian necklace Eph gave her, called a squashblossom. A silver chain circles her neck, and she keeps sliding her fingers over it. “You know, you really should talk to your Mama,” she tells me, reaching out to brush the roan’s  forelock out of his eyes. She doesn’t look at me when she talks.

“Why? She doesn’t give a shit about me.” I say that ‘cause since Eph died, Mama pretty much doesn’t even look at me. She cooks and does dishes and then she just sits at the table. She won’t touch Eph’s room or let anyone else go in it, but I did. His backpack is on the floor where he left it. The pillow on the bed is dented in where Eph’s head was, and there’s a book next to it.

“She does, John-Lee. It’s just hard for her.”

“Aw, shit, Vera. She always favored Eph. Now he’s gone, she won’t hardly look at me. Goddamnit, I’m still here. I’m alive.”

“It’s hard for all of us. Just talk to her, will you?” She turns to look at me.

“Now that he’s gone, he can never screw anything up. Ever. He’s perfect for-fuckin-ever.”

I’m pissed, I’m hurt, and I’m sad. I feel terrible about what I said to Vera, but I can’t take it back. And I don’t know what makes me do this either, but I walk over to the silo. I haven’t climbed it since the silo fire, when we lost the roof. I reach one hand up and grab the lowest iron rung, about eight feet up, and swing up. I start climbing. Hand, foot, hand, foot, I go up. It’s cold outside and all I have on are my jeans and a flannel shirt, but I’m sweating. My hands slip a little, but the rust on the rungs gives me traction. When I reach the top, eighty feet up, I turn around and sit on the tiny platform. I bury my face in my hands and let the warm, salty tears run down my face. I can hear Vera’s car start and tires crunching on the gravel as she leaves.

I sit there probably ten minutes before I finally move my hands away and look around. Everything feels different when you’re this high. It’s like looking down on a picture, but you’re not really part of it. I can see all the places I know, but they look small, like pieces of something bigger. If Eph was here he’d say something about astronauts. I wonder what Eph sees. I wonder what it all looks like to him way up, past the orbits. I exhale and my breath rises up in a cloud and then it’s gone.

To the west, acres of red and yellow leaves blur together in a rectangle—that’s our woodlot. Beyond the big woods, straw-colored cornfields fringed with cedars stretch out in front of me till they’re too small to see. The late beans are mostly off, but, far away, there’s one tiny combine crawling along through the fields. The mountains to the east are piled up in purple mounds, and the sky thins to the color of a pale piece of turquoise. I see the seam of trees where the creek runs along our piece of bottom land, and I can see on the other side, too, where it turns the bend on our neighbor’s ground and runs toward the river where Eph and I fished. Cows graze the pasture along the creek bottom like tiny statues. Our farmhouse and outbuildings are white boxes with red roofs, tucked in by Mama’s flowerbeds. Everything looks clean and bright like it does after it’s been washed by a rain. I spit and watch it fall.

The screen porch door opens and swings shut, and Mama comes out shaking a dishtowel. My coonhound eases out the door, too, and it bangs shut again after him. Mama looks around. She’s looking for me. She calls my name, and her voice sounds small and far away. She looks over at the barn, and then in the machine shed, calling me, but I just watch. Finally the dog finds me. He puts his nose to the ground and tracks me over to the horsebarn, then turns and heads right straight to the silo. He looks up and gives a sorrowful yelp. Mama follows his eyes up to the top where I am. She sees me, and starts screaming.

“John-Lee get down here this instant! What are you doing up there? Get down this very second!” She yells, but her voice is cracking. The noise spooks a barn owl off the silo wall, and a puff of feathers rise and settle on the air, rocking back and forth toward the ground. I watch them till I can’t see them anymore. Guess I might as well go down too; my wet shirt is giving me a river chill.

