From Our Current Issue: Hannah Bonner

Little Patuxent Review just released its Winter Issue (available for purchase at this link). Each week we’ll highlight some of the content from this issue. For this week, we’re looking at Hannah Bonner’s essay, Fixed in a Moment of Fierce Attention: 13 Ways of Looking at Claire Underwood.”

Bonner is a Film Studies Ph.D. candidate at the University of Iowa. We’re very grateful that she came from Iowa City to Columbia, Maryland for our launch this past weekend. She’s one of so many readers who made this issue and launch such a success.

Bonner’s poetry has been published in So to Speak, The Freeman, Asheville Poetry Review, and North Carolina Literary Review, among others. In addition to LPR, her essays have been published in Bustle, VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts, Misadventures magazine, and Weird Sister.

Q: At one point you cite Wallace Steven’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” Your essay is very different in form from the poem, but did Stevens guide your writing in any way? What were your other influences/inspirations?

At the time I was writing “Fixed in a Moment of Fierce Attention: 13 Ways of Looking at Claire Underwood” I was reading a lot of non-fiction, so Wallace Steven’s poem was not in the fore front of my mind (though I did re-read it during the writing process). Instead, I was reading Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, Tan Lin’s 7 Controlled Vocabularies and Obituary 2004. The Joy of Cooking, and Maggie Nelson’s Bluets. Each of these texts are very esoteric, but also very sensual, lyrical, and deeply preoccupied with perspective, revision, and fragmentation.

I was at the Vermont Studio Center so I had all this uninterrupted time to soak in their episodic prose, but also in their obsessions, whether with a lover or a color. Claire Underwood had been an obsession of mine for years. I was trying to hone in on why I’m drawn to her and how ephemeral and ultimately unsatisfying it can be when we’re obsessed with someone or something that we can only access in a surface and finite way.

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Concerning Craft: How is a Poem Born?

The “Concerning Craft” series introduces Little Patuxent Review contributors, showcases their work and draws back the curtain to reveal a little of what went into producing it.

Our latest comes from Mary Makofske, whose poem “Museum of Dusty Metaphors” appeared in LPR’s Summer 2015 issue. More recently she is the recipient of the 2017 Atlanta Review International Poetry Prize and the 2017 New Millennium Poetry Prize. Her poem “Doldrums Near the End of Empire” appears on the New Millennium site. Her latest book is World Enough, and Time (Kelsay, 2017).

Inspiration and perspiration

Inspiration is real—that bolt of lightning out of nowhere, the whole line, or whole stanza, or whole poem which appears like magic. But that gift is, for most of us, rare, and it’s more likely we will receive such gifts when we’ve had years of practice. Jane Hirchfield says of the “gift” poem: “A person cannot speak much of ‘craft’ under those circumstances, except to the degree that craft is pressed into the psyche over a lifetime of reading and writing poems.”

No one who hasn’t studied and practiced for years is going to sit down at a piano and compose a symphony. We can’t expect poets to become expert without experience, either. Yes, there are the rare geniuses, but for most of us, some perspiration is required.

Inspiration for me has come not only from my own experience and observation, but though the poems of writers I admire. My poetry pantheon has challenged me to take on subjects and styles I feared. I read poems in two ways. One is analytical—reading a poem carefully and examining how it works. Is it a formal poem, such as a sonnet or sestina? If it is free verse, how is it structured? How does it use metaphor? Does it contain an “I” speaker? Does it address someone? How does it handle time? Where does the poem go? Where does it begin, how does it progress, how does it end?

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Paul Rucker: Featured Artist for Winter 2018 Issue

One of the most distinctive features of LPR is that we feature an artist’s profile and work in each issue. Paul Rucker, who created the installation on racism called REWIND, is our featured artist for the upcoming Winter 2018 issue. Ann Bracken, LPR’s deputy editor, interviewed Rucker this fall. Enjoy!

An Interview with Featured Artist Paul Rucker

Paul Rucker explains his approach this way: “I want to deal with the truth. The ‘I know’ rather than the ‘I feel’ or ‘I think.’” History is what drives Rucker’s art, along with his passion for educating people on the relationship between slavery, structural racism, and mass incarceration.

Photo of Paul Rucker

Paul Rucker

He’s a visual artist, musician, and collector who likes to tell stories. He uses the objects in his collection to create art exhibits that are designed to present facts and promote discussion about history and societal issues.

