40 YEARS OF CUTBANK: "Damage" by Christopher Merkner

From CutBank 72/73 Christopher Merkner














Our son has been saying damage a lot. He is two. He really throws himself behind the first syllable, and lets the second sort of grumble at the back of his mouth.

Of course the word he is trying to say is damnit. I have been saying damnit without restraint recently. Recently, I broke a shoelace, dropped milk, lost my glasses and cheated on my life with a woman who talks to me at the grocery store.

We’re in the car. The streets are icy. I tell my wife that I need to get to work early in the coming days. She says, “Seriously?” My son says, “Damage.” We turn around and tell our son not to say that word. He’s all bound up in his car seat. He’s all eyes. He seems blameless. He looks at us. “What word it is,” he asks. We say, “You know what word.” He says, “Damage.” I say, “Right. Don’t say that.” “What word it is?”

My wife explains that damage is not a nice word. We don’t say words that are not nice, she tells him. My wife looks at me. This idea troubles our son into silence. He looks out the window. My wife is still looking at me. I turn to look at her. I say what but I know exactly what she’s saying.


40 YEARS OF CUTBANK: "Telling the Chicken" by Kellie Wells

From CutBank 35 Telling the Chicken

The skinny is this: Last night I dreamt of chickens, glowing fat and white. They were spinning in circles on the tips of their tangerine claws, their feet and legs a thorny axis. They whirled, beaks skyward, and feathers flew. They were perfect in their gyrations, as if their movements had been divined by some force long ago when cosmic laws were set. And I thought to myself, this is what happens when the magnetic fields reverse, an event for which I have been waiting patiently for quite some time.

It gets hotter than Dutch love in Lucas, Kansas in August. The cicadas scream with the heat. Public records tell us it was 112 here on August 18, 1909, so global warming hasn’t touched us much, though the rest of the world seems to be catching up. I’ve got my eye on those polar ice caps.

Lotta was a bonafide beauty. She had bobbed, black hair and milk white ski so pure and clean it made you want to go home and take a bath. When Lotta got sick, her lips went funny. They were thick lips long before collagen, but an odd wet brown-blood color would rush into them at night, and they looked like pieces of raw liver. Sometimes my heart ached so bad for Lotta, I wanted to take her head into my mouth and hide her from herself.

The Garden of Eden is located here in Lucas. In the summer, curious tourists flock to gander at the cement rendering of the famed creation. I must admit it is impressive. The brittle, repose body of the Garden’s architect and sculptor is preserved in a glass case in the backyard. Age-wise, he appears to have given Methuselah a run for his money. Lotta and I would often sit beneath a long stretch of cement serpent and discuss the wages of sin. Her papa was an occasional minister at the Open Door Baptist Church.

Lucas is only a nod and holler from Cawker City, where the Largest Ball of Twine sits proud and bulbous. It’s something you can be a part of, this ball of twine, you can be responsible for making it larger, securing its spot in the Guiness Book of Records, so no made-in-a-day coastal ball can squeeze it out of its rightful place. When Lotta died, I drove to Cawker City and donated a fair bulk of fine hemp in her name. They wound it on right then and there with a makeshift rod and spool device. The ball of twine is big and round as anything. It’s bulging symmetry makes your eyes water.

Lotta’s papa was a chicken farmer. He could balance an egg on its end when it wasn’t the vernal equinox. When Lotta died, he gave me a gross of fertile eggs. Sometimes I crack them open in private and touch the blood spots.

Lotta’s papa killed all the chickens except one. He cracked neck after neck, loaded them into trash bags, dove them to the church parking lot, and flung the lot of them into the mouth of the dumpster. The one he kept was Lotta’s favorite, a fancy batman. It rode on her shoulder and whispered sweet things in her ear, nibbling at the kernel of her lobe. When Lotta fell sick, it took to walking in circles like a carnival pony. Lotta’s papa coddled it after the funeral. He blew on its beak and massaged its feat. He asked me if I’d talk to it, try to explain what happened.

I took the chicken to the Garden. It wouldn’t stay on my shoulder, so I held it under my arm. It knew the blond hair it tugged at was not Lotta’s. I pointed to the long, skinny figure of Eve. “People blame a heap of heartache on her,” I said, “but I don’t think she had any foresight of histoplasmosis.” The chicken kicked then went limp, crossing over from denial to acceptance.

Everyone’s lawns are jaundiced with heat. Sometimes with the last hot gasp of summer we get quick, hard rains and meteor-sized hail, but not this time. The street is no place to fry an egg, despite the TV meteorologist’s suggestion.

I am taking shepherd’s pie to Lotta’s papa tonight. He has bought the chicken a toy piano. He will prod it to play with a handful of feed on the keys. It will peck out an unfamiliar tune and then turn round and round till the next request. Lotta’s papa will sing about the sweet sound of grace, and the chicken will roll on its back with a soft gurgle of clucks, and we’ll both rub its stomach.

Tonight the world will turn on its ear, chicken, I can feel it. Glacier’s will thaw and drip, fat magnets will fly up towards a hot shower of stars and a shiver of moist dreams will shake me away as eggs crack and scatter.

40 YEARS OF CUTBANK: "Ghosts" by John Wesley Horton

From CutBank 77

Someday I’ll be like a prehistoric painter with a crooked finger

who left handprints on a rock face; remembered for making

a handicap into symbolism, threatened by oblivion every time

someone exhales. This is why I’d rather leave you breathless

than engage in conversation. This is how a spirit rattles chains.

Old gods challenged the imagination, visiting Earth like swans,

or else arriving like crepuscular rays, knowing dusk and dawn

to be the truest times of day. Lucretius believed all things

mattered, that even the least significant ideas were made up

of atoms. Great Caesar’s Ghost was just a film he sloughed off

like dry skin. All your recollections belong to someone else.

