10th Anniversary: Five Myths about the Afghan People

This essay was originally published on August 7, 2015. It is being re-shared in support of LPR’s 10th Anniversary celebration.

Angie Chuang

Angie Chuang

I was one of thousands of “embedded” reporters in Afghanistan during the post-9/11 years—only I didn’t embed with a military unit, I lived with a family in Kabul (and traveled with them to their rural village in Ghazni) for nearly a month. This family and my experiences in Afghanistan with them formed the central narrative of my hybrid memoir, The Four Words for Home.

We’ve officially withdrawn U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan, and we’re left with a vague feeling that though the Taliban were overthrown from official leadership, our understanding of this complex nation is more tenuous than ever. Perhaps it was easier for the U.S. government and the American Mind to perceive “The Afghan People” as mysterious and inscrutable. That way, we could throw up our hands and chalk up any nation-building failures to the inherent fierceness and ungovernable nature of the Afghan people. Just ask Alexander the Great in 330 B.C. or the Soviet Army in 1988 A.D.

So in honor of Little Patuxent Review’s forthcoming theme issue on Myth, I offer my personal debunking of five myths about Afghanistan and Afghans I’ve commonly heard.

NOTE: If you enjoyed this essay, please check out LPR’s Issue 19: Myth. https://littlepatuxentreview.org/issues/19-winter-2016-myth/

Winter 2016 “Myth” Cover Reveal

LPR 2016Myth_FRONT cover.sm

Frame of Mind (G) Minas Konsolas Acrylic and ink on canvas, 2015 30 × 24 in.

Myths are not lies. They are the stories that shape and reflect belief systems.

According to artist Minas Konsolas, myths are the truest form of history because they are the stories a culture tells about itself—stories often repeated in oral tradition before the printed word. Konsolas, born on the Greek island of Karpathos, has read and listened to such stories his entire life. He knows that even though a myth can be manipulated as a method of control, truth of the tale will be found in its universal symbolism.

Regarding universal themes and symbols, Native American poet Edgar Silex reminds us that we have identified “some ninety-plus essential human stories” retold in multiple time periods and places. Why do the peoples of the world tell such similar stories? Theories range from very predictable—the influence of migration—to fantastic speculation about star seed or genetic hot-wiring. For Silex, who is a mythology scholar and teacher, similar stories evolve from our shared human experience—causing symbols and themes to be “engrammed in the universal subconscious.”

Stories and poems in this issue echo ancient works even as they search for images and narratives applicable to current events. Readers share the “drunken joy” of kings, madwomen, slippery gods, and mermaids. They witness crusades, war, persecution, and discrimination on multiple continents. They are privy to the pain of infertility, insecurity, addiction, and other human conditions. They are invited into city apartments, suburban garages, and the roots and branches of trees where the occupants live between heaven and hell in conceptualized beauty, sexuality, or even reality.
Some of us may be able to read present, past, and future in the entrails of a crow. Many of us will remember that the world remains the same even as it changes: snakes are still some of our favorite shapeshifters; apples can be poisoned in many ways.

Thank you, Little Patuxent Review staff and contributors, for sharing this “mythic” adventure. It takes the experience and stories of a village to make a journal happen.

—Patricia Jakovich VanAmburg

Online Editor’s Note: Be sure to join guest editor Patricia Jakovich VanAmburg at the Winter 2016 Launch Reading on Sunday, January 24, from 2-4 pm. 

Concerning Craft: Making “Macular Conception”

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.

Destiny O. Birdsong, MFA, PhD

Destiny O. Birdsong, MFA, PhD

I’m a crime TV junkie, and some of the most disturbing stories I’ve ever watched involve fetal abductions: the kidnapping of an unborn child, usually by removal of the fetus from a pregnant woman’s body. Fetal abductions are almost always committed by women, are almost always violent, and the mothers almost always die, but what most fascinates me are the interviews of people who knew the assailants. Typically, when a woman commits these abductions, she has also faked a pregnancy, but family members will say things like: “She had to be pregnant. I touched her stomach, and I felt the baby kick.” The person telling the story is always so convinced. They had to have felt something. And the woman, so desperate to be expecting, must have felt something too. What power can the body harness in the midst of that much belief? Can it become the thing it is pretending to be? I’m not sure, but this is the question that prompted me to write this poem.