Because Rucker’s work deals with the relationship between slavery and the prison-industrial complex, you might expect his collection to relate to these topics. “I have a little museum,” he told me, “and many of the pieces I’ve collected become part of my exhibitions.” One of the objects in his collection is a 50-pound ball and chain that was used to keep the convicts from escaping. After slavery ended, many states leased convicts to do the work that slaves were no longer required to do for free. In a Baltimore Sun article about Rucker’s REWIND exhibit, there’s a striking photo of him holding the iron ball. “I dropped that ball on my foot and broke my big toe,” he told me when we spoke.

Rucker also has a collection of books espousing white supremacy and justifying slavery. Two notable and disturbing titles are The Negro: A Menace to American Civilization by R. W. Schufeldt, M.D., and White Supremacy and Negro Subordination by John H. VanEvry, also a physician. Both of these books are part of the REWIND exhibit, as are branding irons used on slaves. Rucker lets the objects speak the truth of history.

Paul Rucker has a distinguished list of grants, awards, and residencies for visual art and music. In 2012, Rucker became a creative capital grantee in visual art as well as a 2014 MAP (Multi-Arts Production) fund grantee for performance. In 2015, Rucker received two awards—the Mary Sawyer Baker Award along with the distinguished Joan Mitchell Painters & Sculptors Grant. Rucker received the Rauschenberg Artist as Activist fellowship in 2016 and the Smithsonian Artist Research fellowship, which bestows on him the privilege of being the first artist in residence at the new National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Among his many residencies are the MacDowell Colony, Ucross Foundation, Art OMI, Banff Centre, Rauschenberg Residency, Joan Mitchell Residency, Hemera Artist Retreat, Air Serembe, Creative Alliance, and the Rockefeller Foundation Study Center in Bellagio, Italy. Closer to home, from 2013 to 2015 the Maryland Institute College of Art hosted Rucker as the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation artist in residence and research fellow.

Now Rucker can add Richmond, Virginia, to his other two cities of residence—Baltimore and Seattle. Virginia Commonwealth University named him an iCubed (Inclusion, Inquiry, and Innovation) visiting arts fellow embedded at the Institute for Contemporary Art, where he’ll teach a music course in the spring of 2018. Most recently, he was awarded a 2017 John Simon Guggenheim fellowship, and he’s currently spearheading a Kickstarter campaign to fund more exhibitions of REWIND across the country.

Little Patuxent Review: How does the REWIND exhibit speak to what’s going on in the United States right now? In particular, how does the exhibit speak to the societal tensions in Baltimore?

Paul Rucker: The exhibit speaks to more than societal tensions in Baltimore; the same things are happening all across the United States. I live in both Seattle and Baltimore, and both cities have similar problems. The redlining that began in Baltimore moved across the country to Seattle.

Some places are amplifications of the issues; others are subtler. REWIND is about history from a place of “I know.” I created a 30-page newspaper full of historical information and photographs as part of the exhibition. People need to know what came before in this country to understand where we are now. For example, in the 1920s, there were four to five million members of the Ku Klux Klan, all organized to protect white culture. Now we have a variety of groups, widely dispersed and less organized—the Neo-Nazis, Pro-Confederates, White Nationalists. Richard Spencer can barely get 100 people to come out when he speaks. If we look at this a different way, if ten people on a college campus came to hear Spencer’s speech, seven would just be curious, two might be followers, and one person would be there due to taking a wrong turn in the hall.

The people we really need to be concerned about are all of the white suburbanites and even white progressives who benefit from the structural racism in this country.

LPR: How do you see us—as a country—turning that around?

PR: First people have to know that the situation [structural racism] exists and that it affects some people more than others. I was reading the other day that if we allow society to keep going the way that it is now, in 2053 Black Americans will have a net worth of $0. Why is the average white family worth so much more than the average Black family? Is it because they work so much harder? Where are the nice Black neighborhoods? They don’t exist in any city.

Things have not improved in Baltimore despite having a Black mayor or a Black police commissioner, even with the country having a Black president for eight years. Mayor Pugh can give great speeches and she gets a lot of credit for taking down Confederate monuments, but she vetoed a $15/hour minimum wage. Taking down a few monuments does not address poverty, inadequate schools, or systemic racism. We had eight years of Obama, and even he couldn’t talk about race or white privilege. Why can white people’s kids feel free to walk to the store safely without fear of being shot, and buy Skittles and some juice, but Black kids can’t? That’s white privilege.

LPR: I read in one of your interviews that you wanted to do a piece on Freddie Gray. Have you?