We know cicadas molt before they get their wings, leaving

flightless memories clinging to the trees. Lobsters must

feel the urge to come out of their shells. Maybe this is like

our need to be re-born. Maybe this is why we say we’re new

every seven years. But what is it with our interest in scars?

What about the impulse to apologize for what we can’t erase?

Captain Cook spied the sun through a state-of-the-art glass

and never discovered the secrets of Venus. But then, his sailors

returned from Polynesia with tattoos. Is it love, or the lack,

that makes us mark each other? Aeneas bore his father’s weight

in front of every conquering Greek. A microscope confirms

the wolf in every Border collie’s DNA. There’s a Trojan Horse

for you. There’s a little chimp in every Borderline personality.

Sometimes we channel our ancestors in the dining room

and wind up like F. Scott Fitzgerald in the garden eating dirt.

An Aborigine touching up ancient art will tell you spirits move

his hand. Like once I spoke to a man who said he was my dad

on a Ouija board. Once I read Paul’s letter to the Ephesians

under the influence of psilocybin. Some ghosts are better left

unread. Other ghosts are shadows of the most horrific things,

like the girl who survived My Lai pretending to be a corpse.

We can imagine so many angry ghosts. Maybe that’s why

Epicurus wanted us to believe death was the end of our days.

Maybe that’s why Yeats used his wife like a rotary phone

when he spoke with the dead. He imagined himself in death

as a mechanical bird. His readers would be voices speaking

his disembodied words. At dawn, I can’t tell the difference

between horizon and the sea. Lucretius understood the ocean

rose to fill clouds with rain. It always rains in Gothic novels.

English ghosts pass through the wainscoting. All the ghosts

are haunting future ghosts. Farm hands who listened to voices

telling them they’d be better off if they bought the farm

are buried in the cemetery with the rest. If you drive at night

you might catch a glimpse. There’s a difference between

windrows and the woods. There’s a vine wrapping the wrought

iron fence. If you appreciate someone’s work, Lucretius said,

it really is a part of them that’s gone to your head.



John Wesley Horton (aka Johnny Horton) spends many summers teaching creative writing in Rome, Italy for the University of Washington. A New Englander by birth, he grew up in the Midwest and now lives and works in Seattle. He’s recently published poems in Poetry Northwest, Borderlands, Notre Dame Review, Alive at the Center, andCity of the Big Shoulders: An Anthology of Chicago Poetry (U. of Iowa).




40 YEARS OF CUTBANK: "On the Death of Isaac Babel"

From CutBank 75 On the Death of Isaac Babel

Lubyanka Prison, Moscow January 26, 1940

Nothing was particularly funny about it. He thought he of all people should be able to find something. Of the two guards escorting him to his place against the wall he noticed only the smaller one to his right, his waggy beard, his breath like rotten pears. Of the guard on his left, he noted only that he was more ape than man. His own feet though, he did notice them. How one was very cold and one seemed to be on fire. Must have something to do with the shackles. None of this approached what he might have noticed if this was happening to someone else and not him. Is this comic?

All I am is a noticer. I dream the smallest dreams.

The guard on his left's wife. Her small dry hands. He'll rub them tonight, the crannies of a small dry hand. This ape. She'll ask: And today? And he'll say, Nothing much. A little Jew in glasses, some others.



Chicago born Peter Orner’s fiction and non-fiction has appeared in the New York Times, the Atlantic Monthly, Granta, The Paris Review, McSweeney’s, The Southern Review, The Forward, The San Francisco Chronicle, and Ploughshares. Stories have been anthologized in Best American Stories and twice won a Pushcart Prize. Orner was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship (2006), as well as the two-year Lannan Foundation Literary Fellowship (2007-2008). A film version of one of Orner’s stories, “The Raft” with a screenplay by Orner and the film’s director, Rob Jones, is currently in production and stars Ed Asner.

40 YEARS OF CUTBANK: "Skyping" by Christopher Kempf

From CutBank 79


We must have suspected from the beginning

that the darkness we marked

with animals & objects & gods could be crossed.

Things will be different our ancestors said & meant

our children will have crayons enough

to color fire. Will lie at night

in the warm bed of their less-sadness & ask the stars for what the stars

will send them. Then,

you were that kind of bright, star-

heavy, & left me staring at the flight tracker in Terminal C. Screen

filled with leaving, each

plane a pulsing cross above the continent. I wanted

there to be, on each one, a box

whose job it was to whisper I exist. Just this,

over & over so I’d know. I know

a couple, you said, who spend

their entire lives apart. They put

the coffee on in their separate cities & flip

their laptops open to show each other what the sunlight is like. I like

to imagine them making dinner together in their separate

sunlit windows, the recipe a medley of vegetables & wherever it is

they live— the pinch of salt, the small talk. The coq au vin

steaming on the screen. In São Paulo, you lean

back in the radiance of 800 dpi. I ask if you want to, & we take

our clothes off & are transfigured instantly into pixels. Into packets

of light in the sky over Miami. & I

am thinking again of that couple, of their love

like love, & how you will lie

beside me tonight in the whirring box of my laptop. I’ll turn

you low, & we’ll lie there

while its tiny light pulses off & on in the darkness

like someone breathing. Our bodies

like continents that were touching once.



Christopher Kempf is a Ph.D. student in English at the University of Chicago.  A former Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford, his poetry and essays have appeared most recently in Gulf CoastJacobin, the Los Angeles Review of Books' “Marginalia” blog, The New InquiryThe New RepublicNinth Letter, and Prairie Schooner, among other places.  He received his MFA from Cornell University.