Subprimal Poetry Art - Issue 10

From The Editor

by Victor D. Sandiego

As you likely already know, being decimal based creatures, we love the number 10. Top 10. Ten best dressed. Ten things you can do with a leftover pumpkin. Etc. As such, I’d like to take this opportunity to announce in a celebratory voice: issue #10 of Subprimal Poetry Art. It’s given me a great deal of enjoyment putting together these issues, having an opportunity to read/view/listen to works from writers and artists around the world.

For this issue, we once again have the pleasure of presenting work from various countries, some of which has been translated into English from its original language. Michael Goldman brings us a translation of Danish writer Cecil Bødker, and Andrew Sorokowski brings us work from Ukrainian writer Natalia Bilotserkivets.

This is of course in addition to the various other writers and artists who have sent their work our way for this issue. Alexander Chubar, Julio Cesar Villegas, Quin Nelson, Adrian Potter, Constantia Geronta, Patrick Cahill, Brittany Ackerman, Nels Hanson, Eileen Cunniffe, Tony Gloeggler, and William Doreski. Thank you all for your support and for entrusting us with your work.

We’ll take a short break until the next issue, but meanwhile, enjoy the edition that we’ve assembled this time around. Please spread the word and leave your thoughts on the various pieces in the comments section.


Victor D. Sandiego

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Victor David Sandiego lives in the high desert of central México where he writes, studies, and plays drums with jazz combos and in musical / poetry collaborations. His work appears in various journals (Cerise Press, Crab Creek Review, Floating Bridge Review, Off The Coast, Generations Literary Journal, Poetry Salzburg Review, others) and has been featured on public radio. He is the founder and current editor of Subprimal Poetry Art.

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by Julio Cesar Villegas

Close ​your ​eyes ​—​ ​that’s ​when ​you ​will ​see ​them.

That’s ​when ​you ​will ​see ​the ​sun ​become ​broken: ​the ​silent ​and ​surrendered ​mirror, suspended ​above ​bodies ​of ​bullet-laced ​wind. ​That ​is ​when ​you ​will ​hear ​the ​final sermon ​of ​the ​hanged ​priest.

The ​distant ​fields ​that ​once ​held ​maize ​and ​cassava ​now ​hold ​the ​corpses ​of ​tongues and ​villages. ​Keep ​your ​eyes ​closed, ​because ​that ​is ​when ​you ​are ​able ​to ​see ​what ​the rest ​could ​not.

Trunks ​of ​trees ​snapped ​into ​oblivion, ​the ​snake ​of ​flame ​coiled ​around ​the ​throat ​of ​the soldier, ​there ​is ​no ​night ​and ​there ​is ​no ​day. ​There ​is ​only ​the ​unspoken ​minutes ​of ​a mother ​nailing ​herself ​to ​the ​cross, ​the ​feast ​of ​steel ​wasps ​ravaging ​her ​body ​as ​the children ​escape ​to ​the ​solace ​of ​other ​shadows.

Hills ​of ​delirium, ​crashing ​ocean ​of ​yells ​and ​whispers ​left ​to ​drown ​motionless ​beneath a ​canvas ​of ​cadavers, ​the ​absence ​of ​the ​moon, ​and ​the ​world ​continues ​to ​rotate ​even after ​it ​has ​become ​still. ​Pray ​the ​song ​of ​Solomon ​once ​you ​hear ​them ​march— ​it ​is ​not the ​sound ​of ​their ​boots ​that ​you ​must ​fear… ​the ​sound ​of ​heritage ​betraying ​itself ​is what ​will ​plummet ​your ​soul ​into ​insomnia.

Spell ​of ​restless ​eyes: ​you ​have ​found ​the ​gospels ​written ​within ​you.

A ​dance ​of ​shadows, ​how ​can ​it ​be ​that ​the ​descendants ​of ​kingdoms ​and ​forests ​are now ​numbers ​to ​be ​carved ​into ​the ​notebooks ​of ​generals ​and ​morticians. ​The ​president and ​the ​ministers: ​traitors ​in ​the ​clothes ​of ​heroes, ​demons ​speaking ​in ​saint’s ​tongue.

