In celebration of women writers and International Women’s Day 2019, Shadelandhouse Modern Press is pleased to share selections of poetry by Sandi Keaton-Wilson, Marta Miranda-Straub, Tasha Cotter, Marianne Forman, and Carolyn Grace and selections of fiction by Sherry Robinson and Trish Ayers. Join us in celebrating the power and beauty of the words and the voices of women writers.

Poetry

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T H O S E  F O R  W H O M
I SPEAK

****Sandi Keaton-Wilson

At times,
when I’m busy
or even when
the TV blares
to beat out
the lonely blues,
I hear them—
voices, non-schizoid,
speaking in varied
dialogues and dialects,
rhythms and rhymes—
souls in limbo
seeking a channel
for words to which
no chance was given.
I, their conduit,
write out their messages,
find meaning from these mystic means;
my job—to do justice
to their unsettling stories.  _____________________________________________________________
[from No Shroud of Silence (Shadelandhouse Modern Press 2018)(copyright © 2018 Sandi Keaton-Wilson, used with permission)]
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Warrior Marks

****Marta Miranda-Straub

You carry your head low,
Your eyes face the floor,
Your hands pick at your skin,
Your bare shoulders bear your burden,
Your freedom trapped in your powerlessness.

Your body is a testament to your story:
*****Scars map out persistent pain,
*****Imprints mark tender flesh,
*****Numbness anesthetizes throated screams.
Your rage demands release.

******************Let us be your witness

Give voice
*****to injustices that have broken your heart.
Channel aggrieved anger
*****into healing action.
Transform your powerlessness
***** into empowerment.

******************Let us be your witness.
Tell us your story:
*****point to each cut and give voice to its purpose,
*****rip the paper,
*****tear the cloth,
*****draw the scar.

Give voice.
Heal your body.
S   o  o  t   h   e
Stand up / Speak up

******************Let us witness
your healing.
******************Let us help
you carve out your life.

Welcome home.___

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[included in forthcoming Cradled by Skeletons: a memoir in poems and essays (Shadelandhouse Modern Press: 2019)(copyright © 2019, Marta Miranda-Straub, used with permission)]
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Cape Ann, Summer

****Tasha Cotter

He’d just sat up to watch the waves when he noticed the family arriving on the beach, not twenty feet away. A mother and father with their young son, who was just learning to walk, toddled between both of them, tentative, laughing. The man watched the mother, softly smiling, their soft voices carried a little on the breeze. He couldn’t make out the words, only the tone of happiness, the feeling of a good memory being made. How sweet it all looked, and how reasonably she took to motherhood. He could feel the heat of the sun on his back, his cheeks were turning pink in the broad afternoon light. His eyes landed on their little bag of beach toys, and he admired the soundness of the scene. He lay back down beside her, considering them, considering his own mistake.**********************************************************************************

Country Walks

****Tasha Cotter

“I’ve often wondered
What the fence keeps out
In a country bereft of predators.”
********* “Agnes Dei”
**********Steven Toussaint

The country walk

Was not something

You saw.

Instead, the carved

Land, partitioned off.

I spent a long time

Wondering at the sense

Of being locked out

Of what?

When all around me

Space stretched out,

Overwhelming

In its endlessness

Broken up by electrical

Hot wires. Neon plastic.

Banks of fence.

No one could wonder

At their freedom

Weren’t we free

Inside with our windows

Feeling we were

Just shy of trespassers.

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[“Cape Ann, Summer” and “Country Walks” are included in  Astonishments, Tasha Cotter (FutureCycle Press, 2020) (copyright © 2019, Tasha Cotter, used with permission) Watch for information on Us, in Pieces, a novel, Tasha Cotter and Christopher Green (forthcoming, Shadelandhouse Modern Press 2019]
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**

Catharsis

****Marianne Forman

When you called this morning
there was blood in your voice.

I finally asked him to leave, you tell me,
I found his password, found the emails,
found the affair.  After fifteen minutes,
I stopped reading.

