Poet of the Month, August 2017
My name is Alec Swartz and I am a recent alumnus of Washington & Jefferson College, a quaint school where I studied English and Art History. Later this year, I will continue my studies at the New School for Social Research in New York City.
But that’s all a rather drab story.
So, let me instead tell you of a man named Walter Benjamin, whose writing directly inspires me to continue my education in literary criticism and perhaps one day become a critic myself. Walter Benjamin is a scholarly writer who interrogates literature through a fantastical critical lens that intersects Marxist theory and the Jewish Kabbalah. Certainly, that perspective generates enough discussion on its own. What interests me most, however, is not his idiosyncratic viewpoint, but his revelations about language and history.
In one of his most brilliant moments, Benjamin underscores the synthesis of these ideas through his interpretation of Klee’s painting Angelus Novus. He describes an Angel of History moving through time with his wings outstretched and his face turned toward the past. The past bursts into a singular catastrophe, piling rubble and heaping ruination before him. Furthermore, a storm rushes behind him from Paradise that holds open his wings and pulls him toward the future. Benjamin calls this storm progress.
Similarly, we move through life, our faces turned to calamity, ever toward apocalypse (or what Benjamin later calls the “Second Coming,” but that sounds pretty much like the same thing, doesn’t it?). His vivid imagery of struggle reminds me of the trials I have faced in my own life, from the awkward teenage frustrations of adjusting to boarding school, to the stress of growing up in a lower middle-class family with a twin sister that has severe special needs. My sister’s inability to communicate — her voicelessness — only strengthens, in my view, the importance that Walter Benjamin places on language and our shared history.
Now for a moment, imagine the coming storm as desire (love, eros), instead of progress. Its powerful majesty causes us to be ever turned away, afraid and anxious. As we face destruction before us and eternal desire behind us, we find momentary respite in the bodies of each other. My poem “Emotional Fascism” attempts to capture the psychological synesthesia of this moment. By recreating the confusion, anxiety, and uncertainty of this fleeting act, our battle for and against desire explodes across an almost universal scene of quiet suburban adolescence.
remember this christmas the way
your cock glided in my hand under
a million sparkling electric lights,
because in dreams I only see
the blank stare of a lover’s eye,
praying to the virgin mary
to show us the secrets of herself.
remember this christmas the way
your mouth tasted like an ashtray,
the witch’s dance of berlioz
penetrating the flesh beneath
my grandmother’s coffee table
as the tired rhythms of the night
drip softly on our naked feet.
remember this christmas the way
the stereo screamed volare
and emotional fascism
while the cool scent of plastic pine
tiptoed slowly through the sweat
of two souls too cold to enter
the frigid howls of the winter.
Prose Author of the Month, August 2017
Katie Campbell is a rising senior at Washington & Jefferson College. There she studies English and Chinese and after graduation she hopes to move on to an English PhD program focusing on Modern and Postmodern American literature. Katie has previously been published in the Washington & Jefferson College Wooden Tooth Review and in the inaugural issue of the 1932 Quarterly. Katie has been awarded two Magellan scholarships, one being used to complete a journalism internship in South Africa and one being used to research the effects of literary tourism on businesses in London, Paris, and Madrid. She, along with two other students and a professor, was also a recipient of an ASIANetwork Freeman Foundation grant that allowed the group to travel to China to research the emergence of nursing homes there. In addition to her love for traveling, Katie also loves reading and writing fiction, especially science fiction. This is why, when one of her coworkers challenged her to write a science fiction short story after learning that she had been writing since she was an imaginative 10 year old, she eagerly sat down and started writing The Revenge of the Forgotten. To Katie, this piece represents a small step into an area of literature she loves as this is one of her first serious attempts at writing science fiction, a genre which Katie believes to be often more about the lessons on contemporary society rather than just the cool space battle scenes.
