carter
welcome home.
by Nikki Carter

it’s hard to tell,
with the familiar way the sunshine hits your face as you walk outside,
that an invisible danger buzzes silently under surfaces previously thought benign,
and you shake your head every time you remember.

is it here, in the skin most familiar to you,
the breath of the one you think you love?
and even so, i wonder, can you turn away as they lean in to whisper,
to tell you a secret you already know you can’t keep?

is it here, in the handle of the front door to your childhood home,
the same door you slammed so many times both in anger and anticipation,
the one you still expect to see your mother standing behind?

you close your eyes now against the memory of your mother,
and also against the uncertainty,
the collective, slow dawning of awareness that a touch from the wrong hands,
a step too close in any direction,
might kill you, steal your breath, drown you from the inside out.

you turn away from the understanding that there’s no way to map out the forces that seek to harm you,
to rearrange them into structures that your mind can hold,
to say, oh okay i understand now, this is where i am safe.
the pathways are untraceable, the safe spaces unmappable,
you can only try your best and hope that it is good enough to save your own life.

you will learn to shrink, to move away, to keep yourself small, to draw a line around your body and say, this is only for me, for me and not for you,
to cover your mouth and stay silent and hold your words inside,
to shut out the voices talking at you on the radio and the grotesque mouths moving on your television, telling you that what you feel is your fault and no one else’s.

is it here that you will start a new pattern,
where you think and think and think about what it is you need to do and how you will do it?
and yet somehow no matter how much you think,
you will discover a surprising truth: there is nowhere you are safe,
nowhere to relax your shoulders and breathe deeply and remember what brings you joy.

instead of the landscape of safety and protection and surety you are used to,
the powerful ease with which you have always moved through the world,
there is a low hum of threat in the most ordinary of things, things you used to love when you were young,

but—
and this is better for you to know now anyway,
these are conditions that women and people of color have been living under their entire lives.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Nikki Carter is a freelance writer/editor/strategist currently working on her first novel. She is passionate about freedom, telling the truth, and supporting other women/non-binary people of color. Follow her on Instagram @nikitanola, check out her newsletter for WOC, Will & Way, and listen to her podcast on writing & life, Pencil Me In.

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Juggling
by Shelly Narang

My hands have become pinball flippers.
We’re going crazy in here.
In the evenings
juggling balls pop
from my palm to the air,
back to the palm.
I assign them their names.
One ball will be fear.
The second will be love.
The last persistence.
So much up in the air always,
but the mask blurs my eye.
Fear is in the air,
The love of fear
and the persistence of fear,
so much unknown, to be caught
Or to catch.
I hold fear repeatedly
Dropping persistence and love.

I have dropped love,
woken up and found it
when de-masked.
It is lying in the rooms,
up the liquid flowers,
and in the beautiful faces around.
But every time I grip the mask,
I grip fear too ,
and persistence rolls
under the couch.
The fabric sucks in
as I hold my breath,
offering a little boy
to juggle them who stands
so far away.
He looks at me smiling,
Holding persistence of love,
letting go the love of fear,
and the fear of persistence.

Photo found at homeofthepoi.com (a site that sells juggling balls). 

NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: This poem was written over a few days, as I spent the lockdown evenings in the balcony and watched the neighbours’ son juggle some balls.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Shelly Narang is a citizen of Chandigarh, India. She is an academic and a poet. She attended Department of English and Cultural studies, Panjab University, Chandigarh, for her Masters Program, which she finished with top honours. She wrote her thesis on South Asian Women Writing for her Doctoral Degree, and was shortlisted for a Fulbright Teaching Assistantship at University of Texas, Austin, in 2008.  The editor and contributing author of the bilingual poetry collection Resonating Strings (Authors press, 2015), her poems have appeared in numerous international anthologies and journals, notably The Muse, Parentheses, Indian Literature, and several others. She has been working as an Assistant Professor in Chandigarh for a decade, and has taught courses such as British Poetry and Applied Linguistics to postgraduate students.

