Poem of the Week: “Cornell Scraps”

Apologies for the lack of a poem last week! I had finals… and given the topic and scope of this piece, I decided it needed to wait a touch longer anyway.

Ever since high school, I’ve habitually taken notes. On what? Well… everything. Potential story ideas. Interesting quotes, overheard or imagined. Goofy puns or jokes. Rap lyrics. Concepts for inventions, videogames, and experimental art exhibits. 90% of the time, I have no idea what if any writing I’ll use them in. But, given the fleeting fallibility of memory, I’d always rather jot/type something down and never use it than forget it and be hard up for imagery or snappy dialogue later!

When I moved to Ithaca in 2013 for law school, I started a separate dedicated document just called “Life Scraps.” Later, I renamed it “Cornell Scraps.” Now, with graduation mere days away, I decided to really reflect on these random moments and musings for the first time. In so doing, I saw the potential for a substantial poem. And so, out of what I realized had become forty-odd pages of grievances, late-night confessionals, and idiosyncratic one-offs, I selected and abridged or expanded the most striking lines to produce this.

It’s long, disjointed, and may not make much sense, even by the end. But, for better or worse, that was the last three years!

3years

Three years of Ithaca being gorge-ous.

Cornell Scraps

 

I.

 

Outside my dorm window,

something chitters—cicada or sprinkler.

A bird call like a quick firework’s chirp.

An odor—either paint or rotten apples.

The common room, humid, smells of spirits, aflitter with tiny flies—

but at least they got the best Die Hards.

Cutlery comes and goes from the communal kitchen, like artifacts

passing through some high-tuition Bermuda Triangle.

 

At the dean’s home, a broken basketball backboard

heralds our class’s arrival at the drive.

Crickets congregate about white windowed reception tents,

drooping like jeans over hand-me-down dress shoes.

 

I’d moved in with optimistic discontent but,

walking ‘cross the gorge some evening next,

I felt a great emptiness within, as if

my life were a blurry eye, a voice gone hoarse mid-song,

as clouds closed over tentative night like a flowerbud.

And on weekdays, sudden bouts of belonging

fell swift to chronically displaced dissatisfaction.

I can’t stand Greek Row, but maybe I just lament not having a veranda

and roof to climb onto.

 

Mixer time. At the club,

the floor glows crime-scene UV;

it’s an arms race of debauchery,

and our livers are the battleground.

The nightly grind, never to mind by sunrise.

And that’s just the first week.

 

Fall’s descent brings sticky heat.

Thunder stutters, God

dragging a desk across concrete clouds.

Rain wreaks streaks, plasters the parking lots.

Inside sounds nice, but at a cramped laptop

my hopes are notes on a napkin, crumpled in anticipation

until the words blur to abstraction and all I have are withered strips

with no addressee.

 

Now, not saying class bored me, but I once wondered in one

what guy piled all that bread in a truck for the “We Can’t Stop” video.

Because my soundtrack is Skrillex and Joe Hisaishi,

for a romance with Holly Golightly meets the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,

dressed to the nine-point-fives by Hot Topic and Watson-Kennedy.

So I start to love going to sleep, because that’s the only time

I don’t dream. Rest unassured,

this head is not a pleasant place to be:

strung out on caffeine, blind ambition, and unrequited love,

my brain needs icing down.

I want to live life at the speed of verse—because of course

I would never kill myself. Not when this world still has synthpop,

Emma Watson, POG juice, butterflies,

and the tone it makes when you strike a tuning fork.

But with bedhead that’s passed “restless cop”

and “wacky high school sidekick” straight to “Goku,”

the rock-fountain trickle of my Brita refilling is a bit Sisyphean.

Life’s path feels like a backward shirt: it fits, but something’s off.

 

Winter waxes,

broken pie-crust tire treads in the snow,

and icicles dangle like fangs from parked cars.

Chinese takeout splays across the sidewalk like collapsed partygoers,

disgorging frozen neon pips.

Green signs glare down the halls: “QUIET: EXAMS IN PROGRESS.”

Still, I get to know a gal at the post office

through the letters I send and tees I test.

Granted, it didn’t last—like a bad twist ending,

she was out before a month.

But don’t worry, hon. Some day you will be in New York

and everything will be awesome.

 

Nevertheless, anger breaks in waves—a planned impulse

—and from the crest I see the smooth sailing of adolescence

giving way to rougher waters of adulthood.

Predator or prey, adaption matters, and this ecosystem is more concerned

with cardigans, judicial interns, and Friday night shots

than Spider-Man, postmodernism, and riffing on Xbox One.

And if the girls don’t have their nose up in the air, it’s down in a book.

