“THE SUN is nearing the horizon when Joey Dardar’s boat propeller starts churning up mud. For a moment, the smell of sulfur is so thick I can taste it, but Joey’s not worried. He knows this area too well for us to run aground. Yellow-crowned night herons glide overhead. “Gros-bec,” Joey calls them. French for crooked beak. To our right is Isle de Jean Charles. To our left, the Gulf of Mexico. Directly ahead, the biggest backhoe I’ve ever seen is parked beside an oil well. “They’re taking that one out,” Joey says. “It’s no longer producing.” He shows us where pipelines tunnel through open water and points out the ring levee that encircles the island. “It’s got its pros and its cons,” he answers when I ask if it’s been helpful. While the levee protects islanders from storm surges, the earthen barrier also prevents drainage: when it rains, the island fills up like a bathtub.”
-from “Between Worlds” published by Orion Magazine
For more than twelve years, Jesse Wilson has eaten, slept, read, showered, dreamed, and shat in a seven-by-twelve-foot room. His sink sits on top of his toilet. His bed is a concrete slab. His four-inch-wide window is angled so that a slice of sky is all he sees of the world outside. For every twenty-three hours inside this room, he may, or may not, get an hour away— time alone in a workout room so drab inmates nicknamed it “the empty swimming pool.” “Day and night bleed into one long sigh,” he writes in a letter from his cell in ADX Florence, a supermax prison designed to house our nation’s most dangerous prisoners. The complex is located in Colorado, though for Jesse’s purposes it might as well be on the dark side of the moon. “This place is one of extreme soul-crushing blankness. Nothing is alive that’s normal. No grass, no weeds, no trees. Just concrete and red brick walls.”
-from “Solitary Garden” published in Orion Magazine
“In a society that values “self-actualization,” the discovery of one’s “true self,” identical twins are something of a cultural snag, a contradiction to the way we think selfhood works. It’s not that twins aren’t individuals. Of course, we are. But popular culture portrays twins as exactly the same, souls assembled from the same base parts according to the same DNA blueprint. In contrast, individuality is about uniqueness, a quality that identical siblings aren’t always granted.”
from “Twinless in Twinsburg” published by Longreads
“There’s no doubt that pollution contributes to poverty,” notes Anne Rolfes, the founder and executive director of the Bucket Brigade. Exxon Mobil, for instance, has set up in Baton Rouge across the street from a neighborhood where the child poverty rate is over 40 percent. Contact with contaminants can cause illness, missed workdays, hospital bills, disability, and cancer. Prenatal exposure to pollutants is associated with childhood behavioral problems and cognitive delays. When I visit the Bucket Brigade office—a plywood cubical in a repurposed warehouse—Rolfes tells me about a 2012 benzene leak at an ExxonMobil Chemical Plant in north Baton Rouge. “Infants were vomiting white from the odor in the air,” she says. “It was terrible. Pollution is contributing to the stratification.”
from “Healing the Gulf with Buckets and Balloons” published in Guernica
“Rather than mapping the known world, as geographic exploration does, discoveries about the relationship between space and time magnify our perception of what we don’t know. Knowledge is infinite. When we glimpse the expanse of what’s unknown, the wormhole of imagination can be an insufficient processor.”
-from “Space Tourism in Modern Storytelling” published in Electric Literature
“When it comes to managing infections, civil liberties often compete with community programs focused on the wellbeing of the masses. The kinds of choices most Americans take for granted—whether to disclose a medical condition, for example—can quickly vanish as medical knowledge and public fears shape new policies.”
-from “The Public Is Us” in Guernica
“Six weeks after our wedding, my husband and I were flying back to New Orleans, where we live. As soon as we reached cruising altitude, his head tilted forward in sleep.
The previous year had been the hardest stretch of his medical training. As a third-year resident in internal medicine, he often worked 30-hour shifts. When he came home, he’d still have notes to dictate. I’d frequently find him snoozing in an armchair with the light still on. A few hours later, he’d wake and go back to work.
“I’m trying to survive,” he told me when I complained about how work consumed him. “I’m doing the best I can.””
-from “Is there a Doctor in the Marriage?” in the NYTimes Modern Love Column.
