We’re so delighted to welcome A. J. Huffman and her poetry to Fictional Cafe. A.J. is a poet and freelance writer in Daytona Beach, Florida. She has published 27 collections and chapbooks of poetry. In addition, she has published her work in numerous national and international literary journals. She is currently the editor for Kind of a Hurricane Press literary journals.
Two Boards Don’t Always Equal An X
I wear his depression for hours. Like a crown
of duller thorns, it does not bleed me. But breeds
a bizarre dissension. I understand the gray it is shading.
Around my edges it appears. Colder than his. He shudders.
Mistaking the chill for lore. It is not your soul leaving your body.
I sigh. (It is my soul trying to breathe.) You worry I am not
strong/safe/alive enough to hold you. You are wrong
(Such a backwards remark.) in your terminology
not your implementation. We compress like this for hours.
Thinking in time to the pulsing alarm. It is too distant
to hurry. Too close to abhor. Instead we just touch:
forehead, cheek, chest. (Palms are forbidden in this particular
crucifixion.) Waiting for our dreams to cross.
Betting on Midnight
to turn me back
into a pumpkin, I prowl
the remaining minutes like a vampire,
devouring the magical silence
of a moonless forest. Princely
blood stains my hands—permanent
shadows easily lost in the mist.
I am temporary
princess in this welcome purgatory.
First toll signals countdown . . .
3 . . .
2 . . .
1 . . .
after Linda Marcille’s Nights Flight Towards Dawn, 2011
Raven leaps from branch, entwines with darkness, dives
into universal envelope of ebony embrace, disappears
completely from eyes searching for hint of feathers,
glint of moonlit eye. In its place, hovering above the bark,
a breath of static sparks, shimmers in perfect reflection
of the ghost bird it follows. The strange polar shadow
lingers, turns as if to laugh at any onlookers before raising
its own phantom wings and evaporating into the echoing night.
Sex on a Flower
Two ladybugs match
spots dance mirroring the motion
of the petals. Rising breathing
rolling on the fluttering moonbeam.
merging with the memories of
such a sensual scene.
I Dream in Desperate
attempt to escape my life. I cling
to any ephemerality, however impractical
or improbable. In my hands, talking
mountains and beer-
drinking fish become anchors,
lifelines to sanity. Behind closed lids,
I am free
to understand what it means to breathe.
A big Welcome! to Morouje Sherif, who is publishing her charming, impressionistic poetry with us for the first time.
can’t recall which narrow boulevard but
i remember the view from above—
crystal water glistening in relief, a crisp jangle of waves
curling into light foam, crashing and ebbing
had it been a stray breeze in the night.
we can reflect on the lavish Mediterranean blues, the richest sun
that paints each follicle from piercing brunette
to opulence—like a grandmother braiding hair
with mist rising from quivering flesh.
and I’ll reminisce on
tireless sellers with handsewn orange beach towels and Egyptian cotton shirts
seashell necklaces that can be wished upon, a thousand palm keys
encrusted in vivid colour—
and I’ll reminisce
sitting on that seventh-storey veranda beside fragile
balsamines, with arugula sandwiches, mauve plums &
feta. make way for
the evening sun, ablaze, spilling summer’s rosewater
—making way for the carriages to
Luxor and Hurghada. these white streetlights aglow
lead us steady—
like quarrelling mosquitos in the dusk.
and I will reminisce
on the patisserie beneath your childhood house
know this was short-lived (consequence not choice) when
you sat at that table with your language of orange pekoe
so stay at ease when I recall that
you sleep uneasy
with the yellow light of a bedside lamp
floral blankets etch brutal shapes into your spine,
gifted by your sister (back when friends was an active term for
those breathing above the water)
—and let’s remember the framed picture of your late mother beside the lamp and
the mug of ritual milk tea in your hands, an inanimate hug for your kidney stones.
solemnly falling in the barren fridge, packets of Turkish coffee
embody remnants of your happiness . . . but
even though we can never replicate that moment in life,
your presence is all I need.
The Purple-Tinted Window
& the peonies and gladiolas are
more seductive each fall. I choose
slips of peony roots three buds full
of colour that may prosper
years from today.
