Archive for the ‘Project: Natural Histories’ Category


A Natural History: Metta Sáma


A Natural History of My goodwill and loving kindness

By Metta Sáma


My mother phoned me: “your father’s upset with you. all of your names and all of these places you’ve lived. on google. it’s embarrassing.”

Sometimes I forget my name is Metta. Sometimes I lose my temper, deliberately, with full humor, enjoying the feel of energy heating my ear tips, warming my feet bottoms. Often, these tempers end in disillusionment, disappointment.

I live close to the ground. I’m an Earth sign. My moon is fire. I’m a temperamental, patient person. Someone gave me one of those car air fresheners; she’d held on to it until it no longer held a scent. A young blond woman in large sunglasses flips her hair, a thought bubble popped over her head: “I may me moody but that doesn’t mean you’re not irritating!” I wasn’t sure if she was the speaker or if she imagined me to be the speaker. A close friend had recently mailed me an Anne Taintor air freshener: “High maintenance doesn’t even begin to cover it.” What can I say? Two mood-based notes, two friends, one week. I nearly lost my cool. But I’m Metta now.

Back in the eighties, when my best friend was still living, my name was Mickey. Yes, that happy go-lucky dopey-mouthed shirtless mouse with suspiciously-missing suspenders for those little red pants with gigantic white buttons (did those white buttons look like peepholes to you too?), matching white gloves, and those smoking yellow shoes. Ochre, I believe. Yes, my best friend called me Mickey. My mother would style my hair into Princess Leia kinky bobs. Angela saw them as mouse ears.

Fig. 1: me, at 8

A few years later, my father’s search for the religious fit would end in Islam and a last name replaced by an X, then two, and on and on. It was the eighties. Newscasters still called Muslims Mawslums or Moosleems. Some friends didn’t want to be seen walking down the street with me, so I’d walk on one side, the friends on the other, conversation meeting in the roads, between the passing cars. I was suddenly in love with my parents. Deeply. To change a name so quickly, so efficiently, so knowledgeably, was the stuff of dreams.

I’m not sure how my dependence on night music began. I recall having a tiny record player and the same two or three classical records. I couldn’t sleep through the night because the records would end. I’d lay in bed and wonder how I’d gotten to that room, that house, those parents. I felt displaced and imagined I was truly a black Italian princess kidnapped and secreted off to the Southern United States, placed with a financially poor family. When my (adopted) mother would turn the record player on, I’d drift off to my birthplace, Italy. At times, I’d drop into the middle of a battle scene, feet clothed in soft gladiator sandals, a short, white tunic, braided cloth fashioned into a belt around my waist. My favorite sword had a dual-edged blade. Sometimes I died at the fiery crosses of Catholicism; sometimes I hid out in forests and led stealthy night attacks. In my dreams, I was never Lydia.

My parents still tussle over what my middle name should be (while I, at eight or five or seven or six, was still trying to figure out how to have hair that could be tousled, my parents and sibling were having brawls about how orphaned I was, a human with no middle name!). I was born nameless. Within minutes, the preacher (who also happened to be my grandfather by marriage) named me Lydia. My father gave me his last name Melvin. Who would get the middle name? For months, the other children tossed names between them. I was a fetus. My father was putting his hands on my mother’s belly praying for a son. It was a confused time. Many prayers were recited, many incantations built & piled on my mother’s belly, which had turned into a worship mound. There were my father’s desirous hands, my sisters’ malicious words, my brothers’ bored eyes, my mother on her back, me inside, curled against them all.

Truckalina (via one sister)

Franny (via one brother)

Sonnetta (via my mother, a name immediately vetoed by my father, nicknamed Sonny)

John Paul (via my father, yes, still in hopes of a male spawn, who could blame him?)

All dismissed, discarded names once I entered this world, hands balled into fists (my father’s daughter (an ex-Army boxer) through-and-through. My family didn’t give the names to the wind, let them blow into some other parents’ ears; no, they held these names under their tongues, Catholicized wafers. (We were some kind of Christian. Forgive me if the wafers don’t actually dissolve, I need them, for now, to crack under the weight of tongue pressed into the frenulum linguae, the sublingual papilla, bits and pieces of now mushy wafer clogging the submandibular gland ducts. Names sucking the incisors, the inferior lip, turning to plaque, then gingivitis, god-ly-like odors burning my ears.




John Paul.

My father calls me Lyl. My mother calls me Franny. Her sister calls me Fran. She elongates the “a”: “Fraaaaaaaaaaan, chile, what you done done with yourself?” My siblings call me Liya. Their children, sonic impressions of themselves, call me Liya behind their parents’ backs, Auntie Liya to their faces. Linda, Lyndia, Lyedia: the teachers.

What’s in a name? Nothing, really. But everything in pronunciation. Imagine being called by one name with glaringly different pronunciations: how can I be any body other than a doubled, tripled, fractured body?

There once was a time I lived a life free of long-term entanglements. Trouble comes, trouble stays, lady leaves. Turns a corner. Sheds a skin. Dissolves. Fragmented, she becomes someone new. Someone


Those were turbulent years. Friends bought me jade plants, green frogs that flew and floated and tipped on edges of wooden boats, fish pole in hand, wide-brimmed hatted head; ones that sat limp-limbed, dangling and contemplative. There were frogs on one wall, a green spread covering the bed, avocados sliced open, emerald gifts mistaken for jade. A lover wanted to change me to Paige. Paige, he said, you know, like the page but with an “i”. Jade is hard, he said. You’re not hard. Of course I thought of puke. Of course I thought I’d pain the walls a devilish slap. In those days, he was right, I wasn’t hard, but friends called me their rock, treated me like a stone, and tossed me into ponds to watch the water ripple. I was Jade, but not jaded.

Before there was a me who dreamed in sequence, and then there was a me who dreamt the pink sky would color me a deadened shade.

I was living in the hottest place I’d ever stepped foot on. A city built atop a swamp. Two months before I moved into my little one-room garage apartment, a woman died in an elevator in this city. Drowned. The city had gone underwater, and people died in elevators. The locals had nothing good to say about the place. There were artists who performed melancholy. Asphalt that crushed the toughest armadillo shells. I changed my name to Mae.

