stolen continent

The stolen continent, in the center of the map
Now that we have destroyed it, can we give it back?
You heft your bag, wish you could flag a taxi cab
It's not so, not so bad, but man, does it make you mad
We solved these problems all before, or so it had seemed
History's just a window glimpsed in a dimming screen
We whisper, never again, but there was so much of it
Will it chase your touch? Will it rise from the place your fingers split?
Crave isolation, tape each wintry window shut
And praise stagnation until your shook hands spill the cup
Can there ever be months or years of a blissful, safe routine
Or must we never let our sharp edges grow less keen?
Waste not, want not: desolate homelands fill each shelf
What you pay for, say, what you bought, may as well have done yourself
That apartment you can't afford is built on a pauper's grave
And your sleek new outfit reeks with the stitched-in sweat of slaves
How can you carve out rot when the tools you've got are smeared
With the blood on the hands that made them, marinaded for years
Where there is oxygen, there's fire, though it burns us slow
When every inch of soil is ash - tell me where we'll go
This is the old world now: not even the lies are new
All the truth I know is I don't know what I have got to do

Trust and the Other: A review of "The Occidental Bride" by Bee Sriduangkaew

Warning: Many spoilers. If you haven't yet had the pleasure, I encourage you to encounter this plot in its original habitat at

Having read a few of Bee's stories, I am at last moved to review one, in part because its love interest is a character with whom I find it easy to identify. There is a selfishness in this, but at present the only thing I know how to do with that fact is to acknowledge its place in my motivation and move on.

The heroines of those of Bee's stories I've read so far have been (with allowance for space travel) southeast Asian lesbians whose choices are constrained by vast, impersonal systems of authority, striving to navigate relationships of authentic trust in the aftermath of war. She anchors their lives in richly detailed environments which answer to their own narrative histories. Though each storyverse is fascinating in its own right, the inner experiences of the protagonist are always the driving force. Instead of walking us through familiar plot tropes which dictate what a character of a given "type" should do, Bee deftly creates a world which presses in upon a character, who then reveals her individuality in discovering what she must do.

The titular character of this story is a cyberpunk twist on the concept of a "mail order bride". The protagonist, Heilui, agrees to marry a woman she has never met as part of a plea bargain to expunge her own record. Heilui had previously become involved with a woman who, unknown to her at the time, was associated with terrorists, and as a result fell under suspicion of being a political dissident herself. Heilui's new bride, Kerttu, was conscripted by the same terrorists to design the very weapons which destroyed the never-named, now uninhabitable continent of Europe."Kerttu" might be an Easternized pronunciation of the German name "Gertrude" which means "strong spear" - an apt name for a person whose most notable achievement is the perpetration of mass murder.

Thus, though the basis of their relationship is transactional, it is born out of necessity rather than whim. Heilui is faced with a Devil's bargain. She can either accept this dictation of her personal life, or be forever hounded by official censure because of actions in which she played no part. Yet she recognizes that Kerrtu exists under similar, even more draconian constraint. Though factually a war criminal because of the weapons she helped to create, Kerttu had been purchased as a child and brought up by a ruthless organization for the express purpose of weapons design. The characters discuss, late in the story, what might happen if they severed their own relationship; Kerttu would return to the Institute which, so to speak, rehabilitated her, and be assigned to another spouse. In other words, she is serving a life sentence of marital servitude without possibility of parole. Kerttu reveals early on that although she herself had not, many others in her position attempted suicide but were not permitted to succeed.

Although Heilui's family is not aware of her bride's criminal past, they are familiar with the organization which provides exotic occidental spouses to the discerning customer. In ways large and small, the story takes the everyday facts of othering experienced by a marginalized person and demonstrates how they would play out in this context. Heilui, as the spouse who belongs in her family, must mediate each facet of Kerttu's otherness. She must answer for the strangeness of her bride's pale skin, her accent, her table manners, at one point saying in as many words; "She's not a that, Mother." All of these characteristics are met with disapproval not because the foreign woman performs poorly, but because of the underlying fact of her foreignness. Though couched in outward politeness, this othering reflects the reality of 'minority respectability' everywhere: an elaborate farce in which perfection itself is the only forgivable form of failure. Kerttu is not truly a participant in this process. Instead, its continuation reifies the family's unwillingness to accept her as part of themselves.

