Slow Violence

A Special Feature edited by Sarah Ghazal Ali

There are costs to our living on this small, terminable planet. Daily these costs bear down on each of us, but their severity, visibility, and immediacy depend on who and where one is in the world. In his book Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Princeton professor Rob Nixon identifies slow violence as “violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all.” The world we inhabit is marked by disasters—climate catastrophe, vanishing species, famine, fast fashion, militarization—but the human eye is drawn only to the most spectacular and expeditious among them.

Today, eight months pregnant, I ask myself an unoriginal, timeworn question: what tomorrow am I ushering a child into, toward? By the time this issue of West Branch is in the world, my daughter will be, too, as will other daughters, other children. The cost of living is a calamity of multiplication and dispersal. And, as Nixon suggests, the most insidious repercussions are often also the most invisible. How much violence do we fail to recognize as real violence because its effects are displaced, reverberating somewhere beyond the thresholds of our homes, or postponed, dismissed as another generation’s problem?

Solmaz Sharif has said that “writing a poem is an action you can undertake anywhere,” that a poem’s “scrappy thereness” offers something akin to hope as we navigate the impositions of consumerism and carcerality. In the work of these nine poets, I locate a sense of that thereness. In these poems, gathered around the subject of slow violence, you will find speakers who face the costs of their living, who risk being bare and porous to varying instances of harm. I believe that the task of the poet is to resist the lure of obfuscating language, pretty policies and promises. Poems can excavate, investigate, agitate. These poems don’t pretend to have solutions for slow violences and long dyings, but they do bear witness and insist upon our interconnectedness across species, identity, place, and time.

I find here reminder after reminder that we are all beholden to one other, and that tomorrow can be made and remade until it resembles something new, something bright and beyond the conditions of capitalism. I hope the work assembled in this special feature proves meaningful to you, and that it enables the beautiful, collective work of imagining more. Thank you for reading and for being alongside us.

                                                —Sarah Ghazal Ali

Sarah Ghazal Ali is the poetry editor of West Branch and the editor of Palette Poetry. She is the author of THEOPHANIES, selected as the Editors’ Choice for the 2022 Alice James Award, and forthcoming in 2024. A 2022 Djanikian Scholar and winner of the Sewanee Review Poetry Prize, her poems appear in POETRY, American Poetry Review, Pleiades, The Yale Review, Guernica, and elsewhere.

Emilia Phillips

Vanitas (Planned Obsolescence)

Thumb a bubble
under an edge-
foxed sticker that says,
 that’s slapped
on the walk-light pole in a city that has no
sidewalks to the grocery, public
library, or even bus
stop. Break down an Amazon
box, peeling off
 its plastic-threaded packing
 tape, and shovel
the cardboard into the pile
of woodchip, curls of carrot
peel, mosaic-ed eggshell, Costco
coffee grounds (damp), leaves, and the spring
mix gone to liquid in the crisper
drawer. Your bank account
 is overdrawn, credit
 score fallen, and a crack
spiders across
your phone-
screen. An orb-weaver
does its thing
 in an artery or an eye
while you sleep. And what do you
 —could you—
on your hand
until it is prickling
  and numb?

Emilia Phillips (they/them/theirs) is the author of five poetry collections from the University of Akron Press, including Nonbinary Bird of Paradise (forthcoming, 2024) and Embouchure (2021), and five chapbooks.

