God had finished his work and thought a rest day would be a nice change. But he didn’t have anybody to play golf with, because Satan was busy. After the thrill of creating, He wondered what to do to amuse Himself.
So He figured, let’s give those humans free will and see what they do with it. Perhaps watching them will be a fun pastime.
And He settled down to watch civilizations rise and fall and humans slaughter each other, and when the same stories played out over and over again, He became bored and wandered off to create another universe.
This time, He thought, I’ll make one without people.
About the Author: Agnes Vojta grew up in Germany and now lives in Rolla, Missouri where she teaches physics at Missouri S&T. She is the author of Porous Land (Spartan Press, 2019). Her poems recently appeared in Gasconade Review,Thimble Literary Magazine, Trailer Park Quarterly, Poetry Quarterly, and elsewhere.
Elegy in Reverse is a tense poetry collection exploring how loss and absence manifest. Family, friends, lovers, talents, and faith are shadows made measurable by experience and reverence in Mike James’s eighth collection, released by Aldrich Press earlier this year. James’s verse reminds us that what we hold dear is perishable and that words are often not enough to hold these things accountable for leaving. His poetry is plainspoken but evocative, fully rendering the familiarity of longing and grief for that which has a propensity toward leaving. Amid such an exodus, James captivates readers with his rapturous voice.
The characters of James’s past are made tangible by his written memory. In the early pages of his collection, readers are introduced to his mother and his alcoholic father; the latter is deceased and the former presumably so. In “Jailbird,” his father invents a dance, “the prison shuffle,” that the son enjoys, but his mother refuses to join:
when i was with your father
i had enough dancing
to do me
until cows or jesus
when she said that
as if she were saying it
for the first time
In economic verse, James details the family situation of his childhood: His father goes or returns to prison. His mother hopes to prevent her son from making similar choices. She makes light of her husband’s antics, yet reveals in doses the continuity of the past, her worry refreshed.
His mother appears sparingly throughout the collection, despite James’s apparent fondness of her, while his father returns frequently. The collection contains a number of heartbreaking poems about his father’s alcoholism, which “cost him a sense of direction,” ultimately turning him away from his family. The son is left only with his memory, piecemeal and bitter. James seems to believe he has inherited such transience. Or, possibly, he recognizes this as a feature of human nature, the human condition. He expresses “a sad anger” toward most loss or abandonment, writing in a poem later in the collection that “an old friend says leaving is contagious.” This sets a precedent for the remainder of the book.
Despite his ability to make good use of them, James recognizes that words often escape or fail us as well. In “Message at Babel,” James alludes to the biblical account of God confounding the human language. As part of a short series of poems within the collection that questions the necessity of disparity in faith, James explores through a lens of mourning what it means that Eve was possibly judged “before she even chewed,” that Job’s wife was silenced by her children’s “faces / so stiff in death.”
Still, James shows us clearly that language and voice help diffuse the power of death and grief. Our memories become stories, become physical. “I don’t know what to make / of the language / of grace” James writes in a poem about refusing to offer a prayer before a meal with his wife. The litany and ritual of biblical language are not as significant or endearing to him as experience itself:
those words / don’t cling to me / the way a blanket does / on mid-winter / mornings / / or the way we cling / to one another / at night / as we swim / across the ocean of our bodies / past the edge of our wants / / the night sky full of stars / mariners used / for passage/ their breath filling sails / with a word / that can be a taunt / a promise / or something close to grace / / home
James’s refusal isn’t a rejection of faith, but of its language, poor in its appraisal of our desires and necessities. He suggests silence is its own grace in “However Bright the Sun” and “Wild Apples.” In labor, we work through our grief and unpleasantness. We forget our losses, even though their accumulation manifests into a shadow, “some days . . . into a taste.”