There have also been times in my life when I’ve been desperate to be pregnant, usually for reasons other than wanting a child. I’ve wanted to be pregnant to keep men. Or to prove my body capable of something I’m still not sure it can do. I mean, I haven’t always been the most careful, so I’ve often wondered what’s wrong with me for not conceiving. I’ve had some of the moments I outline in the poem. I’ve done things. I’ve said things. I’ve made wishes.

eyeSo “Macular Conception” is a story about the body’s utmost desire and belief, and the title lends itself to this. The macula is the part of the eye where light is transmitted to nerve signals that tell the brain what you see: a word, a stoplight, a baby. It’s also the point of sharpest visual acuity, where we see things the most clearly. But as a person who doesn’t have perfect eyesight, I also understand that acuity is relative: easily compromised, or often misread by the brain.

I started with the first image I knew: the speaker wrapping negative pregnancy tests in paper towels and throwing them away outside her house. She’s hiding them from herself as much as from the guy, a fact that I try to bring home when she also hides her tampons (because her boyfriend isn’t counting her tampons). I wanted to open the piece by illustrating her neuroses, and the listing of these actions with the halting sentence structure is another manifestation of that. I wanted her to be practical about all of it. I wanted her to have checklists, even as she was doing this irrational thing.

pregnancy imageI was also certain that I wanted her to be young. Honestly, I was writing back to a younger self, and I wanted to highlight that naiveté in the speaker as well as in her boyfriend. I wanted him to misread her fingernail imprints on her belly as stretchmarks. I wanted her to see a pregnancy as a “suc[cess] at failure” without truly understanding why the single mothers in her life wanted her to do something different. I wanted her to be oblivious to how dismissive (and inaccurate) a term like “failure” can be. There’s something tragic in that: a girl who wants to take on this massive responsibility but is unable to articulate independently a personal stance on what motherhood means to her. That moment is the most problematic for me in the poem (I’m always a little apprehensive of how readers might perceive it), but I chose to keep it in for that exact reason.

I also really wanted the speaker to have an orgasm, an instance when her body—in all its imagined and hoped-for failure—has a visceral reaction, like the non-existent child kicking in the would-be mother’s womb. I wanted her body to work for her in a moment when she is enraptured by the thought of her holding a part of her lover inside it. The sentence structure changes here too, and clauses get longer to illustrate the messiness of it all: the dirty bathroom stall, the child who feeds on her insides like a catfish, the boy with his painful kisses. It’s unfortunate that this is the place where it happens, when she is alone and hoping, and not with someone who wants to be with her, pregnant or otherwise—or better yet, when she is by herself in some other place, thinking about her whole self, and not about what her body must do in order to be valid. But that too is a part of her story. Not only is her desire overwhelming, but also unwieldy, perhaps because she has never taken the time to explore it on her terms.

It isn’t until the final lines of the poem that we get to something like that, but it is still a problematic moment: an articulation of self-belief, but again, for the unworthy cause of keeping “the boy,” who is only staying because he believes she is having “his” child. I chose the final image of the traffic light and making a wish because she is still so young, and this is a game she’s playing with the hopes of not getting caught, but still doesn’t understand the implications of doing so. I wanted to leave the reader with this final image of youth and self-absorption, but also of an intense, transformative belief—a dangerous combination. Like the television shows I often watch, I wanted to narrate a disaster in the making, in the instant before the light turns red, or the cop pulls out of his hiding place, or the car comes barreling toward her. And I also wanted to give her a voice before the disaster—a flawed one, but not a monstrous one. So often, I too have wanted something that badly, not knowing that my body’s desire alone was proof enough that I was human, haveable, whole.

Macular Conception
by Destiny O. Birdsong

She wrapped all the negative tests in paper towels
And threw them away at the gas station up the street.
Lined the tampons up, one by one, beneath her mattress:
Thirty-six. Doesn’t want to need them; hopes
That in the days and weeks of the summer’s bilious heat
She will succeed at failure. Failure in the eyes
Of the single mothers she knows. Especially her own.

But she wants this. She wants it so badly she imagines
Her skin stretching in sleep. She claws it feverishly,
Awakening to trails of crescent-shaped welts on her belly
That resemble a seascape drawn by the hand of a child.
The boy, who has never slept next to a pregnant girl,
Has seen them, but he believes they’re stretch marks.

The boy believes her, along with her shift manager,
All of her friends, and two of her professors.
But the stash of tampons is dwindling. She can’t buy more.
Luckily, the flow is weak—red dabs of spit.
If anyone asks, she can tell them she’s spotting.

Squatting over a restroom seat, she wonders
What her body means to say in this remittance.
The possibilities excite her. Standing, she wills
The unshed blood and refuse to knit a net,
Trapping a piece of her lover. This swimming self
Nudges against the folds of her endometrium
Like a catfish nosing algae from the walls
Of an aquarium. She can see it
As clearly as if her womb were made of glass.
She can feel its small, open-mouthed kisses stinging
The way the father’s does: teeth nicking her tongue.
And the bliss of it—the body’s obedience, and the boy—
Brings the rush she never feels. She arches, contracts.