Natalie Eilbert

In Situ Adaptation

At the climate change rally, I follow the teens, and no, I am not thinking
about the nine-inch sea level rise in New York since 1950,
topsoil erosion along Midwestern farmlands, the rills, gullies, and streams
that pour into a hypoxic Gulf, every short clip of annihilation
like a cold hand on the back soothing a cigarette burn. All these rolling
hills flattening under black vertical weather, always already inescapable.
I am thinking my body can barricade, can be rows and columns of eyes
like a vigilant Eden amid her beings. When the daisy chains and zip
ties come, the teenagers know to ball their apprehended fists
for the brief allowance of room in the hard carceral lines
cinched at the wrists. One day, this pain, a consonant pinching skin,
will deaden the waters forever. Every mass arrest is plastic, a future of
waste to choke on. The teenagers chant the song of dissent and I clench
and unclench the fantasy of a filled womb, the wet knot of never
as I cool against a Bank of America tower. And it’s true I shouldn’t
say never, but it enters me like a filthy gulp of lake water
as I sink three versions of me down. The crowd is a jawline stroked
in quiet moments, plasticking elsewhere as I dizzy in image
stations: stomped grasses in the greenway, a surface of earth that agrees
to sludge and lilies, lead and benzene, beer spit and Whitman.
O—, the devastated watersheds, the dream of a child, and I knew I knew
a bloom / a hyacinth / an oxygenation. Winds disperse every species into
cold land and hot land and I was so close to each day picking eyelashes from a
face on clean linens. This is what I tell myself: Even here, at
the end of all, I stayed in the lake at the bottom of my loneliness.

Do Not Intervene

The girl took the skull to the rim of a lake
and stared at her own skull glimmering back.
She rinsed the skull of matter and placed it
like a sailboat into the water, the water so still
we can call it the absence of a mind. She prayed
that the skull was the skull of a wolf but she isn’t
a lucky girl, only the lucky girls find such mandible
fortune. In truth, the skull must have been a deer
felled in the gamma wave that obliterated kindness.
We are not what we ever were. The planet spit us
back, a seed in its mouth. Now we rinse the dead
by the rims of lakes. We trace the jaw for flesh, hairs,
anything that might indicate wind pushed through
fibers of life. The girl removes a tick from her arm,
the flabby biceps extra juicy for the Ixodidae who rule
these parts. With her nails, she pinches her flesh
first, sacrifices blood to explode the suckling parasite.
She dismembers the tick body from her fatty riches
but the head digs deeper, wants to swim in her forever.
She returns to the skull. She returns to rinsing it
as if the world had ever heard silence, as if sound
even existed without our need of it. In the grass, she
pushes four fingers inside the eye socket. She tries
to recall the hand that folded laundry. Soft fabric.
What she wanted with this collection of skulls
is what we all want: a moonlight capable of love,
a moonlight that shows us we can still live here.

Earth (The)

On stolen land, I weep and refuse toast. I am told descriptions
of weather do not belong in the news unless the news is about
weather. Journalists should not describe the sky when reporting
on shootings. Chiaroscuro empowers the viewer to consider only
the focal point. I lick my finger to finger bread crumbs. I wash
my hands regularly. The virus “is not detected,” according to my
lab results, a grammar that pacifies the lab findings and the host
into inconclusive entities. On stolen land, my heart aches for a man.
I read the latest local coverage. Implosions from a recent plant demolition
lead to respiratory infection and virus susceptibility in the thousands.
No one was told of the plan. Years ago an acquaintance said that
love happens all the time. I think and I believe are semantically
separate. We insist reason lives outside of faith. I think it will rain,
and I believe it will rain. To look at the sky. What it takes to look up.

Natalie Eilbert is the author of three poetry collections, Overland (Copper Canyon Press, 2023), Indictus (Noemi Press 2018), Swan Feast (Bloof Books 2015). Eilbert lives in Green Bay, Wisconsin, where she is a statewide mental health reporter for USA Today.

Rachel Edelman

The Portrait

New Braunfels, Texas
A gold chain lassoes her neck
and drips into her lap.
In oil paint, their eyes look equal in age,
image splitting the difference
between her sixteen, his forty-one.
On his upturned palm,
the lay of her ringed right hand
seems to assure the viewer
she was willing.
In the parking lot I pass a rope
round and round, tying the frame to the roof rack
while my mother calls—
Tie a what hitch?
Won’t it fly off on the highway?
I thread the end through a cinched-down loop
and lean into the tension.
Out the window, oil derricks prowl
a brown horizon.
A timber yard
marquee says GOT LAND? LET’S BUILD.
When the roof rack’s hoo roo
ascends to a high hee
we pause at a pullout
choked with cardboard and diapers
to re-wind the rope around the frame.
We turn the painting over
to the small-town archive.
My mother insists
on a photo. I refuse
to smile. What she wants
taken care of
I want gone.
Where our ancestors
set their mill,
I watch an eddy circle
round and round,
mist of relentless motion
calling me into the stream.
I won’t reach for my mother’s arm.
I won’t paint another picture.

