By Billy Collins
This poem captures the disappointment of a teacher with his obstinate students. Truly examining something – especially a work of art – includes looking at it from multiple perspectives and discovering different meanings, but the students continually abuse the work in an attempt to discover one true meaning because they are certain that one must outweigh all the rest.
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
(Photo: Elijah O’Donell)
By Edgar Allan Poe
Probably one of my favorites by him.
This poem captures the great burden of the artist, the blessing and curse that comes with creating art. We wield great power, but we love what others cannot see or understand (until we’ve created it). In this sense, the artist is alone. The “demon” is Poe’s calling to be an artist.
A close friend of mine is getting married in a couple of weeks. A long time ago, they asked me to write a poem for their wedding. I thought I’d share it here.
They walk in beauty
With stars up above,
Hearts glazed in light
And overflowing with love.
She carries her life
A budding rose of white
Tinted blue from the gaze
Of her gentle-eyed knight.
What is stronger than death,
More fragile than a bud
Than the hearts of two children
Bound together by God’s love?
(Photo: Pablo Heimplatz)
I say to him, “I know she has some sort of dark past. Something bad or…” And I catch myself.
Jason laughs. “Don’t you already know?”
Don’t you know everything?
I hate him. I can only reach the first layer of his thoughts and it’s always dripping with sarcasm.
“In one memory, I saw you, Jason.”
“Did you?” His eyes grow shiny. They look like dew drops reflecting the color of the brown earth beneath, but it’s still misleading as to what I actually see.
“What do you know?” I pry, but Jason says nothing. He knows how to block me out. I can’t read him, and he’s just about the only person who can do that.
It’s easy, after all, to slip myself into the mind of another. I can’t take over. Nothing of that sort. I can’t even make them aware of my presence, but I can sift through their memories and watch through their eyes.
But there’s too many memories, and it drains my strength. A few minutes is all I can stand before my head is ready to split open.
“Jason, you sent me with her because you didn’t trust her fully. Was that a lie?”
I hate him.
“Why are you so guarded around me? It’s not like I’m going to use anything against you or the guild.”
“No, but you’re annoying. Like a kid brother. Who knows when you might let something slip.”
I stare at Jason for a few more minutes, but he gives no signs of letting up. When he gets too tired of blocking me out, he’ll just leave his office to go to his quarters or something. I can’t follow.
I close my eyes and try to exit my mind. I see myself inside the room. It gives off a dark, static energy with vague outlines for Jason’s desk and chairs. I see Jason’s energy, a bright red and orange, like a glowing fire in the midst of this shadow world. I manage a wobbly step towards him before I feel like I’ve been axed in the head. My energy crumples to the ground and dissipates back into my body.
“Hey, you okay?” Jason’s voice rings in my ears. Tears have actually gathered in my eyes. My face has contorted to keep back the pain. How could I be so weak!
I never imagined a true mindreader’s power until encountering Niles.
I was just walking on the street, head down, doing my best to block out the voices around me, till I heard a distinct Hello.
The voice sounded like it was right in my ear. A lot of people around me looked around, some glancing as they walked, some turning around at vendor’s booths, asking if others had also heard, but I made the mistake of knowing exactly where to look. I should’ve known better. Stupid.
He was across the road. Clear blue eyes, peppered hair, and a neatly trimmed, silver shadow.
You’re a mindreader? I asked.
His laughter resounded in my mind, but not the slightest trace of a smile emerged on his face.
You’ve never heard of mindreader traps, kid? You fell right in!
My mind felt fuzzy. The soft fur of my brain was gently petted and poked by a stranger as if it were a bunny’s corpse. My insides curl in on themselves at the memory. Is that what it feels like? I shuddered violently.
You’ve never met another mindreader? Kyle? That’s your name?
I’d never met another mindreader, but I knew there had to be a way for me to kick him out of my mind. We both went still until I heard his laughter in my mind again.
That’s the best you can do?
“Get out,” I muttered audibly. Sweat was gathering on my forehead, back, and palms.
I’ve not met another mindreader in a long time… He began casually looking around and walking down the street. Across from me! He didn’t even have his gaze fixed on me!
