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Two Self-Portrait Poems || Caleb Curtiss

Self-Portrait as a Photograph of my Father


Today, the seedpods on the Milkweed

growing along the road between the airport

and the place my grandparents will die

began to open themselves, imperceptibly,

as if each were the beak of a baby

crane at the first change in pressure that comes

with their mother’s circling descent. I saw them like this

from the window of my father’s Buick, saw each

one of them pass us by, their cracked

mouths and eyeless heads, and said

nothing. Soon, after watching my father stand

in unsteady synchrony with his father,

I will lift myself from the davenport in the lobby,

and head for the patio where I will stand at my father’s

left hand, his father’s right, and I will smile

for the camera, not noticing how the seeds on the silver

maple behind us have nearly matured. How some

have already detached themselves from its branches,

have begun their slow, spinning fall.

We smile these facsimile smiles, lips taut

over straight, white teeth, because we feel

a sort of pressure in the air: something that tells us

that we are mortal, that we will be here






Self-Portrait With My Dead Sister



There is a girl and a boy sitting on a curb

next to the ocean somewhere in Oregon

where the rain, which has just stopped, has caused

a mud puddle to form in the foreground, just in front

of the boy’s white shoe: his pants

are blue, his jacket is red, and he is not

smiling at all, which I think

is what makes her faintly upturned lip

look so much like a smile.

Never mind that these people were real,

that one will grow up and keep on being real,

while the other will grow up and be dead.

Never mind the brusk presentation or presumptuous

implications the speaker in my poem employs:

he should be excused on account of his grief,

and frankly, it’s probably for the best

that we ignore him and just stick to the facts. For example,

the boy is nearly five years old, which makes the girl

nearly seven years old, which makes it nearly 15 years

before she drove past a stop sign and then,

didn’t do anything ever again.

Despite the fact that here, she has just

pulled her legs into her chest, has just set her chin

on her knees, turned up the corner

of her lip, and here it seems as if she could,

for a moment, break through the artifice of time,

the static nature of her disposition, and say something

utterly irrelevant, something

I won’t pretend

to understand.


Caleb Curtiss is the author of A Taxonomy of the Space Between Us (Black Lawrence Press, 2015). His writing has been published in, or is forthcoming from, New England Review, The Literary Review, DIAGRAM, Green Mountains Review, TriQuarterly, Passages North, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere.

yellow creosote blossoms, piss-stained gaillardia by Kiik A.K.

Dedicated to the warrior, teacher and poet, K. Wayne Yang 
     Of the fourteen thousand internees at the Gila River Relocation Center only one was briefly given the privilege of a private outhouse. Her name was Ruthie Araki, and although every garment, every curve and gesture gave an impression of womanhood, she had been born Yoshikane Araki, son to Yoshi and Kashi Araki, and into her adulthood accursed with twin, hair-covered nuts and an eight-inch cock.

     It was commonly agreed that camp latrines were the most degrading aspect of the years in Gila River. Men and women defecated through wooden planks, the planks punched down the line with anywhere from six to a dozen ass-sized ovals. The planks balanced over trenches cut three to five feet deep and reinforced from cave-ins by concrete. The trenches were cut at a slant so it would take very little water to evacuate feces and urine from the peak of any trench out toward the septic tank. Only the person that sat at the highest point of the trench had the benefit of flushing their waste when finished. It was a greatly vied-for seat as when water did rush down, inhabitants down the row were regaled with raucous wastewater spitting up at their asses. If you were unlucky enough to be the last on the plank during a flush, it was typical for you to feel the cold thud of a foreign, bobbing turd.

     Though some of the women’s latrines were outfitted with partitions, the men pissed and shat shoulder-to-shoulder. While unpleasant for all, for Ruthie it was the most abject, degrading set of circumstances she’d ever been forced to endure. Her friends assumed it was thrilling for Ruthie to watch the young men strip down to their wiry curtains of pubic hair, their long, crinkled penises. But the truth was most of the naked men she saw, especially those her age, frightened or disgusted her. Ruthie wanted love far more than she wanted sex. And even when she did feel horny, it became impossible to prefigure a lover once she’d sat nearby while he fidgeted and grunted and farted.

