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Chloe Forsell

Fifteen Ways of Looking at a Privy

I. Sitting my bare skin down on the damp-morning timber is about as magical as it gets. This one is nothing more than a wooden seat over a hole in the ground in the middle of deep deciduous trees, far enough away from where our tent is set up. It’s our fourth morning on the Appalachian Trail, Cal and I, and the May foliage gleams, rays beaming through the trees and illuminating me, alone, pants pushed down my legs. I am queen of the Connecticut woods, quiet and human on her throne.

II. Queen, but not God. That title belongs to Tsi-Ku, the Chinese goddess of the outhouse, “the Purple Lady,” a delicate figure with long, dark hair who would reveal the future to the women who came to visit her when they needed to relieve themselves.

III. As a child, I’d always known them as outhouses, paint-chipped stink boxes next to the soggy shower room at the state park where Mom first taught me to love the woods. They were often crowded, and even though finding myself alone in the trees scared me, there was no thought more frightening than having to make small talk on the toilet. I avoided them, preferred squatting behind a bush and wiping up with leaves, but only if I knew Mom was within earshot. Had I known about Tsi-Ku, the goddess waiting in silk robes to tell me who I’d be when I grew up, I might’ve braved the crowd, saved time sneaking away to find a secret spot in the woods.

IV. My intestines have somehow regulated themselves. I wake every morning and leave Cal to start packing up the tent, saunter off to solitude. Privies are clearly marked on the AT guide, one at nearly every campsite. The symbol: a small crescent moon.

V. Luna, the ancient crescent-shaped figure, was originally carved into doors of “ladies’ rooms” during the Colonial period. A symbol for womanhood, the moon designated a privy specifically for women. As the country began to push itself farther westward, deep into the Sierra Nevada, men’s privies were eventually abandoned. The women’s space stayed better maintained, and so Luna prevailed as the symbol for the privy.

VI. I’m feeling slightly guilty at having this moment for myself as the moon fades fast in the light of the morning sun, dawn having cracked at least an hour ago. A betrayal of Luna, she’s been left to only see what happens after the sun sets: night soil, a euphemism for what lies in the pit below the privy. Still, I’m revelling, and I imagine a comfort in her liminal presence: here with me, but not really, dimming in the lavender sky.

VII. Other names include bog, dunny, backhouse, kybo. I prefer privy for its preservation of private. I prefer that Cal doesn’t know what my legs look like squatted over a hole, the dewed light revealing the forest of tiny hairs sprouting from my upper thighs. Yet, I’m glad to hear him rustling leaves just fifty yards away.

VIII. In summer 2007, the privy on Mount Whitney was removed from its peak at nearly 15,000 feet above sea level, the highest peak in the contiguous US. Disposal was too dangerous; park rangers in hazmat suits balanced on steep-walled canyons, helicopters navigating rocky winds to carry out 250-pound barrels of waste. Panoramic views of the Sierra Nevada sacrificed in its confiscation, Tsi-Ku left alone in the pale light of the moon, a low wind billowing through her silky purple gown.

IX. In summer 2016, I close my eyes, breathe the air, and imagine myself on a mountain peak, the Sierra Nevada; the wind blows through my dark oily hair, and I am as close to becoming a goddess as I’ll ever be. My eyes open, and I remember that I am goosebumped and serene and seated bare-bottomed, somewhere in New England. Buried in black birch, hawthorn, and aspen. I can hear Cal packing up our tent, prepping our gear for another ten-mile day of sore shoulders, and quiet conversation as our boots lick at leaves and stones still wet from the night’s rain. I’ve never been out West, but Cal and I intend to go next year. I can’t imagine the intimacy of days isolated on a trail with anyone else. Moreso, I can’t imagine them without anyone else.

X. From Middle English prive: private (adj.), close friend, private place (noun). Tsi-Ku knows something about myself that I don’t know, something I’m not yet privy to. I’ve taken the Meyers-Briggs personality test too many times; I’m INFP, trying to find comfort in four letters that might reconcile the part of me that finds comfort in Cal’s unseen presence, and the part that’s glad to be alone out here. The part of me that stands at the peak of Mount Whitney, rooted as the violet skypilot cushioning the rock, lone-flying and transient as the gray-crowned rosy finch circling the peak, and the part of me that knows she wouldn’t ever go alone.