PR: I’m still thinking about it. You know, that situation isn’t over yet; things are still going on. The police officers are on trial again, and three of them are Black. Right around the time of the uprising, I did an exhibit with flag-covered coffins at Baltimore City Hall. But when I do an exhibit or a new art piece, it’s all connected. It’s meant for everyone that’s been a victim of terrorism.

LPR: As part of the inaugural Light City Baltimore Festival, you shone a spotlight on places around the city where African men, women, and children were sold, and then you composed a cello solo for each site. Which site was most evocative or disturbing for your audience? How did people respond?

PR: I actually performed my cello compositions at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, so that was a separate event. But the exhibit, which I named “In Light of History,” had eight separate installations along Pratt Street at the Inner Harbor. Each exhibit had an old street light and a sign detailing why the spot was significant. Many of the installations dealt with the buying and selling of slaves, with the text coming directly from old ads in the Baltimore Sun. One document that I purchased is a bill of sale for a three-year-old slave. As soon as you could walk, you were a slave. At the harbor in Baltimore, the point of entry into the United States, you entered as a slave. Location number eight was at

O’Donnell’s Wharf, which was a location for “incoming and outgoing brigs and barques where dockside sales of enslaved people took place.”

LPR: How did the audience respond?

PR: Mostly with disbelief. You never learned this in history class, did you? You know, the Inner Harbor is a place of beauty. People shop, go out to eat. These locations were never marked before, and they’re not marked now.

LPR: What are some other events related to slavery that people find unbelievable?

PR: The early slave trade began in Boston and Richmond, but Baltimore was included as well. People tend to think of slavery as happening only in the Deep South—places like South Carolina and Mississippi—but it happened all over the U.S. Just recently, people discovered a slave burial ground in Tribeca—that’s in New York City. They estimate that between 15,000 and 30,000 people are buried there. Some as young as five years old. The archeologists could see that many of them were worked to death because of their bone structure. White people aren’t buried in mass graves, at least in the U.S.

LPR: Tell me a little about your journey as a musician. What led you to choose the cello, and how would you describe your technique?

PR: Actually, I began as a double-bass player in elementary school, and then I played in college. At some point, I decided I wanted to learn the cello, so I bought one for $1000 and never took a lesson. I play differently from anyone else. I make up ways of approaching the instrument, and I improvise music on the spot. I’ve played with a number of orchestras, including the South Carolina Philharmonic, the Augusta Symphony, and the Ashville Symphony. Right now I have a performance piece called “Stories from the Trees” where I play music to animated postcards that depict lynchings.

My exhibit on the Klan features one actual Klan robe and several others made out of different fabrics. The exhibit was inspired by my time playing with the Augusta Opera in 1989, where I first saw Ku Klux Klan members.

LPR: You were awarded a 2017 Rauschenberg Fellowship for the Artist as Activist to dig deeper into the mass incarceration crisis. Say some more about that.

PR: Well, when people say that the system is broken, they’re actually repeating a false narrative. The system is actually working exactly the way that it was designed to work. People talk about the disproportionality in education from one community to another, but that’s because of the system that’s in place. We need to be asking why the education system disproportionally helps one community more than another. In the last election, the poor whites spoke out. And how do we justify the treatment of imprisoned people? What about when we say “He can do better than that. Pull himself up by his bootstraps.” First, a person needs to have some bootstraps.

In my exhibit “Proliferation,” where I show how many prisons have been built in the U.S. between 1778 and 2008, I use lights in different colors to show how many prisons were built in various time periods. By far the greatest boom in prison construction took place between 1981 and 2008. I get a variety of different responses from people. Some say they can’t believe we waste that kind of money. Other people cry.

LPR: In one of your recent interviews you said, Well, I did a TED Talk over a year ago in Berkeley talking about how they were using the word “thug” to describe Trayvon [Martin]. I said, “‘thug’ is the new ‘nigger.’” It’s a kind of coded language. And even the smartest people are not aware of how this language is being used. It gets into the news, even into the textbooks. How do we work to reclaim language and call out the code words for what they are?

PR: I am reclaiming symbols to tell the truth. I have a collection of branding irons, Klan robes, and books about White Supremacy as well as pro-slavery books that I bought from private collectors on eBay. I want to tell the true story of these items. Think about this language: How does it work when we have a team with owners? When the members of that team can be traded? Why are all of the owners white? Are they working in a field? Think about it.

We need to talk about how the narrative is framed when we discuss people. Who are our archetypes? What does a doctor look like? What does a genius look like? How do we frame history? My family’s been in this country a lot longer than many white people. Wealthy people want to control the narrative to justify the power they have.

