The editors of Elyssar Press are pleased to announce our nominations for the 2023 Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses series, the prize chosen by Pushcart Press that anthologizes the best of the small presses publishing this year.
Please join us in congratulating these authors and if you haven’t yet read these contributions, now’s a good time to get them in your queue!
How do you read water? Does it come as a steamed morning dew
or divine, vaporized breath? Perhaps corroded and leached?
In Flint, they read water like a forgotten monthly subscription
or past due bill the debate collector’s sent.
Redlines cross and dot eyes, a dry reminder
attorney generals and governors heave.
100,000 bottles of water per week will have you thinking
they’d irrigate the Sea of Galilee into a Dasani.
Knock one down, pass it around for 2 counts of involuntary
manslaughter on the wall. Loosened sludge is easily acquitted
with brand name gauze and UV filtration
from a modern American’s bloodstream.
There’s no fixer for salt, limestone, or simply being Black.
It’ll bacteria, a flared growth, that’s what changes flavor.
They’ll ask, Are you not an American?
If your water isn’t a little dirty,
grizzled and smeared, this is how we read water.
In the booth of a crowded Golden Corral, I spill
my third refill of Hi-C Orange, bibbing towards
a speckled resin edge.
This is how I read it.
A wet bed, dirtied by comfort.
Sucking my thumb, a pruned, gilled alloy.
This was my water.
What is water, if not to gift relief?
I am a Black Woman
I am that voice you don’t want to hear instead of that thing you don’t want to hear
A Black Woman
I am that thing you don’t want to hear.
I am that beautiful reflection you see in the mirror pointing out imperfections holding pride in one hand and doubt in the other, vying to see who will win.
I am the construct of a past that raped confidence from my mind and hid it between my legs so that sex would never be confused with intimacy again.
I am brutal honesty,
wrapped in delicate skin releasing my emotions with handsome tears for myself and all who need them. I shed the blood of dead children and run fragile egos to caucasians for coddling wielding machetes and lightning as I walk. My rage needs protection not guilt trips and pillow talk.
I am your mother,
who knows you like she knows herself because she took the shots that gave you life and died nine times to birth you. Her understanding has no boundaries in a world that keeps us laboring to love you.
I am your sister,
nurtured from the same pain, seeking attention the same way, loving you with a hate that could only be related. I will get in your face, “slap-box” your soul away, then wrestle to the ground until grandmama say, “Y’all stop all that tussling gal, gone somewhere else and play”—be mad for 10 minutes then race you down the street to play dodgeball or hide-and-go seek.
I am your daughter,
you should want to protect me. Make me believe that make-believe is real, slay dragons, ignore temper tantrums and love me unconditionally with understanding and honest compassion—not disdain and gaslighting tactics.
I am your queen,
I am NOT a science project. Your ribs have nothing to do with who does the dishes, and kitchens don’t care who cook in ‘em and a diaper with shit in it simply needs changing and our hands work the same.
I am herbs
I am medicine
I am hard because that day soft was taken
I am the undercurrent of blue that you see in a full moon
I am incense unfurling to the sounds of Badu
I am sunshine
I am sunrays
I am waves crashing in the sea
I am doves crying to be seen
I am hurricane season exposing your treachery
I am Shug Avery running to save Ms. Celie
I am the reason Jesus wept
I am life after death
I am both heaven and hell
I am eternally blessed
I am mad at the world for their treatment of Black Women
I am tired of apologizing for owning my freedom
I am pissed that society celebrates the cruelty of misogyny and condemns Black Women simply for resisting.
You have no power over me
I hold thunder with my teeth
And ride tsunamis through the streets
Guiding dead bodies to come see me
I am a God
None can enter but through me
I move the world with my mind while eating vegetables and sipping green tea
I am distant galaxies
I am dual realities
“Yes your majesty”
is the only thing you should say to me
I am audacity
I am sacrifice
I am everything you need
Except lily white
I am not your cotton, my life is not for sale
So keep your self-hatred and fragility over there with them
I said no,
I am not your slave
Either stand with me or get out of my way.
See, I have too much power to stay behind a desk
Or pray for some man’s last name
I have my own.
For home is always the best place
to find where liberation was stolen;
if you can see past the smoke from headboard bullet holes
Good bones break just as easily if the CIA stages a coup on time
Just to make it home in time for imperialism to be celebrated by not asking
Maybe America was the broken home Gil was coming from
Dirt beneath fingernails won’t come clean with blood mixed in from Iraqi floors seeing just enough grieving to displace a generation with bombed buildings to call home.
And Oval Office regime changes
passing torches in ceremony over the bodies
just melanated enough to be not human enough for home to be breath.
For home to be more than
a lost country determined to eat itself.
Chasejamison Akilah Manar-Spears, Madam CJda3rd
I was raised by the Deep
The dope, the spiraling, all-knowing flow of our mother: Ocean
Bled from the womb of our cosmic creatress
Breastfed stardust, rose quartz, and greatness
I’m an East Oakland Empress reborn each generation
I come from that powerful patience sustained by spiritual revelations.