     Ruthie attempted to save any unpleasant bodily functions until the dead of night when the latrines would likely be empty. But at that hour scorpions were difficult to avoid, and she quickly became the most frequent visitor of her grid’s infirmary. Some evenings Ruthie ventured over to the women’s latrine, but because of her unpleasantly large cock, women of the older generation objected to her company. Following several confrontations involving Ruthie’s attempt to enter the women’s side of the compound, her block’s community decided a private pit toilet might be the best solution.

     As the military police would not recognize Ruthie’s dilemma, the pooling of materials, the building and the maintenance of her toilet fell upon the internees of her surrounding barracks. Supplies were credited and shipped in by friends and relatives on the outside. The construction passed quickly as there were a number of local experts in architecture, engineering and waste management. Ruthie’s beauty had always made her something of a celebrity and it was relatively easy to assemble volunteers who dug the six-foot catch and poured the concrete. In a week the ventilation pipes were raised, the fly screens bolted. The walls were nailed together, painted. An anonymous admirer even placed a bouquet of desert wildflowers at its entrance, yellow creosote blossoms, the wine-colored spurs of snapdragons.

     The problems began just weeks after the pit toilet’s christening. Ruthie relished the privacy it afforded, but admitted it was unfair that she solely be given rights to a structure that so many had come together to make. And so she declared the pit toilet public for anyone that wanted an opportunity to relieve themselves in solitude. Though she did ask that all inhabitants help her by contributing sawdust, ash or lime to keep the room fresh and sanitary. Before long, lines of neighbors formed to use Ruthie’s outhouse. And soon after the lines swelled with internees coming from all corners of camp. Some walked from camp blocks a mile away for the chance to void with calm and dignity. Designs were exchanged. Modifications discussed. And plans were drawn up for more pit toilets to be reproduced all over camp.

     It was after a scuffle broke out that the military police were alerted to this private-toilet situation. The scuffle was of no concern. Just an older man struck down and kicked once or twice in the neck for cutting the line. An arrest was promised but hardly necessitated an official report. Still the MPs did not like the idea of additional structures being erected by these internees. It was troubling enough that some families had been given their own private barracks where collusion was likelihood. But it would be nothing for one of these outhouse chambers to contain a secret installation for radio broadcast. Then all manner of fucked-up scenarios became feasible. The Japs could be flying overhead the way of Pearl Harbor, gunning guards down, leaving the watchtowers in a wake of fire. And who could imagine what might be staged in the desert? Once the American Japs considered themselves obligated to these foreign Japs, post-rescue. Who knew what brothers of a common grudge might wage against a nearby city?

     After just months following its inception, the camp MPs ordered Ruthie’s outhouse be burned down. Ruthie filed a complaint that was more or less only ever read by Ruthie. The fire happened on a cloudy morning, when a miraculous desert rain almost saved the structure from igniting. But MPs arrived to splash the walls with gasoline. Gasoline down the throat of the toilet and into the ventilation pipes. And then an inferno. Combined with the methane that’d stored underground, Ruthie’s pit toilet blistered and hacked rank smoke into the night. The stench of smoldering shit lasted for weeks. And Ruthie’s block became infested with vultures, attracted by what they assumed was the smell of corpses.
Kiik A.K. is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley and Santa Clara University. He earned an MA from UC Davis where his poetics thesis was titled “THE JOY OF HUMAN SACRIFICE.” He is a current graduate student at UC San Diego where he is working on a collection of counter-internment narratives, tentatively titled, “EVERYDAY COLONIALISM.” His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Pleiades, The Southeast Review, iO, Washington Square, CutBank and The Masters Review.