Resistant, I might’ve cried my vice is beauty, but

after a brief reflection that turned into a soul-search,

contemplating complimenting the strikeouts with Your free time is a lucky guy,

I put passion on a pedestal so high I couldn’t even see it.

Like standing with my back to a chasm, I know

some comfort awaits, biding time in a peripheral vision,

but if I don’t turn and look then it can’t entrance me.

 

But now that backwards shirt is just outgrown,

because setting my own standards isn’t productive—

it’s a tarred-feather coat of doubtful guilt.

An apologist’s résumé: I may have a 3.49 GPA,

but I clean out the sink after I drain the pasta.

Planning exodus from the land of milk and honey

to the land of wine and awkward small talk.

Sometimes I say things just so they’ll die from exposure to air.

With every new social circle drawn, I promise

I won’t be the neurotic guy again,

but finals week makes liars of us all.

 

Body of a jock, brain of a geek, soul of a goth,

schedule of a preppie, dreams of a hippie—I got this.

In NYC, there’s a leaky halal truck towed ‘round the corner,

plastered with an ad for the Heathers musical,

and washed-out, outdated tabloids stock the sides of sidewalk kiosks.

Of my Manhattan Madame I’ve said enough, except that

I don’t mind putting things on the back burner

as long as they weren’t smoking hot.

Sharing sleep and little else, I think of stupid things

to untremble my muscles.

I think of running out of bed

and lying against the wall of the ground-floor grocery store in my boxers.

I think of punching a brick wall.

I think of riding a bike into a fence, rolling over, and playing dead.

It’s like attraction is a garage door opener: enough distance,

and the signal just stops working.

So I can’t wait to go back;

there’s nothing left for me here but one-way sexual tension and dog barks.

 

II.

 

A leaf drags down the street, as if pulled by invisible string from a car ahead.

Flow but no focus:

I still haven’t seen The Muppets Movie, I think

from the back of a reproductive rights panel.

Got a formal text tonight—better put on my dress grammar.

But first, I have to drain complacency like a wound.

All my flights of fancy are in a holding pattern, or grounded outright.

At least, I’ve lost the ability to tell

how much intimacy between my peers is tongue-in-cheek.

I tell myself I won’t live as a dependent clause,

but irony is gonna play hell on archaeologists.

I worry the Internet turns the world into a circle of paranoid, passive potheads

dreaming in dark rooms.

We are hot dog culture: gross and ground-up, but easy to digest.

I’ve got this game I play where I try to see

how many people on Facebook won’t talk to me.

It’s up in the dozens, and I feel like

earlier in life was the film, and now’s just weathering credits

‘til the reel runs out.

 

Going back to sleeping alone is like reverting to DVD from Blu-Ray.

My heart is an open offer

but my grudges have half-lives, and

there’s nothing less interesting than beautiful people complaining.

So it’s fun wondering what I’ll look back on as so simple about this,

especially when true love is like a UFO: you don’t hear about it as much

now that everyone’s got smartphones.

If only I, Inception-like, could just spontaneously be talking to someone.

Until then, I identify as Straight But Not Applying It.

 

All of my takes are double-takes;

I think I’m developing smirk lines

from parties (or, “going friend-fishing”).

I’d say I felt like an empty seat, but people sit by those.

 

Snow floats in whips and whirls, confetti in a quiet blender.

A girl argues with a guy on a porch overlooking a shore of Solo cups—

well-lit, dramatic,

a Disneyland dark-ride of campus life.

Me, moving on is Indy trying to swipe the idol: I gotta really think it over,

and if the replacement’s not the same weight, then bring on the emotional boulder.

So no, Buzzfeed, don’t tell me what my new favorite video is.

Don’t tell me who to hate.

Don’t tell me to nod politely at X times Y celebrity was more interesting than me.

This godlike technology is for education, entertainment—not building new wings

in my inferiority complex.

 

No, I want love like TV seasons.

Maybe it’s The Simpsons: on for decades, haters be damned.

Maybe it’s Firefly: a brilliant idea snuffed out in its prime.

Let’s make it a competition to see who can miss the other the most.

And hey, who do you think buys all those nightmares their daydream dresses?

At the least, someone in this subway, statistically, has to have nudes online.

 

Topside, sirens blurp like the Lord flicking water

beneath the trapezes of power lines.

I could admit I’m not confident, and you won’t mind

out loud—but the thought will still seep in, like a leaky pipe under an abandoned flat,

and I’m recycling-bound like To Current Resident.

If talk is cheap, then revenge fantasies are seashells and bottle caps,

so while I can’t act, I’m quite comfortable shouting in crowded rooms.

Trying to find the right song to unfriend old crushes to

while I move through Zeno’s Breakup:

Music for revoking any fucks previously given,

in tune with the phases of the mood.

Earbud cord peeks between my jeans and shirt like a spiritual insulin kit.