XI. There’s a sentimentality to the privy, to the way the pants freeze in position at the knees. Billy Edd Wheeler captured it in his low acoustic tune, a muted voice resonating lamentations for his own “precious building,” also threatened by removal for uglying the town. Bobby Evan howls a folky melody about the “good old outhouse’s” single window, sun pouring through like it does through the greening branches this morning in mid-May.

XII. Louder rustling, heavy boots advancing quickly, I hardly notice as Cal approaches me in the open air. My knees unfreeze, cheeks peel from the dewy wood, elastic waistband snaps just under my bellybutton before he’s within eyesight. I look up and Luna’s nearly disappeared. After taking a tiny moment to mourn the end of my time here, I gather myself and trot away quickly, passing Cal as he makes his way to the precious throne I’ve just relinquished.

XIII. Tsi-Ku shakes her head at my leaving. In my haste to get up, I’ve forgotten to ask about my future, but the moment is gone. I’m beginning to think these questions will never be answered, neither by Myers-Briggs tests nor a Chinese goddess.

XIV. There is no solitude in privacy.

XV. Somehow, I prefer it this way.

Chloe Forsell lives in Western New York where she is finishing her last semester at SUNY Geneseo, pursuing degrees in French and English (creative writing). 

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Chloe Forsell

Things we remember years later in our dreams


As a child, I lived in a bathtub. Chipped porcelain printed leaf shapes in my
thighs. I watched the prune tree out the window, imagined swinging like a
fruit. Old wiring flickered a lightning storm on the ceiling. So much murk
in the water it would’ve dirtied any body. Residue from an old flood painted
murals on the walls. I could hear a voice, always, from the other room. It
is time to get out
and lukewarm. Baby’s back, soap-scummed spine pressed
to cold clay, pretended to drown. Branches swayed outside and a prune
bruised the ground like the sound of ceramic on bone.

For the first time, I bled but did not cry. I asked my mother about the body
as bread, to first be kneaded, chewed, and torn, remade for tomorrow’s
meal. Is there enough of me to fill the dinner table? Am I allowed to sip spiced
More than worthy of a warm course through my body, I know now.
Lavender oil soaked the pores of the house. My hands turned purple. There
was always food, and I was never really hungry—too concerned with flesh.

A lesson on wreckage: the living room full of dead things and decay under
the sofa. I used to climb the walls to try to escape, but tired too quickly. I
used to fall into bed from such a distance my heart would stop each night.
I swallowed my own tongue and grew gills. Climbed back in the bathtub
and swam away. The prune tree still stands. I see it through some stained
glass window, sanctuary out of reach. The fruit hangs low and sways the
same. Between my legs, leaf-shaped scars bud and branch. A bone breaks
like      dustclouds


<< We as Bird & Branch

Chloe Forsell is a junior at SUNY Geneseo, double majoring in French and English (creative writing). She hails from a town that, if drawn to scale on a map of New York State, might resemble a fingernail hugging the edge of Lake Erie. Chloe likes to spend her time making Spotify playlists and cooking foods that she doesn’t really know how to cook. Her post-grad plans are largely undetermined.

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Chloe Forsell

We as Bird & Branch

I unwanted wings unfilled

and marrowless. You

hollowboned twisting

limbs and trunkrot,

echo from empty

ashen bark. Wasted days

wreathing into holes,

rooting in each other.

Wasted away, wanting

deadleaves or anything

closer to the ground.

<< Berenstein/Berenstain 
Things we remember years later in our dreams >>

Chloe Forsell is a junior at SUNY Geneseo, double majoring in French and English (creative writing). She hails from a town that, if drawn to scale on a map of New York State, might resemble a fingernail hugging the edge of Lake Erie. Chloe likes to spend her time making Spotify playlists and cooking foods that she doesn’t really know how to cook. Her post-grad plans are largely undetermined.

