It was easy to break her marinating heart on a Friday night when she was sat at the candle-lit kitchen table, chain-smoking and listening to Janis Joplin, or The Eagles, or Rod Stewart; sometimes I didn’t, but most times I did because the tone of my voice, or the choice of my words, or the sound of my lungs breathing poisonous air reminded her of my dad. She’d always taught me to be honest, but never liked it when I was honest in the dim firelight encircled by her blackness. The blackness was viscous like the bile she’d vomit after everything else had come up at 3 a.m.
I found her once in the bathroom when I was fourteen years old, passed out in a pool of rejected alcohol, and I left her there, half-hoping she’d asphyxiate. I packed a duffel bag that late afternoon, and ran away with my best friend. We were only gone a few hours; I was relieved to come home and find my mother alive in her bed, heavily asleep.
I can’t believe I’d left my sister. I don’t recall the specifics of that day, but shit must have been head deep, because I cannot imagine abandoning Tara.
Tara. I’ve always looked after her, but now that our mother is gone, the responsibility I feel is heavier than ever. Taking care of my sister is something that’s always been expected of me. I don’t mean like, “hold her hand on your way to school.” I mean legit parenting. But we’re both adults, so that makes the weight all the more cumbersome. And Tara, she’s a fierce woman. She doesn’t need me to parent her, nor does she want me to. But habits are called habits for good reason. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to relinquish the charge of looking after my sister.
Even though I’m tired.
I’m so fucking tired.
My mother was tired when she died. However, I don’t think she was so tired that she was ready to go away. She’d just welcomed a new granddaughter into the world. And her oldest granddaughter is getting married this summer. My mother was tired, but she was also looking forward to so much. I was looking forward to so much; over the past couple of years, she and I had made huge steps towards healing our relationship. She’d cut down significantly on her drinking, and I’d begun to see more of the mother I knew before alcoholism took hold of her. So now, I just feel fucking robbed.
Two nights ago, I was cooking dinner, and thinking of my mother. I had to stop what I was doing, I was so overcome. I went into my bedroom, and screamed until my throat went hoarse.
Then I threw up blackness all over the bed.
© Kindra M. Austin
Cover Design by Allane Sinclair
TWELVE will be released December 10, 2018
From a young age I recognized something irreplaceable about the kind of writing that wasn’t neatly packaged into a ‘eat me now’ bite. Twelve isn’t a genre, it’s a diary that has come alive. I feel as if I shouldn’t be reading it because it’s like standing in a bathroom with someone throwing up, it’s feels wrong and addictive and horrifying and devastating and all the images Austin conveys burn into my retina and remain there, shocking, uncompromising and vivid. But Austin couldn’t ever look away, so neither can we. Austin can’t wake up tomorrow and call her mom, neither should we deny the hideous simplicity and infinite complexity of finding out the woman who gave you life no longer exists.
If I didn’t know Kindra Austin, I’d want to know her, it’s that simple. Her truth, the unashamed bright well written light on her pain, it makes you want to get to know her, because she’s an articulate, fierce real being and most things are not and she knows it; “our lives a fucking flip-book filled with phony animation, as / though we’ve never been anything more than a / pair of paper dolls pretending to breathe.” (Meditation). Austin isn’t going to play the game, she can’t be anything but herself, take it or leave it. I suspect most people would want a lot more not less; “I’m sorry I think / when I drink / too much.” (Sorry I’m A Bitch)
At the same time, society is afraid to ‘go there’ when it comes to exhibiting sadness and admitting how you really feel rather than the social media version. A very cruel person may say, those who are depressed are going to be attracted to sad works because it validates their feelings and they’re not as alone. There is truth to that, but it’s discounting the value of sadness as a provoker of art forms. ““I love you. I miss you so much, Mom.” I knew it was you. And I knew you were dead. / I know you are dead. / There was a long, crackling silence that made my brain itch. / Then you said, “I think of you all the time.” (A Peculiar Dream I Had). I didn’t even know I was crying reading Twelve until the wetness of my tears began to soak through my clothes.