Call me contrary. Call me contentious.

Mae: a name built to hear the skylark’s grass-gurgled call. In my parents’ pasts, there exist women whose middle names bind them: Mae, Carrie Mae, Mattie Mae, Nellie Mae, and on and on. My sister’s middle name is Faith. I have no middle name. With all of these name changes, one would think I was trying to find my center, to fill my middle.

Imagine being a friend of someone like me. Three years in, she’s Bee; three years out, she’s Rain; Cowhide this week, Slated Roof next.

Wouldn’t you grow tired of calling me?

I’m at this artists’ colony. Someone says, “Explain Metta” and guess who shows up to dinner? Ms. Jade herself: “What are you asking me?” And I’ve forgotten to be all Goodwill and Loving Kindness, Peace man. It’s hot outside. The clouds are thickening. The flies are bothersome. “Explain Metta”:

There once was a girl named Lydia

She had a mess of a life in Mooria.

She sat herself down,

& shed the name-clown,

& contrived herself Metta-Mae-Jade-Za-Phoenix-ia.

The visual artist at dinner has a friend who changes her name every year or so. Legally. Documents it and makes art. Another dinner companion told me to look up “Name Change”. “You’re cheating!” they teased. Ed McGowin had changed his name twelve times in eighteen months as a metaphor for art’s evolution. Under each of these legally-changed names, he created completely different works, using a variety of visual mediums, from film to sculpture to site specific installations. He’s no chicken; the government is a beast. But I never changed a name as an art project (as an art practice, yes. One hopes the work alters with the altered name/self). (God, why doesn’t this 8-legged spider kill this fly already!!!?????!!!!)

Goodwill and Loving Kindness. How to be such a fractured self with one name, one legitimate identity, one word that conjures you in the minds of others? Someone once said my poems were schizophrenic. I thought it was a compliment, but of course it was not. There’s something about taking on a new name, a new haircut, a new style, that intrigues people. I admit, I was quite taken by Fernando Pessoa’s heteronyms, but mostly I was taken with the idea of creating personas who talk to one another, who learn from one another, this notion of the self as the most major contributor to one’s own individual learning. I’ve no interest in emulating Pessoa, but I do love returning to these lines from “A Shrug of the Shoulders”:
We manufacture realities.

We use the raw materials we always used but

the form lent it by art effectively

prevents it from remaining the same. A

table made out of pinewood is a pinetree

but it is also a table. We sit down at the

table not at the pinetree. …

Often, I wake in strange places, and I’ve forgotten traveling there. I wake not knowing where I am. I never panic in these moments. I feel utterly free, as if some minor amnesia has taken me and placed me in a place where, unlike “Cheers,” no one knows my history. And sometimes I dream I have a face, but no one calls the face by name. We all address one another in media res, nameless. Who would I be without a name?

My lover says I live for mockery. Sometimes I forget my name is Metta. And forget about Sáma. My heart is peace-loving, my body is pestered by a hungry fly. I’m impertinent and impetuous, and my name, which is due for an upgrade, is something to live up to, something to look forward to. A horse has flies eating out the mucous in his eyes; a fat white bird looks for a cow to sit on. I watch the cardinals come to the window, take a long look at me and fly off when I grab my camera. Perhaps stilling them in image is akin to naming them something permanent.


You can find Metta Sáma either sitting on her couch watching House Hunters or wandering in a park wondering why folks want to own homes.



“A Natural History of My goodwill and loving kindness” is part of the Natural Histories Project. Click here to learn more >>

Metta Sáma (accent aigu on the first a)  paints, pomes, blogs, fictives, reviews. Work in various journals, left behind in very colonies. She has published a collection of poetry, South of Here (New Issue Press, 2006), under the name Lydia Melvin.


A Natural History: Benjamin Beckett


A Natural History of My Sleepless Nights

By Benjamin Beckett

Fig. 1: This is the house I grew up in. It's old and creaky inside.

As a child I heard bumps and cracks on summer nights, always coming out of my bedroom closet. My mother told me it was just the house settling. I bought into this explanation half-heartedly. I convinced myself it was true so I could sleep. Still, I laid with my back against the wall and the blanket covering my face like a caul.

The house must have settled down by the time I was a teenager, because there were no longer any bumps when I tried to fall asleep. When I sneaked around late at night, I was convinced that every step I took was the bump in the night that would wake my father.

Whenever I came home late from a rock show my mother would call for me from her bed. No matter how quietly I thought I entered, just as I was silently closing my bedroom door I would hear my mother call my name.  These were the only nights my parents were awake past ten o’clock. I think they wanted to satisfy themselves that I hadn’t been on drugs that night, that no one had cut me in the back of the head without me realizing it.[1]

On these occasions my father said nothing. Or he merely said goodnight as I left my parents’ room. My mother would never fail to tell me how smoky I smelled. It was just a really smoky place, I’d say. This answer seemed to satisfy her, and it was true. Growing up in Detroit with permissive parents, I had too many opportunities to do the kinds of things you end up hearing about on the evening news. I knew that the man in the Dodge Intrepid that idled all day by the park sold pot and powder. I knew the Iraqis who ran the liquor store would look the other way as long as I paid cash. I knew the cops mostly didn’t respond to calls that didn’t involve “an imminent threat to human life.” But I never bought drugs. I never bought cigarettes. I never made trouble.

On the nights I stayed home, I couldn’t sleep. In the summer with the bedroom windows open I could hear bass bumping from old Cadillacs cruising Outer Drive. In the summer it was too hot to cover my face with a blanket. The silence after the noisy car, or the siren, or the hours of smooth jazz the neighbors blasted from their back yard—the silence, not the noise, kept me awake.

We lived in an old house. It was impossible to walk to the kitchen for a glass of water without making dozens of squeaks and bumps. The nights I spent most innocently were the ones I most worried I would wake my parents. The nights I was most the good boy were the ones I most worried they would accuse me of being bad.