Shattered ​rib ​bone ​of ​adobe, ​silhouettes ​of ​tapirs, ​mountains ​dividing ​into ​the ​past ​and the ​present, ​eternal ​storm ​of ​folded ​nights, ​ignited ​spears, ​death ​squads, ​a ​choir ​of bullets, ​collapsing ​cathedrals, ​the ​drowned ​generations, ​the ​drowning ​generation, ​the pillar ​of ​voices ​that ​still ​rises ​from ​the ​soil ​of ​El ​Mozote.

Mother ​of ​the ​riot, ​daughter ​of ​civil ​war, ​kingdom ​of ​roots ​now ​known ​by ​the ​name ​of ​El Salvador. ​Open ​your ​eyes ​now. ​The ​sun ​is ​whole, ​it ​burns ​without ​surrender. ​The ​wind now ​floods ​every ​stretch ​of ​this ​earth, ​possessing ​more ​memories ​than ​any ​general’s rifle, ​than ​any ​campesino’s ​fields.

Look ​into ​the ​sky ​—​ ​our ​eyes ​became ​the ​branches ​that ​centuries ​could ​never ​break.

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Raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico, based in Essex County, New Jersey, and author of Memories of an Old World, Julio Cesar Villegas is the writer that your abuelos warned you about.

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Kain / Cain

by Cecil Bødker ● translated by Michael Goldman

Det er dig der har gjort det.
Skyggen af dine hænders værk
er over dit ansigt,
og netop fordi du spreder
din onde samvittigheds glohede sten
på grønjorden om dig
vil du brænde under fødderne
når du går.

Det vil ryge af græsset.
Du kan ikke gemme dig,
for sandhedens sorte askepletter
er sporet af dine hæle,
og dine formørkede øjne
vil åbne jorden omkring dig,
stivnede læber vil forme
dit navn.

Det er dig der har gjort det.
Ingen ved det endnu
men æselkæbens mærke
er på din pande
og dine hænders blodige viden
vil ikke begraves.
Stene i græsset.
Kun løgnen vil huse din frygt.

It was you who did it.
The shadow of your handiwork
is on your face,
and since you spread
the hot glowing stones of your evil conscience
on the green earth around you
your feet will burn
as you walk.

Smoke will rise from the grass.
You cannot hide,
for your heels are trailing
the black ash-stains of truth,
and your darkened eyes
will open the earth around you,
stiffened lips will form
your name.

It was you who did it.
No one knows it yet
but the mark of the ass’s jawbone
is upon your forehead
and your hands’ bloody witness
cannot be buried.
Stoning in the grass.
Only the lie will house your fear.

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Cecil Bødker (born 1927) is one of contemporary Denmark’s most highly awarded and prolific female authors. She has written 59 books including poetry, novels for children and adults, short stories and plays.   Translations of Bødker’s poetry have appeared in Northwest Review of Books and Exchanges, Univ of Iowa.  Best known for her young-adult fiction books, in 1976 she received the international Hans Christian Andersen Medal for Writing for her lasting contribution to children’s literature.  In 1998 she was awarded the Grand Prize of the Danish Academy for her body of work as a writer.

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Michael Goldman taught himself Danish on a pig farm in Denmark over 30 years ago to help him win the heart of a lovely Danish girl. Over 100 of Goldman’s translations of poetry and prose have appeared in more than 30 literary journals such as Rattle, World Literature Today, and International Poetry Review.  His translations of Bødker’s novels Stories about Tacit and The Water Farm were recently published by Spuyten Duyvil Press. He lives in Florence, Mass.

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by Alexander Chubar

Crucifixion by Alexander Chubar

Regarding his work, the artist says:

I want my works to convey order and unity, where different components are correlated and submitted to the wholeness of the composition. In this painting, the figure of Christ is merged with the cross, thus creating a unified symbol of sacrifice. This artwork is based on the inner structure and the cohesion of its elements that function as a whole. I hope my art provides not only an eye-pleasing environment but also gives intellectual pleasure.