Wait – what are you doing!
And at that moment I realized that other people had heard his Hello. I’d never been able to speak to anyone else from my mind. Let alone more than one person. I didn’t even know it was possible!
Kyle, you’re going to hurt yourself. Stop fighting my presence.
He stopped walking when he reached the point straight across from me and leaned over, pretending to look at some vendor’s wares.
Who… who are you!
Wow, kid you are pathetic. He laughed again. My name is Niles. So you didn’t even know mindreaders could communicate with other people?
How could he have known my thoughts when I wasn’t thinking them at that moment? I didn’t understand, and frankly, I was terrified.
“Hey, dude… you okay?” I glanced to the side at a guy with a pulled back afro staring at me from behind neon yellow glasses. The guy looked several times across the street to where I’d been staring and back to me. “…Something wrong?”
You going to say something, Kyle?
“Uh, it’s nothing. I was just thinking.”
“Ha! Okay, chillax dude. No demons on this street. I’ve been living here for twelve years.” He lightly punched my shoulder and kept walking.
Out of habit, I tried to slip into this guy’s mind, but this freak Niles was holding me hostage in my own. Yellow glasses was probably thinking that I was a freak.
You need to work on your poker face, kid.
Why can’t I push you out of my mind! You’re not even looking at me.
You’re far too weak… I’m impressed. And by impressed, I mean utterly shocked at how weak you perceive your powers to be. Well, potential powers. We’ll say that. I can’t remember the last time I was actually as weak as you. Maybe five years of age? And you’re… seventeen.
He’d been there a while, and I assumed he would soon get tired.
On the contrary, Kyle. I could stay here all day. I could go to the park, catch a movie, be on a train to a different city, and so long as I’m aware of your location, I can slip into your mind.
I focused. I wasn’t going to let him know any more about me by being carelessly allowing memories to slip into the forefront of my mind. I could somehow guard myself the same way Jason does.
Ha! Really Kyle?
The scorn in his voice was sickening, and as hard as I concentrated, I could still feel him going through my mind like it was a filing cabinet. Picking out memories here and there then putting them back. What was this guy!
Hm… pretty girl, that pathfinder, Leilani. Oh, you don’t want to invade her privacy. How adorable.
I had to get away from him! I thought that if I could just get far enough away to where he couldn’t find me…
As I was running, my body came to an abrupt halt. My heart pounded against my chest, and my mind screamed out at the rest of my body, but it wouldn’t listen. The cold sweat on my body grew profusely worse. I had only made it a few steps up the street.
I turned around to see Niles standing up straight, his back to me, fists clenched, finally appearing to be concentrating on something.
You can’t run. And you’re not even strong enough to fight this.
My legs started moving. I walked into the road, turned my head back and forth, and walked right up to Niles. My insides were panicking and trembling, but they had no choice but to obey him. He turned slightly and opened his eyes. They narrowed on me.
You think that they would want to kill you? No. When you think of people hunting mindreaders, they’re talking about people like me. You’re so weak that no one would ever bother with you. Niles closed his eyes. His sigh echoes through my mind. But what should I expect from someone who does everything they can to suppress their power.
You can… control my body?
The corner of his mouth curved upward. He wore a dark, long coat and dark pants. Tall. He was a stereotype for a detective.
Think I’m a stereotype do you? He laughed again. A very degrading laugh. That might be so, but you’re such a typical modern specimen that I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve been jumped in an alley several times and always look over your shoulder in a dark parking lot.
He was an attractive older man. I could only hope resemble him when I reached my fifties or however old he is. Thank goodness I was too freaked out to think this at the time.
Child’s play. I can do much more terrifying things.
We both turned and began walking up the street. We turned down an alley. I still didn’t have control of my legs.
Anything you can imagine that someone with access to the mind can do. Rewrite your memories. Convince your mind that certain parts of the body no longer function. Turn your nightmares into a reality, at least on a mental dreamscape. They call us mindreaders because there exists a misconception for where our powers truly lie. No one knows. Because if they did… well…
We stopped in the middle of the alley before it opened into another vending street. This one primarily for selling clothes.
