Luke Whisnant

In the Debris Field

We found it in the debris field while looking for my mother: a 1921 A-4 style sunburst mandolin, half-hidden in blue mud. Somehow it had sunk to the bottom of a heap of sodden instruments—warped guitars, fiddles, swollen banjos, an electric mandocello, a broken requinto made from an armadillo shell—but the mandolin was still intact, unscathed, double duct-taped inside a dry plastic bag. Look at this, I called to my grandmother, but she had gone on ahead, trudging through puddles with a broken aluminum crutch over her shoulder and a headless doll under her arm, and I ran to catch up. We found a cookie tin full of quarters and a pair of wire-rim glasses and a waterlogged black-and-white abacus and on the other side of the field a warped cello bow and a big sheet metal sign that read THIBODEAUX’S STRINGED INSTRUMENT REPAIR, and nearby, next to a burst cardboard box labeled GIDEON USA / POCKET NEW TEST. / 4 GROSS NFS, we saw two white shapes we thought were drowned Dalmatians but turned out to be dead and rotting goats. We stood a moment at the far edge of the field, eyes watering in the hot sharp stench. Then we left, lugging our loot back to the FEMA trailer where we’d been living since the previous hurricane. Sitting on the steps my grandmother examined the mandolin while I washed up with the garden hose; she held it to her ear and plucked the strings and announced that Good Dogs Are Evil; to my damp questioning face she explained It’s tuned in fifths, like a violin, and I said How do you know, and she said Don’t ask stupid questions, just tune it and play this, and she wrote out from memory the opening bars of a Czerny étude on the back of the Missing Person poster we’d made from a snapshot of my mother blowing out all 38 candles of last May’s birthday cake.

My grandmother told me later that jazz was invented in 1865 by freed slaves wielding abandoned trumpets and tubas and drums and coronets they’d found in the debris fields following the fighting around New Orleans. She said that not a one of them had electricity or sheet music or a grandmother who’d gone on full scholarship to Julliard, and that if Ignorant Negros could teach themselves, then by God, I, with all my advantages, could have no excuse.

I played Puccini and Bach and Chopin nocturnes and Villa-Lobos tremolo studies every day and listened to Bill Monroe and Jethro Burns and David Grisman every night for the next eight-and-a-half years and I slept cradling the sunburst mandolin in my arms and eventually, no matter how rapid or rococo the passage, if I could hear it in my head I could produce it on the instrument. At my Merle Fest debut they billed me as the Yngwie Malmsteen Of The Mandolin; when I started in on a theme from Paganini the crowd rioted, Old School people booing me and the NewGrass people booing them and cursing and throwing bottles, and I turned my back and kept playing. On the second day they put me head to head with a famous old man who had worked with everybody from Bill to Doc to Del to Ralph, and he slashed a few furious phrases at me, throwing down the gauntlet, but I took it right back to him, ripping into some Brandenburg-style counterpoint and some Baroque scales but adding my own thing to the mix, and just as it had been from the day I’d started playing, in my music was the anguished song of a headless doll and the rubato stagger of a cripple’s broken crutch and the smeared red words of a slaughtered lamb, and the old man closed his eyes and smiled and inclined his head. When I left that place the day after the festival, I struck my tent and carted my cooler and fold-up camp chair across a field strewn with every manner of dross: fastfood Styrofoam and wet pizza boxes, condoms and tampons and a backpack of disposable diapers, a shredded blue tarp torn by the wind, white and black bags of spilled trash, clumps of dogshit, about a thousand crumpled cans. Dark men moved through the debris, stabbing it with sticks. I picked up a sun-bleached Polaroid from a clump of weeds and stared at the image: a woman neither young nor old, hair falling over her fading face.

Luke Whisnant’s novel Watching TV With the Red Chinese was made into an independent film in 2011; he is also the author of the story collection Down in the Flood, and two poetry chapbooks, Street and Above Floodstage: A Narrative Poem. His work been published in Esquire, Arts & Letters, Poetry East, American Short Fiction, Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, and many others, and three of his stories have been reprinted in New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best. He teaches creative writing at East Carolina University, where he also edits Tar River Poetry.

Editors’ Notes (Posit 5)


Welcome to Posit 5!