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Chloe Forsell

In Search of Invisible Lives: A Review of John Gallaher’s In a Landscape

Sometimes, while sitting on my bed in my dimly lit college dorm room cramming for a test, I consider the ways my life would be altered had only the smallest things worked out differently. What if my mother hadn’t shielded me from seeing my cat get run over? What if I hadn’t learned the hard lesson about bike riding and loose pants at eight years old? What if I had chosen to take Spanish instead of French in high school? It is this kind of prodding at one’s own life that I imagine inspires John Gallaher’s In A Landscape, a deeply reflective poem/memoir.

Gallaher has authored or co-authored five collections of poetry, the most recent two published by BOA Editions: Your Father on the Train of Ghosts with G.C. Waldrep in 2011, and In a Landscape in 2014. His 2007 collection The Little Book of Guesses won the Levis Poetry Prize.  His poetry has been featured in a variety of magazines, literary journals, and anthologies, including the 2008 edition of The Best American Poetry.

To look at the cover of In a Landscape is to be instantly transported to the familiar. The simple sketch of a suburban neighborhood of square houses with two-car garages and front porches could be any town—almost so mundane it bores us.  Except for the single hand that floats above the cul-de-sac, pointing, reaching toward the houses, attempting to touch, grasp even, some bit of the lives of the people within them.

“Are you happy?” Gallaher opens the collection with this question, demanding that the reader become aware of her own mental and physical space as well as her role as reader of this poem. The address of this piece, as with most in the book, contains an I and a you which read as Gallaher himself speaking almost directly to the reader. Gallaher’s poetics blur the lines of speaker and author, you as character versus you as audience, we as characters versus we as the universal or communal. This blurring allows for an intimacy that is at once uncomfortable and comforting. As the poems unfold Roman numeral after Roman numeral, we become more and more familiar with a speaker who we begin to understand is almost completely Gallaher himself.

This unfolding is another strength of the collection. Written in long-lined verse, which mimics prose, Gallaher’s poems don’t allow us to read them simply as narrative. Just as we feel we are being lulled into a narrative of memoir, a thought, a musing, a sudden new idea interrupts and jolts us—capturing the tendencies of human consciousness:

I also remember gluing a Popsicle stick to my upper lip, as a mustache. It burned. And now I’m reading that we all have invisible lives that encircle us, some imagined thing that defines us in some way, and I’m thinking it’s more true to think that there’s nothing invisible about us. This is what we are. Look around. We stagger because we stagger. It’s where we get to.

It is through this ability to capture our inclinations of thought, and the power of association and dissociation, that Gallaher is able to achieve what his poetry seems to be reaching to do: to relate. As Gallaher becomes consumed in moments of his own life, he asks the reader to try to understand and relate to them. For instance, the memory of a four a.m. car ride, recalls another car ride, and reveals the invisible life of an ordinary moment: “But then, there’s this other car ride, isn’t there,/where I’m knowing it’s the last moment with someone,/that it’s the last moment we will still be in love, or something like it.”

In a Landscape asks the reader to feel a deeply intimate and philosophical connection to the lines on the page, to experience an inescapable questioning of oneself and life through vignettes of a life at once foreign and familiar, to abandon the unwritten rule of poetry that insists that we not equate speaker and author. The collection asks the reader to push through the long-lined philosophizing, extensive use of memoir, and near-constant questioning that is frequently left to the reader to answer. Do so, and you will inevitably find something which many other collections of poetry—though perhaps more traditionally beautiful or pleasing in form—fall short of achieving: An ability to bridge the deep disconnect that exists intrinsically within a population of human beings who above all else want to relate to each other. In the final poem, Gallaher writes:

And heaven is 7% smaller now, and has had to cut a couple whole departments. So we ask ourselves what’s left there, and we don’t know. But we start off anyway, because that’s what we do. And then one day we just stop.

We exist as a result of infinite unknowns. Gallaher recognizes that it is these unknowns, as well as the moments unique to each life and the associations which link one life to another, that best allow us to understand each other. His ultimate vulnerability, as well as his undeniable craft, leaves the reader with a rare sense of intimacy. By the time the reader reaches the above excerpt, which ends the seventy-one section poem, she finds herself in a comfortable acceptance that she, somewhere along the course of this collection, has become a part of the “we” that doesn’t know, but will “start off anyway.”