LPR: Some public figures are using what could be called coded language to talk about the protests in the NFL regarding police brutality. For example, Owner Bob McNair said, “We can’t have the inmates running the prison.”

PR: I’m glad he said it. A lot of other people think it as well.

LPR: What do you see as an appropriate action for football players to take in response to his comments?

PR: Wouldn’t it be great if all of the Black players formed a superstar team? A Black-owned team? That would be a most amazing thing.

LPR: Your exhibit REWIND draws parallels between police violence and lynching and slavery and the prison systems. For those that haven’t seen the exhibit, can you describe “Excessive Use”?

PR: I wanted to explore what it was like to carry a weapon, so I got a permit for concealed carry and bought a Glock 22 40-caliber pistol. I wanted to know how it feels to pull the trigger, to shoot 50 or 137 bullets into someone. The exhibit features pieces of white paper with the names of people who’ve been murdered by police. Each piece of paper is named by the date and location of the tragedy and has the exact number of bullet holes that the bodies endured. I use my art as a way of showing what happens as opposed to simply talking about it.

LPR: Recently, both Michelle Alexander in her book The New Jim Crow and Ava DuVernay in her film 13th have discussed the movement from slavery to the current system of mass incarceration. Talk about how your work addresses the trajectory from slave labor to convict leasing to the current labor system that operates in prisons across the U.S.

PR: While I admire the work of Michelle Alexander and Eva DuVernay, I think we first need to give credit to Angela Davis for her 1997 speech “The Prison Industrial Complex.” You know, this prison system of labor is extremely profitable. Davis warned about that system and said that it would continue to grow. I had to fund my own projects because years ago, no one would fund me to talk about mass incarceration. Then several of my friends told me about the Rauschenberg call for projects. I applied, and I was awarded the funding.

LPR: Since the 1970s, the U.S. has seen an explosion in the building of prisons. Your performance piece, “Proliferation,” deals with this issue in an especially provocative manner. You cite the statistic that the U.S. has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s prison population. Describe “Proliferation,” talk a bit about the genesis of the idea, and talk about what you hope audiences will take away from it.

PR: The map that I use in the exhibit came from the Prison Policy Initiative, and they were happy to have me animate what they had put together. I want to show, not tell. There are 2.3 million people incarcerated in the U.S. People don’t understand this is happening, and “Proliferation” is another way of telling the story. But all of us benefit from the system of prison labor in the U.S. Some of the biggest U.S. corporations use prison labor, including Bank of America, GEICO, Walmart, and ATT. According to the UNICOR website (formerly the Federal Prison Industries) prisoners earn between $0.23 and $1.15 per hour.

LPR: In other interviews that I’ve read, you’ve said that your work is not about race, it’s about power. Can you expand on that idea? How does that relate to the current situation in Baltimore with the trial boards and the officers involved in Freddie Gray’s murder?

PR: The system is about maintaining the power that people already have. Let’s think about the Baltimore Police. The Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1863, but slavery wasn’t officially ended in Maryland until November 1, 1864. In 1862, a uniformed version of the Baltimore Police Department was established. What were the police used for? To keep communities in place first of all. Then they served as the public face to enforce redlining to be sure that “those people” don’t move into white communities. It’s about power.

LPR: What most inspires you to keep creating visual art and music?

PR: I enjoy telling stories. The power of the artist is to make the unseen seen, and I enjoy doing that.

And we need to talk about privilege. Everyone needs to look at their privilege. Look around your neighborhood. If there are no Black folks living in your neighborhood, you need to ask why. Black neighbors matter. If there aren’t any Blacks in your workplace, you need to ask why. Black jobs matter.

LPR: What is the role of hope in your work?

PR: Hope comes through knowledge. You can’t have hope unless you have something to believe in. When you learn that a system is stacked against you, that you’re not here out of any fault of your own, then you can begin to address the system. REWIND gives me hope.

~Ann Bracken, Contributing/Deputy Editor

Videos featuring Paul Rucker and his work

Real New Network Interview: “The System is Based on Profit” 

Paul Rucker at TED-X: An Artist Copes with Reality

Paul Rucker is a visual artist, composer, and musician who often combines media, integrating live performance, sound, original compositions, and visual art. His work is the product of a rich interactive process, through which he investigates community impacts, human rights issues, historical research, and basic human emotions surrounding particular subject matters. Much of his current work focuses on the Prison Industrial Complex and the many issues accompanying incarceration in its relationship to slavery. He has presented performances and visual art exhibitions across the country and has collaborated with educational institutions to address the issue of mass incarceration. Presentations have taken place in schools, active prisons, and inactive prisons such as Alcatraz.

