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Five Reasons to Read “Billy Budd, Sailor” by Herman Melville

by a contributor

from Donna Vorreyer, author of this week’s Brief Encounter:

  1. Billy. Never has there been a more innocent and likable character undone by an antagonist’s bullying and one fatal flaw: his emotional stutter. Even teenage readers I’ve taught have felt sorry for him, and that’s saying a lot.

  2. Claggart. Evil and jealous and spiteful and vain and morally bankrupt and conflicted and multi-dimensional. But mostly evil, driven nearly mad by Billy’s goodness and attractiveness, both things he can never have.

  3. Melville’s tangents. If you are familiar with Moby Dick, you know these well. In Billy Budd, Sailor, we get an education in mutiny on British ships, the machinery and politics of war (including the contradiction of placing chaplains on warships), naval values, the beauty of old ships, Admiral Nelson’s victories at Trafalgar and in the Nile, and metaphorical ruminations about sanity and insanity using rainbows.

  4. Melville’s long, lovely sentences. Sentences like this, at the moment of Billy’s demise: “At the same moment it chanced that the vapory fleece hanging low in the East was shot through with a soft glory as of the fleece of the Lamb of God seen in mystical vision, and simultaneously therewith, watched by the wedged mass of upturned faces, Billy ascended; and ascending, took the full rose of the dawn.” Sigh.

  5. The phrase “the handsome sailor,” which refers to a person who is ethical, virtuous, upright, beautiful, strong, full of good humor, and adored by others around him. It is rare to find one of these people in the world and, if I do, I always think of this phrase.

Brief Encounter: Refrigerator Magnets

by a contributor

Donna Vorreyer

All alphabet and apostle,
baby, I believe best.

I bite back, black and blue,
my body a brick. I dance

the dark day different.
Eight elements of geometry

and gender – get it, girl.
High, hot and hungry,

I invite inside a just king:
kiss me, lichen – I mean,

liebschen – your luscious
limbs looking magic.

I miss the mountains,
the music, my name. Napkin,

newspaper next to me at night:
no notebook. Once I raced

the rain. I remember,
I said. I saw, I say. I see

seven summers. I take.
I tell that your truths are

under used. I want what
water will – wind, windows,

and wings. I wish. You yell.
Yes, yesterday. You.

Donna Vorreyer is the author of A House of Many Windows (Sundress Publications, 2013). Her work has appeared in many journals including Rhino, Linebreak, Cider Press Review, Stirring, Sweet, wicked alice, and Weave. Her fifth chapbook, We Build Houses of Our Bodies was released in late 2013 by Dancing Girl Press, and her second poetry collection is forthcoming from Sundress Publications in 2016.

See Donna’s list of “5 Reasons You Should Read Billy Bud, Sailor by Herman Melville” in our ongoing contributors’ series.

Five words I like for their sonic quality but dislike in actuality

by a contributor

from Rebecca Hanssens-Reed, author of Sunday, In the past we wore stiff linens and That time I was in Australia and we pretended I was a film producer:

  1. Haptodysphoria  (noun) an unpleasant sensation felt by some people in response to certain tactile sensations. When you rub velvet the wrong way. Chalk on your fingers. When you accidentally brush against gum on the underside of a table.

  2. Susurrous  (adjective) whispering, murmuring. When I was a child my parents had a friend that always liked to lean in and whisper jokes to me, often while chewing on his food, which was usually something like hummus or pesto. I can’t help but think of that whenever I say this word: that chilling feeling of someone uttering soft, disgusting sounds into your ear.

  3. Oubliette  (noun) a secret dungeon with access only through a trapdoor in its ceiling. A word that sounds like it could be something cute but is actually the creepiest thing imaginable.

  4. Prosopagnosia  (noun) an inability to recognize familiar faces, often referred to as ‘face blindness.’ I kid you not, I think I suffer from this. It can be somewhat frustrating, very awkward.

  5. Elsewhere  (adverb) in, at, or to some other place or other places. I like the sound of faraway places but the distance between any of us is most often heartbreaking.