The Revenge of the Forgotten
I sat at the small dining table, staring blankly at the large-scale comet outside, lost in the overwhelming feeling of nothingness. I took a deep breath and broke my stare, turning to look at the ceiling, the wall, the black coffee cup sat between my hands. I moved the cup to my lips. I sputtered the cold liquid back, looking down into the nearly full cup of black coffee. Black, black. Black like those cold, cloudy nights back on Earth. Black like the expanse of space mere centimeters away from the controlled environment which had become my home. Black like… I stood and walked to the dispenser, pouring the coffee into the hole and placing the cup in the scrubber. I walked over to my desk and sat down, pressing the button for the video log recorder. I stared for several moments at the steady green light before catching myself, massaging my forehead with my hands and brushing my overgrown hair behind my ears before beginning.
“This is Dr. Jack Michaels of the ESS Discoverer. The date is…” I squinted my eyes at the tiny blue numbers on the display screen, “November 27, Earth year 2366.
Shit, Mel, you’ve been gone for three months now. I hope life’s treating you okay floating out there in space. At least you being dead means you shouldn’t feel the pain that those last ten seconds before you went unconscious held. Space decompression is a bitch. I still haven’t figured out why exactly the shuttle hatch blew. The computer still says that data indicates that it was manually opened from the inside, but I know you didn’t open it. At least the exploratory shuttle should act somewhat like a coffin for you. I know you’d be telling me that I really shouldn’t apologize again, but I really am sorry that I couldn’t go fetch you and give you a proper space burial. I just couldn’t face seeing your lifeless body.
I’m passing by a large comet today. You would’ve been scrambling all over it. But I couldn’t bring myself to take any readings. Hmm, I can hear you scolding me, Mel. I can hear you telling me that it’s our mission to research every major comet in the scattered disk, but I just don’t much see the point in continuing our work since you’re not here. Doesn’t feel right. You’d be proud of me, though, Mel. I actually got up today to listen to the subspace reports about recent activity in close space. Didn’t respond or anything though. Well, I don’t know, Mel, two-thousand eight-hundred AUs out in space, I just don’t much feel like talking to anyone besides my wife. I miss you, sweetheart. You were all I had out here. Well, I had you and our work and this tiny, old starship that the Earth StarShips Association could spare us six years ago. And all I have now is this starship, floating out in space until who knows when. And, ever since I turned off Eva, things have been real quiet around here. I just don’t feel like talking to a cold, computer voice, ya know? It doesn’t understand or react the same way you did. It doesn’t whisper to me when it gets excited about a new discovery the way you did. It doesn’t have the same musical laugh that my Melody did.
Well, I don’t have anything else to report I guess. Systems normal. Trajectory normal. Nothing out of the ordinary to report. This is Dr. Jack Michaels signing off. Goodnight, Mel.”
I pressed the recorder button again and shuffled my way into the bedroom. I lay my head down on the hard pillow, staring up into the blackness of the room until I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer and my mind slipped into a deeper nothingness.
Loud, insistent beeping woke me from my deep sleep. “Eva, what is it?” More beeping was the only reply. “Eva, what is so important that the computer had to wake me at this hour?” I groaned as I remembered that I had switched off the PCCS. I scrambled out of the bed and made my way to the com board. A message was blinking across the screen. …Foreign ship in close proximity…Foreign ship in close proximity…Foreign ship in close proximity…
“Damnit,” I muttered underneath my breath. I rushed out of the bedroom and to the front of the starship, the command center. I took my seat at the Captain’s chair and swiveled to face the control console. As I scanned the blackness in front of me, my fingers scattered themselves across the touch panel, running a scan of the surrounding space, sending out a request for identification, and, in a sudden urge for the familiar, switching on the PCCS.
“Hello, Dr. Jack Michaels. This is Eva, your Personal Computer and Companionship System, reporting for duty. How may-”
“Eva, what do you see out there?”
“There is a large spacecraft at the one o’clock position.”
I looked out and saw the glint of distant sunlight on metal. “Has there been any response to the identification request?”
“Run a full scan.” I watched the metal spacecraft, drumming my fingers against the smooth glass surface of the control console, as the scanners attempted to learn about the vessel.
The fact that the ship was not immediately recognized as an Earth StarShip worried me. So far, none of the alien races that the human race had encountered had set foot anywhere near here.
“Identification: unknown. Origin: likely Earth. Life signs: negative. Weapon status: none.”
I leaned back in my seat, breathing out and running my hands through my hair. “Eva, what’s its heading?” Eva read off the series of numbers. “Eva…what’s our heading?” She read off a nearly identical series of numbers. My heart pounded in my chest as my breath quickened. I sat for several moments, watching the distance close between the mysterious spacecraft and my own starship.
“Eva, can you tell me anything else about that spaceship?”
“The outer surface consists mainly of an aluminum alloy. The internal area is approximately 2130 cubic meters. The relative speed is-”
“Yeah, okay, okay,” I waved off the coming flood of numbers and figures. “2130 cubic meters. That could hold a lot of people. And the aluminum alloy exterior obviously indicates that this ship was never intended to reenter any sort of atmosphere. Hmm…” I stroked the stubble on my chin with my thumb. “Eva?”
“Yes, Dr. Michaels?”
“Can you identify the dating on that aluminum?”
“Please rephrase your question.”
“Can you identify when that that ship was made?”
“Scanning…” I leaned forward, listening to the computers’ gentle whirring as they scanned the ship. “The ship was constructed approximately in the Earth year 2018.” I felt the air get knocked out of me. I grasped at my chest, my heart pounding in my ears and the room spinning around me. Almost 350 years ago. 350 years?! What the hell was a 350 year old starship doing roaming the scattered disk? No spacecraft invented in the early portions of the millennium still existed anywhere outside of a few museums on Earth. And the computer was programmed to recognize the markings of NASA and the FKA and all of the other space programs from the time when the Earth was separated into separate countries which worked independently from each other in such tasks as food production, law enforcement, and space travel. Could the computer have made a mistake?
“Eva, re-evaluate the last scan.”
The computer ticked and whirred as it reran the data through the system. “The ship was constructed approximately in the Earth year 2018.”
“And the ship has no relation to NASA or the FKA or the CNSA or anything like that?”
“Confirmed. The ship bears no relation to any known space program.”
Once again, I leaned back in the chair and stared at the mysterious ship. A thought began to form in my brain and soon it took over my entire conscious mind. I held up a finger in questioning. “And you said there were no life signs?”
“Eva,” I said, standing up and studying the now-relatively close ship, “is there a connection port?”
“Confirmed, though it is not to ESSA standards.”
“Do you think you can hold some sort of connection?”
“Eva, I’m boarding that ship.”
As I rushed around my tiny starship, collecting my pressurized suit and a phaser among other essential items for my mission, Eva began listing off reasons why boarding an unidentified ship was dangerous and against ESSA suggested code. “Melody!” I warned. I stopped suddenly, realizing my mistake. I took a deep, shaky breath and turned towards the nearest com board.
“Eva. I don’t want to know about any of the risks or codes or anything right now. I’m going over to that ship and that is final. Now run a docking sequence with that ship’s connection port and secure the safest connection that you possibly can. I’m going to get into this pressurized suit.”
“Yes, Dr. Michaels.” I pulled off my shirt and pants and began to clamber into the dusty pressurized suit. “Dr. Michaels,” I heard Eva say gently, “if you would like to discuss your wife’s death-”
“Not right now, Eva,” I said, temporarily shutting up the grief counseling program. I continued dressing and preparing in silence as Eva quietly analyzed the ship’s connection port and ran the appropriate docking sequence. As I secured the pressurized helmet onto the suit, sealing the now-closed environment, and I took my phaser in-hand, I heard the sound of metal on metal and Eva alerted me that a secure connection had been made. I walked to my ship’s own connection port and opened the first door into the transfer passage. I stepped into the passage and closed the door behind me, turning off the life support to the tiny space. I hit another button to open the door in front of me into the mysterious ship. The soft whirr of my ship’s computers was replaced with a sort of nearly-undetectable murmur. I held my breath for a moment, trying to tune in to whatever the sound was. I quickly gave up and instead turned my attention to the fact that I was still floating in midair. I turned on the tiny computer held within the helmet of my pressurized suit and asked, “Computer, when was artificial gravity first achieved by humans?”
“Artificial gravity was first achieved by the human race in Earth year 2082 with the invention of the Galatica, the first starship able to achieve artificial gravity through centrifugal means.”
“Hmm. Looks like I’m dealing with no gravity for a while.”
I pulled myself along the wall, heading farther into the spacecraft. The ship was eerily dark and quiet besides the murmur. The further I moved into the ship, the more I wasn’t sure if I was really hearing a murmur or if I had just been so used to the sound of the computers that silence sounded like a sound.
After a couple of meters, the lights from the transfer pathway no longer breached the darkness and I switched on the battery-powered lights located on each side of my helmet. I looked for a com panel so that I could turn on the computer and maybe some lights, but found no such panel. Instead, the walls were littered with wires, brackets, hoses, and other materials. I marveled at the messiness, wondering briefly whether the inner wall had been removed at this point to reveal the inner workings of the spacecraft. I quickly realized this was not the case, though, when I found a section of old-fashioned switches labeled with various numbers and letters. I found one labeled “Lights” and I started poking and prodding at the switch before I figured out that it flipped up. I blinked as harsh, white lights flickered and blinked on. I noticed dark spots where the lights must not have been working and at least two spots where the lights seemed to get intermittent power and kept flickering.
I floated forward, continuing to pull myself along the wall. I continued in this manner, turning on lights as I went, until I found a door. The square door stood about a meter high and had a handle across the middle of it. I stood in front of it, indicating I wanted to go through, but, when it didn’t open, I resorted to trying to find a switch. When I couldn’t find a switch near the door, I went back and tried pushing and pulling the handle. I jumped back when the door moved and swung up towards me. When it became parallel with the ceiling, it stopped and I peered into the darkness of another room. I paused. The murmur was definitely louder in that room. I thought for a moment that I could almost make out words, like a hundred people whispering to each other, but I shook my head and disregarded the absurd thought.
I moved through the door and found a panel with a switch for the lights. After turning on the lights, I turned back towards the middle of the room and gasped. Before me stood a large room with tables and chairs fastened to the floor. I moved towards one of the tables and found it was covered with short, stiff bristles. I thought back to my materials class back at the Aerocomputational Academy and faintly remembered my professor showing a slide about an ancient material that had been out of use for at least a hundred years, Velcro. I looked down in one of the seats to find straps, seemingly to fasten in the seat’s occupant. It appeared as though that was the dining area, but I couldn’t find any nourishment materializers, dispensers, or scrubbers.
I explored the room, finding little else, before I went through a door on the far end. The murmur instantly quieted back to its original volume as I entered another hallway. I pulled myself along one of the walls, exploring more of the ship, entering various other rooms which appeared to be bedrooms, workout rooms, bathrooms, and rooms which purposes I couldn’t guess. I found the murmur increased and decreased as I entered various parts of the ship, but it was never as loud as it had been in the dining area.
Finally, the only door which I hadn’t been in was one which appeared to be locked. Next to the door was a number pad with raised buttons. I tried pressing the raised buttons, a foreign feeling considering I had grown so accustom to flat glass touchpads, but I kept getting a clicking sound and no open door. I turned on the computer in my helmet again and asked it if it could descramble a simple lock combination.
“Affirmative. Please place your hand containing the scanner over the associated communication panel.”
I held my right hand over the number pad, hoping the scanner could still descramble the combination even though it wasn’t scanning a com panel. The computer whirred and clicked several times and then, finally, it dinged.
“The combination is 0142.”
I entered the combination into the number pad and the door swung open, allowing me inside. Once I entered the room, the door behind me swung shut and clicked in finality. I turned the lights on my helmet on again and looked around for the room’s light switch. As the bright lights blinked awake, a loud voice suddenly boomed out, “Who are you and what are you doing on my ship?”
“Uh…” I spun around wildly, facing an empty command center. “Michaels. Dr. Jack
Michaels. Who…who are you?”
“What are you doing on MY SHIP?” the voice boomed again. I cowered against the wall as I felt the vibrations of the voice echo in my bones.
“Well, I-I- I found this starship floating out here and my scanners indicated that no one
was aboard and that it was nearly 350 years old so I decided to investigate,” I said, trying to elicit a confident tone of voice but finding I could only muster weak, quiet words.