Heilui is thus expected by her family to regard her bride as a novelty, an object filling in the functions of a spouse but intrinsically unsuited to do so. She was similarly commanded by her government to take Kerttu, dangerous war criminal, into her life as a patriotic sacrifice to preserve the integrity of her own citizenship. Her personal desire is to reject both sets of instructions entirely. Heilui wants to connect with her wife as a human being. Unfortunately, the demands of the roles in which their world has cast them make that next to impossible. The strategy Heilui employs to circumvent these expectations is twofold.

First, she gifts Kerttu a computer simulation which virtually recreates her lost homeland. This simulation becomes the primary place the foreign woman chooses to spend her time, when she can. Within it, both women are able to converse with one another more freely than they normally do face-to-face. By granting active existence to this aspect of her wife's identity, Heilui aims to supplant the destruction of othering with tangible understanding and respect. The measure of her success is that it becomes possible for the women to relate, within the simulation at least, as peers. Kerttu's first set of owners made her complicit in the physical destruction of her homeland. The constraints of arranged marriage, as their society dictates, would have required her to complete its cultural destruction as well. Only Heilui's unlooked-for compassion makes it possible for Kerttu to avoid that fate.

Second, she both actively and passively refuses to assert personal ownership of, or direction over, Kerttu's life and choices. She refrains from assigning her bride any duties. She invites her to choose her own clothes - a form of self-expression, and thus potential vulnerability, the foreign woman adroitly minimizes by choosing black, to signify mourning for her many losses. Heilui does not pass on her family's criticisms to her wife. On the contrary, Heilui both shields her and offers reassurance that her family elders are hard to please - which amounts to encouraging Kerttu to think of the two of them as being on the same side. She politely, but firmly and on more than one occasion, refuses Kerttu's offers to please her sexually. Each time Kerttu makes this offer, she does so explicitly in the context of a transactional relationship, as a service to which Heilui is entitled as her owner. When Kerttu asks with subtly apparent dismay if Heilui has rejected her intimate services from lack of attraction, we see for the first time that the desire for a genuine romantic relationship is mutual. Heilui offers a compromise: that they share a bed without sexual contact. Kerttu's expression grows cold, reminding her wife of a predatory mythical creature, when she briefly fears that this means Heilui is not romantically interested in her - that she only wants to embrace "like sisters". But here, and every turn, Heilui is careful to make it clear that she does not want to reject Kerttu herself, that she does indeed want to be her wife. She merely refuses to define their relationship in terms of the power imbalance which frames every interaction as an entitlement of Heilui's ownership rather than a gift of her bride's free will.

Kerttu's continued political entanglement becomes clear as the story goes on. As one of the few surviving members of the group which destroyed Europe, she is perfect bait to draw out a high-profile target. She asks Heilui for permission to explore the city on her own, and is quickly contacted by one of the terrorists with whom she had previously been associated. Heilui feels conflicted about stalking her wife, yet because it is the fulfillment of the government's intention in arranging their marriage, she doesn't really have a choice. In this, uniquely, Kerttu does have a choice. During a conversation which Heilui overhears, Kerttu's former associate confirms that he has the ability to free her from the tracking and behavioral implants binding her to the service of the Institute which arranged her marriage. He presents her, in effect, with her own Devil's bargain. She can either remain in relative physical comfort, confined by the necessities of marriage and assimilation, or reach for the dubious freedom of life as a fugitive.

Later, Kerttu describes her decision in terms of the kind of life she would have led, but as I read it, the more fundamental question was, under whose authority does she prefer to live? Her unnamed former co-conspirator offers only a simulacrum of freedom. He originates from her homeland and could break her out of an imprisoning marriage - a narrative convention all too familiar to readers of Western romantic stories. But what he and his group had done with her life, when they had power over it, was to use her for their own destructive ends. By contrast Heilui, who can appreciate Europe itself only indirectly through a simulation, has steadfastly presented Kerttu with the opportunity to define herself and to desire for herself, as much as is possible within the confines of their shared existence.

It is through this expression of love - her absolute refusal to wield oppressive power - that Heilui wins the trust and the heart of her occidental bride. And that, to me, is what makes this story so excellent and so deeply human. The characters model a rare and precious kind of devotion, from which is it all too easy to fall short in an unjust world.

on standard candles

A "standard candle" is the twin supernova that marks the death of a certain type of double star system. Its uniform brightness allows astronomers to measure time and distance.

What is the standard candle of a life?
a predatory action so banal
it measures us, as drum thuds under fife
so we must speak with it to speak at all
A parent passed - a lover out of touch
one last fight cut between us, jagged, sears
fortunate I have only hurt so much;
there's so much heartache I have yet to fear
A child who dies, whose parent must yet live
a city razed, never to be rebuilt
a trust betrayed, that no one can forgive
hearts too far gone to even measure guilt -
I cannot ink the map of her or him
on whom my sorrow sheds a light so dim

sola orbit

Inspired in part by the unlikely but wonderfully fruitful friendship between Edmond Halley and Sir Isaac Newton.