I can imagine why people would want to kill you.
His half smile resurfaced. If I were someone else, I would probably want to kill me, too. He glanced around. Kyle, do you wish to remain pathetic the rest of your life? I know you use your powers to help people. And something you should consider, with more power comes more control. I never have to worry about the overwhelming voices around me. Let me teach you.
I… I don’t know.
Kid, this power isn’t going to show up all at once. It takes years of painful practice. You have to master your own mind to begin mastering others, a feat nearly impossible in itself… But I understand. The prospect of having such power is a bit terrifying.
“Stop resisting,” he said aloud, grabbing my head, his thumb on the center of my forehead. “Stop…” His timid voice was nearly identical to the one that’d been echoing around in my mind.
I slowly lowered my guard. It happened in an instant, like he took a computer chip out of his mind and stuck it in the hardwiring of my brain. I fell backwards. I blinked away the fuzzy vision to see him standing over me with an expression that blended well with other faces… unless looking closely at his eyes. The pale blue was piercing, though it was protected by a glossiness. Once past the glossy outercoat, I could see that his eyes were analyzing every fiber of my being.
I felt normal. A little dizzy, but at least he was out of my mind.
“What did you do?”
“Nothing much. Now I’ll be able to communicate with you from abroad.”
He told me to contact him if I ever wanted to learn. It’s been three days. Maybe if I could just get control of my own mind.
“Weren’t you ever afraid of all that power corrupting you?”
Niles never answered. Did that mean he was evil? But he had acknowledged me using my power to help Jason and the guild. We walked back out of the alley together.
I’ll give you one week to decide if you want to be my pupil.
And what after that?
You’ll come with me. And learn.
I’ll leave my –
And if I refuse?
I’ll erase your memory of our encounter.
How long will it take? You know, to –
That depends on your abilities. He looked at me, and I could tell by his face that it wasn’t going to be a weekend. Or even a month vacation… or even a year of training.
Was I really willing to give up everything I had just because I let some guy get to me about being weak? But if I could just control my own mind without feeling like my head was splitting in half! I wasn’t worried with Leilani anymore… and that concerned me. Because being more concerned with power than other things in life is a very worrying situation. But what if this was my only chance! But after he erases the memory, it won’t even matter. I’ll never know the true extent of a mindreader’s abilities.
I wish I could talk to Jason about this. I mean… I know I could, but… I’m actually afraid of what he might say.
“Welp, guess it’s time for me to go in here.” Jason closed his book and got up.
“Jason, can I talk to you about something?”
“I’m not going to tell you about –”
“No. Not that. Um…”
“What?” He crossed his arms.
“I met another mindreader the other day.”
Jason’s dark eyes widened.
(Photo: Frankie Cordoba)
This is a part 2 to an earlier story “Ash and Snow.”
I just felt like continuing it because the main character in my cousin’s book has similar powers to Niles.
Something is wrong with my mother.
When I heard the glass shatter, my eyes burst open. I rolled and stumbled to my feet, blinking away the burning in my eyes.
“Mom,” I mumbled. The thoughts threw themselves together, and I remembered my encounter with Maxton. “Mom!”
I found her staring at the ceiling. Wide, glowing eyes. Hands still partially out where a still empty cup had been resting. The mark near her shoulder has spread across her chest, arms, up her neck, and down her stomach and legs. Glowing lines, like those on a sheet of music, only these twirl and quiver as if they are alive, as if they are veins filled with fluorescent blood, stretching even to the tips of her fingertips.
I glanced around nervously when I first saw her, but yes, our curtains are closed and cover every inch of the windows. I still wish they were thicker.
So it wasn’t Maxton, the supposed hunter. It was something else.
I sit down and watch her. Talking does nothing, and if I accidentally break her connection to whoever is on the other side, she’ll pass out. I watch the spinning lines emerging from her mark. They fan out and even have little notes like budded flowers forming in some places. Music that only my mother can hear. Music is her gift, after all. My father’s had been art. She told me that his mark created swirling patterns of what looked like clouds, waves, and wind.