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Alexander Chubar holds a BFA from Hunter College and a MFA from the Pratt Institute. His work has previously been published in the William & Mary Review, Blue Lyra Review, Pomona Valley Review, The Tishman Review, and several other publications.

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The Ancient City's Face

by Natalka Bilotserkivets ● translated by Andrew Sorokowski

Камінна усмішка застигла на обличчі
старого міста. На травневий брук
повз бур’яни околиць вируша
дитини ненароджена душа.

На рівні вікон, де цвіте герань,
попід дахами чути порух рук,
як подих крил. І тінить таємниче
майдан квадратний з неба чорний грак.

Чому не спиш під полотном лляним
сорочки материнської, у шкірі,
м’якій і теплій, як молочний дим
садів, розквітлих на будинки сірі?

Пощо, дитя, так б’єшся в боротьбі
за власний крик, за перший крок, за тіло,
що в передсмертну мить лишить тобі
усмішку кам’яну й незрозумілу?..

The ancient city’s face is frozen in
A stony smile. Along the cobblestones
Of May, past weed-grown outskirts, an unborn
Child’s soul sets forth upon its way.

At window-height, where the geraniums bloom
Beneath the eaves, you can hear moving hands
Like wings’ breath. From the sky, mysteriously
A black rook casts its shadow on the square.

Why don’t you sleep beneath the linen cloth
Of the maternal gown, inside the skin
So soft and warm, like orchards’ milky smoke
A-blossom on the buildings’ grey?

Why, child, do you struggle in your battle
For your own cry, your first step, for your body,
Which at the moment of your death will leave you
A stony and unfathomable smile?

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Natalka Bilotserkivets was born in the Sumy region of eastern Ukraine in 1954, and published her first works as a child. She studied philology at the Taras Shevchenko State University of Kyiv. Her first collection of poetry was Balada pro neskorenykh (“Ballad of the Unvanquished,” 1976). Subsequent collections include Lystopad (“November,” 1989), Alerhiia (“Allergy,” 1999), Hotel’ Tsentral’ (“Hotel Central,” 2004), and most recently, My pomrem ne v Paryzhi (“We Will Not Die in Paris,” Kyiv, 2015). Ms. Bilotserkivets’ poems have been translated into Belarusian, English, German, Polish, Russian, and Swedish. Her poem “My pomrem ne v Paryzhi” has been set to music and performed by the popular group Mertvyi Piven’. She lives in Kyiv.

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Andrew Sorokowski was born in Hartford, Connecticut in 1950 and grew up in San Francisco. He has been bilingual in Ukrainian and English since early childhood, and has studied both Slavic and Romance languages. In 1993-1997 he edited the journal Harvard Ukrainian Studies. He has also worked as a lecturer, researcher, writer, and translator. Mr. Sorokowski has published a number of articles on history, and recently translated a historical monograph from Ukrainian. He has lived and worked in Italy and England, and currently lives near Washington, DC.

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Recitation of the Immediate Future (A Palimpsest)

by Brittany Ackerman


I am five at the indoor pool hanging onto the wall so I can see my mother outside reading on a lounge chair. This is the building I will live in until I am eight and we move to Florida because my Grandma passes away and we need a change. For now, the New York City skyline blocks the sun at different times of the day. My mother suns herself and reads and I watch her. I am afraid that she will die, for no reason in particular, except that I’ve recently realized she is my mother and I am her daughter and I will most likely outlive her. I do not want this to happen and I show this by throwing tantrums at the mall, clinging onto her legs around the house as she does chores, and generally refusing to leave her side, making the morning drop-off at school a difficult feat with my crying fits. A boy floats up to my spot on the wall and asks me if I want to play. I say no and he says I am boring. Boring; this word catches me off guard, and I dismiss it, ultimately, because nothing is more peaceful than looking at my mother, blonde and bronzed, reading her book, waiting for me to come outside and lay in her lap, staying alive for me and me only.