I live in another town now. It’s a safer, quieter town. Nobody plays glass-rattling bass with their windows rolled down at three in the morning. Nobody idles around the park and after almost a year the men who run the liquor store still ask me for my ID every time I go in. I lock all the doors and windows whenever I go out, but I don’t need to. I still can’t sleep through the night.

[1] Once, I was kicked in the face by a crowd surfer. I lost my glasses that night, but no blood. I snatched his shoe off. Who still crowd surfs? Who crowd surfs in a venue with less than 100 people? Who crowd surfs to a band that incorporates pedal steel?


Ben Beckett grew up in Detroit and now works in a library in Michigan.



“A Natural History of My Sleepless Nights” is part of the Natural Histories Project. Click here to learn more >>


A Natural History: John W. Evans


A Natural History of My Husky Frame

By John Evans

I am a Husky.

I will never be a Slim.

Slim wears a smile.  He knows that everything fits him.  He stares modestly into the distance, just over your left shoulder, head held high.

Unlike Slim, Husky rolls his shoulders forward and frowns.  He struggles to right his spine against so much girth.  In profile, he resembles a frustrated and top-heavy Mr. Burns from The Simpsons.

Fig. 1

[Figure 1.  Slim (far l.) to husky (far r.) diagram, as recreated from the Sears and Roebuck mail order Clothing Catalog, circa 1987.  Despite no actual change in physical expression, the exaggerated head, stomach, and calf features of husky’s body make him seem naturally more irritable and less mentally capable than his more slender predecessors.]

Slim shops at vintage clothing stores.  Slim buys suits and jackets off the rack at the Men’s Wearhouse.  Slim returns shirts he has received as gifts from J. Crew with the certainty that he can find something else in the store to make an exchange.  The greeters at Nordstrom do not know Slim by name.  They do not point Slim regularly to the same two racks of over-priced, billowy Italian dress shirts in the back of the store.

When I was twelve I learned that if I called the factory directly, Sears and Roebuck would custom cut an item to Husky, then deliver it to my home within 4-6 weeks, for an extra 15-20%.  I understood from the tone of the operator’s voice that, really, I should get outside more often, run around, skip desserts.

On a cold night, if I stand at slight right profile, dim my bedside lamp, and suck in my belly, I can just make out the vague suggestion of abdominal muscles and triceps.

My thyroid functions normally.

Fig. 2

[Figure 2.  Human thyroid.  An underactive human thyrod can be corrected with regular doses of synthetic hormone, or “synthroid,” resulting in immediate weight loss, concurrent upon said diagnosis.]

Growing up, I did have my Husky heroes.

The basketball hero I most closely resemble is Oliver Miller, the erstwhile Suns and Pistons near-star who ate himself out of the NBA in his mid-twenties.

Fig. 3

[Figure 3.  Oliver “the big o” miller .   Drafted 22nd overall in the 1992 draft, miller has played domestic and international pro basketball for 17 teams during his 18-year career.  Commentators and fans often cite his unusually large frame—6’9”, 345lbs.—as the reason why he never achieved the superstar nba status that seemed a given early in his career.  Note also that miller’s nickname suggests a zero.]

Like The Big O, I stand on my tiptoes to trick scales.  I am apt to insist that, actually, I am quite athletic for my size.

Failing to make the varsity basketball squad my freshman year, the coach took me into the locker room, pointed at my belly, punched a table, and exclaimed, “THAT’S why you didn’t make squad!”

The next summer, I devoted myself to training for cross country, legging out long runs through the suburbs while listening to Jane’s Addiction and London Beat on my Walkman.

There is a scene in the book, Tales Of A Fifth Grade Nothing, where the overweight heroine works out all summer, loses weight, and sees her toes for the first time when she stands upright.

Fig. 4

[Figure 4.  Sony Sports Walkman with FM/AM radio.  The walkman radio and cassette player predated the iPod as the dominant portable music player of the 1980s and 1990s.  A standard TDK audio cassette could carry 31 songs and required manual rewinding and fast forwarding to play and replay songs.]

But really, what changed was that I grew six inches.  For the first time I could remember, I gained weight more slowly than I grew.

On a bet with my coach (stakes: three slices of pizza and a Peach Snapple), I sprinted out to first place at the beginning of a junior varsity race, collapsed, composed myself, and finished second-to-last.  A Korean exchange student from the other school had gotten lost in the backwoods of the course.

I won the team spirit award and that winter I made my first foray into musical theater as the porter in Anything Goes.

Fig. 5

[Figure 5.  Poster from 1956 movie adaptation of Cole Porter’s Broadway musical, Anything Goes.  Despite accidentally walking across the ocean during a missed cue of his high school performance of Anything Goes, the author went on to perform the lead roles in several musicals that played naturally to his large frame, including Lil’ Abner, Once Upon a Mattress, and Barefoot in the Park.  The latter featured his first kiss, onstage, after which his costar suggested he try not to tilt his head so far to the left.]

In 2003, I ran the Chicago Marathon in a respectable 4 hours and 32 minutes.  At the 24th mile, I passed a thin man with bleeding nipples and a woman limping on a turned ankle.  Both were stragglers from a local running club that had declared collectively they would finish under 3:45.

Between 2001 and 2004, I completed one marathon, one half-marathon, two 10Ks, seven 5Ks, and four triathlons.

After having surgery on both feet in 2005, in a failed attempt to correct congenital arthritis, I now do pilates four times a week.  I go for long walks and hikes.

Recently, I became a vegetarian and stopped eating white sugar and white flour.  A list of ten easy weight-loss tips from a hypnotherapist is taped to the plant stand next to my desk.

Fig. 6

[Figure 6.  The author and his wife.  Note, in this seemingly casually-posed photograph, three strategies for minimizing the author’s husky frame: his shoulders are rolled back, his head juts slightly forward, and his arms extend widely in either direction.]

I can dunk a basketball with either hand, stretch into a competent downward facing dog, and sing the harmonies for most of Avenue Q.

Still, I remain a Husky.