By artform, I refer to the oft painful pleasure the reader gets in reading something poignant and real, rather than manufactured and glossy. Perhaps it’s the difference between those who revere artificiality and pretention and those who fall in love with someone whose eyes are burning as they stand in front of you showing you the guts that enable them able to go on, even as you can’t imagine how they can. “Mother, what am I supposed to do? I’m so fucking tired of writing about you. / But who am I, if not a writer?” (Your Absence Is a Burglar). This poem alone should win poetry awards, not only for the title, which says everything, but the renting devastation of its truths. Throughout, you get the sense you are witnessing something as evocative and brutal as Joan Didion’s classic; The Year of Magical Thinking.
Nothing I write will really do justice to this collection because it’s not about doing justice, it’s about witnessing the grief and survival and healing of a woman who is stronger than she’d even realized she was, and at the same time, a person who isn’t afraid to be weak or expose the fuck-you’s and holes in her soul. “We had you pushed into the furnace;/ spoiling organs and / leaking skin were / burned away. / Your pulverized bones / resemble beach sand in / Tawas, / fittingly.” (The Color of Beach Sand)
My favorite novels tend to be those with a good deal of tragedy, there is something life affirming in getting to know characters who struggle and don’t have it easy. As a writer, Austin has had her fair share of intense darkness and instead of obscuring her voice it’s just added to it. “I’ve decided that / forgiving trespasses does not heal me. / Leave the forgiving to God. / Some things are simply / unforgivable.” (Last Judgement). How can I as a reviewer really ‘review’ Austin’s experience of losing her mother and all the horror that goes with that? It seems insulting to even review this book for that reason. But because it is so important to read, I must find a way to convey why most people should read it.
That is the gift of someone meant to write rather than someone who simply writes for therapy or catharsis. “Mother’s a full-time drunk, and you / only got a part-time daddy. / Good luck, baby;” (Viscera in Danger (revamp). This isn’t a grown child crying over alcoholic parent, losing a mother, bringing up a sister, reconciling her own family, this is a life reaching for love despite having been hurt so badly it feels impossible to want anything. Austin is above all else, a natural writer, someone who probably came out of the womb with ideas for a book. Her infectious energy is unabated by the grief of losing her mother, because she is able to voice those experiences and write them out, rather than letting them destroy her and they are both humorous, hideous and a reality we rarely permit others to view; “mourning after reflection—in the fingerprinted glass. / My cheeks are hollow / but my gut is bloated / from too much diet soda (I’m watching my figure) and vodka.” (At the Diary Case)
If you think this is no great thing, I can attest that it is. Usually grief leaves you wordless, numb, unable to pick up where you left off. To be able to turn grief into art, that’s the sweet spot that few artists ever attain. It separates the wheat from the chaff and in this case, produces unforgettable, rich and crushingly painful poems and prose, both haunting and beautiful in their agonies. “I see your name card. Your plate has been placed upside down, and your napkin, folded, at the left. There are no utensils, or a chalice set for you.” (Dead Mothers Don’t Dine)
Personally, I want what I read to haunt me, to stay with me, to alter me. I want the author to have the guts to climb out of their anonymity and offer themselves to the reader. Too often these days we read safe, careful, highly edited prosaic poetry and prose that has been sanitized by MFA programs and has completely lost the original thunder of its origins. If you read a poem by Austin you know it’s by her. In a world deluged by would-be writers and frantic Instagram poets, it’s easy to get really tired of reading others feelings and they all merge together. To pick someone out of the crowd just by the timber, intelligence and reflection of their voice, that means they are crafting words into roads and pushing us down them.
Some happiness addicts may not appreciate this book because I guarantee there will be times you will be grieving right alongside Austin. I say to this, we should not look away, we should own the reality of grief and see within it, the truth and experience of its piece of us. Austin isn’t a depressing writer, she’s a truth teller and as such, she sits among the greats who also wrote their truths unapologetically.
It should be mentioned Austin is also wicked clever and at times you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. I particularly related to An Emotionless Affair because it’s damn smart, rude and absolutely accurate. For anyone who has gone through the psych-route or been a therapist, you can hear those truisms screaming; “It’s an emotionless affair, the goings-on between patient and psychiatrist.” Austin cuts to the center of truth like a bad-mouthed surgeon who reads 17th century gothic classics on weekends.