Part of me hopes that I never get a gift, but I’m still curious for what it could be.
I close my eyes, but I can still see the limbs of the mark, even with their glow already partially covered by her tank top and pajama pants. Her root mark is the same as mine and all the other Gatekeepers’ marks. Something that looks like a sun, circled once with a full circle and extra lines partially forming a circle on the four corners of the mark, supposedly representing an opened gate.
Opening a gate is a forbidden practice.
I close my eyes and remember my first teacher. Ms. Sonata and her somber gray eyes. Why? Why is it forbidden? I don’t remember what an original mark looks like before the transformation.
It can only be done by certain people. Forbidden people.
Her gray eyes had shined. What did she think about it? Forbidding people from existing because they served a different God than the Ruler of the World Empire.
I didn’t know what it would mean to become a Gatekeeper. It just… happened. But there’s no reversing the transformation.
Did they know that? We can’t change back even if all we want is to be normal? To stop hiding?
I’m probably the only Gatekeeper who thinks this way. Most embrace their power.
But what good is power if they kill us for using it?
I remember when Alexa Solomon showed me traces of her gifted mark.
I can use some of it when I wear this navy sweater. It doesn’t show through. See?
She didn’t know what her gift was exactly. Her mark’s limbs were jagged lines like lightning. It wasn’t as bright as my mothers.
I can help people without them even knowing it.
Thinking of her smile makes my insides crawl uncomfortably. That’s the only point of Gatekeeper’s power. To help others see past the Gates put up by the Ruler of this world to the King of the other, so they can pass through and become citizens of this other Kingdom.
At the time of my transformation, I agreed that this Ruler was not a just one, that I would rather serve another, that I would rather be free and pass through the Gate. But now, I don’t even see the point of becoming a citizen of a different world, and it’s not like things in this world are so bad… besides us Gatekeepers being hunted and executed.
I want to ask my mom about it all, but I’m afraid of what she’ll think of me. I hate talking about it. It makes me so uncomfortable when she tries to talk to me about it.
I think the point is that when there are enough of us Gatekeepers, the Gate to the Spirit world will completely open, and the King will come through and take over this one. But I can’t really remember.
My mother inhales sharply. I don’t get up and grab her in time. She falls to her knees in a coughing fit. Trembling.
“Mom?” I rub her shoulders. She covers her eyes. The message must’ve been bad.
“It was Tracey Solomon,” she heaves. “Apparently… apparently a family here in the capital has been discovered and captured… and they had a daughter at the Academy.” She turns sideways to me as my heart begins to throb. The mark’s limbs have begun to fade. “She was making sure we’re okay.”
I help my mom get into the armchair. I offer to make coffee. It’s four in the morning, but I don’t think I’ll sleep any more, even with the presentation being due tomorrow.
“Thalia honey, do you have any idea who it would’ve been?”
I try to imagine anyone who didn’t fit it, who was a little too kind, too bright-eyed, like my mom, but no one stands out. Then again, I probably don’t stand out either.
“No… but we’ll find out tomorrow.”
“Doubtfully. They won’t want it getting out that they had someone like us at their Academy.”
Only the second week of classes, and they’ve already caught someone. How many of us are there? Surely there can’t be that many.
I want to tell her that we should just leave. That I’ll fake getting sick and miss a bunch of classes. I’ll do bad on my presentation… pretend to forget my lines or something. Anything to get kicked out.
But what if they study you when you get kicked out to figure out the reason for why you failed? What should I do?
Sweat forms on my palms and forehead.
She laughs. “You have nothing to worry about.” She closes her eyes, smiling. Always so cheery, even with our lives potentially on the line.
I don’t say anything because I know she’ll say something like how the King will take us through a particular Gate into his world, so we have nothing to fear in death. It seems so dumb, but the powers Gatekeepers have are nothing to laugh at. And my mom is one of the strongest. She has one of the closest relationships with the King. Basically his daughter.
My mark is barely visible.
All the limbs from my mom’s root mark have faded. I wish she would wear a thicker shirt to bed, or at least one with sleeves, in case our house was ever searched or broken into.