John W. Evans was expelled from three preschools, and won the Rye High School cross country team spirit award in 1991 and 1992.



“A Natural History of My Husky Frame” is part of the Natural Histories Project. Click here to learn more >>

John W. Evans will be the Jones Lecturer in poetry at Stanford University this fall, where he is previously a Stegner Fellow.  His poems appear in The Missouri Review, Boston Review, The Southern Review, Gettysburg Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and elsewhere.  RockSaw Press published his chapbook, Zugzwang, in November 2009.

You can find some of John W. Evans poems online at the Boston Review’s Poet’s Sampler feature.  Find out more about him at his blog How to Like It, and read his Pro Wrestling & Politics column at The Faster Times.


Natural History: Tess Taylor


Natural History of My Hunger

By Tess Taylor

It took me several years after I was fifteen to discover that my body was real, and that my body was hungry. I was surprised to learn that my hunger, in my body, was real. I don’t remember exactly how I began to discover this, just as I don’t exactly remember how I stopped believing that my hunger was real in the first place. Somehow I had started to believe that my relationship to food and to my body both were acts of mind.

However it happened, I did arrive at my teenage years believing this. Because I wanted to be thin, my act of mind was actually a terrible act of ambition: I believed I could be like women I saw reflected around me, I believed that I should be like them; I thought that not to want to be like them would represent a kind of failure. I was already blond, I was white: I was close. I could be very thin and I should want to be. I did want to be.

When I stopped believing in hunger, I began to believe in willpower. There was a time when I had become so hungry so much of the time that I had proved myself right and didn’t feel hungry: the hunger  I had felt for a long time began to seem imaginary. My body reflected the painstaking force of my will. I had to work to discover that my ambition was imaginary and that the women I saw on television or in magazines were images. But hunger was real, just the way food is real. My hunger has a physical life that had nothing to do with my mind.

I have not really stopped being obsessed with food, but my obsession and my ambitions have changed. I know, obviously, that my body responds to what I do to it, that it is as kind to me as I am to it. We share a symbiosis, body and I. I am going to live in it as long as I am going to live. Bodies work better when they are not hungry. My hunger is part of my body which supports my mind: My body serves my mind as well as my mind serves it back.

When I began to get better, I became a vegetarian and then somebody who cared about organic foods, about ending factory farming, about growing things. I wanted to cook more, to tend. I wanted to make, and not passively to absorb: Later as I was finally able to really let go and eat, I became a gardener. This refocused my attention. What had been an anorexia became a passion for knowing where my food came from, for knowing how I fed myself. This was healthier, I reasoned.

It was also a different story. I suppose I could have become one of those people who ate lots of tofu or wheatgrass. But I was also learning to be mindful: I did find how too much sugar or caffeine sent my system rolling, how my hunger could set me back hours or even days, how my moods were dependent on a steady intake of good foods. I began to see how in our country those foods that kept me steady were expensive, hard to get, how I had to plan my life around being near them. But what was most helpful to me was to garden. It was a chance to feel that at base the food that made me feel real was connected to a planet that was real, a system that was real, a world that has limits that are not determined by acts of mind but by physical constraints that need respecting. I began to forget those women I had wanted to be. I began to see that the earth, like my body, responded to my care.

Sometimes in academia we talk about situations that are “constructed,” but more and more I think we need to talk about what we ourselves wish to construct, to see ourselves in a constructive relationship with our bodies, with our society, with the planet.  Gardening taught me that plants have a life of their own like bodies do; that like bodies, they respond to care. Their life is not an imaginary life but a real one, older and more complicated than any act of will. They are subject to our care and also not in our control. I work on a farm now, one day a week. Last year there was too much rain and there were no tomatoes. That was real; and if there is too much rain this year there will be no tomatoes again.

As I clear the field I think it is not a story of clearing the field that makes it grow bare. It is my work to clear the field that clears the field. Clearing the field in the cold spring rain makes me hungry. My mind that registers my hunger is in my body, which is clearing the field of last year’s tomatoes that died in a blight. I believe in stories, but I believe also in my body and the farm and my hunger. The plants showed me that my hunger was real. I was tending my plants, using them to grow food, but the story I tell is this: They were using me back. They kept teaching me how much they’d respond—how they’d grow both with and without me.

Farm Work


Tess Taylor is currently learning how to grow potatoes and rhubarb.



“A Natural History of My Hunger” is part of the Natural Histories Project. Click here to learn more >>

Tess Taylor, the 2010-2011 Amy Clampitt Resident, has received writing fellowships from Amherst College, the American Antiquarian Society, the Headlands Center for the Arts, and the MacDowell Colony. Her chapbook, The Misremembered World, was published by the Poetry Society of America, and her work has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, the Boston Review, the Harvard Review, Literary Imagination, The Times Literary Supplement, Memorious, and The New Yorker.

You can find Taylor’s essay Spring Awakening, the first in her occasional column, Stanza, on poets and poetry, at You can also find her poem “World’s End: North of San Francisco” at


A Natural History: Rachel Moritz


A Natural History of My Nostalgia

By Rachel Moritz

Outside, a noon rain shower. Cicadas buzzing in the Purple Milletta trees beyond our windows. Breeze circulating the ceiling fans. Bare feet, skin a feral shade of pink, almost red as watermelon and moist with humidity.

In that year we lived in a neighborhood called Balmoral Park, which I recall first as sprawling green lawn and then as a cluster of four-story stucco apartments. Each had a rounded, screened-in porch. I believe we lived on the third story—an apartment with tiled floors and three bedrooms, shades drawn or open to the tropical sunlight.

Dreamtime still brings the physical space back, each airy room bleeding into the next: living room with our bamboo furniture, hallway where the black piano sat upright, art deco bathroom with pristine enamel tub, my bedroom—its cloud-pattern curtains—my sister’s room, finally my parents’ across the hall.


The density of childhood, though its imprint is more like a white wall and never a doorway you can enter again. Virginia Woolf remembers the brocaded pattern of her mother’s dress and waves outside a nursery in her family’s house by the sea. Later, the image of a flower in the garden there and her first epiphanic moment as she bent over the plant—that the flower was connected to earth and earth to the flower.


