the sky is
a black canvas
collage by Dale Wisely, source photo by Apollo Reyes
Lysbeth Em Benkert
Michelle Poirer Brown
Michael J. Galko
Avalon Felice Lee
My parents were born and raised in Sheridan, Arkansas in the mid-1920s. They are buried there. My father had 5 brothers and 2 sisters. My mother had 3 sisters and 2 brothers. My parents dated in high school and married after my father returned from service in the Navy in the Pacific in World War II.
Sheridan is about 30 miles south of Little Rock and about the same distance from Benton, where I was born and raised and still have friends and family. (Benton is not to be confused with Bentonville, the home of Walmart.)
Sheridan is the county seat of Grant County. The population now is around 5000. There were fewer than 2000 residents when Brown v. Board of Education came in 1954. At that time, about 10% of Sheridan’s people were black. There was a large whites-only high school my parents attended and a two-classroom building with outdoor toilets for the black high school students.
When Brown v. Board came, perhaps shockingly, the school board voted to desegregate. This was presented as a cost-cutting measure: Sheridan spent $4,000 a year busing black students to a segregated school in a nearby county. Anyway, white folks in Sheridan pitched a hissy fit. The school reversed its decision and four members later were forced to resign by enraged whites.
A white man owned the local sawmill and employed almost all the blacks in the area. He made his black employees a generous offer: he would move them and house them in a nearby county. He would give them houses. As an added incentive, if a family refused to move, he would evict them and burn down their houses. They took his offer. A few other black residents, preachers, small business owners, suddenly had no clientele, and they left as well.
The desegregation of schools became a non-issue. The need for the high school for black kids went away. So the school went away. It was bulldozed. NPR’s StoryCorps has a heartbreaking 2009 recording by one of the black students who saw his school disappear.
Afterward, Sheridan developed a reputation for aggressively anti-black behavior. As I grew up, I was in Sheridan a lot. I did not know this story until about 10 years ago.
I should end with a summary comment. I don’t have one. So, I will end by saying that black lives matter. At our family of publications, RHP, One Sentence Poems, Unbroken, and Unlost, we are asking ourselves what small contribution we can make to that cause. We would love to hear from you.
The Endless Inventory of Human Cruelty
In general, it isn’t good to be too close to all the passersby. I wonder what their breath will morph into next or if it’ll just disappear. Every morning of late I’ve been writing down my dreams at the dining room table, employing a unique alphabet I created, scribbles formed by my non-dominant hand. The dreams can be distressingly real—a skull caved in with a brick, a dog set on fire, Jews hanged from lampposts, a mother raped in front of her children. Sometimes I start to sob so loud that everyone else stops yelling and stares at me.
Stick Figure Family
My father was a mass shooter—metaphorically speaking, of course—and my mother, a suicide bomber in a dynamite vest. God, the things I saw! Shattered arms, legs, heads. If it wasn’t for lack of encouragement growing up, I might have become an avant-garde artist, someone famous for his controversial stick figures drawn on toilet paper. Instead, I keep my face blank, even when a family is seized on the street and dragged away. Everything seems to stop abruptly to consider what just happened and then as abruptly resume, like a self-driving Mercedes that sacrifices pedestrians to save the driver.
Failed Poet Theatre
You had never taken hallucinogens before. When you came back, you tried telling me that a word is many things, and it’s the sum of the many things, and it’s also not the many things combined. If the word is “beauty,” for example, it can become “beautiful.” Then it can become “beauteous.” Or “beautification.” All this time a ratty top hat was balanced on your head at a treacherous angle. I just sat in the window – 10, 20 minutes, just sat in silence, as if watching out for a black man running down the street in fear for his life.
I was never anyone
beyond your daughter,
O prairie forever
a driveway. Your slicked-
down concrete and smoke
across the road: white means
grass, black for oil
or wood. Those lazy blades
of the windmill, the unbending
world a lesson to work
and wait. By now I know—
only so long before the fire
ants break through.