Mama is pacing under me, yelling. My dog is hammering ‘cause she has him all fired up. He’s circling Mama like a satellite. I don’t look down till I’m about fifteen feet off the ground. Mama gets real quiet then, and backs up. Even my dog sits down and hushes. I push off and fall through the air, and while I’m falling I see the ground coming up fast, and I’m thinking maybe I should’ve climbed down a little further; this is gonna hurt, but it’s too late. I land on my two feet, hard. I stagger a little and turn to face Mama. Her grey eyes are brimming, and she’s biting her lower lip. She looks at me like she’s looking for something, but, whatever it is, I guess she don’t find it. She turns and goes back to the house, and the door bangs shut behind her.

I head to the barn, where it’s warm.



Remembering the Founders of the Original Little Patuxent Review

The Treitels Remembered

A memoir to be published this week by Bloomsbury Publishing – The Geek’s Guide to the Writing Life: An  Instructional Memoir for Prose Writers  by Stephanie Vanderslice –  features a reminiscence of Margot and Ralph Treitel, the Columbia couple who founded the Little Patuxent Review. Vanderslice, director of the Arkansas Writer’s MFA Workshop at the University of Central Arkansas and a columnist for the Huffington Post, recalls the Treitels this way:


Ralph & Margot Treitel

“Margot Treitel was my best friend, Hannah’s, mother.  When I met her, in 1989, I was graduating from college and standing on the cusp of a writing life.  For graduation, Margot, a widely-published poet, gave me a copy of her chapbook, The Inside Story, which contained poems about her early years in the Peace Corps in West Africa, about family life, about growing older.  I didn’t know then that chapbook or book-giving is symbolic for poets; a sign of respect, but I did feel validated.  How I wish she and her husband, Ralph, had lived long enough that I could have returned the favor with one of my own books.

“Well-known in the Maryland literary arts scene and beyond, Margot and Ralph Treitel, both writers, founded the Little Patuxent Review in Columbia, Maryland, in the 1970’s as a way to build the arts scene in the Mid-Atlantic—and build it they did, with readings, festivals, public access TV shows.  In fact, the review was revived ten years ago in their memory and I have even had the honor of being rejected from it—but I’ll keep trying.

“Ralph and Margot lived in a townhouse in Columbia, Maryland, and until Ralph’s debilitating stroke, he held a day job with the Social Security Administration while Margot raised their daughters and continued to write, publish and perform her work in hundreds of venues.  Their lives were modest but rich, so rich in art.  Books and videos (they were also movie buffs) lined the walls.  African art mixed with Victorian settees.

“Since I was pursuing my MFA only an hour and a half away, Hannah and I often used her parent’s home as a central meeting place.  So while I witnessed one kind of writing life when someone like Robert Stone or Tim O’Brien blew into town via my MFA program, holding court for a few hours at a bar like the Tiki Lounge in Washington, the lessons I learned at Ralph and Margot’s home were more powerful and lasting.”

Here’s the web site where you can order this memoir:

Gary Stein: How A Trial Lawyer and Poet Speaks His Truth

Contributed by Mike Clark, Publisher Emeritus

Poetry with a spirit of its own tends to find varying human forms of expression.

Emily Dickinson, a recluse, wrote her metaphorical, magical poems in an upstairs Amherst bedroom. Wallace Stevens was an insurance executive who had “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”. Walt Whitman, a news reporter, nursed the Civil War wounded and proclaimed a “barbaric yawp” that gave a new vision to American poetry. And William Carlos Williams, a pediatrician, let his poetry speak in everyday language.

So it is not too farfetched for Gary Stein, a 68-year-old plaintiffs’ civil trial attorney, to speak his own poetic truths as well as advocating for his personal injury and divorce clients.

Gary Stein

The Rockville, MD-based lawyer says he finds “poetry to be a process of looking for connections just like the law. Neither law nor poetry exist without language—one analytic and the other intuitive.”

Gary Stein came out of the University of Iowa’s Writers Workshop with a master’s degree and an unpublished novel, a penchant for short stories, and a yearning to write poetry. He later got his legal training from Georgetown Law School and is a member of both the Washington D. C. and Maryland bar.

Besides the practice of law and his preoccupation with writing poetry, Gary Stein says his spiritual life also defines him.