Whether you have lost a loved one, been abandoned by your mother, had an alcoholic in the family or not, you cannot be senseless to the yearning humanity of these poems; “I’ll fall asleep tonight by the light of the lava lamp / you gave me last year. / When I was thirty-eight, and/ you were alive.” (Thirty-Nine) and if you do, well then, your diagnosis as sociopath is confirmed, for there is everything we are in these words and it’s impossible to be unchanged witnessing these 12 months; “Old age is a fable; / I was forced to stop counting at 58. / Today, you’re supposed to be 59, / but instead you’re fucking zero.” (Zero).
How do we find something different within poetry today that isn’t affected and trite? People are becoming more pretentious whilst proclaiming greater honesty, the more we share the less we are ourselves. Austin has her finger on the trigger when it comes to shaving the irrelevant and getting to the point. “You know what I think? I think forgiveness is infinitely intermittent, and real acceptance is bullshit.” (Intermittent Bullshit). If you’re tired of reading Self-Help books that promote forgiveness and clean, easy recovery, then take a leaf out of someone who has actually been there and not with bleach and plastic gloves on. I’d quote nearly every poem in this book to illustrate reasons why it has to exist, but that would spoil so much and I’d rather you discovered Kindra Austin’s work for yourself.
And then there’s this; “There are 300 seconds in 5 / fucking minutes, and / 3,600 seconds in 1 hour, / which means there are 86,400 seconds in 24 hours, / or 1,440 minutes in a goddamned day. / All of that translates to a lot of fucking time spent forgetting to remember you’re dead.” (Never Any Good at Math). I’ve reviewed a lot of people’s work but I don’t want to say anything more here. I just want you to read Kindra Austin’s book, Twelve.
I am out.
This little game Vic and Syd have concocted, in which we terrorize people and weaponize pigmentation, is not something I’m willing to partake in any longer.
At least, that’s what I assure myself approaching the turn from the Boulevard onto Lord Street, my car groaning every step of the way.
Come on baby, you got this, I tell her, praying I won’t need a tow truck in the next 24 hours. Or a casket.
The lights are on in the glass windows that run around the building beneath the roof’s trim, but the air is quieter, and detrimentally so.
I am out, I remind myself, consequences be damned. If they can’t accept that fact without putting a bullet in me, I’ll be dead. If they can, I get to walk away.
Inside the warehouse, the stage has been replaced with a set of long folding tables and hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of computer equipment. Several men of varying roughness, age and size talk amongst themselves in groups. A short, balding man in a checkered shirt with wiry spectacles and a bad limp floats between groups, asking questions in a hushed voice, getting his answer.
In a far corner, I recognize my friends Larry and Barney from the night before, playing a game of cards and looking bored and resentful.
In the middle of it all, naturally, is Vic. His back to me, calm still radiates from him, as he observes his operation for signs of weakness. The man in the checkered shirt limps over to him and whispers something in Vic’s ear.
The man sees me, and we lock eyes over Vic’s shoulder. He is gaunt and wiry, his lips pale and teeth behind them stunted and stained. He squints, piercing my whole existence with his stare. He talks fast but too low for me to hear. I can only tell when his expression changes that he’s alerted his boss to my intrusion.
Vic turns to face me. Back in his suit, he has become a different person from the one that had me deliver drugs only yesterday afternoon.
“Peter!” he exclaims, approaching me with a huge grin on his face. He enthusiastically shakes my hand. “So glad you made it.”
He wraps his arm around my shoulder and guides me toward the tables and his new friends. Larry and I share a gaze. He nods like we’ve known each other for years. Barney and I share a similar moment.
“Gentlemen,” Vic says to the others, “I’d like you to meet a friend of mine. This is Peter York, and he will be working with us indefinitely.”
Don’t speak for me yet, Viktor Quinn.
“My friends,” he says, “the future is bright. For years, we have heard about recessions being the reasons we can’t progress. Failed bipartisanship is the logic behind all the moral larceny we endure, apparently. We know what it really is, don’t we?” He pauses, but knows we won’t steal the revelation from him.