I dig shaggy gladiola corns
plumped on slender stalks, next year’s
replacement for the exhausted stalks of
colour-trumpets to the sky:
purple (steeped in black), regal crimson,
slim Abyssinian, lavender
that cried out to tender orange;
bulbets cling, intent on avenues of their own.
Beauty’s nonchalant kindness still accepts
the slow learning of my eyes &
a few days of October sun—
always an unexpected surprise.
I plant the evening slips; come and sort the corms
possessed by past and future blooms.
Even now I fear joy might never
be allowed back in my window
but resonance is a different eye that opens—
prospering its youthful permissions.
I can still see the calm in your eyes
white seashells washed in two different oceans
the balsam trickle in your veins
lead us through blonde grasses against autumn frost
here: in languid mouthfuls turning every
pocket and dropping tomorrows in vast fields
& in sun, on this softness, I resonate
some shy part of me is always
sitting here. No wisdom, no plan. Full
of palms, anguished Abyssinian—
no notion of who I’m singing to.
Morouje Sherif is an Egyptian-Canadian writer who adores apricots, verdancy, and temperate climates. Growing up in the Mediterranean, she has a vicarious thrill for feel-good compositions and the traverse of truth. Her work has appeared in the international Minds Shine Bright prize, published in the CONFIDENCE (2022) global anthology, The Poetry Society of UK, The Blue Marble Review, Reedsy Prompts, SOFTBLOW, and elsewhere. Asides from writing, she enjoys judging dubious architecture, the colour sage, and drinking herbal teas on the weekends.
Over the past five years, Charles Rammelkamp has become a perennial contributor of prose fiction and poetry, often weaving them together in tales about real people. We’re delighted to share his latest opus, in seven movements, about the lives of burlesque dancers.
Promises Made, Promises Kept
“Always a mother but never a bride, that is my doleful admission. An actress at heart, I went wrong from the start by giving the groom an audition.” - Gypsy Rose Lee, The G-String Murders
I came a long way from Xenia, Ohio,
where I was one of four sisters,
on stage by the time I was four,
dancing in vaudeville shows.
When vaudeville died, we moved to burlesque –
still dancing, but without any clothes.
No longer Rosie Rowland, I called myself
Roz Elle, Rose Zell, and other variations.
We’d moved on to New York,
dancing on Fourteenth Street for $3 a day,
five shows daily, six on weekends.
My specialty? Wearing only a coat of gold paint.
Nils Granlund discovered me –
the man credited with inventing the nightclub –
paid me $60 a week to dance in gold paint
at his Irving Place Burlesque.
Clifford Whitley whisked me away to London
to dance at the swanky Dorchester House,
Rose Zell and “Les Girls” performing
at midnight to packed audiences.
That’s where I met the Baron, Jean Empain,
who fell for me, love at first sight,
smitten by my “Goldie ” act,
the Baron fifteen years my senior – and rich.
We traveled to Egypt, the Belgian Congo –
safaris, hunting big game, decadent parties.
We became engaged; I quit dancing for good.
But the Baron had a problem.
Having only had a daughter by his first wife,
Mathilde Marie Hoffman, he said he’d marry me
only if I gave him a son. When Wado was born
in Budapest, November, 1937, Jean kept his promise.
The Further Adventures of the Rowland Sisters
After Diane died in 1944, heart failure
brought on by scarlet fever, only twenty-nine,
Betty and I stayed especially close.
She’d dance for decades to come,
headlining at Minsky’s and elsewhere,
a flaming redhead known as “the Ball of Fire.”
Me, I called it quits at twenty,
when I married the Baron.
Betty often came to Europe,
staying for weeks with us
at the Château Bouffémont,
our home thirty kilometers from Paris.
When the Baron joined the war for France,
he was locked up in a concentration camp,
after an injury. The Nazis took over the Château.
We were forced to flee to Vichy.
Accused of collaborating with the Nazis,
my husband fled to Spain after France’s liberation,
but he was buried in France
in his Belgian uniform, in 1946.
After the Baron died,
I remarried his cousin, Edouard Empain.
