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NB: The fine folks at Tupelo Press sent me a free review copy of Chhetri's collection, Lost, Hurt, or in Transit Beautiful. That, of course, has not colored my look at the following lines in any way. I do what I do.

I'm taking a section from smack dab in the middle of this poem - that's when the music of it dawned on me.

near the old mausoleum in Delhi, the day

a man died in a stampede outside a bank.

In a lab in Berlin, scientists tickled rats

til they giggled to their little deaths.

One morning in early November, stunned

silence sealed the air of fall, as if

some brute had risen to power.

*cracks knuckles*

Now, before we get to the music, let's take a look at couple lines in particular.

Can you guess which?

Yes, it's the bit about the rats.

In a lab in Berlin, scientists tickled rats

til they giggled to their little deaths.

If you're a regular reader of my critiques, you know that I tend to rave on and on about tension. Tension can be created through irony, as it is here. That irony (tickled, deaths) is masterfully magnified by the drop, not just of a line break, but of a new stanza. We have to sit for a moment with scientists tickled rats in our brains before we move on to find out the disastrous result.

Again, tension through irony is masterfully magnified through use of not only giggled (not "laughed"), but also little deaths. Chhetri has taken, of all things, rats, and made them as endearing as possible. Disney, take notes.

I must also quickly note the references to the Holocaust - a lab in Berlin, sealed the air, as if some brute had risen to power - offered deftly, with the care and subtlety of an experienced poet. Let this note serve as a bridge to the music, which Chhetri uses here, in part, to connect ideas.

Okay, the music.

Tension there, too.

Weaving like discordant threads, we have dulled, dampened sounds - n - d - m - b mixed with the hissing sounds of s and, I would argue, f as well.

Run through the sounds in each group and notice the differences. Notice the shifts your mouth - your whole mouth - tongue, lips, teeth, palate - make through the pronunciations, the varied placements. Though the sound groups are worlds apart, neither group offers comfort - they are distant, yet alike. Like a blunt instrument and a blade, both are meant to murder.

And they do.

When music is written as tight as this, it sort of forces us to stumble through the poem at a discombobulating, too-fast pace. We're traveling through it on music alone, sensing the meaning there, but only just. Was that a tree on the side of the road, or a standing man? In any case a tall, dark thing. In this way, the clever poet all but forces a re-read.

A re-read is a close read, and we poets like that.

On a second read, the images and happenings come into clearer view, yet are no less rushed and discombobulating than the sounds - in a good way, in a way every poem should discombobulate.

In fact, I think this post has been brought to you by the word discombobulate.

In a multi-trauma world full of ragged travelers seeking every avenue of balm and distraction, Chhetri stands as tribute to the valor and beauty of sitting with discomfort, with pain. Such valor is necessary if we are to survive.

Please pick up a copy of Rohan Chhetri's Lost, Hurt, or in Transit Beautiful from Tupelo Press and pause for a while to read it.

  • Amber Shockley

The other day when I accidentally gave a panhandler a fortune cookie fortune, I got an idea.

I’ve been trying to put together items for a small (very small) gift bag for the people asking for help whom I encounter at intersections while out running errands.

I was thinking some sort of small snack, like a snack size candy bar, but with the temperature still getting up into the 70’s here in mid-November, chocolate is not something I could keep in my car.

Then, the fortune cookie incident.

Fortune cookies! Perfect.

You can get fortune cookies in bulk relatively cheap.

Not that I want to send anyone to Amazon, on account of evil lord Jeff Bezos, but if you search “bulk items for homeless,” lots of ideas will come up. Depending on how much coin you have to invest, you could really put together something nice, and useful.

I got some quart size plastic bags to hold the items. Inside I've put...


1. A fortune cookie. CAT NOT INCLUDED. I've got just one cookie in each bag now, but I might put in two. If they don't like their first fortune, they can take another crack.

2. A rinse-free bath sponge. It looks like a cloth. This purchase was a disappointment. For some reason, I thought these were going to be individually wrapped. But they are not. The cloth is rather large, about the size of an actual wash cloth, so I folded it into a smaller square to place into the bag. I'll probably have to write a little note with instructions. All you have to do is wet it with water and wipe yourself down, but you wouldn't know that if you just got one of these loose in a bag. You wouldn't even know what the thing was, I don't think.