There were places I couldn’t travel, despite my mind’s belief in a path. Perhaps as some kind of pilgrim carrying walking stick and bundle, I might lift the flap of a tunnel into each previous decade before my birth. My parents’ American childhoods were of utmost concern. My mother had roamed a hillside in central Arkansas, climbing trees for hours with a blue kerchief tied over her red hair. She had a hillbilly friend who lived in a shack deep in the woods she wasn’t supposed to visit. She had a vinyl star pattern on her bedroom floor.

My father once told me about lying on his back in the grass of his Scarsdale backyard, watching the lights of Sputnik blink far overhead. In a photograph, he wore a striped t-shirt, his chin round like mind. I wanted to see the color in that place and time, push past the black-and-white that seemed to freeze eternally.


The year we lived in Singapore was the year I turned seven. I discovered the Little House On the Prairie series and the haunting ending of the first book: “Now is now. Now can never be a long time ago.”

Deer in the Woods

Around that time, and perhaps because of those books, I began to be fascinated by history. Even today images of the past send chills up my spine. Old snippets of news reel, bodies walking stilted and swift as machines on a Berlin street twenty years before Hitler, streetcars swerving around the corner, and some of the people waving, other oblivious, walking in their too-fast-motion down the pavement, daily business, moments unhinged, perhaps still hanging there in endless abbreviation.

C.S. Lewis: “And the past is the past and that is what time means.’


At noon each day, after rain shower, a man selling soymilk rounded the bend of our hill. His cart glinted silver in the bright sunlight; he opened a metal panel for milk inside. The little sacks of plastic held sugary white liquid and a straw. Or perhaps it wasn’t noon, but later. We would have been at school until two o’clock, or three. I would have taken the long bus ride through Singapore streets from my British elementary school one hour away. Perhaps the soymilk man came only on weekends.


Perhaps also on weekends, we roamed farther from the green grass lawn and apartment steps. Down the hillside from Balmoral Park, fat banana leaves dripped water after the noontime storm, and a path led to the Chinese house somehow deserted. In our child minds, the economies of absence made little difference. We didn’t ask where people had gone. We just pushed open doors and roamed their empty rooms. I remember tall windows in the hallway entrance. A bedroom with writing desk, an overturned mattress. Sometimes the fear of footsteps, real or imagined, produced our squealing and pleasurable panic as we raced back to the front entrance, our flip-flops pounding down the marble hall, the vast wooden door pushed open, sunlight and late afternoon heat rushing again toward us.


Once you leave a place, how it ceases to exist in the unfolding now, which means its presence continues oddly without dying or evolving, just suspended in the ether. The way a person whose death you are unable to witness seems not gone but somehow absent from the primary stage, waiting in the wings, a visitor you might see again.


Several times I’ve gone back in dreams to a place filled with water. The water is an electric green, as if the grass itself has turned to liquid.  The sunlight makes me blink. I paddle a canoe through the third level of apartments, entering in through windows of the porch. Our home is still intact as it was, though a layer of water submerges the furniture. My boat floats effortlessly from doorway to back bedroom and out an open window.

After I’d had this dream for the first time, I learned the whole area of Balmoral Park had been razed, all the grass cemented down and new high-rises and housing developments built in their place.


Rachel Moritz now lives in nordic Minneapolis.



“A Natural History of My Nostalgia” is part of the Natural Histories Project. Click here to learn more >>

Rachel Moritz is the author of two poetry chapbooks: The Winchester Monologues and Night-Sea, both from New Michigan Press. Learn more about her work at:


A Natural History: James Arthur


A Natural History of My Party Tricks

Text and photos by James Arthur

I have a double-jointed thumb. As a teenager, I was eager to demonstrate to anyone who expressed even the most perfunctory interest my ability to set my thumb at an unusual angle.

I feel that I’m good at animal impressions, and the animal noise that I’m most proud of (in other words, the one that I feel is most particular to me) is my impression of a pig being slaughtered. It goes, w-iii-iii-yh-yh-yh-yh-yh-yh-yh-yh-yh-yh-yh-yh! The last time I did my dying-pig impression at an actual party, a friend’s baby began to scream.

I can recite most of the dialogue from Conan the Barbarian. I try to pass this off as a joke.

I’m better than average at chugging beer, and I like to challenge people to chug with me. My friend John creamed me in a chugging contest two years ago, and I haven’t chugged since.

Seven years ago at a party in Seattle, I saw a young man who identified himself as “a stunt tequila drinker” drink a shot of tequila, snort a line of table salt, squeeze lemon juice into his eyes, and then stagger around the room, howling in unsimulated pain as everyone laughed at him.

I can recite many poems by Auden, Yeats, E.E. Cummings, Millay, etc., and more than I care to admit, I want my friends—my writer friends, really—to be impressed by this.

James Merrill wrote, “What least thing our self-love longs for most / Others instinctively withhold.”

I can also recite my own poems from memory. I don’t do this in social situations. Not often, anyway.

Oh Auden! Auden once wrote these words: “… The gross insult of being a mere one among many.”

Double-jointedness, properly known as “hypermobility,” is caused not by the presence of an additional joint, but by a misshapen or misaligned bone.

One person in four has a hypermobile thumb.

Fig. 1

Fig. 2


James Arthur is, thanks to the efforts of his mother, Dorothy (Penny) Arthur, and his father, James G. Arthur, both currently resident in Toronto, Canada.



“A Natural History of My Party Tricks” is part of the Natural Histories Project. Click here to learn more >>

James Arthur’s poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The New Republic, The Southern Review, and Ploughshares. He has received a Wallace Stegner Fellowship, the Amy Lowell Travelling Poetry Scholarship, and a Discovery/The Nation Prize. Charms Against Lightning, his debut poetry collection, is forthcoming from Copper Canyon Press. He lives in St. Louis with his wife, fiction writer Shannon Robinson.