The only substance in the world is fire
and flecks of ash, slow-drifting down the draft
the exhalation of a god Who laughed
a burning art that sparked its heart's desire
a warmth that gathers all things in its grasp,
for which the shape of space itself makes room
it breathes in; every atom it consumes
cracks open with a last excited gasp
so every man and woman is a star
aflame within with outward loves and pains
in hidden realms too precious to defend
from friends who ask - oh, gently! - where you are
only your path across the dark explains
what bright Sun's at your destination's end


All things are held together in the dark
with desperation and a twist of wire.
Why fix it till it's actually on fire,
or breaks in ways that leave no outward mark?
A thirsty dog drinks water, splashing loud;
devices cry for power till they die;
a tree's roots shrug through concrete streets, and I
hunt for familiar faces in the crowd.
All souls are bound together - but by what?
The whispered shout, I AM, within the skull?
Some secret note, impossible to know,
hummed in blind bone - warm, twisting through the gut?
My heart still hungers, though my belly's full,
for that ghost smile, before you say "hello."

to you

Look here:
there's iron in your veins,
trains in your blood,
the hearts of burnt-out stars
that thundered in the dark ten billion years,

here, still -
your heart that beats, unbeaten, still.

This treasure cost your mothers, fathers, tons -
their innocence;
your innocence,
their will.

we turn our faces each from each,
each child of dust holds heaven in its hands
and stands

a life spat in the cold night's empty eye
one spark struck, deep in crushing dust
ignites a sun

and one lit flame makes death itself untrue
and every movement pierces stillness through
the cosmos melts down, and is forged anew

in you

when God drew breath (tsimtsum pantoum)

Before He spoke the word that gave world form
The God of gods drew in a deep, slow breath
Close to His heart, held fast and vastly warm,
A fresh-torn wound's infinite tenderness

The God of gods drew in a deep, slow breath
And spoke. Inferno bloomed where there was night
A fresh-torn wound's infinite tenderness
Aflame with what was, suddenly, called Light

And spoke inferno, bloomed where there was night
A Love supreme must damn as well as bless
Aflame with what was suddenly called: Light
Some souls fled, their own holy Names unguessed

A Love supreme must damn as well as bless
Love won't forget. To that abyss of loss
Some souls fled their own holy Names, unguessed,
By any, save the One who bore the cross

Love won't forget. To that abyss of loss,
He carried fire legitimately His.
By any, save the One who bore the cross
A whispered, "let it be" does not mean, IS

His whispered "let it be" is all there is;
Close to His heart, held fast and vastly warm,
He carried fire, legitimately His
Before He spoke the word that gave world form.


Tell pleasing lies, two decades out of date.
He lied about you: I should pat your hand
And sadly say I understood too late.

Long gone fears growl, howl, batter at the gate,
Summoned, undead, like bones from barren land;
Tell pleasing lies, two decades out of date.

No feelings now - let faith and judgment wait
For documents and witnesses. Demand,
O heart, a beast this meat will never sate.

Cut, gut me, heap me on your empty plate.
Win in the end, as you had always planned.
Tell pleasing lies, two decades out of date.

No wild hope, no, nor noble-minded trait
Sinks tales like yours neck-deep in desert sand.
O heart! A beast this meat will never sate.

And you, my mother, could have been so great.
Here's cursed forgiveness you won't understand.
Tell pleasing lies two decades out of date,
O heart - a beast this meat will never sate.

in praise of weight

"there are possibly 2 ½ or impossibly 3 individuals every several fat thousand years" ~ e.e. cummings fat thousand years, a rich millennium, a pendulum swung heavy, regal, slow a fruit so ripe its flesh dents under thumb when plucked from branches laden, angled low let time be fat, and men and women ample let never belly sour, hungry for hope let us live large, and make a great example let our grand dances avalanche downslope our words have weight; our actions can make matter of airy thought and insubstantial dream life is a feast, heaped like a groaning platter made succulent with butter, oil and cream believe, dear heart – they only do you damage who try to trim you down until you vanish

brawl scrawl

How doth the frimbling donnybrook bisect a torrid flan Then find a winding tumbleweed to drape its scrapes upon? The nether weather's never clear enough to glimpse the mist Betwixt the fixtures' baffled laughters, fearful of a twist. Just listen. Welters melt, and gilded geldings pine for mates. Their late embraces face the svelte erasure of the dates When shoes wear feet, and dews compete to drench the desert's jowls. Its muffled scuffle rips its lips free of their grip - and howls. Horrendous mendicants relax. Though taxed until they bruise, They'll spin thin sinews into strings that other things can use. Heaped deep in narrow barrows that depend upon red wheels, The toil they spend won't end until the oil defeats the squeal. Oh, never doubt that out's a smaller side of wall than in. Only a strong belong lets more than trifling life begin. Let conflagrations sizzle, drizzle overmatching blaze, And shed predation for the lore of one who humbly prays.