The dichotomy of what is unreal as it exists in reality is essential to James’s collection. He is visited by his father’s ghost, and they converse. Eden’s inhabitants are capricious, envious of Eve’s taste. James even defines an elegy as “a love poem to an abstraction / once touched.” It seems, then, that with poetry James is enabled to seek the abstraction through language, to define absence by its bounty. The way the monk in “The Monk’s Dream” seeks God’s face during sleep or contemplation but can think only of hawk’s feathers and an empty bowl is how we, with James, seek the unreal through the limitations of the real.
More than a reconciliation of grief, Elegy in Reverse is a love poem to language and the surprising result of what happens when we’re able to say the right thing. Even when describing that which is fleeting, Mike James’s voice is nascent, emerging. He is never at a loss for words.
Editor’s Note: I knew within minutes of reading Rion Amilcar Scott’s essay that it deserved a home here, and I’m thrilled and proud for this to be the first piece I’ve selected for publication as a recent addition to the editorial team at As It Ought to Be. I am a big fan of The Good Men Project and the meaningful work they’re doing (see here or here or here), and there’s plenty to laud about the conversations in which they’re choosing to engage. (Full disclosure: TGMP reprinted an essay of mine from AIOTB days after I solicited Rion for this excellent piece.) Still, a significant part of community responsibility, even in the wake of our admiration or appreciation, is a willingness to have the tough conversations too. Rion’s experience sheds light on issues that are worthy of our consideration, and I hope that, in sharing them, the TGMP will feel challenged—and supported—to address them in a way that continues to move these many important conversations forward.
Little Known Bible Verses (Preceded by a Rather Long Note) or Why You Won’t Find This Piece on The Good Men Project
Rion Amilcar Scott
Author’s Note: I recently submitted this satirical piece to The Good Men Project, and it was accepted under the condition that I make a few revisions. I was asked, among other things, to cut the last section of the piece that pokes fun at Chick-fil-A.
A piece like this is similar to a game of Jenga, remove too many pieces or put them in the wrong place in the wrong way, and the whole thing topples over. I agreed to a few of his suggestions, but other parts in question were integral to the broader perspective and point-of-view of the piece. I didn’t care too much about getting “killed in the comments section,” since anyone who would take a “no homo” joke seriously in this context just isn’t paying close enough attention anyway. Bite my tongue for no one.
But it turns out that what it came down to for the editor was that we cut the Chik-fil-A reference because, as he put it, “They’re advertisers, so I’m concerned about that one.”
TheGood Men Projectidentifies itself as an ongoing conversation about the contours and boundaries of masculinity. A worthy discussion. Playing out the scripts of bad or cartoonish manhood is at the heart of many of the problems our society seems to have a hard time shaking. Homophobia, much like racism, kills.
Participating in such a conversation is the very reason I decided to submit to The Good Men Project in the first place. My piece contains gags about transubstantiation, Halloween, the gluten-free craze, and a bunch of other subjects both serious and trivial, but the heart of the work deals with the very subjects The Good Men Project purports to tackle. Without those sections, it’s just a bunch of jokes about Facebook and football. Of course the Good Men Project needs to keep the heat and the lights on—that explains taking money from Chick-fil-A—but to do so at the expense of their very mission is the highest form of self-defeat.
These conversations make and shape us, and they can also bend and deform us. I’m not ashamed of much, but one of the things that often nags at me is how uncharitable my younger self could be toward classmates I perceived as queer. Many years later, after I had become a man and shed much of my childish homophobia, I heard my father speaking about acceptance and non-judgment toward gays and lesbians, and I wondered if things would have been different if we’d had that conversation much earlier.
It didn’t make sense to censor myself and mutilate my piece to make Chick-fil-A happy. I mean, all Chick-fil-A has ever given me is stomachaches and diarrhea. And I’m not pining to get accolades from the Chick-fil-A corporate offices. No writer has ever jumped up and said, “They love my work down at Chick-fil-A!” Most of all, even if my work appeared on a website called The Good Men Project, there’s no way I could reasonably call myself a Good Man while silencing my voice so some people somewhere could sell a few more homophobic chicken sandwiches.