Twenty five years of marriage.
Twenty five years of marriage.
Over and over.

But I am remembering the jade plant at your southeast window,
the one he gifted you for your silver anniversary.
I ask if it is still alive,
and you tell me that you’ve driven your fingernails
through each pulpy leaf. That there is green moss
lodged beneath your nails.  That no scrubbing
will remove the stain.

And you tell me of food you have pulverized in the blades
of the garbage disposal. How that hole devoured
an entire casserole of 80% lean ground beef and tater tots.
A container of guacamole still fresh with cilantro leaves and stems.
A crockpot roast beef with shreds of carrots clinging to the veiny cartilage.
A jar of hummus swirled with olive oil and pine nuts.
Your refrigerator is completely barren, void of food,
and you lick your fingers, devouring remnants of a cupboard now bare.

This feels good.   A purging.  I wish I knew some prayer from memory.
This occasion needs a supplication.  

But there are no ritual words,
Only the grind of the disposal.

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Huckleberries and Homebrewed Boilo

****Marianne Forman

Her fingers always smelled of cabbage
when she made the Halupkis on Saturday night.
She’d plunge her hands into that boiling water
slivering out the core of the cabbage,
unafraid of the blade.

I used to think her fingertips
must be callused hard
scalded beyond
all sensation
the way she manhandled those cabbage leaves.

Her fingernails were stubbly squares and I wondered
how she managed to wrap them around that bottle of homebrewed Boilo,
that Boilo that burned my nose hairs when I took a whiff
that Boilo that she slugged down between folding the ground pork and sticky rice
into a cabbage bundle, raw pig in a blanket.

Long ago she was a young widow,
a dress shirt presser whose heavy steel iron
smoothed out the blood clots her husband hacked up.
The checks for the Black Lung came on the first of the month.
I used to find them, damp, in her apron pocket.

She told me it was damn hard to fall asleep once he passed.
She used to parcel her going to sleep into measures of his wheezing.
She could count on that syncopation
to soothe her off to sleep.

She became an insomniac after he was dead and buried,
recycled his handkerchiefs into rags
***to polish the toaster,
***to spit shine her shoes,
***to dab at her lipstick that oozed the corners of her mouth.

They found her
one fine summer morning
when the mountain laurel was in bloom.
She’d gone picking huckleberries up the side of the mountain,
collected them in a rusted tin coffee can.

She used to like the sound of the berries clanging in that can.
Counted them till the sun made her dizzy
and she climbed back down the mountain.
Her old sundress, all covered in closing-go-to-sleep flowers,
was hung on the bathroom door over her acetate powder blue nightgown.

They found her in the bathtub all sunk down and comfortable
with a cigarette still burning on the edge of the tub
and a glass of Boilo rippling through the bathwater,
her fingers still stained bluish purple,
the huckleberries still on her hands.

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[Catharsis in published in Persephone’s Daughters (Fall 2016). Huckleberries and Huckleberries and Homebrewed Boilo first published as Remembering Anna in Residential College of Arts and Humanities Center for Poetry at Michigan State University (January 2014), and has since appeared as Homebrewed Boilo in Muddy River Poetry Review (Fall 2016), Apricity Magazine (January 2017), and  Jelly Bucket (2018). (Catharsis and Homebrewed Boilo copyright Marianne Forman, used with permission)] __________________________________________________________

This kind of thing

 used to happen to me
all the time when

******I was in my
******hippie phase.
******I was riding

my bike in a
******long purple
**dress in the
******rain with

an umbrella and
******my skirt got
************stuck
******in the wheel and I went
***********************************flying

******like Mary Poppins or
****************** something.

I went right over the handlebars,
************************umbrella and all,
*************************************head over
*************************************heels.

But it was perfect for a moment.

I could always be perfect for a moment,

but then,
************well,

*************************you know….

Carolyn Gace

*****************************************************************************

Marie in Paris

****Carolyn Grace

Her cheekbones grow sharp that winter.
Her hands grow rough and red with cold,
and labor, and neglect,
gray eyes seeking things unseen,
a light she cannot quantify.