Two friends I no longer have convince me to drive to downtown Fort Lauderdale. We all just graduated high school. Two of us will go to college. The other will develop an insidious drug problem. The girl is my current best friend and we, once inseparable, are becoming separable by the distances of our forthcoming universities, by the choices we make about boys, about our studies, about our bodies. The guy is our best friend too, but he latches onto one of us at a time, craving our love, promising his in return, and sadly we do not want it, but we are lonely and bored and he is always coming back. There is a snapshot of us standing in a lake on a middle school field trip, jeans rolled up to our calves, arms around each other, smiling. The day I take this photograph off my wall and put it in the garbage does not come for a few more years. We meet downtown and go to his apartment that his parents are paying for. He came out gay in the tenth grade, but he wants me to hike up my dress and simulate sex on the bed with him, so I do. It’s his birthday and we are the two girls that gave him the most trouble in school. He was punched in the stomach for God’s sakes, because of me. And when they want to go out for a drink when we are all underage, I say no, and they say, live a little. In a few years when I am twenty-one, I try to do just so and they will both make sure I get my heart broken and they will pretend to understand my pain when it happens, and when I find out they are partly behind it and cannot forgive them, ever, they will tell me they wish I was dead.


I am twenty-seven when I move back to Los Angeles. I have since learned how to deal with the state of love, slipping. My wants and needs often contradict each other; I want to sleep, I don't want to sleep. My old friends might describe me as flamboyantly ambitious. I have not stayed in one place for too long. My old best friend contacted me once when things were bad, and that was enough. Other friends have disappeared into their own disasters, and from this, I try to make sense of our former hardships, the ways in which friendship does not always endure, but it dies, and dies again. My mother always tells me to hold onto the good, let go of the bad, and look forward to the amazing. My mother is my best friend in this life, the only person who I can fully trust, the only one who matters. When I think about kids in classrooms, I tell myself that we were all just babies once, doing our best to understand the world, taste it all, drink it all in, grow up and grow already. Then, out of the void, a small cruelty imparts on us, informs our bodies. Sometimes we can hide in the shadows of tall buildings and wait for the darkness to pass, bring ourselves once again into the light, into the lovely, lovely light. But more often than not, we find that it is easier to cower, to go amiss, to allow our whole lives to be disrupted by some unkindness. Think of a body of water, the fractured elegance of a river, think of how it bends and twists, how it is full, full enough of what it needs to be.

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Brittany Ackerman is a graduate of Florida Atlantic University's MFA program in Creative Writing. In 2016 she completed a residency at the Wellstone Center in the Redwoods, as well as the Mont Blanc Workshop in Chamonix, France under the instruction of Alan Heathcock. She recently attended the Methow Valley Workshop in May of 2017 under the leadership of Ross Gay. She currently lives in Los Angeles, with her forthcoming collection of essays, “The Perpetual Motion Machine,” to be released by Red Hen Press in the fall of 2018.

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by Patrick Cahill

She fled the crime scene, unclothed, a killer. We tracked her through woodland, we tracked her through thickets, but she absorbed the light as she fled. Mosquito grit rose in her wake. Perfume, sweat, cuts, insects her clothing now. Wind swept back from a river she sought a deletion in her flight. Our flashlights’ yellow probes passed over the undergrowth. We moved through shadows our memory house, leaves an eruption of blood into the dusk, dragon scales a thicket of birds silent in their flight, our victim’s wound a sheath for her abandoned knife, clotted with motive, recollection, the past. Will she vanish in the water’s rush as we go on, free of mirrors, its dark surface her reflection now—her lacerations a diagram of these events? Will we go on, follow the river downstream its bank, find comfort in its ceaseless, indifferent noise, or upstream toward a puzzle of uncertain intent?

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Patrick Cahill co-founded and edits Ambush Review, a San Francisco based literary and arts magazine. He received his Ph.D. in History of Consciousness at UCSC. His poetry twice received the Central Coast Writers Award. Recent work has appeared in Left Curve, San Francisco Peace and Hope, Digging Our Poetic Roots, Otoliths, Forgotten, Volt, Aji, Into The Void, riverbabble, The Other Side of Violet (great weather for Media), and Permafrost Magazine.

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Down’s Syndrome

by Tony Gloeggler

The nurse hands the newborn
to his mother. Her husband stands
by the window, pats his pockets
like a cop searching a suspect,
finds his cigarettes and leaves
the room. Mary keeps still,
afraid she might wake the baby.
She counts fingers, toes,
nods each time she reaches
ten. She examines his thick
neck, slack jaw, fat rutted tongue
and wants to touch, stroke
his head, press her thumbs
into the small soft spot, squeeze
until her son screams sirens.

This piece first appeared in The Last Lie, poems by Tony Gloeggler

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Tony Gloeggler is a life-long resident of New York City. His work has appeared in Rattle, The Raleigh Review, New Ohio Review, The Examined Life, Chiron Review and Nerve Cowboy. His last book Until The Last Light Leaves (NYQ Books 2015) was a finalist in the 2016 Binghamton University Milt Kessler Poetry Book Award and focuses on his connection to an ex-girlfriend's autistic son and his 35 years of managing group homes for the mentally challenged in Brooklyn.

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by Adrian S. Potter

Once it arrived, I could no longer decipher between right and wrong. It was a delightful amnesia, fragmented completeness accompanied by anxious music. My intentions were deceptively honest, overly reckless. My soul hissed like a half-opened soda as I found myself falling in with thieves, becoming persona non-grata. I smelled like sex and whiskey, waited for the spell to break while embracing tension, the perpetual pull between desire and necessity. I sought disarray, a sermon from my soliloquy of personal mayhem, a door within me opening to a catwalk, towards impending disaster. Apathetic, anticlimactic, and antagonistic. But instead, I preached peace to the bedeviled. Whispered litanies of forged hopes. Instead, I slipped outside of reality and through locked doors, quietly.

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Adrian S. Potter writes poetry and short fiction. He is the author of the fiction chapbook Survival Notes (Červená Barva Press, 2008) and winner of the 2010 Southern Illinois Writers Guild Poetry Contest. Some publication credits include North American Review, Jet Fuel Review, Obsidian and Kansas City Voices. He blogs, sometimes, at

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by Nels Hanson

That palest azure you yearn to reach, tallest
Sierra citadel where heaven is, the river on

its true course you can follow to any ocean,
sail for island circled by emerald banks of

cloud, the cherry tree forever in bloom, one
season only after the long tilting of our Earth,

seeds sprouting unafraid of winter, a buried
treasure chest of doubloons become golden

suns worth more than pirates know, in silent
column each lost dog returning and the poor

children without coats in fog-bound freezing
San Joaquin now kings and queens arrayed

in finery, all royals bowing to one another as
ancient stars align in new constellations, Big

and Little Bear forming a single kind animal,
moon close enough to touch her risen auburn

cheek, the Rabbit pounding harder his elixir
of immortal life while deep undersea scarlet,

saffron, purple starfish arrange perfectly in
interlocking rings Saturn took for granted so

long, great whale breaching with its spouted
plume, raised flukes, jaws open past baleen

inviting older Jonah to emerge, ride westerly
swift humpback guarded by leaping dolphins

to the whirlpool, at center watery tower from
blue Atlantis the passenger climbs high until

ice-capped lesser Himalayan peaks and great
Everest disappear as dawn’s rooster wakes you

to discover featherless wings, the naked arms
too weak to lift a heart nostalgic for the sky.

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Nels Hanson has worked as a farmer, teacher and contract writer/editor. His fiction received the San Francisco Foundation’s James D. Phelan Award and Pushcart Prize nominations in 2010, 12, and 2014. Poems appeared in Word Riot, Oklahoma Review, Pacific Review and other magazines and received Sharkpack Review Annual’s 2014 Prospero Prize and a 2014 Pushcart nomination.

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Wolf + Cub at the End of the World

by Quin Nelson

I hope you forget those stories I told you
thousands of times
So they can return to you
like the reeds beneath the thaw
Matted and tangled, damp,
in yellows and browns
aching for sun
There’s life in those reeds
Worms, insects
Moving through days
in sun, in your shadow
An ant may crawl across your skin
and you’ll find yourself
breaching your surface,
returning to your place

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Quin Nelson works as a teaching assistant in Portland. He likes reading, writing, drawing, and playing pickup basketball, and he wants to be trilingual within three years. His housemate has a cat named Spoon.