Raised as a Catholic, Gary Stein has spent the last 30 years of his life as a Quaker. “I tried Unitarianism. I studied Judaism and Buddhism. But I have come to like the Quakers with their emphasis on a personal relationship with the divine or the Spirit without an intermediary. It encourages questioning and seeking truth and does not discourage it. It is not dogmatic, but inclusive because if you accept that of God in each person, you are likely to respect diversity.”

His first published poem, “Dark Room,” turned up In Prairie Schooner in 1975. Since then his poems have been published in Poetry, Folio, Wordwrights! and

The Sow’s Ear with more than a dozen of his poems finding their way in the Journal of the American Medical Association’s(JAMA) Poetry and Medicine section.

“I represent injured people as an attorney, so I learn about medical things,” he observed. “JAMA has the widest circulation of any magazine in which I’ve been published, and I have received a lot of fan letters from doctors over the years.”

A compilation of his poetry appeared in a chapbook entitled Between Worlds published by The Finishing Line Press, when he was a finalist in the small press’s national poetry contest. He currently is seeking publication of a 70-page manuscript called Touring the Shadow Factory.

“Many of my poems start with a factual event, and a lot of my poems become a compressed narrative,“ Gary Stein noted. He has written about the loss of his father, who before dying in his old age had been his sailing and fishing companion, and even poetry that touched on the strange, unanticipated death of his mother-in law by a bee sting.

Other poems are less personal, and some take a satirical bent, he added.

“I get a reward when I say something that is fresh and that has not been read before,” he said. “A friend of mine had a wonderful quote: ‘I write to find out what I have to say.’ When I write a poem, I never know where it is going. Like a reader, I want to be moved, jolted or amused. If the poem does not teach me something, why did I bother?”

He has a penchant for reading his poetry to groups. The mild mannered attorney said he actually accepts all requests to read his poetry, which allows his poetic side the platform of “a performer.” He has read at a Library of Congress poetry event, at book stores, retirement communities, book groups, churches, colleges, and even in natural settings.

Gary Stein says: “A poem should sound right so people hear its rhythm and rhyme. It cannot only be effective on the page, but poems also must be heard.”

Here are two of Gary Stein’s poems. Enjoy!


You float up beneath my fingers.
I rub old sun into your hair,
hear bees bother our meal beyond the lens.
In the dust free air it is grass again;
it is years ago not this small night.
Your image whispers itself in silver,
the echo so perfect I leave the room.

Prairie Schooner, 1975


The Vietnamese woman
who snips my hair
in Andre’s Salon
was just a child when
our planes flamed
her village.

Now she calls herself
“Ann,” the ghost
of a name. Eight
thousand miles from
home her busy blades
whirl over
my small head.
For twenty bucks
she tries to tame
the thin forest
of time’s gentle

Poet Lore, 2015

10th Anniversary: Poetry and music songs of Salcman

This essay was originally published on February 13, 2013. It is being re-shared in support of LPR’s 10th Anniversary celebration.

Music starts with sound and silence. As such, music and literature likely arose as a single entity. Even as the two drew apart, they maintained a continuum, causing Alphonse de Lamartine to state, “Music is the literature of the heart; it commences where speech ends.” And continued to influence one another in both form and content, causing Ezra Pound to pronounce, “Poets who will not study music are defective.” Be that as it may, literary figures as disparate as William ShakespeareTS Eliot and Ralph Ellison have made music an essential part of their works.

Join us in exploring this ageless theme and its contemporary variations through poetry, prose and the visual arts in preparation for our Summer 2013 Music issue.

Lorraine Whittlesey

Lorraine Whittlesey at the piano (Photo: John Dean)

A few words to set the stage, so to speak. Music has always been an integral part of my life. Family legend has it that I sang my first sentences to the popular tunes of the day. The combination of words and melodic line continues to be a powerful force in my life.

 NOTE: If you enjoyed this essay, please check out LPR’s Issue 14: Music.