Chloe Forsell is a junior at SUNY Geneseo pursuing undergraduate degrees in English and French. She hails from a very small Lake Erie town in Chautauqua County, about an hour south of Buffalo. Chloe has developed many fleeting interests ranging from green tea to iridology. She was published in Gandy Dancer Issue 3.1, and is thrilled to be a current member of the Gandy Dancer team.


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Chloe Forsell

Water and Light

Trying on her rings is the most frustrating thing in your world. They never fit. You slide the tarnished silver band, adorned with a single deep red stone, over each of your peanut-butter-sticky fingers. It falls off. You slide it over your tongue, close your mouth, and the ring can’t escape. Its smooth surface, like her pale hands, glides over your tongue, your teeth, your fleshy cheeks; it glides so effortlessly in your mouth that it slips through the small space at the back of your tongue, down your throat, into your peanut-butter-sticky stomach. You half-smile: the ring is yours to keep.

You wish to swallow your mother. Her hair is as garnet red as the stone; translucent hands show lavender veins, pink cheeks, sapphire eyes. She is a rainbow. You are dirt, earth—brown, brown, and more brown. It’s not a matter of beauty, though. It’s distance. Impossible distance.


When you were too young to be left alone, you walked the streets of Buffalo together every day, hand in hand. Everything was simple and beautiful and shining. The streets were full of beautiful, shining people and you wanted to touch and meet them all. You ran from the curb of the sidewalk and just before your tiny foot touched the road, she grabbed your arm, spun you around, and enclosed you in a warmth that you would search for for the next fifteen years.

After the move, she starts working full-time. You decide to leave your new apartment and walk to Grandma’s all by yourself. You put on your determination boots and slosh through puddles all the way there. You cross a street without a crosswalk, and as your tiny foot touches the road you wonder where her pale hand is, why you aren’t being flung backwards into the safety of her freckled arms. You walk on, and the distance between the two of you grows greater with every step.

In school, you’re surrounded by rainbows. The teacher instructs you to draw your family portrait. You pick out four crayons: scarlet, apricot, cornflower, and sepia. Your classmate looks over at your picture and raises an eyebrow. He raises the same eyebrow when you walk in with your mother for open house. Everyone raises an eyebrow. “Were you adopted?” This question haunts your childhood, and you avoid it at all costs.


Your half-sister is born with amber hair, cobalt eyes, and coral lips. In the hospital, she is wrapped in distant yet familiar freckled arms, radiating on a spectrum you can never understand. The two of them are just out of reach; no matter how far you stretch your brown arms, you can’t touch them. Your stepfather hovers in the background, a quivering, terrified cloud above the double rainbow. You hardly see him, though. An intense blinding kaleidoscope flows from the infant to your mother and straight past you.

The three of you go grocery shopping and you learn to walk a few paces ahead of them. You don’t hold her hand. You don’t look at shiny surfaces that reflect the differences between you and your blood mother.

On a rainy day in February, you and your mother look through an iris catalog and decide to draw imagined gardens that someday (with enough money, enough time) you might plant. You gravitate towards the deep pinks, deep purples. She circles and highlights the whites, the sunset reds, the summer oranges. You compare sketches when you’re done. Her dreamy layout with swirling lines, bridges, pergolas, glass birdfeeders, and wild clumps of vibrant irises is enough to make you forget that it’s a rainy day in February. Yours is simply rows of flowers, separated by thin paths. Unsteady lines that should have been straight prompt another question that will haunt you: “I really can’t draw, can I?” She doesn’t have to answer for you to understand that there is no way to reach the end of a rainbow.

At your sister’s first grade open house, you get the same looks. She and your mother stand hand in hand, both round, dewed in freckles, glowing in ROYGBIV. “That’s my big sister,” she says, and she’s so proud of you she doesn’t seem to notice her classmates’ confusion. You walk over to the display of handmade pictures hanging on the wall. Your sister’s is beautiful, full of swirling crayon lines and steady strokes of color that your peanut-butter-sticky hands could never have made at that age. You feel ten thousand worlds away. She grabs at your hand, but you pull away.