That time I was in Australia and we pretended I was a film producer

by a contributor

Rebecca Hanssens-Reed

I am in Northern Victoria with David making a film about grassroots democracy and gradually slipping into the skin of somebody that looks like me but acts the part better. I wear the idea of myself like a suit, a poor sack, woven from expanses of self-deception. This is the time of year when everyone talks about this time of year. I remember how beautiful I wanted to be and the days I believed it was tangible and the time I thought I’d captured it. Oh how I’d like to burst and be open. The canola fields are endless like an inverted manifestation of my worries. Bright and golden, the little flowers are weighted with surrender. The mornings in the country are tenuous, waiting to be pulled apart. We sleep in a dream house I have no business dreaming in. Two buddhists live here, housed in the monolith of their peacefulness. Their faces are the tattered prayer flags of the afternoon. David and I admit we felt shameful before their mindfulness. Today I read my horoscope, the usually forgotten prophetic hopefuls, fragile insights. Days like these, the days i can’t help but self-narrate with banal reflections such as days like these, i feel vulnerable and whimsy enough to fall victim to such haphazardly drawn premonitory vague daydreams. Somewhere in Wangaratta we stop to shoot overlay: the cows that won’t stop staring. I leave my purse on the car hood for just a moment and an eight-eyed spider has its way with the slopes of black leather, overlapping gossamer arcs of ephemera. She is the size of the mole on my abdomen, but more frightening than the prospect of slow, sinister understandings. If I could see in sixty frames per second perhaps she wouldn’t be so frightening, but there are many things I can’t keep up with. Sometimes I awake in the middle of the night and mistake the explorations of a mouse for the knocking of a ghost at my door. I’d prefer the ghosts, of course. Every night is an orb that glows and floats away. I’d like to depend on the gravity of these words but they, too, escape my mouth and go running. There is a dread slithering through me like a silverfish worse than the chills from a bee sting. I know that nothing is connected but sometimes I feel I could string it all together with my silky, expansive arms and knot it all around my heart. We have been chasing the perfect shot of a sunset, meanwhile the scab on my right shin shines like a morbid sunset, and another sun sets on the hopefulness of honest articulation. Before this picturesque landscape I am fraying with the thought of my ordinary demise. We are nowhere near to letting go.

Rebecca is a writer and translator whose work can be found in Dressing Room Poetry Journal, The Saint Ann’s Review and The Reader. She is currently at work on a translation of Jorge Ángel Pérez’s book of short stories, They’re Not So Elegant in Havana. She works at an organic bakery and is successfully growing her first tomato plant in Northampton, MA.

See Rebecca’s list of 5 Things tomorrow.

In the past we wore stiff linens

by a contributor

Rebecca Hanssens-Reed

We must invent a new language to discuss the nature of change,
and perhaps wear a uniform as strict as the passing of time, made of stiff linens.
I will pass the perfect sounds around like a loving cup,
like contagious giggling, a bubbling of guffaws and snorting,
clicking tongues and gnashing dentures, tearing eyes –
I need someone to install a light well in my chest. I’m not ready.
As I discuss the nature of change the skin of my eyes very slowly shifts in color,
my hairs turn grey, long, thick blades of grass curl around my ankles,
bees swarm around my wrists and one by one drop to the earth,
the sunset behind me grows a deep purple.
In the background, a kookaburra chants its haunting melody,
becomes a hummingbird, flies backwards.
It is not in my nature to meditate on death, only to fear it.
Today was white and silent. The continent of your birthmark stares
plainly at me as you stand abashedly before the mirror.
Your pale skin murmurs, soft and shallow like a lake.
Listen: the sharp harmony of all the love notes I ripped up
when we were fighting.
And the peach tree in our backyard has given up, twisted itself in spindly stitches.
We greedily watched it growing, little peaches swelling,
stretched our eager white arms to point at the ones we would bite into first.
We were too full of lust,
like an overly ambitious novel (i’m looking at you, DFW).
Now look down, clenched in your soft palm, your grandmother’s locket
containing a photo so old some chemicals have seeped out, glued itself to the frame –
Remember your grandmother’s eyes that were tired and full of skin,
over the gray noise of the television she said: men are shit.
You inherited her eyes and her bitterness. But you swear
she would never wait as eagerly as you do for the peaches.
It makes you never want to get out of bed again (I haven’t yet).
I am eating bread that I am well aware has mould on it.
But today I did the coffee just right
and I’m finally letting my hair go wild.
We share everything to the point that it is tragic. There is a field
of sunflowers growing inside me,
and you and I were dancing like bees that found the richest pollen
in the flowers of ourselves.
Tonight is tart and chewy like a black olive.
The cold change hasn’t come through yet.
Install a light well in my chest. I’m ready.