10th Anniversary: My two heads

This essay was originally published on May 22, 2013. It is being re-shared in support of LPR’s 10th Anniversary celebration.

Linda Joy Burke, Artscape, Baltimore, MD

Linda Joy Burke, Artscape, Baltimore, MD
(Photo: Dianne Connelly)

My first memory of a structured music environment comes from the fourth grade at Nativity, a Catholic school in Washington, D.C. The overexuberant nun insisted that we bend our thumbs at a ninety-degree angle, open our mouths, and stick the top of the crook between our lips so that they would form an oval. That was how we were supposed to sing the hymns and old Americana songs such as “Oh Shenandoah” that we were taught. It felt like torture to me, and I discovered early on that I often did it wrong. Even when I managed to get it right, I still could not carry a tune.


NOTE: If you enjoyed this essay, please check out LPR’s Issue 14: Music.

Pushcart Prize Nominee: Benjamin Burgholzer

Along with publishing emerging writers, one of the public roles and great pleasures of an independent, small literary journal is to nominate individual poems, essays, and stories for awards like the Pushcart Prize. This is one more way to say “thank you,” to the hard working writers, without whom LPR wouldn’t exist. These nominations also require renewed attention to the craft and presence of the pieces LPR publishes, and often that attention is rewarded with renewed joy.

Don’t Go Over Your Hipboots

I lie awake my first night in rehab, a few days after my first arrest, sleepless counting ceiling tiles. A row of 5.

I think about what it was like to be 5 and think about my parents in their separate houses in separate states looking at the same picture of me in a stroller holding a brook trout on a stick, wearing a Mickey Mouse hat and a smile. Dad always says, “You can’t fish without a hat on,” and I followed this advice even then. I think I can remember that exact day the picture was taken, those worm-and-bobber afternoons in the stream-fed pond loaded with native brook trout down the street. I remember Dad’s exact words, “Put your finger on the line, open the bail, and let ’er go!” and he’d draw out the “goooo” and make me laugh until the line and bobber hit the water, over and over and over again until I got it well enough or at least until he pretended I did. I remember watching the red-white bobber come to life, disappear, take off running, as Dad set the hook and handed the small blue fishing pole to me, telling me to “reel, reel, reel!” until I was holding the tiny fish in my tiny hands, smiling.

I think forward a few more years to learning how to cast with a kid-sized fly rod with yarn tied to the end of it instead of a fly so I didn’t hook myself or anyone else. I was wearing the same Mickey Mouse hat and now equipped with a ridiculous pair of shades Mom made me wear to shield my eyes because everything was so bright then but mostly because she thought it was cute to dress me up in a hat and glasses like Dad always wore.

He said, “Fly fishing is an art performed between 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock.”

Dad’s giant hands holding my wrists and flicking them back and forth to 10, and 2, 10, and 2, 10 and 2, 10 and 2 until I finally got it a few weeks later, or at least he pretended I did.

The tiles in a column. 9.

I was around 9 when Dad took me to a real river—not a lake not a pond not a stream not a creek, but the West Branch of the Delaware where he had bought a plot of land and built a cabin outside of Deposit. The drive was long, and I remember watching the telephone wires and how they seemed to move in the same rhythm as the truck. He sat me on the tailgate overlooking the cornfield and the nearby factory pumping plumes of smoke into the air and showed me the pair of tiny hipboots he had bought as a surprise and helped me put them on repeating over and over again: “Don’t. Go. Over. Your. Hipboots” as I waddled alongside him on the path through the cornfield, this time with a Mets hat (because I knew by then that you can’t fish without a hat) and sunglasses that I knew were without a doubt the coolest sunglasses in the entire world. I waddled the whole way and tried to make sure he didn’t see how many steps I had to take to keep up with his because I figured I was a grown-up now or otherwise he wouldn’t have taken me here to begin with, so I better act the part.

We reached the riverbank and he held my hand for the first few steps. I remember being surprised at just how cold 45 degrees was, even with a pair of hip boots and the three pairs of adult wool socks Mom made me wear.