You spend years pulling away. Teasing. Fighting. The damage becomes nearly irreparable, but wasn’t that inevitable anyway? No matter how close you get, you’ll never reach.

And meteorological phenomena sure do stick together. Everything is your fault. “You’re older, you should know better!” You resent the way their colors fade into one unified gleaming crescent of disappointment—disappointment in you.

During these years, you put up with your stepfather because you have to. He has exploded from that quivering cloud into a dark, desperate rain. He stumbles up and down stairs and slurs his words and your mother pretends none of it is happening. You’re afraid when she goes to work and leaves you with him, not because he will hurt you, but because you’ve never been surrounded by so much gray. “Why do you stay with him?” Your words pour as hard and unfaltering as a heavy storm.


Trying on her rings becomes something you don’t care to do. You ask for your own rings. You ask for your own phone. Your own room. You ask for a lot. And you get it.
Your mother sings as she cleans, kind of a ritual (she loves to clean; you’re so messy). Her voice is only ever half there; severed vocal chords mangle each note. “You’re tone deaf,” you mock over the buzz of the vacuum cleaner. You belt out a clearer version of “Moonshadow,” though you’ve grown to hate Cat Stevens (and your mother’s other favorites). She keeps singing, smiling. You roll your eyes, plug your ears, sing over her until her voice is crushed to nothing.

She tries to do some things for herself. Pilates is what sticks. She pops in Maury Winsor’s twenty-minute tape and lies her round body onto a mat on the living room floor. You are young, a dancer, athletic, you keep up, no problem. You laugh at her efforts until one day, you make her cry. “I just want twenty minutes for myself,” she sobs. You reach out your arms to hug her, but she slips right through. No matter how hard you try, she won’t stop crying.

Years later, you’re propped up on the corner of the kitchen counter while the heat from the oven warms your legs. You look around at your sixth and final home—the water stains on the ceiling, the puckering linoleum tiles. You ignore the impeccable design, the tireless hours of painting, the renovations that your mother could afford. You only see empty spaces, places that are lacking: her inability to cook a good meal, her hot temper, her shrill cracking voice, her favoritism, her lack of education, her poor choice in men, the ways she has failed you.

“Why don’t you just quit?” You interrupt her as she complains about her third shift job at the nursing home. Her voice breaks a bit as she explains that she can’t just quit. She wanted to go to art school. She wanted to move to Montana. She wanted, wanted, wanted. She wanted a lot. And she got none of it. You can’t help but carry a heavy question on your adolescent shoulders: Does she want you? Did she ever?

With each haunting question, you retreat a little farther into yourself. You build your wall a little higher—high enough to block the lighted arc that stretches its colors and (possibly) longs to be near you.

Trying on her rings begins to have a certain appeal again, but not because they are hers. Because she has nice jewelry. You’ve begun to define her by what she has. “Oooh, can I have this when you die?” You don’t even flinch when you ask. Digging through her boxes of vintage jewelry, you’re always attracted to the things that shine the most. A sterling silver band with a large colorful stone is what has caught your eye. “Yes,” she assures you. “It’s yours. You can have it now.” You slide it onto your finger and ignore the hurt in her voice. Still digging, she picks up one of her favorite pieces. It contains no stone, no shine, just a gold band; engraved on it, the name ‘Nancy.’ “Who’s Nancy?”

“I don’t know. I got it in a lot of random jewelry on eBay.” At this point, you don’t even try to understand her. Her rings never fit. It’s still so difficult, so frustrating. You know she hears your eyes rolling.

Adolescence is fading, and you are forgetting. Forgetting to tell your mother when you will be performing in school concerts. Forgetting to tell her that you’ve broken up with your boyfriend of four years, that your best friend is moving away. Forgetting to tell her about your pregnancy scare, about getting drunk for the first time—so drunk that you have only the memory of concrete and lips. Forgetting to tell her when you’re going out, when you’re coming home. Forgetting to tell her of your accomplishments, of your screw ups. She’s almost evaporated into the sky, completely forgotten.