If thou giveth even a single Skittle to a six year old dressed as Spongebob on the 31st of October, then thou hath sinned against the Lord and worshipped mine enemy.
Thou shalt surrender ten percent of thy salary to a man in alligator-skin boots so that man may purchase a Rolls Royce, for that is the automobile of the Lord.
Thou shalt shout out the Lord thy God three to four times an hour in thy Facebook status.
Thee can pray all thou wants for a Superbowl victory, but if thou playest for the Buffalo Bills then thou shalt always lose for I am a petty and vengeful God and a long time ago a cornerback from the Bills cut in front of Me at Subway and then when the sandwich artist finally got to Me they were out of the kind of bread I like. So I turned to this fool, pointed my finger and was like, Thou shalt regret that.
On the Monday after the celebration of the resurrection of thy Lord and Savior, thou shalt return to thy sad and soul crushing labor. For on a day in November you will set aside a day for a gigantic meal with people thou don’t really like and that is worthy of a national holiday, but not the return of a man from the dead. Goeth and figureth.
And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat—” And before Jesus could finish speaking, the disciple Thomas cut him off and said, “Um, Jesus, you know if this bread is gluten free?”
All religions are just different paths to the same destination. Except Scientology. That shit’s crazy. So saith the Lord.
And forthwith Judas came to Jesus, and said, “Hail, master”; and kissed him. And there did follow a long awkward silence in which both Judas and Jesus looked first out into the sky and then down at their feet. And Judas did chuckle a bit and Jesus did blush. And Judas swept his hair with his hand and said, “Uh, no homo.”
On Easter Sunday and on Christmas day as well, if thou doth believeth, then thou shalt log onto thy social network accounts and proclaim thy superiority over those who do not believe. If thou doth not believe then thou shalt log on and spread the good word about thy fealty to reason and how it makes thou intellectually superior to the believer. And it shall all be very insufferable. And for everyone else—those who don’t really care that much—Facebook and Twitter shall be more unpleasant than usual. Best to just log off and go enjoy thy day.
After the Sermon, the disciple Tom raised his hand. “Jesus,” he said. “If your message boils down to ‘Just don’t be a dick,’ then why do so many act like dicks in your name?” Jesus nodded, then Jesus shrugged and then Jesus wept.
The animals on Noah’s Ark numbered in the millions—some more flavorsome than even goats and chickens and cows, but Noah’s family dined on the really, really delicious ones and after the flood cleared there were no truly tasty animals left.
“Dude, are we drinking your blood?”
And Jesus did see Mary Magdalene walking down a street in Galillee and she did look fine as frog’s hair. And He called out: “Turn the other cheek this way, baby!”
There came a time when the prophet Mike Huckabee appeareth on Fox News and said: “People, I have spoken to the Lord and he still hates the whole gay thing—I don’t know, something about butt sex. And here’s the bad news: He said you’re either with Him or against Him on this one. But the good news is, there’s a special chicken sandwich you can eat to ward off the gay.”
And the righteous did descend upon Chick-fil-a. After eating the greasy chicken patties upon dry bread, the righteous descended upon the bathroom and there followed much wailing and gnashing of teeth.
And the righteous cried out:
“God, what is this nasty shit?”
“This shit taste like some doodooronemy.”
“Lord, why has thou forsaken thee. Couldn’t you order us to eat at Friday’s or something?”
“Good God, is this nasty; I think I’d rather put a penis in my mouth.”
And the Lord did take pity upon His children, showering them in Barilla pasta. The righteous rejoiced and clapped and sang and waved their arms as their blood sugar spiked from the carbohydrate intake.
A version of this piece originally appeared on Rion Amilcar Scott’s blog, Datsun Flambe.
Rion Amilcar Scott has contributed to PANK, Fiction International, The Rumpus, and Confrontation, among others. Raised in Silver Spring, Maryland, he earned an MFA at George Mason University and presently teaches English at Bowie State University. He can also be found at forgottentunneltv.tumblr.com.