Rachel Edelman is a Jewish poet raised in Memphis and the author of the debut poetry collection Dear Memphis (River River Books, 2024). She teaches Language Arts in the Seattle Public Schools.

Leigh Sugar


A smile, when the officer commands I stop
touching you. The space between shame
and pleasure shorter than the scythe-
shaped stretch of shoulder
revealed when my shirt-sleeve slips off
the me whose swift hands leave your neck to right the slip
then return to my own lap. I sag,
guilty, still, still under the camera.
We resolve to resist resistance:
you are you and you are in here
and in here we take what we can get—
some touch is better than no touch.
Next time I will wear a shirt that stays
in its place.

To Be

If the girl is sick / Spanish knows / it is not forever: / la chica está inferma / not / es inferma. /
We have a word / to say / the door [ ] open. /
The gate [ ] locked. / The camera [ ] watching. / You [ ] wearing
a jumpsuit. / We [ ] not allowed to touch. / The room [ ] too full. / The fence
[ ] all around us. /
The sky [ ] sea-glass blue. / The cream [ ] sweet. / The tide [ ] high. / The flower
[ ] in bloom. /

Leigh Sugar is a Michigan and Brooklyn-based disabled artist. She holds an MFA from NYU, and poems appear in Poetry, Split This Rock, jubilat, and more. Her first poetry collection, Freeland, is forthcoming from Alice James (2025).

Benjamin Voigt


When Edison died, the lights did too:
the entire country sat in the dark one night
to mark his passing. The radio a candle
crackling in the speakeasy on State Street
for a full quiet minute. Stifled laughter.
Glass on teeth. The warm shoulder of a stranger
pressed up against yours at the bar.
A century later, more,
his company is dying. In Schenectady,
the General Electric sign glows above the highway
in neon hieroglyphics,
but each year more buildings disappear
from the old campus. Their power severed
one by one, they’re left to rust and deer.
Reports rest half-finished on the desks,
like a bomb erased the entire division
but left the office untouched. Outsourced,
the city is half the city it was.
Once, ideas were apples.
Then they were lightbulbs. What are they now?
It’s late,
and snow is falling on the dirty river,
covering the black ice and empty streets
and filling up the hourglass of night,
so that it’s lighter out as time runs down,
but not easier to see, exactly, no—
it’s just easier to see the dark.

Benjamin Voigt grew up in upstate New York on a small farm and the internet. His poems appear in Agni, ZYZZYVA, Poetry Northwest, Bennington Review and Fence. He works at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, and lives in Minneapolis.

Hajjar Baban


A sketch of a Kurdish man hangs on my wall. I can’t see his hands
but something on his head, something over his waist.
In the height not of what we are owed, but what we ran through
—in retreat forgoing need to force the sedentary—
O airspace not mine to recall in worry, what could then run in my veins
Staring at this, night alone with no image of father to trace, blue,
I was no fact inside of what made me.

Self Portrait with Caution

I waited for confirmation
against history. I painted the mountains
without red in the middle. Something
no one else could believe, red then
filled in me. I held it. I looked in the mirror
to be captured by another screen.
Before the warm light identified
the singular state in my small room
where I owe so much to what I couldn’t
tell is true, to reveal so little, I still split
myself. No other. Having lost
crucial facts I survived around missing
the women father wouldn’t let me know.
Would they be named for longing?
A noun of a name— relief, ease,
success? I was desperate to heed
the self. My way capturing. I lost
when asked to note the center
in the frame. Missing relief.
More negation. I asked for no
path. Stopping once again, every
interval to look around
for the only thing I’ve been taught,
despite my missing it early on,
to be watched.