This father, the boy who sleeps next to her, wants to leave
But now he won’t: she’s having a child. Or she will be.
She must be. Beneath yellow traffic lights, she
Scratches the sun-visor and makes a wish
That is much more like a prayer: Please,
Let it count for something that I believe
Myself. Because I believe myself.

Online Editor’s Note: Destiny Birdsong’s “Macular Conception” will appear in the Winter 2016 “Myth” Issue. Also, her poem “Selective Reduction” appears in the Fall 2015 Issue of Rove.

One Day It Will Be Too Late

Lemony SnicketLittle Patuxent Review was created to foster and encourage a community of writers, poets and artists, which it has done brilliantly for nearly ten years. We’ve held readings and workshops, attended book fairs and festivals, and published themed and unthemed journals, highlighting work submitted by creators all over the United States.

The current themed issued, Myth, closes to submissions at midnight on October 24, 2015. That’s one day from today. As much as our community celebrates you, we can’t submit your work for you. Some things stand alone in the “one” column.

Myths like:

  • Yeti.
  • The Loch Ness Monster (affectionately known as “Nessie”).
  • Slenderman.
  • The Great Pumpkin.
  • “I didn’t sleep with woman.”
  • Donald Trump.
  • Someone knocking on your door to discover you.

If you’ve been contemplating a submission to the Myth issue, now’s the time. Our editors and readers look forward to sinking into your work.


We’re the lucky ones

Gandhi once said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” We’re fortunate at Little Patuxent Review to have a team of dedicated volunteers, who work tirelessly behind the scenes to read your submission, edit the journal and create the final printed product. With our submission period opening on Saturday, I thought it might be a great opportunity for you to meet them. Over the next several months, look for fun and interesting posts about our stalwart volunteers.

Lynn Weber Rehoboth

Lynn Weber at Rehoboth. Photo credit: Jay Kissel.

First up is Lynn Weber, who not only reads poetry submissions, but performs double duty as the line editor for our print journal.

How long have you been a volunteer for LPR? About three years.

When you edit a submission, what reference materials do you use? Webster’s and the Chicago Manual of Style. And the Internet, of course, as specific questions come up.

What’s your process for going through submissions? I tend to read submissions in large batches to keep the competition fresh in mind. It’s easier to see trends—and deviations from the norm—that way. I don’t have a very sophisticated method of reading, however. I just plunge in and see if that spark lights up. I avoid comments or ratings by other reviewers until I’ve cast my vote—and also avoid the names of submitters, to avoid any unconscious biases.

When you’re reading a submission, what draws you most about a pieceMy byword is “different.” I want to experience a fresh use of language. There are tons of beautifully crafted poems with a modest, slightly mournful tone about mortality, dying parents, the evanescence or fragile beauty of the natural world. Lyrics describing the earthiness of gardening or cooking. Poems about the sensuality of vegetables! At this point—and I may be in the minority here—I’d rather read even a poorly crafted poem that is fresh and vital than a well-wrought poem that is safely within our current traditions.

What turns you off immediately when you read a submission? The word “I.” Semi-colons. Lyrical description. Melancholy.

Who has informed your reading tastes most? WhyIn terms of poetry, the textbook anthology Western Wind by John Frederick Nims. In college at Towson University in the 1980s, I took a poetry course with the luminous Clarinda Harriss, the great Baltimore poet and long-time friend of LPR, and Western Wind was our primary text. For ten or fifteen years afterward, I read from that anthology every single night before bed. Anthologies show you how wide language can be stretched, from the beautiful formality of “Dover Beach” to the insanity that is Christopher Smart’s “For I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffrey.”

What’s on your nightstand right now to be readMostly novels that I review for the magazine Booklist. My favorite book of the last year was Delicious Foods by James Hannaham, a tour de force that exemplifies that byword “different.” I’m also making extremely slow progress on my made-up curriculum of the great works of Western civilization. I started, literally decades ago, with the ancient Greeks and got stuck at the Middle Ages, when everything goes haywire. So many little kingdoms and shifting borders. I’m reading some medieval history now to try to wrap my head around it. I just finished The Plantagenets by Dan Jones and will pick up some Peter Ackroyd next. I also need to read the new one by Ta-Nehisi Coates, our homegrown Baltimore genius.

Are you also a writer/poet? If so, tell us more. I’m an occasional dabbler in poetry writing, a more dedicated writer about culture. I have a blog, www.theredmargins.com, and am working on a book about the feminine aesthetic in popular culture.

