Off the Coast, Maine's International Poetry Journal
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SUMMER 2016: "Crooked Axis"

Border Tango

A sultry night in San Diego,
students of English, newly arrived
from el otro lado, discuss
perils of la frontera, ask
the red-haired burly argentino
what problems he faced

Sebastián, shrugging his big shoulders,
says in lilting Spanish,
¿Qué problemas? Me aplaudieron.

As he tells it,
he jumped the fence,

trekked through hills
under a full moon beam.

These his pampas,
and he, steel-tongued,
rhyme-dueling, roaming

Maybe there's a gaucho in many
a crosser, a fated moment
of tragic glory.

Like that night
when Sebastián arrived in San Diego
to a welcoming committee
of one—

into the arms of a woman in red
who tangoed the span of the Coronado Bridge.

—Gina Valdés, Portland, OR

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Soil Cracks for the Mothers

—for Lahore

The women in my family only hear kettle-whistles
instead of street calling. Our tragedies
have grown their own spines—they have become
lost vertebrae; no one taught us to stand
taller than this.

When home is a bullet-shattered windscreen,
we don't talk about it. We know leaving
bloodied soil is cowardice; if a child cannot
feel safe holding mosaic hands,
staying is our penance.
Our grandparents bore fruit
for the graveyard—now oscillating shadows
on the burial ground;
we cannot leave any one of us behind.

Blood is lost control once it breaks skin,
so our women are more bruises than wounds;
we have more skin than we need, we are part-bone
as compensation. The women in my family
have never wasted a lentil, brushed every hair
in sight. Everything touching the earth
has its place, even when men come for us.

When they do, we are not phoenixes—
we are not scaled, mermaid skin:
we are fruit, not yet lashed to its core
or stretched out for sustenance;
my women are all spine and tongues
that rip through air like truth
seeing daylight for the first time.
We do not resist the earth,
the only mother we forgive
for taking.

—Orooj-e-Zafar, Islamabad, Pakistan

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The Discovery of Pain

I watch like a movie: nothing is true:
Not my new two-piece bathing suit
not my pre-teen breast nubs

not my mother in her big straw hat
just a room with chicken wire windows
a bare room with a green filing cabinet

a coast guard officer in uniform
He opens his filing cabinet and takes out
a Libbey juice glass and an oval bottle

He pulls the stopper and fills up the glass
Drink, says the man in his uniform
Drink, says my father in plaid swim trunks

I lift my tight, red, swollen right arm
aflame from the jellyfish sting
and tip all the brandy down my throat

Outside, children still run on the beach
I hear only the biggest waves growl
A storm petrel smashes into the window

That's when I hear the bird screaming

—Penelope Schott, Portland, OR

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—Wei Huan, Zhuhai, China

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Fish Bones

My mother cooks the ribbonfish till it turns black,
scratches it with chopsticks,
revealing its snow-white flesh.
I pick out the bones,
place them on a tissue one by one,
and look at my daughter.
Though at a tender age,
she has learned to spit fish bones,
no matter how tiny they are.
When I was at her age,
every time my grandpa cooked fish for me,
I said: Grandpa, show me how to eat it!
He then picked up a piece,
chewed it roughly in his mouth
and spat out a white muddy thing.
I would laugh at him –

My grandpa,
who experienced famine, war, child loss, diseases,
never learned
to spit fish bones
until death
spat him out.

—English translated by Liang Yujing, Wellington, New Zealand

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This Girl

Everybody in Somerville is either
                                                Irish or Italian
                                                and we're Irish.

Catholic except a few
                                                are Protestant
                                                and we are High Episcopal.

Everybody knows we are supposed to be Catholic but
                                                I know my mother
                                               said we aren't.

Everybody tells me my family will be happier
                                               when we move to the country
                                               where things will go more smoothly.

Everyone has a mother and a father unless
                                               your mother dies
                                               like mine did.

Everybody knows being poor means nothing
                                               in a place where
                                               everybody is poor.

The most important thing is having
                                               a boy who likes you but
                                               boys don't like smart girls.
Being one is no help at all if you
                                               are lonely or sick
                                               of raising your hand.
Someday my prince won't come and
                                               I'll go off on my own
                                               to see what I find.

Everybody knows smart girls go to college and
                                               this one is going
                                               to one called Bates.
Everybody has a mother and a father or
                                                a mother or a father
                                                unless your father dies, too.
Everybody knows 18 is old enough to be
                                               independent and
                                               this girl is ready.

—Ellie O'Leary, Topsham, ME

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Last Winter Break

Last winter break she was broken and white,
like salt on mahogany, spilled and unused.
Around the corners of her mouth
she sees fire slowly melting. It's way this time around
and molding her into gold.
But she's a pearl;
she's a diamond, and
she screams because she doesn't want to be burnt.
The crowbar pries her eyes shut and
she listens feverishly because her ears are her only sense left.
The winter has made her cold.
It has numbed at her heart and worn out her sweater;
she doesn't want to wear it anymore.
So she goes to a thrift shop.
She cannot afford a fancy forlorn cloth to strap around her body;
she spent too much money cleaning herself up
after last winter break.
She "borrows" a scarf of the scent of pink lemonade
and leaves two brown pennies less on the slate.
But she does not shoplift often, for she
believes in the Bible and believes in the mysteries and
controversies it contains.
Her mind is a narrow thread of handloom fiber,
so gentle, so meek
that she frays whenever she thinks of
last winter break.

—Paakhi Bhatnagar, Dubai, UAE

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rundown cinema halls

bhojpuri, telugu cinema
and softporn plays along
with the sweat addled smell, noises, whistles
and the odd
quiet spectators
looking at the screen bored

better pay Rs20 and sit
here than walk into
the street exposed
to the car accidents
reminiscent of costly
multiplex 3D movies

here women are huddled
up, in the balcony,
away from a touch,
a peck
a handjob for a stranger

—Debarun Sarkar, Kolkata, India

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A gay-bashing is preserved in a poem
in precise tercets. Two rhyming lines
surround and hold down the unrhymed middle.
Victim and assailants have clean edges
measured by a ruler, cut with an X-ACTO.
Each word is a bone glimpsed in the geologic
record. The dinosaur's refined parts are
painstakingly brushed, lifted, packed and
shipped to a lab. The letters—plaintive
vowels, abrasive fricatives, stops—
are isolated from their fellows in ransom
notes. The effect is reminiscent of a
Wedgwood vase, a rose under a glaze of
umber blood, scraps of a reassembled face.

—Timothy Robbins, Kenosha, WI

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The Children at the Wedding #29

Without buffering
we hit every wall,
we touched every painting

& as actual art,
we posed every four minutes
when the music stopped.

We reveled in witnesses.
We took pieces
of our clothes off.

—Darren Demaree, Columbus, OH

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If you press hard against a certain place
on the tip of your thumb,
your brain will thank you and feel refreshed.
If you apply pressure
to the fourth finger of either hand,
your nerves and tension will slow down.
And if you build a campfire
on the Olympic Peninsula,
Republicans in Omaha will suddenly
feel compelled to return overdue library books.
If you lean your forehead
against the side of a cow,
drug prices will be reduced.
If you photograph a Komodo dragon,
all the leaf blowers in the world will stop working.
And at night, if bladder problems keep you awake,
just press down on the heel of your palm
and you will sleep the good sleep
of no discomfort or pain,
which will also lower the temperature
at the North Pole.

—Ray Skjelbred, Lake Forest Park, WA

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