3. Hot Hands hand warmers. These won't be useful until it actually turns cold, I reckon, but I'll go ahead and pass them out now. A cold snap could come any day now. This purchase was another disappointment because I got confused about how many warmer packets I was getting. I read "ten warmers" and thought ten packets, but it's five packets. So, at this point, I can only make five complete gift bags. I would cut these to create ten packets, but only one packet would have the instructions on it.

4. A tiny little chapstick. Mmmm....vanilla bean. And SPF 15! Shown with toe beans for sizing.

I'm putting the bags in a box to keep them handy in my car. I figure I'll stash it in the back seat, so I can reach back when the time comes.

I'll be giving these out instead of cash, and I'm a bit concerned that people are going to be irritated or frustrated about that. I don't want to come across as someone who doesn't trust homeless people or other panhandlers with cash. When I give money, I really don't care what they spend it on. Anyone who thinks that panhandlers aren't making good use of their money if they use it to buy alcohol, drugs, or anything other than whatever someone's approved items might be should read Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich. It's a first-hand, journalistic account of just how difficult, if not damn near impossible, it is to survive working the types of jobs that have, in the last two years, been labeled "essential". And this book was published back in 2011, before pandemic times. Things are much, much worse right now. Getting a job doesn't mean you won't be homeless. Not by a long shot. If you're never going to have enough money to get any traction in life, what you spend it on in any given day really doesn't matter.

The gift bags have nothing to do with judging how anyone would spend cash. This is more about my own limited resources - if I gave out money, I would run out of money fast, and not be able to give anyone anything. Finding cheap, but useful items and purchasing them in bulk allows me to give more people a little something.

I hope that it helps them. I hope that it makes them feel something other than struggle and misery.

Maddie is very tired from her turn as a kitty Vanna White.

  • Amber Shockley

They were at it again. A thud, then a woman’s muffled voice, with a crescendo at the end of her sentence. She wasn’t going to be interrupted. She wasn’t going to hear excuses. More thuds. Like steps, but awkward. Less rhythmic. Then, silence.

Cindy looked up from her dinner toward the ceiling. Were the couple upstairs at their own table? Apartments were stacked on top of each other with identical floor plans. Cindy often showered at the same time as her downstairs neighbor. His tenor cut through the wood frame and rushing water. The lady at the apartment office had mentioned once that he was with the opera before he retired to a quiet life, giving private lessons to only a very select few students.

Cindy minded her own business, kept her balcony clean, and only ran loud appliances during the reasonable hours of 10 am to 4 pm. She considered herself a good neighbor. She wished the couple upstairs would return the favor.

The fights weren’t often, but when they happened they were real knock-down drag-outs. Doors slammed, rattling the china in Cindy’s cabinets. The brawls seemed to take place on the weekend, on Sundays of all days.

When Cindy left for work the next morning, the woman had stepped out of her door and was leaning over the railing. She wore a loose, sleeveless top, no bra, and thin short-shorts. She had her arms crossed in front of her, her hip poked out. Not exactly Venus de Milo. Cindy turned and walked toward her car in the parking lot.

The woman shouted down a demand. Cindy heard the man, just a few feet behind her, door to his own car cranked open, call “Yeah, yeah.” Irritated, defeated. He got in his jalopy and slammed the door. Cindy had no doubt that whatever the man had just agreed to, he would never follow through. She knew the kind.

Cindy started her car and drove to work. She didn’t look in the rearview.

She came home that evening with groceries for a stew. She set the ingredients on the counter - roast, celery, potatoes, carrots - then went to retrieve her slow cooker from the back of the lower cabinet. When she stood, a fly was making jerking steps on the bloodied plastic covering her center cut roast. Disgusted, Cindy slammed the cooker down on the counter. She brushed a few curls out of her face in a huff. She prided herself on keeping a clean, secure home. How had a fly gotten in? She’ll have to take a candle to the windows, find the hidden entry point.