A one and only happening
On a busy street a woman rising from a bench empties the contents of her purse into a trash can. Twenty people who were strolling along converge on the woman from every direction. All together they sit in a row on the curb and silently fumble with their footwear, until as one they stand, and in stockinged feet they hurry away, abandoning their shoes in the gutter.
Lysbeth Em Benkert
Neither mice, nor cookies, nor boxes
If you open a box and it’s empty,
if you pull off the tape and flatten it out,
if the flattened container sits by the door to the garage,
if you walk past it every day but it never makes it into the recycling bin,
if it gathers dust and cat hair and kitchen crumbs,
if it becomes a judgment of your self-worth,
if you trip on it every third time you leave your house,
Whose disapproval does your inertia repudiate?
Where does the voice come from that pins your obligation to the floor?
How does the weight of it become greater than the inconvenience of its disposal?
What is the tipping point that slides into change?
When did this poem stop being about boxes?
Michelle Poirier Brown
Tobias stalks the shadows.
What he hunts here, he will take home.
I grieve for songbirds,
but do not love him less.
I pull your hand around my belly,
unfold my willingness against your
If I touch you here, will your heart slow?
My pace suits someone my age, and given an established weakness for distraction, the walk requires forty-five minutes. There’s a time when it would’ve taken less, but long-gone are youthful scoots down the sidewalk. These days, kids weave by with agility I never knew. They don’t seem to mind a relic lumbering in their path, even one with a chair strapped to his back.
My mother always brightens when I enter her room, then allows a sallow nature to overtake the short-lived smile. It's as if she expected someone else and disappointment sets in when she sees it's only me. I sit next to her bed, which also serves as a sofa and dining table, and easily hide her hands within mine. Her bones are brittle so I’m careful, and her skin reminds me of late fall leaves. I massage her hands with lotion before moving on to her hair. She used to lick her fingers to smooth unruly patches of my hair, and sometimes I do the same to her, though not often. Stylist is missing from my long list of endeavors, but by the time I finish, she looks ready for the ball.
I tell stories of when we were all together. I confess to inventing a few, but mostly they're the same stories I've told before. Still, I tell them as if for the first time and she listens like she's hearing them for the first time. In a way, she is. Sometimes I get the smile that greeted me, but mostly she just nods. After lunch, I make tea with water barely warm enough to steep. She sips with thin lips and the tea is gone within a few minutes. Things that once seemed to last longer now pass with a quickness never known before.
I kiss her forehead and say I'll be back in a few days. She has no concept of time, but I say it anyway. When I walk in, she'll smile like she knows me and for those few seconds, I believe she does, which makes the minutes that follow even more difficult. I strap the chair to my back, retrace my steps toward home.
The walk back takes more than forty-five minutes because I'm tired and distractions aren’t so easily overcome. Kids continue to overtake me, then one stops to ask what's with the chair. I'm not sure how to answer, though I know the answer: for many years this chair bore my weight. Now that it no longer can, I bear the weight of the chair. But I don't say that such lessons are wasted unless learned firsthand. Instead, I say at my age, one never knows when a rest might be needed, and it's nice to have a place to sit just in case.
The answer satisfies him, but not me, and I’m left to wonder if I should’ve told the truth. Maybe one day.
In Your Sleep
All is still.
The world has stopped turning.
The leaves of trees, blades of grass
And every living thing is inanimate.
The sky is a black canvas
Full of stars that have ceased shining.
You breathe out.
The world moves again.
There’s this problem I have
with people I like
fish with spots
things with wings
in jackpine crowns
the way the riverpool
spangles with sun
when the breeze
springs then settles
back to glass
a smooth upheaval.
When the Morning Sun is High
you can see deep
inside the river’s
the drunken shadows
There’s a certain sadness about luggage in overhead bins,
the pull of gravity and the possibility that items may shift
during take-off and landing; that one of the plastic tabs
meant to secure collective histories could snap, dumping
out heavy handbags and souvenirs from someone’s trip
to St. Louis: jars of marinara from The Hill, battery-filled
dildos, and miniature replicas of the Arch.