“Remember, don’t walk over your hipboots!” He let go of my hand and smiled and walked out into the river a little bit above his waist. He began to tie on an alewife imitation he cleverly coined “the white fly” because, well, it was white. He was close enough that I could still hear him humming.

I remember those first steps deeper and deeper into the river watching the water grow closer and closer to the top of my boots and the way it got so much deeper so much faster than I thought and how for a moment the water seemed to pause, the meniscus yet to break. Before Dad even started casting, the boots were filled with cold water and I was crying “I’m sorry, Daddy,” over and over, hysterical. The snot and tears poured out of my face as he carried me back through the cornfield to the truck, more embarrassed at the failed attempt at adulthood than miserable from being wet and cold.

“It’s okay,” he said, propping me up on the tailgate with a half-grin that seemed to say he would have been more surprised if I didn’t walk over my hipboots in 5 minutes.

This was about the same time the Wednesday night visitations started fresh after the divorce and the first move and how this was a new thing to everyone involved so we all did what we always did and fished. The closest lake was just close enough that Dad could swing by the new condo after work and pick up my younger brother and me, get dinner and fish for a few hours before he had to drop us off again and we wished he didn’t have to keep leaving but were finally starting to understand why. The lake was named the Monksville, which we cleverly renamed Skunksville due to the incredible amount of times everyone left there fishless.

Dad’s friend Larry would meet us there and he would bring his son Joey and the five of us would fish together, all wearing hats, catching nothing, wondering why exactly we continued to come here every week. But we all showed up the next week anyway.

Joey pulled a record musky out of that lake one afternoon and my brother and I hated him for it.

One row plus one column: 14.

The first joint and first drink, both alone in that same year, and how I got caught the first time smoking pot inside the house on a snow day by burning three bags of popcorn in the microwave to hide the smell, and how Mom to my complete shock declared, “It stinks like fucking pot and burnt popcorn in here,” the second she opened the door. Nobody believed me when I said it was my first time because nobody smokes pot alone for the first time, but I did and continued to most of the time and tried almost everything for the first time alone because I thought I was conducting some kind of experiment with my own body as the test subject and wanted to feel whatever it was I was supposed to feel without the hindrance of other people to interject their way of using drugs onto mine, man. Or at least that’s what I said when people asked, but really I just wasn’t very good at making friends or keeping friends or interacting with people in general.

My first funeral that same year. Record-musky-holder Joey died from a motorbike accident at a party and he smashed his head on the pavement and his brain swelled and they had to put him on life support until they found out he wasn’t going to recover. I smoked way too much that day before receiving the phone call that said we were going to the funeral. This was the first time I’d seen two grown men cry in each other’s arms and one of the only times of maybe four or five that I’ve seen Dad cry, only over drugs, only over his sons.

A row of 2 behind the dresser.

Then 2 to 14 years, and I stopped wearing hats and sunglasses and Dad was very confused by this, stating, “How can you fish without a hat?” over and over shaking his head and I used to hate it just so much. I’d stand there listening to him hum and the noise would never stop between my ears and the humming and the silence made me so crazy and by then my brother and I, who had also stopped wearing a hat, used to sneak off the river and into that same corn field by that same factory, now forgotten and overgrown, to smoke pot and cigarettes and drink and fall asleep in the sun. And we both wondered just how and why the fuck Dad spent so much time on this stupid river humming to himself and I wished I was at home getting fucked up in some kid’s basement and dropping acid and talking about philosophy and stuff and the interconnectivity of all things that people who don’t drop just don’t understand, man, but mostly just laughing for 12 hours and trying to do anything, to run away from ourselves.

That same year over Christmas break my friend said he went through his parent’s cabinets and found a lot of Percocet and that he would gladly give away for free, since we were such good friends and all, and I snuck out of the house at the exact moment he said this via AOL Instant Message and walked 3 miles to his house in the middle of the night in the snow. His dad walked out right after he gave me the pills and asked “What exactly in the fuck were you two doing talking outside at 2 in the morning on a Thursday in a fucking snowstorm?” and my friend made up some ridiculous story that I needed to talk to someone right away and his dad just kind of shrugged and went inside and then carefully made sure not to talk about that night again. I took a Percocet that night and went to bed not sure about what all the fuss was about, but the next day figured out how much to take and understood exactly what all the fuss was about.