“I wonder how they were caught.”
“They weren’t as smart as you.” My mom grins. She cracks her eyes open to look at me then closes them again. “But don’t worry about that now. I know you have a big day tomorrow.”
I kiss her cheek, and she kisses mine.
“Goodnight, love you.”
“Love you too.”
But I don’t sleep. I stare at the ceiling and think of all the ways I can subtly end my friendship with Maxton Locksey.
(Photo: Christopher Burns)
A Single Drop of Ocean:
The Dream Journal of Frederick Willspin Avery
Drawing on the global and temporal experiences showcased in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, this additional chapter argues that the different perspectives in the book each showcase how unity comes at a price. More specifically, unity can only be achieved if certain powers are exalted, individuality is suppressed, and oppression is present, and the powers, individuals, and oppression differ with each story. The purpose of this project is to exhibit that the push for globalization isn’t always better than a fragmented world, and individuals should stand against these powers and oppressions.
Frederick Willspin Avery, the protagonist of this additional chapter and reincarnation of the previous protagonists, is using the stories of his previous lives to examine his own time and what his actions should be with the current ascended power which has chosen to preach a narrative that only the exaltation of art will save mankind. Avery analyzes the history of how these institutions of power arise, often with good intentions, yet with time, corruption leaks in leading to oppression and the loss of individuality. Avery also studies the origin of resistances beginning from the actions of individuals, including those of his past life, and a new age of peace reigns until another person gets an idea and institutes a new order of power that also degenerates with time. The cycle repeats, causing Avery to question if fighting back is worth the effort since powers always seem to replace one another, and corrupt degeneration seems inevitable.
This is the abstract for the final paper I had to put together for one of my classes – write an additional chapter to Cloud Atlas.
This abstract served as my guide to writing the chapter, and I thought it’d make a good prompt for a longer sort of story for anyone interested in trying their hand at a post-apocalyptic challenge. (Just cut out the parts about Cloud Atlas if you’re unfamiliar with the story or just feel like it.)
I’ll share the full paper here later, probably in parts because it’s very long.
(Photo: Anthony Intraversato)
The sky is so blue. She closes her eyes and imagines that she’s falling. Falling. Falling, from very far away. Clouds surround her, and she starts to sin. The ground looks like her great aunt’s quilt. The air is so pleasant up here.
A noise disturbs the silence. She opens her eyes to see a helicopter approaching from one side. It looks like a slowly approaching dot, but she knows what that almost see-through line on top of the dot represents. Spinning blades that will tear her apart. Her heart starts pounding, but she calms it.
Surely they will see me.
She’s falling so fast, but the helicopter is following. Struggling to keep up, yet still following. Pointed right at her in a slanted nose dive. Soon she will outfall it, and it will pass her up and be unable to catch her.
Sure enough, the helicopter passes slightly overhead. She feels like laughing.
But wait! Someone’s jumped out!
It’s one of those smaller carrier helicopters that don’t have doors on the sides. She would have noticed if the door had opened.
Now, the person is free-falling beside her, all adorned in white except for the black visor on the helmet. They have a parachute backpack on. They don’t have wings like her.
She smiles, knowing she could outstretch her wings at any moment and let the person fall right past her. Strange how they manage to stay beside her, but slowly, slowly, they creep past her, falling just slightly faster because she hardly weighs anything. The helicopter circles around and is struggling to catch them again. The ground no longer looks so much like a quilt.
The person outstretches their hand.
“We’re here to help!” comes the muffled sound of a woman’s voice.
“I’m fine!” she calls out and smiles, but the mystery woman continues reaching, moving as close as she can.
It’s rare for someone to approach her in the sky. It’s hard to notice a falling speck.
This person is running out of time to release her parachute.
“Take my hand!” says the muffled voice.
The mystery woman grabs her arm. She twists back, but the woman’s got her. Her heart jumps to her throat. What is happening! Who is this!
A sky fight. She hasn’t had one of these in a while. And never against a wingless person.
