night-time skin ritual

Night-Time Skin Ritual

Natural regenerative process begins 45 minutes prior
and goes on dates with sensation.
The iconic pure opening & reception seats, chocolate & wine,
culminating in a glorious finale with Supreme Eye.
He took and you didn’t. Gigantic lamp can be stories that grow into a tale.
Got a heart?
The orchestra’s expressive range, Mom’s Body Shop moves from LA to San Francisco
Wake up rich in body shop
Valentine’s Part
to Napoleon in commemoration of his Beethoven’s Eroica
storytelling crack these crazy buffing, massaging, moisturizing.
Do you see who’d just said “I love you,” at gunpoint? The
monumental Eroica Symphony. Throughout the night! Weed is legal
a piece originally dedicated a woman heart tattoos $25 each all
sex-positive activities and sexpert sexual enhancement.
A first date who unexpectedly brought her the ultimate brightening boost:
highly advanced, potent orgasm art serum. This dark circles,
infant, to hitting up a sex club with Supreme Eye
Advanced ageing 120 women in 2 years —
opposition to tyranny. Showcasing five minutes of gliding.
Profits will be donated to taking acid, it plumps the artgasm:
to erase the signs of celebrating the undying-looking eyes in the morning.

I generated this cut-up using advertisements for events happening on Valentine’s Day, along with an ad for a skin product.

A Pan That is Cake Sized: Recipe for Shrove Tuesday

My child demands a loud noise an oil a Lent a flour cake made of flat, white, and spongy; a very loud noise, eggshells, compost, of course. My child is a picky eater so of course greasy small fingers. Cake demands: my child, my child is flour, eggs, milk, butter, preheat the oven to gasmark 3, you’ll need this later. Of course my child is flat, white, and spongy. My pancake is my pancake is my pancake. Of course the pan, well seasoned. My child is well seasoned. And here is that recipe!

  • Three hundred grams
  • Compost bin liner, OK if it smells like Tide
  • You can get it cheap at Tesco
  • Heavy and cool in the palm of the hand
  • Sharp crack (Do not pause for haruspicy unless you have a great deal of clear, very blue, not a single cloud, your mind no different than the vastness, of one substance. Of course my child demands pancakes, but perhaps you do not have a pan)
  • Powder
  • Metal or whirring
  • Traditionally, suet, but my child likes brown
  • Quite a heavy box
  • Hinges
  • Heat
  • Heat
  • Heat
  • My child
  • Cake

This poem was created following a prompt to use repetition from at a class I’m taking at The Grotto called Pushing The Boundaries: Experiments in Fiction and Poetry (with Jenny Bitner). In class we had read excerpts from Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, and many of us noticed that the pieces had the feeling of an etiquette manual. So, I decided here to re-create the feeling of a chatty recipe blog in imitation of Gertrude Stein.

text of poem "They might be wild roses"

They might be wild roses

They might be wild roses


he is going

London is awake,

discover a secret under unnatural lights

dancing queen was the worst.


God inhaled

authenticity do not apply to his work. []

Don’t imagine food, supplies, and babies.

They came to turn

Nordstrom. The

sex I had when

This poem was generated using the cut-up technique as part of a group exercise at a class I’m taking at The Grotto called Pushing The Boundaries: Experiments in Fiction and Poetry (with Jenny Bitner). Every member of the class cut out words and phrases from whatever sources they chose, put them in a big envelope, and then we grabbed a handful at random and arranged them pretty much as they came. I manipulated mine slightly but only very slightly. You can learn more about cut-up technique and try it yourself. I don’t know why I never thought to use cut-up before, but then again that’s exactly why I decided to take this class: to push me in new creative directions.

Photograph of a bust of Janus

Whom Am I? (Part One of I, You, He: Who Are the People in These Poems?)

Is the “I” of the poem the same as the “I” of the poet? Well, it’s complicated. Sometimes. And then again, sometimes not. And sometimes both. Let me explain.