A column of 4 behind the dresser.

Add 4 to 14 for 18 when I had stopped fishing completely.

“It’s just not my thing anymore,” I’d tell Dad who still asked every single weekend if I wanted to fish even though he knew the answer he’d get. I wanted to tell him how my head couldn’t stop racing and I couldn’t stop thinking about all the things that I had done and couldn’t stop doing that I wasn’t raised to do and things I was supposed to be and wouldn’t ever be every time I went somewhere quiet, but couldn’t.

Fresh out of high school and I’d already had been kicked out, dropped out, fired, and selling drugs to keep the habit going. After painkillers exploded in high school it was easy to think all of this was okay because, well, everyone was doing it, and some were just doing it a little more and if people felt the way I felt they would be too. That same year this kid Nick who I used to swap pills with asked if I could get heroin because he had heard me brag about how I’d sniffed it before. I told him no, but he must have found it somewhere because he was found dead in his bathroom two days later, the first of many deaths from my old school.

I remember thinking about those almost-overdoses and almost-911 calls when friends wouldn’t wake up and thought of all the times waking up to a pounding on the door on the floor and all the blackouts and the times waking up places I didn’t remember going to and thought about how good of an addict I must be, how good of a criminal to never get caught, avoiding the truth that it was the only thing I ever really put my mind to.

I thought about an ex-girlfriend who was there through all of this who overdosed in a sporting goods store parking lot that I used to go walk around in with Dad and my brother years before and how her lips turned purple and her face turned white, then blue and how I took out the phone to call 911, screaming “Someone help!” as she woke up and said “What happened?” and “Can I have more?”

Then 18 and just so goddamn cool because I could get people anything and the phone was always ringing from people who only talked to me when I had drugs and never ringing anymore from the people that loved me for who I was. Fresh out of high school and freshly addicted and we all knew what we were doing and the ones that weren’t right there with us would try to warn us. “Relax,” I’d say and scoff, “I can’t get addicted because a pill or a chemical couldn’t have that kind of power over me,” because I was just too smart and knew all about dopamine and serotonin receptors and how drugs affected them and that they should worry about their own fucking lives because what I do with my body was none of their fucking business anyway.

Another row of 2.

Now 20 years old with a serious collection of junkie friends in their late 20s or early 30s who got a kick out of having a young kid who was such a mess around because I always figured out ways to scam somebody to get money and had an honest face and geeky glasses so I was good to talk to the cops and got out of a lot of shit because I was just so goddamn cool and slick, man, and knew that “the key to a good lie is to believe it yourself,” which I told them all to make myself sound just so cool but really had stolen from an episode of Seinfeld.

Eventually the day came that they, they, said, “Man, you need to get some fucking help; you’re a mess,” and I could never believe the nerve of these people, stupid junkies, always so goddamn rude, and moved on to a new set of friends but the same thing kept happening until I found two men in their late 30s with enormous heroin habits that I would surely never be worse than, that I quickly became worse than. “Man, you need to get some fucking help,” they both said from the couch in between bowls of ice cream, half-dead blinks, and un-ashed cigarettes. Goddamn junkies, always so rude.

Another column of 9 on the other side of the ceiling.

9 months alone nodded-out in bed, disappearing once a day for about 3 hours to go to a ghetto between the changing shifts of cops and rush hour, still just so fucking smart, to wait in some sketchy neighborhood for however long hoping to not get beat again and that the dope is as good as it was last week and that I please oh please don’t go to jail today. Fly rods and waders dusty and forgotten in the garage somewhere but fucking Dad kept leaving voicemails to call him sometime if I’d like to go fishing with him with a sad scoff before he hung up the phone that always went unanswered.
9 months walking that tightrope all junkies know between having lost the will to live but not wanting anyone to have to find me dead in the basement one sunny afternoon because, well, they’re already fucked up enough and that would just be fucked to do to somebody. But that voice that keeps saying to shoot shoot shoot those few extra bags gets louder and louder every single day and by then I’m sure, absolutely sure, that I’ve crossed an imaginary line that people just don’t make it back from.