Mystery woman grabs both her arms, and they spin. Spinning. Faster and faster. Her hair gets in the way, and all she can see is orangey-red that whips against her cheeks and eyes, forcing them closed. Yes! The jerk from the released parachute will probably force the woman to let her go.
The wind is spinning in her ears too fast. She can’t hear the helicopter.
“Margot…” She hears. The woman knows her name. Why isn’t the parachute deploying? What is that? “Margot!” The woman’s got some kind of weapon. This evens the fight, but they’re too close to the ground. If she lets go to get away, the woman will probably fall to the ground and–
“Margot! Supper is ready, c’mon.”
She opens her eyes to the blue sky. It takes a minute for her eyes to adjust, then she rolls over and tumbles to her feet. She’ll have to finish the sky fight later.
(Photo: Johnny McClung)
I need you to write what you know.
Her eyes had leveled with mine.
I need you to be raw and unforgiving. None of this stuff about elves or outer space. That’s not what we need right now.
“I can’t believe she said that to you.” Keisha’s eyes narrow. “Who does that woman think she is?”
“Kinda stupid,” Andy adds. “She’s like opposite side of the spectrum from you. She’s writing about cocaine dealers sleeping with touch-hungry girls.”
“All writing’s subjective,” I say before Keisha has a fit. “She just doesn’t like mine.”
“It makes me so mad how they will praise something that’s absolute garbage to the high heavens, and they don’t say a word to those other writers about the ‘strong female character trope.’ I almost screamed.”
“It’s crazy how different you are outside of class, Keisha.” Andy laughs
I like talking to them. They say all the crude, brutally honest things that I’m thinking. We’re all in our own worlds. Andy weaves poetry into his tales about live paintings and ancient Japanese myths. Keisha puts a new spin on Poe stories with broken-necked birds penetrating the neck to pluck out the arteries. And me? I write what I want.
I don’t write for the world. I write for me, what I need.
“Guys, I hate stories with sad endings.” I stir my lemon water until all the seeds and fibrous tissue have floated off the bottom of my glass.
“Yeah, but that’s what real life is.”
“Maybe her life,” Keisha growls.
“We should’ve done this more often. Going out to eat after class? I wish we’d done this sooner than the last day of class,” I say.
“Yeah…” Andy’s too busy going through his comment sheets to be paying much attention.
“Don’t listen to any of them. I really like your writing.”
I return Keisha’s smile. “Yeah, I’m not changing. I’m not worried about what they think.”
“And the real endings where everyone dies, or they’re all alone or – Wow…” Keisha puts her head in her hands. “I mean I can’t say much because my characters always die.”
“Unless they’re already dead,” Andy mutters.
“Yep. Exactly.” Keisha and I laugh.
“I’m not worried about it.”
I’m truly not. I never say anything but smile and take whatever criticism is thrown my way. Keisha does the same, though she has a very fiery opinion outside of class.
“Guys, I think I come off as cocky when someone criticizes me,” Andy says, looking up. We finished our burritos nearly an hour ago, but none of us have anything better to do than mull over the biases of others. “You know, because I always laugh and say ‘okay.'”
“You do,” I say as Keisha nods. “No one says anything much to you because you seem so arrogant about it.”
Andy laughs but doesn’t correct me. He was, after all, voted the best writer in our class.
He glances at me. “Hey if you get up, will you get me some more water.”
“I’m not getting up, Andy.”
It truly doesn’t bother me, but I like when my friends agree when I say, “I mean, I don’t like reading about eating disorders and kids sneaking into bars, but I’m careful not to be opinionated about that. I just talk about the style and what could be done to make me care about the characters.”
I like it when my friends get angry when I say, “You know, I’ve never even written about elves or outer space.”
“You’re just the opposite of her,” Andy says. “So she’ll probably hate whatever you do.”
“I just hate people,” Keisha adds.
“We need to hang out more,” I say. “Keep up with each other even after we graduate.”
“Yeah, start our own writing group. With our own calligraphy pen. You know I still cannot believe–”
“You’re so sassy.” Andy laughs, nearly choking on his water. “I’ve never seen this side of you.”
(Photo: Toa Heftiba)