Rucker has received numerous grants, awards, and residencies for visual art and music. He is a 2012 Creative Capital grantee in visual art as well as a 2014 MAP (Multi-Arts Production) fund grantee for performance. In 2015 he received a prestigious Joan Mitchell Painters & Sculptors Grant as well as the Mary Sawyer Baker Award. In 2016 Paul received the Rauschenberg Artist as Activist fellowship and the Smithsonian Artist Research fellowship, for which he is the first artist in residence at the new National Museum of African American Culture.

Ann Bracken is the author of two collections of poetry, No Barking in the Hallways: Poems from the Classroom (2017) and The Altar of Innocence (2015), both published by New Academia Publishing’s Scarith imprint, and the deputy editor for Little Patuxent Review. Her poetry, essays, and interviews have appeared in anthologies and journals, including Bared: Contemporary Poetry and Art on Bras and Breasts, New Verse News, Reckless Writing Anthology: Emerging Poets of the 21st Century, and Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence. She co-hosts the popular reading series Wilde Readings and offers poetry and writing workshops in prisons, adult education centers and schools, and at creativity conferences.

 

Winter 2018 Issue Launch

Winter 2018 Issue: Launch on January 21, 2018, 2:00 pm
Oliver’s Carriage House
5410 Leaf Treader Way
Columbia, MD 21044

The winter 2018 issue launch will feature readings of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, a presentation of the Michael J. Clark Best of LPR Fiction Award, and a video presentation by artist Paul Rucker. Readers will include Katy Day (poetry), Edgar Garbelotto (fiction), and Aspen Stoddard (nonfiction), as well as members of the Black Ladies Brunch Collective.

Audience members can meet the contributors, purchase copies of LPR, and enjoy light refreshments. The complete program is available at this link.

Alan King’s Poetry: Preview from Winter 2018 Issue

We launch the Winter 2018 issue of LPR on January 21st, but thought you might like to see some of the excellent work we’ve selected, so we’re featuring a local poet with a clear and unmistakeable voice. Alan King’s work has previously been published in LPR, and we are happy to welcome him back for the Winter 2018 Issue. Enjoy, and hope to see you at the launch!

headshot, Alan King

Alan King

The Journey

Each day is a little life: every waking and rising
a little birth, every fresh morning a little youth,
every going to rest and sleep a little death.
-Arthur Schopenhauer

The diner’s nearly empty
when you both arrive – except for
the six or so other patrons and
a waitress who calls everyone “Hun”.

The fluorescent lights lick the Formica bar
and chrome stools, the black and purple beaten
booths and a straw-headed boy staring at you
over cold chicken strips, the ketchup
a sticky scab on his plate.

He reminds you of the little girls
the night before, running through a restaurant
in Berlin, Maryland, where you stayed at a hotel
known to be an antique –

its hardwood bathroom floors, the claw-
footed tub with its wraparound shower curtain,
the portraits of hoop-skirted women
twirling parasols, the prairie-style
wooden armoire closet.

The two girls, laughing as they ran through
the Drummers Cafe, stopped at the sight
of you and your wife, the only black people
in the restaurant that night.

When you remember the patrons’ darting
eyes at your wife’s dreadlocks, the way
the hostess smiled past you to the white family
she sat, while you waited,

when all around you the consensus
seemed to echo the nursery rhyme:
How did it get so late so soon?
It’s night before it’s afternoon,

you remember the loneliness
of feeling like the only one fighting for sanity
when the world makes you someone else.

You watch your wife rub her full moon
and talk to your daughter 27 weeks alive
inside her, knowing that each day is a little life,
each step towards progress a little birth,

even if the journey is full of off ramps,
like the one that brought you both
to a bright diner on your way home,

to the slurping straw that says
the blond boy’s savoring what’s left
of his chocolate shake before he sacks out
on the plush seat – his mom flipping through
a magazine, picking at her fries.

You watch him wrapped in his blue blanket –
as if sleep weren’t a little death; as if the world
weren’t a dark dream, haunted by a boogeyman’s
appetite for innocent things.

BIO: Alan King is a Caribbean American, whose parents emigrated from Trinidad and Tobago to the U.S. in the 1970s. He’s a husband, father, and communications professional who blogs about art and social issues at alanwking.com. He’s the author of POINT BLANK (Silver Birch Press, 2016) and DRIFT (Willow Books, 2012). A Cave Canem graduate fellow, he holds a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast Program.

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.