Balance doesn’t always mean staying in the middle;

it depends how heavy each side is.

 

Electric beats thumping out of a juice bar,

people staring at supercomputers,

glass skyscrapers soaring into the clouds…

Ever finally feel you’re living in the future?

Only this era, we’re building the meteor and bringing it down ourselves.

Everyone in my News Feed is closing deals, posing with koalas,

or bungee golfing in Antarctica, and I’m just taking a stroll, thinking

about how weird it is that Scooby-Doo had a laugh track.

 

My patience is the Earth’s crust: it’s thick, but crack it

and there’s nothing but ten thousand miles of fire.

I want to be a monitor, not a processor, never mind that

I once tried to avoid eye contact with a cardboard cutout.

Fluent in fantasy, my brain is a perpetual motion machine

that runs like The Hobbit: fast and distracting, but only ‘cause it’s closer to reality.

And yet my unfinished business as a ghost would probably just be watching

all the videos I bookmarked in undergrad and forgot about.

 

III.

 

The blood moon eclipse.

An aged penny if good,

a molding peach if bad.

Not even the cosmos gets me decisive.

I decided to make all the things I say worth saying

slowly, but I’m still making my goal a worst-case scenario.

 

Something went wrong, somewhere, in the past,

but it wasn’t just me.

Part me, part world, part my reaction to both.

Like short sheets trying to fit a frayed mattress:

pushing, pulling, coming off

at one corner for want of fitting another, never realizing

until I felt for its opposite and found it bare.

Or waking up to tatters beneath me, thinking it so secure the night before.

 

The rain was light yet thick, like falling mist,

suffusing streetlights with amber halos.

Another bar tab not bothered with.

They’re not even interesting assholes, they’re just boring assholes.

 

I lied when I said I’d rather die than do the same job forever,

I think. It just felt good to sound determined by choice for once,

because I need to make things—with my hands,

not my mouth and wallet.

And whether it’s an international bestseller

or the popsicle stick castle that went to shit in fourth grade,

it exists.

Substance.

Fighting back against entropy.

 

So what can you create today

that wasn’t there yesterday,

and that you’ll be proud of tomorrow?

Savoring the world is priceless like a funeral.

Good memory, bad memory—it’s still just a memory.

Not made but replayed,

and in three years,

I’ve repeated enough for a lifetime.

New Story: “A Routine Tune-Up” (+Introducing NIGHTMARE FORCE)

nightmare force banner

Happy almost-summer! Since last posting, I’ve finished my first year of law school at Cornell, and I’m currently gearing up for studying international law at the Sorbonne in Paris starting next week. In the meantime, though, I’ve been tending to a smaller project I started when progress on my novel (There’s Something Wrong with the Neighbor’s Cat) got to feeling too daunting in the short term. That project: a short prequel/interquel to a very different novel: Nightmare Force.

Some background, because this is a vignette/”spec script” of sorts: Nightmare Force is intended to be a horror/sci-fi thriller loosely based on “Binary DNA” (by “K.I. Simpson,” I think) and a handful of other creepypasta. The main characters are a team of six Engineering grad students at the fictional Cardinal University in New England; by day, they are the school’s “NetFixerz” tech support group, but by dark they are the “Nightmare Force,” hunting monsters, ghosts, interdimensional beings, and other entities that interfere with our world via electronic technology. Picture a hi-tech combination of The Brothers Grimm and Inception — with imagery drawn equally from cyberpunk and surrealist artists like Zdzisław Beksiński — and you’re not far off.

The circumstances of where the Nightmare Force obtained their skills — as well as how they first met — are mysteries to be slowly revealed over the course of the series. However, while I always told myself I’d never pull a Richard Kelly and assume everybody understood the elaborate universe I created after only sharing a quarter of it, this story features terms and tools that–for the sake of pacing and chronology with the rest of the planned series–I didn’t feel comfortable providing an exposition dump for. As such, I’ve added brief character bios and a glossary below, as well as links to a few relevant songs I listened to while writing. Feel free to read them first to understand what’s going on (WARNING: SOME SPOILERS), or just jump right in and check it later as the mood suits you!