It eludes her.
She catches glimpses of it in between figures
closely written on pages and pages,
tightly bound in slim volumes.
She defines it in black ink.
She edges it into ever narrowing spirals.

She ponders divisibility
on crowded streets where people huddle
in ones and twos
underneath gray umbrellas.

She scrutinizes the minutiae of minerals,
sifts, sorts, and sighs,
distills, fills,
measures and weighs,
consumed by the continued possibility that she might find:
Something.

And eventually she does.
What she finds realigns the politics,
and the poetry,
of the planet.

But her cheekbones grow sharp that winter
And her hands grow rough and red with cold.
Her light does not give life.

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(Madame Curie discovered radium December 21, 1898. Her notes are still kept in a lead lined box.) Read more selections from Carolyn Grace.
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Fiction

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Billys Jane

(An excerpt from My Secrets Cry Aloud, a novel,  Sherry Robinson)

March 3, 1884

            I knowed when I first seen that old quilt and read those papers I found up there in the attic I would sit rite down and write my story too.  It done sent a shiver up my spine reading that letter. You know like when you walk over somebody’s grave.  There was somethin in that story somethin in the quilt still a layin there in the attic that made me think of things in my own life I hadn’t thought of in a long time.

Miss Meredith done sent me up to the attic to fetch Amy’s yellow dress from that old steamer trunk, leastways she thought it was up there.  But I looked every which way with no sign of the dress.  That attic is as cluttered as my mind sometimes–bits of junk scattered hither and yon with maybe a piece of a silver tea service or a crystal punch bowl hidden there.

Some people like to collect things what can be bought or sold, like silver or crystal–or people.  Me, I like to see words that have been wrote down.  I was pretty near thirty the first time I seen words in a book and knowed what they meant.  So when I was looking for that yellow dress and found the trunk with the letter and those papers and that quilt, I thought I had found me a buried treasure.  I turned the envelope over in my hand and saw the name Sarah wrote on it.  I wanted to read the letter and such and look over every stitch of the quilt right then but I knowed Miss Meredith would wonder where I had got off to.  So I put them back into the trunk and figured to get back up to the attic quick as I could spare a few minutes.

“Where have you been Billys Jane?  I thought maybe you had gotten lost or something.”

“Lawsy day Miss Meredith.  I don’t know how you spect anybody to find anything up there.  You’s sure got a lot of things in that attic.”

“Actually they aren’t all my things.  When Jonathan’s father bought this house it was full of furniture and such.  I heard tell that when the former owner, Missus Fuller, died her son said he didn’t want any of it.  Said they could keep it or sell it or burn it for all he cared.”

“Mercy, that sounds awful hateful.”

“Seems like they hadn’t spoke to each other in years.  Anyway Jonathan’s father did sell some of it and the rest he put in the attic thinking maybe somebody would want it sooner or later.  But it seems like no one’s had time to go through any of it.  Who knows maybe Amy will when she grows up.”  Miss Meredith laughed making her green eyes shine like a playful kitten, which I loved.  She has a natural laughter that just puts a body at ease.

I wanted to ask her if she knowed about the quilt and who Sarah was but I didn’t.  Me and her get along fine, but I know my place.  Even tho I have knowed her since she was a youngen, I am a hired hand, and a slave afore that.  Anyways, ain’t no white woman–no matter how good she is–ever gonna get to close to a colored.

So as soon as I could I went up to the attic and brung the papers and quilt down to my room.  I aimed to return them to the attic when I finished and I figured it wouldn’t be very likely that Miss Meredith would ever knowed it was missing for a time.

As much as I wanted to read the papers, I studied on the quilt first.  I have always been knowed for my piece work–which kept me in the house sted of the fields–so I like to see how quilts and such is put together.  Seems like I can tell an awful lot about a person by the quality of their pieced goods.  This quilt was no more than squares of old cloth laid together, but I seen the care that had been took by its maker.  The stitches was small and even and the way the different colors and textures was laid spoke of a woman who was careful–maybe too careful–but I liked her all the same.  Maybe it was because I felt like I knowed her, after I read her story, I mean.  Or maybe it was because I felt sorry for her, being separated from her family thataway.