Bob McNeil, host of a Halloween Celebration in the Bronx, with other festive folks
Foreclosure on the Rye
by Bob McNeil

Oh, Holden, here in your grey hair age,
     You must comprehend that hypocrisy is
     A heart-in-chest-vital chemical
     Needed for diurnal to nocturnal survival.
Oh, Holden, here in your grey hair age,
     Know that adults can’t calculate the rate of times
     We use masks woven with mendaciousness
     Just for a smidgen of socialness.
Oh, Holden, here in your grey hair age,
     Understand grown-ups strive to lie or lie to thrive,
     And you, too, must become content
     With adulthood’s demon-deceitful intent.
Oh, Holden, here in your grey hair age,
     Realize a Catcher in the Rye is as needed
     As Hessian flies that are well-fed
     Regardless of everything idealists said.

Photo: Bob McNeil (second from left) hosts a Halloween celebration in the Bronx with other festive folks.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Among Bob McNeil’s recent accomplishments as a writer and editor, he found working on the anthology entitled Lyrics of Mature Hearts to be a humbling experience because of the talented contributors. Further information about the aforesaid collection and other literary endeavors can be found at Amazon, subterraneanbluepoetry, and youtube.

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i kind of like the masks
by MP Armstrong

a voice admits, blurred by distance
(likely more than the mandated six
feet) and veneer of technology that
floats, pervasive, in the air of current
events. i kind of like them, too; after
twenty years of shopping trips to my
internal joann fabric for scraps thick
enough, brightly patterned enough,
to hide, i am no longer the only one
tucked away in the darkness between
folds and forcing my falsified smiles
to reach my eyes. i kind of like the
sewing, the repetitive choreography
of the needle bobbing up and down
like a boat on a thin thread wave, the
boxes lined with stacks featuring the
logos of sports teams and characters
from cartoons, shipped to humanize
doctors in their sterile gowns, protect
grocery store clerks and customers in
equal measure. and i cannot say that
i like the masks, because this is no
kind of equality to enjoy; this is not a
sustainable disguise. i am supposed
to feel miserable like everyone else
baking their sourness into bread, not
icing a batch of pastries with a sweet
sugar glaze and a smile. my job is to
grimace, complain, not drown in my
own relief. but still, i like the masks.

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NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: I listen to a podcast called “Our Plague Year,” and certain episodes feature voicemails left by listeners describing their experiences. One man called to say that he actually kind of liked the masks that are now mandated by many states, and his sentiment really resonated with me; considering how long I’ve had to wear a mask for my own protection in other ways, as an afab person navigating patriarchal spaces, as a closeted queer person existing in a heteronormative world, and as a young person fighting for respect, it is almost a relief to know that others are living the uncomfortable experience of constantly wearing a mask and understanding the risk of removing it.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: MP Armstrong is a disabled queer poet from Ohio, studying English and history at Kent State University. Their work appears or is forthcoming in Luna Negra, Red Earth Review, and Social Distanzine, among others. They also serve as managing editor and reporter for Curtain Call and Fusion magazines. In their spare time, they enjoy traveling, board games, and brightly colored blazers. Find them online @mpawrites and at mpawrites.wixsite.com/website.

Stephen
In a Time of Hidden Faces
by Carol A. Stephen

This face, my mask of age, slips south
into my neck, wrinkles drawn down by time
and gravity into folds, creases, wattle.
Still, when youth shines forth in my smile, wrinkles
tighten. Years slip away. Or they did—

Now, a different mask, a swath of black cloth
covers dimples, highlights the slight droop
of lower eyelid under my glasses.

Over my shoulder, masks of the past
stare blank-eyed from the wall, and I remember
those days in Venice, that long-ago night in Rome,
the sweetness of a kiss by the Trevi fountain.

Those kissed lips hide now under my new mask, worn
for your safety. I cannot offer you a grin, but
I offer the people of my world my respect,
expressed by this black band across my face.

NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: As we all consider social distancing, and that we are all in this fight against COVID-19, I thought also about my collection of carnival masks, displayed on my wall, as well as how our own faces present different masks to the world.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Carol A. Stephen’s poetry appears in Poetry Is Dead, June 2017, and numerous print publications, including Wintergreen Studios chapbooks, Sound Me When I’m Done and Teasing the Tongue. Online poems appear at Silver Birch Press, Topology Magazine, The Light Ekphrastic, and With Painted Words.  She won third prize in the CAA National Capital Writing Contest, and was featured in Tree’s Hot Ottawa Voices.  She served on the board for Canadian Authors Association-NCR and co-directed Ottawa’s Tree Reading Series. She has five chapbooks, two released in 2018 — Unhook, catkin press, Carleton Place, and Lost Silence of the Small, Local Gems Press, Long Island, NY.  In 2019, Winning the Lottery, Surviving Clostridium Difficile was published by Crowe Creations.ca.

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My Unwanted Mask
by Edna Garcia

Behind layers of makeup
     And coats of lipstick,
     I covered my bruises
     And busted lip.
Behind hair swept over a black eye
     And swollen jaw,
     I maintained a comforting mask
     For my daughter and son,
Behind a facade for friends,
     Family members and an oblivious society,
     This bruised and battered woman
     Hated her abusive husband,
     And despised an old decade
     That allowed men to use women
     As possessions for uninvited desires.
Behind the fakery of matrimonial compatibility,
     My newly formed self-worth emerged
     And raised children on my own.
     From a warring divorce,
     I found the victory of peace.
     Unmasked and honest,
     I faced my future.

Copyright 2020, Edna Garcia.

Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Edna Iris Garcia was born in Humacao, Puerto Rico. She received a BA and a Master’s Degree in Bilingual Education, and was the first Latina in Fairfield County elected to the Connecticut General Assembly.  For over 40 years, she served her community with notable distinction, and has received numerous awards for her efforts to better the city and state.   At present, she is finishing a semi-autobiographical novel.

Photo: Edna Garcia and a disguised friend.

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The Demon Speaks
by Robbi Nester
     After a Sri Lankan Sickness Mask from Horniman Museum

I am Kora Sanniya! Anyone I touch falls lame. No one
can defeat me, least of all those fools, with their drum
and dance, that stupid wooden mask. It’s nothing
like me, with its crooked grimace, eyes bulging
like a frog’s, ears like spoons. The shaman dips
and dances, pretending to be me, his bulging belly
bouncing, and the mask, it makes them laugh!
He mocks me, and the other demons crow
and point. Even the patient grins, when he
should moan and weep. I lost my face. Another
claimed it, stealing my voice, my name.

Photo of sickness mask © Horniman Museum and Gardens.

NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: I wrote this poem to be included in my upcoming anthology, but thought it might attract a few more submitters to have this appear in Silver Birch Press first.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Robbi Nester wears masks herself quite frequently these days to ward off Covid-19. She is the author of four books of poetry and editor of three anthologies, including a new one, The Plague Papers, which celebrates online museums, zoos, aquariums, and virtual collections of all kinds. People who wish to participate must choose an object, work, or specimen from such a collection and write a poem or short piece of prose. Send it to rknester@gmail.com. The current deadline of May 31, 2020 will be extended to June 30, 2020. Send your work as a Word document and include your name, email address, and a link to the object you’ve written about.

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Dream, Day 63
by Zoë Hajec

Unmasked.
Barefoot.
Free and flying.
This is the life I dream of at night in my temporary escape.
Feet pounding against the hot summer sand and cool waves rushing between my toes.
The sun beats down upon my pale skin.
Light hits the vast body of water before me,
shattering into a million pieces.
Birds chirp and fly freely.
The air smells of the fresh green grass on a cool summer’s morning,
when the world’s surfaces are misty with dew droplets.
The air smells of the rough waves of the Great Lakes breaking upon a boulder and spraying its contents like confetti.
I can see the world’s movements in colors.
Vibrant and alive once more,
Rejoicing.

NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: This poem was inspired by a dream I had around day 63 of quarantine. Since the start of the quarantine all anyone ever hears about is what has been lost or canceled. Personally it became too much to constantly think about all the things I couldn’t do anymore, so I started thinking about all the things I could. One of those things is dreaming, and this is my dream.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Zoë Hajec is a high school junior/rising senior heavily involved in her school’s magnet program, CAPA. She enjoys learning and plans to attend a university in the fall of 2021 as a first-generation college student. Zoë also has her own online store called Zoë Dreams on Bonfire, where she sells her shirt designs. In her free time she likes listening to music, reading, and learning sign language. Recently she has begun thinking about creating a blog to publish her writing, offer advice, as well as talk about her online store and her hopes and dreams. Visit her on Twitter and Instagram.

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I Might Need This Some Day
by Tricia Knoll

The day began with flag waving. Then drapes, generous blankets going in and rolled out to iced and rumbling trucks. Coffins in parallel lines on a bingo board.

Your thought was nonchalant (waste takes no haste) when you tucked remnants inside the sewing kit: I might need this some day. (No one ever believes that.)

So you dust off that case on a closet shelf beside your first-aid kit and summer’s electric fan and open it up. Acknowledge the red pin-cushion heart that came as wedding gift. Peel open curls of rolled cotton leftovers: stars splattered on black, red boats with sails unfurled. The teddy bears that beared-up your baby’s room as curtains on the window to the fir tree where the raccoon ate the robin’s babies. Two apron strings from your mother when you turned twenty-one. Those never-mind fabrics: old dreams in dark caverns.

This is some day. Now a bear mask on my lips, headdress below my nose. Filter my spare words. See beyond memory in the crosswalk.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  Tricia Knoll, a Vermont poet, knows that she is at-risk. She tries to write a poem or haiku nearly every day and wears a mask with small flowers on it. Her work appears widely in journals and anthologies. Her collected books of poetry include Urban Wild (Finishing Line Press), Ocean’s Laughter (Kelsay Books), and Broadfork Farm (The Poetry Box). Her recent collection How I Learned To Be White received the 2018 Indie Book Award for Motivational Poetry. Read more of her work at triciaknoll.com. Find her on Amazon and Twitter.

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Masks
by Joan Colby

Our daughter is at the door with
A plastic baggie containing two masks
And some alcohol wipes. Ordered from China
A month ago,they have finally arrived
In time, we hope, to save us.

I contemplate if you had survived
How would we have managed—getting you to the
Clinics for the treatments that kept you alive.
These clinics might be closed like
Everything else. To shelter in place, for you
Would have been suicide.

Anyway, you died before that could
Happen. One bad thing, at least, that you
Dodged. You could hardly breathe—
How would you have tolerated this mask?

O my unmasked love, I’m glad you didn’t have
To bear any more even if, for me, it seems
Unbearable
To venture into the poisoned world
With a white cup over my face
Like a muzzled animal—no words, no cry.

NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: This poem was written after the death of my husband on Feb. 27 just before the Covid-19 virus hit us. This poem will ultimately be part of a book to be called The Salt Widow.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Joan Colby has published widely in journals such as Poetry, Atlanta Review, South Dakota Review, The Spoon River Poetry Review, New York Quarterly, the new renaissance, Grand Street, Epoch, and Prairie Schooner. Awards include two Illinois Arts Council Literary Awards, Rhino Poetry Award, the new renaissance Award for Poetry, and an Illinois Arts Council Fellowship in Literature. She was a finalist in the GSU Poetry Contest (2007), Nimrod International Pablo Neruda Prize (2009, 2012), and received honorable mentions in the North American Review’s James Hearst Poetry Contest (2008, 2010). Her poems are winners of the 2014 and 2016 Atlanta Review International Poetry Contest. She also was selected as an International Merit Award Winner in the 2015 Atlanta Review contest She has published 22 books including  Selected  Poems, which received the 2013 FutureCycle Prize  “and Ribcage, which won the 2015 Kithara Book Prize. Her latest books are Her Heartsongs  from Presa Press, Joyriding to Nightfall from FutureCycle Press and Bony Old Folks from Cyberwit Press. She has a new book forthcoming from The Poetry Box titled The Kingdom of the Birds. She is a senior editor of FutureCycle Press and an associate editor of Good Works Review.