Hajjar Baban is a Pakistan-born Afghan Kurdish poet. A 2021 P.D. Soros Fellow, she is a recent MFA graduate from the University of Virginia.

Mona Kareem
Translated from the Arabic by Sara Elkamel

Dead Lanterns

When we grow blind,
darkness repeats her question:
Who are you?
We are children who refuse to beg
except near prison bars,
which gnaw at our fingers
like parents.
There is no mural left
to house us
like angels.
No longer are the heavens
seven; and our souls too
perish like mercy.
Anguish and hope are drifters
discarding their daughters
near dead lanterns.
Flowers blacken,
and as it grows older, the earth
steals years off its grass.
Our neighborhood’s Death Dancers
have governed longer than kings
and the City Assassins
are obsessed
with our doorsteps.
We hover over a crowning newborn
screaming straight at us:
Should I get my mother
to stop giving birth to me?

Sara Elkamel is a poet, journalist, and translator living between Cairo and NYC. Her poems have appeared in Poetry Magazine, The Yale Review, Ploughshares, Gulf Coast, and in the anthology Best New Poets (2020 & 2022), among other publications. Mona Kareem, a native of Kuwait, is a writer, translator, and literary scholar. She is the author of three poetry collections and three book-length translations. A recipient of a 2021 NEA literature grant, Kareem has been a fellow/resident at Tufts University, Princeton University, Poetry International, Arab-American National Museum, Norwich Center, and Forum Transregionale Studien.