Your family from Georgia visits for the first time in years. You hate these things. People pile into cars to meet at the cousins’ farmhouse and you join, of course. It’s the same as always—beer and barbeque, the parents reminiscing about their pot-smoking days (as if they are over), playing pranks on Grandma, watching all the rainbows, some ugly and some beautiful, all in incredible prismatic layers of generational similarity. “Doesn’t little Erin look just like her mother?” “Debbie sure has her father’s eyes!” “Oh, Connor got that spunk from Aunt Sarah!” You spend the day in a mist and the distance is greater than you could ever imagine—they are just illusions, tricks of the eye. You are here. Where are they?

In the fading light, a drunken aunt approaches you and whispers in your ear: “You’re so quiet and soft spoken, just like your mother.” You brush it off. You’re actually pretty loud, anyway. Certainly not soft spoken. Right? You’re just quiet around them because they’re practically strangers. You think. What does she know anyway? But the words linger like a fine dew stuck to your skin. Just like your mother. Just like your mother. Just like—.

Your mother decides it’s time to go and on the ride home, you let her sing uninterrupted.


When your stepfather gets too drunk for the last time, she tells him to leave. She’s done and she means it. You sit alone in your room and listen to your mother and sister cry through the thin floors when he finally leaves. You wish you could cry, if only to be closer to them. But you can’t. They love him. You can’t help but think it. You can’t help but hate yourself. After fourteen years of gray retreating in a single moment, you can’t help but realize you love him, too. And all of a sudden, you can. You can cry.

All at once, you’re almost an adult, and you’re sickeningly nostalgic. The sky is changing and you need to ground yourself. After all, you’re more made of earth than anyone you know. You pull out home videos from when your hands were still peanut-butter-sticky. As you sit on the floor, eyes locked on a world you’ve nearly forgotten, you don’t notice the holes in the wall of your old apartment, the faded carpet, the lack of furniture, where she tried as hard as she could not to fail you. You notice her voice. It was beautiful—deep, clear, vibrant. It flooded the room with unimaginable hues. “Before the surgery, I could sing, too. Like you,” she sits on the couch behind you and remarks. She can’t see you overflowing onto the carpet, but she can sense your awe. Like you.

You desire to know more, to see the other half. Old pictures and stories occupy months.

“You were such a rebel.”

“I was just passionate, stood up for what I believed in.” Like me.

“Why’d you end up going to nursing school? Your art is beautiful.”

“I had no support from anyone. Your grandma and grandpa didn’t help me.”

“Did you go because of me?”

“No, not in that sense.” She sacrificed for me.

You want to ask, you want to ask so badly. It’s on the tip of your tongue. She touches your head with a gentleness that you recognize from a million times before and you know the answer.


One day, you hate that ring you picked out. It’s gaudy, atrocious. You ask your mother if you can look through her boxes again. This time, you pick out a smaller silver band with a thin oval opal resting in its center. “That’s my favorite, you know. Opal is my birthstone.” As the words leave her mouth, you are overcome with a terrible sense of guilt. “Yes, you can have it when I die,” she jokes. Except it’s not even a little bit funny.

Trying on her rings becomes easier with time. You grow into them, into her. It only takes a few months to begin to fill in the gaps of whole years, the gaps where things can’t touch because they’re destined not to.
You stop searching for the end of the rainbow—it’s just reflection, refraction, the perfectly angled combination of water and light.

Just water and light. Earth and blood and bone. Lavender veins; pink cheeks; brown, red, amber hair. Particles of matter that are just as much alike as they are impossibly distant. You turn your mother’s ring over and over on your finger, and you’re flooded with a familiar desire. You clench your teeth to keep from swallowing.

Chloe Forsell is a sophomore English (Creative Writing) and French double major at SUNY Geneseo. She was born and raised in a small town about an hour south of Buffalo, where she grew into a cat-loving, bike riding, pizza fanatic. If Chloe were to become best friends with a fictional character she would befriend the tree from Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, because who could ask for a better friend?

The Phototroph >>

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