Life imitates art imitating life, informed by forms assembled in response to mythic heroes, petty childhood taunts. An empty canvas duels a palette knife; keys under fingers grapple, twist and slip. A thought - the ball in play that arcs to earth, the soap dropped in the bath - well, is it worth the crush of bodies or the long, cold drip? Yet long before they tell you where the zone lies at the end of long green fields, you know the screen, the cloudy waters are a veil dividing you from what you've always known: that victory is not a place you go but what stays locked inside you if you fail.

Brainwashing 101

Brainwashing 101 (Yesterday I got into an interesting debate on Twitter around the notion of reciting the Pledge of Allegiance at government meetings. My assertion was that the flag and the pledge are, to a certain extent, arbitrary symbols. They stand for America, but the sense in which they do so is highly individual. Do they stand for America as we currently are? the whole sum of our history? or the idealized dream of what I hope for us to be? The effect is different based on an individual's understanding. My esteemed fellow ponderer insisted that any rote recitation is, primarily and inescapably, an instrument used to reinforce unthinking obedience to authority. As such, they argued that mandatory recitation was archaic and a form of brainwashing. That particular discussion is over, but it inspired me today to describe in detail what brainwashing entails, as I understand it, in case I ever find myself in another situation where I wish to clarify the point.) Brainwashing (dictionary definition: is systematically manipulating someone to change their attitudes and beliefs. Torture can be part of it, especially when gov'ts or terrorist groups brainwash, but I'm expressly not including torture in the following comments as I don't know anything meaningful about its use. Before brainwashing as such can take effect it's necessary to lay a foundation of distrust in own judgments & punishment for wrong thought. Punishment for wrong thought must be reflexive, self-inflicted, tied to whatever is most precious: affection, sense of belonging, self-love. Once belief that "my disagreement w authority X is my filth & unworth as a being" is really, truly solid, then brainwashing begins in earnest. Each individual dwells inside their own personality. Can touch, and potentially alter, any system. Systems must be anchored or erode in time. That is why self-condemnation must come first, to create a protective shell of fear and loathing around systems which brainwashing will install. Similarly, the acquisition of new knowledge must be hedged with protective rejection reflexes. Natural fear of anything strange exaggerated. Everything flows to this anchor: reject and condemn self. Elevate authority X. Not over self but over other loves, other sources of identity. Identity rests in self but actually isn't sourced there. The need to have permission of authority for self-judgments and new perceptions to be valid comes first. Directly founded upon this, love must be constrained. The fountainhead of all motivation is love; the more you love, the more your identity has power. Love powers the personality as sunlight powers the growth of plants. Thus all love must route through authority, to concentrate that power. Not that all love must be directed towards authority- this limits perception to the point where daily functionality is compromised and tends to increase the likelihood of counterproductive and/or self-destructive behavior. But authority must condone all emotion, especially affection or approval- the motive for these experiences must factually originate within the self, but self cannot be perceived as their source. No valid perceptions, judgments, actions or experiences can originate in self. Authority must confer validity and worth after the fact. If this validation is withheld, the experience of individual identity can be largely negated. Authority stands ever between self and the world. Without at least an abstract sense of authority's approval, to enjoy a sunset, choose a soda flavor, (yikes!) read a book should terrify. The universe is inherently, aggressively hostile. However this hostility is justified. Self is 100% blameworthy, unless authority intervenes. Once this sense of an inimical universe lightly held at bay by authority's whim is solid, the other can be defined. The other is optional, but the fear and self-disgust which hide authority's control of decision-making from any conscious examination should be projected outward. Ideally equating "punishment for wrong thought" with the other is so deeply ingrained that the worthlessness of self ceases to be perceived. This second, outer layer of emotional pain reiterates and mirrors the inner, functional foundation of self-rejection. It further protects authority's control from examination. Externalizing hate and wrongness onto the other provides partial, symptomatic relief from the painful experience of self-rejection. The destruction of the image of the other, and the myth of the other as the source of unworthiness, would result in self experiencing the full weight of that continuous inner negation and will thus be avoided. To recap: 1. self worthless, authority confers worth 2. new data bad 3. no unauthorized love 4. universe hostile 5. project self-hate onto other When these systems are properly installed the personality will perceive them to be self-generated. All personality systems must be perceived as self-generated or else their function will be compromised. Once they are firmly in place, commands can be given. Because internal systems of authority control are presented as originating in self, commands designed for compatibility with this will have greatest effect. Commands packaged as enticements, as suggestions, as mock "problems" which can be easily solved by routing emotion and decision-making through the control systems are likely to be effective. Use simple, incomplete patterns. The mind's ability to see & complete patterns is largely pre-conscious: consciousness is only activated after. This is desirable. Under all circumstances minimize, deride, punish and disincentivize conscious thought.

