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Jace Raymond Smellie


In each issue, the editors choose a writer they would like to bring
to the readers' attention.

In this issue, Jace Raymond Smellie is highlighted.

Jace Raymond Smellie's poems possess music and grace. Jace brings us face-to-face with grief; even a mother's suffering and pain is somehow brought into that grace and music of the poet: "we heard it & might have believed it together ten more years later as we watched the / poison drip into her chest..." Suffering isn't meaningless to Smellie; rather, it is sanctified by the poet's vision and words, by wonder: "but no, with unflinching optimism, your presence, your whole body, promises the spirit is / sufficient in the absence & for a moment i balk—as if even for a moment i could believe in / anything more than a spirit descending like a dove." Smellie is in touch with something outside of the immediate, yet never flinches from what's in front of him. He accepts hardships in wonder and makes poems that sing in spite of suffering.

to enter is one thing

the sidewinder hides in sand

the chemo patient next to my mom watches it's a wonderful life without headphones

for my father-in-law's neighbor

for my mother, nearly two years after finishing treatment

grandma's fingernail clippings

what is dead

infinite paths to the same destination

for the deer & the headlights

to enter is one thing

my mother has always misheard his spoken words, & she still refuses to admit it. she hears him say, we are gathered here today to enter this thing called life. she prefers to envision prince conducting a ceremony & a sermon from the preexistence concerning the eternal nature of this thing called life. & this was enough for my first thirteen years or so, but lyrics start to mean something more when you’ve grown big enough to sit in the front seat where you can control the stereo & face airbags designed to save & extend this thing. i started to wonder who picked up the phone, dropped it on the floor & who exactly screamed, ah, ah! i heard the way the kids were starting to talk after gym class, & i could make out the heavy breaths coming from the stalls next to mine. all i could think to do was stare down at the plaid shorts around my ankles that five years later still fit in the back seat of a little red two-door escort when the cops knocked on the fogged window. i’m sure i heard it that night driving across the ice to face my mother. & if i didn’t then, we heard it & might have believed it together ten more years later as we watched the poison drip into her chest:

dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life.

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the sidewinder hides in sand

the clock’s hands continue
to slip. beneath

the collective surface
is the reality you’ve spent
years never committing to.

what for? when your mom
was diagnosed, you’d been married
a month & six days & already

forgot where you’d packed the dvds.
behind the cockroaches nesting
& under the refrigerator fell

the coupons for lasik
that weren’t worth finding
anymore. the chemo-

therapy sessions reminded everyone
of simpler times: the way
you’d sit together & talk & try

not to remember the contaminants
slithering under the skin
with each heartbeat slipping.

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the chemo patient next to my mom watches it's a wonderful life without headphones

i’m shaking the dust of this crummy little town

even my mother’s fingertips
aren’t what they used to be

before treatment
began taking its toll—

what is it you want?

that first winter
i was a newlywed

in arizona while in idaho
she wore gloves—

what do you want?

just that first winter,
i’d walk the subdivision

behind my apartment
where none of the homes had windows

facing west because they couldn’t
bear the burning

sun scorching
their carpeted living—

do you want the moon?

for that christmas,
i drove nine hours straight

from saguaro to frost-bitten juniper hills
to sit between her & curtains at the center—

just say the word

for the first time,
i began to feel—

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for my father-in-law's neighbor

you, my father-in-law’s kind-hearted, well-meaning neighbor, you tell us in the driveway hours before he will pass away about when your father-in-law passed away & about the power of the holy spirit’s presence in that moment—

in this moment, i believe—i believe i can see the dopamine flowing behind your eyes like a river—almost as if you now, years later, wouldn’t give up the holy ghost for it all—all the lost opportunities, all the backpacking trips to the high uintahs i’d anticipated, or all the reminders i’d learned to expect at the end of every visit—his only daughter, his everything—his tone of voice washing over me like a river—

but no, with unflinching optimism, your presence, your whole body, promises the spirit is sufficient in the absence & for a moment i balk—as if even for a moment i could believe in anything more than a spirit descending like a dove.

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for my mother, nearly two years after finishing treatment

to say to you, your life has changed, feels insulting. but of course, so feels the delusion that any part could be what it was—the body, the mind, your identity—an island after the hurricane & how those who didn’t know before wouldn’t know the difference.

while honeymooning in san juan a year after maria, we sometimes wondered if the gutters half a mile inland had always been soaked with sand. we also questioned the collected piles of trash & palm leaves that dotted our airbnb’s neighborhood. we had no way of knowing except to ask—but nobody would ask.

nobody would ask you if your hair was always this thin or if you’ve always changed the channel when the evening news comes on the air.

before dusk, you consider where you’ll be & if you’ll be alone. my mother, you are ashamed; please,

do not be ashamed

of how difficult it is to breathe once you’re given a reason to begin counting your breaths.

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grandma's fingernail clippings

your fingernail clippings found
embedded in shag carpet behind
a faded pink porcelain toilet
are all that’s left today. your body:
dug up from the fibers
by my fingertips retracing
the grooves from the vacuum’s wheels.
as a child, i’d make patterns
with the imprints & leave for you
my initials drawn into your living
room’s velveteen pillows. you left
the toys for years exactly
how we left them. you kept us posted
on your refrigerator in fading plastic
frames. we didn’t know
last time would be the last time holiday cards
taped around a wreath would watch
over our christmas eve
dinner. it was the first time
you hosted a party without a wig
in three years—the curlers still cooling
in their case next to the sink
on the shining tile countertop today.

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what is dead

after Li-Young Lee

tonight my grandma, in her bubblegum blue slippers—

god only knows how long she’s kept them—

walks across the orange shag carpet & waits

& waits

& waits for me to open & close the doors

like i would when i stayed over.


but what would i be doing in an empty house?

& what business would she have in a heaven without us?

her love for me feels like a pitcher

held back, waiting to be poured again.


what is dead is lonely,

& what is living is complacent.


someone tell her she should go now, please.


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infinite paths to the same destination

when one port closes,
another is opened
like a rattler’s mouth

once scales & skin
are crushed
between tar & rubber.

before the bell tolls,
let’s stop
to consider all possible footprints

we could leave. do we
need a little more—
what is it? where is it?

in the sand, in the wind,
or somewhere between
the hands of a clock?

what we search for—
what we leave.
it all ends up a reality

at or about the same time
waves settle across the desert
& the first drops of venom fall.

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for the deer & the headlights

i’ve read several accounts concerning
the deer on the side of the road

dead or dying with body bruised, broken, & torn
leaving asphalt stained in the style

of a splash. but i’m left wanting
more for the living ones—more

for those moments when we slam
the brakes in time, more for the majesty

of a mother guiding her innocent ones through
starlit danger. her existence put on pause

by a screech followed by flickering high beams & eyes
locked in & waiting—waiting for a conclusion

to what must seem an unanticipated
encounter with something divine—

fragile flesh & unprepared bodies
imbued with something incomprehensible.

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Jace Raymond Smellie is a recent graduate of the MFA program at George Mason University. Originally from Pocatello, Idaho, Jace is a descendent of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. He was awarded a 2021 MFA Travel Fellowship from The Alan Cheuse Center for International Writers, and his recent poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Southern Humanities Review, Passages North, Ocean State Review, Cimarron Review, and elsewhere.

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