Poetry: Brain Drain

As a Southerner, I’ve balanced systemic racism and my knowledge of what’s right my entire life. And some of the most heinous words I’ve ever heard are: “This is how it’s always been.” Those six words are what an older generation tells you when you question why things are set up unfairly. Those are the words put up to hinder progress.

In Mississippi, the state I was raised in, there’s a concept called “brain drain”. Intelligent people leave the state in droves. Like rats leaving a sinking ship. And commissions have been set up to analyze why. Intelligent people give intelligent responses to the problem that no one wants to hear. And we’re so outnumbered by ignorant masses who would rather we just left. And so we do.  And that’s the crux of the matter. Intelligent people are a minority in the South, and they will be driven out, unless they are protected. To address the brain drain, Mississippians have to reconsider their treatment of minorities as a whole.

As I contemplated the problem again while I battled insomnia last night, I kept thinking how people said my education ruined me. And this is what I wrote.

Brain Drain


“Education ruined her.”

That’s what they said about me.

“We don’t need nobody with book learnin’.”

So, I decided to leave.


I let the pages teach me

what no Mississippian would.

That old white men can only rule the world if we keep electing them.

That there are no less-than-humans.

That Jesus doesn’t kick mixed people out of church for not being born white enough.

That separate is never equal.


“Education ruined her.”

That’s what they said about me.

“Those liberal colleges indoctrinated her.”

But universities attract what they seek.


“She thinks she knows more than us.”

And what if I definitely do?

I noticed the bad statistics and flawed logic permeating the arguments.

Did you?


I spoke for justice, for equality, for change.

But my voice didn’t carry over the roar of opinion.

My facts fell before men who called me strange.

Ignorance is as good as knowledge in their dominion.


I let education ruin me.

You should do the same.

Where Angels Can’t Follow: Chapter 2

“When it comes to art, it’s important not to hide the madness.”—Atticus

The forks clinked against the plates as we ate in silence. When my belly’s full of fried veggies and meat, I have to acknowledge that it’s bratty not to change a few light bulbs without feeling put upon. And my guilt deepened as I realized my attention’s been divided between the spiral I sent Kiah into and the angel girl in my mind, none of it on Marge. My eyes drifted to the New Orleans Daily newspaper lying on the table.

Statue Smashers Strike St Louis Number Three

The angels that once perched atop mausoleums for St. Francis’s Abbey and the Milleneaux Family tombs have been sledged off their bases. According to our source, the statues “weren’t just knocked down; they were beaten into dust!” (See p. C7 for rest of story)

Marge followed my gaze and opined, “Can you imagine what sorta lowlife goes ‘round smashing statues on people’s final resting places?” She clucked. “I just don’t know what’s got into people.”

I nodded my agreement and was looking for words when Marge continued, “I saw the old home director at the store today.”

I nod. What’s there to say? No love had been lost between Team Kiah and Nate and the New Orleans Home for Wayward Children. It actually says that on the sign. Kiah and I didn’t start out there, but when we both were placed there, we raised hell until we found our way out.

“How’s she doin’?”

“She asked about you and Kiah. Said she still thinks taking your GEDs and moving out was a mistake.”

“Dead horses we gotta keep beating.”

“Now, speaking of Kiah, don’t you think it’s about time she started acting like a girl? Made some girl friends?”

I tried not to choke on my food as her abrupt subject change left me reeling. She slapped me on the back, and I finally eked out some words, “Oh, no! You’re not dragging me into this! There’s no way I am getting involved in a Kiah—Grace dispute. There’s no winning that one.”

“Well, of course, it can be won. Don’t be ridiculous. You just have to encourage her to go to a few places where she could actually meet the right kind of girls, you know?”

Little did she know, Kiah would love to meet the right kind of girls. Just not that kind. “Uh-huh. I see. My answer is still no. I’m not gonna be responsible for my business partner getting dragged to places that make her miserable.”

Marge looked like she wanted to grab me by my ear and force my cooperation on Operation Cinderella. But we don’t have any fairy godmothers here, just the Hatters and one opinionated teenage girl.

“Well, if you ain’t gonna help with Kiah, let’s talk about the hunk of rock taking up half my garage space.”

The women in my life really know how to press my buttons. I stalled with bites of food.

“What do you want to discuss?” I finally asked.

“Are you gonna move it somewhere else? Are you gonna carve it? If so, what are you carving?” Clearly, the questions had built up while I was gone. “Oh, and did you figure out who delivered it? And why?”

“Whoa. One at a time. I haven’t planned to move it. Do you really need me to? And, yes, I think I am gonna carve it.”