I couldn’t help feelin a little angry though.  I mean white folks actin like that–they got no excuse.  Ain’t like they had their children ripped from their arms, sometimes breast milk still warm on their lips, to be sold with this year’s prize calf.  Ain’t like they cried theirself to sleep a wonderin why the good Lord don’t send a plague of locusts or frogs or boils down on them that’s hard hearted and wicked and who only see black skin and profit sted of beating hearts and trampled souls.

My own children–ceptin the last one–was took from me thataway.  Two I kept with me till they was four or five year old before they was sold to some farmer two counties over.  But when I was give to Master Garrett’s oldest boy Billy upon his twenty-first birthday, I was the one had to go–and my newest youngen not but two.

“But Master Garrett,” I pleaded.  “Cain’t Nan go with me?  Master Billy’s surely gonna need more help in the kitchen and she’ll be big enough in no time to help.”

“Gracious heavens, Jane, what’s gotten into you–trying to tell me how to run my business?”  He put a firm hiss on the end of the word business and I knowed to hush up.  Master Garrett wasn’t a specially harsh man, but many of us had felt the back of his hand acrost our cheeks when he was challenged.

The morning I was to go I rose early–wakened not by the usual crowing of a nearby rooster or the gray morning light slipping in between the cracks of the clapboards in our cabin but by the dread that had come upon me.  I stood for a moment in the doorway, staring into the blackness.  Only the lambs in the nearby barn made noise, bleating helplessly for their mamas.  Suddenly my stomach felt the fire of longing and I stooped to snatch up my little Nan who was still sleeping on her pallet.

“Don’t fret none child,” I comforted as she squirmed in my arms.  “It’s just your Mama.”

She settled back into a quiet sleep and I knowed this memory would be mine alone.  She would wake in an hour or so and I would be gone.  Her cries for Mama would be answered by Flora, the light-skinned kitchen girl.  My face would slowly fade until she knew nothing of me–could pass me on the streets of Lexington tomorrow and not know me from Adam.

I clutched her tighter, then laid her back on the pallet.  Beside her head I put a small square of red fabric I’d snuck away from Missus Garrett’s sewing closet in the great house–somethin I done twiced before to give her a play pretty.  I hoped Nan would see it when she woke up and know that her mama would always be near–somehow.

I pushed back the urge to pick her up again and fly right out of that cabin.  But it woulda been a sin to a done so–leastways thats what Master Garrett says when he’s quoten the Bible about slaves obeyen their masters.  So, I just touched Nan’s soft cheek, comin visible in the breaking light.

“Maybe one day you’ll fly free, my sweet Sparrow,” I whispered.  “Maybe one day we both will.”  Then I walked toward the great house without looking back.

Read more

*[ (copyright © 2012 Sherry Robinson, used with permission)*Watch for information on Blessed, a novel, Sherry Robinson (forthcoming, Shadelandhouse Modern Press 2019]

The Double Cross

****Trish Ayers

Mary strapped the pistol to her leg, made sure her garter held it in place and her petticoat covered it. She patted the bun on her head—it was secure. Then she pulled herself up into the side-saddle on Daisy’s back.

Daisy trotted into the woods, as fast as a twenty-year-old horse could. As Mary pushed away the frozen oak branches in the Missouri woods she tried to push away the memories of the day her parents were killed in the fire. The soldiers didn’t even allow time for her Momma or Daddy to escape—escape—that might have been why her family’s home was selected for the burning. They were part of the Underground Railroad and had kept it a secret through the entire war, until that one night when a slave was spotted leaving their property. After the burning there was nothing left except the fireplace where Granny stashed Confederate and Union dollars that Grandpa collected from selling whiskey.