“It’s the first week of the poetry unit in my introductory creative writing class. “Raise your hand if you wrote poems in high school,” I say. Over half the class holds up an arm. “Keep your hands up if you wrote because you were angry. I’m talking poems about unfair expectations, poems about mean friends and unrequited crushes, poems about injustice.”
Without exception, the hands stay up.
“Poetry was like ventilation for me,” one girl confesses.
A few students in the class shake their heads. They are here for the prose. They took this class despite the poetry. Poetry, they long ago decided, is not for them. I want these students to give it another shot.”
-from “Gone from My Heart: Violence and Anger in the Poetry Workshop” at VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts.
“On January 9, 2014, American Water warned 300,000 customers in and around Charleston, West Virginia, that local tap water was no longer safe. Ten thousand gallons of 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol (MCHM), a chemical used to clean coal, had leaked from a rusty holding tank into the Elk River, upstream of the water treatment facility. State officials warned that exposure to the licorice-scented solvent could cause “burning in throat, severe eye irritation, non-stop vomiting, trouble breathing or severe skin irritation such as skin blistering.” Given the paucity of information on MCHM’s effect on the human body, no one could predict the long-term consequences of exposure.”
-from “The Politics of Drinking Water,” at The Atlantic.
“If you don’t help him, he’ll die,” Mrs. Stafford said, tapping my cluttered intake desk. We were sitting in an office at Hudson Outreach, a small non-profit in upstate New York. It was June of 2005, and I was the caseworker on duty.
-from “The Heart You Save Won’t Be Your Own,” at Guernica.
(selected by Longreads for Best of WordPress Vol. 2)
In the lullaby “Hush Little Baby,” a singer tries to quiet a child by promising to give her a slew of new things. “Papa’s gonna buy you a mocking bird,” she croons, “And if that mocking bird don’t sing / Papa’s gonna buy you a diamond ring.” The transaction is desperate. Rewards are offered, and rejected, in exchange for silence. It’s a moment that makes parents cringe in recognition. If the diamond ring “gets broke,” the baby is offered, depending on the version sung, a billy goat, a looking glass, a cart and bull, a dog named Rover, or a scraggily ole mutt. New gifts replace old gifts, but each one fails to console. The verses go on. The baby does not hush.
The American approach to environmentalism is, in many ways, a lot like “Hush Little Baby.”
-from “Papa Can’t Buy You A Brand New Earth“ at Public Books.
As a plot device, the pregnancy test provides endless opportunities for misinformation and dramatic comedy.
-from “The Pregnancy Test as Plot Device” at The Atlantic
“Ole Miss has the prettiest women in the world,” a fellow MFA bragged. “They come for their M.R.S. degrees.”
-from an essay on the poet Beth Ann Fennelly, at Literary Mothers.
“Mountain Chicken and I took notes on wide-ruled paper and developed a sort of rudimentary Marxism to explain what we observed. Our new classmates came from money and our old classmates did not. It seemed more than just coincidence that the Meriwether Lewis kids were meaner than their less well-to-do counterparts. Wealth, we’d deduced, had no small relationship to cruelty. Our neighbor’s garden wasn’t just fancy; it was too fancy. Their shrubs, we felt certain, had been bankrolled by crime.”
-from “Suspecting the Smiths” in The Oxford American.
“The guitar rang raw. I thought of rusty farm equipment, the sound a stick makes when it’s trailed across the curved tines of a drag harrow.”
– from “Black Nanny and the Tale Dragger: Remembering T-Model Ford” in The Oxford American.
“We were playing capture the flag for our nation’s future, and for a split second, we were having so much fun, we thought we were winning.”
–from “The Pleasure (And Privilege) of Indignation” in The Rumpus.
“We venture through a long row of food vendors: Men of Hope hawk corn dogs and balloons from a lavender cinder block structure, the Drama Club makes shrimp tacos (hard and soft), and the Horticulture Club specializes in Spicy Cajun Chicken Necks. The Lifers Association offers snowballs.”
— from “Sunday at the Angola Prison Rodeo” written with Elizabeth Kaiser and published in The Rumpus.