What’s your Six Word Memoir? Lucky lucky lucky lucky. So far.

Do you have any superpowers? If not, what do you wish you had? The only superpower worth having is a big heart.

Online Editor’s Note: Submissions for Myth open on Aug. 1 and remain open until Oct. 24.

It’s No Myth: LPR Announces Guest Editor for Winter 2016 Issue

When the Winter 2016 theme of Myth was announced to the LPR staff, I felt a flutter of possibility ripple through my body. I’d just returned from Italy, having done my fair share of cavorting before various Roman temples, and my mind immediately turned to the Medusa myth. As my eldest son tells it, Athena came upon Zeus “getting funky” with Medusa in Athena’s temple. Athena cursed Medusa, hence the snakey locks and turning-people-to-stone thing. Myths take all forms. They are a collected body of stories, told to explain nature, history and customs. Myths occur in every culture. Remember the urban legend of Mikey and Pop Rocks? Thank goodness for Snopes, who confirmed my theory that Mikey lives. (In my home, we’ve got our own faux version of Snopes called reliablesource.com, to which we “refer” whenever some outlandish story is told at the dinner table.)

Patricia VanAmberg, June 2015.

Patricia VanAmburg, June 2015.

When the LPR staff decided to invite a guest to edit our Winter 2016 Myth issue, our choice seemed clear-cut. Baltimore poet and writer Patricia VanAmburg balances literary credentials with scholarly training in classic myths. Lucky for us, Patricia is as excited about the intersections between myth and literature as we are.

Here is guest editor Patricia VanAmburg, to tell us more about her thoughts about LPR’s Myth issue.

I have been a writer/poet since the moment I learned the alphabet. I have been a teacher for most of my adult life. My favorite class has always been world literature because I marvel at the diversity and sameness of its stories—especially those of the ancient world.

One of the defining moments of my life was my introduction, by Maryland poet Edgar Silex, to the Sumerian myth of Inanna. I had been teaching the Sumerian epic Gilgamesh (c. 3000 B.C.E.) for many years before I first read the Inanna text of the same era, a story in which the female hero takes an inward, spiritual journey. Immediately, I started a library of mythology which expanded to archeology because I loved the visual symbols that went with the earliest texts.

This is how I learned about the work of archeologist Marija Gimbutus, who claimed that millions of small prehistoric figurines were evidence of a very early mother goddess worship. A seminar on Gimbutus’ findings in the early 1990s provided my first trek in search of ancient artifact. Soon after, I travelled through Turkey (the Greek/Roman ruins at Ephesus) and the Greek Islands gathering material for a course I would teach at Howard Community College titled Ariadne’s Thread: the link between the images of prehistory and classic Greek Myth.

Patricia VanAmberg on Cyprus.

Patricia VanAmburg on Cyprus.

Later in 2004 and 2006, I arranged student/faculty trips to Greece and Crete. In Athens, we visited museums and ruins including those of the Acropolis and the ancient Agora. On Crete, we saw the ruins of palaces (c. 1600 B.C.E.) at both Knossos and Phaestos and the archeological museum of Herakleion with its wonderful bulls and snake goddesses. We also visited Mycenaea in the Peloponnese, and the ruins of Apollo’s temple at Delphi. Some of these travels will be featured in a slide presentation for the 2015-16 LPR Salon Series.

Aphrodite's birth place

Aphrodite’s birth place

More recently, I have searched for stories and ruins in Italy, France, Brittany, Vienna and Cyprus. In Vienna, I sought the tiny fertility figurine named goddess or woman of Willendorf. On Cyprus, I was searching Aphrodite—sometimes called Cyprus by the Greeks because of her rumored birth amidst sea rocks of that island. I have seen the very place from which the legend sprang, as well as, the temple ruins of Paphos and the wonderful museum of prehistory at Nicosia.

I can tell you that the Aphrodite of Cyprus has more in common with the Sumerian goddess Inanna than than she has with the Venus of classical myth and western art. As a fertility goddess, she also has something in common with both Willendorf and the Greek kore Persephone. It is all about season—season of place and seasons of life—cycles and lapses:

Some Mythic Lapses
by Patricia VanAmburg

Visions of Demeter dangling
darling Demaphon in the fire
causes his startled mother
to lose her faith in the gods.

Metira’s startling lack of vision
causes disappointed Demeter
to turn heels on earth and
lose her faith in humanity.

Envisioning mother burnout
human and divine
causes darling Demaphon
to lose his immortality.

A lovely vision in flame
Persephone awaits Demeter
eats three seeds and
forgets about spring.

Online Editor’s Note: Submissions for Myth open on Aug. 1 and remain open until Oct. 24.