I thought maybe a few answers would suffice, but Marge sat there waiting for the rest of them. She locked her steely, knowing eyes on mine.

“You know darned well that I can outwait you, Nate. And that pie I made earlier’s gonna wait, too, if you don’t answer my questions.”

I know when I’ve been outmaneuvered. Kiah and the Hatters have been working me into whatever plots they’ve had for a year now. And they know about one of my serious weaknesses—food.

Sighing, I answered, “I’ve been thinking about it, and I’m gonna carve an angel of sorts.”

Her smile carved deeper creases around her eyes and mouth, but the light of her approval warmed me already. “An angel! How wonderful! I can’t wait to tell the girls. Ooooh! Something divine in my garage!” She clapped her hands together, before drawing up short. “I have one concern though—she’s gonna be wearing clothes, right? This ain’t gonna be like that poster in your room, is it?”

Here we go again.

“Now, Marge. I already told you. There’s nothing weird about those posters. If anything, there’s something kinda nerdy about them. That naked statue that so offends you is Michelangelo’s David. The others are his work, too. There’s nothing obscene about it. It’s art!” I waved my arms around for emphasis, punctuating the last word in my exasperation.

I still hadn’t answered the question, and she mulishly crossed her arms, waiting for my answer.

“No, she’s not gonna be naked! Christ!” I ducked as Marge swatted at me with the newspaper for taking the Lord’s name in vain. “Ack! Lay off, Marge. Seriously. She’ll have clothes.”

Still clutching the paper, but the tension gone from her brows, she went to grab the chocolate pie as I wondered what kind of clothes she thought should appear on an angel. She’s happy about the clothing situation now, but she doesn’t know that I’ll basically be carving Sarah Connor with wings. The thought of her shock sweetened the chocolate in my mouth even more, and I savored my pie as I thought about the spiky blades protruding like porcupine quills on my angel’s thighs and arms.

I listened to the nuances of working in a new medium in Sculpture 2. Mrs. Carmichael droned about the benefits of working in clay and the disadvantages. I am more of a doer than a listener though, always have been, and I fidgeted with the ball of clay before me. I can’t let it go, pounding the piece between my palms, and my hands are operate independently of my mind, stroking and shaping the ovoid piece into an unusual teardrop. My fingertips pinched the rounded edges, adding rounded steps to the project, and I barely heard Mrs. Carmichael in the background as the other students began rolling their clay.

I should be worried about my instructions, but I find no space for that in my head. I only saw filaments, fibers, details of the wing. I etched the details into the outline I’ve made, the foundation for my project. I scraped with my scalpel and a tiny pick to get each filament, each feather to match the picture in my mind. I should quit. I should apologize for zoning out and find out what’s going on, but I can’t.  I didn’t want to. I wanted to practice, I wanted to see my angel finished. I needed to bring her into my world. I looked up and saw the rest of the students trying to make a basic bowl shape. I could press my clay into a hollow hemisphere. I could have still gone back, but I didn’t. I etched and fluffed the clay ridges until I have a wing. And I never learned to etch or fluff. I am more than inspired. I am driven, compelled to carve. I would say that I’m possessed of a mad angel-sculpting spirit, but who does that? That’s crazier than needing to sculpt. But I couldn’t break the wing beneath my palm. I already love her.

My reverie broke as a classmate bumped into me. The other students were filing out, and Mrs. Carmichael stared at me and my work. “What are you doing?” she asked, kindly demanding some explanation for my deviation.

“I don’t know,” I mumbled, my pulse racing as I was caught. “I just couldn’t get it out of my head.”

She didn’t give me the you’re-a-psycho look I expected though. Instead, she kindly patted my hand and her eyes filled with sympathy. “I know what you mean. I get things in my head, and I can’t sculpt anything else either. It is weird that you chose wings though.”

There it was. An acknowledgement of my inherent oddity.

She looked at me suggestively. “Would you like to see my studio?”

Curious, and more than a little cautious, I nodded my assent and scooped up my books as I cradled the wing. Is she hitting on me? I haven’t gotten any creepy vibes off of this woman before, but Kiah and I have learned the hard way that not every threat exudes violence. I towered over my petite teacher. I shouldn’t feel threatened, but I can’t shake the ominous feeling, that sense of inevitability as defining moments lurk around a corner we can’t glimpse.

We walked across the campus, in a mostly uncomfortable silence, the tension rising. I could practically hear the violins shrieking in my skull, goosebumps warning me that nothing was normal here.