The perimeter of the tiles. 28.

28 days later and I’m leaving and chainsmoking the whole way home thank god and passed the program with flying colors, ready to start anew and get back on track and I’ve got everyone fooled except myself and I’m high again that same night, high again looking in the mirror after the rush wears off and nobody knows but I do and for the first time in a long time that actually makes me feel something I can’t suppress with a syringe.

I decide to give myself a chance and go to a 12-step meeting the next day, already certain it will be awful, and I analyze how it’s all just a clever pyramid scheme based on a lot of bullshit and pseudo-psychology.

I walk in way too early and ask the only guy who’s there already if he needs help setting up the chairs to which he responds, “Well, they don’t set up themselves,” so I start grabbing chairs and wait until he is just far enough away that he maybe could and maybe couldn’t hear me say, “Fucking asshole,” under my breath and that’s all I remember happening, not anything anyone else said. But I went home with a list full of phone numbers from people who all insisted that I call them, please call them, because they want to help, but a room full of strangers couldn’t help and most of those people were probably high and just lying about it anyway.

That night I’m trying to sleep but I still only sleep for a few hours at a time and tonight I can’t even get those few hours and I don’t believe in God or fate or anything like that because I am smarter than all that and “religion is the opiate of the masses” and anyone who’s anyone knows that and plus if there is a God in the Catholic sense I was just so incredibly fucked at this point so why bother but I ask for a sign anyway, for a stupid burning bush from whatever imaginary force will listen just to get some sort of fucking clue as to where I go from here because I just simply don’t know and this fact makes me cry until I can’t breathe, snot and tears pouring out of my face for however long until I finally take a second to think about how ridiculous I must look, face all swollen and red and covered in mucous and laugh at myself for the first time clean and grab the list of phone numbers and notice that one name, Sean, has an asterisk next to it. And I think “what kind of self-centered dickhead is this guy putting an asterisk next to his name to make himself more noticeable or something Jesus Narcissistic Fucking Christ” but call him anyway because I remembered he looked young. He picks up.


I ramble that I hope I’m not bothering him and that I saw him at the meeting tonight and that I don’t know what to do or say and I was never good at this kind of thing or most things really and usually just kind of average or below average and that I always tend to give up on everything and everyone so prematurely and how the fuck did he stay clean for so long at such a young age and how the fuck could I possibly expect to adjust from the fast-paced lifestyle that I was so accustomed to living to one without drugs and was he really happy and he should tell me the truth and just what the fuck do you guys do with your spare time because it seems that quitting heroin has kind of freed up my entire schedule and—

“We fly fish,” he says. “Me and two other kids from meetings. This guy Larry and this guy Danny. We have extra gear if you need it and can teach you—”


“This weekend we’re going up to the West Branch of the Delaware outside this little shitty town Deposit, you can—”

“What pool?”

“Umm, there’s this spot we go to by what used to be a cornfield a lot? There’s this ugly fucking factory right by it, but the trout are big and everywhere year round. They release water from the dam so it stays cold year—well, you probably don’t care. . . .

“Hey, Ben, are you still there?

“You been fly fishing before?


“Ben, you there?”

Five years later and the four of us still spend as much time as possible together side by side waist deep in some river somewhere listening to the sounds of the river and the fly line zipping in and out of the guides, all wearing hats.

I find myself humming often.

About the author: Benjamin Burgholzer is a Ph.D. candidate at Binghamton University and an English professor at Rockland Community College. When he is not teaching or writing, he spends as much time as possible in the mountains, woods, and rivers. This piece originally appeared in Little Patuxent Review’s Summer 2014 issue.