We put faith in air in tires that smack the asphalt pavement
at 300 miles per hour; that pilots have not visited the bar
before take-off; that the flight crew will be pleasant, as if
we paid for that when we purchased our ticket.
Michael J. Galko
Capitalism and art
in the warehouse
of corporate furniture—
of oil platforms
I searched for flowers
on hands and knees
in the garden.
Crocus Hyacinthus Narcissus
the world’s marrow
a cold, living thing.
A perfect drop of sunlight landed
but it wasn’t enough
Street of Chance
Waiting for No one
Talk to a person
who's dying. I don't
know how to do it. She's
78 years old and has a rare
type of cancer. Her doctors
say she has two months
to live. Her gall bladder
has to come out. Her heart's
not working well. Anything I say
to her seems trivial and uncaring.
It's too painful to address
head on. So I talk to her about
the kids, about how much they
love her. My mother once said:
"if I could have chosen, you would
be no different." My sister drove us
apart. How did it get so late, so early.
look Allen I know
I haven't earned words like you
and should probably keep quiet
but these frail things keep crossing my path
what can I do except pick them up
and feed them wild honey
Avalon Felice Lee
Toss away those binoculars, mere mortal. I am the blacksmith of the constellations, so admire my craft with virgin sight. Connect the dots, give them names. Preferably Greek. See the Big Dipper, how it scoops a spoonful of atmosphere, brothlike. The outer star points straight to Polaris, the bellybutton of the heavens.
Tsk. Orion is missing his buckle. If his lover finds out, she’ll slip arsenic in my ambrosia.
I relight my cigarette and, like a god, burn another star in the sky.
Trail cam on the path of dreams
in the flesh
of a flash
I remember printing
memos out, reading
for typos in a fake
English accent before
I dared hit send,
the caffeinated thrill
of catching slips
in the fluorescent
light of an office.
This morning’s first
agenda item is Camus
updates. No Freudian
banter via Zoom.
Campus, the tired
I don’t know! 42! 48!
comes through the wall,
the neighbor’s daughter
doing math, not getting it,
flinging her book. On Hart
Island they bury, I mean we
do, bodies in a common,
mass, or, as we once said,
paupers’ grave. My husband’s
stunned. I am ashamed.
He didn’t know. It never
came up. Incredibile,
questo paese! he says
on the phone with other
Hope against Hope
I have seen this movie before,
I know how it ends, with troops in the streets,
and the charred bones of buildings,
so I turn away from the ruthless images,
and, just as quietly as I can, lean
on the railing of the back deck
and wait for the gray fox to appear
from the dark tangled underbrush
into an evanescent strip of bright sunlight.
You’re at Mayo’s famous
Body and Spare Parts Shop,
here for an aortic valve
and seal job, your old valve
worn and leaking, your pump
enlarged from working too hard.
From their tool bench, your team
selects a “Sapien Three” valve,
guides it along a major duct,
seats it with fine precision
and inflates it in place.
Your team tests for patency
pressure, function. Job complete.
They park you in progressive care
where I come, spilling gratitude,
to collect and drive you home,
retooled and roadworthy.
Rain fell this morning
(a few minutes of moisture,
a brief letting down for the suckling earth)
its cruel taunt landing
on the tongue
of a drought.
photo by Apollo Reyes
Luther Allen facilitates SpeakEasy, a community reading series, and is co-editor of Noisy Water. His book, The View from Lummi Island, can be found at http://othermindpress.wordpress.com. His work is included in the recent anthologies WA 129; Refugium, Poems for the Pacific; Weaving the Terrain; and For the Love of Orcas.
Mischelle Anthony’s recent poems are in Cream City Review, San Pedro River Review, Ocean State Review, Crosswinds, American Chordata, and Blue Lyra Review. Foothills Press published her first poetry collection, [Line], and her scholarly edition of an 1807 memoir, Lucinda; Or, The Mountain Mourner, is available from Syracuse University Press.
David Belcher lives on the north coast of Wales, and his most recent work has appeared in The Ekphrastic Review, Ink Sweat and Tears, and Visual Verse. David writes and reads poetry because he enjoys it, and for no other reason. He is not a very complicated person.