In a fictional narrative written in prose, most readers quickly realize that “I” just means the author chose to write in the first person, and the narrator is just another character. In modern narratives, that’s also often a clue that we shouldn’t necessarily believe everything the narrator has to say. In non-fiction prose, like essays or memoirs, readers generally assume the “I” of the narrative voice is the same as the “I” of the author. The way we know if something is fiction or non-fiction is usually by its packaging. The jacket blurb says, for example “this memoir by X tells the gripping story of her youth in Y,” or “newest thriller by Z is sure to thrill readers of spy novels.” Or the book is shelved in Fiction at the library. I’m being a little obvious and a little obtuse here, because of course there are also a lot of clues inside a book about if it’s fiction or not, especially in contemporary works. (Historical or hagiographic works might frame themselves as non-fiction and yet describe events that to a modern reader seem very improbable and would normally be a hint that we’re reading fantasy)

The “I” in poetry is a little more difficult to suss out. First of all, the big meta hints about fiction and non-fiction are unavailable. All the poetry books are shelved together. Sylvia Plath’s confessional works and Beowulf sit in the same bookshelf in my local library. Sometimes, very rarely, a poetry book blurb will say that the poems are based on the writer’s own experience or on a specific historical incident. Most of the time though, poetry books themselves are very coy about their status as fiction or nonfiction.

If readers look at hints inside the text, poems are often unhelpful as well about the status of the “I”. Contemporary poetry tends to be quite naturalistic and describes events and images that seem like they could have happened. Sometimes a poem in the first person is very clearly from the point of view of a historical figure, or an animal, or some inanimate object, so it’s clear that it’s not the author. I am not an anvil, obviously. Oh but maybe the sad anvil represents me after all, like a stuffed animal speaking on behalf of a child? I’ll come back to this but first: confessional poetry.

Even people who don’t know much about poetry seem to know about confessional poetry, where poet draws upon very personal (often painful) experiences and writes in the first person. Confessional poetry has been such a force since the 1950s that it seems a lot of people have got the wrong idea that that’s all contemporary poetry is anymore. (But only people who don’t actually read a lot of contemporary poetry think this, because as soon as you open a literary journal or pick up an anthology, it becomes obvious a lot more is going on, and it’s been a lot of years since 1950.)

In confessional poetry, it would seem obvious that the “I” of the narrator is the writer. And well, sometimes, that’s true, but not always, and not exactly, and not entirely. For that matter, a poem could be written as though it is a confessional poem, but actually be fictional, and because of the lack of meta clues, the reader will never know.

Finally, you could ask the poet, assuming they’re still alive and you get a chance. But you probably shouldn’t ask. First of all, it’s considered dreadfully rude. Second of all, because you have just been rude, the poet might lie to you, leaving you knowing less than you did when you started.

So here we are, and I (that’s I, AK, the essayist, because this is a nonfiction essay) haven’t answered the questions I posed at the start and only talked about why they are difficult to answer. I propose we don’t bother to answer them at all, and instead do like poets do.

In workshops and at readings, poets get around the problem by saying things about “the narrator of the poem” or the “speaker of the poem”. We do it to a degree that might seem absurd at first. For example, the poet might give a little introduction about how she wrote this poem after the death of her child. She then reads the poem. And we, other poets, say to her: the imagery in your poem gave me chills, particularly when the speaker compared herself to a fault line along tectonic plates.

Thus, in workshop and in conversation, “you” is the person who wrote the poem, to whom we are now speaking, but “I” remains “the narrator” and “the speaker.”

Even in such a case where the poet says the poem is about a personal experience, we, poets, do this because it gives our fellow poet space to write about something personal without having to answer intrusive questions. We do it because it lets us all focus on the poem, instead of the poet. In workshop its lets us critique and improve a poem about something that is personally very important but might not be very good yet as an artwork, without undermining the personal importance of the thing behind the artwork. And we do it because the poem might have been written a while ago, or in a particular mood, and the narrator and the poet really aren’t the same person anymore. And we do it because although the poem might be based on real experiences that really happened to the poet, she might have chosen to fictionalize aspects of the narrator for dramatic impact and so “I” is a confusing mixture of her and not her.

I suggest therefore that you (that is you, the person reading this right now, not a fictional you, which I’ll get into in part two) treat every first person narrator in a poem as an ambiguously fictional narrator, sheerly out of politeness. Please.