A Natural History: Jason Koo


A Natural History of My Name

By Jason Koo

Today I read that only 2.2%

—-out of a million first and last names

have a higher vowel than consonant

—–ratio, and, since 50% of the letters

in my name are vowels, this means

—–I am “extremely well-envoweled.”

I go outside strutting the bulge

—–in my name: the trees are wowed

by my vowels, they only have two e’s,

—–which is why they have no leaves

at this time of year: the snow must submit

—–to the scrunch of my boots,

snow only has one o and I have three,

—–even my boots, so tough and rugged,

clearly dominating the one-o’d

—–snow, must bow down to the deity

of me, with three, never raising

—–themselves higher than my feet:


I cross the bridge and it is the same,

—–the river cannot keep up

with me, look at it writhing in the ice,

—–so fearsome with its 66.6%

vowel-to-consonant ratio but not

—–intimidating to me, because ice,

if you’ll notice, slides on its c,

—–eventually skidding to a stop

like a hockey player before the puck

—–of the e: which in a flick

disappears: whereas I keep floating out

—–on my opening of o’s, the song

of my name is repeated through nature,

—–cuckoos and owls take pleasure

in perpetuating it, just one koo

—–is never enough for them, koo

must always come coupling


—–through their throats: you can hear

this song taken up by schoolchildren,

—–I used to hear it all the time,

I thought kids were taunting me but

—–now I know they were just jealous

of my o’s: they saw these heaped

—–in their bowls of canned

spaghetti and cereal, but no matter

—–how many spoonfuls they jammed

in their mouths, no matter how

—–many more muscles they grew

than me, they never grew any

—–more richly envoweled: this was just

something you had to be born with,

—–a natural advantage of hailing

from a family that came from a tiny

—–Pacific peninsula whupped

by other countries: our name shed

—–contours of consonants

to slip past detection, shape-shifting

—–into other words like a

syllable chameleon, from haiku to coup

—–d’etat matching colonial culture

and upheaval, so when I hear Hi, Koo


—–today followed by a giggle, the laugh

is not on me but on the oppressors,

—–whose whole poetic tradition

gets cheerfully wiped out by my arrival.


Jason Koo used to be called ‘d’etat’, for short, in high school. Among other less cool things.



“A Natural History of My Name” is part of the Natural Histories Project. Click here to learn more >>

Jason Koo is the author of Man on Extremely Small Island, winner of the 2008 De Novo Poetry Prize (C&R Press, 2009). The recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Vermont Studio Center, he has published his poetry and prose in numerous journals, including The Yale Review, North American Review and The Missouri Review. He teaches at NYU and Lehman College and serves as Poetry Editor of Low Rent. He lives in Brooklyn with his cat, Django.


A Natural History: Christopher Stackhouse


Artist Among Other Things: The Natural History of My Social Position

By Christopher Stackhouse

——Indicative of something like a kind of residue, giving insight into the character of my social position, as it began to establish itself early on, on its own terms, toward its current stage, here is a text I received early last year from my brother, he wrote:

“O by the way uncle phil found

some old writing of ur’s when

moving shit out of trish’s crib.

He said it was from the 4th or 5th

grade.  By accident he left it in

his yard and the dog tore up some of it.”

Here is a picture of me, and my brother Zane. He is an actor. (Fig 1)

Fig. 1

Our father shared with us his love of staged theater, carpentry, reading for leisure, writing to remember, and baseball for competition among other sports and games, like table tennis and backgammon. He was once a close friend to the writer James Baldwin. He has lived in many places in the world, but he really loves Detroit. His name is Skip. (Fig 2)

Fig. 2

There are other things that determine, where you were and where you’re at, like watching your babies grow, and grow, and grow (yes, x’s 3 for me). It seems like I may one day find myself with a big lot of them (I started at fatherhood very young). However, staying focused here, pictured is our family’s latest progeniture, my baby daughter Sabine. (Fig 3)

Fig. 3

——Aside from kids, I’m into dogs. Here’s the last dog I owned, an American Bulldog Johnson line, a female named Baci.  I got her when she was 6 months old. She was incredibly well trained. Her previous owner and I respectively put hours upon hours of time in with her. She was rather intelligent, loyal, and engaged with human life. She loved Haagen Das Butter Pecan ice cream and beef bones from the butcher. Her adopted mom (my ex) Catherine, eventually served her a dinner mix of homemade boiled free range chicken with diced organically grown fresh carrots, celery, and quinoa. This diet helped heal an injury Baci acquired during one of her exercise routines. The dietary change proved better than the general high-grade dog foods we tried, so we stayed with it. She lived to be only 9 years old, which is another story to tell altogether. I miss her. She died early summer of 2008. (Fig 4)

Fig. 4

I’m not sure when I’ll be able to get another dog.  I like a range of breeds and if the right mixed pup showed up, I’d be up for that too, but the last search about looking turned up this dude here named Remy who looks pretty cool. (Fig 5)

Fig. 5

——Most people who know me, know that I really enjoy reading poetry. I like discussing poetry and writing, at home with people equally interested. The other night with my friend Geoffrey we talked about the verse form Strambotto, and found ourselves marveling again over Yeat’s “He Wishes For Cloths of Heaven.” He recited that poem and sections from Phillip Sydney’s “Astrophel and Stella.” Among other poets and writers, we discussed Amiri Baraka, Weldon Kees, Walter Pater, Ann Lauterbach, and work by a peer, poet Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon. John K. and I talked later that evening about John Ashbery’s poem “Self Portrait in Convex Mirror”, reciting our favorite lines from it.  We also revisited an old review by Adam Kirsch of Louise Gluck’s book “Averno”, and totally switched topic to attend the growing more prevalent phenomena in the contemporary scene of ‘poet/scholar’ while talking about the ideas in Geoffrey’s new book A Change in the Weather: Modernist Imagination, African American Imaginary which John and I both believe will prove over time to be a very important book regarding American poetry and poetics.