Either way, put on your gloves, secure all the exits, and make sure your screwdriver is good and sharp, because it’s time for…

A Routine Tune-Up

#NightmareForce

– – –

Character Bios

  • Aron Lovelace: The primary leader. Aron is first in line to issue orders, interact with entities, and communicate with outside sources. He is professional and focused almost to a fault, but still knows how to lift his teammates’ spirits at one second and get down to business the next. Aron is asexual as well as dysamoric.
  • Ripley “Rip” Zeese: The “lifeline” and secondary leader. Although the team’s rotation schedule occasionally puts her “in the field,” Ripley generally operates from the secret Nightmare Force “HQ” with a triple-monitor computer array, lightning fast internet connection, and remote aid. When not in the field, she maintains constant contact with Aron via an earpiece, a responsibility which sometimes conflicts with her unrequited affection for him. For better or worse, her efficiency is owed to being a literal workaholic, as well as a variation of insomnia which allows her to only need three hours of sleep a night.
  • Calvin “Cal” Gutenberg: The data-collection expert. Cal studies for physical traces of an entity’s past or current presence, collecting samples when need be. He is chiefly tasked with using the “neo-vial,” a test tube-like device which produces information concerning the chemical composition of any substance put inside it. Cal is bulimic, but has yet to seek help.
  • Angela Redwall: The survey expert. Angela assess and secures the surroundings — digital and tangible — of the environment before the team “goes to work,” as well as the likely type of entity they face [“Classes” will be explained in a later post]. She has high-functioning autism.
  • Richard “Rich” Logenbach: Hardware expert: Richard is in charge of handling and managing the team’s arsenal and tools. Although Aron is the leader, Richard’s people skills are stronger and so he often helps ease potential clients and provide any relevant alibis. He is also a minimalist, and has a unique neurosis that can best be described as “compulsive charitableness.”
  • Fuller Narson: Co-hardware expert: Fuller works in tandem with Richard, although his knowledge of their hardware is not as extensive. Fuller suffers from an inferiority complex and severe codependency, and it is with awareness of this that Aron makes sure to emphasize the value of his contributions to the team.
  • Rod: Rod is Aron’s tulpa, a “thoughtform” which — as the only child of a broken home — he created to keep himself company. However, Rod slowly morphed from a joyful clone of Aron to a repository for his most perverse dormant emotions, and grew beyond Aron’s control to erase from existence. The two enjoy an uneasy relationship, as while Rod generally appears to humiliate or threaten Aron, it also has a unique insight into interdimensional beings and creepspace which it may impart to Aron — with or without him realizing it.

 – – –

Glossary

  • DEMON: In the world of Nightmare Force, all the ghosts, monsters, curses, and “haunted videos” you’ve heard about are real–though not as you’d expect. Rather, these phenomena are the result of quasi-parasitic beings from other dimensions which, for scientific reasons even the Nightmare Force has yet to fully understand, find the most efficient way to enter our world is through the electrical activity in computers, televisions, videogames, and other forms of modern technology. The origin of these beings can still vary, though, and hence the catch-all term “DEMONs”: Digitally-Embodied Malevolence and Organized Neuroses.
  • Gloves: The Nightmare Force wears gloves for the same reason construction workers or exterminators do: to prevent injury or “infection.” A specialized electric current running through the gloves prevents any DEMONs from harming, possessing, or otherwise interfering with the team while they manipulate technology with their hands.
  • //skeletonkey:  A codeword developed by the Nightmare Force to bypass extensive coding and alter a computer’s settings more efficiently. Although all of the team’s members have extensive coding experience, time is often of the essence, and a failed skeletonkey bypass is a quick sign that something is seriously wrong. The codeword’s usefulness is limited in that it will only work with computers that have been programmed to accept it (such as Cardinal’s school network).
  • Scrubbing: Although DEMONs can generally only move via a wire or direct signal, wireless cross-platform transmission (such as from a phone to a computer) is not impossible. As such, when security is a risk, Rip may remotely “scrub” sensitive connections to the team, shutting out DEMONs before they can enter. The process consumes enormous amounts of computing power and electricity, so it can only be performed for short bursts of time.
  • Code Omega: In the Nightmare Force’s line of work, frauds and mistakes are not uncommon, and even a legitimate threat may bide its time before displaying explicitly supernatural properties. “Code Omega” signifies that the team is unmistakably dealing with a DEMON, and must take appropriate actions.
  • Manny: Short for “manifestation” — refers to the form which a DEMON takes if it enters the “real world.”
  • Biotrackers: Minuscule tracking chips implanted in each member of the Nightmare Force, impenetrable and undetectable by any known devices except their own.
  • Creepspace: The nickname for a “transpsychological paradimension,” in which a DEMON may — through some form of sensory contact, such as touch or sight — abduct a person into a pocket dimension bound to its mind, like a spider dragging prey to its nest. Conventional laws of time and space will not necessarily apply in creepspace, and those trapped within may die or go insane before they can manage to escape. Voluntary entry into and exit from creepspace is possible but extremely risky, and no two pocket dimensions are alike.
  • Gun: The Nightmare Force’s guns fire tinted bullets which also carry a compressed electrical charge. For security’s sake, they will only function if handled while wearing charged gloves as well.

– – –

And finally, here’s some songs I like that capture the mood and themes of Nightmare Force: