Conversation in a Café
‘I’ve missed you’ she says,
fingers fondling a glass of steaming coffee, glass coloured caramel, reflecting a chequered red and off-white table cloth covered in plastic, easy-wipe down, yet sticky to the touch.
There is a faint smell of disinfectant in the air and I wonder what we’re doing here and why there is a solitary wilting daisy in an egg cup between us.
Eggs pop into burning hot pans, a fire-alarm goes off,
she sits silently, scrutinising me for a response. Waiting patiently, hanging
on words yet unformed. A dusky paragon of beauty surrounded by burning fat and sausage smoke,
like some crude juxtaposition of opposites. A photographic spread that’s meant to be ‘modern’ and cutting-edge.
Still I’m wondering what we’re doing here and what could possibly have brought us to this place,
while all around me people leisurely pour sugar like water into tea cups and chew sausages and dribble egg yoke.
‘Really I have’ she says,
words saturated with sincerity, her right hand closing over mine as if it could deliver me and I think of the email attachment she sent me, a jpeg image of nothing other than her neck, white ivory, soft and slender, a single black hair stroking her throat.
j. michael niotta
those in misery are taxied furthest from relief
Some of us are cloned for disaster,
as if bred to soak heaping portions of the sorrow quota.
& water has truly turned to wine & bourbon.
& that dash of happiness has darted off.
It’s a beautifully failed existence.
like a compass needle directed at all the others,
swivels to point
of the one holding the device.
There’s no kind of hate
like the hate
that has a hate
for the inner.
& desperation pleads,
but it’s all too easy to be
just so selfish.
& those in misery are taxied furthest from relief…
so that every kind of needle is jabbed in
& every worthless thought is cooked in
& all the ways of release are smelt
but never tasted.
It’s easy to see out,
like the mental prison of desire shelved invalid,
but there’s no getting out,
just the far trolley of open-mouthed unhappiness
for a penny
on the tracks
Escape comes in too small of doses—
in a knife cut
in a liquor swill
in the humor of the tube
in a 4 AM auto jaunt
or the listen of the rain
in a lie told within & kept true
in that syrupy assurance that someday it will all be over
in the laughter that comes when those around see you mad
in spoonfuls of a displaced timeline that throw a man in
or in a new that-will-never-happen good time.
We are all dying by the hour
& we are all living with so much hurt
that I wonder why we don’t carry stopwatches & bandages.
There is a flower kept…
for the occasion of death.
Bagel Oasis Girl
Hungover cold broke
I’m driving to the
and the world
goes on red violently.
and the Doctor
I’m the only one
in the place.
The girl behind
is young pretty
long red straight hair
Tall and thin
with long arms
and long fingers.
She was a baby once
pulled from the bleeding
sore of her mother
untimely or not.
I ask for a dozen:
She gives me
an extra everything
And even though
she gives me the
when I add
cream cheese and
Bagel Oasis Girl.
Not so happy
and not so fucked.
Screwed and not
by my friend
in my back
I step out onto
alive dead cold
again again again again.
I wish my parents
had never crawled
out of the ocean.
How much easier
to be a fish,
to gobble, be gobbled
by figures of silver
in a blue sea.
Charles P. Ries
By Curt Johnson
Cross & Roads Press
P.O. Box 33
Ellison Bay, WI 54210
This Review First Appeared In: Free Verse
SALUD is a homage to Curt Johnson by his dear friend and small press institution, Norb Blei. This is the 27th publication from Blei’s, Cross + Roads Press. Blei says, “When a writer reaches the point of Selected Works in his life, a definite benchmark has been achieved. You stand by your words. What you’ve penned you are. This could not be more true then in the life and work of Curt Johnson, short story artist, novelist, essayist, critic, and one of the best yet, least celebrated writers and publisher (december magazine and december press) coming out of the heartland.”
Through SALUD, Blei gives us a sampling of Johnson’s work: novel excerpts, essays, articles, and memoirs. The challenge here is condensing the works of a writer who wrote so broadly and in so many forms. I often felt like I was getting only the first course – a taste. But this is want Blei intended to do; tempt us with Johnson’s work and encourage us to seek it out.
This book is both a literary experience and a history of the small independent press. Johnson who is now in his 80’s, was editor of the highly regarded december magazine in the early 60s. He was one of the first to publish the works of Raymond Carver, Joyce Carol Oates, Bukowski, and Ted Kooser, to name only a few who have gone onto popular acclaim. But Johnson also published the work of many writers who never hit it big, or at all. Johnson and Blei are two of the patron saints of the small press. They have been in it and doing it for over 50 years. They do it as much to give new writers a place to shine, a chance to be heard, as much as for any glory they may receive.
I found the interview between Johnson and Blei that concludes SALUD a delight – a history lesson and look inside the head of two small press pioneers. Blei says in the interview, “Curt have you, one of the Granddaddies of independent publishers in America , ever been invited to read your work and/or discuss the role of the independent presses in academia? Northwestern University? The University of Illinois (Johnson has lived his life in Chicago ). And Johnson replies, “I don’t think the academy and its creative writing courses are of much use to the real writer. And I don’t think the safe haven the academy provides established writers does their own writing much good either.”
For those of us active in the independent small press this book is a must read. How can we know that we are innovating if we don’t know what has come before us? But even more, SALUD is a morality tale that has been told again and again by yet another talented, prolific writer sitting at linoleum kitchen table at 11:00 a.m., having a coffee and a shot of whiskey with a fellow writer and friend reflecting on the old days, lamenting the fact he never quite hit it big, but not willing to change one thing about his journey, the books he wrote, the people he met, or the writers he helped along the way.