——Few things enhance these conversations more than the before and after a great meal with a glass of quality vino. Food and wine can be marvelously entertaining. I try to cook at home as often as possible, and eat others home cooking as much too. Lately lots of men friends (all writers) cook, and well- Ira makes killer Asian cuisine, Stuart makes hybrid American dishes with heavy broths and alternative cooking oils (like Goose fat), Michael has taken to preparing a rabbit and fennel dish; and though I’m all over the place too, the last dish I made I really enjoyed was Fettucine with mixed veggies in a very light cream sauce, topped with Artic Char pan fried in a homemade cornmeal mix and olive oil, and strips of thick sliced bacon. I think I liked that meal so much because everything came out just right. To accompany it, had a wine from one of my favorite places from which to drink  – Burgundy. It’s rare (for me at least) to find one I really enjoy (bang for your buck ratio for Burgundy is generally narrow), but a recent dabble in Côte de Nuits did it. Michael gave me a bottle of chardonnay from Marsannay-la-Côte by Charles Audoin (It was a gift, but it retails around $30/bottle).

Fig. 6

The bottle shown here is a 2007- I had a 2005 and it was quite good. (Fig 6) Prior that, the last chardonnay I found of similar interest, though a much different feel was from Bordeaux (probably my favorite region from which to regularly imbibe), it was St. Aubin De Branne 2003. (Fig 7)

Fig. 7

I bought a half case a few years ago. I drank the last two this year one with Geoff (we had sautéed to brown, near medium well, center cut boneless pork chops with olive oil, sea salt, cracked peppercorn and thyme, rosemary potatoes with cremini, asparagus with basil, garlic and shallots); the other I sipped with Kelly the evening Michael Jackson died. I wonder how Roscoe Lee Browne would have liked it.

——What else complicates a perspective of one’s own social position as much as perhaps being an artist? The notion of responsibility – to what am I responsible necessarily in art – is a looming question. Lately I have thought about Turner’s painting “The Slave Ship” (1840). (Fig 8 )

Fig. 8

He painted this in part because of his preoccupation with the sea, as a powerful force in nature; but he made such a violent and striking painting to also make a statement about the slave trade, and to commemorate the victims of the Zong Massacre of 1781, where near a 150 African Slaves were tossed over board or died from starvation due to overcrowding on the ship. It is a reasonable assumption that this happened many times during the Middle Passage. So there then, a British man of 19th Century Art Academy honors, flexes his given skill to honor his fallen African brethren in a painting nearly 60 years after the event. Being a likely descendant of both groups of people, I find this moving. It recalls for me Derek Walcott’s essay “The Muse of History”, though I’m not sure I feel exactly the way Walcott feels about our respective blends of ethnically mixed heritage. And after that, the strength of contemplation in history, politics, one’s ‘present-day’ in art, exemplary in this work of Turner’s takes nothing from the pleasure I receive in reflecting for minutes at a time on the objects in my immediate environment which I’ve been wont to stare at and photograph, like the this marble mantelpiece in my apartment. (Fig 9)

Fig. 9

It is as much of Western design as I am. The shape of it feminine and masculine, animated in its stasis, ballast by leaving sun and shadow. It is cut by and from the elements, as am I; and perhaps it feels, as it is certainly felt by hand and eye.

——The re-eventing of a past is a perpetually expansive opening for an artist/thinker. There is so much to capture and release, to witness. It is hardly an impartial place to be, to want to look at an aesthetic work, or at the various things in the/a world, or, to meet my own mutable body on any and every given morning. (Fig 10)

Fig. 10

It is from this point of view, and potential others that I occasionally stare. I tried to explain this compulsion in a lecture I gave with John K. a couple of years ago. We discussed the persistence of abstraction in art and literature. We each discussed our favorite art books, paintings, and idea potential in certain artistic practices. At one point looking into a projected image of a painting by Gerhard Richter, I began to trace his brush strokes in the air while discoursing on the work before us. (Fig. 11)

Fig. 11

It was an odd thing for me to do, given that I have seen the object painting before; I have always surmised it having been painted on the floor, obviously not in the same style as Ed Moses or Ed Clark, but with a similar dependency on gravity and the illusion of defiance of it (i.e. gravity).

——An image that perhaps suits my social situation and outlook best as I see it, metaphorically, is a photo attributed to photog John Mc Colgan. The photo is referred to as “The Elk Bath” and in my files as “Deer Caught in Forest Fire”. It is one of the most poignant pictures I’ve ever seen. When I look at and empathize with, think about, so many aspects of the content(s) and subject(s) of, the photo, I am not sure what living part of the photograph best represents my being- the trees, the deer, the fire, the photographer, the rocks, the forest floor, or the river. I can only stare with aesthetic pleasure. The anticipation forever suspended in the photo is restorative. From such distance, what is most powerful still, is such light, the pure energy in transfer caught in stasis. (Fig. 12)

Fig. 12



“Artist Among Other Things: The Natural History of Social Position” is part of the Natural Histories Project. Click here to learn more >>

Christopher Stackhouse is the author of a collection of poetry, “Slip” (Corollary Press, 2005); and co-author of the collaborative book “Seismosis” (1913 Press, 2006), which features his drawings in philosophical discourse with text by co-author John Keene (Annotations).

You can find more on Roscoe Lee Browne here and here.


A Natural History: Peter Kline


A Natural History of My Obscenely Good Looks

By Peter Kline

Edible Overwear

This may shock those of you who know me, but I wasn’t always the handsomely debonair man you don’t see standing before you.  In fact, at the beginning things were looking pretty grim for our Don Juan: mashed-in head, bulging eyes, doughy, parboiled skin, and a gooey swag of stiff black hair on my head, which promptly fell out.  My mother asked for a valium.  My father asked for an explanation.  The nurses gloated like saints.  I pissed on the doctor’s face and fell asleep drooling.

Those first years, likewise, I showed little promise of sprouting into the Mapplethorpe calla lily of my maturity.  Tub-time snapshots show me, shall we say, “ill-equipped” for my future seductions.  And while innovation in fashion at the age of 16 months portends a gigolo’s talent for the dandified, hats made out of spaghetti are neither comfortable nor suave.  My parents’ hopes grew when I came home from nursery school with tales of the class belle, Tina, who always wore a bright pink dress.  Follow-up with the teacher, however, revealed that I had fallen victim to that most ruthless form of unrequited love, the love for an imaginary friend.