An old brick building’s first floor housed the instructors’ studio, and I was prepared to see abstract pieces, nudes like David, and huge canvases, scribbles of ideas on scraps of paper. Instead, I was surprised by the number of instructors all working at the same time. Don’t y’all take time off? And then I saw the four artists in this room were shaping, sketching, painting—a room crowded with angels.

“Welcome to the Angel Guild,” she joked.

“The Angel Guild?”

“I’m afraid that you know what I mean. You were approached by the Valkyries about getting justice for someone you love, right? And, all of a sudden, you’re fixated on one project. And not just the image, the inspiration, but on how you should do it. What material, what size. You know it all, don’t you? And it’ll culminate in a marble angel.”

I stood there, dumbfounded as she told me parts of my new life story.

“Kind of.”

“And your marble’s been delivered?”

I grew cold with horror as her confounding knowledge chilled me. “Uh-huh.”

She pushed her chunky hipster glasses up the bridge of her nose. “You’d best stick with us. Not everyone will understand what you’re going through.”

I couldn’t believe that she will either. I wanted to ask if her marble pulses, if it’s alive. But I’ve concealed my obsession so far.

“Is this some kind of joke? I didn’t get a ‘Let’s Make a Deal’ offer from a—did you say, ‘valkyrie’?”

I knew my tone was biting, but I don’t like being pranked.

“It’s not a joke. And I’ve never heard of the Inspiration not coming from Valkyrie class angel, a Fury, or one of the Four. You might want to check the skepticism at the door. We are the only ones who will believe you, no matter what, over the coming weeks and months. You can carve here, or wherever you’d like. I just thought you should know that you’re not alone.”

The other sculptors chipped away at the stone. Clink, clink. But they were watching me, too.

The closest one put her chisel down.

“I’m Anna Kemp.” She introduced herself with a pained smile.

“Nate Jacoby.”

And the greeting continued around the room with Paul Stanton, Grant Miller, and Howard Trent, barely allotting time for nods and registering my name. Whatever this place is, I didn’t want to be there. After the clipped hellos from the men, I backed away from the circle of materials ringing the room. I nearly took out an easel with my backward march, but I didn’t belong. Maybe I’m full of the naivete of youth, but I’m not ready to lie down and give in to divine inspiration.

Do you hear that, Muses? I won’t carve just because you say sculpt. Nathaniel Forrest Jacoby is no one’s lapdog.

And I sprinted through the sultry air burning my lungs. I sprinted clear off of campus and didn’t stop in the neutral ground for the streetcar like I planned. I don’t have time to wait, to pause, to reflect. Because I know things I didn’t before. Whether inspiration is divine or not, it’s real, and my angel didn’t spring from my own mind.

Hell and High Water: Last Sneak Peek

Here is a final excerpt from Hell and High Water before it’s published on August 25th.

After my last couple of poems, some of you might have been thinking you should check on me. And that’s sweet. But my life isn’t fraught with violence anymore, even if it’s got PTSD filtering its moments. And the hellish panic attack days have their bright spots,  their hope stains.

Hope Stains

I once spilled the enzyme that causes firefly bioluminescence on a lab table.

You are like that,

golden light on my black.


I’ve always loved glimpsing streetlights from an airplane window.

You are like that,

hope shining at your edges.


And when you go, waves of ink lap at me, bidding me to wade in.

I choose the dark before it drags me under.

But I’ve still got these hope stains.


He Doesn’t Get a Book

I am so damned proud of this stack of paper. You might be thinking, “C’mon, Jessi. You write novels, and it’s a novel. Why is this one standing out?” This one is standing out first because it’s poignant. It’s got a mix of mythologies, generation gaps, Southern flavor, fights to embrace sexual and racial identities—all while packed with laugh-until-you-hurt moments.

It's real when it's all printed in front of me!

But I’m also damned proud because I had so much trouble getting back to this novel to edit it after I wrote it. I worked on it while I was in a very abusive relationship, one that culminated in nightmarish domestic violence. It’s not an autobiographical novel at all, but I wrote it in spite of my circumstances. And everything created in that time felt touched by it. I remembered what I was going through when I penned different scenes, when I tried to edit and stopped.

I am proudest because I have taken my novel back. You can’t see it, but I know I not only had to write it, I had to wrest it from an abyss of panic, anxiety, and doubt. My abuser does not get a book, much less the best one I’ve written so far. I want to share it with you all far too much. I’m living with this stack of paper for now, putting on finishing touches and recording audio soon. You’ll get a native Southerner for the drawl of New Orleans! And I am excited to share both the drawl and the story.