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Like Exploded Speech Balloons

by William Doreski

Driving into a gauze of snowfall, I feel younger than I did at birth. The smile on the face of the landscape suggests how far the planet is willing to go to please me. But you look sullen in the passenger seat. You don’t think the elation of weather applies to you. Childhood on a simpler coast doused you in fog and blinded you to larger expressions in the Sierra Nevada. When the Donner Party learned about snow they realized that carnivores prowl in our depths and emerge on demand. You look as desperate and hungry as they did in their moment of apotheosis, but unlike certain religious people you avoid cannibalism even for the greater good. Not the politics now in power, however, self-devouring in full-length mirrors. Not the saw-toothed expressions of celebrities. No, the wit and wisdom of various ages converge in cloud-cover thick enough to conceal us from each other, at least for another term. Driving on these slick back roads doesn’t trouble me, but reading your pages as you turn them, reading out of the corner of my eye, distracts me so the blowing snow looks like exploded speech balloons. What were you saying? Speak up—the silence of the blizzard deafens me.

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William Doreski teaches writing and literature at Keene State College in New Hampshire.

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The Shadow of the Cross

by Constantia Geronta

Reborn from scratch
I will take a leap and find myself on the horizon of a grey gun-powered city
And between the funnels I will find your crack, immortal sun
And I will flow in the rainy mud of the mist
There I will ask you again
“Was it you or was it a reflection on the lake that I was looking at
And instead of a tulip you were a cross I am bearing for years
Not knowing why I was chosen by fate
To be writing verses under his shadow?”

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Constantia Geronta was born in Ptolemaida, Greece. She studied Philosophy in Athens and Contemporary Literature in Paris. She has published three books of poetry in Athens (Every word, a sob, Here dies the spring and it's being reborn, Hemlock and wild rose) with Anemos Editions. She is a Doctor of French Literature.

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Revision, Like Launching a Marble Boat

by Eileen Cunniffe

Lately I find myself less intimidated by the blank page (screen), and more by the thought of revising something I’ve already written. Not something in the early stages—usually when I’ve got a new project underway, I can’t wait to get back to it. The revisions I dread—or at least postpone far longer than I should—are on work I’ve already sent out into the world, one way or another. Writing I’ve workshopped at a conference, with feedback that now must be weighed. Writing I’ve submitted to literary journals that has been rejected often enough—even if some rejections have been encouraging—that I know I must reopen the file, reread my own work and wrestle with my pages.

Of course the ease with which we make revisions these days—and here I am talking about the mechanical ease of editing a document through the magic of word-processing software, not the mental work that goes into rewriting—is something most of us take for granted. But it hasn’t always been that way. I used a manual typewriter—and gallons of whiteout—in high school. I pecked my way through college papers on an electric typewriter, which fortunately had a ribbon of corrective tape, because I’ve always been a lousy typist. My first job after college was as a medical writer in a teaching hospital, where I worked with staff physicians and visiting fellows and residents to polish their research papers, book chapters and presentations. We were lucky enough to have in our office one of the three word-processing machines in the hospital; it was about the size of a Mini Cooper, and only two people in our four-person department were even allowed to touch it. I wasn’t one of them—my job was to write on or mark up paper, sometimes to literally cut and paste (with scissors and tape), then turn the pages over to one of the girls whose job it was to type or revise documents. In the 1980s, this was cutting-edge technology. Our machine was a Vydec, and he (we four women all agreed the big lug was a “he”) was both a technological wonder and a highly temperamental co-worker. At least once a week, Vydec acted up and we had to call in a technician. Still, we cranked out a lot of medical papers on that old machine, and the doctors were not at all shy about asking for one more set of revisions before we sent their pages out into the world. They took to word processing like ducks to water.

With one exception—Tiger John, a surgeon from China who spent about three years with us as an international fellow. He was one of the first physicians permitted to leave China after the Cultural Revolution, and he was in the U.S. to learn about Western medicine so he could bring new knowledge back home. He couldn’t practice here, but he could watch surgeries, observe clinics, attend conferences. And since everyone around him was writing papers, he thought he’d try that, too. 