During the worst of the war,
my sisters implored me to come to America,
but I couldn’t abandon my son Wado,
a Belgian citizen, not allowed leave the country.
In 1978, kidnappers plucked Wado from a Paris street,
demanded 80 million francs for his release.
Known as “Monsieur Nucléaire” Wado’d been granted
the rights to build 16 new atomic power plants
by the French government.
The gang held him for sixty-three days,
Chained in darkness, starved, beaten.
In the end, they cut off part of his ring finger
before they released him.
What a life! What if I’d just stayed in Ohio?
Ashea Wabe claimed she was the original “Little Egypt,”
but she just cashed in on her 1896 notoriety
when she danced at the Seeley banquet in New York,
a swank Fifth Avenue bachelor party
for well-to-do aristocrats.
The vice squad raided when they heard
she was going to be nude.
“In my all-together,” she’d boasted.
After that, Oscar Hammerstein hired her
to perform at the Olympia Theater as “Little Egypt.”
But I was the real original “Little Egypt,”
performing under the stage name of Fatima.
I got my start at the Bird Cage Theater
in Tombstone, Arizona;
a large portrait of me with six bullet holes,
one just above my belly-button,
still hangs over the saloon.
But I appeared at the famous “Street in Cairo” exhibition
on the Midway at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair,
in a show called “The Algerian Dancers of Morocco.”
I was the one who popularized the Hoochie Coochie shimmy.
“Little Egypt” was my backstage nickname.
because of my size: everybody called me “Little Egypt.”
Others claimed the title, too, of course.
Fatima Djemille was in the 1896 film
Coochee Coochee Dance as “Little Egypt.”
Lorraine Shalhoub, a five-foot Syrian
from Brooklyn, used it, too,
but Ashea was the one who got under my skin.
I felt bad when her sister found Ashea dead
in her West 37th Street apartment,
a gas asphyxiation, in 1908,
but me, I’d continue to dance as “Little Egypt”
all across Europe;
as late as the 1933 Century of Progress in Chicago,
when I was already 62.
Ave atque vale
She started dancing in San Francisco in 1961
after winning an amateur strip contest
at the North Beach nightclub, Moulin Rouge.
She was just seventeen, you know what I mean.
Birth name Angel Cecelia Helene Walker;
her full stage name? Wait for it –
“Satan’s Angel, the Devil’s Own Mistress,
Queen of the Fire Tassels,”
her signature act lighting her tassels aflame,
then putting them out
“by means of strenuous mammary rotation.”
A dervish, she twirled
five tassels at a time, two on the nipples,
two on the buttocks, one on the navel,
all of them licking flames.
Hailed as a trailblazer by Dita Von Teese,
Catherine D’Lish and Immodesty Blaize
(“Satan’s Angel is over 60, still taking her clothes off,
so I don’t see why I shouldn’t carry on
for a long while yet,” Blaize enthused.),
in the Sixties she played bass for The Hummingbirds,
an all-girl topless cover band,
performing nightly at Tipsy’s in North Beach;
danced at the Palamino Club, the Silver Slipper,
toured the world with her fire tassel twirling act.
She’d retired in 1985 but resumed her act in 2002,
inspiring a new generation of burlesque stars.
When she died in Los Angeles, 2019, pneumonia,
one admirer eulogized,
“Satan’s Angel is like a burlesque Elvis.”
She’d inspired a whole new generation.
“This exuberant woman was over 50,
presenting burlesque the way
it had always been done before.
She changed everything,” another admirer mourned.
Hail and farewell, Satan’s Angel!
Was Bettie Page a Real Person?
This is what it’s like to be a cult figure, I guess.
Larger than life. What becomes a legend most?
Hefner called me “an iconic figure in pop culture,
who influenced sexuality and fashion.”
Whatever. I was “Miss January, 1955,”
known as “Queen of the Pin-Ups.”
It’s even on my gravestone.
“Dark Angel,” another nickname for my bondage films,
earned me a subpoena from Estes Kefauver’s
subcommittee on juvenile delinquency!
Born in Nashville, but we moved around a lot
before we came back for good.
My daddy spent a couple years in prison in Atlanta,
car theft, but he started molesting me sexually
when I was thirteen, back in Nashville.