poem for "Unicorns Are Jerks"

The 'title' of each stanza is actually Theo's caption from the relevant page of her wonderful coloring book, Unicorns Are Jerks. Which you can totally buy at Though my poem is not in it, you can always do what I did and write it on the blank pages opposite. ----- Everyone thinks unicorns are pure and magical, but really they're jerks. This sober fact I must attest: a Unicorn's amusement's best described as "Someone else, annoyed." (The German word is Schadenfreude.) Unicorns use up all of your shampoo. That special soap for which you saved a Unicorn will use (the knave!), then ask you, sniffing, if you've seen the mess they guess is yours to clean. Unicorns hog your fries. "Let's get some lunch!" say Unicorns. Once you arrive, they could have sworn it was your plan to take them there and order fries you meant to "share." Unicorns borrow your clothes without permission and stretch them out. They "borrow" only what is new - your favorites, that look best on you if Unicorns are left alone five minutes while you're on the phone! Unicorns judge you for your taste in music. "Oh, you like them?" they say with scorn - no matter what! A Unicorn will criticize each song they wrote not having heard a single note. Unicorns dine and dash. They wave around a messy hoof and drive the waitstaff through the roof, demanding everything "just so" but then don't pay before they go! Unicorns talk and text in movie theaters. A Unicorn will not sit through to watch the plot unfold (like you). They'll talk out loud, and spoil with glee the details from IMDB. Unicorns don't replace the toilet paper roll. How can they wipe, with hooves? Who knows? The tissue's used up when they go. Those Unicorns leave in a rush, don't light a match - or even flush. Unicorns sing breakup songs around you when you've just been dumped. When your whole world has been squished flat a Unicorn's amused by that. A friend would tell you grief can't last, not sing sad songs to mock your past. Unicorns fart in elevators. On purpose. They'll use their horn to block the door, tromp on your two feet with their four, flick their bright tail with grace and art and then let loose a monstrous fart. Unicorns monopolize the ball pit and don't let anyone else in. A ball pit's made to play and share. But when some Unicorns are there their pointy horns and rowdy play mean we're more wise to stay away. Unicorns never listen. They never try to make amends. Instead, a Unicorn pretends you pointing out the things they've done is "drama" you made up for fun. Unicorns delete your music collection and replace it with their own audio memoirs. They mess with files on your device without permission (that's not nice!), delete your stuff, and when they're done behave as if you owe them one. Unicorns eat your leftovers. YOU WERE SAVING THAT! Although the fridge is full of treats, of course the magic horse just eats that special thing you really want, bought from your favorite restaurant. Unicorns spend the whole trip sulking because you wouldn't let them drive. Since teleporting magically is hard, and gas YOU burn is free They'll beg for rides to far and near then pout when you won't let them steer. Unicorns are the worst house guests, and they never leave. They ask to crash for "just one night" but never leave without a fight, nor ever lift a hoof to clean though last week's lunch is turning green. When you point out that unicorns are being jerks, they act like YOU'RE the jerk. Confronted with their own "horse play" a Unicorn will always say you're making a big, stupid deal of something that's not even real. Don't be a unicorn. Even unicorns don't appreciate it. These magic horses' uncool ways can leave you steaming mad for days. They may look nice- but they're no fun to hang around. So don't be one.

no chore

the mess you left me yesterday is in my way. the cold floor slaps sleep-tender feet I'm up, for if we eat is mine to say. when I shake you awake, I pray the day we face will end with me held in your arms again. today's mess may be mine. I mean, only the dead are clean. life gives the soul indignant needs: eat, shit. drink, bleed. this mess does prove we live - entangled, as we move in sheets and fates. no chore, but love, to smooth them out once more.