“Daisy, yesterday I snuck outside to listen to the old men talking. Uncle John said they needed to get money across the line, to buy food and clothes. The army was starving and freezing and if they didn’t get some supplies they would start raiding homes. Like there’s much left, our cellar was cleared out after the burning. Thank goodness Grandma had buried a bunch of supplies in an old barrel near the still.”

“Halt!”

Mary looked up in surprise at a Confederate soldier pointing his gun at her. “I’m looking for Sergeant Dawson,” she stammered.  “I have a package for him.” She reached into her saddle bag.

“Hands in the air!”

Mary raised her hands as she saw her brother approaching.  “Private Johnson, what’s the problem?”

“Sergeant, she claims to have something for you. I think she’s one of them Northern sympathizers.” The soldier said as he pointed to Mary.

“Mary, you’re alive!” Said her brother Sammie.

“No thanks to you Sammie.”

“Samuel,” he corrected as he directed his men to stand back. “I was shocked when the troops burned the house. I didn’t know until it was too late.   If I had known I would have warned…How did you escape?”

“I was at Granny’s.”

“Why are you here?  You know you’re taking a big chance, sis, it’s dangerous.”

“No more dangerous than waiting at Granny’s to be burned…”

“Sis, are you trying to use me to cross the line?”

“Grandpa needs medicine. Besides, I thought you might be a-craving some of Granny’s bacon.”

Mary reached in her saddle bag for the bacon. She stared down the soldiers pointing their guns at her. Samuel handed the bacon to Private Johnson and waited for him to walk away before he pulled his sister aside.

“How do I know you’re not a spy?”

“Me?”

“Don’t play innocent. You cheat playing cards. I know what you and Mom and Dad were up to. It’s a miracle they didn’t burn down every house owned by our family. I think they saved Grandma and Grandpa because—”

“Because he makes the best damn whiskey in the county.”

“Mary, where did you get that mouth?”

“Being a lady doesn’t help you much these days.

“Do Grandma and Grandpa know what you’re doing, that you’re here?”

“Sammie, Grandpa’s breathing’s worse.”

“Is that where you’re heading… to Uncle Paul’s for Grandpa’s breathing medicine?”

“Why else would I risk this?”

Sammie, looked down as he told Mary, “I’m still going to have to search you.”

“Better you than a stranger.” Mary stood stiff as a board from Uncle John’s sawmill while Sammie awkwardly patted her body. He paused for a second at her leg. The soldiers looked on and one even cocked his rifle.

“All clear!” Hollered Samuel.

After the search, Mary handed Sammie a bottle of Grandpa’s whiskey. “I expect to see you back across this line by noon,” directed Sammie.

“But, you know how slow Daisy is.”

“By noon, leave the gun at Uncle Paul’s, someone else will be searching you when you return,” whispered Sammie.

Mary kneed Daisy, glad to escape with the gun after the humiliating search.  “I’m through crying,” she muttered as she wiped a tear on her dress sleeve. Daisy snorted. Within an hour she spotted her Uncle Paul sitting on the front porch of the general store and apothecary.

“Mary?” Uncle Paul looked away as he wiped his eyes, “You’re the last person I expected to see. I wasn’t sure if you had surviv…I heard about your folks.  I’m so sorry. What about Mama and Papa?”

“They’re tolerable.”

Uncle Paul motioned her into the back of the apothecary. It was dark in the back to protect the concoctions from light which would age them. Uncle Paul handed her a brown bottle.  “Here’s more medicine for Pops.”

Mary thanked him as she unpinned her hair. Wads of Confederate and Union dollars fell to the hardwood floor.  She leaned over, picked it up, and handed the money and the pistol to Uncle Paul. “I expect you’ll know what to do with this. I’ll get the pistol back on my next run,” Mary said as she re-coiled her hair. “I’ve gotta go, be across the line before noon, the troops are expecting me. I don’t want them to be suspicious. I’ll see you next week…I hope.”

Moments later Mary mounted Daisy, poked Daisy with her boots, and they disappeared into the woods.

(copyright Trish Ayers, used with permission)*

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