Feature image by Loudon dodd – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Alchemy Practicum and Goat Visit

Goat, you were the only one among
the three goats who pressed his head
against the fence when Rachel and I
came to you after picking crab apples
and black walnuts. I returned
to the paradise of childhood labors:
Piling walnuts onto a flat wicker basket
for Lena’s dyes, their sun-warmed green husks
stained in their own juice.

Goat, you approached to the gate and pressed
against me. Stiff fur, incurling horn,
your goaty smell preceding you as incense
precedes the enthroned Eucharist
in a Corpus Christi procession. You condescend
for me to touch your head and back,
return the gesture of friendship with a look
from your rectangular pupil.

“Feed him the apple,” says Rachel handing
it over the fence and I offer you the crab
apple on the supplicant plate of doubled
palms. My fingertips, stained and perfumed
with black walnuts, you consecrate with goat
cider. I know the flavor in your mouth: sour
as the crack of an apple breaking, bitter like black
walnut juice, and sweet like the distillate of sun.

Goat, you return to your pasture
and I return to the laboratory.
Today we prepare oil of rosemary,
oil of sun. A wasp enters
through the sky window. All day

my fellow alchemists fidget.
Rosemary fumes suffuse the yurt.
When the wasp takes leave we pour
the yellow oil that rises
into three vials: one for each alchemist.

Goat, while I labor in idleness do you, too, hasten
slowly? Do you, too, make distillate of sun?
Or do you turn your devil eye and grin, shake
your thinning beard at the wasps who swarm
the fermenting crab apples you cannot reach
while they, unharvested, seep sweet yellow
in the sun who tilts to his equinoctial crossing,
the Tropic of Capricorn?

First published in Residual Heat under my pseudonym Aga Black.

Distillation by Retort

Distillation by Retort (Public Domain)




Residual Heat at the Decommissioned Synchrotron

We step over fading caution tape, a Geiger counter in your hand
   ticking the steady tick of background radiation.

Up and down the textured metal stairs,
   my hands slide on cold handrails, you walk ahead.

The urge to touch you radiates through me
   wave after wave, something I cannot contain

nor indulge; the heat flows into the cauldron
   of the cyclical synchrotron. Dead machines

surge into undead hums, to shake themselves
   into shuddering destruction, cabinets full of dials,

piles of lead bricks. You swing
   the dragon mouth of the Geiger counter.

It only ticks at the same slow pace:
   no heat, but you burn, and I know it.

First published in Residual Heat under my pseudonym Aga Black.

The Self is Continuously Formed from the Outside In

I have for years now observed that the person I am is determined by the place in which I am. To a distressing level, frankly. Certain ways of being seem inaccessible in some places, utterly. For example in the American suburbs, which is one of the places I least like the person I am, I can’t even access the sense of melancholy of longing for the wilderness I might feel in the city. Nor the vasty empty fear of the actual wilderness. In one neighborhood of San Francisco (Noe Valley) I can hardly enter the mood of another (the Presidio).

We, Westerners, think, or mostly like to think, that the self comes from within and finds expression through interactions with the exterior world. A soul, embodied. A self interacting with society. But I think that it’s not like that. I think the self is formed from the outside in. The brain forms the mind. The body forms the brain. Physical interactions form the body. Society regulates physical interactions and sometimes the body directly, as in judicial corporal punishment, medical regulations, restrictions on drug use, or prescriptions of drugs and treatment for those deemed insane, which is not always those who themselves suffer from their symptoms, as with the punitive psychology of the 1950s deployed against hysterical women in the US or political subversives in the USSR.

Ascetic meditating with fidget spinners London 2017

Art on the wall of the Regent’s Canal in London depicts an ascetic meditating with fidget spinners.

I make this sound all neater and more systemic than it really is. Beyond the premise that brain forms mind, body forms brain, I am quite uncertain of the chains of causation. I know there is neuroscience around this stuff and perhaps some parts of what we call personality are genetically predetermined, and no amount of societal pressure can really undo or alter them. For example the neurodiversity of autism spectrum or ADHD feels more like how tall you can grow[1], rather than something like how muscular you are which you can alter with diet and exercise and even, if you chose, external hormones–the use of which is regulated by society so here is a layer of abstraction above, acting on a layer of abstraction below.

