erik kirkland memorial prize winner
syncope & collapse
This summer, I dreamt about alien abduction the night before I had my MRI. It was a last-ditch attempt to figure out what was wrong this time in my mess of a body before I left to study abroad. I was strapped down to the whirring, screaming, white circle and told to keep still as it thundered around me. Selfishly, terribly, I wished for a tumor blooming across some part of my brain—at least this would be a valid explanation for why my eyes start to flutter as my consciousness fades out. The first time this happens again, I’m in my boyfriend’s kitchen and I plummet towards the linoleum. The first time it happens at all, I remember thinking I needed to stop and breathe, and my body’s only response is to collapse. Now, the doctors are calling my question-marked body another medical mystery—this visit marks the sixth professional this summer who tries and fails to explain away the fainting. It’s happening without reason, which I stubbornly insist to everyone who convinces me it’s a hoax, in the same way I used to believe that shooting stars were really UFOs. The med tech stabs me four times with the butterfly needle before it sticks into the vein, and I can feel my arm swelling with ice. I had to sign a waiver for this part, because the contrast they’re injecting me with is supposed to light up my brain. As the MRI screams and chitters around me, I imagine both it and me as alien. I’m crying, slobbering from the pain of the needles, knowing full well I sound like an absolute nightmare. We learned about the ekphrastic in poetry two years ago, and the word still floats through my head as I think of the image of myself caesuraed on this hospital bed. When the med tech finally, roughly, tells me I’m done, I do exactly that—pause. I imagine myself unconscious and floating up through the ceiling as if something in me is magnetic, and instead of dropping, this time I’m grasping towards the sky.
the most dazzling space
The oldest continuous Fourth of July parade in the country takes place in my hometown. Every Fourth, before the dawn, everyone in Bristol wipes the sleep from their eyes and washes away last night’s hangovers before clustering down Route 136, where the entire dividing line of the road is painted red, white, and blue. The ground is still littered with remnants of fireworks, a necessary evil to make the town glow. They sound off all summer here, clustered bombs and blasts hidden behind lights and wonder. My backyard neighbors have their own show, rivaling the house a few streets down the block and everyone in the vicinity of the town’s center. Usually, I burrow myself in blankets and turn my air conditioning up to full blast, as if kicking out enough cold will stop the echoes far too close for comfort. Sometimes, though, I think of the time before the crash, before the color shoots and whistles into the sky. I wonder if the stars cower and quake at the impact, something unnatural disrupting the peace. I wonder if there’s something to see beyond the sparkle—or if the sparkle is the whole point. This past summer, I ignored my every instinct to grit my teeth and push down the sensory overload, and I tried to enjoy the booming lightshow in the sky. I lay flat against my still-warm driveway and told the stars I felt like the world was collapsing in on me—much like other semi-sentiment beings, they just shuddered and sparkled in response. Meanwhile, the fireworks raged on, twisting and dancing, competing to take up the most dazzling space. When I focused, I could see the hint of the Milky Way, a ghostly thing, arching and omnipresent beyond the obvious explosions of light. Before the next round hit the open air, I found one star and focused, the entirety of the night evaporating as the twilight expanse of blue spread far beyond the glitter and shine. I closed my eyes, exhaled, and opened them to the noise reverberating into existence, solely focused on that single star. How easy it is to feel suffocated. How hard it is to have the sky prove you wrong.
in this elysium
My boyfriend is telling a story, which of course means we’re standing dreamlike in the middle of a metaphorical field of stars. As he’s talking about Napoleon and the reasons for driving on the right side of the road, or the time his door got knocked down at midnight by a football player, I watch as my room disappears into something celestial. All his memories extend and overlap—we’re standing impossibly in the great big map of his lifetime. I don’t remember the first time our world turned over into the new one, but when we’re asleep next to each other, even his breathing tells some kind of history. The brightest lights in this Elysium are the ones we frequently return to—high school cross country, the partnered act of baking brownies, Selinsgrove’s backroads on chilly spring nights, but every story in his mouth slowly tumbles and cascades into a brand-new star. The entryway is always the same, a faded vestibule giving way to sudden brilliance all around. Then he pulls me behind him, as if we’ll unravel by not hurrying, and we slip into new stories at the same rate as I discover fresh stars. Before the impact, each time, he asks, Have I told you this before? I usually say no, just to get catapulted into this universe, this magnificent exoskeleton of a story—but even if the answer’s yes, I ask to be told again. He tells me once that he doesn’t believe in his own magic, but I’ve seen the way his words work—and my god, that’s a glittering beyond any explanation.