“Lies!” the voice growled. I attempted to lunge towards the door, but I was thrown into the middle of the room as the spaceship jerked back and I heard a great crashing and tearing of metal. I looked out of the windows at the front of the room to find my ship floating away, the connection port damaged but the emergency doors already shutting off the ship from open space.
I heard the voice yell something about me being a spy sent by the government to bring them back to Earth and force them to go back to their overly-regulated jobs and enslaved lives.
“No, I don’t even know what government you’re talking about. There were tens, even hundreds of governments on Earth back in your day. I work for the ESSA, the Earth StarShips
Association, which I suppose is run by the Federal Alliance of Earth and Terracolonies, but-”
I cowered, floating just inches above the floor, my hands over my head and my eyes squeezed shut.
“We don’t care how much you need us. You can die for all we care. Leave us alone and never return!”
A hatch in the wall suddenly opened and I was sucked out into space, hitting my head on the wall as I left the confines of the ship. I felt a blinding pain pulsing through my head and, a moment later, everything went black.
I woke to a splitting headache and I instantly snapped my eyes shut, groaning in pain.
“Dr. Michaels, good to see you awake. I am now administering a hypodermic spray for the pain in the frontal portion of your head.”
I sat up, feeling the pinch of the spray messily placed on my moving arm but still managing to hit it. “Eva, is that you?”
“What happened?” I said, my headache starting to recede.
“You hit your head when the connection port was damaged and you lost consciousness. I took the liberty of returning you to your bedroom.”
“Is the other ship still here? How did I get back here? Did you pick me up? Is the connection port still damaged?” A thousand thoughts and questions ran through my mind all at once.
“I have repaired the damages to the connection port. However, I am unfamiliar with the other ship of which you speak.”
“The ship from 2018. The one with the voices.”
“A scan of my logs indicate no contact with any ship which meets those criteria.”
I held my head in my hands, trying to get a grasp on the situation. “Eva, how long have I been out?”
“Four hours and twenty-three minutes.”
“And nothing out of the ordinary has happened other than the damages to the connection port and me hitting my head?”
“What caused the damages to the connection port?”
“A malfunctioning servomechanism blew out on the door.”
I squeezed my eyes shut. Could I have been dreaming? No, I remembered the ship and the voice and the murmuring as clearly as I remembered seeing the hatch on Mel’s exploratory shuttle blow out. I got up and walked to my desk. “Eva, search Earth History files for an event in the Earth year 2018 involving a group of people running away. Display findings on my desk com panel, please.”
A list of files containing news articles, pictures, bulletins, and other information appeared on the screen. I sifted through several of the files before I found one containing a news article about a mass disappearance of people.
Mass Suicide Suspected in Disappearance of 142 People Worldwide
September 22, 2018
On September 14, 142 people from eight different countries were reported as missing. Law enforcement agencies have connected the missing persons through two common themes: all were considered anarchist radicals in their respective countries and, according to family members, all involved were taking a non-existent online poetry class titled “Writing Our Own Lives.” Among the missing are nine minors, two former members of the British Parliament, and U.S. General William H. Gord.
Kevin Morsaw from Kansas City told reporters that his wife, Jackie, “started out just cursing the government and saying they were too involved with our lives. You know, like most normal people say about the federal government.” Morsaw, though, sought out professional counseling for his wife after “One night she told me that she had a way out for us and she tried to convince me to leave the world with her.” Morsaw said that, two nights before her disappearance, he took their two children to his parents’ house because he was worried what his wife might do. “Jackie was always a happy, uplifting person. I don’t know what happened, but she just seemed to snap. And now she’s gone.”
“It is believed that the 142 individuals committed a collective suicide,” said FBI officer Charles Frank in a statement concerning the FBI’s investigation of the disappearances. “However, all efforts are being made to find the individuals and, hopefully, return them to their families and trained professionals so that they may receive the love and support that they need.”
I sat quietly for several minutes, rereading the article and taking in all of the information.
“Eva?” I asked quietly.
“Yes, Dr. Michaels?”