Mira Rosenthal


the orange poppies grew in bunches across the field and the white ones climbed the half-fallen fence
and both somehow were able to self-propagate each year
despite the lack of rain, raising their sex organs
into the air for scavenging bees, how light and gentle everything seemed: wing trill and pollen dust and the effortless
weave of stem through barbed wire
everyone called the white ones fried eggs, sizzling and hopping in the pan of blue sky
teasing the tips of the wire to prick them open
they smeared their pollen like yolk on our shins as we climbed through
and when we ran as a pack in high grass, who knew or cared that picking the orange ones to make a posy
was forbidden, against state law
what good is consciousness except to draw a line
we live our lives longing to cross, and of course our mothers tried
to rid the field of vines, digging up each runner, pulling them out of the ground
till they snapped
and of course, they came back
and if I lay my head against the earth and pressed an orange petal to my tongue
it clung to my speech like a wet silk scarf
and tangled up my meaning
till I had no choice but to spit or to swallow or to quip in a gibberish that made the others laugh
sometimes near the end of summer the dying
vines revealed a nest with bits of shell intact
and other random stuff thought gone for good: a whiffle ball, a crumpled note in secret code
no one remembered, once a velvet purse with the drawstring still closed
holding four baby teeth inside
teeth the soil would claim eventually in some yard or garbage dump, take back the note, the ball forgotten again
in some frenzy of buying new objects, but for
a long while as a girl I thought
my job was to collect what once was deemed worth saving
so when the keeper came, I’d have the thing they sought
a mason jar of driveway rocks for sure and also
the child who thought their jaggedness in gray exquisite, worth saving, and also
some glitter that commands in its gravelly voice: give up your cleanliness and scatter
the light, for sure this flower
drawn in foam on my cappuccino, how its petal pulls toward the lips
in an act of being I practice
with each breath since breath began, can’t fathom how the tide will subside one day, those final moments of distortion
when everything elongates in time like that time by G’s bed as she took her last few breaths, her eyes glassy, lips cracked
cupping her hand in the cup of my palm to press it to my cheek and also
snow, the way it smells of ghosts and sits on branches and sticks to glass
the taste of rust in the flake on the tongue
what ceases to be visible but is as I stare out across the field’s whiteness and also
the ash of a fire burned out
on a grate inside the house, how we’ve learned to keep the flame discrete, the slag of a life neatly placed
into an urn or in a box or as too many trinkets behind glass and bobbles packed away we think we’ll need someday but surely not
these receipts, not this dust that fills the room with musty longing
kept too long from long ago, though now as long as we’re still counting then for sure
this mug and the ordinary hand that grips it and what
the hand was taught, each stitch it knows to pull to place each letter on a cloth, to make words up from thread and tension, or what about
the fingertip’s press on a clarinet’s key, the squawk and spit, the hours of practicing
how to walk, how to talk, what to do with the flush of rage, the blush of mistake
how to cut with scissors a line of paper dolls or a snowflake or a string
of DNA in the infinitesimal realm that makes us up
inside this hat, inside this mushy brain I wish were taut from weekly pilates I never seem to stick with long and also
long underwear in winter, the swish of a dress on summer’s bare legs, a sniff of autumn’s wool wrapped round the neck, the animal
of us some people shave, the armpit fragrant with musk
that lingers as a body passes
in this coffee shop, and now at last
the two of them who’ve been here all this time, debating some concept and waving their hands and rendering their thoughts so utterly as music to my ears because their talk comes in a language
I’ll never learn to speak
and if this poem is me mucking around in some garbage dump where we put what we deem to be rubbish, junk, debris
and tenderly call landfill
and if this is me saying poppy again so you won’t get lost in the hills of the land we’ve created
so as not to forget
so as to expect these images behind my eyes in the taste of the dirt you place in your mouth
and if this is the line where you choose
to spit it out – your truth
tattered in the wind like a blossom still clinging to a barbed wire fence
then there’s no need to extend the headlands any further into the bay
we’ve come to the end of the earth
having ventured out to this region where the leaves have changed their color
having no real sense of what the numbers really mean, the population soaring while the shore rises up in inches, inches
having been brave enough to go into the world as a woman
alone, having picked up a stick
to lean on as I walk, having walked a long way
into the valley where an owl swooped across the path, a rat suspended from its talon, and then landed where I could view the theft
a moment in a branch
having the opposite of a desire to move again
having no real place to go that might be less in danger
of flooding, or burning, or sliding into the bay
having worried and tried to find a way to make the world more comfortable for my daughters, having wrapped the silence round all that I love
having stood at the kitchen counter with them and cursed
the crust again, again my mother’s voice instructing inside my head how to keep
from working the dough too much, though that’s exactly what I’m doing, trying to get the whole thing
to stick together, having believed language might just help us mourn the passing of this earth, having had too much
of human cruelty against each other as equally against the land
having recognized the empty space where the dirt was scuffed, where some fluff remained, where the owl came down to a clearing and wrenched the body open
having bitten the crust that came out a bit tough, having tasted
the apple’s flesh, soft against the tongue, cinnamon and the faint tang of the local variety to remind me where I’m from
I come back to the poppies, having plucked them when we were young
having broken the law
having known what we’d done

Mira Rosenthal is the author of Territorial, a Pitt Poetry Series selection and finalist for a 2022 Indies Book of the Year award, and The Local World, winner of the Wick Poetry Prize. She is an associate professor of creative writing at Cal Poly.

Makshya Tolbert

Tree Walk with Changes

Let us weave
a tree grammar painfully dendritic
Careful of the willow oaks
We are all hazards now
Some shade leaves
Some sun leaves then shade leaves
 Take these pins from my hands
    I’ve done enough
to these trunks
These trees scare me lean
  It’s how they lean
 That makes me worry
You start to see the changes
You could stick a pin through this tree
Weeping under willows
That do not weep Just look
At them Dying but no tears
Nobody really looks up anymore
Some mornings I walk right up
to the trees hello trees
 There is this long black drip
Is this the long black language
  Is it almost time
To have lived already  to linger  Just a little longer

Weather (v.)

Thank you for weathering.
We come through safely,
we blow. How will we be
here together? To be or not
to be my own tempest.
Some commotion,
some expanse of yesterday
leaves in the morning.

We are our own balloons.
Yes, let’s call life a season.
Willow leaves blow
from one park to another.
Storm to storm,
we wind a language.

Makshya Tolbert (she/they) is a poet and potter who recently made her way back to Virginia. Based on Monacan and Manahoac land,

Makshya writes and practices in Charlottesville, Virginia.