My mom was a hairdresser, where I got my love
of makeup, hairstyles, and costumes.
When I married Billy and he got drafted,
we traveled all around when he was in the Army –
San Francisco, Miami, Part-au-Prince.
But we divorced in 1947 – I was twenty-four –
and I moved to New York to become an actress,
got into modeling for photographers instead.
Irving Klaw’s BDSM themes made me famous –
abduction, domination, spanking, slave-training pin-ups,
Irving’s Teaserama with Lili St, Cyr and Tempest Storm.
But maybe it was Bunny Yeager’s Bettie Page Confidential
that really made me famous – nudes with a couple of cheetahs.
But at the height of my fame, in 1957,
I gave it all up, disappeared –
hence the legend, I guess, the “mystery.”
I’d found Jesus, given up my acting career
for a higher purpose than
my trademark bangs, heels and provocative poses.
Not that I was ashamed of any of it.
As I told The Los Angeles Times in 2006.
I want to be remembered as a woman
who changed the way people saw nudity
in its natural form.
But when all those people ask if I was “real”?
What is “reality,” anyway?
Maybe “Bettie Page” was never a real person.
I was living on my Social Security checks,
barely squeaking by, attacked my landlady;
I’d suffered a nervous breakdown,
found not guilty of assault by reason of insanity,
tossed into a California mental institution.
But I’d been born again, began
studying the Bible, worked for Billy Graham.
The Godfather of Atlanta burlesque?
That would be me, Torchy Taboo – aka, Eva Warren.
I started out in the early 1990’s,
winning a Bettie Page lookalike contest,
and then boom! I win the 2014 Sassy Lassie
at the 2014 Burlesque Hall of Fame in Las Vegas!
A lifetime achievement recognition
for pioneering the Atlanta burlesque revival.
This means the motherfucking world to me!
It was at TeaseORama 2001 that I developed my fire act,
lighting my bra on fire! A handmade set
of vinyl breast plates the secret. Genius!
That was the big turning point in the revival.
I called the act “The Flaming Heart.”
Burlesque is alive and well here in the Bible Belt.
Long live stripping down in Dixie!
Me, I’m Blanche Dubois living a Mata Hari delusion.
The Day Burlesque Died
I got into the business when I was fifteen,
a cashier at Minsky’s Republic Theater on 42nd Street
in the midst of the Great Depression.
My break came when one of the girls failed to show up
and I got to go onstage.
By the time I hung it up,
I was earning $2,500 a week,
in the Forties and Fifties.
Born Rosina Dapelle, I took the stage name Rose LaRose.
My specialty? A “reverse strip,”
appearing on stage with little on,
then getting dressed in front of the audience.
At 5’4” I was a petite little firecracker.
Burlesque is so much more than stripping.
It’s costumes, comedy, dancing and singing.
I got out of touring in 1958, when my mother got sick,
wanted to settle down.
That’s when I got the Town Hall Theater in Toledo.
I helped Gerri Paredes – aka, Alexandra the Great 48 –
develop her act, mentored other girls, too.
After the city razed Town Hall for an urban renewal project,
I bought the Esquire on North Superior,
a few blocks north of Adams Street,
which prompted the Toledo council to ban burlesque.
I fought it in Federal court, got an injunction.
We’d already gone to adult movies, occasional live shows,
but I figured my customers would protest
when I put in that second screen.
But you know what?
They just kept coming for the porn movies.
That’s when I knew burlesque was dead.
I just couldn’t bring myself to say it out loud.
Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for BrickHouse Books in Baltimore. His latest poetry collection, A Magician Among the Spirits, poems about Harry Houdini, is a 2022 Blue Light Press Poetry winner and has just been published. Another poetry collection entitled Transcendence has also just been published by BlazeVOX Books. A collection of flash fiction, Presto!, will be published in 2023 by Bamboo Dart Press.
So ends Week 2. All of us at The Fictional Café hope you’re enjoying this wonderful poetry! Next Wednesday is Week 3, and three more poets, then more for Week 4! The poets would love to hear from you, so please send us your Comments below. Thank you!