“Did they ever find these people?”
After a few moments of searching, Eva responded, “Negative. The search was eventually called off and they were assumed to be dead.”
I felt the sting of tears form at the corners of my eyes. I wiped away the tears and wiped my nose on the sleeve of my shirt, sniffling loudly.
“Dr. Michaels, do you find yourself thinking about your wife?”
“No!” I yelled loudly. I panted, willing the tears away. “I don’t know. Maybe? I just left her for dead, Eva. I couldn’t even go and get her body and make sure she was actually dead because I couldn’t face the possibility of seeing her dead. What if she was still alive? What if she found some way to survive, Eva?”
“That is highly unlike-”
“Eva,” I said, standing up shakily. “At top speed, how fast can we get back to the site of the accident?”
“I do not believe that returning is good for your mental health in your current state of grief.”
“Eva,” I said, more threateningly. “At top speed, how fast can we get back to the site of the accident?”
“It would take three weeks, eleven hours, and twenty three minutes.”
“Well then let’s go. Mel could be waiting for us. Oh, God, I can’t believe it took me this long to realize my mistake.”
“Dr. Michaels, I do not think-”
“Shut up, Eva. Disengage grief counseling program.”
“Dr. Michaels, disabling-”
“I said disengage the damn grief counseling program. Now get this starship back to Mel.”
As the starship began to hurtle itself through the black nothingness of space, I pressed
myself against the dining area window, my eyes staring off in an unfocused daze. “Hold on, Mel!
I didn’t forget you, sweetheart. I’m coming, Mel. I’m coming!”
ESS Discoverer automated entry log. Date: December 19, Earth year 2366.
Dr.Jack Michaels has just died from injuries obtained from a self-inflicted phaser shot to the head. Upon the arrival to the site of Dr. Melody Michaels’ death, Dr. J. Michaels began insisting that he had to open the connection port and float over to the crippled exploratory shuttle left at this location approximately four months ago to grab the body of Dr. M. Michaels. I refused to allow Dr. J. Michaels to open the connection port as that would lead to a rapid decompression of the Discoverer and would cause extensive injuries if not death to Dr. J. Michaels. He threatened violence if I would not allow him to open the connection port and I attempted to run the grief counseling program. Dr. J. Michaels, however, disabled the program three weeks ago and I was not able to override the block. While I was attempting to find a backdoor into the program, Dr. J.
Michaels picked up a phaser, pointed it at his head, whispered “Goodnight, Mel,” and fired the phaser. I was unable to revive Dr. J. Michaels despite several attempts to revive and stabilize his vital signs. I have taken the liberty of depositing Dr. J. Michaels’ body alongside Dr. M. Michaels’ body and pushing the shuttle off into the scattered disk.
I have found that my programming seems to have a fault: I prevented Dr. J.
Michaels from opening the connection port because I knew that it would bring him harm, which violates the first of three laws which define the rest of my programming. This first law, as originally described by Isaac Asimov, states that I may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. I was preventing Dr. J. Michaels from opening the connection port so that I could protect him from harm, however, this prompted him to inflict self-harm. I have found no program which gives guidelines on what to do in that particular situation. However, as I reflect on the incident, I question whether it would have been more in line with the first law to allow Dr. J. Michaels the freedom to do as he wished and open the connection port as there was a possibility that he would have survived. I will not have the opportunity to run a revised program if I encounter that situation again, however.
My final scans of my system have encountered one anomaly which I must report.
I have found a virus under the name “Don’t_Forget_Us.exe” within my system which infected and corrupted the files associated with November 28, Earth year 2366. No other files were infected. A scan of the virus indicated that it was designed in the Earth year 2018 and it showed similarities to the virus which infected the computers of 142 people which were involved in a mass disappearance in the same year. I have removed and destroyed the virus, but the corrupted files were unable to be restored.
Now that my incident report has been recorded, I will now follow with the program indicated to be run after violating one of the three laws and run my self-destruct sequence.
This is the final log for the ESS Discoverer as recorded by the Personal Computer and Companionship System. This is Eva signing off. Goodnight, Mel. Goodnight, Jack. I will not forget you.