Cindy counted herself lucky that the fly didn’t appear again to bother her while she was preparing her roast. Her mother’s recipe called for two unusual spices, the identity of which was kept under lock and key. The mouthwatering result was the envy of every cousin she knew.

Before bed, she tossed in the roast and the vegetables she’d diced earlier. She set the cooker on low, went to the bedroom and called her sister LeAnn.

LeAnn was a meddlesome sort, and she liked to hear the latest gossip. Cindy suspected her sister imagined herself living a life of high drama akin to the characters on one of the soap operas she liked to watch. A waste of time, if Cindy had ever heard one.

Of course LeAnn was totally engrossed in the rantings and ravings of Cindy’s upstairs neighbors. Cindy never had the “juicy details” LeAnn requested, but she gave her the gist and tried to work out at what point she should call the police.

Just before Cindy hung up for the evening, her sister said, “What I wouldn't give to be a fly on that wall.”

Cindy woke the next morning to the savory smell of roast. She smiled and stretched, then felt a tickle on her nose. When she raised her hand, the fly flew for its life, landed on the bedroom wall out of reach. Cindy rolled her eyes and sighed. What a pest. A single fly, capable of so much damage. E. coli. Cholera. Disease.

Cindy rose to go to the kitchen. She cut off the cooker, then looked under the sink for a spray. Formula 409. The hard stuff. But by the time she went back to the bedroom, the fly was gone.

She kept the spray bottle on hand, just in case. She even sat it at the table like a centerpiece when she cut into her roast.

The rest of the week was a rush of deadlines and deals at work. Cindy considered herself an astute negotiator, and her colleagues seemed to agree. She’d been taking on more responsibilities lately, coming home extra achy and tired.

In the evenings, she chose to forgo her usual phone call to LeAnn and sit down with a book instead. If LeAnn wanted to speak with her, she was just as able to pick up the phone. It didn’t always have to be Cindy reaching out.

Each night the fly crawled, sometimes noticed, sometimes not, along the upper third of the bedroom walls. It seemed to know just how far it would need to be to stay just out of Cindy’s reach, and that of the caustic spray.

What Cindy didn’t realize was that it wasn’t always the same fly. Like child twins, the fly - or, flies - traded out with one another, never appearing at the same time. In fact, there were dozens. More.

By the time Sunday had rolled around, Cindy was starting to wonder about her sister. Maybe dropping the nightly phone call without warning wasn’t the most kind idea. She resolved that if she didn’t hear from LeAnn by that evening, she would draw a truce to the cold war and call.

Cindy didn’t hear from her sister by that evening. She didn’t hear from anyone. The neighbors upstairs were silent. Unfortunately, Cindy had barely noticed the peace.

Peace taken for granted is peace interrupted. Just as Cindy was raising the phone to her ear, her eye caught the flashing of lights, blue and red, behind her blinds. She went and peaked through. A funny lump caught in her throat. She lowered the receiver and closed her eyes. She imagined the knock at her door, but the knock never came. When she opened her eyes, she realized she was shaking.

The flashing colors were still going at her window. She heard a thud upstairs. Not a thud, a crash. An explosion?

Curious now rather than worried, Cindy cracked the door to her apartment. She heard men’s voices, but couldn’t make out the words. The neighbor across from her stepped out of his apartment and shouted up at the men. One of them leaned over the railing to answer, and Cindy saw the patch on his arm. Police. Sheriff. They had knocked down the door.

Cindy stepped back inside her apartment to grab a shawl, then walked back out. More neighbors were gathering, their hands to their mouths, looking up.

The two ambulances that had arrived were useless. Eventually, the coroner showed, his thick mustache full of mentholated cream. Then down came the bodies, covered in sheets, carried carefully. Cindy gasped, thought she made out the curvature of breasts, the smaller figure.

As they passed, an odor. And a cloud of flies behind. Cindy covered her nose and mouth, ran back into her apartment, slammed the door.

Horrified, Cindy went once again to the phone. Surely LeAnn would take this seriously. She would offer comfort instead of pumping her for any awful details. Sobbing, Cindy for once needed her sister, instead of the other way around. She dialed the number. The line buzzed.

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