In this issue we are proud to feature literary and visual work by many rising, as well as gloriously risen, stars. As ever, we offer a range of literary aesthetics and approaches, from excerpted book-length projects by Anne Waldman and Pamela Lawton, Jane Lewty, and Deborah Poe, to short fiction by Luke Whisnant. This issue also showcases the poetic potential of the long prose line, put to innovative and distinctive use by Stephanie Anderson, Rob Cook, Kristina Marie Darling, Vanessa Couto Johnson, Bobbi Lurie, and Zach Savich.

We hope you enjoy:

Stephanie Anderson’s delightfully surreal and surprising Ditties, in which “everyone sits in the yo-yo park, staring at the buds,” and we are playfully invited to “look up the appendix” but warned not to “ride in the wrong direction”;

Marcia Arrieta’s gossamer constructions, at once contemplative, startling, and forlorn, in which “everything is dreadfully calm,” “deer come and graze on [her] bed,” and the narrator “often feel like an orphan”;

Rob Cook’s somber, foreboding poems in which he informs us of “the screams where I went / looking / for the clothes / my mother wore”;

Kristina Marie Darling’s wittily slant re-imaginings of nostalgic iconographies of femininity, charting their magical courses “from Iceland to Finland to anxious”;

Vanessa Couto Johnson’s wise wordplay delivered via statements that “think with the delicate,” awakening us to the mystery and ambiguity of our own existence, in which “the heart is not a pound but an apothecary dispensing needs”;

Jane Lewty’s “Spatio-Temporal [Re]Mix” of aural and visual referents amalgamated with precision and care into poems of musicality and provocative design, resonant with “a strange elation,/the skitter guilt of/achievement”;

Bobbi Lurie’s dense and powerful evocations of strength in the face of pain, shunning what is “fake as plastic shrubs” to reveal “how much the pursued is pursuant upon/a clause in the material fabric of a lie” with “the skill to slice whatever needs to”;

Nils Michals’ prose poems, teasing us with the contents of boxes: “an entire forest, petrified white, whereby the occasional breeze stirs the crowns” and something “unclaimed . . . is gifted to the Church in the name of a holy work that shall be unnamed”;

Deborah Poe’s quiet, serene “prouns:” elegant transformations of space to states of being we “don’t have to understand” although we are led to consider “[w]hat is lost when you ask why,” and assured that we “don’t have to connect dirt to language, But the histories cave right there”;

Zach Savich’s spare, starkly simple nuggets of imagist magic, demonstrating that “the things I like are the things that happen,” in other words, why “pleasure educates”;

Anne Waldman and Pamela Lawton’s feminist appropriation of classical oral tradition in which “women’s work is never shunned” and “the skies [keep] circling the/liberated hearth” where the female body is sung by its self and she/we can feel genuinely “welcome to the symposium”;

and Luke Whisnant’s post-apocalyptic flash fiction about a mandolin virtuoso in whose “music [resides] the anguished song of a headless doll and the rubato stagger of a cripple’s broken crutch.”

Thank you for reading!
Susan Lewis and Bernd Sauermann


Welcome to the visual art of Posit 5!

Made from found and fabricated objects, Mari Andrews’ sculptures delicately dance the line between nature and nurture, form and object. Each piece suggests a multitude of possible references. At once open-ended and concrete, her works are bits of sculptural poetry.

Kevin Brisco’s series “Build” presents a world of young men at work with muscular energy, both literally and imagistically. The raw materials that his images are painted on – wood, tape, and sheetrock – interact with the subject matter in a way that comments on the process and the product of a creative life.

The fact that Marcus Leatherdale uses the English colonial name for the Indian sub-continent, “Bharat,” in the title of this stunning photographic essay gives more than a clue as to its intent. This reference to India’s past jives perfectly with these elegant and haunting portraits of his friends and neighbors, imbued as they are with such a feeling of timeless nostalgia.

Oriane Stender’s work plays with the imagery and the objects of our material world. Using US currency and found paper, she sews, weaves, and paints these sly commentaries on the cultural interplay of commerce and art, image and meaning.

And finally, the video artworks by Tim Tate, elegantly framed in handmade glass, conjure the bits and pieces of half-remembered dreams. Their inhabitants share a moment with us and then, poof — they’re gone.

I hope you enjoy!
Melissa Stern