Everyone loved Tiger, who was nothing like his name. He was gentle and extraordinarily polite. And he was constantly offering us small gifts from China. I’ve kept one of Tiger’s gifts for nearly 35 years, because in itself it is a treasure, but also because it holds a riddle it took me forever to solve. It’s a small rectangle of silk, printed with the image of a large marble boat. Tiger explained it was a real boat, made of marble, from a long time ago. But with his limited English (and my nonexistent Mandarin), he couldn’t make me understand how a marble boat could float. It was a marvel, for sure. But our conversation about it ended as many of our conversations did—with me nodding my head, him bowing, and both of us grinning, pretending we’d managed to communicate more than we actually had.

Lately, I’ve been feeling like making myself sit down to start a revision is like trying to make a marble boat float: impossible. The longer I wait, the more I convince myself I’ll be disappointed with my writing—and, because mostly I write personal essays—with my life.

Revision always reminds me of Tiger John—although not in the best way. Tiger took to word processing like a marble boat takes to water. He used a manual typewriter, and when he was satisfied with a draft, he would bring it to me, as if it were another of his gifts. His typing was worse than mine, and with little English at his command, his manuscripts were incomprehensible. I’d read through his pages, making edits and scribbling questions in the margins, drawing arrows to indicate which paragraphs might be moved where. We’d discuss—as best we could—what I had understood and what he had intended. Then I’d mark up the pages some more, and turn them over to one of my colleagues, who would sit down with Vydec and produce an almost-readable manuscript. Which I would proof, she would re-revise, and together we would present to Tiger—as if it were our gift to him.

Tiger, it seemed, had as much trouble grasping the concept of a word processor as I had with the concept of a marble boat. He just couldn’t make it float in his head. And so every time we gave him a neat new manuscript to review—and even after we’d let him stand near Vydec and watch as words were typed and came up on the screen and as pages with those very words were spit out of the printer—he’d go all the way back to the drawing board and spend days mistyping his next revision. Which he would deliver to me, smiling broadly. And we’d start all over again. If any of those papers ever got published, it was after he returned to China, and probably in his own language.

I’ve kept the little piece of silk with the marble boat—in a plain white ceramic frame—near at hand for all the years since I knew Tiger John. It’s a reminder of people I met in that hospital half a lifetime ago, people from across the country and around the globe. It’s also been a reminder that what seems impossible often can be done—I mean, if ancient Chinese engineers could figure out how to make a marble boat float, anything is possible, right?

Except that’s not exactly what happened. Not long ago while cleaning up my home office (a highly effective tactic for avoiding the work of revision), I dusted the frame around my silk marble boat and thought to myself, I should Google that. And I did, and discovered that while there is indeed such a structure on the grounds of the Summer Palace in Beijing, originally built in 1755, it is a lakeside pavilion shaped like a boat, not a vessel that was ever meant to float. The Marble Boat is sometimes called the Boat of Purity and Ease, which is what one can only aspire to when it comes to writing—and revision.

So lately, I’ve been thinking about the marble boat in a whole new way. I’ve been using it as a reminder that Tiger John made revision so much harder than it had to be. Like I do, but in a different way. Because when I do finally get around to rereading myself, I almost always find some things to like about what I’ve written, even when I also see ways it could be improved. And so I sit with my pages and start marking them up, and eventually I head for my computer, open the file, and begin revising in earnest. Perhaps not with purity and ease, but with every intention of making the work better, making it sing, maybe even making it sail.

This piece first appeared in Superstition Review

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Eileen Cunniffe has been writing nonfiction for 35 years—but the first 25 were without the benefit of a byline, as a medical writer, corporate communications manager and executive speechwriter. Her nonfiction has appeared in many literary journals and typically explores identity and experience through the lenses of travel, family and work. Occasionally, her stories present themselves as prose poems. Three of Eileen’s essays have been recognized with Travelers’ Tales Solas Awards and another received the Emrys Journal 2013 Linda Julian Creative Nonfiction Award. Eileen also writes for The Nonprofit Quarterly.

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