You might guess that things went a lot more smoothly in my adolescence.  Two words should dispel this notion: breast buds.  All wrapped up in ski clothes, with nothing showing but my eyes and mouth, I must have appeared a bit more toothsome: first kiss with Rachel on the ski lift.  I learned to put my hands on my hips the opposite way to avoid looking effeminate.  I hairsprayed my bangs in a wave, and pined after the superfine hair of the skater kids, swishing down over their eyes.  Dressed in forest green tights for our production of Once Upon A Mattress, I was told by my teacher, not un-flirtatiously, that I had “nice legs – not chicken legs like the other boys.”  Clearly, something was turning out right if the zany and free-spirited Mrs. B saw fit to admire it.  On the soccer field, the opposing team called me “thunder thighs” and shouted vroom vroom! as I labored by.

Around this time, my bone structure may have been finalizing itself according to the Grecian ideal – high cheekbones, a prominent chin, a slender muscularity.  If this is the case, my freshmen forty made it impossible to tell (thank you, Papa John’s).  My eyes may have begun to gleam like hot jade in a mineral pool, as they do now, but they were seldom visible through all the nappy pseudo-dreads and plastic beads I wore in my hair.  O my undergraduate self, unloved and unwashed!

Beware of Dog/Terrible Polyester

Skip a decade ahead.  Ugly duckling, and all that.  But you can’t argue with results.  That tub problem has been sorted out, more or less.  The forty pounds went away, though only for a quick vacation.  But I perfected “the look,” sidelong and puckish and wry, and that was that.  However flattering, it still makes me uncomfortable when strange women at the salad bar offer me their firstborn.  And how many times can you hear You’re the most beautiful man I’ve ever seen before it starts to take on a disingenuous tang?  Yes, the shallow world of appearances is not for me.  But you – by all means, feel free to look, if you like what you see.


Peter Kline is a kind of me.  If you were a Peter Kline, what kind of
Kline would you be?



“A Natural History of My Obscenely Good Looks” is part of the Natural Histories Project. Click here to learn more >>

Peter Kline lives in San Francisco, where he is a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry Writing.


A Natural History: Laura Newbern


A Natural History of My Heart

By Laura Newbern

Fig. 1

I have an ex-boyfriend who says I broke his heart on Oakland Avenue, in a little cinder-block house, in the Five Points neighborhood of Athens, Georgia. I say he broke mine, long before I even got a kick at his. I also say that he’s the only ex-boyfriend I actually miss. I say this often; it’s such a plain truth. I miss talking to him.

The little house we lived in was set way back off the street, and behind another house, and just above a slow creek. Even in winter, everything was green and a little bit wet. And the house was painted yellow, and the sky above all the water-oaks, often enough, was a very pale shade of lavender. Inside, mildew grew in our shoes, and in some of our books. We ate our supper at a bright red Formica table. We fought. And I broke his heart.

Once I saw my heart in a sonogram. I listened to it, too. I was struck by how small it was, and how much it sounded like a tiny washing machine. Sort of sad and determined. With all my heart, I saluted it.

What was it we fought about? I half remember—I was depressed. We’d left all our friends in New York, where we’d met in the back of a bar on Houston Street. For me, it was love at first sight. The first time we slept together, he told his roommate, as we appeared sheepish in the morning, that we’d gotten married. We stood there grinning in silk bathrobes, like idiots. I loved him. After a rocky year or so, during which I moved away, and came back, and he cheated, and I cheated, we decided to leave New York and move to Georgia. It was my idea.

He did not tell me I was pretty; he asked me if I knew I was. I found this gritty and impressive. One Valentine’s Day he gave me an anatomically correct heart-drawing, with valves and tubes and arrows. Again, gritty and impressive. And sad and determined.

Recently I had a little scare with my heart; in a mall, in a dressing room, it began to beat so hard and so fast that I had to sit down. This resulted in a doctor’s visit and all the alarmist tests— a stress test; another test that meant wearing different colored wires attached to a black box overnight; another test—the big finale—that sent me inside a machine with some kind of liquid injected beforehand that made me hotter than I’d ever been. It all came out fine. Nothing wrong; nothing at all.

When I think back, I remember how beautiful we were, and how young. How he worked to make the house habitable; how I worked, behind a closed door, at corresponding with everyone except him. I wanted the closeness, but I couldn’t handle it, and things broke. I remember a plate hitting a wall. I remember staying up half the night one night watching the movie Sayonara on cable, alone. Cable was new to me then—that’s how long ago this was.

I don’t remember him moving out, but he did, taking his sleeveless shirts and his books and his French press. And there I was, with the house to myself. Which seemed to be what I wanted.

When I was in college, a doctor on the Upper East Side told me I had a heart murmur. Years later I saw her on television: spectacled, elegant, commanding. She was big in the heart world. I used to love the trips to her office; how intently she would don a white coat and get close, and listen. But I’m not sure it was real. No doctor these days can hear it.

We’d lived in that house with animals – my cats and his dog. And a sizeable population of crickets: huge ones with striped legs; they’d pop out of the basement in their novelty socks. Outside, box turtles scraped around in the yard. Bats hung in a nearby shed. One evening I found one of the cats standing over a bat: a seemingly wounded bat, flat on its back, breathing hard. I panicked and shooed the cat in. Like a beating heart flung out of a body, that bat, on the ground. And, when I checked on it later–gone.


Laura Newbern still lives in Georgia, with no idea whether her heart murmurs or not.



“A Natural History of My Heart” is part of the Natural Histories Project. Click here to learn more >>

Laura Newbern, an Assistant Professor of English/Creative Writing at Georgia College & State University since 2005, teaches graduate and undergraduate poetry workshops, poetics, and other creative writing and literature courses.  Laura is also the Poetry Editor of Arts & Letters.  Her poems have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Poetry, Black Warrior Review, and elsewhere; her collection, Love and the Eye, won the Kore Press First Book Award and is due out this fall.