Giving birth to our purposes feels as easy as lake walking,
Revolutionary talking, Black poetry reading, deep breathing, Afrikans
I come from knowing we belong together.
I come from the ocean.
From the dark side of the moon
Where you can catch a glimpse of Yemoja and Oshun.
Feeling the juice drip out of a taco truck masterpiece
Radically reclaimed histories spray painted on these streets
Mystical femme mystique pouring libations over beats
An everlasting line of ancestral memories, gracefully reminding me who the fuck I am
I will always be that duality, divinity, destiny reclaiming everything
I come from the most high
God took their divine time
Painting and sustaining just exactly where I come from
They stay tryna deny us children of the sun
As our vessels radiate the restorative truth that we are one
The time has come
To remember the love we are from.
Reverie in Reverse, Placebo Medicine
In a forward rock, his body spoke
eyes tunneling a passageway
A giddy glee,
punctuated by point of interrogation:
Why can’t I just take his pain?
this Senegalese questioner,
born with capricious blood,
visited a child’s sickbed
Chronic with history
His own cells had moods,
roiling bad days
Survival required art
He sketched the disease a place in him, drew her a body and mind,
eked out a life for her
to dance together
His ached attention
soothed her upsets,
unplugged bad dreams,
boiled plant medicine
systems of noxious neglect
always a gamble
Uncertainty, the common law of love
Darling, I’m here for you
‘Til death do us part,
Even then, it’s you and me.
His maladie 
all with shared sickle blood 
The pebble bony child,
wadded in sheets,
torqued and tied,
reached out to him
the questioner rocked forward,
arched in a healing bond,
straddling the sonic chasm of the metronome,
his own pulse vibration,
The boy, too stunned to move,
cells jammed in veins,
mourned the fatality of his once fetal blood,
Tears tearing through stillness,
senses highjacked by hurt
the curious one rocked forward,
toward the small person,
unfurling a telepathic undulation
Code of pathos unspooled
Why can’t I just take his pain?
A lack of moral imagination
Requires rescue of principled instructions
1: Update transfusion technology from intravenous to intrabeing
2: Sense heartbeat, pressure, temperature
3: Infuse the other with the transient ease
of your own mortal vitality
in a slow stream
Finally, chelate their crises of solitary suffering
Can’t we share our surplus health?
This embodied care of placebo medicine,
reigns just below the dermal-blood barrier,
Yet it may cost us
 “Maladie,” or illness, in French is gendered feminine.
 In Wolof “bokk deret” literally means to share blood and is an idiomatic expression to mean one’s “relative,” or “family member.”
Dancing with Crows
I met Adam underground and underground we stayed. We ran from our shadows in the cracks of the masquerade that played out our days. I was starry-eyed. He was the night that gave stars a home, a night without roads and signposts, or places we could ever call discovered, or know.
We were crammed into the basement of Scotland’s National Film School, waiting for the studio door to swing open and unleash our untameable life dreams. Our lecturers were late. The rest of
us were wading in a sea of adrenaline that we needed to inject into something. We weaved amongst each other, broadcasting our charm with smiles too big for our faces. Adam didn’t. Adam lounged nonchalantly against the door looking thoroughly bored.
I was unsure if it was him that captivated me or my fear of him. He was American, charming, and cucumber cool. But by the end of week one, he’d effortlessly unmasked the tutor’s professional veneers and rendered them jabbering idiots. Sometimes it seemed almost cruel. When he didn’t serve them back the opinions they doled out to us as facts, he laughed in all of their facades. I resented the arrogance with which he burst their façade of expertise and blew it up in all our faces. At the same time, I longed for him with a twinge of incurable lust.
We weaved around each other at the odd house party. Our few words became loaded. He seemed to reach through my skin and see the part of me that’s most hidden, as if a separate universe existed for us that no one else would ever visit. His glare beckoned me into his mystery at the same time I heard the warning, “Beware you fucking fool, I might bite.”
So I kept my distance until the wilderness of December on a film shoot on the Isle of Barra, a rugged, cold beauty of barren moors, rocky outcrops and turquoise waters in the southern Outer-Hebrides of Scotland. We seemed alone there, but for the freely roaming sheep and the white houses that strung out across either side of a soft, winding road, like pearls slipping
free from a snapped necklace.
The land whispered a hundred thousand stories of the farmers, boat-builders, and fishermen that lived here, loved here and died here—or were forcibly shipped off to Canada to alleviate an
over-populated island in the blight of a potato famine. In the hazy, violet dusk, a farmer told me about a young woman milking a cow in the fields by Loch na Doirlin, who was seized by the
colonel’s guards and forced onto a boat with nothing but the clothes that she stood in.
When the stories subsided, there was only a breath-taking stillness, the lapping of the waves, and husky cries of the sea birds. The rising sun dusted the hills in an apricot-tinted shimmer until the first glimmers of its amethyst descent. So beyond the crystal clear nights, the sky was permanently rolling in watercolours, dripping its silver-edged hues across the marshy carpet of sea-pink heather into the springs and the dykes that weaved down the hillsides.