Except for Larry, who does.
“Women!” he guffaws, looking at Barney who vigorously shakes his head in return, trying to escape immediate association with the joke.
Vic’s cheery disposition vanishes. All eyes are on Larry, the poor bastard with a big mouth, finally realizing what poor timing the comedic gods gave him.
“The fuck did you say, Ronald?”
I liked my name for him better.
“Uh, nothing, boss.”
Vic reaches for the inside of his blazer and unholsters a silver pistol. He waves it in the air as he speaks.
“Did you come from a woman, Ronald? Do you not have a mother?”
“Sure do, boss.”
“And sisters? Do you have them? Daughter too, if I recall correctly?”
“All of the above, boss,” Larry replies.
“What about you, Andre?” Vic asks Barney. Come to think of it, he does look like an Andre. “Got kids?”
“No, sir,” Barney concedes, “Live with my old lady. She’s old, and well, I don’t get out a lot.”
“Well,” Vic says, “then I guess that decides it.” He raises his pistol and fires three rounds into Barney. One in the stomach, one in the chest, a final one in the head.
The sounds happen in quick succession. No one blinks but me, eardrums ringing. Larry, instead, screams as Barney convulses against the bullets buried in his organs, but the man dies too quick to understand. His full weight collapses to the floor where the rest of him crumples like a paper ball.
“Now,” Vic tells a sobbing Larry, “I hope that will teach you to respect women more, Ronald. Set a good example for your children going forward, or Andre here died for fuck all. Now- get this piece of shit out of here. And someone call his mother. Send her flowers, too. Poor woman has nobody left.”
My eyes can’t tear themselves from Barney’s broken form, bleeding out on the floor of a Lord Street warehouse. Television always made shootings seem so much cleaner.
“You okay?” Vic asks me. “Peter, you look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
I am rage, but have no more strength than a whisper.
“You killed him.”
He shares a look with his colleagues, who give us the room, shuffling out the red metal door in single file.
Larry drags Barney’s corpse across the floor, leaving a trail of blood in his wake. The dude is adrenaline at the moment, grunting and heaving to get as far away from here as possible, maybe to run home to his girl and hold onto her for dear life.
When the door closes behind him, Vic and I are alone. He stands with hands in his suit’s pockets, as I try to avoid meeting his dead eyes.
“I can’t do this, Viktor,” I say. The image of Barney’s life leaving him, followed by Vic holding the gun at eye level (pop, pop, pop) play in my head on an infinite loop. “This is not my fight.”
Vic smiles, as if he has both heard me and the same argument from people all his life. It all rolls off him.
“I want to show you something, Peter.” He drifts to the farthest table, where a black laptop is hooked up to a projector. “Get the lights, would you? Back wall.”
I oblige him, wishing I had traded places with Larry. Burying an overweight bodyguard in the middle of fucking nowhere seems much more bearable than this.
The projector whirs to life, lighting up a square block of light on the darkened wall. A map of the United States, devoid of state lines, drenches our faces in blue glare.
“The Internet is an amazing thing. To think that sixty years ago, the fastest way to relay information across great distances was Morse code. It took minutes to transmit a full sentence to the other side of the planet. Telephones existed, sure, but they weren’t what they are now.
“That this smorgasbord of ideas and free speech exists is an act of God, Peter. A wonder of science. That it has passed to us peasants is the seed of revolution.
“Jihad embraced it. Russia embraced it. Meanwhile, our own government seeks to curtail it at every turn. But that’s because every revolution requires a spark.”
“So if I’m reading this right, you’re going to kill people?”
Viktor laughs. “Nothing so extreme. If heads roll, it will only be because the greater good compels it. We act merely as an intermediary, Peter.”
“I still don’t understand, then.”
“Put it this way. In 1955, if someone had killed your whole family, this guy’s family and maybe some other dude’s clan- enough to force people to care about a serial killer, that is- and the government did, I don’t know, fuck all about it? That seems to be the standard reaction they have to anything, so why not?
“Let’s say…this was happening everywhere, in little towns across our great nation. Just for the sake of argument, how long do you think it would take to mobilize nationwide in 1955?”