Lysbeth Em Benkert is a long-term transplant to the upper Midwest where she teaches rhetoric and literature. Her chapbook #girl stuff was published by Dancing Girl Press in 2018.
Jerry Bernini has been writing and taking photographs for years but submitting them for only a few months. When asked about this strange fact, he stated that answering would require telling a long story that he has not yet written down. And he then apologized for this oversight.
Michelle Poirier Brown is a Cree Métis poet, performer, and photographer from Manitoba, currently living in Lekwungen territory (Victoria, BC). Her poem “Wake” was published in PRISM international’s “Dreams” issue, and awarded the Earle Birney Prize. Recent poetry has appeared in CV2, Grain, Vallum, and longlisted in Room magazine.
Keilan Colville is a poet and student living in Northern Ireland. His work has been published in print with Wild Pressed Books Young Poets Anthology and online in Streetcake magazine and Starry Eyed Collective. He is inspired by many poets, ranging from David Gascoyne to Rupi Kaur.
Jerry Dennis's books, including The Living Great Lakes and The Windward Shore, have been widely translated and have won awards. His brief works appear in PANK, Mid-American Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Right Hand Pointing, Unlost Journal, and elsewhere. He is quarantined on a farm in northern Michigan. (www.jerrydennis.net)
John Dorroh may have taught high school science. No one knows for sure. His poetry has appeared in many journals, including Selcouth Station, Os Pressan, Dime Show Review, and Suisun Valley Review. Forthcoming are poems in Triggerfish Critical Review and Literary Hatchet.
Michael J. Galko is a scientist and poet based in Houston, TX. His house is covered with wood-burned haikus. Recent work has appeared in bottle rockets, Sonic Boom, and Gargoyle.
Howie Good is a longtime contributor to RHP.
Mureall Hebert holds an MFA from the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts. Her work can be found in Hobart, PANK, Lunch Ticket, and elsewhere. She lives near Seattle with her family. You can find her online @mureallhebert
Kyle Hemmings has visual art and prose published in Sonic Boom, is/let, Otoliths and elsewhere. He loves street photography and garage music of the 60s.
Gil Hoy is a Boston poet who studied poetry at Boston University. Hoy’s poetry has appeared, or will be appearing, in Mobius, Tipton Poetry Journal, Chiron Review, MisfitMagazine, The New Verse News, The Penmen Review and elsewhere.
Craig Kittner was born in Ohio in 1968 and moved to Wilmington, North Carolina, in 2012. In the interim, he lived in 14 towns in 8 states. He's worked as a gallery director, restaurant owner, and blackjack dealer. Recent publications include Human/Kind Journal, Shot Glass Journal, and Bones.
Avalon Felice Lee is an Asian-American Bay Area Resident. She has been writing prose since the age of eleven. When not writing, she’s probably practicing cello, assaulting the ears of nearby victims.
Bill Rector is an increasingly older poet who has published a wide variety of lyrical and prose poetry, including a full-length collection and four recent chapbooks.
Hilary Sideris has recently published poems in The American Journal of Poetry, Bellevue Literary Review, Free State Review, Gravel, The Lake, Main Street Rag, Rhino, Salamander, and Southern Poetry Review. Her most recent book is The Silent B from Dos Madres Press. She grew up in Warsaw, Indiana, and has lived in Brooklyn for years.
Abby Staberg loves to sing but doesn’t do it well, so poetry is her passion and her voice. She chooses metaphor over melodrama, except when playing cards. She is a member of Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance and a founding member of Coastal Poets in Brunswick, Maine.
Foster Trecost writes stories that are mostly made up. They tend to follow his attention span: sometimes short, sometimes very short. Recent work has appeared in Fiction Kitchen Berlin, Spelk, and The Journal for Compressed Creative Arts (Matter Press). He lives near New Orleans with his wife and dog.
Elizabeth Weir’s book of poetry, High on Table Mountain, published by North Star Press, was nominated for the 2017 Midwest Book Award. Recent work has been published in Evening Street Review, Talking Stick, and The Kerf.