We rose before the sun and bundled huge, hard cases of camera equipment, lighting, props and blankets into two, hired, white vans and bounced through the muddy fields to far-flung locations.
Amongst the 14 cast and crew members, I wasn’t sure what I was doing there. The director had asked me to crew because he liked my cheer, I think. I was credited as ‘set manager’ and mostly, I held things, took photos for my own amusement and wrapped the shivering actors in blankets.
Meanwhile, Adam framed their hopes and fears on 16mm film. He directed the camera team as if he was born for it, oozing quiet confidence and a confusing blend of patience and contempt for
the rest of us. In the chill of the starry evenings we would huddle around the hearth in the cosy cottage on the hilltop and warm our chilled bones with the closeness of our sleepy bodies, while sipping on red wine and hearty soup. We watched old films, played poker and laughed like maniacs.
Niamh was almost always by me then. She was barely noticeable, but comforting, like the whispers of the breeze, or a sonata played on a piano far away. Niamh was half Irish, half fairy-tale. She had just started her journey in abstract painting at the art college after an aborted degree in English literature and two years of depression. Her voice was as soft as frosting and carried a lilting lyricism that soothed me like falling snow. She looked like the ivory femme printed on the little papier-poudre books of the early 1900s. She had the demeanor of a rose and the resolve of an ox. I cherished her. We shared a flat off Broughton Road with three boys and a mannequin. At my suggestion she’d been invited on the shoot to do the actors’ hair and make-up. We shared a bed on the island, though I was too cold and too lusty to sleep.
One evening on that duvet, Adam played me his films. I fell into his fiction and found my longing. I thought I would never return from there, that home that disappears the moment I try to grasp it. I shivered with the stark realization that my feelings had slipped from my fingers.
Like amateur thieves, we slipped through the velvety dark and broke into the tumbledown barn at the bottom of the hill. The hushed, electric air of forgotten treasure enveloped the unlit jumble we walked into. I lay down on a faded olive green sofa embroidered with gold hummingbirds and I stretched out like a cat. Adam sat in a wicker chair in the soft pool of moonlight that streaked through the trees and cascaded through the window. We rolled a joint and smoked the last of his weed. We spoke of our hopes and dreams and the glass wall that we felt between us and society that gave us the uncomfortable impression we were somehow far, far away from
everything. Our silences were pregnant with the world. He came to me and kissed me without asking, without needing to. We made love in hushed whispers like it was the only chance there ever was.
The next evening, in the indigo alley where night kisses day, we strolled together through the moors. He reached out to hold my hand at the same moment I skipped ahead of him. This was reflex. Hand-holding was risky and threatened my vision of everything. The way I saw it, I always wanted to be free. No one could hold me down.
The night-ferry from Castlebay back to Oban was rough and choppy. The wind whined of my lust and a longing to be held. The wall-lights fused out and rattled all night in their candle-shaped
mounts. I couldn’t sleep like the others, heaped together like seals in the cold and the sadness of an ending. In the early hours, I slipped out onto the deck and pushed my face hard against the
howling wind that almost took the door off. Her icy shrieks and slashes devoured my cheeks as I pushed through the waves that were crashing over the boardwalk.
He was leaning against the railing like a part of the landscape, as velvet as the sky and as vast as the ocean. He took me under his coat and said, “So you found me.” The tempestuous night sucked us into its vortex. I said to myself, “This is now. The beginning and the ending.” The wind wrapped around us. We didn’t move until the sun came.
After the Christmas holidays there was the mounting pressure to finish our screenplays. The ineptitude of the film tutors had begun to wear me thin. Niamh had met an Italian law student and spent most nights at his. I barely saw her. January was cold and miserable and I felt a horrific, unappeasable thing wriggling inside me, like a maggot that had sprouted my head.
I’d seen Adam once since Barra. I told him it was better if we kept our secret on the island, so people wouldn’t make assumptions or imagine we were in a relationship, so we wouldn’t think we were in a relationship. He agreed.
He didn’t show up to lectures any more. I phoned him one evening when I was bored and alone. I’d ran out of weed. He picked up and said nothing.
“Hi.” I said.
“What are you up to?”
“Nothing much, hanging out, watching a film.”
“Do you want to come over?”
And that was that. I felt like I’d been stabbed in the gut, by something small, like a penknife. In a way, that made it worse. I suppose I wished it was more poetic, I needed a scimitar through
my neck to give myself permission to feel wounded. A few days later I bumped into him in the library. He was browsing the shelves of DVDs. He greeted me as if I was a fart that had just drifted towards him from a backside that would never be identified. I wanted to ram him into the DVDs. Instead, I acted disinterested. I browsed the shelves, picked out two long, intense Tarkovsky films and left without saying a word.
Two days later I woke tangled in his sheets. It was already clear that his moods ebbed and flowed like tidal waves. I didn’t know where he might carry me to and there was something magnetic in that. It was like travelling, in the beginning.