I shrug. “Days?”
“Fucking weeks, Pete. Weeks. Communication was still in the Stone Age. It’s a wonder anything got done at all, unless you were Uncle Sam himself.”
“Now you’re the one speaking Morse Code, Vic. Can we get to whatever fucking point you have?”
Vic is pacing back and forth now. His hands have grand gestures for every grandiose statement, a unique mask to terrify me for every ounce of conviction he carries.
“We live in an age where I can tell the Internet, ‘Hey, fuckwads. These poor saps are taking your livelihood, eating up your hard-earned tax dollars and living on your food stamps. Let’s get together and show this country we don’t tolerate it!’ How long do you think it would take to get angry people into the streets?”
Viktor answers his own question.
“Seconds. Minutes. A fucking hour at most.”
“So we’re protesting, then?” I ask, trying not to look at the trail of blood by the door.
“I prefer ‘asserting our position’, personally,” Vic replies, “People are weak. They spend so much time worrying about the consequences of acting, they forget to consider the ones where they don’t act in their own best interest. And that is the definition of fallacy, Peter. There are people who would let the rapists and murderers into your house, because they think these people can be saved.”
“You know they’re not all killers and rapists,” I tell him.
“Guilt by association, Pete.”
“Vic, that would be like saying the Westboro United Church speaks for all Christians. I mean,” I say, wishing my internal dialogue was less unhinged by witnessing murder. “Protest all you want, but you’re thirty-two. I’m twenty-eight. We’ve both lived in this country long enough to know the government doesn’t serve us.”
“See,” Vic says, continuing to pace back and forth between the grey folding tables, “this is where I know you’ve misunderstood. We’re not pussy-footing outside an abortion clinic, Peter. We are manufacturing change.”
There’s that phrase again.
“Here’s what I don’t get. What I’m struggling so hard to reconcile, Vic,” I say, “What in the fucking world are you getting out of this shit? You look like an Irishman trying to be made in the mob. You have more military-grade equipment here than my crazy cousin Kirk has guns in Utah, man. I don’t see you as a politician anytime soon. So what the hell are you getting out of this?”
Viktor stops pacing, looking around his feet and then back up at me. “Do you know why Adolf Hitler was so…accepted, Peter? We glorify him as some sort of monster, but he really was a simple man. He spoke to people like you and I, the feudal servants of society who had lost everything to dynasty. They started a war, people like us waged it on their behalf. And for that, they lost everything they had.
“National identity. Their money. Standard of living. Hitler fucking took that, that fire, and carved their anger into an instrument of vengeance.”
He also murdered six million people for their ethnicity. At least, I hope Viktor can acknowledge that.
“You ask me what I want, Peter?” Vic says, lighting a cigarette from the breast pocket of his stone-coloured suit. “I am no fucking prophet. But surely, this is not what our Founding Fathers had in mind for us. To be overrun with the vermin, see our ‘Promised Land” infected? America was supposed to be our gateway of opportunity, wasn’t it? A key to prosperity. Instead, it’s become a cesspool of shit-skinned equality.”
He resumes pacing. Inhaling. Exhaling, words spewed from his mouth like smoke.
“My father, his name was Harry. He was a good man, once. But the drink got into him, and he became something else entirely. A shroud of himself. Black, like the darkest night, and yet, with just enough light left to want to save him.”
Exhale, waxing monoxide.
“That man took every sense of purpose from me, except making sure he didn’t kill my mother. And when he died, ironically, I felt more lost than ever. In and out of prison, stealing anything that wasn’t nailed down.
“My point is, Peter. I finally have a purpose. I speak the words that so many want to say themselves, but for whatever reason, haven’t. Because the other side? They want us all to have thin skin like them and bow before these third world peasants? You call them liberals. I call them insects; a swarm of nuisance that is ruining this beautiful nation.
“We are Americans,” he says. “When our home is threatened, it is upon us to protect it. And seeing how no one else in this God-forsaken country seems to be willing to lead the charge, I will. You and Syd are my lieutenants, and the people will be our army.
“Against that,” he smiles, “and the Internet in our hands, what chance does a government stand?”
© Nicholas Gagnier