Rebecca is a writer and translator whose work can be found in Dressing Room Poetry Journal, The Saint Ann’s Review and The Reader. She is currently at work on a translation of Jorge Ángel Pérez’s book of short stories, They’re Not So Elegant in Havana. She works at an organic bakery and is successfully growing her first tomato plant in Northampton, MA.

See more poetry from Rebecca tomorrow.


by a contributor

Rebecca Hanssens-Reed

If I was tossing and turning last night, it was because I was walking through my parents’ rotting garden again, looking at the overgrown rhubarb. An old friend was there, but only ever visible from the side or walking behind him. Then I became a teenager and you were a child and I was running after you. You snuck into the aquarium and lived in the shark tank, on top of jagged rocks and a waterfall. The sharks were also babies. Yesterday the rain fell thick and heavy like mud. The house I live in is mostly a hallway, sometimes with bare feet in it. At the wedding there were so many darlings. The light was shining deceivingly. Out of the corner of my eyes I saw the bridesmaids’ snarling snouts, their teeth sharp and glinting. You play with my realities like you finger the change in your pocket, speaking in tongues, or are you just sneezing? My head has been buzzing for days, or maybe only minutes. Before I go out I put on my selves like a pleated skirt, for instance, do you happen to have tweezers? Some things are still left to the imagination, like who this cat actually belongs to, what it is fed and why I think I belong here more than this cat. It seems unnatural to be this far away from my mother. In the afternoons I excrete something less like perspiration and more like a damp heat and nervousness. Homesick is when you miss how you sweat in a place. When you forget where you are until you step into the warm shower, feel the scent of wet earth and body rise out of you, remember that you are human. Other times all you are is an open wound. There are cliches I don’t mind, like whispering onto a highway, and by now everything exists and is subject to manipulation. And, for the record, I can flatten the landscape with a wave of my hands, catch red glass on my knee, and make you want me again.

Rebecca is a writer and translator whose work can be found in Dressing Room Poetry Journal, The Saint Ann’s Review and The Reader. She is currently at work on a translation of Jorge Ángel Pérez’s book of short stories, They’re Not So Elegant in Havana. She works at an organic bakery and is successfully growing her first tomato plant in Northampton, MA.

See more poetry from Rebecca tomorrow.

5 Bodies of Water I’m Obsessed With

by a contributor

from Caroline Kessler, author of A Conversation in the Columbarium

  1. Lake Temescal in Oakland, California: a man-made lake tucked in between two highways (the 24 and 13), encrusted with trees, a beach of rock-sand, sun-facing and you can be so warm and sweater-less until late evening, even in winter
  2. The Pacific Ocean: an obvious one but there is so much nuance to it, how it feels in southern California (warm, soothing, sun-drenched) and the northern part of the same state (bone-cutting cold, echoing with fog horns, slippery)
  3. The water around Point State Park in Pittsburgh: the point of confluence of the Allegheny and Monogahela rivers, where they form the Ohio River, the West End bridge arching yellow in the background
  4. The Laccadive Sea: or Lakshadweep Sea, where I swam fully-clothed, chanting a song to welcome the last of the whales that season, bordering India (including the Lakshadweep islands), the Maldives, and Sri Lanka
  5. Ship Bay: a U-shape of saltwater marsh alongside Orcas Island, Washington, where the pink and violet starfish taunt you from your kayak with their ability to hang on to the sliming rocks


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