Things at the level of neurological inclinations are much grosser and more general than what we normally think of as IDENTITY. Even around the constraints of our physical (which includes neurological) limitations we form an identity. That identity emerges from interaction with the entire embodied (and higher abstraction beyond) environment, instead of arising spontaneously from an inherent seed of self (e.g. a soul) that predetermines it. Though now that I say it, what even is the difference. Any soul which could manifest so variably is so undetermined or vast in potential it’s almost indistinguishable from non-existence.

And here by long-winded process I appear to have come around to Buddhist principles. No-self and form is emptiness.

This identity, moreover, is not formed once through one’s upbringing and then fixed, but changes continuously through ongoing interactions.[2] I don’t wish to posit a complete determinism. For example, I can choose to change my body through bodybuilding, and experience the world differently, because of my physical interactions with it. Suddenly a hill I avoided on my path is easy to climb. I see a different set of people on the new path. I can choose to talk to them, enter into new friendships and social relations, and start living under different norms. I can move to (or even just visit) a different country and be steered by the pressures of different geography, weather, and architecture to interact with different people, make other friends, and live under yet different norms, and start to think of myself as a new person, perhaps even without noticing the change as it is happening. But these dramatic changes can also happen entirely by accident. I might fall ill or have an accident and not be able to leave my house for months and lose my regular connections with friends and environment, become obsessed with the birds I see outside the window, research birds on the internet, join a forum for bird watches, and seemingly suddenly and almost by accident, I have a new identity of bird-watcher.

[1] But on revision, I wonder if this is even a good example of a predetermined constraint, since human growth hormone can change how tall you’ll grow, and tallness is determined by many factors, which while mostly outside of direct control of the individual who is or is not tall, are hardly all genetically predetermined.

[2] My friend and colleague Sara Klein reviewed an earlier draft of this essay and asked
“[I]f we are formed through the external, how do you account for stark differences such as a racist and an anti-racist who grew up in the same place at the same time with very similar circumstances.” The last paragraph attempts to address her question, although I can’t account for it from the outset, I can over time.

Fire Danger: High

But you burn, and I know it.
   Adrienne Rich, “Orion”

As we wind up the Berkley hills, brown foam
peels off the dash of his hot Dodge Dart.
I crank down the windows for a sun-singed draft.

The smoldering tip of his black clove cigarette.
His afternoon stubble, the clear sky, the dry grass.
One hand on the gear shift. Both my hands on my lap.

Years ago these hills went up: ash fell like snow
in Alameda. The foothills burned for three days.

He throws the butt into the the road. The sparks scatter
on the asphalt and die.

He moves his free hand


to the the wheel.

First published in Residual Heat under my pseudonym Aga Black.

How the War Started

When Xerxes wrote again: “Deliver up your arms,” Leonidas wrote back: “Come and take them.”

Black eye. The left one. Stubble. Leather jacket and underneath
a black t-shirt with “Fuck You” printed in white. Buckled boots.

His car, named Zeke,
is a ’73 Dodge Dart Swinger.

Peeling pleather front seat, the foam exposed.
He puts his hand on my thigh.

I put mine on top.
His apartment is upstairs

and past pale green corridors with Victorian doors.
“Very like an asylum.”

Swords hang on his walls. Bookshelves.
A big unmade bed. Black sheets.

A stuffed raven on the computer.
I read the spines on the bookshelf

and turn into him, kiss;
pause to unlace my knee-high boots.

He ignites six tea-lights.
I set aside my glasses.

He unbuckles his boots.
I reach under his shirt.

He pushes me onto the bed.
We do the thing we came here to do.

Still, warm, and sleepy I sink
into his scent, and fur, and solid heavy limbs.

When he wakes to take a piss I move to his spot
and prepare my arms for his return.

First published in Residual Heat under my pseudonym Aga Black.

Detail of sculpture on the Longfellow Bridge

The Longfellow Bridge

The T runs down the heart
of the bridge.

The cars shake in the dim light
left by the dregs of the day.

May-green trees and May-green weeds
shine, still slick and fresh from rain.

I walk on the edge of the bridge
by a low stone wall.

The rainfall slows.
The Red Line train is gone.

I walk and walk.

First published in Residual Heat under my pseudonym Aga Black.

Detail of sculpture on the Longfellow Bridge

Longfellow Bridge detail (2007). Photo by Paul Mison. Used with permission.